One-Minute Book Reviews

March 14, 2012

Maybe He Should Have Called It ‘Cutting for Oliver Stone’ – A Review of Abraham Verghese’s ‘Cutting for Stone’

Filed under: Fiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:44 pm
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Twin brothers grow up in Ethiopia as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front steps up its violence

Cutting for Stone. By Abraham Verghese. Vintage, 667 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Maybe he should have called it Cutting for Oliver Stone. Like the controversial director’s JFK, Abraham Verghese’s first novel abounds with far-fetched characterizations, heavy-handed moralizing, and historical implausibilities or inaccuracies. Also like the movie, it has a dense plot and enough facts to give its story a gloss of truth.

But you wonder if even Stone would have taken the liberties that Verghese does in this tale of mirror-image identical twin brothers — one is right-handed, the other left- — born in Addis Ababa in 1954. Marion and Shiva are orphaned at birth by the death of their mother and the disappearance of their father. As luck would have it, and luck often does have it in this novel, they grow up as the wards of sympathetic doctors who guide them toward medical careers of their own as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front steps up its activity against Emperor Haile Selassie.

Cutting for Stone shows Selassie riding through the eucalyptus-scented streets of Addis Ababa in a green Rolls-Royce with his chihuahua, Lula, in his lap. At a nearby hospital doctors give a man a swig of Johnnie Walker to relax before a vasectomy. And after Marion begins his internship at a charity hospital in the Bronx, the novel keeps rolling out its gurney of medical lore. As you take your last breaths, you may or may not find it comforting to know that American doctors refer to dying patients as “circling the drain” and like to say that “if you had more than seven tubes in you, you were as good as dead.”

This semi-autobiographical material has provided perhaps too many temptations for Verghese, a professor medicine at Stanford who was born in Ethiopia in 1955. He lards his story with gratuitously detailed accounts of surgical procedures that, in the words a critic for the Economist, reflect “a somewhat whimsical notion of what they entail.” For the convenience of his plot, he has changed the dates and other details of major news events, such as a failed coup against Selassie and the hijacking of an Ethiopian airplane by Eritreans. In an otherwise naturalistic novel, he allows Marion to speak bizarrely from the womb and to believe he can read his twin’s mind, although he has so little control of point of view that it is often hard to know his intentions.

Verghese has won reputation as a literary writer in an industry tries to categorize novelists as either literary or commercial, and on the evidence of this book, he requires reclassification. He is writing a pop fiction. Cutting for Stone resembles the later novels of James Michener in its clichéd, stilted, or redundant images that keep the plot moving 50 miles an hour in a 60-miles-per-hour zone. It brims with phrases such as “babbling brook,” “the populace” for “the people,” and earrings that “hung down” from lobes instead of “hung.”

Why, then, has Cutting for Stone found fans who range from book club members to Martha Stewart and President Obama, who had it with him on a 2011 vacation on Martha’s Vineyard? Several factors may explain what the quality of the writing doesn’t. One is that the hospital settings allow Verghese to deal with timely issues such vaginal fistulas and female genital mutilation in Africa. Another is that you inevitably learn from a 667-page book stuffed with Ethiopian history and culture, much as you do from Michener’s Alaska and Poland. And Verghese writes about two subjects slighted by contemporary novelists: work and religion, in this case Ethiopian Christianity.

Perhaps above all, Cutting for Stone brims with earnest, Oprah-ready ideas. Marion reflects: “All sons should write down every word of what their fathers have to say to them. I tried. Why did it take an illness for me to recognize the value of time with him?” Peter Godwin writes far more elegantly about Africa in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, a memoir of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. “In Africa,” he notes, “you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue.” In a book more than twice as long as Godwin’s, Verghese leaves you waiting only for such a gracefully expressed idea.

Best line: A servant who gave in to her drunken employer’s advances in Ethiopia asked, when he had finished with her, “Will there be anything else?”

Worst line: No. 1: “ … he said as if he’d proved Pythagoras’s theorem, the sun’s central position in the solar system, the roundness of the earth, and [the hospital’s] precise location at its imagined corner.” Overwriting like this abounds in Cutting for Stone. One well-chosen example would have made the point better than four.

Recommendation? I read this Cutting for Stone for book club, and some members didn’t finish it because of its length and slow pace. Clubs that want to read it, regardless,  might read it over two months instead of one.

Published: February 2009 (Knopf hardcover), January 2010 (Vintage/Anchor paperback).

Furthermore: Verghese wrote the memoir My Own Country, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. One-Minute Book reviews recently ranked among the Technorati’s top 40 book blogs and Alexa’s top 40 book-review sites. New Jersey Monthly named it one of the state’s best book blogs in 2011.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar. 

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

February 26, 2012

How to Find Novels Set in a City, State, Country or Era

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:32 pm
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Wish you were somewhere else as the February winds blow? You can find a list of well-known novels set in a city, state, country or English county by Googling “Wikipedia” + “Category:Novels Set in” + “Name of place.” Google “Wikipedia” + “Category:Novels Set in” + “Paris,” for example, and you will see the titles of classics such as A Tale of Two Cities and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and popular fiction such as Agatha Raisin and the Deadly Dance and Maigret and Monsieur Charles. You can use the same technique to find novels set in decades, centuries or historical eras. Google “Wikipedia” + “Category:Novels Set in” + “Name of era” (“the Middle Ages,” “the 1920s,” “the Roaring Twenties”) for titles and links.

February 15, 2012

Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Salvage the Bones’ – A National Book Awards Reality Check

A pregnant teenager faces several kinds of storms, including Hurricane Katrina

Salvage the Bones: A Novel. By Jesmyn Ward. 259 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Jesmyn Ward writes in Salvage the Bones at a 10-year-old reading level – that of a student who is just starting the fifth grade – according to well-established measures of comprehension. That fact in itself isn’t a problem. Some of the most popular classics of American literature have the same reading level, including The Grapes of Wrath and The Old Man and the Sea. So do at least two other recipients of the National Book Award for fiction, which Salvage the Bones won in 2011: Tree of Smoke and Let the Great World Spin. To Kill a Mockingbird has a reading level of only a half grade higher.

But Salvage the Bones differs from most adult novels with relatively low reading levels in an important way. It also has a young narrator – a pregnant teenager named Esch who lives with her widowed father, her three brothers, and their pit bull, China, who is giving birth to a litter as the novel opens. The Batistes live in “the black heart of Bois Sauvage,” a rundown town set apart from white neighborhoods near the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, which Hurricane Katrina will destroy over the 12 days that give the novel its time frame. The family becomes caught up in a revenge tragedy in which Mother Nature punishes her children with a fury as unreasonable as that of Medea, whose story Esch has been reading in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology during the summer after tenth grade. Their tale tells us that motherhood is rational and irrational, tender and savage, a theme developed through the actions of Esch, China and Katrina.

It’s a task of alpine difficulty to hitch such a metaphorical load to a young narrator, almost a literary suicide mission. Even Harper Lee didn’t try it but told To Kill a Mockingbird from the point of view of an adult looking back on her childhood. Novelists who hope to create believable young narrators must invest those characters with the powers of observation needed to describe what they see and the wisdom to deal with it. That fact requires authors to become, in effect, faux-naïfs, writing as though they didn’t know much of what they do. The challenge is all the greater when an author intentionally or unintentionally limits the vocabulary, sentence structure and other elements that determine a reading level.

Ward brings large advantages to her work: intelligence, a respect for language, and first-hand knowledge of Katrina, gained while she was living in Mississippi. She knows how you kill a chicken by twisting its neck, how much meat you’ll have after you skin a squirrel (an amount “as thick as two pork chops laid together”), and how boys talk at backwoods dogfights, one of which gets 23 pages in her novel. She knows that if you’re poor, you prepare for a hurricane by covering windows with a wooden patchwork that leaves bits of glass exposed, not the custom-fitted boards of the well-off.

Salvage the Bones nonetheless has a hole at its center: Ward’s inability to create a narrator who sounds like a tenth-grader instead of an adult impersonating one. Esch says she slept with boys because they wanted sex, not because she did: “I’d let boys have it because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne.” Those words ring false not just because they are overwrought and imprecise but because they clash with others in the book. Esch says she started sleeping with boys at the age of 12, or in about the seventh grade. She read about the Greeks in Hamilton’s Mythology after the tenth grade. So she was having sex for three years before she knew of Psyche and Eurydice and Daphne. And are we to believe that wanted to feel like Eurydice stepping on a poisonous snake and spending the rest of her life in darkness after her beloved failed to rescue her? Here as elsewhere, the references to mythology hang on the tale like Spanish moss on a live oak. They may look pretty, but they grow on the story, not from within it.

Ward works hard to transcend the limits of telling the Batistes’ story in a young voice and at 10-year-old reading level. She weighs down her tale with similes and metaphors in duplicate or triplicate and lets you know exactly how you are supposed to feel about every character at nearly every moment. Esch says of Katrina, in one of many allusions to Medea, “She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes.” That’s a metaphor and three similes in one sentence. Those figures of speech, at least, make sense. Esch says that cooked meat had “turned as brown and small with as many hard edges as a jewel” when the novel offers no evidence that she has seen a jewel. And Ward’s promiscuous us of color shows the limits of chromatic writing. Esch says that Manny, the father of her baby, had a face “marked with red sunburn.” Can’t we assume that sunburn is red? Apparently not. (Ward’s “red suburn” may be a clumsy attempt to signal that Manny is Latino or white given that black skin shows sunburn differently than white skin does.) Salvage the Bones has much, much more of this kind of writing.

All of this might have more of a payoff if the novel had larger ideas at its core. But Ward instead gives us belabored parallels to the Medea myth and bumper-sticker sentiments. “Bodies tell stories.” “Everything deserve to live.” “Everything need a chance.” Who could disagree with such lines? All the florid metaphors that surround them can’t elevate them. Leon Edel once said that Henry James, in his letters, could “disguise the absence of thought by the shameless gilding of his own verbal lilies.” Something similar occurs in Salvage the Bones. Journalists have called Hurricane Katrina “the mother of all storms,” and you may wonder whether Ward improves on it with her ponderous reminder: “Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”

Best line: “Manny could dribble on rocks.”

Worst line: “She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”

About the reading level of this book: The 10-year-old or fifth-grade reading level of this book comes from Perma-Bound, which sells books to school libraries. Other reading-level assessment tools confirmed it and ranked some passages in the novel at a level as low as third grade or age 8.

Furthermore: Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction and a 2012 Alex Award for “books for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”

A reading group guide to Salvage the Bones appeared on this site on Feb. 15, 2012, in the post before this one.

Read more about the book or buy a copy from an independent bookstore in Ward’s area.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Salvage the Bones’ With Discussion Questions for Book Clubs

Filed under: National Book Awards,Novels,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:54 am
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Salvage the Bones: A Novel
By Jesmyn Ward
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A pregnant teenager weathers several kinds of storms in Salvage the Bones, a National Book Award–winning novel that takes place before and during the assault by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. Esch Batiste has just finished tenth grade in an impoverished Southern Mississippi town, where she lived with her widowed father, her three brothers, and their pit bull, China, who gives birth to a litter in the first pages. The Batistes were struggling before the storm, and all of them will face new and frightening tests in a story that asks: What does it mean to be a mother in the face of disaster?

10 Discussion Questions for Salvage the Bones:

1. The story in Salvage the Bones is told by Esch Batiste, who has just finished tenth grade. Was Esch’s teenaged voice believable? Why or why not?

2. What is the theme of Salvage the Bones or the main thing Ward is trying to say in the novel?

3. Other books about Hurricane Katrina have dealt with broad social or political issues, such as the treatment of evacuees by federal agencies. Ward focuses on one family, the Batistes: Esch and her father, Claude, and her brothers Randall, Skeetah and Junior. How would you describe the Batistes? How does Hurricane Katrina change the family? What do we learn from its story?

4. Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal said that the bond between Esch’s brother Skeetah and his dog, China, is “the strongest and most affecting in the book.” Do you agree? Why does Skeetah allows China allow to enter the dog fight described in the chapter called “The Eighth Day” if he loves her so much? [pages 153–176]

5. What race did you assume Manny (the father of Esch’s baby) to be? Many critics seemed to assume that he was black. But Ward says that Manny had a “red sunburn” [page 16]. Black skin can burn, but it doesn’t turn red in the same way that white skin does. Would it make a difference if a black teenager in the Deep South had been impregnated by a white or Latino boy?

6. How would you describe Ward’s writing style? How well did it suit the subject of her book? [Background: Some critics have called that style “poetic.” Ward seemed to agree when she told the Paris Review: “I’m a failed poet. Reading poetry helps me to see the world differently, and I try to infuse my prose with figurative language, which goes against the trend in fiction.” But Salvage the Bones also has journalistic aspects – for example, when Ward describes the onslaught of Katrina by quoting weather reports.]

7. Salvage the Bones links Esch’s story to that of Medea, who murdered her children to avenge her betrayal by her husband, and to other figures from Greek mythology. How effective was this literary technique? Were you persuaded, for example, by Esch’s comment that she slept with boys “because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne”? [p. 16]

8. Ward explained the Medea analogies by saying in a Paris Review interview: “Medea is in China most directly. China is brutal and magical and loyal. Medea is in Hurricane Katrina because her power to unmake worlds, to manipulate the elements, closely aligns with the storm. And she’s in Esch, too, because Esch understands her vulnerability, Medea’s tender heart, and responds to it.” Can you give examples of how China is “brutal” as Medea and Esch is “tender”?

9. Have you lived through a hurricane or other natural disaster? If so, how did you react to the portrayal of Hurricane Katrina? What seemed most and least believable?

10. What does the title Salvage the Bones mean? Esch suggests more than one answer when she says of Katrina, “She left us to salvage.” [page 255] What is being “salvaged”?

Extras:
1. Have you read other books about how Hurricane Katrina affected residents of the Gulf Coast, such as Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun? If so, how did they compare to Salvage the Bones? Which book showed the effects of the devastation best?

2. Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction. Have you read other recent winners of that prize, such as Let the Great World Spin or Lord of Misrule (or earlier ones such as Cold Mountain, The Color Purple or Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories)? If so, how does Salvage the Bones compare to them? Was it one of the stronger or weaker winners?

3. Emma Donoghue’s bestselling Room has many things in common with Salvage the Bones – a young narrator, a disastrous event, a focus on motherhood, and more. If you’ve read it, which novel worked better? Why?

You may also want to read: A review of Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, which talks about the risks of adding many literary references to a novel. It doesn’t mention the Medea analogies in Salvage the Bones but explains how such techniques can backfire.

Vital statistics:
Salvage the Bones: A Novel. By Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury, 261 pp., $24. Published: August 2011. Paperback due out March 2012. 

A review of Salvage the Bones appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 15, 2012, in the post directly after this one.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a frank and lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed (https://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/feed/).

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan on Twitter, where she writes about books and reading groups, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 15, 2012

Alice LaPlante’s Novel ‘Turn of Mind’ – An Alzheimer’s Gospel

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:02 am
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A person of interest in a murder case can’t – or won’t – recall whether she killed a friend

Turn of Mind. Alice LaPlante. Atlantic Monthly Press, 305 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Has anyone noticed the existence of a micro-genre, novels about Jennifers who represent Jesus? First came Erich Segal’s Love Story, a 1970 bestseller about Jennifer Cavalleri, a young Radcliffe graduate with a fatal illness and a father-in-law who saw her as unworthy of his well-born son. Now there’s Turn of Mind, a murder mystery narrated by Jennifer White, a retired 64-year-old hand surgeon with Alzheimer’s disease whom police think may have killed her daughter’s godmother.

Alice LaPlante draws her religious parallels more explicitly and with more finesse than Segal did in his romantic melodrama. Jennifer White cherishes a 15th-century antique that once disappeared briefly from her Chicago home, an icon that involved St. John of Damascus, whose legend says that authorities amputated his hand after he was framed for forgery and that the intercession of the Virgin Mary led to its reattachment. The body of Jennifer’s friend Amanda O’Toole was found with four fingers surgically removed from its right hand. Does the disappearance of the icon relate to the murder?

Jennifer can’t or won’t offer the answers the sought by the police. She has lost so much of her memory that at times she can’t recognize her grown children, Fiona and Mark, and keeps a journal in which she and others write things she must remember. Her dementia leads you to expect her to be an unusually unreliable narrator. But the notes that others leave in her journal suggest that Jennifer may be most trustworthy character in the book. Is she less reliable than a son who wants her money or a daughter with a red-and-blue rattlesnake tattoo, a potential serpent in Eden?

This plot is reasonably interesting, but it rises above that of a conventional murder mystery mainly by having a protagonist with Alzheimer’s and by gaining a literary gloss from by a few techniques beloved of creative-writing programs. LaPlante omits quotation marks and shows who is speaking by alternating italics and Roman type. This device gives its narrator a flat affect at odds with her strong personality and doesn’t always make the identity of the speaker clear immediately, especially when Jennifer switches late in the book from first-person narration to second- and third-, a sign of her growing distance from her former self. Turn of the Mind is, in some ways, a stunt novel — one more literary than, say, David Nicholls’ One Day, in which the characters reunite each year on the same day, but still one that won’t let you forget its narrative tricks.

But LaPlante adds interest to her story by weaving in a subplot involving faith. She uses her narrator’s mental shifts — between the past and present, lucidity and derangement, light and darkness — to forge subtle links between spiritual and temporal resurrection. Early in Turn of Mind, Jennifer recalls a conversation in which the murdered Amanda said that physical trauma can cause someone to lose faith in God. As the plot unfolds, the possibility arises that a catastrophic change can also restore faith.

Jennifer at first professes not to believe in God, although she wears a St. Christopher medal: “I was raised a Catholic, but now I just like the accessories.” But if she rejects the Father, she has more in common with the Son than that they are both known for healing. She has counterparts of the apostles James and Peter. And she has a Mary Magdalene, a faithful aide named Magdalena who stands by her though the police inquiries and who responds when Jennifer asks why she has confessed to an unsavory past, “You forgive trespasses.” If any doubt remains about what the novel is suggesting, Jennifer says that Amanda told her after her diagnosis: “How many times will I have to say good-bye to you, only to have you reappear like some newly risen Christ.”

It isn’t giving away too much to say that in the end Jennifer seems to allow God back into her life without quasi-spiritual bromides such as Love Storys: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Turn of Mind tells us that when you’ve lost yourself, something remains — the possibility of transcendence. As Jennifer’s mind ebbs late in the book, she has visions: “The playground. The white Communion dress. Playing kickball in the street.” She also has hope. “There is a good place here,” she tells herself. “It is possible to find it.”

Best line: A leader of an Alzheimer’s support group tells its members: “Step One is admitting you have a problem. Step Two is forgetting you have the problem.” Jennifer wants to add a third step: “Step Three is remembering that you forget.” 

Worst line: A newspaper obituary in which the author tries to imitate the style of the Chicago Tribune. Among its lapses: It says a dead woman turned up without saying who found the body, which newspapers virtually always do, and it uses the phrase “sources close to the investigation” without first saying who was investigating the death (ditto).

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for Turn of Mind appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 15, 2012, in the post that preceded this one.

Furthermore: Turn of Mind won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize for a book about health or medicine.

Published: July 2011 (Atlantic Monthly Press hardcover edition), May 2012 (Grove paperback, forthcoming)

Editor: Elisabeth Schmitz

Read an excerpt from Turn of Mind.

You can  follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right. Jan  is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2012 All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 26, 2011

Marie and Pierre Curie, Exposed – Lauren Redniss’s ‘Radioactive’


A dual biography of the Curies that’s graphic on more than one level

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie. A Tale of Love & Fallout. By Lauren Redniss. It Books/HarperCollins, 205 pp., $29.99.

By Janice Harayda

Radioactive shows you Marie Curie as you’ve never seen her: naked. What we gain from watching her frolicking as nude as a wood nymph with a lover isn’t clear. But this illustrated biography of Marie and her husband, Pierre, makes clear that the first woman to win a Nobel Prize was no nun for science, devoted as she was to it. It also shows how the Curies’ work with radioactivity helped lead to modern events that range from the partial meltdown of two nuclear reactors at Three Mile Island to the cranial radiation treatments that enabled a 14-year-old Rhode Island boy to survive his non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Lauren Redniss modifies the format of graphic novels as she tells the story of the Curies’ love affair with physics and with each other: She omits the usual strips or panels and encloses her text in more creative ways on black-and-white, two-toned, or multi-colored spreads. Her most dramatic spread involves Paul Langevin, who became Marie’s lover after Pierre’s death. The left-hand page shows Langevin’s head, and the right-hand one describes his life in words arranged in the shape of his head, the equivalent of a pattern poem in prose.

Redniss created her images through superb drawing and cyanotype printing, a form of cameraless photography that gives many of her pictures a bluish cast and something of the ethereal quality of radium. Her subjects have Modigliani-esque almond eyes and elongated features, grounded in reality by the reproductions on other pages of archival materials such as maps, photos, X-rays and a North Korean stamp marking the 50th anniversary of Marie’s death.

All of the influences on display in Radioactive add interest to the Curies’ story but give a slightly overdesigned air to a book in which the pictures outshine the text. Redniss writes in a prosaic style that makes heavy use of block quotations from interviews and other sources, some of which beg for an intelligent paraphrase, and she cuts away jarringly from her subjects’ lives to events that occurred long after their deaths. She also makes it harder to follow some of her chronological leaps by using fonts that provide too little contrast with their background and by cramming too much text onto a page or adding needless elements (including a list of a “select array of luminaries” from Marie’s native Poland, when the story is also about Pierre, who was French). But if Redniss is a far better artist than writer, she has an instinct for literary detail that leads to some lines as memorable as any of her pictures. At the Bibliothèque National, she notes, “the Curies’ laboratory notebooks are still radioactive, setting Geiger counters clicking 100 years on.”

Best line: The U.S. government studied the results of the atomic blasts at the Nevada Test Site partly by building houses filled with appliances and dummy families in the form of mannequins dressed by J.C. Penney, “stylishly, in the fashions of the day.”

Worst line: A section on how Marie Curie extracted polonium and radium from pitchblende, an effort described better in fewer words by many others. The section also has a grammatical error: Redniss incorrectly hyphenates “naturally-occurring” and, in the next sentence, correctly writes the phrase as “naturally occurring.”

Published: 2011

Editor: Cal Morgan

Recommendation? The publisher bills Radioactive as a book for adults, but the images of Marie Curie naked will also make science projects more fun for teenage boys.

Furthermore: Radioactive was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction. Sample pages from the book appear the site for the New York Public Library, which exhibited some of them. The excerpt shows the image of Paul Langevin’s head described above. Other sample pages appear on Redniss’s site.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of and critic for the Plain Dealer.  You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 21, 2011

Why Did People Like ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’? Quote of the Day

Filed under: Classics,Novels,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:05 am
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Slavery is evil, and so are the political and economic institutions that support it: These two great themes helped to make Uncle Tom’s Cabin one of the most important novels in American literature. But in the 1850s people didn’t see the book as a tract. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel set sales records, the scholar David S. Reynolds notes in Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (Norton, 351 pp., $27.95). And if the book legitimized the Civil War for Northerners, it did so through a story that captivated them. Reynolds describes the appeal of the novel in his new book:

“No book in American history molded public opinion more powerfully than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Published in 1852, it set sales records for American fiction. An international sensation, it was soon translated into many languages. The Boston preacher Theodore Parker declared that it was ‘more an event than a book, and has excited more attention than any book since the invention of printing.’ Henry James noted that Stowe’s novel was, ‘for an immense number of people, much less a book than a state of vision, of feeling and of consciousness in which they didn’t sit and read and appraise and pass the time, but walked and talked and laughed and cried.’

“James was right. Sympathetic readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were thrilled when the fugitive slave Eliza Harris carried her child across the ice floes of the Ohio River and when her husband George fought off slave catchers in a rocky pass. They cried over the death of the angelic little Eva and were horrified by the fatal lashing of Uncle Tom, the gentle, strong, enslaved black man. They guffawed at the impish slave girl Topsy and shed thankful tears when she embraced Christianity. They sneered at the selfish hypocrite Marie St. Clare and loathed the cruel slave owner Simon Legree. They were fascinated by the brooding, Byronic Augustine St. Clare and were appalled by stories of sexual exploitation involving enslaved women like Prue and Cassy.”

You can follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

October 16, 2011

Georges Bernanos’s Classic Novel, ‘The Diary of a Country Priest’

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:31 pm
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A dying priest believes that “the wish to pray is a prayer in itself”

The Diary of a Country Priest. By Georges Bernanos. Translated by Pamela Morris. Introduduction by Rémy Rougeau. Da Capo, 302 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A young French priest bears the cruelty of his parishioners with sublime patience in this modern classic that works as both a realistic novel and an allegory for the Passion of Christ. Georges Bernanos’s guileless narrator doesn’t know he’s dying of cancer when he takes up his post at a rural Pas-de-Calais church in which the moth-eaten draperies in the sacristy serve as metaphor for the spiritual decay of the congregation.

But the priest realizes that people see his poor health as a sign of weakness, and the harder he works to serve them, the more hostile they become. His triumph lies in avoiding cynicism and retaining the ability to love as he performs his tasks – teaching catechism to children who taunt him, visiting a countess embittered by the death of her son, meeting with jaded or condescending priests who presume to advise him. Like the stories of Flannery O’Connor, The Diary of a Country Priest reflects a perspective at once Catholic and universal in its portrayal of the inseparability of suffering and grace.

Best line: “Faith is not a thing which one ‘loses,’ we merely cease to shape our lives by it.” “I know, of course, that the wish to pray is a prayer in itself, that God can ask no more than that of us.”

Worst line: The translator uses a couple of English double modals such as “must needs” that sound unnatural in context.

Published: 1937 (first English-language edition), 2002 (DaCapo paperback).

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Diary of a Country Priest appeared on this site in the post before this one on Oct. 16, 2011.

Furthermore: Diary of a Country Priest won two of the highest literary honors in France: the Prix Femina and Grand Prix du Roman of the Académie Française. Rachel Murphy reviewed the novel from a Catholic perspective. Robert Bresson’s acclaimed film version of the book appeared in 1951. Flannery O’Connor dealt with the action of grace on character in her short story collection Everything That Rises Must Converge, reviewed on this site in May.

You can follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 9, 2011

By Jove! It’s the First Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery, ‘Whose Body?’

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:58 pm
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An aristocratic sleuth tries to learn the identity of a corpse in a London bathtub

Whose Body? The Singular Adventure of the Man With the Golden Pince-Nez. A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery. By Dorothy Sayers. HarperPaperbacks, 212 pp., $7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has come away from the British phone-hacking scandal convinced of the ineptitude of Scotland Yard will find much to support that view in Dorothy Sayers’s first novel about the high-born amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. The dim Inspector Sugg reaches the crime scene first when a body clad only in gold-rimmed pince-nez turns up in the bathtub of a mild-mannered London architect. But Scotland Yard’s man on the spot fails to ask a pertinent question that occurs immediately to Wimsey, and he never retakes the lead from his rival.

As Sugg tries to catch up, Sayers serves up a plot in the style of her contemporary, Agatha Christie: She fires clues at you so rapidly that you hardly notice that they tend to come at the expense of plausibility – at least until the killer confesses to so much with so little provocation that it snaps the thin rubber band of logic holding the story together. Even then, a mystery remains: Why does the Oxford-educated Wimsey so often speak in solecisms like “ain’t” and “he don’t”?

Best line: No. 1: Lord Peter Wimsey says: “Even idiots occasionally speak the truth accidentally.” No. 2: “… Bunter had been carefully educated and knew that nothing is more vulgar than a careful avoidance of beginning a letter with the first person singular …”

Worst line: Wimsey says: “It’s awfully entertainin’ goin’ and pumpin’ him with stuff about a bazaar for church expenses, but when he’s so jolly pleased about it and that, I feel like a worm. … It ain’t my business.” It’s hard to reconcile this with the language of a man also given to quaint expressions like “By Jove!”

Published: 1923 (first edition), 1995 (HarperPaperbacks).

Read an excerpt from Whose Body? and more about the book.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 18, 2011

‘The Great Gatsby’ and Other Books That Didn’t Win the Pulitzer

Filed under: Book Awards,News,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:22 am
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Perhaps the most perversely elite club in American literature consists of the great novels that didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Among the members: Main Street, The Great Gatsby and For Whom the Bell Tolls. A list of other losers and the books that defeated them appears here. The winners of the 2011 Pulitzers will be announced today at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. Using the statistical technique of regression analysis, a research scientist and book collector have predicted that Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad will win the fiction prize, finishing just ahead of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule. A list of their 16 books most likely to receive the award appears at PPrize.com.

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