One-Minute Book Reviews

December 12, 2007

Pitcairn Island After Travel Writer Dea Birkett’s Harrowing Memoir, ‘Serpent in Paradise’

No more bounty on a mutineers’ island ripped apart by the discovery that rape and child molestation were a way of life for generations

By Janice Harayda

How has Pitcairn Island changed since Dea Birkett wrote about her spooky visit to the refuge of the Bounty mutineers in her memoir, Serpent in Paradise?

Vanity Fair gives a chilling update in its January 2008 issue. In “Trouble in Paradise” William Prochnau and Laura Parker investigate the long-buried shame of Pitcairn: generations of rape and child molestation that led to a series of shocking trials that sent eight of its men to prison. Their report is far more shocking than anything in The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold’s grim novel about a woman who murders her mother and stuffs her in a freezer.

Book clubs may want to read the Vanity Fair article along with Serpent in Paradise (Anchor, $12.95), reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 7, 2007, with a reading group guide posted separately the same day Birkett took photographs of the island that would make excellent visuals for a meeting. One is shown here, and others appear on the page for her book on the Anchor Books site

Photo of the Pitcairn landing: (c) 1997 Dea Birkett

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 22, 2007

‘Looking for Class,’ Bruce Feiler’s Memoir of Cambridge University

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,Travel — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:13 am
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The host of a popular PBS series remembers his jolly good time in graduate school

Bruce Feiler earned a master’s degree at Cambridge University before becoming the host of the popular PBS series Walking the Bible. He recalls his studies into the engaging memoir, Looking for Class: Days and Nights at Oxford and Cambridge (Harper Perennial, $13.95, paperback), which explores the clash between tradition and modernity at England’s second-oldest university in the early 1990s. (Oxford has little role in the book except as the other half of the pair of school known as “Oxbridge.”) At Cambridge Feiler ate doner kebabs, rowed in a boat race, went to the May Ball and spoke for the “yea” side in a Cambridge Union debate about whether it was “better to be young, free, and American” than British. He’s generally less acerbic than Bill Bryson and tends to view English idiosyncracies with wry affection instead of scorn. But Feiler still made people laugh at the Cambridge Union debate by asking a question that suggests the tone of his memoir: Was it true, he asked, “that the Brits keep a stiff upper lip in order to hide their teeth”?

Furthermore: Ever wonder how I choose some of these books? In this case, a young Scottish friend of mine got into Cambridge last week after acing four exams, one in something called, mystifyingly, “further maths.” I read this book and enjoyed it a few years ago and thought about it again after the good news arrived.

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle Please visit for information about her comic novels The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks.

June 5, 2007

Lorne Rubenstein’s ‘A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands’

A memoir of playing on the best golf course you’ve never heard of

Sports books sell in inverse proportion to the size of the ball, publishing lore says. Golf books sell better than baseball books, which sell better football books. And apart from athletes’ memoirs, the best-selling golf-books tend to be instructional manuals (like Golf for Dummies) or coffee table–toppers (like the opulent Where Golf Is Great: The Finest Courses of Scotland and Ireland).

A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands (Citadel, $14.95, paperback) transcends those categories. Globe and Mail golf columnist Lorne Rubenstein offers a beautifully written account of a summer that he spent living in the Scottish Highlands and playing golf at the Royal Dornoch Golf Club, a place with a cult following instead of the superstardom of spots like St. Andrews and Gleneagles.

But Rubenstein’s book is about more than the mystique of this remote and storied course. A Season in Dornoch is about Scottish history, Highland music and the allure of playing on links (“a landscape of blown sand created by the action of the wind on the seashore”). Sean Connery, the world’s best-known Scottish nationalist, wrote the foreword. And five-time British Open champion Tom Watson rightly says in a blurb: “Rubenstein gives the reader a feel for what makes the appeal of the Highlands so enduring. He brings the place and its people to life.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 7, 2007

Dea Birkett’s ‘Serpent in Paradise,’ a Harrowing Memoir of Pitcairn Island, the Refuge of Bounty Mutineers

An English writer hoped for paradise and found purgatory while living 3,000 miles from the nearest hospital, supermarket and phone booth

Serpent in Paradise. By Dea Birkett. Anchor, 320 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Dea Birkett became enraptured with the idea of going to Pitcairn Island when, as a young writer living in London, she saw Mel Gibson in The Bounty. She knew it was nearly impossible to get permission to visit the remote settlement, a British overseas territory that had neither hotels nor an airstrip.

But Birkett persuaded the Royal Mail to sponsor her trip, booked passage on a chemical tanker and arranged to stay with a family. And in 1991 she lived for four months among the 38 residents of Pitcairn Island, the place where Fletcher Christian and other mutineers from the Bounty settled after casting Captain William Bligh adrift in 1789.

Birkett imagined that she might find a vestigial Eden on a volcanic crag in the South Pacific. Pitcairn lay 3,000 miles from the nearest hospital, supermarket or pay phone booth, and kept in touch with the world by mail and ham radio. It had no cars or currency. The residents, mostly descendants of mutineers, shot breadfruit from trees with guns and carved replicas of the Bounty to trade for cooking oil or other necessities on ships that occasionally passed by on their way to New Zealand.

But life on Pitcairn was so harrowing that within days of her arrival, Birkett had skirted death at least twice. The island seethed with omens – a black albatross, a dead shark, an infestation of rats and the sound of gunfire thudding through the breadfruit-rich valleys. Its residents had suffered from centuries of isolation and physical and emotional inbreeding. Birkett’s host family was by turns warm and so frighteningly aloof that she wondered if they would save her if she had an accident.

Birkett gives such a chilling account of all this in Serpent in Paradise that a descendant of Fletcher Christian said, “I’d like to see her hanged.” Next to her adventures, the experiences of people like Frances Mayes and Elizabeth Gilbert look like visits to a Six Flags theme park. And yet, as fascinating this book is, it leaves the impression that its author knew more than she was telling.

Less than a decade after Serpent in Paradise appeared, the British government investigated charges that rape and child abuse were endemic on Pitcairn. The probe led to the convictions in 2004 of six of its adult male residents. The guilty included the son of Birkett’s host couple, who was living at home during her visit. Given that just over three dozen people inhabited Pitcairn, it’s hard to believe Birkett didn’t sense what was going on and that this doesn’t explain some fears that she ascribes to other causes. If she didn’t suspect all the rape and abuse, she was less astute than she seems. If she did know about it, she chose or was required to pull punches. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. Birkett reveals far more about Pitcairn Island than any Hollywood screenplay. And Serpent in Paradise is the rare book that captures that a place at a pivotal moment in its history, a paradise on the eve of self-destruction.

Best line: Birkett writes of a note she received by mail from an islander: “I was the first recipient of a local letter on Pitcairn since the post office had been founded fifty years earlier.”

Worst line: Birkett’s account of her relationship with the island policeman raises more questions than it answers. It leaves the impression they had consensual one-night stand. In an article on her Web site (“My Hell in Paradise”), Birkett calls the relationship as “an affair” with a man who saw her as “easy prey.” She also includes many lines of conversation in Pitkern, a half-Polynesian, half-English language. Most are easy to understand in context, but a glossary would have helped with some.

Caveat lector: Everyone on Pitcairn called the dark-skinned police officer by his nickname, a racial slur, and Birkett reflects this in the book.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Serpent in Paradise appears in the March 7, 2007, post directly below this one.

Published: August 1998 (Anchor paperback), September 1997 (Anchor hardcover).

Furthermore: Birkett also wrote the award-winning Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool: A Woman at Sea in a Man’s World (Gollancz, 1994), a memoir of her experiences as the only female crew member of a working cargo ship.

Links: You can find an account of the sexual-assault trial of the men in this book by going to and searching the site for “Pitcairn rape trial of 2004.” The convicted received sentences ranging from community service to more than six years in prison, and they have exhausted their appeals. Birkett has several articles about the scandal on her site, including a New York Times op-ed piece “Island of the Lost Girls” that summarizes the case.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 19, 2007

Geoff Dyer’s ‘Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It’

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Memoirs,Reading,Travel — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:18 am

A book that like, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, describes some of the human dramas you don’t read about in tourist brochures

Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. By Geoff Dyer. Vintage, 257 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Great travel writers have always known that the landscape of the human mind is more fascinating than any sunset. A stellar example is Geoffrey Dyer, an award-winning journalist and novelist who lives in London but takes the world at large as his home.

Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It is nominally a collection of 11 fictionalized accounts of trips to places that include Libya, Cambodia, Amsterdam, Miami, and Detroit. But Dyer is his own best subject, and he knows it. So he views his life as unsparingly as ruined temples or Art Deco lobbies. An observation he makes in an essay on New Orleans before the Fall sets the tone for this witty and perceptive book: “Living as I have, in many different cities, in different countries, I’ve got used to making new friends at an age when many people are living off the diminishing stockpile amassed at university, when they were 19 or 20.” It is, he adds, “one of the things about things about the way I’ve lived that has made me happiest,” and it’s one of things that may make readers happiest, too.

Best line: Dyer’s chapter on New Orleans describes a 1991 visit that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, reads like an elegy for an eccentric grande dame with undertones of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Sample line: “At first it was fun, Mardi Gras. I liked the sport of trying to catch stuff – plastic beakers, beads, and other trinkets, rubbish really – thrown from the crazy floats inching through the crowded streets. It was like a cross between basketball and being in a mob of refugees trying scrambling for food rations thrown by soldiers.”

Worst line: The title. It reflects an exchange Dyer says he had with a woman at a New Age-y resort on the Thai island of Ko Pha-Nagan, famous for “full moon parties” that resemble drug-and-alcohol–fueled bacchanals on a beach. “I have an idea for a self-help book,” Dyer says he told his companion. “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.” “But you can’t be bothered to write it, right?” his she replied. Some people would argue that the title is the best line in that it perfectly exemplifies part of Dyer’s appeal: He’s a superb stylist who’s always bringing up things that have nothing and everything to do with the places he visits. But you can’t help but think that from a marketing point of view this title was a disaster, a joke so oblique that it has kept many people who might love this collection from finding their way to it while attracting also people who want a book about yoga, which it is not.

Recommended if … you like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and other semi-fictionalized books that define places through the people who inhabit them.

Caveat lector: Dyer doesn’t say how much of the material in this book is invented. He seems not to have made up any facts about places he visits but may include imaginary conversations. The people he meets have a way of always coming up with the punch lines for his jokes at the exact moment they’re needed.

Published: January 2003 (Pantheon hardcover), January 2004 (Vintage paperback).

Furthermore: Dyer is the author of three novels and several books that his publisher aptly calls “genre-defying.” They include D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence (North Point, $13, paperback), which was finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 5, 2007

Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat, Pray, Love’: What Do You Say to God Besides, ‘I’ve Always Been a Big Fan of Your Work’?

After a bruising divorce, a woman in her 30s finds her way back to herself with rest stops in Rome, Mumbai and Bali

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. By Elizabeth Gilbert. Penguin, 352 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In her early 30s, Elizabeth Gilbert kept thinking about something her sister had said while breast-feeding her firstborn: “Having a baby is like getting a tattoo on your face. You really need to be certain it’s what you want before you commit.”

Gilbert took her words to heart. She quit trying to get pregnant, divorced her husband, moved out of their house in a New York suburb and took a year-long break from life as she had known it.

As she puts it in Eat, Pray, Love, she went to Rome for “pleasure” and to an ashram near Mumbai for “devotion” or spiritual renewal. Then it was off to Bali for “balance,” though this goal took a hit when she had so much sex with her island boyfriend that she got a bladder inflection. (A medicine woman cured her by making her drink a foul-smelling brew made from roots, leaves, berries, turmeric and a “shaggy mass of something that looked like witches’ hair.”) Gilbert, a writer for GQ, has some interesting things to say about the places she visits. But she’s nowhere near as good at highly inflected travel writing as, say, Geoff Dyer, whose Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It offers much more thoughtful writing on Indonesia and other countries. Great travel writers sell you on a personal vision of a place. Gilbert is selling something else: the idea that you can fix what’s wrong with your life buying a few plane tickets to spots that you’ve always wanted to visit. In her case, “recovery” sounds a lot like another form of consumerism.

Best line: Gilbert says that as her marriage fell apart, she wanted to ask God for help but wasn’t sure how to pray: “In fact, it was all I could do to stop myself from saying, ‘I’ve always been a big fan of your work …’”

Worst line: “A word about masturbation, if I may. Sometimes it can be a handy (forgive me) tool …” This kind of wordy and cute-instead-of-witty prose turns up often in Eat, Pray, Love.

Published: February 2006 (Viking hardcover), January 2007 (Penguin paperback)

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 26, 2006

A House Somewhere: Travel Writing for People Who Like Peter Mayle and Frances Mayes

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Travel — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:27 am

Essays on living abroad by writers who include Isabel Allende, Simon Winchester, Emma Tennant, and Paul Theroux

A House Somewhere: Tales of Life Abroad. By Don George and Anthony Sattin. Lonely Planet, 310 pp., $13.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Oh, the morning-after-Christmas regrets of a critic! Were you looking for a gift for people who like the travel narratives of Peter Mayle and Frances Mayes? Reader, I failed you. A House Somewhere is fine book for those people but was published in 2002 and, I thought, might be hard to find. So I left it off my gift guides and in favor of books I knew you could find easily.

But A House Somewhere has an appeal that transcends the holidays. Editors Don George and Anthony Sattin have collected 26 essays about living abroad, most by British or American writers. And like all good travel writing, these narratives are about psychological as much as physical landscapes.

Novelist Paul Theroux writes of his free-fall into anonymity when he taught English in Singapore: “Everything has to be proven anew, and if you need humility, look at the bookshelf behind you where your novels, even last year’s, have become discolored and mildewed in the humidity: they could be the books of a dead man.” On different scale, that is what happens to anyone who lives overseas – you become dead to the old ideas that people have of you, even those you have of yourself, and alive to the new.

At its best, A House Somewhere is about such transformations. Eight essays are original works by authors who include Isabel Allende, Simon Winchester, and Jan Morris. Others come from well-known books such as Mayle’s A Year in Provence, Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun, Emma Tennant’s A House in Corfu, Niall Williams and Christine Breen’s O Come Ye Back to Ireland, and Tim Parks’s Italian Neighbors (which gives a more complex and less romanticized view of Italy than Mayes’s work). There are odd omissions – nothing from Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island or writers who have lived in Israel, Eastern Europe, or Latin America. Even so, A House Somewhere more good essays about living abroad than any book I can name. Know a traveler who has a birthday coming up?

Best line: Not the best line, but perhaps the best one-line summary of a theme of this book, comes from Paul Theroux’s Sunrise with Seamonsters: “Expatriates by the very fact of their having come to the tropics are considered by the locals to be somewhat crazed, and the expatriate who fails to be a person in any subtle sense can still, with little effort, succeed ‘a character.’”

Worst line: From Willams and Breen’s O Come Ye Back to Ireland: “Back in the garden [in County Clare] we looked at every growing thing in a new light. Everything that rises above the soil is intimately a part of our life here. We were newly conscious of cycles, rhythms, and patterns. There is a wonderful sense of closeness between earth and human. All old clichés perhaps …” Uh-huh. And “old clichés” is redundant, because a cliché is a word or phrase that has become old to the ear, even if it’s new to the world.

Recommended if … you or someone you know enjoys true stories of life abroad.

Published: December 2002

FYI: Amazon had 4 copies of this book available on Dec. 26 .

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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