One-Minute Book Reviews

July 21, 2009

How to Get Teenagers Into Libraries – Late Night With Jan Harayda

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One way to get teenagers into libraries: Have a party and invite the kids to come as their favorite character in the bestselling “Twilight” series of vampire romance novels. You might show the movie “Twilight” and play trivia games, as the Fairhope Public Library in Fairhope, Alabama, did.

June 5, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #5: David C. Barnette’s ‘How to Be a Mobilian’

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A gifted humorist lists the unwritten rules of life in a place where men define the four seasons as “football, hunting, Mardi Gras and fishing”

How to Be a Mobilian: A Guide for Old Salts and Newcomers. By David C. Barnette. Publishing 101, 143 pp., $11.95.

Regional humor tends not to travel well. The jokes often aren’t funny — or even recognizable as jokes – outside the place that inspired them. But David C. Barnette makes regional humor work in How to Be a Mobilian: A Guide for Old Salts and Newcomers (Publishing 101, 1999). This entertaining, tongue-in-cheek guide spells out the unwritten social codes for events ranging from private weddings to city-wide Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama. It works because Barnette is a very funny writer and finds the sweet spot that eludes most would-be Southern wits – a bevy of details that are specific enough to evoke a place but not so specific that they’ll be lost on all but insiders.

Why do you sense when visiting Mobile that a man could get arrested for indecent exposure if his shirt had light starch instead of heavy? Blame it on the city’s unofficial dress code for men, Barnette suggests: “Shirts must be all-cotton, long-sleeved and starched such that they will shatter in an automobile accident.” Women have their own sartorial deal-breakers. One is your shoes can never be lighter than your hemline. “I swear, my mother was so maniacal about that, I have to get white piping stitched on my navy tennis skirts,” a woman told Barnette.

How to Be a Mobilian is near-impossible to find. But Barnette has a page on Facebook (sign in, then go to http://www.facebook.com/people/Dave-Barnette/1013298948/), and if you urge him to bring it back into print, maybe he’ll find a way. Just remember that his timetable may not be yours or mine. As he writes: “Mobile men live by their own four seasons: football, hunting, Mardi Gras and fishing.”

Barnette also wrote The Official Guide to Christmas In the South: Or, If You Can’t Fry It, Spraypaint It Gold (Morrow, 2007).

This is the fifth in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. A second post will follow later today with more of my favorite books about the South.

February 16, 2009

Purple Thong Rain — Southern-Accented Mardi Gras and Other Posts on www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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What I did last weekend, or how I celebrated Mardi Gras in Fairhope, Alabama, where I’m a writer-in-residence:

  1. Went to the Mystic Mutts of Revelry Saturday-afternoon dog parade, where the canine marshal-equivalent wore a collar made of empty cans of Bud.
  2. Caught a lacy purple thong tied to red beads that a masked man tossed to me from a float in an evening parade. The thong is imprinted with yellow comedy and tragedy masks and the words “The Original Mardi Gras” (because Alabamians think their celebrations preceded those in Louisiana).
  3. Ate two Mini Moon Pies (banana-flavored and squashed by hitting the sidewalk) tossed by another masked man.

You, serious reader, are of course not interested in anything as base and low-culture as purple thongs and came to this site only for my reviews of War and Peace and Middlemarch. That’s why I’m posting further details instead on my Twitter feed www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. When you click on the Mystic Mutts link above, you will see cute dogs and hear “Second Line,” the Mardi Gras theme song, if you’re patient.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 5, 2009

A Fresh Look at ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ — Not Just for Students

A rape trial turns out to involve incest in a Pulitzer Prize–winner set in the South in the 1930s

A Book-of-the-Month Club survey once ranked To Kill a Mockingbird among the top five books “most often cited as making a difference” in people’s lives. And Claudia Durst Johnson, a former English professor at the University of Alabama, found that it appeared on secondary-school reading lists as often as any book in English.

What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of Harper Lee’s only novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961? Certainly it tells a powerful story of an honorable lawyer, Atticus Finch, who accepts the near-hopeless task of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman in an Alabama town in the mid-1930s. It also has one of the most engaging child heroines in American fiction: Scout Finch, Atticus’s daughter, six years old when the story begins, who has an unselfconscious integrity as admirable as her father’s moral courage.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

But the novel has more going for it than a strong plot and memorable characters. To Kill a Mockingbird has at its core an idea at once simple and vital to civilization: When everyone else is doing the wrong thing, one person can still do the right thing.

Young as she is, Scout understands that her father stands all but alone in defending Tom Robinson. Why has he taken on a case in which, as she sees it, “most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong”?

“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” Finch tells his daughter, who narrates the novel from the perspective of an adult looking back on the defining event of her childhood, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Some critics see Finch one-dimensional, too saintly to be credible. But much of the writing in the book is exquisitely subtle. Tom Robinson stands accused of raping the lonely Mayella Ewell, whose father has brought charges against him. And as the facts of the case emerge, it becomes clear that she was making advances to him and that her father caught her in the act. At his trial Robinson says that Mayella told him she had never kissed a grown man before: “She says what her papa do to her don’t count.”

“What her papa do to her don’t count.” Has any novel ever described sexual abuse with such delicacy? At that moment, we know that the crime in this novel is not rape but incest and that the motives of Mayella’s father, in accusing Robinson, went beyond racial prejudice.

Novels about such crimes abound today and often show only the worst of human nature. To Kill a Mockingbird is a tragedy, but shows good and evil, side by side. It tells us that when much of the world wears blinders, some people see clearly. If they have a vision of justice, their children – like Scout – will remember.

This is the fourth in a series of daily posts this week on some of my favorite books. The other posts dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title (Monday), Middlemarch (Tuesday), and Greater Expectations (Wednesday).

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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