One-Minute Book Reviews

March 13, 2016

What Made ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ So Influential? Quote of the Day / James McPherson

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, as James McPherson notes in Battle Cry of Freedom, “the most influential indictment of slavery of all time.” But today it’s more widely known than read. What made it so influential? McPherson writes:

“Written in the sentimental style made popular by best-selling women novelists, Uncle Tom’s Cabin homed in on the breakup of families as the theme most likely to pluck the heartstrings of middle-class readers who cherished children and spouses of their own. Eliza fleeing across the ice-choked Ohio River to save her son from the slave-trader and Tom weeping for children left behind in Kentucky when he was sold South are among the most unforgettable scenes in American letters.”

McPherson added:

“Even the heart of an occasional law-and-order man could be melted by the vision of a runaway manacled for return to bondage. Among evangelical Protestants who had been swept into the antislavery movement by the Second Great Awakening, such a vision generated outrage and activism. This was what gave Uncle Tom’s Cabin such astounding success. As the daughter, sister, and wife of Congregational clergymen, Harriet Beecher Stowe had breathed the doctrinal air of sin, guilt, atonement, and salvation since childhood. She could clothe these themes in prose that throbbed with pathos as well as bathos.”

Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for Glamour magazine and for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

February 19, 2016

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Antidote to Tuscan Sunburn, ‘My Brilliant Friend’

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At last a book that dares to say, “The Italians don’t know how to live.”

My Brilliant Friend. Book One if the Neapolitan Novels: Childhood, Adolescence. By Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa, 331 pp., $17, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This novel is an antidote to Tuscan sunburn. It is a book you can turn to when you’ve read too many memoirs of fragrant olive groves, medieval bell towers, and lovably indolent workers. You need not fear that you will weep as you read about black-truffle pasta made with the freshest ingredients while you’re eating Buitoni shaken into the pot from a box.

51putd03r7l-_sx317_bo1204203200_Elena Ferrante tells a bleak story of two friends whose lives keep converging and diverging as they move from first grade to the end of high school in a mob-infested working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s. The good Elena, the narrator, is blond, and the bad Lila is black-haired. That echo of stereotypes from myths and legends suggests the nature of the tale.

Ferrante’s writing is nominally in the social realist tradition. But the plot owes a debt to neo-Gothic melodrama, if not soap opera, without the usual supernatural elements. It opens with a mysterious disappearance that is never credibly explained. (Later books in the series may resolve the issue, but in context, it’s a cheat.) From then on the novel unfolds as a grim rush of incidents that befall its young heroines in a city with dead rats on the streets. In an early scene Elena and Lila climb a dark stairwell, a Gothic trope, to the apartment of a shadowy man — “the ogre of fairy tales”– who terrifies children. Over the next decade, the two will make their way in a world of murder, theft, adultery, mob shakedowns, and more. Men embittered by beatings at the hands of their creditors or enemies return home to beat their wives and children, Elena and Lila among them. The childhood friends become links in “a chain of wrongs that generated wrongs,” all leavened by little kindness and less love. If many books about Italy imply that “the Italians know how to live,” this is the rare novel that dares to say, “The Italians don’t know how to live.”

My Brilliant Friend involves so much of children that the novel should be a moving — if not heartbreaking — coming-of-age tale. Overseas newspapers have said that Neapolitan women have wept on seeing their lives on its pages. But it’s hard to admire the industrious but charmless narrator, Elena, or her foil, the defiant Lila, who has a malicious streak. The novel doesn’t linger on their trials long enough to evoke the deep sympathy for their plight merits. It’s always racing off to describe the next misery. You never fully see why Elena remains in emotional thrall to her childhood playmate long after she has begun to see her friend’s faults and to move out into the world while Lila remains tethered to their neighborhood. Like a good Gothic novel, this book is a gripping horror story with characters whose actions often defy belief.

Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

Best line: Lila tells a violent suitor that “to call him an animal was to insult animals.”

Worst line: “As their vindictiveness increased, the two women began to insult each other if they met on the street or the stairs: harsh, fierce sounds. It was then that they began to frighten me. One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood begins with the shouts of Melina and Lidia, with the insults they hurl from the windows and then on the stairs; it continues with my mother rushing to our door, opening it, and looking out, followed by us children; and ends with the image, for me still unbearable, of the two neighbors rolling down the stairs, entwined, and Melina’s head hitting the floor of the landing, a few inches from my shoes, like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.” Tim Parks, one of best living writers on Italy, describes the “lazy writing” in the paragraph: “Making no effort of the imagination, Ferrante simply announces melodrama: ‘Harsh, fierce sounds’; ‘One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood’; insults are ‘hurled.’ The memory is ‘for me still unbearable’ though in the following pages the incident is entirely forgotten.”

About the author: Elena Ferrante is a pen name for one or more authors who may or may not be female and may or may not live in Italy.

Published: First Italian edition, 2012; first U.S. edition

© 2016 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

February 5, 2016

Female Spies in the Civil War — Beyond Notes in the Fruitcake

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:11 pm
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When knitting with a Morse code–based pattern was women’s work

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. By Karen Abbott. HarperCollins, 513 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

A hoop skirt can hide a lot of secrets, not all of them sexual. Female spies for both the North and South made unique contributions to the Civil War by taking advantage of the voluminous clothing and other encumbrances of their sex, including the belief that they would pursue activities no riskier than rolling bandages or mending uniforms.

61r9btq72rl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Karen Abbott tells the stories of four of these women and their accomplices, who operated mainly in Virginia and Washington, D.C, from 1861–1865. Their strategies included seducing enemy officers, knitting tapestries in a pattern based on Morse code, and arranging for the delivery of a fruitcake that had a secret letter baked into it instead of apples and raisins. One woman disguised herself as a man to enlist in the Union army. Not surprisingly, she impersonated a female peddler with aplomb as she sneaked past Rebel lines in an attempt to gather facts for Gen. George McClellan about the strength of Confederate forces in Richmond.

These spies’ stories make for such lively reading that you wish you could believe every word of them. Abbott says that she hasn’t invented dialogue but has “extrapolated” her characters’ thoughts from sources such as their letters or diaries or others’ books. In other words, she’s guessed.

Abbott also makes the dubious assertion that her subjects were “the war’s unsung heroes.” That description certainly fits the abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew, who used her Richmond mansion as a base for daring efforts to support the Union. To a lesser degree the label applies to Emma Edmondson, who masqueraded as a man in the 2d Michigan Infantry before she deserted. But what of the Confederate spies Belle Boyd and Rose O’Neal Greenhow, who spent their formidable energy and courage on an unjust cause? Even ardent feminists may have trouble finding an “unsung hero” in Greenhow, who wrote, while in Bermuda on her way to London on a mission for Jefferson Davis: “The negroes are lazy, vicious, and insubordinate.” It’s much easier to admire Van Lew, whose spy ring proved so effective that Ulysses Grant thanked her in a personal note: “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

Best line: Elizabeth Van Lew lent her servant Mary Jane Bowser to the wife of Jefferson Davis so that the Union would have a spy in the house of the Confederate president. When Mary Jane had gathered vital information, “she hung a red shirt on the laundry line” as a signal for Elizabeth to collect it. The book abounds with such memorable details.

Worst line: An echo of Seinfeld in a book about the Civil War: A Union soldier gave Belle Boyd a pistol that she “planned to regift to Stonewall Jackson.” Liar Temptress Soldier Spy also descends at times overwrought prose, such as: “All the breath rushed out of her and she felt turned inside out, whipped like laundry on a line.” Obviously, if all the breath “rushed out of her,” she couldn’t “feel turned inside out,” because she’d be dead.

About the author: Karen Abbott is a journalist who wrote Sin in the Second City and American Rose.

Second opinion: Jonathan Yardley reviewed Liar Temptress Soldier Spy for the Washington Post.

Published: 2014

Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2016 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 15, 2015

Celebrating the Joys of a Decade of Beach Walks

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Meditations on the everyday appeal of a favorite beach

A Decade of Beach Walks. By George Thatcher. Quail Ridge Press, 239 pages, $12.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has seen too many used condoms and empty Red Bull cans on American beaches will find a gentle antidote in A Decade of Beach Walks. In this book George Thatcher collects more than 200 of the popular Scenes from the Beach columns that he has written since 2007 for the Sun Herald in Biloxi. Each entry consists of a brief, illustrated meditation on an inspiring sight he has seen during one of his daily walks along Mississippi Sound, such as a blue heron, a scallop shell, or a cluster of acorn barnacles. Thatcher focuses on the enduring charms of the beach, not on the damage that careless visitors do, but when piercing winds blow, he reminds us that Emily Dickinson was right: “Nature, like us, is sometimes caught / Without her diadem.”

Please follow Jan on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

May 1, 2015

After ‘Under the Tuscan Sun,’ Frances Mayes Goes Home — Southern Reading

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The first in a series of occasional reviews of books about the American South 

Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir. By Frances Mayes. Broadway, 352 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Frances Mayes grew up in the one-mile-square town of Fitzgerald, Georgia, where one woman kept a coffin in her living room and another was a kleptomaniac “whose husband was billed quietly” for items she pilfered. This memoir describes her childhood and her move back to the South after the Italian sojourn that inspired her Under the Tuscan Sun. Mayes deals bluntly with the pre-civil-rights era injustices she observed, such as a tradition at her university that Chi Omegas “didn’t date the Jewish boys.” And if her writing about the food, weather and landscape of the region is overheated — when the sun rises over the ocean, “the wobbling golden orb hoists out of the water” — it is rich in detail. However stifled she felt as a child, Mayes conveys a deep affection for the aspects of the South that she still loves now that she lives in North Carolina — “the mellow southern winter, the humane pace, and the sweet green beauty of the land.”

(c) 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 3, 2015

The Best Book of Bible Stories for Children

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:43 pm
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Egermeier CoverA perennial favorite includes many tales left out of other collections

EGERMEIER’S BIBLE STORY BOOK: Fifth Edition. Stories by Elsie E. Egermeier. Story Revision by Arlene S. Hall. Illustrated by Clive Uptton. Warner Press, 640 pp., varied prices. Ages 3–adult.

By Janice Harayda

Children’s Bible-story books tend to be highlight reels. They tell a scattering of tales connected loosely or not at all — those of Noah’s Ark, Moses in the bulrushes, Jesus’ birth and resurrection, and a perhaps dozen or two others. This episodic approach may have benefits at bedtime, but it fails to convey that the Bible tells a larger story of how God has revealed himself, in words and actions, over time.

A timeless antidote is Egermeier’s Bible Story Book. The fifth edition tells all of the major stories of the Bible from Genesis through Revelation — a total of 321 tales, each with its own title — and has virtues that go beyond its wide scope. Its tone is conversational but not dumbed-down, which is well suited to reading aloud, and it retains the spirit of the original biblical texts even in its most generous paraphrases. (“Lot moved toward Sodom. … What a mistake!”) Frequent quotations from the King James or other versions add depth and are usually simple enough for 3- and 4-year-olds to understand. (“Let there be light.” “His name is John.”) The painter Clive Uptton supports the respectful vision of authors Elsie Egermeier and Arlene Hall in his 121 full-page color illustrations: His picture of the crucifixion depicts shadowy forms on three crosses in the distance, not the bloodied close-ups that sometimes upset children.

All of this makes Egermeier’s Bible Story Book resemble — appropriately for its age group — a grand adventure story more than a collection of moral tales. It brims with turbulent events often left out of Bible-story collections: a shipwreck, an earthquake, a victory by thousands of men led into battle by the prophet Deborah. It may not have a snow queen, but it has more than enough action to satisfy many young fans of Frozen. And it is full-bodied enough for adults looking for an easier substitute that Bible-as-history course they never in college, or just an introduction to stories left out of the Old or New Testament highlight reels of their own childhoods.

This review applies only to the fifth edition pictured above. Other editions may differ.

Best line/picture: “At its heart, the Bible is a story – a story of how God has dealt with his people and revealed himself to them across the centuries.” A nice touch by Clive Uptton: a picture of Jesus on page 351 shows, realistically, a tuft of hair on his chest. When have you seen that in Renaissance art?

Worst line: A paraphrase of lines from Luke 7:36–50: “There was a rich man who loaned money to two poor men. To one he loaned 500 pence. To the other he loaned 50.” It’s “lent.”

Published: 1922 (copyright date for first edition, Gospel Trumpet Press), 1969 (revised Warner Press edition).

Furthermore: Egermeier’s Bible Story Book has sold more than two million copies. Unlike many similar volumes, it cites the Bible verses that inspired each of its stories.Without evangelizing, it supports the traditional Christian view that, as the preface notes, Jesus came into the world “to show us what God is like, to live and die and rise again that we might know eternal life.” Elsie Egermeier was a children’s book editor and Sunday School teacher.

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She tweets at @janiceharayda.

© 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 28, 2015

Colum McCann’s ‘TransAtlantic’ — An Earthbound Tale of a Historic Flight

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An acclaimed novelist can’t repent of his research into historical events 

TransAtlantic: A Novel. By Colum McCann. Random House, 336 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Henry James couldn’t offer a thought in his letters without pinning a flower in its buttonhole, the biographer Leon Edel once said. He could also ”disguise the absence of thought by the shameless gilding of his own verbal lilies.”

Column McCann shows similar tendencies in TransAtlantic. His fastidious writing grows distractingly overripe in a novel that reveals how three widely separated historical events affect the Irish maid Lily Duggan and several generations of her descendants. Each woman’s life has a connection, however tenuous, to the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic, made by the British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown in 1919; to a trip to Ireland by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1845; and to the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement in Belfast in 1998 after negotiations overseen by the U.S. envoy George Mitchell.

McCann is an earnest writer and prodigious researcher, and he works hard to develop the theme that human lives consist of incidents that lay “at odd angles to each other,” shaped by larger forces. But his tendency to overwrite runs away with him, as do his stylistic devices: using dashes instead of quotation marks, skipping back and forth in time, describing long-past events in the present tense, and breaking up ideas into clipped, verbless sentences, often in groups of three. (“Cloud. Storm. Forecast.” “The nineteenth floor. Glass and high ceilings. The windows slightly open.”) McCann doesn’t say “dawn broke” when he could say “A blanket of dark had been lifted from Brown Street” or “Dawn unlocked the morning in increments of gray.”

Overwriting especially undermines a section that amounts to a valentine to Mitchell and his work to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In describing one of the envoy’s peace missions to Belfast, McCann lists the snacks in the British Airways VIP lounge at Kennedy airport: “small neat sandwiches, biscuits, cashews.” He then gives every in-flight meal option that Mitchell had, presumably in first class: “lobster bisque, garden salad, chicken cordon bleu, Asian noodles, beef tenderloin, mushroom risotto.” And he goes on to say, after Mitchell deplanes in London, that a British Midland lounge offered three items: “Tea, pastries, yogurt.”

What purpose does this surfeit of detail serve? In a historical novel, such facts can help to evoke a time and place. But TransAtlantic, which ends in 2011, isn’t a historical novel in the usual sense. It makes no difference to its story whether British Midland had pastries and yogurt in its lounge or, say, muffins and fruit. Such details are the sign that McCann can’t repent of his research, or perhaps of his access to Mitchell and his wife, whom he thanks in his acknowledgments for their “great grace” in allowing him to tell part of their story. And what are we to make the occasional eruptions of bad writing, such as “There were so many sides to every horizon”?

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of TransAtlantic is the listless plot. McCann weaves the warp of his female characters’ lives so loosely into the weft of his big events that his story barely coheres. The thread that ostensibly unites all of the plotlines is a mysterious, sealed letter that Arthur Brown carries on his trailblazing flight at the request of Lily Duggan’s granddaughter. Its envelope remains unopened for nearly a century. And it isn’t giving away too much to say that when it is finally unsealed, the letter holds no secrets or significant revelations. It’s so anti-climactic that it almost turns all that has come before it into a high-toned shaggy-dog story. That development may support the theme that our lives connect “at odd angles,” but it isn’t what the preceding pages have led you expect. The best endings in fiction, it’s often said, are surprising yet inevitable. The last pages of TransAtlantic are surprising only for their lack of inevitability.

Best line: “He was told once that any good Irishman would drive 50 miles out of his way just to hear an insult – a hundred miles if the insult was good enough.”

Worst line: “There were so many sides to every horizon.” A horizon doesn’t have “sides.”

Published: June 2013 (Random House hardcover). May 2014 (Random House paperback).

About the author: McCann won a 2009 National Book Award for Let The Great World Spin.

Read an excerpt and learn more about TransAtlantic on the Random House website.

One-Minute Book Reviews publishes reviews by the professional critic by Janice Harayda, who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and book columnist for Glamour. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

March 2, 2015

‘The Fall’ – A Father’s Memoir of His Son’s Cerebral Palsy

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Landscape and architecture affect the destiny of a child with a disability

The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps. By Diogo Mainardi. Translated by from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Other Press, 169 pp., $20.

By Janice Harayda

Diogo Mainardi had the good and bad luck to have a son who, though born with cerebral palsy caused by a doctor’s negligence, “infected me with his cosmic optimism.” A Brazilian author who lives in Venice, he tells Tito’s story with elegant restraint in this book-length lyric essay that shows through his child’s life how landscape and architecture shape destiny. His son was happy in Italy but gained confidence in Rio de Janeiro, where the family moved after a neurologist told them that children with cerebral palsy “needed to be in touch with the sand, the earth, the water.” The sand on the beach at Ipanema cushioned Tito’s falls: He could fall “without grazing his knees or smashing his teeth.” Mainardi offers no advice to parents of children with disabilities in this memoir, divided into 424 sections representing the number of steps his son can take without help, but the joy on Tito’s face in the photos speaks for itself.

You can follow Jan on Twitter at @janiceharayda. She is a novelist and award-winning journalist who was the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

Best line: “If, as John Ruskin argued, the architecture of a place really does have the power to shape the destiny of its inhabitants, then I could say that the façade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco shaped the birth of Tito.”

Worst line: “I never worshipped God,” Mainardi writes on page 57. “ I never worshipped Man. But I began to worship Tito.” That’s a bit coy — leaving as it does the impression that the author worshipped nothing before his son’s birth — when Mainardi writes later in the book: “[Tito’s] cerebral palsy obscured everything I had always worshipped. In particular, literature.”

Published: 2012 (first Portuguese edition, from Editora Record, in Brazil). 2014 (first English edition, from Harvill Secker, in England).

You may also want to read: Born Twice, Giuseppe Pontiggia’s novel about a father whose son who suffered brain damage at birth, which may have influenced The Fall.

Read more about book at the Complete Review, which has links to noteworthy reviews of The Fall.

© 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 21, 2014

Margaret Craven’s Novel ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name’ – O, Canada!

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A dying priest makes peace with his fate while serving as a missionary to Indians in British Columbia

I Heard the Owl Call My Name. By Margaret Craven. Dell, 160 pp., $6.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1965, the American journalist Margaret Craven spent several weeks in a remote Indian village in British Columbia, hoping to find material for a story. There she met Eric Powell, an Anglian priest who ministered to the Kwakiutls, a tribe whose elders were struggling to preserve their traditions as their young people left for government boarding schools or turned from ancient myths and totems to alcoholism, drug abuse and other modern ills.

Craven drew on that experience for her first novel, which became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller soon after its publication in the United States. More than 40 years later, I Heard the Owl Call My Name remains a rarity in North American fiction: a book equally sympathetic to Indians and to the white missionaries who tried to help them, little as they understood tribal customs.

The young priest Mark Brian doesn’t know he has a terminal illness –- unnamed in the novel — when he accepts a posting to the imperiled fishing village of Kingcome, which sits in a river valley below snow-tipped mountains on an inlet in British Columbia. Lonely and beset by hardships such as a ramshackle vicarage and a collision with a brown bear that hibernates under his church, Mark nonetheless faces his challenges with a steady faith, kindness and capacity for hard work. Those virtues win over the skeptical Kwakiutls, among them a tribal matriarch whose previous encounters with outsiders have led her to take the sly revenge of serving mashed turnips to visiting dignitaries because “No white man liked mashed turnips.” The Kwakiutls in turn earn Mark’s admiration for their wisdom, their perseverance amid calamities, and their willingness to help with tasks from steering a boat to building a new vicarage.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name spans nearly two years in the life of the gradually maturing priest, whose parishioners live with ever-present reminders of the death. Mark holds the hand of 46-year-old Kwakiutl woman, lying on a blood-soaked bed, who has what will turn out to be a fatal hemorrhage while giving birth to her sixth child. He trudges through the underbrush with a hunter who, if he wishes to have venison steaks on his table, must look to the woods, not a supermarket. He watches ceremonial dances that honor the customs and memory of Kwakiutl ancestors, many of whom perished in tribal wars generations earlier. Amid so much darkness, he finds comfort not just in his friendships with the Indians but in the natural splendor of the region, which Craven evokes keenly. One year autumn comes softly, with the second blooming of the dogwood trees: “Slowly, as the needles fell, the waters of the inlet grew less clear, and on the river floated the first green leaves of the alders. When the nights cooled, the little berry bush burned crimson under the great, dark cedar, and on one deep green island side, a single cottonwood turned gold.”

This brief, parable-like story lacks the moral, spiritual and literary complexity of such great novels as Death Comes for the Archbishop and Diary of a Country Priest, which may explain why it tends to appear today on young-adult shelves. Some minor characters serve mainly as vehicles for points the author wants to make, particularly about whites’ insensitivity to indigenous tribes. (When a boorish American woman arrives via yacht and asks: “How do you tell the Indians apart?,” Mark replies mildly that he did it “the same way she told her friends apart, because she knew them.”) The priest faces no crisis of the soul and expresses his faith in deeds, not creeds, and in plain-spoken messages of hope. “He was young enough,” Craven writes, “to be a little proud of his first sermon, to which he had given considerable thought: ‘It is better to be a small shrimp in the sea of faith then a dead whale on the beach.’”

But if the novel if the novel has a simple message, it is not a morbid one. Death is so common in Kingcome that Mark comes to see it as natural and at times heroic. The salmon that die soon after spawning in nearby waters provide a central metaphor for his story and suggest its theme. When a Kwakiutl woman laments that the fish perish soon after giving birth, Mark corrects her. A salmon lives a life of courage and adventure, the priest says, and dies after “having spent himself completely for the end for which he was made”: “It is triumph.” So, too, is Mark’s life. It reminds us, as George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” of people “who lived faithfully a hidden life.”

Best line: “Now time had lost its contours.”

Worst line: “The Indian knows his village and feels for his village as no white man for his country, his town, or even for his own bit of land,” the young priest’s bishop says. In this line and a number of others, the novel romanticizes Canada’s indigenous people even as it sympathizes with their hardships.

Published: 1967 (Clarke, Irwin, Canada); 1973 (Doubleday, U.S.)

You may also want to read: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye, a similarly short book that resembles a parable.

Furthermore: A 1973 movie version of I Heard the Owl Call My Name starred Tom Courtenay as Mark Brian.

Jan is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper. You can follow Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 20, 2014

Tash Aw’s Man Booker–Longlisted Novel ‘Five Star Billionaire’ – Shanghai’d

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Expatriates scramble for a toehold in China’s largest city

Five Star Billionaire: A Novel. By Tash Aw. Spiegel & Grau/Random House, 379 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

Maylasian expats are Shanghai’d by Shanghai in this novel that resembles a collection of linked stories. The flat-footed writing never rises much about the level of “She laughed out loud in agreement when he expressed a hatred for Gaudí’s Barcelona” and “Thankfully, Walter’s moments of solemnity never lasted long, and his mood would swiftly become jovial again.” But the story has a carefully knitted plot and something to say: Shanghai is a shape-shifter full of perils for the uninitiated, and everyone is scrambling for a toehold. New arrivals read Western-style how-to books with comical titles like Sophistify Yourself. Better-off residents fortify themselves with cappuccinos and power yoga classes, and real estate developers seek favors from municipal officials who may bend the rules if a bribe includes an offer to pay to send a child to Stanford. In this cynical novel, only the most ruthless — or lucky — achieve what passes for success in China’s largest city.

Best line: “The crowds, the traffic, the impenetrable dialect, the muddy rains that carried the remnants of Gobi Desert sandstorms and stained your clothes every March: The city was teasing you, testing your limits, using you. You arrived thinking you were going to use Shanghai to get what you wanted, and it would be some time before you realized that it was using you, that it had already moved on and you were playing catch-up.” These lines are overwritten, but the image of clothes stained by sand from Gobi Desert storms is memorable. And the passage sums up a theme of the book.

Worst line: No. 1: “She laughed out loud in agreement when he expressed a hatred for Gaudí’s Barcelona – too obvious, too obviously weird; he couldn’t stand it that people who liked Gaudí thought of themselves as ‘offbeat.’” No. 2: Shanghai buildings are not all the same: “Each one insists itself upon you in a different way, leaving its imprint on your imagination.” No. 3: “Thankfully, Walter’s moments of solemnity never lasted long, and his mood would swiftly become jovial again.” Nos. 4, 5 and 6: “When she laughed, she was aware of a tinkling quality to her voice, like the happy notes of a piano in the lobby of an expensive hotel.” “The late-night bluesy tinkling of the piano made him wish he were somewhere else.” “At last he began to hear the cheap tinkling of notes played on an electric piano.” Note: the “tinkling” of a piano is a cliché and falls especially wide of mark in reference to an electric keyboard, which makes a different sound than the ivory keys of a standard piano do.

Published: February 2013 (Spiegel & Grau/Random House hardcover). Spiegel & Grau erback due out in July 2014.

Furthermore: Five Star Billionaire made the longlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Philip Hensher reviewed the entire longlist in an article in the Spectator. As Hensher notes, Five Star Billionaire has little that would tax the fans of Arthur Haley, the author of pop fiction bestsellers such as Airport and Hotel. And its Man Booker longlisting seems further evidence of the markup to prize-caliber of middlebrow fiction.

Consider reading instead: Yiyun Li’s wonderful Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, the gold standard for recent English-language fiction about China.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

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