One-Minute Book Reviews

November 18, 2012

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ – Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

Behind the Beautiful Forevers:
Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
By Katherine Boo
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
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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.

Katherine Boo won the 2012 National Book Award for nonfiction for Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a portrait of a Mumbai slum in which poverty and corruption go hand in hand. She tells the true story of Abdul Husain, a young garbage trader framed for the death of an embittered neighbor, and the rigged judicial system he faced. In doing so she challenges the myth that India’s rapid rise derives in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life. “In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen next when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch,” Boo writes. “In India, a land of few assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted problem-solvers.” Boo shows that if instability can foster ingenuity, it can also heighten despair in people whose efforts to improve their lives yield few results. A resident of Annawadi summed up a theme of the book when she said: “We try so many things, but the world doesn’t seem to move in our favor.”

10 Discussion Questions for Behind the Beautiful Forevers:

1. If you had been one of the National Book Awards judges, what arguments would you have made for or against giving a prize to this book?

2. This book tells the linked stories of residents of the Annawadi slum, including the Husain family; the slum boss, Asha Waghekar, and her daughter Manju; and Abdul Husain’s friend Sunil. Which people did you find most and least memorable? Why?

3. Janet Maslin praised Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the New York Times but had one reservation: She said that Boo “writes about so many scavenging kids, boisterously quarrelsome families and corrupt officials that the book is too crowded” (although she added that the Mumbai setting justified the density). Were you able to keep the characters straight easily? Or did you have to go back and reread parts to do that? If you had been the editor of this book, would you have suggested any changes?

4. Boo cuts back and forth between the stories of people she writes about, a technique that can slow a book down by breaking its momentum. Did this one maintain a pace that kept you reading? What held your attention?

5. Many of the events in this book are harrowing, such as the suicide of Manju’s friend Meena, a Dalit (the name that replaced old “untouchable”). Meena drank rat poison after being repeatedly beaten for offenses such as refusing to make her brother an omelet, and her parents blamed “Manju’s modern influence” for their daughter’s death. Which events did the book portray most vividly or effectively?

6. Boo has said in interviews that the big question she wanted to explore in this book was, in an age of globalization, “Who gets out of poverty, and why?” What is her answer?

7. Behind the Beautiful Forevers implicitly faults people like Sister Paulette, a local nun who runs an orphanage, for actions such as giving the children ice cream only when newspaper photographers visit. The New Delhi bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal noted that Boo appears not to give the nun a chance to respond to this accusation as the journalistic ideals of fairness and balance usually require. Did Boo portray Sister Paulette fairly? What about other authority figures, such as the Mumbai police?

8. Boo says that the word “corruption” has only negative connotations in Western nations. But in India, graft and fraud are among the few “genuine opportunities” open to slum dwellers who hope to rise above poverty. Is Boo endorsing this reality? If not, what position does she seem to take on the rampant corruption she describes?

9. At the end of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Abdul’s legal case remains unresolved. Did Boo give the book a satisfying ending despite the uncertainty about his face? Why?

10. Boo is clearly trying at times to merge her voice and point of view with that of her sources. For example, at times she uses the word “bitty” for small, and she speaks of a eunuch whose “legs became slithery things” when he danced, language you would be more likely to hear from children or teenagers than from a staff writer for The New Yorker. In other places, she is clearly writing in her own adult voice. How well did her approach work?

Extras:
1. If you have seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, what image of Indian slums did you get from the film? Did this book change it? Does Behind the Beautiful Forevers complement or clash with Slumdog Millionaire?

2. You may have seen other movies about modern India, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. If so, what did you learn from Behind the Beautiful Forevers that you didn’t learn from those films?

3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows poverty in a different light than do many international relief organizations. These groups often suggest that small donations, such as “pennies a day,” can change a child’s life. Did this book change your view of such promises? Would you be more or less likely to contribute to a charity that helped Mumbai slum children after reading this book?

Vital statistics:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Random House, 256 pp., $27. Published: February 2012.

A review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on [Date TK] in the post that directly preceded this review.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are 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.

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 also follow her on Twitter, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

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

October 21, 2012

Anna Quindlen’s Novel ‘Every Last One’ – We Need to Talk About Kiernan

Filed under: Fiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:25 pm
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Spoiler warning: This review includes plot details. Stop here if you don’t want to know them.

Every Last One: A Novel. By Anna Quindlen. Random House, 299 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

An obtuse Vermont mother fails to see that her daughter’s creepy prom date is a potential sociopath who will slaughter several members of her family in this small-town soap opera by a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Mary Beth Latham dithers when her husband urges her talk to the troubled Kiernan, who is stalking 17-year-old Ruby. “He’s such a nice kid,” she says. “He’s been like a part of our family.” Mary Beth has no apparent religion to comfort her after Kiernan goes on his murderous rampage, but she survives the help from a generous inheritance from her slain husband and a referral to a grief counselor, although recent studies have shown that such therapy can make things worse.

Kiernan has a different fate, but his motives make no more sense. The novel implies that his savagery resulted, in part, from his parents’ hostile divorce. Let the record show that the parents of Barack Obama divorced when he was two, and that one of the Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold, came from an intact family. And if the children of Every Last One tend to have more enlightened views than their parents, the adult female characters often sound like throwbacks to the 1950s. This is a novel in which the heroine observes, with no apparent irony: “We don’t have a life. We had children instead.”

Best line: No. 1: “She makes our youth seem like something Glen might have seen on the History Channel.” P. 26

Worst line: “My robe lies at the foot of the bed, printed cotton in the summer, tufted chenille for the cold.” Chenille is tufted. The sentence is also confusing: It says one robe lies on the bed but describes two.

Published: 2010 (Random House hardcover edition), 2011 (Random House trade paperback).

About the author: Anna Quindlen won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

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

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

October 1, 2012

‘Midnight in Peking’ — The Corpse Wore Diamonds

Filed under: History,Nonfiction,True Crime — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:51 am
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A Shanghai-based author revisits the notorious 1937 murder of a British consul’s daughter

Midnight in Peking How the Murder of Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. By Paul French. Viking, 259 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

Midnight in Peking tells such good story that you wish could believe all of it. The book seems at first to be a straightforward history of a sadistic crime: On a frigid January day in 1937, someone murdered a 19-year-old Englishwoman and left her mutilated body, clad in a tartan skirt and platinum-and-diamond watch, at the foot of a Peking watchtower. A ghastly detail stood out: The body had no heart, which had disappeared along with several of its other internal organs.

A British-Chinese police team learned quickly that the victim was Pamela Werner, the daughter of a retired consul, who lived with her widowed father in the Legation Quarter, a gated enclave favored by Westerners in Peking. Shadier neighborhoods nearby teemed with brothels, dive bars and opium dens. And potential suspects abounded, including Pamela’s father, Edward Werner, who inherited the $20,000 bequest that his daughter had received after her mother died of murky causes. But the official investigation of the young woman’s murder repeatedly stalled in the face of bureaucratic incompetence, corruption or indifference, and it faded away, unsolved, after Peking fell to the invading Japanese later in 1937.

In Midnight in Peking, the Shanghai-based author Paul French offers a swift and plausible account of what happened to the former boarding-school student who had called Peking “the safest city in the world.” The problem is that French describes his story as a “reconstruction” without explaining what that means. Did he invent, embellish or rearrange details? French says he drew in part on the “copious notes” that Pamela’s father sent to the British Foreign Office after doing his own investigation. Edward Werner’s payments to his sources may have compromised some of that information. And Werner’s files don’t appear to explain other aspects of the book. How did French learn the thoughts of long-dead people such as Richard Dennis, the chief British detective on the case? Is Midnight in Peking nonfiction or “faction,” the word some critics apply to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which contains quotes that its author has admitted he made up? In the absence of answers, this book provides vibrant glimpses of what its author calls “a city on the edge” but leaves you wondering if deserves its categorization as “history” on the copyright page.

Best line: “Meanwhile, somewhere out there were Pamela’s internal organs.”

Worst line: “Dennis sat back. He reminded himself …” The book gives no source for these lines and for a number of others like them. An end note in the “Sources” section doesn’t answer the questions its page raises.

Published: April 2012 (first American edition).

Read an excerpt or learn more about Midnight in Peking.

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

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 2, 2012

‘Against Wind and Tide’ – The Double Life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:25 pm
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Charles Lindbergh comes down off the pedestal he occupied in his wife’s earlier books

Against Wind and Tide: Letters and Journals, 1947–1986. By Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Edited and with an introduction by Reeve Lindbergh. Pantheon, 358 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Seven years ago a German division of Random House dimmed the halo of an American hero when it published The Double Life of Charles A. Lindbergh. Author Rudolf Schroeck reported that the aviator had fathered seven children by three European women while married to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the daughter of a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Genetic testing confirmed some of his claims, and Reeve Lindbergh, the youngest child of Charles and Anne, later wrote of meeting her half-siblings in her memoir Forward From Here.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh also led double life, bisected by emotion rather than biology, in which a public serenity often hid a deep private anxiety. Nothing shows the gap between her inner and outer lives better than the sixth and final volume of her letters and journals, which contains material Lindbergh wrote between the ages of 41 and 79. She says in a diary entry made in 1955, nearly a quarter-century after the kidnapping and death of her infant son:

“I have become a kind of symbol – a Mother figure to the American public – because I married their Hero – is it? – or because I lost a child?”

Lindbergh added that she felt “gummed into a frame – Whistler’s Mother, complete with rocking chair and folded hands.” The near-perfection that Americans projected onto her belied a pain caused in part by her husband’s selfishness and long, frequent, and unexplained absences in the last decades of their life together.

In Against Wind and Tide Charles Lindbergh comes down off the pedestal he occupied in his wife’s earlier letters and diaries. He refuses to return from a trip when she has difficult knee surgery. He at first balks at attending his older daughter’s wedding because, his wife writes to the hurt bride-to-be, “your father never goes to ceremonies of any kind” (which can hardly have comforted her after he attended a White House dinner the previous year). And he leaves his wife alone for days in a primitive and isolated house they had built on Maui, an A-frame dwelling shared with rats. “They seem to eat everything – soap, curtains, plastic covers to the cookie jars, shoes, etc. – everything but poison,” she writes. “At night I am scared and read late and take a pill – but in the daytime I don’t mind much.” At least once Charles Lindbergh’s behavior prompted his wife to consider leaving her marriage.

Did Lindbergh know that her husband had affairs during his absences? If Reeve Lindbergh has the answer, she doesn’t say so in her introduction to Against Wind and Tide. Nor does she directly confirm that, as A. Scott Berg reported in Lindbergh, her mother had an extramarital affair with her doctor, Dana Atchley, to whom she wrote many letters included in Against Wind and Tide. With Clinton-esque sophistry, Reeve Lindbergh says that while she believes her mother had “love affairs,” they may have been “affairs more of words than caresses.”

That coyness doesn’t diminish the appeal of Against Wind and Tide. Lindbergh’s letters and diaries form a portrait of wise and loving woman’s lifelong efforts to reconcile her loyalty to her family with her need for independence and rewarding work, a theme she also developed in Gift From the Sea. Lindbergh had an exceptional gift for observing and reflecting on her experiences, whether she was attending a state dinner or walking “in the mild damp golden afternoon” near her home in Darien, Conn. She makes you see a famous image of Jacqueline Kennedy afresh when she writes of White House dinner: “Mrs. Kennedy swept in like a queen, looking extremely beautiful in a long pink stiff gown, hair high and stiff – rather Japanese – with a diamond star” set into it.  And her hard-won perspectives on widowhood and growing old offer an implicit and refreshing challenge to pop-psychological banalities about what Americans euphemistically call “aging.” Lindbergh writes that spending part of the year in a different climate in later life, as many retirement experts recommend, “makes the other months seem rather more unbearable than they were before.” Clinging to an old neighborhood may not help, either: “One really needs a very different rhythm at our age, and it is difficult to reestablish it in the old place.”

Lindbergh died in 2001 at the age of 94 and, besides the posthumously published Against Wind and Tide, wrote 13 books while married to a man who might ask her to fly  on a moment’s notice to the Philippines to meet Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. And many of the most perceptive comments in the new volume deal with her struggle to maintain a literary career in such unpredictable circumstances. She writes to a friend whose work on a book appears to have stalled: “Remember that big creative act of taking hold of your life freshly and adventurously, as you have just done, takes up much of the creative energy you have. It cannot help but use it up.” No small part of the appeal of this book is that for all her sorrows, Lindbergh kept trying to confront life “freshly and adventurously.”

Best line: No. 1: “I cannot see what I have gone through until I write it down. I am blind without a pencil.” No. 2: “I am convinced that you must write as if no one were ever going to see it. Write it all, as personally and specifically as you can, as deeply and honestly as you can. … In fact, I think it is the only true way to reach the universal, through the knot-hole of the personal. So do, do go ahead and write it as it boils up: the hot lava from the unconscious. Don’t stop to observe, criticize, or be ‘ironic.’ Just write it, like a letter, without rereading. Later, one can decide what to do.”

Worst line: From Reeve Lindbergh’s introduction: “I was certainly amazed to learn, a few years after my mother’s death, that my father had several relationships with other women during his travels in the 1950s and 1960s, and that there were children from these relationships. However, it did not surprise me at all to learn from these children, when I met them, that the paternal pattern was the same for them …” “There were children”? How many? Lindbergh may have dealt with this in her Forward From Here, but she’s leaving readers of Against Wind and Tide in the dark.

Published: April 2012

Read Reeve Lindbergh’s introduction to Against Wind and Tide.

Furthermore: The Associated Press ran a story on The Double Life of Charles A. Lindbergh in 2005. The New York Times ran a long obituary for Anne Morrow Lindbergh that includes excerpts from her Gift From the Sea and North to the Orient.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

August 19, 2012

‘Moo’ – An Obese Touch-and-Feel Book About Barnyard Animals

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:01 am
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Lifting the flaps will easier for children than lifting the book

Moo. By Matthew Van Fleet. Photography by Brian Stanton. Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 18 pp., $16.99.Ages 2–4.

By Janice Harayda

There are books that children can’t put down. Then there are books, like Moo, that some can’t pick up.

This obese book weighs nearly two pounds, about 10 percent of the average weight of the group most likely to respond to it, 2-year-olds. Would you want to lift 10 percent of your weight every time you felt inclined to pick up a book? If you aren’t sure, consider: The average American adult weighs 191 pounds if male and 164 pounds if female, according to government research. So you’d be lifting — and hauling around — a 16- or 19-pound tome.

Yes, 2-year-olds could turn the pages of this book if you laid it on a table, and no doubt many would enjoy it. Moo is a touch-and-feel, lift-the-flap book that uses bold color photographs and a scant rhyming text to describe the sounds and behavior of seven baby and barnyard animals – cows, pigs, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens and horses. But the book lacks a signal charm of its ancestor Pat the Bunny, dimensions that allowed it to fit into small hands. Why read a new behemoth before a well-proportioned classic?

Best line/picture: “Now the day is done and with a / Moo cow, moo / Goodbye from all the animals … / cock-a-doodle doo!”

Worst line/picture: “Mommy hen, / Fuzzy chicks,  / Roosters strut and stretch. / Cluck chicken, / Eat chicken – peck, peck, peck!” Stretch does not rhyme with peck.

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

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 12, 2012

‘New Jersey Noir’ – Taking the Final Exit in the Garden State

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,Poetry,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:50 pm
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“It’s clear that I’ve been double-crossed / It’s clear that I’ve been framed” Paul Muldoon

New Jersey Noir. Edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Akashic, 274 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

“Is noir the dominant sensibility of New Jersey?” a writer for New Jersey Monthly asked in a review of this book. No, that distinction belongs to tragicomedy. But New Jersey has an underside barely suggested by what Joyce Carol Oates calls the “noir drama” of The Sopranos. New Jersey Noir exposes part of it in 19 previously unpublished short stories and poems set in places far from the back rooms of strip clubs and pork-butchers’ shops.

Oates notes in her wide-ranging introduction that prototypical noir fiction involves a man “whose desire for a beautiful woman has blinded him to her true, manipulative, evil self.” Her book revives that tradition in Jonathan Santlofer’s “Lola,” a contemporary tale of a femme fatale on the PATH train from Hoboken to New York. Other stories in New Jersey Noir support Oates’ view that noir treachery can involve something more complex than sexual double-dealing: “a fundamental betrayal of the spirit – an innocence devastated by the experience of social injustice or political corruption.” An idealistic technician at a Newark morgue falls victim to her own naiveté and to the duplicity of a co-worker who sells corpses’ hair to wig shops in S.A. Solomon’s “Live for Today.” A rookie cop is a pawn in a dangerous game that pits his father, a Republican U.S. Attorney, against the powerful Camden County Democratic machine in Lou Manfredo’s “Soul Anatomy.” And a hard-up South Jersey substitute teacher agrees to a friend’s plan to sell glass eels illegally, only to run into thugs running a lethal game of pay-to-play, in “Glass Eels.”

Faithful to noir conventions, the bleakness of these stories goes mostly unrelieved by devices used in other types suspense fiction, such as a wisecracking protagonist or a sentient tabby cat who helps to solve crimes. But the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Paul Muldoon offers an inspired bit of comic relief in his satirical poem, “Noir, NJ.” As he sends up noir clichés, Muldoon neatly encapsulates a theme of this book in two of his lines: “It’s clear that I’ve been double-crossed / It’s clear that I’ve been framed.”

Best line: In her excellent 10-page introduction, Oates gives an overview of noir themes in novels, movies and television shows; of each story or poem she has chosen; and of true crimes in New Jersey that provide context for New Jersey Noir.

Worst line: Oates: “Quintessential noir centers around …”

Published: November 2011

Furthermore: The 19 original stories and poems in this collection cover New Jersey cities and towns that include Montclair, Princeton, Paramus, Rutherford, Cherry Hill, Long Branch, Asbury Park and Atlantic City. Publishers Weekly and New Jersey Monthly also reviewed the book. The Akashic Noir series has produced more than 50 other books, including London Noir, Paris Noir, Seattle Noir, Lone Star Noir and Twin Cities Noir.

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

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

June 22, 2012

Good Paperbacks for $16 or Less – Books for Your Economic Recovery

Filed under: Fiction,Nonfiction,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:10 pm
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Get sand in your shoes, not in the gears of your Nook or Kindle, at the beach this summer

By Janice Harayda

Have you noticed that many of this year’s summer reading lists sound as though they were written for the economic boom times of the Reagan era? Some of the most prominent round-ups have consisted only or mainly of new hardcovers with $25–$30 price tags. Yes, those books may have had $9.99 digital editions. But do you want to drip suntan oil onto — or get sand in the gears of — a Nook or Kindle? If not, here are some of the best recent paperbacks that you can buy for $16 or less.

Fiction
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Random House Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2012), by Deborah Moggach. A group of spirited British men and men women move to a retirement home in India in a comic novel that has a thicker plot and sharper wit than the 2012 movie based loosely on its story.

Drawing Conclusions (Penguin Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2012), by Donna Leon. The humane Venice police investigator Guido Brunetti makes his 20th appearance in a mystery about the murder of a widow whose art works have disappeared, a book that Library Journal called “literary crime fiction at its best.”

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Random House Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2011), by Yiyun Li. Intelligent Chinese men and women maintain hope against the odds while trapped by circumstances fostered by a repressive Beijing government (“Souvenir”) or difficult upbringings (“Gold Boy, Emerald Girl”) in a collection of nine elegant short stories.

The Imperfectionists (Dial Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2011) by Tom Rachman. Staff members at an English-language newspaper in Rome face the decline of their publication in a collection of tragicomic parables about the human illusions that lie at the intersection of love and work in a digital age. Their grief doesn’t keep them from writing headlines such as “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.”

Nonfiction
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner paperbacks, $16, 2011), by S.C. Gwynne. With journalistic balance and novelistic flair, S.C. Gwynne tells the story of the fall of the Comanches in a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. He filters their decline through the lives Quanah Parker, their last great chief; Quanah’s white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by the tribe as a 9-year-old and removed from it against her will 24 years later by Texas Rangers; and Ranald Mackenzie, a brilliant Indian fighter who attended West Point with Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

Lost in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Misson of World War II (HarperPerennial paperbacks, $15.99, 2012), by Mitchell Zuckoff. Never mind that the “most incredible rescue mission” of World War II took place on the beaches of Dunkirk. Mitchell Zuckoff has written an exciting and fast-paced account of how in the last days of World War II, the U.S. Army rescued service members stranded when their military plane crashed into a mountainous rainforest in New Guinea, where pythons grew to 15 feet and the natives were believed to practice cannibalism.

Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (Slightly Foxed paperbacks, £15, 2011), by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. An English biographer has written a captivating history of a London boys’ school that thrived despite an eccentric headmaster and a staff of largely untrained teachers. Yes, £15 is slightly more than $16, but this book has had too little attention in the U.S. It deserves a break.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau paperbacks, $16, 2012), by Barbara Demick. A Los Angeles Times reporter won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction for this remarkable portrait of North Korean defectors and the lives they had led under Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. Demick shows the catastrophic effects of one of the world’s most repressive regimes as she tells the stories of six people who escaped to South Korea by dint of forged passports, bribed border guards, or other cloak-and-dagger efforts.

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

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved

June 19, 2012

Deborah Moggach’s Comic Novel ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’

Filed under: Movie Link,Novels,Paperback — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:30 pm
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The book that inspired the hit movie with Judi Dench offers pleasures of its own

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: A Novel. Random House Movie Tie-in Edition, 336 pp., $15, paperback. First published under the title These Foolish Things.

By Janice Harayda

Deborah Moggach shows how much life a good writer can bring to an old literary device – the use of a hotel a metaphor for the transience of life – in this inspiration for the movie with the same title. As in the film, a group of Brits in their 60s and 70s move to a fraying retirement home in India that delivers at once more and less than its sunny brochure promised. These men and women have varied reasons for uprooting themselves, but all have been “deserted in one way or another by those they had loved.”

In India the wounded but hopeful exiles face new shocks – boiled buffalo milk for breakfast, “cruelly thin” cows on streets, children who call women “auntie.” As they try to adapt, their story becomes the rare comedy of cross-cultural manners that can absorb more than one tragedy while remaining true to the light-hearted spirit of the form. Some characters in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel appear in a similar guise in the movie — the xenophobic Muriel Donnelly, the proper but resilient Evelyn Greenslade, the ill-matched Doug and Jean Ainsley, and others.

But the novel is less of a fairy tale than the film and, as such, is more interesting. It has a thicker plot, a sharper wit, and a richer perspective on India, rooted in part in two years Moggach spent in Pakistan. In the novel a high-born Indian regards the shadow of a lower-caste countryman as so dirty he must disinfect it. “The law forbids the caste system,” a Hindu woman tells Muriel, “but of course it still continues as strongly as ever.” Many cultural subtleties, left out of the movie, emerge in the novel.

Moggach has a free hand with coincidences, and she drops a few plot stitches (one involving a cobra that people hear but never appears, which makes the mention of it seem a bit of a cheat). But that doesn’t explain why after 18 books of fiction, she is so little known in America. Moggach is an admired London novelist and screenwriter who adapted Pride and Prejudice for the film that starred Keira Knightly, and if she has learned about comedy from Jane Austen, she has clearly absorbed ideas on plot from Agatha Christie and other crime writers. She is certainly a more thoughtful and entertaining writer than many British authors who have found a larger American readership. Evelyn Greenslade vows in India to “make the strange into the familiar.” Moggach, too, deserves to be made “into the familiar” on these shores.

Best line: No. 1: “Increasing years, of course, render us invisible as if in preparation for our eventual disappearance.” No. 2: “While she was pruning her forsythia, it seemed, the world had been transformed.” No. 3: “‘You’re as old as you feel.’ ‘Then I feel old,’ said Evelyn.”

Worst line: “ ‘I wish I could jettison my tights,’ Evelyn said.” Evelyn Greenslade is an intelligent woman, but would she really say “jettison”?

Recommendation? Highly recommended to book clubs and others looking for light but intelligent fiction.

Published: March 2012 (Random House movie tie-in edition). Originally published under the title These Foolish Things by Chatto & Windus in 2004.

Furthermore: Read a rave review for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that ran in the TLS when the book first appeared under the title of These Foolish Things. Learn about the movie on IMDb.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book critic for the Plain Dealer. You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 13, 2012

‘Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School’ – The True Story of an Eccentric Headmaster and His Beloved English Boys’ School

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:26 am
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A captivating portrait of “a hundred little anarchists in a London townhouse” 

Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School. By Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Introduction by A.N. Wilson. Afterword by Julian Fellowes. Illustrations by Kath Walker. Slightly Foxed, 199 pp., £15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A nun once stuffed young Bruce Springsteen into a garbage can because, a biographer reports, “that’s where you belong.” Such incidents abound in books about American Catholic education in the middle decades of the 20th century and tend to turn them into horror stories or bleak comedies of errors that wrest humor from pain.

Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School is something rare: a book about a Catholic school that is at heart a love story. This captivating history of St Philip’s in South Kensington has its share of anecdotes that might horrify anyone unfamiliar with how common such episodes once were at English boys’ schools – pants-down beatings with a slipper, meals of Spam and watery mashed potatoes that all children had to eat, and cricket games played in frigid weather in just a shirt and itchy wool shorts, with underpants forbidden. The book also offers ample hilarity in its teachers’ efforts to control what a former student called “a hundred little anarchists in a London townhouse.”

But the eccentric founding headmaster and staff of St Philip’s loved their charges in a way that, to judge by the sparkling anecdotes gathered by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, was largely reciprocated. Richard Tibbits and his “ragbag of untrained teachers” had a quality that rarely surfaces in books about American parochial schools: They were human. American Catholic students of his era were taught mainly by nuns whose flesh-and-blood realities remained a perpetual source of mystery. It was far from uncommon for young children to ask their parents, on first glimpsing their new teachers in black habits and stiff white wimples, “Do nuns go to the bathroom?”

No one would have been likely to ask that question about Tibbits, who resembled “a Beatrix Potter drawing of a very nice old pig” and was known for “extreme strictness” mixed with “the deepest kindness, compassion and care for the forming of boys’ minds and souls.” Nor would anyone have asked it about his wife, who chain-smoked Benson & Hedges as she presided over the ground-floor corridor in a nylon housecoat.

The Tibbitses attracted teachers with similar quirks. A retired Cockney customs officer, flush with his wife’s money, taught math and boasted, “I could buy the whole lot of you out.” A beautiful Polish princess arrived as a maternity-leave replacement for one of the few women on hand and fell in love with the geography instructor. John Tregear, the French teacher, “wore black boots with red cork high heels and drainpipe trousers.” He leaps to immortality in one of the witty line drawings by Kath Walker that add as much charm to this book as Arthur Watts’s do to E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady.

Richard Tibbits had founded St Philip’s in 1934 as an academy for the 7-to-13-year-old sons of middle and upper class Catholics, many of whom attended Mass at the Brompton Oratory, and his teaching methods suited that group. As late as the mid-1960s, the school had no classes in biology or chemistry because, Tibbits said, “Gentlemen do not study science.” When St Philip’s finally dipped its toe into such fields, its approach might have struck some people as curious – students, for example, learned to make gunpowder. The school had crucifixes and pictures of the Pope on the walls, but it welcomed doubters with a warmth rare in American Catholic schools of its era, where many jokes involved variations on the words “Protestant” and “prostitute.”

For all of this, St Philip’s had high educational and spiritual standards that boys strived to uphold. One former student told Maxtone Graham that at the age of seven he was reading Treasure Island: “You were expected to be good at drawing, good at reading, interested in foreign lands.” The high-achieving the families associated with the school suggest that students met those standards: Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes attended St Philip’s, the biographer Antonia Fraser sent her son, Orlando, there, and the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mother taught singing. Maxtone Graham has rewarded the trust of those who spoke with her by writing a history distinguished by the perfection of its tone: She writes in the first person, so that her story reads like a memoir, but keeps her focus on St Philip’s. In its casual tone, her book resembles many English schoolboy stories less than Diana Athill’s recent memoirs, including Somewhere Towards the End. Mr Tibbit’s Catholic School might have been called Somewhere Towards the End of the Reign of Richard Tibbits.

St Philip’s began to change after Tibbits’s died in 1967, and the process sped up in the 1980s as a new generation of working mothers dared to suggest improvements the old regime would not have tolerated, such as the purchase of a computer. But the fearless spirit of the school endures in its administrators’ willingness to display on its website this melodious hymn to its idiosyncrasies, a book that shows how much American and other schools lose when they impose enough restrictions to drive away the most gifted and creative teachers. Ninety percent of the teachers at St Philip’s were “certifiable,” the historian  and former student Adam Zamoyski admits. “They wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of a school now. But that was often what made them such good teachers.”

Best line: All. An example: “The teaching was old-fashioned, and sometimes downright out-of-date. Textbooks had not been renewed since the founding of the school: in geography lessons, 1960s boys found themselves learning about the exciting new invention of the mechanical combine harvester – which had actually come into widespread use in the 1930s.”

Worst line: None. But a few more details on some would have been welcome. The book notes, for example, that Antonia Fraser was a school mother but not whether she sent all her sons there or just one.

Publication date: 2011

Learn more about the book on the publisher’s websiteMr Tibbits’s Catholic School is available from Crawford Doyle Booksellers in New York. Allison Pearson wrote about the book in the Telegraph.

About the author: Ysenda Maxtone Graham also wrote The Real Mrs. Miniver, a finalist for the Whitbread biography prize.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

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

June 10, 2012

‘A Ball for Daisy’ – A Review of the 2012 Caldecott Medal Winner

Chris Raschka brings the spirit of modern art to to American picture books, but is that good?

A Ball for Daisy. By Chris Raschka. Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 32 pp., $16.99, Ages 2–4.

By Janice Harayda

A vacancy has existed at the summit of American picture book illustration since the death of Maurice Sendak, who shared that spot with Chris Van Allsburg and Nancy Ekholm Burkert. Some critics might usher in Chris Raschka, who won his first Caldecott Medal for The Hello, Goodbye Window and his second for A Ball for Daisy. And it’s easy to see why reviewers like the more than 40 books for children that he has produced alone or with authors such as Norman Juster and Jack Prelutsky.

More aggressively than any recent illustrator, Raschka has brought to American picture books the spirit and techniques of modern art: Fauvism’s symbolic use of color, Cubism’s fragmented geometric forms, Expressionism’s bold lines and emotional drama. That pattern holds in A Ball for Daisy, a wordless tale of a shaggy dog who suffers acute but fleeting heartbreak when a poodle punctures her adored red ball during a romp in the park. Raschka works with familiar materials – ink, watercolor and gouache – but uses them inventively enough to refresh an ageless theme: A new love eases the pain of losing an old one. His debt to the modernists shows up clearly in the destroyed ball, which in its shape and intensity of color resembles one of Matisse’s six-bladed leaf cutouts.

Raschka certainly deserves credit for originality in the conservative field of picture books – a realm that, as Sendak said, “is becoming a creatively exhausted genre.” But whether he should have won the latest Caldecott Medal is debatable. Novelty isn’t the same as greatness. And all the modernist influences on display in his book don’t lift it above some of the animal tales that the 2012 Caldecott judges rejected, including Ekholm Burkert’s Mouse & Lion. Like the 2011 winner, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, A Ball for Daisy is a sweet book unlikely to offend anyone.

Then there is the issue of the wordlessness of the story. The presence or absence of a written text is neutral in picture books, which can work with or without one. But words can add layers of meaning to a story. When they don’t exist, those layers must come from the art in order for a picture book to stand up to multiple rereadings. And A Ball for Daisy doesn’t really have them. What you see is what you get.

Three of the past six Caldecott winners have had no words, and that fact has led to speculation and some anger online. Have the judges bypassed worthy books because of fonts or stories when the medal is an award for illustration? Are they dumbing down America’s most prestigious picture book prize? The deliberations of the Caldecott judges are confidential, so it’s unclear why wordless books are winning a disproportionate number of medals. Whatever the reason, for the second year in a row they have played it safe. Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are still inspires spirited arguments more than a half-century after it won the 1964 Caldecott Medal. Gift-shoppers may see it as a strength — while others can only see it as a weakness — that  A Ball for Daisy gives you so little to debate.

Best line/picture: A wordless spread in that has eight roughly square pictures showing Daisy’s stages of grief for her destroyed ball, which include confusion, sorrow, anger, and finally a pained resignation. The spread makes the most sense when “read” horizontally across the two pages, which gives you a background that darkens with each image to show the dog’s growing despair. But it also works if you read the images on the left-hand page first (as some children will do) in an up-and-down, clockwise, or counterclockwise direction.

Worst line/picture: The young girl who owns Daisy remains headless until she and her beloved pet return home, more than halfway through the book, after the ball deflates. Raschka clearly did this to keep the focus on the dog’s emotions. But it distracts you from the story by adding a subplot: Who is Daisy’s owner?

Furthermore: A Ball for Daisy won the 2012 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association, which also honored him for The Hello, Goodbye Window. Meghan Cox Gurdon reviewed A Ball for Daisy for the Wall Street Journal. One-Minute Book Reviews reviewed Jack Prelutsky’s Good Sports, which Raschka illustrated.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

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

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