One-Minute Book Reviews

April 23, 2015

Do Authors Benefit From Having Unusual Names? Quote of the Day / Willa Cather

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:47 pm
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Do authors benefit from having unusual names? If so, T. Coraghessan Boyle would outsell Stephen King. But the myth persists. And Willa Cather — whose name rhymes with “rather” but regularly heard bookstore clerks pronounce it “Kay-thur” — lamented its tenacity. Cather wrote in a letter collected in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (Knopf, 2013):

“It is all nonsense that an unusual name is an advantage in authorship. One had much better be named Jones. Salesmen in New York and Chicago always correct me when I pronounce my own name.”

April 11, 2015

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ As a Gospel Allegory – Quote of the Day

Filed under: Fiction,Novels,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:33 pm
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What is To Kill a Mockingbird “about”? Harper Lee responded indirectly in a letter to the Richmond (Va.) News-Leader after a school board had banned her novel as “immoral”: “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”

Lee’s friend Wayne Flynt, a retired Auburn University historian, elaborated on the idea in an interview about Lee’s forthcoming Go Set a Watchman. “She wouldn’t consider herself a conventional Christian,” Flynt told the Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register. But in a sense, he said, she wrote a Christian book in To Kill a Mockingbird. “It’s about a fundamental set of Christian beliefs,” Flynt said. “It’s an allegorical tale of the gospel.”

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

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:26 am
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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 20, 2015

‘A Train in Winter’ – French Women Who Resisted the Nazis

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:43 pm
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True stories of women whose anti-Nazi activities led to their deportation to Auschwitz

A Train Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France. By Caroline Moorehead. HarperPerennial, 374 pp., $15.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1943, a train arrived at Auschwitz bearing 230 French women who had resisted the Nazi occupation of their country. Most were not Jews, and because of it, the members of the group fared better than other female prisoners. They were not executed on arrival and could eventually write to their families and receive packages.

The women on the train, many of them communists, nonetheless suffered desperately and witnessed savagery at close range. One night Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, a photojournalist who had worked for anti-Nazi publications, heard terrible cries. The next day, she learned “that because the gas chambers had run out of Zyklon B pellets, the smaller children had been thrown directly onto the flames.”

Caroline Moorehead, an English journalist, tells the stories of Vaillant-Couturier and other passengers on the train known as Convoy No. 31000 in a popular history that begins with their Resistance work and follows them through the liberation of France. She aims in part to show how the women’s friendships helped them endure Auschwitz and, later, Ravensbrück and Mauthausen. Some of the women clearly did benefit from reciprocal support, but fewer than 50 of 230 survived the camps, showing that female bonds — however strong — were not enough for most.

With its large cast, A Train in Winter has a splintered focus that makes it at times hard to follow. But its deglamorized portrayal of Resistance work is a fine antidote to Hollywood stereotypes of that movement. This book will enlighten anyone who believes that resisters consisted mainly of handsome young men listening to encoded wireless broadcasts in cozy farmhouses in the French countryside.

Best line: The commandant of Auschwitz lamented in his memoirs that people couldn’t understand that he “had a heart and was not evil,” Moorehead reports.

Worst line: Natasha Lehrer noted in a review in the TLS that the name of the anthropologist Germaine Tillion is “unfortunately misspelled throughout, including in the index, where a cursory glance might suggest that she was related to the politician and resistant Charles Tillon,” who also appears in A Train in Winter.

Published: November 2011 (HarperCollins hardcover), October 2012 (HarperPerennial paperback).

One-Minute Book Reviews publishes reviews of fiction, nonfiction and poetry by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow Jan on Twitter @janiceharayda for her tweets on books.

 © 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 6, 2014

A Twitter Chat on the Novel ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:28 pm
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An advertising executive is sucker-punched by his desire to own a country home in one of the great comic novels of the middle decades of the 20th century, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, the subject of this week’s #classicschat on TwitterSwept along by his ill-considered vision of a having idyllic retreat not far from his office in New York City, the intelligent but naive Jim Blandings finds himself opposed — if not fleeced — by his real estate agent, his first architect, his contractors, the original owner of his property, and many others. If you’d like to comment on the novel or the movie version with Cary Grant, please jump in at the Twitter chat I’m hosting at #classicschat.

February 4, 2014

‘Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!’ / Quote of the Day, Herman Melville

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:55 am
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Is any book ever “finished”? Here’s Herman Melville’s view of the subject, as described by William Pritchard:

“At the end of the ‘Cetology’ chapter in Moby-Dick, after Ishmael, or Melville, has presented us with a seemingly exhaustive classification of the various kind of whales, we are told that this ‘Cetological System’ must remain, like ‘ the great Cathedral of Cologne,’ unfinished:

‘For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!’

“The fear is of ‘succeeding’ by writing a sentence – a book – that isn’t sufficiently a ‘mighty book’ because it’s too finished. ‘To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,’ he says elsewhere in the novel. This means that there can be no end to expression since the whale – the world out there – is inexpressible.”

From William H. Pritchard’s essay “Herman Melville” in Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature (Paul Dry Books, 2007), selected and edited by Joseph Epstein with wood engravings by Barry Moser.

January 20, 2014

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

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:54 pm
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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

December 18, 2013

Bad Literary Manners Erupt on Twitter

Filed under: News,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:16 pm
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Few of us would be so gauche as to walk up to an author we hadn’t met at a party and say in front of other guests: “Hey, I just reviewed your book! Let me tell you how much I hated it.” But the digital equivalent occurs on Twitter whenever people tweet links of negative reviews to the authors of the books they’ve panned. David Duhr, the books editor of the Texas Observer, asked six critics, of whom I was one, to comment on the practice. You can see our answers in his post on Publishing Perspectives.

December 14, 2013

What I’m Reading … James Wolcott’s Comic Novel, ‘The Catsitters’

Filed under: Humor,Novels,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:40 pm
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“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review on this blog

What I’m reading: The Catsitters (HarperPerennial, 2002), the first novel by James Wolcott, the longtime cultural sharpshooter at Vanity Fair.

What it is: A light comedy about the romantic misadventures of an unmarried man in Manhattan before the hookup culture rolled in. Narrator Johnny Downs is a mild-mannered bartending actor who tries a desperate approach to finding love after being dropped by his latest his-and-run girlfriend: He takes advice by telephone from a friend in Georgia who, after spending her teenage years in New Jersey, blends “a Southern belle’s feminine wiles with a Northerner’s no-nonsense direct aim.” The title of the novel has a double meaning: It refers to the caretakers for Johnny’s beloved cat and to the women who eddy around a “cat” — as the Beats might have said — who hopes to turn himself into plausible husband material.

Why I’m reading it: I enjoyed Wolcott’s new Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs (Doubleday, 2013), a showcase for the virtues that have distinguished his work since his early days at the Village Voice: wit, moral courage, and a high style. That collection drew me back to this novel.

Quotes from the book: A priest describes an artistic sensibility he has observed in New York: “These days, any time I attend something cultural, I dread what might be in store. I don’t mind shock effects as much as I resent the notion that they’re  for my own good, to roust me out of my moral slumber. One thing I learned from my work as a military chaplain is that in real life, shock numbs people, and the worse the shock, the deeper the numbness. After a while, your response system shuts down.”

Furthermore: The Catsitters is, in some ways, Seinfeld-ian: It involves a nice New York man caught up in day-to-day mini-dramas — not turbo-charged conflicts — and abounds with witty one-liners and repartee, such as:

“I can’t picture the men of Decatur, Georgia, handing out understated cream business cards.” “You’re right, they don’t. Most men down here introduce themselves by honking at intersections.”
“You’re fretting about the cost of dinner and flowers? You’re not adopting a pet from the animal shelter, Johnny, you’re in training to find a fiancée and future wife.”
“I don’t think I could handle a threesome.” “You’re not ready to handle a twosome yet.”
“Would you mind if I took off my shoes? My feet are about to cry.”
“We continued chatting, and by the time the train pulled into Baltimore I knew enough about her life to produce a documentary.”

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com

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