On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Polish countess whose arrival threatens to disrupt the lives of the social elite in post-Civil War New York. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on March 22 at #classicschat to discuss this great book. Kevin wrote Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book. He and I will be talking about The Age of Innocence with Francesca Segal (@francescasegal) who won the 2012 Costa First Novel Award and the National Jewish Book Award for fiction for The Innocents, inspired by Wharton’s book.
March 16, 2013
February 25, 2013
February 22, 2013
A witty guide to avoiding gaffes like letting people sing “Now Thank We All Our God” as your casket rolls in
Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. By Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes. Miramax, 243, $19.95.
By Janice Harayda
A certain kind of Southern woman would rather die than not have tomato aspic at her funeral. She tolerates churches that don’t allow eulogies because she believes God “doesn’t need to be reminded” of the deceased. And she knows that next to the aspic, it is the hymns that make or break a Southern funeral: You can’t miss with a “stately and wistful” chart topper like “Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” but nobody wants to go out to “Now Thank We All Our God.”
Any self-respecting Southern woman knows that being dead is no excuse for bad form, and this sparkling guide boldly takes on delicate issues such as: Is it proper to use the euphemism “loved one” in a death notice? (No, it’s “tacky.”) What flowers should you avoid? (“A ‘designer arrangement’ that turns out to be a floral clock with the hands stopped at the time of death.”) Should you adopt recent innovations such as having pallbearers file past the coffin, putting their boutonnières on it? (“Funerals are emotional enough to begin with – why do something that is contrived to tug at the heart?”)
More than an irreverent etiquette guide, Being Dead Is No Excuse abounds with tips on keeping a “death-ready” pantry and with recipes for Southern funeral staples such stuffed eggs, pimiento cheese, chicken salad, caramel cake and pecan tassies. But noncooks needn’t fear that this book has nothing for them. It’s comforting that if Northern funerals increasingly resemble New Year’s Eve parties with balloons and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” die-hard Southerners treat death with respect. For all its wit, this book develops a theme that transcends geography. You may have no strong feelings for the deceased, the authors say, but you can still have grace: “A funeral reception is not a cocktail party. We want people to feel comfortable, but we want them to remember that they’re there because someone has died.”
Best line: No. 1: ““You practically have to be on the list for your second liver transplant before a Southern Episcopalian notices that you’ve drunk too much. They’re not called Whiskypalians for nothing.” No. 2: “Pimiento cheese might just be the most Southern dish on earth. Pimiento cheese has been dubbed ‘the paste that holds the South together.’”
Worst line: “We always say how much we admire her because she always holds her head up high, even though her mother ran away with the lion tamer in a traveling circus.” That sentence didn’t need more than one “always.” And is anyone today old enough to have a parent who even remembers traveling circuses with lion tamers?
Furthermore: Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes have spent much of their lives in the Mississippi Delta. They also wrote Someday You’ll Thank Me for This: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Being a Perfect Mother (Hyperion, 2009).
Jan and Kevin Smokler will be cohost a Twitter chat on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar today, Feb. 22, at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT. Please join us at the hashtag #classicschat on the last Friday of each month.
© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
February 17, 2013
On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Sylvia Plath’s mordantly funny novel The Bell Jar, a fictionalized account of the unraveling of her sanity after she won Mademoiselle magazine’s Guest Editor competition. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on Feb. 22 at #classicschat for a lively conversation about this wonderful book for book clubs. Kevin wrote the new PracticalClassics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book.
February 11, 2013
“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review later on One-Minute Book Reviews
What I’m reading: Crescent Carnival, a 1942 novel by Frances Parkinson Keyes, best known for Dinner at Antoine’s.
What it is: A saga of two prominent New Orleans families and the Mardi Gras balls and other rituals that defined their lives between 1890 and 1940. Keyes drew in part on the recollections of her friend Dorothy Selden Spencer, a former Carnival queen.
Why I’m reading it: Few novels focus on Mardi Grass celebrations and how they preserved the distinctions of social class in New Orleans even as such differences were fading elsewhere. Crescent Carnival is one that you can still find without too much trouble in libraries and online.
How much I’ve read: About 150 pages of more than 800.
Quotes from the book: “Estelle always loved Carnival and the preparations for it. But she grew up without daring to dream that some day she, herself, would be the Queen of one of the Carnival Balls. She did not believe it even when she heard that Monsieur Leroux, who held the fate of all potential queens firmly in his hands, had spoken formally to her father, asking if he could conveniently be received on a certain day at a certain hour in the Lenoir’s house on Royal Street.
“She could hardly believe it even after the ritual champagne had been bought, and the silver ice bucket polished until it shone like a mirror, and the one placed inside the other, beside a plate of little frosted cakes, on the center table in the salon, under the chandelier, there to await the arrival of Monsieur Leroux. She went into the salon, and she was still filled with incredulity mingled with awe.”
Furthermore: Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post said that Keyes was a “middlebrow” novelist in the sense that she “wrote for readers of some education and taste who expected their entertainments to be literate and intelligent as well as entertaining.” Based on what I’ve read, that gets it exactly right: Crescent Carnival is, by today’s standards, a potboiler, but one that reflects higher standards than most now labeled as such. A journalist by instinct if not by training, Keyes shows a Tom Wolfean attention to the details of social status that evoke the eras she describes.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button a right.
© 2013 Janice Harayda
February 9, 2013
Mayhem results when parents install spyware on their teenager’s computer
Hold Tight. By Harlan Coben. Dutton, 416 pp., $26.95.
By Janice Harayda
Hold Tight ought to be catnip for those of us who have lived in New Jersey long enough to know that its loopy plot doesn’t lie far from reality. Up to a point, it delivers.
Harlan Coben uses in this suburban thriller a variation on the Agatha Christie formula – a machine-tooled plot strewn with clues, a smattering of local color and an eventual convergence of many threads that at first appear unrelated. But Hold Tight involves a sick violence that Christie wouldn’t have gone near. And it has no Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot whose idiosyncrasies might have offset other characterizations that range from bland to stereotypical, as in the case of an icy feminist lawyer and shady men who wear “wifebeater tees.”
Some of the gore results from a morally questionable decision by Mike and Tia Baye, well-educated suburban parents who live a few miles from the Satin Dolls, “the famed gentlemen’s club that was used as Bada Bing! on The Sopranos.” The Bayes’ 16-year-old son, Adam, won’t explain why he has withdrawn from them after the suicide of a friend, so they install spyware on his computer. The snooping plunges the couple into something much worse than they had feared. It also sets up light philosophizing about violence: “What is in our makeup, in fact, that draws us to that which should sicken us?” The question appears unintentionally metafictional. In the first of many brutal scenes in Hold Tight, a thug beats an innocent woman to death so savagely that he didn’t just break the bones in her face but left them looking as though “they were ground into small chunks.”
Best line: A mother whose son died says, when someone mentions “closure”: “What does that even mean? … Can you imagine anything more obscene than having closure?”
Worst line: No. 1: “wifebeater tee” (used twice). “Wifebeater” is a nasty cliché that libels men who wear ribbed undershirts and don’t beat their wives. No. 2: “She made the twins dinner – hot dogs and macaroni and cheese.” Really makes you see them as individuals, doesn’t it? No. 3: “The mall was pure Americana ginoromous.” “Ginormous” is cute, not funny.
Furthermore: The Guardian reviews Coben’s more recent Caught.
Published: 2010 (Dutton hardcover), 2009 (Signet paperback).
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
January 26, 2013
A romanticized view of a popular color honored by the American Library Association
Green. By Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, $16.99. Ages 2–5.
By Janice Harayda
A half century ago, Dr. Seuss helped children learn about colors with his rhyming trochees: “One fish / two fish / red fish / blue fish.” Laura Vaccaro Seeger takes a similar approach in her celebration of every environmentalist’s favorite color, which begins: “forest green / sea green / lime green / pea green.”
This 32-word book introduces different kinds of green by pairing thumping rhymes with boldly painted pictures and cutouts that, like windows, show a different view depending on whether you’re looking in or out (or, in this case, at the first page on which they appear or the next): A cutout that defines a pea on one page turns into the eye of a tiger on the next.
Green has no rhymes like “bile green / sickly green / vile green / prickly green,” and its romanticized green-is-good subtext borders on an environmental cliché. But Vaccaro Seeger is a fine painter who can make impasto acrylics rest as lightly on the page as a firefly. You just wonder how may 2-year-olds will come away with the idea that zebras have green stripes after seeing such a creature in the illustration for the final line of the quatrain: “Jungle green / khaki green / fern green / wacky green.”
Best line/picture: The picture of the “wacky green” zebra is great even if drags the concept of the book sideways and the joke will sail over the heads of 3-year-olds who have no idea what a zebra is.
Worst line/picture: All of the lines in the book begin with lower-case letters except for “Jungle green / khaki green …” which begins, senselessly, with a capital J. And as others have noted, the one of the cutouts of fireflies on the “glow green” spread doesn’t line up perfectly with what it’s supposed to reveal.
Published: March 2012
Furthermore: Update: The American Library Association named Green a 2013 Caldecott Honor Book on Jan. 30, 2013.
Green has emerged as a favorite for the Caldecott Medal ( which will be awarded Jan. 28, 2013 ) in the Mock Caldecott contests sponsored by libraries and others.The trailer for Green shows much of the book. The headline on this review has been changed to reflect its Caldecott honor.
About the author: Vaccaro Seeger wrote First the Egg, a Caldecott Honor book. She lives on Long Island.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.
© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
January 22, 2013
Moby-Dick received a chilly reception during Herman Melville’s lifetime that lasted for decades after his death. Why did Americans warm up to the novel slowly? They didn’t know how to read it, the author Clifton Fadiman argues in his introduction to the 1977 Easton Press edition shown, left.
“We must read it not as if it were a novel but as if it were a myth. A novel is a tale. A myth is a disguised method of expressing mankind’s deepest terrors and longings. The myth uses the narrative form and is often mistaken for true narrative. Tom Jones is a true narrative; Moby Dick is a false narrative, a myth disguised as a story. Once we feel the truth of this distinction, the greatness of Moby Dick becomes manifest: we have learned how to read it.”
January 20, 2013
Follow #classicschat on Twitter to learn about Moby-Dick and other classics
Want to learn more about classics you have — or haven’t — read? I’ll be co-hosting a Twitter chat about Moby-Dick on Friday, Jan. 25, at 4 p.m. ET/9 p.m. GMT with Kevin Smokler, author of the forthcoming essay collection, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School. We’ll be joined by Christopher Routledge, who is working with the editor of Power Moby-Dick: The Online Annotation to produce a handsome, annotated limited edition of Herman Melville’s novel as part of a marathon reading event at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, in May 2013. The Moby-Dick chat this week is the first in a series of monthly Twitter conversations about fiction and nonfiction classics at #classicschat.