One-Minute Book Reviews

May 22, 2008

Why Do Suicide Bombers Do It? Lessons From Kamikazes

Why have so many suicide bombers been willing to sacrifice their lives in the Middle East and elsewhere? Similar questions were raised about Japanese kamikaze pilots who crashed their planes into American aircraft carriers and other ships in the last months of World War II. Max Hastings, the British journalist, notes his new Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45 (Knopf, $35) that the attacks began when traditional Japanese air forces were being overwhelmed by the Americans:

“Suicide attack offered a prospect of redressing the balance of forces, circumventing the fact that Japanese pilots were no longer capable of challenging their American counterparts on conventional terms. Instead, their astonishing willingness for self-sacrifice might be exploited. Here was a concept which struck a chord in the Japanese psyche, and caught the Imperial Navy’s mood of the moment. Officers cherished a saying: ‘When a commander is uncertain whether to steer to port or starboard, he should steer towards death.’ An alternative aphorism held that ‘One should take care to make one’s own dying as meaningful as possible.’ The suicide concept appeared to satisfy both requirements.”

Hastings adds that one kamikaze pilot had married just three months earlier. Before leaving on his final mission, instead of saying that he was sacrificing himself for his country, he told reporters he was doing it for his beloved wife:

“To a Western mind, self-immolation in such circumstances is incomprehensible. To some Japanese of the time, however, it seemed intensely romantic.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 10, 2008

National Book Critics Circle Award Reality Check: Mary Jo Bang’s ‘Elegy,’ Poems About Her Son’s Death, an ‘Addiction Catastrophe’

The latest in an occasional series on book-award winners and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Elegy: Poems. By Mary Jo Bang. Graywolf, 92 pp., $20.

What it is: Sixty-four poems about the year after the death of Bang’s 37-year-old son, an event described as an “addiction catastrophe.” Elegy consists mostly of short- or medium-lined free verse and includes the three elements of classical elegy: praise, lament and (in this case, faint) consolation.

Winner of … this year’s National Book Critics Circle award for poetry www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com

Was this one of those awards that make you wonder if the judges were all on Class B controlled substances? No. But some of the judges did seem to be enjoying the wine at the reception after the awards ceremony on Thursday night.

Worthy of a major prize? Yes, chiefly for the poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” At times Elegy reads less like poetry than therapy, strewn with banal words or phrases: “describable,” “a wince-making barrenness,” “Paxil’s myoclonal kick.” Some of its ideas might have come from a card rack at Shop-Rite or a women’s-magazine article on coping with loss. (“I love you like I love / All beautiful things.” “Grief was complicated.”) But poetry collections can justify their awards with a single poem. And Elegy does it with the exceptional “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” an homage in multi-part harmony to Bang’s son, to the Bruegel masterpiece with the same title and to poems about the painting by William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden. In this 22-line poem Bang recalls the last time she saw her son, standing on a subway platform after they had admired mosaics at the Met, and reflects that their day should be embedded in amber. Then, in the chilling final lines, she suggests a brutal truth about the isolating effect of death: “ … And how can it be / that this means nothing to anyone but me now.” Bang knows what Auden meant when he wrote in “Musee des Beaux Arts” that “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” And in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” she deals with this ageless idea in a way that is fresh and memorable.

Best line: The lines quoted above, beginning: “And how can it be.”

Worst line: The jarring pun in the line: “And my I sees.”

Published: October 2007 www.graywolfpress.org

Consider reading instead: Anne Porter’s Living Things, which has both new poems and all of those collected in her An Altogether Different Language, a National Book Award finalist www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/28/. Living Things includes the wonderful poem “For My Son Johnny,” Porter’s elegy for her son, who had what she believes was autism or schizophrenia. Bang tells you so little about her son Michael that Elegy is almost a misnomer and Grief might have been a better title. You don’t feel you know Michael from the book — you how his mother experienced his death. This isn’t a “flaw.” Poets have a right to choose their subjects. But Porter’s son Johnny is so alive on the page in “For My Son Johnny” that you learn more about him from one poem than you do about Bang’s son from her entire book. Poetry groups might want to compare how two admired contemporary poets have portrayed the loss of a mature child.

Furthermore: Bang has written four other collections of poetry. She is a professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Washington University. “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” appeared in The New Yorker. Other poems in the collection have appeared publications that include Poetry and The Paris Review.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 7, 2008

National Book Critics Circle Award Reality Check: ‘Brother, I’m Dying’

Filed under: African American,Book Awards,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:53 pm
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Do literary prizes always go to deserving authors? One-Minute Book Reviews considers the question in “Reality Check,” a series of occasional posts on books shortlisted for high-profile awards. A recent installment considered Edwidge Danticat’s memoir of an uncle who died while in custody of U.S. immigration officials, Brother, I’m Dying www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/02/. then a finalist for a 2007 National Book Award. The book has since won the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com. A “Reality Check” post on the NBCC poetry winner, Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, will appear next week.

(c) Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 29, 2008

John Gunther’s Classic Memoir of His 17-Year-Old Son’s Courageous Effort to Survive a Fatal Brain Tumor, ‘Death Be Not Proud’

A sensitive teenager faced a devastating illness with grace and intelligence

Death Be Not Proud: A Memoir. By John Gunther. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 224 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

You could argue that John Gunther idealizes his son, Johnny, who died of a brain tumor at the age of 17, in this classic memoir. But parents naturally want to remember the best in children they have lost. So the question isn’t whether Gunther idealizes his son but whether Johnny deserves the near-heroic portrayal he receives in this book. The answer is yes.

First published in 1949, Death Be Not Proud is a slim book that has little in common the sort of memoirs that recently have become fashionable: fat, self-dramatizing stories overstuffed with emotion and incident. Gunther describes with uncommon restraint how he and his ex-wife tried to save their son after he developed a glioma multiforme, a brain tumor that few people then survived.

During his 15-month illness, Johnny endured a series of brutal, long-shot treatments: brain surgery, mustard gas injections, a primitive form of radiation. He showed his character and vivid intellectual curiosity best after the surgery, when father asked if he knew he’d had an operation. “Of course,” Johnny said. “I heard them drilling three holes through my skull, also the sound of my brains sloshing around. From the sound, one of the drills must have had a three-eights of an inch bit.”

A bestseller in its day, Death Be Not Proud appears today on high school reading lists, and many people see it as a book for teenagers. This is a shame. A sea-change has occurred in the advice that parents of sick children get from doctors (who urged Gunther to lie to Johnny to keep him from finding out how serious his illness was). A book club might spend hours talking about just one of the questions raised by this book: Would Johnny really have been better off if his parents had taken the advice of 21st-century doctors instead of their own?

Best line: Many passages attest to Johnny’s unusual intellectual and emotional maturity. His parents once asked him, while he was in prep school, if he wanted to see some home movies taken of him when he was a child. “Only if they’re not too recent – the past is tolerable if remote enough,” Johnny replied.

Worst line: Death Be Not Proud has a scattering of lines such as, “Johnny was as sinless as a sunset” and “Everybody loved him – down to the corner cop.” If these seem too rosy, the book wears them lightly. Gunther is not trying to convince you that Johnny was perfect but to portray his struggle against cancer.

Reading group guide: I can’t link directly to the publisher’s guide, posted at www.harpercollins.com, but here’s a link to it that you can paste into your browser: http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061230974/Death_Be_Not_Proud/.

Published: 1949 (first edition) and 2007 (Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition).

Furthermore: John Gunther (1901–1970), one of the best-known reporters of his day, wrote the popular “Inside” series that included Inside Europe, Inside Asia and Inside U.S.A.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 6, 2007

After ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ — Joan Didion’s Greatest Hits

A lot of book clubs are reading The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, $13.95, paperback), Joan Didion’s National Book Award–winning memoir of the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. And for groups or discussion leaders who would like to read more by Didion, the good choices include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, the early nonfiction collections that helped to make her reputation as one of America’s finest prose stylists.

But perhaps the best “next book” is the first chapter of her 1992 essay collection, After Henry (Vintage, $14.95, paperback) www.randomhouse.com/vintage/. Didion writes in the chapter about an early editor of her books, Henry Robbins, who died on his way to work at the age of 51. And her comments on death relate, perhaps more directly than anything she has written, to her views in The Year of Magical Thinking. She also notes, correctly, that the relationship between writers and great editors has little to do with changes in manuscripts:

“The relationship between an editor and a writer is much subtler and deeper than that, at once so elusive and so radical that it seems almost parental: the editor, if he was Henry Robbins, was the person who gave the writer the idea of himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down and do it.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 27, 2007

Janis Silverman’s ‘Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:44 pm
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Exercises that can help when a young child loses a parent, grandparent or other close relative or friend

Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies. By Janis Silverman. Fairview Press, 32 pp., $9.95, paperback. Ages 5–9.

By Janice Harayda

Normally, I don’t review children’s books that offer only bibliotherapy or help with problems. But Help Me Say Goodbye has so much to offer grief-stricken 5-to-9-year-olds that I’ve decided to break my self-imposed rule.

Teacher Janis Silverman designed this activity book for families with young children who will be visiting a friend or relative who is dying. But the book could also help children who have recently lost someone important. Each page describes something a child could do to “say goodbye” and provides space for it. One page says: “When you visit your friend or relative, what can you bring? Draw or write about your ideas.” Other pages suggest ways children can express their feelings after a loss. One says that when someone dies, people may feel angry: “Draw or write what you can do when you feel angry. Circle the things that won’t hurt anyone else.” And while the book is designed for children in grades kindergarten through three, it describes a few activities for younger ones, such as, “Use a toy phone to talk about what happened.”

Recommended … for children who are coping with the death of a parent, grandparent, sibling, teacher or friend. The exercise in this book could be adapted for children whose pets have died.

Published: January 1999.

Furthermore: At this writing, this book is in stock on Amazon www.amazon.com. Many libraries also have it.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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