One-Minute Book Reviews

March 20, 2015

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

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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.

July 14, 2011

The Greatest Influence of France on Culture / Quote of the Day

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“Thomas Jefferson’s famous observation, ‘Every man has two countries, his own and France,’ bears witness to the great influence France has had throughout the ages. While the visual arts and music have of course played a very important role, it is perhaps above all through its written texts that France has exercised such a strong impact on world culture and thought.”

From One-Hundred Great French Books: From the Middle Ages to the Present (BlueBridge, 2010), by Lance Donaldson-Evans, professor of romance languages at the University of Pennsylvania.

October 7, 2009

The Moral Failures of U.S. Health Care – T.R. Reid’s ‘The Healing of America’

A specialist in Tibetan herbal medicine wanted to taste T.R. Reid's urine.

The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care. By T. R. Reid. Penguin, 277 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

This elegant polemic argues that the American health-care crisis is, above all, a moral one: Alone among well-off democracies, the U.S. has never made a moral choice to guarantee health care for all. Americans have decided that everybody has the right to an education and a legal defense, regardless of the cost or difficulty of providing these, T.R. Reid reminds us. But we’ve never decided that everybody has the right to health care. Because we haven’t, the U.S. is the only country in which medical bills can bankrupt people. It’s the only one in which patients who have paid their health insurance premiums for years can — and do — have their policies canceled while they’re fighting for life from a hospital bed.

Fewer than half of all Americans are satisfied with this state of affairs, according to a 2001 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. But many critics of the system believe that all the alternatives involve conditions too onerous to accept – long waiting lists, the rationing of care, no choice of doctors, or “socialized medicine.”

T.R. Reid offers a powerful rebuttal to that idea with fascinating and well-written portraits of the health-care systems in five countries that have universal coverage: France, Germany, Japan, the U.K. and Canada. Japan, for example, hardly has “socialized medicine.” Its widely admired approach to health care uses private doctors and hospitals and nonprofit insurers. The system involves no gatekeepers, no rationing, and no waiting lists. It offers high-quality care and ample choice for patients. People split the cost of insurance with their employers or if they are unemployed, with their local government. And the Japanese lead the world in life expectancy (85.5 years for women, 78.7 for men).

Reid also evaluates the health care systems in India, Taiwan, Switzerland and other countries. And he found an ingenious way to dramatize some of their differences after an American orthopedist suggested that he have surgery on an injured shoulder. As he traveled around the world, Reid asked foreign doctors how they would treat the problem. In Nepal, he met a specialist in Tibetan herbal medicine who wanted to taste his urine before making a diagnosis. At an Ayurvedic hospital known as “the Mayo Clinic of traditional Indian medicine,” he submitted three times a day to massages of “warm sesame oil laced with forty-six herbs and medications.” These encounters add color and suspense to The Health of America without taking its focus off the moral imperatives of health care reform.

Reid doesn’t urge Americans to adopt any country’s model or a “public option” of care paid for by the government (although he notes that we have a public option in Medicare, a system that its beneficiaries generally like). But he appears to believe we can’t reform the system if we continue to allow insurers to make a profit on basic health care, something no other first-world country permits: The solution lies in a nonprofit model, whether run by the government or a nonprofit group. Reid has suggested in interviews that if Congress can’t enact the needed changes, Americans may have to reform the system on a state-by-state basis, though he damns the Massachusetts approach with faint praise.

The most admirable aspect of The Healing of America is that – like any skilled polemicist
– Reid has an exceptional ability to keep his eye on the ball. He deals forthrightly with the economic and other realities that health care reform would involve, such as controlling costs and creating an effective delivery system. But Reid never allows such issues to transcend the moral dimension of allowing tens of thousands of people each year to die and countless others to suffer needlessly. His powerful indictment shows why health care reform is ultimately not about politics or economics: It is about fairness, justice, and doing what is right for all Americans.

Best line: No. 1: “All developed countries except the United States have decided that every human has a basic right to health care.” No. 2: “ … foreign health insurance plans exist only to pay people’s medical bills, not to make a profit. The United States is the only nation that lets insurance companies extract a profit from basic health coverage.” No. 3: “The design of any nation’s health care system involves political economic, and medical decisions. But the primary issue for any health care system is a moral one.”

Worst line: “British women tend to have their babies at home; Japanese women, in contrast, almost always give birth in the hospital – and mother and child remain there an average of ten days after delivery.” The National Childbirth Trust says that in the U.K., 2.7 percent of women give birth at home.

Editor: Ann Godoff

Published: September 2009

About the author: Reid is a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post.

Further comments on The Healing of America appeared in the posts “Excuses Aetna, Prudential and Blue Shield Have Used to Deny Claims” and “Going to the Doctor in Japan — Please Don’t Tip the Proctologist.”

Listen to a podcast of T.R. Reid talking about The Healing of America.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 13, 2009

Why French Women Are Diffferent on Bastille Day or Any Other

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:38 pm
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What do Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert have that you don’t? It’s not just that they’re thinner

Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. By Debra Ollivier. St. Martin’s / Griffin, 242 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

It’s been years since I served pot au feu and played Edith Piaf at Carnegie Hall at a dinner party, hoping to give the evening an alluring Gallic accent. But if I no longer believe that the French “know how to live” better than my Hungarian ancestors who also liked lard-bucket meals and summers in the country, I do think they are smarter than we are about a couple of things.

One of these is olives. When you go to a French home for dinner, the hosts do not try to fatten you up before the meal by serving you baby pigs-in-blankets or tortilla chips in bowls with the diameter of hubcaps. They typically serve olives. Just olives. I realized this years ago on a trip to Provence – Olive Central – and when I got back, I started serving olives, too. Just olives. And in a small way, it changed my life. Because I am functional noncook, the olives freed me permanently from an activity I don’t like and allowed me to focus one I do enjoy, which is conversation.

So I paid attention when a friend who has lived in France – and is also an Olive Person – said Entre Nous was full of similar ideas (although it allows that you can serve “small toasts with goat cheese, tomato and herbs” as a starter, too). She was right about this lively self-help guide by a Californian who married a Frenchman and lived in France for a decade. You have the essence of Entre Nous if you can extrapolate from olives to topics such as clothes, make-up, home furnishings, family life, and work. Example: You can wear white blouses, but never a white dress unless you’re a bride.

The most interesting – and, in my experience, accurate — chapter deals with the more complex traits that Debra Ollivier believes a typical French woman has, “some basic truths about how she sees herself and carries herself in the world.” One of these characteristics is self-possession (not the dreary “self-esteem”), a sureness about who she is that paradoxically allows her to show her vulnerability without with unraveling. A second trait – badly underestimated by American women – is discretion. A French woman, Ollivier says, does not wear her emotions “on her shirtsleeves.” She thinks before she speaks. And she may hold back for years things that an American might reveal within the first 15 minutes of meeting you, including details about her family. A Frenchman told Ollivier: “I’ve dated French women for months before I ever really knew who they were. After the first or second date, the American woman wants everything spelled out: ‘Are we dating? Are you my boyfriend or just a friend? Now that we’ve made love, are we a couple?’”

His comment points to a topic that gets relatively little attention in Entre Nous: sex. Ollivier deals broadly “sensuality.” But whether it’s because she was married while gathering material for this book or because of that natural French discretion, she says almost nothing about what an American might call The Act. A pity. Wouldn’t you love to know what a French woman would say to the British editors of Tatler, who instructed their readers recently to be sure to ask for a Taurus Brazilian bikini wax ,“a discreet triangle, not a landing strip”?

Best line: A French woman asked Ollivier: “What is a baby shower? Do you actually put the baby in the shower or do you use the tub?”

Worst line: “The lack of a workaholic culture, with all of its inherent dis-ease, takes the peculiarly Ango-Saxon strain out of the workplace, and frees the French girl to have a more sanely irreverent relationship to her work life. The results are apparent in a myriad of small but pervasive details …” No, they’re apparent in “myriad small but pervasive details.”

Recommended if … you’ve never understood the old joke that “the perfect country would be France without the French,” because you don’t see why anybody want a France without all those delightful French people.

Editor: Elizabeth Beier

Published: May 2004 with an excerpt posted on the St. Martin’s site.

Furthermore: Ollivier also wrote Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood and its sequel, Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race and Themselves.

Conflict alert: St. Martin’s/Griffin published the paperback edition of my first novel.

This is a Bastille Day re-post of a review that first appeared on Nov. 8, 2006.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comedy of manners The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999).

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 22, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda — America’s Most Famous French Bookstore, the Librairie de France, Will Close in 2009

America’s most famous French bookstore will close in 2009. The Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center apparently has fallen victim to rising rents, online book sales and a declining interest in foreign languages.

The New York Times reported last year that the bookstore would shut its doors, but I missed the article and learned of the closing during a recent visit to the shop. A staff member was handing out flyers that said that its lease expires in September 2009:

“Because of overwhelming New York City retail rents, especially on Fifth Avenue – almost $1,800 a square foot, and projected even higher in 2009 – we will have to close our store at that time. Our mail order services, however, will continue from a yet-to-be-determined location.”

Alex Mindlin’s article in the Times noted that, in its prime, the Librairie was an institution. The bookstore was one of the first retail tenants of Rockefeller Center in 1935:

“During World War II, its publishing arm printed the works of many writers who had emigrated from Vichy France, including Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The shop thrived throughout the 1960s, importing two tons of books a week and holding autograph sessions for French celebrities like the singer Charles Aznavour.” www.nytimes.com/2007/07/15/nyregion/thecity/15fren.html

The Librairie de France operates today on two floors on the Promenade at Rockefeller Center: a ground-level space that sells souvenirs and other items popular with tourists, such as Tricolor keychains, “Little Prince” dolls and French translations of Goodnight Moon and the Harry Potter novels. An underground room below it sells antique and rare books and prints. A mail-order catalog appears on its Web site www.frencheuropean.com.

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

October 9, 2008

Jean-Marie Le Clézio – The Biggest Nobel Surprise Since Dario Fo

Filed under: Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:17 pm
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No, you’re not the only one who hasn’t heard of him. After the Swedish Academy announced that the French novelist Jean-Marie Le Clézio had won the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature, Lev Grossman wrote in Time: “The sound of America’s literary journalists searching Wikipedia en masse is deafening” www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1848582,00.html.

Le Clézio’s selection may be the biggest surprise since the Italian playwright Dario Fo won in 1997. Not long after Fo won, the book editor of a major newspaper asked a group of us who were attending a National Book Critics Circle meeting, “Had you heard of him?” No hands went up. If you had asked me two days ago to name a French longshot for the Nobel, I would have said unhesitatingly, “Annie Ernaux,” whose work I reviewed on Feb. 20 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/20/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 5, 2008

The D-Day Messages Heard by American, British and Other Troops Going Ashore in Normandy – A Brief Excerpt From ‘The Longest Day’

Filed under: Classics,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:24 pm
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I wanted to post this excerpt from The Longest Day on June 6 but couldn’t put my hands on the book in time. Cornelius Ryan’s great account of the Normandy invasion fits the spirit of the Fourth of July weekend, too:

This passage describes the day of the invasion and typifies the you-are-there narrative style that has helped to make this book a classic:

“Never had there been a dawn like this. In the murky, gray light, in majestic, fearful grandeur, the great Allied fleet lay off Normandy’s five invasion beaches. The sea teemed with ships. …

“On the transports men jammed the rails, waiting their turn to climb down slippery ladders or scramble-nets into the heaving, spray-washed beaching craft. And through it all, over the ships’ public-address systems came a steady flow of messages and exhortations: ‘Fight to get your troops ashore, fight to save your ships, and if you’ve got any strength left, fight to save yourselves.’ … ‘Get in there, Fourth Division, and give ’em hell!’ … ‘Don’t forget, the Big Red One is leading the way.’ … ‘U.S. Rangers, man your stations’ … ‘Remember Dunkirk! Remember Coventry! God bless you all’ …’Nous mourrons sur le sable de notre France chérie, mais nous ne retournerons pas [We shall die on the sands of our dear France but we shall not turn back].’ … ‘This is it, men, pick it up and put it on, you’ve only got a one-way ticket and this is the end of the line. Twenty-nine, let’s go!’ And the two messages that most men still remember: ‘Away all boats,’ and ‘Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name …'”

From The Longest Day: June 6, 1944 (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1994), first published in 1959. The ellipses at the end of the first paragraph show where I omitted some text from the book. The ellipses in the second paragraph do not represented omitted text – they appear in the book. You can read a longer excerpt from another section of the book here www.simonsays.com/content/book.cfm?tab=25&pid=404556&agid=2.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 17, 2008

The Two ‘Must-Read’ Science Fiction Novels Published Since 2000 Are ‘Super-Cannes’ and ‘Altered Carbon,’ Editors Say

Filed under: Fantasy,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:16 pm
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Except for a few books by H. G. Wells and others, most science-fiction classics were published in the 20th century. How many essential novels in the genre have appeared since 2000?

Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison name only two in their 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels (A & C Black, 294 pp., $8.95, paperback) www.acblack.com, part of the Bloomsbury Good Reading Guides series. Here are their choices and part of their explanation for them:

Super-Cannes (Picador, 400 pp., $15, paperback) by J. G. Ballard: In the near future or maybe the present, publisher Paul Sinclair visits an emerging corporate utopia on the French Riviera and finds that “a new kind of cathartic brutality is arising from a most unexpected source.” Andrews and Rennison say that although Ballard has written only one pure science fiction novel, Hello America, since the late 1960s: “Super-Cannes is masterful speculation in social science that can arguably be claimed for the genre.” First published in 2000. Foreword by Christopher Priest. us.macmillan.com/supercannes

Altered Carbon: A Takeshi Kovacs Novel (Del Rey, 544 pp., $7.99, paperback) by Richard K. Morgan: Andrews and Rennison call Altered Carbon “authentic cyberbpunk” that envisions a future in which only the poor die: “the majority of people have their personality backed up regularly and recorded in microstacks embedded in the flesh at the back of the neck, ready to be retrieved and ‘resleeved’ in a new body” that had belonged to someone else. “Much has been made of the book’s debt to noir fiction, but a contemporary hard-boiled writer like James Crumley would be a more fitting comparison than the more chivalric Raymond Chandler, given Morgan’s penchant for extreme violence, explicit sex and Gordian-knot plotting,” the authors say. First published 2002. www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780345457691

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

February 20, 2008

Annie Ernaux’s Modern French Classics, ‘A Man’s Place’ and ‘A Woman’s Story’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:04 am
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A prize-winning author recalls her parents’ lives in Normandy before and after World War II

A Man’s Place. By Annie Ernaux. Ballantine, 103 pp., varied prices, paperback. A Woman’s Story. By Annie Ernaux. Seven Stories, 96 pp., $8.95, paperback. Both translated from the French by Tanya Leslie.

By Janice Harayda

Annie Ernaux’s spare autobiographical books are remarkable for many things. One of them is their brevity. They typically have fewer than 100 pages, yet are so rich in perception that they have earned the status of modern classics in France.

In the U.S. Ernaux’s reputation rests largely on two books about her parents that are often described as autobiographical novels but resemble high stylized memoirs. Both are partly about how sex roles and social class shaped the lives of residents of a village in Normandy in the decades before and after World War II. They are also about how Ernaux, at once grateful for and alienated from her background, felt “torn between two identities” after she received the university education that her parents lacked.

A Man’s Place is about the life and sudden death of her father, a shopkeeper and café owner whom people called “simple” or “humble” but who had a complexity suggested by a telling incident: “One day he said to me proudly: ‘I have never given you cause for shame.” The sequel, A Woman’s Story, is similarly brief and evocative but, because of its subject, may hold more appeal for Americans.

After her husband’s death, Ernaux’s mother developed the disease the French call la maladie d’Alzheimer and suffered alternately from confusion and a terrified comprehension of her plight. She remembered that she had to turn off the light when she left a room but forgot how to do it, so “she climbed onto a chair and tried to unscrew the bulb.”

Ernaux describes all of this with an austere restraint reminiscent of the best work of Muriel Spark, always providing just enough detail to suggest greater depths. She tells us that her mother, as her Alzheimer’s become worse, wrote to a friend, “Dear Paulette, I am still lost in my world of darkness.”

Best line: From A Woman’s Story: “Books were the only things she handled with care,” Ernaux says of her mother. “She washed her hands before touching them.”

Worst line: Tanya Leslie’s translations capture well the stylistic purity of Ernaux’s prose. But her use of a conspicuously British English at times results in sentences that break the French mood, such as this line from A Man’s Place: “Ah here comes the lass.”

Published: 1993 (Ballantine paperback of A Man’s Place). 2003 (Seven Stories paperback of A Woman’s Story www.sevenstories.com/book/?GCOI=58322100333250).

Furthermore: A Man’s Place won the Prix Renaudot, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer. Ernaux lives in France. A Woman’s Story was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She would like to expand One-Minute Book Reviews to include podcasts, broadcasts and other services, such as online book discussion groups or forums in “real time,” and is looking for a home for this blog that would make it possible to provide these.

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

February 19, 2008

Two Books by Annie Ernaux, One of France’s Greatest Living Writers, Coming Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

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Annie Ernaux is one of the greatest living writers in France, where she has been acclaimed for decades for her spare autobiographical novels. She has won the Prix Renaudot, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and could be a dark horse candidate for a Nobel Prize. So why isn’t she better known in the U.S.?

Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will consider two of her books that might especially interest American readers, including book clubs.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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