One-Minute Book Reviews

May 14, 2009

When Livia Soprano Met Mary Tyler Moore – Maria Laurino Grapples With Being an Italian-American in ‘Old World Daughter, New World Mother’

A former speechwriter calls for a revolution that, in some ways, has already arrived

Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom.
By Maria Laurino. Norton, 224 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Maria Laurino entered Georgetown University in the late 1970s, “a member of that privileged generation that reaped the benefits, without doing any of the grassroots work,” of the women’s movement that flowered decade earlier. She tries to repay the debt in a book that begins as a memoir of growing up Italian-American in Short Hills, New Jersey, and devolves into a brief for an updated feminist ethic that combines an Old World respect for families with a New World admiration for individualism.

Old World Daughter, New World Mother resembles a dish of parmesan-cheese ice cream, that acquired taste found in some Italian restaurants. Laurino writes memorably about having a disabled brother and developing severe preeclampsia after becoming pregnant at the age of 37. But she links such experiences, not always plausibly, to a call for a “social revolution” that would require unprecedented female harmony and seemingly little work by men: “Once women agree on a vision for a national feminist movement that makes care its core principle, more creative solutions to help working parents will abound.” Given that both sexes — and their children — would benefit from those solutions, why should women alone have to agree on a vision for them? Shouldn’t men bear some of the responsibility for it?

In making her case for revolution, Laurino draws on the views and jargon of literary and gender theorists and scholars such as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton. Yet a curiously old-fashioned idea appears to underlie her book: that bringing about the revolution is, in effect, “women’s work.” The reality is often quite different. The reason many corporations now offer flexible schedules and refer to “maternity leave” as “parental leave” is in part that men are increasingly are seeking to spend more time with newborns and older children.

Laurino admits that’s she nostalgic for the excitement of 60s feminists for new ideas – at times she sounds weirdly like the men who, before the war in Iraq, lamented that they were born too late for Vietnam – and her sentimentality may help to explain why this book has the air of a throwback. Her Were You Always an Italian? showed that she has a lively perspective on her ancestry. Old World Daughter, New World Mother yokes her background so aggressively to other topics that it leaves the impression that, wittingly or not, she is in danger of becoming a professional Italian-American.

Best line: No. 1: “In her book The Equality Trap, Mary Ann Mason, now dean of the graduate school at Berkeley, told of how the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the early eighties  in favor of the California Federal Savings and Loan after the bank fired a receptionist for taking a four-month unpaid maternity leave.” If true, this startling tone-deafness to working women’s needs would help to explain why feminist groups have had trouble finding support from a new generation. No. 2: “When Mary Met Livia,” the title for a chapter about the collision between images of the liberated Mary Tyler Moore and the tradition-bound Livia Soprano in Laurino’s life.

Worst line: No. 1: “Our income shrunk significantly …” No. 2: “ Will men ever break loose ‘from the empire of phallocratism’?” No. 3: “Or, put another way, maybe I needed to get off my asana and smell the coffee.”

Published: April 2009

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Laurino lives in New York City. She has worked for the Village Voice and as a speechwriter for former mayor David Dinkins.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like books but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

February 26, 2009

2009 Delete Key Awards Finalist #6 — Andrew Blechman’s ‘Leisureville’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:02 pm
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Delete Key Awards Finalist #6 comes from Andrew Blechman’s Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias (Atlantic Monthly Press, 244 pp., $25).

“Women who once burned their bras now pay handsomely for expensive brassieres and plastic surgery.”

How long will writers keep repeating the myth that women once “burned their bras”? Feminists wanted to burn their bras during the 1968 Miss America pageant. But they didn’t, because Atlantic City officials wouldn’t give them a fire permit: They threw their bras in a garbage can instead. Even if Blechman’s statement were true — which, repeat, it isn’t — it would be a wild distortion, suggesting that all over America women who once burned their bras are having eye bobs instead. “Bra burners” became a cliché about 15 minutes after it surfaced in the New York Post. And when was the last time anybody under the age of 90 used the stilted word “brassiere”?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 9, 2009

The Little Parrot That Could – Irene M. Pepperberg’s ‘Alex & Me,’ The True Story of a Lovable Bird That Could ‘Say Better’ Than Others

A scholar’s 31-year-experiment in avian learning had spectacular results

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. By Irene M. Pepperberg. Collins, 232 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Copycat titles like Alex & Me usually appear on weak imitations of the books that inspired them – in this case, the bestselling Marley and Me, John Grogan’s memoir of his wayward dog. Not Irene Pepperberg’s true story of her 31 years with an African Grey parrot that, on the evidence of this book, was the Einstein of the bird world.

Like Marley and Me, Alex & Me is an affectionate and entertaining portrait of a larger-than-life creature. But Pepperberg’s memoir is in some ways more interesting because it tells two stories at once.
The first tale involves the life and death of an extraordinary parrot who followed his owner to colleges from Tucson to Boston, where she did research on his ability to learn. Alex could recognize numbers from one to six and and do simple addition. He could identify objects by color, shape and material. He seems to have grasped concepts such as “smaller” and “larger” and the idea of object permanence (that a thing still exists when hidden from view), which children generally acquire during the first year of life.

Alex’s most endearing trait was that he learned to express his wishes in ways that were as forceful as they were colorful. He bombarded Pepperberg’s student assistants with requests: “Want corn … Want nut … Wanna go shoulder … Wanna go gym.” During lab tests, he corrected parrots who responded incorrectly (“You’re wrong”) or answered indistinctly (“Say better”). Yet he seemed to sense when he had gone too far, a realization he expressed by saying “I’m sorry.”

The second story Pepperberg tells – nearly as interesting – involves her efforts, beginning in the 1970s, to be taken seriously by her peers despite two formidable obstacles. First, she was a woman when recruiters still asked female scientists questions such as, “What kind of birth control are you using?” And she was fighting the prevailing scholarly belief that animals were automatons who lacked cognitive abilities.

Pepperberg parries inflammatory topics such as, “Did Alex have language?” and instead speaks of his ability to “label” objects. She also avoids some obvious questions – notably when she tells us that Alex would have an autopsy but not what it revealed about his walnut-sized brain.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter in the book. Pepperberg writes in a lively, conversational style as engaging as Grogan’s. Yet she provides enough scientific detail to persuade you that something remarkable happened during her work with her adored parrot. Alex’s last words to Pepperberg were, “You be good. I love you.”

Best line: “Alex became quite a fixture at the vets’, talking to everyone who had time to stop and listen. His cage was right next to the accountant’s desk. The night before I was due to take him to Tucson, the accountant had to stay late, working on the books. ‘You want a nut?’ Alex asked her.
“‘No, Alex.’
“He persisted. ‘You want corn?’
“ ‘No, thank you, Alex, I don’t want corn.’
“This went on for a little while, and the accountant did her best to ignore him. Finally, Alex apparently became exasperated and said in a petulant voice, ‘Well, what do you want?’ The accountant cracked up laughing and gave Alex the attention he was demanding.”

Worst line: Pepperberg quotes a Guardian obituary: “Alex, the African Grey parrot who was smarter than the average U.S. president, has died at the relatively tender age of 31.” The evidence in Alex & Me doesn’t support the Guardian‘s claim, so it isn’t clear why it’s quoted. Alex could label numbers up to six. If the Guardian claim were true, the average U.S. president couldn’t tell you the address of the White House.

Sample chapter titles: “Alex’s First Labels,” “Alex Goes High-Tech,” “What Alex Taught Me.”

Published: October 2008

Watch a video of Pepperberg interacting with Alex on the HarperCollins site.

Furthermore: Pepperberg is an associate research professor at Brandeis and teaches animal cognition at Harvard. She also wrote The Alex Studies (Harvard, 2000).

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer.

One-Minute Book Reviews will announced the finalists for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Feb. 26 and the winners on March 15, 2009. To nominate a passage in a book for a bad-writing award, leave a comment or send a message to the e-mail address on the “Contact” page.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 1, 2007

Is Harry Potter Sexist? Quote of the Day #32

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:15 pm
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Are the Harry Potter books or movies sexist? A children’s biography of Daniel Handler, the creator of Lemony Snicket, says he is wary of how movie versions of books can change authors’ characters:

“After viewing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example, Handler was annoyed at the film’s portrayal of J.K. Rowling’s character Hermione Granger.

“He remembers Hermione as being smart and appreciated for it in Rowling’s book. In the film version, however, he said he noticed that every time Hermione said something smart, the camera would pan over to catch a shot of the boys rolling their eyes. He explains, ‘If you are a girl seeing the movie – and you’re the kind of girl who is always reading a lot, learning a lot of facts – then the lesson you’re going to get from this film is that somehow, that is not the appealing and acceptable way for a girl to behave.’”

Hayley Mitchell Haugen in Daniel Handler: The Real Lemony Snicket: Inventors and Creators. (Gale/KidHaven, 2005). The “Inventors and Creators” series www.gale.com/kidhaven/ includes biographies of J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, Laura Ingalls Wilder and others for elementary- and (some middle-) school students.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
I saw Harry and Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone but didn’t notice the pattern Handler describes. And I haven’t read any of the novels. If you’ve read the books or seen the movies, what do you think? Are they ever sexist?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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