Short Takes

Short Takes: Book reviews in brief

November 17, 2012 

Nonfiction

Custer

Larry McMurtry; Simon & Schuster, 192 pages

Larry McMurtry has written a book about Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn. But he hasn’t written THE book about Gen. George Armstrong Custer. He barely even tried. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Lonesome Dove” acknowledges this in the pages of his skimpy new biography/coffee table book, “Custer.” He advises readers to check out works by Evan Connell, Robert Utley, James Donovan and Nathaniel Philbrick if they want to get the full story. “Read these four books,” he writes, “and you can consider yourself very well informed about Custer, his men, the Indians and the battle itself.” Not surprisingly, this quote cannot be found on the covers.

Inside, McMurtry comes clean, admitting that he walked the Little Bighorn battlefield, site of one of history’s most infamous military catastrophes, only twice. If he’s unwilling to put in the legwork to gather every last nugget of Custer lore, McMurtry can hardly stake a claim to having written the last word on the subject. At best, “Custer” is like a CliffsNotes version of the story of an arrogantly reckless military leader and his inevitable comeuppance. To be fair, this is a CliffsNotes guide written by a gifted wordsmith. It’s also a richly illustrated volume, filled with wonderful paintings depicting Custer’s Last Stand and archival photos of Custer and his contemporaries. Custer simply isn’t the kind of book that sweats the details. If you want more, follow McMurtry’s advice and seek out those other authors.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Does this Church Make Me Look Fat?

Rhoda Janzen, Grand Central, 272 pages

The transformation of Rhoda Janzen – the Mennonite-turned-worldly-academic whose book about returning home made the best-seller list – continues. In “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress,” Janzen wrote of a series of devastating forces that sent her to heal in the peace-loving, hardworking community of her youth: complications from surgery, divorce due to husband meeting a man online, car accident with injuries.

Now her honest and remarkably funny “Does this Church Make Me Look Fat?” focuses on Janzen’s relationship with Mitch, the no-nonsense Christian whom she met in the previous book. Also key to the story: her evolving relationship with his Pentecostal church. (The title question comes up when she dresses in a skirt suit for the first visit.)

Early in the book, Janzen attends a healing service and finds out soon after that she has breast cancer. Instead of asking how God could allow this illness to strike her, she finds comfort and even strength in the prayers that rise up in support.

Janzen’s candor is refreshing (she wonders how to tell her Ph.D. friends that she’s “attending church on purpose”), and her eventual warm embrace of the church requires her to swallow some pride, avoid a few important issues and abandon control in parts of her life. Janzen writes of her newfound faith like a travel writer discovering an exotic new pocket of the world, and her enthusiasm and spirit and knack for finding humor in the God details make this book a crowd-pleaser.

Miami Herald

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