One-Minute Book Reviews

February 21, 2007

What Do the Ashes on Ash Wednesday Mean? Three Answers From a New Book

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Quotes of the Day,Reading,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:06 am

Marc Foley on the meaning of ashes …

“The ashes placed upon our foreheads on Ash Wednesday do not have a single meaning. They can symbolize our mortality (“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”) or our need for conversion (“Repent, and believe in the gospel”). The ashes may also represent illusionary dreams that have come to nothing, for they are derived from the palms that we carry in procession on Palm Sunday.”

Marc Foley in the new A Season of Rebirth: Daily Meditations for Lent (New City Press, $12.95, paperback), reviewed in the post directly below this one on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Meditations for Lent Inspired by God, Dante, Woody Allen and Others

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews,Reading,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 am

An unusually thoughtful and literate book of meditations for the season

A Season of Rebirth: Daily Meditations for Lent. By Marc Foley. New City Press, 160 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

You might think of this thoughtful guide as “the serious reader’s book of meditations for Lent.” A Season of Rebirth follows the traditional format of small paperbacks that offer daily meditations for Lent: Each entry begins by citing a Bible verse for the day in a year in the three-year rotation of readings used in Christian churches (known as Lectionary Cycles A, B, and C).

What sets this book apart is that Marc Foley takes as a springboard for his reflections an exceptionally wide range of literary and other references, including many books, plays, and poems. In different entries he comments intelligently on Dante, Shakespeare, Woody Allen, Robert Coles, R.D. Laing, William Blake, Ernest Hemingway, Somerset Maugham, Flannery O’Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien and others, with all sources identified in end notes. This breadth of erudition makes A Season of Rebirth valuable not just for its Lenten meditations but as a guide to further reading in any season.

Best line: Foley is particularly good at explaining difficult verses such as Matthew 5:43–48 (“You must be perfect …”), sometimes taken to mean that people should strive for an unrealistic – and even neurotic – perfection. He writes: “Jesus is not telling us that we have to measure up to God; rather, we are called to be like God in a particular way – our charity should be indiscriminate. Our charity should be like the sun, which rises on the good and bad alike or the rain that falls upon the just and unjust.”

Worst line: None. Not everyone will agree with Foley’s views on Allan Bloom and some of his other sources, but he makes his points even-handedly.

Consider reading also: Living Things: Collected Poems (Zoland, 2006), by Anne Porter, with a foreword by David Shapiro, back in stores after having been hard to get for a while. In his introduction, Shapiro suggests that Porter is “perhaps the greatest living Catholic or religious poet.” And while many people would argue that the distinction belongs to the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, this is unquestionably one of the best recent volumes in which many poems deal with topics or themes that are especially appropriate during Lent. Living Things includes both new work and all the poems collected in An Altogether Different Language, a finalist for the National Book Award. Among the poems in the book: “An Easter Lily,” “In Holy Week,” and “After Psalm 137″ (first published in Commonweal).

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the final book may differ slightly.

Published: January 2007

Links: www.newcitypress.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 20, 2007

My Final Word on ‘That Scrotum Book’, Including How to Lobby Your Library to Carry ‘The Higher Power of Lucky’ If You Don’t Have Time to Write a Letter

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,How to,Libraries,Newbery Medals,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:41 pm

The last word on scrotums …

Okay, I’ve just about exhausted what I have to say about scrotums, at least until I get to Dr. Phil’s vasectomy reversal (yes, he had one) which his wife, Robin, discusses in her Inside My Heart (Nelson, 2006), soon to be reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews.

A couple of final thoughts about Susan Patron’s Newbery Medal–winning The Higher Power of Lucky, reviewed at length in this space on Monday, Feb. 19:

1) Want to encourage your library to carry The Higher Power of Lucky? Make a formal request that the library buy the book. At most public libraries, any cardholder can do this by filling out a postcard at the checkout desk. You may also be able to do this online by logging onto the library’s Web site. Don’t give the staff an opportunity to say, “We didn’t think this book is right for our patrons.” Tell your library that you’re a patron, and it’s right for you. If you have a child with a library card, it would be even more brilliant to get your child to request The Higher Power of Lucky. This would achieve two things. First, you will be teaching your child about the wonderful range of services offered by public libraries, which often include buying books that you request. Second, you will force the library to choose between buying the book and breaking the heart of your adorable child, who may be requesting the purchase of a book for the first time. And if the library doesn’t buy the book, you could have your child ask a librarian to explain why it couldn’t buy the book. As I said … brilliant, isn’t it?

2) Want to find out what you missed if you didn’t see Barbara Walters’s discussion of Susan Patron’s book on The View today (Feb. 20)? Go to the blog Watching the View http://www.watchingtheview.com/feb-20-recap-banned-childrens-book. This site has an amusing recap of the show on which Barbara Walters apparently read aloud a dictionary definition of “scrotum” … just in case you were still unclear about which part of the male anatomy Patron was describing.

Postscript: This turned out not to be my last word on scrotums. Since writing this post, I have published reading group guide to The Higher Power of Lucky and thoughts on why the book might have received the Newbery despite its use of the word “scrotum.” Both of these posts appeared on Feb. 22. If you don’t see them on the main page of this site, you will find them archived in the “Children’s Books” category on One-Minute Book Reviews. My original review of The Higher Power of Lucky appeared on Feb. 19 and evaluated, among other things, how the word “scrotum” fits into the novel as a whole.

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

What Are Canadian Librarians Going to Do About ‘That Scrotum Book’ During Freedom to Read Week (Feb. 25-March 3)

Filed under: Book Awards,Books,Children's Books,Libraries,Newbery Medals,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 pm

A postscript to yesterday’s review of The Higher Power of Lucky: Next week (Feb. 25-March 3) is Freedom to Read Week in Canada, which “encourages Canadians to reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom.” And because big books tend to appear simultaneously in the U.S. and north of the border, we may assume that the 2007 Newbery winner is there or on the way. Don’t you wonder if any Canadian librarians will dare to speak out against Susan Patron’s novel during Freedom to Read Week?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 19, 2007

‘That Scrotum Book’ for Children: A Review of the 2007 Newbery Medal Winner, ‘The Higher Power of Lucky’ by Susan Patron

Some libraries have banned the winner of the American Library Association’s highest award for for children’s literature. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the book that caused the uproar?

The Higher Power of Lucky: A Novel. By Susan Patron. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. Atheneum: A Richard Jackson Book, 135 pp., $16.95. Age range: 9-11. [See further comments about these ages at the end of the review.]

By Janice Harayda

Who would have thought that the American Library Association www.ala.org would give its most prestigious award for children’s literature to a novel that uses the word “scrotum” on the first page? Not those of us who have observed its choices for years and have found that they tend to suffer from an excess of caution, often rewarding deserving books only after children have embraced them.

So it was, in a sense, startling that the ALA gave the 2007 Newbery Medal to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, which tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble who hears what an Amazon reviewer has called “the s word” while eavesdropping on a 12-step meeting through a hole in the wall. Patron writes on the first page:

“Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ’62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.”

This is hardly shocking language when many 3-year-olds know the words “penis” and “vagina” and psychologists routinely urge parents to introduce the medically correct terms for genitalia as soon as their children can understand them. You would think that librarians would rejoice in the arrival of a book that supports this view instead of rolling out words you are more likely to hear from children, such as “dickhead” and “butt-head” and, of course, the deathless “poopy-head.”

But some people have reacted to The Higher Power of Lucky though Patron had issued a manifesto in favor of kiddie porn. At least a few libraries have banned the novel, the New York Times reported yesterday. And a librarian in Durango, Colorado, accused Patron of using “a Howard Stern-type shock treatment” to attract attention.

All of this distracts from the more important question: How good is this book?

Answer: Not bad. I’d give it a B or B-minus, though it was far from the best work of children’s literature published last year. I haven’t read all the candidates for 2007 Newbery, including the Honor Books. But among those I have read, Patron’s novel has less literary merit than Kate DiCamillos’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane or Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, both rumored on library listservs and elsewhere to have been contenders for the award.

But The Higher Power of Lucky does have virtues, some of which are more therapeutic than literary. Patron describes the principles of 12-step programs not just for alcoholics but for “gamblers, smokers, and overeaters.” This may help many children who have relatives in such programs and don’t understand them. And Lucky is an intrepid and often amusing heroine who defies a few female stereotypes. She loves science, has close male friends, and lives in a trailer in the Mojave Desert, which has a dramatic landscape that Patron describes vibrantly. No one could accuse this novel of fostering the rampant materialism you see in so many children’s books. The Higher Power of Lucky also has evocative black-and-white illustrations by Matt Phelan that add so much to the book that you wonder if it would have had a shot at the Newbery without them. Perhaps above all, the novel has a worthy theme: What constitutes a “family”?

So what’s not to like about the book? The writing — vivid as it can be — is at times careless or clunky. Patron confuses “lay” and “lie” in a line of dialogue on page 4, and while you could argue that this misuse is in character for the speaker, she makes similar lapses in expository passages. She tells us that a character had “a very unique way of cooking.” She does not appear to have mastered the use of the semicolon and overuses it, including in conversation, in a book for children who may themselves be struggling to figure out its purpose. She also italicizes so many words — a sign of weak writing — that her book reads at times like a children’s version of the old Cosmopolitan edited by Helen Gurley Brown.

Most of all, some aspects of the plot and Lucky’s character are thin and underdeveloped. Toward the end of the book, Lucky behaves recklessly and is also dangerously mean to a friend. And while such events might have made less difference earlier in the book, they come so late that Patron has left herself too little time to persuade us that her heroine has learned from them. Other late events are insufficiently foreshadowed to make them believable. And that brings us back to that incendiary “scrotum.”

Lucky finally does learn the meaning of the word. But it turns out to have so little relation to the rest of the plot that its use in the beginning looks gratuitous. The metaphorical gun on the wall in the first act turns out to be firing blanks. The Higher Power of Lucky is not about its heroine’s sexual development or anything else that might have justified the use of the word. Patron could have reworked the offending passage with no loss to the book. In that sense, she may have made a mistake. But libraries would be making an even more serious one if they ban a book that has much to offer children.

Best line: This book has many good descriptions of the landscape of the Mojave, such as this image of a dust storm: “Tiny twisters of sand rose up from the ground, as if minature people were throwing handfuls in the air.”

Worst line: Clearly many people think it’s the one about the scrotum. For variety I’ll go with the ungrammatical first line of the third chapter, which includes a dangling modifier: “Out of the millions of people in America who might become Lucky’s mother if Brigitte went home to France, Lucky wondered about some way to trap and catch exactly the right one.”

Age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 9-to-11. But The Higher Power of Lucky has a much less complex plot and smaller cast than many novels beloved by children in that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels. And its heroine is a 10-and-a-half-year-old fifth-grader, and children tend to read “up,” or prefer stories about characters who are older than they are. So this book may have much more appeal for children below its age range, including 7- and 8-year-olds, than 11-year-olds. This fact may explain much of the controversy about the book. Many librarians and teachers who would have no trouble with the word “scrotum” in a book for fifth-graders may be upset because they know that this one will end up in the hands of many second- and third-graders.

Furthermore: You may also want to read two related items posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 22: a reading group guide to The Higher Power of Lucky and a discussion of six possible reasons why this book one the Newbery despite having the word “scrotum” on the first page. Check the “Children’s Books” category on this site if you don’t see them on the home page of this blog. The reading group guide is also archived in the “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides” category.

Published: November 2006

Furthermore: Patron’s name is pronounced “pa-TRONE.”

Links: You may also want to read the review of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, archived in the “Children’s Books” category on this site.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and former book editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com for information about her comic novels.

If you found this review helpful, please consider forwarding a link to One-Minute Book Reviews to others, particularly sites for parents and libraries. To my knowledge, this is the most comprehensive review of The Higher Power of Lucky on the Web that anyone can read without registering or providing personal information and that was written by a highly experienced critic who has judged a national book awards competition. One-Minute Book Reviews is a four-month-old site that has grown rapidly, in part because of links from libraries and other book-related groups or institutions. Additional links will help to make it possible for future reviews like this one to keep appearing

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Review of ‘That Scrotum Book’ for Children Coming Later Today

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,Current Events,Libraries,Newbery Medals,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:24 am

A tempest swirls around this year’s winner of the most prestigious award for children’s literature

Did you see the article in yesterday’s New York Times about the controversy surrounding the 2007 Newbery Medal winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, which uses the word “scrotum” on the first page? A review that evaluates both the controvery and the literary merits of the book will appear later today on One-Minute Book Reviews. Technorati is often slow in listing posts. If you’re interested in finding out what the fuss is about, please bookmark this site or keep checking back. I hope to post this review by early afternoon.

If you are a member of the media seeking a quote from an expert who is not a teacher or librarian but knows this book well, or from someone who has been a judge for a national literary awards program, use the e-mail address on the “Contact” page of this site to get in touch with me.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

February 18, 2007

Looking for a Good Mystery or Thriller?

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Mysteries and Thrillers,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:03 pm

The weather we’re having here in New Jersey makes a lot of people want to stay home with a good mystery, or possibly murder someone. Did you read that, over in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had to apologize to all the residents whose cars got tickets because the city snow-removal crews plowed them in?

I review relatively few mysteries and thrillers on this site, partly because I have trouble keeping up with their authors. To give you an idea of my progress: The last Sue Grafton novel I read was B Is for Burglar. And whenever I try to catch up, I seem to end up slogging through a book like Thomas Harris’s recent thriller, Hannibal Rising, which Entertainment Weekly www.ew.com rightly named one of the five worst books of 2006.

But Bill Peschel over at Reader’s Almanac specializes in mysteries and thrillers and has an archive of reviews of these, alphabetically arranged by author and title, on his site. So check out his blog www.planetpeshel.com when you’re in the mood for crime. His recent recommendations include Giles Blunt’s By the Time You Read This (Holt, $19.95), the latest novel about Ontario detective John Cardinal. Blunt won Britain’s Silver Dagger and Canada’s Arthur Ellis award.

As for me, I hope to weigh in soon on Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie mystery, The Right Attitude to Rain (Pantheon, $21.95). If you’ve read this one, please tell me it’s going to be better than Harris’s book.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 17, 2007

A Children’s Picture Book of the Year From Australia

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:25 pm

A beautifully written and illustrated allegory from Down Under about intercultural relationships

Cat and Fish. Illustrated by Neil Curtis. Written by Joan Grant. Simply Read Books, 32 pp., $16.95. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Does your library have a long waiting list for Flotsam, the winner of this year’s Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association? Consider this terrific alternative that won the 2004 Picture Book of the Year Award from the Children’s Book Council of Australia.

A male cat and female fish from “different worlds” learn to share their lives in this exceptional allegory about intercultural relationships and appreciating others’ differences, whether they involve race, religion, or ethnicity. Cat and Fish towers over most books for preschoolers that deal with similar themes, and not just because illustrator Neil Curtis uses only beautiful black-and-white illustrators that serve as a visual metaphor for Joan Grant’s engaging story.

American children’s books about tolerance tend to suffer from a surfeit of good intentions — their authors’ motives are spotless, but their text and pictures are too dreary and didactic to win children’s hearts. Curtis and Grant know that a picture book needs, above all, to tell a great story. And that’s what they do in this tale of a cat who shows a fish “how to climb/ and how to live on land on cold nights” and a fish who introduces a cat to her friends without apologies. Every spread has words simple enough for 3-year-olds but pictures that, like those of M.C. Escher, are rich enough never to exhaust their imaginative potential. Australia has a tradition of excellence in children’s literature that has shown up here in books like Julie Vivas’s The Nativity, and Curtis and Grant strengthen it with Cat and Fish.

Recommended … without reservations.

Best line/picture: The bold endpapers draw you into the tale before you have read a word of it and are especially welcome because American publishers so often omit or slight these.

Worst line/picture: None. But you wish the dust jacket had included a line about the illustrator’s technique. The remarkable black-and-white images resemble woodcuts but may be pen-and-ink drawings, and I couldn’t find a clarification of this on children’s literature sites.

Published: 2005

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 15, 2007

The Best Things I Never Wrote: Quote of the Day #8 … On Pompous Writing

Filed under: Quotes of the Day,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:31 pm

R.L. Trask on pompous writing …

“There is a certain style of writing that never uses a plain word if a fancier word can be found. In such writing, every teacher is an educator, every doctor is a physician, every weatherman is a meteorologist, people don’t write books but author them, people don’t buy things but purchase them, people don’t use things but utilize them, people don’t eat things but consume them, people don’t talk but communicate, things are never different but always disparate, people are never poor but only underprivileged or disadvantaged, and nobody ever has a mere life or career, but only an odyssey. This kind of writing is pompous, and it is wearisome to read.”

R.L. Trask in Mind the Gaffe: A Troubleshooter’s Guide to English Style and Usage (Harper, 2006), a pithy, alphabetically arranged handbook that tells how to avoid common language pitfalls. The paragraph above appears under “Pomposity.”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

Trask’s book is an excellent guide for people who have a good basic command of grammar but sometimes have trouble with individual words or phrases such as “lay” and “lie,” “ensure” and “insure” or “may” and “might.” Because of the alphabetical arrangement of entries, you can dip into it at random whenever you have a few minutes. Dare I say, as I did in my recent review of Schott’s Almanac, that this is a book you may want to keep in that bathroom if not on your desk?

Help Your Friends Avoid Becoming Bridezillas

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:08 pm

Know somebody who got engaged on Valentine’s Day?

Help your friends and relatives avoid becoming Bridezillas, or at least looking like them, by giving them Philip Delamore’s The Perfect Wedding Dress (Firefly, $24.94), an elegant coffee table book full of memorable photographs of bridal gowns, veils, accessories and more. Among many pictures of classic and contemporary styles, Delamore shows the wedding dresses worn by celebrities such Audrey Hepburn, Kate Winslet, Liv Tyler, Carmen Electra, Queen Elizabeth II, and Princes Diana. Anyone planning a wedding with African-American elements may want to have Queens: Potraits of Black Women and Their Fabulous Hair (Doubleday, $29.95), by Michael Cunningham and George Alexander, a good source of ideas for bridal hairstyles. This book shows Ghanian styles such as Bolga and Dadaba braids along with styles that are more familiar in the U.S. such as the Afro and the pageboy. You can find reviews of both books archived in the “Coffee Table Books” category on One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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