One-Minute Book Reviews

November 29, 2008

A Good Christmas Story for Children — ‘Father Christmas and the Donkey’

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A holiday tale broadcast on the BCC has an enduring appeal

Father Christmas and the Donkey. By Elizabeth Clark. Illustrated by Jan Ormerod. Viking, 32 pp., varied prices. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice HaraydaFather Christmas and the Donkey (Picture Puffin)

The story of the birth of Christ is at once poignant and joyful, and great Christmas stories – including Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – reflect both aspects. One of the rare picture books that does this is the exquisite Father Christmas and the Donkey.

A donkey – old, lame and abandoned – finds his life transformed by helping Father Christmas deliver the last of his gifts in this timeless fable. The plot could have devolved into treacle. But Elizabeth Clark invests the story with real feeling by showing, in the subtlest of ways, how the old donkey yearns to be needed: “The sack was heavy, but donkey’s back was strong, and though his leg was stiff, it was wonderful how little it hurt.” And Jan Ormerod’s pictures enhance the deft blend of realism and magic that helps to make the story so appealing. Ormerod begins by using mainly tones of blue, gray, black and white accented with silver. As the donkey’s life begins to change, she adds others until full color appears in the last page.

More than a decade ago, the BBC broadcast Father Christmas and the Donkey, and it has had a well-deserved afterlife. Like The Polar Express, this is a picture book that many children will enjoy long after they have started reading longer works of fiction.

Published: 1993. Father Christmas and the Donkey first appeared in the collection Twilight and Fireside.

Furthermore: Elizabeth Clark (1875–1972) was a well-known author, storyteller and lecturer in Britain and the United States. In the 1920s she was a broadcaster on the BBC Children’s Hour program. Born in Australia, Jan Ormerod www.harpercollins.com/authors/17930/Jan_Ormerod/index.aspx?authorID=17930 is a well-known illustrator of children’s books. Her first book, Sunshine, won the Australian Picture Book of the Year Award and other honors. She lives in England.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com/

November 28, 2008

A Good Children’s Poem About December That Doesn’t Mention Santa Claus

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John Updike doesn’t use the word Christmas in “December,” a 16-line rhyming poem collected in the Caldecott Honor book A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pages, $17.95 hardcover, $6.95 paperback, ages 4–8), beautifully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. But the spirit of the day shines in lines like: “The shepherds wait, / The kings, the tree – “ / All wait for something / Yet to be.” “December” uses mainly words of one- or two-syllables – the publisher recommends it for first graders – so it would suit children who are starting to read on their own as well as younger ones.

Updike writes in iambic meter – the closest to natural speech – instead of the galloping anapests and dactyls so often found in rhymes for the very young. Partly for that reason, “December” has a more subdued tone than many poems about the season. But it’s so thoughtful, it might appeal to children older than 8 if you can get them to pick up picture book. A big if, but worth the effort if you’re looking for a good poem about December that doesn’t mention Santa Claus or reindeer. The Christmas tree in the illustration for it has a Star of David on it, so this one may appeal to interfaith families. holidayhouse.com/title_display.php?ISBN=978082341445

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

November 26, 2008

Has Film Replaced the Novel as the Best Medium for Exploring How We Live’? (Quote of the Day / Allan Massie)

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Critics have been predicting the death of the novel for so long that some people take for granted that the future, if not the present, belongs to movies. Is this a fair assumption?

Allan Massie, the Scottish journalist and novelist, recently considered the question in the Spectator, the British weekly. One often-heard explanation, Massie noted, is just as the theater yielded to the novel, the novel has yielded to the film: “Our culture has become visual rather than literary.” He responded:

“Some truth to this. Even though film still draws on novels and short stories, it has become a less literary medium in the last quarter-century. Cinema offers more immediate sensations and it generally requires less of its audience, which is essentially passive, than the serious novel does of the reader.”

Massie added that others say that narratives in print have gone out of fashion:

“In truth these explanations are less than convincing. Film hasn’t superseded the novel. As a medium for examining the way we live and the way we should live, film has for the most part proved wretchedly inadequate. Its ability to explore moral or ethical questions is slight, because such exploration must be verbal, and film deals in images. Film is the great simplifier, and that is part of its charm. …

“No need, therefore, to ring the funeral bell. The aspiring novelist needs only courage, intelligence, imagination, a keen eye, and the belief that writing novels remains the best way of telling aqnd showing how it is. “

Massie’s comment appeared in a Life & Letters column called “The Death of the Novel” in the July 28, 2008, issue of the Spectator www.spectator.co.uk, but doesn’t appear on its Web site.

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

November 25, 2008

John Updike Wins Lifetime Achievement Award from 2008 ‘Bad Sex’ in Fiction Judges

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Rachel Johnson also wins for a scene from Shire Hell “that begins with moans and nibbles and works up to screaming and other animal noises”

John Updike has won a special lifetime achievement award from the judges of the 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Prize, given annually by the U.K. literary magazine the Literary Review. Here’s the AP story on the award www.kvoa.com/Global/story.asp?S=9412980&nav=HMO6HMaf. Updike has been nominated four times for the prize, this year for his novel The Widows of Eastwick.

The AP article doesn’t say whether the judges singled out any passages in giving Updike the award, which recognizes crude, tasteless and often gratuitous sex scenes in works that otherwise have literary merit. So I’ll repeat what I said yesterday in noting that Updike had been nominated: “Let’s face it – it’s a miracle that he has never won a Bad Sex award, given that this man created the lecherous Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, who made a pass at his daughter-in-law on his deathbed.”

James Pressley of Bloomberg.com reports that Rachel Johnson, the sister of London mayor Boris Johnson, is also a winner. She received the 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Prize “for a scene in Shire Hell that begins with moans and nibbles and works up to screaming and other animal noises” www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=a_G4Db0hO7Z8&refer=home. Pressley’s article is longer and has more information on the other candidates than the AP story.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Warm and Sunny Novel in Letters About an Offbeat British Book Club in 1946 — ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’

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A new life begins for a single female journalist in London when World War II ends

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Dial, 278 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

Juliet Ashton realizes as 1946 begins that she can’t finish the book about English foibles that she has promised her London publisher. She knows she should have no trouble writing about groups like the Society to Protest the Glorification of the English Bunny. Hasn’t she found a photograph of the Vermin Exterminators’ Trade Union marching down the street with placards shouting, “Down with Beatrix Potter!”?

But on the first page of this warm and sunny novel in letters, Juliet confesses to her publisher that she has lost interest in the anti-bunny-glorifiers. Four days later, with the remarkable luck that will follow her through the story, she gets a letter from a pig farmer who found her name and address on the flyleaf of a secondhand book of essays by Charles Lamb. Dawsey Adams lives on Guernsey, a Channel Island recovering from its occupation by Nazis, and asks if she can recommend a London bookshop.

Julie begins to correspond with Dawsey and the members of his book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and arranges to visit them, although a handsome American publishing tycoon wants her to stay in London. As she becomes enmeshed in the islanders’ lives, she learns she can’t escape the effects of war as she had once longed to do: “The war is now the story of our lives, and there’s no subtracting it.”

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society lacks the natural charm of books it superficially resembles, such Helene Hanff’s memoir 84, Charing Cross Road and Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s novel A Woman of Independent Means. But the book has an earned sweetness that comes close to it — it’s the equivalent of suitor who may lack charm but sends you so many flowers that you almost forget that he does.

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows evoke well the hardships of islanders who made do with wartime rations of one candle a week and cooked their vegetables in seawater for lack of salt. The authors also offer many well-chosen quotes and anecdotes about an eclectic group of poets and writers: Chaucer, Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie, the Brontë sisters. And in the age of Dr. Phil and Twitter, it’s refreshing to meet characters like the book-club member who finds comfort in the words the Roman orator Seneca: “Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb.”

Best line: “I don’t believe that after reading such a fine writer as Emily Brontë, I will be happy to read again Miss Amanda Gillyflower’s Ill-Used by Candlelight.” — Isola Pribby in a letter to Juliet Ashton

Worst line: Julie writes to a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: “I no longer live on Oakley Street, but I’m so glad that your letters found me and that my book found you.” Would someone who had always lived in England say “on Oakley Street” or “in Oakley Street”?

Recommendation? This novel has no sex or, as parents say, “bad words.” I gave it to an aunt for her 85th birthday. But it’s also likely to appeal for many younger readers, including some teenagers. And it is much more intelligent than many books popular among book clubs.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society appeared on this site on Nov. 25, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Editor: Susan Kamil

Published: July 2008 www.guernseyliterary.com

About the authors: Mary Ann Shaffer became ill after selling this novel to the Dial Press and died before it appeared in print. Her niece, the children’s author Annie Barrows, shepherded the book through the editing process www.anniebarrows.com/.

If you like this book, you might like: A Woman of Independent Means us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/woman_of_independent_means.html.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and the former book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2008 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

November 24, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,’ a Novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:53 pm
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Early in 1946, Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a pig farmer who found her name and address on the flyleaf of a secondhand book of essays by Charles Lamb. Juliet writes back to Dawsey Adams and learns that he belongs to an offbeat book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, on a Channel Island once occupied by Nazis. She begins to correspond with club members and, after deciding to visit them, becomes enmeshed in their lives – though a handsome American publishing tycoon is courting her back in London. Juliet had been hoping to put the war behind her. But on Guernsey, she gains a deeper awareness that she can’t escape history: “The war is now the story of our lives, and there’s no subtracting it.”

Questions for Discussion

1 The obvious question first: What did you think of the title of this novel? Did you pick up the book despite or because of it?

2 How well did the novel-in-letters format work? Why do think the authors chose it? What do we gain from reading the letters that we might not get from a more conventional narrative?

3 Many critics gave this novel raves. But Wendy Smith qualified her generally favorable review in the Washington Post by saying that the book has a “contrived” premise: “The authors don’t even bother to suggest how Juliet’s discarded book turned up in Guernsey, and the neat way its literary society fits into her Times assignment is highly convenient.” www.powells.com/biblio?isbn=9780385340991 Did you find all or part of the plot contrived? Does it matter whether it is?

4 Juliet has two men interested in her, each of whom has appealing traits, just as the heroines of many romance novels do. Is this novel essentially an intelligent romance novel? Why or why not?

5 Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows weave many details about the Nazi occupation of Guernsey into their story. For example, Eben Ramsey says that late in 1944: “We were rationed to two candles a week and then only one.” [Page 64] Novels based on historical research sometimes read more like term papers than fiction. Did you ever feel that way about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? If not, why? How did the authors keep their research from slowing the pace of the story?

6 Juliet’s parents died when she was 12. [Page 45] Dawsey is an adult orphan who lost his father when he was 11 and his mother just before World War II. [Page 232] Many beloved novels, from Jane Eyre to the Harry Potter books, involve orphans. Why do you think this is so? How does The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society resemble other orphan novels you’ve read?

7 A book club member named John Booker quotes the Roman orator Seneca: “Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb.” [Page 150] What did he mean? Booker was talking about grief for concentration camp victims, but could the quote apply also to people in this novel? Does it express a theme of the book?

8 “Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books,” Isola Pribby writes to Juliet. [Page 53] Is this true? Or are books like food in that a lot of us can savor a five-star meal and still hit the Fritos Scoops during the Super Bowl?

9 The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Peel Society has many amusing lines and scenes. Which did you like most? What role does humor play in the novel?

10 The authors salt their story with quotes or anecdotes about well-known writers. Did these make you want to read some of the authors’ books? Which, if any, would you like your book group to read?

Vital Statistics

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Dial, 278 pp., $22. Published: July 2008 www.guernseyliterary.com and www.anniebarrows.com

A review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on the day this guide did.

About the authors: Mary Ann Shaffer became ill after selling this novel to the Dial Press and died of cancer in February 2008 before the book appeared in print. Her niece, the children’s author Annie Barrows, shepherded the book through the editing process.

Your group may also want to read:

A Woman of Independent Means us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/woman_of_independent_means.html.

The “Epistolary Novels” page on Wikipedia, which talks about the types of novels-in-letters and gives old and new examples of the form en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistolary_novel.

The “Orphan Novels” page on Wikipedia, which gives an overview of these en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphan.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear on One-Minute Book Reviews often but not on a regular schedule. They often deal with books for which publishers have provided no guides or guides that are flawed – for example, because they encourage cheerleading for books instead of thoughtful discussion. They are also intended to be more comprehensive than publishers’ guides. To avoid missing the them, please bookmark the site or subscribe to the RSS feed. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from authors, editors, publishers, agents or others who have a financial stake in books, and all reviews offer views that are not influenced by marketing concerns. If you would like to see the guides continue, it would be extremely helpful if you would link to them.

You can find more Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides at wordpress.com/tag/totally-unauthorized-reading-group-guides/. Thank you for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews, a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda

John Updike Makes 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Award Shortlist for ‘The Widows of Eastwick’ – Russell Banks Also a Finalist — Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘American Wife’ Spared

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John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick has made the shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award given by the U.K. magazine the Literary Review. Among books by Americans, Russell Banks’s The Reserve is also finalist for the annual prize, launched to recognize and discourage crude, tasteless and often gratuitous sex scenes in modern novels that otherwise have literary merit.

The judges spared Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, which some critics have derided for its unintentionally comical sex scenes involving characters resembling George and Laura Bush. But they shortlisted Brida by the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, whose The Alchemist has been an American bestseller.

I admire much of the work of John Updike, particularly his poetry and literary criticism, and stand my recent comment that if Updike lived in Greenland, he would have had a Nobel Prize years ago. But – let’s face it – it’s a miracle that he has never won a Bad Sex award, given that this man created the lecherous Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who made a pass at his daughter-in-law on his deathbed. And I regard Russell Banks as one of America’s most overrated writers, so his nomination doesn’t test my startle reflect, either.

The Literary Review will award the Bad Sex prizes tomorrow night, and the meantime you can read about them at www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/nov/20/bad-sex-award-fiction. A victory by Updike or Banks would be the second award to an American in two years: Norman Mailer won posthumously in 2007 for The Castle in the Forest. Check back late tomorrow afternoon if you’re interested in the results.

You may also want to read the following 2007 posts on One-Minute Book Reviews:
“Ian McEwan Makes Longlist for Bad Sex in Fiction Award as Expected” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/23.

“’Sex in Ian McEwan’s Novel Is Not Bad Enough to Impress the Judges’” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/27/.

“Read All the Passages Shortlisted for the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award Here” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/28/.

And this one from earlier 2008:

“Late Night With Jan Harayda – Is Curtis Sittenfeld Courting a Bad Sex in Fiction Award?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/24/.

The Literary Review does not post the shortlist on its Web site www.literaryreview.co.uk.

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

‘Chapman’s Car Compendium: The Essential Book of Car Facts and Trivia’ – A Great Gift for a Driver Who Reads More Than Road Signs

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An entertaining book of facts that includes a list of the “the 20 greatest car movies” and their stars and cars

Chapman’s Car Compendium: The Essential Book of Car Facts and Trivia. By Giles Chapman. Merrell, 187 pp., $16.95.

By Janice Harayda

This book is, quite possibly, the best literary gift for a car-lover that I have come across in more than 15 years of reviewing. It is witty, intelligent, well-written, inexpensive, and handsomely illustrated. It is also full of fascinating lore, such as its list of 25 excuses supposedly written on insurance forms after accidents. (Excuse No. 6: “I didn’t think the speed limit applied after midnight.”) And it speaks to lovers of all kinds cars — Kias and Hyundais included — unlike the overpriced coffee-table tomes that seem intended mainly for people who think you haven’t lived until you’ve owned a Maybach 62.

Much of Chapman’s Car Compendium consists of anecdotes, diagrams and lists with inspired titles like “Dictators’ cars” (“Rafael Trujillo – Chrysler Crown Imperial”) and “The cars most name-dropped in rap songs” (Mercedes is No. 1). But the book also has pithy advice on subjects such as how to wash, winterize and sell your car.

Giles Chapman notes that you, could, conceivably discover some of his material online. But that wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining as reading this book. Chapman begins his introduction to one list with the droll: “Scotland is noted for many things, but making cars isn’t one of them.” He mercifully doesn’t say whether there’s a connection between that fact and another: Scotland is known for making malt liquor.

Best line: The list of “The 20 greatest car movies and their stars.” Chapman lists the stars and the cars they drove in the films. (Be honest, boomers: Did you remember that Dustin Hoffman drove an Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider in The Graduate?) Some of his choices reflect tastes perhaps more British than American: Carry on Cabby makes the cut but Taxi Driver doesn’t. But other entries are above reproach: Goldfinger (Aston Martin DB5), Thelma and Louise (Ford Thunderbird), Driving Miss Daisy (Hudson Hornet).

Worst line: “20 celebrity car deaths.” Some deaths on this list involve disputed circumstances that beg for a fuller discussion. Chapman says Princess Grace died while driving her Rover 3500S. Wikipedia says it was a Rover P6. Chapman may be right, but what’s his source?

Published: October 2007 www.gileschapman.com.

About the author: Chapman is a London-based former editor of Classic & Sports Car (“the world’s best-selling classic car magazine,” or so he says) who appears frequently on BBC radio. He contributes to many well-known magazines and newspapers.

Furthermore: God bless public libraries. I might have missed this one if I hadn’t found it in the “New Books” section at mine.

Janice Harayda’s 2008 A-to-Z holiday gift-book list will appear soon. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing it.

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

November 23, 2008

2009 Newbery and Caldecott Medal Winners to Be Announced at 7:45 a.m. MDT on Jan. 26 — American Library Association to Offer Live Webcast

The American Library Association will announce the winners of the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s books on Monday, Jan. 26, at 7:45 a.m. MDT www.ala.org/ala/newspresscenter/mediapresscenter/presskits/alamidwintermeeting2009/Midwinter09presskit.cfm. The ALA plans to offer a live Webcast of the event from its midwinter meeting in Denver and to post the winners’ names by 10 a.m. at www.ala.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Watch a Slide Show of the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2008

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am
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Every year since 1952, the editors of the New York Times Book Review have asked a group of judges to pick the best illustrated children’s books of the year. The 2008 list appeared in the NYTBR on Nov. 9, and if you missed it, you can watch a slide show that includes a picture from each of the 10 honorees here
www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/11/06/books/20081109ILLUSTRATEDBOOKS_index.html.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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