One-Minute Book Reviews

December 30, 2008

Gerald Stern’s ‘Before Eating’ — A Poet’s Rhyming Toast to Life and Death

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:58 pm
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Here’s something you don’t see every day in poetry: a toast to death. Well, not just death. But Gerald Stern’s poem “Before Eating” celebrates life in all its contradictions. And that includes the ultimate contradiction – death.

Stern is in his 80s, and “Before Eating” makes you wonder if he wrote it for his funeral (or perhaps, given that it has 88 lines, as an elegy for a friend who died at 88), though there’s no evidence of it beyond the poem itself, which begins:

Here’s to your life
and here’s to your death

and here’s to coughing
and here’s to breath.

“Before Eating” consists of more than five pages of similarly lively rhymes — it reads like a ditty. At times a wistfulness creeps into the voice of the speaker, who knows that “ … I could go on for / forty pages // listing my joys / and listing my rages, // but I should stop / while I’m still ahead // and make my way / to my own crooked bed …”

But Stern doesn’t maunder. Just when his poem could devolve into a wallow, he pulls the tone back up again:

so here’s to the end,
the final things,

and here’s to forever
and what that brings …

By the end of “Before Eating,” the speaker is no longer toasting death in the abstract but honoring its tangible realities (“and here’s to the pillows / and here’s to the bed”). Yet the poem is never morbid. Some lines are playful. (“Here’s to judge / here’s to Jewry.”) Other lines celebrate food, drink and, obliquely, sex (“desire”). Even the title “Before Eating” suggests that death could be a feast. Whether written for a funeral or not, this poem finds the chord that so many eulogists seek and miss – the notes that celebrate both our numbered days and “forever / and what that brings.”

“Before Eating” appears in Stern’s recent Save the Last Dance: Poems (Norton, 91 pp., $23.95). Other poems in the collection include “The Preacher,” an adaptation of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and elegies for or homages to the poets William Wordsworth, Muriel Rukeyser and Federico Garcia Lorca. Stern won the 1998 National Book Award for Poetry for This Time. He was the first poet laureate of New Jersey, where he lives.

© 2008 All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Review of ‘WordPress for Dummies’ — A ‘Certified WordPress Evangelist’ Tells How to Use the World’s Most Popular Blogging Software

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:21 am
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Is it worth it for WordPress.com bloggers to pay $25 for a book that has 50 pages for them when, at the same 50 cents-a-page rate, you’d pay $250 for John Grisham’s The Appeal?

WordPress for Dummies: First Edition. By Lisa Sabin-Wilson. Foreword by Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress. Wiley, 384 pp., $24.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

It’s no secret: The CIA uses WordPress. So do the New York Times, CNN and millions of other people and groups, who have made WordPress the world’s most popular blogging platform.

Spies and reporters can turn to in-house webmasters when they have trouble writing or publishing their posts. But the rest of us have to rely on the online support forums or erratic e-mail help provided by WordPress. If those don’t do the trick, there’s WordPress for Dummies, written by a blog designer who has used the software since its inception in 2003.

Lisa Sabin-Wilson notes upfront that WordPress comes in three versions or, as she calls them, “flavors”:

“Vanilla” — the free WordPress.com blogs, hosted by WordPress, that don’t require you to download software.
“Chocolate” — the free WordPress.org blogs, hosted by others, that do require you to download software.
“Neapolitan” — the WordPress MU blogs, designed for and paid for by corporations or organizations that want to have a network of blogs with same domain on one server.

These distinctions matter in part because WordPress for Dummies has about 50 pages for WordPress.com bloggers and more than 300 for WordPress.org or WordPress MU users. If you use WordPress.com and buy this book for $25, you’ll pay about 50 cents a page for the material written specifically for you, much of it unnecessary because you’ll know, say, how to log in. (At that rate, you’ pay about $250 for John Grisham’s 496-page The Appeal.) You’ll also get a book published in November 2007 and based on WordPress 2.3. Many of its facts went out of date with the launch of 2.7 and new features such as polling and a revised dashboard or changes in other functions.

You can’t blame Sabin-Wilson for the WordPress upgrades, many of which will appear in the second edition of the book due out in February 2009. But she calls herself a “Certified WordPress Evangelist,” and you’d better believe her: Sabin-Wilson earns part of her living “providing design solutions for WordPress clients.” And she’s so bullish that her book is less objective than some — maybe most — in the “For Dummies” series: At times, it reads like a public relations vehicle for WordPress. Sabin-Wilson offers only one timid criticism in her WordPress.com section: The software has redundant categories widgets, a point so trivial you could blog for years and never notice it.

Clearly a book called WordPress for Dummies is going to attract a lot of people who are just getting started with WordPress.com blogs. And what’s the first thing most beginners want to know about? All together now: Support, a subject that gets a barebones discussion made worse by a flawed index (usually compiled by someone other than the writer).

Look under “Support” in the index, and you’ll find listings only for support for WordPress.org and WordPress MU, leaving the misimpression that none exists for WordPress.com. Look under “WordPress.com,” and you’ll find a listing for “Support” that refers you to a page that mentions support for problems with widgets only. Look under “Help” and you’ll finally find the correct section. But you get no explanation for why WordPress calls support for WordPress.org “support” for and support for WordPress.com “help.” And the pages that deal with WordPress.com “help” have only a skimpy table that refers you first and inadequately to the WordPress.com Forums (which make you choose from a list topics that can seem impenetrable if you have no idea which technical terms apply to your problem).

If all of this seems confusing, that’s the point. Imagine going through this search process when you can’t publish a post or think you’ve lost a big chunk of vital text. At the very least, this book needs more advice how to search the WordPress forums. Better still, there should be a smaller-sized (and lower-priced) guide just for WordPress.com bloggers so you don’t have to pay for all the advice you can’t use.

Given all of this, why would you pick up WordPress for Dummies at all? First, it was more useful than the older and more profusely illustrated WordPress 2: Visual Quick Start Guide (Peachpit, 2006). As outdated and cheerleader-ish as much of it is, WordPress for Dummies has a lot of material that’s still current and helpful. Until now I’ve never filled in the title-and-description bar that appears when you upload images to a post: Why bother if it takes time and people can’t see it? This book gave me a reason to start: It helps with search engine optimization.

WordPress for Dummies also corrected a few misimpressions I’ve had almost since starting One-Minute Book Reviews. Early on, I learned that if you want to convert a URL to a hyperlink, you add the prefix http:// and a slash for a suffix. So if I wanted to link to my site for my novels, I would type http://www.janiceharayda.com into a post, select that address, and paste http://www.janiceharayda.com/ into the link box, which would create a highlighted hyperlink that looked like this www.janiceharayda.com. This technique got you to the right place but led to many long links.

From WordPress for Dummies I learned that you can just select a word or phrase and paste a link to it into the link box on the toolbar. This will put the HTML tag around the text that will create a highlighted hyperlink to a URL. So instead of writing out the address for my other site, I can select my name and paste the address into link box so you can click on Janice Harayda instead of www.janiceharayda.com. This tip will make my life easier — and my site cleaner — every day and might alone have justified time I spent with the book. It also suggests why, in a sense, World Press for Dummies is just like WordPress: When it’s not driving you up a cyberwall, it’s great.

Best line: “If you don’t want to share a picture of yourself in fear of shattering computer monitors worldwide, you can choose not to upload any picture at all or upload a picture of something that reflects the essence of you.”

Worst line: All of the lines that are outdated or that buy heavily in WordPress jargon, such as WordPress.com is a “hosted solution”; WordPress.org is “self-hosted solution” and WordPress MU is a “multiuser solution.” Whatever happened to the words “option” or “service”?

Published: November 2007. Second edition due out in February 2009.

Furthermore: Gung-ho as it is, this book oddly ignores some of great WordPress.com tools that apparently far surpass those of Blogger, Typepad and other platforms. Among them: stats are updated every three minutes.

About the author: Sabin-Wilson’s personal blog is Just a Girl in the World. Mullenweg’s is Ma.tt.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has written the One-Minute Book Review blog on WordPress.com since October 2006. She was named one of Virtual Woman’s Day’s 25 Women Bloggers to Watch in 2008. One-Minute Book Reviews has ranked among the top 10 growing Blogs of the Day on Word Press and appears on Best of the Web’s list of best book-review sites. It has received praise from around the world, most recently in the print and online editions of the Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper on Nov.17, 2008.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 28, 2008

Bernhard Schlink’s ‘The Reader’ – Book Versus Movie

Filed under: Movie Link,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:49 pm
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I’ve been reading The Reader, hoping to compare the novel and its movie version on this site, but Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review of the film summed up my view of the book in a sentence. Lane suggests that idea of dramatizing this tale — “a low-grade musing on atrocity, garnished with erotic titillation” — was “pernicious from the start.” Novelist Bernhard Schlink describes a postwar love affair between a German schoolboy and an illiterate woman who had worked as an S.S. guard at a concentration camp.

“Imprisoned for life, Hanna must read to herself, but are we really supposed to be moved by the thought—or now, in [Stephen] Daldry’s film, by the sight—of an unrepentant Nazi parsing Chekhov?” Lane asks. “That is not culturally nourishing; it is morally famished.”

On The Charlie Rose Show, Daldry and screenwriter David Hare argued that The Reader is a fable and that the affair between young Michael and Hanna is a metaphor for Germany’s romance with Nazism. But balsa-wood scaffolding of the novel can’t support the weight of that claim. It hardly helped that Daldry kept saying that Germany is the only recent perpetrator of genocide (which might surprise the Kurds, the Tutsis, and others). Rose has done thoughtful interviews with writers and others. But his obsequious failure to challenge Daldry on the claim that only Germany had committed genocide made his show sound at times like public television’s version of Access Hollywood.

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

Good Children’s Poems About January

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:24 pm
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Do poets have trouble finding rhymes for “hangover”? Or believe that all kids go to bed early on Dec. 31? For whatever reason, there are few good children’s New Year’s Day, compared with the many about Christmas, Thanksgiving and other major holidays.

But John Updike has written a lovely poem about January that appears in his A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pp., ages 4-8), and in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 248 pp., $22.99, ages 12 and under), selected by Jack Prelutsky. “January” doesn’t mention the New Year and instead celebrates the charms of the month with rhyming iambic quatrains: “The days are short, / The sun a spark / Hung thin between / The dark and dark.” The Random House Book of Poetry for Children also includes Sara Coleridge’s poem “The Months,” which consists of 12 rhyming couplets, one for each month, that begin: “January brings the snow, / makes our feet and fingers glow.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 27, 2008

A Book That Makes It Fun to Learn to Read – ‘I Saw You in the Bathtub: And Other Folk Rhymes’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:53 pm
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I saw you in the street,
I saw you in a tree,
I saw you in the bathtub –
Whoops! Pardon me!

I Saw You in the Bathtub: And Other Folk Rhymes (An I Can Read Book 1) By Alvin Schwartz. Illustrated by Syd Hoff. HarperTrophy, 64 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages 5–8 (for independent reading), ages 2 and up (for reading aloud).

By Janice Harayda

A couple of months ago, I mentioned I Saw You in the Bathtub in the context of a couple of its poems that relate to Halloween. But this book is so much fun, it has a year-round appeal.

Alvin Schwartz has collected 40 ageless folk rhymes that consist mainly of words of one or two syllables: “I scream, / You scream, / We all scream / For ice cream!” So this book is a good choice for many kindergarten-though-third-graders who are starting to read and need short words and strongly patterned text.

But children as young as age 2 also love rhymes like: “Teacher, teacher made a mistake — / She sat down in a chocolate cake!” and “Three little chickadees / Looking at you, / One flew away / And then there were two.” And because variations on most of the rhymes seem to have existed since Cain, the book has an intergenerational appeal: It gives parents and grandparents a chance to share the versions they know. Am I the only one who learned the title rhyme as: “I saw you in the river, / I saw you in the sea, / I saw you in the bathtub — / Oops! Pardon me!”?

Best line: The title rhyme. But “Mary, Mary, strong and able, / Keep your elbow off the table” may be better known.

Worst line: A few rhymes are taunts that some adults may want to skip when reading the book aloud, such as the deathless: “Kindergarten baby, / Stick your head in gravy!” Speaking just for myself: I’d rather hear those lines than some words that arepopular among 3-year-olds, such as “dickhead.”

Recommendation? High value for the dollar as holiday gift for a family with children ages 2 and up. This $3.99 paperback is much more entertaining than most $16.99 hardcover picture books.

Published: March 1989 (first edition), 1991 (HarperTrophy paperback) www.harpercollins.com/books/9780064441513/I_Saw_You_in_the_Bathtub/index.aspx

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on this site, which will also post a list of suggested gift books for children and teenagers during the holiday season. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these posts.

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

December 26, 2008

Are the Best Biographies Sympathetic to Their Subjects? (Quote of the Day / Allen Massie)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 pm
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Are the best biographies necessarily sympathetic to their subjects? I had oddly never considered this idea until an unflattering life of Hemingway led the Scottish journalist Allen Massie to write in a recent issue of the Spectator:

“The best biographies are sympathetic. Their authors don’t gloss over their subjects’ failures and faults of character, but they don’t seek to do them down. The biographer who sets out to mock his subjects or diminish their achievements is likely to arouse the reader’s sympathy for them. Lytton Strachey’s four Eminent Victorians have survived his debunking, and Strachey now seems less than any of them. Conversely, and paradoxically, however, the admiring but scrupulous biographer may provoke a contrary response from the reader.”

After I read Massie’s comment, I thought about my favorite biographies, which include James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, Gordon Haight’s George Eliot, Jean Strouse’s Alice James, A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins, and William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory. All are sympathetic to their subjects. Yet there must be a good biography of Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein, though you could hardly write a “sympathetic” one. Have I missed the good, sympathetic biographies of those men? Or are the lives of tyrants the exceptions to Massie’s rule?

What books have you read that support or challenge Massie’s argument?

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

December 23, 2008

‘Win This Book’ Returns to One-Minute Book Reviews in 2009 – Happy Holidays

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:12 pm
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A while back, I ran contests that gave you varied ways to win books reviewed on this site, which I stopped mainly because I don’t drive and had to make an extra trip to the post office for them. (I know, I know: Why is a trip to the post office to mail a book such a big deal? Tell them, my fellow New Jerseyans.) As another year ends, I’ve decided I’m old enough to figure out how to get to the post office even if NJ Transit doesn’t cooperate, so I’m bringing back the contests in 2009.

A thousand thanks to all of you for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews in 2008. It’s a joy to read your comments.

Happy Holidays!

Jan

December 22, 2008

The Five Worst Books of 2008 – Entertainment Weekly’s Annual List

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:16 pm
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Which authors deserve a lump of coal in their stockings this year? Tina Jordan and Kate Ward of Entertainment Weekly have compiled the magazine’s annual list of the five worst books of the year, and the winners are:

1. Chasing Harry Winston by Lauren Weisberger: “There’s something to disappoint everyone” in this novel by the author of The Devil Wears Prada, the EW critic Jennifer Reese wrote when she reviewed the book in May. “Those who prefer to dismiss the author as a backstabbing ditz without a shred of talent will be sorry to hear her third book isn’t entirely unamusing … But anyone looking forward to a dishy beach read à la The Devil Wears Prada will be even sorrier to hear that the fluffy fun bits are lost in a blobby mess of a narrative.”

2. The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry. Barry spent $50,000 to self-publish this novel about a woman who returns to her hometown of Salem, Masschusetts, and tells people’s fortunes through a piece of lace, but it didn’t bewitch the EW editors.

3. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. “This much-hyped book is eye-bulgingly atrocious, packed with medieval history to disguise prose that’s worse than your average Dungeons & Dragons blog,” Gregory Kirschling wrote in an EW review. “The unnamed narrator is a repugnant coke-addled porno actor … who, in the first scene, burns himself alive after driving off a bridge while high.”

4. Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey. What could Frey do for an encore after admitting that he made up parts of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces? Write “this slack, self-indulgent mess” of a novel, EW says. Frey did a lot of research for on LA for the book, and it shows, badly: “He produces lists of gang names, eight pages describing the city’s highways, five pages of natural disasters in its history, another five naming patients in VA hospitals, eight pages of ‘Fun Facts’ and ‘Facts Not So Fun.’ The lists go on. And on.”

5. A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs. “How many lurid memoirs can a writer get away with before we suspect he’s full of baloney?” EW‘s Reese asked in her review of this book by the author of Running With Scissors. She added: “In 2005, the family Burroughs lived with as a teenager sued him, alleging that he fabricated and sensationalized events in Scissors; last year, he settled for an undisclosed sum. There is no one to challenge his version of events in Wolf, as his father is dead … “

Read more about why the EW editors think you should avoid these books at www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20246889,00.html.

One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the winners of its annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on March 15, 2009. Read about last year’s winners and find samples of their bad writing at oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/page/2/ (three posts on the same day for the winner, first runner-up and second runner-up, which you ‘ll see below the Daughter of York review when you click on that link). You can find earlier winners using the Search box to search for Delete Key (without quotes).

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

Wrap Holiday Gifts for Free With Items You Have at Home — Ideas From Elaine St. James’s ‘Simplify Your Christmas’

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:38 pm
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Have you noticed how some of those cute little holiday gift-wrap bags can cost more than the presents you put inside them? In Simplify Your Christmas: 100 Ways to Reduce the Stress and Recapture the Joy of the Holidays (Barnes and Noble, 2003), Elaine St. James suggests that you instead use leftover wallpaper, the Sunday comics, art or photos from last year’s calendar, outdated maps or oceanographic charts, or a basket you want to recycle.

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


December 20, 2008

Gift Coupons for Kids — Wrap Up Permission to Skip the Vegetables, Have a Later Bedtime or Curfew, or Control the TV Remote for a Night

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:49 pm
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Low- or no-cost gifts for children and teenagers that you can make with a pen and paper or a laserjet printer

The Awesome Kid Coupon Book: 52 Ways to Say You’re Special and You’re Loved!’ Hallmark Gift Books, unpaged, $5.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

O come all ye slackers who have fallen behind in your shopping for a child! Why not wrap up coupons good for the kinds of gifts described in this book — a waiver of a chore, a one-hour bedtime or curfew extension, or the right to “play the music you want for as loud as you want for one hour”?

The Awesome Kid Coupon Book has firm roots in a core principle of child psychology: Kids want to get out of doing some things as much as they want to have permission to do others. So this book has a coupon that lets a child to skip the vegetables at one meal as well one that confers control of the TV remote for an evening.

Most coupons involve free or low-cost gifts, and you can remove easily any that involve a cash outlay too steep for this bare-knuckles economy. (“SUPERSIZE YOUR ALLOWANCE – This coupon entitles you to double your normal allowance for one week.”) Some children may especially appreciate the “TOTAL SLOB COUPON!” that says: “Lounge in your grungiest clothes and do nothing all day! And don’t forget to wad up this coupon and throw it on the floor!” Just make sure your child reads the fine print on that one: “Weekends only.”

Best line: “BAN IT! This coupon entitles you to specify one food you do not want to find on your plate for an entire week.” Also: “A WHOLE NEW YOU — For one whole weekend day, you can be called any name you like, including anything that starts with ‘Super.’” And “BOOKWORM — Buy any book you want with a price up to $____________.”

Worst line: “BE A WINNER — Present this coupon and three scratch-off lottery tickets will be purchased for you. If you win, the money’s all yours!” This coupon seems to encourage adults to skirt the legal ages for buying lottery tickets (18 years old in most states, 21 in a few) by buying them for children. Would Hallmark have said, “Present this coupon and three six-packs will be purchased for you”?

Published: 2007

Warning: I found this book at a large CVS in September 2008 but haven’t been able to find it anywhere, including on the Web, since then. This is unusual: Books rarely go out of print so fast, and this one may have been recalled because of the lottery issue I mentioned above. I decided to post this review, anyway, because a) you might have better luck than I did at finding the book and b) some of its ideas may provide inspiration for homemade coupons.

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

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