One-Minute Book Reviews

October 31, 2009

Deborah Heiligman’s ‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ — A Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

Deborah Heiligman’s captivating dual biography of the Darwins, Charles and Emma (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95), is one of the best young-adult books I’ve read since launching this site. This finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature lacks the problems of last year’s winner, What I Saw and How I Lied, among them a clash between its third-grade reading level and its sophisticated content. Good as it is, Charles and Emma isn’t a shoo-in: It’s up against books that include Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 144 pp., $19.95), the true story of a 15-year-old whose refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger helped to integrate the buses in Montgomery, Alabama.  I haven’t been able to put my hands on a copy, but I admired Hoose’s Perfect, Once Removed (Walker, 2007), a memoir of the October when his cousin Don Larsen pitched a perfect World Series game, and I hope to say more about both National Book Award finalists soon.

2010 Newbery and Caldecott Medal Winners to Be Announced at 7:45 a.m. EST on Jan. 18 – American Library Association to Give Results on Live Webcast and on Twitter

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The American Library Association will announce the winners of the 2010 Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s books on Monday, January 18, at 7:45 a.m. EST, during its Youth Media Awards ceremony in Boston. The ALA will offer a live Webcast of the event at http://alawebcast.unikron.com with limited connections available on a first-come first served basis. The organization plans also to tweet the results on Twitter at twitter.com/ALAyma and post the winners’ names at www.ala.org/yma by 9:30 a.m. EST on its Web site.

October 30, 2009

Women Shut Out of Publishers Weekly List of 10 Best Books of 2009

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:18 pm
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Poetry and books from small presses don’t make the grade, either

No books by female authors appear on the list of the 10 best books of the year just posted by Publishers Weekly, the leading industry trade journal. I focus on reviews on One-Minute Book Reviews but have reacted to the shutout in tweets at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda that mention a couple of titles by women that PW might have included.

If you look at the trade journal’s list, you may notice that apart from having no books by female authors, it has no poetry or books from small presses. And 70 percent of the titles come from Random House and its imprints (Knopf, Doubleday, Spiegel & Grau, Ballantine and Pantheon) with the rest coming from Norton and Penguin. Best-of-the-year lists are arbitrary and often inscrutable, so I won’t try to dissect PW‘s here. But if I see noteworthy patterns emerging in these lists, I may comment on them in “Late Night With Jan Harayda,” a series of occasional posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and don’t include reviews.

Backscratching in Our Time – Jonathan Lethem and David Shields

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:10 am
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The latest in a series of occasional posts on authors who praise each other’s books

Jonathan Lethem on David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto:
“I’ve just finished reading Reality Hunger: A Manifesto and I’m lit up by it—astonished, intoxicated, ecstatic, overwhelmed. It’s a pane that’s also a mirror: as a result of reading it, I can’t stop looking into myself and interrogating my own artistic intentions. It will be published to wild fanfare, because it really is an urgent book: a piece of art-making itself, a sublime, exciting, outrageous, visionary volume.”

David Shields on Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (back cover of the hardcover edition):
“I’m reminded of the well-rubbed Kafka line: A book must be the axe to break the frozen sea within us. Lethem’s book, with incredible fury, aspires to do little less. It’s almost certainly his best novel. It’s genuinely great.”

“Backscratching in Our Time” was inspired by “Logrolling in Our Time” in the old Spy Magazine. Posts in the series appear on Fridays when examples of reciprocal blurbs are available. If you’d like to nominate authors, please use the e-mail address on the “Contact” page. You’ll find more examples of horse-trading in the “Backscratching in Our Time” category.

You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

October 29, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – First Impressions of Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Chronic City’

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:27 pm
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I’m reading Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and trying to decide whether to finish it. The narrator is a male New Yorker engaged to a female astronaut trapped on the International Space Station, and I have an irrational fear that the theme of the novel is going to turn out to be, “Women really are from Venus.” Also the novelist Mark Lindquist wrote in a review of the book in the Seattle Times, “You can find more plot in a Jethro Tull album.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

Remembering Oct. 29, 1929 — A Crowd ‘Wild-Eyed With Fear’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:06 am
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How did New Yorkers react when the market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929? Catherine Gourley writes:

“On that overcast autumn morning in New York City, rumors swirled through the narrow streets like wind. Something had gone terribly wrong. The stock values weren’t just dropping. They were crashing. America’s banks and businesses were losing money. By afternoon ten thousand people had jammed the streets and sidewalks. Some had climbed onto the statue of Alexander Hamilton outside the stock exchange building because it was the only space left to stand and wait. A reporter for the New York Times described the crowd as ‘wild-eyed’ with fear. Men wept. A few days ago they had been wealthy. Now they were penniless.”

From Gourley’s “Black Tuesday” in War, Women, and the News: How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover the World War II (Atheneum, $21.99, ages 10–14, 2007), a nonfiction book about great war correspondents.

This post first appeared in 2008.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 28, 2009

John Keegan’s ‘The American Civil War’ — Was the Refusal to Allow the Confederate States to Secede the First Overt Act of American Imperialism?

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 am
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I admire the work of John Keegan, perhaps the finest living military historian, and have mentioned his Winston Churchill (Viking, 2002) and his foreword to a recent edition of John Buchan’s classic spy thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps (Penguin, 2008). But I may not be able to review his new The American Civil War: A Military History, a book likely to rank high on many holiday wish lists.

So I’d like to quote from the most interesting review I’ve read of the book, written the historian Robert Stewart for the Spectator, and encourage you to read the rest if you’re debating whether to add it to your own list:

“Whether the refusal to allow the Confederate states the right to self-determination, flying as it did in the face of the Declaration of Independence, was the first overt act of American imperialism is a question that goes largely undiscussed. John Keegan does not raise it. For him, unlike World War I, which was ‘cruel and unnecessary,’ the American Civil War was cruel and necessary. (What constitutes an uncruel war is not explained.) Necessary both sides deemed it. At the outset volunteers came forward in such numbers that equipping them and finding capable officers to lead them proved nearly beyond both the Union and the Confederacy. Cruel it certainly was, one of the bloodiest wars in modern history, though two-thirds of its casualties succumbed, not to gunfire, but to disease (much of it caused by bad cooking). …

“Keegan tells an old story in ample, uncomplicated prose and the scale of the book is well judged, sufficient to allow for richness of detail and depth of analysis without overhwhelming the reader. Occasionally words seem to get the better of him. Does it make sense to say that ‘the purpose’ of the war was ‘to inflict suffering on the American imagination,’ that ‘the whole point of the war was to hold mothers, fathers, sisters, and wives in a state of tortured apprehension’? Footnotes are so spasmodic that the criteria for citing sources are impossible to discern. Keegan has to be taken for the most part, on trust. But his command of the war’s geography, his thorough understanding of military organization and his deep humanity, all nourished by a lifetime’s immersion in military history, imbue his account with the authority that we have come to expect from him.”

You can read an excerpt from The American Civil War on the Knopf site.

October 27, 2009

‘Smile or Die’ – Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America’

Taking aim at the “prosperity gospel,” “positive psychology” courses, and teddy bears designed for breast-cancer patients

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. By Barbara Ehrenreich. Holt/Metropolitan, 235 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

When I was a book editor, I often had to reassure freelancers that they had the right to give negative reviews. Critics never apologized for praising books, but they did apologize for panning them – even when they had done so brilliantly.

At first, I thought freelancers were worried that they would get fewer assignments if they wrote unfavorable reviews, because some editors do prefer to publish praise. But many seemed reluctant to criticize books even after I had explained that I didn’t care whether reviews were positive or negative: I cared whether they were fair, honest and well written.

Barbara Ehrenreich suggests a possible explanation for the reluctance in Bright-sided, a spirited broadside against enforced optimism in medicine, psychology, business, religion and other fields. She argues that faith in “positive thinking” has become so ingrained in American society “that ‘positive’ seems to us not only normal but normative – the way you should be.”

Ehrenreich found when she was diagnosed with breast cancer that a cult of optimism pervaded articles and books about the disease that made her feel isolated instead of supported. “No one among the bloggers and book writers seemed to share my sense of outrage over the disease and the available treatments,” she writes in a chapter ironically called “Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer.” “What causes it and why is it so common, especially in industrialized societies? Why don’t we have treatments that distinguish between different forms of breast cancer or between cancer cells and normal dividing cells?”

Instead of finding answers, Ehrenreich kept coming across articles by women who claimed that they owed their survival to a “positive attitude” – even though the death rate from breast cancer has changed little since the 1930s and there is no consistent evidence that staying upbeat extends the life of those who have the disease, though it may have many other benefits. She also found that “positive thinking” can exact a terrible price in self-blame if a cancer defies treatment. As the oncology nurse Cynthia Rittenberg has written, the pressure to think positively is “an additional burden to an already devastated patient.”

“Smile or Die” recycles some of the material from Ehrenreich’s award-winning essay, “Welcome to Cancerland,” but is still the strongest chapter in Bright-sided. Other sections of the book describe the wholesale effects of “positive thinking” better than they show their retail cost to ordinary Americans. Ehrenreich argues cogently that the emerging field of “positive psychology” is based heavily on bad or no science. But the same is also true of some older forms of therapy that apply similar principles, as the Robyn Dawes documented in his superb indictment of the betrayal of scientific standards in psychotherapy, House of Cards (Free Press, 1996). So why focus on “positive psychology” when other types of therapy have done more damage, if only because they are more widely used? Ehrenreich describes an unflattering interview with the high priest of “positive psychology,” the psychologist Martin Seligman. But she seems to have talked to no one burned by his teachings – which shouldn’t have been hard to do, given that more than 200 schools and colleges offer courses in his field.

In a chapter called “God Wants You to Be Rich,” Ehrenreich faults the so-called “prosperity gospel” preached by superstar pastors like Joel Osteen, whose churches offer “services that might, in more generous nations, be provided by the secular welfare state,” such as pre- and after-school programs. Certainly those ministries may foster self-blame. (If God wants you to be rich and you’re not, you don’t have enough faith.) But if the churches that promote the “prosperity gospel” are offering low- or no-cost day care that enables parents to seek prosperity by holding jobs, doesn’t that count for something? You sense that such programs are exactly kind of thing that Ehrenreich might love, if only they weren’t endorsed by pastors who wear too much gel in their mullets.

No less important: A blurred line exists between innate optimism – which may be genetic — and the enforced optimism of disciplines like “positive psychology” and the “prosperity gospel.” To what extent are advocates of “positive thinking” creating an attitude and to what extent are tapping or reinforcing one that’s already there? Ehrenreich sidesteps the question. But if optimism is in our genes, it may do little good to argue as she does that we need replace “positive thinking” with a “vigilant realism.” Joseph Hallinan takes a less extensive but more practical approach to the subject in his Why We Make Mistakes (Broadway, 2009), which deals in part with the research on errors based on overconfidence – a trait often indistinguishable from “positive thinking.”

Overall Bright-sided is much more theoretical than Nickled and Dimed, for which Ehrenreich took a series of low-wage jobs to show how corporations exploit blue-collar workers, or her more recent Bait and Switch. But it makes a needed assault on an idea that too often goes unchallenged in America: that “positive thinking” is always a good thing. Ehrenreich is right that a deep and unacknowledged anxiety often underlies efforts to block out unpleasant thoughts. “Positive thinking” requires a continual effort to deflect “negative” ideas, she notes, and it can be exhausting. “The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or controlling their thoughts,” she writes. “Positive thinking may be a quintessentially American activity, associated in our minds with both individual and national success, but it is driven by a terrible insecurity.”

Best line: Ehrenreich notes that breast cancer has given rise to a highly commercialized industry of products for patients, including “infantilizing” teddy bears: “Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars.”

Worst line: “All the motivators and gurus of positivity agree that it is a mistake to watch the news.” How does Ehrenreich know? Has she talked to them all? In my experience the self-styled motivators, with a few exceptions including Rhonda Byrne (The Secret), urge people to limit – not eliminate – exposure to bad news.

Editor: Sara Bershtel

Published: October 2009

Read an excerpt (the first pages) from Bright-sided or listen to an audio excerpt.

Furthermore: For more on optimism and illness, see the post “‘The Tyranny of Positive Thinking’ and Cancer Patients — A Physician-Author Says That It’s Not Always Best to Tell People to ‘Be Optimistic’.”

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

October 26, 2009

Tomorrow — ‘Smile or Die,’ a Review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Bright-sided’

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Why do Americans see silver linings that don’t exist? Tomorrow: a review Barbara Ehrenreich’s bestselling Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, which takes aim at the “positive psychology” movement, the “prosperty gospel” of superstar pastors like Joel Osteen, the cult of optimism in breast-cancer treatment, and more.

Getting Lucky at Harvard — Ben Mezrich’s Tale of the Founding of Facebook, ‘The Accidental Billionaires’

That red lace bra on the cover is the first red flag

The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal. By Ben Mezrich. Doubleday, 260 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

A new art form may have emerged in this heavy-breathing, sensationalized account of the founding of Facebook: pulp nonfiction. Ben Mezrich warns you up front that he wrote The Accidental Billionaires without interviewing Mark Zuckerberg, who created the first version of the social networking site by hacking into Harvard University computers, downloading students’ photos, and posting them online.

With no access to the prime mover of Facebook, Mezrich tells his tale through techniques such as “re-created dialogue,” scenes set in “likely” settings, and “imagined” descriptions. He also draws heavily on talks with Eduardo Saverin, who helped to bankroll the start-up as a Harvard undergraduate and later successfully sued for the right to be listed as a co-founder of the site. You know all those “disgruntled former employees” you used to read about before a lot of newspapers banned both that clichéd phrase and stories by driven their views? Mezrich doesn’t use those words — and Saverin wasn’t an employee but a partner — but The Accidental Billionaires suggests why the technique has fallen out of favor.

You get a fine sense of the book from a bathroom sex scene that has Saverin undressing a “tall, slender Asian girl” at Harvard who wears a red lace bra under a white shirt. Men, how often have you fantasized about finding yourself in such a situation only to discover to your regret that wearing a red bra under a white shirt is something that women never, ever do? Have you been forced to conclude that for far too many members of the other sex, this particular sartorial blunder makes visible panty line look like chump change? Are you wondering if that “Asian girl” was simply displaying an admirable loyalty to her school by wearing its colors for sex in a bathroom stall and that you haven’t seen it because you haven’t dated enough Harvard undergraduates lately? Or do you think the woman didn’t wear that combination but that someone decided that a red bra would work best on a book cover? Perhaps Mezrich believes people won’t mind his failure to answer questions like these. Or perhaps he thinks, as he writes in another context, “they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.”

Best line: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s business card has a line running across the center that says, “I’m the CEO – Bitch.”

Worst lines: No. 1: “the end was really a foregone conclusion.” No. 2: “the moment itself became historical only in retrospect.” No. 3: “Thankfully, the Phoenix leadership hadn’t traced the fiasco back to Eduardo yet — though even if they did, they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.” No. 4: “Eduardo had spent many evenings in the stacks of Widener – poring through the works of economic theorists such as Adam Smith, John Mills [sic], even Galbraith.” No. 5 “[Lawrence] Summers shook his head. His jowls reverberated with the motion, like fleshy waves swirling in an epidermal storm.” No. 6: “Slowly, Summers leaned forward, and his chubby hand crawled across his desk.” No. 7: “Both had bright red lipstick and too much eyeshadow, but they were damn cute — and they were smiling and pointing right at him.” No. 8: “His hands roamed under her open white shirt, tracing the soft material of her red bra, his fingers lingering over her perky, round breasts, touching the silky texture of her perfect caramel skin. She gasped, her lips closing against the side of his neck, her tongue leaping out, tasting him. His entire body started to quiver, and he rocked forward, pushing her harder against the stall, feeling her writhe into him. His lips found her ear and she gasped again –”  No. 9:At nine a.m. in the morning, in the Eliot dining hall, he had walked right up to the hottest girl he knew – Marsha, blond, buxom, in reality an econ major but she looked like a psychology major.” No. 10: “Maybe feeding the chicken chicken was a mistake; how was he supposed to know what chickens ate? The thing hadn’t come with a manual. Eduardo had gone to a Jewish prep school in Miami. What the hell did Jews know about chickens, other than the fact that they made good soup?”

Editor: Bill Thomas

Published: July 2009

About the author: Mezrich wrote Bringing Down the House, made into the movie 21. He lives in Boston. Kevin Spacey is producing a movie version of The Accidental Billionaires called The Social Network.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

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