One-Minute Book Reviews

December 15, 2008

Laurence Bergreen’s ‘Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

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The latest in an occasional series of posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t finish them

Title: Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. By Laurence Bergreen. Vintage, 432 pp., $16.95, paperback.

What it is: A biography the 13th-century Venetian explorer who became the world’s first adventure traveler. Marco Polo was named one of the Top 10 Biographies of the year by the American Library Association’s Booklist magazine.

How much I read: About 75 pages (the first and last chapters and parts of others).

Why I stopped reading: Marco had too much competition from holiday parties. I liked the book a lot and would probably have finished it if I’d started it in June.

Best line in what I read: “In disgrace, Andrea Dandolo lashed himself to his flagship’s mast and beat his head against it until he died of a fractured skull, thus depriving the Genoese of the satisfaction of executing him.” Dandolo led a Venetian fleet of 96 ships defeated by the Genoese in the Battle of Curzola. Marco Polo has many lines as memorable as this one.

Worst line in what I read: “ … although he was done with his book, it was not done with him.” Bergreen means “finished.”

Comments: A strange thing happened as I was thinking about the best books I’d read in 2008: I realized that none was a new biography when, in a typical year, I read several or more. So I picked up Marco Polo, an acclaimed 2007 biography that recently came out in paperback. A blurb from Simon Winchester calls Bergreen “America’s liveliest biographer,” and to judge by what I read, he’s at least one of the liveliest.

Bergreen has a flair for storytelling that includes an ability to evoke people and places in a few lines. He can also sum up broad historical forces lucidly. Here’s the first paragraph of his brief explanation of the cause of the Crusades:

“The Crusades began with a simple goal: to permit Christians to continue to make pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulcher, the tomb in Jerusalem in which the body of the crucified Jesus was believed to be laid to rest. Christians had been visiting this holiest of Christian shrines at least since the eighth century AD. Matters changed dramatically in 1009 when Hakim, the Fatimid caliph – that is, the Muslim ruler – of Cairo, called for the Holy Sepulcher’s destruction. Afterward, unlucky Christians and Jews who found themselves in Jerusalem were likely to be persecuted, and the city’s Christian quarter was surrounded by a forbidding wall that controlled access. Within five years, thousands of churches had been burned or ransacked.”

Try to rewrite that paragraph and say as much in fewer words, and you’ll see how good Bergreen is. Would that all of our history professors had been so concise!

Recommendation? Marco Polo is much longer than Longitude but may appeal to its fans. Like Dava Sobel’s bestseller, Bergreen’s book tells well-written story that involves the history of exploration.

Read an excerpt and more at www.laurencebergreen.com.

About the author: Bergreen also wrote Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, and other books.

© 2008 All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 28, 2008

Eat, Pray, Clone – Noelle Oxenhandler’s Memoir, ‘The Wishing Year’

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The author had a vision of Aunt Jemima during a "shamanic journey."

After her divorce, a California woman looked for a new home, lover and sense of spiritual community.

The Wishing Year: A House, A Man, My Soul: A Memoir of Fulfilled Desire. By Noelle Oxenhandler. Random House, 282 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Bookstores should probably display The Wishing Year in a section called “Eat, Pray, Clone.” This book is one of the first – but certainly won’t be the last – to join the rush to imitate Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir of her post-divorce travels in Italy, India and Indonesia.

The Wishing Year is nonetheless very different book, and not just because Noelle Oxenhandler wanted a new home, a lover and spiritual “healing” instead of Gilbert’s “pleasure,” “devotion” and “balance.” I’m apparently one of the few Americans who was underwhelmed by Eat, Pray, Love, which made life after divorce sound like an exercise in high-flying consumerism. But Gilbert has strengths: She’s witty, she writes in a breezy journalistic style, and, above all, she puts herself out there. She’s an emotional exhibitionist. Want to know which incident drove her to confess that she found masturbation “a handy tool”? Or hear about how she went to Bali for “balance” but had so much sex with her new boyfriend that she got a bladder infection and had to drink a vile witch-doctor’s brew to cure it? God love her, Gilbert will tell you.

Oxenhandler has practiced Buddhism for 30 years and has a more reserved and contemplative temperament and a more literary writing style. Except for relatively brief trips to France and Hawaii, she also tended to stay close to home as she pursued her goal: She wanted to spend a year “wishing brazenly” for earthly things such as a house instead of intangibles like peace or compassion, as was her wont. She defines “wishing brazenly” vaguely enough that it’s hard to know what it involves beyond “focused attention.”

But it doesn’t seem have included anything so crass as the usual advice from business gurus: Set goals, break them into parts, work on them daily, and monitor your progress. Oxenhandler plunged instead into a series of New Age-y activities that reflected her interest in Far Eastern mysticism. She had a “fire ceremony” to burn away her “remorse” for her failed marriage, which ended when she and her married Zen teacher fell in love. She cut dollar bills into tiny rectangles to suggest an abundance of money. (“I know it’s a crime to cut legal tender,” she writes, “but if anyone questions me, I’ve done my research and I’ve got my answer ready: Don’t you know anything about imitative magic?”) At a “shamanic journey” she had a vision of the fictional Aunt Jemima, who later gave her advice on how to spend Thanksgiving. If Oxenhandler were a less graceful writer, you might quit long before she watches a film about The Secret.

By the end of The Wishing Year, Oxenhandler has fulfilled some of her desires, including her wish to own a house. She credits this partly to her newly “focused attention.” But she undermines this claim — and much of her story — when she tells a stranger in the last chapter she’s writing a book on wishing. The belated admission that she had financial stake in her pursuits leaves you wondering: Did she really pursue some of the loopier activities she describes because she wanted to test her ideas about wishing? Or did she do it because without them she wouldn’t have had a book?

Eat, Pray, Love raised similar questions but with less damage to its credibility. Gilbert’s book had a dual purpose: that of a memoir of divorce and of a travelogue. And you believe that she wanted to visit places like Bali. Who wouldn’t?

But Oxenhandler casts her book primarily as an inquiry into questions like: “Does a wish have power?” and “If so, what kind of power is it, and how can that power be tapped?” She is coy about when she got a book contract. But it’s possible that a timely advance had more to do with her ability to buy a house than any “shamanic journey.” If so, it would have been fairer to readers to say that. And it might have made for a more interesting and cohesive book. A major question left unanswered is: Where did she find the money for the downpayment apart from a maternal gift that she admits didn’t provide nearly what she needed?

Memoirs have been tarnished recently by writers who have trampled on facts or failed to supply all that their stories require. One critic has said that more and more of their authors seem take as their premise, “It’s true if I say it is.” The Wishing Year is yet another memoir that leaves you thinking more about what it didn’t say than what it did.

Best line: The first: “It is, in itself, an ancient wish: the wish that a wish makes something happen.”

Worst line: Oxenhandler quotes Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” and adds: “And a wish, as I understand it, is a desire with feathers – an arrow’s feathers and an arrow’s sharp point.
“So then, how is a wish distinguished from a hope? To me, it’s the sharp point that makes the difference. For while hope implies loft, the aspiration to soar toward what is yet to come, I see it primarily as an inner state…. As for a wish: only with both feathers and a sharp point can it reach what it aims for …”
That a wish can come to fruition only if it has “feathers and a sharp point” is clearly untrue. Some wishes go unfulfilled because of, for example, bad luck or government policies. Would Oxenhandler say that starving people in Darfur can achieve their wish for food “only” if their wish has feathers and a sharp point? Or that very ill Americans who lack health insurance can achieve their wish for treatment “only” if their wish has those things? Oxenhandler makes generalizations as a privileged, well-educated, middle-class America that, if you try apply them to other groups, sound like blaming the victim.

Recommendation? This book might make a good gift for your New Age-iest friend – say, somebody who still throws the I Ching. Read the reader-reviews on Amazon if you can’t decide whether to give this to a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, because some deal with this.

Editor: Caroline Sutton

Published: July 2008 www.noelleoxenhandler.com

Read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400064854

Furthermore: Oxenhandler lives in California. She wrote A Grief Out of Season.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books, catalogs, advance reading copies, print or electronic press releases or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors or agents.

© 2008 JaniceHarayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 6, 2008

‘Speaker Pelosi, I Named My Dog After You’ And Other Things Nancy Pelosi Has Heard in More than 20 Years in Politics

How do you become the highest-ranking elected female official in the U.S.? Pelosi didn’t iron her husband’s shirts

Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters. By Nancy Pelosi with Amy Hill Hearth. Doubleday, 180 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

This book has inspired toxic comments on Amazon, apparently coming both from Republicans opposed to Nancy Pelosi’s liberal politics and Democrats enraged by her refusal to support impeachment proceedings against George W. Bush. Those diatribes may be too harsh. How bad can a book be when it includes an admission by the nation’s highest-ranking elected female official that she got where she is partly by declining to ironing her husband’s shirts?

Know Your Power isn’t a definitive autobiography but a brief memoir that its publisher optimistically but rightly categorizes as “motivational.” And it would be welcome if only because it offers an alternate model to any woman who thinks she could never meet Sarah Palin’s standard of running for high office as the mother of an infant and four other children. An implicit message of Know Your Power is: You don’t have to.

In this book Pelosi describes how she found her rewards sequentially. She got her start in politics when the mayor of San Francisco appointed her to the Library Commission while she was a full-time wife, mother, and volunteer who had given birth to five children in six years. But she didn’t become Speaker of the House until decades later. After becoming a Congresswoman, Pelosi seems to have accepted that she could never be the perfect wife envisioned by some of the women’s magazines: She has represented her California district since 1987, and her husband has never lived in Washington. A cornerstone of her philosophy of life is, “Organize, don’t agonize.”

Pelosi gives a strong sense of the rewards of a life in politics, some learned from her father, a Congressman from Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. She also sees the comic absurdities faced by elected officials of both sexes. One fan told her, “Speaker Pelosi, I named my dog after you.” One of the strongest sections of the book deals with her remarkable mother, who raised seven children — one of whom died at the age of three — and made sacrifices that indirectly underscore the need for elected female officials of both parties.

“My mother was a wonderful wife and parent, and she was also an entrepreneur and visionary,” Pelosi writes. “She started law school but had to stop when three of her sons had whooping cough at the same time. She made astute investments, but Daddy would not sign off on them (which, sadly, would have been necessary at the time). She had a patent on the first device to apply steam to the face, called Velex – Beauty by Vapor. It was her brainchild, and she had customers throughout the United States, but Daddy wanted her close to home.”

Amid such reminiscences, Pelosi offers advice to anyone who aspires to career in public service. “Don’t overstate what you will deliver, and always complete the task agreed to.” “Quality childcare is the missing link in the chain of progress for women and families.” Then there’s the advice she got from Lindy Boggs, former Congresswoman from Louisiana: “Never fight a fight as if it’s your last one.”

Some of the nastiness in politics today clearly results from the problem noted by Boggs, that many elected officials fight every fight as if it were their last. It’s easier to take an end-justifies-the-means view if you think you’ll never face your opponent — or American voters — again. Partly for that reason, if Know Your Power is billed as a book for “America’s Daughters,” it has a message for American’s sons, too.

Best line: On why she majored in history at Trinity College in Washington. D.C.: “I had intended to major in political science, but at Trinity at that time you had to major in history in order to study political science. Our teachers often quoted the great English historian J.R. Seeley’s aphorism: History without political science has no fruit. Political science without history has no root.” As someone who majored in political science major, I think Trinity had it right here. I had good poli sci professors but almost no history courses, which left me with an inadequate context for some of their lessons. If I had it to do over, I would major in history or English, which might have required me to take a few Shakespeare courses. I thought I had enough Shakespeare partly because I’d had a wonderful introduction to his greatest plays in high school. Wrong. You never have enough Shakespeare, especially if you’re a writer.

Worst lines: “This is an historic moment …” “This was a historic day in our house.” Pelosi apparently can’t decide whether its “an historic” or “a historic” and is hedging her bets. “A historic” is correct. To oversimplify: “An historic” dates to the early English settlers of our continent, many of whom dropped the “h” at the beginning of words, and the construction perpetuates the outdated language.

Recommendation? Know Your Power has crossover appeal. Doubleday has packaged it as a book for adults, and in bookstores and libraries, you’ll find it with the new adult nonfiction. But this book may especially appeal to teenage girls, including college students, who are hoping to go into public service.

Reading group guide: Doubleday has posted one at doubleday.com/2008/07/28/know-your-power-by-nancy-pelosi/, but this is a guide that’s almost worse than none. Sample questions: ” What roles do women occupy, or have they occupied, in your family? Did you have older female relatives who worked while raising a family?” These questions do not engage the serious issues Pelosi raises. You could ask them about almost any book by any female author from Edith Wharton to Toni Morrison.

Published: July 2008

Furthermore: Pelosi represents California’s 8th Congressional District, which includes much of San Francisco. She became Speaker of the House in January 2007 www.house.gov/pelosi/biography/bio.html.

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

August 20, 2008

‘Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila’ – A Portrait of the First African to Win a Gold Medal at the Olympics

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The band couldn’t find the Ethiopian national anthem when a former bodyguard for Haile Selassie became the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in the signature event of the Olympics

Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila. By Paul Rambali. Serpent’s Tail, 315 pp., $20, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This is a very strange book about the first African to win a gold medal at the Olympics and the man some regard as the greatest marathoner of all time. Born in rural Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila served as a bodyguard for Emperor Haile Selassie before running barefoot to his first gold medal at the Rome games in 1960. Four years later, wearing shoes and socks in Tokyo, Bikila became the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in the marathon:

“Bikila was so euphoric that it mattered not if the band could not find the score for the Ethiopian national anthem … and played the Japanese anthem instead,” David Miller writes in Athens to Athens.

Journalist Paul Rambali tells Bikila’s story in a book that its publisher bills as a biography but that reads more like a novelization. From the first sentence onward, Rambali uses the literary device of limited omniscient narration: He goes inside Bikila’s head and, in alternating chapters, that of his coach, Onni Niskanen, and describes thoughts he appears to have had no way of knowing.

This device might have worked beautifully in a brief children’s biography, an art form that allows more leeway for the technique. As it is, too much of Barefoot Runner defies belief for a work labeled “nonfiction.”

Bikila died of a brain hemorrhage in his early 40s, which may help to explain why no definitive biography of him has appeared, nearly a half century after he struck gold in Rome. But lesser athletes have had better books written about them. The world will owe a debt to anyone who gives this great Olympian the great biography he deserves.

Best line: Rambali explains why Bikila ran barefoot in Rome, though he provides no source for it. He says that when Bikila, among other runners, went to the Adidas stand in the Olympic village to get shoes, there were no shoes that fit him: “His big toes were too large and his outside toes too small. ‘They’re almost ingrown,’ said the Adidas man. He was curious about Abebe’s feet and said he had never seen anything like them: the soles and heels were as hard as corns! He told the major [Onni Niskanen] they had given away 1,500 pairs of shoes and they had hardly any left … They couldn’t find a pair of shoes anywhere that Abebe was comfortable with and finally the major had decided that, since there wouldn’t be time to properly break in a new pair, Abebe would race barefoot.”

Worst line: “The old women shouted questions at him as he passed. He was always running, it was true. If he didn’t answer them, it wasn’t because he was out breath, for he was never out of breath.” This early comment sets the tone for the rest of the book. Has the world ever had a distance runner who was “never out of breath”?

Published: June 2007 www.serpentstail.com/book?id=10906

Furthermore: A recent review in the Guardian says that Tim Judah takes a more journalistic approach to Bikila’s life in his Bikila: Ethiopia’s Marathon Champion (Reportage Press, 2008), which doesn’t appear to have reached the U.S. www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jul/27/sportandleisure?gusrc=rss&feed=books, and provides a useful comparison of that book and Barefoot Runner.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist.

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

June 16, 2008

Tina Brown’s ‘The Diana Chronicles’: Now in Paperback

Diana Spencer was nine years old when her father sent her to a boarding school where she won “perhaps the most endearing airhead award ever: the prize for best-kept guinea pig.” With such sharp observations, Tina Brown comes close to pulling a rabbit out of a diamond tiara in The Diana Chronicles (Broadway, 576 pp., $15.95, paperback). Brown tells us little that hasn’t been said by others about Diana’s character and motivations. And what she says often comes from sources that are unnamed or so dubious that they might not have made it past the fact-checkers at Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, magazines she used to edit. But The Diana Chronicles is far better than earlier biographies by Andrew Morton, Lady Colin Campbell and others – not just because it is livelier and more comprehensive but because Brown finds the middle ground between axe-grinding and hagiography. Click here to read a full review of the book oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/07/09/.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.Janiceharayda.com

April 9, 2008

Out, Damn’d Ferrari! Father Doesn’t Know Best in Liza Campbell’s ‘A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle’

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Hail falls on the family of a modern Thane of Cawdor

A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle. By Liza Campbell. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, 323 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

A Charmed Life is a high-class version of that deathless series in the Star, “Stars Without Make-up.” Instead of mascara-free actresses, this memoir gives us sobriety-free Scottish aristocrats.

At the age of 30, Hugh Campbell inherited the title of Thane of Cawdor and vast wealth that included two stately homes, four ruined castles and a hundred thousand acres of land. He promptly moved his wife and children from their estate in Wales to the family seat, Cawdor Castle, in the Scottish Highlands. The new home became his Dunsinane, or so it appears from A Charmed Life.

Hugh Campbell seems to have had a self-destructive romantic streak long before the move to Cawdor threw it into ionospheric relief. As the idea of free love had spread in the 1960s, he went “haywire with the frontrunners,” his daughter Liza writes:

“He dressed like a Restoration buck, wearing scarlet velvet jackets with black frogging, floppy cuffs and outsize buckles on his belts and shoes, the heels of which were covered in red patent leather to match the jacket.”

At Cawdor, the new thane devolved into an alcoholic, cocaine-addicted, serial adulterer who drove away his sainted first wife and deprived his son his birthright, his daughter says. He also smashed up a fleet of Jaguars and, insisting that the cause of his accidents lay in their faulty design, took to driving a lime-green Ferrari. His widow, his second wife, has disputed some of this in the British media. And Campbell sinks into pop-psychological goop when she tries to explain her father’s pathology: She says that when her paternal grandfather broke his wife’s toe, “he showed his son that physical abuse was an option” – as though there weren’t men who have seen such force without resorting to it or who resort to it without having seen it.

But Campbell is better reporter than analyst of her family’s woes, and she describes an offbeat cast of friends and relatives with a flair that occasionally resembles Nancy Mitford’s in Love in a Cold Climate. A friend of her grandfather’s preferred ferns to toilet paper and, when he traveled south from his Scottish palace, “took along a suitcase packed with bracken fronds, since London hotels were unable to cater for this particular requirement.” An aunt met her husband at Oxford “where he would wander through the quads in a top hat with a pet mouse that ran round the brim.”

Such vivid glimpses of a vanishing world help to make this book more than another memoir of an imploding family. So do Campbell’s wit, sharp observations on life and refusal to tack on the artificially upbeat ending of so many American memoirs of family turbulence. Her chilling comment on a hunting accident that left a farmer’s teenage son with terrible groin injuries sums up a theme of this book:

“It was my first realization that something profound and permanent can happen in an instant and, worse, never be undone. It took a while to realize that life doesn’t deliver a single such instance, but an endless series of them.”

Best line: “Of all the things drummed into us, the only ones with any application to the modern world were the importance of being polite to strangers, and a sketchy knowledge of trees.”

Worst line: “Something that is seldom acknowledged is how incredibly common addiction is – maybe as high as one in three.” Don’t they get Oprah in the U.K.?

Published: October 2007 www.thomasdunnebooks.com

Read an excerpt at www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/23/.

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

March 17, 2008

A Colorful Irish Politician Gets Another Hurrah in a Fine Biography

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Many people know the flamboyant Irish politician James Michael Curley only through Edwin O’Connor’s novel The Last Hurrah or its excellent film version, which starred Spencer Tracy in one of his greatest roles. But the four-time Boston mayor (who spent part of his last term in jail) has also inspired a fine biography, Jack Beatty’s The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1874–1958) (DaCapo, $22.50). Did people really sing “Vote often and early for Curley” as in John Ford’s film? Beatty deals with this and other provocative questions in a lively and well-paced account that holds its own against the many good books about Irish politicians who are better-known, including the Kennedys. Any mayor who is leading a parade today would be lucky if, several decades from now, a biographer as conscientious as Beatty decided to start looking into some of the myths about his or her life.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 21, 2007

Elizabeth Matthews Makes a Stylish Debut in Her Picture-Book Biography, ‘Different Like Coco’

Different Like Coco. By Elizabeth Matthews. Candlewick, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Elizabeth Matthews makes a few missteps in this sparkling picture-book biography of Coco Chanel that may cost her a shot at a Caldecott Medal. But Different Like Coco marks the arrival of a gifted new author-illustrator who will certainly be in the running in the future if she keeps turning out work of this quality.

Matthews slips a few quasi-anachronisms into her story of the poor but energetic French girl who learned to sew at a convent school, then revolutionized early 20th-century fashion with designs that both reflected and fostered the emancipation of women. Young Coco plays with a roll of toilet paper and uses electric lamps. And while such an impoverished girl could have had those luxuries in the late-19th century, it’s so unlikely that the images are jarring. It’s similarly distracting to read that Coco went to school “in Auvergne” instead of “in the Auvergne.”

But such small problems ultimately may matter about as much as the complaint often made about the creator of Where the Wild Things Are: “Maurice Sendak can’t draw faces.” Who cares when an author’s work has so much else going for it? Matthews has that signal virtue in her field: a lively and distinctive artistic style that children will recognize from one book to the next. In this one she works in pen-and-ink washed with watercolors that are subtle but not – as in so many picture books – insipid. Her characters have snout-like noses, prominent eyelids and mouths that convey a range of expressions, midway between realism and caricature. The images have a different style but an amusing spirit similar to that of some of Jean Fritz’s acclaimed books about the colonial era, including Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? and Why Don’t You Get a Horse, Sam Adams?

Matthews has also entered a genre that needs writers of her talent. There are far too few good picture-book biographies for children under age 9. Because Matthews has a light touch, she would be an ideal author for picture-book biographies of female pioneers in comedy, such as Lucille Ball. From Different Like Coco to Funny Like Lucy? It could happen, especially if the American Library Association www.ala.org gives Matthews some encouragement when it hands out its awards in January.

Best line/picture: All display a fine ability to draw and sense of color. Different Like Coco also has outstanding endpapers, sayings by Chanel in a white font on a black field, that typify the attention to detail at Candlewick.

Worst line/picture: The electric lamps not only look anachronistic but don’t have seem to have cords or pull chains.

Published: March 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Matthews lives in Rhode Island and attended that incubator of picture-book talent, Rhode Island School of Design.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 19, 2007

Waving a Red-and-White Towel for ‘Veeck — As in Wreck’: The Best Book Ever Written About Cleveland Baseball?

He sent a midget to the plate in St. Louis, inadvertently caused a fan riot in Chicago and brought the first black player, Larry Doby, into the American League in Cleveland

By Janice Harayda

One of the first things I asked my new co-workers after I moved to Ohio to become the book editor of the Plain Dealer was, “What are the best books about Cleveland?” Many people mentioned the memoirs of the most colorful owner in the history of the Cleveland Indians, Veeck — As in Wreck : The Autobiography of Bill Veeck, by Bill Veeck with Ed Linn, with a foreword by Bob Verdi (University of Chicago Press, $16, paperback).

I later learned that ardent baseball fans regard this straight-talking book as one of the best ever written about the sport. And its admirers include the ex-baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who listed it among his five favorites in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.

“Bill Veeck’s memoir is an irreverent and funny account of his days as an unorthodox baseball owner — and indeed he did try some silly tricks to draw crowds,” Vincent wrote. “Sometimes he went over the line, as with Eddie Gaedel, the midget he sent up to bat for the St. Louis Browns in 1951, and ‘Disco Demolition Night,’ which turned into a fan riot in 1979, when he owed the Chicago White Sox. But Veeck also made a serious and singular contribution to the game in 1947 when, as the owner of the Cleveland Indians, he brought the first black player, Larry Doby, into the American League. But because Jackie Robinson preceded Doby into the major leagues by a few months, both Doby and Veeck have been somewhat overlooked … Bill Veeck may have been a bit of a wreck, but he deserves much more attention and credit than he has received.”

One sign of the enduring importance of Veeck — As in Wreck is that its latest edition comes from the distinguished University of Chicago Press (which, it’s safe to say, is not going to be publishing Dennis Rodman‘s Bad as I Wanna Be a half century from now). You might say that the book, first published in 1962, is the rare sports memoir for which fans still wave the literary equivalent those red-and-white Tribe towels that you’ve seen if you’ve watched the American League Championship Series. You can read an excerpt from Veeck — As in Wreck on site for the University of Chicago Press: www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/852180.html.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 26, 2007

Snogging and Blogging in Bruna Surfistinha’s ‘The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl’

Raquel Pacheco, a prostitute who worked under the name Bruna Surfistinha, blogged about her clients’ sexual performance

The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl. By Bruna Surfistinha/Raquel Pacheco. Interviewed by Jorge Tarquini. Translated by Alison Entrekin. Bloomsbury USA, 176 pp., $14.95.

By Janice Harayda

Raquel Pacheco writes about as well as Henry James would have run a brothel. This isn’t surprising given that she was a high school dropout and unknown teenage prostitute in Brazil until she started blogging about her clients’ sexual performance.

Then all hell broke loose – hell being, in this case, a book contract, a movie deal and write-ups in newspapers like the New York Times. But the prose doesn’t exactly sizzle in this memoir of her several years as a prostitute who used the name Bruna Surfistinha (“Bruna the Little Surfer Girl”). (Writing sample: “Yay! Finally someone invited me to a swingers’ club!!!”) Pacheco, now in her early 20s. says she quit prostitution just before her 21st birthday. And her memoir reads the way your high school diary might if you’d had much more sex and kept score in Portuguese, then had your words translated it into British English, so that people kept asking you questions like, “How ’bout a wank?”

Pacheco intersperses tales of turning tricks with details of her well-off but troubled childhood, marked by bulimia, truancy and shoplifting. Partly for this reason, her book isn’t sexy enough to be erotica or single-minded enough to be pornography. Nor does it have much to offer in the way of advice. A brief section of sex tips tells you little more women’s magazines do. (Try different rooms, like the kitchen.) And the advice seems pitched to people decades behind Americans in their views on sex. “Some people think sex should be like in porn films: the guy wildly banging the girl as if he were drilling through asphalt,” she writes. Don’t they get reruns of Sex and the City in Brazil and know how mercilessly that show would have lampooned those people?

Best line: “Love is blind, deaf and mindless. But mute, never.

Worst line (tie): No. 1: “In almost three years in this business, by my count, I think I’ve had sex with more than 1,000 men. In theory it might not sound like a lot …” No. 2: “I’m a Spiritualist, because I believe that on the ‘other side’ there is everything we have here. Even hospitals.”

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: February 2007 (first American edition). June 2007 (paperback edition).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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