One-Minute Book Reviews

March 16, 2008

No Blarney From Irish Novelist Anne Enright

Filed under: Book Awards Reality Check,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:06 pm
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Hold the green beer, and pass the good writing

Maybe it’s because I see so much tackiness masquerading as art in books. But I love the honest, exuberant tackiness of St. Patrick’s Day parades – the green moustaches, the wash-off shamrock tattoos and the toddlers in leprechaun suits perched on their parents’ shoulders. So don’t expect me to lift a digital shillelagh today and cudgel all those books that sentimentalize Ireland (which — let’s face it — at times seem to outnumber the world population of step-dancers).

But if you think the parades are so much blarney, the Irish novelist Anne Enright offers an antidote in The Gathering (Grove Atlantic, 261 pp., $14, paperback). You won’t find a whiff of green beer coming from this novel, which rightly defeated On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip for the most recent Man Booker Prize www.themanbookerprize.com. But you will find a strong, dark, well-crafted tale of eight siblings who gather in Dublin for the funeral of a brother who committed suicide. As their story unfolds, it appears that Liam’s death may have its roots in an incident in his grandparents’ era, the 1920s, when lay Catholics tried to save the city’s prostitutes by shutting down brothels.

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

March 10, 2008

National Book Critics Circle Award Reality Check: Mary Jo Bang’s ‘Elegy,’ Poems About Her Son’s Death, an ‘Addiction Catastrophe’

The latest in an occasional series on book-award winners and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Elegy: Poems. By Mary Jo Bang. Graywolf, 92 pp., $20.

What it is: Sixty-four poems about the year after the death of Bang’s 37-year-old son, an event described as an “addiction catastrophe.” Elegy consists mostly of short- or medium-lined free verse and includes the three elements of classical elegy: praise, lament and (in this case, faint) consolation.

Winner of … this year’s National Book Critics Circle award for poetry www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com

Was this one of those awards that make you wonder if the judges were all on Class B controlled substances? No. But some of the judges did seem to be enjoying the wine at the reception after the awards ceremony on Thursday night.

Worthy of a major prize? Yes, chiefly for the poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” At times Elegy reads less like poetry than therapy, strewn with banal words or phrases: “describable,” “a wince-making barrenness,” “Paxil’s myoclonal kick.” Some of its ideas might have come from a card rack at Shop-Rite or a women’s-magazine article on coping with loss. (“I love you like I love / All beautiful things.” “Grief was complicated.”) But poetry collections can justify their awards with a single poem. And Elegy does it with the exceptional “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” an homage in multi-part harmony to Bang’s son, to the Bruegel masterpiece with the same title and to poems about the painting by William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden. In this 22-line poem Bang recalls the last time she saw her son, standing on a subway platform after they had admired mosaics at the Met, and reflects that their day should be embedded in amber. Then, in the chilling final lines, she suggests a brutal truth about the isolating effect of death: “ … And how can it be / that this means nothing to anyone but me now.” Bang knows what Auden meant when he wrote in “Musee des Beaux Arts” that “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” And in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” she deals with this ageless idea in a way that is fresh and memorable.

Best line: The lines quoted above, beginning: “And how can it be.”

Worst line: The jarring pun in the line: “And my I sees.”

Published: October 2007 www.graywolfpress.org

Consider reading instead: Anne Porter’s Living Things, which has both new poems and all of those collected in her An Altogether Different Language, a National Book Award finalist www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/28/. Living Things includes the wonderful poem “For My Son Johnny,” Porter’s elegy for her son, who had what she believes was autism or schizophrenia. Bang tells you so little about her son Michael that Elegy is almost a misnomer and Grief might have been a better title. You don’t feel you know Michael from the book — you how his mother experienced his death. This isn’t a “flaw.” Poets have a right to choose their subjects. But Porter’s son Johnny is so alive on the page in “For My Son Johnny” that you learn more about him from one poem than you do about Bang’s son from her entire book. Poetry groups might want to compare how two admired contemporary poets have portrayed the loss of a mature child.

Furthermore: Bang has written four other collections of poetry. She is a professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Washington University. “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” appeared in The New Yorker. Other poems in the collection have appeared publications that include Poetry and The Paris Review.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 14, 2008

A Review of the 2008 Caldecott Medalist, Brian Selznick’s ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’

[This is a repost of an April 21 review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which won the American Library Association's 2008 Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children on January 14, 2008. No changes have been made in the review, which I stand by.]

An innovative novel for third- through sixth-graders gets an A+ for packaging and a C for writing

The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic, 533 pp., $22.99. Ages 9–12.

By Janice Harayda

Take a 12-year-old orphaned boy whose name begins with H. Write a novel about him that involves magic, a train station and a female sidekick. Get Scholastic Press to publish it … and what do you have?

No, not the latest Harry Potter book. You’ve got The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a novel about a young thief who lives in 1931 in a Paris train station, where he tries to finish a project begun by his father – fixing a broken wind-up man or automaton that may contain a secret message.

You’ve also got a novel with spectacular packaging, which may explain why it’s clambering up the best-seller lists and Martin Scorsese is rumored to want to the film rights. The Invention of Hugo Cabret merges the picture- and chapter-book formats in way that no other book for its age group has done. It has 533 pages, but the text would fill only 100 or so pages of most novels. Why the gap?

Brian Selznick tells Hugo’s story alternately through words – often just a paragraph or two per page – and 158 black-and-white pictures. The illustrations consist mostly of pencil drawings but include memorable stills from the movies of the silent filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose life helped to inspire the book. And because you can flip through the pictures at any pace, you can read the book quickly despite its bulk. On that level, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is God’s gift to reluctant readers – a novel that will give children the satisfaction of finishing a fat book but has about the same number of words as The Higher Power of Lucky.

The problem is that Selznick doesn’t write nearly as well as he draws. His prose stays oddly earthbound for a story about the power of art to take us metaphorically to the moon. Hugo and his friend Isabelle resemble generic American children, not unique French ones. Selznick did months of research on subjects like the clocks that Hugo tends the train station, where Isabelle helps out at a toy booth. But you wonder if he did any all on French children. His characters never kiss on both cheeks, as even 12-year-olds do in France. Hugo’s companions instead greet each other with Americanisms like: “I haven’t seen you in a while. How are things at the toy booth?” And they are hard to distinguish from many others in middle-grade readers.

Worse, the novel is a psychological muddle. Selnick brings up big ideas without giving them literary or emotional resolution they demand. Hugo blames himself when his father dies in a fire that erupts while he’s trying to fix the automaton that may contain a secret message: “This was all his fault! He had wanted his father to fix the machine and now, because of him, his father was dead.” Selznick, incredibly, never returns to his hero’s misplaced guilt or absolves him of it. At the end of the book, for all we know, Hugo still thinks he’s responsible and children may believe he is. Hugo also offers glib rationalizations for his habitual thievery. And while he suffers for his stealing, he appears to feel no genuine remorse for it and eventually is rewarded for his law-breaking. In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, crime pays well.

Some children may be so enthralled by the beautiful production values of this novel that they don’t see its flaws. But Elizabeth Ward was right when she wrote in the Washington Post that The Invention of Hugo Cabret is more about “the razzle-dazzle of novelty” than artistic merit: “The first movies transfixed people too, but that doesn’t mean their plots weren’t mostly pretty hokey and their characters stiffer than a girder.”

Best line: Selznick is related to the late producer David Selznick and has a contagious love of movies. He suggests the joy even in watching films at home in lines like: “Hugo closed the curtains. They aimed the projector toward one of the walls and turned it on. It clattered to life, and then the film began moving through it as though light had burst onto a wall.”

Worst line: “ … and now, because of him, his father was dead.” And a lot of children may still believe it at the end of the novel.

Published: January 2007

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to The Invention of Hugo Cabret appears in the April 21 post directly below this one and is archived with the April 2007 posts and under “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides.”

Furthermore: Selznick illustrated the Caldecott Honor book The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins.

Links: www.theinventionofhugocabret.com/

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 2, 2008

National Book Awards Reality Check: Finalist Edwidge Danticat’s ‘Brother, I’m Dying’

The latest in an occasional series on winners of or finalists for major book awards and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Brother, I’m Dying. By Edwidge Danticat. Knopf, 273 pp., $23.95.

What it is: The author’s memoir of her uncle, Joseph Dantica, who died a nightmarish death while in custody of U.S. immigration officials in Miami in 2004. Danticat lived with her uncle for eight years while growing up in Haiti and interweaves his story and hers.

A finalist for … the 2007 National Book Award for nonfiction, won by Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA www.nationalbook.org.

Was this one of those literary honors that make you wonder if the judges were all on Class B controlled substances? No.

Worthy of being a finalist for a major award? A qualified yes. Danticat’s story of the brutal and medically negligent treatment of her 81-year-old uncle may be the best account in print of what can happen to an innocent visitor wrongly detained by U.S. immigration authorities. But that story unfolds in the last 100 pages, and the writing precedes it is much less interesting and more pedestrian.

 

Best line: “When you hear that someone has died whom you’ve not seen in a long time, it’s not too difficult to pretend that it hasn’t really happened, that the person is continuing to live just as she has before, in your absence, out of your sight.”

 

Worst line: No. 1: “The colorfully painted lottery stands were still selling hundreds of tickets to hopeful dreamers.” As opposed to dreamers who weren’t hopeful? (The time frame of that line is confusing, too: hundreds of tickets a day? a week?] No. 2:My father was dying and I was pregnant. Both struck me as impossibly unreal.” How does “impossibly unreal” differ from just “impossible” or “unreal”? That “impossibly” is just padding. No. 3: The stilted, “In mid-October, my husband and I learned our child’s gender from our midwife …” Who speaks that way? Wouldn’t you just say, “We learned our baby’s sex” or “We learned that we were having a girl”? Lines like these three – and Brother, I’m Dying has many – should give pause to any awards judge, no matter how worthy the subject of a book.

 

Published: September 2007 www.aaknopf.com

 

Furthermore: Danticat also wrote Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner. She lives in Miami.

 

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 20, 2007

National Book Critics Circle Award and Man Booker Prize Reality Check, Kiran Desai’s ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

This is the third in an occasional series of posts on whether the winners and finalists for major book awards deserved their honors.

Title: The Inheritance of Loss. By Kiran Desai. Grove, 357 pp., $14, paperback.

What it is: A novel about a cynical Indian judge and his orphaned granddaughter who live with their dog and cook in a Himalayan village that sinks into violence and terror in the 1980s when Nepalese insurgents “demand their own country, or at least their own state.”

Winner of … the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and Man Booker Prize (formerly the Booker Prize).

How much I read: About 60 pages (the first two chapters and the last eight.)

Why I stopped: Desai evokes deftly the “voluptuous green” terrain of Himalayan foothills awarm black cobras as thick as a biscuit jar. But I agree with Lee Langley, who wrote in the Spectator that her Indians come across “as figures in a landscape rather than characters we are gripped by,” except for the cook and his son. (“Life on the Brink,” The Spectator www.specatator.co.uk, Sept. 9, 2006.) Because her novel involves an orphan and her grandfather living in isolation in the mountains, I also kept thinking, irrationally, that it read like a postcolonial Heidi as envisioned by Salman Rushie, which is unfair not just to Desai and Rushdie but to Johanna Spyri.

Was this one of those book awards that made you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Or if the publisher had pornographic videos of all of them? No. But the ten chapters I read were no match for such great Booker winners as Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

Best line in the pages I read: “Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss?”

Worst line in the pages I read: “Chuckling, the boys stepped off the veranda and out into the fog carrying the two trunks.”

Reading group guide: The paperback edition includes a grim three-page reading group that reads as though it had been written by an SAT examiner. The “questions” often bark orders at you beginning, “Explain,” “Discuss” or “Compare and contrast … ” The author of this one seems unaware that many people go to book clubs to have fun, not to feel as though they’re being grilled by an eighth-grade English teacher. Masochists can find the guide online at www.groveatlantic.com (though the page for The Inheritance of Loss is, at this writing, out of date and does not mention that the novel won the NBCC fiction award more than two months ago).

Published: January 2006 (Atlantic Monthly press hardcover) and August 2006 (Grove paperback.)

Links: See the March 7 post on www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com for an interview with Desai and other posts on the site for information on her NBCC fiction award.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 30, 2007

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check #2: 2007 Fiction Finalist, Alice McDermott’s ‘After This’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Awards Reality Check,Books I Didn't Finish,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am

This is the second in an occasional series of posts on whether the winners and finalists for the Pulitzer Prizes and other major book awards deserved their honors.

Title: After This. By Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 279 pp., $24. Paperback to be published by Dial Press in September 2007.

What it is: McDermott’s latest novel about Irish-Americans in postwar New York City and Long Island.

A finalist for … the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, won by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. McDermott was also a Pulitzer finalist for At Weddings and Wakes and Charming Billy, winner of a National Book Award.

How much I read: About 115 pages, more than a third of the book.

Why I stopped reading: McDermott’s writing has acquired a paunch.

Was this one of those book awards that made you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Or if the publisher had pornographic videos of all of them? No, but it makes you wonder if someone had a thumb on the scales of cosmic justice, because what I read of After This was much less worthy of its finalist status than Charming Billy was.

Comments: Alice McDermott has reached a treacherous point in her career. She’s begun to strip-mine her material and to pad what she’s said in earlier books instead of doing work that’s fresh and surprising. Maeve, the first person we meet in Charming Billy had been “a plain girl approaching thirty with … no prospects.” Mary, the first person we meet in After This, is “thirty, with no husband in sight” and “not what you’d call a good-looking woman.” This repetition of circumstance isn’t a problem in itself, because great writers – from Jane Austen to John Cheever – have returned repeatedly to characters who are similarly situated. The problem is that McDermott has so little new to say that she has strain for effect. Mary marries John Keane for no apparent reason beyond a desire to escape her loneliness and fulfill her sexual desires. From the wedding McDermott fast-forwards to a day after the birth of three of their children, when the couple’s son Michael looks at his father “as if he were an utter stranger.” A dozen pages later, John Keane feels “with utter certainty” that something bad will happen and, later in the same paragraph, senses the “utter darkness” around him. There’s no reason for the repetitive language; it’s just flab of a sort that occurs on nearly every page, sometimes in sentences that keep doubling back on themselves until you need a compass to navigate them. McDermott also skimps on dialogue and relies on exposition to drive the novel, which results in a Jamesian mannerism that doesn’t suit anybody but Henry James (and sometimes not even him). In Charming Billy she showed that she knows better, so it’s hard to fathom why she’s let her writing go as she has in After This.

Best line: “It benefited a child, she thought, to be forgotten once in a while.”

Worst line: This 305-word jawbreaker: “If she kept her back straight and her ankles crossed beneath her chair and her hands over the keys, if her fingers struck them quickly and rhythmically and the sound of all their industry filled the room, and if she remembered to take some pleasure in it, the sound, the industry, the feel of Pauline’s eyes on her back, even after Pauline had gotten up to take dictation in one of the offices, if she found some pleasure in the changing light as the afternoon moved forward, in the fading perfumes of the other girls as they passed her desk, in the good smell of the paper, the carbon, the old building itself, then time would pass and when she stood to cover her typewriter and to run another tissue over the surface of her desk, to smile apologetically at Pauline already in her hat and coat and waiting like the schoolgirl she surely must once have been for the stroke of five (adding, in her hissed stage whisper, ‘This isn’t the first time they’ve been seen together like that’), she could tell herself another day gone and not so bad at that and what else to do when you’re a single girl of thirty still at home, the war over and no prospects in sight, your body not meant for mortal sin or a man’s attention or childbearing, either, it would seem, what to do but accept it and go on – a walk to the subway, the air chilled even further without the sun but the wind not nearly so bad as it was, and the ten-top ride among the crowd of other office workers, and then the walk home, spears of crocus and daffodil rising out of the hard dirt around the caged trees and along the brick foundations, not so bad.”

Recommended? Only if you’re willing to slog through many sentences like the one quoted above. Charming Billy is a much better introduction to McDermott’s work.

Published: September 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 23, 2007

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check #1: The 2007 Biography Winner, Debby Applegate’s ‘The Most Famous Man in America’

Filed under: Biography,Book Awards,Book Awards Reality Check,Book Reviews,Christianity,History,Pulitzer Prizes,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:13 am

This is the first in an occasional series of posts on whether the winners of the Pulitzers and other book awards deserved their honors. This site reviewed the 2007 Caldecott Medalist, David Wiesner’s Flotsam, on Jan. 22 and the 2007 Newbery Medalist, Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky on Feb. 19 (reading group guide posted on Feb. 22).

Title: The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. By Debby Applegate. Doubleday hardcover, 527 pp., $27.95, and Three Leaves paperback, 560 pp., $16.95.

What it is: The biography of the most famous preacher of the 19th century, who was also an abolitionist and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Winner of … the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for biography

Was this one of those book awards that make you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Or if the editor or publisher had pornographic home videos of all of them? No

Worthy of a major award? Yes

Comments: This is a terrific biography I wouldn’t have picked up if it hadn’t won a Pulitzer. I intended to read only a few chapters and include the book in the “Books I Didn’t Finish” category on this site. But I became swept up quickly in its story of a witty and lovable but flawed preacher and the remarkable Beecher family. Near the end of his life Henry Ward Beecher became entangled in a sex scandal that led to a lurid trial and adds interest at a point when many biographies lose steam. Perhaps the most important thing I took away from this book was an understanding of how the Puritan focus on a wrathful deity gave way to the view of God as a loving presence that exists today. Debby Applegate makes a good case that Beecher was the prime mover in this tectonic shift. She writes in a conversational tone that keeps this book from becoming stuffy but occasionally leads to a phrase that sounds anachronistic in context, such as: “Henry’s first two years as a minister had been a mixed bag.”

Best line: See below.

Worst line: The title of Chapter 12, which comes from a popular rumor: “I Am Reliably Assured That Beecher Preaches to Seven or Eight of His Mistresses Every Sunday Evening.” This might be the best line if it matched the text. But on one page Applegate quotes a man as saying that “Beecher preaches to seven or eight mistresses every Sunday evening.” Two pages later, she quotes another man who says, “I am reliably assured that Beecher preaches to at least twenty of his mistresses every Sunday.” The chapter title seems to be a corruption of the two quotes. I’m inclined to cut Applegate some slack on this one, because she may have found many versions of this rumor, but not the copy editor whose job it was to catch such discrepancies.

Recommended if … you like Civil War–era history and are looking for book with wider scope than Manhunt, which I also liked. Highly recommended to history book clubs.

Editor: Gerald Howard

Published: June 2006 (Doubleday hardcover), April 2007 (Three Leaves paperback).

Links: You can read the first chapter and watch a C-SPAN interview with Applegate at www.themostfamousmaninamerica.com.

Furthermore: Debby Applegate has taught at Yale and Wesleyan universities. Her book was also a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 19, 2007

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

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

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published: November 2006

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

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

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

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

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 22, 2007

Review of 2007 Caldecott Winner: David Wiesner’s ‘Flotsam’

Filed under: Book Awards Reality Check,Caldecott Medals,Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:10 pm

Flotsam. By David Wiesner. Houghton Mifflin/Clarion, 32 pp., $17.95. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

David Wiesner won the 2007 Caldecott Medal today for an eloquent, wordless picture book that encourages children to find the magic in everyday life. Flotsam tells the story of a boy who finds an underwater camera that washes up on a beach at the New Jersey shore, where the artist spent summers as a child. (The book doesn’t name the location but shows a beach tag reading “LBI” that, along with other visual references, situates the story clearly on Long Beach Island.) Wiesner’s young hero rushes to have the film developed and finds that it reveals a fantasy world of remarkable images, beautifully rendered in lush watercolors — a red wind-up fish, an undersea flying saucer full of miniature aliens, a starfish carrying a mountain Atlas-like on its back. The boy also sees photos of children from other countries and times, including one that appears to show the Jersey shore at the turn-of-the-century (a tribute to the artist’s great-grandparents?).

After taking a photo of himself, Wiesner’s hero throws the camera back into the ocean, where it takes another fantastic journey before being found on the last page by a young girl in a tropical realm where nobody needs a beach tag. As in his wordless picture book Tuesday, Wiesner invites children (and their elders) to make up their stories to go with his images. And he provides material rich enough to captivate a variety of ages. Toddlers and younger preschoolers may enjoy simply looking at the vibrant images and pointing to creatures they recognize while adults fill in the story. Older preschoolers and young school-age children may want to make up their own tales to explain, for example, how an octopus came to be sitting on underwater armchair. (They get help from clues such as an overturned “Moving and Storage” van also resting on the bottom of the sea.) Throughout Flotsam, shifting perspectives encourage children to see the world from many angles and, above all, to find the extraordinary in ordinary life.

Best line/Picture: One that shows Wiesner’s witty use of detail: The fringe on a sofa and ottoman provide a subtle visual echo of the tentacles of an octopus sitting on an armchair.

Worst line/picture: None.

Recommended … without reservations.

Published: October 2006.

Links: www.clarionbooks.com

Furthermore: Wiesner received earlier Caldecott Medals for Tuesday and The Three Pigs. His Sector 7 and Free Fall were Caldecott Honor books. If you found this review of Flotsam helpful, you may also want to read the review of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, who won the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux. The review was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on January 27, 2007, and is archived in the Children’s Books category.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an indepdendent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on this site.

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