One-Minute Book Reviews

April 15, 2007

‘The Stories of John Cheever,’ a Titan Among Past Winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Fiction,Literature,Reading,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:12 pm

Remembering one of the great recipients of the awards to be announced today

The winners of the 2007 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced this afternoon, including the awards for five categories of books. And if the historical pattern holds, in a decade or two — if not by the end of the day tomorrow — some of the recipients will look more like midgets than giants. So before you read latest winners, why not catch up with some of the titans of past lists?

One of my favorites is The Stories of John Cheever, winner of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This masterpiece has all of Cheever’s greatest stories — including “The Swimmer,” “The Enormous Radio” and “The Country Husband” — and others that won deserved praise and bestsellerdom for their author. Many of these tales first appeared in The New Yorker in the 1950s. And as Jonathan Yardley wrote a few years ago in the Washington Post, they “have rivals but no superiors in the national literature”: “Though many gifted writers wrote memorably during that decade, four stood apart: Flannery O’Connor, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty and John Cheever.”

One of the signal virtues of The Stories of John Cheever is that Cheever was among the last great American moralists. His characters have a sharp awareness of good and evil that pervades their lives but doesn’t keep them from getting into trouble that, in most of his stories, provides a strong narrative arc. So his work operates on a level that doesn’t exist in the many modern stories that are driven by “anything goes” morality that can devolve into amorality. In the preface to the Stories, Cheever suggests another reason why his work has endured:

“These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like ‘the Cleveland Chicken,’ sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are.”

The book that wins the wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction today may well be the best novel or short story collection of 2006. But no one can know whether another book will surpass it next year. That’s all the more reason to cherish the work of a writer who remains unsurpassed among the chroniclers of his era.

The Stories of John Cheever (Vintage, $17.95, paperback) was first published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1978. The book won, in addition to the Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award and an American Book Award (now National Book Award).

Links: The names of the Pulitzer Prize winners will be announced at 3 p.m. today and posted at 3:15 p.m. at www.pulitzer.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 12, 2007

Coming Monday on One-Minute Book Reviews: An Appreciation of ‘The Stories of John Cheever’

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Fiction,News,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:46 pm

The 2007 Pulitzer Prize winners will be announced at 3 p.m. Monday and posted at 3:15 p.m. at www.pulitzer.org. Earlier in the day, One-Minute Book Reviews will post an appreciation of The Stories of John Cheever, winner of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and one of the most popular books ever to receive the award. Did it deserve its praise and bestsellerdom? To avoid missing the review and other comments on the awards, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Coming Saturday, April 14: Do you get sticker shock when you see the prices of children’s picture books? An example of how supersizing books for library story hours is driving up the cost of these books.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Robert Lacey’s ‘Great Tales From English History’ Series

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,History,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:18 am

Brief and lively essays about Winston Churchill, “Mad” King George III, Florence Nightingale and others who helped to define Britain to itself and to the world

Great Tales From English History (Book 3): Captain Cook, Samuel Johnson, Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Edward the Abdicator, and More. By Robert Lacey. Little, Brown, 305 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

Love history but lack the time to read an entire book on John Wilkes Booth or the conquest of polio? Forgotten so much of what you learned in a Western Civ course that you need to review some of it?

Consider picking up Robert Lacey’s engaging “Great Tales From English History” series, which consists of three volumes you can read in any order. Each book has 60 or so lively essays on a person or event that helped to define a year or era in Britain.

Some of the most interesting entries in the latest book deal with people little-known to most Americans, such as Edith Cavell, who ran a World War I nurses’ school in Belgium and used it to shelter British soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. (She kept her diary sewn into a footstool so it didn’t fall into the hands of Germans but was accidentally betrayed and executed by a firing squad in her nurse’s uniform.) But Lacey is also adept at showing you how much you don’t know about major figures like Winston Churchill, Horatio Nelson, Florence Nightingale and “Mad” King George III.

Lacey’s essays are short – about 1,000 words in an easy-on-the-eyes font – and take only a few minutes to read. So the “Great Tales” books could be ideal for a nightstand or for anyone who, say, spends a lot of time waiting in a car to pick up a child or spouse. Even better for some of us, Lacey has said that he hopes to expand the series to include colorful episodes from American history.

Best line: This one about Queen Victoria is typical: “Of the many photographs of Britain’s longest reigning monarch, only one shows her smiling.”

Worst line: Lacey lives in London and occasionally omits facts that, though perhaps unnecessary in Britain, would have helped here. In his essay “Voice of the People” he suggests that Churchill’s career-ending defeat in the 1945 election resulted partly from his inflammatory campaign remark that “Some form of Gestapo” would be needed to enforce the policies of the Labour Party. Lacey doesn’t say that Churchill belonged at the time to the Conservative Party. And Churchill was such a notorious party-switcher (from Conservative to Liberal to Conservative and running in one election as a self-described “constitutional anti-socialist”) that this information would have been useful.

Recommended if … you’re looking for light and diverting history, not heavy scholarship, or planning a vacation in England and want to learn about the people and events you’ll find honored on monuments. A “Great Tales” book could also make an excellent gift for a teenager who loves history or may major in it in college.

Furthermore: Other volumes in this series are Great Tales from English History (Book 1): The Truth About King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart, and More (Little, Brown 2004 and 2007 reprint) and Great Tales from English History (Book 2): Joan of Arc, the Princes in the Tower, Bloody Mary, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton, and More (Little, Brown 2005).

Published (Book 3): December 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 9, 2007

Eric Hodgins’s ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’: Still Funny After All These Years

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Fiction,Humor,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:55 pm

A classic comic novel about moving from the city to the country sends up the modern lust for property

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading yesterday’s bestsellers can be a little like trying on that pair of white vinyl go-go boots in the attic: You don’t know whether to laugh or cringe at our former tastes. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation and comic novels age faster than serious ones because so much humor depends on topical references. This classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property, and its enduring appeal lies partly in the all-too-believable naiveté of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. They fall in love with the barns, apple orchard and majestic views: “But the furnishings were in general of the era of Benjamin Harrison, with an overlay of William McKinley, and here and there a final, crowning touch of Calvin Coolidge.” And when house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, Jim and Muriel resolve to tear it down and build another on the site.

This decision sets up a superbly constructed plot in which the new house becomes the couple’s antagonist. The Blandings square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – in short, all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. But the house itself is their real opponent. Amid the soaring bills and construction delays, Mr. Blandings imagines how delightful it would be “to return to the city and move a final, ten blocks father north.” Will he throw in the drill bit and go back to the Upper East Die? Or sell the place and buy one against which he isn’t so overmatched?

Eric Hodgins controls the suspense deftly. And the late New Yorker cartoonist William Steig adds three dozen or so brilliant drawings, many of them a full page, that throw the comedy into higher relief and show how much we have lost now that the fully illustrated adult novel has almost disappeared. Along with Hodgins’s masterly text, Steig’s fanciful pictures remind us that if a man’s home is his castle, sometimes he’s the court jester instead of the king.

Best line: “It surged over Mr. Blandings that he very much wished he were back in the city … he wanted the noise of the city in his ears; the noise with which all city dwellers were in such perfect, unconscious harmony that the blast of a gas main down the block might strike the eardrums but penetrate not the brain.”

Worst line: A few expressions have become dated. When Mr. Blandings sees the contractors’ bills, he cries: “Jesus H. Mahogany Christ!”

Recommended if … you like comedy that stays close to life. Hodgins’s satire is much more realistic than that of the over-the-top novels of Christopher Buckley (whose new Boomsday involves plan to save Social Security and other benefits by giving baby boomers a financial incentive to commit suicide, known as “Voluntary Transitioning”). Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is also a nearly perfect book club book partly because: 1) It’s a classic that few people have read; 2) It’s relatively short and widely available in paperback and at libraries; 3) It deals with a situation almost anybody can appreciate; 4) It may show a new side of William Steig to members familiar only with his children’s books, such as Dr. De Soto and Shrek!; and 5) All those slackers who never finish the book can watch one of the movie versions.

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to the novel appears in the post directly below this one and is archived with the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews.

Published: 1946 (first edition), 2004 (Simon & Schuster paperback).

Furthermore: Hodgins’s novel has inspired two movies I haven’t seen – Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Low, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,’ a Modern Classic by Eric Hodgins With Illustrations by William Steig

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation. This modern classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit. Eric Hodgins (1899–1971) satirizes the modern lust for property in a comic tale of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. When house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, the couple resolve to tear it down and build another on the site. This decision sets up a plot in which they square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. Cartoonist and children’s author William Steig (1907–2003) adds to the comedy with more than three dozen fanciful drawings.

Questions For Reading Groups

1. Yesterday’s bestsellers tend to look outdated quickly, and comic novels age faster then others because so much humor hinges on references to current events. Most novels from the era of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House have gone out of print. Why do you think this one still appeals to people?

2. Eric Hodgins tweaks the naiveté of Jim and Muriel Blandings throughout his book. Did you find the two appealing even though they often make bad decisions? Why?

3. Many contemporary novelists make heavy use of brand names in describing new homes. Hodgins doesn’t. Why do you think he avoided filling his book with references to specific products? How does his novel benefit or suffer from this approach?

4. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property. But it lampoons other things, too. What are some of them?

5. Jim and Muriel Blandings tangle with tradespeople and others. But their main antagonist is the house they are building. How does Hodgins give the place enough character to keep you from feeling as though you’re reading an extended article in Better Homes and Gardens?

6. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was published at the beginning of the baby boom, when families were expanding. How do you think people might react to the novel if it were appearing in print for the first time today?

7. Much of the humor in this book springs from its tone. Sometimes the tone is ironic:

“The evil days were behind them. The delays had been galling; the mistakes costly. The experience had been bitterly won, but it won it was. Their plans were perfect, their money was in sight, and now, thank God, work had at last begun. Nothing was so cozy, Mrs. Blandings thought, as the sight of workmen plying their trade on behalf of a home …” [Page 141]

At other times, the humor is more direct and involves local speech or a play on words, as when a man refers the Lansdale Historical society as “the Hysterical Society.” [Page 178] How would you describe the overall tone of the novel? How well does it serves the book?

8. What do William Steig’s drawings add to the novel? What do you think Steig was trying to do with them? Was he trying stick closely to the text or add a dimension?

9. Other satirical novels that you may have read include Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking. All of these differ in many ways from Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. How would you compare their humor? What do they all the book have in common? What makes all of them work?

Extras:
10. Roger Kimball, co-editor of The New Criterion, wrote that the 1948 movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy is “charming … but nothing compared with the novel.” [The Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2006] If you’ve seen the movie, do you agree or disagree?

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., $12, paperback.

A review of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com on April TK, 2007, and is archived with the April posts and in the “Novels” category.

Movie Links: Eric Hodgins’s novel inspired two movies. The first was the 1948 Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy www.imdb.com/tt0040613/. The second was the 1986 The Money Pit with Tom Hans and Shelley Long www.imdb.com/title/tt0091541/.

If you found this guide helpful, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing others. The Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides cover fiction, nonfiction and poety and are posted often but not on a regular schedule, because they are created only for books that need or deserve them.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 8, 2007

Women Talk About Their Miscarriages

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews,Reading,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:44 pm

Twenty writers tell how it feels when a pregnancy ends

About What Was Lost: Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope. Edited by Jessica Berger Gross. Penguin/Plume, 288 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Collections of essays reflect the tastes of their editors, so you may find it helpful to know that Jessica Berger Gross calls herself “an organic-eating, yoga-teaching, Birkenstock-wearing granola girl.” When she miscarried after eight and a half weeks, she sobbed for days, partly because she had to put aside her dreams of “the short list of literary French names I’d choose from” and “the chic Santa Monica baby store where we’d shop.”

No doubt Gross makes herself sound shallower than she is, but her self-portrait tells you something about this collection of essays by women who miscarried between the sixth and twenty-third weeks of their pregnancies. About What Was Lost resists deep engagement with the theme described on its cover – that many women find “that instead of simply grieving for the end of a pregnancy, they are mourning the loss of a child.” Contributors to the book tend to focus on their feelings of pain and grief, and how they absorbed them, not on the complex social, medical and religious questions miscarriage can raise.

But most entries are well written, and some transcend the limits of the collection. Novelist Caroline Leavitt and poet Rachel Zucker offer trenchant and perceptive essays that deal in part with the rude comments that others made about their miscarriages. One of Leavitt’s friends cheered by giving her a handmade book of hypothetical replies to people who said things like, “At least you didn’t know the baby.” (“Yeah, and if I had, I know he would have hated you!”) Zucker heard another strain of false comfort – “these things happen for a reason” – that got on her nerves. She had to stop herself from making hostile comebacks such as, “Perhaps when the baby heard all the people around me using stupid, trite clichés like these things happen for a reason the baby thought life wasn’t worth living.” Other contributors, too, faced insensitivity, which suggests both why this collection was needed and a paradox: The people most likely to read this book are women who have miscarried, but the people who need it most may be their friends.

Best line: Rebecca Johnson, a contributing editor of Vogue, writes of a pregnancy that ended after six weeks: “One out of four pregnancies ends in miscarriage; this was simply nature’s way of saying ‘Not this one, not yet.’ As a fertility doctor whom I interviewed once said to me, ‘Nature is extraordinarily wasteful when it comes to reproduction. Look at all the acorns on the forest floor.’”

Worst line: The title About What Was Lost. The title conflicts with the theme: If miscarriage often feels more like “the loss of a child” than the end of pregnancy, why wasn’t this book called About Who Was Lost?

Editor: Danielle Friedman

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: Other contributors include journalist Joyce Maynard, novelists Sylvia Brownrigg and Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and Pam Houston, author of the short story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness. Julianna Baggott’s entry takes the form of a dialogue with her husband, the token male in the book.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary site that covers books by all kinds of people “from presidents and kings to the scum of the earth,” as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine might say. At least 50 percent of all reviews cover books by women, with reviews of books by female authors typically appearing on Monday and Wednesday and books by male authors on Tuesday and Thursday.

March 30, 2007

Bye, Bye, Birdie: Children’s Picture Books About the Death of a Pet

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,Libraries,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:30 pm

Saying goodbye to furry and feathered creatures with help from Mister Rogers, Judith Viorst, Margaret Wise Bown and others

By Janice Harayda

A popular Easter tradition during my childhood was bringing home baby chicks that died soon after the holiday in a suburban basement. This practice may survive mainly in all those yellow marshmallow candies made in the unlucky chicks’ image. But other kinds of animal deaths abound in this season of new life. Some good books about the casualties:

Nonfiction
Mister Rogers’ First Experiences: When a Pet Dies (Putnam, $5.99, paperback). By Fred Rogers. Photographs by Jim Judkis. Ages 3–6.
Fred Rogers (1928–2003) did more than host the popular PBS show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He also wrote “First Experiences,” a picture book series that offers children a gentle introduction to situations such as moving, making friends, and going to the doctor. When a Pet Dies is typical. Rogers speaks directly to children about how they may feel about losing a pet and answers basic questions such as, “What is dying?” His message is that when sad things happen, “the best place to be is near someone you love … someone who can understand how you are feeling.”

Fiction
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (Aladdin, $5.99, paperback). By Judith Viorst. Illustrated by Erik Blegvad. Ages 4–9.
Many books talk “at” children about the loss of pets. Not The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, a lovely picture book by the author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. It involves a boy who grieves for his dead cat and finds comfort in his mother’s suggestion that he say “ten good things about Barney” at the backyard burial. Viorst’s poetic but clear text includes a conversation between the boy and his friend, Annie, about whether heaven exists. He says no, she says yes, and the book suggests that both have a right to their views. Blegvad’s superb black-and-white drawings add layers of emotion and touches of whimsy that show that sadness doesn’t mean you can never have fun.

The Accident (Clarion, varied prices). By Carol Carrick. Pictures by Donald Carrick. Ages 5-9.
Child psychologists will tell you that a death, if always upsetting, is typically more traumatic if the child has witnessed it, partly because it increases the potential for guilt. And The Accident isn’t just an excellent picture book — it is one of the few that deals with such a situation. The authors use a well-written text and subdued art to tell the story of a boy who sees his beloved dog killed by a pick-up truck while they are walking along a highway. Sad and angry, Christopher keeps replaying the accident in his mind, trying to pretend it didn’t happen, until his sympathetic father helps him find a fitting way to express his grief and begin to feel better. The Accident is out-of-print but worth tracking down for a child who is struggling with this kind of loss. (If you can’t find the book online or at your library, you can ask the library to get it for you through an inter-library loan.)

The Dead Bird (Aladdin, 1987, with a new edition due out in May 2007, varied prices). By Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Remy Charlip. Ages 3 and up.
This book is about the size of Goodnight Moon and offers further evidence of Brown’s genius. The story couldn’t be simpler: Four children find a dead bird, take it into the woods, and bury it amid wildflowers under a stone that says “Here Lies a Bird That Is Dead.” But this story is no less powerful because it is so brief. Charlip uses only a few colors for the art – chiefly blue-green and yellow – and on some pages, no pictures, just a sentence or two on a field of white. The missing colors suggest loss while the blue-green tones symbolize the new life that is emerging beside it. And Brown’s text has a similarly understated drama, especially in the last line, which tells what the children did after the burial: “And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.” What makes that line remarkable is that “until they forgot” slipped into the middle. Children do forget some animals, even people, who have died. Many authors ignore this and offer false “comfort” and “reassurance,” doling out sappy clichés suggesting children will “never forget” what they have lost. By contrast, The Dead Bird brims with honesty. Nearly 70 years after it appeared, it remains far better than many newer releases, partly because Brown knew that children don’t need false comfort: They need truth.

Many libraries have other good books on the death of a pet, including books for older children. One is Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog (Morrow, 2006), the true story of the life and death of beloved Labrador retriever, which may appeal to many teenagers. If you don’t see the kind of book you need on today’s list, ask a children’s librarian for suggestions.

A new review of a book or books for children or teenagers appears on this site every Saturday. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept advertising or free books from publishers, so all reviews offer an independent evaluation that is not influenced by marketing concerns. One-Minute Book Reviews also offers reading group guides and discussion questions for some books, including the most recent Newbery Medal winner, The Higher Power of Lucky. You can find these guides archived in the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews. All reviews are written by Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com, a former book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Gabriel García Márquez on the Difference Between Novels and Journalism … Quote of the Day #15

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Latin American,Novels,Quotes of the Day,Reading,Reporting,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:14 pm

Gabriel García Márquez on truth in fiction and nonfiction …

“In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work.”

García Márquez ‘s answer to, “Do the journalist and the novelist have different responsibilities in balancing truth versus the imagination?” Peter H. Stone asked the question in an interview with the Nobel laureate that appears Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Sixth Series (Viking, 1984). Edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by Frank Kermode.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

This is one of the most perceptive comments I have read on the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. How many times have you read a newspaper article that had a small — even trivial — error that fatally undermined a good story? And how many times have you read a novel with a detail so wonderful that you forgave any defects in the book?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Fiona French’s African Tale for Children, ‘King of Another Country’

Filed under: African American,Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:23 am

A selfish young man learns to compromise in a book with bold, kente-cloth colors

[Note: I usually review children's books on Saturday. But I discovered this terrific British author while sifting through picture books on Easter for my March 17 post. And she's so good I can't resist slipping in another of her books during the week. Tomorrow: "Bye, Bye, Birdie: Recommended Children's Picture Books About the Death of a Pet." Jan]

King of Another Country. By Fiona French. Oxford University Press and Scholastic Press, 32 pp., varied prices. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

Ask children’s literature experts to suggest good picture books with African themes, and you’re likely to hear some titles over and over. Among them: John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (Amistad, 1988), an African Cinderella story, and Gerald McDermott’s Ananci the Spider: A Tale From the Ashanti (Holt, 1972), both Caldecott Honor books that have become mainstays of school and library reading lists.

A worthy book that has received less attention comes from Fiona French, an English artist who won the Kate Greenaway Medal for Snow White in New York. King of Another Country tells the story of selfish young man who always said “no” but learns to say “yes” after he leaves his African village and ventures into the forest, where he meets people who make him their king. French describes Ojo’s adventures in graceful, economical prose resembling that of a folk tale, though she doesn’t say whether her book was inspired by one. But the show-stoppers are her dynamic illustrations. Each page bursts with vibrant designs that appear inspired by kente cloth, the royal Ashanti fabric known for its bright colors and bold geometric shapes, often with a basket-weave pattern.

French uses kente-like motifs not just on clothes but on shields, houses, a river, and even a face. The effect is to make you feel immersed in a world that is traditionally African, yet and fresh and surprising enough to hold your attention until the last page.

Best line/picture: Ojo meets a King of the Forest rendered entirely in brilliant shades of green and yellow that make him seem fully human but also ethereal.

Worst line/picture: None. But some parents might object to an image of Ojo carrying a rifle when he goes hunting in the forest.

Recommended … without reservations.

Published: April 1993 (Scholastic edition).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 28, 2007

Anne Porter: An Easter Lily in the Field of Late-Blooming Poets

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Christianity,Poetry,Reading,Religion,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:27 pm

In her mid-90s an acclaimed poet returns with her first book since her National Book Award finalist, An Altogether Different Language

Living Things: Collected Poems. By Anne Porter. Foreword by David Shapiro. Steerforth/Zoland, 176 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A few months ago, a fascinating article about Anne Porter appeared in the Wall Street Journal under the headline, “A 95-Year-Old Poet Finds Her Muse and Literary Praise.” The story noted that Porter was 83 when her first collection, An Altogether Different Language, was published in 1994. The book was a finalist for a National Book Award for poetry and followed by Living Things in 2006.

The Journal article included excerpts from Porter’s poems that were so good that I began looking for Living Things – online, at libraries and bookstores in Manhattan and the suburbs. Nobody had it, or could get it. It seemed that – whether because of the Journal article or Porter’s growing literary reputation – the book had sold out everywhere.

Just before Lent, Living Things turned up again. And the timing couldn’t have been more apt for the return of this fine collection, which has all the poems from An Altogether Different Language and 39 new ones. Living Things makes clear that Porter is an Easter lily in the field of late-blooming poets. She is a Catholic poet in the same way that Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic novelist: She describes a world that is, as O’Connor put it, founded on “the theological truths of the Faith, but particularly on three of them which are basic – the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment.” But she transcends the label “Catholic writer.” As the poet David Shapiro has said, Porter transmits “her Franciscan joy in created things” and “reminds us that the idea of the holy is still possible for us.” At the same time, her poems spring from everyday life, particularly her role as the mother of five children by her late husband, the artist Fairfield Porter.

Many of her rhymed and unrhymed poems are meditations on saints, holy days or Bible verses. Others are hymns or prayers, steeped in a sense of wonder and gratitude reminiscent of that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet who wrote: “Glory be to God for dappled things.” One of the most memorable poems is “A Short Prayer,” an interpretation – you might even call it a brief modern translation – of the “Hail Mary.” In “An Easter Lily” Porter considers the gift of a lily

Whose whiteness
Is past belief

Its blossoms
The shape of trumpets
Are mute as swans

But deep and strong as sweat
Is their feral perfume.

In seven short iambic lines, Porter links the Easter lily to glory (“trumpets”), martyrdom (“swans”), and purity (the whiteness of the lily and swans). And she does more. The best-known Bible verse about lilies, Matthew 6:28, says they “toil not” – they don’t sweat. Porter’s similie – “strong as sweat” – encourages you to consider the strength of the lily as well as its grace. It also connects flower implicitly to the sweat of Christ carrying the cross. Could anyone look at a lily the same way after reading this poem?

Perhaps the most poignant poem in Living Things is the loving reminiscence, “For My Son Johnny.” Porter told the Wall Street Journal that she believes her late son suffered from either schizophrenia or autism. In the poem she recalls, among other things, his kindness:

Though your shoelaces were hardly ever tied
And you seldom wore matching socks
You tried to behave with dignity in the village
“So as not to embarrass my little sisters.”

Porter’s natural tone and diction, here and elsewhere, are part of the charm of her book. The work of religious poets can imitate, consciously or unconsciously, the language of Scripture or the great metaphysicists. Porter has a voice all her own. How lovely that, however belatedly, people are discovering it.

Best line: At this time of year, many people may especially appreciate the poems that relate to Easter, which include “In Holy Week,” “Cradle Song II” and “Four Seasons Carol.” Anyone who looks for strong rhymes may also enjoy “House Lots,” a meditation on the arrival of bulldozers: “Good-bye sweet whistling quail/ Milkweed and Queen Anne’s lace/ Good-bye shy cottomtail/ Quit your secret room …”

Worst line: None.

Published: January 2006

Furthermore: The back cover of this book has an evocative portrait of the author by her husband. Search Google for “Video: Portrait of Anne Porter” to watch a short video of Porter reading from and talking about her poetry. The Wall Street Journal article by Lucette Lagnado ran on Nov. 11–12, 2006.

Consider reading also: Common Life: Poems (CavanKerry, 2006), by Robert Cording, Barrett Professor of Creative Writing at Holy Cross. The poems in this book reflect a religious perspective and include the four-page “Lenten Stanzas” and the briefer “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey.”

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist has been the book editor of the Plain Dearler and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comedies of manners The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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