One-Minute Book Reviews

April 8, 2013

A Theater Critic Celebrates the Best Broadway Musicals of All Time

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“No gags, no girls, no chance of success.” – A producer after seeing Oklahoma!

The Sound of Musicals. By Ruth Leon. Oberon Masters Series/Oberon, 128 pp., $20.95.

By Janice Harayda

Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ it must have been when the phrase “Broadway musical” meant Oklahoma! and not “jukebox tunes strung on a plot with clothespins.”

In this collection of brief and graceful essays, the longtime theater critic Ruth Leon celebrates 10 20th-century shows that left an enduring mark on their art form: three that “almost everybody agrees” are the best musicals of all time — Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady and West Side Story – and seven others: Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, Oklahoma!, Showboat, Sweeney Todd, South Pacific and Sunday in the Park With George. Her essays resemble after-theater conversations at Sardi’s with a charming host who exudes an infectious admiration for her subject. They brim with anecdotes about show-business people like the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, whose memoir inspired Gypsy and who “rode around in a maroon and gray Rolls Royce with her initials in gold on the door.”

Leon focuses on original productions and avoids delving into the interpretations of musicals mooted in revivals and movie versions. She doesn’t quite convey why critics regard Sondheim so highly when many people find it hard to sing any of his songs except “Send in the Clowns.” And while she says she has selected titans that “changed the way we think about musical theater,” she ignores the seismic effects rock musicals like Hair, Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar, the ancestors of all those jukebox productions like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys.

But Leon excels at describing the themes of her chosen shows, or what they are “about” on a deeper level than that of plot. “Guys and Dolls is an inverted morality tale, growing out of Damon Runyon’s close-up knowledge of the streets of New York, and a fable with a point – that good and evil certainly exist, but not necessarily in the places we have learned to look,” she writes. Oklahoma! “appears to be about whether Curly or Jud is going to take Laurey to the picnic,” but that’s just the story line of the show: “What it’s really about is what it means to be American, what the poet Carl Sandburg called ‘the smell of new-mown hay on barn-dance floors.’” Leon’s willingness to grapple with such themes is an increasingly rare  virtue as theater reviews become ever-more plot driven. This book may be an appreciation great musicals, but it is also a model of good theater criticism – an art form as endangered as the Broadway musical.

Best line: The producer Mike Todd reportedly said, when he saw Oklahoma! before it opened in New York: “No gags, no girls, no chance.” The musical ran for more than five years on Broadway, won a special Pulitzer Prize, and became for its day “the gold standard, the show by which all others would be judged.”

Worst line: “Across 400 years Shakespeare continues an ongoing dialogue with those who perform his plays and can tell them, if they will listen, exactly what he wants from them.” True, but that “continues” makes the “ongoing” redundant.

Published: 2010 (Oberon Books hardcover edition).

Furthermore: Leon is a columnist for Playbill who has written theater criticism for the European edition of the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 23, 2013

‘Good Books Are All Too Rare’ – Quote of the Day / John Sledge

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Few book critics for U.S. newspapers write well enough to tempt publishers to issue collections of their reviews. The exceptions include John Sledge, who spent 17 years as the books editor of the Mobile Press-Register before that former daily switched to a three-day-a-week print run in 2012. The University of South Caroline Press has just published a collection of Sledge’s literary essays and reviews, Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart, in April. The book includes this quote:

“Good books are all too rare; flawed ones, common; and terrible ones, ubiquitous.”

October 25, 2010

‘Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud’ — Art Critic Martin Gayford Sees Himself on Canvas

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 am
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A British critic’s diary having his portrait painted

Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud. By Martin Gayford. With 64 illustrations. Thames & Hudson, 256 pp., $40.

By Janice Harayda

Edgar Degas once lamented the injustice of having his paintings judged by art critics who had never earned their living with a brush and palette. “What a fate!” he said. “To be handed over to writers!”

Fewer painters might complain if they had interpreters as intelligent and forbearing as the British art critic Martin Gayford. Between November 2003 and April 2005, Gayford spent about 250 hours posing for an oil painting and an etching by Lucian Freud, whose ego appears to rival the late Norman Mailer’s. The experience fell “somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s,” at least if your barber knew Garbo and Picasso and after trimming your sideburns, wanted to have champagne and caviar with you at a high-toned London bistro.

Gayford appears to have relished the sittings even as they became an endurance test. Freud sat him in front of a black screen for the Man With a Blue Scarf and made him keep posing after the head was finished and only the space around it remained to be filled it.  He told Gayford: “The picture is absolutely about what your head is doing to that screen.” Freud drove himself as he did his sitter. In his early 80s, he was still painting standing up, working 10 hours a day, on five or six portraits at a time.

As the months wore on, Gayford kept the tedium at bay in part by drawing Freud into conversations on painting and other subjects. Should a picture resemble the sitter? “Likeness in a way isn’t the point, because whether or not a painting is a good likeness has nothing to do with its quality as a picture,” Freud replied. “For example, Rembrandt’s people all look alike in that they all have spiritual grandeur. You feel he did not steer very close to the actual appearance of the sitters.” If strict verisimilitude doesn’t matter, what does? Gayford quotes a comment Freud made decades earlier: “the picture, in order to move us, must never merely remind us of life, but must acquire life, a life of its own, precisely in order to reflect life.”

Man With a Blue Scarf takes the form of a graceful diary that says as much about being painted as about the painter. Gayford knew that a sense of mortality pervades Freud’s work: “Even images of the young and healthy are full of a sense of the soft vulnerability of flesh, its potential to sag and wither.” And his sittings might have turned in to a Dorian Gray tale, the story of a man horrified to see his sins emerge in his portrait. He needn’t have worried. Gayford liked the painting and sees in it the intensity of his interest in the process: “It’s me looking at him looking at me.”

Gayford shows a Boswellian refusal to troll for flaws in his subject’s work or character, and his book tends to reinforce Robert Hughes’s argument that Freud is the greatest living realist painter. But Man With a Blue Scarf, if flattering, isn’t hagiography. Gayford holds his fire elegantly, and his ability to do so appears heroic, not sycophantic, given that if he had not, we would clearly not have the first book-length account of sitting for a major artist since James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait in 1965. Art history would be richer if every great painter did a portrait of a critic who wrote about the experience.

Many questions linger about the making of this memoir. To what degree is the book authorized? Did Freud see the manuscript and request changes? How did Gayford reconstruct conversations that took place when he couldn’t have been holding a notebook? Whether or not the answers ever emerge, Man With a Blue Scarf is a fascinating study in the “remorselessly intimate” process of being painted. During the sittings, Gayford spent more time with Freud than with anyone except his wife and children. “I’m not sure whether it is filling a hole in my life,” he admits, “but it is enthralling.” For all the cabin fever that the sittings must have involved, Gayford makes you see why the process was thrilling.

Best line: No. 1: “It is an aspect of good pictures that it is impossible to memorize them. No matter how well you know them, they always seem different when you see them again …” No. 2: “The paradox of portraiture, especially this marathon variety, is that the target is always a moving one. Physiologically, and psychologically, a living being is always in a state of flux. Moods shift, energy levels go up and down, the body itself slowly ages.”

Worst line: Freud says Picasso was “no more than 5’ or 5’ 1’” and that much of his attitude toward life was affected by his being small. But Picasso’s height is often given as 5’4”, and Gayford doesn’t explain why he quotes a different figure. You don’t know whether he agrees with Freud or doesn’t want to correct him.

Caveat lector: The review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: October 2010

About the author: Gayford, the art critic for Bloomberg News in Europe, was the art critic for the Spectator and Sunday Telegraph. He talks about posing for Freud in an Acoustiguide recording used with a Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Man With a Blue Scarf and the etching made soon afterward, Portrait Head.

Furthermore: Lucian Freud is the grandson of Sigmund Freud. Robert Hughes wrote the text for Lucian Freud: Paintings which provides useful background for Man With a Blue Scarf.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the book columnist for Glamour. You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 24, 2009

How Do You Know When to Leave a Marriage? — ‘The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce’ by Well-Known Writers

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This post first appeared in 2007.

The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce. Edited by Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand. Warner, 350 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Some publishers say that “anthologies are the new memoirs,” but The Honeymoon’s Over makes you wonder if the boom is running on empty.

This is third essay collection I’ve reviewed this year that includes work by Joyce Maynard, the prolific journalist, novelist and contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Maynard is a good essayist whose entries have been among the best in all three books, but she’s been cannibalizing her life for parts for so long that some of her stories are wearing thin. Another writer might have added more freshness to this lightweight book of essays by 24 women on turning points in their marriages.

Nothing in The Honeymoon’s Over has the sophistication of Jane Smiley’s reflections on her first marriage in the recent Mr. Wrong, or of the best work of essayists like Daphne Merkin or Phillip Lopate. And the worst entries are bad enough to put off the poeple who might appreciate this book the most – those who are trying to decide whether to leave a marriage. Terry McMillan’s writing goes further south in a bitter, profane and disorganized screed against her ex-husband. Daniela Kuper makes cloying use of second-person narration in an account of her efforts to get her son back from a guru. And Zelda Lockhart devotes 20 pages to her past without making you understand why she married a lesbian partner with whom she fought regularly and to whom she had “never been physically attracted.”

The best entries in The Honeymoon’s Over describe experiences strong enough to carry them despite any flaws in the writing. Perhaps the most memorable is Elissa Minor Rust’s essay on why she has stayed with her husband since leaving the Mormon faith they once shared, an unusually candid report on Latter Day Saints teachings on sex roles. Did you know that married Mormon women must wear “temple-issued undergarments”? This is the kind of information you rarely get from news shows on Mormonism, which tend to focus instead on the LDS tolerance for polygamy. Rust avoids writing about politics, but her essay indirectly suggests some of the problems Mitt Romney may face in his bid for the presidency. How long will it be before the tabloids – or Sixty Minutes – start asking where his wife gets her underwear?

Best line: Rust describes the Mormon rules that she and her boyfriend, now her husband, had to follow when he moved to New York to begin the two years of missionary work required of young Mormon men: “We weren’t allowed to speak, except on Christmas and Mother’s Day (and even that was stretching the rules; he was allowed to call his family on those two holidays, but he also called me). For two years, our only communication was through letters – and he was only allowed to write one a week. For a person like me who has always fought against rules and power structure, this was torture. I would have had more access to the man I loved were he in prison.”

Worst line (tie): No. 1: Terry McMillan’s rambling and vengeful list of “100 Questions” for her ex-husband. McMillan writes on page 97, “I’ve forgiven you,” and on page 98, “I haven’t exactly forgiven you.” Which is it? No. 2: Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand write of the contributors to this book: “Women in their second marriages seemed to choose better mates and by then were better equipped themselves to make a marriage work.” Then why do second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages?

Caveat lector: Some Web sites say, incorrectly, that this book includes an essay by Jane Smiley (making you wonder if she was scheduled to appear in it but bailed out in favor of the more flattering lighting of Mr. Wrong).

Consider reading instead: Mr. Wrong: Real-Life Stories of the Men We Used to Love (Ballantine, $24.95), edited by Harriet Brown.

Editor: Amy Einhorn

Published: February 2007

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 3, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #3 – Flannery O’Connor’s Collection of Essays on Writing, ‘Mystery and Manners’

A  Southern novelist and short story writer considers the literature of her region and others

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. By Flannery O’Connor. Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 256 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Most people associate the Georgia-born Flannery O’Connor with novels and short stories, but she was equally good at nonfiction. She proves it in this elegant collection of essays on life, literature and peacocks, birds that captivated her.

Sally and Robert Fitzgerald adapted the pieces in Mystery and Manners from talks from O’Connor gave at colleges and elsewhere, and part of their charm lies in their conversational tone. Some of their topics are classroom-worthy: “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” “The Teaching of Literature,” “Catholic Novelists and their Readers.”

But O’Connor deals with these subjects as writer, not a professor, and her perspective on them is always fresh and down-to-earth and never pedantic. One of the most interesting essays deals with the prevalence in Southern fiction of the grotesque, which she defines as something “which an ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” Why do oddballs so often turn up in the literature of the region? O’Connor responds: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

Other comments on and quotations from Mystery and Manners appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 12, 2007, “Flannery O’Connor on ‘Compassion’ in Writing” and March 21, 2007 “Flannery O’Connor on the Purpose of Symbols in Fiction.” O’Connor’s editor, Robert Giroux, comments on the critics’ response to her work in the March 4, 2009, post “The Writer Is Insane.” The quote came from Brad Gooch’s new biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, lucidly reviewed by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post.

This is the third in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. Tomorrow: Peter Taylor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Summons to Memphis.

May 18, 2009

Hamlet ‘With a Nasal Twang’ — Pauline Kael’s ‘5001 Nights at the Movies’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:44 pm
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One reason why my favorite collection of capsule film reviews is Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies: Expanded For The ’90s With 800 New Reviews (Holt, 960 pp., $35, paperback): Kael begins her comments on a 1969 Hamlet with, “Bearded, and with a nasal twang, Nicol Williamson is a surly Hamlet.” Hamlet with a nasal twang: what else do you need to know?

September 23, 2008

New in Paperback — Katha Pollitt’s ‘Learning to Drive’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:37 am
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Katha Pollitt regrets that there are no good words to describe her time of life. “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’,” she writes in Learning to Drive (Random House, 224 pp., $14). “Midlife is the upbeat new euphemism – there you are, in the thick of it! – but a 55-year-old person is in the middle of his life only if he’s going to live to 110. ‘Middle-aged’ sounds tired and plodding, almost as bad as ‘aging’ – and ‘aging’ is sad and pitiful, an insult even though it’s actually universally applicable. A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.”

As that observation suggests, Learning to Drive in some ways resembles Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. But there’s more bite and depth to this collection of elegant and often witty essays by Pollitt kathapollitt.blogspot.com, whose topics include motherhood, learning to drive, and her discovery that she was living with a man who might have been allowed to donate his zipper to a hall of fame for philanderers. And the book has just come out in a paperback edition with a sparkling new cover that should make it easier to find at bookstores www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.

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

June 25, 2008

‘1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.’ Or Not.

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Not long ago, I picked up the alarmingly titled 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (Rizzoli/Universe, 960 pp., $34.95), intending to review it promptly. But every time I open it, I am reminded: The editor, Peter Boxall, thinks that while I still have a pulse, I need to read ten books by Ian McEwan. Ten! Is this man mad? Yes, that’s ten books in addition to McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which I read shortly before it made the longlist for the 2007 Bad Sex Awards www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/23/.

Boxall also thinks I need to read only one book by Willa Cather, and it is neither her wonderful Death Comes for the Archbishop or nor her classic tale of prairie life, O Pioneers!, nor her My Antonia, which many critics regard as her greatest work. It is, bizarrely, her The Professor’s House. I would happily listen to arguments about why that book is her best, but 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die doesn’t offer them. So it’s going to take me a while to sort out this doorstopper.

In the meantime the Telegraph has posted a list of 110 books that would make up “the perfect library”
www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2008/04/06/nosplit/sv_classics06.xml. That list has its own quirks but is much less pretentious than Boxall’s. Among its virtues: It is refreshingly unstuffy and includes books like Gone With the Wind and Murder on the Orient Express along with The Iliad and The Odyssey.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 18, 2008

Basketball Poems for Celtics Fans and Others

Earlier this month I wrote about Edward Hirsch’s shortlist of his favorite baseball poems, which appears in Poet’s Choice (Harcourt, 2006), a collection of his columns on poetry for the Washington Post. That book also has ideas for those of you who would rather read poems about basketball today. Hirsch recommends William Matthews’s “In Memory of the Utah Stars,” Quincy Troupe’s “Poem for Magic,” Garrett Hongo’s “The Cadence of Silk” Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Slam, Dunk, & Hook” and Marisa de los Santos’s “Women Watching Basketball.” He also likes B.H. Fairchild’s “Old Men Playing Basketball,” the text of which appears in Poet’s Choice. For more on Hirsch, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, click here www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=3173.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 5, 2008

Baseball Poems – One of Poetry’s Power-Hitters Picks His Favorites

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:31 am
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Edward Hirsch, the poet and National Book Critics Circle Award winner, lists baseball poems he likes best

Part of the fun of having a blog like One-Minute Book Reviews is that you can rarely predict which posts will be the most popular. Often reviews I expected to have little appeal — and almost didn’t write — end up among the Top 10 on the site.

A case in point is Baseball Haiku (Norton, 2007), a book of American and Japanese haiku about baseball edited by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura. From the start I liked everything about this book — from the high quality of the poems to their thoughtful introductions and handsome packaging. But Baseball Haiku sat on my shelf for weeks. I wondered if by writing about it, I might be trying to thread too small a needle: How many people would want to read about a book of baseball poems, none with more than 17 syllables?

You’d be surprised.

My review of Baseball Haiku appeared on the morning after the 2007 World Series and at first attracted only modest traffic www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/29/. Like a pitcher recalled from the minors, it blazed back at the start of the 2008 season and has since ranked often among the Top 10 posts.

What are some of the best baseball poems in forms other than haiku? You’ll find answers in a lucid essay on baseball poems in Poet’s Choice (Harcourt, 2006), a collection of popular columns written for the Washington Post Book World by Edward Hirsch www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=3173, the poet whose many honors include a National Book Critics Circle Award www.bookcritics.org.

Hirsch writes:

“My shortlist of favorite baseball poems includes May Swenson’s quirky ‘Analysis of Baseball,’ Robert Francis’s study of a pitcher [‘Pitcher’], Michael Collier’s ‘The Wave,’ B. H. Fairchild’s ‘Body and Soul,’ Robert Pinsky’s ‘The Night Game,’ Michael Harper’s ‘Archives,’ Linda Pastan’s sly lyric ‘Baseball,’ and Richard Hugo’s class-driven ‘Missoula Softball Tournament.’”

Hirsch’s essay also includes the text of Hugo’s villanelle, “The Freaks at Spurgin Road Field,” and comments on baseball poems by Donald Hall, Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams and Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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