One-Minute Book Reviews

June 17, 2009

Joke of the Day — Literary Wit From ‘Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend’

Filed under: Humor,Joke of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:08 am
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A white reporter who watched Satchel Paige pitch in the Negro Leagues in the 1930s said that when Paige threw the ball, you saw only something that resembled “a thin line of pipe smoke.” Janet Maslin writes in a review Larry Tye’s new Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (Random House, 392 pp., $26).

“When asked if he threw that fast consistently, Paige, who would become famed for choice aphorisms, replied: ‘No, sir. I do it all the time.’”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 5, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #5: David C. Barnette’s ‘How to Be a Mobilian’

Filed under: How to,Humor — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:07 am
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A gifted humorist lists the unwritten rules of life in a place where men define the four seasons as “football, hunting, Mardi Gras and fishing”

How to Be a Mobilian: A Guide for Old Salts and Newcomers. By David C. Barnette. Publishing 101, 143 pp., $11.95.

Regional humor tends not to travel well. The jokes often aren’t funny — or even recognizable as jokes – outside the place that inspired them. But David C. Barnette makes regional humor work in How to Be a Mobilian: A Guide for Old Salts and Newcomers (Publishing 101, 1999). This entertaining, tongue-in-cheek guide spells out the unwritten social codes for events ranging from private weddings to city-wide Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama. It works because Barnette is a very funny writer and finds the sweet spot that eludes most would-be Southern wits – a bevy of details that are specific enough to evoke a place but not so specific that they’ll be lost on all but insiders.

Why do you sense when visiting Mobile that a man could get arrested for indecent exposure if his shirt had light starch instead of heavy? Blame it on the city’s unofficial dress code for men, Barnette suggests: “Shirts must be all-cotton, long-sleeved and starched such that they will shatter in an automobile accident.” Women have their own sartorial deal-breakers. One is your shoes can never be lighter than your hemline. “I swear, my mother was so maniacal about that, I have to get white piping stitched on my navy tennis skirts,” a woman told Barnette.

How to Be a Mobilian is near-impossible to find. But Barnette has a page on Facebook (sign in, then go to http://www.facebook.com/people/Dave-Barnette/1013298948/), and if you urge him to bring it back into print, maybe he’ll find a way. Just remember that his timetable may not be yours or mine. As he writes: “Mobile men live by their own four seasons: football, hunting, Mardi Gras and fishing.”

Barnette also wrote The Official Guide to Christmas In the South: Or, If You Can’t Fry It, Spraypaint It Gold (Morrow, 2007).

This is the fifth in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. A second post will follow later today with more of my favorite books about the South.

May 16, 2009

Good Clean Limericks for Children – Poems for 1st, 2nd and 3rd Graders

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!—

From a classic nonsense limerick by Edward Lear

Anyone who wants to encourage a child to read poetry should memorize three good limericks — stopping just short of any that begin, “There was a young girl from Nantucket” — and recite them regularly. Limericks have five rhyming lines and a bouncy rhythm that makes them easy to remember. So children tend to absorb them effortlessly if they hear them often.

The question is: Where can you find the clean ones? True limericks are always bawdy, some critics say. When they aren’t scatological, they may include double-entendres or other risqué elements. Many limericks on the Web are also plagiarized — it’s generally illegal to quote an entire five-line poem by a living or not-long-dead poet even if you credit the author — and could cause trouble for children who quote them in school reports.

But the Academy of American Poets has posted several out-of-copyright classics by Edward Lear (1812––1888), author of “The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16814, including:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!–
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

The academy also offers facts about the rhyme and meter of limericks at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5783. All 112 of the limericks in the 1861 edition of Lear’s A Book of Nonsense appear on a site that abounds with information about his work www.nonsenselit.org.

A good source of limericks for young children is The Hopeful Trout and Other Limericks (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Susan Meddaugh, available in many libraries. This book is used in grades 2 and up in schools. But some of its limericks would also suit younger children. They include “Be Kind to Dumb Animals” (“There once was an ape in a zoo / Who looked out through the bars and saw – YOU!”), which consists only of simple one-syllable words, and “The Halloween House” (“I’m told there’s a Green Thing in there. / And the sign on the gate says BEWARE!”).

Many limericks are mini-morality tales about people who get an amusing, nonsensical comeuppance. The Hopeful Trout has several in this category. “The Poor Boy Was Wrong” describes the unlucky Sid, who “thought that a shark / Would turn tail if you bark,” then swam off to test the premise. Ciardi refers obliquely to Sid’s fate, but any child who isn’t sure what happened needs only look at the drawing grinning shark and a single flipper.

© 2009 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

April 7, 2009

Tanya Egan Gibson’s ‘How to Buy a Love of Reading’ — A Satirical Novel That Turns Into a Teen Weepie

Filed under: Humor,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:34 pm
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A 15-year-old’s parents try to get her to read by hiring an author to write a book for her

How to Buy a Love of Reading:  A Novel. By Tanya Egan Gibson. Dutton, 353 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

Tanya Egan Gibson begins her first novel with a delicious sendup of a Sweet Sixteen party dominated by an ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David, whose penis is “dripping syphilitically.” Right away Gibson shows that she has two traits vital to a satirist:  a willingness to twist the knife and the ability to find a worthy target — in this case, the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous in Gatsby country, the North Shore of Long Island.

But Gibson quickly loses control of her tone in this story of a teenager whose parents try to overcome her dislike of reading by hiring a live-in author to write a book for her as a 16th-birthday gift. A novel that begins as satire devolves into a teen weepie as its characters go to parties, get drunk, pop Vicodins, sleep around, cram for their SATs and try to deal with their clueless and hypocritical parents.

The problem lies partly in an excess of ambition: Gibson tries to marry satire and tragedy, two forms so difficult to bring together that even so great a satirist as Jane Austen didn’t attempt it. You can’t easily persuade readers to pity characters whose lives you’ve been ridiculing for hundreds of pages. And Gibson has made her task harder by lampooning more than the patricians and parvenus known by Carley Wells, a sweet and overweight 15-year-old, who loves a popular male friend, Hunter Cay. She takes aim at targets such as reality TV, Arthurian romances, English teachers, college counselors and postmodern literary techniques, some incorporated into the plot.

Gibson might have pulled if off if she’d invested her novel with a faster pace and more drama. But How to Buy a Love of Reading is overwritten and lacks a powerful central conflict, both of which slow the story. Carley doesn’t have a strong antagonist but a variety of weaker ones, including her adored Hunter and her parents and the second-rate novelist they hired to write a book for her.

As characters swim through the book, Gibson keeps backtracking to fill in labored details like these about her heroine’s bulimic friend, Amber, whose behavior changed while Hunter was convalescing from an illness:

“Until then, she and Carley had just gone wherever Hunter went, hanging out with his friends — people like his older cousin Ian, last year’s student council president. But in Hunter’s absence Amber had gone back to spending time with people she and Carley had hung out with in middle school before he’d moved to town, people who mostly weren’t invited to the parties but who liked her.”

Gibson has a good eye for the follies of characters like a partygoer who advises another on how to cope with with a dull guest: “Tune her out by counting her pores.” But her inability to tame her material makes you feel a bit like that socialite: After a while, you’re counting the pores of this novel.

Best line: A private college counselor tells a couple that “their daughter needed rebranding if she wanted any shot at the real Ivies or the ‘hidden Ivies’ or even — given Bunny’s inability to break the ninety-fifth percentile on her PSATs — the ‘public Ivies.'”

Worst line: “Her  breasts were like a disaster in the news: a roof falling in under the weight of heavy rain, a double-decker freeway collapsing in an earthquake, a bridge undulating in high winds until its cables snapped.”

To be published: May 14, 2009

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of How to Buy a Love of Reading. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Gibson lives in Marin County, California.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 23, 2009

Prairie Home Companion’s ‘Pretty Good Joke Book’

Filed under: Humor — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:49 am
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A sequel to "Pretty Good Jokes."

“Hard to believe that he beat out a million other sperm.”
– From the Pretty Good Joke Book

On the Saturday children’s reviews on this site, I’ve said that joke books can make wonderful gifts for children, especially for 5-to-9-year-olds. But joke books can also be good gifts for adults.

One that might appeal to many families is the Pretty Good Joke Book (Highbridge, 2000), introduced by Garrison Keillor, which collects hundreds of the jokes told on the “Joke Show” segment of Prairie Home Companion and has had a variety of sequels and editions, including one on CD. All entries were wholesome enough for National Public Radio. (Even the “adults-only” and “totally tasteless” sections look like monuments to good taste next to the workof comedians like Denis Leary and Jim Norton.) The jokes fall into 30 categories, including bar, insult, lawyer, religion, musician, yo’mama and Iowa and Minnesota jokes. And though some trade on the sex-role or other stereotypes found on any drugstore greeting-card rack, it’s hard to fault those that anyone might have occasion to use, such as: “Hard to believe that he beat out a million other sperm.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 11, 2009

If His Jokes About Autism Aren’t Tasteless Enough for You, Denis Leary Says, ‘I’ll Take Five Anna Nicole Smiths for Every Martin Luther King’ in ‘Why We Suck’

The comedian and star of the firefighting drama Rescue Me blows smoke at you in a 240-page rant

Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid. By Denis Leary. Viking, 240 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Denis Leary begins Why We Suck by thanking his wife, who’s “funnier than I am.” You’ll believe it after reading this one.

Why We Suck isn’t a book so much a relentlessly profane rant by the comedian and star of the firefighting series Rescue Me. Leary rages mostly against safe targets: greedy athletes, overprivileged children, celebrity blowhards like Dr. Phil McGraw. But he has drawn fire for saying in a chapter called “Autism Shmautism” that autism diagnoses are on the rise because parents want psychotherapists to “explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons.” He adds:

“I don’t give a shit what these crackerjack whackjobs tell you – yer kid is NOT autistic. He’s just stupid. Or lazy. Or both.”

When that comment enraged parents of autistic children, Leary said his quote was taken out of context by people who didn’t read his book or missed his point. He was talking about what he sees as a trend toward overdiagnosis (though, of course, the larger the larger problem is that for generations autism was undiagnosed and autistic children often labeled “retarded”).

This incident tells you a lot about Why We Suck. Leary doesn’t have bad taste — he has no taste. To show really bad taste takes effort. Liberace, ayatollah jokes, “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers – you laugh in part because of the work that went into all of them. How much effort does it take to show no taste? None. If you’re Leary, you just fill your book with lines like: “I’ll take five Anna Nicole Smiths for every Martin Luther King.” Where’s the humor there? Good comedy always has its roots in truth, and you don’t believe for a minute that Leary would take five Anna Nicole Smiths for every Martin Luther King. Or anything close to it.

Comedian Jim Norton’s recent I Hate Your Guts (Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $25.95) is also a profane rant that taps into the angry-white-male market. But Norton tries harder to give you truly bad taste – not that this is a endorsement — instead of no taste. So his book is funnier than We We Suck. He seems to have put more effort into a six-page sendup of the Yankees’ radio broadcaster John Sterling than Leary did into a 240-pae book.

Norton makes you laugh at many of Sterling’s catchphrases besides his trademark “The Yankees win … theeeeeee Yankeeeees winnnnn!” (“Shane Spencer, the home run dispenser!”) He also makes an apt comment in a preface that honors the late George Carlin. Norton loved that when Carlin taped of a television show late in his career, he brought notes on cards and hid them in a spot on the set that the camera couldn’t see: “He didn’t take the laughs for granted.” On the evidence of Why We Suck, Leary does take the laughs for granted – a trait that seems remarkably obtuse when you’re telling parents that their children are not autistic – “just stupid.”

Best line: “THE END.” Boy, will you be glad to see those words.

Worst line: No. 1: “I’ll take five Anna Nicole Smiths for every Martin Luther King.” No. 2: “I don’t know a living man on this planet who DOESN’T have attention deficit disorder or spends [sic] at least twelve hours of each day thinking about his penis. ” No. 3: On what he sees at the gym: “The women? Paired off on adjacent treadmills or elliptical trainers – yak yakkety yick yak yic, yic yickety, yawbeddy jawbeddy – jic jak yick. Yicketty yacketty blah blah blah.” No. 4: The autism quotes cited above. No. 5: “Which is why I walk around now just wishing I could grab every other mouthy, misbehaved, spoiled and rotten little urchin I come across in airports and restaurants and just when I’m walking down the street – kids who are throwing snit fits in public as their disinterested or seemingly powerless parents stand off to the side and let the rest of us listen to the whining – I just once wanna grab them HARD by the flesh on their twiggy upper arms, that soft flesh that really hurts – and I mean grab them bruis-inducing, five-finger-indentation-left-behind hard – and whisper Clint Eastwood–style in their dirty little ear: Listen up and listen fast, punk, ’cause I’m only saying this one ****** time: yer gonna shut the **** up right now and start doing what yer dumbass mom and dad say from here on in or a special vanna is gonna pull up one day and just pluck you right off the ****** street and drop your ass on a plane to Iraq where you will be dropped out of the sky with nuthin’ but a parachute and a bag of white rice – no cash, no toys, no more SpongeBob SquareAss – ya follow?”

Published: November 2008

Read the Autism Society of America’s response to Leary’s comments. Leary says: “The people who are criticizing the ‘Autism Schmautism’ [sic] chapter in my new book Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid clearly have not read it.

“Or if they have, they missed the sections I thought made my feelings about autism very clear: that I not only support the current rational approaches to the diagnoses and treatment of real autism but have witnessed it firsthand while watching very dear old friends raise a functioning autistic child.”

Dennis Leary calls “Autism Shmautism” his “favorite chapter” in Why We Suck in Vanity Fair interview.

Furthermore: Leary uses the name “Dr. Denis Leary” on the cover of Why We Suck because he got an honorary degree from his alma mater, Emerson College.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and novelist 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.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 8, 2008

College Students Say the Darndest Things – ‘Ignorance Is Blitz’ Collects Fractured Facts From Real Term Papers and Other Academic Work

“The major cause of the Civil War is when slavery spread its ugly testicles across the West.”
From Ignorance Is Blitz

Ignorance Is Blitz: Mangled Moments of History From Actual College Students. Compiled by Anders Henriksson. Workman, 155 pp., $6.95, paperback. Originally published as Non Campus Mentis.

By Janice Harayda

Zoroastrianism was founded by Zorro. The South succeeded from the Union. Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

What a pity that SAT scores don’t measure common sense. If they did, those of us who have taught college students might have seen far fewer lines like these on tests and term papers. And now comes Ignorance Is Blitz to show us that cultural illiteracy on campus is at once far more extensive — and more entertaining — than some of us knew from the students who solemnly told us that a fictional character founded a major religion or that the South “succeeded” from the Union.

After decades of teaching at a state college in West Virginia, Anders Henriksson has collected hundreds of his students’ gaffes and supplemented them with others from professors at universities in the U.S. and Canada. Henriksson doesn’t name most of the schools, and that’s a mercy when the blunders include lines like:

“The P.L.O. is the airline of Israel.”

George Eliot was written by Silas Marner.”

“Greek semen ruled the Agean [sic.].”

“The Berlin Mall was removed.”

“Without the discovery of the flying buttock it would have been an impossible job to build the Gothic cathedral.”

“John Huss refused to decant his ideas about the church and was therefore burned as a steak.”

“The Civil Rights movement in the USA turned around the corner with Martin Luther Junior’s famous ‘If I Had a Hammer’ speech.”

In a postscript Henriksson blames some of the tragicomic errors on an overreliance on spell-checkers and on anxieties about test-taking. The causes of the problem go deeper than he allows and include a devaluation of history in schools and grade inflation that allows some students to do well even if they write, as one student in the book did, that “St. Teresa of Avila was a carmelized nun.”

But the skimpy analysis in no way detracts from the hilarity found on nearly every page of Ignorance Is Blitz. Well ahead of the holiday season, this small-format humor book has emerged as of the year’s best literary stocking stuffers. In the meantime some of its mangled lines could add levity to a tense election season. You’re worried about problems with those butterfly ballots? America’s students are here to remind you that it could be worse. There was a time when, as one of them put it, “Voting was done by ballad.”

Best line: “The major cause of the Civil War is when slavery spread its ugly testicles across the West.”

Worst line: “Machiavelli, who was often unemployed, wrote The Prince to get a job with Richard Nixon.” One of the few lines that make you wonder if a student was pulling the teacher’s leg.

Recommendation? A great gift for teachers, history lovers and, of course, some of those “actual college students” in the subtitle. Many high school students would also enjoy this book.

Editor: Ruth Sullivan

Published: January 2008 www.workman.com/products/9780761149491/. First published in 2001 under the title Non Campus Mentis. Portions of the material in the book appeared in The Wilson Quarterly.

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

September 4, 2008

Pundit Hart Seely Lampoons McCain and Obama in Verse in ‘Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington: Nursery Rhymes for the Political Barnyard’

Filed under: Humor,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 pm
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Last year Hart Seely tweaked John McCain, Barak Obama and others in Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington: Nursery Rhymes for the Political Barnyard (Free Press, 128 pp., $12.95), a tart collection of parodies that may be due for a sales spike. His “Old John McCain” begins:

Old John McCain
Had a very fine brain
What a very fine brain had he,
He went to ’Nam,
Then he came back home,
And he ran with the GOP.
He reached for the sky,
And then faced the lie,
That a little bit nutty was he, was he …

Other parodies in the book appear on the Simon & Schuster site www.simonsays.com/content/book.cfm?tab=1&pid=534287&agid=2. In its wisdom, the publisher has not posted the poems about Obama and McCain nor has it enabled the “Search Inside” tool on Amazon. But you can read part of Seely’s “Hey! Let’s Vote Obama!” in the original review of Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/06/17/.

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

August 15, 2008

Is This Writing Worse Than Any Delete Key Award Winner’s? The Bulwer-Lytton Contest for Bad Fiction Strikes Again

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,Humor,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:53 pm
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Okay, the prose may not be as bad as that of Mitch Albom, Claire Messud and other finalists for the Delete Key Awards handed out by One-Minute Book Reviews every year on March 15. But today’s New York Times reports on the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest for bad writing, run by the San Jose State University English department, which asks people to submit bad opening lines for novels in a vareity of categories. The contest honors Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose novel, Paul Clifford, begins, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Read a hilarious winner here www.nytimes.com/2008/08/15/arts/15arts-BADWRITINGIN_BRF.html?ex=1219464000&en=9aeb5c4ccc96874a&ei=5070&emc=eta1. To read samples of the Delete Key Award winners’ bad writing, click on the Delete Key Awards tag at the top of this post.

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

July 25, 2008

A Child-Approved Joke Book for Ages 6 and Up That You Can Get at CVS

Filed under: Children's Books,Humor — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:53 pm
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It is a late Friday afternoon in July. A critic named Jan (her real name) is sitting at a table in the café of a good suburban public library.

Jan has placed two books in front of her on the table. One is Lyle, Lyle Crocodile (Houghton Mifflin, 1962), a handsome, award-winning hardcover book that she has checked out of the library. The other is Awesome Good Clean Jokes for Kids (Harvest House, 1992), a cheap mass-market paperback that she has just picked up at CVS.

She is trying to decide which book to review and is leaning toward Lyle, because she didn’t get it off a rack that also had books about iffy herbal remedies and end-of-the-world prophecies.

An 11-year-old girl named Olivia (not her real name) starts to walk by. She does not know Jan but stops instantly when she sees Awesome Good Clean Jokes for Kids.

OLIVIA: I love that book! There’s a really good joke on page 103. It’s in the “knock, knock” section.
JAN: Would you show it to me? (She opens the book to page 103.)
OLIVIA: There it is at the bottom of the page.
JAN: “Knock, knock. / Who’s there? / Noah. / Noah who? / Noah good place we can go for dinner?”
OLIVIA: That’s my favorite. I like another one on that page, too. The one about the turnip.
JAN: “Knock, knock. / Who’s there? / Turnip. / Turnip who? / Turnip the heat, it’s cold in here!”
OLIVIA: I like that one because I really like turnips.
JAN: Do you think other 11-year-olds would like this book? Or do you think it would be better for another age?
OLIVIA: I think some 11-year-olds would like it. But I think it’s best for about 6-year-olds. My brother is six, and it’s his favorite book. We had a copy of it already, but my mother had to go to CVS and buy him his personal copy.
JAN: Why do you think your brother likes it so much?
OLIVIA: He like all those silly things like Captain Underpants.

Bob Phillips’s Awesome Good Clean Jokes for Kids (Harvest House, 207 pp., $4.99, paperback) also has riddles, daffy definitions, and many other kinds of jokes for ages 6 and up. It is available at drug- and other stores, including online and retail booksellers.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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