One-Minute Book Reviews

January 20, 2009

Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address Is Written at an 8th Grade Reading Level

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Barack Obama’s inaugural address is written at an 8th grade reading level – specifically, Grade 8.3. This is an excellent showing compared with the reading levels of the novels of bestselling authors such as Mitch Albom (Grade 3.4) and Stephenie Meyer (Grade 4). But the level of Obama’s address isn’t as high as that of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (Grade 10.9) or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech (Grade 11.2).

Reading levels of other presidents’ writing appeared in the 2007 Presidents’ Day post “Bizarre But True: GWB Writes at a Higher Level Than Thomas Jefferson.” And the levels of other authors were listed in the Nov. 16, 2006, post, “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?,” which also tells how to find the reading level of a text using any recent version of Microsoft Word.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 19, 2009

‘The Story of America in Pictures’ – The Inauguration of FDR

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:50 pm
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Alan C. Collins’s long out-of-print The Story of America in Pictures gives a panoramic history of the nation — from the early Indian buffalo hunts through the inauguration of John F. Kennedy — in captioned black-and-white drawings, paintings, engravings, photographs and political cartoons. And it suggests how much we’ll lose if books disappear: You might have to download hundreds of images (or bookmark as many sites) to compile a visual record as rich as using only the Internet

The caption for a photograph of the inauguration of FDR that appears in The Story of America in Pictures says in part:

“The New Deal arrived March 4, 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated. As with Lincoln, his term began during a national crisis with the added burden that 12,000,000 were unemployed throughout the land. The country was in the midst of a banking panic which the Republicans have since claimed might have been averted had the incoming president not refused to cooperate in efforts to stem it. With every bank in the country closed, general panic was averted by Roosevelt’s use of the radio to carry into America homes his assurance that the banks would reopen shortly, and a new phase of national life would be entered that would lead out of the economic quagmire.”

Since reading this passage, I’ve been asking friends: Did you know that all the banks in the country were closed on the day FDR was inaugurated? I didn’t. And despite the many parallels that columnists have drawn between the present and the 1930s, I haven’t found anyone else who did, either. What does this say about our historical literacy? What else have we forgotten about the Depression?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 19, 2008

Why Was Gettysburg So Important? (Quote of the Day / Drew Gilpin Faust in ‘This Republic of Suffering,’ a 2008 National Book Award Finalist)

“… we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground.”
– From the Gettysburg Address, delivered Nov. 19, 1863

The Gettysburg Address is the greatest speech in American history and one of the country’s supreme works of literature. Yet you can listen to the full text in just 1 minute and 46 seconds in an audio version on Wikipedia.

Why did such a brief speech have such power? The answer goes beyond Abraham Lincoln’s sublime words, the subject of a masterly book-length analysis by Garry Wills in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Lincoln at Gettysburg (Simon & Schuster, 1992). The power of the speech comes also from the occasion for it: the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863, not long after Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863).

Drew Gilpin Faust provides a rich context for the address in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for nonfiction, the winner of which will be named tonight www.nationalbook.org.

Gilpin Faust notes that Gettysburg belonged to a new group of battlefield cemeteries, created during the Civil War, that were more than places to bury the dead:

“These cemeteries were intended to memorialize the slain and celebrate the nation’s fallen heroes. Gettysburg represented a particularly important turning point. The large numbers of casualties in that bloody battle were obviously an important factor in generating action, but it is not insignificant that the carnage occurred in the North, in a town that had not had the opportunity to grow accustomed to the horrors of the constant warfare that had battered Virginia for two long years. Gettysburg made the dead – and the problem they represented – starkly visible to northern citizens, so many of whom flocked to the small Pennsylvania town in the aftermath of the battle. Perhaps even more critical was the fact that the North had resources with which to respond, resources not available to the hard-pressed Confederacy.

“The impetus for the Gettysburg cemetery arose from a meeting of state agents in the weeks after the battle. With financial assistance from Union states that had lost men in the engagement, David Wills, a Gettysburg lawyer, arranged to purchase seventeen acres adjoining an existing graveyard. In October contracts were let for the reburial of Union soldiers in the new ground at a rate of $1.59 for each body. In November Lincoln journeyed to help dedicate the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery. This ceremony and the address that historian Gary Wills has argued ‘remade America’ signaled the beginning of a new significance for the dead in public life. Perhaps the very configuration of the cemetery can explain the force behind this transformation. The cemetery at Gettysburg was arranged so that every grave was of equal importance; William Saunders’s design, like Lincoln’s words, affirmed that every dead soldier mattered equally regardless of rank or station. This was a dramatic departure from the privileging of rank and station that prevailed in the treatment of the war dead …”

To read the full text of the Gettysburg Address or listen to a reading of it on Wikipedia, click here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettysburg_Address. Drew Gilpin Faust is president of Harvard University www.harvard.edu.

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

October 20, 2008

100 Reasons Not to Move to New Jersey, Including the Real-Life Tony Soprano

From the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel to anthrax-laced letters

Notorious New Jersey: 100 True Tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels. By Jon Blackwell. Rutgers/Rivergate, 406 pp., $18.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Three hours before the start of a murder trial in New Jersey last week, someone gunned down the mother of a witness’s girlfriend. Defense lawyers dismissed the killing as a coincidence.

We have a lot of coincidences here in New Jersey, and Jon Blackwell serves them up in fine style in Notorious New Jersey. In this lively collection of 100 true-crime tales, Blackwell deals mostly with events so scandalous they made national news, or should have.

Take his profile of the Newark mob boss Ruggiero “Richie the Boot” Boiardo, whom Sopranos creator David Chase has called an inspiration for Tony Soprano (a fact oddly unmentioned in the book). Blackwell notes that the gangster lived in a stone mansion that Life magazine described as “Transylvanian traditional”:

“The road past his home in Livingston, New Jersey, was flanked by a pedestal on which stood a dozen painted busts of his family, staring blank-eyed like porcelain dolls. A statue of Boiardo himself, astride a white horse, towered above them. Vegetables and flowers grew in a grassy expanse marked by a sign, ‘Godfather’s Garden.’”

Ruggiero turned to his son Anthony “Tony Boy” Boiardo and lieutenants like Anthony “Little Pussy” Russo when he needed help collecting kickbacks or disposing of bodies. At the age of 89, he became “the oldest mobster ever to be put on trial, anywhere” when the state tried to send him to jail for running a Mafia syndicate:

“Pleading ill health, he had the charges dismissed. He died four years later, having outlived his son and every other vestige of New Jersey’s swaggering gangland glory years.”

For all of its mobsters, Notorious New Jersey is more than a dishonor roll of leg-breakers of yesteryear. Blackwell’s masterstroke was to define “scandal” broadly. His book covers the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the anthrax-laced letters slipped into a Princeton mailbox in September 2001, the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel and the 2002 murder conviction of the philandering Cherry Hill rabbi Fred Neulander.

Then there are the corporate scandals, such as the cover-up at the Johns-Manville asbestos plant that Blackwell rightly calls “one of the worst corporate horror stories in U.S. history.” For decades the company withheld from its workers the news — gained from employee medical exams and X-rays — that many were gravely ill with lung-scarring asbestosis or other illnesses. The resulting litigation forced Johns-Manville into bankruptcy and has cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Why does scandal thrive in New Jersey? In the weakest section of the book, Blackwell tries to explain it by saying that the state attracts gangsters because, with 566 municipalities, it has “many nooks and crannies where bribery can flourish.” That’s true as far as it goes.

But most of Blackwell’s scandals don’t involve bribery, and some have more complex causes than he implies. New Jersey is the most densely populated state, and density creates opportunity. The state also has entrenched political machines, powerful unelected officials whom voters can’t remove, and a legislature that refuses to close legal loopholes that foster corruption. The advent of casino gambling didn’t help, either.

The scandals — whatever their cause — are here to stay. Blackwell provides a useful recap of the events that led to the resignation of governor James McGreevey in August 2004, some of them overshadowed by his declaration that he was gay:

“In the summer 2004, McGreevey’s knack for choosing bad friends came back to haunt him. That July, one of his top fund-raisers, David D’Amiano, was indicted on bribery charges. It emerged that a Piscataway, New Jersey, farmer was upset at being offered too little money for his land as part of an eminent domain proceeding. He turned to D’Amiano for help, and the money man promised to sweeten the deal in exchange for $10,000. The farmer would supposedly know the deal was on if a certain state official used the code word ‘Machiavelli’ – and McGreevey was afterward heard using that very word in conversation with the farmer, who wore a wire. The governor insisted his use of the word was a coincidence.”

Best line: On Bruno Hauptmann’s trial for the murder of Charles A. Lindbergh Jr.: “H. L. Mencken was only half-joking when he called it ‘the greatest story since the Resurrection.’ Crowds of ten thousand people mobbed the Hunterdon County courthouse on especially dramatic days of testimony. Vendors sold them miniature kidnap ladders and phony locks of the Lindbergh baby’s hair.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Of the fifty states, maybe New York, California, Texas, and Illinois can match New Jersey for sheer sensational crime, but no place surpasses its blatant rascality.” Blackwell appears to be discounting all the “rascality” against blacks before the Civil Rights era. If you count lynchings — and you should — any state in the Deep South might surpass New Jersey. No. 2: In a section on Vincent “Vinny Ocean” Palmero, Blackwell leaves the impression that the DeCavalcante crime family may have inspired The Sopranos when the Boiardos seem more likely models www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/revealed-the-real-tony-soprano-444869.html.

Published: December 2007 rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/acatalog/notorious_nj.html

Furthermore: Blackwell is a copy editor at the New York Post. Notorious New Jersey should not be confused with the popular Weird New Jersey books, which deal with offbeat or lighter-weight topics such as legends, unsolved mysteries and a family that keeps a bowling-ball collection on its front lawn.

One-Minute Book reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

July 3, 2008

Was George M. Cohan Really ‘Born on the Fourth of July’? Read a Biographer’s Answer and Listen to ‘I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy’ Here

I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,

A Yankee Doodle do or die;

A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam’s,

Born on the Fourth of July.

– From George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Boy” (also known as “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”)

George M. Cohan claimed that he, like the Yankee Doodle Boy of his famous song, was born on the Fourth of July in 1878. But it true? In a poorly sourced article on Cohan, Wikipedia says that the composer was born on July 3, 1878. Other sources disagree with the online encyclopedia.

Biographer John McCabe says this in George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (Doubleday, 1973):

“George Michael Cohan was almost certainly born on July 4, 1878, at 536 Wickenden Street, on Corkie Hill, in Providence, Rhode Island. Until Ward Morehouse discovered the Cohan baptismal certificate which carries a July 3 birthdate, there had never been any doubt that the real live nephew of his Uncle Sam was born on any day other than the Fourth. The baptismal certificate hardly settles the matter. As was not unusual at the time, the birth was not recorded in the civic registry in Providence. There is, however, circumstantial evidence writ large that the July 3 on the baptismal certificate is a clerical error. Cohan’s birthday was always celebrated on the Fourth of July by his parents, Jeremiah (‘Jere’ or ‘Jerry’) and Helen (‘Nellie’) Cohan, and this many years before that date began to have profitable connotations for the Yankee Doodle Dandy. The utter probity of these two remarkable people who early taught their son that a man’s word was his impregnable bond is the strongest proof that Cohan was indeed born on the Fourth.”

Among the other evidence cited by McCabe is that Cohan’s father wrote in his diary on July 3, 1882: “Got a little present for Georgie’s birthday tomorrow.” McCabe adds: “The very casualness of the entry in a book intended for his eyes alone bespeaks its integrity.”

To hear a 1905 audio recording of “Yankee Doodle Boy” sung by tenor Billy Murray, including verses rarely heard today, click on the following link (where you will hear the lines at the top of this post about 40 seconds into the song): www.firstworldwar.com/audio/Billy%20Murray%20-%20Yankee%20Doodle%20Boy.mp3. Cohan wrote “Yankee Doodle Boy” for the 1904 Broadway musical, Little Johnny Jones.

You can also hear Cohan’s “Over There” for free in three recordings on the site www.firstworldwar.com/audio/overthere.htm site, including a English-French version by Enrico Caruso. To listen to the Caruso or another “Over There,” you will have to make another click on the site to select which version you want to hear.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 13, 2007

Remembering a One-Room School in Iowa in a New Memoir — When Mail-Order Catalog Pages Were Toilet Paper — Quote of the Day (Richard Willis)

Few Americans remember what it was like to learn in a one-room schoolhouse. One who does is Richard Willis, an 80-year-old New York actor and retired theater professor who played Asa Buchanan’s butler, Nigel, on the soap opera One Life to Live. He recalls the small white Aurora Schoolhouse in Long Gone (Greenpoint Press, 192 pp., $20, paperback), a new memoir of growing up on a farm in Marengo, Iowa, in the 1930s and ’40s. Here’s part of what he says about his education:

“Our school was heated by a big, jacketed stove placed a little off-center in the room. Midwest winter temperatures dropped to twenty, sometimes thirty, degrees below zero. A teacher’s quality was sternly tested when it came time to bank the fire so that it would hold the night. Only a real veteran could keep a fire going over the weekend. When the fire burned out, as it often did, kids coming to school after a freezing walk of a mile or two found the place icy cold. While the room warmed up – it seemed to take forever – the youngest of us sat with our feet up on a railing around the base of the stove, but older pupils had to endure (proudly) the chill at their desks. Ink froze solid, and all of the work had to be done in pencil until the schoolroom warmed up …

“Sanitary arrangements were primitive. Two outdoor privies were set at the edge of the schoolyard. They smelled bad. The older boys told me that if you carried any food into a privy (I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to do that) it would be poisoned.

“Regular toilet paper was a luxury our school district couldn’t afford. We made do with discarded mail order catalogs, the softer index pages much preferred over the stiff coated-paper pages. One of our neighbors stocked his privy with a crock full of clean corncobs instead of paper – I am not making this up – but things were never that bad at school.”

You can read other excerpts from Long Gone in the Summer 2005 and Summer 2006 issues of Ducts www.ducts.org, a webzine that specializes in personal stories. Greenpoint Press is a subsidiary of New York Writers Resources www.newyorkwritersworkshop.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 11, 2007

Why Do People Like Westerns? Quote of the Day (William Kittredge)

Why do people like Western stories in books, movies and other media? Here’s an answer from the novelist William Kittredge:

“The Western is a story in which we get to have our cake and eat it. Shane does the killing, then rides into the mythical Tetons, carrying all our guilt away with him. Our problems have been solved quickly, and we are off the hook, guilt free, ready to go on, no blood on our hands.

“The Western is a story as ancient as warfare, about solving problems with violence, the great simple solution …

“It would be pretty to think the American version of this ancient showdown shoot-’em-up story of aggression enshrined has vanished. But it hasn’t.

“The Western mutated and went to the edge of the continent and downtown with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and the cops and detectives (think of Chinatown as the last Western movie). Lately the Western has gone into virtual worlds and outer space, where the same old story is being endlessly reenacted by killer androids.”

William Kittredge in The Portable Western Reader (Penguin, 1997) edited and with an introduction by William Kittredge us.penguingroup.com. The book gathers essays, poems and more, from ancient tribal tales to work of well-known contemporary authors such as Louise Erdrich. Richard Ford, Barry Lopez and Larry McMurtry and Leslie Marmon Silko.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 29, 2006

James L. Swanson Follows the Trail of John Wilkes Booth

A taut true-crime story about the search for Lincoln’s assassin

Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. Morrow, 448 pp., $26.95.

Over Thanksgiving dinner I told one of the smartest people I know that I had just finished Manhunt, the true story of the attempt to capture the man who killed Abraham Lincoln. “Why did John Wilkes Booth kill Lincoln, anyway?” my friend asked. “Was he just crazy?”

I couldn’t have answered before I read Manhunt and, no doubt, many people still can’t. One of the chief virtues of this fascinating book is that it reminds us how little we know about some of the most familiar events in American history.

Lincoln scholar James L. Swanson hasn’t written a biography or a character study of Booth but a true-crime story about what happened between the actor’s escape from Ford’s Theatre after the assassination and his arrest at a barn in Virginia 12 days later. So he leaves unanswered many questions about Booth’s mental stability. Instead he casts the actor as a passionate white supremacist who saw Lincoln as a tyrant and was enraged by the president’s recent call for limited black suffrage. General Robert E. Lee had surrendered, but strong Confederate armies remained at large in parts of the South, and their leaders had not taken their cues from Lee. Booth may have been delusional enough to believe that, by killing Lincoln, he could affect what remained of the Civil War.

For all its absence of psychological insight, this story is rich in adventures worthy of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Swanson follows Booth and an accomplice from Ford’s Theatre to the homes of Confederate sympathizers in Maryland and a pine thicket where they hid for five days until they believed they could safely cross the Potomac to Virginia in small boat under cover of darkness. And although he occasionally he describes thoughts by Booth that he appears to have had no way to know, he documents most of the story meticulously.

Manhunt came out just before Presidents’ Day, and some critics may omit it from holiday gift lists in favor of more recent titles. That’s too bad, because this book has much to offer adults and teenagers with a passion for U.S. History. Many of us learned from our teachers that after shooting Lincoln, Booth leaped onto the stage at Ford’s and shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” – “Thus always to tyrants.” How many of us learned that he first said something else? Before leaving the president’s box, Booth shouted a single word: “Freedom!”

Best line: “John Wilkes Booth’s escape and disappearance unfolded as though scripted not by a master criminal, but by a master dramatist. Each additional day of Booth’s absence from the stage intensified the story’s dramatic arc.”

Worst line: Swanson describes what Booth was thinking just before his arrest in lines like: “Suicide? Never that shameful end, Booth vowed to himself. Richard III did not commit suicide, Macbeth did not die by his own hand, nor Brutus …” Swanson provides many endnotes, but none makes clear how he could have known this.

Editors: Michael Morrison at HarperCollins and Lisa Gallagher at Morrow

Published: February 2006. HarperPerennial paperback to be published February 20007. www.jameslswanson.com

Posted by Janice Harayda

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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