One-Minute Book Reviews

January 22, 2009

Barbara Walters Remembers When William Safire Gave Her a Black Shorty Nightgown With Matching Lace Panties — and Other Events — in a Bizarre ‘Audition’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:11 am
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Bad at marriage and worse at skiing, but good at getting television viewers to flush simultaneously

Audition: A Memoir. By Barbara Walters. Knopf, 612 pp., $29.95.

By Janice Harayda

How popular was the two-hour Barbara Walters Special on Monica Lewinsky? “There were reports,” Walters writes, “that the water level in some cities dropped during the commercial breaks as large numbers of people were flushing at the same time.”

This peculiar factoid suggests the bizarre tone of Audition, an overstuffed memoir by America’s first female network news coanchor. In a half century in broadcasting, Walters has never learned to write for the eye instead of the ear, and this leads to unintentional comedy. (“If I was bad at marriage, I was even worse at skiing.”) Walters also indulges her instinct for score-settling, celebrity puffery, and self-contradiction. (“I have always been a terrific editor, if I do say so myself — and I do say so myself.”) But many of her anecdotes about her early years in broadcasting are revealing, particularly when they suggest how much pyrite the networks served up in what some critics call “the golden age of television.” Walters reports that when she left Today to coanchor the news at ABC, the Alpo dog food company gave her a red ice bucket shaped like a fire hydrant — a reminder that the hosts of the show once had to do commercials for the sponsor’s products. And even her clunkiest lines at times have a weird fascination. “I don’t want to disappoint anyone,” she writes, “but let me say once again, Castro and I were definitely not lovers.”

Best line: Walters quotes a joke that the comedian Joy Behar told after Salman Rushdie received death threats and went into hiding: “I’ll tell you the difference between men and women. Rushdie has been in solitary confinement for five years with no visitors at all allowed … and in that time he’s been married twice.”

Worst line: No. 1: “But just before the ax fell, lightning struck and my life changed, never to be the same again.” No. 2: “And so, in June 1955, my father walked me down the aisle. … My heart had never felt so heavy, but then again, my heart would feel just as heavy every time I married (I’ve been married three times), which is why, as I write this, please know that I will never get married again!” No. 3: Early in her career, Walters worked at a PR agency with William Safire, the future New York Times columnist, who noticed that she “rarely relaxed”: “That is why at an office Christmas party, his gift to me was a sheer, black, shorty nightgown with matching lace panties. I was somewhat embarrassed but also delighted. Today when we are so concerned with sexual harassment such a gift might not be well received.”

Sample chapter titles: “Monica.” “Finally, Fidel.” “Garland, Capote, Rose Kennedy, and Princess Grace.” “Presidents and First Ladies: Forty Years Inside the White House.” “Dean Rusk, Golda Meir, Henry Kissinger, and Prince Philip.”

Editor: Peter Gethers

Published: May 2008 (hardcover), paperback due out in May 2009.

Furthermore: Walters was the first female coanchor at an American television news network. She co-hosts ABC’s The View.

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

December 26, 2008

Are the Best Biographies Sympathetic to Their Subjects? (Quote of the Day / Allen Massie)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 pm
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Are the best biographies necessarily sympathetic to their subjects? I had oddly never considered this idea until an unflattering life of Hemingway led the Scottish journalist Allen Massie to write in a recent issue of the Spectator:

“The best biographies are sympathetic. Their authors don’t gloss over their subjects’ failures and faults of character, but they don’t seek to do them down. The biographer who sets out to mock his subjects or diminish their achievements is likely to arouse the reader’s sympathy for them. Lytton Strachey’s four Eminent Victorians have survived his debunking, and Strachey now seems less than any of them. Conversely, and paradoxically, however, the admiring but scrupulous biographer may provoke a contrary response from the reader.”

After I read Massie’s comment, I thought about my favorite biographies, which include James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, Gordon Haight’s George Eliot, Jean Strouse’s Alice James, A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins, and William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory. All are sympathetic to their subjects. Yet there must be a good biography of Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein, though you could hardly write a “sympathetic” one. Have I missed the good, sympathetic biographies of those men? Or are the lives of tyrants the exceptions to Massie’s rule?

What books have you read that support or challenge Massie’s argument?

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

November 17, 2008

Tuesdays With More Jewelry – The 13 Women You Meet in ‘The Necklace’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 am
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“I told Wayne, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. If you vote for Bush I’ll give you sexual favors.’ I live with a Democrat. What else could I do?’ Men are distracted by their little brain, as we call it.”
– Nancy Huff, who chipped in with 12 other women buy a $15,000 diamond tennis necklace, on her husband, Wayne

The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives. By the Women of Jewelia and Cheryl Jarvis. Ballantine, 240 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Think of this book as Tuesdays With More Jewelry. Or For One More Day With a $15,000 Necklace. Or The 13 Women You Meet in Midlife If You’re Planning to Live to Be 100+.

Mitch Albom doesn’t have a new book out this year, but if you’re having withdrawal symptoms, The Necklace offers an antidote in the form of a variation on the Tuesdays With Morrie formula: Take two or more middle-aged or older people, have them meet regularly, and write about the self-evident truths they say “learned” from their get-togethers.

In this case 13 California women, all in their 50s or early 60s, chipped in to buy a $15,000 diamond tennis necklace and named it Jewelia. Then they took turns keeping it for a month at a time, sometimes lending it to others or using it as a draw for fund-raisers, and wrote a book about their experiences.

The Necklace brims with praise for the benefits of sharing a necklace that has 118 diamonds. One borrower said, “I’d been depressed because I’m overweight, but the necklace made me feel happy.” This is not a practical solution to America’s obesity epidemic.

Even so, The Necklace has more going for it than much of Albom’s fare, chiefly because the sex is better. The owners of the necklace had an understanding: “Each woman, when it’s her time with the necklace, has to make love wearing only the diamonds.” Thus we learn that Nancy Huff gave her husband “sexual favors” in return for a vote for George Bush. (“I live with a Democrat. What else could I do?”) Dale Muegenburg surprised her husband by dressing in schoolgirl porn — “a plaid, pleated miniskirt, a sexy white blouse, and kneesocks” — when they stayed in a dorm at his college reunion.

As proof of what they learned from their purchase, the women offer banalities — including talk about about “second chances” and “the road less traveled” — that hardly seem worth an investment of more than $1,000 apiece. But the bromides don’t count the book, movie and other deals that flowed in after the media heard about their project. And although none of the women acknowledges it, each owner of The Necklace learned something about her death if not about her life: Each woman now knows what the first line of her obituary will be.

Best line: “Men are distracted by their little brain, as we call it.”

Worst line: “Patti didn’t feel the same ecstasy with regard to the group necklace. ‘Diamonds are too common for me.’”

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to The Necklace was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 17, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this review.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Wish I’d written that: Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: “The group unquestionably helps others by using the necklace to raise money for charities and by appreciating the intangible, self-actualizing gifts that can’t be had in jewelry stores.

“But real honesty and insight are antithetical to this book’s experiment. It wants to simultaneously exploit and renounce the same craving. So the diamonds are cannily manipulated throughout The Necklace to both titillate and congratulate readers and to reinforce what they already know.” stores.
www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/books/05book.html?pagewanted=print

Editor: Susan Mercandetti

Published: September 2008

Read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780345500717

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic 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.

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

November 13, 2008

Andrew Bridge’s ‘Hope’s Boy’ – A Memoir of His Experiences in Foster Care, He Says

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:05 pm
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A former foster child recalls his time in “the closest thing that Los Angeles County had to a public orphanage.”

Hope’s Boy. By Andrew Bridge. Hyperion, 306 pp., $22.95.

By Janice Harayda

Like Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, Hope’s Boy deals with a subject so tragic you wish the book were more credible. Andrew Bridge says he spent 11 years in foster care, part of it in “the closest thing that Los Angeles County had to a public orphanage,” after being snatched from his apparently psychotic mother on a street by authorities who made too little effort to reunite them after placing him with another family. And he makes a fair case that those things did happen to him.

But Bridge undercuts his credibility by describing early childhood and later events in implausible and gratuitous detail, including pages of line-by-line dialogue. Generations of creative-writing professors have said in effect to their students: If you want to get your character out of a parking lot, you can just have him drive away. You don’t have to say that he got out his keys, unlocked the door, and climbed in the car. Hope’s Boy is full of such padding and is consequently far longer than necessary. It is also overwrought. Bridge shows his love of purple when he describes going to bed at night when he was in kindergarten: “Tired, my mind emptied slowly into the raven night of the room’s deepening corners.”

Yet amid the surfeit of detail, Bridge leaves many questions unanswered. Why doesn’t he give the real name of his high school, where he clearly did well? Why does his say nothing about his time at Harvard Law School and instead go from his acceptance in once sentence to his graduation in another, though his book carries his story well into adulthood? Why doesn’t he mention the religion of the woman who served as his foster mother for 11 years, whom he says the Nazis had imprisoned in a Dachau satellite camp for children?

Bridge says he has changed “identifying details.” But if you change details, your story still needs to cohere. It’s natural to assume, for example, that a Holocaust survivor would be Jewish and Judaism would play a role in her life. And if this was true of his foster mother, Bridge doesn’t say so. He portrays her so unflatteringly that you wonder if he ignored the religious issue for fear of appearing anti-Semitic. But because he says his foster mother spent four years a labor camp, the issue is there, anyway. His silence just makes things murky. And Hyperion has billed his book as a memoir of “one boy who beat the odds.” Don’t we have a right to know if religion helped or hurt him along the way?

In an epilogue, Bridge tries to put his experiences in a national context by drawing on court records of the mistreatment at Alabama’s Eufaula Adolescent Center in the 1990s. This final section describes practices such as confining children for indefinite periods in six-by-nine foot cells, abuses that led to the appointment of a court-ordered monitor for Eufaula. Brief and direct, the epilogue is the strongest part of the book, because it reflects a principle too little in evidence elsewhere: Real tragedies are often so painful to read about that they are best served by understatement.

Best line: “Over half a million American children live in foster care. The majority of them never graduate from high school, and overwhelmingly, they enter adulthood only semiliterate. Fewer than ten percent of former foster children graduate college; many experts estimate the number is closer to three percent. Thirty to fifty percent of children aging out of foster care are homeless within two years.”

Worst line: Another example of Bridge’s overwrought prose appears when he describes the school bell that rang daily to announce the start of classes at his high school: “Every morning, the claxon was loud enough to taunt the boundaries of silence. Pricking thousands of eardrums, the blast walloped though the wide corridors lined with amber-colored lockers, then with nothing to stop it other than exhaustion, it spread over the large campus, across the lines of concrete and grass, dicing through the chain link fences. Muted by it, students and teachers halted their progress for the slightest moment, then once it ceased, proceeded onward with their new day.”

Published: February 2008 www.HopesBoy.com

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

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

November 12, 2008

Yes, She Had Herself Photographed Wearing the Necklace During a Gynecological Exam – A Review of ‘The Necklace’ Coming Soon

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:20 am
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You would think, wouldn’t you, that with the National Book Award winners being announced next week, I would have better things to read than a book about a group of California women who chipped in to buy a $15,000 diamond necklace and gave it the pet name Jewelia? Especially when one woman wore the necklace to a gynecological exam? And had herself photographed wearing it with her feet in the stirrups?

Yes, if you were sensible, you would. But I got sucked into The Necklace, so a review will appear soon.

In the meantime, here’s one of the “good parts.” The following scene occurs when Patti Channer, an investor in the necklace, visits her gynecologist, Dr. Roz Warner, who also owns a share:

“Roz had been in practice twenty years. No one, not one single patient, had ever brought a camera for her annual checkup. She was startled but moved quickly out to the hallway to nab Michelle, her twenty-five-year-old medical assistant.

“Patti prepared the settings and handed the camera to Michelle. …

“It was an interesting experience, Roz thought, one she decided to repeat when it was her turn with the necklace. It would be a point of conversation, something to distract the patient from the fluorescent lights overhead and the metal speculum inside.

“Patti felt good when she left the office. She liked to document her life. Every trip, every family vacation, she was the one with the camera. It was a way of remembering the fun, prolonging the experience. And sharing the photos with people was like giving a gift.

“Wearing a diamond necklace for a gynecological exam had to be a first, she thought. She couldn’t wait to show the pictures to the women.”

If you can’t wait for the review, you can read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl/9780345500717.html.

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

July 24, 2008

Tom Farley, Jr., on His Brother Chris Farley – Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:18 pm
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Tom Farley, Jr., remembers his younger brother Chris Farley, who appeared on Saturday Night Live and in movies such as Beverly Hills Ninja, in his new The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts (Viking, $26.95) www.thechrisfarleyshow.com, written with Tanner Colby. Tom writes of Chris, who died at the age of 33 from overdose of crack and heroin in 1997:

“Soon after Chris died, I told my wife that my greatest fear was being sixty years old and trying hard to remember this kid who was my brother.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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.

April 6, 2008

Pulitzer Prizes To Be Announced Monday, April 7, at 3 p.m. — Here’s a Link to the Pulitzer Site

Filed under: Book Awards,News,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:34 pm
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[Update at 3:30 p.m. Monday: Junot Diaz has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscao Wao, a novel that last month won the National Book Critics Circle Prize for fiction. Here’s a link to the AP story that lists all the winners for books and journalism, which has more on the winners right now than the Pulitzer site:

ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5j7vuQ5ogo7UJ6MEjWWaYBGpyOTCgD8VT75DG0.

This more extensive story has a complete list of all the winners (with descriptions of the work) and finalists, including all the books that were finalists www.huliq.com/56234/columbia-university-announcees-2008-pulitzer-prize-winners.

The winners of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes will be announced on Monday, April 7, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. The awards honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction – though the judges may decline to give an award in any of them. You should be able to find the winners after they are announced at the Pulitzer site, www.pulitzer.org. In the meantims, the site also has questions and answers about the prizes.

April 3, 2008

How Is Writing a Biography Different From Writing an Autobiography? (Quote of the Day / Russell Baker)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:10 pm
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“The biographer’s problem is that he never knows enough. The autobiographer’s problem is that he knows too much.”

Russell Baker as quoted by William Zinsser in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir: Russell Baker / Annie Dillard / Alfred Kazin / Toni Morrison / Lewis Thomas. Edited and with a memoir and an introduction by William Zinsser (Houghton Miffin, 1987). Inventing the Truth began as a series of talks conceived by the Book-of-the-Month Club and held at the New York Public Library in 1986.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 7, 2008

National Book Critics Circle Award Reality Check: ‘Brother, I’m Dying’

Filed under: African American,Book Awards,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:53 pm
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Do literary prizes always go to deserving authors? One-Minute Book Reviews considers the question in “Reality Check,” a series of occasional posts on books shortlisted for high-profile awards. A recent installment considered Edwidge Danticat’s memoir of an uncle who died while in custody of U.S. immigration officials, Brother, I’m Dying www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/02/. then a finalist for a 2007 National Book Award. The book has since won the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com. A “Reality Check” post on the NBCC poetry winner, Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, will appear next week.

(c) Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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