One-Minute Book Reviews

May 11, 2009

‘The Aeneid’ in Three Sentences (Quote of the Day / Robert Fagles)

Filed under: Classics,Poetry,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:08 am
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The problem with book reviewing in America isn’t usually that it’s unfair or inaccurate – it’s that it’s dull. And it’s dull partly because it’s timid. Reviews often tell you almost everything about a novel except what it is really “about” beyond the plot details.

This failing has less to do with dwindling review space and than with declining courage and intellectual confidence. You can express the theme or message of even a complex, multilayered work in a few sentences if you know it well enough. Here’s how the classics scholar Robert Fagles summed up The Aeneid:

“It says that if you depart from the civilized, then you become a murderer. The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.”

As quoted by Charles McGrath in “Robert Fagles, Translator of the Classics, Dies at 74” in the New York Times, March 29, 2008.

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

December 22, 2008

Wrap Holiday Gifts for Free With Items You Have at Home — Ideas From Elaine St. James’s ‘Simplify Your Christmas’

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:38 pm
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Have you noticed how some of those cute little holiday gift-wrap bags can cost more than the presents you put inside them? In Simplify Your Christmas: 100 Ways to Reduce the Stress and Recapture the Joy of the Holidays (Barnes and Noble, 2003), Elaine St. James suggests that you instead use leftover wallpaper, the Sunday comics, art or photos from last year’s calendar, outdated maps or oceanographic charts, or a basket you want to recycle.

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


December 4, 2008

‘Unplug the Christmas Machine’ – How to Explain to Children Why You Plan to Give Them Fewer Gifts This Holiday Season

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:00 pm
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“First, talk to your children as soon as possible about your plans to give them fewer presents.”

Do publishers have a sense of irony? You might wonder after seeing all the double-digit price tags on books about how to simplify your holidays. So here’s an alternative: Head for the library and look for Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back Into the Season (Harper, 208 pp., $12.95, paperback), a field manual for the walking wounded in the annual holiday battle that advertisers and others wage for your soul and wallet.

This book grew out of workshops that authors Jo Robinson and Jean C. Staeheli began to lead in the late 1970s, and some of its material reflects the ideas of that era. But many of its suggestions are evergreen, and the advice never gives you the sense, as Martha Stewart’s does, that the glue gun can be a lethal weapon. A typical passage in the first edition tells how to ease your family into a celebration less focused on gifts:

“First, talk to your children as soon as possible about your plans to give them fewer presents. Be clear about what they can expect. Second, explain to children who are old enough to understand why it’s important to you to minimize gifts. Finally, give your children something else to look forward to, like a special trip or family activity. Focus on what they will be getting, not on what they won’t.”

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

November 25, 2008

John Updike Wins Lifetime Achievement Award from 2008 ‘Bad Sex’ in Fiction Judges

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:48 pm
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Rachel Johnson also wins for a scene from Shire Hell “that begins with moans and nibbles and works up to screaming and other animal noises”

John Updike has won a special lifetime achievement award from the judges of the 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Prize, given annually by the U.K. literary magazine the Literary Review. Here’s the AP story on the award www.kvoa.com/Global/story.asp?S=9412980&nav=HMO6HMaf. Updike has been nominated four times for the prize, this year for his novel The Widows of Eastwick.

The AP article doesn’t say whether the judges singled out any passages in giving Updike the award, which recognizes crude, tasteless and often gratuitous sex scenes in works that otherwise have literary merit. So I’ll repeat what I said yesterday in noting that Updike had been nominated: “Let’s face it – it’s a miracle that he has never won a Bad Sex award, given that this man created the lecherous Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, who made a pass at his daughter-in-law on his deathbed.”

James Pressley of Bloomberg.com reports that Rachel Johnson, the sister of London mayor Boris Johnson, is also a winner. She received the 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Prize “for a scene in Shire Hell that begins with moans and nibbles and works up to screaming and other animal noises” www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=a_G4Db0hO7Z8&refer=home. Pressley’s article is longer and has more information on the other candidates than the AP story.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 19, 2008

Matthiessen, Gordon-Reed, Doty and Blundell Win 2008 National Book Awards — Gordon-Reed Is First African-American Woman to Win the Nonfiction Prize

The winners of the 2008 National Book Awards are Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (fiction), Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello (nonfiction), Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire (poetry) and Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied. Each winner receives $10,000 and was selected by a different panel of five judges. The nonprofit National Book Foundation sponsors the prizes and has posted more information about them at www.nationalbook.org. The site includes interviews with all the winners and finalists and excerpts from their books.

The publishing news site GalleyCat www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/ will have pictures and more on the ceremony tomorrow. Ron Hogan, senior editor of GalleyCat, attended and posted the names of the winners on his Twitter feed with heroic speed. If you can’t wait for tomorrow’s news stories, you can read more about the event on his Twitter feed www.twitter.com/ronhogan, which includes snippets from the acceptance speeches.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 2, 2008

Two Classics of Environmentalism and Nature Writing – Aldo Leopold’s ‘A Sand County Almanac’ and John Muir’s ‘My First Summer in the Sierra’

On Thursday I wrote about 100 One-Night Reads, a collection of 100 essays on short books — a volume I liked partly for its variety. David and John Major don’t pander to book clubs by focusing on recent bestsellers or other popular choices. They cover many kinds of good fiction and nonfiction – travel, humor, science, memoirs, mystery, fantasy, history, public affairs – though they favor 20th century classics.

Here are excepts from their comments on two books that have helped to shaped the modern environmental movement, A Sand County Almanac and My First Summer in the Sierra:

On Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac:

“Aldo Leopold is one of the heroes of modern environmentalism, and A Sand County Almanac is one of the movement’s classics. In the half century since it was published, this book has inspired readers with its impassioned call for radical change in human attitudes toward the planet that sustains us. …

“The first part of the book is the almanac proper: observations from the Leopolds’ family retreat arranged seasonally. The writing here is memorable; many books remain in one’s consciousness only in general terms, but after reading A Sand County Almanac you will find yourself startled by the immediacy of the author’s vision. … a chorus of sound in the middle distance might bring to mind Leopold’s precise comments on ‘the proceedings of the convention in the marsh’ (March) or the virtues of the songs of the more elusive birds (September).

“The second part of the book, ‘Sketches Here and There,’ collects some of Leopold’s essays written about regions in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, describing perspectives and incidents that contributed to the formulation of his mature views.” www.aldoleopold.org/books/Default.asp

On John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra

“After explorations that included a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf Coast, [John Muir] traveled to California, arriving in San Francisco in 1868. In the summer of 1869, he book a job with a rancher acquaintance, overseeing the movement of flocks to mountain pastures.
“As a supervisor of the enterprise, Muir assembled a crew of two – a shepherd named Billy and a borrowed St. Bernard dog, Carlo – to go on the trip. Able to rely on their expert work in dealing with the sheep, Muir found himself with time to indulge his passion for the explorations of nature. My First Summer in the Sierra, based on his contemporary journal (though not published until 1911), is the record of that extraordinary time. Although Muir was in the Sierra that summer for less than four months, we come away from the book feeling that his time there was much longer, and in some sense permanent.”

Read the first chapter of My First Summer in the Sierra at www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/my_first_summer_in_the_sierra/chapter_1.html

To read the review of 100 One-Night Reads, click here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/10/30/ .

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

October 31, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – What Sarah Palin Has in Common With Ishmael Beah

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:01 pm
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Watching how tightly the McCain campaign has controlled the media access to Sarah Palin, I thought: Where have I seen something like this before? Answer: the publicity campaign for A Long Way Gone, which Ishmael Beah continues to bill as a memoir of his years as a child soldier despite serious challenges to the credibility of many of his claims. Farrar, Straus & Giroux has done with Beah what McCain has done with Palin: Restrict speeches and interviews severely, offering them mainly to safe audiences and journalists. Beah has never been interviewed by an American broadcaster who has asked tough questions and followed up on them as directly as Charles Gibson and Katie Couric did with Palin. Cynthia McFadden – one of the few who had a chance to do it – wimped out unabashedly in her interview with Beah earlier this year on Nightline. blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2008/08/nightlines_bad.php.

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

October 28, 2008

Eat, Pray, Clone – Noelle Oxenhandler’s Memoir, ‘The Wishing Year’

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 am
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The author had a vision of Aunt Jemima during a "shamanic journey."

After her divorce, a California woman looked for a new home, lover and sense of spiritual community.

The Wishing Year: A House, A Man, My Soul: A Memoir of Fulfilled Desire. By Noelle Oxenhandler. Random House, 282 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Bookstores should probably display The Wishing Year in a section called “Eat, Pray, Clone.” This book is one of the first – but certainly won’t be the last – to join the rush to imitate Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir of her post-divorce travels in Italy, India and Indonesia.

The Wishing Year is nonetheless very different book, and not just because Noelle Oxenhandler wanted a new home, a lover and spiritual “healing” instead of Gilbert’s “pleasure,” “devotion” and “balance.” I’m apparently one of the few Americans who was underwhelmed by Eat, Pray, Love, which made life after divorce sound like an exercise in high-flying consumerism. But Gilbert has strengths: She’s witty, she writes in a breezy journalistic style, and, above all, she puts herself out there. She’s an emotional exhibitionist. Want to know which incident drove her to confess that she found masturbation “a handy tool”? Or hear about how she went to Bali for “balance” but had so much sex with her new boyfriend that she got a bladder infection and had to drink a vile witch-doctor’s brew to cure it? God love her, Gilbert will tell you.

Oxenhandler has practiced Buddhism for 30 years and has a more reserved and contemplative temperament and a more literary writing style. Except for relatively brief trips to France and Hawaii, she also tended to stay close to home as she pursued her goal: She wanted to spend a year “wishing brazenly” for earthly things such as a house instead of intangibles like peace or compassion, as was her wont. She defines “wishing brazenly” vaguely enough that it’s hard to know what it involves beyond “focused attention.”

But it doesn’t seem have included anything so crass as the usual advice from business gurus: Set goals, break them into parts, work on them daily, and monitor your progress. Oxenhandler plunged instead into a series of New Age-y activities that reflected her interest in Far Eastern mysticism. She had a “fire ceremony” to burn away her “remorse” for her failed marriage, which ended when she and her married Zen teacher fell in love. She cut dollar bills into tiny rectangles to suggest an abundance of money. (“I know it’s a crime to cut legal tender,” she writes, “but if anyone questions me, I’ve done my research and I’ve got my answer ready: Don’t you know anything about imitative magic?”) At a “shamanic journey” she had a vision of the fictional Aunt Jemima, who later gave her advice on how to spend Thanksgiving. If Oxenhandler were a less graceful writer, you might quit long before she watches a film about The Secret.

By the end of The Wishing Year, Oxenhandler has fulfilled some of her desires, including her wish to own a house. She credits this partly to her newly “focused attention.” But she undermines this claim — and much of her story — when she tells a stranger in the last chapter she’s writing a book on wishing. The belated admission that she had financial stake in her pursuits leaves you wondering: Did she really pursue some of the loopier activities she describes because she wanted to test her ideas about wishing? Or did she do it because without them she wouldn’t have had a book?

Eat, Pray, Love raised similar questions but with less damage to its credibility. Gilbert’s book had a dual purpose: that of a memoir of divorce and of a travelogue. And you believe that she wanted to visit places like Bali. Who wouldn’t?

But Oxenhandler casts her book primarily as an inquiry into questions like: “Does a wish have power?” and “If so, what kind of power is it, and how can that power be tapped?” She is coy about when she got a book contract. But it’s possible that a timely advance had more to do with her ability to buy a house than any “shamanic journey.” If so, it would have been fairer to readers to say that. And it might have made for a more interesting and cohesive book. A major question left unanswered is: Where did she find the money for the downpayment apart from a maternal gift that she admits didn’t provide nearly what she needed?

Memoirs have been tarnished recently by writers who have trampled on facts or failed to supply all that their stories require. One critic has said that more and more of their authors seem take as their premise, “It’s true if I say it is.” The Wishing Year is yet another memoir that leaves you thinking more about what it didn’t say than what it did.

Best line: The first: “It is, in itself, an ancient wish: the wish that a wish makes something happen.”

Worst line: Oxenhandler quotes Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” and adds: “And a wish, as I understand it, is a desire with feathers – an arrow’s feathers and an arrow’s sharp point.
“So then, how is a wish distinguished from a hope? To me, it’s the sharp point that makes the difference. For while hope implies loft, the aspiration to soar toward what is yet to come, I see it primarily as an inner state…. As for a wish: only with both feathers and a sharp point can it reach what it aims for …”
That a wish can come to fruition only if it has “feathers and a sharp point” is clearly untrue. Some wishes go unfulfilled because of, for example, bad luck or government policies. Would Oxenhandler say that starving people in Darfur can achieve their wish for food “only” if their wish has feathers and a sharp point? Or that very ill Americans who lack health insurance can achieve their wish for treatment “only” if their wish has those things? Oxenhandler makes generalizations as a privileged, well-educated, middle-class America that, if you try apply them to other groups, sound like blaming the victim.

Recommendation? This book might make a good gift for your New Age-iest friend – say, somebody who still throws the I Ching. Read the reader-reviews on Amazon if you can’t decide whether to give this to a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, because some deal with this.

Editor: Caroline Sutton

Published: July 2008 www.noelleoxenhandler.com

Read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400064854

Furthermore: Oxenhandler lives in California. She wrote A Grief Out of Season.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books, catalogs, advance reading copies, print or electronic press releases or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors or agents.

© 2008 JaniceHarayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 25, 2008

Good Thanksgiving Poems for Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:41 am
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Apple pie,
Pumpkin pie,
turkey on the dish!
We can see
we can eat
everything we
wish, wish, wish, wish.

From Else Holmelund Minarik’s “Apple Pie”

Merrily Comes Our Harvest In: Poems for Thanksgiving. Selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrations by Ben Schecter. 32 pp., varied prices and editions. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Thanksgiving has resisted the tarting up that has tarnished other holidays, and this book is for families who want to keep it that way. Lee Bennett Hopkins has collected on its pages 20 short and poems, most with strong rhymes, by writers including Marchette Chute and Myra Cohn Livingston. And Hopkins’s upbeat selections give the book a warm and nostalgic air.

In simple and often witty language, these poems celebrate traditional pleasures such as turkey, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, grandparents and honoring the bond between the Pilgrims and Indians. “Simple” does not mean “dumbed-down.” Hopkins gives children credit for being able to understand metaphor by including Alice Crowell Hoffman’s “November’s Gift,” which begins: “November is a lady / In a plain gray coat / That’s very closely buttoned / Up around her throat.” He ends with Aileen Fisher’s alliterative acrostic poem, “All in a Word,” which expresses gratitude for things that begin with the letters in “thanks”: “T for time to be together, / turkey, talk, and tangy weather.”

A few poems subtly mention God in their last lines, a radical act by the ideological standards of contemporary picture books. And Ben Shecter enhances all the entries with gentle brown-black line drawings, many cross-hatched, depicting eras that range from Pilgrim to Victorian times. His picture for “November’s Gift” casts the “lady” in the first line of the poem as a larger-than-life figure who hovers above a village as leaves fly, suggesting Mother Nature in a bonnet.

Best line/picture: Else Holmelund Minark’s “Apple Pie” isn’t the best poem in the book. But very young children may find it the easiest to remember because its opening lines have the rhythm of a jump-rope rhyme: “Apple pie, / pumpkin pie / turkey on the dish!”

Worst line/picture: Dean Hughes describes a holiday with: “Turkey toes and turkey beaks, / Turkey claws and turkey cheeks” and “Turkey juice and turkey leathers, / Everything, but turkey feathers.” Nice, jaunty rhythm, but that “turkey leathers” seems to be there only for the rhyme.

Caveat lector: Merrily Comes Our Harvest In is out of print and hard to find except at libraries. But you can read two of its poems for free at sites described under “Furthermore” below. And some of its poems appear in other books. “The Pumpkin” is also in Sing a Song of Popcorn. “All in a Word,” “A Thanksgiving Thought” and “The Little Girl and the Turkey” appear in Thanksgiving: Stories and Poems.

Published: 1978

Furthermore: Merrily Comes Our Harvest In includes “Harvest,” or “The Boughs Do Shake,” available for free at www.bbc.co.uk/schoolradio/earlylearning/listenandplay_spring05_programme03.shtml. The book also has “Thanksgiving Time,” posted at www.thanksgiving-day.org/thanksgiving-day-poems.html (along with weaker poems). Among poems not in the Merrily Comes Our Harvest In: NetHymnal makes available for free the text and music for 50 Thanksgiving and harvest hymns, or poems set to music, for anyone looking for religious poems for older children or teenagers. Search www.nethymnal.org for “Thanksgiving” and or click here to find all 50.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

October 23, 2008

Why Didn’t ‘Sea of Poppies’ Win the Man Booker Prize?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:58 am
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Sea of Poppies ranks higher on Amazon than any 2008 Man Booker Prize finalist except the winner, The White Tiger. Why didn’t that award go to its author, Amitav Ghosh, an Indian-Begali resident of New York? A review in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal argues that the book has serious defects:

Sea of Poppies means to explore grand themes — colonialism, commerce and caste among them. But the novel falls short of the praise heaped on it, weighted down by the burden of Mr. Ghosh’s sermonizing.”

Reviewer Abheek Bhattacharya adds that the novel “is roped with enough storylines to rig a four-masted schooler and populated by so many characters that you need a manifest” to keep track of them:

“Mr. Ghosh has said that this novel is just the first in a trilogy on the British Opium Wars. Perhaps by the trilogy’s end the tale will assume the coherence and fullness that its first installment lacks.”

Read the full review at online.wsj.com/article/SB122429055763246745.html

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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