One-Minute Book Reviews

October 22, 2008

Two Quatrains by Tadeusz Różewicz

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:51 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Two quatrains I like from the 17-line poem “knowledge” in Tadeusz Różewicz’s New Poems (Archipelago, 259 pp., $16, paperback), translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston:

cogito and dubito
share a house you know
mr cogito above
mr dubito below

having lived a rich life
they switched you know
dubito above
cogito below …

Różewicz is considered one of the finest poets in Poland and won the Nike Prize, his country’s highest literary honor, for Mother Departs. His plays have earned him a reputation one of the major Polish playwrights of the 20th century www.culture.pl/en/culture/artykuly/os_rozewicz_tadeusz.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 21, 2008

Librarian-Approved Gift Books for a Cook, a Baker, and a Fashionista, Including a Gift Book That Dares to Answer the Question, ‘What Are Spanx?’

A Project Runway judge praises that “life-altering” product — Spanx pantyhose — in The One-Hundred

Oh, joy. Just back from the library with an armload of 2008 coffee-table books I’m going to check out as potential holiday gifts.

One of the challenges of running this site is that because I don’t take free books from publishers, I no longer routinely see all those fat coffee-table toppers that appear at this time of year, as I did at Glamour and the Plain Dealer. I can get almost everything else from the library and other sources. But the gift books are the killer. So many are too expensive for libraries – especially given their vulnerability to theft – and for me.

This week I was lucky. I went to the library soon after it had put out some of the coffee-table books the staff bought this year. Here are three that I’m reading with an eye to whether they might make good gifts. All were among the 2008 books bought by the staff at a suburban library that the American Library Association has named one of the country’s 10 best:

The Christmas Table: Recipes and Crafts to Create Your Own Holiday Tradition (Chronicle, 239 pp., $19.95, paperback) by Diane Morgan. Photographs by E. J. Armstrong. Take that “crafts” in the subtitle lightly. This book has only 13 pages of craft ideas, and one calls for safety goggles and an electric drill, needed to make lighted glass blocks. (The instructions include the slightly ominous note, “This will take a few minutes, so be patient.”) But The Christmas Table is attractive and, at less than $20, reasonably priced for a gift book. It has a suggested menu and recipes for “Christmukkah – the hybrid holiday meal,” which blends Christian and Jewish traditions in dishes such as “Fa-La-La-La Latkes.” www.dianemorgancooks.com

Professional Baking: Fifth Edition (Wiley, 770 pp., $65) by Wayne Gisslen. Photographs by J. Gerard Smith. Foreword by André J. Cointreau. This encyclopedic cookbook has more than 900 recipes for serious home bakers as well as professionals. Published in cooperation with the Le Cordon Bleu cooking schools, it gives U.S. and metric equivalents for ingredients and tells how to adapt them for large-quantity measurements. The book retains its focus on classic techniques. But the fifth edition has a new chapter on “baking for special diets, including low-fat, low-sugar, gluten-free, and dairy-free diets.” Bet that Ciabatta on page 147 and those cream cheese brownies on page 512 would taste better than your supermarket’s. www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/Section/id-311193.html

The One Hundred: A Guide to the Pieces Every Stylish Woman Must Own (Collins Living, 284 pp., $21.95) by Nina Garcia. Illustrations by Ruben Toledo. This book is a brand-name–strewn wallow in consumerism by a judge for Project Runway – you apparently “must own” diamond studs even if your ears aren’t pierced – raised to a higher power by the stylish illustrations on nearly every page. The title is somewhat misleading: The One Hundred is less about what all women need to own than about a hit parade of basics and why they endure: the pea coat, wrap dress, pearl necklace, striped sailor shirt, Wellington boot (“the Royal Family always wears the classic green version for mucking about in the country”). Among the newer items in the book: Spanx, “a life-altering, footless, control-top panty hose that should be warn whenever a woman wants to appear a size smaller.” Bet the teenage boys at the library will like the picture for that one as much as the one for the push-up bra. www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061664618/The_One_Hundred/index.aspx

Other holiday gift ideas will appear later this year. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

October 19, 2008

James Stevenson’s ‘That Terrible Halloween Night,’ a Picture Book for Ages 3–8

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:22 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I admire the offbeat comedy of James Stevenson, the illustrator and New Yorker cartoonist, particularly his children’s stories about a curmudgeon who longs to connect with others, The Worst Person in the World and The Worst Person in the World at Crab Beach. But I missed his That Terrible Halloween Night (Greenwillow, 1980), a picture book for ages 3–8. So I’ll quote what Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize–winning critic for the Washington Post, says about it in Readings (Norton, 2003): “When the kids try to scare grandpa, he tells them about the shocking thing that happened to him in a forbidding old house many years before. One of a series of fine tall tales related by Grandpa.”

That Terrible Halloween Night is out of print, but Stevenson has written dozens of popular picture books. If you’re lucky, the children’s department of your library will have this one. If not, it may have other books by Stevenson, shelved near those of his equally gifted New Yorker colleague, William Steig, whose Spinky Sulks might make a fine consolation prize if you strike out www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/28/.

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

October 18, 2008

Good Sports Stories for Children and Teenagers – Alan Durant’s ‘Score!’

UPDATE on Dec. 3, 2009: Online booksellers in the US have sold out of this one, but it is available under its original title of Sports Stories from UK booksellers including the Book Depository, which offers free shipping to the US.

Score!: Sports Stories. By Alan Durant. Roaring Brook, 264 pp., $6.95, paperback. First published as Sports Stories. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Score! is an answer to the prayers of many adults who are looking for a gift for a child who likes sports. This outstanding book has 21 stories about young male and female athletes, written by authors from Homer and Matt Christopher. And it covers many popular sports, including soccer, tennis, football, baseball, basketball, swimming, wrestling, bicycling, ice hockey, horseback riding, and track and field.

That breadth alone might set Score! apart from other anthologies. But the book also contains an appealing variety of writing styles – formal and informal, serious and humorous, realistic and futuristic. An overconfident White Sox rookie writes hilariously inane and ungrammatical letters to a friend in Ring Lardner’s classic You Know Me Al. A young swimmer tries to qualify for the Rome Olympics after the death of her boyfriend in an excerpt from In Lane Three, Alex Archer by Tessa Duder, a former world-class swimmer for New Zealand. And a soccer contest 200 years in the future has undertones of wii and other digital games in Malorie Blackman’s “Contact.”

Alan Durant provides helpful introductions for some of his selections, including an excerpt from National Velvet. He writes that Enid Bagnold’s 1935 novel is “the most famous horse racing story in fiction” and inspired a movie that starred Elizabeth Taylor as the teenage horsewoman who disguises herself as a male jockey to enter the Grand National. Then he mentions an unusual aspect of the excerpt: “What makes this description of the race so memorable is the way it is viewed not from the perspective of the competitor, Violet, but from that of the horse’s trainer, Mi, who struggles to follow the race among the crowds of spectators.”

Most of the stories in Score! have a strong plot and would lend themselves to reading aloud. This virtue adds to their appeal in an age when fiction for children, as for adults, is becoming more fragmented and elliptical. Before television, the great radio broadcasters knew that had to use words to draw pictures of games for their listeners, and the best writers in this book do that and more for their young readers.

Best line: In The Iliad Ulysses asks Athena to help him in a foot race, and the goddess obliges by tripping his rival Ajax: “He fell headfirst into a pile of cattle dung, while Ulysses ran on to win the race.” What a brilliant way to get kids interested in Homer: Choose a scene that has somebody falling head first into a dung heap.

Worst line: A couple of stories deal with English sports in a way that may baffle some children. I love P.G. Wodehouse but have no idea what he means in a line about cricket match from his Mike at Wrykyn: “Burgess’s yorker was nearly too much for the latter in the first over, but he contrived to shop it away, and the pair gradually settled down.”

Recommendation? The publisher recommends Score! for ages 9–12. But some of the tales may also appeal to teenagers. The Lardner story, for example, was written for adults and first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.

Caveat lector: This review was based on the hardcover edition, which has illustrations by David Kearney.

Publisher: 2008 (Roaring Brook paperback), 2000 (Kingfisher hardcover entitled Sports Stories).

Furthermore: Durant lives in England and wrote the “Leggs United” soccer series for children.

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

October 16, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Three Books That Bombed at Bookstores – ‘Thirteen Moons’ and Other ‘Legendary Flops’

Most books don’t earn back their advances, but some go deeper into the tank than others. Boris Kachka listed three notorious flops in a recent survey of the state of the publishing industry for New York: Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games (HarperCollins, 2007), Charlies Frazier’s Thirteen Moons (Random House, 2008) and James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning (HarperCollins. Kachka suggests why these novels bombed at
nymag.com/news/media/50279/index7.html.

Thirteen Moons earned an honorable mention in the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition for the year’s worst writing in books www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/02 for reasons suggested by its review www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/17/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 14, 2008

India’s Aravind Adiga Wins 2008 Man Booker Prize for ‘The White Tiger,’ a Novel That Outlook India Calls ‘A Tedious, Unfunny Slog’

Filed under: Book Awards,News,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:20 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Aravind Adiga tonight won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his first novel, The White Tiger, which the New Yorker described as a “darkly comic début novel set in India” about a chauffeur who “murders his employer, justifying his crime as the act of a ‘social entrepreneur.’” The White Tiger won praise from some American and English reviewers, but the Indian novelist and critic Manjula Padmanabhan of the New Delhi-based Outlook India called it “a tedious, unfunny slog.” You’ll find links to that review and others over at the Complete Review, which gave the novel an overall B-minute rating www.complete-review.com/reviews/india/adigaa.htm. If you want just the hype, you’ll find it at the Man Booker site www.themanbookerprize.com.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 13, 2008

Ghosts of Venice — Susan Hill’s Novella, ‘The Man in the Picture’

An 18th-century painting of masked revelers at the Grand Canal has sinister properties

The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story. By Susan Hill. Overlook, 145 pp., $15.

By Janice Harayda

A Halloween-costume superstore has opened in my town and raised the frightening possibility that I will soon be the only person on the streets not dressed like Bigfoot or a tavern wench. I will defend to the death anyone’s sartorial-first-amendment right to don a Borat Lycra Mankini or a Sexy Ms. Mental Patient outfit (“includes shirt with vinyl restraints”).

But if you’re looking for another way to spend Halloween, why not read a ghost story? You might start with this intelligent new novella by the English author Susan Hill.

The Man in the Picture lacks the psychological complexity of Patrick McGrath’s neo-Gothic novels and Alison Lurie’s underrated short story collection, Women and Ghosts. But Hill’s book works on its own terms, which are those of a well-crafted Victorian ghost story. The opening lines set the tone:

“The story was told to me by my old tutor, Theo Parmitter, as we sat beside the fire in his college rooms one bitterly cold January night. There were still real fires in those days, the coals brought up by the servant in huge brass scuttles. I had traveled down from London to see my old friend, who was by then well into his eighties …”

The tale involves a painting that Theo bought at auction as a young man, an untitled 18th-century work showing masked revelers at a carnival in Venice. From several narrators we learn that that the picture has a chimerical effect: New people seem to keep appearing in it. The meaning of the changes begins to emerge when a countess summons Theo to her Yorkshire estate and links the painting to acts of sexual jealousy and revenge, an ill-fated honeymoon in Venice and the violent deaths of her husband and son. Lady Hawdon warns Theo that for his own good, he must sell her the painting. He doesn’t sell. Alas, poor Theo!

True to the conventions of Gothic novels, The Man in the Picture has shadowy hallways, long-buried secrets and odd noises in the night. It also includes a genteel psychopath whose mental instability appears contagious. Characters tend to stay conveniently out of range of pragmatists who could shout at crucial moments, “No! No! Don’t go into that empty room!”

By modern standards, much of the plot is no more rational than the idea that a priceless garnet would end up inside a Christmas goose in the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” And it isn’t supposed to meet contemporary tests of plausibility. Like dressing up as tavern wench, it’s unabashed retro escapism, well suited to a month when you may hear mysterious sounds as you stumble through the darkened rooms of a haunted house.

Best line: “The faces of the revelers were many of them the classic Venetian, with prominent noses, the same faces that could be seen on Magi and angels, saints and popes, in the great paintings that filled Venice’s churches.”

Worst line: “She was extremely old, with the pale-parchment textured skin that goes with great age, a skin like the paper petals of dried Honesty.” The similie reaches for a higher tone than the rest of the book.

Recommendation? In the U.S. ghost stories have been so thoroughly absorbed into the horror-novel genre that, except in children’s fiction, few writers attempt them and readers tend to associate them with lumbering behemoths like Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. The Man in the Picture gives Americans a chance to rediscover the appeal of these stories in a purer and in some ways more elegant form.

Because of its conversational tone and multiple narrators, this is also good book to read aloud, which you could probably do in less than two and a half hours. Book clubs might consider having members take turns reading this one aloud at a meeting instead of reading it in advance.

Published: October 2008 www.susan-hill.com/

Second opinion: Salley Vickers observed perceptively the Independent: “As with many successful ghost stories – The Turn of the Screw comes to mind – the form of the book is a re-telling; indeed, a series of re-tellings. Hill knows that the sinister is enhanced by obliqueness. By giving us a chain of raconteurs, she skilfully conveys the ambience in which the uncanny survives via rumour and report.”

Furthermore: Hill also wrote two mystery novels about Chief Inspector Simon Serailler and The Woman in Black www.thewomaninblack.com/, the theatrical version of which opened in 1989 in London’s West End and is one of its longest-running shows.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist 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

Muriel Spark’s ‘The Goose’ – A Poem for the Financial Crisis

The poem "The Goose" works as a parable for a time when the "golden eggs" are golden parachutes for CEOs.

Muriel Spark’s brief, wry poem “The Goose” isn’t about a worldwide financial meltdown. And it’s not one of those buck-you-up poems like Rudyard Kipling’s “If –” that reminds you that if you can keep your head when all others are losing theirs, you can recover from that double-digit loss to your (401)k plan.

But “The Goose” speaks memorably to surviving financial hardship. Spark wrote the poem around 1960 — the exact date is unknown — or less than a decade after Britain ended the food rationing adopted in World War II. “The Goose” has just eight lines, which begin:

Do you want to know why I am alive today?
I will tell you.

The speaker says that in a food shortage, “Some of us were miraculously presented” with a goose that laid a golden egg. The narrator admits to having killed and eaten the goose. The poem then ends with the lines:

Alas, many and many of the other recipients
Died of gold-dust poisoning.

You can interpret “The Goose” in several ways. Spark had survived food shortages, and you can read the poem as an autobiographical commentary on her life and work. Or you can read it as a Catholic writer’s religious allegory that uses “goose that laid a golden egg” ironically: The goose is spiritual food or, more specifically, the Eucharist, that others rejected.

The poem also works as a parable about the follies of chasing financial or other golden eggs, whether in the form of junk bonds, subprime mortgages or golden parachutes for executives of bankrupt companies. If you read it that way, “The Goose” is about valuing survival ahead of the promise of future riches. How many financial institutions have died of “gold-dust poisoning” because they put wealth ahead of staying alive?

Postscript:

Copyright laws don’t permit quoting “The Goose” in full here. But it appears in All the Poems of Muriel Spark (New Directions, 130 pp., $13.95, paperback), a collection of all of Spark’s light and other verse. And Ian Sansom quotes the full text of “The Goose” in a 2004 Guardian review of the book books.guardian.co.uk/print/0,3858,5082333-110738,00.html. The Complete Review has posted its own review at
www.complete-review.com/reviews/sparkm/alltheps.htm#ours.

You can read about the Edinburgh-born Muriel Spark (1918–2006) in the attractive online Spark archive National Library of Scotland www.nls.uk/murielsptheark/index.html. A review of Spark’s best-known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, appears at
www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/27/.

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

October 10, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Why Did the Swedish Academy Announce the Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature on Yom Kippur? Cultural Insensitivity in Stockholm

Did you look at the lists of the bookies’ favorites for the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature and think, “There’s no way Philip Roth or Amos Oz is going to get the award this year”? I did for an obvious reason: The Swedish Academy said it was going to announce the winner on Yom Kippur. And I couldn’t believe the Academy would be so religiously tone-deaf as to ask a Jewish writer to take a call from the judges — and face the ensuing media onslaught — on a high holy day. The judges would have looked like cretins even if the winner had been too overjoyed to object. In naming the day of the prize, the Academy all but told Roth and Oz to forget it.

The question is: Why did the Academy decide to announce the winner on Yom Kippur in the first place? To my knowledge no important literary prizes are awarded on major religious holidays. That timing may reflect a literary reality as much as a respect for people’s spirituality: Writers get so few prizes that they deserve to be able enjoy them when they do.

To much of the world, the Nobel Prize in literature represents high culture and Hollywood stands for low. But even the Academy Awards presenters don’t hand out the Oscars on Easter. By deciding to award the literature prize on Yom Kippur, the Swedish Academy has made Hollywood look like a pillar of good taste.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 8, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Why Isn’t John Updike on the Odds-Makers Lists of Favorites for the Nobel?

A mystifying aspect of the lists of bookies’ favorites for the Nobel Prize in literature: Why isn’t John Updike’s name on any that I’ve seen?

Yes, the requirements for the prize specify that it should go to a writer whose work has an “idealistic tendency” or promotes the good of humanity. And that standard might not favor Updike’s novels about the lascivious Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. But that test also wouldn’t favor a lot of the work of Philip Roth and Don De Lillo, whose names appear often on lists of bookies’ favorites. And Updike is much more elegant writer than Joyce Carol Oates, though she has given so much support to other writers – especially female writers – that she may come closer to meeting the test of idealism.

Updike’s novels vary tremendously in quality. But he is the best all-around writer in America – not just one of our leading novelists but a great story story writer, a good poet and an elegant critic. Do bettors discount him because his short stories are perhaps his best work and he wrote many of them decades ago? Or because they don’t count his criticism and poetry? What role does the unofficial geographic distribution requirement — and that the U.S. has more novelists than most countries – play in all of this? If Updike lived in Greenland, he would have had the Nobel Prize decades ago.

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

« Previous PageNext Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 378 other followers

%d bloggers like this: