One-Minute Book Reviews

October 8, 2008

London Bookies’ Favorites for the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature — Odds-Makers Give Edge to Magris and Oz But Also Rate Chances of Roth, Oates, McEwan, and DeLillo

Filed under: Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:20 pm
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Ladbrokes calls Italy’s Claudio Magris the favorite to win, but Unibet gives the edge to Israel’s Amos Oz

Italy’s Claudio Magris is the favorite to get the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature when the Swedish Academy names the recipient tomorrow, the Man Booker Prize site reports. Magris has 3–1 odds at the Ladbrokes betting agency. Just behind him are Syrian poet Adonis, Israel’s Amos Oz, and American novelist Joyce Carol Oates. The Man Booker site added:

“Booker Prize winners Margaret Atwood, John Banville, A.S. Byatt, Peter Carey, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje and Salman Rushdie have also been given odds” www.themanbookerprize.com/news/stories/1141.

The English novelist Doris Lessing won the 2007 Nobel in literature, so McEwan probably has no chance. But the appearance of his name on the Ladbrokes list raises the tantalizing possibility that the Nobel could go to the novelist whose On Chesil Beach was longlisted for the 2007 Bad Sex Award.

Earth Times reports that Ladbrokes’ odds differ from those of Unibet, which has named Israeli author Amos Oz as the frontrunner with 4-1 odds to win the Nobel Prize nobelprize.org/:

“Both online bettings sites had Syrian-born poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar) in second place ….

“Ladbrokes had US authors Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth in third place this year along with Oz at 6 to 1, while American writer Don DeLillo was on 8 to 1”
www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/235985,bets-are-on-for-nobel-literature-prize–feature.html.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Which Is Worse — The Stock Market or the Writing in This Year’s Books? Handicapping the 2009 Delete Key Awards for the Year’s Worst Writing in Books

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:15 am
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Okay, I’ve learned my lesson: Never put up your favorite posts in the middle of the summer when everybody is on vacation. My posts on possible candidates for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books typically attract a lot of comment, but this one that appeared in July raised the frightening possibility that the writing in this year’s books is so bad, the lines below weren’t bad enough to impress you. So I’m reposting my midterm report on the Delete Key Awards to test that theory. If you’ve read worse, you can nominate your candidates for the 2009 Delete Key Awards by leaving a comment. Jan

How bad is the worst of the drivel that publishers have flung at us in 2008? Does it just brim with clichés, psychobabble and grammatical errors? Or is it also crass, tasteless and full of needless – if unintentionally comical – sex? You be the judge.

The midterm scouting report below lists passages have a chance to make the finals for the Delete Key Awards, the Internet literary prizes handed out every March 15 to authors who don’t use their delete keys enough. Keep in mind that the race for the Delete Key Awards has a staggered start. Any book published by Dec. 31 is eligible and stronger candidates may emerge. You can help to keep your candidate in the race by leaving a comment that supports a deserving passages.

No callback for this sentence
“Just before the ax fell, lightning struck and my life changed, never to be the same again.”
From Audition: A Memoir (Knopf, 624 pp., $29.95), Barbara Walters. Quote via a review by Kyle Smith in the Wall Street Journal
online.wsj.com/article/SB121038380585382137.html?mod=todays_us_weekend_journal.

Seinfeld was never like this
“Not that Jesus wasn’t a really cool guy – great teacher, excellent speaker, yadda yadda yadda. But … Son of God? Where’s the proof?”

“You don’t think it’s possible that Mr. Smythe was … well … resurrected?”
From Change of Heart: A Novel (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 447 pp., $26.95), by Jodi Picoult. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/21.

Deep Frey’d
“He eats most of it with his hands when he’s done he licks the plate clean he has another does the same thing.”
From Bright Shiny Morning (HarperCollins, 501 pp., 26.95), by James Frey. Quote via a review by Walter Kirn in the New York Times Book Review, July 6, 2008 www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/books/review/Kirn-t.html.

Was something lost in translation?
“Now he understood how the great, unlettered military genius Genghis Khan, as well as the illiterate or semiliterate military leaders of peoples such as the Quanrong, the Huns, the Tungus, the Turks, the Mongols, and the Jurchens, were able to bring the Chinese (whose great military sage Sun-tzu had produced his universally acclaimed treatise The Art of War) to their knees, to run roughshod over their territory, and to interrupt their dynastic cycles.”

“Heaven and man do not easily come to together, but the wolf and the grassland merge like water and milk.”

“I nearly peed my pants [sic].”
From Wolf Totem (Penguin, 527 pp., $29.95), Jiang Rong. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/27.

Whoops
“whoops-musicale (sei tu m’ami) ahhahahahaha / loopy di looploop.”
From a poem in Selected Poems by Frank O’Hara (Knopf, 265 pp., $30), edited by Mark Ford. Quote via a review by William Logan in the New York Times Book Review, June 29, 2008 www.nytimes.com/2008/06/29/books/review/Logan-t.html?ref=review.

Be glad they didn’t! Name your children!
“I say, ‘The library is a boring place! All I will meet there are stinky pages.’”
and
“Miss Toadskin thinks she can gross us out with her science experiments. But I live for that stuff!”
From Read All About It! (HarperCollins, 32 pp., $17.99, ages 4–6), by Laura Bush and Jenna Bush, illustrated by Denise Brunkus. www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/books/review/Sutton-t.html?ref=authors

Department of overexplanation
A line of dialogue from An Incomplete Revenge: “So, despite Ramsay MacDonald being pressed to form a National Government to get us through this mess, and well-founded talk of Britain going off the gold standard any day now, there’s still room for optimism – and I want to move ahead soon.”

Then there’s passage in which the heroine tells her father, “Dad, I’ve been thinking about Nana,” and he replies, “Your mother’s mother?”
From An Incomplete Revenge: A Maisie Dobbs Novel (Holt, 303 pp., $24), by Jacqueline Winspear. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/04/29.

The literal truth
“I literally held Grace day and night for the first year of her life.”
From Comfort: A Journey Through Grief (Norton, 188 pp., $19.95), by Ann Hood.

What comforting words would she have for fourth-degree burn victims?
“The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you.”
The first line of Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life – For the Better (Basic Books, 226 pp., $26.95), by psychotherapist Jeanne Safer. www.perseusbooksgroup.com/basic/book_detail.jsp?isbn=0465072119

How green was my chakra
“… Green: / color of the fourth chakra, / Anahata; it means unstuck — / the heart center — / the color of his fatigues.”
From The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (Viking, 84 pp., $21.95), by Frances Richey. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/27.

Hasn’t everyone at times found a suitcase stuffed with $60,000 in cash in the attic?
“Gene claimed that his father had given him $60,000 in cash, which he’d kept in a suitcase in his mother’s attic. He said that his father had told him not to put it in the bank, so Margo figured his father had never reported it to the IRS, and this was his way of protecting Gene, who said he would take the old bills to the bank and exchange them for new ones so that no one would question any transaction or track the income.

“At the time, Margo took Gene at his word.”

From Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 281 pp., $26.95), by Caitlin Rother with John Hess. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/10.

What’s being spouted here?

“Can I describe the joy of a spouting blow hole?”

From a letter written in 1939 by a dolphin-loving character in David Ebershoff’s new novel, The 19th Wife (Random House, 514 pp., $26, as quoted by Janet Maslin in the New York Times www.nytimes.com/2008/08/04/books/04masl.html.

And finally a moment of silence for …

Clichés that will live forever
“I liked my students to win one for the Gipper, to go out an execute, to keep the drive alive, to march down the field, to avoid costly turnovers and to win games in the trenches even if they were gonna feel it on Monday.”
From The Last Lecture (Hyperion, 224, $21.95, by Randy Pasuch. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/30.

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 and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

Late Night With Jan Harayda – The Most Important Thing Every Blogger Needs to Know (Quote of the Day / Aaron Brazell)

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am
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Tonight I was going to wrap up my report on WordPress’s New York WordCamp 2008 by writing about what the speakers said about marketing your blog and using video on WordPress. But in going over my notes, I realized that I had too much material about these for one post, so I’m going to save some of it for later this week or early next week.

For now I’ll just quote perhaps the most memorable line of the Sunday meeting, which came from Aaron Brazell, the editor of the popular Technosailor www.technosailor.com, in his talk on “Making It Into the Big Leagues”:

“Remember that readers don’t care about you – they care about what you can give them.”

Brazell didn’t say that is the important thing every blogger needs to know – only that it’s vital to moving beyond the long tail — but what point comes close to this one? (Does anybody care what the creators of I Can Has Cheezeburger? think about the bailout en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Can_Has_Cheezburger%3F?) Thanks for the reminder, Aaron.

You’ll find more WordCamp New York at wordcamp.info/2008/10/05/october-2008-upcoming-wordcamps/ and on the New York WordPress Meetup at wordpress.meetup.com/169/calendar/8858860/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 7, 2008

Drinking in a Family’s History: Tom Gjelten’s ‘Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:44 pm
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The latest in a series of occasional posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t finish them

Title: Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause. By Tom Gjelten. Viking, 413 pp., $27.95.

What it is: A history of the Bacardi rum family, intertwined with that of Cuba, from its founding in 1862 through Fidel Castro’s resignation and his brother Raúl’s succession in February 2008.

How much I read: About 40 pages: the preface, last chapter, acknowledgments, and other parts, including those about Ernest Hemingway and the Bay of Pigs disaster.

Why I stopped reading: Not many books about successful businesses give a rich social, historical and human context for the stories they tell. Gjelten aims to do that in Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba. And he succeeded in the sections I read: They were interesting and well-written and may help to nudge this book onto some “best of the year” lists. I didn’t have enough interest in rum and Cuba to spend eight or nine hours with the story, the amount of time it might take me to read 400 pages. But I’d consider giving this book as a gift to a fan of serious, thoughtful nonfiction about recent history or international affairs.

Best line in what I read: The first: “A bottle of white Bacardi rum sold in the United States bears a small logo – mysteriously, a bat – and a label that says ‘Established 1862.’ Just above the dates are the words ‘PUERTO RICAN RUM.’ There is no mention of Cuba.
“The Bacardi distillery in San Juan is the largest in the world, but the Bacardis are not from Puerto Rico. This family company for nearly a century was Cuban, cubanissima in fact – Cuban to the n th degree.”

Worst line in what I read: Gjelten says that when Fidel Castro collapsed at an outdoor rally in June 2001, the Cuban foreign minister shouted to the crowd, “¡Calma y valor!” He translates this as, “Stay calm and be brave!” Why not just “Calm and brave!”? And Gjelten ends by commenting on a Bacardi family member’s 1907 view that Cuba needed a leader “who is just and truly loves his country”: “A century later, Cuba needed that leader more than ever.” “More than ever” is a cliché that’s fine in everyday conversation but weakens the ending of a book. And the problem with most dictators isn’t that they don’t love their countries – it’s that they love them too much and value them above other things that are equally important, including human rights.

Editor: Wendy Wolf

Published: September 2008 www.amazon.com/Bacardi-Long-Fight-Cuba-Biography/dp/067001978X.

Furthermore: Gjelten is a correspondent for National Public Radio and panelist on Washington Week. He also wrote Sarajevo Daily.

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

October 6, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – FBI and CIA Bloggers Use WordPress and Other Things I Learned at New York WordCamp 2008

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:27 pm
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This is Part I of an interview with Jan Harayda, a journalist and the editor-in-chief of One-Minute Book Reviews, about yesterday’s New York WordCamp. Part II will appear on “Late Night With Jan Harayda” on Tuesday night. It will deal with bread-and-butter topics covered at WordCamp, such as how to market your blog and use video on WordPress.

WordCamp started at 9:30 on a beautiful Sunday morning in New York. Did anybody show up?
O, ye of little faith! About 100 of us spent more than 8 hours in a conference room at Sun Microsystems in midtown. Well before the day ended, some of the bloggers announced that they had found a bar where people could continue their education in the finer points of WordPress after hours. Those of us who had to catch buses back to New Jersey never found out how many were sober when their training was complete. Clearly WordCamp was a success.

A hundred people on a Sunday morning? Was WordCamp, like, free?
It cost $30. But that got you bagels and Danish for breakfast and a sack lunch: a sandwich, salad, fruit, and an oversized chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookie. And we got some nice stretchy orange-and-brown WordPress T-shirts that, so they would fit you even if you ate a lot of the mini cherry pastries at breakfast.

Why do you think so many people showed up for WordCamp?
I’ll quote Matt Mullenweg ma.tt/about/, founding developer of WordPress, who dealt with that question during his keynote address: “I believe WordPress users are smarter and more attractive than the general population.”

Was that Matt’s best joke?
No. Matt’s best joke was his entertaining imitation of how the CNN anchor Anderson Cooper almost got blown away while reporting on a recent hurricane. “They should get, like, a heavier person to cover hurricanes,” Matt said, leaning to one side. [Note: My notes say that Matt actually said: “They should put, like, a heavier person to cover hurricanes," but my version sounds better, don't you think?]

So Matt’s jokes were the best part of WordCamp?
The best part of WordCamp was that the program had something for everybody. At least a third of the participants said that they considered themselves Web developers or designers. Most of the rest were rank-and-file bloggers like me. A few said, in effect, that they didn’t have blogs yet but had come realize that this was a tragic mistake that they planned to undo.

What did you learn about WordPress from WordCamp?
WordPress is one of the largest open-source projects on the Web along with Firefox and a few others. It has about 4 million blogs, and version 2.7 will come out in November. The most popular page among bloggers on WordPress is the stats page. The most popular plug-in is Akismet spam protection.

WordPress also offers a lot of colorful, free themes, which combine display and plug-in features and help to determine the look of your site. Unfortunately, some con artists on the Web falsely claim to offer legal alternatives to these. If you download their fake themes, they put evil codes on your site that load it with spam or worse. So if you don’t like the free WordPress themes, you should buy a Premium theme from WordPress or have somebody you trust design one for you.

Another piece of bad news was that in China censors have sometimes removed as many as 80 percent of WordPress posts.

Did anybody mention that rumor that the CIA uses WordPress?
Isn’t that fascinating? It’s true, apparently. Matt said in his speech that the U.S. government agencies that have WordPress blogs include the following: the Air Force, the Army, the CIA, the Coast Guard, the FBI, the Marine Corps, the Navy, the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security. And he wasn’t joking the way he was about Anderson Cooper and the hurricane. That so many government agencies use WordPress shows you how secure it is compared with some other blogging platforms. Will the Oval Office be next?

You’ll find more WordCamp New York wordcamp.info/2008/10/05/october-2008-upcoming-wordcamps/ and on the New York WordPress Meetup wordpress.meetup.com/169/calendar/8858860/.

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

‘Speaker Pelosi, I Named My Dog After You’ And Other Things Nancy Pelosi Has Heard in More than 20 Years in Politics

How do you become the highest-ranking elected female official in the U.S.? Pelosi didn’t iron her husband’s shirts

Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters. By Nancy Pelosi with Amy Hill Hearth. Doubleday, 180 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

This book has inspired toxic comments on Amazon, apparently coming both from Republicans opposed to Nancy Pelosi’s liberal politics and Democrats enraged by her refusal to support impeachment proceedings against George W. Bush. Those diatribes may be too harsh. How bad can a book be when it includes an admission by the nation’s highest-ranking elected female official that she got where she is partly by declining to ironing her husband’s shirts?

Know Your Power isn’t a definitive autobiography but a brief memoir that its publisher optimistically but rightly categorizes as “motivational.” And it would be welcome if only because it offers an alternate model to any woman who thinks she could never meet Sarah Palin’s standard of running for high office as the mother of an infant and four other children. An implicit message of Know Your Power is: You don’t have to.

In this book Pelosi describes how she found her rewards sequentially. She got her start in politics when the mayor of San Francisco appointed her to the Library Commission while she was a full-time wife, mother, and volunteer who had given birth to five children in six years. But she didn’t become Speaker of the House until decades later. After becoming a Congresswoman, Pelosi seems to have accepted that she could never be the perfect wife envisioned by some of the women’s magazines: She has represented her California district since 1987, and her husband has never lived in Washington. A cornerstone of her philosophy of life is, “Organize, don’t agonize.”

Pelosi gives a strong sense of the rewards of a life in politics, some learned from her father, a Congressman from Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. She also sees the comic absurdities faced by elected officials of both sexes. One fan told her, “Speaker Pelosi, I named my dog after you.” One of the strongest sections of the book deals with her remarkable mother, who raised seven children — one of whom died at the age of three — and made sacrifices that indirectly underscore the need for elected female officials of both parties.

“My mother was a wonderful wife and parent, and she was also an entrepreneur and visionary,” Pelosi writes. “She started law school but had to stop when three of her sons had whooping cough at the same time. She made astute investments, but Daddy would not sign off on them (which, sadly, would have been necessary at the time). She had a patent on the first device to apply steam to the face, called Velex – Beauty by Vapor. It was her brainchild, and she had customers throughout the United States, but Daddy wanted her close to home.”

Amid such reminiscences, Pelosi offers advice to anyone who aspires to career in public service. “Don’t overstate what you will deliver, and always complete the task agreed to.” “Quality childcare is the missing link in the chain of progress for women and families.” Then there’s the advice she got from Lindy Boggs, former Congresswoman from Louisiana: “Never fight a fight as if it’s your last one.”

Some of the nastiness in politics today clearly results from the problem noted by Boggs, that many elected officials fight every fight as if it were their last. It’s easier to take an end-justifies-the-means view if you think you’ll never face your opponent — or American voters — again. Partly for that reason, if Know Your Power is billed as a book for “America’s Daughters,” it has a message for American’s sons, too.

Best line: On why she majored in history at Trinity College in Washington. D.C.: “I had intended to major in political science, but at Trinity at that time you had to major in history in order to study political science. Our teachers often quoted the great English historian J.R. Seeley’s aphorism: History without political science has no fruit. Political science without history has no root.” As someone who majored in political science major, I think Trinity had it right here. I had good poli sci professors but almost no history courses, which left me with an inadequate context for some of their lessons. If I had it to do over, I would major in history or English, which might have required me to take a few Shakespeare courses. I thought I had enough Shakespeare partly because I’d had a wonderful introduction to his greatest plays in high school. Wrong. You never have enough Shakespeare, especially if you’re a writer.

Worst lines: “This is an historic moment …” “This was a historic day in our house.” Pelosi apparently can’t decide whether its “an historic” or “a historic” and is hedging her bets. “A historic” is correct. To oversimplify: “An historic” dates to the early English settlers of our continent, many of whom dropped the “h” at the beginning of words, and the construction perpetuates the outdated language.

Recommendation? Know Your Power has crossover appeal. Doubleday has packaged it as a book for adults, and in bookstores and libraries, you’ll find it with the new adult nonfiction. But this book may especially appeal to teenage girls, including college students, who are hoping to go into public service.

Reading group guide: Doubleday has posted one at doubleday.com/2008/07/28/know-your-power-by-nancy-pelosi/, but this is a guide that’s almost worse than none. Sample questions: ” What roles do women occupy, or have they occupied, in your family? Did you have older female relatives who worked while raising a family?” These questions do not engage the serious issues Pelosi raises. You could ask them about almost any book by any female author from Edith Wharton to Toni Morrison.

Published: July 2008

Furthermore: Pelosi represents California’s 8th Congressional District, which includes much of San Francisco. She became Speaker of the House in January 2007 www.house.gov/pelosi/biography/bio.html.

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

October 4, 2008

Good Halloween Poems for Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:41 am
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“There once was a witch of Willowby Wood,
and a weird wild witch was she …”

From Rowena Bennett’s “The Witch of Willowby Wood,” excerpted in Sing a Song of Popcorn

Many children’s books include a Halloween poem or two, but Sing a Song of Popcorn (Scholastic, 1988) has a half dozen in the spirit of Oct. 31. All six of these brief, lively, rhyming poems come from good writers and appear in a section called “Spooky Poems,” engagingly illustrated by the Caldecott medalist Margot Zemach. For children who dislike witches and ghosts, the book has Robert Graves’s “The Pumpkin,” which begins: “You may not believe it, for hardly could I: / I was cutting a pumpkin to put in a pie …” John Ciardi’s lively Halloween limerick, “The Halloween House,” appears in two children’s books discussed on Oct. 24, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/10/24.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 1, 2008

A Few Comments on Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons’ on Broadway and in Print

It’s remarkable how a well-staged Broadway production can transcend the defects of a play. Last weekend I saw All My Sons in previews at the Schoenfeld Theatre, and the time flew by.

You hardly noticed how prosaic Arthur Miller’s writing can be because the production had so much going for it, including brisk direction by Simon McBurney and a glossy cast: John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and Katie Holmes.

After I got home, it seemed to me that All My Sons stands up to rereading both better and worse than some of the other plays that appeared in decade after World War II. It holds up better partly because Miller is dealing here with issues that have fresh relevance in the age of Haliburton and Enron: the evils of war profiteering and the moral duty of individuals to resist the soulless influence of American business. It holds up worse because Miller can use language as blunt instrument instead of a precision tool (as in Linda Loman’s famous defense of her husband, Willy: “ … attention must be paid”). That liability is perhaps more noticeable today than it was before videos and DVDs expanded the availability of more elegantly written plays from Hamlet to A Streetcar Named Desire.

I wondered if others shared my view, so I picked up Arthur Miller (Chelsea House, 148 pp., $35), part of the “Bloom’s BioCritiques” series edited and introduced by the distinguished critic Harold Bloom. (The volume on Miller in the “Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations” series is instead shown above.) Bloom says:

“Miller is by no means a bad writer, but he is scarcely an eloquent master of the language.”

Exactly. The appeal Miller’s plays — which remains high — comes from virtues other than unparalleled phrase-turning, including their craftsmanship, moral courage and passionate exploration of the intersection of social and psychological forces in American lives.

A few comments on the Sept. 26 preview: Kate Holmes (Ann Deever) is easy on the eyes and, given that producers must be strafing her with scripts for romantic comedies, has made a statement about how she wants to be perceived by taking on this role. John Lithgow (Joe Keller) gives an energetic performance in a tough role that requires him to undergo a transformation that, as Miller wrote it, isn’t fully believable. Patrick Wilson (Chris Keller) grows into his part. None of those actors can touch Dianne Wiest (Kate Keller), whose portrayal of a mother unable to accept the death of her son in World War II must be one of the best recent portrayals of mental illness in any medium.

All My Sons officially opens Oct. 16 on Broadway. You can read about that production and buy tickets at www.allmysonsonbroadway.com. You’ll find more on Arthur Miller (1915-2005) at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Miller.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept books from editors, publishers, authors or agents. It also does not accept free tickets to plays mentioned on the site.

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

September 30, 2008

The Body in the Outhouse — Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,’ the Winner of Britain’s Highest Award for Nonfiction, Reads Like Detective Novel

The Road Hill murder caught the eye of Charles Dickens and other novelists.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. By Kate Summerscale. Illustrated. Walker, 360 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has slogged through some of the grimmer winners of the Man Booker Prize may look more kindly on British judges after reading this admirable winner of the U.K.’s highest award for nonfiction.

In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale uses the conventions of the detective novel to tell the true story of the murder of a three-year-old boy whose body turned up in the servants’ privy of an English country house in the summer of 1860. And the device works remarkably well despite a few red herrings and questions that have eluded answers for more than a century.

All good writers try to give their books a healthy pace that often depends partly on suspense, but Summerscale goes beyond that. She has structured her book like an old-fashioned detective novel that includes clues hidden in plain sight and a startling twist in the final pages that casts the story in a new light just when you think you understand it.

The murder of young Saville Kent took place at Road Hill House, a 19-room Georgian dwelling in Wiltshire owned by Samuel Kent, a government sub-inspector of factories. On the night the child died, the elder Kent was home along with his pregnant second wife (the former family governess), four children from his first marriage and two from his second, and three-live in female servants. The evidence suggested overwhelmingly that one of those people killed the boy found in an outhouse with his throat slashed.

But there was no obvious motive for the crime, and the stymied local police sought help from Scotland Yard, which sent Detective-Inspector Jonathan “Jack” Whicher to Road Hill. Whicher quickly become convinced that he knew who killed Saville, but in trying to prove it ran up against obstacles than included a public scorn for his work, rooted partly in mid-Victorian notions of social class and family privacy. He found no vindication until five years later when the killer confessed. Some questions about the murder remain unanswered, notwithstanding a mysterious letter from Australia that arrived decades after his death and purported to set the record straight.

Summerscale may overplay the effect the notorious murder had the development of the detective novel, which might have evolved as it did regardless, but this doesn’t undermine her achievement. “This was the original country-hour mystery,” she writes, “a case in which the investigator needed to find not a person but a person’s hidden self.” Her careful mapping of that quest would make this book interesting even if the case had not influenced Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Modern crime stories – whether fiction or nonfiction – often reduce murderers’ motives to pop-psychological clichés that are absurdly inadequate to the savagery of the acts committed. By going back nearly a century and a half — before detectives had access to the temptations to facile analysis offered by Freud and Dr. Phil — Summerscale reminds us how much more there may be to it than that.

Best line: Whicher once captured a swindler “who had conned a London saddler out of a gun case, an artist out of two enamel paintings, and an ornithologist out of 18 humming bird skins.”

Worst line: “One evening Saville’s then nursemaid, Emma Sparks, put the boy to bed, as usual, in a pair of knitted socks.” The meaning of “then nursemaid” is clear, but the construction of the phrase is newspaperese.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guide to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 30, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: April 2008 You can download the first chapter for free at www.mrwhicher.com.

Read interview with Kate Summerscale on Bookslut www.bookslut.com/features/2008_09_013387.php

Furthermore: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction from the BBC www.thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk/. Summerscale is a former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.

If you like 19th-century true crime, you might also enjoy Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer www.jameslswanson.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com 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 www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

September 28, 2008

Another Thing Paul Newman (1925 — 2008) Doesn’t Want on His Tombstone

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:20 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

This is the second of two posts on this site about Paul Newman’s comments on how he wants to be remembered.

“I envy Laurence Olivier, because he seems to have endless resources in him to develop and be a different character each time,” Paul Newman said early in his career as an actor. “I feel I perhaps don’t have the imagination to change.”

Lionel Godfrey, who quotes that unsourced comment in Paul Newman: Superstar: A Critical Biography (St. Martin’s, 1979) goes on to say of Newman and Olivier:

“Since one is par excellence a screen-actor and the other’s sphere, despite great film-performances, has always been pre-eminently the stage, it is difficult to compare the two stars. But in the 12 years or so since he modestly made that statement, Paul has more than proved his own versatility and the creative resources he can bring to new, unusual roles. He has often told interviewers, ‘I don’t want to die and have written on my tombstone: ‘He was a helluva actor until one day his eyes turned brown.’”

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

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