One-Minute Book Reviews

September 28, 2008

Paul Newman (1925 — 2008 ) on What He DOESN’T Want on His Gravestone (Quote of the Day via Eric Lax’s ‘Newman’)

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:53 pm
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Paul Newman risked losing fans and roles by campaigning in 1968 for the Democratic candidate for president, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who opposed the Vietnam War. Eric Lax explains why in his Newman: Paul Newman: Biography (Turner, 1996):

“Newman was one of the earliest backers of McCarthy, and his support came at a time when most people considered those who opposed the war to be cowards or even traitors. Newman’s appearance always brought out the news media. He presented himself to audiences not as a celebrity but as a parent, concerned about the future and believing that McCarthy offered the most hope.

“‘I am indifferent to your political persuasion,’ he would begin. ‘I am not a public speaker. I am not a politician. I’m not here because I’m an actor. I’m here because I’ve got six kids. I don’t want it written on my gravestone, ‘He was not part of his times.’ The times are too critical to be dissenting in your own bathroom.’”

The quote first appeared in the New York Times on April 22, 1968.

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

September 26, 2008

John Burningham’s ‘John Patrick Norman McHennessy — the boy who was always late’ — A Great Picture Book Returns in Hardcover in Time for Holiday Gift-Giving

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:52 pm
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A teacher doesn’t believe a boy’s fanciful stories about why he can’t get to class on time

John Patrick Norman McHennessy — the boy who was always late. By John Burningham. Knopf, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The Man Booker Prize judges snub Netherland. The Secret outsells Pride and Prejudice on Amazon. Oprah picks another book with woo-woo elements – this time, sentient dogs. A Long Way Gone appears on nonfiction lists even though its publisher has never produced any evidence that Ishmael Beah was a child soldier for so much as one day. The tanking economy won’t help any of this.

The publishing industry is a font of bad news, but sometimes it works as it should: John Burningham’s John Patrick Norman McHennessy — the boy who was always late, one of the great picture books of the 1990s, is back in American stores in the handsome hardcover edition it deserves. A boy gets the last word on a teacher who doesn’t believe his explanations for why he is late for class in this exceptionally imaginative and entertaining book, which has a fine subtext about the degree to which schools penalize creative children. And its large format and exciting pictures make it ideal for story hours, reading aloud, and holiday gift-giving.

Best line/picture: All.

Worst line/picture: None.

Published: 1999 (first American edition) and July 2008 (new hardcover edition).

Furthermore: Burningham won the Kate Greenaway medal, Britain’s Caldecott, for Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers and Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. He earned other raves for John Patrick Norman McHennessy, some of which you can read here www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375852206. The book doesn’t ascribe a nationality to its young hero, but the name “John Patrick Norman McHennesy” might delight families who are proud of their Irish heritage.

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

Why Do Novelists Use Unreliable Narration? (Quote of the Day on ‘The Remains of the Day’/David Lodge)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:25 am
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Unreliable narration – an author’s use of a storyteller we can’t fully trust – helps to explain the appeal of books as different as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. But why do fiction writers use the device when most of us can more easily relative to relate to narrators we can trust? Is it just for the shock value that unreliable narration can create when we finish a story and realize that the teller has given us a skewed version of events (an effect that caused outrage when Agatha Christie used it in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)?

David Lodge offers one explanation in The Art of Fiction: Illustrated From Classic and Modern Texts (Viking, 1993), an excellent collection of 50 short essays on as many aspects of how fiction works. Lodge notes that the story in The Remains of the Day is told by the aging butler of an English stately home who “repeatedly gives a favorable account of himself which turns out to be flawed or deceptive.” He adds that no storyteller can be one-hundred percent unreliable:

“If everything he or she says is palpably false, that only tells us what we already know, namely that a novel is a work of fiction. There must be some possibility of discriminating between truth and falsehood within the imagined world of the novel, as there is in the real world, for the story to engage our interest.

“The point of using an unreliable narrator is indeed to reveal an interesting gap between appearance and reality, and to show how human beings distort or conceal the latter. This need not be a conscious, or mischievous, intention on their part. The narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is not an evil man, but his life has been based on the suppression and evasion of truth, about himself and about others. His narrative is a kind of confession, but it is riddled with devious self-justification and special pleading, and only at the very end does he arrive at an understanding of himself – too late to profit by it.”

For more on unreliable narration, see “The Turn of the Twin Towers – Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Unreliable Narration” and the reading group guide to Netherland, which appeared in separate posts on June 24 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/.

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

September 25, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Babbittry at the Cleveland Orchestra?

A music critic’s demotion brings to mind Sinclair Lewsis’s great comic novel

Not many Americans still use the word babbittry, that wonderful term for naive boosterism similar to that of the title character of Babbitt. But babbittry may help to explain the plight of my former colleague Donald Rosenberg, who was demoted last week to an arts-and-entertainment reporter from his longtime post as the senior classical music critic at the Plain Dealer. His reassignment inspired a story in today’s New York Times and a cascade of comments on blogs, including posts at The New Yorker www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/goingson/?xrail and the Baltimore Sun weblogs.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/classicalmusic/2008/09/critic_who_dared_criticize_cle.html.

Much of the evidence suggests that this was a sad case of a critic punished for being — well, critical. Or, more specifically, for writing reviews of the work of conductor Franz Welser-Möst that weren’t boosterish enough for the orchestra management. And a Sept. 25 valentine to Welser-Möst www.cleveland.com/arts/ by Rosenberg’s successor, Zachary Lewis, strengthens that impression. No less startling than the timing of Lewis’s article was a line in it suggesting that the orchestra paid the bill for the lunch at which he interviewed Welser-Möst for the story. I took many authors to lunch in my 11 years as the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and if I had allowed any of those sources to pick up the check, I would have expected not to have a job the next day. Lewis apparently permitted it and got promoted. Many newspapers consider it unethical for reporters to allow sources to pay for meals, so even those that allow the practice tend not to advertise the freeloading as Lewis did. And unless his comment about the lunch was misleading, you have to wonder if the demotion wasn’t symptomatic of something larger.

I have no inisde knowledge of why the reassignment occurred, but I admired the intelligence and professionalism Don brought to his work at the Plain Dealer, where he reviewed occasional books for me. So this is a reminder that if he’s lost his beat, you can still read his writing about the orchestra in a book: Don wrote the definitive history of the Cleveland Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra Story: “Second to None” (Gray, 752 pp., $40).

Late Night With Jan Harayda is a series of occasional posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and comment on literary or related events but do include reviews, which appear in the morning or afternoon.

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

http://www.janiceharayda.com

Attack of the Killer Soccer Moms – Nancy Star’s Novel ‘Carpool Diem’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:58 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: Carpool Diem. By Nancy Star. Grand Central/5 Spot, 326 pp., $13.99, paperback.

What it is: A fizzy novel about a turbocharged executive who transfers her aggression to her daughter’s soccer games when she loses her job.

How much I read: About 70 pages: the first nine chapters, the last few pages, and some other parts.

Why I stopped reading: This lighter-than-light novel might be best read in an SUV full of empty Gatorade bottles while you wait for your daughter to finish practice. I thought it might be fun to review during soccer season but decided I was out of my depth when I realized that I didn’t know when soccer season was. (Memo to parents: Is it still soccer season? Or is it lacrosse season now? Or maybe hockey?) You could imagine Barnes and Noble displaying this one next to Sophie Kinsella’s books, maybe with a sign reading, “What if Shopaholic was a New Jersey soccer mom?”

Best line in what I read: The manic newsletters that the obsessive, semi-deranged soccer coach Winslow West sends to team parents. Here’s a sample paragraph: “Aggressive Play Reminder: I know young athletes tend to think that when a ref shows them a yellow card it is a warning to be feared. I urge you instead to view the yellow card as a form of tribute to aggressive play! The next time a ref shows you a yellow card, accept it as the compliment it really is!!!” And another: “Notification of next year’s team selection will be on the 25th of June. Players who are moved down to the B team, the Asteroids, will receive a call from the B coach, Gerri Picker. But do not despair! Any player who is moved down from our Elite team to the B team will have the opportunity, over the next season, to work hard and climb back up if she so desires!!!” And then there’s my favorite: “Practice will continue to be held on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays throughout the summer, from eight forty-five to twelve-fifteen and four forty-five to six thirty, irregardless of the weather!” Love that “irregardless.”

Worst line in what I read: The strained humor in parts of an epilogue called “Five Warning Signs That Your Kid’s Coach Is Crazy.” One sign: “Uses a ball pump as a key chain.”

Reading group guide and excerpt: At www.hachettebookgroupusa.com/books_9780446581820.htm.

Published: March 2008

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

Furthermore: Nancy Star is a New Jersey children’s author who also writes novels for adults that include Carpool Diem. Contact the author: Nancy Star, c/o Author Mail, 5 Spot, Hachette Book Group USA, 237 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10017.

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

September 23, 2008

New in Paperback — Katha Pollitt’s ‘Learning to Drive’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:37 am
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Katha Pollitt regrets that there are no good words to describe her time of life. “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’,” she writes in Learning to Drive (Random House, 224 pp., $14). “Midlife is the upbeat new euphemism – there you are, in the thick of it! – but a 55-year-old person is in the middle of his life only if he’s going to live to 110. ‘Middle-aged’ sounds tired and plodding, almost as bad as ‘aging’ – and ‘aging’ is sad and pitiful, an insult even though it’s actually universally applicable. A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.”

As that observation suggests, Learning to Drive in some ways resembles Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. But there’s more bite and depth to this collection of elegant and often witty essays by Pollitt kathapollitt.blogspot.com, whose topics include motherhood, learning to drive, and her discovery that she was living with a man who might have been allowed to donate his zipper to a hall of fame for philanderers. And the book has just come out in a paperback edition with a sparkling new cover that should make it easier to find at bookstores www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.

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

September 22, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Steve Fraser’s New ‘Wall Street’

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:58 pm
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How long will it take Americans to recover from the latest upheavals on Wall Street? Steve Fraser makes a useful distinction between psychic and economic recovery his new Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace (Yale University Press, 200 pp., $22), a brief history of the Street yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300117554. After the Crash of 1929, Fraser writes: “Psychic recovery took longer than economic rebirth. A national preoccupation with security and an aversion to risk lasted for a long generation.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Few Words on ‘Hamlet’ — Were Your English Teachers Right When They Told You That the Prince of Denmark Was a Man of Inaction?

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:22 pm
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A lot of people may be returning to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy now that Oprah has selected the Hamlet-influenced The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for her book club. And I may say more about that play closer to the date of the discussion of David Wroblewski’s novel. For now, I’ll mention one of the most perceptive scholarly comments I’ve read about the play: Many of us learned in school that Hamlet is “a man of inaction,” defined by his hesitations, but you could make a strong case that the opposite is true.

After becoming suspicious that his uncle killed his father in order to marry his mother, Hamlet vows revenge and devotes himself to achieving it. When traveling players arrive at Elsinore castle, he arranges quickly for them to put on a play that will confirm his beliefs, giving us the line: “…the play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Hamlet certainly deliberates, as in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in which he ponders whether it’s better to live or die when we don’t know what death will bring. But it might be more accurate to describe the Prince of Denmark as contemplative, meditative, or ruminative, words that describe his thoughts, rather than as a man of “inaction,” which describes his behavior.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 20, 2008

Books About Halloween for Children Who Are Learning to Read

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:11 pm
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Orange You Glad It’s Halloween, Amber Brown?: An “A Is for Amber” Book. By Paula Danziger. Illustrated by Tony Ross. Putnam, 48 pp., $13.99. Ages 4–8, younger for reading aloud.

Grandmas Trick-or-Treat: An “I Can Read” Book. Story and pictures by Emily Arnold McCully. HarperCollins, 48 pp., varied prices. Ages 4–8, younger for reading aloud.

By Janice Harayda

Early readers — illustrated books for children who are starting to read on their own — often fail for the same reason that many picture books do: An author-illustrator draws better than he or she writes or vice versa. Or, if the words and pictures come from different people, the writer and artist are mismatched.

The late Paula Danziger’s popular books about the elementary-school student Amber Brown owe much of their success to Tony Ross’s entertaining pictures. Ross’s line drawings resemble those of his countryman Quentin Blake in their ability to evoke many moods in a believable way. And the sure-footedness of his pictures may help to explain why Danziger was able to spin off the “A Is for Amber” early-readers series from her orginal chapter books about Amber Brown.

The chapter books follow the upbeat, pun-loving Amber as she deals with events such as her best friend’s move to another state and the divorce and new loves of her parents. And the early readers are, in effect, an extended prequel to them. Along with the chapter books, these easier books offer a welcome alternative to Barbara Park’s novels about Junie B. Jones, who at times acts like a charter member of the Future Sociopaths of America. Amber has high spirits that she expresses without the unrepentant nastiness that characterizes much of Junie’s behavior.

But I was at first confused by the early reader Orange You Glad It’s Halloween, Amber Brown?, which I picked up after having enjoyed several of the chapter books. Why does Amber notice, as she prepares Pumpkin Day at school, that her mother and father haven’t been getting along? Have her divorced parents gotten back together? Why is Justin, her best friend who has supposedly moved away, decorating pumpkins with her? And why does Ross’s art look different?

With help from the Internet, I sorted it out: I was reading an installment in the six-book prequel about events that occurred before the divorce and Justin’s move, a newer series with simplified color art by Ross instead of the black-and-white drawings of the original. No doubt all of this will be less confusing to children, who will read the early readers first, than it was to me. And Orange You Glad Its Halloween, Amber Brown? has many of the virtues of the chapter books, particularly Amber’s engaging first-person narration. But the added backstory — as in so many prequels — is just padding.

Grandmas Trick-or-Treat comes from an author-illustrator who won the Caldecott Medal for Mirette on the High Wire, and it may appeal anyone who has wondered: Why do so many children’s books still show grandmothers stereotypically baking cookies? This is the fourth book about a girl named Pip and her two grandmothers, Nan and Sal, whose clashing personalities drive much of the humor in the series. Proper Grandma Nan goes trick-or-treating with Pip in her street clothes — a miniskirt, striped tights, and dangling earrings. Playful Grandma Sal wears a mummy’s costume. But the two women team up to outfox a bully who taunts Pip on Halloween, showing that people with different temperaments can work together.

Neither of these books evokes as much emotion as such superior early readers as Cynthia Rylant’s “Henry and Mudge Ready-to-Read” books oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/12/07/. But both come from authors who know how to hold the attention of 4-to-8-year-olds. Intended for children who are starting to read on their own, these books would also work as read-aloud stories for some younger ones.

Best line/picture: Ross’s picture of Amber Brown pretending to be a werewolf with candy corn fangs.

Worst line/picture: Amber’s observation, “It will be a sad Halloween if my parents are not getting along.” A child might have a sad holiday because her parents were fighting, but this comment has little context in the story. Its only emotional authenticity comes from what we know from other books in the series.

Published: 2005 (Orange You Glad It’s Halloween, Amber Brown?) and 2001 (Grandmas Trick-or-Treat).

Furthermore: Read more about Tony Ross here magicpencil.britishcouncil.org/artists/ross/. McCully’s “I Can Read” include the baseball story Grandmas at Bat, another book about nonstereotypical grandmothers www.harpercollinschildrens.com/HarperChildrens/Kids/BookDetail.aspx?isbn13=9780064441933.

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

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Oprah Picks a Mixed Doggie Bag for Her Club — A Sentimental ‘Hamlet’-Influenced First Novel Told Partly from the Point of View of Dogs

Oprah’s latest book-club pick is a mixed doggie bag – one part well-told yarn and one part sentimental twaddle with a dash of the paranormal and forced parallels with Hamlet. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is the tale of a mute Wisconsin farm boy who goes on the lam after he becomes convinced that his uncle murdered his father, a suspicion that sets another tragedy in motion. And this first novel by David Wroblewski has more to offer than the cosmic gibberish of Oprah’s most recent pick, Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, the grand prize winner in the 2008 Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/?s=%22A+New+Earth%22. But The Story of Edgar Sawtelle also suffers from mawkish scenes told from the point of view of dogs and from its implicit attribution of moral virtues to them. With its mix of family secrets and childhood pain — and other-worldly conversations with the dead — this novel was such a predictable choice for Oprah that the publishing news blog Galley Cat did predict it days ago www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/?c=rss.

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

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