One-Minute Book Reviews

February 25, 2013

Jon Klassen’s ‘This Is Not My Hat’ – 2013 Caldecott Medal Winner

A picture book that works as a crime story, a Robin Hood tale with a twist, and a critique of capitalism in an age of banking scandals

This Is Not My Hat. By Jon Klassen. Candlewick, 40 pp., $15.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

A small fish appears to suffer an unfair punishment for the crime of stealing a blue derby hat from a much bigger fish in this undersea suspense tale that won the 2013 Caldecott Medal. Jon Klassen’s noir-ish pictures serve as a witty a counterpoint to the thief’s tragicomic rationalizations for the snatch, which include: “It was too small for him anyway. / It fits me just right.”

But the big fish is hardly a passive victim. He takes swift and pitiless revenge for his loss, and the hat does fit the smaller creature better. Had the big fish stolen it? Was the theft an act of reclamation? Klassen leaves the questions open. And the moral uncertainty allows the story to work on several levels: as a mystery, a Robin Hood tale with a twist, and a critique of bullying or capitalism in the age of Enron and banking scandals in which small investors have paid for the crimes of larger predators.

Rarely do picture books of such high artistry allow for so many levels of interpretation or so successfully flout the picture-book convention that calls for an unambiguously happy ending. Along with it’s author’s earlier I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat establishes Klassen as an heir to the grand tradition of Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg, Tomi Ungerer and other artists who fearlessly have broken ground while retaining a sense of fun that appeals to children and adults alike.

Best line/picture: All. But Klassen has noted rightly that the drama begins when the eyes of the big fish pop open after the smaller one says that the hat-wearer “was asleep” at the time of the theft “probably won’t wake up for a long time.”

Worst line/picture: None.

Published: 2012

Furthermore: This Is Not My Hat won the 2013 Caldecott Medal, given by the American Library Association to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” Klassen, who lives in California, talks about the book in a brief video. Many critics, including Roger Sutton in the New York Times Boook Review, have referred to the small fish as a “he” when the sex of the fish is unidentified and girls can wear derby hats, too.

Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. She cohosts a monthly conversation about classic books on Twitter at the hashtag #classicschat.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 14, 2010

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check – The 2010 Poetry Winner, Rae Armantrout’s ‘Versed’

The latest in a series of posts on literary-prize winners and whether they deserved their honors

Versed: Wesleyan Poetry Series. By Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan University Press, 120 pp., $22.95, $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Rae Armantrout writes poems for an age of spin-offs of spin-offs. The theme of many of the 87 poems in Versed is more complex than “you can’t trust appearances”: It’s that you can’t even be sure they are “appearances.” Reality is unknowable.

Armantrout tells us that truth sometimes hides behind the intentional or unintentional deceptions of others. She writes in “New”:

The new pop song
is about getting real:

“You had a bad day.
The camera don’t lie.”

But they’re lying
to you
about the camera.

Reality can be elusive for reasons more subtle than lies, including the difficulty knowing ourselves or others. Armantrout writes in “The Racket”: “It’s as if / the real / thing – / your own absence – / can never be / uncovered.

Armantrout has said that the first half of Versed focuses on the dark forces that emerged in the United States during the war in Iraq and the second half on the shadows that fell over her life after she learned in 2006 that she had adrenal cortical cancer. That’s true as far as it goes. But Armantrout expresses her views on Iraq more obliquely than have poets like Robert Hass, who won the 2008 Pulitzer for poetry for Time and Materials, which includes the antiwar poem “Bush’s War.” In “Own,” she compares medical experts dissecting her illness to televised images of President Bush as she juxtaposes the human body and the body politic:

“We will prevail,”
says the leader on multiple
screens. The words
are empty, but he’s there
inside the lie
everyone believes –

Verses like these have made Armantrout a star of the Language movement in poetry, which seeks to separate words from their usual associations and create something other than the reflection of the world that poets typically strive to produce. Like many others of that school, she combines prose and poetry, often in the same poem.

The poet John Drury has noted that critics of the Language movement see much of its poetry “a mass of pretentious gibberish, a dead end of nonsense verse that is not even funny.” And while the poems in Versed are far from gibberish, they are often enigmatic or abstruse. These lines these from “Left” sound like a trick question:

If an instant
is a measure of

endurance,
what is the distance

from expectancy
to spider?

If the goal of Language poetry is to detach words from their usual connotations, the poems in Versed succeed perhaps too well: They are detached to the point of sterility. They don’t appeal, as great poetry does, both to the intellect and to the emotions, something accomplished by Claudia Emerson’s 2006 poetry winner, Late Wife. The poems in Versed speak more to the mind than to the heart. But they are so intelligent when much poetry is trivial that you can see why the book became the most celebrated collection of published in 2009. Many modern poets steep their work in mythological or other symbols, but Armantrout warns that symbolism is “the party face of paranoia.”

Best line: “Metaphor / is ritual sacrifice. // It kills the look-alike.”

Worst line: “that a discrepancy / is a pea / and I am a Princess.”

Furthermore: Versed won the2010 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and was a 2009 National Book Award finalist.  James Marcus wrote a brief, eloquent review for the National Book Critics Circle site. The poems in Versed appeared in publications that include The Nation, The New Yorker and The Green Integer Review.

Published: May 2009

Read poems from Versed: “Scumble” and “Guess.”

About the author: Armantrout teaches at the University of California at San Diego.

One-Minute Book Reviews posted Pulitzer Prize Reality Checks for the 2007 biography winner, The Most Famous Man in America; for a 2007 fiction finalist, After This; and for a 2009 fiction finalist, All Souls. The site also has reviews of the 2006 poetry winner, Late Wifeand the 2009 fiction winner, Olive Kitteridge.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 4, 2009

Eve Pell Airs the Monogrammed Laundry in ‘We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:48 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The great-great-great granddaughter of tobacco baron Pierre Lorillard remembers her overprivileged childhood and her involvement with the Black Panthers

We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante. State University of New York Press/Albany, 225 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Eve Pell notes perceptively that there was something “curiously un-American” about the values of her parents, members of the last generation who believed that if your blood was blue enough, you didn’t have to redeem yourself through work or philanthropy. “Horatio Alger, for example, would not have been welcome in our circle,” she writes, “since we looked down on people who actually made their own money (after we did) as ‘latecomers.’”

Pell maps the damage in this memoir of her overprivileged childhood on Long Island, her work with the Black Panthers in San Francisco, and her late-life success as a world-class marathon runner. She grew up fox-hunting and hearing about prominent forebears such as the tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard, her great-great-great grandfather. One of her great-grandmothers gave seated dinners for 125 guests, “one course after another, with a footman in livery standing behind each chair”: “She never put on her own shoes – her lady’s maid did that.” And yet Pell hardly had charmed youth: Early on, her beautiful mother ran off with a lover and fought for custody of her daughter in a battle played out in the New York newspapers.

By telling her story, Pell aims show what happens to rich families when blood and money thin and, in the culture as a whole, an aristocracy of birth gives way to an aristocracy of achievement. And to some extent, she succeeds. Pell is a close observer of the mores of relatives such as an aunt who sold some of her diamonds to create and publish a version of the Bible that “excluded references to eating meat since she was a vegetarian.”

But We Used to Own the Bronx isn’t as enlightening as it could have been. Pell is better reporter than analyst and, as such, offers few insights into her world that go beyond the banalities of psychotherapy. She was in a unique position to shed light on the phenomenon known as radical chic or champagne socialism, but she makes little of it.

As a young mother, Pell became emotionally involved the Black Panther George Jackson, a prisoner at San Quentin, who was eventually shot to death while trying to escape. Why did she act in ways that might have endangered her three children? Pell says, in part, that Jackson “made me feel like a real woman.” She also says that in 1996 — when she would have been in her 60s — she was “surprised and shocked” (and “horrified” and “appalled”) to learn that a cousin felt no guilt about a nasty anti-Semitic prank in his youth. By then, she’d lived for more than six decades in a family teeming with men who belonged to private clubs that didn’t admit Jews, so it’s unclear why she was as startled by this as by her discovery that Jackson may have been a psychopath.

In such passages, Pell comes across as either naïve or sanctimonious and, in any case, lacking in self-awareness. She also shows little sense of humor about the foibles of the oddballs in her clan. Pell has tried not to allow herself to be defined by family – but she takes her clan so seriously as to leave the impression that, in many ways, she’s still in thrall to it.

Best line: “I had been raised to think that anyone who felt bad was not trying hard enough.”

Worst line: Pell writes of an ex-husband: “There were things I had to put up with. He routinely ate all the chocolate icing off the top of Sara Lee cakes and left the rest of it, stripped, in the fridge for us.” We’re supposed to sympathize with this?

Published: February 2009

Caveat lector: We Used to Own the Bronx has one of the worst titles I’ve seen on a book this year. It refers to a large tract of land once owned by the Pells, but leaves the impression that the book is about, say, the 1949 Yankees. The subtitle is fine.

About the author: Pell lives in San Francisco.

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

June 27, 2009

A Teacher With Large Breasts and a Small Brain Gets Her Comeuppance in ‘The Dunderheads,’ A Picture Book by Paul Fleischman, Illustrated by David Roberts

Students seek revenge when Miss Breakbone calls them dunderheads

The Dunderheads. By Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by David Roberts. Candlewick, 56 pp., $16.99. Age range: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

A cynic might call The Dunderheads an ideal book for anyone who believes that children are never too young to learn that some women with large breasts do have small brains. But that view may be too harsh. David Roberts’s pictures are often funny even if the protagonist of this book looks like a refugee from a wacky Hooters franchise staffed by middle-aged teachers-union members.

The cruel Miss Breakbone seems not to have gotten the message that she might crush her students’ fragile self-esteem if she never assigns essays on topics like, “Why I’m Special.” She brazenly calls her class a bunch of dunderheads – at least when she isn’t confiscating their cell phones and vowing not to give them back.

But her students have self-esteem to spare, fostered by their many achievements, and Miss Breakbone is too dumb to see how smart they really are. A female student nicknamed Hollywood is typical: “She’s got every movie that was ever made and has watched them all 11 times.” So one day when Miss Breakbone goes too far, her students take their revenge in a breaking-and-entering caper that ends when she finds a note that says, “The Dunderheads were here!”

All of this is reasonably diverting, owing largely to Roberts’s flair for visually amusing details, such as the skull-shaped lamp on Miss Breakbone’s dresser. But the plotting isn’t as clever nor is the writing as sharp as in in many other tales of a classroom revolt, such as Miss Nelson Is Missing!. Miss Breakbone’s name, for example, is somewhat labored and not as funny as that of Viola Swamp in Harry Allard and James Marshall’s back-to-school tale.  And a goggle-eyed character named “Google-Eyes” may leave some children using the incorrect phrase for a lifetime.

Best line / picture: Roberts’s spread showing the movie addict named Hollywood in a bunker-like room full of cables, DVDs, Oscar statues, and a television and larger-than-life remote control.

Worst line / picture: “That’s when Google-Eyes went to work.” The girl shown on this spread isn’t “Google-eyed” but “goggle-eyed.” Fleischman also writes: “Spider went up the drainpipe like malt up a straw.” That similie sounds dated coming from a young narrator whose classmates bring cell phones to school, all members of a generation that might never drink a malted milk (if that’s what’s meant here).

Suggested age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 6–10. This suggestion is unrealistic for many children given that The Dunderheads has a picture-book format and children often begin to spurn picture books at about the age of 6 or 7 (and to crave picture books that have more than 32 pages, as this one does, one starting at 4 or 5). School Library Journal says the book is for Grades 2-5 (roughly ages 7-10). But, again, it seems too optimistic to believe this book would appeal to many 8- and 9-year-olds who have enjoyed, for example, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The natural audience for the format of The Dunderheads might seem to be 4- and 5-year-olds who want picture books with more than the usual 32 pages, such as the original Flat Stanley with words by Jeff Brown and illustrations by Tomi Ungerer. But — speaking just for myself — I wouldn’t give this one to a literal-minded child who start school soon because of its message, however humorously developed, that some teachers just hate children and, if you get one, you may feel better if you take criminal acts of revenge.

Published: June 2009

About the author and illustrator: Fleischman, a Californian, won the 1989 Newbery Medal for Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices and has posted an excerpt from it on his Web site. Roberts lives in London and has illustrated many books for children, some of them prize-winners.

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. Books that will reviewed on this site are sometimes announced in advance at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

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

April 7, 2009

Tanya Egan Gibson’s ‘How to Buy a Love of Reading’ — A Satirical Novel That Turns Into a Teen Weepie

Filed under: Humor,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:34 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

A 15-year-old’s parents try to get her to read by hiring an author to write a book for her

How to Buy a Love of Reading:  A Novel. By Tanya Egan Gibson. Dutton, 353 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

Tanya Egan Gibson begins her first novel with a delicious sendup of a Sweet Sixteen party dominated by an ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David, whose penis is “dripping syphilitically.” Right away Gibson shows that she has two traits vital to a satirist:  a willingness to twist the knife and the ability to find a worthy target — in this case, the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous in Gatsby country, the North Shore of Long Island.

But Gibson quickly loses control of her tone in this story of a teenager whose parents try to overcome her dislike of reading by hiring a live-in author to write a book for her as a 16th-birthday gift. A novel that begins as satire devolves into a teen weepie as its characters go to parties, get drunk, pop Vicodins, sleep around, cram for their SATs and try to deal with their clueless and hypocritical parents.

The problem lies partly in an excess of ambition: Gibson tries to marry satire and tragedy, two forms so difficult to bring together that even so great a satirist as Jane Austen didn’t attempt it. You can’t easily persuade readers to pity characters whose lives you’ve been ridiculing for hundreds of pages. And Gibson has made her task harder by lampooning more than the patricians and parvenus known by Carley Wells, a sweet and overweight 15-year-old, who loves a popular male friend, Hunter Cay. She takes aim at targets such as reality TV, Arthurian romances, English teachers, college counselors and postmodern literary techniques, some incorporated into the plot.

Gibson might have pulled if off if she’d invested her novel with a faster pace and more drama. But How to Buy a Love of Reading is overwritten and lacks a powerful central conflict, both of which slow the story. Carley doesn’t have a strong antagonist but a variety of weaker ones, including her adored Hunter and her parents and the second-rate novelist they hired to write a book for her.

As characters swim through the book, Gibson keeps backtracking to fill in labored details like these about her heroine’s bulimic friend, Amber, whose behavior changed while Hunter was convalescing from an illness:

“Until then, she and Carley had just gone wherever Hunter went, hanging out with his friends — people like his older cousin Ian, last year’s student council president. But in Hunter’s absence Amber had gone back to spending time with people she and Carley had hung out with in middle school before he’d moved to town, people who mostly weren’t invited to the parties but who liked her.”

Gibson has a good eye for the follies of characters like a partygoer who advises another on how to cope with with a dull guest: “Tune her out by counting her pores.” But her inability to tame her material makes you feel a bit like that socialite: After a while, you’re counting the pores of this novel.

Best line: A private college counselor tells a couple that “their daughter needed rebranding if she wanted any shot at the real Ivies or the ‘hidden Ivies’ or even — given Bunny’s inability to break the ninety-fifth percentile on her PSATs — the ‘public Ivies.'”

Worst line: “Her  breasts were like a disaster in the news: a roof falling in under the weight of heavy rain, a double-decker freeway collapsing in an earthquake, a bridge undulating in high winds until its cables snapped.”

To be published: May 14, 2009

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of How to Buy a Love of Reading. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Gibson lives in Marin County, California.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 27, 2009

Kadir Nelson Celebrates Titans Like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in His 2009 Coretta Scott King Award-Winner, ‘We Are the Ship’

A California author has won two children’s-book prizes for his account of the days when black baseball teams sometimes had to sleep in jails or funeral homes because hotels wouldn’t rent rooms to them

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. By Kadir Nelson. Foreword by Hank Aaron. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, 88 pp., $18.99. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Remembering Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and other titans

Quiz time, all of you who see yourself as experts on children’s literature: When was the last time you read a picture book that had a story told through first-person plural narration? Or that used original oil paintings for art instead of watercolors, collages, pen-and-ink drawings, or other more popular picture book media?

If you don’t know, you may have a sense of why Kadir Nelson has just won two major awards for We Are the Ship, an illustrated history of Negro League baseball. Nelson relies entirely on plural narration — a down-to-earth variation on the royal “we” — to tell the story of the black ballplayers who had to compete against themselves in a segregated America. And he illustrates his text with dozens of full-page oil paintings of celebrated players, owners, managers and umpires.

We Are the Ship reflects lapses you wouldn’t expect in an award-winning book, and Kevin Baker described some in his review in the New York Times Book Review. But it brims with vibrant details served up in a relaxed and conversational tone, all woven into stories you might hear from a ballplayer with his feet up on your porch in the off-season.

George “Mule” Suttles isn’t as well known today as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and other Negro League titans. But Nelson shows you his appeal in a few sentences:

“We had a fellow named George ‘Mule’ Suttles, who played for the Newark Eagles. He was a big ’un. We used to say he hit the ball like a mule kicks. Fans would yell, ‘Kick, Mule, kick!’ and he’d take a great big swing like, Babe Ruth. He’d even thrill you when he struck out. Darn near screwed himself into the ground when he struck out.”

Nelson might have prevented some confusion if had he said up front that he was writing in “a collective voice, the voice of every player” instead of describing this postmodern device in an author’s note on page 80 that many children may never read. And some of his language may be anachronistic for a speaker of its day. (Would a player in the early decades of the 20th century have said “kinda,” “Hall of Famer” and “The man was awesome”?) The art is slick enough that paging through this book is a a bit like viewing a collection of high-quality movie stills.

Even so, We Are the Ship is informative and entertaining. Nelson shows the cruelty faced by players who at times had to sleep at the local jail or funeral home because they couldn’t afford rooms on the road or hotels would rent only to whites. But he balances such stories with lighter ones that keep his book from becoming bleak. How much of the fun has gone out of baseball in the era of steroids, big money and free agents? Nelson offers a clue when he reminds us that, in the early days of Negro baseball, Lloyd “Pepper” Basset used to catch some games in a rocking chair.

Best line: Manager Andrew “Rube” Foster sent signals to his pitchers from the dugout instead of having his catchers send them: “He’d puff signals from his pipe or nod his head one way to signal a play. One puff, fastball. Two puffs, curveball. Things like that.”

Worst line: No. 1: “The average major league player’s salary back then [in the 1940s] was $7,000 per month.” Dave Anderson of the New York Times, perhaps the greatest living baseball writer, says in The Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s (co-authored with Rudy Marzanot) that it was $7,000 a year, not a month. No. 2: Nelson says that the Depression–era numbers game (which involved betting on random numbers that would appear on stock-market pages or elsewhere): “Back then, it was a 100 percent illegal business; but nowadays it’s known as the lottery, and it’s run by the government.” This line is glib and misleading. The numbers racket and state lotteries have always been separate.

Recommendation? We Are the Ship has the format of a coffee-table book and, although marketed to children, may appeal also to adults.

Published: January 2008. We Are the Ship is the No. 1 children’s baseball book on Amazon.

Furthermore: Nelson lives in southern California. His first name is pronounced Kah-DEER.

On Monday We Are the Ship won the 2009 Coretta Scott King Award, which the American Library Association gives to “to African American authors and illustrators for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions.” The book also received the Robert F. Sibert Medal for “the most distinguished informational book” for young readers.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 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
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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

April 29, 2008

English on the Outside, American on the Inside – Sleuth Maisie Dobbs Returns in Jacqueline Winspear’s ‘An Incomplete Revenge’

A World War I battlefield nurse-turned-private-eye looks into a series of unexplained fires in a village in Kent

An Incomplete Revenge: A Maisie Dobbs Novel. By Jacqueline Winspear. Holt, 303 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

For a sleuth in Depression–era England, Maisie Dobbs acts remarkably like a modern American. She relies less on gathering tangible clues than on asking personal questions that Brits of her day – or any day – would have answered with nowhere near the speed they do in this book. And instead of favoring Holmesian deduction she tends to heed her unerring instincts, honed by her work as a World War I battlefield nurse and her training as a professional psychologist.

But for all its incongruities, An Incomplete Revenge is a stellar cozy, the name often applied to the type of mystery that has an amateur female sleuth and no gratuitous sex or violence. This is a book you can give your mother for Mother’s Day without worrying that she’ll disinherit you because it turns into snuff on page 167.

In her fifth outing, Maisie Dobbs travels from her home in London to a troubled village in Kent, where she investigates a series of fires and petty crimes for a friend who is hoping to buy property there. It’s the season for picking hops, the bitter herb essential to beer-making, and migrants have streamed into town on trains known as a “Hoppers’ Specials.” Some locals blame those outsiders or an influx of gypsies for the unsolved crimes in the village. Maisie isn’t so sure — and not just because there’s Roma blood on her late mother’s side of the family — and goes after the truth.

For many mystery writers, that would be the beginning and end of the story. Winspear goes further in An Incomplete Revenge. Her several plotlines neatly weave together topics as diverse as gypsy lore, violin-making, equestrian care, the Kentish landscape and the effects of a World War I zeppelin bombing on rural England. But these subjects never become a drag on the plot or devolve into a history lesson. Maisie may be American on the inside and English on the outside, but she inhabits a world uniquely her own.

Best line: Maisie reflects as she sees gypsy women cooking while wearing big white aprons: “The apron, Maisie knew, was worn less to protect clothing from stains and splashes than to provide a barrier between the body of the cook and the food to be eaten. In gypsy lore, if food came in close proximity to a woman’s body, it was considered mokada – sullied – and not worth the eating.”

Worst line: Winspear’s dialogue is occasionally too expositional. A friend of Maisie’s says: “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 the passage in which Maisie tells her father, “Dad, I’ve been thinking about Nana,” and he replies, “Your mother’s mother?”

Published: February 2008 www.jacquelinewinspear.com

Reading group guide: At us.macmillan.com/anincompleterevenge.You can also read or listen to an excerpt at this site.

Furthermore: Winspear grew up, in part, in Kent, and lives in California. Her honors for the Maisie Dobbs series include an Agatha Award (given by Malice Domestic to books that, like Christie’s, have no gratuitous sex or violence).

For an English perspective on Maisie Dobbs, read this post by Michael Allen of the Grumpy Old Bookman blog grumpyoldbookman.blogspot.com/2006/03/jacqueline-winspear-maisie-dobbs.html. For more on hops, visit the site for America Hop Museum www.americanhopmuseum.org in the Yakima Valley.

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

December 3, 2007

Alice Sebold’s Ghastly Scenes, Written at a Fourth-Grade Reading Level, Infest ‘The Almost Moon’

A woman with “control issues” murders her mother fantasizes about stuffing her in a freezer — “I should have stayed in therapy,” she admits – And you thought you had “control issues” because you alphabetize your CDs

The Almost Moon: A Novel. By Alice Sebold. Little, Brown, 291 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Novelist Charlotte Moore eviscerated The Almost Moon in a review I recently quoted at length and agree with in most particulars. Yet even that review — brilliant as it was – didn’t suggest all the distasteful aspects of this novel about a 49-year-old woman who murders her mother and fantasizes about stuffing her in a freezer.

Moore rightly warned that “nasty revelations occur about once every ten pages, like the sex scenes in the Harold Robbins novels we used to pass round at boarding school.” But “nasty” may be a euphemism for the thoughts Helen Knightly has while cleaning her mother’s excrement-smeared corpse: “And there it was, the hole that had given birth to me.… This was not the first time I’d been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia.” “Face-to-face” doesn’t seem quite the right phrase for those body parts, does it?

The Almost Moon reads like a Mitch Albom novel in reverse. Albom writes a third-grade reading level and Sebold at a fourth-grade level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word. The difference is that The Almost Moon serves up grim pseudoprofundities instead of the saccharine ones in For One More Day. “It was a bitter truth – my discovery – that daughters were not made in cookie-cutter patterns from the genes of their mothers alone,” Sebold writes. Apart from the clunky phrasing and clichés in that line, it is hardly news that daughters differ from their mothers. Such observations are what pass for wisdom or originality in The Almost Moon.

Novels infested with ghastly scenes can succeed in either of two ways: by entertaining you, as good mystery and horror novelists do, or by offering insights that make the ghoulishness worthwhile. The Almost Moon brims instead with banalities like this one from last chapter: “There are secret rooms inside us.” Close the door, please.

Best Line: None.

Worst line: The “worsts” fall into several categories. First, the cringe-inducing, like that line about being “face-to-face” with “genitalia.” Second, the pop-psychological. After murdering her mother, Helen explains that she has “control issues” and that “I should have stayed in therapy.” Third, the padded, redundant or clichéd: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” “I had prepacked a bag for the hospital before Sarah was born.” “I like to think, when I think about it, that by that time she was busy taking in the scent of her garden, feeling the late-afternoon sun on her face, and that somehow in the moments that had elapsed since she’d last spoken, she’d forgotten that she ever had a child and that, for so many years now, she’d had to pretend she loved it.”

How to find the reading level of a text: Enter the text into a computer and run the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. If you have Word 2004, you will see the words “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level” at the bottom of the window that opens when the check is finished. This tells you reading level. [If you don't see a list of "Readability Statistics" after you complete a spell check, search Word Help for "readbility statistics," then choose "Display Readability Statistics" from the list of options you see.] The first six pages of The Almost Moon had a reading level of Grade 5.5. To see if this was too low, I entered three 300-word passages from pages 23–24, 123–124 and 223–224. The reading levels for these passages averaged out to Grade 4.3. If you average 5.5 and 4.3, you get an overall fourth-grade level, 4.7, for all the passages. The text of this review (from the word “Novelist” through “please”) has a reading level of Grade 10.8.

Published: October 2007 www.HachetteBookGroupUSA.com

Furthermore: I quoted from Charlotte Moore’s review in the Spectator www.spectator.co.uk in a Nov. 14 post www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/14/ and wrote about the first four chapters of The Almost Moon Nov. 23 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/23/. Sebold, who lives in California, also wrote the novel The Lovely Bones and the memoir, Lucky www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Sebold.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 14, 2007

Is Alice Sebold Turning Into the Howard Stern of Popular Fiction?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:33 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Charlotte Moore says that the first line of The Almost Moon is there “purely to grab attention,” and she doesn’t think much of what follows, either

By Janice Harayda

Alice Sebold’s first novel, The Lovely Bones, sold million of copies, but I read only a few pages before being put off partly by the tabloid-worthy premise: MURDERED CHILD TELLS STORY FROM HEAVEN! And I haven’t been able to get her second, The Almost Moon (Little, Brown, $24.95), from the library, because a lot of people here are reading it for one of those one-size-fits-all programs designed to get everybody in town to read the same book.

Until I can track down a copy, you might like to read the comments of a critic for a British weekly who raised points that I haven’t seen mentioned in the American reviews. Charlotte Moore wrote of The Almost Moon (“Deadened by Shock”) in the Oct. 31 issue of The Spectator:

“Its essential flaw is contained in its opening sentence: ‘When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.’ This is eye-catching … But like the rest of the novel it doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

“‘When all is said and done’ evokes a folksy storytelling style, but does it mean anything? Who is ‘saying and doing’, exactly? It’s just padding; the second half of the sentence could stand alone. Except it couldn’t because, unpadded, we might notice that the opening is contradicted by what actually happens. The narrator, Helen Knightly, takes ages to decide what to do with her demented, incontinent mother; when at last she smothers her with towels, it’s not easy at all. It’s a struggle, as you’d expect. And the remaining 277 pages go into minute detail about just how difficult it is to know what to do with yourself while you’re waiting for the cops to discover that you have murdered your mother. Nothing easy about it.

“The justification of that opening sentence, then, is purely to grab attention. This speciousness infects the prose throughout. Nasty revelations occur about once every ten pages, like the sex scenes in the Harold Robbins novels we used to pass round at boarding school.”

I don’t know if I’ll agree with these comments. But I love the force and clarity of Moore’s writing in this review — especially in contrast to how so many American critics have danced around the flaws they saw in the novel. Awfully persuasive in just a few paragraphs, isn’t it?

You can read the rest of the review at www.spectator.co.uk.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 376 other followers

%d bloggers like this: