One-Minute Book Reviews

August 7, 2007

Mark Kreidler’s Peak Peformance in Sportswriting, ‘Four Days to Glory’

Teenage wrestlers hurl themselves at their limits as the Iowa state championship approaches

Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland. By Mark Kreidler, 262 pp., $24.95

By Janice Harayda

Read enough books by newspaper sportswriters and you will eventually begin to question the principle of freedom of speech. It’s not that these journalists are lazy or unintelligent. But they typically write books about superstars who are so young and so focused on one sport that they have almost nothing to say. And because the athletes are in high demand, they also have little time to give to a book. The sportswriters have to stretch an inadequate number of interviews to tissue-thinness, then flesh them out with tedious rehashes of games that were far more dramatic on ESPN. To see how unedifying the result can be, you need only to read Moving the Chains, the 2006 biography of the Patriots’ Tom Brady by Charles Pierce of The Boston Globe. Any six-inch news story on recent events in Brady’s personal life might tell you more about the quarterback.

Meet Mark Kreidler, a sportswriter who makes you glad that the founders of our country wrote that Bill of Rights. The dust jacket of Four Days to Glory says he has worked for two California newspapers, but his book is far from the usual hagiographic cut-and-paste job. It’s a terrific portrait of high school wrestling in Iowa, a powerhouse in the sport, and a fascinating look at a subculture almost unknown outside the Midwest. If you think the people who bark after every touchdown at Browns games are obsessed, you should meet Iowa wrestlers.

Four Days to Glory tells the story of two high school seniors, Jay Borschel and Dan LeClere, both three-time state champions who aim to join the elite who have won a fourth title. But Kreidler has expanded his focus to include the boys’ families, coaches and teammates, so that his book is always about more than wrestling: It’s about the gut-wrenching impact of the quest on everybody involved. It’s also about the complexities of Iowa, a place where tickets to the state high school wrestling final sell out months in advance, yet nobody scalps tickets because, as one father said, “It would be unsportsmanlike to scalp at an event like this.”

As he follows Borschel and LeClere to the tournament, Kreidler avoids digressions into the less savory aspects of their sport – the steroids, the latent homoeroticism and the potential for eating disorders among athletes who must weigh in for every match. This may disappoint anyone looking for the wrestling equivalent of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, Joan Ryan’s superb exposé abuses in gymnastics and figure-skating. But Four Days to Glory works beautifully on its own terms. Kreidler says that Iowa wrestlers adopt slogans such as PAIN IS TEMPORARY, PRIDE IS FOREVER. And although his young subjects may not know it yet, this book gives them another reason to feel proud.

Best line: Four Days to Glory has two great walk-offs in the endings for the book and its epilogue. They are close to perfection. Unfortunately, quoting them would be like telling you who dies at the end of the new Harry Potter novel.

Worst line: Kreidler says that Dan Gable, who won a gold medal in wrestling at the Munich Olympics in 1972, was “the most acclaimed athlete of his time.” Mark, does the name Muhammad Ali mean anything to you? How about Hank Aaron, John Havlicek, Mark Spitz or Billie Jean King? The statement about Gable is so bizarre, it has to be a mistake: Kreidler must mean that he was the “most acclaimed” in wrestling. You hope.

Recommendation? Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, remember this one when you’re looking for a gift for that sports-loving teenage boy in December.

Editor: Dave Hirshey

Published: February 2007 www.markkreidler.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

July 23, 2007

A Great Biography of the Editor of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe

My head is too full of Harry Potter to post a review today, so I’ll just mention a favorite book that I hope to say more about later. A. Scott Berg won a 1979 National Book Award for Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, his definitive and eloquent biography of the great editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe. And both the honor and the book aced the test of time. The California-based Berg may be better known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lindbergh. But Max Perkins, his masterpiece, is a much better book. If you enjoy literary biographies and haven’t read this one, you’re in for a treat.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 2, 2007

Marjorie Hart’s ‘Summer at Tiffany,’ a Lovely Memoir of Manhattan in the Time of ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’

Remembering when Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich shopped at the famous jewelry store

Summer at Tiffany. By Marjorie Hart. Morrow, 258 pp., $14.95.

By Janice Harayda

This lovely memoir is a gardenia on the lapel of this summer’s nonfiction. Marjorie Hart grew up in a Midwestern town so small that she “had no idea what street I’d lived on until years after I had finished college.” But in the summer of 1945 she and a sorority sister at the University of Iowa set out, like Dorothy and Toto, for New York City, determined to find work as salesgirls. Turned down by Lord & Taylor, they talked their way into jobs as the first female pages at Tiffany & Co., which couldn’t hire enough men because of World War II.

That alone might have been a story, but there was more to it. Hart started work at the jewelry store at a shimmering moment. New York was still reeling from the euphoria brought on by the end of the war in Europe and would soon erupt again when the Japanese surrendered. The air was full of Chanel No. 5, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and Walter Winchell’s radio broadcasts. Hart was there for all of it and restores to it some of the romance that has leached through overexposure out of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s great photo “V-J Day Sailor and Nurse.” (That picture doesn’t show you, as her book does, people ripping up their telephone books and tossing them out windows). Hart tells charming stories of seeing Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich a Tiffany’s, falling in love with a midshipman who bought her a gardenia at Jack Dempsey’s Broadway bar, and rushing to try to see a plane that had crashed into the Empire State Building.

But Summer at Tiffany is equally memorable for its loving account of the last time Americans stood united in joy, not sorrow over an assassination or terrorist attack. Some people must still find it hard to stay dry-eyed when they remember the day the Queen Mary hove into the New York harbor carrying thousands of soldiers returning from Europe who, as they streamed down the gangplank, were greeted by a band playing “Don’t Fence Me In.”

Best line: Hart’s account of waiting in Times Square for the announcement of the end of the war in the Pacific on the electric ribbon of news circling Times Tower:

“Suddenly, at three minutes after seven, the big screen went dark. The crowd seemed to pause momentarily in anticipation. When the lights came on the screen read:

“***OFFICIAL***TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAPANESE SURRENDER

“A thunderous roar rose from the crowd. Church bells pealed, air-raid sirens wailed, cars honked, tugboats tooted, firecrackers explored and people cheered as confetti and paper fell from the windows. Near me, an old man threw his cane in the air.

“An army private kissed every girl he could find. Including me. Streams of tears ran down the cheeks of an elderly woman as she watched the words circling the tower.”

Worst line: Hart’s enthusiasm for New York sometimes leads to lines like, “We had to be the luckiest girls in town to be part of the Tiffany family and watch the curtain open to the toniest display of jewelry in the world.” These may be too sugary for some tastes but are believable in context and, given the cynicism of so many recent memoirs, even refreshing.

Recommendation? A good choice for reading groups looking for light reading that’s more intelligent than all the bad novels that publishers hurl at us at in the summer. At $14.95, the hardcover edition costs less than many paperbacks. Summer at Tiffany could also be an excellent gift for someone who remembers World War II, possibly in its large-print edition (HarperLuxe, $14.95, paperback).

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Summer at Tifanny appeared in the post directly before this one on July 2, 2007.

Caveat lector: Hart creates some composite characters and compresses some timelines. Partly because she acknowledges these up front and much more directly than many authors do, these devices don’t undermine her overall credibility, though you can sometimes see the seams of stitched-together events.

Editor: Jennifer Pooley

Published: April 2007

Furthermore: Hart, now in her 80s, is a professional cellist and former chair of the Fine Arts Department at the University of San Diego. She belongs to Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, which figures in this book.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 15, 2007

Grand Prize Winner 2007 Delete Key Awards: ‘Toxic Bachelors’ by Danielle Steel

The grand prize winner of the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition for the year’s worst writing in books is …

Toxic Bachelors by Danielle Steel

C’mon, you’re probably saying, this one was too easy. Sure, Danielle Steel writes at a fourth-grade level (technically, grade 4. 8), according to the readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. But don’t we all know how bad her writing is? Not if you haven’t read Toxic Bachelors. You may not be surprised to hear that this novel has plenty of unintentionally comic lines like: “‘Yes,’ he said succinctly.” But it’s worse than you think.

Nobody expects social realism from Steel, but it’s still shocking to find Jews portrayed as monsters in this novel. Toxic Bachelors is about three men single men, each of whom represents a spiritual as well as social type. Charlie is WASP-y, Gray makes a religion of art, and Adam is Jewish. Guess which one has a weak father, a mother who is “a nagging bitch” and a spoiled sister? That’s right, Adam. His parents are cruel enough to make the Portnoys look like candidates for a lifetime achievement award from Parents magazine. And he has a special contempt for a sister who committed the ultimate sin: “She had never done anything with her life except get married and have children.”

Steel gets away with this because most critics have written her off and no longer review her. Why review somebody, the thinking goes, who writes only mindless romances? Toxic Bachelors presents an answer: If nobody holds her accountable, she’ll keep serving up nasty stereotypes, masquerading as a fairy tale.

Original review on One-Minute Book Reviews: Oct. 28, 2007, “Danielle Steel Gets Toxic,” archived with the October posts and in the “Novels” category.

The first and second runners-up were announced earlier today. The full short list appeared on Feb. 28 and the titles of books that received Honorable Mentions for the list on March 2. A list of questions and answers about the Delete Key Awards appeared on Feb. 27. All of these posts are archived with those of the month in which they appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews. Thank you for visiting this site.

Visit www.janiceharayda.com for information about the creator of the Delete Key Awards, Janice Harayda, a novelist and award-winning journalist has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 19, 2007

‘That Scrotum Book’ for Children: A Review of the 2007 Newbery Medal Winner, ‘The Higher Power of Lucky’ by Susan Patron

Some libraries have banned the winner of the American Library Association’s highest award for for children’s literature. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the book that caused the uproar?

The Higher Power of Lucky: A Novel. By Susan Patron. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. Atheneum: A Richard Jackson Book, 135 pp., $16.95. Age range: 9-11. [See further comments about these ages at the end of the review.]

By Janice Harayda

Who would have thought that the American Library Association www.ala.org would give its most prestigious award for children’s literature to a novel that uses the word “scrotum” on the first page? Not those of us who have observed its choices for years and have found that they tend to suffer from an excess of caution, often rewarding deserving books only after children have embraced them.

So it was, in a sense, startling that the ALA gave the 2007 Newbery Medal to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, which tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble who hears what an Amazon reviewer has called “the s word” while eavesdropping on a 12-step meeting through a hole in the wall. Patron writes on the first page:

“Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ’62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.”

This is hardly shocking language when many 3-year-olds know the words “penis” and “vagina” and psychologists routinely urge parents to introduce the medically correct terms for genitalia as soon as their children can understand them. You would think that librarians would rejoice in the arrival of a book that supports this view instead of rolling out words you are more likely to hear from children, such as “dickhead” and “butt-head” and, of course, the deathless “poopy-head.”

But some people have reacted to The Higher Power of Lucky though Patron had issued a manifesto in favor of kiddie porn. At least a few libraries have banned the novel, the New York Times reported yesterday. And a librarian in Durango, Colorado, accused Patron of using “a Howard Stern-type shock treatment” to attract attention.

All of this distracts from the more important question: How good is this book?

Answer: Not bad. I’d give it a B or B-minus, though it was far from the best work of children’s literature published last year. I haven’t read all the candidates for 2007 Newbery, including the Honor Books. But among those I have read, Patron’s novel has less literary merit than Kate DiCamillos’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane or Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, both rumored on library listservs and elsewhere to have been contenders for the award.

But The Higher Power of Lucky does have virtues, some of which are more therapeutic than literary. Patron describes the principles of 12-step programs not just for alcoholics but for “gamblers, smokers, and overeaters.” This may help many children who have relatives in such programs and don’t understand them. And Lucky is an intrepid and often amusing heroine who defies a few female stereotypes. She loves science, has close male friends, and lives in a trailer in the Mojave Desert, which has a dramatic landscape that Patron describes vibrantly. No one could accuse this novel of fostering the rampant materialism you see in so many children’s books. The Higher Power of Lucky also has evocative black-and-white illustrations by Matt Phelan that add so much to the book that you wonder if it would have had a shot at the Newbery without them. Perhaps above all, the novel has a worthy theme: What constitutes a “family”?

So what’s not to like about the book? The writing — vivid as it can be — is at times careless or clunky. Patron confuses “lay” and “lie” in a line of dialogue on page 4, and while you could argue that this misuse is in character for the speaker, she makes similar lapses in expository passages. She tells us that a character had “a very unique way of cooking.” She does not appear to have mastered the use of the semicolon and overuses it, including in conversation, in a book for children who may themselves be struggling to figure out its purpose. She also italicizes so many words — a sign of weak writing — that her book reads at times like a children’s version of the old Cosmopolitan edited by Helen Gurley Brown.

Most of all, some aspects of the plot and Lucky’s character are thin and underdeveloped. Toward the end of the book, Lucky behaves recklessly and is also dangerously mean to a friend. And while such events might have made less difference earlier in the book, they come so late that Patron has left herself too little time to persuade us that her heroine has learned from them. Other late events are insufficiently foreshadowed to make them believable. And that brings us back to that incendiary “scrotum.”

Lucky finally does learn the meaning of the word. But it turns out to have so little relation to the rest of the plot that its use in the beginning looks gratuitous. The metaphorical gun on the wall in the first act turns out to be firing blanks. The Higher Power of Lucky is not about its heroine’s sexual development or anything else that might have justified the use of the word. Patron could have reworked the offending passage with no loss to the book. In that sense, she may have made a mistake. But libraries would be making an even more serious one if they ban a book that has much to offer children.

Best line: This book has many good descriptions of the landscape of the Mojave, such as this image of a dust storm: “Tiny twisters of sand rose up from the ground, as if minature people were throwing handfuls in the air.”

Worst line: Clearly many people think it’s the one about the scrotum. For variety I’ll go with the ungrammatical first line of the third chapter, which includes a dangling modifier: “Out of the millions of people in America who might become Lucky’s mother if Brigitte went home to France, Lucky wondered about some way to trap and catch exactly the right one.”

Age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 9-to-11. But The Higher Power of Lucky has a much less complex plot and smaller cast than many novels beloved by children in that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels. And its heroine is a 10-and-a-half-year-old fifth-grader, and children tend to read “up,” or prefer stories about characters who are older than they are. So this book may have much more appeal for children below its age range, including 7- and 8-year-olds, than 11-year-olds. This fact may explain much of the controversy about the book. Many librarians and teachers who would have no trouble with the word “scrotum” in a book for fifth-graders may be upset because they know that this one will end up in the hands of many second- and third-graders.

Furthermore: You may also want to read two related items posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 22: a reading group guide to The Higher Power of Lucky and a discussion of six possible reasons why this book one the Newbery despite having the word “scrotum” on the first page. Check the “Children’s Books” category on this site if you don’t see them on the home page of this blog. The reading group guide is also archived in the “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides” category.

Published: November 2006

Furthermore: Patron’s name is pronounced “pa-TRONE.”

Links: You may also want to read the review of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, archived in the “Children’s Books” category on this site.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and former book editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com for information about her comic novels.

If you found this review helpful, please consider forwarding a link to One-Minute Book Reviews to others, particularly sites for parents and libraries. To my knowledge, this is the most comprehensive review of The Higher Power of Lucky on the Web that anyone can read without registering or providing personal information and that was written by a highly experienced critic who has judged a national book awards competition. One-Minute Book Reviews is a four-month-old site that has grown rapidly, in part because of links from libraries and other book-related groups or institutions. Additional links will help to make it possible for future reviews like this one to keep appearing

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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