One-Minute Book Reviews

December 14, 2013

What I’m Reading … James Wolcott’s Comic Novel, ‘The Catsitters’

Filed under: Humor,Novels,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:40 pm
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“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review on this blog

What I’m reading: The Catsitters (HarperPerennial, 2002), the first novel by James Wolcott, the longtime cultural sharpshooter at Vanity Fair.

What it is: A light comedy about the romantic misadventures of an unmarried man in Manhattan before the hookup culture rolled in. Narrator Johnny Downs is a mild-mannered bartending actor who tries a desperate approach to finding love after being dropped by his latest his-and-run girlfriend: He takes advice by telephone from a friend in Georgia who, after spending her teenage years in New Jersey, blends “a Southern belle’s feminine wiles with a Northerner’s no-nonsense direct aim.” The title of the novel has a double meaning: It refers to the caretakers for Johnny’s beloved cat and to the women who eddy around a “cat” — as the Beats might have said — who hopes to turn himself into plausible husband material.

Why I’m reading it: I enjoyed Wolcott’s new Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs (Doubleday, 2013), a showcase for the virtues that have distinguished his work since his early days at the Village Voice: wit, moral courage, and a high style. That collection drew me back to this novel.

Quotes from the book: A priest describes an artistic sensibility he has observed in New York: “These days, any time I attend something cultural, I dread what might be in store. I don’t mind shock effects as much as I resent the notion that they’re  for my own good, to roust me out of my moral slumber. One thing I learned from my work as a military chaplain is that in real life, shock numbs people, and the worse the shock, the deeper the numbness. After a while, your response system shuts down.”

Furthermore: The Catsitters is, in some ways, Seinfeld-ian: It involves a nice New York man caught up in day-to-day mini-dramas — not turbo-charged conflicts — and abounds with witty one-liners and repartee, such as:

“I can’t picture the men of Decatur, Georgia, handing out understated cream business cards.” “You’re right, they don’t. Most men down here introduce themselves by honking at intersections.”
“You’re fretting about the cost of dinner and flowers? You’re not adopting a pet from the animal shelter, Johnny, you’re in training to find a fiancée and future wife.”
“I don’t think I could handle a threesome.” “You’re not ready to handle a twosome yet.”
“Would you mind if I took off my shoes? My feet are about to cry.”
“We continued chatting, and by the time the train pulled into Baltimore I knew enough about her life to produce a documentary.”

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

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

June 18, 2010

‘Red Ted and the Lost Things’ — A Former British Children’s Laureate Returns With a Tale of Finding Your Way Home

A teddy bear, a crocodile and a cat team up in a picture book from a popular author

Red Ted and the Lost Things. By Michael Rosen. Illustrated by Joel Stewart. Candlewick, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Few picture-books authors write more honestly about loss than Michael Rosen, the former British children’s laureate. His Michael Rosen’s Sad Book was the rare book for its age group that dealt successfully with multi-layered adult grief — the pain its author felt when his 18-year-old son Eddie died from meningitis.

Now Rosen has returned with a lighter story about loss: a tale of a brave red teddy bear who must find his own way home when his young owner accidentally leaves him on a train seat and he ends up in a cavernous lost-and-found department. That premise alone would set this picture book apart from many others in which lost toys are reunited with their owners through children’s diligent search-and-rescue efforts.

But Red Ted and the Lost Things is also unusual for its willingness to acknowledge that some lost objects never return home. Red Ted at first feels confident that his owner, a girl named Stevie, will claim him at the train station. But he realizes he must find his own way home when a crocodile tells him, “I’ve been here a very long time, and no one has ever come to get me.”

So the new friends follow the “Way Out” signs in the train station and begin their journey – an optimistic teddy bear and a pessimistic crocodile, who fall in with a helpful cat who has some of the traits of each. It’s a much quieter trip than the rip-roaring family adventure in We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, a book that includes an unexpected snowstorm. And its pleasures are gentler: Joel Stewart affirms the bond between the animals, despite their differences, by using bright colors only for the three traveling companions and a sepia- wash for the background. And by the time the three find Stevie, this book has become more than a quest narrative: It is a story about the value of teamwork and how people of different of temperaments can work – and, in the end, live – together happily.

Best line/picture: Red Ted and the Lost Things has an inventive spread that consists of one-and-a-half blank pages (with art only at the bottom of the second page), which appears when the characters seem to have run out of ideas for finding their way home.

Worst line/picture: None. But you wonder why Steve calls her mother “Mom” instead of “Mum” when the signs follow the British model (“Way Out” instead of “Exit”).

Published: October 2009

About the author and illustrator: Rosen was the British Children’s Laureate from 2007–2009. He is best known in the U.S. for his acclaimed We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, which he performs in an excellent video. He collaborated on Michael Rosen’s Sad Book with the great illustrator British Quentin Blake. Joel Stewart lives in England and has illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She reviews children’s books on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 25, 2009

Wanda Gág’s ‘Millions of Cats’ — An American Classic for Children

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:02 pm
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Millions of Cats. By Wanda Gág. Putnam, 32 pp., varied prices. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Thirty years ago, an editor asked Maurice Sendak if he thought picture books were better in the past. Yes, he said, “there was Wanda Gág.” More recently, I asked the children’s author Jan Brett which artists had influenced her work, and she gave a similar answer: “Of course, there was Wanda Gág.”

Gág (rhymes with blog) was to picture books what Julia Child was to French cooking – the first American star in a field that has exploded in her wake. And just as Mastering the Art of French Cooking remains a standard-bearer for a generation, so does Gág’s Millions of Cats, first published in 1928.

Gág’s masterpiece is so unassuming by today’s measures that if you came across it on a library shelf, you might overlook it. Except for the cover, all of the illustrations are black-and-white. The book is relatively small, just over half the size of a typical book by Chris Van Allsburg, with a horizontal format. It has only two human characters — an old man and woman with no children – who might have stepped out of the story of Abraham and Sarah.

But Millions of Cats combines tenderness with powerful themes, including the human longing for companionship and the struggle to survive in the natural world, and it does so in a story 3- and 4-year-olds can understand. The old woman believes a cat would ease the couple’s loneliness, and her husband sets out to find one. But each cat he sees is so pretty, he goes home followed by what looks like a feline peace march. The horde inspires the refrain:

Cats here, cats there,

Cats and kittens everywhere,

Hundreds of cats,

Thousands of cats,

Millions and billions and trillions of cats.

The old man and woman can’t keep them all, so the cats compete for survival, except for a frightened and “very homely little cat” that others see as no threat and ignore. That is the cat that the couple come to see as the “the most beautiful cat in the world.”

Gág’s beautiful pen-and-ink drawing flow across gutters and move her story forward in waves instead of boxes that can make a book look flat or inert. Many of her details recall both folktales and her Bohemian ancestry – a kerchief, a tunic, a tidy fieldstone cottage encircled by flowers. And her humor comes not from visual gags but believable emotions, such as the old man’s astonishment on seeing the “millions of cats” for the first time. All of it makes for a book that a child can read again and again with delight. Millions of Cats was the first American picture book that had both popular and literary success, and it’s still one of the worthiest of its honors.

Best line: “Millions and billions and trillions of cats.”

Worst line: Some critics say it’s illogical that the text suggests that the cats “have eaten each other all up” at the end of their fight while the pictures offer no evidence that they have done this. I think that this view is too literal and the fight is a metaphor for the Darwinian struggle for survival. How “logical” was it for all those millions of cats to follow the old man home in the first place?

Published: 1928 (first edition), 1996 (Putnam reprint)

This is a re-post of a reviews that first appeared in 2007.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 2, 2009

Why Are Animal Stories So Popular Right Now?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:14 pm
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I’ve been having computer problems this week that have limited my ability to post (but that should end tomorrow or Monday when my Mac returns). So today I’m just going to throw out a question that’s been on my mind: Why are animal stories so popular right now?

I’m thinking of books like Marley & Me, Alex & Me, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Dewey: The Small-Town Libary Cat Who Touched the World, and the others that have touched a nerve in the past year or two. Stories about animals have been popular in the U.S. for decades: Think of classics like White Fang, Black Beauty, and Charlotte’s Web. But it’s unusual to see as many of these on bestseller lists as have appeared lately.

My theory is that animal stories become more popular in hard times, or when people have less trust in elected officials or other authorities because it’s reassuring to read that you can still count on a dog or cat even if you can’t count on the politicians or bankers. What’s yours?

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 13, 2009

Kathi Appelt’s Violent and Controversial 2009 Newbery and National Book Award Finalist, ‘The Underneath’

Cruelty to animals and people abounds in an acclaimed children’s novel set in an East Texas pine forest

The Underneath. By Kathi Appelt. Drawings by David Small. Atheneum, 311 pp., $19.99. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

What were the Newbery and National Book Awards judges thinking when they named this novel a finalist for their prizes? That kids don’t see enough repulsive characters in other media and needed a book about two more? Or that they have to get their New Age twaddle early so that they’ll recognize it when they see it in The Secret?

The Underneath tells the linked stories of two hate-filled characters: a cruel gun-toting hermit and a poisonous shape-shifting serpent, who live deep in an East Texas pine forest. The hermit, known as Gar Face, avenges his abused childhood by shooting animals, getting drunk, and plotting to kill a giant alligator in a nearby bayou. He brutally mistreats his only companion, a lame bloodhound named Ranger. The serpent seethes over the loss of her daughter, who ran off with a shape-shifting hawk who changed into a handsome man. She, too, has one companion — the giant alligator that Gar Face wants to kill, “and he was not the snuggly type.” That is the closest you will find to wit in this novel.

Like the snake, Gar Face has an Ahab–like fixation on vengeance, complicated by the arrival of an abandoned calico cat, who soon has kittens. Ranger protects the cats and warns them to stay in “the Underneath” – a crawl space under the hermit’s shack — or face Gar Face’s fury. Unfortunately, kittens are hard to manage: “There is also that whole thing about curiosity.” This line is bad news for anyone who expects Newbery finalists to avoid clichéd themes like, “Curiosity killed the cat.”

The Underneath is so drenched in sorrow that while it might pain some children at any time, you wonder how it will affect those who are suffering greatly because of the recession. The scant redemption comes in the last few pages and at the cost of more violence. One hate-filled main character remains unrepentant and meets a grisly death. The other gives up on revenge and acts kindly, if belatedly. The message is: When you feel bitter, you can keep on hating or you can choose to love. A worthy idea, certainly. But the final act of kindness is so unexpected — and so little foreshadowed – that it’s as though Ahab had decided at the end of Moby-Dick to join a “Save the Whales” campaign.

In a sense, all the cruelty is beside the point: There’s plenty of cruelty to children in the novels of Charles Dickens, and they’re still worthy of readers, young and old. The problem with The Underneath is in part a lack of balance. Good children’s books may have cruel adults, but those characters tend not to predominate as in this novel: Villains share center stage with better people. The absence of good people in major roles invests The Underneath — perhaps inadvertently — with a deeply cynical view of human nature.

What, then, could the Newbery and National Book Awards judges have liked about this controversial book, apart from its love-is-good message? Above all, a rich sense of place. The Underneath reflects a strong appreciation for the landscape of the Texas-Louisiana border — the birds and fish, the trees and plants, the marshes and bayous. A sense of landscape isn’t enough to sustain a novel. But it’s not nothing when so many children’s books offer bland descriptions of classrooms and soccer fields (and, interestingly, it’s something The Underneath shares with the 2007 Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, which vividly evokes the Mojave).

Kathi Appelt also writes clearly, although her book has some inane lines like: “The pain she felt was palpable.” She weaves her several storylines together smoothly, if often repetitively, and maintains a fair amount of suspense given that two of her characters at times do little more than sit around plotting revenge.

But one aspect of The Underneath that may have appealed to judges isn’t a virtue: It touches many ideologically fashionable bases. These include the idea that animals (and, in this book, other forms of nonhuman life) are morally superior to people.

After Gar Face commits a heinous act, the book asks: “What do you call a person like that? The trees have a word: evil.” No, humans have a word, but you wouldn’t know it from this story. Later we get more on the wisdom of trees, written in pretentious tones like this:

“For trees, who see so much sorrow, so much anger, so much desperation, know love for the rare wonder of it, so they are champions of it and will do whatever the can to help it along its way.”

This is sentimental New Age goop, pitched to an age in which environmentalism often becomes substitute religion. The Underneath acknowledges that the hermit is evil. But it’s trees — not wise people — who see that he is. The best children’s books may have virtuous animals or trees, but they also have admirable humans. Charlotte’s Web has Wilbur and Fern (and part of E. B. White’s genius is that his novel has a girl named Fern, not a talking fern). In The Underneath the only good humans are part-animal shape-shifters who are not main but supporting characters. Even they die terrible deaths. Instead of hope, this bleak book offers children a variation on the cynical political axiom: If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

Best line: “This Piney Woods forest in far East Texas is wet and steamy. Take a step and your footprint will fill with water.”

Worst line: “Humans are designed to be with other humans, even those with mixed blood.” That “mixed blood” refers to shape-shifters, creatures half-human and half-bird or -reptile. But the phrase comes across as an unintentional racial slur. Among David Small’s illustrations (which strike me as just OK): Appelt says Hawk Man has “coppery feathers in his long black hair,” but in a picture he appears to have a shaved head.

Recommendation? The Underneath has the most misleading dust-jacket copy I’ve seen on a children’s novel this year, which begins: “A calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the lonely howl of a chained-up hound deep in the backwaters of the bayou. She dares to find him in the forest, and the hound dares to befriend this cat, this feline, this creature he is supposed to hate.” Strictly speaking, that is accurate. But it gives a poor sense of what you will find in this book, which is not a sweet story about a cat and dog. Librarian Elizabeth Bird got it right when she warned that if you know children who can’t read Charlotte’s Web because they find Charlotte’s death too disturbing, “boy oh boy is this NOT the book for them.”

Read an excerpt.

Editor: Caitlyn Dlouhy

Published: May 2008

Furthermore: The Underneath was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature. It won a 2009 Newbery Honor Book citation from the American Library Association. The Underneath is the first novel by Appelt, who has also written picture books for children.

Note: I haven’t read the 2009 Newbery winner, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, so I can’t compare it to The Underneath. If you’ve read both novels, can you suggest what it has that Appelt’s book doesn’t? Or recommend a recent Honor Book that might have more to offer 8-to-12-year-olds? Thanks. Jan

One-Minute Book Reviews is the home of the annual Delete Key awards for the year’s worst writing in books for adults or children. The 2009 finalists will be announced on Feb. 26 and the winners on March 15. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these posts.

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

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

December 10, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda — Dewey Is Not Marley

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:47 am
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My library wouldn’t let me take out the story of Dewey the Library Cat today because I owe $38 in fines. I was willing to pay the fines, but the library refused to take my money. A staff member said I have to bring my overdue books back first. Apparently I am the literary equivalent of a drunk who has had so many accidents, she can’t get bail until she goes into rehab.

I read bits and pieces of the book before my privileges got cut off, and here is my opinion of Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World (Grand Central, 288 pp., $19.99), the No. 1 bestseller by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter. Dewey is not Marley, because Vicki Myron is not John Grogan. Not close. And Marley was a bad, bad dog. Dewey was a good, good cat that, as a kitten, got dropped into a metal after-hours book-deposit slot at a library in Iowa on a freezing winter night.

Dewey a sweet memoir by the librarian who found him the next day with frostbite, and I might give it to a couple of people for Christmas. But I had the feeling that after 50 pages or so, you’d wish this cat would show a little of Marley’s spirit and start destroying priceless first editions of The Son Also Rises. What would the visitors to Dewey’s Facebook page think of that idea www.facebook.com/pages/Dewey/34303826286?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 11, 2008

‘Katie Loves the Kittens’ – A Picture Book for Children Who Have Been Scolded for Being Too Affectionate With a Pet or New Sibling

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:06 am
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I haven’t seen John Himmelman’s new picture book, Katie Loves the Kittens (Holt, 30 pp., $16.95). But Meghan Cox Gurdon, who is usually right about these things, said in the Wall Street Journal: “On the face of it, this delightful story for children ages 3–8 tells how a small, exuberant dog named Katie must learn to curb her boisterousness in order to earn the trust of three kittens who have just arrived in her household. Subtly, it also works as a parable for any child who has ever been scolded for being too bouncily affectionate with a pet or newborn sibling.” Read Gurdon’s review at online.wsj.com/article/SB122307253831303537.html and about Himmelman at us.macmillan.com/author/johnhimmelman.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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