One-Minute Book Reviews

February 12, 2008

Do Love Stories ‘Give Love a Bad Name’? Quote of the Day (Jeffrey Eugenides)

“Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.”

Jeffrey Eugenides in the introduction to the new My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories, From Chekhov to Munro (Harper, 587 pp., $24.95) www.harpercollins.com, which he edited, as quoted by Moira Hodgson in “The Puzzle of Love,” the Wall Street Journal, Feb. 9–10, 2008 online.wsj.com/article/SB120251134693455033.html?mod=2_1167_1.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 1, 2008

Diary: Barbara Pym’s ‘Good Books for Bad Days’

[This is the first in an occasional series of brief posts on books or authors whose work I can’t review at more length. The posts will be saved in the “Diary” category.]

A soggy morning in New Jersey. The chilly rain reminded me of a comment often made about the novels of Barbara Pym – they’re “good books for bad days.” They’re good books for good days, too.

Pym (1913–1980) had suffered more than her share of rejection until, in the 1970s, the Times Literary Supplement asked well-known writers to name the most underrated writer of the 20th century. After years of neglect by the British literary establishment, Pym was the only writer nominated by two of the authors, the poet Philip Larkin and the biographer David Cecil. Their praise, especially Larkin’s, sparked a revival of interest in her work that has abated slightly in the U.S. but has never disappeared.

I’ve read five or six of Pym’s quiet novels of English life and admire their modesty, intelligence and low-keyed irony. No writer would be less likely to give a book the sort of bombastic title — Everything Is Illuminated, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I Am America (And So Can You) — that is fashionable today. And each of her novels involves circumstances different enough to keep them from becoming repetitive despite their similarlarities of tone. Excellent Women is about a group of single women who, though young, are verging on what used to be called spinsterhood. Quartet in Autumn deals with the enmeshed lives of four friends, male and female, who are facing retirement. An Unsuitable Attachment explores the effects of a single woman’s attraction to a younger man. And The Sweet Dove Died is about the losses of middle age and beyond, especially menopause (though Pym is too discreet to use the word).

Where will I start when I return to Pym en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Pym? Excellent Women is among the wittiest of her novels, so I might begin there if I needed reliable diversion on a day when the weather was hoarding its comforts – a day, in other words, like today.

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

January 29, 2008

What Is Style in Writing? Quote of the Day (Joseph Epstein)

Perhaps no aspect of writing is as misunderstood as style. Many people confuse it with decoration or following rules laid down by experts such as E. B. White and William Strunk, Jr. in The Elements of Style. What is style if it is neither of those? Joseph Epstein writes in Literary Genius, which includes an essay on the Edward Gibbon by David Womersley:

“Style, it needs to be understood, is never ornamentation or a matter of choice of vocabulary or amusing linguistic tics or mannerisms. Style, in serious writing, is a way of seeing, and literary geniuses, who see things in a vastly different way than the rest of us, usually require a vastly different style. As Edward Gibbon wrote on style (quoted by David Womersley in his essay): ‘The style of an author should be the image of his mind.’”

Joseph Epstein in the introduction to the new Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature, selected and edited by Joseph Epstein with wood engravings by Barry Moser (Paul Dry Books, 246 pp., $18.95, paperback), www.pauldry.com. Epstein edited the American Scholar, has written 19 books and contributes to The New Yorker and other magazines. Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford.

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

January 27, 2008

Coming Saturday — A Review of ‘The Bearskinner’ by Laura Amy Schlitz and Max Grafe

Laura Amy Schlitz proved that she could capture the attention of ages 10 and up with her novel A Drowned Maiden’s Hair and her cycle of one- and two-person plays, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, winner of the 2008 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association. But can she write for younger children? On Saturday One-Minute Book Reviews will review her recent picture book, The Bearskinner, a retelling of a tale by the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Max Grafe.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 18, 2008

‘The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century,’ Edited by Elizabeth Diefendorf

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:28 am
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Which books did the most to shape the modern world?

Mein Kampf and The Cat in the Hat made the cut. The Godfather and The Polar Express didn’t.

As part of its 1995 centennial, the New York Public Library asked its staff to name the most influential books of the past hundred years. The answers inspired The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century (Oxford University Press, $24.95), edited by Elizabeth Diefendorf and illustrated by Diana Bryan, a collection of 204 one-page descriptions of some of the frequently nominated titles and a companion volume to a popular exhibit. And the result could have been a snorer, given that it includes the United Nations Charter and Albert Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity.

But Diefendorf has defined “influential” broadly enough to include Carrie, Invisible Man, Winnie-the-Pooh, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Joy of Cooking. And the descriptions in this 1997 book are generally apt and pithy and at times amusing in retrospect. “The filthiest book I have ever read,” John Gordon of the London Sunday Express wrote of Lolita. “Sheer unrestrained pornography.”

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

December 18, 2007

Why Does ‘A Christmas Carol’ Work So Well As a Holiday Story? Quote of the Day (Jane Smiley)

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — a sentimental novella about the redemption of a miser — could easily have turned to drivel. Why didn’t it? Here’s an answer from the novelist Jane Smiley:

A Christmas Carol, like Martin Chuzzlewit, concerns itself with the social ramifications of selfishness, but the characters of young Martin and old Martin are combined in that of Ebenezer Scrooge, and his moral journey, which takes place in three acts in one night, has the force of a revelation rather than the tedium of a lengthy trek by ox-drawn wagon. Some of the narrative had its origins in one of Dickens’s own vivid dreams, and surely the idea of of using dreams as a structural device had its origins there as well …

“But what makes A Christmas Carol work — what makes it so appealing a novella that William Makepeace Thackeray, Dickens’s most self-conscious literary rival, called it ‘a national benefit’ — is the lightness of Dickens’s touch. Instead of hammering his points home, as he does in Martin Chuzzlewit, he is content (or more content) to let his images speak for themselves.”

Jane Smiley in Charles Dickens: A Penguin Life (Viking/Lipper, $19.95) www.penguinputnam.com. Smiley’s novels include A Thousand Acres www.randomhouse.com, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

For more on Dickens, visit the site for the Dickens Fellowship www.dickensfellowship.org, a 105-year-old organization based at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, which has chapters throughout the U.S. and world.

The “Christmas Carol” in the title of Dickens’s novella is “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” which mentioned in the story. To listen to it, click here http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/g/o/godrest.htm.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 13, 2007

Gifts for Readers — Sterling Silver ‘Cat in the Hat’ and Beatrix Potter Ornaments From Hand & Hammer

[This week I'm running extra posts, in addition to reviews, on suggested gifts for readers. No kickbacks from the sellers. These are just gifts I like. Museums sell these ornaments, but I couldn't find any in the U.S. that had them in stock, so I'm listing other suppliers.]

My favorite Christmas decorations include these sterling silver Cat in the Hat and Peter Rabbit ornaments. Each is part of a series with scenes or characters from books by Dr. Seuss or Beatrix Potter (also available as charms and, in some cases, brooches). I first saw the Peter Rabbit ornaments in the gift shop at Hilltop, Potter’s home in the English Lake District, part of the Britain’s National Trust. In the U.S., you can order them for about $45 each from the venerable Hand & Hammer Silversmiths www.handandhammer.com, which also has the Seuss ornaments. This venerable Virginia company has made presentation silver for every president since John F.Kennedy, who received copies of Paul Revere’s lanterns for the Oval Office. I’ve ordered from its vast selection of sterling silver ornaments without problems. If you’re interested in a Seuss ornament, you might also try Seussland www.seussland.com, which has a good selection.

The ornaments shown are “The Cat in the Hat,” left, and “Mrs.Rabbit and Her children,” right, both from the Hand & Hammer Silversmiths online catalog.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 7, 2007

Remembering Pearl Harbor in Books, Movies and Music

The day that Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy” also lives in libraries, bookstores and on the Web

By Janice Harayda

The English language goes down with the USS Arizona in Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen’s Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, $25.95), a novel that offers a Japanese view of (and an alternate ending to) the attack that brought the U.S. into World War II. So if you’re interested in this one, you may want to head for the library or wait for the paperback due out on April 15.

I haven’t read the classic Pearl Harbor novel, James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, but it’s been praised by tough critics, including Joan Didion (and I enjoyed Frank Sinatra’a Academy Award-winning performance in the movie version, which also won the Oscar for “Best Picture”). Jones saw the attack on Pearl Harbor while serving as an infantryman in Hawaii and drew on his war experiences in the book.

The most memorable quote I’ve read about the attack came from Winston Churchill, who said that after the bombing, he “slept like a baby” for the first time in months because he knew that U.S. had entered the war at last. Alas, I’ve read so many biographies of Churchill that I can’t remember where it appeared. But a related quote appears Winston Churchill: Penguin Lives Series (Penguin, $19.95), a good short life of Britian’s wartime prime minister by John Keegan, the distinguished military historian. Keegan quotes Churchill as saying after Pearl Harbor, “So we had won after all!”

To listen to the Navy Hymn played at the funerals of the sailors who died at Pearl Harbor (and also at that of FDR), click here www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/e/t/eternalf.htm. Put on your headphones if you’re in a library, because you’ll hear the music as soon as you click.

Other links: To read the review of Pearl Harbor posted on this site on July 30, 2007, click here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/07/30/. You’ll find praise for Gingrich’s novel on the publisher’s site www.thomasdunnebooks.com. You can read about James Jones at www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Jones and about From Here to Eternity at www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/From_Here_to_Eternity. You can learn about the movie version of Jones’s novel and watch the trailer at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) at www.imdb.com/title/tt0045793/. And there’s more on Keegan’s life of Churchill at http://us.penguingroup.com/nf/Theme/ThemePage/0,,634125,00.html

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 29, 2007

Raise the Drawbridge and Lower the Portcullis! It’s David Macaulay’s Captivating ‘Castle’

A Caldecott Honor Book about the making of a medieval castle in Wales still appeals to children three decades after its publication

By Janice Harayda

This afternoon I found myself in the children’s section of our library with an 8-year-old friend whose mother had agreed to let me to pick out a book for him while she visited the adult stacks. The book I thought Cory might like wasn’t on the shelves. But David Macaulay’s wonderful picture books about the making of large structures – Cathedral, Pyramid, Castle and the new Mosque – stood near its spot.

Cory loves to read – especially The Invention of Hugo Cabret – but hadn’t seen these treasures, which helped to win a MacArthur grant for their creator. So I pulled a few of Macaulay’s books off the shelves and handed them to him. Cory gravitated right away to a picture of how a drawbridge works in Castle (Houghton Mifflin, 74 pages, $9.95 paperback, ages 7 and up), a Caldecott Honor Book about the construction of a medieval castle in Wales.

So I returned him to his mother with three of Macaulay’s books and checked back later. Cory was still poring over Castle – specifically, a picture of soldiers who seemed to be underground. I wondered if they were digging a moat. But Cory pointed to a witty drawing of several of their comrades, who were to trying to reach the ramparts. He explained that if “the enemy” couldn’t scale the castle walls, they tried to tunnel their way in. This he had just learned from the book.

I don’t know if every child reacts this way to Macaulay, a superstar in the field. But by now millions must have been captivated by his intelligent texts and intricate and amusing black-and-white cross-hatched drawings. And Castle, first published in 1977, makes an especially good introduction to his work, because it feeds interests kindled in children by fairy and folk tapes. Houghton Mifflin recommends it for 10-to-14-year-olds, but I’d give it to 7-to-9-year-olds and let them grow into it if they’re not quite ready. The pictures will draw in the younger children even if some words are unfamiliar. Just ask Cory.

Links: www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Macaulay and www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com

Increased library use helps libraries justify requests for increased funding. It also helps to keep libraries open. Please support public libraries by using them regularly.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 31, 2007

Reconsidering Azar Nafisi’s ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’

I’m severely computer-deprived this week and posting from the library, so some reviews may omit a few things you typically see at the end, such as the best and worst lines in the book.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. By Azar Nafisi. Random House, 384 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This overrated memoir is the kind of book that critics tend to love, a reminder that literature can glow in the darkest of regimes — in this case, that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Azar Nafisi taught a secret class in the Western clasics to seven female students. But Nafisi is right when she writes in this overrated memoir that she is at times “too much of an academic”: “I have written too many papers and articles to be able to turn my experiences and ideas into narratives without pontificating.” As she describes her students’ responses to novels such as Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby, Nafisi slips into cliches and vapid acdemic locutions such as, “It is not an accident that …” Like a scholarly Nostradamus, she informs us that “it is not an accident that” the heroine of Washington Square wore a red satin dress at her first meeting with a dishonorable suitor, as though such a detail were ever an accident in Henry James’s novels.

Published: 2003 www.randomhouse.com

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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