One-Minute Book Reviews

September 20, 2011

‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ – The Book on the Blockbuster

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“When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful.” – Alexander McQueen

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. By Andrew Bolton with contributions by Susannah Frankel and Tim Blanks. Photographs by Sølve Sundsbø. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 240 pp., $45.

By Janice Harayda

Americans know Alexander McQueen mainly through the wedding dress his design firm created after his death for Kate Middleton, a gown demure except for its plunging neckline. But he made his name with clothes that took more risks – anatomically correct bodices, trousers that showed “bum cleavage,” a jacket imprinted with an image from the painting The Thief to the Left of Christ. On the cover of this catalog for a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a hologram turns a portrait of McQueen into a skull. It’s visual metaphor not just for his suicide at the age of 40 but for the difficulty of pinning down a man who made armadillo-shaped shoes fanciful enough for Lady Gaga and hand-carved wooden leg prostheses practical enough for a Paralympics champion.

The cover of 'Alexander McQueen,' left, and a red silk coat over a dress of ivory silk tulle from the designer's 'The Girl Who Lived in the Tree' collection, 2008-2009

Alexander McQueen suggests but does reconcile the contradictions of its subject. The London-born McQueen had Scottish roots and professed to deplore the romanticizing of the land of his ancestors. But he created romantic clothes for collections that invoked two of the greatest tragedies in Scottish history. In “Highland Rape,” he used luxurious, torn fabrics as a lament for the eviction of thousands of Scots from their lands during the Highland Clearances, an event he called “genocide.” And in “Widows of Culloden” he embellished tartans with jet beads in memory of the dead in the 1746 battle. If Scottish history isn’t romantic, why honor it with “romantic” clothes? If the Clearances were genocide, what makes “Highland Rape” morally better than designs inspired by Nazi death camps? Any beauty in the clothes co-opts the tragedies that gave rise to them. It’s as though Ralph Lauren’s more aggressive and ghoulish younger brother had created collections called “Antietam” and “Widows of 9/11.”

McQueen’s contractions may reflect his early work as a costume-cutter for London shows that included, he says, Les Misérables. Many of his designs, such as a winged, hooded dress made of black duck feathers, suit the stage better than the street. They look more like costumes than clothes, even for women who attend events that justify spending $20,000 for a gown. And unlike Middleton’s wedding dress, they are memorable less for their elegance than for their theatricality. Conventional elegance seems to have held little interest for McQueen, who said he wanted to “empower” women by making people afraid of them: “When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful.” Middleton showed courage in choosing the firm of a designer who once said of his runway shows: “I don’t want to do a cocktail party. I’d rather people left my shows and vomited.”

Best line: A quote from McQueen: “[I design from the side,] that way I get the worst angle of the body. You’ve got all the lumps and bumps, the S-bend of the back, the bum. That way I get a cur and proportion and silhouette that works all the way round the body.”

Worst line: More quotes from McQueen: “I hate it when people romanticize Scotland. There’s nothing romantic about its history.” And this one about “Highland Rape”: “Fundamentally, this collection is luxurious, romantic but melancholic and austere at the same time.”

Recommendation? This book doesn’t include a photo or information on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, so it’s not for anyone who is looking for those things. But it could make a good gift for people — and there were many of them — who couldn’t get into the Met show or spend as much time as they wanted there.

Published: May 31, 2011

Furthermore: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was the eighth most popular show in the history of the Met and drew more visitors than any exhibit mounted by its Costume Intsitute. Holland Cotter reviewed the show for the New York Times. The blog for the museum includes a brief video about McQueen and photographs of some of the clothes it displayed, which appear in the catalog.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 26, 2011

Paul Gallico’s ‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ — A London Cleaning Woman Pursues Her Dream of a Dior Dress

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“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.”

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris & Mrs. Harris Goes to New York: The Adventures of Mrs. Harris. Bloomsbury, 320 pp., £7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Good fairy tales are hard to write. Good fairy tales for adults are even harder. And good fairy tales about sixtyish widows are next to impossible. Young characters may pursue reckless dreams without looking foolish because they don’t know enough of life to see the absurdity of their goals. Older protagonists get fewer free passes. A middle-aged character may look ridiculous on a quest that would seem natural for a 20-year-old.

Paul Gallico avoids such pitfalls and invests a graying dreamer with warmth and buoyancy in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a novella first published in 1958. He writes of a London charwoman who leads a life tightly bound by poverty and the English class system. Ada Harris is nearing 60 but has seen less of the world than many teenagers. And if her inexperience leads to missteps, her work gives her dignity.  A penniless widow, she cleans homes of the higher-born in Belgravia for the equivalent of 45 cents an hour, 10 hours a day, 52 weeks a year.

One day Mrs. Harris sees a Dior haute couture gown in the closet of a client and resolves to have one like it. She wants one simply for its beauty, not because she hopes it will help her find a new husband or gain social cachet. Or, as she puts it, “it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.” Having acquired the desire, she pursues it by sacrificing almost everything that brings her pleasure – movies, newspapers, trips to the corner pub – despite costly setbacks.

When she finally reaches the House of Dior in Paris, Mrs. Harris faces another hurdle. She learns that she must stay in the city until seamstresses can make her dress. Without money for a hotel, she seems thwarted, until her kindness and resolve captivate the Dior employees who help her reach her goal – a group that includes a lovelorn model and a lonely auditor besotted with her.

All of this might have amounted to so much marzipan had the story ended there. But after she returns to London, Mrs. Harris suffers a further ordeal that gives her tale a twist ending and reveals its larger purpose. A story that at first resembles a light-hearted, Cockney-accented adventure turns into a parable about the human desire for beauty and the many forms beauty takes. What matters more, Gallico asks, a tangible or intangible treasure?

The book gives unambiguous answer that avoids the saccharine twaddle of the books of authors like Mitch Albom or Robert James Waller. You might read all of Albom and Waller without finding a phrase as amusing and well-turned as Gallico’s comment that Mrs. Harris found Paris “the most degeneratively civilized city in the world.” Or without reading passage like one that describes the heroine’s first meal in a French home:

“Mrs. Harris had never tasted caviar before, or pâté de foie gras fresh from Strasbourg, but she very quickly got used to them both, as well as the lobster from the Pas-de-Calais and the eels from Lorraine in jelly. There was charcuterie from Normandy, a whole cold roast poulet de Bresse along with crispy skinned duck from Nantes. There was a Chassagné-Montrachet with the lobster and hors d’oeuvres, champagne with the caviar and Beaune Romanée with the fowl, while an Yquem decorated the chocolate cake.

“Mrs. Harris ate for the week before, for this and the next as well.”

The description of the meal is good, but the line that follows gives it punch and a tinge of bittersweetness. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris may be sentimental, but unlike many 21st-century bestsellers, it is not just sentimental. It describes a woman who has spent a lifetime earning her right to dream. And Gallico is such a good storyteller, his book is made, like a couture dress, without a dropped stitch.

Best line: Paris was “the most degenerately civilized city in the world.”

Worst line: “Mrs. Harris waggled her rear end more comfortably into the bench to enjoy a jolly good gossip.” Gallico comes close to making unintended fun of Mrs. Harris here. And other characters tend to view Mrs. Harris in a way that reflects the views of their day (the “little Englishwoman”).

Recommendation: Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris was written for adults, but it sweetness may appeal also to teenagers.

About the author: Gallico also wrote The Snow Goose (Knopf, 1941 and 2007), named the novel most deserving of rediscovery in a 2009 BBC contest.

Published: 1958 (first edition), Bloomsbury paperback (2010).

If you like Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, you may like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

Furthermore: Bloomsbury has reissued Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris in the same volume as a sequel, Mrs. Harris Goes to New York. It first appeared in the U.K. under the title Flowers for Mrs. Harris and in the U.S. as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris. Angela Lansbury starred in a 1992 made-for-TV movie version, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

September 26, 2010

A Middle-School Student Auditions for a Music Video ‘Cinderella Cleaners: Rock & Role,’ a Preteen Series Set in Weehawken, NJ

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An eighth-grader likes clothes, music and acting, but not having a stepmother

Cinderella Cleaners #3: Rock & Role. By Maya Gold. Scholastic, 173 pp., $5.99 paperback. Ages 8–11.

By Janice Harayda

Are stereotypes of stepmothers making a comeback? You might wonder after dipping into a new preteen-fiction series about a middle-school student who helps out at her family’s dry cleaning shop in Weehawken, NJ.

Thirteen-year-old Diana Donato loves clothes, music, acting and her three best friends. But she wishes her kind-hearted father had never married her stepmother, Fay, who “always says no.”

In Rock & Role, Diana gets a chance to try out for a music video when, on her way to make a delivery for Cinderella Cleaners, she meets a 16-year-old pop star. Will her stepmother thwart her hopes? Fay is so bland that she turns out to be less of an obstacle than the questionable judgment Diana sometimes shows while pursuing a role in the video.

But the outcome is never really in doubt. Rock & Role is Cinderella story on more than one level. Apart from her unwelcome stepmother and her overindulged stepsisters, Diana has a counterpart to the industrious mice in Cinderella – a friendly tailor at Cinderella Cleaners who whips up a vest for her to wear in the video. Rock & Role is also as sanitized as 1950s Disney movie, a novel free of sex, profanity and descriptions of the adolescent body changes that some preteens have been reading about for years in Judy Blume. And yet, on its own terms – which are the terms of literary fast food – it has more going for it many similar books. Diana is an upbeat, hardworking eighth-grader who has goals and faith in her ability to achieve them. She knows brand names – Converse, Hollister, iPod – without being obsessed with them. Her friends aren’t mean-spirited.

Even so, you wish Maya Gold had tried harder to avoid stereotypes, and not just of evil stepmothers. Diana’s friend Sara Parvati, whose family comes from India, gets straight A’s in school. Literary images of brainy Asian children may not be damaging as ethic slurs, but they’re still stereotypes. And equal opportunity won’t exist in children’s books until young Indian, Korean and Japanese characters have the same freedom that others do – the right, at times, to be mediocre students.

Best line: “Now it’s like we’re stuck halfway out on this wobbly bridge between Just Friends and We’re Going Out …”

Worst line: “Sara gets straight A’s and once won a regional spelling bee.” Again, are any Asians in children’s fiction not brainy (or, alternately, computer geeks)?

Published: June 2010

Furthermore: Other books in the Cinderella Cleaners series include Change of a Dress and Prep Cool (both published by Scholastic, April 2010), and Mask Appeal (Scholastic, August, 2010).

You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

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

March 7, 2010

New Yorker Film Critic Anthony Lane on Oscar-Night Clothes — ‘The Men Always Let Their Ladies Down …’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:34 am
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Film critic Anthony Lane writes of the 1996 Oscar ceremony in an article reprinted in Nobody’s Perfect: Writings From The New Yorker (Vintage, 2002):

“We saw a fine parade of Empire lines and silk sheaths, and by far the most impressive array of natural greens since Linda Blair showed off the highlights of her supper in The Exorcist. There was peppermint, aquamarine, verdigris, iceberg, eau-de-nil, and a lemon-and-lime special from Marc Winningham. There were pinkish grays so soft and subtle that onlookers were reminded of the furring found on unclean kettles. Then there was Susan Sarandon’s Dolce & Gabbana ball gown, a sort of one-night stand between chocolate and bronze; it exactly matched the hue of her hair, though which came first was a matter of urgent debate.

“She was accompanied by Tim Robbins, whose jacket was scaly, sharkish, and distressingly similar to what he wore last year. How can a guy of such evident sense, whose movies are a rebuff to bad glitz, opt on an annual basis for a garment that was apparently woven overnight from a few strands of crude oil? The men always let their ladies down on Oscar night. Hollywood is essentially unable to grasp that the great advantage of a dinner jacket is that it is, in essence, a uniform. The basics are unwavering, the variations minimal. When you are asked to wear black tie, do not take this as a concealed excuse not to wear black tie. Do not be tempted by the current fad that omits the tie altogether in favor of a single black stud. You may find this sexy, but to the watching world it appears that you have leapt up from an emergency tracheotomy to attend the show.”

October 21, 2008

Librarian-Approved Gift Books for a Cook, a Baker, and a Fashionista, Including a Gift Book That Dares to Answer the Question, ‘What Are Spanx?’

A Project Runway judge praises that “life-altering” product — Spanx pantyhose — in The One-Hundred

Oh, joy. Just back from the library with an armload of 2008 coffee-table books I’m going to check out as potential holiday gifts.

One of the challenges of running this site is that because I don’t take free books from publishers, I no longer routinely see all those fat coffee-table toppers that appear at this time of year, as I did at Glamour and the Plain Dealer. I can get almost everything else from the library and other sources. But the gift books are the killer. So many are too expensive for libraries – especially given their vulnerability to theft – and for me.

This week I was lucky. I went to the library soon after it had put out some of the coffee-table books the staff bought this year. Here are three that I’m reading with an eye to whether they might make good gifts. All were among the 2008 books bought by the staff at a suburban library that the American Library Association has named one of the country’s 10 best:

The Christmas Table: Recipes and Crafts to Create Your Own Holiday Tradition (Chronicle, 239 pp., $19.95, paperback) by Diane Morgan. Photographs by E. J. Armstrong. Take that “crafts” in the subtitle lightly. This book has only 13 pages of craft ideas, and one calls for safety goggles and an electric drill, needed to make lighted glass blocks. (The instructions include the slightly ominous note, “This will take a few minutes, so be patient.”) But The Christmas Table is attractive and, at less than $20, reasonably priced for a gift book. It has a suggested menu and recipes for “Christmukkah – the hybrid holiday meal,” which blends Christian and Jewish traditions in dishes such as “Fa-La-La-La Latkes.” www.dianemorgancooks.com

Professional Baking: Fifth Edition (Wiley, 770 pp., $65) by Wayne Gisslen. Photographs by J. Gerard Smith. Foreword by André J. Cointreau. This encyclopedic cookbook has more than 900 recipes for serious home bakers as well as professionals. Published in cooperation with the Le Cordon Bleu cooking schools, it gives U.S. and metric equivalents for ingredients and tells how to adapt them for large-quantity measurements. The book retains its focus on classic techniques. But the fifth edition has a new chapter on “baking for special diets, including low-fat, low-sugar, gluten-free, and dairy-free diets.” Bet that Ciabatta on page 147 and those cream cheese brownies on page 512 would taste better than your supermarket’s. www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/Section/id-311193.html

The One Hundred: A Guide to the Pieces Every Stylish Woman Must Own (Collins Living, 284 pp., $21.95) by Nina Garcia. Illustrations by Ruben Toledo. This book is a brand-name–strewn wallow in consumerism by a judge for Project Runway – you apparently “must own” diamond studs even if your ears aren’t pierced – raised to a higher power by the stylish illustrations on nearly every page. The title is somewhat misleading: The One Hundred is less about what all women need to own than about a hit parade of basics and why they endure: the pea coat, wrap dress, pearl necklace, striped sailor shirt, Wellington boot (“the Royal Family always wears the classic green version for mucking about in the country”). Among the newer items in the book: Spanx, “a life-altering, footless, control-top panty hose that should be warn whenever a woman wants to appear a size smaller.” Bet the teenage boys at the library will like the picture for that one as much as the one for the push-up bra. www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061664618/The_One_Hundred/index.aspx

Other holiday gift ideas will appear later this year. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

September 19, 2008

Wedding Gowns That AREN’T Strapless – A Book With More Than 200 Ideas

Brides are getting the cold shoulder from fashion designers. Strapless wedding gowns have become so popular that the mother of a recent bride told me you can find little else in many stores. And if bare shoulders don’t flatter your body type or you’re getting married in December in a church with iffy heating, you might need to design your own dress or spend extra time looking for one. Either way, you’ll find a bouquet of ideas for nonstrapless gowns in Philip Delamore’s The Perfect Wedding Dress (Firefly, $35). This handsome coffee table book has more than 300 photos of elegant gowns, only about three dozen of them strapless, worn by celebrities and others. If you’ve vowed to keep your shoulders covered for the ceremony, you’ll discover that you have lots of company among the brides who appear in the book in their wedding dresses. Among them: Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Jennifer Lopez, Liv Tyler and Princess Diana. You can read more about Delamore and The Perfect Wedding Dress here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/07/.

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

June 8, 2008

Men’s Ties With a Book Design — A Father’s Day Gift for a Reader

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Back in December, I suggested as a holiday gift the Josh Bach men’s ties with a book design available for $38 from the online catalog for the shop at the Los Angeles Public Library. These subtle and attractive silk ties avoid the cuteness of many club ties. So if you’re looking for a Father’s Day gift for a serious reader, you may want to visit the catalog at the Library Store at the Los Angeles Public Library www.lfla.org/cgi-bin/store/0943.htm. When you give one of these to Dad, you’re giving a double gift — the tie and the knowledge that he’s helping to support a great library system. The Josh Bach Book Tie could also make a good end-of-the-year thank-you gift for teachers and tutors. The library will gift-wrap the tie for $2.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 26, 2008

A Librarian-Approved Graphic Novel for Teenagers (And Maybe You)

Filed under: Novels,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:16 pm
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Looking for graphic novels for a teenager? Take a look at Boston Bibliophile, a blog by a librarian named Marie who reviews graphic novels every Monday. First in her weekly series was Breaking Up: A Fashion High Graphic Novel (Scholastic, 192 pp., $9.99, paperback) by Aimee Friedman with art by Christine Norrie. I haven’t read the book, but Marie calls it a “charming story” about friendship that may appeal not just to teenage girls but to some adults. (It has sexual content that probably makes it “inappropriate for younger kids”). “To say this book is light reading is an understatement, but I found it really enjoyable nonetheless,” she adds. “Friedman does a great job of showing what high school can be like — passing notes, hanging out with friends, crushes, parties.” Click her to read the review www.bostonbibliophile.com.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 25, 2007

Why Does This Picture-Book Cover Work? Elizabeth Matthews’s ‘Different Like Coco’

The latest in a series of occasional posts that rate the covers of books recently reviewed on this site

By Janice Harayda

The covers of children’s books often fail for the same reasons that the covers of adult books do: They’re dull, clichéd or too pallid to stand out at a bookstore or library. Or they tell you too little about a book or, worse, aggressively misrepresent the contents. And if they’re about people – instead of one of those riveting topics like Let’s Read and Find Out About Flypaper or My First Book About Dandruff – they may stereotype their subjects as nakedly as all those pink covers on novels marketed to women in their 20s and 30s.

Elizabeth Matthews avoids all those problems on the cover of Different Like Coco (Candlewick, $16.99, ages 4 and up) www.candlewick.com, which combines a pen-and-ink drawing with the artful use of watercolors. This picture-book biography of the fashion designer Coco Chanel sports a witty illustration of its subject in a brown-black dress on a yellow background with the title in an interesting copper-colored script. And it works beautifully for several reasons:

1. It has real “pop.” Put Different Like Coco on any bookstore or library shelf and it will stand out among its shelf-mates because of its strong design. It doesn’t need the special effects that make so many books look more like toys – lots of glitter, metallic images and overengineering in the form of punched-out or see-through spaces.

2. The image of Coco Chanel points to the right, or to the pages instead of the spine. This is so basic that no critic should have to mention it. In most cases you want to focus children’s attention where it will encourage them to open a book (though there are some notable exceptions that succeed). But a striking number of picture books ignore such fundamental design principles.

3. The cover represents both the book and its subject accurately and nonstereotypically (without a sea of pink). Chanel designed simple, unfussy clothes with flair. This is a simple, unfussy cover with flair. Matthews’ art reflects the spirit of Chanel’s designs so well that you might guess the subject of her book before you read the title. But the cover isn’t so sophisticated that it will appeal to adults more than children. The comic exaggeration (and that dog) will take care of that.

Some people might argue that Chanel’s arms look anorexic. But in the context of the book, the pencil-slim arms are clearly intended as a stylistic exaggeration and also appear on women with bodies of operatic proportions.

The only other thing might strike you as odd about this cover is that Matthews’s name appears in a much smaller font than you usually see for authors of her caliber. That’s because this is her first book. The general rule in publishing is: The bigger the author, the larger the font for his or her name relative to the font for the title (though less so for children’s books than others). Stephen King’s name, for example, appears on his covers in a larger font than the title of the book. It’s a safe bet that as Matthews’s reputation increases, the size of her name on the cover will, too.

The original review of Different Like Coco appeared on Oct. 21, 2007, www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/21/. You may also want to read a comment in yesterday’s post (Oct. 23) by lisamm, who says perceptive things about this cover, including the Chanel has her head held high.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 24, 2007

Is This a Good Book Cover or Bad? A Review of the Cover of ‘Different Like Coco’ Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

You see hundreds or thousands of book covers — at least in your peripheral vision — every time you enter a bookstore or library, and they probably influence what you pick up and maybe buy or take to the checkout desk. But how much do you really know about why they work or don’t work?

Last week I wrote about why Katha Pollitt’s new essay collection, Learning to Drive, is a good book with a cover that doesn’t serve it well (Oct. 16 and 17). Tomorrow I’ll consider the cover of Elizabeth Matthews’s picture book about Coco Chanel for ages 4 and up, Different Like Coco, which I reviewed on Oct. 21 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/21/ and also liked. This book is undoubtedly one that the judges for the 2008 Caldecott Medal will look at when they meet to select the winners in January, partly because there are so few good picture-book biographies for children under age 9 that the American Library Association www.ala.org rarely has a chance to honor them. What might the Caldecott committee say? Good cover or bad? Can you give three reasons why the cover works or doesn’t? Check back tomorrow to see if your reasons agree with mine.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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