One-Minute Book Reviews

August 8, 2009

Caldecott Medalist Richard Egielski Returns in a Picture Book About a Famous Musical Rift – Jonah Winter’s ‘The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan’

A  dual biography focuses on the creation of The Mikado

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan. By Jonah Winter. Pictures by Richard Egielski. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 4–6.

By Janice Harayda

Why do publishers bombard us with book-and-CD editions of books that don’t need them and fail to issue them when they might do some good? Does anybody really need that book-and-CD edition of Curious George Goes Camping? C’mon.

But a disk could have added a lot this slightly fictionalized dual biography of the librettist W.S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan, which focuses the storied feud between the two men that ended when they reconciled to create their most popular light opera, The Mikado. Nobody can argue that the music involved – The flowers that bloom in the spring, / Tra la! – is too adult for children. So the omission of a CD seems mainly intended to avoid copyright fees or pander to the library market, where the book might sell fewer copies if it included a disk likely to disappear quickly from a pocket.

As it is, Jonah Winter plays Gilbert to Richard Egielski’s Sullivan in The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan. Winter tells a story that, if lively, gets much of its energy from hyper-italicizing and the use of capital letters and exclamation points. “I refuse to write any more music for Mr. Gilbert’s ridiculous operas,” Sullivan says. “It’s always the same ridiculous story, over and over over again!” Winter also invests his tale with a whiff of didacticism as he pursues two goals — telling the story of the rift and making a point:  “Sometimes even the best friends fight.”

But Egielski supplies the missing music with bold paintings that, like Maurice Sendak’s, evoke a mood not through intensely detailed facial expressions or body language but the imaginative use of such elements as tone, color, whimsy and framing. Winter’s opening lines suggest the appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas in their day:

“There was a time when jolly old England was not so jolly. Children worked in factories. Queen Victoria frowned. Everything was grim. Everything was dark – except … in the make-believe kingdom of Topsy-Turvydom.”

Egielski illustrates this passage with a wonderfully balanced two-page spread that evokes the setting through cutaway images of multistory buildings in the rain. On the left-hand page, children work in a sweatshop as a coronet-topped Victoria rides in a carriage on cobblestones below them. On the right-hand page, just across the street, an actress puts on makeup as theatergoers approach the Savoy with umbrellas raised against oversized raindrops. This is late-Victorian London, rendered in terms a preschooler can grasp. And on it goes in the book, which reaches its climax with a wordless spread showing a scene from a The Mikado that blazes with sunny colors thrown into high relief by the dank weather on the first pages.

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan may have its strongest appeal for Savoyards who want to inspire in a love of Gilbert and Sullivan in children. But unlike many books driven by similar motives, this one has enough drama that it isn’t mainly an appeal to parental vanity and pretense. And an author’s note at the end includes a link to a fantastic Gilbert & Sullivan Web site that has the full text and lets you listen to all the music of the operettas by the pair. (To hear any song from The Mikado music, click on “Mikado,” “MIDI Files,” the title of a song, and the speaker icon.) So even if there’s no CD, you can punctuate readings by singing merrily: “The flowers that bloom in the spring, / Tra la / Have nothing to do with the case.” For some adults, the link to so much beloved music might in itself be worth the cost of the book.

Best line/picture: An example of Eglielski’s imaginative use of frames: On one two-page spread he places his images in two circles against a black background, as though you were looking at them through opera glasses.

Worst line/picture: Winter uses British English inconsistently. He writes “dreamt” instead of “dreamed” but “Savoy Theater” instead of “Savoy Theatre.”

Published: April 2009

Furthermore: Egielski won the 1987 Caldecott Medal for his art for Arthur Yorinks’s Hey, Al. He and Yorinks also collaborated on the new picture book, Homework. Winter lives in Brooklyn, NY. Egielski lives in Milford, NJ. Contact the authors c/o Author Mail, Scholastic Books, 557 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.

Reviews of children’s books appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews, a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

March 2, 2009

Helen Garner’s ‘The Spare Room’ — Cancer Tests a Friendship in a Prize-Winning Australian Novel Written at a 9-Year-Old Reading Level

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:24 am
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A dying woman tests others’ patience when she takes the advice of quacks at a sham clinic

The Spare Room. By Helen Garner. Holt, 192 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

How should we treat terminally ill people who don’t accept that they are dying? Should we support the delusion that they will get better – on the premise that false hope is better than none – or tell the truth?

These questions underlie The Spare Room, a short novel about a friendship between two women in their 60s that is tested when one develops metastatic bowel cancer. After conventional treatments fail, Nicola moves in with Helen for three weeks in order to try the alternative therapies peddled by a sham clinic in Melbourne, Australia: Laetrile, coffee enemas, intravenous vitamin C, and an “ozone sauna” said to promote “sweating out the toxins.” Helen is initially solicitous but runs out of patience as she cares around-the-clock for Nicola, who at first rejects the few remaining medical options that might ease her pain, such as slow-release morphine capsules. Helen’s repressed fury leads to a confrontation in which she cruelly pelts her friend with accusations such as, “I wait on you hand and foot” and “Can’t you use your brains?”

Helen’s frustrations are understandable in the abstract and described in prose as smooth as glass. But The Spare Room never gets below the surface of its characters, perhaps in part because it is written at a 9-year-old reading level, according two widely used measures of readability. How could Helen turn so mean-spirited so fast? Garner would have you believe that the change grew out of the physical and emotional strains of nursing a difficult adult. That’s part of her point: Caring for the dying can turn us into people we don’t recognize.

But many people face such demands more gracefully, and Garner doesn’t make clear why Helen didn’t. The Spare Room works best when it sticks to describing the horrors of Nicola’s cancer: the pain, the night sweats, the crone-like posture. The most credible words in this novel will come as no surprise to anyone who has cared for a dying relative, or watched a World War II movie: “God bless morphine.”

Best line: The opening paragraph: “First, in my spare room, I swiveled the bed onto a north-south axis. Isn’t that supposed to align the sleeper with the planet’s positive energy flow, or something? She would think so. I made it up nicely with a fresh fitted sheet, the pale pink one, since she had a famous feel for color, and pink is flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish.”

Worst line: A comment made Helen’s five-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, who has seen Saddam Hussein on television: “What did he do, Nanna, to make him a baddie?” The “Nanna” in midsentence is stilted. A 5-year-old would be more likely put it at the beginning. And the low reading makes many lines seem dumbed-down.

About the reading level: The Spare Room has a fourth-grade (9-year-old) reading level, according to tests of pages 17–18 and pages 117–118 that used the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics and the Spache Readbility Formula.

Published: February 2009

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Spare Room was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 2, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this review.

About the author: Garner is a novelist and the author of the true-crime books The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, both bestsellers in her native Australia. Her Wikipedia entry lists some of her awards.

Garner talks about The Spare Room in an audio podcast.

One-Minute Book Reviews is the home of the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. A list of the ten 2009 finalists and passages from the books that helped them make the shortlist appeared last week.

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

November 17, 2008

Tuesdays With More Jewelry – The 13 Women You Meet in ‘The Necklace’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 am
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“I told Wayne, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. If you vote for Bush I’ll give you sexual favors.’ I live with a Democrat. What else could I do?’ Men are distracted by their little brain, as we call it.”
— Nancy Huff, who chipped in with 12 other women buy a $15,000 diamond tennis necklace, on her husband, Wayne

The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives. By the Women of Jewelia and Cheryl Jarvis. Ballantine, 240 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Think of this book as Tuesdays With More Jewelry. Or For One More Day With a $15,000 Necklace. Or The 13 Women You Meet in Midlife If You’re Planning to Live to Be 100+.

Mitch Albom doesn’t have a new book out this year, but if you’re having withdrawal symptoms, The Necklace offers an antidote in the form of a variation on the Tuesdays With Morrie formula: Take two or more middle-aged or older people, have them meet regularly, and write about the self-evident truths they say “learned” from their get-togethers.

In this case 13 California women, all in their 50s or early 60s, chipped in to buy a $15,000 diamond tennis necklace and named it Jewelia. Then they took turns keeping it for a month at a time, sometimes lending it to others or using it as a draw for fund-raisers, and wrote a book about their experiences.

The Necklace brims with praise for the benefits of sharing a necklace that has 118 diamonds. One borrower said, “I’d been depressed because I’m overweight, but the necklace made me feel happy.” This is not a practical solution to America’s obesity epidemic.

Even so, The Necklace has more going for it than much of Albom’s fare, chiefly because the sex is better. The owners of the necklace had an understanding: “Each woman, when it’s her time with the necklace, has to make love wearing only the diamonds.” Thus we learn that Nancy Huff gave her husband “sexual favors” in return for a vote for George Bush. (“I live with a Democrat. What else could I do?”) Dale Muegenburg surprised her husband by dressing in schoolgirl porn — “a plaid, pleated miniskirt, a sexy white blouse, and kneesocks” — when they stayed in a dorm at his college reunion.

As proof of what they learned from their purchase, the women offer banalities — including talk about about “second chances” and “the road less traveled” — that hardly seem worth an investment of more than $1,000 apiece. But the bromides don’t count the book, movie and other deals that flowed in after the media heard about their project. And although none of the women acknowledges it, each owner of The Necklace learned something about her death if not about her life: Each woman now knows what the first line of her obituary will be.

Best line: “Men are distracted by their little brain, as we call it.”

Worst line: “Patti didn’t feel the same ecstasy with regard to the group necklace. ‘Diamonds are too common for me.’”

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to The Necklace was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 17, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this review.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Wish I’d written that: Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: “The group unquestionably helps others by using the necklace to raise money for charities and by appreciating the intangible, self-actualizing gifts that can’t be had in jewelry stores.

“But real honesty and insight are antithetical to this book’s experiment. It wants to simultaneously exploit and renounce the same craving. So the diamonds are cannily manipulated throughout The Necklace to both titillate and congratulate readers and to reinforce what they already know.” stores.
www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/books/05book.html?pagewanted=print

Editor: Susan Mercandetti

Published: September 2008

Read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780345500717

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

October 24, 2006

9/11 Widows Learn to Think About the Unthinkable

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:34 am
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First came tragedy. Then came the people who told them, “It could be worse.”

Love You, Mean It: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Friendship. By Patricia Carrington, Julia Collins, Claudia Gerbasi, and Ann Haynes with Eve Charles. Hyperion, 320 pp., $23.95.

Love You, Mean It came out just before the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, so you might be tempted to view it as strictly a post-mortem on that tragedy. It works much better as memoir of traumatic loss, that unique form of grief that occurs when you have no time to prepare emotionally for a death.

The authors of Love You, Mean It are all intelligent professional women widowed by the attacks. So it’s surprising that they have so little to say about subjects that have preoccupied some of the other victims’ families: the rescue efforts by police and fire departments, the financial settlements offered by the Victim Compensation Fund, the future memorial at Ground Zero.

Instead they focus on the brutal cost of losing a spouse even when you have money and the world’s sympathy. Pattie Carrington kept her alarm clock set for two years to six a.m., “the same as it was on the morning of September 11.” Julia Collins sat in her husband’s closet, “just to be near the smell of clothes that had touched his body.” Claudia Gerbasi heard that people had found safety in the shopping center under the towers and convinced herself that her husband had made it to the Duane Reade drugstore “and could survive a week on Oreos and Diet Coke.” Ann Haynes had what she calls “a mini-breakdown.”

Anyone has lost a relative to a sudden and violent death will believe these stories and the catalog of thoughtless comments the women heard, which ranged from patronizing (“You’re going to be okay”) to cruel. Gerbasi left a doctor of eight years who told her: “It could be worse – you could be thirty-nine and fat with shingles.”

Love You, Mean It lacks the artistry of Ruth Coughlin’s Grieving: A Love Story (HarperPerennial, 1994) and Lynne Caine’s Widow (Bantam, 1987), partly because of an inelegant structure jerrybuilt for four points of views. Even so, it has moments approaching poetry in the observations of Carrington, the most thoughtful and introspective of the group. One night she sees a crescent moon and imagines it to be the initial of her lost husband, Caz, who is communicating with her though it. Later she thinks of him as she plants blue lobelias at their beach house. “My life here was continuing,” she says,” always bittersweet, always a modified version of what it had been.”

Best line: “The longing doesn’t go away. There will always be loss written into our hearts. But we have come a great distance – the pain is finally beginning to cool. It lives on a deeper level now, like strata in rock, not visible on the surface, but always there, keeping us grounded, giving us the stability to stand taller.”

Worst line: “Ann and Ned discovered that they had another mutual friend in common.” Lucky they didn’t meet through one of those mutual friends they didn‘t have in common.

Editor: Leslie Wells

Recommended if … you’re grieving for someone who died a sudden, traumatic death.

Published: September 2006 www.loveyoumeanit.com

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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