One-Minute Book Reviews

October 24, 2008

John Ciardi’s Halloween Limerick for Children – A Good Poem About a Haunted House

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The shortest good Halloween poem I’ve found is John Ciardi’s limerick, “The Halloween House,” an amusing send-up of children’s tendency to pretend they’re not afraid of haunted houses. It begins:
I’m told there’s a Green Thing in there.
And the sign on the gate says BEWARE!

For copyright reasons, I can’t quote all five lines of the poem. But you can find “The Halloween House” in Ciardi’s The Hopeful Trout and Other Limericks (Houghton Mifflin, 1992), illustrated by Susan Meddaugh, which is out of print but on the shelves of many libraries. You can also find “The Halloween House” in Scared Silly! A Halloween Book for the Brave: An Arthur Adventure (Little, Brown, 64 pp., $7.95, paperback), illustrated by Marc Brown, which is in print and available through online and other booksellers. The Hopeful Trout is used in grades 2 and up in schools. Scared Silly! has gentle not-so-scary poems, jokes and more for preschoolers, written by a variety of authors.

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

October 23, 2008

Charles Williams’s ‘All Hallows Eve’ – A Classic Novel of the Supernatural From a Contemporary of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (Quote of the Day/Noel Perrin)

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:03 pm
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One of my favorite guides to good reading is Noel Perrin’s A Readers Delight (University Press of New England, 1988) www.upne.com/results.html, a collection of 40 brief, elegant essays on underappreciated classics. This quote comes from its review of All Hallows Eve, entitled “Taking Ghosts Seriously”:

“Charles Williams’s novel All Hallows Eve is one of the most powerful works of supernaturalism to appear in our century. It comes, appropriately enough, out of same nexus as many other such works: The Lord of the Rings, Perelandra, the Narnian chronicles. Williams was a friend and contemporary of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis – and when his work took him to Oxford during the Second World War, he promptly became the third great central figure in the informal literary group known as the Inklings ….

All Hallows Eve has a complex and even thrilling plot. The action swirls around a great religious leader named Simon Leclerc: a prophet, a worker of miracles, the head of a world cult. He is something like the Reverend Mr. Moon raised to the fourth power – or he seems that way to outsiders at least. He is actually the most powerful magician who has lived in several hundred years, and he is a tall, god-like, ascetic, and wholly evil person, a negative of Jesus Christ, whose very distant cousin he in fact is. What he promises human beings is peace; what he actually seeks is to rule them, not only in life but even after their deaths.

“All the other characters meet Simon, and all in the end must choose between serving him and resisting him.”

Perrin says in the essay that he believes Williams en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Williams_(UK_writer)
is less famous than Tolkien or C. S. Lewis partly because he wrote fiction only for adults, not for adults and children: “All Hallows Eve will never be a TV special – or if it is, it will be so debased and vulgarized as to make most TV specials of great books seem works of astonishing fidelity.” Online and other booksellers have a 2002 edition of All Hallows’s Eve (Regent College Press, 296 pp., $19.95, paperback), introduced by T. S. Eliot, which uses in the title an apostrophe after “Hallows” that does not appear in A Reader’s Delight.

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

October 13, 2008

Ghosts of Venice — Susan Hill’s Novella, ‘The Man in the Picture’

An 18th-century painting of masked revelers at the Grand Canal has sinister properties

The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story. By Susan Hill. Overlook, 145 pp., $15.

By Janice Harayda

A Halloween-costume superstore has opened in my town and raised the frightening possibility that I will soon be the only person on the streets not dressed like Bigfoot or a tavern wench. I will defend to the death anyone’s sartorial-first-amendment right to don a Borat Lycra Mankini or a Sexy Ms. Mental Patient outfit (“includes shirt with vinyl restraints”).

But if you’re looking for another way to spend Halloween, why not read a ghost story? You might start with this intelligent new novella by the English author Susan Hill.

The Man in the Picture lacks the psychological complexity of Patrick McGrath’s neo-Gothic novels and Alison Lurie’s underrated short story collection, Women and Ghosts. But Hill’s book works on its own terms, which are those of a well-crafted Victorian ghost story. The opening lines set the tone:

“The story was told to me by my old tutor, Theo Parmitter, as we sat beside the fire in his college rooms one bitterly cold January night. There were still real fires in those days, the coals brought up by the servant in huge brass scuttles. I had traveled down from London to see my old friend, who was by then well into his eighties …”

The tale involves a painting that Theo bought at auction as a young man, an untitled 18th-century work showing masked revelers at a carnival in Venice. From several narrators we learn that that the picture has a chimerical effect: New people seem to keep appearing in it. The meaning of the changes begins to emerge when a countess summons Theo to her Yorkshire estate and links the painting to acts of sexual jealousy and revenge, an ill-fated honeymoon in Venice and the violent deaths of her husband and son. Lady Hawdon warns Theo that for his own good, he must sell her the painting. He doesn’t sell. Alas, poor Theo!

True to the conventions of Gothic novels, The Man in the Picture has shadowy hallways, long-buried secrets and odd noises in the night. It also includes a genteel psychopath whose mental instability appears contagious. Characters tend to stay conveniently out of range of pragmatists who could shout at crucial moments, “No! No! Don’t go into that empty room!”

By modern standards, much of the plot is no more rational than the idea that a priceless garnet would end up inside a Christmas goose in the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” And it isn’t supposed to meet contemporary tests of plausibility. Like dressing up as tavern wench, it’s unabashed retro escapism, well suited to a month when you may hear mysterious sounds as you stumble through the darkened rooms of a haunted house.

Best line: “The faces of the revelers were many of them the classic Venetian, with prominent noses, the same faces that could be seen on Magi and angels, saints and popes, in the great paintings that filled Venice’s churches.”

Worst line: “She was extremely old, with the pale-parchment textured skin that goes with great age, a skin like the paper petals of dried Honesty.” The similie reaches for a higher tone than the rest of the book.

Recommendation? In the U.S. ghost stories have been so thoroughly absorbed into the horror-novel genre that, except in children’s fiction, few writers attempt them and readers tend to associate them with lumbering behemoths like Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. The Man in the Picture gives Americans a chance to rediscover the appeal of these stories in a purer and in some ways more elegant form.

Because of its conversational tone and multiple narrators, this is also good book to read aloud, which you could probably do in less than two and a half hours. Book clubs might consider having members take turns reading this one aloud at a meeting instead of reading it in advance.

Published: October 2008 www.susan-hill.com/

Second opinion: Salley Vickers observed perceptively the Independent: “As with many successful ghost stories – The Turn of the Screw comes to mind – the form of the book is a re-telling; indeed, a series of re-tellings. Hill knows that the sinister is enhanced by obliqueness. By giving us a chain of raconteurs, she skilfully conveys the ambience in which the uncanny survives via rumour and report.”

Furthermore: Hill also wrote two mystery novels about Chief Inspector Simon Serailler and The Woman in Black www.thewomaninblack.com/, the theatrical version of which opened in 1989 in London’s West End and is one of its longest-running shows.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist 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

A Ghost Story for Grown-Ups – Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

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Susan Hill is best known as the author of The Woman in Black, the theatrical version of which rivals The Mousetrap for longevity on the London stage. Hill has also written a new novella, The Man in the Picture www.susan-hill.com, in the form of a ghost story about an 18th-century painting that seems to have sinister properties after a Cambridge don acquires it. A review of this tale of sexual jealousy and revenge will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 4, 2008

Good Halloween Poems for Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:41 am
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“There once was a witch of Willowby Wood,
and a weird wild witch was she …”

From Rowena Bennett’s “The Witch of Willowby Wood,” excerpted in Sing a Song of Popcorn

Many children’s books include a Halloween poem or two, but Sing a Song of Popcorn (Scholastic, 1988) has a half dozen in the spirit of Oct. 31. All six of these brief, lively, rhyming poems come from good writers and appear in a section called “Spooky Poems,” engagingly illustrated by the Caldecott medalist Margot Zemach. For children who dislike witches and ghosts, the book has Robert Graves’s “The Pumpkin,” which begins: “You may not believe it, for hardly could I: / I was cutting a pumpkin to put in a pie …” John Ciardi’s lively Halloween limerick, “The Halloween House,” appears in two children’s books discussed on Oct. 24, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/10/24.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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