One-Minute Book Reviews

October 6, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – ‘Chuckling’ Through ‘The Lost Symbol,’ or the Dan Brown Chuckle Meter, Part 1

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:49 pm
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Why do people do so much “chuckling” in novels about conspiracies, disasters and other events that don’t normally inspire that response in real life? I’ve been reading The Lost Symbol, and it may have more “chuckles” than any book I’ve read since Newt Gingrich’s Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th (St. Martin’s, 2007). So I’ve started a Dan Brown Chuckle Meter similar to my Newt Gingrich Chuckle Meter.

A few early ticks:

How does Brown’s hero, Robert Langdon, respond when a fan offers him a tip on how he can stop being such a bad dresser?
“Thanks for the advice,” Langdon said with a chuckle. Page 8.

What does a villain who’s trying to sneak a weapon into the Capitol do when a security guard asks if getting his tattoos hurt?
The man glanced down at his fingertips and chuckled. Page 19.

How does Langdon react when one of his Harvard students asks why the cornerstones of several Washington landmarks were all laid – or so he says – in accordance with a seemingly wacko astrological principle?
Langdon chuckled. Page 29.

Will Dan Brown deliver as many chuckles as Newt Gingrich? I don’t know the answer, because my meter is still running. What’s your guess?

“Late Night With Jan Harayda” is a series of occasional posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and do not include reviews.

August 10, 2009

‘Fight Club’ Author Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Pygmy’ – A Review in the Form of a Parody

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:18 pm
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“Total disappointed of no result.”

Pygmy. By Chuck Palahniuk. Doubleday, 241 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Begins here report of critic me on novel by Fight Club author all in mangled English dorky like this. Combining terrorist high-school exchange students from county like China except some with Hungarian names like Tibor and Magda, plot with bioweapon to murder many Americans at science fair in Washington. In actual, main operative Pygmy co-opted by shallow, corrupt, depraved host country. Want to read you no. Critic me quote line from book, “Total disappointed of no result.”

Best line: A quote from the Socialist Eugene V. Debs, “Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.”

Worst line: Yes, the entire book consists of lines like: No. 1: “Succulent barrier much thrusting mammary glands shield operative me, swinging lady buttocks further thwart attacks.” No. 2: “Tongue of operative me lick, licking, touching back tooth on bottom, molar where planted inside forms cyanide hollow, touching not biting.” No. 3: “For official record, effect worst – idiot song flush from head of operative me most irregular verbs Mandarin Chinese. Erode all knowledge Portuguese. Idiot lyric overwhelm understanding advanced field equations calculus. Overpower and devastate to oblivion stored memory to operate Iranian-manufactured Khaybar KH2002 medium-barrel assault rifle. Crowd no longer recall how many rounds per minute capable firing Ukrainian Vepr assault rifle.” No. 4: “Edging more close, ranked wall of killer assassins stance ready for execute Cobra One-Strike No-Blood.” No. 5: “In greater afraid … within thinking machine operative me, this agent ponder if entire being operative me pitted for destroy American, annihilate homosexual, crackpot Methodist religion, Lutheran and Baptist cult, extinguish all decadent bourgeoise – subsequent successful total such destruction: Render this agent obsolete? Of no worth?”

Furthermore: A review at the Daily Beast has more on Pygmy. An essay in Salon discusses Palahniuk’s other books.

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

July 23, 2009

Eric Hodgins’s Classic Comic Novel ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’ — You Think Your Problems With Contractors Are Bad?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:05 am
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A  classic comic novel about moving from the city to the country sends up the modern lust for property

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading yesterday’s bestsellers can be a little like trying on that pair of white vinyl go-go boots in the attic: You don’t know whether to laugh or cringe at our former tastes. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation and comic novels age faster than serious ones because so much humor depends on topical references. This classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property, and its enduring appeal lies partly in the all-too-believable naiveté of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. They fall in love with the barns, apple orchard and majestic views: “But the furnishings were in general of the era of Benjamin Harrison, with an overlay of William McKinley, and here and there a final, crowning touch of Calvin Coolidge.” And when house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, Jim and Muriel resolve to tear it down and build another on the site.

This decision sets up a superbly constructed plot in which the new house becomes the couple’s antagonist. The Blandings square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – in short, all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. But the house itself is their real opponent. Amid the soaring bills and construction delays, Mr. Blandings imagines how delightful it would be “to return to the city and move a final, ten blocks father north.” Will he throw in the drill bit and go back to the Upper East Die? Or sell the place and buy one against which he isn’t so overmatched?

Eric Hodgins controls the suspense deftly. And the late New Yorker cartoonist William Steig adds three dozen or so brilliant drawings, many of them a full page, that throw the comedy into higher relief and show how much we have lost now that the fully illustrated adult novel has almost disappeared. Along with Hodgins’s masterly text, Steig’s fanciful pictures remind us that if a man’s home is his castle, sometimes he’s the court jester instead of the king.

Best line: “It surged over Mr. Blandings that he very much wished he were back in the city … he wanted the noise of the city in his ears; the noise with which all city dwellers were in such perfect, unconscious harmony that the blast of a gas main down the block might strike the eardrums but penetrate not the brain.”

Worst line: A few expressions have become dated. When Mr. Blandings sees the contractors’ bills, he cries: “Jesus H. Mahogany Christ!”

Recommended if … you like comedy that stays close to life. Hodgins’s satire is much more realistic than that of the over-the-top novels of Christopher Buckley (whose Boomsday involves plan to save Social Security and other benefits by giving baby boomers a financial incentive to commit suicide, known as “Voluntary Transitioning”). Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is also a nearly perfect book club book partly because: 1) It’s a classic that few people have read; 2) It’s relatively short and widely available in paperback and at libraries; 3) It deals with a situation almost anybody can appreciate; 4) It may show a new side of William Steig to members familiar only with his children’s books, such as Dr. De Soto and Shrek!; and 5) All those slackers who never finish the book can watch one of the movie versions.

Reading group guide: This site has also posted a review of the sequel to this novel, Blandings’ Way, and a reading group guide to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, which you can find by using the search box.

Published: 1946 (first edition), 2004 (Simon & Schuster paperback).

Furthermore: Hodgins’s novel has inspired two movies I haven’t seen – Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Low, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks.

This is a repost of a review that first appeared in 2007. I am on a brief semi-vacation.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 20, 2009

Cole Porter in the Summer, When It Sizzles — If They Say That These Lyrics Heinous, Kick Them Right in the Coriolanus

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:47 am
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[This is a re-post of a review that appeared in November 2006. I am on a brief semi-vacation.]

A master of light verse in the winter, when it drizzles, in the summer, when it sizzles

Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics. Edited and with an introduction by Robert Kimball. Library of America, 178 pp., $20.

By Janice Harayda

Several friends and I took part as teenagers in a summer drama program in which we learned the lines from Kiss Me, Kate: “If she says your behavior is heinous / Kick her right in the ‘Coriolanus.’” This we regarded as the summit of wit and sang so often that any adult who wanted us to read more poetry could have just given us a book of Cole Porter lyrics on the spot.

I don’t know if that tactic would work today, but the Library of America has made it easier to find out. Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics contains the words to 93 songs that aren’t just some of the best-loved of the 20th century – they are models of light verse. Porter’s lyrics have become such mainstays of our culture that even people who never read poetry are likely to recognize some: “I love Paris, in the winter, when it drizzles, / I love Paris, in the summer, when it sizzles.” “You’re the top! / You’re the Colosseum./ You’re the top! / You’re the Louvre Museum.”  “ … birds do it, bees do it. / Up in Lapland, little Lapps do it, / Let’s do it, let’s fall in love” (though it turns out that “birds” and “bees” is an alteration of Porter’s original words, included in Selected Lyrics).

Why do Porter’s words have such staying power? Porter (1891–1964) was born in Peru, Indiana, but traveled widely and seems to have been a true citizen of the world. His lyrics have a cosmopolitan refinement that may be even more alluring in the age of Howard Stern and Janet Jackson than during the Jazz Age and the Depression, when he did his best work. Porter is a kind of Cary Grant of song-writing – gifted, urbane, and ageless. He blends high and low cultural references with an ease that is more British than American and enables anybody to identify with him. He writes in “You’re the Top”: “You’re the top! / You’re a hot tamale.” Two lines later, he adds “You’re Botticelli, / You’re Keats, / You’re Shelley.” How many writers would dare mix that campy “hot tamale” with the highbrow “Keats” and “Shelley” today? Yet for all the exuberance of such songs, Porter also writes poignantly about his great theme: the evanescence of human attachments and the dreams they embody. In his lyrics the sex of the beloved is often unspecified, so he speaks to gay and straight readers alike.

Porter moved gracefully among poetic meters – iambic, trochaic, anapestic – and at his best is as funny as such titans of light verse as Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker. But he is racier than most light-versifiers. His lyrics teem with double-entrendres. And one of the gems of Selected Lyrics is a parody of “You’re the Top” by Irving Berlin that nods to Porter’s fondness for sexual wordplay. If you think that line about Coriolanus from “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is amusing, wait till you see what Berlin rhymes with “You’re the breasts of Venus.” “White Christmas” was never like this.

Best line: Many lyrics include both internal and end-rhymes, such as: “Let’s question the synonymy of freedom and autonomy, / Let’s delve into astronomy, political economy, / Or if you’re feeling biblical, the book of Deuteronomy.” These lines suggest the influence of Gilbert and Sullivan more directly than do others in Selected Lyrics.

Worst line: Porter occasionally uses clichéd rhymes, such as “love” and “above,” as in “Ours”: “The high gods above / Look down and laugh at our love.” Given the volume of material in Selected Lyrics, it is remarkable how rarely he does this.

Recommendation? This compact volume is small enough for a fragile end-table and an example of what an acquaintance of mine calls “a great guest-room book.” Visitors can dip in at random and fall asleep happy.

Editor: Robert Kimball

Published: April 2006

Furthermore: The elegant, minimalist cover of this book was designed by Mark Melnick and Chip Kidd, perhaps the most esteemed book-jacket designer of our day.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 10, 2009

Why Was Mark Twain So Funny? Quote of the Day – H. L. Mencken

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:51 am
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“A good half of the humor of the late Mark Twain consisted of admitting frankly the possession of vices and weaknesses that all of us have and few of us care to acknowledge.”

H. L. Mencken in “The Ulster Polonius” in Prejudices: First Series (Knopf, 1919).

December 19, 2008

The Babar Books as Satire (Quote of the Day / Edward Rothstein)

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:06 pm
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What does it mean when a young elephant leaves the countryside, travels to a imposing town, and dons handsome clothes? Few classic picture books have sparked more controversy in the past two decades than the 37-book series about Babar, an orphaned elephant who becomes a king, begun by Jean de Brunhoff in the 1930s and kept alive after his death by his son Laurent.

Maurice Sendak has said that Jean de Brunhoff’s tales “have a freedom and charm, a freshness of vision, that captivates and takes the breath away” and that “forever changed the face of the illustrated book.” But some scholars have cast Babar as an allegory for the evils of colonialism in general and French colonialism in particular.

Edward Rothstein weighs the arguments in a review of “Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors,” on display at the Morgan Library & Museum though Jan. 4 www.themorgan.org. Rothstein notes that the educator Herbert Kohl has faulted the books for their admiration for Babar, who embraces trappings of the society that produced the colonial hunter who killed his mother:

“But as the critic Adam Gopnik points out in a rich, suggestive essay in the show’s catalog, these arguments miss the point. The saga is not an ‘unconscious instance of the French colonial imagination,’ Mr.Gopnik writes, ‘it is a self-conscious comedy about the French colonial imagination.’ Jean de Brunhoff knew precisely what he was doing. Invoking the colonial world of the 1930s and France’s mission of civilizing subjugated peoples, he was also satirizing that world, celebrating some things while being wary of others, knowing the need for civilization while also knowing the costs and inevitable failures that accompany it.”

Read all of Rothstein’s comments at www.nytimes.com/2008/09/22/arts/design/22baba.html. The series about Babar began with The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant, shown here.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 10, 2008

What’s the Difference Between Wit and Humor? (Quote of the Day / Ambrose Bierce via Drew Gilpin Faust)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:56 pm
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Critics often distinguish between “wit” and “humor” in analyzing comic novels and other literary forms intended to amuse. What’s the difference? Drew Gilpin Faust writes of the American journalist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce in her recent This Republic of Suffering, a 2008 National Book Award finalist www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html:

“Ambrose Bierce styled himself a wit, not a humorist, emphasizing the sardonic and cutting intent of his newspaper columns and stories. ‘Humor is tolerant, tender … its ridicule caresses. Wit stabs, begs pardon — and turns the weapon in the wound.’”

Gilpin Faust cites Roy Morris Jr.’s Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company (Oxford University Press, 1995) as the source for Bierce’s quote.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 24, 2008

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

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:55 pm
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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 16, 2008

Ring Lardner’s Baseball Stories for All Ages, ‘You Know Me Al’

Classic tales of an overconfident White Sox rookie are still print in different editions for adults and children

An egocentric pitcher. A coach fed up with his player’s excuses. A team that can’t win on the road. And — to spice things up — a little girl trouble in the background.

Sound like a team in the 2008 playoffs? Actually it’s what you’ll find in Ring Lardner’s collection of humorous short stories about baseball, You Know Me Al (Book Jungle, 248, $16.95, paperback), written for adults but likely also to appeal to many teenagers.

First published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1914, these tales are a masterpiece of tone. They take the form of rambling, misspelled and ungrammatical letters written by a rookie White Sox pitcher named Jack Keefe to his friend Al while traveling with his team during the baseball season. Jack has a comically misplaced self-confidence that feeds a low-grade persecution complex. (“I hit good on the training trip and he must of knew they had no chance to score off me in the innings they had left while they were liable to murder his other pitchers.”) Lardner’s stories about his anti-hero remain entertaining partly because they deal with emotions that still exist in any locker room.

But a little of Jack’s bombast goes a long way, and young readers may prefer an anthologized excerpt from You Know Me Al. One of the best for tweens and teenagers appears in Alan Durant’s outstanding Score! Sports Stories (Roaring Brook, 264 pp., 264 pp., ages 9 and up), a collection of 21 modern and classic sports stories just out in a new paperback edition. Durant’s brief introduction suggests why young readers may enjoy excerpt: “The story is full of jokes – mainly at the teller’s expense, as Keefe constantly gets on the wrong side of coach Callahan with his often idiotic remarks.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 23, 2008

‘Anonymous’ No More — Does Joe Klein’s ‘Primary Colors’ Still Hold Any Interest Now That We All Know Who Wrote It?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:37 am
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A veteran political reporter satirizes sexual harassment and more on the campaign trail

Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics. By Anonymous (Joe Klein). Random House, 384 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Guessing who wrote Primary Colors was a white-hot political parlor game in 1996, when the novel first appeared under the byline of “Anonymous.” But this former No. 1 bestseller is interesting for more than identity of its author, eventually revealed to be the longtime Washington journalist Joe Klein.

Primary Colors sends up the first presidential campaign of Jack Stanton, a Southern governor and stand-in for Bill Clinton. And Washington insiders had little trouble figuring out who might have inspired characters like first lady Susan Stanton (Hillary Clinton), campaign aide Henry Burton (George Stephanopoulos) and strategist Richard Jemmons (James Carville).

But Klein aims to do more than satirize the players in the 1992 Democratic primaries. Primary Colors is about the cost of political leadership in America and, perhaps, anywhere. “Two-thirds of what we do is reprehensible,” Jack Stanton says, while making clear that politicians will go on doing that reprehensible two-thirds because they think it justifies the good one-third.

Like most campaigns, Primary Colors is messy. It begins as a cynical – if effective – satire, then goes off the rails when it sinks into farce and axe-grinding. And yet, there are so few credible novels about political campaigns that Primary Colors, for all its imperfections, is still one of the best we have.

In one of its most famous scenes, a middle-aged political strategist whips out his penis at campaign headquarters in an attempt to lure young press aide to his hotel room. She looks at it and says, “I’ve never seen one that … old.” The strategist turns red and runs out of the room. Campaign aides – who have been eavesdropping – cheer. And for that scene alone, Primary Colors would deserve a cheer or two of its own.

Best line: On Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York: “His fantasy is a race where he doesn’t run and nobody else wins.”

Worst line: A comment by a 250-pound lesbian campaign aide: “YOU ARE OUTTA HERE, you slimetudinous sack of snail wuzzle.”

Published: October 1996 (first edition).

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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