One-Minute Book Reviews

October 3, 2009

Kimiko Kajikawa’s ‘Tsunami!’ With Art by Caldecott Medalist Ed Young

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A old farmer sacrifices his rice crop to save his neighbors from a monster wave

Tsunami! By Kimiko Kajikawa. Illustrated by Ed Young. Adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s story, “A Living God.” Philomel, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

When I was a teenager, I had a summer job with a federal anti-poverty program that once took a group of children on a day trip to Point Pleasant Beach in southern New Jersey. Some of our young charges had never seen the ocean and were terrified by it. I looked after a boy of eight or nine who was so afraid of the water that he would go near it only when I carried him into it.

Since then, I’ve often seen similar scenes at Jersey Shore and elsewhere. Some children are so afraid of the ocean that you see them crying at the water’s edge even when their parents are holding onto them tightly.

So I can’t figure out what the Philomel editors were thinking when they recommended Tsunami! for ages 3–5 on their Web site. Older children might love Caldecott medalist Ed Young’s dramatic mixed-media cover image of a wave powerful enough to sweep up a Japanese temple gate. But if they’re old enough not to be frightened by it, wouldn’t they be too old for a picture book?

As for those 3-to-5 year olds: You wonder about the effect of book that describes not just a monster wave but the destruction of a village and the burning of a rice field, shown on two-page spreads with flames leaping across the gutters as a child screams. Young knows how to evoke devastation without needless gore, and throughout the book he does with it vibrant collage-like images that, unlike his more realistic cover picture, have an abstract-expressionist spirit. He suggests – instead of showing in bloody detail – the power of a monster wave.

Even so, Tsunami! is an odd book. Kimiko Kajikawa tells a dramatic story in this adaptation of a 19th-century tale about an old rice farmer who saves the lives of 400 people in his Japanese village. One autumn day, Ojiisan thinks that something doesn’t feel right, so he stays in his mountaintop cottage with his grandson when everybody else goes to a harvest celebration at a low-lying temple court. His instincts prove correct when the sea turns dark and begins to run away from the land. When he can’t get the attention of villagers who are in danger, Ojiisan sets fire to his rice field, anticipating – correctly — that they will see the flames and rush up the mountain to help put them out. I enjoyed reading this story, and it develops the worthy themes that people are more important than possessions and exceptional events call for exceptional sacrifices. But after living with this book for nearly two weeks, I’m still not sure who it’s for.

Best line/picture: A two-page spread of the rice harvest festival makes lovely use of framing, showing the celebration partly through a temple gate.

Worst line/picture: The picture that goes with “Finally, the sea returned to its ancient bed” is more abstract that than the others and doesn’t convey its meaning as clearly.

Furthermore: Young won the Caldecott Medal for Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Tale from China.

Published: February 2009

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

October 1, 2009

Saturday – Kimiko Kajikawa’s ‘Tsunami’!, Illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Ed Young

Filed under: Children's Books,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:04 pm
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A wise old rice farmer saves the people of his Japanese village from a monster wave in Kimiko Kajikawa’s new oversized picture book, Tsunami! (Philomel, 32 pp., $16.99, ages 4 and up), illustrated by Caldecott medalist Ed Young and based on a story by Lafcadio Hearn. A review will appear on this site on Saturday.

September 30, 2009

Going to the Doctor in Japan – Please Don’t Tip the Proctologist – From T. R. Reid’s ‘The Healing of America’

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:53 pm
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Another memorable quote from T. R. Reid’s elegant indictment of health care in the U.S., The Healing of America (Penguin, 277 pp., $25.95), this one dealing with the high regard that the Japanese have for doctors:

“The high esteem for doctors is reflected in a traditional cultural practice in Japan that is officially frowned on these days but still seems to exist: Patients tend to bring a present for their doctor, ranging from a box of golf balls to a magnum of sake to a tasteful white envelope with the physician’s name brushed on the outside and a packet of cash inside. In the better stationery stores, you can buy a special envelope for this purpose, in soft, thick paper the color of heavy cream with ‘the honorable physician’ written on them in elaborate calligraphy. The tradition dates back to premodern times, when a physician in China or Japan had a Confucian obligation to use his skills to treat people and was not expected to demand a fee. To express their gratitude, patients provided a more-or-less voluntary gratuity. …

“In my doctor’s office in Tokyo, there was a sign on the wall clearly stating that the doctor’s fee for each treatment, and the share of the fee that I had to co-pay, were set by law: HONORABLE PATIENTS ARE RESPECTFULLY REQUESTED TO PAY NO MORE THAN THE FEE, it said. But I sometimes did see a patient, particularly an older one, carrying one of those cream-colored envelopes into the doctor’s office.”

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

April 30, 2009

The ‘Common Sense’ of Shogun Yoritomo-Tashi — A Japanese Warrior’s Wisdom for the Modern World of Business

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“Happiness is above all a combination of harmony and the absence of sorrow.”
From Yoritomo-Tashi’s Common Sense

Not long ago I stumbled on an out-of-print edition of Common Sense: How to Exercise It (Funk & Wagnalls, 1916), written by the Japanese shogun Yoritomo-Tashi and translated by Mme. Léon J. Berthelot de la Boileverie. I hadn’t heard of the book, intended to help people succeed in business. But common sense has been scarce enough on Wall Street that I read it to see if a 12th-century warrior knew something Lehman Brothers didn’t.

The book (or maybe just the translation) is abstruse enough that it’s hard to say. By modern standards, some of its advice lacks the quality it encourages people to cultivate. “Persons who have no common sense are the only ones to revolt against the laws of the country where they live,” Yoritomo-Tashi says. “The wise man will recognize that they have been enacted to protect him and that to be opposed to their observance would be acting as an enemy to oneself.” So much for the Boston Tea Party and the civil-rights movement.

But I liked Yoritomo-Tashi’s definition of happiness — “a combination of harmony and the absence of sorrow” (which, unlike so much psychobabble, allows that happiness can be affected by external factors). And his book makes a couple of other good points:

“Superstition is the enemy of common sense, for … it is the product of a personal impression, associating two ideas absolutely unconnected.”

Sentimentality works against common sense when it involves “mental exaggeration” that “transforms true pity into a false sensibility, the exaggeration of which deteriorates the true value of things.”

Critics often deplore books – such as Mitch Albom’s novels – that are sentimental, and Common Sense suggests why they dislike they quality: Sentimentality tends to overvalue certain feelings and, in that way, to devalue others that are more important.

You can download Common Sense for free on the Project Gutenberg site .

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

August 5, 2008

True Stories of Six Who Survived When the Atomic Bomb Fell on Hiroshima

Filed under: Classics,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:43 pm
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“They still wonder why they lived when so many others died.”
John Hersey in Hiroshima

Hiroshima: A New Edition With a Final Chapter Written Forty Years After the Explosion. By John Hersey. Vintage, 152 pp., $6.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A tailor’s widow lit her stove and set some rice to cook. A priest read Mass in a mission chapel where worshippers knelt on a traditional Japanese matted floor. A doctor walked a house guest to the train station, then went out onto the porch to read a newspaper.

In Hiroshima John Hersey tells the stories of these people and three others who lived when the atomic bomb fell on their city. With almost eerie calmness, he describes what the six were doing at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. Then he follows them for a year as they face hunger and homelessness, grieve for families and friends and develop radiation sickness or other illnesses.

In the best journalistic tradition, Hersey lets the facts speak for themselves and avoids moral judgments. His account of the bombing first appeared in the August 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker with this note:

The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use.”

Published in book from the same year, Hiroshima may have more uncredited influence than any other book on the best accounts of how the events of Sept. 11 affected ordinary people. The 1989 Vintage paperback includes a chapter on the survivors’ lives 40 years later. It ends with a section on the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, one of the six people profiled in the book, who was pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church when the bomb fell. In 1980s, Tanimoto owned a Mazda made in Hiroshima and still took an hour’s walk each morning with his dog: “He was slowing down a bit. His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.”

Best line: Kyoshi Tanimoto, the Methodist minister, searched for his family after the bombing: “Under many houses, people screamed for help, but no one helped; in general the survivors that day assisted only their relatives or immediate neighbors, for they could not comprehend or tolerate a wider circle of misery. The wounded limped past the screams, and Mr. Tanimoto ran past them. As a Christian, he was filled with compassion for those who were trapped, and as a Japanese, he was overwhelmed by the shame of being unhurt …
“All the way, he overtook dreadfully burned and lacerated people, and in his guilt he turned to right and left as he hurried and said to some of them, ‘Excuse me for having no burden like yours.'”

Worst line: “In a city of 245,000, nearly a hundred thousand people had been killed or doomed at one blow; a hundred thousand more were hurt.” Like the first estimates of the World Trade Center deaths, this one appears high. Max Hastings writes in his acclaimed Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–1945: “The Japanese afterwards claimed that around 20,000 military personnel and 110,000 civilians died immediately. Though no statistics are conclusive, this estimate is almost certainly exaggerated. Another guesstimate, around 70,000, seems more credible.”

Published: 1946 www.amazon.com/Hiroshima-John-Hersey/dp/0679721037

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

Remembering August 6, 1945 — Max Hastings

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:47 pm
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Max Hastings writes of the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb known as “Little Boy” on Hiroshima in Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45 (Knopf, $35):

“The detonation of ‘Little Boy,’ the mushroom cloud which changed the world, created injuries never before seen on mortal creatures, and recorded with disbelief by survivors: the cavalry horse standing pink, stripped of its hide; people with clothing patterns imprinted on their flesh; the line of schoolgirls with ribbons of skin dangling from their faces; doomed survivors, hideously burned, without hope of effective medical relief; the host of charred and shriveled corpses. Hiroshima and its people had been almost obliterated, and even many of those who clung to life would not long do so. As late as June 1946, an official press release from the Manhattan Project asserted defiantly: ‘Official investigation of the results of atom bomb bursts over the Japanese cities … revealed that no harmful amounts of persistent radioactivity were present after the explosions.’ Yet even at that date, thousands more stricken citizens of Hiroshima were still to perish.”

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

May 22, 2008

Why Do Suicide Bombers Do It? Lessons From Kamikazes

Why have so many suicide bombers been willing to sacrifice their lives in the Middle East and elsewhere? Similar questions were raised about Japanese kamikaze pilots who crashed their planes into American aircraft carriers and other ships in the last months of World War II. Max Hastings, the British journalist, notes his new Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45 (Knopf, $35) that the attacks began when traditional Japanese air forces were being overwhelmed by the Americans:

“Suicide attack offered a prospect of redressing the balance of forces, circumventing the fact that Japanese pilots were no longer capable of challenging their American counterparts on conventional terms. Instead, their astonishing willingness for self-sacrifice might be exploited. Here was a concept which struck a chord in the Japanese psyche, and caught the Imperial Navy’s mood of the moment. Officers cherished a saying: ‘When a commander is uncertain whether to steer to port or starboard, he should steer towards death.’ An alternative aphorism held that ‘One should take care to make one’s own dying as meaningful as possible.’ The suicide concept appeared to satisfy both requirements.”

Hastings adds that one kamikaze pilot had married just three months earlier. Before leaving on his final mission, instead of saying that he was sacrificing himself for his country, he told reporters he was doing it for his beloved wife:

“To a Western mind, self-immolation in such circumstances is incomprehensible. To some Japanese of the time, however, it seemed intensely romantic.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 19, 2008

Max Hastings Reconsiders the Endgame of the War in the Pacific in ‘Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45′

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:31 pm
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Remembering the era when General Douglas MacArthur wouldn’t agree to a government request to change his famous remark on leaving the Philippines from “I shall return” to “We shall return”

Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45. By Max Hastings. Knopf, 615 pp., $35.

By Janice Harayda

One of the paradoxes of the wave of historical revisionism now sweeping the United States is that while many Americans vow “never to forget” the Holocaust, they turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by the Japanese in World War II. The reasons for the selective memory are complex and range from the failings of schools to the possibility that – as some have psychologists have suggested – the human mind can only bear to think about so much evil.

But anyone who wants to understand the scope of savagery might start with Retribution, the British journalist Max Hastings’s latest work of military history. One virtue of this immensely readable book is that it blends with great skill the approaches that have been called “top-down” and “bottom-up” history. Retribution has memorable portraits of military leaders such as Chester Nimitz, Curtis LeMay and Douglas MacArthur (who objected when the Office of War Information wanted to change for public consumption his famous “I shall return” to “We shall return”). And Hastings’s analyses of the decisions of generals, admirals and statesmen lead to many persuasive conclusions – most notably, that dropping the atomic bombs resulted fewer deaths than would have occurred if the war had continued apace.

Amid such glimpses of those at the top, Retribution shows the shattering effects of the war on the men and women at the bottom, those who survived the firebombing of Tokyo or fought in Burma, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere. Stories of unimaginable suffering are leavened with lighter moments. Families could send parcels to Allied prisoners of war, but the Japanese seldom delivered them. So a U.S. artillery captain held captive on Luzon was thrilled to get a package from home “which he found wonderfully sensibly chosen: a carton of cigarettes, a sweater, a jar of candy and some vitamin pills.”

But for many Americans, the most startling parts of this book are likely to involve the accounts of Japanese brutality to the 100,000 Allied POWs and others. These atrocities go beyond what anyone might expect from such popular books as The Railway Man, Eric Lomax’s story of working in captivity on the Burma-Siam railroad – to say nothing of movies like The Sands of Iwo Jima or The Bridge on the River Kwai.

“There were so many cases of arbitrary beheadings, clubbings and bayonetings in different parts of the empire that it is impossible to dismiss these as unauthorized initiatives by individual officers and men,” Hastings writes. Some of the sadism recalls Josef Mengele’s experiments in Nazi death camps: Eight American airmen were killed by unanesthetized vivisecton carried out in front of medical students at a Japanese hospital. Hastings disagrees with Japanese and other observers who say that it is time to put aside old grievances about such atrocities:

“Germany has paid almost $6 billion to 1.5 million victims of the Hitler era. Austria has paid $400 million to 132,000 people. By contrast, modern Japan goes to extraordinary lengths to escape any admission of responsibility, far less of liability for compensation, towards its wartime victims.”

Hastings ascribes the Japanese position partly to a tendency to excuse — “even to ennoble” — the shameful actions of parents and grandparents. Whatever the reason for what he calls “denial,” it can hardly help Japan’s relations with the world. America found one kind of retribution on the deck of the battleship Missouri, but another kind has clearly eluded its former prisoners of war and others.

Best lines: On submarine crews: “Freshmen had to master the delicate art of using submarine toilets inside a pressure hull: ‘It was hard to flush below a hundred feet and keep a clean face,’ wrote one.” On Tom Brokaw–esque romanticizing: “The phrase ‘the greatest generation’ is sometimes used in the U.S. to describe those who lived through those times. This seems inapt. The people of World War II may have adopted different fashions and danced to different music from us, but human behavior, aspirations and fears do not alter much. It is more appropriate to call them, without jealousy, ‘the generation to which the greatest things happened.’”

Worst lines: “In the first campaigns, nations which are victims rather than initiators of aggression enjoy scanty choices.” Does anyone “enjoy” having few choices? And it’s painful to see a journalist as good as Hastings using “task” as a verb: “One of Vedder’s corpsman had been tasked to carry his instruments ashore …”

Sample chapter titles: “The British in Burma,” “America’s Return to the Philippines,” “MacArthur on Luzon,” “Blood Miniature: Iwo Jima,” “Australians: ‘Bludging’ and ‘Mopping Up,’ “Okinawa,” “Mao’s War,” “The Bombs.”

Editor: Robert Lacey (HarperCollins, UK), Ashbel Green (Knopf)

Published: March 2008 www.aaknopf.com. This book was called Nemesis in Britain.

Recommendation? Highly recommended to history book clubs and fans of military history. This book could also be a great Father’s Day gift for a father who likes history or military lore.

Read an excerpt: Go to www.aaknopf.com and search for “Retribution.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Retribution was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 19, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/19.

Furthermore: Hastings calls Retribution a counterpart to his earlier Armageddon, which describes the war against Germany in 1944–1945. He has been a foreign correspondent, the editor of The Daily Telegraph and Journalist of the Year in Britain.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

May 1, 2008

Diary: John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ — Are People Who Live Through Disasters ‘Survivors’ or ‘Victims’?

Filed under: Classics,Diary,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 pm
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Perhaps no book has had more uncredited influence on the best accounts of 9/11 than Hiroshima. In this great book John Hersey tells the true stories of six people who escaped death when the atomic bomb fell on their city. One line deals with the confusion that arose, right after the blast, about what to call people who lived through the events of August 6, 1945: “In referring to those who went through the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Japanese tended to shy away from the term ‘survivors,’ because in its focus on being alive it might suggest some slight to the sacred dead.”

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

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