One-Minute Book Reviews

December 30, 2008

Gerald Stern’s ‘Before Eating’ — A Poet’s Rhyming Toast to Life and Death

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:58 pm
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Here’s something you don’t see every day in poetry: a toast to death. Well, not just death. But Gerald Stern’s poem “Before Eating” celebrates life in all its contradictions. And that includes the ultimate contradiction – death.

Stern is in his 80s, and “Before Eating” makes you wonder if he wrote it for his funeral (or perhaps, given that it has 88 lines, as an elegy for a friend who died at 88), though there’s no evidence of it beyond the poem itself, which begins:

Here’s to your life
and here’s to your death

and here’s to coughing
and here’s to breath.

“Before Eating” consists of more than five pages of similarly lively rhymes — it reads like a ditty. At times a wistfulness creeps into the voice of the speaker, who knows that “ … I could go on for / forty pages // listing my joys / and listing my rages, // but I should stop / while I’m still ahead // and make my way / to my own crooked bed …”

But Stern doesn’t maunder. Just when his poem could devolve into a wallow, he pulls the tone back up again:

so here’s to the end,
the final things,

and here’s to forever
and what that brings …

By the end of “Before Eating,” the speaker is no longer toasting death in the abstract but honoring its tangible realities (“and here’s to the pillows / and here’s to the bed”). Yet the poem is never morbid. Some lines are playful. (“Here’s to judge / here’s to Jewry.”) Other lines celebrate food, drink and, obliquely, sex (“desire”). Even the title “Before Eating” suggests that death could be a feast. Whether written for a funeral or not, this poem finds the chord that so many eulogists seek and miss – the notes that celebrate both our numbered days and “forever / and what that brings.”

“Before Eating” appears in Stern’s recent Save the Last Dance: Poems (Norton, 91 pp., $23.95). Other poems in the collection include “The Preacher,” an adaptation of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and elegies for or homages to the poets William Wordsworth, Muriel Rukeyser and Federico Garcia Lorca. Stern won the 1998 National Book Award for Poetry for This Time. He was the first poet laureate of New Jersey, where he lives.

© 2008 All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 26, 2008

Are the Best Biographies Sympathetic to Their Subjects? (Quote of the Day / Allen Massie)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 pm
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Are the best biographies necessarily sympathetic to their subjects? I had oddly never considered this idea until an unflattering life of Hemingway led the Scottish journalist Allen Massie to write in a recent issue of the Spectator:

“The best biographies are sympathetic. Their authors don’t gloss over their subjects’ failures and faults of character, but they don’t seek to do them down. The biographer who sets out to mock his subjects or diminish their achievements is likely to arouse the reader’s sympathy for them. Lytton Strachey’s four Eminent Victorians have survived his debunking, and Strachey now seems less than any of them. Conversely, and paradoxically, however, the admiring but scrupulous biographer may provoke a contrary response from the reader.”

After I read Massie’s comment, I thought about my favorite biographies, which include James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, Gordon Haight’s George Eliot, Jean Strouse’s Alice James, A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins, and William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory. All are sympathetic to their subjects. Yet there must be a good biography of Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein, though you could hardly write a “sympathetic” one. Have I missed the good, sympathetic biographies of those men? Or are the lives of tyrants the exceptions to Massie’s rule?

What books have you read that support or challenge Massie’s argument?

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

December 17, 2008

A Coffee-Table Book About African Art from Algerian Pottery to Zulu Shawls — and Ghanaian Coffin Shaped Like a Mercedes

Filed under: African American,Coffee Table Books,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:25 pm
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In the capital of Ghana well-off families often bury their members in coffins shaped like objects important to the deceased — an onion for a farmer, a sword for a tribal leader, a Mercedes Benz for a successful businessman. A photo of a remarkable fish-shaped coffin appears in the new second edition of A History of Art in Africa (Pearson, 560 pp., $150), written by Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poynor, and Herbert M. Cole. And that picture suggests part of the appeal of this unusually comprehensive book, which spans thousands of years and topics from Algerian pottery to Zulu shawls: The authors show how much more there is to African art than the representations most familiar to Americans, such wood carvings, kente cloth, and Egyptian tomb paintings.

An intelligent text and more than 700 photographs describe the evolution of the continent’s jewelry, textiles, ceramics, painting, and photographs and other arts. And a new chapter in the second edition covers African artists abroad, including Edmonia Lewis (c. 1843–1909) “the first woman artist of African descent to gain prominence in the United States,” whose marble statue of the biblical Hagar appears in the Smithsonian Institution

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

November 25, 2008

John Updike Wins Lifetime Achievement Award from 2008 ‘Bad Sex’ in Fiction Judges

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:48 pm
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Rachel Johnson also wins for a scene from Shire Hell “that begins with moans and nibbles and works up to screaming and other animal noises”

John Updike has won a special lifetime achievement award from the judges of the 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Prize, given annually by the U.K. literary magazine the Literary Review. Here’s the AP story on the award www.kvoa.com/Global/story.asp?S=9412980&nav=HMO6HMaf. Updike has been nominated four times for the prize, this year for his novel The Widows of Eastwick.

The AP article doesn’t say whether the judges singled out any passages in giving Updike the award, which recognizes crude, tasteless and often gratuitous sex scenes in works that otherwise have literary merit. So I’ll repeat what I said yesterday in noting that Updike had been nominated: “Let’s face it – it’s a miracle that he has never won a Bad Sex award, given that this man created the lecherous Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, who made a pass at his daughter-in-law on his deathbed.”

James Pressley of Bloomberg.com reports that Rachel Johnson, the sister of London mayor Boris Johnson, is also a winner. She received the 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Prize “for a scene in Shire Hell that begins with moans and nibbles and works up to screaming and other animal noises” www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=a_G4Db0hO7Z8&refer=home. Pressley’s article is longer and has more information on the other candidates than the AP story.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 12, 2008

Yes, She Had Herself Photographed Wearing the Necklace During a Gynecological Exam – A Review of ‘The Necklace’ Coming Soon

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:20 am
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You would think, wouldn’t you, that with the National Book Award winners being announced next week, I would have better things to read than a book about a group of California women who chipped in to buy a $15,000 diamond necklace and gave it the pet name Jewelia? Especially when one woman wore the necklace to a gynecological exam? And had herself photographed wearing it with her feet in the stirrups?

Yes, if you were sensible, you would. But I got sucked into The Necklace, so a review will appear soon.

In the meantime, here’s one of the “good parts.” The following scene occurs when Patti Channer, an investor in the necklace, visits her gynecologist, Dr. Roz Warner, who also owns a share:

“Roz had been in practice twenty years. No one, not one single patient, had ever brought a camera for her annual checkup. She was startled but moved quickly out to the hallway to nab Michelle, her twenty-five-year-old medical assistant.

“Patti prepared the settings and handed the camera to Michelle. …

“It was an interesting experience, Roz thought, one she decided to repeat when it was her turn with the necklace. It would be a point of conversation, something to distract the patient from the fluorescent lights overhead and the metal speculum inside.

“Patti felt good when she left the office. She liked to document her life. Every trip, every family vacation, she was the one with the camera. It was a way of remembering the fun, prolonging the experience. And sharing the photos with people was like giving a gift.

“Wearing a diamond necklace for a gynecological exam had to be a first, she thought. She couldn’t wait to show the pictures to the women.”

If you can’t wait for the review, you can read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl/9780345500717.html.

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

September 30, 2008

A Rosh Hashanah Tradition Worth Adapting

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:17 pm
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Elizabeth St. James recalls a Rosh Hashanah tradition worth adapting in Simplify Your Christmas: 100 Ways to Reduce the Stress and Recapture the Joy of the Holidays (Andrews McMeel, 1998):

“Many years ago in parts of Europe there was a custom at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which could expand our present-day ideas about giving.

“A village elder went from house to house with a bag full of coins. Those who could afford to contribute put coins in the bag; those who were poor and needed help took coins out of the bag. No distinction was made between those who put in and those who took out. This practice insured that no one in the community suffered, and it was done in a manner that maintained the dignity of all.

“What a beautifully simple idea. Give to those in need. Take only when you’re in need.”

St. James suggests adapting this tradition by donating blood, arranging to have fresh fruits or vegetables delivered to someone every month for a year, or giving a gift certificate for car repair, home maintenance, or another service a financially strapped family might not be able to afford. She offers more ideas like these in Simplify Your Christmas.

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

September 28, 2008

Paul Newman (1925 — 2008 ) on What He DOESN’T Want on His Gravestone (Quote of the Day via Eric Lax’s ‘Newman’)

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:53 pm
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Paul Newman risked losing fans and roles by campaigning in 1968 for the Democratic candidate for president, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who opposed the Vietnam War. Eric Lax explains why in his Newman: Paul Newman: Biography (Turner, 1996):

“Newman was one of the earliest backers of McCarthy, and his support came at a time when most people considered those who opposed the war to be cowards or even traitors. Newman’s appearance always brought out the news media. He presented himself to audiences not as a celebrity but as a parent, concerned about the future and believing that McCarthy offered the most hope.

“‘I am indifferent to your political persuasion,’ he would begin. ‘I am not a public speaker. I am not a politician. I’m not here because I’m an actor. I’m here because I’ve got six kids. I don’t want it written on my gravestone, ‘He was not part of his times.’ The times are too critical to be dissenting in your own bathroom.’”

The quote first appeared in the New York Times on April 22, 1968.

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

September 15, 2008

Remembering ‘Black Tuesday,’ Oct. 29, 1929, on Wall Street and a Crowd ‘Wild-Eyed’ With Fear — How Much Worse Could It Get Than Today’s 500-Point Stock Market Drop?

Filed under: Quotes of the Day,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:46 pm
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Today’s 504.48-point stock market plunge may stir fears of another “Black Tuesday.” How did New Yorkers react when the market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929? Catherine Gourley writes:

“On that overcast autumn morning in New York City, rumors swirled through the narrow streets like wind. Something had gone terribly wrong. The stock values weren’t just dropping. They were crashing. America’s banks and businesses were losing money. By afternoon ten thousand people had jammed the streets and sidewalks. Some had climbed onto the statue of Alexander Hamilton outside the stock exchange building because it was the only space left to stand and wait. A reporter for the New York Times described the crowd as ‘wild-eyed’ with fear. Men wept. A few days ago they had been wealthy. Now they were penniless.”

Catherine Gourley on “Black Tuesday” in War, Women, and the News: How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover the World War II (Atheneum, $21.99, ages 10–14, 2007) www.simonsayskids.com, a nonfiction book about some of the country’s greatest war correspondents.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 14, 2008

A Personal Encounter With David Foster Wallace (1962–2008)

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:40 pm
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Many critics know far more than I do about the novelist and short story writer David Foster Wallace, who killed himself on Friday, and David Gates has posted a good appreciation of his fiction on the Newsweek site www.newsweek.com/id/158935. So I’ll mention only an encounter I had with Wallace, early in his career, when I was the book editor of the Plain Dealer. I had read his story “Everything Is Green” — which has fewer than 700 words — in Harper’s before it was collected in Girl With Curious Hair, and I had remarked in my Sunday column that it was too minimalist for my taste.

Not long afterward, I got a letter from Wallace that was unusual for two reasons. One was that Wallace wrote to me about what was little more than a passing mention of his story: Most novelists don’t write to book editors about reviews that have hundreds or thousands of words. The letter was also noteworthy for its mildness: Wallace didn’t sound angry so much as baffled that I hadn’t liked his story, and he tried to persuade me to reconsider. His tone differed markedly from that of the may-God-smite-your-firstborn letters that I received at times from writers, and I appreciated his civility. Some critics have faulted Wallace’s writing for bombast, but if that quality had its roots in a personal trait, I saw no evidence of it in my gentle encounter with him.

[Contact information for the family of David Foster Wallace: Wallace leaves his wife, Karen Green; his parents, James and Sally Wallace; and his sister, Amy. Write to his family c/o David Foster Wallace Author Mail, Little, Brown & Co., 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017, or through Pomona College, where he taught: c/o Gary Kates, Dean, Pomona College, 333 N. College Way, Claremont, CA 91711.]

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 10, 2008

If I Could Read One Book About Sept. 11, I Would Read …

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:46 pm
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If I could read one account of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I would read 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (Holt, 384 pp., $15, paperback), by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, a book I’ve had on my “to read” list almost since its publication. Dwyer and Flynn describe the 102 minutes between the first attack on the World Trade Center and the collapse of the second tower, as seen by people inside the buildings, in this finalist for a National Book Award. As they do, they tell intimate stories that evoke deep emotions, Publishers Weekly said: “A law firm receptionist quietly eats yogurt at her desk seconds before impact. Injured survivors, sidestepping debris and bodies, struggle down a stairwell. A man trapped on the 88th floor leaves a phone message for his fiancée: ‘Kris, there’s been an explosion…. I want you to know my life has been so much better and richer because you were in it.’” You may also want to read the review of Love You, Mean It, a memoir by four women widowed by the attacks, posted on Sept.11, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/11/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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