One-Minute Book Reviews

July 13, 2009

Why French Women Are Diffferent on Bastille Day or Any Other

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:38 pm
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What do Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert have that you don’t? It’s not just that they’re thinner

Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. By Debra Ollivier. St. Martin’s / Griffin, 242 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

It’s been years since I served pot au feu and played Edith Piaf at Carnegie Hall at a dinner party, hoping to give the evening an alluring Gallic accent. But if I no longer believe that the French “know how to live” better than my Hungarian ancestors who also liked lard-bucket meals and summers in the country, I do think they are smarter than we are about a couple of things.

One of these is olives. When you go to a French home for dinner, the hosts do not try to fatten you up before the meal by serving you baby pigs-in-blankets or tortilla chips in bowls with the diameter of hubcaps. They typically serve olives. Just olives. I realized this years ago on a trip to Provence – Olive Central – and when I got back, I started serving olives, too. Just olives. And in a small way, it changed my life. Because I am functional noncook, the olives freed me permanently from an activity I don’t like and allowed me to focus one I do enjoy, which is conversation.

So I paid attention when a friend who has lived in France – and is also an Olive Person – said Entre Nous was full of similar ideas (although it allows that you can serve “small toasts with goat cheese, tomato and herbs” as a starter, too). She was right about this lively self-help guide by a Californian who married a Frenchman and lived in France for a decade. You have the essence of Entre Nous if you can extrapolate from olives to topics such as clothes, make-up, home furnishings, family life, and work. Example: You can wear white blouses, but never a white dress unless you’re a bride.

The most interesting – and, in my experience, accurate — chapter deals with the more complex traits that Debra Ollivier believes a typical French woman has, “some basic truths about how she sees herself and carries herself in the world.” One of these characteristics is self-possession (not the dreary “self-esteem”), a sureness about who she is that paradoxically allows her to show her vulnerability without with unraveling. A second trait – badly underestimated by American women – is discretion. A French woman, Ollivier says, does not wear her emotions “on her shirtsleeves.” She thinks before she speaks. And she may hold back for years things that an American might reveal within the first 15 minutes of meeting you, including details about her family. A Frenchman told Ollivier: “I’ve dated French women for months before I ever really knew who they were. After the first or second date, the American woman wants everything spelled out: ‘Are we dating? Are you my boyfriend or just a friend? Now that we’ve made love, are we a couple?’”

His comment points to a topic that gets relatively little attention in Entre Nous: sex. Ollivier deals broadly “sensuality.” But whether it’s because she was married while gathering material for this book or because of that natural French discretion, she says almost nothing about what an American might call The Act. A pity. Wouldn’t you love to know what a French woman would say to the British editors of Tatler, who instructed their readers recently to be sure to ask for a Taurus Brazilian bikini wax ,“a discreet triangle, not a landing strip”?

Best line: A French woman asked Ollivier: “What is a baby shower? Do you actually put the baby in the shower or do you use the tub?”

Worst line: “The lack of a workaholic culture, with all of its inherent dis-ease, takes the peculiarly Ango-Saxon strain out of the workplace, and frees the French girl to have a more sanely irreverent relationship to her work life. The results are apparent in a myriad of small but pervasive details …” No, they’re apparent in “myriad small but pervasive details.”

Recommended if … you’ve never understood the old joke that “the perfect country would be France without the French,” because you don’t see why anybody want a France without all those delightful French people.

Editor: Elizabeth Beier

Published: May 2004 with an excerpt posted on the St. Martin’s site.

Furthermore: Ollivier also wrote Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood and its sequel, Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race and Themselves.

Conflict alert: St. Martin’s/Griffin published the paperback edition of my first novel.

This is a Bastille Day re-post of a review that first appeared on Nov. 8, 2006.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comedy of manners The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999).

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 23, 2009

Allons, Enfants! Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read – ‘Anatole,’ a Caldecott Finalist by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:02 am
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A friendly is mouse is startled to find that Parisians dislike his nibbling on leftovers

Anatole. By Eve Titus. Illustrated by Paul Galdone. Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. Knopf, 40 pages, $14.95, ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Some runners-up for the Caldecott award have had longer and more active lives than the books that defeated them. A famous example is Madeline, a 1940 finalist edged out by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s Abraham Lincoln.

Another case in point is the delightful Anatole, a tale of French mouse shocked to learn that humans dislike his feasting on their leftovers. The book that defeated it for the 1957 medal, A Tree Is Nice, remains popular and admired. But if you factor in the sequels, Anatole has the edge with children. Adults have reason to love the book, too.

Anatole has a plot that – if strong in its heyday – looks Herculean by the standards of the washed-out storylines of so many contemporary picture books. Anatole is happy to sneak into houses and nibble on leftovers until Parisians offend his pride by complaining about the scavenging. A mouse has to feed his family – in this case, his wife, Doucette, and six children – but Anatole has a conscience and self-respect. “If only we could give people something in return — ” Doucette says.

Inspired by his wife’s words, Anatole begins slipping into the Duval Cheese Factory by moonlight, tasting the products, and pinning onto the cheeses notes that suggest ways to improve them. “Less black pepper … more grated onion … another pinch of salt.”

Will Anatole get caught? This question in itself makes for an exciting story. But Anatole also develops a worthy theme nondidactically: Giving back makes you feel good even if you can’t repay others in kind. And as Meghan Cox Gurdon has noted, the book gives English-speakers a chance to enliven a reading by adopting an outrageous French accent, either for the English text or the scattering of French words like, “Touché!”

Paul Galdone adds to the Gallic flair by illustrating his early 20th-century Parisian scenes with just three colors – red, white, and blue – and to the suspense by alternating tricolor pictures with black-and-white spreads. Some spoilsports might wish that Eve Titus had set her story in China, which would have allowed for shop signs in Mandarin – a language that that has spiked in popularity among preschoolers – instead of French. As Anatole’s helper Gaston says, “C’est la vie!” A Chinese version might have had its advantages, but would it have had as many pictures of delicious cheeses?

Best line/picture: Anatole is mortified to hear Parisians complaining about mice: “ ‘But I never dreamed they regarded us this way,’ cried the unhappy Anatole. ‘It is horrible to feel scorned and unwanted! Where is my self-respect? My pride? MY HONOR?’”

Worst line/picture: None.

Published: 1956 (McGraw-Hill first edition), 2009 (Knopf 50th Anniversary Edition).

Furthermore: Galdone won Caldecott Honor Book citations for Anatole and the first of more than a half dozen sequels, Anatole and the Cat.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.

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

October 22, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda — America’s Most Famous French Bookstore, the Librairie de France, Will Close in 2009

America’s most famous French bookstore will close in 2009. The Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center apparently has fallen victim to rising rents, online book sales and a declining interest in foreign languages.

The New York Times reported last year that the bookstore would shut its doors, but I missed the article and learned of the closing during a recent visit to the shop. A staff member was handing out flyers that said that its lease expires in September 2009:

“Because of overwhelming New York City retail rents, especially on Fifth Avenue – almost $1,800 a square foot, and projected even higher in 2009 – we will have to close our store at that time. Our mail order services, however, will continue from a yet-to-be-determined location.”

Alex Mindlin’s article in the Times noted that, in its prime, the Librairie was an institution. The bookstore was one of the first retail tenants of Rockefeller Center in 1935:

“During World War II, its publishing arm printed the works of many writers who had emigrated from Vichy France, including Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The shop thrived throughout the 1960s, importing two tons of books a week and holding autograph sessions for French celebrities like the singer Charles Aznavour.” www.nytimes.com/2007/07/15/nyregion/thecity/15fren.html

The Librairie de France operates today on two floors on the Promenade at Rockefeller Center: a ground-level space that sells souvenirs and other items popular with tourists, such as Tricolor keychains, “Little Prince” dolls and French translations of Goodnight Moon and the Harry Potter novels. An underground room below it sells antique and rare books and prints. A mail-order catalog appears on its Web site www.frencheuropean.com.

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

June 7, 2008

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read — Jeff Brown and Tomi Ungerer’s ‘Flat Stanley’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:23 am
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Stanley was different before different was the new normal

Flat Stanley. By Jeff Brown. Pictures by Tomi Ungerer. HarperCollins, 44 pp., varied prices and editions. Ages 4 and up (for reading aloud).

Flat Stanley. By Jeff Brown. Pictures by Scott Nash. HarperTrophy, 65 pp., $4.99, paperback. Ages 4 and up (for reading aloud), ages 6–9 (for independent readers).

By Janice Harayda

Long before bookstores and libraries abounded with books about children of all shapes and sizes, there was Flat Stanley, an ordinary boy who woke up one morning and found that he was flat. Stanley is flat — “four feet fall, about a foot wide, and half an inch thick” – because a bulletin board fell on him while he was sleeping.

He wasn’t hurt, so nobody is particularly troubled by this – least of all Stanley. “When Stanley got used to being flat, he enjoyed it.” Stanley finds that he can slide under closed doors and slip through the bars of a sidewalk grate to retrieve his mother’s favorite ring, which fell into a shaft. He can fly like a kite on the end of a string held by his younger brother, Arthur. And when thieves keep breaking into an art museum, he becomes a hero after helping the authorities with their plan to catch the robbers, which requires him to dress up like a shepherdess and be displayed in a frame. But after becoming a celebrity, Stanley starts getting teased by children who make fun of his flatness. He cries in bed at night because he wants to return to normal. And he doesn’t know how he can, until his sympathetic brother comes up with a creative idea that works.

The first edition of Flat Stanley has wonderful drawings by the French-born artist Tomi Ungerer who, on every page, raises Jeff Brown’s humor to a higher level. Few living artists can make visual satire work as well for young children as Ungerer, a winner of the the highest international prize for children’s-book illustration, the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Most children won’t know that he is gently tweaking 18th-century pastoral paintings of the school of Fragonard when they see Stanley, affixed to a wall, in ringlets and a dress with a shepherdess’s crook in hand. They don’t need to know it, because the picture is so funny in itself. Brown occasionally pitches his humor more to adults than to children, but Ungerer never makes that mistake.

Scott Nash’s cartoonish pictures for the chapter book don’t come close to Ungerer’s – it’s the difference between table wine and champagne. But the chapter book, which reproduces Brown’s text almost word-for-word, has its place. Because of the incident involving the museum thieves, some parents might hesitate to read Flat Stanley to preschoolers who are still worried about monsters under the bed. They might prefer to wait until children can read it on their own and, not incidentally, go to sleep without spraying down the bedroom with a water bottle labeled “Monster Repellent.” In that case, they can use the chapter book (which has sequels I haven’t seen).

Flat Stanley has a message that is expressed most directly by Stanley’s mother: “It is wrong to dislike people for their shapes. Or their religion, for that matter, or the color of their skin.” But the book wears this idea so lightly – and tells such a good story – that it stands far above the many recent, dreary books that bludgeon children with worthy ideas at the expense of plot, characterization and decent art. Stanley may be flat, but his story is anything but.

Best line/picture: All of Tomi Ungerer’s pictures of Stanley in his flat incarnation, especially that image of him in a shepherdess’s costume.

Worst line/picture: Stanley’s father announces that the newspaper says a painting, a Toulouse-Lautrec, has been stolen from the Famous Museum of Art. “That probably made it easy to steal,” his wife replies. “Being too loose, I mean.” This is one of the few lines that appears in the picture book but not in the chapter book. I didn’t mind the pun, because it fits in with the playful humor throughout the text and illustrations. But the reference isn’t explained and would no doubt sail over the heads of most preschoolers.

Published: 1964 (picture book by Jeff Brown with pictures by Tomi Ungerer) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Stanley and 2003, (chapter book by Jeff Brown with pictures by Scott Nash) www.harpercollinschildrens.com/HarperChildrens/Search/SearchResults.aspx?TCId=100&ST=1&SKw=flat%20stanley. More information appears on www.flatstanleyproject.com.

Furthermore: Tomi Ungerer’s site www.exopuce.fr/tomi/c_accueil_f.htm. This site is in French (and doesn’t have pictures of Stanley), but it has a button on the home page that you can click on for an English or German translation.

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

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

May 27, 2008

‘Goodnight Bush’ — A Parody in the Style of a Certain Children’s Book

Filed under: Humor — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:49 pm
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You could argue that you can’t satirize the man who said “I know how hard it is to put food on your family” because his actions have outstripped reality. But that hasn’t stopped Gan Golan and Erich Origen from sending up the president in their just-published parody of a certain children’s book, Goodnight Bush (Little, Brown, 48 pp., $14.99). Until I can put my hands on a copy of this one, you can learn more from the reader-reviews on www.amazon.com and from GalleyCat www.mediabistro.com/GalleyCat/, which has an article on it today.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 20, 2008

Annie Ernaux’s Modern French Classics, ‘A Man’s Place’ and ‘A Woman’s Story’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:04 am
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A prize-winning author recalls her parents’ lives in Normandy before and after World War II

A Man’s Place. By Annie Ernaux. Ballantine, 103 pp., varied prices, paperback. A Woman’s Story. By Annie Ernaux. Seven Stories, 96 pp., $8.95, paperback. Both translated from the French by Tanya Leslie.

By Janice Harayda

Annie Ernaux’s spare autobiographical books are remarkable for many things. One of them is their brevity. They typically have fewer than 100 pages, yet are so rich in perception that they have earned the status of modern classics in France.

In the U.S. Ernaux’s reputation rests largely on two books about her parents that are often described as autobiographical novels but resemble high stylized memoirs. Both are partly about how sex roles and social class shaped the lives of residents of a village in Normandy in the decades before and after World War II. They are also about how Ernaux, at once grateful for and alienated from her background, felt “torn between two identities” after she received the university education that her parents lacked.

A Man’s Place is about the life and sudden death of her father, a shopkeeper and café owner whom people called “simple” or “humble” but who had a complexity suggested by a telling incident: “One day he said to me proudly: ‘I have never given you cause for shame.” The sequel, A Woman’s Story, is similarly brief and evocative but, because of its subject, may hold more appeal for Americans.

After her husband’s death, Ernaux’s mother developed the disease the French call la maladie d’Alzheimer and suffered alternately from confusion and a terrified comprehension of her plight. She remembered that she had to turn off the light when she left a room but forgot how to do it, so “she climbed onto a chair and tried to unscrew the bulb.”

Ernaux describes all of this with an austere restraint reminiscent of the best work of Muriel Spark, always providing just enough detail to suggest greater depths. She tells us that her mother, as her Alzheimer’s become worse, wrote to a friend, “Dear Paulette, I am still lost in my world of darkness.”

Best line: From A Woman’s Story: “Books were the only things she handled with care,” Ernaux says of her mother. “She washed her hands before touching them.”

Worst line: Tanya Leslie’s translations capture well the stylistic purity of Ernaux’s prose. But her use of a conspicuously British English at times results in sentences that break the French mood, such as this line from A Man’s Place: “Ah here comes the lass.”

Published: 1993 (Ballantine paperback of A Man’s Place). 2003 (Seven Stories paperback of A Woman’s Story www.sevenstories.com/book/?GCOI=58322100333250).

Furthermore: A Man’s Place won the Prix Renaudot, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer. Ernaux lives in France. A Woman’s Story was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She would like to expand One-Minute Book Reviews to include podcasts, broadcasts and other services, such as online book discussion groups or forums in “real time,” and is looking for a home for this blog that would make it possible to provide these.

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

February 19, 2008

Two Books by Annie Ernaux, One of France’s Greatest Living Writers, Coming Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:15 pm
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Annie Ernaux is one of the greatest living writers in France, where she has been acclaimed for decades for her spare autobiographical novels. She has won the Prix Renaudot, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and could be a dark horse candidate for a Nobel Prize. So why isn’t she better known in the U.S.?

Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will consider two of her books that might especially interest American readers, including book clubs.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 12, 2007

Is Dalkey Archive Press America’s Most ‘Subversive’ Publisher?

A French secretary fantasizes about countering a “No Smoking” sign with one that says, “LET’S OUTLAW THE SALE OF CIGARETTES: PEOPLE SHOULD DIE OF POVERTY, NOT CANCER.”

Everyday Life. By Lydie Salvayre. Translated from the French by Jane Kuntz. Dalkey Archive, 117 pp., $12.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

If somebody offered you a million dollars to describe the difference between “a Random House book” and “a Simon and Schuster book,” could you do it? Or would you weep silently into your chai tea and think, “There goes the Lamborghini, the second home and my child’s education”?

If you have no idea how one publishing conglomerate differs from another, you’re not alone. These days the largest houses have little or no brand identity – at least not one that anybody but critics and scholars can define. Many of the smaller firms, don’t either. That makes Dalkey Archive Press a rarity: a publisher with a clear brand identity – although part of that brand identity is that you can’t imagine the staff saying “brand identity” instead of, say, “aesthetic” or “sensibility.” Critics often describe Dalkey Archive as a specialist in “experimental” or “avant-garde” books. Director John O’Brien prefers the term “subversive” because its titles to go against the grain. Many come from other countries, about half of them translation.

An example is Everyday Life by Lydie Salvayre, who grew up in southern France. Peter Mayle was never like this. This brief novel is about the psychological unraveling of a widowed secretary in her 50s who works for a Paris advertising agency and sinks into a paranoid fury when a new co-worker arrives with the same title. One critic has said that you could read it as “a commentary on today’s cubicle culture, where employees are warehoused in such tight quarters that any hiring or firing throws the entire office ecosystem out of whack.” That’s true in the sense that you could read Moby-Dick as a commentary on what happens when you pack a lot of people together on a Nantucket whaler.

Everyday Life, as I read it, is about something larger. It’s a study in the alienation that results not from office conditions but from the isolation that leads people to overinvest emotionally in work. Suzanne is the sort of woman Americans used to call an “office wife.” Faced with a rival, she reacts as many women do to a threat of infidelity, except that her behavior is much more sinister than sifting through pockets and credit-card receipts. She is a hard – maybe impossible – character to like. But Salvayre, writing with a Cartesian spareness, makes you see that part of the problem is that she’s smarter and funnier than others. Suzanne is so enraged when the new secretary posts a “No Smoking” sign that, alone in her apartment, she can’t sleep and composes darkly comic counter-signs. One reads: “LETS OUTLAW THE SALE OF CIGARETTES: PEOPLE SHOULD DIE OF POVERTY, NOT CANCER.” Such humor wouldn’t have raised eyebrows a generation or two ago. By today’s standards, it’s subversive, and just what you would expect from Dalkey Archive.

Best line (tie): No. 1 “Discretion is, in my eyes, the cardinal virtue. I’ll go so far as to say that one ought to be discreet in one’s discretion …” No. 2 “I can’t stand parties, and don’t want to be ridiculed. The energy expended in trying to be frivolous is finally too exhausting.”

Worst line: One page contains only one sentence: “I loathe her, I loathe her, I loathe her.”

Published: November 2006

Caveat lector: This review does not evaluate Jane Kuntz’s translation. It was also based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the on-sale edition may differ.

Furthermore: Everyday Life is not listed on Amazon and possibly other online sites. It available from the publisher www.dalkeyarchive.com. Click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/01/ to read a review of Gail Scott’s My Paris, also from Dalkey Archive. Visit the sites for Random House www.randomhouse.com and Simon and Schuster www.simonsays.com if you want to try to figure out the difference between the two firms.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/as of Sept. 6, 2007.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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