One-Minute Book Reviews

July 29, 2009

‘Most of Our Elected Officials Have Not Been Indicted’ – The Slogan New Jersey May Have Rejected Too Soon – Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:25 pm
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A line from Notorious New Jersey that I’ve been thinking about since last week’s corruption sweep: Jon Blackwell noted that when the governor asked residents to suggest new slogan for the state back in 2006, someone proposed “Most of Our Elected Officials Have Not Been Indicted.” How long would that one have been true even if it hadn’t lost to “New Jersey, Come See for Yourself”?

July 28, 2009

‘One of the Cardinal Rules of New Jersey Politics Is, There’s No Such Thing As a Private Conversation’ — James McGreevey in ‘The Confession’ — Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:19 pm
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Update, 9:50 p.m. July 29:  Jack Shaw’s autopsy is “inconclusive” pending more toxicology reports.

The New Jersey corruption scandal has deepened with the apparent suicide of Jack Shaw, a Jersey City political consultant who was among 44 people charged Thursday in a federal probe aided by a real-estate developer-turned-informant who wore a wire.

James McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor, wrote about the ubiquitous threat of taped conversations in the state in his memoir, The Confession (HarperCollins, 2008), written with David France, and his comments still apply. McGreevey said:

“One of the cardinal rules of New Jersey politics is, there’s no such thing as a private conversation. Governor [Brendan] Byrne once told me this, as though imparting a philosophical truth from the ages. ‘Somewhere along the line,’ he said, ‘you are going to be taped by someone wearing a wire.’ This is why so many political meetings start with a big bear hug – a New Jersey pat down among friends.”

McGreevey’s memoir has problems well documented by the reviewers and op-ed page columnists who wrote about the book when it appeared in 2008, but The Confession also has many quotes like this one that help to put the latest scandal in context.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 27, 2009

‘Nobody Calls Me Pecker Head and Lives’ — A New Jersey Critic Looks at ‘Finger Lickin’ Fifteen,’ Janet Evanovich’s Latest Novel About a Trenton-Based Bounty Hunter

Killers behead high-profile chef with a meat cleaver, and, yes, it’s supposed to be funny

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. By Janet Evanovich. St. Martin’s, 308 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Janet Evanovich is one of the writers whose books I most want to like. She and I went to rival New Jersey high schools at different times – you haven’t lived if you were born too late for a South River–New Brunswick Thanksgiving Day game at the old Rutgers Stadium! – and I share a few traits with her Trenton-based bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, including blue eyes, a Hungarian grandmother, and bad car karma. My first novel came from her publisher, a firm that in a perilous market has kept its integrity to a degree widely admired in the industry. And I love comic novels and look for opportunities to praise them on this site.

But Evanovich seems to have lost her focus since the publication of One for the Money, her first novel about Plum, in 1994. From the start, she has combined genres — romance, mystery, adventure, and comedy — in the series. In Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, the comedy devolves into farce, a form that relies on over-the-top elements such as improbable plotting and slapstick. Her humor is so broad, it undermines her attempt to tell a plausible story. And it clashes with the realism of other aspects the novel, such as Plum’s flirtations with the plainclothes cop Joe Morelli and with Carlos “Ranger” Manoso, who heads the Rangeman security firm for which she moonlights. At times the comedy is so silly or tasteless, Evanovich seems to be parodying herself.

The opening pages of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen describe how a pair of killers used a meat cleaver to behead a high-profile chef absurdly named Stanley Chipotle on a Trenton street: “There was a big gusher of blog when they whacked the head off,” a witness says. “It was like Old Faithful going off, only it was blood. And then the head rolled down the sidewalk … ”

Am I the only person who read this and thought of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded in Pakistan in 2002 after his kidnappers released a terrifying video of his captivity? And the only reader who isn’t ready to laugh — as this novel asks us to do — at the story of an effort to find the people who chopped off a man’s head with a cleaver?

A second plot – it gets so much space, you can’t call it a “subplot” — involves a series of break-ins at properties protected by the Rangeman security staff, and you keep expecting it to relate in the end to the murder of Stanley Chipotle. It doesn’t. The two plots seem to exist mainly to give Plum a chance to flirt throughout the story with Morelli and Ranger, and both storylines have unsatisfying resolutions. The prime mover of one plot escapes justice completely, and only his underlings are apprehended. The people behind the other aren’t mentioned by name for the first 300 pages, so if you read mysteries partly for the pleasure of sorting through clues and trying to guess the identity of the perpetrator, you’re out of luck.

Some people say that you don’t read Evanovich for her plots but for her humor, and that’s fair enough. But as her comedy has become more farcical, her humor has become cruder and more sophomoric. Finger Lickin’ Fifteen abounds with jokes about farts and other body functions or parts, including those described on its pages as “number two,” “cooter,” “pecker,” “wanger,” or “winkie.” “Nobody calls me pecker head and lives,” says a character unwisely named Peter Pecker. Is Evanovich courting 10-year-olds moving up from Harry Potter books?

Perhaps oddest of all given that Evanovich grew up in New Jersey, Finger Lickin’ Fifteen gives you no sense of what makes Trenton unique or a worthy setting for a mystery. The action might as well take place in Cleveland. As I write this review, the United States Attorney for New Jersey has just announced the arrest of dozens of people, including rabbis, mayors and and current or former state legislators. One defendant is said to have passed cash illegally in a box of Apple Jacks cereal stuffed with $97,000. Nobody is asking Evanovich to return to New Jersey from her current homes Florida and New Hampshire. But she has clearly lost touch with some of the wellsprings of material. Who needs to send a severed head rolling down a Trenton street when you can find so much drama in a box of Apple Jacks?

Best line: “… gravy so thick you could walk across a vat of it.”

Worst line: No. 1: “ ‘Nobody calls me pecker head and lives,’ Pecker said.” No. 2: “ ‘Yep,’ Grandma said. ‘He’s got a big one. All them Turleys is hung like horses. … I tell you, for a little guy, he had a real good-sized wanger.'” No. 3: “It was a record-breaking fart. On my best day, I couldn’t come near to farting like that.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Finger Lickin’ Fifteen appears in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: June 2009

Listen to the beginning of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen.

Janice Harayda is a former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and wrote the comic novel The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999).

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

July 26, 2009

Why Is New Jersey So Crooked? Two Views — From a Book and the WSJ

Wonder why some residents of New Jersey weren’t surprised when law-enforcement authorities arrested dozens of people Thursday in a political corruption and money-laundering probe that involved rabbis, mayors and a defendant said to have stuffed $97,000 in cash in a box of Apple Jacks? Read Jon Blackwell’s Notorious New Jersey: 100 True Tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels (Rutgers University Press, 2007). This lively book looks back on sordid events  in Garden State history from the 1804 Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel in Weekhawken to the 2002 murder conviction of the philandering Cherry Hill rabbi Fred Neulander. Blackwell argues that crime thrives in New Jersey because, with 566 municipalities, the state has “many nooks and crannies where bribery can flourish.” That’s true as far as it goes, but former Star-Ledger reporter Brad Parks offers a fuller explanation in his  “Poison Ivy in the Garden State” in the July 25–26 Wall Street Journal. A review of Notorious New Jersey appeared on October 20, 2008.

July 24, 2009

Next Week — A Review of Janet Evanovich’s ‘Finger Lickin’ Fifteen’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:26 pm
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A pair of thugs use a meat cleaver to behead a celebrity chef in the opening pages of the bestselling Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, Janet Evanovich’s 15th comic suspense novel about the Trenton-based bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. Is the decapitation amusing or tasteless after terrorists’ beheadings of captives such as the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl? One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of the novel next week.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 14, 2009

When Livia Soprano Met Mary Tyler Moore – Maria Laurino Grapples With Being an Italian-American in ‘Old World Daughter, New World Mother’

A former speechwriter calls for a revolution that, in some ways, has already arrived

Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom.
By Maria Laurino. Norton, 224 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Maria Laurino entered Georgetown University in the late 1970s, “a member of that privileged generation that reaped the benefits, without doing any of the grassroots work,” of the women’s movement that flowered decade earlier. She tries to repay the debt in a book that begins as a memoir of growing up Italian-American in Short Hills, New Jersey, and devolves into a brief for an updated feminist ethic that combines an Old World respect for families with a New World admiration for individualism.

Old World Daughter, New World Mother resembles a dish of parmesan-cheese ice cream, that acquired taste found in some Italian restaurants. Laurino writes memorably about having a disabled brother and developing severe preeclampsia after becoming pregnant at the age of 37. But she links such experiences, not always plausibly, to a call for a “social revolution” that would require unprecedented female harmony and seemingly little work by men: “Once women agree on a vision for a national feminist movement that makes care its core principle, more creative solutions to help working parents will abound.” Given that both sexes — and their children — would benefit from those solutions, why should women alone have to agree on a vision for them? Shouldn’t men bear some of the responsibility for it?

In making her case for revolution, Laurino draws on the views and jargon of literary and gender theorists and scholars such as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton. Yet a curiously old-fashioned idea appears to underlie her book: that bringing about the revolution is, in effect, “women’s work.” The reality is often quite different. The reason many corporations now offer flexible schedules and refer to “maternity leave” as “parental leave” is in part that men are increasingly are seeking to spend more time with newborns and older children.

Laurino admits that’s she nostalgic for the excitement of 60s feminists for new ideas – at times she sounds weirdly like the men who, before the war in Iraq, lamented that they were born too late for Vietnam – and her sentimentality may help to explain why this book has the air of a throwback. Her Were You Always an Italian? showed that she has a lively perspective on her ancestry. Old World Daughter, New World Mother yokes her background so aggressively to other topics that it leaves the impression that, wittingly or not, she is in danger of becoming a professional Italian-American.

Best line: No. 1: “In her book The Equality Trap, Mary Ann Mason, now dean of the graduate school at Berkeley, told of how the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the early eighties  in favor of the California Federal Savings and Loan after the bank fired a receptionist for taking a four-month unpaid maternity leave.” If true, this startling tone-deafness to working women’s needs would help to explain why feminist groups have had trouble finding support from a new generation. No. 2: “When Mary Met Livia,” the title for a chapter about the collision between images of the liberated Mary Tyler Moore and the tradition-bound Livia Soprano in Laurino’s life.

Worst line: No. 1: “Our income shrunk significantly …” No. 2: “ Will men ever break loose ‘from the empire of phallocratism’?” No. 3: “Or, put another way, maybe I needed to get off my asana and smell the coffee.”

Published: April 2009

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Laurino lives in New York City. She has worked for the Village Voice and as a speechwriter for former mayor David Dinkins.

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

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

November 5, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – A Blog on Cancer That Begins Where Books Leave Off

Filed under: Blogging News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:44 pm
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Even the best books on cancer often have a built-in liability. It typically takes at least a year to write a book and another nine months or so for the finished manuscript to appear in print. The result? Good books may not reflect the latest research, a liability for anyone trying to make complex decisions about treatment.

So tonight I’d like to go off message and recommend a new blog on cancer by two good reporters — one a caregiver and the other a patient – both on staff at the Record in northern New Jersey. Leslie Brody has been helping her husband cope with pancreatic cancer since his diagnosis in 2006. My friend Lindy Washburn is a health-care writer for the Record who had surgery and radiation for breast cancer in 2007. Washburn is a two-time winner of the New Jersey Press Association Journalist of the Year Award and a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, who has also won the Investigative Reporters and Editors gold medal and was part of a team that won first-ever Grantham Prize for environmental reporting.

Brody and Washburn wrote a moving and series of articles about their experiences www.northjersey.com/specialreports/livingwithcancer.html. And it led to their Living With Cancer blog www.njmg.typepad.com/cancerblog/, which combines personal stories with up-to-date reporting and links to other good sources of information on cancer.

There are good blogs on cancer and good blogs by newspaper reporters, but Living With Cancer is both. If cancer has touched your life, this site is worth visiting.

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

October 20, 2008

100 Reasons Not to Move to New Jersey, Including the Real-Life Tony Soprano

From the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel to anthrax-laced letters

Notorious New Jersey: 100 True Tales of Murders and Mobsters, Scandals and Scoundrels. By Jon Blackwell. Rutgers/Rivergate, 406 pp., $18.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Three hours before the start of a murder trial in New Jersey last week, someone gunned down the mother of a witness’s girlfriend. Defense lawyers dismissed the killing as a coincidence.

We have a lot of coincidences here in New Jersey, and Jon Blackwell serves them up in fine style in Notorious New Jersey. In this lively collection of 100 true-crime tales, Blackwell deals mostly with events so scandalous they made national news, or should have.

Take his profile of the Newark mob boss Ruggiero “Richie the Boot” Boiardo, whom Sopranos creator David Chase has called an inspiration for Tony Soprano (a fact oddly unmentioned in the book). Blackwell notes that the gangster lived in a stone mansion that Life magazine described as “Transylvanian traditional”:

“The road past his home in Livingston, New Jersey, was flanked by a pedestal on which stood a dozen painted busts of his family, staring blank-eyed like porcelain dolls. A statue of Boiardo himself, astride a white horse, towered above them. Vegetables and flowers grew in a grassy expanse marked by a sign, ‘Godfather’s Garden.’”

Ruggiero turned to his son Anthony “Tony Boy” Boiardo and lieutenants like Anthony “Little Pussy” Russo when he needed help collecting kickbacks or disposing of bodies. At the age of 89, he became “the oldest mobster ever to be put on trial, anywhere” when the state tried to send him to jail for running a Mafia syndicate:

“Pleading ill health, he had the charges dismissed. He died four years later, having outlived his son and every other vestige of New Jersey’s swaggering gangland glory years.”

For all of its mobsters, Notorious New Jersey is more than a dishonor roll of leg-breakers of yesteryear. Blackwell’s masterstroke was to define “scandal” broadly. His book covers the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the anthrax-laced letters slipped into a Princeton mailbox in September 2001, the Aaron Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel and the 2002 murder conviction of the philandering Cherry Hill rabbi Fred Neulander.

Then there are the corporate scandals, such as the cover-up at the Johns-Manville asbestos plant that Blackwell rightly calls “one of the worst corporate horror stories in U.S. history.” For decades the company withheld from its workers the news — gained from employee medical exams and X-rays — that many were gravely ill with lung-scarring asbestosis or other illnesses. The resulting litigation forced Johns-Manville into bankruptcy and has cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Why does scandal thrive in New Jersey? In the weakest section of the book, Blackwell tries to explain it by saying that the state attracts gangsters because, with 566 municipalities, it has “many nooks and crannies where bribery can flourish.” That’s true as far as it goes.

But most of Blackwell’s scandals don’t involve bribery, and some have more complex causes than he implies. New Jersey is the most densely populated state, and density creates opportunity. The state also has entrenched political machines, powerful unelected officials whom voters can’t remove, and a legislature that refuses to close legal loopholes that foster corruption. The advent of casino gambling didn’t help, either.

The scandals — whatever their cause — are here to stay. Blackwell provides a useful recap of the events that led to the resignation of governor James McGreevey in August 2004, some of them overshadowed by his declaration that he was gay:

“In the summer 2004, McGreevey’s knack for choosing bad friends came back to haunt him. That July, one of his top fund-raisers, David D’Amiano, was indicted on bribery charges. It emerged that a Piscataway, New Jersey, farmer was upset at being offered too little money for his land as part of an eminent domain proceeding. He turned to D’Amiano for help, and the money man promised to sweeten the deal in exchange for $10,000. The farmer would supposedly know the deal was on if a certain state official used the code word ‘Machiavelli’ – and McGreevey was afterward heard using that very word in conversation with the farmer, who wore a wire. The governor insisted his use of the word was a coincidence.”

Best line: On Bruno Hauptmann’s trial for the murder of Charles A. Lindbergh Jr.: “H. L. Mencken was only half-joking when he called it ‘the greatest story since the Resurrection.’ Crowds of ten thousand people mobbed the Hunterdon County courthouse on especially dramatic days of testimony. Vendors sold them miniature kidnap ladders and phony locks of the Lindbergh baby’s hair.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Of the fifty states, maybe New York, California, Texas, and Illinois can match New Jersey for sheer sensational crime, but no place surpasses its blatant rascality.” Blackwell appears to be discounting all the “rascality” against blacks before the Civil Rights era. If you count lynchings — and you should — any state in the Deep South might surpass New Jersey. No. 2: In a section on Vincent “Vinny Ocean” Palmero, Blackwell leaves the impression that the DeCavalcante crime family may have inspired The Sopranos when the Boiardos seem more likely models www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/revealed-the-real-tony-soprano-444869.html.

Published: December 2007 rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/acatalog/notorious_nj.html

Furthermore: Blackwell is a copy editor at the New York Post. Notorious New Jersey should not be confused with the popular Weird New Jersey books, which deal with offbeat or lighter-weight topics such as legends, unsolved mysteries and a family that keeps a bowling-ball collection on its front lawn.

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

June 12, 2008

The Best Book to Have on Hand in a Power Blackout

We’re still living in a state of emergency in my part of New Jersey, where some streets look like a scene from the Book of Revelation with pizza deliveries. Tens of thousands of people aren’t expected to get their electricity back until Friday. And it made me wonder: What’s the best book to have on hand during a power blackout? Pragmatists might argue for the American Red Cross First Aid and Safety Handbook or, possibly, the Kama Sutra. But – speaking just for myself – I’d want The Complete Sherlock Holmes in any edition. What book makes for better reading aloud by candlelight to anyone over the age of six? What plot device offers a more reliable diversion from the inconveniences of life without microwave popcorn than the deadly swamp adder in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” or that strange dog on the moors in “The Hound of the Baskervilles”? You can download 48 Sherlock Holmes stories for free at 221bakerstreet.org/, which also has a discussion forum and more.

Here’s news on the blackout that inspired this post: www.nj.com/newsflash/index.ssf?/base/news-32/1213231759129640.xml&storylist=jersey

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 10, 2008

During Yesterday’s Power Blackout in New Jersey, Life Imitated ‘Netherland’ Imitating Life

Update 7:05 p.m. Tuesday: Another power outage! I have just been “evacuated” from the library, in the words of the staff, for the second time in two days. This happened during the weekly Open Mic night in the library cafe, where a guitarist had just finished singing “The Mighty Quinn.” (This is our library’s unofficial anthem, played at every Open Mic. What’s your library’s anthem?) The new outage struck less than 24 hours after yesterday’s blackout ended. This power failure seems less extensive, though, because the traffic lights are only flickering, not out. Luckily I have tomorrow’s post written, so unless a catastrophe occurs, it will go up by morning.

Further update 1:15 p.m. Wednesday: A state of emergency has been declared in Essex County, NJ: www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2008/06/100000_pseg_customers_still_in.html. If you can’t access that Star-Ledger site, you can find a lot of information and pictures of the damage on the local news site Baristanet www.baristanet.com.

We know the lights went out, but we don’t know many people had that “we’re-all-going-to-die-sex”

Have your life and reading ever intersected in an uncanny way? More than 75,000 of us lost power yesterday after a fire broke out in midafternoon at an electrical switching station in West Orange, New Jersey. The blackout brought out a lot of people’s latent Eagle Scout: The library in my town evacuated all the patrons, but the staff soldiered on, and until the police showed up, a businessman in a pinstriped suit directed in traffic in 90-degree heat.

But there was no possibility of doing any serious writing – I have a Mac with a battery prone to sudden-death failures when the charge falls below 33 percent – so I headed over to an air-conditioned pizza place in a part of town that still had power. I settled in with my half-finished copy of Netherland, Joseph O’Neill’s elegant novel of life in New York City after September 11, 2001, and found myself reading a description of the August 2003 blackout that struck much of the Northeast.

In the scene, Hans, the banker who narrates the novel, goes up to the roof of his residential hotel in Manhattan, where tenants have gathered to watch night descend on a city bereft of power. He meets a man who predicts, in effect, that the city will turn into Lord of the Flies during the outage. Hans reflects:

“But in fact, as everybody knows, the blackout gave rise to an outbreak of civic responsibility. From the Bronx to Staten Island, citizens appointed themselves traffic cops, gave rides to strangers, housed and fed the stranded. It also transpired that the upheaval provoked a huge number of romantic encounters, a collective surge of passion not seen, I read somewhere, since the ‘we’re-all-going-to-die-sex’ in which, apparently, everybody had indulged in the second half of September two years previously – an analysis I found a little hard to accept, since it was my understanding that all sex, indeed all human activity, fell into that category.”

I don’t know how much of the “we’re-all-going-to-die” sex we had here in New Jersey yesterday. But I do know, now that I’ve finished Netherland, that on nearly every page you’ll find writing as good as you do in that passage.

To read a longer excerpt from and find the reading group guide to Netherland, click here www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307377043.

To read about yesterday’s power blackout in northern New Jersey, click here www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2008/06/30000_without_power_in_essex_c.html.

© 2008 Janice. Harayda. All rights reserved.

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