One-Minute Book Reviews

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 27, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check — A Review of the 2009 Fiction Winner, Elizabeth Strout’s Short Story Collection, ‘Olive Kitteridge’

The latest in a series of occasional posts on the winners of or finalists for major literary prizes

Olive Kitteridge. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 304 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

It tells you something about Olive Kitteridge that two of its 13 short stories were published in Seventeen and O, The Oprah Magazine: This is one of the lighter-weight winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It tells you more that two other stories appeared in The New Yorker and South Carolina Review: These tales, if often moving, have the disjointed quality of scenes from different dreams.

The linchpin of the collection is Olive Kitteridge, a retired junior-high math teacher in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, who appears at least briefly in every story. At first, the pace of the book is somnolent and the title character so nasty she verges on caricature. But the collection picks up steam – and Olive, some humanity – after 30 or so pages.

In the fourth story, “A Little Burst,” comes the great scene in the book. At her middle-aged son’s wedding reception, Olive slips into the just-married couple’s bedroom and flinches when, through an open window, she hears her new daughter-in-law mocking her mother-of-the-bride dress. It is a dress she loves and has made from a green fabric imprinted with big reddish-pink geraniums: “Her heart really opened when she came across the gauzy muslin in So-Fro’s; sunlight let into the anxious gloom of the upcoming wedding; those flowers skimming over the table in her sewing room.” Wounded and uncomprehending, Olive steals two of her daughter-in-law’s possessions from the couple’s bedroom – a loafer and “a shiny pale blue bra, small-cupped and delicate.” She also defaces a sweater with a black Magic Marker, then neatly folds it and puts back on its closet shelf. Olive finds that her vandalism does not help much, but “it does help some,” to know that Sue will go through her belongings and think: “I must be losing my mind, I can’t keep track of anything…. And, my God, what happened to my sweater?” This tale offers not just a finely wrought portrait of a frightened woman’s projection of her own anxieties about her only child’s belated wedding — it is Olive herself who may be losing her mind — but can be read as a chilling tale of a mother’s symbolic, if unconscious, rape of her son.

As a self-contained story, “A Little Burst” works beautifully. This is a tale of a nervous breakdown that may betoken a mental illness such as psychosis. The problem comes when you read the story against others that leave a contradictory impression: Olive is not mentally ill but starved for love in her marriage to a kind but insufficient pharmacist (or, as an atheist, has a spiritual hunger she can’t admit). In some tales, Olive plays such an inconsequential role that you wonder if Elizabeth Strout shoehorned them into the book by altering the stories after publication. This is especially true of “Ship in a Bottle,” which appeared in Seventeen 1992 and has clearly since been revised to include a veiled reference to torture at Abu Ghraib prison, which didn’t become known until 2004.

Olive Kitteridge ends, as good novels typically do, with a redemption of sorts. But because the book isn’t a novel, it hasn’t built toward that transformation as novels do. Its ending has less force, diluted by digressions into lives of characters who relate to it obliquely if at all. When Olive finally chooses to accept love, in however imperfect a form, you wonder if such a decision would be possible for someone who for so long has hated so much about the world.

Best line: From “A Little Burst”: “Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as ‘big bursts’ and ‘little bursts.’ Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.”

Worst line: No. 1: “He’s a spoiled brat to the manor born.” Another misquotation of Shakespeare’s “to the manner born.” No. 2: “ … he’d eat a sandwich that had spilling from it mayonnaisey clumps of egg salad or tuna fish, landing on his shirt.” Pray that “mayonnaisey” isn’t the next “garlicky.” No. 3: “The Scottish were scrappy and tough …” The people of Scotland and their descendants almost always call themselves the Scots, not the “Scottish,” a word used mainly as an adjective. As an alternate term for the Scots, “the Scottish” is correct but stilted. No. 4: The multiple uses of “Ay-yuh,” northern New England slang for “Yes” or “Yup.” Strout grew up in Maine and must have heard the expression as “ay-yuh.” But the phrase is usually rendered “ay-yup,” as a Voice of America report notes, and it sounded like “ay-yup” when I lived in New Hampshire.

Read an excerpt from Olive Kitteridge.

Published: March 2008 (hardcover), September 2008 (paperback). Olive Kitteredge was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Furthermore: The marketing campaign for Olive Kitteridge misrepresents the book as “a novel in stories” when it is a short story cycle. For more on this issue, see yesterday’s post.

About the author: Strout also wrote Amy and Isabelle and Abide With Me. She lives in New York City.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, the book columnist for Glamour and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

February 23, 2009

Night Falls on James Frey’s ‘Bright Shiny Morning’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:26 am
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A controversial author says that the City of Los Angeles “was founded by a major water source”

Bright Shiny Morning. By James Frey. Harper, 501 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Evening came early for Bright Shiny Morning, a novel that appeared in May and that apparently had tanked at bookstores by September. And the premature nightfall befit this dark, postmodern tale of Los Angeles.

Bright Shiny Morning is a flat-footed converse of A Million Little Pieces, the discredited memoir that turned James Frey into a literary pariah. If much of that book was fiction posing as fact, much of this one is fact posing as fiction.

Frey tells the interleaved stories of stereotypical characters — a Mexican-American maid, a closeted gay male superstar — that don’t converge. He pads these with so many set pieces and trivia lists, you almost expect a recipe for huevos rancheros. The stories typically begin on right-hand pages and face, on left-hand pages, snippets of Los Angeles history that read like Wikipedia entries. Frey in effect juxtaposes two books — one fiction, one nonfiction — each of which makes sense without the other. It’s an interesting device, and a better stylist might have pulled it off. But much of Bright Shiny Morning reads like the work of an also-ran in a David Foster Wallace imitation contest. And some of its lines are almost comically inept. “The City of Los Angeles,” Frey tells us, “was founded by a major water source.”

A theme of Bright Shiny Morning — to the degree that it has one — is that people stay addicted to the dream of Los Angeles long after reality has impinged on it. Joan Didion said as much in her wonderful essay about the San Bernadino Valley, “Some Dreamers of Golden Dream,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. More than 40 years later, Frey may tell you less about Los Angeles in 501 pages than Didion did in her one-line comment that this is the place where “a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into to a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity.”

Best line: Frey reports that Los Angeles has the “world’s first video graveyard,” where TV screens play, for 24 hours a day, videos of the people buried beneath them.

Worst line: No. 1: “As is the case with most of the world’s megacities, the City of Los Angeles was founded by a major water source.” Bright Shiny Morning also has many lines like No. 2: “He said she would have a better life the sun shining every day more free time less stress she said she would feel like she had wasted a decade trying to get to the major leagues only to demote herself once she got into them.”

Second opinion: Read a review by David Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Furthermore: Bright Shiny Morning was one of Entertainment Weekly’s five worst books of 2008. It was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. The paperback edition is due out in March 2009. Frey lives in New York.

One-Minute Book Reviews will post the shortlist for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Thursday, Feb. 26. The finalists will be announced at roughly 20-30 minute intervals beginning a 11 10 a.m. Eastern Time and the full list posted by the end of the day. The winners will be named on March 16 (instead of the usual March 15, which falls on Sunday this year).

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

January 9, 2009

Adultery for Third-Graders — A Review of ‘What I Saw and How I Lied,’ Winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

A tale of theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder, written at an 8-year-old reading level

What I Saw and How I Lied. By Judy Blundell. Scholastic, 284 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

What would you do if you were a publisher who knew that reading test scores were declining as children were seeing more sex and violent crimes in the media? Maybe play both sides against the middle as Scholastic has done with What I Saw and How I Lied, the winner of the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

This stylish literary thriller deals with subjects appropriate for the 13-to-18-year-old age range that the publisher recommends on its site — theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder. But Judy Blundell writes at a third-grade reading level in the novel, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.

So who, exactly, is this book for? Much of the content is too mature for 8-year-olds. But the reading level is too low for the sophisticated adolescent and teenage girls likely gravitate to its glamorous, noir-ish cover, which shows a thin, beautiful model applying red lipstick. Blundell is condescending to them even if they enjoy its page-turner of a plot: Anyone who is ready for the subjects covered in this novel is also ready for a higher reading level.

Evie Spooner is 15 years old when her stepfather, Joe, returns from Austria in 1947, having overstayed the end of the war for murky reasons. Evie’s seductive mother has quit her job at Lord & Taylor – “Either that or get fired”— because veterans needed jobs. And she’s surprised her husband by learning to make Sunday suppers and perform other domestic tasks. “Son of a bitch,” Joe says of the change.

But the glow of the family reunion fades after Joe packs up the three of them for what he casts as an overdue Florida vacation. They settle into a Palm Beach hotel (aptly named Le Mirage), nearly deserted in the off-season. And Evie becomes swept up in a riptide of events that involves looted gold, a hurricane, an inquest into a possible homicide and her crush on a seductive 23-year-old who says he served with Joe overseas.

The plotting is tight and ingenious until an improbable last scene, and well-supported by details that evoke the era (including the chocolate cigarettes that Evie buys to “practice smoking”). And the book deals with larger issues than whether a murder occurred: What is loyalty? What do we owe the dead? Do truth and justice differ and, if so, how?

Questions like these appeal strongly to adolescents and teenagers, and this book could provide a framework for exploring them. As for their reading test scores: They’re not likely to improve if more publishers — encouraged by the National Book Award for this novel — put a senior prom dress on a third-grader’s soccer shorts.

Best line: A warning heard on the radio as a hurricane approaches Palm Beach: “Watch out for flying coconuts.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Our pipsqueak attorney had turned into a pretty decent linebacker.” It’s a stretch that a 15-year-old girl living in 1947 would know enough about linebackers to use the word in this way. No. 2: “Lana Turner was every man’s dream, sultry and blond. It was Lana filling out a sweater at a drugstore that got her a Hollywood contract.” That Turner was discovered at a drugstore is a myth. Even if the teenagers of 1947 believed the myth, the book is perpetuating this legend for a new generation of readers.

About the reading level: The reading level comes from the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on any recent version of Microsoft Word. To find it, I entered a minimum of 300 words from each of the following two-page sections of What I Saw and How I Lied: pages 36-37 (Grade 4.2), pages 136-137 (Grade 2.6) and pages 236-237 (3.7). I also entered all of last two pages (Grade 3.0). The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of authors and tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.

Furthermore: What I Saw and How I Lied
won a 2008 National Book Award. The National Book Foundation.
has posted an excerpt from and the citation for the novel on its site.

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

June 18, 2008

Holly Peterson’s Bad Sex Scenes Are Back in the New Paperback Edition of ‘The Manny’

How bad are the sex scenes in Holly Peterson’s The Manny? Let’s just say that one begins with “Now she was on her knees …” and ends with “like a fire hose in her expensive mouth.” What if you’re tempted to buy The Manny (Dial, 368 pp., $12), anyway, now that the novel is out in paperback? Maybe you know it involves a Park Avenue mother who hires a male nanny for her 9-year-old son. And you think: With that catchy premise, how bad could it be? Here’s a sample line of dialogue: “We’re in the modern era, baby, you spoiled, Jurassic, archaic, Waspy piece of petrified wood!” (And, yes, that comes from a character we’re supposed to like.) Lines like that one earned the novel a spot on the shortlist for the 2008 Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. You’ll find others in a review and Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Manny, published in separate posts on June 26, 2007 oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/06/26/.

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

April 24, 2008

Thomas Craughwell’s ‘Great Books for Every Book Lover’

Filed under: Classics,Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am
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Recommendations in 70 categories, including “All-Star Sports,” “Great Novellas” and “Sci-Fi Classics”

Great Books for Every Book Lover: 2002 Great Reading Suggestions for the Discriminating Bibliophile. By Thomas Craughwell. Workman/Black Dog & Leventhal, 784 pp. , varied prices.

By Janice Harayda

More than a decade ago, Thomas Craughwell created the popular Book Lover’s Page-a-Day calendars that recommend a book for each day of the year. After they became a hit, he gathered more than 2000 of their suggestions into Great Books for Every Book Lover, and the result has several advantages over many similar guides for readers.

Craughwell recommends books in 70 categories, such as “All-Star Sports Books,” “Great Novellas,” “Notable Biographies,” “Sci-Fi Classics” and “For Young Readers.” This breadth alone would set his book apart from the many guides that focus mainstream fiction and nonfiction keyed to the tastes to women’s book clubs. Great Books for Every Book Lover also indexes all books by title and author, which makes it easy to use.

The capsule descriptions of books vary in quality and accuracy. A chapter on “A Masterpiece You Might Have Missed” lists Elizabeth Berg’s Talk Before Sleep, which doesn’t belong there, along with The Woman Warrior, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾, which do. First published in 1998, the book includes no titles from the past decade and, like most guides, tends to overpraise bestsellers. It’s also old enough that you may have to track it down online, though Workman has a nominal policy of keeping all of its titles in print.

Still, how many guides include, as this one does, a chapter on erotica? Then there’s the “Exercise & Fitness” chapter. Bet your library’s list of suggested titles for reading groups doesn’t include The Complete Book of Butt and Legs.

Best line: At his best, Craughwell can sum up rich and complex books in a few strokes. Here is his description of Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (from the “Spiritual Classics” chapter): “In 1941, Merton was a brilliant young professor at Columbia University. Yet his career, even his love life, left him restless and dissatisfied. To the horror of his colleagues and friends, Merton gave it all up and entered the silent, contemplative world of Gethsemani Abbey. In this profoundly eloquent book, he explains why he did it.” Other examples may appear later this week.

Worst line: On Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums: “Some people say Kerouac is damn near a mystic in this road novel that mixes Zen Buddhism with the wild prose and wild parties.” Yes, and that’s why some people say the Beat Generation was more of a lifestyle trend than a literary movement. You could also argue with more than a few of Craughwell’s choices. Why pick Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day June 6, 1944 as the D-Day book instead of Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day? Ambrose’s book has more recent research but nowhere near the emotional power and narrative drive of Ryan’s.

Published: January 1998

Furthermore: Craughwell also wrote Every Eye Beholds You: A World Anthology of Prayer. He lives in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

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

February 3, 2008

Watch Ishmael Beah on Comedy Central (This Is Not a Joke)

Somehow I missed this until now, but last year the people at Sarah Crichton Books apparently decided that they had found a great place for Ishmael Beach to plug his memoir of how the army in Sierra Leone turned him into a ruthless drug-addicted killer. And that place was … Comedy Central!

I’m not making this up. Beah was on the Daily Show With Jon Stewart on Feb. 14, 2007. His publisher posted a clip of his appearance the Web site for his A Long Way Gone and hasn’t taken it down, so somebody must still think it’s pretty funny. Here’s a link to the Stewart interview www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=82274&title=ishmael-beah. (If the link doesn’t work, you can find the clip by going to www.alongwaygone.com and clicking on the “News” page.) Click here for the latest developments in the investigation of the book by the newspaper the Australian www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23145293-5001986,00.html.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. 2008 All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 22, 2008

John Bowe Exposes Abuses of Migrant Workers in Florida, Oklahoma and Elsewhere in ‘Nobodies’

 

Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. By John Bowe. Random House, 304 pp., $25.95.

 

By Janice Harayda

In ancient Rome the authorities created a torture device called “the brazen bull,” a life-sized metal statue of a bull in which they locked people accused of misbehavior. “A fire was built below the bull’s belly, and with careful placement of musical pipes within the bull’s head, the victim’s screams would be transformed into ‘music,’” John Bowe writes in Nobodies.

Most of us like to think that such inhumanity has gone the way of the Caesars. But Bowe argues that spiritual descendants of the Roman torturers exist in modern employers who exploit migrants and frighten them into silence with threats of deportation, harm to their families back at home or other punishments. And the abuses he describes are no less chilling because his rhetoric about them at times becomes overheated.

Bowe focuses in Nobodieson the harm done to three groups, including Mexican and Central American orange- and tomato-pickers in Immokalee, Florida, and garment workers on the American commonwealth of Saipan, whose mistreatment led to a class action suit against JCPenney, the Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and 21 other corporations that was settled for $20 million. Then there were the welders brought over from India to work for the John Pickle Company (JPC) in Tulsa:

“JPC had confiscated their passports, crammed 53 workers into a squalid barracks on factory premises, and was feeding them disgusting, unsanitary food, verbally abusing them, constraining their movements, and forcing them to work six days a week. The company had even hired an armed guard to keep them from escaping over Thanksgiving.”

Bowe is such a fine reporter that if he had let facts like these speak for themselves, Nobodies might have appeared on every newspaper’s list of the 10 best books of the year. But he also tries to show that the growing gap between the rich and the poor, as exemplified by forced labor, undermines democracy.

That’s true, but Bowe is much less effective as an analyst than as a journalist and can’t quite pull it off. In the third section of his book, on Saipan, he loses his focus and serves up something that resembles an investigative report less than a highly stylized travelogue of the School of Geoff Dyer. And in the fourth section he tries to link the stories in his book to global events such as the attacks on Sept. 11 in a way that comes across as simply glib.

Bowe says on his blog that he wishes he’d written a simpler book, and it’s a perceptive comment. As good Nobodies is, it could have been better if he’d tried to do less in it.

Best line: “The average migrant [worker] has a life expectancy of just 49 years. Twenty thousand farmworkers require medical treatment for acute pesticide poisoning each year; at least that many more cases go unreported. Nationally, 50 percent of migrants – up from 12 percent in1990 – are without legal work papers. Their median annual income is somewhere around $7,500.”

Worst line:“Osama bin Laden, to my thinking, is just another name for Osama bin jobs, Osama bin minimum wage, Osama bin social justice. The poor will find ways to revenge themselves on the rich. And the ideology that provides the most comfort and justice to the largest number of people will prevail. If the revenge motive of brand Osama holds greater appeal than brand Freedom, well, I guess that means that brand Freedom didn’t do such a great job of delivering on its promises.”

Editors: Daniel Menaker and Dana Isaacson

Published: Sept. 18, 2007 www.randomhouse.com and www.johnbowe.wordpress.com/

Furthermore: Parts of “Florida,” the first section of Nobodies, appeared in different form in the April 21, 2003, issue of The New Yorker. In 2004 Bowe’s work to date on the book won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and other honors. The plight of the Immokalee tomato-pickers led to a four-year boycott of Taco Bell, which ended in 2005 when its parent company agreed to give workers a raise that would nearly double their wages and take other steps to improve their working conditions. Bowe lives in Manhattan.

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

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com/

January 17, 2008

Joshua Henkin’s ‘Matrimony,’ a Novel About the Rewards and Perils of Marrying Young

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:16 am
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Two male best friends get an education in love that begins in college and continues until their 15th-year reunion

Matrimony. By Joshua Henkin. Pantheon, 291 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

There’s a delicious scene early in Matrimony in which an English professor tries to curb the influence of Hollywood on his students’ writing partly by forbidding them to use the word “kerplunk” in their short stories. It’s blisteringly funny, and its deft blend of comedy and pathos reminds you of Dan Wakefield’s fine early novels, Going All the Way and Starting Over.

But the tone of Matrimony shifts as Joshua Henkin follows two of the professor’s students from college to early middle age. Best friends Julian Wainwright and Carter Heinz meet their future wives as freshmen and marry younger than many of their peers. And before they return to college for their 15th-year reunion, the bristling satire of the first chapter has given way at times to high-class soap opera. A $17-million dot-com windfall enriches a character nobody saw as the next Steve Jobs. A test for the breast-cancer gene leads another to consider having a double mastectomy immediately. Novels that lay unfinished for years suddenly get completed.

Fortunately, Henkin is too thoughtful a writer to allow his story to become silly, and amid all the improbable events, Matrimony offers sharp social commentary. In his 30s, Julian visits Carter in San Francisco and assumes incorrectly that he has less attachment to his car than other Californians. “I’m like everyone else,” Carter corrects him. “I take the elevator to the third floor so I can work out on the StairMaster.”

Best line: “Destroyed by Hollywood, Professor Chesterfield returned to Graymont, to his students, who watched more and more movies and read fewer and fewer books. Scrutinizing their stories, he could see the camera panning, the jump cuts and dolly shots, all the things that had ruined him. Worse, his students had taken to writing words such as ‘bang,’ ‘pop,’ and ‘splat,’ as well as nonwords masquerading as words, such as ‘kaboom,’ ‘yikes,’ ‘glunk,’ and even ‘arrrghhhh,’ often followed by multiple exclamation points. And in case the reader didn’t understand, the student would use capital letters: ‘ARRRGHHHH!!!!!’

“Worst of all was ‘kerplunk,’ which a student of Professor Chesterfield’s had used the previous year. A character had fallen off his horse, and then, in a paragraph all its own, came the single word,

“‘Kerplunk.’”

Worst line: Henkin has a distracting verbal tic: He often joins independent clauses by using “for” instead of “because.” “He liked going to parties, but once he and Mia were actually at one it was she who had the better time, for she was more adept at small talk than he was.” This stilted phrasing clashes with the writing elsewhere in Matrimony, which is more conversational.

Editor: Lexy Bloom

Published: October 2007 www.joshuahenkin.com

Furthermore: Henkin also wrote Swimming Across the Hudson. He lives in New York City.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 14, 2008

A Review of 2008 Sibert Medalist and Caldecott Honor Book ‘The Wall’ by Peter Sís

A gifted artist recalls the days when freedom was as elusive as a yellow submarine in picture book that won the American Library Association’s Robert F. Sibert Medal for the most distinguished “information book” of 2007 today

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. By Peter Sís. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Frances Foster Books, 56 pp., $18. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Peter Sís is a rarity – an artist who smartens up picture books when others dumb them down. He grew up in Czechoslovakia and seems to lack the usual Americans preconceptions about what children’s books “need” to contain. Perhaps partly for this reason, he does highly original work that has won him a MacArthur grant and many others.

A case in point is this memoir of his childhood behind the Iron Curtain, which today won the Robert F. Sibert Medal for the most distinguished “information book” of 2007 and a Caldecott Honor, both from the American Library Association www.ala.org. In The Wall Sís finds the midpoint between picture books and graphic novels by telling his story partly through panels similar to comic strips. This enables him to fit a remarkable amount of information into 56 pages.

Sís uses captioned drawings of himself to depict experiences such as going to Communist schools: “Children are encouraged to report on their families and fellow students. Parents learn to keep their opinions to themselves.” Because many American children would lack a context for such lines, he adds background in creative ways – for example, by using lines of explanatory text as frames for drawings. He enriches all of it through a wealth of visual details. including an image of a yellow submarine to show the joy that erupted when the Beatles visited Prague.

As in some of his earlier work, Sís shows that oppressed people long for freedom even when they are better off than many of their peers. Sís yearned for the artistic freedom stifled when under Communism. He says on his last page: “As long as he can remember, he will continue to draw.”

Best line/picture: A full-page picture of a maze suggests how Czechs changed street signs an effort to thwart the Soviet invasion in 1968, one of many memorable images.

Worst line/picture: Sís includes excerpts from what he calls “My Journals” from 1954–1977 would have benefited from a bit more explanation. Diaries might have been considered subversive if discovered by the Communist authorities. Did he really keep these “journals” or were they created after the fact?

Published: August 2007 www.petersis.com and www.fsgkidsbooks.com

Futhermore: Sís came to the U.S. in the 1980s and lives near New York City.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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