One-Minute Book Reviews

February 26, 2011

Paul Gallico’s ‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ — A London Cleaning Woman Pursues Her Dream of a Dior Dress

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“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.”

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris & Mrs. Harris Goes to New York: The Adventures of Mrs. Harris. Bloomsbury, 320 pp., £7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Good fairy tales are hard to write. Good fairy tales for adults are even harder. And good fairy tales about sixtyish widows are next to impossible. Young characters may pursue reckless dreams without looking foolish because they don’t know enough of life to see the absurdity of their goals. Older protagonists get fewer free passes. A middle-aged character may look ridiculous on a quest that would seem natural for a 20-year-old.

Paul Gallico avoids such pitfalls and invests a graying dreamer with warmth and buoyancy in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a novella first published in 1958. He writes of a London charwoman who leads a life tightly bound by poverty and the English class system. Ada Harris is nearing 60 but has seen less of the world than many teenagers. And if her inexperience leads to missteps, her work gives her dignity.  A penniless widow, she cleans homes of the higher-born in Belgravia for the equivalent of 45 cents an hour, 10 hours a day, 52 weeks a year.

One day Mrs. Harris sees a Dior haute couture gown in the closet of a client and resolves to have one like it. She wants one simply for its beauty, not because she hopes it will help her find a new husband or gain social cachet. Or, as she puts it, “it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.” Having acquired the desire, she pursues it by sacrificing almost everything that brings her pleasure – movies, newspapers, trips to the corner pub – despite costly setbacks.

When she finally reaches the House of Dior in Paris, Mrs. Harris faces another hurdle. She learns that she must stay in the city until seamstresses can make her dress. Without money for a hotel, she seems thwarted, until her kindness and resolve captivate the Dior employees who help her reach her goal – a group that includes a lovelorn model and a lonely auditor besotted with her.

All of this might have amounted to so much marzipan had the story ended there. But after she returns to London, Mrs. Harris suffers a further ordeal that gives her tale a twist ending and reveals its larger purpose. A story that at first resembles a light-hearted, Cockney-accented adventure turns into a parable about the human desire for beauty and the many forms beauty takes. What matters more, Gallico asks, a tangible or intangible treasure?

The book gives unambiguous answer that avoids the saccharine twaddle of the books of authors like Mitch Albom or Robert James Waller. You might read all of Albom and Waller without finding a phrase as amusing and well-turned as Gallico’s comment that Mrs. Harris found Paris “the most degeneratively civilized city in the world.” Or without reading passage like one that describes the heroine’s first meal in a French home:

“Mrs. Harris had never tasted caviar before, or pâté de foie gras fresh from Strasbourg, but she very quickly got used to them both, as well as the lobster from the Pas-de-Calais and the eels from Lorraine in jelly. There was charcuterie from Normandy, a whole cold roast poulet de Bresse along with crispy skinned duck from Nantes. There was a Chassagné-Montrachet with the lobster and hors d’oeuvres, champagne with the caviar and Beaune Romanée with the fowl, while an Yquem decorated the chocolate cake.

“Mrs. Harris ate for the week before, for this and the next as well.”

The description of the meal is good, but the line that follows gives it punch and a tinge of bittersweetness. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris may be sentimental, but unlike many 21st-century bestsellers, it is not just sentimental. It describes a woman who has spent a lifetime earning her right to dream. And Gallico is such a good storyteller, his book is made, like a couture dress, without a dropped stitch.

Best line: Paris was “the most degenerately civilized city in the world.”

Worst line: “Mrs. Harris waggled her rear end more comfortably into the bench to enjoy a jolly good gossip.” Gallico comes close to making unintended fun of Mrs. Harris here. And other characters tend to view Mrs. Harris in a way that reflects the views of their day (the “little Englishwoman”).

Recommendation: Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris was written for adults, but it sweetness may appeal also to teenagers.

About the author: Gallico also wrote The Snow Goose (Knopf, 1941 and 2007), named the novel most deserving of rediscovery in a 2009 BBC contest.

Published: 1958 (first edition), Bloomsbury paperback (2010).

If you like Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, you may like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

Furthermore: Bloomsbury has reissued Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris in the same volume as a sequel, Mrs. Harris Goes to New York. It first appeared in the U.K. under the title Flowers for Mrs. Harris and in the U.S. as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris. Angela Lansbury starred in a 1992 made-for-TV movie version, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

September 6, 2010

The Longest Assault: Antony Beevor’s ‘D-Day: The Battle for Normandy’

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:26 pm
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More than 70,000 French civilians were killed by Allied action in World War II, more people than died in the German bombings of England

D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. By Antony Beevor. Penguin, 608 pp., $18, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

D-Day has inspired the literary equivalent of an amphibious assault landing. Cornelius Ryan set the tone with The Longest Day, a modern classic of narrative nonfiction that has helped to shape how generations of Americans have seen the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Stephen Ambrose, Max Hastings and others later wrote widely praised books about the campaign that led to the liberation of France from Nazi occupation.

But before the publication of D-Day, no major book about the battle for Normandy had appeared in more than twenty years. In that time, many participants in the invasion, code-named Operation Overlord, had died and left diaries and letters that found their way to historical archives. Antony Beevor makes superb use of newly available primary sources in an international bestseller that gets its first American paperback edition this month.

D-Day is nearly twice as long and much more scholarly than The Longest Day, and it makes heavier use of military terminology decoded in an up-front glossary. It also takes a harsher view of some of the participants in the invasion, especially Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the British officer who commanded the ground troops.

But like Ryan, Beevor has a gift for telling a story through the accretion of humanizing details. In his first pages, he shows Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, “smoking up to four packs of Camel cigarettes a day” as he ponders whether the weather will permit an invasion (and after giving the go-ahead, playing Checkers in his trailer at Southwick Park in England). Later Beevor introduces a British liaison officer and future 6th Marquess of Bath “who had gained a reputation for eccentricity because of some of his trips through German lines and his habit of leading two ducks around on a leash.” Near the end of the book, as the Allies enter Paris, French women stay up all night to make flags and clothes in patriotic colors: “One woman, who made an American flag, cut all the stars individually from an old dress.”

Unlike many accounts of the Normandy invasion, D-Day does not end with the battles for the beaches and nearby towns but follows the fighting to the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944. Beevor shows the grievous toll the campaign took on the Allies and Germans and on French noncombatants — in civilian casualties, ruined cities, suicides or self-inflicted wounds, and cases of “battle shock,” or what is today called post-traumatic stress disorder. He makes clear that even the uninjured faced terrible psychological ordeals. Soldiers had to scrape the unidentified remains of tank crews off the inside of burned-out turrets. Sailors carried the dead on litters to a ship’s refrigerator, “a solution which was not popular with the cooks.”  Victims of battle shock would start running around in circles and weeping “or even wander out in a trance into an open field and start picking flowers as the shells explored.”

Beevor’s great theme and strongest argument is that the heavy Allied bombing and artillery fire liberated France at the expense of Normandy:

“Altogether 19,890 civilians were killed during the liberation of Normandy and an even larger number seriously injured. This was on top of the 15,000 French killed and 19,000 injured during the preparatory bombing for Overlord in the first five months of 1944. It is a sobering thought that 70,000 French civilians were killed by Allied action during the course of the war, a figure which exceeds the total number of British killed by German bombing.”

For all this, the Normandy campaign inspired epic heroism on and off the battlefield, and D-Day includes accounts of exceptional stoicism or selflessness. A staff member at one field hospital expressed amazement at how uncomplaining the wounded were: “It’s such a paradox, this war, which produces the worst in man, and also raises him to the summits of self-sacrifice, self-denial and altruism.” That contradiction may be as old as war itself, but Beevor shows how – for both sides – it showed itself in unique and important ways amid apple orchards and cornfields scattered with poppies.

Best line: Some American soldiers learned conversational French from language books produced by the Army: “Supposedly useful gambits were also provided in daily lessons published by [the military newspaper] Stars and Stripes, such as the French for ‘My wife doesn’t understand me.’”

Worst line: “In their Normandy battles, the Poles had lost 135 officers and 2,192 men.” It may be military jargon, but the implication that officers aren’t men sounds odd.

Published: 2009 (Viking hardcover), Sept. 28, 2010 (Penguin paperback).

About the author: Beevor won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the leading international prize for nonfiction, for his Stalingrad. In an interview posted on YouTube, he talks about topics that include how he used historical sources for D-Day.

Furthermore: D-Day shows the contributions of nations often slighted in accounts of the Normandy campaign, especially Canada. Beevor writes of the pilots for Allied air attacks in the Mortain sector in France: “It was almost an aerial foreign legion, with British pilots, Belgians, French, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Norwegians, Poles, an Argentinian and even a German Jew called Klaus Hugo Adam (later the film-maker, Sir Ken Adam).” A Washington Post review by the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Yardley, posted in full on Amazon, tells more about the book.

You can also follow janiceharayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 7, 2009

Sex and the City of Light — Elaine Dundy’s ‘The Dud Avocado’

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:15 am
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A young, single and free-spirited American cuts loose Paris in the 1950s

The Dud Avocado. By Elaine Dundy. Introduction by Terry Teachout. New York Review Books Classics, 260 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1958 Elaine Dundy won rapturous praise for The Dud Avocado, a sparkling novel about the cultural and romantic adventures of a young American in France. More than a half century later, her book has become a modern classic, driven by the unique voice of an endearingly impulsive heroine.

Sally Jay Gorce has traveled to Paris search of gaiety, laughter and “shoes in the air” – apparently, something not unlike a Fred Astaire movie. Bankrolled by an allowance from a rich uncle, she finds all of those as she takes small acting roles and moves from cafés and nightclubs in Montparnasse to a villa near Biarritz. She also has a moral awakening that occurs not when she loses her virginity to an Italian diplomat – which is part of her backstory — but when she discovers that Old World glamour can mask social ruthlessness.

Groucho Marx wrote to Dundy to praise The Dud Avocado: “It made me laugh, scream, and guffaw (which, incidentally, is a great name for a law firm).” And the book is certainly one of the most entertaining novels of the 20th century about an innocent abroad. Sally may be as green as an avocado, but she knows what’s wrong with a hotel for Anglophiles that’s “full of dusty red plush” furniture: “It’s probably the only perfect replica of a Victorian mausoleum still standing in Paris.” And she has a sensibility that is surprisingly modern. She declines to live with a boyfriend not because it’s immoral – they’re sleeping together — but because it would curb her freedom. She is also charmingly open about her faults, such as her quick temper and flightiness: “I always expect people to behave much better than I do. When they actually behave worse, I am frankly incredulous.”

Like its heroine, The Dud Avocado has small flaws: a loosely stitched plot, an ending that isn’t fully earned. These detract little from a book that invests Paris in 1950s with the allure others have given to the Paris in the 1920s. No matter how many scrapes Sally gets into, you never doubt her intelligence or enthusiasm for life. She writes of friends: “A rowdy bunch on the whole, they were most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.” The same applies many recent books: they’re “so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.” The allure of The Dud Avocado – like that of its heroine – is that it is interchangeable with nothing.

Best line: “I mean, the question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to  that is, don’t we all anyway; might as well get paid for it.”

Worst line: “I saw us for what we really were: beggars and toadies and false pretenders.” Pretenders are always false.

Reading group guide: Posted on the publisher’s site.

Published: 1958 (first edition). June 2007 (NYRB reissue). In addition to The Dud AvocadoDundy wrote the novels The Old Man and Me and The Injured Party and a memoir.

Furthermore: More about Dundy appears in her New York Times obituary. The Dud Avocado has an excellent introduction by Terry Teachout, the author and drama critic for the Wall Street Journal.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda)  on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

May 22, 2009

‘Anatole’ — A Classic Picture Book Every Child Should Read — Coming Tomorrow

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:11 pm
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For more than 50 years, American children have enjoyed Anatole,  a Caldecott Honor Book that tells the story of a friendly French mouse who is shocked to discover that humans don’t like it when he feasts on their leftovers. What does the tale offer in the age of Webkinz and Dora the Explorer? And why has it inspired more than a half dozen sequels? A review will appear tomorrow in the “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series on One-Minute Book Reviews, which reviews books for children or teenagers on Saturdays.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 12, 2009

If Only the Recession Were Like This for Writers and Artists — More on R. A. Scotti’s Forthcoming ‘Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa’

The cover of the advance reader's edition of 'Vanished Smile'

I’ve been reading R. A. Scotti’s historical true-crime book Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa (Knopf, April 2009), which I mentioned yesterday. And it’s been a pleasure after trudging through the finalists for the 2009 Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books, the winners of which will be announced Monday. Another quote from Scotti’s fascinating tale, this one about Picasso’s Rose period:

“In those happy days, Picasso would sell his art by the armful – a hundred francs (then worth about twenty dollars) for a stack of drawings; two thousand francs for thirty canvases. A few dealers – notably, Ambrose Vollard, astute and fair, and Clovis Sagot, an unscrupulous ex-clown who sold art out of an old apothecary – were scooping up Picasso’s harlequins and saltimbanques for the price of a meal … money was a luxury, and freeloading was a way of life. ‘You could owe money for years for your paints and canvases and rent and restaurant and practically everything except coal and luxuries,’ Picasso remembered.”

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 14, 2008

A Review of the 2008 Caldecott Medalist, Brian Selznick’s ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’

[This is a repost of an April 21 review of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which won the American Library Association’s 2008 Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children on January 14, 2008. No changes have been made in the review, which I stand by.]

An innovative novel for third- through sixth-graders gets an A+ for packaging and a C for writing

The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic, 533 pp., $22.99. Ages 9–12.

By Janice Harayda

Take a 12-year-old orphaned boy whose name begins with H. Write a novel about him that involves magic, a train station and a female sidekick. Get Scholastic Press to publish it … and what do you have?

No, not the latest Harry Potter book. You’ve got The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a novel about a young thief who lives in 1931 in a Paris train station, where he tries to finish a project begun by his father – fixing a broken wind-up man or automaton that may contain a secret message.

You’ve also got a novel with spectacular packaging, which may explain why it’s clambering up the best-seller lists and Martin Scorsese is rumored to want to the film rights. The Invention of Hugo Cabret merges the picture- and chapter-book formats in way that no other book for its age group has done. It has 533 pages, but the text would fill only 100 or so pages of most novels. Why the gap?

Brian Selznick tells Hugo’s story alternately through words – often just a paragraph or two per page – and 158 black-and-white pictures. The illustrations consist mostly of pencil drawings but include memorable stills from the movies of the silent filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose life helped to inspire the book. And because you can flip through the pictures at any pace, you can read the book quickly despite its bulk. On that level, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is God’s gift to reluctant readers – a novel that will give children the satisfaction of finishing a fat book but has about the same number of words as The Higher Power of Lucky.

The problem is that Selznick doesn’t write nearly as well as he draws. His prose stays oddly earthbound for a story about the power of art to take us metaphorically to the moon. Hugo and his friend Isabelle resemble generic American children, not unique French ones. Selznick did months of research on subjects like the clocks that Hugo tends the train station, where Isabelle helps out at a toy booth. But you wonder if he did any all on French children. His characters never kiss on both cheeks, as even 12-year-olds do in France. Hugo’s companions instead greet each other with Americanisms like: “I haven’t seen you in a while. How are things at the toy booth?” And they are hard to distinguish from many others in middle-grade readers.

Worse, the novel is a psychological muddle. Selnick brings up big ideas without giving them literary or emotional resolution they demand. Hugo blames himself when his father dies in a fire that erupts while he’s trying to fix the automaton that may contain a secret message: “This was all his fault! He had wanted his father to fix the machine and now, because of him, his father was dead.” Selznick, incredibly, never returns to his hero’s misplaced guilt or absolves him of it. At the end of the book, for all we know, Hugo still thinks he’s responsible and children may believe he is. Hugo also offers glib rationalizations for his habitual thievery. And while he suffers for his stealing, he appears to feel no genuine remorse for it and eventually is rewarded for his law-breaking. In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, crime pays well.

Some children may be so enthralled by the beautiful production values of this novel that they don’t see its flaws. But Elizabeth Ward was right when she wrote in the Washington Post that The Invention of Hugo Cabret is more about “the razzle-dazzle of novelty” than artistic merit: “The first movies transfixed people too, but that doesn’t mean their plots weren’t mostly pretty hokey and their characters stiffer than a girder.”

Best line: Selznick is related to the late producer David Selznick and has a contagious love of movies. He suggests the joy even in watching films at home in lines like: “Hugo closed the curtains. They aimed the projector toward one of the walls and turned it on. It clattered to life, and then the film began moving through it as though light had burst onto a wall.”

Worst line: “ … and now, because of him, his father was dead.” And a lot of children may still believe it at the end of the novel.

Published: January 2007

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to The Invention of Hugo Cabret appears in the April 21 post directly below this one and is archived with the April 2007 posts and under “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides.”

Furthermore: Selznick illustrated the Caldecott Honor book The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins.

Links: www.theinventionofhugocabret.com/

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 8, 2007

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #2: ‘Madeline’

In an old house in Paris
that was covered with vines
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.

— The opening lines of Madeline

Madeline. Story and Pictures by Ludwig Bemelmans. Viking, 48 pp., $7.99, paperback. Also available in other editions. Ages 2 & up.

By Janice Harayda

One of the most delightful characters in children’s literature was born, figuratively speaking, in a saloon. Ludwig Bemelmans (1898–1962) may have gotten the idea for Madeline after a bicycle accident sent him to a French hospital, where a girl in the next room had just had her appendix out. But he wrote the first lines of his most famous book on the back of a menu at Pete’s Tavern in New York: “In an old house in Paris / that was covered with vines …”

Those words set the tone for this brief narrative poem that uses rhyming couplets and a loose anapestic meter to tell the story a fearless girl who attends a convent school near the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and other French landmarks. Madeline is the smallest and bravest of the girls in the care of a nun called Miss (not Sister) Clavel: “To the tiger in the zoo / Madeline just said, ‘Pooh-pooh.’” She makes such a fine adventure of having her appendix out – the central drama of the book – that by the last page her schoolmates are clamoring to have surgery, too.

Madeline was published in 1939 and is one the few picture books of its day that has never fallen from favor. But it has more going for it than nostalgia or its intergenerational appeal. The amusing line drawings are simple yet dynamic. Bemelmans suggests an entire world through his images of 12 girls who are always identically dressed, whether they wear broad-brimmed hats while visiting the Eiffel Tower or muffs while ice-skating near Montmartre. Like Helen Oxenbury’s pictures for We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, his illustrations alternate between color and black- and-white (plus a sunny yellow in Madeline). This technique helps to quicken the pace, so that the 48 pages of text hold the attention of preschoolers used to shorter books. And there’s another reason why Madeline and its five sequels work so well, astutely suggested by Anna Quindlen in her introduction to Mad About Madeline: The Complete Tales (Viking, $35), which contains all the books in the series:

“For those of us who believe that children feel secure with structure, part of the enduring charm of the books must surely be that Madeline’s confidence and fearlessness are set within a backdrop of utter safety,” Quindlen writes. Miss Clavel is “concerned but competent.” If Madeline’s life is regimented, it has an order and predictability that many children long for at a time when the family dinner is becoming a cultural artifact. Madeline and her schoolmates all eat their meals, brush their teeth, and go to bed at the same time. A caged tiger may bare its teeth at the zoo. But as Quindlen rightly notes, “life is safe” in that “old house in Paris / that was covered with vines.”

Best line: The first three, quoted at the top of this review.

Worst line: None. But some parents may prefer to skip two lines on the last page: “Good night, little girls! Thank the Lord you are well!”

Published: 1939 (first Simon & Schuster edition), 2000 (Viking paperback reprint).

Furthermore: A naturalized American citizen, Bemelmans was born in the Austrian Tyrol and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. Madeline www.madeline.com was a Caldecott Honor book, and its first sequel, Madeline’s Rescue, won the Caldecott Medal. More often associated with O. Henry than with Bemelmans, Pete’s Tavern still serves meals at the corner of 18th Street and Irving Place in Manhattan.

You may also want to read: Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #1, Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág, reviewed on this site on Jan. 5, 2007 http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/05.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 21, 2007

Brian Selznick’s ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’

An innovative novel for third- through sixth-graders gets an A+ for packaging and a C for writing

The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic, 533 pp., $22.99. Ages 9–12.

By Janice Harayda

Take a 12-year-old orphaned boy whose name begins with H. Write a novel about him that involves magic, a train station and a female sidekick. Get Scholastic Press to publish it … and what do you have?

No, not the latest Harry Potter book. You’ve got The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a novel about a young thief who lives in 1931 in a Paris train station, where he tries to finish a project begun by his father – fixing a broken wind-up man or automaton that may contain a secret message.

You’ve also got a novel with spectacular packaging, which may explain why it’s clambering up the best-seller lists and Martin Scorsese is rumored to want to the film rights. The Invention of Hugo Cabret merges the picture- and chapter-book formats in way that no other book for its age group has done. It has 533 pages, but the text would fill only 100 or so pages of most novels. Why the gap?

Brian Selznick tells Hugo’s story alternately through words – often just a paragraph or two per page – and 158 black-and-white pictures. The illustrations consist mostly of pencil drawings but include memorable stills from the movies of the silent filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose life helped to inspire the book. And because you can flip through the pictures at any pace, you can read the book quickly despite its bulk. On that level, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is God’s gift to reluctant readers – a novel that will give children the satisfaction of finishing a fat book but has about the same number of words as The Higher Power of Lucky.

The problem is that Selznick doesn’t write nearly as well as he draws. His prose stays oddly earthbound for a story about the power of art to take us metaphorically to the moon. Hugo and his friend Isabelle resemble generic American children, not unique French ones. Selznick did months of research on subjects like the clocks that Hugo tends the train station, where Isabelle helps out at a toy booth. But you wonder if he did any all on French children. His characters never kiss on both cheeks, as even 12-year-olds do in France. Hugo’s companions instead greet each other with Americanisms like: “I haven’t seen you in a while. How are things at the toy booth?” And they are hard to distinguish from many others in middle-grade readers.

Worse, the novel is a psychological muddle. Selnick brings up big ideas without giving them literary or emotional resolution they demand. Hugo blames himself when his father dies in a fire that erupts while he’s trying to fix the automaton that may contain a secret message: “This was all his fault! He had wanted his father to fix the machine and now, because of him, his father was dead.” Selznick, incredibly, never returns to his hero’s misplaced guilt or absolves him of it. At the end of the book, for all we know, Hugo still thinks he’s responsible and children may believe he is. Hugo also offers glib rationalizations for his habitual thievery. And while he suffers for his stealing, he appears to feel no genuine remorse for it and eventually is rewarded for his law-breaking. In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, crime pays well.

Some children may be so enthralled by the beautiful production values of this novel that they don’t see its flaws. But Elizabeth Ward was right when she wrote in the Washington Post that The Invention of Hugo Cabret is more about “the razzle-dazzle of novelty” than artistic merit: “The first movies transfixed people too, but that doesn’t mean their plots weren’t mostly pretty hokey and their characters stiffer than a girder.”

Best line: Selznick is related to the late producer David Selznick and has a contagious love of movies. He suggests the joy even in watching films at home in lines like: “Hugo closed the curtains. They aimed the projector toward one of the walls and turned it on. It clattered to life, and then the film began moving through it as though light had burst onto a wall.”

Worst line: “ … and now, because of him, his father was dead.” And a lot of children may still believe it at the end of the novel.

Published: January 2007

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to The Invention of Hugo Cabret appears in the April 21 post directly below this one and is archived with the April 2007 posts and under “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides.”

Furthermore: Selznick illustrated the Caldecott Honor book The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins.

Links: www.theinventionofhugocabret.com/

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’

 

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures
By Brian Selznick

Take a 12-year-old orphan whose name begins with H. Write a novel about him that involves magic, a train station and a female sidekick. Get Scholastic Press to publish it … and what do you have? No, not a new Harry Potter book. You’ve got The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a novel about a young thief who lives in a Paris train station and tries to finish a project begun by his father – fixing a broken wind-up man or automaton that may contain a secret message. In this innovative book, Brian Selznick merges the picture- and chapter-book formats. The Invention of Hugo Cabret has 533 pages, but the text would fill only 100 or so pages of most novels. Why? Selznick tells Hugo’s story alternately through words and 158 black-and-white pictures. The illustrations are mostly pencil drawings but include memorable stills from the movies of the filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose life helped to inspire the book.

Question 1
This book is called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. What is Hugo’s “invention”? Could the word refer to more than one thing? Could Hugo have “invented” a new life for himself (or for someone else) in addition to a mechanical man?

Question 2
Brian Selznick tells Hugo’s story in a unique way. He uses a lot more pictures than you find in most novels. Sometimes he tells Hugo’s story in words and sometimes in pictures. Why do you think he did this? How did you like it? What are some advantages and disadvantages of having so many pictures in a novel?

Question 3
Selznick also uses only black-and-white pictures on the pages of in this novel, no color ones. What are some reasons why he might have done this? Some authors say that they like to use black-and-white art because it lets people use their imagination and fill in the colors in their minds. Did you “fill in” any colors while you were reading the book? What are some of the colors you saw in your mind? Why?

Question 4
A lot of other authors have at times used only black-and-white pictures. For example, Chris Van Allsburg has done this in some books. And all of the pictures that Matt Phelan did for Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, winner of the 2007 Newbery Award, are black-and-white. What books have you read that have only black-and-white illustrations? How do they compare to The Invention of Hugo Cabret?

Question 5
You may have noticed that a lot of the drawings in this book look as though they have something draped over them. It’s as though you’re looking at the pictures through a veil or net. Can you think of any reasons why Selznick might have used this technique? Does it make the story seem a little more mysterious? Does it remind you of the lenses you can put on a camera, including a movie camera?

Question 6
Hugo loves a movie called The Million that he and Isabelle go to a theater to see. It has an “amazing” chase in it. “He thought every good story should end with a big, exciting chase.” [Page 202] Why do you Selznick wrote that? What happens right after it in The Invention of Hugo Cabret?

Question 7
Hugo spends a lot of time trying to fix things like clocks or the mechanical man, or automaton, that he finds on the street. He likes machines because each one has a purpose. “Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do,” Hugo says. He adds, “Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose … it’s like you’re broken.” [Page 374] How does this relate to the rest of the novel?

Question 8
The story of Prometheus is important in The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There’s a picture of Prometheus on pages 344–345. We learn that he was “finally set free” from his chains. What character or characters in this book does he resemble?

Question 9
Hugo’s friend Isabelle loves looking at photographs. She says, “You can make up your own story when you look at a photo.” [Page 193] Pick a photograph in The Invention of Hugo Cabret and make up a story to go with it. You might start with the picture of the man hanging from the clock on pages 173–174 or with the picture of the rocket crashing into the moon on pages 352–353.

Question 10
Hugo thinks it’s his fault that his father had died in a fire. [Page 124] Do you agree or disagree with him? Why?

Extras:
Question 11
If you’ve read any of the Harry Potter books or seen the movies, you may have noticed that the Invention of Hugo Cabret has some things in common with them. What are some of them?

Question 12
Often a novel is written by one person and illustrated by another. That’s because not many people are equally good at writing and drawing. Most of us are better at one or the other. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is unusual in that Selznick both wrote and illustrated it. Do you think he was better at writing or drawing? Which did you like better in his novel, the words or the pictures? Why?

Vital statistics:
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic, 533 pp., $22.99. Ages 9–12. Published: January 2007.

Links: www.theinventionofhugocabret.com

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you are a librarian and found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to the “Ready Reference” links at your library. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and has been approved by, and appears on, Open Directory lists. Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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