One-Minute Book Reviews

August 12, 2009

‘The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived’ — Characters From Myths, Legends, and Books, Movies and TV Shows Who Made a Difference

Filed under: News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:41 am
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The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived: How Characters of Fiction, Myth, Legends, Television, and Movies Have Shaped Our Culture, Changed Our Behavior, and Set the Course of History. By Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. Harper, 317 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Publishers have a phrase for books like The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived – “an impulse buy at the bookstore.” Boy, do they know me. I can’t remember what I was looking for when I saw this book near the cash register at a bookstore. Whatever it was, it’s vanished from my mind an episode of Wife Swap. But I keep dipping into this dish of literary tacos with mild salsa.

Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter had the idea of selecting and ranking the 101 most influential people who never existed, giving you a few pages of sprightly text about each and defining “people” loosely enough to encompass King Kong (No. 74), Joe Camel (No. 78) and The Cat in the Hat (No. 79). This concept is nothing new. You can find similar books by searching Amazon for the “dictionary + fictional characters” or in the reference sections at many bookstores.

What is new is the packaging of the book, a trade paperback with a conversational tone instead of the usual professorial door-stopper. So The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived could be a handy book for, say, baby boomers who are having trouble explaining to their grandchildren exactly why Archie Bunker (No. 32) was so different from other sitcom characters of his day. It wasn’t just that he called his liberal son-in-law “Meathead”:

“Archie expressed what ultraconservative white people said behind closed doors on topics such as rape and poverty (the victims were to blame), homosexuality (perverts), militia groups (real Americans), welfare recipients (cheats who took hard-earned money out of his pocket) , college students (all pinko Communists), and support for the Vietnam War (real patriotism).”

Lazar, Karlan and Salter offer no narrative thread to connect the entries, so their essays tend to lack a context. Most readers under 40 might find it easier to fathom how Archie’s bigotry ever made it to prime time if they knew that he descended spiritually from Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) on The Honeymooners, who was always threatening to belt his wife. (“One of these days, Alice – pow! – right in the kisser.”) You could also argue that, for that reason, Kramden and not Bunker belonged on the list. But part of the fun of this book is comparing your list with the authors’ rankings of characters like Hamlet (No. 5), Pandora (No. 47), Prometheus (No. 46), Nancy Drew (No. 62) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (No. 44). Anybody want to argue that Perry Mason (No. 86) had less clout than Ally McBeal?

Best line: About the Marlboro Man (No. 1): “Advertising Age picked the Marlboro Man as the most powerful brand image of the twentieth century.” Why? Philip Morris had marketed Marlboros as a women’s brand that was “Mild As May”: “Marlboro’s new image boosted its sales four-fold from 1955 to 1957, and by 1972 it had become the top cigarette brand both in the nation and the world.” The original Marlboro Man and two other actors used for the role all died from lung cancer or emphysema.

Worst line: About the Loch Ness Monster (No. 56): Nessie is “the most popular tourist attraction in Scotland.” The most popular tourist attraction in Scotland has for years been Edinburgh Castle. Nessie isn’t even among the top ten on some lists. The rest of this section is also weak. As proof of the nonexistence of the monster, the authors say that the most famous photo of it turned out to be a hoax. What about all the sonar and other scientific reports that have shown that the creature never existed?

Recommended if … you’re not looking for a scholarly reference book but for the views of enthusiastic amateurs who get some facts wrong and serve up essays of inconsistent quality. Some entries are well-written, while others read like rough drafts.

Editors: Carolyn Marino, Jennifer Civiletto and Wendy Lee

Published: October 2006

This review first appeared in March 2007.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 16, 2008

Travels With Chekhov

Filed under: Classics,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 am
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1 p.m. Wednesday. A church book club I attend is reading seven Chekhov short stories in April. The group chose a 1,104-page Stephen King novel in March. Chekhov should be easy compared with It.

5:30 p.m. Wednesday. My library has several collections of Chekhov’s work, but none has all the stories I need: “Peasants,” “The Bride,” “The Bishop,” “About Love,” “A Visit to Friends,” “The Lady With the Little Dog” and “The House With the Mezzanine.”

Out of sheer loyalty I pick up Constance Garnett’s 1962 translation of 15 stories. I owe a lot to Constance for her translations of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the first I read. Many libraries purge books that haven’t been checked out in a while to make room for new ones. I feel I must support Constance by checking out her translation – even though I probably won’t read it – to keep her spot from going to a Mitch Albom novel.

I also get from the library two books that, between them, have three kinds of tape peeling from their spines: duct, clear and Scotch. They give Chekhov’s name as “Tchehov” and “Tchekoff” and have cream-colored pockets in the back. The three books I check out have only one of the stories I need, “The Bishop.”

10 p.m. Wednesday. Search the Web for the six other Chekhov stories. Get distracted by John Gross’s fine review of V.S. Pritchett’s Chekhov: A Sprit Set Free in the New York Times. Gross writes:

“It is as a story writer, in Sir Victor’s view, that Chekhov stands supreme. He is unhappy to see the stories overshadowed by the plays, as they tend to be nowadays — they seem to him far richer in texture; and to a considerable extent his book is an attempt to redress the balance.”

Gross adds:

“If you want to sample [Pritchett’s] quality, try his account of ‘The Bishop’ (one of Chekhov’s finest achievements — it reads, he observes, ‘like a sustained anthem’ to the writer’s own death).’”

Must have Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free by the late Sir Victor, a brilliant critic and perhaps the nearest English counterpart to Edmund Wilson.

Thursday, 4 p.m. The library doesn’t have Chekhov: A Sprit Set Free. But it does have Pritchett’s Complete Collected Essays, which has 10 pages on Chekhov. The book has 1,319 pages, only 215 more than It, and is one of my favorite books of criticism. How can I resist? I check it out along with a) the volume on Chekhov in the Twayne’s World Authors Series of brief critical studies, and b) Philip Callow’s Chekhov: The Hidden Ground, the only biography at the library that analyzes most of the stories on my list.

I now have six books about Chekhov but only one of the stories I need.

Thursday, 5:30 p.m. Visit a tiny but wonderful independent bookstore. It has two fine Chekhov collections: The Portable Chekhov, edited by Avrahm Yarmolinksy, and Peasants and Other Stories, nine tales selected and introduced by Edmund Wilson. I want the Wilson. But it’s a hardcover book that seems to have only one story I need apart from “The Bishop.” (Later I find out that it has “The Bride,” too, under an alternate title, “Betrothed,” and is available in paperback.) I buy The Portable Chekhov, which has The Cherry Orchard, seven letters and 28 stories, four of them on my list.

Yarmolinksy says in his introduction:

“The most characteristic of Chekhov’s stories lack purely narrative interest. They no more bear retelling than does a poem. Nothing thrilling happens in them, nor are the few reflective passages particularly compelling. Some of the tales, having neither beginning nor end, are, as Galsworthy put it, ‘all middle like a tortoise.’”

This does not diminish their impact, Yarmolinsky suggests:

“A man of sober and naturalistic temperament, Chekhov was dogged by the thought that our condition in this uncomfortable world is a baffling one. He liked to say that there was no understanding it. And, indeed, his writings heighten that sense of the mystery of life which is one of the effects of all authentic literature.”

Thursday, 11 p.m. Read “The Bishop,” the story of the last week in the life of a bishop. The bishop rejoices when his mother, whom he has not seen in years, visits during Holy Week. Yet her presence recalls a time when his position had not set him apart and he could unburden his heart to others. At vespers, he listens to chanting of monks:

“He sat by the altar where the shadows were deepest, and was swept in imagination back into the days of his childhood and youth, when he had first heard these words sung. The tears trickled down his cheeks, and he meditated on how he had attained everything in life that it was possible for a man in his position to attain; his faith was unsullied; and yet all was not clear to him; something was lacking, and he did not want to die. It seemed to him that he was leaving unfound the most important thing of all. Something of which he had dimly dreamed in the past, hopes that had thrilled his heart as a child, a schoolboy, and traveler in foreign lands, troubled him still.

Callow calls the tale “a parable of repressed love,” yet there is more to it than that Freudian interpretation might imply. It implicitly asks: What is life “about”? Most short stories are about a community of people. No matter how beautifully they evoke it, they stop there. “The Bishop” goes deeper. It may read like “a sustained anthem” to Chekhov’s death, but its song is not that of its author alone.

Saturday, 10 a.m. I still have only five of the stories I need. But if I read only “The Bishop,” I can stop right there with a profit. It would be a brilliant idea for any book club to read to read even two or three Chekhov stories instead of a novel at a meeting.

The quote from “The Bishop” comes from Russian Silhouettes: More Stories of Russian Life (Scribner’s, 1915), translated by Marian Fell. The full text of the Fell translation of the story appears here www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/ac/bishop.html.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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February 8, 2008

Did Laura Amy Schlitz Deserve the 2008 Newbery Medal? Quote of the Day (Meghan Cox Gurdon)

Many people were suprised when Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village won the most recent John Newbery Medal, an award that usually goes to a novel, for a collection of monologues and dialogues. Did the book deserve the honor? Meghan Cox Gurdon, the children’s book critic for the Wall Street Journal, called the collection “remarkable and poignant” and added:

“As with any prestigious award, the Newbery also brings new readers to the author’s other works, which in this case is a particularly welcome effect. Ms. Schlitz has a rich and humane style of writing, with stories that manage to be both sparkling and substantial. Better still, her storytelling is a return to the moral traditions of the greatest and most enduring tales, yet with not the slightest taste of cod liver oil nor any of the tiresome left-leaning didacticism that has characterized so much writing for children since the late 1960s.”

Meghan Cox Gurdon in “A Late-Blooming Talent in Full Flower” in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19-20, 2008.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 26, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!’

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village
By Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Robert Byrd
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

Laura Amy Schlitz calls Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! “a book of miniature plays – 19 monologues (or plays for one actor) and two dialogues (for two actors).” Strictly speaking, she’s right. The speakers in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! are young people between 10 and 15 years old who live on or near an English manor in the 13th century, the time of the religious wars known as the Crusades. They include girls like Nelly, who helps to support her family by catching eels, and boys like Hugo, who has to track down a wild boar as his punishment for playing hooky. But some characters know one another, so their stories overlap and at times read more like a collection of linked short stories than a series of plays. This unusual format may have helped the book win the 2008 Newbery Medal, given by the American Library Association to “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

Questions for Young Readers

1. The speakers in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! live in medieval times, also known as the Middle Ages. Many people first learn about that era from fairy tales about princesses and others who live in castles. What ideas did you have about the medieval life before you read this book? How did your ideas change after you had read it?

2. Most books of fiction have a main or most important character. Does this book have one? Why or why not? How did the presence or absence of a main character affect your enjoyment of the book?

3. Why do you think Laura Amy Schlitz began the book with the tale of “Hugo, the Lord’s Nephew”? What aspects of this story would grab your attention right away?

4. Schlitz made up all the stories in this book. If you didn’t know that, would you have thought that some of the tales were true? What makes them seem believable?

5. “Camelot, it’s not.” These were the first words of a review of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! that appeared in a New York newspaper. What did the writer mean? [“You Are There,” by John Schwartz, The New York Times Book Review, Dec. 16, 2007.]

6. Some of the characters in the book speak in prose (such as “Nelly, the Sniggler,” “Pask, the Runaway” and “Will, the Plow Boy”). Others speak in poetry (such as “Lowdy, the Varlet’s Child,” “Thomas, the Doctor’s Son” and “Otho, the Miller’s Son”). Why do you think they do this? Might the book have become monotonous or less interesting if everybody spoke the same way?

7. What does Otho mean by: “There’s no way to retrace our steps, / the mill wheel’s turning — ”? How does this line relate to his life? How does the line relate to the theme of the book as a whole? [Page 29]

8. Pictures can have different purposes in a book. For example, they can show you exactly what you see on page (acting as a mirror), or they can or focus on and enlarge a detail (acting as a magnifying glass). What purposes do Robert Byrd’s pictures serve in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!? Why might the sun and moon have human faces on pages x-1 and elsewhere?

9. Before you read Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, did you ever think that you might have liked to live in medieval times? How did the book affect your view?

10. The characters who speak in poetry in this book use different verse forms. Thomas speaks in iambic pentameter when he says: “A healthy man is careless with a bill — / You have to make them pay when they are ill.” (The two lines form a heroic couplet, a specific type of iambic pentameter.) [Page 18] Lowdy speaks in a different verse, dactylic, when she say: “Fleas in the pottage bowl, / Fleas the bread.” [Page 60] If you’ve studied verse forms, how many can you find in the book?

Extra Credit
Schlitz writes about the “Children’s Crusade”: “In 1212, a French shepherd boy had a vision that the Holy Land could be recovered by innocent children. Thirty to forty thousand children from France and Germany set off to Palestine, believing that God would favor their cause because of their faith, love, and poverty. They believed that when they reached the Mediterranean, it would part, like the Red Sea. They were mistaken. Most of them starved, froze to death, or were sold into slavery.” [Page 37] Some scholars aren’t sure that this “crusade” occurred in the form Schlitz describes. You may want do some research on the “Children’s Crusade” and decide what you think might have happened.

Vital Statistics
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Illustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick, 85 pp., $15.95. Ages 10 and up.

Published: August 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: The American Library Association has posted information about 2008 Newbery at www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/newberymedal/newberymedal.htm .
Schlitz is a librarian at the Park School in Baltimore. She also wrote the text for the 2007 picture book The Bearskinner (Candlewick, $16.99) www.candlewick.com, illustrated by Max Grafe, and an excellent neo-Gothic novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/.
Robert Byrd’s site is www.robertbyrdart.com.

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It 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 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to your library blog or ready-reference links, so patrons can find other guides and reviews. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and appears on Open Directory lists. It is the sixth-ranked book-review site in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts/ Literature” blogs: www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

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

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Review of the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!': Voices from a Medieval Village’

A prize-winning collection of linked monologues and dialogues in prose and poetry by characters, between 10 and 15 years old, who live on bankrupt English manor in the time of the Crusades

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Ilustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick, 85 pp., $15.95. Ages 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

This is a refreshingly subversive book. Perhaps only a school librarian like Laura Amy Schlitz could have found a way not just to publish but to win a Newbery Medal for a book that defies almost every fashion in American education.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is about children like the destitute Barbary, who knows that a lord’s daughter will someday give birth “and squat in the straw, / and scream with the pain / and pray for her life / same as me.” It’s about girls like the crippled Constance, who makes a pilgrimage to a site associated with Saint Winifred, who was decapitated after she fought a man who tried to “seize” (read: rape) her. (Her head miraculously reattached itself her body.) And it’s about boys like the miller’s son Otho, who plans to cheat his customers the way his father does because: “There’s no use in looking back, / for here’s the truth I’ve found: / It’s hunger, want, and wickedness / that makes the world go ’round.”

This book is, in other words, about everday life in the Middle Ages, as described in 19 linked monologues and two dialogues by characters between the ages of 10 and 15. All of the speakers live on or near an English manor that, in 1255, has been bankrupted by the Crusades. So it isn’t surprising that their talk often turns to God, Jesus, the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, Hell, Judgment Day and saints who died gruesome deaths. Their lives are so brutal that for some, this world has nothing on the next.

To help children make sense of all of it, Schlitz adds background in marginal notes and pages of explanatory text that can get a bit breezy. Why did people go on Crusades? Partly because the pope said that killing people was “a religious duty”: “Ordinary people could escape the tedium of their everyday lives, see the world, kill Muslims, and go to heaven in the bargain.” Schlitz almost makes it sound as though you could get frequent flyer miles for it. In a post-9/11 world, you can’t get much less fashionable than talking about killing Muslims, in a tone that borders on flip, in book intended for use in schools.

The monologues tend to work better than the interleaved explanatory pages, but it’s unclear why some characters speak in prose and others in poetry. The verse forms range from bouncy dactyls to stately heroic couplets, which helps to keep the speeches from becoming monotonous. But some of Schlitz’s poetry is hard enough to scan that it may defeat many students and even teachers. This book would have benefited from a few notes on the verse forms and on the obvious parallels with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Even so, it’s a worthy Newbery winner. Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! offers a fascinating view of the Middle Ages from which many adults may learn as much as children. Schlitz’s characters tell exciting stories of falconry, boar-hunting and other pursuits that offer more realistic view of medieval life than fairy tales about demure princesses. And although the Newbery judges aren’t supposed to consider the artwork, it can’t have hurt that this book has such appealing watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations by Robert Byrd, who found inspiration in an illuminated poem from 13th-century Germany.

Best line: A lament by Lowdy, the daughter of a varlet (a man who looked after the animals owned by the lord of the manor): “Fleas in the pottage bowl, / Fleas in the bread, / Bloodsucking fleas / In the blankets of our beds …” Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! has many good lines, but these stand out because they are written in dactylic meter, which is much less common in children’s books than iambic or anapestic.

Worst line: Schlitz writes about the Children’s Crusade as though its existence were an established fact: “In 1212, a French shepherd boy had a vision that the Holy Land could be recovered by innocent children. Thirty to forty thousand children from France and Germany set off to Palestine, believing that God would favor their cause because of their faith, love, and poverty. They believed that when they reached the Mediterranean, it would part, like the Red Sea. They were mistaken. Most of them starved, froze to death, or were sold into slavery.” Many scholars question whether this crusade occurred or, if it did, whether it attracted “thirty to forty thousand” children. Schlitz gives no source for this information beyond a general bibliography that lists only one book that deals primarily with the Crusades.

Published: August 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! won the 2008 John Newbery Medal from the American Library Association, given to the most distinguished work of American literature for children www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/newberymedal/newberymedal.htm .
Schlitz also wrote an excellent neo-Gothic novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/. Robert Byrd’s site is www.robertbyrdart.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. This site posts a new review of a book for children or teenagers every Saturday.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 20, 2007

Tennessee Williams on Whether His Plays Were Autobiographical, Quote of the Day #20

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:37 am
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“My work is emotionally autobiographical. It has no relationship to the actual events of my life, but it reflects the emotional currents of my life.”

Tennessee Williams in an interview with Dotson Rader in 1981, published in The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work: Sixth Series (Viking, 1984). Edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by Frank Kermode.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

I’m posting this because I started the week by writing about the Pulitzer Prizes and wanted to wrap it up with some comments on them. Tennessee Williams makes an interesting postscript to my post on Famous Pulitzer Losers (April 16), a list of 10 classic novels that didn’t win the Pulitzer for fiction. Williams won two Pulitzer Prizes for drama, for A Streetcar Named Desire (1948) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). But he didn’t win for The Glass Menagerie in 1946, when the prize went to State of the Union by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay, better known for writing the book for The Sound of Music with music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Anybody but me want to argue that The Glass Menagerie was as worthy of a Pulitzer as the two plays by Williams that got the prize? The play relates directly to today’s quote — it’s one of Williams’s most autobiographical, however you define “autobiographical.”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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