One-Minute Book Reviews

April 5, 2008

Jack Prelutsky’s Worst Book? The Magic Is Gone in ‘The Wizard,’ Illustrated by Brandon Dorman

A popular children’s poet casts no spell when he recycles earlier material

The Wizard. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Brandon Dorman. HarperCollins/Greenwillow, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

The Wizard is the only picture book that a bookstore clerk has ever tried to talk me out buying. I wish I had taken her advice.

You know that how critics say that there’s a curse of the Nobel that keeps writers from doing great work after they become laureates, which Gabriel García Marquez beat with Love in the Time of Cholera? Jack Prelutsky seems to suffer from a similar jinx. Two of his worst books have come out since the Poetry Foundation named him the children’s poet laureate of the U.S., a title unrelated to the honor conferred by the Library of Congress. Early in 2007 Prelutsky served up uninspired sports poems in Good Sports. Now there’s The Wizard, a picture book based on the time-honored literary principle that Maureen Dowd has described as: “Never sell once what you can sell twice.”

The Wizard consists of a brief rhyming poem about sorcery that first appeared in Prelutsky’s 1976 book, Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep. A magician who might have been airlifted from Hogwarts to his gray stone tower in a suburbia turns a bullfrog into a flea and the flea in to mice. He then causes other transformations until he brings the frog back with a warning that departs from the iambic tetrameter used elsewhere: “Should you encounter a toad or lizard, / look closely … / it may be the work of the wizard.”

As those strained lines suggest, The Wizard is the kind of weak poem that works best in a collection that includes stronger ones. And it gets no help from the lurid, digitized pictures, long on a shrill lime green with silver glitter on the cover. “It’s so commercial,” protested the bookstore clerk who tried to talk me out of buying it. She was right: If the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders wore green and white instead of blue and white, they might choose the shades in this book.

There’s a place for honest commercialism in children’s literature – for, say good spin-offs television shows – but the illustrations for The Wizard are among the most pretentious I’ve seen in a picture book. Brandon Dorman scatters the pages with objects found in Dutch vanitas paintings — a skull, a clock, flickering candles. In art these are classic symbols of mortality and the flight of time. In this book they are just clichés.

Prelutsky has written many good books of children’s poetry, including Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, that don’t pander as this one does to the marketplace. But he may have little incentive to do more of them: The Wizard was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.

Best line / picture: None is a good as a typical line in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant. But these two lines make clear that four-year-olds can understand iambic tetrameter: “He spies a bullfrog by the door / and, stooping, scoops it off the floor.”

Worst line / picture: The wizard has “a tangled beard that hangs from his skin.” But in nearly all of Dorman’s pictures, the beard is as smooth as satin.

Published: October 2007 www.jackprelutsky.com, www.brandondorman.com and www.harpercollinschildrens.com.

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

February 25, 2008

Why We Need Negative Reviews of Books (Quote of the Day/William Logan)

Perhaps everyone who’s edited a newspaper or magazine book section has heard the question: “Why do you publish negative reviews of books? When you have so little space, why not focus on the good ones?” William Logan deals with the question as it applies to poetry in his The Undiscovered Country:

“It’s often said that critics shouldn’t write negative reviews, because bad poetry will take care of itself (time will take care of it, too). With so few books in a given year worth remembering, why review those that will soon vanish from memory? I love reviewing poets I admire (isn’t that what a critic lives for?); but if you write only such reviews, how can a reader trust your praise? We learn something necessary about how a few poets go right when we know the ways so many have gone wrong: the latest clichés of feeling, the shop-thumbed imagery, the rags and bones of organization. Great poets transcend their age as much as they embody its ills, or succumb to them; but mediocre poets succumb on every page.

“If you’re too gentle to say a mean thing, are you ever courageous enough to say a truly kind one (or mean enough to say an honest one)? It’s surprising how many poets feel that poetry criticism should never be … critical. Yet these gentle readers love film and theater reviews that would eat the chrome off a car bumper.”

William Logan in the introduction to his most recent book of poetry criticism, The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin (Columbia University Press, $29.50) www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/. Logan teaches at the University of Florida www.english.ufl.edu/faculty/wlogan/index.html and writes the Verse Chronicle for the New Criterion newcriterion.com:81/. He is author of three other works of criticism and seven books of poetry. His awards include the a citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

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

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com


January 25, 2008

The Underworld on a String: Poet Louise Glück’s ‘Averno’

A former poet laureate meditates on a crater lake near Naples that the ancient Romans believed to be the gateway to hell

Averno. By Louise Glück. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Louise Glück writes about figures from Greek mythology as though they might show up tomorrow in a laundry room at Yale, where she teaches. Orpheus and Eurydice, Aeneas and Dido, Achilles and Patroclus – she knows them better than many of us know our relatives, well enough to claim the right to explain them to others.

In her latest collection of poems, Glück recasts story of Persephone, the personification of spring. In most retellings of the myth, Persephone is a man’s victim: She is abducted by the king of the underworld and partially ransomed by her mother, Demeter, who arranges for her to spend two-thirds of the year on earth and one-third in hell. Glück envisions the tale instead “as an argument between the mother and the lover / the daughter is just meat.” In this Freudian version, Persephone is her mother’s victim as much as a man’s.

This interpretation suggests the fatalistic vision of Averno, a collection of linked poems that glide back and forth between myth and modern life. Averno is a crater lake west of Naples that the ancient Romans saw as the gateway to the underworld and that Glück uses as a unifying metaphor for a book about the dialogue between life and death that intensifies in the last trimester of life. In her title poem and others, she returns to a theme introduced in her earlier work, an idea that’s a sophisticated variation on the sign the Grim Reaper often carries in cartoons: “Prepare to meet thy doom.” She delivers an italicized warning in “October”: “You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.”

Glück too good a poet to allow this idea to devolve into a parody of a televangelist’s message, and her book has a grim integrity lacking in the work of poets who serve up Splenda in quatrains. Even so, the fatalism at times borders on oppressive. It’s a relief when a spark of hope ignites at the end of “October”: “Surely it is a privilege to approach the end / still believing in something.”

Best/worst line: This is the rare book in which the best and worst lines are the same. In “The Night Migrations” Glück wonders how the soul will find comfort after death. She concludes that “maybe just not being is simply enough / hard as that is to imagine.” The idea “not being” might be “enough” is perhaps the memorable in the book. But the adverbs weaken it, especially that “simply,” which seems to serve no purpose except that of scansion.

Published: 2006 (hardcover), 2007 (paperback) www.fsgbooks.com

Furthermore: Glück won a Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris. She was the 2003–2004 U.S. poet laureate. You can hear her read “October” at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16723.

Consider reading also: The short poem “Demeter at Yellowstone” in Deena Linnet’s Woman Crossing a Field: Poems/American Poets Continuum Series (BOA Editions, $14.95, paperback) www.boaeditions.org.

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

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 20, 2008

Do We Need ‘Easier’ Poetry to Bring Back Readers? (Quote of the Day/William Logan)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:34 pm
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William Logan reviews the latest book by Geoffrey Hill, who writes perhaps the most complex and difficult poems of the 21st century, in today’s New York Times Book Review. Hill believes that “sinking to common ground betrays the high purpose of verse,” Logan says in his review of A Treatise of Civil Power (Yale University Pres, $30, cloth, and $16, paper) www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Logan-t.html. Should poets dumb down their work to attract readers? Logan expressed his own views on the question in his most recent collection of poetry criticism:

“Many have argued that to regain its lost audience poetry must become as easy to read as the instructions for opening a tin of sardines (no, easier), whimsical and ordinary in all the right whimsical and ordinary ways. This will bring back the common reader – once we have him, once he has that taste for poetry, by baby steps he will develop a passion for Alexander Pope. There have been a few such readers, no doubt, though they might have progressed to Pope just as quickly if they’d started with the backs of cereal boxes. The poems for prospective readers must be written in first person, in free verse, as often as possible in present tense, and as much like prose as possible, because metaphor is obscure, allusion elitist if not unjust, and something as strict as meter surely undemocratic, even (as has been claimed) the design of fascists. Oh, and such poems must be about the poet’s life, because we should always write about what we know, and what else does a poet know? How fortunate that Shakespeare was a close friend of Julius Caesar and that Milton supped frequently with the Devil.

“Poetry has for some time tried to dumb itself down to attract an audience; when any art becomes so desperate, it is already endangered. … Perhaps there is a place for disposable poetry; but let’s not fool ourselves that it’s better than it is, simply because the times are what they are. What we lack is not readers but a culture that teaches how to read.”

William Logan in the introduction to his most recent book of poetry criticism, The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin (Columbia University Press, $29.50) www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/. Logan teaches at the University of Florida www.english.ufl.edu/faculty/wlogan/index.html and writes the Verse Chronicle for the New Criterion newcriterion.com:81/. He is author of three other works of criticism and seven books of poetry. His awards include a citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

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

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 3, 2008

Good Poems for High School Students (and Maybe for Yourself, Too)

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

From Alfred Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break”

By Janice Harayda

Looking for good poems for a teenager or for yourself? You’ll find them at Poetry Out Loud www.poetryoutloud.org, the home of National Recitation Project, a nationwide competition that encourages high school students to read poetry in class and elsewhere.

Teenagers who enter the contest must choose from among the 400 new and classic poems posted on Poetry Out Loud, which gives the full text of each and a short biography its author. Students can select work by fine contemporary poets such as Kay Ryan and Yusef Komunyakaa or warhorses like Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson (identified as “the famous hermit of Amherst, Massachusetts”).

Poetry Out Loud is also a good site for teenagers and adults looking for poems to read on their own (which you can find by clicking on “Find a Poem” in the “For Students” category). You might start with one of Alfred Tennyson’s best poems, “Break, Break, Break,” the first lines of which appear above. This brief lament for a lost friend has elements that may appeal to the most reluctant readers, including rhyme, clarity and a strong rhythm. “Break, Break, Break” also deals in part with a theme that’s easy for teenagers to identify with – the difficulty of expressing deep thoughts and feelings. And because it comes from a great English poet of the Victorian era, many students are less likely to have read in it in school than the work of American poets such as Frost and Dickinson.

Furthermore: “Break, Break, Break” is a great tool for teaching teenagers about poetry because it is relatively easy to read but uses many techniques found in more challenging poems, including assonance, repetition, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. The first three words are an example of three-syllable foot with three stresses, known as a molossus.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 7, 2007

‘The Supreme Christmas Poem in the English Language’ Is … Quote of the Day (Reynolds Price)

This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring …

From John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”

What is “the Supreme Christmas poem in the English language”? This must have been more of a stumper than I thought, because I asked the question Tuesday, and nobody got it right. I may have thrown you off by saying I’d give an American writer’s answer when the poem wasn’t written here. (Oh, sons and daughters of Cambridge! Where were you when a fellow Cantabrigian needed you?) The novelist Reynolds Price argues – and many others would agree – that the poem is John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Price says of Milton and his poem:

“The most powerful early component of his genius became visible in December 1629. While on the winter vacation from his studies at Cambridge, he wrote his initial indispensable poem, an ode ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.’ It was, almost certainly, the result – only two weeks after his twenty-first birthday – of his eagerness to exhibit a first fruit of the high calling he sensed within himself. And in the freewheeling rhetorical rapture which pours out memorable phrases in joyous profusion, in its complex musical urgency, and its unquestioned Christian sense of God’s immanence in nature, the ode continues to be the supreme Christmas poem in the English language.”

Reynolds Price in an essay on Milton in the just-published Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature (Paul Dry Books, $18.95, paperback) www.pauldrybooks.com, selected and edited by Joseph Epstein with wood engravings by Barry Moser. Price, the poet and novelist, is the James B. Duke Professor English at Duke University www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reynolds_Price.

The first lines of Milton’s poem appear at the top of this post. You can read the annotated full text in the Milton Reading Room on the Dartmouth College site http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/nativity/index.shtml. Please note that on this template I can’t indent the lines as Milton did.

Did you know the answer to Tuesday’s question? An easy way to become better acquainted with Milton’s poetry is to go to the free site Cyber Hymnal and listen the hymn “Let Us With a Gladsome Mind,” which you can hear by clicking on this link: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/l/e/letuglad.htm. (You will hear the music immediately when you click.) The words to “Let Us With a Gladsome Mind” come from Milton’s poem with the same title, which he wrote when he was 15. You can read the poem and listen to the music simultaneously at Cyber Hymnal www.cyberhymnal.org, which also offers at no cost the words and music to thousands of other hymns, including religious Christmas carols.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

December 4, 2007

What Is ‘the Supreme Christmas Poem in the English Language’? Win a Book of Poetry If You Know

Filed under: Contests — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:13 pm
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Later in the week I’ll have a Quote of the Day in which a well-known American writer talks about the poem he calls “the supreme Christmas poem in the English language.” Do you know what it is? You can win a copy of Baseball Haiku: American and Japanese Haiku and Senryu (Norton, $19.95), edited with translations by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura, if you’re the first to answer correctly. Baseball Haiku is an excellent new collection of haiku about baseball that transcends the sport with a long introduction (and commentary on individual poems) that helps to demystify haiku in general www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/29/.

To enter the contest, send an e-mail message with the answer and your mailing address to the address on the “Contact” page of this site. I’ll send Baseball Haiku to the first U.S. resident who responds correctly by e-mail. If you don’t want to try to win but would like to show people what a genius you are — or nominate the poem that you see as “the supreme Christmas poem” in English — why not leave a comment? The Quote of the Day and answer will be posted by 5 p.m. Eastern Time Friday.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved. Janice Harayda.

November 24, 2007

Jack Prelutsky’s Rhyming Animal Poems for Young Children


“Behold the bold UMBRELLAPHANT
That’s not the least afraid
To forage in the broiling sun
For it is in the shade.”

Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant: And Other Poems. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrations by Carin Berger. Greenwillow, 32 pp., $17.89. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

For more than six months, a review of Jack Prelutsky’s collection of sports poems has appeared repeatedly among the top 10 posts on this site. I wish the distinction were going to a worthier book than Good Sports, which has uninspired rhymes, clichéd language and art that’s mismatched with the text.

Prelutksy’s 2006 Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant is in every way superior to it. This sparkling collection of poems about imaginary animals pays its respects to Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile.” (“How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tale, / And pour the waters of the Nile / On every golden scale!”) Because “The Crocodile” was a parody of an Isaac Watts poem, you might call “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” a parody of a parody.

But Prelusky’s book isn’t a parody so much as an homage. Like “The Crocodile,” most poems in “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” use the ballad stanzas known as common meter or “hymn” stanzas, or alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter with rhyming first and third lines. And Prelusky stays close enough to Carroll’s work that his book could have become a tired imitation of it.

Instead the poems in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant have a freshness all their own, paired with sparkling mixed-media illustrations by Carin Berger. Each poem describes a creature that is part animal and part familiar object – an elephant with an umbrella for a trunk in the “The Umbrellaphant,” an octopus with an alarm clock for a head in “The Clocktopus.” This device could have been too clever by a half. It isn’t, partly because Prelutsky keeps most poems as simple and descriptive as “The Panthermometer,” about a panther with a thermometer for a tail: “Here comes a PATHERMOMETER / A cat we fondly hail, / For we can tell the temperature / By looking at its tail.”

Will preschoolers will get the puns and other wordplay in poems like “The Lynx of Chain”? Wrong question. Like Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant is nonsense verse, a form that uses whimisical or incomprehensible words to comic effect. And not the least of the virtues of this book is that it may help to prepare children to appreciate Carroll and other masters of that vanishing art.

Best poem: Many, including the lines from “The Panthermometer” and “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” quoted above.

Worst line: The poem “The Circular Sawtoise” describes a creature that combines a tortoise and a circular saw and borders too clever, in part because of the pronunction of “sawtoise.” When you first see the title of the poem, you mentally pronounce it as “saw-toys.” You have to study the picture to realize that it’s “saw-tis” in “tortoise.”

Published: September 2006 www.harpercollinschildrens.com and www.jackprelusky.com

Caveat lector: The second and fourth lines should be indented four spaces in the lines quoted from the title poem, “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant,” but this template won’t let me do that.

Furthermore: This book is also available on an unabridged audio CD, which I haven’t seen. To read the review of Good Sports, click here: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/12/. read Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile,” click here: www.poetry-archive.com/c/the_crocodile.html

Children’s book reviews appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 5, 2007

‘Casey at the Bat’ — Coming Soon to ‘Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read’

Filed under: Classics,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:17 pm
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Yes, Ernest L. Thayer’s classic is a narrative poem, not a book, about the day there was “no joy in Mudville.” But there are at least three good picture-book versions of Casey at the Bat in print, and One-Minute Book Reviews will review them all soon in its “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series. To avoid missing this review, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 4, 2007

John Bayley’s ‘Good Companions’ – An Ideal Collection of Poetry (and More) for People Who Didn’t Major in English

A former Oxford professor offers a lively introduction famous and little-known poems

Good Companions: A Personal Anthology. By John Bayley. Little, Brown/Abacus, 246 pp., $9.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Most poetry collections pose one of two problems for the casual reader: They have no commentary, now matter how inscrutable their poems may be, or they are textbooks that are full of commentary but too dry and academic to interest most nonscholars.

John Bayley’s Good Companions is the rare anthology that finds the perfect balance between those extremes. This compact paperback – just the right size for a briefcase or nighttable – consists of good short poems or snippets from novels, letters and diaries of the past three centuries. But it has far more poems than prose, and with good reason: Though Bayley is too diplomatic to say so, this is where most people need help, and he provides it superbly.

Bayley doesn’t try to supply a comprehensive introduction to each poem but instead offers a few insightful and opinionated lines that focus on whatever he finds most interesting about it. Sometimes that’s a bit of context, such as when he writes of Lord Rochester’s “A Song of a Young Lady to Her Ancient Lover”:

“The ancient person was probably no more than forty-five. Rakes and dissipated young men, as Rochester certainly was, thought of themselves as completely worn out at an age which people today would consider the prime of life.”

Elsewhere Bayley notes a strength or weakness of a poem, or an especially interesting idea that it raises. He admires Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” in which the speaker catches a valiant fish but releases it after seeing five earlier fish hooks “grown firmly in his mouth.” But for all his admiration, Bayley wonders: “Perhaps the end is a bit too much of a pat on the back for the poet?”

That gentle question exemplifies the conversational tone of the book, its greatest charm. After decades as a professor at Oxford, Bayley might have claimed a Zeus-like right to fling thunderbolts of erudition down from Olympus. Instead he invites you to take part in a lively dialogue about some of his favorite poems. And if you accept, you’re likely to find that some of his selections become your favorites, too.

Best line: Bayley’s shows his gift for summing up a poem in a few deft sentences in his brief comment on Thomas Hardy’s “The Self-Unseeing”: “Hardy at his most moving, and also at his most cannily perceptive. When children are really most happy, and indeed when grown-ups are too, they are very seldom aware of the fact. Perfect happiness is not a state in which self-awareness plays a part.” The last lines of Hardy’s poem bear him out: “Childlike, I danced in a dream; / Blessings emblazoned that day; / Everything glowed with a gleam; / Yet we were looking away!”

Worst line: Bayley includes Blake’s “The Tyger” but punts on the commentary: “What is there to say about the Tyger?”

Published: 2002 Little Brown/Abacus www.littlebrown.co.uk. [I discovered this book this summer at a large Borders store, shelved somewhat oddly in the memoirs section, next to Bayley's Elegy for Iris, so you may find it in a spot other than the poetry aisle.]

Furthermore: Bayley also wrote Elegy for Iris www.picadorusa.com, a memoir of his marriage to the novelist Iris Murdoch and her descent into Alzheimer’s Disease.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She also wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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