One-Minute Book Reviews

September 5, 2008

Children’s Storybooks About Elections, Presidential and Otherwise

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:13 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I try never to miss Meghan Cox Gurdon’s fortnightly reviews of children’s books in the Weekend Edition of the Wall Street Journal, and not just because they show consistently good taste and news judgment: Gurdon is a morally fearless critic who has the number of publishers who try to pass off patronizing twaddle as art. Here is the beginning her review of six storybooks about presidential politics in the Aug. 23–24 Journal:

“Parents keen to make presidential politics ‘relevant’ to their young children will find abundant help in 2008’s extra-large batch of campaign-themed storybooks. But will the tykes care? Children like a bit of fun in their picture books, yet the adult temptation to moralize seems, in most cases, to overwhelm any possibility of an engaging tale.

“Consider, for instance, the story of how a virtuous underdog rises to leadership in Rosemary Wells’s Otto Runs for President (Scholastic). Interestingly, the book is dedicated to Elizabeth Edwards, wife of a onetime Democratic underdog whose virtue now seems … somewhat dog-eared.

“The setting here is a school, all the candidates for president are canines, and the didacticism is as thick as the paint in the illustrations ….”

I admire Rosemary Wells greatly, but Gurdon defines her terms so clearly and writes so persuasively that her review left me in no rush to read about Otto. Gurdon was also underwhelmed by Kelly DiPuccio’s Grace for President and Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Max for President. (Lane Smith’s Madam President not quite as “morally earnest.” ) So which books about electoral politics might children enjoy more? Next Saturday I’ll review one of them, Kate Feiffer and Diane Goode’s President Pennybaker, also included in Gurdon’s roundup online.wsj.com/public/article/SB121944276577664749.html?mod=2_1167_1.

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

September 4, 2008

Pundit Hart Seely Lampoons McCain and Obama in Verse in ‘Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington: Nursery Rhymes for the Political Barnyard’

Filed under: Humor,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Last year Hart Seely tweaked John McCain, Barak Obama and others in Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington: Nursery Rhymes for the Political Barnyard (Free Press, 128 pp., $12.95), a tart collection of parodies that may be due for a sales spike. His “Old John McCain” begins:

Old John McCain
Had a very fine brain
What a very fine brain had he,
He went to ’Nam,
Then he came back home,
And he ran with the GOP.
He reached for the sky,
And then faced the lie,
That a little bit nutty was he, was he …

Other parodies in the book appear on the Simon & Schuster site www.simonsays.com/content/book.cfm?tab=1&pid=534287&agid=2. In its wisdom, the publisher has not posted the poems about Obama and McCain nor has it enabled the “Search Inside” tool on Amazon. But you can read part of Seely’s “Hey! Let’s Vote Obama!” in the original review of Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/06/17/.

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

September 3, 2008

Sarah Palin’s Résumé in 5 Lines

Sarah Palin makes “Obama’s resume look as thick as Winston Churchill’s,” Katha Pollitt wrote last week in her blog for the Nation. Apart from serving as mayor of Wasilla, what did Palin do before being elected governor of Alaska in 2006? This résumé or C. V. appears atop her two-page listing in the respected Almanac of American Politics 2008 (National Journal Group, 2007), by Michael Barone with Richard E. Cohen:

Elected Office: Wasilla City Cncl., 1992–1996; Wasilla Mayor, 1996-2002.

Professional Career: Television sports reporter, 1987–1989; Co-owner, commercial fishing operation, 1988–2007; Owner, snow machine, watercraft, and all-terrain vehicle business, 1994–1997; Chairwoman, Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, 2003–2004.”

Read Katha Pollitt’s “Sarah Palin, Wrong Woman for the Job” at www.thenation.com/blogs/anotherthing/351330 and a review of her essay collection Learning to Drive at www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/. Learn about the Almanac of American Politics 2008 at www.nationaljournal.com/almanac/.

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

August 29, 2008

Laura Bush and Jenna Bush Campaign for Books in ‘Read All About It!’

The first lady stumps for John McCain at the Republican National Convention next week and for reading in a picture book about a boy who becomes a convert to literature

Read All About It! By Laura Bush and Jenna Bush. Illustrated by Denise Brunkus. HarperCollins, 32 pp., $17.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The good news is: This book isn’t as bad as Millie’s Book, the bestseller that Barbara Bush wrote entirely in the voice of her pet spaniel. The bad news is: It’s a close call.

Read All About It! is a stump speech posing as a storybook. First lady Laura Bush and her daughter Jenna lobby hard for reading in this tale of a boy who prefers freeze tag to books. One day Tyrone decides to pay attention instead of clowning around when his teacher, Miss Libro, reads to his class, and — presto! — his view changes. The characters in books become real to him: “During a story about our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin stepped into our classroom, flying a kite.” A dragon appears “as the prince was about to save the princess” in a fairy tale, and a ghost and pig turn up when the teacher reads other books.

But the characters vanish when their stories end. Alarmed, Tyrone and his friends search the school for them, talking with people like Ms. Gravy (a cook in the cafeteria) and Ms. Tonedeaf (the music teacher). The students find the missing characters in the library, and on the last page Tyrone begs with the zeal of the newly baptized, “Miss Libro, let’s read here, in the library!”

The theme of Read All About It! is that if you give books a chance, you may enter magical worlds. And who would disagree that reading can seem magical? But there’s a weird similarity between the Bushes’ just-say-yes-to-reading theme and Nancy Reagan’s just-say-no-to-drugs platform. Whether you’re talking about books or drugs, you don’t usually convert kids with moralizing. Apart from the problems a just-say-yes approach might present for students with ADD or learning disabilities, the plot of Read All About It! is too weak to rescue it from its didacticism.

Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of the children’s literature journal the Horn Book, wrote in the New York Times Book Review that “kids who don’t like stories won’t be persuaded otherwise” by this one:

“As Tyrone would say, it’s not real. The point is laboriously made, the teachers’ names are dorky, the plot is hectic and the suspense and dialogue are artificial.”

Given that Laura studied to become a librarian and Jenna wrote an earlier book, Sutton wondered: “How could such confirmedly bookish types write an I-love-reading book so fundamentally tone deaf as to why reading can inspire love?”

The tone-deafness goes beyond the dippy names of characters. Princesses still exist in fairy tales – and girls still love to read about them – but in modern stories they are much less likely than in older ones to have a prince “save” them as envisioned in Read All About It!. And in textbooks the phrase “Founding Fathers” is giving way to “founders.” The authors seem to be trying to have it both ways – to appeal to liberals by sometimes using “Ms.” and to conservatives by alluding to princes who “save” princesses and by bringing up those “Founding Fathers.” Apart from any external political considerations that are involved, this approach makes for an internally inconsistent story. And you wonder if it’s a coincidence that Miss Libro is on all levels a more attractive character than the presumptive feminists, Ms. Gravy and Ms. Tonedeaf.

Read All About It! gets what little life it has from its spirited color illustrations by Denise Brunkus, illustrator of the Junie B. Jones series. The book also has six brief reading lists of picture books or early readers, which appear on Miss Libro’s blackboard and which children may find useful. Even those call for caution: More than half of the recommended books come from HarperCollins, publisher of Read All About It!.

But the authors’ reading lists mercifully include E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a children’s novel that exemplifies the spirit of a comment Sutton made in his review of Read All About It! in the New York Times Book Review: “Children’s librarians could tell you: if you want to convince children of the power of books, don’t tell them stories are good. Tell them a good story.”

So if you want to get children excited about reading, you might skip Tyrone and go straight to Fern, the girl who in Charlotte’s Web saves the scrawny last pig of a litter. White once said, when a critic sent him a scholarly disquisition on that modern classic, “It’s good I did not know what in hell was going on. To have known might well have been catastrophic.” The authors of Read All About It! do know what’s going on, and that’s the problem.

Best line/picture: On the title page a pig nuzzles Tyrone with a Babe-like sweetness that isn’t cloying.

Worst line/picture: No. 1: “Ms. Toadskin thinks she can gross us out with her science experiments. But I live for that stuff!” No. 2: “The library is a boring place! All I will meet there are stinky pages.” No. 3: “And then I had the most brilliant idea EVER. ‘Miss Libro, let’s read here, in the library!’

“’Take it from me, Tyrone! You never know who you are going to meet when you look in a book!’”

Take it from me, everybody! Overusing exclamation points is a sign of weak writing! And italics and boldface, too! The authors don’t get that this is shouting at kids!

Published: May 2008

Consider reading instead: Max’s Words, a far more effective picture book about a boy who discovers the joy of words www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/16/.

Futhermore: Read Roger Sutton’s full review here www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/books/review/Sutton-t.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss. Listen to Laura Bush and Jenna Bush talk about how they wrote their book here www.harpercollinschildrens.com/harperchildrens/parents/gamesandcontests/features/readallaboutit/.

Increased library use helps libraries justify requests for increased funding. Please support public libraries by checking out books or using other services regularly.

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

August 25, 2008

Is Laura Bush’s Children’s Book as Bad as the New York Times Said? Or Is the Newspaper Biased Against the Bush Administration?

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:58 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Art by Denise Brunkus for Read All About It!

Illustration by Denise Brunkus for 'Read All About It!'

Popular first ladies like Laura Bush tend to get a free pass from newspapers, which generally appreciate that they are doing a difficult job for no pay. But the New York Times Book Review had harsh words for Read All About It! (HarperCollins, $17.99), the new picture book about the joy of reading by Bush and her daughter Jenna.

Roger Sutton, editor of the Horn Book, wrote that the authors seemed “fundamentally tone deaf” to why children love reading and that they told a story in which “the teachers’ names are dorky, the plot is hectic and the suspense and dialogue are artificial.” Is Read All About It! as bad as the Times said? Or was a liberal newspaper biased against a conservative administration it never liked, anyway?

Find out this weekend when a review of Read All About It! appears on One-Minute Book Reviews, which reviews books for children or teenagers every Saturday. In the meantime you can read Sutton’s review here www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/books/review/Sutton-t.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.

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

August 8, 2008

Those ‘John Edwards Is Hot’ T-Shirts – Elizabeth Edwards Reacts (Quote of the Day / ‘Saving Graces’)

Elizabeth Edwards reacts in Saving Graces to the “John Edwards is hot” T-shirts that were circulating in Boston when Democratic National Convention nominated John Kerry for president and her husband for vice-president in 2004. Edwards says that she and her daughter Cate went back to their hotel one night during the convention and found that John had just received a gift from a fan:

“When Cate and I came back into the room, John pulled out a T-shirt someone had given him, boasting that he’d been told it was highest-grossing T-shirt in Boston. The shirt, made by a group of Harvard women, had a line drawing of John and the words ‘John Edwards is hot.’

“Cate took one look and said, ‘Dad, that’s disgusting. Do you want to burn that or do you want me to?’ ‘Oh, yeah,’ he answered, ‘I think it’s weird.’ Then he showed it to the next three people who walked into the room. Cate said, ‘Dad, you are so proud of that.’ ‘No, I do think it’s weird.’ ‘Okay then,’ she answered, ‘stop showing it to people.’ John never had to worry about getting too full of himself with Cate around. Bless her.”

Edwards talks about her marriage, her breast cancer and other subjects in her memoir, Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength From Friends and Strangers, which Broadway Books published in hardcover in 2006 and in paperback in 2007.

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

[Page 254]

Elizabeth Edwards on Her Husband, John (Quote of the Day / ‘Saving Graces’)

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:34 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

[Update, 4 p.m. EDT: I posted this just before learning that ABC News is reporting that John Edwards has admitted to having an affair abcnews.go.com/Blotter/story?id=5441195&page=1.]

What can explain the recent maw of rumors about John Edwards? I went back to Saving Graces (Broadway, 2006), Elizabeth Edwards’s memoir of her life with the 2004 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, looking for clues reviewers had missed. I didn’t find any. But I did find Saving Graces a cut above most such memoirs, partly because Edwards does a better job of blending an appealing frankness with the tact required of a politician’s spouse.

Here is her reaction to watching Senate debates on C-SPAN after her husband was elected to represent North Carolina in that body:

“In the wide shots from the gallery, we could pick John out, leaning over his desk, his chin in his hands, watching the proceedings below him, and watching, frankly, in some horror. The founding fathers had not anticipated that Congress, once filled with writers and orators and thinkers, would be filled with politicians with no skill whatever in making a clear point or in eliciting a pertinent piece of evidence in a proceeding that resembled a trial.”

This kind of honesty, by the standards of Washington memoirs, is almost racy.

The News & Observer of Raleigh published its own report, before Edwards confirmed the affair, here www.newsobserver.com/politics/politicians/edwards/story/1167797.html. The News & Observer article is worth checking out partly because the paper covers the Edwards’s state. It is also being continually updated and has a list of links to, for example, the tabloid photographs that that figure prominently this story.

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

July 19, 2008

Why Should We Spend Billions of Dollars to Send Astronauts to the Moon When People Are Starving Here on Earth? Randy Pausch Responds in ‘The Last Lecture’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:29 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Why spend money to send astronauts into outer space when we could use it to fight poverty and hunger on Earth? Americans began asking the question long before July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Jr. walked on the moon as Michael Collins orbited with their spacecraft, and some may ask it again today.

Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, responds in The Last Lecture www.thelastlecture.com, written with Jeffrey Zaslow:

“I understand the arguments about how the billions of dollars spent to put men on the moon could have been used to fight poverty and hunger on earth. But, look, I’m a scientist who sees inspiration as the ultimate tool for doing good.

“When you use money to fight poverty, it can be of great value, but too often, you’re working at the margins. When you’re putting people on the moon, you’re inspiring all of us to achieve the maximum of human potential, which is how our greatest problems will eventually be solved.”

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

June 30, 2008

Another ‘Lone Survivor’ — Captain Scott O’Grady in Bosnia

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:44 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor is a three-gun turret — one part gripping adventure story, one part Valentine to George W. Bush, and one part screed against journalists. And because those parts don’t always mesh well, it’s a hard book to recommend unreservedly. Not so Return With Honor (HarperTorch, 208 pp., $7.99, paperback), by Captain Scott O’Grady with Jeff Coplon. O’Grady was shot down while enforcing a NATO no-fly zone over Bosnia in 1995 and survived for six days, eating ants and hiding in the woods, until rescued by Marines. O’Grady tells his story in a book that is remarkably suspenseful, given that we know the outcome from the start. Return With Honor also lacks the angry political rhetoric of Lone Survivor, so it has a broader appeal than Luttrell’s account of what he calls “Little Big Horn with turbans.” A review of and reading group guide to Lone Survivor appeared on this site on August 13, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/13/.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 20, 2008

A ‘Casualty Notification Officer’ Brings News No One Wants to Hear

Great photos by the Pulitzer Prize–winning Todd Heisler and others enhance a poignant story of how Americans learn that their relatives have died in Iraq

“The Commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to express his deep regret that your (relationship), John, (died/was killed in action) in (place of incident) (city/state or country) on (date). (State the circumstances.) The Commandant extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your loss.”
The Marine Corps’s suggested script for casualty notification officers, which they may modify, as quoted in Final Salute

Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives. By Jim Sheeler. Penguin, 280 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

It seems heartless today that the military once announced combat deaths in telegrams or brief sympathy letters that left relatives alone in their sorrow. Near the end of the Vietnam War, the government changed its policy and began sending two-person teams of uniformed officers to deliver the news instead. And Jim Sheeler shows how harrowing that job can be in this wonderful book about one such officer, Major Steve Beck of the Marine Corps, that grew out of a Pulitzer Prize–winning series with the same title for the Rocky Mountain News.

Sheeler doesn’t say so, but newspapers have reported that the notification policy changed partly because as Western Union offices became fewer, the military started asking taxi drivers to deliver the telegrams. Many of those cabbies — quite understandably — refused the work.

In Final Salute, Sheeler shows why anyone might decline the job now done by servicemen and -women known as “casualty assistance calls officers” or “casualty notification officers.” The military sends teams not just for emotional support but for the protection of the messengers: At the beginning of the war in Iraq, a furious mother slapped a Marine from Beck’s unit.

But the emotional hazards of casualty notification clearly outweigh the physical dangers. Officers do not generally call ahead to announce their visits. But families know instantly why they have arrived. “You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor,” Beck said.

Sheeler couldn’t go with Beck when he knocked or rang doorbells. But he got as close as any reporter may ever have and followed up with the families. He also interviewed a former Marine who painted the names of the fallen on gravestones and went to a wake on an Indian reservation for the first Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe member killed in Iraq. Some of his most poignant stories involve a fatherless preteen son, who told him, “I get mad when kids tell me the wrong things like, ‘Your daddy died for no reason.’”

Writing in a calm tone and plain language somewhat reminiscent of that of All Quiet on the Western Front, Sheeler never overdramatizes or sentimentalizes his material. He also breaks up long stories into well-crafted shorter segments. This helps to keep his book from becoming almost too painful to read, but at times works against the narrative flow. Sheeler tells us on page 23 that a mother who had two sons at war screamed, “Which one was it?” when she realized that one had died. When he continues her story on page 114, he says she screamed, “Which one is it?” You don’t know if he gives two versions of the question because he had conflicting sources, because he massaged one of the quotes, or because the woman said first one thing, then another.

The story told in this book is so memorable that – with one exception – its lapses hardly matter. Final Salute benefits greatly from the photographs of Todd Heisler, who won his own Pulitzer, for feature photography, for the pictures in the “Final Salute” series in the Rocky Mountain News. Sheeler thanks Heisler in his acknowledgments. But neither he nor the jacket-copy writer mentions Heisler’s Pulitzer. How Sheeler and his publisher could have treated so much of their material so sensitively – and this aspect of it so insensitively – is a mystery.

Best line: Beck’s comment: “You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor.”

Worst Line: The failure of Sheeler and his publisher to note that Heisler en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Todd_Heisler won a Pulitzer for his photos for the “Final Salute” series www.pulitzer.org/year/2006/feature-photography/works/, some of which appear in this book, including the elegant image on the cover. This is a disservice to Heisler, to readers and to others, including booksellers, who could have used the information in hand-selling the book. Sheeler is a great writer, but the importance of photographers to a story like the one told in the Rocky Mountain News series — without which this book would not exist — cannot be overstated. It is not simply that photographers can raise a story to a higher power artistically or help to persuade reluctant sources to cooperate. Outstanding pictures, such as those Heisler and others took, can help to “sell” editors on a story — to persuade them give it the play it deserves — and to persuade readers to read it. Just below the headline of this review appears a line that shows how easily Penguin could have mentioned Heisler’s Pulitzer, without doing an injustice to the other photographers, in one sentence on the dust jacket. Heisler was also part of a team that won the 2003 Pulitzer for breaking news photography. He is now a staff photographer for the New York Times.

Published: May 2008 www.jimsheeler.com and us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9781594201653,00.html.

Furthermore: Sheeler is now a a scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing her reviews.

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

« Previous PageNext Page »

The Rubric Theme Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 352 other followers

%d bloggers like this: