Say what you will about the decomposing British class system, the follies of aristocrats have inspired some the finest comic scenes in Western literature. Few authors saw the excesses at closer range than Nancy Mitford, who drew on them for Love in a Cold Climate, a modern classic based in part on her storied and half-batty upper-class family. First published in 1949, this comedy of manners tells the story of the heiress Polly Montdore, an only child who flouts convention by marrying a middle-aged man who had been her mother’s lover. Mitford’s portrait of the young Polly sets the tone of a book that is witty and elegant without being aloof: “Polly was a withdrawn, formal little girl, who went through the day with the sense of ritual, the poise, the absolute submission to etiquette of a Spanish Infanta. You had to love her, she was so beautiful and friendly, but it was impossible to feel very intimate with her.”
June 18, 2009
June 10, 2009
“A good half of the humor of the late Mark Twain consisted of admitting frankly the possession of vices and weaknesses that all of us have and few of us care to acknowledge.”
H. L. Mencken in “The Ulster Polonius” in Prejudices: First Series (Knopf, 1919).
June 6, 2009
Most children need to read more than nonfiction and the poor quality fiction that often appears on school reading lists. Here’s a good explanation of why:
“Practical books with facts in them may be necessary, but they are not everything. They do not serve the imagination in the same way that high invention does when it allows the mind to investigate every possibility, to set itself free from the ordinary, to enter a world where paradox reigns and nothing is what it seems. Properly engaged, the intelligent child begins to question all presuppositions, and thinks on his own. In fact, the moment he says, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if …?’ he is on his way and his own imagination has begun to work at a level considerably more interesting than the usual speculation on what it would be like to own a car and make money.”
Gore Vidal in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952–1972 (Random House, 1972). The illustration shows the cover of Natalie Babbitt’s modern classic, Tuck Everlasting, an example of high-quality imaginative fiction that encourages children “to enter a world where paradox reigns and nothing is what it seems” and also appears on many school reading lists.
June 5, 2009
In my posts this week on Southern literature, I’ve avoided warhorses and focused on underappreciated works (excluding poetry, which deserves its own series). Among the books I like that didn’t make the cut because they are so well known or because I’ve written about them before on this site: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. What are your favorites?
May 29, 2009
A series of five daily posts, “A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South,” will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews starting on Monday. It will review some of the best recent and classic books about the South as seen by a resident of New Jersey who has worked as a critic in New York and Cleveland. Parts of the series appeared in different form in the Mobile Press-Register.
May 22, 2009
[Update, June 4: This contest has closed.]
Late last year, I promised to bring back my former contests that let you win books reviewed on this site. It’s taken me a bit longer than I’d hoped, but here’s the first in the new series of occasional giveaways. Happy Memorial Day! Jan
You can win any book on the list below if you’re the first to link to One-Minute Book Reviews after you read this post. To enter, link to this site, then send the link and your mailing address to the e-mail address on the contact page, and tell me which book you’d like. (Please do not leave a comment with the link — e-mail entries only.) You don’t have to link to the review of the book you want or to say anything special; you can link to any post or page, and winners are determined solely by the time of arrival the e-mail.
You need to be over 18 and a resident of the U.S. to enter. If you win, I’ll put the book in the mail to you within a week. You can win only one book, but if more than one interests you, you’re welcome to mention an alternate choice in case someone has won the book you want. Winners’ names are not announced on the site.
All books are the copies I used to review them, so they’ve been read gently but are in very good condition unless specified. As noted below, some are advance reader’s copies or ARCs (uncorrected proofs with the art for the cover of the hardcover edition on the front).
Here are the books you can win.
The Poky Little Puppy: A Little Golden Book Classic. By Janette Sebring Lowrey, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. This book is reported to be the bestselling American hardcover children’s picture book of all time. Hardcover edition. (Won)
Baby Farm Animals: A Little Golden Book Classic. Illustrated by Garth Williams (who illustrated the best-known editions of Charlotte’s Web and Little House on the Prairie). Hardcover edition. (Won)
Walt Disney’s Cinderella: A Little Golden Books Classic. Story adapted by Jane Wenner. Illustrated by Retta Scott Worcester. Art from the 1950 movie (with Cinderella in her pre-princess garb on the cover). Hardcover edition.
What a Great Kid! Coupon Book: 52 Ways to Tell Kids “You’re Loved.” A tear-out coupon for every week.
Advance Reader’s Copies/Children
PerpetualCheck. By Rich Wallace. A short novel about two brothers who face off at a chess tournament. This ARC shows a bit of wear, but a young chess player might enjoy it. See note about ages in review.
Books for Adults
No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. The hardcover edition of a comic novel recently out in paperback.
The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America. By John Demos. The hardcover edition of a National Book Award nonfiction finalist now in paperback. (Won)
Advance Reader’s Copies/Adults
Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near Fame Experiences. By Nancy Balbirer. An actor’s story of the big breaks that got away. This ARC shows wear.
My Little Red Book. Edited by Rachel Kauder-Nalebuff. Girls and women remember their first menstrual periods.
Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. By Ruth Reichl. Memories of a difficult other by the editor-in-chief of Gourmet.
Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa. By R. A. Scotti. True crime about a famous art heist.
How to Buy a Love of Reading. By Tanya Egan Gibson. A novel about a teenager whose parents hire a novelist to write a book for her.
Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom.By Maria Laurino. An argument for a new vision of feminism by the author of Were You Always an Italian?
May 20, 2009
You Think the Perks in Your Job Are Bad? When Actors Got Free Cigarettes – Quote of the Day From Nancy Balbirer’s ‘Take Your Shirt Off and Cry’
You think the lukewarm coffee at your office is bad? Consider a perk that Nancy Balbirer received as a young actor, as described in her new Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences (Bloomsbury, 256 pp., $16, paperback), a review of which will appear soon:
“Shortly after I turned twenty-eight, I was cast in an off-Broadway production of the Molière play The Ridiculous Précieuses, at the Kauffman Theatre. The production was bankrolled by our leading lady, who happened to be an heiress of one of our country’s great, philanthropic robber baron families. She had Philip Morris as a backer, so in addition to our Equity minimum salaries, the cast were offered as many packs of cigarettes as we could smoke a day. Undeterred by the homicidal innuendo, we all graciously accepted the producers’ largesse.”
May 16, 2009
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!—
From a classic nonsense limerick by Edward Lear
Anyone who wants to encourage a child to read poetry should memorize three good limericks — stopping just short of any that begin, “There was a young girl from Nantucket” — and recite them regularly. Limericks have five rhyming lines and a bouncy rhythm that makes them easy to remember. So children tend to absorb them effortlessly if they hear them often.
The question is: Where can you find the clean ones? True limericks are always bawdy, some critics say. When they aren’t scatological, they may include double-entendres or other risqué elements. Many limericks on the Web are also plagiarized — it’s generally illegal to quote an entire five-line poem by a living or not-long-dead poet even if you credit the author — and could cause trouble for children who quote them in school reports.
But the Academy of American Poets has posted several out-of-copyright classics by Edward Lear (1812––1888), author of “The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16814, including:
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!–
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”
The academy also offers facts about the rhyme and meter of limericks at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5783. All 112 of the limericks in the 1861 edition of Lear’s A Book of Nonsense appear on a site that abounds with information about his work www.nonsenselit.org.
A good source of limericks for young children is The Hopeful Trout and Other Limericks (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Susan Meddaugh, available in many libraries. This book is used in grades 2 and up in schools. But some of its limericks would also suit younger children. They include “Be Kind to Dumb Animals” (“There once was an ape in a zoo / Who looked out through the bars and saw – YOU!”), which consists only of simple one-syllable words, and “The Halloween House” (“I’m told there’s a Green Thing in there. / And the sign on the gate says BEWARE!”).
Many limericks are mini-morality tales about people who get an amusing, nonsensical comeuppance. The Hopeful Trout has several in this category. “The Poor Boy Was Wrong” describes the unlucky Sid, who “thought that a shark / Would turn tail if you bark,” then swam off to test the premise. Ciardi refers obliquely to Sid’s fate, but any child who isn’t sure what happened needs only look at the drawing grinning shark and a single flipper.
© 2009 Janice Harayda
May 12, 2009
Why Do People Read Detective Novels? Quote of the Day From Maureen Corrigan’s ‘Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading’
Why do people read detective novels? Critics often say that mysteries are modern morality tales — we like to see bad guys punished. Maureen Corrigan suggests another part of their appeal in her memoir Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books (Vintage, 247 pp., $14.95, paperback).
A book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, Corrigan writes of hard-boiled detectives like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser:
“Like other novels by and about the working class, the hard-boiled detective novel offers an unadorned picture of class tensions – the antagonism between those who sweat to make a living and those who can afford to hire them. … With ‘contemptuous tolerance’ in his heart and a snappy put-down ever ready on his lips, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer is always venturing into some moneyed enclave in the California suburbs where he’s hired to tidy up some dysfunctional family’s dirty laundry. The message of the grand tradition of American hard-boiled detective fiction – from Hammett to Chandler to Macdonald to Chester Himes to Robert B. Parker to their many contemporary inheritors – is clear: too much money corrupts the soul. It makes men soft, even emasculates them, and the leisure lifestyle it buys is un-American.”
May 9, 2009
Tom Disch’s ‘The Genocides’ – One of the ‘100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels’ Involves an Ecological Catastrophe
Where are the science-fiction novels for sophisticated teenagers? You might wonder after reading Stephenie Meyer’s bestseller about aliens, The Host, which is written at a fourth-grade reading level. You’ll find answers in 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels (A&C Black, 2006), written by Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison with foreword by Christopher Priest.
Among the novels tapped by the authors: The Genocides (Vintage, 160 pp.,$12.95) by the late Tom Disch. Andrews and Rennison write:
“When unseen aliens decide to claim Earth for themselves, they sow the planet with seeds that grow into massive plants which begin to destroy the ecosystem. The plants adapt swiftly whenever new toxins are used against them and civilization itself begins to crumble. Then huge spherical incinerating machines descend to raze the cities, clearing the way for the extraterrestrial crop’s full bloom. Following the struggles of a small American community as they try to survive the onslaught of the alien agriculturalists by burrowing into the roots of the monstrous vegetables, The Genocides is an invasion story with a difference: what chance can human beings have against beings who consider us nothing more than garden pests? Using John W. Campbell’s approach to pursuing an idea to its inescapable conclusion while refusing to conform to the psychologically dissatisfying conclusion invasion stories have suffered from since The War of the Worlds, Tom Disch had the audacity to defy decades of convention, consequently producing a marvelous debut that both broke new ground and upset traditionalist SF fans.”
Andrews and Rennison add that despite his occasional “remoteness of tone,” Disch is “a humane author whose highly accomplished and often very funny work marks him as one of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America.”
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.