One-Minute Book Reviews

July 20, 2009

Cole Porter in the Summer, When It Sizzles — If They Say That These Lyrics Heinous, Kick Them Right in the Coriolanus

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:47 am
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[This is a re-post of a review that appeared in November 2006. I am on a brief semi-vacation.]

A master of light verse in the winter, when it drizzles, in the summer, when it sizzles

Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics. Edited and with an introduction by Robert Kimball. Library of America, 178 pp., $20.

By Janice Harayda

Several friends and I took part as teenagers in a summer drama program in which we learned the lines from Kiss Me, Kate: “If she says your behavior is heinous / Kick her right in the ‘Coriolanus.’” This we regarded as the summit of wit and sang so often that any adult who wanted us to read more poetry could have just given us a book of Cole Porter lyrics on the spot.

I don’t know if that tactic would work today, but the Library of America has made it easier to find out. Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics contains the words to 93 songs that aren’t just some of the best-loved of the 20th century – they are models of light verse. Porter’s lyrics have become such mainstays of our culture that even people who never read poetry are likely to recognize some: “I love Paris, in the winter, when it drizzles, / I love Paris, in the summer, when it sizzles.” “You’re the top! / You’re the Colosseum./ You’re the top! / You’re the Louvre Museum.”  “ … birds do it, bees do it. / Up in Lapland, little Lapps do it, / Let’s do it, let’s fall in love” (though it turns out that “birds” and “bees” is an alteration of Porter’s original words, included in Selected Lyrics).

Why do Porter’s words have such staying power? Porter (1891–1964) was born in Peru, Indiana, but traveled widely and seems to have been a true citizen of the world. His lyrics have a cosmopolitan refinement that may be even more alluring in the age of Howard Stern and Janet Jackson than during the Jazz Age and the Depression, when he did his best work. Porter is a kind of Cary Grant of song-writing – gifted, urbane, and ageless. He blends high and low cultural references with an ease that is more British than American and enables anybody to identify with him. He writes in “You’re the Top”: “You’re the top! / You’re a hot tamale.” Two lines later, he adds “You’re Botticelli, / You’re Keats, / You’re Shelley.” How many writers would dare mix that campy “hot tamale” with the highbrow “Keats” and “Shelley” today? Yet for all the exuberance of such songs, Porter also writes poignantly about his great theme: the evanescence of human attachments and the dreams they embody. In his lyrics the sex of the beloved is often unspecified, so he speaks to gay and straight readers alike.

Porter moved gracefully among poetic meters – iambic, trochaic, anapestic – and at his best is as funny as such titans of light verse as Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker. But he is racier than most light-versifiers. His lyrics teem with double-entrendres. And one of the gems of Selected Lyrics is a parody of “You’re the Top” by Irving Berlin that nods to Porter’s fondness for sexual wordplay. If you think that line about Coriolanus from “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is amusing, wait till you see what Berlin rhymes with “You’re the breasts of Venus.” “White Christmas” was never like this.

Best line: Many lyrics include both internal and end-rhymes, such as: “Let’s question the synonymy of freedom and autonomy, / Let’s delve into astronomy, political economy, / Or if you’re feeling biblical, the book of Deuteronomy.” These lines suggest the influence of Gilbert and Sullivan more directly than do others in Selected Lyrics.

Worst line: Porter occasionally uses clichéd rhymes, such as “love” and “above,” as in “Ours”: “The high gods above / Look down and laugh at our love.” Given the volume of material in Selected Lyrics, it is remarkable how rarely he does this.

Recommendation? This compact volume is small enough for a fragile end-table and an example of what an acquaintance of mine calls “a great guest-room book.” Visitors can dip in at random and fall asleep happy.

Editor: Robert Kimball

Published: April 2006

Furthermore: The elegant, minimalist cover of this book was designed by Mark Melnick and Chip Kidd, perhaps the most esteemed book-jacket designer of our day.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 20, 2009

A Good Children’s Poem About the Fourth of July

John Updike celebrates the Fourth in the spirited children’s poem “July,” which begins: “Bang-bang! Ka-boom! / We celebrate / Our national / Independence date.” The poem is one of 12, one for each month, collected in A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pages, $17.95 hardcover, $6.95 paperback, ages 4–8). Beautifully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, this picture book won a Caldecott Honor for its images of four seasons in the life of members of an interracial New England family and their friends. Don’t miss Updike tending the barbecue grill in the full-page picture next to the poem.

August 2, 2008

How to Have More Fun Watching a Sunset — Another Great Idea from ‘365 Outdoor Activities You Can Do With Your Child’

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:36 am
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Back in June, I mentioned how much I like Steve and Ruth Bennett’s 365 Outdoor Activities You Can Do With Your Child (Adams Media, 1993). If you haven’t yet gone to your library to get the book, I’d like to encourage you with another idea from it. Want to have more fun watching a sunset?

“Get the whole family out for a sunset viewing (a picnic dinner is a great way to get ready),” the Bennetts write. “As the sky turns colors, have everyone take turns closing their eyes, counting to thirty (ten, for young ones), then describing what’s different when they open their eyes again.”

Alternately, the Bennets say, you could have all of your family members close their eyes while you count to thirty. Then ask them to open their eyes and describe the changes. Or ask people to predict what changes will occur, such as shifts in colors or cloud shapes.

You’ll find other ideas in the Bennett’s 365 TV-Free Activities You Can Do With Your Child (Adams Media, 2002), which is easier to find in stores and on line.

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

June 20, 2008

Great Low- or No-Cost Outdoor Activities You Can Do With a Child

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:31 pm
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365 Outdoor Activities You Can Do With Your Child. By Steve and Ruth Bennett. Adams Media, 430 pp., $7.95, paperback.

365 TV-Free Activities You Can Do With Your Child: Plus 50 All-New Bonus Activities. By Steven J. Bennett and Ruth Bennett. Adams Media, 512 pp, $8.95 paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Want to keep a child away from the television set this summer and involved in activities that are stimulating and fun? Steve and Ruth Bennett are your friends. Maybe — depending on how desperate you are — your best friends.

The Bennetts have written two terrific books packed with ideas so simple you may wonder why you didn’t think of them on your own: 365 Outdoor Activities You Can Do With Your Child and 365 TV-Free Activities You Can Do With Your Child www.adamsmediastore.com/product/814/16. The second book is easier to find than the first, but both are widely available in libraries. And each describes hundreds of no- or low-cost, TV-free activities for ages 3 and up in a paperback small enough to fit into a purse or glove compartment.

Part of the appeal of these books is that they describe many activities that would appeal to a variety of ages (including, in some cases, teenagers). Their “Acorn Toss,” for example, is a variation on horseshoes, scaled down so that all ages can enjoy taking part.

Here are three suggestions from 365 Outdoor Activities You Can Do With Your Child that will give you an idea of the kinds of diversions the Bennetts recommend in both books:

Acorn Toss. Can’t take children’s favorite games with you on a trip? Use acorns, walnuts or pine cones for sports games, the Bennetts suggest. One of the easiest games begins with gathering a handful of acorns or nuts: “One person tosses his or her acorn from an official throwing point, marked by a line in the ground or a stick. The other players then toss their acorns, trying to come as close as possible without touching the acorn.”

Invent a Constellation. On a starry night, ask children what they see in the way of people, animals, objects, and more. Make up alternate names for constellations — “Meatball Minor,” “Pancake Major,” “Aunt Jane’s Earlobe” — and tell stories about them. “Sound silly?” the Bennetts ask. “Remember, they actually did name one galaxy the Milky Way.”

Water Writing. Write with “disappearing ink” – water – on a sidewalk, driveway, or patio. Fill a bucket or pan with water, and “write” with a paintbrush, roller or broom. The Bennetts recommend that you tailor your writing to a child’s age For prereaders, paint letters, numbers or shapes of familiar objects. For readers, write words or messages. “On a hot sunny day, the object is for your child to guess the picture or message before the water evaporates.” To conserve save, use “waste water” from a wading pool or rainwater collected in a bucket.

As these activities suggest, the Bennetts’ books could inspire not just parents but for grandparents or aunts and uncles who expect visits from children soon.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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