One-Minute Book Reviews

November 3, 2009

What! You Want Me to Review Some Books When the Yankees Are in the Series?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:14 pm
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Update: 3:50 p.m., Wednesday: Okay, I didn’t quite make that “within 24 hours.” But I’ll be back very soon. Jan

What! You want me to explain why I’ve posted no reviews so far this week when I’d normally have one or two up by Tuesday? Have you forgotten that I grew up in Central New Jersey (Yankees territory) and spent summers in that two-room shack without running water in South Jersey (Phillies territory)? Oh, you are cruel if you expect me to lash myself to my desk and write during beer commercials. So I’ll just say I hope to be back within 24 hours with comments on at least one of the books I’ve finished recently: Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith and David Small’s National Book Award finalist, Stitches. I am also reading Chronic City and The Informers and may say more about Bright-sided and Charles and Emma. In the meantime you can follow me on Twitter, where I’ve been writing about my efforts to finish Chronic City and other topics.

July 4, 2008

A Good Sports Book for Middle-School and Older Students

Good news for anyone who is looking for a well-written sports book for middle-school and older students: Phillip Hoose’s Perfect, Once Removed: When Baseball Was All the World to Me (Walker, 176 pp., $10.95, paperback, ages 10 and up) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/16/ has come out in paperback. In this lively memoir Hoose www.philliphoose.com remembers when he was in the fourth grade and his cousin once removed, Don Larsen, pitched a perfect game for the Yankees against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series. Walker Books www.walkerbooks.com/books/catalog.php?key=614 is rightly cross-marketing this book to adults and adolescents, both of whom may especially enjoy its moment-by-moment account of Larsen’s perfect game. The bright new cover art for the paperback edition, shown here, should heighten its appeal for young readers. Perfect, Once Removed was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2007 by Bill Ott for the American Library Association’s Booklist.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 29, 2007

‘Baseball Haiku': World-Class Poems About the Seasons of a Sport

Poems that speak to the emotions of Red Sox and Rockies fans today

Baseball Haiku: American and Japanese Haiku and Senryu on Baseball. Edited and With Translations by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura. Norton, 214 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

“Haiku and baseball were made for each other: While haiku give us moments in which nature is linked to human nature, baseball is played in the midst of the natural elements — on a field under an open sky; and as haiku happen in a timeless now, so does baseball, for there is no clock ticking in a baseball game — the game’s not over until the last out.”

With those words, Cor van den Heuvel sets the tone for this exemplary anthology of more than 200 of the finest haiku about baseball written by American and Japanese poets. Most Americans think of haiku as poems of 17 syllables, typically arranged in a 5-7-5 pattern on three stepped or flush-left lines.

But van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura show how much more flexible the form can be than the traditional pattern might suggest. Van den Heuvel notes, for example, that the best American practitioners of the art typically write free-verse haiku that have fewer than 17 syllables.

Consider the work of the Kansas-born Michael Fessler, who shows how nature can affect baseball in a poem that portrays the game as few of us see it played today: “dust storm trick: / infielders / face the outfield.” Fessler’s haiku suggests the layers of meaning that gifted poets can find in as few as 15 syllables: The word “trick” refers both the players’ shift of position and to a trick of nature, the dust storm. And the poem quietly conveys the passions aroused by baseball, a sport people will play in blinding storms.

Each author in Baseball Haiku gets an intelligent, one-page introduction that mentions a team that influenced him or her. But even without that material you might guess that the Maine-born van den Heuvel is “a lifelong fan of the Boston Red Sox” from one of his own poems that appears in the book, an homage to Ted Williams: “Ted hits another homer / a seagull high over right field / gets out of the way.”

Like all good poetry, the best haiku in this book transcend fandom and evoke deep and, if not universal, at least transoceanic emotions. One comes from the Japanese poet Yotsuya Ryu, known for his ability to capture fleeting moments in nature. He wrote its words years ago. But this one’s for you, Rockies fans: “until raised to Heaven / I’ll go to fields of green / carrying my glove.”

Published: June 2007 www.wwnorton.co

Furthermore: All the Japanese poems in Baseball Haiku include their original text and an English translation. More haiku appear at www.simplyhaiku.com. Van den Heuvel nows lives in New York City and Tamura in Japan.

You may also enjoy: The June 18, 2008, post on this site “Basketball Poems for Celtics Fans and Others” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/18/.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 24, 2007

Winners on the Field, Losers in Hardcover — Why Are So Many Books by Star Athletes So Awful? Quote of the Day (Jane Leavy)

Why do so many bad books come from good athletes? Jane Leavy, left, a former sportswriter for the Washington Post, says:

“Sports autobiography is a peculiar genre: ghostwritten fiction masquerading as fact. In the literature of sports, truth has always been easier to tell in fiction – Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty and Dan Jenkins’s Semi-Tough are among the best examples. It wasn’t until Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season and Jim Bouton’s Ball Four that a semirealistic view of the baseball locker room emerged between hard covers. The authorized life stories of America’s greatest athletes form an oeuvre of mythology. What are myths if not as-told-to stories?”

Jane Leavy in Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (HarperCollins, 2002) www.harpercollins.com. Sandy Koufax, the great pitcher for the Dodgers, earned a second fame when he refused to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Far more than many contemporary stars, he is a worthy hero for young athletes, and Leavy’s book is a good starting point for teenagers and others who want to know more about him.

Comment:
Leavy is right that sports memoirs are a cesspool of journalism. But the reasons for it are changing in the era of what Joyce Carol Oates has called “pathography,” or biography that focuses on the pathological. Mickey Mantle and other vanished titans might have nodded in their memoirs to old idea that hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. But more recent stars, like Lawrence Taylor and Dennis Rodman, have used their books to flaunt their vices until you might welcome a little hypocrisy. The fashionable theme in sports memoirs today is, “Yo, virtue! You’re history.”

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

October 13, 2007

Three Good Picture-Book Editions of Ernest L. Thayer’s Classic ‘Casey at the Bat’ – A Poem for All Baseball Seasons


Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

— From Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”

By Janice Harayda

“Casey at the Bat” is one of the few poems that nearly all American children like. Yet it is hard to say exactly why this is so.

The story told in the poem almost couldn’t be simpler. A home team is losing a baseball game – perhaps not even an especially important one — when its star player gets an unexpected chance to bat in the last inning. Everybody is sure that “mighty Casey” can bring victory to the Mudville Nine. Instead, he strikes out and the team loses.

This is hardly a riveting drama compared with what children read in contemporary books or see in the movies and on television. And you can’t say that author Ernest L. Thayer makes up for it with brilliant poetry – he doesn’t. Thayer tells Casey’s story in rhyming couplets of iambic heptameter, a nearly obsolete verse form known as the fourteener because a line typically has 14 syllables or seven iambic feet. But he has a slack enough grip on that form that you can’t always tell whether he meant a phrase to be read as iambic, trochaic or anapestic meter. Some of his baseball terms are unfamiliar today, too, such calling a weak player as a “cake.”

Generations of Americans have responded to objections like these with, “Who cares?” First published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, “Casey at the Bat” transcends its limits by appealing to a universal human desire – the wish to have heroes and yet also to see them fail sometimes, letting us off the hook for our own failures. Like all good heroes, Casey is like us and not like us. And three illustrators revitalize him in picture books that use the full title and subtitle of the poem, “Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888.”

Thayer’s Casey plays in an adult league. But Patricia Polacco www.patriciapolacco.com turns Casey into a freckled-faced boy — an updated Norman Rockwell character more impish than arrogant — in her winsome 1988 Casey at the Bat. Polacco adds brief prose bookends that allow her to give Casey a baseball-loving sister and a long-eared dog in this paperback edition of the poem, which is hard to find but available in many libraries. If you click on the link for the book on her Web site, you can send a free electronic postcard bearing a picture of Casey. Her youthful characters and bright, airy illustrations, which abound with primary colors, make this a good edition for preschoolers.

School-age children may prefer the 2003 Casey at the Bat (Simon & Schuster, $16.95) www.simonsayskids.com, illustrated by the gifted C.F. Payne. Casey has a handlebar moustache and mythic Paul Bunyan-esque proportions in this atmospheric book that evokes the flavor of 19th-century baseball. Payne’s book ends with an excellent four-page note on the history and afterlife of the poem, which explains some of its real-life parallels and how vaudeville helped to make it famous.

Christopher Bing won a 2001 Caldecott Honor award from the American Library Association www.ala.org for his ambitious Casey at the Bat (Handprint Books, $17.95), printed on pages that resemble yellowing newsprint with halftone pictures (the kind you find in the Wall Street Journal). Each spread is a pastiche that includes more than lines from the poem and a picture of the game. It also has overlaid images — reproductions of the ticket stubs, baseball cards and newspaper editorials about the game. One editorial supports fans outraged by advent of the baseball glove: “They justifiably see this move as a disgrace – perhaps the first step in the calculated and tragic emasculation of the game.” At times the supplementary material can be distracting, a case of what the British call over-egging the pudding. But much of it is fascinating and a feast for detail-oriented children in grades 3 and up.

Each of these editions has virtues. But no one needs to buy a book to enjoy Thayer’s poem. “Casey at the Bat” is out of copyright and available for free on many sites, including that of the Academy of American Poets www.poets.org. (The punctuation varies on the sites, reflecting that of different editions that have appeared in the past century.) It’s also short enough that you could read it to children during the seventh-inning stretch of a playoff or World Series game. And would you really prefer that they hear another beer commercial instead?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 5, 2007

A World Series Memoir for Children and Adults

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:13 pm
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Looking for a book to put you — or a young baseball fan in your household — in the mood for the World Series? Don’t forget Phillip Hoose’s Perfect, Once Removed: When Baseball Was All the World to Me (Walker, $19.95) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/16/.

In this lively memoir Hoose www.philliphoose.com remembers the year when he was in the fourth grade and his cousin once removed, Don Larsen pitched a perfect game for the Yankees against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series. The publisher www.walkerbooks.com is cross-marketing this book, rightly, to adults and adolescents: Boomers may enjoy its vivid reminiscences of the way baseball used to be, but it’s also likely to appeal to many sports-loving children too old for picture books, especially moment-by-moment account of Larsen’s perfect game in Chapter 8.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 16, 2007

Phillip Hoose Remembers When His Cousin, Don Larsen, Pitched the Only Perfect Game in World Series History

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:49 am
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A baseball memoir that speaks both to young fans and those old enough to miss the days when players smoked Camels in the dugout

Perfect, Once Removed: When Baseball Was All the World to Me. By Phillip Hoose. Walker, 176 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

Baseball books tend to preach to the bleachers. If you don’t understand the infield fly-rule or the job of a short-reliever, you can’t necessarily expect any help from their authors, who typically take a certain amount of knowledge – if not fanaticism – for granted.

Perfect, Once Removed is the rare baseball book that has something for fans at all levels. In this lively memoir Phillip Hoose tells how his cousin once removed, Don Larsen, pitched a perfect game for the Yankees against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series and, in doing so, helped him adjust to being a fourth-grader in Speedway, Indiana. The book could have become an exercise in special pleading for a famous relative. But Perfect, Once Removed gives such balanced view of Hoose’s and Larsen’s entwined stories that it may appeal to many people besides baby boomers who love to recall the great Yankee-Dodger games of yore, including a baseball-loving adolescents.

Part of the charm of Perfect, Once Removed is that Hoose respects his fourth-grade views and resists the impulse to correct them in hindsight, though he ends with a catch-up visit with then 76-year-old Larsen. He recalls that in the 1950s, ballplayers endorsed cigarettes so often that he created a scrapbook of the ads:

“To a man, these ballplayers reported that smoking helped them relax. They all enjoyed the mildness of a Camel. A cigarette before a game helped them perform better, and a butt in the locker room afterward helped them unwind. As Mickey Mantle put it, ‘For mildness and flavor, you can’t beat Camels!’ It all made sense to me.”

Hoose isn’t endorsing smoking, just recalling how he reacted to all that puffing by his heroes. And that kind of frankness help to give his book a relevance that extends beyond the personal. Perfect, Once Removed isn’t just family story. It’s a book about the way baseball used to be and a useful antidote to the tendency to idealize the past. If you think steroids are ruining the game, consider this: Would you prefer that ballplayers were still in endorsing Camels in major magazines?

Best line: One of many colorful details in this book involves how the catcher for Larsen’s perfect game celebrated the event: “Yogi Berra promptly went out and had his catcher’s mitt bronzed.”

Worst line: Hoose says that he has re-created some dialogue but that his book is “entirely accurate as to what was said and how it was said.” This claim is generally credible. It is much less so when he says that the Dodger fans on the school playground told him: “Your cousin sucks.” In 1956 they would have said, “Your cousin stinks.”

Editor: George Gibson

Published: October 2006 www.philliphoose.com

Recommendation? An excellent gift for a reader who loves to recall the days of demigods like Mantle, Berra and their teammates. School Library Journal also recommends Perfect, Once Removed for high school students (and it may appeal to some baseball fans as young as 10 or 11). This is a good book to read aloud to sports-loving children too old for picture books, especially moment-by-moment account of Larsen’s perfect game in Chapter 8.

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance reading edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: Hoose also wrote the award-winning The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20), a nonfiction book about the ivory-billed woodpecker that appeared on many “Best Books of 2004” lists.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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