One-Minute Book Reviews

October 31, 2006

Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Reconsidered for the Age of Blogs

Filed under: Biography,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:27 pm
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A great biography by a man unfailingly willing to play Gracie Allen to his subject’s George Burns

The Life of Samuel Johnson. By James Boswell. Abridged and with an introduction by Bergen Evans. McGraw-Hill, 559 pp., $13.13, paperback.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson tends to scare people who haven’t read it and enchant those who have. Like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it is one of those books that is rarely mentioned independently of the name of its author, as though it required an intellectual struggle with both the subject and writer. And although this impression is misleading in all three cases, it is particularly so for this great biography of the 18th century’s leading man of letters.

The Life of Johnson is a book that might today result if the smartest blogger you know followed around the smartest person and recorded his or her thoughts and actions. After a brief look at Johnson’s early years, it takes the form of a diary of Boswell’s friendship with the adult Johnson. This means that you can dip into it almost anywhere with profit. Many of Johnson’s best-known observations are here, including that second marriage is “the triumph of hope over experience.” But so are many others that are similarly trenchant and apt. Among them:

On poverty: “… a decent provision for the poor, is the true test of civilization.”

On marriage: Marriage is “much more necessary to a man than a woman; for he is much less able to supply himself with domestick comforts.”

On being over 50: “I have now spent 55 years in resolving; having from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short.”

As the last comment suggests, Johnson was far from a soulless literary monument. For all his greatness and what some might see as pomposity, he had an appealing humility rooted partly in his Christian faith. And Boswell was his ideal biographer, a man unfailingly willing to play Gracie Allen to his George Burns, aware of his subject’s faults but loving him no less for them. After reading his great book, you might give a lot to have, in your entire life, one conversation as memorable as that which Boswell and Johnson when they dined on veal pie and rice pudding.

Best line: Spoken in 1775: “It is difficult to get literary fame, and it is every day growing more difficult.”

Worst line: Why quibble with genius?

Recommended if … you want to read one of the greatest biographies ever written, or enjoy authors with an epigrammatic style, such as Jane Austen or Henry James.

Published: 1791 (first edition), 1988 (McGraw-Hill edition).

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reseved.

October 30, 2006

Before Bridget Jones, There Was Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:57 pm
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A dark satire of pre-Sex and the City mating rituals in New York that still towers over most books in its class

Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York. Overlook, 223 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Long before Bridget Jones stepped on a scale, Sheila Levine embodied a certain kind of single woman – smart, funny, overweight, and desperate to get married. A generation of women embraced her as a spiritual sister when she appeared in Gail Parent’s 1972 bestseller, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, and took her story as an antidote to the terminal perkiness of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So it was good news when, a couple of years ago, Overlook Press reprinted this blistering satire of mating rituals in pre-Sex and the City New York.

Like Bridget Jones, Sheila Levine is smart enough to see the absurdity of the games she plays with men but not smart enough to transcend them, which lends a comic poignancy to her husband-hunting. But her story is darker and more complex than Bridget’s. It begins with Sheila contemplating suicide because a New York shopkeeper had claimed falsely that his milkshakes had only 77 calories, an incident based on a real-life event. The rest of the story turns on whether she will kill herself, and it’s about as a bleak a premise as a novel can have. In some ways, this book has more in common Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play, ’night, Mother, than with Bridget Jones’s Diary.

But Parent keeps the darkness from becoming oppressive with a fast-paced plot and well-observed details of the age when a Saturday-night party meant women in sheaths and pearls, men in black horn rims, and “Peter, Paul and Mary on the hi-fi.” And more than three decades after its publication, it still towers over most books in its class, partly because Parent doesn’t ridicule her heroine for her focus on her weight and marriage. Instead she places the blame for those obsessions where they belong – on a culture that still sends women the message that all their problems could be solved by a Glamour makeover.


Worst line. Parent, a screenwriter, rarely misses the mark. But the ethnic humor in this book reflects the sensibilities of its era. For example, when her roommate doesn’t return one night during a vacation in Rome, Sheila thinks: “Linda was obviously being held by the Mafia, who wanted her to dead an Italian-Jewish-American whorehouse.”

Recommended if … you like dark comedy or wonder how people had sex when women wore panty girdles instead of thongs.

Published: 1972 (first edition), 2004 (Overlook reprint). The first edition, still available in many libraries and elsewhere, has a cover by the legendary graphic designer Milton Glazer, more famous for his snake-headed psychedelic Bob Dylan poster. The novel was also made into a 1975 movie.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


October 29, 2006

Noel Coward’s Short Stories

Who knew that one of the 20th century’s most entertaining playwrights also wrote wonderful short stories?

Noël Coward: Collected Short Stories. By Noël Coward. Preface by Martin Tickner. Methuen, 629 pp., $17.95, paperback.

You’re in for a treat if you know Noël Coward only the English playwright who wrote sparkling comedies of sexual jealousy like Blithe Spirit and Private Lives. Coward also wrote wonderful short stories that, at their best, have the droll wit and brisk pacing of his finest plays. All 20 appear in this welcome collection, published to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1899.

Part of what makes these stories so appealing is that they have a clear beginning, middle and end, whether they take place in London or New York or the South Seas. This alone would set them apart from many recent stories that are so oblique that reading them tends to resemble code-breaking.

But there’s more to Coward’s tales than their solid yet graceful architecture. Poet and scholar Robert Phillips has noted correctly that Coward was a “master of the shifting point of view, and managed the difficult balance between comedy and tragedy.” Coward also wrote about a kind of glamour that has almost disappeared from literary fiction. And although his stories vary in length and effectiveness, together they reflect a uniquely theatrical sensibility, with many involving actors or others in show business.

Most of Coward’s stories were written in the mid-20th century, but an eerie freshness surfaces in some of their themes, such as the cost of living in age drunk on celebrities. In one the best stories, “What Mad Pursuit?”, an English novelist is besieged by his hosts on an American tour. In “A Richer Dust,” an actor moves to Hollywood, hoping to retain some privacy: “But during the last few years this has become increasingly difficult owing to the misguided encouragement of a new form of social parasite, the gossip columnist.” This “assault upon the credulity of an entire nation” confuses people: “It would not be so were the information given checked and counter-checked and based on solid truth, but unfortunately it seldom is; consequently anybody who has the faintest claim to celebrity is likely to have his character, motives and private and public actions cheerfully misrepresented to an entire continent.” You might never know he was talking about people with names like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons instead of the editors of the National Enquirer or producers of Access Hollywood.

Best line: Many. One from “A Richer Dust”: “Adele was a conscientious young actress with good legs and little talent. In the farce she played the heroine’s best friend, who made a lot of pseudosophisticated wisecracks and was incapable of sitting down without crossing her legs ostentatiously and loosening her furs.”

Worst line: What’s the point of trying to pick the worst diamond at Tiffany’s?

Recommended if … you like stories by the masters Coward admired, such as O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant.

Published: 2000 (Methuen paperback).

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 28, 2006

Books in a Sentence

Filed under: Books in a Sentence — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:25 pm
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Here’s a one-sentence summary of each review on this blog. To read the review, use the Search box on the site to search for the author or title.

March 2015

The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps. By Diogo Mainardi. Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. A Venice-based Brazilian writer finds his life transformed by the “cosmic optimism” of a son with cerebral palsy in this memoir in the form of a book-length lyric essay.

July 2009

The Dunderheads. By Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by David Roberts. A comeuppance awaits a cruel, large-bosomed teacher in a picture book for young school-age children that has as a subtext: Some women with big breasts do have small brains.

Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. By William Logan. The latest collection of poetry criticism by a poet who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism for The Undiscovered Country. (Briefly mentioned.)

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals. By Gillian Gill. A good dual biography of England’s longest-reigning queen and her prince consort by a scholar who excels as a storyteller if not as a prose stylist.

June 2009

Hons and Rebels. By Jessica Mitford. A memoir of the author’s storied family of English aristocrats, which included six gifted daughters and a son killed in World War II. (Briefly mentioned.)

Love in a Cold Climate. By Nancy Mitford. A beautiful English heiress flouts convention by marrying a man who had been her mother’s lover in a comic novel and a modern classic, inspired partly by the life of the author’s half-batty upper-class family between the world wars.

Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. By Larry Tye. A new biography of the pitcher Satchel Paige,  who became nearly as famous for his epigrammatic wit as for the bullet-speed pitching that endeared him to fans, first in the Negro Leagues and then for the Cleveland Indians and other teams. (Briefly mentioned.)

Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind. By Ann B. Ross. A rich Presbyterian widow in a small town in North Carolina learns that her dead husband has left her a startling legacy — an illegitimate 9-year-old son — in the first of ten novels that are more irreverent than those Jan Karon’s “Mitford” series but cut from a similar bolt of pop fiction.

The Pains of April. By Frank Turner Hollon. A 86-year-old retired lawyer looks back on his life from a Gulf Coast rest home, where he has held onto more of his marbles than some of the other residents.  (Briefly mentioned.)

The Naked and the Dead. By Norman Mailer. Nowhere near as good as some of the 20th-century war novels often mentioned in the same breath, such as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms.  (Briefly noted.)

House Lust: America’s Obsession With Our Homes. By Daniel McGinn. A Newsweek correspondent’s lively exploration of why — even in the Great Recession — Americans covet ever-larger homes full of luxuries like mud rooms, brushed-nickel toilet-paper holders, or countertops made from Giallo Ornamental Granite imported from Brazil.

How to Be a Mobilian: A Guide for Old Salts and Newcomers. By David C. Barnette. A gifted Alabama humorist tweaks the unwritten social codes of the Mobile upper crust in a book that describes, among other things, the four seasons of the city’s men: “football, hunting, Mardi Gras and fishing.”

A Summons to Memphis. By Peter Taylor. One of the great American writers of the late 20th century shows how a move from Nashville to Memphis has reverberated over time — all but destroyed a family that was once a model of Southern gentility — in a novel that deservedly won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. By Flannery O’ connor Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Better known for her novels and short stories, O’Connor proves that she was equally good at nonfiction in this wonderful collection of essays on life, literature, and peacocks, birds that captivated her.

North Toward Home. By Willie Morris. One of the great modern memoirs of a Southern boyhood, written by the late celebrated editor of Harper’s.

The Ponder Heart. By Eudora Welty. A comic novella about a rich and kind-hearted uncle put on trial for a murder he didn’t commit, full of examples of Welty’s wonderful ear for the dialect of many Southern groups.

May 2009

Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. By Tamar Yellin. An award-winning English writer’s superb collection of 10 linked short stories about geographically or otherwise displaced characters, inspired by accounts of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books. By Maureen Corrigan. A critic for NPR’s Fresh Air serves up a memoir in the form of an essay collection on the pleasures of reading. (Briefly mentioned.)

Death Takes a Holiday: A Comedy in Three Acts. By Alberto Casella. To find out why people fear him, death disguises himself as a prince suspends all activity for three days in a supernatural comedy that asks: Is love stronger than death?

April 2009

Try to Tell the Story: A Memoir. By David Thomson. A film critic remembers growing up in postwar London with a father who left home but pretended he hadn’t.

Walt Disney’s Cinderella: A Little Golden Books Classic. Story adapted by Jane Werner. Illustrated by Retta Scott Worcester. Surprise! The tie-in edition for the 1950 Disney animated film has a few strengths that other versions of the fairy tale don’t.

What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. By Thomas Frank. A bracing and often witty 2004 bestseller that makes a fine guide to the political roots of the current economic mess.

Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. By Ruth Reichl. The editor-in-chief of Gourmet remembers her difficult mother, who may or may not or may not have been correctly diagnosed as manic depressive, in an elegant but overpriced memoir.

What a Great Kid! Coupon Book: 52 Ways to Tell Kids “You’re Loved” A 120-page Hallmark Gift Book, full of tear-out coupons that say things like, “Not today! Pick your least favorite chore and SKIP doing it today!”

March 2009

My Little Red Book. By Rachel Kauder-Nalebuff. Women and girls remember their first periods in a poorly edited (and at times misleading) collection of true stories in which the best entries — Gloria Steinem’s trailblazing essay, “If Men Could Menstruate” and Jill Bialosky’s poem, “The Wrath of the Gods, 1970” — depart from the oral-history form used elsewhere.

Baby Farm Animals. By Garth Williams. Ages 3 and under. Amazing value in an age of overpriced children’s books: a Little Golden Books Classic that costs $2.99 in hardcover and has and words and pictures by the illustrator of Charlotte’s Web and Little House on the Prairie.

February 2009

Middlemarch. By George Eliot. The first great multiplot novel in English tells the wonderful story of a young woman who longs to be useful as it develops the theme that “that there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.”

Now All We Need Is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way. By André Bernard. An engaging collection of anecdotes and commentary about how books got their titles (including the amusing story of how John Steinbeck’s widow found The Grapes of Wrath sold in Japan as Angry Raisins).

January 2009

The Little Yellow Leaf. By Carin Berger. Ages 2 and up. An oak leaf doesn’t want to leave the tree when autumn comes in a lovely parable about how the support of a friend can help you perform a necessary task.

The Host. By Stephenie Meyer. A woman wages a host-versus-graft struggle with a new soul, inserted in her body by aliens, in a creepily Freudian tale written at a fourth-grade reading level.

Valentine’s Day: Holidays, Festivals, & Celebrations. Ages 4 and up. By Ann Heinrich. Illustrated by Sharon Holm. A picture book about how children can celebrate Feb. 14 that includes more than a dozen short poems about the day. (Briefly mentioned.)

December 2008

WordPress for Dummies: First Edition. By Lisa Sabin-Wilson. This guide based on WordPress 2.3 (to be replaced in early 2009 by a second edition for 2.7) focuses on and WordPress MUblogs and gives short shrift to the blogs that may attract most of the “dummies.”

The Reader. By Bernhard Schlink. An overrated novel about the consequences of a love affair between a teenager in postwar Germany and a former S.S. guard, built on a premise that New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane rightly described as “morally famished.” (Briefly mentioned.)

I Saw You in the Bathtub: And Other Folk Rhymes (An I Can Read Book 1) By Alvin Schwartz. Illustrated by Syd Hoff. Ages 2 and up. A wonderfully entertaining early reader fun of classics like “I scream, / You scream, / We all scream / For ice cream.”

November 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. A sunny epistolary novel about single female journalist in London who learns of an offbeat book club on Guernsey, recently occupied by Nazis, and finds that a visit to the island transforms her life. [Reading group guide posted the same day and saved in the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides category.]

The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives. By the Women of Jewelia and Cheryl Jarvis. Tuesdays with more jewelry. [Reading group guide posted the same day and saved in the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides category.]

Chapman’s Car Compendium: The Essential Book of Car Facts and Trivia. By Giles Chapman. An entertaining collection of facts about many kinds of cars that brims with anecdotes and lists with inspired titles like “Dictators’ cars” (“Rafael Trujillo – Chrysler Crown Imperial”).

October 2008

The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story. By Susan Hill. New faces mysteriously appear in a painting of masked revelers in Venice, bought at auction by a Cambridge don, in this well-crafted neo-Victorian ghost story by the author of The Woman in Black.

All the Poems of Muriel Spark. By Muriel Spark. Yes, the author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie also wrote poems, gathered in a collection notable partly for “The Goose,” which puts a wry spin on the tale of the goose that laid a golden egg. (Briefly mentioned)

Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause. By Tom Gjelten. A well-written history of the Bacardi rum family, intertwined with that of Cuba, from its founding in 1862 through Fidel Castro’s resignation and his brother Raúl’s succession in February 2008. (Books I Didn’t Finish)

Sing a Song of Popcorn: Every Child’s Book of Poems. Illustrated by nine Caldecott Medal artists. Selected by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, Eva Moore, Mary Michaels White and Jan Carr. Ages 2 and up. A handsomely illustrated collection of modern and classic poems divided into categories such as “Spooky Poems,” “Story Poems” and poems about animals, people and the weather. (Briefly mentioned.)

Orange You Glad It’s Halloween, Amber Brown? An “A” Is for Amber Book. By Paula Danziger. Illustrated by Tony Ross. Ages 4-8. The pun-loving Amber Brown gets ready for trick-or-treating and a school Halloween party in an early reader spun off from Danziger’s popular series for older children.

Grandmas Trick-or-Treat. By Emily Arnold McCully. Ages 4-8. Two grandmothers — one of whom wears a nearly indecent miniskirt — defy stereotypes when they thwart a bully’s efforts to spoil the Halloweeen fun in a book for children who are beginning to read on their own.

September 2008

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. By Kate Summerscale. A true-crime story structured like a mystery novel, complete with a startling twist at the end, about a Scotland Yard detective’s investigation the 1860 murder of 3-year-old boy whose body turned up in the servants’ privy of an English country house.

The Seamstress. By Frances de Pontes Peebles. A historical novel that reads at times like a South American Bonnie and Clyde as it tells the stories of two orphaned sisters whose lives diverge and converge in dangerous ways during their early adulthood Brazil in the 1930s. (Books I Didn’t Finish)

August 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. By David Wroblewski. Ophelia is a dog named Almondine in this Hamlet-influenced yarn, told partly from a canine point of view, about a 14-year-old mute Wisconsin boy who goes on the run after back-to-back tragedies occur on his family’s farm.

Read All About It! By Laura Bush and Jenna Bush. Illustrated by Denise Brunkus. Ages 4 and up. The first lady and her daughter campaign for reading in misguided picture book that tells children that stories are good instead of telling them a good story.

The Portable Dorothy Parker: Revised and Enlarged Edition. By Dorothy Parker. Introduction by Brendan Gill. An excellent introduction to the work the celebrated wit and critic for the New Yorker that has poems, reviews and short stories (including “Big Blonde,” “A Telephone Call” and “The Lovely Leave”). (Briefly mentioned.)

Lyle, Lyle Crocodile. By Bernard Waber. Ages 3 and up. Another celebration of the joys of urban life — especially those of New York City — as experienced by the almost pathologically optimistic crocodile who made his debut in The House on East 88th Street and lives in the bathtub of the Primm family brownstone.

June 2008

The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL. By Mark Bowden. The author of Black Hawk Down recalls the first National Football League championship game decided by sudden-death overtime. (Briefly mentioned.)

Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives. By Jim Sheeler. Journalism at its finest, inspired by a Pulitzer Prize-winning series for the Rocky Mountain News, about a Marine Corps “casualty assistance calls officer” — whose job includes telling people that relatives have died in Iraq — and the families he met through his work.

365 Outdoor Activities You Can Do With Your Child. By Steve and Ruth Bennett. A year’s worth of easy, no- or low cost, television-free activities you can do with a child over the age of 3, from the authors of the equally good and more widely available 365 TV-Free Activities You Can Do With Your Child.

September 2007
Horton Hatches the Egg (Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #5). By. Dr. Seuss. Ages 2 and up. A classic fable about every child’s struggle to be good, which includes the famous lines: “I meant what I said /And I said what I meant …. /An elephant’s faithful/ One hundred per cent!”

May 2008
Wolf Totem. By Jiang Rong. Translated by Howard Rosenblatt. A retired Beijing scholar’s didactic and slow-moving semi-autobiographical novel about life among sheep-herding nomads of Outer Mongolia during the era of the Red Guards.

A classic fable about every child’s struggle to be good, which includes the famous lines: “I meant what I said /And I said what I meant …. /An elephant’s faithful/ One hundred per cent!”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. By Muriel Spark. A brilliant, short novel and psychological exploration of female power as wielded by a teacher in an Edinburgh girls’ school in the 1930s.

Murder in Mesopotamia: A Hercule Poirot Mystery. By Agatha Christie. The Belgian detective seeks the killer of an archaeologist’s wife, murdered on a dig at an Assyrian palace in Iraq, in what may be Christie’s most autobiographical novel.

Mister Pip. By Lloyd Jones. A black female university graduate remembers hearing a white man read Great Expectations on a Pacific island when she was 13 in a disappointing 2007 Man Booker Prize finalist written at a third-grade level, according to Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics.

The Summer of the Pike. By Jutta Richter. Illustrated by Quint Buchholz. Ages 9 and up. One of Germany’s best children’s authors makes her American debut in a brief, sensitive novel about three friends whose parents serve as caretakers of castle, where they try to cope when one mother’s cancer worsens.

Water for Elephants. By Sara Gruen. A historical novel that gallops along with a Depression-era traveling circus, saddled with cliches. Reading group guide also posted and saved in the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides category.

How to Be Good. By Nick Hornby. The author of Fever Pitch asks a serious question — what does it mean to be a “good” person in a materialistic age? — in a comic novel about an English marriage that is tested when the husband falls under the influence of a spiritual guru.

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. By Barbara Brown Taylor. An Episcopal priest tells why she left the parish ministry in this a rare portrait of the everyday challenges the clergy (which in which case included a call from a woman who said: “Martha is sitting on the toilet and we are out of toilet paper. If I came over right now, could you write me a check to the grocery store so she can get up?”).


Love You, Mean It. A True Story of Love, Loss, and Friendship. By Patricia Carrington, Julia Collins, Claudia Gerbasi, and Ann Haynes with Eve Charles. Sept. 11 anniversary re-post of an earlier review of a memoir by four 9/11 widows, who talk about the coping in the aftermath of tragedy.

Everyday Life. By Lydie Salvayre. Translated from the French by Jane Kuntz. A secretary at a Paris advertising agency is undone by the arrival of a new co-worker in an idiosyncratic French novel that is a study in alienation and mental disintegration written with a Cartesian spareness.

The Z Was Zapped. By Chris Van Allsburg. Ages 2 and up. An A-plus alphabet book by one of the greatest living author-illustrators, who also wrote Jumanji and The Polar Express.

Daddy-Long-Legs. By Jean Webster. A charming classic novel told in letters from a high-spirited and keenly intelligent student at women’s college to her male patron, which was a bestseller in its day and made into a movie with Leslie Caron.

August 2007
[June-August 2007 listings are incomplete and will be updated soon.]

Where the Wild Things Are (Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #4). By Maurice Sendak. Ages 2-8. A landmark picture book that won the Caldecott Medal for its trailblazing portrayal of the inner life of a boy who tames his frustrations by taking an imaginary journey to a realm “where the wild things are.”

On Chesil Beach. By Ian McEwan. On Chesil Beach. By Ian McEwan. An overrated flyweight novel about a young couple’s disastrous 1962 wedding night that is a finalist for the 2007 Man Booker Prize but may remind you more of Mitch Albom than Kazuo Ishiguro or Anita Brookner.

Fowl Weather (Books I Didn’t Finish). By Bob Tarte. A Michigan writer’s memoir of life with 39 birds, ducks, geese, rabbits, cats, rabbits and other creatures, which didn’t live up to its billing as a book with a “Dave Barry on a farm” sensibility.

The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl. By Bruna Surfistinha/Raquel Pacheco. Interviewed by Jorge Tarquini. Translated by Alison Entrekin. Raquel Pacheco writes about as well as Henry James would have run a brothel in this memoir of her experiences as teenage prostitute who became notorious for blogging about her clients.

Looking for Class: Days and Nights at Oxford and Cambridge. By Bruce Feiler. The host of the popular PBS series Walking the Bible remembers his jolly good time in graduate school at Cambridge University in the 1990s (which, despite his title, gets far more space than Oxford). (Briefly noted.)

Here’s the Bright Side: Of Failure, Fear, Cancer, Divorce, and Other Bum Raps. By Betty Rollin. Illustrations by Jules Feiffer. A bowl of saccharine mush from a former NBC correspondent who argues that “within each form of misery” there is “a hidden prize waiting to be found” but draws so few distinctions between, say, the pain of someone rejected by Harvard and a fourth-degree burn victim that it would be cruel to give this book to some people in physical or emotional pain.

How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening: A Collection of Literary Encapsulations. Compiled and Edited by E.O. Parrott. Classic works of lit / Reduced quite a bit / In poems and prose / As fun overflows.

Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland. By Mark Kreidler. One of the year’s best sports books brings unexpected drama and poignancy to the race for an Iowa state high school wrestling championship and its emotional impact on two favored competitors and their families, coaches, teammates and fans.

July 2007
The Birthday Book: Their Delights, Disappointments, Past and Present, Worldly, Astrological and Infamous. By Linda Rannells Lewis. A graceful meditation on how people (including well-known authors) have seen birthdays from pagan times to the disco era).

Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th. By Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen. Gingrich writes fiction as well as Danielle Steel could draft legislation.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #3). By Virginia Lee Burton. Ages 2-6. An old red steam shovel pushes herself to the limit to prove she can still be useful in a classic that is both an exciting adventure story and a moving parable about growing old in America.

The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception. By Emmanuel Carrère. A Frenchman cracks under the pressure of leading a double life — and murders his wife, children and parents — in one of the best true crime books of the decade.

Did I Wake You? Haikus for Modern Living. By Beth Lapides. Seventeen-syllable poems about Iraq, Google, and tantric sex, not to mention Charlie Rose, Salma Hayek and other topics undreamed-of by Lady Murasaki. (Briefly mentioned.)

The Dangerous Book for Boys. By Conn and Hal Iggulden. Ages 9 and up (younger for reading aloud). A cross between the Boy Scout Handbook and Guinness World Records, which includes instructions on how to tan a rabbit hide and make a water bomb out of newspaper. (Briefly mentioned.)

June 2007
How to Be. By Lisa Brown. Ages 2–4. A witty picture book shows young children how to imitate a bear, monkey, turtle, snake, spider, and dog

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa. By Peter Godwin. A superb memoir of the collapse of Zimbabwe under dictator Robert Mugabe that, like Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, ranks among the finest recent portraits of the ruin of an African nation.

A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands. By Lorne Rubenstein. Foreword by Sean Connery. Possibly the best memoir in print of a golf course you’ve never played on.

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. A British agony aunt’s semi-autobiographical novel in diary form, built on the contrarian theme that the great thing about getting old is that there are so many things you can’t do any more. [Reading group guide archived under Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides.]

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. By Atul Gawande. A collection of intelligent and often provocative essays on medicine by a sugeon and writer for The New Yorker, who deals with topics that include doctors’ mistakes and whether emergency room visits increase when there’s a full moon.

Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat: Secrets of My Mother’s Tokyo Kitchen. By Naomi Moriyama and William Doyle. Why do Japanese women have the lowest obesity rate and longest life expectancy in the world? By way of answer, Moriyama offers a philosophy of eating and recipes inspired by her mother’s home cooking. [Books I Didn’t Finish.]

May 2007
The Daily Telegraph Second Book of Obituaries: Heroes and Adventurers. Edited by Hugh Massingberd.
A collection of spirited and often witty obituaries, many of them for military leaders, from the English newspaper.

Princess Smartypants. By Babette Cole. Ages 4-8. A witty, revisionist fairy tale about a motorcycle-riding princess who refuses to marry her repulsive suitors.

The Accidental Bride: A Romantic Comedy. By Janice Harayda. Reading group guide only archived under Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides. Reviews on the “My Books” page at

Ace of Spades: A Memoir. By David Matthews. Raised by his black father after his white mother abandoned the family, Matthews writes of his late 20th-century childhood in the often jarring tone of a 19th-century bildungsroman.

The Inheritance of Loss. By Kiran Desai. A novel about a cynical Indian judge and his orphaned granddaughter in a Himalayan village shaken by violence during the Nepalese insurgency of the 1980s. [Books I Didn’t Finish.]

Everett Anderson’s Goodbye. By Lucille Clifton. Ages 4-8. In this winner of the Coretta Scott King Award from the American Library Association, young Everett struggles to accept his father’s death and realizes that “ … whatever happens when people die, / love doesn’t stop, and / neither will I.”

Fat, Forty, and Fired: One Man’s Frank, Funny and Inspiring Account of Leaving His Job and Finding His Life. By Nigel Marsh. After losing his job, a leading Australian advertising executive took time off to reconnect with his family, lose weight, conquer his alcoholism and, apparently, write this breezy memoir. [Reading group guide archived under Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides.]

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. Words by Michael Rosen. Pictures by Quentin Blake. Ages 7-9. Rosen writes with great feeling about the loss of his son, but Blake’s brilliant illustrations steal show in this deeply moving Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor book. One of the finest picture books about death, though not for the very young or even for all children in its suggested age range.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. By Steven Johnson. A well-written history of how two courageous men helped to identify the cause of a devastating cholera outbreak in 19th-century London.

Acceptance: A Novel. By Susan Coll. A deft but digressive and slackly plotted send-up of the college admissions frenzy in a well-off Washington, D.C., suburb. [Reading group guide archived under Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides.]

Good Sports: Rhymes About Running, Jumping, Throwing, and More. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrations by Chris Raschka. Varied ages. Seventeen brief, lackluster poems by the Children’s Poet Laureate of the U.S., who doesn’t seem to know who his audience is for the book.

Tourist Season: Stories. By Enid Shomer. Short stories about women — mostly current or former residents of Florida — by an award-winning writer who has a sense of place but lacks a distinctive voice.

The Cremation of Sam McGee. By Robert Service. The classic ballad of the Klondike gold rush can still thrill children (and their parents) with lines like: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold …”

April 2007
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures. Ages 9-12. By Brian Selznick. An acclaimed author gets an A+ for packaging and a C for writing for this bestselling children’s novel about a young male orphan and thief who lives in a Paris train station and tries to fix a broken wind-up man that may contain a message from his father. [Reading group guide archived under Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides.]

The Stories of John Cheever. By John Cheever. One of the best short story collections in American literature, written by a great moralist who won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for it.

Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. By Geoff Dyer. An award-winning travel writer’s semi-fictionalized portraits of places that include Thailand, Amsterdam and pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief. By Pauline Boss. A therapist’s views on living with loss when someone you love is “psychologically absent but physically present” (because of Alzheimer’s Disease or other factors) or is “psychologically present but physically absent” (because of geographical distance or other factors that may never be overcome).

Thank You Bear. By Greg Foley. Ages 1-3. A good but oversized and overpriced book for toddlers makes the point that a friend shares your values.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. A classic comic novel about the lust for property that’s ideal for many book groups. [Reading group guide archived under “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides.”]

Great Tales From English History (Book 3): Captain Cook, Samuel Johnson, Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Edward the Abdicator, and More. By Robert Lacey. True stories of people who defined Britain to itself and the world, brief and engagingly written.

Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce. By Wendy Swallow. Possibly the best memoir of divorce of the decade, written by a former Washington Post reporter and mother of two sons.

The Triumph of Love Over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage. By Wendy Swallow. A premature sequel to Breaking Apart that isn’t nearly as well written or thought out.

About What Was Lost: Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope. Edited by Jessica Berger Gross. Women (and a token male) talk about what it’s like to lose a child betwen the sixth and 23rd weeks of pregnancy.

A Tale for Easter. By Tasha Tudor. Ages 4–8. A girl dreams of a magical journey in a picture book that’s been a holiday favorite for half a century.

Common Life: Poems. By Robert Cording. Fine poems for Easter and other seasons, including the author’s “Advent Stanzas” and “Lenten Stanzas.”

Living Things: Collected Poems. By Anne Porter. The second book by a poet who began publishing her work in her 80s includes both new poems and all of those in An Altogether Different Language, a National Book Award finalist.

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. By Elizabeth Gilbert. An overrated memoir by a GQ writer whose humor tends to be self-consciously cute and whose book makes “recovery” from divorce sound like an expensive form of consumerism.

Infidel. By Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A Somali-born ex-member of the Dutch Parliament writes about her circumcision at the age of five and other events with real passion, but undercuts her credibility by admitting that she lied to government officials to gain refugee status for herself and, later, her sister in Holland. [Reading group guide archived under “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides.”]

March 2007
King of Another Country. By Fiona French. Ages 4-8. A folk tale-like picture book of the first rank about a selfish young man who learns to compromise after leaving his African village, illustrated in kente-cloth colors and patterns by an artist who has won the Kate Greenaway award.

Living Things: Collected Poems. By Anne Porter. Foreword by David Shapiro. One of our finest Catholic poets and a National Book Award finalist returns with a collection of hymns, prayers, meditations on saints and Scripture and other poems in the spirit of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Miriam’s Cup. By Fran Maushkin. Illustrated by Bob Dacey. Ages 4 and up. A feminist picture-book version of the Passover story that focuses on Moses’s sister.

Wonders and Miracles: A Passover Companion Written and compiled Eric A. Kimmel. Ages 4-12. A handsome collection of stories, poems, prayers, recipes and more that won a National Jewish Book Award and may be the best-all around Passover book for children of varied ages.

Easter. By Fiona French. Ages 4 and up. An award-winning illustrator tells the Easter story using the King James Version of the Bible and vibrant art inspired by the stained-glass windows in English cathedrals.

Easter: The King James Version — With Pictures. By Jan Pienkowski. Ages 4 and up. An out-of-print picture book, well worth tracking down for its King James text and haunting black silhouettes that have a drama appropriate to the story without being gory.

Inside My Heart: Choosing to Live With Passion and Purpose. By Robin McGraw. Dr. Phil’s wife offers advice to women a memoir that, for a book from a Christian publisher, is oddly short on spirituality and long on descriptions of such things as her $50,000 Mercedes, her Italian crystal chandeliers and her husband’s vasectomy reversal.

The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived: How Characters of Fiction, Myth, Legends, Television, and Movies Have Shaped Our Culture, Changed Our Behavior, and Set the Course of History. By Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. The Marlboro Man is No. 1 on a list that also includes Pandora, Hamlet, Mickey Mouse, King Kong and Barbie.

Stuart: A Life Backwards. By Alexander Masters. A charming, tragicomic memoir about the author’s friendship with “an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath” that has won or been short-listed for several major awards and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle prize. [Reading group guide also available, archived under “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides.”]

The Second Child: Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Rhymed and unrhymed poems about the intersection of work and motherhood, some in classic forms such as the sonnet and sestina and one (“Goodbye, New York”) with the anapestic bounce of a Cole Porter-ish Broadway show tune. [Reading group guide also available, archived under “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides.”]

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. By Flannery O’Connor. Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. One of the great books on writing of the 2oth century, including the essays “Writing Short Stories,” “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” and “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers.” [Not yet reviewed — Quotes of the Day Nos. 13 and 14.]

Born Twice. By Guiseppe Pontiggia. One of the best novels of the decade about fatherhood and the everyday cruelties inflicted on children with disabilities — in this case, a boy who suffered brain damage during a breech birth — this book deservedly won Italy’s highest literary award, the Strega Prize. [Reading group guide also available, archived under “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides.”]

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider. By Ishmael Beah. A former child solider in the civil war in Sierra Leone tells a story that, if gripping, raises questions about the accuracy of some of his memories. (Reding group guide also acailable, archived in the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category.)

A Season of Rebirth: Daily Meditations for Lent. By Marc Foley. An unusually literate and intelligent book of reflections for the season, including many well-taken references to the work of writers such as Dante, Shakespeared, and Woody Allen.

February 2007

So Sleepy Story. By Uri Shulevitz. Ages 2 and up. A Caldecott Medalist pays homage to the artist for whom that honor was named, Randolph Caldecott, in a bedtime story for the Goodnight Moon set that makes brilliant use the principle of the contagion of yawns.

The Higher Power of Lucky. By Susan Patron. Ages 9-11. Newbery Medal-winner about a 10-year-old girl who learns the meaning of the word “family” and, more controversially, “scrotum.”

The Big Love. By Sarah Dunn. A charming novel about a young Philadelphia columnist and sexual late bloomer that takes an unusually witty and intelligent look at the life of a modern single woman. No relation to the HBO series.

Queens: Portraits of Black Women and Their Fabulous Hair. By Michael Cunningham and George Alexander. Fifty-three African-American talk about what their hair means to them in a an elegant collection of black-and-white photographs that could make a great Valentine’s Day gift.

Love Smart: Find the One You Want — Fix the One You Got. By Dr. Phil McGraw. Patronizing mush from the psychologist and talk-show-host.

Mr. Wrong: Real-Life Stories About the Men We Used to Love. Edited by Harriet Brown. Twenty-four female authors and a token gay man write about their former dates, lovers, or husbands, with the best essays comning from Jane Smiley, Caroline Leavitt, Joyce Maynard, and Roxana Robinson.

Skylight Confessions: A Novel. By Alice Hoffman. Brooke Allen got it right when she wroite in the Wall Street Journal that this dark Cinderella story has “enough intellectual trappings to flatter readers into thinking that they are getting some mental nourishment” but is in essence is a “pure romance novel and nothing more.”

The Book Club Companion: A Comprensive Guide to the Reading Group Experience. By Diana Loevy. The guacamole also rises in this loopy book of recipes, decorating and fashion ideas, and descriptions of books that might have come from their authors’ mothers, including many plugs for books from the Penguin Group, publisher of The Book Club Companion.

The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival. By Stanley N. Alpert. A former federal prosectuor provides manna for true crime fans in this story of his abduction by thugs who showed a gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight ineptitude. (This site contains both a review and a reading-group guide The Birthday Party, archived separately with the Feburary 2007 posts.)

Five Little Fiends. By Sarah Dyer. Ages 4-8. A prize-winning British picture book about the interdependence of the natural world, ideal for preschoolers who love the “wild things” in Where the Wild Things Are.

Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters. By Joan Ryan. A powerful expose of the abuses suffered by many of the country’s best female athletes, including some well-known names.

January 2007

A Life in Smoke: A Memoir. By Julia Hansen. Books I Didn’t Finish, # 4. You have to want to quit smoking really badly to chain yourself to a radiator as this author did or to get through this book about her experiences.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. By Kate DiCamillo. Ages 7 and up. A china rabbit becomes an allegory of Christian faith and resurrection in a novel by a writer who won a Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux.

Firstlight: The Early Inspirational Writings of Sue Monk Kidd. By Sue Monk Kidd. Chicken soup for the soul of fans of The Secret Life of Bees.

Hannibal Rising. By Thomas Harris. A prequel to The Silence of the Lambs and other Hannibal Lecter novels that cannibalizes the English language and more.

Flotsam. By David Wiesner. An eloquent, wordless picture book about a boy whose discovery of an underwater camera at the beach takes him on a magical visual journey. (2007 Caldecott Medalist)

Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite. By June Casagrande. Long on spite, short on fun, and much inferior to Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I, the best grammar book for students and others.

Thirteen Moons: A Novel. By Charles Frazier. The author of Cold Mountain serves up a dish of lard-fried cornmeal mush.

This Is the Rain. By Lola M. Schaefer and Jane Wattenberg. Ages 4 and up. A nonfiction picture book thay uses rhymes and collages to help children learn the answers to such questions as, “How does the water get in the ocean?”

5000 Episodes and No Commercials: The Ultimate Guide to TV Shows on DVD 2007. By David Hofstede. Brief, intelligent reviews of most of the recent and classic TV shows that are available on DVD, listed alphabeticall from The A-Team to Xena: Warrior Princess.

Managing Employees From Hell: Handling Idiots, Whiners, Slackers and Other Workplace Demons. By Gini Graham Scott. A much more useful guide to managing saboteurs at work than the insipid The Power of Nice.

The Confession. By James McGreevey. The author had an unimpressive record as governor of New Jersey, but the sex scenes in his memoir suggest that he may have a future as the gay male Danielle Steel.

Millions of Cats. By Wanda Gág. One of the great classic picture books for preschoolers, deservedly praised by artists including Maurice Sendak and Jan Brett.

The Interruption of Everything. By Terry McMillan. A soap-operish plot about a perimenopausal woman who learns that her husband is having an affair.

The Handmaid and the Carpenter. By Elizabeth Berg. An “Oprah” author writes at a fourth-grade level in a novel that a critic for the Wall Street Journal rightly called “truly mind-numbing goop.”

George Eliot: A Life. By Gordon Haight. A landmark biography of a novelist whose greatness derived, like Jane Austen’s, from a true greatness of spirit.

December 2006

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. By Patricia T. O’Conner. A fresh and funny guide that’s the ideal grammar book for students (and parents who’ve forgotten all they knew in the eighth grade).

Your Management Sucks: Why You Have to Declare War on Yourself … and Your Business. By Mark Stevens. No, the book does.

Soul Sanctuary: Images of the African-American Worship Experience. By Jason Miccolo Johnson. Foreword by Gordon Parks. A book of 165 black-and-white photos and a text by Biblical scholars and others who provide an excellent introduction for all races to African-American worship styles.

A House Somewhere: Tales of Life Abroad. Edited by Don George and Anthony Sattin. Twenty-six original essays or excerpts from books about making a home far from home, including pieces by Isabel Allende Frances Mayes, Peter Mayle, Tim Parks, Paul Theroux, Simon Winchester, and others.

I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother. By Allison Pearson. Still the best recent send-up of sexual double standards at work, including sham diversity initiatives that are designed more to protect firms from lawsuits than to help women and minorities succeed.

The Niagara River. By Kay Ryan. Poems that, like life, rhyme inexpected places.

Mind Your Manners! By Diane Goode. A light-hearted guide to teaching manners to preschoolers, inspired by an 18th-century etiquette primer.

Bad Heir Day. By Wendy Holden. A book you might call “a cross between Bridget Jones and The Nanny Diaries” — if that weren’t exactly the kind of phrase its author loves to lampoon.

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. By Wendy Mogel. A wise and compassionate guide to bringing up children who have good character, not just a good personality or high “self-esteem.”

Hidden Child. By Isaac Millman. Ages 7-9. A Jewish boy goes into hiding in France after his parents are arrested by the Nazis in a memoir that offers a sensitive introduction to the Holocaust for children of any faith.

The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World With Kindness. By Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval. The people who gave us the Aflac duck play fast-and-lose with facts in a phoned-in book about how being nice — or so they say — helped them succeed.

Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog: Gift Edition. By John Grogan. A bestselling memoir about a lovable but incorrigible retriever returns in a handsome gift edition with color photos of Marley and a copy of his obedience school “report card.”

The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe. By Paula Fox. A slender, elegant, and entirely believable memoir that makes a fine antidote to the aftertaste of books like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.

Find Anthony Ant. By Lorna and Graham Philpot. Ages 2-5. An engaging seek-and-find book about a brown ant named Anthony that has some elements similar to those of the “Where’s Waldo” series but without the violence.

Where’s Waldo? The Great Picture Hunt. With 50 stickers. By Martin Handford. Ages 6 and up. The latest entry in perhaps the most violent picture-book series for its age group.

The Nativity. By Julie Vivas. Ages 4-8. And the critic said, “Fear not, for this is tbe best version of the Christmas story for children, and ittakes its text from the King James Bible.”

The Perfect Wedding Dress. By Philip Delamore. More than 300 pictures of beautiful bridal gowns (and some suits), worn by women from Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn to those who just hope to feel like them on their wedding day.

A Passion for Parties. By Carolyne Roehm. A coffee-table book with ideas for celebrations ranging from a Hunt Ball to a Fourth of July barbecue, including bizarre pictures of a Halloween party for the Dr. Seuss set that was inspired by Miss Havisham, the cruel and embittered spinster of Dickens’s Great Expectations.

Late Wife: Poems. By Claudia Emerson. Yes, the Pulitzer judges gave the 1937 fiction award to Gone With the Wind instead of Absalom, Absalom, but you might be more inclined to forgive them after reading this winner 2006 Pulitzer for Poetry, a haunting collection of poems (nearly a third of them sonnets) about divorce and remarriage.

Max’s Words. By Kate Banks and Boris Kulikov. Ages 4-6. This wonderful picture book about a boy who collects words is one of the year’s best holiday gifts for preschoolers (are you listening, grandparents?).

Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. By James L. Swanson. A taut tale about the effort by the government and others to capture the man who killed Abraham Lincoln.

November 2006

The Boomers’ Guide to Online Dating: Date With Dignity. By Judsen Culbreth. A lively self-help manual for female baby boomers by a former editor-in-chief of Working Mother who, at 52, married a man she met online.

Lombardi and Me: Players, Coaches and Colleagues Talk About the Man and the Myth. By Paul Hornung with Billy Reed. Reminiscences of the legendary coach by players and others, including Bart Starr, Sam Huff, Jerry Kramer, Willie Davis, and Sonny Jurgensen.

Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders. By Josephine Ross and illustrated by Henrietta Webb. A charmingly illustrated explanation of the Regency etiquette rules followed by Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, the Dashwoods, and other characters.

Five Little Ducks. By Ivan Bates. A sunny new version of the nursery ryhme with endpapers that include an easy-to-play musical score for the companion tune.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Retold by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. A classic tale for toddlers and preschoolers with art by a two-time winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal, England’s equivalent of the Caldecott.

How This Night Is Different. By Elisa Albert. Fresh, funny and often bawdy stores about young Jews searching for meaning in rituals and activities such as a circumcision, a bat mitzvah, a Passover seder, and a packaged tour of Auschwitz.

Best Person Rural: Essays of a Sometime Farmer. By Noel Perrin. The late, great esssayist and Vermont farmer on life with cows, woodstoves, a sugarhouse, and tourists.

How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry. By E. O. Parrott. When your knowledge of verse/Almost couldn’t be worse/Get help from this book/And its clever hook.

An Outlaw Thanksgiving. By Emily Arnold McCully. A Caldecott Medalist casts Butch Cassidy as a Victorian Robin Hood in a picture book for 4-to-8-year olds.

For One More Day: A Novel. By Mitch Albom. A novel by the author of Tuesdays with Morrie, written a third-grade reading level, according to the readbility statistics on Microsoft Word.

Was She Pretty? By Leanne Shapton. An art director’s quirky book of captioned black-and-white line drawings about the “ex” factor in romance.

The Marriage Diaries: A Novel. By Rebecca Campbell. A British-accented gross-out novel about a young couple with the seven-year-itch.

A Star Is Found: Our Adventures Casting Some of the Biggest Movies in Hollywood. By Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins with Rachel Kranz. Veteran casting directors tell how they matched stars like Julia Robert and Tom Cruise with roles.

Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. By Debra Ollivier. After a decade in France, an American explains why French women are different from you and me. Hint: It’s not just that they’re thinner.

The Song of Names: A Novel. By Norman Lebrecht. A slow-paced but intelligent story about the effects of the Holocaust, written by a fearless English critic who won the Whitbread First Novel Award for the book.

Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession with Cosmetic Surgery. By Alex Kuczynski. An impressive blend of reporting and social commentary that may stand for years as a definitive book on the 21st-century cosmetic surgery boom.

Lisey’s Story: A Novel. By Stephen King. Books I didn’t finish, #1.

My Husband Betty: Love, Sex and Life With a Crossdresser. By Helen Boyd. The true story of a journalist’s marriage to a tranvestite that is part memoir, part polemic, and part self-help manual.

Anonymous Lawyer: A Novel. By Jeremy Blachman. The moral climate of Animal Farm pervades a dark satire of $625-an-hour lawyers and the associates they torment.

October 2006

My Paris. By Gail Scott. Experimental fiction. Punctuated. Like this. Not like. Gopnik. Or Le Divorce.

The Life of Samuel Johnson. By James Boswell. The mother of all biographies, written by a man unfailingly willing to play Gracie Allen to his subject’s George Burns.

Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York. By Gail Parent. A dark satire of pre-Sex and the City mating rituals in New York that still towers over most of the books in its class.

Collected Stories: Noel Coward. By Noel Coward. Who knew that the playwright also wrote wonderful short stories?

Toxic Bachelors. By Danielle Steel. Nasty stereotypes of Jews and others masquerading as a fairy tale.

Pure Pleasure. By John Carey. Fifty modern classics reconsidered in 800-word essays by one of England’s best critics.

Save Karyn. By Karyn Bosnak. The godmother of Internet panhandling tells how she got out of debt by asking for cash from strangers on the Web.

Cheaper by the Dozen. By Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. The hilarious story of a rambunctious family of 12 children, sold short in the movie starring Steve Martin.

Late for Work. By David Tucker.
A newspaper editor writes about his work and makes it work in a prize-winning book of poetry.

Love You, Mean It: A True Story of Love, Loss, And Friendship. By Patricia Carrington, Julia Collins, Claudia Gerbasi, and Ann Haynes with Eve Charles. A memoir by four 9/11 widows whose acquaintances told them, “It could be worse.”

God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. By Adam Nicolson. An engaging work of popular history about the making of “the greatest work of prose ever written in English.”

Buying Dad: One Woman’s Search for the Perfect Sperm Donor. By Harlyn Aizley. The true story of two lesbians who looked for the father of their child in tank of liquid nitrogen.

Mystic River. By Dennis Lehane. Clint Eastwood shows, as with The Bridges of Madison County, that he’s a good director of bad books.

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. An essay collection by the screenwriter for Sleepless in Seattle, who takes aim at saccharine books on “mellow menopause.”

The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle: Israel Lives. By Igal Sarna. A former tank commander reports elegantly on the lost souls of modern Israel.

Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling/Career Strategies for Asians: The Essential Guide to Getting In, Moving Up, and Reaching the Top. By Jane Hyun. A former HR executive says that Asian-Americans can succeed at work partly by — surprise, surprise — “networking” and “mentoring.”

The History Boys. By Alan Bennett. The script for a tragicomedy about the purpose of education, which won a Tony Award for best play.

The Emperor’s Children. By Claire Messud. The emperor’s children wear clichés.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Danielle Steel Gets Toxic

Filed under: Novels,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:35 pm
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Nasty stereotypes of Jews and others masquerading as a fairy tale

Toxic Bachelors. By Danielle Steel. Dell, 447 pp., $7.99, paperback.

Nobody expects social realism from Danielle Steel, but it’s still shocking to find Jews portrayed as monsters in her latest paperback. Toxic Bachelors is about three single men from different backgrounds who try to avoid marriage while cruising the Mediterranean on a 240-foot yacht. Charlie Harrington is philanthropist whom others see as “ever the polite and romantic Prince Charming.” Gray Hawk is a “penniless” artist who can somehow afford to live in the fashionable Meatpacking District of Manhattan while also paying for all the years of therapy needed by his psychotic dates. Adam Weiss is a “top lawyer” in the entertainment industry and a male slut: “Adam never had less than four women going at once, often five, sometimes six in a good week. And once, seven.”

Each man represents a spiritual as well as social “type”: Charlie is WASP-y, Gray makes a religion of art, and Adam is Jewish. Guess which one has an ineffectual father, a mother who is “a nagging bitch,” and a spoiled sister? If you said, “Adam,” you’re right. While Charlie’s dead parents were saintly and Gray’s were irresponsible but not malicious, Adam’s are cruel enough to make the Portnoys look like candidates for a lifetime achievement award from Parents’, magazine, even when they gather for the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. Adam sees them as “freaks” who are no better than his sister: “She had never done anything with her life except get married and have two children.”

Danielle Steel is known for her fairy-tale endings, but if this is a “fairy tale,” it resembles one of the original Brothers Grimm stories more than their sanitized modern versions: a dark and nasty morality play masquerading as entertainment.

Best line: Steel departs from stereotypes when the director of a children’s shelter wonders if visitors can appreciate her work: “What did they know about a five-year-old who had had bleach poured in her eyes and would be blind for the best of her life, or a boy who had had his mother’s hot iron put on the side of his face, or the 12-year-old who had been raped by her father all her life and had cigarettes stubbed out on her chest?”

Worst line (tie): Winner No. 1: “He was well built and good-looking in an exotic, ethnic way.” In other words, he’s Jewish. Winner No. 2: “Yes,’ he said succinctly.”

Published: September 2006 (mass market paperback edition).

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 27, 2006

John Carey Picks the 50 Most Enjoyable Books of the 20th Century

A witty guide for reading groups and others that focuses on books, not on whether to serve gin with The Great Gatsby

Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books. By John Carey. Faber and Faber, 173 pp., $14, paperback.

Reading group guides are thick on the ground this year, and some offer strong opinions on almost everything except books — refreshments, meeting times, power plays among members. All the more reason, then, to savor Pure Pleasure, a collection of 50 witty and literate essays on modern classics. This is not a reading group guide in the usual sense. But any group would benefit from taking some of its suggestions, and not just because John Carey wouldn’t dream of telling you, as one recent guide does, that strawberries are the “go-to fruit” for book clubs.

Part of the charm of Pure Pleasure lies in the brevity and directness of its essays, which first appeared in the Sunday Times of London. Secure in his reputation as one of England’s most admired critics, Carey has neither the need nor the desire to wear his erudition like a top hat at a royal wedding. His method is to dive straight into what interests him most about a book and wrap up his review in about 800 words. Here are the first lines of his essay about John Updike’s A Rabbit Omnibus: “Updike’s Rabbit saga is often praised as a lifelike portrait of middle-America in the second half of the 20th century. This should give grave offense to middle-America.” And here is how he introduces Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled: “This is a book about stress, a problem of epidemic proportions in our culture that modern fiction largely ignores.” Carey’s writing is never harder to understand than that, yet it is full of insights into works as different as The Great Gatsby, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats.

Several aspects of Pure Pleasure might give pause to an American book group. Carey writes mainly about authors from Britain and Ireland with a scattering from France, Germany, the U.S. and elsewhere. Many of his choices reflect tastes that, however refined, have fallen from fashion. (How many people would today appreciate the wit of S. J. Perelman, famous for such lines as, “I’ve got Bright’s Disease, and he’s got mine”?) And Carey considers only five women: Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield, Stevie Smith, Muriel Spark and Sylvia Townsend Warner.

But you could argue that, for the same reasons, Pure Pleasure is an ideal complement to book group guides that take their cues from the current bestseller lists. Without ever saying so directly, this is a book that reminds us that long before Bridget Jones flirted with Daniel Cleaver by interoffice e-mail, Philip Larkin wrote: “In everyone there sleeps/A sense of life lived according to love.”

Best line: “The current vogue in university English departments is to reduce literature to politics — a way of engaging in the class war without actually risking income and politics.”

Worst line: On Elizabeth Bowen: “No writer has ever pursued people’s thoughts and feelings — or half-formed thoughts and half-recognized feelings — with such intricacy.” Take that, Shakespeare.

Recommended if … you like John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald better than Amy Tan and Jane Smiley, and George Orwell or Evelyn Waugh better than any of them.

Published: 2000

Consider reading also: A Reader’s Delight (Dartmouth, 1988), a collection of 40 brief and elegant essays that the author and critic Noel Perrin for the Washington Post about some of his favorite books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 26, 2006

Karyn Bosnak, Godmother of Internet Panhandling

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:18 pm
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A compulsive spender tells how she got out of debt by asking for cash from strangers on the Web

Save Karyn. One Shopaholic’s Journey to Debt and Back. By Karen Bosnak. HarperPerennial, 444 pp., $13.95, paperback.

Still wondering how you’re going to pay the credit card bills for the vacation you took in August? Or for that flat-screen TV you bought when it looked as though the Mets still had a shot at the World Series? How about posting a notice on the Internet asking people to send cash — no strings attached — to your PayPal account?

If that idea sounds bizarre, consider the experience of Karyn Bosnak, a pioneer in the field of Internet panhandling. In her late 20s Bosnak ran up more than $20,000 in debts for bikini waxes, BCBG T-shirts, meals at Zagat-rated restaurants and other necessities of life for single women in Manhattan. Unwilling to blight her credit rating by declaring bankruptcy, she appealed for cash on her Web site and her plan worked almost too well. After newspapers began writing about her, Bosnak got hate mail from people infuriated that she wanted help paying for her Princess Tam-Tam underwear. (After all, she had rationalized at Saks, “how ‘out of style’ can underwear go?”) Other people sent euros, Chilean pesos, and Korean wons.

With her liquidity further enhanced by a movie deal, Bosnak tells her story in a chatty, exclamation-point-strewn memoir that needs to be read with some caution. Bosnak admits she lied about her age on her site and has “taken certain liberties to help move the events along” in Save Karyn, which leaves open the question of whether it has invented scenes. Even so, her disarming frankness about her appeal — and how she got into such a mess — shows a kind of genius for self-promotion. How many other authors would have the courage to show copies of their credit card bills at the beginning of each chapter?

Best line: “I do not like the name Internet panhandling because I choose to think that I provided loads of entertainment to people, and in exchange they gave me some cash to show their gratitude for making them laugh.”

Worst line: “I couldn’t flip through the racks quickly enough. Surely my blind date would fall in love with me if I wore an outfit from here! Then we’d live happily ever after!”

Recommended if… you enjoy reading about people who are even worse at managing money than you are, especially if they sound like Valley Girls and buy shoes at stores with cute names like Otto Tootsie Plohound.

Editor: Alison Callahan

Published: 2003 Bosnak also wrote 20 Times a Lady: A Novel (HarperPaperbacks, 2006).

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 25, 2006

Cheaper by the Dozen, Sold Short by Steve Martin

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics,Movie Link — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:33 pm

In the movie version, father doesn’t always know best

Cheaper by the Dozen. By Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. HarperTorch movie tie-in edition. 274 pp., $5.99, paperback.

A more accurate title for the 2003 movie version of this beloved classic might have been Cheaper by the Dozen, Discounted. The film starring Steve Martin has almost nothing in common with the book that inspired it except that it involves a spirited family of 12 children dominated by a benevolent tyrant and his endlessly accommodating wife.

The movie does not deal with offspring of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, two of the leading time-and-motion study experts of their time, but with the fictitious family of one of their descendants. Even there it hardly reflects reality. None of the original dozen had more than four offspring (and one died of diphtheria at age six, so all 12 were never contemporaries). And while the book is about a father who rules the roost, the movie allows the children ultimately to gain control and reform the lovable autocrat. (It’s inconceivable that Frank Gilbreth would have yielded as much power to his offspring – or shown as much domestic incompetence – as Martin does.)

All the more reason, then, to savor the original, one of the great family read-aloud books of the 20th century. Cheaper by the Dozen is today regarded as a children’s book. But in its heyday, this hilarious and fast-paced tale was popular among all ages. More than half a century after its publication, it brims with good cheer and slyly subversive ideas on child-rearing. One of Frank Gilbreth’s most ingenious practices was putting household chores up for competitive bids among his children so he could get the lowest price while the money went to whichever child needed it the most. Think about it, parents. Doesn’t this beat nagging, pleading, and bribing the kids with promises of visits to the Nike store?

Best line: “They had a dozen children, six boys and six girls, in 17 years. Somewhat to Dad’s disappointment, there were no twins or other multiple births. There was no doubt in his mind that the most efficient way to rear a large family would be to have one huge litter and get the whole business over with at one time.”

Worst line: Frank Gilbreth Sr. teaches his children Morse code by painting dots and dashes on the walls and having them translate phrases such as: “Two maggots fighting in dead Ernest” and “When igorots [sic] is bliss, ’tis folly to be white.”

Recommended if … you or your children would like to read about that amusing era when children obeyed their parents.

Published: 1948. HarperTorch movie tie in edition, 2003.

Movie Link:

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 24, 2006

Poet David Tucker Finds the Life in Deadlines

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:07 pm
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A New Jersey newspaper editor writes about work and makes it work

Late for Work. Poems by David Tucker. Foreword by Philip Levine. Mariner, 53 pp., $12, paperback.

It’s odd, when you think about it, that more journalists don’t write poetry. Newspapers stack their headlines like verse – couplets, tercets, or quatrains – set flush left or stepped. Their stories have a form, the inverted pyramid, that can be as rigid as that of a sestina. And the work of great reporters has, if not meter, a subtle rhythm and an emotional impact comparable to that of a well-made poem.

David Tucker moves to close the gap in Late for Work, winner 2005 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize for poetry awarded by the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. Calvin Trillin may call himself a “deadline poet” because he writes his brief, witty poems for The Nation in response to breaking news. But Tucker comes closer to the spirit of the phrase in this wonderful collection of 45 of poems about newspapers and other topics, inspired partly by his work as an assistant managing editor of the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

Tucker has little in common with the modern poets who pack their work so densely with opaque symbols and allusions that you need to read them with The Golden Bough in one hand and the Wikipedia URL in the other. He meets you halfway, whether he’s writing about a great-grandfather you haven’t met or a newsroom you haven’t visited. Sometimes he does this by moving gracefully from tragedy to comedy and back again, so that we stand poised between them in his poems as in life. In “Morning Edition,” a journalist leaving work for the day considers the stories in the next edition:

For tomorrow we offer a photo of bloody hands
passing a coffin over a crowd in Baghdad,
and a photo of the President grinning
like a boy who ate a grasshopper,
and the jubilation of the bowling team that won the lottery.

Later the journalist recalls other stories in the next day’s paper:

The governor lying about the lie he told
the day before, the state senator from Bergen
calling his committee into secret session.
Killer Tree in Rahway, roots weakened
by rain, this rain, toppling on a doctor and his wife
as they sped for the Rahway exist, late for dinner.

Tucker flirts with classic forms like the sonnet and, in “The Woman in the Faraway House,” terza rima (while avoiding its overlapping rhymes):

She always has one more thing to say
about the argument
we had yesterday

But if he nods to Dante and later poets like Jane Kenyon, Tucker makes his subjects his own. One of his themes is that we have the capacity for hope even when hope has let us down — or we have let it down – many times. This idea comes into its fullest flower in “Detective Story,” which begins:

Happiness is a stubborn old detective who won’t give up on us
though we have been missing a long, long time,
who stops in towns where we once lived and asks about us
in a grocery where we shopped ten years ago …

Philip Levine chose Late for Work for the Bakeless Prize and has written an introduction that, though more self-indulgent and less helpful than it might have been, is right in one respect. This book suggests that life, for all its disappointments, can still be “warm and satisfying.”

Best line: From “Detective Story”: “A breeze smelling of the river enters the room though/ no river is near; the house is quiet and calm for no reason;/ the search does end, the detective finally does sleep, far away/ from anything he imagined, his dusty shoes still on.”

Worst line: From “Downsizing”: Tucker writes of bosses whispering “at the water cooler” and “junior executives” going to lunch. Most companies no longer have a “water cooler” or “junior executives” – everybody’s a “manager” now – and both of these fixtures of corporate life had disappeared by the time the word “downsizing” entered the language, so imagery here isn’t just clichéd but internally inconsistent.

Recommended if … you’d love to read some contemporary poetry that you can understand without having a graduate degree in English

Published: April 2006

To hear David Tucker read from Late for Work, click on this link:

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

9/11 Widows Learn to Think About the Unthinkable

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:34 am
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First came tragedy. Then came the people who told them, “It could be worse.”

Love You, Mean It: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Friendship. By Patricia Carrington, Julia Collins, Claudia Gerbasi, and Ann Haynes with Eve Charles. Hyperion, 320 pp., $23.95.

Love You, Mean It came out just before the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, so you might be tempted to view it as strictly a post-mortem on that tragedy. It works much better as memoir of traumatic loss, that unique form of grief that occurs when you have no time to prepare emotionally for a death.

The authors of Love You, Mean It are all intelligent professional women widowed by the attacks. So it’s surprising that they have so little to say about subjects that have preoccupied some of the other victims’ families: the rescue efforts by police and fire departments, the financial settlements offered by the Victim Compensation Fund, the future memorial at Ground Zero.

Instead they focus on the brutal cost of losing a spouse even when you have money and the world’s sympathy. Pattie Carrington kept her alarm clock set for two years to six a.m., “the same as it was on the morning of September 11.” Julia Collins sat in her husband’s closet, “just to be near the smell of clothes that had touched his body.” Claudia Gerbasi heard that people had found safety in the shopping center under the towers and convinced herself that her husband had made it to the Duane Reade drugstore “and could survive a week on Oreos and Diet Coke.” Ann Haynes had what she calls “a mini-breakdown.”

Anyone has lost a relative to a sudden and violent death will believe these stories and the catalog of thoughtless comments the women heard, which ranged from patronizing (“You’re going to be okay”) to cruel. Gerbasi left a doctor of eight years who told her: “It could be worse – you could be thirty-nine and fat with shingles.”

Love You, Mean It lacks the artistry of Ruth Coughlin’s Grieving: A Love Story (HarperPerennial, 1994) and Lynne Caine’s Widow (Bantam, 1987), partly because of an inelegant structure jerrybuilt for four points of views. Even so, it has moments approaching poetry in the observations of Carrington, the most thoughtful and introspective of the group. One night she sees a crescent moon and imagines it to be the initial of her lost husband, Caz, who is communicating with her though it. Later she thinks of him as she plants blue lobelias at their beach house. “My life here was continuing,” she says,” always bittersweet, always a modified version of what it had been.”

Best line: “The longing doesn’t go away. There will always be loss written into our hearts. But we have come a great distance – the pain is finally beginning to cool. It lives on a deeper level now, like strata in rock, not visible on the surface, but always there, keeping us grounded, giving us the stability to stand taller.”

Worst line: “Ann and Ned discovered that they had another mutual friend in common.” Lucky they didn’t meet through one of those mutual friends they didn‘t have in common.

Editor: Leslie Wells

Recommended if … you’re grieving for someone who died a sudden, traumatic death.

Published: September 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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