One-Minute Book Reviews

October 22, 2006

Adam Nicolson on the Greatest Work of English Prose

Filed under: History — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:01 am

The king is dead. Long live the king’s bible.

God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. By Adam Nicolson. HarperPerennial, 336 pp., $13.95.

Although pink Queen Elizabeth roses are still blooming here in New Jersey, the front tables at bookstores are filling up with books on religious topics that publishers view as fit for the Christmas-gift market. And in that category, few of this year’s offerings are likely to match God’s Secretaries, Adam Nicolson’s 2003 account of the making of the King James Bible. Nicolson rightly calls the King James Version “the greatest work of prose ever written in English” and supports his view in an engaging work of popular history.

Time has obscured most of the details of the working methods of the 50 or so black-gowned scholars and others who fashioned a new translation of the Bible in the 17th century at the request of King James I of England. So in most cases no one can know why the Translators, as they were called, chose one word or phrase over another. Nicolson deals with the archival gaps by setting the birth of the KJV in a rich context that draws on history, literary criticism, and other disciplines. And although biblical scholars have faulted the text for small errors, he writes with an intelligence and narrative flair that make his book an excellent introduction to the subject for most others.

Best line: “Integration is both the purpose and the method of the King James Bible. And one sign of that attempt at integration is the degree to which the text the Translators had produced was an amalgam of the sequence of translations that had come before it.”

Worst line: “Unlike the churches themselves, the words of this Bible remain alive, a way of speaking and a form of language which is still a vehicle of meaning in circumstances when little else can be.” Overwritten and, in the U.S., untrue. Can Nicolson really be unaware of the remarkable growth of American megachurches?

Recommended if … you missed the book when it first came out and share Nicolson’s view that the KJV is “an everlasting miracle.” God Secretaries could make a good Christmas gift for a minister, choir director, or Sunday school teacher, especially if signed by an appropriate subset of a congregation.

Published: August 2005 (HarperPerennial edition)

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 19, 2006

Harlyn Aizley Wisecracks All the Way to the Sperm Bank

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:20 am

Two lesbians look for the father of their child in a tank of liquid nitrogen

Buying Dad: One Woman’s Search for the Perfect Sperm Donor. By Harlyn Aizley. Alyson, 313 pp., $14.95, paperback.

Harlyn Aizley rejoiced when she saw all the choices that sperm banks offered to people like her — “Jewish gay Gemini neurotics” in their late 30s. Leafing through books of donor profiles, she found that “buying sperm is much like shopping at Sam’s Club or Costco.” The trouble began when she and her partner downloaded the catalog of a California sperm bank, chose a donor they nicknamed Baldie, and had vials of his semen shipped to their home in Boston by Federal Express. After repeated failures to conceive, the couple learned that no woman had ever gotten pregnant with their donor’s sperm and that they had to start over.

It’s an understatement to say that Aizley’s instinct for wisecracking doesn’t allow her to look too closely at the moral or social implications of buying sperm like six-packs of Wild Cherry Coke. But if her breezy memoir lacks depth, it has the ring of hard-won authority and the consolation of a happy ending. Many couples, heterosexual or homosexual, may wish that they had read Buying Dad before spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on the DNA of their offspring. “The donors you want are the ones who have gotten somebody pregnant,” Aizley says with unassailable logic. “It’s as simple as that.”

Best line: “To the argument that gay parents will create gay children, I have only this to say: Every homosexual I know, male or female, was raised by two heterosexuals.”

Worst line: “March is the suckiest of all months.” Be grateful that Aizley didn’t collaborate with T.S. Eliot on The Wasteland.

Recommended if … you’re straight or gay, married or single, and thinking of using a sperm bank.

Published: July 2003

FYI: Harlyn Aizley edited the recent Confessions of the Other Mother: Nonbiological Lesbian Moms Tell All (Beacon, 2006), a collection of personal stories by lesbian mothers.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 17, 2006

Dennis Lehane’s Debt to Clint Eastwood

Filed under: Movie Link,Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:58 pm

Eastwood shows again that he’s a good director of bad books

Mystic River. By Dennis Lehane. HarperPaperbacks, 416 pp., $13.95, paperback.

Dennis Lehane told a reporter for the Boston Herald that he was “over the moon” about Brian Helgeland’s screenplay for the 2003 movie version of Mystic River, and no wonder. Helgeland’s script is remarkably faithful — in its plot, tone, and theme — to Lehane’s psychological thriller about three friends separted by a crime in childhood and reunited by another in adulthood.

Lehane’s plot hinges on the implausible coincidence that two tragedies occurred almost simultaneously in a gritty section of South Boston. One of these events receives so little foreshadowing that when it’s revealed late in the novel, it makes much of the earlier action seem like a cheat. In the movie strong performances by Sean Penn and others help to offset such flaws, so it’s easier to forget that Lehane is tilling with much less skill the same ground that George Higgins worked in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the gold standard in novels about small-time Boston thugs.

Some critics said that Eastwood’s film version of The Bridges of Madison County showed that he’s a good director of bad books, and Mystic River strengthens their case. Who would have thought that it would be Eastwood — and not Steven Spielberg or George Lucas — who would turn out to be a novelist’s best friend?

Best line: “First Communion was an event in a Catholic child’s life — a day to dress up and be adored and fawned over and taken to Chuck E. Cheese’s afterward for lunch …”

Worst line: “Brendan Harris loved Katie Marcus like crazy, loved her like movie love, with an orchestra booming through his blood and flooding his ears.” Get out the sump pump for similies and metaphors.

Consider reading instead: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Owl, 2000),

Movie Link: Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won the Academy Awards for best actor and best supporting actor for their roles in Mystic River, which also received four other Oscar nominations.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 16, 2006

Jane Hyun Looks for Cracks in the Bamboo Ceiling

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:47 am

Asian-Americans can succeed at work partly by — surprise — “networking,” “mentoring” and creating a “personal brand”

Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians/The Essential Guide to Getting In, Moving Up, and Reaching the Top. By Jane Hyun. Collins, 352 pp., $13.95, paperback.

Career guides for minorities are often smug and oversimplified exercises in self-congratulation by corporate superstars. Jane Hyun takes a more thoughtful approach in Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, pitched to Asian-Americans under age 40 working in the U.S.

Hyun mostly skips the self-congratulation and gets straight to her central issue: Asian-Americans have a tough time reaching upper — or even middle — management. “Even in Silicon Valley, where Asians comprise 30% of technology professionals, a 1993 study by the Pacific Studies Center found that Caucasians hold 80% of managerial positions, versus 12.5% for Asian Americans,” writes Hyun, a human resources consultant. These findings “challenge the model-minority myth — that Asian Americans are doing ‘just fine’ and need no career assistance.”

Why so few Asian-American managers? Hyun argues that while Asians comprise a diverse group that includes more than 80 languages, they tend to share certain traits rooted in the Confucian tradition, which prefers order and harmony to conflict. She lists 14 values that “traditional Asians” cultivate, including “self-effacement,” “filial piety,” and “deference to authority figures.” These traits can held them back in workplaces that reward self-promotion, if not outright arrogance.

Hyun believes that Asian-Americans can succeed without betraying their cultural values and, in Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, suggests many ways they can do this. Her point of view is what you might expect from a former HR executive: She never mentions that if many Asian-Americans are being unfairly denied management jobs, a labor union might help, and refers only twice to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And at times she does little more than put an Asian spin on standard career advice, especially when she plumps for activities such as “networking,” “mentoring” and creating “your personal brand.”

But Hyun offers some material that is fresher and more helpful, including well-chosen statistics and a chapter that aims to help Asian-Americans deal with parents who expect to have a say in their children’s career decisions long after graduation. How many authors would dare to advise professionals to “involve your parents as soon as possible in the career decision-making process” and add: “The more they are brought into the process, even if they are not 100% on board, the better off you will be in the long run”?

Best line: A Korean-American professional named June attended a seminar at which a colleague asked about her ancestry: “Senior executive: That was some really interesting material you presented. Where are you from? June: A northwest suburb of Boston. Senior executive: Actually, I meant where are you really from? June: How far back do you want to go? Senior executive: As far back as you’d like. June: Okay, then, I come from the Garden of Eden.”

Worst line: Hyun’s comment about an article in which the Chinese-American basketball star Yao Ming said he was trying to show more “aggression and ferocity” on the court: “It would be ideal if he could develop a way of playing that wouldn’t make him feel that he’s violating his Chinese self — perhaps by scoring points using teamwork, bringing out the ferocious side only when things get really heated, then going back to his more collegial style.” Yao Ming doesn’t need any advice on how to play basketball from a human resources consultant.

Recommended if … you’re a young Asian-American who is working in the U.S. and looking for advice on career decisions that relate directly to your cultural background.

Editor: Edward Tan

Published: April 2006. This review was based on the hardcover edition.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 14, 2006

Ms. Ephron Regrets

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews,Reading,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:28 pm

She isn’t afraid of death. She just doesn’t like all those annoying books on mellow menopause.

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

Nora Ephron is our Ironwoman of the keyboard. No American female writer excels at broader range of literary forms: reporting, fiction, screenwriting. You could argue that next to Ephron, Joyce Carol Oates is a slacker. Ephron has influenced a generation of female journalists with her collections of nonfiction, such as Crazy Salad (which contains her famous 1972 essay for Esquire, “A Few Words About Breasts”). She has earned Oscar nominations for her screenplays for When Harry Met Sally …, Silkwood, and Sleepless in Seattle, which she also directed. And she wrote one of the most entertaining satirical novels of the 1980s, Heartburn, a book that included recipes (although, she admits. she left the brown sugar out of her directions for making pears with lima beans, so the recipe in the first edition didn’t work).

But perhaps Ephron’s main achievement is that she has always had the talent and courage to say things that others writers can’t or don’t. And those traits resurface in I Feel Bad About My Neck, a collection of 15 personal essays on topics from cabbage strudel to her summer internship in JFK’s press office. Ephron wants us to know: You don’t forget the pain of childbirth. StriVectin-SD is just a skin cream. And in order to rent certain Manhattan apartments, you have to make under-the-table payments known as “key money,” like the $24,000 that Ephron slipped somebody in 1980 so that she could move into a pile called the Apthorp. Above all, Ephron says, aging isn’t what we’ve been told by all those “utterly useless” books for older women that are “uniformly upbeat and full of bromides and homilies about how pleasant life can be once one is free from all the nagging obligations of children, monthly periods, and, in some cases, full-time jobs.” It’s “sad” to be over sixty, and not just because you can’t wear tank tops any more.

Next to much of what gets published today, all of this qualifies for a Pulitzer for public-service journalism. So it doesn’t really matter that at the end of I Feel Bad About My Neck, Ephron heads into Robert Fulghum territory with a chapter of aphorisms (“What I Wish I’d Known”) that includes bromides similar to those she says dislikes in the work of others: “Overtip.” “Back up your files.” “The plane isn’t going to crash.” Ephron is still young enough to enjoy the pleasure of lowering herself in a tub filled with Dr. Hauschka’s lemon bath. But if she ever moves to a nursing home, there’s nobody you’d rather have around to write about the food.

Best line: “Death is a sniper.”

Worst line: “My own theory about Van Gogh is that he cut off his ear because he made the mistake of taking up swimming.” One of few places where Ephron’s usual sense of taste fails her.

Recommended if … you’re sick of all those mellow menopause books, too.

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to I Feel Bad About My Neck was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 20, 2007, and is archived both with the March posts and in the Totally Unauthorized Reading Groups category if this direct link doesn’t work

Published: August 2006.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 10, 2006

Igal Sarna’s Lost Israelis

A former tank commander explores the cost of exile with a style reminiscent of the early Joan Didion

The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle: Israeli Lives. By Igal Sarna. Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman. Vintage, 210 pp., $13, paperback.

Igal Sarna is a literary journalist who has no precise counterpart in the United States, and not just because he served as a tank commander in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. He writes about the hidden lives of ordinary Israelis with an insight and clarity that recalls both the high style of the early Joan Didion and the medical precision of Irwin Yalom, the author of a memorable book of psychiatric case histories called Love’s Executioner (Basic, 1989).

Each of the 14 essays in The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle profiles a person or group whose life has been cleft by tragedy — men and women uprooted by the Holocaust, beaten in Iraqi-ruled Kurdistan, and tortured in a Syrian prison. Sarna’s subjects came to Israel seeking new lives but were overmatched by war, loneliness, poverty or the harshness of the Negev Desert. Many committed suicide or became “shells of human beings,” casualties of social service agencies overwhelmed by the crush of refugees. The happiest is a 92-year-old Kurdish Jew who once used a hoe to kill a snake that had slithered into his home on a hill slope and still drinks tea flecked with the brown ants that infest his sugar supply. Sarna offers compassionate but unromanticized portraits of all of them and makes clear that their failings, if profound, were never theirs alone. The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle shows a side of modern Israel that few others have described with such poignancy.

Recommended if … you miss the glory days of “the new journalism,” or want to understand the long-term effects on the human psyche of decades of crises in the Mideast.

Best lines: “Faulty immigrant reasoning, and a desire to save money, made them decide to live in Beersheeba’s huge neighborhood of ready-made caravan homes, one of dozens of such camps set up all over the country in the 1990s to the house hundreds of thousands of newcomers from Russia. But whoever begins their life in Israel in a place of that sort seals their fate. The desert is a hard place in and of itself, and needs a lot of greenery to soften it form human habitation. The caravan neighborhood, where each home has just over 200 feet of floor space, is a merciless patch of desolation. The homes are made of cheap, graceless material and stand on bare earth that sends up a cloud of dust with each footstep. Electrical wires strech overhead, thin bars separating human from sky.”

Worst line: None.

Caveat reader: This review doesn’t assess the accuracy of the translation by Haim Watzman.

Published: October 2002

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 8, 2006

The Afterlife of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:46 pm

A Tony Award-winning play about the purpose of education that speaks to the age of No Child Left Behind

The History Boys. A Play by Alan Bennett. Faber and Faber/FSG, 109 pp., $13, paperback.

Once I was in a book group that, at one meeting a year, read a play aloud instead of discussing a book. This tradition had many virtues, not the least of which was that it meant that, at least once a year, everybody finished the assigned reading.

What play would you choose if you were going to read one aloud? You might consider The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s smart and timely satire of the cult of novelty in education. I saw and admired the Broadway production that won the 2006 Tony Award for best play. But you don’t need to have seen the stage version to enjoy the latest play from the author of The Madness of George III.

The History Boys has its roots in Bennett’s education in Leeds in the 1950s, but it takes place mostly in the present. And its themes are ripe for the age of the No Child Left Behind Act. What is the purpose of education? Is it to prepare students for tests or for life? These questions bob and weave through the classroom run by Douglas Hector, an an aging English teacher at an undistinguished British boarding school. Hector believes that tests are the enemy of education, and his sixth-form boys are happy to go along until a young teacher arrives to prepare them for their university entrance exams. The newcomer insists that to get into Oxford or Cambridge, the boys need an intellectual gimmick, such as a willingness to argue that “those who had been genuinely caught napping by the attack on Pearl Harbor were the Japanse and that the real culprit was President Roosevelt.” Anybody who thinks he can’t prevail probably hasn’t spent time lately on an American campus.

In some ways, The History Boys is about ideas more than people, especially in the second half, which builds toward an ending too dark for what has preceded it. This makes the play less poignant and cohesive than Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, set on similar ground decades earlier. But next to much of what has made it to Broadway recently, The History Boys shines. Its spirit never strays far from that of the lines by Walt Whitman that Hector quotes for his students: “The untold want by life and land n’er granted/Now Voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find.”

Best line: “Can you, for a moment, imagine how dispiriting it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude? … What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”

Worst line: The play has a brief, campy scene in French that delighted Broadway audiences but might defeat a book club that doesn’t have at least one member who translate such lines as, “Qui est la femme de chambre? … Moi, je suis la femme de chambre.”

Recommended if … you’d love to read a recent play that doesn’t require somebody to sing “Memories.”

Consider reading also: The Browning Version (Samuel French, 2000) by Terence Rattigan.

Published: April 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


October 5, 2006

Want to know more about One-Minute Book Reviews?

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:03 pm

Click on the Common Questions page at left to learn about this blog and its creator, Jan Harayda, who was the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. One-Minute Book Review has had a soft launch and you’ll more text and images here soon.

October 4, 2006

Claire Messud’s Tragedy of Manners

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:42 pm

The emperor’s children wear cliches

The Emperor’s Children. A novel by Claire Messud. Knopf, $25, 431 pp.

Gertrude Stein once urged Ernest Hemingway to read only “what is truly good or what is frankly bad.” This was shrewd advice, and a case in point is The Emperor’s Children, a novel that spends much of its time in the no-fly-zone.

Claire Messud serves up a cast ripe for the kind of black-hearted satire that drove The Bonfire of the Vanities: Murray Thwaite, a 60-year-old who practices what he calls “moral journalism,” and the family and friends who don’t know whether to idealize or demonize him.

But Messud lacks the cutthroat instincts needed to do justice to her repellant characters, who bob from Sydney to Manhattan on a tide of scotch and Belvedere martinis in the seven months ending in November 2001. The Emperor’s Children is partly about the anxieties of parental influence, or as one character puts it, about how the sins of the father taint the children, “the way our broader society is like a parent, and visits its complexes on the citizenry, if you will.” Ungainly lines like that one slow the pace of the novel to a crawl, and the story doesn’t pick up steam until the last hundred pages, when the events of Sept. 11 give it a push. And while the plot elements click neatly into place at the end, by then we’ve spent much of the novel listening to characters say things like: “Think about it: there’s nothing worse than pretension, and false pretension is the bottom of the barrel.” Think about it: Isn’t pretension always false?

Best line: A middle-aged woman suggests why men can so easily forget the women they’re sleeping with: “Look at your father. Compartmentalizing. It’s like cows having four stomachs. It seems like sophistication but it’s actually the sign of a more primitive organism.”

Worst line (tie): Winner No. 1: Julius “never knew in life whether to be Pierre or Natasha, the solitary, brooding loner or the vivacious social butterfly.” As opposed to a loner who isn’t solitary? Winner No. 2: “It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.” Let’s see. Where to start with this line? With that “leadening” that wasn’t literal but metaphorical? With that windy “upon” instead of “on”? Or just with the number of cliches?

Recommended if … unlike Stein, you don’t mind novels that are just okay, or can turn off your internal cliche meter.

Consider reading instead: Snobs (St. Martin’s, 2004) by Julian Fellowes, who won the Oscar for best original screenplay for Gosford Park. Fellowes shows all the literary ruthlessness that Messud lacks in this acerbic comedy of manners about a beautiful commoner who marries into the English aristocracy during its twilight in the 1990s.

Published: August 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


October 2, 2006

Welcome to One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:01 pm

Who’s writing the One-Minute Book Reviews?
Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who was the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor and critic for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. She wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books, advance-reading copies, or other publicity materials from editors, publishers, or literary agents. Unsolicited e-mail about books will be treated as spam and blocked even if she knows and loves you for all the books you FedExed to her at your employer’s expense while she worked for The Plain Dealer. If you were one of those saintly publicists, she will try to make it up to you in the literary afterlife.

Getting your book reviewed by One-Minute Book Reviews is a little like winning a MacArthur grant. You can’t apply. You just have to get lucky.

For more information about Jan, please visit

None of the reviews on this blog may be reproduced in any form without  written permission from the author except for brief quotations that do not violate the fair-use provisions of copyright laws.  Publishers who quote from reviews in ads or elsewhere should credit: Janice Harayda, One-Minute Book Reviews. For permission to reprint full reviews, write to: Janice Harayda, 41 Watchung Plaza, #99, Montclair, NJ 07042, and enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope.

(c)  2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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