One-Minute Book Reviews

February 10, 2007

Bizarre But True: GWB Writes at a Higher Level Than Thomas Jefferson … An Exposé of the Writing Levels of U.S. Presidents

Filed under: Books,Memoirs,News,Politics,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:41 pm

Who wrote at a higher level, Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln? Check the results of a One-Minute Book Reviews survey that calculated their grade levels using the spell-checker on Microsoft Word.

Need a reason to feel good about the direction our country is taking on Presidents’ Day? Try this: George W. Bush can write at a higher level than Thomas Jefferson.

Not long ago, I found that novelist Mitch Albom writes at a third-grade level when I typed part of For One More Day into my computer, then ran the Microsoft Word spell-checker (Nov. 16, 2006, One-Minute Book Reviews). When you do this, you see the Flesch-Kincaid grade level at the bottom of the column of numbers that appears on your screen.

So I wondered: Could any of our presidents write at a higher level than a No. 1 best-selling novelist? I used Microsoft Word to calculate the reading levels of the presidents’ books, if these were easily available, and their best-known speeches if not. Here are the results:

John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage Grade 12
Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid Grade 12
Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Four Freedoms” Speech Grade 11.2
Ronald Reagan, An American Life Grade 11.1
Dwight Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe Grade 11.1
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address Grade 10.9
George W. Bush, A Charge to Keep Grade 10.8
Bill Clinton, My Life Grade 8.2
Gerald Ford, A Time to Heal Grade 8.1
Lyndon B. Johnson “Why Are We in Vietnam?” Speech Grade 7.3
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Abigail Adams,
July 1, 1787 Grade 5.3

I entered 305 words from each book, beginning on page 24, for reasons explained in the review of For One More Day, archived in the “Novels” category on this blog: The first chapter of a book often doesn’t represent the whole. A typical book chapter has about 20 pages, so I started on page 24. And because a paragraph or two may not represent the whole, either, I entered 305 words, or more than a page, which usually has about 250–300 words. When I used a speech, I entered the whole speech.

This survey showed that George Bush wrote in A Charge to Keep – what, you’ve forgotten it already? — at a higher level than Thomas Jefferson did in a letter to Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams. Bush also wrote at higher level than Bill Clinton did in My Life and LBJ did in his “Why Are We in Vietnam?” speech at Johns Hopkins University. But Jefferson comes out ahead if you give him credit for writing the Declaration if Independence single-handledly. It’s written at the level of Grade 12.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Sentence Book Reviews of Recent Bestsellers and Other Books

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:17 pm

Fed up with the bland descriptions of books provided by newspaper and online best-seller lists, which often give you little more than a plot summary? You can always find brief, intelligent, and opinionated one-sentence reviews in the “Books in a Sentence” category on One-Minute Book Reviews, an independent literary blog created by critic Janice Harayda

Here are a dozen one-sentence summaries of books recently reviewed on the site. You can find a full review of any of these titles by using the Search box on One-Minute Book Reviews to search for the author or title.

Books for Adults

Love Smart: Find the One You Want — Fix the One You Got. By Dr. Phil McGraw. Patronizing mush from the talk-show host, who urges women to settle for “Mr. 80 Percent” and hold sex “in reserve” to protect themselves from all the men who still think, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

Mr. Wrong: Real-Life Stories About the Men We Used to Love. Edited by Harriet Brown. An “Anti”-Valentine’s Day essay collection in which female authors and a token gay man write about their former dates, lovers, or husbands, with the best essays coming from Jane Smiley, Caroline Leavitt, Joyce Maynard, and Roxana Robinson.

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. One-Minute Book Reviews also provides a reading group guide to this book on its Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides page.

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

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

Thirteen Moons: A Novel. By Charles Frazier. A historical novel, inspired partly by a colorful 19th-century lawyer and Indian rights advocate, that Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post rightly called “even longer and even duller than Cold Mountain.”

Late Wife: Poems. By Claudia Emerson. A haunting collection of poems (nearly a third of them sonnets) about divorce and remarriage that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

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.

Managing Employees From Hell: Handling Idiots, Whiners, Slackers and Other Workplace Demons. By Gini Graham Scott. An American Management Association book that provides a more useful guide to managing saboteurs at work than the insipid The Power of Nice.

Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters. By Joan Ryan. A reporter and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle exposes the abuses suffered by many of the country’s best female gymnasts and figure skaters, including some well-known names, in one of the best sports books of the past decade.

Books for Children

Flotsam. By David Wiesner. Ages 2 and up. Wiesner won the 2007 Caldecott Medal for this eloquent, wordless picture book about a boy whose discovery of an underwater camera at the beach takes him on a magical visual journey.

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.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Books for Beginning Readers: Kate DiCamillo’s ‘Mercy Watson’ Series

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:09 am

A “porcine wonder” saves the day in a picture book with 12 chapters

Mercy Watson to the Rescue. By Kate DiCamillo. Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. Candlewick, 68 pp., $12.99. Ages 6–8.

By Janice Harayda

Kate DiCamillo’s award-winning novels have made her among the most popular American authors for children in the third grade and higher. Her “Mercy Watson” series, aimed at a younger audience, extends her formidable brand downward into books for beginning readers, or picture books with chapters and a simple text.

In some ways, the effort has been a success. The American Library Association gave a Theodor Geisel Beginning Reader Honor award to Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride. And a lot of adults may rejoice that a female pig has joined the ranks of main characters in animal stories, dominated by males with names like Peter, George, Clifford, Arthur, and Barney.

But on the evidence of Mercy Watson to the Rescue, DiCamillo has overreached. Mercy lives in a tidy white farmhouse-style home with a couple who call her a “porcine wonder” and treat her as if she were their child. How the Watsons’ home stays so tidy with a pig on hand isn’t the only incongruity in this tale, which finds Mercy saving the day after her owners’ marital bed falls through the floor (because — you guessed it — they let her sleep with them).

At bedtime, the Watsons sing to Mercy: “Bright, bright is the morning sun,/but brighter still is our darling one./Dark, dark is the coming night,/but oh, our Mercy shines so bright.” Although the book consists of 12 chapters of prose, this strained rhyme typifies the weak text. And that text gets little help from the cartoonish retro illustrations by Chris Van Dusen, who uses the opaque watercolor technique known as gouache (which may remind adults of that of the old Dick-and-Jane readers). Van Dusen gives the story the look of a 1950s or early 1960s sitcom, Ozzie and Harriet land. Mr. Watson has a face shaped like Mr. Potato Head’s, Mrs. Watson has a hairdo that could have appeared on The Jetsons, and their house has a black-cat wall clock. Many of the pictures are garish. But that isn’t the main issue, because “garish” can work with a highly witty or otherwise appropriate text. The problem is that instead of giving children something fresh, this story panders to the adults who do the buying at bookstores.

Recommended if … a child uses other “beginning reader” books in addition to this one.

Best line/picture: Van Dusen encloses the page numbers in tiny pictures of the toast slices that Mercy loves.

Worst line/picture: Mercy looks large enough to be an adult female pig, and if she’s an adult, she’s a sow. DiCamillo doesn’t mention this. But any child who is ready for this book can understand the difference between lions and lionesses, or sows and hogs.

Furthermore: DiCamillo won a Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux. A review of her most recent novel for older children, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, is archived in the “Children’s Books” category on this site.

Published: October 2005


© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. You can find earlier reviews archived in the “Children’s Books” category on this site.

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