One-Minute Book Reviews

April 24, 2009

The Winner of Today’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing Is …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:41 am
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A line in a review of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, in the “Briefly Noted” section of the May 5, 2008, New Yorker:

“Strout makes us experience not only the terrors of change but also the terrifying hope that change can bring: she plunges us into these churning waters and we come up gasping for air.”

The last part of this sentence is meant as praise, but why is it good that a book leaves you “gasping for air”? Doesn’t it make reading this novel sound a little like having an asthma attack?

One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of Olive Kitteridge next week. In the meantime I’ve posted a few comments on the book at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

April 23, 2009

She Promised Her Husband Sex Every Night for a Year for His 40th Birthday – But Her Book About It Left Out All the Good Parts

Filed under: How to,Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:05 am
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Sex, but no sex

You know how I said the other day that I’d never heard of a book that Jonathan Yardley said “may well be the best baseball book ever”? Here’s another I’d missed: Charla Muller’s 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy (Berkley, 288 pp., $14, paperback), the #2 bestseller in the “Love & Romance” category on Amazon. It comes from a woman who promised her husband sex every night for a year for his 40th birthday, and if the comments on Amazon are right, Muller left out all the good parts. A reader-reviewer complained: “The author uses the premise to discuss almost everything except sex. There are almost no details about the sex-life of the author and her husband.” But Muller has started offering a free Bible study guide to the book.

April 22, 2009

Eco-Propaganda in Children’s Books by Carl Hiaasen and Others — It’s Always Earth Day in Recent Fiction for Young Readers

Meghan Cox Gurdon takes on eco-propaganda in children’s books in “Scary Green Monsters,” a Wall Street Journal essay that makes point similar to one I made more briefly back in January: A lot of trees are dying for books about rainforests. Gurdon writes in an article linked to Earth Day:

“The patriarch of the vogue for green-themed children’s books is surely Carl Hiaasen, the novelist and Miami Herald columnist who shot to eco-stardom in 2002 with Hoot, a novel for middle-schoolers about three children who foil a corporation’s attempt to build a pancake restaurant over a burrow of endangered miniature owls. Hoot won a Newbery Honor Award, and was followed in 2005 by Flush, a tale recounting the adventures of a different group of youthful oddball allies that is seeking to expose a casino-boat operator who’s been flushing raw sewage into harbor water….

“In all Mr. Hiaasen’s books for children, young readers are asked to sympathize with environmentalists who thwart businessmen, even when the good guys take destructive measures such as sinking boats or torching billboards. And the eco-tropes that have worked so well for Mr. Hiaasen — Good nature! Bad capitalist! — are steadily creeping into books across the age range.”

Gurdon also discusses Joan Bauer’s Newbery Honor book, Peeled (Putnam, 2008), Timothee de Fombelle’s Toby Alone (Candlewick, 2009), Katherine Hannigan’s “risibly didactic” Emmaline and Bunny (HarperCollins, 2009), and Joshua Doder’s popular “Grk” books, such as Operation Tortoise (Delacorte, 2009). She notes that children like routine:

“They’re not put off by predictability in stories. They’re accustomed to princesses being pretty, dragons being fearsome, and, it seems, alas, their fictional businessmen being corpulent and amoral. So it’s probably pointless to object to the eco-endlessness on the grounds of artistic feebleness.

“Yet there is something culturally impoverished about insisting that children join in the adult preoccupation with reducing, reusing and recycling. Can they not have a precious decade or so to soar in imaginative literature before we drag them back down to earth?”

Read all of “Scary Green Monsters” here.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 21, 2009

Is ‘The Glory of Their Times’ the ‘Best Baseball Book Ever’?

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:41 pm
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Jonathan Yardley wrote recently in the Washington Post that Lawrence S. Ritter’s 1966 collection of interviews with early 20th-century baseball players, The Glory of Their Times (Harper, 384 pp., $14.95, paperback), “may well be the best baseball book ever.” How can I not have heard about that one until now? I thought it was generally agreed among critics who know more about the sport than I do that “the best baseball book ever” was Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer.

April 20, 2009

Ann B. Ross’s ‘Miss Julia’ Returns in ‘Miss Julia’ Delivers the Goods’

Filed under: News,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:42 pm
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Just back from a lively talk by Ann B. Ross, author of the popular “Miss Julia” novels about a wealthy, straight-talking widow and staunch Presbyterian in the fictional town of Abbotsville, North Carolina. Ross was promoting her new Miss Julia Delivers the Goods (Viking, 339 pp., $24.95), which finds her heroine playing matchmaker to two feuding mainstays of the series.

I haven’t read the books, but I liked the talk. Ross did something I’ve rarely seen at signings for authors of light fiction: She began by talking about the history of novels in Western culture in general. She noted that when they first appeared in England in the early 18th century, ministers preached against them – not because the content was poor but because they told made-up stories or encouraged people to read “lies.” What kinds of novels did they condemn? Among them: Robinson Crusoe, one of the great adventure novels of all time.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

2009 Pulitzer Prize Winners Are Strout, Meacham, Gordon-Reed, Merwin, and Blackmon

These books have won the five 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for books:

Fiction: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

History: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed
Biography or Autobiography: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham
Poetry: The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin
General Nonfiction: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

For more information and a list of the finalists, visit the 2009 awards page for the Pulitzer Foundation.

A Film Critic Remembers Growing Up With Unexploded Bombs in Postwar London – David Thomson’s ‘Try to Tell the Story’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:11 am
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Looking back on life with a father who kept secrets from his English family

Try to Tell the Story: A Memoir. By David Thomson. Knopf, 224 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Film critic David Thomson grew up in a London infested with unexploded bombs, real and symbolic. The real ones landed intact during the Blitz or later in World War II. The symbolic ones began to fall when Thomson’s father, on learning that his wife was pregnant, left home and from then on returned to the family’s South London home only on weekends to see his son. This arrangement was less bizarre than some described in recent memoirs. What made it unusual was that when Kenneth Thomson returned for his weekly visits, he took young son on sports and other outings without ever acknowledging that he had been away.

In this memoir of his first 18 years, David Thomson sorts out the effects of the buried truth with tact and forbearance. Try to Tell the Story has banal descriptions of cricket matches: “The day we were there we saw Hutton score a century backed by Graveney against Lindwall and Miller, but by the end of the match, after [Australian] centuries from Hassett and Miller, Willie Watson and Trevor Bailey had to make a heroic stand against England against defeat.” But the book shows that Thomson developed early a fine critical sensibility both for films such as Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and for moviegoing in general. When Thomson wondered how movies got onto theater screens, his father pointed to light from a projection booth. “In those days that beam of light was thick with writhing smoke,” he writes, “since everyone at the movies smoked.”

Best line: “The first day I arrived in America there had been a flood in Maine, a summer flood. It was on the evening news and the Boston reporter, all quickfire and soft soap, had lined up an elderly Maine fellow to see if he had ever seen anything like this before. ‘Well, Mr. Parsons,’ he said. ‘I understand you’ve lived all your life in Maine.’ And the old-time said, ‘Not yet.’”

Worst line: “… we had food rationing for years – into the 1950s, I remember.” Relying on memory for that date is lazy writing. Food rationing ended in England in 1954 and was such a significant event that people burned their ration books in Trafalgar Square. Thomson could have found the date in a few minutes of online searching.

If you like this book, you may also like: Paula Fox’s memoir, The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of Try to Tell the Story. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Thomson lives in San Francisco. He also wrote Nicole Kidman and “Have You Seen ….?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films.

Read an excerpt from Try to Tell the Story.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com

April 19, 2009

What Will Stop the Somali Pirates? History May Hold Clues

Filed under: History,News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:22 pm
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A "modern economic order" helped stop Barbary pirates.

How can the U.S. and other nations end the plunder in the Gulf of Aden? What can prevent another hijacking like that of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates?

John Sledge says in the Mobile Press-Register that anyone hoping to learn from history might track down The Barbary Coast: Algeria Under the Turks, “a highly readable and thorough examination of the problem of piracy off the North African coast from the 16th through the 19th centuries,” by the historian John B. Wolfe:

“Though the modern situation in Somalia differs significantly, there are also striking similarities, and Wolf’s relating of the European and subsequent American diplomatic and military efforts in Algeria is highly instructive.”

Sledge adds that by the early 19th century, Barbary pirates had learned how to wrest ransom or protection money from European governments reluctant to become entangled in the politics of the outlaws’ Algerian ports. Then thieves began taking U.S. merchant ships in the Mediterranean. As the Europeans had done, the Americans struck deals with the pirates. But when Thomas Jefferson became president, he refused to pay, and the country’s vessels became more vulnerable. Some relief came after Commodore Stephen Decatur sailed into the Mediterranean and, by showing U.S. military muscle, ended the practice paying tribute to thieves:

“The piracy problem was finally resolved for everyone in 1830, when the French moved into Algeria and occupied it for the next century and more. As Wolf explains, the French brought ‘modern economic order, more rational urbanization, extended education and public health services, and a greater respect for the rule of law.

“If Wolf’s book is any guide, the Somali problem will not be resolved unless and until a comparable across-the-board commitment is forthcoming. The chances of the United States spearheading such an effort, with the billions of dollars no doubt required, are slim …”

Sledges’s review isn’t online, but I’ll add a link if or when it appears.

The Associated Press has posted this report on the two staff members of Doctors Without Borders kidnapped today in Somalia.

‘The Case Against Breast-Feeding’ Takes Aim at ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’ and ‘The Breastfeeding Book’

Filed under: News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:07 am
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Hanna Rosin makes a strong case that doctors and others have wildly oversold the benefits of breastfeeding in “The Case Against Breast-Feeding” in the April issue of the Atlantic. Rosin reviewed the research on breastfeeding and found that “the medical literature looks nothing like the popular literature.” Good studies have found that nursing is “probably, maybe, a little better.” But it offers far from the cascade of benefits that guides such as William Sears’s The Breastfeeding Book say. And the modest advantages may not justify the cost to a mother’s independence, career and sanity.

So what accounts for “the magical thinking about breast-feeding”? Rosin quotes Joan Wolf, a professor at Texas A&M, who ascribes some of the overzealousness to a new ethic of “total motherhood” that pressures women to “optimize every dimension of children’s lives”:

“Choices are often presented as the mother’s selfish desires versus the baby’s needs. As an example, Wolf quotes What to Expect When You’re Expecting, from a section called the ‘Best-Odds Diet,’ which I remember quite well: ‘Every bite counts. You’ve got only nine months of meals and snacks to give your baby the best possible start in life … Before you close your mouth on a forkful of food, consider, ‘Is this the best bite I can give my baby?’ If it will benefit your baby, chew away. If it’ll only benefit your sweet tooth or appease your appetite, put your fork down. To which any self-respecting pregnant woman should respond: ‘I am carrying 35 extra pounds and my ankles have swelled to the size of a life raft, and now I would like to eat some coconut cream pie. So you know what you can do with this damn fork.’”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 18, 2009

Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo! The Case for ‘Cinderella’ (Including, Yes, the Disney Version) — Classics Every Child Should Read

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:46 pm
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The latest in a series of posts on classic children’s picture books

Walt Disney’s Cinderella: A Little Golden Book Classic. Story adapted by Jane Werner. Illustrated by Retta Scott Worcester. Golden Books, 24 pp., $2.99.

By Janice Harayda

For several decades, the story of Cinderella has been anything but a Cinderella story. Scholars have attacked it for promoting female passivity, for giving stepmothers a bad name, and for equating beauty with virtue: The pretty Cinderella is good and her ugly stepsisters are bad. I read a critique that accused it of promoting capitalist values because – at least in the Disney the version, the one most familiar today — Cinderella is rewarded for the hard work of scrubbing floors and churning butter, as though we’d want the kids to read books where characters were rewarded for sloth.

There’s some truth to the all complaints. Variations on Cinderella have existed for centuries or more, and they typically reflect ideals of an earlier time. But if I had children, I’d want them to know this tale of a mistreated girl who marries a king’s son, and not just because it’s a defining myth of our age. The case against Cinderella was stronger in the past. If the story is one of female passivity — that of a girl rescued by a prince — it used to reflect the expectations of society as a whole.

Those assumptions have changed. Girls today see more countervailing influences to Cinderella — the tortured marriage of Charles and Diana showed us all what can happen when you marry a prince — so there seems to be less harm in reading it. There are also more benefits when surveys of cultural literacy have shown that children are increasingly growing up without understanding the ideas that have shaped civilizations – not just fairy tales but myths, legends, fables, Bible stories, and more.

As a child, I loved an oversized tie-in edition to the 1950 animated Disney musical Cinderella — “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”! – and read it until its corrugated pop-up pumpkin fell off. A few weeks ago, I was startled to find Walt Disney’s Cinderella in a Little Golden Book Classic format in the new-children’s-books section of a good bookstore. No pop-up pumpkin, but everything else is identical. No less surprising is that the Little Golden Book Classic is better than many recent editions, including some others from Disney, in part because its cover shows Cinderella in rags near a brick fireplace, which makes the meaning of the title clear right away. Some versions have a princess on the cover that dilutes the message and make the book look like just another princess fantasy, instead of the mother lode.

I’m sure that at the age of seven, I liked my Disney version partly because its Cinderella has blond hair and blue-green eyes like me (which plays into stereotypes of the fair-haired as virtuous, given that one of her stepsisters has black hair and another red). But today you can find a United Nations of Cinderella stories at bookstores and libraries, and they have title characters of varied ancestry: Jewish, Persian, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Caribbean, Hispanic, Cambodian, Egyptian, Alaskan, Hmong. And if some of these still seem to be a font of stereotypes, they make clear it would be more accurate to call Cinderella something else: an archetype who has never lost her appeal.

Best line: Some modern versions of Cinderella don’t explain how the title character got her name. The Little Golden Book Classic does: “But alas! The kindly gentleman soon died. And his second wife was harsh and cold to her lovely stepdaughter. She cared only for her two ugly stepdaughters.

“Everyone called the stepdaughter Cinderella now since she sat by the cinders to keep warm as she worked hard, dressed only in rags.”

Worst line: Cinderella had “a puppy named Bruno” before her father died.  The name “Bruno” is odd in context. And the dog probably shouldn’t have a name at all, because it’s used only twice, and an old horse (which becomes a coachman) and the mice (which turn into horses) don’t have names.

Published: 1950

Listen to the song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Walt Disney’s Cinderella on a site that doesn’t include a film clip from the movie. You can also hear it on YouTube sites that include a clip, but these may not be legal.

Other classic picture books reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews include Millions of Cats, Madeline, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Where the Wild Things Are, The Backward Day, Horton Hatches the Egg, The Story of Ferdinand and Flat Stanley.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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