One-Minute Book Reviews

April 7, 2008

One Flew Over the Card Catalog — Scott Douglas’s ‘Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian’

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:34 am
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A California librarian describes his long, strange trip through the stacks

Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian. By Scott Douglas. Da Capo, 330 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

A modern public library is a cross between a computer lab, homeless shelter, psychiatric ward, babysitting service and incipient crime scene. Books haven’t yet become an afterthought. But can anybody doubt that they’re going in that direction?

Scott Douglas has observed the trend at close range – first as a page, then as graduate student and currently as a public librarian in Anaheim, California. He tells his story in a book that he describes as a “kind of” true memoir of his life amid the stacks.

In Quiet, Please, Douglas uses composite characters and other devices that require a greater-than-usual skepticism. But some of the incidents he describes could have happened at any public library. Teens on drugs? Check. Power-crazed staff members? Check. A loony patron who wanted people to listen to her theory that “World War II was thought up by Churchill and Hitler during a game of poker”? Check – unless a patron were to tell you instead that aliens were sending coded messages through the computers.

Douglas’s literary persona is that of public servant who dislikes great swaths of the public. He seethes when a disabled patron damages a projector cord during a free computer workshop. “The way I see it,” he says, “we spent $40 in library work to fix the problem caused by some stupid old man in wheelchair.”

The problem with this persona isn’t that that it’s mean-spirited or ideologically unfashionable, though often it is both. It’s that it isn’t funny enough to justify the shtick. Many writers get away with occasional meanness or flouting political orthodoxies because, at their best, they are hilarious — David Sedaris, P.J. O’Rourke and Bill Bryson among them. Douglas tends instead to be just smug. What, really, is funny about his confession that he hated some of the displays of support for firefighters after 9/11 because he had found that “firemen were a bunch of arrogant jerks”?

At the end of the book, Douglas suggests how libraries could improve. He’s right that most need to go higher-tech and, for example, let patrons save material to USB devices such as flash drives. And he may be correct that some would benefit from scrapping the Dewey Decimal system and adopting a bookstore model of shelving, so that librarians could direct people to the “religion books” instead of “the 200s.”

But Douglas devotes so little space to these topics that his comments on them, like many others in the book, read like throwaways. He also focuses narrowly enough on his own experiences that he ignores many sources of tension – if not crisis – that are roiling libraries elsewhere, such as unionization, levies and bond issues, and gang-related crimes. Early on, he describes himself as someone who sees the glass as “half empty,” and that phrase fits his book, too.

Best lines: Quoted above. The theory of the patron who believed that “World War II was thought up during a game of poker by Churchill and Hitler.”

Worst lines: “I don’t like white people.” “I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of the handicapped.” “I’d like to dispel the cliché that librarians are boring, but that simply just doesn’t seem true to me.” “I hated teens, but sometimes they really made me laugh at their stupidity.” “At some point in a person’s life, you stop growing … This period in a person’s life is called becoming a senior citizen. Melvil Dewey was “a major dick” and he and other famous librarians were “elitist wimps.”

Editor: Shaun Dillon

Published: March 2008 www.dacapopress.com and www.scottdouglas.org

Furthermore: Since 2003 Douglas has written about his work for the Web site for www.mcsweeneys.net/links/librarian/28myspace.html.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 7, 2008

Good Christmas Poems for Children With All the Words Online

Filed under: Children's Books,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:01 pm
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Christmas has inspired more good poems than any other holiday. But many of the seasonal children’s poems on the Internet are insipid, badly written or otherwise not worth learning. (Do you really want to introduce your child to poem built on the theme of “stupid presents I didn’t like”?) And that doesn’t count all the poems that are plagiarized, misattributed or inaccurately reproduced.

Here are some of the best holiday or Christmas poems for young children and where to find their full texts from trustworthy online or other sources. As always, use caution with Wikipedia, listed here because it provides more background on “The Goose Is Getting Fat” than other sites:

For Toddlers, Preschoolers and Others (Ages 8 and Under)
“A Visit From St. Nicholas” (“’Twas the Night Before Christmas”). No poem has had more influence on children’s fantasies of Christmas than “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” first published in 1823 and generally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. Even children too young to understand all the words are often captivated by its rousing anapestic meter, its “visions of sugarplums,” and its exciting plot, which ends with St. Nicholas wishing a “Happy Christmas” to all as he departs. Full text online at
www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=171924.

“Christmas Is Coming, The Goose Is Getting Fat.” Few American children today may know the tune that goes with the folk rhyme beginning: “Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. / Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.” But the words stand on their own and appear in many poetry collections. You can ask toddlers and preschoolers to add gestures, such as dropping a penny into a hat, so this is a great poem for the Webcam. And the nature of folk rhymes is that they change over time, so you can vary the words with a spotless conscience. (“Please put a penny in your mother’s hat.”) If you’d like to charm the grandparents at a holiday gathering, ask your child to go around the room and hold out a hat for a penny after reciting a variation that includes her name: “Please put a penny in Samantha’s [or “your nephew’s” or “your grandchild’s”] hat.” Full text online at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_Is_Coming.

“December.” Young children who are reading on their own may enjoy “December” in John Updike’s A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pp., $17.95), a Caldecott Honor book beautifully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. This quiet, lovely poem has a first-grade reading level and takes a thoughtful view of the season in short, rhyming, iambic lines. Full text in the Holiday House book holidayhouse.com/title_display.php?ISBN=978082341445

Five other short winter, Christmas, or holiday poems appear in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 248 pp., $22.99, ages 9 and under), an excellent collection selected by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. The book includes all the words to Langston Hughes’s 3-line “Winter Moon” (“How thin and sharp is the moon tonight!”) and to Aileen Fisher’s 8-line “Merry Christmas” (“I saw on the snow / when I tried on my skis”). It also has a 15-line excerpt from David McCord’s “A Christmas Package” (“My stocking’s where / He’ll see it – there!”) and all the words to “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” The Random House Book of Poetry for Children is available from online and other booksellers, and I found a copy a few days ago in the children’s poetry section of a large Barnes & Noble stores.

A post on good Christmas or holiday poems for older children, teenagers and adults will appear later this week.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 22, 2008

Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Medals #2: ‘Zen Ties,’ the Sequel to ‘Zen Shorts’ — A for the Art, C-Minus for the Prose and Poetry

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 am
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The American Library Association will hand out its annual Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s books on Jan. 26, 2009. In the next month or two I’ll be focusing closely — but not exclusively — on books that, deservedly or not, are likely to receive serious consideration for those awards. Posts about these books will be labeled “Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Medals.” You may may also want to read the May 10 review of Pale Male, which I have retroactively tagged as part of this series www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/.

Stillwater the panda returns and gets a visit from his nephew who speaks only in haiku

Zen Ties. By John J. Muth. Scholastic, 40 pp., $17.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

What would you say are the chances that any author would be equally good at prose, poetry and painting? If your answer is “close to zero,” you’ll have no trouble seeing the problem with this sequel to John J. Muth’s bestseller about a giant panda named Stillwater and the three Western children he befriends.

Muth’s beautiful watercolors give his Zen Ties a fresh and modern look. But the stuffy text is a New Age equivalent of one of the Victorian moral tales pushed aside decades ago by the work of pioneers like Margaret Wise Brown and Virginia Lee Burton and more recently by great author-illustrators like Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg.

In Muth’s new book, Stillwater has abandoned his boxer shorts and donned a red necktie for a visit from his nephew, Koo. You know you’re in for a slog when the gentle panda greets Koo, who speaks only in haiku, with, “Hi, Koo!” The problem with the greeting isn’t that children won’t get the pun — in good story, they wouldn’t need to — but that it’s cute instead of witty and typical of the weak writing in the book.

The becalmed plot befits a tale about a character named Stillwater. On a summer day in a well-kept American town, the panda decides to visit an ailing old lady who frightens children. He takes along four potential victims of that fear: Koo and young Karl, Addy and Michael. The children find that — surprise — Miss Whitaker is nice and helps Michael win a ribbon at a spelling bee. Why anybody would be taking part in a spelling bee in the summer, presumably at school, goes unexplained.

You might wonder if Zen Ties imparted worthy Buddhist teachings that would offset weaknesses in the writing. Not unless child-rearing experts like Penelope Leach and Michael Riera are Buddhists, because Stillwater dispenses advice that might have come straight from their books. And some of Muth’s implicit messages seem bizarrely anti-Buddhist. To entertain Koo, Addy invents a game called “Jump on Stillwater,” which looks sadistic. When she cleans Miss Whitaker’s house, she snaps at Karl, “Karl, hold the dustpan still!” No please, no apology for her rudeness.

Zen Ties does introduce children to haiku through the poems spoken by Koo. But haiku is a quiet verse form close to natural speech, so you wonder if they will even notice. And some of the poems in this book are poor examples of it. Near the end of his visit, Koo says, “Summer fading / new friends’ faces / lighten the way home.” “Lighten” is confusing here. It could mean “make less heavy” or “illuminate,” and because isn’t clear which one Koo intended, children will probably assume that he meant “illuminate.”

The fine watercolors in this book throw the deficiencies of the text into higher relief. And because pictures count for more than words in the Caldecott Awards, Zen Ties is likely be a serious contender for the next medal. You hope the judges will look hard for a book will allow the nation’s highest picture-book award to go to a work that is, on every level, of exceptional quality.

Best line/picture: The endpapers that show Stillwater and his nephew doing side-by-side t’ai chi movements.

Worst line/picture: Quoted above: “lighten the way home.”

Wish I’d written that: Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “I had hopes that Zen Ties might veer closer to the Buddhist sources [than Zen Shorts did] , but the sequel contains no ancient tales at all …The weak story is a real shame, as Muth’s illustrations have the yearning gorgeousness displayed in the first volume.” Read Handler’s full review:
www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/books/review/Handler-t.html.

Published: February 2008 www2.scholastic.com/browse/book.jsp?id=5114 . Muth won a Caldecott Honor citation for Zen Shorts en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_J._Muth.

Furthermore: I will have more comments on the Caldecott and Newbery awards before and after the American Library Association www.ala.org hands them out at its midwinter meeting in January.

You may also want to read: A review of the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and a reading group guide to it, posted on this site on Jan. 14, 2008. Click on this link and you will see both below the Orson Scott Card quote www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/14/.

Janice Harayda’s 2008 A-to-Z holiday gift-book list will appear soon. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing her recommendations for children and adults.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 20, 2008

A ‘Casualty Notification Officer’ Brings News No One Wants to Hear

Great photos by the Pulitzer Prize–winning Todd Heisler and others enhance a poignant story of how Americans learn that their relatives have died in Iraq

“The Commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to express his deep regret that your (relationship), John, (died/was killed in action) in (place of incident) (city/state or country) on (date). (State the circumstances.) The Commandant extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your loss.”
The Marine Corps’s suggested script for casualty notification officers, which they may modify, as quoted in Final Salute

Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives. By Jim Sheeler. Penguin, 280 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

It seems heartless today that the military once announced combat deaths in telegrams or brief sympathy letters that left relatives alone in their sorrow. Near the end of the Vietnam War, the government changed its policy and began sending two-person teams of uniformed officers to deliver the news instead. And Jim Sheeler shows how harrowing that job can be in this wonderful book about one such officer, Major Steve Beck of the Marine Corps, that grew out of a Pulitzer Prize–winning series with the same title for the Rocky Mountain News.

Sheeler doesn’t say so, but newspapers have reported that the notification policy changed partly because as Western Union offices became fewer, the military started asking taxi drivers to deliver the telegrams. Many of those cabbies — quite understandably — refused the work.

In Final Salute, Sheeler shows why anyone might decline the job now done by servicemen and -women known as “casualty assistance calls officers” or “casualty notification officers.” The military sends teams not just for emotional support but for the protection of the messengers: At the beginning of the war in Iraq, a furious mother slapped a Marine from Beck’s unit.

But the emotional hazards of casualty notification clearly outweigh the physical dangers. Officers do not generally call ahead to announce their visits. But families know instantly why they have arrived. “You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor,” Beck said.

Sheeler couldn’t go with Beck when he knocked or rang doorbells. But he got as close as any reporter may ever have and followed up with the families. He also interviewed a former Marine who painted the names of the fallen on gravestones and went to a wake on an Indian reservation for the first Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe member killed in Iraq. Some of his most poignant stories involve a fatherless preteen son, who told him, “I get mad when kids tell me the wrong things like, ‘Your daddy died for no reason.’”

Writing in a calm tone and plain language somewhat reminiscent of that of All Quiet on the Western Front, Sheeler never overdramatizes or sentimentalizes his material. He also breaks up long stories into well-crafted shorter segments. This helps to keep his book from becoming almost too painful to read, but at times works against the narrative flow. Sheeler tells us on page 23 that a mother who had two sons at war screamed, “Which one was it?” when she realized that one had died. When he continues her story on page 114, he says she screamed, “Which one is it?” You don’t know if he gives two versions of the question because he had conflicting sources, because he massaged one of the quotes, or because the woman said first one thing, then another.

The story told in this book is so memorable that – with one exception – its lapses hardly matter. Final Salute benefits greatly from the photographs of Todd Heisler, who won his own Pulitzer, for feature photography, for the pictures in the “Final Salute” series in the Rocky Mountain News. Sheeler thanks Heisler in his acknowledgments. But neither he nor the jacket-copy writer mentions Heisler’s Pulitzer. How Sheeler and his publisher could have treated so much of their material so sensitively – and this aspect of it so insensitively – is a mystery.

Best line: Beck’s comment: “You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor.”

Worst Line: The failure of Sheeler and his publisher to note that Heisler en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Todd_Heisler won a Pulitzer for his photos for the “Final Salute” series www.pulitzer.org/year/2006/feature-photography/works/, some of which appear in this book, including the elegant image on the cover. This is a disservice to Heisler, to readers and to others, including booksellers, who could have used the information in hand-selling the book. Sheeler is a great writer, but the importance of photographers to a story like the one told in the Rocky Mountain News series — without which this book would not exist — cannot be overstated. It is not simply that photographers can raise a story to a higher power artistically or help to persuade reluctant sources to cooperate. Outstanding pictures, such as those Heisler and others took, can help to “sell” editors on a story — to persuade them give it the play it deserves — and to persuade readers to read it. Just below the headline of this review appears a line that shows how easily Penguin could have mentioned Heisler’s Pulitzer, without doing an injustice to the other photographers, in one sentence on the dust jacket. Heisler was also part of a team that won the 2003 Pulitzer for breaking news photography. He is now a staff photographer for the New York Times.

Published: May 2008 www.jimsheeler.com and us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9781594201653,00.html.

Furthermore: Sheeler is now a a scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing her reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 6, 2008

Were Melvil Dewey and Other Famous Librarians All ‘Elitist Wimps’?

Filed under: Books,Libraries — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:31 am
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Scott Douglas says in his new Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian that the creator of the Dewey Decimal system and several other famous librarians had one thing in common: “they were all elitist wimps.” One-Minute Book Reviews will review the book tomorrow.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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