One-Minute Book Reviews

May 24, 2012

What I’m Reading … ‘Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School’ by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

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What I’m reading: Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (Slightly Foxed, 199 pp., £11), by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Introduction by A.N. Wilson. Afterword by Julian Fellowes.

What it is: A history of St Philip’s school in London and its idiosyncratic founding headmaster, Richard Tibbits.

Why I’m reading it: Alison Pearson raved about it in a Telegraph column that begins: “While David Cameron was writing in these pages about the shocking mediocrity of many comprehensives in leafy suburbs, I was reading Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School, a wonderful book by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. It’s the history of St Philip’s school for boys in Kensington, started in 1934 by Richard Tibbits, who is described by one former pupil as ‘like a Beatrix Potter drawing of a very nice old pig.’

“The headmaster was known for ‘extreme strictness and loss of temper on occasions, mixed with the deepest kindness, compassion and care for the forming of boys’ minds and souls… He was a genius at teaching.’ When it came to eccentricity, Mr Tibbits faced stiff competition from his staff.”

Quote from the book: “The teaching was old-fashioned, and sometimes downright out-of-date. Textbooks had not been renewed since the founding of the school: in geography lessons, 1960s boys found themselves learning about the exciting new invention of the mechanical combine harvester – which had actually come into widespread use in the 1930s.”

Probability that I will review the book: 100%

Publication date: 2011

Read A.N. Wilson’s introduction to Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School.

To learn more about the book or buy a copy, visit the site for Foxed Quartely. Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School is also available from Crawford Doyle Booksellers in New York.

About the author: Ysenda Maxtone Graham also wrote The Real Mrs Miniver, a finalist for the Whitbread biography prize.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 12, 2012

Deborah Baker’s ‘The Convert’ – A National Book Awards Reality Check

Filed under: Biography,Book Awards Reality Check,National Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 pm
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“Make-believe” letters undermine the credibility of a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. By Deborah Baker. Graywolf, 246 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Deborah Baker purports in this book to tell the story of an American woman who converted from Judaism to Islam in her 20s and who, after moving to Pakistan in 1962, has remained there. But she gives you reason to distrust most of The Convert by waiting until late in book to clarify a line on the dust jacket that says that she drew on letters that Maryam Jameelah sent home to her parents after she had begun her new life as Maryam Jameelah.

Baker says in “A Note on Methodology” that while her book is “fundamentally nonfiction,” she has “rewritten and greatly condensed” the letters and rearranged the order of some of the anecdotes. And some letters are more than reconstructed: They are “make-believe” (apparently, Jameelah’s fantasies, though you don’t know that the author hasn’t made up letters, too). A message on Baker’s website, ostensibly from Jameelah, says: “I am satisfied with your book as a fair and just detailed appraisal of my life and work.”

That note does little to bolster the credibility of The Convert, given that doctors said Jameelah had schizophrenia and that she appears to be mentally disturbed, whether or not the diagnosis was accurate.  There may well be a fascinating story in the life of the former Margaret Marcus of Mamaroneck, New York, but Baker hasn’t found a credible way to tell it.

Best line: Not applicable.

Worst line: “I then asked Maryam if I could write her story as if she were writing once again to her family. Having her voice pass through my own, perhaps I might understand her better. I wanted her blessing to use the correspondence in her archive, the doctored and make-believe letters as well as the real ones, to quote and paraphrase and arrange as I saw fit.”

Published: 2011 (Graywolf hardcover). Graywolf paperback due out in September 2012.

Furthermore: One of the unreported literary scandals of last year was that The Convert was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for “nonfiction.”

Flap copy: The dust jacket of the hardcover edition of The Convert erroneously says that Jameelah grew up Larchmont, NY, when the book makes clear that it was Mamaroneck, a mistake picked up by many reviewers.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet and was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 15, 2010

Candy Spelling Sets the Record Straight in ‘Stories From Candyland’ – She Doesn’t Have a Gift-Wrapping Room: She Has Three of Them

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:20 am
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Inside the mansion of a Hollywood widow and pack rat

Stories From Candyland. By Candy Spelling. St. Martin’s, 247 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

“Things might have been a lot different if my parents had encouraged me to write rather than fold napkins,” Candy Spelling says in this memoir of her 38-year marriage to Aaron Spelling, producer of Dynasty and Beverly Hills 90210. You can say that again. If her parents had valued writing, we might not have had a book padded with prosaic recipes, friends’ mawkish praise  for  Spelling’s “beauty and kindness,” and an alphabetized, three-page list of 69 things she collects, including “Dresden butter pats, Erotic figurines, Etiquette books, Fine arts books on master jewelry designers, First-edition books (including Mark Twain), Flower picture books, Gold presentation boxes” and Herend hand-painted characters and figurines.”

'Celebrities get way too much attention and credit,' Hollywood widow Candy Spelling says.

Stories From Candyland leaks such Styrofoam peanuts until it brings to mind the critic A.O. Scott’s description of Leap Year as “a movie only in a strictly technical sense.” Spelling casts herself as a victim of misrepresentations spread by her actress daughter, Tori, and professes not to understand them: “I’m not sure what Tori means when she says our relationship is complicated. I wish she would call me …” But the telephone works both ways. And Spelling doesn’t make up for all her omissions and special pleading with glimpses of her famous Los Angeles mansion. Perhaps the biggest revelation in this book is that contrary to reports that the Manor has a dedicated gift-wrapping room, it actually has three of them.

Best line: “I live in a place where the tabloid newspapers and TV shows run ads aimed a medical office receptionists, waiters, grocery baggers, and parking valets, offering them money for ‘confidential celebrity information’ they might have overheard.”

Worst line: No. 1: “And then, suddenly, there he was. Rock Hudson! He was tall, dark, and handsome, just like the magazines said he was.” No. 2: “Celebrities get way too much attention and credit, but they certainly sell movies, music, products, and entertainment.” No. 3: “There’s a big celebrity culture that you’d have to be here in L.A. to truly understand.” No. 4: “Being a celebrity, knowing celebrities, working with celebrities, writing about celebrities, feeding celebrities, repairing celebrity cars, and photographing celebrities – these are just some of the elements of our local economy. There is no end to the public’s fascinating with all things (and people) celebrity.”

Published: March 2009 (hardcover). Paperback due out in March 2010.

Furthermore: News reports that have appeared since the publication of this book suggest that Candy and Tori spelling have mended their fences.

Janice Harayda satirizes American literary culture, such as it is, on her FakeBookNews page on Twitter www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 30, 2009

Great Books About Scotland — A St. Andrew’s Day Celebration

Filed under: Biography,Fiction,Memoirs,News,Nonfiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:03 am
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The Scots — who gave us classics that range from Treasure Island to James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson — celebrate their heritage on St. Andrew’s Day, Nov. 30, the feast day of the patron saint of Scotland. Here, in its honor, are some of my favorite books about the land of my maternal ancestors:

The Crofter and the Laird (FSG, 1992), by John McPhee. More than three decades ago, McPhee moved with his wife and four young daughters to a small island in the inner Hebrides, just off the Scottish mainland, which had fewer than 200 residents. He tells the story of that visit to the land of his ancestors in The Crofter and the Laird, a fascinating of study of a place that refracts the history of Colonsay through his family’s experiences. The book is especially noteworthy for its portrait of changing relations between crofters or tenant farmers and their English laird (then, a glorified landlord who owned the island) long before the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. First published in 1969.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (HarperPerennial, 2009), by Muriel Spark. This great novella is a brilliant psychological study of female power as deployed by a teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school in the early 1930s. The 1969 movie version had a memorable star turn by Maggie Smith but didn’t capture the most remarkable aspect of the book: It is a masterpiece of tone. Spark neither sentimentalizes nor demonizes her heroine, but describes her with the kind of cool detachment rarely found in novels about the sexually overheated world of girls’ and boys’ schools.  First published in 1961.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (Oxford University Press, 2009),by John Buchan. This slender, classic spy thriller is the first of Buchan’s five novels about Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Scottish-born engineer who became a prototype for generations of adventurous patriots. In The Thirty-Nine Steps Hannary shelters a spy who has learned of a secret German plan to invade England. When the man is murdered, Hannay flees to the Scotland, where he hopes to lie low amid remote glens and moors. He soon finds himself hunted both by the British police who consider him a suspect and by the Germans who have killed the spy. After being spotted from an airplane, Hannay tries to elude his pursuers by adopting disguises and traveling by foot, bicycle and train through Scotland. This story is better known today for its movie version by Alfred Hitchcock. But Hitchcock changed so much of the plot that no matter often you’ve seen the film, you can enjoy the book. First published in 1915.

Other good books about Scotland include Israel Shenker’s In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell : A Modern Day Journey through Scotland, a re-tracing of one of the most famous literary excursions in history, and the two books that inspired it: Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and James Boswell’s A Tour to the Hebrides. You can find them together in one edition.

A fine golf book for serious readers (as opposed to serious picture-gazers) is A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands, the journalist Lorne Rubenstein’s account of a summer of playing on the Royal Dornoch Golf Course. And Liza Campbell writes of her life as the daughter of a Thane of Cawdor in A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle, a memoir that offers a stars-without-makeup view of 20th-century Scottish aristocrats. Campbell’s book isn’t perfect, but the British class system is dissolving fast enough that her story may be one of the last of its kind.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.Twitter.com/janiceharayda, where you’ll find others’ favorite books on Scotland by reading her home page or searching Twitter for the hashtag #scots.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 26, 2009

Getting Lucky at Harvard — Ben Mezrich’s Tale of the Founding of Facebook, ‘The Accidental Billionaires’

That red lace bra on the cover is the first red flag

The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal. By Ben Mezrich. Doubleday, 260 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

A new art form may have emerged in this heavy-breathing, sensationalized account of the founding of Facebook: pulp nonfiction. Ben Mezrich warns you up front that he wrote The Accidental Billionaires without interviewing Mark Zuckerberg, who created the first version of the social networking site by hacking into Harvard University computers, downloading students’ photos, and posting them online.

With no access to the prime mover of Facebook, Mezrich tells his tale through techniques such as “re-created dialogue,” scenes set in “likely” settings, and “imagined” descriptions. He also draws heavily on talks with Eduardo Saverin, who helped to bankroll the start-up as a Harvard undergraduate and later successfully sued for the right to be listed as a co-founder of the site. You know all those “disgruntled former employees” you used to read about before a lot of newspapers banned both that clichéd phrase and stories by driven their views? Mezrich doesn’t use those words — and Saverin wasn’t an employee but a partner — but The Accidental Billionaires suggests why the technique has fallen out of favor.

You get a fine sense of the book from a bathroom sex scene that has Saverin undressing a “tall, slender Asian girl” at Harvard who wears a red lace bra under a white shirt. Men, how often have you fantasized about finding yourself in such a situation only to discover to your regret that wearing a red bra under a white shirt is something that women never, ever do? Have you been forced to conclude that for far too many members of the other sex, this particular sartorial blunder makes visible panty line look like chump change? Are you wondering if that “Asian girl” was simply displaying an admirable loyalty to her school by wearing its colors for sex in a bathroom stall and that you haven’t seen it because you haven’t dated enough Harvard undergraduates lately? Or do you think the woman didn’t wear that combination but that someone decided that a red bra would work best on a book cover? Perhaps Mezrich believes people won’t mind his failure to answer questions like these. Or perhaps he thinks, as he writes in another context, “they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.”

Best line: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s business card has a line running across the center that says, “I’m the CEO – Bitch.”

Worst lines: No. 1: “the end was really a foregone conclusion.” No. 2: “the moment itself became historical only in retrospect.” No. 3: “Thankfully, the Phoenix leadership hadn’t traced the fiasco back to Eduardo yet — though even if they did, they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.” No. 4: “Eduardo had spent many evenings in the stacks of Widener – poring through the works of economic theorists such as Adam Smith, John Mills [sic], even Galbraith.” No. 5 “[Lawrence] Summers shook his head. His jowls reverberated with the motion, like fleshy waves swirling in an epidermal storm.” No. 6: “Slowly, Summers leaned forward, and his chubby hand crawled across his desk.” No. 7: “Both had bright red lipstick and too much eyeshadow, but they were damn cute — and they were smiling and pointing right at him.” No. 8: “His hands roamed under her open white shirt, tracing the soft material of her red bra, his fingers lingering over her perky, round breasts, touching the silky texture of her perfect caramel skin. She gasped, her lips closing against the side of his neck, her tongue leaping out, tasting him. His entire body started to quiver, and he rocked forward, pushing her harder against the stall, feeling her writhe into him. His lips found her ear and she gasped again –”  No. 9:At nine a.m. in the morning, in the Eliot dining hall, he had walked right up to the hottest girl he knew – Marsha, blond, buxom, in reality an econ major but she looked like a psychology major.” No. 10: “Maybe feeding the chicken chicken was a mistake; how was he supposed to know what chickens ate? The thing hadn’t come with a manual. Eduardo had gone to a Jewish prep school in Miami. What the hell did Jews know about chickens, other than the fact that they made good soup?”

Editor: Bill Thomas

Published: July 2009

About the author: Mezrich wrote Bringing Down the House, made into the movie 21. He lives in Boston. Kevin Spacey is producing a movie version of The Accidental Billionaires called The Social Network.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

August 3, 2009

Clara Kramer’s ‘Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival’ – A Teenager’s Holocaust

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:25 pm
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A first-person account of hiding in a bunker during the Nazi occupation of Poland

Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival. By Clara Kramer. With Stephen Glantz. Harper/Ecco, 339 pp., $25.99.

By Janice Harayda

Clara Kramer tells us early in this book that when Nazis arrested Jewish leaders in her town in Poland in 1941, her mother donated “her wedding band” to help ransom them. More than 150 pages later, she says that her family had to pay a monthly fee to the Christians who were hiding them in a bunker, and when her parents ran out of money in 1944, her mother gave “her wedding ring”: “We didn’t sell it until now.”

This first quote comes from the story told in Clara’s War with the aid of screenwriter Stephen Glantz. The second comes from one of its excerpts from the teenage diary said to have inspired the narrative. The inconsistency between the two quotes – one of a number involving substantive facts – shows a problem with this book: Its publisher bills it as a “biography,” but it reads more like a novelization of a life.

As Clara’s War has it, five thousand Jews lived in Zolkiew, Poland, at the start of World War II, and about 50 survived. Clara Kramer was one of the lucky ones. She survived the Holocaust because an ethnic German named Valentin Beck hid her family and others for more than a year in a bunker under his house, “a space no larger than a horse stall.” Beck had a reputation as an anti-Semite, a drunk and a philanderer, and he appears to have had complex reasons, not all of them noble, for sheltering Jews during the Nazi occupation of Zolkiew. He often summoned one of the women in the bunker to his living quarters for trysts, and the affair may have begun before she arrived. His infidelity enraged his wife and, when it came to light, imperiled everyone under his roof.

If Clara’s War is accurate, the Becks were nonethess heroic, saving 18 Jews, and have been honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial. Valentin’s acts of kindness included bringing the teenage Clara composition books and a blue pencil that she used to keep a diary, now in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

But it is hard to know how accurate the book is. With Glantz’s help, Kramer describes many scenes in a detail few people could recall even with the help of a diary, such as line-by-line conversations complete with gestures and facial expressions. Some events serve literary purposes that seem too neat. One occurs in the prologue when the author is 12 years old and her sister leaves the shelter of an apple tree to look at bombers overhead – a foreshadowing of a disaster that will occur later. You never really see how 18 people could have survived in a crypt-like space the size of “a horse stall,” though the book has a diagram and says that the bunker still exists and the author and others have returned to it.

Kramer kept in touch with others saved by the Becks, and they and their descendants presumably have confirmed much of the story in Clara’s War. Even so, you wish the book had fewer inconsistencies and cinematic flourishes. The excerpts from the diary in the Holocaust Museum are fascinating in their own right, and you hope that readers someday will have a chance to read the entire journal in straight-up form.

Best line: “My father, like every Jewish business owner in town, had his business confiscated by the Nazis. We had to wear the white armband with the blue Jewish star above the right elbow. Any offense was punishable by death. The day the order for the armbands came down, none of us could leave the house until my mother had embroidered them. It took Mama over two hours to do one armband.”

Worst line: “My father’s family was so religious that they had had considered it irrelevant to have their weddings recorded by the state. So even though we went by the name of Schwartz in our day-to-day life, all of our official papers, including my birth certificate, bore the name of Gottlieb.” Why Gottlieb? Was Gottlieb carried over from previous generations not mentioned in the book? Or did ultra-religious Jews choose it because it means “God love”?

Published: 2009 (first American edition), 2008 (British edition from Ebury Press, part of Random House).

Watch a video of Clara Kramer talking about the Holocaust and her book.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to Clara’s War: All But My Life, a beautifully written memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein and a pillar of Holocaust literature.

Furthermore: Kramer lives in Elizabeth, NJ. She helped found the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University in Union, NJ. Glantz is a screenwriter. The inconsistencies cited in the first paragraph of this review appear on pages 43 and 219 of the book and can be confirmed by using the “Browse Inside” tool on the HarperCollins Web site to search for “her wedding band” and “her wedding ring.”

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

July 6, 2009

‘As Long As the People of Mississippi Can Stagger to the Polls, They’ll Vote Dry’ — Literary Wit From ‘North Toward Home’

Filed under: Biography,Joke of the Day,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:28 pm
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How do you revitalize an old joke you need to tell one to make a point in an essay, speech or book? Willie Morris shows one way to do it his wonderful memoir of his Southern boyhood, North Toward Home, which deals in part with growing up in Mississippi before the sale of liquor became legal in the state in 1966.

Here’s how Morris handles the chestnut “As long as the people of Mississippi can stagger to the polls, they’ll vote dry” (which has been said about many places besides his native state):

“Mississippi was a dry state, one of the last in America, but its dryness was merely academic, a gesture to the preachers and the churches. My father would say that the only difference between Mississippi and its neighbor Tennessee, which was wet, was that in Tennessee a man could not buy liquor on Sunday. The Mississippi bootleggers, who theoretically operated ‘grocery stores,’ with ten or twelve cans or sardines and a few boxes of crackers for sale, stayed open at all hours, and would sell to anyone regardless of age or race. …

“Every so often there would be a vote to determine whether liquor should be made legal. Then, for weeks before, the town would be filled with feverish campaign activity. People would quote the old saying, ‘As long as the people of Mississippi can stagger to the polls, they’ll vote dry.’ A handful of people should come right out and say that liquor should be made legal, so that the bootleggers and the sheriffs would not be able to make all the money …”

A review of North Toward Home appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 2, 2009.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 9, 2009

Jonathan Yardley Says Cheever Bio Is ‘A Vast Inert Pudding of a Book That Leaves the Reader With a Severe Case of Indigestion’

Filed under: Biography,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:48 pm
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I was jousting with computer problems while others were reviewing Blake Bailey’s new biography of one of my favorite writers, John Cheever, and I may not have time to backtrack to the book. But of the reviews I’ve read, the most convincing came from Jonathan Yardley, the Pulitzer Prize–winning critic for the Washington Post, and not just because Yardley has shown repeatedly that among critics working for major American newspapers, he is the least likely to buy into hype. Yardley has also been writing about Cheever for decades – much longer than others who’ve weighed in – and by my lights spoke from a position of greater authority.

His March 15 review begins:

Two decades ago, reviewing Scott Donaldson’s John Cheever: A Biography for The Post, I commented favorably on the author’s ‘careful and honorable job’ but complained that, at 416 pages of text and apparatus, the book told us far more than we needed to know about Cheever’s life. What, then, is to be said of Blake Bailey’s Cheever? It weighs in at a stupefying 679 pages of text plus 89 pages of acknowledgments, notes and index, 770 pages in all, making for a vast inert pudding of a book that leaves the reader with a severe case of indigestion.

“Who knows what Cheever would have thought of this? On the one hand, he was a vain man for whom even the most lavish praise was insufficient, so perhaps it would have pleased him that he rates so bloated a text. On the other hand, the best of his own writing was done in short stories, and the best of those are notable for their economy and precision. Surely he would be astonished to see himself inflated into yet another biographical Gargantua, not to mention in a book that feeds rapaciously on his most unattractive if not repellent aspects: his obsessive, divided sexuality, his spectacular alcoholism, his failures as husband and father.

“Cheever was a wonderful writer — the Library of America has just given him his due with two volumes — but not, it seems, a very nice man …”

Read the rest of Yardley’s review of Bailey’s book and his 1988 review of Donald’s biography.

March 4, 2009

‘The Writer Is Insane’ — Flannery O’Connor and Her Critics

'Wise Blood' was a commercial flop.

Just picked up Brad Gooch’s new Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (Little, Brown, 416 pp., $30). After a few chapters, I agree with Jonathan Yardley, who wrote in his Washington Post review that “the book is for the most part lucidly written and neither excessively long nor riddled with extraneous detail.”

Good provides a context for the obtuseness of so much recent book reviewing in a report on the initial response to O’Connor, a major American writer of the 20th century. He writes of her first novel, Wise Blood, edited by Robert Giroux:

“‘I can tell you that from a publishing point of view Wise Blood was a flop,’ says Robert Giroux. ‘It got three or four bad reviews right off. Then a good one came that began to see something. But I was shocked at the stupidity of these, the lack of perception, or even the lack of having an open mind. The review in the New York Times Book Review was by a Southern writer. He was embarrassed later, too late. Another reviewer said that it’s a work of insanity, the writer is insane.'”

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

January 28, 2009

2009 Caldecott Honor Book ‘A River of Words’ Introduces the Poet William Carlos Williams, Whose First Book Sold Four Copies

William Carlos Williams broke with the traditions of Longfellow and others.

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams. By Jen Bryant. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 32 pp., $17. Ages 7 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Melissa Sweet says in a note at the end of this book that her “Brownie troupe” once visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That gaffe is, alas, all too typical of this runner-up for the title of “the most distinguished American picture book for children.”

Jen Bryant has written a lively but unexceptional introduction to the life of William Carlos Williams (1883—1963), who combined practicing medicine in a New Jersey suburb with writing experimental verse that broke with the classical traditions of 19th-century lions like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A River of Words is the rare book for its age group that shows a man — not a woman — balancing multiple roles.

Williams’s best-known book of poetry, the multivolume Paterson, is often called collage of that city. And Sweet tries hard to apply the artistic counterpart of that technique. Working with mixed media, she combines watercolors and items from Williams’s world: a map, a report card, sheet music, pages from an anatomy book, the stationery from his medical office.

The poet Sara London wrote diplomatically in the New York Times Book Review that Sweet’s pictures are “playfully distracting – the eye hops sparrowlike from leaf to leaf, uncertain where to settle.” At times the images are so frenetic, they’re confusing. On one spread, the left-hand page shows Williams sitting at his desk writing poetry as a boy. The right-hand page shows in childlike handwriting the first lines of his poem “Pastoral”: “The little sparrows / hop ingenuously / about the pavement / quarreling.” The juxtaposition suggests that Williams wrote the poem as a child when, in fact, he wrote it in early adulthood.

Some people have criticized the American Library Association for not honoring enough poetry, and they have a point. The ALA has snubbed prize-worthy books like Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, which combines wonderful pictures by Carin Berger with some of the best recent work by Jack Prelutsky, the popular children’s poet.

But giving a 2009 Honor Book citation to A River of Words was doing the right thing — showing respect for poetry — for the wrong reason. A River of Words deserves a place in many libraries and bookstores for its spirited and in some ways successful portrait of what it takes to succeed as a poet. That is different from deserving a place on the medal stand.

Best line/picture: A chronology of Williams’s life at the end of the book includes this event for 1909: “His first verse collection Poems is printed and published by a friend. It sells only four copies.” The line is incorrectly punctuated – Poems should be set off by commas – but it offers a healthy jolt of shock therapy to would-be poets.

Worst line/picture: From the illustrator’s note at the end: “Living in northern New Jersey (not too far from where Williams grew up in Rutherford), my Brownie troupe took a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.”

Furthermore: A River of Words won a 2009 Caldecott Honor citation. The book has the full text of Williams’s most famous poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”, and five others: “The Woodthrush,” “The Great Figure,” “Metric Figure,” “This Is Just to Say”, and “Pastoral.” It has excerpts from “Complaint,” “The Descent of Winter” and “Part X, Pictures from Brueghel.” All of the poems appear on the endpapers.

About the authors: Jen Bryant lives in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania. Melissa Sweet lives in Rockport, Maine.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

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

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