Malignant brain tumors such as that of Sen. Ted Kennedy (1932-2009) are uncommon enough that they have received less attention in books than many other types of cancer. One exception to the pattern is Death Be Not Proud, John Gunther’s eloquent memoir of the death of his 17-year-old son, Johnny, from a fatal glioma diagnosed when he was in high school. American views of cancer have undergone a sea-change since the book was first published in 1949. But this modern classic remains one of the finest accounts we have of the physical and emotional toll that a malignant brain tumor takes on patients, even those who might seem to have all the advantages. This post first appeared in 2008.
August 26, 2009
August 5, 2009
‘GIRL WITH EVERYTHING ASKS FOR MOOR’ — Witty Summaries of ‘Othello’ and Other Classics, Edited by E. O. Parrott
Classic works of lit / Reduced quite a bit / In poems and prose / As fun overflows.
How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening: A Collection of Literary Encapsulations. Compiled and Edited by E.O. Parrott. Penguin, 188 pp., varied prices.
By Janice Harayda
One of the most popular posts on this site is a review of E. O. Parrott’s How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry, which illustrates the different types of poetry though amusing and self-descriptive verse. No less delightful is Parrott’s How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening, a collection of 150 brief and witty summaries of classic novels, plays and poems.
In this tongue-in-cheek volume, Tim Hopkins gives you Othello in 10 tabloid headline parodies, including GIRL WITH EVERYTHING ASKS FOR MOOR. And Basil Ransome-Davies shows how an overeager publicist might have promoted The Bostonians: “He’s done it again! Our guess is that’s what you’ll be saying to yourself when you read Henry James’s latest exposé of upper-crust Boston …”
But most of the 31 contributors turn the classics into verse. V. Ernest Cox sums up The Old Man and the Sea in a limerick that begins:
There was an old man of the sea,
Who for eight-four days went fish-free,
But he rowed out next day,
And almost straightaway
Struck gold – piscatorially …
Paul Griffin describes A Christmas Carol in a clerihew that has as its first quatrain:
Was nobody’s stooge;
It drove him into one of his rages
When somebody asked for more wages …
And Peter Norman gives you The Great Gatsby in iambic tetrameter:
Nick Carraway and Gatsby (Jay)
Are next-door neighbors; every day
The enigmatic Gatsby gazes
Towards a distant green light (Daisy’s).
Apart from their entertainment value, these light-hearted verses could work well as teaching aids. Anybody want to guess what novel inspired W.S. Brownlie’s: “A captain with an idée fixe / Chased a whale for weeks and weeks”?
Best line: Some of the literary encapsulations take the form of song parodies, such as Cox’s: “The animals stage a coup d’état, / Hurrah! Hurrah! /And from the farm all humans bar, / Hurrah! Hurrah!”
Worst line: The copyright line, which suggests that this book is overdue for a reprint.
Caveat lector: The third and fourth lines of the Hemingway limerick should be indented four spaces, but I couldn’t make it happen.
Furthermore: I’d like to link to a short online biography of the British writer and editor E. O. Parrott but couldn’t find one. If you can suggest one, I’d appreciate it.
This is a re-post of a review that first appeared in August 2007. I am off today.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
July 25, 2009
Millions of Cats. By Wanda Gág. Putnam, 32 pp., varied prices. Ages 6 and under.
By Janice Harayda
Thirty years ago, an editor asked Maurice Sendak if he thought picture books were better in the past. Yes, he said, “there was Wanda Gág.” More recently, I asked the children’s author Jan Brett which artists had influenced her work, and she gave a similar answer: “Of course, there was Wanda Gág.”
Gág (rhymes with blog) was to picture books what Julia Child was to French cooking – the first American star in a field that has exploded in her wake. And just as Mastering the Art of French Cooking remains a standard-bearer for a generation, so does Gág’s Millions of Cats, first published in 1928.
Gág’s masterpiece is so unassuming by today’s measures that if you came across it on a library shelf, you might overlook it. Except for the cover, all of the illustrations are black-and-white. The book is relatively small, just over half the size of a typical book by Chris Van Allsburg, with a horizontal format. It has only two human characters — an old man and woman with no children – who might have stepped out of the story of Abraham and Sarah.
But Millions of Cats combines tenderness with powerful themes, including the human longing for companionship and the struggle to survive in the natural world, and it does so in a story 3- and 4-year-olds can understand. The old woman believes a cat would ease the couple’s loneliness, and her husband sets out to find one. But each cat he sees is so pretty, he goes home followed by what looks like a feline peace march. The horde inspires the refrain:
Cats here, cats there,
Cats and kittens everywhere,
Hundreds of cats,
Thousands of cats,
Millions and billions and trillions of cats.
The old man and woman can’t keep them all, so the cats compete for survival, except for a frightened and “very homely little cat” that others see as no threat and ignore. That is the cat that the couple come to see as the “the most beautiful cat in the world.”
Gág’s beautiful pen-and-ink drawing flow across gutters and move her story forward in waves instead of boxes that can make a book look flat or inert. Many of her details recall both folktales and her Bohemian ancestry – a kerchief, a tunic, a tidy fieldstone cottage encircled by flowers. And her humor comes not from visual gags but believable emotions, such as the old man’s astonishment on seeing the “millions of cats” for the first time. All of it makes for a book that a child can read again and again with delight. Millions of Cats was the first American picture book that had both popular and literary success, and it’s still one of the worthiest of its honors.
Best line: “Millions and billions and trillions of cats.”
Worst line: Some critics say it’s illogical that the text suggests that the cats “have eaten each other all up” at the end of their fight while the pictures offer no evidence that they have done this. I think that this view is too literal and the fight is a metaphor for the Darwinian struggle for survival. How “logical” was it for all those millions of cats to follow the old man home in the first place?
Published: 1928 (first edition), 1996 (Putnam reprint)
This is a re-post of a reviews that first appeared in 2007.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 18, 2009
Say what you will about the decomposing British class system, the follies of aristocrats have inspired some the finest comic scenes in Western literature. Few authors saw the excesses at closer range than Nancy Mitford, who drew on them for Love in a Cold Climate, a modern classic based in part on her storied and half-batty upper-class family. First published in 1949, this comedy of manners tells the story of the heiress Polly Montdore, an only child who flouts convention by marrying a middle-aged man who had been her mother’s lover. Mitford’s portrait of the young Polly sets the tone of a book that is witty and elegant without being aloof: “Polly was a withdrawn, formal little girl, who went through the day with the sense of ritual, the poise, the absolute submission to etiquette of a Spanish Infanta. You had to love her, she was so beautiful and friendly, but it was impossible to feel very intimate with her.”
June 10, 2009
It’s perversely satisfying to learn that a great critic dislikes a book that you thought you alone didn’t enjoy. In my life an example involves The Naked and the Dead, the 1948 World War II novel that grew out of Norman Mailer’s experiences as a rifleman on Luzon and made his reputation while he was in his 20s. For years I’ve considered this book one of the most overrated of the 20th century and far inferior to war novels often mentioned in the same breath, including All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. Chief among its problems is that it tells the stories of a variety of soldiers without making any of them uniquely memorable.
It’s always seemed to me that The Naked and the Dead might have had less praise if Mailer had been 30 years older when he wrote it and if the novel had not come out a few years after World War II, when critics could compare it to relatively few books about the conflict. So I was heartened to find that Gore Vidal — one of the great literary critics of our time — years ago had a similar response that I had missed. Vidal wrote in a 1960 essay in the Nation, reprinted in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952–1972 (Random House, 1972):
“My first reaction to The Naked and the Dead was: it’s a fake. A clever, talented, admirably executed fake. I have not changed my opinion of the book since, though I have considerably changed my opinion of Mailer, as he himself as changed. Now I confess I have never read all of The Naked and the Dead. I do recall a fine description of soldiers carrying a dying man down a mountain (done almost as well as the same scene in Malraux’s earlier work). Yet every time I got going in the narrative I would find myself stopped cold by a set of made-up, predictable characters taken not from life but from the same novels all of us had read, and informed by a naïveté which was at its worst when Mailer went into his Time-Machine and wrote those passages which resemble nothing so much as smudged carbon copies of a Dos Passos work.”
Wouldn’t you love to know what Vidal said when he learned that Mailer posthumously won the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award for for The Castle in the Forest?
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 1, 2009
May 25, 2009
In the play that inspired Meet Joe Black, Death learns the power of love
Death Takes a Holiday: A Comedy in Three Acts. By Alberto Casella. Rewritten for the American Stage by Walter Ferris. Samuel French, 151 pp., $7.50, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Like Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday is one of those supernatural comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that lifted spirits lowered by the Depression and World War II. Whether the play would have the same effect in the age of swine flu and Afghanistan, I have no idea (though the producers of Meet Joe Black, a 1998 adaptation that starred Brad Pitt, apparently thought it would provide a welcome diversion from the Clinton sex scandals).
But in some ways Death Takes a Holiday has lost little of its appeal since it opened on Broadway two months after the stock market crash of 1929. Weary of “always being misunderstood,” Death suspends his activities for three days and takes on a human form to find out why people fear him. He conducts his experiment by dropping in on the castle of an Italian duke and, after gaining the nobleman’s consent, passing himself off to its residents as the visiting Prince Sirki. The project goes awry when Death falls in love and sees the flaw in his gambit.
“I gave myself life, not knowing the force that is in life, nor the force that is in love,” he laments.
Death’s ardor is returned by a young woman who must decide, as the end of his stay nears, whether love is stronger than death. And if answer seems obvious, Alberto Casella invests it with more suspense and interest than you might expect. Unlike Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday isn’t mainly about glorious repartee – it has heart and a seriousness of purpose. It is the unusual play about death that is funny and entertaining but doesn’t trivialize its subject and has an ageless message.
Early on, the as-yet-undisguised Death explains to Duke Lambert why he must don the garb of a prince:
“I’ve found that very few mortals can bear to face life as it really is. It seems to them stark and forbidding, like the outlines of my face, until Illusion softens it with her rosy lamp.”
Death has clearly learned a lesson that eluded the many of the leaders of companies that lately have ranged from Enron to AIG – that the real, however frightening, has a beauty that illusion can’t match.
Best line: Quoted above: “few mortals can bear to face life as it really is.”
Worst line: Major Whitread, a soldier in a medal-covered uniform Foreign Legion uniform, tells Death/Prince Sirki (also called “Shadow”): “I’ve been awfully anxious to meet you, sir.” The line isn’t bad but suggests one of the contrivances of the play: A legionnaire turns up, seemingly out-of-the-blue, to offer the perspective of someone who has seen death at close range.
Published: 1924 (first Italian production), 1929 (first Broadway production).
One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.
May 23, 2009
Allons, Enfants! Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read – ‘Anatole,’ a Caldecott Finalist by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone
A friendly is mouse is startled to find that Parisians dislike his nibbling on leftovers
Anatole. By Eve Titus. Illustrated by Paul Galdone. Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. Knopf, 40 pages, $14.95, ages 3 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Some runners-up for the Caldecott award have had longer and more active lives than the books that defeated them. A famous example is Madeline, a 1940 finalist edged out by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s Abraham Lincoln.
Another case in point is the delightful Anatole, a tale of French mouse shocked to learn that humans dislike his feasting on their leftovers. The book that defeated it for the 1957 medal, A Tree Is Nice, remains popular and admired. But if you factor in the sequels, Anatole has the edge with children. Adults have reason to love the book, too.
Anatole has a plot that – if strong in its heyday – looks Herculean by the standards of the washed-out storylines of so many contemporary picture books. Anatole is happy to sneak into houses and nibble on leftovers until Parisians offend his pride by complaining about the scavenging. A mouse has to feed his family – in this case, his wife, Doucette, and six children – but Anatole has a conscience and self-respect. “If only we could give people something in return — ” Doucette says.
Inspired by his wife’s words, Anatole begins slipping into the Duval Cheese Factory by moonlight, tasting the products, and pinning onto the cheeses notes that suggest ways to improve them. “Less black pepper … more grated onion … another pinch of salt.”
Will Anatole get caught? This question in itself makes for an exciting story. But Anatole also develops a worthy theme nondidactically: Giving back makes you feel good even if you can’t repay others in kind. And as Meghan Cox Gurdon has noted, the book gives English-speakers a chance to enliven a reading by adopting an outrageous French accent, either for the English text or the scattering of French words like, “Touché!”
Paul Galdone adds to the Gallic flair by illustrating his early 20th-century Parisian scenes with just three colors – red, white, and blue – and to the suspense by alternating tricolor pictures with black-and-white spreads. Some spoilsports might wish that Eve Titus had set her story in China, which would have allowed for shop signs in Mandarin – a language that that has spiked in popularity among preschoolers – instead of French. As Anatole’s helper Gaston says, “C’est la vie!” A Chinese version might have had its advantages, but would it have had as many pictures of delicious cheeses?
Best line/picture: Anatole is mortified to hear Parisians complaining about mice: “ ‘But I never dreamed they regarded us this way,’ cried the unhappy Anatole. ‘It is horrible to feel scorned and unwanted! Where is my self-respect? My pride? MY HONOR?’”
Worst line/picture: None.
Published: 1956 (McGraw-Hill first edition), 2009 (Knopf 50th Anniversary Edition).
Furthermore: Galdone won Caldecott Honor Book citations for Anatole and the first of more than a half dozen sequels, Anatole and the Cat.
Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.
May 16, 2009
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!—
From a classic nonsense limerick by Edward Lear
Anyone who wants to encourage a child to read poetry should memorize three good limericks — stopping just short of any that begin, “There was a young girl from Nantucket” — and recite them regularly. Limericks have five rhyming lines and a bouncy rhythm that makes them easy to remember. So children tend to absorb them effortlessly if they hear them often.
The question is: Where can you find the clean ones? True limericks are always bawdy, some critics say. When they aren’t scatological, they may include double-entendres or other risqué elements. Many limericks on the Web are also plagiarized — it’s generally illegal to quote an entire five-line poem by a living or not-long-dead poet even if you credit the author — and could cause trouble for children who quote them in school reports.
But the Academy of American Poets has posted several out-of-copyright classics by Edward Lear (1812––1888), author of “The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16814, including:
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!–
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”
The academy also offers facts about the rhyme and meter of limericks at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5783. All 112 of the limericks in the 1861 edition of Lear’s A Book of Nonsense appear on a site that abounds with information about his work www.nonsenselit.org.
A good source of limericks for young children is The Hopeful Trout and Other Limericks (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Susan Meddaugh, available in many libraries. This book is used in grades 2 and up in schools. But some of its limericks would also suit younger children. They include “Be Kind to Dumb Animals” (“There once was an ape in a zoo / Who looked out through the bars and saw – YOU!”), which consists only of simple one-syllable words, and “The Halloween House” (“I’m told there’s a Green Thing in there. / And the sign on the gate says BEWARE!”).
Many limericks are mini-morality tales about people who get an amusing, nonsensical comeuppance. The Hopeful Trout has several in this category. “The Poor Boy Was Wrong” describes the unlucky Sid, who “thought that a shark / Would turn tail if you bark,” then swam off to test the premise. Ciardi refers obliquely to Sid’s fate, but any child who isn’t sure what happened needs only look at the drawing grinning shark and a single flipper.
© 2009 Janice Harayda
May 11, 2009
The problem with book reviewing in America isn’t usually that it’s unfair or inaccurate – it’s that it’s dull. And it’s dull partly because it’s timid. Reviews often tell you almost everything about a novel except what it is really “about” beyond the plot details.
This failing has less to do with dwindling review space and than with declining courage and intellectual confidence. You can express the theme or message of even a complex, multilayered work in a few sentences if you know it well enough. Here’s how the classics scholar Robert Fagles summed up The Aeneid:
“It says that if you depart from the civilized, then you become a murderer. The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.”
As quoted by Charles McGrath in “Robert Fagles, Translator of the Classics, Dies at 74” in the New York Times, March 29, 2008.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.