One-Minute Book Reviews

February 9, 2007

‘Queens’: A Great Valentine’s Day Gift Book for Black Women

Filed under: African American,Book Reviews,Books,Coffee Table Books,Reading,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:54 pm

African-American women talk about hairstyles they’ve worn in places from Manhattan hair salons to a marketplace in Ghana

Queens: Portraits of Black Women and Their Fabulous Hair. By Michael Cunningham and George Alexander. Doubleday, 200 pp., $29.95.

By Janice Harayda

Queens came out more than a year ago, but it would still make such a great Valentine’s Day gift for many women that I can’t resist reminding you about it. This coffee-table book is more than a striking collection of black-and-white photographs of 53 black women who talk about some of their most memorable hairstyles, including a sequined elegy for the Twin Towers that perches atop one head. Queens is also a celebration of the role of hair salons in African-American culture.

“The African-American beauty salons are special even though they may not always be plush,” hairstylist Sonia Mullings says. “The salon is a place where women can come in and sit down and be heard and finally express how they’re feeling. I’ve found being in this business for so many years that women don’t come to the salon for just a hairdo. The hairdo is secondary to having someone focus on them.”

Photographer Michael Cunningham and journalist George Alexander found proof of those words places that range from Manhattan to Ghana. And their book shows an extraordinary range of familiar and not-so-familiar hairstyles, including dreadlocks, Afros, a pageboy, and traditional Ghanian styles such as Dadaba, Alice, and Bolga braids. Among the most beautiful Ghanian styles is the Akwyelebi, resembling a small and elegant birdcage, that could be ideal for brides who want their weddings to include authentically African-American elements. All of this means that Queens is more than a potential Valentine’s Day gift. It could also be a terrific engagement present for a woman who is getting a ring on Feb. 14 and has begun thinking about how she wants to wear her hair on her wedding day.

Best line: Lettice Graham, age 82, on one of her many memorable hairstyles: “When I was a child, my aunt used to braid my hair and she would braid it so tight I couldn’t laugh for three days.”

Worst line: A bit more explanation of how stylists created some hairdos in this book would have been useful. It isn’t clear, for example, how much of that homage to the Twin Towers consists of human hair and how much of other materials.

Recommended if … you’re looking for a gift for a black woman of any age. including mothers and grandmothers. Also highly recommended to brides-to-be.

Editor: Janet Hill

Published: December 2005


Furthermore: Just a reminder, men: Books are not a substitute for flowers. If you give her Queens, make sure you add something with a stem. Yes, it’s unfair that you have to come up with two gifts if one is a book. But this, unfortunately, is how the world works on Feb. 14.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 1, 2007

I’ll Take ‘Schott’s Almanac’ for $400, Alex

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Coffee Table Books,Essays and Reviews,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:11 am

A trivia collection that may be the year’s best book for people with constipation

Scott’s Almanac: 2007. By Ben Schott. Bloomsbury, 367 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

Ben Schott has done for the almanac what Absolut did for vodka: He’s taken something with a dowdy image and made it hip.

Schott’s Almanac isn’t a fat paperback you keep on the shelf until you need to know the annual rainfall of Greenland or the birthplace of Martin Van Buren. It’s a trim hardcover that you read, a little at a time, perhaps in your smallest room; it may be the year’s best book for people with constipation. But unlike all those cheesey-looking bathroom books that are designed to survive if you spill Herbal Essence shampoo on them, Schott’s Almanac is a trivia collection that would fit in with Frette bath towels and Poggenpohl faucets. It has a salmon-colored cover and airy pages with elegant fonts and half-tone photographs just like The Wall Street Journal’s. It also has lots of brief, droll, and intelligent essays on current events. Some of the entries include call-outs of the year’s most essential quotes, such as the deathless, “Shiloh will receive a Namibian passport, so we shall return. – Brad Pitt.”

Schott’s Almanac includes some categories you typically find in almanacs – state capitals, Academy Award–winners, NBA playoff results. But it takes a kinkier approach to the material. Its facts about U.S. Presidents include their astrological signs. Its listing for the Pulitzer Prizes leaves out more than half of last year’s journalism winners. Its entry for the Super Bowl XL tells you the words that the network censors made the Rolling Stones cut from “Start Me Up.” And the almanac has things you might not find in other books. Would you really want to live without knowing that Jennifer Berry, Miss America 2006, confessed to the pageant host that “she enjoys nothing more than dipping French fries into ranch dressing”? If not, Schott’s Almanac is your book.

Best line: An interesting section summarizes the findings on blogging in the 2005–2006 Pew Internet and American Life Project. Among them: Bloggers tend to be young (54 percent are under 30) and suburban (51 percent). Men (54 percent) have more blogs than women (46 percent).

Worst line: Schott omits the names of Pulitzer winners in nine journalism categories, including criticism. So reviews are less important than breaking news photography?

Published: October 2006


© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 28, 2006

Jason Johnson’s Celebration of Black Worship Styles

Filed under: African American,Book Reviews,Books,Christianity,Coffee Table Books,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:57 am

A contemporary photographic portrait of famous and little-known black churches from New York City to Los Angeles

Soul Sanctuary: Images of the African-American Worship Experience. By Jason Miccolo Johnson. Foreword by Gordon Parks. Introduction by Dr. Cain Hope Felder. Essays by Barbranda Lumpkins Walls, Rev. Cardes H. Brown, Jr., and Rev. Dr. Lawrence N. Jones. Afterword by Bishop John Hurst Adams. Epilogue by Rev. Dr. J. Beecher Hicks, Jr. Bulfinch, 159 pp., $29.95.

By Janice Harayda

On New Year’s Eve, many black churches will hold Watch Night services, a tradition that began in African-American worship on Dec. 31, 1862, the day before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. On that date, slaves gathered in their congretations to await confirmation that they would soon be free.

Photographer James Miccolo Johnson celebrates the Watch Night tradition and others in Soul Sanctuary, a striking portrait in words and black-and-white pictures of worship in black Protestant and Catholic Churches from New York City to Los Angeles. Photography books often have a bare-bones text that does little to enrich an understanding of their images. Soul Sanctuary is exceptional for its thoughtful essays by three Biblical scholars, two ministers, a journalist, and the late photographer Gordon Parks. These essays explain standard practices such as the call and response between the pulpit and the pew (during which minister’s “Ain’t He all right?” may bring the response, “Yeah!”).

Soul Sanctuary also shows, in words and pictures, how black churches are changing. Newer forms of worship include “praise step teams” that are especially popular among students and “reminiscent of high school drill teams.” Churches may have gyms, classrooms, day-care centers, computer labs, recording studios, and conference centers. Some of the largest have parking lots so far away from the sanctuary, they use golf carts to ferry members to services.

All of this makes Soul Sanctuary an excellent introduction to African-American worship, and a book that keeps its focus on spirituality, not history or architecture or personalities. Those New Year’s Eve services evoke more than the joy of the Emancipation Proclamation: “Watch Night is also a time to give thanks to God for making it through another year and to pray for a better year to come.”

Best line: Each major section of the book begins with one or more Bible verses, and the one that best fits its spirit is: “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118: 24 (King James Version)

Worst line: “Baptized believers have the right to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion … usually small wafers or crushed crackers (the bread, symbolizing Christ’s body) and grape juice (the wine, symbolizing his blood) from gleaming gold or silver trays.” This describes only the Protestant tradition, though the book also includes Catholic churches. Catholics believe that the bread and wine are the actual body and blood of Christ, known as the doctrine of transubstantion.

Recommended … without reservations, particularly as a gift for a minister or lay leader of a black, white, or racially mixed congregation.

Editor: Michael L. Sand

Published: April 2006

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 11, 2006

Marley and Me Gift Edition: One-Size-Fits-All Appeal

Filed under: Coffee Table Books,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:33 pm

An encore for a memoir about a dog that was kicked out of obedience school

Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog. By John Grogan. Morrow, 291 pp., $21.95 (regular edition), $29.95 (gift edition).

By Janice Harayda

Perhaps no question is harder for critics to answer at cocktail parties than, “Can you recommend a good book?” Not because we have no ideas – most of us have hundreds – but because suggesting a book for someone you don’t know is like picking out a couch for a living room you haven’t seen. Recommending books for friends is easy. Recommending them for strangers is a killer, because few books appeal to everybody.

Even so, some books are more likely than others to please anybody from teenagers to great-grandparents. One is Marley and Me, John Grogan’s bestselling 2005 memoir of a lovable but incorrigible Labrador retriever. As a holiday gift, this book has almost everything going for it – it’s upbeat, unusually well-written, and tells a great story about subject of wide interest. And it’s just come out in a gift edition with a ribbon bookmark, many color photos of Marley and his owners, and a copy of his obedience school report card.

Critics loved Marley and Me, and you can find their words on easily on the Internet. So I’ll just mention a couple of things I like about the book. One is that it’s so funny, bookstores could sell it in the “humor” section. Letter carriers reacted to Marley “as if Cujo had just jumped out of the Stephen King novel.” Grogan tried giving him tranquilizers, but “He looked as though he belonged at a Grateful Dead concert.” And forget obedience school. Marley got kicked out.

Marley and Me is also about more than one man’s attempts to coexist with an endearing outlaw, the Butch Cassidy of dogs. Grogan weaves in subplots about his love for his wife and his ambivalence about South Florida, where he lived when he acquired Marley. which help to make his book as poignant as it is funny. And he avoids the impulse to canonize a pet that has turned so many books about animals to treacle. He allows that Marley might have known the secret to a good life: “Never slow down, never look back, live each day with adolescent verve and spunk and curiosity and playfulness.” But that’s as close as he gets to sentimentality. And wouldn’t you agree that if you get no closer to it this season, you’re ahead of the game?

Best Line: “As for brains, let me just say he chased his tail till the day he died, apparently convinced that he was on the verge of a major canine breakthrough.”

Worst line: None.

Editor: Mauro DiPreta

Published: October 2005 (first edition). October 2006 (gift edition).

Backscratching in our time

Jon Katz on John Grogan:

“Expect to laugh, cry and shake your head as you read this book … Marley is a great and memorable dog, and in the hands of a writer as observant, unsentimental and piercing as Grogan, this is a human-canine journey dog lovers will want to take.”



John Grogan on Jon Katz:

“Jon Katz understands dogs as few others do, intuitively and unburdened by sentimentality. His keen insights cut to the heart of the human-pet relationship – it’s immense joys and painful sorrows.”

From the dust jacket of A Good Dog (Villard, 2006)

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights recovered.

December 7, 2006

Philip Delamore Pays Homage to Perfect Wedding Dresses

Filed under: Coffee Table Books,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:40 am

More than 300 photographs of bridal gowns worn by women from Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn to those just hoping to feel like them

The Perfect Wedding Dress. By Philip Delamore, 224 pp., Firefly, $24.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Fashion writer Holly Brubach once said that if wedding gowns reflected real life, all brides would wear gray. And it’s a sign of Philip Delamore’s sense of perspective that an especially beautiful outfit in his new book is gray – a gunmetal silk coatdress embroidered with small flowers that he rightly calls perfect for “someone who doesn’t feel that a huge white dress is appropriate.”

Delamore is research fellow at a fashion college in London, England, and his new book that isn’t so much written as curated. Each of the more than 300 photographs in The Perfect Wedding Dress shows a gown that, however fresh and contemporary, might be exhibited decades from now at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Delamore isn’t too stuffy to show the gowns worn by dozens of celebrities, including Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Kate Winslet, Liv Tyler, and Princess Diana. But he has filled his book with photographs of dresses (and a few suits) that have a timeless elegance. He makes his position clear in an introduction that quotes the great 19th-century fashion designer Charles Worth: “A dress should never overpower the wearer. It should merely be an appropriate frame for a charming picture, bringing out the beauties of the picture, but never distracting attention from it. So few women understand this.”

Without preaching, Delamore offers advice that could help women avoid looking like parodies of themselves on their wedding day. He begins by defining the basic silhouettes, such as the difference between a “princess line” and an “A-line” (which, he says, has overtaken the ballgown as the most popular bridal style). Then he shows the kinds of necklines, backs, sleeves, veils, trains, and jewelry that might go with each kind of dress.

You could get some of this from bridal magazines and books. But what you couldn’t get is Delamore’s well-honed instinct for what will still look good when your great-grandchildren are leafing through the wedding album. You might think that former Playboy model Carmen Electra and Queen Elizabeth II have nothing in common except a name that begin with “E.” Delamore proves otherwise by placing them side-by-side in their pricesss-style gowns. Electra wore an ivory strapless Badgley Mischka design for her wedding in 2003 The queen, then a princess, wore a white satin Norman Hartnell gown embellished with “seed pearls and 10,000 crystals in the form of white York roses, orange blossoms, lilacs, jasmine and wheat” in 1947. This unexpected juxtaposition shows that, for all their subsequent fashion mistakes, both women got the dress right when it counted.

Best line: “Unless you’re Jennifer Lopez, who, let’s face it, must know what kind of dress suits her best by now, you need to start with a little self-analysis. If you have never done anything traditional in your life, now is not the time to start just because you feel it is expected.”

Worst line: Delamore’s mostly impeccable judgment falters when he shows Kate Winslet in an Alexander McQueen dress looks as though it was designed for the madam of Dodge City bordello or Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke. C’mon, Philip, did you really like this better than Caroline Kennedy’s wonderful shamrock-sprigged Carolina Herrera gown that was inexplicably left out? Or are you friends with McQueen?

Recommended if … you’re a bride-to-be who hasn’t bought her dress yet or are looking for a gift for one. The author has chosen the pictures so carefully that The Perfect Wedding Dress might also make a good gift for people who have a strong interest in fashion photography and others.

Published: March 2006

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 6, 2006

Carolyne Roehm’s Fantasy World

Filed under: Coffee Table Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:14 pm

Where good taste means having a children’s party in a space decorated like the banquet room of the embittered Miss Havisham

A Passion for Parties. By Carolyne Roehm. Broadway, 255 pp., $50.

By Janice Harayda

Novelist Paula Fox writes in a recent memoir that she once stayed in a Marcel Breuer–designed house in postwar London, owned by a glamorous couple, that made her think about the preoccupation rich people so often have with “the effect of their style on others.” Fox noticed that wealthy acquaintances often seemed to have an “insane confidence that the objects with which they surrounded themselves reflected their praiseworthy character, not the ease with which they spent their money.”

Carolyne Roehm is “a lifestyle expert” who lives in New York, Colorado and Connecticut, according to the dust jacket of A Passion for Parties. But she sounds remarkably like the people met Fox in London in 1946. Roehm serves up hundreds of color photos of events she has hosted — a dance under a tent at beach house, a white-tie Hunt Ball for 375 people, an “East-West fantasy” with “an authentic Chinese chef” and a room festooned with nearly a hundred red paper lanterns. At times, Roehm refers vaguely to the cost of all this. She says she bought her Chinese lanterns for “half off” but that they are “now very expensive.” (One possible translation: What a shame that 9/11 hit Chinatown so hard that merchants had to raise their prices and drive up the cost of parties.) But mostly Roehm keeps up the pretense that in order to achieve the effects she does, “you need only the inspiration and the energy and the desire to do so.” Money, apparently, has nothing to do with it.

You might wonder what kind of event you could host if you had enough “inspiration” and “energy” and “desire.” How about a Halloween party for children in a space decorated to resemble “Miss Havisham’s decaying banquet room in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations”? Why on earth would you take your inspiration from an embittered, jilted spinster who treated children as cruelly as adults? Especially when a party includes guests so young, they might been happier with Dora the Explorer? Think of the decorating potential. “Cobwebs, fog, and a look of disheveled splendor became the theme,” Roehm writes. She admits that some children found “truly frightening” the ghastly, rented skeletons with mouths full of teeth frozen open in a horrified scream.

The more you read of A Passion for Parties, the more it recalls not the rich of postwar London but their ancestors from the age of Dickens. The book is full of 21st- century party props like computer-generated invitations and CDs for favors. But it is profoundly Victorian in its focus on the subjugation of both the indoor and outdoor environment to individual whims. Any real-life Miss Havisham would feel right at home among its parties.

Best line: The book has 20 pages of recipes for party foods, many with only a half dozen or so ingredients. Serving mini BLTs as an hors d’oeuvre is one idea.

Worst line: “During the busy holiday season, a cocktail party allows one to see many friends at once.” During the busy holiday season, we need authors to tell us something we don’t know. Obvious lines like this in a book are the equivalent of dull food at a party.

Editors: Jennifer Josephy and Donna Bulesco

Published: October 2006

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 15, 2006

Leanne Shapton’s Quirky Portraits of Lost Loves

Filed under: Coffee Table Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:22 pm

A cryptic book of captioned black-and-white drawings about the “ex” factor in romance

Was She Pretty? By Leanne Shapton. Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Sarah Crichton Books, 208 pp., $20.

By Janice Harayda

Couples tend to mythologize the story of how they met, embroidering the tale with each retelling. But if they overplay their first encounters, they are likely to pare down the stories of their break-ups, leaving only a few strokes to represent why a romance ended. “We grew in different directions” may mean, “I tried to nail him into the sauna the way Kathleen Turner did to Michael Douglas in The War of The Roses.”

This kind of paring down underlies Was She Pretty?, a quirky book of captioned black-and-white line drawings by Leanne Shapton. An art director whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Shapton asked people about their former lovers and distilled their answers into an offbeat commentary on exes, with facing page portraits and captions. The cryptic lines of text and bold, minimalist drawings have an emotional symmetry: Both withhold more than they reveal.

Some entries reflect obsessions or at least lingering anxieties. Others have a low-keyed wit that suggests that some of its lovers have learned the meaning of the saying: “Comedy is tragedy in retrospect.” These entries include a portrait of a bearded young man with downcast eyes, wearing a V-neck sweater and tie, that has the caption, “Tania’s ex-boyfriend Marcel once told her that the sex they had was ‘up there with the best.'” Ouch.

As a group, the entries in Was She Pretty? suggest the many ways we romanticize exes. “Sebastian’s ex-girlfriend Makeda often mentioned that she was descended from Ethiopian royalty.” “Marie’s ex-boyfriend had chosen prog rock over a career in classical music.” “Nicholas’s ex-girlfriend was a writer’s writer.” The appeal of the entries lies partly in their ambiguous point of view. The captions are written in the third person. But we don’t know whether we are hearing the voice of an omniscient narrator (Shapton) or of one person (the one whose ex is described or his or her current lover). That’s part of the fun of this book. If couples tend to mythologize their meetings, Was She Pretty? reminds us that they can also mythologize their break-ups, but doesn’t try to one-up Dr. Phil in explaining why they do.

Best Line: “Milosz scrupulously updated his address book with his ex-girlfriends’ current numbers, even if he hadn’t spoken to them for years.” And: “When Elinor began dating Leonard, she found a lovingly inscribed copy of The Reluctant Submissive’s Handbook placed backward on the bookshelf.”

Worst Line: “Ted’s ex-girlfriend was a fashion designer.”

Recommended if … you liked Ilene Beckerman’s pictorial memoir, Love, Loss, and What I Wore (Algonquin, 2005).

Editor: Sarah Crichton

Published: November 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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