One-Minute Book Reviews

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.

April 9, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,’ a Modern Classic by Eric Hodgins With Illustrations by William Steig

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation. This modern classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit. Eric Hodgins (1899–1971) satirizes the modern lust for property in a comic tale of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. When house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, the couple resolve to tear it down and build another on the site. This decision sets up a plot in which they square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. Cartoonist and children’s author William Steig (1907–2003) adds to the comedy with more than three dozen fanciful drawings.

Questions For Reading Groups

1. Yesterday’s bestsellers tend to look outdated quickly, and comic novels age faster then others because so much humor hinges on references to current events. Most novels from the era of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House have gone out of print. Why do you think this one still appeals to people?

2. Eric Hodgins tweaks the naiveté of Jim and Muriel Blandings throughout his book. Did you find the two appealing even though they often make bad decisions? Why?

3. Many contemporary novelists make heavy use of brand names in describing new homes. Hodgins doesn’t. Why do you think he avoided filling his book with references to specific products? How does his novel benefit or suffer from this approach?

4. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property. But it lampoons other things, too. What are some of them?

5. Jim and Muriel Blandings tangle with tradespeople and others. But their main antagonist is the house they are building. How does Hodgins give the place enough character to keep you from feeling as though you’re reading an extended article in Better Homes and Gardens?

6. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was published at the beginning of the baby boom, when families were expanding. How do you think people might react to the novel if it were appearing in print for the first time today?

7. Much of the humor in this book springs from its tone. Sometimes the tone is ironic:

“The evil days were behind them. The delays had been galling; the mistakes costly. The experience had been bitterly won, but it won it was. Their plans were perfect, their money was in sight, and now, thank God, work had at last begun. Nothing was so cozy, Mrs. Blandings thought, as the sight of workmen plying their trade on behalf of a home …” [Page 141]

At other times, the humor is more direct and involves local speech or a play on words, as when a man refers the Lansdale Historical society as “the Hysterical Society.” [Page 178] How would you describe the overall tone of the novel? How well does it serves the book?

8. What do William Steig’s drawings add to the novel? What do you think Steig was trying to do with them? Was he trying stick closely to the text or add a dimension?

9. Other satirical novels that you may have read include Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking. All of these differ in many ways from Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. How would you compare their humor? What do they all the book have in common? What makes all of them work?

10. Roger Kimball, co-editor of The New Criterion, wrote that the 1948 movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy is “charming … but nothing compared with the novel.” [The Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2006] If you’ve seen the movie, do you agree or disagree?

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., $12, paperback.

A review of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, on April TK, 2007, and is archived with the April posts and in the “Novels” category.

Movie Links: Eric Hodgins’s novel inspired two movies. The first was the 1948 Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy The second was the 1986 The Money Pit with Tom Hans and Shelley Long

If you found this guide helpful, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing others. The Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides cover fiction, nonfiction and poety and are posted often but not on a regular schedule, because they are created only for books that need or deserve them.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 22, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards’ by Alexander Masters

10 Discussion Questions
Stuart: A Life Backwards

This reading group guide was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher, or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to this site or the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

“Charming” isn’t a word often applied to books about “an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath,” as Alexander Masters describes his subject in Stuart: A Life Backwards. But it fits this biography of an intelligent and self-aware but physically and mentally impaired man – half Jekyll, half Hyde — whom the author met when both were living in or near Cambridge, England.

Masters has enriched his tragicomic story with quirky, New Yorker-ish line drawings of Stuart Clive Shorter and others in which people’s heads seem too big for their bodies. And whether or not the distortion was intentional, it’s a visual metaphor for the man described on its pages: Stuart was a someone whose brain always seemed to be about to burst out of his body and, apparently, in the end, did.

Questions For Reading Groups

1. One of the challenges faced by any biographer of a violent criminal is: How can you depict someone’s terrible crimes accurately while also maintaining enough sympathy for the person that people will keep reading? How does Masters do this?

2. Masters found that Stuart changed constantly and acted in “amazingly inconsistent” ways. “At first I thought he was lying or stupid,” Masters said in an interview. [“The Madman on Level D,” by Anne Garvey, the Times of London, June 10, 2005.] Did you ever think Stuart was “lying or stupid,” too? What changed your mind? How would you interpret Stuart’s behavior?

3. Stuart has an unusual narrative structure for a biography – it moves backwards. Masters begins when Stuart is an adult – “an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath” – and doesn’t give his date of birth until Chapter 25. [Pages 1 and 291] But the story doesn’t always move in a straight chronological line. Masters describes some of Stuart’s ancestors in Chapter 24 before he tells you when his subject was born in Chapter 25. How well does this structure works?

4. Masters often criticizes mental-health professionals or popular views of mental illness, such as when he writes: “ … It is wrong to assume that a failed [suicide] bid is, as the nauseating cliché will have it, only ‘a cry for help.’ It could be – is usually in Stuart’s case – just the opposite. Its failure is the result of too great desperation to get the job done.” [Page 160] How did Stuart affect your ideas about mental illness or any aspect of it, such as suicidal tendencies?

5. One of the characteristics of great biographies is that they are usually “about” more than one person’s life. They may deal with subject’s profession or social circle or the era in which he or she lived. What is Stuart “about” besides Stuart?

6. Stuart disliked a version of the book that Masters showed him. He called it “boring” and wanted something “like what Tom Clancy writes.” [Page 1] How do you think Stuart would have liked the final book?

7. Biographies typically include only photographs of their subject and others. What do Masters’s drawings add to the book?

8. Masters is an advocate for the homeless who has worked in hostels for them and run a street newspaper. Biographers who support a cause are sometimes faulted by critics ax-grinding, special pleading, or slanting their facts. Has Masters done any of those things? How does he keep Stuart’s story fro becoming strident or sentimental?

9. Critics have disagreed on whether Stuart is biography, memoir, or something else, such as a true-crime story. Blurbs on the cover of the hardcover edition call the book a “biography.” The directors of the National Book Critics Circle said that Stuart “defies categorization” and named it a finalist for the 2007 NBCC award in the autobiography/memoirs category. You can find one board member’s comments on this issue by searching for the words “Stuart: A Life Backwards” on Critical Mass How would you categorize the book? How do such classifications affect your perceptions of Stuart and other books?

If you have time …
10. Stuart resembles James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the first great modern biography, in that it may tell you as much about its author as it does about its subject. So you might enjoy comparing the two books. Is fair to say that Masters was Stuart’s Boswell? Why or why not? What does Masters have in common with Boswell?

Vital statistics
Hardcover edition: Stuart: A Life Backwards. By Alexander Masters. Delacorte, 300 pp., $20. Published: June 2006. Paperback edition: Delta, 320 pp., $12, paperback. To be released in May 2007.

A review of Stuart: A Life Backwards appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 22, 2007, and is archived with the March 2007 posts and in the “Biographies” category on

Other reviews: “Shaking Down a Violent Jekyll to Find the Gentle Hyde,” Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times, June 9, 2006, p. E.2:36.

Most reading group guides come from publishers or sites that accept advertising from them. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or promotional materials or ads from publishers. All of its reading guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

If you found this review helpful, please check the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews for others and bookmark the site so you don’t miss forthcoming guides. I would also be grateful if you would forward a link to others who might like the site.

Links: Alexander Masters site:
[Note: SNAP Preview is enabled on One-Minute Book Reviews. This means that you can see an example of the art in Stuart just by putting your cursor on the preceding link to Masters’s site. You don’t have to click on the link and go to his site.] Publisher’s site: Critical Mass, the blog of the board of directors of National Book Critics Circle Click on the Critical Mass link, then search the site for “Stuart: A Life Backwards” for posts on why the book was a finalist for its 2007 NBCC awards.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 12, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Second Child: Poems’ by Deborah Garrison

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Libraries,Poetry,Reading,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:54 am


10 Discussion Questions for Reading Groups
About Deborah Garrison’s The Second Child: Poems


This reading group was not authorized by the author, publisher, or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Reading groups that wish to use this guide should send links to members or use the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Deborah Garrison’s The Second Child is a collection of 33 poems about the intersection of work and motherhood in an age of large and small anxieties – from fears of another terrorist attack to regrets about missed chances to be playground monitor. A former senior editor of the New Yorker, Garrison is an editor at Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon books. She also wrote A Working Girl Can’t Win: And Other Poems (Random House, 1998).

Questions For Reading Groups about The Second Child

1) The title poem in a collection often expresses a theme or the prevailing mood of a book. Is this true in The Second Child? What ideas in the poem “The Second Child” recur in different forms in other poems in the collection?

2) One of the strongest poems in this book, “September Poem,” deals with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks, Garrison decides to have another child. But she says didn’t do that for the obvious reason that when people die “ … we want, crudely pining,/ To replace them with more people.” Why did she have another child? How does this poem differ from other things you’ve read about Sept. 11? What does this poem show you that newspaper and other reports didn’t?

3) The dust jacket of The Second Child calls the book “a meditation on the extraordinariness resident in the everyday – nursing babies, missing the past, knowing when to lead a child and knowing when to let go.” What are some poems in which Garrison shows the extraordinary in the ordinary? What details illustrate that quality?

4) David Orr said that what’s known as “the New Yorker poem” consists “basically of an epiphany-centered lyric.” [“Annals of Poetry, The New York Times Book Review, March 11, 2007, p. 31.) Seven poems in The Second Child appeared first in the New Yorker. Do those poems fit that definition? Which poems involve an epiphany?

5) Some poems in The Second Child, such as “A Drink in the Night,” resemble anecdotes in verse. How does Garrison turn these into something more than cute the stories about children that you might find in a women’s magazine? In “A Drink in the Night,” does she use the invented “cup” as a metaphor for something else? What?

6) One of Garrison’s more unusual poems is “Sestina for the Working Mother.” A sestina is a fixed verse form in which six end-words recur in a set order in six stanzas and a three-line envoi (a coda or postscript). This centuries-old form might seem an odd choice for a modern woman who reflects, in part, on her reduced opportunities to listen to public radio and be a PTA mother. Why might Garrison have written a sestina instead of, say, a sonnet or haiku? How do the lives of working mothers resemble sestinas? For example, do mothers do tasks that may vary in order from one day to the next?

7) Garrison uses other traditional forms, such as the sonnet. But she doesn’t follow the familiar rhyme scheme the Shakespearean sonnet, abab cdcd efef gg. The end-words don’t start to rhyme until Lines 7 and 8 in “Unbidden Sonnet With Evergreen” and until Line 11 in “Song After Everyone’s Asleep.” What might explain this? Do the changes in rhyme relate to shifts in the tone or ideas of the poem?

8) You could argue that the most Shakespearean poem in The Second Child is the first, “On New Terms,” which uses the blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) that Shakespeare often used. In this poem some words or syllables rhyme in unexpected places (“most/ghost”). How do the forms of these sonnets add to or detract from their effects? Could Garrison be using these forms to express something about the role of women caught between traditional and new roles? [If you see an emoticon instead of the number 8 in front of this question, it is accidental.]

9) Although often meditative, the poems in this book can also be jaunty. The Cole Porter-ish “Goodbye, New York” sounds like a Broadway show tune: “You were the pickles, you were the jar/ you were the prize fight we watched in a bar.” It sounds that way partly because Garrison uses the bouncy anapestic meter (two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed) instead of the iambic (one unstressed followed by one stressed) of “On New Terms.” Anapestic is one of the most popular meters in children’s poems. You can almost hear an echo of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in lines like: “my skyline, my byline, my buzzer and door/ now you’re the dream we lived before.” Have you read any children’s poems that use anapestic meter? (Hint: This was Dr. Seuss’s favorite.) Do you see other places where Garrison uses meter to achieve an effect?

10) If you’ve read A Working Girl Can’t Win, how does The Second Child resemble or differ from that one in tone and content? How is Garrison evolving as a poet?

Vital statistics:
The Second Child: Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Random House, 76 pp., $19.95.

A Working Girl Can’t Win: And Other Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Modern Library, 80 pp., $7.95 , paperback.

A review of The Second Child appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 12, 2007, and is archived in the “Poetry” category and with the March posts.

Your book group may also want to read:

Late for Work. By David Tucker. Mariner, 64 pp., $12, paperback. Tucker, a newspaper editor, writes about his work in a witty and poignant book of poems that won Breadloaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Poetry Prize. www.houghtonmifflinbooks/mariner/

Late Wife: Poems. By Claudia Emerson. LSU Press/Southern Messenger Poets Series, $54 pp., $16.95, paperback. Emerson writes about divorce and remarriage in a collection that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Reference Books:
The Poetry Dictionary: Second Edition. By John Drury. Foreword by Dana Goia. Writer’s Digest Books, 374 pp., $14.99, paperback. A guide to the different types of poetry (including the most common rhymes, meters, stanzas, and more) with more than 250 poems that illustrate the terms. This book describes many forms or techniques that Garrison uses, such as sonnet, end-rhyme, and sestina.

If this guide helped you, please check the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews for others and forward this link to members of book clubs. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, agents, or authors. And its reviews and reading group guides are completely independent and do not reflect the marketing concerns that may influence creators of other guides.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 10, 2007

Do Christian Themes Kill Your Chances of Winning a Newbery Medal? Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘A Drowned Maiden’s Hair’

A gripping neo-Gothic novel snubbed by the American Library Association

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Candlewick, 389 pp., $15.99. Ages 10 & up. [See further discussion of these ages below.]

By Janice Harayda

Do Christian themes kill your chances of winning top honors from American Library Association? You might think so after reading two also-rans for the 2007 Newbery Medal for the “most distinguished” work of children’s literature, Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair.

The winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, has many virtues discussed in a Feb. 19 review on this site, particularly its vibrant descriptions of the Mojave Desert and engaging illustrations by Matt Phelan. But Susan Patron’s underdeveloped plot helps to make her novel at best a B/B-minus book.

DiCamillo’s Christian allegory, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, doesn’t have that problem. Neither does A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, a gripping neo-Gothic first novel that has more complex themes and shows a stronger command of language and storytelling than the winner.

Then why did Schitz’s novel get shut out of the medals? Consider the plot: In 1909 a high-spirited 11-year-old named Maud Flynn rejoices when she learns she is to be adopted by a trio of unmarried sisters who promise her treats like “ready-made dresses” and bacon instead the gritty oatmeal served at the Barbary Asylum for Orphans.

But Maud grows uneasy when she learns that the women are fake spiritualists who expect her to take part in séances intended to con the rich widow Eleanor Lambert into thinking that she’s hearing from her dead daughter. A sister named Hyacinth tells Maud: “Any minister worth his salt would tell her she would see her daughter in heaven. But Eleanor Lambert doesn’t want to see her daughter in heaven. She wants her now.” Hyacinth adds that Mrs. Lambert “wants to resurrect the dead – which is impossible.”

Anyone who has read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane may see a theme emerging: While DiCamillo’s novel implicitly affirms the possibility of resurrection, Schlitz’s explicitly denies it. And A Drowned Maiden’s Hair goes further by casting the superintendent of the Barbary Asylum as a religious hypocrite who treats children cruelly while displaying a picture of Jesus and the words: “Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me.” The ALA might have snubbed DiCamillo’s novel for fear of appearing to promote Christianity (although many librarians have no trouble recommending The Chronicles of Narnia, also regarded as a Chrisitan allegory). But Schlitz doesn’t promote it. Has even a historically appropriate mention of religious hypocrisy become taboo? Must authors shun any mention of Christianity to win an ALA award? Books about other faiths don’t seem to face the same obstacles. A Caldecott Honor citation went in 2006 to Zen Shorts, a picture book about Buddhism.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair isn’t flawless. From a literary standpoint, Schlitz makes two big mistakes. Children may not notice one because the story is so suspenseful: Schlitz tells her story from Maud’s point of view but sometimes credits her heroine with ideas that are unrealistic for her. At the orphanage Maud led a life so sheltered that she can’t remember ever having gone outside at night. But she soon encourages one of her new caretakers to wear her hair in a pompadour because it’s “stylish.” How would she know? Maud also reflects that the books at the orphanage were “mostly moral tales.” This is an accurate but adult characterization of what she would have been reading. The problem becomes clear when you compare A Drowned Maiden’s Hair with another novel about a distant era, Little House on the Prairie, which works so beautifully, in part, because Laura Ingalls Wilder never makes such slips: She tells you only what Laura, her young heroine, would have seen or thought. Children love the book partly because they understand – even if they can’t express it — that it shows the world from their point of view.

The second mistake Schlitz makes is that she has Maud’s older brother, Samm’l, adopted by other parents, appear early in the book and promise to send for her after he gets his own farm, though Maud never sees or hears from him again after that. Parents, I ask you: If you promise your child something like this, will your child forget it? No, and the readers of this book aren’t going to forget it, either. Schlitz seems to have inserted a scene involving the brother either because she wanted to add background about Maud without larding the novel with exposition or because she is setting up a sequel. Either way, it’s a cheat.

None of this spoils the pleasure of reading the novel. Schlitz has spent much of her life working as a professional storyteller. And as befits that background, she grabs your attention with a terrific beginning and sustains a level of suspense as high as you are likely to find in any children’s novel of 2006. And A Drowned Maiden’s Hair does more than tell a captivating story. It asks children to consider large questions such as: What does it mean to be “good”? To what degree are you responsible for your own actions if adults require you to act a certain way? Can material comforts – like pretty clothes and ice-cream sodas – bring happiness? And, yes, is there life after death?

“People throw the word ‘classic’ about rather a lot,” Megan Cox Gordon wrote in the Wall Street Journal, ‘but A Drowned Maiden’s Hair genuinely deserves to become one.” Fortunately, when librarians have snubbed worthy books, such as Tuck Everlasting, children usually have the last word.

Best line: The first: “On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was in the outhouse, singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”

Worst line: Maud’s comment: “Pompadours are stylish. And a pompadour would make your face look taller.”

Age level: The moral questions raised by this novel justify the “ages 10 and up” recommendation from the publisher. But the story would fascinate many younger children, too (and has no sex or “bad words” that would rule it out in some homes). One way to think of A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is that it’s a good book for children who loved the period details of “Little House” series (typically recommended for ages 6–9) but recently have outgrown it and are ready for a story that is more challenging.

Published: October 2006

Furthermore: Schlitz also wrote the biography The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer Who Dug for Troy (Candlewick, 2006, ages 9-12), illustrated by Robert Byrd. [Note: I haven’t read The Hero Schliemann. Can any parents, teachers, or librarians comment on the book for visitors who might like to know more about Schlitz’s work? Jan]


© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 6, 2007

Reading Group Guides With a Difference

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Libraries,Reading,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:28 pm

Why the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides on One-Minute Book Reviews Are Different From Others

Most reading group guides are designed to sell books. They come from publishers or Web sites that accept advertising from them. The guides many contain many thoughtful questions. But their primary purpose is to promote books. They do not encourage you to examine the strengths and weaknesses of an author’s work. They are marketing tools for publishers.

The new reading group guides on One-Minute Book Reviews are different. They are designed for intelligent readers who know that not all books are good or deserve only praise. They encourage you to explore both the faults and virtues of books. They do this in many ways, including by citing negative reviews or obvious defects in an author’s writing when appropriate. They also come from a site that doesn’t accept free books or advertising from publishers and, for that reason, never faces pressures to slant a guide in the direction most favorable to a book.

Some guides on One-Minute Book Reviews are stand-alone lists of discussion questions and supporting material. Others supplement guides you may find elsewhere. All reflect the deep literary experience and perspective of Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and novelist who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find them in the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Groups” category on this site, which includes guides to The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival, by Stanley Alpert; The Higher Power of Lucky, the 2007 Newbery Medal Winner by Susan Patron; and A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah.

If the discussions at your reading are dull or uninspired, you may want to bookmark this site or forward a link to members of your club. Thank you for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 5, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier’ by Ishmael Beah

Discussion Questions for A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider

by Ishmael Beah

Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher, or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may use it in their in-house reading groups. Other book clubs that wish to use this guide should link to it or check “Contact” page to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A Long Way Gone is a memoir by Ishmael Beah, who claims that he joined the government army in Sierra Leone to save his life after rebels destroyed his village and separated him from his parents. A review of this book appeared on Feb. 27, 2007, on One-Minute Book Reviews and is archived in the “Memoirs” category and with the February 2007 posts on that site. [Note: Since this guide appeared, many of the claims in A Long Way Gone have been disputed by reputable journalists, and the publisher of the book has produced no proof that Beah was ever a child soldier.]

The publisher of A Long Way Gone has posted an extensive reading group guide to the book at that contains questions your club may want to use as a starting point for its discussions. That guide includes samples of the praise the book has received from respected authors or critics. Like most publishers’ promotional materials, the online guide does not encourage criticism of the book, cite concerns raised by reviewers, or suggest that you are reading anything other than a flawless work. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but only to raise questions not covered by publisher’s guide.

Questions For Reading Groups About A Long Way Gone

1) Beah, now in his mid-20s, focuses on the upheavals that began when he was 12 and also covers some earlier events. How good is your memory for events in your life that occurred when you were that age? Can you recall events from that long ago in the detail Beah describes, including such things as hand gestures and a speaker’s pauses? If not, are you willing to give Beah credit for remembering them? Why or why not?

2) John Corry, who has reported from West Africa, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “It is permissible to wonder whether Mr. Beah is accurately recalling events and people and what they said.” (Feb. 10, 2007, page P8.) Do you agree with Corry? If so, what are some of the things it’s permissible to question? Do your questions affect your overall view of A Long Way Gone? Corry is a senior editor of American Spectator, a conservative magazine. Do you believe that critics’ liberal or conservative biases affect their reviews? How might liberal and conservative critics have reviewed this book differently?

3) Corry noted in his review that, perhaps to forestall questions about the book, Beah writes: “To this day, I have an excellent photographic memory that enables me to remember details of the day-to-day moments of my life, indelibly.” [Page 51] Did you ever know anyone who had a “photographic memory”? Was the person sometimes able to recall events in the detail described in A Long Way Gone?

4) Beah says that the army supplied the young conscripts with “white capsules,” presumably amphetamines, to help them stay alert. He adds that the child soldiers also had easy access to other drugs. [Page 121] Beah writes:

“In the daytime, instead of playing soccer in the village square, I took turns at guarding posts around the village, smoking marijuana and sniffing, brown brown, cocaine mixed with gunpowder, which was always spread out on the table, and of course the white capsules, as I had become addicted to them.” [Page 121]

Are you willing to share with your group whether or not you ever took drugs and how they affected your perceptions of events? Or how drugs have affected the memory of someone you know who used them?

5) Beah describes in one scene how he and friends “lay in the dirt” on a coffee farm near a ruined village and eavesdropped on rebels who played cards and chatted “for hours.” [Page 97] He adds that he heard one rebel say his group had just burned three villages:

“Another rebel, the only one dressed in full army gear, agreed with him. ‘Yes, three is impressive, in just a few hours in the afternoon.’ He paused, playing with the side of his G3 weapon. ‘I especially enjoyed burning this village. We caught everyone here. No one escaped. That is how good it was. We carried out the command and executed everyone. Commander will be pleased when he gets here.’ He nodded, looking at the rest of the rebels, who had stopped the game to listen to him. They all agreed with him, nodding their heads. They gave each other high fives and resumed their game.” [p. 97]

Does it seem to you that Beah and his friends could have been close enough to overhear that conversation yet avoid detection “for hours” by the rebels? Or that if the boys could see a rebel “nod,” and others “nodding” in agreement, that the rebels could not see them? What are some possible explanations for how Beah could have observed a conversation in such detail while avoiding detection himself?

6) When this book was published, Beah worked for a respected international organization, Human Rights Watch He has also described his experiences at the United Nations and in other settings likely to have included experts who could have confirmed at least part of what he says. How does this affect your view of A Long Way Gone?

7) Beah is a young writer who has clearly survived tragedies that go beyond anything most of us will experience in our lives. Do you believe that because of his youth or suffering he should be held to different literary or journalistic standards than writers who are older or have not suffered as much? Or do you believe that there are standards that all authors should uphold? What are they?

Vital statistics:
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. By Ishmael Beah. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Sarah Crichton, 229 pp., $22. Published: February 2007.

Your book group may also want to read:

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda (Picador, 1999) by Philip Gourevitch. This award-winning book describes the Rwandan genocide, which took place during a time that partly overlaps with that of A Long Way Gone. It also involves some similar events, such as machete killings. But Gourevitch places such events in a wider social and political context than Beah does. Comparing We Wish to Inform You … with A Long Way Gone may enrich your understanding of how events in Sierra Leone fit into the broader pattern of African history during the 1990s. It may also suggest ways Beah could have developed his story differently – for example, by adding more background about the events in his country – without sacrificing narrative power.

As a high school student, Beah wrote an essay about his experiences as a boy solider that appears on the web site for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation Search the site for his name or “When Good Comes From Bad.”

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she writes about books and related topics.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 3, 2007

Good Biographies for 9-to-12-year-olds

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,Libraries,Newbery Medals,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:59 pm

Russell Freedman’s books help children get excited about the lives of great men and women

By Janice Harayda

If you’re looking for good biographies for 9-to-12-year-olds, I have two words for you: Russell Freedman.

Many authors have written captivating nonfiction for preteens, including the prolific and much-admired James Cross Giblin, who won the Washington Post-Children’s Book Guild Award for his body of work. But Freedman’s work is the gold standard for the sort of book known as the “photobiography,” a heavily illustrated book that takes a documentary approach to history. Along with other books, photobiographies can help 9-to-12-year-olds make the transition from simple chapter books to more complex works that may or may not have pictures.

Freedman is best known for his elegant Newbery Medal–winning Lincoln: A Photobiography (Clarion, 1987). But he has also written many other acclaimed biographies for 9-to-12-year-olds, including Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery (Clarion, 1987), Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life (Clarion, 1998), Babe Didrikson Zaharias: The Making of a Champion (Clarion, 1999), and The Voice That Challenged: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights (Clarion, 2006). Freedman’s books tend to be as beautifully designed as they are well-written, so they make wonderful birthday and holiday gifts.

Parents and grandparents: This post was inspired by a visitor searching for “a biography for a 9-year-old.” If you can’t find what you need, why not leave a comment with your question or send an e-mail message to the address on the “Contact” page? Many teachers and librarians visit this site. So if I can’t answer your question, they may be able to help. Please put your question in the e-mail subject heading. One-Minute Book reviews is a noncommercial site that does not accept advertising or free books, so its recommendations aren’t influenced by marketing concerns.


© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Review of ‘A Drowned Maiden’s Hair’ Coming March 10

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,Libraries,Newbery Medals,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:01 pm

What happened to the review of A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, the children’s novel that many people thought should have won the 2007 Newbery Medal?

A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews with all reviews permanently archived in the “Children’s Books” category. But since Feb. 25 I’ve written more than a half dozen unplanned posts about the uproar over the 2007 Newbery Medal winner, Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, which angered some librarians with use of the word “scrotum” on the first page. These posts have included a book review, a reading group guide, and a list of reasons why the American Library Association might have given the novel its most prestigious award for children’s literature.

So the review of Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair that was supposed to appear today will be posted on Saturday March 10. Comments on other children’s books may appear later today or tomorrow. In the meantime, if you’re looking for some light entertainment, you may enjoy my two posts about the amusing search terms people have used to find my comments on the The Higher Power of Lucky. My favorite terms include “lucky scrotum,” “a character named scrotum,” and — yes — “janice harayda scrotum.”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 25, 2007

‘A Character Named Scrotum’: More Funny Search Terms People Have Used to Find My Site

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,Humor,Libraries,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:58 pm

On Friday I posted a list of the funniest search terms that people have used to find my site since Monday, when I began blogging about Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, winner of the 2007 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association. A few more turned up over the weekend:

a character named scrotum

scrotum literary award

susan patron scrotum

janice harayda scrotum

I thought that the “janice harayda scrotum” came from a wag who had read my original post about the keywords, entitled “Barbara Walters Scrotum.” But I found accidentally that it had been used by a minister to whom I described a few of my seven or eight posts on The Higher Power of Lucky, including a review and a reading group guide. If ministers have no problem with “the s word,” why do some librarians?

By the way, I love that one of the links to my original review of The Higher Power of Lucky came from a site called Depraved Librarian http: I never thought of librarians as “depraved. ” But if patrons keep asking librarians to help them find that book with “a character named scrotum,” it could take a toll on their sanity, don’t you think?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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