One-Minute Book Reviews

July 14, 2007

Art Imitates Life in Jon Agee’s Witty ‘The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:57 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A French artist is hailed as a genius after his painting of a duck quacks in an acclaimed picture book for preschoolers

The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau. By Jon Agee, 32 pp., $6.95, paperback. Ages: 4-8. [See further discussion of ages below.]

By Janice Harayda

How can you beat the alpine cost of children’s picture books? A new 32-page hardcover typically costs about $16 or 50 cents per page. At that rate, your favorite 300-page adult bestseller would cost $150.

Of course, the comparison isn’t entirely fair. Picture books have more illustrations than most adult bestsellers, which drives up the cost. And children may read them over and over. On a cost-per-use basis, a lot of those $16 picture books look like a steal next to the latest novel by Mitch Albom or Danielle Steel.

The catch is that you can’t be sure which books a child will want to read more than once. And a good way to hedge your bets is to look for wonderful picture books that are old enough to have a) come out in paperback and b) shown again and again that they can delight children even if they haven’t attained the status of “classics.”

A case in point is The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau, a 32-page book with more drama than some novels. The judges at a 19th-century French exhibition ridicule a humble painting of a duck by an obscure artist named Felix Clousseau until the picture quacks. Then the world proclaims Clousseau “a genius.” But fate reverses again itself when strange things happen to some of his other paintings, like his pictures of boa constrictor and a cannon. Will Clousseau have to spend his life in jail to satisfy a public as outraged as a mob at the Bastille?

Jon Agee heightens the drama of this story with a smoky color palette that befits the grimy look of even the most beautiful cities in the days before electricity and central heating. And without ever saying so directly, he reminds that paintings once had the quality that movies and television have today – that of seeming more real than life.

Best line/picture: The last illustration shows Clousseau walking away, having stepped into one of his pictures. This reverses the pattern in the rest of the book – when creatures emerge from paintings – and is a great twist ending.

Worst line/picture: None.

Recommendation? The publisher recommends this book, appropriately, for ages 3 and up. But in one scene a thief climbs into room after dark. So I’d read it only to a child who has passed the stage of being afraid of shiny-eyed monsters under the bed.

Furthermore: The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau was an American Library Association Notable Book and one of the New York Times’s Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 1988.

Published: First edition: 1988

Links: You can learn more about this book and others by Agee at Agree has also written several terrific books of palindromes for ages 9 and up.

One-Minute Book Reviews was created by Janice Harayda, who has been a book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears on the site every Saturday. Please visit for information about the author’s comic novels.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 12, 2007

‘Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

This is the latest in an occasional series of posts on why I didn’t finish certain books

Title: Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art. By Justin Spring. Yale University Press, 384 pp. $48.

What it is: A biography of the great American realist Fairfield Porter (1907–1975), known partly for family scenes influenced by the work of French painters Vuillard and Bonnet. Porter was the brother of the photographer Eliot Porter and the husband of the poet Anne Porter. This biography has 27 color reproductions of his paintings and many black-and-white photographs or other illustrations.

How much I read: I read about a third of the book and skimmed much of the rest.

Why I stopped: I picked up this biography mainly because I wanted to learn more about Anne Porter, whose Living Things: Collected Poems (Steerforth, 2006) I admired and reviewed on March 28, 2007 But Fairfield Porter is such an intelligent book that I read more than planned. A contributor to Artforum, Justin Spring writes with a neo-classical restraint that is all the more admirable because it so rare in modern biographies of artists. He tells you exactly what you need to know and no more, even when dealing with his Porter’s bisexuality and other subjects that could have led to sensationalism. Without special pleading, he makes a quietly persuasive case that Porter was perhaps the major American artist of his century. I stopped reading only because this book deserved more time than I had to give.

Best line in what I read: Spring gives wonderfully evocative details of the places where the Porters lived or vacationed – Manhattan, Southampton, Great Spruce Head Island. Spring writes that, soon after their wedding in 1932, Anne and Fairfield Porter took rooms at the Hotel Brevoort in Greenwich Village:

“The Brevoort, despite the Depression and the many bohemian socialists lingering in its café, still had a certain grandeur. Anne Porter recalled that at breakfast the management required her young husband to wear a tie at the table and that the waiter presented an egg for her inspection before sending it to the kitchen for soft-boiling.”

I also love a line that involves Fairfield Porter’s wake. He was laid out in the dining room of the family home in Southampton. Artist Jane Freilicher said that Anne told her that a friend had asked if she wanted a Valium. “Why on earth would anyone not want to have feelings at a time like this?” Anne said she replied.

Worst line: None.

Recommended? To serious readers interested in 20th-century American art. This is not a catalog but a full-strength biography.

Published: December 1999

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 25, 2007

Rudolf Nureyev (and Others) Slept Here: Derry Moore’s ‘Rooms’

The 12th Earl of Drogheda visits the homes of aristocrats and others in Paris, London, Madrid, Vienna and elsewhere

Rooms. Photographs by Derry Moore. Text by Carl Skoggard. Editor: Joseph Holtzman. Rizzoli/Nest Books, 263 pp., $60.

By Janice Harayda

Books about interior design typically show rooms with character. Derry Moore’s Rooms shows rooms with characters.

Rudolf Nurevey, Lady Diana Cooper, the Rev. Peter Gomes, the Duchesses of Devonshire and de Mouchy — all are among the aristocrats of birth or achievement whom the 12th Earl of Drogheda has photographed over three decades. Moore aims to capture, not romanticize, his subjects. So he looks beyond Nureyev’s deep cooper bathtub and the Sargent portrait of the granddaughters of an earlier Duchess of Devonshire that hangs in the Blue Drawing Room at Chatsworth. He offers glimpses of faded paint, threadbare silk, buckled wallpaper, tilted lampshades and a roll of toilet paper.

In that sense his book has something of the twilight-of-the-gods air of Andrew Bush’s great Bonnettstown. Rooms also has a bracing and opinionated text by Carl Skoggard, who situates good design – as Jane Austen did – in the context of morality. “Here, you will find no effort to intimidate by means of a display of grandeur (or false grandeur),” Skoggard writes of the château Le Fresne, near Tours. “Nothing overawes through its size.” You could say that “Le Fresne and its unforced elegance express the unfeigned goodness of dispositions naturally moral.” This may be a reach. But Skoggard’s writing has much more life than the sycophantic prose of most design magazines. Like Moore’s haunting photographs, his text usually is, as the introduction notes, “impractical in the best sense of that much maligned word.”

Best line: Prince Tassilo von Fürstenberg’s former hunting bristles with so much taxidermy that Skoggard wonders if an Austro-Hungarian decorator tricked it up “with suitable remains”: “Recall Vladimir Putin’s astonishment when he suggested to his friend George Bush that the two of them saddle up for a ride around the ranch, only to be told that his host could not ride a horse at all.” This is one example of Skoggard’s refreshing willingness to confront a truth rarely acknowledged in books about interior design: Décor is always, in part, a commentary on politics.

Worst line (tie); The chapter on the gardens of Powis Castle in Wales is written, preciously, from the point of view of its yew trees. And Skoggard’s usual good taste fails him in his justification of opulence of Indian rajas and maharajas: “Where poverty is widely shared and there is no shame in being poor, ostentation on part of the well-off few becomes public entertainment, a benefaction shared by all, legitimation of things as they happen to be.” Exactly how did the poor “share” in the opulence when, as the Wall Street Journal said in its June 23–24 edition, the “untouchables” (now known Dalits) “were barred from temples used by upper-caste Hindus and from upper-caste homes”? Did they “share” it the way the homeless in Manhattan share Donald Trump’s wealth by gazing at Trump Tower?

Recommendation? This book could be a great gift for an architect, interior designer or traveler who loves visiting stately homes like Chatsworth.

Consider reading also: Andrew Bush’s Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland (Abrams, 1989), a remarkable portrait of three elderly aristocrats during their final days in their decaying 18th century Georgian manor house in Ireland.

Published: November 2006

Furthermore: The New York Times ran a good article on Moore, “Insider’s View of Society’s Vanishing Rooms,” on Nov. 23, 2006. [I can’t get a direct link to work, but you can find it easily by Googling “new york times” and “derry moore.”]



© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 10, 2007

How Does a Writer Develop a Style? Quote of the Day #23

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:06 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Ernest Hemingway said that perfection of style is a writer’s road to salvation. But how does a writer develop a style? Here’s an answer from Tomie dePaola, who has written and illustrated many children’s picture books, the best known of which is Strega Nona:

“When I was a student at Pratt in the 1950s, studying illustration, I remember a fellow student asking one of our instructors, ‘When do we learn about style?’ ‘We won’t learn about style,’ he replied. ‘Style happens naturally. If you keep on working, eventually the way you can and want to express yourself will surface. Meanwhile, do the assignments, listen to the critiques, don’t miss your drawing classes, painting classes, design classes and by all means look at everything. Go to the galleries and the museums. Your own style will surface.’”

Tomie dePaola in “Voices of the Creators” in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), edited by Anita Silvey.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
Tomie dePaola may have been talking about illustration, but his advice applies equally to writing. Many writers try to “find” their style by imitating great writers. But you don’t find a style so much as release it, or allow it to emerge, in the way dePaola describes. If you keep writing long enough, you’ll see what your style is. Imitation may give you ideas about your style could be but won’t provide it for you.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

« Previous Page

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: