One-Minute Book Reviews

April 8, 2013

A Theater Critic Celebrates the Best Broadway Musicals of All Time

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:14 pm
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“No gags, no girls, no chance of success.” – A producer after seeing Oklahoma!

The Sound of Musicals. By Ruth Leon. Oberon Masters Series/Oberon, 128 pp., $20.95.

By Janice Harayda

Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ it must have been when the phrase “Broadway musical” meant Oklahoma! and not “jukebox tunes strung on a plot with clothespins.”

In this collection of brief and graceful essays, the longtime theater critic Ruth Leon celebrates 10 20th-century shows that left an enduring mark on their art form: three that “almost everybody agrees” are the best musicals of all time — Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady and West Side Story — and seven others: Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, Oklahoma!, Showboat, Sweeney Todd, South Pacific and Sunday in the Park With George. Her essays resemble after-theater conversations at Sardi’s with a charming host who exudes an infectious admiration for her subject. They brim with anecdotes about show-business people like the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, whose memoir inspired Gypsy and who “rode around in a maroon and gray Rolls Royce with her initials in gold on the door.”

Leon focuses on original productions and avoids delving into the interpretations of musicals mooted in revivals and movie versions. She doesn’t quite convey why critics regard Sondheim so highly when many people find it hard to sing any of his songs except “Send in the Clowns.” And while she says she has selected titans that “changed the way we think about musical theater,” she ignores the seismic effects rock musicals like Hair, Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar, the ancestors of all those jukebox productions like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys.

But Leon excels at describing the themes of her chosen shows, or what they are “about” on a deeper level than that of plot. “Guys and Dolls is an inverted morality tale, growing out of Damon Runyon’s close-up knowledge of the streets of New York, and a fable with a point – that good and evil certainly exist, but not necessarily in the places we have learned to look,” she writes. Oklahoma! “appears to be about whether Curly or Jud is going to take Laurey to the picnic,” but that’s just the story line of the show: “What it’s really about is what it means to be American, what the poet Carl Sandburg called ‘the smell of new-mown hay on barn-dance floors.’” Leon’s willingness to grapple with such themes is an increasingly rare  virtue as theater reviews become ever-more plot driven. This book may be an appreciation great musicals, but it is also a model of good theater criticism – an art form as endangered as the Broadway musical.

Best line: The producer Mike Todd reportedly said, when he saw Oklahoma! before it opened in New York: “No gags, no girls, no chance.” The musical ran for more than five years on Broadway, won a special Pulitzer Prize, and became for its day “the gold standard, the show by which all others would be judged.”

Worst line: “Across 400 years Shakespeare continues an ongoing dialogue with those who perform his plays and can tell them, if they will listen, exactly what he wants from them.” True, but that “continues” makes the “ongoing” redundant.

Published: 2010 (Oberon Books hardcover edition).

Furthermore: Leon is a columnist for Playbill who has written theater criticism for the European edition of the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

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

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 24, 2013

Francesca Segal’s Award-Winning First Novel, ‘The Innocents’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:24 pm
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“Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way. They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”  

The Innocents. By Francesca Segal. Voice/Hyperion, 282 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

Francesca Segal airlifts the plot of The Age of Innocence from New York to London in this tale of young Jews whose mating habits, like their Friday-night dinners, tend to be “Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.”

Anyone who has read Edith Wharton’s book may see much of the action coming and hear an echo of its theme — the power of tribal customs to thwart individual desires — in its namesake. But Segal finds an inspired setting for her first novel in the endogamous world of well-to-do Jews who eddy around Golders Green in the age of iPods and Bernie Madoff.

The young lawyer Adam Newman has just become engaged to the sweet but unimaginative Rachel Gilbert when he falls under the spell of his fiancée’s glamorous and dissolute cousin, who has arrived from New York amid rumors of a scandal. Like Wharton’s Newbold Archer, Adam would rather dabble in love than embrace it, so the outcome of his attraction is never really in doubt. And the appeal of his story lies not in high suspense but in its intelligent and gently satirical portrait of the food-rich rituals that sustain or stifle its characters: the circumcisions, Purim parties, Shabbat dinners, Yom Kippur break fasts, and vacations at Red Sea hotels with buffet tables that serve chocolate mousse in champagne classes at 8 a.m. “Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way,” Rachel’s father says. “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” If that sounds glib, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen gives it context when she explains calmly why she doesn’t fast on Yom Kippur. “I have fasted,” she says, “enough days in my lifetime.”

Best line: No. 1: “Ha. God. For someone who does not exist He has caused me a great deal of trouble.” Ziva Schneider, Rachel’s grandmother No. 2: “the menu was traditional Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.” No. 3: “Just as when he spoke to Nick Hall, he had the sense of other Londons swirling past and beneath and above him of which he was only liminally aware.”

Worst line: From the moment that a Jewish son enters secondary school, “there is the constant anxiety that a blue-eyed Christina or Mary will lure him away from the tribe.” This lightly satirical line may be true, but Mary fell out of favor as a name for Christian girls a half-century ago.

A reading group guide with discussion questions for The Innocents appears on the publisher’s site.

Published: June 2012 (Voice/Hyperion hardcover), paperback due out in May 2013.

Furthermore: The Innocents won the most recent National Jewish Book Award for fiction in the U.S. and the Costa first novel prize in the U.K. You’ll find more on The Age of Innocence in an excellent blog about the book by Liverpool Continuing Education students. Segal talks about The Innocents and its Costa award in an interview with Simon Round.

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

(c) 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 23, 2013

‘Good Books Are All Too Rare’ – Quote of the Day / John Sledge

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:20 pm
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Few book critics for U.S. newspapers write well enough to tempt publishers to issue collections of their reviews. The exceptions include John Sledge, who spent 17 years as the books editor of the Mobile Press-Register before that former daily switched to a three-day-a-week print run in 2012. The University of South Caroline Press has just published a collection of Sledge’s literary essays and reviews, Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart, in April. The book includes this quote:

“Good books are all too rare; flawed ones, common; and terrible ones, ubiquitous.”

March 16, 2013

A Twitter Chat About ‘The Age of Innocence’ Friday With Award-Winning Novelist Francesca Segal

Filed under: Classics,Fiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:45 pm
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On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Polish countess whose arrival threatens to disrupt the lives of the social elite in post-Civil War New York. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on March 22 at #classicschat to discuss this great book. Kevin wrote Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book. He and I will be talking about The Age of Innocence with Francesca Segal (@francescasegal) who won the 2012 Costa First Novel Award and the National Jewish Book Award for fiction for The Innocents, inspired by Wharton’s book.

February 25, 2013

Jon Klassen’s ‘This Is Not My Hat’ – 2013 Caldecott Medal Winner

A picture book that works as a crime story, a Robin Hood tale with a twist, and a critique of capitalism in an age of banking scandals

This Is Not My Hat. By Jon Klassen. Candlewick, 40 pp., $15.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

A small fish appears to suffer an unfair punishment for the crime of stealing a blue derby hat from a much bigger fish in this undersea suspense tale that won the 2013 Caldecott Medal. Jon Klassen’s noir-ish pictures serve as a witty a counterpoint to the thief’s tragicomic rationalizations for the snatch, which include: “It was too small for him anyway. / It fits me just right.”

But the big fish is hardly a passive victim. He takes swift and pitiless revenge for his loss, and the hat does fit the smaller creature better. Had the big fish stolen it? Was the theft an act of reclamation? Klassen leaves the questions open. And the moral uncertainty allows the story to work on several levels: as a mystery, a Robin Hood tale with a twist, and a critique of bullying or capitalism in the age of Enron and banking scandals in which small investors have paid for the crimes of larger predators.

Rarely do picture books of such high artistry allow for so many levels of interpretation or so successfully flout the picture-book convention that calls for an unambiguously happy ending. Along with it’s author’s earlier I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat establishes Klassen as an heir to the grand tradition of Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg, Tomi Ungerer and other artists who fearlessly have broken ground while retaining a sense of fun that appeals to children and adults alike.

Best line/picture: All. But Klassen has noted rightly that the drama begins when the eyes of the big fish pop open after the smaller one says that the hat-wearer “was asleep” at the time of the theft “probably won’t wake up for a long time.”

Worst line/picture: None.

Published: 2012

Furthermore: This Is Not My Hat won the 2013 Caldecott Medal, given by the American Library Association to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” Klassen, who lives in California, talks about the book in a brief video. Many critics, including Roger Sutton in the New York Times Boook Review, have referred to the small fish as a “he” when the sex of the fish is unidentified and girls can wear derby hats, too.

Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. She cohosts a monthly conversation about classic books on Twitter at the hashtag #classicschat.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 22, 2013

‘Being Dead Is No Excuse’: An Irreverent Guide to Southern Funerals

Filed under: How to,Humor,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 pm
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A witty guide to avoiding gaffes like letting people sing “Now Thank We All Our God” as your casket rolls in

Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. By Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes. Miramax, 243, $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

A certain kind of Southern woman would rather die than not have tomato aspic at her funeral. She tolerates churches that don’t allow eulogies because she believes God “doesn’t need to be reminded” of the deceased.  And she knows that next to the aspic, it is the hymns that make or break a Southern funeral: You can’t miss with a “stately and wistful” chart topper like “Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” but nobody wants to go out to “Now Thank We All Our God.”

Any self-respecting Southern woman knows that being dead is no excuse for bad form, and this sparkling guide boldly takes on delicate issues such as: Is it proper to use the euphemism “loved one” in a death notice? (No, it’s “tacky.”) What flowers should you avoid? (“A ‘designer arrangement’ that turns out to be a floral clock with the hands stopped at the time of death.”) Should you adopt recent innovations such as having pallbearers file past the coffin, putting their boutonnières on it? (“Funerals are emotional enough to begin with – why do something that is contrived to tug at the heart?”)

More than an irreverent etiquette guide, Being Dead Is No Excuse abounds with tips on keeping a “death-ready” pantry and with recipes for Southern funeral staples such stuffed eggs, pimiento cheese, chicken salad, caramel cake and pecan tassies. But noncooks needn’t fear that this book has nothing for them. It’s comforting that if Northern funerals increasingly resemble New Year’s Eve parties with balloons and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” die-hard Southerners treat death with respect. For all its wit, this book develops a theme that  transcends geography. You may have no strong feelings for the deceased, the authors say, but you can still have grace: “A funeral reception is not a cocktail party. We want people to feel comfortable, but we want them to remember that they’re there because someone has died.”

Best line: No. 1: ““You practically have to be on the list for your second liver transplant before a Southern Episcopalian notices that you’ve drunk too much. They’re not called Whiskypalians for nothing.” No. 2: “Pimiento cheese might just be the most Southern dish on earth. Pimiento cheese has been dubbed ‘the paste that holds the South together.’”

Worst line: “We always say how much we admire her because she always holds her head up high, even though her mother ran away with the lion tamer in a traveling circus.” That sentence didn’t need more than one “always.” And is anyone today old enough to have a parent who even remembers traveling circuses with lion tamers?

Published: 2005

Furthermore: Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes have spent much of their lives in the Mississippi Delta. They also wrote Someday You’ll Thank Me for This: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Being a Perfect Mother (Hyperion, 2009).

Jan and Kevin Smokler will be cohost a Twitter chat on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar today, Feb. 22, at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT. Please join us at the hashtag #classicschat on the last Friday of each month.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com

February 11, 2013

What I’m Reading … Frances Parkinson Keyes’ Mardi Gras Novel, ‘Crescent Carnival’

Filed under: Novels,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:08 am
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“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review later on One-Minute Book Reviews

What I’m reading: Crescent Carnival, a 1942 novel by Frances Parkinson Keyes, best known for Dinner at Antoine’s. 

What it is: A saga of two prominent New Orleans families and the Mardi Gras balls and other rituals that defined their lives between 1890 and 1940. Keyes drew in part on the recollections of her friend Dorothy Selden Spencer, a former Carnival queen.

Why I’m reading it: Few novels focus on Mardi Grass celebrations and how they preserved the distinctions of social class in New Orleans even as such differences were fading elsewhere. Crescent Carnival is one that you can still find without too much trouble in libraries and online.

How much I’ve read: About 150 pages of more than 800.

Quotes from the book: “Estelle always loved Carnival and the preparations for it. But she grew up without daring to dream that some day she, herself, would be the Queen of one of the Carnival Balls. She did not believe it even when she heard that Monsieur Leroux, who held the fate of all potential queens firmly in his hands, had spoken formally to her father, asking if he could conveniently be received on a certain day at a certain hour in the Lenoir’s house on Royal Street.

“She could hardly believe it even after the ritual champagne had been bought, and the silver ice bucket polished until it shone like a mirror, and the one placed inside the other, beside a plate of little frosted cakes, on the center table in the  salon, under the chandelier, there to await the arrival of Monsieur Leroux. She went into the  salon, and she was still filled with incredulity mingled with awe.”

Furthermore: Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post said that Keyes was a “middlebrow” novelist in the sense that she “wrote for readers of some education and taste who expected their entertainments to be literate and intelligent as well as entertaining.” Based on what I’ve read, that gets it exactly right: Crescent Carnival is, by today’s standards, a potboiler, but one that reflects higher standards than most now labeled as such. A journalist by instinct if not by training, Keyes shows a Tom Wolfean attention to the details of social status that evoke the eras she describes.

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

© 2013 Janice Harayda

www.janiceharayda.com

February 9, 2013

Harlan Coben’s Thriller, ‘Hold Tight’ – Parents Snoop in ‘Sopranos’ Country

Filed under: Fiction,Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:33 am
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Mayhem results when parents install spyware on their teenager’s computer

Hold Tight. By Harlan Coben. Dutton, 416 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Hold Tight ought to be catnip for those of us who have lived in New Jersey long enough to know that its loopy plot doesn’t lie far from reality. Up to a point, it delivers.

Harlan Coben uses in this suburban thriller a variation on the Agatha Christie formula – a machine-tooled plot strewn with clues, a smattering of local color and an eventual convergence of many threads that at first appear unrelated. But Hold Tight involves a sick violence that Christie wouldn’t have gone near. And it has no Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot whose idiosyncrasies might have offset other characterizations that range from bland to stereotypical, as in the case of an icy feminist lawyer and shady men who wear “wifebeater tees.”

Some of the gore results from a morally questionable decision by Mike and Tia Baye, well-educated suburban parents who live a few miles from the Satin Dolls, “the famed gentlemen’s club that was used as Bada Bing! on The Sopranos.” The Bayes’ 16-year-old son, Adam, won’t explain why he has withdrawn from them after the suicide of a friend, so they install spyware on his computer. The snooping plunges the couple into something much worse than they had feared. It also sets up light philosophizing about violence: “What is in our makeup, in fact, that draws us to that which should sicken us?” The question appears unintentionally metafictional. In the first of many brutal scenes in Hold Tight, a thug beats an innocent woman to death so savagely that he didn’t just break the bones in her face but left them looking as though “they were ground into small chunks.”

Best line: A mother whose son died says, when someone mentions “closure”: “What does that even mean? … Can you imagine anything more obscene than having closure?”

Worst line: No. 1: “wifebeater tee” (used twice). “Wifebeater” is a nasty cliché that libels men who wear ribbed undershirts and don’t beat their wives. No. 2: “She made the twins dinner – hot dogs and macaroni and cheese.” Really makes you see them as individuals, doesn’t it? No. 3: “The mall was pure Americana ginoromous.” “Ginormous” is cute, not funny.

Furthermore: The Guardian reviews Coben’s more recent Caught.

Published: 2010 (Dutton hardcover), 2009 (Signet paperback).

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

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharyada.com

December 30, 2012

Backscratching in Our Time — Jami Attenberg and Julie Orringer

The latest in a series of posts on authors who praise each other’s work

Jami Attenberg on Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, which she listed as one of the “5 Best Things” she had “read recently” in Impose magazine: 

“I just cracked open Julie Orringer’s latest book this morning; a very wise and literary friend gave me a galley of it and promised I would love it. It’s gorgeous so far, master-craftsman-next-level kind of writing.”

Julie Orringer on Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins in the New York Times Book Review:

“There’s a touching paradox in the first chapter of Jami Attenberg’s caustic, entertaining and bighearted new novel, The Middlesteins….The burning question, which Attenberg explores with patience and sensitivity, is why Edie has embarked on her self-destructive path. The answers themselves aren’t surprising: Edie married too early, felt ambivalent about parenthood, became disillusioned with her career. What’s remarkable is the unfailing emotional accuracy and specificity with which Attenberg renders Edie’s despair….largely brilliant.”

Read about other logrolling authors in the “Backscratching in Our Time” series.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

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

December 15, 2012

Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Unbroken’ – A World War II POW’s Tale

Filed under: Biography,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:47 pm
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An American bombardier spent 47 days on a raft and became a prisoner of war 

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. By Laura Hillenbrand. Random House, 473 pp., $27.

By Janice Harayda

As a child, Louis Zamperini stole from neighbors and hid his plunder so the police wouldn’t catch him with it. Unbroken leaves the impression that, in his 90s, he is still keeping evidence under wraps.

Zamperini cooperated with Laura Hillenbrand on this swashbuckling account of his life as an Olympic runner and Army Air Forces bombardier who, after his plane crashed into the Pacific in 1943, spent 47 days on a raft and more than two years as a prisoner of the Japanese. But the book requires you to take more on trust than did its author’s Seabiscuit. Can a man whose parents tried to raise him as a Catholic really not have known the Hail Mary and, while sharks circled his raft, had to recite “snippets of prayers that he’d heard in movies”? Can his horrific postwar nightmares have evaporated after he found God at a Billy Graham revival meeting?

Even with 50 pages of end notes, the book doesn’t put those questions to rest. While best biographies demythologize their subjects, this one invests its hero with the qualities less of a mortal than of Bunyan-esque folk hero.

Best line: No. 1: “In Torrance, a one-boy insurgency was born.” No. 2: “The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent on those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.”

Worst line: “Louie was hauled into the principal’s office for the umpteenth time.” “For the umpteenth time, Louie cursed whoever had stocked the raft.” Hillenbrand tends to overwrite: In both cases, she needed only to say “again.”

If you like Unbroken, you might also like: Steven Callahan’s bestselling memoir Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea.

Published: November 2010

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

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