One-Minute Book Reviews

May 12, 2009

The Susan Boyle of Fiction, 70 Years Ahead of ‘Britain’s Got Talent!’

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:38 am
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Who is the fictional counterpart to Susan Boyle, the Scottish singer who shot from obscurity to stardom on Britain’s Got Talent!? I’d vote for Guenevere Pettigrew, the virginal and unemployed ex-governess who ascends over 24 hours into a glamorous 1930s world of cocktails and evening gowns in Winifred Watson’s sparkling 1938 comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Persephone Classics, 234 pp., $15, paperback), reissued last year along with the movie version. My review of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day appeared on Nov. 10, 2008.

February 21, 2009

You Be the Delete Key Awards Judge — First-Ever One-Minute Book Reviews Visitors Poll — What Is the Worst Line in Denis Leary’s ‘Why We Suck’?

Filed under: Delete Key Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:06 pm
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Update at Sunday 9:15 p.m. Eastern Time: Right now it’s a dead heat between two of the quotes below. Although other posts will follow, the poll will remain open until 5 p.m. Wednesday. The results will appear Thursday, Feb. 26, when the 2009 Delete Key Awards shortlist is announced. Thanks for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews. Jan

On Thursday I’ll post the shortlist for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books, and this year I wanted to let you choose one of the finalists. This sounded easy, because WordPress has added a polling tool called PollDaddy. And the obvious choice was to let you pick a line from Why We Suck, a collection of rants by Rescue Me star Denis Leary, because that one abounded with candidates for deletion.

But trying to get PollDaddy working was more stressful than the time I was trapped on a Manhattan subway while the police searched for a gunman on the tracks, because in that case the cops found the guy pretty quickly and the train started moving again. My attempt to get the poll working went on for days and involved a) visits to the WordPress Support Pages; b) e-mail to; and b) using the PollDaddy page on WordPress TV.

When I finally got the poll going, I saw that PollDaddy doesn’t provide enough space for the full fourth quote below which you can read here. Given all this, I’m not sure when I’ll do another survey, so if you want to tamper with the Delete Key Awards jury, this is your chance. Results of the poll will appear Thursday.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 22, 2009

Barbara Walters Remembers When William Safire Gave Her a Black Shorty Nightgown With Matching Lace Panties — and Other Events — in a Bizarre ‘Audition’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:11 am
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Bad at marriage and worse at skiing, but good at getting television viewers to flush simultaneously

Audition: A Memoir. By Barbara Walters. Knopf, 612 pp., $29.95.

By Janice Harayda

How popular was the two-hour Barbara Walters Special on Monica Lewinsky? “There were reports,” Walters writes, “that the water level in some cities dropped during the commercial breaks as large numbers of people were flushing at the same time.”

This peculiar factoid suggests the bizarre tone of Audition, an overstuffed memoir by America’s first female network news coanchor. In a half century in broadcasting, Walters has never learned to write for the eye instead of the ear, and this leads to unintentional comedy. (“If I was bad at marriage, I was even worse at skiing.”) Walters also indulges her instinct for score-settling, celebrity puffery, and self-contradiction. (“I have always been a terrific editor, if I do say so myself — and I do say so myself.”) But many of her anecdotes about her early years in broadcasting are revealing, particularly when they suggest how much pyrite the networks served up in what some critics call “the golden age of television.” Walters reports that when she left Today to coanchor the news at ABC, the Alpo dog food company gave her a red ice bucket shaped like a fire hydrant — a reminder that the hosts of the show once had to do commercials for the sponsor’s products. And even her clunkiest lines at times have a weird fascination. “I don’t want to disappoint anyone,” she writes, “but let me say once again, Castro and I were definitely not lovers.”

Best line: Walters quotes a joke that the comedian Joy Behar told after Salman Rushdie received death threats and went into hiding: “I’ll tell you the difference between men and women. Rushdie has been in solitary confinement for five years with no visitors at all allowed … and in that time he’s been married twice.”

Worst line: No. 1: “But just before the ax fell, lightning struck and my life changed, never to be the same again.” No. 2: “And so, in June 1955, my father walked me down the aisle. … My heart had never felt so heavy, but then again, my heart would feel just as heavy every time I married (I’ve been married three times), which is why, as I write this, please know that I will never get married again!” No. 3: Early in her career, Walters worked at a PR agency with William Safire, the future New York Times columnist, who noticed that she “rarely relaxed”: “That is why at an office Christmas party, his gift to me was a sheer, black, shorty nightgown with matching lace panties. I was somewhat embarrassed but also delighted. Today when we are so concerned with sexual harassment such a gift might not be well received.”

Sample chapter titles: “Monica.” “Finally, Fidel.” “Garland, Capote, Rose Kennedy, and Princess Grace.” “Presidents and First Ladies: Forty Years Inside the White House.” “Dean Rusk, Golda Meir, Henry Kissinger, and Prince Philip.”

Editor: Peter Gethers

Published: May 2008 (hardcover), paperback due out in May 2009.

Furthermore: Walters was the first female coanchor at an American television news network. She co-hosts ABC’s The View.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 11, 2009

If His Jokes About Autism Aren’t Tasteless Enough for You, Denis Leary Says, ‘I’ll Take Five Anna Nicole Smiths for Every Martin Luther King’ in ‘Why We Suck’

The comedian and star of the firefighting drama Rescue Me blows smoke at you in a 240-page rant

Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid. By Denis Leary. Viking, 240 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Denis Leary begins Why We Suck by thanking his wife, who’s “funnier than I am.” You’ll believe it after reading this one.

Why We Suck isn’t a book so much a relentlessly profane rant by the comedian and star of the firefighting series Rescue Me. Leary rages mostly against safe targets: greedy athletes, overprivileged children, celebrity blowhards like Dr. Phil McGraw. But he has drawn fire for saying in a chapter called “Autism Shmautism” that autism diagnoses are on the rise because parents want psychotherapists to “explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons.” He adds:

“I don’t give a shit what these crackerjack whackjobs tell you – yer kid is NOT autistic. He’s just stupid. Or lazy. Or both.”

When that comment enraged parents of autistic children, Leary said his quote was taken out of context by people who didn’t read his book or missed his point. He was talking about what he sees as a trend toward overdiagnosis (though, of course, the larger the larger problem is that for generations autism was undiagnosed and autistic children often labeled “retarded”).

This incident tells you a lot about Why We Suck. Leary doesn’t have bad taste — he has no taste. To show really bad taste takes effort. Liberace, ayatollah jokes, “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers – you laugh in part because of the work that went into all of them. How much effort does it take to show no taste? None. If you’re Leary, you just fill your book with lines like: “I’ll take five Anna Nicole Smiths for every Martin Luther King.” Where’s the humor there? Good comedy always has its roots in truth, and you don’t believe for a minute that Leary would take five Anna Nicole Smiths for every Martin Luther King. Or anything close to it.

Comedian Jim Norton’s recent I Hate Your Guts (Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $25.95) is also a profane rant that taps into the angry-white-male market. But Norton tries harder to give you truly bad taste – not that this is a endorsement — instead of no taste. So his book is funnier than We We Suck. He seems to have put more effort into a six-page sendup of the Yankees’ radio broadcaster John Sterling than Leary did into a 240-pae book.

Norton makes you laugh at many of Sterling’s catchphrases besides his trademark “The Yankees win … theeeeeee Yankeeeees winnnnn!” (“Shane Spencer, the home run dispenser!”) He also makes an apt comment in a preface that honors the late George Carlin. Norton loved that when Carlin taped of a television show late in his career, he brought notes on cards and hid them in a spot on the set that the camera couldn’t see: “He didn’t take the laughs for granted.” On the evidence of Why We Suck, Leary does take the laughs for granted – a trait that seems remarkably obtuse when you’re telling parents that their children are not autistic – “just stupid.”

Best line: “THE END.” Boy, will you be glad to see those words.

Worst line: No. 1: “I’ll take five Anna Nicole Smiths for every Martin Luther King.” No. 2: “I don’t know a living man on this planet who DOESN’T have attention deficit disorder or spends [sic] at least twelve hours of each day thinking about his penis. ” No. 3: On what he sees at the gym: “The women? Paired off on adjacent treadmills or elliptical trainers – yak yakkety yick yak yic, yic yickety, yawbeddy jawbeddy – jic jak yick. Yicketty yacketty blah blah blah.” No. 4: The autism quotes cited above. No. 5: “Which is why I walk around now just wishing I could grab every other mouthy, misbehaved, spoiled and rotten little urchin I come across in airports and restaurants and just when I’m walking down the street – kids who are throwing snit fits in public as their disinterested or seemingly powerless parents stand off to the side and let the rest of us listen to the whining – I just once wanna grab them HARD by the flesh on their twiggy upper arms, that soft flesh that really hurts – and I mean grab them bruis-inducing, five-finger-indentation-left-behind hard – and whisper Clint Eastwood–style in their dirty little ear: Listen up and listen fast, punk, ’cause I’m only saying this one ****** time: yer gonna shut the **** up right now and start doing what yer dumbass mom and dad say from here on in or a special vanna is gonna pull up one day and just pluck you right off the ****** street and drop your ass on a plane to Iraq where you will be dropped out of the sky with nuthin’ but a parachute and a bag of white rice – no cash, no toys, no more SpongeBob SquareAss – ya follow?”

Published: November 2008

Read the Autism Society of America’s response to Leary’s comments. Leary says: “The people who are criticizing the ‘Autism Schmautism’ [sic] chapter in my new book Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid clearly have not read it.

“Or if they have, they missed the sections I thought made my feelings about autism very clear: that I not only support the current rational approaches to the diagnoses and treatment of real autism but have witnessed it firsthand while watching very dear old friends raise a functioning autistic child.”

Dennis Leary calls “Autism Shmautism” his “favorite chapter” in Why We Suck in Vanity Fair interview.

Furthermore: Leary uses the name “Dr. Denis Leary” on the cover of Why We Suck because he got an honorary degree from his alma mater, Emerson College.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and novelist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 1, 2008

A Few Comments on Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons’ on Broadway and in Print

It’s remarkable how a well-staged Broadway production can transcend the defects of a play. Last weekend I saw All My Sons in previews at the Schoenfeld Theatre, and the time flew by.

You hardly noticed how prosaic Arthur Miller’s writing can be because the production had so much going for it, including brisk direction by Simon McBurney and a glossy cast: John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and Katie Holmes.

After I got home, it seemed to me that All My Sons stands up to rereading both better and worse than some of the other plays that appeared in decade after World War II. It holds up better partly because Miller is dealing here with issues that have fresh relevance in the age of Haliburton and Enron: the evils of war profiteering and the moral duty of individuals to resist the soulless influence of American business. It holds up worse because Miller can use language as blunt instrument instead of a precision tool (as in Linda Loman’s famous defense of her husband, Willy: “ … attention must be paid”). That liability is perhaps more noticeable today than it was before videos and DVDs expanded the availability of more elegantly written plays from Hamlet to A Streetcar Named Desire.

I wondered if others shared my view, so I picked up Arthur Miller (Chelsea House, 148 pp., $35), part of the “Bloom’s BioCritiques” series edited and introduced by the distinguished critic Harold Bloom. (The volume on Miller in the “Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations” series is instead shown above.) Bloom says:

“Miller is by no means a bad writer, but he is scarcely an eloquent master of the language.”

Exactly. The appeal Miller’s plays — which remains high — comes from virtues other than unparalleled phrase-turning, including their craftsmanship, moral courage and passionate exploration of the intersection of social and psychological forces in American lives.

A few comments on the Sept. 26 preview: Kate Holmes (Ann Deever) is easy on the eyes and, given that producers must be strafing her with scripts for romantic comedies, has made a statement about how she wants to be perceived by taking on this role. John Lithgow (Joe Keller) gives an energetic performance in a tough role that requires him to undergo a transformation that, as Miller wrote it, isn’t fully believable. Patrick Wilson (Chris Keller) grows into his part. None of those actors can touch Dianne Wiest (Kate Keller), whose portrayal of a mother unable to accept the death of her son in World War II must be one of the best recent portrayals of mental illness in any medium.

All My Sons officially opens Oct. 16 on Broadway. You can read about that production and buy tickets at You’ll find more on Arthur Miller (1915-2005) at

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept books from editors, publishers, authors or agents. It also does not accept free tickets to plays mentioned on the site.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 28, 2008

Another Thing Paul Newman (1925 — 2008) Doesn’t Want on His Tombstone

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:20 pm
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This is the second of two posts on this site about Paul Newman’s comments on how he wants to be remembered.

“I envy Laurence Olivier, because he seems to have endless resources in him to develop and be a different character each time,” Paul Newman said early in his career as an actor. “I feel I perhaps don’t have the imagination to change.”

Lionel Godfrey, who quotes that unsourced comment in Paul Newman: Superstar: A Critical Biography (St. Martin’s, 1979) goes on to say of Newman and Olivier:

“Since one is par excellence a screen-actor and the other’s sphere, despite great film-performances, has always been pre-eminently the stage, it is difficult to compare the two stars. But in the 12 years or so since he modestly made that statement, Paul has more than proved his own versatility and the creative resources he can bring to new, unusual roles. He has often told interviewers, ‘I don’t want to die and have written on my tombstone: ‘He was a helluva actor until one day his eyes turned brown.’”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Paul Newman (1925 — 2008 ) on What He DOESN’T Want on His Gravestone (Quote of the Day via Eric Lax’s ‘Newman’)

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:53 pm
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Paul Newman risked losing fans and roles by campaigning in 1968 for the Democratic candidate for president, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who opposed the Vietnam War. Eric Lax explains why in his Newman: Paul Newman: Biography (Turner, 1996):

“Newman was one of the earliest backers of McCarthy, and his support came at a time when most people considered those who opposed the war to be cowards or even traitors. Newman’s appearance always brought out the news media. He presented himself to audiences not as a celebrity but as a parent, concerned about the future and believing that McCarthy offered the most hope.

“‘I am indifferent to your political persuasion,’ he would begin. ‘I am not a public speaker. I am not a politician. I’m not here because I’m an actor. I’m here because I’ve got six kids. I don’t want it written on my gravestone, ‘He was not part of his times.’ The times are too critical to be dissenting in your own bathroom.’”

The quote first appeared in the New York Times on April 22, 1968.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 19, 2008

Wedding Gowns That AREN’T Strapless – A Book With More Than 200 Ideas

Brides are getting the cold shoulder from fashion designers. Strapless wedding gowns have become so popular that the mother of a recent bride told me you can find little else in many stores. And if bare shoulders don’t flatter your body type or you’re getting married in December in a church with iffy heating, you might need to design your own dress or spend extra time looking for one. Either way, you’ll find a bouquet of ideas for nonstrapless gowns in Philip Delamore’s The Perfect Wedding Dress (Firefly, $35). This handsome coffee table book has more than 300 photos of elegant gowns, only about three dozen of them strapless, worn by celebrities and others. If you’ve vowed to keep your shoulders covered for the ceremony, you’ll discover that you have lots of company among the brides who appear in the book in their wedding dresses. Among them: Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Jennifer Lopez, Liv Tyler and Princess Diana. You can read more about Delamore and The Perfect Wedding Dress here

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 20, 2008

‘Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila’ – A Portrait of the First African to Win a Gold Medal at the Olympics

Filed under: African American,Biography,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:32 pm
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The band couldn’t find the Ethiopian national anthem when a former bodyguard for Haile Selassie became the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in the signature event of the Olympics

Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila. By Paul Rambali. Serpent’s Tail, 315 pp., $20, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This is a very strange book about the first African to win a gold medal at the Olympics and the man some regard as the greatest marathoner of all time. Born in rural Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila served as a bodyguard for Emperor Haile Selassie before running barefoot to his first gold medal at the Rome games in 1960. Four years later, wearing shoes and socks in Tokyo, Bikila became the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in the marathon:

“Bikila was so euphoric that it mattered not if the band could not find the score for the Ethiopian national anthem … and played the Japanese anthem instead,” David Miller writes in Athens to Athens.

Journalist Paul Rambali tells Bikila’s story in a book that its publisher bills as a biography but that reads more like a novelization. From the first sentence onward, Rambali uses the literary device of limited omniscient narration: He goes inside Bikila’s head and, in alternating chapters, that of his coach, Onni Niskanen, and describes thoughts he appears to have had no way of knowing.

This device might have worked beautifully in a brief children’s biography, an art form that allows more leeway for the technique. As it is, too much of Barefoot Runner defies belief for a work labeled “nonfiction.”

Bikila died of a brain hemorrhage in his early 40s, which may help to explain why no definitive biography of him has appeared, nearly a half century after he struck gold in Rome. But lesser athletes have had better books written about them. The world will owe a debt to anyone who gives this great Olympian the great biography he deserves.

Best line: Rambali explains why Bikila ran barefoot in Rome, though he provides no source for it. He says that when Bikila, among other runners, went to the Adidas stand in the Olympic village to get shoes, there were no shoes that fit him: “His big toes were too large and his outside toes too small. ‘They’re almost ingrown,’ said the Adidas man. He was curious about Abebe’s feet and said he had never seen anything like them: the soles and heels were as hard as corns! He told the major [Onni Niskanen] they had given away 1,500 pairs of shoes and they had hardly any left … They couldn’t find a pair of shoes anywhere that Abebe was comfortable with and finally the major had decided that, since there wouldn’t be time to properly break in a new pair, Abebe would race barefoot.”

Worst line: “The old women shouted questions at him as he passed. He was always running, it was true. If he didn’t answer them, it wasn’t because he was out breath, for he was never out of breath.” This early comment sets the tone for the rest of the book. Has the world ever had a distance runner who was “never out of breath”?

Published: June 2007

Furthermore: A recent review in the Guardian says that Tim Judah takes a more journalistic approach to Bikila’s life in his Bikila: Ethiopia’s Marathon Champion (Reportage Press, 2008), which doesn’t appear to have reached the U.S., and provides a useful comparison of that book and Barefoot Runner.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 24, 2008

Tom Farley, Jr., on His Brother Chris Farley – Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:18 pm
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Tom Farley, Jr., remembers his younger brother Chris Farley, who appeared on Saturday Night Live and in movies such as Beverly Hills Ninja, in his new The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts (Viking, $26.95), written with Tanner Colby. Tom writes of Chris, who died at the age of 33 from overdose of crack and heroin in 1997:

“Soon after Chris died, I told my wife that my greatest fear was being sixty years old and trying hard to remember this kid who was my brother.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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