One-Minute Book Reviews

October 19, 2007

Waving a Red-and-White Towel for ‘Veeck — As in Wreck’: The Best Book Ever Written About Cleveland Baseball?

He sent a midget to the plate in St. Louis, inadvertently caused a fan riot in Chicago and brought the first black player, Larry Doby, into the American League in Cleveland

By Janice Harayda

One of the first things I asked my new co-workers after I moved to Ohio to become the book editor of the Plain Dealer was, “What are the best books about Cleveland?” Many people mentioned the memoirs of the most colorful owner in the history of the Cleveland Indians, Veeck — As in Wreck : The Autobiography of Bill Veeck, by Bill Veeck with Ed Linn, with a foreword by Bob Verdi (University of Chicago Press, $16, paperback).

I later learned that ardent baseball fans regard this straight-talking book as one of the best ever written about the sport. And its admirers include the ex-baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who listed it among his five favorites in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.

“Bill Veeck’s memoir is an irreverent and funny account of his days as an unorthodox baseball owner — and indeed he did try some silly tricks to draw crowds,” Vincent wrote. “Sometimes he went over the line, as with Eddie Gaedel, the midget he sent up to bat for the St. Louis Browns in 1951, and ‘Disco Demolition Night,’ which turned into a fan riot in 1979, when he owed the Chicago White Sox. But Veeck also made a serious and singular contribution to the game in 1947 when, as the owner of the Cleveland Indians, he brought the first black player, Larry Doby, into the American League. But because Jackie Robinson preceded Doby into the major leagues by a few months, both Doby and Veeck have been somewhat overlooked … Bill Veeck may have been a bit of a wreck, but he deserves much more attention and credit than he has received.”

One sign of the enduring importance of Veeck — As in Wreck is that its latest edition comes from the distinguished University of Chicago Press (which, it’s safe to say, is not going to be publishing Dennis Rodman‘s Bad as I Wanna Be a half century from now). You might say that the book, first published in 1962, is the rare sports memoir for which fans still wave the literary equivalent those red-and-white Tribe towels that you’ve seen if you’ve watched the American League Championship Series. You can read an excerpt from Veeck — As in Wreck on site for the University of Chicago Press:

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 13, 2007

Three Good Picture-Book Editions of Ernest L. Thayer’s Classic ‘Casey at the Bat’ – A Poem for All Baseball Seasons

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

— From Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”

By Janice Harayda

“Casey at the Bat” is one of the few poems that nearly all American children like. Yet it is hard to say exactly why this is so.

The story told in the poem almost couldn’t be simpler. A home team is losing a baseball game – perhaps not even an especially important one — when its star player gets an unexpected chance to bat in the last inning. Everybody is sure that “mighty Casey” can bring victory to the Mudville Nine. Instead, he strikes out and the team loses.

This is hardly a riveting drama compared with what children read in contemporary books or see in the movies and on television. And you can’t say that author Ernest L. Thayer makes up for it with brilliant poetry – he doesn’t. Thayer tells Casey’s story in rhyming couplets of iambic heptameter, a nearly obsolete verse form known as the fourteener because a line typically has 14 syllables or seven iambic feet. But he has a slack enough grip on that form that you can’t always tell whether he meant a phrase to be read as iambic, trochaic or anapestic meter. Some of his baseball terms are unfamiliar today, too, such calling a weak player as a “cake.”

Generations of Americans have responded to objections like these with, “Who cares?” First published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, “Casey at the Bat” transcends its limits by appealing to a universal human desire – the wish to have heroes and yet also to see them fail sometimes, letting us off the hook for our own failures. Like all good heroes, Casey is like us and not like us. And three illustrators revitalize him in picture books that use the full title and subtitle of the poem, “Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888.”

Thayer’s Casey plays in an adult league. But Patricia Polacco turns Casey into a freckled-faced boy — an updated Norman Rockwell character more impish than arrogant — in her winsome 1988 Casey at the Bat. Polacco adds brief prose bookends that allow her to give Casey a baseball-loving sister and a long-eared dog in this paperback edition of the poem, which is hard to find but available in many libraries. If you click on the link for the book on her Web site, you can send a free electronic postcard bearing a picture of Casey. Her youthful characters and bright, airy illustrations, which abound with primary colors, make this a good edition for preschoolers.

School-age children may prefer the 2003 Casey at the Bat (Simon & Schuster, $16.95), illustrated by the gifted C.F. Payne. Casey has a handlebar moustache and mythic Paul Bunyan-esque proportions in this atmospheric book that evokes the flavor of 19th-century baseball. Payne’s book ends with an excellent four-page note on the history and afterlife of the poem, which explains some of its real-life parallels and how vaudeville helped to make it famous.

Christopher Bing won a 2001 Caldecott Honor award from the American Library Association for his ambitious Casey at the Bat (Handprint Books, $17.95), printed on pages that resemble yellowing newsprint with halftone pictures (the kind you find in the Wall Street Journal). Each spread is a pastiche that includes more than lines from the poem and a picture of the game. It also has overlaid images — reproductions of the ticket stubs, baseball cards and newspaper editorials about the game. One editorial supports fans outraged by advent of the baseball glove: “They justifiably see this move as a disgrace – perhaps the first step in the calculated and tragic emasculation of the game.” At times the supplementary material can be distracting, a case of what the British call over-egging the pudding. But much of it is fascinating and a feast for detail-oriented children in grades 3 and up.

Each of these editions has virtues. But no one needs to buy a book to enjoy Thayer’s poem. “Casey at the Bat” is out of copyright and available for free on many sites, including that of the Academy of American Poets (The punctuation varies on the sites, reflecting that of different editions that have appeared in the past century.) It’s also short enough that you could read it to children during the seventh-inning stretch of a playoff or World Series game. And would you really prefer that they hear another beer commercial instead?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 12, 2007

‘Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; / The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light … ‘

Filed under: Children's Books,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:43 am
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Of course, not in the land of the Mets and Yankees, where I live. But tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will review three picture-book versions of Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” an ideal poem to read with children during the World Series. To avoid missing this post, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. In the meantime, you can find reviews of other picture books by clicking on the “Children’s Books” category below the “Top Posts” list at right.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 11, 2007

An Overdue Nobel Prize in Literature for Doris Lessing

At last, the Swedish Academy honors the author of the landmark The Golden Notebook

The mandate for the Nobel Prize in Literature specifies that it must go to an author whose works show an “idealistic” tendency. In practice this means that the award sometimes has more to do with politics than literary merit. But the Swedish Academy got it right — if belatedly — in giving the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature to the novelist Doris Lessing, born in what is now Iran and a resident of London. As Motoko Rich and Sarah Lyall write in today’s online New York Times:

“Ms. Lessing’s strongest legacy may be that she inspired a generation of feminists with her breakthrough novel, The Golden Notebook. In its citation, the Swedish Academy said: ‘The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work and it belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th century view of the male-female relationship.’

“Ms. Lessing wrote candidly about the inner lives of women and rejected the notion that they should abandon their own lives to marriage and children. The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, tracked the story of Anna Wulf, a woman who wanted to live freely and was in some ways Ms. Lessing’s alter-ego.

“Because she frankly depicted female anger and aggression, she was attacked as ‘unfeminine.’ In response, Ms. Lessing wrote: ‘Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing came as a great surprise.'”

The well-organized and comprehensive site Doris Lessing: A Retrospective rightly says that Lessing broke new ground with The Golden Notebook and its portrait of the women of its era: “Anna Wulf, like Lessing herself, strives for ruthless honesty as she aims to free herself from the chaos, emotional numbness, and hypocrisy afflicting her generation.”

Since its inception, One-Minute Book Reviews has had a policy that at least 50 percent of its reviews cover books by women. The Golden Notebook was one of the novels that helped to shape my thinking about the role of women and my belief that the small steps that all of us take in our own lives are the first step toward real justice for both sexes. Would more book clubs were reading this instead of The Manny!

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 7, 2007

Chris Van Allsburg’s A-Plus Alphabet Book, ‘The Z Was Zapped’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:20 pm
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One of America’s greatest illustrators finds 26 kinds of drama in letters

The Z Was Zapped: The Alphabet Theatre Proudly Presents … A Play in Twenty-Six Acts. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 56 pp., $18.95. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Great chefs often test their would-be assistants by asking them to make an omelet. Why? It’s harder to hide your mistakes when you’re working with just a few ingredients. And the good cooks don’t need more than a few to show what they can do.

In that sense Chris Van Allsburg is the Nobu Matsuhisa of picture books. If you want to understand why critics regard him as one of the greatest living author-illustrators, compare The Z Was Zapped with any other alphabet book at your library or bookstore.

Alphabet books typically illustrate letters with nouns, an approach that has drawbacks. One is that it can lead to clichés such as, “A is for apple.” Another is that because nouns are not “action” words as verbs are, they can result in inert — or just dull — books.

Van Allsburg avoids both problems by casting his letters as actors in a stage play in which they face mishaps illustrated by strong verbs and black-and-white drawings that have an air of mystery about them. He doesn’t tell us why “The K was quietly Kidnapped” or two gloved hands are lifting the K off the stage. This encourages children to create their own explanations for the strange goings-on. And the black-and-white drawings have the subtle but great advantage of drawing attention to the shape of letters (which is essential to learning the alphabet) instead of the color (which is irrelevant). Some alphabet books blaze with so much color that you wonder: How can children focus on the letters when there are so many distractions?

The Z Was Zapped has a structure that is no less original. Most alphabet books introduce a letter through words and pictures on a single page or spread. Van Allsburg shows a letter on one page, then makes you turn the page to learn its name and fate. This prompts children to try to guess the letter and what’s happening to it. It also fosters vocabulary-building and creativity, because at times more than one description might apply. Van Allsburg tells us that “The S was simply Soaked,” but “Splashed” would fit, too. If the F is “firmly Flattened,” children are more likely to be “fully Fascinated.”

Best line/picture: The picture for the letter B (“The B Was badly Bitten”) shows the snout of the bull terrier that is Van Allsburg’s signature and appears in each of his books.

Worst line/picture: You could argue that in “The H was partly Hidden,” the “partly” is imprecise. You can hardly see the H, so “mostly” or “largely” might have been more accurate.

Recommendation? A great gift for ages 2–4, likely also to appeal to many older children.

Published: October 1987 (hardcover), October 1998 (paperback) A review of Van Allsburg’s latest book, Probuditi! (Houghton Mifflin, $18.95) appeared on this site on Jan. 21, 2007

Furthermore: Chris Van Allsburg won Caldecott Medals from the American Library Association for Jumanji and The Polar Express and a Caldecott Honor for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 2, 2007

Michael Shaara’s Civil War Novel, ‘The Killer Angels’

At Gettysburg with Robert E. Lee and Joshua Chamberlain

Newt Gingrich often produces unintended comedy when he tries to show the thoughts of military leaders in his new Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th (St. Martin’s, $25.95). Michael Shaara takes on a similar task with much better results in his 1974 Civil War novel, The Killer Angels (Ballantine, $7.99, paperback), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s risky to try to give a fresh account of someone as familiar as Robert E. Lee: What’s there to say that we don’t know?

But Shaara pulls it off in this recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg, as refracted through the lives of Lee and others, including the Union’s Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Shaara avoids overstuffing his story with irrelevant period details — the besetting sin of so many historical novels — and offers a brisk account of mental as well as physical struggle. The Killer Angels isn’t in a class with such great war novels as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. But it is an example of military fiction done with intelligence and without the macho posturing that tends to infect the form. Jeff Shaara has attempted to build on his father’s legacy, and while I’ve read only one of his novels, it didn’t come close to this.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 22, 2007

Artist Patricia Polacco on Dr. Seuss’s ‘Horton Hatches the Egg,’ Quote of the Day #30

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:43 am
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I’ve admired Patricia Polacco’s children’s books for years. So I was delighted to find this comment by Polacco about Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg, a book she loved as a child:

“The improbable animals with their mirthful, expressive faces enchanted me. And dear faithful, reliable, dependable Horton the elephant. He climbed onto that skinny, little limb that could hardly support his bulk without a second thought as to whether or not it could hold him. Then he carefully sat on something so fragile – a tiny bird’s egg – never considering that he might break it! This helped me realize what faith in oneself is all about! The heart of the story is about making a promise and keeping it … no matter what may come. He stayed on that little nest through the most horrific happenings. He never gave up!”

Patricia Polacco in The Art of Reading: Forty Illustrators Celebrate RIF’s 40th Anniversary (Dutton, $19.99). Foreword by Leonard Marcus. In this book 40 well-known picture-book artists celebrate the 40th anniversary of the literacy program Reading Is Fundamental by creating new illustrations for books they loved as children or teenagers. The illustrators also speak, as Polacco does here, about what made the books so appealing. Contributors include Pat Cummings, Yumi Heo, Susan Jeffers, William Joyce, Jerry Pinkney and David Wiesner.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
Polacco has found the inspiration for many of her books in her Russian and Irish background. She also has also written memorably about cross-cultural friendships, the subject of her picture books Chicken Sunday and Mrs. Katz and Tush.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 9, 2007

Why Jane Austen’s Novels Aren’t ‘Trivial’ or ‘Frothy’: Quote of the Day #29

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:11 pm
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Like so many masterpieces, Jane Austen’s novels might sound trivial or frothy if reduced to their plot summaries. Here’s a partial explanation for why they aren’t:

“Though a contemporary of the major Romantics, Jane Austen is a child of the 18th century, particularly in its Neo-Classical aspects; she is a witty and ironic observer of human inconsistency and ludicrousness rather than a painstaking recorder of consuming passions. As a writer of comedy of manners, she is concerned with a world in which the problems are of good form rather than of subsistence, of the ill-bred rather than the undernourished, of manors rather than slums, of matrimony rather than careers, of gracious gregariousness rather than aggressive worldliness – in short, of bread-and-butter letters rather than bread and butter. To say as much is to risk suggesting that Jane Austen’s world is basically a rather trivial and frothy one. But no discerning reader of hers could hold such an opinion, for she is a serious writer of comedy. In her world the relative unimportance of economic, professional, and political problems permits a concentrating of attention upon personal relations and the quality of living that they make possible. The issue is uniting of moral and social graces, the reconciliation of form and spontaneity.”

From The Reader’s Companion to World Literature: Second Edition (New American Library, 1973). Revised and updated by Lillian Herlands Hornstein, Leon Edel and Horst Frenz.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

As I’ve mentioned, I like The Reader’s Companion to World Literature partly because its A-to-Z entries — unlike those in many literary encyclopedias — aren’t timid. That “no discerning reader” above is typical of its editors’ willingness to put you in your place. I also use reference books that are more tolerant of lesser intellects. But those books are often duller than this one. The Reader’s Companion to World Literature — opinionated as it is — gets it right more often than wrong.

If you enjoy these quotes, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. The Quotes of the Day appear often but not every day. All of the quotes are intended to enhance your enjoyment of the books reviewed on this site and elsewhere.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 23, 2007

How Are Reading and Writing Related? Quote of the Day #27

Filed under: Quotes of the Day,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:08 pm
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How does reading help your writing? Here’s an answer from Mortimer J. Adler’s classic How to Read a Book (discussed at more length in an earlier post today, May 23, 2007, on One-Minute Book Reviews):

“Writing and reading are reciprocal, as are teaching and being taught …

“Nevertheless, although the rules are reciprocal, they are not followed in the same way. The reader tries to uncover the skeleton that the book conceals. The author starts with the skeleton and tries to cover it up. His aim is to conceal the skeleton artistically or, in other words, to put flesh on the bare bones. If he is a good writer, he does not bury a puny skeleton under a mass of fat; on the other hand, neither should the flesh be too thin, so that the bones show through. If the flesh is thick enough, and if flabbiness is avoided, the joints will be detectible and the motion of parts will reveal articulation.”

From How to Read a Book: Revised and Updated Edition (Simon & Schuster, 1972). By Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

All those of us who teach writing urge our students not just to write but to read — ideally, every day. This quote explains, as pithily as I’ve seen it explained, why both are important. One of the best ways to improve your writing if you can’t write every day is to read every day.

If you enjoy these quotes, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. The Quotes of the Day appear often but, most weeks, not every day. All of the quotes are intended to enhance your enjoyment of reading of the books reviewed on this site and elsewhere.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 18, 2007

Did Herman Melville Get ‘Poetry From Blubber’ in ‘Moby-Dick’?: Quote of the Day #26

“Early in the composition of Moby-Dick Melville wrote to a friend that it was hard to get poetry from blubber.”

From The Reader’s Companion to World Literature: Second Edition (New American Library, 1973), revised and updated by Lillian Herlands Hornstein, editor, and Leon Edel and Horst Frenz. An expanded second edition was published by Signet in 2002.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

This is my favorite quote about Moby-Dick. Who knew that Melville had a sense of humor? The Reader’s Companion to Literature is an excellent guide that has hundreds of A-to-Z listings on books, authors, and literary terms and movements. Its brief, well-written entries offer much livelier writing and sharper commentary than you find in most literary encyclopedias or dictionaries.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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