One-Minute Book Reviews

September 30, 2007

Couldn’t Finish the Sunday Book Review Section … Again? Read the One-Sentence Book Reviews on One-Minute Book Reviews

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What! You couldn’t get through the Sunday book review section … again? Or maybe couldn’t even find it buried in that paper the size of a microwave?

You can always find hundreds of short reviews of new and classic books in many categories on One-Minute Book Reviews, a site that respects your time and intelligence. For reviews you can read in a few seconds, click on the “Books in a Sentence” category at right (just below “Recent Posts” and “Top Posts” ). “Books in a Sentence” has brief, trenchant and often witty summaries of books written by an award-winning critic.You can find reading guides for book clubs and individual readers in the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category.

Remember: You can always watch the game with a clear conscience if you bookmark One-Minute Book Reviews or subscribe to the RSS feed, the site that doesn’t tank when your team does.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 29, 2007

A Great Poetry Anthology for Casual Readers — Coming Next Week

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:32 pm
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Frustrated by poetry collections that give you too little information about the poems or too much?

Most anthologies raise one of two problems for the casual or occasional poetry reader: They have no commentary, now matter how inscrutable their poems may be to anyone who doesn’t have a graduate degree in English, or they are textbooks that are too high-priced or have commentary that is too academic for nonscholars.

Wouldn’t you love to find an anthology with well-chosen poems that have smart, brief introductions in an inexpensive paperback format? You’ll read about one next week on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid avoid missing this review, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS Feed.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 20, 2006

E.O. Parrott’s Witty Guide to the Different Kinds of Poetry

Filed under: Classics,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:24 am
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When your knowledge of verse/almost couldn’t be worse/get help from this book/and its clever hook

How to Be Well-Versed in Poerty. Compiled and edited by E.O. Parrott. Viking, hardcover, and Penguin paperback editions. Varied prices.

Suppose you woke up one day and realized, tragically, that your entire knowledge of poetry consisted of the lyrics to “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Or that you’ve spent years reading Dr. Seuss rhymes to your children and still can’t identify their meter, not even the thumping anapestic tetramenter of lines like, “And to THINK/that I SAW/it on MUL-/ber-ry STREET.” Who could help you make up for lost time?

You might start with E.O. Parrott, the British editor who compiled this amusing book of examples of almost every verse form in the English language. Parrott’s genius has been to collect hundreds of brief, witty poems that use light verse to describe poetic forms and techniques. Here’s the beginning of a poem by Martin Fagg about heroic couplets: “A form with very tight parameters,/ Heroic Couplets use pentameters.” And here’s a poem about the clerihew, invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley and typically about a specific person: “E.C. Bentley/Quite accidently/Invented this verse form of wit/And this is it.”

Some entries in this book contain a subversive element of literary criticism. They tweak a form or technique as they explain it. Paul Griffin contributes a poem about alliteration, the device that uses repeated sounds: “Some writers rate readers as rotten and ratty/And treat them to tricks that are terribly tatty.” He goes on to suggest why great writers tend to shun this literary sledgehammer and to leave it to political speechwriters: “Does it work? Well, it won’t when the wise are awake …”

One of the charms of How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry is that it has something for readers at all levels — from beginners to scholars who want to refresh their memories of what a nonet or tanka is. It goes in and out of print in the U.S. but has an enduring appeal that makes it worth tracking down. “Reading poetry is not easy,” Parrott writes. “Many poems are long and most will probably seem longer than they are.” This is rare book that makes them seem shorter.

Best line: Every page has one. An exceprt from Stanley J. Sharpless’s parody of Hiawatha that shows the heavy, tom-tom-like beat of its trochaic meter: “(Very long and rather boring/Narrative in unrhymed trochees:/Tum-ti, tum-ti, tum-ti, tum-ti,/Tum-ti tum … ad infinitum.)”

Worst: None. But when Parrott makes a point through parody, as he does often, he sends up mostly English poets with an occasional nod to those from other countries, such as Dante and Robert Frost. Don’t look for examples from Emily Dickinson here.

Recommended … without reservation.

Published: 1990 (Viking hardcover), 1992 (Penguin paperback)

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 31, 2006

Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Reconsidered for the Age of Blogs

Filed under: Biography,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:27 pm
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A great biography by a man unfailingly willing to play Gracie Allen to his subject’s George Burns

The Life of Samuel Johnson. By James Boswell. Abridged and with an introduction by Bergen Evans. McGraw-Hill, 559 pp., $13.13, paperback.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson tends to scare people who haven’t read it and enchant those who have. Like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it is one of those books that is rarely mentioned independently of the name of its author, as though it required an intellectual struggle with both the subject and writer. And although this impression is misleading in all three cases, it is particularly so for this great biography of the 18th century’s leading man of letters.

The Life of Johnson is a book that might today result if the smartest blogger you know followed around the smartest person and recorded his or her thoughts and actions. After a brief look at Johnson’s early years, it takes the form of a diary of Boswell’s friendship with the adult Johnson. This means that you can dip into it almost anywhere with profit. Many of Johnson’s best-known observations are here, including that second marriage is “the triumph of hope over experience.” But so are many others that are similarly trenchant and apt. Among them:

On poverty: “… a decent provision for the poor, is the true test of civilization.”

On marriage: Marriage is “much more necessary to a man than a woman; for he is much less able to supply himself with domestick comforts.”

On being over 50: “I have now spent 55 years in resolving; having from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short.”

As the last comment suggests, Johnson was far from a soulless literary monument. For all his greatness and what some might see as pomposity, he had an appealing humility rooted partly in his Christian faith. And Boswell was his ideal biographer, a man unfailingly willing to play Gracie Allen to his George Burns, aware of his subject’s faults but loving him no less for them. After reading his great book, you might give a lot to have, in your entire life, one conversation as memorable as that which Boswell and Johnson when they dined on veal pie and rice pudding.

Best line: Spoken in 1775: “It is difficult to get literary fame, and it is every day growing more difficult.”

Worst line: Why quibble with genius?

Recommended if … you want to read one of the greatest biographies ever written, or enjoy authors with an epigrammatic style, such as Jane Austen or Henry James.

Published: 1791 (first edition), 1988 (McGraw-Hill edition).

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reseved.

October 27, 2006

John Carey Picks the 50 Most Enjoyable Books of the 20th Century

A witty guide for reading groups and others that focuses on books, not on whether to serve gin with The Great Gatsby

Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books. By John Carey. Faber and Faber, 173 pp., $14, paperback.

Reading group guides are thick on the ground this year, and some offer strong opinions on almost everything except books — refreshments, meeting times, power plays among members. All the more reason, then, to savor Pure Pleasure, a collection of 50 witty and literate essays on modern classics. This is not a reading group guide in the usual sense. But any group would benefit from taking some of its suggestions, and not just because John Carey wouldn’t dream of telling you, as one recent guide does, that strawberries are the “go-to fruit” for book clubs.

Part of the charm of Pure Pleasure lies in the brevity and directness of its essays, which first appeared in the Sunday Times of London. Secure in his reputation as one of England’s most admired critics, Carey has neither the need nor the desire to wear his erudition like a top hat at a royal wedding. His method is to dive straight into what interests him most about a book and wrap up his review in about 800 words. Here are the first lines of his essay about John Updike’s A Rabbit Omnibus: “Updike’s Rabbit saga is often praised as a lifelike portrait of middle-America in the second half of the 20th century. This should give grave offense to middle-America.” And here is how he introduces Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled: “This is a book about stress, a problem of epidemic proportions in our culture that modern fiction largely ignores.” Carey’s writing is never harder to understand than that, yet it is full of insights into works as different as The Great Gatsby, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats.

Several aspects of Pure Pleasure might give pause to an American book group. Carey writes mainly about authors from Britain and Ireland with a scattering from France, Germany, the U.S. and elsewhere. Many of his choices reflect tastes that, however refined, have fallen from fashion. (How many people would today appreciate the wit of S. J. Perelman, famous for such lines as, “I’ve got Bright’s Disease, and he’s got mine”?) And Carey considers only five women: Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield, Stevie Smith, Muriel Spark and Sylvia Townsend Warner.

But you could argue that, for the same reasons, Pure Pleasure is an ideal complement to book group guides that take their cues from the current bestseller lists. Without ever saying so directly, this is a book that reminds us that long before Bridget Jones flirted with Daniel Cleaver by interoffice e-mail, Philip Larkin wrote: “In everyone there sleeps/A sense of life lived according to love.”

Best line: “The current vogue in university English departments is to reduce literature to politics — a way of engaging in the class war without actually risking income and politics.”

Worst line: On Elizabeth Bowen: “No writer has ever pursued people’s thoughts and feelings — or half-formed thoughts and half-recognized feelings — with such intricacy.” Take that, Shakespeare.

Recommended if … you like John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald better than Amy Tan and Jane Smiley, and George Orwell or Evelyn Waugh better than any of them.

Published: 2000

Consider reading also: A Reader’s Delight (Dartmouth, 1988), a collection of 40 brief and elegant essays that the author and critic Noel Perrin for the Washington Post about some of his favorite books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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