One-Minute Book Reviews

November 30, 2007

Good Children’s Books About Hanukkah — Coming This Weekend to One-Minute Book Reviews

Looking for Hanukkah stories that young children may want to hear on every night of the holiday that begins at sundown on Dec. 4? This weekend One-Minute Book Reviews will review picture books about Hanukkah, including the Caldecott Honor Book Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, shown here, which has a text by Eric Kimmel and pictures by Trina Schart Hyman. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these reviews or the holiday gift-book guide that will appear in early December.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 17, 2007

Why Do Some Synagogues Abstain From Blowing the Shofar When Rosh Hashanah Falls on the Sabbath? Quote of the Day (Wendy Mogel)

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee is the best book I’ve found about applying Jewish teachings to everyday child-rearing. This quote relates to this week’s holidays:

“We think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the days of the year yielding a bigger synagogue turnout than any others, as the holiest of holy days. The powerful blare of the ram’s horn can seem like the spiritual highlight of the religious year. But the tradition in some synagogues is to abstain from blowing the ram’s horn when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat. Why? Because according to Jewish law, on Shabbat you are forbidden to carry musical instruments, and Shabbat takes precedence over Rosh Hashanah. A prescribed weekly day of rest and renewal ranks above a high holy day.”

Wendy Mogel www.wendymogel.com in The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teaching to Raise Self-Reliant Children (Penguin, 2001) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/15/.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 17, 2007

Mindy Schneider Remembers Loopy Bunkmates in ‘Not a Happy Camper’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:13 am
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A memoir of an offbeat kosher camp where the cook put cheese in the beef stew and campers wrote parodies of “O Come, All Ye Faithful”

Not a Happy Camper: A Memoir. By Mindy Schneider. Grove/Atlantic, 240 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Remember when camp meant S’mores and “Kum-Ba-Yah” instead of math, computers or weight loss? When you went for fun instead of self-improvement? Mindy Schneider was born at the shank of the baby boom, perhaps the last generation to have experienced camp as something closer to Animal House than an Advanced Placement course with sunblock. And her memoir is an offbeat elegy for that vanishing world of pranks, mosquitoes, bad food, color wars and name tags sewn into your underwear.

Schneider was 13 when, in 1974, she spent eight weeks at the idiosyncratic Camp Kin-A-Hurra on Lake Wally in Maine. Kin-A-Hurra was nominally kosher. But that didn’t keep the cook from putting cheese in the beef stew and the campers from writing parodies of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Anyone who went there could pretty much forget about making lanyards.

As Schneider tells it, Kin-A-Hurra was an “anti-camp,” a place where the supervision was so lax that the loopy inmates often ran the asylum. Once a bunkhouse burned down because the counselors were too distracted to notice that a group of boys had put candles under their beds to try to warm them up before they turned in. Campers took hikes from which they were lucky to emerge with only one body part in a cast and got carbon monoxide poisoning from the dilapidated green truck that served as the camp van. Girls in training bras tried desperately to find boyfriends among boys who, when they wanted to get your attention, shot a rubber band off their braces.

Schneider has shaped all of this into a kind of backwoods sitcom-in-print, heavy on anecdotes and light on insight and analysis. Her book is amply padded with such things as a full-page parody of “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” three verses of which consist of nothing but successive iterations of the phrase “peanut butter.” And it’s hard to know how much of her story to take literally, given that she admits to using composite characters and to altering the chronology of events. It’s also difficult to believe that even composite 13-year-olds would say some of the lines she puts in their mouths.

But if her details at times defy belief, Schneider captures extremely well the spirit of a certain kind of prelapsarian camp experience, a combination of agony and exuberance. In her last chapter she describes a 1997 reunion that took place after Kin-A-Hurra closed. Five hundred former campers made the trip back to Lake Wally, and most came alone. They left their spouses at home, Schneider says, “knowing full well they just wouldn’t get it, this thing we once belonged to, this cult we can never leave.”

Best line: Schneider reflects on her first sleepaway camp, Camp Cicada: “Every play put on at Camp Cicada was an adaptation of an extravagant Broadway musical, though they kept the costs down by doing only the first act. Due to this restriction, the two oldest bunks’ production of 1776 ended with Congress still in disagreement and nobody ever signed the Declaration of Independence.”

Worst line: A camper suggests that the popularity of folk songs at Jewish summer camps may reflect a desire by Jews to cling to hope. Then she corrects herself: “But these songs aren’t just for Jewish summer camps, so maybe it’s more of a widespread adolescent cry, a plea for a different kind of change, internal as opposed to external. With hormones raging out of control, coupled with an inability to understand why is happening to us, perhaps the only way to release the pent-up frustrations and anxiety is by shaking our fists and boldly screaming out, ‘Yes! Someone’s crying, Lord! Kum-Ba-Yah, dammit!’” This is one of the places where Schneider’s teenagers sound more like tenured sociology professors.

Recommendation? Not a Happy Camper is an adult book, but many teenagers would enjoy its irreverent humor and send-ups of the camp staff. You might also consider this book as 50th or 60th birthday gift for a baby boomer who still knows all the words to “Great Big Globs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts.”

Read an excerpt: You can find an excerpt from Not a Happy Camper at www.teenreads.com/reviews/0802118488.asp.

Editor: Lauren Wein

Published: June 2007 www.not-a-happy-camper.com

Furthermore: Kin-A-Hurra is a homonym for the Yiddish phrase kein ayin hora (“no evil eye” or “may the evil eye stay away”).

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a former book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 27, 2007

Young, Jewish and Hoping for a Short Seder

A short story collection for people with more than four questions — way more — about how to reconcile their Jewish faith with their Phish bootlegs

You’re young, you’re Jewish, and you’re praying – well, maybe not praying – for a short seder. Who understands you? Elisa Albert, author of How This Night Is Different (Free Press, $18.95) a smart, funny and often bawdy collection of stories about young Jews looking for meaning in rituals that include a seder, a wedding, bat mitzvah, a Yom Kippur service and a packaged tour of Auschwitz. As a Nov. 22 review on this site noted, Albert’s writing transcends the label “Jewish fiction.” But How This Night Is Different could still make a fine Passover gift for anyone hip enough to see the comic potential characters such as a 31-year-old single woman who goes home for the holiday with that least inappropriate of ailments, a yeast infection. How many short story collections have, as this one does, a cover inspired by a bottle of Manishevitz?

Links: Author site www.elisaalbert.com. One-Minute Book Reviews review
www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/22/elisa-albert/

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 15, 2006

Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: A Guide to Raising Children With Good Character

A wise and compassionate guide to raising children who have good character, not just good personalities or high “self-esteem”

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. By Wendy Mogel. Penguin/Compass, 300 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Are you a Jewish parent trying to solve the “December dilemma,” which Wendy Mogel describes as “resisting the allure of Christmas without building Hanukkah up into a high-stature holiday it was never meant to be”? Are you a parent of another faith who wishes your children would express more gratitude for what they have and fewer complaints about what they don’t have this month?

If so, you can walk into almost any bookstore and find good books about how to tone down the materialism of the season. Wendy Mogel deals instead with the broader issue that often lies behind the concerns about holiday excesses: How can you raise children who have their priorities straight? In The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, she gives wise and compassionate answers to the question: How can you help your children develop good character and not just good personalities or high “self-esteem”?

Mogel bases her responses on Jewish teachings and her work as a psychologist and leader of workships for parents, and her advice is so refreshing that her book has won deserved acclaim not just from Jewish leaders but from secular critics and publications such as the Episcopal Schools Review. Mogel rightly argues that many parents are so eager to avoid the mistakes of their own elders that they have given away the store: “In their eagerness to do right by their children, parents not only overindulge them materially, but also spoil them emotionally.” They prize their children’s feelings so highly that they fail to instill in them an adequate sense of gratitude and of their responsibilities to others, including their parents, teachers, and community.

How can parents undo the damage? Mogel offers a step-by-step guide in which she is unafraid to use words like “should.” She is rarely less direct than she is in a comment in her section on the importance of manners: “When taking food and eating it in the presence of a parent, friend, or sibling, your child should always make an automatic habit of offering either to share or to get some for the other person. ‘I’m getting myself a glass of orange juice. Would you like one too?’ ‘Would you like some of these chips?’” And if you think you couldn’t get your children to do this, this book may change your mind.

For years Mogel has worked in the Los Angeles area and counseled some of the country’s most demanding parents and privileged children. She knows the pressures that high-octane families face and takes a good-humored and down-to-earth approach to them. (Her advice on instilling respect includes a section called “Curing Sitcom Mouth.”) Because her book has become so popular, you can also find it in most bookstores. If you’re looking for a last-minute Hanukkah present for thoughtful parents, your search has ended.

Best line: “An especially troubling aspect of modern child-rearing is the way parents fetishize their children’s achievements and feelings and neglect to help them develop a sense of duty toward others.”

Worst line: The cover of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee shows a girl and boy wearing fully loaded backpacks that fall to their hips. These backpacks do not appear to meet the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics: “The backpack should never weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of the student’s body weight.” http://www.aap.org/advocacy/releases/augschool.htm The AAP suggests a rolling backback for students with a heavy load, which these two are obviously have. The photo shouldn’t necessarily be held against Mogel because authors may not have the final say in — or even be consulted about — what goes on the covers of their books.

Editor: Jane Rosenman

Recommended if … you’re looking for an antidote to parenting guides with an “anything goes” attitude toward children’s behavior.

Published: September 2001 www.wendymogel.com

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 14, 2006

Isaac Millman’s Hidden Child: An Artful Book for 7-to-9-Year-Olds

Filed under: Children's Books,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:24 pm
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The true story of a young Jewish boy who spent years hiding from the Nazis in occupied France

Hidden Child. By Isaac Millman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Frances Foster Books, 73 pp., $18. Ages 7–9.

By Janice Harayda

At the age of seven, Isaac Millman escaped from Paris and went into hiding in France after his parents were arrested by the Nazis. In Hidden Child he tells his story through an artful balance of spare but vivid prose, soft-focused paintings, and black-and-white photos.

Millman neither denies nor exaggerates the dangers he faced as he writes of days full of terrors in cities and the countryside — an arrest by Nazis at bayonet-point, confinement in a prison cell with five others, abandonment on the streets of Paris by a man paid to keep him safe, a stay at a hospital used as a safe house for children of deported Jews (where he had to feign illness and use a wheelchair). But he also tells of small comforts, such a finding clusters of tiny white strawberries that helped him avoid starvation and playing with a white puppy at a shelter set up for the children of missing parents after the Liberation. His parents died in Auschwitz, and, at 15, he left France for a new life in the U.S. with a loving couple who adopted him.

Hidden Child is an oversized picture-book-with-chapters that would suit many children who are learning about the Nazis but are too young for The Diary of Anne Frank. It offers a sensitive introduction to the Holocaust for children of any faith and a potential Hanukkah gift that families will remember far longer than eight nights.

Best line: Many. One passage describes a Christmas the author spent with a kind, Catholic widow who had agreed to hide him. She had instructed him to put his shoes under the tree before going to bed: “I was too old to believe in Santa, but I couldn’t wait until morning to see what Madame Devolder had left in my shoe. It was a woolen scarf she’d knitted. And in the other, an added surprise: a beautiful orange. I had not easten one since early in the war.”

Worst line: None.

Recommended if … you’re looking for a gentle but historically accurate book about the Holocaust that gives a child’s-eye-view of its events. This book would interest some children older than age 9 and many adults.

Editor: Frances Foster

Published: September 2005.

FYI: Amazon had this book in stock and available for overnight delivery on December 14 www.amazon.com.

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

Watch for more reviews of children’s books in the Children’s Corner every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. This Saturday: Children’s books about pirates.

 

November 22, 2006

Elisa Albert’s Stories About Young Jews Searching for Meaning They Can’t Find in Phish Bootlegs

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:19 am
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An entertaining and often bawdy collection about a new diaspora in clubs, bars, and hostels

How This Night Is Different: Stories. By Elisa Albert. Free Press, 198 pp., $18.

How This Night Is Different has a bottle of Passover wine on the cover and is getting attention at Jewish book fairs and related events. But this book should no more be ghetto-ized as “Jewish fiction” than John Cheever’s work should be pigeonholed as “Protestant fiction.” It transcends literary typecasting.

Each of its ten stories deals with young Jews who are struggling to make sense of a different ritual or activity – a circumcision, a bat mitzvah, a wedding, a Passover seder, a packaged tour of Auschwitz. Their characters are looking for more meaning than they find in sex, Phish bootlegs, and Cool-Breeze-fueled benders. But the form of Judaism they have inherited doesn’t provide the answers they need, and without the sense of community that kept their ancestors together, they have become a new diaspora, a generation scattered among bars, youth hostels, and Hillel groups.

Elisa Albert’s characters often try to find comfort in humor that ranges from droll to bawdy. In “The Mother Is Always Upset,” a young mother resists the circumcision of her infant son even as relatives gather at her home for the ceremony. A guest considers the mohel who will perform the act: “He was eighty if he was a day, but he came highly recommended by the temple sisterhood as the foreskin obliterator in town. A fourth-generation mohel, according to Shirley. This, apparently, was like the Eastern European equivalent of being a Kennedy.” In another story the narrator tries to understand how her best friend could have become a religious extremist: “This from the girl who, in the ninth grade, using a peeled cucumber, taught me how to give a proper blow job.”

One of the pleasures of this collection is that its stories are suspenseful, a quality often lacking in contemporary fiction. You turn keep turning the pages not out of obligation because you want to know how things end. And if her characters are spiritually adrift, Albert knows exactly where she’s going.

Best line: “Michael worked for a media conglomerate referred to by Beth as ‘Satan Incorporated.’”

Worst line: “The driver giggles to himself, perhaps reliving a funny Jim Carrey moment.” Can you giggle to yourself? Especially when this line appears in a story told from the point of view of a passenger in a taxi cab, not the driver?

Recommended if … you’re looking for a fresh and funny new voice in literary fiction.

Editor: Maris Kreizman

Published: September 2006 www.elisaalbert.com

Posted by Janice Harayda

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 10, 2006

Igal Sarna’s Lost Israelis

A former tank commander explores the cost of exile with a style reminiscent of the early Joan Didion

The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle: Israeli Lives. By Igal Sarna. Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman. Vintage, 210 pp., $13, paperback.

Igal Sarna is a literary journalist who has no precise counterpart in the United States, and not just because he served as a tank commander in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. He writes about the hidden lives of ordinary Israelis with an insight and clarity that recalls both the high style of the early Joan Didion and the medical precision of Irwin Yalom, the author of a memorable book of psychiatric case histories called Love’s Executioner (Basic, 1989).

Each of the 14 essays in The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle profiles a person or group whose life has been cleft by tragedy — men and women uprooted by the Holocaust, beaten in Iraqi-ruled Kurdistan, and tortured in a Syrian prison. Sarna’s subjects came to Israel seeking new lives but were overmatched by war, loneliness, poverty or the harshness of the Negev Desert. Many committed suicide or became “shells of human beings,” casualties of social service agencies overwhelmed by the crush of refugees. The happiest is a 92-year-old Kurdish Jew who once used a hoe to kill a snake that had slithered into his home on a hill slope and still drinks tea flecked with the brown ants that infest his sugar supply. Sarna offers compassionate but unromanticized portraits of all of them and makes clear that their failings, if profound, were never theirs alone. The Man Who Fell Into a Puddle shows a side of modern Israel that few others have described with such poignancy.

Recommended if … you miss the glory days of “the new journalism,” or want to understand the long-term effects on the human psyche of decades of crises in the Mideast.

Best lines: “Faulty immigrant reasoning, and a desire to save money, made them decide to live in Beersheeba’s huge neighborhood of ready-made caravan homes, one of dozens of such camps set up all over the country in the 1990s to the house hundreds of thousands of newcomers from Russia. But whoever begins their life in Israel in a place of that sort seals their fate. The desert is a hard place in and of itself, and needs a lot of greenery to soften it form human habitation. The caravan neighborhood, where each home has just over 200 feet of floor space, is a merciless patch of desolation. The homes are made of cheap, graceless material and stand on bare earth that sends up a cloud of dust with each footstep. Electrical wires strech overhead, thin bars separating human from sky.”

Worst line: None.

Caveat reader: This review doesn’t assess the accuracy of the translation by Haim Watzman.

Published: October 2002

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


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