One-Minute Book Reviews

January 14, 2008

A Review of 2008 Sibert Medalist and Caldecott Honor Book ‘The Wall’ by Peter Sís

A gifted artist recalls the days when freedom was as elusive as a yellow submarine in picture book that won the American Library Association’s Robert F. Sibert Medal for the most distinguished “information book” of 2007 today

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. By Peter Sís. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Frances Foster Books, 56 pp., $18. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Peter Sís is a rarity – an artist who smartens up picture books when others dumb them down. He grew up in Czechoslovakia and seems to lack the usual Americans preconceptions about what children’s books “need” to contain. Perhaps partly for this reason, he does highly original work that has won him a MacArthur grant and many others.

A case in point is this memoir of his childhood behind the Iron Curtain, which today won the Robert F. Sibert Medal for the most distinguished “information book” of 2007 and a Caldecott Honor, both from the American Library Association In The Wall Sís finds the midpoint between picture books and graphic novels by telling his story partly through panels similar to comic strips. This enables him to fit a remarkable amount of information into 56 pages.

Sís uses captioned drawings of himself to depict experiences such as going to Communist schools: “Children are encouraged to report on their families and fellow students. Parents learn to keep their opinions to themselves.” Because many American children would lack a context for such lines, he adds background in creative ways – for example, by using lines of explanatory text as frames for drawings. He enriches all of it through a wealth of visual details. including an image of a yellow submarine to show the joy that erupted when the Beatles visited Prague.

As in some of his earlier work, Sís shows that oppressed people long for freedom even when they are better off than many of their peers. Sís yearned for the artistic freedom stifled when under Communism. He says on his last page: “As long as he can remember, he will continue to draw.”

Best line/picture: A full-page picture of a maze suggests how Czechs changed street signs an effort to thwart the Soviet invasion in 1968, one of many memorable images.

Worst line/picture: Sís includes excerpts from what he calls “My Journals” from 1954–1977 would have benefited from a bit more explanation. Diaries might have been considered subversive if discovered by the Communist authorities. Did he really keep these “journals” or were they created after the fact?

Published: August 2007 and

Futhermore: Sís came to the U.S. in the 1980s and lives near New York City.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 27, 2007

What’s the Difference Between Writing a Memoir and Writing Fiction? Quote of the Day (Mary Gordon)

The boundaries between memoirs and fiction are becoming more porous. Here’s how the novelist and memoirist Mary Gordon responded when an interviewer asked, “Is memoir writing not that much different from fiction writing?”

“It is and it isn’t. It has formal demands, demands of shapeliness in the way that fiction does. There are some things, which, if left out, would make an untruthful record. Memoir has a responsibility to the truth, or the truth as best you can tell it. That is to say, if you willfully suppressed something – well, there is no point writing a memoir if you don’t want to tell the truth as you see it. To deliberately fudge something that made you look better, or made someone else look better – that’s the kind of issue that comes up in memoir that does not come up in fiction.”

Mary Gordon in “Writing to Understand Yourself,” an interview with Charlotte Templin, in The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction: Inspiration and Discipline (Writer’s Digest Books, $19.99), edited by Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda B. Swanson-Davies Gordon’s most recent memoir, Circling My Mother (Pantheon, $24), was published in August

Comment by Janice Harayda:

If only more memoirists shared Gordon’s view that there’s no point in “fudging.” You see much more distortion in memoirs today than a generation ago. Some memoirists say that they have to fudge to protect the privacy of friends or relatives, or that if they didn’t, they couldn’t tell their stories, because they lack too much essential information. Other writers contend that memoirs are inherently subjective. All of that may be true. But I’ve argued on this site that if memoirists set aside the truth – for example, by inventing scenes or using composite characters — they have a responsibility to say so in their books.

What do you think?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 24, 2007

Winners on the Field, Losers in Hardcover — Why Are So Many Books by Star Athletes So Awful? Quote of the Day (Jane Leavy)

Why do so many bad books come from good athletes? Jane Leavy, left, a former sportswriter for the Washington Post, says:

“Sports autobiography is a peculiar genre: ghostwritten fiction masquerading as fact. In the literature of sports, truth has always been easier to tell in fiction – Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty and Dan Jenkins’s Semi-Tough are among the best examples. It wasn’t until Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season and Jim Bouton’s Ball Four that a semirealistic view of the baseball locker room emerged between hard covers. The authorized life stories of America’s greatest athletes form an oeuvre of mythology. What are myths if not as-told-to stories?”

Jane Leavy in Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (HarperCollins, 2002) Sandy Koufax, the great pitcher for the Dodgers, earned a second fame when he refused to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Far more than many contemporary stars, he is a worthy hero for young athletes, and Leavy’s book is a good starting point for teenagers and others who want to know more about him.

Leavy is right that sports memoirs are a cesspool of journalism. But the reasons for it are changing in the era of what Joyce Carol Oates has called “pathography,” or biography that focuses on the pathological. Mickey Mantle and other vanished titans might have nodded in their memoirs to old idea that hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. But more recent stars, like Lawrence Taylor and Dennis Rodman, have used their books to flaunt their vices until you might welcome a little hypocrisy. The fashionable theme in sports memoirs today is, “Yo, virtue! You’re history.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 21, 2007

Max McGee on Vince Lombardi (Quote of the Day)

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Max McGee, the former Green Bay Packers receiver who died yesterday, remembers Vince Lombardi in Lombardi and Me: Players, Coaches, and Colleagues Talk About the Man and the Myth (Triumph, $14.95) by Paul Horning with Billy Reed:

“Vince wanted to embarrass you in front of all your teammates. He did me, because he knew that hurt me worse than anything …

“But Vince was about as smart as anybody who ever put on a coaching hat. One time before a big game, he told us that if anybody was caught sneaking out before the game it would cost him $5,000. And he looked at me and said, ‘McGee, let me tell you something — if you find somebody worth $5,000, let me me know — I want to go with you.’ That broke the tension. He could get you so wired before a game you almost couldn’t play …

“I announced that I was retiring after the first Super Bowl, and Vince came to me and said, ‘Maxie, I want you to come back next year. If a we get a young guy that we’re going to keep, I’ll keep you on as a coach.’ So the reason I came back is that I was going to be there one way or the other, either as a player or a coach.”

Lombardi and Me, reviewed on Nov. 28, was published in 2006 and has just been released in paperback

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 7, 2007

Is Penelope Leach the Margaret Thatcher of Child-Care Experts? Quote of the Day (Katha Pollitt)

Yesterday I went to the Borders store at Madison Square Garden — the airiest bookstore in New York with its huge plate-glass windows — looking for books I’ve wanted to review. I struck out on two new editions of children’s classics: a Little Red Riding Hood illustrated Andrea Wisnewski and Ruth Krauss’s The Backward Day.

But with a bit of effort, I found an adult book at the top of my list: Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories (Random House, $22.95), a collection of personal essays by Nation columnist Katha Pollittt. (Memo to Borders: This does not belong in the “Politics and Government” section but near I Feel Bad About My Neck.) I dove into Pollitt’s essay on the birth of her daughter two decades ago and, in a section about child-rearing experts, found this irresistible passage on the author of Your Baby & Child: From Birth to Age 5:

“Penelope Leach, the only famous woman expert, was a dragon, the infant-care equivalent of Margaret Thatcher or Barbara Woodhouse, who had that dog-training show on television (‘No bad dogs – only inexperienced owners!’), and you couldn’t dismiss her as just another man laying down the law. She was a mother herself; a better mother than you, because she never seemed to have a minute in which raising children was not the foremost on thing on her mind. She wrote that you had to talk to your baby when you were pushing the stroller and that not to do so was rude because if the baby was a grown-up you would make conversation. She wrote that if you had a job and the baby was happy you had still done the wrong thing, you had just gotten away with it. Penelope Leach had quite a bit of useful information, which she delivered in a brisk, friendly way, but that was just to cozy you along. Like the men, she obviously thought that if you ignored her advice you’d produce an addict or a killer or a C student – but if that was true the human race would never have survived all those millennia living in mud huts on a diet of lentils and goat milk.”

More on Learning to Drive soon and, in the meantime, you can read about it at and

The Borders store at Madison Square Garden is at 2 Penn Plaza. Among large New York bookstores, it is one of the most convenient for tourists, situated right next to Penn Station and a few minutes’ walk from the Port Authority bus terminal. Unlike most city bookstores of its size, it has a broad plaza in front with lots of places to sit and read (in addition to an in-store cafe).

The way this Borders shelves books can be a little odd. Pollitt is doing appearances all over the city, so why was Learning to Drive buried in the “Politics” section on the second floor? But the service was exceptional. When I couldn’t find the book on the main floor, a staff member directed me to the second floor, then called upstairs to a clerk, who was waiting for me with the book when I got there. I rarely comment on bookstores, but I haven’t had this kind of service at a bookstore of its size anywhere in the world.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 5, 2007

One-Sentence Reviews of Nonfiction Recently Featured on This Site

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:26 am
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No time to plow through David Halberstam’s 736-page book the Korean War? Or even Alan Greenspan’s 544-page justification of his economic policies? Here are one-sentence reviews of other nonfiction books recently featured on this site. A link to the full review follows each description. Click on the “Books in a Sentence” category at right for one-line reviews of fiction and poetry.

Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland. By Mark Kreidler. One of the year’s best sports books brings unexpected drama and poignancy to an Iowa state high school wrestling championship and its emotional impact on two favored competitors and their families, coaches, teammates and fans.

Fowl Weather (Books I Didn’t Finish). By Bob Tarte. A Michigan writer’s memoir of life with 39 birds, ducks, geese, rabbits, cats, rabbits and other creatures, which didn’t live up to its billing as a book with a “Dave Barry on a farm” sensibility.

Here’s the Bright Side: Of Failure, Fear, Cancer, Divorce, and Other Bum Raps. By Betty Rollin. Illustrations by Jules Feiffer. Saccharine-sweetened mush from a former NBC correspondent who argues that “within each form of misery” there is “a hidden prize waiting to be found” but draws so few distinctions between, say, the pain of someone rejected by Harvard and a fourth-degree burn victim that it would be cruel to give this book to some people who are in physical or emotional pain.

How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening: A Collection of Literary Encapsulations. Compiled and Edited by E.O. Parrott. Classic works of lit / Reduced quite a bit / In poems and prose / As fun overflows.

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. By Barbara Brown Taylor. An Episcopal priest tells why she left the parish ministry in a book that offers a rare portrait of the day-to-day challenges the clergy (including, in this case, a request from a woman who called to say: “Martha is sitting on the toilet and we are out of toilet paper. If I came over right now, could you write me a check to the grocery store so she can get up?”).

Looking for Class: Days and Nights at Oxford and Cambridge. By Bruce Feiler. The host of the popular PBS series Walking the Bible remembers his jolly good time in graduate school at Cambridge University in the 1990s (which, despite his title, gets far more space than Oxford). (Briefly noted.)

Love You, Mean It. A True Story of Love, Loss, and Friendship. By Patricia Carrington, Julia Collins, Claudia Gerbasi, and Ann Haynes with Eve Charles. Sept. 11 anniversary re-post of an earlier review of a memoir by four 9/11 widows, who talk about the coping in the aftermath of tragedy.

The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl. By Bruna Surfistinha/Raquel Pacheco. Interviewed by Jorge Tarquini. Translated by Alison Entrekin. Raquel Pacheco writes about as well as Henry James would have run a brothel in this memoir of her experiences as teenage prostitute who became notorious for blogging about her clients.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 26, 2007

Bruna Surfistinha’s Call Girl Diary, Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

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“SAO PAOLO. She goes by the name Bruna, the Little Surfer Girl, and gives new meaning to the phrase ‘kiss and tell.’ First in a blog that quickly became the country’s most popular and now in a best-selling memoir, she has titillated Brazilians and become a national celebrity with her graphic, day-by-day accounts of life as a call girl here.

“But it is not just her canny use of the Internet that has made Bruna, whose real name is Raquel Pacheco, a cultural phenomenon … “

Larry Rohter in “She Who Controls Her Body Can Upset Her Countrymen,” the New York Times, April 27, 2006.

A review of the American edition of Pacheco’s memoir, The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom, will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Review.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 15, 2007

If You’ve Got Cancer and You Know It, Clap Your Hands: A Review of Betty Rollin’s ‘Here’s the Bright Side’ Coming Soon to One-Minute Book Reviews

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“Do clouds truly have silver linings?” asks the dust jacket of Betty Rollin’s Here’s the Bright Side: Of Failure, Fear, Cancer, Divorce, and Other Bum Raps (Random House, $14.95) Do books that lead with clichés truly give you more than a bad Mitch Albom impersonation? Find out in a review of the latest book by the author of First, You Cry, coming soon to One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing this review, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 6, 2007

Emily Rapp Writes in ‘Poster Child’ About Life After Her Foot Was Amputated

A former poster child for a March of Dimes chapter in Wyoming had a meltdown after years of trying to persuade herself that her disability made her no different from others

Poster Child: The Story of a Broken Girlhood. By Emily Rapp. Bloomsbury, 240 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Emily Rapp was born with a birth defect that required the amputation of her left foot just before her fourth birthday. She adapted so well – in her own eyes and others’ – that at the age of six she was a poster child for her March of Dimes chapter in Wyoming.

But her view of her condition began to change in college, where she read a book of essays by women with disabilities. One contributor wrote that others tended to view people with disabilities “either as helpless things to be pitied or as Super Crips, gallantly fighting to overcome insurmountable odds.”

A great virtue of Poster Child is that it avoids those extremes. In this lucid memoir, Rapp gives a much more complex view of what it meant to walk first with braces, then with a wooden leg and finally with a Flex-Foot, “a prosthetic limb that featured a suction socket and a hydraulic knee unit.”

Poster Child is not a perfect book, partly because Rapp’s effort to understand her disability seems to be a work-in-progress. After years of pretending to be just like anybody else, Rapp developed undiagnosed anorexia in high school. But she did not seek counseling until she had a meltdown, including severe panic attacks, as a Fulbright Scholar in Korea. And in her final pages she at times sounds as though she has traded her earlier beliefs for the new jargon she absorbed in therapy. In the next-to-last chapter, she writes:

“I realized that if I did not break free of my faulty logic, I might spin forever in a destructive trap of my own making, and then I would never be whole.”

That is pretty much the party line for cognitive behavioral therapy, the standard treatment for panic attacks: If you’re having attacks, it’s because you need to fix your “incorrect” thinking. But much of the evidence in this book suggests that Rapp’s problems were caused not by her “faulty logic” but by others’ cruelty and insensitivity. Rapp also doesn’t make clear whether she overcame her anorexia, which once caused her to stop menstruating and carry only 98 pounds on her 5’6″ frame. This is the equivalent of an unresolved subplot in a novel, and the lapse isn’t irrelevant to the story. Anorexia is generally regarded as a condition that involves a desire for control, and some research suggests that it commonly reflects anger with the opposite-sex parent. Rapp says little enough about her father, a Lutheran minister, that you wonder if he had more to do with this story than she lets on.

Such inconsistencies in the last 50 or so pages rob Poster Child of the unity of such as memoirs as Autobiography of Face. But it is still a very good book, maybe the best we have about growing up as an amputee. It also has a powerful message for parents, teachers, health-care workers and others who repeatedly tell children with disabilities, as Rapp’s mother did, “You are just like everybody else.” The question that lingers is: If you tell children with disabilities that they’re exactly the same as others, what happens when they figure out that they’re not?

Best line: Born with one leg shorter than the other, Rapp attracted stares long before her amputation. She says the questions began soon after she took her first steps: “Whenever she was asked, ‘What happened to your baby?’ Mom replied, ‘Oh, she is okay. She just has one leg shorter than the other, and the brace helps her walk.’ She became comfortable with this standard response. It didn’t bother her when children asked her what was wrong with me; she felt that their curiosity was innocent and natural. She got annoyed only when adults asked or, worse, expressed condolences (‘I’m so sorry; it must be so hard’) or dispensed useless medical advice like ‘There are medical advances every single day’ or ‘God works in mysterious ways; at least she looks happy.’ And according to my mother, I was.”

Worst line: Rapp writes that on “a pleasant summer afternoon” in Colorado, “The smell of dry sagebrush and lilacs hung in the air.” A post by the Colorado State University Extension Service says that in Colorado lilacs bloom, as elsewhere in the U.S., in the spring – specifically, in May.

Editor: Annik La Farge

Published: January 2007

Recommendation? An excellent book for reading groups, not just because it’s so well-written but because it has implications for how Americans respond to many kinds disabilities, not just to amputees. Poster Child may especially interest reading groups at houses of worship that have ministries to or programs for people with disabilities.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Links: and

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 22, 2007

When They’re NOT ‘Just Wild About Harry’ … Books for Adolescents and Teenagers Who Have Lost Interest in the Harry Potter Series

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What kinds of books would interest older adolescents who have outgrown Harry Potter? One-Minute Book Reviews had suggestions for teenage boys on July 6, 2007 Today: a couple of recommendations for teenage girls. Both of the following new releases are adult books that may also interest many girls ages 13 and up (and some younger ones who are strong readers).

By Janice Harayda

Looking for a book for a teenage girl who loves to read? Consider Mindy Schneider’s Not a Happy Camper (Grove, $24) Schneider remembers her eight weeks an off-the-wall summer camp at the age of 13 in this light and lively memoir. (Sample experience: A bunkhouse burned down when a group of boys put candles under their beds to see if they could warm them up by nightfall.) Not a Happy Camper is a book for adults, reviewed on this site on July 17, that teenagers and their parents may enjoy for different reasons. And because it is an adult book, you don’t have to worry that most 16-year-olds will find it “too young.”

Teenage girls may also enjoy Marjorie Hart’s lovely memoir, Summer at Tiffany (Morrow, $14.95). As students at the University of Iowa, Hart and one of her sorority sisters become the first female pages at Tiffany & Co. in 1946, when the Fifth Avenue jewelry store had trouble finding male employees because World War II. And Hart recalls the experience warmly in Summer at Tiffany, reviewed on this site on July 2, 2007 Bcause Japanese surrendered while she was living in the city, she also gives a memorable account of how New Yorkers celebrated the end of World War II.

Caveat lector: The books reviewed today and on July 6 are not gender-specific. Many girls might like the books reviewed two weeks ago, and many boys might like those discussed today. I’ve recommended the books for “boys” or “girls” only because many parents come to this site looking for books for one sex or the other. And those labels will make it easier for them to find the posts through search engines.

Read excerpts from Not a Happy Camper and Summer at Tiffany: You can read an excerpt from Not a Happy Camper at To read the first chapter of Summer at Tiffany, to and search for the title of the book. Click on “Search Inside,” then on “Chapter 1.” When you see the first page of Chapter 1 on your screen, click on the arrows on the top of the toolbar to “turn” the pages.

Click on “Children’s Books” under “Categories” in the right-hand column on the One-Minute Book Reviews home page to read reviews of books for younger children, including toddlers, preschoolers and young school-age children.

A review of a book or books for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. Today’s review is a day late because of the Harry Potter feeding frenzy and, in a normal week, would have appeared yesterday.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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