One-Minute Book Reviews

November 3, 2009

What! You Want Me to Review Some Books When the Yankees Are in the Series?

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Update: 3:50 p.m., Wednesday: Okay, I didn’t quite make that “within 24 hours.” But I’ll be back very soon. Jan

What! You want me to explain why I’ve posted no reviews so far this week when I’d normally have one or two up by Tuesday? Have you forgotten that I grew up in Central New Jersey (Yankees territory) and spent summers in that two-room shack without running water in South Jersey (Phillies territory)? Oh, you are cruel if you expect me to lash myself to my desk and write during beer commercials. So I’ll just say I hope to be back within 24 hours with comments on at least one of the books I’ve finished recently: Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith and David Small’s National Book Award finalist, Stitches. I am also reading Chronic City and The Informers and may say more about Bright-sided and Charles and Emma. In the meantime you can follow me on Twitter, where I’ve been writing about my efforts to finish Chronic City and other topics.

June 17, 2009

Joke of the Day — Literary Wit From ‘Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend’

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A white reporter who watched Satchel Paige pitch in the Negro Leagues in the 1930s said that when Paige threw the ball, you saw only something that resembled “a thin line of pipe smoke.” Janet Maslin writes in a review Larry Tye’s new Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (Random House, 392 pp., $26).

“When asked if he threw that fast consistently, Paige, who would become famed for choice aphorisms, replied: ‘No, sir. I do it all the time.’”

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May 6, 2009

How Tori Murden McClure Became the First Woman to Row Alone Across the Atlantic in Her New Memoir, ‘A Pearl in the Storm’ – Coming Soon

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Remember when your eighth-grade English teacher told you that the three great themes in literature were “man against man, man against nature, and man against himself”? My favorite man-against-nature books include Adrift (Mariner, 256 pp., $14.95, paperback), Steven Callahan’s bestselling memoir of spending 76 days lost at sea on an inflatable raft after his sailboat sank during a race from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. The woman-against-nature category has produced other gems, such as Atlantic Circle (Norton, 1985), Kathryn Lasky Knight’s true story of sailing across the Atlantic with her husband. Can Tori Murden McClure hold her own in her new memoir of rowing solo across the Atlantic, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean (HarperCollins, 304 pp., $24.95)? A review will appear soon.

April 21, 2009

Is ‘The Glory of Their Times’ the ‘Best Baseball Book Ever’?

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Jonathan Yardley wrote recently in the Washington Post that Lawrence S. Ritter’s 1966 collection of interviews with early 20th-century baseball players, The Glory of Their Times (Harper, 384 pp., $14.95, paperback), “may well be the best baseball book ever.” How can I not have heard about that one until now? I thought it was generally agreed among critics who know more about the sport than I do that “the best baseball book ever” was Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer.

March 3, 2009

Cricket as a Metaphor in Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland,’ Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for the Year’s Best American Work of Fiction

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While I was compiling the Delete Key Awards shortlist, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland won the PEN/Faulkner Award, given by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation to the year’s best American work of fiction. A nice line about the use of cricket as a metaphor in the novel appeared in Cathleen Medwick’s review in O, The Oprah Magazine:

“The complex game of cricket serves as this exquisitely articulated novel’s metaphor for civility wrested from chaos and the oblique trajectory of hope.”

One of the most widely praised novels of 2008, Netherland was snubbed by the judges for the National Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle Awards, which I predicted it would win. But O’Neill has come out ahead financially: He gets $15,000 for the PEN/Faulkner instead of $10,000 for a National Book Award and nothing for a National Book Critics Circle Award. And he has a chance to pick up another $10,000 when the winners of Pulitzer prizes are named on April 20, though the history of those awards would seem to give the edge to Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.

A review of and reading group guide to Netherland appeared in separate posts on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 24, 2008. The paperback edition of the novel is due out from Vintage Books in June 2009.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 30, 2009

‘There Is No Way to Measure the Destructive Effect of Sports Broadcasting on Ordinary American English’ (Quote of the Day / Edwin Newman)

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Part of the fun of watching the Super Bowl lies in the theater-of-the-absurd quality of so much the commentary. How often will we hear today that a team down by 21 points has to “move the football downfield” and “put some points on the board”? At least as often as we hear during the World Series that a team behind by five runs has to “put some wood on the ball” and “score some runs.”

When former athletes arrived, so did, "They came to play football."

It wasn’t always so, the former NBC newscaster Edwin Newman says in Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? (Warner, 1975):

“There is no way to measure the destructive effect of sports broadcasting on ordinary American English, but it must be considerable. In the early days sports broadcasting was done, with occasional exceptions such as Clem McCarthy, by non-experts, announcers. Their knowledge of the sports they described varied, but their English was generally of a high order. If they could not tell you much about the inside of the game they were covering, at any rate what they did tell you you could understand.

“Then came the experts, which is to say the former athletes. They could tell you a great deal about the inside, but — again with some exceptions — not in a comprehensible way. They knew the terms the athletes themselves used, and for a while that added color to the broadcasts. But the inside terms were few, and the nonathlete announcers allowed themselves to be hemmed in by them – ‘He got good wood on that on,’ ‘He got the big jump,’ ‘He really challenged him on that one,’ ‘They’re high on him,’ ‘They came to play,’ ‘He’s really got the good hands,’ and ‘That has to be,’ as in ‘That has to be the best game Oakland has ever played.’

“The effect is deadening, on the enjoyment to be had from watching sports on television or reading about them, and, since sports make up so large a part of American life and do so much to set its tone, on the language we see and hear around us.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 27, 2009

Kadir Nelson Celebrates Titans Like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in His 2009 Coretta Scott King Award-Winner, ‘We Are the Ship’

A California author has won two children’s-book prizes for his account of the days when black baseball teams sometimes had to sleep in jails or funeral homes because hotels wouldn’t rent rooms to them

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. By Kadir Nelson. Foreword by Hank Aaron. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, 88 pp., $18.99. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Remembering Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and other titans

Quiz time, all of you who see yourself as experts on children’s literature: When was the last time you read a picture book that had a story told through first-person plural narration? Or that used original oil paintings for art instead of watercolors, collages, pen-and-ink drawings, or other more popular picture book media?

If you don’t know, you may have a sense of why Kadir Nelson has just won two major awards for We Are the Ship, an illustrated history of Negro League baseball. Nelson relies entirely on plural narration — a down-to-earth variation on the royal “we” — to tell the story of the black ballplayers who had to compete against themselves in a segregated America. And he illustrates his text with dozens of full-page oil paintings of celebrated players, owners, managers and umpires.

We Are the Ship reflects lapses you wouldn’t expect in an award-winning book, and Kevin Baker described some in his review in the New York Times Book Review. But it brims with vibrant details served up in a relaxed and conversational tone, all woven into stories you might hear from a ballplayer with his feet up on your porch in the off-season.

George “Mule” Suttles isn’t as well known today as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and other Negro League titans. But Nelson shows you his appeal in a few sentences:

“We had a fellow named George ‘Mule’ Suttles, who played for the Newark Eagles. He was a big ’un. We used to say he hit the ball like a mule kicks. Fans would yell, ‘Kick, Mule, kick!’ and he’d take a great big swing like, Babe Ruth. He’d even thrill you when he struck out. Darn near screwed himself into the ground when he struck out.”

Nelson might have prevented some confusion if had he said up front that he was writing in “a collective voice, the voice of every player” instead of describing this postmodern device in an author’s note on page 80 that many children may never read. And some of his language may be anachronistic for a speaker of its day. (Would a player in the early decades of the 20th century have said “kinda,” “Hall of Famer” and “The man was awesome”?) The art is slick enough that paging through this book is a a bit like viewing a collection of high-quality movie stills.

Even so, We Are the Ship is informative and entertaining. Nelson shows the cruelty faced by players who at times had to sleep at the local jail or funeral home because they couldn’t afford rooms on the road or hotels would rent only to whites. But he balances such stories with lighter ones that keep his book from becoming bleak. How much of the fun has gone out of baseball in the era of steroids, big money and free agents? Nelson offers a clue when he reminds us that, in the early days of Negro baseball, Lloyd “Pepper” Basset used to catch some games in a rocking chair.

Best line: Manager Andrew “Rube” Foster sent signals to his pitchers from the dugout instead of having his catchers send them: “He’d puff signals from his pipe or nod his head one way to signal a play. One puff, fastball. Two puffs, curveball. Things like that.”

Worst line: No. 1: “The average major league player’s salary back then [in the 1940s] was $7,000 per month.” Dave Anderson of the New York Times, perhaps the greatest living baseball writer, says in The Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s (co-authored with Rudy Marzanot) that it was $7,000 a year, not a month. No. 2: Nelson says that the Depression–era numbers game (which involved betting on random numbers that would appear on stock-market pages or elsewhere): “Back then, it was a 100 percent illegal business; but nowadays it’s known as the lottery, and it’s run by the government.” This line is glib and misleading. The numbers racket and state lotteries have always been separate.

Recommendation? We Are the Ship has the format of a coffee-table book and, although marketed to children, may appeal also to adults.

Published: January 2008. We Are the Ship is the No. 1 children’s baseball book on Amazon.

Furthermore: Nelson lives in southern California. His first name is pronounced Kah-DEER.

On Monday We Are the Ship won the 2009 Coretta Scott King Award, which the American Library Association gives to “to African American authors and illustrators for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions.” The book also received the Robert F. Sibert Medal for “the most distinguished informational book” for young readers.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 1, 2008

Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry About Sports for Grades K–8, Recommended by the Country’s Leading Children’s Literature Journal

Often I disagree with the reviews in the Horn Book, the country’s leading journal of children’s literature, which at times seem to favor books suited for schools and libraries at the expense of those that are pure fun. You probably aren’t going to find the magazine giving much play to Bob Phillips’s Awesome Good Clean Jokes for Kids (Harvest House, 207 pp., $3.99, paperback), which you can buy off the rack at CVS and might delight any 5-to-8-year-old on your holiday list.

But the Horn Book brings a seriousness of purpose to reviewing that’s all the more valuable now that so many book-review sections have died. And its editors have a leg up on most children’s book reviewers – to say nothing of bloggers — at gift-giving time: They see pretty much everything that gets published.

So if you’re looking for good books about sports for ages 5 to 13 or so, you could do worse than to look at its list of recommended fiction, nonfiction and poetry for grades kindergarten though 8 (and maybe higher)
www.hbook.com/resources/books/sports.asp. The Horn Book editors also suggest books about sports for preschoolers. I’ll post my gift suggestions for sports and other books in a few weeks.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 16, 2008

Ring Lardner’s Baseball Stories for All Ages, ‘You Know Me Al’

Classic tales of an overconfident White Sox rookie are still print in different editions for adults and children

An egocentric pitcher. A coach fed up with his player’s excuses. A team that can’t win on the road. And — to spice things up — a little girl trouble in the background.

Sound like a team in the 2008 playoffs? Actually it’s what you’ll find in Ring Lardner’s collection of humorous short stories about baseball, You Know Me Al (Book Jungle, 248, $16.95, paperback), written for adults but likely also to appeal to many teenagers.

First published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1914, these tales are a masterpiece of tone. They take the form of rambling, misspelled and ungrammatical letters written by a rookie White Sox pitcher named Jack Keefe to his friend Al while traveling with his team during the baseball season. Jack has a comically misplaced self-confidence that feeds a low-grade persecution complex. (“I hit good on the training trip and he must of knew they had no chance to score off me in the innings they had left while they were liable to murder his other pitchers.”) Lardner’s stories about his anti-hero remain entertaining partly because they deal with emotions that still exist in any locker room.

But a little of Jack’s bombast goes a long way, and young readers may prefer an anthologized excerpt from You Know Me Al. One of the best for tweens and teenagers appears in Alan Durant’s outstanding Score! Sports Stories (Roaring Brook, 264 pp., 264 pp., ages 9 and up), a collection of 21 modern and classic sports stories just out in a new paperback edition. Durant’s brief introduction suggests why young readers may enjoy excerpt: “The story is full of jokes – mainly at the teller’s expense, as Keefe constantly gets on the wrong side of coach Callahan with his often idiotic remarks.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 25, 2008

Attack of the Killer Soccer Moms – Nancy Star’s Novel ‘Carpool Diem’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

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The latest in a series of occasional posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t finish them

Title: Carpool Diem. By Nancy Star. Grand Central/5 Spot, 326 pp., $13.99, paperback.

What it is: A fizzy novel about a turbocharged executive who transfers her aggression to her daughter’s soccer games when she loses her job.

How much I read: About 70 pages: the first nine chapters, the last few pages, and some other parts.

Why I stopped reading: This lighter-than-light novel might be best read in an SUV full of empty Gatorade bottles while you wait for your daughter to finish practice. I thought it might be fun to review during soccer season but decided I was out of my depth when I realized that I didn’t know when soccer season was. (Memo to parents: Is it still soccer season? Or is it lacrosse season now? Or maybe hockey?) You could imagine Barnes and Noble displaying this one next to Sophie Kinsella’s books, maybe with a sign reading, “What if Shopaholic was a New Jersey soccer mom?”

Best line in what I read: The manic newsletters that the obsessive, semi-deranged soccer coach Winslow West sends to team parents. Here’s a sample paragraph: “Aggressive Play Reminder: I know young athletes tend to think that when a ref shows them a yellow card it is a warning to be feared. I urge you instead to view the yellow card as a form of tribute to aggressive play! The next time a ref shows you a yellow card, accept it as the compliment it really is!!!” And another: “Notification of next year’s team selection will be on the 25th of June. Players who are moved down to the B team, the Asteroids, will receive a call from the B coach, Gerri Picker. But do not despair! Any player who is moved down from our Elite team to the B team will have the opportunity, over the next season, to work hard and climb back up if she so desires!!!” And then there’s my favorite: “Practice will continue to be held on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays throughout the summer, from eight forty-five to twelve-fifteen and four forty-five to six thirty, irregardless of the weather!” Love that “irregardless.”

Worst line in what I read: The strained humor in parts of an epilogue called “Five Warning Signs That Your Kid’s Coach Is Crazy.” One sign: “Uses a ball pump as a key chain.”

Reading group guide and excerpt: At www.hachettebookgroupusa.com/books_9780446581820.htm.

Published: March 2008

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

Furthermore: Nancy Star is a New Jersey children’s author who also writes novels for adults that include Carpool Diem. Contact the author: Nancy Star, c/o Author Mail, 5 Spot, Hachette Book Group USA, 237 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10017.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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