One-Minute Book Reviews

March 31, 2008

‘Blandings’ Way’ – The Sequel to ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’ Is Darker But Just as Funny as the Novel That Preceded It

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:56 pm
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Eric Hodgins satirizes one man’s fantasies of a simpler country life in the sequel to a bestseller

Blandings’ Way. By Eric Hodgins. Simon & Schuster, 314 pp., varied prices.

By Janice Harayda

In the late 1930s, Eric Hodgins wanted to find a country house that would provide a tranquil escape from the pressures of his job as an executive with Time Inc. But when he and his wife began to build a place in New Milford, Connecticut, they found that the project drained their sprits and their bank account with frightening speed. Patricia Grandjean wrote in the New York Times in 1992:

“When construction began in 1939, Mr. Hodgins anticipated a budget of $11,000 for his dream house. But the completed project ultimately escalated to a total of $56,000 — which translates into roughly $2.2 million today — a sum so inflated by his misconceptions that it nearly drove him into bankruptcy.”

Hodgins was forced to sell the house two years later, Grandjean said. But he went on to write two popular novels about his trials as a homeowner — Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and Blandings’ Way, a fictionalized account of his family’s brief time in Connecticut:

“The book sales restored his fortune, and when he received $200,000 for the film rights to the original book — provided by his New Milford neighbor, the producer Dore Schary — Mr. Hodgins tried to buy back the house back, but to no avail.”

But if Hodgins’s home ownership was perilous, his books are as appealing as when they first appeared. The delightful Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House came out in new edition in 2004 that reproduces the wonderful original illustrations by William Steig.

Blandings’ Way is darker but just as funny and, though out of print, worth tracking down online or elsewhere. The theme and tone emerge early, when Jim Blandings admits to his lawyer that he needs “a haven” from his work at a Madison Avenue advertising agency: His boss believes in “Peace Through Advertising” and wants Blandings to support it by writing an “open letter” to Joseph Stalin.

But Blandings’s lawyer doubts the soundness – and perhaps the sanity – of the move to the country. “You’re not my idea of the rural type,” he says. “If you’re going to play at that, for heaven’s sake take it slow and easy. … Don’t sponsor a zoning ordinance. Have nothing to do with dairying in thought or in deed. Don’t decide to buy the local newspaper and be its country-gentleman publisher.”

These, of course, are all the things Blandings will do. In Blandings’ Way he ricochets his way from one crisis to the next with hilarious results, keenly aware of his own failings. He’s smart enough to see how wrong things could go in the country but not smart enough to resist the possibility that they could go right. And his motives are always decent and honorable.

Blandings doesn’t buy a country newspaper to make money — he thinks he’s overpaid for writing advertising copy for clients like the Hair Removal Institute and International Screw. He wants (or believes he wants) to invest his life with a deeper meaning than he finds in his work. Hodgins’s triumph is that he manages to make Blandings at once comic and heroic, unique and a representative of a universal human striving for a deeper purpose in life. And his passionate words to his lawyer ring as true today as they did more than a half century ago:

“I want to find something to do in my personal life that’s going to help me compensate for what I have to do in my professional life. That’s the clue to the whole business. You can sit there in that detached and superior way of yours what it is and I won’t be able to tell you – but I know there’s something. The greatest unmet obligation in American life is the obligation of the superior individual toward something greater than his particular way of making money. In my case that something greater is the community that Muriel and I and our children have gone to live in. One man can’t do very much to redress the balances that are out of whack in America, but at least a man can try.”

Best line: “Was there anything sadder than the contents of an old filing cabinet? A scrapbook, a diary, were much less sad; into the scrapbook went things that had turned out right; into the diary – well, Mr. Blandings had never kept a diary, and spent a moment in grateful thanks. But an old filing cabinet contained things that were going to turn out right, except that when you looked at them again, none of them had.”

Worst line: None, but the grammar seems slightly off in this one: “The hints are indeed rather broad that there is one particular world in which my instincts least off lead me astray, I prosper best.”

Published: 1950

Furthermore: A review of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (Simon & Schuster, 1946 and 2004) and a reading group guide to the novel appeared as separate posts on One-Minute Book Reviews on April 9, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/04/09/.

Movie Link: Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House inspired two movies – the original Mr. Blandings’ Builds His Dream House www.imdb.com/title/tt0040613/, with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks www.imdb.com/title/tt0091541/.

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

Last Night’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ on PBS — A Star Vehicle for Jane Austen, Not Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:32 pm
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Does the new Sense and Sensibility leave the impression that Marianne Dashwood needs extra Zoloft?

Ginia Bellafante wrote in Saturday’s New York Times that Marianne Dashwood “slips over the rocks from fragility to desperation” in the new Sense and Sensibility on PBS that began last night:

“At 17, Marianne is meant to possess a heart that gives itself too easily, but I doubt that Austen ever intended for us to see her as someone who ought to increase her dosage of Zoloft.”

Bellafante is right about the generous heart of the middle Dashwood sister www.nytimes.com/2008/03/29/arts/television/29aust.html?ref=arts. But I didn’t see the need for extra Zoloft in last night’s installment of the two-part series, which ends April 6, so you have to wonder if Marianne will take an alarming emotional plunge on Sunday.

But so far I like this Masterpiece Theater/BBC production at least as much as the 1995 Ang Lee adaptation that starred Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman. For all its charms, the Lee version was a star vehicle for its actors, especially for Thompson and Grant. But the new adaptation is a star vehicle for Jane Austen www.pbs.org. And you can hardly fault it for that.


© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 30, 2008

Watching ‘Sense and Sensibility’ on PBS Tonight

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:23 pm
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Remember the great 1995 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth that induced such raptures in Bridget Jones?

The screenplay came from Andrew Davies, one of the finest living adapters of classic English novels, whose credits include an excellent 1994 miniseries of Middlemarch. Davies also wrote the script for the new two-part Sense and Sensibility that airs tonight and April 6 on PBS, so this one should be worth watching.

A few comments on the novel:

Like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility is not an allegory, though their titles might suggest otherwise. The characters in both novels are more than types. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood – the nominal embodiment of “sense” – has deep emotions and a distinctive sensibility. And Marianne Dashwood (“sensibility”) is too intelligent to view as a creature of pure feeling.

Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen’s first published novel (though she wrote Pride and Prejudice before it). But if you haven’t read any of Austen’s work, this is not the best place to begin.

The first 50 or so pages of Sense and Sensibility move so sluggishly that they might defeat all but diehards. You’ll be more likely to understand why people love Austen if you begin with Pride and Prejudice, which gets off to faster start and has more all-around charm even when Firth isn’t bathing in a copper tub on your screen. Persuasion and Emma also move briskly from beginning to end.

Once you get past those plodding opening chapters, Sense and Sensibility has perhaps the sharpest wit in any of Austen’s books, one reason why I love it. Two of my favorite lines from the novel are:

“Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.”

books.google.com/books?id=FHmUFBfxr1gC&pg=PA189&lpg=PA189&dq=%22elinor+agreed+to+it+all+for+she+did+not+think+he+deserved+the+compliment+of+rational+opposition%22&source=web&ots=in8vioD6pI&sig=G_ViixvJQM0oPAxxQVMnYy3e9ec&hl=en

“ … a fond mother, though, in pursuit of praise for her children, the most rapacious of human beings, is likewise the most credulous: her demands are exorbitant; but she will swallow anything …” classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/jausten/bl-jausten-sen-21.htm

Photo: Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in the new two-part Sense and Sensibility on PBS www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/austen/index.html .

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

March 28, 2008

An Aardvark Gets the Last Laugh on a Bully in ‘Arthur’s April Fool’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:40 pm
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Arthur and his friends hope to outwit a tyrant at a school assembly

Arthur’s April Fool (An Arthur Adventure). By Marc Brown. Little, Brown, 32 pp., $6.99, paperback. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

Wax lips. Rubber spiders. Sneezing powder. Remember how great April Fool’s Day used to be before the schools banned everything that was actually fun?

If you don’t, Marc Brown will remind you of it in this early installment in his picture-book series about Arthur, a friendly aardvark who wears owlish James Joyce glasses and dresses like the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. In Arthur’s April Fool, Arthur gets the last laugh on Binky Barnes, the school bully, at an April Fool’s Day assembly and shares the fun with the anthropomorphic animals from other species who form his circle of friends.

Brown’s cartoonish art tweaks the artifacts of Sputnik-era world that his characters inhabit — bunny slippers, Tinker Toys, chocolate cream pie, a red rotary telephone and a book called How to Win Friends and Influence People (written by “B. Peel,” a banana). And it’s too late to protest that his audience won’t get the jokes: Arthur got a show on PBS more than a decade ago and, in 2002, made TV Guide’s list of “the 50 greatest cartoon characters of all time.”

Best line/picture: Arthur’s sister, D.W., asks after Binky Barnes threatens to pulverize her brother: “After you get pulverized, can I have you room?”

Worst line/picture: The How to Win Friends and Influence People joke would have been funnier if Brown hadn’t used the real title of the book but had given it a slight twist the way he gives the name of its author, Norman Vincent Peale, a twist.

Published: 1983 www.marcbrownstudios.com and www.pbskids.org/arthur/.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Reviews of children’s books appear every Saturday on the site.

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

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This Week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:33 am
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This week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing goes to …

“Anyone who’s ever worked at a restaurant will identify with Manny DeLeon, the protagonist of Stewart O’Nan’s short new novel, Last Night at the Lobster.”
Boulder Daily Camera, Nov. 9, 2007 www.dailycamera.com/news/2007/nov/09/lights-out-onan-finds-drama-pathos-in-chain/

Comment:

Yes, if you’ve ever thought you were Napoleon, you may identify with War and Peace. And if you can’t stop thinking about that white whale that chewed off your leg, you may identify with Moby-Dick. But these things are irrelevant to the quality of a book that it’s a critic’s job to judge. War and Peace and Moby-Dick are great books because you don’t have to be a candidate for a mental institution (or anything else) to appreciate them – not because you’ll appreciate them all the more if you are.

The U.S. also has more than two million waiters and waitresses, three million cooks and food preparation workers and a half million dishwashers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Are we to believe all five million of those people will identify with a 35-year-old man even if, say, they’re women? Would the critic have assumed that “anyone” would identify with O’Nan’s protagonist if the character’s name had been Manuela instead of Manny?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 27, 2008

‘Arthur’s April Fool’ — Coming Saturday to One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:40 pm
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Wax lips. Rubber spiders. Sneezing powder. Remember how much fun April Fool’s Day used to be before the schools outlawed everything that was actually fun? On Saturday One-Minute Book Reviews will review Arthur’s April Fool, a picture book about perhaps the most popular aardvark in the history of children’s literature. In this installment in Marc Brown’s series, Arthur has to thwart a bully who threatens to spoil the April Fool’s Day assembly.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

UNICEF Can’t Confirm Beah’s Claims About Camp Deaths

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:47 pm
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A Long Way Gone has taken another hit. In a recent article in the Village Voice, Graham Rayman raised fresh questions about the book that Ishmael Beah calls a memoir of his years in the army of Sierra Leone, although neither Beah nor his publisher has provided proof that he was ever a child soldier. One disputed scene in A Long Way Gone was first challenged in The Australian:

“In one instance, Beah describes in vivid detail a deadly brawl between two rival factions of child soldiers in a UNICEF-run camp in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown in January of 1996. Six teens died, Beah recalls—but The Australian could find no one in Freetown who could remember the incident, and no official report of the fight. Reporters who covered the civil war told The Australian that it would have gotten enormous attention at the time.”

UNICEF didn’t respond to a request for a comment in time for the print deadlines for the Voice. But the United Nations agency said later that it can’t confirm Beah’s account of the fight that left six dead. In a Voice blog, Michael Clancy quoted UNICEF spokesman Geoffrey Keele as saying:

“According to our preliminary investigation, while there were fatal incidents in camps, we are unable to provide independent confirmation that the incident took place” blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2008/03/unicef_cannot_c.php

UNICEF still sees A Long Way Gone as “a credible account of the tragedy of recruitment of children into armed groups, told by one who undoubtedly experienced this abuse firsthand,” Keele said. But apparently UNICEF can’t provide proof that Beah was ever a soldier, either. And at this point, the agency is hardly unbiased: Just before The Australian first challenged the credibility of the A Long Way Gone, UNICEF named Beah its advocate for children affected by war. So any admission of doubt about the book would reflect as badly on the agency as on the author.

If UNICEF sees A Long Way Gone as “credible,” you have to wonder what it would find too far-fetched to believe, given that the book brims with passages like this one quoted in the comments on Rayman’s story:

“Beah admits to many viewings of the Rambo movies, and it echoes in lines like this: ‘First we had to get rid of the attackers in the trees, which we did by spraying bullets into the branches to make the rebels fall off them. Those who didn’t immediately die we shot before they landed on the ground.’ “

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

‘Last Night at the Lobster’ Title Parody Contest – Give Stewart O’Nan Ideas for His Next Novel – Should He Call It ‘Last Jiggle at Hooters’?

Filed under: Contests — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:24 am
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Some critics say that the hallmark of a good book title is that it’s distinctive enough to lend itself to wordplay. Think of all the puns and parodies you’ve seen of Hemingway novels alone – For Whom the Belles Toll, The Son Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms Control.

By that standard, Last Night at the Lobster is a great title – so good that Stewart O’Nan www.stewart-onan.com may have trouble topping it with his next novel. So let’s give him some help. What should he call his next book? A few ideas:

Last Nacho at Chi-Chi’s
Last Jiggle at Hooters
Last Boomerang at the Outback

If you have other ideas, please leave a comment by 5 p.m. on March 28. I don’t have a prize for this one. But you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that your wit may have helped someone make it to the weekend. I’ll comment after all the nominations are in. And – who knows? – O’Nan might actually take your suggestion.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Good Riddance to Book-Review Sections? Quote of the Day (Steve Wasserman)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:19 am
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Why have so many book-review sections shrunk, disappeared or turned into cheerleading squads for major publishers? Critic Gail Pool explores some of the reasons in her Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/ .

But literary agent Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, goes further in a recent essay in the Columbia Journalism Review. Wasserman calls some book-review sections “shockingly mediocre.” And his article explains, better than any I have read, why their perilous condition reflects more than — to oversimplify a popular argument — cretins in the accounting department.

Here are some excerpts from Wasserman’s CJR article, which you can read at www.cjr.org/cover_story/goodbye_to_all_that_1.php?page=all.

“That book coverage is disappearing is not news. What is news is the current pace of the erosion in coverage, as well as the fear that an unbearable threshold has been crossed: Whether the book beat should exist at all is now, apparently, a legitimate question.…

“The predicament facing newspaper book reviews is best understood against the backdrop of several overlapping and contending crises: The first is the general challenge confronting America’s newspapers of adapting to the new digital and electronic technologies that are increasingly absorbing advertising dollars, wooing readers away from newspapers, and undercutting profit margins; the second is the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization; and the third and most troubling is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument….

“A harsher truth may lurk behind the headlines as well: Book coverage is not only meager but shockingly mediocre. The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers. One is tempted to say, perversely, that its disappearance from the pages of America’s newspapers is arguably cause for celebration.”

Wasserman is managing director of the New York office of the literary agency Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson and book editor of www.truthdig.com.

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

March 26, 2008

A Restaurant Calls It a Day in ‘Last Night at the Lobster’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:27 am
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Wastin’ away in Lobsteritaville, looking for his lost shaker of salt

Last Night at the Lobster. By Stewart O’Nan. Viking, 146 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

This novel is the American On Chesil Beach without the bad sex to provide occasional comic relief.

Like Ian McEwan’s bestseller, Last Night at the Lobster is a slender, earnest account of the transforming effects of a single evening on a small number of characters. Both novels come from well-respected authors who have set all or most of the action in a commercial establishment in a town near the ocean – a resort hotel in Britain in McEwan’s case and a Red Lobster in New Britain in O’Nan’s. And both have plots that involve meals, missed romantic cues and diligent research substituting for real character development.

Did you know that restaurant managers close up their restaurants from back to front? “For security reasons, managers can’t leave out the back, or alone,” O’Nan writes.

These similarities between the books can only be coincidental, given that Last Night at the Lobster came out just two months after On Chesil Beach. And yet, both are so lightweight that you have to wonder if their authors are getting tired, or if they think we are.

In O’Nan’s novel, an underperforming Red Lobster is being shut down by Darden Restaurants five days before Christmas. Manny DeLeon, the decent and hard-working 35-year-old manager, doesn’t quite understand why this is happening, though he knows his numbers haven’t met expectations: “He’s done everything they asked, yet there must have been something more, something he missed.”

Still, on his last night at the Lobster, Manny is as diligent as ever, though distracted by the presence of an ex-girlfriend with whom he will no longer be working and by the pregnancy of the woman he now sees. He hopes to put up strong final numbers – as much for himself as for Darden – but a winter storm dooms that hope. And one by one, he sees his goals for the day evaporate.

There is a certain poignancy to his plight – the unspoken suggestion that he’ll turn into Willy Loman in a decade or two – but it’s mostly unexploited. O’Nan shows Manny’s Hispanic heritage by having him refer frequently his recently deceased abuelita, with whom he lived. But nothing else about him is clearly Latino, so these comments are more distracting than edifying.

Big Night, one of the great films of the 1990s, made much more of a similar premise in its tragicomic depiction of the last night of a restaurant run by two Italian-immigrant brothers. That movie bursts with the love and joy that the men poured into their failing venture, which invests it with a depth of feeling Last Night at the Lobster never achieves. Like Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman, O’Nan seems to be trying to tell us that “attention must be paid” to men like his hero. He’s right. But it’s hard to feel much sorrow for Manny’s plight when his tragedy – as the novel depicts it – is that Darden Restaurants is transferring him to a nearby Olive Garden.

Best line: “Roz swings in shouldering a tray of lipstick-smudged wine glasses and peeled beer bottles and gives him a sympathetic frown commonly reserved for toddlers, pouting with her bottom lip out. ‘Uh-oh. Looks like there’s trouble in paradise.’

This is paradise?’ Manny asks.

‘Could be if you play your cards right.’”

Worst line: “Like any longtime acquaintances, there’s a comfortable slackness to their conversations.”

Published: November 2007 www.stewart-onan.com

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com 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 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.
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