One-Minute Book Reviews

April 30, 2009

Could the Swine Flu Pandemic Have Two Waves? Quote of the Day From ‘Flu,’ Gina Kolata’s Account of the 1918 Pandemic

Filed under: Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:22 pm
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Could the latest swine flu outbreak be the first of two waves of the disease? And could the second be deadlier than the one that has just struck? Few medical experts are discussing the possibility publicly. But you might wonder after reading Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It, by Gina Kolata, a science reporter for the New York Times. Kolata writes:

“No one knows for sure where the 1918 flu came from or how it turned into such a killer strain. All that is known is that it began as an ordinary flu but then it changed. It infected people in the spring of 1918, sickening its victims for about three days with chills and fever, but rarely killing them. Then it disappeared, returning in the fall with the power of a juggernaut.

“In retrospect, medical experts talk of the two waves of the 1918 flu. The first was banal, easily forgotten. No one mentioned plagues or germ warfare when the influenza epidemic first arrived. But when it came back, in the second wave, it had turned into something monstrous, bearing little resemblance to what is ordinarily thought of as the flu.”

The ‘Common Sense’ of Shogun Yoritomo-Tashi — A Japanese Warrior’s Wisdom for the Modern World of Business

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:14 am
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“Happiness is above all a combination of harmony and the absence of sorrow.”
From Yoritomo-Tashi’s Common Sense

Not long ago I stumbled on an out-of-print edition of Common Sense: How to Exercise It (Funk & Wagnalls, 1916), written by the Japanese shogun Yoritomo-Tashi and translated by Mme. Léon J. Berthelot de la Boileverie. I hadn’t heard of the book, intended to help people succeed in business. But common sense has been scarce enough on Wall Street that I read it to see if a 12th-century warrior knew something Lehman Brothers didn’t.

The book (or maybe just the translation) is abstruse enough that it’s hard to say. By modern standards, some of its advice lacks the quality it encourages people to cultivate. “Persons who have no common sense are the only ones to revolt against the laws of the country where they live,” Yoritomo-Tashi says. “The wise man will recognize that they have been enacted to protect him and that to be opposed to their observance would be acting as an enemy to oneself.” So much for the Boston Tea Party and the civil-rights movement.

But I liked Yoritomo-Tashi’s definition of happiness — “a combination of harmony and the absence of sorrow” (which, unlike so much psychobabble, allows that happiness can be affected by external factors). And his book makes a couple of other good points:

“Superstition is the enemy of common sense, for … it is the product of a personal impression, associating two ideas absolutely unconnected.”

Sentimentality works against common sense when it involves “mental exaggeration” that “transforms true pity into a false sensibility, the exaggeration of which deteriorates the true value of things.”

Critics often deplore books – such as Mitch Albom’s novels – that are sentimental, and Common Sense suggests why they dislike they quality: Sentimentality tends to overvalue certain feelings and, in that way, to devalue others that are more important.

You can download Common Sense for free on the Project Gutenberg site .

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and www.janiceharayda.com

April 29, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — How to Find Out How Dumbed-Down a Book Really Is

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:53 pm
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You know how I reported back in 2006 that Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade reading level in For One More Day, according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics on Microsoft Word? I’ve since posted the levels of other books, including Stephenie Meyer’s The Host. And it’s always – shall we say? – enlightening to learn how dumbed-down some books really are. It’s also time-consuming: To find a reading level, I have to type passages from a book into my computer, then run the spell-checker or paste the text into a site that has a measuring tool other than Flesch-Kincaid’s.

So I was delighted to learn from a visitor about the site for the Accelerated Reader progress-monitoring software, which lists many popular books and their reading levels. The AR site seems to focus on books schools might use, so you can’t turn to it for the reading level of anything on your nightstand. But if you compute these levels as often as I do, this one could delay the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome for a couple of years.

“Late Night With Jan Harayda” is an occasional series of posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and do not include reviews, which typically appear early in the day.

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

Second Thoughts on R. A. Scotti’s ‘Vanished Smile’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:19 am
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A few weeks ago, I wrote about how much I was enjoying R. A. Scotti’s Vanished Smile, a new historical true crime book about the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa. At the end of her tale, Scotti revealed that an early scene had been based on newspaper article that might have been entirely false, so questionable was the reporter’s credibility. This technique is very different from the one normally favored by true-crime writers — withholding some facts — and undermines the book. It’s one thing to dole out clues carefully and it’s another to insert material that may be fiction. The belated revelation that this had occurred cast much of the earlier material in the book in a new light that flattered neither Scotti nor Vanished Smile.

April 28, 2009

Emily Dickinson, War Poet (Quote of the Day / From Drew Gilpin Faust’s Pulitzer Prize Finalist, ‘This Republic of Suffering’)

Filed under: Poetry,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:53 am
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How did Americans deal with the unprecedented scale of death in the Civil War? Many grappled with the carnage partly by writing about it — in poems, letters, memoirs, sermons, diaries, and more — given a lucid analysis by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering, a finalist for the most recent National Book Award www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html and Pulitzer Prize for history www.pulitzer.org/citation/2009-History.

Gilpin Faust writes about Emily Dickinson in this excerpt from a much longer section about Dickinson’s work and that of other writers of the era, including Ambrose Bierce and Herman Melville:

“Emily Dickson is renowned as a poet preoccupied with death. Yet curiously any relationship between her work and the Civil War was long rejected by most literary critics, even though she wrote almost half her oeuvre, at a rate of four poems a week, during those years. Dickinson has been portrayed as a recluse, closeted from the real world and its tribulations. But her work is filled with the language of battle – the very vocabulary of war that she would have encountered in the four newspapers regularly delivered to the Dickinson household. Campaigns, cannons, rifle balls, bullets, artillery, soldiers, ammunition, flags, bayonets, cavalry, drums, and trumpets are recurrent images in her poetry.”

Gilpin Faust adds:

“Like so many reflective Americas of her time, she grappled with the contractions of spirit and matter and with their implications for heaven and for God. Death seemed ‘a Dialogue between the Spirit and the Dust,’ an argument left painfully unresolved. Dickinson wondered where she might find heaven (‘I’m knocking everywhere’) and what an afterlife might be (‘Is Heaven a place—a Sky—a Tree?’) …..

“Ironically, it was death, not life, that seemed eternal, for it ‘perishes—to live anew … Annihilation—plated fresh / With Immortality.’ No territorial justifications, no military or political purposes balance this loss; victory cannot compensate; it ‘comes late’ to those already dead, whose ‘freezing lips’ are ‘too rapt with frost / to take it.’ Dickinson permits herself no relief or escape into either easy transcendence or sentimentality.”

You might also want to read the Oct. 4, 2007, post, “Do Emily Dickinson’s Poems ‘Make a Virtue Out of Collapsing’?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/04/.

© 2009 Janice Harayda

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 27, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check — A Review of the 2009 Fiction Winner, Elizabeth Strout’s Short Story Collection, ‘Olive Kitteridge’

The latest in a series of occasional posts on the winners of or finalists for major literary prizes

Olive Kitteridge. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 304 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

It tells you something about Olive Kitteridge that two of its 13 short stories were published in Seventeen and O, The Oprah Magazine: This is one of the lighter-weight winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It tells you more that two other stories appeared in The New Yorker and South Carolina Review: These tales, if often moving, have the disjointed quality of scenes from different dreams.

The linchpin of the collection is Olive Kitteridge, a retired junior-high math teacher in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, who appears at least briefly in every story. At first, the pace of the book is somnolent and the title character so nasty she verges on caricature. But the collection picks up steam – and Olive, some humanity – after 30 or so pages.

In the fourth story, “A Little Burst,” comes the great scene in the book. At her middle-aged son’s wedding reception, Olive slips into the just-married couple’s bedroom and flinches when, through an open window, she hears her new daughter-in-law mocking her mother-of-the-bride dress. It is a dress she loves and has made from a green fabric imprinted with big reddish-pink geraniums: “Her heart really opened when she came across the gauzy muslin in So-Fro’s; sunlight let into the anxious gloom of the upcoming wedding; those flowers skimming over the table in her sewing room.” Wounded and uncomprehending, Olive steals two of her daughter-in-law’s possessions from the couple’s bedroom – a loafer and “a shiny pale blue bra, small-cupped and delicate.” She also defaces a sweater with a black Magic Marker, then neatly folds it and puts back on its closet shelf. Olive finds that her vandalism does not help much, but “it does help some,” to know that Sue will go through her belongings and think: “I must be losing my mind, I can’t keep track of anything…. And, my God, what happened to my sweater?” This tale offers not just a finely wrought portrait of a frightened woman’s projection of her own anxieties about her only child’s belated wedding — it is Olive herself who may be losing her mind — but can be read as a chilling tale of a mother’s symbolic, if unconscious, rape of her son.

As a self-contained story, “A Little Burst” works beautifully. This is a tale of a nervous breakdown that may betoken a mental illness such as psychosis. The problem comes when you read the story against others that leave a contradictory impression: Olive is not mentally ill but starved for love in her marriage to a kind but insufficient pharmacist (or, as an atheist, has a spiritual hunger she can’t admit). In some tales, Olive plays such an inconsequential role that you wonder if Elizabeth Strout shoehorned them into the book by altering the stories after publication. This is especially true of “Ship in a Bottle,” which appeared in Seventeen 1992 and has clearly since been revised to include a veiled reference to torture at Abu Ghraib prison, which didn’t become known until 2004.

Olive Kitteridge ends, as good novels typically do, with a redemption of sorts. But because the book isn’t a novel, it hasn’t built toward that transformation as novels do. Its ending has less force, diluted by digressions into lives of characters who relate to it obliquely if at all. When Olive finally chooses to accept love, in however imperfect a form, you wonder if such a decision would be possible for someone who for so long has hated so much about the world.

Best line: From “A Little Burst”: “Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as ‘big bursts’ and ‘little bursts.’ Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.”

Worst line: No. 1: “He’s a spoiled brat to the manor born.” Another misquotation of Shakespeare’s “to the manner born.” No. 2: “ … he’d eat a sandwich that had spilling from it mayonnaisey clumps of egg salad or tuna fish, landing on his shirt.” Pray that “mayonnaisey” isn’t the next “garlicky.” No. 3: “The Scottish were scrappy and tough …” The people of Scotland and their descendants almost always call themselves the Scots, not the “Scottish,” a word used mainly as an adjective. As an alternate term for the Scots, “the Scottish” is correct but stilted. No. 4: The multiple uses of “Ay-yuh,” northern New England slang for “Yes” or “Yup.” Strout grew up in Maine and must have heard the expression as “ay-yuh.” But the phrase is usually rendered “ay-yup,” as a Voice of America report notes, and it sounded like “ay-yup” when I lived in New Hampshire.

Read an excerpt from Olive Kitteridge.

Published: March 2008 (hardcover), September 2008 (paperback). Olive Kitteredge was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Furthermore: The marketing campaign for Olive Kitteridge misrepresents the book as “a novel in stories” when it is a short story cycle. For more on this issue, see yesterday’s post.

About the author: Strout also wrote Amy and Isabelle and Abide With Me. She lives in New York City.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, the book columnist for Glamour and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Olive Kitteridge’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Olive Kitteridge
By Elizabeth Strout
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Olive Kitteridge is a collection of 13 linked short stories about a retired junior-high math teacher and other residents of the fictional Crosby, Maine, where whitecaps dot the bay and a dirt road winds down to the water. It won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Olive Kitteridge, the title character, is an angry woman often infuriated by small things, such as her husband’s spilling the ketchup in “Pharmacy.” [Page 7] What is she really angry about?

2. To phrase the first question differently: Many long-married people learn to accept minor flaws in their spouses, such as occasional clumsiness. Why does Olive have trouble accepting Henry’s?

3. Olive Kitteridge includes stories published in very different publications, such as Seventeen and the literary magazine South Carolina Review. How well do the tales fit together?

4. Critics have argued that some tales in Olive Kitteridge work better than others. A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review said that the weakest stories are those that barely mention Olive, such as “Ship in a Bottle”: “Without her, the book goes adrift, as if it has lost its anchor.”
Do you agree? What stories do you find strongest and weakest?

5. Olive and her grown son, Christopher, have spent much of their lives locked into a dance of reciprocal misunderstanding. Olive insists that she loves Chris and seems to believe that she has gotten “all wacky” with him only because of “how scared he was of her.” [Page 71] Is that all there is to it? What is the broader problem between Olive and Chris?

6. Much of the action in Olive Kitteridge involves ordinary events, such as going to church or Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s not true of “A Different Road” (which takes “a different road” from the other tales). In this story, Olive and her husband are taken hostage at a hospital by armed men who want to steal drugs. This scene is an example of what Flannery O’Connor called “the grotesque” in fiction, “something which an ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” And a critic saw “A Different Road” as the only story in which Strout went “overboard.” How did you react to this usual story? Did it add to or detract from the book?

7. Apart from the hostage-taking, Olive Kitteridge refers to many violent or traumatic events in the lives of its characters or their friends or relatives – suicide, divorce, infidelity, miscarriages, death by drowning, a major stroke, a fatal hunting accident. Books can seem oppressive when painful events pile up, or so dark you can’t finish them. If you read all of Olive Kitteridge, how did Strout keep you reading? Why didn’t the book seem oppressive?

8. The publicity materials for Olive Kitteridge call the book “a novel in stories,” possibly because novels sell better than short stories. But the Pulitzer Prize judges correctly identified the volume as “a collection of 13 short stories” bound together in part by Olive. How does the book differ from a novel with a traditional linear narrative? Would you have enjoyed it more or less if Strout had told Olive’s story as a novel instead of a collection of stories?

9. Olive shows throughout the book that she hates many things about the world. But in the end, as an old woman, she chooses to accept love, in however imperfect a form. [Page 270] How believable was this transformation?

10. For all of its bleakness, Olive Kitteridge does have humorous moments. One occurs at the wedding reception for Olive’s son, where guests clink their glasses and a man says, “A toast to Fidelity Select.” [Page 72] What lines or scenes from the book did you find amusing?

Vital statistics:
Olive Kitteridge. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 304 pp., $14, paperback.

A review of Olive Kitteridge appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews in the post just after this one on April 27, 2009 http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/27.

You may also want to read …
The literary term for a group of linked short stories like Olive Kitteridge is a cycle of stories or short story cycle. If you like the form, you might enjoy other short story cycles, such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and 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.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda), where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs. She satirizes American literary culture on her Fake Book News (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 26, 2009

Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’ Is Not ‘A Novel’

Filed under: News,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:08 am
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Why have so many critics bought into the hype that the Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge is “a novel in stories”? The publisher’s claim serves a clear marketing interest: Novels sell better than short stories. (“A novel in stories” doesn’t appear on the title page of Olive Kitteridge, which might have been a sign that the phrase came from the author instead of the publisher.) And the hype is – to put it charitably – misleading. Olive Kitteridge is a collection of linked short stories, known as a cycle of stories or short story cycle — a group of tales that, though entwined, can stand alone.

A critic who got it right was Jessica Treadway, who teaches at Emerson College and wrote in the Boston Globe:

Although the book is being marketed as ‘a novel in stories,’ it is not a novel” but “a unified cycle” of “tales focusing on characters inhabiting a single town.”

The Pulitzer Prize judges also correctly described Olive Kitteridge in giving it the 2009 fiction award, calling it “a collection of 13 short stories set in small-town Maine.”

Does harm really occur when critics regurgitate hype such as that Olive Kitteridge is a “novel in stories”? Part of the answer lies in the recent spate of fraudulent books billed as “memoirs,” which has shown how many people can be duped when critics and others don’t question publishers’ claims. And in the case of Olive Kitteridge, a more subtle harm may result.

American fiction has a stellar tradition of short story cycles that includes books different as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York. Comparing Olive Kitteridge to one or two of these might enrich anyone’s understanding of it. By calling Strout’s book a novel, the publisher has made it less likely that people will do this. It has also raised the odds that readers will expect something closer to a traditional novel and come away disappointed.

A review of Olive Kitteridge will appear next week on this site. The weekly children’s-book review appeared in the post that preceded this one.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 25, 2009

Rich Wallace’s Tale of Young Chess Players, ‘Perpetual Check’

Teenage brothers face off in a novel about a chess tournament

Perpetual Check. By Rich Wallace. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 128 pp., $15.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Perpetual Check has a warning for parents who overpraise their children’s modest talents, hoping to enhance self-esteem. The caution comes from Zeke Mansfield, a high school senior who is a good athlete but less than the star his father imagines. Zeke realizes at a chess tournament:

“Having his father telling him what a star he is for all those years hasn’t been a plus after all. Somehow it made him decide that an extra hour of working on his ball control was plenty, no need to make it two; that 50 sit-ups after practice were just as good as a hundred; that sometimes it wasn’t worth running hills in the pouring rain. He was great; he was unbelievable. His natural talent would carry him as far as he wanted to go. It was heady stuff at 12 or 13 or 15.”

That “heady stuff” gets tested at the Northeast Regional of the Pennsylvania High School Chess Championship, held during a snow-encrusted weekend at a hotel in Scranton. Zeke and his pudgy younger brother, Randy, a freshman, have both qualified for the event. Randy can beat his brother nine times out of ten and outranks him in other ways: He’s better student, has a girlfriend, and can guess the colors of M&Ms in his mouth with his eyes closed.

So when the two brothers meet in the semifinals, there’s a showdown, complicated by the presence of their father. Mr. Mansfield is a hypocritical, overcontrolling, sexist who tries live out his failed dreams through Zeke. His boorishness has fueled the natural rivalry between his sons, a reality that emerges in chapters told from the brothers’ alternating points of view.

Will one son outperform the other in the tournament? Or might both embarrass their father by losing to – oh, the horror! – a girl? Wallace controls the suspense well in a lightweight, fast-paced book that portrays Zeke and Randy with more subtlety than their father, who is a caricature. By the time the tournament ends, the brothers have had insights into more than chess strategy: They understand better the role their father has played in their relationship and in their parents’ shaky marriage. Zeke reflects early in Perpetual Check that “he never had a chance to be the big brother in the equation” with his sibling, because Randy had so many strengths. The equation may not be solved by the last page, but the boys have the formula.

Best line: “Randy knows that Zeke will often make a seemingly careless move early in the game. The strategy is to leave the opponent with ‘He must know something I don’t’ bewilderment.”

Worst line: “Dina giggles again.” Wallace casts Mr. Mansfield as a sexist, without using the word, but isn’t it sexist to have only female characters giggling, as in this book? Perpetual Check also has many lines such as, “He’s a dick,” “This guy I’m playing against is a prick,” and “No way you’re sitting on your fat ass for another summer.”

Published: February 2009

Ages: The publisher recommends this book for ages 12 and up, a label that appears based largely on its use of words such as “dick” and “ass.” This seems prudish and misguided given that many children start hearing these words in preschool.  Apart from the “bad words,” this short novel — a novella, really — would better suit ages 9-12 and strong readers as young as 8.

Read an excerpt form Perpetual Check.

About the author: Rich Wallace also wrote Wrestling Sturbridge and Playing Without the Ball.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 24, 2009

A Review of ‘Perpetual Check’ — Coming Tomorrow

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:23 pm
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Reviews of books for children appear on Saturdays on this site. Tomorrow: Rich Wallace’s new Pepetual Check (Knopf, 128 pp., $15.99), a short novel about two teenage brothers who compete in a Pennsylvania regional chess championship. Perpetual Check seems to have earned its “ages 12 and up” tag mainly for language like “your fat ass” and “He’s a dick.” Otherwise it’s for strong readers ages 8 and up.

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