Malignant brain tumors such as that of Sen. Ted Kennedy (1932-2009) are uncommon enough that they have received less attention in books than many other types of cancer. One exception to the pattern is Death Be Not Proud, John Gunther’s eloquent memoir of the death of his 17-year-old son, Johnny, from a fatal glioma diagnosed when he was in high school. American views of cancer have undergone a sea-change since the book was first published in 1949. But this modern classic remains one of the finest accounts we have of the physical and emotional toll that a malignant brain tumor takes on patients, even those who might seem to have all the advantages. This post first appeared in 2008.
August 26, 2009
August 24, 2009
How Do You Know When to Leave a Marriage? — ‘The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce’ by Well-Known Writers
This post first appeared in 2007.
The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce. Edited by Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand. Warner, 350 pp., $24.99.
By Janice Harayda
Some publishers say that “anthologies are the new memoirs,” but The Honeymoon’s Over makes you wonder if the boom is running on empty.
This is third essay collection I’ve reviewed this year that includes work by Joyce Maynard, the prolific journalist, novelist and contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Maynard is a good essayist whose entries have been among the best in all three books, but she’s been cannibalizing her life for parts for so long that some of her stories are wearing thin. Another writer might have added more freshness to this lightweight book of essays by 24 women on turning points in their marriages.
Nothing in The Honeymoon’s Over has the sophistication of Jane Smiley’s reflections on her first marriage in the recent Mr. Wrong, or of the best work of essayists like Daphne Merkin or Phillip Lopate. And the worst entries are bad enough to put off the poeple who might appreciate this book the most – those who are trying to decide whether to leave a marriage. Terry McMillan’s writing goes further south in a bitter, profane and disorganized screed against her ex-husband. Daniela Kuper makes cloying use of second-person narration in an account of her efforts to get her son back from a guru. And Zelda Lockhart devotes 20 pages to her past without making you understand why she married a lesbian partner with whom she fought regularly and to whom she had “never been physically attracted.”
The best entries in The Honeymoon’s Over describe experiences strong enough to carry them despite any flaws in the writing. Perhaps the most memorable is Elissa Minor Rust’s essay on why she has stayed with her husband since leaving the Mormon faith they once shared, an unusually candid report on Latter Day Saints teachings on sex roles. Did you know that married Mormon women must wear “temple-issued undergarments”? This is the kind of information you rarely get from news shows on Mormonism, which tend to focus instead on the LDS tolerance for polygamy. Rust avoids writing about politics, but her essay indirectly suggests some of the problems Mitt Romney may face in his bid for the presidency. How long will it be before the tabloids – or Sixty Minutes – start asking where his wife gets her underwear?
Best line: Rust describes the Mormon rules that she and her boyfriend, now her husband, had to follow when he moved to New York to begin the two years of missionary work required of young Mormon men: “We weren’t allowed to speak, except on Christmas and Mother’s Day (and even that was stretching the rules; he was allowed to call his family on those two holidays, but he also called me). For two years, our only communication was through letters – and he was only allowed to write one a week. For a person like me who has always fought against rules and power structure, this was torture. I would have had more access to the man I loved were he in prison.”
Worst line (tie): No. 1: Terry McMillan’s rambling and vengeful list of “100 Questions” for her ex-husband. McMillan writes on page 97, “I’ve forgiven you,” and on page 98, “I haven’t exactly forgiven you.” Which is it? No. 2: Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand write of the contributors to this book: “Women in their second marriages seemed to choose better mates and by then were better equipped themselves to make a marriage work.” Then why do second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages?
Caveat lector: Some Web sites say, incorrectly, that this book includes an essay by Jane Smiley (making you wonder if she was scheduled to appear in it but bailed out in favor of the more flattering lighting of Mr. Wrong).
Consider reading instead: Mr. Wrong: Real-Life Stories of the Men We Used to Love (Ballantine, $24.95), edited by Harriet Brown.
Editor: Amy Einhorn
Published: February 2007
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
August 22, 2009
Something’s Not Quite Right. By Guy Billout. Godine, 32 pp., $14.95, paperback. Ages: 4 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Something’s Not Quite Right is a more sophisticated and intellectual French cousin of all those spot-the-difference books that require you to find minor variations in side-by-side pictures. Each page of this oversized picture book asks you to figure out what’s wrong with a painting by Guy Billout, an illustrator whose elegantly spare work has appeared in The New Yorker.
Some of Billout’s surreal images show biological impossibilities or incongruities that 5- or 6-year-olds could spot easily — a zebra with stripes that form a bull’s eye, a pigeon with landing gear for feet, a butterfly perched on a lever that lifts a building off its foundation. Other paintings show visual paradoxes that children might have trouble understanding without adult help, such a snowball apparently fired by a war-memorial cannon (which might have come instead from an unseen hand). And all the pictures have titles that, in some cases, add to their ambiguity: What are we to make of the painting called “Writer’s Block,” which shows a human figure standing behind a railing on top of an overflowing dam? Does the scene represent wish fulfillment? Or perhaps an inability to tap the wellsprings of inspiration just out of reach?
The varied levels of meaning and complexity make Something’s Not Quite Right more challenging than most spot-the-difference books and add to its intergenerational appeal. This is the rare picture book that on a rainy day at the beach might interest not just the young children for whom it is intended but their older brothers and sisters and the grandparents who could identify for both groups some of the famous sites on its pages, including the Flatiron Building in New York and the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.
Best line/picture: Some of Billout’s images can be read metaphorically. They include a picture of a World War II tank crossing a field of sunflowers without appearing to harm them. You can read the flowers as a metaphor for France or the French spirit uncrushed by the war.
Worst line/picture: The dust jacket of the hardcover edition says that a picture shows “a Boeing 747 about to touch down without landing gear.” If you hadn’t read that, you might imagine that the plane was taking off and had lifted its landing gear.
Published: October 2002 (hardcover), May 2004 (paperback).
Furthermore: Billout was born in France and lives in New York. He has posted some images from Something’s Not Quite Right, unlabeled as such, on www.guybillout.com. He wrote the The Frog Who Wanted to See the Sea (Creative Editions, 2007).
August 21, 2009
The latest in a series of occasional posts on authors who praise each other’s work
Gloria Steinem on J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement:
“Take Mary McCarthy’s The Group, add a new feminist generation striving to understand everything from themselves and their mothers to the notion of masculinity that fuels sex trafficking, and you get this generous-hearted, brave first novel. Commencement makes clear that the feminist revolution is just beginning.”
J. Courtney Sullivan on Gloria Steinem in Commencement:
From the acknowledgments for Commencement: “For helping me understand the reality of sex trafficking in America, I owe thanks to … Gloria Steinem.”
From the pages of Commencement: “I came here because it was the alma mater of Gloria Steinem and Molly Ivins. I thought it was the most effective place to fight the patriarchy in this godforsaken country.” — A character named April on why she wanted to attend Smith College
Also from Commencement: “Her ultimate hero was Gloria Steinem. She had improved countless lives , with actions as simple as setting up networks of women who would otherwise never have found one another and starting a magazine devoted to feminism. She always stood up for what was right and never compromised her principles, but she also didn’t offend the average person’s sensibilities and wasn’t afraid to highlight her hair. She liked men! She dated. She got married, though it ended tragically. She was a real woman who believed in equality. Wasn’t that a hundred times more powerful than the contributions of someone who was divisive and scary. …? — A Smith alumna named Sally on the different types of activism
Other examples of logrolling appear in the Backscratching in Our Time category on this site.
August 20, 2009
Dr. Phil Admits, ‘I May Not Be the Sharpest Pencil in the Box’ in ‘Love Smart: Find the One You Want — Fix the One You Got’
Love Smart was one of 10 finalists in the 2007 Delete Key Awards contest, which recognizes the year’s worst writing in books. Dr. Phil lost to Danielle Steel (grand-prize winner), Mitch Albom (first runner-up) and Claire Messud (second runner-up). This review appeared in February 2007.
Love Smart: Find the One You Want – Fix the One You Got. By Dr. Phil McGraw. Free Press, 283 pp., $15, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Help me, please, with the math in Dr. Phil McGraw’s relationship guide for women. First the talk-show host says that to attract a worthy man, you need to feel confident enough to take your “fair share of time in most conversations – 50 percent in a twosome, 33 percent in a threesome, and so forth.” Then he says that when you’re dating: “Self-disclosure should be used only 25 percent of the time. The other 75 percent should be listening.” So which is it? Should you be talking 50 percent of the time or 25 percent?
I have no idea, because McGraw doesn’t say how he got those figures, and his book is full of mush like this. Love Smart is one of those self-help guides that has LOTS OF LARGE TYPE. It also has exclamation points! More than two dozen in the first seven pages! That doesn’t count the one in the first paragraph of the acknowledgments! But I’ll say this for McGraw: He is equally patronizing to women and men. He reduces them both 1950s stereotypes given a 21st-century gloss with advice on Internet dating and quotes from celebrities like Dave Barry and Rita Rudner.
Much of his advice retools the kind of messages Bridget Jones got from her mother. First, stop being so picky. Of course, McGraw doesn’t use that word. He urges you to settle for “Mr. 80 Percent.” Then forget what you may have heard from other experts about how there are more differences between any one man and woman than between the sexes as a whole.
“I’ve got news for you: Men and women are different,” McGraw says. A lot of men have a “caveman” mentality that requires a “bag’em, tag’em, bring’em home” approach. This method includes more of the kind of advice your mother – or maybe grandmother – gave you. McGraw doesn’t come right out and say you should “save yourself for your husband.” But he does suggest you hold sex “in reserve” until a man has made “the ultimate commitment”: “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to McGraw that some women might not appreciate being compared to cows.
The most bizarre section of Love Smart consists of its list of the “top 31 places” to meet men. No. 1 and 2 on the list are “your church or temple” and “batting cages.” You might meet men at those batting cages. But the U.S. Congregational Life Survey found that the typical American churchgoer is a 50-year old married female. So what are the criteria here? Sheer numbers of the other sex? Or compatibility with your values? The list makes no more sense than most of the other material in Love Smart. Earlier in the book, McGraw begins an account of a disagreement with his wife by saying, “Now I may not be the sharpest pencil in the box …” Why didn’t somebody tell Oprah?
Best line: The comedian Rita Rudner says, “To attract men I wear a perfume called New Car Interior.” Love Smart also has some zingers that women have used to insult men, such as, “He has delusions of adequacy.”
Worst line: McGraw never uses one cliché when he can use three or four, as in: “Now it seems time to step up and close the deal, get ‘the fish in the boat,’ walk down the aisle, tie the knot … you want to get to the next level.”
Editor: Dominick Anfuso
Published: December 2006
To read more about the Delete Key Awards, click on the “Delete Key Awards” tag at the top of this post or the “Delete Key Awards” category at right. To read more about the creator of the awards, click on “About Janice Harayda.”
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
August 19, 2009
Katarina Mazetti’s ‘Benny & Shrimp,’ a Scandinavian ‘Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ With Swedish Meatballs
Can a Swedish librarian find happiness with a man who owns a manure-spreader, or is he just shoveling — ?
Benny & Shrimp. By Katarina Mazetti. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death. Penguin / Pam Dorman. 221 pp., $14, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
This frothy romantic comedy is a Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society with Swedish meatballs. Benny Söderström is an unmarried dairy farmer who owns a manure-spreader and boasts, “If you’ve read one book, you’ve read them all, and I read one last year!” Desirée Wallin is a widowed librarian who likes modernist furniture and talking about the literary theories of Jacques Lacan. The two lovelorn Swedes, both in early middle-age, meet at a cemetery where Benny visits his mother’s grave and Desirée her husband’s. And if you can’t see where this novel is going by the end of the first chapter, you’re probably still shocked that Julia Roberts got together with Richard Gere in Pretty Woman.
But like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Benny & Shrimp makes use of an interesting narrative device: Katarina Mazetti tells her story not in letters but in chapters narrated antiphonally by Benny and “Shrimp,” the farmer’s nickname for Desirée. And Mazetti invests her tale with enough wit and vitality to offset some of the contrivances of her plot. Benny might refer to Rigoletto as “that fatso with the sword” after Shrimp tries to couth him up by giving him opera tickets. But you have to admire an unmarried man who, when he opens his refrigerator, has the integrity to admit the truth: “There were things in there that probably could have walked out on their own.”
Best line: “You could lobotomize him with the power saw and nobody would notice the difference.”
Worst line: It’s hard to imagine a Swedish farmer saying, even in translation, “Blimey” and “not bloody likely!”
Published: August 2008
Reading group guide: Penguin has posted discussion questions that include comments by Mazetti.
Caveat lector: This book was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.
Furthermore: Mazetti is a Swedish radio producer and author of books for children and adults. Benny & Shrimp was a bestseller and inspired a movie in Sweden. And yes, this novel about people who meet in a cemetery was translated by “Sarah Death.”
August 18, 2009
A lot of publishers seem to be trying to save money these days by skimping on copyediting and issuing more books with felonious typos. What’s wrong with that? I love this comment by one of the great muckraking journalists of the 20th century, which reflects the sentiments of many of us who have worked for daily newspapers:
“Typos are worse than Fascism!”
– I. F. Stone, as quoted by his daughter, Celia Gilbert, at his funeral in 1989
August 16, 2009
7 Questions and Answers About Dan Brown’s New Book, ‘The Lost Symbol,’ His First Novel Since ‘The Da Vinci Code’
Is it a conspiracy? Dan Brown has said little about the plot of The Lost Symbol, his first novel since The Da Vinci Code, which Doubleday will publish on Sept. 15. And while his publisher has been releasing cryptic teasers on Facebook and Twitter, these may read to the uninitiated like excerpts from a North Korean auto repair manual.
Here are some answers you don’t have to decode:
1. What is The Lost Symbol about?
The Lost Symbol brings back the fictional Harvard professor Robert Langdon, the protagonist of The Da Vinci Code, a thriller based on the premise that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child whose descendants became kings and queens of France. Langdon again tangles with codes and secret societies – this time, in a plot that unfolds over a 12-hour period. He first appeared in Brown’s Angels & Demons.
The cover of the British edition of The Lost Symbol shows, as the Belfast Telegraph described it, “a key surrounded by flames and bearing a Freemasonry symbol above Capitol Hill, suggesting the action will unfold in America’s seat of power.” The slightly different American cover – which also shows the Capitol Building – supports this idea.
2. What is the “lost symbol” in the title of Brown’s book?
The BBC News reported that the novel is “believed to focus on freemasonry, with the lost symbol of the title a reference to a ciphered pictogram in an ancient book called The Key of Solomon.”
3. What about Leonardo da Vinci? Will he have a role in The Lost Symbol?
Da Vinci or his legacy will have a substantial role unless Brown’s publisher has misled libraries. The electronic catalog at a consortium of New Jersey libraries says The Lost Symbol involves the following: “Leonardo, da Vinci, 1452–1519 – Manuscripts – Fiction – Cryptographers – Fiction. Mystery fiction.”
4. What else is known about Brown’s new book?
Other facts appear in the “codes, cryptic trivia, puzzles, secret history, maps” and more that Doubleday has been releasing on Brown’s Facebook page and the Twitter feed for The Lost Symbol. The publisher said on Twitter that “Robert Langdon’s next adversary will be revealed when http://www.facebook.com/DanBrown reaches 100,000 fans.” Brown had 67,686 fans on the afternoon of August 16.
5. What do you learn about The Lost Symbol on Facebook and Twitter?
Facebook member Mark Gray suggested that The Lost Symbol may involve explosive sexual tension and, to support this idea, posted a diagram of two Washington landmarks. “When the energetically (male) Washington Monument is positioned in front of the energetically (female) Capitol Dome an explosion of force is created,” he writes. He added, “An OBELISK is a male PHALLIC. A DOME is a female WOMB.”
A Facebook member named Buddy didn’t think much of the idea. Buddy told Mark: “You keep focusing on the phallus and vulva, but what do you think it means? Surely, this is not an answer. Why would you think those focused on spiritual symbolism and related philosophy would obsess about male and female organs? The effort is to affect the minds of many not magically conjure up some energy effect. What would be the purpose?”
On Twitter, The Lost Symbol has fewer followers (3,210) than Shaquille O’Neal (1,964,646) and Bon Jovi (22,685) but more than Molly Ringwald (93).
6. When can you buy The Lost Symbol?
Doubleday will publish print and electronic editions of the book on Sept. 15, 2009, in the U.S. and Great Britain. You can preorder from Amazon, Barnes and Noble or an independent bookseller that you find through the Indie Store Finder on IndieBound.
7. Are you going to review The Lost Symbol on One-Minute Book Reviews?
I couldn’t finish The Da Vinci Code, so I’m not going to buy The Lost Symbol. And I don’t accept review copies from publishers. But I give out the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books every year on March 15 and wouldn’t want to overlook a stellar candidate. So I’ve put my name on the waiting list for The Lost Symbol at my library. We’ll see if I get it before Malia Obama goes to college.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
August 14, 2009
Update, Jan. 11, 2010: The School Library Journal blogger Elizabeth Bird now predicts that When You Reach Me will win the Newbery Medal and The Lion and the Mouse the Caldecott. She also predicts the Honor Books at http://tinyurl.com/yarluuf.
You say the kids aren’t going back school for a couple of weeks and you’ve run out of ideas on what they could read? You might want to look at the 2010 Newbery and Caldecott Medal predictions that Elizabeth Bird has posted on the School Library Journal blog. Bird is a children’s librarian with the New York Public Library system and a past Newbery judge who has a better record than most of us do for predicting the winners of the American Library Association’s annual awards. Among her favorites for the 2010 Newbery: Jacqueline Woodson’s: Peace, Locomotion (“it has her customary style and grace intact and she’s been edging closer and closer to outright Newbery Award status with every year”). Bird’s 2010 Caldecott candidates include Jerry Pinkney’s “almost wordless” and “meticulously researched” interpretation of a fable by Aesop, The Lion and the Mouse (“the kind of Pinkney book that will make converts out of people who weren’t Pinkney fans before”).
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
The Benefits of Reviewing Even When the Pay Is Terrible, the Books Are Bad, and the Authors Are Only Going to Hate You, Anyway – Quote of the Day / Rebecca West
You could earn more per hour as a migrant grape-picker than you can by reviewing for many newspapers, and the odds are that an editor will ask you to write about a bad book and that the author will hate you afterward. So why volunteer for the work?
One of the best answers I’ve heard came from the novelist and critic Rebecca West in a Paris Review interview, collected in Writers at Work: Sixth Series (Viking, 1984) and in Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Modern Library, 1998). Marina Warner asked West if she enjoyed reviewing for the Sunday Telegraph, then as now a leading national newspaper in Britain. West replied:
“Yes, I do. I do. I would feel awfully cut off if I didn’t review; I think it’s such a good discipline. It makes you really open your mind to a book. Probably you wouldn’t, if you just read it.”
Many critics like the serendipity or reviewing, or getting assigned books they wouldn’t otherwise have picked up, and I do, too. But I also like having to focus on books in a way that I don’t usually do when I’m reading for pleasure. You have to look harder at books when you’re reviewing them – you can never skim, ever — and when you do, you see more.