One-Minute Book Reviews

March 14, 2007

‘He Greeted Me in His Briefs’ And More Hot Sex Scenes From the Luv Guv, James McGreevey … They’re Bad, But Are They Bad Enough to Win a Delete Key Award?

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Memoirs,Politics,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:23 am

“He greeted me in his briefs. ‘Did anybody see you?’ he asked, closing the door quickly.”

James McGreevey put plenty of red, white and purple prose like that in his The Confession, a memoir written with David France. But are those lines bad enough to win a 2007 Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books? How about, “Our first few times burned so fiercely in my mind I could hardly recall them even as we were still lying together …”?

You have until the end of the day today to comment. The Delete Key Awards winner will be announced tomorrow, the March 15, because Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, and some of the finalists are trying to assasinate the English language. Here’s another question to consider: McGreevey’s editor, Judith Regan, has been ousted from HarperCollins since the publication of this memoir. Should we keep alive the memory of her contributions to the publishing industry by giving an award to one of her books?

For more hot sex from the Luv Guv, read the Jan. 27 post on One-Minute Book Reviews, “Who Writes Better Sex Scenes, Danielle Steel or James McGreevey?” (archived with the January posts). This post lists steamy lines written by both authors and lets you guess who wrote which. Check back later today for other highlights from the short list of the year’s worst writing in books. (Yes, Danielle Steel is a finalist, too.) Or see the 11 posts on Feb. 28, the short list and a separate post on each finalist. See the Feb. 27 post for questions and answers about the Delete Key Awards.

I would appreciate it if you would forward this post or others about the Delete Key Awards to anyone who might like to know about them, especially if you have friends in the media or at major Web sites, because for some reason, The New York Times has not seen fit to cover the Delete Key Awards the way it covers the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prizes. Cancel your subscriptions! And bookmark One-Minute Book Reviews to avoid missing the announcement of the winner, which will be posted before noon tomorrow.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 13, 2007

Was This Line From Thomas Harris’s ‘Hannibal Rising’ the Worst Sentence in a Book Published in 2006?

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Fiction,Novels,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:39 pm

“Our family, we are somewhat unusual people, Hannibal.”

No, Thomas Harris wasn’t trying to be funny there. That line was a serious comment made by an uncle to young Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising. Is it bad enough to win the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition for the year’s worst writing in books?

You have until the end of the day on Wednesday, March 14, to comment. The winner will be announced on Thursday, March 15. A review of Hannibal Rising appeared on this site on Jan. 23, 2007, and is archived with the January posts and in the “Mysteries and Thrillers” category.

Another example of the stilted prose in the novel turns up when Harris writes, “Hannibal walked Lady Murasaki to her very chamber door …” As opposed to her “not very” chamber door?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Is This Line From Claire Messud’s ‘The Emperor’s Children’ the Worst Line in a Book Published in 2006?

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Fiction,Novels,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 pm

“It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.”

Lines like this helped to make Claire Messud’s overrated The Emperor’s Children (Knopf, 2006) a finalist for a 2007 Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books. Among the problems: That “leadening” wasn’t literal but metaphorical, and the sentence is infested with clichés

Messud also writes that a character “never knew in life whether to be Pierre or Natasha, the solitary, brooding loner or the vivacious social butterfly.” As opposed to a loner who isn’t solitary?

Should Messud win the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition? Or should the honor go to a finalist such as Mitch Albom or Danielle Steel? You have until the end of the day tomorrow to comment. One-Minute Book Reviews will name the winner on Thursday, March 15. You can find more about The Emperor’s Children in a review archived with the October 2006 posts and in the “Novels” category on this site.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 12, 2007

Flannery O’Connor on ‘Compassion’ in Writing … Quote of the Day #13

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Essays and Reviews,Literature,Quotes of the Day,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:57 pm

Flannery O’Connor on “compassionate” writers …

“It’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult for him to be anti-anything.”

Flannery O’Connor in “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Selected and Edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969).

Comment by Janice Harayda …

“Compassionate” is also a word that that no critic can do without unless she substitutes “generous.” Why are the book reviews in Sunday newspapers so often dull? O’Connor has identified one of the reasons. Too many editors allow critics to substitute fuzzy words like “compassionate” for tough-minded analysis or interesting perceptions. O’Connor, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Mystery and Manners is a classic book of essays on writing filled with sharp comments like today’s Quote of the Day. This collection was on the syllabus in the journalism classes I took with Donald M. Murray at the University of New Hampshire and has helped to shape my style of reviewing. I strive for the mix of wit, clarity and intelligence that pervades Mystery and Manners, a book I recommend to all writers and hope someday to review on this site.

Once I dated professor who wanted make his writing less academic. I took him to a bookstore, pulled Mystery and Manners off a shelf, and showed him a few passages. He said, “I have to have this,” and bought it. He dumped me but kept the book.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Deborah Garrison Finds Poetry at the Intersection of Work and Motherhood

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Poetry,Reading,Women,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:55 am

The loves and losses of a woman trying to keep a career and family afloat

The Second Child: Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Random House, 76 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

On the cover of Deborah Garrison’s A Working Girl Can’t Win there’s an elegant black-and-white photograph by Irving Penn that shows two chic women – both young-ish, reed-thin and smoking — languishing at a café table. You might think they were having brunch in Tribeca or the Meatpacking District until you looked the date of the picture and saw that it appeared in Vogue in 1950, long before those districts became favored addresses for stylish New Yorkers.

That cover is brilliant for reasons that go beyond its use of fashion photography instead of the tasteful watercolors of fruits and vegetables you see more often on poetry books. The two people who appear on it could be archetypes of those most likely to identify with Garrison’s work – urbane, intelligent women who have everything except the level of satisfaction they expected their manicured lives to bring.

Garrion’s second collection, The Second Child, consists of 33 poems about the interection of work and motherhood in an age of large and small anxieties – from fears of another terrorist attack to regrets about missed chances to listen to NPR and serve as a playground monitor. Garrison is a former staff member at the New Yorker who is an editor for Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon, and the title may be, in part, a slightly self-mocking send-up of a publishing cliché. (Is there a writer so original that he or she has never referred to a book as his or her “child”?) If so, the wordplay is is fair representation of The Second Child – a smart and funny collection that is at times just a little glib.

Some of the lesser poems in this book resemble anecdotes in verse, written on the wing. In “To the Man in a Loden Coat,” the working mother who narrates the poems nearly explodes with frustration at a traveler on an escalator at the Port Authority Bus Terminal whose failure to grasp a law of New York life — “walk on the left,/stand on the right” — may cause her to miss the 5:25. The poem suggests how quickly a competent woman may be undone by bottled-up pressures the moment she leaves the office, but you might get as much from dipping into The Bitch in the House.

The best poems in The Second Child rise much higher. Perhaps the finest is a meditation on Sept. 11, “September Poem.” After the terrorist attacks, the working mother wants to have another child, but there’s a problem:

The idea of sex a further horror:
To take pleasure in a collision

Of bodies was vile, self-centered, too lush.

In these lines and others, Garrison suggests how public tragedy can impinge on the most joyous and private of acts. And a shadow remains after she and her husband have created a new life

Which might in any case
end in towering sorrow.

Throughout The Second Child, Garrison works in varied meters, rhymed and unrhymed, and forms that include the sonnet and the sestina. Her city poem “Goodbye, New York” has the anapestic bounce of a Cole Porter-ish Broadway show tune:

You were the pickles, you were the jar
You were the prizefight we watched in a bar

It ends with a final salute to:

my skyline, my byline, my buzzer and door
now you’re the dream we lived before

This kind of sentiment is entertaining, if not deep, despite subtleties such as the lack of punctuation after “before” – the last word of the poem – suggesting a continuing enjambment with the city. And if some of it seems too easy, the same quality could make The Second Child ideal for a working mother who wonders if “too easy” will ever be easy enough.

Best Line: All of “September Poem,” which begins: “Now can I say?/ On that blackest day …”

Worst Line: Part of a description of childbirth in “Birth Day Pun”: “A smoldering butt!/ That’s how it is:” That may be “how it is,” but it makes the woman giving birth sound like a pork butt.

Reading Group Guide: A reading group guide to The Second Child appears in the March 12 post directly below this one and is archived in the “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides” category.

Published: February 2007 www.randomhouse.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Second Child: Poems’ by Deborah Garrison

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Libraries,Poetry,Reading,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:54 am

 

10 Discussion Questions for Reading Groups
About Deborah Garrison’s The Second Child: Poems

 

This reading group was not authorized by the author, publisher, or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Reading groups that wish to use this guide should send links to members or use the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Deborah Garrison’s The Second Child is a collection of 33 poems about the intersection of work and motherhood in an age of large and small anxieties – from fears of another terrorist attack to regrets about missed chances to be playground monitor. A former senior editor of the New Yorker, Garrison is an editor at Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon books. She also wrote A Working Girl Can’t Win: And Other Poems (Random House, 1998).

Questions For Reading Groups about The Second Child

1) The title poem in a collection often expresses a theme or the prevailing mood of a book. Is this true in The Second Child? What ideas in the poem “The Second Child” recur in different forms in other poems in the collection?

2) One of the strongest poems in this book, “September Poem,” deals with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks, Garrison decides to have another child. But she says didn’t do that for the obvious reason that when people die “ … we want, crudely pining,/ To replace them with more people.” Why did she have another child? How does this poem differ from other things you’ve read about Sept. 11? What does this poem show you that newspaper and other reports didn’t?

3) The dust jacket of The Second Child calls the book “a meditation on the extraordinariness resident in the everyday – nursing babies, missing the past, knowing when to lead a child and knowing when to let go.” What are some poems in which Garrison shows the extraordinary in the ordinary? What details illustrate that quality?

4) David Orr said that what’s known as “the New Yorker poem” consists “basically of an epiphany-centered lyric.” [“Annals of Poetry, The New York Times Book Review, March 11, 2007, p. 31.) Seven poems in The Second Child appeared first in the New Yorker. Do those poems fit that definition? Which poems involve an epiphany?

5) Some poems in The Second Child, such as “A Drink in the Night,” resemble anecdotes in verse. How does Garrison turn these into something more than cute the stories about children that you might find in a women’s magazine? In “A Drink in the Night,” does she use the invented “cup” as a metaphor for something else? What?

6) One of Garrison’s more unusual poems is “Sestina for the Working Mother.” A sestina is a fixed verse form in which six end-words recur in a set order in six stanzas and a three-line envoi (a coda or postscript). This centuries-old form might seem an odd choice for a modern woman who reflects, in part, on her reduced opportunities to listen to public radio and be a PTA mother. Why might Garrison have written a sestina instead of, say, a sonnet or haiku? How do the lives of working mothers resemble sestinas? For example, do mothers do tasks that may vary in order from one day to the next?

7) Garrison uses other traditional forms, such as the sonnet. But she doesn’t follow the familiar rhyme scheme the Shakespearean sonnet, abab cdcd efef gg. The end-words don’t start to rhyme until Lines 7 and 8 in “Unbidden Sonnet With Evergreen” and until Line 11 in “Song After Everyone’s Asleep.” What might explain this? Do the changes in rhyme relate to shifts in the tone or ideas of the poem?

8) You could argue that the most Shakespearean poem in The Second Child is the first, “On New Terms,” which uses the blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) that Shakespeare often used. In this poem some words or syllables rhyme in unexpected places (“most/ghost”). How do the forms of these sonnets add to or detract from their effects? Could Garrison be using these forms to express something about the role of women caught between traditional and new roles? [If you see an emoticon instead of the number 8 in front of this question, it is accidental.]

9) Although often meditative, the poems in this book can also be jaunty. The Cole Porter-ish “Goodbye, New York” sounds like a Broadway show tune: “You were the pickles, you were the jar/ you were the prize fight we watched in a bar.” It sounds that way partly because Garrison uses the bouncy anapestic meter (two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed) instead of the iambic (one unstressed followed by one stressed) of “On New Terms.” Anapestic is one of the most popular meters in children’s poems. You can almost hear an echo of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in lines like: “my skyline, my byline, my buzzer and door/ now you’re the dream we lived before.” Have you read any children’s poems that use anapestic meter? (Hint: This was Dr. Seuss’s favorite.) Do you see other places where Garrison uses meter to achieve an effect?

10) If you’ve read A Working Girl Can’t Win, how does The Second Child resemble or differ from that one in tone and content? How is Garrison evolving as a poet?

Vital statistics:
The Second Child: Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Random House, 76 pp., $19.95.

A Working Girl Can’t Win: And Other Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Modern Library, 80 pp., $7.95 , paperback. www.randomhouse.com

A review of The Second Child appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 12, 2007, and is archived in the “Poetry” category and with the March posts.

Your book group may also want to read:

Late for Work. By David Tucker. Mariner, 64 pp., $12, paperback. Tucker, a newspaper editor, writes about his work in a witty and poignant book of poems that won Breadloaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Poetry Prize. www.houghtonmifflinbooks/mariner/

Late Wife: Poems. By Claudia Emerson. LSU Press/Southern Messenger Poets Series, $54 pp., $16.95, paperback. Emerson writes about divorce and remarriage in a collection that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. www.lsu.edu/lsupress/

Reference Books:
The Poetry Dictionary: Second Edition. By John Drury. Foreword by Dana Goia. Writer’s Digest Books, 374 pp., $14.99, paperback. A guide to the different types of poetry (including the most common rhymes, meters, stanzas, and more) with more than 250 poems that illustrate the terms. This book describes many forms or techniques that Garrison uses, such as sonnet, end-rhyme, and sestina.

If this guide helped you, please check the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews for others and forward this link to members of book clubs. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, agents, or authors. And its reviews and reading group guides are completely independent and do not reflect the marketing concerns that may influence creators of other guides.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 10, 2007

Do Christian Themes Kill Your Chances of Winning a Newbery Medal? Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘A Drowned Maiden’s Hair’

A gripping neo-Gothic novel snubbed by the American Library Association

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Candlewick, 389 pp., $15.99. Ages 10 & up. [See further discussion of these ages below.]

By Janice Harayda

Do Christian themes kill your chances of winning top honors from American Library Association? You might think so after reading two also-rans for the 2007 Newbery Medal for the “most distinguished” work of children’s literature, Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair.

The winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, has many virtues discussed in a Feb. 19 review on this site, particularly its vibrant descriptions of the Mojave Desert and engaging illustrations by Matt Phelan. But Susan Patron’s underdeveloped plot helps to make her novel at best a B/B-minus book.

DiCamillo’s Christian allegory, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, doesn’t have that problem. Neither does A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, a gripping neo-Gothic first novel that has more complex themes and shows a stronger command of language and storytelling than the winner.

Then why did Schitz’s novel get shut out of the medals? Consider the plot: In 1909 a high-spirited 11-year-old named Maud Flynn rejoices when she learns she is to be adopted by a trio of unmarried sisters who promise her treats like “ready-made dresses” and bacon instead the gritty oatmeal served at the Barbary Asylum for Orphans.

But Maud grows uneasy when she learns that the women are fake spiritualists who expect her to take part in séances intended to con the rich widow Eleanor Lambert into thinking that she’s hearing from her dead daughter. A sister named Hyacinth tells Maud: “Any minister worth his salt would tell her she would see her daughter in heaven. But Eleanor Lambert doesn’t want to see her daughter in heaven. She wants her now.” Hyacinth adds that Mrs. Lambert “wants to resurrect the dead – which is impossible.”

Anyone who has read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane may see a theme emerging: While DiCamillo’s novel implicitly affirms the possibility of resurrection, Schlitz’s explicitly denies it. And A Drowned Maiden’s Hair goes further by casting the superintendent of the Barbary Asylum as a religious hypocrite who treats children cruelly while displaying a picture of Jesus and the words: “Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me.” The ALA might have snubbed DiCamillo’s novel for fear of appearing to promote Christianity (although many librarians have no trouble recommending The Chronicles of Narnia, also regarded as a Chrisitan allegory). But Schlitz doesn’t promote it. Has even a historically appropriate mention of religious hypocrisy become taboo? Must authors shun any mention of Christianity to win an ALA award? Books about other faiths don’t seem to face the same obstacles. A Caldecott Honor citation went in 2006 to Zen Shorts, a picture book about Buddhism.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair isn’t flawless. From a literary standpoint, Schlitz makes two big mistakes. Children may not notice one because the story is so suspenseful: Schlitz tells her story from Maud’s point of view but sometimes credits her heroine with ideas that are unrealistic for her. At the orphanage Maud led a life so sheltered that she can’t remember ever having gone outside at night. But she soon encourages one of her new caretakers to wear her hair in a pompadour because it’s “stylish.” How would she know? Maud also reflects that the books at the orphanage were “mostly moral tales.” This is an accurate but adult characterization of what she would have been reading. The problem becomes clear when you compare A Drowned Maiden’s Hair with another novel about a distant era, Little House on the Prairie, which works so beautifully, in part, because Laura Ingalls Wilder never makes such slips: She tells you only what Laura, her young heroine, would have seen or thought. Children love the book partly because they understand – even if they can’t express it — that it shows the world from their point of view.

The second mistake Schlitz makes is that she has Maud’s older brother, Samm’l, adopted by other parents, appear early in the book and promise to send for her after he gets his own farm, though Maud never sees or hears from him again after that. Parents, I ask you: If you promise your child something like this, will your child forget it? No, and the readers of this book aren’t going to forget it, either. Schlitz seems to have inserted a scene involving the brother either because she wanted to add background about Maud without larding the novel with exposition or because she is setting up a sequel. Either way, it’s a cheat.

None of this spoils the pleasure of reading the novel. Schlitz has spent much of her life working as a professional storyteller. And as befits that background, she grabs your attention with a terrific beginning and sustains a level of suspense as high as you are likely to find in any children’s novel of 2006. And A Drowned Maiden’s Hair does more than tell a captivating story. It asks children to consider large questions such as: What does it mean to be “good”? To what degree are you responsible for your own actions if adults require you to act a certain way? Can material comforts – like pretty clothes and ice-cream sodas – bring happiness? And, yes, is there life after death?

“People throw the word ‘classic’ about rather a lot,” Megan Cox Gordon wrote in the Wall Street Journal, ‘but A Drowned Maiden’s Hair genuinely deserves to become one.” Fortunately, when librarians have snubbed worthy books, such as Tuck Everlasting, children usually have the last word.

Best line: The first: “On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was in the outhouse, singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”

Worst line: Maud’s comment: “Pompadours are stylish. And a pompadour would make your face look taller.”

Age level: The moral questions raised by this novel justify the “ages 10 and up” recommendation from the publisher. But the story would fascinate many younger children, too (and has no sex or “bad words” that would rule it out in some homes). One way to think of A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is that it’s a good book for children who loved the period details of “Little House” series (typically recommended for ages 6–9) but recently have outgrown it and are ready for a story that is more challenging.

Published: October 2006

Furthermore: Schlitz also wrote the biography The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer Who Dug for Troy (Candlewick, 2006, ages 9-12), illustrated by Robert Byrd. [Note: I haven't read The Hero Schliemann. Can any parents, teachers, or librarians comment on the book for visitors who might like to know more about Schlitz's work? Jan]

Links: www.candlewick.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 8, 2007

Guiseppe Pontiggia’s Great Novel About Fatherhood, ‘Born Twice’

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:57 pm

Born Twice. By Giuseppe Pontiggia. Translated from the Italian by Oonagh Stransky. Vintage, 192 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

When was the last time you read a great novel about fatherhood? I don’t mean a book about a man who has children who are incidental to the plot or a Victorian patriarch worried about dynastic succession. I mean one about a man who has a serious emotional involvement in the joy and pain of raising a child in the modern world.

Born Twice is perhaps the best novel of the past decade about the ordinary cruelties inflicted on children with disabilities – in this case, as observed by a father whose son, Paolo, suffered brain damage during a breech birth. This not the kind of sentimental book that critics call “heartwarming” – it is novel about physical and emotional struggle, leavened with a dry wit and a sense of life’s fragile victories. But is nonetheless a love story about one man’s conflicted responses the injustices faced by his son from infancy to young adulthood — taunts, stares, condescension, indifference, bureaucratic obstinacy.

Guiseppe Pontiggia won Italy’s highest literary award, the Strega Prize, for Born Twice, and its prose has a lyrical stoicism reminiscent of that of the books his late countrywoman, Natalia Ginzburg. More’s the pity that he died, in 2003, just as his work was beginning to find an American audience.

Best Line: A doctor tells Paolo’s father: “These children are born twice. They have to learn to get by in a world that their first birth made difficult for them. Their second birth depends on you, on what you can give them. Because they are born twice, their journey through life is a far more agonizing one than most. Yet ultimately their rebirth will be yours too.”

Worst Line: None.

Recommended … without reservations. This novel raises many questions with rich potential for reading groups, including men’s book clubs. See the reading group guide to Born Twice in the March 8 post below this one for some of them.

Caveat lector: This review does not attempt to evaluate the accuracy of Oonagh Stransky’s traslation.

Published: October 2002 (Knopf hardcover) and October 2003 (Vintage paperback).

Links: www.amazon.com/Born-Twice-Giuseppe-Pontiggia/dp/03757278/

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All Rights Reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Guiseppe Pontiggia’s Great Novel of Fatherhood, ‘Born Twice’

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Novels,Reading,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:57 pm

10 Discussion Questions
for Born Twice
by Guiseppe Pontigga

This reading group was not authorized by the author, publisher, or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Reading groups that wish to use this guide should send links to members or check the “Contact” page on this site to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Giuseppe Pontiggia (1934–2003) won Italy’s highest literary honor, the Strega Prize, for Born Twice, a novel about a father who tries to understand his brain-damaged son and deal with the cruelties inflicted on children with disabilities. A review of the book appeared on March 8, 2007, on One-Minute Book Reviews and is archived in “Novels” category and with the March 2007 posts on that site.

Questions For Reading Groups about Born Twice

1) The cover of the paperback edition describes Born Twice as “a novel of fatherhood.” How accurate is that description? What is this book “about” besides fatherhood?

2) Born Twice is about a teacher whose son, Paolo, suffered brain damage at birth. [Page 21] Paolo has dystonic spastic quadriparesis, which affects his ability to speak and move. [Page 25] Compared with other books about serious conditions, Born Twice offers relatively few medical details. It doesn’t analyze research on the disease or end with a prognosis for Paolo’s adult life. When doctors appear, Pontiggia tends to focus on their personal reactions to his son’s condition. Why?

3) Pontiggia said in interviews that Born Twice grew partly out of his experiences but that he didn’t want to write an autobiography because it would have “enslaved me to the literality of facts.” And some critics have called the book a “fictionalized memoir.” How might your view of the book differ if the author had called it a “memoir” instead of a “novel”? How would it differ if you learned that Pontiggia didn’t have a brain-damaged child and had made everything up? What are some of things that make this book succeed despite the ambiguity about its genre?

4) Questions about what is and isn’t “normal” arise frequently in the novel, including in the chapter, “What Is Normal?” [Page 28] But Pontiggia’s message is more complex than, “People with disabilities are normal” or “People with disabilities aren’t normal.” What is saying about what we call “normality”?

5) Frigerio suggests ”it’s not by denying the existence of difference that we can fight it, but by modifying our image of the norm.” [Page 28] Translator Lawrence Venuti praised the idea in a review of Born Twice but added: “Yet this remark erases important distinctions — is race or sex the same as a birth defect? — and seems to argue for the misguided notion that one must ‘fight’ difference instead of negotiating or respecting it. Still, Frigerio’s memoir compellingly argues that the limitations of others can be valuable in revealing our own.” [The New York Times Book Review, Oct. 13, 2002] Pontiggia does at times seem to draw parallels between cruelty to people with disabilities and mistreatment groups such as homosexuals or women who victimized by “psychological rapists.” [Page 54] What do you think he is saying in this book about Italian society or Western culture?

6) A psychiatrist might say that Frigerio and his wife, Franca, were at first “in denial” about their son’s disability. For example, they reject a physiotherapist who shows them how Paolo may walk. [Page 27] But Pontiggia and his translator avoid the word “denial” and other terms that we are used to hearing in discussions of serious medical conditions. How does his book benefit from this?

7) Frigerio’s 80-year-old father-in-law loses memory late in the book because his cerebral cortex has begun to atrophy. [Page 182] His situation has obvious similarities to Paolo’s, so this section helps to give the novel thematic and structural cohesion. Pontiggia uses scenes involving other characters in this way, too. What are some of them?

8) The tone of this book shifts at times – for example, from outrage to humor. What parts do you find ironic or amusing? Why do you think the tonal shifts occur? How would you describe the overall tone of the book? [If you see an emoticon instead of the number 8, it is accidental.]

9) Pontiggia is an epigrammatic writer who salts his book with memorable lines such as, “”No autocrat ever had as much power as the one who ignores all the limits.” [Page 62] What are your favorite lines?

10) Many novels about illness involve medical breakthroughs or near-death experiences that lead to major changes in at least one character. Not Born Twice. The most dramatic event occurs in the first pages when Paolo is born. What are some of the ways in which Frigerio does change? What kind of transformations have occurred in him and others by the last page?

Extra:

Born Twice won the Strega Prize, Italty’s highest literary honor. How does it compare to recent novels you have read that have won American prizes such as the National Book Award? Do you think this novel could have won a major award here? Why or why not?

Vital statistics:
Born Twice. By Giuseppe Pontiggia. Translated From the Italian by Oonagh Stransky, 192 pp., Vintage, $13, paperback. Published: October 2003.

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One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 7, 2007

Henry James’s Epistolary Style: Quote of the Day #11

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Literature,Quotes of the Day,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:35 pm

Leon Edel on Henry James’s style of writing letters …

“Henry James was incapable of offering a thought without pinning a flower in its button-hole and the reverse of this was that he could disguise the absence of thought by the shameless gilding of his own verbal lilies.”

Leon Edel in the introduction to The Selected Letters of Hentry James. Edited and with an introduction by Leon Edel (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1955).

Comment by Janice Harayda:

But weren’t some of those flowers magnificent! I’m posting this for those of you who have wondered while reading all of my comments on the 2007 Newbery Medal controvery, “Has this woman ever read a book that doesn’t have the word ‘scrotum’ in it?” Thanks for staying with me through the uproar. I’m back to writing about books for grown-ups later today or tomorrow.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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