One-Minute Book Reviews

June 11, 2007

The Bluebird of Unhappiness: ‘The Empty Nest,’ Edited by Karen Stabiner

What happens when the parents are home alone instead of the children?

[Note: This review has been expanded since the original post.]

The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop. Edited by Karen Stabiner. Hyperion/Voice, 320 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Just last week, a professor of family studies told the Washington Post that the idea of the empty-nest syndrome has been pretty much debunked by scholars. Some parents, she added, feel more regret than others when children leave home. But “it’s not a widespread syndrome” now that e-mail and cell phones make it easier to keep in touch.

Other scholars have found that – contrary to the idea that mothers feel the most pain when the nest empties – men have more problems than women when children leave home. Women expect the departure of children to be difficult, so they plan (and often grieve in advance) for it. Men are less likely to see the event as a major transition, so they don’t prepare as well and express more regrets about lost opportunities to connect with their offspring.

Then why do we need a book that perpetuates some of the ideas scholars have debunked, especially when only seven of 31 contributors are men? Ellen Levine, a former editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping, says that mothers still have a hard time with separations from their children: “The dads … no problem.” Yet the idea that fathers have “no problem” with separations is exactly what a growing number of scholars – and some men in this book — dispute. If fathers don’t show their grief, all those repressed emotions may catch up with them when the children leave home for good.

A clue to the purpose of The Empty Nest comes from the publisher, which has tagged it “self-help/inspiration.” This is a bizarre label for an essay collection that, with its mix of dread and tears, reads at times like a cross between a Stephen King novel and Paris Hilton’s weepy courtroom outburst on getting sent back to jail.

Editor Karen Stabiner sets the tone when she writes that it will be “intolerable” when her daughter goes to college. Martha Schuur says she sank into “uncontrollable crying” when she dropped her firstborn off at school. Jamie Wolf felt “perpetual despair” when her daughter moved from California to New York. Hilary Mills “dreaded” her son’s “panic-inducing” departure, which became “bleakest day” of her marriage. Fran Visco knows that she could do things like going to Canyon Ranch now that her son’s away, but she’s too “brokenhearted” and lets herself “wallow in the sadness.” An unintentionally comical scene comes from Grace Saltzstein, who began “freaking out” after installing her daughter in an apartment at UCLA. What had unhinged her? Her daughter’s roommates had gotten to the place first … and left her the top bunk! And only one drawer! To judge by survivors’ accounts, many people who went down with the Titanic showed more fortitude as the ship sank than some contributors to The Empty Nest did as they sent their children off to the kind of colleges that provide students with maid service and Asian-fusion meals.

As if to comfort themselves in their trials, an alarming number of writers abandon any qualms they may have had about bragging about their children. Schuur wants you to know that her daughter Kelly is “pure goodness, always there for family and friends.” Glynna Freeman tells us that she has raised “three bright, beautiful, and really nice people.” Annette Duffy reports that if she “mourned” when her son Ben went to school, she was grieving for a child who was “handsome as the day” and “a nationally ranked freestyler.” Fabiola Santiago says that her daughter got into “the top university in our state,” but Susan Crandell one-ups her by pointing out that her child got into “one of the top schools in the country.” Perhaps the most perceptive comment in this book appears in an e-mail Charles “Chip” McGrath got after he wrote a piece for The New Yorker, reprinted in The Empty Nest, about dropping his son off at college. “It’s interesting, and typical, that people who love their children very much approach this moment in their children’s lives with almost total self-absorption,” his correspondent wrote. Almost total?

A striking aspect of many of the women’s stories — more so than in the men’s — is how unwilling their authors are to explore whether anything might be causing their pain except for a child’s departure. Did some women regret having worked so hard and not spending more time with their children? Did they have problems in their marriages and dread spending time alone with a spouse? Did they feel a spiritual void, having made motherhood into a surrogate religion? If so, they aren’t telling. Nor are they telling whether they drank, took Paxil or Prozac or went into therapy, even though some of their symptoms resemble those of clinical depression.

Good statistics on the divorce rate among people over 50 are hard to find, partly because many states don’t record the ages of couples who split up. But experts generally agree that it’s going up, partly because baby boomers’ children are leaving home, and in every generation, many couples wait to separate until the nest empties. Yet not one of the 31 contributors reports that his or her marriage took a serious hit when a child left. Maybe it’s true. Or maybe this is a “feel good about feeling bad book” that legitimizes lesser problems while sweeping bigger ones under the rug.

Stabiner seems to have tried to deflect criticism that this book promotes stereotypes of women by recruiting some feminist firepower. And to a degree, it works. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Anna Quindlen and Ellen Goodman rise above solipsism in their essays and try put empty nests in a social context. Pogrebin says that her stage of life has advantages: “Not having to worry about where your children are at two in the morning frees you up to worry about global warming.” Quindlen argues, rightly, that her generation has “professionalized” motherhood, but goes around the bend when she concludes that for this reason, “the empty nest is emptier than every before.” No, Anna, your nest will not be “emptier” than that of women like Rochelle Reed’s grandmother, who sent four sons into World War II; one son, Reed writes, “was eaten by sharks after his plane crashed during a South Pacific monsoon.”

Of all the contributors, Goodman grapples most effectively with an issue at the heart of The Empty Nest: Isn’t this book a throwback to the 1950s? Isn’t the departure of children less traumatic now that women have more professional opportunities? Goodman says that she used to think mothers who had rewarding work “might avoid the cliché of an empty-nest syndrome.” But she doubts it now that her daughter has lived away from home for two decades. In her 60s, Goodman hasn’t lost her desire to integrate work and family, so she has revised her juggling act to accommodate a grandchild and stepgrandchild: “Think of it as Juggling Lite.” Her young relations are happy with the arrangement. So the question – for Goodman as for many other parents — has changed. It is no longer “How can I avoid the empty-nest syndrome?” It is, simply, “What empty nest?”

Despite such worthy essays, much of this book remains disheartening. The second wave of feminists fought passionately to show employers and others that women didn’t wallow in emotion but could remain tough and level-headed in the most difficult circumstances. On the evidence of The Empty Nest women are reclaiming their right to wallow. This a book in the Oprah mold, which ascribes more authenticity to experiences the more painful they are. Gloria Steinem used to say that many women were “man junkies.” And like much of our culture as a whole, The Empty Nest leaves the impression that some have become “child junkies” instead. Is it really a step forward to have traded one addiction for another?

Best line: Anna Quindlen’s: “Motherhood has changed from a role into a calling. Our poor kids.” The best overall essays come from McGrath, Goodman and Roxana Robinson.

Worst line: Anna Quindlen’s: “The end result is that the empty nest is emptier than ever before …” Apart from its off-the-wall implication that today’s stay-at-home investment bankers have it worse than parents who saw their children get drafted during the Vietnam War or look for jobs during the Depression, that “end result” is painful, too.

Caveat lector: The review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Conflict alert: I’ve had encounters with a number of contributors to this book that other critics might or might not see as conflicts. For example, I used to be in a writers’ group with Ellen Goodman’s sister, whom I haven’t seen in nearly 20 years. All the other encounters are all similarly distant.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book was posted just before this review on June 11 and is archived with the June posts. You can find the publishers’ guide, which is less extensive, at www.everywomansvoice.com.

Editor: Leslie Wells

Published: May 2007

Links: Karen Fingerman, a professor of developmental and family studies at Purdue, spoke about the myth of the empty-nest syndrome in “How to Make the Best of an Empty Nest,” by Jennifer Huget, the Washington Post, June 5, 2007, page HE04. For a discussion of the different effects of the empty nest on men and women, see Rebecca A. Clay’s “An Empty Nest Can Promote Freedom, Improved Relationships” in the American Psychological Association Online, April 2003. To find the article, Google “Rebecca Clay + Empty Nest + APA.”

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent book review site created by Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com, 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. It does not accept free books or other materials from editors, publishers or authors. At least 50 percent of the book reviewed on the site are by women. Reviews of books by female authors typically appear on Mondays and Wednesdays and books by male authors on Tuesdays and Thursdays with the other days up for grabs. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 30, 2007

Atul Gawande Takes the Pulse of the Medical Profession

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:18 pm
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True or false: More people go crazy when the moon is full.

If you said “true,” you probably haven’t read Atul Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (Picador, $14, paperback), a stylish collection of essays by a Boston surgeon and contributor to The New Yorker. Gawande reviewed more than a hundred studies of how lunar phases affect human behavior after his fellow doctors warned him to expect more hospital admissions when the moon was full. He found that researchers had pored over all kinds of evidence – police logs, homicide statistics, emergency room visits and consultations with psychiatrists. The result? There’s no relation at all between craziness and the full moon. Some studies have suggested the opposite – that full moon has a beneficial effect on human behavior.

This is the kind of fascinating material regularly dispensed by Gawande, who also wrote the new Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (Metropolitan, $24). The essays in Complications deal with subjects from doctors’ mistakes to patients with terrifying diseases like necrotizing fasciitis (known, somewhat misleadingly, “flesh-eating bacteria”). Gawande often takes controversial positions. He challenges the idea – cherished by many doctors – that surgeons need “good hands,” saying the continual practice of surgery matters more. (Doesn’t the quality of the practice matter? What about education? Can practice make you a great surgeon if you went to a medical school or work at a hospital that’s a step away from losing its accreditation?) But part of the appeal of Complications is that Gawande www.gawande.com has the courage to risk saying things other doctors won’t and the rhetorical skill to give his views force. He never hides behind a cardboard shield of medical omniscience. And he deals with a wider and more offbeat range of medical topics than physician-authors like Oliver Sacks and Sherwin Nuland. So you may enjoy Complications even if you couldn’t get through The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat or How We Die.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 24, 2007

How Do You Know When a Marriage Is Over? Women Tell Why They Left or Stayed With Their Husbands

Filed under: Book Reviews,Essays and Reviews,Memoirs,Reading,Relationships,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:33 pm

The turning points in a marriage fall under the scrutiny of 24 female writers, including Terry McMillan, Joyce Maynard and a former Mormon who had to wear “temple-issued undergarments”

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

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 8, 2007

Women Talk About Their Miscarriages

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews,Reading,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:44 pm

Twenty writers tell how it feels when a pregnancy ends

About What Was Lost: Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope. Edited by Jessica Berger Gross. Penguin/Plume, 288 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Collections of essays reflect the tastes of their editors, so you may find it helpful to know that Jessica Berger Gross calls herself “an organic-eating, yoga-teaching, Birkenstock-wearing granola girl.” When she miscarried after eight and a half weeks, she sobbed for days, partly because she had to put aside her dreams of “the short list of literary French names I’d choose from” and “the chic Santa Monica baby store where we’d shop.”

No doubt Gross makes herself sound shallower than she is, but her self-portrait tells you something about this collection of essays by women who miscarried between the sixth and twenty-third weeks of their pregnancies. About What Was Lost resists deep engagement with the theme described on its cover – that many women find “that instead of simply grieving for the end of a pregnancy, they are mourning the loss of a child.” Contributors to the book tend to focus on their feelings of pain and grief, and how they absorbed them, not on the complex social, medical and religious questions miscarriage can raise.

But most entries are well written, and some transcend the limits of the collection. Novelist Caroline Leavitt and poet Rachel Zucker offer trenchant and perceptive essays that deal in part with the rude comments that others made about their miscarriages. One of Leavitt’s friends cheered by giving her a handmade book of hypothetical replies to people who said things like, “At least you didn’t know the baby.” (“Yeah, and if I had, I know he would have hated you!”) Zucker heard another strain of false comfort – “these things happen for a reason” – that got on her nerves. She had to stop herself from making hostile comebacks such as, “Perhaps when the baby heard all the people around me using stupid, trite clichés like these things happen for a reason the baby thought life wasn’t worth living.” Other contributors, too, faced insensitivity, which suggests both why this collection was needed and a paradox: The people most likely to read this book are women who have miscarried, but the people who need it most may be their friends.

Best line: Rebecca Johnson, a contributing editor of Vogue, writes of a pregnancy that ended after six weeks: “One out of four pregnancies ends in miscarriage; this was simply nature’s way of saying ‘Not this one, not yet.’ As a fertility doctor whom I interviewed once said to me, ‘Nature is extraordinarily wasteful when it comes to reproduction. Look at all the acorns on the forest floor.’”

Worst line: The title About What Was Lost. The title conflicts with the theme: If miscarriage often feels more like “the loss of a child” than the end of pregnancy, why wasn’t this book called About Who Was Lost?

Editor: Danielle Friedman

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

Furthermore: Other contributors include journalist Joyce Maynard, novelists Sylvia Brownrigg and Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and Pam Houston, author of the short story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness. Julianna Baggott’s entry takes the form of a dialogue with her husband, the token male in the book.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary site that covers books by all kinds of people “from presidents and kings to the scum of the earth,” as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine might say. At least 50 percent of all reviews cover books by women, with reviews of books by female authors typically appearing on Monday and Wednesday and books by male authors on Tuesday and Thursday.

March 23, 2007

Ranking the 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived From Prometheus to Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,General,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:06 am

Nancy Drew and Archie Bunker meet Hamlet and Pandora in a guide to fictional power players

The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived: How Characters of Fiction, Myth, Legends, Television, and Movies Have Shaped Our Culture, Changed Our Behavior, and Set the Course of History. By Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. Harper, 317 pp., $13.95 paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Publishers have a phrase for books like The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived – “an impulse buy at the bookstore.” Boy, do they know me. I can’t remember what I was looking when I saw this book near the cash register at a bookstore. Whatever it was, it’s vanished from my mind last week’s episode of Wife Swap. But I keep dipping into this dish of literary tacos with mild salsa.

Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter had the idea of selecting and ranking the 101 most influential people who never existed, giving you a few pages of sprightly text about each and defining “people” loosely enough to encompass King Kong (No. 74), Joe Camel (No. 78) and The Cat in the Hat (No. 79). This concept is nothing new. You can find similar books by searching Amazon for the “dictionary + fictional characters” or in the reference sections at many bookstores.

What is new is the packaging of the book, a trade paperback with a conversational tone instead of the usual professorial door-stopper. So The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived could be a handy book for, say, baby boomers who are having trouble explaining to their grandchildren exactly why Archie Bunker (No. 32) was so different from other sitcom characters of his day. It wasn’t just that he called his liberal son-in-law “Meathead”:

“Archie expressed what ultraconservative white people said behind closed doors on topics such as rape and poverty (the victims were to blame), homosexuality (perverts), militia groups (real Americans), welfare recipients (cheats who took hard-earned money out of his pocket) , college students (all pinko Communists), and support for the Vietnam War (real patriotism).”

Lazar, Karlan and Salter offer no narrative thread to connect the entries, so their essays tend to lack a context. Most readers under 40 might find it easier to fathom how Archie’s bigotry ever made it to prime time if they knew that he descended spiritually from Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) on The Honeymooners, who was always threatening to belt his wife. (“One of these days, Alice – pow! – right in the kisser.”) You could also argue that, for that reason, Kramden and not Bunker belonged on the list. But part of the fun of this book is comparing your list with the authors’ rankings of characters like Hamlet (No. 5), Pandora (No. 47), Prometheus (No. 46), Nancy Drew (No. 62) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (No. 44). Anybody want to argue that Perry Mason (No. 86) had less clout than Ally McBeal?

Best line: About the Marlboro Man (No. 1): “Advertising Age picked the Marlboro Man as the most powerful brand image of the twentieth century.” Why? Philip Morris had marketed Marlboros as a women’s brand that was “Mild As May”: “Marlboro’s new image boosted its sales four-fold from 1955 to 1957, and by 1972 it had become the top cigarette brand both in the nation and the world.” The original Marlboro Man and two other actors used for the role all died from lung cancer or emphysema.

Worst line: About the Loch Ness Monster (No. 56): Nessie is “the most popular tourist attraction in Scotland.” The most popular tourist attraction in Scotland has for years been Edinburgh Castle www.statistics.gov.uk/Scottish+Visitor+Attraction+Monitor. Nessie isn’t even among the top ten on some lists. The rest of this section is also weak. As proof of the nonexistence of the monster, the authors say that the most famous photo of it turned out to be a hoax. What about all the sonar and other scientific reports that have shown that the creature never existed?

Recommended if … you’re not looking for a scholarly reference book but for the views of enthusiastic amateurs who get some facts wrong and serve up essays of inconsistent quality. Some entries are well-written, while others read like rough drafts.

Editors: Carolyn Marino, Jennifer Civiletto and Wendy Lee

Published: October 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 21, 2007

Flannery O’Connor on the Purpose of Symbols in Fiction … Quote of the Day #14

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Essays and Reviews,Fiction,Literature,Novels,Quotes of the Day,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:15 pm

Flannery O’Connor on symbols in fiction …

“Now the word symbol scares a good many people off, just as the word art does. They seem to feel that a symbol is some mysterious thing put in arbitrarily by the writer to frighten the common reader — sort of a literary Masonic grip that is only for the initiated …

“I think that for the fiction writer himself, symbols are something he uses simply as a matter of course. You might say that these are details that, while having their essential place in the literal level of the story, operate in depth as well as on the surface, increasing the story in every direction.

“I think that the way to read a book is always to see what happens, but in a good novel, more always happens than we are able to take in at once, more happens than meets the eye. The mind is led on by what it sees into the greater depths that the book’s symbols naturally suggest. This is what is meant when critics say that a novel operates on several levels. The truer the symbol, the deeper it leads you, the more meaning it opens up.”

Flannery O’Connor in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1969.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
Flannery O’Connor wrote these words more than three decades ago, when symbols might have scared off the common reader but not critics. Have you noticed how symbols now seem to scare critics, too? Newspapers and magazines regularly publish reviews that make no attempt to deal with symbols in long and complex novels that obviously have levels of meaning. This is often a sign that those publications are using weak or timid critics. It can also be a sign that that editors are allowing those critics to avoid dealing with books in all their complexity.

Mystery and Manners is one of the great books of the 20th century on the art and craft of writing. It is one of the few books on writing that I recommend to all fiction writers and readers who look for the “greater depths” in novel or short story. Another quote from Mystery and Manners appears in the March 12 post, archived with the March 2007 posts in and in the “Quotes of the Day” category.

(c) Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 20, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’ by Nora Ephron

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews,Reading,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:42 pm

10 Discussion Questions
I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

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

Nora Ephron is our Ironwoman of the keyboard. Perhaps no living female writer has excelled at a broader range of literary forms: reporting, fiction, screenwriting. Ephron made her name with witty and trenchant articles for Esquire and other magazines, collected in books such as Wallflower at the Orgy (Viking, 1970) and Crazy Salad (Knopf, 1975). She earned Oscar nominations for her screenplays for When Harry Met Sally …, Silkwood, and Sleepless in Seattle, which she also directed. And she wrote one of the signature novels of the 1980s, Heartburn, which included recipes (although, she admits. she left the brown sugar out of her directions for making pears with lima beans, so the recipe in the first edition didn’t work). I Feel Bad About My Neck collects 15 personal essays on topics from cabbage strudel to her internship in JFK’s press office.

Questions for Reading Groups

1. Ephron says that aging isn’t what you might think from all those “utterly useless” books for older women that are “uniformly upbeat and full of bromides and homilies about how pleasant life can be once one is free from all the nagging obligations of children, monthly periods, and, in some cases, full-time jobs.” [Pages 128–129] What is her view of aging?

2. Ephron seems to enjoy her life. But she says that “the honest truth is that it’s sad to be sixty.” [Page 128] Were you persuaded that she thinks it’s “sad”? Or might she have said that because friends had died recently or for other reasons? How well does she make her case that it’s “sad”?

3. Novelist Anna Shapiro said that Ephron isn’t “just writing about vanity or even grief” in I Feel Bad About My Neck: “What she’s really writing about is the insult to our identity that we suffer when we see that unfamiliar face in the mirror—pouchy, crumpling—a face that’s too strong and exaggerated to be our own, and that also seems to have, with all those dark, complicated areas, too many features.” [The New York Observer, Aug. 14, 2006, page 20.] Do you agree with Shapiro? Why or why not?

4. Ephron offers advice about life in “What I Wish I’d Known,” a list that directly precedes her chapter that dismisses as “useless” books that are “uniformly upbeat and full of bromides.” Her list has many lines that might qualify as bromides, such as, “You can order more than one dessert.” [Page 125] Do you see these sections of the book as contradictory? Why or why not?

5. The essays in I Feel Bad About My Neck first appeared in a half dozen publications, including Vogue, The New Yorker and The New York Times. Which essays work best? Does this seem to relate to the publications in which they appeared? Why or why not? How does Ephron’s writing change and stay the same from one publication to the next?

6. Many people have said that women, more than men, have to be what others want them to be. Do you agree? Did you get the sense from I Feel Bad About My Neck that Ephron, successful as she is, had to accommodate her editors? Did she have to accommodate others? In what ways?

7. Ephron called her first book Wallflower at the Orgy because, she said in the introduction, “working as a journalist is exactly like being the wallflower at the orgy.” She added: “I always seem to find myself at a perfectly wonderful event where everyone else is having a marvelous time, laughing merrily, eating, drinking, having sex in the back room, and I am standing on the side, taking notes on it all.” [Page ix] Would you say after reading I Feel Bad About My Neck that her life still has something of that wallflower quality? Why or why not? How do you think Ephron would answer that question?

8. You may have noticed that most of the reviews of I Feel Bad About My Neck were written by women. How do you think men might have reviewed this book?

9. Could – or would – a man have written a book like I Feel Bad About My Neck? Why or why not? What does this say about our culture?

If you have time …
10. Ephron returns in I Feel Bad About My Neck to some topics she explored in earlier books. “The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less” deals with her second marriage, to the journalist Carl Bernstein, and the novel inspired by their divorce, Heartburn. [Pages 105–107] And “Serial Monogamy” is partly about Craig Claiborne, whom she wrote about in “The Food Establishment” in Wallflower at the Orgy. If you have read any of her earlier books, how would you compare her work then and now? How have her views of people or situations changed?

Vital statistics

Hardcover edition: I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95.

Paperback edition: Vintage, 160 pp., $12.95, paperback. To be released April 8, 2008 [not 2007], according to the listing for the book on Amazon.com.

A review of I Feel Bad About My Neck appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 14, 2006, and is archived with the October 2006 posts and in the “Essays and Reviews” category on the site.

To learn more about Ephron’s articles, books, and movies, search the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia www.wikipedia.org, where you’ll see a short biography and many helpful links.

To learn more about movies for which Ephron has written screenplays, go to the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com and search for the titles of movies listed in the introduction to this guide. Please note that while Wikipedia links always seem to work, links to IMDb may be less reliable. If an IMDb link doesn’t work, you can reach the site by Googling “Internet Movie Database.”

Most reading group guides come from publishers or Web sites that accept advertising from them. They do not encourage criticism of books, quote unflattering reviews, or suggest that an author’s writing might be anything but flawless. The reading group guides on One-Minute Book Reviews are different. They encourage you and your group to look at books from all angles that might make your discussion interesting or enlightening. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books, advertising or other promotional materials from publishers. All of its guides and reviews offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

If you found this review helpful, please visit the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews for others and bookmark the site so you don’t miss future guides. I would also be grateful if you would forward a link to reading group members.

© 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.

March 9, 2007

Are Publishers Akin to ‘Kidnappers, Dope Fiends, and Pirates’? Quote of the Day #12

Filed under: Books,Classics,Essays and Reviews,Quotes of the Day,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:38 pm

Theodore Dreiser on publishers …

“Theodore Dreiser, according to H.L. Mencken, thought of publishers as a class of people to be grouped with ‘kidnappers, dope fiends, and pirates on the high seas.'”

George Pimpton in Introducing the Great American Novel. Edited by Anne Skillion. Introduction by George Plimpton. A New York Public Library Publishing Project (New York: Quill, 1988).

Comment by Janice Harayda:

Introducing the Great American Novel gathers essays by celebrated writers on 21 warhorses — or workhorses — of the American canon. Contributors include Alfred Kazin (on Moby-Dick), Rebecca West (on Babbitt), Saul Bellow (on Invisible Man), Anthony Burgess (on Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Irving Howe (on The House of Mirth) and T. S. Eliot on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

One of the virtues of this collection is that all the critics are good writers — in some cases, better than the authors whose books they are reviewing — so that even if you dislike the novels, you may admire the analysis of them. Another is that the book resurrects some novels that have gone into undeserved eclipse. I spoke recently to an undergraduate writing seminar at a major New York university and found that only one or two students had heard of — let alone read — Babbitt, one of the finest American satirical novels. Finally, if you’re a baby boomer who spent your youth reading mainly books by Rod McKuen and Carlos Castaneda — I refuse to give you credit for “reading” The Joy of Sex – this book can help you discover what you missed on the way to Woodstock.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 21, 2007

Meditations for Lent Inspired by God, Dante, Woody Allen and Others

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews,Reading,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 am

An unusually thoughtful and literate book of meditations for the season

A Season of Rebirth: Daily Meditations for Lent. By Marc Foley. New City Press, 160 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

You might think of this thoughtful guide as “the serious reader’s book of meditations for Lent.” A Season of Rebirth follows the traditional format of small paperbacks that offer daily meditations for Lent: Each entry begins by citing a Bible verse for the day in a year in the three-year rotation of readings used in Christian churches (known as Lectionary Cycles A, B, and C).

What sets this book apart is that Marc Foley takes as a springboard for his reflections an exceptionally wide range of literary and other references, including many books, plays, and poems. In different entries he comments intelligently on Dante, Shakespeare, Woody Allen, Robert Coles, R.D. Laing, William Blake, Ernest Hemingway, Somerset Maugham, Flannery O’Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien and others, with all sources identified in end notes. This breadth of erudition makes A Season of Rebirth valuable not just for its Lenten meditations but as a guide to further reading in any season.

Best line: Foley is particularly good at explaining difficult verses such as Matthew 5:43–48 (“You must be perfect …”), sometimes taken to mean that people should strive for an unrealistic – and even neurotic – perfection. He writes: “Jesus is not telling us that we have to measure up to God; rather, we are called to be like God in a particular way – our charity should be indiscriminate. Our charity should be like the sun, which rises on the good and bad alike or the rain that falls upon the just and unjust.”

Worst line: None. Not everyone will agree with Foley’s views on Allan Bloom and some of his other sources, but he makes his points even-handedly.

Consider reading also: Living Things: Collected Poems (Zoland, 2006), by Anne Porter, with a foreword by David Shapiro, back in stores after having been hard to get for a while. In his introduction, Shapiro suggests that Porter is “perhaps the greatest living Catholic or religious poet.” And while many people would argue that the distinction belongs to the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, this is unquestionably one of the best recent volumes in which many poems deal with topics or themes that are especially appropriate during Lent. Living Things includes both new work and all the poems collected in An Altogether Different Language, a finalist for the National Book Award. Among the poems in the book: “An Easter Lily,” “In Holy Week,” and “After Psalm 137″ (first published in Commonweal).

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the final book may differ slightly.

Published: January 2007

Links: www.newcitypress.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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