One-Minute Book Reviews

February 6, 2007

‘Mr. Wrong’ … the Anti-Valentine’s Day Book?

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:53 am

Essays on love gone AWOL by writers including Jacquelyn Mitchard, Marge Piercy, Ntozake Shange, Jane Smiley, and Roxana Robinson

Mr. Wrong: Real-Life Stories About the Men We Used to Love. Edited by Harriet Brown. Ballantine, 272 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

As part of the promotional campaign for this for this book, the publisher is sending Anti-Valentine’s Day cards to reading groups. So it’s probably safe to say that its market includes a lot of people who don’t expect to receive heart-shaped candy boxes this year.

What they’ll get is a book that seems intended partly to cash in on the success of the The Bitch in the House, a nonfiction anthology about the split personalities that some working women adopt on the job and at home. Mr. Wrong gathers 24 essays by female writers – and a token gay male – about how badly they have allowed themselves to be treated by men. Feminist it isn’t.

Contributors to this sort of book need to convince us that they’re smart enough to have something original to say but dumb enough to have put up with really bad men, or at least men who were bad for them. It’s a tough assignment. But four writers pull it off beautifully – Jane Smiley, Caroline Leavitt, Joyce Maynard, and Roxana Robinson – and a number of others come close enough to make their essays fun, if not exactly heartening, to read.

The best essays show a clear grasp of a truth: Women usually put up with Mr. Wrong because of an intersection of personal and cultural factors at a vulnerable time. In the weaker pieces the authors tend to blame only themselves – yes, you’ll see the phrase “low self-esteem” in this book – or tell stories that, if compelling, don’t provide enough evidence to justify their tacked-on, upbeat conclusions. And that kind variation in quality poses the risk if you dip in at the wrong place at the bookstore, you’ll put the book down without reading the essays you might enjoy more.

So let’s asumme this a college class where papers are graded on a curve. Here’s a list of the contributors, their essays, and their grades, starting with the introduction and then ranking the essays from best to worst:

Harriet Brown Introduction C-minus

Brown gets off to a bad start with her first line, “Mr. Wrong is the tug behind your navel – isn’t Mr. Right is a “tug behind your navel,” too? – and doesn’t recover, though she improves in an essay later in the book. “Every bad relationship that lasts more than a week or two,” she says, “does so because it triggers some of our deepest, darkest, most uncomfortable feelings.” Try applying this to men and you’ll see what’s wrong with it. Sometimes women stay in bad relationships for the same reasons men do – they like sex and nobody else is available. Or maybe they just want a date for Valentine’s Day.

Jane Smiley “A Good Struggle Relationship” Grade: A
Smiley writes about her first marriage in an essay that suggests, better than any in Mr. Wrong, the exceptionally complex range of factors that may explain why women stay in bad relationships. In Smiley’s case these include her height (over 6’), her Vassar education, and the Guy Fawkes Rebellion of 1605. That Marxist flag her husband made should have been a tip-off, though.

Joyce Maynard “Your Friend Always” Grade: A
Maynard’s life took on Silence of the Lambs undertones after she responded, during her divorce, to letters from a prisoner who had read her newspaper column. Her account of their correspondence is, for an essay, remarkably suspenseful.

Caroline Leavitt “My First Husband’s Girlfriend and Me” Grade: A
Ever wished you could talk to the woman a man left you for? Leavitt did just that when her husband’s girlfriend called. And called. And called. Her ability to listen to – and learn from – Stella helps to make her essay unique and fascinating.

Roxana Robinson “Senior Prom” Grade: A
There may be no better justification for going out with the wrong person than youth. Robinson knows this, and it enables her to write a poignant essay about a senior prom without looking foolish. “Senior Prom” is a quieter essay than others in the book, so it may seem less compelling to some readers, but it’s just as well-written.

Robin Westen “The Guru” Grade: A-minus
Westen deservedly opens this book with a show-stopping essay about her affair with a manipulative Zen cult leader who got her to pay $5,000 for “energizings” supposed to rid her system of “bad vibes.” But she cops out by explaining her involvement in terms of Bruce Springsteen lyrics and studies that she claims show that cults attract “the best and the brightest at a vulnerable moment in their lives.” Other research suggests that cult members’ early religious experiences also play a role. By ignoring hers, she seems to be pulling her punches or misunderstanding the appeal of the guru.

Catherine Texier “Russian Lessons” B-plus
Never, ever go out with a man named Yuri, especially if he sells pirated DVDs for a living, has a stash of neo-Nazi posters and, while he’s dating you, keeps trying to get other women to marry him so he can become a legal resident. Texier says she stayed with her Russian lover partly because she was fascinated by the social and cultural gap between them. And while this might explain why she stuck with this con artist for a few weeks, it doesn’t begin show us why she stayed in his orbit for more than a year.

Dana Kintsler “My Hades History” Grade: B-plus
Kintsler had the bad luck to fall for a filmmaker who kept his three wedding rings in a dish next to the bathroom sink so “anyone could put them on.” And if her essay about the affair is disjointed, she keeps you reading with vivid details like that one.

Marion Winik “The Ten Most Wanted” Grade: B-plus
Winik turns in the best first line in Mr. Wrong: “When, at twenty-seven, I married a good-looking and funny, though penniless, gay bartender who had recently lost his job as an ice-skating coach due to his drug problem, not everyone understood that this was a sensible choice, or at least a significant upgrade.” The rest of her piece is funny, too, though it reads less like an essay than a segment for NPR, where Winik is a commentator.

Michelle Huneven “The Key” B-plus
A fascinating if ultimately unfathomable essay by an intelligent seminarian who got involved with a “borderline psychopath” who had made so many suicide attempts, a psychiatrist said he had a “personality incompatible with life.” Why did Huneven do it? She has no idea. And at the end, neither do we.

Ethel Morgan Smith “Soul-Mating” Grade: B-plus

Second-person narration is the trickiest to pull off. But Morgan makes it work in an essay on Internet dating that begins: “You opt not to place a photograph with your ad: Attractive, well-educated, African-American female seeking friendly male companion between the ages of 45 and 60.” And some writers might want to have this book for that reason alone. Unfortunately for the book, Morgan Smith was astute enough to avoid falling for any of her correspondents, such as the man who told her “he spent a lot of years being gay,” so her essay also has less depth than some others.

Marge Piercy “Professor Wrong” Grade: B
Piercy writes believably about her affair with a literature professor who seems clearly to have been using her for a) sex; b) her fame as a novelist and poet; c) her place on Wellfleet or d) all of the above. But she dumps him in a scene has him “snarling” and saying lines that aren’t as credible as the rest of the essay.

Marilyn Jaye Lewis “Goodbye to the Gaiety” Grade: B
A bisexual erotic novelist, Lewis recalls her marriage to a gay man at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. She has a fondness for shifting modes of address and jerky transitions like, “Let’s rewind to 1982,” that undermine the natural poignancy of her story, which at times has the tone of an elegy.

Audrey Niffeneger “The Composite Boyfriend” Grade: B
Just what it sounds like: a portrait of a composite ex-boyfriend, written with a well-controlled irony. Like Smith’s essay, this piece might be get an A in another book. But it lacks the emotional density of the more memorable essays in this one.

Harriet Brown “Minding My P’s and Q’s” Grade: B
Brown shows that she can write better than she did in her introduction in this essay about her fling with a welder who lived in a trailer in Vermont and liked to dress up in his mother’s clothes. Men in Trees was never like this.

Alicia Erian “Ardor and Its Discontents” B-minus
A few hilarious moments don’t quite make up for the author’s insufficiently examined neediness or her weak conclusion that “it’s wrong to hurt people who are smaller than you are.” Isn’t it also “wrong” to hurt people who are bigger?

Christiane Bird “Almost Homeless” Grade: B-minus
Think you’ve had bad dates? How would you like to spend three years with someone 16 years older who had no furniture and kept uncaged mice as pets? The appeal of this material would have been higher if Bird had cut the psychobabble. In a one line, she worries that she might have “a fear of commitment to someone more suitable, a possible lack of self-esteem, a sexual addiction to the other which often afflicts women.”

Diana Abu-Jaber “Of Romance and Revolution” Grade B-minus
Abu-Jaber has a good story to tell about her relationship wish a Marxist janitor with a show on cable TV show. Alas, she tells it in cutesy, sophomoric prose, such as: “So Gram pinned her hopes on moi…Come awwwwwn …yadda, yadda.”

Jacquelyn Mitchard “That Thing He Didn’t Do” Grade: C
Writing about reconnecting with a man she once adored, Mitchard begins with a cliché (“He was only perfect”) and ends with one (“I would always love him, too”).

Susan Jane Gilman “I’m Still Waiting …” Grade: C
Gilman says she’s married to “a terrific man” but is “still waiting for her “Prince Charming,” or “that human asthma attack to sweep me off my feet.” This is the only essay that makes you feel sorry for the husband who will read it.

Ann Hood “Swoon” Grade: C
Hood meditates on the clash between her ideas about her dates and her mother’s. Her conclusion that she finally found a husband after she “decided to listen to my mother” sounds way too glib to be true.

Ntozake Shange “nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’” Grade: C-minus

A rant. And one that rambles through thickets of sentences like: “a self-identified feminist, my work reflected — & to this day reflects – a sense of urgency in complex examinations of the nature of heterosexual relations in the first decade of the 21st century.”

“Setting My Hair on Fire” by Raphael Kadushin No grade
A gay man writes about a painful crush during his junior year in London in a lovely essay that doesn’t fit into a book that says: “Women everywhere will see themselves in these …. personal narratives.” Kadushin works for the University of Wisconsin Press, and the editor of Mr. Wrong lives in Madison. You have the sense that Brown wanted to shoehorn an acquaintance into the book.

Whitney Otto “Mr. Wrong Meets Mr. Wrong” No grade
Another nice essay that doesn’t quite fit with the others. Instead of describing an ex, Otto repeats a story that a male acquaintance told her about – well, let’s just say it ends with an O. Henry twist. You can’t stop reading this essay but wonder when you’ve finished if the story Otto heard might be an urban legend.

Recommended if … you think Schadenfreude is the best revenge.

Best and Worst Lines: Quoted above.

Editor: Nancy Miller

Published: January 2007

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

Links: www.harrietbrown.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog creatd by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. It reviews books by all kinds of people — “from presidents and kings to the scum of the earth,” as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine the Telephone Operator might say. It it focuses on achieving parity for books by groups of authors often slighted by other media, including women, poets, and the authors of books from small presses or other countries.

February 1, 2007

I’ll Take ‘Schott’s Almanac’ for $400, Alex

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Coffee Table Books,Essays and Reviews,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:11 am

A trivia collection that may be the year’s best book for people with constipation

Scott’s Almanac: 2007. By Ben Schott. Bloomsbury, 367 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

Ben Schott has done for the almanac what Absolut did for vodka: He’s taken something with a dowdy image and made it hip.

Schott’s Almanac isn’t a fat paperback you keep on the shelf until you need to know the annual rainfall of Greenland or the birthplace of Martin Van Buren. It’s a trim hardcover that you read, a little at a time, perhaps in your smallest room; it may be the year’s best book for people with constipation. But unlike all those cheesey-looking bathroom books that are designed to survive if you spill Herbal Essence shampoo on them, Schott’s Almanac is a trivia collection that would fit in with Frette bath towels and Poggenpohl faucets. It has a salmon-colored cover and airy pages with elegant fonts and half-tone photographs just like The Wall Street Journal’s. It also has lots of brief, droll, and intelligent essays on current events. Some of the entries include call-outs of the year’s most essential quotes, such as the deathless, “Shiloh will receive a Namibian passport, so we shall return. – Brad Pitt.”

Schott’s Almanac includes some categories you typically find in almanacs – state capitals, Academy Award–winners, NBA playoff results. But it takes a kinkier approach to the material. Its facts about U.S. Presidents include their astrological signs. Its listing for the Pulitzer Prizes leaves out more than half of last year’s journalism winners. Its entry for the Super Bowl XL tells you the words that the network censors made the Rolling Stones cut from “Start Me Up.” And the almanac has things you might not find in other books. Would you really want to live without knowing that Jennifer Berry, Miss America 2006, confessed to the pageant host that “she enjoys nothing more than dipping French fries into ranch dressing”? If not, Schott’s Almanac is your book.

Best line: An interesting section summarizes the findings on blogging in the 2005–2006 Pew Internet and American Life Project. Among them: Bloggers tend to be young (54 percent are under 30) and suburban (51 percent). Men (54 percent) have more blogs than women (46 percent).

Worst line: Schott omits the names of Pulitzer winners in nine journalism categories, including criticism. So reviews are less important than breaking news photography?

Published: October 2006

Links: www.schottsalmanac.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 27, 2007

The Best Things I Never Wrote: Quote of the Day, #3

Filed under: Books,Classics,Essays and Reviews,Quotes of the Day,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:03 pm

Anatole Broyard on nostalgia in American literature …

“It is one of the paradoxes of American literature that our writers are forever looking back with love and nostalgia at lives they couldn’t wait to leave.”

Anatole Broyard in “Mulchpile to Megalopolis,” which appeared in Aroused by Books (New York: Random House, 1974), a collection of book reviews that originally appeared in the New York Times from 1971–1973 when he was a staff critic.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

Broyard wrote this before the boom in what Joyce Carol Oates has called “pathography,” or biography and autobiography that focus on the sordid. Do you think his comment is still true of some American writers? If so, whom?

January 24, 2007

Sue Monk Kidd’s Essays on God

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:14 pm

Chicken soup for the soul of fans of The Secret Life of Bees

Firstlight: The Early Inspirational Writings of Sue Monk Kidd. By Sue Monk Kidd. GuidepostsBooks, 227 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

“Inspirational” is often a publishing industry code for “wacko.” In the spirituality section of your local bookstore, you may find books about UFOs, magic mushrooms, sacred-conspiracy theories — almost anything except traditional religious beliefs. The writing in some of these books doesn’t “inspire” anything except a trip to the paper-shredder.

Firstlight is a lovely exception. Novelist Sue Monk Kid began her literary career by writing personal essays and vignettes for Guideposts, an interfaith magazine with a Christian focus. And she has collected some of those pieces and others in a book divided into sections on topics such as solitude, compassion, and finding the sacred in the ordinary.

Guideposts magazine offers what you might call “Christianity lite” – no heavy theological discourse — and that’s what you get here. Many of the entries in Firstlight are short enough that they could have appeared in books in the popular “Chicken Soup” series. Some have a tidied-up air – they aren’t as messy as life – or deliver a clichéd moral such as, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” or “God doesn’t always answer prayers as we expect.”

But Firstlight still has much offer to groups that include book clubs that have selected its author’s The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair. In some of her best essays, Kidd writes about her decision to give up nursing and become a writer after reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain at the age of 29. In others she writes about a struggle with perfectionism that once reduced her to taking “blue tranquilizers to get through the day.” And even atheists in book clubs may be moved by her poignant stories of her grandmother, who died at the age of 98. Kidd writes that on the day her grandmother died, her mother found a piece of paper beside her bed that said: “May I wake ready for that daily, yet greatest of all gifts – a fresh start.”

Best line: Kidd writes about visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani, a monastery in Kentucky: “Even though I yearn for this acre of solitude, some other part of me hungers for the larger world of ‘relevance,’ as if my solitude were a rarefied form of loitering.”

Worst line: At times, Kidd stops just short of talking about her “inner child.” She writes about “the inner divine,” “the inner Beloved,” and “the inner story” that each of us knows.

Recommended if … you’re looking for background on Kidd or intelligent but easy-to-read meditations on Christianity. Firstlight could make a good Lenten study text for church women’s groups after it comes out in paperback (though the publisher doesn’t say when this might occur).

Published: October 2006.

Links: www.suemonkkidd.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 10, 2007

David Hofstede Rates the Best TV Shows on DVD

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:54 am

A smart and comprehensive guide to shows you can buy or rent

5000 Episodes and No Commercials: The Ultimate Guide to TV Shows on DVD 2007. By David Hofstede. Back Stage Books/Watson-Guptill, 346 pp., $14.95, paperback

By Janice Harayda

I used to spend hours at the video store trying to remember what I’d heard about new arrivals. Now I spend hours on the Netflix site trying to remember what I’ve heard.

David Hofstede offers partial relief for people who have the kind of memory I do, the kind that stalls out in the “new releases” section. His 5000 Episodes and No Commercials combines TV criticism and history in a smart and comprehensive guide to shows you can buy or rent on DVD, all listed alphabetically from The A-Team to Xena: Warrior Princess.

A television critic and historian, Hofstede offers some nice extras with each listing, including a “Great Moments” section that descibes highlights and tells where to find them. (“Julia misses the pan when she flips her potatoes” appears on “The Potato Show” on The French Chef.) And his pithy and well-informed opinions help to set his book apart from the many television encyclopedias you can find at most bookstores and libraries.

Hofstede is neither a mindless cheerleader for bad television nor one of those ponderous academics who’s always reading deep sociological meanings into Punky Brewster. He strikes just the right balance between fandom and detachment as he analyzes the merits of the various editions of Star Trek or the abysmal editing of the DVD of the first season of The Cosby Show. And he’s not above quoting other TV critics if it will keep his book lively. Variety predicted that Gilligan’s Island had no future, and a critic for United Press International said of the show: “It’s impossible that a more inept, moronic or humorless show has ever appeared on the home tube.”

5000 Episodes and No Commercials has a few drawbacks. One is that it lists the stars of shows only on a hit-or-miss basis. The entry for The Sopranos is typical: It doesn’t mention James Gandolfini but does list Steve Buscemi Michael Imperioli, who offer commentary on Season 3. The book also omits, inexplicably, some classic shows that Amazon.com lists as having been available on DVD for years, such as the comic 1960s spy series Get Smart (with its famous shoe phone). And it has no listings for series that came out on DVD after the book was completed, including Saint Elsewhere.

Even so, 5000 Episodes and No Commercials is a font of ideas for viewing and gift-giving. If you need a 50th anniversary present for your grandparents, you could do worse than to leaf through it for hits of their youth, such as The Ed Sullivan Show or This Is Your Life. And you might make a baby boomer smile by wrapping up The Best of the Mickey Mouse Club or a season of Leave It to Beaver as a 60th birthday gift. Just print out this review or bookmark this site now if you’ll need such a gift later this year. If your memory fails you at the video store, you don’t expect to remember the title of this book, do you?

Best line: Many entries offer sharp social commentary along with insightful criticism. Here’s an example from the listing for The West Wing: “Aaron Sorkin’s take on the Josiah Barlet presidency is certainly idealistic, which in Hollywood means Democratic, but The West Wing transcends party lines with characters that even a Conservative can embrace. If Barlet actually ran for office, a lot of GOP loyalists would switch parties.”

Worst line: Hofstede describes the birth of Little Ricky on the I Love Lucy show as “a seminal moment in TV history.” True statement, bad pun.

Recommended if … you’re looking for a gift for a friend who shuffles his or her Netflix queue compulsively.

Publication: November 2006 www.watsonguptill.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 26, 2006

A House Somewhere: Travel Writing for People Who Like Peter Mayle and Frances Mayes

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Travel — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:27 am

Essays on living abroad by writers who include Isabel Allende, Simon Winchester, Emma Tennant, and Paul Theroux

A House Somewhere: Tales of Life Abroad. By Don George and Anthony Sattin. Lonely Planet, 310 pp., $13.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Oh, the morning-after-Christmas regrets of a critic! Were you looking for a gift for people who like the travel narratives of Peter Mayle and Frances Mayes? Reader, I failed you. A House Somewhere is fine book for those people but was published in 2002 and, I thought, might be hard to find. So I left it off my gift guides and in favor of books I knew you could find easily.

But A House Somewhere has an appeal that transcends the holidays. Editors Don George and Anthony Sattin have collected 26 essays about living abroad, most by British or American writers. And like all good travel writing, these narratives are about psychological as much as physical landscapes.

Novelist Paul Theroux writes of his free-fall into anonymity when he taught English in Singapore: “Everything has to be proven anew, and if you need humility, look at the bookshelf behind you where your novels, even last year’s, have become discolored and mildewed in the humidity: they could be the books of a dead man.” On different scale, that is what happens to anyone who lives overseas – you become dead to the old ideas that people have of you, even those you have of yourself, and alive to the new.

At its best, A House Somewhere is about such transformations. Eight essays are original works by authors who include Isabel Allende, Simon Winchester, and Jan Morris. Others come from well-known books such as Mayle’s A Year in Provence, Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun, Emma Tennant’s A House in Corfu, Niall Williams and Christine Breen’s O Come Ye Back to Ireland, and Tim Parks’s Italian Neighbors (which gives a more complex and less romanticized view of Italy than Mayes’s work). There are odd omissions – nothing from Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island or writers who have lived in Israel, Eastern Europe, or Latin America. Even so, A House Somewhere more good essays about living abroad than any book I can name. Know a traveler who has a birthday coming up?

Best line: Not the best line, but perhaps the best one-line summary of a theme of this book, comes from Paul Theroux’s Sunrise with Seamonsters: “Expatriates by the very fact of their having come to the tropics are considered by the locals to be somewhat crazed, and the expatriate who fails to be a person in any subtle sense can still, with little effort, succeed ‘a character.’”

Worst line: From Willams and Breen’s O Come Ye Back to Ireland: “Back in the garden [in County Clare] we looked at every growing thing in a new light. Everything that rises above the soil is intimately a part of our life here. We were newly conscious of cycles, rhythms, and patterns. There is a wonderful sense of closeness between earth and human. All old clichés perhaps …” Uh-huh. And “old clichés” is redundant, because a cliché is a word or phrase that has become old to the ear, even if it’s new to the world.

Recommended if … you or someone you know enjoys true stories of life abroad.

Published: December 2002

FYI: Amazon had 4 copies of this book available on Dec. 26 . www.amazon.com

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 27, 2006

Josephine Ross on Jane Austen’s View of Manners

A charmingly illustrated explanation of the Regency etiquette rules followed by the novelist’s characters

Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders. By Josephine Ross. Illustrated by Henrietta Webb. Boomsbury, 133 pp., $14.95.

A while back, I wrote a novel about a bride-to-be who believed that Jane Austen could have solved all her romantic problems. One reason for her view, I hoped, was clear: Austen’s novels are full of rules for social conduct.

The catch – for my heroine as for others – is that Austen’s characters typically follow rules that are implicit, not explicit. And because Austen was a satirist, her precepts can’t always be taken at face value even when they are spelled out. Perhaps the best case in point is the much-misunderstood first line of Pride and Prejudice, which is often taken literally though meant ironically: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Josephine Ross has decoded some of the social conventions of the Regency era in Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners. And as befits an ironist like Austen, this book is less a “guide to good manners” than a literary companion disguised as Regency self-help manual.

Ross does not try to extrapolate from the behavior of Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and others to modern life. Instead she describes the rules of the Regency era as she sees them and shows how Austen’s characters observe or break them. The rule “Do not be presumptuous in offering introductions” leads to a brief discussion of the proper ways of introducing people in the early 1800s. Then Ross writes: “When Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in high dudgeon, calls on the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice to dissuade Elizabeth from marrying her nephew Darcy, she does not ask Lizzy to introduce her mother, and sits for some time in the presence of awed Mrs. Bennet, who has therefore not been granted permission to converse with her Ladyship in her own house. This, of course, is not ‘good manners.’”

Some of the conventions that Ross describes went out with the chamber pot: “After dinner the ladies must withdraw.” Others continue in a modified form: “When in doubt, talk of the weather.” Either way, Ross writes so gracefully that her book is a delight, enhanced by charming watercolors by Henrietta Webb. How nice that she and her collaborator knew enough not to take literally the words of Northanger Abby: “A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

Best line: “Only by understanding Society’s strict rules is anyone – man or woman – in a position to break them.”

Worst line: Why doesn’t the comma in “Compliments, Charades,” which appears on the cover, show up also on the title page?

Recommended if … you’re looking for an ideal gift for an Austen fan.

Published: October 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent book-review blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor and critic for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com to learn more about her comic novels.

 

 

November 20, 2006

Noel Perrin’s Vermont: The Last Harvest

Filed under: Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:03 pm
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The late, great essayist on life with cows, maple syrup, woodstoves, and the neighbors who cherished them all

Best Person Rural: Essays of a Sometime Farmer. By Noel Perrin. Selected and with a foreword by Terry Osborne. Godine, 175 pp., $24.95.

What book would you give to friends who yearn to live amid covered bridges, weathered red barns, and church suppers to which nobody brings a dish that includes rumaki? I’d give Best Person Rural, a collection of two dozen of the most memorable essays by the late Noel Perrin, America’s unofficial laureate of rural life in the late 20th century.

Perrin died on November 21, 2004, after a distinguished but unpretentious life as a professor of English at Dartmouth College and 41-year resident of a Vermont farm graced by apple trees, stone walls, and a sugarhouse. And no eulogist summed up his work better than Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar, who said he might have had “the best plain prose style in America.” There is nothing fancy about Perrin’s writing on topics like calving, maple sugaring, and woodstoves. But neither is there any affected folksiness or sentimentality about life on a New England farm.

In Best Person Rural, Perrin admits that Vermont has a “rotten climate.” A fine old covered bridge “secretly rests on new steel I-beans, set in concrete.” And he once saw “a storekeeper spend half an hour taking crackers out of plastic-sealed boxes and putting them in the barrel he thinks summer visitors expect him to have.” His writing has an authenticity that sprang from loving New England enough to want to pay it the compliment of depicting it honestly.

A theme running through many of the pieces in Best Person Rural is the clash between tradition and modernity in the years from 1964 to 2004, when he wrote the essays in the collection. Progress has the upper hand, and it’s all the more reason to give this book to friends who fantasize about rural life. Others may envision Vermont as a kind of Arcadia with Internet connections. Perrin reminds us that the day is coming – if it is not here – when much of Vermont will look “like central New Jersey with hills.”

Best line: “Despite the vast changes of the last twenty years, I think it is still accurate to say that the basic New England characteristic is a kind of humorous stoicism. You expect it to snow just before you have to drive a hundred miles, and to be sleeting when you have a day off to ski.”

Worst line: None.

Recommended if … you admire essayists with an unadorned prose style, such as E.B. White, or are looking for a gift for a reader with a passion for rural life.

Editor: Terry Osborne chose the essays from Perrin’s First Person Rural, Second Person Rural, Third Person Rural, Last Person Rural and added five uncollected pieces.

Published: October 2006

Consider reading also: A Reader’s Delight (Dartmouth, 1988), a collection of 40 brief and elegant essays that Perrin wrote for the Washington Post about some of his favorite books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com to learn about her comedies of manners, The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

October 27, 2006

John Carey Picks the 50 Most Enjoyable Books of the 20th Century

A witty guide for reading groups and others that focuses on books, not on whether to serve gin with The Great Gatsby

Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books. By John Carey. Faber and Faber, 173 pp., $14, paperback.

Reading group guides are thick on the ground this year, and some offer strong opinions on almost everything except books — refreshments, meeting times, power plays among members. All the more reason, then, to savor Pure Pleasure, a collection of 50 witty and literate essays on modern classics. This is not a reading group guide in the usual sense. But any group would benefit from taking some of its suggestions, and not just because John Carey wouldn’t dream of telling you, as one recent guide does, that strawberries are the “go-to fruit” for book clubs.

Part of the charm of Pure Pleasure lies in the brevity and directness of its essays, which first appeared in the Sunday Times of London. Secure in his reputation as one of England’s most admired critics, Carey has neither the need nor the desire to wear his erudition like a top hat at a royal wedding. His method is to dive straight into what interests him most about a book and wrap up his review in about 800 words. Here are the first lines of his essay about John Updike’s A Rabbit Omnibus: “Updike’s Rabbit saga is often praised as a lifelike portrait of middle-America in the second half of the 20th century. This should give grave offense to middle-America.” And here is how he introduces Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled: “This is a book about stress, a problem of epidemic proportions in our culture that modern fiction largely ignores.” Carey’s writing is never harder to understand than that, yet it is full of insights into works as different as The Great Gatsby, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats.

Several aspects of Pure Pleasure might give pause to an American book group. Carey writes mainly about authors from Britain and Ireland with a scattering from France, Germany, the U.S. and elsewhere. Many of his choices reflect tastes that, however refined, have fallen from fashion. (How many people would today appreciate the wit of S. J. Perelman, famous for such lines as, “I’ve got Bright’s Disease, and he’s got mine”?) And Carey considers only five women: Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield, Stevie Smith, Muriel Spark and Sylvia Townsend Warner.

But you could argue that, for the same reasons, Pure Pleasure is an ideal complement to book group guides that take their cues from the current bestseller lists. Without ever saying so directly, this is a book that reminds us that long before Bridget Jones flirted with Daniel Cleaver by interoffice e-mail, Philip Larkin wrote: “In everyone there sleeps/A sense of life lived according to love.”

Best line: “The current vogue in university English departments is to reduce literature to politics — a way of engaging in the class war without actually risking income and politics.”

Worst line: On Elizabeth Bowen: “No writer has ever pursued people’s thoughts and feelings — or half-formed thoughts and half-recognized feelings — with such intricacy.” Take that, Shakespeare.

Recommended if … you like John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald better than Amy Tan and Jane Smiley, and George Orwell or Evelyn Waugh better than any of them.

Published: 2000

Consider reading also: A Reader’s Delight (Dartmouth, 1988), a collection of 40 brief and elegant essays that the author and critic Noel Perrin for the Washington Post about some of his favorite books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 14, 2006

Ms. Ephron Regrets

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews,Reading,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:28 pm

She isn’t afraid of death. She just doesn’t like all those annoying books on mellow menopause.

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

By Janice Harayda

Nora Ephron is our Ironwoman of the keyboard. No American female writer excels at broader range of literary forms: reporting, fiction, screenwriting. You could argue that next to Ephron, Joyce Carol Oates is a slacker. Ephron has influenced a generation of female journalists with her collections of nonfiction, such as Crazy Salad (which contains her famous 1972 essay for Esquire, “A Few Words About Breasts”). She has 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 most entertaining satirical novels of the 1980s, Heartburn, a book that 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).

But perhaps Ephron’s main achievement is that she has always had the talent and courage to say things that others writers can’t or don’t. And those traits resurface in I Feel Bad About My Neck, a collection of 15 personal essays on topics from cabbage strudel to her summer internship in JFK’s press office. Ephron wants us to know: You don’t forget the pain of childbirth. StriVectin-SD is just a skin cream. And in order to rent certain Manhattan apartments, you have to make under-the-table payments known as “key money,” like the $24,000 that Ephron slipped somebody in 1980 so that she could move into a pile called the Apthorp. Above all, Ephron says, aging isn’t what we’ve been told by 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.” It’s “sad” to be over sixty, and not just because you can’t wear tank tops any more.

Next to much of what gets published today, all of this qualifies for a Pulitzer for public-service journalism. So it doesn’t really matter that at the end of I Feel Bad About My Neck, Ephron heads into Robert Fulghum territory with a chapter of aphorisms (“What I Wish I’d Known”) that includes bromides similar to those she says dislikes in the work of others: “Overtip.” “Back up your files.” “The plane isn’t going to crash.” Ephron is still young enough to enjoy the pleasure of lowering herself in a tub filled with Dr. Hauschka’s lemon bath. But if she ever moves to a nursing home, there’s nobody you’d rather have around to write about the food.

Best line: “Death is a sniper.”

Worst line: “My own theory about Van Gogh is that he cut off his ear because he made the mistake of taking up swimming.” One of few places where Ephron’s usual sense of taste fails her.

Recommended if … you’re sick of all those mellow menopause books, too.

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to I Feel Bad About My Neck was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 20, 2007, and is archived both with the March posts and in the Totally Unauthorized Reading Groups category if this direct link doesn’t work www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/20/a-totally-unauthorized-reading-group-guide-to-I-feel-bad-about-my-neck-by-nora-ephron/

Published: August 2006.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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