One-Minute Book Reviews

September 9, 2013

John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ – Cancer-Stricken Teenagers in Love

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“I’m gonna die a virgin” and other worries of gravely ill 12-to-18-year-olds

The Fault in Our Stars. By John Green. Dutton Children’s Books, 313 pp., $17.99. Ages 13 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Sixteen-year-old Hazel Lancaster has metastatic thyroid cancer and wears a nasal cannula attached to a rolling oxygen cart, but former basketball player Augustus Waters thinks she looks like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta. Gus has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, but Hazel knows he’s “hot” even if, as she says, he “HAD FREAKING CANCER.”

Will Hazel and Gus get together before the Big C kills one or both of them? Sentimentalists need not fear. A cheery message of this breezy cross between a teen weepie and a romantic comedy –- and one that will no doubt comfort millions of teenagers — is: You’re never too sick to get into someone’s pants.

Hazel and Gus meet in a support group for cancer-stricken 12-to-18-year-olds in the basement of an Episcopal church in Indianapolis. Sparks fly, but in the tradition of old-school romance novels, the teenagers do not lose their virginity until late in the book, when Gus persuades a charity that grants the wishes of sick children to let him take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author. Hazel’s mother — who has come along to Holland as a chaperone — stays conveniently out of the way at any moment that might seem to require her services.

But John Green has more on his mind in his fifth young-adult novel than showing that when you have cancer, it’s natural to think, “I’m gonna die a virgin.” The title of The Fault in Our Stars points to its theme, which inverts Cassius’ message to Brutus in Julius Caesar: When tragedy strikes, the fault often lies not in ourselves but “in our stars.” In developing this idea, Green goes beyond absolving teenagers of blame for their cancers and asks: What does it mean to lead a good life? Hazel and Gus wonder as their health worsens: Is the purpose of life to “repay a debt to the universe” for the gift of having been born, as Hazel believes? Or is to “to leave a mark on the world,” as Gus thinks?

Both teenagers have had cancer long enough to have smart answers and wry familiarity with some of the absurdities of the American view of serious illness. Hazel speaks matter-of-factly about what she calls “cancer perks” — “the little things cancer kids get that regular kids don’t: basketballs signed by sports heroes, free passes on late homework, unearned driver’s licenses” and more. She understands the paradox of “the Last Good Day” cliché in stories about children with cancer, a convention that describes hours “when for a moment the pain is bearable”: “The problem, of course, is that there’s no way of knowing that your last good day is your Last Good Day. At the time, it is just another good day.”  And she sees the contradictions in certain aspects of the support groups into which therapists and others push the afflicted. Is it realistic to expect all young cancer survivors to find comfort in praying, as her group does, for members who have died?

Such questions are so worthy that you wish Green had developed them through more believable characters and fewer plot contrivances. Hazel narrates the story in a voice that alternately resembles that of a down-to-earth teenager and an elderly lawyer drafting a will. One moment she’s complaining that “cancer books suck.” The next she’s talking about “my aforementioned third best friend” or an incident “wherein I put my hand on the couch.” Gus, although slightly more credible, uses so many high-flown metaphors that you can’t square his language with his account of himself as an ordinary Hoosier basketball fan who used to be “all about resurrecting the art of the midrange jumper.” The plot veers from reasonably realistic into something close to farce when the teenagers land in Amsterdam and Hazel’s favorite author turns out to be a cruel and drunken misanthrope.

Perhaps most baffling from an award-winning novelist are the dropped storylines, including one that involves a heavy religious motif introduced in the first pages by Patrick, the well-intentioned but hapless leader of Hazel and Gus’ support group. At meetings the members sit “in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.” They are “literally” in Jesus’ heart, Patrick says. Hazel later invokes that description often. And yet, she and Gus talk about the meaning of life in secular terms: They don’t raise the possibility — even to dismiss it — that a sense of purpose might include God. Jesus, it turns out, was simply wallpaper. Of course, teenagers are growing up in a secular world, but The Fault in Our Stars punts on a paraphrase of the wartime question: Is it true that there are no atheists in the Intensive Care Unit?

This is not to suggest that Green should, in the words of the Protestant hymn, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” It is rather to say that his book violates Chekhov’s dramatic principle: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” Support groups meet in many places, including hospitals, and Hazel and Gus’ group could have gathered in a spot less freighted with symbolism than “in the middle of the cross” in a church. For all the virtues of his novel, Green is trying to have it both ways — to saturate his book with religious motifs without having to explore their implications for his characters.

Best line: “He looked like he was dressed for a colonial occupation of Panama, not a funeral.”

Worst line: Hazel’s “my aforementioned third best friend,” “wherein I put my hand on the couch,” that “eponymous album” and similar phrases.

Second opinion: Another review of The Fault in Our Stars calls it a “mawkish” and “exploitative” example of a genre that some call “sick list,” which deals with the plight of gravely ill childrem.

Reading Group Guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Fault in Our Stars appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 9, 2013, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: January 2012

Read an interview with John Green about The Fault in Our Stars on his website.

Learn about the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to the ‘The Fault in Our Stars,’ a Young-Adult Novel by John Green

Filed under: Fiction,Reading Groups,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:00 pm
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Fault Our Stars
By John Green
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

Sixteen-year-old Hazel Lancaster has metastatic thyroid cancer and wears a nasal cannula attached to a rolling oxygen cart, but former basketball player Augustus Waters thinks she looks like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta. Gus has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, but Hazel knows he’s hot. Sparks fly when the two meet in a support group for 12-to-18-year-olds with cancer in John Green’s fifth young-adult novel. But will Hazel and Gus live long enough to get together? As they explore their feelings for each other in this cross between a teen weepie and a romantic comedy, they also must come to terms with a central question of human existence: What does it mean to live a good life?

The questions below include spoilers. Please stop here if you would prefer not to see them.

10 Questions for Discussion:

1. Many critics have raved about The Fault in Our Stars. Others have found it “mawkish” and “exploitative.” Where do you stand?

2. Which characters did you find most believable? Why?

3. Which characters did you find least believable? Why?

4. Hazel, the narrator, sounds like a teenager when she says things like: “We said this stupid mantra together — LIVING OUR BEST LIFE TODAY.” She also says things like “my aforementioned third best friend” or “wherein I put my hand on the couch” (which, you could argue, make her sound more like an elderly lawyer drafting a will). Did her shifts in tone make her voice less convincing? Why or why not?

5. One critic said that her main complaint about The Fault in Our Stars was that at times “it’s a little too slick”: “The dialogue between Gus and Hazel is to clever it felt like I was watching an adorable indie comedy.” Do you agree? Did the breezy dialogue clash with the serious subject? How effective was the dialogue overall?

6. Hazel dislikes some of the ways Americans treat people with cancer, which she finds “bullshitty.” What does she implicitly or explicitly fault? Which, if any, of her criticisms did you find valid?

7. The Fault in Our Stars has many references to water, a major symbol in the book. Do any stand out in your mind? Why is water so important in a book about life and death? (Green gives his answer on his website.)

8. John Green foreshadows that Gus will die first in The Fault in Our Stars. Where in the novel does he do this most clearly?

9. Were all aspects of the plot equally well-developed? Or did Green handle some better than others? (Did you buy, for example, that Peter Van Houten would fly to Indianapolis for Gus’ funeral? Or that Hazel’s mother would hide her graduate school plans?)

10. Green has said that a central question of The Fault in Our Stars involves “what constitutes a full and well-lived life”: “I wanted to argue that a good life need not be a long one.” Hazel and Gus differ on what makes for “a full and well-lived life.” How would you describe each of their views on it? Did the book reconcile their views? Are your views closer to those of Hazel or Gus?

Extra:
1. Many references to Jesus appear early in the story (when Hazel and Gus’ support group meets “in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been”). These references might lead you to expect to find religious or explicitly Christian themes in the novel. But Green doesn’t really follow up on them, except in passing references by Hazel to the “Literal Heart of Jesus.” How did you react to this? (A fuller discussion of this point appears at the end of the One-Minute Book Reviews review of The Fault in Our Stars.)

Vital statistics:

The Fault in Our Stars. By John Green. Dutton Children’s Books, 313 pp., $17.99. Ages 13 and up. Published:  January 2012.

A review of The Fault in Our Stars appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 9, 2013 http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2013/09/09.

Jan Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are not unbiased analyses but marketing tools designed to sell books. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the blog.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 16, 2013

A Twitter Chat About ‘The Age of Innocence’ Friday With Award-Winning Novelist Francesca Segal

Filed under: Classics,Fiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:45 pm
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On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Polish countess whose arrival threatens to disrupt the lives of the social elite in post-Civil War New York. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on March 22 at #classicschat to discuss this great book. Kevin wrote Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book. He and I will be talking about The Age of Innocence with Francesca Segal (@francescasegal) who won the 2012 Costa First Novel Award and the National Jewish Book Award for fiction for The Innocents, inspired by Wharton’s book.

February 9, 2013

Harlan Coben’s Thriller, ‘Hold Tight’ – Parents Snoop in ‘Sopranos’ Country

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Mayhem results when parents install spyware on their teenager’s computer

Hold Tight. By Harlan Coben. Dutton, 416 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Hold Tight ought to be catnip for those of us who have lived in New Jersey long enough to know that its loopy plot doesn’t lie far from reality. Up to a point, it delivers.

Harlan Coben uses in this suburban thriller a variation on the Agatha Christie formula – a machine-tooled plot strewn with clues, a smattering of local color and an eventual convergence of many threads that at first appear unrelated. But Hold Tight involves a sick violence that Christie wouldn’t have gone near. And it has no Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot whose idiosyncrasies might have offset other characterizations that range from bland to stereotypical, as in the case of an icy feminist lawyer and shady men who wear “wifebeater tees.”

Some of the gore results from a morally questionable decision by Mike and Tia Baye, well-educated suburban parents who live a few miles from the Satin Dolls, “the famed gentlemen’s club that was used as Bada Bing! on The Sopranos.” The Bayes’ 16-year-old son, Adam, won’t explain why he has withdrawn from them after the suicide of a friend, so they install spyware on his computer. The snooping plunges the couple into something much worse than they had feared. It also sets up light philosophizing about violence: “What is in our makeup, in fact, that draws us to that which should sicken us?” The question appears unintentionally metafictional. In the first of many brutal scenes in Hold Tight, a thug beats an innocent woman to death so savagely that he didn’t just break the bones in her face but left them looking as though “they were ground into small chunks.”

Best line: A mother whose son died says, when someone mentions “closure”: “What does that even mean? … Can you imagine anything more obscene than having closure?”

Worst line: No. 1: “wifebeater tee” (used twice). “Wifebeater” is a nasty cliché that libels men who wear ribbed undershirts and don’t beat their wives. No. 2: “She made the twins dinner – hot dogs and macaroni and cheese.” Really makes you see them as individuals, doesn’t it? No. 3: “The mall was pure Americana ginoromous.” “Ginormous” is cute, not funny.

Furthermore: The Guardian reviews Coben’s more recent Caught.

Published: 2010 (Dutton hardcover), 2009 (Signet paperback).

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharyada.com

October 21, 2012

Anna Quindlen’s Novel ‘Every Last One’ – We Need to Talk About Kiernan

Filed under: Fiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:25 pm
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Spoiler warning: This review includes plot details. Stop here if you don’t want to know them.

Every Last One: A Novel. By Anna Quindlen. Random House, 299 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

An obtuse Vermont mother fails to see that her daughter’s creepy prom date is a potential sociopath who will slaughter several members of her family in this small-town soap opera by a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Mary Beth Latham dithers when her husband urges her talk to the troubled Kiernan, who is stalking 17-year-old Ruby. “He’s such a nice kid,” she says. “He’s been like a part of our family.” Mary Beth has no apparent religion to comfort her after Kiernan goes on his murderous rampage, but she survives the help from a generous inheritance from her slain husband and a referral to a grief counselor, although recent studies have shown that such therapy can make things worse.

Kiernan has a different fate, but his motives make no more sense. The novel implies that his savagery resulted, in part, from his parents’ hostile divorce. Let the record show that the parents of Barack Obama divorced when he was two, and that one of the Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold, came from an intact family. And if the children of Every Last One tend to have more enlightened views than their parents, the adult female characters often sound like throwbacks to the 1950s. This is a novel in which the heroine observes, with no apparent irony: “We don’t have a life. We had children instead.”

Best line: No. 1: “She makes our youth seem like something Glen might have seen on the History Channel.” P. 26

Worst line: “My robe lies at the foot of the bed, printed cotton in the summer, tufted chenille for the cold.” Chenille is tufted. The sentence is also confusing: It says one robe lies on the bed but describes two.

Published: 2010 (Random House hardcover edition), 2011 (Random House trade paperback).

About the author: Anna Quindlen won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 14, 2012

‘What Happened to Sophie Wilder’ – A Convert to Catholicism Bears Her Cross

Filed under: Fiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:02 pm
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A young writer faces a test of her faith when she cares for a dying man

What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel. By Christopher R. Beha. Tin House, 256 pp., $15.95, paper.

By Janice Harayda

American novelists appear to be losing faith in faith as a source of literary inspiration. Nearly all of the leading fiction writers who have dealt seriously with religion are over 60, especially those who have explored Catholic themes. No obvious heir to the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and J.F. Powers exists among the generation of novelists that is coming into maturity, the children of baby boomers. Into the void have rushed authors of ecclesiastical thrillers inspired by The Da Vinci Code, books that don’t engage Catholic beliefs so much as distort and exploit them.

These realities may reflect a broader cultural trend: Young Americans are less likely than their parents to affiliate with a church, a reality documented in a report earlier this month from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But the dearth of novels about Catholicism remains odd and disappointing given the deep impact on the faithful of the upheavals caused by issues such as abortion, sexual abuse by the clergy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood. You could hardly ask for more dramatic literary material.

So it’s heartening that in his first novel Chris Beha tells an intelligent, if not fully successful, story of a young female convert to Catholicism. In college Sophie Wilder fell in love with a student in her writing program, Charlie Blakeman, whose surname aptly embeds that of that skeptic of orthodox religion, William Blake. Sophie drops back into her ex-lover’s life when they are in their late 20s and finds him keeping company with self-consciously literary New Yorkers who think and speak in phrases like, “Alfred Kazin once said of Saul Bellow …” Since college, Sophie has converted to Catholicism while Charlie and his friends have made a religion their pretenses or, as they might say, “stories.” In this novel a man who asks, “What’s her story?” means: What narrative has she constructed about herself? Sophie, it seems, has reconnected with Charlie to tell him the story of her recent, troubling experience of caring for a dying man whose wishes tested her faith.

This novel represents Charlie’s attempt to make sense of Sophie’s tale. Antiphonal chapters tell the story from alternating points of view: Charlie’s first-person account in each case precedes a third-person narrative about Sophie that perhaps reflects his effort to see things from her perspective. Both versions of the tale have weak spots. Writing in the first person, Charlie often asserts instead of dramatizing facts about Sophie or offers awkward explanations for her actions. (“Perhaps because of her family situation …”) He says that male students were “enthralled” with Sophie and found her “unlike other girls,” but it’s never clear why this was so when she was rude, sarcastic and lacking the conventional beauty that might have offset those traits. Charlie also implies that Sophie had that blend of talent and drive that enables a writer to get a book published and become “briefly famous” soon after college, but he offers no evidence of her talent and little of her drive. The chapters not told in the first person have traditional third-person limited-omniscient narration when free-indirect speech might have better revealed Sophie’s character. All of this leaves a hole at the center of the story: You see Sophie from two perspectives that don’t coalesce into a whole. She never comes into her own.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder is ultimately Charlie’s story rather than Sophie’s, and as such, it deals sensitively with worthy questions: Why do we need stories, whether religious or literary? What do we gain or lose from them? At what point does an investment in story become irreversible? The great virtue of this novel is that it treats belief seriously. If the book shows the cost of Sophie’s faith, it never ridicules it, and it also reveals the cost of others’ misplaced devotions. Charlie and his cousin rent rooms in Greenwich Village from a man who has Victorian aquarium full of fish, “the most important thing in his life,” and who asks only that they care for it when he’s away. Consumed by their own interests, the young men are incapable of this simple task. Charlie realizes it too late, and in a rueful observation on their failure, suggests a theme of the novel. “We had been given something beautiful, asked only to watch over it,” he reflects. “We’d been careless, and now it was all in ruin.”

Best line: “Henry’s the Ted Hughes of management consultants.”

Worst line: “Tom … pursed his lips with a look of concern.”

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide and discussion questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder appeared on this site on Oct. 14. The  guide to this book explores, among other things, some of the religious issues raised by the novel: for example, that Sophie converted after reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and each of the main sections of the book has seven chapters.

Published: May 2012

Furthermore: The New York Times summarized the the report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life cited above. You may also want to read Sam Sacks’ review of What Happened to Sophie Wilder and One-Minute Book Reviews’ review of the nonfiction book Mr. Tibbits’s Catholic School.

Read an excerpt from What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘What Happened to Sophie Wilder’: 10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel

By Chris Beha

Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

A young convert to Catholicism faces a test of her faith when she cares for a dying man in the first novel by Chris Beha, an associate editor of Harper’s. Sophie Wilder fell in love with Charlie Blakeman in college and drops back into his life when they are both in their 20s and have had books published. Sophie has re-entered Charlie’s life, it seems, to tell him about her recent, troubling experience of caring for a dying man. What Happened to Sophie Wilder is Charlie’s attempt to make sense of Sophie’s life from his perspective as a New Yorker who has abandoned traditional religious practices. Told from two alternating viewpoints, the novel raises such questions as: Why do we need stories, whether religious or literary? And at what point does an investment in a “story” become irreversible?

10 Discussion Questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder:

1. A lively debate has occurred online about whether Sophie’s conversion to Catholicism was convincing. How plausible did it seem to you?

2. The publisher of this novel says that it is about “the redemptive power of storytelling.” Do you agree? If so, why? If not, what is the novel “about”?

3. The novel tells Sophie’s story from two alternating points of view. The odd-numbered chapters give Charlie’s first-person point of view. The even-numbered chapters use third-person narration. Who is telling the story in even-numbered chapters? Some critics believe they represent Charlie’s attempt to tell the story from Sophie’s perspective. Do you agree?

4. The phrase “What happened to?” has more than one meaning. It can signify curiosity (whatever became of?) or alarm (what went wrong?). In this novel, the phrase has a third, metafictional meaning: What happens to Sophie Wilder at the end of the novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder? What do you think happens to her at the end?

5. Did you find the ending of the book — really, two endings — satisfying? Why?

6. A critic for Publishers Weekly said it’s hard to sympathize with Sophie even when she’s trying to do the right thing, “because she’s so blatantly indifferent to the harm she causes.” What, if anything, did you admire about Sophie?

7. Chris Beha dealt indirectly with a meaning of the title of the novel in the online magazine the Nervous Breakdown. He wrote: “What Charlie does discover about what happened to Sophie has nothing to do with the success of her first book or her failure to write another. Instead, it has to do with the time she spent caring for her husband’s dying father, and the way the watching him suffer has changed her. That is, it has to do with the world’s hard realities.” Did the novel convince you that Sophie’s fate had more do with Bill Crane than with Charlie or with her writing career?

8. This novel has conspicuous literary symbols, such as the Victorian glass aquarium in the Greenwich Village townhouse in which Charlie and his cousin Max rent rooms. What does the fish tank represent? Who or what are the tropical fish? You might interpret the tank in either a secular sense (it’s an expensive object from earlier era) or in a sacred one (in some contexts, fish symbolize Christianity).

9. “We had been given something beautiful, asked only to watch over it,” Charlie says at the end of the novel. “We’d been careless, and now it was all in ruin.” He’s talking about the aquarium he and Max were supposed to tend, but his words may have more than one meaning. What you think he’s saying in these lines?

10. What Happened to Sophie Wilder has drawn raves from some critics, such as David G. Myers of Commentary, who said that it is “a remarkable first novel” that “should especially be read by those who have given up on contemporary literature.” The book has had mixed reviews from others, including Sarah Towers, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “In places the novel suffers from too much distancing exposition — the price of so many flashbacks to Charlie and Sophie’s college days. And yet, like Charlie, I found myself absorbed throughout with the mystery of Sophie.” How would you sum up the novel?

Extras:
These questions relate to the religious ideas in What Happened to Sophie Wilder:

1. Sophie begins to read her dying father-in-law the story of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, found in the Bible in John 11:1-44. (“Now Jesus loved Martha …) He cuts her off. Why did Sophie choose that passage? Why did Bill reject it?

2. The Bible says that Christians will receive the gifts listed in Galatians 5:22: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering [i.e., patience], gentleness, goodness, faith.” Which, if any, of those traits does Sophie show? Does it matter, in a literary sense, whether or not she shows any?

3. Sophie converted to Catholicism after reading the monk Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and each of the two main sections of the novel has seven chapters. (The title of Merton’s book refers to the mountain of purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy.) Does the division of the novel into seven-chapter sections have meaning? If so, what is it? In what ways is Sophie in her own purgatory?

Vital statistics:
What Happened to Sophie Wilder. By Christopher R. Beha. Tin House, 256 pp., $15.95. Published: May 2012. A review of the novel appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 14, 2012.

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

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers or authors, and all of its reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. You can avoid missing the guides by subscribing to the RSS feed or following Jan on Twitter.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the Plain Dealer book editor and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 13, 2012

Donna Leon’s ‘Drawing Conclusions’ – Art and Death in Venice

Filed under: Fiction,Mysteries and Thrillers,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:56 am
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A mystery built on the theme that uncharacteristic behavior may reveal someone’s true character

Drawing Conclusions. By Donna Leon. Penguin, 260 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Guido Brunetti has a wife he loves “to the point of folly” and two children in whom he has “invested every hope of happiness on this earth.” Those facts alone set him apart from the many fictional detectives who live by variations on Rudyard Kipling’s ”Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, / He travels the fastest who travels alone.”

But Donna Leon’s Venetian police commissioner also has a rare wisdom and humanity in a field littered with sleuths who get by on wisecracks and macho swagger. Like Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, Commissario Brunetti tends to solve crimes through a keen grasp of human nature rather than shoot-’em-up gunslinging or high forensic gimmickry. That pattern holds in the 20th Brunetti mystery, which involves the death of a widow who sheltered battered women in her Venice apartment. Several valuable drawings have vanished from the victim’s walls, including a Corot, and the case looks like an art theft turned tragic. Brunetti suspects that something more complex has occurred, and his findings ultimately make the lost artworks look like a red herring.

So the appeal of Drawing Conclusions lies less in its plotting than in its atmospheric portrait of Venice, its psychological insights, and its author’s ability to develop a theme across multiple characters, not  just in that of the victim or a foe. Brunetti knows that as Dante’s Inferno has “thieves transformed into lizards, lizards into thieves, the moment of transformation invisible until complete,” people can be two things at once. Or, as his mother believed, uncharacteristic behavior can show someone’s true character. In this novel Brunetti shows that he, too, can be two things at once. And he paradoxically shows an admirable dimension of his character when he acts in an uncharacteristic way.

Best line: No. 1: He was “seduced into the suspicion that trace elements of humanity were still to be found in his superior’s soul.” No. 2: “Brunetti had struck on a truth, and he knew it: even the worst men wanted to be perceived as better than they were.”

Worst line: “a blonde woman.” “Blonde” is a noun that refers to a person, “blond” an adjective that describes a hair color. [Please see Victoria Corby's comment on different uses of "blond" and "blonde" in the U.S. and U.K.]

Published: 2011 (Heinemann hardcover), 2012 (Penguin paperback).

Furthermore: Leon talks to Tim Heald in a Telegraph interview about her Brunetti novels.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 22, 2012

Good Paperbacks for $16 or Less – Books for Your Economic Recovery

Filed under: Fiction,Nonfiction,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:10 pm
Tags: ,

Get sand in your shoes, not in the gears of your Nook or Kindle, at the beach this summer

By Janice Harayda

Have you noticed that many of this year’s summer reading lists sound as though they were written for the economic boom times of the Reagan era? Some of the most prominent round-ups have consisted only or mainly of new hardcovers with $25–$30 price tags. Yes, those books may have had $9.99 digital editions. But do you want to drip suntan oil onto — or get sand in the gears of — a Nook or Kindle? If not, here are some of the best recent paperbacks that you can buy for $16 or less.

Fiction
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Random House Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2012), by Deborah Moggach. A group of spirited British men and men women move to a retirement home in India in a comic novel that has a thicker plot and sharper wit than the 2012 movie based loosely on its story.

Drawing Conclusions (Penguin Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2012), by Donna Leon. The humane Venice police investigator Guido Brunetti makes his 20th appearance in a mystery about the murder of a widow whose art works have disappeared, a book that Library Journal called “literary crime fiction at its best.”

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Random House Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2011), by Yiyun Li. Intelligent Chinese men and women maintain hope against the odds while trapped by circumstances fostered by a repressive Beijing government (“Souvenir”) or difficult upbringings (“Gold Boy, Emerald Girl”) in a collection of nine elegant short stories.

The Imperfectionists (Dial Trade Paperbacks, $15, 2011) by Tom Rachman. Staff members at an English-language newspaper in Rome face the decline of their publication in a collection of tragicomic parables about the human illusions that lie at the intersection of love and work in a digital age. Their grief doesn’t keep them from writing headlines such as “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.”

Nonfiction
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner paperbacks, $16, 2011), by S.C. Gwynne. With journalistic balance and novelistic flair, S.C. Gwynne tells the story of the fall of the Comanches in a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. He filters their decline through the lives Quanah Parker, their last great chief; Quanah’s white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by the tribe as a 9-year-old and removed from it against her will 24 years later by Texas Rangers; and Ranald Mackenzie, a brilliant Indian fighter who attended West Point with Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

Lost in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Misson of World War II (HarperPerennial paperbacks, $15.99, 2012), by Mitchell Zuckoff. Never mind that the “most incredible rescue mission” of World War II took place on the beaches of Dunkirk. Mitchell Zuckoff has written an exciting and fast-paced account of how in the last days of World War II, the U.S. Army rescued service members stranded when their military plane crashed into a mountainous rainforest in New Guinea, where pythons grew to 15 feet and the natives were believed to practice cannibalism.

Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (Slightly Foxed paperbacks, £15, 2011), by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. An English biographer has written a captivating history of a London boys’ school that thrived despite an eccentric headmaster and a staff of largely untrained teachers. Yes, £15 is slightly more than $16, but this book has had too little attention in the U.S. It deserves a break.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau paperbacks, $16, 2012), by Barbara Demick. A Los Angeles Times reporter won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction for this remarkable portrait of North Korean defectors and the lives they had led under Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. Demick shows the catastrophic effects of one of the world’s most repressive regimes as she tells the stories of six people who escaped to South Korea by dint of forged passports, bribed border guards, or other cloak-and-dagger efforts.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved

April 18, 2012

In Defense of the Pulitzer Board’s Decision to Give No 2012 Fiction Prize

Update, Thursday, 2:50 p.m.: I’ve learned since writing this post that when juror Michael Cunningham was an unknown, nominee Denis Johnson helped to launch his career by providing a blurb for his first novel, Golden States (Crown, 1984). Johnson helped Cunningham again more recently by allowing Cunningham to reprint his work in an anthology he edited, Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown (Crown, 2002). Juror Maureen Corrigan says in today’s Washington Post that the jurors “unanimously agreed” on the books they nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If she is right, Cunningham failed to recuse himself from the judging as would be required by many other awards, including the National Book Critics Circle awards. Cunningham’s conflict of interest in promoting the career of someone who promoted his work is all the more reason why the Pulitzer Prize Board acted correctly in rejecting Johnson. Jan Harayda 

The Pulitzer board angered people when it gave no fiction award Monday, but it made the right call

By Janice Harayda

My newspaper nominated me for a Pulitzer when I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and I didn’t win. Many of my colleagues who have done worthy work have failed to earn a medal. And Pulitzers have often gone to books that, as a critic, I saw as less deserving than those that went unrecognized.

So I know that the loss of a prize can hurt. And I know that the Pulitzer Prize Board, the ultimate arbiter of the awards, has at times appeared to wield its power with the neutrality of a Soviet-era figure-skating judge.

But the board made the right call when it said on Monday that for the first time in 35 years, it would give no fiction prize, a decision that caused an uproar in the publishing industry. Choosing a winner sounds straightforward: Every year a three-member Pulitzer jury selects three finalists for the award, and from among those nominations, the Pulitzer board picks a winner. Or it rejects all candidates and gives no prize. That’s what happened Monday when the board declined without explanation to give a medal to any of the jury’s choices: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, all books by authors much-honored for their work.

The torrent of protests that followed gushed with the strongest force from publishers and others who would have profited from the sales bump the award provides. One of the more bizarre outbursts came from Ann Patchett, the novelist and Nashville bookseller. Patchett said in a New York Times op-ed piece that  she “can’t imagine” a year that had more “need” of a fiction Pulitzer even though none was given in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Was the board’s decision so terrible? Consider the books nominated by the jury. Johnson’s Train Dreams is a long short story that appeared in the Paris Review, that had about 50 pages when reprinted in a PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology, and that its publisher repackaged to look like a novel by using a large font. Foster Wallace left The Pale King unfinished, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, completed it after his death. Russell’s Swamplandia!, the strongest candidate, is a B/B-minus novel substantially less deserving of an award than many previous winners.

Whatever their merits, these three books comprised a seriously flawed shortlist. Should the board have honored a single short story by Johnson, however good, when it gave the Pulitzer to an entire book full great ones in The Stories of John Cheever? Should it have rewarded Foster Wallace for a novel written partly by someone else? Should it have given a medal to Russell’s B/B-minus book instead of to the A/A+ work that a Pulitzer implies?

Choosing any of those books would have had drawbacks that outweighed benefits such as a sales boost for the winner. Rewarding unworthy books fosters cynicism among readers and devalues literary prizes. In this case, it would also have lent the imprimatur of the board to nominations that seemed almost willfully perverse, given that the list ignored a host of more deserving candidates, including Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (a National Book Award finalist that won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction) and Pulitzer winner Steven Millhauser’s We Others (which won the Story Prize for short fiction).

Ann Patchett rightly notes that reading fiction matters because it allows us to imagine lives other than our own. But no evidence shows that the failure to award a Pulitzer will keep people from doing that. On the contrary, research has found that by adulthood, people generally have a habit of reading or they don’t. Those who have it won’t give it up because the Pulitzer board fails to pick a winner. They will instead get literary recommendations from friends, bookstores and libraries, reviews in print and online, and other sources. That process will lead some people to fiction they will enjoy more than the three books nominated by the Pulitzer jury. For that, we should be grateful.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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