One-Minute Book Reviews

October 29, 2013

Rachel Kushner’s ‘The Flamethrowers’ – Not Your Mother’s Novel of the 1970s

Filed under: Historical Novels,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:10 pm
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“Sex is not about exchange values. It’s a gift economy.”

The Flamethrowers: A Novel. By Rachel Kushner. Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99.

By Janice Harayda

Ah, those single women of the 1970s, always tossing their metaphorical tam-o’-shanters into the air like Mary Tyler Moore or getting stabbed to death in their beds like Roseann Quinn, the inspiration for Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Born in 1968, Rachel Kushner isn’t buying it, as well she shouldn’t. In this historical novel rooted in the downtown Manhattan art world, she offers a more complex portrait of a single woman living by her wits during the waning of what is euphemistically called the Disco Decade.

Kushner brings an astringent documentary sensibility to The Flamethrowers, which tells the story of a motorcycle enthusiast and filmmaker in her early 20s who arrives in New York at the end of the Nixon era. Her heroine, known as Reno, has an affair with Sandro Valera, an artist and scion of a family of industrialists back in Italy who have grown rich by exploiting the poor. While she and her lover are visiting his relatives near Lake Como, she becomes swept up in dangerous political currents set in motion by factory strikes and the violence of the Red Brigades.

Reno’s first-person narration alternates throughout the novel with third-person accounts of the World War II and other experiences of Sandro’s father, the head of the fictional Valera tire and motor vehicle company, so large “it was practically a public utility.” The flashbacks to an earlier generation may describe scenes that Kushner’s protagonist has imagined or heard about from her lover, and they support a sweeping theme that spans decades and continents: High-speed 20th-century machines (and machine-made art) can serve as either weapons or as armor. As Sandro says, a weapon is “almost a work of art.” And a work of art is a weapon.

Kushner explores other complex themes that, along with her point-of-view shifts, dilute her portrait of Reno, who seems to exist as a foil for others’ ideas more than a character in her own right. After crashing a motorbike on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Reno asks a mechanic to call Sandro in New York to let him know. She reflects, after the man tells her that a woman answered the phone at her lover’s loft: “A woman? I figured there was a language barrier, or that he’d dialed the wrong number. Or maybe someone from Sandro’s gallery had come over, not unusual, to photograph artworks or prepare them for shipment.”

Single women have a genius for rationalizing the behavior of their errant boyfriends, but the obtuseness Reno shows in that passage and a number of others clashes with the intelligence she displays elsewhere in the book. Reno is a font of elegant observations, whether they involve a young woman who arrives at a gallery “in a black sliplike dress, tiny shoulder blades like a bird’s wings” or Sandro’s belief that “Sex is not about exchange values. It’s a gift economy.” But Reno’s words tell you more about the people in her orbit than about her. For all its virtues, The Flamethrowers resembles a handsome car in which the clutch never quite gets let out all the way.

Best line: One of many “best”: Reno is struck by how much Northern Italians care about clothing: “I understood this was a cliché of the Milanesi, but it was also true. In Milan, it had bordered to me on comedy, women riding bicycles in platform heels and tight skirts, holding huge black umbrellas.”

Worst line: Quoted in the review above. Kushner would have us believe that Reno thinks, on learning that a woman has answered her lover’s phone: “I figured that there was a language barrier, or that he’d dialed the wrong number.” That’s a rationalization worthy of the title character of Sophie Kinsella’s “Shopaholic” novels. If you believe it, I would like to sell you a bridge over the Arno.

A reader’s guide to The Flamethrowers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 29, 2013.

Furthermore: Published in April 2013, The Flamethrowers is a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award for fiction. Kushner’s earlier Telex From Cuba was shortlisted for the prize.

Jan is an award-winning critic who, as book editor of the Plain Dealer, was  a judge for the National Book Critics Circle awards. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

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

November 14, 2010

Julie Orringer’s ‘The Invisible Bridge’ – A Saga of Love and Labor Camps in Hungary in World War II

Filed under: Historical Novels,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:07 pm
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A Holocaust novel with honorable aims and a high schmaltz factor

The Invisible Bridge. By Julie Orringer. Knopf, 602 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Reading this novel is like riding a slow-moving steam locomotive from Hungary to France and back as Nazi atrocities spread across Europe. Everything passes your window at the same speed, whether Hitler’s tanks are rolling toward Budapest or pygmy goats are eating a forgotten handkerchief in a garden in Nice.

Julie Orringer makes an honorable but sluggish effort to bring life to this a saga of three brothers and their extended families, whose members move in and out of love and labor camps between 1937 and 1945. Her novel is a sister under the skin to The Help: As Kathryn Stockett exhumed the cruelties of the Jim Crow era, Orringer recalls the brutalities of the Munkaszolgálat, the required national labor service program for Hungarian Jews, whom the law barred from serving in the armed forces. Her story develops the worthy theme that a will to live isn’t enough when disaster looms: You also need luck.

But Orringer is overmatched with a story that has nearly 250,000 words, about 190,000 longer than an average novel. Her plot relies heavily on coincidences, and her cliché-strewn prose resembles that of an overzealous editor for InStyle (“a warm apricotty soprano”). She asks us to believe that Hungarians of the 1940s used words like “empathy,” “energy conglomerate,” and “We’ve got to talk.” And her book abounds with redundancies such as “the triple-beat lilt of a waltz” (as though some waltzes had four beats) and “a perfect manmade oval artificially cooled by underground pipes” (as though pipes could provide cooling that wasn’t “artificial”). The overwriting slows the pace enough turn the novel into an oxymoron: a potboiler that never comes to boil.

Brian Hall offered more insights into Hungary in Stealing From a Deep Place (Hill & Wang, 1989), a travel memoir that includes a brief analysis the national anthem, the title of which can be translated as “Please God, Save the Magyar.” The text of the song comes from a 19th-century poem and has lines that say, in effect: This nation has suffered enough for all of its past and future sins. Hall wonders: What must a country have endured to believe it has paid not just for its past sins but for any it might yet commit? And his brief comments on the anthem may tell you as much about the Hungarian character as anything in The Invisible Bridge. Instead of providing fresh perceptions, Orringer’s story of the invisible bridge between generations confirms the lessons of Hall’s and many other books: Hungarians and Jews have suffered in unique and enduring ways.

Best line: Andras Lévi, one of the three brothers at the heart of The Invisible Bridge, quotes an architecture teacher: “Speed is the enemy of precision.”

Worst line: No. 1: “And he took her to bed and made love to her as if for the first time in his life.” A cliché, padded with “in his life,” that suggests the schmaltz factor in The Invisible Bridge. No. 2: “a layered egg-and-potato rakott krumpli.” Krumpli means “potato” in Hungarian, so this is another redundancy. It’s like saying “a bacon-and-cheese cheese sandwich.” No. 3: “It was a nightmare version of a fairy tale.”

Recommendation? The Invisible Bridge is likely to appeal most to extremely patient readers who want to learn about an aspect of the Holocaust slighted in mass-market fiction, the plight of Hungarian Jews in World War II. The book may also appeal to people who look to historical novels more for a wealth of period details than for a well-paced plot or believable characters.

Published: May 2010

Furthermore: Orringer also wrote the short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater. The Invisible Bridge, her first novel, was inspired by the life of her grandfather.

Read an excerpt from The Invisible Bridge.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 25, 2009

What’s the Difference Between Historical and Romance Novels? Quote of the Day – Philippa Gregory on Anya Seton

Filed under: Historical Novels,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:26 am
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Philippa Gregory introduces Anya Seton's "Katherine."

I haven’t read the novels of Philippa Gregory, a superstar in historical fiction particularly known for her books about the Tudor era, such as The Other Boleyn Girl. But I found my way to Gregory’s Web site after picking up a 1958 edition of Anya Seton’s The Winthrop Woman at library giveaway. The book had blurbs that called it “the famous story of a passionate woman who scandalized her Puritan world” and who “shocked the bigoted colonists by daring to love one man while married to another.” I read a few chapters and found that – those racy lines aside – the book was much better written than many contemporary historical novels. What had happened to Seton? Why was she so little known today?

Gregory seems to have had similar questions. In the past decade she has written introductions for new editions of five of Seton’s books, including The Winthrop Woman. She argues on her Web site that Seton was one of a group of historical novelists who had critical and popular acclaim until literary fashions changed in the late 1950s:

“Quite wrongly, critics came to regard historical fiction and romantic fiction as one and the same genre; and condemned both for being fantastical, escapist vehicles for predictable love stories suitable only for women readers who required entertainment but no intellectual challenge.

“But a good historical novel has characters whose basic humanity engages our empathy and whose convincing circumstances remind us that the past is, indeed, another country. This is the opposite of romance fiction which is drawn to historical settings: not because it aims to explore how people are affected by the society in which they live; but because it depends on the imaginary glamour of the past: the long frocks and big hats, horse drawn transport, and high jeopardy. Romance fiction has no interest in different times and cultures, in the worst examples, its stories are told in a vacuum.

“All but the very best romance fiction tends to deploy a limited number of character types: the heroine: vulnerable, pure, loving, the female villain: manipulative, sexual, heartless, the male villain: aggressive, uncontrolled, cruel, and the hero: loving, but often mistaken. The cardboard characters come ready-made, they are not forged by their particular experiences, by their history or by their society; nothing interrupts them working their way through their story to the happy ending.

“High quality historical fiction is not like this. A good historical novel tells of characters who are entirely congruent with the known conditions of their time, and yet sufficiently independent in thought and action to stand out from the crowd, and for the modern reader to identify with them. They are rounded characters because they exist in a recognizable time and place and these circumstances work on them. A good historical novel is always conscious of the shared humanity that we all inherit …”

Gregory makes these provocative comments in her preface to Seton’s Katherine, posted on her Web site and worth reading if you like Gregory’s novels and are looking for similar authors. I would add that if critics tend to conflate historical and romantic fiction, it’s often because publishers encourage the trend with their packaging. Toni Morrison writes historical novels that have covers that make clear that they aren’t romance novels. Other authors aren’t so lucky.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

September 2, 2008

Bonnie and Clyde in Brazil — Frances de Pontes Peebles’s First Novel, ‘The Seamstress’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

Filed under: Books I Didn't Finish,Historical Novels,Latin American,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:21 am
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The latest in an occasional series of posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t finish them

Title: The Seamstress: A Novel. By Frances de Pontes Peebles. Ecco, 641 pp., $25.95.

What it is: A historical saga about two orphaned sisters, trained as seamstresses, whose lives diverge and converge in dangerous ways during their early adulthood Brazil in the 1930s. Emília marries into high society in Recife and opens a dress shop that thrives on the patronage of the prominent friends of her in-laws. Luzia lives among bandits after being abducted at an early age by cangaceiros, roving groups of men and women who for centuries plundered and protected the countryside of northeastern Brazil.

How much I read: The first 50 and the last 75 pages, about a quarter of the book.

What I stopped reading: This novel resembles a cross between a Brazilian Bonnie and Clyde and a Dominick Dunne novel. Like Dunne, Frances de Pontes Peebles has a strong sense of pace, uses her research well and maps the intersection of sex, crime and social status. She also weaves into her plot an appealing sewing motif, showing how rewarding and arduous dressmaking could be when Singer’s hand-cranked machines were giving way to electric ones. In The Seamstress the tape measure is a metaphor for truth or trustworthiness, the ability to give a straight account. But for all her painstaking attention to detail, de Pontes Peebles draws her characters broadly. She tells us that people called young Luzia “the yolk” and Emília “the white,” and the sisters have that yolk-and-white quality in the novel. Interesting as some of the material was, the book didn’t have enough depth to hold my attention for more than 600 pages.

Best line in what I read: “Beneath her bed, Aunt Sofia kept a wooden box that held her husband’s bones.”

Worst line in what I read: Would a Brazilian woman living in 1928 have used the phrase “state-of-the-art” (as in “a state-of-the-art machine: a pedal-operated Singer”)?

Published: August 2008 www.harpercollins.com/books/9780060738877/The_Seamstress/index.aspx

Furthermore: The Seamstress is the first novel by de Pontes Peebles, who was born in Brazil and grew up in Miami.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 29, 2008

English on the Outside, American on the Inside – Sleuth Maisie Dobbs Returns in Jacqueline Winspear’s ‘An Incomplete Revenge’

A World War I battlefield nurse-turned-private-eye looks into a series of unexplained fires in a village in Kent

An Incomplete Revenge: A Maisie Dobbs Novel. By Jacqueline Winspear. Holt, 303 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

For a sleuth in Depression–era England, Maisie Dobbs acts remarkably like a modern American. She relies less on gathering tangible clues than on asking personal questions that Brits of her day – or any day – would have answered with nowhere near the speed they do in this book. And instead of favoring Holmesian deduction she tends to heed her unerring instincts, honed by her work as a World War I battlefield nurse and her training as a professional psychologist.

But for all its incongruities, An Incomplete Revenge is a stellar cozy, the name often applied to the type of mystery that has an amateur female sleuth and no gratuitous sex or violence. This is a book you can give your mother for Mother’s Day without worrying that she’ll disinherit you because it turns into snuff on page 167.

In her fifth outing, Maisie Dobbs travels from her home in London to a troubled village in Kent, where she investigates a series of fires and petty crimes for a friend who is hoping to buy property there. It’s the season for picking hops, the bitter herb essential to beer-making, and migrants have streamed into town on trains known as a “Hoppers’ Specials.” Some locals blame those outsiders or an influx of gypsies for the unsolved crimes in the village. Maisie isn’t so sure — and not just because there’s Roma blood on her late mother’s side of the family — and goes after the truth.

For many mystery writers, that would be the beginning and end of the story. Winspear goes further in An Incomplete Revenge. Her several plotlines neatly weave together topics as diverse as gypsy lore, violin-making, equestrian care, the Kentish landscape and the effects of a World War I zeppelin bombing on rural England. But these subjects never become a drag on the plot or devolve into a history lesson. Maisie may be American on the inside and English on the outside, but she inhabits a world uniquely her own.

Best line: Maisie reflects as she sees gypsy women cooking while wearing big white aprons: “The apron, Maisie knew, was worn less to protect clothing from stains and splashes than to provide a barrier between the body of the cook and the food to be eaten. In gypsy lore, if food came in close proximity to a woman’s body, it was considered mokada – sullied – and not worth the eating.”

Worst line: Winspear’s dialogue is occasionally too expositional. A friend of Maisie’s says: “So, despite Ramsay MacDonald being pressed to form a National Government to get us through this mess, and well-founded talk of Britain going off the gold standard any day now, there’s still room for optimism – and I want to move ahead soon.” Then there’s the passage in which Maisie tells her father, “Dad, I’ve been thinking about Nana,” and he replies, “Your mother’s mother?”

Published: February 2008 www.jacquelinewinspear.com

Reading group guide: At us.macmillan.com/anincompleterevenge.You can also read or listen to an excerpt at this site.

Furthermore: Winspear grew up, in part, in Kent, and lives in California. Her honors for the Maisie Dobbs series include an Agatha Award (given by Malice Domestic to books that, like Christie’s, have no gratuitous sex or violence).

For an English perspective on Maisie Dobbs, read this post by Michael Allen of the Grumpy Old Bookman blog grumpyoldbookman.blogspot.com/2006/03/jacqueline-winspear-maisie-dobbs.html. For more on hops, visit the site for America Hop Museum www.americanhopmuseum.org in the Yakima Valley.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 28, 2008

Jacqueline Winspear’s Latest Maisie Dobbs Mystery, ‘An Incomplete Revenge,’ Coming This Week

Filed under: Historical Novels,Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:14 pm
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Few suspense novelists have won more praise recently than Jaqueline Winspear has earned for her historical mysteries about Maisie Dobbs, a World War I nurse-turned-private investigator in London. Winspear has won Alex, Agatha and Macavity Awards for books in the series, which began with Maisie Dobbs and continues with the just-published fifth installment, An Incomplete Revenge. Should you consider giving one of them as a Mother’s Day gift to someone who loves mysteries or historical novels? Check back later this week for a review. Click here to read or listen to an excerpt or find a reading group guide us.macmillan.com/anincompleterevenge.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 15, 2008

The Battle of Towton Field, Fought on Palm Sunday in 1461, Takes the Stage in Anne Easter Smith’s Historical Romance, ‘Daughter of York’

Filed under: Historical Novels,Romance Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:20 pm
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Yorkists and Lancastrians drowned in their chain mail at England’s Antietam

The bloodiest battle fought on English soil took place on the snowy Palm Sunday of 1461 and claimed more than 30,000 lives. Anne Easter Smith www.anneeastersmith.com recalls Battle of Towton Field and other War of the Roses events in her Daughter of York (Touchstone, $19.95, paperback), a historical romance about the marriage of Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III, to Charles the Bold of Burgundy. In the novel a messenger tells Margaret and her mother of the Palm Sunday rout of the Lancastrians, who fled in the pink snow, by the Yorkists: “The pity of it was, the only place to run was down the steep sides of the hill to the Cock Beck stream, full to bursting on its banks. Many drowned in their heavy mail, and I saw others using the dead bodies to form a bridge over which they attempted to flee.” Click on this link to read a review of the novel www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/19/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com


November 19, 2007

Hell’s Bells! It’s Anne Easter Smith’s War of the Roses-Era Historical Romance, ‘Daughter of York’

A tale of the dynastic marriage of Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III, to a ruthless Duke of Burgundy

Daughter of York. By Anne Easter Smith. Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 592 pp., $19.95 paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Here is a fact that may cheer you up if you’ve been plowing stony ground on an Internet dating site: At least your brother the king can’t marry you off to a thuggish Duke of Burgundy as part of a package deal that includes the lifting of a ban on Burgundian imports in England. This is more or less what happened to Margaret of York, a sister of Edward IV, who sent her off in 1468 to wed the expansionist Charles the Bold.

It was clearly the kind of marriage that a modern therapist would call “challenging,” at least on the evidence of the second historical romance from Anne Easter Smith. Margaret soon learns that her husband’s favorite activities include annexing large parts of the Habsburg Empire and hanging people from walnut trees. She is distressed to hear that after one conquest, he drowned all the people he hadn’t strung up: “What little respect she had for Charles was being eroded day by day.”

Amid all of this, Margaret is sustained – in a departure from history — by her love for a married courtier, Anthony Woodville. Anthony plays Lancelot to her Elaine, consoling her with, “I have wrestled with Satan over my desire for you, Marguerite. That day in your chamber, he almost won.” Even by the flexible standards of historical romances, this attraction isn’t fully plausible, given that Margaret was devout enough to have tried to reform permissive religious orders. Nor are anachronisms such as a reference to “adolescent insecurities” and a midwife who tells a woman in childbirth, “Now, one, two, three, push.”

But Daughter of York has more integrity and appeal than many books in its category, partly because Smith sticks closer to history without larding her story with undigestible chucks of research. The novel moves swiftly through signal events of the War of the Roses, has a dramatis personae that separates the real and invented Yorkists and Lancastrians, and generally shows how far such books have come from the days when people dismissed them all as “bodice-rippers.” There’s a bit of rough sex in this one, but just about the nastiest thing you’ll hear anyone say is, “Hell’s bells! or “You, you – bat-fowling, lily-livered skainsmate!”

Best line: A messenger’s report to Margaret’s mother on the Battle of Towton Field, the bloodiest ever fought on English soil, where the Yorkists defeated Henry VI’s Lancastrians on a snowy Palm Sunday. The courier says that Henry’s routed soldiers left pink snow in their wake: “The pity of it was, the only place to run was down the steep sides of the hill to the Cock Beck stream, full to bursting on its banks. Many drowned in their heavy mail, and I saw others using the dead bodies to form a bridge over which they attempted to flee.”

Worst line: Let’s just say that simultaneous orgasm seems to have been easier to achieve in the 1400s than in later centuries.

Recommendation? Genre fiction with meat on its bones. This could be a good choice for book groups that want to read a historical romance that isn’t cheesy.

Reading group guide: The back matter includes a reading group guide, an interview with the author and a four-page glossary of historical terms.

Published: To be published in February 2008 www.simonsays.com

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ (and that reference to “the Marriage at Canaan” may have been corrected).

Furthermore: A native of England, Anne Easter Smith www.anneeastersmith.com wrote A Rose for the Crown. She lives in Massachusetts. You can find information on Margaret of York at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_of_York. Besides Edward, Margaret’s brothers included the future Richard III, who has a supporting role in this novel.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 21, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Sara Gruen’s ‘Water for Elephants’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Water for Elephants
A Novel by Sara Gruen
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it 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 the guide.

Algonquin Books has posted a reading group guide to Water for Elephants at www.algonquin.com that you may want to use at a starting point for your discussions. But like most publishers’ guides, that guide is part of a publicity campaign designed to sell books. It does not encourage criticism, quote negative reviews or compare the novel to others that you might enjoy more. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but only to raise questions the Algonquin guide doesn’t.

A few generations ago, many Americans dreamed about escaping from humdrum lives by joining a traveling circus. Sara Gruen describes the tawdry allure of a Depression-era Big Top in her historical novel, Water for Elephants, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. Her narrator is Jacob Jankowski, a widowed nonagenarian who lives in an assisted living facility and looks back on his work for a traveling circus after his parents’ deaths forced him to leave veterinary school. Young Jacob is intelligent and hard-working. But if he expects those traits to help him avoid brutal hardship, he is corrected by the equestrian director of the Benzini Brothers circus. “The whole thing’s an illusion, Jacob,” his co-worker says, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what people want from us. It’s what they expect.”

Questions for Readers

1. Historical novels are often overpraised, because good research can mask or distract you from flaws in the plot, characterization or structure of a book. Do you think Water for Elephants deserved all the praise quoted in the front matter of the paperback edition? Or do you believe some critics might have been willing to overlook its flaws because of interesting material that Sara Gruen turned up in her research? Were you willing to overlook any flaws you found in the novel? Why?

2. Susan Cheever, the novelist and memoirist, says in the same front matter that Water for Elephants is “a book about what animals can teach people about love.” Do you agree? If so, why? If not, what is this novel really “about”?

3. “Despite her often clichéd prose and predictable ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book,” a reviewer for the trade journal Publishers Weekly wrote. Algonquin omits the first part of that sentence and begins with “Gruen” when it quotes from the review in the paperback edition. This kind of editing is considered fair – or at least standard – in publishing. It’s also fair to ask: How did you react to that “often clichéd prose”? (There are at least five clichés in the first one-and-a-half-pages: “thunderous applause,” “screeched to a halt,” “My heart skipped a beat,” “No one moved a muscle,” and “ ‘you’ve got a lot to lose.”) If you had been the editor of the novel, would you have suggested that Gruen lose a few? Or is the book is strong enough that it doesn’t matter?

4. Did you find the ending of the book as “predictable” as the PW reviewer did? Or did you find it surprising? Why?

5. Authors of historical novels usually try to avoid anachronisms such as modern language used by characters from other eras. How well did Gruen do on that count? Would Depression-era characters say things like, “So, did you two manage to hook up?” [Page 158] Does this matter? Why or why not?

6. Many novels that are popular with book clubs come from female authors who write in the voice of a female character. Water for Elephants is different in that its narrator is a man in his 90s. How well did Gruen portray Jacob? Did she portray characters of one sex better than the other?

7. Historical novels are traditionally defined as books in which the action takes place before their authors were born. Pride and Prejudice, for example, isn’t considered a “historical” novel because Jane Austen was writing about her own times. But many of the most popular American novels of the past 100 years, from Gone With the Wind to The Clan of the Cave Bear and Cold Mountain, are historical novels. How would you compare Water for Elephants with some of your favorites?

8. Gruen says in an interview in the back matter of the paperback edition that the “backbone” of her novel “parallels the biblical story of Jacob.” [Page 350] For example, the biblical Jacob works for seven years for his uncle Laban. In Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski “worked on circuses for nearly seven years” [Page 4], one of them owned by a man named Uncle Al. Apart from the appearance of “Jacob’s ladder,” the best-known part of the biblical story occurs when Esau sells his birthright to Jacob, his younger brother, for food. [In the time of Esau and Jacob, on the death of the father, the oldest son received twice as much property as any other child, known as the “birthright.] Does Water for Elephants have a counterpart to Esau?

9. Many people might consider the prologue to Water for Elephants to be controversial, because you could argue that it deceives you about the killer of August Rosenbluth, the superintendent of animals at the Benzini Brothers circus, in the scene in which he dies. How did you react to the scene? [Page 4] Was it fair or unfair given what happens later?

10. One way to judge the prologue is to compare it with mysteries you’ve read. A canon of mystery-writing that authors must “play fair” with readers. This means, in part, that a writer must give you all the clues you need to solve the mystery and provide them at appropriate times. (For example, a writer can’t withhold all or most of the important clues until halfway through the book or later, because this would deprive you of a pleasure you expect from a mystery – the chance to figure out “who did it” as you go along.) A mystery writer must also write as clearly as he or she can. That is, the the identity of the killer can be uncertain until the end, but the language can’t be unclear because of murky pronoun antecedents or other intentional grammatical lapses. How does all of this relate to the prologue and what comes after?

Extras:
1. James Michener, who did heavy research for his own books, said: “The greatest novels are written without any recourse to research other than the writer’s solitary inspection of the human experience. Flaubert, Dostoevski, Jane Austen, Turgenev, and Henry James exemplify this truth.” [Literary Reflections: Michener on Michener, Hemingway, Capote, & Others (State House press, 1993), p. 74.] Do you agree or disagree?

2. If you agree with Susan Cheever that this is “a book about what animals can teach people about love,” what do the animals teach us? What do we learn from this book that you couldn’t get from movies and television shows like Babe or Lassie, which involved intelligent and loyal animals?

Vital statistics:
Water for Elephants: A Novel. By Sara Gruen. Algonquin, 335 pp., $13.95, paperback.

Published: April 2007 (paperback), May 2006 (Algonquin hardcover). A review of Water for Elephants appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 21, 2007. If you are reading this guide on the home page for the site, scroll up to find the review. If you are reading it elsewhere on the site or on the Internet, click on this: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/.

Your book group may also want to read:

Genesis, Chapters 25:19–37:35. The biblical story of Jacob appears in these.

Horton Hatches the Egg, by Dr. Seuss, first published by Random House www.seussville.com in 1940 and also available in other editions. The epigraph for Water for Elephants comes from this book.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is 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 www.bookcritics.org. 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 that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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August 2, 2007

Michael Shaara’s Civil War Novel, ‘The Killer Angels’

At Gettysburg with Robert E. Lee and Joshua Chamberlain

Newt Gingrich often produces unintended comedy when he tries to show the thoughts of military leaders in his new Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th (St. Martin’s, $25.95). Michael Shaara takes on a similar task with much better results in his 1974 Civil War novel, The Killer Angels (Ballantine, $7.99, paperback), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s risky to try to give a fresh account of someone as familiar as Robert E. Lee: What’s there to say that we don’t know?

But Shaara pulls it off in this recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg, as refracted through the lives of Lee and others, including the Union’s Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Shaara avoids overstuffing his story with irrelevant period details — the besetting sin of so many historical novels — and offers a brisk account of mental as well as physical struggle. The Killer Angels isn’t in a class with such great war novels as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. But it is an example of military fiction done with intelligence and without the macho posturing that tends to infect the form. Jeff Shaara has attempted to build on his father’s legacy, and while I’ve read only one of his novels, it didn’t come close to this.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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