One-Minute Book Reviews

April 9, 2007

Eric Hodgins’s ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’: Still Funny After All These Years

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Fiction,Humor,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:55 pm

A classic comic novel about moving from the city to the country sends up the modern lust for property

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading yesterday’s bestsellers can be a little like trying on that pair of white vinyl go-go boots in the attic: You don’t know whether to laugh or cringe at our former tastes. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation and comic novels age faster than serious ones because so much humor depends on topical references. This classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property, and its enduring appeal lies partly in the all-too-believable naiveté of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. They fall in love with the barns, apple orchard and majestic views: “But the furnishings were in general of the era of Benjamin Harrison, with an overlay of William McKinley, and here and there a final, crowning touch of Calvin Coolidge.” And when house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, Jim and Muriel resolve to tear it down and build another on the site.

This decision sets up a superbly constructed plot in which the new house becomes the couple’s antagonist. The Blandings square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – in short, all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. But the house itself is their real opponent. Amid the soaring bills and construction delays, Mr. Blandings imagines how delightful it would be “to return to the city and move a final, ten blocks father north.” Will he throw in the drill bit and go back to the Upper East Die? Or sell the place and buy one against which he isn’t so overmatched?

Eric Hodgins controls the suspense deftly. And the late New Yorker cartoonist William Steig adds three dozen or so brilliant drawings, many of them a full page, that throw the comedy into higher relief and show how much we have lost now that the fully illustrated adult novel has almost disappeared. Along with Hodgins’s masterly text, Steig’s fanciful pictures remind us that if a man’s home is his castle, sometimes he’s the court jester instead of the king.

Best line: “It surged over Mr. Blandings that he very much wished he were back in the city … he wanted the noise of the city in his ears; the noise with which all city dwellers were in such perfect, unconscious harmony that the blast of a gas main down the block might strike the eardrums but penetrate not the brain.”

Worst line: A few expressions have become dated. When Mr. Blandings sees the contractors’ bills, he cries: “Jesus H. Mahogany Christ!”

Recommended if … you like comedy that stays close to life. Hodgins’s satire is much more realistic than that of the over-the-top novels of Christopher Buckley (whose new Boomsday involves plan to save Social Security and other benefits by giving baby boomers a financial incentive to commit suicide, known as “Voluntary Transitioning”). Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is also a nearly perfect book club book partly because: 1) It’s a classic that few people have read; 2) It’s relatively short and widely available in paperback and at libraries; 3) It deals with a situation almost anybody can appreciate; 4) It may show a new side of William Steig to members familiar only with his children’s books, such as Dr. De Soto and Shrek!; and 5) All those slackers who never finish the book can watch one of the movie versions.

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to the novel appears in the post directly below this one and is archived with the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews.

Published: 1946 (first edition), 2004 (Simon & Schuster paperback).

Furthermore: Hodgins’s novel has inspired two movies I haven’t seen – Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Low, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,’ a Modern Classic by Eric Hodgins With Illustrations by William Steig

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

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

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation. This modern classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit. Eric Hodgins (1899–1971) satirizes the modern lust for property in a comic tale of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. When house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, the couple resolve to tear it down and build another on the site. This decision sets up a plot in which they square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. Cartoonist and children’s author William Steig (1907–2003) adds to the comedy with more than three dozen fanciful drawings.

Questions For Reading Groups

1. Yesterday’s bestsellers tend to look outdated quickly, and comic novels age faster then others because so much humor hinges on references to current events. Most novels from the era of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House have gone out of print. Why do you think this one still appeals to people?

2. Eric Hodgins tweaks the naiveté of Jim and Muriel Blandings throughout his book. Did you find the two appealing even though they often make bad decisions? Why?

3. Many contemporary novelists make heavy use of brand names in describing new homes. Hodgins doesn’t. Why do you think he avoided filling his book with references to specific products? How does his novel benefit or suffer from this approach?

4. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property. But it lampoons other things, too. What are some of them?

5. Jim and Muriel Blandings tangle with tradespeople and others. But their main antagonist is the house they are building. How does Hodgins give the place enough character to keep you from feeling as though you’re reading an extended article in Better Homes and Gardens?

6. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was published at the beginning of the baby boom, when families were expanding. How do you think people might react to the novel if it were appearing in print for the first time today?

7. Much of the humor in this book springs from its tone. Sometimes the tone is ironic:

“The evil days were behind them. The delays had been galling; the mistakes costly. The experience had been bitterly won, but it won it was. Their plans were perfect, their money was in sight, and now, thank God, work had at last begun. Nothing was so cozy, Mrs. Blandings thought, as the sight of workmen plying their trade on behalf of a home …” [Page 141]

At other times, the humor is more direct and involves local speech or a play on words, as when a man refers the Lansdale Historical society as “the Hysterical Society.” [Page 178] How would you describe the overall tone of the novel? How well does it serves the book?

8. What do William Steig’s drawings add to the novel? What do you think Steig was trying to do with them? Was he trying stick closely to the text or add a dimension?

9. Other satirical novels that you may have read include Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking. All of these differ in many ways from Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. How would you compare their humor? What do they all the book have in common? What makes all of them work?

Extras:
10. Roger Kimball, co-editor of The New Criterion, wrote that the 1948 movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy is “charming … but nothing compared with the novel.” [The Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2006] If you’ve seen the movie, do you agree or disagree?

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., $12, paperback.

A review of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com on April TK, 2007, and is archived with the April posts and in the “Novels” category.

Movie Links: Eric Hodgins’s novel inspired two movies. The first was the 1948 Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy www.imdb.com/tt0040613/. The second was the 1986 The Money Pit with Tom Hans and Shelley Long www.imdb.com/title/tt0091541/.

If you found this guide helpful, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing others. The Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides cover fiction, nonfiction and poety and are posted often but not on a regular schedule, because they are created only for books that need or deserve them.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 25, 2007

‘A Character Named Scrotum': More Funny Search Terms People Have Used to Find My Site

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,Humor,Libraries,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:58 pm

On Friday I posted a list of the funniest search terms that people have used to find my site since Monday, when I began blogging about Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, winner of the 2007 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association. A few more turned up over the weekend:

a character named scrotum

scrotum literary award

susan patron scrotum

janice harayda scrotum

I thought that the “janice harayda scrotum” came from a wag who had read my original post about the keywords, entitled “Barbara Walters Scrotum.” But I found accidentally that it had been used by a minister to whom I described a few of my seven or eight posts on The Higher Power of Lucky, including a review and a reading group guide. If ministers have no problem with “the s word,” why do some librarians?

By the way, I love that one of the links to my original review of The Higher Power of Lucky came from a site called Depraved Librarian http: www.depravedlibrarian.blogspot.com/. I never thought of librarians as “depraved. ” But if patrons keep asking librarians to help them find that book with “a character named scrotum,” it could take a toll on their sanity, don’t you think?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 23, 2007

‘Barbara Walters Scrotum’ and Other Funny Search Terms People Have Used to Find My Site This Week

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,Humor,Libraries,Newbery Medals,News,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:58 pm

The most amusing keywords or keyphrases of the week

I have blogged frequently this week about Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, which uses the word “scrotum” on the first page and won the American Library Association’s 2007 Newbery Medal for the most distinguished work of children’s literature. My posts included a comment about a segment of The View on which Barbara Walters read aloud a dictionary definition of “scrotum.”

People have entered some pretty funny keywords or keyphrases into their search bars as a result all of this. And because a lot of those people have ended up at One-Minute Book Reviews, their search terms have showed up on my “Blog Stats” page. Some of the most amusing appear below. My blog stats don’t show which of these terms originally included a plus sign or the word “and.” Some of these terms appeared in quotes and some didn’t.

lucky scrotum
patron scrotum
Barbara Walters scrotum
library scrotum
Newbery scrotum
scrotum book

view walters scrotum book

For those of you who may want to keep your “scrotum” in perspective, I posted a detailed review of The Higher Power of Lucky on Monday and a reading group guide to the book on Thursday.

On Wednesday, Feb. 28, I will announce on this site the finalists for the first annual Delete Key Awards, which recognize the year’s worst writing in books. The announcement will include examples of bad writing from from books on the short list. You may find some of these funny, too. The winner of the Delete Key Awards will be announced on March 15, the Ideas of March.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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