One-Minute Book Reviews

October 13, 2009

Tori Spelling’s Hollywood Memoir, ‘Mommywood’ – ‘Dean and I Have Sex Three to Four Times a Week!’

Guests brought gay-themed gifts to a baby shower for her son, Liam

Mommywood. By Tori Spelling with Hilary Liftin. Simon Spotlight, 243 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Tori Spelling once wore a Marie Antoinette Halloween costume custom-made by Nolan Miller, the designer for Dynasty and other televisions show produced by her father, Aaron Spelling. In a sense, the media have never allowed her to take it off.

Spelling has been guillotined by tabloids and others for a tumbrel of offenses — her nose job, her feud with her mother, her breast-augmentation surgery, her acting on Beverly Hills, 90210, her appearances with her husband on the reality show Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood. “I’m cocktail party joke material,” she says in Mommywood, the follow-up to her bestselling memoir, sTORI telling.

Spelling’s new book describes her efforts to give her two young children what she calls a more “normal” childhood than she had. An example of normal in Hollywood occurred when she became pregnant with her son, Liam, and her gay friends worried that her firstborn would be “too straight to hang out” with them.

“In hopes of being an early influence, lots of my friend gave me gay-themed gifts at my baby shower,” Spelling writes. “A pink onesie saying ‘My boyfriend’s out of town for the weekend.’ A rock T-shirt saying ‘Queen’ (as in the band).”

Another example of “normal”: Spelling worked her pregnancy into her reality show and took her son on an international media tour when he was two months old. Some of the stories that resulted are perversely entertaining. But Mommywood as a whole is a self-indulgent font of evidence of Spelling’s insecurities and questionable judgment. And that especially applies to its criticisms of her mother, Candy Spelling, who has given different versions of some of the events in this book to the media. If you want your children to grow up unwarped by Hollywood, will it help to write a book keeps taking swipes at their grandmother?

Best line: “I grew up in a house with a driveway that was so long I can’t remember ever walking to the bottom of it.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Now I have two children of my own and I want them to have a normal childhood.” This comes from someone who took her son on a media tour when he was two months old. No. 2: “Dean and I were sitting around a table with some producers from our show. We were talking about sex after babies, and one of the other married men at the table said, ‘What sex life after kids?’ Dean and I have sex three to four times a week!” No. 3: Spelling writes of the day her son had an accident at a pool: “Either you know this already or it’s too much information, but swim diapers aren’t rigged quite the same way as normal diapers are. Swim diapers have a tough job. They have to keep in whatever comes out. Without them, babies would put the ‘poo’ in ‘pool.’ So they don’t have convenient Velcro openings. You can’t just untape, wipe, and be done with it. Instead they’re like little pants. The load is kind of trapped in there. Good news for the other swimmers, but once I had Liam in my arms, I had no idea how to get that swim diaper off while adequately containing its contents. That is to say, I feared the poop. …
“I laid Liam down on his towel. I pulled off the swim diaper. Again, either you know this already or it’s too much information, but when poo is exposed to that environment (pool water, a sopping swim diaper, a hyper child – the trifecta), it loses its structural integrity. There was no … cohesion. Just crumbles of poo everywhere. A horror show.
“I went in for the kill, but a few swipes later I was out of wipes and still facing an insurmountable mess. I swear, there was actually more there than when I started.”

Published: February 2009

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 4, 2009

Eve Pell Airs the Monogrammed Laundry in ‘We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:48 pm
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The great-great-great granddaughter of tobacco baron Pierre Lorillard remembers her overprivileged childhood and her involvement with the Black Panthers

We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante. State University of New York Press/Albany, 225 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Eve Pell notes perceptively that there was something “curiously un-American” about the values of her parents, members of the last generation who believed that if your blood was blue enough, you didn’t have to redeem yourself through work or philanthropy. “Horatio Alger, for example, would not have been welcome in our circle,” she writes, “since we looked down on people who actually made their own money (after we did) as ‘latecomers.’”

Pell maps the damage in this memoir of her overprivileged childhood on Long Island, her work with the Black Panthers in San Francisco, and her late-life success as a world-class marathon runner. She grew up fox-hunting and hearing about prominent forebears such as the tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard, her great-great-great grandfather. One of her great-grandmothers gave seated dinners for 125 guests, “one course after another, with a footman in livery standing behind each chair”: “She never put on her own shoes – her lady’s maid did that.” And yet Pell hardly had charmed youth: Early on, her beautiful mother ran off with a lover and fought for custody of her daughter in a battle played out in the New York newspapers.

By telling her story, Pell aims show what happens to rich families when blood and money thin and, in the culture as a whole, an aristocracy of birth gives way to an aristocracy of achievement. And to some extent, she succeeds. Pell is a close observer of the mores of relatives such as an aunt who sold some of her diamonds to create and publish a version of the Bible that “excluded references to eating meat since she was a vegetarian.”

But We Used to Own the Bronx isn’t as enlightening as it could have been. Pell is better reporter than analyst and, as such, offers few insights into her world that go beyond the banalities of psychotherapy. She was in a unique position to shed light on the phenomenon known as radical chic or champagne socialism, but she makes little of it.

As a young mother, Pell became emotionally involved the Black Panther George Jackson, a prisoner at San Quentin, who was eventually shot to death while trying to escape. Why did she act in ways that might have endangered her three children? Pell says, in part, that Jackson “made me feel like a real woman.” She also says that in 1996 — when she would have been in her 60s — she was “surprised and shocked” (and “horrified” and “appalled”) to learn that a cousin felt no guilt about a nasty anti-Semitic prank in his youth. By then, she’d lived for more than six decades in a family teeming with men who belonged to private clubs that didn’t admit Jews, so it’s unclear why she was as startled by this as by her discovery that Jackson may have been a psychopath.

In such passages, Pell comes across as either naïve or sanctimonious and, in any case, lacking in self-awareness. She also shows little sense of humor about the foibles of the oddballs in her clan. Pell has tried not to allow herself to be defined by family – but she takes her clan so seriously as to leave the impression that, in many ways, she’s still in thrall to it.

Best line: “I had been raised to think that anyone who felt bad was not trying hard enough.”

Worst line: Pell writes of an ex-husband: “There were things I had to put up with. He routinely ate all the chocolate icing off the top of Sara Lee cakes and left the rest of it, stripped, in the fridge for us.” We’re supposed to sympathize with this?

Published: February 2009

Caveat lector: We Used to Own the Bronx has one of the worst titles I’ve seen on a book this year. It refers to a large tract of land once owned by the Pells, but leaves the impression that the book is about, say, the 1949 Yankees. The subtitle is fine.

About the author: Pell lives in San Francisco.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

September 3, 2009

What If You Had an Autistic Disorder and Didn’t Know It? Tim Page’s Memoir of Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome, ‘Parallel Play’

Filed under: Memoirs,News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:40 pm
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Tim Page is a friend, and I’m in the acknowledgments of his acclaimed biography of the novelist Dawn Powell, which – you will not be surprised to hear – I love. So I can’t review his new Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s (Doubleday, 196 pp., $26). But Janet Maslin writes in today’s New York Times that this “improbably lovely memoir” shows in “fascinatingly precise detail and often to pricelessly funny effect” what it’s like to have his autistic disorder and not know it. And nothing in her review conflicts with what I know about Tim, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his music criticism for the Washington Post before he decamped to academia. The Times has also posted an excerpt from Parallel Play, a book that is an expanded version of material that appeared in The New Yorker.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

August 26, 2009

Before Ted Kennedy’s Brain Tumor, There Was Johnny Gunther’s

Filed under: Classics,Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:40 am
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Malignant brain tumors such as that of Sen. Ted Kennedy (1932-2009) are uncommon enough that they have received less attention in books than many other types of cancer. One exception to the pattern is Death Be Not Proud, John Gunther’s eloquent memoir of the death of his 17-year-old son, Johnny, from a fatal glioma diagnosed when he was in high school. American views of cancer have undergone a sea-change since the book was first published in 1949. But this modern classic remains one of the finest accounts we have of the physical and emotional toll that a malignant brain tumor takes on patients, even those who might seem to have all the advantages. This post first appeared in 2008.

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August 3, 2009

Clara Kramer’s ‘Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival’ – A Teenager’s Holocaust

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:25 pm
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A first-person account of hiding in a bunker during the Nazi occupation of Poland

Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival. By Clara Kramer. With Stephen Glantz. Harper/Ecco, 339 pp., $25.99.

By Janice Harayda

Clara Kramer tells us early in this book that when Nazis arrested Jewish leaders in her town in Poland in 1941, her mother donated “her wedding band” to help ransom them. More than 150 pages later, she says that her family had to pay a monthly fee to the Christians who were hiding them in a bunker, and when her parents ran out of money in 1944, her mother gave “her wedding ring”: “We didn’t sell it until now.”

This first quote comes from the story told in Clara’s War with the aid of screenwriter Stephen Glantz. The second comes from one of its excerpts from the teenage diary said to have inspired the narrative. The inconsistency between the two quotes – one of a number involving substantive facts – shows a problem with this book: Its publisher bills it as a “biography,” but it reads more like a novelization of a life.

As Clara’s War has it, five thousand Jews lived in Zolkiew, Poland, at the start of World War II, and about 50 survived. Clara Kramer was one of the lucky ones. She survived the Holocaust because an ethnic German named Valentin Beck hid her family and others for more than a year in a bunker under his house, “a space no larger than a horse stall.” Beck had a reputation as an anti-Semite, a drunk and a philanderer, and he appears to have had complex reasons, not all of them noble, for sheltering Jews during the Nazi occupation of Zolkiew. He often summoned one of the women in the bunker to his living quarters for trysts, and the affair may have begun before she arrived. His infidelity enraged his wife and, when it came to light, imperiled everyone under his roof.

If Clara’s War is accurate, the Becks were nonethess heroic, saving 18 Jews, and have been honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial. Valentin’s acts of kindness included bringing the teenage Clara composition books and a blue pencil that she used to keep a diary, now in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

But it is hard to know how accurate the book is. With Glantz’s help, Kramer describes many scenes in a detail few people could recall even with the help of a diary, such as line-by-line conversations complete with gestures and facial expressions. Some events serve literary purposes that seem too neat. One occurs in the prologue when the author is 12 years old and her sister leaves the shelter of an apple tree to look at bombers overhead – a foreshadowing of a disaster that will occur later. You never really see how 18 people could have survived in a crypt-like space the size of “a horse stall,” though the book has a diagram and says that the bunker still exists and the author and others have returned to it.

Kramer kept in touch with others saved by the Becks, and they and their descendants presumably have confirmed much of the story in Clara’s War. Even so, you wish the book had fewer inconsistencies and cinematic flourishes. The excerpts from the diary in the Holocaust Museum are fascinating in their own right, and you hope that readers someday will have a chance to read the entire journal in straight-up form.

Best line: “My father, like every Jewish business owner in town, had his business confiscated by the Nazis. We had to wear the white armband with the blue Jewish star above the right elbow. Any offense was punishable by death. The day the order for the armbands came down, none of us could leave the house until my mother had embroidered them. It took Mama over two hours to do one armband.”

Worst line: “My father’s family was so religious that they had had considered it irrelevant to have their weddings recorded by the state. So even though we went by the name of Schwartz in our day-to-day life, all of our official papers, including my birth certificate, bore the name of Gottlieb.” Why Gottlieb? Was Gottlieb carried over from previous generations not mentioned in the book? Or did ultra-religious Jews choose it because it means “God love”?

Published: 2009 (first American edition), 2008 (British edition from Ebury Press, part of Random House).

Watch a video of Clara Kramer talking about the Holocaust and her book.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to Clara’s War: All But My Life, a beautifully written memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein and a pillar of Holocaust literature.

Furthermore: Kramer lives in Elizabeth, NJ. She helped found the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University in Union, NJ. Glantz is a screenwriter. The inconsistencies cited in the first paragraph of this review appear on pages 43 and 219 of the book and can be confirmed by using the “Browse Inside” tool on the HarperCollins Web site to search for “her wedding band” and “her wedding ring.”

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

August 2, 2009

Yes, New Jersey WAS Always So Crooked — Helene Stapinski Remembers When Corruption Ran in Her Jersey City Family in ‘Five-Finger Discount’

Filed under: Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:52 pm
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You know those studies that show that you really do become more sensitive to the weather as you get older? A similar principle might apply to the ability to cope with New Jersey corruption, because the 44 recent arrests here seem to have outraged even people who thought they’d become inured to the vast pay-to-play game that is Garden State politics. For anyone who’d like to know more about how it works, a book that relates tangentially is Helene Stapinki’s memoir of a growing up in a Jersey City family, Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History (Random House, 2002). I read this one for fun years ago when I was briefly AWOL from reviewing, so I didn’t bring much of a critical sensibility to bear on its tale of growing up with relatives such as a bookie and a grandfather sent to prison for armed robbery. But Stapinski tells her story with mordant comedy, if with inconsistent results, and I enjoyed it. She also relates her family’s crimes to the major-league corruption of the Hudson County Democratic machine, a group of power brokers sullied again in the July 25 dragnet. Michiko Kakutani had more on the book in her New York Times review.

July 29, 2009

What It’s Like to Be Over 60 (or Over 70) – Quote of the Day / Diana Athill

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:00 pm
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Diana Athill’s memoir Somewhere Towards the End has many apt observations on youth and age, all written from the perspective of a former editor in her 90s.  A few I didn’t quote in the review posted earlier today:

On love: “… a broken heart mends much faster from a conclusive blow than it does from slow strangulation.”

On being over 60: “All through my sixties I felt I was still within hailing distance of middle age, not safe on its shores, perhaps, but navigating its coastal waters. My seventieth birthday failed to change this because I managed scarcely to notice it, but my seventy-first did change it. Being ‘over seventy’ is being old: suddenly I was aground on that fact and saw that the time had come to size it up.”

On her waning interest in sex in old age: “An important aspect of the ebbing of sex was that other things became more interesting. Sex obliterates the individuality of young women more often than it does that of young men, because so much more of a woman than of a man is used by sex. I have tried to believe that most of this difference comes from conditioning, but can’t do so. Conditioning reinforces it, but essentially it is a matter of biological function. There is no reason why a man shouldn’t turn and walk away from any act of sex he performs, whereas every act of sex performed by a woman has the potential of changing her mode of being for the rest of her life. He simply triggers the existence of another human being; she has to build it out of her own physical substance, carry it inside her, bond with it whether she likes it or not – and to say that she has been freed from this by the pill is nonsense. She can prevent it, but only by drastic chemical intervention which throws her body’s natural behavior out of gear.”

Diana Athill’s Memoir, ‘Somewhere Towards the End’ – The Last Non-Lecture

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 am
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An editor in her 90s writes about the end of her sex life and more

Somewhere Towards the End. By Diana Athill. Norton, 182 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Diana Athill has mastered that bittersweet negotiation with old age that the poet Elizabeth Bishop called “the art of losing.” Born in 1917, Athill worked for decades at an esteemed London publishing firm, where she edited the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul and others, and she has had a vibrant life that included an affair with the playwright Barry Reckord. In her new memoir, she writes eloquently of life after her retirement at the age of 75 – the ebbing of sexual desire, the deaths of friends, the pleasures of gardening and driving a car when the padding on the soles of her feet has grown so thin she is hard put to walk a hundred yards.

Somewhere Towards the End won a major British award for biography and reflects a keenly English sensibility rooted in the values of the world that existed before Starbucks moved into Victoria Station. Athill is by no means morbid. But neither does she lecture or assault you, as so many American authors do, with cloying euphemisms like “aging” – a word that, as Katha Pollitt has noted, applies to all of us: “A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.”

Athill is matter-of-fact but discreet about events such as a miscarriage that nearly killed her and about the prostate troubles suffered by Reckord, with whom she lives. But her natural tact doesn’t preclude astute observations on life. In her last chapter, Athill avoids reaching for tidy lessons and observes instead that “most lives are a matter of ups and downs rather than of a conclusive plunge into an extreme, whether fortunate or unfortunate, and quite a lot of them come to rest not far from where they started, as though the starting point provided a norm, always there to be returned to.”

Best line: As a student at Oxford in the 1930s, Athill told a man named Duncan that she had fallen away from the Christianity of her youth: “ … I said that though I was unable to believe in the god I had been taught to believe in, I supposed that some kind of First Cause had to be accepted. To which Duncan replied ‘Why? Might it not be that beginnings and endings are things we think in terms of simply because our minds are too primitive to conceive of anything else?’”

Worst Line: Athill writes of a 103-year-old woman who had a “positive attitude” (and, a page later, a “positive outlook”), a rare descent into cliché.

Recommendation? Somewhere Towards the End is more cohesive than the Nora Ephron’s entertaining but disjointed  I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, and reading groups might like to compare the two books.

Published: January 2009 (first American edition).

Furthermore: Somewhere Towards the End won the 2008 Costa Award for biography. Athill also wrote Stet: An Editor’s Life, a memoir of her years in book publishing. Other quotes from Somewhere Towards the End appeared on this site on July 17.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

More quotes from Somewhere Towards the End will be posted later today.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 6, 2009

‘As Long As the People of Mississippi Can Stagger to the Polls, They’ll Vote Dry’ — Literary Wit From ‘North Toward Home’

Filed under: Biography,Joke of the Day,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:28 pm
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How do you revitalize an old joke you need to tell one to make a point in an essay, speech or book? Willie Morris shows one way to do it his wonderful memoir of his Southern boyhood, North Toward Home, which deals in part with growing up in Mississippi before the sale of liquor became legal in the state in 1966.

Here’s how Morris handles the chestnut “As long as the people of Mississippi can stagger to the polls, they’ll vote dry” (which has been said about many places besides his native state):

“Mississippi was a dry state, one of the last in America, but its dryness was merely academic, a gesture to the preachers and the churches. My father would say that the only difference between Mississippi and its neighbor Tennessee, which was wet, was that in Tennessee a man could not buy liquor on Sunday. The Mississippi bootleggers, who theoretically operated ‘grocery stores,’ with ten or twelve cans or sardines and a few boxes of crackers for sale, stayed open at all hours, and would sell to anyone regardless of age or race. …

“Every so often there would be a vote to determine whether liquor should be made legal. Then, for weeks before, the town would be filled with feverish campaign activity. People would quote the old saying, ‘As long as the people of Mississippi can stagger to the polls, they’ll vote dry.’ A handful of people should come right out and say that liquor should be made legal, so that the bootleggers and the sheriffs would not be able to make all the money …”

A review of North Toward Home appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 2, 2009.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 18, 2009

At Home With the Honorable and Rebellious Mitford Sisters – Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, Pamela and Unity

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 pm
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“Class was a delicate matter, a subject for intuition rather than conversation, one of those ‘borderline’ subjects, deeply felt but never discussed,” writes Jessica Mitford in Hons and Rebels (NYRB Classics, 2004), a memoir of growing up in the storied upper-class English family that inspired her sister Nancy’s Love in a Cold Climate, reviewed earlier today. I haven’t read this one, but I admired Jessica Mitford’s landmark exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. And the NYRB site has a brief introduction by Christopher Hitchens and a reading group guide with more on this family of six gifted daughters and a son killed in World War II.

www.janiceharayda.com

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