One-Minute Book Reviews

June 19, 2012

Deborah Moggach’s Comic Novel ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’

Filed under: Movie Link,Novels,Paperback — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:30 pm
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The book that inspired the hit movie with Judi Dench offers pleasures of its own

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: A Novel. Random House Movie Tie-in Edition, 336 pp., $15, paperback. First published under the title These Foolish Things.

By Janice Harayda

Deborah Moggach shows how much life a good writer can bring to an old literary device – the use of a hotel a metaphor for the transience of life – in this inspiration for the movie with the same title. As in the film, a group of Brits in their 60s and 70s move to a fraying retirement home in India that delivers at once more and less than its sunny brochure promised. These men and women have varied reasons for uprooting themselves, but all have been “deserted in one way or another by those they had loved.”

In India the wounded but hopeful exiles face new shocks – boiled buffalo milk for breakfast, “cruelly thin” cows on streets, children who call women “auntie.” As they try to adapt, their story becomes the rare comedy of cross-cultural manners that can absorb more than one tragedy while remaining true to the light-hearted spirit of the form. Some characters in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel appear in a similar guise in the movie — the xenophobic Muriel Donnelly, the proper but resilient Evelyn Greenslade, the ill-matched Doug and Jean Ainsley, and others.

But the novel is less of a fairy tale than the film and, as such, is more interesting. It has a thicker plot, a sharper wit, and a richer perspective on India, rooted in part in two years Moggach spent in Pakistan. In the novel a high-born Indian regards the shadow of a lower-caste countryman as so dirty he must disinfect it. “The law forbids the caste system,” a Hindu woman tells Muriel, “but of course it still continues as strongly as ever.” Many cultural subtleties, left out of the movie, emerge in the novel.

Moggach has a free hand with coincidences, and she drops a few plot stitches (one involving a cobra that people hear but never appears, which makes the mention of it seem a bit of a cheat). But that doesn’t explain why after 18 books of fiction, she is so little known in America. Moggach is an admired London novelist and screenwriter who adapted Pride and Prejudice for the film that starred Keira Knightly, and if she has learned about comedy from Jane Austen, she has clearly absorbed ideas on plot from Agatha Christie and other crime writers. She is certainly a more thoughtful and entertaining writer than many British authors who have found a larger American readership. Evelyn Greenslade vows in India to “make the strange into the familiar.” Moggach, too, deserves to be made “into the familiar” on these shores.

Best line: No. 1: “Increasing years, of course, render us invisible as if in preparation for our eventual disappearance.” No. 2: “While she was pruning her forsythia, it seemed, the world had been transformed.” No. 3: “‘You’re as old as you feel.’ ‘Then I feel old,’ said Evelyn.”

Worst line: “ ‘I wish I could jettison my tights,’ Evelyn said.” Evelyn Greenslade is an intelligent woman, but would she really say “jettison”?

Recommendation? Highly recommended to book clubs and others looking for light but intelligent fiction.

Published: March 2012 (Random House movie tie-in edition). Originally published under the title These Foolish Things by Chatto & Windus in 2004.

Furthermore: Read a rave review for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that ran in the TLS when the book first appeared under the title of These Foolish Things. Learn about the movie on IMDb.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book critic for the Plain Dealer. You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 28, 2008

Bernhard Schlink’s ‘The Reader’ – Book Versus Movie

Filed under: Movie Link,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:49 pm
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I’ve been reading The Reader, hoping to compare the novel and its movie version on this site, but Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review of the film summed up my view of the book in a sentence. Lane suggests that idea of dramatizing this tale — “a low-grade musing on atrocity, garnished with erotic titillation” — was “pernicious from the start.” Novelist Bernhard Schlink describes a postwar love affair between a German schoolboy and an illiterate woman who had worked as an S.S. guard at a concentration camp.

“Imprisoned for life, Hanna must read to herself, but are we really supposed to be moved by the thought—or now, in [Stephen] Daldry’s film, by the sight—of an unrepentant Nazi parsing Chekhov?” Lane asks. “That is not culturally nourishing; it is morally famished.”

On The Charlie Rose Show, Daldry and screenwriter David Hare argued that The Reader is a fable and that the affair between young Michael and Hanna is a metaphor for Germany’s romance with Nazism. But balsa-wood scaffolding of the novel can’t support the weight of that claim. It hardly helped that Daldry kept saying that Germany is the only recent perpetrator of genocide (which might surprise the Kurds, the Tutsis, and others). Rose has done thoughtful interviews with writers and others. But his obsequious failure to challenge Daldry on the claim that only Germany had committed genocide made his show sound at times like public television’s version of Access Hollywood.

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

June 4, 2008

‘Sex and the City,’ the Book That Started It All

Filed under: Movie Link,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:43 pm
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First, it was a collection of columns from a quirky weekly printed on salmon-colored paper

Sex and the City is a book that, like so many of its male characters, has baggage. But the baggage has changed in the 12 years since the publication of this collection of Candace Bushnell’s columns for the New York Observer, a quirky weekly printed on salmon-colored paper.

In the beginning many people treated Sex and the City less as a book than a parlor game: Who were the restless urban bedmates whose identities Bushnell had disguised? By the time the gossip columnists had lost interest in that question — or learned the answers — the book had picked up new baggage: the expectations created by the HBO Series www.hbo.com/city/. How does the original stand up to the adventures of Sarah Jessica Parker and friends?

Both have merits, but the HBO series has the edge, at least in its first seasons, before the show became a near-parody of itself (to say nothing of the movie, which I haven’t seen). In Sex and the City Bushnell wrote with style and authority about single female New Yorkers who had rejected the sexual mores of yore but hadn’t found a satisfying — or, in some cases, even humane — replacement for them. Her women were intelligent but shallow and independent but yearning for, if not love, at least a dependable piece of arm candy, and many of her men were worse. These New Yorkers were clearly not to everyone’s tastes — the overall tone of the book was chilly — but they were far more interesting than the flat characters in Bushnell’s subsequent novels www.candacebushnell.com.

Even so, the book gave some critics pause for another reason, too: You couldn’t tell how much of it was true. Its columns had appeared in a respected weekly, but Bushnell drew on techniques used by novelists. In hindsight, she looks like an ancestor of the new memoirists who believe that only emotional truths matter. But her book was still a revelation to many of us who were living in places like Cleveland when it came out: Who knew what was going on in Manhattan and the Hamptons?

From first episode of the HBO series, Sarah Jessica Parker gave Sex and the City some of the warmth that the book lacked. The writers also kicked up the humor up several notches, making the best episodes were funnier. And the series raised no questions of truth-in-publishing: It was clearly fiction.

This doesn’t mean that book has outlived its appeal. Sex and the City gives a unique account of a certain New York subculture in the 1990s. It may especially appeal to people found the HBO version too upbeat, or unrealistically sanguine about single women’s sexual prospects in their 30s and beyond. Writing in the Washington Post in 1996, Jonathan Yardley noted that every city has singles bars and their lonely patrons: “But Manhattan does tend to bring out the worst in certain people, and Sex and the City leaves no doubt that these days the worst can be very bad indeed.”

Read some of the the original “Sex and the City” columns in the Observer www.observer.com/2007/sex-and-city.

Watch the Sex and the City movie trailer here www.sexandthecitymovie.com.

Visit the site for the publisher of Sex and the City www.hachettebookgroupusa.com/books_9780446673549.htm for information on some of the editions of the book, including an audio edition read by Cynthia Nixon.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 13, 2008

John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ Stands Up to Hitchcock

John Buchan’s classic suspense novel helped set the tone for nearly a century of spy fiction

The Thirty-Nine Steps. By John Buchan. Introduction by John Keegan. Penguin Classics, 144 pp., $9, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Anybody who knows The Thirty-Nine Steps only from Alfred Hitchock’s movie is missing a treat.

That film – good as it is — takes liberties with John Buchan’s plot that are as wild as the Scottish moors on which its hero finds himself hunted by his enemies. So no matter how many times you’ve seen Robert Donat handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, it won’t spoil a reading of the novel. With good reason, Buchan called the book one of his “shockers,” or stories that set personal dramas against tense political realities.

Part of the allure of The Thirty-Nine Steps is that by the standards of today’s spy novels and movies, it is as sleek as a stiletto. It has none of the bloviating of John le Carré’s most recent books or the logic-defying plot twists of Mission Impossible. Buchan is a storyteller in the tradition of his fellow Scot and contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle – he tells you exactly what you need to know to understand his tale and nothing more.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is the first of his five novels about Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Scottish-born engineer and patriot and with a thirst for adventure. Hannay has returned from years in Rhodesia and found himself bored with England. (“It struck me that Albania was the sort of place that might keep a man from yawning.”) His boredom evaporates when he agrees to shelter a spy who has learned of a secret German plan to invade England.

When the man is murdered, Hannay flees to the Scotland, where he hopes to lie low for a while amid the remote glens and moors. There he is hunted both by the British police who consider him a suspect and the Germans who have killed the spy. After being spotted from an airplane, Hannay tries to elude his pursuers by donning a series of disguises and traveling by foot, bicycle and train through Scotland. To save himself, he must find a way to warn the British government what he has learned from the murdered spy.

First published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps was one of the first novels to include many of the elements of the modern thriller, such as car chases and aerial surveillance. And along with all the action, the novel has astute psychological insights. For all of his reliance on outer disguises, Hannay knows that they are nowhere near as important to crime as the inner ability to play a role. “A fool tries to look different: a clever man looks the same but is different,” he observes. He adds, “If you are playing a part, you will never keep it up unless you convince yourself that you are it.” Much of The Thirty-Nine Steps turns on this observation, and it suggests a psychological truth that has shaped suspense novels ever since: The dangers posed by people who are hiding in plain sight — and playing their part well enough to need no disguises — can be far more terrifying than those raised by criminals who wear ski masks on the deserted streets we know enough to avoid.

Best line: “My guest was lying sprawled on his back. There was a long knife through his heart which skewered him to the floor.”

Worst line: “ Mors janua vitae,’ he smiled.” The problem isn’t the use of the Latin for “death is the gate of life” – it’s the “he smiled.”

Movie Links: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll www.imdb.com/title/tt0026029/; Ralph Thomas’s 1959 version www.imdb.com/title/tt0053354/; Don Sharp’s 1978 version www.imdb.com/title/tt0078389//

Published: 1915 (first edition) and May 2008 (latest Penguin Classics edition). The 2008 Penguin edition has an introduction by the distinguished military historian John Keegan (which should be interesting, given that such prefaces are typically written by scholars of literature instead of history, but I haven’t seen it).

Furthermore: The Thirty-Nine Steps is typically described as a novel but is short enough that it might be more properly called a novella.

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

January 4, 2007

The History Boys: Film vs. Play

Filed under: Movie Link,Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:11 am

A movie that softens the indictment of education found in the Broadway show

The History Boys: A play. By Alan Bennett. Faber and Faber/FSG, 109 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A few months ago, I reviewed the script for the play The History Boys and suggested that book groups consider adopting the habit of a club I used to belong to that read a play aloud once year. If you missed the review, you can find it archived in the “Plays” category at right.

So I’ll just add a quick follow-up note now that I’ve seen the high-spirited movie version. Some film critics have described the play as admirably faithful to the Broadway production that won the 2006 Tony Award for best play. In most respects, they’re right.

But a small change in the movie dilutes a vital aspect of the play: The History Boys condemns the cult of novelty in education. This indictment was obvious in the stage version. The play opened with a flash forward that showed the new teacher, Irwin, taking his theories to an extreme by arguing years later for the abolition of the right to a trial by jury on the grounds that people would have more freedom without it. Playwright Alan Bennett is saying: This is where ideas like Irwin’s will get you in the end.

The movie drops that opening scene and lines elsewhere that underscore Bennett’s point. The omissions soften the views Irwin expressed in the Broadway show, though Stepen Campbell Moore plays him in both. So if you liked the movie, why not read the play, too? The film serves the play better than many adaptations. But it gives its audiences less credit than the play for being willing to listen to unpleasant truths. And who could be surprised by a dumbing-down – however slight – from Hollywood?

The following material comes from the original review of the play:
Best line: “Can you, for moment, imagine how dispiriting it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude? … What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”

Worst line: The play has a brief scene in French that has delighted movie- and theatergoers. But if your book club is thinking of reading the play aloud, you need a member who can read and translate such lines as “Qui est la femme de chambre? … Moi, je suis la femme de chambre.”

Recommended if … you’d like to read a play that doesn’t include any iambic pentameter or require somebody to sing the line, “I just met a girl named Maria.”

Published: April 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 25, 2006

Cheaper by the Dozen, Sold Short by Steve Martin

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics,Movie Link — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:33 pm

In the movie version, father doesn’t always know best

Cheaper by the Dozen. By Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. HarperTorch movie tie-in edition. 274 pp., $5.99, paperback.

A more accurate title for the 2003 movie version of this beloved classic might have been Cheaper by the Dozen, Discounted. The film starring Steve Martin has almost nothing in common with the book that inspired it except that it involves a spirited family of 12 children dominated by a benevolent tyrant and his endlessly accommodating wife.

The movie does not deal with offspring of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, two of the leading time-and-motion study experts of their time, but with the fictitious family of one of their descendants. Even there it hardly reflects reality. None of the original dozen had more than four offspring (and one died of diphtheria at age six, so all 12 were never contemporaries). And while the book is about a father who rules the roost, the movie allows the children ultimately to gain control and reform the lovable autocrat. (It’s inconceivable that Frank Gilbreth would have yielded as much power to his offspring – or shown as much domestic incompetence – as Martin does.)

All the more reason, then, to savor the original, one of the great family read-aloud books of the 20th century. Cheaper by the Dozen is today regarded as a children’s book. But in its heyday, this hilarious and fast-paced tale was popular among all ages. More than half a century after its publication, it brims with good cheer and slyly subversive ideas on child-rearing. One of Frank Gilbreth’s most ingenious practices was putting household chores up for competitive bids among his children so he could get the lowest price while the money went to whichever child needed it the most. Think about it, parents. Doesn’t this beat nagging, pleading, and bribing the kids with promises of visits to the Nike store?

Best line: “They had a dozen children, six boys and six girls, in 17 years. Somewhat to Dad’s disappointment, there were no twins or other multiple births. There was no doubt in his mind that the most efficient way to rear a large family would be to have one huge litter and get the whole business over with at one time.”

Worst line: Frank Gilbreth Sr. teaches his children Morse code by painting dots and dashes on the walls and having them translate phrases such as: “Two maggots fighting in dead Ernest” and “When igorots [sic] is bliss, ’tis folly to be white.”

Recommended if … you or your children would like to read about that amusing era when children obeyed their parents.

Published: 1948. HarperTorch movie tie in edition, 2003.

Movie Link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0349205/

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 17, 2006

Dennis Lehane’s Debt to Clint Eastwood

Filed under: Movie Link,Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:58 pm

Eastwood shows again that he’s a good director of bad books

Mystic River. By Dennis Lehane. HarperPaperbacks, 416 pp., $13.95, paperback.

Dennis Lehane told a reporter for the Boston Herald that he was “over the moon” about Brian Helgeland’s screenplay for the 2003 movie version of Mystic River, and no wonder. Helgeland’s script is remarkably faithful — in its plot, tone, and theme — to Lehane’s psychological thriller about three friends separted by a crime in childhood and reunited by another in adulthood.

Lehane’s plot hinges on the implausible coincidence that two tragedies occurred almost simultaneously in a gritty section of South Boston. One of these events receives so little foreshadowing that when it’s revealed late in the novel, it makes much of the earlier action seem like a cheat. In the movie strong performances by Sean Penn and others help to offset such flaws, so it’s easier to forget that Lehane is tilling with much less skill the same ground that George Higgins worked in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the gold standard in novels about small-time Boston thugs.

Some critics said that Eastwood’s film version of The Bridges of Madison County showed that he’s a good director of bad books, and Mystic River strengthens their case. Who would have thought that it would be Eastwood — and not Steven Spielberg or George Lucas — who would turn out to be a novelist’s best friend?

Best line: “First Communion was an event in a Catholic child’s life — a day to dress up and be adored and fawned over and taken to Chuck E. Cheese’s afterward for lunch …”

Worst line: “Brendan Harris loved Katie Marcus like crazy, loved her like movie love, with an orchestra booming through his blood and flooding his ears.” Get out the sump pump for similies and metaphors.

Consider reading instead: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Owl, 2000), http://www.amazon.com/Friends-Eddie-Coyle-MacRae-Books

Movie Link: Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won the Academy Awards for best actor and best supporting actor for their roles in Mystic River, which also received four other Oscar nominations. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0327056/awards

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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