One-Minute Book Reviews

October 14, 2012

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

What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel

By Chris Beha

Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

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

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

10 Discussion Questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 13, 2012

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

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A mystery built on the theme that uncharacteristic behavior may reveal someone’s true character

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 19, 2012

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

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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

May 8, 2012

Carol Anshaw’s Novel of Adult Siblings, ‘Carry the One’ — Bel Canto Writing With Grand Opera Undertones

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“Time is always a player” in the lives of three adult siblings touched by tragedy

Carry the One. By Carol Anshaw. Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

You might expect a lot of drama in a novel in which the three main characters have the names of opera figures or variations on them. But Carry the One inverts the structure of the warhorses it invokes – Carmen, Nabucco and Lucia di Lammermoor. The dead bodies in those operas don’t arrive until the third or fourth act. A 10-year-old girl dies in the first chapter of Carry the One after being struck by a car full of stoned and drunken guests who have just attended wedding of Carmen Kenney at a farm near Chicago in 1983. That event turns out to be the high point of the dramatic action in a novel that for all its eloquence, has an unsteady forward momentum.

For the next 25 years the post-wedding tragedy will recur like a dark musical motif in the lives of the bride and her adult siblings, Alice and Nick. Each of the Kenneys faces a crisis with a perhaps unintentional operatic counterpart. As her namesake spurns a soldier for a toreador, Carmen finds herself betrayed by her unexciting husband. As Lucia longs for the lord of Ravenswood Castle, Alice pines for an absent lesbian lover. And as Nabucco goes mad, Nick suffers from a mind ravaged by drugs. All of this finds its theme in an idea central to Gounod’s Faust: the power of time to lift, add to, or reshape burdens. In affairs of the heart, a character says, “Time is always a player.” And “player” has a double meaning: Time affects destiny, and it plays with us.

Carl Anshaw develops her theme with wit and intelligence. She has the literary equivalent of a gift for bel canto, an operatic form marked in part by its elegance of phrasing and purity of tone. Carry the One abounds with writing layered with meaning, beginning in its first sentence: “So Carmen was married, just.” Does the “just” mean “recently,” “barely,” or “only”? The scene can support all of those meanings.

Appealing as it is, Anshaw’s bel canto writing style makes an imperfect vehicle for a story with grand opera undertones. Her plot unfolds over so many years that she can’t dramatize all of the changes her characters undergo and at times relies on flat exposition such as, “She knew Carmen tortured herself for letting them all leave the farm that night in a car running with just fog lamps.” She also distributes weight of her story over so many major and minor characters — with frequent jump cuts from one to the next — that none acquires a poignancy befitting its tragedies. And the self-absorption of the Kenney children’s parents tends to cloud the motives of the younger generation: You’re never sure whether the heavy shadow over their lives results from their upbringing or the fatal crash in the opening pages.

But you don’t to operas for plots that make sense in conventional terms. Would all of Seville really be falling at the feet of an overconfident barber like Figaro? Shouldn’t Lucia di Lammermoor know right away that the forged letter is a trick to keep her from marrying Enrico? And why can’t a smooth operator like Carmen keep herself out of trouble?

No, you go to operas for beautiful singing. And Carry the One has a through-line of it. When Carmen becomes a single parent, she finds that “she had lost her advantage against daily life”: “Weeks, whole months passed beneath her notice, or off to the side while she was on the game show of her life. She ran from pillar to post then on to the next pillar, ringing bells, pressing lighted buttons and buzzers, making wild stabs at answers to questions she wasn’t sure she had heard correctly, walking when she should be skipping, speaking when a song was expected. That show was called Single Parenthood.” Has any single parent not had moments like that? Carry the One has such descriptions on nearly every page. And that, in operatic terms, is beautiful singing.

Best line: “Olivia’s family was an epicenter of credit card frivolity.” “Romance no longer looked like so much fun, more like a repetitive stress injury …” “Gabe idolized his uncle. He saw Nick’s addictions enhanced by rock star lighting. Nick was his private Kurt Cobain.”

Worst line: “a tricky rotator cuff.” “So many tricky steps.” “some tricky bipolar disorder.” “success was going to be a little tricky.” “Incoming calls were tricky for the Lisowskis” Waiting for an annulment “was apparently a tricky business.” “Still, she left the tricky or cumbersome supply runs to Pim.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for  Carry the One appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 8, 2012.

Furthermore: Anshaw is a Chicago writer and painter who wrote Aquamarine and other books. She won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. The Metropolitan Opera site includes synopses of CarmenLucia di Lammermoor and Nabucco.

Published: March 2012

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

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

May 2, 2012

What I’m Reading … Carol Anshaw’s Novel ‘Carry the One’

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“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: Carry the One (Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $25), by Carol Anshaw.

What it is: A novel about three adult siblings named after opera characters and how they fare in the 25 years after an operatic event in the first chapter: A car full of drunken and stoned guests who are leaving one of their weddings strikes and kills a 10-year-old girl.

Why I’m reading it: I admire Anshaw’s literary criticism, which won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. Not all critics make good novelists. But some of best fiction in English has come from writers who were great book reviewers, including George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

Quotes from the book: No. 1: “Olivia’s family was an epicenter of credit card frivolity.” No. 2: “Not just in this moment, but globally, cosmically, she had lost her advantage against daily life.”

Probability that I will review the book: High

Publication date: April 2012

Read an excerpt from Carry the One.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

March 29, 2012

‘The Call of the Wild’ / A Parable for an Uncivilized Age

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An abducted dog faces cruel masters and canine rivals during the Klondike Gold Rush

The Call of the Wild. By Jack London. Library of America, 96 pp., $8.50, paperback. Available in many other editions.

By Janice Harayda

Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild more than a century before Staff Sergeant Robert Bales walked away from his combat outpost in Kandahar province and, the Army says, shot to death 16 Afghan civilians. But his classic novel deals with a question often asked about that well-liked former linebacker who stands accused of slaughtering innocents: What turns a product of civilized society into a killer?

London’s answer is neither “nature” or “nurture” but “both,” a prescient anticipation of the modern scientific view that environmental factors switch genes on or off. He develops his theme in an adventure story told mainly from the point of view of Buck, a half-collie, half-Saint Bernard mix, who has spent the first four years of his life as the “unduly civilized” pet of a California judge. Then a groundskeeper kidnaps him and sells him to the first of a series of cruel owners, who soon attach him to sled-dog teams during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. In order to survive, Buck must shed more of his civilized instincts with each clash with his brutal masters and with rival dogs who turn savage when starved, beaten, and forced to haul crushing loads in temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero. By time Buck finds an owner who treats him kindly, the question is: At what point does “the call of the wild” become irreversible, or at least irresistible?

These fictional circumstances are far different those of a sergeant accused of killing 16 civilians on his fourth deployment in a war zone: a man who reportedly had suffered a head injury, lost part of a foot, picked up the bodies of dead Iraqis, seen a comrade’s leg blown off, and faced eviction from his home in Seattle. But Robert Bales’s life and emotional arc have enough parallels with Buck’s that teachers might compare them with profit in junior high or high school classrooms.

As E.L. Doctorow notes in his introduction, The Call of the Wild is a “mordant parable of the thinness of civilization.” It shows how a lifetime of restraints can fall away when circumstances are extreme, and it retains its appeal in part because allows us to see that shedding of civilization at two removes: in the life of a dog and in the vast Yukon wilderness that few of us will ever see. The remoteness of the setting invests The Call of the Wild with a mythic allure. And London shows how a good novelist can lend credibility to the kind of transformations that, when described in newspapers, often defy belief.

Best line: “It was beautiful spring weather, but neither dogs nor humans were aware of it. Each day the sun rose earlier and set later. It was dawn by three in the morning, and the twilight lingered till nine at night. The whole long day was a blaze of sunshine. The ghostly winter silence had given way to the great spring murmur of awakening life. This murmur arose from all the land, fraught with the joy of living.”

Worst line: London’s rendering of the speech of “a French-Canadian half-breed”: “ ‘Tree vair’ good dogs,’ François told Perrault. ‘Dat Buck, heem pool lak hell. I tich heem queek as anyt’ing.’”

Published: 1903 (Macmillan first edition), 1990 (the Library of America stand-alone edition that I read). Many editions exist.

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

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

March 21, 2012

What I’m Reading … Jack London’s ‘The Call of the Wild’

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The latest in a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review

What I’m reading: The Call of the Wild (Library of America, 96 pp., $8.50, paperback), with an introduction by E.L. Doctorow.

What it is: A classic adventure novel about Buck, a dog kidnapped from his California owner and forced to endure savage hardships during the Klondike gold rush of 1897. The story of Buck’s transformation in the wild is, as the novelist E.L. Doctorow says in his introduction, a “mordant parable of the thinness of civilization.”

Why I’m reading it: For a book club. I’m rereading The Call of the Wild for the first time in more than a decade.

Quote from the book: “One night he sprang from sleep with a start, eager-eyed, nostrils quivering and scenting, his mane bristling in recurrent waves. From the forest came the call (or one note of it, for the call was many noted), distinct and definite as never before, — a long-drawn howl, like, yet unlike, any noise made by a husky dog. And he knew it, in the old familiar way, as a sound heard before.”

Published: 1903 (Macmillan first edition), 1990 (the Library of America stand-alone edition I’m reading). Many good editions exist.

Probability that I will review the book: High

Furthermore: My edition calls The Call of the Wild “perhaps the best novel ever written about animals” on its back cover. Forgotten that whales are mammals, eh, Library of America?

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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March 14, 2012

Maybe He Should Have Called It ‘Cutting for Oliver Stone’ – A Review of Abraham Verghese’s ‘Cutting for Stone’

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Twin brothers grow up in Ethiopia as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front steps up its violence

Cutting for Stone. By Abraham Verghese. Vintage, 667 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Maybe he should have called it Cutting for Oliver Stone. Like the controversial director’s JFK, Abraham Verghese’s first novel abounds with far-fetched characterizations, heavy-handed moralizing, and historical implausibilities or inaccuracies. Also like the movie, it has a dense plot and enough facts to give its story a gloss of truth.

But you wonder if even Stone would have taken the liberties that Verghese does in this tale of mirror-image identical twin brothers — one is right-handed, the other left- — born in Addis Ababa in 1954. Marion and Shiva are orphaned at birth by the death of their mother and the disappearance of their father. As luck would have it, and luck often does have it in this novel, they grow up as the wards of sympathetic doctors who guide them toward medical careers of their own as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front steps up its activity against Emperor Haile Selassie.

Cutting for Stone shows Selassie riding through the eucalyptus-scented streets of Addis Ababa in a green Rolls-Royce with his chihuahua, Lula, in his lap. At a nearby hospital doctors give a man a swig of Johnnie Walker to relax before a vasectomy. And after Marion begins his internship at a charity hospital in the Bronx, the novel keeps rolling out its gurney of medical lore. As you take your last breaths, you may or may not find it comforting to know that American doctors refer to dying patients as “circling the drain” and like to say that “if you had more than seven tubes in you, you were as good as dead.”

This semi-autobiographical material has provided perhaps too many temptations for Verghese, a professor medicine at Stanford who was born in Ethiopia in 1955. He lards his story with gratuitously detailed accounts of surgical procedures that, in the words a critic for the Economist, reflect “a somewhat whimsical notion of what they entail.” For the convenience of his plot, he has changed the dates and other details of major news events, such as a failed coup against Selassie and the hijacking of an Ethiopian airplane by Eritreans. In an otherwise naturalistic novel, he allows Marion to speak bizarrely from the womb and to believe he can read his twin’s mind, although he has so little control of point of view that it is often hard to know his intentions.

Verghese has won reputation as a literary writer in an industry tries to categorize novelists as either literary or commercial, and on the evidence of this book, he requires reclassification. He is writing a pop fiction. Cutting for Stone resembles the later novels of James Michener in its clichéd, stilted, or redundant images that keep the plot moving 50 miles an hour in a 60-miles-per-hour zone. It brims with phrases such as “babbling brook,” “the populace” for “the people,” and earrings that “hung down” from lobes instead of “hung.”

Why, then, has Cutting for Stone found fans who range from book club members to Martha Stewart and President Obama, who had it with him on a 2011 vacation on Martha’s Vineyard? Several factors may explain what the quality of the writing doesn’t. One is that the hospital settings allow Verghese to deal with timely issues such vaginal fistulas and female genital mutilation in Africa. Another is that you inevitably learn from a 667-page book stuffed with Ethiopian history and culture, much as you do from Michener’s Alaska and Poland. And Verghese writes about two subjects slighted by contemporary novelists: work and religion, in this case Ethiopian Christianity.

Perhaps above all, Cutting for Stone brims with earnest, Oprah-ready ideas. Marion reflects: “All sons should write down every word of what their fathers have to say to them. I tried. Why did it take an illness for me to recognize the value of time with him?” Peter Godwin writes far more elegantly about Africa in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, a memoir of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. “In Africa,” he notes, “you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue.” In a book more than twice as long as Godwin’s, Verghese leaves you waiting only for such a gracefully expressed idea.

Best line: A servant who gave in to her drunken employer’s advances in Ethiopia asked, when he had finished with her, “Will there be anything else?”

Worst line: No. 1: “ … he said as if he’d proved Pythagoras’s theorem, the sun’s central position in the solar system, the roundness of the earth, and [the hospital’s] precise location at its imagined corner.” Overwriting like this abounds in Cutting for Stone. One well-chosen example would have made the point better than four.

Recommendation? I read this Cutting for Stone for book club, and some members didn’t finish it because of its length and slow pace. Clubs that want to read it, regardless,  might read it over two months instead of one.

Published: February 2009 (Knopf hardcover), January 2010 (Vintage/Anchor paperback).

Furthermore: Verghese wrote the memoir My Own Country, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. One-Minute Book reviews recently ranked among the Technorati’s top 40 book blogs and Alexa’s top 40 book-review sites. New Jersey Monthly named it one of the state’s best book blogs in 2011.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

February 26, 2012

How to Find Novels Set in a City, State, Country or Era

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Wish you were somewhere else as the February winds blow? You can find a list of well-known novels set in a city, state, country or English county by Googling “Wikipedia” + “Category:Novels Set in” + “Name of place.” Google “Wikipedia” + “Category:Novels Set in” + “Paris,” for example, and you will see the titles of classics such as A Tale of Two Cities and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and popular fiction such as Agatha Raisin and the Deadly Dance and Maigret and Monsieur Charles. You can use the same technique to find novels set in decades, centuries or historical eras. Google “Wikipedia” + “Category:Novels Set in” + “Name of era” (“the Middle Ages,” “the 1920s,” “the Roaring Twenties”) for titles and links.

February 15, 2012

Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Salvage the Bones’ – A National Book Awards Reality Check

A pregnant teenager faces several kinds of storms, including Hurricane Katrina

Salvage the Bones: A Novel. By Jesmyn Ward. 259 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Jesmyn Ward writes in Salvage the Bones at a 10-year-old reading level – that of a student who is just starting the fifth grade – according to well-established measures of comprehension. That fact in itself isn’t a problem. Some of the most popular classics of American literature have the same reading level, including The Grapes of Wrath and The Old Man and the Sea. So do at least two other recipients of the National Book Award for fiction, which Salvage the Bones won in 2011: Tree of Smoke and Let the Great World Spin. To Kill a Mockingbird has a reading level of only a half grade higher.

But Salvage the Bones differs from most adult novels with relatively low reading levels in an important way. It also has a young narrator – a pregnant teenager named Esch who lives with her widowed father, her three brothers, and their pit bull, China, who is giving birth to a litter as the novel opens. The Batistes live in “the black heart of Bois Sauvage,” a rundown town set apart from white neighborhoods near the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, which Hurricane Katrina will destroy over the 12 days that give the novel its time frame. The family becomes caught up in a revenge tragedy in which Mother Nature punishes her children with a fury as unreasonable as that of Medea, whose story Esch has been reading in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology during the summer after tenth grade. Their tale tells us that motherhood is rational and irrational, tender and savage, a theme developed through the actions of Esch, China and Katrina.

It’s a task of alpine difficulty to hitch such a metaphorical load to a young narrator, almost a literary suicide mission. Even Harper Lee didn’t try it but told To Kill a Mockingbird from the point of view of an adult looking back on her childhood. Novelists who hope to create believable young narrators must invest those characters with the powers of observation needed to describe what they see and the wisdom to deal with it. That fact requires authors to become, in effect, faux-naïfs, writing as though they didn’t know much of what they do. The challenge is all the greater when an author intentionally or unintentionally limits the vocabulary, sentence structure and other elements that determine a reading level.

Ward brings large advantages to her work: intelligence, a respect for language, and first-hand knowledge of Katrina, gained while she was living in Mississippi. She knows how you kill a chicken by twisting its neck, how much meat you’ll have after you skin a squirrel (an amount “as thick as two pork chops laid together”), and how boys talk at backwoods dogfights, one of which gets 23 pages in her novel. She knows that if you’re poor, you prepare for a hurricane by covering windows with a wooden patchwork that leaves bits of glass exposed, not the custom-fitted boards of the well-off.

Salvage the Bones nonetheless has a hole at its center: Ward’s inability to create a narrator who sounds like a tenth-grader instead of an adult impersonating one. Esch says she slept with boys because they wanted sex, not because she did: “I’d let boys have it because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne.” Those words ring false not just because they are overwrought and imprecise but because they clash with others in the book. Esch says she started sleeping with boys at the age of 12, or in about the seventh grade. She read about the Greeks in Hamilton’s Mythology after the tenth grade. So she was having sex for three years before she knew of Psyche and Eurydice and Daphne. And are we to believe that wanted to feel like Eurydice stepping on a poisonous snake and spending the rest of her life in darkness after her beloved failed to rescue her? Here as elsewhere, the references to mythology hang on the tale like Spanish moss on a live oak. They may look pretty, but they grow on the story, not from within it.

Ward works hard to transcend the limits of telling the Batistes’ story in a young voice and at 10-year-old reading level. She weighs down her tale with similes and metaphors in duplicate or triplicate and lets you know exactly how you are supposed to feel about every character at nearly every moment. Esch says of Katrina, in one of many allusions to Medea, “She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes.” That’s a metaphor and three similes in one sentence. Those figures of speech, at least, make sense. Esch says that cooked meat had “turned as brown and small with as many hard edges as a jewel” when the novel offers no evidence that she has seen a jewel. And Ward’s promiscuous us of color shows the limits of chromatic writing. Esch says that Manny, the father of her baby, had a face “marked with red sunburn.” Can’t we assume that sunburn is red? Apparently not. (Ward’s “red suburn” may be a clumsy attempt to signal that Manny is Latino or white given that black skin shows sunburn differently than white skin does.) Salvage the Bones has much, much more of this kind of writing.

All of this might have more of a payoff if the novel had larger ideas at its core. But Ward instead gives us belabored parallels to the Medea myth and bumper-sticker sentiments. “Bodies tell stories.” “Everything deserve to live.” “Everything need a chance.” Who could disagree with such lines? All the florid metaphors that surround them can’t elevate them. Leon Edel once said that Henry James, in his letters, could “disguise the absence of thought by the shameless gilding of his own verbal lilies.” Something similar occurs in Salvage the Bones. Journalists have called Hurricane Katrina “the mother of all storms,” and you may wonder whether Ward improves on it with her ponderous reminder: “Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”

Best line: “Manny could dribble on rocks.”

Worst line: “She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”

About the reading level of this book: The 10-year-old or fifth-grade reading level of this book comes from Perma-Bound, which sells books to school libraries. Other reading-level assessment tools confirmed it and ranked some passages in the novel at a level as low as third grade or age 8.

Furthermore: Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction and a 2012 Alex Award for “books for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”

A reading group guide to Salvage the Bones appeared on this site on Feb. 15, 2012, in the post before this one.

Read more about the book or buy a copy from an independent bookstore in Ward’s area.

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

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

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