One-Minute Book Reviews

February 15, 2012

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Salvage the Bones’ With Discussion Questions for Book Clubs

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Salvage the Bones: A Novel
By Jesmyn Ward
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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 make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading 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 pregnant teenager weathers several kinds of storms in Salvage the Bones, a National Book Award–winning novel that takes place before and during the assault by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. Esch Batiste has just finished tenth grade in an impoverished Southern Mississippi town, where she lived with her widowed father, her three brothers, and their pit bull, China, who gives birth to a litter in the first pages. The Batistes were struggling before the storm, and all of them will face new and frightening tests in a story that asks: What does it mean to be a mother in the face of disaster?

10 Discussion Questions for Salvage the Bones:

1. The story in Salvage the Bones is told by Esch Batiste, who has just finished tenth grade. Was Esch’s teenaged voice believable? Why or why not?

2. What is the theme of Salvage the Bones or the main thing Ward is trying to say in the novel?

3. Other books about Hurricane Katrina have dealt with broad social or political issues, such as the treatment of evacuees by federal agencies. Ward focuses on one family, the Batistes: Esch and her father, Claude, and her brothers Randall, Skeetah and Junior. How would you describe the Batistes? How does Hurricane Katrina change the family? What do we learn from its story?

4. Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal said that the bond between Esch’s brother Skeetah and his dog, China, is “the strongest and most affecting in the book.” Do you agree? Why does Skeetah allows China allow to enter the dog fight described in the chapter called “The Eighth Day” if he loves her so much? [pages 153–176]

5. What race did you assume Manny (the father of Esch’s baby) to be? Many critics seemed to assume that he was black. But Ward says that Manny had a “red sunburn” [page 16]. Black skin can burn, but it doesn’t turn red in the same way that white skin does. Would it make a difference if a black teenager in the Deep South had been impregnated by a white or Latino boy?

6. How would you describe Ward’s writing style? How well did it suit the subject of her book? [Background: Some critics have called that style “poetic.” Ward seemed to agree when she told the Paris Review: “I’m a failed poet. Reading poetry helps me to see the world differently, and I try to infuse my prose with figurative language, which goes against the trend in fiction.” But Salvage the Bones also has journalistic aspects – for example, when Ward describes the onslaught of Katrina by quoting weather reports.]

7. Salvage the Bones links Esch’s story to that of Medea, who murdered her children to avenge her betrayal by her husband, and to other figures from Greek mythology. How effective was this literary technique? Were you persuaded, for example, by Esch’s comment that she slept with boys “because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne”? [p. 16]

8. Ward explained the Medea analogies by saying in a Paris Review interview: “Medea is in China most directly. China is brutal and magical and loyal. Medea is in Hurricane Katrina because her power to unmake worlds, to manipulate the elements, closely aligns with the storm. And she’s in Esch, too, because Esch understands her vulnerability, Medea’s tender heart, and responds to it.” Can you give examples of how China is “brutal” as Medea and Esch is “tender”?

9. Have you lived through a hurricane or other natural disaster? If so, how did you react to the portrayal of Hurricane Katrina? What seemed most and least believable?

10. What does the title Salvage the Bones mean? Esch suggests more than one answer when she says of Katrina, “She left us to salvage.” [page 255] What is being “salvaged”?

Extras:
1. Have you read other books about how Hurricane Katrina affected residents of the Gulf Coast, such as Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun? If so, how did they compare to Salvage the Bones? Which book showed the effects of the devastation best?

2. Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction. Have you read other recent winners of that prize, such as Let the Great World Spin or Lord of Misrule (or earlier ones such as Cold Mountain, The Color Purple or Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories)? If so, how does Salvage the Bones compare to them? Was it one of the stronger or weaker winners?

3. Emma Donoghue’s bestselling Room has many things in common with Salvage the Bones – a young narrator, a disastrous event, a focus on motherhood, and more. If you’ve read it, which novel worked better? Why?

You may also want to read: A review of Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, which talks about the risks of adding many literary references to a novel. It doesn’t mention the Medea analogies in Salvage the Bones but explains how such techniques can backfire.

Vital statistics:
Salvage the Bones: A Novel. By Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury, 261 pp., $24. Published: August 2011. Paperback due out March 2012. 

A review of Salvage the Bones appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 15, 2012, in the post directly after this one.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a frank and lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative 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 from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed (http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/feed/).

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

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

January 15, 2012

Alice LaPlante’s Novel ‘Turn of Mind’ – An Alzheimer’s Gospel

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:02 am
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A person of interest in a murder case can’t – or won’t – recall whether she killed a friend

Turn of Mind. Alice LaPlante. Atlantic Monthly Press, 305 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Has anyone noticed the existence of a micro-genre, novels about Jennifers who represent Jesus? First came Erich Segal’s Love Story, a 1970 bestseller about Jennifer Cavalleri, a young Radcliffe graduate with a fatal illness and a father-in-law who saw her as unworthy of his well-born son. Now there’s Turn of Mind, a murder mystery narrated by Jennifer White, a retired 64-year-old hand surgeon with Alzheimer’s disease whom police think may have killed her daughter’s godmother.

Alice LaPlante draws her religious parallels more explicitly and with more finesse than Segal did in his romantic melodrama. Jennifer White cherishes a 15th-century antique that once disappeared briefly from her Chicago home, an icon that involved St. John of Damascus, whose legend says that authorities amputated his hand after he was framed for forgery and that the intercession of the Virgin Mary led to its reattachment. The body of Jennifer’s friend Amanda O’Toole was found with four fingers surgically removed from its right hand. Does the disappearance of the icon relate to the murder?

Jennifer can’t or won’t offer the answers the sought by the police. She has lost so much of her memory that at times she can’t recognize her grown children, Fiona and Mark, and keeps a journal in which she and others write things she must remember. Her dementia leads you to expect her to be an unusually unreliable narrator. But the notes that others leave in her journal suggest that Jennifer may be most trustworthy character in the book. Is she less reliable than a son who wants her money or a daughter with a red-and-blue rattlesnake tattoo, a potential serpent in Eden?

This plot is reasonably interesting, but it rises above that of a conventional murder mystery mainly by having a protagonist with Alzheimer’s and by gaining a literary gloss from by a few techniques beloved of creative-writing programs. LaPlante omits quotation marks and shows who is speaking by alternating italics and Roman type. This device gives its narrator a flat affect at odds with her strong personality and doesn’t always make the identity of the speaker clear immediately, especially when Jennifer switches late in the book from first-person narration to second- and third-, a sign of her growing distance from her former self. Turn of the Mind is, in some ways, a stunt novel — one more literary than, say, David Nicholls’ One Day, in which the characters reunite each year on the same day, but still one that won’t let you forget its narrative tricks.

But LaPlante adds interest to her story by weaving in a subplot involving faith. She uses her narrator’s mental shifts — between the past and present, lucidity and derangement, light and darkness — to forge subtle links between spiritual and temporal resurrection. Early in Turn of Mind, Jennifer recalls a conversation in which the murdered Amanda said that physical trauma can cause someone to lose faith in God. As the plot unfolds, the possibility arises that a catastrophic change can also restore faith.

Jennifer at first professes not to believe in God, although she wears a St. Christopher medal: “I was raised a Catholic, but now I just like the accessories.” But if she rejects the Father, she has more in common with the Son than that they are both known for healing. She has counterparts of the apostles James and Peter. And she has a Mary Magdalene, a faithful aide named Magdalena who stands by her though the police inquiries and who responds when Jennifer asks why she has confessed to an unsavory past, “You forgive trespasses.” If any doubt remains about what the novel is suggesting, Jennifer says that Amanda told her after her diagnosis: “How many times will I have to say good-bye to you, only to have you reappear like some newly risen Christ.”

It isn’t giving away too much to say that in the end Jennifer seems to allow God back into her life without quasi-spiritual bromides such as Love Storys: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Turn of Mind tells us that when you’ve lost yourself, something remains — the possibility of transcendence. As Jennifer’s mind ebbs late in the book, she has visions: “The playground. The white Communion dress. Playing kickball in the street.” She also has hope. “There is a good place here,” she tells herself. “It is possible to find it.”

Best line: A leader of an Alzheimer’s support group tells its members: “Step One is admitting you have a problem. Step Two is forgetting you have the problem.” Jennifer wants to add a third step: “Step Three is remembering that you forget.” 

Worst line: A newspaper obituary in which the author tries to imitate the style of the Chicago Tribune. Among its lapses: It says a dead woman turned up without saying who found the body, which newspapers virtually always do, and it uses the phrase “sources close to the investigation” without first saying who was investigating the death (ditto).

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for Turn of Mind appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 15, 2012, in the post that preceded this one.

Furthermore: Turn of Mind won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize for a book about health or medicine.

Published: July 2011 (Atlantic Monthly Press hardcover edition), May 2012 (Grove paperback, forthcoming)

Editor: Elisabeth Schmitz

Read an excerpt from Turn of Mind.

You can  follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right. Jan  is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2012 All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 26, 2011

Marie and Pierre Curie, Exposed – Lauren Redniss’s ‘Radioactive’


A dual biography of the Curies that’s graphic on more than one level

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie. A Tale of Love & Fallout. By Lauren Redniss. It Books/HarperCollins, 205 pp., $29.99.

By Janice Harayda

Radioactive shows you Marie Curie as you’ve never seen her: naked. What we gain from watching her frolicking as nude as a wood nymph with a lover isn’t clear. But this illustrated biography of Marie and her husband, Pierre, makes clear that the first woman to win a Nobel Prize was no nun for science, devoted as she was to it. It also shows how the Curies’ work with radioactivity helped lead to modern events that range from the partial meltdown of two nuclear reactors at Three Mile Island to the cranial radiation treatments that enabled a 14-year-old Rhode Island boy to survive his non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Lauren Redniss modifies the format of graphic novels as she tells the story of the Curies’ love affair with physics and with each other: She omits the usual strips or panels and encloses her text in more creative ways on black-and-white, two-toned, or multi-colored spreads. Her most dramatic spread involves Paul Langevin, who became Marie’s lover after Pierre’s death. The left-hand page shows Langevin’s head, and the right-hand one describes his life in words arranged in the shape of his head, the equivalent of a pattern poem in prose.

Redniss created her images through superb drawing and cyanotype printing, a form of cameraless photography that gives many of her pictures a bluish cast and something of the ethereal quality of radium. Her subjects have Modigliani-esque almond eyes and elongated features, grounded in reality by the reproductions on other pages of archival materials such as maps, photos, X-rays and a North Korean stamp marking the 50th anniversary of Marie’s death.

All of the influences on display in Radioactive add interest to the Curies’ story but give a slightly overdesigned air to a book in which the pictures outshine the text. Redniss writes in a prosaic style that makes heavy use of block quotations from interviews and other sources, some of which beg for an intelligent paraphrase, and she cuts away jarringly from her subjects’ lives to events that occurred long after their deaths. She also makes it harder to follow some of her chronological leaps by using fonts that provide too little contrast with their background and by cramming too much text onto a page or adding needless elements (including a list of a “select array of luminaries” from Marie’s native Poland, when the story is also about Pierre, who was French). But if Redniss is a far better artist than writer, she has an instinct for literary detail that leads to some lines as memorable as any of her pictures. At the Bibliothèque National, she notes, “the Curies’ laboratory notebooks are still radioactive, setting Geiger counters clicking 100 years on.”

Best line: The U.S. government studied the results of the atomic blasts at the Nevada Test Site partly by building houses filled with appliances and dummy families in the form of mannequins dressed by J.C. Penney, “stylishly, in the fashions of the day.”

Worst line: A section on how Marie Curie extracted polonium and radium from pitchblende, an effort described better in fewer words by many others. The section also has a grammatical error: Redniss incorrectly hyphenates “naturally-occurring” and, in the next sentence, correctly writes the phrase as “naturally occurring.”

Published: 2011

Editor: Cal Morgan

Recommendation? The publisher bills Radioactive as a book for adults, but the images of Marie Curie naked will also make science projects more fun for teenage boys.

Furthermore: Radioactive was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction. Sample pages from the book appear the site for the New York Public Library, which exhibited some of them. The excerpt shows the image of Paul Langevin’s head described above. Other sample pages appear on Redniss’s site.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of and critic for the Plain Dealer.  You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 21, 2011

Why Did People Like ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’? Quote of the Day

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Slavery is evil, and so are the political and economic institutions that support it: These two great themes helped to make Uncle Tom’s Cabin one of the most important novels in American literature. But in the 1850s people didn’t see the book as a tract. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel set sales records, the scholar David S. Reynolds notes in Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (Norton, 351 pp., $27.95). And if the book legitimized the Civil War for Northerners, it did so through a story that captivated them. Reynolds describes the appeal of the novel in his new book:

“No book in American history molded public opinion more powerfully than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Published in 1852, it set sales records for American fiction. An international sensation, it was soon translated into many languages. The Boston preacher Theodore Parker declared that it was ‘more an event than a book, and has excited more attention than any book since the invention of printing.’ Henry James noted that Stowe’s novel was, ‘for an immense number of people, much less a book than a state of vision, of feeling and of consciousness in which they didn’t sit and read and appraise and pass the time, but walked and talked and laughed and cried.’

“James was right. Sympathetic readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were thrilled when the fugitive slave Eliza Harris carried her child across the ice floes of the Ohio River and when her husband George fought off slave catchers in a rocky pass. They cried over the death of the angelic little Eva and were horrified by the fatal lashing of Uncle Tom, the gentle, strong, enslaved black man. They guffawed at the impish slave girl Topsy and shed thankful tears when she embraced Christianity. They sneered at the selfish hypocrite Marie St. Clare and loathed the cruel slave owner Simon Legree. They were fascinated by the brooding, Byronic Augustine St. Clare and were appalled by stories of sexual exploitation involving enslaved women like Prue and Cassy.”

You can follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

October 16, 2011

Georges Bernanos’s Classic Novel, ‘The Diary of a Country Priest’

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A dying priest believes that “the wish to pray is a prayer in itself”

The Diary of a Country Priest. By Georges Bernanos. Translated by Pamela Morris. Introduduction by Rémy Rougeau. Da Capo, 302 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A young French priest bears the cruelty of his parishioners with sublime patience in this modern classic that works as both a realistic novel and an allegory for the Passion of Christ. Georges Bernanos’s guileless narrator doesn’t know he’s dying of cancer when he takes up his post at a rural Pas-de-Calais church in which the moth-eaten draperies in the sacristy serve as metaphor for the spiritual decay of the congregation.

But the priest realizes that people see his poor health as a sign of weakness, and the harder he works to serve them, the more hostile they become. His triumph lies in avoiding cynicism and retaining the ability to love as he performs his tasks – teaching catechism to children who taunt him, visiting a countess embittered by the death of her son, meeting with jaded or condescending priests who presume to advise him. Like the stories of Flannery O’Connor, The Diary of a Country Priest reflects a perspective at once Catholic and universal in its portrayal of the inseparability of suffering and grace.

Best line: “Faith is not a thing which one ‘loses,’ we merely cease to shape our lives by it.” “I know, of course, that the wish to pray is a prayer in itself, that God can ask no more than that of us.”

Worst line: The translator uses a couple of English double modals such as “must needs” that sound unnatural in context.

Published: 1937 (first English-language edition), 2002 (DaCapo paperback).

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Diary of a Country Priest appeared on this site in the post before this one on Oct. 16, 2011.

Furthermore: Diary of a Country Priest won two of the highest literary honors in France: the Prix Femina and Grand Prix du Roman of the Académie Française. Rachel Murphy reviewed the novel from a Catholic perspective. Robert Bresson’s acclaimed film version of the book appeared in 1951. Flannery O’Connor dealt with the action of grace on character in her short story collection Everything That Rises Must Converge, reviewed on this site in May.

You can follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 9, 2011

By Jove! It’s the First Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery, ‘Whose Body?’

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An aristocratic sleuth tries to learn the identity of a corpse in a London bathtub

Whose Body? The Singular Adventure of the Man With the Golden Pince-Nez. A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery. By Dorothy Sayers. HarperPaperbacks, 212 pp., $7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has come away from the British phone-hacking scandal convinced of the ineptitude of Scotland Yard will find much to support that view in Dorothy Sayers’s first novel about the high-born amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. The dim Inspector Sugg reaches the crime scene first when a body clad only in gold-rimmed pince-nez turns up in the bathtub of a mild-mannered London architect. But Scotland Yard’s man on the spot fails to ask a pertinent question that occurs immediately to Wimsey, and he never retakes the lead from his rival.

As Sugg tries to catch up, Sayers serves up a plot in the style of her contemporary, Agatha Christie: She fires clues at you so rapidly that you hardly notice that they tend to come at the expense of plausibility – at least until the killer confesses to so much with so little provocation that it snaps the thin rubber band of logic holding the story together. Even then, a mystery remains: Why does the Oxford-educated Wimsey so often speak in solecisms like “ain’t” and “he don’t”?

Best line: No. 1: Lord Peter Wimsey says: “Even idiots occasionally speak the truth accidentally.” No. 2: “… Bunter had been carefully educated and knew that nothing is more vulgar than a careful avoidance of beginning a letter with the first person singular …”

Worst line: Wimsey says: “It’s awfully entertainin’ goin’ and pumpin’ him with stuff about a bazaar for church expenses, but when he’s so jolly pleased about it and that, I feel like a worm. … It ain’t my business.” It’s hard to reconcile this with the language of a man also given to quaint expressions like “By Jove!”

Published: 1923 (first edition), 1995 (HarperPaperbacks).

Read an excerpt from Whose Body? and more about the book.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 18, 2011

‘The Great Gatsby’ and Other Books That Didn’t Win the Pulitzer

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Perhaps the most perversely elite club in American literature consists of the great novels that didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Among the members: Main Street, The Great Gatsby and For Whom the Bell Tolls. A list of other losers and the books that defeated them appears here. The winners of the 2011 Pulitzers will be announced today at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. Using the statistical technique of regression analysis, a research scientist and book collector have predicted that Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad will win the fiction prize, finishing just ahead of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule. A list of their 16 books most likely to receive the award appears at PPrize.com.

February 26, 2011

Paul Gallico’s ‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ — A London Cleaning Woman Pursues Her Dream of a Dior Dress

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“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.”

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris & Mrs. Harris Goes to New York: The Adventures of Mrs. Harris. Bloomsbury, 320 pp., £7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Good fairy tales are hard to write. Good fairy tales for adults are even harder. And good fairy tales about sixtyish widows are next to impossible. Young characters may pursue reckless dreams without looking foolish because they don’t know enough of life to see the absurdity of their goals. Older protagonists get fewer free passes. A middle-aged character may look ridiculous on a quest that would seem natural for a 20-year-old.

Paul Gallico avoids such pitfalls and invests a graying dreamer with warmth and buoyancy in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a novella first published in 1958. He writes of a London charwoman who leads a life tightly bound by poverty and the English class system. Ada Harris is nearing 60 but has seen less of the world than many teenagers. And if her inexperience leads to missteps, her work gives her dignity.  A penniless widow, she cleans homes of the higher-born in Belgravia for the equivalent of 45 cents an hour, 10 hours a day, 52 weeks a year.

One day Mrs. Harris sees a Dior haute couture gown in the closet of a client and resolves to have one like it. She wants one simply for its beauty, not because she hopes it will help her find a new husband or gain social cachet. Or, as she puts it, “it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.” Having acquired the desire, she pursues it by sacrificing almost everything that brings her pleasure – movies, newspapers, trips to the corner pub – despite costly setbacks.

When she finally reaches the House of Dior in Paris, Mrs. Harris faces another hurdle. She learns that she must stay in the city until seamstresses can make her dress. Without money for a hotel, she seems thwarted, until her kindness and resolve captivate the Dior employees who help her reach her goal – a group that includes a lovelorn model and a lonely auditor besotted with her.

All of this might have amounted to so much marzipan had the story ended there. But after she returns to London, Mrs. Harris suffers a further ordeal that gives her tale a twist ending and reveals its larger purpose. A story that at first resembles a light-hearted, Cockney-accented adventure turns into a parable about the human desire for beauty and the many forms beauty takes. What matters more, Gallico asks, a tangible or intangible treasure?

The book gives unambiguous answer that avoids the saccharine twaddle of the books of authors like Mitch Albom or Robert James Waller. You might read all of Albom and Waller without finding a phrase as amusing and well-turned as Gallico’s comment that Mrs. Harris found Paris “the most degeneratively civilized city in the world.” Or without reading passage like one that describes the heroine’s first meal in a French home:

“Mrs. Harris had never tasted caviar before, or pâté de foie gras fresh from Strasbourg, but she very quickly got used to them both, as well as the lobster from the Pas-de-Calais and the eels from Lorraine in jelly. There was charcuterie from Normandy, a whole cold roast poulet de Bresse along with crispy skinned duck from Nantes. There was a Chassagné-Montrachet with the lobster and hors d’oeuvres, champagne with the caviar and Beaune Romanée with the fowl, while an Yquem decorated the chocolate cake.

“Mrs. Harris ate for the week before, for this and the next as well.”

The description of the meal is good, but the line that follows gives it punch and a tinge of bittersweetness. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris may be sentimental, but unlike many 21st-century bestsellers, it is not just sentimental. It describes a woman who has spent a lifetime earning her right to dream. And Gallico is such a good storyteller, his book is made, like a couture dress, without a dropped stitch.

Best line: Paris was “the most degenerately civilized city in the world.”

Worst line: “Mrs. Harris waggled her rear end more comfortably into the bench to enjoy a jolly good gossip.” Gallico comes close to making unintended fun of Mrs. Harris here. And other characters tend to view Mrs. Harris in a way that reflects the views of their day (the “little Englishwoman”).

Recommendation: Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris was written for adults, but it sweetness may appeal also to teenagers.

About the author: Gallico also wrote The Snow Goose (Knopf, 1941 and 2007), named the novel most deserving of rediscovery in a 2009 BBC contest.

Published: 1958 (first edition), Bloomsbury paperback (2010).

If you like Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, you may like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

Furthermore: Bloomsbury has reissued Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris in the same volume as a sequel, Mrs. Harris Goes to New York. It first appeared in the U.K. under the title Flowers for Mrs. Harris and in the U.S. as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris. Angela Lansbury starred in a 1992 made-for-TV movie version, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

February 15, 2011

Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room,’ a Resurrection Allegory

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Warning: This review contains plot spoilers.

Room: A Novel. By Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown, 321 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Emma Donoghue calls Room a novel about a “battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus,” and it’s easy to see why. Her narrator is 5-year-old Jack, who spends his life imprisoned in a garden shed until he emerges from his tomb-like structure on Easter. He escapes with the help of his saintly mother, who has devoted herself to saving him from their jailor, a man who abducted and raped her and fathered Jack. Their story brims with references to God, Jesus and Christian saints.

Why, then, has the religious dimension of Room had so little attention from critics? Perhaps because this is a novel at war with itself. It draws on so many literary forms or genres — satire, mystery, horror, captivity narrative, Resurrection allegory — that each gets at once too much and too little development. And if it’s hard to miss the symbolism of a character metaphorically reborn on Easter, you can see why critics might declare a cease-fire between the conflicting aims of the book and focus on the plot and voice of its precocious young narrator.

Donoghue tells an inherently tragic story inspired by the Austrian case of Josef Fritzl, who raped and locked up his daughter Elisabeth, who gave birth to a son freed at the age of 5. But in Room, young Jack describes his stunted life in such sunny terms that you don’t feel its poignancy. His narrative reads like a cross between Kids Say the Darndest Things! and the memoir of an abused child who doesn’t know he’s being abused.

Jack likes his prison because Ma fills his life with the comforting routines urged by the child-rearing manuals she presumably hasn’t read. His rituals range from thanking “Baby Jesus” at meals and watching Dora the Explorer on television to hiding in a wardrobe when his captor rapes his mother during nocturnal visits:

“When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it’s 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops. I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t count, because I always do.”

Donoghue uses a similar voice throughout Room, and while she has a feel for how 5-year-olds speak, a little of this goes a long way. Jack has a penchant for a half dozen or so linguistic errors common among young children, such as taking figures of speech literally. He reflects, after seeing a key ring that says POZZO’S HOUSE OF PIZZA: “I wonder how a house is made of pizza, wouldn’t it flop?” He says the Twenty-Third Psalm at bedtime and thinks: “The cup overflowing must make an awful mess.” These lines come dangerously close to sounding like the words of a child who isn’t just cute but is trying to be cute (which can’t be true because no one hears his internal monologue). Jack’s other errors include syntactical slips, such as “Please may you have me more pancakes?,” and a failure to grasp cause-and-effect: He expects to wake up from a nap without the cold he has. And many of such lines are perfectly believable in a 5-year-old.

Less credible are the passages that try to invest Jack with both innocence and worldly-wise intelligence. In one paragraph Jack calls a woman a “she person” but recognizes the words “impregnable” and “catatonic” on a TV report. He also grasps that Ma and a doctor are talking about “stuff like depersonalization and jamais vu.” These passages serve the story less than they do Donoghue’s desire to satirize and explain aspects of her characters’ experience. Late in the novel, the liberated Jack turns into a moralist who spouts folk wisdom about the adults he has met:

“In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, but she and Steppa don’t have jobs, so I don’t know how persons with jobs do the jobs and all the living as well. In Room me and Ma had time for everything.”

That passage panders to readers want everything spelled out and adds an unsavory dimension to the link Room has to the Fritzl case. It implies that a bright side exists to the sadistic crime that Felix Fritzl endured in real life and Jack does in fiction: Ma has more time for you! It’s true that children long to have their parents to themselves and that, in that sense, Jack had a fantasy life, complete with breastfeeding through the age of 5. But the simplistic moral served up by Jack doesn’t begin to do justice to the complexity of such an experience. It reduces a theme of Room to a therapeutic cliché: “Kids are resilient.”

As for that Resurrection allegory, it’s a case of religion lite, the kind found in The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Mary and the Devil may battle for young Jesus, but the spiritual stakes are low. True believers know, as do the authors of all great variations on the Faust story, that no Satan worthy of the name wants just to lock you up. The devil wants your soul. Old Nick desires simply the bodies of two people for whom he cares little. The ending of Room allows for ambiguity about how Jack will adjust to life outside the garden shed that is his Gethsemane. But his upbeat moralizing suggests that his soul is safe. If Jack has been resurrected, he has arisen not to judge the quick and the dead – only the parents who don’t want to play with their children because “they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults.”

Best line: Ma replies when her lawyer tells her that her kidnapper robbed her of “the seven best years” of her life: “How do you know they would have been the best years of my life?”

Worst line: “Ma shows Dr. Clay her homework, and they talk more about not very interesting stuff like depersonalization and jamais vu.” This line comes from a 5-year-old who calls a woman “a she person” and hasn’t fully mastered English syntax. And why would he remember the line if it wasn’t “interesting”?

Published: September 2010

Furthermore: Donoghue found part of her inspiration for Room in the case of Elisabeth Fritzl, whose father imprisoned her for 24 years in a dungeon-like area of their Austrian home. Josef Fritzl raped and impregnated his daughter, who gave birth in captivity to a son, Felix, who was 5 years old when he was freed. Donoghue called Room a battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus in an interview in the Economist.

Caveat lector: Room is written at a second-grade (roughly 7-year-old), according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. This is understandable given that the narrator a bright 5-year-old. But if the reading level is dumbed-down for a literary reason, it’s still dumbed-down.

Second opinion: One of the most complex analyses of Room came from James Wood, the fiction critic for the New Yorker, in a London Review of Books review now behind a paywall. (“Rite of Corruption,” LRB, Oct. 21, 2010.) Wood said that Donoghue shows “some acuteness and wit” but that her use of the Fritzl case seems “exploitative and a little cheap.” Room was a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

Reading Group Guide to Room: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with 1o discussion questions for Room appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 11, 2011, in the post that directly preceded this review.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and on Quora at www.quora.com/Janice-Harayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ With 10 Discussion Questions

Filed under: Novels,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:53 pm
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Room: A Novel
By Emma Donoghue
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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 make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading 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.

Emma Donoghue calls Room a novel about a “battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus,” and it’s easy to see why. Her narrator is 5-year-old Jack, who spends his life imprisoned in a garden shed until he emerges from his tomb-like structure on Easter. He escapes with the help of his saintly mother, who has devoted herself to saving him from their jailor, a man who abducted and raped her and fathered Jack. Their story brims with references to God, Jesus and Christian saints.

But many nonreligious readers have embraced Room simply for its plot or the voice of its sunny young hero, whose mother has filled his life with comforting routines such as watching Dora the Explorer and reading Alice in Wonderland. Donoghue has said of the novel, a Man Booker Prize finalist: “Kids delight in ‘magical thinking’, whether in the form of the Tooth Fairy or the saints: whether you see these as comforting lies or eternal verities, they are part of how we help kids make sense of the world. I think that’s why the religious element of Room does not seem to bother non-religious readers; they can just put it on a par with Santa.”

10 Discussion Questions for Room:

1. The narrator of Room is a 5-year-old American who has spent his life imprisoned with his mother in a 121-foot square garden shed. How credible were Jack’s voice and perspective on life? Where did you find Jack’s voice most and least convincing?

2. Jack refers to a woman a “she person” and, in the same paragraph, seems to understand and know how to spell the words “impregnable” and “catatonic.” [Page 165] Did you find this credible? If so, why? If not, what you made keep reading Room, regardless?

3. How would you describe Ma? We see her only through the eyes of Jack and the people he observes interacting with her. This approach limits what the novel can tell us about an important character. Was Donoghue able to overcome any restrictions on point-of-view to portray Ma as well-developed character? Why or why not?

4. Why do you think Old Nick remains a shadowy figure, one we know little about?

5. Ma is still breastfeeding Jack when he is 5 years old. What purpose does this serve in the story?

6. Room has an unusual structure for a novel about captivity: Jack and Ma escape almost exactly halfway through it. [Page 154 of a 321-page book]. Captives or hostages typically win their freedom closer to the end to keep the suspense high. Why did Donoghue have Ma and Jack escape sooner? How well did she maintain suspense afterward?

7. Donoghue says that Room is partly a satire “of modern mores and media.” What people or groups does she tweak? How well does the satire fit into a story rooted in Ma’s tragic abduction?

8. Do you share Donoghue’s view of Room as the story of a “battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus”? Why do you think the Christian motifs in the novel don’t bother some readers who aren’t religious?

9. Given all that Jack has endured and how sunny he remains, you could argue that the theme of Room is the therapeutic cliché, “Kids are resilient.” But the novel also develops other ideas. What do you think is the theme or message of the book?

10. Have you read other books with child narrators? How does Room compare to them?

Extras:

1. Janet Maslin wrote in her New York Times review of Room that Jack and Ma “are not the only people in recent books about women trapped in close, sustained relationships with their captors, even to the point of bearing children”: Chevy Stevens’s Still Missing and Laura Lippman’s I’d Know You Anywhere “offer more mainstream, victim-narrated versions of this story.” Have you read other books about victims and their captors? If so, which worked best? Why?

2. Room was inspired partly by the Austrian case of Josef Fritzl, who locked up and impregnated his daughter, Elisabeth, who had son who escaped at the age of 5. James Wood, the fiction critic for the New Yorker, found this borrowing “exploitative and a little cheap” in a review in the London Review of Books. “Does anyone really imagine that Jack’s inner life, with his cracks about Pizza Houses and horse stables and high-fives, is anything like five-year-old Felix Fritzl’s?” Wood asked. “The real victim’s imaginings and anxieties must have been abysmal, in the original sense (unimaginable, bottomless), and the novel’s sure-footed appropriation of this unknowability seems offensive precisely in its sure-footedness.” He added that Jack’s cheerfulness and charm “lend the book an inappropriate lightness.” What did you think of the borrowing?

Vital statistics:
Room: A Novel. By Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown, 321 pp., $24.99.

Room was a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker prize for fiction.

A review of Room appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 15, 2011, in the post that immediately followed this reading group guide..

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative 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 from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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