One-Minute Book Reviews

November 29, 2010

What Does ‘Getting Away From It All’ Mean in an Age of Anxiety? Quote of the Day From Lionel Shriver’s Novel ‘So Much for That’

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Few people plan for retirement as ambitiously as does Shepherd Knacker, the protagonist of Lionel Shriver’s novel So Much for That. For years he has saved for what he calls his “Afterlife” in a spot far removed, geographically and emotionally, from where he built a profitable home repair business and raised two children with his wife, Glynis.

In this passage, he explains what he wants to flee:

“What would I like to get away from? Complexity. Anxiety. A feeling I’ve had my whole life that at any given time there’s something I’m forgetting, some detail or chore, something I’m supposed to be doing or should have already done. That nagging sensation – I get up with it, I go through the day with it, I go to sleep with it. When I was a kid, I had a habit of coming home from school on Friday afternoons and immediately doing my homework. So I’d wake up on Saturday morning with this wonderful sensation, a clean, open feeling of relief and possibility and calm. There’d be nothing I had to do. Those Saturday mornings, they were a taste of real freedom that I’ve hardly ever experienced as an adult. I never wake up in Elmsford with the feeling that I’ve done my homework.”


November 26, 2010

Lionel Shriver’s National Book Award Finalist, ‘So Much for That,’ a Novel About America’s Misplaced Faith in Its Health-Care System

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Shep Knacker’s surname is British slang for testicle, but will he have the balls to resist financially ruinous U.S. medical practices?

So Much for That. By Lionel Shriver. HarperCollins, 436 pp., $25.99.

By Janice Harayda

Knacker, the surname of the hero of So Much for That, is British slang for testicle. Lionel Shriver is an American who lives in London, so it’s safe to assume she knows this. It’s also safe to assume that a man named Shepherd Knacker has symbolic weight, or stands for more than what he is: a 48-year-old married father of two and a home repairman who has spent his adult life saving for an escapist retirement.

Whom does Shep represent? Try this: The good Shepherd does carpentry and anticipates redemption in what he calls an “Afterlife.” Still stumped? Shep has a wife named Glynis, which means “holy,” and a best friend named Jackson, a variation on John. He’s the son of a Gabriel Knacker, a Presbyterian minister, and has a psychological resurrection after persecution by his boss. His story involves significant fish, water and palm imagery.

Okay, we can see a few religious parallels here. But Shep isn’t a Jesus figure in the usual sense, a charismatic leader whom others worship. He’s far too low-keyed and accommodating. Nor is this book about Christianity. Quite the opposite: It’s a novel about an America in which people entrust their lives not to Jesus but to a broken health care system that betrays even those who can afford to use it.

For years Shep has been a good and faithful servant of mammon, a man who built a home-repair business that he sold for a million dollars. He planned to use to the cash to underwrite his retirement on a palmy island off the coast of Africa. But his wife learns that she has mesothelioma on the day he announces that, with or without her, he’s leaving his job and country to begin his Afterlife on Pemba. Suddenly Shep can’t leave his company or country because Glynis needs his medical insurance, and if he doubts it, he needs only to look at his friend Jackson’s daughter, who has a ravaging degenerative disease.

This jury-rigged opening is the first of several plot contrivances that are less believable than the withering assault on U.S. health care delivered by So Much for That. After years of writing for the Economist and the Guardian, Shriver may be America’s best reporter-novelist now that Tom Wolfe has entered his lifetime-achievement-award years. She’s unafraid of research. This has allowed her to gather the details needed to skewer plausibly a raft of medical indignities: the dubious procedures such as penis-enlargement surgery, the so-called “Medicare spend-down” that requires the elderly to use up their assets before the government will pay for a nursing home, the gung-ho doctors who bombard the dying with unproven treatments that won’t save them and at best will prolong their lives briefly and torturously.

Shep has a natural wariness of the physicians’ impulses toward overkill and feels like “a religious skeptic” when Glynis’s internist refers her to Philip Goldman, a world-class, out-of-network expert on her rare peritoneal mesothelioma. But Shep tries to buy into the medical tent-revivalism when he sees how much it means to his wife: “Since the internist produced more tangible redemption than either Gabe Knacker’s traditional Presbyterianism or [his sister-in-law] Deb’s barmy born-again sect in Tucson, it was time to convert. To become a loyal, tithing parishoner of Philip Goldman’s church.”

For all his doubts, Shep looks like a saint next to the friends and relatives who, in their ignorance or egocentrism, add to his wife’s pain. Glynis is in the hospital after debulking surgery when her born-again sister Deb tries to convert her with a condescending variation on Pascal’s wager: “Like, if a lottery is free, why not grab a ticket? All your teachers said you were so smart.” Glynis resists, and Deb blunders on by telling her sister that at least her asbestos-related cancer made her thin. “Yeah, right,” Glynis says. “The Mesothelioma Diet. The book’s not out yet, but you could still get a head start by chewing on some old insulation.”

Much of this is heavy-handed, an inelegant cross between a protest novel and domestic fiction about a family tested by illness. So Much for That is issue-driven, and some of its characters emerge as vehicles for ideas, or embodiments of arguments made by Susan Sontag and Barbara Ehrenreich about the language of cancer, more than as credible people. Shriver tends to spell her messages in neon: Her book has three medical subplots when two might have made her point.

But Shriver has a moral fearlessness rare among novelists. Health care is one of the three great issues in America today, along with war and the economy, and she wrestles with it perhaps more ambitiously than any fiction writer of her generation. And if she is a polemicist, she can deliver subtle blows. Consider the surname of one of Glynis’s doctors: Knox. In context the name appears to nod to the fiery – and, some say, pernicious – founder of the Scottish Presbyterianism. It also suggests Fort Knox, the U.S. gold Bullion Depository. With one word, Shriver suggests the essence of her novel: a tale of the intersection of money and a misguided belief in the godlike abilities of doctors.

So Much for That isn’t a plea for people to trust in Jesus instead of health-care providers. Shriver has said that she deplores all religions, and nothing in her book suggests otherwise. In this novel she tells us that you are saved neither by God nor by doctors who play Him. You are saved by reason, or pursuing your own vision of a good life. In America, money helps. But you can choose to live elsewhere. Will Shep have the balls to make that choice? Suffice to say that if he often disagrees with his wife, he has something of the spirit she shows when she complains that nobody ever put on a gravestone: “Here Lies, etc., She Swiffered the Kitchen Floor.”

Best line: Glynis rages against the saccharine, kid-glove treatment she gets from family and friends after she develops cancer: “I feel as if I’m trapped in a Top Forty by the Carpenters.”

Worst line: “‘Ipso facto!’ Shep chuckled.”

Editor: Gail Winston

Published: March 2010

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to So Much for That appeared on this site on Nov. 26, 2010, in the post just before this one.

Furthermore: So Much for That was shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Award for fiction. You may also want to read the comments Mark Athitakis made about the novel on his American Fiction Notes blog on Jan. 11, 2010, and on March 14, 2010.

About the author: Shriver wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the 2005 Orange Prize, and other books.

Janice Harayda was the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 14, 2010

Julie Orringer’s ‘The Invisible Bridge’ – A Saga of Love and Labor Camps in Hungary in World War II

Filed under: Historical Novels,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:07 pm
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A Holocaust novel with honorable aims and a high schmaltz factor

The Invisible Bridge. By Julie Orringer. Knopf, 602 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Reading this novel is like riding a slow-moving steam locomotive from Hungary to France and back as Nazi atrocities spread across Europe. Everything passes your window at the same speed, whether Hitler’s tanks are rolling toward Budapest or pygmy goats are eating a forgotten handkerchief in a garden in Nice.

Julie Orringer makes an honorable but sluggish effort to bring life to this a saga of three brothers and their extended families, whose members move in and out of love and labor camps between 1937 and 1945. Her novel is a sister under the skin to The Help: As Kathryn Stockett exhumed the cruelties of the Jim Crow era, Orringer recalls the brutalities of the Munkaszolgálat, the required national labor service program for Hungarian Jews, whom the law barred from serving in the armed forces. Her story develops the worthy theme that a will to live isn’t enough when disaster looms: You also need luck.

But Orringer is overmatched with a story that has nearly 250,000 words, about 190,000 longer than an average novel. Her plot relies heavily on coincidences, and her cliché-strewn prose resembles that of an overzealous editor for InStyle (“a warm apricotty soprano”). She asks us to believe that Hungarians of the 1940s used words like “empathy,” “energy conglomerate,” and “We’ve got to talk.” And her book abounds with redundancies such as “the triple-beat lilt of a waltz” (as though some waltzes had four beats) and “a perfect manmade oval artificially cooled by underground pipes” (as though pipes could provide cooling that wasn’t “artificial”). The overwriting slows the pace enough turn the novel into an oxymoron: a potboiler that never comes to boil.

Brian Hall offered more insights into Hungary in Stealing From a Deep Place (Hill & Wang, 1989), a travel memoir that includes a brief analysis the national anthem, the title of which can be translated as “Please God, Save the Magyar.” The text of the song comes from a 19th-century poem and has lines that say, in effect: This nation has suffered enough for all of its past and future sins. Hall wonders: What must a country have endured to believe it has paid not just for its past sins but for any it might yet commit? And his brief comments on the anthem may tell you as much about the Hungarian character as anything in The Invisible Bridge. Instead of providing fresh perceptions, Orringer’s story of the invisible bridge between generations confirms the lessons of Hall’s and many other books: Hungarians and Jews have suffered in unique and enduring ways.

Best line: Andras Lévi, one of the three brothers at the heart of The Invisible Bridge, quotes an architecture teacher: “Speed is the enemy of precision.”

Worst line: No. 1: “And he took her to bed and made love to her as if for the first time in his life.” A cliché, padded with “in his life,” that suggests the schmaltz factor in The Invisible Bridge. No. 2: “a layered egg-and-potato rakott krumpli.” Krumpli means “potato” in Hungarian, so this is another redundancy. It’s like saying “a bacon-and-cheese cheese sandwich.” No. 3: “It was a nightmare version of a fairy tale.”

Recommendation? The Invisible Bridge is likely to appeal most to extremely patient readers who want to learn about an aspect of the Holocaust slighted in mass-market fiction, the plight of Hungarian Jews in World War II. The book may also appeal to people who look to historical novels more for a wealth of period details than for a well-paced plot or believable characters.

Published: May 2010

Furthermore: Orringer also wrote the short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater. The Invisible Bridge, her first novel, was inspired by the life of her grandfather.

Read an excerpt from The Invisible Bridge.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 26, 2010

Wendy Holden’s Novel ‘Beautiful People’ — Trouble in Tuscany

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Beautiful People. By Wendy Holden. Sourcebooks Landmark, 420 pp., $14.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Wendy Holden’s ninth novel shows little of the satirical verve on display in her Farm Fatale and Bad Heir Day, both as fizzy and delicious as a Kir Royale. Beautiful People resembles a conventional wine from the Tuscan hills, the setting for the working-out of the romantic and professional dilemmas of its three heroines – a kind Yorkshire-bred nanny, a London-based actress from a theatrical dynasty similar to the Redgraves, and an apparently American film star whose career is tanking.

Holden serves up few savory bits for star-gazers in this international romp: Did you know that Madonna has outwitted paparazzi by wearing the same black tracksuit for three years while jogging to “make the pictures look the same as they had for the last three years and render the image unsellable”? Or that David Bowie hides in plain sight on the Underground by wearing cheap sunglasses and reading a Turkish newspaper?

But Holden drags her plot sideways by beginning her novel with a chapter on sub-lead characters, and she never quite gets it back on a fast, straight track. And even the keenest fans of her much-admired gift for wordplay may wonder: Did she really intend have two characters whose names are variations on the word “cockroach”?

Best line: “Mitch still had no idea why Belle’s studio had imagined that a film about an uptight, pyromaniac, religious nutcase was a suitable vehicle for her.” This line comes closer than any other to having the over-the-top flair that made Holden’s early novels so appealing.

Worst line: No. 1: “It takes a lot of money to look that cheap.” If you’re going to reheat a line Dolly Parton has been using for years, if not decades, doesn’t she deserve a credit? No. 2: “there were iPod earphones curling around his neck.” In the U.S., they’re called ear buds. The term may be different in Britain, where Holden lives, but if not, anybody who is writing about style-setters needs to get details like this right.

Published: April 2010

Conflict alert: Sourcebooks published my second novel, Manhattan on the Rocks.

About the author: Holden lives in England, where her novels has appeared repeatedly on best-seller lists.

Read excerpts from Beautiful People and other novels by Holden.

Furthermore: A review of Holden’s entertaining Bad Heir Day appeared on this site Dec. 19, 2006, in a post that also had comments on her Farm Fatale and Simply Divine.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 12, 2010

Jonathan Dee’s Novel ‘The Privileges’ — Looking at ‘Moral Invertebrates’ Through the Glass Walls of a Diorama

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Will a New York couple’s marriage suffer when the husband veers into insider trading?

The Privileges: A Novel. By Jonathan Dee. Random House, 258 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Adam and Cynthia Morey – young, rich New Yorkers with two beautiful children – are the marital equivalent of a highly profitable but closely held company: two chillingly self-sufficient people who show little need for the family, friends, and faith of their youth. They are also, in the fine phrase of James Wood of The New Yorker, “moral invertebrates.” You can read their marriage as a metaphor for Wall Street in the age of deregulation – it makes its own rules. So you can’t assume that the Moreys or their children will suffer after Adam becomes the prime mover of an insider-trading scheme that exploits information picked up at his private-equity firm.

This uncertainly lends a modicum of suspense to this tale of the first 23 years of the couple’s marriage. But The Privileges is a low-energy and somewhat exposition-heavy novel that has an appeal more intellectual than emotional. The Moreys resemble figures in the carpet of a certain New York social world instead of fully realized characters. And many of their actions are unearned, including some of Cynthia’s cruelties to others and Adam’s abrupt tossing of a Patek Philippe watch into the Hudson River during a charity benefit on a ship.

Jonathan Dee is an intelligent and graceful writer who never trivializes his subjects. And he shows you what this novel might have been in a climatic scene in a hospice that brings in two characters from the sidelines who finally make you feel all you ought to feel for the Moreys’ victims. Elsewhere, if Adam and Cynthia are moral invertebrates, Dee leaves you looking at them through the glass walls of a diorama and not, as you would like to be, standing inside it with them.

Best line: No. 1: “After four years at Morgan Stanley, an operation so vast that Adam’s true bosses existed mostly on the level of gossip and rumor, a feeling of toxic stasis had begun to provoke him in the mornings when he arrived at work.” No. 2: “‘If you’re ever hard up for money, just fly the family to LA, and both kids will have agents before they’re out of baggage claim,’ Conrad said.”

Worst line: “Unconsciously she pulls at the neckline of her bridesmaid’s dress to try to keep her tattoo covered.”If she’s trying to keep her tattoo covered, is the movement really “unconscious”?

Published: January 2010. The paperback edition of The Privileges is due out in October.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to this book: Michael Dahlie’s award-winning novel, A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living,which deals more effectively with monied New Yorkers.

About the author: Dee is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 16, 2010

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ — Champagne or Table Wine?

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Dorothy Parker called The Grapes of Wrath “the greatest American novel I have ever read,” but many critics disagree

The Grapes of Wrath. By John Steinbeck. Penguin Classics, 464 pp., $16, paperback. Introduction by Robert DeMott. Also available in other editions.

By Janice Harayda

Still enraged that Premier Bankcard is charging a 79.9 percent interest rateon its credit card? Reading The Grapes of Wrath might be cathartic. More than 70 years after its publication, this novel remains one of the most scathing indictments of banking and related industries to appear in American fiction.

In 1936 the San Francisco News sent John Steinbeck to investigate the living conditions of displaced Dust Bowl farmers who were streaming into California looking for work. That assignment inspired The Grapes of Wrath, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about how displacement and bureaucratic cruelty transform families.

Steinbeck refracts his theme through the bleak story of the Joads, Oklahoma sharecroppers evicted by a bank who set out for California hoping to earn a living as fruit-pickers. Ma and Pa Joad and their children face an almost soap-operatic array of disasters on their car trip and in the blighted Eden of California, where people disparagingly call them “Okies”: hunger, homelessness, illness, death, unemployment and the sadism of rich landowners. Their stoic dignity has endeared them to readers of all ages and to the Swedish Academy, which gave Steinbeck the 1962 Nobel Prize in literature.

The Grapes of Wrath has won less consistent acclaim from critics, who disagree on whether the Joads’ story is Dom Perignon or mediocre table wine. Dorothy Parker, one of the finest critics of her day, called the book “the greatest American novel I have ever read,” and it appears regularly on lists of the most influential works of fiction of the 20th century. But Edmund Wilson said that Steinbeck reduced his characters to their biological drives and animal instincts. And when Jonathan Yardley reviewed a volume of Steinbeck’s collected works for the Washington Post in the 1990s, he was struck by “the solemnity, the sentimentality, the heavy-handed irony, the humorlessness, the labored colloquialisms, the clumsiness” and “the political naiveté” he found in them, though reminded of the “powerfully sympathetic portraits of American farm workers and . . . the vision of social justice” he once admired.

Many of the complaints about the book have merit. Steinbeck conflates poverty and goodness – and wealth and evil – to a degree rarely found in novels written in the documentary style of The Grapes of Wrath. He portrays sympathetically and often sentimentally characters such as a waitress who thinks that the rich are thieves and “the bigger the car they got, the more they steal.” He is less subtle than his fellow social-realist and Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis is in Main Street and other books. You know exactly what you are supposed to think about every issue raised in The Grapes of Wrath, which is why some critics have dismissed it as propaganda or a tract.

But the sentimentality of The Grapes of Wrath is not the cut-rate sentimentality that floods a market full of books by Mitch Albom imitators. It is hard won. And it is rooted in a deep and sincere concern for the brutal conditions endured by the Depression-era poor, some hungry enough to eat coal, as Ma Joad did, or trade a child’s doll for gas that would allow them to flee circumstances. The novelist Don DeLillo rightly said that in The Grapes of Wrath “there is something at stake in every sentence.”

There’s also something going on in every sentence. The Grapes of Wrath keeps its momentum from its opening chapters, when Ma and Pa Joad’s son Tom returns from prison, to its last pages, when the family tries to help a sick man though its own circumstances have grown more desperate. At times, the action includes perceptive observations on what makes life worth living. Steinbeck writes that migrant workers yearned for amusement and found it when they gathered around a fire to hear a storyteller: “And they listened while the tales were told, and their participation in the stories made them great.” The Grapes of Wrath is not a great novel as many critics would define it: a near-flawless work that yields new insights with each reading. It has been made great by the participation in its story of the successive generations to whom it has spoken as if by firelight.

Best line: The title. It appears in this line in the novel: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Worst line: “‘No, it ain’t,’ Ma smiled.”

Reading group guide with 12 discussion questions about The Grapes of Wrath from by the Big Read project of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Movie link: The 1940 movie of The Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two.

Furthermore: The site for the Nobel Prize foundation has a biography and more about Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath. The California Association of Teachers of English site explores some of the author’s local connections. A preloaded digital audiobook editor of the Penguin Classics edition of The Grapes of Wrath from Playaway is available online and at many libraries.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes the publishing industry on her FakeBookNews page (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 1, 2010

An English Bride Walks Down the Wrong Aisle in Julia Strachey’s Tragicomic Novella, ‘Cheerful Weather for the Wedding’

A young woman’s anxieties about her wedding escape the notice of her oblivious mother

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. By Julia Strachey. With a new preface by Frances Partridge. Persephone, 118 pp., $18, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Virginia Woolf rightly called this novella “extraordinarily complete and sharp” when she and her husband published it under their Hogarth Press imprint. One of its most unusual aspects is that Julia Strachey gives away its ending in her first line: She tells you that on March 5, Mrs. Thatcham, a middle-class widow, married her 23-year-old daughter to the Hon. Owen Bigham, a diplomat eight years her senior. She makes clear soon afterward that Dolly has married the wrong man.

How does Strachey create suspense after showing so much of her hand? In part, through her masterly use of theatrical techniques, which she studied in drama school. All of the action in the book takes place on Dolly’s wedding day at mother’s North Yorkshire home. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding has roughly the structure of a three-act play — with scenes before, during, and after the ceremony — and it rushes forward on a tide of clever repartee. For a slim book, it has a large and well-observed cast of characters: friends, relatives, servants, and a former suitor of Dolly’s who turns up hoping to plead his case. Strachey shows the bride in her white Edwardian bedroom before the wedding:

“All about the airy bedroom, maids of different kinds, in dark skirts and white blouses stooped low and searched about for stockings and garters, or stood warming satin shoes and chemises in front of the coal fire.”

But Strachey offers more than a catalog of domestic minutiae, however telling or amusing. Anglo-American literature abounds with heroines handicapped in courtship by the deaths of their mothers: Anne Elliott in Persuasion, Lily Bart in House of Mirth, Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding involves a lack of maternal guidance of a different sort. Hetty Thatcham is so dense and foolish, she is oblivious to her daughter’s anxieties about the imminent wedding. She doesn’t notice — or pretends not to see — that Dolly copes by hiding rum in the folds of her bridal gown.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a tragicomedy about the harm done by mothers who are too self-absorbed to understand — or even recognize — their children’s pain. And Strachey shows how that damage can sweep up people beyond the family. Dolly’s younger sister appears shocked to find the bride-to-be drinking rum out of a bottle in a bedroom minutes before the wedding. “I’m sorry to say it, Dolly,” she said, “but in some ways it will be a good thing when you are no longer in the house. It will not be so demoralizing for the servants, at any rate.” 

Best line: On a parchment lampshade with a galleon and leaves painted on it that Dolly receives as a wedding gift from Miss Dodo Potts-Griffiths: “The galleon and leaves were not, in any sense, painted from Nature, yet they were not exactly diagrammatic either. Rather it was though an average had somehow been arrived at of all the Elizabethan galleons and of all the leaves that had ever before been painted on a lamp-shade, and a diagram then drawn to represent this average.” 

Worst line: “ ‘However; s-s-s-s-s-ssh-sh-s-s-s.’”

Furthermore: Julia Strachey was a niece of Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury group. Partridge is the co-author of Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey (Little, Brown, 1983), co-written with her subject. Persephone Books reprints neglected 20th-century novels and other books, most by women.

Janice Harayda is a novelist, award-winning critic, and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, such as it is, on her Fake Book News page (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 10, 2010

A Review of the ‘The Appointment,’ a Novel by Herta Müller, Winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature

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A Romanian-born laureate evokes the terrors of the Ceauşescu regime

The Appointment: A Novel. By Herta Müller. Translated by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm. Picador, 214 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Herta Müller might seem to have little except her birthplace in common with the Romanian-born playwright Eugène Ionesco. But The Appointment shares some of its literary DNA with Rhinocéros, Ionesco’s haunting allegory of conformity, built on the life of a man who watches in horror as the people around him turn into rhinoceroses. In that absurdist play, the hero fights to retain his individuality as others devolve into beasts. In Müller’s novel, the characters have all but lost the battle for their humanity. They are crushed, driven mad, or killed by the tyranny of Nicolae Ceauşescu and his secret police.

The Appointment takes the form of an interior monologue by a young seamstress who was fired from her factory job for slipping notes that said “Marry me” into the pockets of men’s white linen suits bound for Italy and signing each slip with her name and address. She intended, or so she says, to wed the first man who answered, and she undergoes repeated and dehumanizing interrogations by the secret police about the matter. Were her notes to unknown men a sign of insanity or a reasonable approach to the crushing realities of life in postwar Romania?

That question is one of many that go unanswered. As she rides a tram to her latest interrogation, the young narrator drifts mentally back and forth between her fellow passengers and the torturous events of her life and that of her family and friends under the brutal Ceauşescu regime. The plot has little suspense, narrative thrust, and, at times, coherence. And Müller’s writing resembles that of Joyce Carol Oates: You read it for virtues other than elegantly turned phrases.

But The Appointment offers sharp glimpses of a world few Americans know and fewer still know well. In Müller’s Romania, residents can trust no one. They risk death if they try to flee to Hungary. And they must live without necessities such adequate food or clothing if they stay. Adults borrow children so they can claim extra rations of meat or milk. Factory seamstresses make elegant dresses for export but may buy only the rejects, stained by oil from sewing machines, twice a year — before International Labor Day and the Day of Liberation From the Yoke of Fascism.

Against such bleakness, you question whether putting notes in pockets of strangers’ suits was as depraved as it at first seems. The narrator of The Appointment appears perfectly lucid when she reflects, in a poignant observation late in the book, “As long as I was still young, I wanted to go to the kind of beautiful country the clothes were exported to.” Müller’s achievement is to make you see why, in some circumstances, it might be an act consummate sanity to slip into strangers’ suit pockets notes that say, “Marry me.”

Best line: “You don’t have to be particularly bad off to think: This can’t be all the life I get.”

Worst line: ”A breeze was rustling in the ash trees, I listened to the leaves, perhaps Paul was listening to the water.”

Published: 2001 (first U.S. edition), September 2002 (Picador paperback 2002)

Reading-group recommendation? The Appointment would be a tough sell to many book clubs. But it has barely 200 pages that, if lacking in high-octane narrative drive, are tautly written. It might appeal most to clubs that enjoy books in translation or on social-justice issues, including reading groups based at universities or in churches or synagogues.

Furthermore: Muller, a Romanian-born resident of Germany, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literatureThe Complete Review has biographical facts about Müller and links to other reviews.

Janice Harayda satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 11, 2010

Sophie Kinsella’s Stand-Alone Novel, ‘Remember Me?’ — Milk of Amnesia, With Sugar

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:49 am
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What if you woke up after an accident and couldn’t remember all the important things that had happened since 2004, such as that Brad and Jennifer broke up?

Remember Me? A Novel. By Sophie Kinsella. Dell, 430 pp., $7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Remember Madeleine Wickham? Unless you’re English, you probably don’t. But Sophie Kinsella wrote under that name – her real one – before she adopted the pseudonym that appears on her bestselling “Shopaholic” series. I liked the Madeleine Wickham novels I read, including A Desirable Residence, and hoped her new book would mark a return to their form – that of the quiet English novel of manners updated for the age of house lust and two-career couples. It doesn’t: Remember Me? is the literary equivalent of a fried Mars bar. But fried Mars bars are more filling than the handful of Sour Gummi Bears you often get from romance-novels-gone-mainstream like this one. And so it is with Remember Me?: If you have a choice between this book and a Danielle Steel novel at the airport, it’s no contest.

Kinsella has two virtues that are as apparent here as in her first Madeleine Wickham novels. Educated at Oxford University, Kinsella respects the language of King James and Monty Python. It is inconceivable that she would write, as Stephenie Meyer does in The Host, “It’s a voluntary choice.” If that seems slim basis for an endorsement, you probably walk right past all those books with embossed metallic covers each time you enter a bookstore.

Unlike many bestselling authors, Kinsella also knows how to plot. In Remember Me? she hangs her story on a creaky device – a young woman develops amnesia after a car accident – and her tale gets more improbable from there. Lexi Smart wakes up soon after a thump on the head in 2007 and finds she has forgotten all that has happened to her since 2004. The things she has forgotten include that a) she ditched her loser boyfriend and married a multimillionaire, and b) she evolved from a harried underling into the British carpet-industry’s equivalent of Faye Dunaway in Network. She also thinks Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston are still together. As unlikely as it all of this is, it holds your attention — if it holds your attention — in part because the story has so many plot twists and moves so fast that you have little time to think about the absurdities. And Kinsella has control of her breezy and at times humorous tone – you never sense that she’s trying to be Doris Lessing or Hilary Mantel.

I can’t compare Remember Me? to the “Shopaholic” series, which I haven’t read. But I had less trouble finishing it than some novels that turned up on best-of-2009 lists, though this book had the least promising first line I’ve read in months. Remember Me? also had the welcome effect of drawing me back to the work of thoughtful Madeleine Wickham, who if we are lucky may still have a few books in her.

Best line: Lexi asks after learning that a sofa costs 10,000 pounds: “How can a sofa cost that much? What’s it stuffed with,  caviar?”

Worst line: The first: “Of all the crap, crap, crappy nights I’ve ever had in the whole of my crap life.”

Published: 2008 (hardcover), 2008 (trade paperback), 2009 (mass market paperback)

Furthermore: Kinsella also wrote, as Madeleine Wickham, The Tennis Party and other books. The recent movie Confessions of a Shopaholic was loosely based on the first two novels in the “Shopaholic” series.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter. She comments on books at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and satirizes the American literary culture, such as it is, at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 4, 2010

Out for Blood – A Review of ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:51 am
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Elizabeth and Darcy inhabit a Regency England drenched in the blood after zombie attacks

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now With Ultraviolet Zombie Mayhem. By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. Quirk, 317 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This book is a literary prank, the equivalent of drawing moustaches on the apostles in The Last Supper. Seth Grahame-Smith follows the outline of the plot of Pride and Prejudice as he splices together many of its original passages and a new tale of zombie attacks that have left Regency England drenched in blood. Elizabeth Bennet is fearless zombie-killer who learned her deadly arts in China. Darcy loves her partly because he knows he has met his match among slayers of the undead. And Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas turns into a zombie whose physical deterioration causes her to say things like: “I fank you, Eliza, for dis piece of c-civiwity.”

Thousands of people have apparently have found all of this funny. But because this novel is more mashup than parody, there’s little room for wit, and any of Jane Austen’s best lines is better than the entire book. So what is the purpose of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Any number of answers might come to mind after you read that Elizabeth stabbed one of her victims in the stomach and “strangled him to death with his large bowel.” How about, for a start, “blood money”?

Best Line: Many by Austen. They include Elizabeth Bennet’s admission to her sister Jane that she didn’t always love Darcy: “But in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable.”

Worst line: No. 1: “‘What can be da meaning of dis?’ howled Charlotte, as soon as he was gone. ‘Mah dear Ewiza, he muss be love you, aw he never wuh have called in dis famiwiar way.’” No. 2: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Published: 2009

Furthermore: The popularity of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has led to a movie deal and a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Grahame-Smith also wrote The Big Book of Porn: A Penetrating Look at the World of Dirty Movies.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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