One-Minute Book Reviews

October 4, 2007

John Bayley’s ‘Good Companions’ – An Ideal Collection of Poetry (and More) for People Who Didn’t Major in English

A former Oxford professor offers a lively introduction famous and little-known poems

Good Companions: A Personal Anthology. By John Bayley. Little, Brown/Abacus, 246 pp., $9.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Most poetry collections pose one of two problems for the casual reader: They have no commentary, now matter how inscrutable their poems may be, or they are textbooks that are full of commentary but too dry and academic to interest most nonscholars.

John Bayley’s Good Companions is the rare anthology that finds the perfect balance between those extremes. This compact paperback – just the right size for a briefcase or nighttable – consists of good short poems or snippets from novels, letters and diaries of the past three centuries. But it has far more poems than prose, and with good reason: Though Bayley is too diplomatic to say so, this is where most people need help, and he provides it superbly.

Bayley doesn’t try to supply a comprehensive introduction to each poem but instead offers a few insightful and opinionated lines that focus on whatever he finds most interesting about it. Sometimes that’s a bit of context, such as when he writes of Lord Rochester’s “A Song of a Young Lady to Her Ancient Lover”:

“The ancient person was probably no more than forty-five. Rakes and dissipated young men, as Rochester certainly was, thought of themselves as completely worn out at an age which people today would consider the prime of life.”

Elsewhere Bayley notes a strength or weakness of a poem, or an especially interesting idea that it raises. He admires Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” in which the speaker catches a valiant fish but releases it after seeing five earlier fish hooks “grown firmly in his mouth.” But for all his admiration, Bayley wonders: “Perhaps the end is a bit too much of a pat on the back for the poet?”

That gentle question exemplifies the conversational tone of the book, its greatest charm. After decades as a professor at Oxford, Bayley might have claimed a Zeus-like right to fling thunderbolts of erudition down from Olympus. Instead he invites you to take part in a lively dialogue about some of his favorite poems. And if you accept, you’re likely to find that some of his selections become your favorites, too.

Best line: Bayley’s shows his gift for summing up a poem in a few deft sentences in his brief comment on Thomas Hardy’s “The Self-Unseeing”: “Hardy at his most moving, and also at his most cannily perceptive. When children are really most happy, and indeed when grown-ups are too, they are very seldom aware of the fact. Perfect happiness is not a state in which self-awareness plays a part.” The last lines of Hardy’s poem bear him out: “Childlike, I danced in a dream; / Blessings emblazoned that day; / Everything glowed with a gleam; / Yet we were looking away!”

Worst line: Bayley includes Blake’s “The Tyger” but punts on the commentary: “What is there to say about the Tyger?”

Published: 2002 Little Brown/Abacus www.littlebrown.co.uk. [I discovered this book this summer at a large Borders store, shelved somewhat oddly in the memoirs section, next to Bayley's Elegy for Iris, so you may find it in a spot other than the poetry aisle.]

Furthermore: Bayley also wrote Elegy for Iris www.picadorusa.com, a memoir of his marriage to the novelist Iris Murdoch and her descent into Alzheimer’s Disease.

Janice Harayda is an 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 www.bookcritics.org. She also wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 2, 2007

Rebecca Gowers’s First Novel, ‘When to Walk,’ Longlisted for the Orange Prize Along With Books by Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley

A young British writer with septic arthritis tries to cope after her husband unexpectedly announces that their marriage is “defunct”

When to Walk. By Rebecca Gowers. Canongate, 235 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Rebecca Gowers writes in When to Walk that the Victorian poor gave their babies a substance called Venice Treacle, “which induced an opium stupor while the mothers went out to work.” That line – interesting in itself — also suggests the emotional state of the narrator of this novel, longlisted for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize: She sometimes seems to be in an opium stupor without the opium.

Early on, the narrator’s husband of three years announces that their marriage is “defunct,” and the novel describes her attempts to cope during the following week. Gowers’s publisher calls the story a “ramble into familial failures, urban isolation, unreliable relationships” and more.

That’s true, but for a ramble, When to Walk is oddly overdetermined. The surname of the narrator, for example, is Ramble. Nearly every character has a name freighted with so much baggage, you sense that Gowers doesn’t trust you to figure such things out on your own. Ramble’s husband, Constantine, known as Con, acts like an emperor and gets involved with small-time con artists. Her gay best friend with a bisexual past has the doubly phallic name of Johnson Pike, and if that suggests to you that he might be tempted at some point show her his johnson, you’re right. Her half-batty grandmother, Stella Ramble, is always referred to that way, never as “Gran” or Grandma,” implying a distance between the two characters that the story doesn’t entirely support.

The overdetermination is all the more distracting because the novel is underplotted. Gowers sets up minor subplots that go nowhere – one about a friend her heroine is helping with her English and another about a Holocaust-era photograph she finds amid her grandmother’s belongings. Ramble also has septic arthritis – similar to Lyme Disease – presumably intended as a metaphor for the creaky joints of her life and marriage. But the relation between her physical and emotional states isn’t clear: To what degree, if any, is the illness responsible for her bad marriage and dull job writing travel articles about places she hasn’t seen? Little enough happens overall that the novel crawls along until the whiz-bang final chapter, where the story gains the steam it has lacked until then.

So When to Walk is less successful as a novel than as a collection of anecdotes, many about the Victorian era. Some of these tell stories more interesting than that of the book as a whole, including one about the author of the poem “In the Bleak Midwinter.” “I can state for certain that at some point in the early 1840s, when she was still a child, Christina Rossetti was taken to Madame Tussaud’s on a treat that was a total failure,” Gowers writes. “Why? Because she’d been taught that it’s rude to stare.”

Best line: “For all the time I’ve known her, Stella Ramble has, in the old phrase, been ‘living on unkindly terms with her years.’” Old phrase? I’d never heard it but know a lot of people to whom it applies.

Worst line: An e-mail message from a character who works for a college, whom Ramble is helping with her English: “Boustrophedon is when the lines of the inscription go left to right, right to left (retrograde means the characters being r to l too as in a mirror), left to right etc. Boustrophedon translates to mean the way oxen turn back and forth over a field when they plough. Whereas, false boustrophedon, alternate lines instead of having vertical orientation will curl around upside down, this also being called Schlangenschrift which means snake-writing.” As mangled English, this isn’t funny enough. It is hardly, if all, distinguishable from much of what passes for acceptable in academia today.

Published: October 2007 www.canongate.net

Furthermore: Gowers also wrote The Swamp of Death: A True Tale of Victorian Lies and Murder (Penguin, 2004). When to Walk was one of 20 books on the longlist for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, formerly the Orange Prize www.orangeprize.co.uk, which also included novels by Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley.

Cover story: Joe Berger’s cover for When to Walk differs by a mile from what American publishers typically choose for books about young women and their relationships — in part because it isn’t pink — and this is much to the credit of the Edinburgh-based Canongate Books. The spirit of the cover is very Scottish, though it contains none of the usual Scottish cliches such (such as kilts, thistles or Nessie), and the story is set in an unnamed British city. The cover is mainly green, the same shade that many of the spear-pointed iron fences in Edinburgh were until painted black after the death of Prince Albert. Some fences have been repainted in the shade.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site in the world on Google on Sept. 6, 2007 www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 21, 2007

A Gallop Around the Big Top in Sara Gruen’s ‘Water for Elephants’

A resident of an assisted living facility looks back on his work for a Depression-era traveling circus

Water for Elephants: A Novel. By Sara Gruen. Algonquin, 331 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading this overpraised historical novel is like watching a circus show that moves so briskly and has so many bizarre acts that you almost don’t notice how threadbare the performers’ costumes are. Like Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, it takes the form of a monologue by one of those human curiosities who are among the last of their kind. In this case, he’s a man in his 90s who looks back on his stint with a Depression-era traveling circus from his perch in an assisted living facility.

This premise gives Sara Gruen plenty of room to introduce oddballs like “the human ostrich,” a man who claims he can swallow and return any object. “Wallets, watches, even lightbulbs!” a barker shouts. “You name it, he’ll regurgitate it!” By far the most interesting parts of the novel involve these characters, many inspired by real-life performers Gruen uncovered during her research.

Otherwise Water for Elephants is pure pop fiction — a sentimental fairy tale about cruel bosses, lovable freaks and an elephant as loyal as Dr. Seuss’s Horton. Gruen sets the tone when she reels off a half dozen or so clichés in the first two pages. The rest of the novel develops predictable themes – for example, that wife-beating and cruelty to animals are wrong – at a pace that helps to minimize the damage. If many historical novels move at the speed of a hippo that’s just been shot with tranquilizing darts, this one resembles a good show under the big top in at least one respect: It rushes forward at a full gallop until the last page.

Best line: A line about bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, romanticized by the newspapers of his day. The narrator of the novel, Jacob Jankowski, sees a headline that reads: “PRETTY BOY FLOYD STRIKES AGAIN: MAKES OFF WITH $4,000 AS CROWDS CHEER.”

Worst line (three-way tie): No. 1 “My heart skipped a beat … Thunderous applause exploded from the big top … the music screeched to a halt … No one moved a muscle.” All of these clichés appear in the first page-and-a-half. No. 2 Later on, characters say cloyingly folksy things like “Dagnammit” and “Grady, git that jug back, will ya?” No. 3 Some characters also “hiss,” “cackle,” “bark,” “hoot” and “cluck” their words instead of saying them. (As in: “‘Woohoo,’ cackles the old man.”)

Reading group guide: The publisher’s guide appears in the paperback edition and online at www.algonquin.com. A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 21, 2007, just before this review. If you are reading this review on the home page for the site, scroll down to find the guide. If you are reading the review elsewhere on the site or on the Web, click on this link to find it: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/.

Published: April 2007 (paperback), May 2006 (hardcover).

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/as of Sept. 6, 2007. It does not accept free books from publishers.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Sara Gruen’s ‘Water for Elephants’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Water for Elephants
A Novel by Sara Gruen
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish 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 the guide.

Algonquin Books has posted a reading group guide to Water for Elephants at www.algonquin.com that you may want to use at a starting point for your discussions. But like most publishers’ guides, that guide is part of a publicity campaign designed to sell books. It does not encourage criticism, quote negative reviews or compare the novel to others that you might enjoy more. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but only to raise questions the Algonquin guide doesn’t.

A few generations ago, many Americans dreamed about escaping from humdrum lives by joining a traveling circus. Sara Gruen describes the tawdry allure of a Depression-era Big Top in her historical novel, Water for Elephants, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. Her narrator is Jacob Jankowski, a widowed nonagenarian who lives in an assisted living facility and looks back on his work for a traveling circus after his parents’ deaths forced him to leave veterinary school. Young Jacob is intelligent and hard-working. But if he expects those traits to help him avoid brutal hardship, he is corrected by the equestrian director of the Benzini Brothers circus. “The whole thing’s an illusion, Jacob,” his co-worker says, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what people want from us. It’s what they expect.”

Questions for Readers

1. Historical novels are often overpraised, because good research can mask or distract you from flaws in the plot, characterization or structure of a book. Do you think Water for Elephants deserved all the praise quoted in the front matter of the paperback edition? Or do you believe some critics might have been willing to overlook its flaws because of interesting material that Sara Gruen turned up in her research? Were you willing to overlook any flaws you found in the novel? Why?

2. Susan Cheever, the novelist and memoirist, says in the same front matter that Water for Elephants is “a book about what animals can teach people about love.” Do you agree? If so, why? If not, what is this novel really “about”?

3. “Despite her often clichéd prose and predictable ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book,” a reviewer for the trade journal Publishers Weekly wrote. Algonquin omits the first part of that sentence and begins with “Gruen” when it quotes from the review in the paperback edition. This kind of editing is considered fair – or at least standard – in publishing. It’s also fair to ask: How did you react to that “often clichéd prose”? (There are at least five clichés in the first one-and-a-half-pages: “thunderous applause,” “screeched to a halt,” “My heart skipped a beat,” “No one moved a muscle,” and “ ‘you’ve got a lot to lose.”) If you had been the editor of the novel, would you have suggested that Gruen lose a few? Or is the book is strong enough that it doesn’t matter?

4. Did you find the ending of the book as “predictable” as the PW reviewer did? Or did you find it surprising? Why?

5. Authors of historical novels usually try to avoid anachronisms such as modern language used by characters from other eras. How well did Gruen do on that count? Would Depression-era characters say things like, “So, did you two manage to hook up?” [Page 158] Does this matter? Why or why not?

6. Many novels that are popular with book clubs come from female authors who write in the voice of a female character. Water for Elephants is different in that its narrator is a man in his 90s. How well did Gruen portray Jacob? Did she portray characters of one sex better than the other?

7. Historical novels are traditionally defined as books in which the action takes place before their authors were born. Pride and Prejudice, for example, isn’t considered a “historical” novel because Jane Austen was writing about her own times. But many of the most popular American novels of the past 100 years, from Gone With the Wind to The Clan of the Cave Bear and Cold Mountain, are historical novels. How would you compare Water for Elephants with some of your favorites?

8. Gruen says in an interview in the back matter of the paperback edition that the “backbone” of her novel “parallels the biblical story of Jacob.” [Page 350] For example, the biblical Jacob works for seven years for his uncle Laban. In Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski “worked on circuses for nearly seven years” [Page 4], one of them owned by a man named Uncle Al. Apart from the appearance of “Jacob’s ladder,” the best-known part of the biblical story occurs when Esau sells his birthright to Jacob, his younger brother, for food. [In the time of Esau and Jacob, on the death of the father, the oldest son received twice as much property as any other child, known as the “birthright.] Does Water for Elephants have a counterpart to Esau?

9. Many people might consider the prologue to Water for Elephants to be controversial, because you could argue that it deceives you about the killer of August Rosenbluth, the superintendent of animals at the Benzini Brothers circus, in the scene in which he dies. How did you react to the scene? [Page 4] Was it fair or unfair given what happens later?

10. One way to judge the prologue is to compare it with mysteries you’ve read. A canon of mystery-writing that authors must “play fair” with readers. This means, in part, that a writer must give you all the clues you need to solve the mystery and provide them at appropriate times. (For example, a writer can’t withhold all or most of the important clues until halfway through the book or later, because this would deprive you of a pleasure you expect from a mystery – the chance to figure out “who did it” as you go along.) A mystery writer must also write as clearly as he or she can. That is, the the identity of the killer can be uncertain until the end, but the language can’t be unclear because of murky pronoun antecedents or other intentional grammatical lapses. How does all of this relate to the prologue and what comes after?

Extras:
1. James Michener, who did heavy research for his own books, said: “The greatest novels are written without any recourse to research other than the writer’s solitary inspection of the human experience. Flaubert, Dostoevski, Jane Austen, Turgenev, and Henry James exemplify this truth.” [Literary Reflections: Michener on Michener, Hemingway, Capote, & Others (State House press, 1993), p. 74.] Do you agree or disagree?

2. If you agree with Susan Cheever that this is “a book about what animals can teach people about love,” what do the animals teach us? What do we learn from this book that you couldn’t get from movies and television shows like Babe or Lassie, which involved intelligent and loyal animals?

Vital statistics:
Water for Elephants: A Novel. By Sara Gruen. Algonquin, 335 pp., $13.95, paperback.

Published: April 2007 (paperback), May 2006 (Algonquin hardcover). A review of Water for Elephants appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 21, 2007. If you are reading this guide on the home page for the site, scroll up to find the review. If you are reading it elsewhere on the site or on the Internet, click on this: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/.

Your book group may also want to read:

Genesis, Chapters 25:19–37:35. The biblical story of Jacob appears in these.

Horton Hatches the Egg, by Dr. Seuss, first published by Random House www.seussville.com in 1940 and also available in other editions. The epigraph for Water for Elephants comes from this book.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an 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 www.bookcritics.org. 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 that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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September 14, 2007

Five Things I Learned About Sara Gruen’s ‘Water for Elephants’ From the First Two Chapters

Yesterday I read the first two chapters of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants www.algonquin.com, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. Here’s what I learned about the novel from them:

1. The narrator is a man in his 90s. He sometimes thinks that if he had “to choose between an ear of corn or making love to a woman,” he’d choose the corn.

2. The characters say things like “Dagnammit” and “Grady, git that jug back, will ya?”

3. Some characters “hiss,” “cackle,” “bark,” “hoot” and “cluck” their words instead of saying them. (As in: “‘Woohoo,’ cackles the old man,” page 26.)

4. These clichés appear in the first page-and-a-half: “thunderous applause,” “screeched to a halt,” “My heart skipped a beat,” “No one moved a muscle,” and “ ‘you’ve got a lot to lose.’”

5. Susan Cheever says this is a book about “what animals can teach people about love” (quote in the front matter).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 12, 2007

Is Dalkey Archive Press America’s Most ‘Subversive’ Publisher?

A French secretary fantasizes about countering a “No Smoking” sign with one that says, “LET’S OUTLAW THE SALE OF CIGARETTES: PEOPLE SHOULD DIE OF POVERTY, NOT CANCER.”

Everyday Life. By Lydie Salvayre. Translated from the French by Jane Kuntz. Dalkey Archive, 117 pp., $12.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

If somebody offered you a million dollars to describe the difference between “a Random House book” and “a Simon and Schuster book,” could you do it? Or would you weep silently into your chai tea and think, “There goes the Lamborghini, the second home and my child’s education”?

If you have no idea how one publishing conglomerate differs from another, you’re not alone. These days the largest houses have little or no brand identity – at least not one that anybody but critics and scholars can define. Many of the smaller firms, don’t either. That makes Dalkey Archive Press a rarity: a publisher with a clear brand identity – although part of that brand identity is that you can’t imagine the staff saying “brand identity” instead of, say, “aesthetic” or “sensibility.” Critics often describe Dalkey Archive as a specialist in “experimental” or “avant-garde” books. Director John O’Brien prefers the term “subversive” because its titles to go against the grain. Many come from other countries, about half of them translation.

An example is Everyday Life by Lydie Salvayre, who grew up in southern France. Peter Mayle was never like this. This brief novel is about the psychological unraveling of a widowed secretary in her 50s who works for a Paris advertising agency and sinks into a paranoid fury when a new co-worker arrives with the same title. One critic has said that you could read it as “a commentary on today’s cubicle culture, where employees are warehoused in such tight quarters that any hiring or firing throws the entire office ecosystem out of whack.” That’s true in the sense that you could read Moby-Dick as a commentary on what happens when you pack a lot of people together on a Nantucket whaler.

Everyday Life, as I read it, is about something larger. It’s a study in the alienation that results not from office conditions but from the isolation that leads people to overinvest emotionally in work. Suzanne is the sort of woman Americans used to call an “office wife.” Faced with a rival, she reacts as many women do to a threat of infidelity, except that her behavior is much more sinister than sifting through pockets and credit-card receipts. She is a hard – maybe impossible – character to like. But Salvayre, writing with a Cartesian spareness, makes you see that part of the problem is that she’s smarter and funnier than others. Suzanne is so enraged when the new secretary posts a “No Smoking” sign that, alone in her apartment, she can’t sleep and composes darkly comic counter-signs. One reads: “LETS OUTLAW THE SALE OF CIGARETTES: PEOPLE SHOULD DIE OF POVERTY, NOT CANCER.” Such humor wouldn’t have raised eyebrows a generation or two ago. By today’s standards, it’s subversive, and just what you would expect from Dalkey Archive.

Best line (tie): No. 1 “Discretion is, in my eyes, the cardinal virtue. I’ll go so far as to say that one ought to be discreet in one’s discretion …” No. 2 “I can’t stand parties, and don’t want to be ridiculed. The energy expended in trying to be frivolous is finally too exhausting.”

Worst line: One page contains only one sentence: “I loathe her, I loathe her, I loathe her.”

Published: November 2006

Caveat lector: This review does not evaluate Jane Kuntz’s translation. It was also based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the on-sale edition may differ.

Furthermore: Everyday Life is not listed on Amazon and possibly other online sites. It available from the publisher www.dalkeyarchive.com. Click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/01/ to read a review of Gail Scott’s My Paris, also from Dalkey Archive. Visit the sites for Random House www.randomhouse.com and Simon and Schuster www.simonsays.com if you want to try to figure out the difference between the two firms.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/as of Sept. 6, 2007.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 11, 2007

Nick Hornby Looks at a Marriage in Trouble in His Comic Novel, ‘How to Be Good’

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Can a marriage survive if a husband and wife disagree on what it means to be a good person?

How to Be Good. By Nick Hornby. Riverhead, 305 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a study that found that if you get fat, your close friends tend to gain weight, too. Something like this principle drives the third novel by Nick Hornby, the author of High Fidelity and About a Boy and the memoir Fever Pitch.

Katie Carr, an English doctor, has to reconsider her ideas about what it means to “a good person” after her 41-year-old husband, David, falls under the influence of a spiritual guru named D.J. GoodNews. This premise might sound like the set-up for a variation on that bedraggled cliché, an overprivileged couple’s midlife crisis.

But How to Be Good is a novel of ideas that is less about a marriage in trouble than about the question implicit in its title: What does it mean to be “good” in a materialistic age? Does it involve helping people through your work, as Katie imagines? Or does it require sacrifices such as giving away a family computer, as David insists after his abrupt spiritual conversion? If two people disagree on the answer, can they stay together?

As it parses these questions, How to Be Good shifts from satire to farce, and at times the characters resemble intentional caricatures. But Hornby maintains suspense about fate of Katie and David’s marriage until the last pages and invests their plight with enough comedy that the novel doesn’t turn into a sermon. And even his one- or two-liners often have a sly wisdom. In the first scene, Katie calls David on her cell phone to say she wants divorce, then tries to rationalize her behavior as atypical.

“But for the majority of people, marriage-ending conversations happen only once, if at all,” she reflects. “If you choose to conduct yours on a mobile phone, in a Leeds car park, then you cannot really claim that it is unrepresentative, any more than Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t really claim that shooting presidents wasn’t like him at all. Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.”

Best line: “Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.”

Worst line: It’s unclear whether the lack of punctuation and subject-verb agreement in the following are intentional: “Whenever I have seen Jerry Springer, the guilty party always says to the devastated spouse ‘I tried to tell you we wasn’t happy, but you wouldn’t listen.’ And I always end up thinking that the crime of not listening does not automatically deserve the punishment of infidelity.”

Recommendation? A good book club book. More than most comic novels, How to Be Good raises the moral questions that could help to foster a lively discussion. And the slackers who never finish the book may have seen a movie version of one of Hornby’s other novels, so they won’t feel completely left out of the conversation.

Reading group guide: www.penguinputnamguides.com

Published: July 2001 (Riverhead hardcover), May 2002 (Riverhead paperback) us.penguingroup.com. Hornby’s latest novel is A Long Way Down (Riverhead, 2005).

Links: You can read about Hornby and download the first chapter of How to Be Good at his official site, www.nicksbooks.com. Visit the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com for information on the movie versions of Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About a Boy). Search for “Nick Hornby” on British Council site www.contemporarywriters.com for a biography, critical analysis and a list of his awards.

Caveat lector: I haven’t read Hornby’s earlier novels or Fever Pitch, which many of his fans prefer to How to Be Good.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an 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 www.bookcritics.org. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 10, 2007

God Catches a Break in Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith’

Can you have a love affair with God after you take off your clerical collar?

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. By Barbara Brown Taylor. HarperOne, 272 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

When I was the book editor of the Plain Dealer, a publisher sent me a study called The Private Lives of Ministers’ Wives. I knew right away that I wanted to assign it for review: How many books have you read about those underappreciated pillars of so many congregations? But when I asked a minister’s wife to review the study, she said she couldn’t do it unless I let her write under a pseudonym – which most newspapers don’t allow — because in her position she couldn’t express her views freely. Which, of course, was exactly the point of the book.

We may know even less about the inner lives of the clergy than we do about those of their spouses. Like the minister’s wife I tried to recruit as a reviewer, the partners of spiritual leaders may believe they have a responsibility to keep silent on some issues. But they have no formal job description that requires it. The clergy do have a duty to protect confidentiality and use other forms of discretion, which helps to explain why we hear about their private lives mainly when a scandal erupts.

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor opens a stained-glass window onto their lives in an engaging memoir that at times gives the impression that she either lacks self-awareness or isn’t free to describe events fully. Leaving Church tells of her years a parish minister in Atlanta and Clarkesville, Georgia, and her decision to become a religion professor after realizing that “feeding people was no longer feeding me.”

Brown Taylor says she once saw being a priest as similar to being the chief engineer at a nuclear power plant: “In both cases, one needed to know how to approach great power without loosing great danger and getting fried in the process.” Her book has many such lines that are clever rather than deep, or seemingly intended more to keep people awake during sermons than to provoke serious thought. You might also question the logic of her decision to become a professor if “feeding people” wasn’t feeding her, given that college teaching consists largely of feeding students.

But Brown Taylor has strengths that offset her inconsistencies. Chief among these is that she describes vividly the demands of the parish ministry without whining or sugarcoating the difficulties. “Like most clergy, I know how to post bond, lead an intervention, commit someone to a mental health care facility, hide a woman from her violent husband, visit an inmate on death row, and close the eyes on a dead body,” she writes. “One summer when a frightened murder witness showed up at the church door I even learned how to arrange an appointment with the district attorney for testimony before a grand jury.” After years in church leadership roles, I didn’t know that the clergy did half those things, and I’d bet most other lay people don’t know it, either. Part of what makes Leaving Church valuable is that it shows how much the clergy do for those poverty-line salaries that they get.

But this book does more than help to explain why so many clergy face burnout and need long vacations and sabbaticals just as professors do. Like Anne Lamott, Brown Taylor notices offbeat but telling details that suggest the tangy flavor of her part of the country. Not long after moving to Clarkesville, she saw a church sign that read: “Given Satan an inch and he will become your ruler.” What minister would want to tangle with parishioners who suspected them of giving that inch?

Coincidentally or not, Leaving Church has arrived when God is taking it on the chin. Biologist Richard Dawkins www.richarddawkins.net has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for months with The God Delusion, which says that the biblical Yahweh was “psychotic.” He shares space with journalist Christopher Hitchens www.hitchensweb.com, whose God Is Not Great contends that religion is “irrational.” Brown Taylor doesn’t try to argue with the atheists. Instead, in a quiet way, she suggests joys and pains of a life lived according to faith and does so well enough that you believe her when she says that, no matter what went wrong between her and the Church, “this is a love story.”

Best line: Like most clergy, Brown Taylor often listened to requests for money from people with hard-luck stories. She reports that when she said “no,” one petitioner took it as a challenge to try harder. The woman called her and said: “Martha is sitting on the toilet and we are out of toilet paper. If I came over right now, could you write me a check to the grocery store so she can get up?”

Worst line (tie): No. 1 Brown Taylor says in one paragraph that “we have romanticized” Native Americans, then tells us in the next that a Cherokee friend has “a noble brow,” as though the image of the “noble” Indian weren’t part of the romanticized stereotypes she rightly criticizes. No. 2 She says that “the call to serve God is first and last the call to be fully human.” That we should be “fully human” is one of those fuzzy clichés that many of have heard often from the pulpit. What does it mean? “Fully human” as opposed to half-human and half-bull, like a minotaur? Brown Taylor uses the phrase partly to explain why she left the parish ministry to teach religion. What about the people who have passed up such career moves? Are they less than “fully human”?

Recommendation? Likely to appeal to many fans of Anne Lamott www.annelamott.com, though Brown Taylor isn’t as funny or forthcoming about many parts of her life. Also highly recommended to church book groups.

Published: May 2006 (hardcover) and April 2007 (paperback) www.barbarabrowntaylor.com and www.harpercollins.com. Brown Taylor is a columnist for the liberal magazine The Christian Century www.christiancentury.org. She teaches at Piedmont College www.piedmont.edu.

Furthermore: Leaving Church won the Best General Interest Book award from the Association of Theological Booksellers www.associationoftheologicalbooksellers.org. For information on The Private Lives of Ministers’ Wives, click on this link www.lizaleshire.com and then on “Liz’s Books.”

Consider reading also: Michael Lindvall’s The Good News From North Haven: A Year in the Life of a Small Town (Crossroads, $16.95), a down-to-earth book of stories about the life of a Presbyterian minister in Minnesota. This book reads like a collection of autobiographical essays, though billed as a novel by its author, now the pastor at the Brick Presbyterian Church www.brickchurch.org in New York City.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/as of Sept. 6, 2007.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She is a former associate lay leader of Park Avenue Methodist Church in Manhattan and often speaks to local or national religious groups on topics such as faith in fiction.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 4, 2007

My Labor Day Reading … Jean Webster’s Comic Novel, ‘Daddy-Long-Legs’

Filed under: Classics,Novels,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:13 am
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A classic novel of life at a women’s college in the early 20th century

Over the weekend, I read comic novels — pure fun — as I braced for all those holiday books that publishers will start heaving at us this week. Did you know that some art-book houses release their entire line between September and November instead of spreading it out over 12 months?

I started by rereading Jean Webster’s comic gem, Daddy-Long-Legs (Penguin, $13, paperback), one of the most delightful novels ever written about the education of a young American woman. First published in 1912, the book is reported to have sold 100,000 copies in its first year in print, a vast — but well-earned — number back then. Daddy-Long-Legs is told through the letters of a high-spirited orphan to the male patron who sends her to college, inspired by Webster’s education at Vassar. And because the epistolary novel is disappearing, that alone might give it a period charm.

But its great appeal lies in the voice of its blunt, funny and perceptive heroine. As Michael Patrick Hearn wrote in an afterword to the 1988 edition that preceded the newer one from Penguin www.penguinclassics.com:

“When the press badgered Woodrow Wilson at his home in Princeton on his presidential plans, the prospective candidate adroitly dodged the question by stating that he found it far easier to talk about the recent past than the immediate future. And he much preferred to discuss the book he had just finished reading, Daddy-Long-Legs, ‘the most charming story in years.'”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 2, 2007

Michael Shaara’s Civil War Novel, ‘The Killer Angels’

At Gettysburg with Robert E. Lee and Joshua Chamberlain

Newt Gingrich often produces unintended comedy when he tries to show the thoughts of military leaders in his new Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th (St. Martin’s, $25.95). Michael Shaara takes on a similar task with much better results in his 1974 Civil War novel, The Killer Angels (Ballantine, $7.99, paperback), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s risky to try to give a fresh account of someone as familiar as Robert E. Lee: What’s there to say that we don’t know?

But Shaara pulls it off in this recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg, as refracted through the lives of Lee and others, including the Union’s Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Shaara avoids overstuffing his story with irrelevant period details — the besetting sin of so many historical novels — and offers a brisk account of mental as well as physical struggle. The Killer Angels isn’t in a class with such great war novels as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. But it is an example of military fiction done with intelligence and without the macho posturing that tends to infect the form. Jeff Shaara has attempted to build on his father’s legacy, and while I’ve read only one of his novels, it didn’t come close to this.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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