One-Minute Book Reviews

April 24, 2007

How Do You Know When a Marriage Is Over? Women Tell Why They Left or Stayed With Their Husbands

Filed under: Book Reviews,Essays and Reviews,Memoirs,Reading,Relationships,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:33 pm

The turning points in a marriage fall under the scrutiny of 24 female writers, including Terry McMillan, Joyce Maynard and a former Mormon who had to wear “temple-issued undergarments”

The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce. Edited by Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand. Warner, 350 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Some publishers say that “anthologies are the new memoirs,” but The Honeymoon’s Over makes you wonder if the boom is running on empty.

This is third essay collection I’ve reviewed this year that includes work by Joyce Maynard, the prolific journalist, novelist and contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Maynard is a good essayist whose entries have been among the best in all three books, but she’s been cannibalizing her life for parts for so long that some of her stories are wearing thin. Another writer might have added more freshness to this lightweight book of essays by 24 women on turning points in their marriages.

Nothing in The Honeymoon’s Over has the sophistication of Jane Smiley’s reflections on her first marriage in the recent Mr. Wrong, or of the best work of essayists like Daphne Merkin or Phillip Lopate. And the worst entries are bad enough to put off the poeple who might appreciate this book the most – those who are trying to decide whether to leave a marriage. Terry McMillan’s writing goes further south in a bitter, profane and disorganized screed against her ex-husband. Daniela Kuper makes cloying use of second-person narration in an account of her efforts to get her son back from a guru. And Zelda Lockhart devotes 20 pages to her past without making you understand why she married a lesbian partner with whom she fought regularly and to whom she had “never been physically attracted.”

The best entries in The Honeymoon’s Over describe experiences strong enough to carry them despite any flaws in the writing. Perhaps the most memorable is Elissa Minor Rust’s essay on why she has stayed with her husband since leaving the Mormon faith they once shared, an unusually candid report on Latter Day Saints teachings on sex roles. Did you know that married Mormon women must wear “temple-issued undergarments”? This is the kind of information you rarely get from news shows on Mormonism, which tend to focus instead on the LDS tolerance for polygamy. Rust avoids writing about politics, but her essay indirectly suggests some of the problems Mitt Romney may face in his bid for the presidency. How long will it be before the tabloids – or Sixty Minutes – start asking where his wife gets her underwear?

Best line: Rust describes the Mormon rules that she and her boyfriend, now her husband, had to follow when he moved to New York to begin the two years of missionary work required of young Mormon men: “We weren’t allowed to speak, except on Christmas and Mother’s Day (and even that was stretching the rules; he was allowed to call his family on those two holidays, but he also called me). For two years, our only communication was through letters – and he was only allowed to write one a week. For a person like me who has always fought against rules and power structure, this was torture. I would have had more access to the man I loved were he in prison.”

Worst line (tie): No. 1: Terry McMillan’s rambling and vengeful list of “100 Questions” for her ex-husband. McMillan writes on page 97, “I’ve forgiven you,” and on page 98, “I haven’t exactly forgiven you.” Which is it? No. 2: Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand write of the contributors to this book: “Women in their second marriages seemed to choose better mates and by then were better equipped themselves to make a marriage work.” Then why do second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages?

Caveat lector: Some Web sites say, incorrectly, that this book includes an essay by Jane Smiley (making you wonder if she was scheduled to appear in it but bailed out in favor of the more flattering lighting of Mr. Wrong).

Consider reading instead: Mr. Wrong: Real-Life Stories of the Men We Used to Love (Ballantine, $24.95), edited by Harriet Brown.

Editor: Amy Einhorn

Published: February 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

How to Support the National Book Critics Circle Campaign to Save Book Reviews

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,News,Newspapers,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:33 pm

Unhappy about cutbacks in book reviews in your Sunday newspaper?

If so, you may want to get involved in the National Book Critics Circle campaign to stop the trend. You can find out how to help at the NBCC blog, Critical Mass, www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com. The site is also posting comments by well-known writers and editors on why it’s important to preserve book sections. I’ve posted my thoughts on this after Rick Moody’s comments.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 23, 2007

Do Some Parenting Guides Need a Time-Out?

Filed under: Book Reviews,How to,Nonfiction,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:35 pm

Two popular books on child-rearing offer different answers to questions like: What can you do when children act up in public or won’t put their shoes away?

“It’s not fair, Jeremy Spencer’s parents let him stay up all night!”: A Guide to the Tougher Parts of Parenting. By Anthony E. Wolf. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 264 pp., $14, paperback.

Parenting for Dummies: 2d Edition. By Sandra Hardin Gookin and Dan Gookin. Mary Jo Shaw and Tim Cavell, contributing editors. Hungry Minds, 408 pp., $21.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Prime-time nanny shows have done American parents a favor: They’ve shown how much more you can often learn from somebody in a burgundy cape than from people who flaunt their Ph.D.s on book covers. Here, for example, is child psychologist Anthony Wolf’s response to a parent who reacts incredulously to his advice that you should “tough it out” when your child acts up at the mall:

Parent: “You mean if my kid acts up when we’re out in public, and if being nice, reasoning, and yelling all don’t work (which of course they rarely do), then there is nothing I can do? I just have to tough it out the whole rest of the time we’re out?”

Wolf: “Yes, not only is that all one should do, but as with temper tantrums, there are many things one should not do.” Among the things you shouldn’t do: go home, scold, offer rewards and threaten punishment.

Can you imagine what one of those burgundy-caped crusaders would say to this? Call Nanny 911! The TV nannies have shown over and over that you can respond effectively to children who act up in public. And the solution may start with setting up reward systems, which Wolf doesn’t like, or just teaching children manners.

“It’s not fair, Jeremy Spencer’s parents let him stay up all night!” looks like a book that might offer a fresh approach to child-rearing. The great title and terrific cover art by New Yorker cartoonist Lee Lorenz suggest that Wolf has a sense of humor. And some Amazon.com reviewers say that his book did help them a lot with problems like backtalk, sibling fights and children who say, “I hate you!”

But Wolf’s sense of humor soon gives way to psychobabble, and he tips his hand when he writes in his second chapter: “Most parents today subscribe to the belief that if children are treated well they will thrive – which is absolutely true.” Flip that idea around, and you’ll see the problem: It means that if your child isn’t thriving, you aren’t treating that child “well.” But we all know good parents whose children – for whatever reason – aren’t flourishing. Wolf finally allows why this may be so in his next-to-last chapter: “As is increasingly being shown by researchers in child development, children are born with varying psychological characteristics. We do not fully shape our children. Much they seem to bring with them.” Why didn’t he say so in the beginning?

Parenting for Dummies is much more practical than the ultra-permissive “It’s not fair …” I resisted the “Dummies” and “Idiot’s” guides for years because of their titles — why buy a book that insults you on the cover? — but recently have had to read a lot of them as a critic. And most that I’ve read give you nuts-and-bolts advice that, if dumbed-down, is often less pretentious than in other books. If the “Dummies” and “Idiot’s” guides patronize you, they’re up front about it in a way that Wolf’s book isn’t. You know just by looking at their titles that their authors assume you’re a moron.

Consider how “It’s not fair …” and Parenting for Dummies deal with discipline. Wolf hits you with “shoulds.” Parenting for Dummies covers the subject a section called “Discipline and torture techniques.” Want to tell a child to put his or her shoes away? The authors suggest that you say, “Your shoes snuck out of your closet. Can you please help them find their way home?” Instead of scolding a child for leaving the milk out, try, “Why don’t you be the milk police? Your job is to make sure everyone follows the milk rules. Arrest whoever breaks this law!” These techniques wouldn’t work in all families, but I’d bet they would be a lot more effective in some than Wolf’s reminder that “there is nothing you can do” to make some situations better.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 19, 2007

Geoff Dyer’s ‘Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It’

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Memoirs,Reading,Travel — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:18 am

A book that like, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, describes some of the human dramas you don’t read about in tourist brochures

Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. By Geoff Dyer. Vintage, 257 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Great travel writers have always known that the landscape of the human mind is more fascinating than any sunset. A stellar example is Geoffrey Dyer, an award-winning journalist and novelist who lives in London but takes the world at large as his home.

Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It is nominally a collection of 11 fictionalized accounts of trips to places that include Libya, Cambodia, Amsterdam, Miami, and Detroit. But Dyer is his own best subject, and he knows it. So he views his life as unsparingly as ruined temples or Art Deco lobbies. An observation he makes in an essay on New Orleans before the Fall sets the tone for this witty and perceptive book: “Living as I have, in many different cities, in different countries, I’ve got used to making new friends at an age when many people are living off the diminishing stockpile amassed at university, when they were 19 or 20.” It is, he adds, “one of the things about things about the way I’ve lived that has made me happiest,” and it’s one of things that may make readers happiest, too.

Best line: Dyer’s chapter on New Orleans describes a 1991 visit that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, reads like an elegy for an eccentric grande dame with undertones of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Sample line: “At first it was fun, Mardi Gras. I liked the sport of trying to catch stuff – plastic beakers, beads, and other trinkets, rubbish really – thrown from the crazy floats inching through the crowded streets. It was like a cross between basketball and being in a mob of refugees trying scrambling for food rations thrown by soldiers.”

Worst line: The title. It reflects an exchange Dyer says he had with a woman at a New Age-y resort on the Thai island of Ko Pha-Nagan, famous for “full moon parties” that resemble drug-and-alcohol–fueled bacchanals on a beach. “I have an idea for a self-help book,” Dyer says he told his companion. “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.” “But you can’t be bothered to write it, right?” his she replied. Some people would argue that the title is the best line in that it perfectly exemplifies part of Dyer’s appeal: He’s a superb stylist who’s always bringing up things that have nothing and everything to do with the places he visits. But you can’t help but think that from a marketing point of view this title was a disaster, a joke so oblique that it has kept many people who might love this collection from finding their way to it while attracting also people who want a book about yoga, which it is not.

Recommended if … you like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and other semi-fictionalized books that define places through the people who inhabit them.

Caveat lector: Dyer doesn’t say how much of the material in this book is invented. He seems not to have made up any facts about places he visits but may include imaginary conversations. The people he meets have a way of always coming up with the punch lines for his jokes at the exact moment they’re needed.

Published: January 2003 (Pantheon hardcover), January 2004 (Vintage paperback).

Furthermore: Dyer is the author of three novels and several books that his publisher aptly calls “genre-defying.” They include D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence (North Point, $13, paperback), which was finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 18, 2007

‘Ambiguous Loss’: When Someone You Love Is ‘Physically Present but Psychologically Absent’ Because of Alzheimer’s Disease or Other Factors

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Nonfiction,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:58 am

Missing someone who is there, but not there

Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief. By Pauline Boss. Harvard University Press, 155 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

Ambiguous Loss is something rare — a book by a therapist who can write. For decades, Pauline Boss has studied what she calls “ambiguous loss” – a kind of loss that occurs when someone is “physically present but psychologically absent” (because of Alzheimer’s Disease or other factors) or when someone is “physically absent but psychologically present” (because of geographic distance or another obstacle that may never be overcome). Boss has found that such losses are uniquely painful, partly because they deprive people of mourning rituals and can go on until the mourner is “physically and emotionally exhausted from the relentless uncertainty.”

Ambiguous Loss describes how people deal with the unresolved grief. But it isn’t a self-help manual so much as a collection of gracefully written stories of men and women who have learned to live with confusion and uncertainty. Case studies in therapists’ books are typically banal, sanitized and, frequently, unbelievable. The accounts in Ambiguous Loss are complex, persuasive and enhanced by apt references to sources from Homer to Steven Spielberg.

Boss may be overreaching when she suggests that the people who are experiencing ambiguous loss may include those married to severe alcoholics, workaholics, and certain others. But her overall argument is strong. And her supporting evidence is never more poignant than when she writes of her own relatives, who left families in Switzerland and moved Wisconsin in the early 1900s, then were prevented by war and financial hardship from returning to Europe. Her grandmother yearned to see her son in America, who couldn’t visit her until she was on her deathbed, and for decades sent letters that began with “My dears” and ended with: “May God protect you always. Mother.” When mail became sporadic during World War II, she wrote wistfully to her kin of the grandsons she had never met: “Even if it is not possible to write, I am with you at all times anyway in my thoughts. I am sure you have two big sons by now. I wish I could see them in person.”

Best Line: “Sometimes the prevalence of ambiguity in contemporary life can be amusing, reaching even into people’s spiritual life. In [a cemetery] in Tokyo, a mechanical Buddhist priest with robotic eyes chants sutras each morning for the recently dead. The question is: Is a priest absent or present?”

Worst line: “Self-blame is dysfunctional because it prevents us from moving on with our lives.” Self-blame can be appropriate if, for example, if you’re Don Imus and slander the entire Rutgers women’s basketball team. At times Boss also uses the word “closure,” which has been so overused that it’s lost most of its meaning, and similar terms, though her book wears its jargon lightly compared with most by therapists.

Recommended if … you want information on the social and emotional context of ambiguous, not a shower of bullet-pointed tips on how to cope.

Furthermore: Boss is a professor of social science at the University of Minnesota, a family therapist and past president of the National Council on Family Relations.

Editor: Elizabeth Knoll

Published: October 2000

Links: www.ambiguousloss.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All Rights Reserved.

April 17, 2007

Is Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ Better Than His Earlier Novels?

Filed under: Book Awards,Books,Fiction,News,Novels,Pulitzer Prizes,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:54 am

Was yesterday’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction another case of “right author, wrong book”?

By Janice Harayda

Book awards often go to the wrong book by the right author. This tends to happen — with the Pulitzers and other prizes — when judges try to make up for past injustices by rewarding an inferior book by a writer whose best work was snubbed.

The Pulitzer judges honored Sinclair Lewis for Arrowsmith after spurning the much better Babbitt and Main Street. They rewarded Ernest Hemingway for The Old Man and the Sea instead of A Farewell to Arms. And even Edith Wharton — as Pulitzer-worthy an author who ever lived — got the fiction prize for The Age of Innocence instead of Ethan Frome or The House of Mirth, both published before the Pulitzers began in 1917.

I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which won the Pulitzer for fiction yesterday, so I don’t know how it compares to his earlier novels. How about you? Any comments on whether The Road is better than All the Pretty Horses?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

April 15, 2007

‘The Stories of John Cheever,’ a Titan Among Past Winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Fiction,Literature,Reading,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:12 pm

Remembering one of the great recipients of the awards to be announced today

The winners of the 2007 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced this afternoon, including the awards for five categories of books. And if the historical pattern holds, in a decade or two — if not by the end of the day tomorrow — some of the recipients will look more like midgets than giants. So before you read latest winners, why not catch up with some of the titans of past lists?

One of my favorites is The Stories of John Cheever, winner of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This masterpiece has all of Cheever’s greatest stories — including “The Swimmer,” “The Enormous Radio” and “The Country Husband” — and others that won deserved praise and bestsellerdom for their author. Many of these tales first appeared in The New Yorker in the 1950s. And as Jonathan Yardley wrote a few years ago in the Washington Post, they “have rivals but no superiors in the national literature”: “Though many gifted writers wrote memorably during that decade, four stood apart: Flannery O’Connor, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty and John Cheever.”

One of the signal virtues of The Stories of John Cheever is that Cheever was among the last great American moralists. His characters have a sharp awareness of good and evil that pervades their lives but doesn’t keep them from getting into trouble that, in most of his stories, provides a strong narrative arc. So his work operates on a level that doesn’t exist in the many modern stories that are driven by “anything goes” morality that can devolve into amorality. In the preface to the Stories, Cheever suggests another reason why his work has endured:

“These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like ‘the Cleveland Chicken,’ sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are.”

The book that wins the wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction today may well be the best novel or short story collection of 2006. But no one can know whether another book will surpass it next year. That’s all the more reason to cherish the work of a writer who remains unsurpassed among the chroniclers of his era.

The Stories of John Cheever (Vintage, $17.95, paperback) was first published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1978. The book won, in addition to the Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award and an American Book Award (now National Book Award).

Links: The names of the Pulitzer Prize winners will be announced at 3 p.m. today and posted at 3:15 p.m. at www.pulitzer.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 12, 2007

Robert Lacey’s ‘Great Tales From English History’ Series

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,History,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:18 am

Brief and lively essays about Winston Churchill, “Mad” King George III, Florence Nightingale and others who helped to define Britain to itself and to the world

Great Tales From English History (Book 3): Captain Cook, Samuel Johnson, Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Edward the Abdicator, and More. By Robert Lacey. Little, Brown, 305 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

Love history but lack the time to read an entire book on John Wilkes Booth or the conquest of polio? Forgotten so much of what you learned in a Western Civ course that you need to review some of it?

Consider picking up Robert Lacey’s engaging “Great Tales From English History” series, which consists of three volumes you can read in any order. Each book has 60 or so lively essays on a person or event that helped to define a year or era in Britain.

Some of the most interesting entries in the latest book deal with people little-known to most Americans, such as Edith Cavell, who ran a World War I nurses’ school in Belgium and used it to shelter British soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. (She kept her diary sewn into a footstool so it didn’t fall into the hands of Germans but was accidentally betrayed and executed by a firing squad in her nurse’s uniform.) But Lacey is also adept at showing you how much you don’t know about major figures like Winston Churchill, Horatio Nelson, Florence Nightingale and “Mad” King George III.

Lacey’s essays are short – about 1,000 words in an easy-on-the-eyes font – and take only a few minutes to read. So the “Great Tales” books could be ideal for a nightstand or for anyone who, say, spends a lot of time waiting in a car to pick up a child or spouse. Even better for some of us, Lacey has said that he hopes to expand the series to include colorful episodes from American history.

Best line: This one about Queen Victoria is typical: “Of the many photographs of Britain’s longest reigning monarch, only one shows her smiling.”

Worst line: Lacey lives in London and occasionally omits facts that, though perhaps unnecessary in Britain, would have helped here. In his essay “Voice of the People” he suggests that Churchill’s career-ending defeat in the 1945 election resulted partly from his inflammatory campaign remark that “Some form of Gestapo” would be needed to enforce the policies of the Labour Party. Lacey doesn’t say that Churchill belonged at the time to the Conservative Party. And Churchill was such a notorious party-switcher (from Conservative to Liberal to Conservative and running in one election as a self-described “constitutional anti-socialist”) that this information would have been useful.

Recommended if … you’re looking for light and diverting history, not heavy scholarship, or planning a vacation in England and want to learn about the people and events you’ll find honored on monuments. A “Great Tales” book could also make an excellent gift for a teenager who loves history or may major in it in college.

Furthermore: Other volumes in this series are Great Tales from English History (Book 1): The Truth About King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart, and More (Little, Brown 2004 and 2007 reprint) and Great Tales from English History (Book 2): Joan of Arc, the Princes in the Tower, Bloody Mary, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton, and More (Little, Brown 2005).

Published (Book 3): December 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 9, 2007

Eric Hodgins’s ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’: Still Funny After All These Years

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Fiction,Humor,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:55 pm

A classic comic novel about moving from the city to the country sends up the modern lust for property

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading yesterday’s bestsellers can be a little like trying on that pair of white vinyl go-go boots in the attic: You don’t know whether to laugh or cringe at our former tastes. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation and comic novels age faster than serious ones because so much humor depends on topical references. This classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property, and its enduring appeal lies partly in the all-too-believable naiveté of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. They fall in love with the barns, apple orchard and majestic views: “But the furnishings were in general of the era of Benjamin Harrison, with an overlay of William McKinley, and here and there a final, crowning touch of Calvin Coolidge.” And when house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, Jim and Muriel resolve to tear it down and build another on the site.

This decision sets up a superbly constructed plot in which the new house becomes the couple’s antagonist. The Blandings square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – in short, all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. But the house itself is their real opponent. Amid the soaring bills and construction delays, Mr. Blandings imagines how delightful it would be “to return to the city and move a final, ten blocks father north.” Will he throw in the drill bit and go back to the Upper East Die? Or sell the place and buy one against which he isn’t so overmatched?

Eric Hodgins controls the suspense deftly. And the late New Yorker cartoonist William Steig adds three dozen or so brilliant drawings, many of them a full page, that throw the comedy into higher relief and show how much we have lost now that the fully illustrated adult novel has almost disappeared. Along with Hodgins’s masterly text, Steig’s fanciful pictures remind us that if a man’s home is his castle, sometimes he’s the court jester instead of the king.

Best line: “It surged over Mr. Blandings that he very much wished he were back in the city … he wanted the noise of the city in his ears; the noise with which all city dwellers were in such perfect, unconscious harmony that the blast of a gas main down the block might strike the eardrums but penetrate not the brain.”

Worst line: A few expressions have become dated. When Mr. Blandings sees the contractors’ bills, he cries: “Jesus H. Mahogany Christ!”

Recommended if … you like comedy that stays close to life. Hodgins’s satire is much more realistic than that of the over-the-top novels of Christopher Buckley (whose new Boomsday involves plan to save Social Security and other benefits by giving baby boomers a financial incentive to commit suicide, known as “Voluntary Transitioning”). Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is also a nearly perfect book club book partly because: 1) It’s a classic that few people have read; 2) It’s relatively short and widely available in paperback and at libraries; 3) It deals with a situation almost anybody can appreciate; 4) It may show a new side of William Steig to members familiar only with his children’s books, such as Dr. De Soto and Shrek!; and 5) All those slackers who never finish the book can watch one of the movie versions.

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to the novel appears in the post directly below this one and is archived with the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews.

Published: 1946 (first edition), 2004 (Simon & Schuster paperback).

Furthermore: Hodgins’s novel has inspired two movies I haven’t seen – Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Low, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,’ a Modern Classic by Eric Hodgins With Illustrations by William Steig

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation. This modern classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit. Eric Hodgins (1899–1971) satirizes the modern lust for property in a comic tale of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. When house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, the couple resolve to tear it down and build another on the site. This decision sets up a plot in which they square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. Cartoonist and children’s author William Steig (1907–2003) adds to the comedy with more than three dozen fanciful drawings.

Questions For Reading Groups

1. Yesterday’s bestsellers tend to look outdated quickly, and comic novels age faster then others because so much humor hinges on references to current events. Most novels from the era of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House have gone out of print. Why do you think this one still appeals to people?

2. Eric Hodgins tweaks the naiveté of Jim and Muriel Blandings throughout his book. Did you find the two appealing even though they often make bad decisions? Why?

3. Many contemporary novelists make heavy use of brand names in describing new homes. Hodgins doesn’t. Why do you think he avoided filling his book with references to specific products? How does his novel benefit or suffer from this approach?

4. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property. But it lampoons other things, too. What are some of them?

5. Jim and Muriel Blandings tangle with tradespeople and others. But their main antagonist is the house they are building. How does Hodgins give the place enough character to keep you from feeling as though you’re reading an extended article in Better Homes and Gardens?

6. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was published at the beginning of the baby boom, when families were expanding. How do you think people might react to the novel if it were appearing in print for the first time today?

7. Much of the humor in this book springs from its tone. Sometimes the tone is ironic:

“The evil days were behind them. The delays had been galling; the mistakes costly. The experience had been bitterly won, but it won it was. Their plans were perfect, their money was in sight, and now, thank God, work had at last begun. Nothing was so cozy, Mrs. Blandings thought, as the sight of workmen plying their trade on behalf of a home …” [Page 141]

At other times, the humor is more direct and involves local speech or a play on words, as when a man refers the Lansdale Historical society as “the Hysterical Society.” [Page 178] How would you describe the overall tone of the novel? How well does it serves the book?

8. What do William Steig’s drawings add to the novel? What do you think Steig was trying to do with them? Was he trying stick closely to the text or add a dimension?

9. Other satirical novels that you may have read include Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking. All of these differ in many ways from Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. How would you compare their humor? What do they all the book have in common? What makes all of them work?

Extras:
10. Roger Kimball, co-editor of The New Criterion, wrote that the 1948 movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy is “charming … but nothing compared with the novel.” [The Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2006] If you’ve seen the movie, do you agree or disagree?

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., $12, paperback.

A review of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com on April TK, 2007, and is archived with the April posts and in the “Novels” category.

Movie Links: Eric Hodgins’s novel inspired two movies. The first was the 1948 Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy www.imdb.com/tt0040613/. The second was the 1986 The Money Pit with Tom Hans and Shelley Long www.imdb.com/title/tt0091541/.

If you found this guide helpful, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing others. The Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides cover fiction, nonfiction and poety and are posted often but not on a regular schedule, because they are created only for books that need or deserve them.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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