One-Minute Book Reviews

April 8, 2007

Women Talk About Their Miscarriages

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews,Reading,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:44 pm

Twenty writers tell how it feels when a pregnancy ends

About What Was Lost: Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope. Edited by Jessica Berger Gross. Penguin/Plume, 288 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Collections of essays reflect the tastes of their editors, so you may find it helpful to know that Jessica Berger Gross calls herself “an organic-eating, yoga-teaching, Birkenstock-wearing granola girl.” When she miscarried after eight and a half weeks, she sobbed for days, partly because she had to put aside her dreams of “the short list of literary French names I’d choose from” and “the chic Santa Monica baby store where we’d shop.”

No doubt Gross makes herself sound shallower than she is, but her self-portrait tells you something about this collection of essays by women who miscarried between the sixth and twenty-third weeks of their pregnancies. About What Was Lost resists deep engagement with the theme described on its cover – that many women find “that instead of simply grieving for the end of a pregnancy, they are mourning the loss of a child.” Contributors to the book tend to focus on their feelings of pain and grief, and how they absorbed them, not on the complex social, medical and religious questions miscarriage can raise.

But most entries are well written, and some transcend the limits of the collection. Novelist Caroline Leavitt and poet Rachel Zucker offer trenchant and perceptive essays that deal in part with the rude comments that others made about their miscarriages. One of Leavitt’s friends cheered by giving her a handmade book of hypothetical replies to people who said things like, “At least you didn’t know the baby.” (“Yeah, and if I had, I know he would have hated you!”) Zucker heard another strain of false comfort – “these things happen for a reason” – that got on her nerves. She had to stop herself from making hostile comebacks such as, “Perhaps when the baby heard all the people around me using stupid, trite clichés like these things happen for a reason the baby thought life wasn’t worth living.” Other contributors, too, faced insensitivity, which suggests both why this collection was needed and a paradox: The people most likely to read this book are women who have miscarried, but the people who need it most may be their friends.

Best line: Rebecca Johnson, a contributing editor of Vogue, writes of a pregnancy that ended after six weeks: “One out of four pregnancies ends in miscarriage; this was simply nature’s way of saying ‘Not this one, not yet.’ As a fertility doctor whom I interviewed once said to me, ‘Nature is extraordinarily wasteful when it comes to reproduction. Look at all the acorns on the forest floor.’”

Worst line: The title About What Was Lost. The title conflicts with the theme: If miscarriage often feels more like “the loss of a child” than the end of pregnancy, why wasn’t this book called About Who Was Lost?

Editor: Danielle Friedman

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: Other contributors include journalist Joyce Maynard, novelists Sylvia Brownrigg and Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and Pam Houston, author of the short story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness. Julianna Baggott’s entry takes the form of a dialogue with her husband, the token male in the book.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary site that covers books by all kinds of people “from presidents and kings to the scum of the earth,” as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine might say. At least 50 percent of all reviews cover books by women, with reviews of books by female authors typically appearing on Monday and Wednesday and books by male authors on Tuesday and Thursday.

March 30, 2007

Bye, Bye, Birdie: Children’s Picture Books About the Death of a Pet

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,Libraries,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:30 pm

Saying goodbye to furry and feathered creatures with help from Mister Rogers, Judith Viorst, Margaret Wise Bown and others

By Janice Harayda

A popular Easter tradition during my childhood was bringing home baby chicks that died soon after the holiday in a suburban basement. This practice may survive mainly in all those yellow marshmallow candies made in the unlucky chicks’ image. But other kinds of animal deaths abound in this season of new life. Some good books about the casualties:

Nonfiction
Mister Rogers’ First Experiences: When a Pet Dies (Putnam, $5.99, paperback). By Fred Rogers. Photographs by Jim Judkis. Ages 3–6.
Fred Rogers (1928–2003) did more than host the popular PBS show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He also wrote “First Experiences,” a picture book series that offers children a gentle introduction to situations such as moving, making friends, and going to the doctor. When a Pet Dies is typical. Rogers speaks directly to children about how they may feel about losing a pet and answers basic questions such as, “What is dying?” His message is that when sad things happen, “the best place to be is near someone you love … someone who can understand how you are feeling.”

Fiction
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (Aladdin, $5.99, paperback). By Judith Viorst. Illustrated by Erik Blegvad. Ages 4–9.
Many books talk “at” children about the loss of pets. Not The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, a lovely picture book by the author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. It involves a boy who grieves for his dead cat and finds comfort in his mother’s suggestion that he say “ten good things about Barney” at the backyard burial. Viorst’s poetic but clear text includes a conversation between the boy and his friend, Annie, about whether heaven exists. He says no, she says yes, and the book suggests that both have a right to their views. Blegvad’s superb black-and-white drawings add layers of emotion and touches of whimsy that show that sadness doesn’t mean you can never have fun.

The Accident (Clarion, varied prices). By Carol Carrick. Pictures by Donald Carrick. Ages 5-9.
Child psychologists will tell you that a death, if always upsetting, is typically more traumatic if the child has witnessed it, partly because it increases the potential for guilt. And The Accident isn’t just an excellent picture book — it is one of the few that deals with such a situation. The authors use a well-written text and subdued art to tell the story of a boy who sees his beloved dog killed by a pick-up truck while they are walking along a highway. Sad and angry, Christopher keeps replaying the accident in his mind, trying to pretend it didn’t happen, until his sympathetic father helps him find a fitting way to express his grief and begin to feel better. The Accident is out-of-print but worth tracking down for a child who is struggling with this kind of loss. (If you can’t find the book online or at your library, you can ask the library to get it for you through an inter-library loan.)

The Dead Bird (Aladdin, 1987, with a new edition due out in May 2007, varied prices). By Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated by Remy Charlip. Ages 3 and up.
This book is about the size of Goodnight Moon and offers further evidence of Brown’s genius. The story couldn’t be simpler: Four children find a dead bird, take it into the woods, and bury it amid wildflowers under a stone that says “Here Lies a Bird That Is Dead.” But this story is no less powerful because it is so brief. Charlip uses only a few colors for the art – chiefly blue-green and yellow – and on some pages, no pictures, just a sentence or two on a field of white. The missing colors suggest loss while the blue-green tones symbolize the new life that is emerging beside it. And Brown’s text has a similarly understated drama, especially in the last line, which tells what the children did after the burial: “And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.” What makes that line remarkable is that “until they forgot” slipped into the middle. Children do forget some animals, even people, who have died. Many authors ignore this and offer false “comfort” and “reassurance,” doling out sappy clichés suggesting children will “never forget” what they have lost. By contrast, The Dead Bird brims with honesty. Nearly 70 years after it appeared, it remains far better than many newer releases, partly because Brown knew that children don’t need false comfort: They need truth.

Many libraries have other good books on the death of a pet, including books for older children. One is Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog (Morrow, 2006), the true story of the life and death of beloved Labrador retriever, which may appeal to many teenagers. If you don’t see the kind of book you need on today’s list, ask a children’s librarian for suggestions.

A new review of a book or books for children or teenagers appears on this site every Saturday. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept advertising or free books from publishers, so all reviews offer an independent evaluation that is not influenced by marketing concerns. One-Minute Book Reviews also offers reading group guides and discussion questions for some books, including the most recent Newbery Medal winner, The Higher Power of Lucky. You can find these guides archived in the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews. All reviews are written by Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com, a former book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Gabriel García Márquez on the Difference Between Novels and Journalism … Quote of the Day #15

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Latin American,Novels,Quotes of the Day,Reading,Reporting,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:14 pm

Gabriel García Márquez on truth in fiction and nonfiction …

“In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work.”

García Márquez ‘s answer to, “Do the journalist and the novelist have different responsibilities in balancing truth versus the imagination?” Peter H. Stone asked the question in an interview with the Nobel laureate that appears Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Sixth Series (Viking, 1984). Edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by Frank Kermode.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

This is one of the most perceptive comments I have read on the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. How many times have you read a newspaper article that had a small — even trivial — error that fatally undermined a good story? And how many times have you read a novel with a detail so wonderful that you forgave any defects in the book?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Fiona French’s African Tale for Children, ‘King of Another Country’

Filed under: African American,Book Reviews,Books,Children's Books,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:23 am

A selfish young man learns to compromise in a book with bold, kente-cloth colors

[Note: I usually review children's books on Saturday. But I discovered this terrific British author while sifting through picture books on Easter for my March 17 post. And she's so good I can't resist slipping in another of her books during the week. Tomorrow: "Bye, Bye, Birdie: Recommended Children's Picture Books About the Death of a Pet." Jan]

King of Another Country. By Fiona French. Oxford University Press and Scholastic Press, 32 pp., varied prices. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

Ask children’s literature experts to suggest good picture books with African themes, and you’re likely to hear some titles over and over. Among them: John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (Amistad, 1988), an African Cinderella story, and Gerald McDermott’s Ananci the Spider: A Tale From the Ashanti (Holt, 1972), both Caldecott Honor books that have become mainstays of school and library reading lists.

A worthy book that has received less attention comes from Fiona French, an English artist who won the Kate Greenaway Medal for Snow White in New York. King of Another Country tells the story of selfish young man who always said “no” but learns to say “yes” after he leaves his African village and ventures into the forest, where he meets people who make him their king. French describes Ojo’s adventures in graceful, economical prose resembling that of a folk tale, though she doesn’t say whether her book was inspired by one. But the show-stoppers are her dynamic illustrations. Each page bursts with vibrant designs that appear inspired by kente cloth, the royal Ashanti fabric known for its bright colors and bold geometric shapes, often with a basket-weave pattern.

French uses kente-like motifs not just on clothes but on shields, houses, a river, and even a face. The effect is to make you feel immersed in a world that is traditionally African, yet and fresh and surprising enough to hold your attention until the last page.

Best line/picture: Ojo meets a King of the Forest rendered entirely in brilliant shades of green and yellow that make him seem fully human but also ethereal.

Worst line/picture: None. But some parents might object to an image of Ojo carrying a rifle when he goes hunting in the forest.

Recommended … without reservations.

Published: April 1993 (Scholastic edition).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 28, 2007

Anne Porter: An Easter Lily in the Field of Late-Blooming Poets

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Christianity,Poetry,Reading,Religion,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:27 pm

In her mid-90s an acclaimed poet returns with her first book since her National Book Award finalist, An Altogether Different Language

Living Things: Collected Poems. By Anne Porter. Foreword by David Shapiro. Steerforth/Zoland, 176 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A few months ago, a fascinating article about Anne Porter appeared in the Wall Street Journal under the headline, “A 95-Year-Old Poet Finds Her Muse and Literary Praise.” The story noted that Porter was 83 when her first collection, An Altogether Different Language, was published in 1994. The book was a finalist for a National Book Award for poetry and followed by Living Things in 2006.

The Journal article included excerpts from Porter’s poems that were so good that I began looking for Living Things – online, at libraries and bookstores in Manhattan and the suburbs. Nobody had it, or could get it. It seemed that – whether because of the Journal article or Porter’s growing literary reputation – the book had sold out everywhere.

Just before Lent, Living Things turned up again. And the timing couldn’t have been more apt for the return of this fine collection, which has all the poems from An Altogether Different Language and 39 new ones. Living Things makes clear that Porter is an Easter lily in the field of late-blooming poets. She is a Catholic poet in the same way that Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic novelist: She describes a world that is, as O’Connor put it, founded on “the theological truths of the Faith, but particularly on three of them which are basic – the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment.” But she transcends the label “Catholic writer.” As the poet David Shapiro has said, Porter transmits “her Franciscan joy in created things” and “reminds us that the idea of the holy is still possible for us.” At the same time, her poems spring from everyday life, particularly her role as the mother of five children by her late husband, the artist Fairfield Porter.

Many of her rhymed and unrhymed poems are meditations on saints, holy days or Bible verses. Others are hymns or prayers, steeped in a sense of wonder and gratitude reminiscent of that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet who wrote: “Glory be to God for dappled things.” One of the most memorable poems is “A Short Prayer,” an interpretation – you might even call it a brief modern translation – of the “Hail Mary.” In “An Easter Lily” Porter considers the gift of a lily

Whose whiteness
Is past belief

Its blossoms
The shape of trumpets
Are mute as swans

But deep and strong as sweat
Is their feral perfume.

In seven short iambic lines, Porter links the Easter lily to glory (“trumpets”), martyrdom (“swans”), and purity (the whiteness of the lily and swans). And she does more. The best-known Bible verse about lilies, Matthew 6:28, says they “toil not” – they don’t sweat. Porter’s similie – “strong as sweat” – encourages you to consider the strength of the lily as well as its grace. It also connects flower implicitly to the sweat of Christ carrying the cross. Could anyone look at a lily the same way after reading this poem?

Perhaps the most poignant poem in Living Things is the loving reminiscence, “For My Son Johnny.” Porter told the Wall Street Journal that she believes her late son suffered from either schizophrenia or autism. In the poem she recalls, among other things, his kindness:

Though your shoelaces were hardly ever tied
And you seldom wore matching socks
You tried to behave with dignity in the village
“So as not to embarrass my little sisters.”

Porter’s natural tone and diction, here and elsewhere, are part of the charm of her book. The work of religious poets can imitate, consciously or unconsciously, the language of Scripture or the great metaphysicists. Porter has a voice all her own. How lovely that, however belatedly, people are discovering it.

Best line: At this time of year, many people may especially appreciate the poems that relate to Easter, which include “In Holy Week,” “Cradle Song II” and “Four Seasons Carol.” Anyone who looks for strong rhymes may also enjoy “House Lots,” a meditation on the arrival of bulldozers: “Good-bye sweet whistling quail/ Milkweed and Queen Anne’s lace/ Good-bye shy cottomtail/ Quit your secret room …”

Worst line: None.

Published: January 2006

Furthermore: The back cover of this book has an evocative portrait of the author by her husband. Search Google for “Video: Portrait of Anne Porter” to watch a short video of Porter reading from and talking about her poetry. The Wall Street Journal article by Lucette Lagnado ran on Nov. 11–12, 2006.

Consider reading also: Common Life: Poems (CavanKerry, 2006), by Robert Cording, Barrett Professor of Creative Writing at Holy Cross. The poems in this book reflect a religious perspective and include the four-page “Lenten Stanzas” and the briefer “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey.”

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist has been the book editor of the Plain Dearler and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comedies of manners The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

‘A 95-Year-Old Poet Finds Her Muse and Literary Praise’

Filed under: Books,Poetry,Reading,Women,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:21 pm

Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews …

Late last year, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about Anne Porter headlined, “A 95-Year-Old Poet Finds Her Muse and Literary Praise.” Porter’s first volume of poetry, An Altogether Different Language, was published when she was 83 and became a finalist for the National Book Award. Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews Janice Harayda reviews Porter’s second collection, Living Things, which has poems about Easter and other subjects.

(c) Janiee Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 26, 2007

A Totally Authorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Manhattan on the Rocks’ by Janice Harayda

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Novels,Reading,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:10 pm

10 Discussion Questions
Manhattan on the Rocks
A Comedy of New York Manners

[Note: After more than 200 posts about other authors' books, I have the right put up one about my own, right? A movie option on this novel would make it easier for me keep posting reviews, so I have to get the word out to those Hollywood high-rollers. And how do I know that you aren't Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, or Kate Hudson looking for her next starring role? You did get invited to the Vanity Fair Oscars party, didn't you? Unlike the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides on One-Minute Book Reviews, this one is just shameless self-promotion ... Jan]

Laura Smart has thrived in her job as a writer of quirky stories like “Bowling-Trophy Wives,” an article about the wives of Ohio’s best bowlers, for a Cleveland magazine. But she can’t resist an offer to move to Manhattan and work for a talk-show-host-turned-magazine editor. She hopes her job at Cassandra will improve her troubled romance with an aspiring screenwriter and turn her into “Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s without the foot-long cigarette holder.”

Instead, Laura finds that she must deal with the alpine cost of New York apartments, a flirtatious corporate power broker, and a boss who wants her to track down elusive pop star. She also has to decide whether to break ranks with co-workers who see their cascade of perks from advertisers — free clothes, makeup, trips, and even cars — as fair compensation for their low salaries. The result is a sparkling comedy that sends up the sex-and-celebrity-driven world women’s magazines, written from the insider’s perspective of a former editor of Glamour.

1. Many works of fiction deal with young women who are transformed after moving to New York City. One of the most famous is Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Why do the best of these books have an appeal that lasts for generations?

2. Laura Smart, the heroine of Manhattan on the Rocks, dreams of becoming “Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s without the foot-long cigarette holder.” Does she achieve her dream? What similarities and differences do you see between Laura and Holly Golightly of Breakfast at Tiffany’s?

3. If you have read Breakfast at Tiffany’s and seen the movie, you know that the novella is darker than the film. In the book, Holly Golightly is a call girl, a high-priced prostitute. In the movie Audrey Hepburn appears to have no fixed occupation. Why do you think filmmakers made this change? What changes might be necessary in a film of Manhattan on the Rocks?

4. Novels about characters who step outside their usual setting are often called fish-out-of-water novels. These books include some of the most respected novels of the past century, such as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (about a naive young man who attends an elite English university). They also include recent fiction such as The Princess Diaries. Why do these books have so much potential for comedy? What pitfalls do authors need to avoid in writing them?

9. Harayda calls Manhattan on the Rocks “a comedy of New York manners.” Some people say that New Yorkers have no manners. Can you write a comedy of manners about a city perceived as “rude”? Why?

5. The catch to many fish-out-of-water novels is that characters who at first appear to be out of their element may turn to be more at home in a new setting than in an old one. Is this true of Laura? Why?

6. Laura leaves Ohio to work for a magazine run by a television personality who hopes “to become the next Oprah or Martha.” Is Manhattan on the Rocks mainly about the cult of personality that surrounds those two stars? Or is it about something different?

7. Olivia Goldsmith, author of The First Wives Club, described Harayda’s first novel, The Accidental Bride as “satire with heart.” Does this description also fit her second? What does Manhattan on the Rocks satirize?

8. Manhattan on the Rocks brings back Brad Newburger, a public relations executive from The Accidental Bride who represents a condom boutique called Condom and Gomorrah. The author also writes about a law firm called Soke and Bilkem (inspired partly by the firm of Dunning, Spongett, and Leach in The Bonfire of the Vanities). She clearly likes to have fun with words. What is the effect this kind of playfulness? Can wordplay be satirical? Your group might want to compare The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks to Wendy Holden’s comedies of manners, Bad Heir Day and Farm Fatale.

10. Like Manhattan on the Rocks, the bestseller The Devil Wears Prada involves a young woman who works for a fashion magazine and sees her co-workers receiving perks such as free clothes, makeup, and more. Discuss the different points of view that the authors of the two novels have toward this practice.

“Sophisticated chick lit.”
Pamela Redmond Satran, The New York Times

“Harayda, a former senior editor of Glamour, provides an inside look at the life of a New York magazine through an appealing heroine’s eyes.”
Kristine Huntley, Booklist

“Laura’s voice in this novel is spunky, and Harayda draws on references to both pop culture and literature to give Laura an intelligence that is the most compelling aspect of this novel. As her name indicates, she’s smart.”
Kelly Magee, Ohioana Quarterly

“Harayda teasingly pokes fun at the differences between Cleveland and Manhattan.”
Linda Feagler, Obio Magazine

A “blockbuster… autumn’s hot new book.”
Complete Woman

“Manhattan on the Rocks will make readers laugh out loud.”
Vince Brewton, ForeWord Manhattan on the Rocks

Vital statistics:
Manhattan on the Rocks: A Novel. Sourcebooks, 297 pp., $14, paperback. By Janice Harayda. Published: October 2004. Also by Janice Harayda: The Accidental Bride: A Romantic Comedy (St. Martin’s/Griffin, 1999). Please visit the “For Book Clubs” page of the Web site below for the reading group guide to The Accidental Bride.
Links: www.janiceharayda.com

Janice Harayda enjoys speaking to reading groups in Manhattan and parts of New Jersey, when her schedule permits, about this novel. She speaks to groups in other places by speakerphone.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 23, 2007

Complete List of Reading Group Guides Available on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Reading,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:48 pm

Can’t find a good reading group guide to a book your club is reading?

One-Minute Book Reviews posts its own reading group guides to the some books reviewed on the site. These lists of discussion questions have no connection to publishers’ guides and may be more comprehensive or take a different view of books. You can find the guides archived in the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides on One-Minute Book Reviews. The original reviews are archived both by category and date of posting.

Here’s a compete list of guides available as of March 22, 2007. Many more will be coming in 2007. Each title is followed by followed by the date of the original review, the category in which it’s archived, and a link to the review. If a direct link to a review doesn’t work, you can find the review by going to the site and searching for the title.

Stuart: A Life Backwards. By Alexander Masters. A charming biography of an “ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath” that has won or been short-listed for several major literary awards. (March 22, 2007, Biography) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2207/03/22/alexander-masters/

The Second Child: Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Rhymed and unrhymed poetry about the intersection of work and motherhood, including classic forms such as the sonnet and sestina. (March 12, Poetry) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/12/deborah-garrison-finds-poetry-at-the intersection-of-work-and-motherhood/

Born Twice: A Novel. By Guiseppe Pontiggia. One of the great recent novels about fatherhood, which won Italy’s highest literary award, the Strega Prize. (March 8, 2007, Novels) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/08/

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. By Ishmael Beah. A young writer’s story of his experiences as a fighter in the government army during the civil war in Sierra Leone. (Feb. 27, 2007, Memoirs) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/07/

The Higher Power of Lucky. By Susan Patron. Ages 10 and up. The controversial winner of the 2007 Newbery Medal that has the word “scrotum” on the first page. (Feb. 19, 2007, Children’s) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/19/that-scrotum-book-for-children/

The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival. By Stanley N. Alpert. A former federal prosecutor’s account of being kidnapped on a Manhattan street and held for thugs who showed a gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight ineptitude. (Jan. 30, 2007, Memoirs) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/30/stuart-alperts-25-hours-in-hell-with-a-turkey-sandwich/

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughs on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Witty and trenchant essays by the author of Heartburn and the script for When Harry Met Sally … . (Oct. 14, 2006, Essays and Reviews) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/14/ms-ephron-regrets/

An authorized reading group guide to Janice Harayda’s novel Manhattan on the Rocks, a comedy of New York manners, also appears on the site. It was posted on March 26 and is archived with the March 2007 posts and in the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 22, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards’ by Alexander Masters

10 Discussion Questions
Stuart: A Life Backwards

This reading group guide 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 may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to this site or the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

“Charming” isn’t a word often applied to books about “an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath,” as Alexander Masters describes his subject in Stuart: A Life Backwards. But it fits this biography of an intelligent and self-aware but physically and mentally impaired man – half Jekyll, half Hyde — whom the author met when both were living in or near Cambridge, England.

Masters has enriched his tragicomic story with quirky, New Yorker-ish line drawings of Stuart Clive Shorter and others in which people’s heads seem too big for their bodies. And whether or not the distortion was intentional, it’s a visual metaphor for the man described on its pages: Stuart was a someone whose brain always seemed to be about to burst out of his body and, apparently, in the end, did.

Questions For Reading Groups

1. One of the challenges faced by any biographer of a violent criminal is: How can you depict someone’s terrible crimes accurately while also maintaining enough sympathy for the person that people will keep reading? How does Masters do this?

2. Masters found that Stuart changed constantly and acted in “amazingly inconsistent” ways. “At first I thought he was lying or stupid,” Masters said in an interview. [“The Madman on Level D,” by Anne Garvey, the Times of London, June 10, 2005.] Did you ever think Stuart was “lying or stupid,” too? What changed your mind? How would you interpret Stuart’s behavior?

3. Stuart has an unusual narrative structure for a biography – it moves backwards. Masters begins when Stuart is an adult – “an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath” – and doesn’t give his date of birth until Chapter 25. [Pages 1 and 291] But the story doesn’t always move in a straight chronological line. Masters describes some of Stuart’s ancestors in Chapter 24 before he tells you when his subject was born in Chapter 25. How well does this structure works?

4. Masters often criticizes mental-health professionals or popular views of mental illness, such as when he writes: “ … It is wrong to assume that a failed [suicide] bid is, as the nauseating cliché will have it, only ‘a cry for help.’ It could be – is usually in Stuart’s case – just the opposite. Its failure is the result of too great desperation to get the job done.” [Page 160] How did Stuart affect your ideas about mental illness or any aspect of it, such as suicidal tendencies?

5. One of the characteristics of great biographies is that they are usually “about” more than one person’s life. They may deal with subject’s profession or social circle or the era in which he or she lived. What is Stuart “about” besides Stuart?

6. Stuart disliked a version of the book that Masters showed him. He called it “boring” and wanted something “like what Tom Clancy writes.” [Page 1] How do you think Stuart would have liked the final book?

7. Biographies typically include only photographs of their subject and others. What do Masters’s drawings add to the book?

8. Masters is an advocate for the homeless who has worked in hostels for them and run a street newspaper. Biographers who support a cause are sometimes faulted by critics ax-grinding, special pleading, or slanting their facts. Has Masters done any of those things? How does he keep Stuart’s story fro becoming strident or sentimental?

9. Critics have disagreed on whether Stuart is biography, memoir, or something else, such as a true-crime story. Blurbs on the cover of the hardcover edition call the book a “biography.” The directors of the National Book Critics Circle said that Stuart “defies categorization” and named it a finalist for the 2007 NBCC award in the autobiography/memoirs category. You can find one board member’s comments on this issue by searching for the words “Stuart: A Life Backwards” on Critical Mass www.bookcriticle.blogspot.com. How would you categorize the book? How do such classifications affect your perceptions of Stuart and other books?

If you have time …
10. Stuart resembles James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the first great modern biography, in that it may tell you as much about its author as it does about its subject. So you might enjoy comparing the two books. Is fair to say that Masters was Stuart’s Boswell? Why or why not? What does Masters have in common with Boswell?

Vital statistics
Hardcover edition: Stuart: A Life Backwards. By Alexander Masters. Delacorte, 300 pp., $20. Published: June 2006. Paperback edition: Delta, 320 pp., $12, paperback. To be released in May 2007.

A review of Stuart: A Life Backwards appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 22, 2007, and is archived with the March 2007 posts and in the “Biographies” category on www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com.

Other reviews: “Shaking Down a Violent Jekyll to Find the Gentle Hyde,” Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times, June 9, 2006, p. E.2:36.

Most reading group guides come from publishers or sites that accept advertising from them. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or promotional materials or ads from publishers. All of its reading guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

If you found this review helpful, please check the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews for others and bookmark the site so you don’t miss forthcoming guides. I would also be grateful if you would forward a link to others who might like the site.

Links: Alexander Masters site: http://www.alexandermasters.net/new/
[Note: SNAP Preview is enabled on One-Minute Book Reviews. This means that you can see an example of the art in Stuart just by putting your cursor on the preceding link to Masters's site. You don't have to click on the link and go to his site.] Publisher’s site: www.bantamdell.com Critical Mass, the blog of the board of directors of National Book Critics Circle http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/. Click on the Critical Mass link, then search the site for “Stuart: A Life Backwards” for posts on why the book was a finalist for its 2007 NBCC awards.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 21, 2007

Flannery O’Connor on the Purpose of Symbols in Fiction … Quote of the Day #14

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Essays and Reviews,Fiction,Literature,Novels,Quotes of the Day,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:15 pm

Flannery O’Connor on symbols in fiction …

“Now the word symbol scares a good many people off, just as the word art does. They seem to feel that a symbol is some mysterious thing put in arbitrarily by the writer to frighten the common reader — sort of a literary Masonic grip that is only for the initiated …

“I think that for the fiction writer himself, symbols are something he uses simply as a matter of course. You might say that these are details that, while having their essential place in the literal level of the story, operate in depth as well as on the surface, increasing the story in every direction.

“I think that the way to read a book is always to see what happens, but in a good novel, more always happens than we are able to take in at once, more happens than meets the eye. The mind is led on by what it sees into the greater depths that the book’s symbols naturally suggest. This is what is meant when critics say that a novel operates on several levels. The truer the symbol, the deeper it leads you, the more meaning it opens up.”

Flannery O’Connor in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1969.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
Flannery O’Connor wrote these words more than three decades ago, when symbols might have scared off the common reader but not critics. Have you noticed how symbols now seem to scare critics, too? Newspapers and magazines regularly publish reviews that make no attempt to deal with symbols in long and complex novels that obviously have levels of meaning. This is often a sign that those publications are using weak or timid critics. It can also be a sign that that editors are allowing those critics to avoid dealing with books in all their complexity.

Mystery and Manners is one of the great books of the 20th century on the art and craft of writing. It is one of the few books on writing that I recommend to all fiction writers and readers who look for the “greater depths” in novel or short story. Another quote from Mystery and Manners appears in the March 12 post, archived with the March 2007 posts in and in the “Quotes of the Day” category.

(c) Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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