One-Minute Book Reviews

March 20, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’ by Nora Ephron

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews,Reading,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:42 pm

10 Discussion Questions
I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

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 may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. 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.

Nora Ephron is our Ironwoman of the keyboard. Perhaps no living female writer has excelled at a broader range of literary forms: reporting, fiction, screenwriting. Ephron made her name with witty and trenchant articles for Esquire and other magazines, collected in books such as Wallflower at the Orgy (Viking, 1970) and Crazy Salad (Knopf, 1975). She earned Oscar nominations for her screenplays for When Harry Met Sally …, Silkwood, and Sleepless in Seattle, which she also directed. And she wrote one of the signature novels of the 1980s, Heartburn, which included recipes (although, she admits. she left the brown sugar out of her directions for making pears with lima beans, so the recipe in the first edition didn’t work). I Feel Bad About My Neck collects 15 personal essays on topics from cabbage strudel to her internship in JFK’s press office.

Questions for Reading Groups

1. Ephron says that aging isn’t what you might think from all those “utterly useless” books for older women that are “uniformly upbeat and full of bromides and homilies about how pleasant life can be once one is free from all the nagging obligations of children, monthly periods, and, in some cases, full-time jobs.” [Pages 128–129] What is her view of aging?

2. Ephron seems to enjoy her life. But she says that “the honest truth is that it’s sad to be sixty.” [Page 128] Were you persuaded that she thinks it’s “sad”? Or might she have said that because friends had died recently or for other reasons? How well does she make her case that it’s “sad”?

3. Novelist Anna Shapiro said that Ephron isn’t “just writing about vanity or even grief” in I Feel Bad About My Neck: “What she’s really writing about is the insult to our identity that we suffer when we see that unfamiliar face in the mirror—pouchy, crumpling—a face that’s too strong and exaggerated to be our own, and that also seems to have, with all those dark, complicated areas, too many features.” [The New York Observer, Aug. 14, 2006, page 20.] Do you agree with Shapiro? Why or why not?

4. Ephron offers advice about life in “What I Wish I’d Known,” a list that directly precedes her chapter that dismisses as “useless” books that are “uniformly upbeat and full of bromides.” Her list has many lines that might qualify as bromides, such as, “You can order more than one dessert.” [Page 125] Do you see these sections of the book as contradictory? Why or why not?

5. The essays in I Feel Bad About My Neck first appeared in a half dozen publications, including Vogue, The New Yorker and The New York Times. Which essays work best? Does this seem to relate to the publications in which they appeared? Why or why not? How does Ephron’s writing change and stay the same from one publication to the next?

6. Many people have said that women, more than men, have to be what others want them to be. Do you agree? Did you get the sense from I Feel Bad About My Neck that Ephron, successful as she is, had to accommodate her editors? Did she have to accommodate others? In what ways?

7. Ephron called her first book Wallflower at the Orgy because, she said in the introduction, “working as a journalist is exactly like being the wallflower at the orgy.” She added: “I always seem to find myself at a perfectly wonderful event where everyone else is having a marvelous time, laughing merrily, eating, drinking, having sex in the back room, and I am standing on the side, taking notes on it all.” [Page ix] Would you say after reading I Feel Bad About My Neck that her life still has something of that wallflower quality? Why or why not? How do you think Ephron would answer that question?

8. You may have noticed that most of the reviews of I Feel Bad About My Neck were written by women. How do you think men might have reviewed this book?

9. Could – or would – a man have written a book like I Feel Bad About My Neck? Why or why not? What does this say about our culture?

If you have time …
10. Ephron returns in I Feel Bad About My Neck to some topics she explored in earlier books. “The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less” deals with her second marriage, to the journalist Carl Bernstein, and the novel inspired by their divorce, Heartburn. [Pages 105–107] And “Serial Monogamy” is partly about Craig Claiborne, whom she wrote about in “The Food Establishment” in Wallflower at the Orgy. If you have read any of her earlier books, how would you compare her work then and now? How have her views of people or situations changed?

Vital statistics

Hardcover edition: I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95.

Paperback edition: Vintage, 160 pp., $12.95, paperback. To be released April 8, 2008 [not 2007], according to the listing for the book on Amazon.com.

A review of I Feel Bad About My Neck appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 14, 2006, and is archived with the October 2006 posts and in the “Essays and Reviews” category on the site.

To learn more about Ephron’s articles, books, and movies, search the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia www.wikipedia.org, where you’ll see a short biography and many helpful links.

To learn more about movies for which Ephron has written screenplays, go to the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com and search for the titles of movies listed in the introduction to this guide. Please note that while Wikipedia links always seem to work, links to IMDb may be less reliable. If an IMDb link doesn’t work, you can reach the site by Googling “Internet Movie Database.”

Most reading group guides come from publishers or Web sites that accept advertising from them. They do not encourage criticism of books, quote unflattering reviews, or suggest that an author’s writing might be anything but flawless. The reading group guides on One-Minute Book Reviews are different. They encourage you and your group to look at books from all angles that might make your discussion interesting or enlightening. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books, advertising or other promotional materials from publishers. All of its guides and reviews offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

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

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 19, 2007

Just When You Thought Books Couldn’t Get Worse Than Those of Mitch Albom and Dr. Phil … Here Comes ‘The Secret’

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,How to,Magazines,News,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:38 pm

Jerry Adler had a brilliant evisceration of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret in the March 5 issue of Newsweek. He devotes five pages to some of the more bizarre claims in this bestseller by a former television producer, who purports to explain how you can get everything you want in life by using a “law of attraction.” The law, Adler writes, is scientifically “preposterous.” (Sample advice: If you want to lose weight, stop looking at fat people.) The Newsweek article says in part:

“You’d think the last thing Americans need is more excuses for self-absorption and acquisitiveness. But our inexhaustible appetite for ‘affirmation’ and ‘inspiration’ and ‘motivation’ has finally outstripped the combined efforts of Wayne Dyer, Anthony Robbins, Dr. Phil and Mitch Albom. We have actually begun importing self-help — and from Australia, of all places, that citadel of tough-minded individualism, where just a couple of years ago, Byrne was a divorced mother in her 50s who had hit a rocky patch in her business and personal lives. It was in that moment of despair, when she ‘wept and wept and wept’ (as she recounted to Oprah on the first of two broadcasts devoted to her work), that she discovered a long-neglected book dating from 1910 called The Science of Getting Rich. In it she found how to let your thoughts and feelings get you everything you want, and determined to share it with the word. She called it The Secret …”

Obviously — obviously — I will report back to you soon on whether we have a frontrunner here for the 2008 Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. Until then I’d like to offer a modest defense of Australian imports by reminding you of my reviews of two of my favorite children’s picture books, Cat and Fish (Feb. 17, 2007) and The Nativity (Dec. 8, 2006), both award-winners from Down Under. Please read these posts before you conclude, on the basis of the Newsweek article, that Australia is shipping us only baloney by the pound.

A further defense of Australia: The Delete Key Awards have had links from blogs on at least three continents. Some of the most delightful comments came from the Australian writer Sean Lindsay on his blog 101 Reasons to Stop Writing http://101reasonstostopwriting.blogspot.com/, where he suggested that the Delete Key Awards should be televised and winners forced to donate some of their royalties to literacy programs. What a brilliant idea! Maybe the awards should be televised on Oprah’s show because at least one finalist, Elizabeth Berg, owes some of her success to having had an earlier book selected by its book club …

Thanks also to Bill Peshel at Reader’s Almanac www.planetpeschel.com, a font of reviews of the reviews of mysteries and thrillers too often neglected in this space.

How to find the takedown of The Secret in Newsweek: If you can’t get the following direct link to work (which I can’t), the quickest way to find the article is to Google “Adler + Newsweek + The Secret.” Link: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17314883/site/newsweek/

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 16, 2007

Another Jawbreaker From Claire Messud’s ‘The Emperor’s Children’

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Fiction,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:05 pm

A postscript to yesterday’s news that Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children had been named the second runner-up in the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition for the year’s worst writing in books

By Janice Harayda

Wow, I thought the lines I quoted from The Emperor’s Children were bad. (Delete Key Awards Finalist, #4, Feb. 28; see also the March 15 post naming her the second-runner up in the finals www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/15/). But I just discovered that Amazon.com reviewer Gary Malone may have one-upped me. Read this excerpt from his review of the hardcover edition of her novel on that site:

The plot that wouldn’t thicken, March 5, 2007
Reviewer: Gary Malone (Australia)
- See all my reviews

“You’ve really got to worry about a novel when a *favourable* reviewer describes the plot’s two main set pieces and one of them is when the cat dies. [The Economist, 19 Aug 2006.] Before getting into that, however, try this sample sentence for size:

‘He remembered his father’s telling him – his father, small as he was himself tall, with sloping shoulders off which Murray feared, as a child, the braces might slip, a bow-tied little man with an almost Hitlerian mustache, softened from menace by its grayness, and by the softness, insidious softness, of his quiet voice, a softness that belied his rigidity and tireless industry, his humorless and ultimately charmless ‘goodness’ (Why had she married him? She’d been so beautiful, and such fun) – telling him, as he deliberated on his path at Harvard, to choose accounting, or economics, saying, with that dreaded certainty, ‘You see, Murray, I know you want to go out and write books or something like that. But only geniuses can be writers, Murray, and frankly son …’ [p. 124]

See what I mean about size? Reviewers have already complained about the author’s self-interrupting, drunkenly digressive prose style. They are entirely correct to do so. Claire Messud’s book is festooned with sentences which are essentially motorway pile-ups of sub-clauses, codicils and parenthetical interpolations. Such a rookie mistake – which makes for hopelessly cumbersome reading – should never have made it past the editor.”

Be sure to read Malone’s review on Amazon if your book club is thinking of reading The Emperor’s Children, especially if you wonder if the writing was bad enough to make it the second-runner in the Delete Key Awards, just behind first runner-up Mitch Albom and grand prize winner Danielle Steel.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 14, 2007

Dr. Phil’s ‘Love Smart’! It’s Got Exclamation Points! Lots of Them! More Than Two Dozen in the First Seven Pages! Enough to Qualify Him for a Delete Key Award? You Tell Me!

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:51 pm

“Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?”

Love Smart has lots of exclamation points! More than two dozen in the first seven pages alone! And can that Dr. Phil McGraw ever dish out the clichés! See how many you can find in this line: “Now it seems time to step up and close the deal, get ‘the fish in the boat,’ walk down the aisle, tie the knot … you want to get to the next level.”

Is that enough to earn a Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books? Or just worse than a bad episode of The Bachelorette? How about if I tell you that “America’s therapist” also advises women hold sex “in reserve” until a man has made “the ultimate commitment,” because many men still think: “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” Women, tell me HOW YOU LIKE BEING COMPARED TO COWS! Men, tell me HOW YOU WOULD LIKE IT IF WE ALL WENT ON THE KIND OF SEX STRIKE THIS SEEMS TO BE RECOMMENDING! Yes, Dr. Phil uses a lot of BIG FONTS, too, because he seems to think we won’t GET IT if he doesn’t!

HOW CAN I DECIDE WHICH OF THE TEN WORTHY FINALISTS SHOULD WIN A DELETE KEY AWARD? PLEASE HELP ME BY LEAVING A COMMENT BECAUSE I HAVE TO ANNOUNCE THESE BY NOON TOMORROW!

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Did We Really Need This Reminder That They Didn’t Have Epidurals in Bethlehem?: Mary’s Labor Pains on a Donkey: Bad Enough to Win a Delete Key Award for Elizabeth Berg?

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Fiction,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:12 pm

“I am in agony, and I must ride endlessly on a donkey in search of something we cannot find!”

What Mary says to Joseph in The Handmaid and the Carpenter

What made Elizabeth Berg decide to fictionalize the courtship of Mary and Joseph in a novel pitched to the 2006 Christmas gift market? In The Handmaid and the Carpenter, Joseph feels “a stirring in his loins” when he looks at the “flirtatious” Mary. And Mary’s labor pains speed up while she and Joseph are looking for a room, causing her to screech at Joseph, “I am in agony, and I must ride endlessly on a donkey in search of something we cannot find!”

Is this bad enough to win a Delete Key Award? Find out tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews. A list of finalists appeared on Feb. 28 and is archived with the February posts.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Where Have All the Commas Gone? Should Terry McMillan Win a Delete Key Award for Sentences Like This?

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:08 pm

“We tried you on your cell but you didn’t pick up so we got a little worried since we didn’t know where your appointment was and we tried calling Leon at work but his assistant said he left early to pick up his son at the airport and against our better judgment we tried your house and Hail Mary Full of Grace answered and after she deposed us, I asked if she knew your doctor’s number and she said she had to think for a few minutes and while she was thinking I started thinking who else we could call and that’s when I remembered your GYN’s name was a hotel: Hilton!”

Where have all the commas gone? Yes, this sentence from Terry McMillan’s The Interruption of Everything reads like the winner of a Bad Hemingway Parody Contest. But is it bad enough to win a Delete Key Award? Is it worse than the work of Mitch Albom, Dr. Phil, or Danielle Steel?

You have until the end of the day to comment. The Delete Key Awards will be announced by noon tomorrow on only the blog One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

‘He Greeted Me in His Briefs’ And More Hot Sex Scenes From the Luv Guv, James McGreevey … They’re Bad, But Are They Bad Enough to Win a Delete Key Award?

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Memoirs,Politics,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:23 am

“He greeted me in his briefs. ‘Did anybody see you?’ he asked, closing the door quickly.”

James McGreevey put plenty of red, white and purple prose like that in his The Confession, a memoir written with David France. But are those lines bad enough to win a 2007 Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books? How about, “Our first few times burned so fiercely in my mind I could hardly recall them even as we were still lying together …”?

You have until the end of the day today to comment. The Delete Key Awards winner will be announced tomorrow, the March 15, because Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, and some of the finalists are trying to assasinate the English language. Here’s another question to consider: McGreevey’s editor, Judith Regan, has been ousted from HarperCollins since the publication of this memoir. Should we keep alive the memory of her contributions to the publishing industry by giving an award to one of her books?

For more hot sex from the Luv Guv, read the Jan. 27 post on One-Minute Book Reviews, “Who Writes Better Sex Scenes, Danielle Steel or James McGreevey?” (archived with the January posts). This post lists steamy lines written by both authors and lets you guess who wrote which. Check back later today for other highlights from the short list of the year’s worst writing in books. (Yes, Danielle Steel is a finalist, too.) Or see the 11 posts on Feb. 28, the short list and a separate post on each finalist. See the Feb. 27 post for questions and answers about the Delete Key Awards.

I would appreciate it if you would forward this post or others about the Delete Key Awards to anyone who might like to know about them, especially if you have friends in the media or at major Web sites, because for some reason, The New York Times has not seen fit to cover the Delete Key Awards the way it covers the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prizes. Cancel your subscriptions! And bookmark One-Minute Book Reviews to avoid missing the announcement of the winner, which will be posted before noon tomorrow.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 13, 2007

Was This Line From Thomas Harris’s ‘Hannibal Rising’ the Worst Sentence in a Book Published in 2006?

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Fiction,Novels,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:39 pm

“Our family, we are somewhat unusual people, Hannibal.”

No, Thomas Harris wasn’t trying to be funny there. That line was a serious comment made by an uncle to young Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising. Is it bad enough to win the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition for the year’s worst writing in books?

You have until the end of the day on Wednesday, March 14, to comment. The winner will be announced on Thursday, March 15. A review of Hannibal Rising appeared on this site on Jan. 23, 2007, and is archived with the January posts and in the “Mysteries and Thrillers” category.

Another example of the stilted prose in the novel turns up when Harris writes, “Hannibal walked Lady Murasaki to her very chamber door …” As opposed to her “not very” chamber door?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Is This Line From Claire Messud’s ‘The Emperor’s Children’ the Worst Line in a Book Published in 2006?

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Fiction,Novels,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 pm

“It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.”

Lines like this helped to make Claire Messud’s overrated The Emperor’s Children (Knopf, 2006) a finalist for a 2007 Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books. Among the problems: That “leadening” wasn’t literal but metaphorical, and the sentence is infested with clichés

Messud also writes that a character “never knew in life whether to be Pierre or Natasha, the solitary, brooding loner or the vivacious social butterfly.” As opposed to a loner who isn’t solitary?

Should Messud win the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition? Or should the honor go to a finalist such as Mitch Albom or Danielle Steel? You have until the end of the day tomorrow to comment. One-Minute Book Reviews will name the winner on Thursday, March 15. You can find more about The Emperor’s Children in a review archived with the October 2006 posts and in the “Novels” category on this site.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 12, 2007

Flannery O’Connor on ‘Compassion’ in Writing … Quote of the Day #13

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Essays and Reviews,Literature,Quotes of the Day,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:57 pm

Flannery O’Connor on “compassionate” writers …

“It’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult for him to be anti-anything.”

Flannery O’Connor in “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Selected and Edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969).

Comment by Janice Harayda …

“Compassionate” is also a word that that no critic can do without unless she substitutes “generous.” Why are the book reviews in Sunday newspapers so often dull? O’Connor has identified one of the reasons. Too many editors allow critics to substitute fuzzy words like “compassionate” for tough-minded analysis or interesting perceptions. O’Connor, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Mystery and Manners is a classic book of essays on writing filled with sharp comments like today’s Quote of the Day. This collection was on the syllabus in the journalism classes I took with Donald M. Murray at the University of New Hampshire and has helped to shape my style of reviewing. I strive for the mix of wit, clarity and intelligence that pervades Mystery and Manners, a book I recommend to all writers and hope someday to review on this site.

Once I dated professor who wanted make his writing less academic. I took him to a bookstore, pulled Mystery and Manners off a shelf, and showed him a few passages. He said, “I have to have this,” and bought it. He dumped me but kept the book.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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