One-Minute Book Reviews

December 14, 2013

What I’m Reading … James Wolcott’s Comic Novel, ‘The Catsitters’

Filed under: Humor,Novels,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:40 pm
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“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review on this blog

What I’m reading: The Catsitters (HarperPerennial, 2002), the first novel by James Wolcott, the longtime cultural sharpshooter at Vanity Fair.

What it is: A light comedy about the romantic misadventures of an unmarried man in Manhattan before the hookup culture rolled in. Narrator Johnny Downs is a mild-mannered bartending actor who tries a desperate approach to finding love after being dropped by his latest his-and-run girlfriend: He takes advice by telephone from a friend in Georgia who, after spending her teenage years in New Jersey, blends “a Southern belle’s feminine wiles with a Northerner’s no-nonsense direct aim.” The title of the novel has a double meaning: It refers to the caretakers for Johnny’s beloved cat and to the women who eddy around a “cat” — as the Beats might have said — who hopes to turn himself into plausible husband material.

Why I’m reading it: I enjoyed Wolcott’s new Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs (Doubleday, 2013), a showcase for the virtues that have distinguished his work since his early days at the Village Voice: wit, moral courage, and a high style. That collection drew me back to this novel.

Quotes from the book: A priest describes an artistic sensibility he has observed in New York: “These days, any time I attend something cultural, I dread what might be in store. I don’t mind shock effects as much as I resent the notion that they’re  for my own good, to roust me out of my moral slumber. One thing I learned from my work as a military chaplain is that in real life, shock numbs people, and the worse the shock, the deeper the numbness. After a while, your response system shuts down.”

Furthermore: The Catsitters is, in some ways, Seinfeld-ian: It involves a nice New York man caught up in day-to-day mini-dramas — not turbo-charged conflicts — and abounds with witty one-liners and repartee, such as:

“I can’t picture the men of Decatur, Georgia, handing out understated cream business cards.” “You’re right, they don’t. Most men down here introduce themselves by honking at intersections.”
“You’re fretting about the cost of dinner and flowers? You’re not adopting a pet from the animal shelter, Johnny, you’re in training to find a fiancée and future wife.”
“I don’t think I could handle a threesome.” “You’re not ready to handle a twosome yet.”
“Would you mind if I took off my shoes? My feet are about to cry.”
“We continued chatting, and by the time the train pulled into Baltimore I knew enough about her life to produce a documentary.”

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com

July 1, 2013

What I’m Reading … Helen Simonson’s ‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’

Filed under: Novels,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:12 pm
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“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review later on this blog

What I’m reading: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (Random House, 368 pp., $16, paperback).

What it is: A gently satirical romantic comedy about the relationship between Ernest Pettigrew, a retired British Army officer, and Jasmina Ali, a shopkeeper of Pakistani ancestry in his English village. The two friends’ first names betoken their roles in the novel: Major Pettigrew is earnest and proper; Mrs. Ali is the exotic flower in town.

Why I’m reading it: My book club is reading it.

How much I’ve read: More than half.

Quote from the book: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand tweaks many kinds of prejudice, including the snobbery of a certain sort of Englishman toward Americans. An example occurs when the Major Pettigrew observes, on seeing an unfamiliar face at his golf club: “The fourth man was a stranger, and something in his broad shoulders and unfortunate pink golf shirt suggested to the Major that he might be another American. Two Americans in as many weeks was, he reflected, approaching a nasty epidemic.”

Furthermore: Janet Maslin reviewed Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand favorably in the New York Times.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 11, 2013

What I’m Reading … Frances Parkinson Keyes’ Mardi Gras Novel, ‘Crescent Carnival’

Filed under: Novels,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:08 am
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“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review later on One-Minute Book Reviews

What I’m reading: Crescent Carnival, a 1942 novel by Frances Parkinson Keyes, best known for Dinner at Antoine’s. 

What it is: A saga of two prominent New Orleans families and the Mardi Gras balls and other rituals that defined their lives between 1890 and 1940. Keyes drew in part on the recollections of her friend Dorothy Selden Spencer, a former Carnival queen.

Why I’m reading it: Few novels focus on Mardi Grass celebrations and how they preserved the distinctions of social class in New Orleans even as such differences were fading elsewhere. Crescent Carnival is one that you can still find without too much trouble in libraries and online.

How much I’ve read: About 150 pages of more than 800.

Quotes from the book: “Estelle always loved Carnival and the preparations for it. But she grew up without daring to dream that some day she, herself, would be the Queen of one of the Carnival Balls. She did not believe it even when she heard that Monsieur Leroux, who held the fate of all potential queens firmly in his hands, had spoken formally to her father, asking if he could conveniently be received on a certain day at a certain hour in the Lenoir’s house on Royal Street.

“She could hardly believe it even after the ritual champagne had been bought, and the silver ice bucket polished until it shone like a mirror, and the one placed inside the other, beside a plate of little frosted cakes, on the center table in the  salon, under the chandelier, there to await the arrival of Monsieur Leroux. She went into the  salon, and she was still filled with incredulity mingled with awe.”

Furthermore: Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post said that Keyes was a “middlebrow” novelist in the sense that she “wrote for readers of some education and taste who expected their entertainments to be literate and intelligent as well as entertaining.” Based on what I’ve read, that gets it exactly right: Crescent Carnival is, by today’s standards, a potboiler, but one that reflects higher standards than most now labeled as such. A journalist by instinct if not by training, Keyes shows a Tom Wolfean attention to the details of social status that evoke the eras she describes.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button a right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda

www.janiceharayda.com

May 18, 2012

What I’m Reading … Susan Gubar’s ‘Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,What I'm Reading,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:39 pm
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“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer (Norton, 296 pp., $24.95), by Susan Gubar.

What it is: A feminist scholar’s memoir of the medical “calamities” she endured after undergoing the standard medical treatment for advanced ovarian cancer, known as debulking surgery.

Why I’m reading it: Few authors have written in depth about having advanced ovarian cancer, partly because few women survive the disease long enough to do it.

Quote from the book: “the state of contemporary approaches to ovarian cancer is a scandal.”

Probability that I will review the book: 100%

Publication date: April 2012

Read an excerpt from Memoir of a Debulked Woman or learn more about the book.

About the author: Gubar co-write The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, a book widely used in college classes.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

May 2, 2012

What I’m Reading … Carol Anshaw’s Novel ‘Carry the One’

Filed under: Novels,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 am
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“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: Carry the One (Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $25), by Carol Anshaw.

What it is: A novel about three adult siblings named after opera characters and how they fare in the 25 years after an operatic event in the first chapter: A car full of drunken and stoned guests who are leaving one of their weddings strikes and kills a 10-year-old girl.

Why I’m reading it: I admire Anshaw’s literary criticism, which won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. Not all critics make good novelists. But some of best fiction in English has come from writers who were great book reviewers, including George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

Quotes from the book: No. 1: “Olivia’s family was an epicenter of credit card frivolity.” No. 2: “Not just in this moment, but globally, cosmically, she had lost her advantage against daily life.”

Probability that I will review the book: High

Publication date: April 2012

Read an excerpt from Carry the One.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

April 2, 2012

What I’m Reading … Maya Jasanoff’s ‘Liberty’s Exiles’

The latest in a series of posts about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Knopf, 460 pp., $30), by Maya Jasanoff.

What it is: A Harvard professor’s dense, scholarly history of the diaspora of colonists who stayed loyal to Britain during the American Revolution and fled afterward to countries that included Canada, Jamaica and Sierra Leone.

Why I’m reading it: Liberty’s Exiles was a finalist for the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, which produces a consistently high-quality shortlist. The book also won the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

How much I’ve read: The first 55 pages, a 34-page chapter on loyalists who fled to Jamaica, and more, about 100 pages in all.

Quote from the book: Anglo-Americans in Jamaica “went to appalling extremes” to protect their authority over black slaves, including many brought into the country by loyalists who left the U.S. after the Revolutionary War: “A dispassionate record of Jamaica’s everyday sadism survives in the diaries of plantation overseer Thomas Thistlewood, whose 37-year-old career on the island ended with his death in 1786. By then, Thistlewood had scored tens of thousands of lashes across slaves’ bare skin, practically flaying some of his victims alive. He had had sex with 138 women (by his own tally), almost all of them slaves. He stuck the heads of executed runaways on poles; he had seen cheeks slit and ears cut off. He routinely meted out punishments such as the following, for a slave caught eating sugarcane: ‘had him well flogged and pickled, then made Hector shit in his mouth.’ Such incredible barbarity symptomized the panic that pervaded Jamaican white society: the fear that the black majority might rise up and slaughter them in their beds.”

Comments: Liberty’s Exiles has the redundant phrase “wealthy heiress” in the first sentence. Its author also has an unfortunate lust for the adjectival use of  “very”: “the very fact,” “their very names,” and “the very bosom of American homes.”  Among adverbial uses, she gives us “the very same ships,” “the very same rooms,” and “the very first signer.” But I’ve found the book worthwhile for its overview of loyalists in exile and its expansive portraits of some, including the young wife and mother Elizabeth Johnston, who lost her three-month-old daughter to smallpox in Jamaica.

Published: February 2011 (Knopf hardcover). March 2012 (Vintage/Anchor paperback).

Read more about Liberty’s Exiles in a review in the Spectator.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

 © 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 16, 2012

What I’m Reading … ‘The Adventures of Cancer Bitch,’ a Memoir

Filed under: Memoirs,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:16 am
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“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (University of Iowa Press, 160 pp., $25), by S.L. Wisenberg

What it is: A feminist breast-cancer diary that grew out of Wisenberg’s blog, Cancer Bitch.

Why I’m reading it: Sandi Wisenberg deals briefly with the Susan G. Komen breast-cancer research foundation, which recently outraged feminists and others by revoking its funding for Planned Parenthood, a decision it reversed.

Quote from the book: “My accountant asked if cancer changed me. I suppose, slightly. I know more about cancer.”

Publication date: March 2009

Read an excerpt from The Adventures of Cancer Bitch: Some material in the memoir appeared in different form on the Cancer Bitch blog, including part of this post about Wisenberg’s bone pain after a Taxol infusion.

Furthermore: Wisenberg co-directs the M.A./M.F.A in Creative Writing program at Northwestern University .

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

March 10, 2012

What I’m Reading … Forrest Gander’s ‘Core Samples from the World,’ a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry

Filed under: Poetry,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:18 am
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“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading, which I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: Core Samples from the World (New Directions, 95 pp., $15.95, paperback), by Forrest Gander with photographs by Raymond Meeks, Graciela Iturbide and Lucas Foglia

What it is: A 2011 poetry collection that includes haibun, a Japanese form that intersperses prose and haiku or haiku-like verse, often in a travel diary or journal. Core Samples from the World has poems about Chile, Mexico, China and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Why I’m reading it: I like haiku, and the book combines haibun with impressionistic black-and-white photographs. Haibun seems a fine metaphor for life: You have take a lot of prose to get a little poetry.

Sample lines: “Then they are whisked by van to the desert to witness the Kyrgyz version of a polo match, played with the decapitated carcass of a goat.” From the prose section of a haibun that describes a trip Gander took with other poets through Asia

Furthermore: Core Samples from the World was a finalist for the most recent National Book Critics Circle award for poetry, given on Thursday to Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains.

Read an excerpt from Core Samples from the World.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

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