One-Minute Book Reviews

January 22, 2013

How to Read ‘Moby-Dick’ / Quote of the Day

Filed under: Classics,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:40 pm
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Moby-Dick received a chilly reception during Herman Melville’s lifetime that lasted for decades after his death. Why did Americans warm up to the novel slowly? They didn’t know how to read it, the author Clifton Fadiman argues in his introduction to the 1977 Easton Press edition shown, left.

“We must read it not as if it were a novel but as if it were a myth. A novel is a tale. A myth is a disguised method of expressing mankind’s deepest terrors and longings. The myth uses the narrative form and is often mistaken for true narrative. Tom Jones is a true narrative; Moby Dick is a false narrative, a myth disguised as a story. Once we feel the truth of this distinction, the greatness of Moby Dick becomes manifest: we have learned how to read it.”

January 20, 2013

Thar She Blows! A Twitter Chat About ‘Moby-Dick’ on Friday, Jan. 25

Filed under: Classics,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:14 pm
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Follow #classicschat on Twitter to learn about Moby-Dick and other classics

Want to learn more about classics you have — or haven’t — read? I’ll be co-hosting a Twitter chat about Moby-Dick on Friday, Jan. 25, at 4 p.m. ET/9 p.m. GMT with Kevin Smokler, author of the forthcoming essay collection, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School. We’ll be joined by Christopher Routledge, who is working with the editor of Power Moby-Dick: The Online Annotation to produce a handsome, annotated limited edition of Herman Melville’s novel as part of a marathon reading event at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, in May 2013. The Moby-Dick chat this week is the first in a series of monthly Twitter conversations about fiction and nonfiction classics at #classicschat.

January 7, 2013

Today’s Gusher Award for Literary Hype Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:20 pm
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The latest in a series of posts that recognize out-of-control praise for books

Today’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Literary Hype Goes to …

“George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year”
Title of an article in the The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 6, 2013

Reality check: Someone at the New York Times may have been reading too many Cosmopolitan articles with titles like, “The Best Sex You’ll Have All Year.” Ninety-five percent of 2013 books haven’t been published yet. And you might read Shakespeare this year.

January 1, 2013

‘Gideon’s Trumpet’ – A Nonfiction Classic About a Landmark Legal Case

Filed under: Classics,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:32 pm
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How a destitute prisoner’s handwritten letter to the Supreme Court made history

Gideon’s Trumpet. By Anthony Lewis. Vintage, 288 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

None of the rights of a defendant is more pervasive than the right to have a lawyer, a judge once said, “for it affects his ability to assert any other rights he may have.” The accused won this vital safeguard in Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark Supreme Court case that had one of the unlikeliest beginnings in American legal history.

Fifty years ago a poor, indignant prisoner in Florida wrote a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court – in pencil, on lined prison paper – saying that he had been denied the right to a lawyer when convicted. The court agreed to hear his case and held that the Constitution required the government to provide counsel in all serious criminal cases for defendants too poor to afford one. Clarence Earl Gideon won the right to a new trial, this time with a lawyer, and a jury acquitted him in just over an hour.

Anthony Lewis’ story of Gideon v. Wainwright glows with humanity, intelligence and the elegance of the judicial system at its best. Clarence Gideon, “tossed aside by life,” burned with a sense of injustice. Abe Fortas brought to his court-appointed role as the prisoner’s champion a heady mix of intellectual sophistication, a passion for his cause and the resources of a top-tier Washington law firm. Assistant Attorney General Bruce Jacob of Florida was so overmatched with Fortas, a future Supreme Court justice, that in Lewis’ hands he earns sympathy even as he argues that giving the accused the right to counsel would cost too much and “be requiring the states to adopt socialism.” The Supreme Court acquires a personality of its own – dignified yet less stuffy than is often imagined — as Lewis explains the factors that affected the outcome of Gideon, including legal precedent, oral argument and friend-of-the-court briefs.

The Supreme Court announced its unanimous decision in Gideon’s favor on March 18, 1963, and in 2003 Lewis rightly noted in an essay marking its 40th anniversary that, in important ways, the U.S. has failed to honor the justices’ intent. “Many states and localities offer not even the minimal level of support needed for an adequate defense,” he said. “And far too often the lawyers provided for indigent defendants have not met the barest standards of competence.” Those failures do not diminish the achievement of this great book, a beautifully written portrait of a moment when the U.S. government honored one of the noblest of American ideals: that all people deserve equal protection under the law. It is a heartening reminder that, sometimes, the system works.

Best line: “Justice [Robert H. Jackson], who was one of the great oral advocates of his day before he went on the bench, said in his wonderfully astringent style that he felt ‘there should be some comfort derived in any question from the bench. It is clear proof that any inquiring justice is not asleep.’”

Worst line: It seems churlish to pick one in such a fine book, but Lewis writes that a case in Washington State “broke important new ground in federal-state relations” when the “new” isn’t necessary.

Recommendation? Highly recommended to all. An outstanding choice for history book clubs and other reading groups that like high-quality nonfiction with a strong narrative drive.

Published: 1964 (Random House), 1989 (Vintage paperback). Much of the book first appeared first appeared in somewhat different form in The New Yorker.

Furthermore: Gideon’s Trumpet won the 1965 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best fact crime book. Anthony Lewis laments the government’s failure to fulfill the promise of Gideon V. Wainwright in a New York Times essay, “The Silencing of Gideon’s Trumpet.” (Adam Liptak gives more recent examples of that failure in “Lawyers Stumble, and Clients Take Fall,” a New York Times article that deals in part with a death-row inmate whose lawyer “was on probation for public intoxication” and “battling a crippling drug addiction” to crystal methamphetamine while representing his client.) Henry Fonda played Clarence Earl Gideon in the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie of the novel. You can read more about Gideon v. Wainwright at Oyez.org.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 30, 2012

Backscratching in Our Time — Jami Attenberg and Julie Orringer

The latest in a series of posts on authors who praise each other’s work

Jami Attenberg on Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, which she listed as one of the “5 Best Things” she had “read recently” in Impose magazine: 

“I just cracked open Julie Orringer’s latest book this morning; a very wise and literary friend gave me a galley of it and promised I would love it. It’s gorgeous so far, master-craftsman-next-level kind of writing.”

Julie Orringer on Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins in the New York Times Book Review:

“There’s a touching paradox in the first chapter of Jami Attenberg’s caustic, entertaining and bighearted new novel, The Middlesteins….The burning question, which Attenberg explores with patience and sensitivity, is why Edie has embarked on her self-destructive path. The answers themselves aren’t surprising: Edie married too early, felt ambivalent about parenthood, became disillusioned with her career. What’s remarkable is the unfailing emotional accuracy and specificity with which Attenberg renders Edie’s despair….largely brilliant.”

Read about other logrolling authors in the “Backscratching in Our Time” series.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 15, 2012

Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Unbroken’ – A World War II POW’s Tale

Filed under: Biography,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:47 pm
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An American bombardier spent 47 days on a raft and became a prisoner of war 

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. By Laura Hillenbrand. Random House, 473 pp., $27.

By Janice Harayda

As a child, Louis Zamperini stole from neighbors and hid his plunder so the police wouldn’t catch him with it. Unbroken leaves the impression that, in his 90s, he is still keeping evidence under wraps.

Zamperini cooperated with Laura Hillenbrand on this swashbuckling account of his life as an Olympic runner and Army Air Forces bombardier who, after his plane crashed into the Pacific in 1943, spent 47 days on a raft and more than two years as a prisoner of the Japanese. But the book requires you to take more on trust than did its author’s Seabiscuit. Can a man whose parents tried to raise him as a Catholic really not have known the Hail Mary and, while sharks circled his raft, had to recite “snippets of prayers that he’d heard in movies”? Can his horrific postwar nightmares have evaporated after he found God at a Billy Graham revival meeting?

Even with 50 pages of end notes, the book doesn’t put those questions to rest. While best biographies demythologize their subjects, this one invests its hero with the qualities less of a mortal than of Bunyan-esque folk hero.

Best line: No. 1: “In Torrance, a one-boy insurgency was born.” No. 2: “The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent on those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.”

Worst line: “Louie was hauled into the principal’s office for the umpteenth time.” “For the umpteenth time, Louie cursed whoever had stocked the raft.” Hillenbrand tends to overwrite: In both cases, she needed only to say “again.”

If you like Unbroken, you might also like: Steven Callahan’s bestselling memoir Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea.

Published: November 2010

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

November 18, 2012

‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers,’ 2012 National Book Award Winner

A Mumbai slum dweller falls into a judicial Bermuda triangle after a neighbor frames him for a crime

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Random House, 256 pp., $27

By Janice Harayda

In the United States, the word “corruption” has only negative connotations. But in India, Katherine Boo observes wryly, graft and fraud are among the few “genuine opportunities” open to slum dwellers who hope to rise above poverty.

Boo doesn’t endorse that reality but suggests why it endures in this portrait of Annawadi, a slum of 3,000 people packed into 335 huts in the shadow of a sparkling blue-glass Hyatt near the Mumbai airport. The residents can’t count on improving their lives through education, because many public schools are shams, run by teenagers or unqualified teachers who bribed officials to get their jobs. Without education, slum dwellers are shut out of jobs, particularly if they are Muslims or low-born Hindus.

One of Boo’s sources who prospered against the odds was the slum boss Asha Waghekar, who traded sex with police officers for their willingness to fix cases of residents who bribed her to intercede. But Asha’s intervention helped little after an embittered woman with a deformed leg set herself on fire. Before she died, Fatima the One-Leg implicated three neighbors in her death: Karam Husain and his daughter Kehkashan and son Abdul, who supported the family by working as a garbage trader. The police learned quickly that the Husains were innocent but jailed them, anyway, hoping to extort payoffs for favorable treatment from their relatives. A judge absolved Karam and Kekashan of guilt, but Abdul fell into a judicial Bermuda triangle.

Boo finds the main narrative thread for her book in Abdul’s story and uses it to offer a much starker view of poverty than international relief agencies typically do in their pictures of hollow-eyed children and their assurances that pennies a day can change lives. She shows how corruption and destitution go hand-in-hand to a degree that may keep aid from reaching its intended recipients at all. In Annawadi, a government-sponsored self-help group for poor women foundered when Asha, the slum boss, siphoned off money from the program and lent it at usurious rates to destitute residents excluded from the program.

As she develops this bleak picture, Boo shows the exceptional courage and gift for reporting that helped her win a Pulitzer Prize at the Washington Post before she joined the staff of The New Yorker. She uses, less successfully, some of the techniques of creative nonfiction, such as claiming access to her subjects’ thoughts and submerging her voice and point of view in theirs. At times Boo tries to give the flavor of her slum-dwellers’ speech without quoting it directly by adopting their language: She uses “bitty” for small, and she writes of a eunuch whose “legs became slithery things” when he danced and of lake that “magicked into a thick mat of water-hyacinth weed.” Such language is more likely to come from from children or teenagers than from a writer for The New Yorker  and clashes with that of other passages in which Boo is clearly writing in her voice. Often she doesn’t identify the sources for questionable details and, as the New Delhi bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal noted, appears not to have interviewed people whose version of events might have differed from that of her subjects.

Even so, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a welcome complement – and, in some ways, an antidote – to the brutal but ultimately romanticized portrait of India in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. “Every country has its myths, and one that successful Indians liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation – the idea that their country’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life,” Boo writes. “In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen next when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch. In India, a land of few assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted problem-solvers.”

Boo makes clear that among the Mumbai poor, instability does foster ingenuity, but it can also foster corruption – legal, moral, and political – among those who see no other way to improve their lives. Over time, Boo notes, “the lack of a link between effort and result could be debilitating.” One Annawadi girl told her: “We try so many things, but the world doesn’t seem to move in our favor.” The paradox of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is that it leaves you with little hope that things will change even as it persuades you that more books like this one might set changes in motion.

Best line: No. 1: “Food wasn’t one of the amenities at Cooper, the 500-bed hospital on which millions of poor people depended. Nor was medicine. ‘Out of stock today’ was the nurses’ official explanation. Plundered and resold out of supply cabinets was an unofficial one. What patients needed, families had to buy on the street and bring in.” No. 2: “As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha had placed here hopes; and education. Several dozen parents in the slum were getting by on roti and salt in order to pay private school tuition.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Asha clucked.” No. 2 “She’d started to be treated as a mattering person.”

Published: February 2012

Furthermore: The New Delhi bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal finds “sloppiness,” “caricaturing” Indians and other defects in “The Letdown of ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’,” which argues that Boo wrote a good, not great, book.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Behind the Beautiful Forevers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 18, 2012, in the post that preceded this one.

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

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ – Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

Behind the Beautiful Forevers:
Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
By Katherine Boo
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Katherine Boo won the 2012 National Book Award for nonfiction for Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a portrait of a Mumbai slum in which poverty and corruption go hand in hand. She tells the true story of Abdul Husain, a young garbage trader framed for the death of an embittered neighbor, and the rigged judicial system he faced. In doing so she challenges the myth that India’s rapid rise derives in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life. “In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen next when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch,” Boo writes. “In India, a land of few assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted problem-solvers.” Boo shows that if instability can foster ingenuity, it can also heighten despair in people whose efforts to improve their lives yield few results. A resident of Annawadi summed up a theme of the book when she said: “We try so many things, but the world doesn’t seem to move in our favor.”

10 Discussion Questions for Behind the Beautiful Forevers:

1. If you had been one of the National Book Awards judges, what arguments would you have made for or against giving a prize to this book?

2. This book tells the linked stories of residents of the Annawadi slum, including the Husain family; the slum boss, Asha Waghekar, and her daughter Manju; and Abdul Husain’s friend Sunil. Which people did you find most and least memorable? Why?

3. Janet Maslin praised Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the New York Times but had one reservation: She said that Boo “writes about so many scavenging kids, boisterously quarrelsome families and corrupt officials that the book is too crowded” (although she added that the Mumbai setting justified the density). Were you able to keep the characters straight easily? Or did you have to go back and reread parts to do that? If you had been the editor of this book, would you have suggested any changes?

4. Boo cuts back and forth between the stories of people she writes about, a technique that can slow a book down by breaking its momentum. Did this one maintain a pace that kept you reading? What held your attention?

5. Many of the events in this book are harrowing, such as the suicide of Manju’s friend Meena, a Dalit (the name that replaced old “untouchable”). Meena drank rat poison after being repeatedly beaten for offenses such as refusing to make her brother an omelet, and her parents blamed “Manju’s modern influence” for their daughter’s death. Which events did the book portray most vividly or effectively?

6. Boo has said in interviews that the big question she wanted to explore in this book was, in an age of globalization, “Who gets out of poverty, and why?” What is her answer?

7. Behind the Beautiful Forevers implicitly faults people like Sister Paulette, a local nun who runs an orphanage, for actions such as giving the children ice cream only when newspaper photographers visit. The New Delhi bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal noted that Boo appears not to give the nun a chance to respond to this accusation as the journalistic ideals of fairness and balance usually require. Did Boo portray Sister Paulette fairly? What about other authority figures, such as the Mumbai police?

8. Boo says that the word “corruption” has only negative connotations in Western nations. But in India, graft and fraud are among the few “genuine opportunities” open to slum dwellers who hope to rise above poverty. Is Boo endorsing this reality? If not, what position does she seem to take on the rampant corruption she describes?

9. At the end of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Abdul’s legal case remains unresolved. Did Boo give the book a satisfying ending despite the uncertainty about his face? Why?

10. Boo is clearly trying at times to merge her voice and point of view with that of her sources. For example, at times she uses the word “bitty” for small, and she speaks of a eunuch whose “legs became slithery things” when he danced, language you would be more likely to hear from children or teenagers than from a staff writer for The New Yorker. In other places, she is clearly writing in her own adult voice. How well did her approach work?

Extras:
1. If you have seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, what image of Indian slums did you get from the film? Did this book change it? Does Behind the Beautiful Forevers complement or clash with Slumdog Millionaire?

2. You may have seen other movies about modern India, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. If so, what did you learn from Behind the Beautiful Forevers that you didn’t learn from those films?

3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows poverty in a different light than do many international relief organizations. These groups often suggest that small donations, such as “pennies a day,” can change a child’s life. Did this book change your view of such promises? Would you be more or less likely to contribute to a charity that helped Mumbai slum children after reading this book?

Vital statistics:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Random House, 256 pp., $27. Published: February 2012.

A review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on [Date TK] in the post that directly preceded this review.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 21, 2012

Anna Quindlen’s Novel ‘Every Last One’ – We Need to Talk About Kiernan

Filed under: Fiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:25 pm
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Spoiler warning: This review includes plot details. Stop here if you don’t want to know them.

Every Last One: A Novel. By Anna Quindlen. Random House, 299 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

An obtuse Vermont mother fails to see that her daughter’s creepy prom date is a potential sociopath who will slaughter several members of her family in this small-town soap opera by a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Mary Beth Latham dithers when her husband urges her talk to the troubled Kiernan, who is stalking 17-year-old Ruby. “He’s such a nice kid,” she says. “He’s been like a part of our family.” Mary Beth has no apparent religion to comfort her after Kiernan goes on his murderous rampage, but she survives the help from a generous inheritance from her slain husband and a referral to a grief counselor, although recent studies have shown that such therapy can make things worse.

Kiernan has a different fate, but his motives make no more sense. The novel implies that his savagery resulted, in part, from his parents’ hostile divorce. Let the record show that the parents of Barack Obama divorced when he was two, and that one of the Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold, came from an intact family. And if the children of Every Last One tend to have more enlightened views than their parents, the adult female characters often sound like throwbacks to the 1950s. This is a novel in which the heroine observes, with no apparent irony: “We don’t have a life. We had children instead.”

Best line: No. 1: “She makes our youth seem like something Glen might have seen on the History Channel.” P. 26

Worst line: “My robe lies at the foot of the bed, printed cotton in the summer, tufted chenille for the cold.” Chenille is tufted. The sentence is also confusing: It says one robe lies on the bed but describes two.

Published: 2010 (Random House hardcover edition), 2011 (Random House trade paperback).

About the author: Anna Quindlen won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 14, 2012

‘What Happened to Sophie Wilder’ – A Convert to Catholicism Bears Her Cross

Filed under: Fiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:02 pm
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A young writer faces a test of her faith when she cares for a dying man

What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel. By Christopher R. Beha. Tin House, 256 pp., $15.95, paper.

By Janice Harayda

American novelists appear to be losing faith in faith as a source of literary inspiration. Nearly all of the leading fiction writers who have dealt seriously with religion are over 60, especially those who have explored Catholic themes. No obvious heir to the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and J.F. Powers exists among the generation of novelists that is coming into maturity, the children of baby boomers. Into the void have rushed authors of ecclesiastical thrillers inspired by The Da Vinci Code, books that don’t engage Catholic beliefs so much as distort and exploit them.

These realities may reflect a broader cultural trend: Young Americans are less likely than their parents to affiliate with a church, a reality documented in a report earlier this month from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But the dearth of novels about Catholicism remains odd and disappointing given the deep impact on the faithful of the upheavals caused by issues such as abortion, sexual abuse by the clergy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood. You could hardly ask for more dramatic literary material.

So it’s heartening that in his first novel Chris Beha tells an intelligent, if not fully successful, story of a young female convert to Catholicism. In college Sophie Wilder fell in love with a student in her writing program, Charlie Blakeman, whose surname aptly embeds that of that skeptic of orthodox religion, William Blake. Sophie drops back into her ex-lover’s life when they are in their late 20s and finds him keeping company with self-consciously literary New Yorkers who think and speak in phrases like, “Alfred Kazin once said of Saul Bellow …” Since college, Sophie has converted to Catholicism while Charlie and his friends have made a religion their pretenses or, as they might say, “stories.” In this novel a man who asks, “What’s her story?” means: What narrative has she constructed about herself? Sophie, it seems, has reconnected with Charlie to tell him the story of her recent, troubling experience of caring for a dying man whose wishes tested her faith.

This novel represents Charlie’s attempt to make sense of Sophie’s tale. Antiphonal chapters tell the story from alternating points of view: Charlie’s first-person account in each case precedes a third-person narrative about Sophie that perhaps reflects his effort to see things from her perspective. Both versions of the tale have weak spots. Writing in the first person, Charlie often asserts instead of dramatizing facts about Sophie or offers awkward explanations for her actions. (“Perhaps because of her family situation …”) He says that male students were “enthralled” with Sophie and found her “unlike other girls,” but it’s never clear why this was so when she was rude, sarcastic and lacking the conventional beauty that might have offset those traits. Charlie also implies that Sophie had that blend of talent and drive that enables a writer to get a book published and become “briefly famous” soon after college, but he offers no evidence of her talent and little of her drive. The chapters not told in the first person have traditional third-person limited-omniscient narration when free-indirect speech might have better revealed Sophie’s character. All of this leaves a hole at the center of the story: You see Sophie from two perspectives that don’t coalesce into a whole. She never comes into her own.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder is ultimately Charlie’s story rather than Sophie’s, and as such, it deals sensitively with worthy questions: Why do we need stories, whether religious or literary? What do we gain or lose from them? At what point does an investment in story become irreversible? The great virtue of this novel is that it treats belief seriously. If the book shows the cost of Sophie’s faith, it never ridicules it, and it also reveals the cost of others’ misplaced devotions. Charlie and his cousin rent rooms in Greenwich Village from a man who has Victorian aquarium full of fish, “the most important thing in his life,” and who asks only that they care for it when he’s away. Consumed by their own interests, the young men are incapable of this simple task. Charlie realizes it too late, and in a rueful observation on their failure, suggests a theme of the novel. “We had been given something beautiful, asked only to watch over it,” he reflects. “We’d been careless, and now it was all in ruin.”

Best line: “Henry’s the Ted Hughes of management consultants.”

Worst line: “Tom … pursed his lips with a look of concern.”

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide and discussion questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder appeared on this site on Oct. 14. The  guide to this book explores, among other things, some of the religious issues raised by the novel: for example, that Sophie converted after reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and each of the main sections of the book has seven chapters.

Published: May 2012

Furthermore: The New York Times summarized the the report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life cited above. You may also want to read Sam Sacks’ review of What Happened to Sophie Wilder and One-Minute Book Reviews’ review of the nonfiction book Mr. Tibbits’s Catholic School.

Read an excerpt from What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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