One-Minute Book Reviews

March 3, 2011

Women, Age and Hollywood – Quote of the Day From Tracey Jackson’s ‘Between and Rock and a Hot Place: Why 50 Is Not the New 30’

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Screenwriter Tracey Jackson talks about women in film and television in her new Between a Rock and a Hot Place: Why Fifty Is Not the New Thirty (Harper, 287 pp., $25.99):

“In Hollywood 30 is considered 80, especially where women are concerned. This attitude tends to affect actresses first, but the second group on its hit list is usually writers, particularly those who write comedy, a genre not very friendly to women to begin with. …

“As in every profession, there are exceptions to the rule, and one of the biggest exceptions, if not the biggest, is that if you are a superstar in your field by the time you are 50, you can skid forward to at least 60. … You can run down a list of women in their 50s and 60s in top jobs, but I promise you every one of them was a superstar in her world by no later than 45. The general consensus seems to be that if you haven’t made it by then, the chances are you aren’t going to, so why keep you around?”

May 19, 2010

Phyllis Theroux Writes of Finding Love Online and More in ‘The Journal Keeper’ — Meditations on Life After 60

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:33 pm
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The Journal Keeper: A Memoir. By Phyllis Theroux. Atlantic Monthly Press, 281 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

More than two decades ago, Phyllis Theroux moved from Washington, D.C., to a drowsy Virginia town that lacked stop lights but had a house she could afford after a divorce left her in financial peril. She looks back on six years in Ashland in this collection of edited diary entries that reads less like a journal or memoir than a series of meditations for the age of Match.com, the dating service that led her to the man she married in her mid-’60s.

For part of the time covered by this book, Theroux lived with her idiosyncratic mother, who moved in after developing macular degeneration. And The Journal Keeper makes clear that many people would benefit from having such a loving caretaker for their final days. Theroux writes on her mother’s 85th birthday: “My present to her is to be at her disposal for an entire day.”

But the reticence of The Journal Keeper robs it of the force of May Sarton’s trailblazing Journal of a Solitude and more recent accounts of growing old, including  Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End. Theroux omits most dates on entries and is so polite to friends and relatives that she gives you little sense of those people and the events that define them. She mentions that her daughter is coming for a 10-day visit and then says nothing about their time together, which leaves you wondering what happened, one of many dropped threads in the book.

Nor does Theroux make you understand how, for someone educated by Dominican nuns, she became so drawn to alternative spiritual disciplines. In Ashland she has sessions with an “energy healer” and writes approvingly of Gary Zukav and Eckhart Tolle, both favorites of Oprah. And she finds more than one kind of inspiration in the writing classes she teaches to pay the bills. After a stop-and-go courtship, she discovers that her “premarriage mood of doom” has lifted: “Perhaps, as one student observed, this is because Mercury had been in retrograde and only went out of it two days ago.”

Theroux calls The Journal Keeper “the spiritual equivalent of a personal light box” that avoids “dark developments” and favors the insights she gained from them. This approach leads to more than a few overwrought metaphors and pseudoprofundities. And the insights in the book tend to be less memorable than directly observed incidents that Theroux serves up with little or no commentary. One occurred when friend’s 8-year-old son looked up at a sky full of snowflakes and said, “This is the best day of my life.”

Best line: No. 1: “Living in a small town is like being in a play.”

Worst line: No. 1: “A funeral is like a train station waiting room. We’re all going to board that train someday.” Except that the people in a waiting room aren’t necessarily waiting for the same train. No. 2: Quoted above: “Perhaps, as one student observed, this is because Mercury had been in retrograde … ”

Published: March 2010

Watch the trailer for The Journal Keeper.

Furthermore: Theroux is an essayist and the author of books that include Peripheral Visions and California and Other States of Grace: A Memoir.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to The Journal Keeper: Journal of a Solitude.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 17, 2010

Paula Span’s ‘When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:07 am
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A journalist’s report on adult children and elderly parents who needed help

When Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions. Springboard, 276 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

Ilze Earner spent weeks looking for a doctor who would accept Medicare after her elderly mother moved in with her in Claverack, New York, a hamlet in upstate New York. That may have been the easy part.

Earner’s mother, Milda Betins, later refused to take her arthritis medication, saying, “Medicine is poison.” She missed her Latvian-speaking friends back at her retirement community in New Jersey. And both women wondered how to deal with to Ilze’s father, who had dementia and lived in a nearby nursing home. When they visited, he called his wife “a whore” and said, “Leave me alone.” How should they respond to comments from a man who had severely impaired “executive functioning,” the ability to make decisions?

“Everyone reminds you that this is not your father talking, it’s the disease,” Ilze said. “But how do you separate the two …?”

Paula Span devotes more than 20 pages to the story of Ilze Earner and Milda Betins in When the Time Comes. And that’s typical of her approach in a book that follows several American families as elderly parents consider options that include home care, a nursing home, assisted living, and hospice. Books on caregiving often have bland and sanitized care studies by therapists that barely suggest the challenges involved. This one comes from a former staff writer for the Washington Post Magazine who brings a journalist’s eye for detail to stories that are complex, realistic and interesting.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

July 29, 2009

What It’s Like to Be Over 60 (or Over 70) – Quote of the Day / Diana Athill

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:00 pm
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Diana Athill’s memoir Somewhere Towards the End has many apt observations on youth and age, all written from the perspective of a former editor in her 90s.  A few I didn’t quote in the review posted earlier today:

On love: “… a broken heart mends much faster from a conclusive blow than it does from slow strangulation.”

On being over 60: “All through my sixties I felt I was still within hailing distance of middle age, not safe on its shores, perhaps, but navigating its coastal waters. My seventieth birthday failed to change this because I managed scarcely to notice it, but my seventy-first did change it. Being ‘over seventy’ is being old: suddenly I was aground on that fact and saw that the time had come to size it up.”

On her waning interest in sex in old age: “An important aspect of the ebbing of sex was that other things became more interesting. Sex obliterates the individuality of young women more often than it does that of young men, because so much more of a woman than of a man is used by sex. I have tried to believe that most of this difference comes from conditioning, but can’t do so. Conditioning reinforces it, but essentially it is a matter of biological function. There is no reason why a man shouldn’t turn and walk away from any act of sex he performs, whereas every act of sex performed by a woman has the potential of changing her mode of being for the rest of her life. He simply triggers the existence of another human being; she has to build it out of her own physical substance, carry it inside her, bond with it whether she likes it or not – and to say that she has been freed from this by the pill is nonsense. She can prevent it, but only by drastic chemical intervention which throws her body’s natural behavior out of gear.”

Diana Athill’s Memoir, ‘Somewhere Towards the End’ – The Last Non-Lecture

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 am
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An editor in her 90s writes about the end of her sex life and more

Somewhere Towards the End. By Diana Athill. Norton, 182 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Diana Athill has mastered that bittersweet negotiation with old age that the poet Elizabeth Bishop called “the art of losing.” Born in 1917, Athill worked for decades at an esteemed London publishing firm, where she edited the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul and others, and she has had a vibrant life that included an affair with the playwright Barry Reckord. In her new memoir, she writes eloquently of life after her retirement at the age of 75 – the ebbing of sexual desire, the deaths of friends, the pleasures of gardening and driving a car when the padding on the soles of her feet has grown so thin she is hard put to walk a hundred yards.

Somewhere Towards the End won a major British award for biography and reflects a keenly English sensibility rooted in the values of the world that existed before Starbucks moved into Victoria Station. Athill is by no means morbid. But neither does she lecture or assault you, as so many American authors do, with cloying euphemisms like “aging” – a word that, as Katha Pollitt has noted, applies to all of us: “A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.”

Athill is matter-of-fact but discreet about events such as a miscarriage that nearly killed her and about the prostate troubles suffered by Reckord, with whom she lives. But her natural tact doesn’t preclude astute observations on life. In her last chapter, Athill avoids reaching for tidy lessons and observes instead that “most lives are a matter of ups and downs rather than of a conclusive plunge into an extreme, whether fortunate or unfortunate, and quite a lot of them come to rest not far from where they started, as though the starting point provided a norm, always there to be returned to.”

Best line: As a student at Oxford in the 1930s, Athill told a man named Duncan that she had fallen away from the Christianity of her youth: “ … I said that though I was unable to believe in the god I had been taught to believe in, I supposed that some kind of First Cause had to be accepted. To which Duncan replied ‘Why? Might it not be that beginnings and endings are things we think in terms of simply because our minds are too primitive to conceive of anything else?’”

Worst Line: Athill writes of a 103-year-old woman who had a “positive attitude” (and, a page later, a “positive outlook”), a rare descent into cliché.

Recommendation? Somewhere Towards the End is more cohesive than the Nora Ephron’s entertaining but disjointed  I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, and reading groups might like to compare the two books.

Published: January 2009 (first American edition).

Furthermore: Somewhere Towards the End won the 2008 Costa Award for biography. Athill also wrote Stet: An Editor’s Life, a memoir of her years in book publishing. Other quotes from Somewhere Towards the End appeared on this site on July 17.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

More quotes from Somewhere Towards the End will be posted later today.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 15, 2009

An 86-Year-Old Former Lawyer Looks Back – Frank Turner Hollon’s ‘The Pains of April’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:02 pm
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Not long ago I visited a part of Alabama where a lot of people were reading Frank Turner Hollon’s novella, The Pains of April (MacAdam/Cage, 114 pp., $7.50, paperback), a book popular with local reading groups. The narrator is an 86-year-old widower, former lawyer, and Gulf Coast rest-home resident, who reminisces about his life amid activities such as playing cards, watching television, and sneaking out with friends to get a tattoo. And he makes an interesting observation about small-town life: “When a very good carpenter comes into a community, he makes the entire profession better. He raises the bar for good carpenters and puts the bad carpenters out of business. When a very good lawyer comes into a community, there can be a different result. He has the power to destroy the system itself. He has the ability to turn justice around. He can prove the innocent man guilty and set the guilty man free. He can make sense out of nonsense and have a jury laughing at the truth.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 19, 2009

John Bayley on Living With His Wife’s Alzheimer’s Disease, ‘Elegy for Iris’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:09 am
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Few people have written of Alzheimer’s disease as eloquently as John Bayley does in Elegy for Iris (Picador, 1999), his memoir of 45 years with the novelist Iris Murdoch, which inspired the film Iris. Among his observations:

“Our mode of communication seems like underwater sonar, each bouncing pulsations off the other, then listening for an echo.”

“Alzheimer’s is, in fact, like an insidious fog, barely noticeable until everything around has disappeared. After that, it is no longer possible to believe that a world outside fog exists.”

“The terror of being alone, of being cut off for even a few seconds from the familiar object, is a feature of Alzheimer’s. If Iris could climb inside my skin now, or enter me as if I had a pouch like a kangaroo, she would do so.”

Bayley also foreshadows Murdoch’s development of Alzheimer’s in describing the early years of their relationship:

“I was far too preoccupied at the time to think of such parallels, but it was like living in a fairy story – the kind with sinister overtones and not always a happy ending – in which a young man loves a beautiful maiden who returns his love but is always disappearing into some unknown and mysterious world, about which she will reveal nothing.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 18, 2009

Diana Athill Looks Back on a Life of Editing Books

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:52 am
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Good memoirs by editors are rare. This sounds improbable but makes sense. Editors might come across as perjurers if late in life if they told the truth about authors they had spent their career promoting.

An editor who can write is Diana Athill, who looks back on her career in English book publishing in Stet: An Editor’s Life (Grove, 256 pp., $13, paperback). Athill edited the British editions of books by Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, John Updike and others. And she offers perceptive comments about her work in her elegant but unpretentious memoir. (“Writers don’t encounter really attentive readers as often as you might expect, and find them balm to their twitchy nerves when they do; which gives their editors a good start with them.”) At 91 she won an overseas award for her new memoir of old age, Somewhere Towards the End (Norton, 192 pp., $24.95), that she talks about in a Telegraph interview.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 17, 2009

Andrew Blechman’s ‘Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias’ — Are Adults-Only Communities the Equivalent of Geriatric Club Meds?

A report from the land of souped-up golf carts

Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias. By Andrew D. Blechman. Atlantic Monthly Press, 244 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

A church at a Florida retirement community is thinking about allowing only people over 55 to become members — an age limit that would exclude Jesus. Andrew Blechman zeros in on absurdities like these in Leisureville, a well-researched but derisive account of his visits to some of America’s largest housing developments for older people, including The Villages in Florida and Sun City in Arizona.

Blechman argues fairly enough that autocratic real-estate barons have carved out vast subdivisions that amount to monocultures, or the social equivalent of a single crop such as rice or bananas, that can cause the entire local economy to crash if the demand drops. He also accuses the developers a host of lesser sins, including requiring residents to sign restrictive covenants that deprive them of many of the usual rights of home owners.

But the tone of Leisureville turns smug when Blechman suggests that some aspects of retirement communities are “a tragic parody” of the better life he and his family have in their diverse Massachusetts town. His targets include what he seems to regard as bad the taste of residents who drive souped-up golf carts around villages that resemble geriatric Club Meds. This overreaching makes Leisureville read at times like an extended Woody Allen joke: Not only are retirement communities morally, socially, and economically indefensible, but their residents hang Thomas Kinkade paintings on their walls. Alas, if the problems with retirement communities are anywhere near as serious as he suggests, adding a few tasteful Mark Rothko reproductions won’t make a difference.

Best line: No. 1: “Boomers typically list 85 as the age when they will finally consider themselves ‘old.’ Not surprisingly, that’s two years longer than actuaries predict many of them will live.” No. 2: “Some deed restrictions [in retirement communities] — and their rigorous enforcement by powerful homeowners’ associations — can be severe to the point of being comical. For instance, one woman in California was repeatedly forced to weigh in her overweight poodle because it hovered around the community’s 30-pound weight limit for dogs.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Women who once burned their bras now pay handsomely for expensive brassieres and plastic surgery.” The early feminists who planned to burn their bras at a Miss America pageant never did so, because Atlantic City officials wouldn’t give them a fire permit. The women threw their bras in a garbage can instead. Even if Blechman’s comment were accurate — which, repeat, it is not — bra-burning is a bedraggled cliché. Nos. 2 and 3: At The Villages, a married couple displayed on their living-room wall “a print by Thomas Kinkade, an evangelical oil painter with an unusually devoted following, whose trademark is Painter of Light.” And a female tour guide is quoted as saying that the same community is “so beautiful – it’s like living in a Thomas Kinkade painting, but in real life.” So was the guide supposed to say, that “it’s like living in that brothel in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”?

Sample chapter titles: “Free Golf!” “Where’s Beaver?” “The Golden Years”

Published: May 2008. Paperback due out in July 2009 with the new subtitle Adventures in a World Without Children.

About the author: Blechman also wrote Pigeons: The Fascinating Story of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird.

Furthermore: A more entertaining account of young author’s stay in a retirement community appears in Rodney Rothman’s Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a book that treats the elderly more sympathetically. But you don’t know how much, if any, of that book is fictionalized. Leisureville is more informative, though skewed by its polemical tone and Blechman’s view of age-restricted communities as “age-segregated.”

One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the finalists for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Feb. 26, 2009. To nominate a passage in a book for a bad-writing award, leave a comment or send a message to the e-mail address on the “Contact” page.  To read about the purple thong Jan caught at a Mardi Gras parade, see yesterday’s post or follow her Twitter feed www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 23, 2008

New in Paperback — Katha Pollitt’s ‘Learning to Drive’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:37 am
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Katha Pollitt regrets that there are no good words to describe her time of life. “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’,” she writes in Learning to Drive (Random House, 224 pp., $14). “Midlife is the upbeat new euphemism – there you are, in the thick of it! – but a 55-year-old person is in the middle of his life only if he’s going to live to 110. ‘Middle-aged’ sounds tired and plodding, almost as bad as ‘aging’ – and ‘aging’ is sad and pitiful, an insult even though it’s actually universally applicable. A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.”

As that observation suggests, Learning to Drive in some ways resembles Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. But there’s more bite and depth to this collection of elegant and often witty essays by Pollitt kathapollitt.blogspot.com, whose topics include motherhood, learning to drive, and her discovery that she was living with a man who might have been allowed to donate his zipper to a hall of fame for philanderers. And the book has just come out in a paperback edition with a sparkling new cover that should make it easier to find at bookstores www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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