One-Minute Book Reviews

July 17, 2008

Miracle on 82d Street — ‘The Red Leather Diary’ Tells the True Story of a Journal That Found Its Way Back to Its Owner Decades After She Abandoned It

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A young reporter learned what the phrase “sex and the city” used to mean when she set out to find the owner of a red leather diary that turned up in a Dumpster at 82d Street and Riverside Drive

The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal. By Lily Koppel. Foreword by Florence Howitt. HarperCollins, 321 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

One of Florence Wolfson’s high school teachers sent a note to her parents saying that she had an unhealthy need for attention. Lily Koppel never says so directly, but the comment seems to have meant: Your daughter believes she deserves as much attention as a boy. It is this quality above all that gives piquancy to the teenage journal that Wolfson kept from 1929–1934, then abandoned.

Koppel was a 22-year-old reporter when the red leather diary turned up in a Dumpster at an apartment building at 82d Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan. With the help of a private detective, she tracked down its author, who was in her 90s and living in Connecticut and Florida. Florence Wolfson Howitt told her that she had married an oral surgeon, raised two daughters and developed – to her regret – “a country-club mentality” at odds with her youthful independence and ambition.

But she agreed to cooperate on The Red Leather Diary, a book that intersperses excerpts from her diary with Koppel’s reporting on its era. Koppel evokes capably a time when Mr. Kool, a penguin in a top hat in Times Square, promised that “even if you cough like crazy, Kools still taste fresh as a daisy.” But this book belongs to the young Florence Wolfson, who kept her diary between the ages of 14 and 19. Wolfson emerges from its entries and photographs as brainy, perceptive, beautiful and, for the Depression, rich. She had a gift for attracting men and women, whether she was touring Europe or vacationing in the Catskills or holding a salon for the poet Delmore Schwartz and others in her parents’ Upper East Side apartment. More unusually for a woman of her era, she claimed right to enjoy the benefits of her appeal: She had affairs with women at Hunter College and in Italty with a man who claimed to be a count.

“Reading ‘Hedda Gabler’ for the tenth time,” Florence writes in one entry. “An interview with Bruno Walter – a vigorous, intense man whose sincerity & love for music are so creative – made me feel degenerate,” she says in another entry, made while she was working on the Hunter literary magazine. “I know now that obscurity for me is disastrous – Have not the respect for people which flatters them and believe implicitly in the superiority of my taste,” she says in a third. “Result – conflict.”

Koppel doesn’t probe too deeply into how Wolfson made peace with the obscurity that nonetheless found her when, after a period as a freelance writer, she seems to have made her husband and children her career. And Koppel writes at times in a gee-whiz tone that makes her appear less worldly her subject was at a similar age.

In a sense, that’s the point of The Red Leather Diary — few young women are as as worldly. Wolfson laments to Koppel that people don’t “think and live philosophy” anymore. “I can’t imagine my grandchild or great-grandchild or anyone writing this,” she says of her diary.

The comment rings true. Wolfson’s sense of herself didn’t go underground in adolescence, as Mary Pipher has said that it does for many girls, despite her parents’ belief that her main task was to find a rich husband. The Red Leather Diary leaves you with the sense that if Ophelia was revived in Florence’s life, she was revived not during her teenage years but during her marriage. It also suggests that work on this book helped to restore her feeling of independence. How nice to know that, for a certain kind of woman, it’s never to late to put Ophelia to rest.

Best line: From Wolfson’s teenage diary: “To Gertrude’s tonight and met boys who shocked me into respect – brilliant, thoughtful, gentle and mentally fastidious – the conversation sometimes oppressed me – it was too logical.” Gertrude is Wolfson’s friend Gertrude Buckman, who married the poet Delmore Schwartz.

Worst line: Koppel says that when Wolfson began graduate school at Columbia University, “St. John the Divine was on its way to becoming the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.” Gothic cathedrals were built during the Middle Ages. St. John the Divine is Gothic Revival, an architectural style also called neo-Gothic. Koppel also reports that Wolfson tried on coats “in one of the shops on Princess Street” in Edinburgh when she appears to mean Princes Street.

Editor: Claire Wachtel

Published: April 2008

Read an excerpt at: www.redleatherdiary.com

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com 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 www.bookcritics.org. You can read more of her comments on books and life by searching for “Janice Harayda” on Twitter www.twitter.com or subscribing to her Twitter feed.

One-Minute Book Reviews is a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It does not accept free books from editors, publishers, authors, or agents or others whose books may be reviewed on this site.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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May 8, 2008

Books the Candidates Need #2 — John McCain — ‘Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 When You’re 80 and Beyond’

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John McCain will be 72 years on August 29, and if he served two terms as president, he would celebrate his 80th birthday in the White House. Would we want to spend eight years watching him sink into what Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge call “the typical decay associated with aging”? No? Then maybe somebody should send him Crowley and Lodge’s Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 When You’re 80 and Beyond (Workman, $12.95, paperback), a self-help book for men who want to avoid feeling like Father Time before their time. To meet its standards, McCain would to have to exercise at least six days a week. So those Secret Service agents who jog with George Bush may need to hold on to their running shoes.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 6, 2008

Sex and Shuffleboard – A 28-Year-Old Former Joke Writer for David Letterman Moves Into a Retirement Village in Florida Where He’s the Youngest Resident by Decades

Filed under: Humor,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:20 am
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At Century Village, Thanksgiving resembles Parents Weekend at a college “but instead, it’s the kids visiting the parents”

Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement. By Rodney Rothman. Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

An old joke says that “Florida is God’s waiting room.” Rodney Rothman showed up for his appointment early when, at the age of 28, a television show he was working on in Los Angeles was cancelled.

Rothman moved into the Century Village retirement complex in Boca Raton www.centuryvillage.com/BocaRaton.htm, hoping to parlay the experience into a book. He seems to have hoped to write a geriatric version of one of David Sedaris’s fish-out-of-water stories — maybe the one about working as an elf at Macy’s Santaland. Rothman isn’t as inventive as Sedaris, who often seems to be writing under the influence of a species of mushroom that only he has discovered. But Early Bird is still a snappy and entertaining account of life in place where Thanksgiving resembled Parents Weekend at a college “but instead, it’s the kids visiting the parents.”

The question is how much of the book you can believe. Rothman bills Early Bird as a memoir but has said that he is “not a journalist” and that some of the writing is hyperbolic. He also caught flak when, in 2000, he wrote an article for The New Yorker about sneaking in to work for an Internet company that hadn’t hired him. The magazine printed an apology after learning that he had made up an incident in the story.

Some of the claims in Early Bird would be hard to believe in any case. Rothman says that as part of his research for the book, he lied to his friends, falsely telling them he had slept with a 75-year-old woman whom he calls Vivian to see how they’d react. This is hardly reassuring. If he’d lie to his friends, why wouldn’t he lie to us?

But much of Early Bird is either believable or has been confirmed by people who appear in it, and Rothman writes engagingly about subjects from shuffleboard tp the psychology of being a young in a retirement village. And there is real bite to his observations, however amusing, on how Americans condescend to old people — for example, by calling them “adorable.”

“I don’t think Tuesdays with Morrie would have been so uplifting if that guy had to spend more than Tuesdays with Morrie,” he writes. “By Thursday he would have been cursing Morrie out.”

Morrie would have been cursing him out, too, if the guy kept calling him “adorable.”

Best line: “The rhythm of the senior softball game is unlike that of any softball game I’ve ever witnessed. The defining factor is that most of the men have much stronger arms and shoulders than legs. For all of them, the knees have started to go. ‘It’s what you get for carrying this kinda weight around for so long,’ Buddy, the WWF referee, says to me, slapping his ample belly for emphasis. Because of this, senior softball is very much a hitter’s game – as long as the hitters can get the ball in play and keep it low, odds are the fielders won’t be able to reach it in time.

“The opposite side of the ‘strong arms/weak legs’ issue is this – the hitters, once they put a ball in play, run very slowly. And the fielders, once they reach the ball, have the arm strength to fire the ball wherever it needs to go. So when people do get out, it’s in ways I’ve never seen before – like someone hitting a line drive deep into the hole in left center, and then getting thrown out a first.”

Worst line: All of the material on the aging seductress he calls “Vivian,” with whom he may or may not have had sex and about whom he may or may not have lied to his friends.

Published: 2005 (hardcover) and 2006 (paperback) www.rodneyrothman.com

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

April 3, 2008

‘No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club’ – New in Paperback

Filed under: Novels,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:49 pm
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No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club (Plume, 240 pp., $14, paperback) isn’t as funny or polished as Bridget Jones’s Diary or the masterpiece from which it descends, Diary of a Provincial Lady. But Virginia Ironside bravely assaults fashionable clichés of old age in this comic novel, subtitled Diary of a 60th Year, which has just come out in paperback. Among the ideas scorned by her diarist, Marie Sharp, are that people help their heirs by planning their own funerals and that a funeral shouldn’t be funeral but rather “a celebration” of a life. Marie is also bold enough to question the motives of book club members: “I think they feel that by reading and analyzing books, they’re keeping their brains lively. But either you’ve got a lively brain or you haven’t.” A review of and reading group guide to No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Clubwww.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/29/ appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 29, 2007

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 16, 2007

Katha Pollitt Steers Into the Skids of Female Experience in Her Elegant Collection of Essays, ‘Learning to Drive’

As if loving a womanizer wasn’t enough, there was the bad food at literary parties

Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories. By Katha Pollitt. Random House, 207 pp., $22.95

By Janice Harayda

Suppose that the entire female sex were put on trial for all the sins that women are regularly accused of – from taking maternity leaves at inconvenient times to failing to get the right kind of bikini wax (“a discreet triangle, not a landing strip,” Tatler magazine warns). Whom would you want as the defense attorney?

Susan Faludi is focusing on the effects of terrorism. Anna Quindlen has become a novelist and Gloria Steinem the author of a book on self-esteem. Barbara Ehrenreich might turn the trial into a referendum on capitalism, and Maureen Dowd might get cute and refer to women as “Ws.” Ellen Goodman has defended women admirably for years, but her only child left home two decades ago, and she might lack a ready fund of anecdotes on, say, the latest insults inflicted on mothers in Snuglis.

So I’d go with Katha Pollitt, the poet and political columnist for The Nation. Her new Learning to Drive is an elegant and often witty collection of 10 personal essays that, in many ways, resembles Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. Some of the pieces in both books first appeared in The New Yorker. And Pollitt’s book, like Ephron’s, is about her experiences in her varied roles — wife, mother, girlfriend, daughter, Upper West Sider, psychotherapy dropout, writer.

But Learning to Drive has more bite and depth than I Feel Bad About My Neck, which showed the influence of the magazines and newspapers in which its essays appeared. You had the sense that Ephron, good as she is, was saying only as much as her editors would allow. Pollitt has held onto more of herself. She’s writing to her own standards, not those of an editor, and the result is a more unified book.

Each of Pollitt’s essays deals with a personal experience – her efforts to learn to drive, the birth of her daughter, the death of her father or mother, the realization that the man she lived with had been cheating for almost the whole time. But her writing is never just about her. Her essays always comment on an aspect of female or human experience. When she realizes that her lover has been unfaithful, she reflects:

“They say philanderers are attractive to women because of the thrill of the chase – you want to be the one to capture and tame that wild quarry. But what if a deeper truth is that women fall for such men because they want to be those men? Autonomous, in charge, making their own rules.”

Pollitt structures her essays carefully as short stories, and some people appear in more than one. So Learning to Drive resembles resembles a cycle of stories more than an essay collection. Given the slapdash quality of so many such books, this alone might make the book noteworthy.

But Pollitt, at her best, is also extremely witty. She shows a perverse optimism in the bleakest of situations (which might explain, better than anything in her book, why she stayed with that womanizer). One memorable scene describes a party for a friend who had written a book lionized by critics — an event that should have been joyful. Instead it was edged with gloom. The novelists and short-story writers commiserated about the declining audience for fiction – “even calling readers ‘the audience’ tells you there’s a problem” – and were fed a miserly ration of nuts and cherry tomatoes.

“Soon writers will be consoling themselves that at least they’re not classical musicians,” she writes. “Those people are really screwed.”

Best line: Pollitt laments that there are no good words to describe being over 50: “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’ 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.”

Worst line: On the differences between the sexes: “Women just have more sense, and they are made of more enduring materials, too. More than half the male members of the Donner Party died of cold and starvation, but three quarters of the females survived, saved by that extra layer of fat we spend our lives trying to get rid of.” Leaving aside the we’re-just-better logic, the inexact math of this was confusing: Wouldn’t it make sense to compare the percentage of men who died with the percentage of women who died? Did roughly 51 or 52 percent of the men die and exactly 25 percent of the women? Looking for the precise figures, I went to the Donner Party site for the Oregon-California Trails Association www.utahcrossroads.org and found that its numbers disagreed with Pollitt’s. “Two-thirds of the women survived; two-thirds of the men died,” the site says.

Reading group guide: If you’re reading this on the home page of One-Minute Book Reviews, scroll down one post to find a Totally Authorized Reading Group Guide to Learning to Drive. If you’re reading this on another page on the site or on the Web, click on this link to find the guide: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.

Editor: Daniel Menaker

Cover story: A review of the cover of Learning to Drive will appear tomorrow. I was going to include it here, but my comments would have made this post too long. Sean Lindsay at the terrific site 101 Reasons to Stop Writing www.101reasonstostopwriting.com sent me easy directions for inserting images, so starting tomorrow, you’ll also see some full color here instead of just duotone.

Published: September 2007 www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com and www.randomhouse.com.

Furthermore: Pollitt wrote Virginity or Death! and other books. She has won two National Magazine Awards for essays and criticism and a National Book Critics Circle Award www.bookcritics.org for her poetry collection, Antarctic Traveller.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com has been the book critic for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critic Circle. She was not involved in the NBCC award received by Pollitt.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Katha Pollitt’s ‘Learning to Drive’

10 Discussion Questions

Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories
By Katha Pollitt
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 reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Others who wish 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.

Katha Pollitt steers into the skids of female experience in Learning to Drive, a collection of 10 elegant and often witty essays about her many roles – wife, mother, daughter, girlfriend, Upper West Sider, psychotherapy dropout, writer. Like Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, this book deals in part with the ironies and absurdities inherent in cultural expectations of women, particularly those over 50.

Questions for Readers

1. Pollitt says in her first essay that she’s 52 and learning to drive a car because a man she lived with for seven years has left her. At the end of the book, she still doesn’t seem to have passed her road test. But she has learned a few things about life. Which impressed you the most? What did you learn from Learning to Drive?

2. We find out on the second page that Pollitt’s lover was cheating on her almost from the start. From then on, a central question of the book becomes the one posed in different form on page 57, “How could I have been so stupid?” What’s Pollitt’s answer? What’s yours?

3. “They say philanderers are attractive to women because of the thrill of the chase – you want to be the one to capture and tame that wild quarry,” Pollitt writes. “But what if a deeper truth is that women fall for such men because they want to be those men? Autonomous, in charge, making their own rules.” [Page 63] Do you think that women are attracted to philanderers? Or do you think they simply put up with them? If so, why do they tolerate them? In those lines Pollitt deals only with the psychological reasons why women stay with philanders. Might there be other reasons – sexual, financial, social? What are they? How does Pollitt’s view of womanizers differ from those you’ve seen on Sex and the City and in other media?

4. In “After the Men Are Dead” Pollitt reflects on what life will be like for women when they have outlived their husbands and other men. Would it be “restful” not to have to think about “love, romance, sex, pleasing, listening, encouraging, smiling at the old jokes” and all the ways in which women accommodate men’s needs and expectations? [Page 79] Would you find it restful, sad or both?

5. The essay “Beautiful Screamer” deals partly with a paradox of having an infant or young child. As Pollitt sees it, motherhood was “so important, so necessary” that it placed you at the center of life: “At the same time, it marginalized you totally.” [Page 112] Pollitt felt sidelined partly because she faced new physical limits – the post office banned strollers. [Page 114] She also felt excluded in more subtle ways. What were they? If you’re a mother, do you agree that motherhood isolates you? Why?

6. Single or childless people who live in suburbs or small towns that are billed as “family-friendly” might disagree with the views Pollitt expresses in “Beautiful Screamer.” They might say that they feel isolated because so much of the social life revolves around children’s school, sports or other activities. How do the views of the mothers in your group differ from those of the childless members?

7. Pollitt writes about her father in “Good-bye, Lenin” and her mother in “Mrs. Razzmatazz.” Does either parent come off better than the other? Why?

8. Pollitt laments that there are no good words to describe her time of life. “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’ 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 an 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.” [Page 196] What effect do these terms have on you? On our society? What word or words would you use for what some people call “the last trimester of life”?

9. A backlash may be growing against those magazine articles with titles like “Fabulous at Fifty.” Pollitt challenges this kind of aggressive cheerleading. So did Nora Ephron in her essays in I Feel Bad About My Neck and Virginia Ironside in her comic novel, No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club. Is the backlash overdue or unfair? Which of the books that you’ve read makes the best case for a more nuanced view of life after 50?

10. Pollitt writes from a feminist perspective. This is clearest in lines such as: “Feminism was supposed to be about the things women had in common, and I had always thought of myself as someone who liked women. When someone – usually a woman; in fact, always a woman – said I ‘thought like a man’ I felt insulted for both women and myself; it was as if I was being expelled from the tribe.” [Pages 61-62] What do you think feminism is “about” in 2007? How would you react if someone said that you “thought like a man”?

Vital statistics:
Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories. By Katha Pollitt. Random House, 207 pp., $22.95. Published: September 2007. A review of Learning to Drive appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 16, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.

Links: www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com and www.randomhouse.com

Your book group may also want to read:

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95. Review: Essays about being over 60 by the author of Heartburn. Ephron covers some of the topics that Pollitt does — faithless men, life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the pressure to conform to idealized images of women – and your group might compare their views on these. Review: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/14/ms-ephron-regrets/. Reading group guide: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/20/.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an 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. 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 that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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July 19, 2007

‘The Oxford Book of Ages,’ a Collection of Quotations for Every Birthday

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Are you always looking for the perfect quote for someone’s 37th or 45th or 63rd birthday? Check out The Oxford Book of Ages (Oxford University Press, 224 pp., varied prices), a collection of quotations by well-known people for every year from zero (for newborns) to 100. A year typically has at least a half dozen entries, all chosen Anthony and Sally Sampson. Not all of the quotations express the kind of uplifting sentiments you might want to inscribe on a card – some are downbeat, if not grim – but all are pithy and intelligent. And the best lines are worth quoting again and again.

Among my favorites:

“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.” Victor Hugo

“I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.” Shirley Temple

“After thirty, a man wakes up sad every morning excepting perhaps five or six, until the day of his death.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals, 1834

“I’m sixty-three and I guess that puts me in with the geriatrics, but if there were fifteen months in every year, I’d be only forty-three.” James Thurber

“She drank good ale, strong punch and wine,
And lived to the age of ninety-nine.”
Epitaph for Mrs. Freland, in Edwelton churchyard, Nottinghamshire, 1741

The Oxford Book of Ages is out-of-print in the U.S. but available online and in libraries. If you can’t find it, here’s a consoling comment that Françoise Sagan made at the age of 43: “The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 11, 2007

The Bluebird of Unhappiness: ‘The Empty Nest,’ Edited by Karen Stabiner

What happens when the parents are home alone instead of the children?

[Note: This review has been expanded since the original post.]

The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop. Edited by Karen Stabiner. Hyperion/Voice, 320 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Just last week, a professor of family studies told the Washington Post that the idea of the empty-nest syndrome has been pretty much debunked by scholars. Some parents, she added, feel more regret than others when children leave home. But “it’s not a widespread syndrome” now that e-mail and cell phones make it easier to keep in touch.

Other scholars have found that – contrary to the idea that mothers feel the most pain when the nest empties – men have more problems than women when children leave home. Women expect the departure of children to be difficult, so they plan (and often grieve in advance) for it. Men are less likely to see the event as a major transition, so they don’t prepare as well and express more regrets about lost opportunities to connect with their offspring.

Then why do we need a book that perpetuates some of the ideas scholars have debunked, especially when only seven of 31 contributors are men? Ellen Levine, a former editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping, says that mothers still have a hard time with separations from their children: “The dads … no problem.” Yet the idea that fathers have “no problem” with separations is exactly what a growing number of scholars – and some men in this book — dispute. If fathers don’t show their grief, all those repressed emotions may catch up with them when the children leave home for good.

A clue to the purpose of The Empty Nest comes from the publisher, which has tagged it “self-help/inspiration.” This is a bizarre label for an essay collection that, with its mix of dread and tears, reads at times like a cross between a Stephen King novel and Paris Hilton’s weepy courtroom outburst on getting sent back to jail.

Editor Karen Stabiner sets the tone when she writes that it will be “intolerable” when her daughter goes to college. Martha Schuur says she sank into “uncontrollable crying” when she dropped her firstborn off at school. Jamie Wolf felt “perpetual despair” when her daughter moved from California to New York. Hilary Mills “dreaded” her son’s “panic-inducing” departure, which became “bleakest day” of her marriage. Fran Visco knows that she could do things like going to Canyon Ranch now that her son’s away, but she’s too “brokenhearted” and lets herself “wallow in the sadness.” An unintentionally comical scene comes from Grace Saltzstein, who began “freaking out” after installing her daughter in an apartment at UCLA. What had unhinged her? Her daughter’s roommates had gotten to the place first … and left her the top bunk! And only one drawer! To judge by survivors’ accounts, many people who went down with the Titanic showed more fortitude as the ship sank than some contributors to The Empty Nest did as they sent their children off to the kind of colleges that provide students with maid service and Asian-fusion meals.

As if to comfort themselves in their trials, an alarming number of writers abandon any qualms they may have had about bragging about their children. Schuur wants you to know that her daughter Kelly is “pure goodness, always there for family and friends.” Glynna Freeman tells us that she has raised “three bright, beautiful, and really nice people.” Annette Duffy reports that if she “mourned” when her son Ben went to school, she was grieving for a child who was “handsome as the day” and “a nationally ranked freestyler.” Fabiola Santiago says that her daughter got into “the top university in our state,” but Susan Crandell one-ups her by pointing out that her child got into “one of the top schools in the country.” Perhaps the most perceptive comment in this book appears in an e-mail Charles “Chip” McGrath got after he wrote a piece for The New Yorker, reprinted in The Empty Nest, about dropping his son off at college. “It’s interesting, and typical, that people who love their children very much approach this moment in their children’s lives with almost total self-absorption,” his correspondent wrote. Almost total?

A striking aspect of many of the women’s stories — more so than in the men’s — is how unwilling their authors are to explore whether anything might be causing their pain except for a child’s departure. Did some women regret having worked so hard and not spending more time with their children? Did they have problems in their marriages and dread spending time alone with a spouse? Did they feel a spiritual void, having made motherhood into a surrogate religion? If so, they aren’t telling. Nor are they telling whether they drank, took Paxil or Prozac or went into therapy, even though some of their symptoms resemble those of clinical depression.

Good statistics on the divorce rate among people over 50 are hard to find, partly because many states don’t record the ages of couples who split up. But experts generally agree that it’s going up, partly because baby boomers’ children are leaving home, and in every generation, many couples wait to separate until the nest empties. Yet not one of the 31 contributors reports that his or her marriage took a serious hit when a child left. Maybe it’s true. Or maybe this is a “feel good about feeling bad book” that legitimizes lesser problems while sweeping bigger ones under the rug.

Stabiner seems to have tried to deflect criticism that this book promotes stereotypes of women by recruiting some feminist firepower. And to a degree, it works. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Anna Quindlen and Ellen Goodman rise above solipsism in their essays and try put empty nests in a social context. Pogrebin says that her stage of life has advantages: “Not having to worry about where your children are at two in the morning frees you up to worry about global warming.” Quindlen argues, rightly, that her generation has “professionalized” motherhood, but goes around the bend when she concludes that for this reason, “the empty nest is emptier than every before.” No, Anna, your nest will not be “emptier” than that of women like Rochelle Reed’s grandmother, who sent four sons into World War II; one son, Reed writes, “was eaten by sharks after his plane crashed during a South Pacific monsoon.”

Of all the contributors, Goodman grapples most effectively with an issue at the heart of The Empty Nest: Isn’t this book a throwback to the 1950s? Isn’t the departure of children less traumatic now that women have more professional opportunities? Goodman says that she used to think mothers who had rewarding work “might avoid the cliché of an empty-nest syndrome.” But she doubts it now that her daughter has lived away from home for two decades. In her 60s, Goodman hasn’t lost her desire to integrate work and family, so she has revised her juggling act to accommodate a grandchild and stepgrandchild: “Think of it as Juggling Lite.” Her young relations are happy with the arrangement. So the question – for Goodman as for many other parents — has changed. It is no longer “How can I avoid the empty-nest syndrome?” It is, simply, “What empty nest?”

Despite such worthy essays, much of this book remains disheartening. The second wave of feminists fought passionately to show employers and others that women didn’t wallow in emotion but could remain tough and level-headed in the most difficult circumstances. On the evidence of The Empty Nest women are reclaiming their right to wallow. This a book in the Oprah mold, which ascribes more authenticity to experiences the more painful they are. Gloria Steinem used to say that many women were “man junkies.” And like much of our culture as a whole, The Empty Nest leaves the impression that some have become “child junkies” instead. Is it really a step forward to have traded one addiction for another?

Best line: Anna Quindlen’s: “Motherhood has changed from a role into a calling. Our poor kids.” The best overall essays come from McGrath, Goodman and Roxana Robinson.

Worst line: Anna Quindlen’s: “The end result is that the empty nest is emptier than ever before …” Apart from its off-the-wall implication that today’s stay-at-home investment bankers have it worse than parents who saw their children get drafted during the Vietnam War or look for jobs during the Depression, that “end result” is painful, too.

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

Conflict alert: I’ve had encounters with a number of contributors to this book that other critics might or might not see as conflicts. For example, I used to be in a writers’ group with Ellen Goodman’s sister, whom I haven’t seen in nearly 20 years. All the other encounters are all similarly distant.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book was posted just before this review on June 11 and is archived with the June posts. You can find the publishers’ guide, which is less extensive, at www.everywomansvoice.com.

Editor: Leslie Wells

Published: May 2007

Links: Karen Fingerman, a professor of developmental and family studies at Purdue, spoke about the myth of the empty-nest syndrome in “How to Make the Best of an Empty Nest,” by Jennifer Huget, the Washington Post, June 5, 2007, page HE04. For a discussion of the different effects of the empty nest on men and women, see Rebecca A. Clay’s “An Empty Nest Can Promote Freedom, Improved Relationships” in the American Psychological Association Online, April 2003. To find the article, Google “Rebecca Clay + Empty Nest + APA.”

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent book review site created by Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com, an 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. It does not accept free books or other materials from editors, publishers or authors. At least 50 percent of the book reviewed on the site are by women. Reviews of books by female authors typically appear on Mondays and Wednesdays and books by male authors on Tuesdays and Thursdays with the other days up for grabs. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 30, 2007

‘Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

Maybe this is how the new Miss Universe stays thin?

Title: Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat: Secrets of My Mother’s Tokyo Kitchen. By Naomi Moriyama and William Doyle. Delta, 274 pp., $12, paperback.

What it is: One woman’s theory of why Japanese women have the lowest obesity rate in the world (3 percent) and the highest life expectancy (85 years) even though the country has “millions of stressed-out, nonexercising people who are smoking and drinking their way to early graves.”

Where I stopped reading: At the beginning of Chapter 4, entitled “How to Start Your Tokyo Kitchen, or Yes, You Can Do This At Home!” (page 67).

Why I stopped: You’d need to have a more serious interest in Japanese cooking than I do to read more than I did. The first three chapters explain the Japanese philosophy of eating as seen by Tokyo-born Naomi Moriyama, who moved to the U.S. at the age of 27. And these sections are interesting and well-written, though rooted in the views of an earlier generation (that of the author’s mother). Many Americans may be surprised to learn that the Japanese love desserts, especially chocolate. “One elegant Tokyo department store now offers shoppers their own accounts in a Chocolate Bank – you buy an amount of gourmet chocolate, the store keeps it in its temperature-controlled chocolate vault, and you stop in to make a withdrawal any time you want.” But after the first three chapters, the book turns into a collection of recipes for what Moriyama calls “Japanese home cooking.” “This is not a diet book,” she says. “And it’s not a book about making sushi.”

Best line in what I read: The Japanese philosophy of eating includes the concept of hara hachi bunme – “eat until you are 80 percent full.”

Worst line in what I read: I stopped before the recipe-intensive section. But even the recipes in earlier chapters call for ingredients that might be hard to find outside big cities. Among them: dashi, kombu, mitsuba, shiso leaves and bonito flakes.

Editor: Beth Rashbaum

Published: November 2005 (Delacorte hardcover), January 2007 (Delta paperback). This site has video clips of Moriyama’s Today show appearance: www.japanesewomendontgetoldorfat.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

At least 50 percent of all reviews on One-Minute Book Reviews cover books by women. Except during holiday weeks, books by female authors typically appear on Mondays and Wednesdays and books by male authors on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Please consider linking to this site and telling others about it if you’re frustrated by how often Sunday book review sections consist mainly of reviews books by male authors, written by male critics. To my knowledge One-Minute Book Reviews is the only site that, while reviewing books by both sexes, has had from the start a publicly stated commitment to parity for female authors. Thank you for visiting this blog. — Jan

May 29, 2007

Virginia Ironside’s Comic Novel, ‘No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club’

An English grandmother hasn’t had sex in five years and isn’t sure she wants it

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. Viking, 231 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Is a backlash building against all those articles that say that you’re never too old to don a zip line and swing through a Costa Rican jungle? First Nora Ephron told us in I Feel Bad About My Neck that it’s “sad” to be over 60. Now Virginia Ironside writes in this fictionalized diary that the great thing about being old is that there are so many things you can’t do. “You no longer have to think about going to university, or go bungee jumping!” her heroine tells an obtuse therapist. “It’s a huge release!”

This concept could be a tougher sell in U.S. than in Britain, where Ironside writes an advice column for the Independent. Her diarist, 60-year-old Marie Sharp, calls herself “old.” How many Americans in their 60s do you know who describe themselves that way? Don’t look to Ironside to soft-soap you with you with euphemisms like “older” for “old” and “midlife” for “anywhere between 40 and death.”

If Marie is blunt, she isn’t mean-spirited. She is kind, cheerful, active and devoted to her friends and a newborn grandson who lives near her home in west London. And although she hasn’t had sex in five years, she doesn’t lose sleep over it. She’s thinking of giving it up – if a nice, rich, attractive childhood friend doesn’t change her mind.

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club isn’t as funny or polished as Bridget Jones’s Diary, or the comic masterpiece from which Helen Fielding’s novel descends, E. M. Delafield’s great Diary of a Provincial Lady. But Ironside’s book has much more to say about being old – sorry, “older” — than bestsellers like The Red Hat Club or Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. And Marie’s opinions, if not the plausibility of the plot, give her story its own appeal.

Ironside mounts a worthy assault on many popular beliefs that were overdue for it, such as the idea that people help their survivors by planning their own funerals (and that funerals shouldn’t be funerals at all but rather “a celebration” of a life). And Marie is the rare heroine bold — or perhaps reckless — enough to question the motives of book club members: “I think they feel that by reading and analyzing books, they’re keeping their brains lively. But either you’ve got a lively brain or you haven’t.” Naturally, Viking has published a reading group guide the novel.

Best line: “I don’t think those oldies who spend their lives bicycling across Mongolia at eighty and paragliding at ninety, are brilliant specimens of old age. I think they’re just tragic failures who haven’t come to terms with aging. They’re the sort of people who disapprove of face-lifts, and yet, by their behavior, are constantly chasing a lost youth.”

Worst line: Marie makes a show of not wanting to learn Italian but seems unaware that her French needs help. For example, she thinks “Champs-Elysées” and “allô” have no accents. (My computer can’t show the one on the capital e.) Marie also quotes a French guest as saying “allô” in person. The French use “allô” only on the telephone. And isn’t credible that Marie’s guest would say this face-to-face, even as a bastardized “Hello,” when the correct bonjour is universally known. Marie also has an odd way of trying to show a friend that she knew what she “was talking about” in a discussion of AIDS. She speaks of “the HIV virus” when the V in HIV stands for “virus.”

Reading group guides: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 29, 2007. You can find the Penguin guide in the reading groups page at http:us.penguingroup.com/.

Published: April 2007

Links: www.virginiaironside.org

You may also want to read: Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (Knopf, 2006), reviewed on this site on Oct. 14, 2006, and archived with the October posts: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/page/1/.

Janice Harayda is an 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 www.bookcritics.org. She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners www.janiceharayda.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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