One-Minute Book Reviews

December 7, 2009

Sex and the City of Light — Elaine Dundy’s ‘The Dud Avocado’

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:15 am
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A young, single and free-spirited American cuts loose Paris in the 1950s

The Dud Avocado. By Elaine Dundy. Introduction by Terry Teachout. New York Review Books Classics, 260 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1958 Elaine Dundy won rapturous praise for The Dud Avocado, a sparkling novel about the cultural and romantic adventures of a young American in France. More than a half century later, her book has become a modern classic, driven by the unique voice of an endearingly impulsive heroine.

Sally Jay Gorce has traveled to Paris search of gaiety, laughter and “shoes in the air” – apparently, something not unlike a Fred Astaire movie. Bankrolled by an allowance from a rich uncle, she finds all of those as she takes small acting roles and moves from cafés and nightclubs in Montparnasse to a villa near Biarritz. She also has a moral awakening that occurs not when she loses her virginity to an Italian diplomat – which is part of her backstory — but when she discovers that Old World glamour can mask social ruthlessness.

Groucho Marx wrote to Dundy to praise The Dud Avocado: “It made me laugh, scream, and guffaw (which, incidentally, is a great name for a law firm).” And the book is certainly one of the most entertaining novels of the 20th century about an innocent abroad. Sally may be as green as an avocado, but she knows what’s wrong with a hotel for Anglophiles that’s “full of dusty red plush” furniture: “It’s probably the only perfect replica of a Victorian mausoleum still standing in Paris.” And she has a sensibility that is surprisingly modern. She declines to live with a boyfriend not because it’s immoral – they’re sleeping together — but because it would curb her freedom. She is also charmingly open about her faults, such as her quick temper and flightiness: “I always expect people to behave much better than I do. When they actually behave worse, I am frankly incredulous.”

Like its heroine, The Dud Avocado has small flaws: a loosely stitched plot, an ending that isn’t fully earned. These detract little from a book that invests Paris in 1950s with the allure others have given to the Paris in the 1920s. No matter how many scrapes Sally gets into, you never doubt her intelligence or enthusiasm for life. She writes of friends: “A rowdy bunch on the whole, they were most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.” The same applies many recent books: they’re “so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.” The allure of The Dud Avocado – like that of its heroine – is that it is interchangeable with nothing.

Best line: “I mean, the question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to  that is, don’t we all anyway; might as well get paid for it.”

Worst line: “I saw us for what we really were: beggars and toadies and false pretenders.” Pretenders are always false.

Reading group guide: Posted on the publisher’s site.

Published: 1958 (first edition). June 2007 (NYRB reissue). In addition to The Dud AvocadoDundy wrote the novels The Old Man and Me and The Injured Party and a memoir.

Furthermore: More about Dundy appears in her New York Times obituary. The Dud Avocado has an excellent introduction by Terry Teachout, the author and drama critic for the Wall Street Journal.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda)  on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 11, 2009

What Are You Doing at 11 a.m. on 11/11? Veterans Day Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:36 am
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Did you know …?

“At 11:00 AM on Veterans Day, Americans stop what they are doing for two minutes. They pay their respects to wartime and peacetime heroes. This is a Veterans Day tradition.”

– From Arlene Worsley’s children’s book Veterans Day: American Holidays (Weigl, 2007)

July 22, 2009

Mitch Albom Writes at a 3rd Grade Reading Level, Stephen King at an 8th — The Reading Levels of Your Favorite Authors

[This post first appeared in November 2006 and ranks among the 10 most popular posts of all time on the site. I am on a short semi-vacation.]

For One More Day: A Novel. By Mitch Albom. Hyperion, 197 pp., $21.95.

By Janice Harayda

It’s official: Mitch Albom writes at a third-grade reading level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word 2004.

I know this because For One More Day struck me as so dumbed-down – even for Albom – that it fell below the level of the sixth-grade books I once edited for a test-prep company. So I typed a couple of paragraphs from the novel into my computer and ran the Word spelling and grammar checker, which gives you the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics at the bottom. Albom, it showed, writes at the level of Grade 2.8. This was startling enough that I wondered if the paragraphs I had used, from page 24, were atypical. So I typed in the full text of pages 24 and 25 and found that they were atypical. Albom actually writes at a third-grade level, Grade 3.4, according to Flesch-Kincaid.

I used pages 24 and 25 because the first pages of a book sometimes don’t represent the whole of it: Authors may be clearing their throats or writing in a different tone than they will use after they have found their rhythm. So it’s often fairest to look not just at the first chapter but also at something that comes later. A chapter typically has about 20 pages, so I used the first full section of Albom’s book that follows page 20, a total of 305 words.

All of this raised a question: Does a novel written at a third-grade level deserve the same sort of review as books by authors who write at higher levels? Especially if the book appears to be a naked attempt to combine the theme of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life with the kind of framing device Robert James Waller used in The Bridges of Madison County (which tries to lull you into believing that a novel tells a true story)? Maybe not. So here instead are the grade levels I got for a half dozen other authors when I checked the readability statistics for 305 words of their prose:

Nora Ephron I Feel Bad About My Neck Grade 12.0
Alex Kuczynski Beauty Junkies Grade 10.3, an exposé by a New York Times reporter
James Boswell The Life of Samuel Johnson Grade 8.6
Stephen King Liseys Story Grade 8.3
Danielle Steel Toxic Bachelors Grade 4.8
Emily Arnold McCully An Outlaw Thanksgiving, a picture book for 4-to-8 year olds by a Caldecott Medalist Grade 4.3
Mitch Albom For One More Day Grade 3.4

I also ran the statistics for the Lord’s Prayer, using the punctuation in a 20th century edition of The Book of Common Prayer. And it turns out that Jesus, too, “wrote” at a third-grade level, Grade 3.8, according to Microsoft Word (although he spoke the prayer). So there you have it. Mitch Albom, writing at the Grade 3.4 level, doesn’t quite come up to the level of Jesus at Grade 3.8. But who would know it from all the attention he is getting?

Best Line: A quote from Louis Armstrong: “If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out.”

Worst line: Many. Samples: “He chuckled.” “My mother chuckled.”

Editors: Leslie Wells and Will Schwalbe

Furthermore: This review has a reading level of Grade 9.5, excluding the supplemental information at the end, according to the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics on Microsoft Word 2004.

Published: September 2006. Albom also wrote Tuesdays With Morrie (Anchor, 2005).

How to find the reading level of a book: Go to the Microsoft Word pull-down “Help” menu. Search for “readability statistics.” Select “display readability statistics.” This will walk you through the process of finding the grade level for any text you enter, including your own writing.

Grade levels and their corresponding ages in American schools: In the U.S, children typically begin grades at these ages: kindergarten, 5; first grade, 6; second grade, 7; third grade, 8, fourth grade, 9; fifth grade, 10; sixth grade, 11; seventh grade, 12; eighth grade, 13; ninth grade, 14; tenth grade, 15; 11th grade, 16; 12th grade, 17.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 8, 2009

Daniel McGinn’s ‘House Lust’ – Why Americans Crave Remote-Controlled Toilets, Supersized Homes and Gossip About How Much Stars Paid for Their Digs

A Newsweek correspondent wonders so many people are dissatisfied with their homes

House Lust: America’s Obsession With Our Homes. By Daniel McGinn. Doubleday, 272 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

In California a licensed marriage and family therapist specializes in treating “renovation anxiety and distress,” the trauma of giving a house a face-lift. On the evidence of the lively House Lust, it will take more than counseling – or the Great Recession – to cure Americans of their tendency to covet better homes.

Why do so many people lust after mud rooms, brushed-nickel toilet-paper holders, or countertops made from Giallo Ornamental Granite, imported from Brazil? The forebears of today’s house-hunters may have wanted simply to keep up with the Joneses and their carport or Danish modern sofa.

But Newsweek correspondent Daniel McGinn argues that the psychology of homeownership has become more complex. Drawing on the theories of Cornell economist Robert Frank and others, he suggests that residential upgrades often involve what he calls the “I’ve earned it” hypothesis: Some people have less desire to impress their neighbors than to impress themselves (or, as McGinn writes diplomatically, to “comfort” or “treat” themselves).  Americans are more likely than their grandparents to spend fortunes on spaces few others may ever see:

“Today a top-of-the-line master bath might include a multiple-head steam shower, a $5,000 remote-controlled toilet and a jetted [tub] with nearly as much horsepower as a riding lawnmower,” McGinn writes in House Lust. “Few people in our lives will ever catch a glimpse of these improvements, but we still covet them. Why? Because we’ve earned it.”

An entire book about theories like these might have been as dry as plaster dust. But McGinn enlivens his arguments with colorful and at times witty reporting on an array of related fads: timesharing, “staycations,” television shows like Flip This House, “Do-It-Herself” workshops for women at Home Depot, and the Web site Zilllow that lets you look up the value of homes owned by friends and relatives. McGinn also visits Braden Keil, who writes the “Gimme Shelter” gossip column for the New York Post, and learns that Keil believes that three things make for great real-estate item: a top-drawer celebrity, a record-breaking price paid for a property, or a home with an interesting history, such an apartment where a spectacular murder occurred. “In this worldview,” McGinn writers, “the perfect ‘Gimme Shelter’ item might carry the headline: ‘Britney Spears Drops $200 Mill on Kennedy Compound.”

Best line: No. 1: “In 1950, the average American home measured just 983 square feet. … But over time, the average has crept steadily upward – and by 2005, according to Census data, the average newly-built U.S. home measured 2,434 square feet. … When it comes to American homes, the only thing that’s decreased in recent years is the size of the plot of land on which they’re built and the size of the families who live inside.” No. 2 (quoted in the post that preceded this one): Some new homes are so big that “visitors might require MapQuest to navigate their way from room to room.”

Worst line: “When historians look back on the first years of 21st century American life, the housing boom will be a secondary story, a distant background note to 9/11 and the War on Terror.” Or so it appeared in the pre-crash summer of 2007, when McGinn finished writing House Lust.

Recommendation? The provocative questions and engaging writing style of House Lust might appeal to many book clubs, but the reading group guide on the author’s site is one of the worst I’ve seen. Only three out of its 21 questions mention House Lust. And most are pointless: They in no way enrich your understanding of the book and might have occurred to you whether or not you’d read it. Sample: “If you had a chance to pitch a new show idea to HGTV, what would it be?” How does this help you understand the book? What’s odd is that irrelevant questions like these are usually intended to distract you from the poor quality of a book, but House Lust is good,  so they’re self-defeating.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: January 2008

About the author: McGinn is a national correspondent for Newsweek who lives near Boston.

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

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