One-Minute Book Reviews

November 30, 2009

Great Books About Scotland — A St. Andrew’s Day Celebration

Filed under: Biography,Fiction,Memoirs,News,Nonfiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:03 am
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The Scots — who gave us classics that range from Treasure Island to James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson — celebrate their heritage on St. Andrew’s Day, Nov. 30, the feast day of the patron saint of Scotland. Here, in its honor, are some of my favorite books about the land of my maternal ancestors:

The Crofter and the Laird (FSG, 1992), by John McPhee. More than three decades ago, McPhee moved with his wife and four young daughters to a small island in the inner Hebrides, just off the Scottish mainland, which had fewer than 200 residents. He tells the story of that visit to the land of his ancestors in The Crofter and the Laird, a fascinating of study of a place that refracts the history of Colonsay through his family’s experiences. The book is especially noteworthy for its portrait of changing relations between crofters or tenant farmers and their English laird (then, a glorified landlord who owned the island) long before the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. First published in 1969.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (HarperPerennial, 2009), by Muriel Spark. This great novella is a brilliant psychological study of female power as deployed by a teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school in the early 1930s. The 1969 movie version had a memorable star turn by Maggie Smith but didn’t capture the most remarkable aspect of the book: It is a masterpiece of tone. Spark neither sentimentalizes nor demonizes her heroine, but describes her with the kind of cool detachment rarely found in novels about the sexually overheated world of girls’ and boys’ schools.  First published in 1961.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (Oxford University Press, 2009),by John Buchan. This slender, classic spy thriller is the first of Buchan’s five novels about Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Scottish-born engineer who became a prototype for generations of adventurous patriots. In The Thirty-Nine Steps Hannary shelters a spy who has learned of a secret German plan to invade England. When the man is murdered, Hannay flees to the Scotland, where he hopes to lie low amid remote glens and moors. He soon finds himself hunted both by the British police who consider him a suspect and by the Germans who have killed the spy. After being spotted from an airplane, Hannay tries to elude his pursuers by adopting disguises and traveling by foot, bicycle and train through Scotland. This story is better known today for its movie version by Alfred Hitchcock. But Hitchcock changed so much of the plot that no matter often you’ve seen the film, you can enjoy the book. First published in 1915.

Other good books about Scotland include Israel Shenker’s In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell : A Modern Day Journey through Scotland, a re-tracing of one of the most famous literary excursions in history, and the two books that inspired it: Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and James Boswell’s A Tour to the Hebrides. You can find them together in one edition.

A fine golf book for serious readers (as opposed to serious picture-gazers) is A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands, the journalist Lorne Rubenstein’s account of a summer of playing on the Royal Dornoch Golf Course. And Liza Campbell writes of her life as the daughter of a Thane of Cawdor in A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle, a memoir that offers a stars-without-makeup view of 20th-century Scottish aristocrats. Campbell’s book isn’t perfect, but the British class system is dissolving fast enough that her story may be one of the last of its kind.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.Twitter.com/janiceharayda, where you’ll find others’ favorite books on Scotland by reading her home page or searching Twitter for the hashtag #scots.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 27, 2009

A Lift-the-Flap Book About Transportation — William Low’s ‘Machines That Work’

An artist born in a taxi shows a train, fire truck and other vehicles in action

Machines Go To Work. By William Low. Holt, 42 pp., $14.95. Ages 5 and under.

By Janice Harayda

William Low was born in the back seat of a taxi in the Bronx, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that he has written an excellent book about transportation. Machines Go to Work unfolds as a series of small dramas about familiar conveyances, all described in a clear and at times onomatopoetic text – a backhoe, fire truck, cement mixer, tow truck, tugboat, container ship, freight train, and news helicopter.

In each case Low introduces a machine, then asks a question or makes a statement that encourages you to lift a flap and see it in action. He writes on one spread: “When the drawbridge opens, the container ship may pass. Will it fit through the narrow gap?” You lift a flap and see the ship passing under the raised bridge with the help of red tugboat. On another spread Low shows a helicopter rushing toward a news event: “Is there an accident ahead?” No, just a row of ducklings crossing a street.

Cynics may see Low’s ducklings as a form of brazen pandering to American Library Association awards judges — who gave their 1942 Caldecott Medal to Make Way for Ducklings — while others may view them as a lovely homage to Robert McCloskey’s classic. But Machines Go to Work is so good, it hardly matters. Low suggests the power of his machines through rich, saturated colors and what appear to be thick oil-paint brushstrokes but are, in fact, digital art created with Photoshop and Painter software.

Low has also found a way around the problem with most lift-the-flap books: Children can too easily rip off the flaps. All of his “flaps” are sturdy full-page gatefolds, which should make the pages last for the life of the book. And at the back, Low explains what each machine does in a helpful thumbnail sketch. Low writes of the fire truck: “This truck is so long that it needs two steering wheels: one in the front and one in the back!” His deft blend of drama and facts would make this a fine gift for a 2-to-4-year-old who loves anything with wheels.

Best line/picture: The freight train gatefold opens out to four pages (instead of the three the other machines get) to show “its 22 cars and a caboose in the back.”

Worst line/picture: Low calls cherry trees “cherry blossom trees,” which may be how children see them but also leave a misimpression about their name.

Published: May 2009

Furthermore: Low explains how he creates his digital images in a three-part video on the Holt site.

About the author: Low‘s picture books include Old Penn Station, a New York Times Best Illustrated Book.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. Children’s book reviews appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Not Written in Lipstick – Sarah Dunn’s Novel ‘Secrets to Happiness’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:45 am
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A search-and-rescue mission for single New Yorkers and their dogs

Secrets to Happiness: A Novel. By Sarah Dunn. Little, Brown, 277 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

Sarah Dunn is that rarity among comic novelists — a moralist in the best sense of the word. She doesn’t preach or lecture. But her heroines have a solid moral core left over from the strict Christian upbringing they have rejected. They struggle to do the right thing even as friends are cheating on their partners or trolling for casual sex on LukesPlace, a site similar to Craigslist in Secrets to Happiness. If Dunn’s heroines fall for faithless men, it isn’t because these women are vapid or silly – it’s because they are confused. They don’t know how to reconcile their early lessons with those of the age of Sex and the City, when their peers deal with moral questions by handing them off to psychiatrists or blocking them out with drugs from a pharmacy in St. Kitts.

“It never ceased to amaze Holly, how therapists managed to spin things,” Dunn writes of her main character. After years in Manhattan, Holly suspected that psychotherapy aimed to make it possible for people “to do whatever they wanted to do, with whomever they wanted to do it, when and where and however they felt like it, while reaping no negative emotional consequences whatsoever.”

That passage alone might lift Secrets to Happiness above most novels about single New Yorkers, in which few plot devices are more clichéd than an emotionally gimpy heroine’s visit to a therapist whose banalities help her find love. But the book has much more going for it than that. This is a novel about the related questions: What is the cost of being emotionally abandoned? And when do you give up the fantasy that you can rescue a relationship?

Holly Frick thinks she still loves a husband who has left her when, in her mid-30s, she faces other swiftly arriving changes: She adopts a dog with brain cancer, becomes involved with a 22-year-old man, and learns that her married best friend is having an affair. She must also persuade her gay script-writing partner to do his share of the work for an afternoon TV show now that her masochistically titled novel, Hello, Mr. Heartache, is tanking at bookstores. Part of the suspense comes from whether Holly will stick with her canine and human companions or will abandon them as her husband has abandoned her.

Dunn doesn’t develop this plot quite as well as she did that of her first novel, The Big Love, which has no relation to the HBO series. Much of the charm of that book came from the quirky first-person narration of its heroine, a Philadelphia magazine writer. Dunn uses shifting third-person viewpoints in her new novel, and though she handles them well, the device leaves the book softer at its center. Holly is its emotional and moral anchor, and the omniscient narration dilutes her impact.

So the pleasure of reading Secrets to Happiness comes less from its plot than from Dunn’s sophisticated wit, social commentary, and sharp eye for how single people of both sexes rationalize their actions. The novel abounds with lines that are amusing or perceptive or both. One involves the its Craigslist-surrogate: “The thing Leonard liked about LukesPlace was that you didn’t have to be altogether on your game and yet you could still have sex with perfect strangers.” When a man asks Holly if she wrote “chick lit,” she responds, “I wrote the entire thing in lipstick, actually.” No one should confuse Secrets to Happiness with a book that might as well be sold at cosmetics counters.

Best line: “Betsy Silverstein was only half Jewish, but with Betsy, half was plenty.”

Worst line: “She pressed on like a trooper.” The word is “trouper.”

Recommended if … you’ve wonder, “Where are the novels about single women that aren’t mainly about shoes?” (though The Big Love offers a better introduction to Dunn’s work).

Published: March 2009

About the author: Dunn has written for Murphy Brown and other television shows. A post about The Big Love appeared on this site on Feb. 14, 2007.

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

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 18, 2009

Philips Roth Makes 2009 Bad Sex Award Shortlist for ‘The Humbling’ – Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Chronic City’ Is Spared

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:54 pm
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An aging actor converts a lesbian to heterosexuality in a finalist by the author of Portnoy’s Complaint

An “eye-watering” scene that involves a green dildo won Philip Roth a spot on the shortlist for the 2009 Bad Sex in fiction award, given by Great Britain’s Literary Review. The prize is intended to draw attention to and discourage “the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description” in books other than pornography and erotica.

A Guardian story about the shortlist said:

“The Pulitzer prize-winning Roth makes the line-up for The Humbling, in which the ageing actor Simon converts Pegeen, a lesbian, to heterosexuality. The Literary Review singled out a scene in which Simon and Pegeen pick up a girl from a bar and convince her to take part in a threesome. Simon looks on as Pegeen uses her green dildo to great effect.”

The Guardian story has the names of all the finalists, who include Paul Theroux for A Dead Hand and Amos Oz for Rhyming Life and Death. Oz is an Israeli novelist who was widely seen as a frontrunner for the 2009 Nobel Prize. The judges spared the latest novel by Jonathan Lethem, the subject of an earlier post (“Is Jonathan Lethem Courting a 2009 Bad Sex Award With These Lines From Chronic City?“). The winner of the prize will be announced on Nov. 30 at London’s In & Out Club.

‘Even the National Book Awards Can Generate a Judging Scandal’

Filed under: News,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:48 pm
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Interesting reactions to my post yesterday on an apparent conflict of interest on the judging panel for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature. An article by Motoko Rich for the New York Times ArtsBeat blog, in which I am quoted, begins: “It’s not Olympic figure skating, but even the National Book Awards can generate a judging scandal.” And Elizabeth Bird weighs in on the School Library Journal blog, where she wonders: “What should technically be considered a conflict of interest?” The winners of the awards will be announced tonight beginning at about 8 p.m. EST, and the results should appear almost instantaneously on Twitter (@nationalbook) at www.twitter.com/nationalbook. I may have comments about them after 10 p.m. on “Late Night With Jan Harayda.”

November 15, 2009

‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ – Quotes of the Day From a 2009 Finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

“A novel … does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman, all the better.”
— Charles Darwin, as quoted in Charles and Emma

The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced Wednesday, and the finalists in the category of young people’s literature include Deborah Heiligman’s captivating Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95). This dual biography is a portrait of the loving marriage of the author of The Origin of Species and his spirited and intelligent wife, who held religious views he did not share.

This excerpt describes how Charles and Emma Darwin spent their first days in their new home in London after their wedding at a Staffordshire church on January 29, 1839:

“In their first few days together, they mostly stayed in – it was snowing. But they also did some shopping for furniture, dishes, and clothes, including a morning gown for Emma. It was ‘a sort of clarety-brown satin,’ she wrote to [her sister] Elizabeth, and she felt it was ‘very unobjectionable.’ They borrowed some novels from the library, starting a lifelong tradition of reading together – usually Emma read to Charles while he rested from his work. Charles liked novels with happy endings, and he once wrote, ‘I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me … and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily – against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.”

An earlier post on Charles and Emma has links to more information about the book.

The publisher recommends Charles and Emma for ages 13 and up — perhaps because of occasional mature content, such as the passing use of the word “erection” — but it may also appeal to younger children who are strong readers.

November 5, 2009

Has Hollywood Betrayed Roald Dahl by Adding ‘a PC Message’ to the New Movie of ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’? – Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:27 pm
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SPOILER WARNING! PLEASE STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ ABOUT THE ENDING OF A FILM THAT HAS NOT YET OPENED IN THE U.S.

I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, but the critic Toby Young makes a good case that Hollywood has betrayed its spirit in a film version due out here on Nov. 25. Young saw the movie at the London Film Festival and said the voices of Mr. and Mrs. Fox – provided by George Clooney and Meryl Streep – are good.

But the movie gives the genteel thief Mr. Fox a son named Ash (unlike the book, in which Mr. Fox has four children who are, as Young puts it, “undifferentiated”). The filmmakers tell us that there’s something “different” about Ash, whose father is cool to him: “But what is the difference exactly? All is revealed in the film’s final scene, when we see Ash wearing what appears to be lipstick. The message couldn’t be clearer: Ash is gay.”

Young argues that what’s objectionable isn’t that the filmmakers have added a gay character to Fantastic Mr. Fox but that they have shoehorned a “politically correct message” into the story: “It’s a way of enlisting Dahl on behalf of the educational establishment, when what’s so attractive about him is that he seems to be on the side of children rather than those grownups who think they know what’s best for them.”

Dahl does appeal to children partly for that reason, and you can read Young’s full argument for why the film ought to have respected it in “Whose Bright Idea Was It to Shoehorn a PC Message into a Roald Dahl Story?”

Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Chronic City’ – Cursed by the ‘Genius Grant’?

Paranoia with a side of wasabi cashews

Chronic City: A Novel. By Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 467 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Do MacArthur Fellowships have a counterpart to the “curse of the Nobel” said to keep writers from doing their best work after they become laureates? You might think so after reading the latest novel by the “genius grant” winner Jonathan Lethem.

Chronic City draws on an idea that science-fiction writers have used for decades: simulated-worlds theory, which says that computers will someday become powerful enough to create a facsimile of the universe, full of people who really believe they’re alive – they don’t know they’re fakes. Lethem brings the idea to literary fiction in a surrealistic fable about Manhattan during the economic meltdown: You’re never certain whether his characters are real or created by forces beyond their ken. This premise might seem ideally pitched to novel born of a financial crisis that has caused many people to think: This is can’t be real. But the idea holds a trap: If you invent characters soulless enough to have been created by computer, how do you keep them human enough to support a novel?

Lethem doesn’t avoid that danger in this tale of two friends whose lives intersect with those of a billionaire mayor and others who can still afford cocktails with wasabi cashews and “a nice black-market unpasteurized  fromage.” Chase Insteadman is a semi-retired actor, a man whose work involves selling illusions, whose fiancée is an astronaut trapped with Russians at a space station threatened by Chinese mines. Perkus Tooth is a paranoid stoner and former culture critic who believes New York has become unreal, a simulation of itself. Yes, those twee names are typical of this novel in which words seem to run away with Lethem.

The plot turns partly on Perkus’s efforts to ease his anxieties by enlisting Chase and others in his quest to obtain rare ceramics called chaldrons that may have magical powers. A subplot weaves in phantasmagorical elements such as a giant escaped tiger that is ravaging the Upper East Side, that bastion of old money and property. Many undergraduate theses will be written about all symbols-within-symbols in this novel. (Sample title: “Different Stripes: The Meaning of the Question ‘Who Made This Tiger?’ in William Blake’s Poem ‘The Tiger’ and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City.) And worthy questions underlie its cat’s-cradle of pop-cultural references, including: Who owns New York? Those references support a theme that Chase’s fiancée suggests in one of her letters home from outer space: “we’ve defaulted to an illusion of substance.” She’s talking about the deteriorating condition of the trapped astronauts, but her words describe New York as a whole: In the novel the city has only “an illusion of substance.” The condition is chronic.

Yet Chronic City reads more like a simulation of a novel than the real thing. It has a turgid pace almost no conflict, suspense, or heart. Most characters appear soulless. And the writing is repetitive to the point of bloat and, at times, graceless. Critics have compared Lethem’s early novels to the works of contemporary titans, but Chronic City has more in common with Herman Melville’s numbing final novel, The Confidence-Man. Even a mayoral aide’s sexual encounter – described as “wildly odd and erotic” – fails to supply the missing spark. Lethem writes: “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” A bit, perhaps, like the itching you may feel to put aside this book after many pages of sentences like that one.

Best line: “His mind’s landscape was epic, dotted with towering figures like Easter Island heads.”

Worst line: No. 1 (quoted above): “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” No. 2: “It was my first green chaldron. (Like sexual positions or travel to distant locales, I’d been semiconsciously cataloguing seminal moments, breakthroughs.)” No. 3: “I wanted Oona in the morning. I could still conjure her slippery smoothness in my arms (and divergent cuppable breasts in my palms, where they left ghost trails of a peach’s weight), but Oona kept dunning lights and pulling curtains, and dressing and undressing stealthily, while I was at the sink or refrigerator, or asleep.” No. 4: “My shame took its place in a vast backdrop of shames – oxygen-starved astronauts, war-exiled orphans, dwindling and displaced species – against which I puttered through daily life, attending parties and combating hangovers, recording voice-overs and granting interviews to obscure fan sites, drinking coffee and smoking joints with Perkus, and making contact with real feeling unpredictably and at random, at funeral receptions, under rain-sheeted doorways.” No. 5: “Richard’s unrestrained sarcastic inflection of this last word served not only to reinforce what a poor selection he thought I’d made in Strabo Blandiana but to assuage Perkins that the two of them still spoke above my head, and so his promise of future listening was sincere.”  [Note: As opposed to a promise of past listening?]

Published: October 2009

Furthermore: A good analysis of the pop-cultural references in Chronic City and of some of Lethem’s influences appeared in a review in Bookforum. Novelist Mark Lindquist says he loves the novel but warns in a Seattle Times review, “You can find more plot in a Jethro Tull album.”  

About the author: Lethem has written seven novels, including The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. He received a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called a “genius grant, in 2005.

You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she has posted more of her thoughts on Chronic City.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 30, 2009

Women Shut Out of Publishers Weekly List of 10 Best Books of 2009

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:18 pm
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Poetry and books from small presses don’t make the grade, either

No books by female authors appear on the list of the 10 best books of the year just posted by Publishers Weekly, the leading industry trade journal. I focus on reviews on One-Minute Book Reviews but have reacted to the shutout in tweets at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda that mention a couple of titles by women that PW might have included.

If you look at the trade journal’s list, you may notice that apart from having no books by female authors, it has no poetry or books from small presses. And 70 percent of the titles come from Random House and its imprints (Knopf, Doubleday, Spiegel & Grau, Ballantine and Pantheon) with the rest coming from Norton and Penguin. Best-of-the-year lists are arbitrary and often inscrutable, so I won’t try to dissect PW‘s here. But if I see noteworthy patterns emerging in these lists, I may comment on them in “Late Night With Jan Harayda,” a series of occasional posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and don’t include reviews.

October 29, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – First Impressions of Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Chronic City’

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:27 pm
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I’m reading Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and trying to decide whether to finish it. The narrator is a male New Yorker engaged to a female astronaut trapped on the International Space Station, and I have an irrational fear that the theme of the novel is going to turn out to be, “Women really are from Venus.” Also the novelist Mark Lindquist wrote in a review of the book in the Seattle Times, “You can find more plot in a Jethro Tull album.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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