One-Minute Book Reviews

March 2, 2009

Helen Garner’s ‘The Spare Room’ — Cancer Tests a Friendship in a Prize-Winning Australian Novel Written at a 9-Year-Old Reading Level

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A dying woman tests others’ patience when she takes the advice of quacks at a sham clinic

The Spare Room. By Helen Garner. Holt, 192 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

How should we treat terminally ill people who don’t accept that they are dying? Should we support the delusion that they will get better – on the premise that false hope is better than none – or tell the truth?

These questions underlie The Spare Room, a short novel about a friendship between two women in their 60s that is tested when one develops metastatic bowel cancer. After conventional treatments fail, Nicola moves in with Helen for three weeks in order to try the alternative therapies peddled by a sham clinic in Melbourne, Australia: Laetrile, coffee enemas, intravenous vitamin C, and an “ozone sauna” said to promote “sweating out the toxins.” Helen is initially solicitous but runs out of patience as she cares around-the-clock for Nicola, who at first rejects the few remaining medical options that might ease her pain, such as slow-release morphine capsules. Helen’s repressed fury leads to a confrontation in which she cruelly pelts her friend with accusations such as, “I wait on you hand and foot” and “Can’t you use your brains?”

Helen’s frustrations are understandable in the abstract and described in prose as smooth as glass. But The Spare Room never gets below the surface of its characters, perhaps in part because it is written at a 9-year-old reading level, according two widely used measures of readability. How could Helen turn so mean-spirited so fast? Garner would have you believe that the change grew out of the physical and emotional strains of nursing a difficult adult. That’s part of her point: Caring for the dying can turn us into people we don’t recognize.

But many people face such demands more gracefully, and Garner doesn’t make clear why Helen didn’t. The Spare Room works best when it sticks to describing the horrors of Nicola’s cancer: the pain, the night sweats, the crone-like posture. The most credible words in this novel will come as no surprise to anyone who has cared for a dying relative, or watched a World War II movie: “God bless morphine.”

Best line: The opening paragraph: “First, in my spare room, I swiveled the bed onto a north-south axis. Isn’t that supposed to align the sleeper with the planet’s positive energy flow, or something? She would think so. I made it up nicely with a fresh fitted sheet, the pale pink one, since she had a famous feel for color, and pink is flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish.”

Worst line: A comment made Helen’s five-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, who has seen Saddam Hussein on television: “What did he do, Nanna, to make him a baddie?” The “Nanna” in midsentence is stilted. A 5-year-old would be more likely put it at the beginning. And the low reading makes many lines seem dumbed-down.

About the reading level: The Spare Room has a fourth-grade (9-year-old) reading level, according to tests of pages 17–18 and pages 117–118 that used the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics and the Spache Readbility Formula.

Published: February 2009

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Spare Room was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 2, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this review.

About the author: Garner is a novelist and the author of the true-crime books The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, both bestsellers in her native Australia. Her Wikipedia entry lists some of her awards.

Garner talks about The Spare Room in an audio podcast.

One-Minute Book Reviews is the home of the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. A list of the ten 2009 finalists and passages from the books that helped them make the shortlist appeared last week.

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

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Spare Room’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Spare Room
A Novel by Helen Garner
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. Other reading groups that 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 the guide.

How should we treat terminally ill people who don’t accept that they are dying? Should we support the delusion that they will get better – on the premise that false hope is better than none – or tell the truth? These questions underlie The Spare Room, a prize-winning Australian novel about a friendship between two women in their 60s that is tested when one develops metastatic bowel cancer. After conventional treatments fail, Nicola moves in with Helen for three weeks in order to try the alternative therapies peddled by a sham clinic in Melbourne, including coffee enemas and intravenous vitamin C. At first solicitous, Helen begins to run out of patience as her houseguest’s demands grow. The novel builds toward a confrontation between the two women that raises yet another question: Whether or not Nicola lives, can the women’s friendship survive her illness?

Discussion Questions
All quotations and page numbers below come from the advance reader’s edition and may differ slightly in the finished book. Garner pronounces Nicola’s name NICK-oh-la.

1. Helen Garner says that The Spare Room was inspired by her experience of caring for dying friends. An autobiographical novel has give you something you wouldn’t get from a memoir in order to work. Did The Spare Room do this? What did you get from it that you couldn’t have gotten from a memoir?

2. The title of The Spare Room refers to an unused room converted to a guest room. But it has several other meanings. Who or what is “spare” or “spared” in this book?

3. Garner says that Australians have told her The Spare Room made them “laugh as well as cry.” Did you find parts of this novel funny? Which ones?

4. At first, Helen seems unusually kind. She takes pains to make her spare room comfortable, such as by choosing a pink sheet because Nicola “had a famous feel for color, and pink is flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish.” [Page 1] Later Helen says cruel things to Nicola: “I wait on you hand and foot” [Page 122] and “Can’t you use your brains?” [Page 124] Was this change believable? What made it credible or not credible?

5. Why did Helen work so hard to transform the spare room? Did she do things like choosing a “flattering” sheet just for Nicola’s benefit or because she needed to downplay for herself the reality of her friend’s death?

6. Nicola appears to deny that she is dying. But Liesl Schillinger wrote in a review that “Garner’s narrative makes clear that Iris and Helen are also in denial.” [“A Visit From Death,” The New York Times Book Review, Feb. 15, 2009, page 12.] Do you agree or disagree?

7. Garner depicts relatives of both of her main characters, including Helen’s five-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Bessie. Do you think she did this to show how different generations view death, to make a point about the women’s ties to their families, or for other reasons?

8. Late in the novel, Helen and Nicola go to a magic show by a German magician [Page 131]. What role does this scene play in the novel? How is the book about the conflict between magic (or illusion) and reality in general? Does the scene relate to an earlier comment by a quack doctor that in Germany many cancer victims live over electromagnetic fields? [Page 31]

9. Two unrelated yardsticks show that The Spare Room is written at fourth-grade (9-year-old) reading level: The Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with the spell-checker on Microsoft Word and the online Spache Readbility Formula. Did the novel seem dumbed-down? Why or not?

10. Many American memoirs or semi-autobiographical novels deal with the relationship between the author and someone who is dying. These range from John Gunther’s modern classic about the loss of his teenage son, Death Be Not Proud, to Mitch Albom’s recent Tuesdays With Morrie. How does The Spare Room compare to any you’ve read? What strengths or weaknesses does it have that they didn’t?

Vital Statistics:
The Spare Room: A Novel. By Helen Garner. Holt, 192 pp., $22. Published: February 2009. A review of The Spare Room appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 2, 2009, in the post that directly followed this guide.

About the author: Garner is a novelist and the author of the true-crime books The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, both bestsellers in her native Australia. Her Wikipedia entry lists some of her awards.

Garner talks about The Spare Room in an audio podcast.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 21, 2008

Australia Was the Best Modern Olympic Host (Quote of the Day / ‘The Olympic Games’)

Filed under: Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:43 pm
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If the International Olympic Committee gave awards for hosting the summer games of the past quarter century, China would deserve the booby prize for embarrassments that began with lip sync-ing at the opening ceremony and keep unfolding. What country was the best recent host? The editors of The Olympic Games: Athens 1896–Athens 2004 (DK, 2004) vote for Australia:

“The Sydney 2000 Games were one of the greatest success stories in Olympic history. Over 10,000 athletes from 200 countries delivered the ultimate sporting even in a suberb venue.

“At the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Games, outgoing president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Juan Antonio Samaranch declared to the host nation, ‘I am proud and happy to proclaim that you have presented to the world the best Olympic Games ever.’ Quite a plaudit, but one few would argue with. Everything seemed perfect – the organization, the athletic performance, the setting, the climate …

“The only blot on the Sydney Games was the rash of athletes removed after failing drugs tests – a record total of 35. However, it is undeniable that the Sydney Games were the high watermark of the modern Olympics, and something that future Olympic hosts will have to live up to.”

This comment comes from a publisher that, though well-respected, is based in London www.dk.com. Do you agree with the editors? Or do you think their comments show a Commonwealth bias?

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

May 17, 2007

Nigel Marsh’s ‘Fat, Forty, and Fired,’ a Memoir of Unemployment

An English advertising executive in Australia discovers that – surprise – caring for his children is harder than he thought

Fat, Forty, and Fired: One Man’s Frank, Funny and Inspiring Account of Leaving His Job and Finding His Life. By Nigel Marsh. Andrews McMeel, 288 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

A couple of decades ago, American newspapers regularly published articles by men who had decided to stay home with their children and realized – to their amazement – that the work their wives did was actually hard. These gee-whiz accounts became a journalistic cliché fast enough that they have pretty well played themselves out here.

But apparently the trend still has life in Australia, where Nigel Marsh’s memoir of nine months at home with his family earned him spot next to Dan Brown and John Grisham on the bestseller lists. Not that Marsh signed on for the project as willingly as some of those former American “househusbands” who have since been recast as “stay-at-home dads.” Born and raised in England, he was the CEO of an advertising agency when a merger left him jobless. Instead of going right back to work, he decided that he wanted to stop being “a bit player in my own family” and spend more time with his wife, Kate, and four children under the age of 9.

Fat, Forty, and Fired is a breezy account of this experience that reads at times like a book fished out of an American time capsule from the 1980s, or a treatment for an offbeat Australian version of The Simple Life with the author alternately playing the roles of Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and one of their hosts. Marsh pats himself on the back when his stint as a school cafeteria volunteer goes well, and he’s irritated when his wife doesn’t “thank” him for dressing his twin daughters. Fortunately, Kate sets him straight quickly: “Why should I thank you when you do the basic things that you should be doing anyway?” And his book becomes more interesting as he flings himself other goals – to lose 30 pounds, train for an ocean swimming race, and conquer the alcoholism that he’d been denying even while knocking back six beers a night after work.

By the end of the nine months, Marsh has achieved several of his aims. But his hope of achieving “a more balanced life” is another matter. Recidivism sets in almost as soon as he takes a new job as CEO of Leo Burnett Australia. And he concludes that all the books and articles that tell men how to achieve “work-life balance” are not only misguided but part of the problem, because men can’t “have it all” any more than women can. That may be true, you have the sense that he’s known that all along. So what did he really gain from his experience?

In his time off, he quit drinking, lost weight and had many lyrical moments with his children, who play amusing and at times poignant roles in the book. And such gains, he suggests, were enough. “I may be struggling,” he admits, “but the struggle is slightly more enjoyable less damaging to those around me than it was a year ago.”

Best line: One of the strongest chapters deals with how people reacted after learning that Marsh had quit drinking. One group insisted bizarrely that he’d never had a problem with alcohol: “I was somehow offending these people’s sense of what a ‘real’ drunk’s story should be. I wasn’t a professional drunk – I was merely third division. Pathetic. My life hadn’t gone off the rails enough for them. If only I could have an affair, lose my job, or maim someone in an accident, I’d be a first-class guy. It just didn’t impress these people that I stopped before a dramatic disaster befell me.”

Worst line: Marsh’s treatment of most subjects is skin deep and sinks into psychobabble when he tries to sum up what he learned from his time off. He says the hiatus “started me on a personal journey” and that “I’m basically working on the habit of counting my blessings, not whining about the challenges.”

Reading group guide: A readers’ guide to Fat, Forty, and Fired was posted, before this review, on May 17, 2007, and is archived in the Totally Authorized Reading Group Guides category. This is guide is not just for book clubs but is also for individual readers who would like to learn more about the book.

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

Published: April 2007

Links: www.fatfortyandfired.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Nigel Marsh’s ‘Fat, Forty, and Fired’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Fat, Forty, and Fired:

One Man’s Frank, Funny and Inspiring Account of Losing His Job and Finding His Life

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and only for your personal use. The sale or reproduction of this guide is illegal except by public libraries that many copy it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

After losing his job as the CEO of an Australian advertising agency, Nigel Marsh realized he wanted to stop being “a bit player” in his family. So instead of going right back to work, he decided to spend more time with his wife and four children under the age of 9. Fat, Forty, and Fired is a breezy account of the nine months he spent pursuing that and other goals he set for himself – to lose 30 pounds, compete in an ocean swimming race, and conquer his alcoholism. Since achieving some of his goals, Marsh has returned to work and is chairman of the Leo Burnett agency in Australia, where his book was a bestseller.

Questions for Discussion
[All quotations and page numbers are based on the advance readers’ edition and may differ in the finished book.]

1. Marsh talks with a friend about wanting “a more balanced life” while they are exploring Tasmania early in the book. [Page 78] Do you think he really wanted this or thought he was supposed to want it? Does he achieve his definition of “a more balanced life”? Does he achieve yours?

2. In the chapter called Winegums,” Marsh concludes that books and articles that tell men how to achieve “work-life balance” are not only misguided but part of the problem, because the idea of “having it all” doesn’t work for men any better than it does for women. He writes [Page 266]:

“Stressed executives all over the developed world now have the added stress of trying to do it all. All our striving for balance is making us less balanced, not more. The bar has been set at a completely unrealistic level. Many men try desperately hard to do it all – and then beat up on themselves when they aren’t home for their kids’ suppers. When they finally do get home, they feel like failures and deal with their frustration by being morose and shouting at the wife and kids.”

What evidence does he offer for this besides his experience? How strong is the case he makes for his point of view? Do you agree or disagree with him?

3. Fat, Forty, and Fired tells us little about the work that Marsh did at the Darcy agency before his job was merged out of existence, except for saying that he had to fire people when the shop closed. He doesn’t talk about any of the advertising campaigns he worked on or their rewards and frustrations. Would this kind of information have added to or detracted from his story? Why?

4. Born and raised in England, Marsh was living in Australia when he lost his job. To what degree do you think his background influenced his views? How might Fat, Forty, and Fired have been different if an American had written it?

5. Marsh says that when he was five years old, his parents sent him a boarding school in the west of England. He calls such institutions “soul-destroying quasiprisons.” [Page 43] How might this experience have affected his views?

6. At one point Marsh is annoyed that his wife doesn’t thank him for dressing his twin daughters. [Page 64] Kate puts him in his place. “When do I get thanked?” she asks. “I dress the girls all the time and you never thank me. Why should I thank you when you do the basic things that you should be doing anyway?” [Page 64]

How does this passage relate to your life? Some people might call Marsh a sexist for expecting to be thanked for dressing his daughters. Would you agree or disagree?

7. Did you sense that there was a subtext to Marsh’s relationship with his wife that he couldn’t discuss without violating her privacy? What was the subtext?

8. Marsh speaks vaguely of his financial worries, such as when he writes about letting the nanny go and moving. But in Fat, Forty, and Fired, he seems mostly unconcerned with finding work. He describes no serious efforts to look for a job and, when he gets one, it seems to arrive out of the blue, almost as a deus ex machina. Nor does he cast unemployment as the crushing assault on the ego that it is for many men. Why do you think this is so? Do you think his feelings were too painful to write about? That he was confident he could get another job? That something else was going on?

9. Fat, Forty, and Fired includes bits of Marsh’s philosophy of life. Which do you remember best? Which do you think he was or wasn’t able to live by?

10. Marsh never explains how he came to write Fat, Forty, and Fired – specifically, whether he knew he was going to write a book when he began his time off. Some critics would say that if he knew this, he had an ethical obligation to say so, because it makes a difference to the story. We might see his money worries differently if we knew he had received a book advance that wasn’t an option for other men. Or we might suspect him of having sought out some experiences because they would make “good copy” or believe he had extra motivation to achieve some goals because a book advance was riding on them. Would it make a difference to you if you knew Marsh had received or not received a book contract before starting what he calls a “personal journey”? Or does the book justify itself? Note: Since this guide appeared, Nigel Marsh has posted a response to this question in the “Comments” section. Thanks, Nigel! His response follows. Jan

Hi Janice,

Subject: ‘Fat, Forty and Fired’

A friend just showed me this and I wanted to provide some answers regarding question 10.

I didn’t decide to write a book about my experiences until 4 months into my time off work, moreover I didn’t get a book deal until well over a year after I had returned to work.

Hope this helps provides some useful context for your book club readers.

Thank you for taking an interest in ‘Fat, Forty and Fired’.

Best wishes from Down Under

Nigel Marsh

Vital Statistics:
Fat, Forty, and Fired: One Man’s Frank, Funny and Inspiring Account of Leaving His Job and Finding His Life. By Nigel Marsh. Andrews McMeel, 288 pp., $19.95. www.fatfortyandfired.com Published: April 2007

A review of Fat, Forty, and Fired appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com on May 17, 2007, and is archived with the May posts and in the “Memoirs” category.

If you found this guide helpful, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing others. The guides are posted frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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