One-Minute Book Reviews

April 27, 2010

Hot Air Blows in From Academia – Quote of the Day / Ben Yagoda in ‘Memoir: A History’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:12 am
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Ben Yagoda writes in his recent Memoir: A History (Riverhead, 291 pp., $25.95), a survey of personal narratives the from 5th-century Confessions of St. Augustine to the present:

“In the 1980s, an unfamiliar pronoun began to appear in works of academic philosophy, history, literary criticism, anthropology, and other fields: ‘I.’ An especially popular formation was ‘I want to argue that,’ introducing a clause that, twenty years earlier, would have been the entire sentence.”

April 20, 2009

2009 Pulitzer Prize Winners Are Strout, Meacham, Gordon-Reed, Merwin, and Blackmon

These books have won the five 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for books:

Fiction: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

History: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed
Biography or Autobiography: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham
Poetry: The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin
General Nonfiction: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

For more information and a list of the finalists, visit the 2009 awards page for the Pulitzer Foundation.

A Film Critic Remembers Growing Up With Unexploded Bombs in Postwar London – David Thomson’s ‘Try to Tell the Story’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:11 am
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Looking back on life with a father who kept secrets from his English family

Try to Tell the Story: A Memoir. By David Thomson. Knopf, 224 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Film critic David Thomson grew up in a London infested with unexploded bombs, real and symbolic. The real ones landed intact during the Blitz or later in World War II. The symbolic ones began to fall when Thomson’s father, on learning that his wife was pregnant, left home and from then on returned to the family’s South London home only on weekends to see his son. This arrangement was less bizarre than some described in recent memoirs. What made it unusual was that when Kenneth Thomson returned for his weekly visits, he took young son on sports and other outings without ever acknowledging that he had been away.

In this memoir of his first 18 years, David Thomson sorts out the effects of the buried truth with tact and forbearance. Try to Tell the Story has banal descriptions of cricket matches: “The day we were there we saw Hutton score a century backed by Graveney against Lindwall and Miller, but by the end of the match, after [Australian] centuries from Hassett and Miller, Willie Watson and Trevor Bailey had to make a heroic stand against England against defeat.” But the book shows that Thomson developed early a fine critical sensibility both for films such as Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and for moviegoing in general. When Thomson wondered how movies got onto theater screens, his father pointed to light from a projection booth. “In those days that beam of light was thick with writhing smoke,” he writes, “since everyone at the movies smoked.”

Best line: “The first day I arrived in America there had been a flood in Maine, a summer flood. It was on the evening news and the Boston reporter, all quickfire and soft soap, had lined up an elderly Maine fellow to see if he had ever seen anything like this before. ‘Well, Mr. Parsons,’ he said. ‘I understand you’ve lived all your life in Maine.’ And the old-time said, ‘Not yet.’”

Worst line: “… we had food rationing for years – into the 1950s, I remember.” Relying on memory for that date is lazy writing. Food rationing ended in England in 1954 and was such a significant event that people burned their ration books in Trafalgar Square. Thomson could have found the date in a few minutes of online searching.

If you like this book, you may also like: Paula Fox’s memoir, The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe.

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

About the author: Thomson lives in San Francisco. He also wrote Nicole Kidman and “Have You Seen ….?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films.

Read an excerpt from Try to Tell the Story.

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

March 26, 2009

Brendan Halpin’s ‘Losing My Faculties’ — A High School Teacher Tells All

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:49 am
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It’s odd how few good memoirs there are by high school teachers, especially compared with the many by professors. A worthy exception to the pattern is Losing My Faculties: A Teacher’s Story (Villard, 256 pp., $15, paperback). In this lively book, Brendan Halpin reflects on his years as young teacher in inner-city and suburban public schools in the Boston area in the 1990s. His tone can be smart-alecky, but he’s a passionate teacher who has grounds for complaint about apsects of his work: hostility from older teachers, a poorly designed truancy program, patronizing advice dispensed to teachers by consultants with no classroom experience. Halpin has also written a good memoir of his first wife’s breast-cancer treatments, It Takes a Worried Man, and young-adult or crossover novels, including Donorboy and new I Can See Clearly Now (Villard, 288 pp., $14).

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 22, 2009

Barbara Walters Remembers When William Safire Gave Her a Black Shorty Nightgown With Matching Lace Panties — and Other Events — in a Bizarre ‘Audition’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:11 am
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Bad at marriage and worse at skiing, but good at getting television viewers to flush simultaneously

Audition: A Memoir. By Barbara Walters. Knopf, 612 pp., $29.95.

By Janice Harayda

How popular was the two-hour Barbara Walters Special on Monica Lewinsky? “There were reports,” Walters writes, “that the water level in some cities dropped during the commercial breaks as large numbers of people were flushing at the same time.”

This peculiar factoid suggests the bizarre tone of Audition, an overstuffed memoir by America’s first female network news coanchor. In a half century in broadcasting, Walters has never learned to write for the eye instead of the ear, and this leads to unintentional comedy. (“If I was bad at marriage, I was even worse at skiing.”) Walters also indulges her instinct for score-settling, celebrity puffery, and self-contradiction. (“I have always been a terrific editor, if I do say so myself — and I do say so myself.”) But many of her anecdotes about her early years in broadcasting are revealing, particularly when they suggest how much pyrite the networks served up in what some critics call “the golden age of television.” Walters reports that when she left Today to coanchor the news at ABC, the Alpo dog food company gave her a red ice bucket shaped like a fire hydrant — a reminder that the hosts of the show once had to do commercials for the sponsor’s products. And even her clunkiest lines at times have a weird fascination. “I don’t want to disappoint anyone,” she writes, “but let me say once again, Castro and I were definitely not lovers.”

Best line: Walters quotes a joke that the comedian Joy Behar told after Salman Rushdie received death threats and went into hiding: “I’ll tell you the difference between men and women. Rushdie has been in solitary confinement for five years with no visitors at all allowed … and in that time he’s been married twice.”

Worst line: No. 1: “But just before the ax fell, lightning struck and my life changed, never to be the same again.” No. 2: “And so, in June 1955, my father walked me down the aisle. … My heart had never felt so heavy, but then again, my heart would feel just as heavy every time I married (I’ve been married three times), which is why, as I write this, please know that I will never get married again!” No. 3: Early in her career, Walters worked at a PR agency with William Safire, the future New York Times columnist, who noticed that she “rarely relaxed”: “That is why at an office Christmas party, his gift to me was a sheer, black, shorty nightgown with matching lace panties. I was somewhat embarrassed but also delighted. Today when we are so concerned with sexual harassment such a gift might not be well received.”

Sample chapter titles: “Monica.” “Finally, Fidel.” “Garland, Capote, Rose Kennedy, and Princess Grace.” “Presidents and First Ladies: Forty Years Inside the White House.” “Dean Rusk, Golda Meir, Henry Kissinger, and Prince Philip.”

Editor: Peter Gethers

Published: May 2008 (hardcover), paperback due out in May 2009.

Furthermore: Walters was the first female coanchor at an American television news network. She co-hosts ABC’s The View.

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

November 17, 2008

Tuesdays With More Jewelry – The 13 Women You Meet in ‘The Necklace’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 am
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“I told Wayne, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. If you vote for Bush I’ll give you sexual favors.’ I live with a Democrat. What else could I do?’ Men are distracted by their little brain, as we call it.”
— Nancy Huff, who chipped in with 12 other women buy a $15,000 diamond tennis necklace, on her husband, Wayne

The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives. By the Women of Jewelia and Cheryl Jarvis. Ballantine, 240 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Think of this book as Tuesdays With More Jewelry. Or For One More Day With a $15,000 Necklace. Or The 13 Women You Meet in Midlife If You’re Planning to Live to Be 100+.

Mitch Albom doesn’t have a new book out this year, but if you’re having withdrawal symptoms, The Necklace offers an antidote in the form of a variation on the Tuesdays With Morrie formula: Take two or more middle-aged or older people, have them meet regularly, and write about the self-evident truths they say “learned” from their get-togethers.

In this case 13 California women, all in their 50s or early 60s, chipped in to buy a $15,000 diamond tennis necklace and named it Jewelia. Then they took turns keeping it for a month at a time, sometimes lending it to others or using it as a draw for fund-raisers, and wrote a book about their experiences.

The Necklace brims with praise for the benefits of sharing a necklace that has 118 diamonds. One borrower said, “I’d been depressed because I’m overweight, but the necklace made me feel happy.” This is not a practical solution to America’s obesity epidemic.

Even so, The Necklace has more going for it than much of Albom’s fare, chiefly because the sex is better. The owners of the necklace had an understanding: “Each woman, when it’s her time with the necklace, has to make love wearing only the diamonds.” Thus we learn that Nancy Huff gave her husband “sexual favors” in return for a vote for George Bush. (“I live with a Democrat. What else could I do?”) Dale Muegenburg surprised her husband by dressing in schoolgirl porn — “a plaid, pleated miniskirt, a sexy white blouse, and kneesocks” — when they stayed in a dorm at his college reunion.

As proof of what they learned from their purchase, the women offer banalities — including talk about about “second chances” and “the road less traveled” — that hardly seem worth an investment of more than $1,000 apiece. But the bromides don’t count the book, movie and other deals that flowed in after the media heard about their project. And although none of the women acknowledges it, each owner of The Necklace learned something about her death if not about her life: Each woman now knows what the first line of her obituary will be.

Best line: “Men are distracted by their little brain, as we call it.”

Worst line: “Patti didn’t feel the same ecstasy with regard to the group necklace. ‘Diamonds are too common for me.’”

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to The Necklace was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 17, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this review.

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

Wish I’d written that: Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: “The group unquestionably helps others by using the necklace to raise money for charities and by appreciating the intangible, self-actualizing gifts that can’t be had in jewelry stores.

“But real honesty and insight are antithetical to this book’s experiment. It wants to simultaneously exploit and renounce the same craving. So the diamonds are cannily manipulated throughout The Necklace to both titillate and congratulate readers and to reinforce what they already know.” stores.
www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/books/05book.html?pagewanted=print

Editor: Susan Mercandetti

Published: September 2008

Read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780345500717

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Necklace’ by the Women of Jewelia and Cheryl Jarvis

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives
By the Women of Jewelia and Cheryl Jarvis
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 make copies 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 it.

A few years ago, thirteen California women agreed to pay $15,000 for a diamond necklace and take turns keeping it for a month at a time. They explain why they did it – and what they got out of it – their collective memoir, The Necklace, a New York Times bestseller.

Questions for Readers

1 The Necklace has the subtitle Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives. Did the authors of this book convince you that their lives really had been “transformed”? Why or why not?

2 The authors began to attract media attention when Maggie Hood (“the adventurer”) told KCBS-TV in Los Angeles that she would be skydiving in a diamond necklace — an event that seems to have occurred not long after the purchase. [Page 79] This development makes it harder to tell whether the women’s lives were changed by the necklace or by becoming celebrities. What do you think accounted for any transformations that occurred: the diamonds or the publicity (including the resulting book and movie deals)? Would the necklace have had the same effect without the media attention?

3 Some of the women in The Necklace make pointed comments on how Americans see middle-aged women. Roz McGrath (“the feminist”) says, “I hate it when people call me young lady.” [Page 190] Do you think The Necklace makes a statement about women “of a certain age”? What is it?

4 Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: “Because Ms. Jarvis writes in the simple, virtual Young Adult format of self-help, The Necklace gives each woman a stereotypical handle: ‘The Loner,’ ‘The Traditionalist,’ ‘The Leader,’ ‘The Visionary’ and so on. (‘The Feminist’ is the group’s only brunette.) It shapes each thumbnail character sketch to fit these stereotypes.” Do you agree that the book stereotypes the owners of the diamonds? Or do you think the handles were just chapter titles?
www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/books/05book.html?pagewanted=print

5 Maslin also wrote that “real honesty and insight are antithetical to this book’s experiment. It wants to simultaneously exploit and renounce the same craving [for diamonds]. So the diamonds are cannily manipulated throughout The Necklace to both titillate and congratulate readers and to reinforce what they already know.” Do you agree that the authors of the book want to have it both ways?
www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/books/05book.html?pagewanted=print

6 The Necklace was written before the current financial crisis. In theory, this shouldn’t matter, because good books are timeless – but sometimes it does. How did the economic turmoil affect your view of the book?

7 Each of the 13 owners of the necklace gets similar amount of space in this book. This approach differs from that of most novels and many nonfiction books, which give characters space based on their importance to the “plot.” How well did it work? Would you have liked to hear more about some women and less about others?

8 At one point, a group of men see the diamonds and debate what they could share: “a boat, an RV, a Porsche?” [Page 128] Would a similar experiment have worked with men? Why or why not?

9 Were you surprised by how lonely some of the authors sounded – at least before they bought the necklace – even though they have full lives? For example, Mary O’Connor (“the rock ’n’ roller”) says: “Having these women in my life fills a tremendous void.” [Page 183] Do you think that loneliness is unique to women or to women of a certain age? Or does it affect men?
10 What did you think of Jonell McLain’s “guideline”: “Each woman, when it’s her time with the necklace, has to make love wearing only the diamonds.” [Page 62] Do you think she was serious? How well would this have worked in your circle of friends?

Vital Statistics:
The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives. By the Women of Jewelia and Cheryl Jarvis. Ballantine, 240 pp., $24. Published: September 2008

Read an excerpt and more at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780345500717

A review of The Necklace appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 17, 2008, in the post immediately following this guide www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/11/17/.

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.

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. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

November 13, 2008

Andrew Bridge’s ‘Hope’s Boy’ – A Memoir of His Experiences in Foster Care, He Says

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:05 pm
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A former foster child recalls his time in “the closest thing that Los Angeles County had to a public orphanage.”

Hope’s Boy. By Andrew Bridge. Hyperion, 306 pp., $22.95.

By Janice Harayda

Like Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, Hope’s Boy deals with a subject so tragic you wish the book were more credible. Andrew Bridge says he spent 11 years in foster care, part of it in “the closest thing that Los Angeles County had to a public orphanage,” after being snatched from his apparently psychotic mother on a street by authorities who made too little effort to reunite them after placing him with another family. And he makes a fair case that those things did happen to him.

But Bridge undercuts his credibility by describing early childhood and later events in implausible and gratuitous detail, including pages of line-by-line dialogue. Generations of creative-writing professors have said in effect to their students: If you want to get your character out of a parking lot, you can just have him drive away. You don’t have to say that he got out his keys, unlocked the door, and climbed in the car. Hope’s Boy is full of such padding and is consequently far longer than necessary. It is also overwrought. Bridge shows his love of purple when he describes going to bed at night when he was in kindergarten: “Tired, my mind emptied slowly into the raven night of the room’s deepening corners.”

Yet amid the surfeit of detail, Bridge leaves many questions unanswered. Why doesn’t he give the real name of his high school, where he clearly did well? Why does his say nothing about his time at Harvard Law School and instead go from his acceptance in once sentence to his graduation in another, though his book carries his story well into adulthood? Why doesn’t he mention the religion of the woman who served as his foster mother for 11 years, whom he says the Nazis had imprisoned in a Dachau satellite camp for children?

Bridge says he has changed “identifying details.” But if you change details, your story still needs to cohere. It’s natural to assume, for example, that a Holocaust survivor would be Jewish and Judaism would play a role in her life. And if this was true of his foster mother, Bridge doesn’t say so. He portrays her so unflatteringly that you wonder if he ignored the religious issue for fear of appearing anti-Semitic. But because he says his foster mother spent four years a labor camp, the issue is there, anyway. His silence just makes things murky. And Hyperion has billed his book as a memoir of “one boy who beat the odds.” Don’t we have a right to know if religion helped or hurt him along the way?

In an epilogue, Bridge tries to put his experiences in a national context by drawing on court records of the mistreatment at Alabama’s Eufaula Adolescent Center in the 1990s. This final section describes practices such as confining children for indefinite periods in six-by-nine foot cells, abuses that led to the appointment of a court-ordered monitor for Eufaula. Brief and direct, the epilogue is the strongest part of the book, because it reflects a principle too little in evidence elsewhere: Real tragedies are often so painful to read about that they are best served by understatement.

Best line: “Over half a million American children live in foster care. The majority of them never graduate from high school, and overwhelmingly, they enter adulthood only semiliterate. Fewer than ten percent of former foster children graduate college; many experts estimate the number is closer to three percent. Thirty to fifty percent of children aging out of foster care are homeless within two years.”

Worst line: Another example of Bridge’s overwrought prose appears when he describes the school bell that rang daily to announce the start of classes at his high school: “Every morning, the claxon was loud enough to taunt the boundaries of silence. Pricking thousands of eardrums, the blast walloped though the wide corridors lined with amber-colored lockers, then with nothing to stop it other than exhaustion, it spread over the large campus, across the lines of concrete and grass, dicing through the chain link fences. Muted by it, students and teachers halted their progress for the slightest moment, then once it ceased, proceeded onward with their new day.”

Published: February 2008 www.HopesBoy.com

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

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

November 12, 2008

Yes, She Had Herself Photographed Wearing the Necklace During a Gynecological Exam – A Review of ‘The Necklace’ Coming Soon

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:20 am
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You would think, wouldn’t you, that with the National Book Award winners being announced next week, I would have better things to read than a book about a group of California women who chipped in to buy a $15,000 diamond necklace and gave it the pet name Jewelia? Especially when one woman wore the necklace to a gynecological exam? And had herself photographed wearing it with her feet in the stirrups?

Yes, if you were sensible, you would. But I got sucked into The Necklace, so a review will appear soon.

In the meantime, here’s one of the “good parts.” The following scene occurs when Patti Channer, an investor in the necklace, visits her gynecologist, Dr. Roz Warner, who also owns a share:

“Roz had been in practice twenty years. No one, not one single patient, had ever brought a camera for her annual checkup. She was startled but moved quickly out to the hallway to nab Michelle, her twenty-five-year-old medical assistant.

“Patti prepared the settings and handed the camera to Michelle. …

“It was an interesting experience, Roz thought, one she decided to repeat when it was her turn with the necklace. It would be a point of conversation, something to distract the patient from the fluorescent lights overhead and the metal speculum inside.

“Patti felt good when she left the office. She liked to document her life. Every trip, every family vacation, she was the one with the camera. It was a way of remembering the fun, prolonging the experience. And sharing the photos with people was like giving a gift.

“Wearing a diamond necklace for a gynecological exam had to be a first, she thought. She couldn’t wait to show the pictures to the women.”

If you can’t wait for the review, you can read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl/9780345500717.html.

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

April 3, 2008

How Is Writing a Biography Different From Writing an Autobiography? (Quote of the Day / Russell Baker)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:10 pm
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“The biographer’s problem is that he never knows enough. The autobiographer’s problem is that he knows too much.”

Russell Baker as quoted by William Zinsser in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir: Russell Baker / Annie Dillard / Alfred Kazin / Toni Morrison / Lewis Thomas. Edited and with a memoir and an introduction by William Zinsser (Houghton Miffin, 1987). Inventing the Truth began as a series of talks conceived by the Book-of-the-Month Club and held at the New York Public Library in 1986.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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