One-Minute Book Reviews

January 11, 2010

Sophie Kinsella’s Stand-Alone Novel, ‘Remember Me?’ — Milk of Amnesia, With Sugar

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:49 am
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What if you woke up after an accident and couldn’t remember all the important things that had happened since 2004, such as that Brad and Jennifer broke up?

Remember Me? A Novel. By Sophie Kinsella. Dell, 430 pp., $7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Remember Madeleine Wickham? Unless you’re English, you probably don’t. But Sophie Kinsella wrote under that name – her real one – before she adopted the pseudonym that appears on her bestselling “Shopaholic” series. I liked the Madeleine Wickham novels I read, including A Desirable Residence, and hoped her new book would mark a return to their form – that of the quiet English novel of manners updated for the age of house lust and two-career couples. It doesn’t: Remember Me? is the literary equivalent of a fried Mars bar. But fried Mars bars are more filling than the handful of Sour Gummi Bears you often get from romance-novels-gone-mainstream like this one. And so it is with Remember Me?: If you have a choice between this book and a Danielle Steel novel at the airport, it’s no contest.

Kinsella has two virtues that are as apparent here as in her first Madeleine Wickham novels. Educated at Oxford University, Kinsella respects the language of King James and Monty Python. It is inconceivable that she would write, as Stephenie Meyer does in The Host, “It’s a voluntary choice.” If that seems slim basis for an endorsement, you probably walk right past all those books with embossed metallic covers each time you enter a bookstore.

Unlike many bestselling authors, Kinsella also knows how to plot. In Remember Me? she hangs her story on a creaky device – a young woman develops amnesia after a car accident – and her tale gets more improbable from there. Lexi Smart wakes up soon after a thump on the head in 2007 and finds she has forgotten all that has happened to her since 2004. The things she has forgotten include that a) she ditched her loser boyfriend and married a multimillionaire, and b) she evolved from a harried underling into the British carpet-industry’s equivalent of Faye Dunaway in Network. She also thinks Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston are still together. As unlikely as it all of this is, it holds your attention — if it holds your attention — in part because the story has so many plot twists and moves so fast that you have little time to think about the absurdities. And Kinsella has control of her breezy and at times humorous tone – you never sense that she’s trying to be Doris Lessing or Hilary Mantel.

I can’t compare Remember Me? to the “Shopaholic” series, which I haven’t read. But I had less trouble finishing it than some novels that turned up on best-of-2009 lists, though this book had the least promising first line I’ve read in months. Remember Me? also had the welcome effect of drawing me back to the work of thoughtful Madeleine Wickham, who if we are lucky may still have a few books in her.

Best line: Lexi asks after learning that a sofa costs 10,000 pounds: “How can a sofa cost that much? What’s it stuffed with,  caviar?”

Worst line: The first: “Of all the crap, crap, crappy nights I’ve ever had in the whole of my crap life.”

Published: 2008 (hardcover), 2008 (trade paperback), 2009 (mass market paperback)

Furthermore: Kinsella also wrote, as Madeleine Wickham, The Tennis Party and other books. The recent movie Confessions of a Shopaholic was loosely based on the first two novels in the “Shopaholic” series.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter. She comments on books at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and satirizes the American literary culture, such as it is, at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 22, 2009

Does Sarah Palin Deserve a Delete Key Award for Bad Writing for ‘Going Rogue’?

Filed under: Delete Key Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:57 pm
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The Delete Key Awards have shown through finalists James McGreevey and Newt Gingrich that neither Democrats nor Republicans have a monopoly on bad writing. Should a politician make the 2010 shortlist due out in February? I haven’t read Going Rogue, but reviews suggest that it could be a candidate. Does Sarah Palin deserve to become a finalist for a Delete Key Award for bad writing in books? If you’d like to nominate a line from Going Rogue or another book by a politician, please use the address on the “Contact” page on this site or send an message on Twitter to @janiceharayda that includes the sentence or keywords from it.

November 9, 2009

Mitch Albom Gets Religion – A Review of ‘Have a Little Faith’


The author of
Tuesdays with Morrie says he has learned that he is “neither smarter nor better” than other people

Have a Little Faith: A True Story. By Mitch Albom. Hyperion, 254 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

More than two decades ago, the Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum achieved bestsellerdom with All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a small book that offered twee advice such as, “Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you” and “Flush.” For Mitch Albom the font of wisdom appears to have materialized in what is euphemistically called “midlife.”

In his bestselling Tuesdays With Morrie and the new Have a Little Faith, Albom assumes the posture of an innocent who became a man of the world without having learned the basic lessons that Fulghum seems to have picked up between games of dodgeball. He is not, it appears, a quick study.

Albom said in Tuesdays With Morrie that during his talks with a dying former professor, he learned that “love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone.” He writes in his new book that he has learned fresh lessons — about what he calls “faith” — from Albert Lewis, the New Jersey rabbi who presided over his bar mitzvah in 1971, and a pastor to the homeless in Detroit. Lewis told Albom that whenever he looked at a picture of the family he loves, he thought, “This is your immortality.” But if love keeps you alive – at least in others’ hearts – isn’t that what Albom learned from Morrie Schwartz?

No discovery seems too basic for Albom not to cast as a revelation as he and Lewis talk about cosmic and earthly questions: What makes people happy? Why does it mean to be good? How can you cope with tragedy? Albom is amazed when Lewis asks a Hindu health aide about her belief in reincarnation. “How can you – a cleric – be so open-minded?” he asks, as though shocked that the rabbi isn’t a bigot. The news that his old synagogue has extensive files on its history seems to fill him with wonder. “I didn’t know there were files,” he tells the woman who informed him of it. Imagine: A synagogue that keeps good records!

Under the rubric of “faith” Albom writes about religion in such a generalized feel-good way that you’re not sure how his view differs from the God-is-love school of theology or even New Age psychobabble. You wonder if he knows. Albom says he wrote Have a Little Faith “in the hope that all faiths can find something universal in the story,” and it’s full of pseudoprofundities such as, “we all want the same things: comfort, love, and a peaceful heart.” But the view of “immortality” that he seems to advocate – that you find your afterlife in the memories of others – is far more Jewish than Christian (not to mention, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim). Certainly few Christians would disagree that people “live on” in others’ minds. But Christian theology holds that things like “comfort, love and a peaceful heart” are not the ultimate aim. They are the byproducts of a larger goal, which is salvation through Christ.

Albom tries to keep the book from tilting toward his religion by interweaving chapters about his old rabbi with sections on Henry Covington, an ex-drug dealer who began a ministry to the homeless after a spiritual plea bargain: One night when he thought killers were trailing him, he decided that if he survived, he would devote his life to Jesus. But in these sections Albom keeps his distance from theology and focuses on matters such as whether the pastor’s church can keep the lights on, so the spiritual heart of the story lies in Lewis, who set the book in motion by asking his former congregant to give his eulogy.

Like Albom’s recent novel For One More Day, his new book is written at third-grade reading level, according to readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word.* Have a Little Faith is more interesting than that homespun parable in because Lewis is a bit of card – he kept a mock parking sign in his office that said, YOU TAKA MY SPACE / I BREAKA YOUR FACE — and the book has excerpts from his sermons. It also includes the fine eulogy Albom eventually gave for Lewis that may inspire you if you have to give a similar talk. Otherwise, you are well-advised keep in mind something Albom says he learned while writing this book: He is “neither smarter nor better” than others, just luckier.

Best line: The first line of the Twenty-third Psalm, quoted by Lewis in a sermon: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Worst line: No. 1: “January arrived and the calendar changed. It was 2008. Before the year was done, there would be a new U.S. President, an economic earthquake, a sinkhole of confidence, and tens of millions unemployed or without homes. Storm clouds were gathering.” Yes, when January arrives, the calendar usually does change. No. 2: “What do you do when you lose a loved one too quickly? When you have no time to prepare before, suddenly, that soul is gone?
“Ironically, the man who could best answer that question was sitting in front of me.” This is a misuse of “ironically.” Nothing “ironic” is happening here.

About the reading level of this book: To figure the reading level of Have a Little Faith, I entered into a computer the full text of pages 24–25, 124–125, 224–225 and pages 164–165, then ran the spell-checker on Microsoft Word, which shows you the Flesch-Kincaid reading level at the bottom of the stats window. The reading levels for the pages averaged Grade 3. 7 and ranged from a low of Grade 2.8 to a high of Grade 6.5. The passages entered include only words written by Albom, none by Lewis. A comparison of Albom’s level and that of other authors appears here.

Published: September 2009

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 5, 2009

A Rain Delay for Mitch Albom’s ‘Have a Little Faith’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:34 pm
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A short rain delay for my post on Have a Little Faith, Mitch Albom’s memoir of his encounters with his childhood rabbi in New Jersey and a pastor he met as an adult in Detroit: The review scheduled to appear this week will be posted next week.

October 26, 2009

Tomorrow — ‘Smile or Die,’ a Review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Bright-sided’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:00 pm
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Why do Americans see silver linings that don’t exist? Tomorrow: a review Barbara Ehrenreich’s bestselling Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, which takes aim at the “positive psychology” movement, the “prosperty gospel” of superstar pastors like Joel Osteen, the cult of optimism in breast-cancer treatment, and more.

October 11, 2009

‘His Massive Sex Organ Bore the Tattooed Symbols of His Destiny’ — A Review of Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’ Tomorrow

Filed under: News,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:05 pm
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“His massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny” … but did he know how to use it? Find out tomorrow when One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of the novel in which that line appears, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.

September 30, 2009

Going to the Doctor in Japan – Please Don’t Tip the Proctologist – From T. R. Reid’s ‘The Healing of America’

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:53 pm
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Another memorable quote from T. R. Reid’s elegant indictment of health care in the U.S., The Healing of America (Penguin, 277 pp., $25.95), this one dealing with the high regard that the Japanese have for doctors:

“The high esteem for doctors is reflected in a traditional cultural practice in Japan that is officially frowned on these days but still seems to exist: Patients tend to bring a present for their doctor, ranging from a box of golf balls to a magnum of sake to a tasteful white envelope with the physician’s name brushed on the outside and a packet of cash inside. In the better stationery stores, you can buy a special envelope for this purpose, in soft, thick paper the color of heavy cream with ‘the honorable physician’ written on them in elaborate calligraphy. The tradition dates back to premodern times, when a physician in China or Japan had a Confucian obligation to use his skills to treat people and was not expected to demand a fee. To express their gratitude, patients provided a more-or-less voluntary gratuity. …

“In my doctor’s office in Tokyo, there was a sign on the wall clearly stating that the doctor’s fee for each treatment, and the share of the fee that I had to co-pay, were set by law: HONORABLE PATIENTS ARE RESPECTFULLY REQUESTED TO PAY NO MORE THAN THE FEE, it said. But I sometimes did see a patient, particularly an older one, carrying one of those cream-colored envelopes into the doctor’s office.”

September 29, 2009

Is ‘The Lost Symbol’ Is ‘Offensive’ to Christianity?

Crosses and other religious symbols help to drive the plot of The Lost Symbol. Are the images used in an offensive way? Philip Hensher writes in a review of The Lost Symbol in the Spectator:

“The plot, naturally, is all to do with the concealment of wisdom within sacred texts, and as it unfolds, it becomes first moronic and then somewhat offensive. Moronic, because it seems to believe that wisdom and knowledge are things which are acquired by placing a bit of gold on top of a bit of stone, and then wiping off some wax. Brown’s heroes remind me of Hardy’s Jude, who thought that you could understand Greek if you cracked a simple code in the dons’ safekeeping:

“Don’t you see? These [Biblical phrases] are code words, Robert. ‘Temple’ is code for body. ‘Heaven’ is code for mind. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is your spine. And ‘Manna’ is this rare brain secretion.

“Not just moronic, but offensive, because the whole historical point of Christianity was that it celebrated its rites entirely openly, unlike any other religion to that point. The huge enlightenment to come, trailed by Brown, doesn’t convince, because he can’t really imagine what it would be, apart from some previously secret beliefs being made generally available. What that would mean, apart from people saying ‘With my temple, I thee worship’ at wedding ceremonies, Brown cannot limn.

“This is taking a bit of fluff all too seriously, but tales of conspiracy are worrying when they become as massively popular as Brown’s stories have done. God knows how many of his readers think there might be some truth in any of this. But even if there were none, it is depressing to see the point to which the bestseller as a form has sunk. Vintage have recently reissued all of Nevil Shute, and to read a hugely popular book of 50 years ago next to The Lost Symbol is to witness a painful decline in quality and sheer class. A novelist like Brown would never risk an extended set-piece like the motor race in On the Beach, or the details of capital investment in A Town Called Alice. Or, come to that, the thrillingly extended card game in the first part of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker. These are novels which, though aiming at popularity, respected their readers and were possessed of a decent level of craft. Nowadays, we are reduced in our thrill-seeking endeavours to listening to Dan Brown, whose idea of giving a reader a good time is droning:

“Franklin Square is located in the northwest quadrant of downtown Washington, bordered by K and Thirteenth streets. It is home to many historic buildings.”

September 24, 2009

Dan Brown’s 5 Worst Lines From ‘The Lost Symbol’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:56 am
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The critic stood with her arms folded, her eyes locked skeptically on the librarian at the checkout desk as she processed what he had just told her. “Somebody called and said he didn’t want the copy of The Lost Symbol that he had reserved? So I moved mysteriously to the top of the waiting list … as if by an unseen power?”

The librarian shrugged weakly as he handed her a copy of the novel that had sold two million copies in a week. The critic realized that others would have to wait a day or two for her review of a 508-page book to have its measurable effect on the physical world.

Still, her eye fell on a few lines that struck her as suspicious. With force that startled even herself, she couldn’t help but play a very dangerous game and formulate her responses:

1. Chapter 16, page 84: “The OS director’s voice was unmistakable – like gravel grating on a chalkboard.”

How did the gravel get on the chalkboard? Did somebody throw the gravel at it?  Or pave it?

2. Chapter 16, page 65: “He looked more like someone Anderson would expect to find hearthside in some Ivy League library reading Dostoyevsky.”

Hey, kids! Be sure to ask to see the fireplaces in the Harvard and Yale libraries on those campus tours! Soot is great for all those rare books.

3. Chapter 89, page 332: “It was no coincidence that Christians were taught that Jesus was crucified at age thirty-three …”

Just as it’s no coincidence that people were taught that Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors.

4. Chapter 96, page 357: The only wrinkle was the bloody black-clad heap in the foyer with a screwdriver protruding from his neck.”

Yes, a screwdriver sticking out of your neck is always something of a wrinkle.

5. Chapter 28, page 119: “Thankfully, this particular crypt contained no bodies. …The entourage hurried through, without even a glance at the four-pointed marble compass in the center of the floor where the Eternal Flame had once burned.”

As opposed to one of those three-pointed compass you see in some crypts.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 22, 2009

Dan Brown’s Worst Lines — 20 Bad Sentences From ‘The Lost Symbol,’ ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Angels and Demons’

Do critics unfairly malign Dan Brown’s writing? You’ll be able to judge for yourself when I list the best and worst lines from The Lost Symbol in my forthcoming review, which will appear after my name makes it to the top the reserve list at the library. In the meantime Tom Chivers selected the 20 worst lines from Dan Brown’s novels for a story for the Telegraph in England.

Yes, Chivers found a qualifying sentence from The Lost Symbol. But his two best choices appear below. The lines from Brown’s books are italicized and Chivers’s comments follow in a Roman font.

Angels and Demons, chapter 100: Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers glorified the four major rivers of the Old World – The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata.

“The Rio de la Plata. Between Argentina and Uruguay. One of the major rivers of the Old World. Apparently.

“The Da Vinci Code, chapter 5: Only those with a keen eye would notice his 14-karat gold bishop’s ring with purple amethyst, large diamonds, and hand-tooled mitre-crozier appliqué.

“A keen eye indeed.”

Will lines like these qualify Brown for one of the 2010 Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books, given annually to authors who don’t use their delete keys enough? Find out in late Feburary when the shortlist will appear and on March 15, 2010, when this site will announce the winners.

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