One-Minute Book Reviews

August 19, 2009

Katarina Mazetti’s ‘Benny & Shrimp,’ a Scandinavian ‘Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ With Swedish Meatballs

Can a Swedish librarian find happiness with a man who owns a manure-spreader, or is he just shoveling — ?

Benny & Shrimp. By Katarina Mazetti. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death. Penguin / Pam Dorman. 221 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This frothy romantic comedy is a Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society with Swedish meatballs. Benny Söderström is an unmarried dairy farmer who owns a manure-spreader and boasts, “If you’ve read one book, you’ve read them all, and I read one last year!” Desirée Wallin is a widowed librarian who likes modernist furniture and talking about the literary theories of Jacques Lacan. The two lovelorn Swedes, both in early middle-age, meet at a cemetery where Benny visits his mother’s grave and Desirée her husband’s. And if you can’t see where this novel is going by the end of the first chapter, you’re probably still shocked that Julia Roberts got together with Richard Gere in Pretty Woman.

But like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Benny & Shrimp makes use of an interesting narrative device: Katarina Mazetti tells her story not in letters but in chapters narrated antiphonally by Benny and “Shrimp,” the farmer’s nickname for Desirée. And Mazetti invests her tale with enough wit and vitality to offset some of the contrivances of her plot. Benny might refer to Rigoletto as “that fatso with the sword” after Shrimp tries to couth him up by giving him opera tickets. But  you have to admire an unmarried man who, when he opens his refrigerator, has the integrity to admit the truth: “There were things in there that probably could have walked out on their own.”

Best line: “You could lobotomize him with the power saw and nobody would notice the difference.”

Worst line: It’s hard to imagine a Swedish farmer saying, even in translation, “Blimey” and “not bloody likely!”

Published: August 2008

Reading group guide: Penguin has posted discussion questions that include comments by Mazetti.

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

Furthermore: Mazetti is a Swedish radio producer and author of books for children and adults. Benny & Shrimp was a bestseller and inspired a movie in Sweden. And yes, this novel about people who meet in a cemetery was translated by “Sarah Death.”

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

August 13, 2009

James Rollins’s ‘The Doomsday Key’ – Blarney About Celtic Myths and More

An elite military unit has to grapple with codes and ciphers to find an antidote to a bioweapon

The Doomsday Key: A Novel (Sigma Force Novels). By James Rollins. Morrow, 448 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

What if the ancient Egyptians had brought to the British Isles the antidote to a deadly fungus that was threatening to wipe out the world in the 21st century? And what if their knowledge had passed to the Celts and early Christians, who left clues to the remedy in codes, symbols or conspiracies that involve the Vatican, a U.S. Senator, and shadowy global terrorist group called the Guild?

These questions underlie James Rollins’s latest technothrilller, a book that shows that you can write better than Tom Clancy and still serve up blarney. Rollins doesn’t trade in Clancy’s jingoism and alphabet-soup of acronyms, and he shows more respect for the English language than many authors who have left their mark on this paranoid genre.

But he has his own problems in his sixth novel about Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma Force, a fictitious unit of the U.S. Department of Defense. Rollins allows a subplot about genetically modified foods to sputter out about 75 pages before the end, which slows the pace and works against satisfying resolution to the plot. He gives the same emotional weight to so many events – a firefight, a reunion between ex-lovers, an avalanche above the Arctic Circle – that you can’t feel all you should for any of them. And only a conspiracy theorist or the most ardent fan of The Da Vinci Code might love his mishmash of real or historical figures, places or objects: Merlin, druids, Stonehenge, Celtic crosses, Queen Nefertiti, the Domesday Book, the Knights Templar, Saint Malachy, Princeton University, the Abbey of Clairvaux, Pope Benedict XVI and more. A few of these might have been intriguing. As it, when an off-kilter Freemasonry symbol appears near the end, you wonder: Will a reference to the Kennedy assassination be next?

Best line: “In Israel, botanists grew a date palm from a seed that was over two thousand years old.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Her methods were brutal – like murdering the Venetian curator – but who was he to judge? He had not walked in her shoes.” No. 2: “So in other words, we’re looking for a bunch of pissed-off Druids.” No. 3: “Her apartment was on the third floor. Though small, she did have a nice view of the Coliseum from her balcony.”

Editor: Lyssa Keusch

Listen to an audio excerpt from The Doomsday Key.

Published: June 2009

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

July 28, 2009

One-Sentence Reviews of New and Classic Novels Recently Reviewed on This Site

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:10 am
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No time to read long book reviews? Every review on this site is condensed into a one-line summary saved in the Books in a Sentence category. Summaries of recently reviewed novels and short stories for adults appear below. You’ll find other one-line condensations, many of them shortened versions of reviews of books of nonfiction and poetry, in the Books in a Sentence category at right.

Novels
Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. By Janet Evanovich. Evanovich’s series about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum goes further south with a tasteless beheading and sophomoric jokes like, “Nobody calls me pecker head and lives.”

The 8th Confession (Women’s Murder Club Series). By James Patterson and Maxine Paetro. A glorified San Francisco police procedural set in such large type, you wonder: Was this novel written for for people who will be reading it by candlelight while eating Beanie Weenies out of a can during a power blackout?

Love in a Cold Climate. By Nancy Mitford. A beautiful English heiress flouts convention by marrying a man who had been her mother’s lover in a modern classic of comedy, inspired partly by the author’s half-batty upper-class family.

Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind. By Ann B. Ross. A rich Presbyterian widow in North Carolina learns that her dead husband has left her a startling legacy — an illegitimate 9-year-old son — in the first of ten novels that are more irreverent than those of Jan Karon’s “Mitford” series but cut from a similar bolt of pop fiction.

The Pains of April. By Frank Turner Hollon. An 86-year-old retired lawyer looks back on his life from a Gulf Coast rest home, where he has held onto more of his marbles than some residents. (Briefly mentioned.)

The Naked and the Dead. By Norman Mailer. Nowhere near as good as some of the 20th-century war novels often mentioned in the same breath, such as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. (Briefly mentioned.)

A Summons to Memphis. By Peter Taylor. One of the great American writers of the late 20th century shows how a move from Nashville to Memphis has reverberated over time — all but destroyed a family that was once a model of Southern gentility — in a novel that deservedly won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Ponder Heart. By Eudora Welty. A comic novella about a rich and kind-hearted uncle put on trial for a murder he didn’t commit, full of examples of Welty’s wonderful ear for the dialect of many Southern groups.

The Genocides. By Tom Disch. Unseen aliens sow the seeds of an ecological catastrophe in a book two experts recently named one of the “100 must-read” science-fiction novels of all time. (Briefly mentioned.)

Middlemarch. By George Eliot. The first great multiplot novel in English — and maybe the greatest ever — tells the story of a young woman who longs to be useful as it reminds us that “that there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.”

The Host. By Stephenie Meyer. A woman wages a host-versus-graft struggle with a new soul, inserted in her body by aliens, in a creepily Freudian tale written at a fourth-grade reading level.

Bright Shiny Morning. By James Frey. A dark, postmodern novel about Los Angeles that combines stories of stereotypical characters — a Mexican-American maid, a closeted gay male superstar — and so many trivia lists, you almost expect a recipe for huevos rancheros.

Jane and Prudence. By Barbara Pym. A clergyman’s wife plays matchmaker for a female friend and fellow Oxford graduate in a quiet novel salted with wry observations on the sexes. (Briefly mentioned.)

A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living. By Michael Dahlie. A witty and intelligent novel of New York manners (and a recent prize-winner) about a blueblooded father who finds comfort in the love of his adult sons after a divorce and other crises.

Short Stories
Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. By Tamar Yellin. An award-winning English writer’s superb collection of 10 linked short stories about geographically or otherwise displaced characters, inspired by accounts of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Olive Kitteridge. By Elizabeth Strout. An uneven collection of linked short stories (published in Seventeen, South Carolina ReviewO, the Oprah Magazine, and elsewhere)  that, alas, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for its tales of a retired math teacher in a coastal town in Maine.

All Souls. By Christine Schutt. A skimpy Pulitzer finalist that its publisher has billed as a novel but is, in fact, a collection of linked short stories — many no more than vignettes — about how students and others react when a Manhattan prep school senior gets a rare connective-tissue cancer.

One-Minute Book Reviews has a policy that at least 50 percent of all reviews will deal with books by women. The “About This Blog” page describes other principles of the site, including that it does not accept free books  or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors, agents or others with ties to books that may be reviewed here. The “FAQ” page answers questions such as, “Why don’t you take free books?” and “If you don’t take books from publishers, where you do you get them?”

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

January 29, 2009

Fed Up With the Low Writing Levels in High-Priced Books? The Delete Key Awards Finalists Will Be Announced on Feb. 26, 2009

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:01 pm
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“Just before the ax fell, lightning struck and my life changed, never to be the same again.”
From Barbara Walters’s Audition

Clichés, bad grammar and psychobabble in self-help books. Inanity in memoirs by athletes, politicians and movie stars. Dumbing-down in bestselling novels written at a third- or fourth-grade reading level.

These are bad enough when the nation is economically healthy. They may sting more painfully when, in a recession, many books are overpriced.

Had enough? You can nominate offenders for a 2009 Delete Key Award for bad writing by leaving a comment on this or any other post related to the awards. One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the finalists on Feb. 26 and the winners on March 15. (Remember that I need time to verify quotes you submit or to check out candidates you suggest.) A list of possible finalists appeared in the Oct. 8, 2008, post, “Which Is Worse, the Stock Market or the Writing in This Year’s Books?” For more on the awards, click on the red tag at the top of this post that says “Delete Key Awards” or on “Delete Key Awards” under “Categories” at right.

Thank you for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews, a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

Editor’s note: I review books for children and teenagers on Saturdays and occasionally at other times (as earlier this week after the American Library Association named the winners of its annual Newbery and Caldecott medals). So a lot of students visit this site. Can you explain to the kids what’s wrong with the Barbara Walters quote above?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 17, 2008

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

October 8, 2008

Which Is Worse — The Stock Market or the Writing in This Year’s Books? Handicapping the 2009 Delete Key Awards for the Year’s Worst Writing in Books

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:15 am
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Okay, I’ve learned my lesson: Never put up your favorite posts in the middle of the summer when everybody is on vacation. My posts on possible candidates for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books typically attract a lot of comment, but this one that appeared in July raised the frightening possibility that the writing in this year’s books is so bad, the lines below weren’t bad enough to impress you. So I’m reposting my midterm report on the Delete Key Awards to test that theory. If you’ve read worse, you can nominate your candidates for the 2009 Delete Key Awards by leaving a comment. Jan

How bad is the worst of the drivel that publishers have flung at us in 2008? Does it just brim with clichés, psychobabble and grammatical errors? Or is it also crass, tasteless and full of needless – if unintentionally comical – sex? You be the judge.

The midterm scouting report below lists passages have a chance to make the finals for the Delete Key Awards, the Internet literary prizes handed out every March 15 to authors who don’t use their delete keys enough. Keep in mind that the race for the Delete Key Awards has a staggered start. Any book published by Dec. 31 is eligible and stronger candidates may emerge. You can help to keep your candidate in the race by leaving a comment that supports a deserving passages.

No callback for this sentence
“Just before the ax fell, lightning struck and my life changed, never to be the same again.”
From Audition: A Memoir (Knopf, 624 pp., $29.95), Barbara Walters. Quote via a review by Kyle Smith in the Wall Street Journal
online.wsj.com/article/SB121038380585382137.html?mod=todays_us_weekend_journal.

Seinfeld was never like this
“Not that Jesus wasn’t a really cool guy – great teacher, excellent speaker, yadda yadda yadda. But … Son of God? Where’s the proof?”

“You don’t think it’s possible that Mr. Smythe was … well … resurrected?”
From Change of Heart: A Novel (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 447 pp., $26.95), by Jodi Picoult. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/21.

Deep Frey’d
“He eats most of it with his hands when he’s done he licks the plate clean he has another does the same thing.”
From Bright Shiny Morning (HarperCollins, 501 pp., 26.95), by James Frey. Quote via a review by Walter Kirn in the New York Times Book Review, July 6, 2008 www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/books/review/Kirn-t.html.

Was something lost in translation?
“Now he understood how the great, unlettered military genius Genghis Khan, as well as the illiterate or semiliterate military leaders of peoples such as the Quanrong, the Huns, the Tungus, the Turks, the Mongols, and the Jurchens, were able to bring the Chinese (whose great military sage Sun-tzu had produced his universally acclaimed treatise The Art of War) to their knees, to run roughshod over their territory, and to interrupt their dynastic cycles.”

“Heaven and man do not easily come to together, but the wolf and the grassland merge like water and milk.”

“I nearly peed my pants [sic].”
From Wolf Totem (Penguin, 527 pp., $29.95), Jiang Rong. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/27.

Whoops
“whoops-musicale (sei tu m’ami) ahhahahahaha / loopy di looploop.”
From a poem in Selected Poems by Frank O’Hara (Knopf, 265 pp., $30), edited by Mark Ford. Quote via a review by William Logan in the New York Times Book Review, June 29, 2008 www.nytimes.com/2008/06/29/books/review/Logan-t.html?ref=review.

Be glad they didn’t! Name your children!
“I say, ‘The library is a boring place! All I will meet there are stinky pages.’”
and
“Miss Toadskin thinks she can gross us out with her science experiments. But I live for that stuff!”
From Read All About It! (HarperCollins, 32 pp., $17.99, ages 4–6), by Laura Bush and Jenna Bush, illustrated by Denise Brunkus. www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/books/review/Sutton-t.html?ref=authors

Department of overexplanation
A line of dialogue from An Incomplete Revenge: “So, despite Ramsay MacDonald being pressed to form a National Government to get us through this mess, and well-founded talk of Britain going off the gold standard any day now, there’s still room for optimism – and I want to move ahead soon.”

Then there’s passage in which the heroine tells her father, “Dad, I’ve been thinking about Nana,” and he replies, “Your mother’s mother?”
From An Incomplete Revenge: A Maisie Dobbs Novel (Holt, 303 pp., $24), by Jacqueline Winspear. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/04/29.

The literal truth
“I literally held Grace day and night for the first year of her life.”
From Comfort: A Journey Through Grief (Norton, 188 pp., $19.95), by Ann Hood.

What comforting words would she have for fourth-degree burn victims?
“The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you.”
The first line of Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life – For the Better (Basic Books, 226 pp., $26.95), by psychotherapist Jeanne Safer. www.perseusbooksgroup.com/basic/book_detail.jsp?isbn=0465072119

How green was my chakra
“… Green: / color of the fourth chakra, / Anahata; it means unstuck — / the heart center — / the color of his fatigues.”
From The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (Viking, 84 pp., $21.95), by Frances Richey. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/27.

Hasn’t everyone at times found a suitcase stuffed with $60,000 in cash in the attic?
“Gene claimed that his father had given him $60,000 in cash, which he’d kept in a suitcase in his mother’s attic. He said that his father had told him not to put it in the bank, so Margo figured his father had never reported it to the IRS, and this was his way of protecting Gene, who said he would take the old bills to the bank and exchange them for new ones so that no one would question any transaction or track the income.

“At the time, Margo took Gene at his word.”

From Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 281 pp., $26.95), by Caitlin Rother with John Hess. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/10.

What’s being spouted here?

“Can I describe the joy of a spouting blow hole?”

From a letter written in 1939 by a dolphin-loving character in David Ebershoff’s new novel, The 19th Wife (Random House, 514 pp., $26, as quoted by Janet Maslin in the New York Times www.nytimes.com/2008/08/04/books/04masl.html.

And finally a moment of silence for …

Clichés that will live forever
“I liked my students to win one for the Gipper, to go out an execute, to keep the drive alive, to march down the field, to avoid costly turnovers and to win games in the trenches even if they were gonna feel it on Monday.”
From The Last Lecture (Hyperion, 224, $21.95, by Randy Pasuch. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/30.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

September 10, 2008

An Excerpt From Philip Hensher’s Review of Annie Proulx’s ‘Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3’

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:22 am
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[Note: The just-named finalists for the 2008 Man Booker Prize include The Northern Clemency by the influential English editor and critic Philip Hensher. I haven't seen the novel, which Knopf will publish in the U.S. early next year. But I have long admired Hensher's spirited reviews for the Spectator, which are as entertaining as they are erudite. An excerpt from one of the most recent follows my introduction below. Jan]

Annie Proulx’s fiction is an acquired taste that I have not acquired despite several painful attempts at force-feeding that nearly turned me into a literary bulimic. But I enjoyed Philip Hensher’s review of her new Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 (Scribner, 240 pp., $25) in the Spectator, which included this passage:

“This new collection is pretty clearly divided into stories which don’t work at all and ones which seem to create something marvellously new in most unorthodox ways. When she ventures out of her familiar territory, the results can be fairly awful. I admit to being allergic to all narratives of prehistoric life, and this one is straight out of some terrible creative writing class.

“‘Night after night the thready monotone of [the shaman’s] prayers and invocations had formed the solemn background of the band’s dreaming’

“There are two stories set in hell with the Devil as the hero, apparent attempts at humorous topical satire which I beg Annie Proulx on bended knee not to repeat. And I was quite enjoying one story of frontier life until I realized that it was all about a serial-killer tree. These ventures into magical realism traduce the possibilities of Proulx’s oddness by settling into the conventionally odd — trees which kill, the Devil’s view of life on earth and grunting romances about stone-age communities were all totally old-hat for mildly ambitious pulp writers like Isaac Asimov 40 years ago.”

Read Hensher’s full review at www.spectator.co.uk/the-magazine/books/1736251/the-peculiarities-of-a-realist.thtml.

Read the Man Booker Prize announcement about Hensher and The Northern Clemency at www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/books/366 and a lively discussion of the novel on the Asylum blog at theasylum.wordpress.com/2008/09/01/philip-hensher-the-northern-clemency/.

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

September 3, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’ With a Key to ‘Hamlet’ Characters Represented in the Novel

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel
By David Wroblewski
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.

Edgar Sawtelle has spent his childhood on a mid-20th-century Wisconsin farm that raises its own breed of dogs, known as “Sawtelle dogs,” for private buyers. Born mute, Edgar communicates with his parents and others through sign language while raising his first litter of pups. But an air of menace seeps into his peaceful life when, in the summer of his 14th year, his father dies after a paternal uncle named Claude moves in with the family. Edgar vows to learn the truth about his father’s death and, when his effort ends in another disaster, flees with three of his dogs, hiding out in the Chequamegon National Forest. The plot of this first novel by David Wroblewski has similarities to that of Hamlet, where corpses litter the stage at the end of the play. So the question is not just whether Edgar will learn how his father died but how many people — or dogs — will die by the last page.

A Note for Book Clubs:
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has 562 pages in its hardcover edition — twice as many as an average novel, which has about 250 pages — and Stephen King has said that he “spent 12 happy evenings” with the book. So it’s probably safe to say that some book-group members won’t finish it. If you’re reading the novel for a group, you might want to deal with this issue up front — for example, by agreeing to read the book over a summer. If you lead a club, you might also want to let members know how much of the book they would need to read to get a sense of the whole. Would the prologue do it? If not, how much would members need to read?

A Key to the Hamlet Characters in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle:
Some of the humans and dogs in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle are surrogates for characters in Hamlet. The human stand-ins include: Edgar Sawtelle (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark), Trudy Sawtelle (Gertrude, Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother), Claude Sawtelle (Claudius, King of Denmark and Hamlet’s paternal uncle), Gar Sawtelle (the late King Hamlet of Denmark and Hamlet’s father), Doc Papineau (Polonius, Lord Chamberlain), and Glen Papineau, son of Doc (Laertes, son of Polonius). The canine stand-ins include Almondine (Ophelia, daughter of Polonius), Tinder and Baboo (courtiers Rosenkrantz, sometimes spelled Rosencrantz), Forte (Fortinbras) and Essay (Horatio). This is a starter list. If you see other parallels, why not mention them in the comments section on this post so that book clubs can benefit from your observations?

Questions for Discussion:

1. Early readers of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle characterized the novel in different ways. Publishers Weekly called it “a literary thriller.” [Feb. 18, 2008] Kirkus Reviews said it was “an Odyssean journey.” [April 15, 2008] Novelist Mark Doty described it as a hybrid: “both ghost story and melodrama” and “a coming-of-age tale.” [Dust jacket] How would you characterize the novel?

2. The plot of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has obvious similarities to that of Hamlet, which critics often describe as “a revenge tragedy.” Would that label fit this book? Is the novel about revenge? If not, what is the novel “about”?

3. David Wroblewski told Publishers Weekly: “It was not my intention to do a literal retelling [of Hamlet]. It was more interesting to allow the stories to coincide where they could. Ghosts and haunting and poison are motifs of the Elizabethan stage.” [PW Daily @ pw.com, April 14, 2008] How well does his “nonliteral” approach work?

4. For someone who didn’t intend to do a “literal retelling” of Hamlet, Wroblewski lays on the parallels pretty thickly. Apart from similarities between characters, many scenes resemble those in Shakespeare’s play. Near the end of the chapter entitled “The Texan,” Edgar stages a demonstration of his dogs’ talents that corresponds to the play-within-a-play that Hamlet believes will prove his uncle killed his father. [The chapter begins on page 311.] If you’re familiar with Hamlet, what other scenes resemble those in the play?

5. Reviewers often overpraise novels that allude to great works of fiction, because the allusions can give a gloss of sophistication pop fiction or worse. If you’ve read the reviews for this novel, do you think that might have happened here? Did the book deserve so much praise? Or were critics perhaps too influenced by the Hamlet parallels or other factors?

6. A major challenge of writing a 562-page novel is keeping up a strong pace. Does Wroblewski do this? Did you find the pace lagging in any places? Where?

7. Wroblewski takes a risk by telling part of his story from the point of view of dogs and part from that of humans. Does the risk pay off? Would the novel have been stronger if he had stuck to the point of view of one species? [Sections told from a canine point of view include the chapters called “Almondine” that begin on page 30 and page 460.]

8. The author takes another risk by introducing paranormal elements, such as Edgar’s conversation with his dead father. [Beginning on page 235 with, “He saw a man …”] Apart from reinforcing the parallels to Hamlet, what – if anything – do these scenes add to the novel? Would the book have been stronger or weaker without them?

9. Stephen King said of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, “Dog-lovers in particular will find themselves riveted by this story, because the canine world has never been explored with such imagination and emotional resonance.” [Blurb.] If you love dogs, do you agree or disagree? If you disagree, what books about dogs are better? You might consider fiction such as Jack London’s White Fang and nonfiction such as John Grogan’s Marley and Me.

10. It’s been said that all dog-lovers fall into one of two groups: those who think dogs are wonderful animals and those who think they are furry, four-footed people. Did you sense that Wroblewski falls into either camp?

Vital statistics:
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. By David Wroblewski. Ecco, 562 pp., $25.95. Published: June 2008 www.edgarsawtelle.com

A review of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on August 28, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/28. It is saved both with the August posts and in the “Novels” category on the site. The review takes the form of a parody of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

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.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are not unbiased analyses but marketing tools designed to sell books. 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. 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.

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August 28, 2008

Review of Oprah’s Latest Book Club Pick, ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,’ the First Novel by David Wroblewski

Get thee to a kennel! A mute boy named Edgar finds his Ophelia in a dog named Almondine in story set in a hamlet in Wisconsin

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. By David Wroblewski. Ecco, 562 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

To read, or not to read
The Edgar Sawtelle book
That is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler
In the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of
Outrageous twaddle,
And moralizing, too,
In sections told just from
The point of view of dogs,
One of them a stand-in
For Ophelia herself –
Her name is Almondine –
Because this novel is
A sort of canine Hamlet
That’s set in — of all places –
A hamlet in Wisconsin,
Or nobler to skip
A story you might like
Especially if you miss
The big, fat novels that
James Michener used to write.
To read, perchance to find
That this is your dream book:
Ay, there’s the rub!
Unless you are seeking
The kind of happy ending
That Hamlet doesn’t have
Because the author doesn’t give you
What you don’t find in the play:
A tale where no one dies.
It’s true, the book is not
The play in any way.
No poison-tipped sword looms,
A syringe is used instead.
And as for Rosenkrantz
and Guildenstern, his friend,
Like Ophelia
They have four feet and fur,
Though Hamlet is a boy, mute,
The Edgar of the title,
Who sees his father’s ghost,
A paranormal twist
In Edgar’s earthbound-life.
Morosely, Hamlet said –
Remember? – that conscience
Makes cowards of us all.
Which is not true of Edgar.
But will his morals save him
Or send him to his doom?
No spoilers you’ll find here –
The Bard supplies them all.

[Note: This review is not intended as a strict parody of Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy. If you've read Hamlet and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and can do better, why not leave your parody in the comments section on this post? For more on the novel, visit www.edgarsawtelle.com.]

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

July 25, 2008

Randy Pausch (1960–2008) — Here Are a ‘Last Lecture’ Review, Reading Group Guide and Quotes

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:55 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Randy Pausch has died from complications of pancreatic cancer, the disease that prompted him to give a talk that gained a second life on the Internet and inspired his bestseller, The Last Lecture. He was 47. Here are the links to posts on this site that offered a review of, reading group guide to and quotes from the book:

Review: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/30
Reading Group Guide: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress/com/2008/05/30
Quotes: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/30 (with other quotes in the review and reading group guide)

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

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