One-Minute Book Reviews

January 16, 2008

Books Give You ‘a Metaphorical Boner,’ Says Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’

[Warning: This review quotes lines from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that may offend some people. I am quoting them partly because many librarians and others expected Alexie to win one of the awards that the American Library Association handed out on Monday, and these words may help to explain why he didn't. Stop reading here to avoid the potentially offensive language.]

Alexie’s first young-adult novel won a National Book Award, but a character uses a racial slur that caused some high school students to walk out when he spoke about it at an Illinois high school

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel. By Sherman Alexie. Illustrations by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown, 230 pp., $16.99. Ages 12 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is as a subtle as an old television Western – say, the episode of Bonanza where Hoss has to explain to a fugitive from an Indian reservation why he can’t live on Cartwright land. Sherman Alexie has mostly avoided criticism for this and has, on the contrary, been rewarded for it with the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

It isn’t hard to imagine why: Alexie tries to fight some of the stereotypes fostered by the Westerns in this story told by an intelligent and self-mocking 14-year-old boy who transfers to a good high school in town instead of sticking with the wretched educational system on his reservation. Arnold “Junior” Spirit tells us that “in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity.” That includes homosexuality: “Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives!” Alas, the goodwill didn’t last: “Of course, ever since white people showed up and brought their Christianity and their fears of eccentricity, Indians have gradually lost all of their tolerance,” although a few clung to “that old-time Indian spirit.” Arnold believes his grandmother was good in part because she “had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians.”

Alexie is giving you the perspective of a teenager here, not that of a historian. But it’s fair to ask: Isn’t he replacing one stereotype with others by saying that Indians used accept eccentricity and admire gay people but lost “all their tolerance” when white people crashed the party? Don’t such passages romanticize Indians even as other parts of the book show the bleakness of life on a reservation where Arnold had attended 42 funerals by the age of 14?

Critics have praised Alexie for creating a character with a distinctive voice. But it would be more accurate to say that he describes experiences unfamiliar to many teenagers in the sort of voice that has become all too familiar through characters who range from Homer Simpson to Junie B. Jones, the in-your-face heroine of a series of early readers.

Arnold and his friends call others “dickwad,” “faggot,” “pussy,” “retarded fag” and “major-league assholes.” A character tells a gratuitous racial joke that includes the “n” word and “f” word and that caused some students to walk out of a speech that Alexie gave in at an Illinois high school. Alexie has stood by his use of the joke with a variation on the but-it-really-happened-that-way defense, although whether it “really happened” is irrelevant in fiction: what matters is whether it works in context. And the literary impact of this book is as muddled as its politics.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian reads less like a novel than a sitcom or screenplay called “The Rez.” Alexie describes life-shattering tragedies in the same breezy tone as a date for the Winter Formal, so that the events have the same emotional weight. He leaves subplots dangling.

Many teenagers love this bestseller, anyway. Some may be responding to Ellen Forney’s amusing illustrations, and others may be titillated by its sexual references, such as the 12 uses of the word “boner.” At his new school Arnold befriends a boy who tells him that he should read and draw “because really good books and cartoons give you a boner.” Arnold plays dumb, so Gordy goes on: “Well, I don’t mean boner in the sexual sense. I don’t think you should run through life with a real erect penis. But you should approach each book – you should approach life – with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point.” Arnold doesn’t ask an obvious follow-up question: What if a book pulls a boner instead of giving you one?

Best line: “If the government wants to hide somebody, there’s probably no place more isolated than my reservation, which is located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy.”

Worst line: The gratuitous racial and sexual joke that includes the “n” word (which appears the bottom of page 64 in the novel). Apart from that: The last line quoted in the review above. Would any 14-year-old boy say “erect penis” instead of “hard on” when talking with a male friend? Or even have to explain what a boner is?

Published: September 2007.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 16, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/16/.

Links: You can hear Sherman Alexie read from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at www.lb-teens.com, which also has reviews of the book and a list of the honors it has received. You may also want to visit the Alexie site www.fallsapart.com.

Furthermore: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature www.nationalbook.org. Alexie lives in Seattle and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

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

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

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A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’

10 Discussion Questions
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel
By Sherman Alexie
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.

Arnold “Junior” Spirit endures taunts that he’s “an apple” – “red on the outside and white on the inside” – when he leaves his reservation to go to better high school in a nearby town. But he knows he can’t let the jeers stop him. At the age of 14, he’s attended 42 funerals, and most of the deaths were alcohol-related. So Arnold tries to fit in at his new school – by going out for basketball, dating a popular white girl and befriending a fellow bookworm – while coping with tragedy at home. And if some Indians continue to see him as a traitor for leaving the reservation, Arnold eventually learns that the world has many kinds of tribes and that more than a few of them have a place for him.

Questions for Young Readers

1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian shows a different side of American Indian life than do many other books. What did you learn about Indians from it?

2. Why does Alexie call his book the diary of a “part-time” Indian?

3. On his reservation, Alexie’s main character is known as “Junior.” But when he switches to a new high school, Reardan, people call him by his formal name, Arnold. “I felt like two different people inside of one body,” he says. Do you think Junior/Arnold was just talking about his name? Or did he feel split in other ways, too?

4. Arnold misses his best friend, Rowdy, after he starts his new school. But Rowdy doesn’t seem to want to join him there. How do Arnold’s and Rowdy’s views of the reservation – and their own lives – differ? What do you think Alexie is trying to show you through those differences?

5. At his new school, Reardan, Arnold gets to know a book-lover named Gordy, who says that “life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.” How does this idea relate to Arnold’s life?

6. Arnold tells Gordy that some Indians taunt him: “They call me an apple because they think I’m red on the outside and white on the inside.” What did they mean? Did their comment describe Arnold accurately?

7. What’s the purpose of the humor in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? Why does Alexie use it when Arnold is clearly angry about a lot of things?

8. Arnold’s math teacher at Wellpinit High School, Mr. P, tells him that the teachers at the school used to beat the Indians with a stick: “That’s how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child.” What did he mean?

9. Alexie uses a racial slur (the “n” word) and strong language (the “f” word) in a joke on page 64. He repeated the words in a talk at an Illinois high school, and some students walked out. Alexie apologized to anyone he had offended but stood by his use of the words in his novel “because that was what was said. And to blunt the hatred of that insult blunts the incredible obstacles my character had to face,” a newspaper reported. (“Author Defends Using Slur, but Apologizes to Students,” by Melissa Jenco, Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, IL, October 6, 2007.) Do you agree with Alexie that in order to make his point, he had to use words that would offend some people? How do these words relate to the rest of the novel?

10. What did you think of Ellen Forney’s pictures for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? What is their purpose in the book? Do they provide a mirror for the text, reflecting back only what you read on the page? Or do they expand it? How?

10. Arnold falls in love with Penelope, a beautiful white student. In Greek mythology, Penelope married Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s The Odyssey. If you’ve read about Penelope in that book or others, how does she resemble the student in this novel?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel. By Sherman Alexie. Illustrated by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown, 229 pp., $16.99. Ages 12 and up.

Published: September 2007. A review of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 16, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/16/. A paperback edition is scheduled to appear in September 2008.

Links: You can hear Sherman Alexie read from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at www.lb-teens.com, which also has reviews of the book and a list of the honors it has received. You may also want to visit the Alexie site www.fallsapart.com.

Furthermore: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Alexie lives in Seattle and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

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

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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December 28, 2007

Take One Misdiagnosis and Call Me in the Morning – Jerome Groopman’s ‘How Doctors Think’

A Harvard Medical School professor says that physicians’ faulty logic can kill

How Doctors Think. By Jerome Groopman, M.D. Houghton Mifflin, 291 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

It’s flu season, and that’s bad news for you if you have an obscure disease with flu-like symptoms. Your doctors’ diagnoses might reflect a confirmation bias (a tendency to find what they expect to find), an availability error (a decision based on how easily examples come to mind) or other cognitive flaws that Jerome Groopman describes in this engaging bestseller.

Groopman’s thesis is that a doctor’s state of mind strongly affects clinical decision-making. And many of his examples are eye-opening if paradoxically commonsensical. Do doctors’ friends get better care? Not necessarily, Groopman says. A doctor might hesitate to prescribe a necessary but painful test for a friend. Do doctors favor the sickest patients, who may need their care the most? Actually, they prefer healthy ones. One social psychologist found that “the sickest patients are the least liked by doctors, and that very sick people sense this disaffection,” Groopman writes. Apparently many doctors feel they have worked in vain when a disease resists treatment and stop trying to help. How Doctors Think

Much of this is so interesting that you wish this book didn’t reflect biases of its own. One is that it slights mistakes that result from factors other than cognitive flaws, such as fatigue, poor training and inadequate supervision.  “Experts studying misguided care have recently concluded that the majority of errors are due to flaws in physician thinking, not technical mistakes,” writes Groopman, a professor at Harvard Medical School and staff writer for The New Yorker.

But when you go to the end notes of his book to look for the source of that hard-to-believe “majority,” you read: “Although the frequency of misdiagnosis has been studied, few researchers have focused on its relationship to physician cognition.” So who are those “experts” who found that most errors result from doctors’ thinking?  The notes name only one expert who found such a “majority,” a researcher who had studied “serious errors that led to malpractice claims.” But Groopman says that the majority of all errors result from physicians’ thinking, not the majority of errors that lead to malpractice suits. Either his end notes are incomplete or he misrepresents in the book some of the material he cites in the notes.

At the very least How Doctors Think leaves a different impression of the causes of mistakes than the chapters on medical errors and problem doctors in Atul Gawande’s Complications, a more cogently argued book by another physician who writes for The New Yorker.  Gawande quotes from a landmark series of papers in the New England Journal of Medicine that reported that one percent of all hospital admissions involved negligence that prolonged the stay or led to death or disability of the patient. A smaller study of the treatment of cardiac arrests found that “27 of 30 clinicians made an error in using the defibrillator – charging it incorrectly or losing too much time figuring out how to work a particular model.”

Groopman is a bit like a coach who blames the problems in baseball on the character flaws of individual players instead of the culture that produced them. He says that doctors “desperately” need patients to “help them think.” If that’s true, it reflects badly on the entire American system of medical education, training and certification, not just on individual physicians. Clearly many doctors need more than “help” thinking logically – they need to learn how to work the defibrillator.

Best line: “When a patient tells me, ‘I still don’t feel good. I’m still having symptoms,’ I have learned to refrain from replying, ‘Nothing is wrong with you.’ The statement ‘Nothing is wrong with you’ is dangerous on two accounts. First, it denies the fallibility of all physicians. Second, it splits the mind from the body. Because sometimes what is wrong is psychological, not physical. This conclusion, of course, should be reached only after a serious and prolonged search for a physical cause of the patient’s complaint.”

Worst line: Groopman says his book is for people who aren’t physicians “because doctors desperately need patients and their families and friends to help them think.”  Isn’t it bad enough that we have all those TV commercials telling us to ask our doctors if we need a certain drug because, basically, they’re too dumb to figure it out on their own? Do we need this kind of smarm from doctors, too? Groopman doesn’t mention that there are 285 doctors for every 100,000 people in the U.S. and, if he’d written his book for doctors, he might make a lot less money.

 

Recommendatiom? A good but one-sided book. If you’re interested in medical errors, consider reading the chapters called “When Doctors Make Mistakes” and “When Good Doctors Go Bad” in Atul Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (Holt/Metropolitan, 2002) www.gawande.com instead of or in addition to How Doctors Think

Editor: Eamon Dolan

Published: March 2007  www.jeromegroopman.com  and www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It is also for people who dislike long-winded weasel reviews that are full of facts and plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 21, 2007

A Gallop Around the Big Top in Sara Gruen’s ‘Water for Elephants’

A resident of an assisted living facility looks back on his work for a Depression-era traveling circus

Water for Elephants: A Novel. By Sara Gruen. Algonquin, 331 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading this overpraised historical novel is like watching a circus show that moves so briskly and has so many bizarre acts that you almost don’t notice how threadbare the performers’ costumes are. Like Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, it takes the form of a monologue by one of those human curiosities who are among the last of their kind. In this case, he’s a man in his 90s who looks back on his stint with a Depression-era traveling circus from his perch in an assisted living facility.

This premise gives Sara Gruen plenty of room to introduce oddballs like “the human ostrich,” a man who claims he can swallow and return any object. “Wallets, watches, even lightbulbs!” a barker shouts. “You name it, he’ll regurgitate it!” By far the most interesting parts of the novel involve these characters, many inspired by real-life performers Gruen uncovered during her research.

Otherwise Water for Elephants is pure pop fiction — a sentimental fairy tale about cruel bosses, lovable freaks and an elephant as loyal as Dr. Seuss’s Horton. Gruen sets the tone when she reels off a half dozen or so clichés in the first two pages. The rest of the novel develops predictable themes – for example, that wife-beating and cruelty to animals are wrong – at a pace that helps to minimize the damage. If many historical novels move at the speed of a hippo that’s just been shot with tranquilizing darts, this one resembles a good show under the big top in at least one respect: It rushes forward at a full gallop until the last page.

Best line: A line about bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, romanticized by the newspapers of his day. The narrator of the novel, Jacob Jankowski, sees a headline that reads: “PRETTY BOY FLOYD STRIKES AGAIN: MAKES OFF WITH $4,000 AS CROWDS CHEER.”

Worst line (three-way tie): No. 1 “My heart skipped a beat … Thunderous applause exploded from the big top … the music screeched to a halt … No one moved a muscle.” All of these clichés appear in the first page-and-a-half. No. 2 Later on, characters say cloyingly folksy things like “Dagnammit” and “Grady, git that jug back, will ya?” No. 3 Some characters also “hiss,” “cackle,” “bark,” “hoot” and “cluck” their words instead of saying them. (As in: “‘Woohoo,’ cackles the old man.”)

Reading group guide: The publisher’s guide appears in the paperback edition and online at www.algonquin.com. A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 21, 2007, just before this review. If you are reading this review on the home page for the site, scroll down to find the guide. If you are reading the review elsewhere on the site or on the Web, click on this link to find it: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/.

Published: April 2007 (paperback), May 2006 (hardcover).

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/as of Sept. 6, 2007. It does not accept free books from publishers.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Sara Gruen’s ‘Water for Elephants’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Water for Elephants
A Novel by Sara Gruen
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its reproduction in any form 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.

Algonquin Books has posted a reading group guide to Water for Elephants at www.algonquin.com that you may want to use at a starting point for your discussions. But like most publishers’ guides, that guide is part of a publicity campaign designed to sell books. It does not encourage criticism, quote negative reviews or compare the novel to others that you might enjoy more. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but only to raise questions the Algonquin guide doesn’t.

A few generations ago, many Americans dreamed about escaping from humdrum lives by joining a traveling circus. Sara Gruen describes the tawdry allure of a Depression-era Big Top in her historical novel, Water for Elephants, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. Her narrator is Jacob Jankowski, a widowed nonagenarian who lives in an assisted living facility and looks back on his work for a traveling circus after his parents’ deaths forced him to leave veterinary school. Young Jacob is intelligent and hard-working. But if he expects those traits to help him avoid brutal hardship, he is corrected by the equestrian director of the Benzini Brothers circus. “The whole thing’s an illusion, Jacob,” his co-worker says, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what people want from us. It’s what they expect.”

Questions for Readers

1. Historical novels are often overpraised, because good research can mask or distract you from flaws in the plot, characterization or structure of a book. Do you think Water for Elephants deserved all the praise quoted in the front matter of the paperback edition? Or do you believe some critics might have been willing to overlook its flaws because of interesting material that Sara Gruen turned up in her research? Were you willing to overlook any flaws you found in the novel? Why?

2. Susan Cheever, the novelist and memoirist, says in the same front matter that Water for Elephants is “a book about what animals can teach people about love.” Do you agree? If so, why? If not, what is this novel really “about”?

3. “Despite her often clichéd prose and predictable ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book,” a reviewer for the trade journal Publishers Weekly wrote. Algonquin omits the first part of that sentence and begins with “Gruen” when it quotes from the review in the paperback edition. This kind of editing is considered fair – or at least standard – in publishing. It’s also fair to ask: How did you react to that “often clichéd prose”? (There are at least five clichés in the first one-and-a-half-pages: “thunderous applause,” “screeched to a halt,” “My heart skipped a beat,” “No one moved a muscle,” and “ ‘you’ve got a lot to lose.”) If you had been the editor of the novel, would you have suggested that Gruen lose a few? Or is the book is strong enough that it doesn’t matter?

4. Did you find the ending of the book as “predictable” as the PW reviewer did? Or did you find it surprising? Why?

5. Authors of historical novels usually try to avoid anachronisms such as modern language used by characters from other eras. How well did Gruen do on that count? Would Depression-era characters say things like, “So, did you two manage to hook up?” [Page 158] Does this matter? Why or why not?

6. Many novels that are popular with book clubs come from female authors who write in the voice of a female character. Water for Elephants is different in that its narrator is a man in his 90s. How well did Gruen portray Jacob? Did she portray characters of one sex better than the other?

7. Historical novels are traditionally defined as books in which the action takes place before their authors were born. Pride and Prejudice, for example, isn’t considered a “historical” novel because Jane Austen was writing about her own times. But many of the most popular American novels of the past 100 years, from Gone With the Wind to The Clan of the Cave Bear and Cold Mountain, are historical novels. How would you compare Water for Elephants with some of your favorites?

8. Gruen says in an interview in the back matter of the paperback edition that the “backbone” of her novel “parallels the biblical story of Jacob.” [Page 350] For example, the biblical Jacob works for seven years for his uncle Laban. In Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski “worked on circuses for nearly seven years” [Page 4], one of them owned by a man named Uncle Al. Apart from the appearance of “Jacob’s ladder,” the best-known part of the biblical story occurs when Esau sells his birthright to Jacob, his younger brother, for food. [In the time of Esau and Jacob, on the death of the father, the oldest son received twice as much property as any other child, known as the “birthright.] Does Water for Elephants have a counterpart to Esau?

9. Many people might consider the prologue to Water for Elephants to be controversial, because you could argue that it deceives you about the killer of August Rosenbluth, the superintendent of animals at the Benzini Brothers circus, in the scene in which he dies. How did you react to the scene? [Page 4] Was it fair or unfair given what happens later?

10. One way to judge the prologue is to compare it with mysteries you’ve read. A canon of mystery-writing that authors must “play fair” with readers. This means, in part, that a writer must give you all the clues you need to solve the mystery and provide them at appropriate times. (For example, a writer can’t withhold all or most of the important clues until halfway through the book or later, because this would deprive you of a pleasure you expect from a mystery – the chance to figure out “who did it” as you go along.) A mystery writer must also write as clearly as he or she can. That is, the the identity of the killer can be uncertain until the end, but the language can’t be unclear because of murky pronoun antecedents or other intentional grammatical lapses. How does all of this relate to the prologue and what comes after?

Extras:
1. James Michener, who did heavy research for his own books, said: “The greatest novels are written without any recourse to research other than the writer’s solitary inspection of the human experience. Flaubert, Dostoevski, Jane Austen, Turgenev, and Henry James exemplify this truth.” [Literary Reflections: Michener on Michener, Hemingway, Capote, & Others (State House press, 1993), p. 74.] Do you agree or disagree?

2. If you agree with Susan Cheever that this is “a book about what animals can teach people about love,” what do the animals teach us? What do we learn from this book that you couldn’t get from movies and television shows like Babe or Lassie, which involved intelligent and loyal animals?

Vital statistics:
Water for Elephants: A Novel. By Sara Gruen. Algonquin, 335 pp., $13.95, paperback.

Published: April 2007 (paperback), May 2006 (Algonquin hardcover). A review of Water for Elephants appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 21, 2007. If you are reading this guide on the home page for the site, scroll up to find the review. If you are reading it elsewhere on the site or on the Internet, click on this: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/.

Your book group may also want to read:

Genesis, Chapters 25:19–37:35. The biblical story of Jacob appears in these.

Horton Hatches the Egg, by Dr. Seuss, first published by Random House www.seussville.com in 1940 and also available in other editions. The epigraph for Water for Elephants comes from this book.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an 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. If this guide helped you, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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September 14, 2007

Five Things I Learned About Sara Gruen’s ‘Water for Elephants’ From the First Two Chapters

Yesterday I read the first two chapters of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants www.algonquin.com, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. Here’s what I learned about the novel from them:

1. The narrator is a man in his 90s. He sometimes thinks that if he had “to choose between an ear of corn or making love to a woman,” he’d choose the corn.

2. The characters say things like “Dagnammit” and “Grady, git that jug back, will ya?”

3. Some characters “hiss,” “cackle,” “bark,” “hoot” and “cluck” their words instead of saying them. (As in: “‘Woohoo,’ cackles the old man,” page 26.)

4. These clichés appear in the first page-and-a-half: “thunderous applause,” “screeched to a halt,” “My heart skipped a beat,” “No one moved a muscle,” and “ ‘you’ve got a lot to lose.’”

5. Susan Cheever says this is a book about “what animals can teach people about love” (quote in the front matter).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 17, 2007

Harry Potter and the Critic Who Gave Up (Books I Didn’t Finish)

The latest in an occasional series of posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t

Title: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Scholastic, $34.99), by J.K. Rowling

What it is: “The seventh and final installment in the epic tale of Harry Potter” (dust jacket).

How much I read: The first two chapters, a total of 29 pages.

Why I stopped reading: This novel wasn’t good enough or bad enough to hold my attention. I hadn’t read the first six books in the series, so opening this one was like walking into cocktail party full of people I didn’t know. The first chapter seems to involve mainly the bad guys. They have names like Snape, Malfoy and Voldemort, and they’re all sitting around a table plotting to kill Harry. But I was skeptical about whether they’d pull it off, because a white peacock appears on page 2. And here’s how critics read books: “White (symbol of purity) + peacock (symbol of immortality in Christian art) = pure character/Christ figure lives.” White is also a symbol of resurrection. So, I figured, the deal might instead be: “White peacock = Christ figure dies but is resurrected.” Naturally, I have no idea how things turned out. I may have looked at one too many peacocks on cathedral walls or altarpieces. But I didn’t want to slog through 759 pages only to yell at the end, “It was obvious! Major resurrection symbol on page 2!”

Best line in what I read: A line from a newspaper obituary written by one character for another: “Several of his papers found their way into learned publications such as Transfiguration Today, Challenges in Charming, and The Practical Potioner.” Nice satire, especially that Challenges in Charming.

Worst line in what I read: The names of some characters, such as Dolohov and Grindelwald, clash with the best in the series and seem unconsciously to imitate Tolstoy, Agatha Christie and others. It’s as though Rowling had named these characters 15 minutes after she finished reading War and Peace or Murder on the Orient Express.

Published: July 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 12, 2007

Does ‘The Secret’ Work? Final Results My 30-Day Test of ‘The Secret’

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Ouch. My 30-day test of The Secret is over, and now I know the secret of the universe: Taking advice from bestsellers can leave you worse off instead of better.

Yes, I knew when I started the test that the premise of Rhonda Byrne’s bestseller was scientifically “preposterous,” as Jerry Adler put it in his brilliant expose of the book in the March 5 issue of Newsweek. But One-Minute Book Reviews is the blog that gives out the annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/15/. And The Secret seemed like such an obvious frontrunner that I thought: Shouldn’t I at least try its techniques before giving it a booby prize? How often do I have a chance to road-test the advice in a Delete Key contender? It’s not as though I can turn myself into a Danielle Steel heroine and do what she does to get men to give her jewelry and take her on Mediterranean cruises, which would require shaving at least a decade off my age and more off my dignity.

So on May 2, I began a one-month trial of the premise of The Secret: You can have anything you want by tapping into a “law of attraction” in the Universe (always spelled with a capital U). Byrne says that Universe will “manifest” your desire as long as you know exactly what you want. Part of the beauty of the “law of attraction,” Byrne says, is that you don’t actually have to work to achieve your desire: You just have to visualize it act as though you already have it. No order is too tall for the Universe to fill. “It is as easy to manifest one dollar as one million dollars,” Byrne writes.

That’s why I asked the Universe for a one-million-dollar advance for my next novel or for a movie or paperback deal for one of my earlier books. Given Byrne’s claims, this had to be a much fairer request than many that readers of The Secret were making, because the Universe could fill in so many ways it. I wasn’t one of those people asking for a vintage Mercedes that hadn’t rolled out of a plant since the Eisenhower administration. There were hundreds of publishers who had my agent’s telephone number. (My agent represented the most recent winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction! Those publishers had to be practically hacking into her voice mail to find out what she had to sell!) There were probably even more filmmakers who know how to get her number. Some of those producers had to be desperate for romantic comedies that could serve as star vehicles for actresses who were just coming out rehab and needed to make a comeback fast.

I was also willing to be fair to the Universe and cut it a little slack if it was overwhelmed in by all the requests from people who bought The Secret. As Byrne advised, I visualized the million-dollar check. But I decided I would give the Universe credit if, say, a flush publisher or producer had invited my agent to lunch to talk about me. (As Gay Talese once said, New York is about lunch.) My theory was: I could assign credit based on how good the lunch venue was – say, a few thousand for the Four Seasons and under $25 for Burger Heaven. I also decided to give the Universe some credit if the sales of one of my novels spiked on Amazon, suggesting that producers were buying it by the carton to ship to those actresses in rehab.

So what happened? Here are the results:

1. Not only did I not get the million dollars, I had what may have been, financially, my worst month in years. I can’t even tell you how bad it was, because a lot of sites for writers link to One-Minute Book Reviews, and some of their visitors might quit writing forever if I did.

2. Apart from not handing over the one million, the Universe hit me with bizarre and unexpected expenses, which made the month even more of a disaster. For example, I had to file a Freedom of Information Act request for a few records I needed. Journalists do this all the time, but I hadn’t done it before. So I didn’t realize that you had to pay for documents you wanted, which in my case amounted to no more than five or six pieces of paper, none classified or top-secret. Just a routine request. For this the U.S. government charged me $158. Memo to journalists who plan to do this in the future: They don’t call it the Freedom of Information Act because it’s free.

3. As for the publishers and filmmakers: Here’s a tip for any writers who may be thinking of doing their own test of The Secret. Do not try this test during a month when publishers are getting ready for, going to or recovering from hangovers acquired at the year’s biggest trade show, BookExpo America. You’re cooked if Tina Brown is promoting a new book on Princess Diana when you’re trying to get the Universe to notice you.

4. My novels didn’t budge in the Amazon rankings, but The Accidental Bride did get a really nice mention on a books-of-the-week list at the Bensenville Community Public Library in Bensenville, Illinois, which is featuring books about “brides, bridesmaids, wedding planners, and everyone’s favorite, bridezillas.” Bless you, Bensenville.

5. I got a great idea for a soccer-novel series that could be written by a writer friend who coaches youth soccer if only he’d give up his other work. This wouldn’t make money for me could make millions for him. I told my friend about my idea, and he sent me an e-mail message headed, “Are you mad?” I’m still hoping he’ll see the genius of it. When his millions start rolling in, maybe he’ll take me to lunch to thank me.

Finally, I did get some great links from bloggers about my posts on The Secret and other books. Thank you! A book typically takes at least eight or nine months to reach stores after an author turns in a manuscript. So you can be sure that none of bestsellers and other books I’ve written about have achieved their success because their authors tapped into a wacko “law of attraction.” Except, of course, for The Secret.

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

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 5, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier’ by Ishmael Beah

Discussion Questions for A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider

by Ishmael Beah

Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher, or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may use it in their in-house reading groups. Other book clubs that wish to use this guide should link to it or check “Contact” page to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A Long Way Gone is a memoir by Ishmael Beah, who claims that he joined the government army in Sierra Leone to save his life after rebels destroyed his village and separated him from his parents. A review of this book appeared on Feb. 27, 2007, on One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com and is archived in the “Memoirs” category and with the February 2007 posts on that site. [Note: Since this guide appeared, many of the claims in A Long Way Gone have been disputed by reputable journalists, and the publisher of the book has produced no proof that Beah was ever a child soldier.]

The publisher of A Long Way Gone has posted an extensive reading group guide to the book at www.fsgbooks.com that contains questions your club may want to use as a starting point for its discussions. That guide includes samples of the praise the book has received from respected authors or critics. Like most publishers’ promotional materials, the online guide does not encourage criticism of the book, cite concerns raised by reviewers, or suggest that you are reading anything other than a flawless work. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but only to raise questions not covered by publisher’s guide.

Questions For Reading Groups About A Long Way Gone

1) Beah, now in his mid-20s, focuses on the upheavals that began when he was 12 and also covers some earlier events. How good is your memory for events in your life that occurred when you were that age? Can you recall events from that long ago in the detail Beah describes, including such things as hand gestures and a speaker’s pauses? If not, are you willing to give Beah credit for remembering them? Why or why not?

2) John Corry, who has reported from West Africa, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “It is permissible to wonder whether Mr. Beah is accurately recalling events and people and what they said.” (Feb. 10, 2007, page P8.) Do you agree with Corry? If so, what are some of the things it’s permissible to question? Do your questions affect your overall view of A Long Way Gone? Corry is a senior editor of American Spectator, a conservative magazine. Do you believe that critics’ liberal or conservative biases affect their reviews? How might liberal and conservative critics have reviewed this book differently?

3) Corry noted in his review that, perhaps to forestall questions about the book, Beah writes: “To this day, I have an excellent photographic memory that enables me to remember details of the day-to-day moments of my life, indelibly.” [Page 51] Did you ever know anyone who had a “photographic memory”? Was the person sometimes able to recall events in the detail described in A Long Way Gone?

4) Beah says that the army supplied the young conscripts with “white capsules,” presumably amphetamines, to help them stay alert. He adds that the child soldiers also had easy access to other drugs. [Page 121] Beah writes:

“In the daytime, instead of playing soccer in the village square, I took turns at guarding posts around the village, smoking marijuana and sniffing, brown brown, cocaine mixed with gunpowder, which was always spread out on the table, and of course the white capsules, as I had become addicted to them.” [Page 121]

Are you willing to share with your group whether or not you ever took drugs and how they affected your perceptions of events? Or how drugs have affected the memory of someone you know who used them?

5) Beah describes in one scene how he and friends “lay in the dirt” on a coffee farm near a ruined village and eavesdropped on rebels who played cards and chatted “for hours.” [Page 97] He adds that he heard one rebel say his group had just burned three villages:

“Another rebel, the only one dressed in full army gear, agreed with him. ‘Yes, three is impressive, in just a few hours in the afternoon.’ He paused, playing with the side of his G3 weapon. ‘I especially enjoyed burning this village. We caught everyone here. No one escaped. That is how good it was. We carried out the command and executed everyone. Commander will be pleased when he gets here.’ He nodded, looking at the rest of the rebels, who had stopped the game to listen to him. They all agreed with him, nodding their heads. They gave each other high fives and resumed their game.” [p. 97]

Does it seem to you that Beah and his friends could have been close enough to overhear that conversation yet avoid detection “for hours” by the rebels? Or that if the boys could see a rebel “nod,” and others “nodding” in agreement, that the rebels could not see them? What are some possible explanations for how Beah could have observed a conversation in such detail while avoiding detection himself?

6) When this book was published, Beah worked for a respected international organization, Human Rights Watch www.hrw.org. He has also described his experiences at the United Nations and in other settings likely to have included experts who could have confirmed at least part of what he says. How does this affect your view of A Long Way Gone?

7) Beah is a young writer who has clearly survived tragedies that go beyond anything most of us will experience in our lives. Do you believe that because of his youth or suffering he should be held to different literary or journalistic standards than writers who are older or have not suffered as much? Or do you believe that there are standards that all authors should uphold? What are they?

Vital statistics:
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. By Ishmael Beah. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Sarah Crichton, 229 pp., $22. Published: February 2007.

Your book group may also want to read:

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda (Picador, 1999) by Philip Gourevitch. This award-winning book describes the Rwandan genocide, which took place during a time that partly overlaps with that of A Long Way Gone. It also involves some similar events, such as machete killings. But Gourevitch places such events in a wider social and political context than Beah does. Comparing We Wish to Inform You … with A Long Way Gone may enrich your understanding of how events in Sierra Leone fit into the broader pattern of African history during the 1990s. It may also suggest ways Beah could have developed his story differently – for example, by adding more background about the events in his country – without sacrificing narrative power.

As a high school student, Beah wrote an essay about his experiences as a boy solider that appears on the web site for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation www.wagingpeace.org. Search the site for his name or “When Good Comes From Bad.”

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she writes about books and related topics.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 29, 2006

James L. Swanson Follows the Trail of John Wilkes Booth

A taut true-crime story about the search for Lincoln’s assassin

Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. Morrow, 448 pp., $26.95.

Over Thanksgiving dinner I told one of the smartest people I know that I had just finished Manhunt, the true story of the attempt to capture the man who killed Abraham Lincoln. “Why did John Wilkes Booth kill Lincoln, anyway?” my friend asked. “Was he just crazy?”

I couldn’t have answered before I read Manhunt and, no doubt, many people still can’t. One of the chief virtues of this fascinating book is that it reminds us how little we know about some of the most familiar events in American history.

Lincoln scholar James L. Swanson hasn’t written a biography or a character study of Booth but a true-crime story about what happened between the actor’s escape from Ford’s Theatre after the assassination and his arrest at a barn in Virginia 12 days later. So he leaves unanswered many questions about Booth’s mental stability. Instead he casts the actor as a passionate white supremacist who saw Lincoln as a tyrant and was enraged by the president’s recent call for limited black suffrage. General Robert E. Lee had surrendered, but strong Confederate armies remained at large in parts of the South, and their leaders had not taken their cues from Lee. Booth may have been delusional enough to believe that, by killing Lincoln, he could affect what remained of the Civil War.

For all its absence of psychological insight, this story is rich in adventures worthy of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Swanson follows Booth and an accomplice from Ford’s Theatre to the homes of Confederate sympathizers in Maryland and a pine thicket where they hid for five days until they believed they could safely cross the Potomac to Virginia in small boat under cover of darkness. And although he occasionally he describes thoughts by Booth that he appears to have had no way to know, he documents most of the story meticulously.

Manhunt came out just before Presidents’ Day, and some critics may omit it from holiday gift lists in favor of more recent titles. That’s too bad, because this book has much to offer adults and teenagers with a passion for U.S. History. Many of us learned from our teachers that after shooting Lincoln, Booth leaped onto the stage at Ford’s and shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” – “Thus always to tyrants.” How many of us learned that he first said something else? Before leaving the president’s box, Booth shouted a single word: “Freedom!”

Best line: “John Wilkes Booth’s escape and disappearance unfolded as though scripted not by a master criminal, but by a master dramatist. Each additional day of Booth’s absence from the stage intensified the story’s dramatic arc.”

Worst line: Swanson describes what Booth was thinking just before his arrest in lines like: “Suicide? Never that shameful end, Booth vowed to himself. Richard III did not commit suicide, Macbeth did not die by his own hand, nor Brutus …” Swanson provides many endnotes, but none makes clear how he could have known this.

Editors: Michael Morrison at HarperCollins and Lisa Gallagher at Morrow

Published: February 2006. HarperPerennial paperback to be published February 20007. www.jameslswanson.com

Posted by Janice Harayda

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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