One-Minute Book Reviews

March 2, 2011

‘The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton’ – A Biography for Young Readers

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:25 pm
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The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton: A Biography. By Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Clarion, 184 pp., $20. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Edith Wharton said that she hoped her biographer would “find the gist of me,” and Connie Wooldridge meets that test in this lively account of the life of one of America’s greatest novelists.

Born Edith Newbold Jones, Wharton came from the elite New York family that inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” Her parents and their circle looked on writing anything except poetry as an unworthy profession, especially for women. And Wooldridge rightly credits Wharton with escaping from the social expectations that might have stifled her career while observing those mores closely enough to write The Age of Innocence, the first novel by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton also shows how Wharton defied sexual codes by having an affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton while married to the unstable Teddy Wharton, who was conducting his own adulterous romance. Of Wharton’s marital relations, Wooldridge writes: “The sexual side of her marriage to Teddy was a failure.”  This sentence will shock few children at the upper end of the suggested age range for this book. But the line comes across as a gratuitous attempt to justify or at least explain Wharton’s adultery, though Wooldridge doesn’t link her subject’s poor sex life to her infidelity. And young readers who are ready for such material could have handled more information on the great themes of Wharton’s fiction (especially that of the conflict between individual yearnings and the imperatives of a rigid social order), which get less attention than their creator’s fascinating life.

This biography has more than 80 black-and-white photos and illustrations of every stage of Wharton’s life from early childhood through old age, including pictures of her glorious homes in Newport, New York, Paris and Lenox, Massachusetts. And all of these help to make up for the few questionable judgments in the text. One page reproduces mock reviews that young Edith wrote of a novel called Fast and Loose that she began just before her 15th birthday. “A chaos of names apparently all seeking their owners,” Wharton-the-satirist said. She called “the sentiments weak, & the whole thing a fiasco.” Wooldridge need not fear that she will face similar assaults for The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton.

Best line: One of many good quotes from Wharton, in this case about her girlhood: “No children of my own age, and none even among the nearest of my grown-ups, were as close to me as the great voices that spoke to me from books.” The “great voices” included those of Plutarch, Homer and Milton.

Worst line: A caption on page 21 says: “One of Edith’s mock reviews of her first novel.” The book makes clear that Wharton started a novel at the age of 11 and that the mock reviews describe “another novel,” her second, that she began at the age of 15.

Ages: Clarion bills The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton as a book for ages 12 and up, and its mature content justifies the recommendation. But many preteens and teens reject books with the format of this one, which is that of a modified picture book: They want biographies that look like books for adults. So The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton, good as it is, may be a tough sell to strong readers over the age of 9 or so.

Published: August 2010

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

© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 6, 2010

Patricia Morrisroe’s ‘Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia’ — Counting Ambien Pills, Electrodes, and CBT Sessions

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:41 pm
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One woman’s quest for a good night’s sleep

Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia. By Patricia Morrisroe. Spiegel & Grau, 288 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Patricia Morrisroe once flew to Lapland and spent Christmas in a glorified igloo called the Icehotel, where reindeer pelts covered the beds and the indoor temperature was a constant 20 degrees Fahrenheit. She says she hoped that a visit to a place where daylight lasted only a few hours might help to ease her chronic insomnia.

You don’t quite believe that Morrisroe expected that result from her trip, but she’s such an entertaining writer you’re happy to go along. And it’s not as though she hadn’t tried less extreme remedies for her nocturnal awakenings, a condition known as “sleep-maintenance insomnia.”

In Wide Awake Morrisroe describes her mostly futile plunge into a pool of insomnia treatments prescribed by doctors and others. She tried cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques that made her miserable. She had electrodes pasted to her head at a $3,200-a-night hospital-based sleep lab that “would be the perfect place to set a horror movie.” She took sleeping pills that caused memory loss (Ambien and Sonata) or made her insomnia worse (Celexa). Only meditation made a real difference in her life, and to judge by a recent interview in Salon, its benefits had limits.

Morrisroe describes her adventures in a slightly digressive style that at times leads her away from sleep and into such topics as her “snowmobile safari” in Lapland, where she drove a sled pulled by 400-pound reindeer. And she tries a few flaky remedies while omitting any serious discussion of many people’s favorite sleep aid, sex. But she’s such a good reporter and witty raconteur that Wide Awake is the rare book on its subject that might appeal to many people who rarely have insomnia.

Even if you sleep like Rip Van Winkle, you may enjoy Morrisroe’s musing topics such as the vanishing siesta in Spain, a country that has been forced to fall into step with the workday rhythms of the rest of Europe. “Instead of a three-hour lunch break,” she writes, “government employees can now take only an hour, with the result that Spaniards, who don’t start dinner until after 9 p.m., are among the most sleep-deprived people in Europe.” A partial solution may lie in the napping parlors cropping up in Spain, with naps usually sold in combination with a massage. The trend causes Morrisroe to wonder: “Can the Viagra Café MetroNap be far behind?”

Best line: Morrisroe writes after going to a course for doctors in Las Vegas: “In the fifties and sixties, 120 atomic bombs were detonated in the Mohave Desert, right outside the city. Casinos packed ‘atomic bomb lunches’ so guests could picnic hear ‘Ground Zero.’”

Worst line: “Utilizing eight monumental screens, [Sleepwalkers] chronicles a night in the lives of five stylish New Yorkers as they shake off sleep and wend their way into the city to begin their workday.” Morrisroe is too good a writer for that “utilizing.”

Editor: Cindy Spiegel

Published: May 2010

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

Furthermore: Read Morrisroe’s Departures article on Lapland.

About the author: Morrisroe also wrote Mapplethorpe: A Biography.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda).

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

May 2, 2010

Meghan Daum Looks Back on Her Real-Estate Binges and Purges in ‘Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House’

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:40 pm
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A novelist recalls her self-diagnosed “addiction” to changes of address

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. By Meghan Daum. Knopf, 256 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Meghan Daum looks back on years of binging and purging on housing in this memoir of a condition that sounds like the real-estate equivalent of bulimia. Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House follows the standard format of addiction-and-recovery narratives:

Describe the problem. Daum switched dorms every semester after her first year of college and lived in 18 temporary residences in 15 years before buying a small house in Los Angeles. When you’re as restless as she is, she says, “the real estate section of the newspaper is a form of pornography.”

Acknowledge your shame. “I’m not proud of any of this,” Daum says, after describing how she reneged on an impulsive offer to buy a Nebraska farm. About kicking out a New York roommate, she writes, “That story is shameful.”

Link your behavior to childhood experiences. Daum says that if her family had “anything close to a regular weekend activity” when she was growing up in New Jersey, it was attending open houses, a pursuit rooted in her mother’s frustrated wish to live in the kind of place “a person who read The New Yorker” would inhabit.

Put your story in a social context, so people will see its wider relevance. “At the risk of making a perverse and offensive comparison, I don’t think I’d observed so much absorption with one topic since the attacks of September 11, 2001,” Daum writes of the interest in real-estate in California in 2004.

Add a happy ending. In this case, it wears pants.

At times Daum shows the vanity-masquerading-as-humility often found in recovery narratives. She can be a snob. In Venice, California, she sublet a cottage full of “awful furniture” from a single woman in her 20s and congratulates herself on her superior taste. Her own furnishings might reside in storage units: “But at least I did not own a media cabinet the size of a truck.”

This snobbism appears to stem not from strong political or other principles such as environmentalism or anti-consumerism — on the evidence of this book, she’s a raging consumerist — but from insecurity, the sense that her self-worth depended on presenting a certain appearance, that she never fully explains. It is certainly true that in our culture, people often judge by appearances. But Daum never comes to grips with the forces behind that impulse that may have motivated her chronic dissatisfaction with here she lived. If her mother yearned for a certain kind of home, the same cultural traits may explain both her behavior and her mother’s. In some ways Daniel McGinn does a much better job of explaining the compulsion to seek new property in his House Lust.

Daum has called Joan Didion a literary influence, and her distaste for the media cabinet in her Venice sublet echoes faintly an essay in which Didion wrote of the Reagan-built governor’s mansion in Sacramento: “it is the kind of house that has a wet bar in the living room.” The difference is that Didion’s comment served a larger theme and carried far more symbolic weight: Didion was eviscerating the shallow values of rich and influential people whose decisions affect many others. Daum faults the tastes of an anonymous woman who was caring for a mother with cancer during her sublet. She suggests that “self-loathing” explains why single women buy inexpensive furniture such as wicker chairs and collapsible bookcases when these purchases often amount instead to a modern example of Jane Austen’s “single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor.” And the media cabinet may have may have reflected the opposite of  “self-loathing”: It may have sprung from a healthy recognition by the owner that she didn’t have to wait for a man to buy her an item she would enjoy.

Daum writes with flair and sometimes wit, and in her title and elsewhere, she describes an undeniable reality: Many people do fantasize that their lives “would be perfect” if they had a certain kind of house, and this may cause them to live in suspended animation. But in a book that is longer on style than substance, she doesn’t begin to come to grips with the moral, spiritual or other emptiness the pattern can betoken. Nor does her memoir reflect the coherent worldview of the best work of stylists like Didion and Nora Ephron, a counterpart to Didion’s ironic detachment and sense of dread or Ephron’s brash feminism. At times, Daum seems to lack a sense of who she is apart from her sleek, nickel-plated ceiling fans. If her book were a house, it would be a pretty vacation cottage, built on stilts.

Best lines: No 1: The first: “Yesterday, a piece of my house came off in my hands.” No. 2: “What I didn’t know back then … was that it wasn’t the prewar apartment I craved but, rather, an ineffable state of being I can only describe as domestic integrity.” No. 3: “I have never been able to say I’m from New Jersey without feeling as if I were wearing someone else’s name tag at a party.”

Worst lines:No. 1: “I’d be lying if I said that these weren’t arguably the most important professional years of my life.” No. 2: “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that …” No. 3: “And if you’ll pardon the expression … ” Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House has a lot of flab like this.

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

Furthermore: Daum wrote the novel The Quality of Life Report and an essay collection, My Misspent Youth. She is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She satirizes American literary culture on her FakeBookNews page on Twitter (@FakeBookNews).

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 26, 2009

Getting Lucky at Harvard — Ben Mezrich’s Tale of the Founding of Facebook, ‘The Accidental Billionaires’

That red lace bra on the cover is the first red flag

The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal. By Ben Mezrich. Doubleday, 260 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

A new art form may have emerged in this heavy-breathing, sensationalized account of the founding of Facebook: pulp nonfiction. Ben Mezrich warns you up front that he wrote The Accidental Billionaires without interviewing Mark Zuckerberg, who created the first version of the social networking site by hacking into Harvard University computers, downloading students’ photos, and posting them online.

With no access to the prime mover of Facebook, Mezrich tells his tale through techniques such as “re-created dialogue,” scenes set in “likely” settings, and “imagined” descriptions. He also draws heavily on talks with Eduardo Saverin, who helped to bankroll the start-up as a Harvard undergraduate and later successfully sued for the right to be listed as a co-founder of the site. You know all those “disgruntled former employees” you used to read about before a lot of newspapers banned both that clichéd phrase and stories by driven their views? Mezrich doesn’t use those words — and Saverin wasn’t an employee but a partner — but The Accidental Billionaires suggests why the technique has fallen out of favor.

You get a fine sense of the book from a bathroom sex scene that has Saverin undressing a “tall, slender Asian girl” at Harvard who wears a red lace bra under a white shirt. Men, how often have you fantasized about finding yourself in such a situation only to discover to your regret that wearing a red bra under a white shirt is something that women never, ever do? Have you been forced to conclude that for far too many members of the other sex, this particular sartorial blunder makes visible panty line look like chump change? Are you wondering if that “Asian girl” was simply displaying an admirable loyalty to her school by wearing its colors for sex in a bathroom stall and that you haven’t seen it because you haven’t dated enough Harvard undergraduates lately? Or do you think the woman didn’t wear that combination but that someone decided that a red bra would work best on a book cover? Perhaps Mezrich believes people won’t mind his failure to answer questions like these. Or perhaps he thinks, as he writes in another context, “they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.”

Best line: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s business card has a line running across the center that says, “I’m the CEO – Bitch.”

Worst lines: No. 1: “the end was really a foregone conclusion.” No. 2: “the moment itself became historical only in retrospect.” No. 3: “Thankfully, the Phoenix leadership hadn’t traced the fiasco back to Eduardo yet — though even if they did, they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.” No. 4: “Eduardo had spent many evenings in the stacks of Widener – poring through the works of economic theorists such as Adam Smith, John Mills [sic], even Galbraith.” No. 5 “[Lawrence] Summers shook his head. His jowls reverberated with the motion, like fleshy waves swirling in an epidermal storm.” No. 6: “Slowly, Summers leaned forward, and his chubby hand crawled across his desk.” No. 7: “Both had bright red lipstick and too much eyeshadow, but they were damn cute — and they were smiling and pointing right at him.” No. 8: “His hands roamed under her open white shirt, tracing the soft material of her red bra, his fingers lingering over her perky, round breasts, touching the silky texture of her perfect caramel skin. She gasped, her lips closing against the side of his neck, her tongue leaping out, tasting him. His entire body started to quiver, and he rocked forward, pushing her harder against the stall, feeling her writhe into him. His lips found her ear and she gasped again –”  No. 9:At nine a.m. in the morning, in the Eliot dining hall, he had walked right up to the hottest girl he knew – Marsha, blond, buxom, in reality an econ major but she looked like a psychology major.” No. 10: “Maybe feeding the chicken chicken was a mistake; how was he supposed to know what chickens ate? The thing hadn’t come with a manual. Eduardo had gone to a Jewish prep school in Miami. What the hell did Jews know about chickens, other than the fact that they made good soup?”

Editor: Bill Thomas

Published: July 2009

About the author: Mezrich wrote Bringing Down the House, made into the movie 21. He lives in Boston. Kevin Spacey is producing a movie version of The Accidental Billionaires called The Social Network.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

April 23, 2009

She Promised Her Husband Sex Every Night for a Year for His 40th Birthday – But Her Book About It Left Out All the Good Parts

Filed under: How to,Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:05 am
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Sex, but no sex

You know how I said the other day that I’d never heard of a book that Jonathan Yardley said “may well be the best baseball book ever”? Here’s another I’d missed: Charla Muller’s 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy (Berkley, 288 pp., $14, paperback), the #2 bestseller in the “Love & Romance” category on Amazon. It comes from a woman who promised her husband sex every night for a year for his 40th birthday, and if the comments on Amazon are right, Muller left out all the good parts. A reader-reviewer complained: “The author uses the premise to discuss almost everything except sex. There are almost no details about the sex-life of the author and her husband.” But Muller has started offering a free Bible study guide to the book.

April 20, 2009

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

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

Fiction: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

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

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

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

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

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read an excerpt from Try to Tell the Story.

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

April 11, 2009

2009 Pulitzer Prizes to Be Announced on April 20 at 3 p.m.

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:17 pm
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The winners of the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced on Monday, April 20, 2009, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time at a press conference at Columbia University. The awards honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction. The finalists will be named at the same time, and the judges may decline to give a prize in any category.

April 6, 2009

A Biographer Recalls America’s Entry Into World War I on April 6, 1917, and the Birth of the Song ‘Over There’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:49 pm
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Given the recent study that found that 10 percent of Americans think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, it’s likely that few could identify April 6 as the day the U.S. entered World War I. George M. Cohan wrote the most famous song about that war, and biographer John McCabe remembers its origins in George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (Doubleday, 1973):

“On April 6, 1917, Woodrow Wilson signed the declaration of war against Germany, and show business true to its traditions prepared at once for entertainment service. On that day, Cohan was in his Manhattan apartment. Contrary to a press agent’s story … of Cohan’s writing ‘Over There’ on the back of an envelope on his way into the city that morning from Great Neck, the song was actually written in New York City. April 6 was a Friday and Cohan, like most Americans, took the news of our entry to the war in a mood of spirited determination that all would eventually be well. He pondered Wilson’s announcement during his Saturday duties at the office, and that evening shut himself up in his study.

“Cohan’s daughter, Mary, to this day retains the vividest memory of the following morning. ‘Early that Sunday,’ she says, ‘Dad called us all together – we kids, and my mother. He said that he had finished a new song and he wanted to sing it for us. So we all sat down and waited expectantly because we always loved to hear him sing. He put a big tin pan from the kitchen on his head, used a broom for a gun on this shoulder, and he started to mark time like a soldier … “

As his daughter recalled it to McCabe, Cohan then sang the song that included the famous lines: “Over there, over there, / Send the word, send the word over there, / That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming, / The drums rum-tumming everywhere.”

McCabe goes on:

“’Over There’ became not only the most popular song of World War I but the manifestation of a perdurable American theme as well. As Cohan often said, he had simply dramatized a bugle call, but in its incisive notes and words he had also delineated something elemental in the American character – the euphoric confidence that the coming of the Yanks was the march of the good guys to effect infamy’s overthrow.”

You can listen to three versions of Cohan’s “Over There” for free on the site www.firstworldwar.com/audio/overthere.htm, including a bilingual English-French recording by Enrico Caruso. To listen to Caruso or another artist singing “Over There,” you will have to make another click on the site to select which version you want to hear.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 26, 2009

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

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

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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