One-Minute Book Reviews

November 23, 2007

Ian McEwan Makes Longlist for Bad Sex in Fiction Award As Expected, Along With Norman Mailer and Jeanette Winterson

Read the list of the nominees for the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award and the lines that may have qualified On Chesil Beach for it

By Janice Harayda

Call me Nostradamus.

Back in August, when a lot of people couldn’t stop praising Ian McEwan’s overrated On Chesil Beach, I wrote that “McEwan aggressively courts a Bad Sex in Fiction Award from the Literary Review” with the novel www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/10/. I raised the possibility of the Bad Sex Award again when McEwan made the shortlist for the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction (“Does Ian McEwan Deserve the Man Booker Prize or a Bad Sex Award for Writing Like This? You Be the Judge”) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/07/.

The Literary Review has just announced the longlist for the 2007 Bad Sex Award, meant to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description … and to discourage it” in modern literary novels (not pornograhy or erotica). And who’s on it? McEwan, along with Norman Mailer, Jeanette Winterson and others. Here’s the longlist:

Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach

Richard Milward’s Apples

Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy

Maria Peura’s At the Edge of Light

James Delingpole’s Coward on the Beach

David Thewlis’s The Late Hector Kipling

Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest

Quim Monzo’s The Enormity of the Tragedy

Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan

Christopher Rush’s Will

Claire Clark’s The Nature of Monsters

Nobody seems yet to have a list of the passages that won their authors a spot on the longlist for the award, the winner of which will be named on Nov. 27. But these lines from On Chesil Beach (Doubleday/Nan Talese, $22) quoted in my August 10 post, should have qualified McEwan easily (page 24 in the first U.S. edition):

“Like most young men of his time, or any time, without an easy manner, or means to sexual expression, he indulged constantly in what one enlightened authority was now calling ‘self-pleasuring’ … How extraordinary it was, that a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body, should instantly free his mind to confront afresh Nelson’s decisiveness at Aboukir Bay.”

Thanks to the Nov. 23 Literary Saloon www.complete-review.com/saloon/ for a link to a post on the Bookseller www.thebookseller.com that had the list. When is the Literary Review www.literaryreview.co.uk going to post the qualifying passages?

By the way, you can’t use the “Search Inside This Book” tool on Amazon www.amazon.com to find those lines from On Chesil Beach that I quoted, because the people at Doubleday/Nan Talese haven’t enabled it for the book. Those spoilsports.

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

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 11, 2007

Justice for Adrian Mole! Long-Suffering Teenager With Acne Finally KOs Mitch Albom and Others

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:29 pm
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After weeks of ignominy, a comic masterpiece cracks the Top Ten

My fellow literary bloggers: Have you noticed that all your posts about books you don’t like always show up on your list of Top Ten posts while all the posts about books you will adore forever never do? Or is this just a quirk of this site?

Back in May, I wrote a post saying that Good Sports, a collection of sports poems for children, was an unusually weak book by the gifted Jack Prelutsky. So what happened? Day after day for months, the book has made it onto the Top Ten list. You would weep if I told you how often Mitch Albom has turned up there.

So here, at last, is justice. This weekend Sue Townsend cracked the Top Ten list with The Adrian Mole Diaries www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/08/, a comic masterpiece in diary form that has sold more than five million copies since its publication in the mid-1980s. Of course, it’s fitting that in the blogosphere as in the novel people would underestimate Adrian Mole, a working-class British teenager with acne, irresponsible parents, an off-again, on-again girlfriend and a justifiable conviction that the world doesn’t appreciate his genius. Still, I must say it: Adrian, redemption is yours.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 9, 2007

Elizabeth Buchan’s ‘Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman,’ a Novel That Helped to Launch a Trend

A spurned wife survives without throwing Key Lime pies

Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. By Elizabeth Buchan. Penguin, 341 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Women of a certain age have come of age in print. Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck put them on the bestseller list. And other recent books about women well past 40 have had literary or commercial success or both, including Virginia Ironside’s novel No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club and Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive.

But the trend may have started a few years ago with the bestsellerdom of the British novelist Elizabeth Buchan’s Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. The title might lead you to expect a Heartburn with bifocals, a merciless satire intended to settle a few scores inspired by real life. Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman is instead a light, amusing novel about a 47-year-old newspaper editor in London, Rose Lloyd, whose husband leaves her for her younger deputy, Minty.

No hurler of Key Lime pies, Buchan’s heroine takes only the gentlest revenge on her betrayers, free of the over-the-top scheming found in novels such as The Red Hat Club and The First Wives Club. Before her marriage, Rose had an affair with a brilliant travel writer. And her story hinges on whether you can rekindle a bonfire that blazed years earlier (and holds more surprises than you might expect from that familiar set-up).

In Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, Buchan falls somewhere between Ireland’s Maeve Binchy and England’s Joanna Trollope in the ratio of salt to sugar in her fiction. She takes more risks than Binchy but fewer than Trollope. And if her novel has fairy-tale elements, it also has shrewd and mature observations on marriage. Rose explains her husband’s departure by saying: “We had been at that stage of taking each other for granted yet we had not yet reached the stage when we were strong enough that it was no longer dangerous.”

Recommendation? A more intelligent novel — and, for that reason, a much better choice for book clubs looking for light, entertaining reading — than, say, Holly Peterson’s The Manny or Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s Dedication.

Published: December 2003

Reading group guide: At www.elizabethbuchan.com

Furthermore: This review appeared in different form in the St. Petersburg Times. Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman was made into a 2004 movie starring Christine Lahti as Rose. Search the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com for the title for more information about it.

One-Minute Book Reviews ranks seventh in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts and Literature” blogs www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/ .

(c) 2007 All rights reserved. Janice Harayda.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 8, 2007

Sue Townsend’s Comic Masterpiece, ‘The Adrian Mole Diaries’

Filed under: Novels,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:28 am
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A teenager worries about sex, acne, his parents and all the people don’t appreciate his genius in a British bestseller with intergenerational appeal

The Adrian Mole Diaries: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. By Sue Townsend. HarperPerennial, 304 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In the realm of literary prize-giving, comic novels are the neglected stepchildren, traditionally ignored by judges on both sides of the Atlantic. So you won’t find The Adrian Mole Diaries on any list of winners of the Man Booker Prize, the next recipient of which will be announced on Oct. 16.

But few of the winners have delighted as many people as this fictional journal of a working-class English teenager, Adrian Mole, which has sold more than five million copies since its publication in the mid-1980s. The Adrian Mole Diaries has little in common with all those dreary American young-adult novels that unpersuasively suggest that – no matter how awful high school is – there is always a wise and understanding adult who can help. And it’s not just because the volume deftly satirizes the trends and events of its era instead of sentimentalizing them.

Most teenagers only think they’re smarter than their parents. Sue Townsend has created the rare teenage boy who, though entirely normal, really is smarter than the adults in his life. In his first diary entry, Adrian can hardly hide his disgust that his father got the family dog drunk on cherry brandy and that his mother is too distracted to wear the green lurex apron he gave her for Christmas. But his feelings of superiority don’t keep him from worrying about all the usual teenage concerns, such as sex, acne, a local street gang and the inability of teachers and others to see his genius. Nor is he too self-absorbed to be kind. He and his off-again, on-again girlfriend, Pandora, spend much of their time trying to help a cranky neighbor and to remedy what they see as social injustices.

Adrian embodies so perfectly the typical adolescent mix of insecurity and grandiosity his diary appeals equally to adults and teenagers. “None of the teachers at school have noticed that I am an intellectual,” he writes. “They will be sorry when I am famous.” How nice that his words were, in a sense, prophetic: Adrian has become one of the most famous schoolboys in British fiction.

Best line: Townsend shows a nearly pitch-perfect ear for social comedy in this volume, so every page has a “best line.” Here’s a sample involving Pandora Braithwaite, the love of Adrian’s life:

“My precious Pandora is going out with Craig Thomas. That’s the last time you get a Mars bar from me, Thomas!

“Barry Kent is in trouble for drawing a nude woman in Art. Ms Fossington-Gore said that it wasn’t so much the subject matter but his ignorance of basic biological facts that was so upsetting. I did a good drawing of the Incredible Hulk smashing Craig Thomas to bits. Ms Fossington-Gore said it was ‘a powerful statement of monolithic oppression.’”

Worst line: Adrian may be too bright to think, as he does at first, that Evelyn Waugh is a woman.

Recommendation? An excellent novel for adult fans of Nick Hornby and Helen Fielding and for bloggers trying to develop a comic style or persona. Many 12-to-14-year-old boys also love this book.

Caveat lector: I haven’t read the later books in the Adrian Mole series, which some critics regard as less funny.

Published: 1986 (first American edition) www.harpercollins.com. Read an excerpt and learn about the author and other books in the series at www.adrianmole.com.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site in the world on Google on Sept. 6, 2007 www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

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

August 14, 2007

Anita Brookner’s Booker-Prize–Winning ‘Hotel du Lac’: Room for One

Filed under: Book Awards,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:01 am
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Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (Vintage, $12.95, paperback) could make an ideal antidote to shows like The Bachelor, and not just because its heroine never talks about “taking it to the next level.” Thirty-nine-year-old Edith Hope checks into a Swiss hotel, intending to lie low for a while, after backing out of her wedding to a dullard. But during her stay she receives a marriage proposal from a very different sort of man. Can she – and should she – accept? Brookner ‘s suspenseful and psychologically complex answer won the 1984 Booker Prize and helped to establish her reputation as one of England’s finest moralists. And Hotel du Lac still one of the best modern novels in which, as Anne Tyler wrote, the heroine finds “a nonromantic, wryly realistic appreciation of her single state.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 21, 2007

Low Mileage for Helen Simpson’s ‘In the Driver’s Seat’

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:28 am
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Stories of contemporary Englishwomen who are “just barely there”

In the Driver’s Seat: Stories. By Helen Simpson. Knopf, 192 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

“The short story today seems to be caught up in a competition of subtlety,” the critic Anatole Broyard wrote in the 1970s. “Who can weave a web of the thinnest materials?” Broyard observed that in many stories, even the characters – the one thing you can’t eliminate – “are just barely there.” He was talking about the late English writer Elizabeth Taylor, but you could say the same of Helen Simpson, her somewhat less consistent countrywoman.

Simpson is thoughtful and intelligent, yet some of the 11 stories in her new collection are little more than extended anecdotes. She typically writes about contemporary Englishwomen who are old enough to have come up against some of their physical or emotional limits, yet young enough to think they can solve their problems with talk. They change, if they do so at all, only when jolted out of their passivity by events they didn’t cause – a break-in, an outbreak of cancer among friends, the loss of a leg in a freak bus accident.

A woman who didn’t attend her married lover’s funeral finds relief from her buried grief when a man from a do-it-yourself store treats her kindly in “The Door,” a story reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” A wife stands by her philandering husband during a lung-cancer scare in “If I’m Spared” and then, when he turns out to have tuberculosis instead, shows no rage or even concern that he might have infected her. An experienced mother tries to convince herself that her comforting words have helped an emotionally abused child at a swimming pool in “The Year’s Midnight,” a story that is almost all talk with whiff of instruction about it.

At times Simpson suggests what she can do at her best. In “The Phlebotomist’s Love Life” a woman who draws blood for a living projects her fears about the war in Iraq onto her lover — or perhaps projects her fears about her lover onto the war – with predictably disastrous results. Simpson makes interesting connections by juxtaposing such things as the Arsenal soccer team, Saddam Hussein’s brutality and the anticoagulant drug warfarin. But by the end of the story, talk has again gained the upper hand over the action that would have shown the point of these details.

Simpson tells an altogether different sort of tale in “The Green Room,” which involves an elf who materializes in the home of a woman who visits a Web site called Festive Life Coach. This amusing fable resembles a parody of “A Christmas Carol” with a 21st century “life coach” in the role of Marley’s Ghost. (“This is Pessimism,” the elf says. “And here, look, here comes its cousin Procrastination.”) The story is diverting, but could have been commissioned for a newspaper holiday supplement.

The best story is “Constitutional,” the title for the English edition of this collection. This jewel takes the form of an interior monologue that gives a cross-section of the entire life of a science teacher as she walks around what appears to be Hampstead Heath. Witty, insightful and beautifully structured, “Constitutional” shows us a woman who is, on every line, fully present and made of material sturdy enough to support all that her creator has to say about her.

Best lines: “I’m finding more and more when I meet new people that, within minutes of saying hello, they’re laying themselves out in front of me like scientific diagrams that they then explain, complex specimens, analyzed and summed up in their own words. They talk about their pasts in great detail, they tell me their stories, and then – this is what passes for intimacy now – they ask me to tell them mine. I have tried. But I can’t. It seems cooked up, that sort of story. And how could it be more than the current version? It makes me feel, No, that’s not it and that’s not it as soon as I’ve said something.” – The narrator of “Constitutional”

Worst lines: “You never talk to me … We only ever watch television and go to bed … But what do you feel?” – Comments the title character of “The Phlebotomist’s Love Life” makes to her lover

Reading group guide: So far the publisher hasn’t posted one on its site www.randomhouse.com. I was going to post a Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to the book, but the collection seems too skimpy to have a strong appeal for most American book clubs.

Published: May 2007

Furthermore: Simpson has a short story that’s not included in In the Driver’s Seat, “Homework,” in the June 19, 2007, issue of The New Yorker. She also wrote the collections Dear George and Four Bare Legs in a Bed, which won the Somerset Maugham Award, and the novel Flesh and Grass.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 14, 2006

Rebecca Campbell’s “Marriage Diaries”

A British-accented gross-out novel about a young couple with the seven-year-itch

The Marriage Diaries: A Novel. By Rebecca Campbell. Ballantine, 288 pp., $12.95, paperback.

The English love to deplore American vulgarity, but this book shows that when it comes to jokes about subjects like anal seepage, the Brits can beat the Yanks at their own game. The Marriage Diaries is a gross-out novel in the spirit of a Beavis and Butt-Head show, full of one-liners about belching, excrement, body odors, and human and animal semen.

A balsa-wood scaffolding supports the story of a London couple who get the seven-year-itch after the birth of their child, then try to find a way back to each other. Celeste is a self-absorbed workaholic who is said to be “a top clothing buyer” — hard to believe, given that she doesn’t know what a PDA is, let alone own a Palm Pilot. Sean is a writer and househusband who seems intended as the moral center of the novel, although he dismisses people like his mother-in-law with, “That old bitch.” The couple tell their story through antiphonal narration, or alternating diary entries about their encounters with friends and family who share their shallow values. At a party, Celeste and her guests spend “some quality time making fun of the fashion retards.”

Rebecca Campbell is the author of two earlier novels, Slave to Fashion and Slave to Love, and shows in The Marriage Diaries that she has enough education to write confidently about Leibniz, blind fish, and “the ontological proof” of God’s existence. So it’s unclear why she has chosen to create such repulsive characters. At times she makes clear that she’s capable of the unrelenting satire that they deserve. More often she substitutes archness or mild cleverness for real wit. She writes of one character: “Everything Uma said fell into one of two camps: the disdainfully dismissive and the grindingly sexual.” In a milder form that line would describe the entire novel.

Best Line: “St. James’s is probably the prettiest park in London, with its ornamental trees and cute bridge over the lake and black swans and outrageous, impossible pelicans and intricate flower beds. But it has always felt a little fake to me. The others – Green Park, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park – have that sense of being leftover bits of the countryside that were simply forgotten as the city grew up around them. By comparison, St. James’s is a carefully planned work of art, intricate, neat, and delicate, and a little soulless.” One of the few passages in the novel that seems to reflect genuine feeling instead of a strained attempt at cleverness.

Worst Line: “Do you mind if we discuss poo for a while?”

Consider reading instead: Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life and Kate Reddy, Working Mother (Anchor, 2003), a British import that deals far more effectively with a similar theme.

Caveat reader: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. The final version may differ slightly.

Editor: Signe Pike

Published: September 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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