One-Minute Book Reviews

January 19, 2011

Joyce Dennys’s ‘Henrietta’s War’ – The Other Battle of Britain

Filed under: Classics,Humor — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:52 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Henrietta’s War: News From the Home Front 1939–1942. By Joyce Dennys. Bloomsbury USA, 176 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

During World War II, Joyce Dennys expressed her frustrations as the wife of a small-town doctor in Devon by writing a series of light, amusing sketches for a British tabloid. Her pieces took the form of fictionalized letters to a childhood friend, a middle-aged colonel on duty in France, and became so popular that a publisher collected some of them in Henrietta’s War and its sequel, Henrietta Sees It Through.

Bloomsbury USA reissued the first of the two volumes last year, and its timing couldn’t have been better. Henrietta’s War helps to satisfy an American hunger for epistolary tales fostered by The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s 2008 bestseller. Dennys’s book also reflects the influence of E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, a modern classic that has had a modest revival since The New Yorker published an appreciation of its author in 2005.

But Henrietta’s War has a tone all its own, less sentimental than that of Shaffer and Barrows but gentler than the astringent Delafield’s. Dennys finds her alter ego in Henrietta Brown, the wife of a popular GP on a part of the English coast that is bracing for an expected German invasion by sea. As enemy bombers ply the skies, Devonians acquire gas masks, join air raid drills, and cope with meat and margarine rationing, all the while keeping up cherished rituals – jumble sales, garden parties, and drinking tea while listening to the click of croquet balls at the tennis club.

Henrietta and Charles have a son and daughter who are away helping with the war effort and appear occasionally, once when Bill returns unhurt from Dunkirk. In the children’s absence, the couple care for their eccentric dog, Perry: “A firm believer in warmth and a hater of fresh air, he sleeps, winter and summer, with a rug over his head.” The couple also live with the behavior of neighbors like Faith, the town siren, who insists on being vaccinated in response to the rumor that “the Germans are going to fly at great height over England and release thousands of minute parachutes laden with bacilli.”

Early on, Henrietta suggests the theme and tone of the book when she observes, “This is a belligerent community to make up for the extreme peacefulness of our surroundings, I suppose.” She is perceptive enough to notice her neighbors’ absurdities but too kind and cheerful to condemn them for it. Henrietta writes, after meat rationing begins:

“Mrs. Savernack, that woman of action, took out a gun-license. If she can’t get meat at the butcher’s, she will go out and shoot it. The rabbits which for years gambolled happily in the fields at the back of the Savernacks’ house have received a rude awakening, and Mrs. Savernack, flushed with success, has begun to turn her thoughts to bigger game. Farmer Barnes, wisely perhaps, has moved his cows to another field.”

Henrietta’s War brims passages that, if light-hearted and at times disjointed, give a piquant flavor to a time when the British were urged to stay “Bright, Brave and Confident.” Henrietta laments the underuse of the skills of her female neighbors, expected to aid the war through such unheroic tasks as making marmalade with saccharine instead of the rationed sugar. Men could join the Home Defense Corps, but “we married women still feel the part we have to play in this war is mundane, unromantic and monotonous.”

Henrietta doesn’t allow herself a stronger complaint, and her “musn’t grumble” approach is part of her appeal. Her lack of cynicism and self-pity may seem as far removed from the present as the sewing bees at which women make flannel hot-water–bottle warmers for soldiers. And yet, by the end of the book, Henrietta has revealed enough that you what she means when she says of a Christmas celebration: “We decided that we wouldn’t try to be too gay, because if we did, we would all end by being depressed.”

Best line: It’s a rare English book in which the heroine dares to say, even with tongue in cheek, that “gardening simply corrodes the character.”

Worst line: Henrietta’s War reflects common wartime ethnic stereotypes that would today be considered slurs.

Recommendation? My fellow worshippers at the Shrine of E. M. Delafield, this is for you. Also highly recommended to book clubs that liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, though Henrietta’s War is a better book.

Published: April 2010

About the author: Dennys studied at the Exeter College of Art and illustrated Henrietta’s Warwith witty line drawings in a style reminiscent of those of the New Yorker cartoonist Helen Hokinson. An unsigned introduction to the book says that Dennys invented all the characters except Henrietta and her husband, her daughter, and her dog.

Furthermore: A sequel, Henrietta Sees It Through: More News From the Home Front 1942–1945, is due out from Bloomsbury USA on Feb. 1, 2011. Both books are part of the publisher’s stylish “Bloomsbury Group” series that revives light and entertaining 20th-century British books.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 1, 2010

An English Bride Walks Down the Wrong Aisle in Julia Strachey’s Tragicomic Novella, ‘Cheerful Weather for the Wedding’

A young woman’s anxieties about her wedding escape the notice of her oblivious mother

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. By Julia Strachey. With a new preface by Frances Partridge. Persephone, 118 pp., $18, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Virginia Woolf rightly called this novella “extraordinarily complete and sharp” when she and her husband published it under their Hogarth Press imprint. One of its most unusual aspects is that Julia Strachey gives away its ending in her first line: She tells you that on March 5, Mrs. Thatcham, a middle-class widow, married her 23-year-old daughter to the Hon. Owen Bigham, a diplomat eight years her senior. She makes clear soon afterward that Dolly has married the wrong man.

How does Strachey create suspense after showing so much of her hand? In part, through her masterly use of theatrical techniques, which she studied in drama school. All of the action in the book takes place on Dolly’s wedding day at mother’s North Yorkshire home. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding has roughly the structure of a three-act play — with scenes before, during, and after the ceremony — and it rushes forward on a tide of clever repartee. For a slim book, it has a large and well-observed cast of characters: friends, relatives, servants, and a former suitor of Dolly’s who turns up hoping to plead his case. Strachey shows the bride in her white Edwardian bedroom before the wedding:

“All about the airy bedroom, maids of different kinds, in dark skirts and white blouses stooped low and searched about for stockings and garters, or stood warming satin shoes and chemises in front of the coal fire.”

But Strachey offers more than a catalog of domestic minutiae, however telling or amusing. Anglo-American literature abounds with heroines handicapped in courtship by the deaths of their mothers: Anne Elliott in Persuasion, Lily Bart in House of Mirth, Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding involves a lack of maternal guidance of a different sort. Hetty Thatcham is so dense and foolish, she is oblivious to her daughter’s anxieties about the imminent wedding. She doesn’t notice — or pretends not to see — that Dolly copes by hiding rum in the folds of her bridal gown.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a tragicomedy about the harm done by mothers who are too self-absorbed to understand — or even recognize — their children’s pain. And Strachey shows how that damage can sweep up people beyond the family. Dolly’s younger sister appears shocked to find the bride-to-be drinking rum out of a bottle in a bedroom minutes before the wedding. “I’m sorry to say it, Dolly,” she said, “but in some ways it will be a good thing when you are no longer in the house. It will not be so demoralizing for the servants, at any rate.” 

Best line: On a parchment lampshade with a galleon and leaves painted on it that Dolly receives as a wedding gift from Miss Dodo Potts-Griffiths: “The galleon and leaves were not, in any sense, painted from Nature, yet they were not exactly diagrammatic either. Rather it was though an average had somehow been arrived at of all the Elizabethan galleons and of all the leaves that had ever before been painted on a lamp-shade, and a diagram then drawn to represent this average.” 

Worst line: “ ‘However; s-s-s-s-s-ssh-sh-s-s-s.’”

Furthermore: Julia Strachey was a niece of Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury group. Partridge is the co-author of Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey (Little, Brown, 1983), co-written with her subject. Persephone Books reprints neglected 20th-century novels and other books, most by women.

Janice Harayda is a novelist, award-winning critic, and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, such as it is, on her Fake Book News page (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

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

January 4, 2010

Out for Blood – A Review of ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:51 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Elizabeth and Darcy inhabit a Regency England drenched in the blood after zombie attacks

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now With Ultraviolet Zombie Mayhem. By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. Quirk, 317 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This book is a literary prank, the equivalent of drawing moustaches on the apostles in The Last Supper. Seth Grahame-Smith follows the outline of the plot of Pride and Prejudice as he splices together many of its original passages and a new tale of zombie attacks that have left Regency England drenched in blood. Elizabeth Bennet is fearless zombie-killer who learned her deadly arts in China. Darcy loves her partly because he knows he has met his match among slayers of the undead. And Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas turns into a zombie whose physical deterioration causes her to say things like: “I fank you, Eliza, for dis piece of c-civiwity.”

Thousands of people have apparently have found all of this funny. But because this novel is more mashup than parody, there’s little room for wit, and any of Jane Austen’s best lines is better than the entire book. So what is the purpose of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Any number of answers might come to mind after you read that Elizabeth stabbed one of her victims in the stomach and “strangled him to death with his large bowel.” How about, for a start, “blood money”?

Best Line: Many by Austen. They include Elizabeth Bennet’s admission to her sister Jane that she didn’t always love Darcy: “But in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable.”

Worst line: No. 1: “‘What can be da meaning of dis?’ howled Charlotte, as soon as he was gone. ‘Mah dear Ewiza, he muss be love you, aw he never wuh have called in dis famiwiar way.’” No. 2: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Published: 2009

Furthermore: The popularity of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has led to a movie deal and a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Grahame-Smith also wrote The Big Book of Porn: A Penetrating Look at the World of Dirty Movies.

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

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

December 17, 2009

A Sherlock Holmes Christmas Story — ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’

Filed under: Classics,Mysteries and Thrillers,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:36 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The world’s most famous detective must figure out how a priceless gem ended up in a white goose

By Janice Harayda

Great holiday crime stories are rare. Set a murder mystery against the backdrop of a celebration of the birth of Christ and you risk accusations of trivializing the season or playing it for heavy irony. And who wants to be reminded that the wreath-draped mall teems with pickpockets or that burglars may strike after we leave for the airport?

Part of the genius of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is that it implicitly acknowledges such realities. Arthur Conan Doyle begins this Sherlock Holmes tale on the second morning after Christmas. It’s a holiday story without the freight it would carry if it took place two days earlier. And it has a plot perfectly attuned to the season. Holmes has the benign Watson by his side as usual. But he doesn’t face his arch-foe, Moriarty, or a killer armed with a gun or a trained swamp adder as in “The Dancing Men” or “The Speckled Band.” He needs only to find out why a priceless gem – the blue carbuncle – turned up in the gullet of a Christmas goose abandoned on a London street.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. But Holmes resolves the case, in fewer than a dozen pages, with panache and in a spirit of holiday generosity. You could probably read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” aloud in 20 minutes or so as a yule log burns. And it appeals to nearly all ages – not just to adults but to children who need more dramatic fare than The Polar Express.

Part of the allure all the Sherlock Holmes tales is that, while their stories are exciting, Holmes is imperturbable. “My name is Sherlock Holmes,” he tells a suspect in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” “It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” How nice that, in this case, he knows how to set the right tone – in a secular if not religious sense – for the season.

Furthermore: You can download “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” for free at the online Classic Literature Library, which makes available at no cost books in the public domain. At top left is the Audio CD “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — The Blue Carbuncle” (Mitso Media, 2006), read by James Alexander.

This review first appeared on this site on Dec. 19, 2007.

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

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

June 19, 2009

A Quote in the Spirit of Jane Austen From ‘Love in a Cold Climate’

A wonderfully satirical quote from Nancy Mitford’s modern classic Love in a Cold Climate, reviewed yesterday, that suggests why the novel night appeal to fans of Jane Austen:

“Lady Montdore loved anybody royal. It was a genuine emotion, quite disinterested, since she loved them in as much in exile as in power, and the act of curtseying was the consummation of this love. Her curtseys, owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind. She scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost, like a cow, a strange performance, painful, it might be supposed, to the performer, the expression on whose face, however, belied this thought. Her knees crackled like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly.”

www.janiceharayda.com

June 18, 2009

Nancy Mitford’s Modern Classic, ‘Love in a Cold Climate’

Say what you will about the decomposing British class system, the follies of aristocrats have inspired some the finest comic scenes in Western literature. Few authors saw the excesses at closer range than Nancy Mitford, who drew on them for Love in a Cold Climate, a modern classic based in part on her storied and half-batty upper-class family. First published in 1949, this comedy of manners tells the story of the heiress Polly Montdore, an only child who flouts convention by marrying a middle-aged man who had been her mother’s lover. Mitford’s portrait of the young Polly sets the tone of a book that is witty and elegant without being aloof: “Polly was a withdrawn, formal little girl, who went through the day with the sense of ritual, the poise, the absolute submission to etiquette of a Spanish Infanta. You had to love her, she was so beautiful and friendly, but it was impossible to feel very intimate with her.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 6, 2009

Barbara Pym’s ‘Good Books for Bad Days’

The British edition of Barbara Pym's 'Jane and Prudence'

Barbara Pym wrote about ordinary people without “self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humor,” the poet Philip Larkin said. That’s partly why her fiction remains so appealing 29 years after her death: Next to all the recent novels about freaks and vampires and aliens, her men and women look radically normal.

“I should have liked the kind of life where one ate food flavored with garlic, but it was not to be,” a woman says in Jane and Prudence (Moyer Bell, 222 pp., $12.95, paperback), the story of two Oxford graduates whose lives have diverged. In this novel and others, Pym’s characters often show a similar matter-of-factness about the limits of their lives, a refreshing contrast to the desperate striving found in so much contemporary fiction.

In Jane and Prudence, Jane Cleveland, a clergyman’s wife, believes she has found the ideal mate for her friend, Prudence Bates, who has overinvested emotionally in her married boss. The plot centers on whether her matchmaking will work. But the pleasures of the novel have as much to do with Pym’s shrewd observations on human nature as with suspense about the outcome. Noticing the attention Prudence squanders on her boss, Jane reflects:

“Oh, but it was splendid the things women were doing for men all the time … Making them feel, perhaps sometimes by no more than a casual glance, that they were loved and admired and desired when they were worthy of none of those things — enabling them to preen themselves and puff out their plumage like birds and bask in the sunshine of love, real or imagined, it doesn’t matter which.”

That “real or imagined, it doesn’t matter which” is the depth charge in the sentence, and it’s typical of Pym. Her novels are so calm thoughtful that they are often called “good books for bad days.” Amid the current torrent of bad days, couldn’t we all use more of those?

This is the last in a series of daily posts this week on some of my favorite books. The other posts dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title (Monday), Middlemarch (Tuesday), Greater Expectations (Wednesday), and To Kill a Mockingbird (Thursday).

Tomorrow: A review of the new memoir, Knucklehead, by Jon Scieszka, an author beloved by many 9-to-12-year-old boys. Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on this site on Saturday.

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

February 3, 2009

George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ – Scenes From More Than a Marriage

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:06 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A young woman’s wish to be useful leads to a romantic mismatch in the first great multiplot novel in English.

By Janice Harayda

“Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy,” George Eliot writes in Middlemarch. And that line suggests one of many reasons to love her masterpiece: its sharp commentary on relations between the sexes.

Middlemarch tells the wonderful story of an intelligent young woman, Dorothea Brooke, whose desire to be useful leads her to wed to a repressed clergyman who lacks her passion for life. But the novel is far more than a portrait of mismatch. The action in Middlemarch unfolds against the backdrop of two great social upheavals: the coming of the Industrial Revolution to England and enactment of Reform Bill of 1832 that made Parliament more representative of ordinary people.

Eliot sets Dorothea’s private dramas against these cataclysms and shows, as she writes, “that there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.” The external forces include a society treats women as an underclass. And part of Eliot’s genius is that she hasn’t written a broadside against injustice but a book often called the first great multiplot novel in English. Middlemarch is a brilliant portrait of both sexes, never more so than in famous coda: “ … the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to those who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. The full text of Middlemarch is available for free on Project Gutenberg . A good, six-part Masterpiece Theatre miniseries, available on video and DVD, starred Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke.

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

December 7, 2008

Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ – A Masterwork for Its Time or for the Ages?

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:46 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Would critics hail Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as a masterpiece if it appeared today under the name of a little-known author? Do people revere it because it uses stream-of-consciousness techniques well or because it was among the first to use them at all (and can you separate the two)?

These questions came to mind last week at a meeting of a book club that had read the novel. Among the comments: “You can’t always tell who is speaking or thinking.” “The writing is so beautiful, but you get lost in the middle of some of the sentences.” “This may be a male point of view, but I found parts of this novel almost completely inaccessible.”

The club members had a point. Woolf darts in and out of the minds of characters in a way that critics often fault in the work of lesser writers. Deaths occur that aren’t prefigured. And the novel is almost plotless, taking as its subject with the daily life of a well-off English family on a Scottish island with a view of lighthouse.

So why do many critics consider it Woolf’s masterwork? To the Lighthouse is moving partly because “it is an account not of a brilliantly successful marriage nor of an incandescently failed one, but of an adequate one, in which struggles and little compromises are daily enacted,” the critic James Wood rightly notes in How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).

But the novel is far from timid in its portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their eight children. Contemporary writers tend to reduce the departure of children from home to a cliché – “the empty nest.” Woolf offers a more complex portrait of a sensitive mother who is 50 years old when the novel begins.

Mrs. Ramsay knows what she will face when her young children, James and Cam, leave home: “Nothing made up for that loss.” And Woolf doesn’t sugarcoat this – as a contemporary novelist might do — by suggesting that the future happiness of Mrs. Ramsay or her children will offset the loss. Quite the opposite. Woolf adds a chilling note of a sort rarely found in recent novels: Mrs. Ramsay wants her children to stay young for their sake as well as hers: “They were happier now than they would ever be again.” Or, as Mrs. Ramsay puts it, “A tenpenny tea set made Cam happy for days.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 7, 2008

Coming Next Week ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:10 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is sadistic – you “must” read 10 novels by Ian McEwan and none by Barbara Pym – but it’s right about Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Persephone, 2008). Meg Jensen writes of this rediscovered gem from the 1930s, a tale of a 40-year-old governess who stumbles into a world of cocktails and evening gowns when an employment agency sends her to the wrong address: “Over the course of a day, in a series of deft interventions, brilliant repartee, and enough gin to sink a lesser woman, Guinevere is revealed not only to her newfound friends, but more importantly to herself, as a lifesaver, in more ways than one.” I’ll review the novel next week, and until then you can listen to an audio clip of Frances McDormand reading from the book at www.persephonebooks.co.uk.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 357 other followers

%d bloggers like this: