One-Minute Book Reviews

February 23, 2009

Night Falls on James Frey’s ‘Bright Shiny Morning’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:26 am
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A controversial author says that the City of Los Angeles “was founded by a major water source”

Bright Shiny Morning. By James Frey. Harper, 501 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Evening came early for Bright Shiny Morning, a novel that appeared in May and that apparently had tanked at bookstores by September. And the premature nightfall befit this dark, postmodern tale of Los Angeles.

Bright Shiny Morning is a flat-footed converse of A Million Little Pieces, the discredited memoir that turned James Frey into a literary pariah. If much of that book was fiction posing as fact, much of this one is fact posing as fiction.

Frey tells the interleaved stories of stereotypical characters — a Mexican-American maid, a closeted gay male superstar — that don’t converge. He pads these with so many set pieces and trivia lists, you almost expect a recipe for huevos rancheros. The stories typically begin on right-hand pages and face, on left-hand pages, snippets of Los Angeles history that read like Wikipedia entries. Frey in effect juxtaposes two books — one fiction, one nonfiction — each of which makes sense without the other. It’s an interesting device, and a better stylist might have pulled it off. But much of Bright Shiny Morning reads like the work of an also-ran in a David Foster Wallace imitation contest. And some of its lines are almost comically inept. “The City of Los Angeles,” Frey tells us, “was founded by a major water source.”

A theme of Bright Shiny Morning — to the degree that it has one — is that people stay addicted to the dream of Los Angeles long after reality has impinged on it. Joan Didion said as much in her wonderful essay about the San Bernadino Valley, “Some Dreamers of Golden Dream,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. More than 40 years later, Frey may tell you less about Los Angeles in 501 pages than Didion did in her one-line comment that this is the place where “a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into to a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity.”

Best line: Frey reports that Los Angeles has the “world’s first video graveyard,” where TV screens play, for 24 hours a day, videos of the people buried beneath them.

Worst line: No. 1: “As is the case with most of the world’s megacities, the City of Los Angeles was founded by a major water source.” Bright Shiny Morning also has many lines like No. 2: “He said she would have a better life the sun shining every day more free time less stress she said she would feel like she had wasted a decade trying to get to the major leagues only to demote herself once she got into them.”

Second opinion: Read a review by David Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Furthermore: Bright Shiny Morning was one of Entertainment Weekly’s five worst books of 2008. It was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. The paperback edition is due out in March 2009. Frey lives in New York.

One-Minute Book Reviews will post the shortlist for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Thursday, Feb. 26. The finalists will be announced at roughly 20-30 minute intervals beginning a 11 10 a.m. Eastern Time and the full list posted by the end of the day. The winners will be named on March 16 (instead of the usual March 15, which falls on Sunday this year).

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

November 17, 2008

Tuesdays With More Jewelry – The 13 Women You Meet in ‘The Necklace’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 am
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“I told Wayne, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. If you vote for Bush I’ll give you sexual favors.’ I live with a Democrat. What else could I do?’ Men are distracted by their little brain, as we call it.”
— Nancy Huff, who chipped in with 12 other women buy a $15,000 diamond tennis necklace, on her husband, Wayne

The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives. By the Women of Jewelia and Cheryl Jarvis. Ballantine, 240 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Think of this book as Tuesdays With More Jewelry. Or For One More Day With a $15,000 Necklace. Or The 13 Women You Meet in Midlife If You’re Planning to Live to Be 100+.

Mitch Albom doesn’t have a new book out this year, but if you’re having withdrawal symptoms, The Necklace offers an antidote in the form of a variation on the Tuesdays With Morrie formula: Take two or more middle-aged or older people, have them meet regularly, and write about the self-evident truths they say “learned” from their get-togethers.

In this case 13 California women, all in their 50s or early 60s, chipped in to buy a $15,000 diamond tennis necklace and named it Jewelia. Then they took turns keeping it for a month at a time, sometimes lending it to others or using it as a draw for fund-raisers, and wrote a book about their experiences.

The Necklace brims with praise for the benefits of sharing a necklace that has 118 diamonds. One borrower said, “I’d been depressed because I’m overweight, but the necklace made me feel happy.” This is not a practical solution to America’s obesity epidemic.

Even so, The Necklace has more going for it than much of Albom’s fare, chiefly because the sex is better. The owners of the necklace had an understanding: “Each woman, when it’s her time with the necklace, has to make love wearing only the diamonds.” Thus we learn that Nancy Huff gave her husband “sexual favors” in return for a vote for George Bush. (“I live with a Democrat. What else could I do?”) Dale Muegenburg surprised her husband by dressing in schoolgirl porn — “a plaid, pleated miniskirt, a sexy white blouse, and kneesocks” — when they stayed in a dorm at his college reunion.

As proof of what they learned from their purchase, the women offer banalities — including talk about about “second chances” and “the road less traveled” — that hardly seem worth an investment of more than $1,000 apiece. But the bromides don’t count the book, movie and other deals that flowed in after the media heard about their project. And although none of the women acknowledges it, each owner of The Necklace learned something about her death if not about her life: Each woman now knows what the first line of her obituary will be.

Best line: “Men are distracted by their little brain, as we call it.”

Worst line: “Patti didn’t feel the same ecstasy with regard to the group necklace. ‘Diamonds are too common for me.’”

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to The Necklace was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 17, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this review.

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

Wish I’d written that: Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: “The group unquestionably helps others by using the necklace to raise money for charities and by appreciating the intangible, self-actualizing gifts that can’t be had in jewelry stores.

“But real honesty and insight are antithetical to this book’s experiment. It wants to simultaneously exploit and renounce the same craving. So the diamonds are cannily manipulated throughout The Necklace to both titillate and congratulate readers and to reinforce what they already know.” stores.
www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/books/05book.html?pagewanted=print

Editor: Susan Mercandetti

Published: September 2008

Read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780345500717

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

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

November 12, 2008

Yes, She Had Herself Photographed Wearing the Necklace During a Gynecological Exam – A Review of ‘The Necklace’ Coming Soon

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:20 am
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You would think, wouldn’t you, that with the National Book Award winners being announced next week, I would have better things to read than a book about a group of California women who chipped in to buy a $15,000 diamond necklace and gave it the pet name Jewelia? Especially when one woman wore the necklace to a gynecological exam? And had herself photographed wearing it with her feet in the stirrups?

Yes, if you were sensible, you would. But I got sucked into The Necklace, so a review will appear soon.

In the meantime, here’s one of the “good parts.” The following scene occurs when Patti Channer, an investor in the necklace, visits her gynecologist, Dr. Roz Warner, who also owns a share:

“Roz had been in practice twenty years. No one, not one single patient, had ever brought a camera for her annual checkup. She was startled but moved quickly out to the hallway to nab Michelle, her twenty-five-year-old medical assistant.

“Patti prepared the settings and handed the camera to Michelle. …

“It was an interesting experience, Roz thought, one she decided to repeat when it was her turn with the necklace. It would be a point of conversation, something to distract the patient from the fluorescent lights overhead and the metal speculum inside.

“Patti felt good when she left the office. She liked to document her life. Every trip, every family vacation, she was the one with the camera. It was a way of remembering the fun, prolonging the experience. And sharing the photos with people was like giving a gift.

“Wearing a diamond necklace for a gynecological exam had to be a first, she thought. She couldn’t wait to show the pictures to the women.”

If you can’t wait for the review, you can read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl/9780345500717.html.

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

November 2, 2008

Two Classics of Environmentalism and Nature Writing – Aldo Leopold’s ‘A Sand County Almanac’ and John Muir’s ‘My First Summer in the Sierra’

On Thursday I wrote about 100 One-Night Reads, a collection of 100 essays on short books — a volume I liked partly for its variety. David and John Major don’t pander to book clubs by focusing on recent bestsellers or other popular choices. They cover many kinds of good fiction and nonfiction – travel, humor, science, memoirs, mystery, fantasy, history, public affairs – though they favor 20th century classics.

Here are excepts from their comments on two books that have helped to shaped the modern environmental movement, A Sand County Almanac and My First Summer in the Sierra:

On Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac:

“Aldo Leopold is one of the heroes of modern environmentalism, and A Sand County Almanac is one of the movement’s classics. In the half century since it was published, this book has inspired readers with its impassioned call for radical change in human attitudes toward the planet that sustains us. …

“The first part of the book is the almanac proper: observations from the Leopolds’ family retreat arranged seasonally. The writing here is memorable; many books remain in one’s consciousness only in general terms, but after reading A Sand County Almanac you will find yourself startled by the immediacy of the author’s vision. … a chorus of sound in the middle distance might bring to mind Leopold’s precise comments on ‘the proceedings of the convention in the marsh’ (March) or the virtues of the songs of the more elusive birds (September).

“The second part of the book, ‘Sketches Here and There,’ collects some of Leopold’s essays written about regions in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, describing perspectives and incidents that contributed to the formulation of his mature views.” www.aldoleopold.org/books/Default.asp

On John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra

“After explorations that included a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf Coast, [John Muir] traveled to California, arriving in San Francisco in 1868. In the summer of 1869, he book a job with a rancher acquaintance, overseeing the movement of flocks to mountain pastures.
“As a supervisor of the enterprise, Muir assembled a crew of two – a shepherd named Billy and a borrowed St. Bernard dog, Carlo – to go on the trip. Able to rely on their expert work in dealing with the sheep, Muir found himself with time to indulge his passion for the explorations of nature. My First Summer in the Sierra, based on his contemporary journal (though not published until 1911), is the record of that extraordinary time. Although Muir was in the Sierra that summer for less than four months, we come away from the book feeling that his time there was much longer, and in some sense permanent.”

Read the first chapter of My First Summer in the Sierra at www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/my_first_summer_in_the_sierra/chapter_1.html

To read the review of 100 One-Night Reads, click here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/10/30/ .

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

October 6, 2008

‘Speaker Pelosi, I Named My Dog After You’ And Other Things Nancy Pelosi Has Heard in More than 20 Years in Politics

How do you become the highest-ranking elected female official in the U.S.? Pelosi didn’t iron her husband’s shirts

Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters. By Nancy Pelosi with Amy Hill Hearth. Doubleday, 180 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

This book has inspired toxic comments on Amazon, apparently coming both from Republicans opposed to Nancy Pelosi’s liberal politics and Democrats enraged by her refusal to support impeachment proceedings against George W. Bush. Those diatribes may be too harsh. How bad can a book be when it includes an admission by the nation’s highest-ranking elected female official that she got where she is partly by declining to ironing her husband’s shirts?

Know Your Power isn’t a definitive autobiography but a brief memoir that its publisher optimistically but rightly categorizes as “motivational.” And it would be welcome if only because it offers an alternate model to any woman who thinks she could never meet Sarah Palin’s standard of running for high office as the mother of an infant and four other children. An implicit message of Know Your Power is: You don’t have to.

In this book Pelosi describes how she found her rewards sequentially. She got her start in politics when the mayor of San Francisco appointed her to the Library Commission while she was a full-time wife, mother, and volunteer who had given birth to five children in six years. But she didn’t become Speaker of the House until decades later. After becoming a Congresswoman, Pelosi seems to have accepted that she could never be the perfect wife envisioned by some of the women’s magazines: She has represented her California district since 1987, and her husband has never lived in Washington. A cornerstone of her philosophy of life is, “Organize, don’t agonize.”

Pelosi gives a strong sense of the rewards of a life in politics, some learned from her father, a Congressman from Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. She also sees the comic absurdities faced by elected officials of both sexes. One fan told her, “Speaker Pelosi, I named my dog after you.” One of the strongest sections of the book deals with her remarkable mother, who raised seven children — one of whom died at the age of three — and made sacrifices that indirectly underscore the need for elected female officials of both parties.

“My mother was a wonderful wife and parent, and she was also an entrepreneur and visionary,” Pelosi writes. “She started law school but had to stop when three of her sons had whooping cough at the same time. She made astute investments, but Daddy would not sign off on them (which, sadly, would have been necessary at the time). She had a patent on the first device to apply steam to the face, called Velex – Beauty by Vapor. It was her brainchild, and she had customers throughout the United States, but Daddy wanted her close to home.”

Amid such reminiscences, Pelosi offers advice to anyone who aspires to career in public service. “Don’t overstate what you will deliver, and always complete the task agreed to.” “Quality childcare is the missing link in the chain of progress for women and families.” Then there’s the advice she got from Lindy Boggs, former Congresswoman from Louisiana: “Never fight a fight as if it’s your last one.”

Some of the nastiness in politics today clearly results from the problem noted by Boggs, that many elected officials fight every fight as if it were their last. It’s easier to take an end-justifies-the-means view if you think you’ll never face your opponent — or American voters — again. Partly for that reason, if Know Your Power is billed as a book for “America’s Daughters,” it has a message for American’s sons, too.

Best line: On why she majored in history at Trinity College in Washington. D.C.: “I had intended to major in political science, but at Trinity at that time you had to major in history in order to study political science. Our teachers often quoted the great English historian J.R. Seeley’s aphorism: History without political science has no fruit. Political science without history has no root.” As someone who majored in political science major, I think Trinity had it right here. I had good poli sci professors but almost no history courses, which left me with an inadequate context for some of their lessons. If I had it to do over, I would major in history or English, which might have required me to take a few Shakespeare courses. I thought I had enough Shakespeare partly because I’d had a wonderful introduction to his greatest plays in high school. Wrong. You never have enough Shakespeare, especially if you’re a writer.

Worst lines: “This is an historic moment …” “This was a historic day in our house.” Pelosi apparently can’t decide whether its “an historic” or “a historic” and is hedging her bets. “A historic” is correct. To oversimplify: “An historic” dates to the early English settlers of our continent, many of whom dropped the “h” at the beginning of words, and the construction perpetuates the outdated language.

Recommendation? Know Your Power has crossover appeal. Doubleday has packaged it as a book for adults, and in bookstores and libraries, you’ll find it with the new adult nonfiction. But this book may especially appeal to teenage girls, including college students, who are hoping to go into public service.

Reading group guide: Doubleday has posted one at doubleday.com/2008/07/28/know-your-power-by-nancy-pelosi/, but this is a guide that’s almost worse than none. Sample questions: ” What roles do women occupy, or have they occupied, in your family? Did you have older female relatives who worked while raising a family?” These questions do not engage the serious issues Pelosi raises. You could ask them about almost any book by any female author from Edith Wharton to Toni Morrison.

Published: July 2008

Furthermore: Pelosi represents California’s 8th Congressional District, which includes much of San Francisco. She became Speaker of the House in January 2007 www.house.gov/pelosi/biography/bio.html.

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

September 12, 2008

A Boy Runs for President of the U.S. in the Picture Book ‘President Pennybaker’

A young candidate campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire and other politically influential states after setting his sights on the White House

President Pennybaker. By Kate Feiffer. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

It’s probably safe to say that many adults would find it easier explain to young children how babies are made than how U.S. presidents are made. Libraries and bookstores abound with good picture books on conception, pregnancy and birth. But how many show the importance of putting up posters, taking part in debates and campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire?

Most authors seem to assume that presidential campaigns are too complex a topic for young children and that they may write only about elections that occur in school or neighborhood settings. These writers may be giving too little credit to their potential audience. Child psychologists tell us that children are aware of changes in their environment even if they don’t understand them. So they’ll notice if campaign signs are sprouting on lawns, Dad is wearing a shiny red-white-and-blue lapel button, or Mom is spending a lot of time on the telephone asking people she doesn’t know for money.

Kate Feiffer and Diane Goode cast a national election in terms young children can understand in President Pennybaker, the story of a boy who sets his sights on the White House after his father’s edicts convince him that life is unfair and that he can bring about his own form of social justice. Luke does many things that adult candidates do: He sets up a campaign office, puts up posters and solicits contributions. And as he travels to politically important states like Iowa and New Hampshire, he makes promises he’ll never be able to keep. Campaigning as the candidate of the Birthday Party, Luke vows that under his administration kids will get to eat cake and open gifts every day. After winning by a landslide, he realizes that he’s in over his head and resigns after a week on the job, leaving Oval Office to his hand-picked vice-president — his dog, Lily.

Goode leavens Feiffer’s somewhat abrupt ending with entertaining watercolors that set President Pennybaker mostly in the early 20th century — when voters tooled around in Model Ts – except for a few anachronisms such as television sets and a female governor of California. Her pictures also suggest some of the comedy in Luke’s serious motive for seeking the White House. In real life, when children ask their elders why people run for president, the adults tend to fall back on bromides like, “They want to make the world a better place.” That explanation is far too dull and abstract for many children. Luke’s rationale for his candidacy is likely to be much more appealing to its intended audience: Life is not fair. What 4- or 5-year old couldn’t relate that?

Best line/picture: All of Goode’s pictures show her flair for retro details, but Bruce Springsteen fans may especially like the page that shows Luke campaigning on “on the beach at the Jersey shore” in what looks like old Asbury Park.

Worst line/picture: Anachronisms such as the television set are clearly intentional and often amusing but weren’t essential to the story.

Recommendation? A good choice for parents who want to explain to young children why Dad starts swearing every time he sees a certain candidate on television. This book may especially interest schools and libraries in the places where Luke campaigns or whose elected officials are mentioned in it — the cities of Detroit, Cincinnati, New York and Washington, D.C., and the states of Iowa, Maine, Kansas, Colorado, California, New Jersey and New Hampshire.

Editor: Paula Wiseman

Published: August 2008 www.katefeiffer.com and www.dianegoode.com. Feiffer is a Massachusetts filmmaker who also wrote Henry the Dog With No Tail, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Goode is a New Jersey artist who won a Caldecott Honor for her art for Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains and also illustrated Mind Your Manners, a guide to table manners for young children www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/23/.

Furthermore: Click here to read about other new children’s books about elections, including Rosemary Wells’s Otto Runs for President www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

July 17, 2008

Kay Ryan Named Poet Laureate, Succeeding Charles Simic — Here’s a Review of Her ‘The Niagara River’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:11 pm
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Kay Ryan has been named the next poet laureate of the United States, succeeding Charles Simic. This is a repost of a review of her The Niagara River, which appeared on this site on Dec. 23, 2006.

The Niagara River. By Kay Ryan. Grove Press: Grove Press Poetry Series, 72 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Kay Ryan’s poetry captures better than any I know a quality of life that is obvious but rarely mentioned: It rhymes in unexpected places. Most of our lives resemble neither sonnets with fixed rhymes nor free verse with no rhymes. We hear music when we don’t expect it. So it is with Ryan’s sixth book, The Niagara River. Ryan rhymes the first word of one line with the last word of the next in “Absences and Breaks.” She begins with a rhyming couplet, “The egg-sucking fox/licks his copper chops,” but doesn’t stick to the pattern in “Theft.” This unpredictability might have been chaotic in the hands of a less talented poet. But Ryan has so much control over other aspects of her work, particularly tone, that the result is fresh instead of jarring.

In classical literature the river is dual symbol of life (because it sustains fertility) and death (because it suggests the irreversible flow of time). The 64 brief and intelligent poems in The Niagara River continue this tradition. The poems are autumnal but full of life and color. This is so partly because Ryan’s theme isn’t time in the abstract but what remains after it has passed. She has a sharp awareness of the inevitable injustices of age, reflected in the titles of poems such as “Thieves,” “Theft” and “Late Justice.” Time, the great racketeer, is always stealing from us. Ryan writes in “Thieves” s about the effects of age on the brain, including memory loss:

There are thieves
in the mind, their
dens in places
we’d prefer not to know.
When a word is lifted from
its spot, we show
no surprise,
replacing
supplies
with
provender.

Ryan does not sentimentalize the effects of aging – she knows that those thieves are hatching a “fantastic plot” – but her poems are not morbid. In “Salvage” she writes in about the aftermath of a wreck, perhaps a crash of the body caused by illness. The worst, she says, “has happened.” But there is a consolation:

Thanks be
to God – again –
for extractable elements
which are noi
carriers of pain …

Those lines notwithstanding, Ryan’s poems are not overtly religious. But at times their mood resembles that of the great Protestant hymn by Isaac Watts, “O, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” first published in the 18th century. Watts says:

Time like an ever-rolling steam,
bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream,
dies at the opening day.

In Ryan’s poetry, the dead do not become “stars or ghosts” when time “bears all its sons away.” Instead, she tells us in “Charms,” they reappear in our genes or elsewhere. This may be small comfort. But, she writes, “…E ven a piece/does us some good.”

Best line: One appears in a poem inspired by the artist Joseph Cornell: “ … As/time passes, the/promise is tattered/like a battle flag/above a war we/hope mattered.”

Worst line: None, but some of the quotes on the cover do Ryan few favors. David Yezzi says: “Ryan’s poems leave the reader elevated or changed or moved but at a loss to say exactly how this effect has been wrought.” The first part of that line is meaningless because all good poetry leaves you “elevated or changed or moved.” Otherwise, why read it? And a critic who says he can’t say how an effect “has been wrought” often means: I’m not willing to put the time or effort into figuring it out.

Recommended if … you like poetry that has both traditional and experimental elements.

Published: October 2005

Furthermore: For more on Ryan, see her biography and her poem “Nothing Ventured” on the site for the Academy of American Poets www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/352. She lives in California. To read the New York Times article on her appointment as poet laureate, click here www.nytimes.com/2008/07/17/books/17poet.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.

FYI: Poems in this collection have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and elsewhere.

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 7, 2008

One Flew Over the Card Catalog — Scott Douglas’s ‘Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian’

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:34 am
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A California librarian describes his long, strange trip through the stacks

Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian. By Scott Douglas. Da Capo, 330 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

A modern public library is a cross between a computer lab, homeless shelter, psychiatric ward, babysitting service and incipient crime scene. Books haven’t yet become an afterthought. But can anybody doubt that they’re going in that direction?

Scott Douglas has observed the trend at close range – first as a page, then as graduate student and currently as a public librarian in Anaheim, California. He tells his story in a book that he describes as a “kind of” true memoir of his life amid the stacks.

In Quiet, Please, Douglas uses composite characters and other devices that require a greater-than-usual skepticism. But some of the incidents he describes could have happened at any public library. Teens on drugs? Check. Power-crazed staff members? Check. A loony patron who wanted people to listen to her theory that “World War II was thought up by Churchill and Hitler during a game of poker”? Check – unless a patron were to tell you instead that aliens were sending coded messages through the computers.

Douglas’s literary persona is that of public servant who dislikes great swaths of the public. He seethes when a disabled patron damages a projector cord during a free computer workshop. “The way I see it,” he says, “we spent $40 in library work to fix the problem caused by some stupid old man in wheelchair.”

The problem with this persona isn’t that that it’s mean-spirited or ideologically unfashionable, though often it is both. It’s that it isn’t funny enough to justify the shtick. Many writers get away with occasional meanness or flouting political orthodoxies because, at their best, they are hilarious — David Sedaris, P.J. O’Rourke and Bill Bryson among them. Douglas tends instead to be just smug. What, really, is funny about his confession that he hated some of the displays of support for firefighters after 9/11 because he had found that “firemen were a bunch of arrogant jerks”?

At the end of the book, Douglas suggests how libraries could improve. He’s right that most need to go higher-tech and, for example, let patrons save material to USB devices such as flash drives. And he may be correct that some would benefit from scrapping the Dewey Decimal system and adopting a bookstore model of shelving, so that librarians could direct people to the “religion books” instead of “the 200s.”

But Douglas devotes so little space to these topics that his comments on them, like many others in the book, read like throwaways. He also focuses narrowly enough on his own experiences that he ignores many sources of tension – if not crisis – that are roiling libraries elsewhere, such as unionization, levies and bond issues, and gang-related crimes. Early on, he describes himself as someone who sees the glass as “half empty,” and that phrase fits his book, too.

Best lines: Quoted above. The theory of the patron who believed that “World War II was thought up during a game of poker by Churchill and Hitler.”

Worst lines: “I don’t like white people.” “I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of the handicapped.” “I’d like to dispel the cliché that librarians are boring, but that simply just doesn’t seem true to me.” “I hated teens, but sometimes they really made me laugh at their stupidity.” “At some point in a person’s life, you stop growing … This period in a person’s life is called becoming a senior citizen. Melvil Dewey was “a major dick” and he and other famous librarians were “elitist wimps.”

Editor: Shaun Dillon

Published: March 2008 www.dacapopress.com and www.scottdouglas.org

Furthermore: Since 2003 Douglas has written about his work for the Web site for www.mcsweeneys.net/links/librarian/28myspace.html.

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

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 15, 2007

Los Angeles Crime Stories, Hardboiled

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:25 pm
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A noir series visits the headwaters of the form

Bill Peschel at Reader’s Almanac www.planetpeschel.com aptly describes Los Angeles as “ground zero to noir,” that fatalistic form of crime fiction that came into its own with novels like James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Akashic Books goes there in the 13th installment in its city-themed series of noir short story collections, which has made earlier stops in Detroit, Miami, Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans and the Twin Cities. Peschel says that Michael Connelly gets the star turn in Los Angeles Noir (Akashic, $15.95, paperback), edited by Denise Hamilton, but that the book also has fine stories by Emory Holmes, Neal Pollack, Lienna Silver and others.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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