One-Minute Book Reviews

November 11, 2007

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

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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.

May 29, 2007

Virginia Ironside’s Comic Novel, ‘No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club’

An English grandmother hasn’t had sex in five years and isn’t sure she wants it

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. Viking, 231 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Is a backlash building against all those articles that say that you’re never too old to don a zip line and swing through a Costa Rican jungle? First Nora Ephron told us in I Feel Bad About My Neck that it’s “sad” to be over 60. Now Virginia Ironside writes in this fictionalized diary that the great thing about being old is that there are so many things you can’t do. “You no longer have to think about going to university, or go bungee jumping!” her heroine tells an obtuse therapist. “It’s a huge release!”

This concept could be a tougher sell in U.S. than in Britain, where Ironside writes an advice column for the Independent. Her diarist, 60-year-old Marie Sharp, calls herself “old.” How many Americans in their 60s do you know who describe themselves that way? Don’t look to Ironside to soft-soap you with you with euphemisms like “older” for “old” and “midlife” for “anywhere between 40 and death.”

If Marie is blunt, she isn’t mean-spirited. She is kind, cheerful, active and devoted to her friends and a newborn grandson who lives near her home in west London. And although she hasn’t had sex in five years, she doesn’t lose sleep over it. She’s thinking of giving it up – if a nice, rich, attractive childhood friend doesn’t change her mind.

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club isn’t as funny or polished as Bridget Jones’s Diary, or the comic masterpiece from which Helen Fielding’s novel descends, E. M. Delafield’s great Diary of a Provincial Lady. But Ironside’s book has much more to say about being old – sorry, “older” — than bestsellers like The Red Hat Club or Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. And Marie’s opinions, if not the plausibility of the plot, give her story its own appeal.

Ironside mounts a worthy assault on many popular beliefs that were overdue for it, such as the idea that people help their survivors by planning their own funerals (and that funerals shouldn’t be funerals at all but rather “a celebration” of a life). And Marie is the rare heroine bold — or perhaps reckless — enough to question the motives of book club members: “I think they feel that by reading and analyzing books, they’re keeping their brains lively. But either you’ve got a lively brain or you haven’t.” Naturally, Viking has published a reading group guide the novel.

Best line: “I don’t think those oldies who spend their lives bicycling across Mongolia at eighty and paragliding at ninety, are brilliant specimens of old age. I think they’re just tragic failures who haven’t come to terms with aging. They’re the sort of people who disapprove of face-lifts, and yet, by their behavior, are constantly chasing a lost youth.”

Worst line: Marie makes a show of not wanting to learn Italian but seems unaware that her French needs help. For example, she thinks “Champs-Elysées” and “allô” have no accents. (My computer can’t show the one on the capital e.) Marie also quotes a French guest as saying “allô” in person. The French use “allô” only on the telephone. And isn’t credible that Marie’s guest would say this face-to-face, even as a bastardized “Hello,” when the correct bonjour is universally known. Marie also has an odd way of trying to show a friend that she knew what she “was talking about” in a discussion of AIDS. She speaks of “the HIV virus” when the V in HIV stands for “virus.”

Reading group guides: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 29, 2007. You can find the Penguin guide in the reading groups page at http:us.penguingroup.com/.

Published: April 2007

Links: www.virginiaironside.org

You may also want to read: Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (Knopf, 2006), reviewed on this site on Oct. 14, 2006, and archived with the October posts: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/page/1/.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners www.janiceharayda.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Virginia Ironside’s ‘No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year

 

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Marie Sharp refuses to learn Italian or take up paragliding now that she’s 60. She thinks that the great thing about her age is that there are so many things you can’t do. “You no longer have to think about going to university, or go bungee jumping!” she writes in this novel in the form of a diary. “It’s a huge release!” But if Marie is blunt, she isn’t mean-spirited. She is kind, cheerful, active and devoted to her friends and a newborn grandson who lives near her home in west London. And although she hasn’t had sex in five years, she doesn’t lose sleep over it. She’s thinking of giving it up – if a nice, rich, attractive friend named Archie doesn’t change her mind. As she tries to fathom his intentions, she pours into her diary her thoughts on age-related topics from “senior moments” to whether or not people should plan their own funerals.

Viking has posted a readers’ guide to No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club at http://us.penguingroup.com that you may want to use at a starting point for your discussions. But like most publishers’ guides, that guide is part of a publicity campaign designed to sell books. It does not encourage criticism, cite negative reviews or suggest that you compare the novel to similar books. For these reasons, the Viking guide may have less depth or promote a less lively conversation than you or your group would prefer. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but to raise questions not covered by the Viking guide.

Questions for Readers

1. Author Virginia Ironside www.virginiaironside.org has spent more than 30 years as an “agony aunt” for newspapers in England. What, if any, evidence of her work do you see in her novel?

2. A theme of No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club is that the line we’ve been fed about being old – that anything is possible at any age – is a fairy tale. Marie believes that the great thing about being 60 is that “so many things are impossible.” [Page 8] For example, you no longer have to think about going back to school or taking up bungee-jumping. Do you agree? How well does the novel support this point of view?

3. Does this novel seem to be trying to refute some fairy tales about being old while perpetuating another? What, if any, fairy tales does it promote?

4. Marie Sharp spurns some activities that might stimulate her mind, such as joining a reading group. She writes of book club members: “I think they feel that by reading and analyzing books, they’re keeping their brains lively. But either you’ve got a lively brain or you haven’t.” [Page 42] Yet Marie tells us that she takes lots of fish oils: “If fish could improve Jeeves’s brain, they can improve mine, too.” [Page 109] Do these passages seem contradictory? Why or why not? Does Marie ever seem to be cherry-picking her mental stimulants without owning up to it? How does this affect the novel?

3. Similarly, Marie thinks that “sex only brings trouble and misery.” [Page 139] She tells us so little about her past relationships, especially her marriage, that it isn’t clear exactly what she means by this. But near the end of the novel she’s sure that she can have a “sexy and loving” visit with a male friend. [Page 231] Based on what has happened to her in the book, is this transformation credible? Why or why not?

6. Marie makes few comments about Americans, but they are all unflattering. (You can’t count the Bob Hope joke that she likes because Hope was born in London.) She hates “a frightful, raucous American voice.” [Page 204] She cringes at the sort of “wretched” asexual woman with a “weird” haircut who has the “American-woman-in-art-gallery” look. [Page 132] She thinks the local Starbucks is “horrible.” [Page 204] If you’ve lived in the U.K., you may recognize these as examples of the British stereotype of Americans as loud, rude and unattractive vulgarians who are polluting the world with their toxic culture. How do you think Marie would react if you told her that her views of Americans were stereotypes? Would she listen? Or would she say that Americas are loud, rude and unattractive?

7. No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club has many amusing lines. One is: “Did you hear that grandchildren are the reward you get for not killing your children?’ [Page 205] Another is that “the five ages of man” are “Lager, Aga, Saga, Viagra, Gaga.” [Page 49] What are some of your favorites? How does Ironside manage to make serious points while keeping her novel funny?

8. Marie was young in the 60s and claims she “slept with a Beatle.” [Page 7] Yet rock ’n’ roll has almost no role in her diary. Is her apparent lack of interest in the music of the 60s believable in the context of this? Why or why not?

9. England has given the world many wonderful novels in diary form, far more than the U.S. has. The best British diary novels include E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. Why do you think England has produced more great diary novels than the U.S. has? If you have read any of them, which do you like best? How would you compare them to No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club?

10. Ironside says in an interview on the Penguin Web site that she has never belonged to a book club “and would certainly not wish to read books dictated by a group.” Dictators, what would you say to her?

If you dare:
11. Marie has found that the “clitoris was a much-overrated part of one’s anatomy, which never really lived up to the rave reviews it received over the last twenty years.” [Page 178] Is Marie nuts? Everybody in the group who thinks so, raise your hand.

Extra:
12. Novelist Jane Gardam wrote in a review in the Spectator (Oct. 14, 2006) www.spectator.co.uk “This is the sketchy diary of a 60-year-old woman with an amusing, runaway pen, written over 19 months. She is scatty, impulsive, open-minded and living cheerfully in Shepherd’s Bush, which never ceases to intrigue her (‘Today I saw a man standing on his head in the middle of the pavement’).” Do you agree with the characterization of Marie as “scatty” and “impulsive”? How would you characterize Marie? (You can read Gardam’s full review by searching for the title of the book on the Spectator site.)

Vital statistics
No, I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. Viking, 231 pp., $24.95.

A review of No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 29 2007, and is archived with the May posts and in the “Novels” category.

Your book group may also want to read:
I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95. In this essay collection, Ephron offers a different view of being in her 60s than Marie Sharp does. Your group may want to compare their attitudes toward the same topics, such as sex, children, friendship and their homes. I Feel Bad About My Neck was reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 14, 2006, and is archived with the October posts: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/page/1/.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please bookmark One-Minute Book Reviews or subscribe to the RSS feed and forward a link to others. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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December 27, 2006

The New Year’s Resolutions of Kate Reddy, Working Mother

Allison Pearson satirizes sexual double standards at work and at home

I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother. By Allison Pearson. Anchor, 338 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Working mothers! Can you identify with any of the following New Year’s resolutions?

“Adjust work-life balance for happier, healthier existence … Spend more time with your children … Don’t take [husband] for granted … Attempt to be size 10 … Call friends, hope they remember you.”

These are the resolutions of Kate Reddy, the high-octane fund manager and heroine of Allison Pearson’s merciless send-up of sexual double standards, I Don’t Know How She Does It. Kate believes she was “educated for something better than the gentle warming of Barbie pasta.” But her firm’s diversity initiatives are sham, her young children “have not grasped the principle of Quality Time,” and when her nanny calls in sick, the only available temp is a “close relative of Slobodan Milosevic.” Kate’s husband means well, but his good intentions are destined to count for only so much “until they programmed a man to notice you were out of toilet paper.”

One of the great virtues of this novel is that Pearson understands – and lampoons – the cultural forces that hold women back, such as diversity programs designed to more protect firms from lawsuits than to end discrimination. She never suggests that Kate would have fewer problems if she had a different husband or children or had spent years in therapy. But she hedges her bets with an over-the-top subplot about Kate’s father that that shows that not only does her heroine work with cretins – her father was pretty awful, too. Pearson tries to connect the two ideas by suggesting that women who succeed in finance tend to be “Daddy’s girls.” This may be true, but she tells us this instead of showing it convincingly, and at times causes the novel to cross the line from satire into farce. And when the inevitable marital crisis erupts, Kate’s husband takes action too cruel for a man who cast as saintly until them.

Even so, nearly every page of the novel has a sparkling or trenchant observation that helps to make it the best send-up of sexism at work of the new millennium. Every reader may have his or her own favorite line. Here’s one that fits a holiday week: “Like any other family, the Shattocks have their Christmas traditions. One tradition is that I buy all the presents for my side of the family and I buy all the presidents for our children and our two godchildren and I buy Richard’s presents and presents for Richard’s parents and his brother Peter and Peter’s wife Cheryl and their three kinds and Richard’s Uncle Alf … If Richard remembers, and depending on late opening hours, he buys a present for me.”

Best line: Here’s one that involves Kate Reddy’s 18-month-old son: “Ben has discovered his penis. Lying on the changing table, he wears the rapt, triumphant expression of a being who has just found the on-off switch for the solar system.”

Worst line: “My dad has always confused sentimentality with intimacy.” This is telling, not showing. And that “intimacy” is one of Pearson’s rare descents into psychobabble.

Recommended if … you have incipient carpal tunnel syndrome from all the packages you wrapped while your husband was watching The Game.

Editors: Jordan Pavlin at Knopf, Alison Samuel at Chatto, and Caroline Michel at Vintage.

Published: October 2002 (Knopf hardcover edition). September 2003 (first Anchor Books edition).

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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