One-Minute Book Reviews

June 21, 2013

Why I’m Not Wild About Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:54 pm
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A memoir captures the romance of hiking but raises questions about the trustworthiness of its story

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. By Cheryl Strayed. Vintage, 336 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1982 Steven Callahan spent 76 days floating on an inflatable raft in the Atlantic after his sailboat sank on a trip from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. A few years later, he described a risk of writing about that ordeal in the preface to his memoir, Adrift: “Of course, I can never be completely sure that all my conclusions are exactly what I felt then rather than new insights.”

That kind of honesty helped to make Adrift one of the great seafaring memoirs of the past quarter-century. And it’s part of what’s missing from Cheryl Strayed’s account of how, at the age of 26, she hiked for more than 1100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from the Southern California to the Oregon-Washington Border.

Strayed evokes with considerable skill the romance and peril of traveling alone through rugged terrain that, if “beautiful and austere,” sheltered bears, rattlesnakes and mountain lions. And she gives a lively sense of the camaraderie among hikers whose paths cross and re-cross on a long trail. One couple thrilled her by leaving a peach for her on a picnic table at a time when granola and Better Than Milk amounted to a feast and when “fresh fruit and vegetables competed with Snapple lemonade in my food fantasy mind.”

But Wild tells you many things you don’t need to know while omitting those you do. Strayed reports that in her first six weeks on the trail, she “hadn’t even masturbated, too wrecked by the end of each day to do anything but read and too repulsed by my own sweaty stench for my mind to move in any direction but sleep.” (She made up for lost time at an Oregon hostel where she “lay awake for an hour, running my hands over … the mounds of my breasts and the plain [sic] of my abdomen and the coarse hair of my pudenda.”) And yet, for all the intimate details like those, Strayed doesn’t answer big questions such as: Why didn’t Wild appear in print until 17 years after she took her three-month trip the summer of 1995? How do we know that the thoughts she says she had on the trail occurred then and not years later as she shaped her story for publication? Aren’t some of the line-by-line conversations in her book far too long for her to have transcribed in the journal she carried with her?

These questions matter because Strayed casts Wild not as a conventional travel memoir but as a secular sin-and-redemption tale. She styles her hike as a trip she took to heal or “to save myself” from a self-destructive spiral set in motion by painful events that began more than four years earlier with the death of her mother. In the months just before her trip, Strayed had extramarital affairs, left her husband, and aborted a pregnancy that resulted from a fling. She also used heroin. Strayed says she knew it was wrong to cheat on a husband she loved, but her mother’s death had left her unable to control herself: “So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself?”

Strayed carried her instinct for rationalization with her as she navigated forest paths and rocky ledges with a backpack that “seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.” Near end of her hike, she followed a man she had just met into his truck, where he asked if she wanted some “chewable opium. “Sure,” she replied. Later that night, she drove off with another stranger and realized that “there was no way I was going to keep my pants on with a man who’d seen Michelle Shocked three times.”

So when did the healing occur? In the last pages of Wild, Strayed says vaguely that she was sitting beside the Columbia River thinking about how long she had carried the emotional weight of her mother’s death: “And something inside of me released.” But it was not until 15 years after her trip, when she returned to the area with a second husband and two children “that the meaning of my hike would unfold inside of me, the secret I’d always told myself finally revealed.” As she tells it, her New Age-y “secret” sounds like a cross between a Beatles lyric (“let it be”) and a bumper sticker about the value of “seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water.” What if the fish were sharks?

Strayed’s explanation for how her trip helped “save” her is so coy and unpersuasive that you wonder if something else isn’t at work. The 17 years between her hike and the publication of her book brought a lucrative crop of high-profile memoirs — most notably, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love — that treat rigorous journeys as therapy for divorce or other sorrowful events.  Did Strayed reposition her story at some point to catch a piece of the trend?

If so, she has reached her goal at a cost to her credibility. Like Eat, Pray, Love, Wild implies that you can fix a broken life by taking an ambitious vacation. Gilbert casts “recovery” as form of consumerism, and Strayed turns it into an extreme sport. Both ideas are suspect. Any therapist — or anyone who has left a marriage or lost a parent — will tell you that what makes grief less acute is not an extended vacation but time. Strayed’s failure to deal adequately with this issue involves more than ethics: It raises questions about trustworthiness of the emotional core of her book.

Best line: “My backpack was no longer on the floor. … it seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.”

Worst Line: Strayed writes of extramarital affairs she had years after her mother died: “Though I’d had attractions to other men since shortly after we married, I’d kept them in check. But I couldn’t do that anymore. My grief [about my mother's death] obliterated my ability to hold back. So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself? … I knew I was wrong to cheat [on my husband] and lie.”

Published: 2012 (Knopf hardcover), 2013 (Vintage paperback).

Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

© 2103 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 27, 2009

Not Written in Lipstick – Sarah Dunn’s Novel ‘Secrets to Happiness’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:45 am
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A search-and-rescue mission for single New Yorkers and their dogs

Secrets to Happiness: A Novel. By Sarah Dunn. Little, Brown, 277 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

Sarah Dunn is that rarity among comic novelists — a moralist in the best sense of the word. She doesn’t preach or lecture. But her heroines have a solid moral core left over from the strict Christian upbringing they have rejected. They struggle to do the right thing even as friends are cheating on their partners or trolling for casual sex on LukesPlace, a site similar to Craigslist in Secrets to Happiness. If Dunn’s heroines fall for faithless men, it isn’t because these women are vapid or silly – it’s because they are confused. They don’t know how to reconcile their early lessons with those of the age of Sex and the City, when their peers deal with moral questions by handing them off to psychiatrists or blocking them out with drugs from a pharmacy in St. Kitts.

“It never ceased to amaze Holly, how therapists managed to spin things,” Dunn writes of her main character. After years in Manhattan, Holly suspected that psychotherapy aimed to make it possible for people “to do whatever they wanted to do, with whomever they wanted to do it, when and where and however they felt like it, while reaping no negative emotional consequences whatsoever.”

That passage alone might lift Secrets to Happiness above most novels about single New Yorkers, in which few plot devices are more clichéd than an emotionally gimpy heroine’s visit to a therapist whose banalities help her find love. But the book has much more going for it than that. This is a novel about the related questions: What is the cost of being emotionally abandoned? And when do you give up the fantasy that you can rescue a relationship?

Holly Frick thinks she still loves a husband who has left her when, in her mid-30s, she faces other swiftly arriving changes: She adopts a dog with brain cancer, becomes involved with a 22-year-old man, and learns that her married best friend is having an affair. She must also persuade her gay script-writing partner to do his share of the work for an afternoon TV show now that her masochistically titled novel, Hello, Mr. Heartache, is tanking at bookstores. Part of the suspense comes from whether Holly will stick with her canine and human companions or will abandon them as her husband has abandoned her.

Dunn doesn’t develop this plot quite as well as she did that of her first novel, The Big Love, which has no relation to the HBO series. Much of the charm of that book came from the quirky first-person narration of its heroine, a Philadelphia magazine writer. Dunn uses shifting third-person viewpoints in her new novel, and though she handles them well, the device leaves the book softer at its center. Holly is its emotional and moral anchor, and the omniscient narration dilutes her impact.

So the pleasure of reading Secrets to Happiness comes less from its plot than from Dunn’s sophisticated wit, social commentary, and sharp eye for how single people of both sexes rationalize their actions. The novel abounds with lines that are amusing or perceptive or both. One involves the its Craigslist-surrogate: “The thing Leonard liked about LukesPlace was that you didn’t have to be altogether on your game and yet you could still have sex with perfect strangers.” When a man asks Holly if she wrote “chick lit,” she responds, “I wrote the entire thing in lipstick, actually.” No one should confuse Secrets to Happiness with a book that might as well be sold at cosmetics counters.

Best line: “Betsy Silverstein was only half Jewish, but with Betsy, half was plenty.”

Worst line: “She pressed on like a trooper.” The word is “trouper.”

Recommended if … you’ve wonder, “Where are the novels about single women that aren’t mainly about shoes?” (though The Big Love offers a better introduction to Dunn’s work).

Published: March 2009

About the author: Dunn has written for Murphy Brown and other television shows. A post about The Big Love appeared on this site on Feb. 14, 2007.

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

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 20, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Why John Mortimer, Creator of Rumpole, Liked Representing Murderers Better Than People Who Were Divorcing

Emily Mortimer has a charming essay on her doting father John, the novelist who created Rumpole of the Bailey, in the October issue of Tatler. She says in part:

“I was brought up by a man who knew a lot of murderers and who considered many of them to be decent people. It is an education I am proud of. He always said that, in his days as a defense barrister, murderers were his favorite clients. This was partly because, unlike divorcing couples who were always ringing him up in the middle of the night and accusing each other of taking the toaster, murder suspects found it more difficult to get to a telephone. Also, he said, they had often got rid of the one person on earth who was really making their life hell, and a kind of peace had descended over them.”

August 24, 2009

How Do You Know When to Leave a Marriage? — ‘The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce’ by Well-Known Writers

Filed under: Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:39 pm
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This post first appeared in 2007.

The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce. Edited by Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand. Warner, 350 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Some publishers say that “anthologies are the new memoirs,” but The Honeymoon’s Over makes you wonder if the boom is running on empty.

This is third essay collection I’ve reviewed this year that includes work by Joyce Maynard, the prolific journalist, novelist and contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Maynard is a good essayist whose entries have been among the best in all three books, but she’s been cannibalizing her life for parts for so long that some of her stories are wearing thin. Another writer might have added more freshness to this lightweight book of essays by 24 women on turning points in their marriages.

Nothing in The Honeymoon’s Over has the sophistication of Jane Smiley’s reflections on her first marriage in the recent Mr. Wrong, or of the best work of essayists like Daphne Merkin or Phillip Lopate. And the worst entries are bad enough to put off the poeple who might appreciate this book the most – those who are trying to decide whether to leave a marriage. Terry McMillan’s writing goes further south in a bitter, profane and disorganized screed against her ex-husband. Daniela Kuper makes cloying use of second-person narration in an account of her efforts to get her son back from a guru. And Zelda Lockhart devotes 20 pages to her past without making you understand why she married a lesbian partner with whom she fought regularly and to whom she had “never been physically attracted.”

The best entries in The Honeymoon’s Over describe experiences strong enough to carry them despite any flaws in the writing. Perhaps the most memorable is Elissa Minor Rust’s essay on why she has stayed with her husband since leaving the Mormon faith they once shared, an unusually candid report on Latter Day Saints teachings on sex roles. Did you know that married Mormon women must wear “temple-issued undergarments”? This is the kind of information you rarely get from news shows on Mormonism, which tend to focus instead on the LDS tolerance for polygamy. Rust avoids writing about politics, but her essay indirectly suggests some of the problems Mitt Romney may face in his bid for the presidency. How long will it be before the tabloids – or Sixty Minutes – start asking where his wife gets her underwear?

Best line: Rust describes the Mormon rules that she and her boyfriend, now her husband, had to follow when he moved to New York to begin the two years of missionary work required of young Mormon men: “We weren’t allowed to speak, except on Christmas and Mother’s Day (and even that was stretching the rules; he was allowed to call his family on those two holidays, but he also called me). For two years, our only communication was through letters – and he was only allowed to write one a week. For a person like me who has always fought against rules and power structure, this was torture. I would have had more access to the man I loved were he in prison.”

Worst line (tie): No. 1: Terry McMillan’s rambling and vengeful list of “100 Questions” for her ex-husband. McMillan writes on page 97, “I’ve forgiven you,” and on page 98, “I haven’t exactly forgiven you.” Which is it? No. 2: Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand write of the contributors to this book: “Women in their second marriages seemed to choose better mates and by then were better equipped themselves to make a marriage work.” Then why do second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages?

Caveat lector: Some Web sites say, incorrectly, that this book includes an essay by Jane Smiley (making you wonder if she was scheduled to appear in it but bailed out in favor of the more flattering lighting of Mr. Wrong).

Consider reading instead: Mr. Wrong: Real-Life Stories of the Men We Used to Love (Ballantine, $24.95), edited by Harriet Brown.

Editor: Amy Einhorn

Published: February 2007

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 5, 2009

You’re 40. He’s Left. Now What? Suzanne Finnamore’s ‘Split,’ a Memoir of Divorce, California-Style, With Chilean Merlot

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am
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“A meteor of repressed anger” arose in the mother whose husband walked out

Split: A Memoir of Divorce. By Suzanne Finnamore. NAL, 272 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Suzanne Finnamore seems to have lost her way as a writer. A decade ago, she won deserved praise for the polished wit and taut plotting of her first novel, a romantic comedy about the impending wedding of a materialistic and self-absorbed 36-year-old bride in a part of northern California where the Chilean Merlot runs deep.

Can credit cards ease a divorce?

Otherwise Engaged made clear that Finnamore knew what was wrong with writing “as rich as Croesus,” “at this point in time,” “in the very final analysis,” and the many similar phrases that turn up in her latest book. Her new memoir of her divorce has the high-flying brand names and neuroses of her first novel, but the prose has turned cute and baggy.

Split suggests that Finnamore has begun to strip-mine her life for publication. At the age of 40, she may have gained new material when her husband walked out of their upscale northern-California home and began taking luxury vacations with a woman who soon became pregnant: The separation left her with a toddler, a mortgage, and “a meteor of repressed anger.”

But Finnamore skims over her pain in chapters so glib and short, she might have texted them to her publisher. In one scene, she goes a credit-card buying spree just when her income seems least certain. At warp speed, she spends $4,000 on more than a dozen frivolous items such as a “blond cardigan sweater with a detachable white mink collar” and a set of “blown-glass 14th-century French shoe reproduction Christmas ornaments.” She explains the binge by saying blithely that her purchases “have gotten me through this travesty” of a divorce. More alarmingly, she says that while smoking she set fire to “not one, not two, but five chenille throws”: “One mattress pad went down while I was on the phone to New York, as did two pillows and a luxury comforter.” Yes, divorce makes you crazy. But some of Finnamore’s behavior seems so reckless, you don’t know whether it results from the separation or from personality traits that were there all along.

Split is clearly not a how-to book, but what is it? Perhaps a coda to the “relationship autopsy” that a marriage counselor required Finnamore and her soon-to-be-ex husband to perform. The tone of Split resembles that of a breezy game of miniature golf the couple and their son played before the decree came through. “Even the pending divorce we just lightly reminisce over,” Finnamore writes, “as though it was a vacation to Fiji, where it rained.”

Best line: Finnamore’s son says while she is reading him a Christmas poem, “We’d better take Daddy’s stocking down, because he’s not going to be here tomorrow.” A rare poignant moment in a book long on wisecracks.

Worst line: Two categories here. Category No. 1: All of the clichés like those in the second paragraph of the review above. (“… it might, in the very final analysis, be some kind of elaborate prank.”) Category No. 2: All of the lines that make you wonder if Finnamore is exaggerating for comic effect or has a habit of self-destructive behavior that seems especially risky for someone who lives with a young child, such as her comment that she set fire to five chenille throws, apparently while smoking in bed.

Consider reading instead: Wendy Swallow’s Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce (Hyperion, 2001), a beautifully written account of the impact of divorce a mother of two boys, ages 3 and 5. Otherwise Engaged better introduces Finnamore’s writing.

Published: April 2009 (NAL paperback), 2008 (Dutton hardcover).

Editor: Trena Keating

Caveat lector: Finnamore says she’s changed “plenty of details and events” in Split. She also wrote the novel The Zygote Chronicles (Grove, 2003).

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

January 18, 2009

What Does a Father Owe His Sons? Michael Dahlie Responds in His Witty and Intelligent First Novel, ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:18 pm
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A well-off New Yorker finds comfort in his love for his sons after his business fails and his wife leaves him

A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living: A Novel. By Michael Dahlie. Norton, 281 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Does it ever make sense to give up a beloved family tradition? Michael Dahlie offers surprising answers in his witty and intelligent comedy of manners, A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living.

Arthur Camden cherishes his hereditary membership in the Hanover Street Fly Casters, a fictitious fly-fishing group founded in 1878 by his great-grandfather and 11 other patrician businessmen. Those pre-Freudian bluebloods weren’t too self-conscious to name their Catskills lodge Maidenhead Grange, though the club always barred women from the premises. And for decades that’s been fine with Arthur, who has looked forward to passing his membership on to his oldest son and seen the group’s annual Meeting-in-Full as the highlight of his year.

Then Arthur faces a series of calamities fostered by his sweet and vulnerable nature, which includes a lack of self-awareness that would have allowed him to anticipate the disasters. His family business goes bankrupt. His wife of 32 years leaves him. And he accidentally burns down Maidenhead Grange while lighting a fire in an ill-maintained chimney in order to seduce a date who insisted on seeing the lodge.

All of this might have devolved into a pseudo–P. G. Wodehouse novel full of absurd middle-aged or older men throwing trout heads instead of breadsticks. But Michael Dahlie takes a gentler approach as Arthur tries to regroup in the face of dismay of the Fly Casters and the bold sexual reconnaissance missions of his ex-wife, Rebecca.

“I hear she slept with absolutely everyone, and during your separation, no less,” an acquaintance tells him. “Most people have the sense to wait till the final paperwork is done. But from day one it was like she was on Spring Break.”

Amid such embarrassments, Arthur finds solace in his requited love for his sons, in the support of a few loyal friends, and in small pleasures such as the pine-needle liqueur he discovers when, hoping a vacation will help, he visits a boyhood friend in France. And for all its comedy, this novel has a serious theme.

At a family gathering on Nantucket, Arthur wonders how to help his younger son, David, who can’t seem to keep a job:

“It was a perplexing question: what sorts of things does a father owe his son? On one level the answer might best be nothing, since too much parental help so often had such obviously bad results. Moreover, there was no reason a person shouldn’t try to make his own way in such an obviously prosperous nation. But in terms of smaller-scale help, a leg up in the world, a little nudge forward, you could say that a father should at least give his son what his own father gave him.”

Dahlie’s thoughtful exploration of such issues gives his book a depth unusual in comedies of manners, which often ricochet from one bright line to another. America abounds with men blindsided not just financially but emotionally by the economic meltdown, and if Arthur has more money than most, he struggles with widely shared questions: How did I get into this fix? How can I get out of it? How will my losses affect my children? Many people who have stopped reading their 401(k) statements might profitably transfer their attention to this enjoyable novel.

Best line: A comment by the friend whom Arthur visits in France: “If there’s one thing the Swiss are good at, it’s running rehab centers. It’s like the Minnesota of Europe.”

Worst line: “Not unlike the outrage over Arthur’s distaste for salmon sandwiches and lobster Newberg, Arthur’s father was often worried ‘for the boy’s own good’ about one thing or another that he felt made Arthur look absurd.” The sentence doesn’t scan well grammatically, and the three Arthurs don’t help.

Published: June 2008. A paperback edition of A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living is due out in June 2009 www.michaeldahlie.com

Consider reading also: Guiseppe Pontiggia’s Born Twice, a novel of fatherhood that won Italy’s highest literary honor, the Strega Prize.

Janice Harayda wrote the comedies of manners The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 28, 2008

Eat, Pray, Clone – Noelle Oxenhandler’s Memoir, ‘The Wishing Year’

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 am
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The author had a vision of Aunt Jemima during a "shamanic journey."

After her divorce, a California woman looked for a new home, lover and sense of spiritual community.

The Wishing Year: A House, A Man, My Soul: A Memoir of Fulfilled Desire. By Noelle Oxenhandler. Random House, 282 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Bookstores should probably display The Wishing Year in a section called “Eat, Pray, Clone.” This book is one of the first – but certainly won’t be the last – to join the rush to imitate Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir of her post-divorce travels in Italy, India and Indonesia.

The Wishing Year is nonetheless very different book, and not just because Noelle Oxenhandler wanted a new home, a lover and spiritual “healing” instead of Gilbert’s “pleasure,” “devotion” and “balance.” I’m apparently one of the few Americans who was underwhelmed by Eat, Pray, Love, which made life after divorce sound like an exercise in high-flying consumerism. But Gilbert has strengths: She’s witty, she writes in a breezy journalistic style, and, above all, she puts herself out there. She’s an emotional exhibitionist. Want to know which incident drove her to confess that she found masturbation “a handy tool”? Or hear about how she went to Bali for “balance” but had so much sex with her new boyfriend that she got a bladder infection and had to drink a vile witch-doctor’s brew to cure it? God love her, Gilbert will tell you.

Oxenhandler has practiced Buddhism for 30 years and has a more reserved and contemplative temperament and a more literary writing style. Except for relatively brief trips to France and Hawaii, she also tended to stay close to home as she pursued her goal: She wanted to spend a year “wishing brazenly” for earthly things such as a house instead of intangibles like peace or compassion, as was her wont. She defines “wishing brazenly” vaguely enough that it’s hard to know what it involves beyond “focused attention.”

But it doesn’t seem have included anything so crass as the usual advice from business gurus: Set goals, break them into parts, work on them daily, and monitor your progress. Oxenhandler plunged instead into a series of New Age-y activities that reflected her interest in Far Eastern mysticism. She had a “fire ceremony” to burn away her “remorse” for her failed marriage, which ended when she and her married Zen teacher fell in love. She cut dollar bills into tiny rectangles to suggest an abundance of money. (“I know it’s a crime to cut legal tender,” she writes, “but if anyone questions me, I’ve done my research and I’ve got my answer ready: Don’t you know anything about imitative magic?”) At a “shamanic journey” she had a vision of the fictional Aunt Jemima, who later gave her advice on how to spend Thanksgiving. If Oxenhandler were a less graceful writer, you might quit long before she watches a film about The Secret.

By the end of The Wishing Year, Oxenhandler has fulfilled some of her desires, including her wish to own a house. She credits this partly to her newly “focused attention.” But she undermines this claim — and much of her story — when she tells a stranger in the last chapter she’s writing a book on wishing. The belated admission that she had financial stake in her pursuits leaves you wondering: Did she really pursue some of the loopier activities she describes because she wanted to test her ideas about wishing? Or did she do it because without them she wouldn’t have had a book?

Eat, Pray, Love raised similar questions but with less damage to its credibility. Gilbert’s book had a dual purpose: that of a memoir of divorce and of a travelogue. And you believe that she wanted to visit places like Bali. Who wouldn’t?

But Oxenhandler casts her book primarily as an inquiry into questions like: “Does a wish have power?” and “If so, what kind of power is it, and how can that power be tapped?” She is coy about when she got a book contract. But it’s possible that a timely advance had more to do with her ability to buy a house than any “shamanic journey.” If so, it would have been fairer to readers to say that. And it might have made for a more interesting and cohesive book. A major question left unanswered is: Where did she find the money for the downpayment apart from a maternal gift that she admits didn’t provide nearly what she needed?

Memoirs have been tarnished recently by writers who have trampled on facts or failed to supply all that their stories require. One critic has said that more and more of their authors seem take as their premise, “It’s true if I say it is.” The Wishing Year is yet another memoir that leaves you thinking more about what it didn’t say than what it did.

Best line: The first: “It is, in itself, an ancient wish: the wish that a wish makes something happen.”

Worst line: Oxenhandler quotes Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” and adds: “And a wish, as I understand it, is a desire with feathers – an arrow’s feathers and an arrow’s sharp point.
“So then, how is a wish distinguished from a hope? To me, it’s the sharp point that makes the difference. For while hope implies loft, the aspiration to soar toward what is yet to come, I see it primarily as an inner state…. As for a wish: only with both feathers and a sharp point can it reach what it aims for …”
That a wish can come to fruition only if it has “feathers and a sharp point” is clearly untrue. Some wishes go unfulfilled because of, for example, bad luck or government policies. Would Oxenhandler say that starving people in Darfur can achieve their wish for food “only” if their wish has feathers and a sharp point? Or that very ill Americans who lack health insurance can achieve their wish for treatment “only” if their wish has those things? Oxenhandler makes generalizations as a privileged, well-educated, middle-class America that, if you try apply them to other groups, sound like blaming the victim.

Recommendation? This book might make a good gift for your New Age-iest friend – say, somebody who still throws the I Ching. Read the reader-reviews on Amazon if you can’t decide whether to give this to a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, because some deal with this.

Editor: Caroline Sutton

Published: July 2008 www.noelleoxenhandler.com

Read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400064854

Furthermore: Oxenhandler lives in California. She wrote A Grief Out of Season.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books, catalogs, advance reading copies, print or electronic press releases or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors or agents.

© 2008 JaniceHarayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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

August 21, 2007

The Dark Side of Betty Rollin’s ‘Here’s the Bright Side: Of Failure, Fear, Cancer, Divorce, and Other Bump Raps’

A former NBC News correspondent writes about subjects that include death as a growth experience

Here’s the Bright Side: Of Failure, Fear, Cancer, Divorce, and Other Bum Raps. By Betty Rollin. Illustrations by Jules Feiffer. Random House, 109 pp., $14.95.

By Janice Harayda

One of the most poignant sections of a recent memoir by four 9/11 widows described the cruelty of people who urged the women – even before the smoke had cleared over Manhattan — to look on the bright side of their husbands’ deaths. Some reminded the widows that they still had beautiful, if now fatherless, children. And a doctor told one of them: “It could be worse – you could be thirty-nine and fat with shingles” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/24/.

How could people be so crass? Part of the explanation may lie in the avalanche of books, articles and news shows that take a promiscuously upbeat approach to human suffering. The latest book-length recipe for lemonade is Here’s the Bright Side, which has a format appropriately resembling that of Mitch Albom’s books. It is a huge disappointment coming from Betty Rollin, a former NBC news correspondent whose books include the trailblazing breast-cancer memoir First, You Cry.

Rollin cherry-picks anecdotes and statistics as she makes the case that “within each form of misery” there is “a hidden prize waiting to be found.” A “bright side” of divorce or widowhood is that you might find “a swell new mate,” she says. “Have you ever encountered the particularly dipsy-doodle joy of a newly married widow or widower?” she asks. If not, maybe it’s because second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages. On the subject of getting old, Rollin is no saturnine Nora Ephron. Her “bright side” of aging is that “major depressive episodes” are “highest among 25- to 44-year-olds and lowest among those over 65.” That might sound good until you consider that when the episodes occur, they’re doozies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that “suicide rates increase with age and are very high among those 65 years and older,” with the highest rates in the country found among elderly white men.

You might wonder if there’s any harm in yet another book that says, as the dust jacket of this one does, that “clouds truly do have silver linings.” One problem is that some research suggests that trying to look on the bright side doesn’t work if you aren’t naturally inclined to do so. That research has found that we have a happiness “set point” and that, even after extreme changes such as winning the lottery or becoming disabled, most people return to it after about six months.

Anther problem involves what Barbara Ehrenreich has called the cult of “brightsiding,” which she describes in “Welcome to Cancerland” in The Best American Essays of 2002 (posted on Breast Cancer Action www.bcaction.org). “Brightsiding” can lead to what’s usually called blaming the victim. If you can make yourself feel better by seeking the “hidden prize” in every disaster, isn’t it your fault if you can’t or don’t find it? In her essay Ehrenreich describes the hostility she faced, after developing breast cancer, from women who had the disease. Some suggested that she was only hurting herself by expressing her anger about possible environmental causes of cancer instead of echoing the popular view that “cancer made my life better” – a theme also of Rollin’s book. But experts agree that anger is a near-universal “stage” of grief. And Rollin doesn’t acknowledge that people may short-circuit the process by rushing into the brightsiding that she recommends.

Nor does Rollin’s one-size-fits-all view reflect that some forms of sorrow or suffering might defy her approach. Here’s the Bright Side appears designed partly for the gift market. But it could be beyond cruel to give this book to, for example, fourth-degree burn victims or parents who have lost a child to murder, suicide or the war in Iraq. Here’s the Bright Side came out just before the world learned of the horrific invasion of the home of a Connecticut doctor whose wife was raped and strangled and whose daughters died in their burning house. Would Rollin tell him, as she tells us, that “no matter what, there is usually a bright side up for grabs”?

Best line: In the strongest part of this book, Rollin sticks closely to her own experiences and doesn’t prescribe. She says after her first mastectomy in 1975, only a small, now defunct firm would publish her memoir of the experience: “Of course I was forbidden to use the word cancer or breast in the title, so I called it First, You Cry.”

Worst line: Here’s the Bright Side is the latest book to deal , in part, with what might be called “death as a growth experience.” As Rollin puts it: “Is there, then, a bright side to dying? There can be.”

Published: April 2007 www.bettyrollin.com and www.atrandom.com

Consider reading instead: When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon, $9.95, paperback), by Harold M. Kushner, a rabbi’s exploration of the problem of evil, inspired by the death of his young son. First published more than 20 years ago, this wise and thoughtful book has become a modern classic that appeals to all faiths. Other good books on topics covered by Rollin include these memoirs: Joyce Wadler’s My Breast (Pocket, $14.95, paperback) www.simonsays.com and Brendan Halpin’s It Takes a Worried Man (Penguin, $13.95, paperback) www.brendanhalpin.com, both about breast cancer; Wendy Swallow’s Breaking Apart (Hyperion, $19.95) www.wendyswallow.com, about divorce; and Ruth Coughlin’s Grieving: A Love Story (Random House, varied prices), about the last months in the life of her husband, Bill, who died of liver cancer, and her subsequent widowhood.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 15, 2007

If You’ve Got Cancer and You Know It, Clap Your Hands: A Review of Betty Rollin’s ‘Here’s the Bright Side’ Coming Soon to One-Minute Book Reviews

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“Do clouds truly have silver linings?” asks the dust jacket of Betty Rollin’s Here’s the Bright Side: Of Failure, Fear, Cancer, Divorce, and Other Bum Raps (Random House, $14.95) www.randomhouse.com. Do books that lead with clichés truly give you more than a bad Mitch Albom impersonation? Find out in a review of the latest book by the author of First, You Cry, coming soon to One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing this review, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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