One-Minute Book Reviews

May 27, 2013

James Salter’s Novel ‘All That Is’ — A Book Editor in Love and War

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A New York book editor tries to make sense of the plot of his life

All That Is: A Novel. By James Salter Knopf, 304 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

All the world’s a stage, and set decoration matters: This theme has surfaced again and again in the fiction of James Salter. It returns with a vengeance in this novel about the sexual misadventures of an editor at a high-toned New York publishing firm in the four decades that follow World War II.

As a young naval officer, Philip Bowman survives a kamikaze attack on his ship in the run-up to Okinawa. Any psychic wounds he suffered don’t keep him from subsequently gliding through Harvard and into an affair with Vivian Amussen, whose rich father owns a 400-acre horse farm in Virginia. Bowman hears no alarm bells when, on visiting the Amussen estate for the first time, he notices an indifference to the comfort of others: Behind a couch in the living room lie dried dog turds “as in 17th-century palaces.” On the contrary, the rising editor seems drawn to Vivian in part because the backdrop for her life differs so markedly from that of his upbringing in New Jersey. He has little enough self-awareness that when their brief marriage ends, he allows appearances to lead him into a series of other love affairs that end in disappointment, if not betrayal.

Salter suggests that Bowman stumbles because his father abandoned the family two years after his birth: He “never had a strong masculine figure in his own life to teach him how to be a man.” His protagonist is a watered-down male counterpart to one of those Henry James or Edith Wharton heroines whose assets don’t offset the lack of a mother to stage-manage her courtships. But Bowman doesn’t develop as a character as Catherine Sloper and Lily Bart do. He pays for his misjudgments not with the loss of hope or life but with the loss of a piece of set decoration for his bed-hopping — a second home in the Hamptons that he owned for a year before an ex-lover wrested from him with fancy legal footwork. He avenges the incident with a shocking act of cruelty to his former paramour’s daughter but assumes no moral responsibility for his caddish behavior and faces no serious consequences for it.

With all of this, Salter is trying to have it both ways — to cast Bowman as decent man even as he acts loutishly – and the pretty scenery can’t mask the inconsistency. Even the pristine writing style that has won him so much praise has grown overripe with comma splices and other tics, such as when he writes of Vivian’s horse-country town: “There was no place to stay, you had to live there.” Anyone hoping to understand the acclaim for Salter’s work would do better to pick up his fine short story collection Dusk, which more effectively shows how, as one of its characters says, a romance resembles a play: It unfolds scene by scene as “the reality of another person changes.”

Best line: “ ‘You know, you haven’t changed a bit. Except for your appearance,’ he said.” A rare flash of humor in All That Is, although Salter may not have intended it that way.

Worst line: “It was a departure of foreboding, like the eerie silence that precedes a coming storm.” “Eerie silence” is a cliché, and “coming” is redundant.

Published: April 2013

Read an excerpt from All That Is. You may also want to read “James Salter’s 10 Worst Sentences.”

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 20, 2010

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:45 pm
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Imperfectionists: A Novel
Tom Rachman
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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 make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like 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 it.

Tom Rachman blends comedy and tragedy in The Imperfectionists, a collection of linked short stories about the staff members and others attached to an unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome. His idiosyncratic daily is trying to stay afloat in the digital age. But it has no website because, an editor says, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.” Can such a journalistic throwback survive? Rachman withholds the answer until the last pages of a book that reads like a collection of smartly written parables about the human illusions that lie at the intersection of work and love.

Questions for Discussion:

1. The publisher of The Imperfectionists has billed the book as “a novel,” but it reads like a collection of linked short stories. Did the book work as a novel? Why or why not?

2. A character in The Imperfectionists expresses a theme of the book when she reflects that “living overseas changes the rules.” [Page 185] What did she mean? How has living abroad has changed the rules for some of the characters in the novel?

3. Another theme of the book is that human illusions persist in adulthood and that, to some extent, we need them. Rachman’s characters typically cling to a fantasy until jolted out of it (as happens to the corrections editor who believes that he and his old friend Jimmy are “gradations of the same man” until Jimmy visits and the editor realizes that they are “utterly different”). [Page 94] How well does Rachman develop this theme? Were you persuaded, for example, that the corrections editor would cling for so long to his fantasies about Jimmy’s writing talents? Or that the Paris correspondent could be so mistaken about his son?

4. How does living abroad feed the illusions of the characters in The Imperfectionists? Would its story have worked if Rachman had set the story in a city in the U.S.? Why?

5. The stop-and-go format of linked-story collections can work brilliantly, as it does in Winesburg, Ohio. It can also make it harder for an author to maintain a steady pace, because there’s a narrative break at the end of every story or chapter. (One critic said that “desultoriness … is only narrowly kept at bay” in The Impressionists.) How would you characterize the pace of the book?

6. One critic said that Rachman serves up “a procession of biscotti-cutter characters.” Do you agree or disagree?

7. Rachman combines comedy and tragedy, qualities that are often hard to unite in fiction. His story involves the death of child but also entertainingly hapless headlines such as “GLOBAL WARMING GOOD FOR ICE CREAMS” or “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” How well did Rachman bring comedy and tragedy together in his book? Which characters or events seemed the most amusing and the saddest?

8. Why do you think Rachman set his first story in Paris when most of the rest of The Impressionists takes place in Rome?

9. Christopher Buckley praised the endings of Rachman’s stories in his New York Times Book Review review of The Impressionists, some of which have what’s often called an “O. Henry twist.” Which endings did you find most memorable? Why did they work?

10. Several other linked short story collections have had a lot of attention recently, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Olive Kitteridge. How does The Impressionists compare to any others you’ve read?

Your book group may also want to read:

And Then We Came to the End (Back Bay, 2008, paperback) by Joshua Ferris. D. J. Taylor wrote in a Guardian review that The Imperfectionists has a “faint yet persistent resemblance” to Ferris’s novel, “much of whose obliquity and ground-down communal spirit it shares.”

Vital statistics:

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25. Published: April 2010. Editor: Susan Kamil.

A review of The Imperfectionists appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on July 20, 2010.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

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. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and 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. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs.

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

Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’ – The Graveyard Shift at a Newspaper in Rome

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Staff members at the Christian Science Monitor used to joke when the newspaper had a print edition that “we bring you yesterday’s news tomorrow.” A similarly idiosyncratic worldview links the reporters, editors and others attached to the unnamed English-language daily in Rome that whistles in the dark in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. The newspaper lacks a website because, the editor-in-chief’s point man believes, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.”

The paper is an amiable throwback, and so is The Imperfectionists. Misleadingly billed by its publisher as “a novel,” the book consists of 11 linked short stories that read like smartly written parables about the human illusions at the intersection of work and love. The over-the-hill Paris correspondent for the paper faces a crisis that forces him to confront two long-held fantasies — that he can still write page-one stories and that his son has a worthy job at the French foreign ministry. The corrections editor gets a visit from a schoolmate that upends his romantic notion that his friend could become a great writer and that he and Jimmy are “gradations of the same man – he the middling version and Jimmy the great one.” And the icy chief financial officer learns through a macabre twist that she has been deluding herself about both her sexual allure and the effect of her staff purges. A theme of these stories is not that we are wrong to cherish our illusions – it’s that often we need them, because they’re all we have.

Fittingly for a book about a newspaper founded in the 1950s, the tales in this one resemble good stories from the early-to-middle decades of the 20th century, before the triumph of the cynical, elliptical and ambiguous. Each tale has a clear beginning, middle and end, and if not a moral, at least a point. Each takes as its title a hapless headline of the sort of that appears regularly in American newspapers: The more amusing include “U.S. GENERAL OPTIMISTIC ON WAR” and “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” And Rachman gives his characters enough humor and pathos to transcend his occasional lapses into journalese or glibness. His most memorable story involves than a widow in Rome who, since the suicide of her husband, has invested much of her emotion in reading the English-language newspaper each day. Through the old woman’s life, Rachman shows a poignant aspect of the decline of newspapers that, ironically, newspapers have scarcely discussed: For some people, the loss of a newspaper is the loss of a world.

Best line: “Blast Kills People Again.” – A headline written by a copy editor at Rachman’s unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome.

Worst line: “a women’s magazine that specialized in recipes utilizing cans of condensed mushroom soup.”

Editor: Susan Kamil

Published: April 2010

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for The Imperfections was posted on this site on July 20, 2010.

Read an excerpt from The Imperfectionists.

About the author: Rachman was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome and worked as an editor for the International Herald Tribune in Paris.

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

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

July 29, 2009

Diana Athill’s Memoir, ‘Somewhere Towards the End’ – The Last Non-Lecture

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 am
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An editor in her 90s writes about the end of her sex life and more

Somewhere Towards the End. By Diana Athill. Norton, 182 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Diana Athill has mastered that bittersweet negotiation with old age that the poet Elizabeth Bishop called “the art of losing.” Born in 1917, Athill worked for decades at an esteemed London publishing firm, where she edited the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul and others, and she has had a vibrant life that included an affair with the playwright Barry Reckord. In her new memoir, she writes eloquently of life after her retirement at the age of 75 – the ebbing of sexual desire, the deaths of friends, the pleasures of gardening and driving a car when the padding on the soles of her feet has grown so thin she is hard put to walk a hundred yards.

Somewhere Towards the End won a major British award for biography and reflects a keenly English sensibility rooted in the values of the world that existed before Starbucks moved into Victoria Station. Athill is by no means morbid. But neither does she lecture or assault you, as so many American authors do, with cloying euphemisms like “aging” – a word that, as Katha Pollitt has noted, applies to all of us: “A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.”

Athill is matter-of-fact but discreet about events such as a miscarriage that nearly killed her and about the prostate troubles suffered by Reckord, with whom she lives. But her natural tact doesn’t preclude astute observations on life. In her last chapter, Athill avoids reaching for tidy lessons and observes instead that “most lives are a matter of ups and downs rather than of a conclusive plunge into an extreme, whether fortunate or unfortunate, and quite a lot of them come to rest not far from where they started, as though the starting point provided a norm, always there to be returned to.”

Best line: As a student at Oxford in the 1930s, Athill told a man named Duncan that she had fallen away from the Christianity of her youth: “ … I said that though I was unable to believe in the god I had been taught to believe in, I supposed that some kind of First Cause had to be accepted. To which Duncan replied ‘Why? Might it not be that beginnings and endings are things we think in terms of simply because our minds are too primitive to conceive of anything else?’”

Worst Line: Athill writes of a 103-year-old woman who had a “positive attitude” (and, a page later, a “positive outlook”), a rare descent into cliché.

Recommendation? Somewhere Towards the End is more cohesive than the Nora Ephron’s entertaining but disjointed  I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, and reading groups might like to compare the two books.

Published: January 2009 (first American edition).

Furthermore: Somewhere Towards the End won the 2008 Costa Award for biography. Athill also wrote Stet: An Editor’s Life, a memoir of her years in book publishing. Other quotes from Somewhere Towards the End appeared on this site on July 17.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

More quotes from Somewhere Towards the End will be posted later today.

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

July 17, 2009

Should Writers Be Loyal to Their Publishers? Is ‘Loyalty’ a Virtue? (Quote of the Day / Diana Athill)

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Scott Turow recently jilted Farrar, Straus & Giroux, his longtime publisher, for Grand Central Publishing, for the sequel to Presumed Innocent due out in 2010. Turow is one of many authors who have cut editorial ties in a grim economy, and some people say writers are becoming “less loyal” to their publishers. Is that a bad thing? Is loyalty a virtue?

Diana Athill, the English writer and former editor for the firm of André Deutsch, says in her elegant new memoir, Somewhere Towards the End:

“Loyalty is not a favorite virtue of mine, perhaps because André Deutsch used so often to abuse the word, angrily accusing any writer who wanted to leave our list of ‘disloyalty.’ There is, of course, no reason why a writer should be loyal to a firm which has supposed that it will be able to make money by publishing his work. Gratitude and affection can certainly develop when a firm makes a good job of it, but no bond of loyalty is established. In cases where such a bond exists – loyalty to family, for example, or to a political party – it can be foolishness if betrayed by its objects. If your brother turns out to be a murderer or your party changes its policies, standing by him or it through thick or thin seems to me mindless. Loyalty unearned is simply the husk of a notion developed to benefit the bosses in a feudal system.”

May 19, 2009

A Set of Ethical Standards for Freelance Writers and the Editors Who Hire Them in the Age of Blogs and Other Forms of Digital Technology

The following comments are off-message for me, but I’m posting them because they relate to a core principle of One-Minute Book Reviews: This site doesn’t accept free books from editors, publishers, authors, agents or others with a stake in those books. The FAQ page explains why, and the article mentioned below provides context for its comments. Jan

If you’re a freelance writer, do you tell editors when you have sources of income from (or are applying for jobs) that relate to work you’re doing for them? Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, thinks you should. Wasserman tells the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in an article called “Keeping It Honest in a Freelance World”:

“Among the big changes the news business is undergoing is a steady erosion of its fundamental reliance on full-time, salaried journalists. What’s emerging in its place is an industry built on a patchwork of different working relationships. …

“What’s emerging is essentially the Op-Ed model moved from the opinion pages to the news: A growing dependence on journalism from loosely affiliated outsiders. The typical news site will have a small editorial nucleus at the center of an orbital sphere of contributing reporters, videographers, commentators and analysts. …

“There’s good reason not to welcome this. It means journalists will be paid even worse. It means coverage is likely to suffer from further loss of consistency and coherence, not to mention expertise.

“And it replaces the clarity of loyalty, obligation and independence that went with the traditional employment model with something that’s potentially very different. Remember that the Op-Ed pages have often been little more than an ethical bordello, with editors making scant effort to learn, much less police, the various entanglements that commentators might have with the topics they hold forth on.”

Wasserman lists seven ethical principles that editors should follow when assigning work to freelancers (and that, by implication, freelancers should follow when working for them). These include:

“Require internal disclosure. These disclosures should be comprehensive: All sources of income over the previous 12 months and all pending efforts to secure other paid work. (After all, you don’t want to post what seems like journalism but later turns out to have been an employment application.) Dollar amounts aren’t necessary; it’s the relationships that corrupt, not how lucrative they are. Require people to characterize those relationships—you don’t want anybody repaying favors on your site, but you also don’t want them settling scores. Disclosure should go beyond mere names. The range of some entity’s client relationships in town could implicate a number of other areas a particular journalist should steer clear of.”

Wasserman is on the money about about all of this, and though he doesn’t say so directly, his comments have implications for online book-review sites, many of which have ties to publishers that are undisclosed or disclosed only by implication (for example, in the form of ads for books placed next to rave reviews of them or sycophantic profiles of their authors).

March 18, 2009

Diana Athill Looks Back on a Life of Editing Books

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:52 am
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Good memoirs by editors are rare. This sounds improbable but makes sense. Editors might come across as perjurers if late in life if they told the truth about authors they had spent their career promoting.

An editor who can write is Diana Athill, who looks back on her career in English book publishing in Stet: An Editor’s Life (Grove, 256 pp., $13, paperback). Athill edited the British editions of books by Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, John Updike and others. And she offers perceptive comments about her work in her elegant but unpretentious memoir. (“Writers don’t encounter really attentive readers as often as you might expect, and find them balm to their twitchy nerves when they do; which gives their editors a good start with them.”) At 91 she won an overseas award for her new memoir of old age, Somewhere Towards the End (Norton, 192 pp., $24.95), that she talks about in a Telegraph interview.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 2, 2009

How Great Books Got Their Titles — When ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ Was ‘Angry Raisins’ — André Bernard’s ‘Now All We Need Is a Title’

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F. Scott Fitzgerald took his editor's advice, but many authors didn't.

Alfred A. Knopf urged Dashiell Hammett to change the title of The Maltese Falcon because he thought “falcon” might be hard for people to pronounce. The staff at Harper Brothers protested when Eugene O’Neill handed in Mourning Becomes Electra, a trilogy that later helped him win the Nobel Prize, because they believed the reference to Agamemnon’s daughter was too obscure. And the editor Max Perkins talked F. Scott Fitzgerald into calling his greatest novel The Great Gatsby instead of Trimalchio in West Egg (or at West Egg), perhaps fearing that few would recognize the name of a character in Petronius’s Satyricon.

Stories like these abound André Bernard’s ‘Now All We Need Is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way (Norton, 127 pp., $11, paperback), an engaging collection of anecdotes and commentary about how well-known books got their titles. A former Book-of-the-Month Club editor who worked in publishing for 25 years, Bernard covers more than 100 books that range from classics to late 20th-century bestsellers like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone mysteries, each of which has a letter (“A” Is for Alibi, “B” is for Burglar) in title.

Many of the stories in Now All We Need Is a Title involve misguided efforts by editors to overrule authors. But Bernard shows that translators, book clubs and others can also do damage. John Steinbeck loved the title of The Grapes of Wrath, inspired by a line in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He didn’t live to see the translation published in Japan, where his widow, Elaine, found the book being sold as Angry Raisins.

This is the first in a series of posts that will appear this week on some of my favorite books.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 6, 2007

After ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ — Joan Didion’s Greatest Hits

A lot of book clubs are reading The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, $13.95, paperback), Joan Didion’s National Book Award–winning memoir of the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. And for groups or discussion leaders who would like to read more by Didion, the good choices include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, the early nonfiction collections that helped to make her reputation as one of America’s finest prose stylists.

But perhaps the best “next book” is the first chapter of her 1992 essay collection, After Henry (Vintage, $14.95, paperback) www.randomhouse.com/vintage/. Didion writes in the chapter about an early editor of her books, Henry Robbins, who died on his way to work at the age of 51. And her comments on death relate, perhaps more directly than anything she has written, to her views in The Year of Magical Thinking. She also notes, correctly, that the relationship between writers and great editors has little to do with changes in manuscripts:

“The relationship between an editor and a writer is much subtler and deeper than that, at once so elusive and so radical that it seems almost parental: the editor, if he was Henry Robbins, was the person who gave the writer the idea of himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down and do it.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

July 23, 2007

A Great Biography of the Editor of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe

My head is too full of Harry Potter to post a review today, so I’ll just mention a favorite book that I hope to say more about later. A. Scott Berg won a 1979 National Book Award for Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, his definitive and eloquent biography of the great editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe. And both the honor and the book aced the test of time. The California-based Berg may be better known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lindbergh. But Max Perkins, his masterpiece, is a much better book. If you enjoy literary biographies and haven’t read this one, you’re in for a treat.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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