One-Minute Book Reviews

January 4, 2010

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

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

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

Published: 2009

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

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

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

February 3, 2009

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

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:06 am
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A young woman’s wish to be useful leads to a romantic mismatch in the first great multiplot novel in English.

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

April 8, 2008

Why Do Unworthy Books Win Awards like Pulitzer Prizes? Quote of the Day (Neville Braybrooke)

In last night’s post, I listed some classic American novels that didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, given yesterday to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. A related question is: Why do unworthy book win awards? One obvious answer is that most prizes are given out annually, and every year may not bring a great book in a category.

But more subtle factors may come into play. A truism of literary prize-giving is that awards often go to everybody’s second choice. Judges may split into two camps with each side fiercely opposing the other’s first choice. To reach a decision, they may choose a second-rate book they can all support.

Judges tell many stories in among themselves about such compromises but rarely discuss them publicly. Who wants to admit to having honored a clinker? But Neville Braybooke suggests how the practice can work in his preface to the Every Eye, the elegant second novel by his late wife, Isobel English. Braybooke writes that English refused to add the happy ending that an American publisher wanted to her to give her first novel, The Key That Rusts:

“More significantly, during these early days of her career, came the news that The Key That Rusts had been shortlisted for the Somerset Maugham Award, tying for first place with Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net. In the event, the judges were unable to decide who should be the winner, so they gave the prize to the runner-up, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.”

Neville Braybrooke in Every Eye (David R. Godine/Black Sparrow, $23.95) www.blacksparrowbooks.com.

Comment by Jan:

Braybrooke may have been willing to tell this anecdote partly because there would have been no shame in losing either to Lucky Jim or Under the Net, both modern classics. And few critics would argue that Amis’s comic novel was unworthy of an award. The Somerset Maugham Award is given annually by the London-based Society of Authors www.societyofauthors.org to the writer or writers under the age of 35 who wrote the best book of the year.

Do you think any unworthy books have won awards? What are they?

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

“ …

February 1, 2008

Diary: Barbara Pym’s ‘Good Books for Bad Days’

[This is the first in an occasional series of brief posts on books or authors whose work I can’t review at more length. The posts will be saved in the “Diary” category.]

A soggy morning in New Jersey. The chilly rain reminded me of a comment often made about the novels of Barbara Pym – they’re “good books for bad days.” They’re good books for good days, too.

Pym (1913–1980) had suffered more than her share of rejection until, in the 1970s, the Times Literary Supplement asked well-known writers to name the most underrated writer of the 20th century. After years of neglect by the British literary establishment, Pym was the only writer nominated by two of the authors, the poet Philip Larkin and the biographer David Cecil. Their praise, especially Larkin’s, sparked a revival of interest in her work that has abated slightly in the U.S. but has never disappeared.

I’ve read five or six of Pym’s quiet novels of English life and admire their modesty, intelligence and low-keyed irony. No writer would be less likely to give a book the sort of bombastic title — Everything Is Illuminated, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I Am America (And So Can You) — that is fashionable today. And each of her novels involves circumstances different enough to keep them from becoming repetitive despite their similarlarities of tone. Excellent Women is about a group of single women who, though young, are verging on what used to be called spinsterhood. Quartet in Autumn deals with the enmeshed lives of four friends, male and female, who are facing retirement. An Unsuitable Attachment explores the effects of a single woman’s attraction to a younger man. And The Sweet Dove Died is about the losses of middle age and beyond, especially menopause (though Pym is too discreet to use the word).

Where will I start when I return to Pym en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Pym? Excellent Women is among the wittiest of her novels, so I might begin there if I needed reliable diversion on a day when the weather was hoarding its comforts – a day, in other words, like today.

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

January 30, 2008

Is Pearl Buck’s ‘The Good Earth’ a ‘Plodding Chinese Epic’? Quote of the Day (John Sutherland in ‘How to Read a Novel’)

John Sutherland is an English scholar and columnist perhaps best known in the U.S. for his engaging books about literary puzzles, including Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? He also wrote the recent How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide (St. Martin’s/Griffin, $12.95, paperback), a quirky overview of factors that may affect readers’ perceptions of a book, such the cover, reviews and film versions. Sutherland chaired the 2005 Man Booker Prize committee and in his new book comments astringently on literary awards, including the Nobel Prize www.nobelprize.org. He suggests that Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize because one of her rivals, Graham Greene, wrote an unflattering novel about the Swedish financier and swindler Ivar Kreuger, who made a fortune as a manufacturer of matches:

“The grey men of Stockholm like fiction which takes on big themes – so long, as was the case with Graham Greene’s England Made Me (1935), they happen not to be big themes that reflect badly on Sweden. Greene’s ‘entertainment,’ as he called it, about Sweden’s Robert Maxwell, the ‘match king’ Ivar Kreuger, ensured its author a one-way ticket to the Nobel blacklist. Pearl S. Buck, author of the plodding Chinese epid The Good Earth (1931), committed no such offense and duly got her Swedish prize in 1938.”

Comment by Janice Harayda:

Sutherland is right about the “big themes.” The judges of most literary prizes – not just the Swedish Academy — favor authors who take on large topics. One reason why many people expected Doris Lessing to win the Nobel long before 2007 is that she has dealt with those“big themes,” including the role of women in society in The Golden Notebook.

But I’m not sure about The Good Earth. Like many American teenagers, I had to read the novel for a high school English class and, at the age of 14, I found it riveting. I’ve just started rereading it for the first time in decades and hope to write about the book in this space soon. Did you have to read The Good Earth in school? Have you reread it since then? How, if at all, has your view of the book changed?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

December 11, 2007

Which Writers Best Define English and American Literature? 25 Scholars and Critics Respond in ‘Literary Genius,’ Edited by Joseph Epstein

America’s finest literary essayist assembles a bracing collection of reflections on Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Willa Cather, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost and others

Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature. Edited by Joseph Epstein. Wood Engravings by Barry Moser. Paul Dry Books, 246 pp., $34.95 hardcover, $18.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading these exceptionally fine essays is like catching up with all those brilliant professors you missed in college because you were sure you would benefit more in life from all your film theory classes on the semiotics of Patrick Swayze movies.

Literary Genius is a kind of print equivalent of a course from the Teaching Company, which rounds up academic supernovas and records their lectures on DVDs, so you can watch them at home over a beer and a bowl of Doritos. (No nasty homework assignments! No messy exams that conflict with your spring break plans! No loss to your grade if you go to class drunk or stoned out of your mind!) Joseph Epstein has collected 25 essays by world-class scholars and critics on vanished titans of English and American literature — Hilary Mantel on Jane Austen, A. N. Wilson on Charles Dickens, Justin Kaplan on Walt Whitman, David Womersley on Edward Gibbon, John Simon on T. S. Eliot. And you might wonder about more than what the Irish will think about Epstein’s decision to include James Joyce in the book: Why did Willa Cather make the cut but not Virginia Woolf? Why did Ernest Hemingway but not F. Scott Fitzgerald?

But the essays are everything that literary essays should be – bold, fluent, authoritative and written with flair and at times wit. Here is the first paragraph of a sparkling essay by John Gross on Joyce:

“One of the questions Napoleon used to ask, when a solider was recommended for promotion, was ‘Does he have luck?’ Writers need luck, too, and an important part of James Joyce’s achievement is that he was born at the right time. He was a modernist who was able to get his claim in first.”

Gross takes perhaps the most difficult literary genius of the 20th century and, with a few strokes, places him in context. He argues that wrote fine and distinctive books in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and a “perhaps mad” one in Finnegans Wake (which, unabridged, is “strictly for addicts”). But if he qualifies as a genius, it’s because of Ulysses and “the novel’s two greatest achievements” — its portrait of Dublin and its portrait of Leopold Bloom.

Most of the essays are similarly bracing. They typically range widely over an author’s work, avoiding the claustrophobic narrowness of so much recent literary criticism. Lois Potter gives Hamlet only a sentence in her essay on William Shakespeare. But her entry holds its own, in part, by reminding us that “Shakespeare’s reputation owes something to the dominance of the English language in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the fact that the ability to understand Shakespeare has become the ultimate test of the ability to use that language.”

Literary Genius includes brief excerpts from the work of all of its subjects and 59 handsome wood engravings by Barry Moser. These enhance its appeal as a gift, but its essays could stand on their own. You might expect no less from a book edited by Epstein, America’s finest literary essayist and its nearest counterpart to the late English critic V.S. Pritchett. “Timelessness, grandeur of vision, originality of outlook – all these, in concert and worked at a high power, comprise genius in the writer,” he writes. By those standards, this book shows genius, too.

Best line: Every essay has its own. A passage in Robert Pack’s essay on Frost suggests the freshness of perspectives in this book: “Along with being our leading nature poet, Robert Frost is also the poet who writes most extensively about marriage, love, and desire – all in the context of loss and death. Surely, no poet since John Milton treats the theme of sexual desire and marriage more extensively or more profoundly than Frost.” Pack might have replaced one of the “extensively”s. Even so, how many people associate Frost with poems about “sexual desire”?

Worst line: The first line James L. W. West III’s essay on Hemingway: “One sees Hemingway’s style best in his early short stories.” The problem isn’t the “one,” though West’s style is less conversational than that of most contributors. It’s that his essay is narrowe. West deals only with Hemingway’s short stories, while most of the writers give an overview of their subject’s work. His essay doesn’t mesh with the others, and Epstein seems to acknowledge it by burying it at the back.

Recommendation? This is could be a wonderful gift for serious readers and helpful to the many books clubs that are reading Austen and Cather.

Published: October 15, 2007. The publisher’s site www.pauldrybooks.com includes Epstein’s introduction to the book . A brief excerpt from its essay on John Milton appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Friday www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/12/07/.

Furthermore: Joseph Epstein edited the American Scholar for more than 20 years and has written 19 books. Barry Moser won the American Book Award for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. John Gross is a former editor of the London Times Literary Supplement and a staff member at the New York Times. Since 1989 he has been the theater critic of the Sunday Telegraph www.telegraph.co.uk.

Other links: The Teaching Company www.teach12.com/

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

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It also for people who dislike long-winded reviews that are full of facts or plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book. You may not agree with views you read this site but you will know what those views are.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 7, 2007

‘The Supreme Christmas Poem in the English Language’ Is … Quote of the Day (Reynolds Price)

This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring …

From John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”

What is “the Supreme Christmas poem in the English language”? This must have been more of a stumper than I thought, because I asked the question Tuesday, and nobody got it right. I may have thrown you off by saying I’d give an American writer’s answer when the poem wasn’t written here. (Oh, sons and daughters of Cambridge! Where were you when a fellow Cantabrigian needed you?) The novelist Reynolds Price argues – and many others would agree – that the poem is John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Price says of Milton and his poem:

“The most powerful early component of his genius became visible in December 1629. While on the winter vacation from his studies at Cambridge, he wrote his initial indispensable poem, an ode ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.’ It was, almost certainly, the result – only two weeks after his twenty-first birthday – of his eagerness to exhibit a first fruit of the high calling he sensed within himself. And in the freewheeling rhetorical rapture which pours out memorable phrases in joyous profusion, in its complex musical urgency, and its unquestioned Christian sense of God’s immanence in nature, the ode continues to be the supreme Christmas poem in the English language.”

Reynolds Price in an essay on Milton in the just-published Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature (Paul Dry Books, $18.95, paperback) www.pauldrybooks.com, selected and edited by Joseph Epstein with wood engravings by Barry Moser. Price, the poet and novelist, is the James B. Duke Professor English at Duke University www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reynolds_Price.

The first lines of Milton’s poem appear at the top of this post. You can read the annotated full text in the Milton Reading Room on the Dartmouth College site http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/nativity/index.shtml. Please note that on this template I can’t indent the lines as Milton did.

Did you know the answer to Tuesday’s question? An easy way to become better acquainted with Milton’s poetry is to go to the free site Cyber Hymnal and listen the hymn “Let Us With a Gladsome Mind,” which you can hear by clicking on this link: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/l/e/letuglad.htm. (You will hear the music immediately when you click.) The words to “Let Us With a Gladsome Mind” come from Milton’s poem with the same title, which he wrote when he was 15. You can read the poem and listen to the music simultaneously at Cyber Hymnal www.cyberhymnal.org, which also offers at no cost the words and music to thousands of other hymns, including religious Christmas carols.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

October 23, 2007

D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

The latest in an occasional series of posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t finish them

Title: Sons and Lovers

What it is: The second novel by the English novelist D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930), best known for the much-banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

How much I read: The foreword, first chapter and part of the second, about 50 pages in the edition I read (not shown at right).

Why I stopped reading: The Tribe couldn’t lock up the American League pennant in the fourth game, so I had to watch the fifth on Sunday night, when I had planned to read more of the book. Then life intervened and I couldn’t get back to the novel in time to finish it for a book group I was supposed to go to tonight. Good-bye, book group meeting.

Comments: The pages that I read involve the early married life of the Gertrude and Walter Morel, as mismatched as Emma and Charles Bovary. Gertrude — well-bred, intelligent, and endowed with a high moral sensibility — chafes against the limits of her life as the wife of a good-hearted coal miner of little income and less refinement. Some critics have said that Lawrence portrays women too harshly. But his treatment of Gertrude’s frustrations in these pages was poignant. Lawrence deals much more directly than many of his contemporaries with the frighteningly rapid loss of self that women of his day risked when they married.

Best line in what I read: On the married life of young Gertrude Morel: “She went indoors, wondering if things were going to alter. She was beginning to realize that they would not. She seemed so far away from her girlhood, she wondered if it were the same person walking heavily up the back garden at Bottoms, as had run so lightly on the breakwater at Sheerness, ten years earlier.

“ ‘What have I to do with it!’ she said to herself. ‘What have I do with all this. Even the child I am going to have! It doesn’t seem as if I were taken into account.’

“Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, takes hold of one’s history, and yet is not real, but leaves one’s self as it were slurred over.”

Worst line in what I read: “ … and on a newspaper spread out upon the hearth rug, a myriad of crescent-shaped curls …”

Furthermore: The Reader’s Catalog (Jason Epstein, 1989) gives this one-line summary of Sons and Lovers: “The talents of a sensitive young man are liberated from a coal-mining background by an intelligent but dominating mother.”

Published: 1913 (first edition)

Links: www.dh-lawrence.org.uk

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

www.janiceharayda.com

October 4, 2007

John Bayley’s ‘Good Companions’ – An Ideal Collection of Poetry (and More) for People Who Didn’t Major in English

A former Oxford professor offers a lively introduction famous and little-known poems

Good Companions: A Personal Anthology. By John Bayley. Little, Brown/Abacus, 246 pp., $9.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Most poetry collections pose one of two problems for the casual reader: They have no commentary, now matter how inscrutable their poems may be, or they are textbooks that are full of commentary but too dry and academic to interest most nonscholars.

John Bayley’s Good Companions is the rare anthology that finds the perfect balance between those extremes. This compact paperback – just the right size for a briefcase or nighttable – consists of good short poems or snippets from novels, letters and diaries of the past three centuries. But it has far more poems than prose, and with good reason: Though Bayley is too diplomatic to say so, this is where most people need help, and he provides it superbly.

Bayley doesn’t try to supply a comprehensive introduction to each poem but instead offers a few insightful and opinionated lines that focus on whatever he finds most interesting about it. Sometimes that’s a bit of context, such as when he writes of Lord Rochester’s “A Song of a Young Lady to Her Ancient Lover”:

“The ancient person was probably no more than forty-five. Rakes and dissipated young men, as Rochester certainly was, thought of themselves as completely worn out at an age which people today would consider the prime of life.”

Elsewhere Bayley notes a strength or weakness of a poem, or an especially interesting idea that it raises. He admires Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” in which the speaker catches a valiant fish but releases it after seeing five earlier fish hooks “grown firmly in his mouth.” But for all his admiration, Bayley wonders: “Perhaps the end is a bit too much of a pat on the back for the poet?”

That gentle question exemplifies the conversational tone of the book, its greatest charm. After decades as a professor at Oxford, Bayley might have claimed a Zeus-like right to fling thunderbolts of erudition down from Olympus. Instead he invites you to take part in a lively dialogue about some of his favorite poems. And if you accept, you’re likely to find that some of his selections become your favorites, too.

Best line: Bayley’s shows his gift for summing up a poem in a few deft sentences in his brief comment on Thomas Hardy’s “The Self-Unseeing”: “Hardy at his most moving, and also at his most cannily perceptive. When children are really most happy, and indeed when grown-ups are too, they are very seldom aware of the fact. Perfect happiness is not a state in which self-awareness plays a part.” The last lines of Hardy’s poem bear him out: “Childlike, I danced in a dream; / Blessings emblazoned that day; / Everything glowed with a gleam; / Yet we were looking away!”

Worst line: Bayley includes Blake’s “The Tyger” but punts on the commentary: “What is there to say about the Tyger?”

Published: 2002 Little Brown/Abacus www.littlebrown.co.uk. [I discovered this book this summer at a large Borders store, shelved somewhat oddly in the memoirs section, next to Bayley's Elegy for Iris, so you may find it in a spot other than the poetry aisle.]

Furthermore: Bayley also wrote Elegy for Iris www.picadorusa.com, a memoir of his marriage to the novelist Iris Murdoch and her descent into Alzheimer’s Disease.

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 comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 2, 2007

Rebecca Gowers’s First Novel, ‘When to Walk,’ Longlisted for the Orange Prize Along With Books by Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley

A young British writer with septic arthritis tries to cope after her husband unexpectedly announces that their marriage is “defunct”

When to Walk. By Rebecca Gowers. Canongate, 235 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Rebecca Gowers writes in When to Walk that the Victorian poor gave their babies a substance called Venice Treacle, “which induced an opium stupor while the mothers went out to work.” That line – interesting in itself — also suggests the emotional state of the narrator of this novel, longlisted for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize: She sometimes seems to be in an opium stupor without the opium.

Early on, the narrator’s husband of three years announces that their marriage is “defunct,” and the novel describes her attempts to cope during the following week. Gowers’s publisher calls the story a “ramble into familial failures, urban isolation, unreliable relationships” and more.

That’s true, but for a ramble, When to Walk is oddly overdetermined. The surname of the narrator, for example, is Ramble. Nearly every character has a name freighted with so much baggage, you sense that Gowers doesn’t trust you to figure such things out on your own. Ramble’s husband, Constantine, known as Con, acts like an emperor and gets involved with small-time con artists. Her gay best friend with a bisexual past has the doubly phallic name of Johnson Pike, and if that suggests to you that he might be tempted at some point show her his johnson, you’re right. Her half-batty grandmother, Stella Ramble, is always referred to that way, never as “Gran” or Grandma,” implying a distance between the two characters that the story doesn’t entirely support.

The overdetermination is all the more distracting because the novel is underplotted. Gowers sets up minor subplots that go nowhere – one about a friend her heroine is helping with her English and another about a Holocaust-era photograph she finds amid her grandmother’s belongings. Ramble also has septic arthritis – similar to Lyme Disease – presumably intended as a metaphor for the creaky joints of her life and marriage. But the relation between her physical and emotional states isn’t clear: To what degree, if any, is the illness responsible for her bad marriage and dull job writing travel articles about places she hasn’t seen? Little enough happens overall that the novel crawls along until the whiz-bang final chapter, where the story gains the steam it has lacked until then.

So When to Walk is less successful as a novel than as a collection of anecdotes, many about the Victorian era. Some of these tell stories more interesting than that of the book as a whole, including one about the author of the poem “In the Bleak Midwinter.” “I can state for certain that at some point in the early 1840s, when she was still a child, Christina Rossetti was taken to Madame Tussaud’s on a treat that was a total failure,” Gowers writes. “Why? Because she’d been taught that it’s rude to stare.”

Best line: “For all the time I’ve known her, Stella Ramble has, in the old phrase, been ‘living on unkindly terms with her years.’” Old phrase? I’d never heard it but know a lot of people to whom it applies.

Worst line: An e-mail message from a character who works for a college, whom Ramble is helping with her English: “Boustrophedon is when the lines of the inscription go left to right, right to left (retrograde means the characters being r to l too as in a mirror), left to right etc. Boustrophedon translates to mean the way oxen turn back and forth over a field when they plough. Whereas, false boustrophedon, alternate lines instead of having vertical orientation will curl around upside down, this also being called Schlangenschrift which means snake-writing.” As mangled English, this isn’t funny enough. It is hardly, if all, distinguishable from much of what passes for acceptable in academia today.

Published: October 2007 www.canongate.net

Furthermore: Gowers also wrote The Swamp of Death: A True Tale of Victorian Lies and Murder (Penguin, 2004). When to Walk was one of 20 books on the longlist for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, formerly the Orange Prize www.orangeprize.co.uk, which also included novels by Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley.

Cover story: Joe Berger’s cover for When to Walk differs by a mile from what American publishers typically choose for books about young women and their relationships — in part because it isn’t pink — and this is much to the credit of the Edinburgh-based Canongate Books. The spirit of the cover is very Scottish, though it contains none of the usual Scottish cliches such (such as kilts, thistles or Nessie), and the story is set in an unnamed British city. The cover is mainly green, the same shade that many of the spear-pointed iron fences in Edinburgh were until painted black after the death of Prince Albert. Some fences have been repainted in the shade.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site in the world on Google on Sept. 6, 2007 www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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