One-Minute Book Reviews

October 17, 2009

PTSD for 9-Year-Olds? Two-Time Newbery Medal Finalist Jacqueline Woodson Deals With the Consquences of War in ‘Peace, Locomotion’

A 12-year-old orphan sees the effects of war when a member of his foster family returns without a leg

Peace, Locomotion. By Jacqueline Woodson. Putnam, 136 pp., $15.99. Ages 9–12 (see further discussion below).

By Janice Harayda

Jacqueline Woodson is a spare and thoughtful writer – a bit too spare and thoughtful in this slow-moving sequel to Locomotion, a National Book Award finalist in which a sensitive orphan told his story in 60 poems. Now Lonnie Collins Motion (nicknamed Locomotion) is 12 years old and describes his life in letters to his younger sister, Lili, who lives with a different foster mother. The epistolary format may be the most interesting thing about the book.

Peace, Locomotion exemplifies a disheartening trend in children’s fiction toward novels that often read like bibliotherapy: They focus on feelings at the expense of plot, suspense and character development. This book has passages in which we don’t just hear Lonnie’s feelings: We hear his feelings about his feelings. After his teacher makes him “feel stupid,” he tells us: “I hate that feeling.” The novel has relatively little action. Lonnie likes living with his foster mother, whom he calls Miss Edna, in Brooklyn. But her son Jenkins joined the Army Reserve to earn money for college and has ended up fighting in an unnamed war – apparently, in Iraq. Jenkins loses a leg to “insurgents and a car bomb,” and when he comes home, has to use a wheelchair until he learns to walk with crutches. He also has signs of post-traumatic-stress disorder. Lonnie finds a sense of purpose in helping his foster brother and realizes that “Peace is the good stuff / That happens to all of us / Sometimes.”

Peace, Locomotion reflects a quiet pacifism that might help to disabuse some children of Rambo fantasies. But its heavy subjects clash with the lightweight treatment they receive in the novel. Jenkins doesn’t come home from the war until page 104 of a 136-page story – a timing that limits the potential for a relationship to develop between them and for transformation to occur. “Locomotion” is an odd name for a narrator whose story moves so languidly and to whom, in this book, so little happens.

Best line: “That’s what she calls old people – seniors. Like they’re about to graduate from high school or something.”

Worst line: Peace, Locomotion sticks closely to the prevailing therapeutic ideas about what’s “good” for children and is less interesting than it might have been if Woodson had taken more risks.  Here is Locomotion’s foster mother speaking to her son after he comes home without a leg: “Let all the tears you have in you come on out, she kept saying. It’s good. It’s okay.”

Recommendation: School Library Journal recommends this novel for grades 4–6, but – grim subjects like PTSD notwithstanding – it has a much less complex plot than many books appeal to that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels.

Published: January 2009

About the author: Woodson was shortlisted for a National Book Award for Locomotion and Hush and for a Newbery Medal for Feathers and Show Way.

Furthermore: The letters in this book are interspersed with a scattering of poems, also written by Lonnie.

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

March 17, 2009

‘Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’ (Quote of the Day / W. B. Yeats)

Members of an isolated British reading group write letters about their favorite books in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Dial, 2008), a bestselling novel set mainly on a Channel Island in 1946. But one character rages against William Butler Yeats, the Irish Nobel laureate. The complaint: Yeats edited The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 and said in its introduction that he had left out all the great World War I poets, including Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, because

“ … passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.”

This well-known quote was controversial from the start. But it suggests how much poetry has changed: Many recent collections, such as Frances Richey’s The Warrior and Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, include poems that involve “passive suffering.”

What do you think of the change? Does poetry need less passive suffering and more active engagement with life? Or are modern poets proving that Yeats was wrong?

Read Yeats’s full quote and more on The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Yeats.html.

A review of and reading group guide to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society appeared on this site on Nov. 25, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/11/25/. A review of The Warrior was posted on July 27 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/27/ and of Elegy on March 10 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/10/.

nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1923/yeats-bio.html

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

November 25, 2008

A Warm and Sunny Novel in Letters About an Offbeat British Book Club in 1946 — ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:12 am
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A new life begins for a single female journalist in London when World War II ends

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Dial, 278 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

Juliet Ashton realizes as 1946 begins that she can’t finish the book about English foibles that she has promised her London publisher. She knows she should have no trouble writing about groups like the Society to Protest the Glorification of the English Bunny. Hasn’t she found a photograph of the Vermin Exterminators’ Trade Union marching down the street with placards shouting, “Down with Beatrix Potter!”?

But on the first page of this warm and sunny novel in letters, Juliet confesses to her publisher that she has lost interest in the anti-bunny-glorifiers. Four days later, with the remarkable luck that will follow her through the story, she gets a letter from a pig farmer who found her name and address on the flyleaf of a secondhand book of essays by Charles Lamb. Dawsey Adams lives on Guernsey, a Channel Island recovering from its occupation by Nazis, and asks if she can recommend a London bookshop.

Julie begins to correspond with Dawsey and the members of his book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and arranges to visit them, although a handsome American publishing tycoon wants her to stay in London. As she becomes enmeshed in the islanders’ lives, she learns she can’t escape the effects of war as she had once longed to do: “The war is now the story of our lives, and there’s no subtracting it.”

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society lacks the natural charm of books it superficially resembles, such Helene Hanff’s memoir 84, Charing Cross Road and Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s novel A Woman of Independent Means. But the book has an earned sweetness that comes close to it — it’s the equivalent of suitor who may lack charm but sends you so many flowers that you almost forget that he does.

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows evoke well the hardships of islanders who made do with wartime rations of one candle a week and cooked their vegetables in seawater for lack of salt. The authors also offer many well-chosen quotes and anecdotes about an eclectic group of poets and writers: Chaucer, Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie, the Brontë sisters. And in the age of Dr. Phil and Twitter, it’s refreshing to meet characters like the book-club member who finds comfort in the words the Roman orator Seneca: “Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb.”

Best line: “I don’t believe that after reading such a fine writer as Emily Brontë, I will be happy to read again Miss Amanda Gillyflower’s Ill-Used by Candlelight.” — Isola Pribby in a letter to Juliet Ashton

Worst line: Julie writes to a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: “I no longer live on Oakley Street, but I’m so glad that your letters found me and that my book found you.” Would someone who had always lived in England say “on Oakley Street” or “in Oakley Street”?

Recommendation? This novel has no sex or, as parents say, “bad words.” I gave it to an aunt for her 85th birthday. But it’s also likely to appeal for many younger readers, including some teenagers. And it is much more intelligent than many books popular among book clubs.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society appeared on this site on Nov. 25, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Editor: Susan Kamil

Published: July 2008 www.guernseyliterary.com

About the authors: Mary Ann Shaffer became ill after selling this novel to the Dial Press and died before it appeared in print. Her niece, the children’s author Annie Barrows, shepherded the book through the editing process www.anniebarrows.com/.

If you like this book, you might like: A Woman of Independent Means us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/woman_of_independent_means.html.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and the former book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2008 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

November 24, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,’ a Novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:53 pm
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
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 wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Early in 1946, Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a pig farmer who found her name and address on the flyleaf of a secondhand book of essays by Charles Lamb. Juliet writes back to Dawsey Adams and learns that he belongs to an offbeat book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, on a Channel Island once occupied by Nazis. She begins to correspond with club members and, after deciding to visit them, becomes enmeshed in their lives – though a handsome American publishing tycoon is courting her back in London. Juliet had been hoping to put the war behind her. But on Guernsey, she gains a deeper awareness that she can’t escape history: “The war is now the story of our lives, and there’s no subtracting it.”

Questions for Discussion

1 The obvious question first: What did you think of the title of this novel? Did you pick up the book despite or because of it?

2 How well did the novel-in-letters format work? Why do think the authors chose it? What do we gain from reading the letters that we might not get from a more conventional narrative?

3 Many critics gave this novel raves. But Wendy Smith qualified her generally favorable review in the Washington Post by saying that the book has a “contrived” premise: “The authors don’t even bother to suggest how Juliet’s discarded book turned up in Guernsey, and the neat way its literary society fits into her Times assignment is highly convenient.” www.powells.com/biblio?isbn=9780385340991 Did you find all or part of the plot contrived? Does it matter whether it is?

4 Juliet has two men interested in her, each of whom has appealing traits, just as the heroines of many romance novels do. Is this novel essentially an intelligent romance novel? Why or why not?

5 Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows weave many details about the Nazi occupation of Guernsey into their story. For example, Eben Ramsey says that late in 1944: “We were rationed to two candles a week and then only one.” [Page 64] Novels based on historical research sometimes read more like term papers than fiction. Did you ever feel that way about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? If not, why? How did the authors keep their research from slowing the pace of the story?

6 Juliet’s parents died when she was 12. [Page 45] Dawsey is an adult orphan who lost his father when he was 11 and his mother just before World War II. [Page 232] Many beloved novels, from Jane Eyre to the Harry Potter books, involve orphans. Why do you think this is so? How does The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society resemble other orphan novels you’ve read?

7 A book club member named John Booker quotes the Roman orator Seneca: “Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb.” [Page 150] What did he mean? Booker was talking about grief for concentration camp victims, but could the quote apply also to people in this novel? Does it express a theme of the book?

8 “Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books,” Isola Pribby writes to Juliet. [Page 53] Is this true? Or are books like food in that a lot of us can savor a five-star meal and still hit the Fritos Scoops during the Super Bowl?

9 The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Peel Society has many amusing lines and scenes. Which did you like most? What role does humor play in the novel?

10 The authors salt their story with quotes or anecdotes about well-known writers. Did these make you want to read some of the authors’ books? Which, if any, would you like your book group to read?

Vital Statistics

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Dial, 278 pp., $22. Published: July 2008 www.guernseyliterary.com and www.anniebarrows.com

A review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on the day this guide did.

About the authors: Mary Ann Shaffer became ill after selling this novel to the Dial Press and died of cancer in February 2008 before the book appeared in print. Her niece, the children’s author Annie Barrows, shepherded the book through the editing process.

Your group may also want to read:

A Woman of Independent Means us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/woman_of_independent_means.html.

The “Epistolary Novels” page on Wikipedia, which talks about the types of novels-in-letters and gives old and new examples of the form en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistolary_novel.

The “Orphan Novels” page on Wikipedia, which gives an overview of these en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphan.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear on One-Minute Book Reviews often but not on a regular schedule. They often deal with books for which publishers have provided no guides or guides that are flawed – for example, because they encourage cheerleading for books instead of thoughtful discussion. They are also intended to be more comprehensive than publishers’ guides. To avoid missing the them, please bookmark the site or subscribe to the RSS feed. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from authors, editors, publishers, agents or others who have a financial stake in books, and all reviews offer views that are not influenced by marketing concerns. If you would like to see the guides continue, it would be extremely helpful if you would link to them.

You can find more Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides at wordpress.com/tag/totally-unauthorized-reading-group-guides/. Thank you for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews, a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda

August 14, 2008

What is Potato Peel Pie? ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:20 pm
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Not sure how much I’ll be able to say The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Dial, 288 pp., $22) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows because I have a slight conflict of interest involving one of its prime movers. But I can tell you that this epistolary novel about the deprivations of ordinary Britons just after World War II (when food rationing meant that some people had to fill up on things like potato peel pie — pie filled with potato peels instead of the desired-but-unavailable items — instead of their usual fare) is already a big hit little more than two weeks its publication. As I’m sorting it out what else I can write, you can read an excerpt here www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90251891.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 5, 2008

Alice Kuipers’s ‘Life on the Refrigerator Door': At Last, a Novel for Anybody Who Thinks That Mitch Albom Is Too Difficult

A novel from Canada that you could finish during the commercials for a hockey game

Life on the Refrigerator Door: A Novel in Notes. By Alice Kuipers. HarperCollins, 220 pp., $15.95.

By Janice Harayda

Alice Kuipers’s first novel answers the perversely fascinating question: Can anybody write a book dumber than Mitch Albom’s For One More Day? Albom writes at a third-grade reading level, according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with Microsoft Word. Kuipers writes at a second-grade reading level. And because Kuipers lives in Saskatoon, you have to wonder if some kind of trickle-up — or trickle-north — effect is at work here.

An Amazon reviewer said that she read Life on the Refrigerator Door in 20 minutes. I believe her, because I read it during the Super Bowl halftime show. If you’re still trying to get through the new Richard Pevear translation of War and Peace, a book you can read in less than a half hour might sound appealing. But Life on the Refrigerator Door costs $15.95. If you live in a state with the kind of killer sales tax we have here in New Jersey, reading this book could cost you nearly a dollar minute. Next to it, that 1,296-page War and Peace looks like a steal at $37.

Perhaps the kindest way to review Life on the Refrigerator is stick to the facts. First, this a novel about a doctor who doesn’t have a cell phone. Or, apparently, a pager. So she has to communicate with her 15-year-old daughter by notes on the refrigerator. When the doctor gets a horrible, life-threatening disease, they keep communicating that way. One of the main things we learn from this correspondence is that the inability to punctuate a compound sentence may be inherited.

Still, I wouldn’t be too hard on this feel-good-about-feeling-bad female weepie. Unlike For One More Day, the book does have a modestly clever gimmick at its core. How many novels have you read that consist entirely of notes on a refrigerator? Can a novel told in magnets be far behind?

Best line: The epigraph, a poem by William Carlos Williams.

Worst line: “Peter was soooooooooo cute earlier, you should have seen him with the toy carrot Dad got him.”

Recommendation? Like For One More Day and Mister Pip, Life on the Refrigerator Door is a book for children masquerading as adult reading. It may especially appeal to 10-to-13-year-old girls.

Published: September 2007 www.harpercollins.com

Furthermore: Although I read this novel during the Super Bowl halftime show, I wasn’t watching the performances. I was at the Chinese place picking up food.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 4, 2007

My Labor Day Reading … Jean Webster’s Comic Novel, ‘Daddy-Long-Legs’

Filed under: Classics,Novels,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:13 am
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A classic novel of life at a women’s college in the early 20th century

Over the weekend, I read comic novels — pure fun — as I braced for all those holiday books that publishers will start heaving at us this week. Did you know that some art-book houses release their entire line between September and November instead of spreading it out over 12 months?

I started by rereading Jean Webster’s comic gem, Daddy-Long-Legs (Penguin, $13, paperback), one of the most delightful novels ever written about the education of a young American woman. First published in 1912, the book is reported to have sold 100,000 copies in its first year in print, a vast — but well-earned — number back then. Daddy-Long-Legs is told through the letters of a high-spirited orphan to the male patron who sends her to college, inspired by Webster’s education at Vassar. And because the epistolary novel is disappearing, that alone might give it a period charm.

But its great appeal lies in the voice of its blunt, funny and perceptive heroine. As Michael Patrick Hearn wrote in an afterword to the 1988 edition that preceded the newer one from Penguin www.penguinclassics.com:

“When the press badgered Woodrow Wilson at his home in Princeton on his presidential plans, the prospective candidate adroitly dodged the question by stating that he found it far easier to talk about the recent past than the immediate future. And he much preferred to discuss the book he had just finished reading, Daddy-Long-Legs, ‘the most charming story in years.'”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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