One-Minute Book Reviews

March 5, 2008

What Do Award-Winning Novels Have That Others Don’t? (Quote of the Day/Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni)

[Tomorrow night the National Book Critics Circle will announce the winners of its annual awards, including its fiction prize. You can read about the finalists here bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/2008/01/2007-national-book-critics-circle-award.html. A former judge for another prize offers some thoughts on literary awards in general below.]

What separates the novels that win major literary prizes from other books? Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the Indian-born poet and novelist, served as a National Book Awards judge and comments here on reading the nominated books:

“What I learned from reading so many novels is that a novel, as it goes on, has to expand. It has to give you a sense of a larger life, not just the story you’re dealing with, no matter how well it’s told. There must be a sense of resonance, a sense that in that story is the knowledge of a whole larger story whose presence is felt.”

Chitra Baneriee Divakaruni in “Read More, Write Better,” an interview with Sarah Anne Johnson www.sarahannejohnson.com in The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction: Building Blocks (Writer’s Digest Books, $19.99), edited by Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda B. Swanson-Davis. Banerjee Divakaruni www.chitradivakaruni.com , who teaches at the University of Houston, wrote the The Vine of Desire, The Mistress of Spices and other books. Her next novel, The Palace of Illusions, has just been published by Doubleday.

© 2007 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

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 10, 2008

Joan Didion on Beginnings and Endings in Writing (Quote of the Day)

“Life changes fast.”
— The first sentence of The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion earned her reputation as one of the great American prose stylists partly through the memorable first sentences of her books and articles. She won the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction for a memoir of death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, that opens with three words: “Life changes fast.”

Do opening lines have an importance that goes beyond their ability to make you keep reading? Didion dealt with the question in a Paris Review interview about the early nonfiction pieces that helped to make her famous:

Interviewer: You have said that once you have your first sentence you’ve got your piece. That’s what Hemingway said. All he needed was his first sentence and he had his short story.

Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

Interviewer: The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.

Didion: Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.

Joan Didion in “The Art of Fiction, No. 71,” an interview with Linda Kuehl in the Fall-Winter 1978 issue of the Paris Review. You can find the full text of that interview and another with Didion that appeared in the spring 2006 issue by searching for “Joan Didion” at www.parisreview.org. Didion’s hardcover publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, has posted an excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking at www.aaknopf.com, where you can read the pages that follow: “Life changes fast.”

Cover art for the the Fall-Winter 1978 Paris Review shown here: Robert Moskowitz

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

January 7, 2008

A Young American Lounge Singer in Shanghai Tries to Keep Her Life in Tune in Lara Tupper’s First Novel, ‘A Thousand and One Nights’

Far from home in a five-star hotel with a no-star boyfriend

A Thousand and One Nights. By Lara Tupper. Harvest, 240 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A popular joke about the late Norman Vince Peale said that all of his sermons consisted of “three anecdotes in search of a point.” You might have a similar reaction to Laura Tupper’s first novel, A Thousand and One Nights.

Tupper has woven well-researched anecdotes about China into this story of a young American alto and her callow guitarist boyfriend from Yorkshire, who meet on a cruise ship and spend months performing as a duo in a plush hotel in Shanghai (where the only guests who don’t want to hear “Candle in the Wind” seem to want to hear “My Heart Will Go On”). On a train to Hangzhou, Karla and Jack receive “little black plastic bags for spitting.” And in a Shanghai market, Karla sees live snakes for sale, spinning in red buckets, and watches a man skin one alive, its flesh still wriggling and “a blue organ of some kind dangling” after the blade strikes.

But the anecdotes don’t coalesce into a story worthy of them. Karla and Jack run on empty, spending much of their time drinking, whining and bickering. A Thousand and One Nights has so little character and thematic development that at the end, Karla seems as masochistic and Jack as self-absorbed (and as bereft of credible Yorkshire accent) as the beginning. In a sense, both are shanghai’d by Shanghai. For all we learn about their attraction to each other, Tupper might as well have set them down in Secaucus.

Best line: Tupper’s description of the train to Hangzhou: “Karla and Jack had ‘soft seats,’ with cushions, and once on board they were given little plastic bags for spitting. There was no AC, and Karla was wearing tight, black jeans. There were a few other Caucasian faces in their train car, all flushed, and Jack and Karla ignored them. A uniformed girl served complimentary tea in white plastic cups. Bits of green herb floated up, then sank down.”

Worst line: “In truth, Karla was scared every night, and she was tired of being scared, tired of her own cycle of pathetic thoughts.”

Editor: Stacia Decker

Published: February 2007 www.laratupper.com and www.HarcourtBooks.com

Caveat lector: This review is based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: Tupper is a former lounge singer whose site says that she has performed “at sea and in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, and on land in Thailand, Japan, China and the United Arab Emirates.” She lives in New York City.

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

December 27, 2007

What’s the Difference Between Writing a Memoir and Writing Fiction? Quote of the Day (Mary Gordon)

The boundaries between memoirs and fiction are becoming more porous. Here’s how the novelist and memoirist Mary Gordon responded when an interviewer asked, “Is memoir writing not that much different from fiction writing?”

“It is and it isn’t. It has formal demands, demands of shapeliness in the way that fiction does. There are some things, which, if left out, would make an untruthful record. Memoir has a responsibility to the truth, or the truth as best you can tell it. That is to say, if you willfully suppressed something – well, there is no point writing a memoir if you don’t want to tell the truth as you see it. To deliberately fudge something that made you look better, or made someone else look better – that’s the kind of issue that comes up in memoir that does not come up in fiction.”

Mary Gordon in “Writing to Understand Yourself,” an interview with Charlotte Templin, in The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction: Inspiration and Discipline (Writer’s Digest Books, $19.99), edited by Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda B. Swanson-Davies www.writersdigest.com. Gordon’s most recent memoir, Circling My Mother (Pantheon, $24), was published in August www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

If only more memoirists shared Gordon’s view that there’s no point in “fudging.” You see much more distortion in memoirs today than a generation ago. Some memoirists say that they have to fudge to protect the privacy of friends or relatives, or that if they didn’t, they couldn’t tell their stories, because they lack too much essential information. Other writers contend that memoirs are inherently subjective. All of that may be true. But I’ve argued on this site that if memoirists set aside the truth – for example, by inventing scenes or using composite characters — they have a responsibility to say so in their books.

What do you think?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 18, 2007

Novels by Junot Díaz and Alice Sebold Rank Among the Best and Worst of 2007, the Editors of New York Magazine Say in Year-End Wrap-Up

What’s the best novel of 2007? It’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz‘s tale of “a monstrously fat, occasionally suicidal Dominican-American ‘ghetto nerd,'” the editors of New York magazine say in a Dec. 17 article written by Sam Anderson. I haven’t read the novel, but there’s room for a bit of caution here: Last year the editors’ choices included Claire Messud‘s The Emperor’s Children, second runner-up in the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. But New York got it right that Alice Sebold‘s The Almost Moon stands out for badness even in a year in which “lots of big names underwhelmed us … Amis, DeLillo, Roth, Rowling.” Anderson faults the novel’s voice, pacing and characterization. He didn’t mention the fourth-grade reading level and almost comically off-key lines like: “This was not the first time I’d been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/12/03/.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 14, 2007

Funny Gifts for Readers — Jane Austen Action Figures, Librarian Tattoos, Shakespearean Insults and More

Shakespeare is among the writers who inspire gifts that librarians and others think you’ll want to give, at least if you’re a “boiling hutch of beastliness”

By Janice Harayda

All week I’ve been posting serious gift ideas for readers along with the usual reviews. Today I’m here to entertain you. These gifts didn’t make the cut:

Jane Austen Action Figure I couldn’t find a reliable site that stocks the Jane Austen bobblehead dolls that librarians and others have seen. But the Library of Congress shop www.loc.gov/shop/ sells this plastic Jane Austen Action Figure (which comes with a quill pen and writing desk) for $8.50. Austen can’t do battle against Emily Dickinson and the Knights of the Nineteenth Century only because the Belle of Amherst doesn’t have her own action figure (though there’s a plush toy you can find on the Web if you’re determined). Be sure to read all the reader reviews on Amazon www.amazon.com, which also has the doll shown here, if this one tempts you. One critic faults the Jane Austen Action Figure for flimsy construction, including an insecure base and an arm that breaks off easily. Well, what did you expect? Austen died at the age of 41, and this one may have a correspondingly short life span.

Librarian Tattoos In January a Los Angeles librarian won the Newbery Award for a young-adult novel that has the word “scrotum” on the first page. Now the city has given us another pacesetter in a product described as wash-off “librarian tattoos.” “Librarian stereotypes are as old and outdated as microfiche,” says the online catalog for the Library Store at Los Angeles Public Library says. “Nowadays you’re just as likely to see your local librarian driving a Harley as a Honda Accord.” That must explain why the library is selling a 3-1/2″ x 4-1/2″ hardcover book of nontoxic wash-off tattoos for $8, several of which you can see at right. “Put one in a prominent place to prove once and for all that ‘smart’ and ‘cool’ are not mutually exclusive!” the library says in its catalog www.lfla.org/cgi-bin/store/.

Shakespeare’s Insults Magnet Set Are you the kind of person who loves to insult friends with barbs like “thou smell of mountain goat”? Or possibly you “bolting-hutch of beastliness”? If so, these multicolored magnets are for you. A set of 33 insults costs $15.95 at Shakespeare’s Den www.shakespearesden.com, a literary gift site that has items related — and I use the term loosely — to many authors. Among them: George Orwell magnetic finger puppets that you can put on your refrigerator or use for purposes such as — well, let’s stop here.

Source: http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

December 12, 2007

Pitcairn Island After Travel Writer Dea Birkett’s Harrowing Memoir, ‘Serpent in Paradise’

No more bounty on a mutineers’ island ripped apart by the discovery that rape and child molestation were a way of life for generations

By Janice Harayda

How has Pitcairn Island changed since Dea Birkett wrote about her spooky visit to the refuge of the Bounty mutineers in her memoir, Serpent in Paradise?

Vanity Fair www.vanityfair.com gives a chilling update in its January 2008 issue. In “Trouble in Paradise” William Prochnau and Laura Parker investigate the long-buried shame of Pitcairn: generations of rape and child molestation that led to a series of shocking trials that sent eight of its men to prison. Their report is far more shocking than anything in The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold’s grim novel about a woman who murders her mother and stuffs her in a freezer.

Book clubs may want to read the Vanity Fair article along with Serpent in Paradise (Anchor, $12.95), reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 7, 2007, with a reading group guide posted separately the same day www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/07/. Birkett www.deabirkett.com took photographs of the island that would make excellent visuals for a meeting. One is shown here, and others appear on the page for her book on the Anchor Books site http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/1097/birkett/scrapbook.html.

Photo of the Pitcairn landing: (c) 1997 Dea Birkett

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 10, 2007

Isobel English’s Elegant Novel, ‘Every Eye,’ Makes Its American Debut

A slender classic follows a couple from England to Ibiza on a belated honeymoon

Every Eye. By Isobel English. Introduction by Neville Braybrooke. David R. Godine/Black Sparrow, 192 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

This elegant novel might sound like the literary godmother of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Like that Man Booker Prize finalist, Every Eye is a slender book about an English couple on a honeymoon – in this case, belated – near the ocean. And like On Chesil Beach, it comes from a distinguished British author who writes about how early misunderstandings can reverberate for a lifetime.

Yet Every Eye is everything that On Chesil Beach is not – subtle, persuasive and rich in insight. Hatty, the narrator, is a piano teacher who was born with a “lazy eye” that affects her view of herself long after surgery has corrected the problem. She marries late, well into her 30s, and recalls her awkward early years on a honeymoon trip through France and Spain to Ibiza with her intelligent young husband. And her apparently successful marriage suggests that her strains have eased. But a final, startling discovery awaits her when the parallel narratives of the novel, which glide between past and present, converge brilliantly during a visit to an abandoned hermitage on Ibiza. The last pages of the book do what all great endings should do but few achieve: They open up the novel and make you want to go back to the beginning and read it again.

Every Eve has equally fine observations on place and character. Hatty finds a wry comfort in learning that an acquaintance with whom she has little in common will attend a family party. “At least we had the barren fields of our incompatibility between us, which made us better than strangers,” she reflects in a phrase that might have come from Elinor Dashwood. When she begins to date men at last, Hatty feels a slight thrill at “the almost human expression of the hard blocked toe-caps of their shoes” with their requisite perforations.

Critics have compared English to Muriel Spark and Anita Brookner – both of whom admired her work – but she is less austere than Spark and takes more risks than Brookner. English has a voice all her own, and it is more interesting than that of many better-known writers. At this writing On Chesil Beach ranks #184 on Amazon www.amazon.com, and Every Eye #864,564. If the bestseller lists were a meritocracy, those numbers would be revered.

Best line: Hatty’s husband, Stephen, says, “People sometimes go though their whole lives without reaching the moment when they are exactly the person they want to be.”

Worst line: One of the few off-key phrases is “she said managingly to me.”

Recommendation? An excellent choice for reading groups that enjoy mid- to late-20th-century British female authors but have run through many of the stalwarts, such as Spark, Brookner and Penelope Fitzgerald.

Published: Every Eye was first published in England in 1956. The Black Sparrow www.blacksparrowbooks.com edition is its American debut. The novel is the second by English (1920-1994), the pen name of June Braybrooke. who wrote two others, Four Voices and The Key That Rusts, and the short story collection, Life After All, winner of the PEN/Katherine Mansfield Prize.

Furthermore: English’s husband, Neville Braybooke, has written a wondeful introduction to Every Eve. It includes this arresting passage: “Never did I read a complete manuscript [by English] until it was ready to be professional typed. Then, after it was returned, June wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it hy hand to her publishers — in this case the firm of André Deutsch. All four of her books were delivered in this manner and the scarves sent back in the stamped, addressed envelopes that she had enclosed.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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