One-Minute Book Reviews

September 27, 2007

Muriel Spark’s Masterpiece, ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:29 am
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Spark’s modern classic was published before the Booker Prize was established but towers over two of this year’s finalists

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (HarperPerennial, 160 pp., $13.95, paperback) didn’t appear on my recent list good books with fewer than 200 pages www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/24/, which focused on less well-known titles. But this modern classic by the late Scottish novelist Muriel Spark has been on my mind a lot since the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced on Sept. 6. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie missed a shot at the Booker by dint of its publication in 1962, six years before the award began. But neither of the 2007 finalists that I’ve read, On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip, can touch this brilliant psychological study of female power as deployed by a teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school in the early 1930s and her teenage acolytes. The 1969 movie version included a memorable star turn by Maggie Smith without capturing the most remarkable aspect of the book: It is a masterpiece of tone. Spark neither sentimentalizes nor demonizes her heroine, but describes her with the kind of cool detachment rarely found in novels about the sexually overheated world of girls’ and boys’ schools. Any book group could spend hours talking about the title alone: Was Miss Jean Brodie really “in her prime”? Or did she merely persuade her students – and herself – of it?

Links: Reading group guide at the HarperCollins site www.harpercollins.com. Background on Spark at the National Library of Scotland www.nls.uk/murielspark/. Spark was a finalist for the first Man Booker International Prize www.manbookerinternational.com, awarded in 2005 to the Albania’s Ismail Kadare. For information on the movie search the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com for the title of the book.

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

September 26, 2007

Agatha Christie’s Iraq Novel, ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’

“The dirt and the mess in Baghdad you wouldn’t believe – and not romantic at all like you’d think from the Arabian Nights! Of course, it’s pretty just on the river, but the town itself is just awful – and no proper shops at all.”
— From a letter by the nurse Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia

Murder in Mesopotamia: A Hercule Poirot Mystery. By Agatha Christie. Black Dog & Leventhal, 284 pp., $12.

By Janice Harayda

Agatha Christie once cleaned ancient relics with cold cream while accompanying her second husband, an archaeologist, on a dig at Nineveh. The technique, she said, was excellent for “coaxing dirt out of crevices” without harming the artifacts.

Christie made that comment in her autobiography. But she also drew on her travels in Iraq for Murder in Mesopotamia, which involves the death of the wife of an archaeologist who is leading a dig at a site a day and a half’s journey from Baghdad. No one has any idea who might have killed the lovely Louise Leidner until the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot – who happens to be in the region — turns up at the house where the crew is staying and begins asking questions.

You could argue that the story that follows has all the faults for which critics have derided Christie – shallow characterizations, a surfeit of clues and so many plot twists that the ending seems to come out of the blue because the evidence points to everybody and nobody. But Christie’s defects were the flip side of her virtues. You tear through her novels because she has removed everything that would slow the pace or tempt you to linger, including psychological depth and ravishing descriptive passages. Amy Leatheran, the nurse who narrates Murder in Mesopotamia, warns:

“I think I’d better make it clear up front that there isn’t going to be any local color in this story. I don’t know anything about archaeology and I don’t know that I very much want to.”

That’s more of a boast than a fact, but Christie does give you a kind of Cliffs Notes to her physical and psychological landscape. Leatheran expected something grand from an Assyrian palace: “But would you believe it, there was nothing to see but mud! Dirty mud walls about two feet high – and that’s all there was to it.” Christie’s characterizations of people are just as skimpy and, at times, stereotypical. They spring from a view of “human nature” – a recurring phrase — that is more cynical than is fashionable in our age of “positive psychology.” A character in Murder in Mesopotamia says: “They seemed like a happy family – which is really surprising when one considers what human nature is!” That spirit is no less apparent in books that about Christie’s other detective, Miss Jane Marple.

But Christie’s observations about character can be surprisingly modern and astute. Poirot grounds his search for Louise Leidner’s killer in his belief that “the state of mind of a community is always directly due to the influence of the man at the top.” If this is an oversimplification, it is one that has become a pillar of 21st-century corporate management. And it helps to explain why Christie’s novels still appeal more than two decades after her death in 1976.

The plots may be far-fetched. But Christie’s novels reflect in simplified a form a sharp understanding of, if not human nature, human beings. Like Murder in Mesopotamia, they often have settings that provide a glamour or drama lacking in everyday life. No one who has read them can doubt the sincerity of a comment Christie makes in Agatha Christie: An Autobiography: “I always thought life exciting and I still do.”

Best line: A character says it wouldn’t be safe to tell any man the truth about his wife. He adds: “Funnily enough, I’d trust most women with the truth about their husbands. Women can accept the fact that a man is a rotter, a swindler, a drug-taker, a confirmed liar, and a general swine without batting an eyelash and without its impairing their affection for the brute in the least! Women are wonderful realists.”

Worst line: A doctor says that Amy Leatheran is “a woman of 35 of erect, confident bearing.” Leatheran describes herself as 32. It’s unclear whether the discrepancy is a mistake or meant to suggest that one character was unreliable witness.

Published: 1936 (first edition) www.agathachristie.com

Furthermore: The Black Dog & Leventhal imprint of Workman www.workman.com publishes attractive hardcover editions of Christie’s mysteries in an easy-on-the-eyes font at the unusually reasonable price of $12 per book. The titles in its series include Murder on the Orient Express, Murder at the Vicarage, The ABC Murders, A Murder Is Announced and A Caribbean Mystery.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 21, 2007

A Gallop Around the Big Top in Sara Gruen’s ‘Water for Elephants’

A resident of an assisted living facility looks back on his work for a Depression-era traveling circus

Water for Elephants: A Novel. By Sara Gruen. Algonquin, 331 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading this overpraised historical novel is like watching a circus show that moves so briskly and has so many bizarre acts that you almost don’t notice how threadbare the performers’ costumes are. Like Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, it takes the form of a monologue by one of those human curiosities who are among the last of their kind. In this case, he’s a man in his 90s who looks back on his stint with a Depression-era traveling circus from his perch in an assisted living facility.

This premise gives Sara Gruen plenty of room to introduce oddballs like “the human ostrich,” a man who claims he can swallow and return any object. “Wallets, watches, even lightbulbs!” a barker shouts. “You name it, he’ll regurgitate it!” By far the most interesting parts of the novel involve these characters, many inspired by real-life performers Gruen uncovered during her research.

Otherwise Water for Elephants is pure pop fiction — a sentimental fairy tale about cruel bosses, lovable freaks and an elephant as loyal as Dr. Seuss’s Horton. Gruen sets the tone when she reels off a half dozen or so clichés in the first two pages. The rest of the novel develops predictable themes – for example, that wife-beating and cruelty to animals are wrong – at a pace that helps to minimize the damage. If many historical novels move at the speed of a hippo that’s just been shot with tranquilizing darts, this one resembles a good show under the big top in at least one respect: It rushes forward at a full gallop until the last page.

Best line: A line about bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, romanticized by the newspapers of his day. The narrator of the novel, Jacob Jankowski, sees a headline that reads: “PRETTY BOY FLOYD STRIKES AGAIN: MAKES OFF WITH $4,000 AS CROWDS CHEER.”

Worst line (three-way tie): No. 1 “My heart skipped a beat … Thunderous applause exploded from the big top … the music screeched to a halt … No one moved a muscle.” All of these clichés appear in the first page-and-a-half. No. 2 Later on, characters say cloyingly folksy things like “Dagnammit” and “Grady, git that jug back, will ya?” No. 3 Some characters also “hiss,” “cackle,” “bark,” “hoot” and “cluck” their words instead of saying them. (As in: “‘Woohoo,’ cackles the old man.”)

Reading group guide: The publisher’s guide appears in the paperback edition and online at www.algonquin.com. A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 21, 2007, just before this review. If you are reading this review on the home page for the site, scroll down to find the guide. If you are reading the review elsewhere on the site or on the Web, click on this link to find it: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/.

Published: April 2007 (paperback), May 2006 (hardcover).

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/as of Sept. 6, 2007. It does not accept free books from publishers.

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

September 6, 2007

Does Agatha Christie Deserve the Scorn She Gets From Critics? Coming Soon to One-Minute Book Reviews

Agatha Christie www.agathachristie.com once vied with mystery novelist Georges Simenon for the title of the world’s best-selling author. But since her death 1976, she has declined in popularity. Her books are often derided by critics and harder to find than those of contemporary novelists such as Mary Higgins Clark. Do they deserve this fate? Do they have any interest today except as period pieces or the inspiration for such movies as Witness for the Prosecution and Murder on the Orient Express?

A reconsideration of Christie’s work will appear soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing this post. Until then please feel free to leave your comments on Christie’s work.

(c) 2007 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.

July 31, 2007

To Thine Own Birthday Be True

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:14 am
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“The secret of eternal youth is arrested development.”
–Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Today is my birthday (did you get me a present?), and I share it with actress Geraldine Chaplin, ballplayer Hank Bauer and spiritualist Helena Blavatsky. I learned this from Linda Rannells Lewis’s The Birthday Book: Their Delights, Disappointments, Past and Present, Worldly, Astrological and Infamous (Little Brown, 1976), which includes a list of famous people born on each day of the year. This graceful meditation on how people have seen birthdays — from pagan times to the disco era — is neither so scholarly that it’s impenetrable nor so lightweight that it has nothing to say. And I like it partly because many of its examples come from great books. Remember Natasha Rostov’s thirteenth Name Day party in War and Peace? Or A.A. Milne’s rhyme: “But now I’m six, I’m as clever as clever / So I think I’ll be six for ever and ever.” Lewis does, and although her book is out-of-print, it may be ripe for a new edition for stop-the-clock baby boomers. The epigraph comes from Dyan Thomas’s “Poem in October”: “O may my heart’s truth / still be sung / On this high hill in a year’s turning.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 25, 2007

Believe It or Not, Haikus About Charlie Rose, Sean Penn and Others

Filed under: Paperbacks,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:36 am
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More on what I’m reading right now, because I’m still too blitzed to post a review …

The kinkiest poetry book I’ve come across in a while: Beth Lapides’s Did I Wake You? Haikus for Modern Living (Soft Skull, 2006) www.softskull.com. And Lapides means “modern.” These are haiku about Iraq, Google and tantric sex — not to mention, Larry King, Mario Cuomo and Salma Hayek. Here’s my favorite so far: “Charlie Rose dresses / down for Sean Penn, who dresses / up for Charlie Rose.” What would Philip Larkin think of that? If Lapides lived in my part of New Jersey, she’d probably be writing haikus about the “Mad Hatter” bandit, just caught and suspected of robbing 18 banks (though he insists it’s all a case of “mistaken identity”).

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 17, 2007

Mindy Schneider Remembers Loopy Bunkmates in ‘Not a Happy Camper’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:13 am
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A memoir of an offbeat kosher camp where the cook put cheese in the beef stew and campers wrote parodies of “O Come, All Ye Faithful”

Not a Happy Camper: A Memoir. By Mindy Schneider. Grove/Atlantic, 240 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Remember when camp meant S’mores and “Kum-Ba-Yah” instead of math, computers or weight loss? When you went for fun instead of self-improvement? Mindy Schneider was born at the shank of the baby boom, perhaps the last generation to have experienced camp as something closer to Animal House than an Advanced Placement course with sunblock. And her memoir is an offbeat elegy for that vanishing world of pranks, mosquitoes, bad food, color wars and name tags sewn into your underwear.

Schneider was 13 when, in 1974, she spent eight weeks at the idiosyncratic Camp Kin-A-Hurra on Lake Wally in Maine. Kin-A-Hurra was nominally kosher. But that didn’t keep the cook from putting cheese in the beef stew and the campers from writing parodies of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Anyone who went there could pretty much forget about making lanyards.

As Schneider tells it, Kin-A-Hurra was an “anti-camp,” a place where the supervision was so lax that the loopy inmates often ran the asylum. Once a bunkhouse burned down because the counselors were too distracted to notice that a group of boys had put candles under their beds to try to warm them up before they turned in. Campers took hikes from which they were lucky to emerge with only one body part in a cast and got carbon monoxide poisoning from the dilapidated green truck that served as the camp van. Girls in training bras tried desperately to find boyfriends among boys who, when they wanted to get your attention, shot a rubber band off their braces.

Schneider has shaped all of this into a kind of backwoods sitcom-in-print, heavy on anecdotes and light on insight and analysis. Her book is amply padded with such things as a full-page parody of “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” three verses of which consist of nothing but successive iterations of the phrase “peanut butter.” And it’s hard to know how much of her story to take literally, given that she admits to using composite characters and to altering the chronology of events. It’s also difficult to believe that even composite 13-year-olds would say some of the lines she puts in their mouths.

But if her details at times defy belief, Schneider captures extremely well the spirit of a certain kind of prelapsarian camp experience, a combination of agony and exuberance. In her last chapter she describes a 1997 reunion that took place after Kin-A-Hurra closed. Five hundred former campers made the trip back to Lake Wally, and most came alone. They left their spouses at home, Schneider says, “knowing full well they just wouldn’t get it, this thing we once belonged to, this cult we can never leave.”

Best line: Schneider reflects on her first sleepaway camp, Camp Cicada: “Every play put on at Camp Cicada was an adaptation of an extravagant Broadway musical, though they kept the costs down by doing only the first act. Due to this restriction, the two oldest bunks’ production of 1776 ended with Congress still in disagreement and nobody ever signed the Declaration of Independence.”

Worst line: A camper suggests that the popularity of folk songs at Jewish summer camps may reflect a desire by Jews to cling to hope. Then she corrects herself: “But these songs aren’t just for Jewish summer camps, so maybe it’s more of a widespread adolescent cry, a plea for a different kind of change, internal as opposed to external. With hormones raging out of control, coupled with an inability to understand why is happening to us, perhaps the only way to release the pent-up frustrations and anxiety is by shaking our fists and boldly screaming out, ‘Yes! Someone’s crying, Lord! Kum-Ba-Yah, dammit!’” This is one of the places where Schneider’s teenagers sound more like tenured sociology professors.

Recommendation? Not a Happy Camper is an adult book, but many teenagers would enjoy its irreverent humor and send-ups of the camp staff. You might also consider this book as 50th or 60th birthday gift for a baby boomer who still knows all the words to “Great Big Globs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts.”

Read an excerpt: You can find an excerpt from Not a Happy Camper at www.teenreads.com/reviews/0802118488.asp.

Editor: Lauren Wein

Published: June 2007 www.not-a-happy-camper.com

Furthermore: Kin-A-Hurra is a homonym for the Yiddish phrase kein ayin hora (“no evil eye” or “may the evil eye stay away”).

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a former book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 26, 2007

Review of Holly Peterson’s ‘The Manny’: The Worst Sex Scenes Ever Published in a Novel Excerpted by Newsweek?

A rich Manhattanite hires a male nanny for her 9-year-old son and gets more than she bargained for

The Manny. By Holly Peterson. Dial Press, 353 pp., $25

By Janice Harayda

The emaciated carcasses of Park Avenue socialites have been pretty well picked over by novelists. First Tom Wolfe satirized the women whom he called “lemon tarts” and “social X-rays” in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Then came a second generation of writers who cannibalized rich Manhattanites’ lives for parts he spared. Candace Bushell took their sex lives in Four Blondes and other books, Nancy Lieberman their obsession with private schools in Admissions and – most memorably – Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus their ruthlessness to their nannies in The Nanny Diaries.

To all of this Holly Peterson brings one new idea, at least for anybody who hasn’t followed Britney Spears’s fumbled attempts at child care: A status symbol for some mothers is a male nanny who takes boys to batting cages and basketball courts when their fathers can’t get away from their high-flying jobs in law or finance. A while back, Peterson wrote a lively story about this for the New York Times that explained why she had hired men to care for her 3-year-old son. (It seems Jack wanted to sell his baby sister at the supermarket. ”Just leave her on the shelf next to the Teddy Grahams, Mom,” he proposed.) She now returns to male nannies in a glorified romance novel that’s better beach reading than Danielle Steel but not nearly as good as The Nanny Diaries.

Jamie Whitfield, a 36-year-old television producer, hires a younger man to care for her 9-year-old son because her callow husband earns $1.5 million a year but doesn’t seem to care that Dylan is suffering from “loss of self-esteem more than likely due to an absent dad. ” Jamie has middle-class, Midwestern roots – she married “up” – and professes disdain for the “showy and vulgar” New Yorkers she meets at a museum benefit.

But she acts at times like as much of a snob as her friends. She scorns the clothes of a researcher for her TV show: “She was wearing one of her awful Ann Taylor suits from the last century – a cherry-red one.” (She tells the woman, cruelly, “You look like an Avis car rental agent again.”) One problem with the jab is that in some Heartland cities – whose values Jamie is supposed to stand for – Ann Taylor stores are the most stylish in town. (I was thrilled when Ann Taylor moved into the Galleria in Cleveland, where I worked after writing for Glamour – not because I didn’t know you could find more fashionable clothes at Bendel’s and Bergdorf’s but because it offered an alternative to the Limited.) If Peterson wanted to pile more scorn on the suit, she could have done it more credibly with a reference to the lapels or fabric – it’s the gratuitous brand name that’s the tip-off to Jamie’s snobbery.

The Nanny Diaries succeeded, in part, because McLaughlin and Kraus had worked for more than 30 families as nannies and their details consistently came across as fresh and authentic. Peterson achieves this only erratically. Just as important, McLaughlin and Kraus had control of their tone from the start and never let you forget whom you were supposed to identify with – the exploited young nanny. Peterson’s tone is so uneven that she never establishes full sympathy for her heroine. The Manny says several times that Jamie’s son has low “self-esteem.” And because that phrase has been so overused that many journalists and others now avoid it, you might think the references are satirical. But they seem painfully earnest. The novel has the further burden of a pace that’s slow for at least the first 150 pages, after which the plot elements begin to mesh and push the story along more briskly. Even then, there isn’t much suspense about the question at the heart of the book: Will Jamie leave her indifferent husband for the manny who has charmed her young son?

Peterson seems to be trying to have it both ways – to suggest that Jamie has joined the uptown elite while remaining superior to it. The Manny reminds us that, in novels as in life, this is an act that only the most skilled can pull off.

Best line: Jamie talks about a show with network lawyer Geraldine Katz. “Geraldine once asked me how I could prove Michael Jackson really was the King of Pop.”

Worst line: Any of Peterson’s attempts to write a plausible sex scene. These are irreproducible on a site with many links from public libraries. But next time you’re in a bookstore, check out the scene on page 167 that begins with “Now she was on her knees …” and ends with “like a fire hose in her expensive mouth.” This is possibly the worst sex scene ever to appear in a novel excerpted by Newsweek, which has posted a portion of the book in its Web edition for June 17. The magazine does not include this scene in its excerpt in but uses a tamer passage for obvious reasons, including that excerpting this one could alienate a large portion of its subscription base.

The worst line not involving sex occurs when Jamie screams at her husband, “We’re in the modern era, baby, you spoiled, Jurassic, archaic, Waspy piece of petrified wood!” Yes, this is a character we’re supposed to like.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Manny was posted on this site on June 26, 2007, in the post just before this review.

Editor: Susan Kamil

Published: June 2007

Furthermore: Peterson is a contributing editor of Newsweek.

Links: Peterson has a page on My Space (www.myspace.com/hollypetersonthemanny), but I’m having trouble getting the direct link to work from this site. You can find the page by going to www.myspace.com and searching “hollypetersonthemanny” (one word).

I can’t seem to link to the excerpt in the online edition of Newsweek, either, but you can find it by Googling “The Manny + excerpt + Newsweek.” You can find the same excerpt that appears in Newsweek on the publisher’s site www.randomhouse.com/.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

www.janiceharayda.com

 

 

June 21, 2007

Low Mileage for Helen Simpson’s ‘In the Driver’s Seat’

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:28 am
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Stories of contemporary Englishwomen who are “just barely there”

In the Driver’s Seat: Stories. By Helen Simpson. Knopf, 192 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

“The short story today seems to be caught up in a competition of subtlety,” the critic Anatole Broyard wrote in the 1970s. “Who can weave a web of the thinnest materials?” Broyard observed that in many stories, even the characters – the one thing you can’t eliminate – “are just barely there.” He was talking about the late English writer Elizabeth Taylor, but you could say the same of Helen Simpson, her somewhat less consistent countrywoman.

Simpson is thoughtful and intelligent, yet some of the 11 stories in her new collection are little more than extended anecdotes. She typically writes about contemporary Englishwomen who are old enough to have come up against some of their physical or emotional limits, yet young enough to think they can solve their problems with talk. They change, if they do so at all, only when jolted out of their passivity by events they didn’t cause – a break-in, an outbreak of cancer among friends, the loss of a leg in a freak bus accident.

A woman who didn’t attend her married lover’s funeral finds relief from her buried grief when a man from a do-it-yourself store treats her kindly in “The Door,” a story reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” A wife stands by her philandering husband during a lung-cancer scare in “If I’m Spared” and then, when he turns out to have tuberculosis instead, shows no rage or even concern that he might have infected her. An experienced mother tries to convince herself that her comforting words have helped an emotionally abused child at a swimming pool in “The Year’s Midnight,” a story that is almost all talk with whiff of instruction about it.

At times Simpson suggests what she can do at her best. In “The Phlebotomist’s Love Life” a woman who draws blood for a living projects her fears about the war in Iraq onto her lover — or perhaps projects her fears about her lover onto the war – with predictably disastrous results. Simpson makes interesting connections by juxtaposing such things as the Arsenal soccer team, Saddam Hussein’s brutality and the anticoagulant drug warfarin. But by the end of the story, talk has again gained the upper hand over the action that would have shown the point of these details.

Simpson tells an altogether different sort of tale in “The Green Room,” which involves an elf who materializes in the home of a woman who visits a Web site called Festive Life Coach. This amusing fable resembles a parody of “A Christmas Carol” with a 21st century “life coach” in the role of Marley’s Ghost. (“This is Pessimism,” the elf says. “And here, look, here comes its cousin Procrastination.”) The story is diverting, but could have been commissioned for a newspaper holiday supplement.

The best story is “Constitutional,” the title for the English edition of this collection. This jewel takes the form of an interior monologue that gives a cross-section of the entire life of a science teacher as she walks around what appears to be Hampstead Heath. Witty, insightful and beautifully structured, “Constitutional” shows us a woman who is, on every line, fully present and made of material sturdy enough to support all that her creator has to say about her.

Best lines: “I’m finding more and more when I meet new people that, within minutes of saying hello, they’re laying themselves out in front of me like scientific diagrams that they then explain, complex specimens, analyzed and summed up in their own words. They talk about their pasts in great detail, they tell me their stories, and then – this is what passes for intimacy now – they ask me to tell them mine. I have tried. But I can’t. It seems cooked up, that sort of story. And how could it be more than the current version? It makes me feel, No, that’s not it and that’s not it as soon as I’ve said something.” – The narrator of “Constitutional”

Worst lines: “You never talk to me … We only ever watch television and go to bed … But what do you feel?” – Comments the title character of “The Phlebotomist’s Love Life” makes to her lover

Reading group guide: So far the publisher hasn’t posted one on its site www.randomhouse.com. I was going to post a Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to the book, but the collection seems too skimpy to have a strong appeal for most American book clubs.

Published: May 2007

Furthermore: Simpson has a short story that’s not included in In the Driver’s Seat, “Homework,” in the June 19, 2007, issue of The New Yorker. She also wrote the collections Dear George and Four Bare Legs in a Bed, which won the Somerset Maugham Award, and the novel Flesh and Grass.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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