One-Minute Book Reviews

June 11, 2007

The Bluebird of Unhappiness: ‘The Empty Nest,’ Edited by Karen Stabiner

What happens when the parents are home alone instead of the children?

[Note: This review has been expanded since the original post.]

The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop. Edited by Karen Stabiner. Hyperion/Voice, 320 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Just last week, a professor of family studies told the Washington Post that the idea of the empty-nest syndrome has been pretty much debunked by scholars. Some parents, she added, feel more regret than others when children leave home. But “it’s not a widespread syndrome” now that e-mail and cell phones make it easier to keep in touch.

Other scholars have found that – contrary to the idea that mothers feel the most pain when the nest empties – men have more problems than women when children leave home. Women expect the departure of children to be difficult, so they plan (and often grieve in advance) for it. Men are less likely to see the event as a major transition, so they don’t prepare as well and express more regrets about lost opportunities to connect with their offspring.

Then why do we need a book that perpetuates some of the ideas scholars have debunked, especially when only seven of 31 contributors are men? Ellen Levine, a former editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping, says that mothers still have a hard time with separations from their children: “The dads … no problem.” Yet the idea that fathers have “no problem” with separations is exactly what a growing number of scholars – and some men in this book — dispute. If fathers don’t show their grief, all those repressed emotions may catch up with them when the children leave home for good.

A clue to the purpose of The Empty Nest comes from the publisher, which has tagged it “self-help/inspiration.” This is a bizarre label for an essay collection that, with its mix of dread and tears, reads at times like a cross between a Stephen King novel and Paris Hilton’s weepy courtroom outburst on getting sent back to jail.

Editor Karen Stabiner sets the tone when she writes that it will be “intolerable” when her daughter goes to college. Martha Schuur says she sank into “uncontrollable crying” when she dropped her firstborn off at school. Jamie Wolf felt “perpetual despair” when her daughter moved from California to New York. Hilary Mills “dreaded” her son’s “panic-inducing” departure, which became “bleakest day” of her marriage. Fran Visco knows that she could do things like going to Canyon Ranch now that her son’s away, but she’s too “brokenhearted” and lets herself “wallow in the sadness.” An unintentionally comical scene comes from Grace Saltzstein, who began “freaking out” after installing her daughter in an apartment at UCLA. What had unhinged her? Her daughter’s roommates had gotten to the place first … and left her the top bunk! And only one drawer! To judge by survivors’ accounts, many people who went down with the Titanic showed more fortitude as the ship sank than some contributors to The Empty Nest did as they sent their children off to the kind of colleges that provide students with maid service and Asian-fusion meals.

As if to comfort themselves in their trials, an alarming number of writers abandon any qualms they may have had about bragging about their children. Schuur wants you to know that her daughter Kelly is “pure goodness, always there for family and friends.” Glynna Freeman tells us that she has raised “three bright, beautiful, and really nice people.” Annette Duffy reports that if she “mourned” when her son Ben went to school, she was grieving for a child who was “handsome as the day” and “a nationally ranked freestyler.” Fabiola Santiago says that her daughter got into “the top university in our state,” but Susan Crandell one-ups her by pointing out that her child got into “one of the top schools in the country.” Perhaps the most perceptive comment in this book appears in an e-mail Charles “Chip” McGrath got after he wrote a piece for The New Yorker, reprinted in The Empty Nest, about dropping his son off at college. “It’s interesting, and typical, that people who love their children very much approach this moment in their children’s lives with almost total self-absorption,” his correspondent wrote. Almost total?

A striking aspect of many of the women’s stories — more so than in the men’s — is how unwilling their authors are to explore whether anything might be causing their pain except for a child’s departure. Did some women regret having worked so hard and not spending more time with their children? Did they have problems in their marriages and dread spending time alone with a spouse? Did they feel a spiritual void, having made motherhood into a surrogate religion? If so, they aren’t telling. Nor are they telling whether they drank, took Paxil or Prozac or went into therapy, even though some of their symptoms resemble those of clinical depression.

Good statistics on the divorce rate among people over 50 are hard to find, partly because many states don’t record the ages of couples who split up. But experts generally agree that it’s going up, partly because baby boomers’ children are leaving home, and in every generation, many couples wait to separate until the nest empties. Yet not one of the 31 contributors reports that his or her marriage took a serious hit when a child left. Maybe it’s true. Or maybe this is a “feel good about feeling bad book” that legitimizes lesser problems while sweeping bigger ones under the rug.

Stabiner seems to have tried to deflect criticism that this book promotes stereotypes of women by recruiting some feminist firepower. And to a degree, it works. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Anna Quindlen and Ellen Goodman rise above solipsism in their essays and try put empty nests in a social context. Pogrebin says that her stage of life has advantages: “Not having to worry about where your children are at two in the morning frees you up to worry about global warming.” Quindlen argues, rightly, that her generation has “professionalized” motherhood, but goes around the bend when she concludes that for this reason, “the empty nest is emptier than every before.” No, Anna, your nest will not be “emptier” than that of women like Rochelle Reed’s grandmother, who sent four sons into World War II; one son, Reed writes, “was eaten by sharks after his plane crashed during a South Pacific monsoon.”

Of all the contributors, Goodman grapples most effectively with an issue at the heart of The Empty Nest: Isn’t this book a throwback to the 1950s? Isn’t the departure of children less traumatic now that women have more professional opportunities? Goodman says that she used to think mothers who had rewarding work “might avoid the cliché of an empty-nest syndrome.” But she doubts it now that her daughter has lived away from home for two decades. In her 60s, Goodman hasn’t lost her desire to integrate work and family, so she has revised her juggling act to accommodate a grandchild and stepgrandchild: “Think of it as Juggling Lite.” Her young relations are happy with the arrangement. So the question – for Goodman as for many other parents — has changed. It is no longer “How can I avoid the empty-nest syndrome?” It is, simply, “What empty nest?”

Despite such worthy essays, much of this book remains disheartening. The second wave of feminists fought passionately to show employers and others that women didn’t wallow in emotion but could remain tough and level-headed in the most difficult circumstances. On the evidence of The Empty Nest women are reclaiming their right to wallow. This a book in the Oprah mold, which ascribes more authenticity to experiences the more painful they are. Gloria Steinem used to say that many women were “man junkies.” And like much of our culture as a whole, The Empty Nest leaves the impression that some have become “child junkies” instead. Is it really a step forward to have traded one addiction for another?

Best line: Anna Quindlen’s: “Motherhood has changed from a role into a calling. Our poor kids.” The best overall essays come from McGrath, Goodman and Roxana Robinson.

Worst line: Anna Quindlen’s: “The end result is that the empty nest is emptier than ever before …” Apart from its off-the-wall implication that today’s stay-at-home investment bankers have it worse than parents who saw their children get drafted during the Vietnam War or look for jobs during the Depression, that “end result” is painful, too.

Caveat lector: The review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Conflict alert: I’ve had encounters with a number of contributors to this book that other critics might or might not see as conflicts. For example, I used to be in a writers’ group with Ellen Goodman’s sister, whom I haven’t seen in nearly 20 years. All the other encounters are all similarly distant.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book was posted just before this review on June 11 and is archived with the June posts. You can find the publishers’ guide, which is less extensive, at www.everywomansvoice.com.

Editor: Leslie Wells

Published: May 2007

Links: Karen Fingerman, a professor of developmental and family studies at Purdue, spoke about the myth of the empty-nest syndrome in “How to Make the Best of an Empty Nest,” by Jennifer Huget, the Washington Post, June 5, 2007, page HE04. For a discussion of the different effects of the empty nest on men and women, see Rebecca A. Clay’s “An Empty Nest Can Promote Freedom, Improved Relationships” in the American Psychological Association Online, April 2003. To find the article, Google “Rebecca Clay + Empty Nest + APA.”

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent book review site created by Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com, 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. It does not accept free books or other materials from editors, publishers or authors. At least 50 percent of the book reviewed on the site are by women. Reviews of books by female authors typically appear on Mondays and Wednesdays and books by male authors on Tuesdays and Thursdays with the other days up for grabs. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 29, 2007

Virginia Ironside’s Comic Novel, ‘No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club’

An English grandmother hasn’t had sex in five years and isn’t sure she wants it

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. Viking, 231 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Is a backlash building against all those articles that say that you’re never too old to don a zip line and swing through a Costa Rican jungle? First Nora Ephron told us in I Feel Bad About My Neck that it’s “sad” to be over 60. Now Virginia Ironside writes in this fictionalized diary that the great thing about being old is that there are so many things you can’t do. “You no longer have to think about going to university, or go bungee jumping!” her heroine tells an obtuse therapist. “It’s a huge release!”

This concept could be a tougher sell in U.S. than in Britain, where Ironside writes an advice column for the Independent. Her diarist, 60-year-old Marie Sharp, calls herself “old.” How many Americans in their 60s do you know who describe themselves that way? Don’t look to Ironside to soft-soap you with you with euphemisms like “older” for “old” and “midlife” for “anywhere between 40 and death.”

If Marie is blunt, she isn’t mean-spirited. She is kind, cheerful, active and devoted to her friends and a newborn grandson who lives near her home in west London. And although she hasn’t had sex in five years, she doesn’t lose sleep over it. She’s thinking of giving it up – if a nice, rich, attractive childhood friend doesn’t change her mind.

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club isn’t as funny or polished as Bridget Jones’s Diary, or the comic masterpiece from which Helen Fielding’s novel descends, E. M. Delafield’s great Diary of a Provincial Lady. But Ironside’s book has much more to say about being old – sorry, “older” — than bestsellers like The Red Hat Club or Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. And Marie’s opinions, if not the plausibility of the plot, give her story its own appeal.

Ironside mounts a worthy assault on many popular beliefs that were overdue for it, such as the idea that people help their survivors by planning their own funerals (and that funerals shouldn’t be funerals at all but rather “a celebration” of a life). And Marie is the rare heroine bold — or perhaps reckless — enough to question the motives of book club members: “I think they feel that by reading and analyzing books, they’re keeping their brains lively. But either you’ve got a lively brain or you haven’t.” Naturally, Viking has published a reading group guide the novel.

Best line: “I don’t think those oldies who spend their lives bicycling across Mongolia at eighty and paragliding at ninety, are brilliant specimens of old age. I think they’re just tragic failures who haven’t come to terms with aging. They’re the sort of people who disapprove of face-lifts, and yet, by their behavior, are constantly chasing a lost youth.”

Worst line: Marie makes a show of not wanting to learn Italian but seems unaware that her French needs help. For example, she thinks “Champs-Elysées” and “allô” have no accents. (My computer can’t show the one on the capital e.) Marie also quotes a French guest as saying “allô” in person. The French use “allô” only on the telephone. And isn’t credible that Marie’s guest would say this face-to-face, even as a bastardized “Hello,” when the correct bonjour is universally known. Marie also has an odd way of trying to show a friend that she knew what she “was talking about” in a discussion of AIDS. She speaks of “the HIV virus” when the V in HIV stands for “virus.”

Reading group guides: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 29, 2007. You can find the Penguin guide in the reading groups page at http:us.penguingroup.com/.

Published: April 2007

Links: www.virginiaironside.org

You may also want to read: Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (Knopf, 2006), reviewed on this site on Oct. 14, 2006, and archived with the October posts: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/page/1/.

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 Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners www.janiceharayda.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 20, 2007

Poet Lucille Clifton, Winner of a $100,000 Lifetime Achievement Award and Creator of the ‘Everett Anderson’ Series for Children

An acclaimed poet will this week receive the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for her work, which includes an award-wining series about a boy who lives in a housing project

By Janice Harayda

When Lucille Clifton was growing up, her father told her stories about her African great-great-grandmother who was forced into slavery. A sharp awareness of her heritage stayed with her and inspired a memoir, Generations (Random House, 1976). But Clifton may be best known as the author of an award-winning picture-book series that uses rhymed iambic pentameter to tell the story of a sensitive boy named Everett Anderson, who lives in a housing project with his mother.

“I wanted to write about a little boy who was poor and someone who, although he had no things, was not poor in spirit,” she said in an interview with Mickey Pearlman in Listen to Their Voices (Houghton Mifflin, 1993). “He’s full of love, and he and his mother live well together.”

Perhaps the most admired “Everett” book is Everett Anderson’s Goodbye (Holt, 1988, paperback), illustrated by Ann Grifalconi, a Reading Rainbow selection and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award from the American Library Association. Everett struggles in this final installment to accept his father’s death and realizes that “ … whatever happens when people die, / love doesn’t stop, and / neither will I.”

On Wednesday Clifton will receive this year’s $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation www.poetryfoundation.org, which has more about the award on its site. The foundation said in announcing the prize:

“Widely admired since Langston Hughes championed her work in an early anthology of African-American poetry, Clifton has become one of the most significant and beloved American poets of the past quarter century. She writes with great clarity and feeling about family, death, birth, civil rights, and religion, her moral intelligence struggling always to make sense of the lives and relationships to which she is connected, whether those of her immediate family, her African ancestry, or victims of war and prejudice.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 13, 2007

Susan Coll’s ‘Acceptance,’ a Send-Up of the College Admissions Race

A Harvard interviewer offers an underage applicant a drink in a novel set in a suburb of Washington, D.C., that teems with overachieving students and micromanaging parents

Acceptance. By Susan Coll. Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Sarah Crichton, 286 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Getting into college is a game of Twister in this tart send-up of an ever-more-contorted application process. Acceptance has more bite and sparkle than the recent Admissions, which it resembles not just in its title but in its themes and structure. But overall it’s as uneven as the transcripts of the students who compete on its pages for spots at Ivy League and other universities.

Coll shows deftly the degradations that applying to favored colleges inflicts on students and parents in a gold-plated suburb of Washington, D.C., where a Harvard alumni interviewer offers an underage applicant a drink and keeps forgetting his name. And she offers trenchant social commentary as she follows several students and their families through the year before graduation. “Didn’t grades fall into the zone of private information, along with age and weight and financial net worth?” a mother wonders as she hears another boasting about a child’s straight A’s.

But Coll undercuts her story with clichés and digressive subplots, and she has such a slack grip on point of view that you never feel as much as you could for her characters. So her book ultimately works better as a critique of the admissions racket than as a novel. Acceptance underscores the folly of turning any school into a grail when, as Coll notes, “Study after study showed that there was no correlation between where a person went to college and his or her future happiness, or even earning power.”

Best line: Many good lines involve a fictitious college in upstate New York that surged in popularity after a statistical error boosted its ranking in U.S. News & World Report. An admissions officer laments that the school annually gets essays from students on “how the historical figure they most closely identified with was Harry Potter.” And until the error in U.S. News, “pretty much anyone who could manage to get the right postage on the envelope had a reasonably good chance of getting in.”

Worst line: Coll’s pervasive trouble with point of view is hard to show in a few lines. An oversimplified example involves the thoughts of a student named Taylor. Three times in one paragraph on page 228, Coll writes, “Taylor wondered” (or “she wondered”). Coll wouldn’t need to keep using that phrase if she had a lock on Taylor’s point of view because we would know who “wondered.” (This is not mainly an issue of redundancy – although it’s that, too – but of control of perspective.) All those “she wondereds” are tin cans tied to the bumper of the story, and similar phrases clatter throughout book. Count the clichés in this line for example of another sort of lapse: “She deduced that despite his best efforts to get a leg up on his peers, at the end of the day a Harvard acceptance was just going to boil down to the luck of the draw.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Acceptance was posted on May 13, 2007, and is archived with the May posts.

Editor: Sarah Crichton

Published: March 2007

Furthermore: Coll also wrote Rockville Pike and karlmarx.com: A Love Story.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 7, 2007

Dea Birkett’s ‘Serpent in Paradise,’ a Harrowing Memoir of Pitcairn Island, the Refuge of Bounty Mutineers

An English writer hoped for paradise and found purgatory while living 3,000 miles from the nearest hospital, supermarket and phone booth

Serpent in Paradise. By Dea Birkett. Anchor, 320 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Dea Birkett became enraptured with the idea of going to Pitcairn Island when, as a young writer living in London, she saw Mel Gibson in The Bounty. She knew it was nearly impossible to get permission to visit the remote settlement, a British overseas territory that had neither hotels nor an airstrip.

But Birkett persuaded the Royal Mail to sponsor her trip, booked passage on a chemical tanker and arranged to stay with a family. And in 1991 she lived for four months among the 38 residents of Pitcairn Island, the place where Fletcher Christian and other mutineers from the Bounty settled after casting Captain William Bligh adrift in 1789.

Birkett imagined that she might find a vestigial Eden on a volcanic crag in the South Pacific. Pitcairn lay 3,000 miles from the nearest hospital, supermarket or pay phone booth, and kept in touch with the world by mail and ham radio. It had no cars or currency. The residents, mostly descendants of mutineers, shot breadfruit from trees with guns and carved replicas of the Bounty to trade for cooking oil or other necessities on ships that occasionally passed by on their way to New Zealand.

But life on Pitcairn was so harrowing that within days of her arrival, Birkett had skirted death at least twice. The island seethed with omens – a black albatross, a dead shark, an infestation of rats and the sound of gunfire thudding through the breadfruit-rich valleys. Its residents had suffered from centuries of isolation and physical and emotional inbreeding. Birkett’s host family was by turns warm and so frighteningly aloof that she wondered if they would save her if she had an accident.

Birkett gives such a chilling account of all this in Serpent in Paradise that a descendant of Fletcher Christian said, “I’d like to see her hanged.” Next to her adventures, the experiences of people like Frances Mayes and Elizabeth Gilbert look like visits to a Six Flags theme park. And yet, as fascinating this book is, it leaves the impression that its author knew more than she was telling.

Less than a decade after Serpent in Paradise appeared, the British government investigated charges that rape and child abuse were endemic on Pitcairn. The probe led to the convictions in 2004 of six of its adult male residents. The guilty included the son of Birkett’s host couple, who was living at home during her visit. Given that just over three dozen people inhabited Pitcairn, it’s hard to believe Birkett didn’t sense what was going on and that this doesn’t explain some fears that she ascribes to other causes. If she didn’t suspect all the rape and abuse, she was less astute than she seems. If she did know about it, she chose or was required to pull punches. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. Birkett reveals far more about Pitcairn Island than any Hollywood screenplay. And Serpent in Paradise is the rare book that captures that a place at a pivotal moment in its history, a paradise on the eve of self-destruction.

Best line: Birkett writes of a note she received by mail from an islander: “I was the first recipient of a local letter on Pitcairn since the post office had been founded fifty years earlier.”

Worst line: Birkett’s account of her relationship with the island policeman raises more questions than it answers. It leaves the impression they had consensual one-night stand. In an article on her Web site (“My Hell in Paradise”), Birkett calls the relationship as “an affair” with a man who saw her as “easy prey.” She also includes many lines of conversation in Pitkern, a half-Polynesian, half-English language. Most are easy to understand in context, but a glossary would have helped with some.

Caveat lector: Everyone on Pitcairn called the dark-skinned police officer by his nickname, a racial slur, and Birkett reflects this in the book.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Serpent in Paradise appears in the March 7, 2007, post directly below this one.

Published: August 1998 (Anchor paperback), September 1997 (Anchor hardcover).

Furthermore: Birkett also wrote the award-winning Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool: A Woman at Sea in a Man’s World (Gollancz, 1994), a memoir of her experiences as the only female crew member of a working cargo ship.

Links: You can find an account of the sexual-assault trial of the men in this book by going to www.wikipedia.org and searching the site for “Pitcairn rape trial of 2004.” The convicted received sentences ranging from community service to more than six years in prison, and they have exhausted their appeals. Birkett has several articles about the scandal on her site www.deabirkett.com, including a New York Times op-ed piece “Island of the Lost Girls” that summarizes the case.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 5, 2007

Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat, Pray, Love’: What Do You Say to God Besides, ‘I’ve Always Been a Big Fan of Your Work’?

After a bruising divorce, a woman in her 30s finds her way back to herself with rest stops in Rome, Mumbai and Bali

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. By Elizabeth Gilbert. Penguin, 352 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In her early 30s, Elizabeth Gilbert kept thinking about something her sister had said while breast-feeding her firstborn: “Having a baby is like getting a tattoo on your face. You really need to be certain it’s what you want before you commit.”

Gilbert took her words to heart. She quit trying to get pregnant, divorced her husband, moved out of their house in a New York suburb and took a year-long break from life as she had known it.

As she puts it in Eat, Pray, Love, she went to Rome for “pleasure” and to an ashram near Mumbai for “devotion” or spiritual renewal. Then it was off to Bali for “balance,” though this goal took a hit when she had so much sex with her island boyfriend that she got a bladder inflection. (A medicine woman cured her by making her drink a foul-smelling brew made from roots, leaves, berries, turmeric and a “shaggy mass of something that looked like witches’ hair.”) Gilbert, a writer for GQ, has some interesting things to say about the places she visits. But she’s nowhere near as good at highly inflected travel writing as, say, Geoff Dyer, whose Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It offers much more thoughtful writing on Indonesia and other countries. Great travel writers sell you on a personal vision of a place. Gilbert is selling something else: the idea that you can fix what’s wrong with your life buying a few plane tickets to spots that you’ve always wanted to visit. In her case, “recovery” sounds a lot like another form of consumerism.

Best line: Gilbert says that as her marriage fell apart, she wanted to ask God for help but wasn’t sure how to pray: “In fact, it was all I could do to stop myself from saying, ‘I’ve always been a big fan of your work …’”

Worst line: “A word about masturbation, if I may. Sometimes it can be a handy (forgive me) tool …” This kind of wordy and cute-instead-of-witty prose turns up often in Eat, Pray, Love.

Published: February 2006 (Viking hardcover), January 2007 (Penguin paperback)

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 15, 2007

Grand Prize Winner 2007 Delete Key Awards: ‘Toxic Bachelors’ by Danielle Steel

The grand prize winner of the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition for the year’s worst writing in books is …

Toxic Bachelors by Danielle Steel

C’mon, you’re probably saying, this one was too easy. Sure, Danielle Steel writes at a fourth-grade level (technically, grade 4. 8), according to the readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. But don’t we all know how bad her writing is? Not if you haven’t read Toxic Bachelors. You may not be surprised to hear that this novel has plenty of unintentionally comic lines like: “‘Yes,’ he said succinctly.” But it’s worse than you think.

Nobody expects social realism from Steel, but it’s still shocking to find Jews portrayed as monsters in this novel. Toxic Bachelors is about three men single men, each of whom represents a spiritual as well as social type. Charlie is WASP-y, Gray makes a religion of art, and Adam is Jewish. Guess which one has a weak father, a mother who is “a nagging bitch” and a spoiled sister? That’s right, Adam. His parents are cruel enough to make the Portnoys look like candidates for a lifetime achievement award from Parents magazine. And he has a special contempt for a sister who committed the ultimate sin: “She had never done anything with her life except get married and have children.”

Steel gets away with this because most critics have written her off and no longer review her. Why review somebody, the thinking goes, who writes only mindless romances? Toxic Bachelors presents an answer: If nobody holds her accountable, she’ll keep serving up nasty stereotypes, masquerading as a fairy tale.

Original review on One-Minute Book Reviews: Oct. 28, 2007, “Danielle Steel Gets Toxic,” archived with the October posts and in the “Novels” category.

The first and second runners-up were announced earlier today. The full short list appeared on Feb. 28 and the titles of books that received Honorable Mentions for the list on March 2. A list of questions and answers about the Delete Key Awards appeared on Feb. 27. All of these posts are archived with those of the month in which they appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews. Thank you for visiting this site.

Visit www.janiceharayda.com for information about the creator of the Delete Key Awards, Janice Harayda, a novelist and award-winning journalist has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Second Runner-up for the 2007 Delete Key Award: ‘The Emperor’s Children’ by Claire Messud

The second runner-up for the 2007 Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books is …

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

How did this pretentious novel end up on so many best-of-the-year lists? Who knows? Every year there’s at least one book that earns praise far out of proportion to its merits. (Remember the great reviews Mitch Albom got when he started writing books? How hollow does some of the praise seem now?) The most overrated book of 2006 was The Emperor’s Children, a windy and cliché-infested novel full of repulsive characters who move in eddies around an aging New York journalist.

So why didn’t it win top honors in the Delete Key Awards competition for the year’s worst writing in books? Tedious as much of this novel is, The Emperor’s Children picks up steam in the last one hundred or so pages, when it borrows some drama from the events of Sept. 11, 2001. How many readers will stick with it until then?

Original review on One-Minute Book Reviews: Oct. 4, 2006, “The Emperor’s Children Wear Clichés,” Oct. 4, 2006, archived with the October posts and in the “Novels” category.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 14, 2006

Rebecca Campbell’s “Marriage Diaries”

A British-accented gross-out novel about a young couple with the seven-year-itch

The Marriage Diaries: A Novel. By Rebecca Campbell. Ballantine, 288 pp., $12.95, paperback.

The English love to deplore American vulgarity, but this book shows that when it comes to jokes about subjects like anal seepage, the Brits can beat the Yanks at their own game. The Marriage Diaries is a gross-out novel in the spirit of a Beavis and Butt-Head show, full of one-liners about belching, excrement, body odors, and human and animal semen.

A balsa-wood scaffolding supports the story of a London couple who get the seven-year-itch after the birth of their child, then try to find a way back to each other. Celeste is a self-absorbed workaholic who is said to be “a top clothing buyer” — hard to believe, given that she doesn’t know what a PDA is, let alone own a Palm Pilot. Sean is a writer and househusband who seems intended as the moral center of the novel, although he dismisses people like his mother-in-law with, “That old bitch.” The couple tell their story through antiphonal narration, or alternating diary entries about their encounters with friends and family who share their shallow values. At a party, Celeste and her guests spend “some quality time making fun of the fashion retards.”

Rebecca Campbell is the author of two earlier novels, Slave to Fashion and Slave to Love, and shows in The Marriage Diaries that she has enough education to write confidently about Leibniz, blind fish, and “the ontological proof” of God’s existence. So it’s unclear why she has chosen to create such repulsive characters. At times she makes clear that she’s capable of the unrelenting satire that they deserve. More often she substitutes archness or mild cleverness for real wit. She writes of one character: “Everything Uma said fell into one of two camps: the disdainfully dismissive and the grindingly sexual.” In a milder form that line would describe the entire novel.

Best Line: “St. James’s is probably the prettiest park in London, with its ornamental trees and cute bridge over the lake and black swans and outrageous, impossible pelicans and intricate flower beds. But it has always felt a little fake to me. The others – Green Park, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park – have that sense of being leftover bits of the countryside that were simply forgotten as the city grew up around them. By comparison, St. James’s is a carefully planned work of art, intricate, neat, and delicate, and a little soulless.” One of the few passages in the novel that seems to reflect genuine feeling instead of a strained attempt at cleverness.

Worst Line: “Do you mind if we discuss poo for a while?”

Consider reading instead: Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life and Kate Reddy, Working Mother (Anchor, 2003), a British import that deals far more effectively with a similar theme.

Caveat reader: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. The final version may differ slightly.

Editor: Signe Pike

Published: September 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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