One-Minute Book Reviews

June 19, 2012

Deborah Moggach’s Comic Novel ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’

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The book that inspired the hit movie with Judi Dench offers pleasures of its own

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: A Novel. Random House Movie Tie-in Edition, 336 pp., $15, paperback. First published under the title These Foolish Things.

By Janice Harayda

Deborah Moggach shows how much life a good writer can bring to an old literary device – the use of a hotel a metaphor for the transience of life – in this inspiration for the movie with the same title. As in the film, a group of Brits in their 60s and 70s move to a fraying retirement home in India that delivers at once more and less than its sunny brochure promised. These men and women have varied reasons for uprooting themselves, but all have been “deserted in one way or another by those they had loved.”

In India the wounded but hopeful exiles face new shocks – boiled buffalo milk for breakfast, “cruelly thin” cows on streets, children who call women “auntie.” As they try to adapt, their story becomes the rare comedy of cross-cultural manners that can absorb more than one tragedy while remaining true to the light-hearted spirit of the form. Some characters in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel appear in a similar guise in the movie — the xenophobic Muriel Donnelly, the proper but resilient Evelyn Greenslade, the ill-matched Doug and Jean Ainsley, and others.

But the novel is less of a fairy tale than the film and, as such, is more interesting. It has a thicker plot, a sharper wit, and a richer perspective on India, rooted in part in two years Moggach spent in Pakistan. In the novel a high-born Indian regards the shadow of a lower-caste countryman as so dirty he must disinfect it. “The law forbids the caste system,” a Hindu woman tells Muriel, “but of course it still continues as strongly as ever.” Many cultural subtleties, left out of the movie, emerge in the novel.

Moggach has a free hand with coincidences, and she drops a few plot stitches (one involving a cobra that people hear but never appears, which makes the mention of it seem a bit of a cheat). But that doesn’t explain why after 18 books of fiction, she is so little known in America. Moggach is an admired London novelist and screenwriter who adapted Pride and Prejudice for the film that starred Keira Knightly, and if she has learned about comedy from Jane Austen, she has clearly absorbed ideas on plot from Agatha Christie and other crime writers. She is certainly a more thoughtful and entertaining writer than many British authors who have found a larger American readership. Evelyn Greenslade vows in India to “make the strange into the familiar.” Moggach, too, deserves to be made “into the familiar” on these shores.

Best line: No. 1: “Increasing years, of course, render us invisible as if in preparation for our eventual disappearance.” No. 2: “While she was pruning her forsythia, it seemed, the world had been transformed.” No. 3: “‘You’re as old as you feel.’ ‘Then I feel old,’ said Evelyn.”

Worst line: “ ‘I wish I could jettison my tights,’ Evelyn said.” Evelyn Greenslade is an intelligent woman, but would she really say “jettison”?

Recommendation? Highly recommended to book clubs and others looking for light but intelligent fiction.

Published: March 2012 (Random House movie tie-in edition). Originally published under the title These Foolish Things by Chatto & Windus in 2004.

Furthermore: Read a rave review for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that ran in the TLS when the book first appeared under the title of These Foolish Things. Learn about the movie on IMDb.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book critic for the Plain Dealer. You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 27, 2011

What Is the Difference Between ‘Text’ and ‘Subtext’? Quote of the Day From ‘Story’

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“Text means the sensory surface of a work of art. In film it’s the images onscreen and the soundtrack of dialogue, music, and sound effects. What we see. What we hear. What people say. What people do. Subtext is the life under that surface – thoughts and feelings both known and unknown, hidden by behavior.”

From Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (It Books/Harper Collins, 1997).

March 7, 2010

New Yorker Film Critic Anthony Lane on Oscar-Night Clothes — ‘The Men Always Let Their Ladies Down …’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:34 am
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Film critic Anthony Lane writes of the 1996 Oscar ceremony in an article reprinted in Nobody’s Perfect: Writings From The New Yorker (Vintage, 2002):

“We saw a fine parade of Empire lines and silk sheaths, and by far the most impressive array of natural greens since Linda Blair showed off the highlights of her supper in The Exorcist. There was peppermint, aquamarine, verdigris, iceberg, eau-de-nil, and a lemon-and-lime special from Marc Winningham. There were pinkish grays so soft and subtle that onlookers were reminded of the furring found on unclean kettles. Then there was Susan Sarandon’s Dolce & Gabbana ball gown, a sort of one-night stand between chocolate and bronze; it exactly matched the hue of her hair, though which came first was a matter of urgent debate.

“She was accompanied by Tim Robbins, whose jacket was scaly, sharkish, and distressingly similar to what he wore last year. How can a guy of such evident sense, whose movies are a rebuff to bad glitz, opt on an annual basis for a garment that was apparently woven overnight from a few strands of crude oil? The men always let their ladies down on Oscar night. Hollywood is essentially unable to grasp that the great advantage of a dinner jacket is that it is, in essence, a uniform. The basics are unwavering, the variations minimal. When you are asked to wear black tie, do not take this as a concealed excuse not to wear black tie. Do not be tempted by the current fad that omits the tie altogether in favor of a single black stud. You may find this sexy, but to the watching world it appears that you have leapt up from an emergency tracheotomy to attend the show.”

November 5, 2009

Has Hollywood Betrayed Roald Dahl by Adding ‘a PC Message’ to the New Movie of ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’? – Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:27 pm
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SPOILER WARNING! PLEASE STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ ABOUT THE ENDING OF A FILM THAT HAS NOT YET OPENED IN THE U.S.

I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, but the critic Toby Young makes a good case that Hollywood has betrayed its spirit in a film version due out here on Nov. 25. Young saw the movie at the London Film Festival and said the voices of Mr. and Mrs. Fox – provided by George Clooney and Meryl Streep – are good.

But the movie gives the genteel thief Mr. Fox a son named Ash (unlike the book, in which Mr. Fox has four children who are, as Young puts it, “undifferentiated”). The filmmakers tell us that there’s something “different” about Ash, whose father is cool to him: “But what is the difference exactly? All is revealed in the film’s final scene, when we see Ash wearing what appears to be lipstick. The message couldn’t be clearer: Ash is gay.”

Young argues that what’s objectionable isn’t that the filmmakers have added a gay character to Fantastic Mr. Fox but that they have shoehorned a “politically correct message” into the story: “It’s a way of enlisting Dahl on behalf of the educational establishment, when what’s so attractive about him is that he seems to be on the side of children rather than those grownups who think they know what’s best for them.”

Dahl does appeal to children partly for that reason, and you can read Young’s full argument for why the film ought to have respected it in “Whose Bright Idea Was It to Shoehorn a PC Message into a Roald Dahl Story?”

October 26, 2009

Getting Lucky at Harvard — Ben Mezrich’s Tale of the Founding of Facebook, ‘The Accidental Billionaires’

That red lace bra on the cover is the first red flag

The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal. By Ben Mezrich. Doubleday, 260 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

A new art form may have emerged in this heavy-breathing, sensationalized account of the founding of Facebook: pulp nonfiction. Ben Mezrich warns you up front that he wrote The Accidental Billionaires without interviewing Mark Zuckerberg, who created the first version of the social networking site by hacking into Harvard University computers, downloading students’ photos, and posting them online.

With no access to the prime mover of Facebook, Mezrich tells his tale through techniques such as “re-created dialogue,” scenes set in “likely” settings, and “imagined” descriptions. He also draws heavily on talks with Eduardo Saverin, who helped to bankroll the start-up as a Harvard undergraduate and later successfully sued for the right to be listed as a co-founder of the site. You know all those “disgruntled former employees” you used to read about before a lot of newspapers banned both that clichéd phrase and stories by driven their views? Mezrich doesn’t use those words — and Saverin wasn’t an employee but a partner — but The Accidental Billionaires suggests why the technique has fallen out of favor.

You get a fine sense of the book from a bathroom sex scene that has Saverin undressing a “tall, slender Asian girl” at Harvard who wears a red lace bra under a white shirt. Men, how often have you fantasized about finding yourself in such a situation only to discover to your regret that wearing a red bra under a white shirt is something that women never, ever do? Have you been forced to conclude that for far too many members of the other sex, this particular sartorial blunder makes visible panty line look like chump change? Are you wondering if that “Asian girl” was simply displaying an admirable loyalty to her school by wearing its colors for sex in a bathroom stall and that you haven’t seen it because you haven’t dated enough Harvard undergraduates lately? Or do you think the woman didn’t wear that combination but that someone decided that a red bra would work best on a book cover? Perhaps Mezrich believes people won’t mind his failure to answer questions like these. Or perhaps he thinks, as he writes in another context, “they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.”

Best line: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s business card has a line running across the center that says, “I’m the CEO – Bitch.”

Worst lines: No. 1: “the end was really a foregone conclusion.” No. 2: “the moment itself became historical only in retrospect.” No. 3: “Thankfully, the Phoenix leadership hadn’t traced the fiasco back to Eduardo yet — though even if they did, they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.” No. 4: “Eduardo had spent many evenings in the stacks of Widener – poring through the works of economic theorists such as Adam Smith, John Mills [sic], even Galbraith.” No. 5 “[Lawrence] Summers shook his head. His jowls reverberated with the motion, like fleshy waves swirling in an epidermal storm.” No. 6: “Slowly, Summers leaned forward, and his chubby hand crawled across his desk.” No. 7: “Both had bright red lipstick and too much eyeshadow, but they were damn cute — and they were smiling and pointing right at him.” No. 8: “His hands roamed under her open white shirt, tracing the soft material of her red bra, his fingers lingering over her perky, round breasts, touching the silky texture of her perfect caramel skin. She gasped, her lips closing against the side of his neck, her tongue leaping out, tasting him. His entire body started to quiver, and he rocked forward, pushing her harder against the stall, feeling her writhe into him. His lips found her ear and she gasped again –”  No. 9:At nine a.m. in the morning, in the Eliot dining hall, he had walked right up to the hottest girl he knew – Marsha, blond, buxom, in reality an econ major but she looked like a psychology major.” No. 10: “Maybe feeding the chicken chicken was a mistake; how was he supposed to know what chickens ate? The thing hadn’t come with a manual. Eduardo had gone to a Jewish prep school in Miami. What the hell did Jews know about chickens, other than the fact that they made good soup?”

Editor: Bill Thomas

Published: July 2009

About the author: Mezrich wrote Bringing Down the House, made into the movie 21. He lives in Boston. Kevin Spacey is producing a movie version of The Accidental Billionaires called The Social Network.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

May 25, 2009

‘Death Takes a Holiday’ – A Play Asks, ‘What If for Three Days Nobody Died?

Filed under: Classics,Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:07 pm
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Broadway came before Brad.

In the play that inspired Meet Joe Black, Death learns the power of love

Death Takes a Holiday: A Comedy in Three Acts. By Alberto Casella. Rewritten for the American Stage by Walter Ferris. Samuel French, 151 pp., $7.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Like Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday is one of those supernatural comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that lifted spirits lowered by the Depression and World War II. Whether the play would have the same effect in the age of swine flu and Afghanistan, I have no idea (though the producers of Meet Joe Black, a 1998 adaptation that starred Brad Pitt, apparently thought it would provide a welcome diversion from the Clinton sex scandals).

But in some ways Death Takes a Holiday has lost little of its appeal since it opened on Broadway two months after the stock market crash of 1929. Weary of “always being misunderstood,” Death suspends his activities for three days and takes on a human form to find out why people fear him. He conducts his experiment by dropping in on the castle of an Italian duke and, after gaining the nobleman’s consent, passing himself off to its residents as the visiting Prince Sirki. The project goes awry when Death falls in love and sees the flaw in his gambit.

“I gave myself life, not knowing the force that is in life, nor the force that is in love,” he laments.

Death’s ardor is returned by a young woman who must decide, as the end of his stay nears, whether love is stronger than death. And if answer seems obvious, Alberto Casella invests it with more suspense and interest than you might expect. Unlike Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday isn’t mainly about glorious repartee – it has heart and a seriousness of purpose. It is the unusual play about death that is funny and entertaining but doesn’t trivialize its subject and has an ageless message.

Early on, the as-yet-undisguised Death explains to Duke Lambert why he must don the garb of a prince:

“I’ve found that very few mortals can bear to face life as it really is. It seems to them stark and forbidding, like the outlines of my face, until Illusion softens it with her rosy lamp.”

Death has clearly learned a lesson that eluded the many of the leaders of companies that lately have ranged from Enron to AIG – that the real, however frightening, has a beauty that illusion can’t match.

Best line: Quoted above: “few mortals can bear to face life as it really is.”

Worst line: Major Whitread, a soldier in a medal-covered uniform Foreign Legion uniform, tells Death/Prince Sirki (also called “Shadow”): “I’ve been awfully anxious to meet you, sir.” The line isn’t bad but suggests one of the contrivances of the play: A legionnaire turns up, seemingly out-of-the-blue, to offer the perspective of someone who has seen death at close range.

Published: 1924 (first Italian production), 1929 (first Broadway production).

Furthermore: Death Takes a Holiday is available from the Samuel French online store. The Broadway play inspired a 1934 movie with the same title and the remake Meet Joe Black, which I haven’t seen.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

May 18, 2009

Hamlet ‘With a Nasal Twang’ — Pauline Kael’s ‘5001 Nights at the Movies’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:44 pm
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One reason why my favorite collection of capsule film reviews is Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies: Expanded For The ’90s With 800 New Reviews (Holt, 960 pp., $35, paperback): Kael begins her comments on a 1969 Hamlet with, “Bearded, and with a nasal twang, Nicol Williamson is a surly Hamlet.” Hamlet with a nasal twang: what else do you need to know?

April 20, 2009

A Film Critic Remembers Growing Up With Unexploded Bombs in Postwar London – David Thomson’s ‘Try to Tell the Story’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:11 am
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Looking back on life with a father who kept secrets from his English family

Try to Tell the Story: A Memoir. By David Thomson. Knopf, 224 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Film critic David Thomson grew up in a London infested with unexploded bombs, real and symbolic. The real ones landed intact during the Blitz or later in World War II. The symbolic ones began to fall when Thomson’s father, on learning that his wife was pregnant, left home and from then on returned to the family’s South London home only on weekends to see his son. This arrangement was less bizarre than some described in recent memoirs. What made it unusual was that when Kenneth Thomson returned for his weekly visits, he took young son on sports and other outings without ever acknowledging that he had been away.

In this memoir of his first 18 years, David Thomson sorts out the effects of the buried truth with tact and forbearance. Try to Tell the Story has banal descriptions of cricket matches: “The day we were there we saw Hutton score a century backed by Graveney against Lindwall and Miller, but by the end of the match, after [Australian] centuries from Hassett and Miller, Willie Watson and Trevor Bailey had to make a heroic stand against England against defeat.” But the book shows that Thomson developed early a fine critical sensibility both for films such as Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and for moviegoing in general. When Thomson wondered how movies got onto theater screens, his father pointed to light from a projection booth. “In those days that beam of light was thick with writhing smoke,” he writes, “since everyone at the movies smoked.”

Best line: “The first day I arrived in America there had been a flood in Maine, a summer flood. It was on the evening news and the Boston reporter, all quickfire and soft soap, had lined up an elderly Maine fellow to see if he had ever seen anything like this before. ‘Well, Mr. Parsons,’ he said. ‘I understand you’ve lived all your life in Maine.’ And the old-time said, ‘Not yet.’”

Worst line: “… we had food rationing for years – into the 1950s, I remember.” Relying on memory for that date is lazy writing. Food rationing ended in England in 1954 and was such a significant event that people burned their ration books in Trafalgar Square. Thomson could have found the date in a few minutes of online searching.

If you like this book, you may also like: Paula Fox’s memoir, The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of Try to Tell the Story. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Thomson lives in San Francisco. He also wrote Nicole Kidman and “Have You Seen ….?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films.

Read an excerpt from Try to Tell the Story.

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

November 26, 2008

Has Film Replaced the Novel as the Best Medium for Exploring How We Live’? (Quote of the Day / Allan Massie)

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Critics have been predicting the death of the novel for so long that some people take for granted that the future, if not the present, belongs to movies. Is this a fair assumption?

Allan Massie, the Scottish journalist and novelist, recently considered the question in the Spectator, the British weekly. One often-heard explanation, Massie noted, is just as the theater yielded to the novel, the novel has yielded to the film: “Our culture has become visual rather than literary.” He responded:

“Some truth to this. Even though film still draws on novels and short stories, it has become a less literary medium in the last quarter-century. Cinema offers more immediate sensations and it generally requires less of its audience, which is essentially passive, than the serious novel does of the reader.”

Massie added that others say that narratives in print have gone out of fashion:

“In truth these explanations are less than convincing. Film hasn’t superseded the novel. As a medium for examining the way we live and the way we should live, film has for the most part proved wretchedly inadequate. Its ability to explore moral or ethical questions is slight, because such exploration must be verbal, and film deals in images. Film is the great simplifier, and that is part of its charm. …

“No need, therefore, to ring the funeral bell. The aspiring novelist needs only courage, intelligence, imagination, a keen eye, and the belief that writing novels remains the best way of telling aqnd showing how it is. “

Massie’s comment appeared in a Life & Letters column called “The Death of the Novel” in the July 28, 2008, issue of the Spectator www.spectator.co.uk, but doesn’t appear on its Web site.

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

May 13, 2008

John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ Stands Up to Hitchcock

John Buchan’s classic suspense novel helped set the tone for nearly a century of spy fiction

The Thirty-Nine Steps. By John Buchan. Introduction by John Keegan. Penguin Classics, 144 pp., $9, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Anybody who knows The Thirty-Nine Steps only from Alfred Hitchock’s movie is missing a treat.

That film – good as it is — takes liberties with John Buchan’s plot that are as wild as the Scottish moors on which its hero finds himself hunted by his enemies. So no matter how many times you’ve seen Robert Donat handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, it won’t spoil a reading of the novel. With good reason, Buchan called the book one of his “shockers,” or stories that set personal dramas against tense political realities.

Part of the allure of The Thirty-Nine Steps is that by the standards of today’s spy novels and movies, it is as sleek as a stiletto. It has none of the bloviating of John le Carré’s most recent books or the logic-defying plot twists of Mission Impossible. Buchan is a storyteller in the tradition of his fellow Scot and contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle – he tells you exactly what you need to know to understand his tale and nothing more.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is the first of his five novels about Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Scottish-born engineer and patriot and with a thirst for adventure. Hannay has returned from years in Rhodesia and found himself bored with England. (“It struck me that Albania was the sort of place that might keep a man from yawning.”) His boredom evaporates when he agrees to shelter a spy who has learned of a secret German plan to invade England.

When the man is murdered, Hannay flees to the Scotland, where he hopes to lie low for a while amid the remote glens and moors. There he is hunted both by the British police who consider him a suspect and the Germans who have killed the spy. After being spotted from an airplane, Hannay tries to elude his pursuers by donning a series of disguises and traveling by foot, bicycle and train through Scotland. To save himself, he must find a way to warn the British government what he has learned from the murdered spy.

First published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps was one of the first novels to include many of the elements of the modern thriller, such as car chases and aerial surveillance. And along with all the action, the novel has astute psychological insights. For all of his reliance on outer disguises, Hannay knows that they are nowhere near as important to crime as the inner ability to play a role. “A fool tries to look different: a clever man looks the same but is different,” he observes. He adds, “If you are playing a part, you will never keep it up unless you convince yourself that you are it.” Much of The Thirty-Nine Steps turns on this observation, and it suggests a psychological truth that has shaped suspense novels ever since: The dangers posed by people who are hiding in plain sight — and playing their part well enough to need no disguises — can be far more terrifying than those raised by criminals who wear ski masks on the deserted streets we know enough to avoid.

Best line: “My guest was lying sprawled on his back. There was a long knife through his heart which skewered him to the floor.”

Worst line: “ Mors janua vitae,’ he smiled.” The problem isn’t the use of the Latin for “death is the gate of life” – it’s the “he smiled.”

Movie Links: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll www.imdb.com/title/tt0026029/; Ralph Thomas’s 1959 version www.imdb.com/title/tt0053354/; Don Sharp’s 1978 version www.imdb.com/title/tt0078389//

Published: 1915 (first edition) and May 2008 (latest Penguin Classics edition). The 2008 Penguin edition has an introduction by the distinguished military historian John Keegan (which should be interesting, given that such prefaces are typically written by scholars of literature instead of history, but I haven’t seen it).

Furthermore: The Thirty-Nine Steps is typically described as a novel but is short enough that it might be more properly called a novella.

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

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