One-Minute Book Reviews

May 5, 2013

John Kenney’s Romantic Comedy, ‘Truth in Advertising’

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A lovelorn copywriter confronts his father’s death as he races to create a Super Bowl spot

Truth in Advertising. By John Kenney. Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 308 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Two kinds of creative people work in advertising, the hero of John Kenney’s first novel observes: “Those who think they’re smarter than the client and those who are successful.” It’s an old joke, but Kenney puts spring its step in this romantic comedy about a lovelorn copywriter at a high-flying New York agency.

At the age of 39, Finbar Dolan is recovering from a broken engagement when he faces back-to-back crises during an unlucky holiday season in the age of iPods and eight-dollar cupcakes. Fin and his colleagues are racing to produce a Super Bowl commercial for “the world’s first eco-friendly, one-hundred-percent biodegradable diaper” when he learns that his estranged father is dying. This setup invests Truth in Advertising with a staple of the modern romantic comedy, a hero with a more urgent goal than finding love, and the plot borrows a few clichés from that cinematic genre. If you can never have too many of those scenes in which two characters ultimately confront their feelings for each other in an international departures terminal at a packed airport, this book is for you. The novel also appears to pander to Hollywood with an episode in which a lawyer summons Fin and his siblings to his office for a “reading of the will,” an act that today occurs mainly in movies.

But Kenney satirizes with a sure hand the profession in which he worked for 17 years. His lovers’ follies pale beside those of his clients, account executives, creative directors, office assistants and “insufferable human resources women with their easy detachment and heartless smiles,” who say things like: “You’re eligible for Cobra and the family plan is only $1800 a month.” And he gives his narrator an appealing wistfulness that suggests the cost of years of artistic and moral compromises. For all of his encounters with celebrity endorsers like Gwyneth Paltrow, Fin remains a man who has had enough illusions knocked out of him that he no longer fantasizes that the producer Aaron Sorkin will see his work and demand to know who wrote it: “There’s a voice beneath the mail-in rebate copy that feels very fresh to me. Who is this guy?’”

Best line: “They call us creative. Baloney. The inventor of the corkscrew was creative. The irony of advertising – a communications business – is that we treat words with little respect, often devaluing their meaning. The all-new Ford Taurus. Really? Five wheels this time?’

Worst line: “Every one changed their own baby’s diaper.” This line refers to a group of that consists only of women. “Every one changed her own baby’s diaper” would have been smoother and more precise.

Published: January 2013

About the author: Kenney worked at the Ogilvy & Mather agency and contributes to The New Yorker.

Watch the trailer for Truth in Advertising. Or read more about the book on the publisher’s website, which includes an excerpt.

Jan will cohost a Twitter #classicschat on The Great Gatsby on Friday, May 10, at 4 p.m. ET at which the novelist Alexander Chee will discuss F. Scott Fitzerald’s masterpiece. Please join us! You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page. She is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 20, 2013

Louisa Hall’s ‘The Carriage House’ – A Suburban Philadelphia Story

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A family tries to save a decaying carriage house in a suburb in which “the neighborhood association is the UN”

The Carriage House: A Novel. By Louisa Hall. Scribner, 281 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

An old joke says: “Why do tennis players make bad spouses? Because love means nothing to them.”

That quip seems at first to describe William Adair, a former club tennis champion on the Philadelphia Main Line who in Louisa Hall’s first novel entrusts the care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife to a devious Australian aide. William begins to change after he has a stroke and his three adult daughters carry on his fight to save from demolition a decaying family carriage house that neighbors see as a rodent-infested eyesore. Can he hold on to a cherished symbol of his once-grand clan? If not, what can replace it in his affections?

These questions play out in a well-observed novel of contemporary suburban manners with undertones of neo-Gothic melodrama. William’s mentally adrift wife holes up in an upstairs room of their house “like a benign Mrs. Rochester,” a simile that suggests the influence of Jane Eyre on the plot.  But Hall borrows less aggressively from Charlotte Brontë than from Persuasion, Jane Austen’s autumnal tale of woman who reconnects with a suitor she had spurned years earlier. The commingled effect of the two classics on the novel resembles that of strangers making polite conversation at cocktail party: They get along well enough but don’t engage deeply with each other.

The Adairs’ battle to save their carriage house revives the connection between William’s daughter Diana, a tennis prodigy turned architecture-school dropout, and Arthur Schmidt, a high school sweetheart who has become a successful restaurateur in the years since she broke off their engagement. In a book inspired by Persuasion, there exists little double about how this reunion will end. But while Austen writes mainly from the point of view of her heroine, Anne Elliot, Hall tells her story from the shifting perspectives of members of the Adair household. This kaleidoscopic approach allows for a multifaceted view of the family’s plight but limits the development of any of its characters. And it gives much less emotional weight to the relationship of Diana and Arthur than Persuasion does to the romance between Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth.

The appeal of The Carriage House lies not in deep characterizations or suspense but in its nuanced attention to the contradictions of an ostensibly genteel suburb in which people act, when the stakes are high “as though the neighborhood association is the UN, and war is imminent, and sacrifices are necessary.” Like Penelope Lively, Hall has keen sense of the weight of history on families. She shows a clan that faces, over a sixth-month period, a conflict larger than any member: the clash between its well-ordered past and the new social free-for-all that it must navigate.

Hall filters some of the incongruities that confront her characters though Margaux’s Australian caregiver, Louise Wilson, who finds solace in trips to a CVS store near the Adairs’ home in the fictional suburb of Breacon. “In CVS, the endless helpful products soothed Louise,” Hall writes. “There were solutions for everything: for calluses and corns, blocked sinuses and acid reflux, acne and rosacea, overthick eyebrows and ingrown hairs. … there were whole aisles set aside for the achievement of physical numbness.” Such gently satirical passages are long way from Austen’s biting wit, but they show a fine eye for absurdities as close as the nearest drug store.

Best line: “Louise watched her tan fading a little bit each day and was filled with a muted version of despair that manifested itself as a constant desire to drive to CVS, where she wandered among fluorescent aisles searching for the perfect product. …

“In CVS, the endlessness of helpful products soothed Louise. There were solutions for everything: for calluses and corns, blocked sinuses and acid reflux, acne and rosacea, overthick eyebrows and ingrown hairs. … there were whole aisles set aside for the achievement of physical numbness.”

Worst line: No. 1: “The boredom was literally killing her.”  No, it wasn’t. No. 2:  “She took her by the wrist and literally dragged her up to Izzy’s room, where Izzy was sitting at the desk, peering out the window like a cat watching a bunch of crippled canaries.”  “Literally” is redundant, and the use of “cat” and “canary” in the same breath is clichéd and strained.

Published: March 2013

About the author: Louisa Hall is a poet who lives in Los Angeles. She grew up in Haverford, PA.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 24, 2013

Francesca Segal’s Award-Winning First Novel, ‘The Innocents’

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“Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way. They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”  

The Innocents. By Francesca Segal. Voice/Hyperion, 282 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

Francesca Segal airlifts the plot of The Age of Innocence from New York to London in this tale of young Jews whose mating habits, like their Friday-night dinners, tend to be “Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.”

Anyone who has read Edith Wharton’s book may see much of the action coming and hear an echo of its theme — the power of tribal customs to thwart individual desires — in its namesake. But Segal finds an inspired setting for her first novel in the endogamous world of well-to-do Jews who eddy around Golders Green in the age of iPods and Bernie Madoff.

The young lawyer Adam Newman has just become engaged to the sweet but unimaginative Rachel Gilbert when he falls under the spell of his fiancée’s glamorous and dissolute cousin, who has arrived from New York amid rumors of a scandal. Like Wharton’s Newbold Archer, Adam would rather dabble in love than embrace it, so the outcome of his attraction is never really in doubt. And the appeal of his story lies not in high suspense but in its intelligent and gently satirical portrait of the food-rich rituals that sustain or stifle its characters: the circumcisions, Purim parties, Shabbat dinners, Yom Kippur break fasts, and vacations at Red Sea hotels with buffet tables that serve chocolate mousse in champagne classes at 8 a.m. “Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way,” Rachel’s father says. “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” If that sounds glib, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen gives it context when she explains calmly why she doesn’t fast on Yom Kippur. “I have fasted,” she says, “enough days in my lifetime.”

Best line: No. 1: “Ha. God. For someone who does not exist He has caused me a great deal of trouble.” Ziva Schneider, Rachel’s grandmother No. 2: “the menu was traditional Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.” No. 3: “Just as when he spoke to Nick Hall, he had the sense of other Londons swirling past and beneath and above him of which he was only liminally aware.”

Worst line: From the moment that a Jewish son enters secondary school, “there is the constant anxiety that a blue-eyed Christina or Mary will lure him away from the tribe.” This lightly satirical line may be true, but Mary fell out of favor as a name for Christian girls a half-century ago.

A reading group guide with discussion questions for The Innocents appears on the publisher’s site.

Published: June 2012 (Voice/Hyperion hardcover), paperback due out in May 2013.

Furthermore: The Innocents won the most recent National Jewish Book Award for fiction in the U.S. and the Costa first novel prize in the U.K. You’ll find more on The Age of Innocence in an excellent blog about the book by Liverpool Continuing Education students. Segal talks about The Innocents and its Costa award in an interview with Simon Round.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

(c) 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 14, 2012

‘What Happened to Sophie Wilder’ – A Convert to Catholicism Bears Her Cross

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A young writer faces a test of her faith when she cares for a dying man

What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel. By Christopher R. Beha. Tin House, 256 pp., $15.95, paper.

By Janice Harayda

American novelists appear to be losing faith in faith as a source of literary inspiration. Nearly all of the leading fiction writers who have dealt seriously with religion are over 60, especially those who have explored Catholic themes. No obvious heir to the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and J.F. Powers exists among the generation of novelists that is coming into maturity, the children of baby boomers. Into the void have rushed authors of ecclesiastical thrillers inspired by The Da Vinci Code, books that don’t engage Catholic beliefs so much as distort and exploit them.

These realities may reflect a broader cultural trend: Young Americans are less likely than their parents to affiliate with a church, a reality documented in a report earlier this month from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But the dearth of novels about Catholicism remains odd and disappointing given the deep impact on the faithful of the upheavals caused by issues such as abortion, sexual abuse by the clergy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood. You could hardly ask for more dramatic literary material.

So it’s heartening that in his first novel Chris Beha tells an intelligent, if not fully successful, story of a young female convert to Catholicism. In college Sophie Wilder fell in love with a student in her writing program, Charlie Blakeman, whose surname aptly embeds that of that skeptic of orthodox religion, William Blake. Sophie drops back into her ex-lover’s life when they are in their late 20s and finds him keeping company with self-consciously literary New Yorkers who think and speak in phrases like, “Alfred Kazin once said of Saul Bellow …” Since college, Sophie has converted to Catholicism while Charlie and his friends have made a religion their pretenses or, as they might say, “stories.” In this novel a man who asks, “What’s her story?” means: What narrative has she constructed about herself? Sophie, it seems, has reconnected with Charlie to tell him the story of her recent, troubling experience of caring for a dying man whose wishes tested her faith.

This novel represents Charlie’s attempt to make sense of Sophie’s tale. Antiphonal chapters tell the story from alternating points of view: Charlie’s first-person account in each case precedes a third-person narrative about Sophie that perhaps reflects his effort to see things from her perspective. Both versions of the tale have weak spots. Writing in the first person, Charlie often asserts instead of dramatizing facts about Sophie or offers awkward explanations for her actions. (“Perhaps because of her family situation …”) He says that male students were “enthralled” with Sophie and found her “unlike other girls,” but it’s never clear why this was so when she was rude, sarcastic and lacking the conventional beauty that might have offset those traits. Charlie also implies that Sophie had that blend of talent and drive that enables a writer to get a book published and become “briefly famous” soon after college, but he offers no evidence of her talent and little of her drive. The chapters not told in the first person have traditional third-person limited-omniscient narration when free-indirect speech might have better revealed Sophie’s character. All of this leaves a hole at the center of the story: You see Sophie from two perspectives that don’t coalesce into a whole. She never comes into her own.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder is ultimately Charlie’s story rather than Sophie’s, and as such, it deals sensitively with worthy questions: Why do we need stories, whether religious or literary? What do we gain or lose from them? At what point does an investment in story become irreversible? The great virtue of this novel is that it treats belief seriously. If the book shows the cost of Sophie’s faith, it never ridicules it, and it also reveals the cost of others’ misplaced devotions. Charlie and his cousin rent rooms in Greenwich Village from a man who has Victorian aquarium full of fish, “the most important thing in his life,” and who asks only that they care for it when he’s away. Consumed by their own interests, the young men are incapable of this simple task. Charlie realizes it too late, and in a rueful observation on their failure, suggests a theme of the novel. “We had been given something beautiful, asked only to watch over it,” he reflects. “We’d been careless, and now it was all in ruin.”

Best line: “Henry’s the Ted Hughes of management consultants.”

Worst line: “Tom … pursed his lips with a look of concern.”

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide and discussion questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder appeared on this site on Oct. 14. The  guide to this book explores, among other things, some of the religious issues raised by the novel: for example, that Sophie converted after reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and each of the main sections of the book has seven chapters.

Published: May 2012

Furthermore: The New York Times summarized the the report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life cited above. You may also want to read Sam Sacks’ review of What Happened to Sophie Wilder and One-Minute Book Reviews’ review of the nonfiction book Mr. Tibbits’s Catholic School.

Read an excerpt from What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 18, 2012

Tomorrow … A Review of Abraham Verghese’s ‘Cutting for Stone’

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President Obama had it with him during his 2011 vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Martha Stewart endorsed it. Book clubs are flocking to it. But is Abraham Verghese’s first novel good, or another example the literary herd instinct run amok? A review of Cutting for Stone will appear tomorrow.

March 14, 2012

Maybe He Should Have Called It ‘Cutting for Oliver Stone’ – A Review of Abraham Verghese’s ‘Cutting for Stone’

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Twin brothers grow up in Ethiopia as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front steps up its violence

Cutting for Stone. By Abraham Verghese. Vintage, 667 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Maybe he should have called it Cutting for Oliver Stone. Like the controversial director’s JFK, Abraham Verghese’s first novel abounds with far-fetched characterizations, heavy-handed moralizing, and historical implausibilities or inaccuracies. Also like the movie, it has a dense plot and enough facts to give its story a gloss of truth.

But you wonder if even Stone would have taken the liberties that Verghese does in this tale of mirror-image identical twin brothers — one is right-handed, the other left- — born in Addis Ababa in 1954. Marion and Shiva are orphaned at birth by the death of their mother and the disappearance of their father. As luck would have it, and luck often does have it in this novel, they grow up as the wards of sympathetic doctors who guide them toward medical careers of their own as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front steps up its activity against Emperor Haile Selassie.

Cutting for Stone shows Selassie riding through the eucalyptus-scented streets of Addis Ababa in a green Rolls-Royce with his chihuahua, Lula, in his lap. At a nearby hospital doctors give a man a swig of Johnnie Walker to relax before a vasectomy. And after Marion begins his internship at a charity hospital in the Bronx, the novel keeps rolling out its gurney of medical lore. As you take your last breaths, you may or may not find it comforting to know that American doctors refer to dying patients as “circling the drain” and like to say that “if you had more than seven tubes in you, you were as good as dead.”

This semi-autobiographical material has provided perhaps too many temptations for Verghese, a professor medicine at Stanford who was born in Ethiopia in 1955. He lards his story with gratuitously detailed accounts of surgical procedures that, in the words a critic for the Economist, reflect “a somewhat whimsical notion of what they entail.” For the convenience of his plot, he has changed the dates and other details of major news events, such as a failed coup against Selassie and the hijacking of an Ethiopian airplane by Eritreans. In an otherwise naturalistic novel, he allows Marion to speak bizarrely from the womb and to believe he can read his twin’s mind, although he has so little control of point of view that it is often hard to know his intentions.

Verghese has won reputation as a literary writer in an industry tries to categorize novelists as either literary or commercial, and on the evidence of this book, he requires reclassification. He is writing a pop fiction. Cutting for Stone resembles the later novels of James Michener in its clichéd, stilted, or redundant images that keep the plot moving 50 miles an hour in a 60-miles-per-hour zone. It brims with phrases such as “babbling brook,” “the populace” for “the people,” and earrings that “hung down” from lobes instead of “hung.”

Why, then, has Cutting for Stone found fans who range from book club members to Martha Stewart and President Obama, who had it with him on a 2011 vacation on Martha’s Vineyard? Several factors may explain what the quality of the writing doesn’t. One is that the hospital settings allow Verghese to deal with timely issues such vaginal fistulas and female genital mutilation in Africa. Another is that you inevitably learn from a 667-page book stuffed with Ethiopian history and culture, much as you do from Michener’s Alaska and Poland. And Verghese writes about two subjects slighted by contemporary novelists: work and religion, in this case Ethiopian Christianity.

Perhaps above all, Cutting for Stone brims with earnest, Oprah-ready ideas. Marion reflects: “All sons should write down every word of what their fathers have to say to them. I tried. Why did it take an illness for me to recognize the value of time with him?” Peter Godwin writes far more elegantly about Africa in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, a memoir of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. “In Africa,” he notes, “you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue.” In a book more than twice as long as Godwin’s, Verghese leaves you waiting only for such a gracefully expressed idea.

Best line: A servant who gave in to her drunken employer’s advances in Ethiopia asked, when he had finished with her, “Will there be anything else?”

Worst line: No. 1: “ … he said as if he’d proved Pythagoras’s theorem, the sun’s central position in the solar system, the roundness of the earth, and [the hospital’s] precise location at its imagined corner.” Overwriting like this abounds in Cutting for Stone. One well-chosen example would have made the point better than four.

Recommendation? I read this Cutting for Stone for book club, and some members didn’t finish it because of its length and slow pace. Clubs that want to read it, regardless,  might read it over two months instead of one.

Published: February 2009 (Knopf hardcover), January 2010 (Vintage/Anchor paperback).

Furthermore: Verghese wrote the memoir My Own Country, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. One-Minute Book reviews recently ranked among the Technorati’s top 40 book blogs and Alexa’s top 40 book-review sites. New Jersey Monthly named it one of the state’s best book blogs in 2011.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar. 

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

July 20, 2010

Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’ – The Graveyard Shift at a Newspaper in Rome

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Staff members at the Christian Science Monitor used to joke when the newspaper had a print edition that “we bring you yesterday’s news tomorrow.” A similarly idiosyncratic worldview links the reporters, editors and others attached to the unnamed English-language daily in Rome that whistles in the dark in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. The newspaper lacks a website because, the editor-in-chief’s point man believes, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.”

The paper is an amiable throwback, and so is The Imperfectionists. Misleadingly billed by its publisher as “a novel,” the book consists of 11 linked short stories that read like smartly written parables about the human illusions at the intersection of work and love. The over-the-hill Paris correspondent for the paper faces a crisis that forces him to confront two long-held fantasies — that he can still write page-one stories and that his son has a worthy job at the French foreign ministry. The corrections editor gets a visit from a schoolmate that upends his romantic notion that his friend could become a great writer and that he and Jimmy are “gradations of the same man – he the middling version and Jimmy the great one.” And the icy chief financial officer learns through a macabre twist that she has been deluding herself about both her sexual allure and the effect of her staff purges. A theme of these stories is not that we are wrong to cherish our illusions – it’s that often we need them, because they’re all we have.

Fittingly for a book about a newspaper founded in the 1950s, the tales in this one resemble good stories from the early-to-middle decades of the 20th century, before the triumph of the cynical, elliptical and ambiguous. Each tale has a clear beginning, middle and end, and if not a moral, at least a point. Each takes as its title a hapless headline of the sort of that appears regularly in American newspapers: The more amusing include “U.S. GENERAL OPTIMISTIC ON WAR” and “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” And Rachman gives his characters enough humor and pathos to transcend his occasional lapses into journalese or glibness. His most memorable story involves than a widow in Rome who, since the suicide of her husband, has invested much of her emotion in reading the English-language newspaper each day. Through the old woman’s life, Rachman shows a poignant aspect of the decline of newspapers that, ironically, newspapers have scarcely discussed: For some people, the loss of a newspaper is the loss of a world.

Best line: “Blast Kills People Again.” – A headline written by a copy editor at Rachman’s unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome.

Worst line: “a women’s magazine that specialized in recipes utilizing cans of condensed mushroom soup.”

Editor: Susan Kamil

Published: April 2010

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for The Imperfections was posted on this site on July 20, 2010.

Read an excerpt from The Imperfectionists.

About the author: Rachman was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome and worked as an editor for the International Herald Tribune in Paris.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 4, 2009

The Secret Lives of SLUGS (Smith Lesbians Until Graduation) – J. Courtney Sullivan’s Novel of Female Friendship, ‘Commencement’

Where first-year students get a lecture on the etiquette of girl-on-girl shower sex

Commencement. By J. Courtney Sullivan. Knopf, 320 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Commencement is probably best appreciated while wearing nothing but Saran Wrap or body paint – the apparent garb of choice at an annual clothing-optional party at Smith College. As pop fiction, this book has slightly more literary merit than a Jackie Collins novel. But as a study in the folkways of the undergraduates at Smith – and especially its lesbians – it’s fascinating.

Who would have thought that any students needed, right after arriving on campus, a lecture on the etiquette of girl-on-girl shower sex? In Commencement, they get one from a house president who says: “Basically, don’t shower with your significant other during prime traffic flow – usually about eight to ten a.m. It’s really disrespectful, and, honestly, who wants to hear two dykes going at it first thing in the morning?”

J. Courtney Sullivan offers many such details as she tells the story of a quartet of friends, all Phi Beta Kappa graduates the Smith Class of 2002, who return to their alma mater four years after graduation for the wedding of one of their members. But instead of exploiting the potential for a great send-up of some of the collegiate excesses she describes, Sullivan tries to make a statement about the varied strains of feminism on campus and the evils of sex-trafficking off-campus, both of which have been done much better by others. If at times amusing or perceptive, her writing is also stilted, beset by point-of-view problems, and slowed by her frequent backtracking from the women’s post-college lives to their days at Smith.

Yet Sullivan is a good enough reporter that she leaves you with memorable images, not all of which involve lesbianism. When it snowed, she tells us, college trucks poured soy sauce on the walkways of a quadrangle because “the salty liquid melted the ice without polluting the ground.” There was only one problem: “the entire Quad smelled like a Thai restaurant until February.”

Best line: No. 1: “Then there was Immorality, the notorious clothing-optional party held in Tyler House [at Smith College] every Halloween. Women attended in nothing but lingerie, or body paint, or Saran Wrap.” No. 2: “There was a name for girls like her: SLUG. It stood for Smith Lesbian Until Graduation.”

Worst line: One of many stilted lines: “Lately April had been obsessed with whether or not they should try to stop Sally from getting married, stating that she was too young and had no idea what she was getting herself into.”

Editor: Jenny Jackson

Published: June 2009

Furthermore: Commencement is the first novel by Sullivan, a Smith graduate and resident of Brooklyn, NY, who works for the New York Times.

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

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

April 7, 2009

Tanya Egan Gibson’s ‘How to Buy a Love of Reading’ — A Satirical Novel That Turns Into a Teen Weepie

Filed under: Humor,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:34 pm
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A 15-year-old’s parents try to get her to read by hiring an author to write a book for her

How to Buy a Love of Reading:  A Novel. By Tanya Egan Gibson. Dutton, 353 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

Tanya Egan Gibson begins her first novel with a delicious sendup of a Sweet Sixteen party dominated by an ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David, whose penis is “dripping syphilitically.” Right away Gibson shows that she has two traits vital to a satirist:  a willingness to twist the knife and the ability to find a worthy target — in this case, the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous in Gatsby country, the North Shore of Long Island.

But Gibson quickly loses control of her tone in this story of a teenager whose parents try to overcome her dislike of reading by hiring a live-in author to write a book for her as a 16th-birthday gift. A novel that begins as satire devolves into a teen weepie as its characters go to parties, get drunk, pop Vicodins, sleep around, cram for their SATs and try to deal with their clueless and hypocritical parents.

The problem lies partly in an excess of ambition: Gibson tries to marry satire and tragedy, two forms so difficult to bring together that even so great a satirist as Jane Austen didn’t attempt it. You can’t easily persuade readers to pity characters whose lives you’ve been ridiculing for hundreds of pages. And Gibson has made her task harder by lampooning more than the patricians and parvenus known by Carley Wells, a sweet and overweight 15-year-old, who loves a popular male friend, Hunter Cay. She takes aim at targets such as reality TV, Arthurian romances, English teachers, college counselors and postmodern literary techniques, some incorporated into the plot.

Gibson might have pulled if off if she’d invested her novel with a faster pace and more drama. But How to Buy a Love of Reading is overwritten and lacks a powerful central conflict, both of which slow the story. Carley doesn’t have a strong antagonist but a variety of weaker ones, including her adored Hunter and her parents and the second-rate novelist they hired to write a book for her.

As characters swim through the book, Gibson keeps backtracking to fill in labored details like these about her heroine’s bulimic friend, Amber, whose behavior changed while Hunter was convalescing from an illness:

“Until then, she and Carley had just gone wherever Hunter went, hanging out with his friends — people like his older cousin Ian, last year’s student council president. But in Hunter’s absence Amber had gone back to spending time with people she and Carley had hung out with in middle school before he’d moved to town, people who mostly weren’t invited to the parties but who liked her.”

Gibson has a good eye for the follies of characters like a partygoer who advises another on how to cope with with a dull guest: “Tune her out by counting her pores.” But her inability to tame her material makes you feel a bit like that socialite: After a while, you’re counting the pores of this novel.

Best line: A private college counselor tells a couple that “their daughter needed rebranding if she wanted any shot at the real Ivies or the ‘hidden Ivies’ or even — given Bunny’s inability to break the ninety-fifth percentile on her PSATs — the ‘public Ivies.'”

Worst line: “Her  breasts were like a disaster in the news: a roof falling in under the weight of heavy rain, a double-decker freeway collapsing in an earthquake, a bridge undulating in high winds until its cables snapped.”

To be published: May 14, 2009

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of How to Buy a Love of Reading. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Gibson lives in Marin County, California.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 9, 2009

Are Y’all Payin’ Attention? Ah May Be a Yankee From New Jersey, But Ah Might Could Have a Review for Y’all of Kathryn Stockett’s Novel, ‘The Help’

A New York Times bestseller describes the mistreatment of black maids at the dawn of the civil rights era

The Help: A Novel. By Kathryn Stockett. Putnam’s/Amy Einhorn Books, 464 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Forty-five literary agents rejected The Help, and although that’s not an alpine number in today’s market, it’s easy to imagine why they did. A white University of Alabama graduate has written much of her first novel in the alternating voices of two black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s – as though Margaret Mitchell weren’t still taking heat, 60 years after her death, for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind.

For anybody who isn’t put off by the transracial ventriloquism, The Help may hold surprises. Kathryn Stockett tells the story of a white Ole Miss graduate who returns to her well-off parents’ cotton farm, cringes when she sees how her friends treat their “help,” and vows with the secret cooperation of the maids to write a book that exposes the abuses. There’s a lot to expose.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan has rejoined a world in which maids work for less the minimum wage and must wear uniforms if they attend the weddings of children they helped raise. They must use dishes and bathrooms their employers don’t. And if they protest these and many other indignities, they may be fired and blackballed by women who can keep them from working again in their towns. In their off hours, they face all the other injustices of segregation, including that can’t use white hotels, restaurants and libraries.

The Help falls into the category that publishers call “mainstream women’s fiction” and has many of its hallmarks, such as a subplot involving Skeeter’s romance with the callow son of a politician. And yet it has something rarely found in novels that have as much pink on their covers as this one does: sustained social commentary. Stockett describes the results of a silent auction at the Junior League Annual Ball and Benefit in Jackson:

“As names are read, items are received with the excitement of someone winning a real contest, as if the booty were free and not paid for at three, four, or five times the store value. Tablecloths and nightgowns with the lace tatted by hand bring in high bids. Odd sterling servers are popular, for spooning out deviled eggs, removing pimentos from olives, cracking quail legs.”

That is sharper and more interesting writing than you will find in many novels with more literary pretensions, and it makes you wonder what Stockett could do if she gave a free rein to her satirical instincts. In some ways The Help resembles The Nanny Diaries, though the plot is more far-fetched and the writing less polished. Justice comes for the household employees, to the degree that it arrives at all, at scalper’s prices. Students of the abuses of the Jim Crow era may find much of The Help unsurprising, but the collective memory of those abuses is fading. This novel would be welcome if only because it will help to keep the hidden cruelties alive both for those who have never known of them and for those who would prefer to forget.

Best line: The belles of The Help know that before you marry, you can never give too much thought to choosing a silverware pattern. One woman says: “Skeeter, you’re so lucky to come from a Francis the First family pattern.”

Worst line: The black maids often say things like: “Law, my phone was disconnected cause I’s short this month.” And Stockett makes phonetic substitutions in their speech but not usually in their employers’. Given that her black characters say things like “terrified a” instead of “terrified of,” shouldn’t some of her whites be saying “Ah can’t” instead of “I can’t”? Ah may be a Yankee, but ah think they might could, because ah know how often writers done been tryin’ to show how white people talk in New Jersey.

Editor: Amy Einhorn

Published: February 2009

About the author: Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and lives in Atlanta.

Mini reading group guide to The Help: 3 Discussion questions for book clubs: 1) So, did y’all think Stockett was brave or insane for writing in the voices of Aibileen and Minny?

2) Janet Maslin wrote of The Help in her New York Times review: “It’s a story that purports to value the maids’ lives while subordinating them to Skeeter and her writing ambitions. And it celebrates noblesse oblige so readily that Skeeter’s act of daring earns her a gift from a local black church congregation.” How much truth does this comment contain?

3) Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote in her review in Ms.: “As an African American, I accept black idioms as an aesthetic choice, but they nonetheless grated. Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have? There’s also the narrative rut of downtrodden but world-wise blacks showing white people their own souls, leading them out of a spiritual wilderness to their better selves. The Help has much more on its mind than that, but it doesn’t avoid going down a road too well traveled.” Do you agree or disagree?

Furthermore: The Help is #30 on the most recent New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Seller list.

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

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