One-Minute Book Reviews

December 3, 2008

Anna Winger’s First Novel, ‘This Must Be the Place’ – An American Wife Finds Herself Emotionally Adrift in Berlin After Sept. 11

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Life imitates a Tom Cruise movie dubbed in German in a city where “Dixie” is a popular ring tone

This Must Be the Place. By Anna Winger. Penguin/Riverhead, 303 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

What does it mean to spend much of your life speaking in someone else’s voice? And if you’ve done it, can you get yourself back again?

These questions lie at the heart of This Must Be the Place, Anna Winger’s engaging first novel about an unlikely friendship between an American wife and an unmarried man who lives in her apartment building in the Charlottenburg section of Berlin. Hope has followed her Jewish husband, Dave, to Germany, partly to escape tragedies in New York, including the attacks of Sept. 11. Walter earns an enviable living as the German voice of Tom Cruise, spending his days dubbing Vanilla Sky, a job that helps to mask his loneliness. Both of their lives change after a sidewalk argument brings them together and, over the next few months, they grow closer in ways that at once expose and ease their different forms of psychic displacement.

At times Winger overreaches as she describes the quirky bond between Hope and Walter. She tries to link circumstances too big and different to fit together neatly: losing a child, surviving Sept. 11, leaving America, being Jewish in Germany, and living in a formerly divided city. This effort leads to plot contrivances and talky explanations of motives. You wonder if Winger once wrote self-help articles for women’s magazines when you come across lines like: “She had resisted further argument with Dave because his anger about it was the only suggestion that somewhere inside his rational exterior he was suffering too and she wanted to believe that.” Some scenes seem to mainly exist as vehicles for her views on questions of national identity and other subjects.

But Winger’s observations on Germany are generally interesting and often amusing. Hope arrives in Berlin when “Dixie” is a popular ring tone on German cell phones. Walter comes from an Alpine town “where people in crisis were often comforted by visions of the Virgin Mary in breakfast cereal or dishwater bubbles.” Winger explains why German men urinate sitting down and what can happen if you ride the Berlin subways without a ticket even though there are no turnstiles.

In some ways, This Must Be the Place resembles Diane Johnson’s novel about Paris, Le Divorce. Like Johnson, Winger shows an unsentimental affection for her adopted city. And if Berlin isn’t Paris, Winger makes clear that it has its own charms.

“In New York, as soon as one building came down, another went up so quickly as to obliterate the memory of what had been there before,” Winger writes. “In other European cities, the past was glorified, the architecture spruced up for tourists to the point of caricature. But here, nobody seemed to be in any hurry one way or the other. Buildings had been bombed and the city had been ripped apart, but years later holes remained all over the place without explanation or apparent concern. The city moved forward with a lack of vanity that she found relaxing.”

Best line: “In almost every Tom Cruise movie he could think of, Rain Man, Jerry Maguire, Days of Thunder, The Firm, you name it, somewhere in the second act his character danced and sang along to a pop song on the radio to illustrate a sudden flash of optimism.”

Worst line: “In September, when she came out of her downtown building to see people covered in white powder running for their lives, she had not been entirely surprised to find the outside world finally reflecting her inner chaos.” Winger doesn’t begin to show why Hope might have had this extraordinarily nonchalant response to Sept. 11. It makes her heroine look self-absorbed in a way that the rest of the book doesn’t.

Editor: Megan Lynch

Published: August 2008 annawinger.com/book.html

About the author: Winger lives in Berlin. She created The Berlin Stories, a radio series for NPR Worldwide.

You can read more about This Must Be the Place in the post “Germany Loves the Famous Has-Beens” that appeared on this site on Dec. 2 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/12/02/.

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

August 28, 2008

Review of Oprah’s Latest Book Club Pick, ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,’ the First Novel by David Wroblewski

Get thee to a kennel! A mute boy named Edgar finds his Ophelia in a dog named Almondine in story set in a hamlet in Wisconsin

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. By David Wroblewski. Ecco, 562 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

To read, or not to read
The Edgar Sawtelle book
That is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler
In the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of
Outrageous twaddle,
And moralizing, too,
In sections told just from
The point of view of dogs,
One of them a stand-in
For Ophelia herself –
Her name is Almondine –
Because this novel is
A sort of canine Hamlet
That’s set in — of all places –
A hamlet in Wisconsin,
Or nobler to skip
A story you might like
Especially if you miss
The big, fat novels that
James Michener used to write.
To read, perchance to find
That this is your dream book:
Ay, there’s the rub!
Unless you are seeking
The kind of happy ending
That Hamlet doesn’t have
Because the author doesn’t give you
What you don’t find in the play:
A tale where no one dies.
It’s true, the book is not
The play in any way.
No poison-tipped sword looms,
A syringe is used instead.
And as for Rosenkrantz
and Guildenstern, his friend,
Like Ophelia
They have four feet and fur,
Though Hamlet is a boy, mute,
The Edgar of the title,
Who sees his father’s ghost,
A paranormal twist
In Edgar’s earthbound-life.
Morosely, Hamlet said –
Remember? – that conscience
Makes cowards of us all.
Which is not true of Edgar.
But will his morals save him
Or send him to his doom?
No spoilers you’ll find here –
The Bard supplies them all.

[Note: This review is not intended as a strict parody of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy. If you’ve read Hamlet and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and can do better, why not leave your parody in the comments section on this post? For more on the novel, visit www.edgarsawtelle.com.]

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

August 27, 2008

Reviving Ophelia as a Dog — ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’

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Ophelia has four feet and fur in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Ophelia has four feet and fur in 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle'

You know how I wrote yesterday about five books I was planning to read this week while dog-sitting for literary friends? Those books are going to have to wait a day or two. My friends left behind a copy of David Wroblewski’s first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Ecco, 562 pp., $29.95) www.edgarsawtelle.com. And although I’ve been reading the over-the-top reviews of this bestseller for weeks, I’d somehow missed that – to oversimplify – this is a canine version of Hamlet in which a) Ophelia is a dog and b) the story is told partly from “Ophelia”’s point of view. Is Wroblewski’s novel closer to Shakespeare or Millie’s Book, the book former first lady Barbara Bush wrote in the voice of a White House spaniel? I will sort this out soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing this and other reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

May 27, 2008

Man Asian Literary Prize Reality Check – Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

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Meanwhile, back at the yurt, the natives say things like, “I nearly peed my pants”

The latest in a series of occasional posts on the winners of major literary awards and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Wolf Totem. By Jiang Rong. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. Penguin, 527 pp., $29.95.

What it is: A semi-autobiographical novel by a retired Beijing professor and former member of the Red Guards, who became an activist for democracy. At the age of 21, Jiang Rong went to live among nomads on the Inner Mongolian grasslands and stayed for 11 years. Wolf Totem fictionalizes his life there, including his experience of raising an orphaned wolf cub.

Winner of … the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize, given to a book from Asia that hasn’t been published in English.

Was this one of those book awards that made you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Yes. Censorship in China clearly limits the supply of worthy books. But so much good fiction has come out of Japan, India and other parts of Asia that the award to Rong is hard to fathom.

Worthy of a major literary award? No. Wolf Totem is pop fiction. The writing is on par with that of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (and like that book, romanticizes animals, casting some as smarter than humans).

Comments: Wolf Totem reads less like a novel than a series of set pieces about a young intellectual, Chen Zhen, who leaves Beijing during the Cultural Revolution and becomes a shepherd on Mongolian steppes haunted by wolves. The novel isn’t a pure allegory in the sense that, say, Animal Farm is, but has allegorical elements. Wolves and sheep are extended metaphors for, respectively, the vigor of China’s lost nomadic cultures and the passivity of recent generations.

The virtues of Wolf Totem are more anthropological than literary. Rong lifts up a nomadic society, unknown to most Americans, that counts onion-fried duck-egg pancakes among its delicacies. He also taps a deep, if more familiar, vein of wolf lore. But his story lacks a strong narrative arc and sustained conflict until, after several hundred pages, Chen’s community faces the threat of a wolf attack just as the cub he is raising becomes more ferocious. The pace is turgid, the dialogue artificial, and the tone didactic. The book is both a semicolon-infested critique of modern China and a lament for the vanished wolf-worshipping nomads. Its themes include that “China’s small-scale peasant economy and Confucian culture have weakened the people’s nature” and slowed the country’s ability to develop. Characters ascribe intellectual powers to wolves and say repeatedly that they are “smarter than people.” Yet the treatment of wolves is, in some ways, simplistic: Chen is supposed to be an intellectual, but he never asks such questions as: Is wolf “intelligence” really intelligence or a highly evolved form of instinct?

Best line: A description of a blizzard on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia: “Yurts set up along wind tunnels were blown upside down, turned into huge bowls that tumbled briefly before falling to pieces. Carts heading into the wind lost their felt canopies, which flew off into the sky. The blowing snow was so dense that anyone riding a horse could see neither the head nor tail of his mount.”

Worst line: Many lines in this book choke on the gristle of fact. An example: “Now he understood how the great, unlettered military genius Genghis Khan, as well as the illiterate or semiliterate military leaders of peoples such as the Quanrong, the Huns, the Tungus, the Turks, the Mongols, and the Jurchens, were able to bring the Chinese (whose great military sage Sun-tzu had produced his universally acclaimed treatise The Art of War) to their knees, to run roughshod over their territory, and to interrupt their dynastic cycles.” Then there are stumpers like: “Heaven and man do not easily come to together, but the wolf and the grassland merge like water and milk.” And it’s hard to imagine a Mongol nomad saying, “I nearly peed my pants [sic].”

Published: April 2008 www.penguin.com

Furthermore: Jiang Rong is the pen name of Lu Jiamin. Wolf Totem reportedly has had a Chinese readership second only to that of Mao’s little red book. You’ll find more on the Man Asian Literary Prize at www.manasianliteraryprize.org/2008/index.php. For a specialist’s perspective on Wolf Totem, you may want to read this post on The China Beat, which calls the book “nostalgic drivel” thechinabeat.blogspot.com/2008/03/coming-distractions-wolf-totem.html.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

April 21, 2008

Death Be Not Stoned – Elisa Albert’s First Novel, ‘The Book of Dahlia’

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A gifted writer sends up, among other things, the cult of “positivity” in cancer treatment

The Book of Dahlia: A Novel. By Elisa Albert. Free Press, 276 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Dahlia Finger has a Glioblastoma multiforme, the type of malignant brain tumor that killed 17-year-old Johnny Gunther in the classic memoir Death Be Not Proud. And you could read The Book of Dahlia as a send-up of that and other books that ennoble – deservedly or not – young people who have catastrophic illnesses

There is nothing noble – or so it might seem — about the anti-heroine of Elisa Albert’s first novel, a 29-year-old unemployed stoner who lives in a bungalow in Venice, California, bought for her by her well-off father. Dahlia describes herself, with only slight comic exaggeration, as “vile, self-absorbed, depressing, lazy, messy, spoiled” and “probably mentally ill.” She is also sexually irresponsible and relentlessly profane.

But Dahlia has perfect pitch for the absurdity – and cruelty — of much of the advice inflicted on cancer patients. The propaganda is exemplified by It’s Up to You: The Cancer To-Do List, a guilt-inducing advice manual that she got soon after her diagnosis. If you don’t get better, it suggests, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough to show “positivity” or find the “bright side.” (Bad luck, apparently, has nothing to do with it.) Each chapter in The Book of Dahlia takes its title from one in It’s Up to You and satirizes a psychological cliché — “Reframe,” “Heal Yourself,” “Find a Support System” – often with merciless accuracy.

All of this is more interesting than the parallel story of how Dahlia became such a slacker. That tale begins with her parents’ courtship on a kibbutz. And involves somewhat predictable explanations — cruel mother, callow older brother, kind but ineffectual father – that emerge as Dahlia undergoes radiation, chemotherapy and more.

But if The Book of Dahlia has less unity How This Night Is Different, Albert’s wonderful collection of short stories, it also has higher ambitions. Young writers typically find humor in safe topics, such as designer shoes or clueless bosses. Few have the courage to take aim at larger – or worthier — targets than Albert does in this book.

Best line: Dahlia has had a half dozen or so casual dates with a man named
Ben when she learns she has cancer. Her parents cast him immediately as her “boyfriend”: “Margalit and Bruce were just thrilled that Dahlia appeared to have a boyfriend. This happy news could almost elbow out cancer. How much more poignant to die an untimely death in the throws of a blossoming relationship!”

Worst line: Albert could tighten her grip on point on view. Most of her story is told from Dahlia’s point of view. But at times the story goes inside the heads of others, such as Dahlia’s father: “Bruce ached for his daughter’s lack of a mother, and had tried to do everything in his power to distract her.” You could argue that at such times, Dahlia has internalized her father’s point of view so that it’s now hers. But because we don’t know if how she has internalized it, the lines are distracting.

Published: March 2008 www.elisaalbert.com.

Furthermore: Albert also wrote the short story collection, How This Night Is Different www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/22/.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

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

April 17, 2008

A Review of Elisa Albert’s ‘The Book of Dahlia,’ a Send-Up of the Cult of Positive Thinking in the Cancer-Treatment Field, Coming Soon

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Can you write a funny novel about a 29-year-old woman with a malignant brain tumor? Elisa Albert www.elisaalbert.com takes on the challenge in her new The Book of Dahlia (Free Press, $23)a book that satirizes, in part, the cult of positive thinking in the field of cancer treatment. A review of the novel will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews in the next week.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 7, 2008

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

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

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

Editor: Stacia Decker

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

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

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

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

October 2, 2007

Rebecca Gowers’s First Novel, ‘When to Walk,’ Longlisted for the Orange Prize Along With Books by Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley

A young British writer with septic arthritis tries to cope after her husband unexpectedly announces that their marriage is “defunct”

When to Walk. By Rebecca Gowers. Canongate, 235 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Rebecca Gowers writes in When to Walk that the Victorian poor gave their babies a substance called Venice Treacle, “which induced an opium stupor while the mothers went out to work.” That line – interesting in itself — also suggests the emotional state of the narrator of this novel, longlisted for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize: She sometimes seems to be in an opium stupor without the opium.

Early on, the narrator’s husband of three years announces that their marriage is “defunct,” and the novel describes her attempts to cope during the following week. Gowers’s publisher calls the story a “ramble into familial failures, urban isolation, unreliable relationships” and more.

That’s true, but for a ramble, When to Walk is oddly overdetermined. The surname of the narrator, for example, is Ramble. Nearly every character has a name freighted with so much baggage, you sense that Gowers doesn’t trust you to figure such things out on your own. Ramble’s husband, Constantine, known as Con, acts like an emperor and gets involved with small-time con artists. Her gay best friend with a bisexual past has the doubly phallic name of Johnson Pike, and if that suggests to you that he might be tempted at some point show her his johnson, you’re right. Her half-batty grandmother, Stella Ramble, is always referred to that way, never as “Gran” or Grandma,” implying a distance between the two characters that the story doesn’t entirely support.

The overdetermination is all the more distracting because the novel is underplotted. Gowers sets up minor subplots that go nowhere – one about a friend her heroine is helping with her English and another about a Holocaust-era photograph she finds amid her grandmother’s belongings. Ramble also has septic arthritis – similar to Lyme Disease – presumably intended as a metaphor for the creaky joints of her life and marriage. But the relation between her physical and emotional states isn’t clear: To what degree, if any, is the illness responsible for her bad marriage and dull job writing travel articles about places she hasn’t seen? Little enough happens overall that the novel crawls along until the whiz-bang final chapter, where the story gains the steam it has lacked until then.

So When to Walk is less successful as a novel than as a collection of anecdotes, many about the Victorian era. Some of these tell stories more interesting than that of the book as a whole, including one about the author of the poem “In the Bleak Midwinter.” “I can state for certain that at some point in the early 1840s, when she was still a child, Christina Rossetti was taken to Madame Tussaud’s on a treat that was a total failure,” Gowers writes. “Why? Because she’d been taught that it’s rude to stare.”

Best line: “For all the time I’ve known her, Stella Ramble has, in the old phrase, been ‘living on unkindly terms with her years.’” Old phrase? I’d never heard it but know a lot of people to whom it applies.

Worst line: An e-mail message from a character who works for a college, whom Ramble is helping with her English: “Boustrophedon is when the lines of the inscription go left to right, right to left (retrograde means the characters being r to l too as in a mirror), left to right etc. Boustrophedon translates to mean the way oxen turn back and forth over a field when they plough. Whereas, false boustrophedon, alternate lines instead of having vertical orientation will curl around upside down, this also being called Schlangenschrift which means snake-writing.” As mangled English, this isn’t funny enough. It is hardly, if all, distinguishable from much of what passes for acceptable in academia today.

Published: October 2007 www.canongate.net

Furthermore: Gowers also wrote The Swamp of Death: A True Tale of Victorian Lies and Murder (Penguin, 2004). When to Walk was one of 20 books on the longlist for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, formerly the Orange Prize www.orangeprize.co.uk, which also included novels by Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley.

Cover story: Joe Berger’s cover for When to Walk differs by a mile from what American publishers typically choose for books about young women and their relationships — in part because it isn’t pink — and this is much to the credit of the Edinburgh-based Canongate Books. The spirit of the cover is very Scottish, though it contains none of the usual Scottish cliches such (such as kilts, thistles or Nessie), and the story is set in an unnamed British city. The cover is mainly green, the same shade that many of the spear-pointed iron fences in Edinburgh were until painted black after the death of Prince Albert. Some fences have been repainted in the shade.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site in the world on Google on Sept. 6, 2007 www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

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

June 26, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Holly Peterson’s ‘The Manny’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Manny
By Holly Peterson

This readers’ guide was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Five years ago Holly Peterson wrote a story about male nannies for the New York Times in which she explained why she had hired men to care for her 3-year-old son. It seems that Jack wanted to sell his baby sister at the supermarket. ”Just leave her on the shelf next to the Teddy Grahams, Mom,” he suggested. Peterson now returns to male nannies in her first novel, The Manny. Jamie Whitfield, a 36-year-old New York television producer, hires a younger man to care for her son because her rich, caddish husband doesn’t seem to care that Dylan suffers from a “loss of self-esteem more than likely due to an absent dad.” Jamie comes from a middle-class Midwestern background and loathes many of her “showy and vulgar” Upper East Side neighbors, whose sexual adventures can be as explicit as their preferences for brands like Bulgari and Chanel. And they aren’t her only problem. The Manny also involves infidelity, a political scandal and an FBI investigation. As the action moves from Manhattan to Aspen, Jamie faces a final question: Should she stay with her indifferent husband or cast her lot with a seemingly penniless male nanny who has charmed her young son?

Questions for Readers

1. Many well-known novelists have written about the world of the Park Avenue elite, including Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities. What, if anything, did you learn from The Manny that you didn’t get from other sources?

2. Nannies or other underlings have taken center stage in such recent bestsellers as The Nanny Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada. Some people would say that it’s easier for a novelist to evoke sympathy for such obviously exploited characters than for their bosses. Jamie Whitfield is the boss in The Manny. Does Holly Peterson create sympathy for Jamie? What did you find appealing or not appealing about her?

3. Peterson says that Jamie comes from “middle-class, Middle American roots” and “married into” her elite realm on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. [Page 7] Did Jamie strike you as a credible daughter of the Heartland? Why or why not?

4. Jamie dislikes many of the people in her social orbit, whom she sees as pretentious snobs. She says that guests at a museum benefit are “showy and vulgar” and “unintellectual and boring.” [Page 312] Does Jamie ever come across as a snob? Where? Do you think that Peterson intended this or that it’s a flaw in the novel?

5. New York magazine had this novel reviewed by real-life manny, Jake Shapiro, who questioned its title: “A more apt title would be The Mommy – the book focuses pretty tightly on Jamie and her desires for happier kids, an exciting career, and a better marriage. Peter, the manny, is a stock character, a callow guy in his twenties on the rebound from a busted romance.” [“A Man Among Nannies,” by Jake Shapiro, New York, June 25, 2007 www.nymag.com/arts/books/features/33518/.] Do agree that Peter is a “stock character”? Why or why not? What could Peterson have done to make him less of a stock character and give him more depth?

6. One critic of The Nanny Diaries wrote that while the nanny and others in the novel were unique and believable characters, the boy the nanny cared for wasn’t – he came across as a generic child. How well did Peterson portray Dylan in The Manny? Was he unique and believable or a generic boy?

7. Critics use the term roman-à-clef (novel-with-a-key) to describe books that invite you to guess which people or incidents inspired their characters. Does that characterization fit all or parts of The Manny? Why?

8. The Manny has its roots in an article Peterson wrote for the New York Times. A British reviewer wrote that the novel feels “more like a collection of newspaper pieces than a coherent narrative.” [The Telegraph, March 18, 2007] Do you agree or disagree? What makes the book seem like a novel or collection of articles to you?

9. The Manny has multiple story lines that involve the manny, a political scandal Jamie is covering at her network, and an FBI investigation of the law firm where her husband, Phillip, practices. One challenge of keeping several story lines going is that you have to tie them together at the end. How well did Peterson do this?

10. Another challenge of working with multiple story lines that you have to give background for each up front, which can make a novel slow in getting off the ground. How would you describe the pace of The Manny? Did it ever seem to drag? Where? Why did the novel move faster in some places than others?

If you dare:
11. The Manny has some fairly explicit – some might say trashy – sex scenes, such as the one on page 167. Did these strike you as realistic? Or is Peterson one of those authors who should be barred by the New York City Council from ever trying to write a credible scene that includes the line, “Now she was on her knees …”

Vital statistics
The Manny. By Holly Peterson. Dial Press, 353 pp., $25. Published June 2007.

A review of The Manny appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 26, 2007 http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/06/26. It saved both with the June posts and in the “Novels” category on the site.

Links: The excerpt from The Manny appears on the online edition of Newsweek dated June 17, 2007. I can’t link directly to it, but you can find the excerpt by Googling “The Manny + excerpt + Newsweek.” You can also find an excerpt and more on the Random House site www.randomhouse.com.

Peterson’s article “It’s So Nice to Have a Manny Around the House” ran in the New York Times, Nov 3, 2002, pg. 9.2. You have to register for the Times‘s site to access the article but may be able to find it elsewhere on the Web.

Your book group may also want to read:
The Nanny Diaries. By Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. St. Martin’s, 320 pp., $13.95 paperback (tie-in edition for the movie due out in September 2007). This novel does not have a diary format but uses first-person narration to depict the life of a nanny for ruthless parents who inhabit a world similar to that of The Manny.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com 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. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but no on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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May 28, 2007

A Totally Authorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Accidental Bride’ by Janice Harayda

10 Discussion Questions
The Accidental Bride
A Comedy of Midwestern Manners

Note: Because of the holiday, I’m taking the day off from reviewing and posting this readers’ guide to The Accidental Bride, my first novel. This differs slightly from the other guides on this site, because I haven’t reviewed the book and am instead using some of the material the publisher sent out when the book came out in hardcover. A guide to my second comedy of manners, Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), appeared on March 14, 2007. You can find it by clicking either on the March posts archive or the Totally Unauthorized Reading Groups Guide category (although the guides to both of my novels, unlike the others on this site, are totally authorized). Jan

One month before her fairy-tale wedding to the third richest man in the second largest city in Ohio, Lily Blair is beset by doubts. She appears to have a charmed life – a budding newspaper career and a five-carat engagement ring from a wonderful man – but can’t decide whether to plunge headfirst into the security of married suburban life or follow her career dreams alone to New York. Her family and friends keep nudging her toward the aisle. But Lily has qualms about a wedding her mother wants to stage like a full-scale military operation. Amid the plans, Lily looks to Jane Austen for inspiration. Can she find what she needs in novels like Pride and Prejudice? The answer doesn’t emerge until the last pages of book that Publishers Weekly called “a witty and wise comedy of manners that pays homage to Jane Austen.”

Questions for Book Clubs and Others

1. Each chapter of The Accidental Bride begins with a quote from Jane Austen. How do these quotes relate to the plot? Do they serve different purposes in the individual chapters and in the novel as a whole? What are the purposes? You may want to compare The Accidental Bride to Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club.

2. Many reviewers noted that the humor in The Accidental Bride is satirical. What are some of the things the novel is satirizing? Does Janice Harayda satirize some of the same things that Austen does?

3. Satire can take many forms. For example, it can be gentle or biting (sometimes both in the work of the same author, as in Austen’s novels). How would you describe the satire in The Accidental Bride?

4. The first sentence of The Accidental Bride reads: “One month before her wedding to the third richest man in the second largest city in Ohio, Lily Blair awoke in the middle of the night and realized that she did not want to get married.” The author doesn’t name that “second largest city.” But you may know that it is Cleveland. (The largest city is Columbus, the capital.) Why you do think the author didn’t name Cleveland? Do you think she did this for legal, literary, or other reasons? How might your reactions to the novel have changed if the author had named Cleveland in the first line?

5. Lily, the heroine of The Accidental Bride, doesn’t want to see a psychiatrist because she doesn’t think many therapists are as wise as writers like La Rochefoucauld, who said, “In love there is always the kisser and the one who gets kissed.” What does this saying mean? Is there a “kisser” and a “one who gets kissed” in The Accidental Bride?

6. Lily also admires another writer who says “love is an agreement on the part of two people to overestimate each other.” Do you think that writer was being serious or facetious or both?

7. A critic for The New York Times wrote in her review of The Accidental Bride that “Harayda is an astute social commentator.” That is, she is saying some things about our society in addition to telling a story. What are some of the things you think she is trying to say?

8. In novels about women in their twenties, the men are often cads. That’s especially true of the heroines’ boyfriends. Lily’s boyfriend, Mark, is different. He is a kind and thoughtful man who is trying to understand the woman he loves. How does this affect the plot and other aspects of the story?

9. Mark is trial lawyer who is forced to defend a company accused – with good reason – of age discrimination. Do you see any parallels between Lily’s situation and that of the older people in the lawsuit (called “Geezers” and “Geezerettes” by their employer)?

10. The Accidental Bride belongs to the genre known as the “comedy of manners,” which consists of fiction that tweaks the customs of a particular group (often a group that is — or sees itself — as upper class). The humor in this genre tends to involve wit and charm instead of slapstick or physical comedy. A classic example is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest. What are some other plays, movies, or novels that are comedies of manners? Why do you like them?

Praise for The Accidental Bride
“Satire with heart … In a style that careens from Austenesque to Corporate Memo-ese, Janice Harayda has written a farce that dissects the farce of the matrimonial ceremony. Lily is a charming character.”
— Olivia Goldsmith, bestselling author of The First Wives Club

“A thoroughly entertaining first novel.”
— Joyce R. Slater, Chicago Sun-Times

“Sparkling with wit and humor, this is a story that charms.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Harayda’s first novel has plenty of snappy, witty dialog, humorous scenarios, and sexual innuendo.”
Margaret Ann Hanes, Library Journal

“A frothy comedy … Harayda is an astute social commentator.”
— Maggie Galehouse, The New York Times

“Harayda is quick with a quip and merciless at sniping at an unnamed Ohio city … Residents of that city may not find this funny, but everyone else will.”
— Michele Leber, Booklist

“Vigorous wit, playful homage to the winsome heroines of great nineteenth-century novels, and a charming, irresolute heroine make this tale of a woman who doesn’t want to get married an unusually filling trifle.”
— Karen Karbo, San Francisco Chronicle (“Recommended” book)

“Harayda’s sense of the humorously absurd, combined with her gift for timing and fun, make this book readable and fun … Did I ever put it down? No. I read it at breakfast, at dinner, in the bubble bath. I got to liking Lily and wanted to find out what would happen.”
— Wendy Smith, San Diego Union Tribune

“The former book editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Harayda has made Lily a displaced reporter. This gives the author a wonderful chance to skewer newsroom types … half the fun for the reader is helping Lily sort out her misgivings [about her wedding] and figure out which are real and which are only flutters.”
— Kit Reed, St. Petersburg Times

“The Accidental Bride is a worthy counterpart to … Bridget Jones’s Diary [Harayda’s] hand at social satire rivals Austen’s … Lily Blair is a charming heroine … The reader is pleased to go along for the ride.”
Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

“Nicely skewers today’s over-the-top weddings and the whole wedding industry.”
— Linda Brazill, The Capital Times (Madison, WI)

“The Accidental Bride is a delightful romp of a book, both funny and wise and very much a story for our times. In Lily Blair, Jan Harayda has created a contemporary character who outdoes the best of Jane Austen’s most memorable women. When feisty Lily comes to terms with one of the biggest decisions of her life, the reader can do nothing but cheer.”
— Ruth Coughlin, author of Grieving: A Love Story

“True laughs and true lover abound in this galloping romanic comedy. Jan Harayda goes after the smug assumptions of suburban weddings and the absurdity of ‘mandatory’ matrimony. The wit is civilized, the heart is romantic, and the wisecracks are indeed wise.”
— Steve Szilagyi, author of Photographing Fairies

“The Accidental Bride is a charmingly witty, modern-day satirical tale of a woman trying to keep her balance as she teeters on the edge of matrimony.”
Charles Salzberg, co-author of On Clear Day They Could See Seventh Place

Vital Statistics
The Accidental Bride: A Romantic Comedy. By Janice Harayda. St. Martin’s/Griffin, 304 pp., $13.95, paperback.

To invite Janice Harayda to speak to your book group in person or by speakerphone, please use the e-mail address on the “Contact” page of www.janiceharayda.com and write “Book Club” in the subject heading of your note.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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