One-Minute Book Reviews

February 17, 2009

Andrew Blechman’s ‘Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias’ — Are Adults-Only Communities the Equivalent of Geriatric Club Meds?

A report from the land of souped-up golf carts

Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias. By Andrew D. Blechman. Atlantic Monthly Press, 244 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

A church at a Florida retirement community is thinking about allowing only people over 55 to become members — an age limit that would exclude Jesus. Andrew Blechman zeros in on absurdities like these in Leisureville, a well-researched but derisive account of his visits to some of America’s largest housing developments for older people, including The Villages in Florida and Sun City in Arizona.

Blechman argues fairly enough that autocratic real-estate barons have carved out vast subdivisions that amount to monocultures, or the social equivalent of a single crop such as rice or bananas, that can cause the entire local economy to crash if the demand drops. He also accuses the developers a host of lesser sins, including requiring residents to sign restrictive covenants that deprive them of many of the usual rights of home owners.

But the tone of Leisureville turns smug when Blechman suggests that some aspects of retirement communities are “a tragic parody” of the better life he and his family have in their diverse Massachusetts town. His targets include what he seems to regard as bad the taste of residents who drive souped-up golf carts around villages that resemble geriatric Club Meds. This overreaching makes Leisureville read at times like an extended Woody Allen joke: Not only are retirement communities morally, socially, and economically indefensible, but their residents hang Thomas Kinkade paintings on their walls. Alas, if the problems with retirement communities are anywhere near as serious as he suggests, adding a few tasteful Mark Rothko reproductions won’t make a difference.

Best line: No. 1: “Boomers typically list 85 as the age when they will finally consider themselves ‘old.’ Not surprisingly, that’s two years longer than actuaries predict many of them will live.” No. 2: “Some deed restrictions [in retirement communities] — and their rigorous enforcement by powerful homeowners’ associations — can be severe to the point of being comical. For instance, one woman in California was repeatedly forced to weigh in her overweight poodle because it hovered around the community’s 30-pound weight limit for dogs.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Women who once burned their bras now pay handsomely for expensive brassieres and plastic surgery.” The early feminists who planned to burn their bras at a Miss America pageant never did so, because Atlantic City officials wouldn’t give them a fire permit. The women threw their bras in a garbage can instead. Even if Blechman’s comment were accurate — which, repeat, it is not — bra-burning is a bedraggled cliché. Nos. 2 and 3: At The Villages, a married couple displayed on their living-room wall “a print by Thomas Kinkade, an evangelical oil painter with an unusually devoted following, whose trademark is Painter of Light.” And a female tour guide is quoted as saying that the same community is “so beautiful – it’s like living in a Thomas Kinkade painting, but in real life.” So was the guide supposed to say, that “it’s like living in that brothel in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”?

Sample chapter titles: “Free Golf!” “Where’s Beaver?” “The Golden Years”

Published: May 2008. Paperback due out in July 2009 with the new subtitle Adventures in a World Without Children.

About the author: Blechman also wrote Pigeons: The Fascinating Story of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird.

Furthermore: A more entertaining account of young author’s stay in a retirement community appears in Rodney Rothman’s Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a book that treats the elderly more sympathetically. But you don’t know how much, if any, of that book is fictionalized. Leisureville is more informative, though skewed by its polemical tone and Blechman’s view of age-restricted communities as “age-segregated.”

One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the finalists for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Feb. 26, 2009. To nominate a passage in a book for a bad-writing award, leave a comment or send a message to the e-mail address on the “Contact” page.  To read about the purple thong Jan caught at a Mardi Gras parade, see yesterday’s post or follow her Twitter feed www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 9, 2009

Adultery for Third-Graders — A Review of ‘What I Saw and How I Lied,’ Winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

A tale of theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder, written at an 8-year-old reading level

What I Saw and How I Lied. By Judy Blundell. Scholastic, 284 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

What would you do if you were a publisher who knew that reading test scores were declining as children were seeing more sex and violent crimes in the media? Maybe play both sides against the middle as Scholastic has done with What I Saw and How I Lied, the winner of the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

This stylish literary thriller deals with subjects appropriate for the 13-to-18-year-old age range that the publisher recommends on its site — theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder. But Judy Blundell writes at a third-grade reading level in the novel, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.

So who, exactly, is this book for? Much of the content is too mature for 8-year-olds. But the reading level is too low for the sophisticated adolescent and teenage girls likely gravitate to its glamorous, noir-ish cover, which shows a thin, beautiful model applying red lipstick. Blundell is condescending to them even if they enjoy its page-turner of a plot: Anyone who is ready for the subjects covered in this novel is also ready for a higher reading level.

Evie Spooner is 15 years old when her stepfather, Joe, returns from Austria in 1947, having overstayed the end of the war for murky reasons. Evie’s seductive mother has quit her job at Lord & Taylor – “Either that or get fired”— because veterans needed jobs. And she’s surprised her husband by learning to make Sunday suppers and perform other domestic tasks. “Son of a bitch,” Joe says of the change.

But the glow of the family reunion fades after Joe packs up the three of them for what he casts as an overdue Florida vacation. They settle into a Palm Beach hotel (aptly named Le Mirage), nearly deserted in the off-season. And Evie becomes swept up in a riptide of events that involves looted gold, a hurricane, an inquest into a possible homicide and her crush on a seductive 23-year-old who says he served with Joe overseas.

The plotting is tight and ingenious until an improbable last scene, and well-supported by details that evoke the era (including the chocolate cigarettes that Evie buys to “practice smoking”). And the book deals with larger issues than whether a murder occurred: What is loyalty? What do we owe the dead? Do truth and justice differ and, if so, how?

Questions like these appeal strongly to adolescents and teenagers, and this book could provide a framework for exploring them. As for their reading test scores: They’re not likely to improve if more publishers — encouraged by the National Book Award for this novel — put a senior prom dress on a third-grader’s soccer shorts.

Best line: A warning heard on the radio as a hurricane approaches Palm Beach: “Watch out for flying coconuts.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Our pipsqueak attorney had turned into a pretty decent linebacker.” It’s a stretch that a 15-year-old girl living in 1947 would know enough about linebackers to use the word in this way. No. 2: “Lana Turner was every man’s dream, sultry and blond. It was Lana filling out a sweater at a drugstore that got her a Hollywood contract.” That Turner was discovered at a drugstore is a myth. Even if the teenagers of 1947 believed the myth, the book is perpetuating this legend for a new generation of readers.

About the reading level: The reading level comes from the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on any recent version of Microsoft Word. To find it, I entered a minimum of 300 words from each of the following two-page sections of What I Saw and How I Lied: pages 36-37 (Grade 4.2), pages 136-137 (Grade 2.6) and pages 236-237 (3.7). I also entered all of last two pages (Grade 3.0). The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of authors and tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.

Furthermore: What I Saw and How I Lied
won a 2008 National Book Award. The National Book Foundation.
has posted an excerpt from and the citation for the novel on its site.

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

July 8, 2008

Modern-Day Slavery on Long Island, in Florida and Elsewhere

Filed under: News,Nonfiction,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:06 pm
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Last month a federal judge sentenced an upper-middle-class Long Island woman to 11 years in prison after immigration officials found that she and her husband had kept two Indonesian housekeepers as virtual slaves in their home. The victims testified that they had been “beaten with brooms and umbrellas, slashed with knives and forced to climb stairs and take freezing showers as punishment,” the Associated Press said www.nytimes.com/2008/06/27/nyregion/27slave.html?ref=nyregion.

The judge called it “eye-opening, to say the least – that things like that go on in our country.” John Bowe makes clear in Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy (Random House, 336 pp., $15, paperback) that such brutality is far from unique. Nobodies is an uneven book that blends strong reporting on the abuse of migrant and other workers with a weaker analysis of why it has occurred. But there is real power in its first section, “Florida,” which deals with the plight of Mexican and Central American orange- and tomato-pickers in Immokalee, Florida, parts of which first appeared in different form in The New Yorker www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/22/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 6, 2008

Sex and Shuffleboard – A 28-Year-Old Former Joke Writer for David Letterman Moves Into a Retirement Village in Florida Where He’s the Youngest Resident by Decades

Filed under: Humor,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:20 am
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At Century Village, Thanksgiving resembles Parents Weekend at a college “but instead, it’s the kids visiting the parents”

Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement. By Rodney Rothman. Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

An old joke says that “Florida is God’s waiting room.” Rodney Rothman showed up for his appointment early when, at the age of 28, a television show he was working on in Los Angeles was cancelled.

Rothman moved into the Century Village retirement complex in Boca Raton www.centuryvillage.com/BocaRaton.htm, hoping to parlay the experience into a book. He seems to have hoped to write a geriatric version of one of David Sedaris’s fish-out-of-water stories — maybe the one about working as an elf at Macy’s Santaland. Rothman isn’t as inventive as Sedaris, who often seems to be writing under the influence of a species of mushroom that only he has discovered. But Early Bird is still a snappy and entertaining account of life in place where Thanksgiving resembled Parents Weekend at a college “but instead, it’s the kids visiting the parents.”

The question is how much of the book you can believe. Rothman bills Early Bird as a memoir but has said that he is “not a journalist” and that some of the writing is hyperbolic. He also caught flak when, in 2000, he wrote an article for The New Yorker about sneaking in to work for an Internet company that hadn’t hired him. The magazine printed an apology after learning that he had made up an incident in the story.

Some of the claims in Early Bird would be hard to believe in any case. Rothman says that as part of his research for the book, he lied to his friends, falsely telling them he had slept with a 75-year-old woman whom he calls Vivian to see how they’d react. This is hardly reassuring. If he’d lie to his friends, why wouldn’t he lie to us?

But much of Early Bird is either believable or has been confirmed by people who appear in it, and Rothman writes engagingly about subjects from shuffleboard tp the psychology of being a young in a retirement village. And there is real bite to his observations, however amusing, on how Americans condescend to old people — for example, by calling them “adorable.”

“I don’t think Tuesdays with Morrie would have been so uplifting if that guy had to spend more than Tuesdays with Morrie,” he writes. “By Thursday he would have been cursing Morrie out.”

Morrie would have been cursing him out, too, if the guy kept calling him “adorable.”

Best line: “The rhythm of the senior softball game is unlike that of any softball game I’ve ever witnessed. The defining factor is that most of the men have much stronger arms and shoulders than legs. For all of them, the knees have started to go. ‘It’s what you get for carrying this kinda weight around for so long,’ Buddy, the WWF referee, says to me, slapping his ample belly for emphasis. Because of this, senior softball is very much a hitter’s game – as long as the hitters can get the ball in play and keep it low, odds are the fielders won’t be able to reach it in time.

“The opposite side of the ‘strong arms/weak legs’ issue is this – the hitters, once they put a ball in play, run very slowly. And the fielders, once they reach the ball, have the arm strength to fire the ball wherever it needs to go. So when people do get out, it’s in ways I’ve never seen before – like someone hitting a line drive deep into the hole in left center, and then getting thrown out a first.”

Worst line: All of the material on the aging seductress he calls “Vivian,” with whom he may or may not have had sex and about whom he may or may not have lied to his friends.

Published: 2005 (hardcover) and 2006 (paperback) www.rodneyrothman.com

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

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

January 22, 2008

John Bowe Exposes Abuses of Migrant Workers in Florida, Oklahoma and Elsewhere in ‘Nobodies’

 

Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. By John Bowe. Random House, 304 pp., $25.95.

 

By Janice Harayda

In ancient Rome the authorities created a torture device called “the brazen bull,” a life-sized metal statue of a bull in which they locked people accused of misbehavior. “A fire was built below the bull’s belly, and with careful placement of musical pipes within the bull’s head, the victim’s screams would be transformed into ‘music,’” John Bowe writes in Nobodies.

Most of us like to think that such inhumanity has gone the way of the Caesars. But Bowe argues that spiritual descendants of the Roman torturers exist in modern employers who exploit migrants and frighten them into silence with threats of deportation, harm to their families back at home or other punishments. And the abuses he describes are no less chilling because his rhetoric about them at times becomes overheated.

Bowe focuses in Nobodieson the harm done to three groups, including Mexican and Central American orange- and tomato-pickers in Immokalee, Florida, and garment workers on the American commonwealth of Saipan, whose mistreatment led to a class action suit against JCPenney, the Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and 21 other corporations that was settled for $20 million. Then there were the welders brought over from India to work for the John Pickle Company (JPC) in Tulsa:

“JPC had confiscated their passports, crammed 53 workers into a squalid barracks on factory premises, and was feeding them disgusting, unsanitary food, verbally abusing them, constraining their movements, and forcing them to work six days a week. The company had even hired an armed guard to keep them from escaping over Thanksgiving.”

Bowe is such a fine reporter that if he had let facts like these speak for themselves, Nobodies might have appeared on every newspaper’s list of the 10 best books of the year. But he also tries to show that the growing gap between the rich and the poor, as exemplified by forced labor, undermines democracy.

That’s true, but Bowe is much less effective as an analyst than as a journalist and can’t quite pull it off. In the third section of his book, on Saipan, he loses his focus and serves up something that resembles an investigative report less than a highly stylized travelogue of the School of Geoff Dyer. And in the fourth section he tries to link the stories in his book to global events such as the attacks on Sept. 11 in a way that comes across as simply glib.

Bowe says on his blog that he wishes he’d written a simpler book, and it’s a perceptive comment. As good Nobodies is, it could have been better if he’d tried to do less in it.

Best line: “The average migrant [worker] has a life expectancy of just 49 years. Twenty thousand farmworkers require medical treatment for acute pesticide poisoning each year; at least that many more cases go unreported. Nationally, 50 percent of migrants – up from 12 percent in1990 – are without legal work papers. Their median annual income is somewhere around $7,500.”

Worst line:“Osama bin Laden, to my thinking, is just another name for Osama bin jobs, Osama bin minimum wage, Osama bin social justice. The poor will find ways to revenge themselves on the rich. And the ideology that provides the most comfort and justice to the largest number of people will prevail. If the revenge motive of brand Osama holds greater appeal than brand Freedom, well, I guess that means that brand Freedom didn’t do such a great job of delivering on its promises.”

Editors: Daniel Menaker and Dana Isaacson

Published: Sept. 18, 2007 www.randomhouse.com and www.johnbowe.wordpress.com/

Furthermore: Parts of “Florida,” the first section of Nobodies, appeared in different form in the April 21, 2003, issue of The New Yorker. In 2004 Bowe’s work to date on the book won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and other honors. The plight of the Immokalee tomato-pickers led to a four-year boycott of Taco Bell, which ended in 2005 when its parent company agreed to give workers a raise that would nearly double their wages and take other steps to improve their working conditions. Bowe lives in Manhattan.

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

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com/

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