One-Minute Book Reviews

April 22, 2008

“I’ve never seen one that … old” – A Second Look at ‘Primary Colors’

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In a famous scene in Primary Colors, a middle-aged political strategist whips out his penis at the headquarters of a presidential campaign in an attempt to lure young press aide to his hotel room. She looks at it and says, “I’ve never seen one that … old.” The strategist turns red and runs out of the room. Campaign aides – who have been eavesdropping – cheer. Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will reconsider Primary Colors, the 1996 bestseller by Joe Klein, a Washington journalist who initially used the byline “Anonymous. The novel satirizes the first presidential campaign of a Democratic governor named Jack Stanton, stand-in for Bill Clinton. (c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:15 am
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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.

March 31, 2008

‘Blandings’ Way’ – The Sequel to ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’ Is Darker But Just as Funny as the Novel That Preceded It

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Eric Hodgins satirizes one man’s fantasies of a simpler country life in the sequel to a bestseller

Blandings’ Way. By Eric Hodgins. Simon & Schuster, 314 pp., varied prices.

By Janice Harayda

In the late 1930s, Eric Hodgins wanted to find a country house that would provide a tranquil escape from the pressures of his job as an executive with Time Inc. But when he and his wife began to build a place in New Milford, Connecticut, they found that the project drained their sprits and their bank account with frightening speed. Patricia Grandjean wrote in the New York Times in 1992:

“When construction began in 1939, Mr. Hodgins anticipated a budget of $11,000 for his dream house. But the completed project ultimately escalated to a total of $56,000 — which translates into roughly $2.2 million today — a sum so inflated by his misconceptions that it nearly drove him into bankruptcy.”

Hodgins was forced to sell the house two years later, Grandjean said. But he went on to write two popular novels about his trials as a homeowner — Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and Blandings’ Way, a fictionalized account of his family’s brief time in Connecticut:

“The book sales restored his fortune, and when he received $200,000 for the film rights to the original book — provided by his New Milford neighbor, the producer Dore Schary — Mr. Hodgins tried to buy back the house back, but to no avail.”

But if Hodgins’s home ownership was perilous, his books are as appealing as when they first appeared. The delightful Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House came out in new edition in 2004 that reproduces the wonderful original illustrations by William Steig.

Blandings’ Way is darker but just as funny and, though out of print, worth tracking down online or elsewhere. The theme and tone emerge early, when Jim Blandings admits to his lawyer that he needs “a haven” from his work at a Madison Avenue advertising agency: His boss believes in “Peace Through Advertising” and wants Blandings to support it by writing an “open letter” to Joseph Stalin.

But Blandings’s lawyer doubts the soundness – and perhaps the sanity – of the move to the country. “You’re not my idea of the rural type,” he says. “If you’re going to play at that, for heaven’s sake take it slow and easy. … Don’t sponsor a zoning ordinance. Have nothing to do with dairying in thought or in deed. Don’t decide to buy the local newspaper and be its country-gentleman publisher.”

These, of course, are all the things Blandings will do. In Blandings’ Way he ricochets his way from one crisis to the next with hilarious results, keenly aware of his own failings. He’s smart enough to see how wrong things could go in the country but not smart enough to resist the possibility that they could go right. And his motives are always decent and honorable.

Blandings doesn’t buy a country newspaper to make money — he thinks he’s overpaid for writing advertising copy for clients like the Hair Removal Institute and International Screw. He wants (or believes he wants) to invest his life with a deeper meaning than he finds in his work. Hodgins’s triumph is that he manages to make Blandings at once comic and heroic, unique and a representative of a universal human striving for a deeper purpose in life. And his passionate words to his lawyer ring as true today as they did more than a half century ago:

“I want to find something to do in my personal life that’s going to help me compensate for what I have to do in my professional life. That’s the clue to the whole business. You can sit there in that detached and superior way of yours what it is and I won’t be able to tell you – but I know there’s something. The greatest unmet obligation in American life is the obligation of the superior individual toward something greater than his particular way of making money. In my case that something greater is the community that Muriel and I and our children have gone to live in. One man can’t do very much to redress the balances that are out of whack in America, but at least a man can try.”

Best line: “Was there anything sadder than the contents of an old filing cabinet? A scrapbook, a diary, were much less sad; into the scrapbook went things that had turned out right; into the diary – well, Mr. Blandings had never kept a diary, and spent a moment in grateful thanks. But an old filing cabinet contained things that were going to turn out right, except that when you looked at them again, none of them had.”

Worst line: None, but the grammar seems slightly off in this one: “The hints are indeed rather broad that there is one particular world in which my instincts least off lead me astray, I prosper best.”

Published: 1950

Furthermore: A review of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (Simon & Schuster, 1946 and 2004) and a reading group guide to the novel appeared as separate posts on One-Minute Book Reviews on April 9, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/04/09/.

Movie Link: Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House inspired two movies – the original Mr. Blandings’ Builds His Dream House www.imdb.com/title/tt0040613/, with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks www.imdb.com/title/tt0091541/.

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

March 11, 2008

Jay McInerney Satirizes New Yorker-Style Fact-Checking in ‘Bright Lights, Big City,’ A Defining Novel of the 1980s

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:35 am
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The book that put spring in the step of the phrase “Bolivian marching powder”

A lot of people have suggested that book publishers need to adopt the system used in the fact-checking department at The New Yorker, where Jay McInerney worked briefly. How does it work? McInerney sends up fact-checking — among many other things — with sardonic verve in Bright Lights, Big City (Vintage, 1984), his satirical tale of a young Manhattanite who by day works for an elite magazine and by night seeks relief from the pretension in drug-fueled revels. (This book put spring in the step of the phrase “Bolivian marching powder.”) Along with Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Bright Lights, Big City helped set the tone of fiction in the 1980s and may be McInerney’s best book. Among its virtues: It shows the rare, successful use of second-person narration in a novel. That device works partly because it suggests its anti-hero’s estrangement from himself: He’s alienated enough from his life that he sees himself not as an “I” but as a “you.”

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 30, 2007

Cheers to Paul Dickson’s ‘Toasts,’ a Book of Ideas for New Year’s Eve and Beyond

“To champagne – a beverage that makes you see double and feel single.”

From Paul Dickson’s Toasts

Blame it on stage fright, cultural illiteracy, or the popularity of nonalcoholic drinks like green tea and Grape Vitaminwater. But the ability to make an artful toast is going the way of fine penmanship. If you’d like to keep it alive, you’ll find inspiration in Paul Dickson’s Toasts: Over 1,500 of the Best Toasts, Sentiments, Blessings, and Graces (Crown, $19) pauldicksonbooks.com, illustrated by Rollin McGrail. Many similar books focus on one occasion or group, such as wedding or Irish toasts. Dickson casts a wider net, offering ideas for events that range from retirement parties to everyday meals. He notes that toasts can be “sentimental, cynical, lyric, comic, defiant, long, short, or even a single word.” And he gives examples of all, including some that fit New Year’s Eve. Looking for an alternative to “Cheers” and “L’chayim”? What about, “To champagne – a beverage that makes you see double and feel single”? If you’ll be celebrating with a spouse who makes that one risky, you could try: “May all your troubles during the coming year be as short as your New Year’s resolutions.” You can find ideas for toasts for occasions other than the end of 2007 by going to the page for Toasts on www.amazon.com and using the “Search Inside This Book” tool.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

/www.janiceharayda.com/  

December 14, 2007

Funny Gifts for Readers — Jane Austen Action Figures, Librarian Tattoos, Shakespearean Insults and More

Shakespeare is among the writers who inspire gifts that librarians and others think you’ll want to give, at least if you’re a “boiling hutch of beastliness”

By Janice Harayda

All week I’ve been posting serious gift ideas for readers along with the usual reviews. Today I’m here to entertain you. These gifts didn’t make the cut:

Jane Austen Action Figure I couldn’t find a reliable site that stocks the Jane Austen bobblehead dolls that librarians and others have seen. But the Library of Congress shop www.loc.gov/shop/ sells this plastic Jane Austen Action Figure (which comes with a quill pen and writing desk) for $8.50. Austen can’t do battle against Emily Dickinson and the Knights of the Nineteenth Century only because the Belle of Amherst doesn’t have her own action figure (though there’s a plush toy you can find on the Web if you’re determined). Be sure to read all the reader reviews on Amazon www.amazon.com, which also has the doll shown here, if this one tempts you. One critic faults the Jane Austen Action Figure for flimsy construction, including an insecure base and an arm that breaks off easily. Well, what did you expect? Austen died at the age of 41, and this one may have a correspondingly short life span.

Librarian Tattoos In January a Los Angeles librarian won the Newbery Award for a young-adult novel that has the word “scrotum” on the first page. Now the city has given us another pacesetter in a product described as wash-off “librarian tattoos.” “Librarian stereotypes are as old and outdated as microfiche,” says the online catalog for the Library Store at Los Angeles Public Library says. “Nowadays you’re just as likely to see your local librarian driving a Harley as a Honda Accord.” That must explain why the library is selling a 3-1/2″ x 4-1/2″ hardcover book of nontoxic wash-off tattoos for $8, several of which you can see at right. “Put one in a prominent place to prove once and for all that ‘smart’ and ‘cool’ are not mutually exclusive!” the library says in its catalog www.lfla.org/cgi-bin/store/.

Shakespeare’s Insults Magnet Set Are you the kind of person who loves to insult friends with barbs like “thou smell of mountain goat”? Or possibly you “bolting-hutch of beastliness”? If so, these multicolored magnets are for you. A set of 33 insults costs $15.95 at Shakespeare’s Den www.shakespearesden.com, a literary gift site that has items related — and I use the term loosely — to many authors. Among them: George Orwell magnetic finger puppets that you can put on your refrigerator or use for purposes such as — well, let’s stop here.

Source: http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

November 11, 2007

Justice for Adrian Mole! Long-Suffering Teenager With Acne Finally KOs Mitch Albom and Others

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:29 pm
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After weeks of ignominy, a comic masterpiece cracks the Top Ten

My fellow literary bloggers: Have you noticed that all your posts about books you don’t like always show up on your list of Top Ten posts while all the posts about books you will adore forever never do? Or is this just a quirk of this site?

Back in May, I wrote a post saying that Good Sports, a collection of sports poems for children, was an unusually weak book by the gifted Jack Prelutsky. So what happened? Day after day for months, the book has made it onto the Top Ten list. You would weep if I told you how often Mitch Albom has turned up there.

So here, at last, is justice. This weekend Sue Townsend cracked the Top Ten list with The Adrian Mole Diaries www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/08/, a comic masterpiece in diary form that has sold more than five million copies since its publication in the mid-1980s. Of course, it’s fitting that in the blogosphere as in the novel people would underestimate Adrian Mole, a working-class British teenager with acne, irresponsible parents, an off-again, on-again girlfriend and a justifiable conviction that the world doesn’t appreciate his genius. Still, I must say it: Adrian, redemption is yours.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 8, 2007

Sue Townsend’s Comic Masterpiece, ‘The Adrian Mole Diaries’

Filed under: Novels,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:28 am
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A teenager worries about sex, acne, his parents and all the people don’t appreciate his genius in a British bestseller with intergenerational appeal

The Adrian Mole Diaries: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. By Sue Townsend. HarperPerennial, 304 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In the realm of literary prize-giving, comic novels are the neglected stepchildren, traditionally ignored by judges on both sides of the Atlantic. So you won’t find The Adrian Mole Diaries on any list of winners of the Man Booker Prize, the next recipient of which will be announced on Oct. 16.

But few of the winners have delighted as many people as this fictional journal of a working-class English teenager, Adrian Mole, which has sold more than five million copies since its publication in the mid-1980s. The Adrian Mole Diaries has little in common with all those dreary American young-adult novels that unpersuasively suggest that – no matter how awful high school is – there is always a wise and understanding adult who can help. And it’s not just because the volume deftly satirizes the trends and events of its era instead of sentimentalizing them.

Most teenagers only think they’re smarter than their parents. Sue Townsend has created the rare teenage boy who, though entirely normal, really is smarter than the adults in his life. In his first diary entry, Adrian can hardly hide his disgust that his father got the family dog drunk on cherry brandy and that his mother is too distracted to wear the green lurex apron he gave her for Christmas. But his feelings of superiority don’t keep him from worrying about all the usual teenage concerns, such as sex, acne, a local street gang and the inability of teachers and others to see his genius. Nor is he too self-absorbed to be kind. He and his off-again, on-again girlfriend, Pandora, spend much of their time trying to help a cranky neighbor and to remedy what they see as social injustices.

Adrian embodies so perfectly the typical adolescent mix of insecurity and grandiosity his diary appeals equally to adults and teenagers. “None of the teachers at school have noticed that I am an intellectual,” he writes. “They will be sorry when I am famous.” How nice that his words were, in a sense, prophetic: Adrian has become one of the most famous schoolboys in British fiction.

Best line: Townsend shows a nearly pitch-perfect ear for social comedy in this volume, so every page has a “best line.” Here’s a sample involving Pandora Braithwaite, the love of Adrian’s life:

“My precious Pandora is going out with Craig Thomas. That’s the last time you get a Mars bar from me, Thomas!

“Barry Kent is in trouble for drawing a nude woman in Art. Ms Fossington-Gore said that it wasn’t so much the subject matter but his ignorance of basic biological facts that was so upsetting. I did a good drawing of the Incredible Hulk smashing Craig Thomas to bits. Ms Fossington-Gore said it was ‘a powerful statement of monolithic oppression.’”

Worst line: Adrian may be too bright to think, as he does at first, that Evelyn Waugh is a woman.

Recommendation? An excellent novel for adult fans of Nick Hornby and Helen Fielding and for bloggers trying to develop a comic style or persona. Many 12-to-14-year-old boys also love this book.

Caveat lector: I haven’t read the later books in the Adrian Mole series, which some critics regard as less funny.

Published: 1986 (first American edition) www.harpercollins.com. Read an excerpt and learn about the author and other books in the series at www.adrianmole.com.

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/.

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

September 11, 2007

Nick Hornby Looks at a Marriage in Trouble in His Comic Novel, ‘How to Be Good’

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Can a marriage survive if a husband and wife disagree on what it means to be a good person?

How to Be Good. By Nick Hornby. Riverhead, 305 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a study that found that if you get fat, your close friends tend to gain weight, too. Something like this principle drives the third novel by Nick Hornby, the author of High Fidelity and About a Boy and the memoir Fever Pitch.

Katie Carr, an English doctor, has to reconsider her ideas about what it means to “a good person” after her 41-year-old husband, David, falls under the influence of a spiritual guru named D.J. GoodNews. This premise might sound like the set-up for a variation on that bedraggled cliché, an overprivileged couple’s midlife crisis.

But How to Be Good is a novel of ideas that is less about a marriage in trouble than about the question implicit in its title: What does it mean to be “good” in a materialistic age? Does it involve helping people through your work, as Katie imagines? Or does it require sacrifices such as giving away a family computer, as David insists after his abrupt spiritual conversion? If two people disagree on the answer, can they stay together?

As it parses these questions, How to Be Good shifts from satire to farce, and at times the characters resemble intentional caricatures. But Hornby maintains suspense about fate of Katie and David’s marriage until the last pages and invests their plight with enough comedy that the novel doesn’t turn into a sermon. And even his one- or two-liners often have a sly wisdom. In the first scene, Katie calls David on her cell phone to say she wants divorce, then tries to rationalize her behavior as atypical.

“But for the majority of people, marriage-ending conversations happen only once, if at all,” she reflects. “If you choose to conduct yours on a mobile phone, in a Leeds car park, then you cannot really claim that it is unrepresentative, any more than Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t really claim that shooting presidents wasn’t like him at all. Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.”

Best line: “Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.”

Worst line: It’s unclear whether the lack of punctuation and subject-verb agreement in the following are intentional: “Whenever I have seen Jerry Springer, the guilty party always says to the devastated spouse ‘I tried to tell you we wasn’t happy, but you wouldn’t listen.’ And I always end up thinking that the crime of not listening does not automatically deserve the punishment of infidelity.”

Recommendation? A good book club book. More than most comic novels, How to Be Good raises the moral questions that could help to foster a lively discussion. And the slackers who never finish the book may have seen a movie version of one of Hornby’s other novels, so they won’t feel completely left out of the conversation.

Reading group guide: www.penguinputnamguides.com

Published: July 2001 (Riverhead hardcover), May 2002 (Riverhead paperback) us.penguingroup.com. Hornby’s latest novel is A Long Way Down (Riverhead, 2005).

Links: You can read about Hornby and download the first chapter of How to Be Good at his official site, www.nicksbooks.com. Visit the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com for information on the movie versions of Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About a Boy). Search for “Nick Hornby” on British Council site www.contemporarywriters.com for a biography, critical analysis and a list of his awards.

Caveat lector: I haven’t read Hornby’s earlier novels or Fever Pitch, which many of his fans prefer to How to Be Good.

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 www.bookcritics.org. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 20, 2007

E.O. Parrott’s ‘How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening’: Great Books in a Half-Cracked Nutshell

Filed under: Classics,Essays and Reviews,Humor — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:09 am
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Classic works of lit / Reduced quite a bit / In poems and prose / As fun overflows.

How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening: A Collection of Literary Encapsulations. Compiled and Edited by E.O. Parrott. Penguin, 188 pp., varied prices.

By Janice Harayda

Week after week, one of the most popular posts this site has been a review of E. O. Parrott’s How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/20/, which illustrates the different types of poetry though amusing and self-descriptive verse. No less delightful is Parrott’s How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening, a collection of 150 brief and witty summaries of classic novels, plays and poems.

In this tongue-in-cheek volume, Tim Hopkins gives you Othello in 10 tabloid headline parodies, including GIRL WITH EVERYTHING ASKS FOR MOOR. And Basil Ransome-Davies shows how an overeager publicist might have promoted The Bostonians: “He’s done it again! Our guess is that’s what you’ll be saying to yourself when you read Henry James’s latest exposé of upper-crust Boston …”

But most of the 31 contributors turn the classics into verse. V. Ernest Cox sums up The Old Man and the Sea in a limerick that begins:

There was an old man of the sea,
Who for eight-four days went fish-free,
But he rowed out next day,
And almost straightaway
Struck gold – piscatorially …

Paul Griffin describes A Christmas Carol in a clerihew that has as its first quatrain:

Ebenezer Scrooge
Was nobody’s stooge;
It drove him into one of his rages
When somebody asked for more wages …

And Peter Norman gives you The Great Gatsby in iambic tetrameter:

Nick Carraway and Gatsby (Jay)
Are next-door neighbors; every day
The enigmatic Gatsby gazes
Towards a distant green light (Daisy’s).

Apart from their entertainment value, these light-hearted verses could work well as teaching aids. Anybody want to guess what novel inspired W.S. Brownlie’s: “A captain with an idée fixe / Chased a whale for weeks and weeks”?

Best line: Some of the literary encapsulations take the form of song parodies, such as Cox’s: “The animals stage a coup d’état, / Hurrah! Hurrah! /And from the farm all humans bar, / Hurrah! Hurrah!” [Note: Show the world you're a genius by being the first to name the book and song – known by more than one title – that inspired this. Jan]

Worst line: The copyright line, which suggests that this book is overdue for a reprint.

Caveat lector: The third and fourth lines of the Hemingway limerick should be intended four spaces, but I couldn’t make it happen.

Published: 1985

Furthermore: Please feel free to entertain visitors to this site by leaving your own encapsulations — of new or old books — as Comments.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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