One-Minute Book Reviews

October 30, 2007

Novelists Talk About Their Books on Free DVDs for Reading Groups

Ouch! Since I wrote this, the hard drive on my Mac laptop has apparently crashed. I hope to get it fixed in the next day or two. In the meantime, I’ll try to post on computers at a library, where I am now, but may be slow to respond to comments. Thanks for your patience. Jan

Tonight I was going to write a post about Kilt Dead (Kensington, $22), the first mystery in Kaitlyn Dunnett‘s new Scottish-themed series set in Maine www.kaitlyndunnett.com. But you’ll have to wait a day or two for that one, because I decided instead to go into Manhattan for a launch party for National Reading Group Month, sponsored by the Women’s National Book Association www.wnba-books.org and www.wnba-nyc.org.

At the celebration I learned about something reading groups may want to check out: Random House is giving away to book clubs on a while-supplies-last basis three DVDs, each of which has a different female author talking about her books: Lorna Landvik (Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons), Adriana Trigiani (Home to Big Stone Gap) and Fannie Flagg (Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven). I haven’t read any of these books, but if you have and love them, you can request a DVD for your club at www.thereaderscircle.com.

Would that Random House would do a DVD for Katha Pollitt! Her new essay collection Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories is ideal for book group members who liked the bestseller from the company’s Knopf imprint, Nora Ephron‘s I Feel About My Neck. A review of and reading group guide to Pollitt’s book appeared on this site on Oct. 16 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 17, 2007

When Bad Covers Happen to Good Books: Rating the Cover of Katha Pollitt’s ‘Learning to Drive’

Royce M. BeckerWhat was Random House thinking? Katha Pollitt handed the firm a gift-wrapped successor to Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, the white-hot bestseller from its Knopf imprint, in Learning to Drive. Her book, like Ephron’s, is a stylish essay collection about being a wife, mother, girlfriend, daughter, New Yorker and writer.

Faced with this chance to strike gold again, Random House has – so far – blown it with Learning to Drive. Let’s leave aside the things the firm didn’t do for the book, such as publish a reading-group guide – Knopf didn’t at first post one for I Feel Bad About My Neck, either – and focus on what it did do: namely, give the book a cover likely to do nothing to help it gain the high bestsellerdom within its reach. Among the problems:

1. Visually the design doesn’t “pop,” industry jargon for “jump out at you.” It is way too dark and ambiguous. Except for the road sign, it looks a colorized mammogram. (Just what women want! A book that reminds subliminally them of cancer!) If you lean a few feet back from your computer, you may not even be able to read the title of the book (especially if you’re using laptop like mine, which isn’t brand-new and and has a relatively small screen). It just fades away. And that’s what it will also do at a bookstore or library where it’s surrounded by covers that do pop.

2. The gloomy cover, though a problem, might at least be defensible if reflected the tone of the book – if it appeared on, say, another paranoid Don De Lillo novel. But Learning to Drive teems with life as seen by a woman who is passionately involved with it. It is also entertaining. So where are the women, or even the people? Where is the wit? Yes, the cover shows a road, and the road is a classic symbol of life in literature. So you could argue that, theoretically, it fits the book. But marketing surveys have shown that a cover has 4-to-7 seconds to grab you. In those few seconds, how many people will make the symbolic connection?

3. Above all, the cover of Learning to Drive doesn’t suggest what is unique about the book. Its image of a road could fit anything from Richard Ford’s short stories to Claudia Emerson’s poetry. The cover of I Feel Bad About My Neck showed a jar of skin cream with the title of the book on the label and would have suited no other book. That’s part of what makes it a great cover.

I’m not asking for a copy of Ephron’s cover. And I’m certainly not asking for pink. But there’s a middle ground between stereotyping women and denying that a book has anything to do with them. The cover of Learning to Drive renders women invisible, and – oh, irony of ironies! – that is what Pollitt has spent her entire career opposing.

Cover design for Learning to Drive: Royce M. Becker

Links: Learning to Drive www.randomhouse.com and www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com. I Feel Bad About My Neck www.aaknopf.com.

Why I chose Learning to Drive for this occasional series on book covers: This is case in which the publisher clearly could have done better. Many small firms can’t afford to hire great art directors (who oversee book design) and graphic designers (who often develop or execute the cover concepts). Random House can afford it. And some books have little chance of becoming bestsellers even with great covers. Others come from authors whose books will make the New York Times list if they look like dog food. Learning to Drive doesn’t fall into either category. With this book, Pollitt had the best chance of her career to “break out” — more jargon — and find her way to many more readers. She may still do it. But it would have been easier for her if her book had a cover that helped booksellers and others understand its uniqueness and position it correctly. Finally, this was a case in which a protest by Pollitt and her literary agent might have helped. Most authors have little or no control over their covers. Often their agents don’t have much clout, either, or won’t use it for fear of offending publishers. Pollitt has a strong following and one of New York’s best agents. There’s little doubt that Random House would have tried to accommodate them if they said, “This cover is unacceptable.”

Note: A thousand thanks to Sean Lindsay, the host of the site 101 Reasons to Stop Writing, for a) noticing my comment that I didn’t know how to add images and b) e-mailing me instructions for finding and inserting images. Without Sean, you wouldn’t be looking at the image of Pollitt’s book but reading a description. If you’d like to see a blog by someone who really knows how to pull one together, visit his informative and entertaining 101 Reasons to Stop Writing www.101reasonstostopwriting.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 16, 2007

Irish Novelist Anne Enright Wins the Man Booker Prize, and the Judges Dodge a Bullet

Whew. That was close. No, not the betting on which of the frontrunners for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, Lloyd Jones‘s Mister Pip and Ian McEwan‘s On Chesil Beach, would win (though only a hair’s breadth separated their odds at the end).

What was really a squeaker was how close the judges may have come to honoring one of those novels, neither worthy of a major international award. Tonight the prize went instead to the Irish novelist Anne Enright‘s The Gathering, which was all but impossible to find in the U.S. in the days leading up to the ceremony (based on my efforts to obtain a copy through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, independent booksellers, and libraries). I hope to review it as soon as it becomes available. In the meantime you can read more about The Gathering at www.themanbookerprize.com.

Tomorrow: Full color makes its debut on One-Minute Book Reviews with a discussion of the cover of Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive (reviewed today) and comments on book covers generally. That post is part of a new series that occasionally will discuss the covers of books reviewed on this site and why they do or don’t fit the books.

Thank you for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Katha Pollitt Steers Into the Skids of Female Experience in Her Elegant Collection of Essays, ‘Learning to Drive’

As if loving a womanizer wasn’t enough, there was the bad food at literary parties

Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories. By Katha Pollitt. Random House, 207 pp., $22.95

By Janice Harayda

Suppose that the entire female sex were put on trial for all the sins that women are regularly accused of – from taking maternity leaves at inconvenient times to failing to get the right kind of bikini wax (“a discreet triangle, not a landing strip,” Tatler magazine warns). Whom would you want as the defense attorney?

Susan Faludi is focusing on the effects of terrorism. Anna Quindlen has become a novelist and Gloria Steinem the author of a book on self-esteem. Barbara Ehrenreich might turn the trial into a referendum on capitalism, and Maureen Dowd might get cute and refer to women as “Ws.” Ellen Goodman has defended women admirably for years, but her only child left home two decades ago, and she might lack a ready fund of anecdotes on, say, the latest insults inflicted on mothers in Snuglis.

So I’d go with Katha Pollitt, the poet and political columnist for The Nation. Her new Learning to Drive is an elegant and often witty collection of 10 personal essays that, in many ways, resembles Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. Some of the pieces in both books first appeared in The New Yorker. And Pollitt’s book, like Ephron’s, is about her experiences in her varied roles — wife, mother, girlfriend, daughter, Upper West Sider, psychotherapy dropout, writer.

But Learning to Drive has more bite and depth than I Feel Bad About My Neck, which showed the influence of the magazines and newspapers in which its essays appeared. You had the sense that Ephron, good as she is, was saying only as much as her editors would allow. Pollitt has held onto more of herself. She’s writing to her own standards, not those of an editor, and the result is a more unified book.

Each of Pollitt’s essays deals with a personal experience – her efforts to learn to drive, the birth of her daughter, the death of her father or mother, the realization that the man she lived with had been cheating for almost the whole time. But her writing is never just about her. Her essays always comment on an aspect of female or human experience. When she realizes that her lover has been unfaithful, she reflects:

“They say philanderers are attractive to women because of the thrill of the chase – you want to be the one to capture and tame that wild quarry. But what if a deeper truth is that women fall for such men because they want to be those men? Autonomous, in charge, making their own rules.”

Pollitt structures her essays carefully as short stories, and some people appear in more than one. So Learning to Drive resembles resembles a cycle of stories more than an essay collection. Given the slapdash quality of so many such books, this alone might make the book noteworthy.

But Pollitt, at her best, is also extremely witty. She shows a perverse optimism in the bleakest of situations (which might explain, better than anything in her book, why she stayed with that womanizer). One memorable scene describes a party for a friend who had written a book lionized by critics — an event that should have been joyful. Instead it was edged with gloom. The novelists and short-story writers commiserated about the declining audience for fiction – “even calling readers ‘the audience’ tells you there’s a problem” – and were fed a miserly ration of nuts and cherry tomatoes.

“Soon writers will be consoling themselves that at least they’re not classical musicians,” she writes. “Those people are really screwed.”

Best line: Pollitt laments that there are no good words to describe being over 50: “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’ Midlife is the upbeat new euphemism – there you are, in the thick of it! – but a 55-year-old person is in the middle of his life only if he’s going to live to 110. ‘Middle-aged’ sounds tired and plodding, almost as bad as ‘aging’ – and ‘aging’ is sad and pitiful, an insult even though it’s actually universally applicable. A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.”

Worst line: On the differences between the sexes: “Women just have more sense, and they are made of more enduring materials, too. More than half the male members of the Donner Party died of cold and starvation, but three quarters of the females survived, saved by that extra layer of fat we spend our lives trying to get rid of.” Leaving aside the we’re-just-better logic, the inexact math of this was confusing: Wouldn’t it make sense to compare the percentage of men who died with the percentage of women who died? Did roughly 51 or 52 percent of the men die and exactly 25 percent of the women? Looking for the precise figures, I went to the Donner Party site for the Oregon-California Trails Association www.utahcrossroads.org and found that its numbers disagreed with Pollitt’s. “Two-thirds of the women survived; two-thirds of the men died,” the site says.

Reading group guide: If you’re reading this on the home page of One-Minute Book Reviews, scroll down one post to find a Totally Authorized Reading Group Guide to Learning to Drive. If you’re reading this on another page on the site or on the Web, click on this link to find the guide: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.

Editor: Daniel Menaker

Cover story: A review of the cover of Learning to Drive will appear tomorrow. I was going to include it here, but my comments would have made this post too long. Sean Lindsay at the terrific site 101 Reasons to Stop Writing www.101reasonstostopwriting.com sent me easy directions for inserting images, so starting tomorrow, you’ll also see some full color here instead of just duotone.

Published: September 2007 www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com and www.randomhouse.com.

Furthermore: Pollitt wrote Virginity or Death! and other books. She has won two National Magazine Awards for essays and criticism and a National Book Critics Circle Award www.bookcritics.org for her poetry collection, Antarctic Traveller.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com has been the book critic for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critic Circle. She was not involved in the NBCC award received by Pollitt.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Katha Pollitt’s ‘Learning to Drive’

10 Discussion Questions

Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories
By Katha Pollitt
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

 

This guide for reading groups and others 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. Others who 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 it.

Katha Pollitt steers into the skids of female experience in Learning to Drive, a collection of 10 elegant and often witty essays about her many roles – wife, mother, daughter, girlfriend, Upper West Sider, psychotherapy dropout, writer. Like Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, this book deals in part with the ironies and absurdities inherent in cultural expectations of women, particularly those over 50.

Questions for Readers

1. Pollitt says in her first essay that she’s 52 and learning to drive a car because a man she lived with for seven years has left her. At the end of the book, she still doesn’t seem to have passed her road test. But she has learned a few things about life. Which impressed you the most? What did you learn from Learning to Drive?

2. We find out on the second page that Pollitt’s lover was cheating on her almost from the start. From then on, a central question of the book becomes the one posed in different form on page 57, “How could I have been so stupid?” What’s Pollitt’s answer? What’s yours?

3. “They say philanderers are attractive to women because of the thrill of the chase – you want to be the one to capture and tame that wild quarry,” Pollitt writes. “But what if a deeper truth is that women fall for such men because they want to be those men? Autonomous, in charge, making their own rules.” [Page 63] Do you think that women are attracted to philanderers? Or do you think they simply put up with them? If so, why do they tolerate them? In those lines Pollitt deals only with the psychological reasons why women stay with philanders. Might there be other reasons – sexual, financial, social? What are they? How does Pollitt’s view of womanizers differ from those you’ve seen on Sex and the City and in other media?

4. In “After the Men Are Dead” Pollitt reflects on what life will be like for women when they have outlived their husbands and other men. Would it be “restful” not to have to think about “love, romance, sex, pleasing, listening, encouraging, smiling at the old jokes” and all the ways in which women accommodate men’s needs and expectations? [Page 79] Would you find it restful, sad or both?

5. The essay “Beautiful Screamer” deals partly with a paradox of having an infant or young child. As Pollitt sees it, motherhood was “so important, so necessary” that it placed you at the center of life: “At the same time, it marginalized you totally.” [Page 112] Pollitt felt sidelined partly because she faced new physical limits – the post office banned strollers. [Page 114] She also felt excluded in more subtle ways. What were they? If you’re a mother, do you agree that motherhood isolates you? Why?

6. Single or childless people who live in suburbs or small towns that are billed as “family-friendly” might disagree with the views Pollitt expresses in “Beautiful Screamer.” They might say that they feel isolated because so much of the social life revolves around children’s school, sports or other activities. How do the views of the mothers in your group differ from those of the childless members?

7. Pollitt writes about her father in “Good-bye, Lenin” and her mother in “Mrs. Razzmatazz.” Does either parent come off better than the other? Why?

8. Pollitt laments that there are no good words to describe her time of life. “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’ Midlife is the upbeat new euphemism – there you are, in the thick of it! – but a 55-year-old person is in the middle of his life only if he’s going to live to 110. ‘Middle-aged’ sounds tired and plodding, almost as bad as ‘aging’ – and ‘aging’ is sad an pitiful, an insult even though it’s actually universally applicable. A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.” [Page 196] What effect do these terms have on you? On our society? What word or words would you use for what some people call “the last trimester of life”?

9. A backlash may be growing against those magazine articles with titles like “Fabulous at Fifty.” Pollitt challenges this kind of aggressive cheerleading. So did Nora Ephron in her essays in I Feel Bad About My Neck and Virginia Ironside in her comic novel, No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club. Is the backlash overdue or unfair? Which of the books that you’ve read makes the best case for a more nuanced view of life after 50?

10. Pollitt writes from a feminist perspective. This is clearest in lines such as: “Feminism was supposed to be about the things women had in common, and I had always thought of myself as someone who liked women. When someone – usually a woman; in fact, always a woman – said I ‘thought like a man’ I felt insulted for both women and myself; it was as if I was being expelled from the tribe.” [Pages 61-62] What do you think feminism is “about” in 2007? How would you react if someone said that you “thought like a man”?

Vital statistics:
Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories. By Katha Pollitt. Random House, 207 pp., $22.95. Published: September 2007. A review of Learning to Drive appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 16, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.

Links: www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com and www.randomhouse.com

Your book group may also want to read:

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95. Review: Essays about being over 60 by the author of Heartburn. Ephron covers some of the topics that Pollitt does — faithless men, life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the pressure to conform to idealized images of women – and your group might compare their views on these. Review: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/14/ms-ephron-regrets/. Reading group guide: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/20/.

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.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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October 7, 2007

Is Penelope Leach the Margaret Thatcher of Child-Care Experts? Quote of the Day (Katha Pollitt)

Yesterday I went to the Borders store at Madison Square Garden — the airiest bookstore in New York with its huge plate-glass windows — looking for books I’ve wanted to review. I struck out on two new editions of children’s classics: a Little Red Riding Hood illustrated Andrea Wisnewski and Ruth Krauss’s The Backward Day.

But with a bit of effort, I found an adult book at the top of my list: Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories (Random House, $22.95), a collection of personal essays by Nation columnist Katha Pollittt. (Memo to Borders: This does not belong in the “Politics and Government” section but near I Feel Bad About My Neck.) I dove into Pollitt’s essay on the birth of her daughter two decades ago and, in a section about child-rearing experts, found this irresistible passage on the author of Your Baby & Child: From Birth to Age 5:

“Penelope Leach, the only famous woman expert, was a dragon, the infant-care equivalent of Margaret Thatcher or Barbara Woodhouse, who had that dog-training show on television (‘No bad dogs – only inexperienced owners!’), and you couldn’t dismiss her as just another man laying down the law. She was a mother herself; a better mother than you, because she never seemed to have a minute in which raising children was not the foremost on thing on her mind. She wrote that you had to talk to your baby when you were pushing the stroller and that not to do so was rude because if the baby was a grown-up you would make conversation. She wrote that if you had a job and the baby was happy you had still done the wrong thing, you had just gotten away with it. Penelope Leach had quite a bit of useful information, which she delivered in a brisk, friendly way, but that was just to cozy you along. Like the men, she obviously thought that if you ignored her advice you’d produce an addict or a killer or a C student – but if that was true the human race would never have survived all those millennia living in mud huts on a diet of lentils and goat milk.”

More on Learning to Drive soon and, in the meantime, you can read about it at www.randomhouse.com and www.kathapollit.blogspot.com.

The Borders store at Madison Square Garden www.bordersstores.com is at 2 Penn Plaza. Among large New York bookstores, it is one of the most convenient for tourists, situated right next to Penn Station and a few minutes’ walk from the Port Authority bus terminal. Unlike most city bookstores of its size, it has a broad plaza in front with lots of places to sit and read (in addition to an in-store cafe).

The way this Borders shelves books can be a little odd. Pollitt is doing appearances all over the city, so why was Learning to Drive buried in the “Politics” section on the second floor? But the service was exceptional. When I couldn’t find the book on the main floor, a staff member directed me to the second floor, then called upstairs to a clerk, who was waiting for me with the book when I got there. I rarely comment on bookstores, but I haven’t had this kind of service at a bookstore of its size anywhere in the world.

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

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