One-Minute Book Reviews

January 21, 2012

Libba Bray’s Comic Novel for Teenagers, ‘Beauty Queens’

Filed under: Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:21 pm
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Miss Teen Dream contestants try to keep their spirits up after their plane goes down

Beauty Queens. By Libba Bray. Scholastic, 396 pp., $18.95. Ages 12 & up.

By Janice Harayda

Thirteen beauty queens stumble into literal and metaphorical quicksand after their plane crashes on a tropical island in this madcap feminist farce with AK-47s and eyelash curlers. With fish and coconuts to sustain them, the Miss Teen Dream contestants don’t waste time weeping for their dead chaperones, who might have enforced the morals-clauses in their contracts. They keep hoping for a rescue and practicing their dance steps for the pageant, led by the crown-obsessed Miss Texas, until they discover that their island holds secret agents with high-tech offices hidden in a volcano who may work for their corporate sponsor.

As they try to outwit the men with walkie-talkies, the contestants have time to explore their varied sexual identities – straight, gay, transgender or uncertain – with the frankness of Miss Illinois, who dislikes having to declare an orientation like a major: “I am straight with a minor in gay.” Their tale sags in its last third under the weight and predictability of the wrap-ups of all the subplots — each involving a character who sees that she must be true herself, no matter what her unenlightened parents or friends think — and a deus ex machina in the form of a ship full of TV-show pirates.

But Libba Bray satirizes worthy targets along the way, including corporate greed, identity politics, and sexual double standards. And the contestants’ stories coalesce into a tidy theme expressed by Miss Nebraska. “Maybe girls’ need  an island to find themselves,” she says. “Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching so they can be who they really are.”

Best line: “My platform is Identifying Misogyny in American Culture.” From the “Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts Page” about Adina Greenberg, Miss New Hampshire, a high school journalist who entered the contest hoping to expose how it promotes “the objectification of women.”

Worst line: “Taylor had heard enough. She emerged from the jungle like a Kurtzian goddess.” In these lines, Bray is writing from the point of view of Taylor Hawkins, Miss Texas, a pageant obsessive who shows little evidence of having read anything but I’m Perfect and You Can Be, Too, a self-help manual by a Miss Teen Dream winner who resembles a Southern-fried Sara Palin. It’s hard to believe she would see herself in terms of a character in Heart of Darkness.

Published: May 2011

Furthermore: Beauty Queens is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the young-adult literature category. Some critics have called Beauty Queens a “satire,” and it does satirize contemporary follies, but its intentionally over-the-top aspects give it more in common with farce. The novel is the fifth by bestselling author Libba Bray, who lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet and was recently named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

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

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 18, 2009

Philips Roth Makes 2009 Bad Sex Award Shortlist for ‘The Humbling’ – Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Chronic City’ Is Spared

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:54 pm
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An aging actor converts a lesbian to heterosexuality in a finalist by the author of Portnoy’s Complaint

An “eye-watering” scene that involves a green dildo won Philip Roth a spot on the shortlist for the 2009 Bad Sex in fiction award, given by Great Britain’s Literary Review. The prize is intended to draw attention to and discourage “the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description” in books other than pornography and erotica.

A Guardian story about the shortlist said:

“The Pulitzer prize-winning Roth makes the line-up for The Humbling, in which the ageing actor Simon converts Pegeen, a lesbian, to heterosexuality. The Literary Review singled out a scene in which Simon and Pegeen pick up a girl from a bar and convince her to take part in a threesome. Simon looks on as Pegeen uses her green dildo to great effect.”

The Guardian story has the names of all the finalists, who include Paul Theroux for A Dead Hand and Amos Oz for Rhyming Life and Death. Oz is an Israeli novelist who was widely seen as a frontrunner for the 2009 Nobel Prize. The judges spared the latest novel by Jonathan Lethem, the subject of an earlier post (“Is Jonathan Lethem Courting a 2009 Bad Sex Award With These Lines From Chronic City?“). The winner of the prize will be announced on Nov. 30 at London’s In & Out Club.

November 5, 2009

Has Hollywood Betrayed Roald Dahl by Adding ‘a PC Message’ to the New Movie of ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’? – Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:27 pm
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SPOILER WARNING! PLEASE STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ ABOUT THE ENDING OF A FILM THAT HAS NOT YET OPENED IN THE U.S.

I haven’t read Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, but the critic Toby Young makes a good case that Hollywood has betrayed its spirit in a film version due out here on Nov. 25. Young saw the movie at the London Film Festival and said the voices of Mr. and Mrs. Fox – provided by George Clooney and Meryl Streep – are good.

But the movie gives the genteel thief Mr. Fox a son named Ash (unlike the book, in which Mr. Fox has four children who are, as Young puts it, “undifferentiated”). The filmmakers tell us that there’s something “different” about Ash, whose father is cool to him: “But what is the difference exactly? All is revealed in the film’s final scene, when we see Ash wearing what appears to be lipstick. The message couldn’t be clearer: Ash is gay.”

Young argues that what’s objectionable isn’t that the filmmakers have added a gay character to Fantastic Mr. Fox but that they have shoehorned a “politically correct message” into the story: “It’s a way of enlisting Dahl on behalf of the educational establishment, when what’s so attractive about him is that he seems to be on the side of children rather than those grownups who think they know what’s best for them.”

Dahl does appeal to children partly for that reason, and you can read Young’s full argument for why the film ought to have respected it in “Whose Bright Idea Was It to Shoehorn a PC Message into a Roald Dahl Story?”

October 13, 2009

Tori Spelling’s Hollywood Memoir, ‘Mommywood’ – ‘Dean and I Have Sex Three to Four Times a Week!’

Guests brought gay-themed gifts to a baby shower for her son, Liam

Mommywood. By Tori Spelling with Hilary Liftin. Simon Spotlight, 243 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Tori Spelling once wore a Marie Antoinette Halloween costume custom-made by Nolan Miller, the designer for Dynasty and other televisions show produced by her father, Aaron Spelling. In a sense, the media have never allowed her to take it off.

Spelling has been guillotined by tabloids and others for a tumbrel of offenses — her nose job, her feud with her mother, her breast-augmentation surgery, her acting on Beverly Hills, 90210, her appearances with her husband on the reality show Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood. “I’m cocktail party joke material,” she says in Mommywood, the follow-up to her bestselling memoir, sTORI telling.

Spelling’s new book describes her efforts to give her two young children what she calls a more “normal” childhood than she had. An example of normal in Hollywood occurred when she became pregnant with her son, Liam, and her gay friends worried that her firstborn would be “too straight to hang out” with them.

“In hopes of being an early influence, lots of my friend gave me gay-themed gifts at my baby shower,” Spelling writes. “A pink onesie saying ‘My boyfriend’s out of town for the weekend.’ A rock T-shirt saying ‘Queen’ (as in the band).”

Another example of “normal”: Spelling worked her pregnancy into her reality show and took her son on an international media tour when he was two months old. Some of the stories that resulted are perversely entertaining. But Mommywood as a whole is a self-indulgent font of evidence of Spelling’s insecurities and questionable judgment. And that especially applies to its criticisms of her mother, Candy Spelling, who has given different versions of some of the events in this book to the media. If you want your children to grow up unwarped by Hollywood, will it help to write a book keeps taking swipes at their grandmother?

Best line: “I grew up in a house with a driveway that was so long I can’t remember ever walking to the bottom of it.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Now I have two children of my own and I want them to have a normal childhood.” This comes from someone who took her son on a media tour when he was two months old. No. 2: “Dean and I were sitting around a table with some producers from our show. We were talking about sex after babies, and one of the other married men at the table said, ‘What sex life after kids?’ Dean and I have sex three to four times a week!” No. 3: Spelling writes of the day her son had an accident at a pool: “Either you know this already or it’s too much information, but swim diapers aren’t rigged quite the same way as normal diapers are. Swim diapers have a tough job. They have to keep in whatever comes out. Without them, babies would put the ‘poo’ in ‘pool.’ So they don’t have convenient Velcro openings. You can’t just untape, wipe, and be done with it. Instead they’re like little pants. The load is kind of trapped in there. Good news for the other swimmers, but once I had Liam in my arms, I had no idea how to get that swim diaper off while adequately containing its contents. That is to say, I feared the poop. …
“I laid Liam down on his towel. I pulled off the swim diaper. Again, either you know this already or it’s too much information, but when poo is exposed to that environment (pool water, a sopping swim diaper, a hyper child – the trifecta), it loses its structural integrity. There was no … cohesion. Just crumbles of poo everywhere. A horror show.
“I went in for the kill, but a few swipes later I was out of wipes and still facing an insurmountable mess. I swear, there was actually more there than when I started.”

Published: February 2009

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

September 4, 2009

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

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

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor: Jenny Jackson

Published: June 2009

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

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

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

February 13, 2009

Valentine’s Day Poems for Straight or Gay Lovers, Including Couples Getting Engaged or Married on Feb.14, With All the Words Online

Two poems that aren’t usually thought of as Valentine’s Day poems contain lines that would suit longtime lovers, including engaged and married couples.

Robert Browning’s classic “Rabbi Ben Ezra” begins:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:

“Rabbi Ben Ezra” isn’t a love poem but a meditation in verse on the life of the 12th-century scholar in its title. But countless lovers have inscribed its famous first two lines, both written in iambic trimeter, onto the flyleaves of books or Valentine’s Day notes and cards. And all three would work for straight or gay couples. The full text of the poem appears online at Bartleby.com.

Another classic with lines that would suit gay or straight couples is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation from the German of Simon Dach’s “Annie of Tharaw.” It includes the rhyming couplets:

Oppression, and sickness, and sorrow, and pain,
Shall be to our true love as links to the chain.

As the palm-tree standeth so straight and so tall,
The more the hail beats, and the more the rains fall, –

So love in our hearts shall grow mighty and strong,
Through crosses, through sorrows, through manifold wrong …

Though forests I’ll follow, and where the sea flows,
Through ice, and through iron, through armies of foes.

“Annie of Tharaw” sounds less sophisticated than many contemporary poems, in part because of its anapestic meter, commonly found in children’s poems such as “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” But Dach’s words may speak more directly than some of their modern counterparts to couples facing serious illnesses such as AIDS. Their sentiments implicitly ratify and amplify the “in sickness and in health” of wedding vows, so they would also suit anniversaries. The full text appears online at Litscape.

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

August 19, 2008

‘Buying Dad’ — One Woman’s Hunt for the Perfect Sperm Donor

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:41 am
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[I am at the beach today and will return tomorrow if I don’t get stung to death by the influx of jellyfish we are having here in New Jersey. This is a repost of one of the first reviews that appeared on this site.]

Two lesbians look for the father of their child in a tank of liquid nitrogen

Buying Dad: One Woman’s Search for the Perfect Sperm Donor. By Harlyn Aizley. Alyson, 313 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Harlyn Aizley rejoiced when she saw all the choices that sperm banks offered to people like her — “Jewish gay Gemini neurotics” in their late 30s. Leafing through books of donor profiles, she found that “buying sperm is much like shopping at Sam’s Club or Costco.” The trouble began when she and her partner downloaded the catalog of a California sperm bank, chose a donor they nicknamed Baldie, and had vials of his semen shipped to their home in Boston by Federal Express. After repeated failures to conceive, the couple learned that no woman had ever gotten pregnant with their donor’s sperm and that they had to start over.

It’s an understatement to say that Aizley’s instinct for wisecracking doesn’t allow her to look too closely at the moral or social implications of buying sperm like six-packs of Wild Cherry Coke. But if her breezy memoir lacks depth, it has the ring of hard-won authority and the consolation of a happy ending. Many couples, heterosexual or homosexual, may wish that they had read Buying Dad before spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on the DNA of their offspring. “The donors you want are the ones who have gotten somebody pregnant,” Aizley says with unassailable logic. “It’s as simple as that.”

Best line: “To the argument that gay parents will create gay children, I have only this to say: Every homosexual I know, male or female, was raised by two heterosexuals.”

Worst line: “March is the suckiest of all months.” Be grateful that Aizley didn’t collaborate with T.S. Eliot on The Wasteland.

Recommended if … you’re straight or gay, married or single, and thinking of using a sperm bank.

Published: July 2003

FYI: Harlyn Aizley edited the recent Confessions of the Other Mother: Nonbiological Lesbian Moms Tell All (Beacon, 2006), a collection of personal stories by lesbian mothers. www.harlynaizley.com


(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 10, 2008

Gunning for Love — ‘Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge’

Love didn’t go by the book for two FBI agents, one of them a specialist in undercover work

Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge. By Caitlin Rother with John Hess. Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 281 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

You know the old Woody Allen joke about how the great thing about being bisexual is that it doubles your chances of getting a Saturday-night date? This book reminds us that it can also halve your chances of getting out of it alive.

Twisted Triangle grew out of a macabre story about two married FBI agents that got splashy coverage in Vanity Fair and elsewhere in the 1990s. Gene Bennett had taken part in two successful undercover operations before he tried to kill his wife, Margo, in the apparent belief that she had become infatuated with the novelist Patricia Cornwell. His past raises interesting questions touched on in the book: Does undercover work – which requires agents to assume a false identity – foster personality disintegration? Can it lead to disassociative disorder, commonly known as multiple personality disorder, to which Gene’s lawyers attributed his violent behavior? Might undercover work attract people predisposed to the condition?

These questions have a relevance that may extend beyond the Bennett case to those involved in covert operations in places like Afghanistan. So you wish Caitlin Rother and John Hess had gotten better material from Margo, whose story they tell.

The essential problem surfaces in the subtitle, A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge. Margo Bennett says repeatedly that she and Cornwell had two intimate “encounters” — or what sounds like a two-night stand — and Cornwell has confirmed it in interviews. On the witness stand, Margo corrected a lawyer who said she’d had “an adulterous lesbian affair” with Patricia Cornwell: “I said I had two encounters with Ms. Cornwell.”

So why is Twisted Triangle billed as the story of “a lesbian love affair”? The publisher may have imposed that subtitle on the authors. But Margo comes across as such an unreliable source that the unreliable subtitle, in a sense, represents a book driven by what sound like rationalizations instead of explanations. Margo signed phony documents in a home-relocation scam because, she says, Gene threatened to leave her if she didn’t. She lied on the witness stand when he was tried for the fraud because, she says, she was afraid he would hurt their children if she didn’t. To explain other unflattering actions, she invokes the Stockholm syndrome and — you guessed it — her “fragile self-esteem.” But if Margo lied under oath to protect her children, how do we know she didn’t try to protect them again by distorting the facts when she was interviewed for this book?

Rother and Hess confirmed some of what Margo told them through court documents and other sources. But much of this book has a “he said, she said” quality. Margo complains that a 1996 Washington Post story made her seem “very careless, uncaring, and crazy on my own.” Twisted Triangle does little to correct that impression and, in some ways, deepens it. In the Post story, Karl Vick expressed the theme of the Bennett case in seven words. Those words also sum up the moral of this book: “Sometimes, homo sapiens behave very, very badly.”

Best line: “Louis Freeh, who had just been appointed director [of the FBI], had instituted a zero-tolerance approach and was taking a hard line on disciplinary issues. Some agents described him as Hoover without the compassion.”

Worst line: Margo says that after working as an FBI agent for a few years, she learned that her husband had $60,000 in cash that he insisted was a gift from his dead father: “Gene claimed that his father had given him $60,000 in cash, which he’d kept in a suitcase in his mother’s attic. He said that his father had told him not to put it in the bank, so Margo figured his father had never reported it to the IRS, and this was his way of protecting Gene, who said he would take the old bills to the bank and exchange them for new ones so that no one would question any transaction or track the income.

“At the time, Margo took Gene at his word.”
This passage shows one of the many hard-to-believe rationalizations that Margo Bennett gives for why she accepted her husband’s shady behavior.

Published: April 2008 www.catilinrother.com

If you like true crime, consider reading instead: Stanley Alpert’s The Birthday Party (Putnam, 2007) www.stanleyalpert.com, a memoir by a former federal prosecutor abducted on a Manhattan street and held for 25 hours by captors who showed a gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight ineptitude. A review appeared on this site on Jan. 30, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/30/ and a reading group guide on Feb. 4, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/04/.

Furthermore: The Bennetts met while working in the Atlanta office of the FBI. Margo is a campus police captain at the University of California at Berkeley. Gene is serving a 23-year sentence in a Virginia prison. Patricia Cornwell has responded to Twisted Triangle in an Advocate article www.advocate.com/issue_story_ektid54596.asp.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She does not accept books, catalogs, advance reading copies, press releases or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors or agents.

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

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