One-Minute Book Reviews

May 27, 2009

‘Books, What a Jolly Company They Are’ – Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Repression of War Experience’ – Quote of the Day / Maureen Corrigan

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:42 pm
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How much comfort can books offer as the death toll rises in Iraq and Afghanistan? Maureen Corrigan responds indirectly in her memoir, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books (Vintage, 240 pp., $14.95, paperback):

A book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, Corrigan begins a chapter with the line “Books, what a jolly company they are,” by the English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who saw combat on Western Front in World War I. She adds:

“The line is from Siegfried Sassoon’s great 1918 poem, ‘Repression of War Experience,’ and it’s meant to be taken, at best, ambivalently. The poem is written in the form of a dramatic monologue, and the narrator is a World War I vet suffering from shell shock. He’s been shipped away to a rest home in the English countryside, but judging from his off-kilter observations, his prognosis looks bleak. The vet sees ghosts out in the wet darkness of the nearby forest and hears the thud of big guns, booming, booming in the distance. Presumably, he’s sitting in a library as he speaks, because he turns for comfort to the shelves of books nearby. Unfortunately, their black, white, brown, and green spines remind him of his once straight-backed comrades marching off to their deaths. Shaken, the narrator tries to get a grip on his nerves by reassuring himself that ‘all the wisdom of the world / Is waiting for you on those shelves,’ but it’s a claim that rings hollow. Book learning didn’t save a generation of young Oxbridge students from dying in the trenches, along with their shabbily educated working-class countrymen. Indeed, some of those books – filled with tales of chivalric adventure and noble sacrifice – misled their impressionable readers into their wartime deaths.

“I can’t imagine living in rooms without books, but like Sassoon’s narrator, I also think the comfort books offer is qualified. All those voices, all those thoughts, all those reminders of how much there is to read and how little time there is to read it. Mentally and physically, books can be oppressive, even hazardous.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 25, 2009

‘Death Takes a Holiday’ – A Play Asks, ‘What If for Three Days Nobody Died?

Filed under: Classics,Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:07 pm
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Broadway came before Brad.

In the play that inspired Meet Joe Black, Death learns the power of love

Death Takes a Holiday: A Comedy in Three Acts. By Alberto Casella. Rewritten for the American Stage by Walter Ferris. Samuel French, 151 pp., $7.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Like Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday is one of those supernatural comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that lifted spirits lowered by the Depression and World War II. Whether the play would have the same effect in the age of swine flu and Afghanistan, I have no idea (though the producers of Meet Joe Black, a 1998 adaptation that starred Brad Pitt, apparently thought it would provide a welcome diversion from the Clinton sex scandals).

But in some ways Death Takes a Holiday has lost little of its appeal since it opened on Broadway two months after the stock market crash of 1929. Weary of “always being misunderstood,” Death suspends his activities for three days and takes on a human form to find out why people fear him. He conducts his experiment by dropping in on the castle of an Italian duke and, after gaining the nobleman’s consent, passing himself off to its residents as the visiting Prince Sirki. The project goes awry when Death falls in love and sees the flaw in his gambit.

“I gave myself life, not knowing the force that is in life, nor the force that is in love,” he laments.

Death’s ardor is returned by a young woman who must decide, as the end of his stay nears, whether love is stronger than death. And if answer seems obvious, Alberto Casella invests it with more suspense and interest than you might expect. Unlike Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday isn’t mainly about glorious repartee – it has heart and a seriousness of purpose. It is the unusual play about death that is funny and entertaining but doesn’t trivialize its subject and has an ageless message.

Early on, the as-yet-undisguised Death explains to Duke Lambert why he must don the garb of a prince:

“I’ve found that very few mortals can bear to face life as it really is. It seems to them stark and forbidding, like the outlines of my face, until Illusion softens it with her rosy lamp.”

Death has clearly learned a lesson that eluded the many of the leaders of companies that lately have ranged from Enron to AIG – that the real, however frightening, has a beauty that illusion can’t match.

Best line: Quoted above: “few mortals can bear to face life as it really is.”

Worst line: Major Whitread, a soldier in a medal-covered uniform Foreign Legion uniform, tells Death/Prince Sirki (also called “Shadow”): “I’ve been awfully anxious to meet you, sir.” The line isn’t bad but suggests one of the contrivances of the play: A legionnaire turns up, seemingly out-of-the-blue, to offer the perspective of someone who has seen death at close range.

Published: 1924 (first Italian production), 1929 (first Broadway production).

Furthermore: Death Takes a Holiday is available from the Samuel French online store. The Broadway play inspired a 1934 movie with the same title and the remake Meet Joe Black, which I haven’t seen.

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

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

May 7, 2009

A Dog, a Corpse and a Wisteria Vine – The Most Bizarre Narrators in Fiction?

Filed under: News,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:48 am
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Some people who liked The Story of Edgar Sawtelle were nonetheless put off by its mix of human and canine narrators, including a four-footed stand-in for Ophelia in David Wroblewski’s Hamlet-influenced novel.  Almondine isn’t the most unusual narrator in fiction. Clyde Edgerton’s The Floatplane Notebooks (Ballantine, 1989) is told partly from the viewpoint of a wisteria wine. Then there’s William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel about a troubled clan trying to bury its dead matriarch. Faulkner tells the story from the viewpoint of each family member, including the corpse.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 6, 2009

How Tori Murden McClure Became the First Woman to Row Alone Across the Atlantic in Her New Memoir, ‘A Pearl in the Storm’ – Coming Soon

Filed under: News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:24 pm
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Remember when your eighth-grade English teacher told you that the three great themes in literature were “man against man, man against nature, and man against himself”? My favorite man-against-nature books include Adrift (Mariner, 256 pp., $14.95, paperback), Steven Callahan’s bestselling memoir of spending 76 days lost at sea on an inflatable raft after his sailboat sank during a race from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. The woman-against-nature category has produced other gems, such as Atlantic Circle (Norton, 1985), Kathryn Lasky Knight’s true story of sailing across the Atlantic with her husband. Can Tori Murden McClure hold her own in her new memoir of rowing solo across the Atlantic, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean (HarperCollins, 304 pp., $24.95)? A review will appear soon.

April 23, 2009

She Promised Her Husband Sex Every Night for a Year for His 40th Birthday – But Her Book About It Left Out All the Good Parts

Filed under: How to,Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:05 am
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Sex, but no sex

You know how I said the other day that I’d never heard of a book that Jonathan Yardley said “may well be the best baseball book ever”? Here’s another I’d missed: Charla Muller’s 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy (Berkley, 288 pp., $14, paperback), the #2 bestseller in the “Love & Romance” category on Amazon. It comes from a woman who promised her husband sex every night for a year for his 40th birthday, and if the comments on Amazon are right, Muller left out all the good parts. A reader-reviewer complained: “The author uses the premise to discuss almost everything except sex. There are almost no details about the sex-life of the author and her husband.” But Muller has started offering a free Bible study guide to the book.

March 18, 2009

Diana Athill Looks Back on a Life of Editing Books

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:52 am
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Good memoirs by editors are rare. This sounds improbable but makes sense. Editors might come across as perjurers if late in life if they told the truth about authors they had spent their career promoting.

An editor who can write is Diana Athill, who looks back on her career in English book publishing in Stet: An Editor’s Life (Grove, 256 pp., $13, paperback). Athill edited the British editions of books by Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, John Updike and others. And she offers perceptive comments about her work in her elegant but unpretentious memoir. (“Writers don’t encounter really attentive readers as often as you might expect, and find them balm to their twitchy nerves when they do; which gives their editors a good start with them.”) At 91 she won an overseas award for her new memoir of old age, Somewhere Towards the End (Norton, 192 pp., $24.95), that she talks about in a Telegraph interview.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 26, 2009

2009 Delete Key Awards Finalist #1 – Denis Leary’s ‘Why We Suck’

Delete Key Awards Finalist #1 comes from Denis Leary’s Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid (Viking, 240 pp., $26.95):

The winner of the first-ever One-Minute Book Reviews visitors’ poll:
“I’ll take five Anna Nicole Smiths for every Martin Luther King.”

And the runner-up in the poll:
“The women [at the gym]? Paired off on adjacent treadmills or elliptical trainers – yak yakkety yick yak yic, yic yickety, yawbeddy jawbeddy – jic jak yick. Yicketty yacketty blah blah blah.”

Can we all agree that somebody needs to rescue the prose of the star of Rescue Me?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

2009 Delete Key Awards Finalist #2 – Jeanne Safer’s ‘Death Benefits’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:51 pm
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Delete Key Awards finalist #2 comes from Jeanne Safer’s Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life — For the Better (Basic Books, 226 pp., $25);

The first line in the book:
“The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you.”

Unless, of course, you’re fortunate enough to get an incurable disease, to lose your house in a foreclosure sale or to have invested all your life savings with Bernie Madoff. This sentence was the most crass and tasteless I read in a 2008 book. Denis Leary is at least trying to be funny. Safer is serious.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

2009 Delete Key Awards Finalist #5 – Jodi Picoult’s ‘Change of Heart’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 pm
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Delete Key Awards Finalist #5 comes from Jodi Picoult’s novel Change of Heart (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 447 pp., $26.95):

“Not that Jesus wasn’t a really cool guy – great teacher, excellent speaker, yadda yadda yadda. But … Son of God? Where’s the proof?”

and

“You don’t think it’s possible that Mr. Smythe was … well … resurrected?”

Not that Picoult isn’t a really popular novelist – great sales, a “terrific writer” in Stephen King’s view. But with dorky lines like these (and a plot to go with them), where’s the proof? Didn’t that “yadda yadda yadda” start to sound old before Seinfeld went off the air?

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

2009 Delete Key Awards Finalist #6 — Andrew Blechman’s ‘Leisureville’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:02 pm
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Delete Key Awards Finalist #6 comes from Andrew Blechman’s Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias (Atlantic Monthly Press, 244 pp., $25).

“Women who once burned their bras now pay handsomely for expensive brassieres and plastic surgery.”

How long will writers keep repeating the myth that women once “burned their bras”? Feminists wanted to burn their bras during the 1968 Miss America pageant. But they didn’t, because Atlantic City officials wouldn’t give them a fire permit: They threw their bras in a garbage can instead. Even if Blechman’s statement were true — which, repeat, it isn’t — it would be a wild distortion, suggesting that all over America women who once burned their bras are having eye bobs instead. “Bra burners” became a cliché about 15 minutes after it surfaced in the New York Post. And when was the last time anybody under the age of 90 used the stilted word “brassiere”?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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