One-Minute Book Reviews

May 5, 2009

You’re 40. He’s Left. Now What? Suzanne Finnamore’s ‘Split,’ a Memoir of Divorce, California-Style, With Chilean Merlot

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am
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“A meteor of repressed anger” arose in the mother whose husband walked out

Split: A Memoir of Divorce. By Suzanne Finnamore. NAL, 272 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Suzanne Finnamore seems to have lost her way as a writer. A decade ago, she won deserved praise for the polished wit and taut plotting of her first novel, a romantic comedy about the impending wedding of a materialistic and self-absorbed 36-year-old bride in a part of northern California where the Chilean Merlot runs deep.

Can credit cards ease a divorce?

Otherwise Engaged made clear that Finnamore knew what was wrong with writing “as rich as Croesus,” “at this point in time,” “in the very final analysis,” and the many similar phrases that turn up in her latest book. Her new memoir of her divorce has the high-flying brand names and neuroses of her first novel, but the prose has turned cute and baggy.

Split suggests that Finnamore has begun to strip-mine her life for publication. At the age of 40, she may have gained new material when her husband walked out of their upscale northern-California home and began taking luxury vacations with a woman who soon became pregnant: The separation left her with a toddler, a mortgage, and “a meteor of repressed anger.”

But Finnamore skims over her pain in chapters so glib and short, she might have texted them to her publisher. In one scene, she goes a credit-card buying spree just when her income seems least certain. At warp speed, she spends $4,000 on more than a dozen frivolous items such as a “blond cardigan sweater with a detachable white mink collar” and a set of “blown-glass 14th-century French shoe reproduction Christmas ornaments.” She explains the binge by saying blithely that her purchases “have gotten me through this travesty” of a divorce. More alarmingly, she says that while smoking she set fire to “not one, not two, but five chenille throws”: “One mattress pad went down while I was on the phone to New York, as did two pillows and a luxury comforter.” Yes, divorce makes you crazy. But some of Finnamore’s behavior seems so reckless, you don’t know whether it results from the separation or from personality traits that were there all along.

Split is clearly not a how-to book, but what is it? Perhaps a coda to the “relationship autopsy” that a marriage counselor required Finnamore and her soon-to-be-ex husband to perform. The tone of Split resembles that of a breezy game of miniature golf the couple and their son played before the decree came through. “Even the pending divorce we just lightly reminisce over,” Finnamore writes, “as though it was a vacation to Fiji, where it rained.”

Best line: Finnamore’s son says while she is reading him a Christmas poem, “We’d better take Daddy’s stocking down, because he’s not going to be here tomorrow.” A rare poignant moment in a book long on wisecracks.

Worst line: Two categories here. Category No. 1: All of the clichés like those in the second paragraph of the review above. (“… it might, in the very final analysis, be some kind of elaborate prank.”) Category No. 2: All of the lines that make you wonder if Finnamore is exaggerating for comic effect or has a habit of self-destructive behavior that seems especially risky for someone who lives with a young child, such as her comment that she set fire to five chenille throws, apparently while smoking in bed.

Consider reading instead: Wendy Swallow’s Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce (Hyperion, 2001), a beautifully written account of the impact of divorce a mother of two boys, ages 3 and 5. Otherwise Engaged better introduces Finnamore’s writing.

Published: April 2009 (NAL paperback), 2008 (Dutton hardcover).

Editor: Trena Keating

Caveat lector: Finnamore says she’s changed “plenty of details and events” in Split. She also wrote the novel The Zygote Chronicles (Grove, 2003).

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

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 24, 2009

Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoir of Her Husband’s Traumatic Brain Injury

Filed under: Memorial Day,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:10 am
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Love and sex in the time of brain damage.

When someone’s personality is altered by a brain injury, has the person changed or has the incident brought out what was there all along? Alix Kates Shulman explores stimulating questions like these in To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 192 pp., $22), a memoir of her life with her husband after he fell nine feet to the floor from a sleeping loft and survived with limits resembling those of advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

Shulman tells how, in the months after Scott’s accident, she came to understand the Latin phrase amor fati, which means “to love what is” or “to love your fate.” She writes with insight of the physical and emotional complexities of her husband’s traumatic brain injury (TBI), including its effect on their sex life. And she describes the incompetent care her husband received from mental-health professionals at a good hospital and her amazement on learning that she could fire them. That section alone might surprise  relatives of physically ill people for whom doctors have prescribed psychiatric care that the patients will have to pay for if their insurers won’t. Shulman has posted a generous amount of material adapted from the book on her Psychology Today blog, Love and Dementia, and the first chapter appears on her publisher’s site.

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

March 6, 2009

Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘American Wife’ – Now in Paperback

Filed under: Novels,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:02 am
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For months I looked forward to the unintentionally hilarious sex scenes in American Wife (Random House, 592 pp., $15, paperback) that Sam Anderson had mentioned in his New York magazine review of this novel about a stand-in for Laura Bush. But when my card number came up at the library, I found those passages to be something less than thigh-slappers. (Memo to Curtis Sittenfeld: For an example of how to write unintentionally hilarious sex scenes, see Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, longlisted for the Bad Sex in fiction award from the Literary Review.) I read about a third of American Wife, thinking: Why am I reading this? What I read said little new about Laura Bush or first ladies. So I quit with the sense that the book wasn’t good enough to deserve much of the praise it had received or bad enough to qualify for a Delete Key Award. But lots of people disagree with me on this one. Among them: Joyce Carol Oates, who called it an entertaining “parable of America in the years of the second Bush presidency” in the New York Times Book Review.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 14, 2009

‘A Relationship Is a Myth You Create With Each Other’ — A Valentine’s Day Quote of the Day (via New York Magazine)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:20 pm
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“A relationship is a myth you create with each other. It isn’t necessarily true, but it’s meaningful.”

Philip Weiss quoted an unnamed man as saying this in “The Affairs of Men: The Trouble With Sex and Marriage,” a cover story in the May 26, 2008, issue of New York that dealt with the Eliot Spitzer-inspired question, “Is man really a monogamous animal?” I liked the quote when I read it in the spring — it makes a subtle point about relationships that I can’t recall having seen made elsewhere — but saved it for the appropriate day.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 3, 2009

George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ – Scenes From More Than a Marriage

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:06 am
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A young woman’s wish to be useful leads to a romantic mismatch in the first great multiplot novel in English.

By Janice Harayda

“Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy,” George Eliot writes in Middlemarch. And that line suggests one of many reasons to love her masterpiece: its sharp commentary on relations between the sexes.

Middlemarch tells the wonderful story of an intelligent young woman, Dorothea Brooke, whose desire to be useful leads her to wed to a repressed clergyman who lacks her passion for life. But the novel is far more than a portrait of mismatch. The action in Middlemarch unfolds against the backdrop of two great social upheavals: the coming of the Industrial Revolution to England and enactment of Reform Bill of 1832 that made Parliament more representative of ordinary people.

Eliot sets Dorothea’s private dramas against these cataclysms and shows, as she writes, “that there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.” The external forces include a society treats women as an underclass. And part of Eliot’s genius is that she hasn’t written a broadside against injustice but a book often called the first great multiplot novel in English. Middlemarch is a brilliant portrait of both sexes, never more so than in famous coda: “ … the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to those who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. The full text of Middlemarch is available for free on Project Gutenberg . A good, six-part Masterpiece Theatre miniseries, available on video and DVD, starred Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke.

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

November 15, 2008

Woman Says She Traded ‘Sexual Favors’ for Vote for Bush (Quote of the Day / Nancy Huff in ‘The Necklace’)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:44 pm
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Nancy Huff makes this comment about her husband, Wayne, in The Necklace, a bestseller that tells the true story of 13 women, including Huff, who chipped in to buy a $15,000 diamond tennis necklace:

“I told Wayne, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. If you vote for Bush I’ll give you sexual favors.’ I live with a Democrat. What else could I do? Men are distracted by their little brain, as we call it.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 6, 2008

‘Speaker Pelosi, I Named My Dog After You’ And Other Things Nancy Pelosi Has Heard in More than 20 Years in Politics

How do you become the highest-ranking elected female official in the U.S.? Pelosi didn’t iron her husband’s shirts

Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters. By Nancy Pelosi with Amy Hill Hearth. Doubleday, 180 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

This book has inspired toxic comments on Amazon, apparently coming both from Republicans opposed to Nancy Pelosi’s liberal politics and Democrats enraged by her refusal to support impeachment proceedings against George W. Bush. Those diatribes may be too harsh. How bad can a book be when it includes an admission by the nation’s highest-ranking elected female official that she got where she is partly by declining to ironing her husband’s shirts?

Know Your Power isn’t a definitive autobiography but a brief memoir that its publisher optimistically but rightly categorizes as “motivational.” And it would be welcome if only because it offers an alternate model to any woman who thinks she could never meet Sarah Palin’s standard of running for high office as the mother of an infant and four other children. An implicit message of Know Your Power is: You don’t have to.

In this book Pelosi describes how she found her rewards sequentially. She got her start in politics when the mayor of San Francisco appointed her to the Library Commission while she was a full-time wife, mother, and volunteer who had given birth to five children in six years. But she didn’t become Speaker of the House until decades later. After becoming a Congresswoman, Pelosi seems to have accepted that she could never be the perfect wife envisioned by some of the women’s magazines: She has represented her California district since 1987, and her husband has never lived in Washington. A cornerstone of her philosophy of life is, “Organize, don’t agonize.”

Pelosi gives a strong sense of the rewards of a life in politics, some learned from her father, a Congressman from Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. She also sees the comic absurdities faced by elected officials of both sexes. One fan told her, “Speaker Pelosi, I named my dog after you.” One of the strongest sections of the book deals with her remarkable mother, who raised seven children — one of whom died at the age of three — and made sacrifices that indirectly underscore the need for elected female officials of both parties.

“My mother was a wonderful wife and parent, and she was also an entrepreneur and visionary,” Pelosi writes. “She started law school but had to stop when three of her sons had whooping cough at the same time. She made astute investments, but Daddy would not sign off on them (which, sadly, would have been necessary at the time). She had a patent on the first device to apply steam to the face, called Velex – Beauty by Vapor. It was her brainchild, and she had customers throughout the United States, but Daddy wanted her close to home.”

Amid such reminiscences, Pelosi offers advice to anyone who aspires to career in public service. “Don’t overstate what you will deliver, and always complete the task agreed to.” “Quality childcare is the missing link in the chain of progress for women and families.” Then there’s the advice she got from Lindy Boggs, former Congresswoman from Louisiana: “Never fight a fight as if it’s your last one.”

Some of the nastiness in politics today clearly results from the problem noted by Boggs, that many elected officials fight every fight as if it were their last. It’s easier to take an end-justifies-the-means view if you think you’ll never face your opponent — or American voters — again. Partly for that reason, if Know Your Power is billed as a book for “America’s Daughters,” it has a message for American’s sons, too.

Best line: On why she majored in history at Trinity College in Washington. D.C.: “I had intended to major in political science, but at Trinity at that time you had to major in history in order to study political science. Our teachers often quoted the great English historian J.R. Seeley’s aphorism: History without political science has no fruit. Political science without history has no root.” As someone who majored in political science major, I think Trinity had it right here. I had good poli sci professors but almost no history courses, which left me with an inadequate context for some of their lessons. If I had it to do over, I would major in history or English, which might have required me to take a few Shakespeare courses. I thought I had enough Shakespeare partly because I’d had a wonderful introduction to his greatest plays in high school. Wrong. You never have enough Shakespeare, especially if you’re a writer.

Worst lines: “This is an historic moment …” “This was a historic day in our house.” Pelosi apparently can’t decide whether its “an historic” or “a historic” and is hedging her bets. “A historic” is correct. To oversimplify: “An historic” dates to the early English settlers of our continent, many of whom dropped the “h” at the beginning of words, and the construction perpetuates the outdated language.

Recommendation? Know Your Power has crossover appeal. Doubleday has packaged it as a book for adults, and in bookstores and libraries, you’ll find it with the new adult nonfiction. But this book may especially appeal to teenage girls, including college students, who are hoping to go into public service.

Reading group guide: Doubleday has posted one at doubleday.com/2008/07/28/know-your-power-by-nancy-pelosi/, but this is a guide that’s almost worse than none. Sample questions: ” What roles do women occupy, or have they occupied, in your family? Did you have older female relatives who worked while raising a family?” These questions do not engage the serious issues Pelosi raises. You could ask them about almost any book by any female author from Edith Wharton to Toni Morrison.

Published: July 2008

Furthermore: Pelosi represents California’s 8th Congressional District, which includes much of San Francisco. She became Speaker of the House in January 2007 www.house.gov/pelosi/biography/bio.html.

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

September 24, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Is Curtis Sittenfeld Courting a Bad Sex in Fiction Award?

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep held my attention, but the best thing about the novel may have that picture of a pink grosgrain belt on the dust jacket, one of the most effective cover images of the decade. So I was in no rush to read Sittenfeld’s fictionalization of the life of Laura Bush, American Wife.

Then I read this line in Sam Anderson’s review of the book in New York magazine: “While the novel is occasionally funny (and sometimes, in its sex scenes, unintentionally hilarious), it is far from political satire” nymag.com/arts/books/reviews/49930/.

Sounds as though Sittenfeld is courting one of those delightful Bad Sex in Fiction Awards from the Literary Review, doesn’t it? And do I want to miss a contender for one of the few literary prizes that I regard as a true service to humanity? Let’s just say: I put my name on the waiting list at the library.

The editors of the Literary Review www.literaryreview.co.uk will announce the 2008 Bad Sex longlist in November, and if you can’t wait, you can read about the 2007 longlist (which included Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach) here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/23/. You’ll find a link to all the passages that eventually made the shortlist here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/28/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 17, 2008

Joshua Henkin’s ‘Matrimony,’ a Novel About the Rewards and Perils of Marrying Young

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:16 am
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Two male best friends get an education in love that begins in college and continues until their 15th-year reunion

Matrimony. By Joshua Henkin. Pantheon, 291 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

There’s a delicious scene early in Matrimony in which an English professor tries to curb the influence of Hollywood on his students’ writing partly by forbidding them to use the word “kerplunk” in their short stories. It’s blisteringly funny, and its deft blend of comedy and pathos reminds you of Dan Wakefield’s fine early novels, Going All the Way and Starting Over.

But the tone of Matrimony shifts as Joshua Henkin follows two of the professor’s students from college to early middle age. Best friends Julian Wainwright and Carter Heinz meet their future wives as freshmen and marry younger than many of their peers. And before they return to college for their 15th-year reunion, the bristling satire of the first chapter has given way at times to high-class soap opera. A $17-million dot-com windfall enriches a character nobody saw as the next Steve Jobs. A test for the breast-cancer gene leads another to consider having a double mastectomy immediately. Novels that lay unfinished for years suddenly get completed.

Fortunately, Henkin is too thoughtful a writer to allow his story to become silly, and amid all the improbable events, Matrimony offers sharp social commentary. In his 30s, Julian visits Carter in San Francisco and assumes incorrectly that he has less attachment to his car than other Californians. “I’m like everyone else,” Carter corrects him. “I take the elevator to the third floor so I can work out on the StairMaster.”

Best line: “Destroyed by Hollywood, Professor Chesterfield returned to Graymont, to his students, who watched more and more movies and read fewer and fewer books. Scrutinizing their stories, he could see the camera panning, the jump cuts and dolly shots, all the things that had ruined him. Worse, his students had taken to writing words such as ‘bang,’ ‘pop,’ and ‘splat,’ as well as nonwords masquerading as words, such as ‘kaboom,’ ‘yikes,’ ‘glunk,’ and even ‘arrrghhhh,’ often followed by multiple exclamation points. And in case the reader didn’t understand, the student would use capital letters: ‘ARRRGHHHH!!!!!’

“Worst of all was ‘kerplunk,’ which a student of Professor Chesterfield’s had used the previous year. A character had fallen off his horse, and then, in a paragraph all its own, came the single word,

“‘Kerplunk.’”

Worst line: Henkin has a distracting verbal tic: He often joins independent clauses by using “for” instead of “because.” “He liked going to parties, but once he and Mia were actually at one it was she who had the better time, for she was more adept at small talk than he was.” This stilted phrasing clashes with the writing elsewhere in Matrimony, which is more conversational.

Editor: Lexy Bloom

Published: October 2007 www.joshuahenkin.com

Furthermore: Henkin also wrote Swimming Across the Hudson. He lives in New York City.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com
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