One-Minute Book Reviews

January 7, 2008

A Young American Lounge Singer in Shanghai Tries to Keep Her Life in Tune in Lara Tupper’s First Novel, ‘A Thousand and One Nights’

Far from home in a five-star hotel with a no-star boyfriend

A Thousand and One Nights. By Lara Tupper. Harvest, 240 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A popular joke about the late Norman Vince Peale said that all of his sermons consisted of “three anecdotes in search of a point.” You might have a similar reaction to Laura Tupper’s first novel, A Thousand and One Nights.

Tupper has woven well-researched anecdotes about China into this story of a young American alto and her callow guitarist boyfriend from Yorkshire, who meet on a cruise ship and spend months performing as a duo in a plush hotel in Shanghai (where the only guests who don’t want to hear “Candle in the Wind” seem to want to hear “My Heart Will Go On”). On a train to Hangzhou, Karla and Jack receive “little black plastic bags for spitting.” And in a Shanghai market, Karla sees live snakes for sale, spinning in red buckets, and watches a man skin one alive, its flesh still wriggling and “a blue organ of some kind dangling” after the blade strikes.

But the anecdotes don’t coalesce into a story worthy of them. Karla and Jack run on empty, spending much of their time drinking, whining and bickering. A Thousand and One Nights has so little character and thematic development that at the end, Karla seems as masochistic and Jack as self-absorbed (and as bereft of credible Yorkshire accent) as the beginning. In a sense, both are shanghai’d by Shanghai. For all we learn about their attraction to each other, Tupper might as well have set them down in Secaucus.

Best line: Tupper’s description of the train to Hangzhou: “Karla and Jack had ‘soft seats,’ with cushions, and once on board they were given little plastic bags for spitting. There was no AC, and Karla was wearing tight, black jeans. There were a few other Caucasian faces in their train car, all flushed, and Jack and Karla ignored them. A uniformed girl served complimentary tea in white plastic cups. Bits of green herb floated up, then sank down.”

Worst line: “In truth, Karla was scared every night, and she was tired of being scared, tired of her own cycle of pathetic thoughts.”

Editor: Stacia Decker

Published: February 2007 www.laratupper.com and www.HarcourtBooks.com

Caveat lector: This review is based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: Tupper is a former lounge singer whose site says that she has performed “at sea and in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, and on land in Thailand, Japan, China and the United Arab Emirates.” She lives in New York City.

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

December 6, 2007

After ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ — Joan Didion’s Greatest Hits

A lot of book clubs are reading The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, $13.95, paperback), Joan Didion’s National Book Award–winning memoir of the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. And for groups or discussion leaders who would like to read more by Didion, the good choices include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, the early nonfiction collections that helped to make her reputation as one of America’s finest prose stylists.

But perhaps the best “next book” is the first chapter of her 1992 essay collection, After Henry (Vintage, $14.95, paperback) www.randomhouse.com/vintage/. Didion writes in the chapter about an early editor of her books, Henry Robbins, who died on his way to work at the age of 51. And her comments on death relate, perhaps more directly than anything she has written, to her views in The Year of Magical Thinking. She also notes, correctly, that the relationship between writers and great editors has little to do with changes in manuscripts:

“The relationship between an editor and a writer is much subtler and deeper than that, at once so elusive and so radical that it seems almost parental: the editor, if he was Henry Robbins, was the person who gave the writer the idea of himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down and do it.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 10, 2007

‘Hey, You!’ — A Picture Book Collection of Recent and Classic Poems for Children Ages 6 and Up

Tell me, O Octopus, I begs,
Is those things arms, or is they legs?

— From Ogden Nash’s light verse classic, “The Octopus”

Hey, You! Poems to Skyscrapers, Mosquitoes, and Other Fun Things. Selected by Paul B. Janeczko and Robert Rayevsky. HarperCollins, 40 pp., $16.89. Ages 6 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The thirty short poems in this picture book all speak to somebody or something — a shell, a horse, an astronaut – or use the literary device known as apostrophe.

Editor Paul Janeczko has chosen a mix of rhymed and unrhymed and comic and serious verse by living and dead poets, including Ogden Nash, X.J. Kennedy and Karla Kushkin. And some of the entries have an unexpected timeliness, such as Emily Dickinson’s “Bee, I’m Expecting You!,” which begins: “Bee, I’m expecting you! / Was saying yesterday / To somebody you know / That you were overdue.” (Could there be a better bedtime poem for a first or second grader who loved Bee Movie?) But the dark and heavy-handed illustrations – which hang over some pages like thunderclouds — are no match for the high quality of the poems. So this is a book to use selectively: Instead of reading straight through it, look for the pages most likely to appeal to a particular child. And just try to keep a straight face if they include Nash’s classic, “The Octopus,” which begins: “Tell me, O Octopus, I begs, / Is those things arms, or is they legs?”

Links: www.harpercollinschildrens.com, www.pauljaneczko.com, www.rayevsky.com

Furthermore: Janeczko is a Maine poet who also edited Dirty Laundry Pile: Poems in Different Voices, a companion to Hey, You!. Rayevsky lives in Parksville, NY, and illustrated Caroline Stutson’s Pirate Pup and other books for children.

Reviews of children’s books appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. They often deal with poetry for ages 2 and up. You can find other reviews of children’s poetry books by clicking on the “Children’s Books” category at right (below the “Recent Posts” and “Top Posts” listings).

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 7, 2007

The Adults Need the Diaper Change in ‘Dedication,’ the New Novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

OHMYGODYOUGOTTASKIPTHISBOOK!!! Because it has way too many lines like that one and, as its characters might say, It. Is. So. Retarded.

Dedication: A Novel. By Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Simon & Schuster/Atria. 279 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Few young writers have squandered their literary capital faster than Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, the authors of The Nanny Diaries.Their first novel deftly satirized the world of financially overprivileged New Yorkers and their emotionally underprivileged children. But their subsequent Citizen Girl sounded dreadful, and Dedication is pure schlock, though “pure” may be the wrong word for a book that has many lines like, “Crapcrapcrapcrap.”

Kate Hollis has waited for 13 years to take revenge against “multiplatinum recording megastar Jake Sharpe,” a high school classmate who dumped her. She wants nothing less than to “make him regret his entire existence.” And she finds her moment when Jake returns to their hometown in Vermont to announce his engagement to “international recording superstar” Eden Millay.

But Dedication is no print equivalent of the appealingly frothy My Best Friend’s Wedding. Alternating between the past and present, Kate gives an exhaustive history of her relationship with Jake from middle school to more than a decade after high school, as though it were the run-up to the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V. The chapters have titles like “Seventh Grade,” “Eighth Grade,” and “Ninth Grade,” and give the characters many opportunities to say things like, “Ooh, gross,” and, “You’re so retarded.”

Throughout all of it, Kate and Jake mature so little little that when their confrontation finally occurs, it’s like watching a junior-high food fight. In a sense McLaughlin and Kraus have come full circle: Their plot has changed, but they’re still writing about characters who need nannies.

Best line: None on par with the best in the The Nanny Diaries.

Recommendation? Be prepared for some of the members to stop speaking to you if you recommend this one to a book club.

Consider reading instead: The Nanny Diaries

Worst line: Any of the many on the order of, “Movemovemove, I’ve gotta pee!” and “OHMYGODWHERE’DYOUGETTHATBODY?” For one that’s not a run-on sentence, there’s, “Her face mommabirds.”

Published: June 2007 www.simonsays.com

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 29, 2007

‘Baseball Haiku': World-Class Poems About the Seasons of a Sport

Poems that speak to the emotions of Red Sox and Rockies fans today

Baseball Haiku: American and Japanese Haiku and Senryu on Baseball. Edited and With Translations by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura. Norton, 214 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

“Haiku and baseball were made for each other: While haiku give us moments in which nature is linked to human nature, baseball is played in the midst of the natural elements — on a field under an open sky; and as haiku happen in a timeless now, so does baseball, for there is no clock ticking in a baseball game — the game’s not over until the last out.”

With those words, Cor van den Heuvel sets the tone for this exemplary anthology of more than 200 of the finest haiku about baseball written by American and Japanese poets. Most Americans think of haiku as poems of 17 syllables, typically arranged in a 5-7-5 pattern on three stepped or flush-left lines.

But van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura show how much more flexible the form can be than the traditional pattern might suggest. Van den Heuvel notes, for example, that the best American practitioners of the art typically write free-verse haiku that have fewer than 17 syllables.

Consider the work of the Kansas-born Michael Fessler, who shows how nature can affect baseball in a poem that portrays the game as few of us see it played today: “dust storm trick: / infielders / face the outfield.” Fessler’s haiku suggests the layers of meaning that gifted poets can find in as few as 15 syllables: The word “trick” refers both the players’ shift of position and to a trick of nature, the dust storm. And the poem quietly conveys the passions aroused by baseball, a sport people will play in blinding storms.

Each author in Baseball Haiku gets an intelligent, one-page introduction that mentions a team that influenced him or her. But even without that material you might guess that the Maine-born van den Heuvel is “a lifelong fan of the Boston Red Sox” from one of his own poems that appears in the book, an homage to Ted Williams: “Ted hits another homer / a seagull high over right field / gets out of the way.”

Like all good poetry, the best haiku in this book transcend fandom and evoke deep and, if not universal, at least transoceanic emotions. One comes from the Japanese poet Yotsuya Ryu, known for his ability to capture fleeting moments in nature. He wrote its words years ago. But this one’s for you, Rockies fans: “until raised to Heaven / I’ll go to fields of green / carrying my glove.”

Published: June 2007 www.wwnorton.co

Furthermore: All the Japanese poems in Baseball Haiku include their original text and an English translation. More haiku appear at www.simplyhaiku.com. Van den Heuvel nows lives in New York City and Tamura in Japan.

You may also enjoy: The June 18, 2008, post on this site “Basketball Poems for Celtics Fans and Others” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/18/.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 26, 2007

Review of Holly Peterson’s ‘The Manny’: The Worst Sex Scenes Ever Published in a Novel Excerpted by Newsweek?

A rich Manhattanite hires a male nanny for her 9-year-old son and gets more than she bargained for

The Manny. By Holly Peterson. Dial Press, 353 pp., $25

By Janice Harayda

The emaciated carcasses of Park Avenue socialites have been pretty well picked over by novelists. First Tom Wolfe satirized the women whom he called “lemon tarts” and “social X-rays” in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Then came a second generation of writers who cannibalized rich Manhattanites’ lives for parts he spared. Candace Bushell took their sex lives in Four Blondes and other books, Nancy Lieberman their obsession with private schools in Admissions and – most memorably – Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus their ruthlessness to their nannies in The Nanny Diaries.

To all of this Holly Peterson brings one new idea, at least for anybody who hasn’t followed Britney Spears’s fumbled attempts at child care: A status symbol for some mothers is a male nanny who takes boys to batting cages and basketball courts when their fathers can’t get away from their high-flying jobs in law or finance. A while back, Peterson wrote a lively story about this for the New York Times that explained why she had hired men to care for her 3-year-old son. (It seems Jack wanted to sell his baby sister at the supermarket. ”Just leave her on the shelf next to the Teddy Grahams, Mom,” he proposed.) She now returns to male nannies in a glorified romance novel that’s better beach reading than Danielle Steel but not nearly as good as The Nanny Diaries.

Jamie Whitfield, a 36-year-old television producer, hires a younger man to care for her 9-year-old son because her callow husband earns $1.5 million a year but doesn’t seem to care that Dylan is suffering from “loss of self-esteem more than likely due to an absent dad. ” Jamie has middle-class, Midwestern roots – she married “up” – and professes disdain for the “showy and vulgar” New Yorkers she meets at a museum benefit.

But she acts at times like as much of a snob as her friends. She scorns the clothes of a researcher for her TV show: “She was wearing one of her awful Ann Taylor suits from the last century – a cherry-red one.” (She tells the woman, cruelly, “You look like an Avis car rental agent again.”) One problem with the jab is that in some Heartland cities – whose values Jamie is supposed to stand for – Ann Taylor stores are the most stylish in town. (I was thrilled when Ann Taylor moved into the Galleria in Cleveland, where I worked after writing for Glamour – not because I didn’t know you could find more fashionable clothes at Bendel’s and Bergdorf’s but because it offered an alternative to the Limited.) If Peterson wanted to pile more scorn on the suit, she could have done it more credibly with a reference to the lapels or fabric – it’s the gratuitous brand name that’s the tip-off to Jamie’s snobbery.

The Nanny Diaries succeeded, in part, because McLaughlin and Kraus had worked for more than 30 families as nannies and their details consistently came across as fresh and authentic. Peterson achieves this only erratically. Just as important, McLaughlin and Kraus had control of their tone from the start and never let you forget whom you were supposed to identify with – the exploited young nanny. Peterson’s tone is so uneven that she never establishes full sympathy for her heroine. The Manny says several times that Jamie’s son has low “self-esteem.” And because that phrase has been so overused that many journalists and others now avoid it, you might think the references are satirical. But they seem painfully earnest. The novel has the further burden of a pace that’s slow for at least the first 150 pages, after which the plot elements begin to mesh and push the story along more briskly. Even then, there isn’t much suspense about the question at the heart of the book: Will Jamie leave her indifferent husband for the manny who has charmed her young son?

Peterson seems to be trying to have it both ways – to suggest that Jamie has joined the uptown elite while remaining superior to it. The Manny reminds us that, in novels as in life, this is an act that only the most skilled can pull off.

Best line: Jamie talks about a show with network lawyer Geraldine Katz. “Geraldine once asked me how I could prove Michael Jackson really was the King of Pop.”

Worst line: Any of Peterson’s attempts to write a plausible sex scene. These are irreproducible on a site with many links from public libraries. But next time you’re in a bookstore, check out the scene on page 167 that begins with “Now she was on her knees …” and ends with “like a fire hose in her expensive mouth.” This is possibly the worst sex scene ever to appear in a novel excerpted by Newsweek, which has posted a portion of the book in its Web edition for June 17. The magazine does not include this scene in its excerpt in but uses a tamer passage for obvious reasons, including that excerpting this one could alienate a large portion of its subscription base.

The worst line not involving sex occurs when Jamie screams at her husband, “We’re in the modern era, baby, you spoiled, Jurassic, archaic, Waspy piece of petrified wood!” Yes, this is a character we’re supposed to like.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Manny was posted on this site on June 26, 2007, in the post just before this review.

Editor: Susan Kamil

Published: June 2007

Furthermore: Peterson is a contributing editor of Newsweek.

Links: Peterson has a page on My Space (www.myspace.com/hollypetersonthemanny), but I’m having trouble getting the direct link to work from this site. You can find the page by going to www.myspace.com and searching “hollypetersonthemanny” (one word).

I can’t seem to link to the excerpt in the online edition of Newsweek, either, but you can find it by Googling “The Manny + excerpt + Newsweek.” You can find the same excerpt that appears in Newsweek on the publisher’s site www.randomhouse.com/.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

www.janiceharayda.com

 

 

June 6, 2007

Peter Godwin’s Memoir of Terror in Africa, ‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun’

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:10 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

When tragedy struck the author’s family and others in Zimbabwe

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa. By Peter Godwin. Little Brown, 334 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

“In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue,” Peter Godwin writes in this elegant memoir of the terrors inflicted on his family and others during the nearly 30-year regime of dictator Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Godwin’s older sister and her fiancé were killed in 1978, just before their wedding, when they ran into army ambush during the war for independence. No one can know the full effects of that tragedy on his mother, a doctor, and his father, an engineer, among the last wave of English immigrants to arrive before Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. But if Helen and George Godwin thought their lives couldn’t get worse, they were wrong.

The terror escalated after voters defeated a Mugabe-backed referendum to extend presidential term limits in 2000. Mugabe sent hit squads into the countryside to abduct, torture and murder his opponents. His victims included a white farmer, the husband of a Godwin family friend, who was forced to drink diesel oil before he was killed. The author’s father, old and ill, was beaten outside his home by thugs who took his car and wallet. A woman who had worked for 20 years as the family housekeeper returned with goons after her retirement and demanded money. The elder Godwins installed a “rape gate” to seal off their bedrooms in case their home was invaded.

Why didn’t the couple leave Zimbabwe? Godwin suggests that they stayed partly because his father had decided, as a young man, to suppress his Polish-Jewish roots after his mother and sister died at Treblinka. Africa allowed him to be “a new man.” That may be true. But this aspect of his parents’ decision seems slightly overplayed in the book. Godwin doesn’t quite persuade you that there weren’t more important factors in their unwillingness to leave than his father’s submerged Jewish roots. Many whites stayed without having such tangled backgrounds. And so few people want to relocate late in life that, at least in the U.S., most people do not move to another state in retirement but stay close to home. Perhaps the Godwins dreaded returning to England’s soggy climate after living for so long in a place “where the rose blossoms are as big as babies’ heads.”

It hardly matters to the success of this memoir, which joins We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families in the first rank of personal encounters with Africa. For all his family lost, Godwin writes poignantly — and with occasional bleak humor – about Zimbabwe. On a trip to Victoria Falls he visits a backpackers’ gathering spot and sees, amid the tourist brochures, a jar with a label that reads: “AIDS Kills So Don’t Be Silly, Put A Condom on Your Willy.”

“Inside is a single foil wrapper,” Godwin writes. “Years too late, Zimbabwe has launched an AIDS education campaign.”

The title of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun refers to the belief among some Zulus that a solar eclipse occurs when a celestial crocodile eats the sun, and it suggests the parallel eclipses of Godwin’s parents and Zimbabwe. Another metaphor presents itself when Godwin speaks to a doctor about his diabetic father’s gangrenous feet.

“The pain your father feels at present, ischemic pain, is the pain of a muscle being deprived of oxygen,” the physician says. “It is the very worst, most intense kind of pain there is.” Much like that of a nation being deprived of its freedom.

Best line: Godwin writes of flying over Africa in 2003: “Our flight takes us down a continent of catastrophe. Many of the conflicts 30,000 feet below I have covered in my career as a foreign correspondent. It unfolds like a geography of doom. Sierra Leone, where the hacking off of limbs was standard practice; Liberia, where peacekeeping Bangladeshis in blue helmets were struggling to separate teenage gunmen wearing women’s clothing; Ivory Coast, divided between bitter ethnic rivals; Congo, where civil war still raged in a nation that has ceased to be and probably never was; Sudan, where a civil war still rages and triggers frequent spasms of famine; Somalia, which has no government at all now, a country that deserves the description anarchic.”

Worst line: Godwin’s father says: “Being a white here [in Zimbabwe] is starting to feel a bit like being a Jew in Poland in 1939 – an endangered minority – the target of ethnic cleansing.” This is one of number of places where Godwin tries to draw needless parallels between African tragedies and others. The terror in Zimbabwe is horrific whether or not it resembles the Holocaust or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

Editors: Judy Clain and Marie Salter

Published: April 2007 (first U.S. Edition)

Furthermore: Peter Godwin was born and raised in Zimbabwe and has been a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London and BBC TV. He also wrote Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (Grove, 2005), a memoir of his childhood.

Janice Harayda 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. She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners www.janiceharayda.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 15, 2007

Second Runner-up for the 2007 Delete Key Award: ‘The Emperor’s Children’ by Claire Messud

The second runner-up for the 2007 Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books is …

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

How did this pretentious novel end up on so many best-of-the-year lists? Who knows? Every year there’s at least one book that earns praise far out of proportion to its merits. (Remember the great reviews Mitch Albom got when he started writing books? How hollow does some of the praise seem now?) The most overrated book of 2006 was The Emperor’s Children, a windy and cliché-infested novel full of repulsive characters who move in eddies around an aging New York journalist.

So why didn’t it win top honors in the Delete Key Awards competition for the year’s worst writing in books? Tedious as much of this novel is, The Emperor’s Children picks up steam in the last one hundred or so pages, when it borrows some drama from the events of Sept. 11, 2001. How many readers will stick with it until then?

Original review on One-Minute Book Reviews: Oct. 4, 2006, “The Emperor’s Children Wear Clichés,” Oct. 4, 2006, archived with the October posts and in the “Novels” category.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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