One-Minute Book Reviews

May 12, 2010

Jonathan Dee’s Novel ‘The Privileges’ — Looking at ‘Moral Invertebrates’ Through the Glass Walls of a Diorama

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Will a New York couple’s marriage suffer when the husband veers into insider trading?

The Privileges: A Novel. By Jonathan Dee. Random House, 258 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Adam and Cynthia Morey – young, rich New Yorkers with two beautiful children – are the marital equivalent of a highly profitable but closely held company: two chillingly self-sufficient people who show little need for the family, friends, and faith of their youth. They are also, in the fine phrase of James Wood of The New Yorker, “moral invertebrates.” You can read their marriage as a metaphor for Wall Street in the age of deregulation – it makes its own rules. So you can’t assume that the Moreys or their children will suffer after Adam becomes the prime mover of an insider-trading scheme that exploits information picked up at his private-equity firm.

This uncertainly lends a modicum of suspense to this tale of the first 23 years of the couple’s marriage. But The Privileges is a low-energy and somewhat exposition-heavy novel that has an appeal more intellectual than emotional. The Moreys resemble figures in the carpet of a certain New York social world instead of fully realized characters. And many of their actions are unearned, including some of Cynthia’s cruelties to others and Adam’s abrupt tossing of a Patek Philippe watch into the Hudson River during a charity benefit on a ship.

Jonathan Dee is an intelligent and graceful writer who never trivializes his subjects. And he shows you what this novel might have been in a climatic scene in a hospice that brings in two characters from the sidelines who finally make you feel all you ought to feel for the Moreys’ victims. Elsewhere, if Adam and Cynthia are moral invertebrates, Dee leaves you looking at them through the glass walls of a diorama and not, as you would like to be, standing inside it with them.

Best line: No. 1: “After four years at Morgan Stanley, an operation so vast that Adam’s true bosses existed mostly on the level of gossip and rumor, a feeling of toxic stasis had begun to provoke him in the mornings when he arrived at work.” No. 2: “‘If you’re ever hard up for money, just fly the family to LA, and both kids will have agents before they’re out of baggage claim,’ Conrad said.”

Worst line: “Unconsciously she pulls at the neckline of her bridesmaid’s dress to try to keep her tattoo covered.”If she’s trying to keep her tattoo covered, is the movement really “unconscious”?

Published: January 2010. The paperback edition of The Privileges is due out in October.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to this book: Michael Dahlie’s award-winning novel, A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living,which deals more effectively with monied New Yorkers.

About the author: Dee is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 30, 2010

A Review of the 2010 Newbery Medal Winner, ‘When You Reach Me': Enjoyable? Yes. The Year’s ‘Most Distinguished’? Maybe Not.

A 12-year-old girl tries to figure out who’s sending her mysterious notes in a novel that pays homage to Madeleine L’Engle

When You Reach Me. By Rebecca Stead, 197 pp., Wendy Lamb/Random House, $15.99. Ages 9–12.

By Janice Harayda

When You Reach Me won the American Library Association’s latest John Newbery Medal, and it’s certainly an enjoyable and well-written book. But is it the year’s “most distinguished contribution” to children’s literature?

Maybe it depends on how you define “distinguished.” By my lights, the ALA citation implies: “a book that will seem as great decades from now.” And I’m not convinced that When You Reach Me passes that test, or that Rebecca Stead will hold her own against Newbery winners like Russell Freedman (Lincoln: A Photobiography) and Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob I Have Loved).

Stead tells a cleverly plotted story about a bright 12-year-old named Miranda, who tries to decipher a series of mysterious and slightly ominous notes from an unknown sender in 1978–1979. The sender — whose knowledge of events seems to transcend the laws of time and space — may or may not live near the apartment Miranda shares with her mother on the Upper West Side of New York.

Miranda’s favorite book is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, a novel about time-traveling children. And like that 1963 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me raises the question: Is time travel possible? Stead handles the issue well, offering enough science to keep her story plausible without turning it into a treatise.

But When You Reach Me deals with less complex questions than – and appears derivative in comparison to – L’Engle’s modern classic. Like most suspense novels, this one gets much of its appeal from its quick pace and ability to keep you guessing, not from its depth of characterization. Miranda’s mother has a boyfriend, “who is German but not strict or awful,” and whose German-ness resides mainly in his Aryan looks: You never understand why Stead made him German instead of another nationality.

Far more complex characterizations appear in Deborah Heiligman’s 2009 National Book Award finalist, Charles and Emma, which won a nonfiction award from the ALA. And Phillip Hoose tells a more powerful story in his Newbery Honor Book, the biography Claudette Colvin. Those books seem more likely to be important decades from now. If I had to assign grades, I’d give Charles and Emma and Claudette Colvin each an A or A-minus and When You Reach Me a B.

So why did the novel win the Newbery? Hard to say. It can’t have hurt that Stead’s novel subtly flatters the ALA by ratifying its choice for 1963 Newbery, or that its allusions to A Wrinkle in Time are a bonanza for teachers who love to assign compare-and-contrast exercises. Nor can it have hurt that, like the 1991 winner, Maniac Magee, the latest testifies to the joy of reading. When You Reach Me was also popular — a bestseller on Amazon — before it won, so it was a safe choice. And I’ve read few of the fiction candidates for the 2010 Newbery: If the judges wanted to honor a novel, though they didn’t have to, Stead’s may have been the best. So When You Reach Me gets a qualified endorsement: Amble to your library or bookstore for it if you’re inclined, and save your sprint for National Book Award winner Claudette Colvin.

Best line: Miranda has proprietary feelings about A Wrinkle in Time: “The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book.”

Worst line: “At the meetings, during which Mr. Nunzi has usually burned a new hole in our couch with his cigarette …” Doesn’t ring true. Most sofas sold in the U.S. contain polyurethane foam stuffing, which is highly flammable, and one cigarette burn can send them up in flames.

Art notes: The cover of this book does not serve it well. It shows greenish-gray grid that looks like a patchwork of lawns and suggests that the action takes place in a northern New Jersey suburb that faces New York skyline when, in fact, it’s set in Manhattan. And the book as a whole begged for illustrations.

Published: July 2009

Furthermore: Two reviews of When You Reach Me by librarians: Amanda Pape’s on her blog Bookin’ It and Elizabeth Bird’s on the School Library Journal blog.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. You can also follow her on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 27, 2009

Not Written in Lipstick – Sarah Dunn’s Novel ‘Secrets to Happiness’

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A search-and-rescue mission for single New Yorkers and their dogs

Secrets to Happiness: A Novel. By Sarah Dunn. Little, Brown, 277 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

Sarah Dunn is that rarity among comic novelists — a moralist in the best sense of the word. She doesn’t preach or lecture. But her heroines have a solid moral core left over from the strict Christian upbringing they have rejected. They struggle to do the right thing even as friends are cheating on their partners or trolling for casual sex on LukesPlace, a site similar to Craigslist in Secrets to Happiness. If Dunn’s heroines fall for faithless men, it isn’t because these women are vapid or silly – it’s because they are confused. They don’t know how to reconcile their early lessons with those of the age of Sex and the City, when their peers deal with moral questions by handing them off to psychiatrists or blocking them out with drugs from a pharmacy in St. Kitts.

“It never ceased to amaze Holly, how therapists managed to spin things,” Dunn writes of her main character. After years in Manhattan, Holly suspected that psychotherapy aimed to make it possible for people “to do whatever they wanted to do, with whomever they wanted to do it, when and where and however they felt like it, while reaping no negative emotional consequences whatsoever.”

That passage alone might lift Secrets to Happiness above most novels about single New Yorkers, in which few plot devices are more clichéd than an emotionally gimpy heroine’s visit to a therapist whose banalities help her find love. But the book has much more going for it than that. This is a novel about the related questions: What is the cost of being emotionally abandoned? And when do you give up the fantasy that you can rescue a relationship?

Holly Frick thinks she still loves a husband who has left her when, in her mid-30s, she faces other swiftly arriving changes: She adopts a dog with brain cancer, becomes involved with a 22-year-old man, and learns that her married best friend is having an affair. She must also persuade her gay script-writing partner to do his share of the work for an afternoon TV show now that her masochistically titled novel, Hello, Mr. Heartache, is tanking at bookstores. Part of the suspense comes from whether Holly will stick with her canine and human companions or will abandon them as her husband has abandoned her.

Dunn doesn’t develop this plot quite as well as she did that of her first novel, The Big Love, which has no relation to the HBO series. Much of the charm of that book came from the quirky first-person narration of its heroine, a Philadelphia magazine writer. Dunn uses shifting third-person viewpoints in her new novel, and though she handles them well, the device leaves the book softer at its center. Holly is its emotional and moral anchor, and the omniscient narration dilutes her impact.

So the pleasure of reading Secrets to Happiness comes less from its plot than from Dunn’s sophisticated wit, social commentary, and sharp eye for how single people of both sexes rationalize their actions. The novel abounds with lines that are amusing or perceptive or both. One involves the its Craigslist-surrogate: “The thing Leonard liked about LukesPlace was that you didn’t have to be altogether on your game and yet you could still have sex with perfect strangers.” When a man asks Holly if she wrote “chick lit,” she responds, “I wrote the entire thing in lipstick, actually.” No one should confuse Secrets to Happiness with a book that might as well be sold at cosmetics counters.

Best line: “Betsy Silverstein was only half Jewish, but with Betsy, half was plenty.”

Worst line: “She pressed on like a trooper.” The word is “trouper.”

Recommended if … you’ve wonder, “Where are the novels about single women that aren’t mainly about shoes?” (though The Big Love offers a better introduction to Dunn’s work).

Published: March 2009

About the author: Dunn has written for Murphy Brown and other television shows. A post about The Big Love appeared on this site on Feb. 14, 2007.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 20, 2009

Ambition 10, Fame 3 — Nancy Balbirer’s ‘Take Your Shirt Off and Cry,’ a Memoir of Near-Misses as an Actor in Hollywood and New York

Did she miss out on fame because Hollywood is ruthless or because she consulted wackos like the psychic who spoke in the voice of an ovary?

Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences. By Nancy Balbirer. Bloombsbury USA, 256 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Nancy Balbirer updates the saying that acting is a hard way to earn an easy living in this uneven memoir of two decades of near-misses in show business. Balbirer tells lively stories about how she landed modest roles on Seinfeld and MTV while paying her rent through jobs like cocktail-waitressing and blow-drying friends’ hair for $20, all the while yearning for stardom that came neither in New York nor Hollywood.

But it’s unclear how much of her book you can believe, and not just because an author’s note warns – here we go again – that some facts have been changed “for literary reasons.” Balbirer takes her title and theme from a warning she says she got during a private conversation with the playwright David Mamet, one of her acting teachers at the Tisch School of the Arts. As she tells it, Mamet said that as a woman in show business, she’d be asked to do two things in every role she played:

“Take your shirt off and cry. Still, there’s no reason that you can’t do those things and do them with dignity and the scene properly analyzed.”

Did Mamet really say those lines as written? Good writers tend to keep related words together unless they have reason to split them up, and you wonder if Mamet said, “Take your shirt off” instead of the more graceful “Take off your shirt.” And his “still” seems stilted for a conversation between two people walking toward a Seventh Avenue subway stop.

In the years that followed her talk with Mamet, Balbirer took her shirt off – literally and figuratively — more than once. Yet her willingness to expose herself may have had more to do with a lack of self-awareness than with the raw exploitation envisioned by Mamet. On the evidence of Take Your Shirt Off and Cry, Balbirer has that paradoxical combination so often found in actors: enough intelligence to welcome complex Shakespearean and other roles but too little of it to stay away from con artists, whether they take form of tarot card readers or manipulative lovers. She’s hardly alone among would-be stars in having found an eviction notice taped to her door before she earned redemption (which came, in her case, from writing and starring in the solo show I Slept With Jack Kerouac). But you wonder if she might have avoided some disasters if she’d given less money to people like “a psychic in Tennessee” who spoke to her in the voice of one of her ovaries.

“Wacky, yes, and even wackier that my ‘ovary’ had a thick Southern accent,” she admits, “and still … I believed.”

Best line: Two of the “the enormous angry placards” Balbirer saw in the waiting areas of casting offices: “ACTORS MAY NOT EAT IN THIS AREA!!!” and “ACTORS: CLEAN UP YOUR GARBAGE!!” See also the quote posted earlier on May 20.

Worst line: No. 1: Some parts of Take Your Shirt Off and Cry are so neat, they leave you wondering if they include made-up scenes, dialogue, or characters. Balbirer doesn’t clarify the issue in a vague author’s note that says that she has “in some instances, compressed or expanded time, or otherwise altered events for literary reasons, while remaining faithful to the essential truth of the stories.” No. 2: Balbirer likes cute words (such as “humonguous,” “bazillion” and “suckiest”) that at times work against the serious points she is trying to make.

Published: April 2009

About the author: Balbirer co-owns the Manhattan restaurant Pasita.

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

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

November 6, 2008

How Kinky Does Poetry Get? How About a Poem in the Shape of the State of New York? (Quote of the Day / ‘The Poetry Dictionary’)

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The other day I came across the late Australian writer Judith Wright’s poem “Rainforest,” in which the lines are arranged in the shape of a tree – a subtle an example of a pattern poem, or a poem in which the words or lines form a typographic picture that relates to the subject. And I wondered: How kinky does poetry get? What are some of the more offbeat shapes that poems have taken? Here’s an answer from John Drury’s The Poetry Dictionary (Writer’s Digest Books, 374 pp., $14.99, paperback), which has a foreword by Dana Gioia:

“John Hollander’s Types of Shape consists entirely of pattern poems. The shapes include a key, lightbulb, harpsichord, bell, sundial, lazy Susan, kitty, kitty with bug, the state of New York, a double helix, a swan with its reflection. These poems, however, can still be read aloud.”

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

October 31, 2008

And Today’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole Goes to …

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And today’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing goes to …

Frances Kiernan for a line in a Wall Street Journal column earlier this year in which she named The Bonfire of the Vanities one of the five best books about New York society:

“Few New Yorkers cross the Triborough Bridge without recalling Sherman McCoy’s disastrous detour into the South Bronx.”

Actually, few New Yorkers cross the Triborough without a) praying that they’ll get to the airport on time, b) hoping they have the five dollars for the toll, or c) wondering if the bicyclists are closing in on mental instability.

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

October 22, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda — America’s Most Famous French Bookstore, the Librairie de France, Will Close in 2009

America’s most famous French bookstore will close in 2009. The Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center apparently has fallen victim to rising rents, online book sales and a declining interest in foreign languages.

The New York Times reported last year that the bookstore would shut its doors, but I missed the article and learned of the closing during a recent visit to the shop. A staff member was handing out flyers that said that its lease expires in September 2009:

“Because of overwhelming New York City retail rents, especially on Fifth Avenue – almost $1,800 a square foot, and projected even higher in 2009 – we will have to close our store at that time. Our mail order services, however, will continue from a yet-to-be-determined location.”

Alex Mindlin’s article in the Times noted that, in its prime, the Librairie was an institution. The bookstore was one of the first retail tenants of Rockefeller Center in 1935:

“During World War II, its publishing arm printed the works of many writers who had emigrated from Vichy France, including Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The shop thrived throughout the 1960s, importing two tons of books a week and holding autograph sessions for French celebrities like the singer Charles Aznavour.” www.nytimes.com/2007/07/15/nyregion/thecity/15fren.html

The Librairie de France operates today on two floors on the Promenade at Rockefeller Center: a ground-level space that sells souvenirs and other items popular with tourists, such as Tricolor keychains, “Little Prince” dolls and French translations of Goodnight Moon and the Harry Potter novels. An underground room below it sells antique and rare books and prints. A mail-order catalog appears on its Web site www.frencheuropean.com.

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

September 10, 2008

If I Could Read One Book About Sept. 11, I Would Read …

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If I could read one account of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I would read 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (Holt, 384 pp., $15, paperback), by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, a book I’ve had on my “to read” list almost since its publication. Dwyer and Flynn describe the 102 minutes between the first attack on the World Trade Center and the collapse of the second tower, as seen by people inside the buildings, in this finalist for a National Book Award. As they do, they tell intimate stories that evoke deep emotions, Publishers Weekly said: “A law firm receptionist quietly eats yogurt at her desk seconds before impact. Injured survivors, sidestepping debris and bodies, struggle down a stairwell. A man trapped on the 88th floor leaves a phone message for his fiancée: ‘Kris, there’s been an explosion…. I want you to know my life has been so much better and richer because you were in it.’” You may also want to read the review of Love You, Mean It, a memoir by four women widowed by the attacks, posted on Sept.11, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/11/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 14, 2008

A Review of ‘The Red Leather Diary’ — Coming This Week

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In 2003 the journalist Lily Koppel found a battered red leather diary from the 1930s in a dumpster front of her New York apartment building, which was being renovated. Koppel saw that the journal had belonged to an intelligent and high-spirited woman whom she tracked down with the help of a private investigator and found to be in her 90s and living in Connecticut and Florida. In The Red Leather Diary www.redleatherdiary.com Koppel tells the true story of the life of Florence Wolfson Howitt, who helped her see her own youthful experiences in a fresh context. A review of the book will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews later this week.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reseved.

June 24, 2008

The Turn of the Twin Towers – Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland’ and Unreliable Narration — Did the Narrator Do It?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:58 am
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A Dutch-born banker in Manhattan becomes unmoored in a post-Sept. 11 ghost story with neo-Gothic undertones

Netherland. By Joseph O’Neill. Pantheon, 256 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

This beautifully written novel is, like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a study in unreliable narration. Ostensibly it is the story of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born banker in New York, whose his wife and son return to London without him after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 force the family out of their Tribeca loft and into the Chelsea Hotel.

But it’s unclear how much, if any, of Hans’s account of his life you can credit. Perhaps better than any other novel, Netherland captures a vital truth about Sept. 11: The story of New York City after the attacks is a ghost story — a tale of a place haunted by lost people, buildings and illusions.

As in most good ghost stories, a central question is: How credible is the teller of the tale? And as in many, neo-Gothic undertones abound, particularly in Joseph O’Neill’s descriptions of the Chelsea and its dim hallways, baronial staircase and tolerance for baroque tenants, including man who dresses as an angel and buys his wings at a shop called Religious Sex. Hans observes:

“Over half the rooms were occupied by long-term residents who by their furtiveness and ornamental diversity reminded me of the population of the aquarium I’d kept as a child, a murky tank in which cheap fish hesitated in weeds and an artificial starfish made a firmament of gravel.”

With such characters as a foil, Hans might seem to be a pillar of stolid Dutch respectability. After his wife and son decamp for London, he returns to the wholesome sport of cricket, which he had enjoyed as a boy, and falls in with a network of players that O’Neill evokes vibrantly. The group includes an umpire and streetwise Trinidadian dreamer named Chuck Ramkissoon, who involves Hans at least marginally in an unsavory money-making scheme.

Despite his association with Chuck, Hans stays out of trouble, or so it might seem. He tells his story after returning to London to rejoin his wife, so we know that in a certain sense he has escaped whatever perils he faced New York.

But hints that we may not be able to trust his story begin on the dust jacket, which warns that Netherland is about a New York City that is “phantasmagorical,” or marked by shifting illusions and deceptive appearances. A few pages into the novel, after returning to London, Hans gets a call from a New York Times reporter. She says that Chuck Ramkisson has turned up dead in the Gowanus Canal and that she wants to confirm a fact in her notes — that Hans was Chuck’s business partner. Hans denies it. Netherland has hardly begun, but already we know: The narrator is lying or somebody else is. Soon afterward, we learn that Hans’s wife, Rachel, moved back to London because she began to question what she called “the narrative of our marriage.” Does she have her own fears about him?

The questions mount as the plot circles back to Chuck’s death in the last pages. After learning of her husband’s ties to the cricketer found in the Gowanus, Rachel calls a lawyer. Hans tells us that the attorney opines that “as a practical matter I have nothing to fear.” As a practical matter? Does he have something to fear on other levels?

Netherland never reveals who killed Chuck and, on that count, ends ambiguously. A reviewer for a British newspaper said that the identity of the killer is beside the point, and, on one level, she’s right. This novel is less about one man’s death than about fraying welcome mat that America puts out for immigrants of all social classes.

But the identity of the killer does matter – if the murderer was Hans, which would cast the novel in a new light. Nothing explicitly implicates him, but nothing exculpates him either. And if you look up “van den Broek” in a Dutch-English dictionary you find that a possible translation is “from the pine marsh” or “swamp.” The Gowanus Canal was built through a marsh where pine trees apparently grew.

Is it a coincidence that Hans’s name describes the place where Chuck’s body turned up? In a novel in which a man buys his angel’s wings at a store called Religious Sex, you never know.

Best line: Nearly every page has one. Toward the end of the book, Hans and his wife are riding a taxi when Rachel recalls their life in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 – “God, do you remember those sirens?” – and squeezes his hand. “Strange, how such a moment grows in value over a marriage’s course,” Hans reflects. “We gratefully pocket each of them, these sidewalk pennies, and run with them to the bank as if creditors were banging on the door. Which they are, one comes to realize.”

Worst line: “Personally, things remained as they were.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Netherland was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 24, 2008, in the post that preceded this review. This guide focuses on the issue of unreliable narration in the novel as it relates to the question: Who killed Chuck Ramkissoon? If you are reading this on the home page of the site, scroll down to find the guide. If you are reading this on the Web, click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/.

Published: May 2008 www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307377043

About the author: O’Neill was born in Ireland, grew up mainly in Holland and lives in New York City. He wrote the novels This Is the Life and The Breezes and the family history, Blood-Dark Track.

Furthermore: Additional comments on Netherland appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 9 and June 10, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/ and www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/10/. Some critics disagree that The Turn of the Screw involves unreliable narration. A discussion of this aspect of James’s novel appears en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turn_of_the_Screw.

Note: The translation of “van den Broek” comes from Yahoo! Babel Fish. If you can provide a more accurate one, would you kindly leave a comment or send a message to the e-mail address on the Contact page?

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

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