One-Minute Book Reviews

February 18, 2011

Today’s Gusher Award for Literary Hype Goes to …

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Jonathan Franzen says that when he first read  Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, it seemed to him ”obviously superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow.” – From Franzen’s introduction to Desperate Characters: A Novel (Norton, 1999, paperback).

Comment: I admire Fox and think her books are underrated, but Franzen’s hype tests the patience even of a champion of her Borrowed Finery and The Coldest Winter. Click here to read other Gusher-Award winners.


November 26, 2010

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Lionel Shriver’s Novel ‘So Much for That,’ a 2010 National Book Award Finalist

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
So Much for That
By Lionel Shriver
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies to use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups should link to the guide or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Shepherd Knacker hardly resembles a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. He’s a 48-year-old married father of two who lives in Westchester County, New York, and suffers the daily humiliations inflicted by the new head of the home-repair company he once owned. But for years Shep has been saving money for what he calls an “Afterlife” of subsistence living on an island off the coast of Africa. Just when he has enough cash, his wife develops a rare asbestos-related cancer, peritoneal mesothelioma. Suddenly Shep can’t leave the country or his company because Glynis needs his health insurance. How will the withering physical, emotional and financial cost of his wife’s treatments affect his marriage? Can his dream survive it? And if so, will it be worth it? Lionel Shriver, an American who lives in London, explores these questions and other in So Much for That, a novel shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Award for fiction.

Discussion Questions:

1. Many Americans dream of escaping to the tropics but see the idea as unrealistic. Did Shriver convince you that Shep’s fantasies were plausible for him? How?

2. Glynis tells Shep, when he says he wants to leave the country, “You don’t know what you want out of, much less what you want in on.” Shep says he does know: “I want to buy myself.” [Page 18] Who was right? What did Shep mean when he said that he wanted to “buy” himself?

3. More than half of the chapters in So Much for That begin with a statement of the value of a bank account or investment portfolio. What purpose does this literary device serve? Does Shep strike you as mercenary? If he isn’t greedy, why might Shriver have included financial the statements?

4. In addition to its main plot about Shep’s Afterlife, this novel has three medical subplots: about Glynis’s cancer, Jackson’s botched penis-enlargement surgery, and the degenerative disease familial dysautonomia, which afflicts the daughter of Jackson and his wife, Carol. Did the novel need all three subplots? If not, which could have been cut? What would the novel have lost or gained by eliminating it?

5. The story Shriver tells has parallels with the life of Christ. For example, Jesus is known as the Good Shepherd, and he was a carpenter whom Christians believe will lead them to eternal life. So Much for That is about a good Shepherd who does carpentry and hopes to lead his family to an Afterlife with him. You can read these parallels as a commentary on an America in which people have faith not in Jesus but in a broken health-care system. How would you interpret the similarities? A fuller discussion of the religious parallels appears in a review posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 26, 2010.

6. So Much for That deals with timely issues. “But good fiction ultimately has to justify itself in the years beyond its pub date, and such PR lines will become increasingly irrelevant,” Mark Athitakis writes in his American Fiction Notes blog. Will this novel appeal to Americans in 10 or 20 years? Why or why not?

7. Late in the novel Carol asks Shep, “Do you by any chance have a really, really big dick?” [Page 433] Shep reflects that he would “understand the context” of her remark the next day. What was the context? Did Carol ask that question because she hoped to sleep with him or for another reason?

8. Leah Hager Cohen wrote in a review in the New York Times Book Review that So Much for That has merits but lacks “a fullness of wisdom about its characters’ potential for growth.” What did she mean? Do you agree?

9. Glynis rails against the saccharine, kid-glove treatment she gets from people after she gets mesothelioma: “I feel as if I’m trapped in a Top Forty by the Carpenters.” [Page 310] Barbara Ehrenreich raised similar objections to the good cheer expected of cancer patients in her bestselling Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan, 2009). Did either book affect your views of how Americans treat cancer patients? If you’ve read both, which made its case better?

10. On the basis of this novel, you might expect Shriver to favor almost any kind of health care reform. But in an interview she faulted President Obama’s health care plan as well-intentioned but unlikely to help. Does her view surprise you now that you’ve read So Much for That?

Vital statistics:

So Much for That. By Lionel Shriver. HarperCollins, 436 pp., $25.99. Published: March 2010

A review of So Much for That appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on November, 26, 2010, in the post directly after this one.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and 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

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are not unbiased analyses but marketing tools designed to sell books. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please follow Jan on her Twitter feed at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she lists new guides and reviews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 18, 2010

Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ Makes Shortlist for Bad Sex Award

Filed under: Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:36 pm
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Freedom has made the shortlist for the annual Bad Sex in fiction award, always one of year’s most entertaining literary prizes. The Guardian has more on the dubious honor for Jonathan Franzen’s novel, which landed its author on the cover of Time but not on the dais at last night’s National Book Awards ceremony. Given by the U.K.-based Literary Review, the Bad Sex award went last year to Jonathan Littell, who defeated Philip Roth, Paul Theroux and others.

July 20, 2010

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Imperfectionists: A Novel
Tom Rachman
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Tom Rachman blends comedy and tragedy in The Imperfectionists, a collection of linked short stories about the staff members and others attached to an unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome. His idiosyncratic daily is trying to stay afloat in the digital age. But it has no website because, an editor says, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.” Can such a journalistic throwback survive? Rachman withholds the answer until the last pages of a book that reads like a collection of smartly written parables about the human illusions that lie at the intersection of work and love.

Questions for Discussion:

1. The publisher of The Imperfectionists has billed the book as “a novel,” but it reads like a collection of linked short stories. Did the book work as a novel? Why or why not?

2. A character in The Imperfectionists expresses a theme of the book when she reflects that “living overseas changes the rules.” [Page 185] What did she mean? How has living abroad has changed the rules for some of the characters in the novel?

3. Another theme of the book is that human illusions persist in adulthood and that, to some extent, we need them. Rachman’s characters typically cling to a fantasy until jolted out of it (as happens to the corrections editor who believes that he and his old friend Jimmy are “gradations of the same man” until Jimmy visits and the editor realizes that they are “utterly different”). [Page 94] How well does Rachman develop this theme? Were you persuaded, for example, that the corrections editor would cling for so long to his fantasies about Jimmy’s writing talents? Or that the Paris correspondent could be so mistaken about his son?

4. How does living abroad feed the illusions of the characters in The Imperfectionists? Would its story have worked if Rachman had set the story in a city in the U.S.? Why?

5. The stop-and-go format of linked-story collections can work brilliantly, as it does in Winesburg, Ohio. It can also make it harder for an author to maintain a steady pace, because there’s a narrative break at the end of every story or chapter. (One critic said that “desultoriness … is only narrowly kept at bay” in The Impressionists.) How would you characterize the pace of the book?

6. One critic said that Rachman serves up “a procession of biscotti-cutter characters.” Do you agree or disagree?

7. Rachman combines comedy and tragedy, qualities that are often hard to unite in fiction. His story involves the death of child but also entertainingly hapless headlines such as “GLOBAL WARMING GOOD FOR ICE CREAMS” or “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” How well did Rachman bring comedy and tragedy together in his book? Which characters or events seemed the most amusing and the saddest?

8. Why do you think Rachman set his first story in Paris when most of the rest of The Impressionists takes place in Rome?

9. Christopher Buckley praised the endings of Rachman’s stories in his New York Times Book Review review of The Impressionists, some of which have what’s often called an “O. Henry twist.” Which endings did you find most memorable? Why did they work?

10. Several other linked short story collections have had a lot of attention recently, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Olive Kitteridge. How does The Impressionists compare to any others you’ve read?

Your book group may also want to read:

And Then We Came to the End (Back Bay, 2008, paperback) by Joshua Ferris. D. J. Taylor wrote in a Guardian review that The Imperfectionists has a “faint yet persistent resemblance” to Ferris’s novel, “much of whose obliquity and ground-down communal spirit it shares.”

Vital statistics:

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25. Published: April 2010. Editor: Susan Kamil.

A review of The Imperfectionists appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on July 20, 2010.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and 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. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’ – The Graveyard Shift at a Newspaper in Rome

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Staff members at the Christian Science Monitor used to joke when the newspaper had a print edition that “we bring you yesterday’s news tomorrow.” A similarly idiosyncratic worldview links the reporters, editors and others attached to the unnamed English-language daily in Rome that whistles in the dark in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. The newspaper lacks a website because, the editor-in-chief’s point man believes, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.”

The paper is an amiable throwback, and so is The Imperfectionists. Misleadingly billed by its publisher as “a novel,” the book consists of 11 linked short stories that read like smartly written parables about the human illusions at the intersection of work and love. The over-the-hill Paris correspondent for the paper faces a crisis that forces him to confront two long-held fantasies — that he can still write page-one stories and that his son has a worthy job at the French foreign ministry. The corrections editor gets a visit from a schoolmate that upends his romantic notion that his friend could become a great writer and that he and Jimmy are “gradations of the same man – he the middling version and Jimmy the great one.” And the icy chief financial officer learns through a macabre twist that she has been deluding herself about both her sexual allure and the effect of her staff purges. A theme of these stories is not that we are wrong to cherish our illusions – it’s that often we need them, because they’re all we have.

Fittingly for a book about a newspaper founded in the 1950s, the tales in this one resemble good stories from the early-to-middle decades of the 20th century, before the triumph of the cynical, elliptical and ambiguous. Each tale has a clear beginning, middle and end, and if not a moral, at least a point. Each takes as its title a hapless headline of the sort of that appears regularly in American newspapers: The more amusing include “U.S. GENERAL OPTIMISTIC ON WAR” and “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” And Rachman gives his characters enough humor and pathos to transcend his occasional lapses into journalese or glibness. His most memorable story involves than a widow in Rome who, since the suicide of her husband, has invested much of her emotion in reading the English-language newspaper each day. Through the old woman’s life, Rachman shows a poignant aspect of the decline of newspapers that, ironically, newspapers have scarcely discussed: For some people, the loss of a newspaper is the loss of a world.

Best line: “Blast Kills People Again.” – A headline written by a copy editor at Rachman’s unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome.

Worst line: “a women’s magazine that specialized in recipes utilizing cans of condensed mushroom soup.”

Editor: Susan Kamil

Published: April 2010

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for The Imperfections was posted on this site on July 20, 2010.

Read an excerpt from The Imperfectionists.

About the author: Rachman was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome and worked as an editor for the International Herald Tribune in Paris.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 18, 2010

The Perfection of ‘Anna Karenina’ — Quote of the Day / Elif Batuman in ‘The Possessed’

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Anna Karenina is probably the most popular 19th-century Russian novel in the U.S. today and certainly the only one tapped for both Oprah’s book club and a forthcoming steampunk-influenced mashup. But there is no obvious reason why it should have more appeal than others by Leo Tolstoy and his compatriots. Anna Karenina lacks the scale of War and Peace. It tells a tragic story when many readers crave happy endings, and it reminds us that love doesn’t conquer all, a theme that clashes with a cultural fantasy.

Why is Anna Karenina nonetheless so alluring? Elif Batuman suggests an answer in her quirky and amusing essay collection, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 286 pp., $15, paperback). Batuman writes of finding a 1970s edition of the novel during a summer visit to her grandmother’s apartment in Turkey:

“Nobody in Anna Karenina was oppressed, as I was, by the tyranny of leisure. The leisure activities in Tolstoy’s novel – ice skating, balls, horse races – were beautiful, dignified, and meaningful in terms of plot …

Anna Karenina was a perfect book, with an otherwordly perfection: unthinkable, monolithic, occupying a super-charged gray zone between nature and culture. How had any human being ever managed to write something simultaneously so big and so small – so serious and so light – so strange and so natural? The heroine didn’t turn up until chapter 18, and the book went on for 19 more chapters after her death, and Anna’s lover and her husband had the same name (Alexei). Anna’s maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna’s son and Levin’s half brother were both called Sergei. The repetition of names struck me as remarkable, surprising, and true to life.”

March 14, 2010

This Week — Is ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ Still Relevant?

Filed under: Classics,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:31 pm
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More than 70 years ago, John Steinbeck’s best-known novel served up a blistering indictment of the brutal conditions faced by migrant workers in California. Does The Grapes of Wrath have anything to say in the age of the AIG bailout and collateralized debt obligations? A review of the novel will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews this week.

February 25, 2010

2010 Delete Key Awards Finalist #1 – ‘Pygmy’ by Chuck Palahniuk

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:17 pm
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From Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Pygmy (Doubleday):
“Succulent barrier much thrusting mammary glands shield operative me, swinging lady buttocks further thwart attacks.”

“Tongue of operative me lick, licking, touching back tooth on bottom, molar where planted inside forms cyanide hollow, touching not biting.”

“In greater afraid … within thinking machine operative me, this agent ponder if entire being operative me pitted for destroy American, annihilate homosexual, crackpot Methodist religion, Lutheran and Baptist cult, extinguish all decadent bourgeoisie – subsequent successful total such destruction: Render this agent obsolete? Of no worth?”

Yes, all 241 pages of Pygmy are this dorky. The novel reads as though Palahniuk had cut up a dictionary, put the pieces in a food processor, and pushed, “Spin.”

Read the full review of Pygmy.

You can also read about the Delete Key Awards on Janice Harayda’s page on Twitter. The 10 Delete Key Awards are being named in random order, beginning with No. 10, but numbered for convenience. This is finalist No. 1. The winner and runners-up will be announced March 15 on One-Minute Book Reviews and on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

2010 Delete Key Awards Finalist #4 – ‘The Whole Truth’ by David Baldacci

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:44 pm
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From David Baldacci’s The Whole Truth (Hachette/Vision):
“To say that this hit the earth like a molten-lava tsunami would have been the grossest of understatements.”
A “molten-lava tsunami”? Is FEMA prepared for one of those?

Read the full review of The Whole Truth.

The Delete Key Awards finalists are being announced in random order, beginning with No. 10, but numbered for convenience. This is finalist No. 4. You can also read about the Delete Key Awards on Twitter at @janiceharayda.com. The winner and runners-up will be announced on One-Minute Book Reviews and Twitter on March 15.

2010 Delete Key Awards Finalist No. 5 – ‘Finger Lickin’ Fifteen’ by Janet Evanovich

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:25 pm
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From Janet Evanovich’s novel Finger Lickin’ Fifteen (St. Martin’s):

“ ‘Nobody calls me pecker head and lives,’ Pecker said.”
Evanovich’s popular series about the bounty-hunter Stephanie Plum goes further south in Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, which abounds with jokes about body parts or functions described as “number two,” “cooter,” “pecker,” “wanger” or “winkie.” Another example appears below.

“‘Yep,’ Grandma said. ‘He’s got a big one. All them Turleys is hung like horses. … I tell you, for a little guy, he had a real good-sized wanger’.”

Read the full review of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen.

The Delete Key Awards finalists are being announced in random order, beginning with No. 10, but numbered for convenience. This is finalist No. 5. You can also read about the awards on Janice Harayda’s page (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. The winner and runners-up will be announced on March 15 on One-Minute Book Reviews and Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

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