Sam Anderson won the 2007 Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle and shows again why he deserved it with a stylish pan of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice in the August 10–17 issue of New York. Don’t miss this one if you admire the merciless wit that readers of the New Yorker used to get from Dorothy Parker, one of Anderson’s favorite critics.
August 13, 2009
Sam Anderson Pans Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice’ With a Brio That Shows Why He Won a National Award for Excellence in Reviewing
August 12, 2009
‘The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived’ — Characters From Myths, Legends, and Books, Movies and TV Shows Who Made a Difference
The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived: How Characters of Fiction, Myth, Legends, Television, and Movies Have Shaped Our Culture, Changed Our Behavior, and Set the Course of History. By Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. Harper, 317 pp., $13.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Publishers have a phrase for books like The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived – “an impulse buy at the bookstore.” Boy, do they know me. I can’t remember what I was looking for when I saw this book near the cash register at a bookstore. Whatever it was, it’s vanished from my mind an episode of Wife Swap. But I keep dipping into this dish of literary tacos with mild salsa.
Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter had the idea of selecting and ranking the 101 most influential people who never existed, giving you a few pages of sprightly text about each and defining “people” loosely enough to encompass King Kong (No. 74), Joe Camel (No. 78) and The Cat in the Hat (No. 79). This concept is nothing new. You can find similar books by searching Amazon for the “dictionary + fictional characters” or in the reference sections at many bookstores.
What is new is the packaging of the book, a trade paperback with a conversational tone instead of the usual professorial door-stopper. So The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived could be a handy book for, say, baby boomers who are having trouble explaining to their grandchildren exactly why Archie Bunker (No. 32) was so different from other sitcom characters of his day. It wasn’t just that he called his liberal son-in-law “Meathead”:
“Archie expressed what ultraconservative white people said behind closed doors on topics such as rape and poverty (the victims were to blame), homosexuality (perverts), militia groups (real Americans), welfare recipients (cheats who took hard-earned money out of his pocket) , college students (all pinko Communists), and support for the Vietnam War (real patriotism).”
Lazar, Karlan and Salter offer no narrative thread to connect the entries, so their essays tend to lack a context. Most readers under 40 might find it easier to fathom how Archie’s bigotry ever made it to prime time if they knew that he descended spiritually from Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) on The Honeymooners, who was always threatening to belt his wife. (“One of these days, Alice – pow! – right in the kisser.”) You could also argue that, for that reason, Kramden and not Bunker belonged on the list. But part of the fun of this book is comparing your list with the authors’ rankings of characters like Hamlet (No. 5), Pandora (No. 47), Prometheus (No. 46), Nancy Drew (No. 62) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (No. 44). Anybody want to argue that Perry Mason (No. 86) had less clout than Ally McBeal?
Best line: About the Marlboro Man (No. 1): “Advertising Age picked the Marlboro Man as the most powerful brand image of the twentieth century.” Why? Philip Morris had marketed Marlboros as a women’s brand that was “Mild As May”: “Marlboro’s new image boosted its sales four-fold from 1955 to 1957, and by 1972 it had become the top cigarette brand both in the nation and the world.” The original Marlboro Man and two other actors used for the role all died from lung cancer or emphysema.
Worst line: About the Loch Ness Monster (No. 56): Nessie is “the most popular tourist attraction in Scotland.” The most popular tourist attraction in Scotland has for years been Edinburgh Castle. Nessie isn’t even among the top ten on some lists. The rest of this section is also weak. As proof of the nonexistence of the monster, the authors say that the most famous photo of it turned out to be a hoax. What about all the sonar and other scientific reports that have shown that the creature never existed?
Recommended if … you’re not looking for a scholarly reference book but for the views of enthusiastic amateurs who get some facts wrong and serve up essays of inconsistent quality. Some entries are well-written, while others read like rough drafts.
Editors: Carolyn Marino, Jennifer Civiletto and Wendy Lee
Published: October 2006
This review first appeared in March 2007.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
August 11, 2009
The late John Ciardi talks about how symbols work in poetry, a description that also applies to other kinds of literature, in the quote below, which first appeared on this site 2007:
” … a symbol is like a rock dropped into a pool: it sends out ripples in all directions, and the ripples are in motion. Who can say where the last ripple disappears? One may have a sense that he at least knows approximately the center point of all those ripples, the point at which the stone struck the water. Yet even then he has trouble marking it precisely. How does one make a mark on water?”
John Ciardi in his classic textbook, How Does a Poem Mean? (Houghton Mifflin, 1959), once widely used in high schools and colleges.
Flannery O’Connor talks about the purpose of symbols in the Quote of the Day for March 21, 2007. These two posts, frequently linked to by high school and college English classes, are among the all-time most popular on this site.
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
August 7, 2009
“So in other words, we’re looking for a bunch of pissed-off Druids.”
— Georgina Rowe, an agent with the elite Sigma Force, in The Doomsday Key (Morrow, 431 pp., $27.99), James Rollins’s new technothriller about a global conspiracy that involves murders in Mali, at the Vatican at Princeton University.
July 28, 2009
No time to read long book reviews? Every review on this site is condensed into a one-line summary saved in the Books in a Sentence category. Summaries of recently reviewed novels and short stories for adults appear below. You’ll find other one-line condensations, many of them shortened versions of reviews of books of nonfiction and poetry, in the Books in a Sentence category at right.
Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. By Janet Evanovich. Evanovich’s series about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum goes further south with a tasteless beheading and sophomoric jokes like, “Nobody calls me pecker head and lives.”
The 8th Confession (Women’s Murder Club Series). By James Patterson and Maxine Paetro. A glorified San Francisco police procedural set in such large type, you wonder: Was this novel written for for people who will be reading it by candlelight while eating Beanie Weenies out of a can during a power blackout?
Love in a Cold Climate. By Nancy Mitford. A beautiful English heiress flouts convention by marrying a man who had been her mother’s lover in a modern classic of comedy, inspired partly by the author’s half-batty upper-class family.
Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind. By Ann B. Ross. A rich Presbyterian widow in North Carolina learns that her dead husband has left her a startling legacy — an illegitimate 9-year-old son — in the first of ten novels that are more irreverent than those of Jan Karon’s “Mitford” series but cut from a similar bolt of pop fiction.
The Pains of April. By Frank Turner Hollon. An 86-year-old retired lawyer looks back on his life from a Gulf Coast rest home, where he has held onto more of his marbles than some residents. (Briefly mentioned.)
The Naked and the Dead. By Norman Mailer. Nowhere near as good as some of the 20th-century war novels often mentioned in the same breath, such as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. (Briefly mentioned.)
A Summons to Memphis. By Peter Taylor. One of the great American writers of the late 20th century shows how a move from Nashville to Memphis has reverberated over time — all but destroyed a family that was once a model of Southern gentility — in a novel that deservedly won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The Ponder Heart. By Eudora Welty. A comic novella about a rich and kind-hearted uncle put on trial for a murder he didn’t commit, full of examples of Welty’s wonderful ear for the dialect of many Southern groups.
The Genocides. By Tom Disch. Unseen aliens sow the seeds of an ecological catastrophe in a book two experts recently named one of the “100 must-read” science-fiction novels of all time. (Briefly mentioned.)
Middlemarch. By George Eliot. The first great multiplot novel in English — and maybe the greatest ever — tells the story of a young woman who longs to be useful as it reminds us that “that there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.”
The Host. By Stephenie Meyer. A woman wages a host-versus-graft struggle with a new soul, inserted in her body by aliens, in a creepily Freudian tale written at a fourth-grade reading level.
Bright Shiny Morning. By James Frey. A dark, postmodern novel about Los Angeles that combines stories of stereotypical characters — a Mexican-American maid, a closeted gay male superstar — and so many trivia lists, you almost expect a recipe for huevos rancheros.
Jane and Prudence. By Barbara Pym. A clergyman’s wife plays matchmaker for a female friend and fellow Oxford graduate in a quiet novel salted with wry observations on the sexes. (Briefly mentioned.)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living. By Michael Dahlie. A witty and intelligent novel of New York manners (and a recent prize-winner) about a blueblooded father who finds comfort in the love of his adult sons after a divorce and other crises.
Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. By Tamar Yellin. An award-winning English writer’s superb collection of 10 linked short stories about geographically or otherwise displaced characters, inspired by accounts of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
Olive Kitteridge. By Elizabeth Strout. An uneven collection of linked short stories (published in Seventeen, South Carolina Review, O, the Oprah Magazine, and elsewhere) that, alas, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for its tales of a retired math teacher in a coastal town in Maine.
All Souls. By Christine Schutt. A skimpy Pulitzer finalist that its publisher has billed as a novel but is, in fact, a collection of linked short stories — many no more than vignettes — about how students and others react when a Manhattan prep school senior gets a rare connective-tissue cancer.
One-Minute Book Reviews has a policy that at least 50 percent of all reviews will deal with books by women. The “About This Blog” page describes other principles of the site, including that it does not accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors, agents or others with ties to books that may be reviewed here. The “FAQ” page answers questions such as, “Why don’t you take free books?” and “If you don’t take books from publishers, where you do you get them?”
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
July 24, 2009
A pair of thugs use a meat cleaver to behead a celebrity chef in the opening pages of the bestselling Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, Janet Evanovich’s 15th comic suspense novel about the Trenton-based bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. Is the decapitation amusing or tasteless after terrorists’ beheadings of captives such as the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl? One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of the novel next week.
July 22, 2009
Mitch Albom Writes at a 3rd Grade Reading Level, Stephen King at an 8th — The Reading Levels of Your Favorite Authors
[This post first appeared in November 2006 and ranks among the 10 most popular posts of all time on the site. I am on a short semi-vacation.]
For One More Day: A Novel. By Mitch Albom. Hyperion, 197 pp., $21.95.
By Janice Harayda
It’s official: Mitch Albom writes at a third-grade reading level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word 2004.
I know this because For One More Day struck me as so dumbed-down – even for Albom – that it fell below the level of the sixth-grade books I once edited for a test-prep company. So I typed a couple of paragraphs from the novel into my computer and ran the Word spelling and grammar checker, which gives you the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics at the bottom. Albom, it showed, writes at the level of Grade 2.8. This was startling enough that I wondered if the paragraphs I had used, from page 24, were atypical. So I typed in the full text of pages 24 and 25 and found that they were atypical. Albom actually writes at a third-grade level, Grade 3.4, according to Flesch-Kincaid.
I used pages 24 and 25 because the first pages of a book sometimes don’t represent the whole of it: Authors may be clearing their throats or writing in a different tone than they will use after they have found their rhythm. So it’s often fairest to look not just at the first chapter but also at something that comes later. A chapter typically has about 20 pages, so I used the first full section of Albom’s book that follows page 20, a total of 305 words.
All of this raised a question: Does a novel written at a third-grade level deserve the same sort of review as books by authors who write at higher levels? Especially if the book appears to be a naked attempt to combine the theme of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life with the kind of framing device Robert James Waller used in The Bridges of Madison County (which tries to lull you into believing that a novel tells a true story)? Maybe not. So here instead are the grade levels I got for a half dozen other authors when I checked the readability statistics for 305 words of their prose:
Nora Ephron I Feel Bad About My Neck Grade 12.0
Alex Kuczynski Beauty Junkies Grade 10.3, an exposé by a New York Times reporter
James Boswell The Life of Samuel Johnson Grade 8.6
Stephen King Lisey’s Story Grade 8.3
Danielle Steel Toxic Bachelors Grade 4.8
Emily Arnold McCully An Outlaw Thanksgiving, a picture book for 4-to-8 year olds by a Caldecott Medalist Grade 4.3
Mitch Albom For One More Day Grade 3.4
I also ran the statistics for the Lord’s Prayer, using the punctuation in a 20th century edition of The Book of Common Prayer. And it turns out that Jesus, too, “wrote” at a third-grade level, Grade 3.8, according to Microsoft Word (although he spoke the prayer). So there you have it. Mitch Albom, writing at the Grade 3.4 level, doesn’t quite come up to the level of Jesus at Grade 3.8. But who would know it from all the attention he is getting?
Best Line: A quote from Louis Armstrong: “If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out.”
Worst line: Many. Samples: “He chuckled.” “My mother chuckled.”
Editors: Leslie Wells and Will Schwalbe
Furthermore: This review has a reading level of Grade 9.5, excluding the supplemental information at the end, according to the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics on Microsoft Word 2004.
Published: September 2006. Albom also wrote Tuesdays With Morrie (Anchor, 2005).
How to find the reading level of a book: Go to the Microsoft Word pull-down “Help” menu. Search for “readability statistics.” Select “display readability statistics.” This will walk you through the process of finding the grade level for any text you enter, including your own writing.
Grade levels and their corresponding ages in American schools: In the U.S, children typically begin grades at these ages: kindergarten, 5; first grade, 6; second grade, 7; third grade, 8, fourth grade, 9; fifth grade, 10; sixth grade, 11; seventh grade, 12; eighth grade, 13; ninth grade, 14; tenth grade, 15; 11th grade, 16; 12th grade, 17.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
July 21, 2009
One way to get teenagers into libraries: Have a party and invite the kids to come as their favorite character in the bestselling “Twilight” series of vampire romance novels. You might show the movie “Twilight” and play trivia games, as the Fairhope Public Library in Fairhope, Alabama, did.
June 30, 2009
On Sunday the novelist Alice Hoffman posted on her Twitter feed a nasty and potentially libelous personal attack on the critic Roberta Silman, who had given her new The Story Sisters a tepid review that day in The Boston Globe. Since then, Hoffman reportedly has closed her Twitter account, and the Jacket Copy blog at the Los Angeles Times and others have published the details of controversy, so I won’t rehash it now. But because Silman criticized The Story Sisters for defects similar to those I’ve observed frequently in Hoffman’s books over the past two decades or so, I’m reposting a review of her Skylight Confessions that first appeared on this site on February 15, 2007, under the title “Cracks in Alice Hoffman’s Glass Slipper.”
A Cinderella tale takes a dark and supernatural turn for a heroine who believes in fate
Skylight Confessions: A Novel. By Alice Hoffman. Little, Brown/Back Bay, 262 pp., $24.99.
By Janice Harayda
Brooke Allen wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Skylight Confessions is a kind of fairy tale for college graduates, a book that has “enough intellectual trappings to flatter readers into thinking that they are getting some mental nourishment” but that in essence is a “pure romance novel and nothing more.” I wish I could say it wasn’t true.
But Allen got it right – except that this is a Cinderella story in reverse. Like a romance novel, Skylight Confessions has a plain and virginal heroine – with “no college degree, no talents to speak of” — whose goodness and belief in fate allow her marry “up.” Arlyn Singer even gets her own counterpart to Cinderella’s footwear when her husband inherits a steel-and-glass house in Connecticut known as the Glass Slipper.
Skylight Confessions also requires you to accept the extraordinarily implausible events found in romance novels. Here are some that occur in the first 20 pages: On the night her father dies and leaves her orphaned at the age of 17, Arlie decides that she will marry the first man who walks down her street. She stands on her front porch for three hours until, sure enough, a Yalie with “beautiful pale eyes” stops to ask directions. Though she’s alone in the house, she invites him in. He nods off on the couch, and while he’s sleeping, she takes off all her clothes in the kitchen. When he awakes and finds her naked, they fall into each other’s arms. They stay in bed until he cruelly leaves her three days later with out saying goodbye. However hurt she is by this, Arlie believes “things happen for a reason,” so within two weeks, she sells her house and belongings and shows up unannounced at his dorm at Yale. He doesn’t want to see her, but she persists, and they marry.
The novel doesn’t become more believable after this — it becomes less so as Hoffman rolls out her signature elements of magic and the supernatural. But it does become much darker. Arlie and her children suffer continual disasters, including the arrival of a wicked stepmother, all described in prose that alternates between the overwrought language of melodrama and the banalities of pop psychology. “Was she an enabler?” a nanny wonders as she tries to keep a delinquent child out of jail. And while the novel asserts that such events eventually change some characters, it doesn’t begin to prove it. The glass slipper that shatters in the opening pages of the novel never gets put back together.
Best line: On pearls that were originally “the color of camellias”: “After she’d gone through radiation, the poison from inside her skin had soaked into the pearls; they’d turned black, like pearls from Tahiti, exact opposites of what they should be.”
Worst line: The first sentence typifies the ponderous writing: “She was his first wife, but at the moment when he first saw her she was a seventeen-year-old girl named Arlyn Singer who stood out on the front porch on an evening that seemed suspended in time.” Cross out that “at the moment” and the sentence loses nothing. So why is it there?
Published: January 2007
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 12, 2009
On this site I’ve often faulted publishers’ reading group guides for their poor quality –- poor in part because they tend to pander to book-club members with loopy questions like: “The heroine of this novel is a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens. Have you ever known a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens?” Gee, I’ll have to think about that one! I might have known one-eyed snake charmer, but her parents got in the space ship voluntarily and technically weren’t abducted! How about you?
So I was heartened to find that the U.S. Government has posted more than two dozen free reading group guides that are more objective and helpful. The guides come from The Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts program intended to encourage reading, and most cover major American works of fiction for adults or children, such as My Antonia, The Great Gatsby, The Age of Innocence, The Call of the Wild, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But a couple deal with books by authors from other countries — Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich – and the NEA plans soon to post companions to the poetry of Emily Dickinson and others.
You can download the guides for free at the site for The Big Read. And some libraries can get printed versions and CDs with more information at no cost. (I learned about all of this when I found a stack of free reader’s guides and companion disks for To Kill a Mockingbird at a small-town library giving them away to patrons.) Along with warhorses such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Big Read guides deal with a couple gems that are less well known, including Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.