One-Minute Book Reviews

January 21, 2008

Anne Enright’s Worthy Man Booker Prize–Winner, ‘The Gathering’

The Gathering is to On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip what 18-year-old Jameson is to lukewarm tap beer

The Gathering. By Anne Enright. Grove/Atlantic/Black Cat, 261 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In the 1920s a group of lay Catholics tried to save Dublin prostitutes by removing them from brothels after buying off the madams with Milk Tray chocolates or other bribes. Anne Enright builds on this historical episode in her artful Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Gathering, which imagines how the effort might have affected a young woman and her descendants.

Her narrator is 39-year-old Veronica Hegarty, a contemporary Irish mother of two who has enough wit and ironic detachment from her life to view it in quotation marks: “I could pick up my keys and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of people did. This is what I had been doing for years.”

But that begins to change after her brother Liam kills himself and her eight surviving siblings gather in Dublin for his funeral. As Veronica tries to make sense of the suicide, she reflects on her family’s sorrows – cancer, mental illness, alcoholism, an infant’s death, a mother’s seven miscarriages. None of it disturbs her more than a scene of sexual abuse that she accidentally had witnessed years earlier. An Oprah show might focused on the effects of that experience alone. Enright digs deeper and begins where television typically leaves off. In adulthood, Veronica realizes, “we always feel pain for the wrong thing.”

Best line: No. 1: “There is something wonderful about a death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought were vital are not even vaguely important. Your husband can feed the kids, he can work the new oven, he can find the sausages in the fridge, after all. And his important meeting was not important, not in the slightest.” No. 2: “There are so few people given to us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love it is important, even at nineteen. Especially at nineteen. And if you can, at nineteen, count the people you love on one hand, you will not, at forty, have run out of fingers on the other. There are so few people given to us to love and they all stick.”

Worst line: “I sweep my arm along the table of yellow pine, with its thick, plasticky sheen.” Send that “plasticky” back to the same neologism factory that gave us “garlicky.”

Recommendation? Not for book clubs that think Western literature peaked with Mitch Albom and Fannie Flagg. But it could be great choice for groups that like literary fiction. Grove/Atlantic has posted a reading group guide that is more extensive and thoughtful than most publishers’ guides.

Reading group guide: Available online at www.groveatlantic.com.

Published: 2007

Furthermore: The Gathering isn’t likely to have the popularity of the best-loved Booker winners, such as The Remains of the Day. It themes are too downbeat and the sex is too frequent and explicit. But it is a far better novel than the favorites for 2007 Man Booker Prize, On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip, which it defeated www.themanbookerprize.com. The story is richer, the characters better developed and the settings more fully evoked. The Gathering is to On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip what 18-year-old Jameson is to lukewarm tap beer. It is also better than the 60 or so pages that I read of the 2006 winner, The Inheritance of Loss www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/20/. Anne Enright is what every literary novelist should be: a good storyteller who has something worthy to say.

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

November 27, 2007

‘Sex in Ian McEwan’s Novel Is Not Bad Enough to Impress Judges’ of 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, Times of London Reports — Here’s the Shortlist

[Note: A post with the name of the winner follows in five minutes.]

Ian McEwan is safe — at least until One-Minute Book Reviews considers the candidates for its next Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books, the winner of which will be announced on the Ides of March. The online edition of the Times of London reports that McEwan’s longlisted On Chesil Beach didn’t make the shortlist for the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

The newspaper says that the finalists who swept past McEwan are: Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods, Richard Milward’s Apples, Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy, David Thewlis’s The Late Hector Kipling, the late Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest, Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, Christopher Rush’s Will and Clare Clark’s The Nature of Monsters. The winner will be announced today after the offending passages are read aloud by actresses. Read the Times post, headlined “Ses in Ian McEwan’s Novel Is Not Bad Enough to Impress Judges.”

www.entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article2951176.ece

October 15, 2007

Will a Book Written at a Third-Grade Reading Level Get the Man Booker Prize for Fiction Tomorrow?

Tomorrow we ‘ll find out if the Man Booker Prize for Fiction www.themanbookerprize.com will go to New Zealander Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip, a novel written at a third-grade reading level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word. For more on this potential embarrassment to one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes, see the post “Dumbing Down the Man Booker Prize” that appeared on this site on Sept. 24 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/24/ and the follow-up post the next day on the broader issue of dumbing-down literary awards www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/25/.

Jones had been the frontrunner in the betting at London bookmaking firms. But the race has turned into an apparent dead heat between Mister Pip and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/10/, which has its own problems described in the review on this site.

I couldn’t review all the finalists, because some aren’t yet available in the United States. But I’ll have at least a brief comment on the awards as soon as possible after the winner is named.

(c) Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 7, 2007

Does Ian McEwan Deserve the Man Booker Prize or a Bad Sex Award for Writing Like This? You Be the Judge

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:53 pm
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The judges for the 2007 Man Booker Prize have named the six finalists for the award, and — no surprise — Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is among them. But does McEwan deserve that prize or the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, given annually by the Literary Review www.literaryreview.co.uk for his tale of a young couple’s disastrous 1962 wedding night? Reader, you be the judge. Here’s a sample of the writing about sex in On Chesil Beach www.randomhouse.com:

“Like most young men of his time, or any time, without an easy manner, or means to sexual expression, he indulged constantly in what one enlightened authority was now calling ‘self-pleasuring’ … How extraordinary it was, that a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body, should instantly free his mind to confront afresh Nelson’s decisiveness at Aboukir Bay.”

What’s the prose like when it isn’t about pre-sexual-revolution onanism? A sample:

“Because the instrument was a cello rather than her violin, the interrogator was not herself but a detached observer, mildly incredulous, but insistent too, for after a brief silence and lingering, unconvincing reply from the other instruments, the cello put the question again, in different terms, on a different chord, and then again, and again, and each time received a doubtful answer.”

The other titles shortlisted for the Man Booker www.themanbookerprize.com are: Darkmans by Nicola Barker, The Gathering by Anne Enright, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones and Animal’s People by Indra Sinha. The winner will be announced Oct. 16. A review of On Chesil Beach (“A Mitch Albom Novel With a Higher IQ?”) www.randomhouse.com appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on August 10 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/10/.

Tomorrow in the Saturday Children’s Corner on One-Minute Book Reviews: A review of Chris Van Allsburg’s underrated The Z Was Zapped www.chrisvanallsburg.com and www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 10, 2007

Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’: A Mitch Albom Novel With a Higher IQ?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:26 am
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Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light …

– From Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”

On Chesil Beach. By Ian McEwan. Doubleday/Nan Talese, 203 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

Much of Ian McEwan’s new novel seems designed to remind you of “Dover Beach.” The title, the plot, the melancholy tone of On Chesil Beach — all raise echoes of Matthew Arnold’s lament for the erosion of spiritual values.

But you might also think of Mitch Albom after reading McEwan’s tale of a young, educated couple and their disastrous wedding night at a hotel on the English Channel in 1962. On Chesil Beach is a short, flyweight novel that wears its message on its sleeve. And it’s the kind of message you might expect from Albom: “This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing.”

Actually, the newlyweds in On Chesil Beach do quite a few things on their wedding night, each more humiliating than the next. But what Florence and Edward don’t do – and this is what changes their life – is express their true feelings, because the let-it-all-hang-out era is a few years away. If the couple had more substance, this overfamiliar idea might not be a problem. But Florence and Edward come across less as characters you care about than as emblems of English “types” fleshed out by dutiful research into their era.

Some of the period details in the novel are mildly interesting. Can hoteliers of the pre-Nigella era really have had so little Freudian sense that a typical honeymoon-suite meal began with “a slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry”? Other details are ’60s clichés. And none can turn this book into more than better grade of pop fiction, a For One More Day with a higher IQ. I read part of it on a trip disrupted by the tornado that struck Brooklyn, and, it was perfect, because unlike that journey, nothing about it was taxing in the least.

Best line: “And [he] would never have described himself as unhappy – among his London friends was a woman he was fond of; well into his 50s he played cricket for Turville Park, he was active in a historical society in Henley, and played a part in the restoration of the ancient watercress beds in Ewelme.” That phrase about the watercress beds is one the few that gives you a sense of why McEwan has such a high reputation.

Worst line (tie): McEwan aggressively courts a Bad Sex in Fiction Award from the Literary Review www.literaryreview.co.uk with: “Like most young men of his time, or any time, without an easy manner, or means to sexual expression, he indulged constantly in what one enlightened authority was now calling ‘self-pleasuring’ … How extraordinary it was, that a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body, should instantly free his mind to confront afresh Nelson’s decisiveness at Aboukir Bay.” A non-onanistic example: “Because the instrument was a cello rather than her violin, the interrogator was not herself but a detached observer, mildly incredulous, but insistent too, for after a brief silence and lingering, unconvincing reply from the other instruments, the cello put the question again, in different terms, on a different chord, and then again, and again, and each time received a doubtful answer.”

Reading group guide: www.randomhouse.com

Consider reading instead: Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (Vintage, $12.95). This Booker Prize-winner involves a bride-to-be who backs out of her wedding at the last minute, an event that is as humiliating as the trauma that occurs in On Chesil Beach but handled with more credibility.

Published: June 2007

Furthermore: McEwan’s novels include Atonement, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize. He lives in London.

Update: After this post appeared, On Chesil Beach was named a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize www.themanbookerprize.com, to be announced Oct. 16.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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