One-Minute Book Reviews

September 4, 2009

The Secret Lives of SLUGS (Smith Lesbians Until Graduation) – J. Courtney Sullivan’s Novel of Female Friendship, ‘Commencement’

Where first-year students get a lecture on the etiquette of girl-on-girl shower sex

Commencement. By J. Courtney Sullivan. Knopf, 320 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Commencement is probably best appreciated while wearing nothing but Saran Wrap or body paint – the apparent garb of choice at an annual clothing-optional party at Smith College. As pop fiction, this book has slightly more literary merit than a Jackie Collins novel. But as a study in the folkways of the undergraduates at Smith – and especially its lesbians – it’s fascinating.

Who would have thought that any students needed, right after arriving on campus, a lecture on the etiquette of girl-on-girl shower sex? In Commencement, they get one from a house president who says: “Basically, don’t shower with your significant other during prime traffic flow – usually about eight to ten a.m. It’s really disrespectful, and, honestly, who wants to hear two dykes going at it first thing in the morning?”

J. Courtney Sullivan offers many such details as she tells the story of a quartet of friends, all Phi Beta Kappa graduates the Smith Class of 2002, who return to their alma mater four years after graduation for the wedding of one of their members. But instead of exploiting the potential for a great send-up of some of the collegiate excesses she describes, Sullivan tries to make a statement about the varied strains of feminism on campus and the evils of sex-trafficking off-campus, both of which have been done much better by others. If at times amusing or perceptive, her writing is also stilted, beset by point-of-view problems, and slowed by her frequent backtracking from the women’s post-college lives to their days at Smith.

Yet Sullivan is a good enough reporter that she leaves you with memorable images, not all of which involve lesbianism. When it snowed, she tells us, college trucks poured soy sauce on the walkways of a quadrangle because “the salty liquid melted the ice without polluting the ground.” There was only one problem: “the entire Quad smelled like a Thai restaurant until February.”

Best line: No. 1: “Then there was Immorality, the notorious clothing-optional party held in Tyler House [at Smith College] every Halloween. Women attended in nothing but lingerie, or body paint, or Saran Wrap.” No. 2: “There was a name for girls like her: SLUG. It stood for Smith Lesbian Until Graduation.”

Worst line: One of many stilted lines: “Lately April had been obsessed with whether or not they should try to stop Sally from getting married, stating that she was too young and had no idea what she was getting herself into.”

Editor: Jenny Jackson

Published: June 2009

Furthermore: Commencement is the first novel by Sullivan, a Smith graduate and resident of Brooklyn, NY, who works for the New York Times.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

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

August 26, 2007

Snogging and Blogging in Bruna Surfistinha’s ‘The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl’

Raquel Pacheco, a prostitute who worked under the name Bruna Surfistinha, blogged about her clients’ sexual performance

The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl. By Bruna Surfistinha/Raquel Pacheco. Interviewed by Jorge Tarquini. Translated by Alison Entrekin. Bloomsbury USA, 176 pp., $14.95.

By Janice Harayda

Raquel Pacheco writes about as well as Henry James would have run a brothel. This isn’t surprising given that she was a high school dropout and unknown teenage prostitute in Brazil until she started blogging about her clients’ sexual performance.

Then all hell broke loose – hell being, in this case, a book contract, a movie deal and write-ups in newspapers like the New York Times. But the prose doesn’t exactly sizzle in this memoir of her several years as a prostitute who used the name Bruna Surfistinha (“Bruna the Little Surfer Girl”). (Writing sample: “Yay! Finally someone invited me to a swingers’ club!!!”) Pacheco, now in her early 20s. says she quit prostitution just before her 21st birthday. And her memoir reads the way your high school diary might if you’d had much more sex and kept score in Portuguese, then had your words translated it into British English, so that people kept asking you questions like, “How ’bout a wank?”

Pacheco intersperses tales of turning tricks with details of her well-off but troubled childhood, marked by bulimia, truancy and shoplifting. Partly for this reason, her book isn’t sexy enough to be erotica or single-minded enough to be pornography. Nor does it have much to offer in the way of advice. A brief section of sex tips tells you little more women’s magazines do. (Try different rooms, like the kitchen.) And the advice seems pitched to people decades behind Americans in their views on sex. “Some people think sex should be like in porn films: the guy wildly banging the girl as if he were drilling through asphalt,” she writes. Don’t they get reruns of Sex and the City in Brazil and know how mercilessly that show would have lampooned those people?

Best line: “Love is blind, deaf and mindless. But mute, never.

Worst line (tie): No. 1: “In almost three years in this business, by my count, I think I’ve had sex with more than 1,000 men. In theory it might not sound like a lot …” No. 2: “I’m a Spiritualist, because I believe that on the ‘other side’ there is everything we have here. Even hospitals.”

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

Published: February 2007 (first American edition). June 2007 (paperback edition).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

Bruna Surfistinha’s Call Girl Diary, Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

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“SAO PAOLO. She goes by the name Bruna, the Little Surfer Girl, and gives new meaning to the phrase ‘kiss and tell.’ First in a blog that quickly became the country’s most popular and now in a best-selling memoir, she has titillated Brazilians and become a national celebrity with her graphic, day-by-day accounts of life as a call girl here.

“But it is not just her canny use of the Internet that has made Bruna, whose real name is Raquel Pacheco, a cultural phenomenon … “

Larry Rohter in “She Who Controls Her Body Can Upset Her Countrymen,” the New York Times, April 27, 2006.

A review of the American edition of Pacheco’s memoir, The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom, will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Review.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 22, 2007

A Review of ‘The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl’ Coming Soon to One-Minute Book Reviews

What! You want another review of one of those high-toned winners of the Pulitzer or Booker Prize or the Caldecott Medal? I haven’t reviewed enough of those for you? Have you forgotten that call girls, too, have an honored place in literature?

No, I’m not talking about the memoirs of the Mayflower Madam. I’m talking about Holly Golightly, a call girl in Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (though you wouldn’t know it from the movie we all love, anyway). So within the next week I’m reviewing The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl (Bloomsbury, $14.95), just out in paperback. This memoir grew out of the online diary of former teenage prostitute Rachel Pacheco, who used the stage name of Bruna Surfistinha (“Bruna the Surfer Girl”). The publisher calls this book “an international sensation” by “the Paris Hilton of Brazil.” (Now there’s a recommendation! What will the publishing industry give us next, the memoirs of the Lindsay Lohan of Uruguay?) I believe I have a duty to review this book because when you actually go to Bruna’s famous blog and try to see what the fuss is all about … it’s in Portuguese! I ask you: What good does that do American teenage boys? So check back if you can’t live without knowing more about this one. And — who knows? — if the publishing industry does give us the memoirs of the Lindsay Lohan of Uruguay, I might review that, too, if I decide that you and I need a break from all those prize-winning authors like Ian McEwan www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/10/.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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