One-Minute Book Reviews

October 28, 2008

Eat, Pray, Clone – Noelle Oxenhandler’s Memoir, ‘The Wishing Year’

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 am
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The author had a vision of Aunt Jemima during a "shamanic journey."

After her divorce, a California woman looked for a new home, lover and sense of spiritual community.

The Wishing Year: A House, A Man, My Soul: A Memoir of Fulfilled Desire. By Noelle Oxenhandler. Random House, 282 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Bookstores should probably display The Wishing Year in a section called “Eat, Pray, Clone.” This book is one of the first – but certainly won’t be the last – to join the rush to imitate Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir of her post-divorce travels in Italy, India and Indonesia.

The Wishing Year is nonetheless very different book, and not just because Noelle Oxenhandler wanted a new home, a lover and spiritual “healing” instead of Gilbert’s “pleasure,” “devotion” and “balance.” I’m apparently one of the few Americans who was underwhelmed by Eat, Pray, Love, which made life after divorce sound like an exercise in high-flying consumerism. But Gilbert has strengths: She’s witty, she writes in a breezy journalistic style, and, above all, she puts herself out there. She’s an emotional exhibitionist. Want to know which incident drove her to confess that she found masturbation “a handy tool”? Or hear about how she went to Bali for “balance” but had so much sex with her new boyfriend that she got a bladder infection and had to drink a vile witch-doctor’s brew to cure it? God love her, Gilbert will tell you.

Oxenhandler has practiced Buddhism for 30 years and has a more reserved and contemplative temperament and a more literary writing style. Except for relatively brief trips to France and Hawaii, she also tended to stay close to home as she pursued her goal: She wanted to spend a year “wishing brazenly” for earthly things such as a house instead of intangibles like peace or compassion, as was her wont. She defines “wishing brazenly” vaguely enough that it’s hard to know what it involves beyond “focused attention.”

But it doesn’t seem have included anything so crass as the usual advice from business gurus: Set goals, break them into parts, work on them daily, and monitor your progress. Oxenhandler plunged instead into a series of New Age-y activities that reflected her interest in Far Eastern mysticism. She had a “fire ceremony” to burn away her “remorse” for her failed marriage, which ended when she and her married Zen teacher fell in love. She cut dollar bills into tiny rectangles to suggest an abundance of money. (“I know it’s a crime to cut legal tender,” she writes, “but if anyone questions me, I’ve done my research and I’ve got my answer ready: Don’t you know anything about imitative magic?”) At a “shamanic journey” she had a vision of the fictional Aunt Jemima, who later gave her advice on how to spend Thanksgiving. If Oxenhandler were a less graceful writer, you might quit long before she watches a film about The Secret.

By the end of The Wishing Year, Oxenhandler has fulfilled some of her desires, including her wish to own a house. She credits this partly to her newly “focused attention.” But she undermines this claim — and much of her story — when she tells a stranger in the last chapter she’s writing a book on wishing. The belated admission that she had financial stake in her pursuits leaves you wondering: Did she really pursue some of the loopier activities she describes because she wanted to test her ideas about wishing? Or did she do it because without them she wouldn’t have had a book?

Eat, Pray, Love raised similar questions but with less damage to its credibility. Gilbert’s book had a dual purpose: that of a memoir of divorce and of a travelogue. And you believe that she wanted to visit places like Bali. Who wouldn’t?

But Oxenhandler casts her book primarily as an inquiry into questions like: “Does a wish have power?” and “If so, what kind of power is it, and how can that power be tapped?” She is coy about when she got a book contract. But it’s possible that a timely advance had more to do with her ability to buy a house than any “shamanic journey.” If so, it would have been fairer to readers to say that. And it might have made for a more interesting and cohesive book. A major question left unanswered is: Where did she find the money for the downpayment apart from a maternal gift that she admits didn’t provide nearly what she needed?

Memoirs have been tarnished recently by writers who have trampled on facts or failed to supply all that their stories require. One critic has said that more and more of their authors seem take as their premise, “It’s true if I say it is.” The Wishing Year is yet another memoir that leaves you thinking more about what it didn’t say than what it did.

Best line: The first: “It is, in itself, an ancient wish: the wish that a wish makes something happen.”

Worst line: Oxenhandler quotes Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” and adds: “And a wish, as I understand it, is a desire with feathers – an arrow’s feathers and an arrow’s sharp point.
“So then, how is a wish distinguished from a hope? To me, it’s the sharp point that makes the difference. For while hope implies loft, the aspiration to soar toward what is yet to come, I see it primarily as an inner state…. As for a wish: only with both feathers and a sharp point can it reach what it aims for …”
That a wish can come to fruition only if it has “feathers and a sharp point” is clearly untrue. Some wishes go unfulfilled because of, for example, bad luck or government policies. Would Oxenhandler say that starving people in Darfur can achieve their wish for food “only” if their wish has feathers and a sharp point? Or that very ill Americans who lack health insurance can achieve their wish for treatment “only” if their wish has those things? Oxenhandler makes generalizations as a privileged, well-educated, middle-class America that, if you try apply them to other groups, sound like blaming the victim.

Recommendation? This book might make a good gift for your New Age-iest friend – say, somebody who still throws the I Ching. Read the reader-reviews on Amazon if you can’t decide whether to give this to a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, because some deal with this.

Editor: Caroline Sutton

Published: July 2008 www.noelleoxenhandler.com

Read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400064854

Furthermore: Oxenhandler lives in California. She wrote A Grief Out of Season.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books, catalogs, advance reading copies, print or electronic press releases or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors or agents.

© 2008 JaniceHarayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 12, 2008

Why Do People Collect Stamps, Beer Mugs or First Editions of Novels? William Davies King Answers in ‘Collections of Nothing’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:32 pm
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A man who collects plastic cauliflower bags deserves a certain respect. So between my mental trips to the water cube in Beijing, I’ve been reading a quirky new book by a University of California theater professor who collects things nobody else wants, like empty Cheez-It boxes and cauliflower bags that mimic “the sphericity of a cauliflower head.”

William Davies King seems to have low-keyed ambitions for Collections of Nothing (University of Chicago, 163 pages, $20), a cross between a memoir and a meditation on the impulse to acquire. He hasn’t tried to provide a definitive survey or analysis – just insights into the passion for accumulation that include this observation:

“Middle-class life is itself a collection: a spouse, a house, a brace of children, a suitable car, a respectable career, cuddly pets, photos of grinning relatives, toys for all ages and hours, coffee and coffee pots, coffee cups and spoons, coffee table books about coffee and about coffee tables.”

King offers a host of reasons for why the urge to collect is universal if you count people who collect jokes or friends or experiences instead of objects. But perhaps his most interesting idea is that collecting is a way of coping with the knowledge that you can’t own other people – which is what all of us really want. Read more about the book here www.press.uchicago.edu and an excerpt here www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/437002.html.

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

July 10, 2008

Gunning for Love — ‘Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge’

Love didn’t go by the book for two FBI agents, one of them a specialist in undercover work

Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge. By Caitlin Rother with John Hess. Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 281 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

You know the old Woody Allen joke about how the great thing about being bisexual is that it doubles your chances of getting a Saturday-night date? This book reminds us that it can also halve your chances of getting out of it alive.

Twisted Triangle grew out of a macabre story about two married FBI agents that got splashy coverage in Vanity Fair and elsewhere in the 1990s. Gene Bennett had taken part in two successful undercover operations before he tried to kill his wife, Margo, in the apparent belief that she had become infatuated with the novelist Patricia Cornwell. His past raises interesting questions touched on in the book: Does undercover work – which requires agents to assume a false identity – foster personality disintegration? Can it lead to disassociative disorder, commonly known as multiple personality disorder, to which Gene’s lawyers attributed his violent behavior? Might undercover work attract people predisposed to the condition?

These questions have a relevance that may extend beyond the Bennett case to those involved in covert operations in places like Afghanistan. So you wish Caitlin Rother and John Hess had gotten better material from Margo, whose story they tell.

The essential problem surfaces in the subtitle, A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge. Margo Bennett says repeatedly that she and Cornwell had two intimate “encounters” — or what sounds like a two-night stand — and Cornwell has confirmed it in interviews. On the witness stand, Margo corrected a lawyer who said she’d had “an adulterous lesbian affair” with Patricia Cornwell: “I said I had two encounters with Ms. Cornwell.”

So why is Twisted Triangle billed as the story of “a lesbian love affair”? The publisher may have imposed that subtitle on the authors. But Margo comes across as such an unreliable source that the unreliable subtitle, in a sense, represents a book driven by what sound like rationalizations instead of explanations. Margo signed phony documents in a home-relocation scam because, she says, Gene threatened to leave her if she didn’t. She lied on the witness stand when he was tried for the fraud because, she says, she was afraid he would hurt their children if she didn’t. To explain other unflattering actions, she invokes the Stockholm syndrome and — you guessed it — her “fragile self-esteem.” But if Margo lied under oath to protect her children, how do we know she didn’t try to protect them again by distorting the facts when she was interviewed for this book?

Rother and Hess confirmed some of what Margo told them through court documents and other sources. But much of this book has a “he said, she said” quality. Margo complains that a 1996 Washington Post story made her seem “very careless, uncaring, and crazy on my own.” Twisted Triangle does little to correct that impression and, in some ways, deepens it. In the Post story, Karl Vick expressed the theme of the Bennett case in seven words. Those words also sum up the moral of this book: “Sometimes, homo sapiens behave very, very badly.”

Best line: “Louis Freeh, who had just been appointed director [of the FBI], had instituted a zero-tolerance approach and was taking a hard line on disciplinary issues. Some agents described him as Hoover without the compassion.”

Worst line: Margo says that after working as an FBI agent for a few years, she learned that her husband had $60,000 in cash that he insisted was a gift from his dead father: “Gene claimed that his father had given him $60,000 in cash, which he’d kept in a suitcase in his mother’s attic. He said that his father had told him not to put it in the bank, so Margo figured his father had never reported it to the IRS, and this was his way of protecting Gene, who said he would take the old bills to the bank and exchange them for new ones so that no one would question any transaction or track the income.

“At the time, Margo took Gene at his word.”
This passage shows one of the many hard-to-believe rationalizations that Margo Bennett gives for why she accepted her husband’s shady behavior.

Published: April 2008 www.catilinrother.com

If you like true crime, consider reading instead: Stanley Alpert’s The Birthday Party (Putnam, 2007) www.stanleyalpert.com, a memoir by a former federal prosecutor abducted on a Manhattan street and held for 25 hours by captors who showed a gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight ineptitude. A review appeared on this site on Jan. 30, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/30/ and a reading group guide on Feb. 4, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/04/.

Furthermore: The Bennetts met while working in the Atlanta office of the FBI. Margo is a campus police captain at the University of California at Berkeley. Gene is serving a 23-year sentence in a Virginia prison. Patricia Cornwell has responded to Twisted Triangle in an Advocate article www.advocate.com/issue_story_ektid54596.asp.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She does not accept books, catalogs, advance reading copies, press releases or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors or agents.

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

June 30, 2008

‘The Paradox of Choice’ – Can Having Too Many Choices Make You Unhappy? — Quote of the Day (Barry Schwartz via Jim Sollisch)

Filed under: Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:34 am
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Does having too many choices make us less happy? Jim Sollisch had an interesting comment on Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (HarperPerennial, 2005) in an op-ed page piece in the Wall Street Journal www.benadorassociates.com/article/20651:

“Barry Schwartz, a social scientist at Swarthmore, makes the case in his book The Paradox of Choice that that unlimited choice produces genuine suffering. The more choices we have to make, the less certainty we seem to have. When we have 285 kinds of cookies to choose from in the grocery store, how can we be sure we’ve picked the right one? And that’s just cookies. When faced with seemingly unlimited choices that have significant consequences like which stocks to invest in, which career to pursue or even which person to marry, many people become what Professor Schwartz calls ‘maximizers’: people who relentlessly search for the best option. These people spend a great deal of time and energy on choices that will never satisfy them.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 13, 2007

The ‘Tyranny of Positive Thinking’ and Cancer Patients — A Physician-Author Says That It’s Not Always Best to Tell People to ‘Be Optimistic’

Can you give too much encouragement to people who are ill?

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, I reviewed Betty Rollin’s Here’s the Bright Side and objected to its theme that all human suffering holds “a hidden prize waiting to be found.” I argued that some losses are so sad — the death of a child, say — that urging people to find their “bright side” is cruel.

Later I read some interesting, related comments by Jimmie Holland, chair of Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. They appeared in an article Leslie Brody wrote about caring for her husband, who has pancreatic cancer, for the New Jersey daily, The Record, on May 20, 2007.

“Think twice before telling the patient to ‘be positive,’” Brody wrote. She added:

“Dr. Jimmie C. Holland, author of The Human Side of Cancer and a pioneer in the psychological aspects of the illness, has written about the ‘tyranny of positive thinking.’ When people insist patients should ‘be optimistic,’ they imply that those who get sicker may be to blame for not trying hard enough to stay upbeat and conquer the disease.

“Holland says a patient’s mind-set might help him stick to a grueling chemo regimen, but it’s less clear whether attitudes and emotions in themselves can affect tumor growth or the body’s response. Patients — and their families — should feel free to vent depressing and anxious thoughts without being judged.

“Instead of saying ‘Chin up,’ or, ‘You’ll be fine,’ it’s better to say, ‘Hang in there,’ or ‘We’re thinking of you,’ or ‘We’re hoping for the best.’”

Links: To read the original review of Here’s the Bright Side, click here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/21/. To read about The Human Side of Cancer, click here www.humansideofcancer.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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