One-Minute Book Reviews

February 15, 2011

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ With 10 Discussion Questions

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Room: A Novel
By Emma Donoghue
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.

Emma Donoghue calls Room a novel about a “battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus,” and it’s easy to see why. Her narrator is 5-year-old Jack, who spends his life imprisoned in a garden shed until he emerges from his tomb-like structure on Easter. He escapes with the help of his saintly mother, who has devoted herself to saving him from their jailor, a man who abducted and raped her and fathered Jack. Their story brims with references to God, Jesus and Christian saints.

But many nonreligious readers have embraced Room simply for its plot or the voice of its sunny young hero, whose mother has filled his life with comforting routines such as watching Dora the Explorer and reading Alice in Wonderland. Donoghue has said of the novel, a Man Booker Prize finalist: “Kids delight in ‘magical thinking’, whether in the form of the Tooth Fairy or the saints: whether you see these as comforting lies or eternal verities, they are part of how we help kids make sense of the world. I think that’s why the religious element of Room does not seem to bother non-religious readers; they can just put it on a par with Santa.”

10 Discussion Questions for Room:

1. The narrator of Room is a 5-year-old American who has spent his life imprisoned with his mother in a 121-foot square garden shed. How credible were Jack’s voice and perspective on life? Where did you find Jack’s voice most and least convincing?

2. Jack refers to a woman a “she person” and, in the same paragraph, seems to understand and know how to spell the words “impregnable” and “catatonic.” [Page 165] Did you find this credible? If so, why? If not, what you made keep reading Room, regardless?

3. How would you describe Ma? We see her only through the eyes of Jack and the people he observes interacting with her. This approach limits what the novel can tell us about an important character. Was Donoghue able to overcome any restrictions on point-of-view to portray Ma as well-developed character? Why or why not?

4. Why do you think Old Nick remains a shadowy figure, one we know little about?

5. Ma is still breastfeeding Jack when he is 5 years old. What purpose does this serve in the story?

6. Room has an unusual structure for a novel about captivity: Jack and Ma escape almost exactly halfway through it. [Page 154 of a 321-page book]. Captives or hostages typically win their freedom closer to the end to keep the suspense high. Why did Donoghue have Ma and Jack escape sooner? How well did she maintain suspense afterward?

7. Donoghue says that Room is partly a satire “of modern mores and media.” What people or groups does she tweak? How well does the satire fit into a story rooted in Ma’s tragic abduction?

8. Do you share Donoghue’s view of Room as the story of a “battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus”? Why do you think the Christian motifs in the novel don’t bother some readers who aren’t religious?

9. Given all that Jack has endured and how sunny he remains, you could argue that the theme of Room is the therapeutic cliché, “Kids are resilient.” But the novel also develops other ideas. What do you think is the theme or message of the book?

10. Have you read other books with child narrators? How does Room compare to them?

Extras:

1. Janet Maslin wrote in her New York Times review of Room that Jack and Ma “are not the only people in recent books about women trapped in close, sustained relationships with their captors, even to the point of bearing children”: Chevy Stevens’s Still Missing and Laura Lippman’s I’d Know You Anywhere “offer more mainstream, victim-narrated versions of this story.” Have you read other books about victims and their captors? If so, which worked best? Why?

2. Room was inspired partly by the Austrian case of Josef Fritzl, who locked up and impregnated his daughter, Elisabeth, who had son who escaped at the age of 5. James Wood, the fiction critic for the New Yorker, found this borrowing “exploitative and a little cheap” in a review in the London Review of Books. “Does anyone really imagine that Jack’s inner life, with his cracks about Pizza Houses and horse stables and high-fives, is anything like five-year-old Felix Fritzl’s?” Wood asked. “The real victim’s imaginings and anxieties must have been abysmal, in the original sense (unimaginable, bottomless), and the novel’s sure-footed appropriation of this unknowability seems offensive precisely in its sure-footedness.” He added that Jack’s cheerfulness and charm “lend the book an inappropriate lightness.” What did you think of the borrowing?

Vital statistics:
Room: A Novel. By Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown, 321 pp., $24.99.

Room was a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker prize for fiction.

A review of Room appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 15, 2011, in the post that immediately followed this reading group guide..

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 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.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 27, 2009

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Janet Evanovich’s ‘Finger Lickin Fifteen’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Finger Lickin’ Fifteen
By Janet Evanovich
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.

A celebrity chef is beheaded with a meat cleaver in the opening pages of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, Janet Evanovich’s 15th crime novel about the Trenton-based bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.  After a co-worker witnesses the murder, Plum becomes drawn into the search for his killer, and her ex-boyfriend, the plainclothes policeman Joe Morelli, goes to work on the case. She also agrees to help her sometime romantic interest, Carlos “Ranger” Manoso, find out who has been breaking into properties protected by his security company. As novel builds toward the barbecue cook-off, the questions raised by the plot include: Can Morelli succeed in his dual quest to capture the chef’s killers and to recapture Plum’s heart?

Discussion questions:

1 Many novels fall clearly into a category such as mystery, romance, comedy, or adventure. Evanovich tries to combine all of those genres in one book. How well does she succeed?

2 Does Evanovich handle one genre better than others? If so, which genre seems to suit her skills best?

3 Some series give you a strong sense of place, a you-are-there feeling about the city or town where the action takes place, such as those about Robert Parker’s Spenser (Boston) and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski (Chicago). How well did Evanovich evoke Trenton, NJ, in Finger Lickin Good? Did she give you the sense that you knew the city? How much does this matter?

4 Finger Lickin’ Fifteen has two parallel plots – one involving the murder of the Stanley Chipotle and another about the break-ins at the properties protected by Rangeman security. It has a third if you count Plum’s efforts to bring in the “skips” or FTAs (Failure to Appears) who haven’t shown up for court dates. Which  plot did you find most interesting or effective? Which was the least interesting or effective?

5 Often in a book with multiple storylines, the plots turn out to be related. You might expect, for example, that Stanley Chipotle’s murder would be linked to the break-ins at Rangeman properties. How, if at all, are the plots in Finger Lickin’ Five related?

6 This novel begins with a decapitation, a risky move given that it might remind people of the 2002 beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and other terrorist acts. Where you able to step back mentally from any news stories you’ve read and view Finger Lickin’ Five as entertainment? Or was your reading affected by the headlines?

7 Some authors of long-running series allow their characters to age – not just by getting older but by making major changes in their lives. Evanovich hasn’t done this with Plum, who was 30 in One for the Money and seems to have changed little. The critic Marilyn Stasio wrote in a review of Eleven on Top, “Evanovich has kept Stephanie in a perpetual state of sexual arousal, poised between the attentions of Joe Morelli, the hot and hunky cop who has been pursuing her since high school, and Ranger, a coolly lethal mercenary.” What are the pros and cons this approach? Would the series be more satisfying or less so if Plum had changed more?

8 More than most mystery series, the Plum novels have predictable elements. In each book, for example, Plum’s Hungarian grandmother visits Stiva’s Funeral Home. Is the predictability an asset or liability? Has your view of this changed over the years?

9 Respected crime-novel critics, such as Sarah Weinman, have said that the quality of this series has been going down for years. A few reader-reviewers on Amazon.com (such as Jessica Connelly and A. Grund) argue that this has lost so much of its earlier appeal that it Evanovich should kill it. Do you agree or disagree? Why?

10 If you think Evanovich should continue the series, how could she strengthen it? Would you want to read a half dozen more books in which Plum is still torn between Morelli and Ranger?

Vital Statistics
Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. By Janet Evanovich. St. Martin’s, 308 pp., $27.95. Published June 2009.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic and who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

June 12, 2009

Good Free Reading Group Guides From the U.S. Government

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.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 5, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Historical Novel ‘Chains,’ a Finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
Chains (Seeds of America)
By Laurie Halse Anderson
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

On the eve of the American Revolution, thousands of slaves lived in New York City. In Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story a fictional 13-year-old girl owned by a cruel Loyalist couple with a regal townhouse on Wall Street in 1776. Young Isabel Finch learns of a plot to kill George Washington as she serves wine and cheese on a silver platter to the Locktons’ Tory friends, and she later sneaks away to warn Continental Army soldiers of the danger to their commander. She hopes her spying will persuade the Patriots to free her and her 5-year-old sister, Ruth, also owned by the Locktons. The soldiers have more urgent concerns after the British invade New York, and without reliable allies on either side, Isabel forms a dangerous plan to win her freedom on her own.

Discussion Questions for Young Readers

1. Isabel and Ruth Finch are slaves. How are their lives similar to those of other slaves you’ve read about? How are they different from them?

2. Did you know that slavery existed in places like New York City before you read Chains? Did Laurie Halse Anderson convince you that some New Yorkers really did have slaves? How did she do it?

3. Isabel and Ruth are sold to a married couple after their former owner refuses to honor a promise to free them. Elihu and Anne Lockton are “Loyalists.” [Page 38] Who or what are they loyal to? Who or what is Isabel loyal to? What role do clashing or divided loyalties play in the novel?

4. After moving in with the Locktons, Isabel tries to run away. A judge orders that she be branded with the letter I for Insolence. [Page 145] Branding is both physically and emotionally painful. Why might slaves like Isabel have felt humiliated by it?

5. Elihu Lockton hits his wife, Anne, during an argument. [Page 108] Why do you think the author put this scene in the book?

6. Isabel answers to several names. When the Locktons buy her, she is Isabel Finch. Anne Lockton changes her name to “Sal Lockton” (and calls her “Girl”). [Page 128] Isabel’s friend Curzon calls her “Country” (and has two names of his own). Why do the different names matter? Do you think Anne Lockton just liked the sound of “Sal Lockton” better than “Isabel Finch”? If not, why might she have wanted to change the name?

7. The title of this novel refers to more than one kind of chains. What are some of different types of “chains” it involves? What does Isabel mean when she says, “I was chained between two nations”? [Page 182]

8. The mayor of New York tells Isabel’s owner: “The beast has grown too large. If it breaks free of its chains, we are all in danger. We need to cut off its head.” Who or what was the “beast”? [Page 89]

9. There’s a lot of action in this book, some of it going on in the foreground (what happens to Isabel) and some in the background (what happens in places like Trenton and Princeton). Why do you think the author told you what was taking place in, for example, Philadelphia when this book is mainly about Isabel’s life in New York?

10. Isabel notices that the Patriots are fighting for freedom, but their idea of freedom doesn’t seem to include people like her. A male slave defends the Patriots by saying: “Some Patriots own slaves, yes, but you must listen to their words: ‘all men, created equal.’ The words come first. They’ll pull the deeds and the justice behind them.” [Page 164] What did he mean?

Extras:
11. “‘Freedom and liberty’ has different meanings,” Isabel’s master, Elihu Lockton says. What are some of the different meanings it has for people in this book?

12. Chains includes colorful facts about everyday life in 1776. What are some of the most interesting?

Vital Statistics:
Chains (Seeds of America Series). By Laurie Halse Anderson, 316 pp., Simon & Schuster. $16.99. Ages 10 and up. Published: Oct. 2008
Chains was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html.

A review of Chains appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Dec. 5, 2008, in the post that directly followed this one http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/12/05/.

Laurie Halse Anderson also wrote Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and other books www.writerlady.com.

If you like historical novels about independent girls, you might also like: Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/.

For more on the Revolutionary War era: Jean Fritz has written an excellent series of illustrated books about the American Revolution for 9-to-12-year-olds that includes Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George (Putnam,1996) and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (Putnam, 1997). Books by Fritz www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/jeanfritz.html are available in many libraries and in stock at online bookstores and many others.

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to your blogroll so you won’t miss others. Reader’s guides appear on the site frequently but not on a regular schedule. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and has been approved by and appears on Open Directory lists. It is one of the top 10 book review site in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts/ Literature” blogs: www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 30, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
By Kate Summerscale
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 wish 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.

Anyone who has slogged through some of the grimmer winners of the Man Booker Prize for fiction may look more kindly on British judges after reading this admirable recipient of the U.K.’s highest award for nonfiction. In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale uses the conventions of the detective novel to tell the true story of the murder of a three-year-old boy whose body turned up in the servants’ privy of an English country house in the summer of 1860. The case stymied the Wiltshire police, and Scotland Yard sent Detective-Inspector Jonathan “Jack” Whicher to Road Hill House to help with the investigation. Whicher quickly became convinced that he knew who killed young Saville Kent. But in trying to prove it, he faced obstacles that included public scorn for his work, rooted partly Victorian notions of privacy and the sanctity of the family home. Five years later, the killer confessed, vindicating Whicher without answering all of the questions raised by one of the most notorious murders of its day.

Questions for Discussion:

1. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction from the BBC www.thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk/, Britain’s most prestigious nonfiction award. Was it worthy of a prize?

2. In this book, Kate Summerscale tells a true crime story structured like a detective novel that includes a startling twist in the last pages. How well does that technique work? Was the book more or less effective or than the best mysteries you’ve read?

3. Would you have believed the story in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher if the book had been labeled “fiction”? What does your response tell you about the different requirements of fiction and nonfiction?

4. “Like any novelist, Summerscale follows her storytelling instincts in making the detective the hero of her book,” Marilyn Stasio wrote in the New York Times Book Review. “While her efforts to humanize his sketchy character are limited at best, she does far better at illustrating how he was fictionally transformed, both in the mysteries of his day and in subsequent permutations of the genre.” [“True-Lit-Hist-Myst,” The New York Times Book Review, July 20, 2008, page 19.] Do you agree or disagree with Stasio?

5. Good detective novelists avoid the use of obvious red herrings, narrative devices intended to mislead or distract you from more important facts. Many authors try to avoid even subtle red herrings, which some readers see as cheating. Did Summerscale’s book have red herrings, whether blatant or discreet? If so, how did they affect the story?

6. Some of the Amazon.com reviewers fault Summerscale for what they see as a just-the-facts approach, a literary style similar to that of Agatha Christie and other mid-20th-century mystery novelists. What did you think of that style? How appropriate was it?

7. Summerscale quotes the mystery novelist Raymond Chandler as saying: “The detective story is a tragedy with a happy ending.” [Pages 303–304] How, if at all, does that comment apply to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher? Does the book have a happy ending?

8. Have you read any other nonfiction books about 19th-century crimes, such as the bestselling Manhunt? How did they compare to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher?

9. The publisher of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher has revived the practice, little used in the U.S. today, of including floor plans and similar art in a crime story. What did the illustrations add to the book? Would you like to see other publishers revive the practice?

10. After reading the book, what did you think of the use of the small photograph in the oval on the cover of the American edition? Was this fair in book that uses detective-novel techniques? Would this picture have appeared of a work on fiction?

Vital statistics:
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. By Kate Summerscale. Illustrated. Walker, 360 pp., $24.95. Published: April 2008 (first American edition) www.mrwhicher.com.

Summerscale is a former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.

A review of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 30, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/30. You can find an interview with Kate Summerscale on Bookslut www.bookslut.com/features/2008_09_013387.php.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com 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 www.bookcritics.org.

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 that is not influenced by marketing concerns. 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.

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

April 22, 2008

Have Publishers’ Reading Group Guides Gone Around the Bend? Bizarre Discussion Questions for Nora Ephron’s ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:52 am
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Even for the etherized realm of publishers’ reading group guides, the list of discussion questions for the new paperback edition of Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (Vintage, 160 pp., $12.95) is bizarre. Here is the first question:

“In I Feel Bad About My Neck, Ephron writes that she avoids making truthful comments on how her friends look, even when they ask her directly [pp. 3–4]. Why is this a wise decision?”

Question: What does this have to do with the book? If you’re going to take the focus of a discussion off the book and drag it over to readers’ views on etiquette, shouldn’t you wait until people have at least discussed the book?

Then there is this stumper: “What would this book be like if written by a man?” Answer: It wouldn’t be because the whole point of the book is that it’s about female experience. It’s like saying: What would Sherman Alexie’s books be like if they hadn’t been written by an Indian? They wouldn’t be.

You could understand – sort of – why a publisher might take this approach for pop fiction, the literary equivalent of a bag of Styrofoam peanuts, which doesn’t give you much to discuss. But for Ephron, who has excelled in fiction, nonfiction and screenwriting?

I can’t bring myself to link to this wacko guide (which appears the Vintage site), so I also won’t link to the One-Minute Book Reviews alternate guide (which you can find by using the Search box). You’ll have to trust me when I say that the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Ephron’s essay collection does begin with the book.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 19, 2008

Are Publishers’ Reading Group Guides Deceptive? Quote of the Day (Gail Pool)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:18 pm
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Publishers’ reading group guides are a form of advertising, and like all advertising, they are one-sided at best and deceptive at worst. Gail Pool offers an excellent critique of the guides in her recent book Faint Praise, a lament for the anemic state of book reviewing in America www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/. Pool argues that publishers’ guides mimic the analysis found in reviews but lack the critical distance that good reviewers bring to their work:

“Even readers’ guides are promotional: produced by the publishers to enhance the books’ value for – and sales to – reading groups, they may be designed to encourage more thoughtful reading, but they don’t encourage a critical approach. None of the guides seem to ask readers to question the quality of a book’s prose, its clichéd characterization, or the problems in its story line. They start from the premise that books are good, and it’s their purpose to help readers ‘understand’ why they are good, not discover that they aren’t.”

Gail Pool in Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (University of Missouri Press, 170 pp., $34.95, hardcover, and $19.95, paperback) www.umsystem.edu/upress.

Comment:

Pool gets this exactly right. One-Minute Book Reviews posts its own free online guides partly to encourage the “critical approach” that publishers don’t. All of these guides are saved in the Totally Unauthorized Reading Groups category.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 3, 2007

What Is One-Minute Book Reviews?

One-Minute Book Reviews is a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It is also for people who dislike long-winded weasel reviews that are full of facts or plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book. You may not agree with the opinions you read here, but you will always know what they are.

This blog focuses on book reviews and does not cover literary news or gossip. Occasional exceptions may occur when other media cover literary news slowly or not at all or when news relates to a book this site has reviewed or will review. I recently wrote about the Bad Sex in Fiction Award because it related directly to my review of On Chesil Beach and because the nominated passages clearly weren’t going to make it into most American newspapers.

Some of the unique features of One-Minute Book Reviews include the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides, free reading group guides without the hype of publishers’ guides, and the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books, announced annually on the Ides of March. The site does not accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, agents or authors.

If you know someone who might enjoy this site, I’d be grateful if you would forward a link to this post. In addition to hundreds of links from personal blogs, this site has many links from schools, colleges and libraries. That’s why the “Top Posts” on this site regularly include both reviews of new books and a quote about literary symbolism from a nearly 50-year-old textbook: Colleges are apparently linking to this site from class wikis, syllabi or reading lists.

One-Minute Book Reviews ranks seventh in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts and Literature” blogs:
www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/. Thanks for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 16, 2007

Katha Pollitt Steers Into the Skids of Female Experience in Her Elegant Collection of Essays, ‘Learning to Drive’

As if loving a womanizer wasn’t enough, there was the bad food at literary parties

Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories. By Katha Pollitt. Random House, 207 pp., $22.95

By Janice Harayda

Suppose that the entire female sex were put on trial for all the sins that women are regularly accused of – from taking maternity leaves at inconvenient times to failing to get the right kind of bikini wax (“a discreet triangle, not a landing strip,” Tatler magazine warns). Whom would you want as the defense attorney?

Susan Faludi is focusing on the effects of terrorism. Anna Quindlen has become a novelist and Gloria Steinem the author of a book on self-esteem. Barbara Ehrenreich might turn the trial into a referendum on capitalism, and Maureen Dowd might get cute and refer to women as “Ws.” Ellen Goodman has defended women admirably for years, but her only child left home two decades ago, and she might lack a ready fund of anecdotes on, say, the latest insults inflicted on mothers in Snuglis.

So I’d go with Katha Pollitt, the poet and political columnist for The Nation. Her new Learning to Drive is an elegant and often witty collection of 10 personal essays that, in many ways, resembles Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. Some of the pieces in both books first appeared in The New Yorker. And Pollitt’s book, like Ephron’s, is about her experiences in her varied roles — wife, mother, girlfriend, daughter, Upper West Sider, psychotherapy dropout, writer.

But Learning to Drive has more bite and depth than I Feel Bad About My Neck, which showed the influence of the magazines and newspapers in which its essays appeared. You had the sense that Ephron, good as she is, was saying only as much as her editors would allow. Pollitt has held onto more of herself. She’s writing to her own standards, not those of an editor, and the result is a more unified book.

Each of Pollitt’s essays deals with a personal experience – her efforts to learn to drive, the birth of her daughter, the death of her father or mother, the realization that the man she lived with had been cheating for almost the whole time. But her writing is never just about her. Her essays always comment on an aspect of female or human experience. When she realizes that her lover has been unfaithful, she reflects:

“They say philanderers are attractive to women because of the thrill of the chase – you want to be the one to capture and tame that wild quarry. But what if a deeper truth is that women fall for such men because they want to be those men? Autonomous, in charge, making their own rules.”

Pollitt structures her essays carefully as short stories, and some people appear in more than one. So Learning to Drive resembles resembles a cycle of stories more than an essay collection. Given the slapdash quality of so many such books, this alone might make the book noteworthy.

But Pollitt, at her best, is also extremely witty. She shows a perverse optimism in the bleakest of situations (which might explain, better than anything in her book, why she stayed with that womanizer). One memorable scene describes a party for a friend who had written a book lionized by critics — an event that should have been joyful. Instead it was edged with gloom. The novelists and short-story writers commiserated about the declining audience for fiction – “even calling readers ‘the audience’ tells you there’s a problem” – and were fed a miserly ration of nuts and cherry tomatoes.

“Soon writers will be consoling themselves that at least they’re not classical musicians,” she writes. “Those people are really screwed.”

Best line: Pollitt laments that there are no good words to describe being over 50: “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’ Midlife is the upbeat new euphemism – there you are, in the thick of it! – but a 55-year-old person is in the middle of his life only if he’s going to live to 110. ‘Middle-aged’ sounds tired and plodding, almost as bad as ‘aging’ – and ‘aging’ is sad and pitiful, an insult even though it’s actually universally applicable. A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.”

Worst line: On the differences between the sexes: “Women just have more sense, and they are made of more enduring materials, too. More than half the male members of the Donner Party died of cold and starvation, but three quarters of the females survived, saved by that extra layer of fat we spend our lives trying to get rid of.” Leaving aside the we’re-just-better logic, the inexact math of this was confusing: Wouldn’t it make sense to compare the percentage of men who died with the percentage of women who died? Did roughly 51 or 52 percent of the men die and exactly 25 percent of the women? Looking for the precise figures, I went to the Donner Party site for the Oregon-California Trails Association www.utahcrossroads.org and found that its numbers disagreed with Pollitt’s. “Two-thirds of the women survived; two-thirds of the men died,” the site says.

Reading group guide: If you’re reading this on the home page of One-Minute Book Reviews, scroll down one post to find a Totally Authorized Reading Group Guide to Learning to Drive. If you’re reading this on another page on the site or on the Web, click on this link to find the guide: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.

Editor: Daniel Menaker

Cover story: A review of the cover of Learning to Drive will appear tomorrow. I was going to include it here, but my comments would have made this post too long. Sean Lindsay at the terrific site 101 Reasons to Stop Writing www.101reasonstostopwriting.com sent me easy directions for inserting images, so starting tomorrow, you’ll also see some full color here instead of just duotone.

Published: September 2007 www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com and www.randomhouse.com.

Furthermore: Pollitt wrote Virginity or Death! and other books. She has won two National Magazine Awards for essays and criticism and a National Book Critics Circle Award www.bookcritics.org for her poetry collection, Antarctic Traveller.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com has been the book critic for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critic Circle. She was not involved in the NBCC award received by Pollitt.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Katha Pollitt’s ‘Learning to Drive’

10 Discussion Questions

Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories
By Katha Pollitt
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 reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Others who wish 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.

Katha Pollitt steers into the skids of female experience in Learning to Drive, a collection of 10 elegant and often witty essays about her many roles – wife, mother, daughter, girlfriend, Upper West Sider, psychotherapy dropout, writer. Like Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, this book deals in part with the ironies and absurdities inherent in cultural expectations of women, particularly those over 50.

Questions for Readers

1. Pollitt says in her first essay that she’s 52 and learning to drive a car because a man she lived with for seven years has left her. At the end of the book, she still doesn’t seem to have passed her road test. But she has learned a few things about life. Which impressed you the most? What did you learn from Learning to Drive?

2. We find out on the second page that Pollitt’s lover was cheating on her almost from the start. From then on, a central question of the book becomes the one posed in different form on page 57, “How could I have been so stupid?” What’s Pollitt’s answer? What’s yours?

3. “They say philanderers are attractive to women because of the thrill of the chase – you want to be the one to capture and tame that wild quarry,” Pollitt writes. “But what if a deeper truth is that women fall for such men because they want to be those men? Autonomous, in charge, making their own rules.” [Page 63] Do you think that women are attracted to philanderers? Or do you think they simply put up with them? If so, why do they tolerate them? In those lines Pollitt deals only with the psychological reasons why women stay with philanders. Might there be other reasons – sexual, financial, social? What are they? How does Pollitt’s view of womanizers differ from those you’ve seen on Sex and the City and in other media?

4. In “After the Men Are Dead” Pollitt reflects on what life will be like for women when they have outlived their husbands and other men. Would it be “restful” not to have to think about “love, romance, sex, pleasing, listening, encouraging, smiling at the old jokes” and all the ways in which women accommodate men’s needs and expectations? [Page 79] Would you find it restful, sad or both?

5. The essay “Beautiful Screamer” deals partly with a paradox of having an infant or young child. As Pollitt sees it, motherhood was “so important, so necessary” that it placed you at the center of life: “At the same time, it marginalized you totally.” [Page 112] Pollitt felt sidelined partly because she faced new physical limits – the post office banned strollers. [Page 114] She also felt excluded in more subtle ways. What were they? If you’re a mother, do you agree that motherhood isolates you? Why?

6. Single or childless people who live in suburbs or small towns that are billed as “family-friendly” might disagree with the views Pollitt expresses in “Beautiful Screamer.” They might say that they feel isolated because so much of the social life revolves around children’s school, sports or other activities. How do the views of the mothers in your group differ from those of the childless members?

7. Pollitt writes about her father in “Good-bye, Lenin” and her mother in “Mrs. Razzmatazz.” Does either parent come off better than the other? Why?

8. Pollitt laments that there are no good words to describe her time of life. “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’ Midlife is the upbeat new euphemism – there you are, in the thick of it! – but a 55-year-old person is in the middle of his life only if he’s going to live to 110. ‘Middle-aged’ sounds tired and plodding, almost as bad as ‘aging’ – and ‘aging’ is sad an pitiful, an insult even though it’s actually universally applicable. A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.” [Page 196] What effect do these terms have on you? On our society? What word or words would you use for what some people call “the last trimester of life”?

9. A backlash may be growing against those magazine articles with titles like “Fabulous at Fifty.” Pollitt challenges this kind of aggressive cheerleading. So did Nora Ephron in her essays in I Feel Bad About My Neck and Virginia Ironside in her comic novel, No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club. Is the backlash overdue or unfair? Which of the books that you’ve read makes the best case for a more nuanced view of life after 50?

10. Pollitt writes from a feminist perspective. This is clearest in lines such as: “Feminism was supposed to be about the things women had in common, and I had always thought of myself as someone who liked women. When someone – usually a woman; in fact, always a woman – said I ‘thought like a man’ I felt insulted for both women and myself; it was as if I was being expelled from the tribe.” [Pages 61-62] What do you think feminism is “about” in 2007? How would you react if someone said that you “thought like a man”?

Vital statistics:
Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories. By Katha Pollitt. Random House, 207 pp., $22.95. Published: September 2007. A review of Learning to Drive appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 16, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.

Links: www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com and www.randomhouse.com

Your book group may also want to read:

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95. Review: Essays about being over 60 by the author of Heartburn. Ephron covers some of the topics that Pollitt does — faithless men, life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the pressure to conform to idealized images of women – and your group might compare their views on these. Review: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/14/ms-ephron-regrets/. Reading group guide: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/20/.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an 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. 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 that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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