One-Minute Book Reviews

September 20, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Oprah Picks a Mixed Doggie Bag for Her Club — A Sentimental ‘Hamlet’-Influenced First Novel Told Partly from the Point of View of Dogs

Oprah’s latest book-club pick is a mixed doggie bag – one part well-told yarn and one part sentimental twaddle with a dash of the paranormal and forced parallels with Hamlet. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is the tale of a mute Wisconsin farm boy who goes on the lam after he becomes convinced that his uncle murdered his father, a suspicion that sets another tragedy in motion. And this first novel by David Wroblewski has more to offer than the cosmic gibberish of Oprah’s most recent pick, Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, the grand prize winner in the 2008 Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/?s=%22A+New+Earth%22. But The Story of Edgar Sawtelle also suffers from mawkish scenes told from the point of view of dogs and from its implicit attribution of moral virtues to them. With its mix of family secrets and childhood pain — and other-worldly conversations with the dead — this novel was such a predictable choice for Oprah that the publishing news blog Galley Cat did predict it days ago www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/?c=rss.

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

September 3, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’ With a Key to ‘Hamlet’ Characters Represented in the Novel

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel
By David Wroblewski
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.

Edgar Sawtelle has spent his childhood on a mid-20th-century Wisconsin farm that raises its own breed of dogs, known as “Sawtelle dogs,” for private buyers. Born mute, Edgar communicates with his parents and others through sign language while raising his first litter of pups. But an air of menace seeps into his peaceful life when, in the summer of his 14th year, his father dies after a paternal uncle named Claude moves in with the family. Edgar vows to learn the truth about his father’s death and, when his effort ends in another disaster, flees with three of his dogs, hiding out in the Chequamegon National Forest. The plot of this first novel by David Wroblewski has similarities to that of Hamlet, where corpses litter the stage at the end of the play. So the question is not just whether Edgar will learn how his father died but how many people — or dogs — will die by the last page.

A Note for Book Clubs:
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has 562 pages in its hardcover edition — twice as many as an average novel, which has about 250 pages — and Stephen King has said that he “spent 12 happy evenings” with the book. So it’s probably safe to say that some book-group members won’t finish it. If you’re reading the novel for a group, you might want to deal with this issue up front — for example, by agreeing to read the book over a summer. If you lead a club, you might also want to let members know how much of the book they would need to read to get a sense of the whole. Would the prologue do it? If not, how much would members need to read?

A Key to the Hamlet Characters in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle:
Some of the humans and dogs in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle are surrogates for characters in Hamlet. The human stand-ins include: Edgar Sawtelle (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark), Trudy Sawtelle (Gertrude, Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother), Claude Sawtelle (Claudius, King of Denmark and Hamlet’s paternal uncle), Gar Sawtelle (the late King Hamlet of Denmark and Hamlet’s father), Doc Papineau (Polonius, Lord Chamberlain), and Glen Papineau, son of Doc (Laertes, son of Polonius). The canine stand-ins include Almondine (Ophelia, daughter of Polonius), Tinder and Baboo (courtiers Rosenkrantz, sometimes spelled Rosencrantz), Forte (Fortinbras) and Essay (Horatio). This is a starter list. If you see other parallels, why not mention them in the comments section on this post so that book clubs can benefit from your observations?

Questions for Discussion:

1. Early readers of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle characterized the novel in different ways. Publishers Weekly called it “a literary thriller.” [Feb. 18, 2008] Kirkus Reviews said it was “an Odyssean journey.” [April 15, 2008] Novelist Mark Doty described it as a hybrid: “both ghost story and melodrama” and “a coming-of-age tale.” [Dust jacket] How would you characterize the novel?

2. The plot of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has obvious similarities to that of Hamlet, which critics often describe as “a revenge tragedy.” Would that label fit this book? Is the novel about revenge? If not, what is the novel “about”?

3. David Wroblewski told Publishers Weekly: “It was not my intention to do a literal retelling [of Hamlet]. It was more interesting to allow the stories to coincide where they could. Ghosts and haunting and poison are motifs of the Elizabethan stage.” [PW Daily @ pw.com, April 14, 2008] How well does his “nonliteral” approach work?

4. For someone who didn’t intend to do a “literal retelling” of Hamlet, Wroblewski lays on the parallels pretty thickly. Apart from similarities between characters, many scenes resemble those in Shakespeare’s play. Near the end of the chapter entitled “The Texan,” Edgar stages a demonstration of his dogs’ talents that corresponds to the play-within-a-play that Hamlet believes will prove his uncle killed his father. [The chapter begins on page 311.] If you’re familiar with Hamlet, what other scenes resemble those in the play?

5. Reviewers often overpraise novels that allude to great works of fiction, because the allusions can give a gloss of sophistication pop fiction or worse. If you’ve read the reviews for this novel, do you think that might have happened here? Did the book deserve so much praise? Or were critics perhaps too influenced by the Hamlet parallels or other factors?

6. A major challenge of writing a 562-page novel is keeping up a strong pace. Does Wroblewski do this? Did you find the pace lagging in any places? Where?

7. Wroblewski takes a risk by telling part of his story from the point of view of dogs and part from that of humans. Does the risk pay off? Would the novel have been stronger if he had stuck to the point of view of one species? [Sections told from a canine point of view include the chapters called “Almondine” that begin on page 30 and page 460.]

8. The author takes another risk by introducing paranormal elements, such as Edgar’s conversation with his dead father. [Beginning on page 235 with, “He saw a man …”] Apart from reinforcing the parallels to Hamlet, what – if anything – do these scenes add to the novel? Would the book have been stronger or weaker without them?

9. Stephen King said of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, “Dog-lovers in particular will find themselves riveted by this story, because the canine world has never been explored with such imagination and emotional resonance.” [Blurb.] If you love dogs, do you agree or disagree? If you disagree, what books about dogs are better? You might consider fiction such as Jack London’s White Fang and nonfiction such as John Grogan’s Marley and Me.

10. It’s been said that all dog-lovers fall into one of two groups: those who think dogs are wonderful animals and those who think they are furry, four-footed people. Did you sense that Wroblewski falls into either camp?

Vital statistics:
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. By David Wroblewski. Ecco, 562 pp., $25.95. Published: June 2008 www.edgarsawtelle.com

A review of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on August 28, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/28. It is saved both with the August posts and in the “Novels” category on the site. The review takes the form of a parody of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

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.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are not unbiased analyses but marketing tools designed to sell books. 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.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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August 1, 2008

What Books for Adults Would You Recommend to Teenagers – August Meeting of Ruthless Book Club

Filed under: Ruthless Book Club,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:12 am
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Lately there’s been a lot of talk about the increasing crossover between books for the adult and young adult (YA) markets, typically defined as ages 13 and up. More people in each group seem to reading books written for the other.

This crossover is occurring partly because the young-adult market has exploded and offers many more books that might appeal to adults than it did a generation ago. At the same time, as cultural literacy has declined, books for adults have gotten dumber. A lot of them would suit adolescents better than people who haven’t been carded since the Clinton administration. So the adult and young-adult markets are meeting in the middle: The average bestseller is pitched to an 11- or 12-year-old, to judge by the calculations of authors’ writing levels that that I’ve done using the Microsoft Word readability statistics. Still another reason for the crossover might be that parents are more involved with homework than they used do, so they’re dipping the books their children bring home and finding that they like them.

So here this month’s question: What books for adults have you read that you would recommend to teenagers and vice versa? One of the best recent examples I can think of is The Red Leather Diary, a journal kept in the 1930s by a woman now in her 90s whom the journalist Lily Koppel tracked down and interviewed. This adult book would no doubt appeal to many teenagers, too.

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

July 27, 2008

Only a Few Days Left to Talk About ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher’ and Other Books at the July Meeting of the One-Minute Book Reviews Online Book Club

Filed under: Ruthless Book Club — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:33 am
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We’ve been talking about The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher and other books you might want to take to the beach at the July meeting of the online reading group on One-Minute Book Reviews. The club has no required reading: You can “join” by leaving a comment about any book you’ve been thinking about lately at www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/01 on or before July 31. A new conversation will start on August 1.

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

July 9, 2008

Julia Glass and Jonathan Lethem Are Reading ‘Netherland’ This Summer – What Are You Reading? Join the Conversation at One-Minute Book Reviews’s Online Club

Filed under: News,Ruthless Book Club — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:09 am
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Julia Glass and Jonathan Lethem are reading Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland. Or so they said in a Wall Street Journal article that also listed the summer reading of John Irving, Geraldine Brooks, Philippa Gregory, Oscar Hijuelos, Joyce Carol Oates and others www.wsj.com/article/SB121332522673370767.html.

What’s in your beach bag? If you’d like to talk about a great book or warn people away from a clinker, join the conversation at a new online book club by clicking here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/01/. A review of and reading group guide to Netherland appeared on this site in separate posts on June 24 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/.

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

July 1, 2008

July 2008 Meeting of the Ruthless Book Club — What Books Are You Taking on Vacation or Reading in a Hammock at Home?

Filed under: Ruthless Book Club — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:48 pm
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Welcome to the second meeting of the Ruthless Book Club, the online book club with no required reading. All you have to do to join is to leave a comment on this post about a book you like (or want to warn others away from) on any day in July. The book doesn’t need to have been reviewed on this site, but it can’t be one you got for free from the author, publisher or anyone else connected to it. (That sex-education manual your parents gave you at the age of 9 is, of course, fine.) A new virtual meeting will begin August 1.

I promised that I’d get the conversation started each month. So here’s my question: How do you decide what books to take on vacation? I’ve spent hours – sometimes days – winnowing the options.

Last year I packed On Chesil Beach, but it turned out to be overrated and so lightweight I finished it on the train before I arrived at the shore. The only bookstore in my resort town sold mostly bestsellers, so I bought Lone Survivor. It had more to say than Ian McEwan’s novel but was partly a screed against journalists. Am I a masochist?

I probably had the least trouble with the vacation-reading dilemma the year I read all of the Jane Austen novels in a one-volume edition that Oxford University Press has, tragically, allowed to go out of print. I’d read a few of the novels before I left town, enough to know I’d probably like the others, and the book was compact enough to be easily portable.

So what are you taking with you this year?

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

June 26, 2008

Another Meeting of the One-Minute Book Reviews Online Book Club on Tuesday

Filed under: News,Ruthless Book Club — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:48 pm
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Last night I had dinner with some of my most literary friends, and we had an interesting conversation on the subject of: Are we supposed to take seriously the reading lists in books like 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die? One of my companions — who used to be the top editor at an esteemed imprint — argued that we weren’t. He said that he thought editors published those lists to spark arguments, not to make a definite statement. And he may be right. But I suspect that whether or not editors intend it, a lot of people do take the lists seriously.

A new discussion will begin Tuesday on the online book club that started on this site on June 1 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/01. And this might be a good topic to explore there: Did you ever buy a book because it had turned up on a lot of those “best of” lists (or even on one list)? What was your reaction?

You can also use the comments section of Tuesday’s post to bring up other books you’ve enjoyed recently (or would like to warn others away from), whether or not they’ve been reviewed on this site.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 24, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Netherland
A Novel by Joseph O’Neill
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 copy it 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

Netherland is an elegant study in unreliable narration. Ostensibly it is the story of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born banker in New York, whose his wife and son return to London without him after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 force the family out of their Tribeca loft and into the Chelsea Hotel. But it’s unclear how much, if any, of Hans’s account of his life you can credit. As the dust jacket notes, Netherland is about a city that has become “phantasmagorical,” or characterized by shifting illusions and deceptive appearances. Joseph O’Neill never resolves a mystery at the heart of the book: Who killed Chuck Ramkissoon, the streetwise Trinidadian dreamer and cricket umpire who has involved Hans in an illegal business? Partly because of its ambiguous ending, Netherland is the rare novel that years from now may still inspire debate.

The publisher of Netherland has posted on its site a reader’s guide to the novel that your group may want to use as a starting point for discussion www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307377043. That list of questions is better than many, partly because it encourages you to consider such things structure of the novel – a vital aspect of fiction that often receives no attention in publishers’ guides. In other ways, the Pantheon guide reflects a tin ear for the kinds of things that book clubs enjoy discussing. In this case the most obvious is the question of who killed Chuck Ramkissoon. For this reason, although many Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are more comprehensive, this one focuses on that issue.

Questions for Readers

1. The first pages of Netherland say that the remains of Chuck Ramkissoon have been found in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. “There were handcuffs around his wrists and evidently he was the victim of a murder.” [Page 5] When a dead body turns up early in a novel, you usually find out by the end who killed the person. In Netherland, you don’t. Why do you think Joseph O’Neill left that issue unresolved?

2. A reviewer for a British newspaper said that the identity of Chuck’s killer is “beside the point.” Do you believe it is beside the point? Why or why not? How did not learning the identity of the killer affect your view of the novel?

3. As in a traditional murder mystery, the victim hadn’t led a spotless life, and many people might have wanted him dead. Do you believe Chuck was killed by one of the characters in the novel or by someone who never appears in it? Why?

4. The dust jacket says that Netherland is about a city that in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, has become “phantasmagorical.” How, if at all, might this relate to Chuck’s killer?

5. Netherland is to some extent a study in the literary technique known as “unreliable narration.” This involves a narrator we can’t fully trust. Narrators can be unreliable for many reasons. They may be mentally unstable, pathological liars, criminals who want to hide their crimes, older people who have fading memories, or children who are too young to have a clear understanding of events. Or they may be under so much stress that they can’t accept reality, or in what a psychiatrist would call “denial.” (You can read more about the technique by searching for “unreliable narrator: on sites such as Answers.com or Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unreliable_narrator). Might any of these apply to Hans van den Broek, the narrator of Netherland?

6. O’Neill hints early on that Hans may be an unreliable narrator. Hans gets a call from a New York Times reporter who wants him to confirm a fact in her notes — that he was Chuck’s business partner. [Page 5] Hans denies this. We’re only a few pages into the novel, but already it’s clear: He’s lying (or “in denial”) or someone else is. Did you see other signs that Hans may not be telling his story straight up?

7. Not long afterward, the man at the Chelsea Hotel who wears angel’s wings tells Hans that his cat has disappeared and may have been kidnapped. What do you think happened to the cat? Could Hans have killed it? Why is this scene in the novel? [Page 36]

8. Later Hans takes home a woman named Danielle whom he has met in a diner. He has sex with her and beats her with a belt — “a pale white hitting a pale black” — because, he tells us, he “understood her to need” this. [Page 115] Hans says he was “shocked” when she later failed to return his phone messages. This scene tells you a number of things about him. First, he is capable of violence. Second, his perceptions of reality are “off.” Third, he may have beaten her more severely than he lets on, and this may explain why she didn’t call back. How would you explain his behavior in the scene? Does it affect your overall view of his trustworthiness or lack of it?

9. What did you make of the fact that Hans had never told his wife, Rachel, about Chuck and helping him collect bets for his numbers game? [Page 238] Did you attribute this simply to problems in their marriage? Or do you think something else was going on?

10. Given all of this, could Hans have killed Chuck? If so, would the meaning of the novel be different than if Chuck had been killed by, say, the angry husband of his mistress or by someone who felt Chuck had cheated him in his numbers game?

Extras
11. Many well-known novels have unreliable narrators. These include Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. (Some critics disagree about the last en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turn_of_the_Screw.) If you’ve read any, how would you compare them to Netherland?

12. Why does Netherland open with Hans “boxing up” his possessions when he appears to have a high enough position that he could have had someone do this for him? [Page 3] Are the boxes a metaphor for how he boxes up or compartmentalize parts of his life?

Vital statistics:
Netherland. By Joseph O’Neill. Pantheon, 256 pp., $23. 95. Published: May 2008

Furthermore: Additional comments on Netherland appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 9 and June 10, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/ and www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/10/. A review appeared immediately after this guide on June 24, 2008.

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

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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June 19, 2008

Overrated Book-Award Winners – Now Being Debated on the Ruthless Book Club

Filed under: Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:41 am
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Is The Inheritance of Loss overrated? Is The Worst Hard Time underrated?

We’ve been talking about overrated and underrated book-award winners over on the Ruthless Book Club, a new online reading group with no required reading. Among the books that may qualify, based on vistiors’ comments: Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction (overrated) www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/archive and Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction (underrated) www.nationalbook.org/nba2006_nf_egan.html.

What award-winners do you think are overrated and underrated? You can let others know by leaving comment during the month of June at www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/01/. A new conversation will begin on July 1.

© 2008 All rights reserved. Janice Harayda.

June 5, 2008

Ha Jin, James Jones, Jane Hamilton … Now Being Discussed on the Ruthless Book Club

Filed under: Ruthless Book Club — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:37 pm
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It’s not to late to join the conversation at a new guilt-free online book club

A new online book club – one with no required reading – began on June 1 on One-Minute Book Reviews. It’s a place where you can tell others about books you like or don’t like, whether or not they’ve been reviewed on this site or any other.

You can take part by leaving a comment on the June 1 post, which you can do by clicking on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/01. Some of the authors who’ve been mentioned so far are Ha Jin, James Jones and Jane Hamilton.

My sense is that a lot of serious readers have strong views on books that they don’t share with others because the books don’t relate to blog posts they’ve read. So I’ve created a space where you can do that.

You can leave a comment on any day during the month and, even if no other visitor has read the book, you’ll probably get a response at least from me. A new discussion will begin on July 1.

Thanks for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews, home of the Delete Key Awards for the Year’s Worst Writing in Books and the Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing.

Jan

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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