One-Minute Book Reviews

May 2, 2010

Meghan Daum Looks Back on Her Real-Estate Binges and Purges in ‘Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House’

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:40 pm
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A novelist recalls her self-diagnosed “addiction” to changes of address

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. By Meghan Daum. Knopf, 256 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Meghan Daum looks back on years of binging and purging on housing in this memoir of a condition that sounds like the real-estate equivalent of bulimia. Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House follows the standard format of addiction-and-recovery narratives:

Describe the problem. Daum switched dorms every semester after her first year of college and lived in 18 temporary residences in 15 years before buying a small house in Los Angeles. When you’re as restless as she is, she says, “the real estate section of the newspaper is a form of pornography.”

Acknowledge your shame. “I’m not proud of any of this,” Daum says, after describing how she reneged on an impulsive offer to buy a Nebraska farm. About kicking out a New York roommate, she writes, “That story is shameful.”

Link your behavior to childhood experiences. Daum says that if her family had “anything close to a regular weekend activity” when she was growing up in New Jersey, it was attending open houses, a pursuit rooted in her mother’s frustrated wish to live in the kind of place “a person who read The New Yorker” would inhabit.

Put your story in a social context, so people will see its wider relevance. “At the risk of making a perverse and offensive comparison, I don’t think I’d observed so much absorption with one topic since the attacks of September 11, 2001,” Daum writes of the interest in real-estate in California in 2004.

Add a happy ending. In this case, it wears pants.

At times Daum shows the vanity-masquerading-as-humility often found in recovery narratives. She can be a snob. In Venice, California, she sublet a cottage full of “awful furniture” from a single woman in her 20s and congratulates herself on her superior taste. Her own furnishings might reside in storage units: “But at least I did not own a media cabinet the size of a truck.”

This snobbism appears to stem not from strong political or other principles such as environmentalism or anti-consumerism — on the evidence of this book, she’s a raging consumerist — but from insecurity, the sense that her self-worth depended on presenting a certain appearance, that she never fully explains. It is certainly true that in our culture, people often judge by appearances. But Daum never comes to grips with the forces behind that impulse that may have motivated her chronic dissatisfaction with here she lived. If her mother yearned for a certain kind of home, the same cultural traits may explain both her behavior and her mother’s. In some ways Daniel McGinn does a much better job of explaining the compulsion to seek new property in his House Lust.

Daum has called Joan Didion a literary influence, and her distaste for the media cabinet in her Venice sublet echoes faintly an essay in which Didion wrote of the Reagan-built governor’s mansion in Sacramento: “it is the kind of house that has a wet bar in the living room.” The difference is that Didion’s comment served a larger theme and carried far more symbolic weight: Didion was eviscerating the shallow values of rich and influential people whose decisions affect many others. Daum faults the tastes of an anonymous woman who was caring for a mother with cancer during her sublet. She suggests that “self-loathing” explains why single women buy inexpensive furniture such as wicker chairs and collapsible bookcases when these purchases often amount instead to a modern example of Jane Austen’s “single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor.” And the media cabinet may have may have reflected the opposite of  “self-loathing”: It may have sprung from a healthy recognition by the owner that she didn’t have to wait for a man to buy her an item she would enjoy.

Daum writes with flair and sometimes wit, and in her title and elsewhere, she describes an undeniable reality: Many people do fantasize that their lives “would be perfect” if they had a certain kind of house, and this may cause them to live in suspended animation. But in a book that is longer on style than substance, she doesn’t begin to come to grips with the moral, spiritual or other emptiness the pattern can betoken. Nor does her memoir reflect the coherent worldview of the best work of stylists like Didion and Nora Ephron, a counterpart to Didion’s ironic detachment and sense of dread or Ephron’s brash feminism. At times, Daum seems to lack a sense of who she is apart from her sleek, nickel-plated ceiling fans. If her book were a house, it would be a pretty vacation cottage, built on stilts.

Best lines: No 1: The first: “Yesterday, a piece of my house came off in my hands.” No. 2: “What I didn’t know back then … was that it wasn’t the prewar apartment I craved but, rather, an ineffable state of being I can only describe as domestic integrity.” No. 3: “I have never been able to say I’m from New Jersey without feeling as if I were wearing someone else’s name tag at a party.”

Worst lines:No. 1: “I’d be lying if I said that these weren’t arguably the most important professional years of my life.” No. 2: “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that …” No. 3: “And if you’ll pardon the expression … ” Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House has a lot of flab like this.

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

Furthermore: Daum wrote the novel The Quality of Life Report and an essay collection, My Misspent Youth. She is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She satirizes American literary culture on her FakeBookNews page on Twitter (@FakeBookNews).

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 15, 2010

Candy Spelling Sets the Record Straight in ‘Stories From Candyland’ – She Doesn’t Have a Gift-Wrapping Room: She Has Three of Them

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:20 am
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Inside the mansion of a Hollywood widow and pack rat

Stories From Candyland. By Candy Spelling. St. Martin’s, 247 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

“Things might have been a lot different if my parents had encouraged me to write rather than fold napkins,” Candy Spelling says in this memoir of her 38-year marriage to Aaron Spelling, producer of Dynasty and Beverly Hills 90210. You can say that again. If her parents had valued writing, we might not have had a book padded with prosaic recipes, friends’ mawkish praise  for  Spelling’s “beauty and kindness,” and an alphabetized, three-page list of 69 things she collects, including “Dresden butter pats, Erotic figurines, Etiquette books, Fine arts books on master jewelry designers, First-edition books (including Mark Twain), Flower picture books, Gold presentation boxes” and Herend hand-painted characters and figurines.”

'Celebrities get way too much attention and credit,' Hollywood widow Candy Spelling says.

Stories From Candyland leaks such Styrofoam peanuts until it brings to mind the critic A.O. Scott’s description of Leap Year as “a movie only in a strictly technical sense.” Spelling casts herself as a victim of misrepresentations spread by her actress daughter, Tori, and professes not to understand them: “I’m not sure what Tori means when she says our relationship is complicated. I wish she would call me …” But the telephone works both ways. And Spelling doesn’t make up for all her omissions and special pleading with glimpses of her famous Los Angeles mansion. Perhaps the biggest revelation in this book is that contrary to reports that the Manor has a dedicated gift-wrapping room, it actually has three of them.

Best line: “I live in a place where the tabloid newspapers and TV shows run ads aimed a medical office receptionists, waiters, grocery baggers, and parking valets, offering them money for ‘confidential celebrity information’ they might have overheard.”

Worst line: No. 1: “And then, suddenly, there he was. Rock Hudson! He was tall, dark, and handsome, just like the magazines said he was.” No. 2: “Celebrities get way too much attention and credit, but they certainly sell movies, music, products, and entertainment.” No. 3: “There’s a big celebrity culture that you’d have to be here in L.A. to truly understand.” No. 4: “Being a celebrity, knowing celebrities, working with celebrities, writing about celebrities, feeding celebrities, repairing celebrity cars, and photographing celebrities – these are just some of the elements of our local economy. There is no end to the public’s fascinating with all things (and people) celebrity.”

Published: March 2009 (hardcover). Paperback due out in March 2010.

Furthermore: News reports that have appeared since the publication of this book suggest that Candy and Tori spelling have mended their fences.

Janice Harayda satirizes American literary culture, such as it is, on her FakeBookNews page on Twitter www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 23, 2009

Eric Hodgins’s Classic Comic Novel ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’ — You Think Your Problems With Contractors Are Bad?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:05 am
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A  classic comic novel about moving from the city to the country sends up the modern lust for property

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading yesterday’s bestsellers can be a little like trying on that pair of white vinyl go-go boots in the attic: You don’t know whether to laugh or cringe at our former tastes. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation and comic novels age faster than serious ones because so much humor depends on topical references. This classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property, and its enduring appeal lies partly in the all-too-believable naiveté of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. They fall in love with the barns, apple orchard and majestic views: “But the furnishings were in general of the era of Benjamin Harrison, with an overlay of William McKinley, and here and there a final, crowning touch of Calvin Coolidge.” And when house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, Jim and Muriel resolve to tear it down and build another on the site.

This decision sets up a superbly constructed plot in which the new house becomes the couple’s antagonist. The Blandings square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – in short, all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. But the house itself is their real opponent. Amid the soaring bills and construction delays, Mr. Blandings imagines how delightful it would be “to return to the city and move a final, ten blocks father north.” Will he throw in the drill bit and go back to the Upper East Die? Or sell the place and buy one against which he isn’t so overmatched?

Eric Hodgins controls the suspense deftly. And the late New Yorker cartoonist William Steig adds three dozen or so brilliant drawings, many of them a full page, that throw the comedy into higher relief and show how much we have lost now that the fully illustrated adult novel has almost disappeared. Along with Hodgins’s masterly text, Steig’s fanciful pictures remind us that if a man’s home is his castle, sometimes he’s the court jester instead of the king.

Best line: “It surged over Mr. Blandings that he very much wished he were back in the city … he wanted the noise of the city in his ears; the noise with which all city dwellers were in such perfect, unconscious harmony that the blast of a gas main down the block might strike the eardrums but penetrate not the brain.”

Worst line: A few expressions have become dated. When Mr. Blandings sees the contractors’ bills, he cries: “Jesus H. Mahogany Christ!”

Recommended if … you like comedy that stays close to life. Hodgins’s satire is much more realistic than that of the over-the-top novels of Christopher Buckley (whose Boomsday involves plan to save Social Security and other benefits by giving baby boomers a financial incentive to commit suicide, known as “Voluntary Transitioning”). Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is also a nearly perfect book club book partly because: 1) It’s a classic that few people have read; 2) It’s relatively short and widely available in paperback and at libraries; 3) It deals with a situation almost anybody can appreciate; 4) It may show a new side of William Steig to members familiar only with his children’s books, such as Dr. De Soto and Shrek!; and 5) All those slackers who never finish the book can watch one of the movie versions.

Reading group guide: This site has also posted a review of the sequel to this novel, Blandings’ Way, and a reading group guide to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, which you can find by using the search box.

Published: 1946 (first edition), 2004 (Simon & Schuster paperback).

Furthermore: Hodgins’s novel has inspired two movies I haven’t seen – Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Low, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks.

This is a repost of a review that first appeared in 2007. I am on a brief semi-vacation.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 8, 2009

Daniel McGinn’s ‘House Lust’ – Why Americans Crave Remote-Controlled Toilets, Supersized Homes and Gossip About How Much Stars Paid for Their Digs

A Newsweek correspondent wonders so many people are dissatisfied with their homes

House Lust: America’s Obsession With Our Homes. By Daniel McGinn. Doubleday, 272 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

In California a licensed marriage and family therapist specializes in treating “renovation anxiety and distress,” the trauma of giving a house a face-lift. On the evidence of the lively House Lust, it will take more than counseling – or the Great Recession – to cure Americans of their tendency to covet better homes.

Why do so many people lust after mud rooms, brushed-nickel toilet-paper holders, or countertops made from Giallo Ornamental Granite, imported from Brazil? The forebears of today’s house-hunters may have wanted simply to keep up with the Joneses and their carport or Danish modern sofa.

But Newsweek correspondent Daniel McGinn argues that the psychology of homeownership has become more complex. Drawing on the theories of Cornell economist Robert Frank and others, he suggests that residential upgrades often involve what he calls the “I’ve earned it” hypothesis: Some people have less desire to impress their neighbors than to impress themselves (or, as McGinn writes diplomatically, to “comfort” or “treat” themselves).  Americans are more likely than their grandparents to spend fortunes on spaces few others may ever see:

“Today a top-of-the-line master bath might include a multiple-head steam shower, a $5,000 remote-controlled toilet and a jetted [tub] with nearly as much horsepower as a riding lawnmower,” McGinn writes in House Lust. “Few people in our lives will ever catch a glimpse of these improvements, but we still covet them. Why? Because we’ve earned it.”

An entire book about theories like these might have been as dry as plaster dust. But McGinn enlivens his arguments with colorful and at times witty reporting on an array of related fads: timesharing, “staycations,” television shows like Flip This House, “Do-It-Herself” workshops for women at Home Depot, and the Web site Zilllow that lets you look up the value of homes owned by friends and relatives. McGinn also visits Braden Keil, who writes the “Gimme Shelter” gossip column for the New York Post, and learns that Keil believes that three things make for great real-estate item: a top-drawer celebrity, a record-breaking price paid for a property, or a home with an interesting history, such an apartment where a spectacular murder occurred. “In this worldview,” McGinn writers, “the perfect ‘Gimme Shelter’ item might carry the headline: ‘Britney Spears Drops $200 Mill on Kennedy Compound.”

Best line: No. 1: “In 1950, the average American home measured just 983 square feet. … But over time, the average has crept steadily upward – and by 2005, according to Census data, the average newly-built U.S. home measured 2,434 square feet. … When it comes to American homes, the only thing that’s decreased in recent years is the size of the plot of land on which they’re built and the size of the families who live inside.” No. 2 (quoted in the post that preceded this one): Some new homes are so big that “visitors might require MapQuest to navigate their way from room to room.”

Worst line: “When historians look back on the first years of 21st century American life, the housing boom will be a secondary story, a distant background note to 9/11 and the War on Terror.” Or so it appeared in the pre-crash summer of 2007, when McGinn finished writing House Lust.

Recommendation? The provocative questions and engaging writing style of House Lust might appeal to many book clubs, but the reading group guide on the author’s site is one of the worst I’ve seen. Only three out of its 21 questions mention House Lust. And most are pointless: They in no way enrich your understanding of the book and might have occurred to you whether or not you’d read it. Sample: “If you had a chance to pitch a new show idea to HGTV, what would it be?” How does this help you understand the book? What’s odd is that irrelevant questions like these are usually intended to distract you from the poor quality of a book, but House Lust is good,  so they’re self-defeating.

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

Published: January 2008

About the author: McGinn is a national correspondent for Newsweek who lives near Boston.

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

When Is a House Is Too Big? Quote of the Day – ‘House Lust’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:56 am
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Some new homes are so big that “visitors might require MapQuest to navigate their way from room to room,” Daniel McGinn writes in House Lust: America’s Obsession With Our Homes (Doubleday/Currency, 2008), his pre-crash exploration of the fixation on shelter among the well-heeled and those who would like to be.

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