One-Minute Book Reviews

January 11, 2010

Jonathan Yardley’s ‘Second Reading’ Ends Its Great Run

Filed under: Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:34 pm
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Jonathan Yardley recently stopped writing his wonderful Washington Post column on notable or neglected books of the past, “Second Reading,” and I haven’t linked to it nearly enough. But you can read some of its spirited reviews online, and I encourage you to seek them out. You’ll find good examples of the vigor, intelligence and moral fearlessess of Yardley’s literary criticism in his blistering denunciation of The Catcher in the Rye, in his mixed appraisal of Sula, and in his embrace of the underappreciated The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor.

Sophie Kinsella’s Stand-Alone Novel, ‘Remember Me?’ — Milk of Amnesia, With Sugar

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:49 am
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What if you woke up after an accident and couldn’t remember all the important things that had happened since 2004, such as that Brad and Jennifer broke up?

Remember Me? A Novel. By Sophie Kinsella. Dell, 430 pp., $7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Remember Madeleine Wickham? Unless you’re English, you probably don’t. But Sophie Kinsella wrote under that name – her real one – before she adopted the pseudonym that appears on her bestselling “Shopaholic” series. I liked the Madeleine Wickham novels I read, including A Desirable Residence, and hoped her new book would mark a return to their form – that of the quiet English novel of manners updated for the age of house lust and two-career couples. It doesn’t: Remember Me? is the literary equivalent of a fried Mars bar. But fried Mars bars are more filling than the handful of Sour Gummi Bears you often get from romance-novels-gone-mainstream like this one. And so it is with Remember Me?: If you have a choice between this book and a Danielle Steel novel at the airport, it’s no contest.

Kinsella has two virtues that are as apparent here as in her first Madeleine Wickham novels. Educated at Oxford University, Kinsella respects the language of King James and Monty Python. It is inconceivable that she would write, as Stephenie Meyer does in The Host, “It’s a voluntary choice.” If that seems slim basis for an endorsement, you probably walk right past all those books with embossed metallic covers each time you enter a bookstore.

Unlike many bestselling authors, Kinsella also knows how to plot. In Remember Me? she hangs her story on a creaky device – a young woman develops amnesia after a car accident – and her tale gets more improbable from there. Lexi Smart wakes up soon after a thump on the head in 2007 and finds she has forgotten all that has happened to her since 2004. The things she has forgotten include that a) she ditched her loser boyfriend and married a multimillionaire, and b) she evolved from a harried underling into the British carpet-industry’s equivalent of Faye Dunaway in Network. She also thinks Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston are still together. As unlikely as it all of this is, it holds your attention — if it holds your attention — in part because the story has so many plot twists and moves so fast that you have little time to think about the absurdities. And Kinsella has control of her breezy and at times humorous tone – you never sense that she’s trying to be Doris Lessing or Hilary Mantel.

I can’t compare Remember Me? to the “Shopaholic” series, which I haven’t read. But I had less trouble finishing it than some novels that turned up on best-of-2009 lists, though this book had the least promising first line I’ve read in months. Remember Me? also had the welcome effect of drawing me back to the work of thoughtful Madeleine Wickham, who if we are lucky may still have a few books in her.

Best line: Lexi asks after learning that a sofa costs 10,000 pounds: “How can a sofa cost that much? What’s it stuffed with,  caviar?”

Worst line: The first: “Of all the crap, crap, crappy nights I’ve ever had in the whole of my crap life.”

Published: 2008 (hardcover), 2008 (trade paperback), 2009 (mass market paperback)

Furthermore: Kinsella also wrote, as Madeleine Wickham, The Tennis Party and other books. The recent movie Confessions of a Shopaholic was loosely based on the first two novels in the “Shopaholic” series.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter. She comments on books at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and satirizes the American literary culture, such as it is, at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 10, 2010

Beyond ‘Shopaholic’ — A Review of Sophie Kinsella’s Stand-Alone Novel ‘Remember Me?’ Coming Tomorrow

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At last, a novel that dares to ask: What if you got amnesia and couldn’t remember all of the important things that had happened in recent years, such as that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston had gotten divorced? Tomorrow: A review of Remember Me?, a stand-alone book by Sophie Kinsella, the author the bestselling “Shopaholic” series.

January 9, 2010

A Lion Shares in Matthew McElligott’s Fable ‘The Lion’s Share’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:15 am
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A lion and an ant act courteously when other animals make pigs of themselves

The Lion’s Share: A Tale of Halving Cake and Eating it. By Matthew McElligott. Walker, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

A children’s librarian suggested I read this book when I couldn’t find Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse, and I’m not sorry she did. The almost-too-cute homophone in the subtitle — halving your cake — is the sort of device that can bode ominously. And the wordplay doesn’t end there. The Lion’s Share is a literary triple-layer cake — a fable, an etiquette lesson, and an introduction to fractions — about a lion who shares the lion’s share of his triple-layer cake with an ant and other animals.

But Matthew McElligott integrates the wordplay well into in a story amusingly illustrated with digitally enhanced ink and watercolor. And he offers lively lessons in fractions, and practice in counting to 256, as all of his creatures except the lion and the ant make pigs of themselves at dinner. In a tale with an Aesopian flavor, an ant who politely waits her turn for cake seems at first to lose but wins in the end.

Best line/picture: McElliggott devotes one page to nothing but pictures of 256 peanut-butter cakes and makes it interesting.

Worst line/picture: Still not sure about that “halving cake” in the subtitle …

Ages: In schools this book is most likely to be used in grades 1–3. But it would suit any child who hasn’t outgrown picture books and is starting to learn multiplication and division.

Published: February 2009

Furthermore: McElligott teaches at Sage College in Albany, NY.  Besides a lion and an ant, The Lion’s Share involves a beetle, frog,  macaw, warthog, tortoise, gorilla, hippo, and an elephant.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter. She comments on books at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

January 4, 2010

Out for Blood – A Review of ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:51 am
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Elizabeth and Darcy inhabit a Regency England drenched in the blood after zombie attacks

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now With Ultraviolet Zombie Mayhem. By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. Quirk, 317 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This book is a literary prank, the equivalent of drawing moustaches on the apostles in The Last Supper. Seth Grahame-Smith follows the outline of the plot of Pride and Prejudice as he splices together many of its original passages and a new tale of zombie attacks that have left Regency England drenched in blood. Elizabeth Bennet is fearless zombie-killer who learned her deadly arts in China. Darcy loves her partly because he knows he has met his match among slayers of the undead. And Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas turns into a zombie whose physical deterioration causes her to say things like: “I fank you, Eliza, for dis piece of c-civiwity.”

Thousands of people have apparently have found all of this funny. But because this novel is more mashup than parody, there’s little room for wit, and any of Jane Austen’s best lines is better than the entire book. So what is the purpose of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Any number of answers might come to mind after you read that Elizabeth stabbed one of her victims in the stomach and “strangled him to death with his large bowel.” How about, for a start, “blood money”?

Best Line: Many by Austen. They include Elizabeth Bennet’s admission to her sister Jane that she didn’t always love Darcy: “But in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable.”

Worst line: No. 1: “‘What can be da meaning of dis?’ howled Charlotte, as soon as he was gone. ‘Mah dear Ewiza, he muss be love you, aw he never wuh have called in dis famiwiar way.’” No. 2: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Published: 2009

Furthermore: The popularity of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has led to a movie deal and a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Grahame-Smith also wrote The Big Book of Porn: A Penetrating Look at the World of Dirty Movies.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 24, 2009

Entertainment Weekly’s 5 Worst Books of 2009

Most magazines dropped their “worst of the year” lists long ago, if they had them at all. But Entertainment Weekly has kept the tradition alive. Its 5 Worst Books of 2009 are: How to Be Famous, by Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, reality-series stars whom EW faults for a lack of more than one kind of talent; Stories From Candyland, Candy Spelling’s “revenge-fueled” memoir; Christopher Andersen’s Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage, “packed with anonymous sources”; Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith, likely to give you “literary diabetes”; and Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, “one of the year’s worst written.”

December 21, 2009

Lorrie Moore’s ‘A Gate at the Stairs’ – What Color is Your 9/11 Novel?

Heard about the man who said after sex, “That was one for the scrapbook!”?

A GATE AT THE STAIRS: A NOVEL. By Lorrie Moore. Knopf, 321 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

At the recent 35th anniversary party for the National Book Critics Circle, I spoke with a critic I admire, who said he found A Gate at the Stairs “really annoying.” I avoid self-referential words like “annoying” in reviews, but his comment tells you something. For all of its appearances on “Best of 2009” lists, this novel is – at best – an acquired taste.

Lorrie Moore is a witty and intelligent writer who has a distinctive style and a gift for close observation of modern life – all of which, in theory, ought to endear her to every serious reader. But she resembles the more talented John Updike, whose early short stories were his best work: She’s a miniaturist whose fine-grained brush works against the large canvas of a dense novel of more than 300 pages. In A Gate at the Stairs, all of her virtues don’t enable her to create believable characters or a satisfying plot.

It’s not that she doesn’t try to adjust her scale. Far from it: Moore strains to develop a big theme: the devastating effects of the everyday carelessness that results from national, familial, or individual complacency. This is a novel is about the big risks Americans take while going to absurd lengths to avoid small ones – a trait embodied by a character who seriously neglects a child while baking library books “to get rid of the germs.”

Tassie Keltjin is a potato farmer’s daughter and 20-year-old university student in a town that styles itself as “the Athens of the Midwest” when, just after the attacks of 2001, she finds her first boyfriend and a job as a part-time nanny for a callow professional couple who are adopting a mixed-race child. Her sheltered upbringing doesn’t allow her to see quickly enough that neither the man she loves nor her employers are who they appear to be. And Tassie’s fate represents in microcosm that of the country: She’s caught off guard, just as the nation was on Sept. 11.

This is a promising set-up, but Moore aims to do more than describe an upheaval in her narrator’s life. She adds broad social commentary, particularly about adoption and race, that clashes with her natural instinct for humor, wordplay, and, at times, the cute. Until the last 50 or so pages, you don’t feel the interest in her plot or characters that you should: The big picture keeps getting lost amid the cleverness and intricate embroidery of small images.

This aspect of the novel shows up especially in Moore’s promiscuous use of color, which makes you wonder if she’s spent too much time poring over a Sherwin-Williams catalog. She tells you colors that are unilluminating – that a man’s sweater was green, for example, when it doesn’t much matter whether it was green or blue, or that a casket was “cognac-colored” when most caskets are “cognac”-colored. She tells you colors that are redundant or confusing – that someone’s gums were “the pale lox pink of a winter tomato.” Why not just “pale lox pink”? Doesn’t she trust you to know the color of lox unless she mentions the tomato? And she tells you colors that are all of those things, and distracting, too. A dead soldier laid-out in church wears combat fatigues that were “part pine, part portabella, part parsley.” Moore may intend that sentence satirically: A character in the novel says that levity eases the pain of difficult subjects. But so many of the characters use humor as a shield that in this way and others, they often sound more like stand-ins for Moore instead of themselves. Tassie comes from a town so small she has never seen a man wear a tie with jeans, as a lecturer at her university does. Yet she repeatedly uses tropes such as “I feared” instead of “I was afraid” and knows that in England “every desert was called a pudding even if it was a cake,” which you don’t believe she got from a British-lit course.

A Gate at the Stairs has many amusing lines, including a comment made by Tassie’s employer, Sarah Brink, about her husband, Edward Thornwood: “He can’t do relationships. Can’t do acquaintanceships. He can’t do people at all. In fact, really he should just staff off mass transit!” And some of its bright lines offer insights into how Americans view adoption and other subjects. But a great novel is more than the sum of its parts. And A Gate at the Stairs is less memorable for its overall impact than for one-liners such as a comment Tassie’s boyfriend makes after sex, “That was one for the scrapbook!”

Best line: “To live in New York you have to have won the lottery and your parents have to have won the lottery and everyone has to have invested wisely.” — Sarah Brink

Worst line: No. 1: “We found a metal-edged diner, went in, and sat at the counter side-by-side, letting our coats fall off our shoulders and dangle from the stools, anchored by our sitting butts.” No. 2: Tassie says of writing songs with her roommate, Murph: “Murph liked our collaborations better than such lone efforts by me as ‘Dog-Doo Done Up as Chocolates for My Brother,’ and we seemed best on the rocking ones like, like ‘Summer Evening Lunch Meat,’ a song we had written combining the most beautiful phrase in English with the ugliest, and therefore summing up our thoughts on love.” No. 3: Then there’s that description of the colors of a dead soldier’s combat fatigues quoted above: “part pine, part portabella, part parsley.”

Editor: Victoria Wilson

Published: September 2009

Furthermore: Moore is Delmore Schwartz Professor of the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 19, 2009

‘The Story of the Other Wise Man’ — Henry Van Dyke’s Christmas Classic

A parable about the meaning of faith that first appeared in 1896

The Story of the Other Wise Man. By Henry Van Dyke. Enthea, 128 pp., $10.99, paperback. Available in other editions, including abridged picture-book versions for children.

By Janice Harayda

What is the meaning of faith? Does it involve saying prayers? Attending religious services? Making pilgrimages to shrines or holy places?

Henry Van Dyke (1852–1933) never raises these questions directly in The Story of the Other Wise Man. But they lie at the heart of this classic parable about the meaning of faith in a secular age.

Van Dyke invents a fourth wise man, Artaban, who trades his belongings for gifts for “the promised one” foretold by prophets: a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl. Artaban plans to give the jewels to the infant after meeting up with his companions Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, who have gold, frankincense and myrrh. But he misses the connection after he stops to nurse a dying man, and later on, he parts with his jewels. He uses the ruby to ransom a child whom King Herod had ordered slain and the pearl to free a girl about to be sold into slavery.

Artaban believes he has missed all opportunities to meet the promised one until, near the end of his 33 years, he reaches Jerusalem just before the Crucifixion. There he realizes that his search has ended when he hears a faint voice saying: “Verily I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.”

On his journey Artaban wrestles with what The Story of the Other Wise Man calls “the conflict between the expectation of faith and the impulse of love.” But Van Dyke resisted appeals to explain what his book “meant.”

“How can I tell?” he asks in his foreword. “What does life mean? If the meaning could be put into a sentence there would be no need of telling a story.”

Furthermore: Van Dyke was the minister at Manhattan’s Brick Presbyterian Church, where he first told Artaban’s story. He later became a professor English at Princeton University and Ambassador to the Netherlands. Van Dyke may be best known today as the author of the text for the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” set to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony. Click here to read Van Dyke’s words and listen to the music. You will also see a picture of Van Dyke if you click.

An online version of The Other Wise Man appears on Classic Reader.

The post first appeared on Dec. 23, 2007.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 7, 2009

Sex and the City of Light — Elaine Dundy’s ‘The Dud Avocado’

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:15 am
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A young, single and free-spirited American cuts loose Paris in the 1950s

The Dud Avocado. By Elaine Dundy. Introduction by Terry Teachout. New York Review Books Classics, 260 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1958 Elaine Dundy won rapturous praise for The Dud Avocado, a sparkling novel about the cultural and romantic adventures of a young American in France. More than a half century later, her book has become a modern classic, driven by the unique voice of an endearingly impulsive heroine.

Sally Jay Gorce has traveled to Paris search of gaiety, laughter and “shoes in the air” – apparently, something not unlike a Fred Astaire movie. Bankrolled by an allowance from a rich uncle, she finds all of those as she takes small acting roles and moves from cafés and nightclubs in Montparnasse to a villa near Biarritz. She also has a moral awakening that occurs not when she loses her virginity to an Italian diplomat – which is part of her backstory — but when she discovers that Old World glamour can mask social ruthlessness.

Groucho Marx wrote to Dundy to praise The Dud Avocado: “It made me laugh, scream, and guffaw (which, incidentally, is a great name for a law firm).” And the book is certainly one of the most entertaining novels of the 20th century about an innocent abroad. Sally may be as green as an avocado, but she knows what’s wrong with a hotel for Anglophiles that’s “full of dusty red plush” furniture: “It’s probably the only perfect replica of a Victorian mausoleum still standing in Paris.” And she has a sensibility that is surprisingly modern. She declines to live with a boyfriend not because it’s immoral – they’re sleeping together — but because it would curb her freedom. She is also charmingly open about her faults, such as her quick temper and flightiness: “I always expect people to behave much better than I do. When they actually behave worse, I am frankly incredulous.”

Like its heroine, The Dud Avocado has small flaws: a loosely stitched plot, an ending that isn’t fully earned. These detract little from a book that invests Paris in 1950s with the allure others have given to the Paris in the 1920s. No matter how many scrapes Sally gets into, you never doubt her intelligence or enthusiasm for life. She writes of friends: “A rowdy bunch on the whole, they were most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.” The same applies many recent books: they’re “so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.” The allure of The Dud Avocado – like that of its heroine – is that it is interchangeable with nothing.

Best line: “I mean, the question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to  that is, don’t we all anyway; might as well get paid for it.”

Worst line: “I saw us for what we really were: beggars and toadies and false pretenders.” Pretenders are always false.

Reading group guide: Posted on the publisher’s site.

Published: 1958 (first edition). June 2007 (NYRB reissue). In addition to The Dud AvocadoDundy wrote the novels The Old Man and Me and The Injured Party and a memoir.

Furthermore: More about Dundy appears in her New York Times obituary. The Dud Avocado has an excellent introduction by Terry Teachout, the author and drama critic for the Wall Street Journal.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda)  on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 27, 2009

A Lift-the-Flap Book About Transportation — William Low’s ‘Machines That Work’

An artist born in a taxi shows a train, fire truck and other vehicles in action

Machines Go To Work. By William Low. Holt, 42 pp., $14.95. Ages 5 and under.

By Janice Harayda

William Low was born in the back seat of a taxi in the Bronx, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that he has written an excellent book about transportation. Machines Go to Work unfolds as a series of small dramas about familiar conveyances, all described in a clear and at times onomatopoetic text – a backhoe, fire truck, cement mixer, tow truck, tugboat, container ship, freight train, and news helicopter.

In each case Low introduces a machine, then asks a question or makes a statement that encourages you to lift a flap and see it in action. He writes on one spread: “When the drawbridge opens, the container ship may pass. Will it fit through the narrow gap?” You lift a flap and see the ship passing under the raised bridge with the help of red tugboat. On another spread Low shows a helicopter rushing toward a news event: “Is there an accident ahead?” No, just a row of ducklings crossing a street.

Cynics may see Low’s ducklings as a form of brazen pandering to American Library Association awards judges — who gave their 1942 Caldecott Medal to Make Way for Ducklings — while others may view them as a lovely homage to Robert McCloskey’s classic. But Machines Go to Work is so good, it hardly matters. Low suggests the power of his machines through rich, saturated colors and what appear to be thick oil-paint brushstrokes but are, in fact, digital art created with Photoshop and Painter software.

Low has also found a way around the problem with most lift-the-flap books: Children can too easily rip off the flaps. All of his “flaps” are sturdy full-page gatefolds, which should make the pages last for the life of the book. And at the back, Low explains what each machine does in a helpful thumbnail sketch. Low writes of the fire truck: “This truck is so long that it needs two steering wheels: one in the front and one in the back!” His deft blend of drama and facts would make this a fine gift for a 2-to-4-year-old who loves anything with wheels.

Best line/picture: The freight train gatefold opens out to four pages (instead of the three the other machines get) to show “its 22 cars and a caboose in the back.”

Worst line/picture: Low calls cherry trees “cherry blossom trees,” which may be how children see them but also leave a misimpression about their name.

Published: May 2009

Furthermore: Low explains how he creates his digital images in a three-part video on the Holt site.

About the author: Low‘s picture books include Old Penn Station, a New York Times Best Illustrated Book.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. Children’s book reviews appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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