One-Minute Book Reviews

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 5, 2009

’14 Cows for America’– A Picture Book About Kenyans Who Offered Milk for the Soul of Americans After Sept. 11

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:05 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

A bestseller about how an African village reacted to terrorism in America

14 Cows for America. By Carmen Agra Deedy in collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah. Peachtree, 38 pp., $17.95. Illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda
A few years ago, 60 Minutes did a story on a Ugandan girl whose family paid for her education by selling milk produced by a goat it had received from the American charity Heifer International. Fourteen Cows for America offers an unusual inversion of the premise that the rest of the world needs our help.

Carmen Agra Deedy tells the true story of group of Maasai in Kenya who decided to give some of their precious cows to America after hearing about the attacks of Sept. 11 from a villager who had studied at Stanford University. Her text works reasonably well until the last pages, which moralize and leave impression that the Kenyans sent their cows to the U.S. (when an afterword for adults makes clear that they remain in Africa, cared for by a tribal elder).

Thomas Gonzalez used pastels and colored pencils to give much of 14 Cows for America a reddish, post-apocalyptic haze – his cover would suit a tale of nuclear winter, or a children’s version of On the Beach. That mood fits the events of Sept. 11 but also suggests why this bestseller would work better in the classroom than in other settings. Fourteen Cows for America deals with the aftermath of tragedy that is still hard for many adults to fathom. This book could confuse children — especially younger ones — who read it without  a solid context for its story. It might fit well into a school or Sunday school unit, but other picture books would make better holiday gifts for children who will be reading or read to at home.

Ages: School Library Journal recommends 14 Cows for America for grades 2-5 (ages 7–10) in its review of the book. In a separate review on the SLJ blog Fuse #8, librarian Elizabeth Bird says it’s for ages 4–8 (preschool-grade 3).

Best Line: The title.

Worst line: “More than three thousand souls are lost.” This line refers to the death toll on Sept. 11, which was fewer than 3,000 people, including the hijackers, for all three sites.

Published: September 2009

Children’s book reviews appear on One-Minute Book Reviews on Saturdays. Jan Harayda sometimes comments on children’s books during the week on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 11, 2009

Did Sept. 11 Make Us Fat? How the Attacks Affected the Weight-Loss Business

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:22 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Joseph Hallinan explores a brightly painted carousel of reasons for human error in his fascinating Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average (Broadway, 283 pp., $24.95). He concludes that time – among other factors – affects our decisions, no matter how much of it we have. He writes:

“After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, time horizons for many people in the United States shortened. People, especially those in big cities like New York, increasingly adopted a ‘live for the day’ attitude. Activities with long-term benefits, like diet and exercise, were out; treating oneself well in the here and now was in. One result: the diet chain Jenny Craig reported ‘a huge wave of cancellations.’”

September 10, 2008

If I Could Read One Book About Sept. 11, I Would Read …

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:46 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

If I could read one account of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I would read 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (Holt, 384 pp., $15, paperback), by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, a book I’ve had on my “to read” list almost since its publication. Dwyer and Flynn describe the 102 minutes between the first attack on the World Trade Center and the collapse of the second tower, as seen by people inside the buildings, in this finalist for a National Book Award. As they do, they tell intimate stories that evoke deep emotions, Publishers Weekly said: “A law firm receptionist quietly eats yogurt at her desk seconds before impact. Injured survivors, sidestepping debris and bodies, struggle down a stairwell. A man trapped on the 88th floor leaves a phone message for his fiancée: ‘Kris, there’s been an explosion…. I want you to know my life has been so much better and richer because you were in it.’” You may also want to read the review of Love You, Mean It, a memoir by four women widowed by the attacks, posted on Sept.11, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/11/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 373 other followers

%d bloggers like this: