One-Minute Book Reviews

July 27, 2009

‘Nobody Calls Me Pecker Head and Lives’ — A New Jersey Critic Looks at ‘Finger Lickin’ Fifteen,’ Janet Evanovich’s Latest Novel About a Trenton-Based Bounty Hunter

Killers behead high-profile chef with a meat cleaver, and, yes, it’s supposed to be funny

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. By Janet Evanovich. St. Martin’s, 308 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Janet Evanovich is one of the writers whose books I most want to like. She and I went to rival New Jersey high schools at different times – you haven’t lived if you were born too late for a South River–New Brunswick Thanksgiving Day game at the old Rutgers Stadium! – and I share a few traits with her Trenton-based bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, including blue eyes, a Hungarian grandmother, and bad car karma. My first novel came from her publisher, a firm that in a perilous market has kept its integrity to a degree widely admired in the industry. And I love comic novels and look for opportunities to praise them on this site.

But Evanovich seems to have lost her focus since the publication of One for the Money, her first novel about Plum, in 1994. From the start, she has combined genres — romance, mystery, adventure, and comedy — in the series. In Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, the comedy devolves into farce, a form that relies on over-the-top elements such as improbable plotting and slapstick. Her humor is so broad, it undermines her attempt to tell a plausible story. And it clashes with the realism of other aspects the novel, such as Plum’s flirtations with the plainclothes cop Joe Morelli and with Carlos “Ranger” Manoso, who heads the Rangeman security firm for which she moonlights. At times the comedy is so silly or tasteless, Evanovich seems to be parodying herself.

The opening pages of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen describe how a pair of killers used a meat cleaver to behead a high-profile chef absurdly named Stanley Chipotle on a Trenton street: “There was a big gusher of blog when they whacked the head off,” a witness says. “It was like Old Faithful going off, only it was blood. And then the head rolled down the sidewalk … ”

Am I the only person who read this and thought of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded in Pakistan in 2002 after his kidnappers released a terrifying video of his captivity? And the only reader who isn’t ready to laugh — as this novel asks us to do — at the story of an effort to find the people who chopped off a man’s head with a cleaver?

A second plot – it gets so much space, you can’t call it a “subplot” — involves a series of break-ins at properties protected by the Rangeman security staff, and you keep expecting it to relate in the end to the murder of Stanley Chipotle. It doesn’t. The two plots seem to exist mainly to give Plum a chance to flirt throughout the story with Morelli and Ranger, and both storylines have unsatisfying resolutions. The prime mover of one plot escapes justice completely, and only his underlings are apprehended. The people behind the other aren’t mentioned by name for the first 300 pages, so if you read mysteries partly for the pleasure of sorting through clues and trying to guess the identity of the perpetrator, you’re out of luck.

Some people say that you don’t read Evanovich for her plots but for her humor, and that’s fair enough. But as her comedy has become more farcical, her humor has become cruder and more sophomoric. Finger Lickin’ Fifteen abounds with jokes about farts and other body functions or parts, including those described on its pages as “number two,” “cooter,” “pecker,” “wanger,” or “winkie.” “Nobody calls me pecker head and lives,” says a character unwisely named Peter Pecker. Is Evanovich courting 10-year-olds moving up from Harry Potter books?

Perhaps oddest of all given that Evanovich grew up in New Jersey, Finger Lickin’ Fifteen gives you no sense of what makes Trenton unique or a worthy setting for a mystery. The action might as well take place in Cleveland. As I write this review, the United States Attorney for New Jersey has just announced the arrest of dozens of people, including rabbis, mayors and and current or former state legislators. One defendant is said to have passed cash illegally in a box of Apple Jacks cereal stuffed with $97,000. Nobody is asking Evanovich to return to New Jersey from her current homes Florida and New Hampshire. But she has clearly lost touch with some of the wellsprings of material. Who needs to send a severed head rolling down a Trenton street when you can find so much drama in a box of Apple Jacks?

Best line: “… gravy so thick you could walk across a vat of it.”

Worst line: No. 1: “ ‘Nobody calls me pecker head and lives,’ Pecker said.” No. 2: “ ‘Yep,’ Grandma said. ‘He’s got a big one. All them Turleys is hung like horses. … I tell you, for a little guy, he had a real good-sized wanger.’” No. 3: “It was a record-breaking fart. On my best day, I couldn’t come near to farting like that.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Finger Lickin’ Fifteen appears in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: June 2009

Listen to the beginning of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen.

Janice Harayda is a former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and wrote the comic novel The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999).

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

July 21, 2009

The Dangers of Botox, Restylane, Liposuction and More — Alex Kuczynski’s ‘Beauty Junkies’ Looks at the Risk of Trying to One-Up Mother Nature

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 am
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This review was first posted in January 2008. I am on a short semi-vacation.

Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession With Cosmetic Surgery. By Alex Kuczynski. Doubleday, 290 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

A radio station in Detroit had a contest called “New Year, New Rear” that gave the winner $15,000 worth of liposuction. A film executive’s wife in Bel Air had her genitals surgically altered through labiaplasty. An Irish woman died in Manhattan after a face-lift by doctor who sought publicity by giving interviews to Elle and Cosmopolitan.

How did we get to a point that all of this seems almost normal? What are the social, emotional, and medical costs of the cosmetic surgery boom? Alex Kuczynski gives fearless and persuasive answers in Beauty Junkies, a skillful blend of reporting, social commentary, and advice to people who are thinking of going under the knife.

You can argue with Kuczynski’s thesis that “looks are the new feminism, an activism of aesthetics.” You can argue with some of her conclusions, which reflect life in New York and Los Angeles better than in the Heartland (though the coasts are bellwethers for the rest of the country). And you can argue with advice such as: “Distrust doctors who are too tan.” If you’re having surgery, wouldn’t you prefer a rested doctor to one with a hospital pallor induced partly by too little sleep?

But Beauty Junkies is so well-written and — researched that it may stand for years as the definite book of reporting on its subject. Nearly every page has an “Oh, my God” moment. A study found that “overweight job applicants are judged more harshly than ex-felons or applicants with a history of mental illness”? Oh, my God. An urgent care center in Malibu gives Botox shots because wrinkles are now considered an “emergency”? Oh, my God. Kuczynski’s upper lip swelled up to “the size of a large yam” after a Restylane shot and took five days to return to normal? Oh, my God.

A writer for the New York Times, Kuczynski shows a particularly admirable willingness to expose the conflicts of interest that abound in the portrayal of cosmetic surgery in “women’s magazines, men’s health magazines, and some city magazines,” the first line of information for many Americans about new procedures. The unpleasant truths include that writers and editors often get free surgery in exchange for writing “something wonderful about it.” One physician who has appeared in these magazines is “one of the most-sued doctors in the country, with a jaw-dropping record of 33 settled malpractice suits since 1995.”

The Devil Wears Prada startled many people with its fictionalized portrayal of all the editorial freeloading at women’s magazines, the fashion-and-beauty industry equivalent of a permanent Iran-Contra affair with regular arms-for-hostage negotiations. Beauty Junkies is much scarcier, because it’s true.

Best line: “In a city like New York, people like to talk about their addictive personalities, as if having an addictive personality were a mark of achievement.”

Worst line:The New York Times does not allow reporters to receive anything from any news source for free – no free face-lifts, no free shoes, not even a bottle of champagne at Christmas that costs more than $25.” So the editors of the New York Times Book Review pay for the hundreds of books they get every week? Or at least reimburse publishers for any that cost more than $25?

Recommended if ... you’ve ever looked in the mirror and wondered if there could be any harm in smoothing out a few of those crow’s feet with a little Botox.

Editor: Stacy Creamer

Published: October 2006 (first edition), January 2008 (Broadway Books paperback edition).

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

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 13, 2009

Why French Women Are Diffferent on Bastille Day or Any Other

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:38 pm
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What do Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert have that you don’t? It’s not just that they’re thinner

Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. By Debra Ollivier. St. Martin’s / Griffin, 242 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

It’s been years since I served pot au feu and played Edith Piaf at Carnegie Hall at a dinner party, hoping to give the evening an alluring Gallic accent. But if I no longer believe that the French “know how to live” better than my Hungarian ancestors who also liked lard-bucket meals and summers in the country, I do think they are smarter than we are about a couple of things.

One of these is olives. When you go to a French home for dinner, the hosts do not try to fatten you up before the meal by serving you baby pigs-in-blankets or tortilla chips in bowls with the diameter of hubcaps. They typically serve olives. Just olives. I realized this years ago on a trip to Provence – Olive Central – and when I got back, I started serving olives, too. Just olives. And in a small way, it changed my life. Because I am functional noncook, the olives freed me permanently from an activity I don’t like and allowed me to focus one I do enjoy, which is conversation.

So I paid attention when a friend who has lived in France – and is also an Olive Person – said Entre Nous was full of similar ideas (although it allows that you can serve “small toasts with goat cheese, tomato and herbs” as a starter, too). She was right about this lively self-help guide by a Californian who married a Frenchman and lived in France for a decade. You have the essence of Entre Nous if you can extrapolate from olives to topics such as clothes, make-up, home furnishings, family life, and work. Example: You can wear white blouses, but never a white dress unless you’re a bride.

The most interesting – and, in my experience, accurate — chapter deals with the more complex traits that Debra Ollivier believes a typical French woman has, “some basic truths about how she sees herself and carries herself in the world.” One of these characteristics is self-possession (not the dreary “self-esteem”), a sureness about who she is that paradoxically allows her to show her vulnerability without with unraveling. A second trait – badly underestimated by American women – is discretion. A French woman, Ollivier says, does not wear her emotions “on her shirtsleeves.” She thinks before she speaks. And she may hold back for years things that an American might reveal within the first 15 minutes of meeting you, including details about her family. A Frenchman told Ollivier: “I’ve dated French women for months before I ever really knew who they were. After the first or second date, the American woman wants everything spelled out: ‘Are we dating? Are you my boyfriend or just a friend? Now that we’ve made love, are we a couple?’”

His comment points to a topic that gets relatively little attention in Entre Nous: sex. Ollivier deals broadly “sensuality.” But whether it’s because she was married while gathering material for this book or because of that natural French discretion, she says almost nothing about what an American might call The Act. A pity. Wouldn’t you love to know what a French woman would say to the British editors of Tatler, who instructed their readers recently to be sure to ask for a Taurus Brazilian bikini wax ,“a discreet triangle, not a landing strip”?

Best line: A French woman asked Ollivier: “What is a baby shower? Do you actually put the baby in the shower or do you use the tub?”

Worst line: “The lack of a workaholic culture, with all of its inherent dis-ease, takes the peculiarly Ango-Saxon strain out of the workplace, and frees the French girl to have a more sanely irreverent relationship to her work life. The results are apparent in a myriad of small but pervasive details …” No, they’re apparent in “myriad small but pervasive details.”

Recommended if … you’ve never understood the old joke that “the perfect country would be France without the French,” because you don’t see why anybody want a France without all those delightful French people.

Editor: Elizabeth Beier

Published: May 2004 with an excerpt posted on the St. Martin’s site.

Furthermore: Ollivier also wrote Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood and its sequel, Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race and Themselves.

Conflict alert: St. Martin’s/Griffin published the paperback edition of my first novel.

This is a Bastille Day re-post of a review that first appeared on Nov. 8, 2006.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comedy of manners The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999).

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 1, 2009

‘We Women Were Not Made for Governing …’ — ‘We Two,’ a Biography of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by Gillian Gill

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A royal couple who combined an affair of the heart with affairs of state

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals.  By Gillian Gill. Ballantine, 460 pp., $35.

By Janice Harayda

We Two is something you don’t see every summer: a good beach biography. It’s not so dense and scholarly that you’d have to squint at agate-type footnotes through your Ray-Bans to make sense of it. But neither is it so lightweight that you might be embarrassed to carry it onto a beach even here in New Jersey, the proud home of Boardwalk attractions such as the Shoot the Geek concession stand that lets you fire paintballs at a luckless teenager dressed like a terrorist.

This book is rather the enjoyable story of two fascinating people: Queen Victoria (1819–1901) and Prince Albert, her cousin and husband,  and how they helped to shape the modern world during a marriage that ended when Prince Albert died of typhoid at the age of 42. We Two is is a love story but not just a love story, and Gillian Gill makes affairs of state as interesting as those of the heart.

Gill notes that Victoria won praise on an official visit to Paris when, from a box at the opera house, she waved to people below and then sat down again without a backward glance: “The crowd was impressed. Experts on protocol emerged to note in the French press that only a real queen never looks to see if her chair is in place.”

But Gill also gives vivid accounts of the domestic life of Victoria, who had nine children at the rate of one every two years, and the German-born Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. For all her privileges, Victoria felt so keenly the disadvantages of womanhood – and especially of child-bearing – that she wrote to her eldest daughter, “I think our sex a most unenviable one.”

Gill’s prose, to put it mildly, doesn’t always sing. She has the pedantic habit of continually starting sentences with “However” and a weakness for projecting 21st-century clichés and psychology onto 19th-century royals. Thus we read that the daughters of a king had “dysfunctional” parents and that, in the days of Victoria and Albert, “full disclosure and transparency were not to be expected from royal persons.”

But Gill excels as a storyteller if not as a prose stylist and serves up a banquet of memorable tales, some involving almost comically soap-operaish behavior by royals. One story involves Prince Albert’s father, a notorious rake, who one night summoned a mistress named Pauline Panam to his favorite retreat.

“After a long walk in a violent rainstorm that soaked her to the skin, Panam waited outside the house alone for hours,” Gill writes. “Finally she was obliged to climb up a ladder to the duke’s window and, when this proved too short, to scramble onto a chair he lowered for her from his bedroom.”

Best line: “Since it was strictly forbidden ever to turn one’s back upon a member of the royal family, the key skill required of women at [Victoria's] court was to walk gracefully backward, even when wearing a train and a headdress eighteen inches high.” We Two abounds details like these that make you see its era.

Worst line: “Dyed-in-the-wool conservatives among Cambridge graduates did their utmost to block the prince’s election [as chancellor of the university], but, happily, they failed.” But they probably weren’t too happy about how “happily” they failed.

About the headline: Queen Victoria’s comment about women and governing, as quoted by Gill, is:  “We women were not made for governing – and if we are good women we must dislike these masculine occupations; but there are times which force one to take an interest in them mal gré bon gré [whether one likes it or not] and  I do of course,  intensely.”

Published: May 2009

About the author: Gill wrote Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale.

Furthermore: An otherwise favorable Wall Street Journal review found several small errors of fact in the book.

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

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

June 30, 2009

‘Our Poor Degraded Sex’ — Quote of the Day / Queen Victoria in ‘We Two’

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Gillian Gill’s new We Two has disarmingly blunt comments on womanhood by Queen Victoria, a mother of nine who hated pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum woes. A review of Gill’s biography of Victoria and Albert will appear this week.

One memorable quote turns up in a letter from Queen Victoria to her daughter Vicky, who had married Prince Frederick William of Prussia. Vicky complained that Prussian men cared only for women who beautiful and fertile. Queen Victoria sent her daughter a letter that had something of the spirit of Carrie Bradshaw:

“That despising of our poor degraded sex … is a little in all clever men’s natures; dear Papa [Prince Albert] is not quite exempt though he would not admit it – but he laughs and sneers constantly at many of them and their inevitable inconveniences, etc. Though he hates the want of affection, of due attention and protection of them, says that all men who leave all home affairs – and the education of their children – to their wives, forget their first duties.”

June 27, 2009

A Teacher With Large Breasts and a Small Brain Gets Her Comeuppance in ‘The Dunderheads,’ A Picture Book by Paul Fleischman, Illustrated by David Roberts

Students seek revenge when Miss Breakbone calls them dunderheads

The Dunderheads. By Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by David Roberts. Candlewick, 56 pp., $16.99. Age range: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

A cynic might call The Dunderheads an ideal book for anyone who believes that children are never too young to learn that some women with large breasts do have small brains. But that view may be too harsh. David Roberts’s pictures are often funny even if the protagonist of this book looks like a refugee from a wacky Hooters franchise staffed by middle-aged teachers-union members.

The cruel Miss Breakbone seems not to have gotten the message that she might crush her students’ fragile self-esteem if she never assigns essays on topics like, “Why I’m Special.” She brazenly calls her class a bunch of dunderheads – at least when she isn’t confiscating their cell phones and vowing not to give them back.

But her students have self-esteem to spare, fostered by their many achievements, and Miss Breakbone is too dumb to see how smart they really are. A female student nicknamed Hollywood is typical: “She’s got every movie that was ever made and has watched them all 11 times.” So one day when Miss Breakbone goes too far, her students take their revenge in a breaking-and-entering caper that ends when she finds a note that says, “The Dunderheads were here!”

All of this is reasonably diverting, owing largely to Roberts’s flair for visually amusing details, such as the skull-shaped lamp on Miss Breakbone’s dresser. But the plotting isn’t as clever nor is the writing as sharp as in in many other tales of a classroom revolt, such as Miss Nelson Is Missing!. Miss Breakbone’s name, for example, is somewhat labored and not as funny as that of Viola Swamp in Harry Allard and James Marshall’s back-to-school tale.  And a goggle-eyed character named “Google-Eyes” may leave some children using the incorrect phrase for a lifetime.

Best line / picture: Roberts’s spread showing the movie addict named Hollywood in a bunker-like room full of cables, DVDs, Oscar statues, and a television and larger-than-life remote control.

Worst line / picture: “That’s when Google-Eyes went to work.” The girl shown on this spread isn’t “Google-eyed” but “goggle-eyed.” Fleischman also writes: “Spider went up the drainpipe like malt up a straw.” That similie sounds dated coming from a young narrator whose classmates bring cell phones to school, all members of a generation that might never drink a malted milk (if that’s what’s meant here).

Suggested age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 6–10. This suggestion is unrealistic for many children given that The Dunderheads has a picture-book format and children often begin to spurn picture books at about the age of 6 or 7 (and to crave picture books that have more than 32 pages, as this one does, one starting at 4 or 5). School Library Journal says the book is for Grades 2-5 (roughly ages 7-10). But, again, it seems too optimistic to believe this book would appeal to many 8- and 9-year-olds who have enjoyed, for example, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The natural audience for the format of The Dunderheads might seem to be 4- and 5-year-olds who want picture books with more than the usual 32 pages, such as the original Flat Stanley with words by Jeff Brown and illustrations by Tomi Ungerer. But — speaking just for myself — I wouldn’t give this one to a literal-minded child who start school soon because of its message, however humorously developed, that some teachers just hate children and, if you get one, you may feel better if you take criminal acts of revenge.

Published: June 2009

About the author and illustrator: Fleischman, a Californian, won the 1989 Newbery Medal for Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices and has posted an excerpt from it on his Web site. Roberts lives in London and has illustrated many books for children, some of them prize-winners.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.  To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Books that will reviewed on this site are sometimes announced in advance at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

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

May 20, 2009

Ambition 10, Fame 3 — Nancy Balbirer’s ‘Take Your Shirt Off and Cry,’ a Memoir of Near-Misses as an Actor in Hollywood and New York

Did she miss out on fame because Hollywood is ruthless or because she consulted wackos like the psychic who spoke in the voice of an ovary?

Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences. By Nancy Balbirer. Bloombsbury USA, 256 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Nancy Balbirer updates the saying that acting is a hard way to earn an easy living in this uneven memoir of two decades of near-misses in show business. Balbirer tells lively stories about how she landed modest roles on Seinfeld and MTV while paying her rent through jobs like cocktail-waitressing and blow-drying friends’ hair for $20, all the while yearning for stardom that came neither in New York nor Hollywood.

But it’s unclear how much of her book you can believe, and not just because an author’s note warns – here we go again – that some facts have been changed “for literary reasons.” Balbirer takes her title and theme from a warning she says she got during a private conversation with the playwright David Mamet, one of her acting teachers at the Tisch School of the Arts. As she tells it, Mamet said that as a woman in show business, she’d be asked to do two things in every role she played:

“Take your shirt off and cry. Still, there’s no reason that you can’t do those things and do them with dignity and the scene properly analyzed.”

Did Mamet really say those lines as written? Good writers tend to keep related words together unless they have reason to split them up, and you wonder if Mamet said, “Take your shirt off” instead of the more graceful “Take off your shirt.” And his “still” seems stilted for a conversation between two people walking toward a Seventh Avenue subway stop.

In the years that followed her talk with Mamet, Balbirer took her shirt off – literally and figuratively — more than once. Yet her willingness to expose herself may have had more to do with a lack of self-awareness than with the raw exploitation envisioned by Mamet. On the evidence of Take Your Shirt Off and Cry, Balbirer has that paradoxical combination so often found in actors: enough intelligence to welcome complex Shakespearean and other roles but too little of it to stay away from con artists, whether they take form of tarot card readers or manipulative lovers. She’s hardly alone among would-be stars in having found an eviction notice taped to her door before she earned redemption (which came, in her case, from writing and starring in the solo show I Slept With Jack Kerouac). But you wonder if she might have avoided some disasters if she’d given less money to people like “a psychic in Tennessee” who spoke to her in the voice of one of her ovaries.

“Wacky, yes, and even wackier that my ‘ovary’ had a thick Southern accent,” she admits, “and still … I believed.”

Best line: Two of the “the enormous angry placards” Balbirer saw in the waiting areas of casting offices: “ACTORS MAY NOT EAT IN THIS AREA!!!” and “ACTORS: CLEAN UP YOUR GARBAGE!!” See also the quote posted earlier on May 20.

Worst line: No. 1: Some parts of Take Your Shirt Off and Cry are so neat, they leave you wondering if they include made-up scenes, dialogue, or characters. Balbirer doesn’t clarify the issue in a vague author’s note that says that she has “in some instances, compressed or expanded time, or otherwise altered events for literary reasons, while remaining faithful to the essential truth of the stories.” No. 2: Balbirer likes cute words (such as “humonguous,” “bazillion” and “suckiest”) that at times work against the serious points she is trying to make.

Published: April 2009

About the author: Balbirer co-owns the Manhattan restaurant Pasita.

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

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

May 14, 2009

When Livia Soprano Met Mary Tyler Moore – Maria Laurino Grapples With Being an Italian-American in ‘Old World Daughter, New World Mother’

A former speechwriter calls for a revolution that, in some ways, has already arrived

Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom.
By Maria Laurino. Norton, 224 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Maria Laurino entered Georgetown University in the late 1970s, “a member of that privileged generation that reaped the benefits, without doing any of the grassroots work,” of the women’s movement that flowered decade earlier. She tries to repay the debt in a book that begins as a memoir of growing up Italian-American in Short Hills, New Jersey, and devolves into a brief for an updated feminist ethic that combines an Old World respect for families with a New World admiration for individualism.

Old World Daughter, New World Mother resembles a dish of parmesan-cheese ice cream, that acquired taste found in some Italian restaurants. Laurino writes memorably about having a disabled brother and developing severe preeclampsia after becoming pregnant at the age of 37. But she links such experiences, not always plausibly, to a call for a “social revolution” that would require unprecedented female harmony and seemingly little work by men: “Once women agree on a vision for a national feminist movement that makes care its core principle, more creative solutions to help working parents will abound.” Given that both sexes — and their children — would benefit from those solutions, why should women alone have to agree on a vision for them? Shouldn’t men bear some of the responsibility for it?

In making her case for revolution, Laurino draws on the views and jargon of literary and gender theorists and scholars such as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton. Yet a curiously old-fashioned idea appears to underlie her book: that bringing about the revolution is, in effect, “women’s work.” The reality is often quite different. The reason many corporations now offer flexible schedules and refer to “maternity leave” as “parental leave” is in part that men are increasingly are seeking to spend more time with newborns and older children.

Laurino admits that’s she nostalgic for the excitement of 60s feminists for new ideas – at times she sounds weirdly like the men who, before the war in Iraq, lamented that they were born too late for Vietnam – and her sentimentality may help to explain why this book has the air of a throwback. Her Were You Always an Italian? showed that she has a lively perspective on her ancestry. Old World Daughter, New World Mother yokes her background so aggressively to other topics that it leaves the impression that, wittingly or not, she is in danger of becoming a professional Italian-American.

Best line: No. 1: “In her book The Equality Trap, Mary Ann Mason, now dean of the graduate school at Berkeley, told of how the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the early eighties  in favor of the California Federal Savings and Loan after the bank fired a receptionist for taking a four-month unpaid maternity leave.” If true, this startling tone-deafness to working women’s needs would help to explain why feminist groups have had trouble finding support from a new generation. No. 2: “When Mary Met Livia,” the title for a chapter about the collision between images of the liberated Mary Tyler Moore and the tradition-bound Livia Soprano in Laurino’s life.

Worst line: No. 1: “Our income shrunk significantly …” No. 2: “ Will men ever break loose ‘from the empire of phallocratism’?” No. 3: “Or, put another way, maybe I needed to get off my asana and smell the coffee.”

Published: April 2009

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

About the author: Laurino lives in New York City. She has worked for the Village Voice and as a speechwriter for former mayor David Dinkins.

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

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

May 6, 2009

How Tori Murden McClure Became the First Woman to Row Alone Across the Atlantic in Her New Memoir, ‘A Pearl in the Storm’ – Coming Soon

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Remember when your eighth-grade English teacher told you that the three great themes in literature were “man against man, man against nature, and man against himself”? My favorite man-against-nature books include Adrift (Mariner, 256 pp., $14.95, paperback), Steven Callahan’s bestselling memoir of spending 76 days lost at sea on an inflatable raft after his sailboat sank during a race from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. The woman-against-nature category has produced other gems, such as Atlantic Circle (Norton, 1985), Kathryn Lasky Knight’s true story of sailing across the Atlantic with her husband. Can Tori Murden McClure hold her own in her new memoir of rowing solo across the Atlantic, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean (HarperCollins, 304 pp., $24.95)? A review will appear soon.

April 27, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check — A Review of the 2009 Fiction Winner, Elizabeth Strout’s Short Story Collection, ‘Olive Kitteridge’

The latest in a series of occasional posts on the winners of or finalists for major literary prizes

Olive Kitteridge. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 304 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

It tells you something about Olive Kitteridge that two of its 13 short stories were published in Seventeen and O, The Oprah Magazine: This is one of the lighter-weight winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It tells you more that two other stories appeared in The New Yorker and South Carolina Review: These tales, if often moving, have the disjointed quality of scenes from different dreams.

The linchpin of the collection is Olive Kitteridge, a retired junior-high math teacher in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, who appears at least briefly in every story. At first, the pace of the book is somnolent and the title character so nasty she verges on caricature. But the collection picks up steam – and Olive, some humanity – after 30 or so pages.

In the fourth story, “A Little Burst,” comes the great scene in the book. At her middle-aged son’s wedding reception, Olive slips into the just-married couple’s bedroom and flinches when, through an open window, she hears her new daughter-in-law mocking her mother-of-the-bride dress. It is a dress she loves and has made from a green fabric imprinted with big reddish-pink geraniums: “Her heart really opened when she came across the gauzy muslin in So-Fro’s; sunlight let into the anxious gloom of the upcoming wedding; those flowers skimming over the table in her sewing room.” Wounded and uncomprehending, Olive steals two of her daughter-in-law’s possessions from the couple’s bedroom – a loafer and “a shiny pale blue bra, small-cupped and delicate.” She also defaces a sweater with a black Magic Marker, then neatly folds it and puts back on its closet shelf. Olive finds that her vandalism does not help much, but “it does help some,” to know that Sue will go through her belongings and think: “I must be losing my mind, I can’t keep track of anything…. And, my God, what happened to my sweater?” This tale offers not just a finely wrought portrait of a frightened woman’s projection of her own anxieties about her only child’s belated wedding — it is Olive herself who may be losing her mind — but can be read as a chilling tale of a mother’s symbolic, if unconscious, rape of her son.

As a self-contained story, “A Little Burst” works beautifully. This is a tale of a nervous breakdown that may betoken a mental illness such as psychosis. The problem comes when you read the story against others that leave a contradictory impression: Olive is not mentally ill but starved for love in her marriage to a kind but insufficient pharmacist (or, as an atheist, has a spiritual hunger she can’t admit). In some tales, Olive plays such an inconsequential role that you wonder if Elizabeth Strout shoehorned them into the book by altering the stories after publication. This is especially true of “Ship in a Bottle,” which appeared in Seventeen 1992 and has clearly since been revised to include a veiled reference to torture at Abu Ghraib prison, which didn’t become known until 2004.

Olive Kitteridge ends, as good novels typically do, with a redemption of sorts. But because the book isn’t a novel, it hasn’t built toward that transformation as novels do. Its ending has less force, diluted by digressions into lives of characters who relate to it obliquely if at all. When Olive finally chooses to accept love, in however imperfect a form, you wonder if such a decision would be possible for someone who for so long has hated so much about the world.

Best line: From “A Little Burst”: “Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as ‘big bursts’ and ‘little bursts.’ Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.”

Worst line: No. 1: “He’s a spoiled brat to the manor born.” Another misquotation of Shakespeare’s “to the manner born.” No. 2: “ … he’d eat a sandwich that had spilling from it mayonnaisey clumps of egg salad or tuna fish, landing on his shirt.” Pray that “mayonnaisey” isn’t the next “garlicky.” No. 3: “The Scottish were scrappy and tough …” The people of Scotland and their descendants almost always call themselves the Scots, not the “Scottish,” a word used mainly as an adjective. As an alternate term for the Scots, “the Scottish” is correct but stilted. No. 4: The multiple uses of “Ay-yuh,” northern New England slang for “Yes” or “Yup.” Strout grew up in Maine and must have heard the expression as “ay-yuh.” But the phrase is usually rendered “ay-yup,” as a Voice of America report notes, and it sounded like “ay-yup” when I lived in New Hampshire.

Read an excerpt from Olive Kitteridge.

Published: March 2008 (hardcover), September 2008 (paperback). Olive Kitteredge was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Furthermore: The marketing campaign for Olive Kitteridge misrepresents the book as “a novel in stories” when it is a short story cycle. For more on this issue, see yesterday’s post.

About the author: Strout also wrote Amy and Isabelle and Abide With Me. She lives in New York City.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, the book columnist for Glamour and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

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