One-Minute Book Reviews

June 18, 2008

Holly Peterson’s Bad Sex Scenes Are Back in the New Paperback Edition of ‘The Manny’

How bad are the sex scenes in Holly Peterson’s The Manny? Let’s just say that one begins with “Now she was on her knees …” and ends with “like a fire hose in her expensive mouth.” What if you’re tempted to buy The Manny (Dial, 368 pp., $12), anyway, now that the novel is out in paperback? Maybe you know it involves a Park Avenue mother who hires a male nanny for her 9-year-old son. And you think: With that catchy premise, how bad could it be? Here’s a sample line of dialogue: “We’re in the modern era, baby, you spoiled, Jurassic, archaic, Waspy piece of petrified wood!” (And, yes, that comes from a character we’re supposed to like.) Lines like that one earned the novel a spot on the shortlist for the 2008 Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. You’ll find others in a review and Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Manny, published in separate posts on June 26, 2007 oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/06/26/.

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

June 2, 2008

Jennifer Sey’s Memoir of Her Brutal Life As a Gymnast, ‘Chalked Up’

A former gymnastics champion recalls the hazards of her sport, including coaches who shouted at girls, “You’re a fat pig!”

Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams. By Jennifer Sey. Morrow, 289 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Girls’ sports have had legal equality for more than three decades, but they still have nothing close to parity at bookstores. There are probably hundreds of good books about football, baseball and golf for every good book about gymnastics, figure-skating and youth soccer. The number of coffee-table books about golf alone might dwarf the number of books about girls’ sports.

This pattern doesn’t result from a conspiracy but from a cultural reality. Large numbers of female athletes haven’t been around for long enough for the books to catch up with them. Men were playing professional baseball for more than a century before Jim Bouton wrote Ball Four. Another generation or two may have to pass before all bookstores and libraries have worthy books about female athletes in every sport.

All the more reason, then, to welcome Chalked Up, an unusually thoughtful and intelligent memoir by the 1986 U.S. National Gymnastics Champion Jennifer Sey. This isn’t just a good book about gymnastics – it’s one of the best recent books about female athletes in any sport.

Much of what Sey has to say will be familiar to anyone who has read Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes and other exposés of abuses in gymnastics. Judges play favorites. Parents overinvest in their daughters’ successes. Coaches commit physical and emotional abuse, and doctors support them. Even the youngest female gymnasts may have powerful incentives to develop eating disorders and risk permanent damage to their health by competing with serious injuries.

But Chalked Up is unique for the maturity that Sey brings to bear on these issues. After beginning to compete at the age of six, she had grueling career, winning the national championship less than a year after breaking a femur in competition. Now, in her late 30s, she is old enough to have some perspective on her experiences but not so old that her memories of the pain have faded beyond retrieval.

Sey sees the harm done by the coaches who taunted girls, as she says they did at Bela Karolyi’s camp in Houston, with “You’re a fat pig!” and other insults. But she hasn’t written a polemic. Instead, she shows how gymnastics started out as fun and gradually took over her family’s life. Many factors kept her in the sport — her own drive and love of performing, her ability to find kind coaches who helped to offset the others’ abuse, her parents’ willingness to ignore signs of trouble. Although she never got to the Olympics, the cost of her participation emerges in final chapters that list the chilling health problems that she still has.

Yet Set misses gymnastics – or parts of it – every day. Years after she quit the sport, she watched the 1996 Olympics, when Kerri Strug collapsed on her first vault and did a second that helped the U.S. team win a gold medal. It rankled that some broadcasters praised Strug as unique. “Any girl on that team,” Sey says, “would have done the same thing.”

Best line: Sey argues that gymnastics is a contact sport, like football, in which the body is constantly colliding with objects with brutal force: “In football, it’s another player who crushes, bruises, breaks the athlete. In gymnastics, it’s the floor. Or the beam. Or any piece of unmoving, unforgiving equipment that meets the body on its descent through the air from great heights.”

Worst line: When Sey was about eight years old, she saw Saturday Night Fever. She says she was struck by a character whose well-developed body got her into trouble: “After seeing this R-rated movie with my parents, I linked a developing body to danger and unwanted male attention.” That’s a pretty sophisticated perception for an eight-year-old.

Recommendation? A book with crossover appeal, written for adults but likely to appeal also to many teenagers.

Editor: Jennifer Pooley

Published: May 2008 www.jennifersey.com and www.harpercollins.com

Furthermore: A graduate of Stanford University, Sey lives in San Francisco.

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

Would you like to share a literary discovery or warn others about an overrated book? Join the conversation on the Ruthless Book Club, the online reading group for people who don’t like reading groups www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/01.

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

May 30, 2008

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read – ‘The Backward Day’ by Ruth Krauss With Art by Marc Simont

“Ruth [Krauss] broke the rules and invented new ones, and her respect for the natural ferocity of children bloomed into poetry that was utterly faithful to what was true in their lives.”
— Maurice Sendak in The Horn Book

The Backward Day. By Ruth Krauss. Illustrated by Marc Simont. New York Review Children’s Collection, 32 pp., $14.95. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Ruth Krauss isn’t as well-known today as Margaret Wise Brown, her contemporary and fellow member of the Writer’s Laboratory at the Bank Street School in New York City. But like Brown, Krauss helped to change the path of children’s literature, partly by incorporating more naturalism into a field dominated by fairy and folk tales. One of her most appealing books is The Backward Day, recently revived in a series of classics from New York Review Children’s Collection.

In a wholly nondidactic way, this brief story reminds us — and children — of the joy of activities that cost nothing. A young boy wakes up one morning and decides that it’s “backward day,” an occasion that some children call “opposite day.” He puts his underwear on over his coat and suit and his socks over his shoes. Then he walks backward down the stairs to the breakfast table, where he turns a chair around. When his parents and younger sister arrive, he tells each of them, “Goodnight.” Without so much as a “Don’t be silly!” they go along with him – and keep going along — until he announces “BACKWARD DAY IS DONE” and everything returns to normal.

Simple as it is, this story speaks to – and vicariously fulfills – children’s yearning for power over others, and does so in a realistic and believable way. Its young hero needs no magic wand or potion to get others to do his bidding, which must make it all the more thrilling to many children. Marc Simont’s appealing drawings of a late 1940s family have an ageless elegance leavened with wit. And in an era of oversized picture books that are way too big for many 3-year-olds to handle comfortably, this is the rare hardcover book that has a scale that’s right for small hands.

Recommendation? This book is smaller than most used for library story hours — it’s about the size of Goodnight Moon — but it could still be a great story hour book for a small group, because it offers so many opportunities for audience participation. Children could turn around at some point during the reading, for example, or the leader could “read” the book upside down.

Best line: “Over his suit, he put on his underwear. He explained to himself, ‘Backward day is backward day.’” This line shows Krauss’s understanding of how children think and reason, a hallmark of her books.

Worst line: None.

Published: 1950 (first edition), 2007 (New York Review reprint) www.nyrb.com.

Furthermore: Krauss also wrote A Very Special House, a Caldecott Honor Book, and A Hole Is to Dig, both illustrated by Maurice Sendak. She won another Caldecott Honor for The Happy Day, which has pictures by Marc Simont.

Other titles in the New York Review Children’s Collection include E. Nesbit’s The House of Arden, Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, Lucretia P. Hale’s The Peterkin Papers and Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s Wee Gillis.

This is the latest in an occasional series of posts on classic picture books every child should read. Reviews of books for children and teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these posts.

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

April 25, 2008

Shot-From-Behind Book Covers — Jodi Picoult and Beyond

Filed under: Book Covers,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:38 pm
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It’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen a dust jacket unusual enough to review in the series on this site that rates book covers. But if you’re interested in the topic, you may to look at a post on GalleyCat, the publishing-industry news site, that deals with the boomlet in shot-from-behind covers such as that of Jodi Picoult’s Change of Heart www.jodipicoult.com. The GalleyCat post deals with the trend as it applies to mainstream women’s fiction. But once you’ve noticed the pattern, you’ll see evidence of it on other kinds of books, including The Blue Star, Tony Earley’s just-published sequel to Jim the Boy. One reason for the popularity of back-view covers: They allow publishers to avoid showing a face that may conflict with a description in the book. Here’s the link to the GalleyCat post: www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/book_jackets/the_new_trend_in_womens_fiction_covers_80993.asp

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 21, 2008

Death Be Not Stoned – Elisa Albert’s First Novel, ‘The Book of Dahlia’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:09 am
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A gifted writer sends up, among other things, the cult of “positivity” in cancer treatment

The Book of Dahlia: A Novel. By Elisa Albert. Free Press, 276 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Dahlia Finger has a Glioblastoma multiforme, the type of malignant brain tumor that killed 17-year-old Johnny Gunther in the classic memoir Death Be Not Proud. And you could read The Book of Dahlia as a send-up of that and other books that ennoble – deservedly or not – young people who have catastrophic illnesses

There is nothing noble – or so it might seem — about the anti-heroine of Elisa Albert’s first novel, a 29-year-old unemployed stoner who lives in a bungalow in Venice, California, bought for her by her well-off father. Dahlia describes herself, with only slight comic exaggeration, as “vile, self-absorbed, depressing, lazy, messy, spoiled” and “probably mentally ill.” She is also sexually irresponsible and relentlessly profane.

But Dahlia has perfect pitch for the absurdity – and cruelty — of much of the advice inflicted on cancer patients. The propaganda is exemplified by It’s Up to You: The Cancer To-Do List, a guilt-inducing advice manual that she got soon after her diagnosis. If you don’t get better, it suggests, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough to show “positivity” or find the “bright side.” (Bad luck, apparently, has nothing to do with it.) Each chapter in The Book of Dahlia takes its title from one in It’s Up to You and satirizes a psychological cliché — “Reframe,” “Heal Yourself,” “Find a Support System” – often with merciless accuracy.

All of this is more interesting than the parallel story of how Dahlia became such a slacker. That tale begins with her parents’ courtship on a kibbutz. And involves somewhat predictable explanations — cruel mother, callow older brother, kind but ineffectual father – that emerge as Dahlia undergoes radiation, chemotherapy and more.

But if The Book of Dahlia has less unity How This Night Is Different, Albert’s wonderful collection of short stories, it also has higher ambitions. Young writers typically find humor in safe topics, such as designer shoes or clueless bosses. Few have the courage to take aim at larger – or worthier — targets than Albert does in this book.

Best line: Dahlia has had a half dozen or so casual dates with a man named
Ben when she learns she has cancer. Her parents cast him immediately as her “boyfriend”: “Margalit and Bruce were just thrilled that Dahlia appeared to have a boyfriend. This happy news could almost elbow out cancer. How much more poignant to die an untimely death in the throws of a blossoming relationship!”

Worst line: Albert could tighten her grip on point on view. Most of her story is told from Dahlia’s point of view. But at times the story goes inside the heads of others, such as Dahlia’s father: “Bruce ached for his daughter’s lack of a mother, and had tried to do everything in his power to distract her.” You could argue that at such times, Dahlia has internalized her father’s point of view so that it’s now hers. But because we don’t know if how she has internalized it, the lines are distracting.

Published: March 2008 www.elisaalbert.com.

Furthermore: Albert also wrote the short story collection, How This Night Is Different www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/22/.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

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

April 11, 2008

My Favorite Jane Austen Blog

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:42 pm
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My first novel, The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s/Griffin, 2000), has a heroine who loves Jane Austen, so I’ve explored many Austen sites on the Web. My favorite is AustenBlog www.austenblog.com, which I discovered when it linked to a quote I had posted about the recent Sense and Sensibility adaptation PBS.

One of the virtues of this beautifully designed site is that it has the complete texts of all six of Austen’s major novels in a searchable, easy-to-read format with handsome watercolor illustrations by C. E. Brock. You can find the books in the “Novel E-texts” category on the site.

I love this aspect of AustenBlog because many sites that have the full texts of the novels don’t let you search for quotes. It recently took me at least half an hour to check the punctuation of my favorite quote from Sense and Sensibility: “Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.” I searched for the quote in the e-text posted on AustenBlog and it popped right up.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 8, 2008

Why Do Unworthy Books Win Awards like Pulitzer Prizes? Quote of the Day (Neville Braybrooke)

In last night’s post, I listed some classic American novels that didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, given yesterday to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. A related question is: Why do unworthy book win awards? One obvious answer is that most prizes are given out annually, and every year may not bring a great book in a category.

But more subtle factors may come into play. A truism of literary prize-giving is that awards often go to everybody’s second choice. Judges may split into two camps with each side fiercely opposing the other’s first choice. To reach a decision, they may choose a second-rate book they can all support.

Judges tell many stories in among themselves about such compromises but rarely discuss them publicly. Who wants to admit to having honored a clinker? But Neville Braybooke suggests how the practice can work in his preface to the Every Eye, the elegant second novel by his late wife, Isobel English. Braybooke writes that English refused to add the happy ending that an American publisher wanted to her to give her first novel, The Key That Rusts:

“More significantly, during these early days of her career, came the news that The Key That Rusts had been shortlisted for the Somerset Maugham Award, tying for first place with Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net. In the event, the judges were unable to decide who should be the winner, so they gave the prize to the runner-up, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.”

Neville Braybrooke in Every Eye (David R. Godine/Black Sparrow, $23.95) www.blacksparrowbooks.com.

Comment by Jan:

Braybrooke may have been willing to tell this anecdote partly because there would have been no shame in losing either to Lucky Jim or Under the Net, both modern classics. And few critics would argue that Amis’s comic novel was unworthy of an award. The Somerset Maugham Award is given annually by the London-based Society of Authors www.societyofauthors.org to the writer or writers under the age of 35 who wrote the best book of the year.

Do you think any unworthy books have won awards? What are they?

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

“ …

March 25, 2008

Has Jodi Picoult Taken an Early Lead in the 2009 Delete Key Awards Competition for Bad Writing in Books?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:08 am
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I haven’t read Jodi Picoult’s new Change of Heart (Atria, $26.95) www.jodipicoult.com but a review in yesterday’s New York Times made me wonder if the novel had jumped to an early lead in the 2009 Delete Key Awards contest. Janet Maslin said that Picoult “seems to have written her latest tear-jerker on authorial autopilot.” And she quoted lines like this one from a condemned prisoner known as “the Death Row Messiah” who is a central figure in the book:

“Not that Jesus wasn’t a really cool guy – great teacher, excellent speaker, yadda yadda yadda. But … Son of God? Where’s the proof?”

Sort of makes you wonder if this guy is going to have his last meal catered by the Soup Nazi, doesn’t it?

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

March 5, 2008

What Do Award-Winning Novels Have That Others Don’t? (Quote of the Day/Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni)

[Tomorrow night the National Book Critics Circle will announce the winners of its annual awards, including its fiction prize. You can read about the finalists here bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/2008/01/2007-national-book-critics-circle-award.html. A former judge for another prize offers some thoughts on literary awards in general below.]

What separates the novels that win major literary prizes from other books? Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the Indian-born poet and novelist, served as a National Book Awards judge and comments here on reading the nominated books:

“What I learned from reading so many novels is that a novel, as it goes on, has to expand. It has to give you a sense of a larger life, not just the story you’re dealing with, no matter how well it’s told. There must be a sense of resonance, a sense that in that story is the knowledge of a whole larger story whose presence is felt.”

Chitra Baneriee Divakaruni in “Read More, Write Better,” an interview with Sarah Anne Johnson www.sarahannejohnson.com in The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction: Building Blocks (Writer’s Digest Books, $19.99), edited by Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda B. Swanson-Davis. Banerjee Divakaruni www.chitradivakaruni.com , who teaches at the University of Houston, wrote the The Vine of Desire, The Mistress of Spices and other books. Her next novel, The Palace of Illusions, has just been published by Doubleday.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 3, 2008

And the Honorable Mentions for the Delete Key Awards Shortlist Are …

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:24 am
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Also-rans for the shortlist for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books that was posted Friday:

1. From Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia:

“A word about masturbation, if I may. Sometimes it can be a handy (forgive me) tool …”

Why I considered it: A bad pun isn’t less bad because you apologize for it, and the book has a lot of cute writing like this.

Why it didn’t make the cut: Gilbert might have eaten her way through Italy. But her book doesn’t suggest as The Secret does that if you want to lose weight, you should avoid looking at fat people.

2. From Dedication: A Novel by Emma McLaughin and Nicola Kraus:

“Movemovemove, I’ve gotta pee!”

“OHMYGODWHERE’DYOUGETTHATBODY?”

Why I considered it: At times this novel from the authors of The Nanny Diaries reads as though it had been written on a computer with a space bar that got stuck.

Why it didn’t make the cut: At least I could understand what the lines meant. I can’t say that about this passage from Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, which defeated them for a spot on the shortlist: “On our planet, and perhaps simultaneously in many parts of our galaxy and beyond, consciousness is awakening from the dream of form. This does not mean all forms (the world) are going to dissolve, although quite a few almost certainly will. It means consciousness can now begin to create form without losing itself in it. It can remain conscious of itself, even while it creates and experiences form.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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