One-Minute Book Reviews

February 29, 2008

Delete Key Awards Finalist #5 – Alice Sebold’s ‘The Almost Moon

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:40 pm
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Delete Key Awards Finalist #5 – From Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon:

“And there it was, the hole that had given birth to me.… This was not the first time I’d been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia.”

“Face-to-face” doesn’t seem quite the right phrase for those body parts, does it?

The Almost Moon might appear to be almost too easy a choice for the Delete Key shortlist, given that Entertainment Weekly and New York magazine have already ranked it among the year’s worst books. It makes the cut partly because it’s written fourth-grade reading level (Grade 4.7), according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics on Microsoft Word, slightly higher than Mitch Albom’s For One More Day (Grade 3.4), first runner-up in the 2007 Delete Key Awards contest.

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

February 26, 2008

Should This Line From the ‘The Devil in the Junior League’ Make the Shortlist for the 2008 Delete Key Awards?

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:50 pm
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Here’s the kind of question I’ve been wrestling with while compiling the shortlist for the annual Delete Key Awards that will be announced Friday: Should the following line from The Devil in the Junior League (St. Martin’s/Griffin, 341 pp., $12.95, paperback) appear on the list? Linda Francis Lee writes in this comic novel about backstabbing Texas socialites:

“Sure, I wanted the chance to explain why I had been less than mannerly to him, but that didn’t mean I wanted all those overly feelingish feelings he had an uncanny ability to make me, well … feel.”

Why it should be on the list: Would you buy this novel if the book flopped open to this line while you were looking at it in Borders?

Why it shouldn’t: No. 1: The writing on the Delete Key shortlist tends to be unintentionally funny. This line is – I think – supposed to be funny (and, if delivered by the right actress, could be). No. 2: The Devil in the Junior League is pop fiction that’s up against heavier-hitters like On Chesil Beach. No. 3: Would I libel the state of Texas by suggesting that this is how women there think ?

I’m leaning against it. Lee may be just too good for this shortlist.

The finalists for the Delete Key Awards will be announced Friday in separate posts that will begin at 10 a.m. Eastern Time and appear at about 30-minute intervals throughout the day. The full shortlist will be posted by the end of the day.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Does ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ Perpetuate Stereotypes of Mexicans?

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Latin American,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:07 am
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This week I’ve been slogging through books that all seem to read like bad translations from an extinct language, like Coptic or Proto-Slavic. To reward myself, I’ve been rereading Nobody’s Perfect (Vintage, 752 pp., $16.95, paperback), a collection of Anthony Lane’s writing on books and movies for The New Yorker.

I began with Lane’s witty account of reading all the books on the New York Times fiction bestseller list for May 15, 1994 (a companion piece to a report on the list for the July 1, 1945). The essay includes this comment on Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, a tale of a woman doomed to spinsterhood in early 20th-century Mexico:

“Mexican readers fell on this book avidly, it seems, although its subsequent global triumph should surely give them pause; the main effect, after all, has been to perpetuate the myth of their homeland as lust-ridden, superstitious, and amusingly spicy.”

Why is this point so rarely made by books and Web sites that recommend Like Water for Chocolate to reading groups? The novel may have other qualities that make it worthy of consideration by book clubs. But shouldn’t the stereotypes be mentioned, too?

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. The site will announce the shortlist for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books beginning at 10 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 29.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 19, 2008

Two Books by Annie Ernaux, One of France’s Greatest Living Writers, Coming Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:15 pm
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Annie Ernaux is one of the greatest living writers in France, where she has been acclaimed for decades for her spare autobiographical novels. She has won the Prix Renaudot, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and could be a dark horse candidate for a Nobel Prize. So why isn’t she better known in the U.S.?

Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will consider two of her books that might especially interest American readers, including book clubs.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 14, 2008

Valentine’s Day Quote of the Day on Love (Anne Enright, ‘The Gathering’)

“There are so few people given to us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love it is important, even at nineteen. Especially at nineteen. And if you can, at nineteen, count the people you love on one hand, you will not, at forty, have run out of fingers on the other. There are so few people given to us to love and they all stick.”

Anne Enright in her novel The Gathering (Grove/Atlantic, $14, paperback), winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/21/.

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

February 11, 2008

Inside a Hellish Iranian Prison — Zarah Ghahramani’s ‘My Life as a Traitor’

A young writer says she was locked up and tortured for taking part in student demonstrations at Tehran University

My Life as a Traitor. By Zarah Ghahramani. With Robert Hillman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 242 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has followed the controversy about the credibility of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone may approach My Life as a Traitor with deep skepticism. Here we have another memoir by a young writer who had a hellish experience, wrote it up with the help of an established novelist and got it published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Until recently the main question you might have about such a book was: Is it good? Now another question presents itself: How much of it can you believe? A tough call.

Like Beah, Zarah Ghahramani writes vividly and with what appears to be disarming frankness about a terrifying ordeal — a month-long incarceration in Iran’s Evin Prison that she casts as her punishment for taking part in student protests at Tehran University. With Australian novelist Robert Hillman, she tells a good story about her incarceration and torture and the restrictions that even well-off families like hers have faced since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

But she doesn’t say whether her book includes composite or invented characters or dialogue, or whether she took other liberties with facts. Nor does she explain how she reconstructed in detail scenes that occurred when she couldn’t have had a pencil or notepaper. She offers pages of dialogue with a prisoner whom she calls Sohrab and identifies as “a madman” in the cell above hers, but we have only her word that he existed. Who’s going to ring up a few mullahs and ask them to confirm it? And if prison officials tortured Ghahramani, they may also have starved her or drugged her food until she was hallucinating about prisoners or holding imaginary conversations to keep her sanity. If she considered these possibilities, she doesn’t deal with them in her book.

So we are left with another interesting and well-written memoir that raises almost as many questions as it answers. Farrar, Straus could have eased some of the concerns by insisting that Ghahramani include a note saying whether she had changed any names, dates or places or used composites. In the absence of such information, you can only hope that over time her story will withstand scrutiny better than Beah’s.

Best line: Many scenes offer sharp observations on growing up in a country ruled by mullahs, especially during Iran’s war with Iraq. This passages describes a standard mourning ritual: “For example, the husband of a young woman living next door to us was killed on the battlefield, and this poor woman was expected to forsake smiling at anything from the moment the news reached her until years in the future, the actual number of years contingent on how long the war lasted … the proscription on smiling meant that she could not behave in any natural, human way for years to come – she could not even smile for her children.”

Worst line: Ghahramani says when she sees photos of herself that the authorities took before throwing her in prison: “I feel violated.” “I feel violated” is journalistic cliché right up there with “closure” and at times used in the same sentence in newspaper stories, as in: “Mrs. Smith said she felt violated by the break-in and wanted the police to catch the thief so she could have closure.” In My Life As a Traitor it sounds just bizarre. Ghahramani doesn’t feel “violated” by being thrown in prison but does feel “violated” by seeing photographs of herself that were taken secretly?

Reading group guide: The publisher has posted one at www.fsgbooks.com.

Black box warning: This memoir comes from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, publisher of A Long Way Gone, which has so far failed to provide persuasive answers to the questions about the credibility of that book that have been raised by reporters for the Australian, Australia’s national daily newspaper, and others.

Published: January 2008

Furthermore: Ghahramani fled Iran after her release from prison and now lives in Australia.

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

February 5, 2008

Alice Kuipers’s ‘Life on the Refrigerator Door': At Last, a Novel for Anybody Who Thinks That Mitch Albom Is Too Difficult

A novel from Canada that you could finish during the commercials for a hockey game

Life on the Refrigerator Door: A Novel in Notes. By Alice Kuipers. HarperCollins, 220 pp., $15.95.

By Janice Harayda

Alice Kuipers’s first novel answers the perversely fascinating question: Can anybody write a book dumber than Mitch Albom’s For One More Day? Albom writes at a third-grade reading level, according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with Microsoft Word. Kuipers writes at a second-grade reading level. And because Kuipers lives in Saskatoon, you have to wonder if some kind of trickle-up — or trickle-north — effect is at work here.

An Amazon reviewer said that she read Life on the Refrigerator Door in 20 minutes. I believe her, because I read it during the Super Bowl halftime show. If you’re still trying to get through the new Richard Pevear translation of War and Peace, a book you can read in less than a half hour might sound appealing. But Life on the Refrigerator Door costs $15.95. If you live in a state with the kind of killer sales tax we have here in New Jersey, reading this book could cost you nearly a dollar minute. Next to it, that 1,296-page War and Peace looks like a steal at $37.

Perhaps the kindest way to review Life on the Refrigerator is stick to the facts. First, this a novel about a doctor who doesn’t have a cell phone. Or, apparently, a pager. So she has to communicate with her 15-year-old daughter by notes on the refrigerator. When the doctor gets a horrible, life-threatening disease, they keep communicating that way. One of the main things we learn from this correspondence is that the inability to punctuate a compound sentence may be inherited.

Still, I wouldn’t be too hard on this feel-good-about-feeling-bad female weepie. Unlike For One More Day, the book does have a modestly clever gimmick at its core. How many novels have you read that consist entirely of notes on a refrigerator? Can a novel told in magnets be far behind?

Best line: The epigraph, a poem by William Carlos Williams.

Worst line: “Peter was soooooooooo cute earlier, you should have seen him with the toy carrot Dad got him.”

Recommendation? Like For One More Day and Mister Pip, Life on the Refrigerator Door is a book for children masquerading as adult reading. It may especially appeal to 10-to-13-year-old girls.

Published: September 2007 www.harpercollins.com

Furthermore: Although I read this novel during the Super Bowl halftime show, I wasn’t watching the performances. I was at the Chinese place picking up food.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 1, 2008

Diary: Barbara Pym’s ‘Good Books for Bad Days’

[This is the first in an occasional series of brief posts on books or authors whose work I can’t review at more length. The posts will be saved in the “Diary” category.]

A soggy morning in New Jersey. The chilly rain reminded me of a comment often made about the novels of Barbara Pym – they’re “good books for bad days.” They’re good books for good days, too.

Pym (1913–1980) had suffered more than her share of rejection until, in the 1970s, the Times Literary Supplement asked well-known writers to name the most underrated writer of the 20th century. After years of neglect by the British literary establishment, Pym was the only writer nominated by two of the authors, the poet Philip Larkin and the biographer David Cecil. Their praise, especially Larkin’s, sparked a revival of interest in her work that has abated slightly in the U.S. but has never disappeared.

I’ve read five or six of Pym’s quiet novels of English life and admire their modesty, intelligence and low-keyed irony. No writer would be less likely to give a book the sort of bombastic title — Everything Is Illuminated, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I Am America (And So Can You) — that is fashionable today. And each of her novels involves circumstances different enough to keep them from becoming repetitive despite their similarlarities of tone. Excellent Women is about a group of single women who, though young, are verging on what used to be called spinsterhood. Quartet in Autumn deals with the enmeshed lives of four friends, male and female, who are facing retirement. An Unsuitable Attachment explores the effects of a single woman’s attraction to a younger man. And The Sweet Dove Died is about the losses of middle age and beyond, especially menopause (though Pym is too discreet to use the word).

Where will I start when I return to Pym en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Pym? Excellent Women is among the wittiest of her novels, so I might begin there if I needed reliable diversion on a day when the weather was hoarding its comforts – a day, in other words, like today.

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

January 30, 2008

Is Pearl Buck’s ‘The Good Earth’ a ‘Plodding Chinese Epic’? Quote of the Day (John Sutherland in ‘How to Read a Novel’)

John Sutherland is an English scholar and columnist perhaps best known in the U.S. for his engaging books about literary puzzles, including Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? He also wrote the recent How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide (St. Martin’s/Griffin, $12.95, paperback), a quirky overview of factors that may affect readers’ perceptions of a book, such the cover, reviews and film versions. Sutherland chaired the 2005 Man Booker Prize committee and in his new book comments astringently on literary awards, including the Nobel Prize www.nobelprize.org. He suggests that Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize because one of her rivals, Graham Greene, wrote an unflattering novel about the Swedish financier and swindler Ivar Kreuger, who made a fortune as a manufacturer of matches:

“The grey men of Stockholm like fiction which takes on big themes – so long, as was the case with Graham Greene’s England Made Me (1935), they happen not to be big themes that reflect badly on Sweden. Greene’s ‘entertainment,’ as he called it, about Sweden’s Robert Maxwell, the ‘match king’ Ivar Kreuger, ensured its author a one-way ticket to the Nobel blacklist. Pearl S. Buck, author of the plodding Chinese epid The Good Earth (1931), committed no such offense and duly got her Swedish prize in 1938.”

Comment by Janice Harayda:

Sutherland is right about the “big themes.” The judges of most literary prizes – not just the Swedish Academy — favor authors who take on large topics. One reason why many people expected Doris Lessing to win the Nobel long before 2007 is that she has dealt with those“big themes,” including the role of women in society in The Golden Notebook.

But I’m not sure about The Good Earth. Like many American teenagers, I had to read the novel for a high school English class and, at the age of 14, I found it riveting. I’ve just started rereading it for the first time in decades and hope to write about the book in this space soon. Did you have to read The Good Earth in school? Have you reread it since then? How, if at all, has your view of the book changed?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

January 28, 2008

No. 1 Reviewer on Amazon Has Posted More Than 15,000 Reviews — How Is This Possible? Quote of the Day (Harriet Klausner)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:13 am
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[Update, Jan. 4, 2010: Harriet Klausner's Amazon profile now says he has posted 20,970 reviews.]

And you thought Joyce Carol Oates was “prolific”

Harriet Klausner, the most prolific reviewer on Amazon.com, has posted 15,584 reviews, according to her profile on the online bookseller’s site. How does she do it? Klausner says:

“I am a speed reader (a gift I was born with) and read two books a day.”

Harriet Klausner in her Amazon.com profile www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/AFVQZQ8PW0L/ref=cm_aya_bb_pdp. A Wall Street Journal profile of Klausner reported in March 2005 that she had posted 8,649 reviews and read four or five books a day, not two www.opinionjournal.com/la/?id=110006483. And a 2006 Time article said she read “four to six” books a day www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1570726,00.html. If those articles were accurate and she’s reading only two books a day now, she’s cut back. But how could she have cut back when she’s nearly doubled her number of reviews since 2005 (from 8,649 to 15,584 on January 20, 2008)? If she read two books a day, she would have added 2,190 reviews in three years, or increased her total from 8,649 to 10,839. But she’s added about 5,000 more than that. Unless I’m missing something, in order to have reached 15,584 she would have to be reading closer to three or four books a day than two.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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