One-Minute Book Reviews

December 3, 2007

Alice Sebold’s Ghastly Scenes, Written at a Fourth-Grade Reading Level, Infest ‘The Almost Moon’

A woman with “control issues” murders her mother fantasizes about stuffing her in a freezer — “I should have stayed in therapy,” she admits – And you thought you had “control issues” because you alphabetize your CDs

The Almost Moon: A Novel. By Alice Sebold. Little, Brown, 291 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Novelist Charlotte Moore eviscerated The Almost Moon in a review I recently quoted at length and agree with in most particulars. Yet even that review — brilliant as it was – didn’t suggest all the distasteful aspects of this novel about a 49-year-old woman who murders her mother and fantasizes about stuffing her in a freezer.

Moore rightly warned that “nasty revelations occur about once every ten pages, like the sex scenes in the Harold Robbins novels we used to pass round at boarding school.” But “nasty” may be a euphemism for the thoughts Helen Knightly has while cleaning her mother’s excrement-smeared corpse: “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 reads like a Mitch Albom novel in reverse. Albom writes a third-grade reading level and Sebold at a fourth-grade level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word. The difference is that The Almost Moon serves up grim pseudoprofundities instead of the saccharine ones in For One More Day. “It was a bitter truth – my discovery – that daughters were not made in cookie-cutter patterns from the genes of their mothers alone,” Sebold writes. Apart from the clunky phrasing and clichés in that line, it is hardly news that daughters differ from their mothers. Such observations are what pass for wisdom or originality in The Almost Moon.

Novels infested with ghastly scenes can succeed in either of two ways: by entertaining you, as good mystery and horror novelists do, or by offering insights that make the ghoulishness worthwhile. The Almost Moon brims instead with banalities like this one from last chapter: “There are secret rooms inside us.” Close the door, please.

Best Line: None.

Worst line: The “worsts” fall into several categories. First, the cringe-inducing, like that line about being “face-to-face” with “genitalia.” Second, the pop-psychological. After murdering her mother, Helen explains that she has “control issues” and that “I should have stayed in therapy.” Third, the padded, redundant or clichéd: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” “I had prepacked a bag for the hospital before Sarah was born.” “I like to think, when I think about it, that by that time she was busy taking in the scent of her garden, feeling the late-afternoon sun on her face, and that somehow in the moments that had elapsed since she’d last spoken, she’d forgotten that she ever had a child and that, for so many years now, she’d had to pretend she loved it.”

How to find the reading level of a text: Enter the text into a computer and run the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. If you have Word 2004, you will see the words “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level” at the bottom of the window that opens when the check is finished. This tells you reading level. [If you don’t see a list of “Readability Statistics” after you complete a spell check, search Word Help for “readbility statistics,” then choose “Display Readability Statistics” from the list of options you see.] The first six pages of The Almost Moon had a reading level of Grade 5.5. To see if this was too low, I entered three 300-word passages from pages 23–24, 123–124 and 223–224. The reading levels for these passages averaged out to Grade 4.3. If you average 5.5 and 4.3, you get an overall fourth-grade level, 4.7, for all the passages. The text of this review (from the word “Novelist” through “please”) has a reading level of Grade 10.8.

Published: October 2007

Furthermore: I quoted from Charlotte Moore’s review in the Spectator in a Nov. 14 post and wrote about the first four chapters of The Almost Moon Nov. 23 Sebold, who lives in California, also wrote the novel The Lovely Bones and the memoir, Lucky

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Another brilliant review. Makes me almost tempted to check it out (like watching a “bad” movie), but having read “The Lovely Bones,” I think I’ll pass. 🙂

    Comment by Jon — December 3, 2007 @ 4:06 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks, Jon. I reviewed “The Almost Moon” later than I had planned, because the Bad Sex Award nominees were announced right after I picked it up. And enough reviews of the novel have appeared that I was afraid that nobody would read this one. So glad you found your way to it. Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — December 3, 2007 @ 7:06 pm | Reply

  3. Fascinating. I would love to be able to check the reading level of the last couple of books I’ve read. The one I finished last night was so simplistic that I’m sure it must be a 3rd grade level or below. I have MS Word X for Mac, and I tried it, but can’t seem to make it work.

    Comment by lisamm — December 4, 2007 @ 12:08 am | Reply

  4. That’s strange, because I have a Mac, too. But you might have a newer edition of Word that puts the stats some place else.

    Have you tried searching MS Word “Help” for “readability statistics”? (My edition of Word doesn’t seem to have a roman numeral, but I do have Mac OS X.) Can any visitors who are reading these comments clarify for Lisa and me why this might be happening?

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — December 4, 2007 @ 12:28 am | Reply

  5. Janice, thank you! I did as you suggested, going to the “Help” section for readability statistics, and voila! I was able to figure it out. I copied and pasted my latest book review in to see the reading level, and it came back Grade 8.7. I will have to do a bit better than that in the future! I LOVE that I now know how to check it. Thank you so much!

    Comment by lisamm — December 4, 2007 @ 12:37 am | Reply

  6. My pleasure, Lisa. I’m glad you asked that, because if others are having the same problem, they’ll know how to solve it.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — December 4, 2007 @ 12:50 am | Reply

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