One-Minute Book Reviews

June 1, 2008

The Ruthless Book Club – June 2008 Meeting

Filed under: Ruthless Book Club — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:03 am
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Okay, everybody. Time to start the first meeting of the Ruthless Book Club, the reading group for people who don’t like reading groups. Did you bring the cake and coffee?

The Ruthless Book Club is a guilt-free online book club with no required reading. All you have to do to take part is to leave a brief comment about a book that’s on your mind or that another visitor has mentioned. (The book can’t be one you got for free from the publisher or anyone else with ties to the book – that’s one reason this is called the Ruthless Book Club.) You can bring up another book at the July 1 meeting.

I promised to get the discussion started, so here’s my comment:

Not long ago, I reviewed John Buchan’s classic spy novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, which Alfred Hitchcock made into one of his best movies. I hadn’t read the book sooner partly because I thought I “knew” it from the film. But Hitchcock made so many changes in the plot and other aspects of the story that I didn’t know it at all. That experience reminded me of how often movies affect our perceptions of novels. Some films keep us away from books because they’re so good, we imagine that they are definitive. Other films keep us away because they’re so bad they mislead us about whether we might enjoy the books that inspired them.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Hi, Janice. You said, “Some films keep us away from books because they’re so good, we imagine that they are definitive. Other films keep us away because they’re so bad they mislead us about whether we might enjoy the books that inspired them.”

    And sometimes (though rarely) films are EXACTLY like the book. I recently got organized to read James Jones’s From Here to Eternity. I got about halfway through it (and it was fairly good if not tremendously exciting), and then I gave in to temptation and rented the DVD of the movie. The movie recreated what I had already read almost scene by scene, and then showed me how the book ended. I lost all momentum to finish the book!

    Comment by impreader — June 1, 2008 @ 12:40 pm | Reply

  2. And what a great performance by Frank Sinatra! Who knew that Ol’ Blue Eyes could act?

    I haven’t read “From Here to Eternity” but agree that some film versions of novels are close to perfect, given the limits of the medium. Some of the Jane Austen films on A&E or PBS have fallen into that category.

    [For visitors unfamiliar with the novel: The action in James Jones’s “From Here to Eternity” takes place on a naval base in Hawaii just before Pearl Harbor. For a long time it was one of the most popular and acclaimed World War II novels, though fewer people seem to be reading it these days. And like “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” it may be better known through its movie version.]

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 1, 2008 @ 1:08 pm | Reply

  3. Interesting discussion.

    Sometimes books that are widely lauded make you wonder why you aren’t with the rest of the crowd in your own assessment of them. Eckhard Tolle’s recent success is a good example. And, naturally, if you aren’t thrilled with the book, you don’t care whether or not it’s made into a movie.

    That said, an example of this phenomenon for me was Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World.

    Slogged through the book. Didn’t want to see the movie (and didn’t).

    Comment by ggelliott — June 1, 2008 @ 1:15 pm | Reply

  4. Did you slog through “A Map of the World” for a book club? A lot of groups seem to read her.

    If you did, how did the others like her? If not, what made you pick up her book?

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 1, 2008 @ 1:55 pm | Reply

  5. I saw that Hitchcock movie, Janice, but never thought about reading the book. Perhaps now I will.


    Comment by knightofswords — June 1, 2008 @ 2:16 pm | Reply

  6. Thanks, Malcolm. My edition of “The Thirty-Nine Steps” has fewer than 100 pages, though some of the others (which have introductions and other supplemental material) have closer to 150.

    From my perspective that makes a good book to take on, say, a long plane flight. You could finish it on the trip (or during one of those airport delays we’re sure to get this summer).

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 1, 2008 @ 2:24 pm | Reply

  7. Jan,

    I read A Map of the World after noting it as an Oprah’s Book Club choice. I don’t regularly watch Oprah; I guess it was happenstance that I noticed its inclusion in her club, and picked up a copy.

    I won’t go into the many maddening weaknesses I found it to contain. They are well summed-up on Amazon in the one- and two-star reader reviews!

    You’ve gotten me thinking with this exercise. Now I’m trying to remember other books that made me want to avoid the movie versions.

    Comment by ggelliott — June 1, 2008 @ 4:03 pm | Reply

  8. You really wonder what’s behind some of Oprah’s choices, don’t you? She’s picked some great ones (“Love in the Time of Cholera”) and others that are so bad, you almost wonder how the same person could like them.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 1, 2008 @ 9:52 pm | Reply

  9. Not sure if I’m commenting too late, and/or if this is what you have in mind for the book club, but a book I really enjoyed this month was “A Free Life” by Ha Jin. It’s a very quiet book, but I was riveted by the story of the Chinese immigrant family and their attempts to have the American Dream. I was most affected by the main character’s desire to write poetry, his belief that he was a failure (even though to the outside world he was a great success in his work and home life) and his view of what it means to be an artist.

    Comment by sarahsk — June 5, 2008 @ 9:47 pm | Reply

  10. Sarah: Not too late at all. The idea is that people can comment at any time during the month. And I’m going to do a separate post listing some of the authors mentioned here, in case people would like to know more about them.

    So glad you mentioned Ha Jin. I admired his “Waiting” greatly and have been hoping to mention him on this site somehow. By any chance, did you read “Waiting,” too (a National Book Award winner)? I would love to know “A Free Life” compared to it.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 5, 2008 @ 9:58 pm | Reply

  11. I finished reading “The Echo Maker” by Richard Powers on Saturday, but it took me a couple days to figure out what I wanted to say about it. I had high hopes for this 2006 National Book Award winner (and 2007 Pulitzer nominee) for fiction.

    The book is full of outstanding metaphors and lyrical language. The setting is intriguing. However, the plot is rather far-fetched, the ending was a letdown, and I found I didn’t care about any of the characters. Bleh.

    Another case of an over-rated award winner?

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — June 5, 2008 @ 11:33 pm | Reply

  12. “Another case of an over-rated award winner?” Could be.

    Each National Book Award category has only five judges. This means that one or two judges can have tremendous influence and that the award can reflect the taste of a tiny number of people.

    Compare the National Book Awards with the Pulitzers (where the winner has to get by both a committee of judges and the Pulitzer board) and the National Book Critics Circle Awards (judged by about two dozen critics). The larger judging panels can present their own problems.

    But the Pulitzers and NBCC Awards seem slightly less likely to leave you wondering, “What were those judges thinking?” I don’t read all NBA fiction winners. But of those I’ve read, coincidentally, the last one I really liked was “Waiting” by Ha Jin, the author Sarah just mentioned.

    So over the long term, your “Bleh” reaction is definitely not yours alone …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 6, 2008 @ 1:08 am | Reply

  13. Wow, thanks Jan, I didn’t know that about the National Book Awards. I also read the 2006 National Book Award nonfiction winner, Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time” about the dust bowl years, and loved it. But then, I live near its setting, in a part of the country still affected by occasional dust storms.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — June 6, 2008 @ 8:58 am | Reply

  14. And sometimes the book can keep one from watching the film. I’ve deliberately abstained from “The Namesake”, knowing the film, despite its good reviews, would never live up to my expectations.

    Comment by mystic wanderer — June 6, 2008 @ 11:15 am | Reply

  15. Amanda: When I started at the Plain Dealer, each National Book Award category had only three judges. And one year there was such a controversy over this (in the form of the accusation that one judge had unduly influenced another), that the National Book Foundation expanded it to five. But that’s still pretty small, because the winner only needs a majority — three people.

    Mystic: I’ve done the same thing. Not with “The Namesake,” but many others. Some books, by their nature, are very hard to translate into film.

    A Hollywood cliche says, “Bad books made good movies” (The example often given of this is “The Godfather.”) And there’s some truth to this. A great screenwriter can raise a bad book to a higher power. But even a great screenwriter may only wreck a great book.


    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 6, 2008 @ 11:33 am | Reply

  16. Since we’re mentioning book awards, I can say that one of the worst books I’ve slogged through in recent memory is Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, which inexplicably won the Booker Prize in 2006.

    It takes place on the India-Nepal border in the 1980s, and centers on a community of Anglophile Bengalis when the Nepalis in their community try ineptly to take over the area for Nepal. Loathsome characters, nonexistant plot, and a writing style so cloyingly ornate it would make a reader want to tear his hair out!

    On the other hand, I read March by Geraldine Brooks which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 and was about the imagined Civil War experiences of the absent father from Little Women — fascinating read! I really recommend March.

    So, I don’t know if the difference in my reaction to these books is cultural, stylistic, or what. But I do tend to prefer the Pulitzer Prize winners to the National Book Award winners and both of those to the Booker Prize.

    Comment by impreader — June 6, 2008 @ 11:41 am | Reply

  17. You finished “The Inheritance of Loss”? You’ve got me beat. I wrote about that novel last year as a “Man Booker Prize Reality Check” in my series “Books I Didn’t Finish”

    By my lights, Desai has a strong feel for the landscape of the region she describes, much less so for characters. To oversimplify, I quit because the characters never became “real” to me — they seemed a vehicle for writing about conflicts in Nepal. So my views may be close to yours on this one …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 6, 2008 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

  18. Yes, I actually finished it. It was a huge struggle! Your insight on Desai’s unrealistic characters is right on target. In fact, several Bengali readers living in the USA and in India wrote reviews on that indicated that Desai had absolutely no rapport with, or knowledge of, the middle-class Bengali viewpoint.

    Comment by impatientreaderdotcom — June 6, 2008 @ 1:25 pm | Reply

  19. Congratulations! “The Inheritance of Loss” is extremely popular with traditional book clubs. And it sounds as though reading groups that haven’t done it might want to take a look at the Amazon reviews you mentioned before they select it.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 6, 2008 @ 2:02 pm | Reply

  20. Hi Jan, I haven’t read “Waiting” yet but it sounds like it’s definitely worth checking out! “A Free Life” was my first experience reading Ha Jin’s work. Something else I liked about the book was that the chapters were extremely short, which added to the experience of “day-to-day”-ness, and feeling like you were there.

    MysticWanderer, I have “The Namesake” on my to-read list, and I’ve avoided the film for the same reason you mentioned.

    Comment by sarahsk — June 6, 2008 @ 2:31 pm | Reply

  21. Short chapters, when handled well, can also help to give a novel a very quick pace (in addition to that sense of immediacy that you mentioned). And a fast pace can be so appealing, especially if you’ve recently had a run of turgid books. I wonder if the short chapters helped to create that effect in “A Free Life”?

    One of my favorite classic novels with very short chapters is Evan Connell’s “Mrs. Bridge.” Just a great book. And, alas, one many people may have avoided because of an apparently lackluster movie of it with Joanne Woodward in the title role.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 6, 2008 @ 2:49 pm | Reply

  22. I thought Brooks’ “March” was excellent, too, Impreader – probably helps that “Little Women” was my favorite book growing up. I’ll have to look more at Pulitzer winners in the future…AND read more reviews of award-winners no matter what the award.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — June 6, 2008 @ 10:27 pm | Reply

  23. Yeah, I too struggled through “Inheritance of Loss” (and did eventually finish it). Leave alone the Bengalis (who were side characters anyway), the main characters themselves seemed very stilted.

    Thus, not all award winners are well deserved.

    Comment by mystic wanderer — June 6, 2008 @ 10:29 pm | Reply

  24. I wonder: Did anybody love “The Inheritance of Loss”?

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 7, 2008 @ 1:16 pm | Reply

  25. I’m in a minority when it comes to MARCH, for Brooks–in my view–stole Alcott’s character and changed him. She made Mr. March even more “out there” and inept (in matters of reality and practicality) than Bronson Alcott. Even if one likes the result, it’s hard to imagine Louisa May Alcott approving of it any more than Mitchell would approve of RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE.


    Comment by knightofswords — June 8, 2008 @ 9:52 am | Reply

  26. I love minority views. Don’t forget: When all the London odds-makers were predicting that “On Chesil Beach” and “Mr. Pip” would win the 2007 Man Booker, I kept saying for weeks, “No, no, no. These novels are not worthy of a major international prize.”

    So I’m glad to have your comments. And I have avoided “March” for reasons similar to yours. Historical novels, in general, are the hardest to make credible. They’re that much harder when you insert real-life characters. Some critics would argue that Tolstoy should have cut those walk-ons for Napoleon “War and Peace.”

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 8, 2008 @ 12:46 pm | Reply

  27. Malcolm & Jan – First, I would note that Mr. March in “March” is NOT Bronson Alcott, he’s Mr. March from “Little Women” (and its sequels, where he is a bit more fleshed out). I think in both this case and that of Rhett in “Rhett Butler’s People,” it’s hard to do an imaginative retelling of beloved fictional characters without getting some people upset – not to mention the likelihood that the original authors wouldn’t like the changes.

    To me, it’s similar to historical fiction with character(s) that were real people from history. I’m thinking of Philippa Gregory’s Tudor-era books since I’ve read so many of them lately. She makes some assumptions about some of these historical characters for which there’s no proof one way or the other. Some people hate it; I’m one of the ones who find it to be creative storytelling. Alison Weir (a noted historian) has done similar things with “Innocent Traitor” (about Jane Grey) and her new book, “The Lady Elizabeth.” Both authors usually have author’s notes at the end of the books, telling what’s true and what’s not. It’s made me even more interested in reading more of the history of this era.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — June 8, 2008 @ 8:31 pm | Reply

  28. Thanks, Amanda. I’ve noticed that in a lot of historical fiction now, you have not just the author’s notes that you mentioned but other material, such as interview and information on the author’s research methods (as in a book I reviewed recently, “Daughter of York,” based on the real-life Margaret of York).

    That kind of supplemental material can be very helpful it in itself. Even if you don’t like a book, if the back matter is well done, it can get help to get you interested in a historical era … which could lead you to other books you might like more.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 8, 2008 @ 9:23 pm | Reply

  29. While I’m a big fan of a lot of historical fiction, I do cringe from time to time about the various views (and made-up dialogue) of actual personages taken by different authors. Even with the disclaimers, I suspect a lot of readers come away thinking that the portrayals of real life people are more photographically real than they really are.

    I see a difference, though, between, say, Jeff Shaara creating “his version” of General Patton in “The Steel Wave” and Geraldine Brooks creating her version of Mr. March. Patton lived and breathed and there is a lot of information out there to go on for various legitimate points of view. Regardless of the fact both Alcott and Brooks modeled Mr. March after Bronson Alcott to varying degrees, the character is not Bronson. If he were Bronson, then I wouldn’t feel he was Alcott’s personal creation that shouldn’t be tinkered with by another author. I don’t want to include a spoiler here, but a friendship Mr. March has in “March” would be, I think, out of bounds insofar as Louisa is concerned.

    Interesting subject for debate, but I’ll resist the temptation here for fear of further hijacking the threat. “-)


    Comment by knightofswords — June 10, 2008 @ 9:44 pm | Reply

  30. Malcolm: Enjoyed your comments, but the power situation here is still very iffy, so I’m afraid to stay on the computer. More soon. Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 10, 2008 @ 11:07 pm | Reply

  31. Good luck with the power, Jan. Needless to say, the last word in my previous comment was meant to be “thread.”


    Comment by knightofswords — June 11, 2008 @ 9:53 am | Reply

  32. On books to movies or worse, to TV.

    I have a copy of LONESOME DOVE gathering dust on my Must-Read pile simply because several writers have pointed to it as breaking some “craft” rules, particularly in terms of handling dialogue. This piqued my curiosity.

    I have not watched the TV movie.
    Nor have I read past page 40 in the (very thick) book. Um, I’m not feeling it. But I don’t want to miss something. Should I keep going? What am I in for?

    Comment by oh — June 15, 2008 @ 11:52 am | Reply

  33. I haven’t read ‘Lonesome Dove,’ but did read one of the novels that came after it — not a book that would ever make we want to return to the earlier ones.

    A while back, I mentioned casually that starting with the wrong book by an author can keep you from ever discovering the better ones. And I may have started with the wrong one by McMurtry, because based on that one, his reputation seems greatly inflated.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 15, 2008 @ 3:03 pm | Reply

  34. Gonna have to think about starting with the wrong choice. I know it has happened to me, but have to go through the mental file.
    About the book to movie to book question,I refuse to watch The Kite Runner movie. For one thing, I don’t want a visual of the brutality. And the imprint of that story is still in my memory and I’d like it to linger as is.

    But I would argue you can’t go wrong with the book and movie versions of: To Kill a Mockingbird, A Room with a View, or Sense & Sensibility.

    My favorite book is Peace Like a River and it is in the production process. After going to the author’s book signing, he assured me after rewriting the screenplay that it looks good. But I’m still nervous.

    Comment by litchickmel — June 27, 2008 @ 11:44 pm | Reply

  35. Are you thinking of the Emma Thompson “Sense and Sensibility”? There are a couple of good movies of that book. I also like the films of “To Kill a Mockingbird” adn “A Room With a View” (the one that was the breakout film Helena Bonham-Carter).

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 28, 2008 @ 4:37 pm | Reply

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