One-Minute Book Reviews

April 17, 2009

Backscratching in Our Time – Haven Kimmel and Suzanne Finnamore

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:30 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Haven Kimmel on Suzanne Finnamore’s Split: A Memoir of Divorce (Dutton, 2008):
“So perfectly right. I loved it, loved it, loved it. P.S. Loved it.”

Haven Kimmel on Suzanne Finnamore’s novel The Zygote Chronicles (Grove, 2002): “The Zygote Chronicles is tender and funny and perfect, and from now on I’m going to read it instead of having more children.”

Suzanne Finnamore on Haven Kimmel’s Something Rising: A Novel: (Free Press, 2005)
“It is impossible to put down, it is impossible to keep from laughing out loud, and it is impossible to imagine a more compelling and poignant coming-of-age story than Something Rising. Shades of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor grace the text…her characters breathe and walk among us, haunting and glorious in their imperfection. It’s official: Haven Kimmel is a national treasure.”

This is the latest in an occasional series of posts on authors who praise each other’s books, inspired by “Logrolling in Our Time” in the old Spy magazine. You can find other examples of literary backscratching in the Backscratching in Our Time category. One-Minute Book Reviews welcomes suggestions about authors who should appear in this series.

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

April 16, 2009

In the Land of the Jane Fonda Urinal Target — ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America’

[You can find some of my comments on the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for books, which will be announced Monday, at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.]

How ignoring the economy and lifting up wedge issues got us into a mess

What’s the Matter With Kansas? By Thomas Frank. How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Holt, 336 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Why did the Republican Party for years attract so many Americans who recently have lost their homes, jobs or life savings to its policies? How did the GOP recast itself as the party of working-class voters, who for generations had lined up behind the Democrats?

Thomas Frank gives bracing and witty answers in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a former New York Times bestseller that is still one of the best books on the political roots of the current fiscal mess. Frank argues that for decades, Republicans have been eroding the traditional Democratic base by focusing on wedge issues such as abortion, gun control, and “filth” in the media, not on the economic policies that separate the parties. And since the Clinton administration, the Democratic Leadership Council has played into their hands by promoting “triangulation,” a business-friendly stance that downplays its differences with the GOP.

The result: The line between the parties blurred, and year after year Americans elected Republicans whose laissez-faire economic policies eventually would wipe out their 401(k)s.

Frank refracts the changes through his native Kansas, once a hotbed of progressive ideals, a state that has paid a scalper’s price for its march to the right. A portent of the American economic meltdown occurred when the attacks of Sept. 11 halted the orders to the Boeing, a mainstay of the Wichita economy. The aircraft manufacturer laid off many union workers and said that, this time, their jobs wouldn’t be coming back.

“In the summer of 2003, unemployment in Wichita passed 7 percent and foreclosures on homes spiked as these disasters reverberated through the local economy,” Frank writes.

But Kansans didn’t seem blame the Republican union-busting policies exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire striking air traffic controllers. The state went for George Bush in 2004. And Frank’s pessimism about its political climate seems well-founded, if not prophetic, given the economic free fall that has occurred since the publication of his book. Even as the recession was spreading around the world, Kansas voted Republican in the 2008 presidential election.

Best line: At Kansas Vietnam Veterans reunion in 2002, trinket vendors sold “such items as the Jane Fonda urinal target.

Worst line: Frank describes how the national swerve to the right affected his hometown, the affluent Mission Hills, Kansas, and says you “can observe the same changes” in Shaker Heights, Ohio. No, you can’t. Parts of Shaker Heights — where I lived for 11 of the years when those changes supposed to be occurring — may look like Mission Hills with its castellated stone fortresses. But the Cleveland suburb is 10 times the size of Mission Hills, has a far more diverse population, and for other reasons does not fit the pattern he describes. Shaker Heights has lost enough of its cachet in the past several decades that the elite suburbs now lie farther to the east. Those suburbs include Hunting Valley, which more closely resembles his hometown.

Editor: Sara Bershtel

Published: June 2004 (hardcover), April 2005 (paperback).

Furthermore: Frank’s latest book is The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 15, 2009

Ruth Reichl’s Memoir ‘Not Becoming My Mother’ – An Apple Falls Far From the Tree

The editor-in-chief of Gourmet remembers a mother diagnosed as manic depressive

Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. By Ruth Reichl. Penguin, 112 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

This elegant memoir is a gentler nonfiction counterpart to Diary of a Mad Housewife, Sue Kaufman’s tragicomic 1967 novel about a well-off woman who chafes against the sterility of her life as a Manhattan wife and mother. Kaufman’s Tina Balser decanted her resentments into a journal. Mim Reichl recorded hers in letters and on scraps of paper that her daughter, the editor-in-chief of Gourmet, drew on for this slender book.

Born in 1908 in Cleveland, Mim wanted to become a doctor like her father. But she yielded to parental pressure to get a Ph.D. in a field she disliked so much, musicology, that after obtaining her degree she never played her violin again. A lifetime of frustration followed as she explored paths to fulfillment that kept turning into cul-de-sacs: volunteering, raising children, starting a business.

Like legions of her contemporaries, Mim Reichl was overeducated for work as a housewife, a woman who might seem to embody what Betty Friedan would call in The Feminine Mystique the problem that has no name.”

“I can feel myself growing more and more rebellious,” she said when her bland first husband complained about her housekeeping. “Who cares about menus and the way they are cooked when there are so many more interesting things to think about?”

A move to New York and a happier second marriage didn’t end her discontents. She wrote The Homemaker’s Encyclopedia, 12-volume set that she and her husband produced and that sold well. But when that project ended, she had trouble finding a job. In the years just after World War II, many Americans considered it unpatriotic for women to take jobs from the returning soldiers.

“You women and girls go home, back to being housewives, as you promised to do,” an army general said in a televised speech.

As the years of underemployment wore on, Mim was diagnosed as manic depressive and took lithium. “Was she crazy, or was she crazy because she had nothing to do?” Ruth Reichl wonders.

A good question, but perhaps oversimplified. Mim thought in either-or terms (“I am a failure” and “My children have abandoned me”) and treated her daughter at times with shocking cruelty. Her reaction was brutal when Ruth, who had become a food writer, got her first book contract. “Do you think we sent you to graduate school so you could write cookbooks?” she asked. “When are you going to do something worthwhile?” Mim’s behavior often seems less typical of manic depression than of borderline personality disorder, characterized in part by a tendency to see the world in black-and-white, one of several alternate diagnoses unexplored in the book. At times, Mim’s mental health seems so fragile that the focus on her thwarted career seems misplaced: You wonder if she could have found satisfaction in any field or had condition, perhaps biological in origin, that would have caught up with her in any job. For all we learn about her, Mim remains an enigma.

But if Reichl leaves questions unanswered, she has written a warm and forgiving portrait of a woman who gave her many reasons to do otherwise. The most poignant sections of Not Becoming My Mother suggest that Mim never stopped trying to solve the problem of her life. As an old woman, she wrote: “Who am I? What do I want? … I need to find me.” That line echoes softly one that she wrote years earlier: “I am so sorry I did not pursue a career. If I teach Ruthy nothing else, I must make her see this. In the end, it is meaningful work – serving people – that matters most. It is what we were made for.”

That line – in which Mim seems to imply that motherhood is not “meaningful work” – makes this an odd book for a publisher to be pitching to the Mother’s Day gift market. It tells a bleak enough story that its arrival in stores may be a few weeks premature. This is an iffy prospect for your mother, but it could be fine gift for a daughter who is graduating in June.

Best line: “A fifties ad for Dexedrine pictured a sad, pretty young woman holding a dish towel and surrounded by dirty dishes. ‘Why is this woman tired?’ asked the copy. ‘Many of your patients – particularly housewives – are crushed under a load of dull, routine duties that leave them in a state of mental and emotional fatigue. For these patients, you may find Dexedrine an ideal prescription. Dexedrine will give them a feeling of energy and well-being, renewing their interest in life and living.”

Worst line: Reichl says that as she read her mother’s papers, “I began to understand that in the end you are the only one who can make yourself happy.” She doesn’t say exactly when she found the cache that inspired this book, but she was apparently well into adulthood. And you don’t believe for a minute that a woman as accomplished as Reichl “began to understand” so late in life that she had to make herself happy. After all that has come before it, that line – found in the last paragraph – seems glib.

Recommendation? This is a good book but overpriced. A typical 250–300 page hardcover costs $25. This one has 128 pages and costs $19.95. You do the math.

Published: To be published on April 21, 2009

Read an excerpt from Not Becoming My Mother.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of Not Becoming My Mother. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 14, 2009

More on ‘What’s the Difference Between a Novel and a Short Story?’ (Quote of the Day / Allan Gurganus)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:14 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

The Oxford American

What’s the difference between a novel and a short story? In earlier posts, I’ve quoted answers from Eudora Welty and Orson Scott Card. Here’s a response from Allan Gurganus, author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, in the Winter 2006 issue of The Oxford American:

“Like vocal music, stories consist wholly of what singers call ‘exposed notes.’ Meaning: If you go sharp, everybody’s going to hear. Novels are more forgiving; chapters can vary in quality. They can be assembled so a weaker unit gets propped between its betters.

“But, poem-like, everything in a short story must count, must show.”

I keep returning to the question “How does a novel differ from a short story?” in part because it helps to explain why works of fiction succeed or fail. Many novels try to do too little — their plots or ideas are so skimpy, they deserve no more than a short story. With the markets for stories dwindling, you see this problem more and more: for example, in Mitch Albom’s novels, which deal with simple ideas that might have worked better at a shorter length. More rarely, short stories try to do too much — their subjects are so large or diverse that they deserve a novel. A good question for book clubs to explore, when members dislike books, might be: Did the author choose the right form for this material?

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

April 13, 2009

Review of Lisa Scottoline’s ‘Look Again’ in the Washington Post

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:55 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Update: When I posted this, anyone could read the review I mention below without registering. But since then, it’s been archived, and you have to log in (free). Jan

Lisa Scottoline’s 16th thriller arrives in bookstores this week. The heroine of Look Again works my profession (journalism) and in a city (Philadelphia) not far from where I grew up. You can read my review of the book in today’s Washington Post.

April 12, 2009

Remembering FDR’s Death on April 12, 1945 (Quote of the Day / Harry Truman on the Death of FDR via Max Hastings)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:55 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Just as baby boomers remember where they were on when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been shot, their parents know where they were on April 12, 1945, when they learned that Franklin D. Roosevelt had died. How did Harry Truman react to his predecessor’s death? Max Hastings answers in his  Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45 (Knopf, $35):

“Harry Truman has come to be regarded as one of America’s outstanding national leaders of the twentieth century. In the spring of 1945, however, this decent, simple, impulsive man was all but overwhelmed by the burden of office thrust upon him by Roosevelt’s death on 12 April. ‘I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me,’ he told reporters on the afternoon that he was sworn in. ‘Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now.’ One journalist said: ‘Good luck, Mr. President.’ Truman said: ‘I wish you didn’t have to call me that.’”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

April 11, 2009

Robinson, Updike or Roth Will Win the 2009 Pulitzer for Fiction, Statistical Analysis Shows — But Don’t Count on It

I’m on record as saying that the frontrunner for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction would seem to be Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy, which I haven’t read. Morrison is the only Nobel Prize–winner in the hunt. And I think it’s going to be tough for the judges to pass over a laureate, although the National Book Critics Circle board did it in March.

But a research scientist and a book collector have reached a different conclusion by using regression analysis, a statistical technique for evaluating variables. The two say that the books most likely to win the 2009 fiction prize are Marilynne Robinson’s Home, John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick, and Philip Roth’s Indignation. They’ve also identified the 12 other candidates that, based on their analysis, are most like to win, all listed in order at  PPrize.com. You can read their 2008 predictions — and how they fared — on the same site. The Pulitzer Prizes honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction — and will be announced on Monday, April 20, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

2009 Pulitzer Prizes to Be Announced on April 20 at 3 p.m.

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:17 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The winners of the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced on Monday, April 20, 2009, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time at a press conference at Columbia University. The awards honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction. The finalists will be named at the same time, and the judges may decline to give a prize in any category.

More Good Coupons for Kids in a New Hallmark Gift Book

Filed under: Holiday Gift Books,How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:29 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Just before Christmas, I wrote about a book of tear-out coupons full of good IOUs for children that vanished from stores soon after I found it at CVS. I speculated that the item had been recalled because it contained a coupon that promised a child a lottery ticket when the laws in most states forbid the sale of lottery tickets to anyone under 18.

Now the book is back in slightly different form with a new title, What a Great Kid! Coupon Book: 52 Ways to Tell Kids “You’re Loved” (Hallmark Gift Books, 120 pp., $5.95, paperback), minus the lottery-ticket coupon. As in the earlier version, some coupons would appeal mainly to younger children. (“TRADE THIS IN FOR A ROYAL NIGHT … Good for one evening of being treated like royalty. You’ll be waited on hand and foot, and the entire family will refer to you as ‘your royal highness’ or ‘your majesty.’”) Other coupons might please children of any age, including teenagers. (“Not today! Pick your least favorite chore and SKIP doing it today!”) But the earlier bok disappeared so fast that there’s no telling how long this one will remain in stores, so if you may need a last-minute children’s holiday gift, you might pick one up well before December.

At this writing What a Great Kid! isn’t listed on the Hallmark site. But I found it at a Walgreen’s, and it’s also supposed to be available at Hallmark stores. Watch a video about it here.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 10, 2009

Winston Groom’s ‘Vicksburg, 1863’ — The Creator of Forrest Gump Reconsiders a Pivotal Moment in the Civil War

Filed under: History,News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:08 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Just back from a great talk by Winston Groom at a signing for his new nonfiction book, Vicksburg, 1863 (Knopf, 496 pp., $30). I didn’t take notes because a friend and I stopped by on our way to a Maundy Thursday service and planned to listen for just a few minutes. But the talk was so captivating we stayed for all of it and just made it to the church on time.

A few points stood out: Gettysburg is better known than Vicksburg and often viewed as more important to the Civil War. But by dint of its strategic location on the Mississippi, Vicksburg had more geographic value. Two years of bloodshed might have been avoided if the South had offered the North terms for ending the war as catastrophe loomed. After its besieged forces surrendered on July 4, 1863, the day after Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, Vicksburg didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July for a century.

Groom’s talk was full of lively details about how the residents of the Vicksburg tried to stay alive while trapped. Some ate mule meat or eluded artillery fire by digging caves – later intentionally destroyed — that might held fascinating clues to how people survived the devastation of 1863.

If you’d like to know more, an excerpt from the book appears on the Knopf site. The publisher also has posted a quote from a review by John Sledge, the books editor of the Mobile Press-Register, who “There have been many books about Vicksburg, but none better than this.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: