One-Minute Book Reviews

June 30, 2009

More Cracks in Alice Hoffman’s Glass Slipper

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On Sunday the novelist Alice Hoffman posted on her Twitter feed a nasty and potentially libelous personal attack on the critic Roberta Silman, who had given her new The Story Sisters a tepid review that day in The Boston Globe. Since then, Hoffman reportedly has closed her Twitter account, and the Jacket Copy blog at the Los Angeles Times and others have published the details of controversy, so I won’t rehash it now.  But because Silman criticized The Story Sisters for defects similar to those I’ve observed frequently in Hoffman’s books over the past two decades or so, I’m reposting a review of her Skylight Confessions that first appeared on this site on February 15, 2007, under the title “Cracks in Alice Hoffman’s Glass Slipper.”

A Cinderella tale takes a dark and supernatural turn for a heroine who believes in fate

Skylight Confessions: A Novel. By Alice Hoffman. Little, Brown/Back Bay, 262 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Brooke Allen wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Skylight Confessions is a kind of fairy tale for college graduates, a book that has “enough intellectual trappings to flatter readers into thinking that they are getting some mental nourishment” but that in essence is a “pure romance novel and nothing more.” I wish I could say it wasn’t true.

But Allen got it right – except that this is a Cinderella story in reverse. Like a romance novel, Skylight Confessions has a plain and virginal heroine – with “no college degree, no talents to speak of” — whose goodness and belief in fate allow her marry “up.” Arlyn Singer even gets her own counterpart to Cinderella’s footwear when her husband inherits a steel-and-glass house in Connecticut known as the Glass Slipper.

Skylight Confessions also requires you to accept the extraordinarily implausible events found in romance novels. Here are some that occur in the first 20 pages: On the night her father dies and leaves her orphaned at the age of 17, Arlie decides that she will marry the first man who walks down her street. She stands on her front porch for three hours until, sure enough, a Yalie with “beautiful pale eyes” stops to ask directions. Though she’s alone in the house, she invites him in. He nods off on the couch, and while he’s sleeping, she takes off all her clothes in the kitchen. When he awakes and finds her naked, they fall into each other’s arms. They stay in bed until he cruelly leaves her three days later with out saying goodbye. However hurt she is by this, Arlie believes “things happen for a reason,” so within two weeks, she sells her house and belongings and shows up unannounced at his dorm at Yale. He doesn’t want to see her, but she persists, and they marry.

The novel doesn’t become more believable after this — it becomes less so as Hoffman rolls out her signature elements of magic and the supernatural. But it does become much darker. Arlie and her children suffer continual disasters, including the arrival of a wicked stepmother, all described in prose that alternates between the overwrought language of melodrama and the banalities of pop psychology. “Was she an enabler?” a nanny wonders as she tries to keep a delinquent child out of jail. And while the novel asserts that such events eventually change some characters, it doesn’t begin to prove it. The glass slipper that shatters in the opening pages of the novel never gets put back together.

Best line: On pearls that were originally “the color of camellias”: “After she’d gone through radiation, the poison from inside her skin had soaked into the pearls; they’d turned black, like pearls from Tahiti, exact opposites of what they should be.”

Worst line: The first sentence typifies the ponderous writing: “She was his first wife, but at the moment when he first saw her she was a seventeen-year-old girl named Arlyn Singer who stood out on the front porch on an evening that seemed suspended in time.” Cross out that “at the moment” and the sentence loses nothing. So why is it there?

Published: January 2007

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

‘Our Poor Degraded Sex’ — Quote of the Day / Queen Victoria in ‘We Two’

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Gillian Gill’s new We Two has disarmingly blunt comments on womanhood by Queen Victoria, a mother of nine who hated pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum woes. A review of Gill’s biography of Victoria and Albert will appear this week.

One memorable quote turns up in a letter from Queen Victoria to her daughter Vicky, who had married Prince Frederick William of Prussia. Vicky complained that Prussian men cared only for women who beautiful and fertile. Queen Victoria sent her daughter a letter that had something of the spirit of Carrie Bradshaw:

“That despising of our poor degraded sex … is a little in all clever men’s natures; dear Papa [Prince Albert] is not quite exempt though he would not admit it – but he laughs and sneers constantly at many of them and their inevitable inconveniences, etc. Though he hates the want of affection, of due attention and protection of them, says that all men who leave all home affairs – and the education of their children – to their wives, forget their first duties.”

June 28, 2009

The Danger of Rereading Your Favorite Books — Quote of the Day / Edward M. Yoder, Jr.

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:34 pm
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A perceptive comment by Edwin M. Yoder, Jr. in the preface to the paperback edition of North Toward Home (Vintage, 1967), Willie Morris’s memoir of his Mississippi boyhood and later work as editor-in-chief of Harper’s magazine in New York:

“Rereading a special book is risky, like a rendezvous with a long-unseen old friend. It is a relief to find the remembered intimacy unwarped by time.”

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June 27, 2009

A Teacher With Large Breasts and a Small Brain Gets Her Comeuppance in ‘The Dunderheads,’ A Picture Book by Paul Fleischman, Illustrated by David Roberts

Students seek revenge when Miss Breakbone calls them dunderheads

The Dunderheads. By Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by David Roberts. Candlewick, 56 pp., $16.99. Age range: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

A cynic might call The Dunderheads an ideal book for anyone who believes that children are never too young to learn that some women with large breasts do have small brains. But that view may be too harsh. David Roberts’s pictures are often funny even if the protagonist of this book looks like a refugee from a wacky Hooters franchise staffed by middle-aged teachers-union members.

The cruel Miss Breakbone seems not to have gotten the message that she might crush her students’ fragile self-esteem if she never assigns essays on topics like, “Why I’m Special.” She brazenly calls her class a bunch of dunderheads – at least when she isn’t confiscating their cell phones and vowing not to give them back.

But her students have self-esteem to spare, fostered by their many achievements, and Miss Breakbone is too dumb to see how smart they really are. A female student nicknamed Hollywood is typical: “She’s got every movie that was ever made and has watched them all 11 times.” So one day when Miss Breakbone goes too far, her students take their revenge in a breaking-and-entering caper that ends when she finds a note that says, “The Dunderheads were here!”

All of this is reasonably diverting, owing largely to Roberts’s flair for visually amusing details, such as the skull-shaped lamp on Miss Breakbone’s dresser. But the plotting isn’t as clever nor is the writing as sharp as in in many other tales of a classroom revolt, such as Miss Nelson Is Missing!. Miss Breakbone’s name, for example, is somewhat labored and not as funny as that of Viola Swamp in Harry Allard and James Marshall’s back-to-school tale.  And a goggle-eyed character named “Google-Eyes” may leave some children using the incorrect phrase for a lifetime.

Best line / picture: Roberts’s spread showing the movie addict named Hollywood in a bunker-like room full of cables, DVDs, Oscar statues, and a television and larger-than-life remote control.

Worst line / picture: “That’s when Google-Eyes went to work.” The girl shown on this spread isn’t “Google-eyed” but “goggle-eyed.” Fleischman also writes: “Spider went up the drainpipe like malt up a straw.” That similie sounds dated coming from a young narrator whose classmates bring cell phones to school, all members of a generation that might never drink a malted milk (if that’s what’s meant here).

Suggested age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 6–10. This suggestion is unrealistic for many children given that The Dunderheads has a picture-book format and children often begin to spurn picture books at about the age of 6 or 7 (and to crave picture books that have more than 32 pages, as this one does, one starting at 4 or 5). School Library Journal says the book is for Grades 2-5 (roughly ages 7-10). But, again, it seems too optimistic to believe this book would appeal to many 8- and 9-year-olds who have enjoyed, for example, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The natural audience for the format of The Dunderheads might seem to be 4- and 5-year-olds who want picture books with more than the usual 32 pages, such as the original Flat Stanley with words by Jeff Brown and illustrations by Tomi Ungerer. But — speaking just for myself — I wouldn’t give this one to a literal-minded child who start school soon because of its message, however humorously developed, that some teachers just hate children and, if you get one, you may feel better if you take criminal acts of revenge.

Published: June 2009

About the author and illustrator: Fleischman, a Californian, won the 1989 Newbery Medal for Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices and has posted an excerpt from it on his Web site. Roberts lives in London and has illustrated many books for children, some of them prize-winners.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.  To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Books that will reviewed on this site are sometimes announced in advance at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

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

June 25, 2009

Backscratching in Our Time – Stephen McCauley and Elinor Lipman

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:33 pm
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The latest in an occasional series of posts on authors who praise each other’s books

Stephen McCauley on Elinor Lipman’s The Family Man:

“Elinor Lipman’s patented blend of wit, whimsy, and love for her characters makes every sentence of The Family Man shine. The book is a delightful Manhattan romp that offers 300 pages of pure reading pleasure.”

Elinor Lipman on Stephen McCauley’s Alternatives to Sex:
Alternatives to Sex is my favorite of Stephen McCauley’s wonderful novels. This is genius at work, but genius of the best, most readable kind: witty, lovable, and so amazingly smart about love in many forms — about friendship, about marriage, about real estate.”

The “Backscratching in Our Time” archives have other examples of well-known authors who blurb each other’s books. Do you you know of writers should be included in this series? If so, you can nominate them by sending an e-message to the address on the “Contact” page for this site.

What’s the Difference Between Historical and Romance Novels? Quote of the Day – Philippa Gregory on Anya Seton

Filed under: Historical Novels,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:26 am
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Philippa Gregory introduces Anya Seton's "Katherine."

I haven’t read the novels of Philippa Gregory, a superstar in historical fiction particularly known for her books about the Tudor era, such as The Other Boleyn Girl. But I found my way to Gregory’s Web site after picking up a 1958 edition of Anya Seton’s The Winthrop Woman at library giveaway. The book had blurbs that called it “the famous story of a passionate woman who scandalized her Puritan world” and who “shocked the bigoted colonists by daring to love one man while married to another.” I read a few chapters and found that – those racy lines aside – the book was much better written than many contemporary historical novels. What had happened to Seton? Why was she so little known today?

Gregory seems to have had similar questions. In the past decade she has written introductions for new editions of five of Seton’s books, including The Winthrop Woman. She argues on her Web site that Seton was one of a group of historical novelists who had critical and popular acclaim until literary fashions changed in the late 1950s:

“Quite wrongly, critics came to regard historical fiction and romantic fiction as one and the same genre; and condemned both for being fantastical, escapist vehicles for predictable love stories suitable only for women readers who required entertainment but no intellectual challenge.

“But a good historical novel has characters whose basic humanity engages our empathy and whose convincing circumstances remind us that the past is, indeed, another country. This is the opposite of romance fiction which is drawn to historical settings: not because it aims to explore how people are affected by the society in which they live; but because it depends on the imaginary glamour of the past: the long frocks and big hats, horse drawn transport, and high jeopardy. Romance fiction has no interest in different times and cultures, in the worst examples, its stories are told in a vacuum.

“All but the very best romance fiction tends to deploy a limited number of character types: the heroine: vulnerable, pure, loving, the female villain: manipulative, sexual, heartless, the male villain: aggressive, uncontrolled, cruel, and the hero: loving, but often mistaken. The cardboard characters come ready-made, they are not forged by their particular experiences, by their history or by their society; nothing interrupts them working their way through their story to the happy ending.

“High quality historical fiction is not like this. A good historical novel tells of characters who are entirely congruent with the known conditions of their time, and yet sufficiently independent in thought and action to stand out from the crowd, and for the modern reader to identify with them. They are rounded characters because they exist in a recognizable time and place and these circumstances work on them. A good historical novel is always conscious of the shared humanity that we all inherit …”

Gregory makes these provocative comments in her preface to Seton’s Katherine, posted on her Web site and worth reading if you like Gregory’s novels and are looking for similar authors. I would add that if critics tend to conflate historical and romantic fiction, it’s often because publishers encourage the trend with their packaging. Toni Morrison writes historical novels that have covers that make clear that they aren’t romance novels. Other authors aren’t so lucky.

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June 24, 2009

Why Do We Keep Reading Mystery Series That Are Running Out of Gas? Maureen Corrigan on Robert B. Parker’s ‘Spenser’ Novels

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:46 am
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Why do we keep reading novels in mystery or other series long after their plots have become formulaic and their characters have begun to repeat themselves? Sometimes the answer is simple: We hope their authors will regain their form.

But I’ve stayed with series after I knew that wouldn’t happen and continued to enjoy them. And Maureen Corrigan offers a possible explanation for why in a discussion of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels in Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books (Vintage, 240 pp., $14.95, paperback). Corrigan says she started reading the Spenser series in part because it “helped to transform the macho politics of the private eye and also the profession’s monkish lifestyle” with by having a male hero who has a mostly monogamous relationship with a female therapist.

“When I began reading them the Spenser novels were pretty much out there in terms of their depiction of utopian alternatives to the traditional nuclear family,” she writes.

The series has changed a lot since its launch, with The Godwulf Manuscript, in 1973, but she’s stayed with it. Corrigan writes:

”Whenever a new Spenser novel appears, usually every spring, I still read it in one or two sittings. By now, the plot is almost beside the point. Instead, I read the latest greatly diminished Spenser novels to check in with his extended alternative family: I’m curious about what Hawk is up to these days and about Paul’s ongoing search for love and Susan’s latest home purchase. Reading the Spenser novels now is a little like reading one of those chatty holiday letters that come tucked in Christmas cards. The story lines are predictable, but still, it’s nice to keep up with who’s lost weight, gotten married, or had a set of brass knuckles smashed into his face.”

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June 23, 2009

Why Is It So Hard to Get Rid of Books We’ve Read? (Quote of the Day From Tamar Yellin’s ‘Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes’)

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An amateur book collector in the short story “Dan” in Tamar Yellin’s new Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes (Toby Press, 156 pp., $22.95) lives in a house “full to its bursting point.” But he grieves when, at his wife’s urging, he parts with some of the volumes in his library:

“A book once read was used, faded, too intimate to be parted with, too familiar to be read again.”

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June 22, 2009

Krait Expectations — James Patterson’s ‘The 8th Confession’

Patterson writes at a 10-year-old reading level in the his new “Women’s Murder Club” novel

The 8th Confession. By James Patterson and Maxine Paetro. Little, Brown, 352 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

Who are the intended readers of The 8th Confession? The large font and generous white space suggest that James Patterson wrote it for nursing-home residents or people reading the book by candlelight while eating Beanie Weenies out of a can during a power blackout. But the short chapters – generally, no more than three pages long – make you wonder if he had in mind fans of MTV. And what about the 5th grade or 10-year-old reading level that the novel has, according to the readability statistics that come with Microsoft Word?

Clearly a lot of people don’t care about the conflicts. Fifty-four titles appear on a list of “Books by James Patterson” at the back of The 8th Confession, many of them worldwide bestsellers. Patterson’s latest is a glorified police procedural and the eighth volume in his popular  “Women’s Murder Club” series that involves Detective Lindsay Boxer, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Cindy Thomas and others who try to solve their boyfriend problems along with crimes.

On the evidence of The 8th Confession, it’s hard to account for Patterson’s appeal. “James Patterson likes rape, torture, mutilation and death,” Gary Dexter wrote in the Spectator. That’s a polite way of saying that he likes scum, and his new book involves several types: a streetwise con artist with a history of recruiting girls and turning them into crack dealers, an ex-beauty queen on trial for bludgeoning her father to death with a crowbar, and a psychopath who is murdering San Francisco’s rich with a krait that leaves hard-to-spot bite marks.

The large font and small chapters create at least the illusion of a fast-moving plot – a trick a lot of novelists have caught onto – because you’re continually turning pages. And Patterson has a stronger grip on the English language than some blockbuster authors. He doesn’t bludgeon you with inanities like Stephenie Meyer’s deathless, “It’s a voluntary choice” — a line that, you suspect, he would never allow in one of his novels. But The 8th Confession has neither heart nor soul nor even much tension or San Francisco atmosphere (though we do learn that Restaurant LuLu is “the place for homey Provenςal cooking, rich casseroles and pizzas grilled in a hickory-wood oven”). The ending of The 8th Confession, which has eight people confessing to one crime, devolves into farce. It may tell you all you need to know about this novel that a line intended to crank up the suspense is: “Booker has Al Sharpton’s home number and he’s threatening to use it.”

Best line: “Tyco was wearing his party clothes: a feather boa around his slender shoulders, nipple rings, and a black satin thong.”

Worst line: No. 1: “There were times when reporting to Jacobi was like having bamboo slivers pushed under my finger nails.” This cliché should have died with Mao. No. 2: “But a year and a half ago a psycho with an illegal sublet and an anger-management problem,  living two floors above her, had sneaked into apartments and gone on a brutal killing spree.” As opposed to one of those killing sprees that wasn’t brutal. No. 3: “ ‘I’m not finished talking yet,’ I growled at Cindy.”

Published: April 2009

About the author: Patterson has also written 14 novels about the psychologist Alex Cross, including Jack & Jill, Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. He lives in Florida.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
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June 19, 2009

A Quote in the Spirit of Jane Austen From ‘Love in a Cold Climate’

A wonderfully satirical quote from Nancy Mitford’s modern classic Love in a Cold Climate, reviewed yesterday, that suggests why the novel night appeal to fans of Jane Austen:

“Lady Montdore loved anybody royal. It was a genuine emotion, quite disinterested, since she loved them in as much in exile as in power, and the act of curtseying was the consummation of this love. Her curtseys, owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind. She scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost, like a cow, a strange performance, painful, it might be supposed, to the performer, the expression on whose face, however, belied this thought. Her knees crackled like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly.”

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