One-Minute Book Reviews

April 30, 2007

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check #2: 2007 Fiction Finalist, Alice McDermott’s ‘After This’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Awards Reality Check,Books I Didn't Finish,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am

This is the second in an occasional series of posts on whether the winners and finalists for the Pulitzer Prizes and other major book awards deserved their honors.

Title: After This. By Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 279 pp., $24. Paperback to be published by Dial Press in September 2007.

What it is: McDermott’s latest novel about Irish-Americans in postwar New York City and Long Island.

A finalist for … the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, won by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. McDermott was also a Pulitzer finalist for At Weddings and Wakes and Charming Billy, winner of a National Book Award.

How much I read: About 115 pages, more than a third of the book.

Why I stopped reading: McDermott’s writing has acquired a paunch.

Was this one of those book awards that made you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Or if the publisher had pornographic videos of all of them? No, but it makes you wonder if someone had a thumb on the scales of cosmic justice, because what I read of After This was much less worthy of its finalist status than Charming Billy was.

Comments: Alice McDermott has reached a treacherous point in her career. She’s begun to strip-mine her material and to pad what she’s said in earlier books instead of doing work that’s fresh and surprising. Maeve, the first person we meet in Charming Billy had been “a plain girl approaching thirty with … no prospects.” Mary, the first person we meet in After This, is “thirty, with no husband in sight” and “not what you’d call a good-looking woman.” This repetition of circumstance isn’t a problem in itself, because great writers – from Jane Austen to John Cheever – have returned repeatedly to characters who are similarly situated. The problem is that McDermott has so little new to say that she has strain for effect. Mary marries John Keane for no apparent reason beyond a desire to escape her loneliness and fulfill her sexual desires. From the wedding McDermott fast-forwards to a day after the birth of three of their children, when the couple’s son Michael looks at his father “as if he were an utter stranger.” A dozen pages later, John Keane feels “with utter certainty” that something bad will happen and, later in the same paragraph, senses the “utter darkness” around him. There’s no reason for the repetitive language; it’s just flab of a sort that occurs on nearly every page, sometimes in sentences that keep doubling back on themselves until you need a compass to navigate them. McDermott also skimps on dialogue and relies on exposition to drive the novel, which results in a Jamesian mannerism that doesn’t suit anybody but Henry James (and sometimes not even him). In Charming Billy she showed that she knows better, so it’s hard to fathom why she’s let her writing go as she has in After This.

Best line: “It benefited a child, she thought, to be forgotten once in a while.”

Worst line: This 305-word jawbreaker: “If she kept her back straight and her ankles crossed beneath her chair and her hands over the keys, if her fingers struck them quickly and rhythmically and the sound of all their industry filled the room, and if she remembered to take some pleasure in it, the sound, the industry, the feel of Pauline’s eyes on her back, even after Pauline had gotten up to take dictation in one of the offices, if she found some pleasure in the changing light as the afternoon moved forward, in the fading perfumes of the other girls as they passed her desk, in the good smell of the paper, the carbon, the old building itself, then time would pass and when she stood to cover her typewriter and to run another tissue over the surface of her desk, to smile apologetically at Pauline already in her hat and coat and waiting like the schoolgirl she surely must once have been for the stroke of five (adding, in her hissed stage whisper, ‘This isn’t the first time they’ve been seen together like that’), she could tell herself another day gone and not so bad at that and what else to do when you’re a single girl of thirty still at home, the war over and no prospects in sight, your body not meant for mortal sin or a man’s attention or childbearing, either, it would seem, what to do but accept it and go on – a walk to the subway, the air chilled even further without the sun but the wind not nearly so bad as it was, and the ten-top ride among the crowd of other office workers, and then the walk home, spears of crocus and daffodil rising out of the hard dirt around the caged trees and along the brick foundations, not so bad.”

Recommended? Only if you’re willing to slog through many sentences like the one quoted above. Charming Billy is a much better introduction to McDermott’s work.

Published: September 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 28, 2007

Julia Hansen Tries the World’s Most Bizarre Method of Quitting Smoking: Books I Didn’t Finish, #4

Filed under: Books I Didn't Finish,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:04 pm

Can I bum a radiator and 72-foot chain from you?

Title: A Life in Smoke: A Memoir. By Julia Hansen. Free Press, 304 pp., $24.

What it is: The true story of a former editor for Playgirl who tried to quit smoking by shackling herself to a radiator with a 72-foot steel chain from Home Depot that enabled her to reach to her computer but not stores that sold cigarettes.

Where I stopped reading: I read the first and last chapters and skimmed about half of the rest.

Why I stopped: Hansen describes herself accurately as a “competent writer … but not a brilliant one.” David Sedaris might have been able to pull off chaining himself to a radiator for a week and writing about it. But Hansen wasn’t funny or perceptive to hold my interest (although, in addition to working for Playgirl, she’s edited health books). It didn’t help that her book had pages of cloying, italicized, present-tense passages that broke her momentum. Her technique also raised questions of motive: Did she really chain herself to a radiator because she thought it would be the best way to quit smoking … or because she thought it would be the best way to get a lot of attention for her book on YouTube and elsewhere?

Editor: Liz Stein

Caveat reader: These comments are based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ slightly.

Published: November 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 25, 2007

Tom Brady, Interrupted: Books I Didn’t Finish, #3

Filed under: Biography,Books I Didn't Finish — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:36 pm

Third in an occasional series of posts that explains why I didn’t finish certain books

Title: Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything. By Charles R. Pierce. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 256 pp., $23.

What it is: A portrait of the quarterback who led the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl victories, written by a member of the staff of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.

Where I stopped reading: I read the first chapter and skimmed about half of the rest of the book.

Why I stopped: The Patriots lost the American Football Conference title, so no Super Bowl this year, and I was looking for a game tie-in. And while this book is better than many by or about football players, such as Brett Favre’s dismal autobiography, this is like saying that a restaurant has better food than Hooters. Moving the Chains has much less going for it than the best sports books of recent years, which include Seabiscuit, The Perfect Mile, and Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. Many quotes are filler. (“Quarterbacks,” the Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick informs us, “are going to get hit.”) Tom Brady comes across as a really nice, smart guy who’s a little dull off the field, a hazard of premature appreciations like this one.

Most bizarre line: Pierce reports that “the greatest college fight song of all” is the University of Michigan’s. Would somebody send this man a CD of “On Wisconsin” or the “Notre Dame Victory March” fast?

Furthermore: Despite my reservations, Moving the Chains may appeal to die-hards who can never read too many passages like this one about a drive in Pittsburgh in 2005: “It began with a deep out to David Givens on the left side for 14 yards. Then, Brady waited just long enough for Deion Branch to clear and hit him for eight more. A deep crossing route to Troy Brown got the Patriots into Pittsburgh territory at the 45-yard line, and then Brady hit Brown again for five more. The Patriots ran Corey Dillon up the middle, and then, with Brady in the shotgun, Dillon flattened a blitzing Steeler linebacker and gave Brady enough time to find Givens deep down the left side for 30 yards at the Pittsburgh 7. Dillon cracked over from there to give New England a 17–13 lead.”

Caveat reader: These comments are based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ slightly.

Published: October 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 15, 2007

The Creators of Madeline, Curious George, Mike Mulligan and Other Beloved Children’s Book Characters Talk About Their Work: Books I Didn’t Finish, #2

Filed under: Books I Didn't Finish,Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:12 am

Second in an occasional series of posts that explains why I didn’t finish certain books

Title: Authors and Illustrators of Children’s Books: Writings on Their Lives and Works. By Miriam Hoffman and Eva Samuels. Bowker, 471 pp., varied prices.

What It Is: A collection of essays and articles by or about 50 of the most admired children’s authors or illustrators of the 20th century. Among them: Ludwig Bemelmans (Madeline), Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Moon), Virginia Lee Burton (Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel), Beverly Cleary (Ramona the Pest), Virginia Hamilton (Zeely), Margaret and H. A. Rey (Curious George), Scott O’Dell (Island of the Blue Dolphins), and Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are).

Where I Stopped Reading: After several chapters. I read the introduction, an article about Dr. Seuss, an essay by the Reys, and a couple of other entries.

Why I Stopped: What I read was good. But I’m trying to finish Thirteen Moons, and it’s like riding an extremely slow mule through the mountains with a guide who wants to stop to describe every river, creek, and bush he sees along the way.

Best Line In the Parts I Read: “This is the funniest book I ever read in nine years,” a 9-year-old wrote to Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Another child said: “All would like it from age 6 to 44 – that’s how old my mother is.”

Published: 1972. This book is out-of-print, so you’d have to track it down through libraries or online or used booksellers.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 6, 2006

Books I Didn’t Finish #1: Lisey’s Story by Stephen King

Filed under: Books I Didn't Finish,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:32 pm

First in an occasional series that explains why I didn’t finish certain books

Title: Lisey’s Story: A Novel. By Stephen King. Scribner, 512 pp., $28.

What It Is: Stephen King’s latest horror novel.

Where I Stopped Reading: Page 45 (middle of second chapter).

Why I Stopped: Stephen King is a far better writer than many other owners of time shares on the bestseller lists, including Danielle Steel and John Grisham. He cares about writing, he knows what makes it good, and he won’t give you sentences like one I found in Steel’s Toxic Bachelors: “‘Yes,’ he said succinctly.” And his On Writing (Pocket Books, 2002) is one of the better books about writing by an author who knows how to reach a mass market.

But reading is like dating: It requires – literally or figuratively – sexual attraction, and I’ve never warmed to his brand of horror. At times it’s seemed to me that you need to be a 13-year-old male and the owner of a skateboard helmet to appreciate King’s novels fully. And yet, a lot of women love them. So I decided to try King again after I read that his new novel has a female protagonist, the widow of “America’s most famous novelist.” The dust jacket says that it’s a book about a woman who learns that her late husband went to “a place that both terrified and healed him, that could eat him alive or give him the ideas he needed to live.”

Lisey’s Story begins with a line that, for King, is atypically stilted: “To the public eye, the spouses of well-known writers are all but invisible …” Why not just “to the public”? Or “in the public eye”? Who says “to the public eye”? It’s also odd that King repeats “well-known” in his third sentence. (He mentions a “well-known women’s magazine” that interviewed Lisey for its column, “Yes, I’m Married to Him!” — nice touch of humor.) I’m no fan of elegant variation, the literary term for a strained effort to avoid repetition; it’s pointless to subtitute abbatoir for “slaughterhouse.” But wouldn’t it have made sense for King to replace his second “well-known” with, say, “popular” or “mass-market”? Otherwise the first paragraph works well, and the first 45 pages of Lisey’s Story set up a strong and menacing conflict between Lisey and whoever was responsible for the shooting of her husband at a Tennessee university in 1988.

So why didn’t I keep reading?

King was again the good-on-paper date who didn’t make the sparks fly. Before starting Lisey’s Story, I had dipped into Alex Kuczynski’s Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession With Cosmetic Surgery (Doubleday, 2006), which I’ll be reviewing on this blog later in the week. Kuczynski reports that after a dermatologist injected her upper lip with the filler Restylane, she found that her lip “had swollen to the size of a large yam.” That’s my definition of a horror story.

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved

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