One-Minute Book Reviews

May 13, 2008

How Does Fiction Capture and Hold Our Interest? Quote of the Day / John Updike

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Great critics have the ability to make you see things about books that are at once obvious yet so subtle many others have overlooked them. John Updike is a great critic partly because he has this skill. I disagree with many of his views and, when I don’t, sometimes suspect him of pulling punches out of kindness to his fellow novelists. But I admire his book reviews for The New Yorker and other publications partly because they often call attention to something essential that other critics haven’t expressed or expressed as well. A case in point is his answer to the question: How does fiction hold our attention? It appears in his review of Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud, collected in Picked-up Pieces (Knopf, 1975), one of Updike’s early collections of essays, reviews and other nonfiction.

“Fiction captures and holds our interest with two kinds of suspense: circumstantial suspense – the lowly appetite, aroused by even comic strips, to know the outcome of an unresolved situation – and what might be called gnostic suspense, the expectation that at any moment an illumination will occur. Bald plot caters to the first; style, wit of expression, truth of observation, vivid painterliness, brooding musicality, and all the commendable rest pay court to the second. Gnostic suspense is not negligible – almost alone it moves us through those many volumes of Proust – but it stands to the other rather like charm to sex in a woman. We hope for both, and can even be more durably satisfied by charm than by sex (all animals are sad after coitus and after reading a detective story); but charm remains the ancillary and dispensable quality.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 11, 2008

Phyllis Theroux Writes About a Memorable Mother’s Day in ‘Peripheral Visions’

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Phyllis Theroux has a lovely essay on a memorable Mother’s Day in her collection Peripheral Visions (Morrow, 1982). It seems that on one holiday she awoke at 6 a.m. to find that the youngest of her three children had disappeared. Theroux aroused her family, and after “sending everyone up and down the streets and alleys for 20 minutes of shouting,” filed a missing-child report with the police. Then it occurred to her that her son might have gone to her garden in a neighborhood cooperative four blocks away. She drove toward it, spotted Justin in his pajama bottoms, and took her sobbing child into the car. “I woke up and remembered it was Mother’s Day and I didn’t have a present,” he said. “And I thought maybe I could find some flowers to pick. But when I got to Oregon Avenue, I remembered I wasn’t allowed to cross it by myself.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 24, 2008

Thomas Craughwell’s ‘Great Books for Every Book Lover’

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Recommendations in 70 categories, including “All-Star Sports,” “Great Novellas” and “Sci-Fi Classics”

Great Books for Every Book Lover: 2002 Great Reading Suggestions for the Discriminating Bibliophile. By Thomas Craughwell. Workman/Black Dog & Leventhal, 784 pp. , varied prices.

By Janice Harayda

More than a decade ago, Thomas Craughwell created the popular Book Lover’s Page-a-Day calendars that recommend a book for each day of the year. After they became a hit, he gathered more than 2000 of their suggestions into Great Books for Every Book Lover, and the result has several advantages over many similar guides for readers.

Craughwell recommends books in 70 categories, such as “All-Star Sports Books,” “Great Novellas,” “Notable Biographies,” “Sci-Fi Classics” and “For Young Readers.” This breadth alone would set his book apart from the many guides that focus mainstream fiction and nonfiction keyed to the tastes to women’s book clubs. Great Books for Every Book Lover also indexes all books by title and author, which makes it easy to use.

The capsule descriptions of books vary in quality and accuracy. A chapter on “A Masterpiece You Might Have Missed” lists Elizabeth Berg’s Talk Before Sleep, which doesn’t belong there, along with The Woman Warrior, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾, which do. First published in 1998, the book includes no titles from the past decade and, like most guides, tends to overpraise bestsellers. It’s also old enough that you may have to track it down online, though Workman has a nominal policy of keeping all of its titles in print.

Still, how many guides include, as this one does, a chapter on erotica? Then there’s the “Exercise & Fitness” chapter. Bet your library’s list of suggested titles for reading groups doesn’t include The Complete Book of Butt and Legs.

Best line: At his best, Craughwell can sum up rich and complex books in a few strokes. Here is his description of Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (from the “Spiritual Classics” chapter): “In 1941, Merton was a brilliant young professor at Columbia University. Yet his career, even his love life, left him restless and dissatisfied. To the horror of his colleagues and friends, Merton gave it all up and entered the silent, contemplative world of Gethsemani Abbey. In this profoundly eloquent book, he explains why he did it.” Other examples may appear later this week.

Worst line: On Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums: “Some people say Kerouac is damn near a mystic in this road novel that mixes Zen Buddhism with the wild prose and wild parties.” Yes, and that’s why some people say the Beat Generation was more of a lifestyle trend than a literary movement. You could also argue with more than a few of Craughwell’s choices. Why pick Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day June 6, 1944 as the D-Day book instead of Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day? Ambrose’s book has more recent research but nowhere near the emotional power and narrative drive of Ryan’s.

Published: January 1998

Furthermore: Craughwell also wrote Every Eye Beholds You: A World Anthology of Prayer. He lives in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 22, 2008

Have Publishers’ Reading Group Guides Gone Around the Bend? Bizarre Discussion Questions for Nora Ephron’s ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:52 am
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Even for the etherized realm of publishers’ reading group guides, the list of discussion questions for the new paperback edition of Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (Vintage, 160 pp., $12.95) is bizarre. Here is the first question:

“In I Feel Bad About My Neck, Ephron writes that she avoids making truthful comments on how her friends look, even when they ask her directly [pp. 3–4]. Why is this a wise decision?”

Question: What does this have to do with the book? If you’re going to take the focus of a discussion off the book and drag it over to readers’ views on etiquette, shouldn’t you wait until people have at least discussed the book?

Then there is this stumper: “What would this book be like if written by a man?” Answer: It wouldn’t be because the whole point of the book is that it’s about female experience. It’s like saying: What would Sherman Alexie’s books be like if they hadn’t been written by an Indian? They wouldn’t be.

You could understand – sort of – why a publisher might take this approach for pop fiction, the literary equivalent of a bag of Styrofoam peanuts, which doesn’t give you much to discuss. But for Ephron, who has excelled in fiction, nonfiction and screenwriting?

I can’t bring myself to link to this wacko guide (which appears the Vintage site), so I also won’t link to the One-Minute Book Reviews alternate guide (which you can find by using the Search box). You’ll have to trust me when I say that the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Ephron’s essay collection does begin with the book.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 8, 2008

Remembering When Talking About Your Children Was Taboo at Dinner Parties – Phyllis Theroux’s ‘Peripheral Visions’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:47 pm
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I came across this startling line while rereading Phyllis Theroux’s, Peripheral Visions (Morrow, 1982), one of best essay collections of the 1980s:

“There’s no quicker route to poor opinion than to be at a dinner party and say brightly at table, ‘Guess what our Jeremy said today?’ Children are taboo at dinner parties … “

Theroux wrote those words while living in Washington, D.C., where the table talk is sometimes as carefully choreographed as the second act of Swan Lake. But her comment suggests how tolerant of parental boasting our culture has become since her book appeared. When was the last time you went to a dinner party and didn’t hear a parent say, in effect, “Guess what our Jeremy said today?”

Credit: Photo from the site for Theroux’s Nightwriters seminars and retreats for writers The next seminar will take place in Sonoma County May 4–9, 2008. I have ‘t attended one of these programs. But Theroux is a fine, highly respected writer who seems to keep the size of her seminars small enough that you’ll get personal attention. And the price isn’t much higher than for a comparable number of nights in a good hotel. I’d check out her site if you’re looking for a writers’ retreat with a difference.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 26, 2008

Does ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ Perpetuate Stereotypes of Mexicans?

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Latin American,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:07 am
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This week I’ve been slogging through books that all seem to read like bad translations from an extinct language, like Coptic or Proto-Slavic. To reward myself, I’ve been rereading Nobody’s Perfect (Vintage, 752 pp., $16.95, paperback), a collection of Anthony Lane’s writing on books and movies for The New Yorker.

I began with Lane’s witty account of reading all the books on the New York Times fiction bestseller list for May 15, 1994 (a companion piece to a report on the list for the July 1, 1945). The essay includes this comment on Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, a tale of a woman doomed to spinsterhood in early 20th-century Mexico:

“Mexican readers fell on this book avidly, it seems, although its subsequent global triumph should surely give them pause; the main effect, after all, has been to perpetuate the myth of their homeland as lust-ridden, superstitious, and amusingly spicy.”

Why is this point so rarely made by books and Web sites that recommend Like Water for Chocolate to reading groups? The novel may have other qualities that make it worthy of consideration by book clubs. But shouldn’t the stereotypes be mentioned, too?

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. The site will announce the shortlist for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books beginning at 10 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 29.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 31, 2008

My Baby Gift for Parents Who Are Serious Readers – ‘The New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children’

A veteran children’s book critic recommends fiction, nonfiction and poetry

More than seven years have passed since the arrival of Eden Ross Lipson’s The New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children: Third Edition: Fully Revised and Updated (Three Rivers, $18.95, paperback) This means that it omits many of the most admired books of the decade, including all the 21st-century Newbery and Caldecott medal–winners. But it’s still so much better than most books in its category that it’s one of my favorite baby gifts for parents who are serious readers.

This hefty paperback has more than a thousand brief reviews of fiction, nonfiction and poetry for the years from birth through early adolescence, all written by a former children’s book editor of The New York Times Book Review. It also has a half-dozen indexes that let you search for books by title, author, subject and age-appropriateness and more. So it’s easy to find books in popular categories, such as poetry and biography, and on topics such as sports, minorities, and grandparents. Many of the reviews give little more than plot summary. But Lipson’s opinions, when she risks them, are sound. She describes the popular picture book The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales as “smart-aleck central” and adds: “There’s a blithe, if mean-spirited, energy in both the text and the clever, angular, layered illustrations.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 18, 2008

‘The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century,’ Edited by Elizabeth Diefendorf

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Which books did the most to shape the modern world?

Mein Kampf and The Cat in the Hat made the cut. The Godfather and The Polar Express didn’t.

As part of its 1995 centennial, the New York Public Library asked its staff to name the most influential books of the past hundred years. The answers inspired The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century (Oxford University Press, $24.95), edited by Elizabeth Diefendorf and illustrated by Diana Bryan, a collection of 204 one-page descriptions of some of the frequently nominated titles and a companion volume to a popular exhibit. And the result could have been a snorer, given that it includes the United Nations Charter and Albert Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity.

But Diefendorf has defined “influential” broadly enough to include Carrie, Invisible Man, Winnie-the-Pooh, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Joy of Cooking. And the descriptions in this 1997 book are generally apt and pithy and at times amusing in retrospect. “The filthiest book I have ever read,” John Gordon of the London Sunday Express wrote of Lolita. “Sheer unrestrained pornography.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 11, 2007

Which Writers Best Define English and American Literature? 25 Scholars and Critics Respond in ‘Literary Genius,’ Edited by Joseph Epstein

America’s finest literary essayist assembles a bracing collection of reflections on Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Willa Cather, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost and others

Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature. Edited by Joseph Epstein. Wood Engravings by Barry Moser. Paul Dry Books, 246 pp., $34.95 hardcover, $18.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading these exceptionally fine essays is like catching up with all those brilliant professors you missed in college because you were sure you would benefit more in life from all your film theory classes on the semiotics of Patrick Swayze movies.

Literary Genius is a kind of print equivalent of a course from the Teaching Company, which rounds up academic supernovas and records their lectures on DVDs, so you can watch them at home over a beer and a bowl of Doritos. (No nasty homework assignments! No messy exams that conflict with your spring break plans! No loss to your grade if you go to class drunk or stoned out of your mind!) Joseph Epstein has collected 25 essays by world-class scholars and critics on vanished titans of English and American literature — Hilary Mantel on Jane Austen, A. N. Wilson on Charles Dickens, Justin Kaplan on Walt Whitman, David Womersley on Edward Gibbon, John Simon on T. S. Eliot. And you might wonder about more than what the Irish will think about Epstein’s decision to include James Joyce in the book: Why did Willa Cather make the cut but not Virginia Woolf? Why did Ernest Hemingway but not F. Scott Fitzgerald?

But the essays are everything that literary essays should be – bold, fluent, authoritative and written with flair and at times wit. Here is the first paragraph of a sparkling essay by John Gross on Joyce:

“One of the questions Napoleon used to ask, when a solider was recommended for promotion, was ‘Does he have luck?’ Writers need luck, too, and an important part of James Joyce’s achievement is that he was born at the right time. He was a modernist who was able to get his claim in first.”

Gross takes perhaps the most difficult literary genius of the 20th century and, with a few strokes, places him in context. He argues that wrote fine and distinctive books in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and a “perhaps mad” one in Finnegans Wake (which, unabridged, is “strictly for addicts”). But if he qualifies as a genius, it’s because of Ulysses and “the novel’s two greatest achievements” — its portrait of Dublin and its portrait of Leopold Bloom.

Most of the essays are similarly bracing. They typically range widely over an author’s work, avoiding the claustrophobic narrowness of so much recent literary criticism. Lois Potter gives Hamlet only a sentence in her essay on William Shakespeare. But her entry holds its own, in part, by reminding us that “Shakespeare’s reputation owes something to the dominance of the English language in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the fact that the ability to understand Shakespeare has become the ultimate test of the ability to use that language.”

Literary Genius includes brief excerpts from the work of all of its subjects and 59 handsome wood engravings by Barry Moser. These enhance its appeal as a gift, but its essays could stand on their own. You might expect no less from a book edited by Epstein, America’s finest literary essayist and its nearest counterpart to the late English critic V.S. Pritchett. “Timelessness, grandeur of vision, originality of outlook – all these, in concert and worked at a high power, comprise genius in the writer,” he writes. By those standards, this book shows genius, too.

Best line: Every essay has its own. A passage in Robert Pack’s essay on Frost suggests the freshness of perspectives in this book: “Along with being our leading nature poet, Robert Frost is also the poet who writes most extensively about marriage, love, and desire – all in the context of loss and death. Surely, no poet since John Milton treats the theme of sexual desire and marriage more extensively or more profoundly than Frost.” Pack might have replaced one of the “extensively”s. Even so, how many people associate Frost with poems about “sexual desire”?

Worst line: The first line James L. W. West III’s essay on Hemingway: “One sees Hemingway’s style best in his early short stories.” The problem isn’t the “one,” though West’s style is less conversational than that of most contributors. It’s that his essay is narrowe. West deals only with Hemingway’s short stories, while most of the writers give an overview of their subject’s work. His essay doesn’t mesh with the others, and Epstein seems to acknowledge it by burying it at the back.

Recommendation? This is could be a wonderful gift for serious readers and helpful to the many books clubs that are reading Austen and Cather.

Published: October 15, 2007. The publisher’s site includes Epstein’s introduction to the book . A brief excerpt from its essay on John Milton appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Friday

Furthermore: Joseph Epstein edited the American Scholar for more than 20 years and has written 19 books. Barry Moser won the American Book Award for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. John Gross is a former editor of the London Times Literary Supplement and a staff member at the New York Times. Since 1989 he has been the theater critic of the Sunday Telegraph

Other links: The Teaching Company

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

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It also for people who dislike long-winded reviews that are full of facts or plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book. You may not agree with views you read this site but you will know what those views are.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 6, 2007

After ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ — Joan Didion’s Greatest Hits

A lot of book clubs are reading The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, $13.95, paperback), Joan Didion’s National Book Award–winning memoir of the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. And for groups or discussion leaders who would like to read more by Didion, the good choices include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, the early nonfiction collections that helped to make her reputation as one of America’s finest prose stylists.

But perhaps the best “next book” is the first chapter of her 1992 essay collection, After Henry (Vintage, $14.95, paperback) Didion writes in the chapter about an early editor of her books, Henry Robbins, who died on his way to work at the age of 51. And her comments on death relate, perhaps more directly than anything she has written, to her views in The Year of Magical Thinking. She also notes, correctly, that the relationship between writers and great editors has little to do with changes in manuscripts:

“The relationship between an editor and a writer is much subtler and deeper than that, at once so elusive and so radical that it seems almost parental: the editor, if he was Henry Robbins, was the person who gave the writer the idea of himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down and do it.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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