One-Minute Book Reviews

March 14, 2012

Maybe He Should Have Called It ‘Cutting for Oliver Stone’ – A Review of Abraham Verghese’s ‘Cutting for Stone’

Filed under: Fiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:44 pm
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Twin brothers grow up in Ethiopia as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front steps up its violence

Cutting for Stone. By Abraham Verghese. Vintage, 667 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Maybe he should have called it Cutting for Oliver Stone. Like the controversial director’s JFK, Abraham Verghese’s first novel abounds with far-fetched characterizations, heavy-handed moralizing, and historical implausibilities or inaccuracies. Also like the movie, it has a dense plot and enough facts to give its story a gloss of truth.

But you wonder if even Stone would have taken the liberties that Verghese does in this tale of mirror-image identical twin brothers — one is right-handed, the other left- — born in Addis Ababa in 1954. Marion and Shiva are orphaned at birth by the death of their mother and the disappearance of their father. As luck would have it, and luck often does have it in this novel, they grow up as the wards of sympathetic doctors who guide them toward medical careers of their own as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front steps up its activity against Emperor Haile Selassie.

Cutting for Stone shows Selassie riding through the eucalyptus-scented streets of Addis Ababa in a green Rolls-Royce with his chihuahua, Lula, in his lap. At a nearby hospital doctors give a man a swig of Johnnie Walker to relax before a vasectomy. And after Marion begins his internship at a charity hospital in the Bronx, the novel keeps rolling out its gurney of medical lore. As you take your last breaths, you may or may not find it comforting to know that American doctors refer to dying patients as “circling the drain” and like to say that “if you had more than seven tubes in you, you were as good as dead.”

This semi-autobiographical material has provided perhaps too many temptations for Verghese, a professor medicine at Stanford who was born in Ethiopia in 1955. He lards his story with gratuitously detailed accounts of surgical procedures that, in the words a critic for the Economist, reflect “a somewhat whimsical notion of what they entail.” For the convenience of his plot, he has changed the dates and other details of major news events, such as a failed coup against Selassie and the hijacking of an Ethiopian airplane by Eritreans. In an otherwise naturalistic novel, he allows Marion to speak bizarrely from the womb and to believe he can read his twin’s mind, although he has so little control of point of view that it is often hard to know his intentions.

Verghese has won reputation as a literary writer in an industry tries to categorize novelists as either literary or commercial, and on the evidence of this book, he requires reclassification. He is writing a pop fiction. Cutting for Stone resembles the later novels of James Michener in its clichéd, stilted, or redundant images that keep the plot moving 50 miles an hour in a 60-miles-per-hour zone. It brims with phrases such as “babbling brook,” “the populace” for “the people,” and earrings that “hung down” from lobes instead of “hung.”

Why, then, has Cutting for Stone found fans who range from book club members to Martha Stewart and President Obama, who had it with him on a 2011 vacation on Martha’s Vineyard? Several factors may explain what the quality of the writing doesn’t. One is that the hospital settings allow Verghese to deal with timely issues such vaginal fistulas and female genital mutilation in Africa. Another is that you inevitably learn from a 667-page book stuffed with Ethiopian history and culture, much as you do from Michener’s Alaska and Poland. And Verghese writes about two subjects slighted by contemporary novelists: work and religion, in this case Ethiopian Christianity.

Perhaps above all, Cutting for Stone brims with earnest, Oprah-ready ideas. Marion reflects: “All sons should write down every word of what their fathers have to say to them. I tried. Why did it take an illness for me to recognize the value of time with him?” Peter Godwin writes far more elegantly about Africa in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, a memoir of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. “In Africa,” he notes, “you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue.” In a book more than twice as long as Godwin’s, Verghese leaves you waiting only for such a gracefully expressed idea.

Best line: A servant who gave in to her drunken employer’s advances in Ethiopia asked, when he had finished with her, “Will there be anything else?”

Worst line: No. 1: “ … he said as if he’d proved Pythagoras’s theorem, the sun’s central position in the solar system, the roundness of the earth, and [the hospital’s] precise location at its imagined corner.” Overwriting like this abounds in Cutting for Stone. One well-chosen example would have made the point better than four.

Recommendation? I read this Cutting for Stone for book club, and some members didn’t finish it because of its length and slow pace. Clubs that want to read it, regardless,  might read it over two months instead of one.

Published: February 2009 (Knopf hardcover), January 2010 (Vintage/Anchor paperback).

Furthermore: Verghese wrote the memoir My Own Country, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. One-Minute Book reviews recently ranked among the Technorati’s top 40 book blogs and Alexa’s top 40 book-review sites. New Jersey Monthly named it one of the state’s best book blogs in 2011.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar. 

© 2012 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

November 30, 2009

Great Books About Scotland — A St. Andrew’s Day Celebration

Filed under: Biography,Fiction,Memoirs,News,Nonfiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:03 am
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The Scots — who gave us classics that range from Treasure Island to James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson — celebrate their heritage on St. Andrew’s Day, Nov. 30, the feast day of the patron saint of Scotland. Here, in its honor, are some of my favorite books about the land of my maternal ancestors:

The Crofter and the Laird (FSG, 1992), by John McPhee. More than three decades ago, McPhee moved with his wife and four young daughters to a small island in the inner Hebrides, just off the Scottish mainland, which had fewer than 200 residents. He tells the story of that visit to the land of his ancestors in The Crofter and the Laird, a fascinating of study of a place that refracts the history of Colonsay through his family’s experiences. The book is especially noteworthy for its portrait of changing relations between crofters or tenant farmers and their English laird (then, a glorified landlord who owned the island) long before the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. First published in 1969.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (HarperPerennial, 2009), by Muriel Spark. This great novella is a brilliant psychological study of female power as deployed by a teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school in the early 1930s. The 1969 movie version had a memorable star turn by Maggie Smith but didn’t capture the most remarkable aspect of the book: It is a masterpiece of tone. Spark neither sentimentalizes nor demonizes her heroine, but describes her with the kind of cool detachment rarely found in novels about the sexually overheated world of girls’ and boys’ schools.  First published in 1961.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (Oxford University Press, 2009),by John Buchan. This slender, classic spy thriller is the first of Buchan’s five novels about Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Scottish-born engineer who became a prototype for generations of adventurous patriots. In The Thirty-Nine Steps Hannary shelters a spy who has learned of a secret German plan to invade England. When the man is murdered, Hannay flees to the Scotland, where he hopes to lie low amid remote glens and moors. He soon finds himself hunted both by the British police who consider him a suspect and by the Germans who have killed the spy. After being spotted from an airplane, Hannay tries to elude his pursuers by adopting disguises and traveling by foot, bicycle and train through Scotland. This story is better known today for its movie version by Alfred Hitchcock. But Hitchcock changed so much of the plot that no matter often you’ve seen the film, you can enjoy the book. First published in 1915.

Other good books about Scotland include Israel Shenker’s In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell : A Modern Day Journey through Scotland, a re-tracing of one of the most famous literary excursions in history, and the two books that inspired it: Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and James Boswell’s A Tour to the Hebrides. You can find them together in one edition.

A fine golf book for serious readers (as opposed to serious picture-gazers) is A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands, the journalist Lorne Rubenstein’s account of a summer of playing on the Royal Dornoch Golf Course. And Liza Campbell writes of her life as the daughter of a Thane of Cawdor in A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle, a memoir that offers a stars-without-makeup view of 20th-century Scottish aristocrats. Campbell’s book isn’t perfect, but the British class system is dissolving fast enough that her story may be one of the last of its kind.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.Twitter.com/janiceharayda, where you’ll find others’ favorite books on Scotland by reading her home page or searching Twitter for the hashtag #scots.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 29, 2007

What Makes a Novel “Good”? Quote of the Day (Tom Wolfe)

Filed under: Books,Fiction,Novels,Quotes of the Day,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:37 pm

What makes a novel “good”? Tom Wolfe once gave this answer:

“To me, it’s a novel that pulls you inside the central nervous system of the characters … and makes you feel in your bones their motivations as affected by the society of which they are a part. It is folly to believe that you can bring the psychology of an individual to light without putting him very firmly in a social setting.”

Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of the Vanities and other novels, in an interview with George Plimpton in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Ninth Series (Viking 1992). Edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by William Styron. Reprinted from the Spring 1991 issue of the Paris Review. You can read more from this and other interviews in this acclaimed series at www.parisreview.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

August 5, 2007

Authors for 49¢ on Amazon: John Lithgow, James Lee Burke, Melissa Fay Greene and Others

Filed under: Books,Essays and Reviews,Fiction,Humor,Mysteries and Thrillers,News,Nonfiction,Poetry,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 pm

Fed up with the alpine cost of books? Amazon.com sells previously unpublished short stories, essays and other works for 49¢ through its Amazon Shorts program. The online bookseller requires that all sellers have at least one book for sale on Amazon. And some of the authors who have posted their work may surprise you, including actor John Lithgow, journalist Melissa Fay Greene and mystery novelist James Lee Burke.

But you could easily miss hearing about the program, because it isn’t listed on the home page for www.amazon.com. You have to use the search bar to look “Amazon Shorts” or go to the pull-down menu that says, “See All 41 Product Categories.” I knew nothing of the program until a writer friend persuaded me to post my “A Year in Cleveland,” a parody of A Year in Provence, there. So you may want to check this section of the Amazon site if you enjoy short fiction, nonfiction and poetry. You can read the shorts by downloading them, having them e-mailed to you, or following an HTML link.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 9, 2007

Enid Shomer’s ‘Tourist Season,’ Short Stories About Women in Unfamiliar Territory

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Fiction,Reading,Short Stories,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:50 am

Female characters explore places that include Tibet, Florida and Las Vegas in a collection by a winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award

Tourist Season: Stories. By Enid Shomer. Random House, 256 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Enid Shomer is a thoughtful and intelligent writer whose Tourist Season is nonetheless hard to love. One problem is that Shomer lacks a strong voice. You might recognize her stories as hers only because she tends to write about current or former residents of Florida. This isn’t enough when so many other writers, like Carl Hiaasen, work the state with voices you’d know anywhere.

Here are the first lines of “Chosen,” the first story in Tourist Season: “It was a Tuesday afternoon in early June. School had been out for a week.” You can begin a story with writing that flat – sometimes – if you move on right away to more promising material. But “Chosen” is about a 59-year-old Jewish speech therapist who gets an unexpected visit from two monks who say that she is a reincarnated Buddhist lama, and who not only invites them into her home while she is alone but follows them from Florida to Tibet. The story is so implausible that it throws the pedestrian beginning into higher relief. And that implausibility has less to do with plot than with Shomer’s lack of a distinctive voice. The plot of “Chosen” is much less bizarre than some that have worked brilliantly in stories by writers with stronger voices, such as Flannery O’Connor and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

A related problem is that Shomer often gives you Cliffs Notes to characters instead of development. She writes of a Florida sheriff in “Sweethearts”: “A star high school quarterback who’d married a cheerleader and gone to Vanderbilt on a football scholarship, he had always been something of a local celebrity.” Change the name of the school (or “cheerleader” to “Homecoming Queen”) and those words could apply to anybody from Archie Manning to the most successful insurance agent in your hometown.

Shomer started out as a poet, turned to short stories and is writing on a historical novel. And there’s nothing wrong with working in several genres. But in Tourist Season, she doesn’t seem to know who she wants to be. She deals in realism in one story, semi-realism in another and magical realism in a third and with characters who range from a high school student to retirees. If the women in her collection resemble tourists in their own lives, Shomer comes across a tourist in literature, carefully mapping out journeys but still casting about for her ideal destination.

Best line: From “The Hottest Spot on Earth,” a story set in Las Vegas: “She regarded the pastel haze of downtown Las Vegas. A pyramid-shaped hotel prodded the sky. Beyond it the suburbs twinkled in a grid, like a busy switchboard.”

Worst line: From the title story, whose characters live in a condo building on Florida’s Gold Coast: “The directors were a bunch of bullies who couldn’t pass for businesspeople if they had ticker tape coming out of their butts.” I can’t quite see this one, can you?

Editor: Anika Streitfeld

Published: March 2007

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: Shomer won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for her first collection or stories Imaginary Men (University of Iowa Press, 1993). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. At least 50 percent of her reviews deal with books by women. Reviews of books by female authors typically appear on Mondays and Wednesdays and books by male authors on Tuesdays and Thursdays with the sexes up for grabs at other times.

April 29, 2007

Mysteries and Thrillers Set in Paris, London, Hawaii and Other Places You May Be Dying to Visit

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Fiction,Mysteries and Thrillers,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:20 pm

When a plot is your passport

Can’t afford that big trip you’d hoped to take this summer? Reading an atmospheric mystery or thriller can help to keep the fantasy aglow until next year. And Bill Peschel has reviewed lots that are set in places I’d love to revisit or revisit. Some of the novels he’s covered and their backdrops include:

Hawaii: Dan Gordon’s Just Play Dead (St. Martin’s, 1999)
Paris in the 1920s: Water Satterthwait’s Masquerade (St. Martin’s, 1999)
London: Simon Shaw’s A Company of Knaves (Minotaur, 1998)
Rural England: Ann Granger’s A Word After Dying (Avon, 1999)
Edinburgh: Ian Rankin’s Dead Souls (Orion, 2005)
The Everglades: Carl Hiaasen’s Nature Girl (Knopf, 2006)

You can read more about these novels at Planet Peschel www.planetpeschel.com, where you’ll also find reviews of many other books in those genres.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 17, 2007

Is Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ Better Than His Earlier Novels?

Filed under: Book Awards,Books,Fiction,News,Novels,Pulitzer Prizes,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:54 am

Was yesterday’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction another case of “right author, wrong book”?

By Janice Harayda

Book awards often go to the wrong book by the right author. This tends to happen — with the Pulitzers and other prizes — when judges try to make up for past injustices by rewarding an inferior book by a writer whose best work was snubbed.

The Pulitzer judges honored Sinclair Lewis for Arrowsmith after spurning the much better Babbitt and Main Street. They rewarded Ernest Hemingway for The Old Man and the Sea instead of A Farewell to Arms. And even Edith Wharton — as Pulitzer-worthy an author who ever lived — got the fiction prize for The Age of Innocence instead of Ethan Frome or The House of Mirth, both published before the Pulitzers began in 1917.

I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which won the Pulitzer for fiction yesterday, so I don’t know how it compares to his earlier novels. How about you? Any comments on whether The Road is better than All the Pretty Horses?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

April 15, 2007

‘The Stories of John Cheever,’ a Titan Among Past Winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Fiction,Literature,Reading,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:12 pm

Remembering one of the great recipients of the awards to be announced today

The winners of the 2007 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced this afternoon, including the awards for five categories of books. And if the historical pattern holds, in a decade or two — if not by the end of the day tomorrow — some of the recipients will look more like midgets than giants. So before you read latest winners, why not catch up with some of the titans of past lists?

One of my favorites is The Stories of John Cheever, winner of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This masterpiece has all of Cheever’s greatest stories — including “The Swimmer,” “The Enormous Radio” and “The Country Husband” — and others that won deserved praise and bestsellerdom for their author. Many of these tales first appeared in The New Yorker in the 1950s. And as Jonathan Yardley wrote a few years ago in the Washington Post, they “have rivals but no superiors in the national literature”: “Though many gifted writers wrote memorably during that decade, four stood apart: Flannery O’Connor, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty and John Cheever.”

One of the signal virtues of The Stories of John Cheever is that Cheever was among the last great American moralists. His characters have a sharp awareness of good and evil that pervades their lives but doesn’t keep them from getting into trouble that, in most of his stories, provides a strong narrative arc. So his work operates on a level that doesn’t exist in the many modern stories that are driven by “anything goes” morality that can devolve into amorality. In the preface to the Stories, Cheever suggests another reason why his work has endured:

“These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like ‘the Cleveland Chicken,’ sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are.”

The book that wins the wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction today may well be the best novel or short story collection of 2006. But no one can know whether another book will surpass it next year. That’s all the more reason to cherish the work of a writer who remains unsurpassed among the chroniclers of his era.

The Stories of John Cheever (Vintage, $17.95, paperback) was first published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1978. The book won, in addition to the Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award and an American Book Award (now National Book Award).

Links: The names of the Pulitzer Prize winners will be announced at 3 p.m. today and posted at 3:15 p.m. at www.pulitzer.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 12, 2007

Coming Monday on One-Minute Book Reviews: An Appreciation of ‘The Stories of John Cheever’

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Fiction,News,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:46 pm

The 2007 Pulitzer Prize winners will be announced at 3 p.m. Monday and posted at 3:15 p.m. at www.pulitzer.org. Earlier in the day, One-Minute Book Reviews will post an appreciation of The Stories of John Cheever, winner of the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and one of the most popular books ever to receive the award. Did it deserve its praise and bestsellerdom? To avoid missing the review and other comments on the awards, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Coming Saturday, April 14: Do you get sticker shock when you see the prices of children’s picture books? An example of how supersizing books for library story hours is driving up the cost of these books.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 9, 2007

Eric Hodgins’s ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’: Still Funny After All These Years

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Fiction,Humor,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:55 pm

A classic comic novel about moving from the city to the country sends up the modern lust for property

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading yesterday’s bestsellers can be a little like trying on that pair of white vinyl go-go boots in the attic: You don’t know whether to laugh or cringe at our former tastes. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation and comic novels age faster than serious ones because so much humor depends on topical references. This classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property, and its enduring appeal lies partly in the all-too-believable naiveté of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. They fall in love with the barns, apple orchard and majestic views: “But the furnishings were in general of the era of Benjamin Harrison, with an overlay of William McKinley, and here and there a final, crowning touch of Calvin Coolidge.” And when house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, Jim and Muriel resolve to tear it down and build another on the site.

This decision sets up a superbly constructed plot in which the new house becomes the couple’s antagonist. The Blandings square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – in short, all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. But the house itself is their real opponent. Amid the soaring bills and construction delays, Mr. Blandings imagines how delightful it would be “to return to the city and move a final, ten blocks father north.” Will he throw in the drill bit and go back to the Upper East Die? Or sell the place and buy one against which he isn’t so overmatched?

Eric Hodgins controls the suspense deftly. And the late New Yorker cartoonist William Steig adds three dozen or so brilliant drawings, many of them a full page, that throw the comedy into higher relief and show how much we have lost now that the fully illustrated adult novel has almost disappeared. Along with Hodgins’s masterly text, Steig’s fanciful pictures remind us that if a man’s home is his castle, sometimes he’s the court jester instead of the king.

Best line: “It surged over Mr. Blandings that he very much wished he were back in the city … he wanted the noise of the city in his ears; the noise with which all city dwellers were in such perfect, unconscious harmony that the blast of a gas main down the block might strike the eardrums but penetrate not the brain.”

Worst line: A few expressions have become dated. When Mr. Blandings sees the contractors’ bills, he cries: “Jesus H. Mahogany Christ!”

Recommended if … you like comedy that stays close to life. Hodgins’s satire is much more realistic than that of the over-the-top novels of Christopher Buckley (whose new Boomsday involves plan to save Social Security and other benefits by giving baby boomers a financial incentive to commit suicide, known as “Voluntary Transitioning”). Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is also a nearly perfect book club book partly because: 1) It’s a classic that few people have read; 2) It’s relatively short and widely available in paperback and at libraries; 3) It deals with a situation almost anybody can appreciate; 4) It may show a new side of William Steig to members familiar only with his children’s books, such as Dr. De Soto and Shrek!; and 5) All those slackers who never finish the book can watch one of the movie versions.

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to the novel appears in the post directly below this one and is archived with the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews.

Published: 1946 (first edition), 2004 (Simon & Schuster paperback).

Furthermore: Hodgins’s novel has inspired two movies I haven’t seen – Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Low, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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