One-Minute Book Reviews

March 13, 2016

What Made ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ So Influential? Quote of the Day / James McPherson

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, as James McPherson notes in Battle Cry of Freedom, “the most influential indictment of slavery of all time.” But today it’s more widely known than read. What made it so influential? McPherson writes:

“Written in the sentimental style made popular by best-selling women novelists, Uncle Tom’s Cabin homed in on the breakup of families as the theme most likely to pluck the heartstrings of middle-class readers who cherished children and spouses of their own. Eliza fleeing across the ice-choked Ohio River to save her son from the slave-trader and Tom weeping for children left behind in Kentucky when he was sold South are among the most unforgettable scenes in American letters.”

McPherson added:

“Even the heart of an occasional law-and-order man could be melted by the vision of a runaway manacled for return to bondage. Among evangelical Protestants who had been swept into the antislavery movement by the Second Great Awakening, such a vision generated outrage and activism. This was what gave Uncle Tom’s Cabin such astounding success. As the daughter, sister, and wife of Congregational clergymen, Harriet Beecher Stowe had breathed the doctrinal air of sin, guilt, atonement, and salvation since childhood. She could clothe these themes in prose that throbbed with pathos as well as bathos.”

Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for Glamour magazine and for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

February 19, 2016

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Antidote to Tuscan Sunburn, ‘My Brilliant Friend’

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At last a book that dares to say, “The Italians don’t know how to live.”

My Brilliant Friend. Book One if the Neapolitan Novels: Childhood, Adolescence. By Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa, 331 pp., $17, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This novel is an antidote to Tuscan sunburn. It is a book you can turn to when you’ve read too many memoirs of fragrant olive groves, medieval bell towers, and lovably indolent workers. You need not fear that you will weep as you read about black-truffle pasta made with the freshest ingredients while you’re eating Buitoni shaken into the pot from a box.

51putd03r7l-_sx317_bo1204203200_Elena Ferrante tells a bleak story of two friends whose lives keep converging and diverging as they move from first grade to the end of high school in a mob-infested working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s. The good Elena, the narrator, is blond, and the bad Lila is black-haired. That echo of stereotypes from myths and legends suggests the nature of the tale.

Ferrante’s writing is nominally in the social realist tradition. But the plot owes a debt to neo-Gothic melodrama, if not soap opera, without the usual supernatural elements. It opens with a mysterious disappearance that is never credibly explained. (Later books in the series may resolve the issue, but in context, it’s a cheat.) From then on the novel unfolds as a grim rush of incidents that befall its young heroines in a city with dead rats on the streets. In an early scene Elena and Lila climb a dark stairwell, a Gothic trope, to the apartment of a shadowy man — “the ogre of fairy tales”– who terrifies children. Over the next decade, the two will make their way in a world of murder, theft, adultery, mob shakedowns, and more. Men embittered by beatings at the hands of their creditors or enemies return home to beat their wives and children, Elena and Lila among them. The childhood friends become links in “a chain of wrongs that generated wrongs,” all leavened by little kindness and less love. If many books about Italy imply that “the Italians know how to live,” this is the rare novel that dares to say, “The Italians don’t know how to live.”

My Brilliant Friend involves so much of children that the novel should be a moving — if not heartbreaking — coming-of-age tale. Overseas newspapers have said that Neapolitan women have wept on seeing their lives on its pages. But it’s hard to admire the industrious but charmless narrator, Elena, or her foil, the defiant Lila, who has a malicious streak. The novel doesn’t linger on their trials long enough to evoke the deep sympathy for their plight merits. It’s always racing off to describe the next misery. You never fully see why Elena remains in emotional thrall to her childhood playmate long after she has begun to see her friend’s faults and to move out into the world while Lila remains tethered to their neighborhood. Like a good Gothic novel, this book is a gripping horror story with characters whose actions often defy belief.

Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

Best line: Lila tells a violent suitor that “to call him an animal was to insult animals.”

Worst line: “As their vindictiveness increased, the two women began to insult each other if they met on the street or the stairs: harsh, fierce sounds. It was then that they began to frighten me. One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood begins with the shouts of Melina and Lidia, with the insults they hurl from the windows and then on the stairs; it continues with my mother rushing to our door, opening it, and looking out, followed by us children; and ends with the image, for me still unbearable, of the two neighbors rolling down the stairs, entwined, and Melina’s head hitting the floor of the landing, a few inches from my shoes, like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.” Tim Parks, one of best living writers on Italy, describes the “lazy writing” in the paragraph: “Making no effort of the imagination, Ferrante simply announces melodrama: ‘Harsh, fierce sounds’; ‘One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood’; insults are ‘hurled.’ The memory is ‘for me still unbearable’ though in the following pages the incident is entirely forgotten.”

About the author: Elena Ferrante is a pen name for one or more authors who may or may not be female and may or may not live in Italy.

Published: First Italian edition, 2012; first U.S. edition

© 2016 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


April 11, 2015

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ As a Gospel Allegory – Quote of the Day

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What is To Kill a Mockingbird “about”? Harper Lee responded indirectly in a letter to the Richmond (Va.) News-Leader after a school board had banned her novel as “immoral”: “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”

Lee’s friend Wayne Flynt, a retired Auburn University historian, elaborated on the idea in an interview about Lee’s forthcoming Go Set a Watchman. “She wouldn’t consider herself a conventional Christian,” Flynt told the Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register. But in a sense, he said, she wrote a Christian book in To Kill a Mockingbird. “It’s about a fundamental set of Christian beliefs,” Flynt said. “It’s an allegorical tale of the gospel.”

March 28, 2015

Colum McCann’s ‘TransAtlantic’ — An Earthbound Tale of a Historic Flight

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An acclaimed novelist can’t repent of his research into historical events 

TransAtlantic: A Novel. By Colum McCann. Random House, 336 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Henry James couldn’t offer a thought in his letters without pinning a flower in its buttonhole, the biographer Leon Edel once said. He could also ”disguise the absence of thought by the shameless gilding of his own verbal lilies.”

Column McCann shows similar tendencies in TransAtlantic. His fastidious writing grows distractingly overripe in a novel that reveals how three widely separated historical events affect the Irish maid Lily Duggan and several generations of her descendants. Each woman’s life has a connection, however tenuous, to the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic, made by the British pilots John Alcock and Arthur Brown in 1919; to a trip to Ireland by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1845; and to the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement in Belfast in 1998 after negotiations overseen by the U.S. envoy George Mitchell.

McCann is an earnest writer and prodigious researcher, and he works hard to develop the theme that human lives consist of incidents that lay “at odd angles to each other,” shaped by larger forces. But his tendency to overwrite runs away with him, as do his stylistic devices: using dashes instead of quotation marks, skipping back and forth in time, describing long-past events in the present tense, and breaking up ideas into clipped, verbless sentences, often in groups of three. (“Cloud. Storm. Forecast.” “The nineteenth floor. Glass and high ceilings. The windows slightly open.”) McCann doesn’t say “dawn broke” when he could say “A blanket of dark had been lifted from Brown Street” or “Dawn unlocked the morning in increments of gray.”

Overwriting especially undermines a section that amounts to a valentine to Mitchell and his work to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In describing one of the envoy’s peace missions to Belfast, McCann lists the snacks in the British Airways VIP lounge at Kennedy airport: “small neat sandwiches, biscuits, cashews.” He then gives every in-flight meal option that Mitchell had, presumably in first class: “lobster bisque, garden salad, chicken cordon bleu, Asian noodles, beef tenderloin, mushroom risotto.” And he goes on to say, after Mitchell deplanes in London, that a British Midland lounge offered three items: “Tea, pastries, yogurt.”

What purpose does this surfeit of detail serve? In a historical novel, such facts can help to evoke a time and place. But TransAtlantic, which ends in 2011, isn’t a historical novel in the usual sense. It makes no difference to its story whether British Midland had pastries and yogurt in its lounge or, say, muffins and fruit. Such details are the sign that McCann can’t repent of his research, or perhaps of his access to Mitchell and his wife, whom he thanks in his acknowledgments for their “great grace” in allowing him to tell part of their story. And what are we to make the occasional eruptions of bad writing, such as “There were so many sides to every horizon”?

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of TransAtlantic is the listless plot. McCann weaves the warp of his female characters’ lives so loosely into the weft of his big events that his story barely coheres. The thread that ostensibly unites all of the plotlines is a mysterious, sealed letter that Arthur Brown carries on his trailblazing flight at the request of Lily Duggan’s granddaughter. Its envelope remains unopened for nearly a century. And it isn’t giving away too much to say that when it is finally unsealed, the letter holds no secrets or significant revelations. It’s so anti-climactic that it almost turns all that has come before it into a high-toned shaggy-dog story. That development may support the theme that our lives connect “at odd angles,” but it isn’t what the preceding pages have led you expect. The best endings in fiction, it’s often said, are surprising yet inevitable. The last pages of TransAtlantic are surprising only for their lack of inevitability.

Best line: “He was told once that any good Irishman would drive 50 miles out of his way just to hear an insult – a hundred miles if the insult was good enough.”

Worst line: “There were so many sides to every horizon.” A horizon doesn’t have “sides.”

Published: June 2013 (Random House hardcover). May 2014 (Random House paperback).

About the author: McCann won a 2009 National Book Award for Let The Great World Spin.

Read an excerpt and learn more about TransAtlantic on the Random House website.

One-Minute Book Reviews publishes reviews by the professional critic by Janice Harayda, who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and book columnist for Glamour. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


March 7, 2015

Love in the Time of Yoga Pants — Jenny Offill’s ‘Dept. of Speculation’

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A Brooklyn mother wonders how she became “one of those people who wears yoga pants all day” after her husband has an affair

Dept. of Speculation. By Jenny Offill. Vintage Contemporaries, 192 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Adultery is God’s way of telling you that you need a divorce, an old joke says. In contemporary fiction, it’s often a sign that you need to take up yoga and see a therapist. Jenny Offill turns that literary cliché into a sophisticated portrait of a Brooklyn mother blindsided by her husband’s affair in this brief, elliptical novel.

Offill’s unnamed narrator is a neurotic and demanding author and writing teacher who has the mix of insecurity and grandiosity that bedevils so many artists. “I hate often and easily,” she says. She scorns people “who sit with their legs splayed” and who “claim to give 110 percent.” When her husband takes up with an “easier” woman to handle, she appears to have no coherent set of religious, cultural, or philosophical views to sustain her and tries to cope by gathering the shards of insight that she finds in diverse beliefs or practices — Judaism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Manichaeism, cosmology, self-help books and yoga classes. In middle-age, she’s still making herself up as she goes along. How, she wonders, has she become “one of those people who wears yoga pants all day”?

A drastic step eases her turmoil but begs the question of why, throughout adulthood, she has found herself in the predicaments she has. The belated revelation that her mother died when she was young and her “father was elsewhere” is a throwaway. But her daughter is an enduring consolation. You never doubt her love for a child who, while nursing, would stare at her “with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”

Jan is a novelist, award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda for news of other reviews.

Best line: “How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”

Worst line: The narrator’s comment on her and her sister’s childhood: “Their mother died when they were young. Their father was elsewhere.” These sentences, in context, tell you so little that you wonder if they reflect the misguided suggestion of an editor or other reader who believed the book needed something to explain its heroine’s neediness. Dept. of Speculation might well have benefited from that, but Offill is telling, not showing, in these lines.

Published: January 2014 (Knopf hardcover). October 2014 (Vintage Contemporaries paperback).

(c) 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 21, 2014

Margaret Craven’s Novel ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name’ – O, Canada!

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A dying priest makes peace with his fate while serving as a missionary to Indians in British Columbia

I Heard the Owl Call My Name. By Margaret Craven. Dell, 160 pp., $6.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1965, the American journalist Margaret Craven spent several weeks in a remote Indian village in British Columbia, hoping to find material for a story. There she met Eric Powell, an Anglian priest who ministered to the Kwakiutls, a tribe whose elders were struggling to preserve their traditions as their young people left for government boarding schools or turned from ancient myths and totems to alcoholism, drug abuse and other modern ills.

Craven drew on that experience for her first novel, which became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller soon after its publication in the United States. More than 40 years later, I Heard the Owl Call My Name remains a rarity in North American fiction: a book equally sympathetic to Indians and to the white missionaries who tried to help them, little as they understood tribal customs.

The young priest Mark Brian doesn’t know he has a terminal illness –- unnamed in the novel — when he accepts a posting to the imperiled fishing village of Kingcome, which sits in a river valley below snow-tipped mountains on an inlet in British Columbia. Lonely and beset by hardships such as a ramshackle vicarage and a collision with a brown bear that hibernates under his church, Mark nonetheless faces his challenges with a steady faith, kindness and capacity for hard work. Those virtues win over the skeptical Kwakiutls, among them a tribal matriarch whose previous encounters with outsiders have led her to take the sly revenge of serving mashed turnips to visiting dignitaries because “No white man liked mashed turnips.” The Kwakiutls in turn earn Mark’s admiration for their wisdom, their perseverance amid calamities, and their willingness to help with tasks from steering a boat to building a new vicarage.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name spans nearly two years in the life of the gradually maturing priest, whose parishioners live with ever-present reminders of the death. Mark holds the hand of 46-year-old Kwakiutl woman, lying on a blood-soaked bed, who has what will turn out to be a fatal hemorrhage while giving birth to her sixth child. He trudges through the underbrush with a hunter who, if he wishes to have venison steaks on his table, must look to the woods, not a supermarket. He watches ceremonial dances that honor the customs and memory of Kwakiutl ancestors, many of whom perished in tribal wars generations earlier. Amid so much darkness, he finds comfort not just in his friendships with the Indians but in the natural splendor of the region, which Craven evokes keenly. One year autumn comes softly, with the second blooming of the dogwood trees: “Slowly, as the needles fell, the waters of the inlet grew less clear, and on the river floated the first green leaves of the alders. When the nights cooled, the little berry bush burned crimson under the great, dark cedar, and on one deep green island side, a single cottonwood turned gold.”

This brief, parable-like story lacks the moral, spiritual and literary complexity of such great novels as Death Comes for the Archbishop and Diary of a Country Priest, which may explain why it tends to appear today on young-adult shelves. Some minor characters serve mainly as vehicles for points the author wants to make, particularly about whites’ insensitivity to indigenous tribes. (When a boorish American woman arrives via yacht and asks: “How do you tell the Indians apart?,” Mark replies mildly that he did it “the same way she told her friends apart, because she knew them.”) The priest faces no crisis of the soul and expresses his faith in deeds, not creeds, and in plain-spoken messages of hope. “He was young enough,” Craven writes, “to be a little proud of his first sermon, to which he had given considerable thought: ‘It is better to be a small shrimp in the sea of faith then a dead whale on the beach.’”

But if the novel if the novel has a simple message, it is not a morbid one. Death is so common in Kingcome that Mark comes to see it as natural and at times heroic. The salmon that die soon after spawning in nearby waters provide a central metaphor for his story and suggest its theme. When a Kwakiutl woman laments that the fish perish soon after giving birth, Mark corrects her. A salmon lives a life of courage and adventure, the priest says, and dies after “having spent himself completely for the end for which he was made”: “It is triumph.” So, too, is Mark’s life. It reminds us, as George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” of people “who lived faithfully a hidden life.”

Best line: “Now time had lost its contours.”

Worst line: “The Indian knows his village and feels for his village as no white man for his country, his town, or even for his own bit of land,” the young priest’s bishop says. In this line and a number of others, the novel romanticizes Canada’s indigenous people even as it sympathizes with their hardships.

Published: 1967 (Clarke, Irwin, Canada); 1973 (Doubleday, U.S.)

You may also want to read: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye, a similarly short book that resembles a parable.

Furthermore: A 1973 movie version of I Heard the Owl Call My Name starred Tom Courtenay as Mark Brian.

Jan is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper. You can follow Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 6, 2014

A Twitter Chat on the Novel ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:28 pm
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An advertising executive is sucker-punched by his desire to own a country home in one of the great comic novels of the middle decades of the 20th century, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, the subject of this week’s #classicschat on TwitterSwept along by his ill-considered vision of a having idyllic retreat not far from his office in New York City, the intelligent but naive Jim Blandings finds himself opposed — if not fleeced — by his real estate agent, his first architect, his contractors, the original owner of his property, and many others. If you’d like to comment on the novel or the movie version with Cary Grant, please jump in at the Twitter chat I’m hosting at #classicschat.

January 20, 2014

Tash Aw’s Man Booker–Longlisted Novel ‘Five Star Billionaire’ – Shanghai’d

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Expatriates scramble for a toehold in China’s largest city

Five Star Billionaire: A Novel. By Tash Aw. Spiegel & Grau/Random House, 379 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

Maylasian expats are Shanghai’d by Shanghai in this novel that resembles a collection of linked stories. The flat-footed writing never rises much about the level of “She laughed out loud in agreement when he expressed a hatred for Gaudí’s Barcelona” and “Thankfully, Walter’s moments of solemnity never lasted long, and his mood would swiftly become jovial again.” But the story has a carefully knitted plot and something to say: Shanghai is a shape-shifter full of perils for the uninitiated, and everyone is scrambling for a toehold. New arrivals read Western-style how-to books with comical titles like Sophistify Yourself. Better-off residents fortify themselves with cappuccinos and power yoga classes, and real estate developers seek favors from municipal officials who may bend the rules if a bribe includes an offer to pay to send a child to Stanford. In this cynical novel, only the most ruthless — or lucky — achieve what passes for success in China’s largest city.

Best line: “The crowds, the traffic, the impenetrable dialect, the muddy rains that carried the remnants of Gobi Desert sandstorms and stained your clothes every March: The city was teasing you, testing your limits, using you. You arrived thinking you were going to use Shanghai to get what you wanted, and it would be some time before you realized that it was using you, that it had already moved on and you were playing catch-up.” These lines are overwritten, but the image of clothes stained by sand from Gobi Desert storms is memorable. And the passage sums up a theme of the book.

Worst line: No. 1: “She laughed out loud in agreement when he expressed a hatred for Gaudí’s Barcelona – too obvious, too obviously weird; he couldn’t stand it that people who liked Gaudí thought of themselves as ‘offbeat.’” No. 2: Shanghai buildings are not all the same: “Each one insists itself upon you in a different way, leaving its imprint on your imagination.” No. 3: “Thankfully, Walter’s moments of solemnity never lasted long, and his mood would swiftly become jovial again.” Nos. 4, 5 and 6: “When she laughed, she was aware of a tinkling quality to her voice, like the happy notes of a piano in the lobby of an expensive hotel.” “The late-night bluesy tinkling of the piano made him wish he were somewhere else.” “At last he began to hear the cheap tinkling of notes played on an electric piano.” Note: the “tinkling” of a piano is a cliché and falls especially wide of mark in reference to an electric keyboard, which makes a different sound than the ivory keys of a standard piano do.

Published: February 2013 (Spiegel & Grau/Random House hardcover). Spiegel & Grau erback due out in July 2014.

Furthermore: Five Star Billionaire made the longlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Philip Hensher reviewed the entire longlist in an article in the Spectator. As Hensher notes, Five Star Billionaire has little that would tax the fans of Arthur Haley, the author of pop fiction bestsellers such as Airport and Hotel. And its Man Booker longlisting seems further evidence of the markup to prize-caliber of middlebrow fiction.

Consider reading instead: Yiyun Li’s wonderful Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, the gold standard for recent English-language fiction about China.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 14, 2013

What I’m Reading … James Wolcott’s Comic Novel, ‘The Catsitters’

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“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review on this blog

What I’m reading: The Catsitters (HarperPerennial, 2002), the first novel by James Wolcott, the longtime cultural sharpshooter at Vanity Fair.

What it is: A light comedy about the romantic misadventures of an unmarried man in Manhattan before the hookup culture rolled in. Narrator Johnny Downs is a mild-mannered bartending actor who tries a desperate approach to finding love after being dropped by his latest his-and-run girlfriend: He takes advice by telephone from a friend in Georgia who, after spending her teenage years in New Jersey, blends “a Southern belle’s feminine wiles with a Northerner’s no-nonsense direct aim.” The title of the novel has a double meaning: It refers to the caretakers for Johnny’s beloved cat and to the women who eddy around a “cat” — as the Beats might have said — who hopes to turn himself into plausible husband material.

Why I’m reading it: I enjoyed Wolcott’s new Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs (Doubleday, 2013), a showcase for the virtues that have distinguished his work since his early days at the Village Voice: wit, moral courage, and a high style. That collection drew me back to this novel.

Quotes from the book: A priest describes an artistic sensibility he has observed in New York: “These days, any time I attend something cultural, I dread what might be in store. I don’t mind shock effects as much as I resent the notion that they’re  for my own good, to roust me out of my moral slumber. One thing I learned from my work as a military chaplain is that in real life, shock numbs people, and the worse the shock, the deeper the numbness. After a while, your response system shuts down.”

Furthermore: The Catsitters is, in some ways, Seinfeld-ian: It involves a nice New York man caught up in day-to-day mini-dramas — not turbo-charged conflicts — and abounds with witty one-liners and repartee, such as:

“I can’t picture the men of Decatur, Georgia, handing out understated cream business cards.” “You’re right, they don’t. Most men down here introduce themselves by honking at intersections.”
“You’re fretting about the cost of dinner and flowers? You’re not adopting a pet from the animal shelter, Johnny, you’re in training to find a fiancée and future wife.”
“I don’t think I could handle a threesome.” “You’re not ready to handle a twosome yet.”
“Would you mind if I took off my shoes? My feet are about to cry.”
“We continued chatting, and by the time the train pulled into Baltimore I knew enough about her life to produce a documentary.”

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved

October 29, 2013

Rachel Kushner’s ‘The Flamethrowers’ – Not Your Mother’s Novel of the 1970s

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“Sex is not about exchange values. It’s a gift economy.”

The Flamethrowers: A Novel. By Rachel Kushner. Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99.

By Janice Harayda

Ah, those single women of the 1970s, always tossing their metaphorical tam-o’-shanters into the air like Mary Tyler Moore or getting stabbed to death in their beds like Roseann Quinn, the inspiration for Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Born in 1968, Rachel Kushner isn’t buying it, as well she shouldn’t. In this historical novel rooted in the downtown Manhattan art world, she offers a more complex portrait of a single woman living by her wits during the waning of what is euphemistically called the Disco Decade.

Kushner brings an astringent documentary sensibility to The Flamethrowers, which tells the story of a motorcycle enthusiast and filmmaker in her early 20s who arrives in New York at the end of the Nixon era. Her heroine, known as Reno, has an affair with Sandro Valera, an artist and scion of a family of industrialists back in Italy who have grown rich by exploiting the poor. While she and her lover are visiting his relatives near Lake Como, she becomes swept up in dangerous political currents set in motion by factory strikes and the violence of the Red Brigades.

Reno’s first-person narration alternates throughout the novel with third-person accounts of the World War II and other experiences of Sandro’s father, the head of the fictional Valera tire and motor vehicle company, so large “it was practically a public utility.” The flashbacks to an earlier generation may describe scenes that Kushner’s protagonist has imagined or heard about from her lover, and they support a sweeping theme that spans decades and continents: High-speed 20th-century machines (and machine-made art) can serve as either weapons or as armor. As Sandro says, a weapon is “almost a work of art.” And a work of art is a weapon.

Kushner explores other complex themes that, along with her point-of-view shifts, dilute her portrait of Reno, who seems to exist as a foil for others’ ideas more than a character in her own right. After crashing a motorbike on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Reno asks a mechanic to call Sandro in New York to let him know. She reflects, after the man tells her that a woman answered the phone at her lover’s loft: “A woman? I figured there was a language barrier, or that he’d dialed the wrong number. Or maybe someone from Sandro’s gallery had come over, not unusual, to photograph artworks or prepare them for shipment.”

Single women have a genius for rationalizing the behavior of their errant boyfriends, but the obtuseness Reno shows in that passage and a number of others clashes with the intelligence she displays elsewhere in the book. Reno is a font of elegant observations, whether they involve a young woman who arrives at a gallery “in a black sliplike dress, tiny shoulder blades like a bird’s wings” or Sandro’s belief that “Sex is not about exchange values. It’s a gift economy.” But Reno’s words tell you more about the people in her orbit than about her. For all its virtues, The Flamethrowers resembles a handsome car in which the clutch never quite gets let out all the way.

Best line: One of many “best”: Reno is struck by how much Northern Italians care about clothing: “I understood this was a cliché of the Milanesi, but it was also true. In Milan, it had bordered to me on comedy, women riding bicycles in platform heels and tight skirts, holding huge black umbrellas.”

Worst line: Quoted in the review above. Kushner would have us believe that Reno thinks, on learning that a woman has answered her lover’s phone: “I figured that there was a language barrier, or that he’d dialed the wrong number.” That’s a rationalization worthy of the title character of Sophie Kinsella’s “Shopaholic” novels. If you believe it, I would like to sell you a bridge over the Arno.

A reader’s guide to The Flamethrowers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 29, 2013.

Furthermore: Published in April 2013, The Flamethrowers is a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award for fiction. Kushner’s earlier Telex From Cuba was shortlisted for the prize.

Jan is an award-winning critic who, as book editor of the Plain Dealer, was  a judge for the National Book Critics Circle awards. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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