One-Minute Book Reviews

October 29, 2013

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Flamethrowers,’ Rachel Kushner’s 2013 National Book Award Finalist

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

The Flamethrowers: A Novel
By Rachel Kushner
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make printed copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Can a weapon be a work of art? Can a work of art be a weapon? Rachel Kusher explores these and other themes in a novel about a young motorcycle enthusiast who moves from Nevada to New York at the end of the Nixon era. Known by her nickname of Reno, Kushner’s heroine has an affair with Sandro Valera, a Manhattan artist and heir to the fortune that his industrialist family in Italy has made by exploiting the poor. Through Sandro, Reno gains access to a downtown art world of dealers, gallery owners and others that is coming alive in the 1970s. But when she and her lover visit his relatives in the Italian Lake District, she becomes swept up in dangerous political currents set in motion by factory strikes and the violence of the Red Brigades.

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others:

1. The Flamethrowers begins — unusually for a novel — not with its heroine but with a brief chapter on T.P. Valera, the father of her lover, Sandro. How well did the opening work? Would you have stayed with the novel if you had not known that it was finalist for a National Book Award?

2. How does Reno change over the course of The Flamethrowers? (Some critics have called the book a coming-of-age novel, a genre in which a character typically gains hard-won wisdom. What has Reno gained by the end of the novel? What has she lost?)

3. If Reno changes quite a bit by the end of the book, Sandro seems hardly to have changed at all. Why do you think this is so? (Or do you think Sandro does change?)

4. The critic Christian Lorentzen wrote that The Flamethrowers “is about machines (motorcycles and guns, but also cameras) and the way they revolutionized the last century (its politics and violence, but also its art).” (Bookforum, April/May 2013, print edition only.) What do you think the novel is “about”?

5.  James Wood of The New Yorker said that The Flamethrowers is “nominally a historical novel” (because its author, born in 1968, would have been too young to experience its events). Many historical novels have a musty air or reek of the author’s research. Did The Flamethrowers? If not, what made it fresh?

6. Kusher tells her story from two points of view. One is clearly Reno’s first-person perspective. What is the second? Whose point of view do we find in the third-person sections that Reno doesn’t narrate? (Suggested answers appears in the One-Minute Book Reviews review of the novel.)

7. Sandro sees machines, especially weapons, as “almost a work of art.” [p. 288] But some of the characters in The Flamethrowers seem to reflect the opposite view: They use art as a weapon. How do they do this? Does our culture encourage artists, including musicians and filmmakers, to use art against others?

8. Women in The Flamethrowers often have second-class status, even in radical groups. What is Kushner saying about their role in the 1970s? Does any of it still apply in 2013? Is there any truth, for example, to T.P. Valera’s observation, that women “were trapped in time” and “moved at a different velocity” than men did? [p. 79]

9. Reno quotes Sandro as saying: “Sex is not about exchange values … It’s a gift economy.” [p. 208] What did he mean? How does this comment reflect their relationship and others’?

10. The Flamethrowers has many sharp images and scenes of New York, Milan and other places. Which ones were most memorable?

Vital statistics:

The Flamethrowers: A Novel. By Rachel Kushner. Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99. Published: January 2012. Kushner also wrote Telex from Cuba, a National Book Award finalist.

A review of The Flamethrowers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 29, 2013.

Jan Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are marketing tools designed to sell books instead of unbiased analyses. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the blog.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 28, 2013

What I’m Reading … Rachel Kushner’s Novel, ‘The Flamethrowers’

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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 Flamethrowers (Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99), by Rachel Kushner.

What it is: A Didion-esque novel about young filmmaker and motorcycle enthusiast who moves in 1975 from Nevada to Lower Manhattan, where she has an affair with an artist from a family of Italian industrialists who have grown rich by exploiting the poor. Kushner’s protagonist finds herself swept up in dangerous currents of radical politics when, while she and her lover are visiting his mother in Bellagio, factory workers go on strike and the Red Brigades step up their campaign of terror against Italy’s elite.

Why I’m reading it: The Flamethrowers has been longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award for fiction. NBA nominations have been spectacularly unreliable — and, at times, disastrous — in recent years, but some reviews suggest that this novel deserves the recognition.

How much I’ve read: Nearly all.

Quote from the book: Kushner’s protagonist is struck by how much Northern Italians care about clothes: “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.”

Furthermore: Christian Lorentzen, a senior editor of the London Review of Books, wrote in a review of The Flamethrowers for the print edition of Bookforum: “The social codes of Kushner’s ’70s Manhattan aren’t too far removed from those of today, except without the cell phones and with a bit more gun fetishizing than you find lately on Broome Street.” He added that Kushner’s “most charming quality is a willingness to digress and to stage long set pieces, at parties and in bars, in which her more eccentric characters are allowed to talk, and talk, and talk.”

Probability that I will review the book: High, especially if it makes the National Book Awards shortlist.

Jan is an award-winning critic and former book columnist for Glamour. You can follow her Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

September 9, 2013

John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ – Cancer-Stricken Teenagers in Love

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“I’m gonna die a virgin” and other worries of gravely ill 12-to-18-year-olds

The Fault in Our Stars. By John Green. Dutton Children’s Books, 313 pp., $17.99. Ages 13 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Sixteen-year-old Hazel Lancaster has metastatic thyroid cancer and wears a nasal cannula attached to a rolling oxygen cart, but former basketball player Augustus Waters thinks she looks like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta. Gus has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, but Hazel knows he’s “hot” even if, as she says, he “HAD FREAKING CANCER.”

Will Hazel and Gus get together before the Big C kills one or both of them? Sentimentalists need not fear. A cheery message of this breezy cross between a teen weepie and a romantic comedy –- and one that will no doubt comfort millions of teenagers — is: You’re never too sick to get into someone’s pants.

Hazel and Gus meet in a support group for cancer-stricken 12-to-18-year-olds in the basement of an Episcopal church in Indianapolis. Sparks fly, but in the tradition of old-school romance novels, the teenagers do not lose their virginity until late in the book, when Gus persuades a charity that grants the wishes of sick children to let him take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author. Hazel’s mother — who has come along to Holland as a chaperone — stays conveniently out of the way at any moment that might seem to require her services.

But John Green has more on his mind in his fifth young-adult novel than showing that when you have cancer, it’s natural to think, “I’m gonna die a virgin.” The title of The Fault in Our Stars points to its theme, which inverts Cassius’ message to Brutus in Julius Caesar: When tragedy strikes, the fault often lies not in ourselves but “in our stars.” In developing this idea, Green goes beyond absolving teenagers of blame for their cancers and asks: What does it mean to lead a good life? Hazel and Gus wonder as their health worsens: Is the purpose of life to “repay a debt to the universe” for the gift of having been born, as Hazel believes? Or is to “to leave a mark on the world,” as Gus thinks?

Both teenagers have had cancer long enough to have smart answers and wry familiarity with some of the absurdities of the American view of serious illness. Hazel speaks matter-of-factly about what she calls “cancer perks” — “the little things cancer kids get that regular kids don’t: basketballs signed by sports heroes, free passes on late homework, unearned driver’s licenses” and more. She understands the paradox of “the Last Good Day” cliché in stories about children with cancer, a convention that describes hours “when for a moment the pain is bearable”: “The problem, of course, is that there’s no way of knowing that your last good day is your Last Good Day. At the time, it is just another good day.”  And she sees the contradictions in certain aspects of the support groups into which therapists and others push the afflicted. Is it realistic to expect all young cancer survivors to find comfort in praying, as her group does, for members who have died?

Such questions are so worthy that you wish Green had developed them through more believable characters and fewer plot contrivances. Hazel narrates the story in a voice that alternately resembles that of a down-to-earth teenager and an elderly lawyer drafting a will. One moment she’s complaining that “cancer books suck.” The next she’s talking about “my aforementioned third best friend” or an incident “wherein I put my hand on the couch.” Gus, although slightly more credible, uses so many high-flown metaphors that you can’t square his language with his account of himself as an ordinary Hoosier basketball fan who used to be “all about resurrecting the art of the midrange jumper.” The plot veers from reasonably realistic into something close to farce when the teenagers land in Amsterdam and Hazel’s favorite author turns out to be a cruel and drunken misanthrope.

Perhaps most baffling from an award-winning novelist are the dropped storylines, including one that involves a heavy religious motif introduced in the first pages by Patrick, the well-intentioned but hapless leader of Hazel and Gus’ support group. At meetings the members sit “in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.” They are “literally” in Jesus’ heart, Patrick says. Hazel later invokes that description often. And yet, she and Gus talk about the meaning of life in secular terms: They don’t raise the possibility — even to dismiss it — that a sense of purpose might include God. Jesus, it turns out, was simply wallpaper. Of course, teenagers are growing up in a secular world, but The Fault in Our Stars punts on a paraphrase of the wartime question: Is it true that there are no atheists in the Intensive Care Unit?

This is not to suggest that Green should, in the words of the Protestant hymn, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” It is rather to say that his book violates Chekhov’s dramatic principle: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” Support groups meet in many places, including hospitals, and Hazel and Gus’ group could have gathered in a spot less freighted with symbolism than “in the middle of the cross” in a church. For all the virtues of his novel, Green is trying to have it both ways — to saturate his book with religious motifs without having to explore their implications for his characters.

Best line: “He looked like he was dressed for a colonial occupation of Panama, not a funeral.”

Worst line: Hazel’s “my aforementioned third best friend,” “wherein I put my hand on the couch,” that “eponymous album” and similar phrases.

Second opinion: Another review of The Fault in Our Stars calls it a “mawkish” and “exploitative” example of a genre that some call “sick list,” which deals with the plight of gravely ill childrem.

Reading Group Guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Fault in Our Stars appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 9, 2013, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: January 2012

Read an interview with John Green about The Fault in Our Stars on his website.

Learn about the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 1, 2013

What I’m Reading … Helen Simonson’s ‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’

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

What I’m reading: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (Random House, 368 pp., $16, paperback).

What it is: A gently satirical romantic comedy about the relationship between Ernest Pettigrew, a retired British Army officer, and Jasmina Ali, a shopkeeper of Pakistani ancestry in his English village. The two friends’ first names betoken their roles in the novel: Major Pettigrew is earnest and proper; Mrs. Ali is the exotic flower in town.

Why I’m reading it: My book club is reading it.

How much I’ve read: More than half.

Quote from the book: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand tweaks many kinds of prejudice, including the snobbery of a certain sort of Englishman toward Americans. An example occurs when the Major Pettigrew observes, on seeing an unfamiliar face at his golf club: “The fourth man was a stranger, and something in his broad shoulders and unfortunate pink golf shirt suggested to the Major that he might be another American. Two Americans in as many weeks was, he reflected, approaching a nasty epidemic.”

Furthermore: Janet Maslin reviewed Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand favorably in the New York Times.

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

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 27, 2013

James Salter’s Novel ‘All That Is’ — A Book Editor in Love and War

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A New York book editor tries to make sense of the plot of his life

All That Is: A Novel. By James Salter Knopf, 304 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

All the world’s a stage, and set decoration matters: This theme has surfaced again and again in the fiction of James Salter. It returns with a vengeance in this novel about the sexual misadventures of an editor at a high-toned New York publishing firm in the four decades that follow World War II.

As a young naval officer, Philip Bowman survives a kamikaze attack on his ship in the run-up to Okinawa. Any psychic wounds he suffered don’t keep him from subsequently gliding through Harvard and into an affair with Vivian Amussen, whose rich father owns a 400-acre horse farm in Virginia. Bowman hears no alarm bells when, on visiting the Amussen estate for the first time, he notices an indifference to the comfort of others: Behind a couch in the living room lie dried dog turds “as in 17th-century palaces.” On the contrary, the rising editor seems drawn to Vivian in part because the backdrop for her life differs so markedly from that of his upbringing in New Jersey. He has little enough self-awareness that when their brief marriage ends, he allows appearances to lead him into a series of other love affairs that end in disappointment, if not betrayal.

Salter suggests that Bowman stumbles because his father abandoned the family two years after his birth: He “never had a strong masculine figure in his own life to teach him how to be a man.” His protagonist is a watered-down male counterpart to one of those Henry James or Edith Wharton heroines whose assets don’t offset the lack of a mother to stage-manage her courtships. But Bowman doesn’t develop as a character as Catherine Sloper and Lily Bart do. He pays for his misjudgments not with the loss of hope or life but with the loss of a piece of set decoration for his bed-hopping — a second home in the Hamptons that he owned for a year before an ex-lover wrested from him with fancy legal footwork. He avenges the incident with a shocking act of cruelty to his former paramour’s daughter but assumes no moral responsibility for his caddish behavior and faces no serious consequences for it.

With all of this, Salter is trying to have it both ways — to cast Bowman as decent man even as he acts loutishly – and the pretty scenery can’t mask the inconsistency. Even the pristine writing style that has won him so much praise has grown overripe with comma splices and other tics, such as when he writes of Vivian’s horse-country town: “There was no place to stay, you had to live there.” Anyone hoping to understand the acclaim for Salter’s work would do better to pick up his fine short story collection Dusk, which more effectively shows how, as one of its characters says, a romance resembles a play: It unfolds scene by scene as “the reality of another person changes.”

Best line: “ ‘You know, you haven’t changed a bit. Except for your appearance,’ he said.” A rare flash of humor in All That Is, although Salter may not have intended it that way.

Worst line: “It was a departure of foreboding, like the eerie silence that precedes a coming storm.” “Eerie silence” is a cliché, and “coming” is redundant.

Published: April 2013

Read an excerpt from All That Is. You may also want to read “James Salter’s 10 Worst Sentences.”

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

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 25, 2013

James Salter’s 10 Worst Sentences — From ‘All That Is’ and ‘Dusk’

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James Salter’s novel All That Is came out last month, and many articles about it have quoted Richard Ford’s comment that Salter “writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.” Does he deserve that praise? You be the judge.

Here are 10 sentences from All That Is and from Salter’s PEN/Faulkner Award–winning Dusk and Other Stories:

From All That Is
“It was a departure of foreboding, like the eerie silence that precedes a coming storm.”
“Eerie silence” is a cliché, and “coming” in that sentence is redundant.

“It’s too peaceful.” [A sailor just before a kamikaze strike on his ship]
Cavalrymen say this before the Apaches attack in cowboy movies.

“He had no system for gambling, he bet on instinct, some men seem to have a gift for it.” 
Meet the king of the comma splices.

“Her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery …”
No comment.

“Her husband-to-be was smiling as she came towards him, Sophie was smiling, nearly everyone was.”

Apart from the comma splices: What’s with the British spelling of “towards,” which appears 36 times in this novel about an American man? It’s “toward” in American English. The book also uses “backwards” instead of the American “backward.”

From Dusk and Other Stories
“Forty-six. … She would never be any younger.”
In other words, she’s just like the rest of us who will never be any younger.

“Of course, she was nervous. She was thirty.”
See a theme developing?

“He was wildly generous, he seemed to care nothing for money, it was crumpled in his pockets like waste paper, when he paid for things it would fall to the floor.”
More comma splices.

“She was a woman who had read books, played golf, gone to weddings, whose legs were good, who had weathered storms, a fine woman whom no one now wanted.”
When he says “no one now wanted,” he means, “no man now wanted.”

“Her most useful friend was a hysterical woman named Mirella Ricci, who had a large apartment and aristocratic longings, also the fears and illnesses of women who live alone.”
Women have their uses, even if they’re “hysterical? And what are those unspecified “fears and illnesses of women who live alone”? They can’t be worse than the “fears and illnesses” of men who live alone, who die younger and are less healthy than their female peers.

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

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 5, 2013

John Kenney’s Romantic Comedy, ‘Truth in Advertising’

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A lovelorn copywriter confronts his father’s death as he races to create a Super Bowl spot

Truth in Advertising. By John Kenney. Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 308 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Two kinds of creative people work in advertising, the hero of John Kenney’s first novel observes: “Those who think they’re smarter than the client and those who are successful.” It’s an old joke, but Kenney puts spring its step in this romantic comedy about a lovelorn copywriter at a high-flying New York agency.

At the age of 39, Finbar Dolan is recovering from a broken engagement when he faces back-to-back crises during an unlucky holiday season in the age of iPods and eight-dollar cupcakes. Fin and his colleagues are racing to produce a Super Bowl commercial for “the world’s first eco-friendly, one-hundred-percent biodegradable diaper” when he learns that his estranged father is dying. This setup invests Truth in Advertising with a staple of the modern romantic comedy, a hero with a more urgent goal than finding love, and the plot borrows a few clichés from that cinematic genre. If you can never have too many of those scenes in which two characters ultimately confront their feelings for each other in an international departures terminal at a packed airport, this book is for you. The novel also appears to pander to Hollywood with an episode in which a lawyer summons Fin and his siblings to his office for a “reading of the will,” an act that today occurs mainly in movies.

But Kenney satirizes with a sure hand the profession in which he worked for 17 years. His lovers’ follies pale beside those of his clients, account executives, creative directors, office assistants and “insufferable human resources women with their easy detachment and heartless smiles,” who say things like: “You’re eligible for Cobra and the family plan is only $1800 a month.” And he gives his narrator an appealing wistfulness that suggests the cost of years of artistic and moral compromises. For all of his encounters with celebrity endorsers like Gwyneth Paltrow, Fin remains a man who has had enough illusions knocked out of him that he no longer fantasizes that the producer Aaron Sorkin will see his work and demand to know who wrote it: “There’s a voice beneath the mail-in rebate copy that feels very fresh to me. Who is this guy?’”

Best line: “They call us creative. Baloney. The inventor of the corkscrew was creative. The irony of advertising – a communications business – is that we treat words with little respect, often devaluing their meaning. The all-new Ford Taurus. Really? Five wheels this time?’

Worst line: “Every one changed their own baby’s diaper.” This line refers to a group of that consists only of women. “Every one changed her own baby’s diaper” would have been smoother and more precise.

Published: January 2013

About the author: Kenney worked at the Ogilvy & Mather agency and contributes to The New Yorker.

Watch the trailer for Truth in Advertising. Or read more about the book on the publisher’s website, which includes an excerpt.

Jan will cohost a Twitter #classicschat on The Great Gatsby on Friday, May 10, at 4 p.m. ET at which the novelist Alexander Chee will discuss F. Scott Fitzerald’s masterpiece. Please join us! You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page. She is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 1, 2013

A Twitter Chat About ‘The Great Gatsby’ on May 10

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What’s so great about The Great Gatsby? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel centers on a pathological liar who invents an opulent life for himself in the hope of winning an unworthy woman. Yet for all its bleakness, the book has never lost its hold on Americans, who will see it in a new incarnation when the Baz Luhrmann movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio opens next week. Kevin Smokler and I will talk about The Great Gatsby with the novelist and professor Alexander Chee at #classicschat on Twitter on Friday, May 10, at 4 p.m. ET. Chee is the author, most recently, of The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Please join us on Twitter for a lively conversation about the book that the English literary critic John Carey has called “perhaps the supreme American novel.”

April 20, 2013

Louisa Hall’s ‘The Carriage House’ – A Suburban Philadelphia Story

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:46 pm
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A family tries to save a decaying carriage house in a suburb in which “the neighborhood association is the UN”

The Carriage House: A Novel. By Louisa Hall. Scribner, 281 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

An old joke says: “Why do tennis players make bad spouses? Because love means nothing to them.”

That quip seems at first to describe William Adair, a former club tennis champion on the Philadelphia Main Line who in Louisa Hall’s first novel entrusts the care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife to a devious Australian aide. William begins to change after he has a stroke and his three adult daughters carry on his fight to save from demolition a decaying family carriage house that neighbors see as a rodent-infested eyesore. Can he hold on to a cherished symbol of his once-grand clan? If not, what can replace it in his affections?

These questions play out in a well-observed novel of contemporary suburban manners with undertones of neo-Gothic melodrama. William’s mentally adrift wife holes up in an upstairs room of their house “like a benign Mrs. Rochester,” a simile that suggests the influence of Jane Eyre on the plot.  But Hall borrows less aggressively from Charlotte Brontë than from Persuasion, Jane Austen’s autumnal tale of woman who reconnects with a suitor she had spurned years earlier. The commingled effect of the two classics on the novel resembles that of strangers making polite conversation at cocktail party: They get along well enough but don’t engage deeply with each other.

The Adairs’ battle to save their carriage house revives the connection between William’s daughter Diana, a tennis prodigy turned architecture-school dropout, and Arthur Schmidt, a high school sweetheart who has become a successful restaurateur in the years since she broke off their engagement. In a book inspired by Persuasion, there exists little double about how this reunion will end. But while Austen writes mainly from the point of view of her heroine, Anne Elliot, Hall tells her story from the shifting perspectives of members of the Adair household. This kaleidoscopic approach allows for a multifaceted view of the family’s plight but limits the development of any of its characters. And it gives much less emotional weight to the relationship of Diana and Arthur than Persuasion does to the romance between Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth.

The appeal of The Carriage House lies not in deep characterizations or suspense but in its nuanced attention to the contradictions of an ostensibly genteel suburb in which people act, when the stakes are high “as though the neighborhood association is the UN, and war is imminent, and sacrifices are necessary.” Like Penelope Lively, Hall has keen sense of the weight of history on families. She shows a clan that faces, over a sixth-month period, a conflict larger than any member: the clash between its well-ordered past and the new social free-for-all that it must navigate.

Hall filters some of the incongruities that confront her characters though Margaux’s Australian caregiver, Louise Wilson, who finds solace in trips to a CVS store near the Adairs’ home in the fictional suburb of Breacon. “In CVS, the endless helpful products soothed Louise,” Hall writes. “There were solutions for everything: for calluses and corns, blocked sinuses and acid reflux, acne and rosacea, overthick eyebrows and ingrown hairs. … there were whole aisles set aside for the achievement of physical numbness.” Such gently satirical passages are long way from Austen’s biting wit, but they show a fine eye for absurdities as close as the nearest drug store.

Best line: “Louise watched her tan fading a little bit each day and was filled with a muted version of despair that manifested itself as a constant desire to drive to CVS, where she wandered among fluorescent aisles searching for the perfect product. …

“In CVS, the endlessness of helpful products soothed Louise. There were solutions for everything: for calluses and corns, blocked sinuses and acid reflux, acne and rosacea, overthick eyebrows and ingrown hairs. … there were whole aisles set aside for the achievement of physical numbness.”

Worst line: No. 1: “The boredom was literally killing her.”  No, it wasn’t. No. 2:  “She took her by the wrist and literally dragged her up to Izzy’s room, where Izzy was sitting at the desk, peering out the window like a cat watching a bunch of crippled canaries.”  “Literally” is redundant, and the use of “cat” and “canary” in the same breath is clichéd and strained.

Published: March 2013

About the author: Louisa Hall is a poet who lives in Los Angeles. She grew up in Haverford, PA.

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

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 24, 2013

Francesca Segal’s Award-Winning First Novel, ‘The Innocents’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:24 pm
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“Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way. They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”  

The Innocents. By Francesca Segal. Voice/Hyperion, 282 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

Francesca Segal airlifts the plot of The Age of Innocence from New York to London in this tale of young Jews whose mating habits, like their Friday-night dinners, tend to be “Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.”

Anyone who has read Edith Wharton’s book may see much of the action coming and hear an echo of its theme — the power of tribal customs to thwart individual desires — in its namesake. But Segal finds an inspired setting for her first novel in the endogamous world of well-to-do Jews who eddy around Golders Green in the age of iPods and Bernie Madoff.

The young lawyer Adam Newman has just become engaged to the sweet but unimaginative Rachel Gilbert when he falls under the spell of his fiancée’s glamorous and dissolute cousin, who has arrived from New York amid rumors of a scandal. Like Wharton’s Newbold Archer, Adam would rather dabble in love than embrace it, so the outcome of his attraction is never really in doubt. And the appeal of his story lies not in high suspense but in its intelligent and gently satirical portrait of the food-rich rituals that sustain or stifle its characters: the circumcisions, Purim parties, Shabbat dinners, Yom Kippur break fasts, and vacations at Red Sea hotels with buffet tables that serve chocolate mousse in champagne classes at 8 a.m. “Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way,” Rachel’s father says. “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” If that sounds glib, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen gives it context when she explains calmly why she doesn’t fast on Yom Kippur. “I have fasted,” she says, “enough days in my lifetime.”

Best line: No. 1: “Ha. God. For someone who does not exist He has caused me a great deal of trouble.” Ziva Schneider, Rachel’s grandmother No. 2: “the menu was traditional Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.” No. 3: “Just as when he spoke to Nick Hall, he had the sense of other Londons swirling past and beneath and above him of which he was only liminally aware.”

Worst line: From the moment that a Jewish son enters secondary school, “there is the constant anxiety that a blue-eyed Christina or Mary will lure him away from the tribe.” This lightly satirical line may be true, but Mary fell out of favor as a name for Christian girls a half-century ago.

A reading group guide with discussion questions for The Innocents appears on the publisher’s site.

Published: June 2012 (Voice/Hyperion hardcover), paperback due out in May 2013.

Furthermore: The Innocents won the most recent National Jewish Book Award for fiction in the U.S. and the Costa first novel prize in the U.K. You’ll find more on The Age of Innocence in an excellent blog about the book by Liverpool Continuing Education students. Segal talks about The Innocents and its Costa award in an interview with Simon Round.

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(c) 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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