On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Polish countess whose arrival threatens to disrupt the lives of the social elite in post-Civil War New York. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on March 22 at #classicschat to discuss this great book. Kevin wrote Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book. He and I will be talking about The Age of Innocence with Francesca Segal (@francescasegal) who won the 2012 Costa First Novel Award and the National Jewish Book Award for fiction for The Innocents, inspired by Wharton’s book.
March 16, 2013
February 17, 2013
On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Sylvia Plath’s mordantly funny novel The Bell Jar, a fictionalized account of the unraveling of her sanity after she won Mademoiselle magazine’s Guest Editor competition. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on Feb. 22 at #classicschat for a lively conversation about this wonderful book for book clubs. Kevin wrote the new PracticalClassics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book.
February 11, 2013
“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review later on One-Minute Book Reviews
What I’m reading: Crescent Carnival, a 1942 novel by Frances Parkinson Keyes, best known for Dinner at Antoine’s.
What it is: A saga of two prominent New Orleans families and the Mardi Gras balls and other rituals that defined their lives between 1890 and 1940. Keyes drew in part on the recollections of her friend Dorothy Selden Spencer, a former Carnival queen.
Why I’m reading it: Few novels focus on Mardi Grass celebrations and how they preserved the distinctions of social class in New Orleans even as such differences were fading elsewhere. Crescent Carnival is one that you can still find without too much trouble in libraries and online.
How much I’ve read: About 150 pages of more than 800.
Quotes from the book: “Estelle always loved Carnival and the preparations for it. But she grew up without daring to dream that some day she, herself, would be the Queen of one of the Carnival Balls. She did not believe it even when she heard that Monsieur Leroux, who held the fate of all potential queens firmly in his hands, had spoken formally to her father, asking if he could conveniently be received on a certain day at a certain hour in the Lenoir’s house on Royal Street.
“She could hardly believe it even after the ritual champagne had been bought, and the silver ice bucket polished until it shone like a mirror, and the one placed inside the other, beside a plate of little frosted cakes, on the center table in the salon, under the chandelier, there to await the arrival of Monsieur Leroux. She went into the salon, and she was still filled with incredulity mingled with awe.”
Furthermore: Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post said that Keyes was a “middlebrow” novelist in the sense that she “wrote for readers of some education and taste who expected their entertainments to be literate and intelligent as well as entertaining.” Based on what I’ve read, that gets it exactly right: Crescent Carnival is, by today’s standards, a potboiler, but one that reflects higher standards than most now labeled as such. A journalist by instinct if not by training, Keyes shows a Tom Wolfean attention to the details of social status that evoke the eras she describes.
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© 2013 Janice Harayda
October 21, 2012
Spoiler warning: This review includes plot details. Stop here if you don’t want to know them.
Every Last One: A Novel. By Anna Quindlen. Random House, 299 pp., $26.
By Janice Harayda
An obtuse Vermont mother fails to see that her daughter’s creepy prom date is a potential sociopath who will slaughter several members of her family in this small-town soap opera by a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Mary Beth Latham dithers when her husband urges her talk to the troubled Kiernan, who is stalking 17-year-old Ruby. “He’s such a nice kid,” she says. “He’s been like a part of our family.” Mary Beth has no apparent religion to comfort her after Kiernan goes on his murderous rampage, but she survives the help from a generous inheritance from her slain husband and a referral to a grief counselor, although recent studies have shown that such therapy can make things worse.
Kiernan has a different fate, but his motives make no more sense. The novel implies that his savagery resulted, in part, from his parents’ hostile divorce. Let the record show that the parents of Barack Obama divorced when he was two, and that one of the Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold, came from an intact family. And if the children of Every Last One tend to have more enlightened views than their parents, the adult female characters often sound like throwbacks to the 1950s. This is a novel in which the heroine observes, with no apparent irony: “We don’t have a life. We had children instead.”
Best line: No. 1: “She makes our youth seem like something Glen might have seen on the History Channel.” P. 26
Worst line: “My robe lies at the foot of the bed, printed cotton in the summer, tufted chenille for the cold.” Chenille is tufted. The sentence is also confusing: It says one robe lies on the bed but describes two.
Published: 2010 (Random House hardcover edition), 2011 (Random House trade paperback).
About the author: Anna Quindlen won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
October 14, 2012
A young writer faces a test of her faith when she cares for a dying man
What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel. By Christopher R. Beha. Tin House, 256 pp., $15.95, paper.
By Janice Harayda
American novelists appear to be losing faith in faith as a source of literary inspiration. Nearly all of the leading fiction writers who have dealt seriously with religion are over 60, especially those who have explored Catholic themes. No obvious heir to the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and J.F. Powers exists among the generation of novelists that is coming into maturity, the children of baby boomers. Into the void have rushed authors of ecclesiastical thrillers inspired by The Da Vinci Code, books that don’t engage Catholic beliefs so much as distort and exploit them.
These realities may reflect a broader cultural trend: Young Americans are less likely than their parents to affiliate with a church, a reality documented in a report earlier this month from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But the dearth of novels about Catholicism remains odd and disappointing given the deep impact on the faithful of the upheavals caused by issues such as abortion, sexual abuse by the clergy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood. You could hardly ask for more dramatic literary material.
So it’s heartening that in his first novel Chris Beha tells an intelligent, if not fully successful, story of a young female convert to Catholicism. In college Sophie Wilder fell in love with a student in her writing program, Charlie Blakeman, whose surname aptly embeds that of that skeptic of orthodox religion, William Blake. Sophie drops back into her ex-lover’s life when they are in their late 20s and finds him keeping company with self-consciously literary New Yorkers who think and speak in phrases like, “Alfred Kazin once said of Saul Bellow …” Since college, Sophie has converted to Catholicism while Charlie and his friends have made a religion their pretenses or, as they might say, “stories.” In this novel a man who asks, “What’s her story?” means: What narrative has she constructed about herself? Sophie, it seems, has reconnected with Charlie to tell him the story of her recent, troubling experience of caring for a dying man whose wishes tested her faith.
This novel represents Charlie’s attempt to make sense of Sophie’s tale. Antiphonal chapters tell the story from alternating points of view: Charlie’s first-person account in each case precedes a third-person narrative about Sophie that perhaps reflects his effort to see things from her perspective. Both versions of the tale have weak spots. Writing in the first person, Charlie often asserts instead of dramatizing facts about Sophie or offers awkward explanations for her actions. (“Perhaps because of her family situation …”) He says that male students were “enthralled” with Sophie and found her “unlike other girls,” but it’s never clear why this was so when she was rude, sarcastic and lacking the conventional beauty that might have offset those traits. Charlie also implies that Sophie had that blend of talent and drive that enables a writer to get a book published and become “briefly famous” soon after college, but he offers no evidence of her talent and little of her drive. The chapters not told in the first person have traditional third-person limited-omniscient narration when free-indirect speech might have better revealed Sophie’s character. All of this leaves a hole at the center of the story: You see Sophie from two perspectives that don’t coalesce into a whole. She never comes into her own.
What Happened to Sophie Wilder is ultimately Charlie’s story rather than Sophie’s, and as such, it deals sensitively with worthy questions: Why do we need stories, whether religious or literary? What do we gain or lose from them? At what point does an investment in story become irreversible? The great virtue of this novel is that it treats belief seriously. If the book shows the cost of Sophie’s faith, it never ridicules it, and it also reveals the cost of others’ misplaced devotions. Charlie and his cousin rent rooms in Greenwich Village from a man who has Victorian aquarium full of fish, “the most important thing in his life,” and who asks only that they care for it when he’s away. Consumed by their own interests, the young men are incapable of this simple task. Charlie realizes it too late, and in a rueful observation on their failure, suggests a theme of the novel. “We had been given something beautiful, asked only to watch over it,” he reflects. “We’d been careless, and now it was all in ruin.”
Best line: “Henry’s the Ted Hughes of management consultants.”
Worst line: “Tom … pursed his lips with a look of concern.”
A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide and discussion questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder appeared on this site on Oct. 14. The guide to this book explores, among other things, some of the religious issues raised by the novel: for example, that Sophie converted after reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and each of the main sections of the book has seven chapters.
Published: May 2012
Furthermore: The New York Times summarized the the report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life cited above. You may also want to read Sam Sacks’ review of What Happened to Sophie Wilder and One-Minute Book Reviews’ review of the nonfiction book Mr. Tibbits’s Catholic School.
Read an excerpt from What Happened to Sophie Wilder.
You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
July 13, 2012
A mystery built on the theme that uncharacteristic behavior may reveal someone’s true character
Drawing Conclusions. By Donna Leon. Penguin, 260 pp., $15, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Guido Brunetti has a wife he loves “to the point of folly” and two children in whom he has “invested every hope of happiness on this earth.” Those facts alone set him apart from the many fictional detectives who live by variations on Rudyard Kipling’s ”Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, / He travels the fastest who travels alone.”
But Donna Leon’s Venetian police commissioner also has a rare wisdom and humanity in a field littered with sleuths who get by on wisecracks and macho swagger. Like Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, Commissario Brunetti tends to solve crimes through a keen grasp of human nature rather than shoot-’em-up gunslinging or high forensic gimmickry. That pattern holds in the 20th Brunetti mystery, which involves the death of a widow who sheltered battered women in her Venice apartment. Several valuable drawings have vanished from the victim’s walls, including a Corot, and the case looks like an art theft turned tragic. Brunetti suspects that something more complex has occurred, and his findings ultimately make the lost artworks look like a red herring.
So the appeal of Drawing Conclusions lies less in its plotting than in its atmospheric portrait of Venice, its psychological insights, and its author’s ability to develop a theme across multiple characters, not just in that of the victim or a foe. Brunetti knows that as Dante’s Inferno has “thieves transformed into lizards, lizards into thieves, the moment of transformation invisible until complete,” people can be two things at once. Or, as his mother believed, uncharacteristic behavior can show someone’s true character. In this novel Brunetti shows that he, too, can be two things at once. And he paradoxically shows an admirable dimension of his character when he acts in an uncharacteristic way.
Best line: No. 1: He was “seduced into the suspicion that trace elements of humanity were still to be found in his superior’s soul.” No. 2: “Brunetti had struck on a truth, and he knew it: even the worst men wanted to be perceived as better than they were.”
Worst line: “a blonde woman.” “Blonde” is a noun that refers to a person, “blond” an adjective that describes a hair color. [Please see Victoria Corby’s comment on different uses of “blond” and “blonde” in the U.S. and U.K.]
Published: 2011 (Heinemann hardcover), 2012 (Penguin paperback).
Furthermore: Leon talks to Tim Heald in a Telegraph interview about her Brunetti novels.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 19, 2012
May 8, 2012
Carol Anshaw’s Novel of Adult Siblings, ‘Carry the One’ — Bel Canto Writing With Grand Opera Undertones
“Time is always a player” in the lives of three adult siblings touched by tragedy
Carry the One. By Carol Anshaw. Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $25.
By Janice Harayda
You might expect a lot of drama in a novel in which the three main characters have the names of opera figures or variations on them. But Carry the One inverts the structure of the warhorses it invokes – Carmen, Nabucco and Lucia di Lammermoor. The dead bodies in those operas don’t arrive until the third or fourth act. A 10-year-old girl dies in the first chapter of Carry the One after being struck by a car full of stoned and drunken guests who have just attended wedding of Carmen Kenney at a farm near Chicago in 1983. That event turns out to be the high point of the dramatic action in a novel that for all its eloquence, has an unsteady forward momentum.
For the next 25 years the post-wedding tragedy will recur like a dark musical motif in the lives of the bride and her adult siblings, Alice and Nick. Each of the Kenneys faces a crisis with a perhaps unintentional operatic counterpart. As her namesake spurns a soldier for a toreador, Carmen finds herself betrayed by her unexciting husband. As Lucia longs for the lord of Ravenswood Castle, Alice pines for an absent lesbian lover. And as Nabucco goes mad, Nick suffers from a mind ravaged by drugs. All of this finds its theme in an idea central to Gounod’s Faust: the power of time to lift, add to, or reshape burdens. In affairs of the heart, a character says, “Time is always a player.” And “player” has a double meaning: Time affects destiny, and it plays with us.
Carl Anshaw develops her theme with wit and intelligence. She has the literary equivalent of a gift for bel canto, an operatic form marked in part by its elegance of phrasing and purity of tone. Carry the One abounds with writing layered with meaning, beginning in its first sentence: “So Carmen was married, just.” Does the “just” mean “recently,” “barely,” or “only”? The scene can support all of those meanings.
Appealing as it is, Anshaw’s bel canto writing style makes an imperfect vehicle for a story with grand opera undertones. Her plot unfolds over so many years that she can’t dramatize all of the changes her characters undergo and at times relies on flat exposition such as, “She knew Carmen tortured herself for letting them all leave the farm that night in a car running with just fog lamps.” She also distributes weight of her story over so many major and minor characters — with frequent jump cuts from one to the next — that none acquires a poignancy befitting its tragedies. And the self-absorption of the Kenney children’s parents tends to cloud the motives of the younger generation: You’re never sure whether the heavy shadow over their lives results from their upbringing or the fatal crash in the opening pages.
But you don’t to operas for plots that make sense in conventional terms. Would all of Seville really be falling at the feet of an overconfident barber like Figaro? Shouldn’t Lucia di Lammermoor know right away that the forged letter is a trick to keep her from marrying Enrico? And why can’t a smooth operator like Carmen keep herself out of trouble?
No, you go to operas for beautiful singing. And Carry the One has a through-line of it. When Carmen becomes a single parent, she finds that “she had lost her advantage against daily life”: “Weeks, whole months passed beneath her notice, or off to the side while she was on the game show of her life. She ran from pillar to post then on to the next pillar, ringing bells, pressing lighted buttons and buzzers, making wild stabs at answers to questions she wasn’t sure she had heard correctly, walking when she should be skipping, speaking when a song was expected. That show was called Single Parenthood.” Has any single parent not had moments like that? Carry the One has such descriptions on nearly every page. And that, in operatic terms, is beautiful singing.
Best line: “Olivia’s family was an epicenter of credit card frivolity.” “Romance no longer looked like so much fun, more like a repetitive stress injury …” “Gabe idolized his uncle. He saw Nick’s addictions enhanced by rock star lighting. Nick was his private Kurt Cobain.”
Worst line: “a tricky rotator cuff.” “So many tricky steps.” “some tricky bipolar disorder.” “success was going to be a little tricky.” “Incoming calls were tricky for the Lisowskis” Waiting for an annulment “was apparently a tricky business.” “Still, she left the tricky or cumbersome supply runs to Pim.”
Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for Carry the One appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 8, 2012.
Furthermore: Anshaw is a Chicago writer and painter who wrote Aquamarine and other books. She won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. The Metropolitan Opera site includes synopses of Carmen, Lucia di Lammermoor and Nabucco.
Published: March 2012
Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
May 2, 2012
“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later
What I’m reading: Carry the One (Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $25), by Carol Anshaw.
What it is: A novel about three adult siblings named after opera characters and how they fare in the 25 years after an operatic event in the first chapter: A car full of drunken and stoned guests who are leaving one of their weddings strikes and kills a 10-year-old girl.
Why I’m reading it: I admire Anshaw’s literary criticism, which won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. Not all critics make good novelists. But some of best fiction in English has come from writers who were great book reviewers, including George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.
Quotes from the book: No. 1: “Olivia’s family was an epicenter of credit card frivolity.” No. 2: “Not just in this moment, but globally, cosmically, she had lost her advantage against daily life.”
Probability that I will review the book: High
Publication date: April 2012
Read an excerpt from Carry the One.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2012 Janice Harayda