One-Minute Book Reviews

February 26, 2011

Paul Gallico’s ‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ — A London Cleaning Woman Pursues Her Dream of a Dior Dress

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“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.”

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris & Mrs. Harris Goes to New York: The Adventures of Mrs. Harris. Bloomsbury, 320 pp., £7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Good fairy tales are hard to write. Good fairy tales for adults are even harder. And good fairy tales about sixtyish widows are next to impossible. Young characters may pursue reckless dreams without looking foolish because they don’t know enough of life to see the absurdity of their goals. Older protagonists get fewer free passes. A middle-aged character may look ridiculous on a quest that would seem natural for a 20-year-old.

Paul Gallico avoids such pitfalls and invests a graying dreamer with warmth and buoyancy in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a novella first published in 1958. He writes of a London charwoman who leads a life tightly bound by poverty and the English class system. Ada Harris is nearing 60 but has seen less of the world than many teenagers. And if her inexperience leads to missteps, her work gives her dignity.  A penniless widow, she cleans homes of the higher-born in Belgravia for the equivalent of 45 cents an hour, 10 hours a day, 52 weeks a year.

One day Mrs. Harris sees a Dior haute couture gown in the closet of a client and resolves to have one like it. She wants one simply for its beauty, not because she hopes it will help her find a new husband or gain social cachet. Or, as she puts it, “it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid me eyes on and I mean to ’ave it.” Having acquired the desire, she pursues it by sacrificing almost everything that brings her pleasure – movies, newspapers, trips to the corner pub – despite costly setbacks.

When she finally reaches the House of Dior in Paris, Mrs. Harris faces another hurdle. She learns that she must stay in the city until seamstresses can make her dress. Without money for a hotel, she seems thwarted, until her kindness and resolve captivate the Dior employees who help her reach her goal – a group that includes a lovelorn model and a lonely auditor besotted with her.

All of this might have amounted to so much marzipan had the story ended there. But after she returns to London, Mrs. Harris suffers a further ordeal that gives her tale a twist ending and reveals its larger purpose. A story that at first resembles a light-hearted, Cockney-accented adventure turns into a parable about the human desire for beauty and the many forms beauty takes. What matters more, Gallico asks, a tangible or intangible treasure?

The book gives unambiguous answer that avoids the saccharine twaddle of the books of authors like Mitch Albom or Robert James Waller. You might read all of Albom and Waller without finding a phrase as amusing and well-turned as Gallico’s comment that Mrs. Harris found Paris “the most degeneratively civilized city in the world.” Or without reading passage like one that describes the heroine’s first meal in a French home:

“Mrs. Harris had never tasted caviar before, or pâté de foie gras fresh from Strasbourg, but she very quickly got used to them both, as well as the lobster from the Pas-de-Calais and the eels from Lorraine in jelly. There was charcuterie from Normandy, a whole cold roast poulet de Bresse along with crispy skinned duck from Nantes. There was a Chassagné-Montrachet with the lobster and hors d’oeuvres, champagne with the caviar and Beaune Romanée with the fowl, while an Yquem decorated the chocolate cake.

“Mrs. Harris ate for the week before, for this and the next as well.”

The description of the meal is good, but the line that follows gives it punch and a tinge of bittersweetness. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris may be sentimental, but unlike many 21st-century bestsellers, it is not just sentimental. It describes a woman who has spent a lifetime earning her right to dream. And Gallico is such a good storyteller, his book is made, like a couture dress, without a dropped stitch.

Best line: Paris was “the most degenerately civilized city in the world.”

Worst line: “Mrs. Harris waggled her rear end more comfortably into the bench to enjoy a jolly good gossip.” Gallico comes close to making unintended fun of Mrs. Harris here. And other characters tend to view Mrs. Harris in a way that reflects the views of their day (the “little Englishwoman”).

Recommendation: Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris was written for adults, but it sweetness may appeal also to teenagers.

About the author: Gallico also wrote The Snow Goose (Knopf, 1941 and 2007), named the novel most deserving of rediscovery in a 2009 BBC contest.

Published: 1958 (first edition), Bloomsbury paperback (2010).

If you like Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, you may like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

Furthermore: Bloomsbury has reissued Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris in the same volume as a sequel, Mrs. Harris Goes to New York. It first appeared in the U.K. under the title Flowers for Mrs. Harris and in the U.S. as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris. Angela Lansbury starred in a 1992 made-for-TV movie version, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

February 15, 2011

Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room,’ a Resurrection Allegory

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:59 pm
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Warning: This review contains plot spoilers.

Room: A Novel. By Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown, 321 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Emma Donoghue calls Room a novel about a “battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus,” and it’s easy to see why. Her narrator is 5-year-old Jack, who spends his life imprisoned in a garden shed until he emerges from his tomb-like structure on Easter. He escapes with the help of his saintly mother, who has devoted herself to saving him from their jailor, a man who abducted and raped her and fathered Jack. Their story brims with references to God, Jesus and Christian saints.

Why, then, has the religious dimension of Room had so little attention from critics? Perhaps because this is a novel at war with itself. It draws on so many literary forms or genres — satire, mystery, horror, captivity narrative, Resurrection allegory — that each gets at once too much and too little development. And if it’s hard to miss the symbolism of a character metaphorically reborn on Easter, you can see why critics might declare a cease-fire between the conflicting aims of the book and focus on the plot and voice of its precocious young narrator.

Donoghue tells an inherently tragic story inspired by the Austrian case of Josef Fritzl, who raped and locked up his daughter Elisabeth, who gave birth to a son freed at the age of 5. But in Room, young Jack describes his stunted life in such sunny terms that you don’t feel its poignancy. His narrative reads like a cross between Kids Say the Darndest Things! and the memoir of an abused child who doesn’t know he’s being abused.

Jack likes his prison because Ma fills his life with the comforting routines urged by the child-rearing manuals she presumably hasn’t read. His rituals range from thanking “Baby Jesus” at meals and watching Dora the Explorer on television to hiding in a wardrobe when his captor rapes his mother during nocturnal visits:

“When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it’s 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops. I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t count, because I always do.”

Donoghue uses a similar voice throughout Room, and while she has a feel for how 5-year-olds speak, a little of this goes a long way. Jack has a penchant for a half dozen or so linguistic errors common among young children, such as taking figures of speech literally. He reflects, after seeing a key ring that says POZZO’S HOUSE OF PIZZA: “I wonder how a house is made of pizza, wouldn’t it flop?” He says the Twenty-Third Psalm at bedtime and thinks: “The cup overflowing must make an awful mess.” These lines come dangerously close to sounding like the words of a child who isn’t just cute but is trying to be cute (which can’t be true because no one hears his internal monologue). Jack’s other errors include syntactical slips, such as “Please may you have me more pancakes?,” and a failure to grasp cause-and-effect: He expects to wake up from a nap without the cold he has. And many of such lines are perfectly believable in a 5-year-old.

Less credible are the passages that try to invest Jack with both innocence and worldly-wise intelligence. In one paragraph Jack calls a woman a “she person” but recognizes the words “impregnable” and “catatonic” on a TV report. He also grasps that Ma and a doctor are talking about “stuff like depersonalization and jamais vu.” These passages serve the story less than they do Donoghue’s desire to satirize and explain aspects of her characters’ experience. Late in the novel, the liberated Jack turns into a moralist who spouts folk wisdom about the adults he has met:

“In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time. Even Grandma often says that, but she and Steppa don’t have jobs, so I don’t know how persons with jobs do the jobs and all the living as well. In Room me and Ma had time for everything.”

That passage panders to readers want everything spelled out and adds an unsavory dimension to the link Room has to the Fritzl case. It implies that a bright side exists to the sadistic crime that Felix Fritzl endured in real life and Jack does in fiction: Ma has more time for you! It’s true that children long to have their parents to themselves and that, in that sense, Jack had a fantasy life, complete with breastfeeding through the age of 5. But the simplistic moral served up by Jack doesn’t begin to do justice to the complexity of such an experience. It reduces a theme of Room to a therapeutic cliché: “Kids are resilient.”

As for that Resurrection allegory, it’s a case of religion lite, the kind found in The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Mary and the Devil may battle for young Jesus, but the spiritual stakes are low. True believers know, as do the authors of all great variations on the Faust story, that no Satan worthy of the name wants just to lock you up. The devil wants your soul. Old Nick desires simply the bodies of two people for whom he cares little. The ending of Room allows for ambiguity about how Jack will adjust to life outside the garden shed that is his Gethsemane. But his upbeat moralizing suggests that his soul is safe. If Jack has been resurrected, he has arisen not to judge the quick and the dead – only the parents who don’t want to play with their children because “they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults.”

Best line: Ma replies when her lawyer tells her that her kidnapper robbed her of “the seven best years” of her life: “How do you know they would have been the best years of my life?”

Worst line: “Ma shows Dr. Clay her homework, and they talk more about not very interesting stuff like depersonalization and jamais vu.” This line comes from a 5-year-old who calls a woman “a she person” and hasn’t fully mastered English syntax. And why would he remember the line if it wasn’t “interesting”?

Published: September 2010

Furthermore: Donoghue found part of her inspiration for Room in the case of Elisabeth Fritzl, whose father imprisoned her for 24 years in a dungeon-like area of their Austrian home. Josef Fritzl raped and impregnated his daughter, who gave birth in captivity to a son, Felix, who was 5 years old when he was freed. Donoghue called Room a battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus in an interview in the Economist.

Caveat lector: Room is written at a second-grade (roughly 7-year-old), according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. This is understandable given that the narrator a bright 5-year-old. But if the reading level is dumbed-down for a literary reason, it’s still dumbed-down.

Second opinion: One of the most complex analyses of Room came from James Wood, the fiction critic for the New Yorker, in a London Review of Books review now behind a paywall. (“Rite of Corruption,” LRB, Oct. 21, 2010.) Wood said that Donoghue shows “some acuteness and wit” but that her use of the Fritzl case seems “exploitative and a little cheap.” Room was a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

Reading Group Guide to Room: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with 1o discussion questions for Room appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 11, 2011, in the post that directly preceded this review.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and on Quora at www.quora.com/Janice-Harayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ With 10 Discussion Questions

Filed under: Novels,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:53 pm
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Room: A Novel
By Emma Donoghue
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 copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like 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.

Emma Donoghue calls Room a novel about a “battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus,” and it’s easy to see why. Her narrator is 5-year-old Jack, who spends his life imprisoned in a garden shed until he emerges from his tomb-like structure on Easter. He escapes with the help of his saintly mother, who has devoted herself to saving him from their jailor, a man who abducted and raped her and fathered Jack. Their story brims with references to God, Jesus and Christian saints.

But many nonreligious readers have embraced Room simply for its plot or the voice of its sunny young hero, whose mother has filled his life with comforting routines such as watching Dora the Explorer and reading Alice in Wonderland. Donoghue has said of the novel, a Man Booker Prize finalist: “Kids delight in ‘magical thinking’, whether in the form of the Tooth Fairy or the saints: whether you see these as comforting lies or eternal verities, they are part of how we help kids make sense of the world. I think that’s why the religious element of Room does not seem to bother non-religious readers; they can just put it on a par with Santa.”

10 Discussion Questions for Room:

1. The narrator of Room is a 5-year-old American who has spent his life imprisoned with his mother in a 121-foot square garden shed. How credible were Jack’s voice and perspective on life? Where did you find Jack’s voice most and least convincing?

2. Jack refers to a woman a “she person” and, in the same paragraph, seems to understand and know how to spell the words “impregnable” and “catatonic.” [Page 165] Did you find this credible? If so, why? If not, what you made keep reading Room, regardless?

3. How would you describe Ma? We see her only through the eyes of Jack and the people he observes interacting with her. This approach limits what the novel can tell us about an important character. Was Donoghue able to overcome any restrictions on point-of-view to portray Ma as well-developed character? Why or why not?

4. Why do you think Old Nick remains a shadowy figure, one we know little about?

5. Ma is still breastfeeding Jack when he is 5 years old. What purpose does this serve in the story?

6. Room has an unusual structure for a novel about captivity: Jack and Ma escape almost exactly halfway through it. [Page 154 of a 321-page book]. Captives or hostages typically win their freedom closer to the end to keep the suspense high. Why did Donoghue have Ma and Jack escape sooner? How well did she maintain suspense afterward?

7. Donoghue says that Room is partly a satire “of modern mores and media.” What people or groups does she tweak? How well does the satire fit into a story rooted in Ma’s tragic abduction?

8. Do you share Donoghue’s view of Room as the story of a “battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus”? Why do you think the Christian motifs in the novel don’t bother some readers who aren’t religious?

9. Given all that Jack has endured and how sunny he remains, you could argue that the theme of Room is the therapeutic cliché, “Kids are resilient.” But the novel also develops other ideas. What do you think is the theme or message of the book?

10. Have you read other books with child narrators? How does Room compare to them?

Extras:

1. Janet Maslin wrote in her New York Times review of Room that Jack and Ma “are not the only people in recent books about women trapped in close, sustained relationships with their captors, even to the point of bearing children”: Chevy Stevens’s Still Missing and Laura Lippman’s I’d Know You Anywhere “offer more mainstream, victim-narrated versions of this story.” Have you read other books about victims and their captors? If so, which worked best? Why?

2. Room was inspired partly by the Austrian case of Josef Fritzl, who locked up and impregnated his daughter, Elisabeth, who had son who escaped at the age of 5. James Wood, the fiction critic for the New Yorker, found this borrowing “exploitative and a little cheap” in a review in the London Review of Books. “Does anyone really imagine that Jack’s inner life, with his cracks about Pizza Houses and horse stables and high-fives, is anything like five-year-old Felix Fritzl’s?” Wood asked. “The real victim’s imaginings and anxieties must have been abysmal, in the original sense (unimaginable, bottomless), and the novel’s sure-footed appropriation of this unknowability seems offensive precisely in its sure-footedness.” He added that Jack’s cheerfulness and charm “lend the book an inappropriate lightness.” What did you think of the borrowing?

Vital statistics:
Room: A Novel. By Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown, 321 pp., $24.99.

Room was a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker prize for fiction.

A review of Room appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 15, 2011, in the post that immediately followed this reading group guide..

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

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 RSS feed.

Janice 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 also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 30, 2010

Franzen Snubbed Again — Loses Bad Sex Award

Filed under: Book Awards,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:44 pm
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First the National Book Awards judges declined to shortlist Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Now comes another snub, albeit one that probably makes the novelist happier: Franzen has lost the annual Bad Sex in fiction award to Rowan Somerville’s The Shape of Her. Franzen has at least two more chances to come up with a major award: The National Book Critics Circle awards shortlist will be named in January and the winers of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in April.

November 29, 2010

What Does ‘Getting Away From It All’ Mean in an Age of Anxiety? Quote of the Day From Lionel Shriver’s Novel ‘So Much for That’

Filed under: Novels,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:55 pm
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Few people plan for retirement as ambitiously as does Shepherd Knacker, the protagonist of Lionel Shriver’s novel So Much for That. For years he has saved for what he calls his “Afterlife” in a spot far removed, geographically and emotionally, from where he built a profitable home repair business and raised two children with his wife, Glynis.

In this passage, he explains what he wants to flee:

“What would I like to get away from? Complexity. Anxiety. A feeling I’ve had my whole life that at any given time there’s something I’m forgetting, some detail or chore, something I’m supposed to be doing or should have already done. That nagging sensation – I get up with it, I go through the day with it, I go to sleep with it. When I was a kid, I had a habit of coming home from school on Friday afternoons and immediately doing my homework. So I’d wake up on Saturday morning with this wonderful sensation, a clean, open feeling of relief and possibility and calm. There’d be nothing I had to do. Those Saturday mornings, they were a taste of real freedom that I’ve hardly ever experienced as an adult. I never wake up in Elmsford with the feeling that I’ve done my homework.”


November 26, 2010

Lionel Shriver’s National Book Award Finalist, ‘So Much for That,’ a Novel About America’s Misplaced Faith in Its Health-Care System

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:57 am
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Shep Knacker’s surname is British slang for testicle, but will he have the balls to resist financially ruinous U.S. medical practices?

So Much for That. By Lionel Shriver. HarperCollins, 436 pp., $25.99.

By Janice Harayda

Knacker, the surname of the hero of So Much for That, is British slang for testicle. Lionel Shriver is an American who lives in London, so it’s safe to assume she knows this. It’s also safe to assume that a man named Shepherd Knacker has symbolic weight, or stands for more than what he is: a 48-year-old married father of two and a home repairman who has spent his adult life saving for an escapist retirement.

Whom does Shep represent? Try this: The good Shepherd does carpentry and anticipates redemption in what he calls an “Afterlife.” Still stumped? Shep has a wife named Glynis, which means “holy,” and a best friend named Jackson, a variation on John. He’s the son of a Gabriel Knacker, a Presbyterian minister, and has a psychological resurrection after persecution by his boss. His story involves significant fish, water and palm imagery.

Okay, we can see a few religious parallels here. But Shep isn’t a Jesus figure in the usual sense, a charismatic leader whom others worship. He’s far too low-keyed and accommodating. Nor is this book about Christianity. Quite the opposite: It’s a novel about an America in which people entrust their lives not to Jesus but to a broken health care system that betrays even those who can afford to use it.

For years Shep has been a good and faithful servant of mammon, a man who built a home-repair business that he sold for a million dollars. He planned to use to the cash to underwrite his retirement on a palmy island off the coast of Africa. But his wife learns that she has mesothelioma on the day he announces that, with or without her, he’s leaving his job and country to begin his Afterlife on Pemba. Suddenly Shep can’t leave his company or country because Glynis needs his medical insurance, and if he doubts it, he needs only to look at his friend Jackson’s daughter, who has a ravaging degenerative disease.

This jury-rigged opening is the first of several plot contrivances that are less believable than the withering assault on U.S. health care delivered by So Much for That. After years of writing for the Economist and the Guardian, Shriver may be America’s best reporter-novelist now that Tom Wolfe has entered his lifetime-achievement-award years. She’s unafraid of research. This has allowed her to gather the details needed to skewer plausibly a raft of medical indignities: the dubious procedures such as penis-enlargement surgery, the so-called “Medicare spend-down” that requires the elderly to use up their assets before the government will pay for a nursing home, the gung-ho doctors who bombard the dying with unproven treatments that won’t save them and at best will prolong their lives briefly and torturously.

Shep has a natural wariness of the physicians’ impulses toward overkill and feels like “a religious skeptic” when Glynis’s internist refers her to Philip Goldman, a world-class, out-of-network expert on her rare peritoneal mesothelioma. But Shep tries to buy into the medical tent-revivalism when he sees how much it means to his wife: “Since the internist produced more tangible redemption than either Gabe Knacker’s traditional Presbyterianism or [his sister-in-law] Deb’s barmy born-again sect in Tucson, it was time to convert. To become a loyal, tithing parishoner of Philip Goldman’s church.”

For all his doubts, Shep looks like a saint next to the friends and relatives who, in their ignorance or egocentrism, add to his wife’s pain. Glynis is in the hospital after debulking surgery when her born-again sister Deb tries to convert her with a condescending variation on Pascal’s wager: “Like, if a lottery is free, why not grab a ticket? All your teachers said you were so smart.” Glynis resists, and Deb blunders on by telling her sister that at least her asbestos-related cancer made her thin. “Yeah, right,” Glynis says. “The Mesothelioma Diet. The book’s not out yet, but you could still get a head start by chewing on some old insulation.”

Much of this is heavy-handed, an inelegant cross between a protest novel and domestic fiction about a family tested by illness. So Much for That is issue-driven, and some of its characters emerge as vehicles for ideas, or embodiments of arguments made by Susan Sontag and Barbara Ehrenreich about the language of cancer, more than as credible people. Shriver tends to spell her messages in neon: Her book has three medical subplots when two might have made her point.

But Shriver has a moral fearlessness rare among novelists. Health care is one of the three great issues in America today, along with war and the economy, and she wrestles with it perhaps more ambitiously than any fiction writer of her generation. And if she is a polemicist, she can deliver subtle blows. Consider the surname of one of Glynis’s doctors: Knox. In context the name appears to nod to the fiery – and, some say, pernicious – founder of the Scottish Presbyterianism. It also suggests Fort Knox, the U.S. gold Bullion Depository. With one word, Shriver suggests the essence of her novel: a tale of the intersection of money and a misguided belief in the godlike abilities of doctors.

So Much for That isn’t a plea for people to trust in Jesus instead of health-care providers. Shriver has said that she deplores all religions, and nothing in her book suggests otherwise. In this novel she tells us that you are saved neither by God nor by doctors who play Him. You are saved by reason, or pursuing your own vision of a good life. In America, money helps. But you can choose to live elsewhere. Will Shep have the balls to make that choice? Suffice to say that if he often disagrees with his wife, he has something of the spirit she shows when she complains that nobody ever put on a gravestone: “Here Lies, etc., She Swiffered the Kitchen Floor.”

Best line: Glynis rages against the saccharine, kid-glove treatment she gets from family and friends after she develops cancer: “I feel as if I’m trapped in a Top Forty by the Carpenters.”

Worst line: “‘Ipso facto!’ Shep chuckled.”

Editor: Gail Winston

Published: March 2010

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to So Much for That appeared on this site on Nov. 26, 2010, in the post just before this one.

Furthermore: So Much for That was shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Award for fiction. You may also want to read the comments Mark Athitakis made about the novel on his American Fiction Notes blog on Jan. 11, 2010, and on March 14, 2010.

About the author: Shriver wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the 2005 Orange Prize, and other books.

Janice Harayda was the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 14, 2010

Julie Orringer’s ‘The Invisible Bridge’ – A Saga of Love and Labor Camps in Hungary in World War II

Filed under: Historical Novels,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:07 pm
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A Holocaust novel with honorable aims and a high schmaltz factor

The Invisible Bridge. By Julie Orringer. Knopf, 602 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Reading this novel is like riding a slow-moving steam locomotive from Hungary to France and back as Nazi atrocities spread across Europe. Everything passes your window at the same speed, whether Hitler’s tanks are rolling toward Budapest or pygmy goats are eating a forgotten handkerchief in a garden in Nice.

Julie Orringer makes an honorable but sluggish effort to bring life to this a saga of three brothers and their extended families, whose members move in and out of love and labor camps between 1937 and 1945. Her novel is a sister under the skin to The Help: As Kathryn Stockett exhumed the cruelties of the Jim Crow era, Orringer recalls the brutalities of the Munkaszolgálat, the required national labor service program for Hungarian Jews, whom the law barred from serving in the armed forces. Her story develops the worthy theme that a will to live isn’t enough when disaster looms: You also need luck.

But Orringer is overmatched with a story that has nearly 250,000 words, about 190,000 longer than an average novel. Her plot relies heavily on coincidences, and her cliché-strewn prose resembles that of an overzealous editor for InStyle (“a warm apricotty soprano”). She asks us to believe that Hungarians of the 1940s used words like “empathy,” “energy conglomerate,” and “We’ve got to talk.” And her book abounds with redundancies such as “the triple-beat lilt of a waltz” (as though some waltzes had four beats) and “a perfect manmade oval artificially cooled by underground pipes” (as though pipes could provide cooling that wasn’t “artificial”). The overwriting slows the pace enough turn the novel into an oxymoron: a potboiler that never comes to boil.

Brian Hall offered more insights into Hungary in Stealing From a Deep Place (Hill & Wang, 1989), a travel memoir that includes a brief analysis the national anthem, the title of which can be translated as “Please God, Save the Magyar.” The text of the song comes from a 19th-century poem and has lines that say, in effect: This nation has suffered enough for all of its past and future sins. Hall wonders: What must a country have endured to believe it has paid not just for its past sins but for any it might yet commit? And his brief comments on the anthem may tell you as much about the Hungarian character as anything in The Invisible Bridge. Instead of providing fresh perceptions, Orringer’s story of the invisible bridge between generations confirms the lessons of Hall’s and many other books: Hungarians and Jews have suffered in unique and enduring ways.

Best line: Andras Lévi, one of the three brothers at the heart of The Invisible Bridge, quotes an architecture teacher: “Speed is the enemy of precision.”

Worst line: No. 1: “And he took her to bed and made love to her as if for the first time in his life.” A cliché, padded with “in his life,” that suggests the schmaltz factor in The Invisible Bridge. No. 2: “a layered egg-and-potato rakott krumpli.” Krumpli means “potato” in Hungarian, so this is another redundancy. It’s like saying “a bacon-and-cheese cheese sandwich.” No. 3: “It was a nightmare version of a fairy tale.”

Recommendation? The Invisible Bridge is likely to appeal most to extremely patient readers who want to learn about an aspect of the Holocaust slighted in mass-market fiction, the plight of Hungarian Jews in World War II. The book may also appeal to people who look to historical novels more for a wealth of period details than for a well-paced plot or believable characters.

Published: May 2010

Furthermore: Orringer also wrote the short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater. The Invisible Bridge, her first novel, was inspired by the life of her grandfather.

Read an excerpt from The Invisible Bridge.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 26, 2010

Wendy Holden’s Novel ‘Beautiful People’ — Trouble in Tuscany

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:26 pm
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Beautiful People. By Wendy Holden. Sourcebooks Landmark, 420 pp., $14.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Wendy Holden’s ninth novel shows little of the satirical verve on display in her Farm Fatale and Bad Heir Day, both as fizzy and delicious as a Kir Royale. Beautiful People resembles a conventional wine from the Tuscan hills, the setting for the working-out of the romantic and professional dilemmas of its three heroines – a kind Yorkshire-bred nanny, a London-based actress from a theatrical dynasty similar to the Redgraves, and an apparently American film star whose career is tanking.

Holden serves up few savory bits for star-gazers in this international romp: Did you know that Madonna has outwitted paparazzi by wearing the same black tracksuit for three years while jogging to “make the pictures look the same as they had for the last three years and render the image unsellable”? Or that David Bowie hides in plain sight on the Underground by wearing cheap sunglasses and reading a Turkish newspaper?

But Holden drags her plot sideways by beginning her novel with a chapter on sub-lead characters, and she never quite gets it back on a fast, straight track. And even the keenest fans of her much-admired gift for wordplay may wonder: Did she really intend have two characters whose names are variations on the word “cockroach”?

Best line: “Mitch still had no idea why Belle’s studio had imagined that a film about an uptight, pyromaniac, religious nutcase was a suitable vehicle for her.” This line comes closer than any other to having the over-the-top flair that made Holden’s early novels so appealing.

Worst line: No. 1: “It takes a lot of money to look that cheap.” If you’re going to reheat a line Dolly Parton has been using for years, if not decades, doesn’t she deserve a credit? No. 2: “there were iPod earphones curling around his neck.” In the U.S., they’re called ear buds. The term may be different in Britain, where Holden lives, but if not, anybody who is writing about style-setters needs to get details like this right.

Published: April 2010

Conflict alert: Sourcebooks published my second novel, Manhattan on the Rocks.

About the author: Holden lives in England, where her novels has appeared repeatedly on best-seller lists.

Read excerpts from Beautiful People and other novels by Holden.

Furthermore: A review of Holden’s entertaining Bad Heir Day appeared on this site Dec. 19, 2006, in a post that also had comments on her Farm Fatale and Simply Divine.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 12, 2010

Jonathan Dee’s Novel ‘The Privileges’ — Looking at ‘Moral Invertebrates’ Through the Glass Walls of a Diorama

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:53 pm
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Will a New York couple’s marriage suffer when the husband veers into insider trading?

The Privileges: A Novel. By Jonathan Dee. Random House, 258 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Adam and Cynthia Morey – young, rich New Yorkers with two beautiful children – are the marital equivalent of a highly profitable but closely held company: two chillingly self-sufficient people who show little need for the family, friends, and faith of their youth. They are also, in the fine phrase of James Wood of The New Yorker, “moral invertebrates.” You can read their marriage as a metaphor for Wall Street in the age of deregulation – it makes its own rules. So you can’t assume that the Moreys or their children will suffer after Adam becomes the prime mover of an insider-trading scheme that exploits information picked up at his private-equity firm.

This uncertainly lends a modicum of suspense to this tale of the first 23 years of the couple’s marriage. But The Privileges is a low-energy and somewhat exposition-heavy novel that has an appeal more intellectual than emotional. The Moreys resemble figures in the carpet of a certain New York social world instead of fully realized characters. And many of their actions are unearned, including some of Cynthia’s cruelties to others and Adam’s abrupt tossing of a Patek Philippe watch into the Hudson River during a charity benefit on a ship.

Jonathan Dee is an intelligent and graceful writer who never trivializes his subjects. And he shows you what this novel might have been in a climatic scene in a hospice that brings in two characters from the sidelines who finally make you feel all you ought to feel for the Moreys’ victims. Elsewhere, if Adam and Cynthia are moral invertebrates, Dee leaves you looking at them through the glass walls of a diorama and not, as you would like to be, standing inside it with them.

Best line: No. 1: “After four years at Morgan Stanley, an operation so vast that Adam’s true bosses existed mostly on the level of gossip and rumor, a feeling of toxic stasis had begun to provoke him in the mornings when he arrived at work.” No. 2: “‘If you’re ever hard up for money, just fly the family to LA, and both kids will have agents before they’re out of baggage claim,’ Conrad said.”

Worst line: “Unconsciously she pulls at the neckline of her bridesmaid’s dress to try to keep her tattoo covered.”If she’s trying to keep her tattoo covered, is the movement really “unconscious”?

Published: January 2010. The paperback edition of The Privileges is due out in October.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to this book: Michael Dahlie’s award-winning novel, A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living,which deals more effectively with monied New Yorkers.

About the author: Dee is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 16, 2010

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ — Champagne or Table Wine?

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:38 am
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Dorothy Parker called The Grapes of Wrath “the greatest American novel I have ever read,” but many critics disagree

The Grapes of Wrath. By John Steinbeck. Penguin Classics, 464 pp., $16, paperback. Introduction by Robert DeMott. Also available in other editions.

By Janice Harayda

Still enraged that Premier Bankcard is charging a 79.9 percent interest rateon its credit card? Reading The Grapes of Wrath might be cathartic. More than 70 years after its publication, this novel remains one of the most scathing indictments of banking and related industries to appear in American fiction.

In 1936 the San Francisco News sent John Steinbeck to investigate the living conditions of displaced Dust Bowl farmers who were streaming into California looking for work. That assignment inspired The Grapes of Wrath, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about how displacement and bureaucratic cruelty transform families.

Steinbeck refracts his theme through the bleak story of the Joads, Oklahoma sharecroppers evicted by a bank who set out for California hoping to earn a living as fruit-pickers. Ma and Pa Joad and their children face an almost soap-operatic array of disasters on their car trip and in the blighted Eden of California, where people disparagingly call them “Okies”: hunger, homelessness, illness, death, unemployment and the sadism of rich landowners. Their stoic dignity has endeared them to readers of all ages and to the Swedish Academy, which gave Steinbeck the 1962 Nobel Prize in literature.

The Grapes of Wrath has won less consistent acclaim from critics, who disagree on whether the Joads’ story is Dom Perignon or mediocre table wine. Dorothy Parker, one of the finest critics of her day, called the book “the greatest American novel I have ever read,” and it appears regularly on lists of the most influential works of fiction of the 20th century. But Edmund Wilson said that Steinbeck reduced his characters to their biological drives and animal instincts. And when Jonathan Yardley reviewed a volume of Steinbeck’s collected works for the Washington Post in the 1990s, he was struck by “the solemnity, the sentimentality, the heavy-handed irony, the humorlessness, the labored colloquialisms, the clumsiness” and “the political naiveté” he found in them, though reminded of the “powerfully sympathetic portraits of American farm workers and . . . the vision of social justice” he once admired.

Many of the complaints about the book have merit. Steinbeck conflates poverty and goodness – and wealth and evil – to a degree rarely found in novels written in the documentary style of The Grapes of Wrath. He portrays sympathetically and often sentimentally characters such as a waitress who thinks that the rich are thieves and “the bigger the car they got, the more they steal.” He is less subtle than his fellow social-realist and Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis is in Main Street and other books. You know exactly what you are supposed to think about every issue raised in The Grapes of Wrath, which is why some critics have dismissed it as propaganda or a tract.

But the sentimentality of The Grapes of Wrath is not the cut-rate sentimentality that floods a market full of books by Mitch Albom imitators. It is hard won. And it is rooted in a deep and sincere concern for the brutal conditions endured by the Depression-era poor, some hungry enough to eat coal, as Ma Joad did, or trade a child’s doll for gas that would allow them to flee circumstances. The novelist Don DeLillo rightly said that in The Grapes of Wrath “there is something at stake in every sentence.”

There’s also something going on in every sentence. The Grapes of Wrath keeps its momentum from its opening chapters, when Ma and Pa Joad’s son Tom returns from prison, to its last pages, when the family tries to help a sick man though its own circumstances have grown more desperate. At times, the action includes perceptive observations on what makes life worth living. Steinbeck writes that migrant workers yearned for amusement and found it when they gathered around a fire to hear a storyteller: “And they listened while the tales were told, and their participation in the stories made them great.” The Grapes of Wrath is not a great novel as many critics would define it: a near-flawless work that yields new insights with each reading. It has been made great by the participation in its story of the successive generations to whom it has spoken as if by firelight.

Best line: The title. It appears in this line in the novel: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Worst line: “‘No, it ain’t,’ Ma smiled.”

Reading group guide with 12 discussion questions about The Grapes of Wrath from by the Big Read project of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Movie link: The 1940 movie of The Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two.

Furthermore: The site for the Nobel Prize foundation has a biography and more about Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath. The California Association of Teachers of English site explores some of the author’s local connections. A preloaded digital audiobook editor of the Penguin Classics edition of The Grapes of Wrath from Playaway is available online and at many libraries.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes the publishing industry on her FakeBookNews page (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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