One-Minute Book Reviews

June 21, 2007

Low Mileage for Helen Simpson’s ‘In the Driver’s Seat’

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:28 am
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Stories of contemporary Englishwomen who are “just barely there”

In the Driver’s Seat: Stories. By Helen Simpson. Knopf, 192 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

“The short story today seems to be caught up in a competition of subtlety,” the critic Anatole Broyard wrote in the 1970s. “Who can weave a web of the thinnest materials?” Broyard observed that in many stories, even the characters – the one thing you can’t eliminate – “are just barely there.” He was talking about the late English writer Elizabeth Taylor, but you could say the same of Helen Simpson, her somewhat less consistent countrywoman.

Simpson is thoughtful and intelligent, yet some of the 11 stories in her new collection are little more than extended anecdotes. She typically writes about contemporary Englishwomen who are old enough to have come up against some of their physical or emotional limits, yet young enough to think they can solve their problems with talk. They change, if they do so at all, only when jolted out of their passivity by events they didn’t cause – a break-in, an outbreak of cancer among friends, the loss of a leg in a freak bus accident.

A woman who didn’t attend her married lover’s funeral finds relief from her buried grief when a man from a do-it-yourself store treats her kindly in “The Door,” a story reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” A wife stands by her philandering husband during a lung-cancer scare in “If I’m Spared” and then, when he turns out to have tuberculosis instead, shows no rage or even concern that he might have infected her. An experienced mother tries to convince herself that her comforting words have helped an emotionally abused child at a swimming pool in “The Year’s Midnight,” a story that is almost all talk with whiff of instruction about it.

At times Simpson suggests what she can do at her best. In “The Phlebotomist’s Love Life” a woman who draws blood for a living projects her fears about the war in Iraq onto her lover — or perhaps projects her fears about her lover onto the war – with predictably disastrous results. Simpson makes interesting connections by juxtaposing such things as the Arsenal soccer team, Saddam Hussein’s brutality and the anticoagulant drug warfarin. But by the end of the story, talk has again gained the upper hand over the action that would have shown the point of these details.

Simpson tells an altogether different sort of tale in “The Green Room,” which involves an elf who materializes in the home of a woman who visits a Web site called Festive Life Coach. This amusing fable resembles a parody of “A Christmas Carol” with a 21st century “life coach” in the role of Marley’s Ghost. (“This is Pessimism,” the elf says. “And here, look, here comes its cousin Procrastination.”) The story is diverting, but could have been commissioned for a newspaper holiday supplement.

The best story is “Constitutional,” the title for the English edition of this collection. This jewel takes the form of an interior monologue that gives a cross-section of the entire life of a science teacher as she walks around what appears to be Hampstead Heath. Witty, insightful and beautifully structured, “Constitutional” shows us a woman who is, on every line, fully present and made of material sturdy enough to support all that her creator has to say about her.

Best lines: “I’m finding more and more when I meet new people that, within minutes of saying hello, they’re laying themselves out in front of me like scientific diagrams that they then explain, complex specimens, analyzed and summed up in their own words. They talk about their pasts in great detail, they tell me their stories, and then – this is what passes for intimacy now – they ask me to tell them mine. I have tried. But I can’t. It seems cooked up, that sort of story. And how could it be more than the current version? It makes me feel, No, that’s not it and that’s not it as soon as I’ve said something.” — The narrator of “Constitutional”

Worst lines: “You never talk to me … We only ever watch television and go to bed … But what do you feel?” — Comments the title character of “The Phlebotomist’s Love Life” makes to her lover

Reading group guide: So far the publisher hasn’t posted one on its site I was going to post a Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to the book, but the collection seems too skimpy to have a strong appeal for most American book clubs.

Published: May 2007

Furthermore: Simpson has a short story that’s not included in In the Driver’s Seat, “Homework,” in the June 19, 2007, issue of The New Yorker. She also wrote the collections Dear George and Four Bare Legs in a Bed, which won the Somerset Maugham Award, and the novel Flesh and Grass.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 15, 2007

Los Angeles Crime Stories, Hardboiled

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:25 pm
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A noir series visits the headwaters of the form

Bill Peschel at Reader’s Almanac aptly describes Los Angeles as “ground zero to noir,” that fatalistic form of crime fiction that came into its own with novels like James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Akashic Books goes there in the 13th installment in its city-themed series of noir short story collections, which has made earlier stops in Detroit, Miami, Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans and the Twin Cities. Peschel says that Michael Connelly gets the star turn in Los Angeles Noir (Akashic, $15.95, paperback), edited by Denise Hamilton, but that the book also has fine stories by Emory Holmes, Neal Pollack, Lienna Silver and others.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 9, 2007

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

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

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

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor: Anika Streitfeld

Published: March 2007

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

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

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

April 15, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 12, 2007

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

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

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

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

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 27, 2007

Young, Jewish and Hoping for a Short Seder

A short story collection for people with more than four questions — way more — about how to reconcile their Jewish faith with their Phish bootlegs

You’re young, you’re Jewish, and you’re praying – well, maybe not praying – for a short seder. Who understands you? Elisa Albert, author of How This Night Is Different (Free Press, $18.95) a smart, funny and often bawdy collection of stories about young Jews looking for meaning in rituals that include a seder, a wedding, bat mitzvah, a Yom Kippur service and a packaged tour of Auschwitz. As a Nov. 22 review on this site noted, Albert’s writing transcends the label “Jewish fiction.” But How This Night Is Different could still make a fine Passover gift for anyone hip enough to see the comic potential characters such as a 31-year-old single woman who goes home for the holiday with that least inappropriate of ailments, a yeast infection. How many short story collections have, as this one does, a cover inspired by a bottle of Manishevitz?

Links: Author site One-Minute Book Reviews review

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 22, 2006

Elisa Albert’s Stories About Young Jews Searching for Meaning They Can’t Find in Phish Bootlegs

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:19 am
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An entertaining and often bawdy collection about a new diaspora in clubs, bars, and hostels

How This Night Is Different: Stories. By Elisa Albert. Free Press, 198 pp., $18.

How This Night Is Different has a bottle of Passover wine on the cover and is getting attention at Jewish book fairs and related events. But this book should no more be ghetto-ized as “Jewish fiction” than John Cheever’s work should be pigeonholed as “Protestant fiction.” It transcends literary typecasting.

Each of its ten stories deals with young Jews who are struggling to make sense of a different ritual or activity – a circumcision, a bat mitzvah, a wedding, a Passover seder, a packaged tour of Auschwitz. Their characters are looking for more meaning than they find in sex, Phish bootlegs, and Cool-Breeze-fueled benders. But the form of Judaism they have inherited doesn’t provide the answers they need, and without the sense of community that kept their ancestors together, they have become a new diaspora, a generation scattered among bars, youth hostels, and Hillel groups.

Elisa Albert’s characters often try to find comfort in humor that ranges from droll to bawdy. In “The Mother Is Always Upset,” a young mother resists the circumcision of her infant son even as relatives gather at her home for the ceremony. A guest considers the mohel who will perform the act: “He was eighty if he was a day, but he came highly recommended by the temple sisterhood as the foreskin obliterator in town. A fourth-generation mohel, according to Shirley. This, apparently, was like the Eastern European equivalent of being a Kennedy.” In another story the narrator tries to understand how her best friend could have become a religious extremist: “This from the girl who, in the ninth grade, using a peeled cucumber, taught me how to give a proper blow job.”

One of the pleasures of this collection is that its stories are suspenseful, a quality often lacking in contemporary fiction. You turn keep turning the pages not out of obligation because you want to know how things end. And if her characters are spiritually adrift, Albert knows exactly where she’s going.

Best line: “Michael worked for a media conglomerate referred to by Beth as ‘Satan Incorporated.’”

Worst line: “The driver giggles to himself, perhaps reliving a funny Jim Carrey moment.” Can you giggle to yourself? Especially when this line appears in a story told from the point of view of a passenger in a taxi cab, not the driver?

Recommended if … you’re looking for a fresh and funny new voice in literary fiction.

Editor: Maris Kreizman

Published: September 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 29, 2006

Noel Coward’s Short Stories

Who knew that one of the 20th century’s most entertaining playwrights also wrote wonderful short stories?

Noël Coward: Collected Short Stories. By Noël Coward. Preface by Martin Tickner. Methuen, 629 pp., $17.95, paperback.

You’re in for a treat if you know Noël Coward only the English playwright who wrote sparkling comedies of sexual jealousy like Blithe Spirit and Private Lives. Coward also wrote wonderful short stories that, at their best, have the droll wit and brisk pacing of his finest plays. All 20 appear in this welcome collection, published to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1899.

Part of what makes these stories so appealing is that they have a clear beginning, middle and end, whether they take place in London or New York or the South Seas. This alone would set them apart from many recent stories that are so oblique that reading them tends to resemble code-breaking.

But there’s more to Coward’s tales than their solid yet graceful architecture. Poet and scholar Robert Phillips has noted correctly that Coward was a “master of the shifting point of view, and managed the difficult balance between comedy and tragedy.” Coward also wrote about a kind of glamour that has almost disappeared from literary fiction. And although his stories vary in length and effectiveness, together they reflect a uniquely theatrical sensibility, with many involving actors or others in show business.

Most of Coward’s stories were written in the mid-20th century, but an eerie freshness surfaces in some of their themes, such as the cost of living in age drunk on celebrities. In one the best stories, “What Mad Pursuit?”, an English novelist is besieged by his hosts on an American tour. In “A Richer Dust,” an actor moves to Hollywood, hoping to retain some privacy: “But during the last few years this has become increasingly difficult owing to the misguided encouragement of a new form of social parasite, the gossip columnist.” This “assault upon the credulity of an entire nation” confuses people: “It would not be so were the information given checked and counter-checked and based on solid truth, but unfortunately it seldom is; consequently anybody who has the faintest claim to celebrity is likely to have his character, motives and private and public actions cheerfully misrepresented to an entire continent.” You might never know he was talking about people with names like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons instead of the editors of the National Enquirer or producers of Access Hollywood.

Best line: Many. One from “A Richer Dust”: “Adele was a conscientious young actress with good legs and little talent. In the farce she played the heroine’s best friend, who made a lot of pseudosophisticated wisecracks and was incapable of sitting down without crossing her legs ostentatiously and loosening her furs.”

Worst line: What’s the point of trying to pick the worst diamond at Tiffany’s?

Recommended if … you like stories by the masters Coward admired, such as O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant.

Published: 2000 (Methuen paperback).

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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