One-Minute Book Reviews

December 18, 2013

Bad Literary Manners Erupt on Twitter

Filed under: News,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:16 pm
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Few of us would be so gauche as to walk up to an author we hadn’t met at a party and say in front of other guests: “Hey, I just reviewed your book! Let me tell you how much I hated it.” But the digital equivalent occurs on Twitter whenever people tweet links of negative reviews to the authors of the books they’ve panned. David Duhr, the books editor of the Texas Observer, asked six critics, of whom I was one, to comment on the practice. You can see our answers in his post on Publishing Perspectives.

December 14, 2013

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

Filed under: Humor,Novels,What I'm Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:40 pm
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“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review on this blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 22, 2013

‘Toms River’ – Why Did So Many Children Get Cancer in a Jersey Shore Town?

Filed under: Nonfiction,Science — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 am
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A real-life environmental detective story about toxic wastes suspected of causing cancer in children

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. Bantam, 538 pp., $28.

By Janice Harayda

Thirty years ago, New Jersey was the capital of hazardous waste dumping in the United States, and Toms River stood at a crossroads of that dark enterprise. In this stellar environmental detective story, the gifted science writer Dan Fagin tells how a toxic disaster befell and — after decades of political and legal wrangling — ended in a Jersey Shore town better known for its Little League World Series champions.

Toms River abounds with the sort of cloak-and-dagger exploits more often found in suspense novels: midnight dumping, anonymous tips, criminal sabotage, indifferent government officials, and corrupt executives – in this case, at Ciba-Geigy, once a major air and water polluter in the area. But the emotional heart of the book lies in its account of the unusual number of children in town who developed cancer, especially leukemia.

Many of the victims’ parents suspected that the problem lay in the toxic wastes dumped by or emitted from the smokestacks of Ciba and other polluters, and they spent years trying to prove it. Their efforts had impressive results — a government investigation, a cleanup of dump sites, and more rigorous testing of the town water. But the parents received no financial settlement from polluters until their legal team expanded to include Jan Schlichtmann, the brash lawyer whose gladiatorial fight for leukemia victims in Woburn, Mass., inspired A Civil Action. In 2001 he helped to negotiate an estimated $35 million payout to the Toms River families, a sum Fagin calls “unquestionably the largest in a residential cancer cluster case, dwarfing the $8 million Woburn settlement of 1986.”

Schlichtmann does not appear until page 349 of the story, and when he does, he has mellowed enough to urge the victims’ relatives to stay out of court. And his late and subdued arrival — and Fagin’s penchant digressing into epidemiological history — make Toms River a slower-paced and less splashy book than A Civil Action. But it is perhaps a more valuable one. Its focus on science and citizen action, not on a go-for-broke lawyer, shows more clearly than Jonathan Harr’s bestseller how difficult it is — even for prosecutors and environmental agencies armed with subpoena power and sophisticated databases — to determine what caused a cancer cluster.

Fagin notes that “Toms River had an extraordinary amount of toxic pollution and a discernible cluster of childhood cancer, and the two seemed to line up, roughly, in what looked like a cause-and-effect relationship.” But the case that the victims’ families hoped to make against polluters was impossible to prove:

“Even with all the pollution and cancer in Toms River, the apparent association could never be confirmed definitively because of the unanswerable questions about long ago exposures and also because of the enigmatic nature of cancer, which struck so unpredictably and had so many possible causes.”

Toms River has cleaner water than it did 30 years ago and no leukemia cluster, but whether other towns could marshall the resources that enabled it to make those gains is doubtful. The main legacy of Toms River, Fagin notes, “has been to solidify government opposition to conducting any more Toms River–style investigations.”

Best line: In 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency posted its first official list of the country’s most dangerous toxic waste dumps, known as “Superfund” sites because a “superfund” would pay to clean them up if the government couldn’t force the dumpers to do it: “Sixty-five sites on the original Superfund list were in the undisputed capital of hazardous waste dumping in the United States: New Jersey, which had 24 more sites than its closest rival, Michigan. With nine dumps on the list, Ocean County alone had more Superfund sites than 36 states.” Two of the Ocean County sites were in Toms River.

Worst line: Ciba-Geigy blundered when it faced unflattering news stories about all the treated wastewater it was pumping through a pipeline into the Atlantic Ocean a half-mile offshore from Ortley Beach: “The company responded with all the finesse and humility of Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution.” That might be true, but the image is tired.

Furthermore: Learn more about Toms River on Dan Fagin’s website. Wonder how close you live to a hazardous waste dump? Click on your state on this Environmental Protection Agency map of Superfund sites.

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

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

November 15, 2013

Coming Soon – A Real-Life Environmental Detective Story

Filed under: Nonfiction,Science — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:42 pm
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Suppose that an unusually large number of children in your town developed cancers that seemed to result from an environmental hazard such as air or water pollution. What would it take to prove it? A group of parents in Toms River, NJ, found out when their children were diagnosed with cancers that they believed to have been caused by toxic wastes dumped by the town’s largest employer. Dan Fagin describes their fight for justice in Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation (Bantam, 2013), an environmental detective story that involves midnight dumping, criminal sabotage, and other subterfuge. A review of the book will appear soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. 

November 12, 2013

William Logan’s ‘The Undiscovered Country,’ Award-Winning Poetry Reviews

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:49 pm
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What winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award most deserved the prize? My favorite honorees include William Logan’s The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin, a collection of essays and reviews on poetry, and I explain why in a post on the NBCC blog that begins:

“William Logan once heard a poet say that poets in the 1950s were afraid of three things: ‘Randall Jarrell’s reviews, Robert Lowell’s poetry, and the atomic bomb.’ Today’s poets have three different fears: William Logan’s reviews, John Ashbery’s poetry, and not getting tenure. [read more]

November 2, 2013

Why Does the Horseman Have No Head in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? — Quote of the Day / Amanda Foreman

Filed under: Classics,Quotes of the Day,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:23 pm
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Is a classic American story about the danger that any man might lose his head over a woman?

A lot of us have enjoyed “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as simply a rousing tale of a schoolmaster undone by his vision of a headless horseman. But is there more to it? Washington Irving’s schoolmaster is the superstitious Ichabod Crane, a gold digger who hopes to marry Katrina Van Tassel, a rich farmer’s daughter. Katrina has also caught the eye of the prankster Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt. One autumn night, Crane goes to a party at the Van Tassel’s at which Brom Bones and others tell ghost stories, and on his way home, he sees a headless horseman who flings his missing head at him — an act that so terrifies him that he flees town for good.

An unanswered question of the story is: Why does the horseman have no head? Literary monsters typically have fangs, claws or other menacing elements added to their bodies. The headless horseman has had something subtracted. The historian Amanda Foreman indirectly suggests an explanation for it in an her article, “Headless, and Not Just the Horseman,” in the Nov. 2–3 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Could it be, she asks, that Ichabod Crane’s Katrina symbolizes the danger that any man might lose his head over a woman? “To some,” she adds, “the mere possibility is a fate worse than death.”

– Janice Harayda

October 29, 2013

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

Filed under: Historical Novels,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:10 pm
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“Sex is not about exchange values. It’s a gift economy.”

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under: Novels,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:49 pm
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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

October 22, 2013

Ex-Bronco Nate Jackson’s Football Memoir ‘Slow Getting Up’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 pm
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An iconoclast recalls the physical and mental bruises he sustained in the NFL

Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile. By Nate Jackson. Harper, 243 pp., $26.99.

By Janice Harayda

Nate Jackson recalls his injury-prone years in the NFL in a book that proves that a professional football player can use “contextualize” and “neophytic” in a sentence. He has not written his league’s answer to Andre Agassi’s Open, perhaps the best sports memoir of the past decade.

But unlike better-known players such as Brett Favre, Jackson has a sense of humor — by turns droll, self-mocking and sarcastic — that doesn’t spare his teams, the 49ers and the Broncos. He refers to every stadium as [Insert Corporate Logo Here] Field and notes that the NFL has required its drug-testers to watch players urinate, not just collect cups,  ever since a member of one of its rosters was caught at an airport with a prosthetic penis called the Whizzinator.

As entertaining as some of this is, you wonder why Jackson felt the need to explain things such as that a lot of masturbation goes on in the hotel rooms of football players traveling without their wives or girlfriends. Did he think no one would have suspected it?

Best line: No. 1:  “So much of offensive football is lying with your body, getting the defender to think you are going somewhere you aren’t. Tell a story with your movements: a bloody lie!” No. 2:  Jackson says he lost some of his idealism when the Broncos replaced quarterback Jake Plummer, whose success had made him believe “there was room for an iconoclast in the cloistered institution of big football,” with the rookie Jay Cutler: “But the good/bad thing about football is that it moves too quickly for your conscientious objections to keep pace. It pulls you along by sheer force.”

Worst line: No. 1: “But I’m not a pregame self-gratifier.” (Accompanied by a report on players who are.) No. 2: “If the wedge comes free to me and the R2, and all the other guys get blocked, then the R2 and I must eat up the wedge and spill the returner outside into the arms of the R1.”

About the author: Nate Jackson spent more than six seasons in the NFL, mostly as a tight end. He played for the San Francisco 49ers in 2002 and for the Denver Broncos from 2003–2008. Ann Killon interviewed him about Slow Getting Up for a San Francisco Chronicle article in which he discusses his brief use of Human Growth Hormone at the end of his career.

Published: September 2013

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic and journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow @janiceharayda on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 28, 2013

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

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:59 pm
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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

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