One-Minute Book Reviews

October 14, 2009

David Small’s Graphic Memoir of Throat Cancer, ‘Stitches,’ Makes Shortlist for National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

David Small has made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature for Stitches (Norton, 336 pp., $24.95), his graphic memoir of getting throat cancer after receiving high doses of radiation for a sinus condition while growing up in Detroit in the baby-boom era. The sponsor of the awards doesn’t give a separate prize for graphic novels or memoirs but considers them along with other submissions in the relevant category, so you could easily miss that this one has a different format from other books on the shortlist. Small talks about Stitches in a YouTube trailer that shows a generous number of pages from the book. He won the American Library Association’s 2001 Caldecott Medal for So You Want to Be President?, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.

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July 23, 2009

Eric Hodgins’s Classic Comic Novel ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’ — You Think Your Problems With Contractors Are Bad?

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A  classic comic novel about moving from the city to the country sends up the modern lust for property

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading yesterday’s bestsellers can be a little like trying on that pair of white vinyl go-go boots in the attic: You don’t know whether to laugh or cringe at our former tastes. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation and comic novels age faster than serious ones because so much humor depends on topical references. This classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property, and its enduring appeal lies partly in the all-too-believable naiveté of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. They fall in love with the barns, apple orchard and majestic views: “But the furnishings were in general of the era of Benjamin Harrison, with an overlay of William McKinley, and here and there a final, crowning touch of Calvin Coolidge.” And when house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, Jim and Muriel resolve to tear it down and build another on the site.

This decision sets up a superbly constructed plot in which the new house becomes the couple’s antagonist. The Blandings square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – in short, all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. But the house itself is their real opponent. Amid the soaring bills and construction delays, Mr. Blandings imagines how delightful it would be “to return to the city and move a final, ten blocks father north.” Will he throw in the drill bit and go back to the Upper East Die? Or sell the place and buy one against which he isn’t so overmatched?

Eric Hodgins controls the suspense deftly. And the late New Yorker cartoonist William Steig adds three dozen or so brilliant drawings, many of them a full page, that throw the comedy into higher relief and show how much we have lost now that the fully illustrated adult novel has almost disappeared. Along with Hodgins’s masterly text, Steig’s fanciful pictures remind us that if a man’s home is his castle, sometimes he’s the court jester instead of the king.

Best line: “It surged over Mr. Blandings that he very much wished he were back in the city … he wanted the noise of the city in his ears; the noise with which all city dwellers were in such perfect, unconscious harmony that the blast of a gas main down the block might strike the eardrums but penetrate not the brain.”

Worst line: A few expressions have become dated. When Mr. Blandings sees the contractors’ bills, he cries: “Jesus H. Mahogany Christ!”

Recommended if … you like comedy that stays close to life. Hodgins’s satire is much more realistic than that of the over-the-top novels of Christopher Buckley (whose Boomsday involves plan to save Social Security and other benefits by giving baby boomers a financial incentive to commit suicide, known as “Voluntary Transitioning”). Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is also a nearly perfect book club book partly because: 1) It’s a classic that few people have read; 2) It’s relatively short and widely available in paperback and at libraries; 3) It deals with a situation almost anybody can appreciate; 4) It may show a new side of William Steig to members familiar only with his children’s books, such as Dr. De Soto and Shrek!; and 5) All those slackers who never finish the book can watch one of the movie versions.

Reading group guide: This site has also posted a review of the sequel to this novel, Blandings’ Way, and a reading group guide to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, which you can find by using the search box.

Published: 1946 (first edition), 2004 (Simon & Schuster paperback).

Furthermore: Hodgins’s novel has inspired two movies I haven’t seen – Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Low, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks.

This is a repost of a review that first appeared in 2007. I am on a brief semi-vacation.

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January 9, 2009

Adultery for Third-Graders — A Review of ‘What I Saw and How I Lied,’ Winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

A tale of theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder, written at an 8-year-old reading level

What I Saw and How I Lied. By Judy Blundell. Scholastic, 284 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

What would you do if you were a publisher who knew that reading test scores were declining as children were seeing more sex and violent crimes in the media? Maybe play both sides against the middle as Scholastic has done with What I Saw and How I Lied, the winner of the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

This stylish literary thriller deals with subjects appropriate for the 13-to-18-year-old age range that the publisher recommends on its site — theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder. But Judy Blundell writes at a third-grade reading level in the novel, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.

So who, exactly, is this book for? Much of the content is too mature for 8-year-olds. But the reading level is too low for the sophisticated adolescent and teenage girls likely gravitate to its glamorous, noir-ish cover, which shows a thin, beautiful model applying red lipstick. Blundell is condescending to them even if they enjoy its page-turner of a plot: Anyone who is ready for the subjects covered in this novel is also ready for a higher reading level.

Evie Spooner is 15 years old when her stepfather, Joe, returns from Austria in 1947, having overstayed the end of the war for murky reasons. Evie’s seductive mother has quit her job at Lord & Taylor – “Either that or get fired”— because veterans needed jobs. And she’s surprised her husband by learning to make Sunday suppers and perform other domestic tasks. “Son of a bitch,” Joe says of the change.

But the glow of the family reunion fades after Joe packs up the three of them for what he casts as an overdue Florida vacation. They settle into a Palm Beach hotel (aptly named Le Mirage), nearly deserted in the off-season. And Evie becomes swept up in a riptide of events that involves looted gold, a hurricane, an inquest into a possible homicide and her crush on a seductive 23-year-old who says he served with Joe overseas.

The plotting is tight and ingenious until an improbable last scene, and well-supported by details that evoke the era (including the chocolate cigarettes that Evie buys to “practice smoking”). And the book deals with larger issues than whether a murder occurred: What is loyalty? What do we owe the dead? Do truth and justice differ and, if so, how?

Questions like these appeal strongly to adolescents and teenagers, and this book could provide a framework for exploring them. As for their reading test scores: They’re not likely to improve if more publishers — encouraged by the National Book Award for this novel — put a senior prom dress on a third-grader’s soccer shorts.

Best line: A warning heard on the radio as a hurricane approaches Palm Beach: “Watch out for flying coconuts.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Our pipsqueak attorney had turned into a pretty decent linebacker.” It’s a stretch that a 15-year-old girl living in 1947 would know enough about linebackers to use the word in this way. No. 2: “Lana Turner was every man’s dream, sultry and blond. It was Lana filling out a sweater at a drugstore that got her a Hollywood contract.” That Turner was discovered at a drugstore is a myth. Even if the teenagers of 1947 believed the myth, the book is perpetuating this legend for a new generation of readers.

About the reading level: The reading level comes from the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on any recent version of Microsoft Word. To find it, I entered a minimum of 300 words from each of the following two-page sections of What I Saw and How I Lied: pages 36-37 (Grade 4.2), pages 136-137 (Grade 2.6) and pages 236-237 (3.7). I also entered all of last two pages (Grade 3.0). The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of authors and tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.

Furthermore: What I Saw and How I Lied
won a 2008 National Book Award. The National Book Foundation.
has posted an excerpt from and the citation for the novel on its site.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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