One-Minute Book Reviews

December 7, 2009

Sex and the City of Light — Elaine Dundy’s ‘The Dud Avocado’

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:15 am
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A young, single and free-spirited American cuts loose Paris in the 1950s

The Dud Avocado. By Elaine Dundy. Introduction by Terry Teachout. New York Review Books Classics, 260 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1958 Elaine Dundy won rapturous praise for The Dud Avocado, a sparkling novel about the cultural and romantic adventures of a young American in France. More than a half century later, her book has become a modern classic, driven by the unique voice of an endearingly impulsive heroine.

Sally Jay Gorce has traveled to Paris search of gaiety, laughter and “shoes in the air” – apparently, something not unlike a Fred Astaire movie. Bankrolled by an allowance from a rich uncle, she finds all of those as she takes small acting roles and moves from cafés and nightclubs in Montparnasse to a villa near Biarritz. She also has a moral awakening that occurs not when she loses her virginity to an Italian diplomat – which is part of her backstory — but when she discovers that Old World glamour can mask social ruthlessness.

Groucho Marx wrote to Dundy to praise The Dud Avocado: “It made me laugh, scream, and guffaw (which, incidentally, is a great name for a law firm).” And the book is certainly one of the most entertaining novels of the 20th century about an innocent abroad. Sally may be as green as an avocado, but she knows what’s wrong with a hotel for Anglophiles that’s “full of dusty red plush” furniture: “It’s probably the only perfect replica of a Victorian mausoleum still standing in Paris.” And she has a sensibility that is surprisingly modern. She declines to live with a boyfriend not because it’s immoral – they’re sleeping together — but because it would curb her freedom. She is also charmingly open about her faults, such as her quick temper and flightiness: “I always expect people to behave much better than I do. When they actually behave worse, I am frankly incredulous.”

Like its heroine, The Dud Avocado has small flaws: a loosely stitched plot, an ending that isn’t fully earned. These detract little from a book that invests Paris in 1950s with the allure others have given to the Paris in the 1920s. No matter how many scrapes Sally gets into, you never doubt her intelligence or enthusiasm for life. She writes of friends: “A rowdy bunch on the whole, they were most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.” The same applies many recent books: they’re “so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.” The allure of The Dud Avocado – like that of its heroine – is that it is interchangeable with nothing.

Best line: “I mean, the question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to  that is, don’t we all anyway; might as well get paid for it.”

Worst line: “I saw us for what we really were: beggars and toadies and false pretenders.” Pretenders are always false.

Reading group guide: Posted on the publisher’s site.

Published: 1958 (first edition). June 2007 (NYRB reissue). In addition to The Dud AvocadoDundy wrote the novels The Old Man and Me and The Injured Party and a memoir.

Furthermore: More about Dundy appears in her New York Times obituary. The Dud Avocado has an excellent introduction by Terry Teachout, the author and drama critic for the Wall Street Journal.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda)  on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 14, 2009

‘Claudette Colvin’ – Phillip Hoose’s Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Honors a Teenager Who Wouldn’t Give Up Her Bus Seat

Note: Since I posted this, a visitor has pasted into comment #1 a good short video about this book that lets you hear Claudette Colvin and see some of the excellent archival photos in the book. You can watch it without leaving this site. Jan

CLAUDETTE COLVIN: Twice Toward Justice. By Phillip Hoose. FSG/Melanie Kroupa, 133 pp., $19.95. 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Claudette Colvin brings down from the attic of American history a life that deserves a place on its front porch. The judges for the National Book Awards will announce on Wednesday whether this 2009 finalist is, in their view, the year’s best book of young people’s literature. It is certainly one of the most inspiring.

Beginning in late 1955, tens of thousands of black residents of the Alabama capital refused to ride the city’s buses after the police arrested Rosa Parks for not giving up her seat to a white passenger. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted until the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling in Browder v. Gayle that segregated buses were unconstitutional. The decision strengthened the civil-rights movement and the career of the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery who had encouraged the protesters to remain nonviolent, Martin Luther King Jr.

A plaintiff in Browder v. Gale was Claudette Colvin, an intelligent and strong-willed teenager from a family who lived in one of the poorest sections of the city. Nine months before Parks took her historic stand, Colvin was arrested and jailed after she refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a Montgomery bus. At the age of 15, Colvin had studied black history in school and idolized the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. So she did not go gently, as Parks did, when ordered her to yield her seat. As the police dragged her backwards off the bus, she screamed, “It’s my constitutional right!”

But while Parks became famous, Colvin remains little known. Phillip Hoose shows the injustice of that neglect in this fascinating story of her early years – much of it told in her words — that combines oral history and pictorial biography. Colvin’s memories of growing up in segregated Montgomery are at times almost heartbreaking in their understatement. “My mother had always said, ‘If you can even talk to a white person without lowering your eyes you’re really doing something,’” Colvin recalls. And such comments are enriched by well-chosen black-and-white archival photos, including a copy of a Jim Crow–era sign that says: “NO DOGS NEGROS [SIC] MEXICANS.”

Claudette Colvin leaves unanswered many questions about Colvin’s later life, apparently because some events were too painful for her to discuss. But anyone would prefer to have this fine story of her life than none at all.

“The wonderful thing which you have just done makes me feel like a craven coward,” a man in Sacramento wrote to Colvin after hearing that police had arrested for her staying in a bus seat she had paid for. “How encouraging it would be more adults had your courage, self respect and integrity.” Indeed, it would.

Best line: One of many memorable details of life under Jim Crow laws, in Colvin’s words: “We could shop in white stores – they’d take our money all right – but they wouldn’t let us try anything on … When [my sister] and I needed shoes, my mom would trace the shape of our feet on a brown paper bag and we’d carry the outline to the store because we weren’t allowed to try the shoes on.”

Worst line: None.

Read an excerpt from Claudette Colvin.

Furthermore: Claudette Colvin is a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature. the winner will be announced on Nov. 18, and the prize sponsor has posted more on the book on its Web site.

About the author: Hoose‘s other books include Perfect, Once Removed, a memoir of the summer when his cousin Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series.

You can also follow janiceharayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, which may have other comments on the National Book Award finalists.

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

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.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

January 12, 2009

Back to the Diner With Mary Jo Salter — The Unofficial Poet Laureate of Female Baby Boomers Remembers Her Past in ‘A Phone Call to the Future’

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:14 pm
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This was the Fifties: as far back as I go.
Some of it lasted decades.
That’s why I remember it so clearly.

From the title poem of A Phone Call to the Future

A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems. Knopf, 222 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda
America is full of women who promised themselves years ago that someday they would read more than The Managerial Woman and the owner’s manual for Aprica strollers — maybe even poetry. Now the great day is at hand as many of these baby boomers approach retirement.

Mary Jo Salter awaits them. It would be patronizing — and misleading — to call Salter a “women’s poet.” She has written six books, coedited the Norton Anthology of Poetry and won praise from both sexes. Salter is no more of a “women’s poet” than was Elizabeth Bishop, with whom she studied. And yet perhaps better than any other poet, she provides a narrative arc for the shared experiences of female baby boomers.

A Phone Call to the Future reads at times like an index to the milestones of a generation of women. Looking for a poem about menopause? Try “Somebody Else’s Baby.” The death of a parent? “Dead Letters.” The long-ago crisis that your marriage mercifully survived? “The Twelfth Year.” The wistful feelings inspired by your teenage daughter’s maturity? “For Emily at Fifteen.” The incomprehension you felt when you went back to your once-favorite diner and found that it had become a Chinese restaurant? “Inside the Midget.”

If these poems sound like articles-in-verse for More or the AARP Bulletin, they are far from it: They tell truths that tend to yield in magazines to chipper advice on how to look younger without surgery or have the best sex of your life after 50. But they stay rooted in everyday life — the daily pleasures and anxieties of activities as ordinary as watching a much younger couple at a train station or visiting a beach house and eating corn on the cob, each one “a little rolling pin.”

Salter sets the tone of A Phone Call to the Future in the haunting first poem, “Wake-up Call,” about the yearnings and self-delusions of middle age and beyond. Her nominal subject is leaving Venice, that sinking city – first by boat, then by plane. But the visit that has just ended is a metaphor for the “essence / of what must end because it is beautiful,” including life. The speaker in the poem tries to find solace in the possibility of returning to the city

but you’re not going back to so much, and more and more,
the longer you live there’s more not to go back to …

In the end, the possibility of a return provides false comfort, and not just because the next trip inevitably will be different. What you really want, the speaker knows

is more life in which to get so attached to something,
someone or someplace, you’re sure you’ll die right then
when you can’t have it back …

Salter’s rhymes have grown looser over the years, and some of her poems are much slighter than “Wake-up Call” – little more than vignettes in verse. But A Phone Call to the Future shows a remarkably consistent mastery of varied forms and styles. It has a lament (“Lament”), an aubade (“Aubade for Brad”), and a pattern poem with lines that curve in and out like a slalom course (“Poetry Slalom”). It has several villanelles (“Refrain,” the blues-y “Video Blues,” and part of “Elegies” for Etsuko”) that may nod to Bishop’s “One Art” www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15212. And it has so many other familiar and not-so-familiar forms that poetry classes might use the book with profit.

One of the most appealing qualities of A Phone Call to the Future is that Salter has a gift for storytelling, a trait many poets lack. Classic forms like the sonnet can be a narrative straightjacket. Salter knows how to use them to drive a story forward. In a wonderful sequence of 10 sonnets, she remembers her former therapist, who died when his bicycle struck a barrier and hurtled into a truck during a race. She begins by recalling their first session: The therapist said that what she told him would stay in the room unless, in his judgment, she posed a danger to herself or others:

… It was like being read
my rights in some film noir – but I was glad
already I’d at last turned myself in,
guilty of anxiety and depression.

How many poets could pull off the black humor of that film noir simile in an elegy? In her title poem Salter tells us: “This was the Fifties: as far back as I go. / Some of it lasted decades. / That’s why I remember it so clearly.” How nice for us that Salter, unlike so many baby boomers, hasn’t started forgetting.

Best line: Salter’s description of her mother during cancer treatments in “Dead Letters”: “Injected, radiated, / bloated, balded, nauseated.” And all of the title poem, which begins: “Who says science fiction / is only set in the future? / After a while, the story that looks least / believable is the past.” A Phone Call to the Future also has a memorable narrative poem about the adulthood of the third president, “The Hand of Thomas Jefferson.”

Worst line: Three phrases: “your low, confiding chuckle” from “Dead Letters.” “Munching peanuts, bored” from “Please Forward.” And “a comfy sofa” from “A Leak Somewhere.” “Chuckle,” “munching” and “comfy” are cute words that don’t work in most serious poetry unless it’s satirizing them. And why give a poem as good as “Wake-up Call” such a clichéd title?

Published: March 2008

Recommendation? This is one of the best collections of 2008 for book clubs that don’t normally read poetry but would like to do it occasionally. The poems are of high quality but no so high that they’ll sail over the heads of everybody who doesn’t have a graduate degree in English. Instead of assigning the entire collection, consider asking members to read the sonnet sequence and a half dozen others.

About the author: Salter teaches at Johns Hopkins University. Read “Somebody Else’s Baby” at
www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=179004. Read another poem from the book, “Trompe L’Oeil,” www.blueflowerarts.com/mjsalter.html.

You might also want to read: Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/03/. Two villanelles appear in All the Poems of Muriel Spark (New Directions, 2004): “Edinburgh Villanelle” (first published in The New Yorker) and “Verlaine Villanelle.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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