One-Minute Book Reviews

March 7, 2015

Love in the Time of Yoga Pants — Jenny Offill’s ‘Dept. of Speculation’

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:37 pm
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A Brooklyn mother wonders how she became “one of those people who wears yoga pants all day” after her husband has an affair

Dept. of Speculation. By Jenny Offill. Vintage Contemporaries, 192 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Adultery is God’s way of telling you that you need a divorce, an old joke says. In contemporary fiction, it’s often a sign that you need to take up yoga and see a therapist. Jenny Offill turns that literary cliché into a sophisticated portrait of a Brooklyn mother blindsided by her husband’s affair in this brief, elliptical novel.

Offill’s unnamed narrator is a neurotic and demanding author and writing teacher who has the mix of insecurity and grandiosity that bedevils so many artists. “I hate often and easily,” she says. She scorns people “who sit with their legs splayed” and who “claim to give 110 percent.” When her husband takes up with an “easier” woman to handle, she appears to have no coherent set of religious, cultural, or philosophical views to sustain her and tries to cope by gathering the shards of insight that she finds in diverse beliefs or practices — Judaism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Manichaeism, cosmology, self-help books and yoga classes. In middle-age, she’s still making herself up as she goes along. How, she wonders, has she become “one of those people who wears yoga pants all day”?

A drastic step eases her turmoil but begs the question of why, throughout adulthood, she has found herself in the predicaments she has. The belated revelation that her mother died when she was young and her “father was elsewhere” is a throwaway. But her daughter is an enduring consolation. You never doubt her love for a child who, while nursing, would stare at her “with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”

Jan is a novelist, award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda for news of other reviews.

Best line: “How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”

Worst line: The narrator’s comment on her and her sister’s childhood: “Their mother died when they were young. Their father was elsewhere.” These sentences, in context, tell you so little that you wonder if they reflect the misguided suggestion of an editor or other reader who believed the book needed something to explain its heroine’s neediness. Dept. of Speculation might well have benefited from that, but Offill is telling, not showing, in these lines.

Published: January 2014 (Knopf hardcover). October 2014 (Vintage Contemporaries paperback).

(c) 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 14, 2009

‘A Relationship Is a Myth You Create With Each Other’ — A Valentine’s Day Quote of the Day (via New York Magazine)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:20 pm
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“A relationship is a myth you create with each other. It isn’t necessarily true, but it’s meaningful.”

Philip Weiss quoted an unnamed man as saying this in “The Affairs of Men: The Trouble With Sex and Marriage,” a cover story in the May 26, 2008, issue of New York that dealt with the Eliot Spitzer-inspired question, “Is man really a monogamous animal?” I liked the quote when I read it in the spring — it makes a subtle point about relationships that I can’t recall having seen made elsewhere — but saved it for the appropriate day.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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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