One-Minute Book Reviews

January 7, 2008

A Young American Lounge Singer in Shanghai Tries to Keep Her Life in Tune in Lara Tupper’s First Novel, ‘A Thousand and One Nights’

Far from home in a five-star hotel with a no-star boyfriend

A Thousand and One Nights. By Lara Tupper. Harvest, 240 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A popular joke about the late Norman Vince Peale said that all of his sermons consisted of “three anecdotes in search of a point.” You might have a similar reaction to Laura Tupper’s first novel, A Thousand and One Nights.

Tupper has woven well-researched anecdotes about China into this story of a young American alto and her callow guitarist boyfriend from Yorkshire, who meet on a cruise ship and spend months performing as a duo in a plush hotel in Shanghai (where the only guests who don’t want to hear “Candle in the Wind” seem to want to hear “My Heart Will Go On”). On a train to Hangzhou, Karla and Jack receive “little black plastic bags for spitting.” And in a Shanghai market, Karla sees live snakes for sale, spinning in red buckets, and watches a man skin one alive, its flesh still wriggling and “a blue organ of some kind dangling” after the blade strikes.

But the anecdotes don’t coalesce into a story worthy of them. Karla and Jack run on empty, spending much of their time drinking, whining and bickering. A Thousand and One Nights has so little character and thematic development that at the end, Karla seems as masochistic and Jack as self-absorbed (and as bereft of credible Yorkshire accent) as the beginning. In a sense, both are shanghai’d by Shanghai. For all we learn about their attraction to each other, Tupper might as well have set them down in Secaucus.

Best line: Tupper’s description of the train to Hangzhou: “Karla and Jack had ‘soft seats,’ with cushions, and once on board they were given little plastic bags for spitting. There was no AC, and Karla was wearing tight, black jeans. There were a few other Caucasian faces in their train car, all flushed, and Jack and Karla ignored them. A uniformed girl served complimentary tea in white plastic cups. Bits of green herb floated up, then sank down.”

Worst line: “In truth, Karla was scared every night, and she was tired of being scared, tired of her own cycle of pathetic thoughts.”

Editor: Stacia Decker

Published: February 2007 www.laratupper.com and www.HarcourtBooks.com

Caveat lector: This review is based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: Tupper is a former lounge singer whose site says that she has performed “at sea and in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, and on land in Thailand, Japan, China and the United Arab Emirates.” She lives in New York City.

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

December 7, 2007

A Boy and His Dog Enjoy Christmas Without Commercialism in Cynthia Rylant’s ‘Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days’

The snow sparkles, and so do the words and pictures in this book for beginning readers

Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days: The Fifth Book of Their Adventures (Henry and Mudge Ready-to-Read). Words by Cynthia Rylant. Pictures by Suçie Stevenson. Aladdin, 48 pp., $3.99, paperback. Also available in hardcover and audio editions. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

The books known as “easy readers” are paradoxically among the hardest to write. They need to have simple words yet enough depth to captivate children whose thoughts are more complex than the sentences they are able to read.

Strong pictures help – that’s partly why the Dr. Seuss easy readers are so effective – but children’s books begin with good stories. And writing them for 6-to-8-year-olds is difficult enough that even the gifted Kate DiCamillo has so far come up short in her new “Mercy Watson” series for that age group.

Cynthia Rylant is a master of the art of the easy reader, and in Suçie Stevenson she has found an illustrator whose comic style suits her work the way nutmeg suits eggnog. Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days consists of three short stories, each about enjoying a winter pleasure – the first snowfall, a Christmas Eve dinner and a family walk at night followed by a quiet time in front of a fireplace. This sort of material reduces lesser writers and artists to utter sappiness.

But Rylant and Stevenson invest it with high drama, whether Mudge is destroying Henry’s snow angels or crying in a bedroom because he “hadn’t been invited to the fancy Christmas Eve dinner because he was a dog.” Their story has real warmth and emotion, rooted in family members’ love for one another and their pet.

These virtues alone might earn Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days a spot on a young child’s reading list. But there is something else: Rylant achieves her effects without pandering to children. All of the stories focus on simple pleasures of home and family, not on expensive gifts. Stevenson’s Christmas Eve scenes show a tree strung with popcorn, a house decorated with greenery and two discreetly wrapped presents (which may or may not be for Henry and Mudge). Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days www.henryandmudge.com is about a holiday without what’s usually called “commercialism.” But it doesn’t moralize or engage in self-congratulation. It dramatizes, with clarity and wit, its theme that Christmas is about the people (and animals) you love. And that makes it a book worth rereading in any season.

Best line/picture: Stevenson’s picture of Henry in a snow gear, including a ski mask, is a hoot. Henry has his arms outstretched as if to say, “What am I doing in all of this stuff?” The picture fits the text perfectly, because on the next page we learn that Mudge “barked and barked and barked at the strange creature.”

Worst line/picture: None

Furthermore: Rylant’s 30 Henry and Mudge books include Henry and Mudge and a Very Merry Christmas (Aladdin, $3.99, paperback), which I haven’t seen http://www.henryandmudge.com. But School Library Journal said that “Rylant’s words and Stevenson’s pictures work together to create a charming and funny holiday title” that children and adults will enjoy all year long. Rylant www.en.wikipedia/wiki/Cynthia_Rylant also wrote Missing May, which won the Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org.

Published: 1997 www.simonsayskids.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

www.janiceharayda.com

December 3, 2007

Alice Sebold’s Ghastly Scenes, Written at a Fourth-Grade Reading Level, Infest ‘The Almost Moon’

A woman with “control issues” murders her mother fantasizes about stuffing her in a freezer — “I should have stayed in therapy,” she admits – And you thought you had “control issues” because you alphabetize your CDs

The Almost Moon: A Novel. By Alice Sebold. Little, Brown, 291 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Novelist Charlotte Moore eviscerated The Almost Moon in a review I recently quoted at length and agree with in most particulars. Yet even that review — brilliant as it was – didn’t suggest all the distasteful aspects of this novel about a 49-year-old woman who murders her mother and fantasizes about stuffing her in a freezer.

Moore rightly warned that “nasty revelations occur about once every ten pages, like the sex scenes in the Harold Robbins novels we used to pass round at boarding school.” But “nasty” may be a euphemism for the thoughts Helen Knightly has while cleaning her mother’s excrement-smeared corpse: “And there it was, the hole that had given birth to me.… This was not the first time I’d been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia.” “Face-to-face” doesn’t seem quite the right phrase for those body parts, does it?

The Almost Moon reads like a Mitch Albom novel in reverse. Albom writes a third-grade reading level and Sebold at a fourth-grade level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word. The difference is that The Almost Moon serves up grim pseudoprofundities instead of the saccharine ones in For One More Day. “It was a bitter truth – my discovery – that daughters were not made in cookie-cutter patterns from the genes of their mothers alone,” Sebold writes. Apart from the clunky phrasing and clichés in that line, it is hardly news that daughters differ from their mothers. Such observations are what pass for wisdom or originality in The Almost Moon.

Novels infested with ghastly scenes can succeed in either of two ways: by entertaining you, as good mystery and horror novelists do, or by offering insights that make the ghoulishness worthwhile. The Almost Moon brims instead with banalities like this one from last chapter: “There are secret rooms inside us.” Close the door, please.

Best Line: None.

Worst line: The “worsts” fall into several categories. First, the cringe-inducing, like that line about being “face-to-face” with “genitalia.” Second, the pop-psychological. After murdering her mother, Helen explains that she has “control issues” and that “I should have stayed in therapy.” Third, the padded, redundant or clichéd: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” “I had prepacked a bag for the hospital before Sarah was born.” “I like to think, when I think about it, that by that time she was busy taking in the scent of her garden, feeling the late-afternoon sun on her face, and that somehow in the moments that had elapsed since she’d last spoken, she’d forgotten that she ever had a child and that, for so many years now, she’d had to pretend she loved it.”

How to find the reading level of a text: Enter the text into a computer and run the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. If you have Word 2004, you will see the words “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level” at the bottom of the window that opens when the check is finished. This tells you reading level. [If you don't see a list of "Readability Statistics" after you complete a spell check, search Word Help for "readbility statistics," then choose "Display Readability Statistics" from the list of options you see.] The first six pages of The Almost Moon had a reading level of Grade 5.5. To see if this was too low, I entered three 300-word passages from pages 23–24, 123–124 and 223–224. The reading levels for these passages averaged out to Grade 4.3. If you average 5.5 and 4.3, you get an overall fourth-grade level, 4.7, for all the passages. The text of this review (from the word “Novelist” through “please”) has a reading level of Grade 10.8.

Published: October 2007 www.HachetteBookGroupUSA.com

Furthermore: I quoted from Charlotte Moore’s review in the Spectator www.spectator.co.uk in a Nov. 14 post www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/14/ and wrote about the first four chapters of The Almost Moon Nov. 23 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/23/. Sebold, who lives in California, also wrote the novel The Lovely Bones and the memoir, Lucky www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Sebold.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 30, 2007

Do We Need Awards for Brand-Name Blight in Fiction?

Designer labels fester in fiction despite the critics’ complaints

By Janice Harayda

Do we need awards for brand-name blight in fiction?

Critics have complained for years about novelists who tell you about their characters’ designer labels as a substitute for character development. But the problem keeps spreading. In many novels you read about more than the labels on characters’ clothes and shoes. You learn the brand names on their cars, appliances, baby gear and more.

The most egregious example I’ve reviewed was Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (Vintage, 1991) www.randomhouse.com, a novel about a young Wall Street serial killer, who “describes his designer lifestyle in excruciating detail,” as Nora Rawlinson wrote aptly in Library Journal. But Ellis at least seemed to be trying to develop a theme — that our culture views products and people as equally disposable and that consumerism fosters violence.

Many novels, though less grotesque than American Psycho, have no such core. Their authors use designer labels as a shortcut to meaning. Brand-name abuse is a sin that I consider in giving out the annual Delete Key Awards on this site. But books can go wrong in so many ways that the prizes don’t focus on label blight. Should I give separate awards for Brand-Name Blight in Fiction (maybe in the summer after I’ve had a few months to recover from naming the winners of the Delete Key Awards on the Ides of March)? Can you suggest candidates?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 27, 2007

Norman Mailer Wins 2007 Bad Sex Award for ‘The Castle in the Forest’

[This post has been updated. A link to the bad-sex scene that won appears at the end of the post.]

The late Norman Mailer has won the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award from the U.K.-based Literary Review for his novel The Castle in the Forest www.randomhouse.com, beating Ali Smith, David Thewlis and other finalists. I can’t get the direct link to the BBC post on the award to work from One-Minute Book Reviews. (The URL is news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7115451/.) But you can find the BBC post by Googling its headline, “Late Mailer wins ‘bad sex’ award.” (Sounds like he didn’t mail his application on time, doesn’t it?) You may also want to read the post just before this one on One-Minute Book Reviews, which has the shortlist for the Bad Sex Award and a link to a few lines from Smith’s bad writing on sex.

Update at 7:20 p.m., Eastern Time: Hooray! Just got this link from impatientreaderdotcom (see the comments section) to the lines by Mailer that won the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award. (The winning passage was supposed to have been read aloud by an actress before the announcement. Anybody have a link to a YouTube or other video clip of the reading?) The following link provided by impatientreaderdotcom may look “off” but will take you right to a priceless passage from Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest that begins: “His mouth lathered with her sap …” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/7115451.stm

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

May 24, 2007

David Matthews Looks Back on Straddling a Racial Divide in ‘Ace of Spaces’

The son of a black father and white mother writes of the confusion he felt while growing up in Baltimore in the late 20th century

Ace of Spades: A Memoir. By David Matthews. Holt, 302 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Ace of Spades has a blurb on its back cover from Paula Fox, and its coolly detached prose in some ways resembles that of her Borrowed Finery. But you wish that the book had more in common with the work of such an elegant writer.

David Matthews affects the elevated diction of a Victorian triple-decker in this memoir of the racial confusion he felt while being reared in a Baltimore ghetto by his black father after his white mother abandoned him in infancy. His words clash repeatedly with his stories of living in a rat-infested house and carrying a Beretta when a friend needed backup on a drug deal – “perforce,” “peradventure,” “vouchsafed,” “surfeiture,” “temerarious.” The problem isn’t that he’s sending people to the dictionary – something I’m all for — but that his mandarin prose makes no sense in context. If he’s trying to show that he was once, as he puts it, “the shallowest sort of aesthete,” why keep it up after that phase passed?

You get the sense that, through such language, he’s less interested in telling the truth straight up than in creating a “character” who will interest readers or movie producers. This impression becomes especially troublesome near the end of the book when he searches for facts about his mother, who he learns died after abandoning him. He gets the name of a psychiatrist who treated her for schizophrenia and finds that — “miraculously,” he says – the doctor is still alive and living, as he is, in New York. The psychiatrist agrees promptly to meet with him, then pours out the details of his mother’s personal and medical history. Far stranger stories have appeared in memoirs, and everything in Ace of Spades could be factual, apart from the few “names and identifying characteristics” that Matthews says he has changed. Still, you wish that Matthews had, as he might have put it, “vouchsafed” the proof.

Best line: Matthews says that in college he developed an “intellectual anorexia” common among black men when he saw any display of intellect as “uncool, which is the definition of white.”

Worst lines: “… he aimed his fifteen-year-old phallic trebuchet at the college coed/divorcée/cocktail waitress set.” Matthews also writes that in middle school he had “an incipient though feckless concernment with the opposite sex.” Yes, “concernment.”

Editor: Vanessa Mobley

Published: February 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 16, 2007

Famous Pulitzer Losers – 10 Great Novels That Didn’t Win the Fiction Prize and Which Books Beat Them

The Great Gatsby didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and neither did these modern classics

By Janice Harayda

Sorry your favorite novel lost the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? Consider this: The judges for the 1930 prize looked at Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and gave the fiction award to … Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. And those classics are hardly alone in having been snubbed. Some noteworthy losers and the novels that won the Pulitzer instead in the years listed:

1962
Loser: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Winner: The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor

1957
Loser: Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Winner: The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

1952
Loser: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Winner: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

1941
Loser: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Winner: Nobody. No award given.

1937
Loser: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Winner: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

1930
Losers: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Winner: Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge

1928
Loser: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Winner: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

1926
Loser: The Great Gatsby
Winner: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

1921

Loser: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
Winner: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 357 other followers

%d bloggers like this: