One-Minute Book Reviews

March 2, 2009

Helen Garner’s ‘The Spare Room’ — Cancer Tests a Friendship in a Prize-Winning Australian Novel Written at a 9-Year-Old Reading Level

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:24 am
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A dying woman tests others’ patience when she takes the advice of quacks at a sham clinic

The Spare Room. By Helen Garner. Holt, 192 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

How should we treat terminally ill people who don’t accept that they are dying? Should we support the delusion that they will get better – on the premise that false hope is better than none – or tell the truth?

These questions underlie The Spare Room, a short novel about a friendship between two women in their 60s that is tested when one develops metastatic bowel cancer. After conventional treatments fail, Nicola moves in with Helen for three weeks in order to try the alternative therapies peddled by a sham clinic in Melbourne, Australia: Laetrile, coffee enemas, intravenous vitamin C, and an “ozone sauna” said to promote “sweating out the toxins.” Helen is initially solicitous but runs out of patience as she cares around-the-clock for Nicola, who at first rejects the few remaining medical options that might ease her pain, such as slow-release morphine capsules. Helen’s repressed fury leads to a confrontation in which she cruelly pelts her friend with accusations such as, “I wait on you hand and foot” and “Can’t you use your brains?”

Helen’s frustrations are understandable in the abstract and described in prose as smooth as glass. But The Spare Room never gets below the surface of its characters, perhaps in part because it is written at a 9-year-old reading level, according two widely used measures of readability. How could Helen turn so mean-spirited so fast? Garner would have you believe that the change grew out of the physical and emotional strains of nursing a difficult adult. That’s part of her point: Caring for the dying can turn us into people we don’t recognize.

But many people face such demands more gracefully, and Garner doesn’t make clear why Helen didn’t. The Spare Room works best when it sticks to describing the horrors of Nicola’s cancer: the pain, the night sweats, the crone-like posture. The most credible words in this novel will come as no surprise to anyone who has cared for a dying relative, or watched a World War II movie: “God bless morphine.”

Best line: The opening paragraph: “First, in my spare room, I swiveled the bed onto a north-south axis. Isn’t that supposed to align the sleeper with the planet’s positive energy flow, or something? She would think so. I made it up nicely with a fresh fitted sheet, the pale pink one, since she had a famous feel for color, and pink is flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish.”

Worst line: A comment made Helen’s five-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, who has seen Saddam Hussein on television: “What did he do, Nanna, to make him a baddie?” The “Nanna” in midsentence is stilted. A 5-year-old would be more likely put it at the beginning. And the low reading makes many lines seem dumbed-down.

About the reading level: The Spare Room has a fourth-grade (9-year-old) reading level, according to tests of pages 17–18 and pages 117–118 that used the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics and the Spache Readbility Formula.

Published: February 2009

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Spare Room was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 2, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this review.

About the author: Garner is a novelist and the author of the true-crime books The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, both bestsellers in her native Australia. Her Wikipedia entry lists some of her awards.

Garner talks about The Spare Room in an audio podcast.

One-Minute Book Reviews is the home of the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. A list of the ten 2009 finalists and passages from the books that helped them make the shortlist appeared last week.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Spare Room’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Spare Room
A Novel by Helen Garner
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 reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading 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 the guide.

How should we treat terminally ill people who don’t accept that they are dying? Should we support the delusion that they will get better – on the premise that false hope is better than none – or tell the truth? These questions underlie The Spare Room, a prize-winning Australian novel about a friendship between two women in their 60s that is tested when one develops metastatic bowel cancer. After conventional treatments fail, Nicola moves in with Helen for three weeks in order to try the alternative therapies peddled by a sham clinic in Melbourne, including coffee enemas and intravenous vitamin C. At first solicitous, Helen begins to run out of patience as her houseguest’s demands grow. The novel builds toward a confrontation between the two women that raises yet another question: Whether or not Nicola lives, can the women’s friendship survive her illness?

Discussion Questions
All quotations and page numbers below come from the advance reader’s edition and may differ slightly in the finished book. Garner pronounces Nicola’s name NICK-oh-la.

1. Helen Garner says that The Spare Room was inspired by her experience of caring for dying friends. An autobiographical novel has give you something you wouldn’t get from a memoir in order to work. Did The Spare Room do this? What did you get from it that you couldn’t have gotten from a memoir?

2. The title of The Spare Room refers to an unused room converted to a guest room. But it has several other meanings. Who or what is “spare” or “spared” in this book?

3. Garner says that Australians have told her The Spare Room made them “laugh as well as cry.” Did you find parts of this novel funny? Which ones?

4. At first, Helen seems unusually kind. She takes pains to make her spare room comfortable, such as by choosing a pink sheet because Nicola “had a famous feel for color, and pink is flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish.” [Page 1] Later Helen says cruel things to Nicola: “I wait on you hand and foot” [Page 122] and “Can’t you use your brains?” [Page 124] Was this change believable? What made it credible or not credible?

5. Why did Helen work so hard to transform the spare room? Did she do things like choosing a “flattering” sheet just for Nicola’s benefit or because she needed to downplay for herself the reality of her friend’s death?

6. Nicola appears to deny that she is dying. But Liesl Schillinger wrote in a review that “Garner’s narrative makes clear that Iris and Helen are also in denial.” [“A Visit From Death,” The New York Times Book Review, Feb. 15, 2009, page 12.] Do you agree or disagree?

7. Garner depicts relatives of both of her main characters, including Helen’s five-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Bessie. Do you think she did this to show how different generations view death, to make a point about the women’s ties to their families, or for other reasons?

8. Late in the novel, Helen and Nicola go to a magic show by a German magician [Page 131]. What role does this scene play in the novel? How is the book about the conflict between magic (or illusion) and reality in general? Does the scene relate to an earlier comment by a quack doctor that in Germany many cancer victims live over electromagnetic fields? [Page 31]

9. Two unrelated yardsticks show that The Spare Room is written at fourth-grade (9-year-old) reading level: The Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with the spell-checker on Microsoft Word and the online Spache Readbility Formula. Did the novel seem dumbed-down? Why or not?

10. Many American memoirs or semi-autobiographical novels deal with the relationship between the author and someone who is dying. These range from John Gunther’s modern classic about the loss of his teenage son, Death Be Not Proud, to Mitch Albom’s recent Tuesdays With Morrie. How does The Spare Room compare to any you’ve read? What strengths or weaknesses does it have that they didn’t?

Vital Statistics:
The Spare Room: A Novel. By Helen Garner. Holt, 192 pp., $22. Published: February 2009. A review of The Spare Room appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 2, 2009, in the post that directly followed this guide.

About the author: Garner is a novelist and the author of the true-crime books The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, both bestsellers in her native Australia. Her Wikipedia entry lists some of her awards.

Garner talks about The Spare Room in an audio podcast.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 16, 2009

Children’s Poems About Rainforests and Their Creatures

Un-acid the rain.
Tell polluters: Refrain!
Help the rain forests gain, not grow smaller.

From “Prayer of the Good Green Boy” in Sad Underwear and Other Complications

By Janice Harayda

Children’s books about rainforests are too much with us. Trees are dying for these books at an alarming rate, creating a literary Robin Hood effect.

But children’s poems about rainforests are harder to find, perhaps because poets of yesteryear wrote about “jungles” instead. One the few I’ve found that would suit grades 3 and up is “Rainforest,” by the late Australian poet and conservationist Judith Wright, which appears in Classic Poems to Read Aloud (Kingfisher, 256 pp., $8.95, paperback, ages 8–12), an excellent anthology compiled by James Berry.

“Rainforest” consists of 12 lines of iambic tetrameter that celebrate the interdependence of the creatures in natural world. Wright makes an implicit plea for biodiversity in the poem, which begins: “The forest drips and glows with green. / The tree frog croaks his far-off song. / His voice is stillness, moss and rain / drunk from the forest ages long.” The most unusual aspect of this poem is that Wright has arranged its lines in the shape of a tree trunk. This is a subtle example of what’s known as a pattern poem, a poem in which the words or letters form a typographical picture that relates to the subject.

Apart from that device, “Rainforest” works better as an environmental manifesto than as art. Judith Viorst has more success with “Prayer of the Good Green Boy,” found in Sad Underwear and Other Complications: More Poems for Children and Their Parents (Aladdin, 80 pp., $6.99, paperback, ages 7 and up). This witty and ironic poem puts a child’s love for the environment in the context of his other concerns, using spirited anapestic lines: “Un-acid the rain. / Tell polluters: Refrain! / Help the rain forests gain, not grow smaller.” The poem ends: “And — oh yes — one more thing. / Could you please make me four inches taller?”

Many good poems, if not specifically about rainforests, deal with creatures who may inhabit them. Classic Poems to Read Aloud also has a section of poems about fish, birds, animals, or insects, including some found in jungles. Among them: William Blake’s “”The Tiger,” Ted Hughes’s “The Jaguar” and Randall Jarrell’s “Bats.” Then there George Macbeth’s “Insects,” which laments the perils of sharing a household with flies, mosquitoes and other winged creatures. Any rainforest explorer might identify with lines like: “I swat at my forehead, I scratch at my ankles, / Mole and wart, and a rash that rankles.”

You may also want to look at a picture book for slightly younger children, Over in the Jungle: A Rainforest Rhyme (Dawn, 32 pp., $8.95, paperback), by Marianne Berkes and by Jeanette Canyon, which I haven’t seen it. It begins: “Over in the jungle / Where the trees greet the sun / Lived a mother marmoset / And her marmoset one.”

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she often writes about books for children or teenagers.

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

November 6, 2008

How Kinky Does Poetry Get? How About a Poem in the Shape of the State of New York? (Quote of the Day / ‘The Poetry Dictionary’)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:56 am
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The other day I came across the late Australian writer Judith Wright’s poem “Rainforest,” in which the lines are arranged in the shape of a tree – a subtle an example of a pattern poem, or a poem in which the words or lines form a typographic picture that relates to the subject. And I wondered: How kinky does poetry get? What are some of the more offbeat shapes that poems have taken? Here’s an answer from John Drury’s The Poetry Dictionary (Writer’s Digest Books, 374 pp., $14.99, paperback), which has a foreword by Dana Gioia:

“John Hollander’s Types of Shape consists entirely of pattern poems. The shapes include a key, lightbulb, harpsichord, bell, sundial, lazy Susan, kitty, kitty with bug, the state of New York, a double helix, a swan with its reflection. These poems, however, can still be read aloud.”

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

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