One-Minute Book Reviews

November 16, 2006

Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:08 pm
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Albom delivers his message at a third-grade reading level, according to the Microsoft Word readability statistics. Guess who else did?

For One More Day: A Novel. By Mitch Albom. Hyperion, 197 pp., $21.95.

It’s official: Mitch Albom writes at a third-grade reading level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word 2004.

I know this because For One More Day struck me as so dumbed-down – even for Albom – that it fell below the level of the sixth-grade books I once edited for a test-prep company. So I typed a couple of paragraphs from the novel into my computer and ran the Word spelling and grammar checker, which gives you the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics at the bottom. Albom, it showed, writes at the level of Grade 2.8. This was startling enough that I wondered if the paragraphs I had used, from page 24, were atypical. So I typed in the full text of pages 24 and 25 and found that they were atypical. Albom actually writes at a third-grade level, Grade 3.4, according to Flesch-Kincaid.

I used pages 24 and 25 because the first pages of a book sometimes don’t represent the whole of it: Authors may be clearing their throats or writing in a different tone than they will use after they have found their rhythm. So it’s often fairest to look not just at the first chapter but also at something that comes later. A chapter typically has about 20 pages, so I used the first full section of Albom’s book that follows page 20, a total of 305 words.

All of this raised a question: Does a novel written at a third-grade level deserve the same sort of review as books by authors who write at higher levels? Especially if the book appears to be a naked attempt to combine the theme of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life with the kind of framing device Robert James Waller used in The Bridges of Madison County (which tries to lull you into believing that a novel tells a true story)? Maybe not. So here instead are the grade levels I got for a half dozen other authors when I checked the readability statistics for 305 words of their prose:

Nora Ephron I Feel Bad About My Neck Grade 12.0
Alex Kuczynski Beauty Junkies Grade 10.3
James Boswell The Life of Samuel Johnson Grade 8.6
Stephen King
Lisey’s Story Grade 8.3
Danielle Steel Toxic Bachelors Grade 4.8
Emily Arnold McCully
An Outlaw Thanksgiving, a picture book for 4-to-8 year olds by a Caldecott Medalist Grade 4.3
Mitch Albom
For One More Day Grade 3.4

I also ran the statistics for the Lord’s Prayer, using the punctuation in a 20th century edition of The Book of Common Prayer. And it turns out that Jesus, too, “wrote” at a third-grade level, Grade 3.8, according to Microsoft Word (although he spoke the prayer). So there you have it. Mitch Albom, writing at the Grade 3.4 level, doesn’t quite come up to the level of Jesus at Grade 3.8. But who would know it from all the attention he is getting?

Best Line: A quote from Louis Armstrong: “If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out.”

Worst line: Many. Samples: “He chuckled.” “My mother chuckled.”

Editors: Leslie Wells and Will Schwalbe

FYI: This review has a reading level of Grade 9.5, excluding the supplemental information at the end, according to the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics on Microsoft Word 2004. Janice Harayda wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (Grade 10.5) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Grade 10.0).

Published: September 2006 Albom also wrote Tuesdays With Morrie (Anchor, 2005) and The Five People You Meet in Heaven (Hyperion, 2006)

How to find the reading level of a book: Go to the Microsoft Word pull-down “Help” menu. Search for “Display Readability Statistics.” This will walk you through the process of finding the grade level for any text you enter.

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 30, 2006

Before Bridget Jones, There Was Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:57 pm
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A dark satire of pre-Sex and the City mating rituals in New York that still towers over most books in its class

Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York. Overlook, 223 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Long before Bridget Jones stepped on a scale, Sheila Levine embodied a certain kind of single woman – smart, funny, overweight, and desperate to get married. A generation of women embraced her as a spiritual sister when she appeared in Gail Parent’s 1972 bestseller, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, and took her story as an antidote to the terminal perkiness of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So it was good news when, a couple of years ago, Overlook Press reprinted this blistering satire of mating rituals in pre-Sex and the City New York.

Like Bridget Jones, Sheila Levine is smart enough to see the absurdity of the games she plays with men but not smart enough to transcend them, which lends a comic poignancy to her husband-hunting. But her story is darker and more complex than Bridget’s. It begins with Sheila contemplating suicide because a New York shopkeeper had claimed falsely that his milkshakes had only 77 calories, an incident based on a real-life event. The rest of the story turns on whether she will kill herself, and it’s about as a bleak a premise as a novel can have. In some ways, this book has more in common Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play, ’night, Mother, than with Bridget Jones’s Diary.

But Parent keeps the darkness from becoming oppressive with a fast-paced plot and well-observed details of the age when a Saturday-night party meant women in sheaths and pearls, men in black horn rims, and “Peter, Paul and Mary on the hi-fi.” And more than three decades after its publication, it still towers over most books in its class, partly because Parent doesn’t ridicule her heroine for her focus on her weight and marriage. Instead she places the blame for those obsessions where they belong – on a culture that still sends women the message that all their problems could be solved by a Glamour makeover.


Worst line. Parent, a screenwriter, rarely misses the mark. But the ethnic humor in this book reflects the sensibilities of its era. For example, when her roommate doesn’t return one night during a vacation in Rome, Sheila thinks: “Linda was obviously being held by the Mafia, who wanted her to dead an Italian-Jewish-American whorehouse.”

Recommended if … you like dark comedy or wonder how people had sex when women wore panty girdles instead of thongs.

Published: 1972 (first edition), 2004 (Overlook reprint). The first edition, still available in many libraries and elsewhere, has a cover by the legendary graphic designer Milton Glazer, more famous for his snake-headed psychedelic Bob Dylan poster. The novel was also made into a 1975 movie.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


October 28, 2006

Danielle Steel Gets Toxic

Filed under: Novels,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:35 pm
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Nasty stereotypes of Jews and others masquerading as a fairy tale

Toxic Bachelors. By Danielle Steel. Dell, 447 pp., $7.99, paperback.

Nobody expects social realism from Danielle Steel, but it’s still shocking to find Jews portrayed as monsters in her latest paperback. Toxic Bachelors is about three single men from different backgrounds who try to avoid marriage while cruising the Mediterranean on a 240-foot yacht. Charlie Harrington is philanthropist whom others see as “ever the polite and romantic Prince Charming.” Gray Hawk is a “penniless” artist who can somehow afford to live in the fashionable Meatpacking District of Manhattan while also paying for all the years of therapy needed by his psychotic dates. Adam Weiss is a “top lawyer” in the entertainment industry and a male slut: “Adam never had less than four women going at once, often five, sometimes six in a good week. And once, seven.”

Each man represents a spiritual as well as social “type”: Charlie is WASP-y, Gray makes a religion of art, and Adam is Jewish. Guess which one has an ineffectual father, a mother who is “a nagging bitch,” and a spoiled sister? If you said, “Adam,” you’re right. While Charlie’s dead parents were saintly and Gray’s were irresponsible but not malicious, Adam’s are cruel enough to make the Portnoys look like candidates for a lifetime achievement award from Parents’, magazine, even when they gather for the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. Adam sees them as “freaks” who are no better than his sister: “She had never done anything with her life except get married and have two children.”

Danielle Steel is known for her fairy-tale endings, but if this is a “fairy tale,” it resembles one of the original Brothers Grimm stories more than their sanitized modern versions: a dark and nasty morality play masquerading as entertainment.

Best line: Steel departs from stereotypes when the director of a children’s shelter wonders if visitors can appreciate her work: “What did they know about a five-year-old who had had bleach poured in her eyes and would be blind for the best of her life, or a boy who had had his mother’s hot iron put on the side of his face, or the 12-year-old who had been raped by her father all her life and had cigarettes stubbed out on her chest?”

Worst line (tie): Winner No. 1: “He was well built and good-looking in an exotic, ethnic way.” In other words, he’s Jewish. Winner No. 2: “Yes,’ he said succinctly.”

Published: September 2006 (mass market paperback edition).

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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