One-Minute Book Reviews

November 12, 2013

William Logan’s ‘The Undiscovered Country,’ Award-Winning Poetry Reviews

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:49 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

What winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award most deserved the prize? My favorite honorees include William Logan’s The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin, a collection of essays and reviews on poetry, and I explain why in a post on the NBCC blog that begins:

“William Logan once heard a poet say that poets in the 1950s were afraid of three things: ‘Randall Jarrell’s reviews, Robert Lowell’s poetry, and the atomic bomb.’ Today’s poets have three different fears: William Logan’s reviews, John Ashbery’s poetry, and not getting tenure. [read more]

October 29, 2013

Rachel Kushner’s ‘The Flamethrowers’ – Not Your Mother’s Novel of the 1970s

Filed under: Historical Novels,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:10 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

“Sex is not about exchange values. It’s a gift economy.”

The Flamethrowers: A Novel. By Rachel Kushner. Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99.

By Janice Harayda

Ah, those single women of the 1970s, always tossing their metaphorical tam-o’-shanters into the air like Mary Tyler Moore or getting stabbed to death in their beds like Roseann Quinn, the inspiration for Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Born in 1968, Rachel Kushner isn’t buying it, as well she shouldn’t. In this historical novel rooted in the downtown Manhattan art world, she offers a more complex portrait of a single woman living by her wits during the waning of what is euphemistically called the Disco Decade.

Kushner brings an astringent documentary sensibility to The Flamethrowers, which tells the story of a motorcycle enthusiast and filmmaker in her early 20s who arrives in New York at the end of the Nixon era. Her heroine, known as Reno, has an affair with Sandro Valera, an artist and scion of a family of industrialists back in Italy who have grown rich by exploiting the poor. While she and her lover are visiting his relatives near Lake Como, she becomes swept up in dangerous political currents set in motion by factory strikes and the violence of the Red Brigades.

Reno’s first-person narration alternates throughout the novel with third-person accounts of the World War II and other experiences of Sandro’s father, the head of the fictional Valera tire and motor vehicle company, so large “it was practically a public utility.” The flashbacks to an earlier generation may describe scenes that Kushner’s protagonist has imagined or heard about from her lover, and they support a sweeping theme that spans decades and continents: High-speed 20th-century machines (and machine-made art) can serve as either weapons or as armor. As Sandro says, a weapon is “almost a work of art.” And a work of art is a weapon.

Kushner explores other complex themes that, along with her point-of-view shifts, dilute her portrait of Reno, who seems to exist as a foil for others’ ideas more than a character in her own right. After crashing a motorbike on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Reno asks a mechanic to call Sandro in New York to let him know. She reflects, after the man tells her that a woman answered the phone at her lover’s loft: “A woman? I figured there was a language barrier, or that he’d dialed the wrong number. Or maybe someone from Sandro’s gallery had come over, not unusual, to photograph artworks or prepare them for shipment.”

Single women have a genius for rationalizing the behavior of their errant boyfriends, but the obtuseness Reno shows in that passage and a number of others clashes with the intelligence she displays elsewhere in the book. Reno is a font of elegant observations, whether they involve a young woman who arrives at a gallery “in a black sliplike dress, tiny shoulder blades like a bird’s wings” or Sandro’s belief that “Sex is not about exchange values. It’s a gift economy.” But Reno’s words tell you more about the people in her orbit than about her. For all its virtues, The Flamethrowers resembles a handsome car in which the clutch never quite gets let out all the way.

Best line: One of many “best”: Reno is struck by how much Northern Italians care about clothing: “I understood this was a cliché of the Milanesi, but it was also true. In Milan, it had bordered to me on comedy, women riding bicycles in platform heels and tight skirts, holding huge black umbrellas.”

Worst line: Quoted in the review above. Kushner would have us believe that Reno thinks, on learning that a woman has answered her lover’s phone: “I figured that there was a language barrier, or that he’d dialed the wrong number.” That’s a rationalization worthy of the title character of Sophie Kinsella’s “Shopaholic” novels. If you believe it, I would like to sell you a bridge over the Arno.

A reader’s guide to The Flamethrowers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 29, 2013.

Furthermore: Published in April 2013, The Flamethrowers is a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award for fiction. Kushner’s earlier Telex From Cuba was shortlisted for the prize.

Jan is an award-winning critic who, as book editor of the Plain Dealer, was  a judge for the National Book Critics Circle awards. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Flamethrowers,’ Rachel Kushner’s 2013 National Book Award Finalist

Filed under: Novels,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:49 pm
Tags: , , , ,

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

The Flamethrowers: A Novel
By Rachel Kushner
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

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 make printed copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other 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 it.

Can a weapon be a work of art? Can a work of art be a weapon? Rachel Kusher explores these and other themes in a novel about a young motorcycle enthusiast who moves from Nevada to New York at the end of the Nixon era. Known by her nickname of Reno, Kushner’s heroine has an affair with Sandro Valera, a Manhattan artist and heir to the fortune that his industrialist family in Italy has made by exploiting the poor. Through Sandro, Reno gains access to a downtown art world of dealers, gallery owners and others that is coming alive in the 1970s. But when she and her lover visit his relatives in the Italian Lake District, she becomes swept up in dangerous political currents set in motion by factory strikes and the violence of the Red Brigades.

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others:

1. The Flamethrowers begins — unusually for a novel — not with its heroine but with a brief chapter on T.P. Valera, the father of her lover, Sandro. How well did the opening work? Would you have stayed with the novel if you had not known that it was finalist for a National Book Award?

2. How does Reno change over the course of The Flamethrowers? (Some critics have called the book a coming-of-age novel, a genre in which a character typically gains hard-won wisdom. What has Reno gained by the end of the novel? What has she lost?)

3. If Reno changes quite a bit by the end of the book, Sandro seems hardly to have changed at all. Why do you think this is so? (Or do you think Sandro does change?)

4. The critic Christian Lorentzen wrote that The Flamethrowers “is about machines (motorcycles and guns, but also cameras) and the way they revolutionized the last century (its politics and violence, but also its art).” (Bookforum, April/May 2013, print edition only.) What do you think the novel is “about”?

5.  James Wood of The New Yorker said that The Flamethrowers is “nominally a historical novel” (because its author, born in 1968, would have been too young to experience its events). Many historical novels have a musty air or reek of the author’s research. Did The Flamethrowers? If not, what made it fresh?

6. Kusher tells her story from two points of view. One is clearly Reno’s first-person perspective. What is the second? Whose point of view do we find in the third-person sections that Reno doesn’t narrate? (Suggested answers appears in the One-Minute Book Reviews review of the novel.)

7. Sandro sees machines, especially weapons, as “almost a work of art.” [p. 288] But some of the characters in The Flamethrowers seem to reflect the opposite view: They use art as a weapon. How do they do this? Does our culture encourage artists, including musicians and filmmakers, to use art against others?

8. Women in The Flamethrowers often have second-class status, even in radical groups. What is Kushner saying about their role in the 1970s? Does any of it still apply in 2013? Is there any truth, for example, to T.P. Valera’s observation, that women “were trapped in time” and “moved at a different velocity” than men did? [p. 79]

9. Reno quotes Sandro as saying: “Sex is not about exchange values … It’s a gift economy.” [p. 208] What did he mean? How does this comment reflect their relationship and others’?

10. The Flamethrowers has many sharp images and scenes of New York, Milan and other places. Which ones were most memorable?

Vital statistics:

The Flamethrowers: A Novel. By Rachel Kushner. Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99. Published: January 2012. Kushner also wrote Telex from Cuba, a National Book Award finalist.

A review of The Flamethrowers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 29, 2013.

Jan Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are marketing tools designed to sell books instead of unbiased analyses. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the blog.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 22, 2013

Ex-Bronco Nate Jackson’s Football Memoir ‘Slow Getting Up’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

An iconoclast recalls the physical and mental bruises he sustained in the NFL

Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile. By Nate Jackson. Harper, 243 pp., $26.99.

By Janice Harayda

Nate Jackson recalls his injury-prone years in the NFL in a book that proves that a professional football player can use “contextualize” and “neophytic” in a sentence. He has not written his league’s answer to Andre Agassi’s Open, perhaps the best sports memoir of the past decade.

But unlike better-known players such as Brett Favre, Jackson has a sense of humor — by turns droll, self-mocking and sarcastic — that doesn’t spare his teams, the 49ers and the Broncos. He refers to every stadium as [Insert Corporate Logo Here] Field and notes that the NFL has required its drug-testers to watch players urinate, not just collect cups,  ever since a member of one of its rosters was caught at an airport with a prosthetic penis called the Whizzinator.

As entertaining as some of this is, you wonder why Jackson felt the need to explain things such as that a lot of masturbation goes on in the hotel rooms of football players traveling without their wives or girlfriends. Did he think no one would have suspected it?

Best line: No. 1:  “So much of offensive football is lying with your body, getting the defender to think you are going somewhere you aren’t. Tell a story with your movements: a bloody lie!” No. 2:  Jackson says he lost some of his idealism when the Broncos replaced quarterback Jake Plummer, whose success had made him believe “there was room for an iconoclast in the cloistered institution of big football,” with the rookie Jay Cutler: “But the good/bad thing about football is that it moves too quickly for your conscientious objections to keep pace. It pulls you along by sheer force.”

Worst line: No. 1: “But I’m not a pregame self-gratifier.” (Accompanied by a report on players who are.) No. 2: “If the wedge comes free to me and the R2, and all the other guys get blocked, then the R2 and I must eat up the wedge and spill the returner outside into the arms of the R1.”

About the author: Nate Jackson spent more than six seasons in the NFL, mostly as a tight end. He played for the San Francisco 49ers in 2002 and for the Denver Broncos from 2003–2008. Ann Killon interviewed him about Slow Getting Up for a San Francisco Chronicle article in which he discusses his brief use of Human Growth Hormone at the end of his career.

Published: September 2013

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic and journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow @janiceharayda on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 22, 2013

Sherri Fink’s ‘Five Days at Memorial’ – Fatal Choices at a Hospital Hit by Katrina

Filed under: Current Events,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:47 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

“What is the line between appropriate comfort care and mercy killing?”

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. By Sherri Fink. Crown, 558 pp., $27.

By Janice Harayda

If you’d like to read a horror story, you could pick up Stephen King’s just-published sequel to The Shining. Or you could brace yourself for this nonfiction account of the disasters that unfolded after Hurricane Katrina trapped more than 200 patients at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans.

The scale of the calamities took on an alarming legal dimension when, a year after the 2005 storm, the Louisiana attorney general ordered the arrests of a doctor and two nurses suspected of having given fatal overdoses of morphine and a sedative to critically ill patients stranded at Memorial by floodwaters. The case was complicated by an ad hoc evacuation plan that the hospital staff had developed as the crisis intensified: The healthiest patients, doctors decided, would leave first when rescuers arrived. Two groups would go last: the sickest patients and those who had filled out Do Not Resuscitate orders — even if, as was true of 81-year-old Vera LeBlanc, a patient had filled out the form more than a decade earlier. The evacuation plan specified that patients who could walk would be among the first to board the Coast Guard helicopters and privately hired airboats that were arriving intermittently. And it meant that in the five days before the last person left Memorial, doctors and nurses had to make life-or-death decisions they might have avoided if they had received a timely rescue or if the hospital had followed the widely accepted medical protocol of giving the highest priority to the sickest patients and those whose lives depended on machines.

Faced with these realities, a grand jury declined to indict the arrested doctor and the New Orleans district attorney decided not to prosecute the nurses. But the situation raised lingering ethical issues that the physician-turned-journalist Sherri Fink explored in a Pulitzer Prize-winning article for the New York Times and the nonprofit website ProPublica. As Fink summarized them in the Times: “Which patients should get a share of limited resources, and who decides? What does it mean to do the greatest good for the greatest number, and does that end justify all means? Where is the line between appropriate comfort care and mercy killing? How, if at all, should doctors and nurses be held accountable for their actions in the most desperate of circumstances, especially when their government fails them?”

Fink explores those questions further in a book that is as important as it is repetitive and disorganized. Laura Miller has noted on Salon that parts of Five Days at Memorial read like a “notebook dump.” If that is perhaps too harsh, it suggests the lack of a cohesive point of view that might have unified a book for which the author says she drew on more than 500 interviews. Fink tells her story from multiple perspectives — among them, those of doctors, nurses, and relatives of patients who died while waiting to be evacuated. As she moves from the hospital that provides the setting the first half of the book to the legal proceedings that inform the second, she repeats facts and shifts gears imperfectly. Fink says five times that a patient named Emmett Everett weighed 380 pounds. And a long dramatis personae does not always prevent confusion about who is speaking or why someone appears in the book.

Amid the welter of viewpoints, Fink withholds her own except in an epilogue that deals with what doctors in New Orleans and elsewhere have learned — or not learned — about disaster relief.  Does she believe staff members at the Memorial committed murder or euthanasia? She offers only clues. In one of them, she gives the last line of her story to a grand juror who says she was convinced — and believed her fellow jurors were, too – that “a crime had occurred” at Memorial.

That is a remarkably tepid conclusion for a book about 45 deaths, more than a few of them suspicious. Unlike physician-authors such as Atul Gawande and Perri Klass, who merge elegantly their literary and medical identities, Fink seems to be groping for a voice. In the absence of one, she relies on the honorable journalistic tradition of looking for sources who express her views. But that approach works best when reporters structure their books in a way that leads to the clear and inevitable — if implicit – conclusion that is missing from this one. Few people can be better-informed than Fink on some of the urgent questions raised by Five Days at Memorial. As valuable as her book is, it might have been all the more so had she risked offering a few of the answers that she is uniquely qualified to give.

Best line: Fink notes that Charity Hospital in New Orleans had nearly twice as many patients as Memorial and faced similar challenges, including lost power and a lack of working plumbing, elevators, telephones and computers. But fewer than 10 people died at Charity while 45 did at Memorial. Charity did better, in part, because the staff continued to provide services like physical therapy and encouraged workers to maintain shifts and a regular sleep schedule: “This signaled that the situation was under some degree of control and kept panic to a minimum. There was an active effort to stem rumors. ‘You can only say it if you’ve seen it,’ staff were told.
“Perhaps most important, Charity’s leaders avoided categorizing a group of patients as too ill to rescue. The sickest were taken out first instead of last.”

Worst line: “Like many of the hospital staff around him, his professional association with what was now Memorial Medical Center” stretched back decades.

Published: September 2013

Read Fink’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article on how doctors at Memorial cared for patients during and after Katrina.

Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of The Plain Dealer. You can follow her (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 9, 2013

John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ – Cancer-Stricken Teenagers in Love

Filed under: Fiction,Novels,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:00 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

“I’m gonna die a virgin” and other worries of gravely ill 12-to-18-year-olds

The Fault in Our Stars. By John Green. Dutton Children’s Books, 313 pp., $17.99. Ages 13 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Sixteen-year-old Hazel Lancaster has metastatic thyroid cancer and wears a nasal cannula attached to a rolling oxygen cart, but former basketball player Augustus Waters thinks she looks like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta. Gus has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, but Hazel knows he’s “hot” even if, as she says, he “HAD FREAKING CANCER.”

Will Hazel and Gus get together before the Big C kills one or both of them? Sentimentalists need not fear. A cheery message of this breezy cross between a teen weepie and a romantic comedy –- and one that will no doubt comfort millions of teenagers — is: You’re never too sick to get into someone’s pants.

Hazel and Gus meet in a support group for cancer-stricken 12-to-18-year-olds in the basement of an Episcopal church in Indianapolis. Sparks fly, but in the tradition of old-school romance novels, the teenagers do not lose their virginity until late in the book, when Gus persuades a charity that grants the wishes of sick children to let him take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author. Hazel’s mother — who has come along to Holland as a chaperone — stays conveniently out of the way at any moment that might seem to require her services.

But John Green has more on his mind in his fifth young-adult novel than showing that when you have cancer, it’s natural to think, “I’m gonna die a virgin.” The title of The Fault in Our Stars points to its theme, which inverts Cassius’ message to Brutus in Julius Caesar: When tragedy strikes, the fault often lies not in ourselves but “in our stars.” In developing this idea, Green goes beyond absolving teenagers of blame for their cancers and asks: What does it mean to lead a good life? Hazel and Gus wonder as their health worsens: Is the purpose of life to “repay a debt to the universe” for the gift of having been born, as Hazel believes? Or is to “to leave a mark on the world,” as Gus thinks?

Both teenagers have had cancer long enough to have smart answers and wry familiarity with some of the absurdities of the American view of serious illness. Hazel speaks matter-of-factly about what she calls “cancer perks” — “the little things cancer kids get that regular kids don’t: basketballs signed by sports heroes, free passes on late homework, unearned driver’s licenses” and more. She understands the paradox of “the Last Good Day” cliché in stories about children with cancer, a convention that describes hours “when for a moment the pain is bearable”: “The problem, of course, is that there’s no way of knowing that your last good day is your Last Good Day. At the time, it is just another good day.”  And she sees the contradictions in certain aspects of the support groups into which therapists and others push the afflicted. Is it realistic to expect all young cancer survivors to find comfort in praying, as her group does, for members who have died?

Such questions are so worthy that you wish Green had developed them through more believable characters and fewer plot contrivances. Hazel narrates the story in a voice that alternately resembles that of a down-to-earth teenager and an elderly lawyer drafting a will. One moment she’s complaining that “cancer books suck.” The next she’s talking about “my aforementioned third best friend” or an incident “wherein I put my hand on the couch.” Gus, although slightly more credible, uses so many high-flown metaphors that you can’t square his language with his account of himself as an ordinary Hoosier basketball fan who used to be “all about resurrecting the art of the midrange jumper.” The plot veers from reasonably realistic into something close to farce when the teenagers land in Amsterdam and Hazel’s favorite author turns out to be a cruel and drunken misanthrope.

Perhaps most baffling from an award-winning novelist are the dropped storylines, including one that involves a heavy religious motif introduced in the first pages by Patrick, the well-intentioned but hapless leader of Hazel and Gus’ support group. At meetings the members sit “in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.” They are “literally” in Jesus’ heart, Patrick says. Hazel later invokes that description often. And yet, she and Gus talk about the meaning of life in secular terms: They don’t raise the possibility — even to dismiss it — that a sense of purpose might include God. Jesus, it turns out, was simply wallpaper. Of course, teenagers are growing up in a secular world, but The Fault in Our Stars punts on a paraphrase of the wartime question: Is it true that there are no atheists in the Intensive Care Unit?

This is not to suggest that Green should, in the words of the Protestant hymn, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” It is rather to say that his book violates Chekhov’s dramatic principle: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” Support groups meet in many places, including hospitals, and Hazel and Gus’ group could have gathered in a spot less freighted with symbolism than “in the middle of the cross” in a church. For all the virtues of his novel, Green is trying to have it both ways — to saturate his book with religious motifs without having to explore their implications for his characters.

Best line: “He looked like he was dressed for a colonial occupation of Panama, not a funeral.”

Worst line: Hazel’s “my aforementioned third best friend,” “wherein I put my hand on the couch,” that “eponymous album” and similar phrases.

Second opinion: Another review of The Fault in Our Stars calls it a “mawkish” and “exploitative” example of a genre that some call “sick list,” which deals with the plight of gravely ill childrem.

Reading Group Guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Fault in Our Stars appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 9, 2013, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: January 2012

Read an interview with John Green about The Fault in Our Stars on his website.

Learn about the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 21, 2013

Why I’m Not Wild About Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:54 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

A memoir captures the romance of hiking but raises questions about the trustworthiness of its story

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. By Cheryl Strayed. Vintage, 336 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1982 Steven Callahan spent 76 days floating on an inflatable raft in the Atlantic after his sailboat sank on a trip from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. A few years later, he described a risk of writing about that ordeal in the preface to his memoir, Adrift: “Of course, I can never be completely sure that all my conclusions are exactly what I felt then rather than new insights.”

That kind of honesty helped to make Adrift one of the great seafaring memoirs of the past quarter-century. And it’s part of what’s missing from Cheryl Strayed’s account of how, at the age of 26, she hiked for more than 1100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from the Southern California to the Oregon-Washington Border.

Strayed evokes with considerable skill the romance and peril of traveling alone through rugged terrain that, if “beautiful and austere,” sheltered bears, rattlesnakes and mountain lions. And she gives a lively sense of the camaraderie among hikers whose paths cross and re-cross on a long trail. One couple thrilled her by leaving a peach for her on a picnic table at a time when granola and Better Than Milk amounted to a feast and when “fresh fruit and vegetables competed with Snapple lemonade in my food fantasy mind.”

But Wild tells you many things you don’t need to know while omitting those you do. Strayed reports that in her first six weeks on the trail, she “hadn’t even masturbated, too wrecked by the end of each day to do anything but read and too repulsed by my own sweaty stench for my mind to move in any direction but sleep.” (She made up for lost time at an Oregon hostel where she “lay awake for an hour, running my hands over … the mounds of my breasts and the plain [sic] of my abdomen and the coarse hair of my pudenda.”) And yet, for all the intimate details like those, Strayed doesn’t answer big questions such as: Why didn’t Wild appear in print until 17 years after she took her three-month trip the summer of 1995? How do we know that the thoughts she says she had on the trail occurred then and not years later as she shaped her story for publication? Aren’t some of the line-by-line conversations in her book far too long for her to have transcribed in the journal she carried with her?

These questions matter because Strayed casts Wild not as a conventional travel memoir but as a secular sin-and-redemption tale. She styles her hike as a trip she took to heal or “to save myself” from a self-destructive spiral set in motion by painful events that began more than four years earlier with the death of her mother. In the months just before her trip, Strayed had extramarital affairs, left her husband, and aborted a pregnancy that resulted from a fling. She also used heroin. Strayed says she knew it was wrong to cheat on a husband she loved, but her mother’s death had left her unable to control herself: “So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself?”

Strayed carried her instinct for rationalization with her as she navigated forest paths and rocky ledges with a backpack that “seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.” Near end of her hike, she followed a man she had just met into his truck, where he asked if she wanted some “chewable opium. “Sure,” she replied. Later that night, she drove off with another stranger and realized that “there was no way I was going to keep my pants on with a man who’d seen Michelle Shocked three times.”

So when did the healing occur? In the last pages of Wild, Strayed says vaguely that she was sitting beside the Columbia River thinking about how long she had carried the emotional weight of her mother’s death: “And something inside of me released.” But it was not until 15 years after her trip, when she returned to the area with a second husband and two children “that the meaning of my hike would unfold inside of me, the secret I’d always told myself finally revealed.” As she tells it, her New Age-y “secret” sounds like a cross between a Beatles lyric (“let it be”) and a bumper sticker about the value of “seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water.” What if the fish were sharks?

Strayed’s explanation for how her trip helped “save” her is so coy and unpersuasive that you wonder if something else isn’t at work. The 17 years between her hike and the publication of her book brought a lucrative crop of high-profile memoirs — most notably, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love — that treat rigorous journeys as therapy for divorce or other sorrowful events.  Did Strayed reposition her story at some point to catch a piece of the trend?

If so, she has reached her goal at a cost to her credibility. Like Eat, Pray, Love, Wild implies that you can fix a broken life by taking an ambitious vacation. Gilbert casts “recovery” as form of consumerism, and Strayed turns it into an extreme sport. Both ideas are suspect. Any therapist — or anyone who has left a marriage or lost a parent — will tell you that what makes grief less acute is not an extended vacation but time. Strayed’s failure to deal adequately with this issue involves more than ethics: It raises questions about trustworthiness of the emotional core of her book.

Best line: “My backpack was no longer on the floor. … it seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.”

Worst Line: Strayed writes of extramarital affairs she had years after her mother died: “Though I’d had attractions to other men since shortly after we married, I’d kept them in check. But I couldn’t do that anymore. My grief [about my mother’s death] obliterated my ability to hold back. So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself? … I knew I was wrong to cheat [on my husband] and lie.”

Published: 2012 (Knopf hardcover), 2013 (Vintage paperback).

Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

© 2103 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 27, 2013

James Salter’s Novel ‘All That Is’ — A Book Editor in Love and War

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:07 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

A New York book editor tries to make sense of the plot of his life

All That Is: A Novel. By James Salter Knopf, 304 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

All the world’s a stage, and set decoration matters: This theme has surfaced again and again in the fiction of James Salter. It returns with a vengeance in this novel about the sexual misadventures of an editor at a high-toned New York publishing firm in the four decades that follow World War II.

As a young naval officer, Philip Bowman survives a kamikaze attack on his ship in the run-up to Okinawa. Any psychic wounds he suffered don’t keep him from subsequently gliding through Harvard and into an affair with Vivian Amussen, whose rich father owns a 400-acre horse farm in Virginia. Bowman hears no alarm bells when, on visiting the Amussen estate for the first time, he notices an indifference to the comfort of others: Behind a couch in the living room lie dried dog turds “as in 17th-century palaces.” On the contrary, the rising editor seems drawn to Vivian in part because the backdrop for her life differs so markedly from that of his upbringing in New Jersey. He has little enough self-awareness that when their brief marriage ends, he allows appearances to lead him into a series of other love affairs that end in disappointment, if not betrayal.

Salter suggests that Bowman stumbles because his father abandoned the family two years after his birth: He “never had a strong masculine figure in his own life to teach him how to be a man.” His protagonist is a watered-down male counterpart to one of those Henry James or Edith Wharton heroines whose assets don’t offset the lack of a mother to stage-manage her courtships. But Bowman doesn’t develop as a character as Catherine Sloper and Lily Bart do. He pays for his misjudgments not with the loss of hope or life but with the loss of a piece of set decoration for his bed-hopping — a second home in the Hamptons that he owned for a year before an ex-lover wrested from him with fancy legal footwork. He avenges the incident with a shocking act of cruelty to his former paramour’s daughter but assumes no moral responsibility for his caddish behavior and faces no serious consequences for it.

With all of this, Salter is trying to have it both ways — to cast Bowman as decent man even as he acts loutishly – and the pretty scenery can’t mask the inconsistency. Even the pristine writing style that has won him so much praise has grown overripe with comma splices and other tics, such as when he writes of Vivian’s horse-country town: “There was no place to stay, you had to live there.” Anyone hoping to understand the acclaim for Salter’s work would do better to pick up his fine short story collection Dusk, which more effectively shows how, as one of its characters says, a romance resembles a play: It unfolds scene by scene as “the reality of another person changes.”

Best line: “ ‘You know, you haven’t changed a bit. Except for your appearance,’ he said.” A rare flash of humor in All That Is, although Salter may not have intended it that way.

Worst line: “It was a departure of foreboding, like the eerie silence that precedes a coming storm.” “Eerie silence” is a cliché, and “coming” is redundant.

Published: April 2013

Read an excerpt from All That Is. You may also want to read “James Salter’s 10 Worst Sentences.”

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 5, 2013

John Kenney’s Romantic Comedy, ‘Truth in Advertising’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:29 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

A lovelorn copywriter confronts his father’s death as he races to create a Super Bowl spot

Truth in Advertising. By John Kenney. Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 308 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Two kinds of creative people work in advertising, the hero of John Kenney’s first novel observes: “Those who think they’re smarter than the client and those who are successful.” It’s an old joke, but Kenney puts spring its step in this romantic comedy about a lovelorn copywriter at a high-flying New York agency.

At the age of 39, Finbar Dolan is recovering from a broken engagement when he faces back-to-back crises during an unlucky holiday season in the age of iPods and eight-dollar cupcakes. Fin and his colleagues are racing to produce a Super Bowl commercial for “the world’s first eco-friendly, one-hundred-percent biodegradable diaper” when he learns that his estranged father is dying. This setup invests Truth in Advertising with a staple of the modern romantic comedy, a hero with a more urgent goal than finding love, and the plot borrows a few clichés from that cinematic genre. If you can never have too many of those scenes in which two characters ultimately confront their feelings for each other in an international departures terminal at a packed airport, this book is for you. The novel also appears to pander to Hollywood with an episode in which a lawyer summons Fin and his siblings to his office for a “reading of the will,” an act that today occurs mainly in movies.

But Kenney satirizes with a sure hand the profession in which he worked for 17 years. His lovers’ follies pale beside those of his clients, account executives, creative directors, office assistants and “insufferable human resources women with their easy detachment and heartless smiles,” who say things like: “You’re eligible for Cobra and the family plan is only $1800 a month.” And he gives his narrator an appealing wistfulness that suggests the cost of years of artistic and moral compromises. For all of his encounters with celebrity endorsers like Gwyneth Paltrow, Fin remains a man who has had enough illusions knocked out of him that he no longer fantasizes that the producer Aaron Sorkin will see his work and demand to know who wrote it: “There’s a voice beneath the mail-in rebate copy that feels very fresh to me. Who is this guy?’”

Best line: “They call us creative. Baloney. The inventor of the corkscrew was creative. The irony of advertising – a communications business – is that we treat words with little respect, often devaluing their meaning. The all-new Ford Taurus. Really? Five wheels this time?’

Worst line: “Every one changed their own baby’s diaper.” This line refers to a group of that consists only of women. “Every one changed her own baby’s diaper” would have been smoother and more precise.

Published: January 2013

About the author: Kenney worked at the Ogilvy & Mather agency and contributes to The New Yorker.

Watch the trailer for Truth in Advertising. Or read more about the book on the publisher’s website, which includes an excerpt.

Jan will cohost a Twitter #classicschat on The Great Gatsby on Friday, May 10, at 4 p.m. ET at which the novelist Alexander Chee will discuss F. Scott Fitzerald’s masterpiece. Please join us! You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page. She is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 20, 2013

Louisa Hall’s ‘The Carriage House’ – A Suburban Philadelphia Story

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:46 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

A family tries to save a decaying carriage house in a suburb in which “the neighborhood association is the UN”

The Carriage House: A Novel. By Louisa Hall. Scribner, 281 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

An old joke says: “Why do tennis players make bad spouses? Because love means nothing to them.”

That quip seems at first to describe William Adair, a former club tennis champion on the Philadelphia Main Line who in Louisa Hall’s first novel entrusts the care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife to a devious Australian aide. William begins to change after he has a stroke and his three adult daughters carry on his fight to save from demolition a decaying family carriage house that neighbors see as a rodent-infested eyesore. Can he hold on to a cherished symbol of his once-grand clan? If not, what can replace it in his affections?

These questions play out in a well-observed novel of contemporary suburban manners with undertones of neo-Gothic melodrama. William’s mentally adrift wife holes up in an upstairs room of their house “like a benign Mrs. Rochester,” a simile that suggests the influence of Jane Eyre on the plot.  But Hall borrows less aggressively from Charlotte Brontë than from Persuasion, Jane Austen’s autumnal tale of woman who reconnects with a suitor she had spurned years earlier. The commingled effect of the two classics on the novel resembles that of strangers making polite conversation at cocktail party: They get along well enough but don’t engage deeply with each other.

The Adairs’ battle to save their carriage house revives the connection between William’s daughter Diana, a tennis prodigy turned architecture-school dropout, and Arthur Schmidt, a high school sweetheart who has become a successful restaurateur in the years since she broke off their engagement. In a book inspired by Persuasion, there exists little double about how this reunion will end. But while Austen writes mainly from the point of view of her heroine, Anne Elliot, Hall tells her story from the shifting perspectives of members of the Adair household. This kaleidoscopic approach allows for a multifaceted view of the family’s plight but limits the development of any of its characters. And it gives much less emotional weight to the relationship of Diana and Arthur than Persuasion does to the romance between Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth.

The appeal of The Carriage House lies not in deep characterizations or suspense but in its nuanced attention to the contradictions of an ostensibly genteel suburb in which people act, when the stakes are high “as though the neighborhood association is the UN, and war is imminent, and sacrifices are necessary.” Like Penelope Lively, Hall has keen sense of the weight of history on families. She shows a clan that faces, over a sixth-month period, a conflict larger than any member: the clash between its well-ordered past and the new social free-for-all that it must navigate.

Hall filters some of the incongruities that confront her characters though Margaux’s Australian caregiver, Louise Wilson, who finds solace in trips to a CVS store near the Adairs’ home in the fictional suburb of Breacon. “In CVS, the endless helpful products soothed Louise,” Hall writes. “There were solutions for everything: for calluses and corns, blocked sinuses and acid reflux, acne and rosacea, overthick eyebrows and ingrown hairs. … there were whole aisles set aside for the achievement of physical numbness.” Such gently satirical passages are long way from Austen’s biting wit, but they show a fine eye for absurdities as close as the nearest drug store.

Best line: “Louise watched her tan fading a little bit each day and was filled with a muted version of despair that manifested itself as a constant desire to drive to CVS, where she wandered among fluorescent aisles searching for the perfect product. …

“In CVS, the endlessness of helpful products soothed Louise. There were solutions for everything: for calluses and corns, blocked sinuses and acid reflux, acne and rosacea, overthick eyebrows and ingrown hairs. … there were whole aisles set aside for the achievement of physical numbness.”

Worst line: No. 1: “The boredom was literally killing her.”  No, it wasn’t. No. 2:  “She took her by the wrist and literally dragged her up to Izzy’s room, where Izzy was sitting at the desk, peering out the window like a cat watching a bunch of crippled canaries.”  “Literally” is redundant, and the use of “cat” and “canary” in the same breath is clichéd and strained.

Published: March 2013

About the author: Louisa Hall is a poet who lives in Los Angeles. She grew up in Haverford, PA.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

« Previous PageNext Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 521 other followers

%d bloggers like this: