What’s so great about The Great Gatsby? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel centers on a pathological liar who invents an opulent life for himself in the hope of winning an unworthy woman. Yet for all its bleakness, the book has never lost its hold on Americans, who will see it in a new incarnation when the Baz Luhrmann movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio opens next week. Kevin Smokler and I will talk about The Great Gatsby with the novelist and professor Alexander Chee at #classicschat on Twitter on Friday, May 10, at 4 p.m. ET. Chee is the author, most recently, of The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Please join us on Twitter for a lively conversation about the book that the English literary critic John Carey has called “perhaps the supreme American novel.”
May 1, 2013
April 20, 2013
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.
April 8, 2013
“No gags, no girls, no chance of success.” – A producer after seeing Oklahoma!
The Sound of Musicals. By Ruth Leon. Oberon Masters Series/Oberon, 128 pp., $20.95.
By Janice Harayda
Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ it must have been when the phrase “Broadway musical” meant Oklahoma! and not “jukebox tunes strung on a plot with clothespins.”
In this collection of brief and graceful essays, the longtime theater critic Ruth Leon celebrates 10 20th-century shows that left an enduring mark on their art form: three that “almost everybody agrees” are the best musicals of all time — Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady and West Side Story — and seven others: Fiddler on the Roof, Gypsy, Oklahoma!, Showboat, Sweeney Todd, South Pacific and Sunday in the Park With George. Her essays resemble after-theater conversations at Sardi’s with a charming host who exudes an infectious admiration for her subject. They brim with anecdotes about show-business people like the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, whose memoir inspired Gypsy and who “rode around in a maroon and gray Rolls Royce with her initials in gold on the door.”
Leon focuses on original productions and avoids delving into the interpretations of musicals mooted in revivals and movie versions. She doesn’t quite convey why critics regard Sondheim so highly when many people find it hard to sing any of his songs except “Send in the Clowns.” And while she says she has selected titans that “changed the way we think about musical theater,” she ignores the seismic effects rock musicals like Hair, Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar, the ancestors of all those jukebox productions like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys.
But Leon excels at describing the themes of her chosen shows, or what they are “about” on a deeper level than that of plot. “Guys and Dolls is an inverted morality tale, growing out of Damon Runyon’s close-up knowledge of the streets of New York, and a fable with a point – that good and evil certainly exist, but not necessarily in the places we have learned to look,” she writes. Oklahoma! “appears to be about whether Curly or Jud is going to take Laurey to the picnic,” but that’s just the story line of the show: “What it’s really about is what it means to be American, what the poet Carl Sandburg called ‘the smell of new-mown hay on barn-dance floors.’” Leon’s willingness to grapple with such themes is an increasingly rare virtue as theater reviews become ever-more plot driven. This book may be an appreciation great musicals, but it is also a model of good theater criticism – an art form as endangered as the Broadway musical.
Best line: The producer Mike Todd reportedly said, when he saw Oklahoma! before it opened in New York: “No gags, no girls, no chance.” The musical ran for more than five years on Broadway, won a special Pulitzer Prize, and became for its day “the gold standard, the show by which all others would be judged.”
Worst line: “Across 400 years Shakespeare continues an ongoing dialogue with those who perform his plays and can tell them, if they will listen, exactly what he wants from them.” True, but that “continues” makes the “ongoing” redundant.
Published: 2010 (Oberon Books hardcover edition).
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.
© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
March 24, 2013
“Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way. They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”
The Innocents. By Francesca Segal. Voice/Hyperion, 282 pp., $25.95.
By Janice Harayda
Francesca Segal airlifts the plot of The Age of Innocence from New York to London in this tale of young Jews whose mating habits, like their Friday-night dinners, tend to be “Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.”
Anyone who has read Edith Wharton’s book may see much of the action coming and hear an echo of its theme — the power of tribal customs to thwart individual desires — in its namesake. But Segal finds an inspired setting for her first novel in the endogamous world of well-to-do Jews who eddy around Golders Green in the age of iPods and Bernie Madoff.
The young lawyer Adam Newman has just become engaged to the sweet but unimaginative Rachel Gilbert when he falls under the spell of his fiancée’s glamorous and dissolute cousin, who has arrived from New York amid rumors of a scandal. Like Wharton’s Newbold Archer, Adam would rather dabble in love than embrace it, so the outcome of his attraction is never really in doubt. And the appeal of his story lies not in high suspense but in its intelligent and gently satirical portrait of the food-rich rituals that sustain or stifle its characters: the circumcisions, Purim parties, Shabbat dinners, Yom Kippur break fasts, and vacations at Red Sea hotels with buffet tables that serve chocolate mousse in champagne classes at 8 a.m. “Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way,” Rachel’s father says. “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” If that sounds glib, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen gives it context when she explains calmly why she doesn’t fast on Yom Kippur. “I have fasted,” she says, “enough days in my lifetime.”
Best line: No. 1: “Ha. God. For someone who does not exist He has caused me a great deal of trouble.” Ziva Schneider, Rachel’s grandmother No. 2: “the menu was traditional Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.” No. 3: “Just as when he spoke to Nick Hall, he had the sense of other Londons swirling past and beneath and above him of which he was only liminally aware.”
Worst line: From the moment that a Jewish son enters secondary school, “there is the constant anxiety that a blue-eyed Christina or Mary will lure him away from the tribe.” This lightly satirical line may be true, but Mary fell out of favor as a name for Christian girls a half-century ago.
A reading group guide with discussion questions for The Innocents appears on the publisher’s site.
Published: June 2012 (Voice/Hyperion hardcover), paperback due out in May 2013.
Furthermore: The Innocents won the most recent National Jewish Book Award for fiction in the U.S. and the Costa first novel prize in the U.K. You’ll find more on The Age of Innocence in an excellent blog about the book by Liverpool Continuing Education students. Segal talks about The Innocents and its Costa award in an interview with Simon Round.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.
(c) 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
March 23, 2013
Few book critics for U.S. newspapers write well enough to tempt publishers to issue collections of their reviews. The exceptions include John Sledge, who spent 17 years as the books editor of the Mobile Press-Register before that former daily switched to a three-day-a-week print run in 2012. The University of South Caroline Press has just published a collection of Sledge’s literary essays and reviews, Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart, in April. The book includes this quote:
“Good books are all too rare; flawed ones, common; and terrible ones, ubiquitous.”
March 16, 2013
On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Polish countess whose arrival threatens to disrupt the lives of the social elite in post-Civil War New York. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on March 22 at #classicschat to discuss this great book. Kevin wrote Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book. He and I will be talking about The Age of Innocence with Francesca Segal (@francescasegal) who won the 2012 Costa First Novel Award and the National Jewish Book Award for fiction for The Innocents, inspired by Wharton’s book.
February 25, 2013
February 22, 2013
A witty guide to avoiding gaffes like letting people sing “Now Thank We All Our God” as your casket rolls in
Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. By Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes. Miramax, 243, $19.95.
By Janice Harayda
A certain kind of Southern woman would rather die than not have tomato aspic at her funeral. She tolerates churches that don’t allow eulogies because she believes God “doesn’t need to be reminded” of the deceased. And she knows that next to the aspic, it is the hymns that make or break a Southern funeral: You can’t miss with a “stately and wistful” chart topper like “Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” but nobody wants to go out to “Now Thank We All Our God.”
Any self-respecting Southern woman knows that being dead is no excuse for bad form, and this sparkling guide boldly takes on delicate issues such as: Is it proper to use the euphemism “loved one” in a death notice? (No, it’s “tacky.”) What flowers should you avoid? (“A ‘designer arrangement’ that turns out to be a floral clock with the hands stopped at the time of death.”) Should you adopt recent innovations such as having pallbearers file past the coffin, putting their boutonnières on it? (“Funerals are emotional enough to begin with – why do something that is contrived to tug at the heart?”)
More than an irreverent etiquette guide, Being Dead Is No Excuse abounds with tips on keeping a “death-ready” pantry and with recipes for Southern funeral staples such stuffed eggs, pimiento cheese, chicken salad, caramel cake and pecan tassies. But noncooks needn’t fear that this book has nothing for them. It’s comforting that if Northern funerals increasingly resemble New Year’s Eve parties with balloons and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” die-hard Southerners treat death with respect. For all its wit, this book develops a theme that transcends geography. You may have no strong feelings for the deceased, the authors say, but you can still have grace: “A funeral reception is not a cocktail party. We want people to feel comfortable, but we want them to remember that they’re there because someone has died.”
Best line: No. 1: ““You practically have to be on the list for your second liver transplant before a Southern Episcopalian notices that you’ve drunk too much. They’re not called Whiskypalians for nothing.” No. 2: “Pimiento cheese might just be the most Southern dish on earth. Pimiento cheese has been dubbed ‘the paste that holds the South together.’”
Worst line: “We always say how much we admire her because she always holds her head up high, even though her mother ran away with the lion tamer in a traveling circus.” That sentence didn’t need more than one “always.” And is anyone today old enough to have a parent who even remembers traveling circuses with lion tamers?
Furthermore: Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes have spent much of their lives in the Mississippi Delta. They also wrote Someday You’ll Thank Me for This: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Being a Perfect Mother (Hyperion, 2009).
Jan and Kevin Smokler will be cohost a Twitter chat on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar today, Feb. 22, at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT. Please join us at the hashtag #classicschat on the last Friday of each month.
© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
February 17, 2013
On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Sylvia Plath’s mordantly funny novel The Bell Jar, a fictionalized account of the unraveling of her sanity after she won Mademoiselle magazine’s Guest Editor competition. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on Feb. 22 at #classicschat for a lively conversation about this wonderful book for book clubs. Kevin wrote the new PracticalClassics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book.
February 11, 2013
“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review later on One-Minute Book Reviews
What I’m reading: Crescent Carnival, a 1942 novel by Frances Parkinson Keyes, best known for Dinner at Antoine’s.
What it is: A saga of two prominent New Orleans families and the Mardi Gras balls and other rituals that defined their lives between 1890 and 1940. Keyes drew in part on the recollections of her friend Dorothy Selden Spencer, a former Carnival queen.
Why I’m reading it: Few novels focus on Mardi Grass celebrations and how they preserved the distinctions of social class in New Orleans even as such differences were fading elsewhere. Crescent Carnival is one that you can still find without too much trouble in libraries and online.
How much I’ve read: About 150 pages of more than 800.
Quotes from the book: “Estelle always loved Carnival and the preparations for it. But she grew up without daring to dream that some day she, herself, would be the Queen of one of the Carnival Balls. She did not believe it even when she heard that Monsieur Leroux, who held the fate of all potential queens firmly in his hands, had spoken formally to her father, asking if he could conveniently be received on a certain day at a certain hour in the Lenoir’s house on Royal Street.
“She could hardly believe it even after the ritual champagne had been bought, and the silver ice bucket polished until it shone like a mirror, and the one placed inside the other, beside a plate of little frosted cakes, on the center table in the salon, under the chandelier, there to await the arrival of Monsieur Leroux. She went into the salon, and she was still filled with incredulity mingled with awe.”
Furthermore: Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post said that Keyes was a “middlebrow” novelist in the sense that she “wrote for readers of some education and taste who expected their entertainments to be literate and intelligent as well as entertaining.” Based on what I’ve read, that gets it exactly right: Crescent Carnival is, by today’s standards, a potboiler, but one that reflects higher standards than most now labeled as such. A journalist by instinct if not by training, Keyes shows a Tom Wolfean attention to the details of social status that evoke the eras she describes.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button a right.
© 2013 Janice Harayda