One-Minute Book Reviews

January 19, 2011

Joyce Dennys’s ‘Henrietta’s War’ – The Other Battle of Britain

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Henrietta’s War: News From the Home Front 1939–1942. By Joyce Dennys. Bloomsbury USA, 176 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

During World War II, Joyce Dennys expressed her frustrations as the wife of a small-town doctor in Devon by writing a series of light, amusing sketches for a British tabloid. Her pieces took the form of fictionalized letters to a childhood friend, a middle-aged colonel on duty in France, and became so popular that a publisher collected some of them in Henrietta’s War and its sequel, Henrietta Sees It Through.

Bloomsbury USA reissued the first of the two volumes last year, and its timing couldn’t have been better. Henrietta’s War helps to satisfy an American hunger for epistolary tales fostered by The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s 2008 bestseller. Dennys’s book also reflects the influence of E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, a modern classic that has had a modest revival since The New Yorker published an appreciation of its author in 2005.

But Henrietta’s War has a tone all its own, less sentimental than that of Shaffer and Barrows but gentler than the astringent Delafield’s. Dennys finds her alter ego in Henrietta Brown, the wife of a popular GP on a part of the English coast that is bracing for an expected German invasion by sea. As enemy bombers ply the skies, Devonians acquire gas masks, join air raid drills, and cope with meat and margarine rationing, all the while keeping up cherished rituals – jumble sales, garden parties, and drinking tea while listening to the click of croquet balls at the tennis club.

Henrietta and Charles have a son and daughter who are away helping with the war effort and appear occasionally, once when Bill returns unhurt from Dunkirk. In the children’s absence, the couple care for their eccentric dog, Perry: “A firm believer in warmth and a hater of fresh air, he sleeps, winter and summer, with a rug over his head.” The couple also live with the behavior of neighbors like Faith, the town siren, who insists on being vaccinated in response to the rumor that “the Germans are going to fly at great height over England and release thousands of minute parachutes laden with bacilli.”

Early on, Henrietta suggests the theme and tone of the book when she observes, “This is a belligerent community to make up for the extreme peacefulness of our surroundings, I suppose.” She is perceptive enough to notice her neighbors’ absurdities but too kind and cheerful to condemn them for it. Henrietta writes, after meat rationing begins:

“Mrs. Savernack, that woman of action, took out a gun-license. If she can’t get meat at the butcher’s, she will go out and shoot it. The rabbits which for years gambolled happily in the fields at the back of the Savernacks’ house have received a rude awakening, and Mrs. Savernack, flushed with success, has begun to turn her thoughts to bigger game. Farmer Barnes, wisely perhaps, has moved his cows to another field.”

Henrietta’s War brims passages that, if light-hearted and at times disjointed, give a piquant flavor to a time when the British were urged to stay “Bright, Brave and Confident.” Henrietta laments the underuse of the skills of her female neighbors, expected to aid the war through such unheroic tasks as making marmalade with saccharine instead of the rationed sugar. Men could join the Home Defense Corps, but “we married women still feel the part we have to play in this war is mundane, unromantic and monotonous.”

Henrietta doesn’t allow herself a stronger complaint, and her “musn’t grumble” approach is part of her appeal. Her lack of cynicism and self-pity may seem as far removed from the present as the sewing bees at which women make flannel hot-water–bottle warmers for soldiers. And yet, by the end of the book, Henrietta has revealed enough that you what she means when she says of a Christmas celebration: “We decided that we wouldn’t try to be too gay, because if we did, we would all end by being depressed.”

Best line: It’s a rare English book in which the heroine dares to say, even with tongue in cheek, that “gardening simply corrodes the character.”

Worst line: Henrietta’s War reflects common wartime ethnic stereotypes that would today be considered slurs.

Recommendation? My fellow worshippers at the Shrine of E. M. Delafield, this is for you. Also highly recommended to book clubs that liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, though Henrietta’s War is a better book.

Published: April 2010

About the author: Dennys studied at the Exeter College of Art and illustrated Henrietta’s Warwith witty line drawings in a style reminiscent of those of the New Yorker cartoonist Helen Hokinson. An unsigned introduction to the book says that Dennys invented all the characters except Henrietta and her husband, her daughter, and her dog.

Furthermore: A sequel, Henrietta Sees It Through: More News From the Home Front 1942–1945, is due out from Bloomsbury USA on Feb. 1, 2011. Both books are part of the publisher’s stylish “Bloomsbury Group” series that revives light and entertaining 20th-century British books.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic and journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 4, 2010

Out for Blood – A Review of ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:51 am
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Elizabeth and Darcy inhabit a Regency England drenched in the blood after zombie attacks

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now With Ultraviolet Zombie Mayhem. By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. Quirk, 317 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This book is a literary prank, the equivalent of drawing moustaches on the apostles in The Last Supper. Seth Grahame-Smith follows the outline of the plot of Pride and Prejudice as he splices together many of its original passages and a new tale of zombie attacks that have left Regency England drenched in blood. Elizabeth Bennet is fearless zombie-killer who learned her deadly arts in China. Darcy loves her partly because he knows he has met his match among slayers of the undead. And Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas turns into a zombie whose physical deterioration causes her to say things like: “I fank you, Eliza, for dis piece of c-civiwity.”

Thousands of people have apparently have found all of this funny. But because this novel is more mashup than parody, there’s little room for wit, and any of Jane Austen’s best lines is better than the entire book. So what is the purpose of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Any number of answers might come to mind after you read that Elizabeth stabbed one of her victims in the stomach and “strangled him to death with his large bowel.” How about, for a start, “blood money”?

Best Line: Many by Austen. They include Elizabeth Bennet’s admission to her sister Jane that she didn’t always love Darcy: “But in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable.”

Worst line: No. 1: “‘What can be da meaning of dis?’ howled Charlotte, as soon as he was gone. ‘Mah dear Ewiza, he muss be love you, aw he never wuh have called in dis famiwiar way.’” No. 2: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Published: 2009

Furthermore: The popularity of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has led to a movie deal and a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Grahame-Smith also wrote The Big Book of Porn: A Penetrating Look at the World of Dirty Movies.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 19, 2009

A Quote in the Spirit of Jane Austen From ‘Love in a Cold Climate’

A wonderfully satirical quote from Nancy Mitford’s modern classic Love in a Cold Climate, reviewed yesterday, that suggests why the novel night appeal to fans of Jane Austen:

“Lady Montdore loved anybody royal. It was a genuine emotion, quite disinterested, since she loved them in as much in exile as in power, and the act of curtseying was the consummation of this love. Her curtseys, owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind. She scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost, like a cow, a strange performance, painful, it might be supposed, to the performer, the expression on whose face, however, belied this thought. Her knees crackled like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly.”

www.janiceharayda.com

June 18, 2009

Nancy Mitford’s Modern Classic, ‘Love in a Cold Climate’

Say what you will about the decomposing British class system, the follies of aristocrats have inspired some the finest comic scenes in Western literature. Few authors saw the excesses at closer range than Nancy Mitford, who drew on them for Love in a Cold Climate, a modern classic based in part on her storied and half-batty upper-class family. First published in 1949, this comedy of manners tells the story of the heiress Polly Montdore, an only child who flouts convention by marrying a middle-aged man who had been her mother’s lover. Mitford’s portrait of the young Polly sets the tone of a book that is witty and elegant without being aloof: “Polly was a withdrawn, formal little girl, who went through the day with the sense of ritual, the poise, the absolute submission to etiquette of a Spanish Infanta. You had to love her, she was so beautiful and friendly, but it was impossible to feel very intimate with her.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 3, 2009

George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ – Scenes From More Than a Marriage

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:06 am
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A young woman’s wish to be useful leads to a romantic mismatch in the first great multiplot novel in English.

By Janice Harayda

“Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy,” George Eliot writes in Middlemarch. And that line suggests one of many reasons to love her masterpiece: its sharp commentary on relations between the sexes.

Middlemarch tells the wonderful story of an intelligent young woman, Dorothea Brooke, whose desire to be useful leads her to wed to a repressed clergyman who lacks her passion for life. But the novel is far more than a portrait of mismatch. The action in Middlemarch unfolds against the backdrop of two great social upheavals: the coming of the Industrial Revolution to England and enactment of Reform Bill of 1832 that made Parliament more representative of ordinary people.

Eliot sets Dorothea’s private dramas against these cataclysms and shows, as she writes, “that there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.” The external forces include a society treats women as an underclass. And part of Eliot’s genius is that she hasn’t written a broadside against injustice but a book often called the first great multiplot novel in English. Middlemarch is a brilliant portrait of both sexes, never more so than in famous coda: “ … the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to those who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. The full text of Middlemarch is available for free on Project Gutenberg . A good, six-part Masterpiece Theatre miniseries, available on video and DVD, starred Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 7, 2008

Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ – A Masterwork for Its Time or for the Ages?

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:46 pm
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Would critics hail Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as a masterpiece if it appeared today under the name of a little-known author? Do people revere it because it uses stream-of-consciousness techniques well or because it was among the first to use them at all (and can you separate the two)?

These questions came to mind last week at a meeting of a book club that had read the novel. Among the comments: “You can’t always tell who is speaking or thinking.” “The writing is so beautiful, but you get lost in the middle of some of the sentences.” “This may be a male point of view, but I found parts of this novel almost completely inaccessible.”

The club members had a point. Woolf darts in and out of the minds of characters in a way that critics often fault in the work of lesser writers. Deaths occur that aren’t prefigured. And the novel is almost plotless, taking as its subject with the daily life of a well-off English family on a Scottish island with a view of lighthouse.

So why do many critics consider it Woolf’s masterwork? To the Lighthouse is moving partly because “it is an account not of a brilliantly successful marriage nor of an incandescently failed one, but of an adequate one, in which struggles and little compromises are daily enacted,” the critic James Wood rightly notes in How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).

But the novel is far from timid in its portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and their eight children. Contemporary writers tend to reduce the departure of children from home to a cliché – “the empty nest.” Woolf offers a more complex portrait of a sensitive mother who is 50 years old when the novel begins.

Mrs. Ramsay knows what she will face when her young children, James and Cam, leave home: “Nothing made up for that loss.” And Woolf doesn’t sugarcoat this – as a contemporary novelist might do — by suggesting that the future happiness of Mrs. Ramsay or her children will offset the loss. Quite the opposite. Woolf adds a chilling note of a sort rarely found in recent novels: Mrs. Ramsay wants her children to stay young for their sake as well as hers: “They were happier now than they would ever be again.” Or, as Mrs. Ramsay puts it, “A tenpenny tea set made Cam happy for days.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 7, 2008

Coming Next Week ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:10 am
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1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is sadistic – you “must” read 10 novels by Ian McEwan and none by Barbara Pym – but it’s right about Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Persephone, 2008). Meg Jensen writes of this rediscovered gem from the 1930s, a tale of a 40-year-old governess who stumbles into a world of cocktails and evening gowns when an employment agency sends her to the wrong address: “Over the course of a day, in a series of deft interventions, brilliant repartee, and enough gin to sink a lesser woman, Guinevere is revealed not only to her newfound friends, but more importantly to herself, as a lifesaver, in more ways than one.” I’ll review the novel next week, and until then you can listen to an audio clip of Frances McDormand reading from the book at www.persephonebooks.co.uk.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 8, 2008

Why Do Unworthy Books Win Awards like Pulitzer Prizes? Quote of the Day (Neville Braybrooke)

In last night’s post, I listed some classic American novels that didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, given yesterday to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. A related question is: Why do unworthy book win awards? One obvious answer is that most prizes are given out annually, and every year may not bring a great book in a category.

But more subtle factors may come into play. A truism of literary prize-giving is that awards often go to everybody’s second choice. Judges may split into two camps with each side fiercely opposing the other’s first choice. To reach a decision, they may choose a second-rate book they can all support.

Judges tell many stories in among themselves about such compromises but rarely discuss them publicly. Who wants to admit to having honored a clinker? But Neville Braybooke suggests how the practice can work in his preface to the Every Eye, the elegant second novel by his late wife, Isobel English. Braybooke writes that English refused to add the happy ending that an American publisher wanted to her to give her first novel, The Key That Rusts:

“More significantly, during these early days of her career, came the news that The Key That Rusts had been shortlisted for the Somerset Maugham Award, tying for first place with Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net. In the event, the judges were unable to decide who should be the winner, so they gave the prize to the runner-up, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.”

Neville Braybrooke in Every Eye (David R. Godine/Black Sparrow, $23.95) www.blacksparrowbooks.com.

Comment by Jan:

Braybrooke may have been willing to tell this anecdote partly because there would have been no shame in losing either to Lucky Jim or Under the Net, both modern classics. And few critics would argue that Amis’s comic novel was unworthy of an award. The Somerset Maugham Award is given annually by the London-based Society of Authors www.societyofauthors.org to the writer or writers under the age of 35 who wrote the best book of the year.

Do you think any unworthy books have won awards? What are they?

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

“ …

February 1, 2008

Diary: Barbara Pym’s ‘Good Books for Bad Days’

[This is the first in an occasional series of brief posts on books or authors whose work I can’t review at more length. The posts will be saved in the “Diary” category.]

A soggy morning in New Jersey. The chilly rain reminded me of a comment often made about the novels of Barbara Pym – they’re “good books for bad days.” They’re good books for good days, too.

Pym (1913–1980) had suffered more than her share of rejection until, in the 1970s, the Times Literary Supplement asked well-known writers to name the most underrated writer of the 20th century. After years of neglect by the British literary establishment, Pym was the only writer nominated by two of the authors, the poet Philip Larkin and the biographer David Cecil. Their praise, especially Larkin’s, sparked a revival of interest in her work that has abated slightly in the U.S. but has never disappeared.

I’ve read five or six of Pym’s quiet novels of English life and admire their modesty, intelligence and low-keyed irony. No writer would be less likely to give a book the sort of bombastic title — Everything Is Illuminated, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I Am America (And So Can You) — that is fashionable today. And each of her novels involves circumstances different enough to keep them from becoming repetitive despite their similarlarities of tone. Excellent Women is about a group of single women who, though young, are verging on what used to be called spinsterhood. Quartet in Autumn deals with the enmeshed lives of four friends, male and female, who are facing retirement. An Unsuitable Attachment explores the effects of a single woman’s attraction to a younger man. And The Sweet Dove Died is about the losses of middle age and beyond, especially menopause (though Pym is too discreet to use the word).

Where will I start when I return to Pym en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Pym? Excellent Women is among the wittiest of her novels, so I might begin there if I needed reliable diversion on a day when the weather was hoarding its comforts – a day, in other words, like today.

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

January 12, 2008

Why Was Randolph Caldecott So Great? (Quotes of the Day/Maurice Sendak)

On Monday the American Library Association will announce the winner of its highest award for a picture book, named for the great English illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846–1886). Why was Caldecott so important? Here’s an answer from Maurice Sendak, who won the Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are:

“Caldecott’s work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counterpoint that had never happened before. Words are left out – but the picture says it. Pictures are left out – but the word says it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.”

* * *

“My favorite example of Caldecott’s fearless honesty is the final page of Hey Diddle Diddle. After we read, ‘And the Dish ran away with the spoon,’ accompanied by a drawing of the happy couple, there is the shock of turning the page and finding a picture of the dish broken into ten pieces – obviously dead – and the spoon being hustled away by her angry parents. There are no words that suggest such an end to the adventure; it is purely a Caldecottian invention. Apparently, he could not resist enlarging the dimensions of this jaunty nursery rhyme by adding a last sorrowful touch.”

Maurice Sendak in Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), a collection of Sendak’s reviews and other writing for adults. The first quote comes from his essay “Randolph Caldecott” and the second from his acceptance speech for the 1964 Caldecott Medal. Sendak is one of the few great picture-book artists who is also a great critic. Caldecott & Co. has only a dozen pages of pictures but doesn’t need more, because Sendak makes you see books without them.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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