One-Minute Book Reviews

December 14, 2013

What I’m Reading … James Wolcott’s Comic Novel, ‘The Catsitters’

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“What I’m Reading” is a series that describes books I’m reading that I may or may not review on this blog

What I’m reading: The Catsitters (HarperPerennial, 2002), the first novel by James Wolcott, the longtime cultural sharpshooter at Vanity Fair.

What it is: A light comedy about the romantic misadventures of an unmarried man in Manhattan before the hookup culture rolled in. Narrator Johnny Downs is a mild-mannered bartending actor who tries a desperate approach to finding love after being dropped by his latest his-and-run girlfriend: He takes advice by telephone from a friend in Georgia who, after spending her teenage years in New Jersey, blends “a Southern belle’s feminine wiles with a Northerner’s no-nonsense direct aim.” The title of the novel has a double meaning: It refers to the caretakers for Johnny’s beloved cat and to the women who eddy around a “cat” — as the Beats might have said — who hopes to turn himself into plausible husband material.

Why I’m reading it: I enjoyed Wolcott’s new Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs (Doubleday, 2013), a showcase for the virtues that have distinguished his work since his early days at the Village Voice: wit, moral courage, and a high style. That collection drew me back to this novel.

Quotes from the book: A priest describes an artistic sensibility he has observed in New York: “These days, any time I attend something cultural, I dread what might be in store. I don’t mind shock effects as much as I resent the notion that they’re  for my own good, to roust me out of my moral slumber. One thing I learned from my work as a military chaplain is that in real life, shock numbs people, and the worse the shock, the deeper the numbness. After a while, your response system shuts down.”

Furthermore: The Catsitters is, in some ways, Seinfeld-ian: It involves a nice New York man caught up in day-to-day mini-dramas — not turbo-charged conflicts — and abounds with witty one-liners and repartee, such as:

“I can’t picture the men of Decatur, Georgia, handing out understated cream business cards.” “You’re right, they don’t. Most men down here introduce themselves by honking at intersections.”
“You’re fretting about the cost of dinner and flowers? You’re not adopting a pet from the animal shelter, Johnny, you’re in training to find a fiancée and future wife.”
“I don’t think I could handle a threesome.” “You’re not ready to handle a twosome yet.”
“Would you mind if I took off my shoes? My feet are about to cry.”
“We continued chatting, and by the time the train pulled into Baltimore I knew enough about her life to produce a documentary.”

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com

November 27, 2009

Not Written in Lipstick – Sarah Dunn’s Novel ‘Secrets to Happiness’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:45 am
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A search-and-rescue mission for single New Yorkers and their dogs

Secrets to Happiness: A Novel. By Sarah Dunn. Little, Brown, 277 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

Sarah Dunn is that rarity among comic novelists — a moralist in the best sense of the word. She doesn’t preach or lecture. But her heroines have a solid moral core left over from the strict Christian upbringing they have rejected. They struggle to do the right thing even as friends are cheating on their partners or trolling for casual sex on LukesPlace, a site similar to Craigslist in Secrets to Happiness. If Dunn’s heroines fall for faithless men, it isn’t because these women are vapid or silly – it’s because they are confused. They don’t know how to reconcile their early lessons with those of the age of Sex and the City, when their peers deal with moral questions by handing them off to psychiatrists or blocking them out with drugs from a pharmacy in St. Kitts.

“It never ceased to amaze Holly, how therapists managed to spin things,” Dunn writes of her main character. After years in Manhattan, Holly suspected that psychotherapy aimed to make it possible for people “to do whatever they wanted to do, with whomever they wanted to do it, when and where and however they felt like it, while reaping no negative emotional consequences whatsoever.”

That passage alone might lift Secrets to Happiness above most novels about single New Yorkers, in which few plot devices are more clichéd than an emotionally gimpy heroine’s visit to a therapist whose banalities help her find love. But the book has much more going for it than that. This is a novel about the related questions: What is the cost of being emotionally abandoned? And when do you give up the fantasy that you can rescue a relationship?

Holly Frick thinks she still loves a husband who has left her when, in her mid-30s, she faces other swiftly arriving changes: She adopts a dog with brain cancer, becomes involved with a 22-year-old man, and learns that her married best friend is having an affair. She must also persuade her gay script-writing partner to do his share of the work for an afternoon TV show now that her masochistically titled novel, Hello, Mr. Heartache, is tanking at bookstores. Part of the suspense comes from whether Holly will stick with her canine and human companions or will abandon them as her husband has abandoned her.

Dunn doesn’t develop this plot quite as well as she did that of her first novel, The Big Love, which has no relation to the HBO series. Much of the charm of that book came from the quirky first-person narration of its heroine, a Philadelphia magazine writer. Dunn uses shifting third-person viewpoints in her new novel, and though she handles them well, the device leaves the book softer at its center. Holly is its emotional and moral anchor, and the omniscient narration dilutes her impact.

So the pleasure of reading Secrets to Happiness comes less from its plot than from Dunn’s sophisticated wit, social commentary, and sharp eye for how single people of both sexes rationalize their actions. The novel abounds with lines that are amusing or perceptive or both. One involves the its Craigslist-surrogate: “The thing Leonard liked about LukesPlace was that you didn’t have to be altogether on your game and yet you could still have sex with perfect strangers.” When a man asks Holly if she wrote “chick lit,” she responds, “I wrote the entire thing in lipstick, actually.” No one should confuse Secrets to Happiness with a book that might as well be sold at cosmetics counters.

Best line: “Betsy Silverstein was only half Jewish, but with Betsy, half was plenty.”

Worst line: “She pressed on like a trooper.” The word is “trouper.”

Recommended if … you’ve wonder, “Where are the novels about single women that aren’t mainly about shoes?” (though The Big Love offers a better introduction to Dunn’s work).

Published: March 2009

About the author: Dunn has written for Murphy Brown and other television shows. A post about The Big Love appeared on this site on Feb. 14, 2007.

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

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

June 16, 2009

Ann B. Ross’s ‘Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind’ – The First ‘Miss Julia’ Novel

Kidnapping and cheese straws commingle in the first book in a popular series

Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind: A Novel. By Ann B. Ross. Harper 288 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Back in the 1990s, mainstream publishers crawled out from under a oleander bush and made an overdue discovery: A lot of people who live in small towns, go to church, and treat their neighbors kindly also like to read. And they want to see themselves reflected in novels instead of — or at least in addition to — characters who rent city apartments, go to nightclubs, and plot revenge against their bosses.

Perhaps no one did more to move publishers toward daylight than Jan Karon, who became a supernova for her series about a kindly rector in the fictional hamlet of Mitford, North Carolina, after finding only a small Christian firm willing to publish her first novel. Karon’s success helped to clear a path for writers like Ann B. Ross, who has emerged as a star in her own right for her ten books about a rich Southern Presbyterian widow who comes into her own after the death of her philandering banker husband, Wesley Lloyd.

Like Karon’s At Home in Mitford, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind takes place in a North Carolina town shielded from the harsher effects of time. But Ross’s book has more attitude – specifically, more irreverence. Karon’s Father Tim is the gentle minister a lot of us wish we had. Ross’s Pastor Ledbetter is the unctuous hypocrite we sometimes get instead.

In Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, Miss Julia gets a surprise visit from Hazel Marie Puckett, who claims to have been  Wesley Lloyd’s longtime mistress and to have brought along his 9-year-old bastard son. When Hazel Marie disappears, Miss Julia believes she must take in Little Lloyd. But certain Abbotsville busybodies don’t like having in their midst a reminder of the moral flaws of the man who owned the town bank. And when Little Lloyd is kidnapped, any number of people might have had a hand in it.

If the novel moves swiftly toward a solution to the apparent crime, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind isn’t really a mystery. It’s a comedy of Southern manners, as light as a basket of cheese straws, that turns on the acerbic wit of its protagonist and her interactions with more broadly drawn characters. Miss Julia sees right through Pastor Ledbetter’s pious ooze, her late husband’s cheating, and other two-faced behavior in Abbotsville. She doesn’t waste time worrying about whether she might have kept Wesley Lloyd from straying by trading her Red Cross shoes for Ferragamos.  And for all her church-going, she avoids looking too closely at what her husband’s afterlife might hold. “He was a Presbyterian and therefore one of the elect,” she says dryly, “which makes me wonder about the election process.”

Best line: Ross writes of a Presbyterian minister who wants a piece of Miss Julia’s inheritance: “ … if he brought up Wesley Lloyd’s estate again, I decided I’d transfer my membership. Maybe to the Episcopal church, where grown men get down on their knees. Which a lot of men, including the Presbyterian kind, ought to try.”

Worst line: Miss Julia’s black maid Lillian has lines like, “You need some liquids in yo’ stomick. Jes’ lay right still while I go get you something to drink.” I didn’t mind these because Ross tries to also capture the flavor of the regional speech of her white Southern characters, so the exchange seemed fair. But some readers may disagree.

About the author: Ross has written ten “Miss Julia” novels, including  Miss Julia Delivers the Goods, just published by Viking. She lives in Henderson, NC.

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

April 3, 2008

‘No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club’ – New in Paperback

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No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club (Plume, 240 pp., $14, paperback) isn’t as funny or polished as Bridget Jones’s Diary or the masterpiece from which it descends, Diary of a Provincial Lady. But Virginia Ironside bravely assaults fashionable clichés of old age in this comic novel, subtitled Diary of a 60th Year, which has just come out in paperback. Among the ideas scorned by her diarist, Marie Sharp, are that people help their heirs by planning their own funerals and that a funeral shouldn’t be funeral but rather “a celebration” of a life. Marie is also bold enough to question the motives of book club members: “I think they feel that by reading and analyzing books, they’re keeping their brains lively. But either you’ve got a lively brain or you haven’t.” A review of and reading group guide to No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Clubwww.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/29/ appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 29, 2007

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

November 11, 2007

Justice for Adrian Mole! Long-Suffering Teenager With Acne Finally KOs Mitch Albom and Others

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After weeks of ignominy, a comic masterpiece cracks the Top Ten

My fellow literary bloggers: Have you noticed that all your posts about books you don’t like always show up on your list of Top Ten posts while all the posts about books you will adore forever never do? Or is this just a quirk of this site?

Back in May, I wrote a post saying that Good Sports, a collection of sports poems for children, was an unusually weak book by the gifted Jack Prelutsky. So what happened? Day after day for months, the book has made it onto the Top Ten list. You would weep if I told you how often Mitch Albom has turned up there.

So here, at last, is justice. This weekend Sue Townsend cracked the Top Ten list with The Adrian Mole Diaries www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/08/, a comic masterpiece in diary form that has sold more than five million copies since its publication in the mid-1980s. Of course, it’s fitting that in the blogosphere as in the novel people would underestimate Adrian Mole, a working-class British teenager with acne, irresponsible parents, an off-again, on-again girlfriend and a justifiable conviction that the world doesn’t appreciate his genius. Still, I must say it: Adrian, redemption is yours.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 11, 2007

Nick Hornby Looks at a Marriage in Trouble in His Comic Novel, ‘How to Be Good’

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Can a marriage survive if a husband and wife disagree on what it means to be a good person?

How to Be Good. By Nick Hornby. Riverhead, 305 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a study that found that if you get fat, your close friends tend to gain weight, too. Something like this principle drives the third novel by Nick Hornby, the author of High Fidelity and About a Boy and the memoir Fever Pitch.

Katie Carr, an English doctor, has to reconsider her ideas about what it means to “a good person” after her 41-year-old husband, David, falls under the influence of a spiritual guru named D.J. GoodNews. This premise might sound like the set-up for a variation on that bedraggled cliché, an overprivileged couple’s midlife crisis.

But How to Be Good is a novel of ideas that is less about a marriage in trouble than about the question implicit in its title: What does it mean to be “good” in a materialistic age? Does it involve helping people through your work, as Katie imagines? Or does it require sacrifices such as giving away a family computer, as David insists after his abrupt spiritual conversion? If two people disagree on the answer, can they stay together?

As it parses these questions, How to Be Good shifts from satire to farce, and at times the characters resemble intentional caricatures. But Hornby maintains suspense about fate of Katie and David’s marriage until the last pages and invests their plight with enough comedy that the novel doesn’t turn into a sermon. And even his one- or two-liners often have a sly wisdom. In the first scene, Katie calls David on her cell phone to say she wants divorce, then tries to rationalize her behavior as atypical.

“But for the majority of people, marriage-ending conversations happen only once, if at all,” she reflects. “If you choose to conduct yours on a mobile phone, in a Leeds car park, then you cannot really claim that it is unrepresentative, any more than Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t really claim that shooting presidents wasn’t like him at all. Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.”

Best line: “Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.”

Worst line: It’s unclear whether the lack of punctuation and subject-verb agreement in the following are intentional: “Whenever I have seen Jerry Springer, the guilty party always says to the devastated spouse ‘I tried to tell you we wasn’t happy, but you wouldn’t listen.’ And I always end up thinking that the crime of not listening does not automatically deserve the punishment of infidelity.”

Recommendation? A good book club book. More than most comic novels, How to Be Good raises the moral questions that could help to foster a lively discussion. And the slackers who never finish the book may have seen a movie version of one of Hornby’s other novels, so they won’t feel completely left out of the conversation.

Reading group guide: www.penguinputnamguides.com

Published: July 2001 (Riverhead hardcover), May 2002 (Riverhead paperback) us.penguingroup.com. Hornby’s latest novel is A Long Way Down (Riverhead, 2005).

Links: You can read about Hornby and download the first chapter of How to Be Good at his official site, www.nicksbooks.com. Visit the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com for information on the movie versions of Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About a Boy). Search for “Nick Hornby” on British Council site www.contemporarywriters.com for a biography, critical analysis and a list of his awards.

Caveat lector: I haven’t read Hornby’s earlier novels or Fever Pitch, which many of his fans prefer to How to Be Good.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an 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 www.bookcritics.org. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 4, 2007

My Labor Day Reading … Jean Webster’s Comic Novel, ‘Daddy-Long-Legs’

Filed under: Classics,Novels,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:13 am
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A classic novel of life at a women’s college in the early 20th century

Over the weekend, I read comic novels — pure fun — as I braced for all those holiday books that publishers will start heaving at us this week. Did you know that some art-book houses release their entire line between September and November instead of spreading it out over 12 months?

I started by rereading Jean Webster’s comic gem, Daddy-Long-Legs (Penguin, $13, paperback), one of the most delightful novels ever written about the education of a young American woman. First published in 1912, the book is reported to have sold 100,000 copies in its first year in print, a vast — but well-earned — number back then. Daddy-Long-Legs is told through the letters of a high-spirited orphan to the male patron who sends her to college, inspired by Webster’s education at Vassar. And because the epistolary novel is disappearing, that alone might give it a period charm.

But its great appeal lies in the voice of its blunt, funny and perceptive heroine. As Michael Patrick Hearn wrote in an afterword to the 1988 edition that preceded the newer one from Penguin www.penguinclassics.com:

“When the press badgered Woodrow Wilson at his home in Princeton on his presidential plans, the prospective candidate adroitly dodged the question by stating that he found it far easier to talk about the recent past than the immediate future. And he much preferred to discuss the book he had just finished reading, Daddy-Long-Legs, ‘the most charming story in years.'”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 29, 2007

Virginia Ironside’s Comic Novel, ‘No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club’

An English grandmother hasn’t had sex in five years and isn’t sure she wants it

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. Viking, 231 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Is a backlash building against all those articles that say that you’re never too old to don a zip line and swing through a Costa Rican jungle? First Nora Ephron told us in I Feel Bad About My Neck that it’s “sad” to be over 60. Now Virginia Ironside writes in this fictionalized diary that the great thing about being old is that there are so many things you can’t do. “You no longer have to think about going to university, or go bungee jumping!” her heroine tells an obtuse therapist. “It’s a huge release!”

This concept could be a tougher sell in U.S. than in Britain, where Ironside writes an advice column for the Independent. Her diarist, 60-year-old Marie Sharp, calls herself “old.” How many Americans in their 60s do you know who describe themselves that way? Don’t look to Ironside to soft-soap you with you with euphemisms like “older” for “old” and “midlife” for “anywhere between 40 and death.”

If Marie is blunt, she isn’t mean-spirited. She is kind, cheerful, active and devoted to her friends and a newborn grandson who lives near her home in west London. And although she hasn’t had sex in five years, she doesn’t lose sleep over it. She’s thinking of giving it up – if a nice, rich, attractive childhood friend doesn’t change her mind.

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club isn’t as funny or polished as Bridget Jones’s Diary, or the comic masterpiece from which Helen Fielding’s novel descends, E. M. Delafield’s great Diary of a Provincial Lady. But Ironside’s book has much more to say about being old – sorry, “older” — than bestsellers like The Red Hat Club or Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. And Marie’s opinions, if not the plausibility of the plot, give her story its own appeal.

Ironside mounts a worthy assault on many popular beliefs that were overdue for it, such as the idea that people help their survivors by planning their own funerals (and that funerals shouldn’t be funerals at all but rather “a celebration” of a life). And Marie is the rare heroine bold — or perhaps reckless — enough to question the motives of book club members: “I think they feel that by reading and analyzing books, they’re keeping their brains lively. But either you’ve got a lively brain or you haven’t.” Naturally, Viking has published a reading group guide the novel.

Best line: “I don’t think those oldies who spend their lives bicycling across Mongolia at eighty and paragliding at ninety, are brilliant specimens of old age. I think they’re just tragic failures who haven’t come to terms with aging. They’re the sort of people who disapprove of face-lifts, and yet, by their behavior, are constantly chasing a lost youth.”

Worst line: Marie makes a show of not wanting to learn Italian but seems unaware that her French needs help. For example, she thinks “Champs-Elysées” and “allô” have no accents. (My computer can’t show the one on the capital e.) Marie also quotes a French guest as saying “allô” in person. The French use “allô” only on the telephone. And isn’t credible that Marie’s guest would say this face-to-face, even as a bastardized “Hello,” when the correct bonjour is universally known. Marie also has an odd way of trying to show a friend that she knew what she “was talking about” in a discussion of AIDS. She speaks of “the HIV virus” when the V in HIV stands for “virus.”

Reading group guides: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 29, 2007. You can find the Penguin guide in the reading groups page at http:us.penguingroup.com/.

Published: April 2007

Links: www.virginiaironside.org

You may also want to read: Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (Knopf, 2006), reviewed on this site on Oct. 14, 2006, and archived with the October posts: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/page/1/.

Janice Harayda is an 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 www.bookcritics.org. She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners www.janiceharayda.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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