One-Minute Book Reviews

March 24, 2013

Francesca Segal’s Award-Winning First Novel, ‘The Innocents’

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“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.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 14, 2012

‘What Happened to Sophie Wilder’ – A Convert to Catholicism Bears Her Cross

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A young writer faces a test of her faith when she cares for a dying man

What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel. By Christopher R. Beha. Tin House, 256 pp., $15.95, paper.

By Janice Harayda

American novelists appear to be losing faith in faith as a source of literary inspiration. Nearly all of the leading fiction writers who have dealt seriously with religion are over 60, especially those who have explored Catholic themes. No obvious heir to the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and J.F. Powers exists among the generation of novelists that is coming into maturity, the children of baby boomers. Into the void have rushed authors of ecclesiastical thrillers inspired by The Da Vinci Code, books that don’t engage Catholic beliefs so much as distort and exploit them.

These realities may reflect a broader cultural trend: Young Americans are less likely than their parents to affiliate with a church, a reality documented in a report earlier this month from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But the dearth of novels about Catholicism remains odd and disappointing given the deep impact on the faithful of the upheavals caused by issues such as abortion, sexual abuse by the clergy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood. You could hardly ask for more dramatic literary material.

So it’s heartening that in his first novel Chris Beha tells an intelligent, if not fully successful, story of a young female convert to Catholicism. In college Sophie Wilder fell in love with a student in her writing program, Charlie Blakeman, whose surname aptly embeds that of that skeptic of orthodox religion, William Blake. Sophie drops back into her ex-lover’s life when they are in their late 20s and finds him keeping company with self-consciously literary New Yorkers who think and speak in phrases like, “Alfred Kazin once said of Saul Bellow …” Since college, Sophie has converted to Catholicism while Charlie and his friends have made a religion their pretenses or, as they might say, “stories.” In this novel a man who asks, “What’s her story?” means: What narrative has she constructed about herself? Sophie, it seems, has reconnected with Charlie to tell him the story of her recent, troubling experience of caring for a dying man whose wishes tested her faith.

This novel represents Charlie’s attempt to make sense of Sophie’s tale. Antiphonal chapters tell the story from alternating points of view: Charlie’s first-person account in each case precedes a third-person narrative about Sophie that perhaps reflects his effort to see things from her perspective. Both versions of the tale have weak spots. Writing in the first person, Charlie often asserts instead of dramatizing facts about Sophie or offers awkward explanations for her actions. (“Perhaps because of her family situation …”) He says that male students were “enthralled” with Sophie and found her “unlike other girls,” but it’s never clear why this was so when she was rude, sarcastic and lacking the conventional beauty that might have offset those traits. Charlie also implies that Sophie had that blend of talent and drive that enables a writer to get a book published and become “briefly famous” soon after college, but he offers no evidence of her talent and little of her drive. The chapters not told in the first person have traditional third-person limited-omniscient narration when free-indirect speech might have better revealed Sophie’s character. All of this leaves a hole at the center of the story: You see Sophie from two perspectives that don’t coalesce into a whole. She never comes into her own.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder is ultimately Charlie’s story rather than Sophie’s, and as such, it deals sensitively with worthy questions: Why do we need stories, whether religious or literary? What do we gain or lose from them? At what point does an investment in story become irreversible? The great virtue of this novel is that it treats belief seriously. If the book shows the cost of Sophie’s faith, it never ridicules it, and it also reveals the cost of others’ misplaced devotions. Charlie and his cousin rent rooms in Greenwich Village from a man who has Victorian aquarium full of fish, “the most important thing in his life,” and who asks only that they care for it when he’s away. Consumed by their own interests, the young men are incapable of this simple task. Charlie realizes it too late, and in a rueful observation on their failure, suggests a theme of the novel. “We had been given something beautiful, asked only to watch over it,” he reflects. “We’d been careless, and now it was all in ruin.”

Best line: “Henry’s the Ted Hughes of management consultants.”

Worst line: “Tom … pursed his lips with a look of concern.”

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide and discussion questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder appeared on this site on Oct. 14. The  guide to this book explores, among other things, some of the religious issues raised by the novel: for example, that Sophie converted after reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and each of the main sections of the book has seven chapters.

Published: May 2012

Furthermore: The New York Times summarized the the report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life cited above. You may also want to read Sam Sacks’ review of What Happened to Sophie Wilder and One-Minute Book Reviews’ review of the nonfiction book Mr. Tibbits’s Catholic School.

Read an excerpt from What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 20, 2010

Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’ – The Graveyard Shift at a Newspaper in Rome

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Staff members at the Christian Science Monitor used to joke when the newspaper had a print edition that “we bring you yesterday’s news tomorrow.” A similarly idiosyncratic worldview links the reporters, editors and others attached to the unnamed English-language daily in Rome that whistles in the dark in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. The newspaper lacks a website because, the editor-in-chief’s point man believes, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.”

The paper is an amiable throwback, and so is The Imperfectionists. Misleadingly billed by its publisher as “a novel,” the book consists of 11 linked short stories that read like smartly written parables about the human illusions at the intersection of work and love. The over-the-hill Paris correspondent for the paper faces a crisis that forces him to confront two long-held fantasies — that he can still write page-one stories and that his son has a worthy job at the French foreign ministry. The corrections editor gets a visit from a schoolmate that upends his romantic notion that his friend could become a great writer and that he and Jimmy are “gradations of the same man – he the middling version and Jimmy the great one.” And the icy chief financial officer learns through a macabre twist that she has been deluding herself about both her sexual allure and the effect of her staff purges. A theme of these stories is not that we are wrong to cherish our illusions – it’s that often we need them, because they’re all we have.

Fittingly for a book about a newspaper founded in the 1950s, the tales in this one resemble good stories from the early-to-middle decades of the 20th century, before the triumph of the cynical, elliptical and ambiguous. Each tale has a clear beginning, middle and end, and if not a moral, at least a point. Each takes as its title a hapless headline of the sort of that appears regularly in American newspapers: The more amusing include “U.S. GENERAL OPTIMISTIC ON WAR” and “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” And Rachman gives his characters enough humor and pathos to transcend his occasional lapses into journalese or glibness. His most memorable story involves than a widow in Rome who, since the suicide of her husband, has invested much of her emotion in reading the English-language newspaper each day. Through the old woman’s life, Rachman shows a poignant aspect of the decline of newspapers that, ironically, newspapers have scarcely discussed: For some people, the loss of a newspaper is the loss of a world.

Best line: “Blast Kills People Again.” – A headline written by a copy editor at Rachman’s unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome.

Worst line: “a women’s magazine that specialized in recipes utilizing cans of condensed mushroom soup.”

Editor: Susan Kamil

Published: April 2010

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for The Imperfections was posted on this site on July 20, 2010.

Read an excerpt from The Imperfectionists.

About the author: Rachman was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome and worked as an editor for the International Herald Tribune in Paris.

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

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

September 4, 2009

The Secret Lives of SLUGS (Smith Lesbians Until Graduation) – J. Courtney Sullivan’s Novel of Female Friendship, ‘Commencement’

Where first-year students get a lecture on the etiquette of girl-on-girl shower sex

Commencement. By J. Courtney Sullivan. Knopf, 320 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Commencement is probably best appreciated while wearing nothing but Saran Wrap or body paint – the apparent garb of choice at an annual clothing-optional party at Smith College. As pop fiction, this book has slightly more literary merit than a Jackie Collins novel. But as a study in the folkways of the undergraduates at Smith – and especially its lesbians – it’s fascinating.

Who would have thought that any students needed, right after arriving on campus, a lecture on the etiquette of girl-on-girl shower sex? In Commencement, they get one from a house president who says: “Basically, don’t shower with your significant other during prime traffic flow – usually about eight to ten a.m. It’s really disrespectful, and, honestly, who wants to hear two dykes going at it first thing in the morning?”

J. Courtney Sullivan offers many such details as she tells the story of a quartet of friends, all Phi Beta Kappa graduates the Smith Class of 2002, who return to their alma mater four years after graduation for the wedding of one of their members. But instead of exploiting the potential for a great send-up of some of the collegiate excesses she describes, Sullivan tries to make a statement about the varied strains of feminism on campus and the evils of sex-trafficking off-campus, both of which have been done much better by others. If at times amusing or perceptive, her writing is also stilted, beset by point-of-view problems, and slowed by her frequent backtracking from the women’s post-college lives to their days at Smith.

Yet Sullivan is a good enough reporter that she leaves you with memorable images, not all of which involve lesbianism. When it snowed, she tells us, college trucks poured soy sauce on the walkways of a quadrangle because “the salty liquid melted the ice without polluting the ground.” There was only one problem: “the entire Quad smelled like a Thai restaurant until February.”

Best line: No. 1: “Then there was Immorality, the notorious clothing-optional party held in Tyler House [at Smith College] every Halloween. Women attended in nothing but lingerie, or body paint, or Saran Wrap.” No. 2: “There was a name for girls like her: SLUG. It stood for Smith Lesbian Until Graduation.”

Worst line: One of many stilted lines: “Lately April had been obsessed with whether or not they should try to stop Sally from getting married, stating that she was too young and had no idea what she was getting herself into.”

Editor: Jenny Jackson

Published: June 2009

Furthermore: Commencement is the first novel by Sullivan, a Smith graduate and resident of Brooklyn, NY, who works for the New York Times.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 7, 2009

Tanya Egan Gibson’s ‘How to Buy a Love of Reading’ — A Satirical Novel That Turns Into a Teen Weepie

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A 15-year-old’s parents try to get her to read by hiring an author to write a book for her

How to Buy a Love of Reading:  A Novel. By Tanya Egan Gibson. Dutton, 353 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

Tanya Egan Gibson begins her first novel with a delicious sendup of a Sweet Sixteen party dominated by an ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David, whose penis is “dripping syphilitically.” Right away Gibson shows that she has two traits vital to a satirist:  a willingness to twist the knife and the ability to find a worthy target — in this case, the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous in Gatsby country, the North Shore of Long Island.

But Gibson quickly loses control of her tone in this story of a teenager whose parents try to overcome her dislike of reading by hiring a live-in author to write a book for her as a 16th-birthday gift. A novel that begins as satire devolves into a teen weepie as its characters go to parties, get drunk, pop Vicodins, sleep around, cram for their SATs and try to deal with their clueless and hypocritical parents.

The problem lies partly in an excess of ambition: Gibson tries to marry satire and tragedy, two forms so difficult to bring together that even so great a satirist as Jane Austen didn’t attempt it. You can’t easily persuade readers to pity characters whose lives you’ve been ridiculing for hundreds of pages. And Gibson has made her task harder by lampooning more than the patricians and parvenus known by Carley Wells, a sweet and overweight 15-year-old, who loves a popular male friend, Hunter Cay. She takes aim at targets such as reality TV, Arthurian romances, English teachers, college counselors and postmodern literary techniques, some incorporated into the plot.

Gibson might have pulled if off if she’d invested her novel with a faster pace and more drama. But How to Buy a Love of Reading is overwritten and lacks a powerful central conflict, both of which slow the story. Carley doesn’t have a strong antagonist but a variety of weaker ones, including her adored Hunter and her parents and the second-rate novelist they hired to write a book for her.

As characters swim through the book, Gibson keeps backtracking to fill in labored details like these about her heroine’s bulimic friend, Amber, whose behavior changed while Hunter was convalescing from an illness:

“Until then, she and Carley had just gone wherever Hunter went, hanging out with his friends — people like his older cousin Ian, last year’s student council president. But in Hunter’s absence Amber had gone back to spending time with people she and Carley had hung out with in middle school before he’d moved to town, people who mostly weren’t invited to the parties but who liked her.”

Gibson has a good eye for the follies of characters like a partygoer who advises another on how to cope with with a dull guest: “Tune her out by counting her pores.” But her inability to tame her material makes you feel a bit like that socialite: After a while, you’re counting the pores of this novel.

Best line: A private college counselor tells a couple that “their daughter needed rebranding if she wanted any shot at the real Ivies or the ‘hidden Ivies’ or even — given Bunny’s inability to break the ninety-fifth percentile on her PSATs — the ‘public Ivies.'”

Worst line: “Her  breasts were like a disaster in the news: a roof falling in under the weight of heavy rain, a double-decker freeway collapsing in an earthquake, a bridge undulating in high winds until its cables snapped.”

To be published: May 14, 2009

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of How to Buy a Love of Reading. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Gibson lives in Marin County, California.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 9, 2009

Are Y’all Payin’ Attention? Ah May Be a Yankee From New Jersey, But Ah Might Could Have a Review for Y’all of Kathryn Stockett’s Novel, ‘The Help’

A New York Times bestseller describes the mistreatment of black maids at the dawn of the civil rights era

The Help: A Novel. By Kathryn Stockett. Putnam’s/Amy Einhorn Books, 464 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Forty-five literary agents rejected The Help, and although that’s not an alpine number in today’s market, it’s easy to imagine why they did. A white University of Alabama graduate has written much of her first novel in the alternating voices of two black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s – as though Margaret Mitchell weren’t still taking heat, 60 years after her death, for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind.

For anybody who isn’t put off by the transracial ventriloquism, The Help may hold surprises. Kathryn Stockett tells the story of a white Ole Miss graduate who returns to her well-off parents’ cotton farm, cringes when she sees how her friends treat their “help,” and vows with the secret cooperation of the maids to write a book that exposes the abuses. There’s a lot to expose.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan has rejoined a world in which maids work for less the minimum wage and must wear uniforms if they attend the weddings of children they helped raise. They must use dishes and bathrooms their employers don’t. And if they protest these and many other indignities, they may be fired and blackballed by women who can keep them from working again in their towns. In their off hours, they face all the other injustices of segregation, including that can’t use white hotels, restaurants and libraries.

The Help falls into the category that publishers call “mainstream women’s fiction” and has many of its hallmarks, such as a subplot involving Skeeter’s romance with the callow son of a politician. And yet it has something rarely found in novels that have as much pink on their covers as this one does: sustained social commentary. Stockett describes the results of a silent auction at the Junior League Annual Ball and Benefit in Jackson:

“As names are read, items are received with the excitement of someone winning a real contest, as if the booty were free and not paid for at three, four, or five times the store value. Tablecloths and nightgowns with the lace tatted by hand bring in high bids. Odd sterling servers are popular, for spooning out deviled eggs, removing pimentos from olives, cracking quail legs.”

That is sharper and more interesting writing than you will find in many novels with more literary pretensions, and it makes you wonder what Stockett could do if she gave a free rein to her satirical instincts. In some ways The Help resembles The Nanny Diaries, though the plot is more far-fetched and the writing less polished. Justice comes for the household employees, to the degree that it arrives at all, at scalper’s prices. Students of the abuses of the Jim Crow era may find much of The Help unsurprising, but the collective memory of those abuses is fading. This novel would be welcome if only because it will help to keep the hidden cruelties alive both for those who have never known of them and for those who would prefer to forget.

Best line: The belles of The Help know that before you marry, you can never give too much thought to choosing a silverware pattern. One woman says: “Skeeter, you’re so lucky to come from a Francis the First family pattern.”

Worst line: The black maids often say things like: “Law, my phone was disconnected cause I’s short this month.” And Stockett makes phonetic substitutions in their speech but not usually in their employers’. Given that her black characters say things like “terrified a” instead of “terrified of,” shouldn’t some of her whites be saying “Ah can’t” instead of “I can’t”? Ah may be a Yankee, but ah think they might could, because ah know how often writers done been tryin’ to show how white people talk in New Jersey.

Editor: Amy Einhorn

Published: February 2009

About the author: Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and lives in Atlanta.

Mini reading group guide to The Help: 3 Discussion questions for book clubs: 1) So, did y’all think Stockett was brave or insane for writing in the voices of Aibileen and Minny?

2) Janet Maslin wrote of The Help in her New York Times review: “It’s a story that purports to value the maids’ lives while subordinating them to Skeeter and her writing ambitions. And it celebrates noblesse oblige so readily that Skeeter’s act of daring earns her a gift from a local black church congregation.” How much truth does this comment contain?

3) Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote in her review in Ms.: “As an African American, I accept black idioms as an aesthetic choice, but they nonetheless grated. Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have? There’s also the narrative rut of downtrodden but world-wise blacks showing white people their own souls, leading them out of a spiritual wilderness to their better selves. The Help has much more on its mind than that, but it doesn’t avoid going down a road too well traveled.” Do you agree or disagree?

Furthermore: The Help is #30 on the most recent New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Seller list.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

December 3, 2008

Anna Winger’s First Novel, ‘This Must Be the Place’ – An American Wife Finds Herself Emotionally Adrift in Berlin After Sept. 11

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Life imitates a Tom Cruise movie dubbed in German in a city where “Dixie” is a popular ring tone

This Must Be the Place. By Anna Winger. Penguin/Riverhead, 303 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

What does it mean to spend much of your life speaking in someone else’s voice? And if you’ve done it, can you get yourself back again?

These questions lie at the heart of This Must Be the Place, Anna Winger’s engaging first novel about an unlikely friendship between an American wife and an unmarried man who lives in her apartment building in the Charlottenburg section of Berlin. Hope has followed her Jewish husband, Dave, to Germany, partly to escape tragedies in New York, including the attacks of Sept. 11. Walter earns an enviable living as the German voice of Tom Cruise, spending his days dubbing Vanilla Sky, a job that helps to mask his loneliness. Both of their lives change after a sidewalk argument brings them together and, over the next few months, they grow closer in ways that at once expose and ease their different forms of psychic displacement.

At times Winger overreaches as she describes the quirky bond between Hope and Walter. She tries to link circumstances too big and different to fit together neatly: losing a child, surviving Sept. 11, leaving America, being Jewish in Germany, and living in a formerly divided city. This effort leads to plot contrivances and talky explanations of motives. You wonder if Winger once wrote self-help articles for women’s magazines when you come across lines like: “She had resisted further argument with Dave because his anger about it was the only suggestion that somewhere inside his rational exterior he was suffering too and she wanted to believe that.” Some scenes seem to mainly exist as vehicles for her views on questions of national identity and other subjects.

But Winger’s observations on Germany are generally interesting and often amusing. Hope arrives in Berlin when “Dixie” is a popular ring tone on German cell phones. Walter comes from an Alpine town “where people in crisis were often comforted by visions of the Virgin Mary in breakfast cereal or dishwater bubbles.” Winger explains why German men urinate sitting down and what can happen if you ride the Berlin subways without a ticket even though there are no turnstiles.

In some ways, This Must Be the Place resembles Diane Johnson’s novel about Paris, Le Divorce. Like Johnson, Winger shows an unsentimental affection for her adopted city. And if Berlin isn’t Paris, Winger makes clear that it has its own charms.

“In New York, as soon as one building came down, another went up so quickly as to obliterate the memory of what had been there before,” Winger writes. “In other European cities, the past was glorified, the architecture spruced up for tourists to the point of caricature. But here, nobody seemed to be in any hurry one way or the other. Buildings had been bombed and the city had been ripped apart, but years later holes remained all over the place without explanation or apparent concern. The city moved forward with a lack of vanity that she found relaxing.”

Best line: “In almost every Tom Cruise movie he could think of, Rain Man, Jerry Maguire, Days of Thunder, The Firm, you name it, somewhere in the second act his character danced and sang along to a pop song on the radio to illustrate a sudden flash of optimism.”

Worst line: “In September, when she came out of her downtown building to see people covered in white powder running for their lives, she had not been entirely surprised to find the outside world finally reflecting her inner chaos.” Winger doesn’t begin to show why Hope might have had this extraordinarily nonchalant response to Sept. 11. It makes her heroine look self-absorbed in a way that the rest of the book doesn’t.

Editor: Megan Lynch

Published: August 2008 annawinger.com/book.html

About the author: Winger lives in Berlin. She created The Berlin Stories, a radio series for NPR Worldwide.

You can read more about This Must Be the Place in the post “Germany Loves the Famous Has-Beens” that appeared on this site on Dec. 2 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/12/02/.

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

August 28, 2008

Review of Oprah’s Latest Book Club Pick, ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,’ the First Novel by David Wroblewski

Get thee to a kennel! A mute boy named Edgar finds his Ophelia in a dog named Almondine in story set in a hamlet in Wisconsin

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. By David Wroblewski. Ecco, 562 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

To read, or not to read
The Edgar Sawtelle book
That is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler
In the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of
Outrageous twaddle,
And moralizing, too,
In sections told just from
The point of view of dogs,
One of them a stand-in
For Ophelia herself —
Her name is Almondine —
Because this novel is
A sort of canine Hamlet
That’s set in — of all places —
A hamlet in Wisconsin,
Or nobler to skip
A story you might like
Especially if you miss
The big, fat novels that
James Michener used to write.
To read, perchance to find
That this is your dream book:
Ay, there’s the rub!
Unless you are seeking
The kind of happy ending
That Hamlet doesn’t have
Because the author doesn’t give you
What you don’t find in the play:
A tale where no one dies.
It’s true, the book is not
The play in any way.
No poison-tipped sword looms,
A syringe is used instead.
And as for Rosenkrantz
and Guildenstern, his friend,
Like Ophelia
They have four feet and fur,
Though Hamlet is a boy, mute,
The Edgar of the title,
Who sees his father’s ghost,
A paranormal twist
In Edgar’s earthbound-life.
Morosely, Hamlet said –
Remember? – that conscience
Makes cowards of us all.
Which is not true of Edgar.
But will his morals save him
Or send him to his doom?
No spoilers you’ll find here –
The Bard supplies them all.

[Note: This review is not intended as a strict parody of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy. If you’ve read Hamlet and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and can do better, why not leave your parody in the comments section on this post? For more on the novel, visit www.edgarsawtelle.com.]

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

August 27, 2008

Reviving Ophelia as a Dog — ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:24 pm
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Ophelia has four feet and fur in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Ophelia has four feet and fur in 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle'

You know how I wrote yesterday about five books I was planning to read this week while dog-sitting for literary friends? Those books are going to have to wait a day or two. My friends left behind a copy of David Wroblewski’s first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Ecco, 562 pp., $29.95) www.edgarsawtelle.com. And although I’ve been reading the over-the-top reviews of this bestseller for weeks, I’d somehow missed that – to oversimplify – this is a canine version of Hamlet in which a) Ophelia is a dog and b) the story is told partly from “Ophelia”’s point of view. Is Wroblewski’s novel closer to Shakespeare or Millie’s Book, the book former first lady Barbara Bush wrote in the voice of a White House spaniel? I will sort this out soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing this and other reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

May 27, 2008

Man Asian Literary Prize Reality Check – Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

Filed under: Book Awards Reality Check,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:07 am
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Meanwhile, back at the yurt, the natives say things like, “I nearly peed my pants”

The latest in a series of occasional posts on the winners of major literary awards and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Wolf Totem. By Jiang Rong. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. Penguin, 527 pp., $29.95.

What it is: A semi-autobiographical novel by a retired Beijing professor and former member of the Red Guards, who became an activist for democracy. At the age of 21, Jiang Rong went to live among nomads on the Inner Mongolian grasslands and stayed for 11 years. Wolf Totem fictionalizes his life there, including his experience of raising an orphaned wolf cub.

Winner of … the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize, given to a book from Asia that hasn’t been published in English.

Was this one of those book awards that made you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Yes. Censorship in China clearly limits the supply of worthy books. But so much good fiction has come out of Japan, India and other parts of Asia that the award to Rong is hard to fathom.

Worthy of a major literary award? No. Wolf Totem is pop fiction. The writing is on par with that of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (and like that book, romanticizes animals, casting some as smarter than humans).

Comments: Wolf Totem reads less like a novel than a series of set pieces about a young intellectual, Chen Zhen, who leaves Beijing during the Cultural Revolution and becomes a shepherd on Mongolian steppes haunted by wolves. The novel isn’t a pure allegory in the sense that, say, Animal Farm is, but has allegorical elements. Wolves and sheep are extended metaphors for, respectively, the vigor of China’s lost nomadic cultures and the passivity of recent generations.

The virtues of Wolf Totem are more anthropological than literary. Rong lifts up a nomadic society, unknown to most Americans, that counts onion-fried duck-egg pancakes among its delicacies. He also taps a deep, if more familiar, vein of wolf lore. But his story lacks a strong narrative arc and sustained conflict until, after several hundred pages, Chen’s community faces the threat of a wolf attack just as the cub he is raising becomes more ferocious. The pace is turgid, the dialogue artificial, and the tone didactic. The book is both a semicolon-infested critique of modern China and a lament for the vanished wolf-worshipping nomads. Its themes include that “China’s small-scale peasant economy and Confucian culture have weakened the people’s nature” and slowed the country’s ability to develop. Characters ascribe intellectual powers to wolves and say repeatedly that they are “smarter than people.” Yet the treatment of wolves is, in some ways, simplistic: Chen is supposed to be an intellectual, but he never asks such questions as: Is wolf “intelligence” really intelligence or a highly evolved form of instinct?

Best line: A description of a blizzard on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia: “Yurts set up along wind tunnels were blown upside down, turned into huge bowls that tumbled briefly before falling to pieces. Carts heading into the wind lost their felt canopies, which flew off into the sky. The blowing snow was so dense that anyone riding a horse could see neither the head nor tail of his mount.”

Worst line: Many lines in this book choke on the gristle of fact. An example: “Now he understood how the great, unlettered military genius Genghis Khan, as well as the illiterate or semiliterate military leaders of peoples such as the Quanrong, the Huns, the Tungus, the Turks, the Mongols, and the Jurchens, were able to bring the Chinese (whose great military sage Sun-tzu had produced his universally acclaimed treatise The Art of War) to their knees, to run roughshod over their territory, and to interrupt their dynastic cycles.” Then there are stumpers like: “Heaven and man do not easily come to together, but the wolf and the grassland merge like water and milk.” And it’s hard to imagine a Mongol nomad saying, “I nearly peed my pants [sic].”

Published: April 2008 www.penguin.com

Furthermore: Jiang Rong is the pen name of Lu Jiamin. Wolf Totem reportedly has had a Chinese readership second only to that of Mao’s little red book. You’ll find more on the Man Asian Literary Prize at www.manasianliteraryprize.org/2008/index.php. For a specialist’s perspective on Wolf Totem, you may want to read this post on The China Beat, which calls the book “nostalgic drivel” thechinabeat.blogspot.com/2008/03/coming-distractions-wolf-totem.html.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

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