One-Minute Book Reviews

December 18, 2007

Novels by Junot Díaz and Alice Sebold Rank Among the Best and Worst of 2007, the Editors of New York Magazine Say in Year-End Wrap-Up

What’s the best novel of 2007? It’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz‘s tale of “a monstrously fat, occasionally suicidal Dominican-American ‘ghetto nerd,'” the editors of New York magazine say in a Dec. 17 article written by Sam Anderson. I haven’t read the novel, but there’s room for a bit of caution here: Last year the editors’ choices included Claire Messud‘s The Emperor’s Children, second runner-up in the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. But New York got it right that Alice Sebold‘s The Almost Moon stands out for badness even in a year in which “lots of big names underwhelmed us … Amis, DeLillo, Roth, Rowling.” Anderson faults the novel’s voice, pacing and characterization. He didn’t mention the fourth-grade reading level and almost comically off-key lines like: “This was not the first time I’d been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 10, 2007

Isobel English’s Elegant Novel, ‘Every Eye,’ Makes Its American Debut

A slender classic follows a couple from England to Ibiza on a belated honeymoon

Every Eye. By Isobel English. Introduction by Neville Braybrooke. David R. Godine/Black Sparrow, 192 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

This elegant novel might sound like the literary godmother of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Like that Man Booker Prize finalist, Every Eye is a slender book about an English couple on a honeymoon – in this case, belated – near the ocean. And like On Chesil Beach, it comes from a distinguished British author who writes about how early misunderstandings can reverberate for a lifetime.

Yet Every Eye is everything that On Chesil Beach is not – subtle, persuasive and rich in insight. Hatty, the narrator, is a piano teacher who was born with a “lazy eye” that affects her view of herself long after surgery has corrected the problem. She marries late, well into her 30s, and recalls her awkward early years on a honeymoon trip through France and Spain to Ibiza with her intelligent young husband. And her apparently successful marriage suggests that her strains have eased. But a final, startling discovery awaits her when the parallel narratives of the novel, which glide between past and present, converge brilliantly during a visit to an abandoned hermitage on Ibiza. The last pages of the book do what all great endings should do but few achieve: They open up the novel and make you want to go back to the beginning and read it again.

Every Eve has equally fine observations on place and character. Hatty finds a wry comfort in learning that an acquaintance with whom she has little in common will attend a family party. “At least we had the barren fields of our incompatibility between us, which made us better than strangers,” she reflects in a phrase that might have come from Elinor Dashwood. When she begins to date men at last, Hatty feels a slight thrill at “the almost human expression of the hard blocked toe-caps of their shoes” with their requisite perforations.

Critics have compared English to Muriel Spark and Anita Brookner – both of whom admired her work – but she is less austere than Spark and takes more risks than Brookner. English has a voice all her own, and it is more interesting than that of many better-known writers. At this writing On Chesil Beach ranks #184 on Amazon, and Every Eye #864,564. If the bestseller lists were a meritocracy, those numbers would be revered.

Best line: Hatty’s husband, Stephen, says, “People sometimes go though their whole lives without reaching the moment when they are exactly the person they want to be.”

Worst line: One of the few off-key phrases is “she said managingly to me.”

Recommendation? An excellent choice for reading groups that enjoy mid- to late-20th-century British female authors but have run through many of the stalwarts, such as Spark, Brookner and Penelope Fitzgerald.

Published: Every Eye was first published in England in 1956. The Black Sparrow edition is its American debut. The novel is the second by English (1920-1994), the pen name of June Braybrooke. who wrote two others, Four Voices and The Key That Rusts, and the short story collection, Life After All, winner of the PEN/Katherine Mansfield Prize.

Furthermore: English’s husband, Neville Braybooke, has written a wondeful introduction to Every Eve. It includes this arresting passage: “Never did I read a complete manuscript [by English] until it was ready to be professional typed. Then, after it was returned, June wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it hy hand to her publishers — in this case the firm of André Deutsch. All four of her books were delivered in this manner and the scarves sent back in the stamped, addressed envelopes that she had enclosed.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 3, 2007

Alice Sebold’s Ghastly Scenes, Written at a Fourth-Grade Reading Level, Infest ‘The Almost Moon’

A woman with “control issues” murders her mother fantasizes about stuffing her in a freezer — “I should have stayed in therapy,” she admits – And you thought you had “control issues” because you alphabetize your CDs

The Almost Moon: A Novel. By Alice Sebold. Little, Brown, 291 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Novelist Charlotte Moore eviscerated The Almost Moon in a review I recently quoted at length and agree with in most particulars. Yet even that review — brilliant as it was – didn’t suggest all the distasteful aspects of this novel about a 49-year-old woman who murders her mother and fantasizes about stuffing her in a freezer.

Moore rightly warned that “nasty revelations occur about once every ten pages, like the sex scenes in the Harold Robbins novels we used to pass round at boarding school.” But “nasty” may be a euphemism for the thoughts Helen Knightly has while cleaning her mother’s excrement-smeared corpse: “And there it was, the hole that had given birth to me.… This was not the first time I’d been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia.” “Face-to-face” doesn’t seem quite the right phrase for those body parts, does it?

The Almost Moon reads like a Mitch Albom novel in reverse. Albom writes a third-grade reading level and Sebold at a fourth-grade level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word. The difference is that The Almost Moon serves up grim pseudoprofundities instead of the saccharine ones in For One More Day. “It was a bitter truth – my discovery – that daughters were not made in cookie-cutter patterns from the genes of their mothers alone,” Sebold writes. Apart from the clunky phrasing and clichés in that line, it is hardly news that daughters differ from their mothers. Such observations are what pass for wisdom or originality in The Almost Moon.

Novels infested with ghastly scenes can succeed in either of two ways: by entertaining you, as good mystery and horror novelists do, or by offering insights that make the ghoulishness worthwhile. The Almost Moon brims instead with banalities like this one from last chapter: “There are secret rooms inside us.” Close the door, please.

Best Line: None.

Worst line: The “worsts” fall into several categories. First, the cringe-inducing, like that line about being “face-to-face” with “genitalia.” Second, the pop-psychological. After murdering her mother, Helen explains that she has “control issues” and that “I should have stayed in therapy.” Third, the padded, redundant or clichéd: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” “I had prepacked a bag for the hospital before Sarah was born.” “I like to think, when I think about it, that by that time she was busy taking in the scent of her garden, feeling the late-afternoon sun on her face, and that somehow in the moments that had elapsed since she’d last spoken, she’d forgotten that she ever had a child and that, for so many years now, she’d had to pretend she loved it.”

How to find the reading level of a text: Enter the text into a computer and run the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. If you have Word 2004, you will see the words “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level” at the bottom of the window that opens when the check is finished. This tells you reading level. [If you don’t see a list of “Readability Statistics” after you complete a spell check, search Word Help for “readbility statistics,” then choose “Display Readability Statistics” from the list of options you see.] The first six pages of The Almost Moon had a reading level of Grade 5.5. To see if this was too low, I entered three 300-word passages from pages 23–24, 123–124 and 223–224. The reading levels for these passages averaged out to Grade 4.3. If you average 5.5 and 4.3, you get an overall fourth-grade level, 4.7, for all the passages. The text of this review (from the word “Novelist” through “please”) has a reading level of Grade 10.8.

Published: October 2007

Furthermore: I quoted from Charlotte Moore’s review in the Spectator in a Nov. 14 post and wrote about the first four chapters of The Almost Moon Nov. 23 Sebold, who lives in California, also wrote the novel The Lovely Bones and the memoir, Lucky

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 30, 2007

Do We Need Awards for Brand-Name Blight in Fiction?

Designer labels fester in fiction despite the critics’ complaints

By Janice Harayda

Do we need awards for brand-name blight in fiction?

Critics have complained for years about novelists who tell you about their characters’ designer labels as a substitute for character development. But the problem keeps spreading. In many novels you read about more than the labels on characters’ clothes and shoes. You learn the brand names on their cars, appliances, baby gear and more.

The most egregious example I’ve reviewed was Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (Vintage, 1991), a novel about a young Wall Street serial killer, who “describes his designer lifestyle in excruciating detail,” as Nora Rawlinson wrote aptly in Library Journal. But Ellis at least seemed to be trying to develop a theme — that our culture views products and people as equally disposable and that consumerism fosters violence.

Many novels, though less grotesque than American Psycho, have no such core. Their authors use designer labels as a shortcut to meaning. Brand-name abuse is a sin that I consider in giving out the annual Delete Key Awards on this site. But books can go wrong in so many ways that the prizes don’t focus on label blight. Should I give separate awards for Brand-Name Blight in Fiction (maybe in the summer after I’ve had a few months to recover from naming the winners of the Delete Key Awards on the Ides of March)? Can you suggest candidates?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 23, 2007

Five Things I Learned About Alice Sebold’s Novel ‘The Almost Moon’ From the First Four Chapters

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:04 am
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… or why you may not want to read this one over lunch at Taco Bell

Yesterday I read the first 61 pages of Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon on a train full holiday travelers. I’ll review it soon and, until then, here are five things I learned about the novel from four chapters:

1. Helen Knightly, the narrator, kills her mother in the first chapter. After the murder, Helen reflects, “For some reason I felt disloyal to her.”

2. Helen thinks while wrapping her mother’s corpse in blankets, “Super Giant Mother Burrito.”

3. Helen also imagines herself as a bronze statue, Middle-Aged Woman Ripping Underpants Off Dead Mother: “One could commission it for a schoolyard …”

4. Helen shares a surname with the hero of Emma, Mr. Knightley (sometimes spelled “Knightly”). I have no idea why. You don’t really think of “Jane Austen” and “Super Giant Mother Burrito” in the same breath, do you?

5. Helen describes herself as 49 years old and in “midlife.” So before the possibility of a nasty death sentence arose, she was planning to live to be about 98.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 7, 2007

The Adults Need the Diaper Change in ‘Dedication,’ the New Novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

OHMYGODYOUGOTTASKIPTHISBOOK!!! Because it has way too many lines like that one and, as its characters might say, It. Is. So. Retarded.

Dedication: A Novel. By Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Simon & Schuster/Atria. 279 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Few young writers have squandered their literary capital faster than Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, the authors of The Nanny Diaries.Their first novel deftly satirized the world of financially overprivileged New Yorkers and their emotionally underprivileged children. But their subsequent Citizen Girl sounded dreadful, and Dedication is pure schlock, though “pure” may be the wrong word for a book that has many lines like, “Crapcrapcrapcrap.”

Kate Hollis has waited for 13 years to take revenge against “multiplatinum recording megastar Jake Sharpe,” a high school classmate who dumped her. She wants nothing less than to “make him regret his entire existence.” And she finds her moment when Jake returns to their hometown in Vermont to announce his engagement to “international recording superstar” Eden Millay.

But Dedication is no print equivalent of the appealingly frothy My Best Friend’s Wedding. Alternating between the past and present, Kate gives an exhaustive history of her relationship with Jake from middle school to more than a decade after high school, as though it were the run-up to the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V. The chapters have titles like “Seventh Grade,” “Eighth Grade,” and “Ninth Grade,” and give the characters many opportunities to say things like, “Ooh, gross,” and, “You’re so retarded.”

Throughout all of it, Kate and Jake mature so little little that when their confrontation finally occurs, it’s like watching a junior-high food fight. In a sense McLaughlin and Kraus have come full circle: Their plot has changed, but they’re still writing about characters who need nannies.

Best line: None on par with the best in the The Nanny Diaries.

Recommendation? Be prepared for some of the members to stop speaking to you if you recommend this one to a book club.

Consider reading instead: The Nanny Diaries

Worst line: Any of the many on the order of, “Movemovemove, I’ve gotta pee!” and “OHMYGODWHERE’DYOUGETTHATBODY?” For one that’s not a run-on sentence, there’s, “Her face mommabirds.”

Published: June 2007

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 23, 2007

D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

The latest in an occasional series of posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t finish them

Title: Sons and Lovers

What it is: The second novel by the English novelist D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930), best known for the much-banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

How much I read: The foreword, first chapter and part of the second, about 50 pages in the edition I read (not shown at right).

Why I stopped reading: The Tribe couldn’t lock up the American League pennant in the fourth game, so I had to watch the fifth on Sunday night, when I had planned to read more of the book. Then life intervened and I couldn’t get back to the novel in time to finish it for a book group I was supposed to go to tonight. Good-bye, book group meeting.

Comments: The pages that I read involve the early married life of the Gertrude and Walter Morel, as mismatched as Emma and Charles Bovary. Gertrude — well-bred, intelligent, and endowed with a high moral sensibility — chafes against the limits of her life as the wife of a good-hearted coal miner of little income and less refinement. Some critics have said that Lawrence portrays women too harshly. But his treatment of Gertrude’s frustrations in these pages was poignant. Lawrence deals much more directly than many of his contemporaries with the frighteningly rapid loss of self that women of his day risked when they married.

Best line in what I read: On the married life of young Gertrude Morel: “She went indoors, wondering if things were going to alter. She was beginning to realize that they would not. She seemed so far away from her girlhood, she wondered if it were the same person walking heavily up the back garden at Bottoms, as had run so lightly on the breakwater at Sheerness, ten years earlier.

“ ‘What have I to do with it!’ she said to herself. ‘What have I do with all this. Even the child I am going to have! It doesn’t seem as if I were taken into account.’

“Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, takes hold of one’s history, and yet is not real, but leaves one’s self as it were slurred over.”

Worst line in what I read: “ … and on a newspaper spread out upon the hearth rug, a myriad of crescent-shaped curls …”

Furthermore: The Reader’s Catalog (Jason Epstein, 1989) gives this one-line summary of Sons and Lovers: “The talents of a sensitive young man are liberated from a coal-mining background by an intelligent but dominating mother.”

Published: 1913 (first edition)


© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 2, 2007

Rebecca Gowers’s First Novel, ‘When to Walk,’ Longlisted for the Orange Prize Along With Books by Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley

A young British writer with septic arthritis tries to cope after her husband unexpectedly announces that their marriage is “defunct”

When to Walk. By Rebecca Gowers. Canongate, 235 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Rebecca Gowers writes in When to Walk that the Victorian poor gave their babies a substance called Venice Treacle, “which induced an opium stupor while the mothers went out to work.” That line – interesting in itself — also suggests the emotional state of the narrator of this novel, longlisted for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize: She sometimes seems to be in an opium stupor without the opium.

Early on, the narrator’s husband of three years announces that their marriage is “defunct,” and the novel describes her attempts to cope during the following week. Gowers’s publisher calls the story a “ramble into familial failures, urban isolation, unreliable relationships” and more.

That’s true, but for a ramble, When to Walk is oddly overdetermined. The surname of the narrator, for example, is Ramble. Nearly every character has a name freighted with so much baggage, you sense that Gowers doesn’t trust you to figure such things out on your own. Ramble’s husband, Constantine, known as Con, acts like an emperor and gets involved with small-time con artists. Her gay best friend with a bisexual past has the doubly phallic name of Johnson Pike, and if that suggests to you that he might be tempted at some point show her his johnson, you’re right. Her half-batty grandmother, Stella Ramble, is always referred to that way, never as “Gran” or Grandma,” implying a distance between the two characters that the story doesn’t entirely support.

The overdetermination is all the more distracting because the novel is underplotted. Gowers sets up minor subplots that go nowhere – one about a friend her heroine is helping with her English and another about a Holocaust-era photograph she finds amid her grandmother’s belongings. Ramble also has septic arthritis – similar to Lyme Disease – presumably intended as a metaphor for the creaky joints of her life and marriage. But the relation between her physical and emotional states isn’t clear: To what degree, if any, is the illness responsible for her bad marriage and dull job writing travel articles about places she hasn’t seen? Little enough happens overall that the novel crawls along until the whiz-bang final chapter, where the story gains the steam it has lacked until then.

So When to Walk is less successful as a novel than as a collection of anecdotes, many about the Victorian era. Some of these tell stories more interesting than that of the book as a whole, including one about the author of the poem “In the Bleak Midwinter.” “I can state for certain that at some point in the early 1840s, when she was still a child, Christina Rossetti was taken to Madame Tussaud’s on a treat that was a total failure,” Gowers writes. “Why? Because she’d been taught that it’s rude to stare.”

Best line: “For all the time I’ve known her, Stella Ramble has, in the old phrase, been ‘living on unkindly terms with her years.’” Old phrase? I’d never heard it but know a lot of people to whom it applies.

Worst line: An e-mail message from a character who works for a college, whom Ramble is helping with her English: “Boustrophedon is when the lines of the inscription go left to right, right to left (retrograde means the characters being r to l too as in a mirror), left to right etc. Boustrophedon translates to mean the way oxen turn back and forth over a field when they plough. Whereas, false boustrophedon, alternate lines instead of having vertical orientation will curl around upside down, this also being called Schlangenschrift which means snake-writing.” As mangled English, this isn’t funny enough. It is hardly, if all, distinguishable from much of what passes for acceptable in academia today.

Published: October 2007

Furthermore: Gowers also wrote The Swamp of Death: A True Tale of Victorian Lies and Murder (Penguin, 2004). When to Walk was one of 20 books on the longlist for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, formerly the Orange Prize, which also included novels by Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley.

Cover story: Joe Berger’s cover for When to Walk differs by a mile from what American publishers typically choose for books about young women and their relationships — in part because it isn’t pink — and this is much to the credit of the Edinburgh-based Canongate Books. The spirit of the cover is very Scottish, though it contains none of the usual Scottish cliches such (such as kilts, thistles or Nessie), and the story is set in an unnamed British city. The cover is mainly green, the same shade that many of the spear-pointed iron fences in Edinburgh were until painted black after the death of Prince Albert. Some fences have been repainted in the shade.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site in the world on Google on Sept. 6, 2007

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 28, 2007

One-Sentence Reviews of Novels Recently Featured on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:16 am
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Did your mental hard-drive crash the day One-Minute Book Reviews posted its review of the No. 1 bestseller Water for Elephants? Or were you alphabetizing your CDs when the site revealed that a finalist for one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes is written at an 8-year-old reading level?

Okay, you’re forgiven. Here are one-sentence summaries of novels recently reviewed here, followed by a link to the review and to a reading group guide if one also appeared. You can find one-line reviews of other books in the Books in a Sentence Category on the One-Minute Book Reviews site.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. By Muriel Spark. A brilliant, short novel and psychological exploration of female power as wielded by a teacher in an Edinburgh girls’ school in the 1930s.

Murder in Mesopotamia: A Hercule Poirot Mystery. By Agatha Christie. The Belgian detective seeks the killer of an archaeologist’s wife, murdered on a dig at an Assyrian palace in Iraq, in what may be Christie’s most autobiographical novel.

Mister Pip. By Lloyd Jones. A black female university graduate remembers hearing a white man read Great Expectations on a Pacific island when she was 13 in a disappointing 2007 Man Booker Prize finalist written at a third-grade level, according to Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics. This review also has the reading levels of past Booker winners.

Water for Elephants. By Sara Gruen. A historical novel that gallops along with a Depression-era traveling circus, saddled with cliches. Review and reading group guide posted as separate posts on Sept. 21

Everyday Life. By Lydie Salvayre. Translated from the French by Jane Kuntz. A secretary at a Paris advertising agency is undone by the arrival of a new co-worker in an idiosyncratic French novel that is a study in alienation and mental disintegration written with a Cartesian spareness.

How to Be Good. By Nick Hornby. The author of Fever Pitch asks a serious question — what does it mean to be a “good” person in a materialistic age? — in a comic novel about an English marriage that is tested when the husband falls under the influence of a spiritual guru.

Daddy-Long-Legs. By Jean Webster. A charming classic novel told in letters from a high-spirited and keenly intelligent student at women’s college to her male patron, which was a bestseller in its day and made into a movie with Leslie Caron.

On Chesil Beach. By Ian McEwan. An overrated flyweight novel about a young couple’s disastrous 1962 wedding night that is a finalist for the 2007 Man Booker Prize but may remind you more of Mitch Albom than Kazuo Ishiguro or Anita Brookner.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 27, 2007

Muriel Spark’s Masterpiece, ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:29 am
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Spark’s modern classic was published before the Booker Prize was established but towers over two of this year’s finalists

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (HarperPerennial, 160 pp., $13.95, paperback) didn’t appear on my recent list good books with fewer than 200 pages, which focused on less well-known titles. But this modern classic by the late Scottish novelist Muriel Spark has been on my mind a lot since the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced on Sept. 6. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie missed a shot at the Booker by dint of its publication in 1962, six years before the award began. But neither of the 2007 finalists that I’ve read, On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip, can touch this brilliant psychological study of female power as deployed by a teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school in the early 1930s and her teenage acolytes. The 1969 movie version included a memorable star turn by Maggie Smith without capturing the most remarkable aspect of the book: It is a masterpiece of tone. Spark neither sentimentalizes nor demonizes her heroine, but describes her with the kind of cool detachment rarely found in novels about the sexually overheated world of girls’ and boys’ schools. Any book group could spend hours talking about the title alone: Was Miss Jean Brodie really “in her prime”? Or did she merely persuade her students – and herself – of it?

Links: Reading group guide at the HarperCollins site Background on Spark at the National Library of Scotland Spark was a finalist for the first Man Booker International Prize, awarded in 2005 to the Albania’s Ismail Kadare. For information on the movie search the Internet Movie Database for the title of the book.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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