In a famous scene in Primary Colors, a middle-aged political strategist whips out his penis at the headquarters of a presidential campaign in an attempt to lure young press aide to his hotel room. She looks at it and says, “I’ve never seen one that … old.” The strategist turns red and runs out of the room. Campaign aides – who have been eavesdropping – cheer. Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will reconsider Primary Colors, the 1996 bestseller by Joe Klein, a Washington journalist who initially used the byline “Anonymous. The novel satirizes the first presidential campaign of a Democratic governor named Jack Stanton, stand-in for Bill Clinton. (c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
April 22, 2008
April 17, 2008
A Review of Elisa Albert’s ‘The Book of Dahlia,’ a Send-Up of the Cult of Positive Thinking in the Cancer-Treatment Field, Coming Soon
Can you write a funny novel about a 29-year-old woman with a malignant brain tumor? Elisa Albert www.elisaalbert.com takes on the challenge in her new The Book of Dahlia (Free Press, $23) — a book that satirizes, in part, the cult of positive thinking in the field of cancer treatment. A review of the novel will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews in the next week.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
March 31, 2008
‘Blandings’ Way’ – The Sequel to ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’ Is Darker But Just as Funny as the Novel That Preceded It
Eric Hodgins satirizes one man’s fantasies of a simpler country life in the sequel to a bestseller
Blandings’ Way. By Eric Hodgins. Simon & Schuster, 314 pp., varied prices.
By Janice Harayda
In the late 1930s, Eric Hodgins wanted to find a country house that would provide a tranquil escape from the pressures of his job as an executive with Time Inc. But when he and his wife began to build a place in New Milford, Connecticut, they found that the project drained their sprits and their bank account with frightening speed. Patricia Grandjean wrote in the New York Times in 1992:
“When construction began in 1939, Mr. Hodgins anticipated a budget of $11,000 for his dream house. But the completed project ultimately escalated to a total of $56,000 — which translates into roughly $2.2 million today — a sum so inflated by his misconceptions that it nearly drove him into bankruptcy.”
Hodgins was forced to sell the house two years later, Grandjean said. But he went on to write two popular novels about his trials as a homeowner — Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and Blandings’ Way, a fictionalized account of his family’s brief time in Connecticut:
“The book sales restored his fortune, and when he received $200,000 for the film rights to the original book — provided by his New Milford neighbor, the producer Dore Schary — Mr. Hodgins tried to buy back the house back, but to no avail.”
But if Hodgins’s home ownership was perilous, his books are as appealing as when they first appeared. The delightful Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House came out in new edition in 2004 that reproduces the wonderful original illustrations by William Steig.
Blandings’ Way is darker but just as funny and, though out of print, worth tracking down online or elsewhere. The theme and tone emerge early, when Jim Blandings admits to his lawyer that he needs “a haven” from his work at a Madison Avenue advertising agency: His boss believes in “Peace Through Advertising” and wants Blandings to support it by writing an “open letter” to Joseph Stalin.
But Blandings’s lawyer doubts the soundness – and perhaps the sanity – of the move to the country. “You’re not my idea of the rural type,” he says. “If you’re going to play at that, for heaven’s sake take it slow and easy. … Don’t sponsor a zoning ordinance. Have nothing to do with dairying in thought or in deed. Don’t decide to buy the local newspaper and be its country-gentleman publisher.”
These, of course, are all the things Blandings will do. In Blandings’ Way he ricochets his way from one crisis to the next with hilarious results, keenly aware of his own failings. He’s smart enough to see how wrong things could go in the country but not smart enough to resist the possibility that they could go right. And his motives are always decent and honorable.
Blandings doesn’t buy a country newspaper to make money — he thinks he’s overpaid for writing advertising copy for clients like the Hair Removal Institute and International Screw. He wants (or believes he wants) to invest his life with a deeper meaning than he finds in his work. Hodgins’s triumph is that he manages to make Blandings at once comic and heroic, unique and a representative of a universal human striving for a deeper purpose in life. And his passionate words to his lawyer ring as true today as they did more than a half century ago:
“I want to find something to do in my personal life that’s going to help me compensate for what I have to do in my professional life. That’s the clue to the whole business. You can sit there in that detached and superior way of yours what it is and I won’t be able to tell you – but I know there’s something. The greatest unmet obligation in American life is the obligation of the superior individual toward something greater than his particular way of making money. In my case that something greater is the community that Muriel and I and our children have gone to live in. One man can’t do very much to redress the balances that are out of whack in America, but at least a man can try.”
Best line: “Was there anything sadder than the contents of an old filing cabinet? A scrapbook, a diary, were much less sad; into the scrapbook went things that had turned out right; into the diary – well, Mr. Blandings had never kept a diary, and spent a moment in grateful thanks. But an old filing cabinet contained things that were going to turn out right, except that when you looked at them again, none of them had.”
Worst line: None, but the grammar seems slightly off in this one: “The hints are indeed rather broad that there is one particular world in which my instincts least off lead me astray, I prosper best.”
Furthermore: A review of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (Simon & Schuster, 1946 and 2004) and a reading group guide to the novel appeared as separate posts on One-Minute Book Reviews on April 9, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/04/09/.
Movie Link: Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House inspired two movies – the original Mr. Blandings’ Builds His Dream House www.imdb.com/title/tt0040613/, with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks www.imdb.com/title/tt0091541/.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
March 11, 2008
Jay McInerney Satirizes New Yorker-Style Fact-Checking in ‘Bright Lights, Big City,’ A Defining Novel of the 1980s
The book that put spring in the step of the phrase “Bolivian marching powder”
A lot of people have suggested that book publishers need to adopt the system used in the fact-checking department at The New Yorker, where Jay McInerney worked briefly. How does it work? McInerney sends up fact-checking — among many other things — with sardonic verve in Bright Lights, Big City (Vintage, 1984), his satirical tale of a young Manhattanite who by day works for an elite magazine and by night seeks relief from the pretension in drug-fueled revels. (This book put spring in the step of the phrase “Bolivian marching powder.”) Along with Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Bright Lights, Big City helped set the tone of fiction in the 1980s and may be McInerney’s best book. Among its virtues: It shows the rare, successful use of second-person narration in a novel. That device works partly because it suggests its anti-hero’s estrangement from himself: He’s alienated enough from his life that he sees himself not as an “I” but as a “you.”
(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
December 30, 2007
December 14, 2007
November 11, 2007
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.
October 8, 2007
A teenager worries about sex, acne, his parents and all the people don’t appreciate his genius in a British bestseller with intergenerational appeal
The Adrian Mole Diaries: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. By Sue Townsend. HarperPerennial, 304 pp., $12.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
In the realm of literary prize-giving, comic novels are the neglected stepchildren, traditionally ignored by judges on both sides of the Atlantic. So you won’t find The Adrian Mole Diaries on any list of winners of the Man Booker Prize, the next recipient of which will be announced on Oct. 16.
But few of the winners have delighted as many people as this fictional journal of a working-class English teenager, Adrian Mole, which has sold more than five million copies since its publication in the mid-1980s. The Adrian Mole Diaries has little in common with all those dreary American young-adult novels that unpersuasively suggest that – no matter how awful high school is – there is always a wise and understanding adult who can help. And it’s not just because the volume deftly satirizes the trends and events of its era instead of sentimentalizing them.
Most teenagers only think they’re smarter than their parents. Sue Townsend has created the rare teenage boy who, though entirely normal, really is smarter than the adults in his life. In his first diary entry, Adrian can hardly hide his disgust that his father got the family dog drunk on cherry brandy and that his mother is too distracted to wear the green lurex apron he gave her for Christmas. But his feelings of superiority don’t keep him from worrying about all the usual teenage concerns, such as sex, acne, a local street gang and the inability of teachers and others to see his genius. Nor is he too self-absorbed to be kind. He and his off-again, on-again girlfriend, Pandora, spend much of their time trying to help a cranky neighbor and to remedy what they see as social injustices.
Adrian embodies so perfectly the typical adolescent mix of insecurity and grandiosity his diary appeals equally to adults and teenagers. “None of the teachers at school have noticed that I am an intellectual,” he writes. “They will be sorry when I am famous.” How nice that his words were, in a sense, prophetic: Adrian has become one of the most famous schoolboys in British fiction.
Best line: Townsend shows a nearly pitch-perfect ear for social comedy in this volume, so every page has a “best line.” Here’s a sample involving Pandora Braithwaite, the love of Adrian’s life:
“My precious Pandora is going out with Craig Thomas. That’s the last time you get a Mars bar from me, Thomas!
“Barry Kent is in trouble for drawing a nude woman in Art. Ms Fossington-Gore said that it wasn’t so much the subject matter but his ignorance of basic biological facts that was so upsetting. I did a good drawing of the Incredible Hulk smashing Craig Thomas to bits. Ms Fossington-Gore said it was ‘a powerful statement of monolithic oppression.’”
Worst line: Adrian may be too bright to think, as he does at first, that Evelyn Waugh is a woman.
Recommendation? An excellent novel for adult fans of Nick Hornby and Helen Fielding and for bloggers trying to develop a comic style or persona. Many 12-to-14-year-old boys also love this book.
Caveat lector: I haven’t read the later books in the Adrian Mole series, which some critics regard as less funny.
One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site in the world on Google on Sept. 6, 2007 www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.