One-Minute Book Reviews

July 26, 2010

Wendy Holden’s Novel ‘Beautiful People’ — Trouble in Tuscany

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Beautiful People. By Wendy Holden. Sourcebooks Landmark, 420 pp., $14.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Wendy Holden’s ninth novel shows little of the satirical verve on display in her Farm Fatale and Bad Heir Day, both as fizzy and delicious as a Kir Royale. Beautiful People resembles a conventional wine from the Tuscan hills, the setting for the working-out of the romantic and professional dilemmas of its three heroines – a kind Yorkshire-bred nanny, a London-based actress from a theatrical dynasty similar to the Redgraves, and an apparently American film star whose career is tanking.

Holden serves up few savory bits for star-gazers in this international romp: Did you know that Madonna has outwitted paparazzi by wearing the same black tracksuit for three years while jogging to “make the pictures look the same as they had for the last three years and render the image unsellable”? Or that David Bowie hides in plain sight on the Underground by wearing cheap sunglasses and reading a Turkish newspaper?

But Holden drags her plot sideways by beginning her novel with a chapter on sub-lead characters, and she never quite gets it back on a fast, straight track. And even the keenest fans of her much-admired gift for wordplay may wonder: Did she really intend have two characters whose names are variations on the word “cockroach”?

Best line: “Mitch still had no idea why Belle’s studio had imagined that a film about an uptight, pyromaniac, religious nutcase was a suitable vehicle for her.” This line comes closer than any other to having the over-the-top flair that made Holden’s early novels so appealing.

Worst line: No. 1: “It takes a lot of money to look that cheap.” If you’re going to reheat a line Dolly Parton has been using for years, if not decades, doesn’t she deserve a credit? No. 2: “there were iPod earphones curling around his neck.” In the U.S., they’re called ear buds. The term may be different in Britain, where Holden lives, but if not, anybody who is writing about style-setters needs to get details like this right.

Published: April 2010

Conflict alert: Sourcebooks published my second novel, Manhattan on the Rocks.

About the author: Holden lives in England, where her novels has appeared repeatedly on best-seller lists.

Read excerpts from Beautiful People and other novels by Holden.

Furthermore: A review of Holden’s entertaining Bad Heir Day appeared on this site Dec. 19, 2006, in a post that also had comments on her Farm Fatale and Simply Divine.

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

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

July 20, 2010

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Imperfectionists: A Novel
Tom Rachman
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Tom Rachman blends comedy and tragedy in The Imperfectionists, a collection of linked short stories about the staff members and others attached to an unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome. His idiosyncratic daily is trying to stay afloat in the digital age. But it has no website because, an editor says, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.” Can such a journalistic throwback survive? Rachman withholds the answer until the last pages of a book that reads like a collection of smartly written parables about the human illusions that lie at the intersection of work and love.

Questions for Discussion:

1. The publisher of The Imperfectionists has billed the book as “a novel,” but it reads like a collection of linked short stories. Did the book work as a novel? Why or why not?

2. A character in The Imperfectionists expresses a theme of the book when she reflects that “living overseas changes the rules.” [Page 185] What did she mean? How has living abroad has changed the rules for some of the characters in the novel?

3. Another theme of the book is that human illusions persist in adulthood and that, to some extent, we need them. Rachman’s characters typically cling to a fantasy until jolted out of it (as happens to the corrections editor who believes that he and his old friend Jimmy are “gradations of the same man” until Jimmy visits and the editor realizes that they are “utterly different”). [Page 94] How well does Rachman develop this theme? Were you persuaded, for example, that the corrections editor would cling for so long to his fantasies about Jimmy’s writing talents? Or that the Paris correspondent could be so mistaken about his son?

4. How does living abroad feed the illusions of the characters in The Imperfectionists? Would its story have worked if Rachman had set the story in a city in the U.S.? Why?

5. The stop-and-go format of linked-story collections can work brilliantly, as it does in Winesburg, Ohio. It can also make it harder for an author to maintain a steady pace, because there’s a narrative break at the end of every story or chapter. (One critic said that “desultoriness … is only narrowly kept at bay” in The Impressionists.) How would you characterize the pace of the book?

6. One critic said that Rachman serves up “a procession of biscotti-cutter characters.” Do you agree or disagree?

7. Rachman combines comedy and tragedy, qualities that are often hard to unite in fiction. His story involves the death of child but also entertainingly hapless headlines such as “GLOBAL WARMING GOOD FOR ICE CREAMS” or “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” How well did Rachman bring comedy and tragedy together in his book? Which characters or events seemed the most amusing and the saddest?

8. Why do you think Rachman set his first story in Paris when most of the rest of The Impressionists takes place in Rome?

9. Christopher Buckley praised the endings of Rachman’s stories in his New York Times Book Review review of The Impressionists, some of which have what’s often called an “O. Henry twist.” Which endings did you find most memorable? Why did they work?

10. Several other linked short story collections have had a lot of attention recently, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Olive Kitteridge. How does The Impressionists compare to any others you’ve read?

Your book group may also want to read:

And Then We Came to the End (Back Bay, 2008, paperback) by Joshua Ferris. D. J. Taylor wrote in a Guardian review that The Imperfectionists has a “faint yet persistent resemblance” to Ferris’s novel, “much of whose obliquity and ground-down communal spirit it shares.”

Vital statistics:

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25. Published: April 2010. Editor: Susan Kamil.

A review of The Imperfectionists appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on July 20, 2010.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and 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. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs.

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

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

January 25, 2008

The Underworld on a String: Poet Louise Glück’s ‘Averno’

A former poet laureate meditates on a crater lake near Naples that the ancient Romans believed to be the gateway to hell

Averno. By Louise Glück. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Louise Glück writes about figures from Greek mythology as though they might show up tomorrow in a laundry room at Yale, where she teaches. Orpheus and Eurydice, Aeneas and Dido, Achilles and Patroclus – she knows them better than many of us know our relatives, well enough to claim the right to explain them to others.

In her latest collection of poems, Glück recasts story of Persephone, the personification of spring. In most retellings of the myth, Persephone is a man’s victim: She is abducted by the king of the underworld and partially ransomed by her mother, Demeter, who arranges for her to spend two-thirds of the year on earth and one-third in hell. Glück envisions the tale instead “as an argument between the mother and the lover / the daughter is just meat.” In this Freudian version, Persephone is her mother’s victim as much as a man’s.

This interpretation suggests the fatalistic vision of Averno, a collection of linked poems that glide back and forth between myth and modern life. Averno is a crater lake west of Naples that the ancient Romans saw as the gateway to the underworld and that Glück uses as a unifying metaphor for a book about the dialogue between life and death that intensifies in the last trimester of life. In her title poem and others, she returns to a theme introduced in her earlier work, an idea that’s a sophisticated variation on the sign the Grim Reaper often carries in cartoons: “Prepare to meet thy doom.” She delivers an italicized warning in “October”: “You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.”

Glück too good a poet to allow this idea to devolve into a parody of a televangelist’s message, and her book has a grim integrity lacking in the work of poets who serve up Splenda in quatrains. Even so, the fatalism at times borders on oppressive. It’s a relief when a spark of hope ignites at the end of “October”: “Surely it is a privilege to approach the end / still believing in something.”

Best/worst line: This is the rare book in which the best and worst lines are the same. In “The Night Migrations” Glück wonders how the soul will find comfort after death. She concludes that “maybe just not being is simply enough / hard as that is to imagine.” The idea “not being” might be “enough” is perhaps the memorable in the book. But the adverbs weaken it, especially that “simply,” which seems to serve no purpose except that of scansion.

Published: 2006 (hardcover), 2007 (paperback) www.fsgbooks.com

Furthermore: Glück won a Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris. She was the 2003–2004 U.S. poet laureate. You can hear her read “October” at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16723.

Consider reading also: The short poem “Demeter at Yellowstone” in Deena Linnet’s Woman Crossing a Field: Poems/American Poets Continuum Series (BOA Editions, $14.95, paperback) www.boaeditions.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 8, 2007

Under the Neapolitan Sun — A Repressed British Soldier Has a Sensual Awakening in Anthony Capella’s World War II Novel, ‘The Wedding Officer’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 pm
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When love seasons the pasta sauce

The Wedding Officer. By Anthony Capella. Bantam, 423 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

The Wedding Officer gives unexpected life to a theme that English novelists have developed so often it borders on a cliche — that of the repressed Brit who has a sensual awakening in Italy. This love story isn’t on par with E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View and Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April. But it is popular fiction of a high order, or easy but intelligent reading that is far above novels such as Newt Gingrich’s Pearl Harbor.

Captain James Gould arrives in Naples in 1944 with the thankless assignment of discouraging marriages between British soldiers and their distracting Italian girlfriends. His emotions collide with his duties when Livia Pertini becomes the cook for the Allied officers and prepares sumptuous pasta dishes followed by deserts such as baked pears with honey and rosemary. As James’s passions awaken, Mount Vesuvius emits ominous plumes of smoke, the bloodbath at Anzio approaches, and Naples resembles an open-air brothel overrun by prostitutes who sleep with soldiers to pay for their syphilis treatments.

As he tells this briskly paced story, Anthony Capella deftly balances history, gastronomy and the dilemma of a young intelligence officer at odds with more than the Axis powers and the local gangsters. And that mix helps to make The Wedding Officer the rare popular love story that may appeal equally to men and women. Anybody who doubts it needs only to read the first line of this novel and see if she — or he — can resist reading more: “The day Livia Pertini fell in love for the first time was the day the beauty contest was won by her favorite cow, Pupetta.”

Best and worst lines: This post will be updated, possibly by the end of the day, with these lines and more information on Capella’s work. I’m still in computer purgatory.

Published: May 2007 www.theweddingofficer.com and www.bantamdell.com

Furthermore: For information on the movie versions of The Enchanted April and A Room With a View, go to the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com and search for their titles. Von Arnim was born in Australia and moved to England at a young age.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 5, 2007

A Closer Look at a Florentine Treasure, Ghiberti’s Glorious Baptistery Doors — In a New Book and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Filed under: Art,Coffee Table Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:43 pm
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A great exhibit comes with a handsome companion volume

By Janice Harayda

On, joy and rapture unforeseen! On Saturday I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the new show of bronze reliefs from the doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, created by Lorenzo Ghiberti over a 27-year period in the mid-15th century. And when I’m counting my cultural blessings for the year, I can stop right there with a profit.

The exhibit displays only 3 of the 10 bronze reliefs from the doors that depict Old Testament scenes, a jewel of the Renaissance. But the show is so rich — in beauty and interpretation — that it might change your view of one or two of the subjects of the reliefs: Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and David and Goliath. Did you remember that David beheaded Goliath after he smote him with his slingshot? You’re unlike to forget it if you view the panel about them. The New York Times‘s critic was right when she said in a recent review that this show almost makes you feel sorry for Goliath.

One of the remarkable aspects of the exhibit is that Ghiberti’s craftsmanship is so precise, you can see the use of high, middle and low relief in the same panel — a technique I haven’t seen shown as clearly anywhere else. You may be able to get a sense of this if you enlarge the book cover at right, which shows a detail from the Adam and Eve panel. At the bottom center you see God (looking like many artistic representations of Jesus) creating Eve from Adam’s rib in middle relief. At the top center you see another image of God — in a hat, looking down on Creation — surrounded by angels in low relief. Another scene in the Adam and Eve panel, which you can’t see, shows God in high relief.

I couldn’t afford the handsome companion volume to the show that the Met was selling, The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece/High Museum of Art Series (Yale University Press, 184 pp., $45) www.yale.edu/yup/, edited by Gary M. Radke, a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. But this is a book to check out at your local bookstore or an online retailer if your holiday gift list includes a lover of art, architecture, Italy or the Renaissance. Better still, go to the Met www.metmuseum.org and take a look at the book after you’ve seen the show, also called “The Gates of Paradise.” You have until January 13.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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