One-Minute Book Reviews

April 29, 2008

Why Do We Like to Read Mysteries? (Quote of the Day / David Lodge)

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:24 am
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Why do mysteries and thrillers so often seem to dominate the bestseller lists? Why have writers as different as Agatha Christie and John Grisham both ranked among the most popular of their eras? Here’s an answer from the novelist and critic David Lodge in The Art of Fiction (Viking, 1993), an excellent collection of 50 brief essays for serious readers on how the different aspects of fiction (such as irony, point of view and coincidence) relate to the whole:

“A solved mystery is ultimately reassuring to readers, asserting the triumph of reason over instinct, of order over anarchy, whether in the tales of Sherlock Holmes or in the case histories of Sigmund Freud, which bear such a striking and suspicious resemblance to them. That is why mystery is an invariable ingredient of popular narrative, whatever its form – prose fiction or movies or television soaps. Modern literary novelists, in contrast, wary of neat solutions and happy endings, have tended to invest their mysteries with an aura of ambiguity or leave them unsolved.”

Comment by Jan:
Some critics have described the appeal of mysteries in starker terms. While Lodge argues that they assert “the triumph of reason over instinct” and “order over anarchy,” others say that they are at heart morality tales – they represent the triumph of good over evil.

© 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

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:56 pm
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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.”

Published: 1950

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

Movie Link: Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House inspired two movies – the original Mr. Blandings’ Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 18, 2008

The Impact of Arthur C. Clarke (1917–2008) Recalled by Three-Time Caldecott Medal Winner David Wiesner

Filed under: Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:36 pm
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Arthur C. Clarke, who has died at the age of 90, got little respect from some literary critics, who dismissed him as a writer of futuristic potboilers. But his science-fiction influenced some of the most respected authors of our time. They include David Wiesner, who honored Clarke’s best-known novel in The Art of Reading: 40 Illustrators Celebrate RIF’s 40th Anniversary, in which popular artists re-envision a scene from a favorite book. Wiesner chose to re-imagine one from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a book that had captivated him in his youth: He’d seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie version, and when he saw the novel in a book-club catalog, he had to have it.

“The book turned out to be as fantastic and absorbing as the movie, and I couldn’t put it down,” he says in The Art of Reading. He was “fascinated by the way the same idea had been presented in two different mediums, one visual and one literary.” He’s still fascinated by such links: In 2007 Wiesner, one of America’s most admired children’s authors, won his third Caldecott Medal for Flotsam, a picture book about a boy who finds a magical camera.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 12, 2008

And the Most Famous American Novel About a Call Girl Is …

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:39 pm
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The answer to this morning’s pop quiz …

Were all of your English teachers squeamish about assigning books about prostitutes? Or were you just distracted by Eliot Spitzer’s resignation?

It took more than 12 hours to get the answer to this morning’s pop quiz, “What’s the most famous American novel about a call girl?” But Impreader nailed it: It’s Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Modern Library, 176 pp., $14.95).

Yes, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) is a party girl instead of a call girl in Blake Edwards’s 1961 movie. But the Hollywood standards of the pre-Klute era required the sanitizing. Holly’s life has a sadder, if no less interesting, cast in Capote’s short novel. As the filmmaker and short story writer Garth Twa puts it in 101 Books You Must Read Before You Die (Rizzioli/Universe, $34.95):

“Pushing the boundaries and paving the way for the revolution to come, Holly is a gamine — sexually free, hedonistic, a prostitute. She lives for the moment, damns the consequences, and makes up her morality as she goes along. Like her cat without a name, she is unfettered, untameable.”

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 11, 2007

Why Do People Like Westerns? Quote of the Day (William Kittredge)

Why do people like Western stories in books, movies and other media? Here’s an answer from the novelist William Kittredge:

“The Western is a story in which we get to have our cake and eat it. Shane does the killing, then rides into the mythical Tetons, carrying all our guilt away with him. Our problems have been solved quickly, and we are off the hook, guilt free, ready to go on, no blood on our hands.

“The Western is a story as ancient as warfare, about solving problems with violence, the great simple solution …

“It would be pretty to think the American version of this ancient showdown shoot-’em-up story of aggression enshrined has vanished. But it hasn’t.

“The Western mutated and went to the edge of the continent and downtown with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and the cops and detectives (think of Chinatown as the last Western movie). Lately the Western has gone into virtual worlds and outer space, where the same old story is being endlessly reenacted by killer androids.”

William Kittredge in The Portable Western Reader (Penguin, 1997) edited and with an introduction by William Kittredge The book gathers essays, poems and more, from ancient tribal tales to work of well-known contemporary authors such as Louise Erdrich. Richard Ford, Barry Lopez and Larry McMurtry and Leslie Marmon Silko.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 1, 2007

Is Harry Potter Sexist? Quote of the Day #32

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:15 pm
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Are the Harry Potter books or movies sexist? A children’s biography of Daniel Handler, the creator of Lemony Snicket, says he is wary of how movie versions of books can change authors’ characters:

“After viewing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example, Handler was annoyed at the film’s portrayal of J.K. Rowling’s character Hermione Granger.

“He remembers Hermione as being smart and appreciated for it in Rowling’s book. In the film version, however, he said he noticed that every time Hermione said something smart, the camera would pan over to catch a shot of the boys rolling their eyes. He explains, ‘If you are a girl seeing the movie – and you’re the kind of girl who is always reading a lot, learning a lot of facts – then the lesson you’re going to get from this film is that somehow, that is not the appealing and acceptable way for a girl to behave.’”

Hayley Mitchell Haugen in Daniel Handler: The Real Lemony Snicket: Inventors and Creators. (Gale/KidHaven, 2005). The “Inventors and Creators” series includes biographies of J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, Laura Ingalls Wilder and others for elementary- and (some middle-) school students.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
I saw Harry and Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone but didn’t notice the pattern Handler describes. And I haven’t read any of the novels. If you’ve read the books or seen the movies, what do you think? Are they ever sexist?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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