One-Minute Book Reviews

June 4, 2008

‘Sex and the City,’ the Book That Started It All

Filed under: Movie Link,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:43 pm
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First, it was a collection of columns from a quirky weekly printed on salmon-colored paper

Sex and the City is a book that, like so many of its male characters, has baggage. But the baggage has changed in the 12 years since the publication of this collection of Candace Bushnell’s columns for the New York Observer, a quirky weekly printed on salmon-colored paper.

In the beginning many people treated Sex and the City less as a book than a parlor game: Who were the restless urban bedmates whose identities Bushnell had disguised? By the time the gossip columnists had lost interest in that question — or learned the answers — the book had picked up new baggage: the expectations created by the HBO Series How does the original stand up to the adventures of Sarah Jessica Parker and friends?

Both have merits, but the HBO series has the edge, at least in its first seasons, before the show became a near-parody of itself (to say nothing of the movie, which I haven’t seen). In Sex and the City Bushnell wrote with style and authority about single female New Yorkers who had rejected the sexual mores of yore but hadn’t found a satisfying — or, in some cases, even humane — replacement for them. Her women were intelligent but shallow and independent but yearning for, if not love, at least a dependable piece of arm candy, and many of her men were worse. These New Yorkers were clearly not to everyone’s tastes — the overall tone of the book was chilly — but they were far more interesting than the flat characters in Bushnell’s subsequent novels

Even so, the book gave some critics pause for another reason, too: You couldn’t tell how much of it was true. Its columns had appeared in a respected weekly, but Bushnell drew on techniques used by novelists. In hindsight, she looks like an ancestor of the new memoirists who believe that only emotional truths matter. But her book was still a revelation to many of us who were living in places like Cleveland when it came out: Who knew what was going on in Manhattan and the Hamptons?

From first episode of the HBO series, Sarah Jessica Parker gave Sex and the City some of the warmth that the book lacked. The writers also kicked up the humor up several notches, making the best episodes were funnier. And the series raised no questions of truth-in-publishing: It was clearly fiction.

This doesn’t mean that book has outlived its appeal. Sex and the City gives a unique account of a certain New York subculture in the 1990s. It may especially appeal to people found the HBO version too upbeat, or unrealistically sanguine about single women’s sexual prospects in their 30s and beyond. Writing in the Washington Post in 1996, Jonathan Yardley noted that every city has singles bars and their lonely patrons: “But Manhattan does tend to bring out the worst in certain people, and Sex and the City leaves no doubt that these days the worst can be very bad indeed.”

Read some of the the original “Sex and the City” columns in the Observer

Watch the Sex and the City movie trailer here

Visit the site for the publisher of Sex and the City for information on some of the editions of the book, including an audio edition read by Cynthia Nixon.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 14, 2008

Maybe New York Magazine Should Have Called This Article ‘Books That Are Essential to Men’ — ‘Fear of Flying’ Doesn’t Fly With Sam Anderson

Filed under: Magazines — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:10 am
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Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying doesn’t make New York’s list of essential books about the city published in the past 40 years. But D. Keith Mano’s Take Five – what, you’ve forgotten it, already? – does make it.

Some writers are said to suffer from the curse of the Nobel. Sam Anderson may suffer from the curse of the Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, which he received last month from the National Book Critics Circle. Anderson has written wonderful reviews in his current post as the book critic for New York. But if his byline has appeared on a less edifying article than a new list of 26 essential books about New York published the past 40 years, I haven’t seen it.

Anderson said he looked for two traits in books he considered for the list in New York‘s 40th anniversary issue, dated April 14: “all-around literary merit” and what he calls “New Yorkitude” And nobody could fault his choice of books such as Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities or Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, both modern classics.

But the birth of New York coincided with the emergence a new generation of female writers whose work indelibly stamped the literature of the city. And you would never know it from Anderson’s list, which has only six books by women.

Anderson chose Charles Mingus’s Beneath the Underdog, D. Keith Mano’s Take Five and Luc Santé’s Low Life but not Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Mary Cantwell’s Manhattan, When I Was Young, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and other acclaimed books by women that reek of “New Yorkitude.”

Questions of literary merit and attitude are subjective. But anyone who wants to give Anderson’s list a reality test might reread John Updike’s review of Fear of Flying for The New Yorker, which said in part:“Fear of Flying not only stands as a notably luxuriant and glowing bloom in the sometimes thistly garden of ‘raised’ feminine consciousness but belongs to, and hilarious extends, the tradition of Catcher in the Rye and Portnoy’s Complaint — that of the New York voice on the couch, the smart kid’s lament.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 18, 2008

‘The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century,’ Edited by Elizabeth Diefendorf

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:28 am
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Which books did the most to shape the modern world?

Mein Kampf and The Cat in the Hat made the cut. The Godfather and The Polar Express didn’t.

As part of its 1995 centennial, the New York Public Library asked its staff to name the most influential books of the past hundred years. The answers inspired The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century (Oxford University Press, $24.95), edited by Elizabeth Diefendorf and illustrated by Diana Bryan, a collection of 204 one-page descriptions of some of the frequently nominated titles and a companion volume to a popular exhibit. And the result could have been a snorer, given that it includes the United Nations Charter and Albert Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity.

But Diefendorf has defined “influential” broadly enough to include Carrie, Invisible Man, Winnie-the-Pooh, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Joy of Cooking. And the descriptions in this 1997 book are generally apt and pithy and at times amusing in retrospect. “The filthiest book I have ever read,” John Gordon of the London Sunday Express wrote of Lolita. “Sheer unrestrained pornography.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 2, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Marjorie Hart’s Memoir, ‘Summer at Tiffany’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Summer at Tiffany
By Marjorie Hart

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 reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or use the address on the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to request permission to reproduce it.

In the summer of 1945 Marjorie Hart and a sorority sister at the University of Iowa set out, like Dorothy and Toto, for New York City, determined to find work as salesgirls. Turned down by Lord & Taylor, they talked their way into jobs as the first female pages at Tiffany & Co. Now in her 80s, Hart describes that experience in Summer at Tiffany, an affectionate memoir of Manhattan just before and after V-J Day.

Questions for Readers

1. Marjorie Hart seems to feel only gratitude that she and her friend Marty had the opportunity to work Tiffany’s in the summer of 1945. “We had to be the luckiest girls in town to be part of the Tiffany family and watch the curtain open to the toniest display of jewelry in the world.” [Page 34] Based on what she tells you about herself in her book, what do you think accounts for her sunnyside-up view of life? Do you think it has to do with her generation, her small-town Midwestern background or something else?

2. Many bestselling memoirs and biographies are what Joyce Carol Oates has called “pathography,” or books that focus on the pathological. Why do you think Hart was able to get Summer at Tiffany published when it’s so different from memoirs like Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors? What makes her story enjoyable?

3. The end of World War II received more coverage than any previous event and continues to inspire books, movies, and TV shows. It also resulted in one of the most famous photographs of the century, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s picture of a sailor and nurse in Times Square on V-J Day. What did Summer at Tiffany tell you about that event (and the days just before and after it) that you hadn’t learned from other media?

3. Hart tells us up front that she has taken liberties with her story. She writes: “In some cases composite characters have been created or timelines have been compressed in order to further preserve the privacy of dear friends and maintain the narrative flow.” [Page vi] Could you see evidence of this in her story? Where?

4. Using composites characters or scenes in nonfiction is controversial. Some journalists say you should never use these. Others say it’s okay if a) you tell readers up front that you have done so and b) it’s necessary to tell a worthy story. After reading Summer at Tiffany, what do you think? Did the book justify any liberties that Hart took?

5. In our era we continually hear that it’s “healthy” to express your feelings, even if they might upset others. Hart grew up with different values: “It’s important not to disappoint anyone, or make them worry.” [Page 248] Does she seem to have suffered from this? Why or why not?

6. Do you think your parents and grandparents have the same view of this book that you would? Why or why not?

7. Some of Hart’s experiences have an underside she doesn’t deal with. For example, all of the women in the photo of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority are white. Should Hart have explored these issues? Or would that have made it a different book?

8. Late in the book, Hart has to decide whether to accept a scholarship to Yale that, she says, arose suddenly. Does she give you enough information to understand why she made the choice she did? What factors seemed most important to her decision? Would you have made the same choice?

9. Hart offers vibrant glimpses of her small-town and of Manhattan in the 1940s. For example, after the Queen Mary brought thousands of soldiers back from Europe, the Red Cross gave out 35,000 half-pint cartons of milk because the servicemen and -women seldom had milk overseas. [Page 80] What details do you remember best? Why did they make an impression on you?

10. The caption for the last photo in the book tells us that after visiting Tiffany’s in the winter of 1945, Hart didn’t return until 2004. Apparently it wasn’t because she couldn’t afford the trip. Does it seem remarkable that she didn’t go back sooner? What might explain her delayed return? Have you ever avoided going back to a place where you were happy? Why?

Vital statistics:
Summer at Tiffany. By Marjorie Hart. Morrow, 258 pp., $14.95.

A review of Summer at Tiffany appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on July 2, 2007 It is saved both with the June posts and in the “Memoirs” category on the site.

Your book group may also want to read:
The Bell Jar (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, $16.95, paperback). By Sylvia Plath. This satirical novel about a young woman’s nervous breakdown fictionalizes the author’s stint as a guest editor of Mademoiselle in the 1950s. Plath’s experiences in the city were so different from Hart’s that you might enjoy comparing the two books.

Janice Harayda is an 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. 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 that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but no on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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