One-Minute Book Reviews

October 30, 2009

Backscratching in Our Time – Jonathan Lethem and David Shields

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:10 am
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The latest in a series of occasional posts on authors who praise each other’s books

Jonathan Lethem on David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto:
“I’ve just finished reading Reality Hunger: A Manifesto and I’m lit up by it—astonished, intoxicated, ecstatic, overwhelmed. It’s a pane that’s also a mirror: as a result of reading it, I can’t stop looking into myself and interrogating my own artistic intentions. It will be published to wild fanfare, because it really is an urgent book: a piece of art-making itself, a sublime, exciting, outrageous, visionary volume.”

David Shields on Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (back cover of the hardcover edition):
“I’m reminded of the well-rubbed Kafka line: A book must be the axe to break the frozen sea within us. Lethem’s book, with incredible fury, aspires to do little less. It’s almost certainly his best novel. It’s genuinely great.”

“Backscratching in Our Time” was inspired by “Logrolling in Our Time” in the old Spy Magazine. Posts in the series appear on Fridays when examples of reciprocal blurbs are available. If you’d like to nominate authors, please use the e-mail address on the “Contact” page. You’ll find more examples of horse-trading in the “Backscratching in Our Time” category.

You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

November 10, 2008

‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ – Winifred Watson’s Rediscovered Classic

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:23 am
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A meek and virginal 40-year-old governess stumbles into a glamorous 1930s world of cocktails and evening gowns

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. By Winifred Watson. Illustrations by Mary Thomson. Foreword by Henrietta Twycross-Martin. Persephone Classics, 234 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This sparkling comedy is something rare: an intelligent fairy tale. Henrietta Twycross-Martin rightly compares it to a Fred Astaire movie. But Guinevere Pettigrew hardly resembles the heroines of those films. She’s no gamine Audrey Hepburn, seduced by Astaire’s sophistication, in Funny Face: She’s a virginal 40-year-old curate’s daughter, without family or friends, who gets so little work as a governess that she is facing eviction for nonpayment of rent.

Then her employment agency sends her, mistakenly, to the home of a nightclub singer instead of family of untamed children. Over the next 24 hours her life changes in ways that are near-magical yet believable.

Winifred Watson describes the upheavals on an hour-by-hour basis that invests her novel with a voyeuristic allure-by-proxy: Reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is like reading a diary kept not by its owner by an amused and lighthearted observer. That structure works partly Guinevere’s character remains solidly drawn through all the changes: She is meek but open-hearted, susceptible to change but not a fool, and free of self-pity yet touchingly grateful for her good fortune.

Like all good fairy-tale heroines, Guinevere can think on her feet. She is hardly knows what to say when she arrives at the home of singer Delysia LaFosse and finds her wearing “the kind of foamy robe, no mere dressing gown, worn by the most famous of stars in seduction scenes in the films.” Yet she finds the right words, telling Miss LaFosse shyly: “You look so lovely in that … that article of clothing.”

Dazzled as she is, Guinevere helps her new acquaintance sort through romantic entanglements that have elements of a classic bedroom farce. Miss LaFosse repays her by showing her a world of cocktails, evening gowns and men who never knew her as a failed governess. Miss Pettigrew, though sheltered and naïve, never comes across as vapid or ridiculous. Without being stuffy, she has self-respect.

All of this alone might set this novel apart from much of the more recent fiction aimed at women. But Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day also has sparkling repartee, bright scenes of London nightlife, and whimsical pen-and-ink drawings retained from the first edition. In 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Meg Jensen writes aptly that this novel reminds us that “it is never too late to live.” It doesn’t hurt that this book lacks a stereotypical pink cover, either.

Best line: “Terrified, aghast, thrilled, Miss Pettigrew stared at the innocent-looking white powder. Drugs, the White Slave trade, wicked dives of iniquity, typified in Miss Pettigrew’s mind by red plush and gilt and men with sinister black moustaches, roamed in wild array through her mind. What dangerous den of vice had she discovered? She must fly before she had lost her virtue. Then her common sense reminded her that no one, now, would care to deprive her of that possession.

Worst line:” ‘And yes,’ thought Miss Pettigrew; ‘somewhere in his ancestry there had been a Jew.’”

Recommendation? Manna for book clubs. Smart, funny, short enough that everybody can finish it.

Published: 1938 (first edition), 2008 (Persephone Classics edition).

Movie link: For more on the 2008 movie version, visit www.imdb.com/title/tt0970468/.

Furthermore: Watson’s obituary in the Independent is posted at www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/winifred-watson-640426.html.

About Persephone Books: Persephone publishes “neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women” that are “neither too literary nor too commercial.” www.persephonebooks.co.uk

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 25, 2008

When Are Critics Going to Stop Congratulating Novelists for Being Good-Looking or Having Other Traits Unrelated to Their Books? This Week’s Gusher

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:47 am
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Would any critic write, “Be jealous. Veteran writer Philip Roth has lost the hair, but he’s still got the talent”?

And this week’s Gusher Award goes to …

“Be jealous. First-time writer Marisha Pessl is more than a triple threat. She’s young – only 28 years old – pretty, and immensely talented. She has already dabbled in modeling, acting and financial consulting. Her debut novel is another notch on her belt. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a literary mystery novel, has come out with truckloads of buzz.”

– The first lines of a review of Special Topics in Calamity Physics in the Star-Ledger of Newark on Aug. 27, 2006

The Award Citation:

Is this a book review or a teaser for an episode of The Bachelorette?

This week’s winner involves no hyperbole — the reviewer apparently intends for us to take her words literally. But the quote illustrates a trend that’s just as bad: Critics are using their review space to congratulate novelists for being good-looking or having other traits unrelated to their fiction. Would any critic write, “Be jealous. Veteran writer Philip Roth has lost the hair, but he’s still got the talent”? So why do we so often see equivalent comments in reviews of younger authors’ novels?

Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing appear on Fridays except in weeks when no praise went far enough over the top to qualify.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 23, 2008

John Updike (1932-2009) Explains What His Books Are ‘About’

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:42 am
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John Updike has died of lung cancer at the age of 76. This is a re-publication of an earlier post about his work.

Critics often fault John Updike for not having a social message or making a point that runs throughout all his books. Is this fair? Updike deals with the meaning of his books in an interview in Picked-up Pieces (Knopf, 1975), one of his early collections of essays, reviews and other nonfiction:

“My books are all meant to be moral debates with the reader, and if they seem pointless — I’m speaking hopefully — it’s because the reader has not been engaged in the debate. The questions is usually, ‘What is a good man?’ or ‘What is goodness?’ and in all the books an issue is examined. Take Harry Angstrom in Rabbit, Run: there is a case to be made for running away from your wife. In the late Fifties beatniks were preaching transcontinental traveling as the answer to man’s disquiet. And I was just trying to say: ‘Yes, there is certainly that, but then there are all these other people who seem to get hurt.’ That qualification is meant to frame a moral dilemma.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 26, 2007

Agatha Christie’s Iraq Novel, ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’

“The dirt and the mess in Baghdad you wouldn’t believe – and not romantic at all like you’d think from the Arabian Nights! Of course, it’s pretty just on the river, but the town itself is just awful – and no proper shops at all.”
– From a letter by the nurse Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia

Murder in Mesopotamia: A Hercule Poirot Mystery. By Agatha Christie. Black Dog & Leventhal, 284 pp., $12.

By Janice Harayda

Agatha Christie once cleaned ancient relics with cold cream while accompanying her second husband, an archaeologist, on a dig at Nineveh. The technique, she said, was excellent for “coaxing dirt out of crevices” without harming the artifacts.

Christie made that comment in her autobiography. But she also drew on her travels in Iraq for Murder in Mesopotamia, which involves the death of the wife of an archaeologist who is leading a dig at a site a day and a half’s journey from Baghdad. No one has any idea who might have killed the lovely Louise Leidner until the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot – who happens to be in the region — turns up at the house where the crew is staying and begins asking questions.

You could argue that the story that follows has all the faults for which critics have derided Christie – shallow characterizations, a surfeit of clues and so many plot twists that the ending seems to come out of the blue because the evidence points to everybody and nobody. But Christie’s defects were the flip side of her virtues. You tear through her novels because she has removed everything that would slow the pace or tempt you to linger, including psychological depth and ravishing descriptive passages. Amy Leatheran, the nurse who narrates Murder in Mesopotamia, warns:

“I think I’d better make it clear up front that there isn’t going to be any local color in this story. I don’t know anything about archaeology and I don’t know that I very much want to.”

That’s more of a boast than a fact, but Christie does give you a kind of Cliffs Notes to her physical and psychological landscape. Leatheran expected something grand from an Assyrian palace: “But would you believe it, there was nothing to see but mud! Dirty mud walls about two feet high – and that’s all there was to it.” Christie’s characterizations of people are just as skimpy and, at times, stereotypical. They spring from a view of “human nature” – a recurring phrase — that is more cynical than is fashionable in our age of “positive psychology.” A character in Murder in Mesopotamia says: “They seemed like a happy family – which is really surprising when one considers what human nature is!” That spirit is no less apparent in books that about Christie’s other detective, Miss Jane Marple.

But Christie’s observations about character can be surprisingly modern and astute. Poirot grounds his search for Louise Leidner’s killer in his belief that “the state of mind of a community is always directly due to the influence of the man at the top.” If this is an oversimplification, it is one that has become a pillar of 21st-century corporate management. And it helps to explain why Christie’s novels still appeal more than two decades after her death in 1976.

The plots may be far-fetched. But Christie’s novels reflect in simplified a form a sharp understanding of, if not human nature, human beings. Like Murder in Mesopotamia, they often have settings that provide a glamour or drama lacking in everyday life. No one who has read them can doubt the sincerity of a comment Christie makes in Agatha Christie: An Autobiography: “I always thought life exciting and I still do.”

Best line: A character says it wouldn’t be safe to tell any man the truth about his wife. He adds: “Funnily enough, I’d trust most women with the truth about their husbands. Women can accept the fact that a man is a rotter, a swindler, a drug-taker, a confirmed liar, and a general swine without batting an eyelash and without its impairing their affection for the brute in the least! Women are wonderful realists.”

Worst line: A doctor says that Amy Leatheran is “a woman of 35 of erect, confident bearing.” Leatheran describes herself as 32. It’s unclear whether the discrepancy is a mistake or meant to suggest that one character was unreliable witness.

Published: 1936 (first edition) www.agathachristie.com

Furthermore: The Black Dog & Leventhal imprint of Workman www.workman.com publishes attractive hardcover editions of Christie’s mysteries in an easy-on-the-eyes font at the unusually reasonable price of $12 per book. The titles in its series include Murder on the Orient Express, Murder at the Vicarage, The ABC Murders, A Murder Is Announced and A Caribbean Mystery.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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