One-Minute Book Reviews

May 30, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Last Lecture’ by Randy Pausch

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Last Lecture’ by Randy Pausch

10 Discussion Questions
The Last Lecture
By Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

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 the guide.

After learning that he had terminal pancreatic cancer, Randy Pausch gave an upbeat valedictory lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, where he teaches computer science. He called his talk “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” and explained in it how he had accomplished most of what he set out to do in life. Enlivened with humor and showmanship, his lecture drew millions of visitors to its posting on YouTube and made Pausch a star on the Internet. His talk also inspired The Last Lecture, a collection of short essays written with Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, which became a No. 1 bestseller on the New York Times “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous” list.

Discussion Questions

Please note that the page numbers below come from the large-type edition of The Last Lecture (Thorndike, 2008), the only one available when this guide was prepared.

1. When someone asked what he wanted on his tombstone, Pausch said: “Randy Pausch: He Lived Thirty Years After a Terminal Diagnosis.’” [Page 247] If you were to write his epitaph, what would it say?

2. Summing up a theme of his lecture and book, Pausch writes: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” [Page 32] This is one of many clichés he admits he loves and uses liberally in The Last Lecture. Did he succeed in making any old ideas fresh? How did he do it?

3. Pausch began his lecture “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” by saying he wasn’t going to deal with big questions of religion or spirituality, and he sticks to that pattern in The Last Lecture. How does the book benefit or suffer from his decision?

4. The Last Lecture recycles much of what Pausch said in his valedictory lecture at Carnegie Mellon and expands some of it. Should people who’ve watched the talk also read the book? Why? What does the book give you that the lecture doesn’t?

5. Pausch could have called his book The Last Lectures, because he structures it as a series of mini-lectures instead of one long lecture. How well does this technique work?

6. The Last Lecture balances general advice such as “dream big” with specific tips – for example, about how to work well in small groups. “Instead of saying, ‘I think we should do A, instead of B,’ try ‘What if we did A, instead of B?’” [Page 190] Which, if any, of the tips struck you as most helpful?

7. Many cancer patients are bombarded with the advice to “be optimistic” or “think positively.” This approach has led to a medical backlash alluded to in the chapter “A Way to Understand Optimism.” Pausch says his surgeon worries about “patients who are inappropriately optimistic or ill-informed”: “It pains him to see patients who are having a tough day healthwise and assume it’s because they weren’t positive enough.” [Page 249] What is Pausch’s view of this? Is he appropriately or inappropriately optimistic? Why?

8. Many people who have heard about The Last Lecture may be tempted to give the book to someone who has had a devastating diagnosis, or who is perhaps dying, hoping it will provide comfort or cheer. What would you say to them? Is this a book for the living or the dying?

9. The Last Lecture comes from Mitch Albom’s publisher and literary agent and has a small format similar to that of Tuesdays With Morrie. These similarities – let’s face it – could be a kiss of death for some people, especially critics who see Albom as an icon of saccharine and dumbed-down writing. What would you say to someone who didn’t plan to read The Last Lecture because, “One Mitch Albom is enough”?

10. If you were going to give your own “last lecture,” what would you say?

Vital Statistics:
The Last Lecture. By Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow. Hyperion, 224 pp., $21.95. Published: April 2008.

A review of The Last Lecture appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 30, 2008. If you are reading this guide on the home page of the site, scroll down to find the review. If you are reading this guide on the Internet, click on this link to find it

Watch Pausch’s talk “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” and read an excerpt from The Last Lecture at

Furthermore: Pausch posts updates on his health at

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear on the site frequently but not on a regular schedule. They usually deal with books for which publishers have provided no guides or guides that are inadequate – for example, because they encourage cheerleading for books instead of thoughtful discussion. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark the site or subscribe to the RSS feed. If you would like to see the guides continue, it would be extremely helpful if you would link to them.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 28, 2008

The Book Club for People Who Don’t Like Book Clubs – Coming June 1 to One-Minute Book Reviews

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Imagine: a book club with no required reading.

It’s coming soon to this site. On the first day of each month, beginning June 1, One-Minute Book Reviews will provide an space where you can recommend any book you like or vent about one you didn’t like. The book doesn’t have to be new or to have been reviewed on this site. You may leave comments about “your” book on the first day of the month or any other in the month.

I’ll get the discussion started by adding a few comments on a book that I’ve reviewed recently on this site that made an especially strong impression for good or ill. Then you can jump in with comments on that book or any other: new or old, children’s or adult, mass-market or scholarly.

Hope to see you there, and thanks for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews. To learn more about the club, please click here


© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

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A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

10 Discussion Questions
Wolf Totem
By Jiang Rong
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

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 the guide.

At the age of 21, Jiang Rong left school went to live and work among the nomads of the Inner Mongolian grasslands. He stayed for 11 years and, in his first novel, fictionalizes his experiences in the region, including that of raising an orphaned wolf cub. After leaving Mongolia, Jiang became a professor and activist for democracy who was jailed after the Tinananmen Square massacre. He won the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize for Wolf Totem, which reportedly has had a readership in China second only to that of Mao’s little red book.

Discussion Questions

1. Most Americans have read few, if any, books by living Chinese authors. What ideas did you have about Chinese fiction before you read Wolf Totem? How did the novel affect your ideas?

2. Jiang tries in this novel to refute stereotypes of wolves, including those in fairy tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood.” [Page 329] How effective is that effort? Does he ever trade one stereotype for another?

3. Translators often have trouble translating gracefully slang that relates to sex or other bodily functions (which may sound comical enough in the original language). For example, the well-regarded translator Howard Goldblatt has a native Mongol say, “I nearly peed my pants [sic].” [Page 133] While reading Wolf Totem, how aware were you of the translation? Did the translation seem to enhance or undermine the book?

4. A blog for China-watchers, the China Beat, calls Wolf Totem “nostalgic drivel” Do you see parallels between Jiang’s descriptions of nomads and the romanticized portrayals of American Indians or other groups that are common in the U.S.?

5. Wolf Totem isn’t a pure allegory like Animal Farm, a novel widely regarded as a critique of Stalinism. But the book does have allegorical elements. Wolves and sheep are extended metaphors for, respectively, the vigor of China’s lost nomadic cultures and the passivity of recent generations. How would you compare Wolf Totem with any other novels that make use of extended metaphors or allegorical techniques?

6. China has violated human rights so aggressively that you may have been surprised by Jiang’s characterization of its people as passive and weak-natured. His stand-in, Chen Zhen, believes that “China’s small-scale peasant economy and Confucian culture have weakened the people’s nature” and hindered the country’s ability to develop. [Page 304] He also faults other aspects of the culture. How credible is the critique of modern China that runs throughout the novel?

7. A critic for the New York Times Book Review found it remarkable that Wolf Totem had become so popular in China when it’s “so relentlessly gloomy and ponderously didactic.” The critic wondered if the novel had sold well because it exhorts the Chinese “to imitate the go-getting spirit of the West” or because it “captures a widespread Chinese anxiety about their country’s growing physical and moral squalor.” [“Call of the Wild,” by Pankaj Mishra, the New York Times Book Review, May 4, 2008, page 11.] Why do you think the novel sold well in China? Why might it sell well in the U.S.?

8. The same NYTBR review also said that the novel proceeds at a glacial pace. What accounts for the slow pace? Is it the repetition? The set pieces? The lack of a strong narrative arc or sustained conflict? Is a slow pace always a detriment to a novel?

9. Characters in Wolf Totem attribute “powers of intellect” to wolves [Page 130] and sometimes go so far as to say, “Wolves are smarter than people.” [Page 240] Americans have a fascination with books, movies and television shows about animals that appear to be smarter than humans, such as the old TV dramas Lassie and Flipper. What do you think explains this? What does Wolf Totem have in common with other tales of animals that seem to have a higher I.Q. than the rest of us?

10. Wolf Totem reflects conspicuous editing lapses. One sentence appears in almost identical form on back-to-back pages: “In the end, Chen had to abandon his desire to touch the cub while he was eating” [Page 264] and “In the end, Chen abandoned his desire to pet the wolf while he was eating … ” [Page 265] And the book lists the “four destructive pests of the grassland” as “field mice, wild rabbits, marmots, and gazelles” on page 237 and as “squirrels, rabbits, marmots, and gazelles” on page 251. Jiang may have written and Goldblatt translated those sentences. But it’s an editor’s job to point out such redundancies and inconsistencies, which conscientious authors will usually fix. If you had been the editor of Wolf Totem, what changes would you have suggested?

Vital statistics:
Wolf Totem. By Jiang Rong. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. Penguin, 527 pp., $29.95. Published: April 2008 Jiang Rong is the pen name of Lu Jiamin. A review of Wolf Totem appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 27, 2008 For more on the Man Asian Literary Prize, click here

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear on One-Minute Book Reviews frequently but not on a regular schedule. Please bookmark the site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing the guides.

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

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 23, 2008

The Ruthless Book Club – Starting June 1 on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Reading Groups — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:39 pm
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Want a place to talk about books that nobody else seems to be talking about?

Not long ago, I learned about a book club in my town that operates on a different principle from most others: Instead of having everybody read the same book, the club asks each member to talk briefly at every meeting about a book – love it or hate it — that he or she has been reading recently.

I like this idea for a lot of reasons. One is that avoids forcing members to read a book even if it feels like a penance. Another is that it sidesteps a common problem that undermines many clubs: Members hesitate to be ruthlessly honest about a book for fear of hurting the feelings of the person who proposed it, and this leads to uninspired discussions. Yet another reason why I like the idea is that it allows people to share literary discoveries – or vent about overrated books – even if they don’t turn up on a club list.

So I’m going to try having an online version of the club on One-Minute Book Reviews from June 1 through Labor Day. I’ll keep the group going the fall if enough people take part. I’m calling it the Ruthless Book Club because this is a place where you can say anything about a book as long as you don’t make personal attacks on the author or other unfair comments (spoilers or misrepresentations of content, for example).

Here’s how the Ruthless Book Club will work:

On the first day of each month, I’ll put up a post encouraging you to comment briefly on a book you’ve read recently. I’ll start the conversation mentioning a book I’ve reviewed in the past few weeks that left an especially strong impression for good or ill.

You may leave a comment about any book you’ve read even if it has nothing to do with any books reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews. Other visitors may comment on your post or mention another book at any time during the month, or until a new discussion starts on the first day of the next month.

You may not comment on any book you’ve received for free from the author, agent, publisher or anyone else connected to the book. Book publicists are barred from taking part in the discussion.

You may also not comment on a book by a friend, enemy or anyone else with whom you might appear to have a conflict. The Ruthless Book Club will follow the rule observed by journalists: You don’t just avoid conflicts of interest but the appearance of conflicts of interest. That’s another reason the club is called “ruthless.”

Other than that, you may comment on any kind of book – children’s or adult, trade or scholarly, in-print or out-of-print. The idea is: This is a place to talk about those books that you think about a lot and would like to share with others.

How does this sound to you?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 19, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Max Hastings’s ‘Retribution’ for History Book Clubs and Others

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10 Discussion Questions
Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45
by Max Hastings

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 check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

How did the Allies achieve victory in the Pacific in World War II? Max Hastings tells the story of the cataclysmic events leading to V-J Day in his latest work of military history, Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45 (Knopf, 615 pp., $35) Here are some starter questions about the book for history book clubs and others.

Discussion Questions

1. You could argue that, as used in the title of this book, the word “retribution” has more than one meaning. What are some of them? Which do you see as the most important?

2. The War in the Pacific differed from the War in Europe in many ways, including in its scale. “In the Pacific there were no great battles resembling Normandy, the Bulge, the Vistula and Oder crossings, exploiting mass and maneuver. Instead, there was a series of violently intense miniatures, rendered all the more vivid in the minds of participants because they were so concentrated in space.” [Page 119] This reality of the War in the Pacific poses an obvious challenge for military historians who need to create drama in order to maintain interest a long book. How does Hastings create that drama?

3. Hastings tries to debunk a number of myths about World War II, one of which involves the American decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some people believe that this act caused a needless loss of life because the Japanese would have surrendered if warned about the bomb. Hastings disagrees. “The myth that the Japanese were ready to surrender anyway has been so comprehensively discredited by modern research that it is astonishing some writers continue to give it credence,” he writes. “Japanese intransigence does not of itself validate the use of atomic bombs, but it should frame the context of debate.” [Page xix] How – and how well — does he make the case for this point of view?

4. What myths about the war does Hastings try to banish? How effective are his attempts?

5. Parts of Retribution may be controversial. In some of these, Hastings compares the nature if not the scope of Japanese atrocities to those of the Nazis, who used some similar methods of torture or death, such as vivisection of unanesthetized prisoners. “In the face of evidence from so many different times, places, units and circumstances, it became impossible for Japan’s leaders credibly to deny systematic inhumanity as gross as that of the Nazis,” Hastings writes. [Page 236] Based on the evidence in Retribution, is this comparison justifiable?

6. Hastings is British journalist born a few months after World War II ended. Apart from the British spellings retained in the American edition of Retribution, do you see any evidence that his nationality affected his telling of the story? Given the current political climate in the U.S., would an American writer have spoken so bluntly about the reluctance of the Japanese to come to terms with the atrocities committed in World War II?

7. The former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw has called those who lived through World War II “the greatest generation.” Hastings challenges this view. “The phrase ‘the greatest generation’ is sometimes used in the U.S. to describe those who lived through those times,” he writes. “This seems inapt. The people of World War II may have adopted different fashions and danced to different music from us, but human behavior, aspirations and fears do not alter much. It is more appropriate to call them, without jealousy, ‘the generation to which the greatest things happened.’” [Page xx] Some American writers have also faulted Brokaw’s view as romanticized. How, if at all, did Retribution affect your view the phrase “the greatest generation”?

8. Hastings explores in some depth the motives of kamikaze pilots who crashed their planes into American aircraft carriers and other ships in the last days of World War II. “Suicide attack offered a prospect of redressing the balance of forces, circumventing the fact that Japanese pilots were no longer capable of challenging their American counterparts on conventional terms,” he writes. “Instead, their astonishing willingness for self-sacrifice might be exploited. Here was a concept which struck a chord in the Japanese psyche, and caught the Imperial Navy’s mood of the moment. Officers cherished a saying: ‘When a commander is uncertain whether to steer to port or starboard, he should steer towards death.’ An alternative aphorism held that ‘One should take care to make one’s own dying as meaningful as possible.’ The suicide concept appeared to satisfy both requirements.” What parallels do you see between the tactics and motives kamikaze pilots and those of contemporary suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere? [Pages 164–65]

9. In reviewing Retribution for the Wall Street Journal, Peter Kann responds to Hastings’s view that only total war enabled the U.S. exploit weapons of mass destruction. “As we have repeatedly discovered since – World War II – in Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq – limited war is much more likely to favor belligerents of limited means,” Kann writes. What, if any, implications does Retribution have for wars like the one we are fighting in Iraq? [“Total War in the Pacific,” by Peter R. Kann, the Wall Street Journal, March 15-16, 2008, page W10.]

10. Hastings says that he didn’t want to write another history of the war in the Pacific so much to describe ‘a massive and terrible experience, set in a chronological framework.’ Did he succeed? How does Retribution benefit or suffer from the approach he chose?

Your book group may also want to read: The Railway Man, a memoir by Eric Lomax of working as a prisoner of war on the Burma-Siam railroad, and Hiroshima, John Hersey’s classic report on six Hiroshimans who survived when the atomic bomb fell on their city.

This guide may be expanded soon. If you have read Retribution, please feel free to suggest additional questions. A review of the book appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 19, 2008 One-Minute Book Reviews is a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights recovered.

May 5, 2008

The Best Chekhov Short Story Collection for Book Groups and Others

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:41 am
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Chekhov hoped that his work would help people live more decently

Ernest Hemingway once said that “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories.” Many titans of the form have disagreed, including Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.

But Hemingway’s words suggest a truth: Chekhov wrote seven- or eight hundred stories, and not all are good. And old and new collections abound.

I looked into a dozen or so and found that perhaps the best widely available collection for nonscholars is Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, 1896-1904: Penguin Classics (384 pp., $12, paperback), translated by Ronald Wilks, with an introduction Paul Debreczney. It gathers 11 stories that Chekhov wrote in the last decade of life, when he did much of his best work. The tales include such masterpieces as “The Bride,” “The Bishop” and “Lady With the Little Dog.”

These stories generally have uncomplicated plots, ageless themes and realistic characters living in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution. In “The Bride” a young woman must choose between a fiancé she doesn’t love and a life of greater freedom than marriage would offer her. In “Lady With the Little Dog,” a married man and woman stumble into an affair while vacationing without their spouses at Yalta, then must live with the decision after returning home. And in “The Bishop” a dying clergyman realizes that his official role has isolated him from his mother and others he loved.

Chekhov said he hoped that by telling the truth, he would help people live “more decently,” as the translator Avrahm Yarmolinksy put it. That goal may have been a blue-sky goal. But it helps to explain why, 104 years after their author’s death, Chekhov’s best stories remain among the most admired ever written.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 27, 2008

Why Read the Classics? (Quote of the Day / Michael Dirda)

Why is it important to read the classics? Michael Dirda, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism as a staff critic for the Washington Post, responds in his Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books (Norton, 2005):

“People sometimes ask teachers or critics, ‘Which books should I read to become educated?’ The short answer is either ‘As many as you can’ or ‘A small handful that you study to pieces.’ But a better question might be this one: ‘Which books should I read first?’

“The answer to that is ‘The great patterning works of world literature and culture, the poems and stories that have shaped civilization.’

“Without a knowledge of the Greek myths, the Bible, ancient history, the world’s folktales and fairy tales, one can never fully understand the visual arts, most opera, and half the literature of later ages. Homer tells us about Ulysses in The Odyssey; then Dante, Tennyson, James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, and Eudora Welty add to, enrich, and subvert that story in great works of their own. The classics are important not because they are old but because they are always being renewed.”

Michael Dirda’s most recent book is Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt, 2007).

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 22, 2008

Have Publishers’ Reading Group Guides Gone Around the Bend? Bizarre Discussion Questions for Nora Ephron’s ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:52 am
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Even for the etherized realm of publishers’ reading group guides, the list of discussion questions for the new paperback edition of Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (Vintage, 160 pp., $12.95) is bizarre. Here is the first question:

“In I Feel Bad About My Neck, Ephron writes that she avoids making truthful comments on how her friends look, even when they ask her directly [pp. 3–4]. Why is this a wise decision?”

Question: What does this have to do with the book? If you’re going to take the focus of a discussion off the book and drag it over to readers’ views on etiquette, shouldn’t you wait until people have at least discussed the book?

Then there is this stumper: “What would this book be like if written by a man?” Answer: It wouldn’t be because the whole point of the book is that it’s about female experience. It’s like saying: What would Sherman Alexie’s books be like if they hadn’t been written by an Indian? They wouldn’t be.

You could understand – sort of – why a publisher might take this approach for pop fiction, the literary equivalent of a bag of Styrofoam peanuts, which doesn’t give you much to discuss. But for Ephron, who has excelled in fiction, nonfiction and screenwriting?

I can’t bring myself to link to this wacko guide (which appears the Vintage site), so I also won’t link to the One-Minute Book Reviews alternate guide (which you can find by using the Search box). You’ll have to trust me when I say that the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Ephron’s essay collection does begin with the book.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 16, 2008

Travels With Chekhov

Filed under: Classics,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 am
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1 p.m. Wednesday. A church book club I attend is reading seven Chekhov short stories in April. The group chose a 1,104-page Stephen King novel in March. Chekhov should be easy compared with It.

5:30 p.m. Wednesday. My library has several collections of Chekhov’s work, but none has all the stories I need: “Peasants,” “The Bride,” “The Bishop,” “About Love,” “A Visit to Friends,” “The Lady With the Little Dog” and “The House With the Mezzanine.”

Out of sheer loyalty I pick up Constance Garnett’s 1962 translation of 15 stories. I owe a lot to Constance for her translations of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the first I read. Many libraries purge books that haven’t been checked out in a while to make room for new ones. I feel I must support Constance by checking out her translation – even though I probably won’t read it – to keep her spot from going to a Mitch Albom novel.

I also get from the library two books that, between them, have three kinds of tape peeling from their spines: duct, clear and Scotch. They give Chekhov’s name as “Tchehov” and “Tchekoff” and have cream-colored pockets in the back. The three books I check out have only one of the stories I need, “The Bishop.”

10 p.m. Wednesday. Search the Web for the six other Chekhov stories. Get distracted by John Gross’s fine review of V.S. Pritchett’s Chekhov: A Sprit Set Free in the New York Times. Gross writes:

“It is as a story writer, in Sir Victor’s view, that Chekhov stands supreme. He is unhappy to see the stories overshadowed by the plays, as they tend to be nowadays — they seem to him far richer in texture; and to a considerable extent his book is an attempt to redress the balance.”

Gross adds:

“If you want to sample [Pritchett’s] quality, try his account of ‘The Bishop’ (one of Chekhov’s finest achievements — it reads, he observes, ‘like a sustained anthem’ to the writer’s own death).’”

Must have Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free by the late Sir Victor, a brilliant critic and perhaps the nearest English counterpart to Edmund Wilson.

Thursday, 4 p.m. The library doesn’t have Chekhov: A Sprit Set Free. But it does have Pritchett’s Complete Collected Essays, which has 10 pages on Chekhov. The book has 1,319 pages, only 215 more than It, and is one of my favorite books of criticism. How can I resist? I check it out along with a) the volume on Chekhov in the Twayne’s World Authors Series of brief critical studies, and b) Philip Callow’s Chekhov: The Hidden Ground, the only biography at the library that analyzes most of the stories on my list.

I now have six books about Chekhov but only one of the stories I need.

Thursday, 5:30 p.m. Visit a tiny but wonderful independent bookstore. It has two fine Chekhov collections: The Portable Chekhov, edited by Avrahm Yarmolinksy, and Peasants and Other Stories, nine tales selected and introduced by Edmund Wilson. I want the Wilson. But it’s a hardcover book that seems to have only one story I need apart from “The Bishop.” (Later I find out that it has “The Bride,” too, under an alternate title, “Betrothed,” and is available in paperback.) I buy The Portable Chekhov, which has The Cherry Orchard, seven letters and 28 stories, four of them on my list.

Yarmolinksy says in his introduction:

“The most characteristic of Chekhov’s stories lack purely narrative interest. They no more bear retelling than does a poem. Nothing thrilling happens in them, nor are the few reflective passages particularly compelling. Some of the tales, having neither beginning nor end, are, as Galsworthy put it, ‘all middle like a tortoise.’”

This does not diminish their impact, Yarmolinsky suggests:

“A man of sober and naturalistic temperament, Chekhov was dogged by the thought that our condition in this uncomfortable world is a baffling one. He liked to say that there was no understanding it. And, indeed, his writings heighten that sense of the mystery of life which is one of the effects of all authentic literature.”

Thursday, 11 p.m. Read “The Bishop,” the story of the last week in the life of a bishop. The bishop rejoices when his mother, whom he has not seen in years, visits during Holy Week. Yet her presence recalls a time when his position had not set him apart and he could unburden his heart to others. At vespers, he listens to chanting of monks:

“He sat by the altar where the shadows were deepest, and was swept in imagination back into the days of his childhood and youth, when he had first heard these words sung. The tears trickled down his cheeks, and he meditated on how he had attained everything in life that it was possible for a man in his position to attain; his faith was unsullied; and yet all was not clear to him; something was lacking, and he did not want to die. It seemed to him that he was leaving unfound the most important thing of all. Something of which he had dimly dreamed in the past, hopes that had thrilled his heart as a child, a schoolboy, and traveler in foreign lands, troubled him still.

Callow calls the tale “a parable of repressed love,” yet there is more to it than that Freudian interpretation might imply. It implicitly asks: What is life “about”? Most short stories are about a community of people. No matter how beautifully they evoke it, they stop there. “The Bishop” goes deeper. It may read like “a sustained anthem” to Chekhov’s death, but its song is not that of its author alone.

Saturday, 10 a.m. I still have only five of the stories I need. But if I read only “The Bishop,” I can stop right there with a profit. It would be a brilliant idea for any book club to read to read even two or three Chekhov stories instead of a novel at a meeting.

The quote from “The Bishop” comes from Russian Silhouettes: More Stories of Russian Life (Scribner’s, 1915), translated by Marian Fell. The full text of the Fell translation of the story appears here

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


April 3, 2008

‘No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club’ – New in Paperback

Filed under: Novels,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:49 pm
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No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club (Plume, 240 pp., $14, paperback) isn’t as funny or polished as Bridget Jones’s Diary or the masterpiece from which it descends, Diary of a Provincial Lady. But Virginia Ironside bravely assaults fashionable clichés of old age in this comic novel, subtitled Diary of a 60th Year, which has just come out in paperback. Among the ideas scorned by her diarist, Marie Sharp, are that people help their heirs by planning their own funerals and that a funeral shouldn’t be funeral but rather “a celebration” of a life. Marie is also bold enough to question the motives of book club members: “I think they feel that by reading and analyzing books, they’re keeping their brains lively. But either you’ve got a lively brain or you haven’t.” A review of and reading group guide to No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 29, 2007

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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