One-Minute Book Reviews

May 27, 2013

James Salter’s Novel ‘All That Is’ — A Book Editor in Love and War

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:07 pm
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A New York book editor tries to make sense of the plot of his life

All That Is: A Novel. By James Salter Knopf, 304 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

All the world’s a stage, and set decoration matters: This theme has surfaced again and again in the fiction of James Salter. It returns with a vengeance in this novel about the sexual misadventures of an editor at a high-toned New York publishing firm in the four decades that follow World War II.

As a young naval officer, Philip Bowman survives a kamikaze attack on his ship in the run-up to Okinawa. Any psychic wounds he suffered don’t keep him from subsequently gliding through Harvard and into an affair with Vivian Amussen, whose rich father owns a 400-acre horse farm in Virginia. Bowman hears no alarm bells when, on visiting the Amussen estate for the first time, he notices an indifference to the comfort of others: Behind a couch in the living room lie dried dog turds “as in 17th-century palaces.” On the contrary, the rising editor seems drawn to Vivian in part because the backdrop for her life differs so markedly from that of his upbringing in New Jersey. He has little enough self-awareness that when their brief marriage ends, he allows appearances to lead him into a series of other love affairs that end in disappointment, if not betrayal.

Salter suggests that Bowman stumbles because his father abandoned the family two years after his birth: He “never had a strong masculine figure in his own life to teach him how to be a man.” His protagonist is a watered-down male counterpart to one of those Henry James or Edith Wharton heroines whose assets don’t offset the lack of a mother to stage-manage her courtships. But Bowman doesn’t develop as a character as Catherine Sloper and Lily Bart do. He pays for his misjudgments not with the loss of hope or life but with the loss of a piece of set decoration for his bed-hopping — a second home in the Hamptons that he owned for a year before an ex-lover wrested from him with fancy legal footwork. He avenges the incident with a shocking act of cruelty to his former paramour’s daughter but assumes no moral responsibility for his caddish behavior and faces no serious consequences for it.

With all of this, Salter is trying to have it both ways — to cast Bowman as decent man even as he acts loutishly – and the pretty scenery can’t mask the inconsistency. Even the pristine writing style that has won him so much praise has grown overripe with comma splices and other tics, such as when he writes of Vivian’s horse-country town: “There was no place to stay, you had to live there.” Anyone hoping to understand the acclaim for Salter’s work would do better to pick up his fine short story collection Dusk, which more effectively shows how, as one of its characters says, a romance resembles a play: It unfolds scene by scene as “the reality of another person changes.”

Best line: “ ‘You know, you haven’t changed a bit. Except for your appearance,’ he said.” A rare flash of humor in All That Is, although Salter may not have intended it that way.

Worst line: “It was a departure of foreboding, like the eerie silence that precedes a coming storm.” “Eerie silence” is a cliché, and “coming” is redundant.

Published: April 2013

Read an excerpt from All That Is. You may also want to read “James Salter’s 10 Worst Sentences.”

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 24, 2013

Francesca Segal’s Award-Winning First Novel, ‘The Innocents’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:24 pm
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“Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way. They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”  

The Innocents. By Francesca Segal. Voice/Hyperion, 282 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

Francesca Segal airlifts the plot of The Age of Innocence from New York to London in this tale of young Jews whose mating habits, like their Friday-night dinners, tend to be “Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.”

Anyone who has read Edith Wharton’s book may see much of the action coming and hear an echo of its theme — the power of tribal customs to thwart individual desires — in its namesake. But Segal finds an inspired setting for her first novel in the endogamous world of well-to-do Jews who eddy around Golders Green in the age of iPods and Bernie Madoff.

The young lawyer Adam Newman has just become engaged to the sweet but unimaginative Rachel Gilbert when he falls under the spell of his fiancée’s glamorous and dissolute cousin, who has arrived from New York amid rumors of a scandal. Like Wharton’s Newbold Archer, Adam would rather dabble in love than embrace it, so the outcome of his attraction is never really in doubt. And the appeal of his story lies not in high suspense but in its intelligent and gently satirical portrait of the food-rich rituals that sustain or stifle its characters: the circumcisions, Purim parties, Shabbat dinners, Yom Kippur break fasts, and vacations at Red Sea hotels with buffet tables that serve chocolate mousse in champagne classes at 8 a.m. “Any Jewish holiday can be described the same way,” Rachel’s father says. “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” If that sounds glib, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen gives it context when she explains calmly why she doesn’t fast on Yom Kippur. “I have fasted,” she says, “enough days in my lifetime.”

Best line: No. 1: “Ha. God. For someone who does not exist He has caused me a great deal of trouble.” Ziva Schneider, Rachel’s grandmother No. 2: “the menu was traditional Ashkenazi by way of Marks & Spencer.” No. 3: “Just as when he spoke to Nick Hall, he had the sense of other Londons swirling past and beneath and above him of which he was only liminally aware.”

Worst line: From the moment that a Jewish son enters secondary school, “there is the constant anxiety that a blue-eyed Christina or Mary will lure him away from the tribe.” This lightly satirical line may be true, but Mary fell out of favor as a name for Christian girls a half-century ago.

A reading group guide with discussion questions for The Innocents appears on the publisher’s site.

Published: June 2012 (Voice/Hyperion hardcover), paperback due out in May 2013.

Furthermore: The Innocents won the most recent National Jewish Book Award for fiction in the U.S. and the Costa first novel prize in the U.K. You’ll find more on The Age of Innocence in an excellent blog about the book by Liverpool Continuing Education students. Segal talks about The Innocents and its Costa award in an interview with Simon Round.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

(c) 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 16, 2013

A Twitter Chat About ‘The Age of Innocence’ Friday With Award-Winning Novelist Francesca Segal

Filed under: Classics,Fiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:45 pm
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On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Polish countess whose arrival threatens to disrupt the lives of the social elite in post-Civil War New York. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on March 22 at #classicschat to discuss this great book. Kevin wrote Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book. He and I will be talking about The Age of Innocence with Francesca Segal (@francescasegal) who won the 2012 Costa First Novel Award and the National Jewish Book Award for fiction for The Innocents, inspired by Wharton’s book.

January 24, 2012

Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s ‘Mouse & Lion’ Re-Imagines Aesop

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:55 am
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The mouse is the star of a fresh version of “The Lion and the Mouse” 

Mouse & Lion. By Rand Burkert. Pictures by Nancy Ekholm Burkert. Michael Di Capua/Scholastic, $17.95. Ages 3–6.

By Janice Harayda

Nancy Ekholm Burkert established herself as one of America’s great illustrators of children’s books with her art for the original 1961 edition of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. She has held that distinction for 50 years – along with Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg and a handful of others – and is perhaps the country’s best living female picture-book artist.

Ekholm Burkert works in the fine-art tradition of nuanced and often symbolic paintings, an approach pioneered by illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackham. She excels at re-interpretations of classics, which have included Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs, a retelling of a Brothers Grimm version translated by Randall Jarrell.

In Snow-White and elsewhere, Ekholm Burkert shows a deep understanding of how far you can go with ageless tales without betraying their spirit. Unlike artists who simply graft modern clothes or speech onto classics, she works from the inside out. She brings to each book a unity and originality of vision that extends to the most arcane detail. The dwarfs in her Snow-White aren’t elves or gnomes. They are real people, based on research suggesting that the tale may have roots in a medieval incident involving dwarfs. This approach gives Snow-White a warm humanity and depth that most versions lack.

Anyone who doesn’t know Ekholm Burkert’s work will find an excellent introduction to it in the elegant Mouse & Lion, her first picture book since Valentine & Orson in 1989. Capably written by her son, Rand, this retelling of Aesop’s “The Lion and the Mouse” sets the fable in the Aha Hills on the border of Botswana and Namibia. Ekholm Burkert gives the tale a baobab tree and a tawny African grass mouse with black and white stripes. That is where another artist would have stopped.

Ekholm Burkert goes further. Her book shows, perhaps better than any other, that this story is about the mouse, who is the protagonist to the lion’s antagonist. Most versions have both animals on the cover or just the lion. This one has only the mouse on the front. The lion is on the back.

Mouse & Lion is original in other ways. Many artists treat Aesop’s fable as a stern tale that instructs: Be kind, and others will repay you for it. Ekholm Burkert sees the humor in the story: The king of beasts needs help from a tiny creature in freeing itself from a hunter’s snare. This and other aspects would be comical in real life, and her pictures show it. In a witty series of images, the regal Lion treats Mouse like a court jester: He demands that his captive show he’s brave enough to repay the favor of a release. Lion laughs when Mouse tries to perform acrobatics on a blade of tall grass that breaks, an act that lands him on his head. The king-and-vassal relationship changes after Mouse gnaws a hole in the snare that has trapped Lion, and the book gains a second theme — the joy of small things — in closing pages that show Mouse’s mate and their babies and Lion admiring ethereal African flora and fauna. If the fable traditionally casts kindness as a duty or means of self-preservation, this one shows that it is also pleasure.

Ekholm Burkert admires Asian art, and more than her earlier books, Mouse & Lion shows its influence on her work through its agile lines and expansive use of white space. At the same time it retains the virtues of her earlier books: the subtle color sense, the superior draftsmanship and the rich textures — on the grain of a boulder, the fur on a mouse, the wings of a butterfly. Rand Burkert notes in an afterword that the lion was Aesop’s favorite “character,”  and Mouse & Lion is the rare retelling that makes you see why.

Best line/picture: No. 1: Mouse returning to his mate and their six melt-your-heart babies. No. 2: Burkert has found an subtle way around a challenge : the difficulty of showing in a single image actions occurring at different times. She uses an airy blue to show things that have occurred or will – for example, the pendulum route Mouse has swung above Lion’s jaws.

Worst line/picture: None, but Rand Burkert has a heavy hand with exclamation points. Do you really need them after “A net dropped and twisted around him!” and “ ‘Ah yes!’ he thought”?

Recommended? This beautiful children’s book may also appeal to adults who admire fine-art illustration. I liked Jerry Pinkney’s almost wordless 2010 Caldecott winner, The Lion & the Mouse. But Mouse & Lion offers more insights into the fable, and the two retellings are so different that many people will want to read both.

Furthermore: Publishers Weekly named Mouse & Lion one of the best picture books of 2011. Nancy Ekholm Burkert won a 1973 Caldecott Honor for Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs. Her other honors include a show of her work at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. A New York Times review of Mouse & Lion discusses varied interpretations of Aesop.

About the author: A short biography of Nancy Elkhom Burkert appears on the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right. She is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and book editor of the Plain Dealer.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda

November 2, 2011

One-Sentence Reviews of 2011 National Book Awards Finalists

Filed under: National Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:56 am
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Who will win and who should win the National Book Award for fiction on Nov. 16?

By Janice Harayda

Can you predict the winner of a literary prize by reading a chapter or less of each nominated book? This year I’ve decided to try. I read an online excerpt from each of the five books shortlisted for the 2011 National Book Award for fiction. Then I graded each on a finalist-against-finalist curve in a tweet that also commented on it.

Which nominee should win the fiction award if the quality of each excerpt represents that of the rest of the book? Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, a collection of 34 short stories by a writer whose talent far exceeds her name recognition. But National Book Awards juries traditionally have held story collections to a higher standard than novels, and none has won the prize since Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever in 1996. So Pearlman will have to overcome an unacknowledged bias in favor in favor of the longer form.

Two finalists look, for different reasons, like nonstarters. Andrew Krivak doesn’t write as well as Pearlman and, based on his excerpt, tells a less interesting story than Téa Obreht or Julie Otsuka. Jesmyn Ward has ended up in the wrong shortlist category: She would have had a better chance of winning the National Book Award for young people’s literature than for fiction.

But Obreht has momentum on her side as the most recent winner Orange Prize. And Otsuka may get degree-of-difficulty points for her use of plural narration. So this year’s award for fiction looks like a three-way contest between Pearlman, Obreht and Otsuka.

Here are more comments on and letter grades for each finalist, based on their excerpts, in the form of a slightly modified version of my Nov. 1 tweets:

The Sojourn (Andrew Krivak) A World War I Austrian sharpshooter. Un-Remarque-able. Grade: B- Based on this excerpt.

The Tiger’s Wife (Téa Obreht) Interesting Balkan setting but overwrought. Grade: B Based on this excerpt.

The Buddha in the Attic (Julie Otsuka) Some slips with v. difficult plural narration. Grade: B Based on this excerpt.

Binocular Vision (Edith Pearlman) Everything short stories should be. Grade: A Based on this excerpt and “Relic and Type.” 

Salvage the Bones (Jesmyn Ward) My view: This is YA. Miscategorized by judges. No grade Based on this excerpt.

You may also want to read my recent post on the tarnished reputation of the National Book Awards and 7 ways their sponsor can regain trust. Reviews of other 2011 National Book Awards finalists may appear on One-Minute Book Reviews or Twitter before or after the Nov. 16 awards ceremony.

You can follow me on Twitter (@janiceharayda) by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this page.

– Janice Harayda

August 21, 2011

40 Publishing Buzzwords, Clichés and Euphemisms Decoded

Filed under: Humor,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:36 am
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Ever wonder what editors, publishers and critics mean when they describe books as “lyrical,” “provocative” or “ripped from the headlines”? Let industry veterans explain it to you. I asked experts on Twitter to decode common publishing terms and attach the hashtag #pubcode. Here are some of their answers:

“absorbing”: “makes a great coaster” @DonLinn Don Linn, publishing consultant

“accessible”: “not too many big words” @MarkKohut Mark Kohut, writer and consultant

“acclaimed”: “poorly selling” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

breakout book”: “Hail Mary pass” @BookFlack Larry Hughes, associate director of publicity, the Free Press at Simon & Schuster

brilliantly defies categorization”: “even the author has no clue what he’s turned in” @james_meader James Meader, publicity director of Picador USA

“captures the times we live in”: “captures the times we were living in two years ago” @mathitak Mark Athitakis, critic

“classroom-friendly”: “kids won’t read it unless they have to” @LindaWonder, Linda White, book promoter at Wonder Communications

“continues in the proud tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien”: “this book has a dwarf in it” @jasonpinter Jason Pinter, author of the Zeke Bartholomew series for young readers

“definitive”: “could have used an editor” @kalenski, “Book Babe Extraordinaire”

“an eBook original”: “still no proofreading and bad formatting” @mikecane Mike Cane, writer and digital book advocate

“edgy”: “contains no adult voices of reason” @wmpreston William Preston, English teacher

“epic”: “very long” @sheilaoflanagan Sheila O’Flanagan, novelist (Stand by Me)

“erotic”: “porn” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“ethnic literature”: “stuff written by nonwhite people” @elprofe316 Rich Villar, executive director of Acentos

“frothy romp”: “funny book by lady” “Funny = funny book by a man” @jenniferweiner Jennifer Weiner, novelist (Then Came You) and television producer (State of Georgia)

“gripping”: “I turned the pages fast but didn’t read them” @sarahw Sarah Weinman, news editor of Publishers Marketplace

“gritty street tale”: “Black author from the hood. Run.” @DuchessCadbury, graduate student in literature

“I’ve been a fan of Author X for a long time”: “I slept with them regrettably, in MFA school.” @Weegee Kevin Smokler, vice-president of marketing for Byliner.

“lapidary prose”: “I did not know what half of these words meant” @jenniferweiner Jennifer Weiner, novelist (Then Came You) and television producer (State of Georgia)

“literary”: “plotless” @MarkKohut Mark Kohut, writer and consultant

“long-awaited”: “late” @janiceharayda Jan Harayda, novelist and editor of One-Minute Book Reviews

“luminous” or “lyrical”: “not much happens” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“magisterial”: “long” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“meticulously researched”: “overloaded with footnotes” @BookFlack Larry Hughes, associate director of publicity, the Free Press at Simon & Schuster

“memoir”: “nonfiction until proven otherwise” @BookFlack Larry Hughes, associate director of publicity, the Free Press at Simon & Schuster

“the next Elmore Leonard”: “This book has criminals or Detroit or maybe Florida in it” @bryonq Bryon Quertermous, fiction writer

novella”: “short story with large font” @BookFlack Larry Hughes, associate director of publicity, the Free Press at Simon & Schuster

“a real tear-jerker”: “writing so bad it makes you cry” @DrewSGoodman Drew Goodman, writer and social media analyst

“ripped from the headlines”: “no original plot line” @jdeval Jacqueline Deval, author (Publicize Your Book!) and book publicist

“rollicking”: “chaotic” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“sensual”: “soft porn” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“stunning”: “major character dies” @mathitak Mark Athitakis, critic

“provocative”: “about race/religion” @mathitak Mark Athitakis, critic

“promising debut”: “many flaws, but not unforgivably bad” @mathitak Mark Athitakis, critic

“unflinching”: “has a lot of bad words” @isabelkaplan Isabel Kaplan, novelist (Hancock Park)

“visionary”: “can’t be proved wrong yet” @IsabelAnders Isabel Anders, author (Blessings and Prayers for Married Couples)

voice of a generation”: “instantly dated” @MarkKohut Mark Kohut, writer and consultant

“weighty”: “I had to lug this dense historical monster all over town and I still can’t bring myself to finish it” @emilynussbaum Emily Nussbaum, writer for New York magazine and other publicatons

“wildly imaginative”: “wrote book high on mescaline” @simonm223 Simon McNeil, novelist

“a writer to watch”: “as opposed to one you are actually going to want to read” @janiceharayda Jan Harayda, novelist and editor of One-Minute Book Reviews

You’ll find more publishing buzzwords decoded in the sequel to this post at http://bit.ly/pubcode2.

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

June 15, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Faults Islam and Multiculturalists in ‘Nomad’

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:40 pm
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The author of Infidel returns with an inflammatory polemic

Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. Free Press, 304 pp., $27.

By Janice Harayda

At the age of five, the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali was circumcised with scissors by a man hired by her grandmother. She later fled to Holland to escape a forced marriage and collaborated on a Dutch film about the oppression of Muslim women, which led to death threats and another move – this time, to America.

Hirsi Ali described these and other upheavals in Infidel, a harrowing account of her efforts to forge an independent life after rejecting Islam and the violent culture of her family’s tribe. Nomad is a much less effective book, and not just because it repeats in different form many of the ideas and incidents in that memoir.

In this inflammatory polemic Hirsi Ali argues that Islam is not just a religion but “a violent way of life,” and she condemns its “increasingly dangerous impacts” — a stilted phrase typical of the writing in Nomad — on Western societies. She believes that Muslim immigrants must be required to assimilate, a process that includes respecting the laws of their adopted countries instead of demanding that their crimes be tried in sharia courts. As she describes her conversion from Islam to atheism, she calls for “a massive public effort to reveal, ridicule, revile, and replace” traditional Islamic views, especially those that cast women as property.

To support her arguments, Hirsi Ali draws heavily on the brutality suffered by her family in passages that are among the most vivid in Nomad. She also makes a strong case that honor killings and other crimes against Muslim women exist in the U.S. as well as abroad but that the media play down their religious basis for fear of offending the faithful.

On other subjects, Hirsi Ali oversimplifies or underdocuments her points or extrapolates too freely from her own life. She faults multiculturalists who seek to enable Muslims to preserve their old culture in their adopted countries: “Social workers in the West will tell you that immigrants need to maintain group cohesion for their mental health, because otherwise they will be confused and their self-esteem destroyed. This is untrue.” But there are degrees of “cohesion” and “self-esteem,” and immigrants may suffer as much from cutting all ties to their culture as from cutting none. This kind of either-or logic pervades the book.

Since the publication of Infidel, Hirsi Ali has also become more closely linked to the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank that employs her. Some of her causes demand support from liberals and conservatives alike, including her call for an end to honor killings.

But it is unfortunate that after spending much of Nomad arguing that violence against Muslim women should concern everyone, Hirsi Ali faults feminists for not doing more to end it when, in fact, well-known feminists such as Gloria Steinem may have done more than any other group to publicize the problem. Her nearsightedness on this and other issues may alienate many people who share her outrage about honor killings and related crimes.  Infidel – which keeps a tighter focus on her story – makes a better introduction to her work.

Best line: Hirsi Ali says that when she and her family lived in Saudi Arabia, her father and brother often went to a “tribunal of justice” at a spot known as Chop-Chop Square: “There men and boys would take their seats and watch the sinners being punished with stonings, floggings, amputations, or beheadings.”

Worst line: “In fact a certain kind of feminism has worsened things for the female victims of misogyny perpetrated by men of color. My colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Christina Hoff-Sommers, calls this ‘the feminism of resentment.’”

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

You may also want to read: One-Minute Book Reviews also posted a review  of Infidel and a reading group guide to Infidel.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

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

May 29, 2010

Psychiatrist Daniel Carlat Diagnoses His Profession’s Ills in ‘Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry’


“Psychiatry has become a proving ground for outrageous manipulations of science in the service of profit.” Unhinged

Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry. By Daniel Carlat. Free Press, 256 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Has the profession of psychiatry lost its mind? You might think so after reading this relentless and mostly successful assault on current practices in the field.

Daniel Carlat focuses in Unhinged on the harm that he believes has resulted from the march of psychiatry away from psychotherapy and toward the better-paying practice of prescribing drugs. And he forges links between that shift and many ills in his field, including scandals at top-flight hospitals, one-sided articles in medical journals, and pharmaceutical-company payments to doctors who hawk questionable drugs to their peers.

Some of the statistics in Unhinged are chilling. In 2006, an estimated 10 percent of all 10-year-old boys in the U.S. were taking the stimulant Ritalin or an equivalent each day, and shabby medicine often accounts for its use or that of other psychotropic drugs. Psychiatrists routinely write prescriptions after 15- or 20-minute consultations. They know so little about the biology of most mental illnesses that they prescribe based on little or no science. And they mislead patients by presenting as fact theories formed by working backward from the discovery that a drug seemed to ease the symptoms of a disease. One of the most popular of those theories holds that depression results from a “chemical imbalance” in the brain:

“… the fact that many antidepressants increase levels of serotonin has led to a serotonin deficiency theory of depression, even though direct evidence of such a deficiency is lacking. By this same logic one could argue that the cause of all pain conditions is a deficiency of opiates, since narcotic pain medications activate opiate receptors in the brain.”

Carlat delivers his indictment in a crisp, journalistic style that serves him well, though he writes with less depth and elegance than his fellow physician Atul Gawande. But he doesn’t take his critique of the profession as far as it warrants. He clearly wants psychiatrists to do more psychotherapy but doesn’t make a strong case that patients would benefit from this – only that they would benefit from fewer bad drugs. He seems to take for granted that psychotherapy “works.”

This view clashes with that of respected critics of the profession such as the social scientist Robyn Dawes, who drew on decades of research for his brilliant House of Cards, which argues that psychotherapy itself is a con game: There is no evidence that psychiatrists or psychologists are better at counseling than minimally trained civilians, and both types of professionals have strayed so far from their roots in the study of human behavior that they offer little more than glorified intuition.

Unhinged may have the worthy effect of prompting patients to demand better explanations for why certain drugs are recommended for them — and it would be welcome for that reason alone — but it has little to say to people who remain unconvinced that psychotherapy would be better than the cavalier prescribing of Prozac or Wellbutrin. If psychiatrists are as willing as Carlat suggests to pimp for drug companies, why should Americans trust them with their deepest secrets?

Best line: “ … psychiatry has become a proving ground for outrageous manipulations of science in the service of profit.”

Worst line: Carlat says that an Ambien drug rep named Valerie once gave him a gift worth about $25, and later that day, he saw a patient and thought, “Why not prescribe Valerie’s drug for this patient?” That phrasing is too neat. Carlat also appears to be rationalizing in some of his comments on why he served briefly as a paid drug-company rep for the maker of Effexor.

Caveat lector: This review of Unhinged was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ, and some people in it are composites.

Furthermore: Carlat is a psychiatrist in Newburyport, MA, specializing in psychopharmacology, and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine.You can follow him on Twitter at a @dcarlat (www.twitter.com/dcarlat). Carlat tells why he quit giving paid talks for drug companies in the New York Times article “Dr. Drug Rep.” Some of the material in Unhinged about brain scans appeared in different form in an article he wrote for Wired, “Brain Scans as Mind Readers?”

Contrary to the date you see under the headline, this review was posted on May 31, 2010. WordPress appears to be having technical problems that have led to scrambled dates. For this reason, I’ve removed a May 30 post about my forthcoming review of the young-adult novel The Things a Brother Knows.

You can follow Jan Harayda (@janharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

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

May 21, 2010

A Grade-by-Grade List of Books Recommended for Summer Reading for Children and Teenagers

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:15 pm
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At this time of year, many libraries hand out lists of books recommended for summer reading for children and teenagers in different school grades. If yours doesn’t or if you’d like more ideas, visit the terrific site for the Highland Park, Illinois, Public Library. This site has a list of books recommended for each school grade (such as “Hot Fifth Grade Titles” and “Riveting Sixth Grade Books”) divided into categories such as “Adventure,” “Biography,” “Historical Fiction,” “Sports” and “Mysteries.” And unlike the flyers at many libraries, this master list has a link to one or more reviews of each recommended book so you can quickly learn more about it.

May 19, 2010

Phyllis Theroux Writes of Finding Love Online and More in ‘The Journal Keeper’ — Meditations on Life After 60

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:33 pm
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The Journal Keeper: A Memoir. By Phyllis Theroux. Atlantic Monthly Press, 281 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

More than two decades ago, Phyllis Theroux moved from Washington, D.C., to a drowsy Virginia town that lacked stop lights but had a house she could afford after a divorce left her in financial peril. She looks back on six years in Ashland in this collection of edited diary entries that reads less like a journal or memoir than a series of meditations for the age of Match.com, the dating service that led her to the man she married in her mid-’60s.

For part of the time covered by this book, Theroux lived with her idiosyncratic mother, who moved in after developing macular degeneration. And The Journal Keeper makes clear that many people would benefit from having such a loving caretaker for their final days. Theroux writes on her mother’s 85th birthday: “My present to her is to be at her disposal for an entire day.”

But the reticence of The Journal Keeper robs it of the force of May Sarton’s trailblazing Journal of a Solitude and more recent accounts of growing old, including  Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End. Theroux omits most dates on entries and is so polite to friends and relatives that she gives you little sense of those people and the events that define them. She mentions that her daughter is coming for a 10-day visit and then says nothing about their time together, which leaves you wondering what happened, one of many dropped threads in the book.

Nor does Theroux make you understand how, for someone educated by Dominican nuns, she became so drawn to alternative spiritual disciplines. In Ashland she has sessions with an “energy healer” and writes approvingly of Gary Zukav and Eckhart Tolle, both favorites of Oprah. And she finds more than one kind of inspiration in the writing classes she teaches to pay the bills. After a stop-and-go courtship, she discovers that her “premarriage mood of doom” has lifted: “Perhaps, as one student observed, this is because Mercury had been in retrograde and only went out of it two days ago.”

Theroux calls The Journal Keeper “the spiritual equivalent of a personal light box” that avoids “dark developments” and favors the insights she gained from them. This approach leads to more than a few overwrought metaphors and pseudoprofundities. And the insights in the book tend to be less memorable than directly observed incidents that Theroux serves up with little or no commentary. One occurred when friend’s 8-year-old son looked up at a sky full of snowflakes and said, “This is the best day of my life.”

Best line: No. 1: “Living in a small town is like being in a play.”

Worst line: No. 1: “A funeral is like a train station waiting room. We’re all going to board that train someday.” Except that the people in a waiting room aren’t necessarily waiting for the same train. No. 2: Quoted above: “Perhaps, as one student observed, this is because Mercury had been in retrograde … ”

Published: March 2010

Watch the trailer for The Journal Keeper.

Furthermore: Theroux is an essayist and the author of books that include Peripheral Visions and California and Other States of Grace: A Memoir.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to The Journal Keeper: Journal of a Solitude.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

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

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