One-Minute Book Reviews

December 21, 2009

Lorrie Moore’s ‘A Gate at the Stairs’ – What Color is Your 9/11 Novel?

Heard about the man who said after sex, “That was one for the scrapbook!”?

A GATE AT THE STAIRS: A NOVEL. By Lorrie Moore. Knopf, 321 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

At the recent 35th anniversary party for the National Book Critics Circle, I spoke with a critic I admire, who said he found A Gate at the Stairs “really annoying.” I avoid self-referential words like “annoying” in reviews, but his comment tells you something. For all of its appearances on “Best of 2009” lists, this novel is – at best – an acquired taste.

Lorrie Moore is a witty and intelligent writer who has a distinctive style and a gift for close observation of modern life – all of which, in theory, ought to endear her to every serious reader. But she resembles the more talented John Updike, whose early short stories were his best work: She’s a miniaturist whose fine-grained brush works against the large canvas of a dense novel of more than 300 pages. In A Gate at the Stairs, all of her virtues don’t enable her to create believable characters or a satisfying plot.

It’s not that she doesn’t try to adjust her scale. Far from it: Moore strains to develop a big theme: the devastating effects of the everyday carelessness that results from national, familial, or individual complacency. This is a novel is about the big risks Americans take while going to absurd lengths to avoid small ones – a trait embodied by a character who seriously neglects a child while baking library books “to get rid of the germs.”

Tassie Keltjin is a potato farmer’s daughter and 20-year-old university student in a town that styles itself as “the Athens of the Midwest” when, just after the attacks of 2001, she finds her first boyfriend and a job as a part-time nanny for a callow professional couple who are adopting a mixed-race child. Her sheltered upbringing doesn’t allow her to see quickly enough that neither the man she loves nor her employers are who they appear to be. And Tassie’s fate represents in microcosm that of the country: She’s caught off guard, just as the nation was on Sept. 11.

This is a promising set-up, but Moore aims to do more than describe an upheaval in her narrator’s life. She adds broad social commentary, particularly about adoption and race, that clashes with her natural instinct for humor, wordplay, and, at times, the cute. Until the last 50 or so pages, you don’t feel the interest in her plot or characters that you should: The big picture keeps getting lost amid the cleverness and intricate embroidery of small images.

This aspect of the novel shows up especially in Moore’s promiscuous use of color, which makes you wonder if she’s spent too much time poring over a Sherwin-Williams catalog. She tells you colors that are unilluminating – that a man’s sweater was green, for example, when it doesn’t much matter whether it was green or blue, or that a casket was “cognac-colored” when most caskets are “cognac”-colored. She tells you colors that are redundant or confusing – that someone’s gums were “the pale lox pink of a winter tomato.” Why not just “pale lox pink”? Doesn’t she trust you to know the color of lox unless she mentions the tomato? And she tells you colors that are all of those things, and distracting, too. A dead soldier laid-out in church wears combat fatigues that were “part pine, part portabella, part parsley.” Moore may intend that sentence satirically: A character in the novel says that levity eases the pain of difficult subjects. But so many of the characters use humor as a shield that in this way and others, they often sound more like stand-ins for Moore instead of themselves. Tassie comes from a town so small she has never seen a man wear a tie with jeans, as a lecturer at her university does. Yet she repeatedly uses tropes such as “I feared” instead of “I was afraid” and knows that in England “every desert was called a pudding even if it was a cake,” which you don’t believe she got from a British-lit course.

A Gate at the Stairs has many amusing lines, including a comment made by Tassie’s employer, Sarah Brink, about her husband, Edward Thornwood: “He can’t do relationships. Can’t do acquaintanceships. He can’t do people at all. In fact, really he should just staff off mass transit!” And some of its bright lines offer insights into how Americans view adoption and other subjects. But a great novel is more than the sum of its parts. And A Gate at the Stairs is less memorable for its overall impact than for one-liners such as a comment Tassie’s boyfriend makes after sex, “That was one for the scrapbook!”

Best line: “To live in New York you have to have won the lottery and your parents have to have won the lottery and everyone has to have invested wisely.” — Sarah Brink

Worst line: No. 1: “We found a metal-edged diner, went in, and sat at the counter side-by-side, letting our coats fall off our shoulders and dangle from the stools, anchored by our sitting butts.” No. 2: Tassie says of writing songs with her roommate, Murph: “Murph liked our collaborations better than such lone efforts by me as ‘Dog-Doo Done Up as Chocolates for My Brother,’ and we seemed best on the rocking ones like, like ‘Summer Evening Lunch Meat,’ a song we had written combining the most beautiful phrase in English with the ugliest, and therefore summing up our thoughts on love.” No. 3: Then there’s that description of the colors of a dead soldier’s combat fatigues quoted above: “part pine, part portabella, part parsley.”

Editor: Victoria Wilson

Published: September 2009

Furthermore: Moore is Delmore Schwartz Professor of the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 11, 2009

Did Sept. 11 Make Us Fat? How the Attacks Affected the Weight-Loss Business

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:22 am
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Joseph Hallinan explores a brightly painted carousel of reasons for human error in his fascinating Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average (Broadway, 283 pp., $24.95). He concludes that time – among other factors – affects our decisions, no matter how much of it we have. He writes:

“After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, time horizons for many people in the United States shortened. People, especially those in big cities like New York, increasingly adopted a ‘live for the day’ attitude. Activities with long-term benefits, like diet and exercise, were out; treating oneself well in the here and now was in. One result: the diet chain Jenny Craig reported ‘a huge wave of cancellations.’”

December 2, 2008

‘Germany Loves the Famous Has-Beens’ — Anna Winger’s Novel, ‘This Must Be the Place’

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“Germany loves the famous has-beens,” a character says in Anna Winger’s new novel,
This Must Be the Place (Riverhead, 303 pp., $24.95) “Bryan Adams is starting up a fashion magazine here. And how about David Hasselhoff singing on the Berlin Wall, New Year’s Eve 1989, wearing that electric leather jacket?” Winger’s first novel involves a third-grade teacher in her mid-30s who finds herself geographically and emotionally adrift after following her Jewish husband from New York to Berlin in the wake of Sept. 11. And This Must Be the Place is more than a portrait of a marriage buffeted by the terrorist attacks and other shocks: It’s also a character study of Germany in the months just before the euro replaced the deutschmark. A review will appear later this week on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 10, 2008

If I Could Read One Book About Sept. 11, I Would Read …

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:46 pm
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If I could read one account of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I would read 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (Holt, 384 pp., $15, paperback), by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, a book I’ve had on my “to read” list almost since its publication. Dwyer and Flynn describe the 102 minutes between the first attack on the World Trade Center and the collapse of the second tower, as seen by people inside the buildings, in this finalist for a National Book Award. As they do, they tell intimate stories that evoke deep emotions, Publishers Weekly said: “A law firm receptionist quietly eats yogurt at her desk seconds before impact. Injured survivors, sidestepping debris and bodies, struggle down a stairwell. A man trapped on the 88th floor leaves a phone message for his fiancée: ‘Kris, there’s been an explosion…. I want you to know my life has been so much better and richer because you were in it.’” You may also want to read the review of Love You, Mean It, a memoir by four women widowed by the attacks, posted on Sept.11, 2007

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 24, 2008

The Turn of the Twin Towers – Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland’ and Unreliable Narration — Did the Narrator Do It?

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A Dutch-born banker in Manhattan becomes unmoored in a post-Sept. 11 ghost story with neo-Gothic undertones

Netherland. By Joseph O’Neill. Pantheon, 256 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

This beautifully written novel is, like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a study in unreliable narration. Ostensibly it is the story of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born banker in New York, whose his wife and son return to London without him after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 force the family out of their Tribeca loft and into the Chelsea Hotel.

But it’s unclear how much, if any, of Hans’s account of his life you can credit. Perhaps better than any other novel, Netherland captures a vital truth about Sept. 11: The story of New York City after the attacks is a ghost story — a tale of a place haunted by lost people, buildings and illusions.

As in most good ghost stories, a central question is: How credible is the teller of the tale? And as in many, neo-Gothic undertones abound, particularly in Joseph O’Neill’s descriptions of the Chelsea and its dim hallways, baronial staircase and tolerance for baroque tenants, including man who dresses as an angel and buys his wings at a shop called Religious Sex. Hans observes:

“Over half the rooms were occupied by long-term residents who by their furtiveness and ornamental diversity reminded me of the population of the aquarium I’d kept as a child, a murky tank in which cheap fish hesitated in weeds and an artificial starfish made a firmament of gravel.”

With such characters as a foil, Hans might seem to be a pillar of stolid Dutch respectability. After his wife and son decamp for London, he returns to the wholesome sport of cricket, which he had enjoyed as a boy, and falls in with a network of players that O’Neill evokes vibrantly. The group includes an umpire and streetwise Trinidadian dreamer named Chuck Ramkissoon, who involves Hans at least marginally in an unsavory money-making scheme.

Despite his association with Chuck, Hans stays out of trouble, or so it might seem. He tells his story after returning to London to rejoin his wife, so we know that in a certain sense he has escaped whatever perils he faced New York.

But hints that we may not be able to trust his story begin on the dust jacket, which warns that Netherland is about a New York City that is “phantasmagorical,” or marked by shifting illusions and deceptive appearances. A few pages into the novel, after returning to London, Hans gets a call from a New York Times reporter. She says that Chuck Ramkisson has turned up dead in the Gowanus Canal and that she wants to confirm a fact in her notes — that Hans was Chuck’s business partner. Hans denies it. Netherland has hardly begun, but already we know: The narrator is lying or somebody else is. Soon afterward, we learn that Hans’s wife, Rachel, moved back to London because she began to question what she called “the narrative of our marriage.” Does she have her own fears about him?

The questions mount as the plot circles back to Chuck’s death in the last pages. After learning of her husband’s ties to the cricketer found in the Gowanus, Rachel calls a lawyer. Hans tells us that the attorney opines that “as a practical matter I have nothing to fear.” As a practical matter? Does he have something to fear on other levels?

Netherland never reveals who killed Chuck and, on that count, ends ambiguously. A reviewer for a British newspaper said that the identity of the killer is beside the point, and, on one level, she’s right. This novel is less about one man’s death than about fraying welcome mat that America puts out for immigrants of all social classes.

But the identity of the killer does matter – if the murderer was Hans, which would cast the novel in a new light. Nothing explicitly implicates him, but nothing exculpates him either. And if you look up “van den Broek” in a Dutch-English dictionary you find that a possible translation is “from the pine marsh” or “swamp.” The Gowanus Canal was built through a marsh where pine trees apparently grew.

Is it a coincidence that Hans’s name describes the place where Chuck’s body turned up? In a novel in which a man buys his angel’s wings at a store called Religious Sex, you never know.

Best line: Nearly every page has one. Toward the end of the book, Hans and his wife are riding a taxi when Rachel recalls their life in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 – “God, do you remember those sirens?” – and squeezes his hand. “Strange, how such a moment grows in value over a marriage’s course,” Hans reflects. “We gratefully pocket each of them, these sidewalk pennies, and run with them to the bank as if creditors were banging on the door. Which they are, one comes to realize.”

Worst line: “Personally, things remained as they were.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Netherland was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 24, 2008, in the post that preceded this review. This guide focuses on the issue of unreliable narration in the novel as it relates to the question: Who killed Chuck Ramkissoon? If you are reading this on the home page of the site, scroll down to find the guide. If you are reading this on the Web, click on this link

Published: May 2008

About the author: O’Neill was born in Ireland, grew up mainly in Holland and lives in New York City. He wrote the novels This Is the Life and The Breezes and the family history, Blood-Dark Track.

Furthermore: Additional comments on Netherland appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 9 and June 10, 2008 and Some critics disagree that The Turn of the Screw involves unreliable narration. A discussion of this aspect of James’s novel appears

Note: The translation of “van den Broek” comes from Yahoo! Babel Fish. If you can provide a more accurate one, would you kindly leave a comment or send a message to the e-mail address on the Contact page?

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 24, 2006

9/11 Widows Learn to Think About the Unthinkable

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:34 am
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First came tragedy. Then came the people who told them, “It could be worse.”

Love You, Mean It: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Friendship. By Patricia Carrington, Julia Collins, Claudia Gerbasi, and Ann Haynes with Eve Charles. Hyperion, 320 pp., $23.95.

Love You, Mean It came out just before the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, so you might be tempted to view it as strictly a post-mortem on that tragedy. It works much better as memoir of traumatic loss, that unique form of grief that occurs when you have no time to prepare emotionally for a death.

The authors of Love You, Mean It are all intelligent professional women widowed by the attacks. So it’s surprising that they have so little to say about subjects that have preoccupied some of the other victims’ families: the rescue efforts by police and fire departments, the financial settlements offered by the Victim Compensation Fund, the future memorial at Ground Zero.

Instead they focus on the brutal cost of losing a spouse even when you have money and the world’s sympathy. Pattie Carrington kept her alarm clock set for two years to six a.m., “the same as it was on the morning of September 11.” Julia Collins sat in her husband’s closet, “just to be near the smell of clothes that had touched his body.” Claudia Gerbasi heard that people had found safety in the shopping center under the towers and convinced herself that her husband had made it to the Duane Reade drugstore “and could survive a week on Oreos and Diet Coke.” Ann Haynes had what she calls “a mini-breakdown.”

Anyone has lost a relative to a sudden and violent death will believe these stories and the catalog of thoughtless comments the women heard, which ranged from patronizing (“You’re going to be okay”) to cruel. Gerbasi left a doctor of eight years who told her: “It could be worse – you could be thirty-nine and fat with shingles.”

Love You, Mean It lacks the artistry of Ruth Coughlin’s Grieving: A Love Story (HarperPerennial, 1994) and Lynne Caine’s Widow (Bantam, 1987), partly because of an inelegant structure jerrybuilt for four points of views. Even so, it has moments approaching poetry in the observations of Carrington, the most thoughtful and introspective of the group. One night she sees a crescent moon and imagines it to be the initial of her lost husband, Caz, who is communicating with her though it. Later she thinks of him as she plants blue lobelias at their beach house. “My life here was continuing,” she says,” always bittersweet, always a modified version of what it had been.”

Best line: “The longing doesn’t go away. There will always be loss written into our hearts. But we have come a great distance – the pain is finally beginning to cool. It lives on a deeper level now, like strata in rock, not visible on the surface, but always there, keeping us grounded, giving us the stability to stand taller.”

Worst line: “Ann and Ned discovered that they had another mutual friend in common.” Lucky they didn’t meet through one of those mutual friends they didn‘t have in common.

Editor: Leslie Wells

Recommended if … you’re grieving for someone who died a sudden, traumatic death.

Published: September 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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