In middle age, Rhoda Janzen reconnected with the faith of her childhood after facing setbacks that included a hysterectomy and the news that her husband was leaving her for a man he met on Gay.com. Janzen describes the experience in Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home, which One-Minute Book Reviews will review soon. In the meantime, you’ll find an excerpt and more on the site for its publisher. On Nov. 8 I put up a couple of tweets on Twitter (www.twitter.com/janiceharayda) about the use of “shoe-in” for “shoo-in” and “timber” for “timbre” by Janzen, who teaches English at Hope College.
November 10, 2009
October 30, 2009
Poetry and books from small presses don’t make the grade, either
No books by female authors appear on the list of the 10 best books of the year just posted by Publishers Weekly, the leading industry trade journal. I focus on reviews on One-Minute Book Reviews but have reacted to the shutout in tweets at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda that mention a couple of titles by women that PW might have included.
If you look at the trade journal’s list, you may notice that apart from having no books by female authors, it has no poetry or books from small presses. And 70 percent of the titles come from Random House and its imprints (Knopf, Doubleday, Spiegel & Grau, Ballantine and Pantheon) with the rest coming from Norton and Penguin. Best-of-the-year lists are arbitrary and often inscrutable, so I won’t try to dissect PW‘s here. But if I see noteworthy patterns emerging in these lists, I may comment on them in “Late Night With Jan Harayda,” a series of occasional posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and don’t include reviews.
October 21, 2009
Heather Armstrong’s Memoir of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood — ‘It Sucked and Then I Cried’ – Shrieking All the Way to the Psych Ward
The creator of a popular blog tells how she found her way to a mental hospital and back
It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita. By Heather B. Armstrong. Simon Spotlight, 258 pp., $24.
By Janice Harayda
Heather Armstrong warns on her blog, Dooce, that she “CANNOT RESIST THE CAPS-LOCK KEY.” The same caution applies to her unabashedly self-indulgent memoir of pregnancy, childbirth, and the infancy of her first child, which made her so anxious that she checked herself into a mental hospital after she got no relief from psychotherapy and drugs that included Risperdal, Ativan, Trazodone, Lamictal, Effexor, Abilify, Strattera, Klonopin, and Seroquel.
How did Armstrong like breastfeeding? “Everything I’d ever read about breastfeeding had to have been written by a man with no tits, because everything said that as long as the baby was in the right position it wouldn’t hurt to breast feed. THAT WAS A LIE.” What did she think when her daughter woke up at 2 a.m.? “Leta knew how to poop, she knew how to eat, SHE HAD TO KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.” Would Armstrong consider having another child? “‘HA! ANOTHER BABY? The logistics of more than one TOTALLY BOGGLED MY MIND.”
It Sucked and Then I Cried is intermittently funny but has a lot of bathroom humor and sometimes a nasty edge. Armstrong writes unkindly that when her stepfather raises his voice, she thinks: “Maybe if you SCREAMED A LITTLE LOUDER THE WINDOWS WOULD EXPLODE.” If she hates it when people shout at her, why does she spend so much time in this book doing what she calls “S.H.R.I.E.K.I.N.G.”?
Best line: No. 1: Utah stores sell soaps “in the shape of Joseph Smith’s head.” No. 2: “A few days after Leta turned four months old we took away Leta’s pacifier and it felt like we were running a division of the Betty Ford Clinic.”
Worst line: “But this time we couldn’t park in the special parking space because I was no longer pregnant (THANK THE LORD GOD JESUS!) and we had to park in the non-pregnant parking space and walk an extra twenty feet to the door. We found this inconvenience totally unacceptable as we were living in America and shouldn’t have to walk an extra twenty feet for anything. AM I RIGHT? AM I RIGHT? This is the best country on Earth! WE DON’T WALK NOWHERE FOR NUTHING. Damn straight.”
Editor: Patrick Price
Published: January 2009
About the author: Armstrong lives in Utah with her husband, Jon, and has had a second child since finishing It Sucked and Then I Cried. She has more than a million followers on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dooce.
Life in Utah — Soap in the Shape of Joseph Smith’s Head — Quote of the Day / Heather Armstrong’s ‘It Sucked and Then I Cried’
Blogger Heather Armstrong says in her new It Sucked and Then I Cried that stores in Utah sell “soaps in the shape of Joseph Smith’s head.” Which body parts will those bars clean? A review of Armstrong’s memoir will appear this week.
October 8, 2009
I haven’t read Herta Müller, a Romanian-born German who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature today. But the good news about the Swedish Academy’s announcement is that the award didn’t go to Bob Dylan (the 25-1 favorite a few days ago with bettors at the London odds-making firm of Ladbrokes). Writers, no need — yet — to start taking electric guitar lessons to boost your chances of winning the world’s most prestigious literary honor.
More comments on Müller and links to information about her work appear in yesterday’s posts.
September 25, 2009
The latest in an occasional series of posts on authors who praise each other’s work
Lisa Kleypas on Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels:
“A high-octane, hilarious, and revelatory look at the romance genre … This sparkling book is required reading. It’s too much fun to be missed!”
Candy Tan on the hero of Lisa Kleypas’s Only With Your Love, in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels:
“Justin is my favorite guilty pleasure. … He’s my ultimate fantasy hero, and by that I mean he’s someone I desire strictly as a fantasy.”
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
September 4, 2009
The Secret Lives of SLUGS (Smith Lesbians Until Graduation) – J. Courtney Sullivan’s Novel of Female Friendship, ‘Commencement’
Where first-year students get a lecture on the etiquette of girl-on-girl shower sex
Commencement. By J. Courtney Sullivan. Knopf, 320 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
Commencement is probably best appreciated while wearing nothing but Saran Wrap or body paint – the apparent garb of choice at an annual clothing-optional party at Smith College. As pop fiction, this book has slightly more literary merit than a Jackie Collins novel. But as a study in the folkways of the undergraduates at Smith – and especially its lesbians – it’s fascinating.
Who would have thought that any students needed, right after arriving on campus, a lecture on the etiquette of girl-on-girl shower sex? In Commencement, they get one from a house president who says: “Basically, don’t shower with your significant other during prime traffic flow – usually about eight to ten a.m. It’s really disrespectful, and, honestly, who wants to hear two dykes going at it first thing in the morning?”
J. Courtney Sullivan offers many such details as she tells the story of a quartet of friends, all Phi Beta Kappa graduates the Smith Class of 2002, who return to their alma mater four years after graduation for the wedding of one of their members. But instead of exploiting the potential for a great send-up of some of the collegiate excesses she describes, Sullivan tries to make a statement about the varied strains of feminism on campus and the evils of sex-trafficking off-campus, both of which have been done much better by others. If at times amusing or perceptive, her writing is also stilted, beset by point-of-view problems, and slowed by her frequent backtracking from the women’s post-college lives to their days at Smith.
Yet Sullivan is a good enough reporter that she leaves you with memorable images, not all of which involve lesbianism. When it snowed, she tells us, college trucks poured soy sauce on the walkways of a quadrangle because “the salty liquid melted the ice without polluting the ground.” There was only one problem: “the entire Quad smelled like a Thai restaurant until February.”
Best line: No. 1: “Then there was Immorality, the notorious clothing-optional party held in Tyler House [at Smith College] every Halloween. Women attended in nothing but lingerie, or body paint, or Saran Wrap.” No. 2: “There was a name for girls like her: SLUG. It stood for Smith Lesbian Until Graduation.”
Worst line: One of many stilted lines: “Lately April had been obsessed with whether or not they should try to stop Sally from getting married, stating that she was too young and had no idea what she was getting herself into.”
Editor: Jenny Jackson
Published: June 2009
Furthermore: Commencement is the first novel by Sullivan, a Smith graduate and resident of Brooklyn, NY, who works for the New York Times.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.
August 24, 2009
How Do You Know When to Leave a Marriage? — ‘The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce’ by Well-Known Writers
This post first appeared in 2007.
The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce. Edited by Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand. Warner, 350 pp., $24.99.
By Janice Harayda
Some publishers say that “anthologies are the new memoirs,” but The Honeymoon’s Over makes you wonder if the boom is running on empty.
This is third essay collection I’ve reviewed this year that includes work by Joyce Maynard, the prolific journalist, novelist and contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Maynard is a good essayist whose entries have been among the best in all three books, but she’s been cannibalizing her life for parts for so long that some of her stories are wearing thin. Another writer might have added more freshness to this lightweight book of essays by 24 women on turning points in their marriages.
Nothing in The Honeymoon’s Over has the sophistication of Jane Smiley’s reflections on her first marriage in the recent Mr. Wrong, or of the best work of essayists like Daphne Merkin or Phillip Lopate. And the worst entries are bad enough to put off the poeple who might appreciate this book the most – those who are trying to decide whether to leave a marriage. Terry McMillan’s writing goes further south in a bitter, profane and disorganized screed against her ex-husband. Daniela Kuper makes cloying use of second-person narration in an account of her efforts to get her son back from a guru. And Zelda Lockhart devotes 20 pages to her past without making you understand why she married a lesbian partner with whom she fought regularly and to whom she had “never been physically attracted.”
The best entries in The Honeymoon’s Over describe experiences strong enough to carry them despite any flaws in the writing. Perhaps the most memorable is Elissa Minor Rust’s essay on why she has stayed with her husband since leaving the Mormon faith they once shared, an unusually candid report on Latter Day Saints teachings on sex roles. Did you know that married Mormon women must wear “temple-issued undergarments”? This is the kind of information you rarely get from news shows on Mormonism, which tend to focus instead on the LDS tolerance for polygamy. Rust avoids writing about politics, but her essay indirectly suggests some of the problems Mitt Romney may face in his bid for the presidency. How long will it be before the tabloids – or Sixty Minutes – start asking where his wife gets her underwear?
Best line: Rust describes the Mormon rules that she and her boyfriend, now her husband, had to follow when he moved to New York to begin the two years of missionary work required of young Mormon men: “We weren’t allowed to speak, except on Christmas and Mother’s Day (and even that was stretching the rules; he was allowed to call his family on those two holidays, but he also called me). For two years, our only communication was through letters – and he was only allowed to write one a week. For a person like me who has always fought against rules and power structure, this was torture. I would have had more access to the man I loved were he in prison.”
Worst line (tie): No. 1: Terry McMillan’s rambling and vengeful list of “100 Questions” for her ex-husband. McMillan writes on page 97, “I’ve forgiven you,” and on page 98, “I haven’t exactly forgiven you.” Which is it? No. 2: Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand write of the contributors to this book: “Women in their second marriages seemed to choose better mates and by then were better equipped themselves to make a marriage work.” Then why do second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages?
Caveat lector: Some Web sites say, incorrectly, that this book includes an essay by Jane Smiley (making you wonder if she was scheduled to appear in it but bailed out in favor of the more flattering lighting of Mr. Wrong).
Consider reading instead: Mr. Wrong: Real-Life Stories of the Men We Used to Love (Ballantine, $24.95), edited by Harriet Brown.
Editor: Amy Einhorn
Published: February 2007
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
August 20, 2009
Dr. Phil Admits, ‘I May Not Be the Sharpest Pencil in the Box’ in ‘Love Smart: Find the One You Want — Fix the One You Got’
Love Smart was one of 10 finalists in the 2007 Delete Key Awards contest, which recognizes the year’s worst writing in books. Dr. Phil lost to Danielle Steel (grand-prize winner), Mitch Albom (first runner-up) and Claire Messud (second runner-up). This review appeared in February 2007.
Love Smart: Find the One You Want – Fix the One You Got. By Dr. Phil McGraw. Free Press, 283 pp., $15, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Help me, please, with the math in Dr. Phil McGraw’s relationship guide for women. First the talk-show host says that to attract a worthy man, you need to feel confident enough to take your “fair share of time in most conversations – 50 percent in a twosome, 33 percent in a threesome, and so forth.” Then he says that when you’re dating: “Self-disclosure should be used only 25 percent of the time. The other 75 percent should be listening.” So which is it? Should you be talking 50 percent of the time or 25 percent?
I have no idea, because McGraw doesn’t say how he got those figures, and his book is full of mush like this. Love Smart is one of those self-help guides that has LOTS OF LARGE TYPE. It also has exclamation points! More than two dozen in the first seven pages! That doesn’t count the one in the first paragraph of the acknowledgments! But I’ll say this for McGraw: He is equally patronizing to women and men. He reduces them both 1950s stereotypes given a 21st-century gloss with advice on Internet dating and quotes from celebrities like Dave Barry and Rita Rudner.
Much of his advice retools the kind of messages Bridget Jones got from her mother. First, stop being so picky. Of course, McGraw doesn’t use that word. He urges you to settle for “Mr. 80 Percent.” Then forget what you may have heard from other experts about how there are more differences between any one man and woman than between the sexes as a whole.
“I’ve got news for you: Men and women are different,” McGraw says. A lot of men have a “caveman” mentality that requires a “bag’em, tag’em, bring’em home” approach. This method includes more of the kind of advice your mother – or maybe grandmother – gave you. McGraw doesn’t come right out and say you should “save yourself for your husband.” But he does suggest you hold sex “in reserve” until a man has made “the ultimate commitment”: “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to McGraw that some women might not appreciate being compared to cows.
The most bizarre section of Love Smart consists of its list of the “top 31 places” to meet men. No. 1 and 2 on the list are “your church or temple” and “batting cages.” You might meet men at those batting cages. But the U.S. Congregational Life Survey found that the typical American churchgoer is a 50-year old married female. So what are the criteria here? Sheer numbers of the other sex? Or compatibility with your values? The list makes no more sense than most of the other material in Love Smart. Earlier in the book, McGraw begins an account of a disagreement with his wife by saying, “Now I may not be the sharpest pencil in the box …” Why didn’t somebody tell Oprah?
Best line: The comedian Rita Rudner says, “To attract men I wear a perfume called New Car Interior.” Love Smart also has some zingers that women have used to insult men, such as, “He has delusions of adequacy.”
Worst line: McGraw never uses one cliché when he can use three or four, as in: “Now it seems time to step up and close the deal, get ‘the fish in the boat,’ walk down the aisle, tie the knot … you want to get to the next level.”
Editor: Dominick Anfuso
Published: December 2006
To read more about the Delete Key Awards, click on the “Delete Key Awards” tag at the top of this post or the “Delete Key Awards” category at right. To read more about the creator of the awards, click on “About Janice Harayda.”
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
July 29, 2009
Diana Athill’s memoir Somewhere Towards the End has many apt observations on youth and age, all written from the perspective of a former editor in her 90s. A few I didn’t quote in the review posted earlier today:
On love: “… a broken heart mends much faster from a conclusive blow than it does from slow strangulation.”
On being over 60: “All through my sixties I felt I was still within hailing distance of middle age, not safe on its shores, perhaps, but navigating its coastal waters. My seventieth birthday failed to change this because I managed scarcely to notice it, but my seventy-first did change it. Being ‘over seventy’ is being old: suddenly I was aground on that fact and saw that the time had come to size it up.”
On her waning interest in sex in old age: “An important aspect of the ebbing of sex was that other things became more interesting. Sex obliterates the individuality of young women more often than it does that of young men, because so much more of a woman than of a man is used by sex. I have tried to believe that most of this difference comes from conditioning, but can’t do so. Conditioning reinforces it, but essentially it is a matter of biological function. There is no reason why a man shouldn’t turn and walk away from any act of sex he performs, whereas every act of sex performed by a woman has the potential of changing her mode of being for the rest of her life. He simply triggers the existence of another human being; she has to build it out of her own physical substance, carry it inside her, bond with it whether she likes it or not – and to say that she has been freed from this by the pill is nonsense. She can prevent it, but only by drastic chemical intervention which throws her body’s natural behavior out of gear.”