chicago tribune review: Michael Cunningham’s ‘The Snow Queen’



It’s published, friends. My review ran while I was away traveling. All 800-ish words of it. And though I can partially attribute this gig to a tremendously long stretch of time spent givin’ it away for free: reviewing and writing and blogging and reading about reviewing and writing and blogging, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to this guy for giving me the guts to query The Chicago Tribune:




A.J. Jacobs, Editor at Large, Esquire Magazine


Author of:

The Know it All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

My Life As an Experiment: One Man’s Humble Quest to Improve Himself

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible As Literally As Possible

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection




Because this guy? This guy believes in me. When I’m all down and dejected after suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous life, he’s there with a kind word, a “‘You can do this.”

You can do this. Powerful words when you’re lying on the ground, wallowing in despair in a manner most unbecoming a professional.

A.J. gives me unconditional support and for that I don’t have words enough to say thank you.

Except a simple “Thank you, A.J.”






Aaaand, put some clothes on before you freeze to death.




Here is the link to my review of Michael Cunningham’s latest novel The Snow Queen, published in the Chicago Tribune.



He’ll say it isn’t true, that I had it in me to click my ruby slippers and get home all along, but don’t believe that for a moment. Few writers who’ve made it have time to worry about those of us who struggle. The ones who do are gems without price.

Thank you, A.J. Can’t say it enough.


 Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life.

– Isaac Bashevis Singer


Interview: A.J. Jacobs




He’s a little crazy, a little nutty and a whole lot of fun. A.J. Jacobs, editor at large of Esquire magazine and author of several self-improvement books, also happens to be an at large acquaintance of mine. We “met” after I’d posted a review of The Know It All on Amazon, writing about how this book pulled me out of a period of grief after the death of one of my best friends. I guess it touched something within him, as a writer, knowing his work had had such a healing effect on me. It was the nature of his book, the ease of putting it down after reading each short entry and picking it up again whenever I felt like it, that kept me going. And the humor didn’t hurt, either.

We still “chat” via email now and then. He helps me out by giving me the occasional writerly advice and is generally a kind soul and wonderful person to know.

He granted me an interview previously, after the publication of My Year of Living Biblically, and now, once again, upon publication of Drop Dead Healthy. I am a very lucky person, indeed, to know him.

Here’s the interview:

1).  What drew you to write a series of human experiment/self education/self help books? Did you intend this to become your niche, after The Know-It-All?
I wish I could say it was a master plan. I love to test things out, and I love to write. So this kind of journalism seemed a good match. (I just re-read this answer. I lied. I don’t love to write. I love to research, interview people and think about stuff. The act of writing is about as pleasant to me as a catheterization).
2).  What was the reaction from your wife and family when it became obvious you were writing more books a lot of people would consider overly-ambitious? 
My wife keeps asking me to write something that doesn’t involve major lifestyle disruptions. Maybe a history of wicker furniture.
3).  Your books require vast amounts of research. Is it annoying how quickly the reader is able to read it? I imagine it’s like Thanksgiving dinner. It takes forever to cook but only about fifteen minutes to eat…
Good point! I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you point it out, I am quite irritated. Slow down, people. Try a word or two a day.
4).  Do you have help with your research? Considering my “day job” profession, I have to ask, do you make use of libraries or librarians when working on the background information? This is where you say how great libraries are.
First, I want to say how great libraries are. I love libraries, librarians and the library sciences in general. (I’m not kidding. I really do love libraries. I even like library gossip. I once heard that Melvil Dewey, of decimal system fame, was a big womanizer. True?)


Second, I definitely borrowed stacks of books from the NYPL when writing ‘Drop Dead Healthy.’ But I didn’t delegate much of the research. I love to explore the informational detours, which you can only do if you’re researching it yourself.
5).   Ever consider writing fiction? If not, why and if yes, where is it?
I have considered writing a children’s book. I’m looking for an animal that has never been featured in a story before. My latest idea is to give the blobfish a moment in the sun.
6).    Which of your books took longest to write? Which made your family question your sanity the most?
The new one, Drop Dead Healthy, took a huge amount of time. It should have been out a year ago. But I had a long journey before I could declare myself healthy. As for sanity-questioning, probably The Year of Living Biblically. Like with the biblical rules about purity. Leviticus says you cannot touch women during certain times for the month. And it even says that you cannot sit in a seat where  menstruating woman has sat, because then the seat is impure. My wife found this offensive, so she sat in every seat in our apartment.
7).   Have you ever had to scrap a book idea because it was too much work or just too difficult?
Not because it was too much work. But I’ve certainly scrapped ideas because they were vetoed by my wife. I wanted to spend a month without face to face communication – live my life totally on line with Facebook and IMs and so on. But my wife said our niece’s bat mitzvah was coming up, and that I was not going to attend by having a monitor at the table with me Skyping from home.
8).  Do you have downtime when you can actually read for pleasure? Anything good you’ve read lately?
I just read “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. It’s a great study of how we form political opinions, and why we are so convinced the other side is a bunch of idiots, when in fact we are often idiots ourselves.
9). Any idea what project you’ll try tackling next? Will you tell me if I promise not to (verbally) tell anyone else?
My kids are lobbying hard for “A Year of Eating Nothing But Candy.” They said they would join me. That aside, I’m not sure what is next. But I do love getting reader suggestions.
10). Is there anything you wouldn’t do, or have been warned you’d better not do, even if it would produce a really great book?
I don’t like to go undercover. I tell people right up front that I’m writing a book and I’m here to report. Maybe I was influenced by an experiment I once did in which I practiced Radical Honesty for a month. This is a movement that believes you shouldn’t lie. But more important, whatever’s on your brain should come out of your mouth. No filter.
Overall, this was a horrible month. But it also taught me the liberating feeling of telling the truth and the stress that lies can cause.

In Which I Chat About Current Reading



Let's start with the book I finished just yesterday evening, Amanda Coe's What They Do in the Dark. Briefly, it's set in England, the two main characters young school girls from different social classes.

CoedointhedarkPauline is dirty and unkempt (one reviewer calls her "semi-feral"), living in a crowded, filthy flat in a bad part of town. Her mother pops in and out as it suits her and Pauline alternately adores and fears her, depending on her mother's mood. Her father is not in the picture.

There is no water in their bathroom, so Pauline smells badly, her hygiene non-existent. Understandably, her social skills are off-kilter. She has a tough, occasionally violent exterior covering a soft inner core – the part that longs for the love of a mother, for a safe life with stability. Despite it all, Pauline's a good student. Surprisingly, she attends school more often than not and it's obvious that, in a different setting, she would be a totally different child.

The other girl, Gemma, is Pauline's only friend, and an inconstant one at that. Sometimes out of fear of Pauline's occasional outbursts, other times from the inconstancy of young girls' friendships, Gemma alternately avoids and pals around with her. Pauline is, simply, desperate for anyone to like her and admires and adores Gemma, an unremarkable girl just popular enough to be a desirable friend.

Gemma herself is obsessed by a child actor named Lallie, whom she romanticizes as young girls are wont to do. When it's announced Lallie will be coming to the school to film – and scout for talented girls  – Gemma is over the moon. Pauline could hardly care less but horns her way in, during one of her down periods with Gemma.

Alongside this, another classmate – a young black girl named Cynthia – likewise yearns for the constancy of a friendship with Gemma, the only girl willing to sit alongside her at lunch. Occasionally the two play  games during recess periods, infuriating Pauline. Gemma takes pity on the girl, giving her some of the food off her tray. This enrages Pauline, drawing out her open hostility. She kicks Cynthia under the table, calling her horrible names. Cynthia, who seems to either have a mental disability or is so nervous and insecure she will not stand up for herself, is far too passive to complain. All she does is grin, making her seem slow-witted and an easy target.

How these plotlines come together is somewhat complicated to explain and the beef I have with the book. The Gemma/Pauline/Cynthia situation is on the one hand, the Lallie the young star on the other – Gemma the focus of both. Mixed in are characters whose presence seems unnecessary, as they don't contribute to the storyline in any real way. They're half-developed, yet take up too much space. There are also bits of scenes involving Lallie's acting, tossed in as an attempt to foreshadow events not even all that large a part of the plot.

Violence against the weak and vulnerable – and the advantage often taken of children – comprises the main theme, along with the Lord of the Flies inevitability of relationships between young girls on the cusp of adolescence. And, while the writing itself is lovely, far above the average, the plot just doesn't quite get there. There's too much padding, too many side plots that go nowhere, frustrating the reader.

The end, horrific in its violence, springs up rather suddenly, not blending in well. It makes sense things culminate as they do but the whole outline of the book is skewed, characters who should remain in the background come too far forward.The main focus is fuzzy.

As such, I can't recommend the book. Coe should keep writing. I sincerely hope she does but her plot framework needs to tighten up, leading to a more cohesive story. I suspect her editor was so charmed with her skillful prose s/he didn't require quite enough revision. And what a difference that could have made! It's agonizing. There's just so much potential here and it's not quite realized. And it's just so, so close.

Just for a lark, I want to include a particularly hilarious review of the book I found on Amazon. God willing I don't get sued:


" … The setting is in Britain or somewhere which means it is also using that language. I didn't understand any of their sayings so I am sure I missed keys things in the book. I love to read and can devour books in 1 day but I really had a hard time getting through this one. I found the book very boring and only stuck with it because 1) I paid for it and 2) I was hoping it would get better somehow. I am sure Amanda Coe is a very competent writer and I would be willing to look at other things she wrote, however this is not one of them. Unless you really understand British terminology, I would not recommend this book at all."


 [I read a library copy of this book.]Dropdeadhealthy


Apart from Coe's novel, I've been working my way through A.J. Jacobs' Drop Dead Healthy. A writer of "experiential nonfiction," A.J. has previously written about other things self-improvement related. He's working on interview questions I sent him last week and once I've finished the book I'll write all that up to either peddle on the streets or publish here. Or both, copyright willing.

DDH is about his attempt to become more healthy himself, as well as to investigate various advice handed out by "those who know," advice often conflicting from one expert to another. He's so damn funny, his book a light but informative read. It's a nice break from reading about English schoolgirls beating on each other. It will also leave you feeling more than a little sorry for his long-suffering wife. Like me, you may wish she'd write her own book one day, about her life with A.J. I sorely hope she will.

[A review copy, provided by A.J.'s publicist.]



Somewhat surprising to me, I've also started reading a book by an author I have despised on general principle, based on the revulsion I feel about his genre: taking the texts of classics and adding vampires, zombies and such to them, tampering with the sacred, as far as this English major is concerned. Pastiche, they call it but I won't tell you the word I use to describe this vile trend. Hint: it's not one I'd use in polite society.

The whole concept of this new form of writing is so repulsive to me I can't even tell you. It's lowdown, cheap and dirty, and I don't care who read it and thought it was entertaining. Let's take a work of art and add supernatural blather to it! Anyone could do that. I could do that. The difference is, I never would. People who think Weird Al Yankovic funny may find his books thigh-slappers. They make me feel nauseous.

But then came Unholy Night, written by the same author. It takes the story of the three wise men and turns it on its ear. I'm an unapologetically practicing Heathen, it's true. What appealed most to me was the great potential for humor, using a story we pretty much all know and adding his own twisted style. And he doesn't exactly take the Bible as his primary work. He doesn't go that far. Rather, he expands on a more twisted idea of who these "kings" may have been. I haven't read much of it at all but so far it's better than I'd imagined it would be.

Funny, I take much more offense at his daring to reduce Abraham Lincoln but don't bat an eye when he turns his attention to something biblical.

Did I mention I'm a Heathen?

[Reading a library copy of this book.]


A quick peek at a few other books I'm in various stages of reading:

Journey Into the Past by Stefan Zweig (My own copy of this NYRB edition, though they've sent me a few others as I told them I'd like to make reviewing these editions a regular addition to my blog.)

The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home by Howard Frank Mosher (A library copy so overdue I must surrender it soon and check out later…)

The Story of English in 100  Words by David Crystal (Another library copy, ditto with the one above!)

Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall (To be reviewed in Library Journal.)

Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women by Barbara Sicherman (Kindle book and it's WONDERFUL!)


Coming Soon:

My interview with A.J. Jacobs

Thoughts on The Chicago Tribune's new "Printers Row" insert

 Reviews and Various Opinions