One-Minute Book Reviews

May 14, 2008

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check – Junot Díaz’s ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ – Books I Didn’t Finish

The latest in a series of occasional posts on winners of or finalists for major prizes and whether they deserved their honors

Title: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. By Junot Díaz. Riverhead, 335 pp., $24.95.

What it is: The first novel by the author of the short story collection, Drown. The dust jacket of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao describes it as a book about “a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love.”

Winner of: The 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

How much I read: The first 60 pages and some later passages.

Why I stopped reading: A short prologue introduces fukú, a type of curse or doom, in a tone of beautifully controlled menace. The first seven pages of this novel may have been the best opening of a novel published in 2007. But the tone shifted in the first chapter and, with it, my attention. Much of the story is told by Oscar’s friend Yunior, whose narrative devolves at times into telling instead of showing. Oscar’s language is also heavily profane and vulgar, and although the profanity and vulgarity may have been necessary, they made it harder to warm up to the book. It probably didn’t help that my three years of high school Spanish didn’t prepare me to translate much of the Spanish and Spanglish in the book, so I had the sense that I was missing a lot of the subtleties.

Was this one of those prizes that make you wonder if all the judges were on Class B controlled substances? No. The 60 or so pages that I read weren’t as good as those of the best Pulitzer fiction winners I’ve read, such as The Stories of John Cheever (1979), A Summons to Memphis (1987), and The Age of Innocence (1921). But they may have been much better than some of the worst Pulitzer winners, which have long since dropped out of sight.

Best line in what I read: The first lines of the novel: “They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú – generally a curse or doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and Doom of the New World.”

Worst line in what I read: “He walked into school every day like the fat lonely nerdy kid he was, and all he could think about was the day of his manumission, when he would at last be set free from its unending horror.” That “manumission” is one of a number of examples of elevated diction that clashes with breezier tone that exists elsewhere in the book.

Published: September 2007 us.penguingroup.com

Furthermore: Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic, grew up in New Jersey, and lives in New York City. He teaches writing at MIT.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 8, 2008

Why Do Unworthy Books Win Awards like Pulitzer Prizes? Quote of the Day (Neville Braybrooke)

In last night’s post, I listed some classic American novels that didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, given yesterday to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. A related question is: Why do unworthy book win awards? One obvious answer is that most prizes are given out annually, and every year may not bring a great book in a category.

But more subtle factors may come into play. A truism of literary prize-giving is that awards often go to everybody’s second choice. Judges may split into two camps with each side fiercely opposing the other’s first choice. To reach a decision, they may choose a second-rate book they can all support.

Judges tell many stories in among themselves about such compromises but rarely discuss them publicly. Who wants to admit to having honored a clinker? But Neville Braybooke suggests how the practice can work in his preface to the Every Eye, the elegant second novel by his late wife, Isobel English. Braybooke writes that English refused to add the happy ending that an American publisher wanted to her to give her first novel, The Key That Rusts:

“More significantly, during these early days of her career, came the news that The Key That Rusts had been shortlisted for the Somerset Maugham Award, tying for first place with Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net. In the event, the judges were unable to decide who should be the winner, so they gave the prize to the runner-up, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.”

Neville Braybrooke in Every Eye (David R. Godine/Black Sparrow, $23.95) www.blacksparrowbooks.com.

Comment by Jan:

Braybrooke may have been willing to tell this anecdote partly because there would have been no shame in losing either to Lucky Jim or Under the Net, both modern classics. And few critics would argue that Amis’s comic novel was unworthy of an award. The Somerset Maugham Award is given annually by the London-based Society of Authors www.societyofauthors.org to the writer or writers under the age of 35 who wrote the best book of the year.

Do you think any unworthy books have won awards? What are they?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved. www.janiceharayda.com

“ …

April 6, 2008

Pulitzer Prizes To Be Announced Monday, April 7, at 3 p.m. — Here’s a Link to the Pulitzer Site

Filed under: Book Awards,News,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:34 pm
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[Update at 3:30 p.m. Monday: Junot Diaz has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscao Wao, a novel that last month won the National Book Critics Circle Prize for fiction. Here’s a link to the AP story that lists all the winners for books and journalism, which has more on the winners right now than the Pulitzer site:

ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5j7vuQ5ogo7UJ6MEjWWaYBGpyOTCgD8VT75DG0.

This more extensive story has a complete list of all the winners (with descriptions of the work) and finalists, including all the books that were finalists www.huliq.com/56234/columbia-university-announcees-2008-pulitzer-prize-winners.

The winners of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes will be announced on Monday, April 7, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. The awards honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction – though the judges may decline to give an award in any of them. You should be able to find the winners after they are announced at the Pulitzer site, www.pulitzer.org. In the meantims, the site also has questions and answers about the prizes.

March 10, 2008

National Book Critics Circle Award Reality Check: Mary Jo Bang’s ‘Elegy,’ Poems About Her Son’s Death, an ‘Addiction Catastrophe’

The latest in an occasional series on book-award winners and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Elegy: Poems. By Mary Jo Bang. Graywolf, 92 pp., $20.

What it is: Sixty-four poems about the year after the death of Bang’s 37-year-old son, an event described as an “addiction catastrophe.” Elegy consists mostly of short- or medium-lined free verse and includes the three elements of classical elegy: praise, lament and (in this case, faint) consolation.

Winner of … this year’s National Book Critics Circle award for poetry www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com

Was this one of those awards that make you wonder if the judges were all on Class B controlled substances? No. But some of the judges did seem to be enjoying the wine at the reception after the awards ceremony on Thursday night.

Worthy of a major prize? Yes, chiefly for the poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” At times Elegy reads less like poetry than therapy, strewn with banal words or phrases: “describable,” “a wince-making barrenness,” “Paxil’s myoclonal kick.” Some of its ideas might have come from a card rack at Shop-Rite or a women’s-magazine article on coping with loss. (“I love you like I love / All beautiful things.” “Grief was complicated.”) But poetry collections can justify their awards with a single poem. And Elegy does it with the exceptional “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” an homage in multi-part harmony to Bang’s son, to the Bruegel masterpiece with the same title and to poems about the painting by William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden. In this 22-line poem Bang recalls the last time she saw her son, standing on a subway platform after they had admired mosaics at the Met, and reflects that their day should be embedded in amber. Then, in the chilling final lines, she suggests a brutal truth about the isolating effect of death: “ … And how can it be / that this means nothing to anyone but me now.” Bang knows what Auden meant when he wrote in “Musee des Beaux Arts” that “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” And in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” she deals with this ageless idea in a way that is fresh and memorable.

Best line: The lines quoted above, beginning: “And how can it be.”

Worst line: The jarring pun in the line: “And my I sees.”

Published: October 2007 www.graywolfpress.org

Consider reading instead: Anne Porter’s Living Things, which has both new poems and all of those collected in her An Altogether Different Language, a National Book Award finalist www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/28/. Living Things includes the wonderful poem “For My Son Johnny,” Porter’s elegy for her son, who had what she believes was autism or schizophrenia. Bang tells you so little about her son Michael that Elegy is almost a misnomer and Grief might have been a better title. You don’t feel you know Michael from the book — you how his mother experienced his death. This isn’t a “flaw.” Poets have a right to choose their subjects. But Porter’s son Johnny is so alive on the page in “For My Son Johnny” that you learn more about him from one poem than you do about Bang’s son from her entire book. Poetry groups might want to compare how two admired contemporary poets have portrayed the loss of a mature child.

Furthermore: Bang has written four other collections of poetry. She is a professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Washington University. “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” appeared in The New Yorker. Other poems in the collection have appeared publications that include Poetry and The Paris Review.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 9, 2008

Another Book Awards Reality Check — Coming Tomorrow

Filed under: Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:57 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Have you ever read a book that won a major award and thought, “Were those judges all on Class B controlled substances?” One-Minute Book Reviews deals with questions like these in its occasional “Reality Check” series that explores whether recent winners of literary prizes deserved their honors.

Tomorrow this series will focus on Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy www.graywolfpress.org, which won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry on Thursday www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com. You can find other posts in the series by using the search box on this site to search for “Reality Check.”

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 7, 2008

National Book Critics Circle Award Reality Check: ‘Brother, I’m Dying’

Filed under: African American,Book Awards,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:53 pm
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Do literary prizes always go to deserving authors? One-Minute Book Reviews considers the question in “Reality Check,” a series of occasional posts on books shortlisted for high-profile awards. A recent installment considered Edwidge Danticat’s memoir of an uncle who died while in custody of U.S. immigration officials, Brother, I’m Dying www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/02/. then a finalist for a 2007 National Book Award. The book has since won the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com. A “Reality Check” post on the NBCC poetry winner, Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, will appear next week.

(c) Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Junot Díaz Wins NBCC Fiction Award – Danticat Gets Autobiography Prize – Other Winners Are Ross, Bang, Jeal and Washington

Filed under: Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:38 am
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Junot Díaz has won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction for his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead). Other books that won prizes in the March 6 ceremony in Manhattan are: General nonfiction, Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present (Doubleday); Biography, Tim Jeal’s Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer (Yale University Press); Autobiography, Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying (Knopf); Poetry, Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy (Graywolf); and Criticism, Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).The NBCC awards are one of the top three literary honors in the U.S. along with the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prizes. They are given annually by the 800-member association of American book critics.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 8, 2008

Did Laura Amy Schlitz Deserve the 2008 Newbery Medal? Quote of the Day (Meghan Cox Gurdon)

Many people were suprised when Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village won the most recent John Newbery Medal, an award that usually goes to a novel, for a collection of monologues and dialogues. Did the book deserve the honor? Meghan Cox Gurdon, the children’s book critic for the Wall Street Journal, called the collection “remarkable and poignant” and added:

“As with any prestigious award, the Newbery also brings new readers to the author’s other works, which in this case is a particularly welcome effect. Ms. Schlitz has a rich and humane style of writing, with stories that manage to be both sparkling and substantial. Better still, her storytelling is a return to the moral traditions of the greatest and most enduring tales, yet with not the slightest taste of cod liver oil nor any of the tiresome left-leaning didacticism that has characterized so much writing for children since the late 1960s.”

Meghan Cox Gurdon in “A Late-Blooming Talent in Full Flower” in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19-20, 2008.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 16, 2008

Two Children’s Classics That Didn’t Win the Newbery — What Are the Others?

This week I was going to compile a list of 10 great children’s novels that didn’t win a Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org, similar to my list of 10 classics that didn’t get Pulitzer (“Famous Pulitzer Losers,” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/04/16/). But I ran out of time, so I’ll just mention two:

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. A 1953 Newbery Honor Book that lost the top prize to Ann Nolan Clark’s Secret of the Andes.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. Shut out of all prizes in 1976. Lost to the Newbery medalist, Susan Cooper’s The Grey King, and Honor Books The Hundred Penny Box, by Sharon Bell Mathis, and Dragonwings, by Laurence Yep.

What are the other classics – books children have enjoyed for decades — that didn’t win the Newbery?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 15, 2008

Why Did the American Library Association Snub Sherman Alexie?

Did Alexie’s young-adult novel finish out of the medals because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial joke that includes the “n” word?

By Janice Harayda

Sherman Alexie never really had a shot at winning the 2008 Newbery Medal, which honors the most distinguished work of literature for children (specifically, for those under the age of 14). The material in his The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is too mature for many children in that age group.

But Alexie was a favorite for the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award for young people’s literature, which honors a book for an older audience and went to Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won a 2007 National Book Award www.nationalbook.org. And it was mentioned repeatedly in the Mock Newbery contests held by libraries in the weeks before yesterday’s awards ceremony.

So a lot of people were surprised when The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian finished out of the medals at the ALA’s midwinter meeting yesterday, receiving neither a major prize nor an honor-book designation. Did the novel lose because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial and sexual joke that includes the “n” word and caused some students to walk out of a speech that Alexie gave at an Illinois high school in October?

Tomorrow One Minute Book Reviews will review The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian www.lb-teens.com, including comments on parts that might given pause to the ALA. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing this review. One-Minute Book Reviews normally reviews books for children and teenagers on Saturdays but may depart from this policy when books make news. Its reviews of books for adults will resume on Thursday.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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