One-Minute Book Reviews

March 16, 2010

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ — Champagne or Table Wine?

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:38 am
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Dorothy Parker called The Grapes of Wrath “the greatest American novel I have ever read,” but many critics disagree

The Grapes of Wrath. By John Steinbeck. Penguin Classics, 464 pp., $16, paperback. Introduction by Robert DeMott. Also available in other editions.

By Janice Harayda

Still enraged that Premier Bankcard is charging a 79.9 percent interest rateon its credit card? Reading The Grapes of Wrath might be cathartic. More than 70 years after its publication, this novel remains one of the most scathing indictments of banking and related industries to appear in American fiction.

In 1936 the San Francisco News sent John Steinbeck to investigate the living conditions of displaced Dust Bowl farmers who were streaming into California looking for work. That assignment inspired The Grapes of Wrath, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about how displacement and bureaucratic cruelty transform families.

Steinbeck refracts his theme through the bleak story of the Joads, Oklahoma sharecroppers evicted by a bank who set out for California hoping to earn a living as fruit-pickers. Ma and Pa Joad and their children face an almost soap-operatic array of disasters on their car trip and in the blighted Eden of California, where people disparagingly call them “Okies”: hunger, homelessness, illness, death, unemployment and the sadism of rich landowners. Their stoic dignity has endeared them to readers of all ages and to the Swedish Academy, which gave Steinbeck the 1962 Nobel Prize in literature.

The Grapes of Wrath has won less consistent acclaim from critics, who disagree on whether the Joads’ story is Dom Perignon or mediocre table wine. Dorothy Parker, one of the finest critics of her day, called the book “the greatest American novel I have ever read,” and it appears regularly on lists of the most influential works of fiction of the 20th century. But Edmund Wilson said that Steinbeck reduced his characters to their biological drives and animal instincts. And when Jonathan Yardley reviewed a volume of Steinbeck’s collected works for the Washington Post in the 1990s, he was struck by “the solemnity, the sentimentality, the heavy-handed irony, the humorlessness, the labored colloquialisms, the clumsiness” and “the political naiveté” he found in them, though reminded of the “powerfully sympathetic portraits of American farm workers and . . . the vision of social justice” he once admired.

Many of the complaints about the book have merit. Steinbeck conflates poverty and goodness – and wealth and evil – to a degree rarely found in novels written in the documentary style of The Grapes of Wrath. He portrays sympathetically and often sentimentally characters such as a waitress who thinks that the rich are thieves and “the bigger the car they got, the more they steal.” He is less subtle than his fellow social-realist and Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis is in Main Street and other books. You know exactly what you are supposed to think about every issue raised in The Grapes of Wrath, which is why some critics have dismissed it as propaganda or a tract.

But the sentimentality of The Grapes of Wrath is not the cut-rate sentimentality that floods a market full of books by Mitch Albom imitators. It is hard won. And it is rooted in a deep and sincere concern for the brutal conditions endured by the Depression-era poor, some hungry enough to eat coal, as Ma Joad did, or trade a child’s doll for gas that would allow them to flee circumstances. The novelist Don DeLillo rightly said that in The Grapes of Wrath “there is something at stake in every sentence.”

There’s also something going on in every sentence. The Grapes of Wrath keeps its momentum from its opening chapters, when Ma and Pa Joad’s son Tom returns from prison, to its last pages, when the family tries to help a sick man though its own circumstances have grown more desperate. At times, the action includes perceptive observations on what makes life worth living. Steinbeck writes that migrant workers yearned for amusement and found it when they gathered around a fire to hear a storyteller: “And they listened while the tales were told, and their participation in the stories made them great.” The Grapes of Wrath is not a great novel as many critics would define it: a near-flawless work that yields new insights with each reading. It has been made great by the participation in its story of the successive generations to whom it has spoken as if by firelight.

Best line: The title. It appears in this line in the novel: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Worst line: “‘No, it ain’t,’ Ma smiled.”

Reading group guide with 12 discussion questions about The Grapes of Wrath from by the Big Read project of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Movie link: The 1940 movie of The Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two.

Furthermore: The site for the Nobel Prize foundation has a biography and more about Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath. The California Association of Teachers of English site explores some of the author’s local connections. A preloaded digital audiobook editor of the Penguin Classics edition of The Grapes of Wrath from Playaway is available online and at many libraries.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes the publishing industry on her FakeBookNews page (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

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

March 14, 2010

This Week — Is ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ Still Relevant?

Filed under: Classics,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:31 pm
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More than 70 years ago, John Steinbeck’s best-known novel served up a blistering indictment of the brutal conditions faced by migrant workers in California. Does The Grapes of Wrath have anything to say in the age of the AIG bailout and collateralized debt obligations? A review of the novel will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews this week.

January 12, 2010

J.D. Salinger’s ‘Tin Ear’ in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ — Quote of the Day / Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post

Filed under: Classics,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:28 pm
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Jonathan Yardley‘s late “Second Reading” column for the Washington Post included a scathing and widely read assault on The Catcher in the Rye, “Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Aging Gracelessly.” Here’s an excerpt from the review, which you can read here:

“The Catcher in the Rye is now, you’ll be told just about anywhere you ask, an ‘American classic,’ right up there with the book that was published the following year, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. They are two of the most durable and beloved books in American literature and, by any reasonable critical standard, two of the worst. Rereading The Catcher in the Rye after all those years was almost literally a painful experience: The combination of Salinger’s execrable prose and Caulfield’s jejune narcissism produced effects comparable to mainlining castor oil. …

“The cheap sentimentality with which the novel is suffused reaches a climax of sorts when Holden’s literary side comes to the fore. He flunks all his courses except English. ‘I’m quite illiterate,’ he says early in the book, ‘but I read a lot,’ which establishes the mixture of self-deprecation and self-congratulation that seems to appeal to so many readers. …

“Salinger has a tin ear. His characters forever say ‘ya’ for ‘you,’ as in ‘ya know,’ which no American except perhaps a slapstick comedian ever has said. Americans say ‘yuh know’ or ‘y’know,’ but never ‘ya know.'”

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, such as it is, at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

January 11, 2010

Jonathan Yardley’s ‘Second Reading’ Ends Its Great Run

Filed under: Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:34 pm
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Jonathan Yardley recently stopped writing his wonderful Washington Post column on notable or neglected books of the past, “Second Reading,” and I haven’t linked to it nearly enough. But you can read some of its spirited reviews online, and I encourage you to seek them out. You’ll find good examples of the vigor, intelligence and moral fearlessess of Yardley’s literary criticism in his blistering denunciation of The Catcher in the Rye, in his mixed appraisal of Sula, and in his embrace of the underappreciated The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor.

December 19, 2009

‘The Story of the Other Wise Man’ — Henry Van Dyke’s Christmas Classic

A parable about the meaning of faith that first appeared in 1896

The Story of the Other Wise Man. By Henry Van Dyke. Enthea, 128 pp., $10.99, paperback. Available in other editions, including abridged picture-book versions for children.

By Janice Harayda

What is the meaning of faith? Does it involve saying prayers? Attending religious services? Making pilgrimages to shrines or holy places?

Henry Van Dyke (1852–1933) never raises these questions directly in The Story of the Other Wise Man. But they lie at the heart of this classic parable about the meaning of faith in a secular age.

Van Dyke invents a fourth wise man, Artaban, who trades his belongings for gifts for “the promised one” foretold by prophets: a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl. Artaban plans to give the jewels to the infant after meeting up with his companions Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, who have gold, frankincense and myrrh. But he misses the connection after he stops to nurse a dying man, and later on, he parts with his jewels. He uses the ruby to ransom a child whom King Herod had ordered slain and the pearl to free a girl about to be sold into slavery.

Artaban believes he has missed all opportunities to meet the promised one until, near the end of his 33 years, he reaches Jerusalem just before the Crucifixion. There he realizes that his search has ended when he hears a faint voice saying: “Verily I say unto thee, Inasmuch as thou hast done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me.”

On his journey Artaban wrestles with what The Story of the Other Wise Man calls “the conflict between the expectation of faith and the impulse of love.” But Van Dyke resisted appeals to explain what his book “meant.”

“How can I tell?” he asks in his foreword. “What does life mean? If the meaning could be put into a sentence there would be no need of telling a story.”

Furthermore: Van Dyke was the minister at Manhattan’s Brick Presbyterian Church, where he first told Artaban’s story. He later became a professor English at Princeton University and Ambassador to the Netherlands. Van Dyke may be best known today as the author of the text for the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” set to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony. Click here to read Van Dyke’s words and listen to the music. You will also see a picture of Van Dyke if you click.

An online version of The Other Wise Man appears on Classic Reader.

The post first appeared on Dec. 23, 2007.

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

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 17, 2009

A Sherlock Holmes Christmas Story — ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’

Filed under: Classics,Mysteries and Thrillers,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:36 pm
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The world’s most famous detective must figure out how a priceless gem ended up in a white goose

By Janice Harayda

Great holiday crime stories are rare. Set a murder mystery against the backdrop of a celebration of the birth of Christ and you risk accusations of trivializing the season or playing it for heavy irony. And who wants to be reminded that the wreath-draped mall teems with pickpockets or that burglars may strike after we leave for the airport?

Part of the genius of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is that it implicitly acknowledges such realities. Arthur Conan Doyle begins this Sherlock Holmes tale on the second morning after Christmas. It’s a holiday story without the freight it would carry if it took place two days earlier. And it has a plot perfectly attuned to the season. Holmes has the benign Watson by his side as usual. But he doesn’t face his arch-foe, Moriarty, or a killer armed with a gun or a trained swamp adder as in “The Dancing Men” or “The Speckled Band.” He needs only to find out why a priceless gem – the blue carbuncle – turned up in the gullet of a Christmas goose abandoned on a London street.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. But Holmes resolves the case, in fewer than a dozen pages, with panache and in a spirit of holiday generosity. You could probably read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” aloud in 20 minutes or so as a yule log burns. And it appeals to nearly all ages – not just to adults but to children who need more dramatic fare than The Polar Express.

Part of the allure all the Sherlock Holmes tales is that, while their stories are exciting, Holmes is imperturbable. “My name is Sherlock Holmes,” he tells a suspect in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” “It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” How nice that, in this case, he knows how to set the right tone – in a secular if not religious sense – for the season.

Furthermore: You can download “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” for free at the online Classic Literature Library, which makes available at no cost books in the public domain. At top left is the Audio CD “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — The Blue Carbuncle” (Mitso Media, 2006), read by James Alexander.

This review first appeared on this site on Dec. 19, 2007.

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

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

December 7, 2009

Sex and the City of Light — Elaine Dundy’s ‘The Dud Avocado’

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:15 am
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A young, single and free-spirited American cuts loose Paris in the 1950s

The Dud Avocado. By Elaine Dundy. Introduction by Terry Teachout. New York Review Books Classics, 260 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1958 Elaine Dundy won rapturous praise for The Dud Avocado, a sparkling novel about the cultural and romantic adventures of a young American in France. More than a half century later, her book has become a modern classic, driven by the unique voice of an endearingly impulsive heroine.

Sally Jay Gorce has traveled to Paris search of gaiety, laughter and “shoes in the air” – apparently, something not unlike a Fred Astaire movie. Bankrolled by an allowance from a rich uncle, she finds all of those as she takes small acting roles and moves from cafés and nightclubs in Montparnasse to a villa near Biarritz. She also has a moral awakening that occurs not when she loses her virginity to an Italian diplomat – which is part of her backstory — but when she discovers that Old World glamour can mask social ruthlessness.

Groucho Marx wrote to Dundy to praise The Dud Avocado: “It made me laugh, scream, and guffaw (which, incidentally, is a great name for a law firm).” And the book is certainly one of the most entertaining novels of the 20th century about an innocent abroad. Sally may be as green as an avocado, but she knows what’s wrong with a hotel for Anglophiles that’s “full of dusty red plush” furniture: “It’s probably the only perfect replica of a Victorian mausoleum still standing in Paris.” And she has a sensibility that is surprisingly modern. She declines to live with a boyfriend not because it’s immoral – they’re sleeping together — but because it would curb her freedom. She is also charmingly open about her faults, such as her quick temper and flightiness: “I always expect people to behave much better than I do. When they actually behave worse, I am frankly incredulous.”

Like its heroine, The Dud Avocado has small flaws: a loosely stitched plot, an ending that isn’t fully earned. These detract little from a book that invests Paris in 1950s with the allure others have given to the Paris in the 1920s. No matter how many scrapes Sally gets into, you never doubt her intelligence or enthusiasm for life. She writes of friends: “A rowdy bunch on the whole, they were most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.” The same applies many recent books: they’re “so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable.” The allure of The Dud Avocado – like that of its heroine – is that it is interchangeable with nothing.

Best line: “I mean, the question actors most often get asked is how they can bear saying the same things over and over again night after night, but God knows the answer to  that is, don’t we all anyway; might as well get paid for it.”

Worst line: “I saw us for what we really were: beggars and toadies and false pretenders.” Pretenders are always false.

Reading group guide: Posted on the publisher’s site.

Published: 1958 (first edition). June 2007 (NYRB reissue). In addition to The Dud AvocadoDundy wrote the novels The Old Man and Me and The Injured Party and a memoir.

Furthermore: More about Dundy appears in her New York Times obituary. The Dud Avocado has an excellent introduction by Terry Teachout, the author and drama critic for the Wall Street Journal.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda)  on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 1, 2009

All the Words to the Baseball Poem ‘Casey at the Bat,’ Free and Online

Okay, parents, here’s my annual reminder: If you want to get the kids interested in poetry, turn off the TV during the seventh-inning stretch and read Ernest L. Thayer’s brief classic baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat.” You’ll find a good, free, legal and complete version on this page of the site for the Academy of American Poets. And you’ll find my review of several picture-book editions of the poem, suitable for children of different ages, here. My review includes Christopher Bing’s Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888, a Caldecott Honor Book.

October 17, 2009

Why Was the Book ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ a Trailblazer? A Classic Reconsidered

Why did Where the Wild Things Are seem revolutionary when it appeared in 1963? What qualities helped it win the 1964 Caldecott Medal? And why has it lasted long enough to inspire a new Spike Jonze movie? A review of the trailblazing children’s book by Maurice Sendak appeared in the “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series on One-Minute Book Reviews.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

August 26, 2009

Before Ted Kennedy’s Brain Tumor, There Was Johnny Gunther’s

Filed under: Classics,Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:40 am
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Malignant brain tumors such as that of Sen. Ted Kennedy (1932-2009) are uncommon enough that they have received less attention in books than many other types of cancer. One exception to the pattern is Death Be Not Proud, John Gunther’s eloquent memoir of the death of his 17-year-old son, Johnny, from a fatal glioma diagnosed when he was in high school. American views of cancer have undergone a sea-change since the book was first published in 1949. But this modern classic remains one of the finest accounts we have of the physical and emotional toll that a malignant brain tumor takes on patients, even those who might seem to have all the advantages. This post first appeared in 2008.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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