One-Minute Book Reviews

March 21, 2007

Flannery O’Connor on the Purpose of Symbols in Fiction … Quote of the Day #14

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Essays and Reviews,Fiction,Literature,Novels,Quotes of the Day,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:15 pm

Flannery O’Connor on symbols in fiction …

“Now the word symbol scares a good many people off, just as the word art does. They seem to feel that a symbol is some mysterious thing put in arbitrarily by the writer to frighten the common reader — sort of a literary Masonic grip that is only for the initiated …

“I think that for the fiction writer himself, symbols are something he uses simply as a matter of course. You might say that these are details that, while having their essential place in the literal level of the story, operate in depth as well as on the surface, increasing the story in every direction.

“I think that the way to read a book is always to see what happens, but in a good novel, more always happens than we are able to take in at once, more happens than meets the eye. The mind is led on by what it sees into the greater depths that the book’s symbols naturally suggest. This is what is meant when critics say that a novel operates on several levels. The truer the symbol, the deeper it leads you, the more meaning it opens up.”

Flannery O’Connor in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1969.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
Flannery O’Connor wrote these words more than three decades ago, when symbols might have scared off the common reader but not critics. Have you noticed how symbols now seem to scare critics, too? Newspapers and magazines regularly publish reviews that make no attempt to deal with symbols in long and complex novels that obviously have levels of meaning. This is often a sign that those publications are using weak or timid critics. It can also be a sign that that editors are allowing those critics to avoid dealing with books in all their complexity.

Mystery and Manners is one of the great books of the 20th century on the art and craft of writing. It is one of the few books on writing that I recommend to all fiction writers and readers who look for the “greater depths” in novel or short story. Another quote from Mystery and Manners appears in the March 12 post, archived with the March 2007 posts in and in the “Quotes of the Day” category.

(c) Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 16, 2007

Another Jawbreaker From Claire Messud’s ‘The Emperor’s Children’

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Fiction,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:05 pm

A postscript to yesterday’s news that Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children had been named the second runner-up in the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition for the year’s worst writing in books

By Janice Harayda

Wow, I thought the lines I quoted from The Emperor’s Children were bad. (Delete Key Awards Finalist, #4, Feb. 28; see also the March 15 post naming her the second-runner up in the finals www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/15/). But I just discovered that Amazon.com reviewer Gary Malone may have one-upped me. Read this excerpt from his review of the hardcover edition of her novel on that site:

The plot that wouldn’t thicken, March 5, 2007
Reviewer: Gary Malone (Australia)
- See all my reviews

“You’ve really got to worry about a novel when a *favourable* reviewer describes the plot’s two main set pieces and one of them is when the cat dies. [The Economist, 19 Aug 2006.] Before getting into that, however, try this sample sentence for size:

‘He remembered his father’s telling him – his father, small as he was himself tall, with sloping shoulders off which Murray feared, as a child, the braces might slip, a bow-tied little man with an almost Hitlerian mustache, softened from menace by its grayness, and by the softness, insidious softness, of his quiet voice, a softness that belied his rigidity and tireless industry, his humorless and ultimately charmless ‘goodness’ (Why had she married him? She’d been so beautiful, and such fun) – telling him, as he deliberated on his path at Harvard, to choose accounting, or economics, saying, with that dreaded certainty, ‘You see, Murray, I know you want to go out and write books or something like that. But only geniuses can be writers, Murray, and frankly son …’ [p. 124]

See what I mean about size? Reviewers have already complained about the author’s self-interrupting, drunkenly digressive prose style. They are entirely correct to do so. Claire Messud’s book is festooned with sentences which are essentially motorway pile-ups of sub-clauses, codicils and parenthetical interpolations. Such a rookie mistake – which makes for hopelessly cumbersome reading – should never have made it past the editor.”

Be sure to read Malone’s review on Amazon if your book club is thinking of reading The Emperor’s Children, especially if you wonder if the writing was bad enough to make it the second-runner in the Delete Key Awards, just behind first runner-up Mitch Albom and grand prize winner Danielle Steel.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 14, 2007

Did We Really Need This Reminder That They Didn’t Have Epidurals in Bethlehem?: Mary’s Labor Pains on a Donkey: Bad Enough to Win a Delete Key Award for Elizabeth Berg?

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Fiction,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:12 pm

“I am in agony, and I must ride endlessly on a donkey in search of something we cannot find!”

What Mary says to Joseph in The Handmaid and the Carpenter

What made Elizabeth Berg decide to fictionalize the courtship of Mary and Joseph in a novel pitched to the 2006 Christmas gift market? In The Handmaid and the Carpenter, Joseph feels “a stirring in his loins” when he looks at the “flirtatious” Mary. And Mary’s labor pains speed up while she and Joseph are looking for a room, causing her to screech at Joseph, “I am in agony, and I must ride endlessly on a donkey in search of something we cannot find!”

Is this bad enough to win a Delete Key Award? Find out tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews. A list of finalists appeared on Feb. 28 and is archived with the February posts.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 13, 2007

Was This Line From Thomas Harris’s ‘Hannibal Rising’ the Worst Sentence in a Book Published in 2006?

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Fiction,Novels,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:39 pm

“Our family, we are somewhat unusual people, Hannibal.”

No, Thomas Harris wasn’t trying to be funny there. That line was a serious comment made by an uncle to young Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising. Is it bad enough to win the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition for the year’s worst writing in books?

You have until the end of the day on Wednesday, March 14, to comment. The winner will be announced on Thursday, March 15. A review of Hannibal Rising appeared on this site on Jan. 23, 2007, and is archived with the January posts and in the “Mysteries and Thrillers” category.

Another example of the stilted prose in the novel turns up when Harris writes, “Hannibal walked Lady Murasaki to her very chamber door …” As opposed to her “not very” chamber door?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Is This Line From Claire Messud’s ‘The Emperor’s Children’ the Worst Line in a Book Published in 2006?

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Fiction,Novels,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 pm

“It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.”

Lines like this helped to make Claire Messud’s overrated The Emperor’s Children (Knopf, 2006) a finalist for a 2007 Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books. Among the problems: That “leadening” wasn’t literal but metaphorical, and the sentence is infested with clichés

Messud also writes that a character “never knew in life whether to be Pierre or Natasha, the solitary, brooding loner or the vivacious social butterfly.” As opposed to a loner who isn’t solitary?

Should Messud win the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition? Or should the honor go to a finalist such as Mitch Albom or Danielle Steel? You have until the end of the day tomorrow to comment. One-Minute Book Reviews will name the winner on Thursday, March 15. You can find more about The Emperor’s Children in a review archived with the October 2006 posts and in the “Novels” category on this site.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 10, 2007

Do Christian Themes Kill Your Chances of Winning a Newbery Medal? Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘A Drowned Maiden’s Hair’

A gripping neo-Gothic novel snubbed by the American Library Association

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Candlewick, 389 pp., $15.99. Ages 10 & up. [See further discussion of these ages below.]

By Janice Harayda

Do Christian themes kill your chances of winning top honors from American Library Association? You might think so after reading two also-rans for the 2007 Newbery Medal for the “most distinguished” work of children’s literature, Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair.

The winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, has many virtues discussed in a Feb. 19 review on this site, particularly its vibrant descriptions of the Mojave Desert and engaging illustrations by Matt Phelan. But Susan Patron’s underdeveloped plot helps to make her novel at best a B/B-minus book.

DiCamillo’s Christian allegory, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, doesn’t have that problem. Neither does A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, a gripping neo-Gothic first novel that has more complex themes and shows a stronger command of language and storytelling than the winner.

Then why did Schitz’s novel get shut out of the medals? Consider the plot: In 1909 a high-spirited 11-year-old named Maud Flynn rejoices when she learns she is to be adopted by a trio of unmarried sisters who promise her treats like “ready-made dresses” and bacon instead the gritty oatmeal served at the Barbary Asylum for Orphans.

But Maud grows uneasy when she learns that the women are fake spiritualists who expect her to take part in séances intended to con the rich widow Eleanor Lambert into thinking that she’s hearing from her dead daughter. A sister named Hyacinth tells Maud: “Any minister worth his salt would tell her she would see her daughter in heaven. But Eleanor Lambert doesn’t want to see her daughter in heaven. She wants her now.” Hyacinth adds that Mrs. Lambert “wants to resurrect the dead – which is impossible.”

Anyone who has read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane may see a theme emerging: While DiCamillo’s novel implicitly affirms the possibility of resurrection, Schlitz’s explicitly denies it. And A Drowned Maiden’s Hair goes further by casting the superintendent of the Barbary Asylum as a religious hypocrite who treats children cruelly while displaying a picture of Jesus and the words: “Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me.” The ALA might have snubbed DiCamillo’s novel for fear of appearing to promote Christianity (although many librarians have no trouble recommending The Chronicles of Narnia, also regarded as a Chrisitan allegory). But Schlitz doesn’t promote it. Has even a historically appropriate mention of religious hypocrisy become taboo? Must authors shun any mention of Christianity to win an ALA award? Books about other faiths don’t seem to face the same obstacles. A Caldecott Honor citation went in 2006 to Zen Shorts, a picture book about Buddhism.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair isn’t flawless. From a literary standpoint, Schlitz makes two big mistakes. Children may not notice one because the story is so suspenseful: Schlitz tells her story from Maud’s point of view but sometimes credits her heroine with ideas that are unrealistic for her. At the orphanage Maud led a life so sheltered that she can’t remember ever having gone outside at night. But she soon encourages one of her new caretakers to wear her hair in a pompadour because it’s “stylish.” How would she know? Maud also reflects that the books at the orphanage were “mostly moral tales.” This is an accurate but adult characterization of what she would have been reading. The problem becomes clear when you compare A Drowned Maiden’s Hair with another novel about a distant era, Little House on the Prairie, which works so beautifully, in part, because Laura Ingalls Wilder never makes such slips: She tells you only what Laura, her young heroine, would have seen or thought. Children love the book partly because they understand – even if they can’t express it — that it shows the world from their point of view.

The second mistake Schlitz makes is that she has Maud’s older brother, Samm’l, adopted by other parents, appear early in the book and promise to send for her after he gets his own farm, though Maud never sees or hears from him again after that. Parents, I ask you: If you promise your child something like this, will your child forget it? No, and the readers of this book aren’t going to forget it, either. Schlitz seems to have inserted a scene involving the brother either because she wanted to add background about Maud without larding the novel with exposition or because she is setting up a sequel. Either way, it’s a cheat.

None of this spoils the pleasure of reading the novel. Schlitz has spent much of her life working as a professional storyteller. And as befits that background, she grabs your attention with a terrific beginning and sustains a level of suspense as high as you are likely to find in any children’s novel of 2006. And A Drowned Maiden’s Hair does more than tell a captivating story. It asks children to consider large questions such as: What does it mean to be “good”? To what degree are you responsible for your own actions if adults require you to act a certain way? Can material comforts – like pretty clothes and ice-cream sodas – bring happiness? And, yes, is there life after death?

“People throw the word ‘classic’ about rather a lot,” Megan Cox Gordon wrote in the Wall Street Journal, ‘but A Drowned Maiden’s Hair genuinely deserves to become one.” Fortunately, when librarians have snubbed worthy books, such as Tuck Everlasting, children usually have the last word.

Best line: The first: “On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was in the outhouse, singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”

Worst line: Maud’s comment: “Pompadours are stylish. And a pompadour would make your face look taller.”

Age level: The moral questions raised by this novel justify the “ages 10 and up” recommendation from the publisher. But the story would fascinate many younger children, too (and has no sex or “bad words” that would rule it out in some homes). One way to think of A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is that it’s a good book for children who loved the period details of “Little House” series (typically recommended for ages 6–9) but recently have outgrown it and are ready for a story that is more challenging.

Published: October 2006

Furthermore: Schlitz also wrote the biography The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer Who Dug for Troy (Candlewick, 2006, ages 9-12), illustrated by Robert Byrd. [Note: I haven’t read The Hero Schliemann. Can any parents, teachers, or librarians comment on the book for visitors who might like to know more about Schlitz’s work? Jan]

Links: www.candlewick.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

« Previous Page

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 381 other followers

%d bloggers like this: