One-Minute Book Reviews

October 5, 2009

2009 Man Booker Prize Winner To Announced Tuesday, Oct. 6 — Late Night With Jan Harayda

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Update: Tuesday, 5:15 p.m.: Hilary Mantel has won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for Wolf Hall.

Update: Tuesday, 12:45 p.m.: Waterstone’s says the ceremony will be televised live on the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News, which means we should know the results around 5 p.m. Eastern Time in America.

I haven’t read this year’s finalists for the Man Booker Prize for fiction, Britain’s most influential literary award, the next winner of which will be named tomorrow. But I’ve had a lot to say in the past about the dumbing-down of this award, particularly about the shortlisting in 2007 of Mister Pip, written at a third-grade reading level. If you’d like a bit of background on tomorrow night’s ceremony, you may want to look at the disheartening reading levels of a roundup of some of the best-known winners and finalists.

“Late Night With Jan Harayda” is an occasional series of posts that appears after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and does not include reviews.

July 29, 2009

What It’s Like to Be Over 60 (or Over 70) – Quote of the Day / Diana Athill

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:00 pm
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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.”

July 28, 2009

‘One of the Cardinal Rules of New Jersey Politics Is, There’s No Such Thing As a Private Conversation’ — James McGreevey in ‘The Confession’ — Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:19 pm
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Update, 9:50 p.m. July 29:  Jack Shaw’s autopsy is “inconclusive” pending more toxicology reports.

The New Jersey corruption scandal has deepened with the apparent suicide of Jack Shaw, a Jersey City political consultant who was among 44 people charged Thursday in a federal probe aided by a real-estate developer-turned-informant who wore a wire.

James McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor, wrote about the ubiquitous threat of taped conversations in the state in his memoir, The Confession (HarperCollins, 2008), written with David France, and his comments still apply. McGreevey said:

“One of the cardinal rules of New Jersey politics is, there’s no such thing as a private conversation. Governor [Brendan] Byrne once told me this, as though imparting a philosophical truth from the ages. ‘Somewhere along the line,’ he said, ‘you are going to be taped by someone wearing a wire.’ This is why so many political meetings start with a big bear hug – a New Jersey pat down among friends.”

McGreevey’s memoir has problems well documented by the reviewers and op-ed page columnists who wrote about the book when it appeared in 2008, but The Confession also has many quotes like this one that help to put the latest scandal in context.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 21, 2009

How to Get Teenagers Into Libraries – Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:25 pm
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One way to get teenagers into libraries: Have a party and invite the kids to come as their favorite character in the bestselling “Twilight” series of vampire romance novels. You might show the movie “Twilight” and play trivia games, as the Fairhope Public Library in Fairhope, Alabama, did.

July 1, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Bad Book Descriptions — ‘Dick: A User’s Guide’

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:24 pm
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The Unilluminating Book Description of the Week Award goes to the first sentence of the publisher’s “product description” for the book Dick: A User’s Guide (DaCapo, 2003) as it appears on Amazon.com:

“Whether you own one or are close with someone who does, it’s pretty easy to recognize the importance of the penis.”

Let’s not all ask for specifics at once.

May 12, 2009

The Susan Boyle of Fiction, 70 Years Ahead of ‘Britain’s Got Talent!’

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:38 am
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Who is the fictional counterpart to Susan Boyle, the Scottish singer who shot from obscurity to stardom on Britain’s Got Talent!? I’d vote for Guenevere Pettigrew, the virginal and unemployed ex-governess who ascends over 24 hours into a glamorous 1930s world of cocktails and evening gowns in Winifred Watson’s sparkling 1938 comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Persephone Classics, 234 pp., $15, paperback), reissued last year along with the movie version. My review of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day appeared on Nov. 10, 2008.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 4, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Pulitzer Fiction Winners Skew Toward Disjointed Stories

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:11 pm
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Did the judges for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction assume that we all have attention deficit disorder? I’ve noted in recent reviews that the winner, Olive Kitteridge, and a finalist, All Souls, both consist of collections of disjointed stories. Other critics have made clear that the second finalist, Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves, has the same quality.

Jennifer Reese gave Erdrich’s book a B- in Entertainment Weekly and said “it reads more like a collection of random episodes than a coherent novel,” similar to a point I made earlier today about All Souls.

Ron Charles of the Washington Post found more to admire in The Plague of Doves. But he wrote of Erdrich:

“She’s challenged us before with complex, interconnected stories about the Ojibwe people of North Dakota, but here she goes for broke, whirling out a vast, fractured narrative, teeming with characters — ancestors, cousins, friends and enemies, all separated and rejoined again and again in uncanny ways over the years. Worried about losing track, I started drawing a genealogical chart after a few chapters, but it was futile: a tangle of names and squiggling lines.”

We’ve all seen plenty of awards lists that consist only of novels with traditional linear narratives, and it’s not surprising given that linear narratives are the dominant form in fiction. But collections of disjointed, if linked, stories are far less common, and this year’s Pulitzer skew is one of the oddest I’ve seen. It’s as though all the nominees for the Oscar for best picture were noir films.

April 29, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — How to Find Out How Dumbed-Down a Book Really Is

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:53 pm
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You know how I reported back in 2006 that Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade reading level in For One More Day, according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics on Microsoft Word? I’ve since posted the levels of other books, including Stephenie Meyer’s The Host. And it’s always – shall we say? – enlightening to learn how dumbed-down some books really are. It’s also time-consuming: To find a reading level, I have to type passages from a book into my computer, then run the spell-checker or paste the text into a site that has a measuring tool other than Flesch-Kincaid’s.

So I was delighted to learn from a visitor about the site for the Accelerated Reader progress-monitoring software, which lists many popular books and their reading levels. The AR site seems to focus on books schools might use, so you can’t turn to it for the reading level of anything on your nightstand. But if you compute these levels as often as I do, this one could delay the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome for a couple of years.

“Late Night With Jan Harayda” is an occasional series of posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and do not include reviews, which typically appear early in the day.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

November 20, 2008

Why Were So Many More Nonfiction Books Than Novels Nominated for the 2008 National Book Awards? (Late Night With Jan Harayda)

It costs $125 to nominate a book for a National Book Award. Why were so many more publishers willing to pay it for nonfiction than for fiction or poetry?

Do recent nonfiction books outshine novels? Many critics think so. And publishers seem to agree, based on their willingness to pay the $125-per-book entry fee for the National Book Awards.

The prize sponsor reports that in 2008 publishers nominated the following numbers of books by category: 540, nonfiction; 274, young people’s literature; 271, fiction; and 175, poetry. Publishers may have submitted nearly twice as much nonfiction as fiction because more of it gets published. Yet that explanation begs the question, because publishers presumably buy books for the same reason they nominate them for awards: They think they’re good.

More evidence of the superiority of nonfiction might seem to come from Wednesday night’s fiction winner: Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, a reworking of an earlier trilogy. If this year’s novels had been stronger, would the judges have considered a book that includes previously published material? Was Matthiessen’s shortlisting a sign of desperation in judges who wanted a strong book on the final list even if it meant exhuming some work published as long ago as 1990?

Probably not. It’s more likely the judges wanted to reward a distinguished author in his 80s for his fiction and didn’t know if they’d have another chance. (Matthiessen won the 1980 National Book Award for nonfiction for The Snow Leopard.) It’s also possible that the judges just didn’t like some of the novels that many critics ranked among the best of the year, such as Netherland.

Then why did publishers nominate so much more nonfiction? Two possible explanations. One is that nonfiction books have more opportunity to catch fire in the media or elsewhere: They don’t depend on reviews as much as novels do. And publishers know that momentum can affect judges. In paying those $125 entry fees, some may have invested in what they considered the safest bets.

A related explanation for all the nonfiction nominees is that fiction has two main genres: novels and short stories. Nonfiction has many — including history, memoirs, biography, essays and journalism — and more ways to make an impact. This year’s nonfiction shortlist reflected some of them: The Dark Side (exposé), Final Salute (feature writing), This Republic of Suffering (social history), The Suicide Index (memoir), and the winner, The Hemingses of Monticello (family history).

Yet nonfiction dates faster than nonfiction. This is why novels tend to define their eras better than works of nonfiction do. So the answer to “Were this year’s novels better than the nonfiction books?” rests with history. Decades from now, this year’s best nonfiction books may have yielded to others that have more recent reporting or more up-to-date research, while some of the novels may seem as fresh as ever, just as Jane Austen’s do nearly two hundred years after they appeared.

For a list of the National Book Awards entry fees and eligibility requirements, click here www.nationalbook.org/nbaentry.html.

Janice Harayda is a former judge of the National Book Critics Circle Awards for fiction, nonfiction, biograhy, poetry and criticism.

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

Comments on the 2008 National Book Awards — Tonight on Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:24 pm
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I’ll have a few comments on the winners of the 2008 National Book Awards tonight on Late Night With Jan Harayda, which will appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time. You’ll find the list of winners in the post that directly preceded this one.

What was your reaction to the prizes? If you have questions about these awards or book awards in general and would like to leave a comment, I’ll answer them then if I can.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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