One-Minute Book Reviews

November 12, 2011

Part 2 – Reviews of 2011 National Book Awards Finalists — The Nonfiction Shortlist

Filed under: National Book Awards,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:45 am
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This is the second in a series of posts that try to predict the winners of National Book Awards on the basis on online excerpts of the finalists. 

By Janice Harayda

How much do excerpts tell you about a book? A lot. But excerpts from nonfiction books are harder to judge than chapters from novels, partly because they may not show errors that undermine the whole. And the strength of the writing in work of nonfiction may differ from the quality or importance of the research. Who should win a literary prize: the author of a beautifully written book on a minor subject or a cliché-strewn one that breaks ground on a major topic?

Such variables suggest why predicting the winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction on the basis of excerpts is tougher than ranking the fiction candidates as I did on Nov. 2. One book shortlisted for the prize to be given on Nov. 16  looks like a nonstarter: Mary Gabriel tells the worthy story of the marriage of Karl and Jenny Marx in her dual biography, Love and Capital, but her writing doesn’t rise above the level good wire-service copy in five online excerpts.

Two other finalists have more serious problems. Deborah Baker rewrote letters that she quotes in The Convert — a book she calls “fundamentally a work of nonfiction” — and the liberties she took should have led to a disqualification by the sponsor of the prizes, the National Book Foundation. Judges also shoehorned in Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive, a graphic-format biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, which has art far superior to its text. The National Book Awards are based on the premise that authors should judge authors. If that’s true, artists should judge artists. And if the National Book Foundation wants to honor graphic  books, it should create a category for them. As it is, a victory for Redniss would turn the nonfiction prize into an unacknowledged art competition.

All of this leaves two finalists worthy of the award: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which shows how a poem written in 50 B.C. anticipated 20th-century thought, and Manning Marable’s Malcolm X, a biography of the slain activist. Greenblatt writes more elegantly, but Manning’s book may be more important. American literature has needed for decades a biography that gives a more balanced portrait of Malcolm X than The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a work influenced by ghostwriter Alex Haley’s view of his subject, and Manning has written it. It’s harder to argue that the country needed Greenblatt’s exploration of De rerum natura, however admirable. So if excerpts are a barometer,  the contest for 2011 nonfiction prize looks like a two-way race between The Swerve and Malcolm X, with Manning’s book more likely to win.

More comments on the five finalists appear in the following slightly altered versions of Nov. 11 tweets. Each item below is a micro-review of one or more excerpts of a shortlisted book, supplemented in two cases by further reading.

Love and Capital Good story of Karl and Jenny Marx, wire-service writing. Grade: B Based on this excerpt and others.

The Swerve The most elegant finalist shakes the dust off Lucretius. Grade: A Based on this excerpt.

Radioactive Art far better than the text. Graphic books need their own NBA category. No grade. Based on the entire book.

Malcolm X Slow-moving but much needed antidote to Alex Haley. Grade: B+ Based
on this excerpt and and two more chapters.

The Convert A “fundamentally” nonfiction book that belongs on Oprah, not the NBA shortlist. Grade: F for judges. Based on 100+ pages of the book.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she will post other comments on the awards before and after the Nov. 16 ceremony. Jan has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 2, 2011

One-Sentence Reviews of 2011 National Book Awards Finalists

Filed under: National Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:56 am
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Who will win and who should win the National Book Award for fiction on Nov. 16?

By Janice Harayda

Can you predict the winner of a literary prize by reading a chapter or less of each nominated book? This year I’ve decided to try. I read an online excerpt from each of the five books shortlisted for the 2011 National Book Award for fiction. Then I graded each on a finalist-against-finalist curve in a tweet that also commented on it.

Which nominee should win the fiction award if the quality of each excerpt represents that of the rest of the book? Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, a collection of 34 short stories by a writer whose talent far exceeds her name recognition. But National Book Awards juries traditionally have held story collections to a higher standard than novels, and none has won the prize since Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever in 1996. So Pearlman will have to overcome an unacknowledged bias in favor in favor of the longer form.

Two finalists look, for different reasons, like nonstarters. Andrew Krivak doesn’t write as well as Pearlman and, based on his excerpt, tells a less interesting story than Téa Obreht or Julie Otsuka. Jesmyn Ward has ended up in the wrong shortlist category: She would have had a better chance of winning the National Book Award for young people’s literature than for fiction.

But Obreht has momentum on her side as the most recent winner Orange Prize. And Otsuka may get degree-of-difficulty points for her use of plural narration. So this year’s award for fiction looks like a three-way contest between Pearlman, Obreht and Otsuka.

Here are more comments on and letter grades for each finalist, based on their excerpts, in the form of a slightly modified version of my Nov. 1 tweets:

The Sojourn (Andrew Krivak) A World War I Austrian sharpshooter. Un-Remarque-able. Grade: B- Based on this excerpt.

The Tiger’s Wife (Téa Obreht) Interesting Balkan setting but overwrought. Grade: B Based on this excerpt.

The Buddha in the Attic (Julie Otsuka) Some slips with v. difficult plural narration. Grade: B Based on this excerpt.

Binocular Vision (Edith Pearlman) Everything short stories should be. Grade: A Based on this excerpt and “Relic and Type.” 

Salvage the Bones (Jesmyn Ward) My view: This is YA. Miscategorized by judges. No grade Based on this excerpt.

You may also want to read my recent post on the tarnished reputation of the National Book Awards and 7 ways their sponsor can regain trust. Reviews of other 2011 National Book Awards finalists may appear on One-Minute Book Reviews or Twitter before or after the Nov. 16 awards ceremony.

You can follow me on Twitter (@janiceharayda) by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this page.

– Janice Harayda

October 18, 2011

How the Does the National Book Foundation Spend Its Money? The Cost of the National Book Awards Fiasco

Filed under: National Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:51 am
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What do you get when you donate to the nonprofit National Book Foundation, the sponsor of the National Book Awards? This week the answer is, “A financial stake in a fiasco.”

First the foundation mistakenly announced that it had selected Lauren Myracle’s young-adult novel Shine as a finalist for a 2011 National Book Award. Then the organization said that the book would remain on the shortlist despite the error. Now the foundation has reversed itself and persuaded Myracle to withdraw and accept the consolation prize of a $5,000 donation to a charity that she supports.

All of which raises the question: Can’t the foundation afford to hire staff members who can do better than this? You might think so from its budget. As a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization, the National Book Foundation must by law make its federal income-tax returns available to the public. And its figures show that it paid executive director Harold Augenbraum $196,964 plus $8,464 in additional compensation in 2009, the latest year for which its return appears to be available for free online. The median salary for a foundation director in the New York City area is $144,948 (and $122,113 nationwide), according to a survey by Salary.com. So Augenbraum earns at least $50,000 more than a typical peer even if he received no raise in 2010. The foundation also has a generous travel budget: It claimed $40,455 in travel expenses although its marquee events take place in Manhattan.

For that kind of money, the National Book Awards ought to be able to hire a director who can steer the program away from turbulence, not directly into its path. If the trustees of the organization don’t do this on their own, donors should demand it. The foundation must stop sending the message that with friends like the National Book Awards, authors like Lauren Myracle don’t need enemies.

A report by NPR has more on the debacle. I can’t link to the tax return mentioned above, but you can find it on websites that rate and provide free information on charities (search them for “National Book Foundation” and click on links to financial details). You may also request the return from the NBF or the Internal Revenue Service.  The compensation figures cited come from the  tax Form 990 filed by the NBF for 2009. You may be able to get the 2010 return by paying a fee.

November 16, 2007

I Belong to the ‘Tribe of Chronic Masturbators,’ Says the Hero of ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,’ Winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

By Janice Harayda

Remember how upset some librarians got when the word “scrotum” appeared on the first page of the 2007 Newbery Medal winner www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/19/? I wonder what they’re going say to when they find out that the hero of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian says that he belongs to “the tribe of chronic masturbators.”

Alexie’s novel won National Book Award for Young People’s Literature on Wednesday, so it’s safe to say that it will also receive consideration for the Newbery that the American Library Association www.ala.org will hand out in January. I’ll review the book in the next week or so (along with Daughter of York, originally scheduled for this week).

Until then librarians who want to check out that “good part” can do it by going to the listing for the novel on Amazon www.amazon.com and using the “Search Inside This Book” tool to search for “tribe of chronic masturbators,” which appears on page 217. [Note: All you teenage boys who found this site by searching for “scrotum” or “masturbation,” go back to your Social Studies. That page number was a public service for librarians.]

Oh, am I going to have fun reviewing this book! Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed if you’d like to read my comments.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 15, 2007

“It must be a gift of evolution that humans / Can’t sustain wonder … “ Quote of the Day From Robert Hass’s ‘Time and Materials,’ Winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Poetry

Robert Hass’s Time and Materials, winner of the 2007 National Book Award for poetry, deals with an unusually wide range of subjects for an 88-page collection — trees, a mother’s alcoholism, the war in Iraq. One of its best poems is “State of the Planet,” which marks the 50th anniversary of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. It includes this memorable sixain:

“It must be a gift of evolution that humans
Can’t sustain wonder. We’d never have gotten up
From our knees if we could. But soon enough
We’d have fashioned sexy little earrings from the feathers,
Highlighted our cheekbone by rubbings from the rock,
And made a spear from the sinewey wood of the tree.”

From Robert Hass’s “State of the Planet” in Time and Materials: Poems 1997–2005 (HarperCollins/Ecco, $22.95) www.eccobooks.com and www.nationalbook.org.

November 14, 2007

Alexie, Hass, Johnson and Weiner Win 2007 National Book Awards — Women Shut Out in Sweep for Male Authors

A tidal wave of testosterone at the National Book Awards ceremonyOne-Minute Book Reviews normally doesn’t cover breaking news. But the National Book Award winners announced tonight have been slow enough to appear on the Web that the policy is bending today. Here’s a complete list of the winners and finalists for the awards from the National Book Foundation site www.nationalbook.org. SNAP preview is always enabled on One-Minute Book Reviews, so you can put your cursor on aLiny of the links below and see an image of the page you’ll reach by clicking on it.FICTION

WINNER: Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – Interview

Mischa Berlinski, Fieldwork (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – Interview
Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – Interview
Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End (Little, Brown & Company) – Interview
Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – Interview
Jim Shepard, Like You’d Understand, Anyway (Alfred A. Knopf) – Interview

Fiction judges: Francine Prose (chair), Andrew Sean Greer,
Walter Kirn, David Means, and Joy Williams.NONFICTION

WINNER: Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Doubleday) – Interview

Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (Alfred A. Knopf) – Interview
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
(Twelve/Hachette Book Group USA) – Interview
Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution
(Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – Interview
Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf) – Interview

Nonfiction judges: David Shields (chair), Deborah Blum,
Caroline Elkins, Annette Gordon-Reed, and James Shapiro.

POETRY
WINNER: Robert Hass, Time and Materials (Ecco/HarperCollins) – Interview

Linda Gregerson, Magnetic North (Houghton Mifflin Company) – Interview
David Kirby, The House on Boulevard St.
(Louisiana State University Press) – Interview
Stanley Plumly, Old Heart (W.W. Norton & Company) – Interview
Ellen Bryant Voigt, Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006
(W.W. Norton & Company) – Interview

Poetry Judges: Charles Simic (chair), Linda Bierds, David St. John,
Vijay Seshadri, and Natasha Trethewey.

YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE
WINNER: Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
(Little, Brown & Company) – Interview

Kathleen Duey, Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic, Book One
(Atheneum Books for Young Readers) – Interview
M. Sindy Felin, Touching Snow (Atheneum Books for Young Readers) – Interview
Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic Press) – Interview
Sara Zarr, Story of a Girl (Little, Brown & Company) – Interview
Young People’s Literature Judges: Elizabeth Partridge (chair),
Pete Hautman, James Howe, Patricia McCormick, and Scott Westerfeld

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