One-Minute Book Reviews

July 10, 2012

Backscratching in Our Time: Denis Johnson and Michael Cunningham

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time,Book Awards,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:53 pm
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The latest in a series of posts on authors who praise each other’s books

Michael Cunningham says that he and the two other jurors for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction found it “upsetting” that the board that oversees the awards rejected all three of the books they nominated, including Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. Here’s what others might find upsetting: In a 5,000-word post on the controversy for the Page-Turner blog for the New Yorker, Cunningham doesn’t mention a conflict of interest: As I noted in April, Johnson helped to launch Cunningham’s career by providing a blurb for his first book and did him another favor by allowing him to reprint his work in an anthology. Some people would argue that, given these conflicts, Cunningham should have recused himself from judging Johnson’s work for the Pulitzer. His New Yorker post makes clear that he participated actively in the process.

Here’s what the two writers say about each other:

Denis Johnson on Michael Cunningham’s Golden States:
“Michael Cunningham writes with wisdom, humor, and style about a difficult part of any life.”

Michael Cunningham on Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams:
“Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams had been written ten years earlier and been published as a long short story in The Paris Review. It was, however, magnificently written, stylistically innovative, and—in its exhilarating, magical depiction of ordinary life in the much romanticized Wild West—a profoundly American book.”

Read other posts in the “Backscratching in Our Time” series. You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

As noted on the “About This Blog” page on this site, comments on posts must relate directly to their content,  must contain no more than 250 words, and must  have a civil tone.  They must also include a name, a photo avatar, or a link to a site what includes these, unless their author is known to the moderator of One-Minute Book Reviews. 

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 19, 2012

Pulitzer Nominee Helped a Juror Who Chose Him as a 2012 Finalist

Filed under: Book Awards,News,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:33 pm
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Pulitzer juror Michael Cunningham received help at least twice in his career from Denis Johnson, a novelist he helped select as a 2012 fiction nominee (the term the awards sponsor prefers to “finalist”). Details appear in this update to yesterday’s post defending the Pulitzer Prize Board’s controversial decision to give no fiction award this year.

April 18, 2012

In Defense of the Pulitzer Board’s Decision to Give No 2012 Fiction Prize

Update, Thursday, 2:50 p.m.: I’ve learned since writing this post that when juror Michael Cunningham was an unknown, nominee Denis Johnson helped to launch his career by providing a blurb for his first novel, Golden States (Crown, 1984). Johnson helped Cunningham again more recently by allowing Cunningham to reprint his work in an anthology he edited, Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown (Crown, 2002). Juror Maureen Corrigan says in today’s Washington Post that the jurors “unanimously agreed” on the books they nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If she is right, Cunningham failed to recuse himself from the judging as would be required by many other awards, including the National Book Critics Circle awards. Cunningham’s conflict of interest in promoting the career of someone who promoted his work is all the more reason why the Pulitzer Prize Board acted correctly in rejecting Johnson. Jan Harayda 

The Pulitzer board angered people when it gave no fiction award Monday, but it made the right call

By Janice Harayda

My newspaper nominated me for a Pulitzer when I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and I didn’t win. Many of my colleagues who have done worthy work have failed to earn a medal. And Pulitzers have often gone to books that, as a critic, I saw as less deserving than those that went unrecognized.

So I know that the loss of a prize can hurt. And I know that the Pulitzer Prize Board, the ultimate arbiter of the awards, has at times appeared to wield its power with the neutrality of a Soviet-era figure-skating judge.

But the board made the right call when it said on Monday that for the first time in 35 years, it would give no fiction prize, a decision that caused an uproar in the publishing industry. Choosing a winner sounds straightforward: Every year a three-member Pulitzer jury selects three finalists for the award, and from among those nominations, the Pulitzer board picks a winner. Or it rejects all candidates and gives no prize. That’s what happened Monday when the board declined without explanation to give a medal to any of the jury’s choices: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, all books by authors much-honored for their work.

The torrent of protests that followed gushed with the strongest force from publishers and others who would have profited from the sales bump the award provides. One of the more bizarre outbursts came from Ann Patchett, the novelist and Nashville bookseller. Patchett said in a New York Times op-ed piece that  she “can’t imagine” a year that had more “need” of a fiction Pulitzer even though none was given in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Was the board’s decision so terrible? Consider the books nominated by the jury. Johnson’s Train Dreams is a long short story that appeared in the Paris Review, that had about 50 pages when reprinted in a PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology, and that its publisher repackaged to look like a novel by using a large font. Foster Wallace left The Pale King unfinished, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, completed it after his death. Russell’s Swamplandia!, the strongest candidate, is a B/B-minus novel substantially less deserving of an award than many previous winners.

Whatever their merits, these three books comprised a seriously flawed shortlist. Should the board have honored a single short story by Johnson, however good, when it gave the Pulitzer to an entire book full great ones in The Stories of John Cheever? Should it have rewarded Foster Wallace for a novel written partly by someone else? Should it have given a medal to Russell’s B/B-minus book instead of to the A/A+ work that a Pulitzer implies?

Choosing any of those books would have had drawbacks that outweighed benefits such as a sales boost for the winner. Rewarding unworthy books fosters cynicism among readers and devalues literary prizes. In this case, it would also have lent the imprimatur of the board to nominations that seemed almost willfully perverse, given that the list ignored a host of more deserving candidates, including Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (a National Book Award finalist that won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction) and Pulitzer winner Steven Millhauser’s We Others (which won the Story Prize for short fiction).

Ann Patchett rightly notes that reading fiction matters because it allows us to imagine lives other than our own. But no evidence shows that the failure to award a Pulitzer will keep people from doing that. On the contrary, research has found that by adulthood, people generally have a habit of reading or they don’t. Those who have it won’t give it up because the Pulitzer board fails to pick a winner. They will instead get literary recommendations from friends, bookstores and libraries, reviews in print and online, and other sources. That process will lead some people to fiction they will enjoy more than the three books nominated by the Pulitzer jury. For that, we should be grateful.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 16, 2012

10 Famous Novels That Didn’t Win a Pulitzer Prize

Filed under: Book Awards,News,Newspapers,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:32 am
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The Great Gatsby didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and neither did these modern classics

By Janice Harayda

Consider this if your favorite book doesn’t win one of the Pulitzer prizes that will be announced at 3 p.m. today: The judges for the 1930 prize looked at Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and gave the fiction award to … Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. And those classics are hardly alone in having been snubbed. Some noteworthy losers and the novels that won the Pulitzer instead in the years listed:

1962
Loser: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Winner: The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor

1957
Loser: Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Winner: The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

1952
Loser: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Winner: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

1941
Loser: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Winner: Nobody. No award given.

1937
Loser: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Winner: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

1930
Losers: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Winner: Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge

1928
Loser: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Winner: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

1926
Loser: The Great Gatsby
Winner: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

1921
Loser: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
Winner: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This is a re-post in slightly different form of an article that appeared on this site in 2007.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

April 23, 2011

Edith Wharton’s Comedy of Manners and Morals in Post–Civil War New York, ‘The Age of Innocence’

Filed under: Classics,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:05 pm
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“There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free”

The Age of Innocence. By Edith Wharton. Many editions.

By Janice Harayda

American novelists often condemn or ridicule men who dabble in love. Edith Wharton portrays such a dilettante with depth, complexity, and a sympathetic wit in The Age of Innocence, a book that her biographer R.W.B. Lewis rightly calls “one of the few really first-class works of fiction to win the Pulitzer Prize.”

Newland Archer tends to find more satisfaction in thinking about his pleasures – love among them – than in their fulfillment. This trait threatens his well-ordered life when the alluring Countess Ellen Olenska returns to New York on the eve of his engagement to the placid May Welland. But Wharton doesn’t seek to condemn her protagonist for his inability to resist either the newcomer’s allure or the dependable comforts offered by his fiancée. She aims to show how others conspire to keep Newland in line with their reverence for the “invisible deity” who blesses their opera boxes, ballrooms, and dinner tables adorned with women in towering ostrich feathers and men in patent-leather pumps.

Wharton’s post–Civil War New Yorkers call their god “Good Form,” the outward expression of their taste. Others might identify their deity as an overdeveloped sense of tribal propriety. The great theme of The Age of Innocence is the power of social custom to thwart the individual desires of both sexes. Ellen arrives New York seeking the freedom missing in her marriage to a callow Polish nobleman, but her free-spiritedness and impenetrable past quickly begin to shut doors to her. Newland has too much loyalty to his tribe to take the decisive action required by their attraction, and his ambivalence requires her to make her own decision about whether to stay or return to Europe.

The elegance of The Age of Innocence lies partly in Wharton’s refusal to cast Newland as a coward or a fool. He is rather a product of a society that has its own appeal for him. And he is too intelligent not to see the injustices and contradictions that its mores involve. At first Newland has hazy fantasies of awakening in May the intellectual curiosity she lacks, perhaps by reading the Faust story to her beside Italian lakes. He eventually concedes defeat with a droll awareness of his limits and hers. There was no point, he realizes, in trying to emancipate a woman “who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.”

The Age of Innocence brims with such wry observations that help to justify its frequent billing as “a comedy of manners and morals.” Like the greatest comic novelists, Wharton knows that the finest wit comes not from topical one-liners but from ludicrous, incongruous, or absurd situations that reflect enduring human needs or wishes. Unlike Henry James, to whom she is so often compared, she is never windy or opaque but writes as clearly and economically as she constructs her plots. No one would say of Wharton that she was “incapable of offering a thought without pinning a flower in its button-hole,” as the biographer Leon Edel said of James’s letter-writing. And her instinct for clarity helps to explain the effectiveness of her wit. As in Jane Austen’s novels, you always know who is being tweaked.

In a defining scene of The Age of Innocence, Newland and May visit an exhibit of Early Bronze Age and other antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There they see glass shelves crowded with items labeled “Use Unknown,” a symbol the pointless customs of their circle. The ritualized expectations of upper-middle-class New Yorkers don’t lead to tragedy as in Wharton’s The House of Mirth, in which Lily Bart is unable to save herself from the consequences of her failure to marry. The customs instead inspire a banquet of observations that include Newland’s on his fiancée: “What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?”

Best line: “There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of wifely adoration.”

Worst line: Newland Archer  sees “a warm pink” blush rise on the cheek of his future wife as she sits behind two other women in a box on the opposite side of the Academy of Music, an opera house. It is hard to imagine how he could have seen so slight a change from such a distance without – and even with – opera glasses, which Wharton gives no sign that he has used.

Reading group guide: By far the best reading group gruide and discussion questions for The Age of Innocence appear along with other helpful material on Wharton on the site for the Big Read project of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Furthermore: This review is based on the 1992 Collier/Macmillan paperback edition of The Age of Innocence, which has an introduction by R.W.B. Lewis and uses the text from Novels: The House of Mirth / The Reef / The Custom of the Country / The Age of Innocence (Library of America, 1986). Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction when The Age of Innocence received the award in 1921. Daniel Day-Lewis starred as Newland in the 1993 movie of the novel. The website for Wharton’s Massachusetts home, The Mount, has more on her life.

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

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 14, 2010

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check – The 2010 Poetry Winner, Rae Armantrout’s ‘Versed’

The latest in a series of posts on literary-prize winners and whether they deserved their honors

Versed: Wesleyan Poetry Series. By Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan University Press, 120 pp., $22.95, $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Rae Armantrout writes poems for an age of spin-offs of spin-offs. The theme of many of the 87 poems in Versed is more complex than “you can’t trust appearances”: It’s that you can’t even be sure they are “appearances.” Reality is unknowable.

Armantrout tells us that truth sometimes hides behind the intentional or unintentional deceptions of others. She writes in “New”:

The new pop song
is about getting real:

“You had a bad day.
The camera don’t lie.”

But they’re lying
to you
about the camera.

Reality can be elusive for reasons more subtle than lies, including the difficulty knowing ourselves or others. Armantrout writes in “The Racket”: “It’s as if / the real / thing – / your own absence – / can never be / uncovered.

Armantrout has said that the first half of Versed focuses on the dark forces that emerged in the United States during the war in Iraq and the second half on the shadows that fell over her life after she learned in 2006 that she had adrenal cortical cancer. That’s true as far as it goes. But Armantrout expresses her views on Iraq more obliquely than have poets like Robert Hass, who won the 2008 Pulitzer for poetry for Time and Materials, which includes the antiwar poem “Bush’s War.” In “Own,” she compares medical experts dissecting her illness to televised images of President Bush as she juxtaposes the human body and the body politic:

“We will prevail,”
says the leader on multiple
screens. The words
are empty, but he’s there
inside the lie
everyone believes –

Verses like these have made Armantrout a star of the Language movement in poetry, which seeks to separate words from their usual associations and create something other than the reflection of the world that poets typically strive to produce. Like many others of that school, she combines prose and poetry, often in the same poem.

The poet John Drury has noted that critics of the Language movement see much of its poetry “a mass of pretentious gibberish, a dead end of nonsense verse that is not even funny.” And while the poems in Versed are far from gibberish, they are often enigmatic or abstruse. These lines these from “Left” sound like a trick question:

If an instant
is a measure of

endurance,
what is the distance

from expectancy
to spider?

If the goal of Language poetry is to detach words from their usual connotations, the poems in Versed succeed perhaps too well: They are detached to the point of sterility. They don’t appeal, as great poetry does, both to the intellect and to the emotions, something accomplished by Claudia Emerson’s 2006 poetry winner, Late Wife. The poems in Versed speak more to the mind than to the heart. But they are so intelligent when much poetry is trivial that you can see why the book became the most celebrated collection of published in 2009. Many modern poets steep their work in mythological or other symbols, but Armantrout warns that symbolism is “the party face of paranoia.”

Best line: “Metaphor / is ritual sacrifice. // It kills the look-alike.”

Worst line: “that a discrepancy / is a pea / and I am a Princess.”

Furthermore: Versed won the2010 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and was a 2009 National Book Award finalist.  James Marcus wrote a brief, eloquent review for the National Book Critics Circle site. The poems in Versed appeared in publications that include The Nation, The New Yorker and The Green Integer Review.

Published: May 2009

Read poems from Versed: “Scumble” and “Guess.”

About the author: Armantrout teaches at the University of California at San Diego.

One-Minute Book Reviews posted Pulitzer Prize Reality Checks for the 2007 biography winner, The Most Famous Man in America; for a 2007 fiction finalist, After This; and for a 2009 fiction finalist, All Souls. The site also has reviews of the 2006 poetry winner, Late Wifeand the 2009 fiction winner, Olive Kitteridge.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

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

February 5, 2009

A Fresh Look at ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ — Not Just for Students

A rape trial turns out to involve incest in a Pulitzer Prize–winner set in the South in the 1930s

A Book-of-the-Month Club survey once ranked To Kill a Mockingbird among the top five books “most often cited as making a difference” in people’s lives. And Claudia Durst Johnson, a former English professor at the University of Alabama, found that it appeared on secondary-school reading lists as often as any book in English.

What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of Harper Lee’s only novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961? Certainly it tells a powerful story of an honorable lawyer, Atticus Finch, who accepts the near-hopeless task of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman in an Alabama town in the mid-1930s. It also has one of the most engaging child heroines in American fiction: Scout Finch, Atticus’s daughter, six years old when the story begins, who has an unselfconscious integrity as admirable as her father’s moral courage.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

But the novel has more going for it than a strong plot and memorable characters. To Kill a Mockingbird has at its core an idea at once simple and vital to civilization: When everyone else is doing the wrong thing, one person can still do the right thing.

Young as she is, Scout understands that her father stands all but alone in defending Tom Robinson. Why has he taken on a case in which, as she sees it, “most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong”?

“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” Finch tells his daughter, who narrates the novel from the perspective of an adult looking back on the defining event of her childhood, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Some critics see Finch one-dimensional, too saintly to be credible. But much of the writing in the book is exquisitely subtle. Tom Robinson stands accused of raping the lonely Mayella Ewell, whose father has brought charges against him. And as the facts of the case emerge, it becomes clear that she was making advances to him and that her father caught her in the act. At his trial Robinson says that Mayella told him she had never kissed a grown man before: “She says what her papa do to her don’t count.”

“What her papa do to her don’t count.” Has any novel ever described sexual abuse with such delicacy? At that moment, we know that the crime in this novel is not rape but incest and that the motives of Mayella’s father, in accusing Robinson, went beyond racial prejudice.

Novels about such crimes abound today and often show only the worst of human nature. To Kill a Mockingbird is a tragedy, but shows good and evil, side by side. It tells us that when much of the world wears blinders, some people see clearly. If they have a vision of justice, their children – like Scout – will remember.

This is the fourth in a series of daily posts this week on some of my favorite books. The other posts dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title (Monday), Middlemarch (Tuesday), and Greater Expectations (Wednesday).

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

August 2, 2007

Michael Shaara’s Civil War Novel, ‘The Killer Angels’

At Gettysburg with Robert E. Lee and Joshua Chamberlain

Newt Gingrich often produces unintended comedy when he tries to show the thoughts of military leaders in his new Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th (St. Martin’s, $25.95). Michael Shaara takes on a similar task with much better results in his 1974 Civil War novel, The Killer Angels (Ballantine, $7.99, paperback), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s risky to try to give a fresh account of someone as familiar as Robert E. Lee: What’s there to say that we don’t know?

But Shaara pulls it off in this recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg, as refracted through the lives of Lee and others, including the Union’s Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Shaara avoids overstuffing his story with irrelevant period details — the besetting sin of so many historical novels — and offers a brisk account of mental as well as physical struggle. The Killer Angels isn’t in a class with such great war novels as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. But it is an example of military fiction done with intelligence and without the macho posturing that tends to infect the form. Jeff Shaara has attempted to build on his father’s legacy, and while I’ve read only one of his novels, it didn’t come close to this.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 30, 2007

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check #2: 2007 Fiction Finalist, Alice McDermott’s ‘After This’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Awards Reality Check,Books I Didn't Finish,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am

This is the second in an occasional series of posts on whether the winners and finalists for the Pulitzer Prizes and other major book awards deserved their honors.

Title: After This. By Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 279 pp., $24. Paperback to be published by Dial Press in September 2007.

What it is: McDermott’s latest novel about Irish-Americans in postwar New York City and Long Island.

A finalist for … the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, won by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. McDermott was also a Pulitzer finalist for At Weddings and Wakes and Charming Billy, winner of a National Book Award.

How much I read: About 115 pages, more than a third of the book.

Why I stopped reading: McDermott’s writing has acquired a paunch.

Was this one of those book awards that made you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Or if the publisher had pornographic videos of all of them? No, but it makes you wonder if someone had a thumb on the scales of cosmic justice, because what I read of After This was much less worthy of its finalist status than Charming Billy was.

Comments: Alice McDermott has reached a treacherous point in her career. She’s begun to strip-mine her material and to pad what she’s said in earlier books instead of doing work that’s fresh and surprising. Maeve, the first person we meet in Charming Billy had been “a plain girl approaching thirty with … no prospects.” Mary, the first person we meet in After This, is “thirty, with no husband in sight” and “not what you’d call a good-looking woman.” This repetition of circumstance isn’t a problem in itself, because great writers – from Jane Austen to John Cheever – have returned repeatedly to characters who are similarly situated. The problem is that McDermott has so little new to say that she has strain for effect. Mary marries John Keane for no apparent reason beyond a desire to escape her loneliness and fulfill her sexual desires. From the wedding McDermott fast-forwards to a day after the birth of three of their children, when the couple’s son Michael looks at his father “as if he were an utter stranger.” A dozen pages later, John Keane feels “with utter certainty” that something bad will happen and, later in the same paragraph, senses the “utter darkness” around him. There’s no reason for the repetitive language; it’s just flab of a sort that occurs on nearly every page, sometimes in sentences that keep doubling back on themselves until you need a compass to navigate them. McDermott also skimps on dialogue and relies on exposition to drive the novel, which results in a Jamesian mannerism that doesn’t suit anybody but Henry James (and sometimes not even him). In Charming Billy she showed that she knows better, so it’s hard to fathom why she’s let her writing go as she has in After This.

Best line: “It benefited a child, she thought, to be forgotten once in a while.”

Worst line: This 305-word jawbreaker: “If she kept her back straight and her ankles crossed beneath her chair and her hands over the keys, if her fingers struck them quickly and rhythmically and the sound of all their industry filled the room, and if she remembered to take some pleasure in it, the sound, the industry, the feel of Pauline’s eyes on her back, even after Pauline had gotten up to take dictation in one of the offices, if she found some pleasure in the changing light as the afternoon moved forward, in the fading perfumes of the other girls as they passed her desk, in the good smell of the paper, the carbon, the old building itself, then time would pass and when she stood to cover her typewriter and to run another tissue over the surface of her desk, to smile apologetically at Pauline already in her hat and coat and waiting like the schoolgirl she surely must once have been for the stroke of five (adding, in her hissed stage whisper, ‘This isn’t the first time they’ve been seen together like that’), she could tell herself another day gone and not so bad at that and what else to do when you’re a single girl of thirty still at home, the war over and no prospects in sight, your body not meant for mortal sin or a man’s attention or childbearing, either, it would seem, what to do but accept it and go on – a walk to the subway, the air chilled even further without the sun but the wind not nearly so bad as it was, and the ten-top ride among the crowd of other office workers, and then the walk home, spears of crocus and daffodil rising out of the hard dirt around the caged trees and along the brick foundations, not so bad.”

Recommended? Only if you’re willing to slog through many sentences like the one quoted above. Charming Billy is a much better introduction to McDermott’s work.

Published: September 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 23, 2007

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check #1: The 2007 Biography Winner, Debby Applegate’s ‘The Most Famous Man in America’

Filed under: Biography,Book Awards,Book Awards Reality Check,Book Reviews,Christianity,History,Pulitzer Prizes,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:13 am

This is the first in an occasional series of posts on whether the winners of the Pulitzers and other book awards deserved their honors. This site reviewed the 2007 Caldecott Medalist, David Wiesner’s Flotsam, on Jan. 22 and the 2007 Newbery Medalist, Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky on Feb. 19 (reading group guide posted on Feb. 22).

Title: The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. By Debby Applegate. Doubleday hardcover, 527 pp., $27.95, and Three Leaves paperback, 560 pp., $16.95.

What it is: The biography of the most famous preacher of the 19th century, who was also an abolitionist and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Winner of … the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for biography

Was this one of those book awards that make you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Or if the editor or publisher had pornographic home videos of all of them? No

Worthy of a major award? Yes

Comments: This is a terrific biography I wouldn’t have picked up if it hadn’t won a Pulitzer. I intended to read only a few chapters and include the book in the “Books I Didn’t Finish” category on this site. But I became swept up quickly in its story of a witty and lovable but flawed preacher and the remarkable Beecher family. Near the end of his life Henry Ward Beecher became entangled in a sex scandal that led to a lurid trial and adds interest at a point when many biographies lose steam. Perhaps the most important thing I took away from this book was an understanding of how the Puritan focus on a wrathful deity gave way to the view of God as a loving presence that exists today. Debby Applegate makes a good case that Beecher was the prime mover in this tectonic shift. She writes in a conversational tone that keeps this book from becoming stuffy but occasionally leads to a phrase that sounds anachronistic in context, such as: “Henry’s first two years as a minister had been a mixed bag.”

Best line: See below.

Worst line: The title of Chapter 12, which comes from a popular rumor: “I Am Reliably Assured That Beecher Preaches to Seven or Eight of His Mistresses Every Sunday Evening.” This might be the best line if it matched the text. But on one page Applegate quotes a man as saying that “Beecher preaches to seven or eight mistresses every Sunday evening.” Two pages later, she quotes another man who says, “I am reliably assured that Beecher preaches to at least twenty of his mistresses every Sunday.” The chapter title seems to be a corruption of the two quotes. I’m inclined to cut Applegate some slack on this one, because she may have found many versions of this rumor, but not the copy editor whose job it was to catch such discrepancies.

Recommended if … you like Civil War–era history and are looking for book with wider scope than Manhunt, which I also liked. Highly recommended to history book clubs.

Editor: Gerald Howard

Published: June 2006 (Doubleday hardcover), April 2007 (Three Leaves paperback).

Links: You can read the first chapter and watch a C-SPAN interview with Applegate at www.themostfamousmaninamerica.com.

Furthermore: Debby Applegate has taught at Yale and Wesleyan universities. Her book was also a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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