One-Minute Book Reviews

May 29, 2009

What’s in a Character’s Name? ‘Olive Kitteridge’

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A main character’s name often gives you the first clue to what a novel is “about,” especially when it’s also the title of the book. A good example turns up in Olive Kitteridge, the collection of linked short stories that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A just-picked olive is as bitter — and the color olive is as drab — as the title character of the book appears at first to be. The salt added during curing removes the bitterness just as love, the salt in this book, removes some of Olive’s. In Ireland a kitter is a left-handed person. And Olive is at least metaphorically left-handed: She’s out of sync with others in her coastal town in Maine. A surname database says of Kitter: “This is an Olde English or Anglo-Saxon pre 10th Century name which derives from the word ‘Cyta’ and is a nickname of the medieval period generally given to one of fairly violent attitudes.” Olive’s views of life are “fairly violent,” especially in the first story, when they are so angry they verge on caricature.

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May 28, 2009

A Traveler Without a Compass – Tamar Yellin’s ‘Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes’

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An English novelist who has won international awards maps the life of a “perpetual foreigner” in the world

Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. By Tamar Yellin. Toby Press, 156 pp., $22.95.

By Janice Harayda

You can tell a lot about God’s sense of humor by the people he gives money to, an old joke says. Literary awards suggest that heaven has a lot of whoopee cushions. So what are we to make of the news that the Tamar Yellin won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, worth $100,000, for her first novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher?

Perhaps that God has put away one of the whoppee cushions. I haven’t read Yellin’s first novel, but Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes is a wonderful book. This collection of ten linked short stories deals with characters who are displaced – geographically, psychologically, linguistically – in unnamed but slightly exotic lands. You can read it as a study in modern alienation from the self, a portrait of a world full of perpetual travelers without a compass, who may come from any faith.

But Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes also works as an allegory for the Jewish diaspora in the 21st century, a meditation on a people often unable to find the Messiah within as they wait for the Messiah from without. In the story “Asher” an old man lives alone in an urban apartment building of faded splendor, where he obsessively checks his mail, reads the papers, and listens to the radio, waiting for a report that never comes. Once in a while, he says, “it would be nice to hear some good news”: “We interrupt this bulletin to announce the coming of the Messiah.” That the old man lives on a street named for Simon Peter, the first pope, suggests that Yellin intends specifically to show the plight of Jews adrift in a Christian world.

Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes unfolds as a series of chronological episodes in the life of a wandering narrator, a “perpetual foreigner” whose name and sex are never given – a character we meet as a 9-year-old in thrall to a ruthless nomadic uncle and last see as an old traveler facing death alone in a distant land. Each story works as part of the whole and as a stand-alone parable about the cost of rootlessness, including a misplaced trust in people or talismanic objects used like New-Age crystals. The magical realist story “Issachar” may nod to Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah with its tale of a student named Genie who may be invisible, an apparition, or a hallucination.

Yellin writes about complex ideas in an appealingly direct and engaging prose style. There is nothing pretentious or stuffy about her stories, which would make for fine reading aloud. The tales have their roots in the ancient idea of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel but require no familiarity with it to be enjoyable. The stories often have a mystery at their heart, which adds to the suspense, and a twist or half-turn at the end. Yellin was born and lives in the north of England, and it is heartening that a writer of her skill has won major international honors. It is also startling that she has never made the shortlist for Man Booker Prize, given some of the trifles that have appeared on it. That neglect may support, however obliquely, some of the ideas about the place of Jews in the world that Yellin develops in this book.

Best line: “I thought that at last I was beginning to be cured of restlessness, though perhaps I was merely beginning to be cured of youth.”

Worst line: “There are birds, the albatross for example, that spend their entire lives in the air.” This is a good metaphor for the narrator and other characters in this book who, figuratively speaking, spend their lives in the air. But the line isn’t strictly true – albatrosses nest on land and rest on ocean waves – and for that reason slightly confusing, particularly given that it appears on the first page. You aren’t sure whether the author is taking creative license or trying to establish the narrator as unreliable.

Reading group guide: Available on the Toby Press site.

Published: September 2008

Read an excerpt from Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes.

Furthermore: A review in the Sept. 1, 2008, issue of Library Journal said that this book is “recommended for all libraries.

About the cover: Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes will appear soon in the “Rating the Book Covers” series on this site. In the meantime, a question: Does this “A” book have an “A” cover?

The review of Clara’s War that was scheduled to appear this week will be posted in early June.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

April 26, 2009

Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’ Is Not ‘A Novel’

Filed under: News,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:08 am
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Why have so many critics bought into the hype that the Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge is “a novel in stories”? The publisher’s claim serves a clear marketing interest: Novels sell better than short stories. (“A novel in stories” doesn’t appear on the title page of Olive Kitteridge, which might have been a sign that the phrase came from the author instead of the publisher.) And the hype is – to put it charitably – misleading. Olive Kitteridge is a collection of linked short stories, known as a cycle of stories or short story cycle — a group of tales that, though entwined, can stand alone.

A critic who got it right was Jessica Treadway, who teaches at Emerson College and wrote in the Boston Globe:

Although the book is being marketed as ‘a novel in stories,’ it is not a novel” but “a unified cycle” of “tales focusing on characters inhabiting a single town.”

The Pulitzer Prize judges also correctly described Olive Kitteridge in giving it the 2009 fiction award, calling it “a collection of 13 short stories set in small-town Maine.”

Does harm really occur when critics regurgitate hype such as that Olive Kitteridge is a “novel in stories”? Part of the answer lies in the recent spate of fraudulent books billed as “memoirs,” which has shown how many people can be duped when critics and others don’t question publishers’ claims. And in the case of Olive Kitteridge, a more subtle harm may result.

American fiction has a stellar tradition of short story cycles that includes books different as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York. Comparing Olive Kitteridge to one or two of these might enrich anyone’s understanding of it. By calling Strout’s book a novel, the publisher has made it less likely that people will do this. It has also raised the odds that readers will expect something closer to a traditional novel and come away disappointed.

A review of Olive Kitteridge will appear next week on this site. The weekly children’s-book review appeared in the post that preceded this one.

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October 16, 2008

Ring Lardner’s Baseball Stories for All Ages, ‘You Know Me Al’

Classic tales of an overconfident White Sox rookie are still print in different editions for adults and children

An egocentric pitcher. A coach fed up with his player’s excuses. A team that can’t win on the road. And — to spice things up — a little girl trouble in the background.

Sound like a team in the 2008 playoffs? Actually it’s what you’ll find in Ring Lardner’s collection of humorous short stories about baseball, You Know Me Al (Book Jungle, 248, $16.95, paperback), written for adults but likely also to appeal to many teenagers.

First published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1914, these tales are a masterpiece of tone. They take the form of rambling, misspelled and ungrammatical letters written by a rookie White Sox pitcher named Jack Keefe to his friend Al while traveling with his team during the baseball season. Jack has a comically misplaced self-confidence that feeds a low-grade persecution complex. (“I hit good on the training trip and he must of knew they had no chance to score off me in the innings they had left while they were liable to murder his other pitchers.”) Lardner’s stories about his anti-hero remain entertaining partly because they deal with emotions that still exist in any locker room.

But a little of Jack’s bombast goes a long way, and young readers may prefer an anthologized excerpt from You Know Me Al. One of the best for tweens and teenagers appears in Alan Durant’s outstanding Score! Sports Stories (Roaring Brook, 264 pp., 264 pp., ages 9 and up), a collection of 21 modern and classic sports stories just out in a new paperback edition. Durant’s brief introduction suggests why young readers may enjoy excerpt: “The story is full of jokes – mainly at the teller’s expense, as Keefe constantly gets on the wrong side of coach Callahan with his often idiotic remarks.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 10, 2008

An Excerpt From Philip Hensher’s Review of Annie Proulx’s ‘Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3’

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[Note: The just-named finalists for the 2008 Man Booker Prize include The Northern Clemency by the influential English editor and critic Philip Hensher. I haven't seen the novel, which Knopf will publish in the U.S. early next year. But I have long admired Hensher's spirited reviews for the Spectator, which are as entertaining as they are erudite. An excerpt from one of the most recent follows my introduction below. Jan]

Annie Proulx’s fiction is an acquired taste that I have not acquired despite several painful attempts at force-feeding that nearly turned me into a literary bulimic. But I enjoyed Philip Hensher’s review of her new Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 (Scribner, 240 pp., $25) in the Spectator, which included this passage:

“This new collection is pretty clearly divided into stories which don’t work at all and ones which seem to create something marvellously new in most unorthodox ways. When she ventures out of her familiar territory, the results can be fairly awful. I admit to being allergic to all narratives of prehistoric life, and this one is straight out of some terrible creative writing class.

“‘Night after night the thready monotone of [the shaman’s] prayers and invocations had formed the solemn background of the band’s dreaming’

“There are two stories set in hell with the Devil as the hero, apparent attempts at humorous topical satire which I beg Annie Proulx on bended knee not to repeat. And I was quite enjoying one story of frontier life until I realized that it was all about a serial-killer tree. These ventures into magical realism traduce the possibilities of Proulx’s oddness by settling into the conventionally odd — trees which kill, the Devil’s view of life on earth and grunting romances about stone-age communities were all totally old-hat for mildly ambitious pulp writers like Isaac Asimov 40 years ago.”

Read Hensher’s full review at www.spectator.co.uk/the-magazine/books/1736251/the-peculiarities-of-a-realist.thtml.

Read the Man Booker Prize announcement about Hensher and The Northern Clemency at www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/books/366 and a lively discussion of the novel on the Asylum blog at theasylum.wordpress.com/2008/09/01/philip-hensher-the-northern-clemency/.

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

June 12, 2008

The Best Book to Have on Hand in a Power Blackout

We’re still living in a state of emergency in my part of New Jersey, where some streets look like a scene from the Book of Revelation with pizza deliveries. Tens of thousands of people aren’t expected to get their electricity back until Friday. And it made me wonder: What’s the best book to have on hand during a power blackout? Pragmatists might argue for the American Red Cross First Aid and Safety Handbook or, possibly, the Kama Sutra. But – speaking just for myself – I’d want The Complete Sherlock Holmes in any edition. What book makes for better reading aloud by candlelight to anyone over the age of six? What plot device offers a more reliable diversion from the inconveniences of life without microwave popcorn than the deadly swamp adder in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” or that strange dog on the moors in “The Hound of the Baskervilles”? You can download 48 Sherlock Holmes stories for free at 221bakerstreet.org/, which also has a discussion forum and more.

Here’s news on the blackout that inspired this post: www.nj.com/newsflash/index.ssf?/base/news-32/1213231759129640.xml&storylist=jersey

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 5, 2008

The Best Chekhov Short Story Collection for Book Groups and Others

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:41 am
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Chekhov hoped that his work would help people live more decently

Ernest Hemingway once said that “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories.” Many titans of the form have disagreed, including Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.

But Hemingway’s words suggest a truth: Chekhov wrote seven- or eight hundred stories, and not all are good. And old and new collections abound.

I looked into a dozen or so and found that perhaps the best widely available collection for nonscholars is Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, 1896-1904: Penguin Classics (384 pp., $12, paperback), translated by Ronald Wilks, with an introduction Paul Debreczney. It gathers 11 stories that Chekhov wrote in the last decade of life, when he did much of his best work. The tales include such masterpieces as “The Bride,” “The Bishop” and “Lady With the Little Dog.”

These stories generally have uncomplicated plots, ageless themes and realistic characters living in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution. In “The Bride” a young woman must choose between a fiancé she doesn’t love and a life of greater freedom than marriage would offer her. In “Lady With the Little Dog,” a married man and woman stumble into an affair while vacationing without their spouses at Yalta, then must live with the decision after returning home. And in “The Bishop” a dying clergyman realizes that his official role has isolated him from his mother and others he loved.

Chekhov said he hoped that by telling the truth, he would help people live “more decently,” as the translator Avrahm Yarmolinksy put it. That goal may have been a blue-sky goal. But it helps to explain why, 104 years after their author’s death, Chekhov’s best stories remain among the most admired ever written.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 16, 2008

Travels With Chekhov

Filed under: Classics,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 am
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1 p.m. Wednesday. A church book club I attend is reading seven Chekhov short stories in April. The group chose a 1,104-page Stephen King novel in March. Chekhov should be easy compared with It.

5:30 p.m. Wednesday. My library has several collections of Chekhov’s work, but none has all the stories I need: “Peasants,” “The Bride,” “The Bishop,” “About Love,” “A Visit to Friends,” “The Lady With the Little Dog” and “The House With the Mezzanine.”

Out of sheer loyalty I pick up Constance Garnett’s 1962 translation of 15 stories. I owe a lot to Constance for her translations of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the first I read. Many libraries purge books that haven’t been checked out in a while to make room for new ones. I feel I must support Constance by checking out her translation – even though I probably won’t read it – to keep her spot from going to a Mitch Albom novel.

I also get from the library two books that, between them, have three kinds of tape peeling from their spines: duct, clear and Scotch. They give Chekhov’s name as “Tchehov” and “Tchekoff” and have cream-colored pockets in the back. The three books I check out have only one of the stories I need, “The Bishop.”

10 p.m. Wednesday. Search the Web for the six other Chekhov stories. Get distracted by John Gross’s fine review of V.S. Pritchett’s Chekhov: A Sprit Set Free in the New York Times. Gross writes:

“It is as a story writer, in Sir Victor’s view, that Chekhov stands supreme. He is unhappy to see the stories overshadowed by the plays, as they tend to be nowadays — they seem to him far richer in texture; and to a considerable extent his book is an attempt to redress the balance.”

Gross adds:

“If you want to sample [Pritchett’s] quality, try his account of ‘The Bishop’ (one of Chekhov’s finest achievements — it reads, he observes, ‘like a sustained anthem’ to the writer’s own death).’”

Must have Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free by the late Sir Victor, a brilliant critic and perhaps the nearest English counterpart to Edmund Wilson.

Thursday, 4 p.m. The library doesn’t have Chekhov: A Sprit Set Free. But it does have Pritchett’s Complete Collected Essays, which has 10 pages on Chekhov. The book has 1,319 pages, only 215 more than It, and is one of my favorite books of criticism. How can I resist? I check it out along with a) the volume on Chekhov in the Twayne’s World Authors Series of brief critical studies, and b) Philip Callow’s Chekhov: The Hidden Ground, the only biography at the library that analyzes most of the stories on my list.

I now have six books about Chekhov but only one of the stories I need.

Thursday, 5:30 p.m. Visit a tiny but wonderful independent bookstore. It has two fine Chekhov collections: The Portable Chekhov, edited by Avrahm Yarmolinksy, and Peasants and Other Stories, nine tales selected and introduced by Edmund Wilson. I want the Wilson. But it’s a hardcover book that seems to have only one story I need apart from “The Bishop.” (Later I find out that it has “The Bride,” too, under an alternate title, “Betrothed,” and is available in paperback.) I buy The Portable Chekhov, which has The Cherry Orchard, seven letters and 28 stories, four of them on my list.

Yarmolinksy says in his introduction:

“The most characteristic of Chekhov’s stories lack purely narrative interest. They no more bear retelling than does a poem. Nothing thrilling happens in them, nor are the few reflective passages particularly compelling. Some of the tales, having neither beginning nor end, are, as Galsworthy put it, ‘all middle like a tortoise.’”

This does not diminish their impact, Yarmolinsky suggests:

“A man of sober and naturalistic temperament, Chekhov was dogged by the thought that our condition in this uncomfortable world is a baffling one. He liked to say that there was no understanding it. And, indeed, his writings heighten that sense of the mystery of life which is one of the effects of all authentic literature.”

Thursday, 11 p.m. Read “The Bishop,” the story of the last week in the life of a bishop. The bishop rejoices when his mother, whom he has not seen in years, visits during Holy Week. Yet her presence recalls a time when his position had not set him apart and he could unburden his heart to others. At vespers, he listens to chanting of monks:

“He sat by the altar where the shadows were deepest, and was swept in imagination back into the days of his childhood and youth, when he had first heard these words sung. The tears trickled down his cheeks, and he meditated on how he had attained everything in life that it was possible for a man in his position to attain; his faith was unsullied; and yet all was not clear to him; something was lacking, and he did not want to die. It seemed to him that he was leaving unfound the most important thing of all. Something of which he had dimly dreamed in the past, hopes that had thrilled his heart as a child, a schoolboy, and traveler in foreign lands, troubled him still.

Callow calls the tale “a parable of repressed love,” yet there is more to it than that Freudian interpretation might imply. It implicitly asks: What is life “about”? Most short stories are about a community of people. No matter how beautifully they evoke it, they stop there. “The Bishop” goes deeper. It may read like “a sustained anthem” to Chekhov’s death, but its song is not that of its author alone.

Saturday, 10 a.m. I still have only five of the stories I need. But if I read only “The Bishop,” I can stop right there with a profit. It would be a brilliant idea for any book club to read to read even two or three Chekhov stories instead of a novel at a meeting.

The quote from “The Bishop” comes from Russian Silhouettes: More Stories of Russian Life (Scribner’s, 1915), translated by Marian Fell. The full text of the Fell translation of the story appears here www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/ac/bishop.html.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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December 23, 2007

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

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

The Story of the Other Wise Man. By Henry Van Dyke. Ballantine 112 pp., $7.95, 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 www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/j/o/joyful.htm. You will also see a picture of Van Dyke if you click on the link.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com/


December 19, 2007

My Dear Watson, It’s Arthur Conan Doyle’s Classic Sherlock Holmes Christmas Story – ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’

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: sherlock-holmes.classic-literature.co.uk/the-adventure-of-the-blue-carbuncle/. At top left is the Audio CD “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — The Blue Carbuncle” (Mitso Media, 2006), read by James Alexander, available on Amazon www.amazon.com and elsewhere.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It is also for people who dislike long-winded weasel reviews that are full of facts and plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book.

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

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