One-Minute Book Reviews

November 26, 2011

Marie and Pierre Curie, Exposed – Lauren Redniss’s ‘Radioactive’


A dual biography of the Curies that’s graphic on more than one level

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie. A Tale of Love & Fallout. By Lauren Redniss. It Books/HarperCollins, 205 pp., $29.99.

By Janice Harayda

Radioactive shows you Marie Curie as you’ve never seen her: naked. What we gain from watching her frolicking as nude as a wood nymph with a lover isn’t clear. But this illustrated biography of Marie and her husband, Pierre, makes clear that the first woman to win a Nobel Prize was no nun for science, devoted as she was to it. It also shows how the Curies’ work with radioactivity helped lead to modern events that range from the partial meltdown of two nuclear reactors at Three Mile Island to the cranial radiation treatments that enabled a 14-year-old Rhode Island boy to survive his non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Lauren Redniss modifies the format of graphic novels as she tells the story of the Curies’ love affair with physics and with each other: She omits the usual strips or panels and encloses her text in more creative ways on black-and-white, two-toned, or multi-colored spreads. Her most dramatic spread involves Paul Langevin, who became Marie’s lover after Pierre’s death. The left-hand page shows Langevin’s head, and the right-hand one describes his life in words arranged in the shape of his head, the equivalent of a pattern poem in prose.

Redniss created her images through superb drawing and cyanotype printing, a form of cameraless photography that gives many of her pictures a bluish cast and something of the ethereal quality of radium. Her subjects have Modigliani-esque almond eyes and elongated features, grounded in reality by the reproductions on other pages of archival materials such as maps, photos, X-rays and a North Korean stamp marking the 50th anniversary of Marie’s death.

All of the influences on display in Radioactive add interest to the Curies’ story but give a slightly overdesigned air to a book in which the pictures outshine the text. Redniss writes in a prosaic style that makes heavy use of block quotations from interviews and other sources, some of which beg for an intelligent paraphrase, and she cuts away jarringly from her subjects’ lives to events that occurred long after their deaths. She also makes it harder to follow some of her chronological leaps by using fonts that provide too little contrast with their background and by cramming too much text onto a page or adding needless elements (including a list of a “select array of luminaries” from Marie’s native Poland, when the story is also about Pierre, who was French). But if Redniss is a far better artist than writer, she has an instinct for literary detail that leads to some lines as memorable as any of her pictures. At the Bibliothèque National, she notes, “the Curies’ laboratory notebooks are still radioactive, setting Geiger counters clicking 100 years on.”

Best line: The U.S. government studied the results of the atomic blasts at the Nevada Test Site partly by building houses filled with appliances and dummy families in the form of mannequins dressed by J.C. Penney, “stylishly, in the fashions of the day.”

Worst line: A section on how Marie Curie extracted polonium and radium from pitchblende, an effort described better in fewer words by many others. The section also has a grammatical error: Redniss incorrectly hyphenates “naturally-occurring” and, in the next sentence, correctly writes the phrase as “naturally occurring.”

Published: 2011

Editor: Cal Morgan

Recommendation? The publisher bills Radioactive as a book for adults, but the images of Marie Curie naked will also make science projects more fun for teenage boys.

Furthermore: Radioactive was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction. Sample pages from the book appear the site for the New York Public Library, which exhibited some of them. The excerpt shows the image of Paul Langevin’s head described above. Other sample pages appear on Redniss’s site.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of and critic for the Plain Dealer.  You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 16, 2011

Conflict of Interest Questions at the 2011 National Book Awards

Filed under: National Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:22 am
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Several conflicts of interest or the appearance of them may affect the results of the 2011 National Book Awards that will be handed out tonight in Manhattan. Here are some ties between judges and finalists and how they may affect the outcome of the awards:

Fiction
The conflict
Fiction judge Yiyun Li provided a blurb for Edith Pearlman’s finalist Binocular Vision that appears on the back cover of the book. Li has said on Twitter that for that reason, she is abstaining from discussions of the book.

How it may affect the outcome
Li has won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and other honors that make her the most acclaimed fiction-jury member. Assuming that she would have supported a book she blurbed, her abstention will deprive Pearlman of an advocate and may make victory more likely for one of the two best-known finalists, Téa Obreht and Julie Otsuka.

Nonfiction
The conflict
Nonfiction judge Jill Lepore and finalist Stephen Greenblatt are both professors in humanities disciplines at Harvard University (history and English, respectively).

How it may affect the outcome
Greenblatt was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for nonfiction and may be the most honored candidate on the 2011 nonfiction shortlist. Lepore did not respond to an email message asking whether she is taking part in discussions about her colleague’s The Swerve. But if she would have supported Greenblatt, an abstention could hurt one of strongest nonfiction candidates. And it would further strain a jury reduced to four members instead of five after the unexplained disappearance of Rebecca Solnit, named a judge in April. An abstention by Lepore would leave the panel with just three members participating in some deliberations. And it would mean that Greenblatt could win with two votes in the case of a 2-1 split.

Poetry
The conflict
Poetry panel chair and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander serves on the faculty of the Cave Canem writers’ program, according to its website, which also lists as faculty two 2011 poetry finalists, Nikky Finney and Yussef Komunyakaa. Komunyakaa further shares with Alexander the title of honorary directory of the program. A third poetry finalist  listed as a faculty member, Carl Phillips, says his term did not overlap with Alexander’s and he has not taught with her at Cave Canem.

How it may affect the outcome
Alexander should abstain from discussing Finney and Komunyakaa if the Cave Canem website reflects accurately her status as a colleague of both. If she does, four judges will decide the fate of those finalists, which could increase the chances of a hung jury. If she doesn’t abstain, that fact would create the unusual situation of a judge remaining involved despite an apparent conflict with not one but two finalists.

You can read more about conflicts of interest at the National Book Awards in the fourth section of this post.  A complete list of National Book Awards judges and finalists appears on the website for the sponsor, the National Book Foundation.

You can follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar. She will be live-tweeting the National Book Awards ceremony beginning at 8 p.m. tonight. Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been 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 15, 2011

2011 National Book Award for Poetry – Predictions and More

Filed under: National Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:20 am
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Who will win the award for poetry on Wednesday?

By Janice Harayda

Publishing is an incestuous industry, rife with logrolling and cronyism. But this year’s National Book Awards may have set a record for conflicts of interest or the appearance of them.

At least one fiction judge has had to recuse herself from some of the deliberations, and a nonfiction judge has reason to do so. And the poetry shortlist raises enough similar questions that I’ve scrapped my plan to tweet and re-post here micro-reviews of excerpts of its finalists, as I did for fiction and nonfiction. That plan grew out of a hypothesis: that if the judging was fair and the excerpts represented the overall quality of the books, you could predict the winner from them. But the sponsor of the National Book Awards has provided too little evidence that it has established the internal controls needed to keep cozy relationships among the poetry judges from undermining process of selecting a winner in that category.

So instead of reviewing poetry finalists, I’ll just make the prediction I promised on Twitter: Carl Phillips’s Double Shadow or Yussef Komunyakaa’s The Chameleon Couch will win. Phillips, Komunyakaa and Adrienne Rich are the strongest finalists on the evidence of their excerpts. But Rich’s work hasn’t matched her Diving Into the Wreck, which won the 1974 National Book Award. And although judges in such situations are supposed to consider only the nominated book, an author’s earlier work may affect the deliberations, anyway. To my mind, that makes Phillips or Komunyakaa the likely winner.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right. She will predict the winner of the award for young people’s literature tomorrow.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


November 14, 2011

Cozy Relationships Among National Book Awards Poetry Judges

Filed under: National Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:41 am
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This is the first of two posts on conflicts of interest of the appearance of them among 2011 National Book Awards judges. The second will deal with the fiction and nonfiction juries.

By Janice Harayda

You might think the National Book Awards couldn’t look worse than they did last month when their sponsor shortlisted the wrong book and, instead of taking full responsibility for the error, pressured the erroneously named finalist to drop out. But that acidic fruit may not hang lower on the tree of ethics than an apparent conflict of interest on the poetry jury that casts a shadow over the prize ceremony to be held Wednesday.

Each National Book Awards jury normally has five judges, including one who serves as the panel chair. This year the poetry jury has as its chair Elizabeth Alexander, a Yale professor who is also one of 20 faculty members at the Cave Canem writers’ program, according to the website for the organization.  Two of the five finalists are among Alexander’s 19 colleagues on the Cave Canem faculty, the site says: Nikky Finney  and Yusef Komunyakaa (with whom she also shares the title of honorary director of the program).

Were 40 percent of the year’s best poetry books written by people who teach with the panel chair? It’s possible: Phillips was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and Komunyakaa won Pulitzer Prize, and Finney, if less honored, is widely respected. And you might think that Alexander alone couldn’t have pulled her two colleagues onto the shortlist, given that the award has five judges. The truth is that she could have done it if the other four judges split 2–2 over a finalist and she cast the swing vote.

Many awards programs have a clear policies for handling apparent conflicts like Alexander’s, often posted on their websites: They require such judges to abstain from the discussing or voting for the winner or both. The National Book Foundation, the sponsor of the awards, doesn’t post its policy. And statements by its staff suggest that its way of dealing with conflicts is more subjective and less comprehensive than that of other major literary prize-givers. The foundation “forbids anyone that has a blood family, current business or romantic relationship” from judging the finalists, its executive director told Motoko Rich of the New York Times.

Is it a “business relationship” if you serve on a faculty with 19 others? You might think so. And Alexander may have recused herself from judging her colleagues. But that would leave the award, in effect, with only four judges, because she couldn’t judge most of the candidates. At the same time, her failure to recuse herself would lead to a worse situation: It would taint the 2011 prize and do further harm to the reputation of a foundation lowered by its tawdry handling of the young-people’s-literature prize.

No matter what happens Wednesday, the obvious management failures by the sponsor have the damaged the credibility of the National Book Awards. This year has brought new books from former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout, National Book Award winners Robert Bly and Charles Wright, and other acclaimed poets passed over by the jury that chose two faculty members who teach with its chair in a relatively small program.

The problem with all of this does not involve the integrity of Alexander or her colleagues at Cave Canem. Nor does it relate to whether she can be an “objective” jury member. Every literary-awards judge brings tastes and biases to his or her task. The issue is that a shortlist long on people Alexander teaches with raises questions of fairness to the other finalists and to all the worthy poets snubbed by her panel. If one of Alexander’s colleagues wins, how will the losers and nonstarters know that her support didn’t make the difference that deprived them of the most coveted honors in American literature?

[Note: This post has been updated. An earlier version listed Carl Phillips as a third National Book Awards poetry finalist who serves on the Cave Canem faculty with jury chair Elizabeth Alexander. Phillips says his time as a teacher at Cave Canem has never overlapped with that of Alexander, although the website for the writing program lists them both as faculty members.]

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You may also want to read her post on why the National Book Awards are broken and 7 ways to fix them, which deals with the uproar after the botched young-people’s-literature nomination.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she has posted further comments on the National Book Awards, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

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

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

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