One-Minute Book Reviews

April 28, 2009

Emily Dickinson, War Poet (Quote of the Day / From Drew Gilpin Faust’s Pulitzer Prize Finalist, ‘This Republic of Suffering’)

Filed under: Poetry,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:53 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

How did Americans deal with the unprecedented scale of death in the Civil War? Many grappled with the carnage partly by writing about it — in poems, letters, memoirs, sermons, diaries, and more — given a lucid analysis by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering, a finalist for the most recent National Book Award www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html and Pulitzer Prize for history www.pulitzer.org/citation/2009-History.

Gilpin Faust writes about Emily Dickinson in this excerpt from a much longer section about Dickinson’s work and that of other writers of the era, including Ambrose Bierce and Herman Melville:

“Emily Dickson is renowned as a poet preoccupied with death. Yet curiously any relationship between her work and the Civil War was long rejected by most literary critics, even though she wrote almost half her oeuvre, at a rate of four poems a week, during those years. Dickinson has been portrayed as a recluse, closeted from the real world and its tribulations. But her work is filled with the language of battle – the very vocabulary of war that she would have encountered in the four newspapers regularly delivered to the Dickinson household. Campaigns, cannons, rifle balls, bullets, artillery, soldiers, ammunition, flags, bayonets, cavalry, drums, and trumpets are recurrent images in her poetry.”

Gilpin Faust adds:

“Like so many reflective Americas of her time, she grappled with the contractions of spirit and matter and with their implications for heaven and for God. Death seemed ‘a Dialogue between the Spirit and the Dust,’ an argument left painfully unresolved. Dickinson wondered where she might find heaven (‘I’m knocking everywhere’) and what an afterlife might be (‘Is Heaven a place—a Sky—a Tree?’) …..

“Ironically, it was death, not life, that seemed eternal, for it ‘perishes—to live anew … Annihilation—plated fresh / With Immortality.’ No territorial justifications, no military or political purposes balance this loss; victory cannot compensate; it ‘comes late’ to those already dead, whose ‘freezing lips’ are ‘too rapt with frost / to take it.’ Dickinson permits herself no relief or escape into either easy transcendence or sentimentality.”

You might also want to read the Oct. 4, 2007, post, “Do Emily Dickinson’s Poems ‘Make a Virtue Out of Collapsing’?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/04/.

© 2009 Janice Harayda

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 27, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check — A Review of the 2009 Fiction Winner, Elizabeth Strout’s Short Story Collection, ‘Olive Kitteridge’

The latest in a series of occasional posts on the winners of or finalists for major literary prizes

Olive Kitteridge. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 304 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

It tells you something about Olive Kitteridge that two of its 13 short stories were published in Seventeen and O, The Oprah Magazine: This is one of the lighter-weight winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It tells you more that two other stories appeared in The New Yorker and South Carolina Review: These tales, if often moving, have the disjointed quality of scenes from different dreams.

The linchpin of the collection is Olive Kitteridge, a retired junior-high math teacher in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, who appears at least briefly in every story. At first, the pace of the book is somnolent and the title character so nasty she verges on caricature. But the collection picks up steam – and Olive, some humanity – after 30 or so pages.

In the fourth story, “A Little Burst,” comes the great scene in the book. At her middle-aged son’s wedding reception, Olive slips into the just-married couple’s bedroom and flinches when, through an open window, she hears her new daughter-in-law mocking her mother-of-the-bride dress. It is a dress she loves and has made from a green fabric imprinted with big reddish-pink geraniums: “Her heart really opened when she came across the gauzy muslin in So-Fro’s; sunlight let into the anxious gloom of the upcoming wedding; those flowers skimming over the table in her sewing room.” Wounded and uncomprehending, Olive steals two of her daughter-in-law’s possessions from the couple’s bedroom – a loafer and “a shiny pale blue bra, small-cupped and delicate.” She also defaces a sweater with a black Magic Marker, then neatly folds it and puts back on its closet shelf. Olive finds that her vandalism does not help much, but “it does help some,” to know that Sue will go through her belongings and think: “I must be losing my mind, I can’t keep track of anything…. And, my God, what happened to my sweater?” This tale offers not just a finely wrought portrait of a frightened woman’s projection of her own anxieties about her only child’s belated wedding — it is Olive herself who may be losing her mind — but can be read as a chilling tale of a mother’s symbolic, if unconscious, rape of her son.

As a self-contained story, “A Little Burst” works beautifully. This is a tale of a nervous breakdown that may betoken a mental illness such as psychosis. The problem comes when you read the story against others that leave a contradictory impression: Olive is not mentally ill but starved for love in her marriage to a kind but insufficient pharmacist (or, as an atheist, has a spiritual hunger she can’t admit). In some tales, Olive plays such an inconsequential role that you wonder if Elizabeth Strout shoehorned them into the book by altering the stories after publication. This is especially true of “Ship in a Bottle,” which appeared in Seventeen 1992 and has clearly since been revised to include a veiled reference to torture at Abu Ghraib prison, which didn’t become known until 2004.

Olive Kitteridge ends, as good novels typically do, with a redemption of sorts. But because the book isn’t a novel, it hasn’t built toward that transformation as novels do. Its ending has less force, diluted by digressions into lives of characters who relate to it obliquely if at all. When Olive finally chooses to accept love, in however imperfect a form, you wonder if such a decision would be possible for someone who for so long has hated so much about the world.

Best line: From “A Little Burst”: “Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as ‘big bursts’ and ‘little bursts.’ Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.”

Worst line: No. 1: “He’s a spoiled brat to the manor born.” Another misquotation of Shakespeare’s “to the manner born.” No. 2: “ … he’d eat a sandwich that had spilling from it mayonnaisey clumps of egg salad or tuna fish, landing on his shirt.” Pray that “mayonnaisey” isn’t the next “garlicky.” No. 3: “The Scottish were scrappy and tough …” The people of Scotland and their descendants almost always call themselves the Scots, not the “Scottish,” a word used mainly as an adjective. As an alternate term for the Scots, “the Scottish” is correct but stilted. No. 4: The multiple uses of “Ay-yuh,” northern New England slang for “Yes” or “Yup.” Strout grew up in Maine and must have heard the expression as “ay-yuh.” But the phrase is usually rendered “ay-yup,” as a Voice of America report notes, and it sounded like “ay-yup” when I lived in New Hampshire.

Read an excerpt from Olive Kitteridge.

Published: March 2008 (hardcover), September 2008 (paperback). Olive Kitteredge was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Furthermore: The marketing campaign for Olive Kitteridge misrepresents the book as “a novel in stories” when it is a short story cycle. For more on this issue, see yesterday’s post.

About the author: Strout also wrote Amy and Isabelle and Abide With Me. She lives in New York City.

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

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

April 11, 2009

Robinson, Updike or Roth Will Win the 2009 Pulitzer for Fiction, Statistical Analysis Shows — But Don’t Count on It

I’m on record as saying that the frontrunner for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction would seem to be Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy, which I haven’t read. Morrison is the only Nobel Prize–winner in the hunt. And I think it’s going to be tough for the judges to pass over a laureate, although the National Book Critics Circle board did it in March.

But a research scientist and a book collector have reached a different conclusion by using regression analysis, a statistical technique for evaluating variables. The two say that the books most likely to win the 2009 fiction prize are Marilynne Robinson’s Home, John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick, and Philip Roth’s Indignation. They’ve also identified the 12 other candidates that, based on their analysis, are most like to win, all listed in order at  PPrize.com. You can read their 2008 predictions — and how they fared — on the same site. The Pulitzer Prizes honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction — and will be announced on Monday, April 20, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

2009 Pulitzer Prizes to Be Announced on April 20 at 3 p.m.

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:17 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The winners of the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced on Monday, April 20, 2009, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time at a press conference at Columbia University. The awards honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction. The finalists will be named at the same time, and the judges may decline to give a prize in any category.

April 9, 2009

Jonathan Yardley Says Cheever Bio Is ‘A Vast Inert Pudding of a Book That Leaves the Reader With a Severe Case of Indigestion’

Filed under: Biography,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:48 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I was jousting with computer problems while others were reviewing Blake Bailey’s new biography of one of my favorite writers, John Cheever, and I may not have time to backtrack to the book. But of the reviews I’ve read, the most convincing came from Jonathan Yardley, the Pulitzer Prize–winning critic for the Washington Post, and not just because Yardley has shown repeatedly that among critics working for major American newspapers, he is the least likely to buy into hype. Yardley has also been writing about Cheever for decades – much longer than others who’ve weighed in – and by my lights spoke from a position of greater authority.

His March 15 review begins:

Two decades ago, reviewing Scott Donaldson’s John Cheever: A Biography for The Post, I commented favorably on the author’s ‘careful and honorable job’ but complained that, at 416 pages of text and apparatus, the book told us far more than we needed to know about Cheever’s life. What, then, is to be said of Blake Bailey’s Cheever? It weighs in at a stupefying 679 pages of text plus 89 pages of acknowledgments, notes and index, 770 pages in all, making for a vast inert pudding of a book that leaves the reader with a severe case of indigestion.

“Who knows what Cheever would have thought of this? On the one hand, he was a vain man for whom even the most lavish praise was insufficient, so perhaps it would have pleased him that he rates so bloated a text. On the other hand, the best of his own writing was done in short stories, and the best of those are notable for their economy and precision. Surely he would be astonished to see himself inflated into yet another biographical Gargantua, not to mention in a book that feeds rapaciously on his most unattractive if not repellent aspects: his obsessive, divided sexuality, his spectacular alcoholism, his failures as husband and father.

“Cheever was a wonderful writer — the Library of America has just given him his due with two volumes — but not, it seems, a very nice man …”

Read the rest of Yardley’s review of Bailey’s book and his 1988 review of Donald’s biography.

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

February 2, 2009

How Great Books Got Their Titles — When ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ Was ‘Angry Raisins’ — André Bernard’s ‘Now All We Need Is a Title’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:07 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

F. Scott Fitzgerald took his editor's advice, but many authors didn't.

Alfred A. Knopf urged Dashiell Hammett to change the title of The Maltese Falcon because he thought “falcon” might be hard for people to pronounce. The staff at Harper Brothers protested when Eugene O’Neill handed in Mourning Becomes Electra, a trilogy that later helped him win the Nobel Prize, because they believed the reference to Agamemnon’s daughter was too obscure. And the editor Max Perkins talked F. Scott Fitzgerald into calling his greatest novel The Great Gatsby instead of Trimalchio in West Egg (or at West Egg), perhaps fearing that few would recognize the name of a character in Petronius’s Satyricon.

Stories like these abound André Bernard’s ‘Now All We Need Is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way (Norton, 127 pp., $11, paperback), an engaging collection of anecdotes and commentary about how well-known books got their titles. A former Book-of-the-Month Club editor who worked in publishing for 25 years, Bernard covers more than 100 books that range from classics to late 20th-century bestsellers like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone mysteries, each of which has a letter (“A” Is for Alibi, “B” is for Burglar) in title.

Many of the stories in Now All We Need Is a Title involve misguided efforts by editors to overrule authors. But Bernard shows that translators, book clubs and others can also do damage. John Steinbeck loved the title of The Grapes of Wrath, inspired by a line in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He didn’t live to see the translation published in Japan, where his widow, Elaine, found the book being sold as Angry Raisins.

This is the first in a series of posts that will appear this week on some of my favorite books.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 25, 2008

John Updike Wins Lifetime Achievement Award from 2008 ‘Bad Sex’ in Fiction Judges

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:48 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Rachel Johnson also wins for a scene from Shire Hell “that begins with moans and nibbles and works up to screaming and other animal noises”

John Updike has won a special lifetime achievement award from the judges of the 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Prize, given annually by the U.K. literary magazine the Literary Review. Here’s the AP story on the award www.kvoa.com/Global/story.asp?S=9412980&nav=HMO6HMaf. Updike has been nominated four times for the prize, this year for his novel The Widows of Eastwick.

The AP article doesn’t say whether the judges singled out any passages in giving Updike the award, which recognizes crude, tasteless and often gratuitous sex scenes in works that otherwise have literary merit. So I’ll repeat what I said yesterday in noting that Updike had been nominated: “Let’s face it – it’s a miracle that he has never won a Bad Sex award, given that this man created the lecherous Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, who made a pass at his daughter-in-law on his deathbed.”

James Pressley of Bloomberg.com reports that Rachel Johnson, the sister of London mayor Boris Johnson, is also a winner. She received the 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Prize “for a scene in Shire Hell that begins with moans and nibbles and works up to screaming and other animal noises” www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=a_G4Db0hO7Z8&refer=home. Pressley’s article is longer and has more information on the other candidates than the AP story.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 24, 2008

John Updike Makes 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Award Shortlist for ‘The Widows of Eastwick’ – Russell Banks Also a Finalist — Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘American Wife’ Spared

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:36 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick has made the shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award given by the U.K. magazine the Literary Review. Among books by Americans, Russell Banks’s The Reserve is also finalist for the annual prize, launched to recognize and discourage crude, tasteless and often gratuitous sex scenes in modern novels that otherwise have literary merit.

The judges spared Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, which some critics have derided for its unintentionally comical sex scenes involving characters resembling George and Laura Bush. But they shortlisted Brida by the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, whose The Alchemist has been an American bestseller.

I admire much of the work of John Updike, particularly his poetry and literary criticism, and stand my recent comment that if Updike lived in Greenland, he would have had a Nobel Prize years ago. But – let’s face it – it’s a miracle that he has never won a Bad Sex award, given that this man created the lecherous Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who made a pass at his daughter-in-law on his deathbed. And I regard Russell Banks as one of America’s most overrated writers, so his nomination doesn’t test my startle reflect, either.

The Literary Review will award the Bad Sex prizes tomorrow night, and the meantime you can read about them at www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/nov/20/bad-sex-award-fiction. A victory by Updike or Banks would be the second award to an American in two years: Norman Mailer won posthumously in 2007 for The Castle in the Forest. Check back late tomorrow afternoon if you’re interested in the results.

You may also want to read the following 2007 posts on One-Minute Book Reviews:
“Ian McEwan Makes Longlist for Bad Sex in Fiction Award as Expected” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/23.

“’Sex in Ian McEwan’s Novel Is Not Bad Enough to Impress the Judges’” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/27/.

“Read All the Passages Shortlisted for the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award Here” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/28/.

And this one from earlier 2008:

“Late Night With Jan Harayda – Is Curtis Sittenfeld Courting a Bad Sex in Fiction Award?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/24/.

The Literary Review does not post the shortlist on its Web site www.literaryreview.co.uk.

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

November 20, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

« Previous PageNext Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 378 other followers

%d bloggers like this: