One-Minute Book Reviews

November 19, 2008

Matthiessen, Gordon-Reed, Doty and Blundell Win 2008 National Book Awards — Gordon-Reed Is First African-American Woman to Win the Nonfiction Prize

The winners of the 2008 National Book Awards are Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (fiction), Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello (nonfiction), Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire (poetry) and Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied. Each winner receives $10,000 and was selected by a different panel of five judges. The nonprofit National Book Foundation sponsors the prizes and has posted more information about them at www.nationalbook.org. The site includes interviews with all the winners and finalists and excerpts from their books.

The publishing news site GalleyCat www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/ will have pictures and more on the ceremony tomorrow. Ron Hogan, senior editor of GalleyCat, attended and posted the names of the winners on his Twitter feed with heroic speed. If you can’t wait for tomorrow’s news stories, you can read more about the event on his Twitter feed www.twitter.com/ronhogan, which includes snippets from the acceptance speeches.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Peter Matthiessen Wins 2008 National Book Award for Fiction for ‘Shadow Country’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:32 pm
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Peter Matthiessen has won the 2008 National Book Award for fiction. An interview with the author and an excerpt from the book appears on the site for the National Book Foundation, www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html, which has promised to post a video of the ceremony later tonight.

The National Book Awards are, along with the Pulitzer Prizes for books, the most prestigious literary awards in the United States. Each winner receives $10,000 and is chosen by a panel of five judges, which differs for each category.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Annette Gordon-Reed Wins 2008 National Book for Nonfiction for ‘The Hemingses of Monticello’

Annette Gordon-Reed has won the 2008 National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Hemingses of Monticello. She is the first African-American woman to win the nonfiction prize. An interview with the author and an excerpt from the book appears on the site for the National Book Foundation, www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html, which has promised to post a video of the ceremony later tonight.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Mark Doty Wins 2008 National Book Award for Poetry for ‘Fire to Fire’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:16 pm
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Mark Doty has won the 2008 National Book Award for Poetry for his Fire to Fire. An interview with the author and an excerpt from the book appears on the site for the National Book Foundation, www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html, which has promised to post a video of the ceremony later tonight.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Why Was Gettysburg So Important? (Quote of the Day / Drew Gilpin Faust in ‘This Republic of Suffering,’ a 2008 National Book Award Finalist)

“… we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground.”
— From the Gettysburg Address, delivered Nov. 19, 1863

The Gettysburg Address is the greatest speech in American history and one of the country’s supreme works of literature. Yet you can listen to the full text in just 1 minute and 46 seconds in an audio version on Wikipedia.

Why did such a brief speech have such power? The answer goes beyond Abraham Lincoln’s sublime words, the subject of a masterly book-length analysis by Garry Wills in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Lincoln at Gettysburg (Simon & Schuster, 1992). The power of the speech comes also from the occasion for it: the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863, not long after Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863).

Drew Gilpin Faust provides a rich context for the address in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for nonfiction, the winner of which will be named tonight www.nationalbook.org.

Gilpin Faust notes that Gettysburg belonged to a new group of battlefield cemeteries, created during the Civil War, that were more than places to bury the dead:

“These cemeteries were intended to memorialize the slain and celebrate the nation’s fallen heroes. Gettysburg represented a particularly important turning point. The large numbers of casualties in that bloody battle were obviously an important factor in generating action, but it is not insignificant that the carnage occurred in the North, in a town that had not had the opportunity to grow accustomed to the horrors of the constant warfare that had battered Virginia for two long years. Gettysburg made the dead – and the problem they represented – starkly visible to northern citizens, so many of whom flocked to the small Pennsylvania town in the aftermath of the battle. Perhaps even more critical was the fact that the North had resources with which to respond, resources not available to the hard-pressed Confederacy.

“The impetus for the Gettysburg cemetery arose from a meeting of state agents in the weeks after the battle. With financial assistance from Union states that had lost men in the engagement, David Wills, a Gettysburg lawyer, arranged to purchase seventeen acres adjoining an existing graveyard. In October contracts were let for the reburial of Union soldiers in the new ground at a rate of $1.59 for each body. In November Lincoln journeyed to help dedicate the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery. This ceremony and the address that historian Gary Wills has argued ‘remade America’ signaled the beginning of a new significance for the dead in public life. Perhaps the very configuration of the cemetery can explain the force behind this transformation. The cemetery at Gettysburg was arranged so that every grave was of equal importance; William Saunders’s design, like Lincoln’s words, affirmed that every dead soldier mattered equally regardless of rank or station. This was a dramatic departure from the privileging of rank and station that prevailed in the treatment of the war dead …”

To read the full text of the Gettysburg Address or listen to a reading of it on Wikipedia, click here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettysburg_Address. Drew Gilpin Faust is president of Harvard University www.harvard.edu.

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

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.

October 8, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Why Isn’t John Updike on the Odds-Makers Lists of Favorites for the Nobel?

A mystifying aspect of the lists of bookies’ favorites for the Nobel Prize in literature: Why isn’t John Updike’s name on any that I’ve seen?

Yes, the requirements for the prize specify that it should go to a writer whose work has an “idealistic tendency” or promotes the good of humanity. And that standard might not favor Updike’s novels about the lascivious Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. But that test also wouldn’t favor a lot of the work of Philip Roth and Don De Lillo, whose names appear often on lists of bookies’ favorites. And Updike is much more elegant writer than Joyce Carol Oates, though she has given so much support to other writers – especially female writers – that she may come closer to meeting the test of idealism.

Updike’s novels vary tremendously in quality. But he is the best all-around writer in America – not just one of our leading novelists but a great story story writer, a good poet and an elegant critic. Do bettors discount him because his short stories are perhaps his best work and he wrote many of them decades ago? Or because they don’t count his criticism and poetry? What role does the unofficial geographic distribution requirement — and that the U.S. has more novelists than most countries – play in all of this? If Updike lived in Greenland, he would have had the Nobel Prize decades ago.

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

October 1, 2008

A Few Comments on Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons’ on Broadway and in Print

It’s remarkable how a well-staged Broadway production can transcend the defects of a play. Last weekend I saw All My Sons in previews at the Schoenfeld Theatre, and the time flew by.

You hardly noticed how prosaic Arthur Miller’s writing can be because the production had so much going for it, including brisk direction by Simon McBurney and a glossy cast: John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and Katie Holmes.

After I got home, it seemed to me that All My Sons stands up to rereading both better and worse than some of the other plays that appeared in decade after World War II. It holds up better partly because Miller is dealing here with issues that have fresh relevance in the age of Haliburton and Enron: the evils of war profiteering and the moral duty of individuals to resist the soulless influence of American business. It holds up worse because Miller can use language as blunt instrument instead of a precision tool (as in Linda Loman’s famous defense of her husband, Willy: “ … attention must be paid”). That liability is perhaps more noticeable today than it was before videos and DVDs expanded the availability of more elegantly written plays from Hamlet to A Streetcar Named Desire.

I wondered if others shared my view, so I picked up Arthur Miller (Chelsea House, 148 pp., $35), part of the “Bloom’s BioCritiques” series edited and introduced by the distinguished critic Harold Bloom. (The volume on Miller in the “Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations” series is instead shown above.) Bloom says:

“Miller is by no means a bad writer, but he is scarcely an eloquent master of the language.”

Exactly. The appeal Miller’s plays — which remains high — comes from virtues other than unparalleled phrase-turning, including their craftsmanship, moral courage and passionate exploration of the intersection of social and psychological forces in American lives.

A few comments on the Sept. 26 preview: Kate Holmes (Ann Deever) is easy on the eyes and, given that producers must be strafing her with scripts for romantic comedies, has made a statement about how she wants to be perceived by taking on this role. John Lithgow (Joe Keller) gives an energetic performance in a tough role that requires him to undergo a transformation that, as Miller wrote it, isn’t fully believable. Patrick Wilson (Chris Keller) grows into his part. None of those actors can touch Dianne Wiest (Kate Keller), whose portrayal of a mother unable to accept the death of her son in World War II must be one of the best recent portrayals of mental illness in any medium.

All My Sons officially opens Oct. 16 on Broadway. You can read about that production and buy tickets at www.allmysonsonbroadway.com. You’ll find more on Arthur Miller (1915-2005) at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Miller.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept books from editors, publishers, authors or agents. It also does not accept free tickets to plays mentioned on the site.

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

August 15, 2008

Why ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is Bad Poetry and Other Literary Thoughts on the Olympics

Random literary thoughts on the Olympics:

1. Michael Phelps’s underwater dolphin kick is sports poetry.

2. NBC should fire the swimming analyst who keeps saying “he has swam” (as in “he has swam much better than this”).

3. The first word of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (“Oh”) is an example of the literary device known as anacrusis, a lead-in syllable or syllables that precede the first full foot.

4. The national anthem is written in anapestic meter, Dr. Seuss’s favorite. (What, you’ve never noticed the similarity between “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” and “I meant what I said / and I said what I meant …”?)

5. Why is “The Star-Spangled Banner” bad poetry? Take in the last line: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” In a good poem, words are not interchangeable. You can’t switch them around with no loss in meaning or effect, because everything in the poem essential. Apart from a rhyme, what would the national anthem lose if Francis Scott Key had written “home of the free and the land of the brave” instead of “the land of the free and the home of the brave”?

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

May 23, 2008

John Updike (1932-2009) Explains What His Books Are ‘About’

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:42 am
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John Updike has died of lung cancer at the age of 76. This is a re-publication of an earlier post about his work.

Critics often fault John Updike for not having a social message or making a point that runs throughout all his books. Is this fair? Updike deals with the meaning of his books in an interview in Picked-up Pieces (Knopf, 1975), one of his early collections of essays, reviews and other nonfiction:

“My books are all meant to be moral debates with the reader, and if they seem pointless — I’m speaking hopefully — it’s because the reader has not been engaged in the debate. The questions is usually, ‘What is a good man?’ or ‘What is goodness?’ and in all the books an issue is examined. Take Harry Angstrom in Rabbit, Run: there is a case to be made for running away from your wife. In the late Fifties beatniks were preaching transcontinental traveling as the answer to man’s disquiet. And I was just trying to say: ‘Yes, there is certainly that, but then there are all these other people who seem to get hurt.’ That qualification is meant to frame a moral dilemma.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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