One-Minute Book Reviews

March 12, 2008

Pop Quiz: What’s the Most Famous American Novel About a Call Girl?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:48 am
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[Update at 12:15 p.m.: What! This post has been up for more than eight hours and nobody has figured out the answer? I'm taking this as a sign that the East Coast people, who log on first, are stumped. West Coast visitors: Can you help? Jan ]

Suppose Eliot Spitzer had done the smart thing and read a great novel about a call girl instead of consorting with one. What book would he have read? Hint: You know the title. I’m not dredging up a neglected masterwork known only to people who have just defended disserations in American Lit. And the book has a call girl as a main character, not a bit player. I’ll post the answer by the end of the day. If you know it and want to show the world what a genius you are, please leave a comment.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 30, 2008

Is Pearl Buck’s ‘The Good Earth’ a ‘Plodding Chinese Epic’? Quote of the Day (John Sutherland in ‘How to Read a Novel’)

John Sutherland is an English scholar and columnist perhaps best known in the U.S. for his engaging books about literary puzzles, including Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? He also wrote the recent How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide (St. Martin’s/Griffin, $12.95, paperback), a quirky overview of factors that may affect readers’ perceptions of a book, such the cover, reviews and film versions. Sutherland chaired the 2005 Man Booker Prize committee and in his new book comments astringently on literary awards, including the Nobel Prize www.nobelprize.org. He suggests that Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize because one of her rivals, Graham Greene, wrote an unflattering novel about the Swedish financier and swindler Ivar Kreuger, who made a fortune as a manufacturer of matches:

“The grey men of Stockholm like fiction which takes on big themes – so long, as was the case with Graham Greene’s England Made Me (1935), they happen not to be big themes that reflect badly on Sweden. Greene’s ‘entertainment,’ as he called it, about Sweden’s Robert Maxwell, the ‘match king’ Ivar Kreuger, ensured its author a one-way ticket to the Nobel blacklist. Pearl S. Buck, author of the plodding Chinese epid The Good Earth (1931), committed no such offense and duly got her Swedish prize in 1938.”

Comment by Janice Harayda:

Sutherland is right about the “big themes.” The judges of most literary prizes – not just the Swedish Academy — favor authors who take on large topics. One reason why many people expected Doris Lessing to win the Nobel long before 2007 is that she has dealt with those“big themes,” including the role of women in society in The Golden Notebook.

But I’m not sure about The Good Earth. Like many American teenagers, I had to read the novel for a high school English class and, at the age of 14, I found it riveting. I’ve just started rereading it for the first time in decades and hope to write about the book in this space soon. Did you have to read The Good Earth in school? Have you reread it since then? How, if at all, has your view of the book changed?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

January 10, 2008

Joan Didion on Beginnings and Endings in Writing (Quote of the Day)

“Life changes fast.”
— The first sentence of The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion earned her reputation as one of the great American prose stylists partly through the memorable first sentences of her books and articles. She won the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction for a memoir of death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, that opens with three words: “Life changes fast.”

Do opening lines have an importance that goes beyond their ability to make you keep reading? Didion dealt with the question in a Paris Review interview about the early nonfiction pieces that helped to make her famous:

Interviewer: You have said that once you have your first sentence you’ve got your piece. That’s what Hemingway said. All he needed was his first sentence and he had his short story.

Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

Interviewer: The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.

Didion: Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.

Joan Didion in “The Art of Fiction, No. 71,” an interview with Linda Kuehl in the Fall-Winter 1978 issue of the Paris Review. You can find the full text of that interview and another with Didion that appeared in the spring 2006 issue by searching for “Joan Didion” at www.parisreview.org. Didion’s hardcover publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, has posted an excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking at www.aaknopf.com, where you can read the pages that follow: “Life changes fast.”

Cover art for the the Fall-Winter 1978 Paris Review shown here: Robert Moskowitz

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

January 2, 2008

National Book Awards Reality Check: Finalist Edwidge Danticat’s ‘Brother, I’m Dying’

The latest in an occasional series on winners of or finalists for major book awards and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Brother, I’m Dying. By Edwidge Danticat. Knopf, 273 pp., $23.95.

What it is: The author’s memoir of her uncle, Joseph Dantica, who died a nightmarish death while in custody of U.S. immigration officials in Miami in 2004. Danticat lived with her uncle for eight years while growing up in Haiti and interweaves his story and hers.

A finalist for … the 2007 National Book Award for nonfiction, won by Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA www.nationalbook.org.

Was this one of those literary honors that make you wonder if the judges were all on Class B controlled substances? No.

Worthy of being a finalist for a major award? A qualified yes. Danticat’s story of the brutal and medically negligent treatment of her 81-year-old uncle may be the best account in print of what can happen to an innocent visitor wrongly detained by U.S. immigration authorities. But that story unfolds in the last 100 pages, and the writing precedes it is much less interesting and more pedestrian.

 

Best line: “When you hear that someone has died whom you’ve not seen in a long time, it’s not too difficult to pretend that it hasn’t really happened, that the person is continuing to live just as she has before, in your absence, out of your sight.”

 

Worst line: No. 1: “The colorfully painted lottery stands were still selling hundreds of tickets to hopeful dreamers.” As opposed to dreamers who weren’t hopeful? (The time frame of that line is confusing, too: hundreds of tickets a day? a week?] No. 2:My father was dying and I was pregnant. Both struck me as impossibly unreal.” How does “impossibly unreal” differ from just “impossible” or “unreal”? That “impossibly” is just padding. No. 3: The stilted, “In mid-October, my husband and I learned our child’s gender from our midwife …” Who speaks that way? Wouldn’t you just say, “We learned our baby’s sex” or “We learned that we were having a girl”? Lines like these three – and Brother, I’m Dying has many – should give pause to any awards judge, no matter how worthy the subject of a book.

 

Published: September 2007 www.aaknopf.com

 

Furthermore: Danticat also wrote Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner. She lives in Miami.

 

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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 20, 2007

What Is Writer’s Block? Quote of the Day (Tom Wolfe)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:25 pm
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Many writers have tried to define “writer’s block.” One of the best explanations came from Tom Wolfe, who has said he became “totally blocked” while working on his first magazine piece, an article about car customizers for Esquire that became The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He said:

“I now know what writer’s block is. It’s the fear you cannot do what you’ve announced to someone else you can do, or else the fear that it isn’t worth doing. That’s the rarer form.”

Tom Wolfe in an interview with George Plimpton in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Ninth Series (Viking 1992). Edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by William Styron. Reprinted from the Spring 1991 issue of the Paris Review. You can read more from this and other interviews in this acclaimed series at www.parisreview.com.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

This may be the best definition I’ve read of the causes of writer’s block. It’s also true that, as my late mentor Don Murray used to say, “Electricians don’t get electrician’s block.” Don believed that most people could avoid writer’s block by writing every day. He wrote his motto, “Nulla dies sine linea” (“Never a day without a line”), on letters, on the blackboard and on bumper-sticker-like signs he sent to students. Don was a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, where the journalism lab bears his name. He died a year ago this month and still inspires many of our work habits www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/01/.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

 

December 6, 2007

After ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ — Joan Didion’s Greatest Hits

A lot of book clubs are reading The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, $13.95, paperback), Joan Didion’s National Book Award–winning memoir of the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. And for groups or discussion leaders who would like to read more by Didion, the good choices include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, the early nonfiction collections that helped to make her reputation as one of America’s finest prose stylists.

But perhaps the best “next book” is the first chapter of her 1992 essay collection, After Henry (Vintage, $14.95, paperback) www.randomhouse.com/vintage/. Didion writes in the chapter about an early editor of her books, Henry Robbins, who died on his way to work at the age of 51. And her comments on death relate, perhaps more directly than anything she has written, to her views in The Year of Magical Thinking. She also notes, correctly, that the relationship between writers and great editors has little to do with changes in manuscripts:

“The relationship between an editor and a writer is much subtler and deeper than that, at once so elusive and so radical that it seems almost parental: the editor, if he was Henry Robbins, was the person who gave the writer the idea of himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down and do it.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 13, 2007

Three Good Picture-Book Editions of Ernest L. Thayer’s Classic ‘Casey at the Bat’ – A Poem for All Baseball Seasons


Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

— From Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”

By Janice Harayda

“Casey at the Bat” is one of the few poems that nearly all American children like. Yet it is hard to say exactly why this is so.

The story told in the poem almost couldn’t be simpler. A home team is losing a baseball game – perhaps not even an especially important one — when its star player gets an unexpected chance to bat in the last inning. Everybody is sure that “mighty Casey” can bring victory to the Mudville Nine. Instead, he strikes out and the team loses.

This is hardly a riveting drama compared with what children read in contemporary books or see in the movies and on television. And you can’t say that author Ernest L. Thayer makes up for it with brilliant poetry – he doesn’t. Thayer tells Casey’s story in rhyming couplets of iambic heptameter, a nearly obsolete verse form known as the fourteener because a line typically has 14 syllables or seven iambic feet. But he has a slack enough grip on that form that you can’t always tell whether he meant a phrase to be read as iambic, trochaic or anapestic meter. Some of his baseball terms are unfamiliar today, too, such calling a weak player as a “cake.”

Generations of Americans have responded to objections like these with, “Who cares?” First published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, “Casey at the Bat” transcends its limits by appealing to a universal human desire – the wish to have heroes and yet also to see them fail sometimes, letting us off the hook for our own failures. Like all good heroes, Casey is like us and not like us. And three illustrators revitalize him in picture books that use the full title and subtitle of the poem, “Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888.”

Thayer’s Casey plays in an adult league. But Patricia Polacco www.patriciapolacco.com turns Casey into a freckled-faced boy — an updated Norman Rockwell character more impish than arrogant — in her winsome 1988 Casey at the Bat. Polacco adds brief prose bookends that allow her to give Casey a baseball-loving sister and a long-eared dog in this paperback edition of the poem, which is hard to find but available in many libraries. If you click on the link for the book on her Web site, you can send a free electronic postcard bearing a picture of Casey. Her youthful characters and bright, airy illustrations, which abound with primary colors, make this a good edition for preschoolers.

School-age children may prefer the 2003 Casey at the Bat (Simon & Schuster, $16.95) www.simonsayskids.com, illustrated by the gifted C.F. Payne. Casey has a handlebar moustache and mythic Paul Bunyan-esque proportions in this atmospheric book that evokes the flavor of 19th-century baseball. Payne’s book ends with an excellent four-page note on the history and afterlife of the poem, which explains some of its real-life parallels and how vaudeville helped to make it famous.

Christopher Bing won a 2001 Caldecott Honor award from the American Library Association www.ala.org for his ambitious Casey at the Bat (Handprint Books, $17.95), printed on pages that resemble yellowing newsprint with halftone pictures (the kind you find in the Wall Street Journal). Each spread is a pastiche that includes more than lines from the poem and a picture of the game. It also has overlaid images — reproductions of the ticket stubs, baseball cards and newspaper editorials about the game. One editorial supports fans outraged by advent of the baseball glove: “They justifiably see this move as a disgrace – perhaps the first step in the calculated and tragic emasculation of the game.” At times the supplementary material can be distracting, a case of what the British call over-egging the pudding. But much of it is fascinating and a feast for detail-oriented children in grades 3 and up.

Each of these editions has virtues. But no one needs to buy a book to enjoy Thayer’s poem. “Casey at the Bat” is out of copyright and available for free on many sites, including that of the Academy of American Poets www.poets.org. (The punctuation varies on the sites, reflecting that of different editions that have appeared in the past century.) It’s also short enough that you could read it to children during the seventh-inning stretch of a playoff or World Series game. And would you really prefer that they hear another beer commercial instead?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 11, 2007

Why Do People Like Westerns? Quote of the Day (William Kittredge)

Why do people like Western stories in books, movies and other media? Here’s an answer from the novelist William Kittredge:

“The Western is a story in which we get to have our cake and eat it. Shane does the killing, then rides into the mythical Tetons, carrying all our guilt away with him. Our problems have been solved quickly, and we are off the hook, guilt free, ready to go on, no blood on our hands.

“The Western is a story as ancient as warfare, about solving problems with violence, the great simple solution …

“It would be pretty to think the American version of this ancient showdown shoot-’em-up story of aggression enshrined has vanished. But it hasn’t.

“The Western mutated and went to the edge of the continent and downtown with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and the cops and detectives (think of Chinatown as the last Western movie). Lately the Western has gone into virtual worlds and outer space, where the same old story is being endlessly reenacted by killer androids.”

William Kittredge in The Portable Western Reader (Penguin, 1997) edited and with an introduction by William Kittredge us.penguingroup.com. The book gathers essays, poems and more, from ancient tribal tales to work of well-known contemporary authors such as Louise Erdrich. Richard Ford, Barry Lopez and Larry McMurtry and Leslie Marmon Silko.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 5, 2007

‘Casey at the Bat’ — Coming Soon to ‘Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read’

Filed under: Classics,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:17 pm
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Yes, Ernest L. Thayer’s classic is a narrative poem, not a book, about the day there was “no joy in Mudville.” But there are at least three good picture-book versions of Casey at the Bat in print, and One-Minute Book Reviews will review them all soon in its “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series. To avoid missing this review, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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