One-Minute Book Reviews

April 8, 2008

Why Do Unworthy Books Win Awards like Pulitzer Prizes? Quote of the Day (Neville Braybrooke)

In last night’s post, I listed some classic American novels that didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, given yesterday to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. A related question is: Why do unworthy book win awards? One obvious answer is that most prizes are given out annually, and every year may not bring a great book in a category.

But more subtle factors may come into play. A truism of literary prize-giving is that awards often go to everybody’s second choice. Judges may split into two camps with each side fiercely opposing the other’s first choice. To reach a decision, they may choose a second-rate book they can all support.

Judges tell many stories in among themselves about such compromises but rarely discuss them publicly. Who wants to admit to having honored a clinker? But Neville Braybooke suggests how the practice can work in his preface to the Every Eye, the elegant second novel by his late wife, Isobel English. Braybooke writes that English refused to add the happy ending that an American publisher wanted to her to give her first novel, The Key That Rusts:

“More significantly, during these early days of her career, came the news that The Key That Rusts had been shortlisted for the Somerset Maugham Award, tying for first place with Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net. In the event, the judges were unable to decide who should be the winner, so they gave the prize to the runner-up, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.”

Neville Braybrooke in Every Eye (David R. Godine/Black Sparrow, $23.95) www.blacksparrowbooks.com.

Comment by Jan:

Braybrooke may have been willing to tell this anecdote partly because there would have been no shame in losing either to Lucky Jim or Under the Net, both modern classics. And few critics would argue that Amis’s comic novel was unworthy of an award. The Somerset Maugham Award is given annually by the London-based Society of Authors www.societyofauthors.org to the writer or writers under the age of 35 who wrote the best book of the year.

Do you think any unworthy books have won awards? What are they?

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

“ …

March 20, 2008

Martín Espada Wears His Causes on His Sleeve in ‘The Republic of Poetry’

A visit to Chile helped to inspire a collection that includes anti-war poems

The Republic of Poetry: Poems. By Martín Espada. Norton, 63 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Martín Espada wears his causes on his sleeve, and it’s a heavy sleeve. Many of his poems read like editorials in verse, but without the surprise endorsements that most newspapers serve up occasionally. His politics are as predictable as an incumbent’s stump speech. He opposes torture, apartheid, dictatorship, police brutality and, apparently, war in general and the war in Iraq in particular. (Two of the poems in this book appeared on the site Poets Against War www.poetsagainstwar.net.) He supports poets and poetry.

Espada visited Chile in 2004 for the centenary of the birth of the Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, and his trip inspired a dozen poems that form the core of The Republic of Poetry. In “City of Glass” he writes of the ransacking of Neruda’s home by soldiers loyal to Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had overthrown the elected Salvador Allende. The opening lines set the tone for a poem that turns the fragility of glass into a graceful metaphor for the fragility of democracy in Chile:

The poet’s house was a city of glass:
cranberry glass, milk glass, carnival glass,
red and green goblets row after row,
black luster of wine in bottles …

Elsewhere Espada reaches frequently for images that are banal or strained. On a visit to his childhood home in Brooklyn, he recalls a youthful injury with the mawkish line: “Blood leaked on the floor like oil from the engine of me.” In a bar he has a vision of a wooden figure he saw in Neruda’s home: “He likes for me to be still, / she grinned …” That “she grinned” isn’t bad poetry so much as hack writing in general; it would be as bad in your local newspaper as in a book. Espada can do better – and sometimes he does – but he clearly has the spirit of Chilean poets who once protested their oppression by bombing the national palace with bookmarks imprinted with poetry. In his way, he’s bombing you, too.

Best line: All of “City of Glass,” one of two poems in the book first published in The New Yorker.

Worst line: In “Black Islands” Espada writes of a meeting the Chilean father of a five-year-old: “ Son, the father said, this is a poet, / like Pablo Neruda.” That “like Pablo Neruda” could mean two things: “a poet, as was Pablo Neruda” or “a poet similar to Pablo Neruda.” Either way, this is unappetizing self-congratulation. You wonder what Neruda would have thought of that self-congratulatory “like Pablo Neruda” in “Black Islands.”

Published: October 2006. Paperback due out from Norton in April 2008.

Furthermore: Espada www.martinespada.net was born in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches at the University of Massachusetts. He has written seven other poetry collections, including Imagine the Angels of Bread, which won American Book Award.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She would like to expand One-Minute Book Reviews to include podcasts, broadcasts and other services, such as online book discussion groups or forums in “real time,” and is looking for a home for this blog that would make it possible to provide these.

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

February 29, 2008

2008 Delete Key Awards #2 – The Intellectual Devotional: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently With the Cultured Class

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Delete Key Awards Finalist #2 – From The Intellectual Devotional: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently With the Cultured Class by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim:

On Moby-Dick:
“The novel’s narrator, Ishmael, decides to seek relief from a midlife crisis by joining the crew of a whaling ship.”

Honorable mentions to:

“Miguel de Cervantes [sic] Don Quixote (Part I, 1605; Part II, 1615] is arguably the most prominent cultural landmark of the Spanish-speaking world.”

Pride and Prejudice (1813) is arguably the most popular work of the British novelist Jane Austen.”

“Though history has produced many great novelists, arguably none is held in higher esteem than Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).”

“A midlife crisis”? Don’t we see enough of this modern cliché in novels about men who suddenly start using designer hair gel? Do we need to start applying it retroactively? How do we know that Ishmael didn’t just forget to take his Paxil?

There is arguably a place for “arguably” in the English language, particularly in academic books. But who, exactly, is going to “argue” with the statement that Don Quixote is the greatest book written in Spanish? Or that Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s most popular novel? In a book about how to “roam confidently with the cultured class,” these timid passages read like the work of intellectual wimps.

The 2008 Delete Key Awards finalists are being numbered but announced in random order from No. 10 to No. 1.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

2008 Delete Key Awards Finalist #8 – Holly Peterson’s ‘The Manny’

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Delete Key Awards Finalist #8 – From Holly Peterson’s The Manny:

“We’re in the modern era, baby, you spoiled, Jurassic, archaic, Waspy piece of petrified wood!”

“He was munching furiously on his prey, like an African lion with a freshly caught zebra.”

Guess which part of the body the “prey” is.

The ten 2008 Delete Key Awards finalists are being numbered but announced in random order.

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

Countdown to the Super Bowl of Bad Writing

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:47 am
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The Delete Key Awards finalists will be numbered but announced in random order

It’s almost here – the playoff game for the Super Bowl of bad writing. In less than half an hour, One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the first of ten finalists for the 2008 Delete Key Awards, which recognize authors who aren’t using their delete keys enough. The others will be named at about 20–30 minute intervals with the full shortlist posted by the end of the day.

The Delete Key Awards finalists will be numbered, starting with No. 10, but announced in random order. The numbering is only to help you keep track of how many books have made the shortlist so far. The winners will be named on March 15, 2008.

Thanks for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews, a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 25, 2008

Why We Need Negative Reviews of Books (Quote of the Day/William Logan)

Perhaps everyone who’s edited a newspaper or magazine book section has heard the question: “Why do you publish negative reviews of books? When you have so little space, why not focus on the good ones?” William Logan deals with the question as it applies to poetry in his The Undiscovered Country:

“It’s often said that critics shouldn’t write negative reviews, because bad poetry will take care of itself (time will take care of it, too). With so few books in a given year worth remembering, why review those that will soon vanish from memory? I love reviewing poets I admire (isn’t that what a critic lives for?); but if you write only such reviews, how can a reader trust your praise? We learn something necessary about how a few poets go right when we know the ways so many have gone wrong: the latest clichés of feeling, the shop-thumbed imagery, the rags and bones of organization. Great poets transcend their age as much as they embody its ills, or succumb to them; but mediocre poets succumb on every page.

“If you’re too gentle to say a mean thing, are you ever courageous enough to say a truly kind one (or mean enough to say an honest one)? It’s surprising how many poets feel that poetry criticism should never be … critical. Yet these gentle readers love film and theater reviews that would eat the chrome off a car bumper.”

William Logan in the introduction to his most recent book of poetry criticism, The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin (Columbia University Press, $29.50) www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/. Logan teaches at the University of Florida www.english.ufl.edu/faculty/wlogan/index.html and writes the Verse Chronicle for the New Criterion newcriterion.com:81/. He is author of three other works of criticism and seven books of poetry. His awards include the a citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review and inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com


February 22, 2008

And This Week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:47 am
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On Sunday (Feb. 17) the New York Times Book Review had a review of The Seven Days of Peter Crumb, billed as “a chronicle of the final week in a psychopath’s life by the British actor and writer Jonny Glynn.” The critic said:

“Reading it, I fought the urge to throw up. Needless to say, I was transfixed.”
www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/books/review/Trussoni-t.html?ref=review

Comment:

Hyperbole in reviews often involves substituting overheated words like “transfixed” and “mesmerized” for calmer (but perhaps more accurate) ones like “fascinated” and “interested.’ “Transfixed” means “to render motionless” or “to fixate on something as though held by a spell.” You wonder if this critic was “transfixed” by anything but the need to find a vomit bag.

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

February 20, 2008

Annie Ernaux’s Modern French Classics, ‘A Man’s Place’ and ‘A Woman’s Story’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:04 am
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A prize-winning author recalls her parents’ lives in Normandy before and after World War II

A Man’s Place. By Annie Ernaux. Ballantine, 103 pp., varied prices, paperback. A Woman’s Story. By Annie Ernaux. Seven Stories, 96 pp., $8.95, paperback. Both translated from the French by Tanya Leslie.

By Janice Harayda

Annie Ernaux’s spare autobiographical books are remarkable for many things. One of them is their brevity. They typically have fewer than 100 pages, yet are so rich in perception that they have earned the status of modern classics in France.

In the U.S. Ernaux’s reputation rests largely on two books about her parents that are often described as autobiographical novels but resemble high stylized memoirs. Both are partly about how sex roles and social class shaped the lives of residents of a village in Normandy in the decades before and after World War II. They are also about how Ernaux, at once grateful for and alienated from her background, felt “torn between two identities” after she received the university education that her parents lacked.

A Man’s Place is about the life and sudden death of her father, a shopkeeper and café owner whom people called “simple” or “humble” but who had a complexity suggested by a telling incident: “One day he said to me proudly: ‘I have never given you cause for shame.” The sequel, A Woman’s Story, is similarly brief and evocative but, because of its subject, may hold more appeal for Americans.

After her husband’s death, Ernaux’s mother developed the disease the French call la maladie d’Alzheimer and suffered alternately from confusion and a terrified comprehension of her plight. She remembered that she had to turn off the light when she left a room but forgot how to do it, so “she climbed onto a chair and tried to unscrew the bulb.”

Ernaux describes all of this with an austere restraint reminiscent of the best work of Muriel Spark, always providing just enough detail to suggest greater depths. She tells us that her mother, as her Alzheimer’s become worse, wrote to a friend, “Dear Paulette, I am still lost in my world of darkness.”

Best line: From A Woman’s Story: “Books were the only things she handled with care,” Ernaux says of her mother. “She washed her hands before touching them.”

Worst line: Tanya Leslie’s translations capture well the stylistic purity of Ernaux’s prose. But her use of a conspicuously British English at times results in sentences that break the French mood, such as this line from A Man’s Place: “Ah here comes the lass.”

Published: 1993 (Ballantine paperback of A Man’s Place). 2003 (Seven Stories paperback of A Woman’s Story www.sevenstories.com/book/?GCOI=58322100333250).

Furthermore: A Man’s Place won the Prix Renaudot, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer. Ernaux lives in France. A Woman’s Story was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She would like to expand One-Minute Book Reviews to include podcasts, broadcasts and other services, such as online book discussion groups or forums in “real time,” and is looking for a home for this blog that would make it possible to provide these.

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

February 19, 2008

Two Books by Annie Ernaux, One of France’s Greatest Living Writers, Coming Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

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Annie Ernaux is one of the greatest living writers in France, where she has been acclaimed for decades for her spare autobiographical novels. She has won the Prix Renaudot, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and could be a dark horse candidate for a Nobel Prize. So why isn’t she better known in the U.S.?

Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will consider two of her books that might especially interest American readers, including book clubs.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 17, 2008

There Were 172,000 Books Published in the U.S. in 2005 …

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:59 pm
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… according to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which tracks the number of books published per country per year en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_published_per_country_per_year.

So why does it often seem so difficult to find a great new book to read? Maybe the problem lies less with books than with the established practices in American book reviewing, an institution rife with ethical conflicts, review inflation and other problems that can make it hard to tell the gold from the pyrite.

Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will review Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, in which a longtime critic asks: Why is so much book reviewing in the U.S. so bad? And what can be done about it?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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