One-Minute Book Reviews

November 17, 2009

A Conflict of Interest Among Judges of the 2009 National Book Awards in the Young People’s Literature Category?

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The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced tomorrow night. Will the results in the category of young people’s literature be affected by the sponsor’s decision to allow one judge to judge the work of her illustrator?

This year’s shortlist for the National Book Award for young people’s literature is unusually strong but may be tainted by an apparent conflict of interest on the judging panel. The five finalists include Stitches, David Small’s graphic memoir of his youthful experience of throat cancer. One of the five judges for that award is Kathi Appelt, the author of a 2008 National Book Award finalist that Small illustrated, The Underneath.

No one could have known that Stitches would make the shortlist when the National Book Foundation, the sponsor of the prize, tapped Appelt as judge. Appelt may have been selected long before any books were nominated. But now that Small’s memoir is a finalist, she should recuse herself or be replaced to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

When Atheneum paired Appelt with Small, he had won the most prestigious honor in the picture-book field, the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal, for his So You Want to Be President?. Appelt had received many honors but had not earned one of the ALA’s top awards. So Small’s willingness to illustrate her book could be considered a favor, however much he was paid for it: It was comparable a Wimbledon winner’s agreeing to be the doubles partner of a someone who had never made the finals of the tournament. Since the publication of The Underneath, Appelt’s career has soared. And Appelt has acknowledged Small’s contributions to her novel. Asked about its characters, she said: “He brought them to life in a million ways.” Small has also praised Appelt. “I was amazed by the twists and turns of the story,” he has said of The Underneath, “by the range of characters, both animal and human, and by the tone of mournful, nostalgic poetry in the prose.”

Does such a connection mean there’s a conflict? Some past National Book Awards judges may have voted for or against books important to people to whom they had close ties – for example, books edited by their editors. But the relationship between an author and illustrator is unique. Judging a book by someone who illustrated your book – and whose work may have had a direct effect on your sales — is different from judging a book edited by your editor and from which you can’t benefit financially.

The issue here has nothing to do with the integrity of Appelt, Small, or the National Book Foundation. Nor does it involve whether Appelt can be “objective.” Perhaps she can be. The issue is that Appelt’s ties to Small raise questions of fairness to the other four finalists: Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma (Holt), Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin (FSG), Rita Williams-Garcia’s Jumped (HarperTeen), and Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch: Three Times (Scholastic). If Stitches wins, how will the losers know that Appelt’s support for her illustrator didn’t make a vital difference?

Winning – or losing – a National Book Award may be the most important event in the professional life of a finalist. Apart from the money it brings, it has the power to transform careers. All finalists have a right to know that the decision was made fairly. The best way to ensure that literary justice prevails is for judges to avoid not just conflicts of interest but the sort of appearance of a conflict of interest that exists this year.

– Janice Harayda

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland who has been a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she has posted other comments on the 2009 National Book Awards.

November 15, 2009

‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ – Quotes of the Day From a 2009 Finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

“A novel … does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman, all the better.”
– Charles Darwin, as quoted in Charles and Emma

The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced Wednesday, and the finalists in the category of young people’s literature include Deborah Heiligman’s captivating Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95). This dual biography is a portrait of the loving marriage of the author of The Origin of Species and his spirited and intelligent wife, who held religious views he did not share.

This excerpt describes how Charles and Emma Darwin spent their first days in their new home in London after their wedding at a Staffordshire church on January 29, 1839:

“In their first few days together, they mostly stayed in – it was snowing. But they also did some shopping for furniture, dishes, and clothes, including a morning gown for Emma. It was ‘a sort of clarety-brown satin,’ she wrote to [her sister] Elizabeth, and she felt it was ‘very unobjectionable.’ They borrowed some novels from the library, starting a lifelong tradition of reading together – usually Emma read to Charles while he rested from his work. Charles liked novels with happy endings, and he once wrote, ‘I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me … and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily – against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.”

An earlier post on Charles and Emma has links to more information about the book.

The publisher recommends Charles and Emma for ages 13 and up — perhaps because of occasional mature content, such as the passing use of the word “erection” — but it may also appeal to younger children who are strong readers.

November 6, 2009

Is Jonathan Lethem Courting a 2009 Bad Sex Award With These Lines From ‘Chronic City’?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:23 pm
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Later this month the Literary Review will announce the winner of its annual Bad Sex award, intended to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description … and to discourage it” in modern literary novels. Last year the judges gave the main prize to Rachel Johnson’s Shire Hell and a lifetime achievement award to John Updike.

Who will win the Bad Sex Award this year? Perhaps Jonathan Lethem for the following lines from Chronic City, a novel of New York during a financial – but not necessarily sexual — crisis. The excerpt below omits a half dozen lines, marked by ellipses, that might not cross the spam filters at libraries. You can find the missing lines by using the “Search Inside” tool on Amazon.com or another site to search for “Richard’s crotch throbbed.”

“At two that same morning he’d had Georgina swinging in a rope chair she’d had installed at his whimsical suggestion, hung from a bolted hook on her ceiling, her legs spilling over the sides of the mesh seat in which her splendid bottom lay helpless to his savage ministrations. The situation was wildly odd and erotic. …

“Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.”

Are these lines purple enough to win a Bad Sex Award? If you can’t decide, you may want to compare them with past winners or read some of my comments on the longlisting of Ian McEwan for the 2007 Bad Sex Award. My review of Chronic City appeared yesterday.

October 31, 2009

Deborah Heiligman’s ‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ — A Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

Deborah Heiligman’s captivating dual biography of the Darwins, Charles and Emma (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95), is one of the best young-adult books I’ve read since launching this site. This finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature lacks the problems of last year’s winner, What I Saw and How I Lied, among them a clash between its third-grade reading level and its sophisticated content. Good as it is, Charles and Emma isn’t a shoo-in: It’s up against books that include Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 144 pp., $19.95), the true story of a 15-year-old whose refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger helped to integrate the buses in Montgomery, Alabama.  I haven’t been able to put my hands on a copy, but I admired Hoose’s Perfect, Once Removed (Walker, 2007), a memoir of the October when his cousin Don Larsen pitched a perfect World Series game, and I hope to say more about both National Book Award finalists soon.

2010 Newbery and Caldecott Medal Winners to Be Announced at 7:45 a.m. EST on Jan. 18 – American Library Association to Give Results on Live Webcast and on Twitter

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The American Library Association will announce the winners of the 2010 Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s books on Monday, January 18, at 7:45 a.m. EST, during its Youth Media Awards ceremony in Boston. The ALA will offer a live Webcast of the event at http://alawebcast.unikron.com with limited connections available on a first-come first served basis. The organization plans also to tweet the results on Twitter at twitter.com/ALAyma and post the winners’ names at www.ala.org/yma by 9:30 a.m. EST on its Web site.

October 15, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – The World’s Best Acknowledgments in a Book

Yesterday Deborah Heiligman made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature for her captivating dual biography, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95, ages 9 and up). And she might win in a walk if the judges gave the prize for the acknowledgments section of a book alone. Heiligman amusingly tweaks the clichés of the genre in her thanks to her husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Weiner:

“You put up with a lot as I wrote this book. You owed me, sure, but you have paid me back in spades. I’m ready for your next one. Jon read the book front to back in many drafts, and if there are any mistakes, blame him.”

Wouldn’t acknowledgements be more fun if everybody wrote like this?

October 14, 2009

Complete List of 2009 National Book Award Finalists for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People’s Literature

Here is the complete list of finalists for the 2009 National Book Awards. You can learn more about the books and authors on the shortlist by visiting on the site for the prizes:

FICTION

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

NONFICTION

David M. Carroll, Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)
Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (Princeton University Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Alfred A. Knopf)

POETRY

Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan University Press)
Ann Lauterbach, Or to Begin Again (Viking Penguin)
Carl Phillips, Speak Low (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon: Open Interval (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Keith Waldrop: Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Alfred A. Knopf)

YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE

Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt)
Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
David Small, Stitches (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Laini Taylor, Lips Touch: Three Times (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic)
Rita Williams-Garcia, Jumped (HarperTeen, HarperCollins)

October 13, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – National Book Awards Finalists to Be Announced Tomorrow

Just a reminder: The shortlist for the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced at noon Eastern Time tomorrow. The list will consist of five finalists in each of four categories — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature – and should be posted by early afternoon on the site for the sponsor of the prizes, the National Book Foundation, and on www.twitter.com/nationalbook.

The winners will be announced on Nov. 18, well before those for the Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Critics Circle Awards, both of which will be handed out in 2010. Some finalists for the young people’s literature award may also be considered for American Library Association’s Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, which will be given out in January. Only Americans are eligible for the National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prizes, and Newbery Medal, but authors of any nationality may win NBCC awards.

I haven’t read enough of the candidates predict who might turn up on tomorrow’s list. But two of the 2009 books that I read are as strong as many past National Book Awards finalists — Aleksandar Hemon’s short story collection, Love and Obstacles, and Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see them on list. And Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs – which I hope to review soon – seems to have gained the kind of unstoppable momentum that, rightly or wrongly, often precedes major awards.

Jacqueline Woodson’s novel for ages 12 and under, Peace, Locomotion – which I’ll review Saturday, Oct. 17 or Oct. 24 — isn’t as strong in its category as Hemon’s and Gooch’s books are in theirs. But it’s a sequel to Locomotion, which was a National Book Awards finalist. And Woodson also made the shortlist for Hush. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see her among the finalists, either.

Whom would you like to see win in November?

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 8, 2009

The Good News About Herta Müller’s Nobel Prize in Literature

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:07 am
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I haven’t read Herta Müller, a Romanian-born German who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature today. But the good news about the Swedish Academy’s announcement is that the award didn’t go to Bob Dylan (the 25-1 favorite a few days ago with bettors at the London odds-making firm of Ladbrokes). Writers, no need — yet — to start taking electric guitar lessons to boost your chances of winning the world’s most prestigious literary honor.

More comments on Müller and links to information about her work appear in yesterday’s posts.

October 6, 2009

2009 Nobel Prize in Literature Winner To Be Announced on Thursday, Oct. 8, at 6 a.m. Eastern Time (US), 11 a.m. GMT and 1 p.m. CET — Live Webcast and Interview

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:16 am
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The winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced in a live Webcast from the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden, on Thursday, Oct. 8, at 6 a.m. Eastern (US) Time or 11 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and 1 p.m. Central European Time (CET). You can watch the live Webcast and learn more about the award on the news page of the Nobel Prize site. An interview with Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, will follow the announcement.

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