One-Minute Book Reviews

October 5, 2009

2009 Man Booker Prize Winner To Announced Tuesday, Oct. 6 — Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:32 pm
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Update: Tuesday, 5:15 p.m.: Hilary Mantel has won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction for Wolf Hall.

Update: Tuesday, 12:45 p.m.: Waterstone’s says the ceremony will be televised live on the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News, which means we should know the results around 5 p.m. Eastern Time in America.

I haven’t read this year’s finalists for the Man Booker Prize for fiction, Britain’s most influential literary award, the next winner of which will be named tomorrow. But I’ve had a lot to say in the past about the dumbing-down of this award, particularly about the shortlisting in 2007 of Mister Pip, written at a third-grade reading level. If you’d like a bit of background on tomorrow night’s ceremony, you may want to look at the disheartening reading levels of a roundup of some of the best-known winners and finalists.

“Late Night With Jan Harayda” is an occasional series of posts that appears after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and does not include reviews.

September 13, 2009

John Ashbery, E.L. Doctorow Help Critics Celebrate Their 35th Anniversary

The winner of the first National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry

Update: 2:25 p.m. Monday: A video of John Ashbery’s entertaining talk has been posted on the NBCC blog.

You might expect an anniversary party for a literary-critics’ organization to resemble a wake now that so many book-review sections have folded or shrunk. But the mood was lively at the festivities that marked the 35th year of the National Book Critics Circle last night at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in downtown Manhattan.

I spoke at the event along with the poet John Ashbery, the novelist E. L. Doctorow and dozens of current and former NBCC board members. Ashbery, born nearly a half century before the critics’ organization was founded, received the first NBCC Award for poetry in 1975 for his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which also won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. And he set the tone  of the anniversary celebration when he said: “It’s great to be back here. Actually, it’s great to be anywhere.”

Ashbery praised the Rain Taxi Review of Books and offered it as partial evidence that serious criticism of poetry and other art forms exists amid the meltdown at newspapers. The NBCC has posted a brief news report on his speech on its blog. You’ll find excerpts from other speakers’ comments, including mine, in a separate post there. The full text of all the speeches is scheduled to appear soon the NBCC site.

August 14, 2009

2010 Newbery and Caldecott Medal Predictions From the School Library Journal Blog

From "The Lion and the Mouse"

Update, Jan. 11, 2010: The School Library Journal blogger Elizabeth Bird now predicts that When You Reach Me will win the Newbery Medal and The Lion and the Mouse the Caldecott. She also predicts the Honor Books at http://tinyurl.com/yarluuf.

You say the kids aren’t going back school for a couple of weeks and you’ve run out of ideas on what they could read? You might want to look at the 2010 Newbery and Caldecott Medal predictions that Elizabeth Bird has posted on the School Library Journal blog. Bird is a children’s librarian with the New York Public Library system and a past Newbery judge who has a better record than most of us do for predicting the winners of the American Library Association’s annual awards. Among her favorites for the 2010 Newbery: Jacqueline Woodson’s: Peace, Locomotion (“it has her customary style and grace intact and she’s been edging closer and closer to outright Newbery Award status with every year”). Bird’s 2010 Caldecott candidates include Jerry Pinkney’s “almost wordless” and “meticulously researched” interpretation of a fable by Aesop, The Lion and the Mouse (“the kind of Pinkney book that will make converts out of people who weren’t Pinkney fans before”).

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

August 4, 2009

Burned by a Beach Book? Nominate It for a Delete Key Award for Bad Writing

Filed under: Delete Key Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:11 pm
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Burned by beach book? If you’d like to keep others from getting scorched, you can nominate the book for a Delete Key Award for bad writing by sending an e-mail message to the address on the “Contact” page. Please put “Delete Key” in the heading.

May 4, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Pulitzer Fiction Winners Skew Toward Disjointed Stories

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:11 pm
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Did the judges for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction assume that we all have attention deficit disorder? I’ve noted in recent reviews that the winner, Olive Kitteridge, and a finalist, All Souls, both consist of collections of disjointed stories. Other critics have made clear that the second finalist, Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves, has the same quality.

Jennifer Reese gave Erdrich’s book a B- in Entertainment Weekly and said “it reads more like a collection of random episodes than a coherent novel,” similar to a point I made earlier today about All Souls.

Ron Charles of the Washington Post found more to admire in The Plague of Doves. But he wrote of Erdrich:

“She’s challenged us before with complex, interconnected stories about the Ojibwe people of North Dakota, but here she goes for broke, whirling out a vast, fractured narrative, teeming with characters — ancestors, cousins, friends and enemies, all separated and rejoined again and again in uncanny ways over the years. Worried about losing track, I started drawing a genealogical chart after a few chapters, but it was futile: a tangle of names and squiggling lines.”

We’ve all seen plenty of awards lists that consist only of novels with traditional linear narratives, and it’s not surprising given that linear narratives are the dominant form in fiction. But collections of disjointed, if linked, stories are far less common, and this year’s Pulitzer skew is one of the oddest I’ve seen. It’s as though all the nominees for the Oscar for best picture were noir films.

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check – Christine Schutt’s ‘All Souls’ — A Prep-School Student Gets Cancer in a 2009 Fiction Finalist

A New York City teenager’s overprivileged friends respond to her life-threatening illness

All Souls. By Christine Schutt. Harcourt, 223 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

Did the judges for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction intentionally set the bar low this year? Or did their tastes simply run to lightweight books with improbable feel-good endings?

Christine Schutt’s All Souls, a runner-up for the 2009 fiction prize, has odd similarities to the winner, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. The publishers of both books bill them as “novels.” But Olive Kitteridge is a cycle of short stories, a group of linked tales could stand alone.

All Souls, too, reads more like a collection of stories than a novel. But its tales are so short, they’re closer to vignettes. All Souls has nine sections, each divided into so many sub-units that you keep darting into and out of the minds of different characters. One of the micro-sections has fewer than 50 words. Many others aren’t much longer and read as though written for an iPhone screen. The problem isn’t the use of vignettes to tell a story: Evan Connell used a similar technique to brilliant effect in Mrs. Bridge, a minor classic of American literature. The problem is that the entries in All Souls are so short that – as John Updike said of Bruce Chatwin — Schutt sounds as though she’s always interrupting herself. Her technique makes for choppy reading and limits her ability to develop a rich and sustained narrative.

Like a high school yearbook, All Souls gives snapshots of its characters instead of fully realized portraits. In a sense this befits its subject. Pretty and well-liked, Astra Dell develops “anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma,” a rare connective-tissue cancer, at the start of her senior year of high school. How rare is her illness? If you paste “anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma” into a browser window, Google returns only one result, which involves the Unitarian minister Alison Miller, whom Schutt credits with inspiring this book.

Schutt shows the effect of the cancer on Class of 1997 at the fictional Siddons, an elite Manhattan prep school for girls, that she follows through an academic year. As Astra gets high-risk treatments such as having a radioactive rod sewn into her arm, her classmates and others tend to respond inadequately or use her illness for their own ends.

At times Schutt captures well the mix of naïveté and overconfidence that tends to characterize teenagers. A senior can’t believe Astra got cancer: “She’s been a vegetarian for three years!” Schutt also offers occasional telling glimpses of Siddons parents and teachers: The adults discuss rumors that the pipes at rival schools are rusting from “the acidic effects of throwing up” by girls with eating disorders.

What are we to take away from all of this? If always intelligent, Schutt’s prose is so elliptical and antiseptic that you don’t know whether it’s intended as satire, social realism or something else. And like Olive Kitteridge, All Souls pulls an unexpectedly rosy ending out of a hat of darkness. The girls of Siddons, we learn, are conscientious enough that they don’t use CliffsNotes much. Schutt has stripped away so much from her book that she often leaves you with the sense that you haven’t read a novel so much the sort of condensation that her fictional students would avoid.

Best line: Siddons girls have been warned that CliffsNotes are “as nutritious as bread someone else has chewed and spit out.”

Worst line: A line of of dialogue by Astra’s father, who tells his daughter about a party: “The Johnsons were not in attendance.” Who speaks like this?

Published: April 2008 (Harcourt hardcover), Harcourt paperback due out June 8, 2009.

Consider reading instead: Black Ice (Knopf, 1991), Lorene Carey’s memoir of her experiences as the first black female student at St. Paul’s prep school in Concord, New Hampshire, or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark‘s classic about an Edinburgh girls’ school.

About the author: Schutt lives and teaches in New York City. She wrote the novel Florida (Triquarterly, 2003), a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for fiction. All Souls was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer for fiction.

Furthermore: Schutt says the inspiration for All Souls came from the minister Alison Miller, especially from her sermon, “Leap of Faith.” In the sermon at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, Miller spoke about developing anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma at the age of 16.

Read an excerpt from All Souls.

This post is the latest in a series on the winners of or finalists for major literary prizes and whether they deserved their honors. A reality check for  Olive Kitteridge appeared on April 27, 2009.

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

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

May 2, 2009

Christine Schutt’s Pulitzer Finalist and Novel About a Girls’ School, ‘All Souls’ — A Reality Check Coming Next Week

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:50 am
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A review  of Christine Schutt’s All Souls, a runner-up for the most recent Pulitzer Prize for fiction, will be the next post in the “Reality Check” series that explores whether the winners of or finalists for major prizes deserved their honors. All Souls involves a student at a girls’ prep school in Manhattan whose classmates learn that she has a grave illness, and the review will deal in part with whether the novel might also appeal to teenagers.

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 26, 2009

Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’ Is Not ‘A Novel’

Filed under: News,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:08 am
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Why have so many critics bought into the hype that the Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge is “a novel in stories”? The publisher’s claim serves a clear marketing interest: Novels sell better than short stories. (“A novel in stories” doesn’t appear on the title page of Olive Kitteridge, which might have been a sign that the phrase came from the author instead of the publisher.) And the hype is – to put it charitably – misleading. Olive Kitteridge is a collection of linked short stories, known as a cycle of stories or short story cycle — a group of tales that, though entwined, can stand alone.

A critic who got it right was Jessica Treadway, who teaches at Emerson College and wrote in the Boston Globe:

Although the book is being marketed as ‘a novel in stories,’ it is not a novel” but “a unified cycle” of “tales focusing on characters inhabiting a single town.”

The Pulitzer Prize judges also correctly described Olive Kitteridge in giving it the 2009 fiction award, calling it “a collection of 13 short stories set in small-town Maine.”

Does harm really occur when critics regurgitate hype such as that Olive Kitteridge is a “novel in stories”? Part of the answer lies in the recent spate of fraudulent books billed as “memoirs,” which has shown how many people can be duped when critics and others don’t question publishers’ claims. And in the case of Olive Kitteridge, a more subtle harm may result.

American fiction has a stellar tradition of short story cycles that includes books different as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York. Comparing Olive Kitteridge to one or two of these might enrich anyone’s understanding of it. By calling Strout’s book a novel, the publisher has made it less likely that people will do this. It has also raised the odds that readers will expect something closer to a traditional novel and come away disappointed.

A review of Olive Kitteridge will appear next week on this site. The weekly children’s-book review appeared in the post that preceded this one.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 20, 2009

2009 Pulitzer Prize Winners Are Strout, Meacham, Gordon-Reed, Merwin, and Blackmon

These books have won the five 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for books:

Fiction: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

History: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed
Biography or Autobiography: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham
Poetry: The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin
General Nonfiction: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

For more information and a list of the finalists, visit the 2009 awards page for the Pulitzer Foundation.

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