One-Minute Book Reviews

May 5, 2008

The Best Chekhov Short Story Collection for Book Groups and Others

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:41 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Chekhov hoped that his work would help people live more decently

Ernest Hemingway once said that “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories.” Many titans of the form have disagreed, including Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.

But Hemingway’s words suggest a truth: Chekhov wrote seven- or eight hundred stories, and not all are good. And old and new collections abound.

I looked into a dozen or so and found that perhaps the best widely available collection for nonscholars is Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, 1896-1904: Penguin Classics (384 pp., $12, paperback), translated by Ronald Wilks, with an introduction Paul Debreczney. It gathers 11 stories that Chekhov wrote in the last decade of life, when he did much of his best work. The tales include such masterpieces as “The Bride,” “The Bishop” and “Lady With the Little Dog.”

These stories generally have uncomplicated plots, ageless themes and realistic characters living in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution. In “The Bride” a young woman must choose between a fiancé she doesn’t love and a life of greater freedom than marriage would offer her. In “Lady With the Little Dog,” a married man and woman stumble into an affair while vacationing without their spouses at Yalta, then must live with the decision after returning home. And in “The Bishop” a dying clergyman realizes that his official role has isolated him from his mother and others he loved.

Chekhov said he hoped that by telling the truth, he would help people live “more decently,” as the translator Avrahm Yarmolinksy put it. That goal may have been a blue-sky goal. But it helps to explain why, 104 years after their author’s death, Chekhov’s best stories remain among the most admired ever written.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 27, 2008

Why Read the Classics? (Quote of the Day / Michael Dirda)

Why is it important to read the classics? Michael Dirda, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism as a staff critic for the Washington Post, responds in his Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books (Norton, 2005):

“People sometimes ask teachers or critics, ‘Which books should I read to become educated?’ The short answer is either ‘As many as you can’ or ‘A small handful that you study to pieces.’ But a better question might be this one: ‘Which books should I read first?’

“The answer to that is ‘The great patterning works of world literature and culture, the poems and stories that have shaped civilization.’

“Without a knowledge of the Greek myths, the Bible, ancient history, the world’s folktales and fairy tales, one can never fully understand the visual arts, most opera, and half the literature of later ages. Homer tells us about Ulysses in The Odyssey; then Dante, Tennyson, James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, and Eudora Welty add to, enrich, and subvert that story in great works of their own. The classics are important not because they are old but because they are always being renewed.”

Michael Dirda’s most recent book is Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt, 2007).

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

April 22, 2008

Have Publishers’ Reading Group Guides Gone Around the Bend? Bizarre Discussion Questions for Nora Ephron’s ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:52 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Even for the etherized realm of publishers’ reading group guides, the list of discussion questions for the new paperback edition of Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (Vintage, 160 pp., $12.95) is bizarre. Here is the first question:

“In I Feel Bad About My Neck, Ephron writes that she avoids making truthful comments on how her friends look, even when they ask her directly [pp. 3–4]. Why is this a wise decision?”

Question: What does this have to do with the book? If you’re going to take the focus of a discussion off the book and drag it over to readers’ views on etiquette, shouldn’t you wait until people have at least discussed the book?

Then there is this stumper: “What would this book be like if written by a man?” Answer: It wouldn’t be because the whole point of the book is that it’s about female experience. It’s like saying: What would Sherman Alexie’s books be like if they hadn’t been written by an Indian? They wouldn’t be.

You could understand – sort of – why a publisher might take this approach for pop fiction, the literary equivalent of a bag of Styrofoam peanuts, which doesn’t give you much to discuss. But for Ephron, who has excelled in fiction, nonfiction and screenwriting?

I can’t bring myself to link to this wacko guide (which appears the Vintage site), so I also won’t link to the One-Minute Book Reviews alternate guide (which you can find by using the Search box). You’ll have to trust me when I say that the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Ephron’s essay collection does begin with the book.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 16, 2008

Travels With Chekhov

Filed under: Classics,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1 p.m. Wednesday. A church book club I attend is reading seven Chekhov short stories in April. The group chose a 1,104-page Stephen King novel in March. Chekhov should be easy compared with It.

5:30 p.m. Wednesday. My library has several collections of Chekhov’s work, but none has all the stories I need: “Peasants,” “The Bride,” “The Bishop,” “About Love,” “A Visit to Friends,” “The Lady With the Little Dog” and “The House With the Mezzanine.”

Out of sheer loyalty I pick up Constance Garnett’s 1962 translation of 15 stories. I owe a lot to Constance for her translations of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the first I read. Many libraries purge books that haven’t been checked out in a while to make room for new ones. I feel I must support Constance by checking out her translation – even though I probably won’t read it – to keep her spot from going to a Mitch Albom novel.

I also get from the library two books that, between them, have three kinds of tape peeling from their spines: duct, clear and Scotch. They give Chekhov’s name as “Tchehov” and “Tchekoff” and have cream-colored pockets in the back. The three books I check out have only one of the stories I need, “The Bishop.”

10 p.m. Wednesday. Search the Web for the six other Chekhov stories. Get distracted by John Gross’s fine review of V.S. Pritchett’s Chekhov: A Sprit Set Free in the New York Times. Gross writes:

“It is as a story writer, in Sir Victor’s view, that Chekhov stands supreme. He is unhappy to see the stories overshadowed by the plays, as they tend to be nowadays — they seem to him far richer in texture; and to a considerable extent his book is an attempt to redress the balance.”

Gross adds:

“If you want to sample [Pritchett’s] quality, try his account of ‘The Bishop’ (one of Chekhov’s finest achievements — it reads, he observes, ‘like a sustained anthem’ to the writer’s own death).’”

Must have Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free by the late Sir Victor, a brilliant critic and perhaps the nearest English counterpart to Edmund Wilson.

Thursday, 4 p.m. The library doesn’t have Chekhov: A Sprit Set Free. But it does have Pritchett’s Complete Collected Essays, which has 10 pages on Chekhov. The book has 1,319 pages, only 215 more than It, and is one of my favorite books of criticism. How can I resist? I check it out along with a) the volume on Chekhov in the Twayne’s World Authors Series of brief critical studies, and b) Philip Callow’s Chekhov: The Hidden Ground, the only biography at the library that analyzes most of the stories on my list.

I now have six books about Chekhov but only one of the stories I need.

Thursday, 5:30 p.m. Visit a tiny but wonderful independent bookstore. It has two fine Chekhov collections: The Portable Chekhov, edited by Avrahm Yarmolinksy, and Peasants and Other Stories, nine tales selected and introduced by Edmund Wilson. I want the Wilson. But it’s a hardcover book that seems to have only one story I need apart from “The Bishop.” (Later I find out that it has “The Bride,” too, under an alternate title, “Betrothed,” and is available in paperback.) I buy The Portable Chekhov, which has The Cherry Orchard, seven letters and 28 stories, four of them on my list.

Yarmolinksy says in his introduction:

“The most characteristic of Chekhov’s stories lack purely narrative interest. They no more bear retelling than does a poem. Nothing thrilling happens in them, nor are the few reflective passages particularly compelling. Some of the tales, having neither beginning nor end, are, as Galsworthy put it, ‘all middle like a tortoise.’”

This does not diminish their impact, Yarmolinsky suggests:

“A man of sober and naturalistic temperament, Chekhov was dogged by the thought that our condition in this uncomfortable world is a baffling one. He liked to say that there was no understanding it. And, indeed, his writings heighten that sense of the mystery of life which is one of the effects of all authentic literature.”

Thursday, 11 p.m. Read “The Bishop,” the story of the last week in the life of a bishop. The bishop rejoices when his mother, whom he has not seen in years, visits during Holy Week. Yet her presence recalls a time when his position had not set him apart and he could unburden his heart to others. At vespers, he listens to chanting of monks:

“He sat by the altar where the shadows were deepest, and was swept in imagination back into the days of his childhood and youth, when he had first heard these words sung. The tears trickled down his cheeks, and he meditated on how he had attained everything in life that it was possible for a man in his position to attain; his faith was unsullied; and yet all was not clear to him; something was lacking, and he did not want to die. It seemed to him that he was leaving unfound the most important thing of all. Something of which he had dimly dreamed in the past, hopes that had thrilled his heart as a child, a schoolboy, and traveler in foreign lands, troubled him still.

Callow calls the tale “a parable of repressed love,” yet there is more to it than that Freudian interpretation might imply. It implicitly asks: What is life “about”? Most short stories are about a community of people. No matter how beautifully they evoke it, they stop there. “The Bishop” goes deeper. It may read like “a sustained anthem” to Chekhov’s death, but its song is not that of its author alone.

Saturday, 10 a.m. I still have only five of the stories I need. But if I read only “The Bishop,” I can stop right there with a profit. It would be a brilliant idea for any book club to read to read even two or three Chekhov stories instead of a novel at a meeting.

The quote from “The Bishop” comes from Russian Silhouettes: More Stories of Russian Life (Scribner’s, 1915), translated by Marian Fell. The full text of the Fell translation of the story appears here www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/ac/bishop.html.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

:

April 3, 2008

‘No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club’ – New in Paperback

Filed under: Novels,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:49 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club (Plume, 240 pp., $14, paperback) isn’t as funny or polished as Bridget Jones’s Diary or the masterpiece from which it descends, Diary of a Provincial Lady. But Virginia Ironside bravely assaults fashionable clichés of old age in this comic novel, subtitled Diary of a 60th Year, which has just come out in paperback. Among the ideas scorned by her diarist, Marie Sharp, are that people help their heirs by planning their own funerals and that a funeral shouldn’t be funeral but rather “a celebration” of a life. Marie is also bold enough to question the motives of book club members: “I think they feel that by reading and analyzing books, they’re keeping their brains lively. But either you’ve got a lively brain or you haven’t.” A review of and reading group guide to No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Clubwww.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/29/ appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 29, 2007

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 19, 2008

Ishmael Beah’s Story ‘Threatens to Blow Into a Million Little Pieces,’ Cover Story in the Village Voice Says

Filed under: News,Newspapers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:53 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Graham Rayman has a wonderful cover story in the new issue of the Village Voice on the escalating controversy about the credibility of A Long Way Gone. Rayman’s article is by far the best by an American reporter on the bestseller by Ishmael Beah, who claims to have been a boy soldier in Sierra Leone for more than two years www.villagevoice.com/news/0812,boy_soldier,381308,1.html.

The Voice story (in which I am quoted) includes a fascinating interview with Neil Boothby, an expert on children and war at Columbia University who has worked with young refugees in Darfur, Rwanda and elsewhere.

Boothby told Rayman that he had avoided commenting on A Long Way Gone because he saw Beah as a courageous spokesman and didn’t want to undermine any “human-rights momentum” the book generated. Nonetheless, Boothby said:

“I think what [Beah] has done is meet with UNICEF, journalists, and others, and he told stories, and people responded to certain stories enthusiastically. That has encouraged him to come out with an account that has sensationalism, a bit of bravado, and some inaccuracies. To me, the key question is whether there’s enough accuracy to make the story credible.”

Boothby also said:

“My take on this from the beginning was: There was some kind of exaggeration. I’ve seen it over and over. Whether by psychologists or journalists, they are encouraged to tell the sensational stories. It’s not surprising that that could be the case here.

“The system is set up to reward sensational stories. We all need to look at why does something have to be so horrific before we open our eyes and ears and hearts?”

Beah has maintained that there is no exaggeration and his story is “all true.”

Rayman’s article has many other thought-provoking comments like Boothby’s and, for its intelligence and clarity of vision, surpasses anything on Beah that has appeared in the New York Times and other daily newspapers. Don’t miss the Voice story if you’re confused about the claims and counter-claims for the book or if you belong to a reading group that’s considering it.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 19, 2008

Are Publishers’ Reading Group Guides Deceptive? Quote of the Day (Gail Pool)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:18 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Publishers’ reading group guides are a form of advertising, and like all advertising, they are one-sided at best and deceptive at worst. Gail Pool offers an excellent critique of the guides in her recent book Faint Praise, a lament for the anemic state of book reviewing in America www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/. Pool argues that publishers’ guides mimic the analysis found in reviews but lack the critical distance that good reviewers bring to their work:

“Even readers’ guides are promotional: produced by the publishers to enhance the books’ value for – and sales to – reading groups, they may be designed to encourage more thoughtful reading, but they don’t encourage a critical approach. None of the guides seem to ask readers to question the quality of a book’s prose, its clichéd characterization, or the problems in its story line. They start from the premise that books are good, and it’s their purpose to help readers ‘understand’ why they are good, not discover that they aren’t.”

Gail Pool in Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (University of Missouri Press, 170 pp., $34.95, hardcover, and $19.95, paperback) www.umsystem.edu/upress.

Comment:

Pool gets this exactly right. One-Minute Book Reviews posts its own free online guides partly to encourage the “critical approach” that publishers don’t. All of these guides are saved in the Totally Unauthorized Reading Groups category.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 16, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’

10 Discussion Questions
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel
By Sherman Alexie
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Arnold “Junior” Spirit endures taunts that he’s “an apple” – “red on the outside and white on the inside” – when he leaves his reservation to go to better high school in a nearby town. But he knows he can’t let the jeers stop him. At the age of 14, he’s attended 42 funerals, and most of the deaths were alcohol-related. So Arnold tries to fit in at his new school – by going out for basketball, dating a popular white girl and befriending a fellow bookworm – while coping with tragedy at home. And if some Indians continue to see him as a traitor for leaving the reservation, Arnold eventually learns that the world has many kinds of tribes and that more than a few of them have a place for him.

Questions for Young Readers

1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian shows a different side of American Indian life than do many other books. What did you learn about Indians from it?

2. Why does Alexie call his book the diary of a “part-time” Indian?

3. On his reservation, Alexie’s main character is known as “Junior.” But when he switches to a new high school, Reardan, people call him by his formal name, Arnold. “I felt like two different people inside of one body,” he says. Do you think Junior/Arnold was just talking about his name? Or did he feel split in other ways, too?

4. Arnold misses his best friend, Rowdy, after he starts his new school. But Rowdy doesn’t seem to want to join him there. How do Arnold’s and Rowdy’s views of the reservation – and their own lives – differ? What do you think Alexie is trying to show you through those differences?

5. At his new school, Reardan, Arnold gets to know a book-lover named Gordy, who says that “life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.” How does this idea relate to Arnold’s life?

6. Arnold tells Gordy that some Indians taunt him: “They call me an apple because they think I’m red on the outside and white on the inside.” What did they mean? Did their comment describe Arnold accurately?

7. What’s the purpose of the humor in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? Why does Alexie use it when Arnold is clearly angry about a lot of things?

8. Arnold’s math teacher at Wellpinit High School, Mr. P, tells him that the teachers at the school used to beat the Indians with a stick: “That’s how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child.” What did he mean?

9. Alexie uses a racial slur (the “n” word) and strong language (the “f” word) in a joke on page 64. He repeated the words in a talk at an Illinois high school, and some students walked out. Alexie apologized to anyone he had offended but stood by his use of the words in his novel “because that was what was said. And to blunt the hatred of that insult blunts the incredible obstacles my character had to face,” a newspaper reported. (“Author Defends Using Slur, but Apologizes to Students,” by Melissa Jenco, Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, IL, October 6, 2007.) Do you agree with Alexie that in order to make his point, he had to use words that would offend some people? How do these words relate to the rest of the novel?

10. What did you think of Ellen Forney’s pictures for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? What is their purpose in the book? Do they provide a mirror for the text, reflecting back only what you read on the page? Or do they expand it? How?

10. Arnold falls in love with Penelope, a beautiful white student. In Greek mythology, Penelope married Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s The Odyssey. If you’ve read about Penelope in that book or others, how does she resemble the student in this novel?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel. By Sherman Alexie. Illustrated by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown, 229 pp., $16.99. Ages 12 and up.

Published: September 2007. A review of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 16, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/16/. A paperback edition is scheduled to appear in September 2008.

Links: You can hear Sherman Alexie read from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at www.lb-teens.com, which also has reviews of the book and a list of the honors it has received. You may also want to visit the Alexie site www.fallsapart.com.

Furthermore: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Alexie lives in Seattle and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

:

January 14, 2008

A Reader’s Guide to the 2008 Caldecott Medalist, Brian Selznick’s ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’

 

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures
By Brian Selznick

Source: One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

[This is a repost in full of a Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Invention of Hugo Cabret that appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on April 21, 2007. The novel won the American Library Association's 2008 Caldecott Medal, which honors the most distinguished American picture book for children, on Jan. 14, 2008.]

Take a 12-year-old orphan whose name begins with H. Write a novel about him that involves magic, a train station and a female sidekick. Get Scholastic Press to publish it … and what do you have? No, not a new Harry Potter book. You’ve got The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a novel about a young thief who lives in a Paris train station and tries to finish a project begun by his father – fixing a broken wind-up man or automaton that may contain a secret message. In this innovative book, Brian Selznick merges the picture- and chapter-book formats. The Invention of Hugo Cabret has 533 pages, but the text would fill only 100 or so pages of most novels. Why? Selznick tells Hugo’s story alternately through words and 158 black-and-white pictures. The illustrations are mostly pencil drawings but include memorable stills from the movies of the filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose life helped to inspire the book.

Question 1
This book is called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. What is Hugo’s “invention”? Could the word refer to more than one thing? Could Hugo have “invented” a new life for himself (or for someone else) in addition to a mechanical man?

Question 2
Brian Selznick tells Hugo’s story in a unique way. He uses a lot more pictures than you find in most novels. Sometimes he tells Hugo’s story in words and sometimes in pictures. Why do you think he did this? How did you like it? What are some advantages and disadvantages of having so many pictures in a novel?

Question 3
Selznick also uses only black-and-white pictures on the pages of in this novel, no color ones. What are some reasons why he might have done this? Some authors say that they like to use black-and-white art because it lets people use their imagination and fill in the colors in their minds. Did you “fill in” any colors while you were reading the book? What are some of the colors you saw in your mind? Why?

Question 4
A lot of other authors have at times used only black-and-white pictures. For example, Chris Van Allsburg has done this in some books. And all of the pictures that Matt Phelan did for Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, winner of the 2007 Newbery Award, are black-and-white. What books have you read that have only black-and-white illustrations? How do they compare to The Invention of Hugo Cabret?

Question 5
You may have noticed that a lot of the drawings in this book look as though they have something draped over them. It’s as though you’re looking at the pictures through a veil or net. Can you think of any reasons why Selznick might have used this technique? Does it make the story seem a little more mysterious? Does it remind you of the lenses you can put on a camera, including a movie camera?

Question 6
Hugo loves a movie called The Million that he and Isabelle go to a theater to see. It has an “amazing” chase in it. “He thought every good story should end with a big, exciting chase.” [Page 202] Why do you Selznick wrote that? What happens right after it in The Invention of Hugo Cabret?

Question 7
Hugo spends a lot of time trying to fix things like clocks or the mechanical man, or automaton, that he finds on the street. He likes machines because each one has a purpose. “Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do,” Hugo says. He adds, “Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose … it’s like you’re broken.” [Page 374] How does this relate to the rest of the novel?

Question 8
The story of Prometheus is important in The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There’s a picture of Prometheus on pages 344–345. We learn that he was “finally set free” from his chains. What character or characters in this book does he resemble?

Question 9
Hugo’s friend Isabelle loves looking at photographs. She says, “You can make up your own story when you look at a photo.” [Page 193] Pick a photograph in The Invention of Hugo Cabret and make up a story to go with it. You might start with the picture of the man hanging from the clock on pages 173–174 or with the picture of the rocket crashing into the moon on pages 352–353.

Question 10
Hugo thinks it’s his fault that his father had died in a fire. [Page 124] Do you agree or disagree with him? Why?

Extras:
Question 11
If you’ve read any of the Harry Potter books or seen the movies, you may have noticed that the Invention of Hugo Cabret has some things in common with them. What are some of them?

Question 12
Often a novel is written by one person and illustrated by another. That’s because not many people are equally good at writing and drawing. Most of us are better at one or the other. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is unusual in that Selznick both wrote and illustrated it. Do you think he was better at writing or drawing? Which did you like better in his novel, the words or the pictures? Why?

Vital statistics:
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic, 533 pp., $22.99. Ages 9–12. Published: January 2007. Winner of the Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org on January 14, 2008.

Links: www.theinventionofhugocabret.com

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you are a librarian and found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to the “Ready Reference” links at your library. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and has been approved by, and appears on, Open Directory lists. Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 11, 2007

Which Writers Best Define English and American Literature? 25 Scholars and Critics Respond in ‘Literary Genius,’ Edited by Joseph Epstein

America’s finest literary essayist assembles a bracing collection of reflections on Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Willa Cather, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost and others

Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature. Edited by Joseph Epstein. Wood Engravings by Barry Moser. Paul Dry Books, 246 pp., $34.95 hardcover, $18.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading these exceptionally fine essays is like catching up with all those brilliant professors you missed in college because you were sure you would benefit more in life from all your film theory classes on the semiotics of Patrick Swayze movies.

Literary Genius is a kind of print equivalent of a course from the Teaching Company, which rounds up academic supernovas and records their lectures on DVDs, so you can watch them at home over a beer and a bowl of Doritos. (No nasty homework assignments! No messy exams that conflict with your spring break plans! No loss to your grade if you go to class drunk or stoned out of your mind!) Joseph Epstein has collected 25 essays by world-class scholars and critics on vanished titans of English and American literature — Hilary Mantel on Jane Austen, A. N. Wilson on Charles Dickens, Justin Kaplan on Walt Whitman, David Womersley on Edward Gibbon, John Simon on T. S. Eliot. And you might wonder about more than what the Irish will think about Epstein’s decision to include James Joyce in the book: Why did Willa Cather make the cut but not Virginia Woolf? Why did Ernest Hemingway but not F. Scott Fitzgerald?

But the essays are everything that literary essays should be – bold, fluent, authoritative and written with flair and at times wit. Here is the first paragraph of a sparkling essay by John Gross on Joyce:

“One of the questions Napoleon used to ask, when a solider was recommended for promotion, was ‘Does he have luck?’ Writers need luck, too, and an important part of James Joyce’s achievement is that he was born at the right time. He was a modernist who was able to get his claim in first.”

Gross takes perhaps the most difficult literary genius of the 20th century and, with a few strokes, places him in context. He argues that wrote fine and distinctive books in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and a “perhaps mad” one in Finnegans Wake (which, unabridged, is “strictly for addicts”). But if he qualifies as a genius, it’s because of Ulysses and “the novel’s two greatest achievements” — its portrait of Dublin and its portrait of Leopold Bloom.

Most of the essays are similarly bracing. They typically range widely over an author’s work, avoiding the claustrophobic narrowness of so much recent literary criticism. Lois Potter gives Hamlet only a sentence in her essay on William Shakespeare. But her entry holds its own, in part, by reminding us that “Shakespeare’s reputation owes something to the dominance of the English language in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the fact that the ability to understand Shakespeare has become the ultimate test of the ability to use that language.”

Literary Genius includes brief excerpts from the work of all of its subjects and 59 handsome wood engravings by Barry Moser. These enhance its appeal as a gift, but its essays could stand on their own. You might expect no less from a book edited by Epstein, America’s finest literary essayist and its nearest counterpart to the late English critic V.S. Pritchett. “Timelessness, grandeur of vision, originality of outlook – all these, in concert and worked at a high power, comprise genius in the writer,” he writes. By those standards, this book shows genius, too.

Best line: Every essay has its own. A passage in Robert Pack’s essay on Frost suggests the freshness of perspectives in this book: “Along with being our leading nature poet, Robert Frost is also the poet who writes most extensively about marriage, love, and desire – all in the context of loss and death. Surely, no poet since John Milton treats the theme of sexual desire and marriage more extensively or more profoundly than Frost.” Pack might have replaced one of the “extensively”s. Even so, how many people associate Frost with poems about “sexual desire”?

Worst line: The first line James L. W. West III’s essay on Hemingway: “One sees Hemingway’s style best in his early short stories.” The problem isn’t the “one,” though West’s style is less conversational than that of most contributors. It’s that his essay is narrowe. West deals only with Hemingway’s short stories, while most of the writers give an overview of their subject’s work. His essay doesn’t mesh with the others, and Epstein seems to acknowledge it by burying it at the back.

Recommendation? This is could be a wonderful gift for serious readers and helpful to the many books clubs that are reading Austen and Cather.

Published: October 15, 2007. The publisher’s site www.pauldrybooks.com includes Epstein’s introduction to the book . A brief excerpt from its essay on John Milton appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Friday www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/12/07/.

Furthermore: Joseph Epstein edited the American Scholar for more than 20 years and has written 19 books. Barry Moser won the American Book Award for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. John Gross is a former editor of the London Times Literary Supplement and a staff member at the New York Times. Since 1989 he has been the theater critic of the Sunday Telegraph www.telegraph.co.uk.

Other links: The Teaching Company www.teach12.com/

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It also for people who dislike long-winded reviews that are full of facts or plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book. You may not agree with views you read this site but you will know what those views are.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

« Previous PageNext Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 372 other followers

%d bloggers like this: