One-Minute Book Reviews

March 15, 2012

Can Books Be ‘Compelling’? Quote of the Day From Robert Silvers

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:14 am
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Critics have an armada of fuzzy words that they deploy when they want to avoid taking a stand on books. Editors, agents and others translated some of the reviewers’ evasions in my posts 40 Publishing Buzzwords, Clichés and Euphemisms Decoded, More Publishing Buzzwords Decoded and 23 British Publishing Euphemisms Decoded. The critic Daniel Mendelsohn mentioned another while introducing lifetime-achievement award winner Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, at the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Awards ceremony. Mendelsohn said that Silvers asked when a critic described a book as “compelling”:

“Compelling? Compelled to do what?”

You watch Mendelsohn’s introduction to Silvers in a video of the NBCC ceremony.

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 11, 2008

Inside a Hellish Iranian Prison — Zarah Ghahramani’s ‘My Life as a Traitor’

A young writer says she was locked up and tortured for taking part in student demonstrations at Tehran University

My Life as a Traitor. By Zarah Ghahramani. With Robert Hillman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 242 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has followed the controversy about the credibility of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone may approach My Life as a Traitor with deep skepticism. Here we have another memoir by a young writer who had a hellish experience, wrote it up with the help of an established novelist and got it published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Until recently the main question you might have about such a book was: Is it good? Now another question presents itself: How much of it can you believe? A tough call.

Like Beah, Zarah Ghahramani writes vividly and with what appears to be disarming frankness about a terrifying ordeal — a month-long incarceration in Iran’s Evin Prison that she casts as her punishment for taking part in student protests at Tehran University. With Australian novelist Robert Hillman, she tells a good story about her incarceration and torture and the restrictions that even well-off families like hers have faced since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

But she doesn’t say whether her book includes composite or invented characters or dialogue, or whether she took other liberties with facts. Nor does she explain how she reconstructed in detail scenes that occurred when she couldn’t have had a pencil or notepaper. She offers pages of dialogue with a prisoner whom she calls Sohrab and identifies as “a madman” in the cell above hers, but we have only her word that he existed. Who’s going to ring up a few mullahs and ask them to confirm it? And if prison officials tortured Ghahramani, they may also have starved her or drugged her food until she was hallucinating about prisoners or holding imaginary conversations to keep her sanity. If she considered these possibilities, she doesn’t deal with them in her book.

So we are left with another interesting and well-written memoir that raises almost as many questions as it answers. Farrar, Straus could have eased some of the concerns by insisting that Ghahramani include a note saying whether she had changed any names, dates or places or used composites. In the absence of such information, you can only hope that over time her story will withstand scrutiny better than Beah’s.

Best line: Many scenes offer sharp observations on growing up in a country ruled by mullahs, especially during Iran’s war with Iraq. This passages describes a standard mourning ritual: “For example, the husband of a young woman living next door to us was killed on the battlefield, and this poor woman was expected to forsake smiling at anything from the moment the news reached her until years in the future, the actual number of years contingent on how long the war lasted … the proscription on smiling meant that she could not behave in any natural, human way for years to come – she could not even smile for her children.”

Worst line: Ghahramani says when she sees photos of herself that the authorities took before throwing her in prison: “I feel violated.” “I feel violated” is journalistic cliché right up there with “closure” and at times used in the same sentence in newspaper stories, as in: “Mrs. Smith said she felt violated by the break-in and wanted the police to catch the thief so she could have closure.” In My Life As a Traitor it sounds just bizarre. Ghahramani doesn’t feel “violated” by being thrown in prison but does feel “violated” by seeing photographs of herself that were taken secretly?

Reading group guide: The publisher has posted one at www.fsgbooks.com.

Black box warning: This memoir comes from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, publisher of A Long Way Gone, which has so far failed to provide persuasive answers to the questions about the credibility of that book that have been raised by reporters for the Australian, Australia’s national daily newspaper, and others.

Published: January 2008

Furthermore: Ghahramani fled Iran after her release from prison and now lives in Australia.

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

February 9, 2008

Natalie Babbitt’s Cycle of Stories About an Out-of-Work Pirate, ‘Jack Plank Tells Tales’

The author of Tuck Everlasting returns with a lighter book about a reformed plunderer-of-the-high-seas

Jack Plank Tells Tales. Story and pictures by Natalie Babbitt. Scholastic/Michael Di Capua, 128 pp., $15.95. Ages 7–9 (ages 4 and up for reading aloud).

By Janice Harayda

Jack Plank Tells Tales is the book many parents have been waiting for – a pirate story for children too old for picture books but too young for Treasure Island. It lacks the psychological heft and stylistic perfection of Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, a modern classic. But it’s several nautical miles beyond many other recent pirate stories, including Peter Pan rip-offs and cheesy movie tie-ins.

Jack Plank is an amiable out-of-work pirate who is cast off the ship Avarice because he lacks a talent for plunder: “You have to yell and make faces and rattle your sword, and once you’ve got people scared, you take things away from them.” So he has to find a new job after he settles into a boarding house on Jamaica in about 1720.

Each day he looks for work, with the proprietor’s 11-year-old daughter as his guide, and finds something wrong with one of his options. He can’t fish because it reminds him of a shipmate’s story of a man who turned into an octopus and can’t work in a sugarcane field because he would have to cross a bridge that brings to mind a sailor’s account of a troll. Each night he entertains the boardinghouse residents with another tale of why he has come up empty-handed, which leads soon to a job that suits him the way a deep harbor suits a galleon.

The stop-and-go narrative makes this book good bedtime reading for children who can handle its two deaths by stabbing even as the lack of a strong forward momentum may make it easier for others to put down. And there’s not much thematic development – this is light entertainment, an amusing cycle of stories billed by the publisher as a novel.

But Babbitt’s engaging pencil drawings – and a handsome jacket and design by Kathleen Westray – help to offset the narrative limits. The refusal of American Library Association www.ala.org to give Tuck Everlasting a Newbery Medal or Honor Book citation may have been the organization’s greatest awards blunder of the past 40 years, compounded by its continual failure to recognize Babbitt with the Margaret A. Edwards award for lifetime achievement. Lois Lowry is a good writer. But why Lowry has won the Edwards award and Babbitt hasn’t is a mystery that this appealing book only deepens.

Best line: Many of the tales in this book develop folkloric motifs such as that of the mummy’s hand, and its story of a girl raised by seagulls has an especially memorable illustration of a feral child.

Worst line: The last: “But it seems to be sure that, as Waddy Spoonton pointed out, it’s never too late to be happy.” This ending is unusually sugary – and clichéd – for Babbitt. And the text doesn’t really prepare you for it.

Published: May 2007 www.scholastic.com

Furthermore: Babbitt won a Newbery Honor Book designation for Kneeknock Rise, a completely inadequate recognition of her body of work from the ALA. As a former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle, I appreciate the great difficulty of getting literary prizes right. But the ALA is just embarrassing itself on this one.

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

February 7, 2008

Three Great Books About Faith That I Might Have Reread This Week If the Home Team Hadn’t Made It to the Super Bowl

Filed under: Classics,Nonfiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:23 pm
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The Super Bowl may have tested the faith of Giants and Patriots fans this week, but it tested my ability to reread some of my favorite books about faith that I would have liked to write about this week. (How often does the home team play in the NFL championship when you live in New Jersey?) The books I might have gotten back to if the Giants had lost in the playoffs include two great novels, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for The Archbishop and Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest, and the spiritual autobiography of the 20th century’s most famous Trappist, Thomas Merton’s The Seven-Storey Mountain. I hope to write more later in the year about these classics, all about clergy who face tests of faith. For now I’ll just note that Cather’s novel recently has appeared in a new Virago Modern Classics edition, which has an introduction by A.S. Byatt.

(c) 2008. Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 5, 2008

Alice Kuipers’s ‘Life on the Refrigerator Door': At Last, a Novel for Anybody Who Thinks That Mitch Albom Is Too Difficult

A novel from Canada that you could finish during the commercials for a hockey game

Life on the Refrigerator Door: A Novel in Notes. By Alice Kuipers. HarperCollins, 220 pp., $15.95.

By Janice Harayda

Alice Kuipers’s first novel answers the perversely fascinating question: Can anybody write a book dumber than Mitch Albom’s For One More Day? Albom writes at a third-grade reading level, according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with Microsoft Word. Kuipers writes at a second-grade reading level. And because Kuipers lives in Saskatoon, you have to wonder if some kind of trickle-up — or trickle-north — effect is at work here.

An Amazon reviewer said that she read Life on the Refrigerator Door in 20 minutes. I believe her, because I read it during the Super Bowl halftime show. If you’re still trying to get through the new Richard Pevear translation of War and Peace, a book you can read in less than a half hour might sound appealing. But Life on the Refrigerator Door costs $15.95. If you live in a state with the kind of killer sales tax we have here in New Jersey, reading this book could cost you nearly a dollar minute. Next to it, that 1,296-page War and Peace looks like a steal at $37.

Perhaps the kindest way to review Life on the Refrigerator is stick to the facts. First, this a novel about a doctor who doesn’t have a cell phone. Or, apparently, a pager. So she has to communicate with her 15-year-old daughter by notes on the refrigerator. When the doctor gets a horrible, life-threatening disease, they keep communicating that way. One of the main things we learn from this correspondence is that the inability to punctuate a compound sentence may be inherited.

Still, I wouldn’t be too hard on this feel-good-about-feeling-bad female weepie. Unlike For One More Day, the book does have a modestly clever gimmick at its core. How many novels have you read that consist entirely of notes on a refrigerator? Can a novel told in magnets be far behind?

Best line: The epigraph, a poem by William Carlos Williams.

Worst line: “Peter was soooooooooo cute earlier, you should have seen him with the toy carrot Dad got him.”

Recommendation? Like For One More Day and Mister Pip, Life on the Refrigerator Door is a book for children masquerading as adult reading. It may especially appeal to 10-to-13-year-old girls.

Published: September 2007 www.harpercollins.com

Furthermore: Although I read this novel during the Super Bowl halftime show, I wasn’t watching the performances. I was at the Chinese place picking up food.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 2, 2008

A Tale by the Brothers Grimm Returns in ‘The Bearskinner,’ a Picture Book by Newbery Winner Laura Amy Schlitz and Max Grafe

A former soldier struggles to avoid losing his soul to the devil in a parable about faith, hope and charity

The Bearskinner. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Illustrated by Max Grafe. Candlewick, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Laura Amy Schlitz is the newest supernova in the field of children’s literature. For years, she had a passionate following mainly among the students who listened to her stories at the Park School in Baltimore, where she is the librarian. But her visibility soared after she earned raves for her 2006 novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair. This year she won 2008 Newbery Medal for her cycle of one- and two-person plays, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, and she would be equally worthy of a major award for The Bearskinner, her retelling of a Faustian tale by the Brothers Grimm.

The grave and eloquent opening lines of the book set the tone: “They say that when a man gives up hope, the devil walks at his side. So begins this story: A soldier marched through a dark wood, and he did not march alone.” In this tale a hungry and cold soldier returns from war to find nothing left of his home and the people he loved. At his lowest moment, he accepts an offer from the devil, a man with a goat’s hoof for a left foot: For seven years, the soldier will have unlimited gold. But he must wear a bearskin and may not wash, pray or tell anyone of his dark bargain. If he does, he will lose his soul.

Clad in the skin of a bear he has just killed, the ex-soldier goes off to indulge his desires. After three years, he looks like a monster, and people flee from him. He loathes himself, too, and is thinking of ending his life. But he sees a starving mother and child who give him an idea – he will use Satan’s money to feed the poor. This act of charity leads to others that enable him to outwit the devil, throw off his bearskin and marry a kind woman who has seen the good heart behind the repulsive appearance.

All of this has aspects of both a fairy and morality tale. But Schlitz neither sentimentalizes nor preaches, and Max Grafe’s wonderful illustrations remind you the work of the late Leonard Baskin in their boldness, their restricted color palette and their use of fluid body lines to suggest inner turmoil. Grafe sets the text on yellowing pages that resemble parchment, or perhaps charred tree bark, which locates the story in the distant past and may soften its potentially frightening aspects. And his devil is one of the most original to appear in a picture book in years in years. Grafe casts Lucifer as a handsome devil in the literal sense of the phrase, a man who resembles 1930s matinee idol with slicked-back hair and a flowing green cloak. No ogre with a scar, his devil is a smooth operator – just like a lot of devils in real life.

Best line: The first lines of the book, quoted in the review.

Worst line: “He rode to the gambler’s house on a dapple-gray horse.” The use of “dapple-gray” is confusing. Why not “dappled gray”?

Published: November 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Schlitz, a Baltimore librarian, won the 2008 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org, for her book of monologues and dialogues, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village (Candlewick, $19.99), illustrated by Robert Byrd. She lives in Maryland. Grafe is a New York printmaker and illustrator.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 1, 2008

Diary: Barbara Pym’s ‘Good Books for Bad Days’

[This is the first in an occasional series of brief posts on books or authors whose work I can’t review at more length. The posts will be saved in the “Diary” category.]

A soggy morning in New Jersey. The chilly rain reminded me of a comment often made about the novels of Barbara Pym – they’re “good books for bad days.” They’re good books for good days, too.

Pym (1913–1980) had suffered more than her share of rejection until, in the 1970s, the Times Literary Supplement asked well-known writers to name the most underrated writer of the 20th century. After years of neglect by the British literary establishment, Pym was the only writer nominated by two of the authors, the poet Philip Larkin and the biographer David Cecil. Their praise, especially Larkin’s, sparked a revival of interest in her work that has abated slightly in the U.S. but has never disappeared.

I’ve read five or six of Pym’s quiet novels of English life and admire their modesty, intelligence and low-keyed irony. No writer would be less likely to give a book the sort of bombastic title — Everything Is Illuminated, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I Am America (And So Can You) — that is fashionable today. And each of her novels involves circumstances different enough to keep them from becoming repetitive despite their similarlarities of tone. Excellent Women is about a group of single women who, though young, are verging on what used to be called spinsterhood. Quartet in Autumn deals with the enmeshed lives of four friends, male and female, who are facing retirement. An Unsuitable Attachment explores the effects of a single woman’s attraction to a younger man. And The Sweet Dove Died is about the losses of middle age and beyond, especially menopause (though Pym is too discreet to use the word).

Where will I start when I return to Pym en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Pym? Excellent Women is among the wittiest of her novels, so I might begin there if I needed reliable diversion on a day when the weather was hoarding its comforts – a day, in other words, like today.

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

January 31, 2008

My Baby Gift for Parents Who Are Serious Readers – ‘The New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children’

A veteran children’s book critic recommends fiction, nonfiction and poetry

More than seven years have passed since the arrival of Eden Ross Lipson’s The New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children: Third Edition: Fully Revised and Updated (Three Rivers, $18.95, paperback) www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl/9780812930184.html. This means that it omits many of the most admired books of the decade, including all the 21st-century Newbery and Caldecott medal–winners. But it’s still so much better than most books in its category that it’s one of my favorite baby gifts for parents who are serious readers.

This hefty paperback has more than a thousand brief reviews of fiction, nonfiction and poetry for the years from birth through early adolescence, all written by a former children’s book editor of The New York Times Book Review. It also has a half-dozen indexes that let you search for books by title, author, subject and age-appropriateness and more. So it’s easy to find books in popular categories, such as poetry and biography, and on topics such as sports, minorities, and grandparents. Many of the reviews give little more than plot summary. But Lipson’s opinions, when she risks them, are sound. She describes the popular picture book The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales as “smart-aleck central” and adds: “There’s a blithe, if mean-spirited, energy in both the text and the clever, angular, layered illustrations.”

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

January 28, 2008

Coming Tomorrow — John Gunther’s Classic Memoir of His Son’s Death From a Brain Tumor, ‘Death Be Not Pround’

Many school reading lists include John Gunther‘s classic memoir of his 17-year-old son’s fight to survive a deadly brain tumor, Death Be Not Proud. And perhaps for that reason, some people have come to see it as a book for teenagers. But the book was an adult bestseller in its day and popular among many ages. What does it offer to readers today? One-Minute Book Reviews will consider the reasons for the enduring appeal of the book tomorrow.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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