One-Minute Book Reviews

October 7, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — Why Amos Oz, Herta Müller or Philip Roth Could Win the Nobel Prize in Literature Tomorrow

Update at 10:20 a.m. Oct. 8, 2009:  Herta Müller has won the Nobel Prize. Here’s a link to the AP story on the award from Stockholm.

First, the Nobel Prize in literature does not honor “the world’s best writer.” The guidelines say that the award must go to a writer whose work has an “idealistic tendency,” or fosters the good of humanity. The Swedish Academy has interpreted that mandate broadly: It has often honored writers, such as Toni Morrison, who have spoken out against injustice rather than those whose work is uncritically altruistic.

Within that framework, here are a few reasons why the prize might go tomorrow to Amoz Oz, Philip Roth or Herta Müller, all ranked among the five most popular with bettors by the odds-maker Ladbrokes:

1. Amos Oz and Philip Roth: Both novelists have been considered strong candidates for years. In 2008 the Swedish Academy gave out the Nobel Prize in literature on Yom Kippur, when observant Jews do not work. And the judges could have faced accusations of religious insensitivity if they had honored Oz, an Israeli, or Roth, an American Jew, then, because the award would have forced the winner to choose between observing the holiday and giving interviews to the media (or even accepting a work-related phone call from Stockholm). Another factor that could favor Roth: Some critics believe that the Swedish Academy screwed the late John Updike — at the time of his death, the best all-around writer in the United States — perhaps because of anti-Americanism. I would not put it that strongly, in part because the Nobel Prize has always had a strong if unofficial geographic-distribution policy, which compels the judges to spread the awards out around the world. But I still hold the view that I expressed on this site before Updike died: “If Updike lived in Greenland, he would have had the Nobel Prize decades ago.”

2. Herta Müller: Müller is a Romanian-born resident of Germany whose work takes a “brutally honest look at life in communist Romania,” M.A. Orthofer wrote over at the Complete Review. And in recent decades,  the Swedish Academy has seemed to favor such uncompromising stances. Orthofer lists other reasons why Müller could win (and why she might not), all of them plausible, at the blog the Literary Saloon. Don’t miss his comments if you’re interested in the politics of the prize or if a victory by Müller leaves you shaking your head.

The Nobel Prize in literature will be announced in a live Webcast from Stockholm at 6 a.m. Eastern Time (11 a.m. GMT and 1 p.m. CET) on Thursday, October 8.

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.

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 22, 2009

Dan Brown’s Worst Lines — 20 Bad Sentences From ‘The Lost Symbol,’ ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Angels and Demons’

Do critics unfairly malign Dan Brown’s writing? You’ll be able to judge for yourself when I list the best and worst lines from The Lost Symbol in my forthcoming review, which will appear after my name makes it to the top the reserve list at the library. In the meantime Tom Chivers selected the 20 worst lines from Dan Brown’s novels for a story for the Telegraph in England.

Yes, Chivers found a qualifying sentence from The Lost Symbol. But his two best choices appear below. The lines from Brown’s books are italicized and Chivers’s comments follow in a Roman font.

Angels and Demons, chapter 100: Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers glorified the four major rivers of the Old World – The Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio Plata.

“The Rio de la Plata. Between Argentina and Uruguay. One of the major rivers of the Old World. Apparently.

“The Da Vinci Code, chapter 5: Only those with a keen eye would notice his 14-karat gold bishop’s ring with purple amethyst, large diamonds, and hand-tooled mitre-crozier appliqué.

“A keen eye indeed.”

Will lines like these qualify Brown for one of the 2010 Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books, given annually to authors who don’t use their delete keys enough? Find out in late Feburary when the shortlist will appear and on March 15, 2010, when this site will announce the winners.

September 14, 2009

‘There Is a Difference Between a Book Review and a Book Recommendation’ – Quote of the Day / Bethanne Patrick

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:25 pm
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“There is a difference between a book review and a book recommendation.”
Bethanne Patrick, a critic and book blogger for Publishers Weekly, on a panel on the topic “Book Reviews: 2010′” at the 2009 Book Expo America trade show, as quoted on the blog for the National Book Critics Circle

August 8, 2009

Caldecott Medalist Richard Egielski Returns in a Picture Book About a Famous Musical Rift – Jonah Winter’s ‘The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan’

A  dual biography focuses on the creation of The Mikado

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan. By Jonah Winter. Pictures by Richard Egielski. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 4–6.

By Janice Harayda

Why do publishers bombard us with book-and-CD editions of books that don’t need them and fail to issue them when they might do some good? Does anybody really need that book-and-CD edition of Curious George Goes Camping? C’mon.

But a disk could have added a lot this slightly fictionalized dual biography of the librettist W.S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan, which focuses the storied feud between the two men that ended when they reconciled to create their most popular light opera, The Mikado. Nobody can argue that the music involved – The flowers that bloom in the spring, / Tra la! – is too adult for children. So the omission of a CD seems mainly intended to avoid copyright fees or pander to the library market, where the book might sell fewer copies if it included a disk likely to disappear quickly from a pocket.

As it is, Jonah Winter plays Gilbert to Richard Egielski’s Sullivan in The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan. Winter tells a story that, if lively, gets much of its energy from hyper-italicizing and the use of capital letters and exclamation points. “I refuse to write any more music for Mr. Gilbert’s ridiculous operas,” Sullivan says. “It’s always the same ridiculous story, over and over over again!” Winter also invests his tale with a whiff of didacticism as he pursues two goals — telling the story of the rift and making a point:  “Sometimes even the best friends fight.”

But Egielski supplies the missing music with bold paintings that, like Maurice Sendak’s, evoke a mood not through intensely detailed facial expressions or body language but the imaginative use of such elements as tone, color, whimsy and framing. Winter’s opening lines suggest the appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas in their day:

“There was a time when jolly old England was not so jolly. Children worked in factories. Queen Victoria frowned. Everything was grim. Everything was dark – except … in the make-believe kingdom of Topsy-Turvydom.”

Egielski illustrates this passage with a wonderfully balanced two-page spread that evokes the setting through cutaway images of multistory buildings in the rain. On the left-hand page, children work in a sweatshop as a coronet-topped Victoria rides in a carriage on cobblestones below them. On the right-hand page, just across the street, an actress puts on makeup as theatergoers approach the Savoy with umbrellas raised against oversized raindrops. This is late-Victorian London, rendered in terms a preschooler can grasp. And on it goes in the book, which reaches its climax with a wordless spread showing a scene from a The Mikado that blazes with sunny colors thrown into high relief by the dank weather on the first pages.

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan may have its strongest appeal for Savoyards who want to inspire in a love of Gilbert and Sullivan in children. But unlike many books driven by similar motives, this one has enough drama that it isn’t mainly an appeal to parental vanity and pretense. And an author’s note at the end includes a link to a fantastic Gilbert & Sullivan Web site that has the full text and lets you listen to all the music of the operettas by the pair. (To hear any song from The Mikado music, click on “Mikado,” “MIDI Files,” the title of a song, and the speaker icon.) So even if there’s no CD, you can punctuate readings by singing merrily: “The flowers that bloom in the spring, / Tra la / Have nothing to do with the case.” For some adults, the link to so much beloved music might in itself be worth the cost of the book.

Best line/picture: An example of Eglielski’s imaginative use of frames: On one two-page spread he places his images in two circles against a black background, as though you were looking at them through opera glasses.

Worst line/picture: Winter uses British English inconsistently. He writes “dreamt” instead of “dreamed” but “Savoy Theater” instead of “Savoy Theatre.”

Published: April 2009

Furthermore: Egielski won the 1987 Caldecott Medal for his art for Arthur Yorinks’s Hey, Al. He and Yorinks also collaborated on the new picture book, Homework. Winter lives in Brooklyn, NY. Egielski lives in Milford, NJ. Contact the authors c/o Author Mail, Scholastic Books, 557 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.

Reviews of children’s books appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews, a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

August 6, 2009

‘Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?’ — Quote of the Day /Henry Ward Beecher

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:04 pm
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“Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?”

– Henry Ward Beecher, as quoted in the new The Book Shopper: A Life in Review from Paul Dry Books.

July 28, 2009

One-Sentence Reviews of New and Classic Novels Recently Reviewed on This Site

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:10 am
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No time to read long book reviews? Every review on this site is condensed into a one-line summary saved in the Books in a Sentence category. Summaries of recently reviewed novels and short stories for adults appear below. You’ll find other one-line condensations, many of them shortened versions of reviews of books of nonfiction and poetry, in the Books in a Sentence category at right.

Novels
Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. By Janet Evanovich. Evanovich’s series about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum goes further south with a tasteless beheading and sophomoric jokes like, “Nobody calls me pecker head and lives.”

The 8th Confession (Women’s Murder Club Series). By James Patterson and Maxine Paetro. A glorified San Francisco police procedural set in such large type, you wonder: Was this novel written for for people who will be reading it by candlelight while eating Beanie Weenies out of a can during a power blackout?

Love in a Cold Climate. By Nancy Mitford. A beautiful English heiress flouts convention by marrying a man who had been her mother’s lover in a modern classic of comedy, inspired partly by the author’s half-batty upper-class family.

Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind. By Ann B. Ross. A rich Presbyterian widow in North Carolina learns that her dead husband has left her a startling legacy — an illegitimate 9-year-old son — in the first of ten novels that are more irreverent than those of Jan Karon’s “Mitford” series but cut from a similar bolt of pop fiction.

The Pains of April. By Frank Turner Hollon. An 86-year-old retired lawyer looks back on his life from a Gulf Coast rest home, where he has held onto more of his marbles than some residents. (Briefly mentioned.)

The Naked and the Dead. By Norman Mailer. Nowhere near as good as some of the 20th-century war novels often mentioned in the same breath, such as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. (Briefly mentioned.)

A Summons to Memphis. By Peter Taylor. One of the great American writers of the late 20th century shows how a move from Nashville to Memphis has reverberated over time — all but destroyed a family that was once a model of Southern gentility — in a novel that deservedly won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Ponder Heart. By Eudora Welty. A comic novella about a rich and kind-hearted uncle put on trial for a murder he didn’t commit, full of examples of Welty’s wonderful ear for the dialect of many Southern groups.

The Genocides. By Tom Disch. Unseen aliens sow the seeds of an ecological catastrophe in a book two experts recently named one of the “100 must-read” science-fiction novels of all time. (Briefly mentioned.)

Middlemarch. By George Eliot. The first great multiplot novel in English — and maybe the greatest ever — tells the story of a young woman who longs to be useful as it reminds us that “that there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.”

The Host. By Stephenie Meyer. A woman wages a host-versus-graft struggle with a new soul, inserted in her body by aliens, in a creepily Freudian tale written at a fourth-grade reading level.

Bright Shiny Morning. By James Frey. A dark, postmodern novel about Los Angeles that combines stories of stereotypical characters — a Mexican-American maid, a closeted gay male superstar — and so many trivia lists, you almost expect a recipe for huevos rancheros.

Jane and Prudence. By Barbara Pym. A clergyman’s wife plays matchmaker for a female friend and fellow Oxford graduate in a quiet novel salted with wry observations on the sexes. (Briefly mentioned.)

A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living. By Michael Dahlie. A witty and intelligent novel of New York manners (and a recent prize-winner) about a blueblooded father who finds comfort in the love of his adult sons after a divorce and other crises.

Short Stories
Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. By Tamar Yellin. An award-winning English writer’s superb collection of 10 linked short stories about geographically or otherwise displaced characters, inspired by accounts of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Olive Kitteridge. By Elizabeth Strout. An uneven collection of linked short stories (published in Seventeen, South Carolina ReviewO, the Oprah Magazine, and elsewhere)  that, alas, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for its tales of a retired math teacher in a coastal town in Maine.

All Souls. By Christine Schutt. A skimpy Pulitzer finalist that its publisher has billed as a novel but is, in fact, a collection of linked short stories — many no more than vignettes — about how students and others react when a Manhattan prep school senior gets a rare connective-tissue cancer.

One-Minute Book Reviews has a policy that at least 50 percent of all reviews will deal with books by women. The “About This Blog” page describes other principles of the site, including that it does not accept free books  or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors, agents or others with ties to books that may be reviewed here. The “FAQ” page answers questions such as, “Why don’t you take free books?” and “If you don’t take books from publishers, where you do you get them?”

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 20, 2009

Cole Porter in the Summer, When It Sizzles — If They Say That These Lyrics Heinous, Kick Them Right in the Coriolanus

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:47 am
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[This is a re-post of a review that appeared in November 2006. I am on a brief semi-vacation.]

A master of light verse in the winter, when it drizzles, in the summer, when it sizzles

Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics. Edited and with an introduction by Robert Kimball. Library of America, 178 pp., $20.

By Janice Harayda

Several friends and I took part as teenagers in a summer drama program in which we learned the lines from Kiss Me, Kate: “If she says your behavior is heinous / Kick her right in the ‘Coriolanus.’” This we regarded as the summit of wit and sang so often that any adult who wanted us to read more poetry could have just given us a book of Cole Porter lyrics on the spot.

I don’t know if that tactic would work today, but the Library of America has made it easier to find out. Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics contains the words to 93 songs that aren’t just some of the best-loved of the 20th century – they are models of light verse. Porter’s lyrics have become such mainstays of our culture that even people who never read poetry are likely to recognize some: “I love Paris, in the winter, when it drizzles, / I love Paris, in the summer, when it sizzles.” “You’re the top! / You’re the Colosseum./ You’re the top! / You’re the Louvre Museum.”  “ … birds do it, bees do it. / Up in Lapland, little Lapps do it, / Let’s do it, let’s fall in love” (though it turns out that “birds” and “bees” is an alteration of Porter’s original words, included in Selected Lyrics).

Why do Porter’s words have such staying power? Porter (1891–1964) was born in Peru, Indiana, but traveled widely and seems to have been a true citizen of the world. His lyrics have a cosmopolitan refinement that may be even more alluring in the age of Howard Stern and Janet Jackson than during the Jazz Age and the Depression, when he did his best work. Porter is a kind of Cary Grant of song-writing – gifted, urbane, and ageless. He blends high and low cultural references with an ease that is more British than American and enables anybody to identify with him. He writes in “You’re the Top”: “You’re the top! / You’re a hot tamale.” Two lines later, he adds “You’re Botticelli, / You’re Keats, / You’re Shelley.” How many writers would dare mix that campy “hot tamale” with the highbrow “Keats” and “Shelley” today? Yet for all the exuberance of such songs, Porter also writes poignantly about his great theme: the evanescence of human attachments and the dreams they embody. In his lyrics the sex of the beloved is often unspecified, so he speaks to gay and straight readers alike.

Porter moved gracefully among poetic meters – iambic, trochaic, anapestic – and at his best is as funny as such titans of light verse as Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker. But he is racier than most light-versifiers. His lyrics teem with double-entrendres. And one of the gems of Selected Lyrics is a parody of “You’re the Top” by Irving Berlin that nods to Porter’s fondness for sexual wordplay. If you think that line about Coriolanus from “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is amusing, wait till you see what Berlin rhymes with “You’re the breasts of Venus.” “White Christmas” was never like this.

Best line: Many lyrics include both internal and end-rhymes, such as: “Let’s question the synonymy of freedom and autonomy, / Let’s delve into astronomy, political economy, / Or if you’re feeling biblical, the book of Deuteronomy.” These lines suggest the influence of Gilbert and Sullivan more directly than do others in Selected Lyrics.

Worst line: Porter occasionally uses clichéd rhymes, such as “love” and “above,” as in “Ours”: “The high gods above / Look down and laugh at our love.” Given the volume of material in Selected Lyrics, it is remarkable how rarely he does this.

Recommendation? This compact volume is small enough for a fragile end-table and an example of what an acquaintance of mine calls “a great guest-room book.” Visitors can dip in at random and fall asleep happy.

Editor: Robert Kimball

Published: April 2006

Furthermore: The elegant, minimalist cover of this book was designed by Mark Melnick and Chip Kidd, perhaps the most esteemed book-jacket designer of our day.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 11, 2009

‘The Aeneid’ in Three Sentences (Quote of the Day / Robert Fagles)

Filed under: Classics,Poetry,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:08 am
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The problem with book reviewing in America isn’t usually that it’s unfair or inaccurate – it’s that it’s dull. And it’s dull partly because it’s timid. Reviews often tell you almost everything about a novel except what it is really “about” beyond the plot details.

This failing has less to do with dwindling review space and than with declining courage and intellectual confidence. You can express the theme or message of even a complex, multilayered work in a few sentences if you know it well enough. Here’s how the classics scholar Robert Fagles summed up The Aeneid:

“It says that if you depart from the civilized, then you become a murderer. The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.”

As quoted by Charles McGrath in “Robert Fagles, Translator of the Classics, Dies at 74” in the New York Times, March 29, 2008.

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

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