One-Minute Book Reviews

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 11, 2009

Robinson, Updike or Roth Will Win the 2009 Pulitzer for Fiction, Statistical Analysis Shows — But Don’t Count on It

I’m on record as saying that the frontrunner for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction would seem to be Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy, which I haven’t read. Morrison is the only Nobel Prize–winner in the hunt. And I think it’s going to be tough for the judges to pass over a laureate, although the National Book Critics Circle board did it in March.

But a research scientist and a book collector have reached a different conclusion by using regression analysis, a statistical technique for evaluating variables. The two say that the books most likely to win the 2009 fiction prize are Marilynne Robinson’s Home, John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick, and Philip Roth’s Indignation. They’ve also identified the 12 other candidates that, based on their analysis, are most like to win, all listed in order at  PPrize.com. You can read their 2008 predictions — and how they fared — on the same site. The Pulitzer Prizes honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction — and will be announced on Monday, April 20, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 1, 2009

Why Don’t Men Read Novels? (Quote of the Day / Gore Vidal)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:23 pm
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Many studies have shown that women read more fiction than men do, which may help to explain why they also join more reading groups. Why is this so? The novelist and essayist Gore Vidal offers an answer in his essay “Writers and the World” in his Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952-1972 (Random House, 1972):

“It has been observed that American men do not read novels because they feel guilty when they read books which do not have facts in them. Made-up stories are for women and children; facts are for men. There is something in this. It is certainly true that this century’s romantic estrangement of writer from the World has reduced the number of facts in the American novel. And facts are the stuff of art as well as of life.”

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 5, 2009

Imprint Blight in American Book Publishing

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:16 pm
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The colophon of the respected Margaret K. McElderry imprint.

On this site I focus on the quality of the writing in books and generally avoid reporting on unrelated publishing news or gossip. But an article in today’s New York Times involves a trend that’s been on my mind for years: the proliferation of imprints at major publishing firms.

Many of the new imprints bear the names of their editors. And — to oversimplify a bit — they allow the editors to go out on a limb and buy books that reflect their tastes even if others at their firms dislike them. That freedom is in theory a good thing, because it allows editors to acquire worthy books that may be too narrow to appeal to staff members who might otherwise have to sign off on them. And some imprints have a longstanding reputation for high quality, such as the Margaret K. McElderry children’s imprint at Simon & Schuster.

But named imprints can also remove some of the checks-and-balances at publishing firms. And recently they have produced at least two books so tarnished by questions of credibility that they should never have been published in the form in which they reached stores: James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (from Nan Talese Books at Doubleday) and Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (from Sarah Crichton Books) at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

I won’t belabor this point here, but if you’re interested in imprint blight in book publishing, I’ve put up a series of tweets about them on my Twitter feed. Thanks for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

February 25, 2009

How Badly Can You Write and Get a Book Published in America? Find Out Thursday, Feb. 26, When the Shortlist for the 2009 Delete Key Awards Is Posted

Are you tired of reading about what a hard time publishers are having? Do you wish that somebody would write about what a hard time we, the readers, are having with some of the clinkers they’ve thrown at us?

Stay right here. Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will post the shortlist for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books for adults or children. The finalists will be named in random order and numbered in reverse order, from No. 10 through No. 1, at roughly half hour intervals, beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern Time. The full shortlist will be posted by 5 p.m.

Last year John Brockman said on the blog for the Powell’s Books:

“Arguably the second-best online literary award after the TOB’s Rooster [co-sponsored by Powell’s] is the 2008 Delete Key Awards for ‘the year’s worst writing in books,’ awarded by the One-Minute Book Reviews blog.”

Please check back tomorrow to learn the finalists for this year’s booby prizes for clichés, bad grammar, psychobabble, stereotypes, mispunctuation, incoherence, dumbing-down and more.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors, agents or others with ties to the industry.

© 2009 Janice Harayda
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

December 10, 2008

8 Good Christmas Poems for Adults and Teenagers With All the Words Online – Verse by Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and Others

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:35 pm
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Many critics agree with the novelist Reynolds Price that John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” is “the supreme Christmas poem in the English language.” But other good Christmas poems are shorter or less insistently religious or were written after the 17th century.

One problem with finding them is that many poems on the Internet are plagiarized, misattributed or inaccurately reproduced. Another is that some books that contain holiday–themed poems may disappear from library and bookstore shelves well before Dec. 25.

Here are some of the best Christmas poems for teenagers and adults and where to find their full texts from trustworthy online or other sources:

1. “The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman” by Emily Dickinson. This brief Nativity poem has just 40 words, divided into 8 lines of iambic trimeter. It casts Jesus as a gentle Savior who was nonetheless strong enough that he “leveled” a road to Bethlehem that would otherwise have been “A rugged Billion Miles –” from his “little Fellowmen.” Full text online at
www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19309.

2. “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The author of “Hiawatha” and “Paul Revere’s Ride” wrote this poem not long after his wife died and his son suffered severe wounds fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Written in iambic tetrameter, it is better known today by the title “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” In the poem speaker despairs and sees “no peace on earth” until pealing Christmas bells remind him that “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.”
Full text online at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16819. Five stanzas are used as a hymn you can hear at Cyberhymnal www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/i/h/iheardtb.htm.

3. “Christmas Trees: A Christmas Circular Letter” by Robert Frost. A country-dweller debates whether to sell his evergreens to a city sharpie who undervalues them in a wistful poem much longer than Frost’s better-known “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (in itself a good seasonal, though not Christmas, poem) rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/856.html. Some critics see the trees in “Christmas Trees” as a metaphor for poetry, which is similarly undervalued.
Full text online at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19307.

4. “Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes” (Seven lines from Act I, Scene I of Hamlet) by William Shakespeare. In the first scene of Hamlet, a character who has seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s father speaks seven lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse) that begin: “Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes / Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated.” These lines describe the mysteries of a season “So hallow’d” that, people say, “The bird of dawning singeth all night long.” Though not a free-standing poem, the lines work well on their own and rank among the greatest poetry written about Christmas. Full text online at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19317.

5. “Christmas at Sea” by Robert Louis Stevenson. During a Christmas Day storm at sea, a young sailor thinks sentimentally of home: “O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there, /My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair.” This poem has 11 stanzas of four quatrains each that may have special meaning for the families of servicemen and –women overseas. Full text online at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19311.

6. “Noël” by Anne Porter. In this poem Advent brings, along with the “customary carols,” the “fresh truth” from children: “They look at us / With their clear eyes / And ask the piercing questions / God alone can answer.” “Noël” springs from the heartfelt Catholicism of Porter, a National Book Award finalist and one of America’s finest religious poets. Full text online at
www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20503 and collected in the author’s recent collection, Living Things.

7. “A Christmas Carol” by Christina Rossetti. The Academy of American Poets lists the title of this popular poem as “A Christmas Carol,” but most of us know it as “In the Bleak Midwinter” (that season when “Frosty wind made moan”).
Text online at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19287. You can listen to the carol at at www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/i/n/intbleak.htm. And there’s a stanza-by-stanza analysis on Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_Bleak_Midwinter (As always, use caution with Wikipedia, which I have linked to here because it includes more analysis of the poem than other easily accessible sites.)

8. “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (“’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. This children’s classic has charms that may also seduce adults — its rousing anapestic meter, its “visions of sugarplums,” and its dynamic plot, which ends with St. Nick wishing a “Happy Christmas” to all. Full text online at
www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=171924.

And don’t forget …
John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativitywww.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/nativity/index.shtml and E . E. Cummings’s “little tree” www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=176724. I left Milton off the main list because his poem, with 27 stanzas and more than 200 lines, is much longer than all the others. And I omitted Cummings because “little tree” reads more like a poem for children (am I missing something here?). But his poetry enraptured me when I was 13 and may have a similar effect on other teenagers.

If you’ve read any of these poems, which do you like best? To keep this site reasonably faithful to its title, I’ve kept my remarks on these poems brief. But many people might like more information them and, if you can provide it, I’d love to have it in the comments section, where I would be glad to say more about any.

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

 

December 8, 2008

Christmas in Shakespeare? Astound Us With Your Memory, English Majors

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:10 pm
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I’ve been looking for good Christmas poetry and found enough of it that I split the material into two posts: one on the seasonal offerings for children, posted on Saturday, and a one on the possibilities for teenagers and adults, which will appear Wednesday, Dec. 10.

The biggest surprise was that I came across a wonderful passage in Shakespeare that I’d be tempted to use on my Christmas cards if I didn’t already have this year’s batch. How I could have forgotten this one is a mystery given that I’ve read it or heard it many times on film or on stage — unless the explanation is that I majored in political science was reading Che Guevara’s diary when I could have been rereading some of the plays.

Do you know which passage I’m thinking of? It’s not a free-standing poem – not one of the sonnets, in other words – but it’s entirely appropriate to the season. I’m throwing this one out there because there may be other Christmas-card–worthy lines by Shakespeare that I’ve forgotten or never known. If you can point them out in a comment, you may help people still casting about for these.

[As usual when reading poetry on the Internet, I’ve been struck by how much of it is misquoted, misattributed or plagiarized. So the Dec. 10 post will list more than a half dozen good Christmas poems for adults or teenagers with a brief commentary on each and links to trustworthy sites that have posted the full texts. Poetry may be a genteel art, but when it comes to online verse, it’s a jungle out there, and on Wednesday I will don my leopard-skin Tarzan suit and try to clear a path to the safer vines.]

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

November 26, 2008

Has Film Replaced the Novel as the Best Medium for Exploring How We Live’? (Quote of the Day / Allan Massie)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:56 pm
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Critics have been predicting the death of the novel for so long that some people take for granted that the future, if not the present, belongs to movies. Is this a fair assumption?

Allan Massie, the Scottish journalist and novelist, recently considered the question in the Spectator, the British weekly. One often-heard explanation, Massie noted, is just as the theater yielded to the novel, the novel has yielded to the film: “Our culture has become visual rather than literary.” He responded:

“Some truth to this. Even though film still draws on novels and short stories, it has become a less literary medium in the last quarter-century. Cinema offers more immediate sensations and it generally requires less of its audience, which is essentially passive, than the serious novel does of the reader.”

Massie added that others say that narratives in print have gone out of fashion:

“In truth these explanations are less than convincing. Film hasn’t superseded the novel. As a medium for examining the way we live and the way we should live, film has for the most part proved wretchedly inadequate. Its ability to explore moral or ethical questions is slight, because such exploration must be verbal, and film deals in images. Film is the great simplifier, and that is part of its charm. …

“No need, therefore, to ring the funeral bell. The aspiring novelist needs only courage, intelligence, imagination, a keen eye, and the belief that writing novels remains the best way of telling aqnd showing how it is. “

Massie’s comment appeared in a Life & Letters column called “The Death of the Novel” in the July 28, 2008, issue of the Spectator www.spectator.co.uk, but doesn’t appear on its Web site.

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

November 19, 2008

Matthiessen, Gordon-Reed, Doty and Blundell Win 2008 National Book Awards — Gordon-Reed Is First African-American Woman to Win the Nonfiction Prize

The winners of the 2008 National Book Awards are Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (fiction), Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello (nonfiction), Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire (poetry) and Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied. Each winner receives $10,000 and was selected by a different panel of five judges. The nonprofit National Book Foundation sponsors the prizes and has posted more information about them at www.nationalbook.org. The site includes interviews with all the winners and finalists and excerpts from their books.

The publishing news site GalleyCat www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/ will have pictures and more on the ceremony tomorrow. Ron Hogan, senior editor of GalleyCat, attended and posted the names of the winners on his Twitter feed with heroic speed. If you can’t wait for tomorrow’s news stories, you can read more about the event on his Twitter feed www.twitter.com/ronhogan, which includes snippets from the acceptance speeches.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 6, 2008

How Kinky Does Poetry Get? How About a Poem in the Shape of the State of New York? (Quote of the Day / ‘The Poetry Dictionary’)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:56 am
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The other day I came across the late Australian writer Judith Wright’s poem “Rainforest,” in which the lines are arranged in the shape of a tree – a subtle an example of a pattern poem, or a poem in which the words or lines form a typographic picture that relates to the subject. And I wondered: How kinky does poetry get? What are some of the more offbeat shapes that poems have taken? Here’s an answer from John Drury’s The Poetry Dictionary (Writer’s Digest Books, 374 pp., $14.99, paperback), which has a foreword by Dana Gioia:

“John Hollander’s Types of Shape consists entirely of pattern poems. The shapes include a key, lightbulb, harpsichord, bell, sundial, lazy Susan, kitty, kitty with bug, the state of New York, a double helix, a swan with its reflection. These poems, however, can still be read aloud.”

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

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