One-Minute Book Reviews

June 1, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #1 – Eudora Welty’s Comic Novella, ‘The Ponder Heart’

A kind-hearted uncle is put on trial for murder in a comic novella that includes some of the most entertaining courtroom scenes in American literature

The Ponder Heart. By Eudora Welty. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 168 pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Jane Austen told a would-be novelist that “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” And much of her comedy turns on the arrival of an outsider in such a group – most famously, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s entrance into the world of the Bennets, Bingleys and Lucases in Pride and Prejudice.

In that sense, The Ponder Heart is Eudora Welty’s most Austenian book. The wonderfully named Ponders and Clanahans and Sistrunks have held sway in Clay, Mississippi, for generations. Then a newcomer turns up: 17-year-old Bonnie Dee Peacock, who is “no bigger than a minute” and promptly marries Uncle Daniel Ponder, a rich, kind and mentally slow man whose greatest happiness lies in giving things away. When Bonnie departs as suddenly as she arrived, Uncle Daniel finds himself on trial for murder in one of the most entertaining courtroom dramas in American literature.

First published in The New Yorker in 1953, The Ponder Heart is a light-hearted and at times farcical social comedy that takes the form of a monologue by the endearingly self-assured Edna Earle Ponder, the proprietor of the faded Beulah Hotel in Clay, Mississippi. Edna says, “It’s always taken a lot out of me, being smart,” and the appeal of her tale lies partly in her astute, matter-of-fact send-ups of her fellow Mississippians.

“The Peacocks are the kind of people keep the mirror outside on the front porch, and go out and pick railroad lilies to bring inside the house, and wave at trains till the day die,” Edna says.

Everything about that sentence is perfect: its deadpan wit, its vivid images, its distinctive syntax (such as the dropping of the “who” from the phrase, “the kind of people keep”). And it suggests why many critics believe that Welty’s superb ear for the speech of many Southern groups – men and women, blacks and whites, city and country folk – reaches a high point in The Ponder Heart.

But Welty never makes dialect an end in itself, as so many novelists do. She always uses it to make a larger point that is as disarmingly frank and surprising as her language. Edna Earle suggests one of the themes of The Ponder Heart explaining why Uncle Daniel keeps finding reason come into town from the big Ponder house out in the country. “There’s something that’s better to have than love,” she says, “and if you want me to, I’ll tell you what it is – that’s company.”

This is the first in a series of daily posts about Southern literature. Tomorrow: Willie Morris’s memoir of his Southern boyhood, North Toward Home.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 31, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South – Starting Tomorrow

A five-part series of daily posts, “A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South,” begins tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews. The books scheduled for review are:

Monday – Eudora Welty’s novella, The Ponder Heart
Tuesday – Willie Morris’s memoir, North Toward Home
Wednesday – Flannery O’Connor’s essay collection, Mystery and Manners
Thursday – Peter Taylor’s novel, A Summons to Memphis
Friday (two posts): No. 1: David C. Barnette’s book of Southern humor, How to Be a Mobilian and No. 2: The Runners-up, or More of My Favorite Books About the South or, Yes, I Like Gone With the Wind, Too

Parts of this series appeared in different form in the Mobile Press-Register.

April 14, 2009

More on ‘What’s the Difference Between a Novel and a Short Story?’ (Quote of the Day / Allan Gurganus)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:14 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

The Oxford American

What’s the difference between a novel and a short story? In earlier posts, I’ve quoted answers from Eudora Welty and Orson Scott Card. Here’s a response from Allan Gurganus, author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, in the Winter 2006 issue of The Oxford American:

“Like vocal music, stories consist wholly of what singers call ‘exposed notes.’ Meaning: If you go sharp, everybody’s going to hear. Novels are more forgiving; chapters can vary in quality. They can be assembled so a weaker unit gets propped between its betters.

“But, poem-like, everything in a short story must count, must show.”

I keep returning to the question “How does a novel differ from a short story?” in part because it helps to explain why works of fiction succeed or fail. Many novels try to do too little — their plots or ideas are so skimpy, they deserve no more than a short story. With the markets for stories dwindling, you see this problem more and more: for example, in Mitch Albom’s novels, which deal with simple ideas that might have worked better at a shorter length. More rarely, short stories try to do too much — their subjects are so large or diverse that they deserve a novel. A good question for book clubs to explore, when members dislike books, might be: Did the author choose the right form for this material?

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

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

August 1, 2007

What’s the Difference Between a Novel and a Short Story? Quote of the Day (Eudora Welty)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:19 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

May Sarton described one difference between a novel or short story and poetry in the quote of the day on July 10 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/07/10/. What’s the difference between a novel and a short story? Here’s an answer from Eudora Welty:

“I like the fiction writer’s feeling of being able to confront an experience and resolve it as art, however imperfectly and briefly – to give it a form and try to embody it – to hold it and express it in a story’s terms. You have more chance to try it in a novel. A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion – than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.”

Eudora Welty in an interview with Linda Kuehl, Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Penguin, 1989), edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by Margaret Atwood. Reprinted from Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Fourth Series and issue No. 55 of the Paris Review, Fall 1972. To read the full interview click on www.parisreview.com and search for “Eudora Welty.”

Comment by Janice Harayda:

Welty made this comment in an interview conducted in 1972. Does her comment still apply today?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 376 other followers

%d bloggers like this: