Long before Malachy the Pekingese won “Best in Show” at the 2012 Westminster Kennel Club competition, Lad the collie had his own adventures at that annual event at Madison Square Garden. Albert Payson Terhune describes them in two tales in Lad: A Dog, a collection of 12 short stories inspired by an exceptional dog at a New Jersey kennel, which became an adult bestseller after it appeared in 1919 and which its publisher later repackaged as a children’s book. You can read “For a Bit of Ribbon” and “Lost!” online or in the attractive 1993 Puffin edition with illustrations by Sam Savitt.
February 19, 2012
February 15, 2012
A pregnant teenager faces several kinds of storms, including Hurricane Katrina
Salvage the Bones: A Novel. By Jesmyn Ward. 259 pp., $24.
By Janice Harayda
Jesmyn Ward writes in Salvage the Bones at a 10-year-old reading level – that of a student who is just starting the fifth grade – according to well-established measures of comprehension. That fact in itself isn’t a problem. Some of the most popular classics of American literature have the same reading level, including The Grapes of Wrath and The Old Man and the Sea. So do at least two other recipients of the National Book Award for fiction, which Salvage the Bones won in 2011: Tree of Smoke and Let the Great World Spin. To Kill a Mockingbird has a reading level of only a half grade higher.
But Salvage the Bones differs from most adult novels with relatively low reading levels in an important way. It also has a young narrator – a pregnant teenager named Esch who lives with her widowed father, her three brothers, and their pit bull, China, who is giving birth to a litter as the novel opens. The Batistes live in “the black heart of Bois Sauvage,” a rundown town set apart from white neighborhoods near the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, which Hurricane Katrina will destroy over the 12 days that give the novel its time frame. The family becomes caught up in a revenge tragedy in which Mother Nature punishes her children with a fury as unreasonable as that of Medea, whose story Esch has been reading in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology during the summer after tenth grade. Their tale tells us that motherhood is rational and irrational, tender and savage, a theme developed through the actions of Esch, China and Katrina.
It’s a task of alpine difficulty to hitch such a metaphorical load to a young narrator, almost a literary suicide mission. Even Harper Lee didn’t try it but told To Kill a Mockingbird from the point of view of an adult looking back on her childhood. Novelists who hope to create believable young narrators must invest those characters with the powers of observation needed to describe what they see and the wisdom to deal with it. That fact requires authors to become, in effect, faux-naïfs, writing as though they didn’t know much of what they do. The challenge is all the greater when an author intentionally or unintentionally limits the vocabulary, sentence structure and other elements that determine a reading level.
Ward brings large advantages to her work: intelligence, a respect for language, and first-hand knowledge of Katrina, gained while she was living in Mississippi. She knows how you kill a chicken by twisting its neck, how much meat you’ll have after you skin a squirrel (an amount “as thick as two pork chops laid together”), and how boys talk at backwoods dogfights, one of which gets 23 pages in her novel. She knows that if you’re poor, you prepare for a hurricane by covering windows with a wooden patchwork that leaves bits of glass exposed, not the custom-fitted boards of the well-off.
Salvage the Bones nonetheless has a hole at its center: Ward’s inability to create a narrator who sounds like a tenth-grader instead of an adult impersonating one. Esch says she slept with boys because they wanted sex, not because she did: “I’d let boys have it because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne.” Those words ring false not just because they are overwrought and imprecise but because they clash with others in the book. Esch says she started sleeping with boys at the age of 12, or in about the seventh grade. She read about the Greeks in Hamilton’s Mythology after the tenth grade. So she was having sex for three years before she knew of Psyche and Eurydice and Daphne. And are we to believe that wanted to feel like Eurydice stepping on a poisonous snake and spending the rest of her life in darkness after her beloved failed to rescue her? Here as elsewhere, the references to mythology hang on the tale like Spanish moss on a live oak. They may look pretty, but they grow on the story, not from within it.
Ward works hard to transcend the limits of telling the Batistes’ story in a young voice and at 10-year-old reading level. She weighs down her tale with similes and metaphors in duplicate or triplicate and lets you know exactly how you are supposed to feel about every character at nearly every moment. Esch says of Katrina, in one of many allusions to Medea, “She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes.” That’s a metaphor and three similes in one sentence. Those figures of speech, at least, make sense. Esch says that cooked meat had “turned as brown and small with as many hard edges as a jewel” when the novel offers no evidence that she has seen a jewel. And Ward’s promiscuous us of color shows the limits of chromatic writing. Esch says that Manny, the father of her baby, had a face “marked with red sunburn.” Can’t we assume that sunburn is red? Apparently not. (Ward’s “red suburn” may be a clumsy attempt to signal that Manny is Latino or white given that black skin shows sunburn differently than white skin does.) Salvage the Bones has much, much more of this kind of writing.
All of this might have more of a payoff if the novel had larger ideas at its core. But Ward instead gives us belabored parallels to the Medea myth and bumper-sticker sentiments. “Bodies tell stories.” “Everything deserve to live.” “Everything need a chance.” Who could disagree with such lines? All the florid metaphors that surround them can’t elevate them. Leon Edel once said that Henry James, in his letters, could “disguise the absence of thought by the shameless gilding of his own verbal lilies.” Something similar occurs in Salvage the Bones. Journalists have called Hurricane Katrina “the mother of all storms,” and you may wonder whether Ward improves on it with her ponderous reminder: “Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”
Best line: “Manny could dribble on rocks.”
Worst line: “She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”
About the reading level of this book: The 10-year-old or fifth-grade reading level of this book comes from Perma-Bound, which sells books to school libraries. Other reading-level assessment tools confirmed it and ranked some passages in the novel at a level as low as third grade or age 8.
Furthermore: Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction and a 2012 Alex Award for “books for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”
You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
November 16, 2011
Several conflicts of interest or the appearance of them may affect the results of the 2011 National Book Awards that will be handed out tonight in Manhattan. Here are some ties between judges and finalists and how they may affect the outcome of the awards:
Fiction judge Yiyun Li provided a blurb for Edith Pearlman’s finalist Binocular Vision that appears on the back cover of the book. Li has said on Twitter that for that reason, she is abstaining from discussions of the book.
How it may affect the outcome
Li has won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and other honors that make her the most acclaimed fiction-jury member. Assuming that she would have supported a book she blurbed, her abstention will deprive Pearlman of an advocate and may make victory more likely for one of the two best-known finalists, Téa Obreht and Julie Otsuka.
How it may affect the outcome
Greenblatt was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for nonfiction and may be the most honored candidate on the 2011 nonfiction shortlist. Lepore did not respond to an email message asking whether she is taking part in discussions about her colleague’s The Swerve. But if she would have supported Greenblatt, an abstention could hurt one of strongest nonfiction candidates. And it would further strain a jury reduced to four members instead of five after the unexplained disappearance of Rebecca Solnit, named a judge in April. An abstention by Lepore would leave the panel with just three members participating in some deliberations. And it would mean that Greenblatt could win with two votes in the case of a 2-1 split.
Poetry panel chair and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander serves on the faculty of the Cave Canem writers’ program, according to its website, which also lists as faculty two 2011 poetry finalists, Nikky Finney and Yussef Komunyakaa. Komunyakaa further shares with Alexander the title of honorary directory of the program. A third poetry finalist listed as a faculty member, Carl Phillips, says his term did not overlap with Alexander’s and he has not taught with her at Cave Canem.
How it may affect the outcome
Alexander should abstain from discussing Finney and Komunyakaa if the Cave Canem website reflects accurately her status as a colleague of both. If she does, four judges will decide the fate of those finalists, which could increase the chances of a hung jury. If she doesn’t abstain, that fact would create the unusual situation of a judge remaining involved despite an apparent conflict with not one but two finalists.
You can read more about conflicts of interest at the National Book Awards in the fourth section of this post. A complete list of National Book Awards judges and finalists appears on the website for the sponsor, the National Book Foundation.
You can follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar. She will be live-tweeting the National Book Awards ceremony beginning at 8 p.m. tonight. Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.
© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
November 2, 2011
Who will win and who should win the National Book Award for fiction on Nov. 16?
By Janice Harayda
Can you predict the winner of a literary prize by reading a chapter or less of each nominated book? This year I’ve decided to try. I read an online excerpt from each of the five books shortlisted for the 2011 National Book Award for fiction. Then I graded each on a finalist-against-finalist curve in a tweet that also commented on it.
Which nominee should win the fiction award if the quality of each excerpt represents that of the rest of the book? Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, a collection of 34 short stories by a writer whose talent far exceeds her name recognition. But National Book Awards juries traditionally have held story collections to a higher standard than novels, and none has won the prize since Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever in 1996. So Pearlman will have to overcome an unacknowledged bias in favor in favor of the longer form.
Two finalists look, for different reasons, like nonstarters. Andrew Krivak doesn’t write as well as Pearlman and, based on his excerpt, tells a less interesting story than Téa Obreht or Julie Otsuka. Jesmyn Ward has ended up in the wrong shortlist category: She would have had a better chance of winning the National Book Award for young people’s literature than for fiction.
But Obreht has momentum on her side as the most recent winner Orange Prize. And Otsuka may get degree-of-difficulty points for her use of plural narration. So this year’s award for fiction looks like a three-way contest between Pearlman, Obreht and Otsuka.
Here are more comments on and letter grades for each finalist, based on their excerpts, in the form of a slightly modified version of my Nov. 1 tweets:
The Sojourn (Andrew Krivak) A World War I Austrian sharpshooter. Un-Remarque-able. Grade: B- Based on this excerpt.
The Tiger’s Wife (Téa Obreht) Interesting Balkan setting but overwrought. Grade: B Based on this excerpt.
The Buddha in the Attic (Julie Otsuka) Some slips with v. difficult plural narration. Grade: B Based on this excerpt.
Salvage the Bones (Jesmyn Ward) My view: This is YA. Miscategorized by judges. No grade Based on this excerpt.
You may also want to read my recent post on the tarnished reputation of the National Book Awards and 7 ways their sponsor can regain trust. Reviews of other 2011 National Book Awards finalists may appear on One-Minute Book Reviews or Twitter before or after the Nov. 16 awards ceremony.
You can follow me on Twitter (@janiceharayda) by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this page.
– Janice Harayda
August 14, 2011
“Theme has become a rather vague term in the writer’s vocabulary. ‘Poverty,’ ‘war,’ and ‘love,’ for example, are not themes; they relate to setting or genre. A true theme is not a word but a sentence – one clear sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.’’
From Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (It Books/Harper Collins, 1997).
February 15, 2011
November 29, 2010
What Does ‘Getting Away From It All’ Mean in an Age of Anxiety? Quote of the Day From Lionel Shriver’s Novel ‘So Much for That’
Few people plan for retirement as ambitiously as does Shepherd Knacker, the protagonist of Lionel Shriver’s novel So Much for That. For years he has saved for what he calls his “Afterlife” in a spot far removed, geographically and emotionally, from where he built a profitable home repair business and raised two children with his wife, Glynis.
In this passage, he explains what he wants to flee:
“What would I like to get away from? Complexity. Anxiety. A feeling I’ve had my whole life that at any given time there’s something I’m forgetting, some detail or chore, something I’m supposed to be doing or should have already done. That nagging sensation – I get up with it, I go through the day with it, I go to sleep with it. When I was a kid, I had a habit of coming home from school on Friday afternoons and immediately doing my homework. So I’d wake up on Saturday morning with this wonderful sensation, a clean, open feeling of relief and possibility and calm. There’d be nothing I had to do. Those Saturday mornings, they were a taste of real freedom that I’ve hardly ever experienced as an adult. I never wake up in Elmsford with the feeling that I’ve done my homework.”
November 14, 2010
A Holocaust novel with honorable aims and a high schmaltz factor
The Invisible Bridge. By Julie Orringer. Knopf, 602 pp., $26.95.
By Janice Harayda
Reading this novel is like riding a slow-moving steam locomotive from Hungary to France and back as Nazi atrocities spread across Europe. Everything passes your window at the same speed, whether Hitler’s tanks are rolling toward Budapest or pygmy goats are eating a forgotten handkerchief in a garden in Nice.
Julie Orringer makes an honorable but sluggish effort to bring life to this a saga of three brothers and their extended families, whose members move in and out of love and labor camps between 1937 and 1945. Her novel is a sister under the skin to The Help: As Kathryn Stockett exhumed the cruelties of the Jim Crow era, Orringer recalls the brutalities of the Munkaszolgálat, the required national labor service program for Hungarian Jews, whom the law barred from serving in the armed forces. Her story develops the worthy theme that a will to live isn’t enough when disaster looms: You also need luck.
But Orringer is overmatched with a story that has nearly 250,000 words, about 190,000 longer than an average novel. Her plot relies heavily on coincidences, and her cliché-strewn prose resembles that of an overzealous editor for InStyle (“a warm apricotty soprano”). She asks us to believe that Hungarians of the 1940s used words like “empathy,” “energy conglomerate,” and “We’ve got to talk.” And her book abounds with redundancies such as “the triple-beat lilt of a waltz” (as though some waltzes had four beats) and “a perfect manmade oval artificially cooled by underground pipes” (as though pipes could provide cooling that wasn’t “artificial”). The overwriting slows the pace enough turn the novel into an oxymoron: a potboiler that never comes to boil.
Brian Hall offered more insights into Hungary in Stealing From a Deep Place (Hill & Wang, 1989), a travel memoir that includes a brief analysis the national anthem, the title of which can be translated as “Please God, Save the Magyar.” The text of the song comes from a 19th-century poem and has lines that say, in effect: This nation has suffered enough for all of its past and future sins. Hall wonders: What must a country have endured to believe it has paid not just for its past sins but for any it might yet commit? And his brief comments on the anthem may tell you as much about the Hungarian character as anything in The Invisible Bridge. Instead of providing fresh perceptions, Orringer’s story of the invisible bridge between generations confirms the lessons of Hall’s and many other books: Hungarians and Jews have suffered in unique and enduring ways.
Best line: Andras Lévi, one of the three brothers at the heart of The Invisible Bridge, quotes an architecture teacher: “Speed is the enemy of precision.”
Worst line: No. 1: “And he took her to bed and made love to her as if for the first time in his life.” A cliché, padded with “in his life,” that suggests the schmaltz factor in The Invisible Bridge. No. 2: “a layered egg-and-potato rakott krumpli.” Krumpli means “potato” in Hungarian, so this is another redundancy. It’s like saying “a bacon-and-cheese cheese sandwich.” No. 3: “It was a nightmare version of a fairy tale.”
Recommendation? The Invisible Bridge is likely to appeal most to extremely patient readers who want to learn about an aspect of the Holocaust slighted in mass-market fiction, the plight of Hungarian Jews in World War II. The book may also appeal to people who look to historical novels more for a wealth of period details than for a well-paced plot or believable characters.
Published: May 2010
Furthermore: Orringer also wrote the short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater. The Invisible Bridge, her first novel, was inspired by the life of her grandfather.
Read an excerpt from The Invisible Bridge.
Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
July 26, 2010
Beautiful People. By Wendy Holden. Sourcebooks Landmark, 420 pp., $14.99, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Wendy Holden’s ninth novel shows little of the satirical verve on display in her Farm Fatale and Bad Heir Day, both as fizzy and delicious as a Kir Royale. Beautiful People resembles a conventional wine from the Tuscan hills, the setting for the working-out of the romantic and professional dilemmas of its three heroines – a kind Yorkshire-bred nanny, a London-based actress from a theatrical dynasty similar to the Redgraves, and an apparently American film star whose career is tanking.
Holden serves up few savory bits for star-gazers in this international romp: Did you know that Madonna has outwitted paparazzi by wearing the same black tracksuit for three years while jogging to “make the pictures look the same as they had for the last three years and render the image unsellable”? Or that David Bowie hides in plain sight on the Underground by wearing cheap sunglasses and reading a Turkish newspaper?
But Holden drags her plot sideways by beginning her novel with a chapter on sub-lead characters, and she never quite gets it back on a fast, straight track. And even the keenest fans of her much-admired gift for wordplay may wonder: Did she really intend have two characters whose names are variations on the word “cockroach”?
Best line: “Mitch still had no idea why Belle’s studio had imagined that a film about an uptight, pyromaniac, religious nutcase was a suitable vehicle for her.” This line comes closer than any other to having the over-the-top flair that made Holden’s early novels so appealing.
Worst line: No. 1: “It takes a lot of money to look that cheap.” If you’re going to reheat a line Dolly Parton has been using for years, if not decades, doesn’t she deserve a credit? No. 2: “there were iPod earphones curling around his neck.” In the U.S., they’re called ear buds. The term may be different in Britain, where Holden lives, but if not, anybody who is writing about style-setters needs to get details like this right.
Published: April 2010
Conflict alert: Sourcebooks published my second novel, Manhattan on the Rocks.
About the author: Holden lives in England, where her novels has appeared repeatedly on best-seller lists.
Read excerpts from Beautiful People and other novels by Holden.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.