One-Minute Book Reviews

October 13, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – National Book Awards Finalists to Be Announced Tomorrow

Just a reminder: The shortlist for the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced at noon Eastern Time tomorrow. The list will consist of five finalists in each of four categories — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature – and should be posted by early afternoon on the site for the sponsor of the prizes, the National Book Foundation, and on www.twitter.com/nationalbook.

The winners will be announced on Nov. 18, well before those for the Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Critics Circle Awards, both of which will be handed out in 2010. Some finalists for the young people’s literature award may also be considered for American Library Association’s Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, which will be given out in January. Only Americans are eligible for the National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prizes, and Newbery Medal, but authors of any nationality may win NBCC awards.

I haven’t read enough of the candidates predict who might turn up on tomorrow’s list. But two of the 2009 books that I read are as strong as many past National Book Awards finalists — Aleksandar Hemon’s short story collection, Love and Obstacles, and Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see them on list. And Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs – which I hope to review soon – seems to have gained the kind of unstoppable momentum that, rightly or wrongly, often precedes major awards.

Jacqueline Woodson’s novel for ages 12 and under, Peace, Locomotion – which I’ll review Saturday, Oct. 17 or Oct. 24 — isn’t as strong in its category as Hemon’s and Gooch’s books are in theirs. But it’s a sequel to Locomotion, which was a National Book Awards finalist. And Woodson also made the shortlist for Hush. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see her among the finalists, either.

Whom would you like to see win in November?

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October 9, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — 2009 National Book Award Finalists to Be Announced Next Week, Winners on Nov. 18

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:29 pm
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Update, Monday, 10/12: The 2009 National Book Awards finalists will be announced on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at 12 noon Eastern time.

Yes, it seems we’ve barely exhaled since the 2009 Man Booker and Nobel prize-winners were announced. But next week the National Book Foundation will name the five 2009 National Book Award finalists in each of the four categories – fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature. But the foundation may still be making up its mind about the date: One page of the awards site says the finalists will be announced on October 13 and another page says the finalists will be announced on October 14.  I will update this post as soon as the organization clarifies this. The winners will be announced at the 60th National Book Awards ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City on November 18.

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 7, 2009

Aleksandar Hemon Sends Up a Pulitzer Prize–Winner’s Bad Writing

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:42 pm
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Aleksandar Hemon has an amusing sendup of the bad writing of a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist in “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” a story in Love and Obstacles (Riverhead, 224 pp., $25.95). An example of the pretentious prose of Dick Macalister (whose name and literary affect suggest Cormac McCarthy): “Before Nam, Cupper was burdened with the pointless enthusiasm of youth.” There and elsewhere in the story, Hemon nails the macho posturing that prize judges often reward, though his tale is more than a sendup of pomposity. “The Noble Truths of Suffering” appeared in The New Yorker and remains on its Web site.

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August 13, 2009

James Rollins’s ‘The Doomsday Key’ – Blarney About Celtic Myths and More

An elite military unit has to grapple with codes and ciphers to find an antidote to a bioweapon

The Doomsday Key: A Novel (Sigma Force Novels). By James Rollins. Morrow, 448 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

What if the ancient Egyptians had brought to the British Isles the antidote to a deadly fungus that was threatening to wipe out the world in the 21st century? And what if their knowledge had passed to the Celts and early Christians, who left clues to the remedy in codes, symbols or conspiracies that involve the Vatican, a U.S. Senator, and shadowy global terrorist group called the Guild?

These questions underlie James Rollins’s latest technothrilller, a book that shows that you can write better than Tom Clancy and still serve up blarney. Rollins doesn’t trade in Clancy’s jingoism and alphabet-soup of acronyms, and he shows more respect for the English language than many authors who have left their mark on this paranoid genre.

But he has his own problems in his sixth novel about Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma Force, a fictitious unit of the U.S. Department of Defense. Rollins allows a subplot about genetically modified foods to sputter out about 75 pages before the end, which slows the pace and works against satisfying resolution to the plot. He gives the same emotional weight to so many events – a firefight, a reunion between ex-lovers, an avalanche above the Arctic Circle – that you can’t feel all you should for any of them. And only a conspiracy theorist or the most ardent fan of The Da Vinci Code might love his mishmash of real or historical figures, places or objects: Merlin, druids, Stonehenge, Celtic crosses, Queen Nefertiti, the Domesday Book, the Knights Templar, Saint Malachy, Princeton University, the Abbey of Clairvaux, Pope Benedict XVI and more. A few of these might have been intriguing. As it, when an off-kilter Freemasonry symbol appears near the end, you wonder: Will a reference to the Kennedy assassination be next?

Best line: “In Israel, botanists grew a date palm from a seed that was over two thousand years old.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Her methods were brutal – like murdering the Venetian curator – but who was he to judge? He had not walked in her shoes.” No. 2: “So in other words, we’re looking for a bunch of pissed-off Druids.” No. 3: “Her apartment was on the third floor. Though small, she did have a nice view of the Coliseum from her balcony.”

Editor: Lyssa Keusch

Listen to an audio excerpt from The Doomsday Key.

Published: June 2009

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

August 11, 2009

How Do Symbols Work in Literature? — Quote of the Day / John Ciardi

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:11 am
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The late John Ciardi talks about how symbols work in poetry, a description that also applies to other kinds of literature, in the quote below, which first appeared on this site 2007:

” … a symbol is like a rock dropped into a pool: it sends out ripples in all directions, and the ripples are in motion. Who can say where the last ripple disappears? One may have a sense that he at least knows approximately the center point of all those ripples, the point at which the stone struck the water. Yet even then he has trouble marking it precisely. How does one make a mark on water?”

John Ciardi in his classic textbook, How Does a Poem Mean? (Houghton Mifflin, 1959), once widely used in high schools and colleges.

Flannery O’Connor talks about the purpose of symbols in the Quote of the Day for March 21, 2007. These two posts, frequently linked to by high school and college English classes, are among the all-time most popular on this site.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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August 10, 2009

‘Fight Club’ Author Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Pygmy’ – A Review in the Form of a Parody

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:18 pm
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“Total disappointed of no result.”

Pygmy. By Chuck Palahniuk. Doubleday, 241 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Begins here report of critic me on novel by Fight Club author all in mangled English dorky like this. Combining terrorist high-school exchange students from county like China except some with Hungarian names like Tibor and Magda, plot with bioweapon to murder many Americans at science fair in Washington. In actual, main operative Pygmy co-opted by shallow, corrupt, depraved host country. Want to read you no. Critic me quote line from book, “Total disappointed of no result.”

Best line: A quote from the Socialist Eugene V. Debs, “Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.”

Worst line: Yes, the entire book consists of lines like: No. 1: “Succulent barrier much thrusting mammary glands shield operative me, swinging lady buttocks further thwart attacks.” No. 2: “Tongue of operative me lick, licking, touching back tooth on bottom, molar where planted inside forms cyanide hollow, touching not biting.” No. 3: “For official record, effect worst – idiot song flush from head of operative me most irregular verbs Mandarin Chinese. Erode all knowledge Portuguese. Idiot lyric overwhelm understanding advanced field equations calculus. Overpower and devastate to oblivion stored memory to operate Iranian-manufactured Khaybar KH2002 medium-barrel assault rifle. Crowd no longer recall how many rounds per minute capable firing Ukrainian Vepr assault rifle.” No. 4: “Edging more close, ranked wall of killer assassins stance ready for execute Cobra One-Strike No-Blood.” No. 5: “In greater afraid … within thinking machine operative me, this agent ponder if entire being operative me pitted for destroy American, annihilate homosexual, crackpot Methodist religion, Lutheran and Baptist cult, extinguish all decadent bourgeoise – subsequent successful total such destruction: Render this agent obsolete? Of no worth?”

Furthermore: A review at the Daily Beast has more on Pygmy. An essay in Salon discusses Palahniuk’s other books.

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

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 23, 2009

Eric Hodgins’s Classic Comic Novel ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’ — You Think Your Problems With Contractors Are Bad?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:05 am
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A  classic comic novel about moving from the city to the country sends up the modern lust for property

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading yesterday’s bestsellers can be a little like trying on that pair of white vinyl go-go boots in the attic: You don’t know whether to laugh or cringe at our former tastes. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation and comic novels age faster than serious ones because so much humor depends on topical references. This classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property, and its enduring appeal lies partly in the all-too-believable naiveté of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. They fall in love with the barns, apple orchard and majestic views: “But the furnishings were in general of the era of Benjamin Harrison, with an overlay of William McKinley, and here and there a final, crowning touch of Calvin Coolidge.” And when house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, Jim and Muriel resolve to tear it down and build another on the site.

This decision sets up a superbly constructed plot in which the new house becomes the couple’s antagonist. The Blandings square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – in short, all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. But the house itself is their real opponent. Amid the soaring bills and construction delays, Mr. Blandings imagines how delightful it would be “to return to the city and move a final, ten blocks father north.” Will he throw in the drill bit and go back to the Upper East Die? Or sell the place and buy one against which he isn’t so overmatched?

Eric Hodgins controls the suspense deftly. And the late New Yorker cartoonist William Steig adds three dozen or so brilliant drawings, many of them a full page, that throw the comedy into higher relief and show how much we have lost now that the fully illustrated adult novel has almost disappeared. Along with Hodgins’s masterly text, Steig’s fanciful pictures remind us that if a man’s home is his castle, sometimes he’s the court jester instead of the king.

Best line: “It surged over Mr. Blandings that he very much wished he were back in the city … he wanted the noise of the city in his ears; the noise with which all city dwellers were in such perfect, unconscious harmony that the blast of a gas main down the block might strike the eardrums but penetrate not the brain.”

Worst line: A few expressions have become dated. When Mr. Blandings sees the contractors’ bills, he cries: “Jesus H. Mahogany Christ!”

Recommended if … you like comedy that stays close to life. Hodgins’s satire is much more realistic than that of the over-the-top novels of Christopher Buckley (whose Boomsday involves plan to save Social Security and other benefits by giving baby boomers a financial incentive to commit suicide, known as “Voluntary Transitioning”). Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is also a nearly perfect book club book partly because: 1) It’s a classic that few people have read; 2) It’s relatively short and widely available in paperback and at libraries; 3) It deals with a situation almost anybody can appreciate; 4) It may show a new side of William Steig to members familiar only with his children’s books, such as Dr. De Soto and Shrek!; and 5) All those slackers who never finish the book can watch one of the movie versions.

Reading group guide: This site has also posted a review of the sequel to this novel, Blandings’ Way, and a reading group guide to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, which you can find by using the search box.

Published: 1946 (first edition), 2004 (Simon & Schuster paperback).

Furthermore: Hodgins’s novel has inspired two movies I haven’t seen – Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Cary Grant and Myrna Low, and The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks.

This is a repost of a review that first appeared in 2007. I am on a brief semi-vacation.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 18, 2009

Nancy Mitford’s Modern Classic, ‘Love in a Cold Climate’

Say what you will about the decomposing British class system, the follies of aristocrats have inspired some the finest comic scenes in Western literature. Few authors saw the excesses at closer range than Nancy Mitford, who drew on them for Love in a Cold Climate, a modern classic based in part on her storied and half-batty upper-class family. First published in 1949, this comedy of manners tells the story of the heiress Polly Montdore, an only child who flouts convention by marrying a middle-aged man who had been her mother’s lover. Mitford’s portrait of the young Polly sets the tone of a book that is witty and elegant without being aloof: “Polly was a withdrawn, formal little girl, who went through the day with the sense of ritual, the poise, the absolute submission to etiquette of a Spanish Infanta. You had to love her, she was so beautiful and friendly, but it was impossible to feel very intimate with her.”

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