One-Minute Book Reviews

April 2, 2008

What is ‘The Golden Notebook’ About? (Quote of the Day / Doris Lessing via Emily Parker)

Filed under: Classics,Novels,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:38 am
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Doris Lessing’s best-known novel is often seen as a feminist manifesto. Is that perception accurate?

Author profiles in the American media tend to be glorified press releases. They rarely tell you anything that would help you understand a book beyond the basics of its plot or factual content. Instead they focus on such questions as: How old – or young – is the author? How big was his or her advance? Has Robert De Niro bought the film rights yet? And – of course – how does the author write? In the morning or evening? In longhand or on a computer? In a semi-starved state or fortified by Wheat Thins?

A stellar exception was the recent Wall Street Journal profile of Doris Lessing, who has finished a book about her parents, Alfred and Emily, that will come out in the U.S. in August. Emily Parker begins by talking about Lessing’s age (she’s 88 and finds being old “boring”) but quickly goes on to show that she’s unafraid to deal with the complex issues raised by the work of the most recent Nobel laureate in literature. A portion of the article deals with Lessing’s best-known novel, The Golden Notebook, first published in 1962:

“Ms. Lessing was briefly a member of the Communist Party before becoming thoroughly disillusioned. This loss of faith seems to have helped define her belief in the danger of dogmas and group-think. It also shaped The Golden Notebook.”

Lessing reminded Parker that the second comment in The Golden Notebook was “as far as I can see, everything’s cracking up”:

“’This is what The Golden Notebook is about, the crack-up of the 1950s,’ Ms. Lessing says. Or more specficially, the ‘crack up’ of the left after Nikita Khrushchev’s 20th Congress speech in 1956, in which he admitted that Joseph Stalin had been less than a perfect leader.”

Doris Lessing as quoted by Emily Parker in “Provocateur” in the Weekend Interview with Doris Lessing, the Wall Street Journal, March 15-16, 2008.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 5, 2008

What Do Award-Winning Novels Have That Others Don’t? (Quote of the Day/Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni)

[Tomorrow night the National Book Critics Circle will announce the winners of its annual awards, including its fiction prize. You can read about the finalists here bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/2008/01/2007-national-book-critics-circle-award.html. A former judge for another prize offers some thoughts on literary awards in general below.]

What separates the novels that win major literary prizes from other books? Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the Indian-born poet and novelist, served as a National Book Awards judge and comments here on reading the nominated books:

“What I learned from reading so many novels is that a novel, as it goes on, has to expand. It has to give you a sense of a larger life, not just the story you’re dealing with, no matter how well it’s told. There must be a sense of resonance, a sense that in that story is the knowledge of a whole larger story whose presence is felt.”

Chitra Baneriee Divakaruni in “Read More, Write Better,” an interview with Sarah Anne Johnson www.sarahannejohnson.com in The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction: Building Blocks (Writer’s Digest Books, $19.99), edited by Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda B. Swanson-Davis. Banerjee Divakaruni www.chitradivakaruni.com , who teaches at the University of Houston, wrote the The Vine of Desire, The Mistress of Spices and other books. Her next novel, The Palace of Illusions, has just been published by Doubleday.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 25, 2008

Why We Need Negative Reviews of Books (Quote of the Day/William Logan)

Perhaps everyone who’s edited a newspaper or magazine book section has heard the question: “Why do you publish negative reviews of books? When you have so little space, why not focus on the good ones?” William Logan deals with the question as it applies to poetry in his The Undiscovered Country:

“It’s often said that critics shouldn’t write negative reviews, because bad poetry will take care of itself (time will take care of it, too). With so few books in a given year worth remembering, why review those that will soon vanish from memory? I love reviewing poets I admire (isn’t that what a critic lives for?); but if you write only such reviews, how can a reader trust your praise? We learn something necessary about how a few poets go right when we know the ways so many have gone wrong: the latest clichés of feeling, the shop-thumbed imagery, the rags and bones of organization. Great poets transcend their age as much as they embody its ills, or succumb to them; but mediocre poets succumb on every page.

“If you’re too gentle to say a mean thing, are you ever courageous enough to say a truly kind one (or mean enough to say an honest one)? It’s surprising how many poets feel that poetry criticism should never be … critical. Yet these gentle readers love film and theater reviews that would eat the chrome off a car bumper.”

William Logan in the introduction to his most recent book of poetry criticism, The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin (Columbia University Press, $29.50) www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/. Logan teaches at the University of Florida www.english.ufl.edu/faculty/wlogan/index.html and writes the Verse Chronicle for the New Criterion newcriterion.com:81/. He is author of three other works of criticism and seven books of poetry. His awards include the a citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review and inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com


February 8, 2008

Did Laura Amy Schlitz Deserve the 2008 Newbery Medal? Quote of the Day (Meghan Cox Gurdon)

Many people were suprised when Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village won the most recent John Newbery Medal, an award that usually goes to a novel, for a collection of monologues and dialogues. Did the book deserve the honor? Meghan Cox Gurdon, the children’s book critic for the Wall Street Journal, called the collection “remarkable and poignant” and added:

“As with any prestigious award, the Newbery also brings new readers to the author’s other works, which in this case is a particularly welcome effect. Ms. Schlitz has a rich and humane style of writing, with stories that manage to be both sparkling and substantial. Better still, her storytelling is a return to the moral traditions of the greatest and most enduring tales, yet with not the slightest taste of cod liver oil nor any of the tiresome left-leaning didacticism that has characterized so much writing for children since the late 1960s.”

Meghan Cox Gurdon in “A Late-Blooming Talent in Full Flower” in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19-20, 2008.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 1, 2008

Why Do Children Like Folktales? Quote of the Day (Laura Amy Schlitz)

Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of a retelling of the Brothers Grimm story The Bearskinner (Candlewick, $16.99) www.candlewick.com, which has words by the 2008 Newbery Medal–winner Laura Amy Schlitz and pictures by Max Grafe. Schlitz is the librarian at the Park School in Baltimore and says that her children’s books reflect the influence of her years of telling folktales to its students:

“Folklore has a moral center to it. Folklore is always, always, always on the side of the underdog, and children have a natural instinct towards justice. They feel indignation at needless cruelty and wistfulness about acts of mercy and kindness.”

Laura Amy Schlitz as quoted by Meghan Cox Gurdon in “A Late-Blooming Talent in Full Flower” in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19–20, 2008.

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

January 30, 2008

Is Pearl Buck’s ‘The Good Earth’ a ‘Plodding Chinese Epic’? Quote of the Day (John Sutherland in ‘How to Read a Novel’)

John Sutherland is an English scholar and columnist perhaps best known in the U.S. for his engaging books about literary puzzles, including Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? He also wrote the recent How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide (St. Martin’s/Griffin, $12.95, paperback), a quirky overview of factors that may affect readers’ perceptions of a book, such the cover, reviews and film versions. Sutherland chaired the 2005 Man Booker Prize committee and in his new book comments astringently on literary awards, including the Nobel Prize www.nobelprize.org. He suggests that Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize because one of her rivals, Graham Greene, wrote an unflattering novel about the Swedish financier and swindler Ivar Kreuger, who made a fortune as a manufacturer of matches:

“The grey men of Stockholm like fiction which takes on big themes – so long, as was the case with Graham Greene’s England Made Me (1935), they happen not to be big themes that reflect badly on Sweden. Greene’s ‘entertainment,’ as he called it, about Sweden’s Robert Maxwell, the ‘match king’ Ivar Kreuger, ensured its author a one-way ticket to the Nobel blacklist. Pearl S. Buck, author of the plodding Chinese epid The Good Earth (1931), committed no such offense and duly got her Swedish prize in 1938.”

Comment by Janice Harayda:

Sutherland is right about the “big themes.” The judges of most literary prizes – not just the Swedish Academy — favor authors who take on large topics. One reason why many people expected Doris Lessing to win the Nobel long before 2007 is that she has dealt with those“big themes,” including the role of women in society in The Golden Notebook.

But I’m not sure about The Good Earth. Like many American teenagers, I had to read the novel for a high school English class and, at the age of 14, I found it riveting. I’ve just started rereading it for the first time in decades and hope to write about the book in this space soon. Did you have to read The Good Earth in school? Have you reread it since then? How, if at all, has your view of the book changed?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

January 29, 2008

What Is Style in Writing? Quote of the Day (Joseph Epstein)

Perhaps no aspect of writing is as misunderstood as style. Many people confuse it with decoration or following rules laid down by experts such as E. B. White and William Strunk, Jr. in The Elements of Style. What is style if it is neither of those? Joseph Epstein writes in Literary Genius, which includes an essay on the Edward Gibbon by David Womersley:

“Style, it needs to be understood, is never ornamentation or a matter of choice of vocabulary or amusing linguistic tics or mannerisms. Style, in serious writing, is a way of seeing, and literary geniuses, who see things in a vastly different way than the rest of us, usually require a vastly different style. As Edward Gibbon wrote on style (quoted by David Womersley in his essay): ‘The style of an author should be the image of his mind.’”

Joseph Epstein in the introduction to the new Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature, selected and edited by Joseph Epstein with wood engravings by Barry Moser (Paul Dry Books, 246 pp., $18.95, paperback), www.pauldry.com. Epstein edited the American Scholar, has written 19 books and contributes to The New Yorker and other magazines. Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford.

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

January 20, 2008

Do We Need ‘Easier’ Poetry to Bring Back Readers? (Quote of the Day/William Logan)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:34 pm
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William Logan reviews the latest book by Geoffrey Hill, who writes perhaps the most complex and difficult poems of the 21st century, in today’s New York Times Book Review. Hill believes that “sinking to common ground betrays the high purpose of verse,” Logan says in his review of A Treatise of Civil Power (Yale University Pres, $30, cloth, and $16, paper) www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Logan-t.html. Should poets dumb down their work to attract readers? Logan expressed his own views on the question in his most recent collection of poetry criticism:

“Many have argued that to regain its lost audience poetry must become as easy to read as the instructions for opening a tin of sardines (no, easier), whimsical and ordinary in all the right whimsical and ordinary ways. This will bring back the common reader – once we have him, once he has that taste for poetry, by baby steps he will develop a passion for Alexander Pope. There have been a few such readers, no doubt, though they might have progressed to Pope just as quickly if they’d started with the backs of cereal boxes. The poems for prospective readers must be written in first person, in free verse, as often as possible in present tense, and as much like prose as possible, because metaphor is obscure, allusion elitist if not unjust, and something as strict as meter surely undemocratic, even (as has been claimed) the design of fascists. Oh, and such poems must be about the poet’s life, because we should always write about what we know, and what else does a poet know? How fortunate that Shakespeare was a close friend of Julius Caesar and that Milton supped frequently with the Devil.

“Poetry has for some time tried to dumb itself down to attract an audience; when any art becomes so desperate, it is already endangered. … Perhaps there is a place for disposable poetry; but let’s not fool ourselves that it’s better than it is, simply because the times are what they are. What we lack is not readers but a culture that teaches how to read.”

William Logan in the introduction to his most recent book of poetry criticism, The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin (Columbia University Press, $29.50) www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/. Logan teaches at the University of Florida www.english.ufl.edu/faculty/wlogan/index.html and writes the Verse Chronicle for the New Criterion newcriterion.com:81/. He is author of three other works of criticism and seven books of poetry. His awards include a citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review and inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 14, 2008

What Is the Difference Between a Novel and a Short Story? (Quote of the Day/Orson Scott Card)

Science fiction writer Orson Scott Card won the 2008 Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement from the American Library Association www.ala.org this week for his novels for teenagers, Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow. Here he talks about the difference between a novel and a short story:

“A novel isn’t a half-dozen short stories with the same characters. The seams invariably show. Why? Because a novel must have integrity. The novel, no matter how dense and wide-ranging it might be, must have a single cumulative effect to please the reader. Every minor climax must point toward the book’s final climax, must promise still better things to come …

“Ideally, a short story is an indivisible unit – every sentence in it points to the single climax that fulfills the entire work. One moment in the story controls all the rest. But in a novel, that single climax is replaced by many smaller climaxes, by many side trips or pauses to explore. If you keep shaping everything to point to that one climax, your reader will get sick of it after a hundred pages or so. It will feel monotonous. To keep the reader entertained (i.e., to keep him reading) you must give him many small moments of fulfillment along the way, brief rewards that promise something bigger later.”

Orson Scott Card www.hatrack.com in “To Make a Short Story Long …” in Legends of Literature: The Best Articles, Interviews, and Essays From the Archives of Writer’s Digest Magazine (Writer’s Digest Books, $19.99), edited by Phillip Sexton.

January 10, 2008

Joan Didion on Beginnings and Endings in Writing (Quote of the Day)

“Life changes fast.”
— The first sentence of The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion earned her reputation as one of the great American prose stylists partly through the memorable first sentences of her books and articles. She won the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction for a memoir of death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, that opens with three words: “Life changes fast.”

Do opening lines have an importance that goes beyond their ability to make you keep reading? Didion dealt with the question in a Paris Review interview about the early nonfiction pieces that helped to make her famous:

Interviewer: You have said that once you have your first sentence you’ve got your piece. That’s what Hemingway said. All he needed was his first sentence and he had his short story.

Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

Interviewer: The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.

Didion: Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.

Joan Didion in “The Art of Fiction, No. 71,” an interview with Linda Kuehl in the Fall-Winter 1978 issue of the Paris Review. You can find the full text of that interview and another with Didion that appeared in the spring 2006 issue by searching for “Joan Didion” at www.parisreview.org. Didion’s hardcover publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, has posted an excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking at www.aaknopf.com, where you can read the pages that follow: “Life changes fast.”

Cover art for the the Fall-Winter 1978 Paris Review shown here: Robert Moskowitz

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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