One-Minute Book Reviews

May 29, 2009

What’s in a Character’s Name? ‘Olive Kitteridge’

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:53 pm
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A main character’s name often gives you the first clue to what a novel is “about,” especially when it’s also the title of the book. A good example turns up in Olive Kitteridge, the collection of linked short stories that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A just-picked olive is as bitter — and the color olive is as drab — as the title character of the book appears at first to be. The salt added during curing removes the bitterness just as love, the salt in this book, removes some of Olive’s. In Ireland a kitter is a left-handed person. And Olive is at least metaphorically left-handed: She’s out of sync with others in her coastal town in Maine. A surname database says of Kitter: “This is an Olde English or Anglo-Saxon pre 10th Century name which derives from the word ‘Cyta’ and is a nickname of the medieval period generally given to one of fairly violent attitudes.” Olive’s views of life are “fairly violent,” especially in the first story, when they are so angry they verge on caricature.

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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

September 12, 2008

A Boy Runs for President of the U.S. in the Picture Book ‘President Pennybaker’

A young candidate campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire and other politically influential states after setting his sights on the White House

President Pennybaker. By Kate Feiffer. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

It’s probably safe to say that many adults would find it easier explain to young children how babies are made than how U.S. presidents are made. Libraries and bookstores abound with good picture books on conception, pregnancy and birth. But how many show the importance of putting up posters, taking part in debates and campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire?

Most authors seem to assume that presidential campaigns are too complex a topic for young children and that they may write only about elections that occur in school or neighborhood settings. These writers may be giving too little credit to their potential audience. Child psychologists tell us that children are aware of changes in their environment even if they don’t understand them. So they’ll notice if campaign signs are sprouting on lawns, Dad is wearing a shiny red-white-and-blue lapel button, or Mom is spending a lot of time on the telephone asking people she doesn’t know for money.

Kate Feiffer and Diane Goode cast a national election in terms young children can understand in President Pennybaker, the story of a boy who sets his sights on the White House after his father’s edicts convince him that life is unfair and that he can bring about his own form of social justice. Luke does many things that adult candidates do: He sets up a campaign office, puts up posters and solicits contributions. And as he travels to politically important states like Iowa and New Hampshire, he makes promises he’ll never be able to keep. Campaigning as the candidate of the Birthday Party, Luke vows that under his administration kids will get to eat cake and open gifts every day. After winning by a landslide, he realizes that he’s in over his head and resigns after a week on the job, leaving Oval Office to his hand-picked vice-president — his dog, Lily.

Goode leavens Feiffer’s somewhat abrupt ending with entertaining watercolors that set President Pennybaker mostly in the early 20th century — when voters tooled around in Model Ts – except for a few anachronisms such as television sets and a female governor of California. Her pictures also suggest some of the comedy in Luke’s serious motive for seeking the White House. In real life, when children ask their elders why people run for president, the adults tend to fall back on bromides like, “They want to make the world a better place.” That explanation is far too dull and abstract for many children. Luke’s rationale for his candidacy is likely to be much more appealing to its intended audience: Life is not fair. What 4- or 5-year old couldn’t relate that?

Best line/picture: All of Goode’s pictures show her flair for retro details, but Bruce Springsteen fans may especially like the page that shows Luke campaigning on “on the beach at the Jersey shore” in what looks like old Asbury Park.

Worst line/picture: Anachronisms such as the television set are clearly intentional and often amusing but weren’t essential to the story.

Recommendation? A good choice for parents who want to explain to young children why Dad starts swearing every time he sees a certain candidate on television. This book may especially interest schools and libraries in the places where Luke campaigns or whose elected officials are mentioned in it — the cities of Detroit, Cincinnati, New York and Washington, D.C., and the states of Iowa, Maine, Kansas, Colorado, California, New Jersey and New Hampshire.

Editor: Paula Wiseman

Published: August 2008 www.katefeiffer.com and www.dianegoode.com. Feiffer is a Massachusetts filmmaker who also wrote Henry the Dog With No Tail, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Goode is a New Jersey artist who won a Caldecott Honor for her art for Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains and also illustrated Mind Your Manners, a guide to table manners for young children www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/23/.

Furthermore: Click here to read about other new children’s books about elections, including Rosemary Wells’s Otto Runs for President www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

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