One-Minute Book Reviews

November 27, 2007

‘Sex in Ian McEwan’s Novel Is Not Bad Enough to Impress Judges’ of 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, Times of London Reports — Here’s the Shortlist

[Note: A post with the name of the winner follows in five minutes.]

Ian McEwan is safe — at least until One-Minute Book Reviews considers the candidates for its next Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books, the winner of which will be announced on the Ides of March. The online edition of the Times of London reports that McEwan’s longlisted On Chesil Beach didn’t make the shortlist for the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

The newspaper says that the finalists who swept past McEwan are: Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods, Richard Milward’s Apples, Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy, David Thewlis’s The Late Hector Kipling, the late Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest, Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, Christopher Rush’s Will and Clare Clark’s The Nature of Monsters. The winner will be announced today after the offending passages are read aloud by actresses. Read the Times post, headlined “Ses in Ian McEwan’s Novel Is Not Bad Enough to Impress Judges.”

www.entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article2951176.ece

September 24, 2007

Dumbing Down the Man Booker Prize — Finalist Lloyd Jones Writes at a Third-Grade Level in ‘Mister Pip,’ Microsoft Word Readability Stats Show

[Reading levels of past Man Booker winners appear at the end of this review.]

Bearing the white man’s burden of introducing Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations to a black teenager as a guerrilla war of secession rages on a Pacific island

Mister Pip. By Lloyd Jones. Dial, 256 pp., $20.

By Janice Harayda

No literary prize attracts controversy as regularly as the Man Booker, given annually to a novel by an author from the Commonwealth or Ireland. Even so, you have to wonder if another uproar won’t occur if this year’s award goes to Mister Pip, the finalist by New Zealander Lloyd Jones that is the favorite of London bookies.

There are two huge problems with the novel, narrated by a black female university graduate who looks back on the life-changing effect of hearing a white man read Great Expectations when she was 13 and living on a guerrilla-war–ravaged Pacific island. The first is that Mister Pip is written at a third-grade (roughly 8-year-old) reading level, the same as Mitch Albom’s For One More Day. (A list of U.S. grades and their corresponding ages appears at the end of this review.)

How do I know? I once edited books for a test-prep company and, after finishing Mister Pip, realized that its reading level was much lower that of many books I had edited for elementary-school students. So I entered a page of Jones’s text into my computer, ran the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word, and got a grade level of 4.4 for it. To see if the passage was typical, I entered two later pages and got even lower grade levels, 3.1 and 3.5, an average of 3.6 for the novel. I also entered text from another finalist, On Chesil Beach (grade 8.6), and the past winners listed below with their reading levels.

A third-grade reading level might be startling in any finalist: Who knew that the Man Booker was a prize for children’s literature? (Did anybody tell J.K. Rowling’s publisher about this?) But there’s a second problem that relates to specifically to Mister Pip. Why does a novel narrated by a university graduate have the reading the level of an 8-year-old? Jones clearly wants to show the world as Matilda saw it while living on Bougainville, but she was a precocious 13-year-old then. He can’t be trying to imitate Great Expectations, because a page from Charles Dickens’s novel registered a grade level of 10.7. The racial implications of having a black university graduate tell her story at an 8-year-old level beg for comment by scholars like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard www.harvard.edu.

To write forcefully from the point of view of someone looking back on childhood events, you need to show the richness of that child’s perceptions, a fact Dickens understood brilliantly. In Mister Pip we get Mitch Albom-esque pseudoprofundities. There is much talk of “the wisdom of crabs,” “what the lychee can teach us” and “the great shame of trees,” which is apparently that they “have no conscience.” Mister Pip brims with lines that seem to have floated off refrigerator magnets. “It is hard to be a perfect human being, Matilda.” “There are some things you never expect to lose, things you think will forever be part of you, even if it is only a toenail.” “You would never guess that a hairbrush and a toothbrush could be so important and necessary.” What if, actually, you would have guessed that a toothbrush could be necessary?

For anyone who doesn’t need to be reminded such self-evident pieties, the main interest of Mister Pip lies in its resurrection of the details of the little-known war that Bougainville fought for secession from Papua New Guinea in the early 1990s. Jones offers several memorable glimpses of its forgotten atrocities, such as the tossing of rebels to their deaths from helicopters over the Pacific. But this historical footnote is likely to provide scant – if any — comfort for anyone who expects more than third-grade level prose from a Man Booker finalist.

Mister Pip has been called “a hymn to reading,” as Carole Angier put it in the British magazine the Spectator www.spectator.co.uk. And while that’s true, most adults have read more thoughtful paeans to reading than Jones’s comment that when you hold a book, “you can slip under the skin of another just as easily as your own.” Many American children encountered one of them when were assigned to read Emily Dickinson’s “There is No Frigate Like a Book,” which begins: “There is no frigate like a book / To take us lands away / Nor any coursers like a page / Of prancing poetry/.”

So may I suggest that anyone looking for a “hymn to reading” skip Jones and go directly to Dickinson? Not only does she express in four lines a theme it takes Jones 256 pages to develop. She also writes at the 12th-grade reading level found in one the best-loved Booker winners, The Remains of the Day.

This review is written at the level of grade 11.7, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.

Best line: “We were used to the redskins’ helicopters buzzing in and out of the cloud around the mountain peaks. Now we saw them head out to sea in a straight line. The helicopter would reach a certain point, then turn around and come back as if it had forgotten something. Where they [sic] turned back was just a pinprick in the distance. We could not see the men thrown out. But that’s what we heard. The redskins flung the captured rebels out the open door of the helicopter, their arms and legs kicking in the air.”

Worst line: “A prayer was like a tickle. Sooner or later God would have to look down and see what was tickling his bum.”

How to find the grade level of a text using Microsoft Word: Enter a passage from the text into your computer and run the spell-checker. Read down to the bottom of the window that appears on your screen when the spell-checking is complete. In the last line you’ll see the words “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.” This tells you the American grade level.

U.S. school grades and corresponding ages: American children typically begin grades at these ages: kindergarten, 5; first grade, 6; second grade, 7; third grade, 8; fourth grade, 9; fifth grade, 10; sixth grade, 11; seventh grade, 12; eighth grade, 13; 9th grade (freshman year high school), 14; 10th grade (sophomore year high school), 15; 11th grade (junior year high school), 16; 12th grade (senior year high school), 17.

How I calculated the Man Booker reading levels: I generally entered 300 words of expository text found between pages 23 and 25. The reason? The first chapter of a novel is often atypical, because many writers need a chapter to find their stride. A chapter usually has about 20 pages, so I started a few pages after page 20. I chose passages containing mainly expository text because lines of dialogue may misrepresent the overall level if, for example, they are spoken by a laconic character who tends to give monosyllabic answers (which can result in a low grade level). For Mister Pip I entered three passages that began on pages 23, 123 and 223 of the American edition.

Grade levels of selected Man Booker winners www.themanbookerprize.com: The Remains of the Day, grade 12; Life of Pi, grade 10.5; The Sea, grade 10.2; Midnight’s Children, grade 10; Schindler’s Ark (the original title of Schindler’s List), grade 8.9; Hotel du Lac, grade 8.8.; Possession, grade 8.7; Offshore, grade 8.1. The level the 2006 winner, The Inheritance of Loss, varied from 5.3 to 12 for an average of 8.1.

For the grade levels of other living and dead writers from Mitch Albom to James Boswell, see the post that appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 16 (“Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/16/. For the writing levels of U.S. Presidents, see the post that appeared on Feb. 10 (“Bizarre But True: GWB Writes at a Higher Level Than Thomas Jefferson”) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/10/.

Published: August 2007 www.dialpress.com

Charles Dickens sites: The many good sites on Dickens include that of the Dickens Fellowship www.dickensfellowship.org, a 105-year-old organization based at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, which has chapters throughout the U.S. and world.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. She was the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org when the late Booker winner Penelope Fitzgerald (Offshore) won the NBCC fiction prize for The Blue Flower in 1998. Fitzgerald said in an interview after winning the NBCC prize: “I was so unprepared to win the award that I hadn’t even planned a celebration. I certainly shan’t do the ironing today!”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 23, 2007

Has the Man Booker Prize Turned Into a Children’s Literature Award? Coming Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews:
Dumbing down the Man Booker Prize: At least one novel on the short list for this year’s Man Booker Prize is written at such a low level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word, you might think the prize had turned into a children’s literature award. Did J. K. Rowling’s publishers know about this?

Later this week:
Reconsidering Agatha Christie: Does she deserve the scorn she gets from critics?

Saturday:
Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #5: Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss.

To avoid missing these and other reviews coming this week, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Thank you for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 21, 2007

Dumbing Down the Man Booker Prize for Fiction: Reading Levels of Finalists and Past Winners Exposed on Monday

Which finalist for the Man Booker Prize is written at the same grade level as Mitch Albom’s For One More Day?

The site for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction themanbookerprize.com bombastically declares that the prize is “the world’s most important literary award.” That’s not true — the Nobel Prize in Literature www.nobelprize.org is the most important — but the Man Booker probably ranks second. It carries a cash award of 50,000 pounds (about $101,000 dollars), or ten times as much the top American literary honors, the National Book Award www.nationalbook.org and Pulitzer Prize www.pulitzer.org, worth $10,000 each. And the Man Booker site says, correctly, that the prize “has the power to transform the fortunes of authors an even publishers,” as the little-known Edinburgh firm of Canongate www.canongate.net discovered when its Life of Pie took top honors in 2002.

So why have this year’s Man Booker judges squandered some of the cachet of the prize by shortlisting a book written at the third-grade level of Mitch Albom’s For One More Day www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/16/?

On Monday One-Minute Book Reviews reveals the reading levels of some current finalists for the prize and compares them with that of former winners such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All righs reserved.

September 11, 2007

A Review of the Bookies’ Favorite to Win the Man Booker Prize, Coming Soon to One-Minute Book Reviews

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Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip www.dialpress.com has surged ahead of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach www.nantalese.com as the London bookies’ favorite to win the Man Booker Prize for Fiction www.themanbookerprize.com, given annually to a full-length novel in English by a writer from the Commonwealth or Ireland. Why is the New Zealander’s book getting so much attention? Watch One-Minute Book Reviews for a review of Mister Pip, coming within the next week.

Want to read about past winners in the meantime? See the posts on Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (2006) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/20/ and Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac ((1984) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/14/.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 7, 2007

Does Ian McEwan Deserve the Man Booker Prize or a Bad Sex Award for Writing Like This? You Be the Judge

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:53 pm
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The judges for the 2007 Man Booker Prize have named the six finalists for the award, and — no surprise — Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is among them. But does McEwan deserve that prize or the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, given annually by the Literary Review www.literaryreview.co.uk for his tale of a young couple’s disastrous 1962 wedding night? Reader, you be the judge. Here’s a sample of the writing about sex in On Chesil Beach www.randomhouse.com:

“Like most young men of his time, or any time, without an easy manner, or means to sexual expression, he indulged constantly in what one enlightened authority was now calling ‘self-pleasuring’ … How extraordinary it was, that a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body, should instantly free his mind to confront afresh Nelson’s decisiveness at Aboukir Bay.”

What’s the prose like when it isn’t about pre-sexual-revolution onanism? A sample:

“Because the instrument was a cello rather than her violin, the interrogator was not herself but a detached observer, mildly incredulous, but insistent too, for after a brief silence and lingering, unconvincing reply from the other instruments, the cello put the question again, in different terms, on a different chord, and then again, and again, and each time received a doubtful answer.”

The other titles shortlisted for the Man Booker www.themanbookerprize.com are: Darkmans by Nicola Barker, The Gathering by Anne Enright, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones and Animal’s People by Indra Sinha. The winner will be announced Oct. 16. A review of On Chesil Beach (“A Mitch Albom Novel With a Higher IQ?”) www.randomhouse.com appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on August 10 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/10/.

Tomorrow in the Saturday Children’s Corner on One-Minute Book Reviews: A review of Chris Van Allsburg’s underrated The Z Was Zapped www.chrisvanallsburg.com and www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 14, 2007

Anita Brookner’s Booker-Prize–Winning ‘Hotel du Lac’: Room for One

Filed under: Book Awards,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:01 am
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Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (Vintage, $12.95, paperback) could make an ideal antidote to shows like The Bachelor, and not just because its heroine never talks about “taking it to the next level.” Thirty-nine-year-old Edith Hope checks into a Swiss hotel, intending to lie low for a while, after backing out of her wedding to a dullard. But during her stay she receives a marriage proposal from a very different sort of man. Can she – and should she – accept? Brookner ‘s suspenseful and psychologically complex answer won the 1984 Booker Prize and helped to establish her reputation as one of England’s finest moralists. And Hotel du Lac still one of the best modern novels in which, as Anne Tyler wrote, the heroine finds “a nonromantic, wryly realistic appreciation of her single state.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 10, 2007

Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’: A Mitch Albom Novel With a Higher IQ?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:26 am
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Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light …

– From Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”

On Chesil Beach. By Ian McEwan. Doubleday/Nan Talese, 203 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

Much of Ian McEwan’s new novel seems designed to remind you of “Dover Beach.” The title, the plot, the melancholy tone of On Chesil Beach — all raise echoes of Matthew Arnold’s lament for the erosion of spiritual values.

But you might also think of Mitch Albom after reading McEwan’s tale of a young, educated couple and their disastrous wedding night at a hotel on the English Channel in 1962. On Chesil Beach is a short, flyweight novel that wears its message on its sleeve. And it’s the kind of message you might expect from Albom: “This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing.”

Actually, the newlyweds in On Chesil Beach do quite a few things on their wedding night, each more humiliating than the next. But what Florence and Edward don’t do – and this is what changes their life – is express their true feelings, because the let-it-all-hang-out era is a few years away. If the couple had more substance, this overfamiliar idea might not be a problem. But Florence and Edward come across less as characters you care about than as emblems of English “types” fleshed out by dutiful research into their era.

Some of the period details in the novel are mildly interesting. Can hoteliers of the pre-Nigella era really have had so little Freudian sense that a typical honeymoon-suite meal began with “a slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry”? Other details are ’60s clichés. And none can turn this book into more than better grade of pop fiction, a For One More Day with a higher IQ. I read part of it on a trip disrupted by the tornado that struck Brooklyn, and, it was perfect, because unlike that journey, nothing about it was taxing in the least.

Best line: “And [he] would never have described himself as unhappy – among his London friends was a woman he was fond of; well into his 50s he played cricket for Turville Park, he was active in a historical society in Henley, and played a part in the restoration of the ancient watercress beds in Ewelme.” That phrase about the watercress beds is one the few that gives you a sense of why McEwan has such a high reputation.

Worst line (tie): McEwan aggressively courts a Bad Sex in Fiction Award from the Literary Review www.literaryreview.co.uk with: “Like most young men of his time, or any time, without an easy manner, or means to sexual expression, he indulged constantly in what one enlightened authority was now calling ‘self-pleasuring’ … How extraordinary it was, that a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body, should instantly free his mind to confront afresh Nelson’s decisiveness at Aboukir Bay.” A non-onanistic example: “Because the instrument was a cello rather than her violin, the interrogator was not herself but a detached observer, mildly incredulous, but insistent too, for after a brief silence and lingering, unconvincing reply from the other instruments, the cello put the question again, in different terms, on a different chord, and then again, and again, and each time received a doubtful answer.”

Reading group guide: www.randomhouse.com

Consider reading instead: Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (Vintage, $12.95). This Booker Prize-winner involves a bride-to-be who backs out of her wedding at the last minute, an event that is as humiliating as the trauma that occurs in On Chesil Beach but handled with more credibility.

Published: June 2007

Furthermore: McEwan’s novels include Atonement, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize. He lives in London.

Update: After this post appeared, On Chesil Beach was named a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize www.themanbookerprize.com, to be announced Oct. 16.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 20, 2007

National Book Critics Circle Award and Man Booker Prize Reality Check, Kiran Desai’s ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

This is the third in an occasional series of posts on whether the winners and finalists for major book awards deserved their honors.

Title: The Inheritance of Loss. By Kiran Desai. Grove, 357 pp., $14, paperback.

What it is: A novel about a cynical Indian judge and his orphaned granddaughter who live with their dog and cook in a Himalayan village that sinks into violence and terror in the 1980s when Nepalese insurgents “demand their own country, or at least their own state.”

Winner of … the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and Man Booker Prize (formerly the Booker Prize).

How much I read: About 60 pages (the first two chapters and the last eight.)

Why I stopped: Desai evokes deftly the “voluptuous green” terrain of Himalayan foothills awarm black cobras as thick as a biscuit jar. But I agree with Lee Langley, who wrote in the Spectator that her Indians come across “as figures in a landscape rather than characters we are gripped by,” except for the cook and his son. (“Life on the Brink,” The Spectator www.specatator.co.uk, Sept. 9, 2006.) Because her novel involves an orphan and her grandfather living in isolation in the mountains, I also kept thinking, irrationally, that it read like a postcolonial Heidi as envisioned by Salman Rushie, which is unfair not just to Desai and Rushdie but to Johanna Spyri.

Was this one of those book awards that made you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Or if the publisher had pornographic videos of all of them? No. But the ten chapters I read were no match for such great Booker winners as Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

Best line in the pages I read: “Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss?”

Worst line in the pages I read: “Chuckling, the boys stepped off the veranda and out into the fog carrying the two trunks.”

Reading group guide: The paperback edition includes a grim three-page reading group that reads as though it had been written by an SAT examiner. The “questions” often bark orders at you beginning, “Explain,” “Discuss” or “Compare and contrast … ” The author of this one seems unaware that many people go to book clubs to have fun, not to feel as though they’re being grilled by an eighth-grade English teacher. Masochists can find the guide online at www.groveatlantic.com (though the page for The Inheritance of Loss is, at this writing, out of date and does not mention that the novel won the NBCC fiction award more than two months ago).

Published: January 2006 (Atlantic Monthly press hardcover) and August 2006 (Grove paperback.)

Links: See the March 7 post on www.bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com for an interview with Desai and other posts on the site for information on her NBCC fiction award.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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