One-Minute Book Reviews

November 19, 2008

Why Was Gettysburg So Important? (Quote of the Day / Drew Gilpin Faust in ‘This Republic of Suffering,’ a 2008 National Book Award Finalist)

“… we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground.”
— From the Gettysburg Address, delivered Nov. 19, 1863

The Gettysburg Address is the greatest speech in American history and one of the country’s supreme works of literature. Yet you can listen to the full text in just 1 minute and 46 seconds in an audio version on Wikipedia.

Why did such a brief speech have such power? The answer goes beyond Abraham Lincoln’s sublime words, the subject of a masterly book-length analysis by Garry Wills in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Lincoln at Gettysburg (Simon & Schuster, 1992). The power of the speech comes also from the occasion for it: the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863, not long after Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863).

Drew Gilpin Faust provides a rich context for the address in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for nonfiction, the winner of which will be named tonight www.nationalbook.org.

Gilpin Faust notes that Gettysburg belonged to a new group of battlefield cemeteries, created during the Civil War, that were more than places to bury the dead:

“These cemeteries were intended to memorialize the slain and celebrate the nation’s fallen heroes. Gettysburg represented a particularly important turning point. The large numbers of casualties in that bloody battle were obviously an important factor in generating action, but it is not insignificant that the carnage occurred in the North, in a town that had not had the opportunity to grow accustomed to the horrors of the constant warfare that had battered Virginia for two long years. Gettysburg made the dead – and the problem they represented – starkly visible to northern citizens, so many of whom flocked to the small Pennsylvania town in the aftermath of the battle. Perhaps even more critical was the fact that the North had resources with which to respond, resources not available to the hard-pressed Confederacy.

“The impetus for the Gettysburg cemetery arose from a meeting of state agents in the weeks after the battle. With financial assistance from Union states that had lost men in the engagement, David Wills, a Gettysburg lawyer, arranged to purchase seventeen acres adjoining an existing graveyard. In October contracts were let for the reburial of Union soldiers in the new ground at a rate of $1.59 for each body. In November Lincoln journeyed to help dedicate the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery. This ceremony and the address that historian Gary Wills has argued ‘remade America’ signaled the beginning of a new significance for the dead in public life. Perhaps the very configuration of the cemetery can explain the force behind this transformation. The cemetery at Gettysburg was arranged so that every grave was of equal importance; William Saunders’s design, like Lincoln’s words, affirmed that every dead soldier mattered equally regardless of rank or station. This was a dramatic departure from the privileging of rank and station that prevailed in the treatment of the war dead …”

To read the full text of the Gettysburg Address or listen to a reading of it on Wikipedia, click here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettysburg_Address. Drew Gilpin Faust is president of Harvard University www.harvard.edu.

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

Late Night With Jan Harayda — So You Think Writing Is the Way to Fame? How Many of These National Book Awards Finalists Have You Heard Of?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:02 am
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Ever heard of the novelists Savatore Scibona and Aleksandar Hemon? How about the historian Annette Gordon-Reed and the memoirist Joan Wickersham? Do I even need to ask about the poets Patricia Smith and Richard Howard?

All are finalists for the 2008 National Book Awards, the winners of which will be announced tonight. As their low profile suggests, this year’s shortlist is a quiet one www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html.

The few stars include finalists Peter Matthiessen and Marilynne Robinson in fiction and Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust in nonfiction. Even they lack the fame of the some of the better-known winners or finalists of the past decade: Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Joyce Carol Oates, E. L. Doctorow, Robert Caro, Jonathan Franzen, Susan Sontag, Sherman Alexie. This is not a complaint – I’d rather see a shortlist like this one than one that appears driven by sales figures instead of merit.

But the group raises the possibility in some circles, the best-known finalist is a children’s author: Laurie Halse Anderson, whose historical novel Chains made the shortlist in the young people’s literature category. Halse Anderson wrote the picture book Thank You Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, widely used in schools and the library equivalent of a bestseller at this time of year.

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

November 17, 2008

Two Books That Deal With the Battle of Gettysburg Could Win 2008 National Book Awards on Wednesday, 145th Anniversary the Gettysburg Address

Filed under: News,Nonfiction,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:08 pm
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I’ve been covering book awards for a long time, and I can’t recall having seen a coincidence like this one: Two books that reconsider the Battle of Gettysburg could win National Book Awards on Wednesday, the 145th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address www.nationalbook.org. On the nonfiction shortlist: Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which deals in part with the creation during the war of a new kind of cemetery at Gettysburg and other battle sites – a burial ground intended not just to dispose of bodies but to “memorialize the slain and celebrate the nation’s fallen heroes.” Among the poetry finalists: Frank Bidart’s Watching the Spring Festival, a collection that includes “To the Republic,” in which fallen Union and Confederate soldiers accuse the U.S. of having betrayed their sacrifices at Gettysburg.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 21, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda — The Complete 2008 National Book Awards Shortlist for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People’s Literature

Amid the hoopla over the Nobel, I didn’t have a chance to post a link to the list of the recently announced finalists for the National Book Awards for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature. If you missed the list, you can find it here www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html.

Some years none of National Book Awards finalists seems a strong candidate for the prize. But the 2008 nonfiction shortlist alone has two worthy books: Jim Sheeler’s Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives and Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. No complaints from here if either wins, though I haven’t seen the other nonfiction finalists, which may be equally good.

© 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 29, 2008

2008 Delete Key Awards Finalist #7 – Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 pm
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Delete Key Awards Finalist #7 – From Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian:

“ARGGHHHHHHHHSSSSSPPPPPPGGGHHHHHHHAAAAAARGHHHHHHHHHHAGGGGHH!”

Yes, Alexie won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for this novel. And, yes, it’s possible that this line has an inner logic discernible only to teenagers. But the rest of us may wonder: Why does this line have five S’s and six P’s instead of six S’s and five P’s? Why does it have eight A’s and ten G’s instead of ten A’s and eight G’s? What, exactly, is the logic behind this manic sequence of letters? Does it help to know that it’s supposed to sound like “a 747 is landing on a runway of vomit”? Or that in the book the letters take up two lines (without punctuation) instead of one? The letters seem intended as onomatopoeia, but their arrangement is so random, you wonder if Alexie’s space bar just got stuck.

This line suggests how the language of e-mail – or perhaps Hollywood screenplays – is infecting novels for all ages. Will we someday get a novel written entirely in emoticons?

The ten Delete Key Awards finalists are being numbered but announced in random order.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 2, 2008

National Book Awards Reality Check: Finalist Edwidge Danticat’s ‘Brother, I’m Dying’

The latest in an occasional series on winners of or finalists for major book awards and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Brother, I’m Dying. By Edwidge Danticat. Knopf, 273 pp., $23.95.

What it is: The author’s memoir of her uncle, Joseph Dantica, who died a nightmarish death while in custody of U.S. immigration officials in Miami in 2004. Danticat lived with her uncle for eight years while growing up in Haiti and interweaves his story and hers.

A finalist for … the 2007 National Book Award for nonfiction, won by Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA www.nationalbook.org.

Was this one of those literary honors that make you wonder if the judges were all on Class B controlled substances? No.

Worthy of being a finalist for a major award? A qualified yes. Danticat’s story of the brutal and medically negligent treatment of her 81-year-old uncle may be the best account in print of what can happen to an innocent visitor wrongly detained by U.S. immigration authorities. But that story unfolds in the last 100 pages, and the writing precedes it is much less interesting and more pedestrian.

 

Best line: “When you hear that someone has died whom you’ve not seen in a long time, it’s not too difficult to pretend that it hasn’t really happened, that the person is continuing to live just as she has before, in your absence, out of your sight.”

 

Worst line: No. 1: “The colorfully painted lottery stands were still selling hundreds of tickets to hopeful dreamers.” As opposed to dreamers who weren’t hopeful? (The time frame of that line is confusing, too: hundreds of tickets a day? a week?] No. 2:My father was dying and I was pregnant. Both struck me as impossibly unreal.” How does “impossibly unreal” differ from just “impossible” or “unreal”? That “impossibly” is just padding. No. 3: The stilted, “In mid-October, my husband and I learned our child’s gender from our midwife …” Who speaks that way? Wouldn’t you just say, “We learned our baby’s sex” or “We learned that we were having a girl”? Lines like these three – and Brother, I’m Dying has many – should give pause to any awards judge, no matter how worthy the subject of a book.

 

Published: September 2007 www.aaknopf.com

 

Furthermore: Danticat also wrote Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner. She lives in Miami.

 

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 16, 2007

I Belong to the ‘Tribe of Chronic Masturbators,’ Says the Hero of ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,’ Winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

By Janice Harayda

Remember how upset some librarians got when the word “scrotum” appeared on the first page of the 2007 Newbery Medal winner www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/19/? I wonder what they’re going say to when they find out that the hero of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian says that he belongs to “the tribe of chronic masturbators.”

Alexie’s novel won National Book Award for Young People’s Literature on Wednesday, so it’s safe to say that it will also receive consideration for the Newbery that the American Library Association www.ala.org will hand out in January. I’ll review the book in the next week or so (along with Daughter of York, originally scheduled for this week).

Until then librarians who want to check out that “good part” can do it by going to the listing for the novel on Amazon www.amazon.com and using the “Search Inside This Book” tool to search for “tribe of chronic masturbators,” which appears on page 217. [Note: All you teenage boys who found this site by searching for “scrotum” or “masturbation,” go back to your Social Studies. That page number was a public service for librarians.]

Oh, am I going to have fun reviewing this book! Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed if you’d like to read my comments.

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

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