One-Minute Book Reviews

February 10, 2010

A Review of the ‘The Appointment,’ a Novel by Herta Müller, Winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:37 pm
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A Romanian-born laureate evokes the terrors of the Ceauşescu regime

The Appointment: A Novel. By Herta Müller. Translated by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm. Picador, 214 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Herta Müller might seem to have little except her birthplace in common with the Romanian-born playwright Eugène Ionesco. But The Appointment shares some of its literary DNA with Rhinocéros, Ionesco’s haunting allegory of conformity, built on the life of a man who watches in horror as the people around him turn into rhinoceroses. In that absurdist play, the hero fights to retain his individuality as others devolve into beasts. In Müller’s novel, the characters have all but lost the battle for their humanity. They are crushed, driven mad, or killed by the tyranny of Nicolae Ceauşescu and his secret police.

The Appointment takes the form of an interior monologue by a young seamstress who was fired from her factory job for slipping notes that said “Marry me” into the pockets of men’s white linen suits bound for Italy and signing each slip with her name and address. She intended, or so she says, to wed the first man who answered, and she undergoes repeated and dehumanizing interrogations by the secret police about the matter. Were her notes to unknown men a sign of insanity or a reasonable approach to the crushing realities of life in postwar Romania?

That question is one of many that go unanswered. As she rides a tram to her latest interrogation, the young narrator drifts mentally back and forth between her fellow passengers and the torturous events of her life and that of her family and friends under the brutal Ceauşescu regime. The plot has little suspense, narrative thrust, and, at times, coherence. And Müller’s writing resembles that of Joyce Carol Oates: You read it for virtues other than elegantly turned phrases.

But The Appointment offers sharp glimpses of a world few Americans know and fewer still know well. In Müller’s Romania, residents can trust no one. They risk death if they try to flee to Hungary. And they must live without necessities such adequate food or clothing if they stay. Adults borrow children so they can claim extra rations of meat or milk. Factory seamstresses make elegant dresses for export but may buy only the rejects, stained by oil from sewing machines, twice a year — before International Labor Day and the Day of Liberation From the Yoke of Fascism.

Against such bleakness, you question whether putting notes in pockets of strangers’ suits was as depraved as it at first seems. The narrator of The Appointment appears perfectly lucid when she reflects, in a poignant observation late in the book, “As long as I was still young, I wanted to go to the kind of beautiful country the clothes were exported to.” Müller’s achievement is to make you see why, in some circumstances, it might be an act consummate sanity to slip into strangers’ suit pockets notes that say, “Marry me.”

Best line: “You don’t have to be particularly bad off to think: This can’t be all the life I get.”

Worst line: ”A breeze was rustling in the ash trees, I listened to the leaves, perhaps Paul was listening to the water.”

Published: 2001 (first U.S. edition), September 2002 (Picador paperback 2002)

Reading-group recommendation? The Appointment would be a tough sell to many book clubs. But it has barely 200 pages that, if lacking in high-octane narrative drive, are tautly written. It might appeal most to clubs that enjoy books in translation or on social-justice issues, including reading groups based at universities or in churches or synagogues.

Furthermore: Muller, a Romanian-born resident of Germany, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literatureThe Complete Review has biographical facts about Müller and links to other reviews.

Janice Harayda satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 8, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — Free Online Excerpts From the Books of 23 Nobel Prize-Winners

Filed under: News,Novels,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:12 pm
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Have you read so many novels by Mitch Albom and Stephenie Meyer that you’re losing the will to live? Go right now to the site for the Nobel Prize in literature, where you’ll find excerpts from the work of 23 writers of prose and 10 poets who have become laureates since 1926 (excluding Herta Müller, who won the 2009 prize today). The “Text Excerpts” section of the site is superbly organized, with all the selections listed and linked to on the same page, so you can start with any of them and, if doesn’t appeal to you, hit your back browser try another. If you like what you read, the Nobel site has more information about its author.

The Good News About Herta Müller’s Nobel Prize in Literature

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:07 am
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I haven’t read Herta Müller, a Romanian-born German who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature today. But the good news about the Swedish Academy’s announcement is that the award didn’t go to Bob Dylan (the 25-1 favorite a few days ago with bettors at the London odds-making firm of Ladbrokes). Writers, no need — yet — to start taking electric guitar lessons to boost your chances of winning the world’s most prestigious literary honor.

More comments on Müller and links to information about her work appear in yesterday’s posts.

October 7, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — Why Amos Oz, Herta Müller or Philip Roth Could Win the Nobel Prize in Literature Tomorrow

Update at 10:20 a.m. Oct. 8, 2009:  Herta Müller has won the Nobel Prize. Here’s a link to the AP story on the award from Stockholm.

First, the Nobel Prize in literature does not honor “the world’s best writer.” The guidelines say that the award must go to a writer whose work has an “idealistic tendency,” or fosters the good of humanity. The Swedish Academy has interpreted that mandate broadly: It has often honored writers, such as Toni Morrison, who have spoken out against injustice rather than those whose work is uncritically altruistic.

Within that framework, here are a few reasons why the prize might go tomorrow to Amoz Oz, Philip Roth or Herta Müller, all ranked among the five most popular with bettors by the odds-maker Ladbrokes:

1. Amos Oz and Philip Roth: Both novelists have been considered strong candidates for years. In 2008 the Swedish Academy gave out the Nobel Prize in literature on Yom Kippur, when observant Jews do not work. And the judges could have faced accusations of religious insensitivity if they had honored Oz, an Israeli, or Roth, an American Jew, then, because the award would have forced the winner to choose between observing the holiday and giving interviews to the media (or even accepting a work-related phone call from Stockholm). Another factor that could favor Roth: Some critics believe that the Swedish Academy screwed the late John Updike — at the time of his death, the best all-around writer in the United States — perhaps because of anti-Americanism. I would not put it that strongly, in part because the Nobel Prize has always had a strong if unofficial geographic-distribution policy, which compels the judges to spread the awards out around the world. But I still hold the view that I expressed on this site before Updike died: “If Updike lived in Greenland, he would have had the Nobel Prize decades ago.”

2. Herta Müller: Müller is a Romanian-born resident of Germany whose work takes a “brutally honest look at life in communist Romania,” M.A. Orthofer wrote over at the Complete Review. And in recent decades,  the Swedish Academy has seemed to favor such uncompromising stances. Orthofer lists other reasons why Müller could win (and why she might not), all of them plausible, at the blog the Literary Saloon. Don’t miss his comments if you’re interested in the politics of the prize or if a victory by Müller leaves you shaking your head.

The Nobel Prize in literature will be announced in a live Webcast from Stockholm at 6 a.m. Eastern Time (11 a.m. GMT and 1 p.m. CET) on Thursday, October 8.

Oz, Müller, Oates, Roth and Pynchon are Bookies’ Favorites for 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature To Be Announced Tomorrow

Will the bookies have the last laugh on those of us would love to see an American poet like Richard Wilbur or Donald Hall win the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature? A few days ago, the London odds-making firm of Ladbrokes ranked Thomas Pynchon 12th among bettors’ favorites for the Nobel to be announced tomorrow in a live Webcast at 6 a.m. Eastern time. But Pynchon (7-1) has made last-minute surge into fifth place behind Amos Oz (3-1) of Israel; Herta Müller (3-1), a Romanian-born German, who has also moved up; and the Americans Joyce Carol Oates (5-1) and Philip Roth (5-1). Here’s a link to a list of the standings of all the candidates ranked by Ladbrokes as of 5 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday. For more on the poets who may be in the running, see yesterday’s post “It Ain’t Me, Babe! Bob Dylan and Maya Angelou Lead Among American Poets in the Race for the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, London Bookies Say.”

October 6, 2009

It Ain’t Me, Babe! Bob Dylan and Maya Angelou Lead Among American Poets in the Race for the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, London Bookies Say

[Clarification: Adonis leads among writers known primarily for poetry. Herta Müller, also a favorite of bettors, writes poetry in addition to novels and essays.]

Weep for Richard Wilbur and Donald Hall. The London odds-maker Ladbrokes says that in the race for the Nobel Prize in literature that will be announced Thursday, the highest-ranked American poets are Bob Dylan (25-1) and Maya Angelou (100-1). Adonis (8-1), a Lebanese resident of Paris, leads overall among poets.

2009 Nobel Prize in Literature Winner To Be Announced on Thursday, Oct. 8, at 6 a.m. Eastern Time (US), 11 a.m. GMT and 1 p.m. CET — Live Webcast and Interview

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:16 am
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The winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced in a live Webcast from the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden, on Thursday, Oct. 8, at 6 a.m. Eastern (US) Time or 11 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and 1 p.m. Central European Time (CET). You can watch the live Webcast and learn more about the award on the news page of the Nobel Prize site. An interview with Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, will follow the announcement.

October 10, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Why Did the Swedish Academy Announce the Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature on Yom Kippur? Cultural Insensitivity in Stockholm

Did you look at the lists of the bookies’ favorites for the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature and think, “There’s no way Philip Roth or Amos Oz is going to get the award this year”? I did for an obvious reason: The Swedish Academy said it was going to announce the winner on Yom Kippur. And I couldn’t believe the Academy would be so religiously tone-deaf as to ask a Jewish writer to take a call from the judges — and face the ensuing media onslaught — on a high holy day. The judges would have looked like cretins even if the winner had been too overjoyed to object. In naming the day of the prize, the Academy all but told Roth and Oz to forget it.

The question is: Why did the Academy decide to announce the winner on Yom Kippur in the first place? To my knowledge no important literary prizes are awarded on major religious holidays. That timing may reflect a literary reality as much as a respect for people’s spirituality: Writers get so few prizes that they deserve to be able enjoy them when they do.

To much of the world, the Nobel Prize in literature represents high culture and Hollywood stands for low. But even the Academy Awards presenters don’t hand out the Oscars on Easter. By deciding to award the literature prize on Yom Kippur, the Swedish Academy has made Hollywood look like a pillar of good taste.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 9, 2008

Jean-Marie Le Clézio – The Biggest Nobel Surprise Since Dario Fo

Filed under: Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:17 pm
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No, you’re not the only one who hasn’t heard of him. After the Swedish Academy announced that the French novelist Jean-Marie Le Clézio had won the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature, Lev Grossman wrote in Time: “The sound of America’s literary journalists searching Wikipedia en masse is deafening” www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1848582,00.html.

Le Clézio’s selection may be the biggest surprise since the Italian playwright Dario Fo won in 1997. Not long after Fo won, the book editor of a major newspaper asked a group of us who were attending a National Book Critics Circle meeting, “Had you heard of him?” No hands went up. If you had asked me two days ago to name a French longshot for the Nobel, I would have said unhesitatingly, “Annie Ernaux,” whose work I reviewed on Feb. 20 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/20/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 10, 2008

Winston Churchill’s Writing Secret

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:31 am
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Did Winston Churchill ever utter a line as bad as George Bush’s, “I know how hard it is to put food on your family”? Doesn’t seem likely, does it?

Unlike the many statesmen who have won the Nobel Peace Prize, Churchill won the Nobel Prize in literature nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1953/churchill-bio.html. And even critics of his policies tend to admit that he wrote some of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. What was his secret? Part of it lies this comment, in which he summed up his approach to writing:

“Broadly speaking, short words are the best, and the old words, when short, are the best of all.”

Winston Churchill as quoted in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Writer’s Block Journal (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007).

Comment by Jan:
The best book I’ve read about Churchill is the first volume in William Manchester’s unfinished “Last Lion” series, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874–1932 (Delta, 1984), which has 992 pages in its current American paperback edition. A good, shorter introduction to the life of Britain’s wartime prime minister is Winston Churchill / A Penguin Life: Penguin Lives Series (Viking, 2002) by the distinguished military historian John Keegan.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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