One-Minute Book Reviews

January 22, 2013

How to Read ‘Moby-Dick’ / Quote of the Day

Filed under: Classics,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:40 pm
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Moby-Dick received a chilly reception during Herman Melville’s lifetime that lasted for decades after his death. Why did Americans warm up to the novel slowly? They didn’t know how to read it, the author Clifton Fadiman argues in his introduction to the 1977 Easton Press edition shown, left.

“We must read it not as if it were a novel but as if it were a myth. A novel is a tale. A myth is a disguised method of expressing mankind’s deepest terrors and longings. The myth uses the narrative form and is often mistaken for true narrative. Tom Jones is a true narrative; Moby Dick is a false narrative, a myth disguised as a story. Once we feel the truth of this distinction, the greatness of Moby Dick becomes manifest: we have learned how to read it.”

May 31, 2012

Against the Term ‘Literary Fiction’ / Quote of the Day, John Updike

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 pm
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“I am dismayed by the recent rise of the term ‘literary fiction’ …” John Updike

By Janice Harayda

There’s a lot of competition for the title of the Worst Publishing Trend of the 21st century. Best sellers written at a third-grade level. Ebooks with no proofreading and bad formatting. Pink covers on novels by women when books of comparable quality by men don’t get bound in baby blue.

Then there’s a trend that, if less obvious, may be the worst of all — the increasing practice of labeling novels either “literary” or “commercial,” or high or low culture. The trend gained force about two decades ago as the largest bookstore chains were becoming more important. And it may exist in part because when you have thousands of feet of floor space to fill, you need an easy way to classify books.

But if the “literary” and “commercial” labels help big-box stores, they hurt others. The artificial divisions set up misleading expectations. All novels don’t fall neatly into one of two categories. The terms “literary” and “commercial” – if they are valid at all – aren’t absolutes. They are points on a continuum. Some “literary” novels sell millions of copies, and some “commercial” never find a following. And the terms often have little to do with the quality of a book.

Complaints about this taxonomy typically come from authors who rightly or wrongly see themselves as misclassified as “commercial” when they deserve better. So it’s refreshing that the late John Updike – as “literary” as they come – takes stand on the issue in his posthumous essay collection, Higher Gossip. Updike writes: “I am dismayed by the recent rise of the term ‘literary fiction,’ denoting a genre almost as rarefied and special and ‘curious’ in appeal, to contemporary Americans, as poetry.” His words a welcome reminder that no authors – even members of the publishing elite – benefit from capricious labeling.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 6, 2012

Alcohol in Novels, or the Liquor Also Rises / Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:25 pm
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Some of America’s best writers drank so heavily that their books bear witness to an “epidemic of alcoholism,” Donald W. Goodwin says in Alcohol and the Writer. That was especially true in the first half of the 20th century. Writers of the era who might meet today’s definition an alcoholic included William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, and Eugene O’Neill. And even during Prohibition (1919–1933), the drinks kept flowing in fiction. In his recent One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900, Barron Lerner writes of the 1920s and 1930s:

“As the pendulum swung away from a dry mindset, literature and the cinema increasingly celebrated alcohol and inebriation. Alcohol played a central role in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel of the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby, and eased the ennui and alienation of characters in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929). Thorne Smith’s 1926 novel Topper, which became a 1937 movie starring Cary Grant, romanticized the heavy-drinking couple George and Marion Kerby, who were killed when an inebriated George drives into a tree. Friends and acquaintances are none too distraught over the demise of the Kerbys, who wind up coming back as good-natured – and still drunk – ghosts. ‘A gay life and quick death,’ remarked one character. ‘They liked it that way and they got what they wanted,’ mused another. Nick and Nora Charles, heroine and heroine of The Thin Man films of the 1930s [based on Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man], liked to compete with one another to see how many martins they could down at one sitting.”

April 16, 2012

10 Famous Novels That Didn’t Win a Pulitzer Prize

Filed under: Book Awards,News,Newspapers,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:32 am
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The Great Gatsby didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and neither did these modern classics

By Janice Harayda

Consider this if your favorite book doesn’t win one of the Pulitzer prizes that will be announced at 3 p.m. today: The judges for the 1930 prize looked at Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and gave the fiction award to … Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. And those classics are hardly alone in having been snubbed. Some noteworthy losers and the novels that won the Pulitzer instead in the years listed:

1962
Loser: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Winner: The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor

1957
Loser: Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Winner: The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

1952
Loser: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Winner: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

1941
Loser: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Winner: Nobody. No award given.

1937
Loser: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Winner: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

1930
Losers: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Winner: Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge

1928
Loser: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Winner: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

1926
Loser: The Great Gatsby
Winner: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

1921
Loser: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
Winner: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This is a re-post in slightly different form of an article that appeared on this site in 2007.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

March 18, 2012

Tomorrow … A Review of Abraham Verghese’s ‘Cutting for Stone’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:31 pm
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President Obama had it with him during his 2011 vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Martha Stewart endorsed it. Book clubs are flocking to it. But is Abraham Verghese’s first novel good, or another example the literary herd instinct run amok? A review of Cutting for Stone will appear tomorrow.

January 15, 2012

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Alice LaPlante’s Alzheimer’s Murder Mystery, ‘Turn of Mind’

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:53 am
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

Turn of Mind
By Alice LaPlante
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other groups that would like to use the guide may link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Jennifer White has moved from mental derangement to clarity so often since developing Alzheimer’s disease that her friend Amanda O’Toole once said she kept reappearing “like some newly risen Christ.” But the 64-year-old Chicago widow seems to need another kind of miracle after Amanda turns up dead with four fingers surgically removed from her right hand. As an orthopedic surgeon, Jennifer is a person of interest to the police and can’t or won’t remember if she killed her friend. Can she save herself as her mind betrays her? Her effort to understand what happened to her friend becomes, whether or not she realizes it, a journey both psychological and spiritual.

10 Discussion Questions for Turn of Mind:

1. Did you find Alice LaPlante’s portrayal of the mind of a woman with Alzheimer’s disease credible? Why?

2. How would you describe the character of Jennifer White? How does she change – and how does she remain the same – as her Alzheimer’s disease gets worse?

3. Turn of Mind is a murder mystery and a family drama, and some people would argue that in a mystery, the plot matters most, and in a drama, the characters do. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the plot of Turn of Mind? How would you rate the character development? Do your rankings tell you anything about the book?

4. LaPlante uses the literary device known as unreliable narration, telling a story from the point of view of someone whose account you can’t fully trust, throughout Turn of Mind. And Jennifer is certainly “unreliable” in the sense that her mind is deteriorating. But at times she seems more trustworthy than the people close to her, including her children, Fiona and Mark, and her caretaker, Magdalena. How believable did you find her story? Who was the most reliable or trustworthy character in the book?

5. Jennifer says that she has abandoned the faith of her childhood: “I was raised Catholic, but now I just like the accessories.” [page 165] But she later speaks of friends “Sent by God,” which suggests that she has accepted God. [page 305] How would you explain this change in belief?

6. Amanda compares Jennifer to a “newly risen Christ” after one of her returns from the darkness of Alzheimer’s into the light of clarity. [Page 114] Other characters have names associated with Jesus, including his apostles James and Peter and his faithful follower Mary Magdalene. And the color white – the source of Jennifer’s last name — symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus (which is why many clergy wear white vestments and churches display white lilies on Easter). Details like these are never accidental in a book by a serious writer. In what other ways does Jennifer appear to be a Christ figure or a stand-in for Jesus? How is she “resurrected”? What is LaPlante saying with all of this? What links is she drawing between suffering and faith? [More on this issue appears in a review of Turn of Mind posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 15, 2012.]

7. A key symbol in Turn of Mind is that of the labyrinth, which people have interpreted in many ways over hundreds of years. Some scholars say it represents the maze-like path heaven or enlightenment. In Turn of Mind it could also represent the mind of someone with Alzheimer’s or Jennifer’s search for answers about Amanda’s death. What do you think the labyrinth in Turn of Mind symbolizes?

8. One of the limits of writing from a first-person point of view (having an “I” tell the story) is that you can show only what the narrator sees. You can’t go inside the heads of other characters as you can when you use an omniscient or all-seeing narrator. LaPlante tries to overcome this limit in part by having Jennifer write in a notebook that contains messages left for her by others, including her daughter, Fiona [pages 9, 35, 86]; her caretaker, Magdalena [pages 8, 54]; and her dead friend, Amanda [pages 66–68]. Jennifer also gets a letter from her son, Mark [pages 71–73]. Were the notes in the notebook credible? Why or why not?

9. Did you notice that Jennifer switches from first-person narration (“I”) to second-person narration (“you”) at the start of Part Three? [Page 23] And that she switches to third-person narration (“she”) on page 282? Why does Jennifer start referring to herself as “you” and “she”?

10. What did you think of LaPlante’s decision to omit quotation marks from the book? Were you able always to follow the story or would quotation marks have made it easier?

Extras:

1. Turn of Mind has moments of humor, such as a David Letterman parody in the form of a list of the Top 10 Signs You Have Alzheimer’s. “No. 3: Girl Scouts come over and force you to decorate flower pots with them.” [page 33] Were they appropriate? Which of the humorous moments do you remember?

2. Have you read other murder mysteries with unreliable narrators, such as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent or Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? If so, how did Turn of Mind compare to them? An earlier post on One-Minute Book Reviews offered an answer to the question: Why do novelists used unreliable narration?

Vital statistics:

Turn of Mind. By Alice LaPlante. Atlantic Monthly Press, 305 pp., $24. Published: July 2011. Paperback due out in May 2012 from Grove.

A review of Turn of Mind appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 15, 2012.

Alice LaPlante talks to Jane Ciabattari about how she came to write Turn of Mind, which won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize in England. LaPlante has also written The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They encourage cheerleading more than a frank discussion of the merits and demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter, often comments on novels book clubs are reading, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 16, 2011

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Diary of a Country Priest’ With 10 Discussion Questions

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Diary of a Country Priest
By Georges Bernanos
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that want to use the guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A young French priest bears the cruelty of his parishioners with sublime patience in The Diary of a Country Priest, a modern classic that works as both a realistic novel and an allegory for the Passion of Christ. Its guileless narrator doesn’t know he’s dying of cancer when he becomes pastor of a church in rural Pas-de-Calais in the years between the world wars, and as his health fails, he makes few concessions to his frailty. Through the prism of the fragile priest’s efforts to serve God and his parish, the novel shows the inseparability of suffering and grace.

Discussion Questions

1 Every novelist who writes about faith needs, above all, to tell a story and not turn his or her book into a homily or tract. Did Georges Bernanos succeed? Why or why not?

2 The residents of Ambricourt see little to admire in their new priest. Do you see anything to admire in him? What?

3 Why did the priest’s parishioners dislike him so much? Did their disdain have more to do with them or with him?

4 Even some of the children of Ambricourt seem cruel. What accounts for their hostility?

5 Why does the priest have no name? How might the novel have been different if Bernanos had given him one of the saint’s names that monks tend to assume?

6 Why does the priest tear out diary pages about the death of Dr. Delbende? [Page 107] How do you see the death and its effect on the priest?

7 The priest gets little support from other clergy. His superior, the Dean of Blangermont, lectures him on not getting into debt, and an old friend from seminary turns out to be living with a woman. How does their behavior affect the young priest? Why do you think Bernanos included such unflattering portrayals of the clergy in the novel?

8 French parishes are “being eaten up by boredom,” the narrator says, and the clergy can’t stop it: “Someday perhaps we shall catch it ourselves – become aware of the cancerous growth within us.” [Page 1] Later the priest learns that he has stomach cancer. [Page 273] What do you think Bernanos is doing here? Why does he connect a metaphorical and real form of cancer?

9 The Diary of a Country Priest is a realistic novel that has elements of an allegory for the Passion of Christ or the Stations of the Cross. For example, in the Stations of the Cross, Jesus is condemned to death, takes up his cross, and falls. All of these incidents have parallels in the novel. Did you see any other allegorical elements in the book? What were they?

10 “I believe, in fact I am certain, that many men never give out the whole of themselves, their deepest truth,” the priest says. [Page 108] Does the priest give out the whole of himself, or his “deepest truth”?

Extras
1 The narrator often speaks in pithy phrases or epigrams such as: “Faith is not a thing which one ‘loses,’ we merely cease to shape our lives by it.” [Page 122] And: “There is not only a communion of saints; there is also a communion of sinners.” [Pages 138–139] Did any phrases in The Diary of a Country Priest seem especially memorable?

2 Some critics see The Diary of a Country Priest as a novel about the effects of grace. Some of those effects appear when the embittered countess, after speaking with the young priest, feels “miraculously, ineffably, the peace you’ve given me.” [Page 175] Where else does the novel deal with grace?

3 A challenge of novels about grace is that fictional consequences generally must be “earned” – they can’t result from coincidences or similar devices — while divine grace is by definition unearned. So a novelist must make credible both ordinary actions and occasions of grace. Did Bernanos do this?

4 Flannery O’Connor admired Bernanos and also wrote about the effect of grace on character. If you have read her work, how would you compare it with that of The Diary of a Country Priest?

The page numbers above come from the 1983 Carroll & Graf edition of The Diary of a Country Priest.

Vital statistics
The Diary of a Country Priest. By Georges Bernanos. Translated by Pamela Morris. Introduduction by Rémy Rougeau. Da Capo, 302 pp., $15.95, paperback. Published: 1937 (first English-language edition), 2002 (DaCapo paperback).

The Diary of a Country Priest won two important French literary prizes: the Prix Femina and Grand Prix du Roman, given by the Académie Française. A One-Minute Book Reviews review appeared in the post that followed this guide. The book inspired an acclaimed 1951 film version by Robert Bresson.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are not unbiased analyses but marketing tools designed to sell books. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the blog.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 14, 2011

What Is ‘Theme’ in Fiction? / Quote of the Day From ‘Story’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:53 am
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Theme has become a rather vague term in the writer’s vocabulary. ‘Poverty,’ ‘war,’ and ‘love,’ for example, are not themes; they relate to setting or genre. A true theme is not a word but a sentence – one clear sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.’’

From Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (It Books/Harper Collins, 1997).

April 28, 2011

Edith Wharton on American and European ‘Royalty’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:22 pm
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Americans may have no monarchy, but they know how to treat people royally. In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton describes how New Yorkers reacted to the arrival of Ellen Olenska, who had returned to the city after years in Europe:

“The Lovell Mingotts had sent out cards for what was known as ‘a formal dinner’ (that is, three extra footmen, two dishes for each course, and a Roman punch in the middle), and had headed their invitations with the words ‘To Meet the Countess Olenska,’ in accordance with the hospitable American fashion, which treats strangers as if they were royalties, or at least their ambassadors.” 

March 6, 2011

Edith Wharton on Dull Men — Quote of the Day / ‘The House of Mirth’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:28 pm
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“She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce … but she … must submit to more boredom … all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.”

Edith Wharton on Lily Bart, the heroine of her novel The House of Mirth

 

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