One-Minute Book Reviews

June 5, 2009

More of My Favorite Books About the South

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In my posts this week on Southern literature, I’ve avoided warhorses and focused on underappreciated works (excluding poetry, which deserves its own series). Among the books I like that didn’t make the cut because they are so well known or because I’ve written about them before on this site: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. What are your favorites?

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June 3, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #3 – Flannery O’Connor’s Collection of Essays on Writing, ‘Mystery and Manners’

A  Southern novelist and short story writer considers the literature of her region and others

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. By Flannery O’Connor. Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 256 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Most people associate the Georgia-born Flannery O’Connor with novels and short stories, but she was equally good at nonfiction. She proves it in this elegant collection of essays on life, literature and peacocks, birds that captivated her.

Sally and Robert Fitzgerald adapted the pieces in Mystery and Manners from talks from O’Connor gave at colleges and elsewhere, and part of their charm lies in their conversational tone. Some of their topics are classroom-worthy: “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” “The Teaching of Literature,” “Catholic Novelists and their Readers.”

But O’Connor deals with these subjects as writer, not a professor, and her perspective on them is always fresh and down-to-earth and never pedantic. One of the most interesting essays deals with the prevalence in Southern fiction of the grotesque, which she defines as something “which an ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” Why do oddballs so often turn up in the literature of the region? O’Connor responds: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

Other comments on and quotations from Mystery and Manners appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 12, 2007, “Flannery O’Connor on ‘Compassion’ in Writing” and March 21, 2007 “Flannery O’Connor on the Purpose of Symbols in Fiction.” O’Connor’s editor, Robert Giroux, comments on the critics’ response to her work in the March 4, 2009, post “The Writer Is Insane.” The quote came from Brad Gooch’s new biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, lucidly reviewed by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post.

This is the third in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. Tomorrow: Peter Taylor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Summons to Memphis.

May 12, 2009

Why Do People Read Detective Novels? Quote of the Day From Maureen Corrigan’s ‘Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:53 am
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Why do people read detective novels? Critics often say that mysteries are modern morality tales — we like to see bad guys punished. Maureen Corrigan suggests another part of their appeal in her memoir Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books (Vintage, 247 pp., $14.95, paperback).

A book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, Corrigan writes of hard-boiled detectives like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser:

“Like other novels by and about the working class, the hard-boiled detective novel offers an unadorned picture of class tensions – the antagonism between those who sweat to make a living and those who can afford to hire them. … With ‘contemptuous tolerance’ in his heart and a snappy put-down ever ready on his lips, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer is always venturing into some moneyed enclave in the California suburbs where he’s hired to tidy up some dysfunctional family’s dirty laundry. The message of the grand tradition of American hard-boiled detective fiction – from Hammett to Chandler to Macdonald to Chester Himes to Robert B. Parker to their many contemporary inheritors – is clear: too much money corrupts the soul. It makes men soft, even emasculates them, and the leisure lifestyle it buys is un-American.”

Read an excerpt from Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading.

May 9, 2009

Tom Disch’s ‘The Genocides’ – One of the ‘100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels’ Involves an Ecological Catastrophe

Filed under: Fantasy,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 am
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Where are the science-fiction novels for sophisticated teenagers? You might wonder after reading Stephenie Meyer’s bestseller about aliens, The Host, which is written at a fourth-grade reading level. You’ll find answers in 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels (A&C Black, 2006), written by Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison with foreword by Christopher Priest.

Among the novels tapped by the authors: The Genocides (Vintage, 160 pp.,$12.95) by the late Tom Disch. Andrews and Rennison write:

“When unseen aliens decide to claim Earth for themselves, they sow the planet with seeds that grow into massive plants which begin to destroy the ecosystem. The plants adapt swiftly whenever new toxins are used against them and civilization itself begins to crumble. Then huge spherical incinerating machines descend to raze the cities, clearing the way for the extraterrestrial crop’s full bloom. Following the struggles of a small American community as they try to survive the onslaught of the alien agriculturalists by burrowing into the roots of the monstrous vegetables, The Genocides is an invasion story with a difference: what chance can human beings have against beings who consider us nothing more than garden pests? Using John W. Campbell’s approach to pursuing an idea to its inescapable conclusion while refusing to conform to the psychologically dissatisfying conclusion invasion stories have suffered from since The War of the Worlds, Tom Disch had the audacity to defy decades of convention, consequently producing a marvelous debut that both broke new ground and upset traditionalist SF fans.”

Andrews and Rennison add that despite his occasional “remoteness of tone,” Disch is “a humane author whose highly accomplished and often very funny work marks him as one of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda,com

May 2, 2009

Christine Schutt’s Pulitzer Finalist and Novel About a Girls’ School, ‘All Souls’ — A Reality Check Coming Next Week

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:50 am
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A review  of Christine Schutt’s All Souls, a runner-up for the most recent Pulitzer Prize for fiction, will be the next post in the “Reality Check” series that explores whether the winners of or finalists for major prizes deserved their honors. All Souls involves a student at a girls’ prep school in Manhattan whose classmates learn that she has a grave illness, and the review will deal in part with whether the novel might also appeal to teenagers.

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May 1, 2009

Flu in Fiction – Katherine Anne Porter and Thomas Wolfe

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A lot of people have been writing about Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a novella inspired by Porter’s near-fatal struggle with flu during the 1918 pandemic. But Thomas Wolfe also wrote memorably about the catastrophic illness his autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel.

Hilton Als says in an article on Porter the April 20 New Yorker:

“In ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider,’ the heroine, Miranda, takes ill during the flu pandemic of 1918. Living on scant wages in a boarding house, she contemplates her immediate past from her sickbed, and among the images that loom and leer in her dreams the most significant involve a horse she rode while growing up on a farm in the South—the horse, we gradually understand, symbolizes death.”

Als quotes a Paris Review interview in which Porter said of the flu:

“It just simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really ‘alienated,’ in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the ‘beatific vision,’ and the Greeks called the ‘happy day,’ the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are.”

Less attention has gone lately to the fictionalized account given by Wolfe in Look Homeward, Angel. Gina Kolata writes in Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) that Wolfe was a student at the University of North Carolina in 1918 when he got a telegram, asking him to return home immediately:

“His brother, Benjamin Harrison Wolfe, was ill with the flu. He tells the thinly fictionalized story in Chapter 35 of his novel, Look Homeward, Angel.

“Wolfe came home to a deathwatch. His brother was lying in a sickroom upstairs while his family waited for what they feared was inevitable. Wolfe went upstairs to the ‘gray, shaded light’ of the room where Ben lay. And he saw, ‘in that moment of searing recognition,’ that his beloved 26-year-old brother was dying.”

Wolfe writes in Look Homeward, Angel that the stand-in for his brother, a character also named Ben, lay in his bed, the outline of his body “bitterly twisted below the covers, in an attitude of struggle and torture.” Ben’s sallow complexion had turned gray and his body gasped for air:

“And the sound of this gasping – loud, hoarse, rapid, unbelievable, filling the room, and every moment in it – gave to the scene its final note of horror.”

Read an excerpt from Look Homeward, Angel.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 24, 2009

A Review of ‘Perpetual Check’ — Coming Tomorrow

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:23 pm
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Reviews of books for children appear on Saturdays on this site. Tomorrow: Rich Wallace’s new Pepetual Check (Knopf, 128 pp., $15.99), a short novel about two teenage brothers who compete in a Pennsylvania regional chess championship. Perpetual Check seems to have earned its “ages 12 and up” tag mainly for language like “your fat ass” and “He’s a dick.” Otherwise it’s for strong readers ages 8 and up.

The Winner of Today’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing Is …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:41 am
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A line in a review of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, in the “Briefly Noted” section of the May 5, 2008, New Yorker:

“Strout makes us experience not only the terrors of change but also the terrifying hope that change can bring: she plunges us into these churning waters and we come up gasping for air.”

The last part of this sentence is meant as praise, but why is it good that a book leaves you “gasping for air”? Doesn’t it make reading this novel sound a little like having an asthma attack?

One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of Olive Kitteridge next week. In the meantime I’ve posted a few comments on the book at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

April 14, 2009

More on ‘What’s the Difference Between a Novel and a Short Story?’ (Quote of the Day / Allan Gurganus)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:14 am
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The Oxford American

What’s the difference between a novel and a short story? In earlier posts, I’ve quoted answers from Eudora Welty and Orson Scott Card. Here’s a response from Allan Gurganus, author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, in the Winter 2006 issue of The Oxford American:

“Like vocal music, stories consist wholly of what singers call ‘exposed notes.’ Meaning: If you go sharp, everybody’s going to hear. Novels are more forgiving; chapters can vary in quality. They can be assembled so a weaker unit gets propped between its betters.

“But, poem-like, everything in a short story must count, must show.”

I keep returning to the question “How does a novel differ from a short story?” in part because it helps to explain why works of fiction succeed or fail. Many novels try to do too little — their plots or ideas are so skimpy, they deserve no more than a short story. With the markets for stories dwindling, you see this problem more and more: for example, in Mitch Albom’s novels, which deal with simple ideas that might have worked better at a shorter length. More rarely, short stories try to do too much — their subjects are so large or diverse that they deserve a novel. A good question for book clubs to explore, when members dislike books, might be: Did the author choose the right form for this material?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda

April 11, 2009

Robinson, Updike or Roth Will Win the 2009 Pulitzer for Fiction, Statistical Analysis Shows — But Don’t Count on It

I’m on record as saying that the frontrunner for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction would seem to be Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy, which I haven’t read. Morrison is the only Nobel Prize–winner in the hunt. And I think it’s going to be tough for the judges to pass over a laureate, although the National Book Critics Circle board did it in March.

But a research scientist and a book collector have reached a different conclusion by using regression analysis, a statistical technique for evaluating variables. The two say that the books most likely to win the 2009 fiction prize are Marilynne Robinson’s Home, John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick, and Philip Roth’s Indignation. They’ve also identified the 12 other candidates that, based on their analysis, are most like to win, all listed in order at  PPrize.com. You can read their 2008 predictions — and how they fared — on the same site. The Pulitzer Prizes honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction — and will be announced on Monday, April 20, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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