One-Minute Book Reviews

October 14, 2009

Complete List of 2009 National Book Award Finalists for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People’s Literature

Here is the complete list of finalists for the 2009 National Book Awards. You can learn more about the books and authors on the shortlist by visiting on the site for the prizes:

FICTION

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

NONFICTION

David M. Carroll, Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)
Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (Princeton University Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Alfred A. Knopf)

POETRY

Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan University Press)
Ann Lauterbach, Or to Begin Again (Viking Penguin)
Carl Phillips, Speak Low (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon: Open Interval (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Keith Waldrop: Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Alfred A. Knopf)

YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE

Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt)
Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
David Small, Stitches (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Laini Taylor, Lips Touch: Three Times (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic)
Rita Williams-Garcia, Jumped (HarperTeen, HarperCollins)

October 13, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – National Book Awards Finalists to Be Announced Tomorrow

Just a reminder: The shortlist for the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced at noon Eastern Time tomorrow. The list will consist of five finalists in each of four categories — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature – and should be posted by early afternoon on the site for the sponsor of the prizes, the National Book Foundation, and on www.twitter.com/nationalbook.

The winners will be announced on Nov. 18, well before those for the Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Critics Circle Awards, both of which will be handed out in 2010. Some finalists for the young people’s literature award may also be considered for American Library Association’s Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, which will be given out in January. Only Americans are eligible for the National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prizes, and Newbery Medal, but authors of any nationality may win NBCC awards.

I haven’t read enough of the candidates predict who might turn up on tomorrow’s list. But two of the 2009 books that I read are as strong as many past National Book Awards finalists — Aleksandar Hemon’s short story collection, Love and Obstacles, and Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see them on list. And Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs – which I hope to review soon – seems to have gained the kind of unstoppable momentum that, rightly or wrongly, often precedes major awards.

Jacqueline Woodson’s novel for ages 12 and under, Peace, Locomotion – which I’ll review Saturday, Oct. 17 or Oct. 24 — isn’t as strong in its category as Hemon’s and Gooch’s books are in theirs. But it’s a sequel to Locomotion, which was a National Book Awards finalist. And Woodson also made the shortlist for Hush. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see her among the finalists, either.

Whom would you like to see win in November?

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October 9, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — 2009 National Book Award Finalists to Be Announced Next Week, Winners on Nov. 18

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:29 pm
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Update, Monday, 10/12: The 2009 National Book Awards finalists will be announced on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at 12 noon Eastern time.

Yes, it seems we’ve barely exhaled since the 2009 Man Booker and Nobel prize-winners were announced. But next week the National Book Foundation will name the five 2009 National Book Award finalists in each of the four categories – fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature. But the foundation may still be making up its mind about the date: One page of the awards site says the finalists will be announced on October 13 and another page says the finalists will be announced on October 14.  I will update this post as soon as the organization clarifies this. The winners will be announced at the 60th National Book Awards ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City on November 18.

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.

September 18, 2009

The Ambiguous Losses of Aleksandar Hemon’s ‘Love and Obstacles’ – Tales of Immigrants Who Are ‘There, But Not There’ in America

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:18 am
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“The newspapers had cooed over the international romance: he had wooed her by singing and writing poetry; she had taken him to mass grave sites.”
– From the story “The Conductor” in Love and Obstacles

Love and Obstacles: Stories. By Aleksandar Hemon. Riverhead, 224 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda
All of the stories in this fine collection deal with the condition that therapists call ambiguous loss, or unresolved grief for people who are physically present but psychologically absent or physically absent but psychologically present. The tales involve characters who are, as one of them says, “There, but not there.”

Aleksandar Hemon was born in Sarajevo of Ukrainian descent and stranded in the U.S. when the Bosnian War broke out while he was visiting Chicago in 1992. The unnamed first-person narrator of the eight linked stories in Love and Obstacles survives a similar uprooting from the Balkans to the Midwest. These tragicomic tales often invoke a Sarajevo that is physically absent but psychologically present and describe other psychic and geographic displacements.

Hemon’s narrator has literary aspirations that comfort and bedevil him in his homeland and later in America, where he sells magazines door-to-door before becoming a writer. In the first story, he is a teenager in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire — the latest posting for his father, a minor Yugoslav diplomat — and thinks of Joseph Conrad’s phrase inhabited devastation as he travels to the slums of Kinshasa with a man who may or may not be be an American spy. An air of menace lingers after he settles in Chicago: Hemon’s stories show that the condition of exile transcends the place of exile, and America does not necessarily hold fewer dangers for expatriates than an African dictatorship.

Two of the best stories in Love and Obstacles involve writers who might seem overrated – a Bosnian poet and an American novelist — until the tales raise the possibility that the literary-ratings systems are inadequate to the complexity of art. “The Noble Truths of Suffering” could have been too clever by a half – it has a scene in which a writer reads another writer’s story about a writer and his family – but reveals Hemon’s gifts as a satirist as it tweaks a self-important Pulitzer Prize-winner on a book tour in Bosnia.

“The Conductor” brings together the two great threads of Love and Obstacles. By now well-established in the U.S., the narrator still feels guilty about not having stayed for the siege of Sarajevo, a city physically absent but psychologically present in his life. Then he reconnects in Madison, Wisconsin, with a revered Bosnian poet who did stay. In his youth the narrator had known and mocked Dedo for writing poetry perhaps more admired for its sentimental patriotism for its art. But he finds him changed by the siege. Dedo had married an American lawyer who collected war-crimes evidence in Bosnia: “he had wooed her by singing and writing poetry; she had taken him to mass grave sites.” (Both the dark humor and the semicolon are typical of Hemon.) And if the siege took a toll on Dedo, his subsequent move to the U.S. took another. His wife scorns his work, and he has become a drunk, physically present but psychologically absent in his marriage.

The differences between Dedo and the man who once mocked him come into sharp focus as a young woman walks toward the bathroom in a bar in Madison. The narrator says, “Cute.” Dedo says, “She is crying.” This exchange suggests that the Bosnian poet, for all his defects, has kept a part of his humanity that his more Americanized — and successful — companion has lost. The narrator eventually sees this. He comes to believe that Dedo, flawed as he is, is  “a beautiful human being.” This casts Dedo’s work in a new light. He may be a bad poet, or he may be good one. But the distinction is less important than the narrator once thought. These stories remind us that – for immigrants as for others – life itself is the great art.

Best line: A character in the story “The Bees, Part I” says that the apples you got in Canada “tasted as if they had been dry-cleaned.”

Worst line: The narrator of “The Noble Truths of Suffering” describes a cocktail party: “The writers were recognizable by the incoherence bubbling up on their stained-tie surfaces.”

Published: May 2009

Furthermore: More about Love and Obstacles appeared on this site on Sept. 7.

Read an excerpt: The complete “The Nobel Truths of Suffering” appears on The New Yorker site.

About the author: Hemon was a finalist the 2008 National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for his novel The Lazarus Project.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

September 13, 2009

John Ashbery, E.L. Doctorow Help Critics Celebrate Their 35th Anniversary

The winner of the first National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry

Update: 2:25 p.m. Monday: A video of John Ashbery’s entertaining talk has been posted on the NBCC blog.

You might expect an anniversary party for a literary-critics’ organization to resemble a wake now that so many book-review sections have folded or shrunk. But the mood was lively at the festivities that marked the 35th year of the National Book Critics Circle last night at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in downtown Manhattan.

I spoke at the event along with the poet John Ashbery, the novelist E. L. Doctorow and dozens of current and former NBCC board members. Ashbery, born nearly a half century before the critics’ organization was founded, received the first NBCC Award for poetry in 1975 for his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which also won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. And he set the tone  of the anniversary celebration when he said: “It’s great to be back here. Actually, it’s great to be anywhere.”

Ashbery praised the Rain Taxi Review of Books and offered it as partial evidence that serious criticism of poetry and other art forms exists amid the meltdown at newspapers. The NBCC has posted a brief news report on his speech on its blog. You’ll find excerpts from other speakers’ comments, including mine, in a separate post there. The full text of all the speeches is scheduled to appear soon the NBCC site.

September 11, 2009

Dennis Webster’s ‘Absolutely Wild’ – Good Poems About Animals for Young Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:47 pm
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A collection of 16 light-hearted poems, each about a bird, insect or animal

Absolutely Wild. Poems by Dennis Webster. Illustrations by Kim Webster Cunningham. Godine, 32 pp., $17.95. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Ogden Nash once delighted Americans with light verse — often about animals — such as, “If called by a panther / Don’t anther.” Something of his spirit lives in the 16 short, rhyming poems in Absolutely Wild.

Dennis Webster isn’t as playful as Nash – he doesn’t use wrenched rhymes like “panther” and “anther.” But he’s written the best collection of original children’s poems about animals I’ve seen since Jack Prelutsky’s Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant. And his daughter has enhanced the book with handsome hand-colored linoleum-block prints framed by decorative borders, some reminiscent of the Ghanaian cloth known as kente.

Each poem in Absolutely Wild has 4–12 lines, a strong rhyme and meter, and a focus on a colorful bird, insect or animal. The 8-line “The Yak” sets the tone:
A shaggy species is the yak
With hairy front and hairy back.
It isn’t very hard to spot him
With hairy top and hairy bottom.

Most poems are odes or odes-in-spirit that marvel at the qualities of a creature in couplet quatrains or another traditional form. In the 8-line “The Ostrich,” Webster celebrates the bird in hymn stanzas, arranged in their usual pattern of alternating lines of four and three iambic feet:
The ostrich is a splendid bird
Who’s taller than most men.
It seems a little bit absurd
To call his wife a hen.

Absolutely Wild also has poems about an ant, snail, moose, shrew, penguin, vulture, gnu, puffin, seagull, giraffe, porcupine, gibbon, platypus and ptarmigan. And it reflects David R. Godine’s attention to craftsmanship in its endpapers and elsewhere. It would make a fine gift for very young children and a good resource for slightly older ones who are learning in school about creatures you won’t usually find in the parking lot at Shop Rite.

Best line: Every child’s favorite is likely to be that “With hairy top and hairy bottom.”

Worst line: “The platypus is quite unique.”

Caveat lector: The second and fourth lines of “The Ostrich” should be indented, but the template for this blog won’t permit it.

Published: October 2008

Furthermore: Kim Webster Cunningham has posted the poem about a snail and the art for it on her Web site.

Children’s book reviews appear on this site on Saturdays.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

August 11, 2009

How Do Symbols Work in Literature? — Quote of the Day / John Ciardi

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:11 am
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The late John Ciardi talks about how symbols work in poetry, a description that also applies to other kinds of literature, in the quote below, which first appeared on this site 2007:

” … a symbol is like a rock dropped into a pool: it sends out ripples in all directions, and the ripples are in motion. Who can say where the last ripple disappears? One may have a sense that he at least knows approximately the center point of all those ripples, the point at which the stone struck the water. Yet even then he has trouble marking it precisely. How does one make a mark on water?”

John Ciardi in his classic textbook, How Does a Poem Mean? (Houghton Mifflin, 1959), once widely used in high schools and colleges.

Flannery O’Connor talks about the purpose of symbols in the Quote of the Day for March 21, 2007. These two posts, frequently linked to by high school and college English classes, are among the all-time most popular on this site.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

August 5, 2009

‘GIRL WITH EVERYTHING ASKS FOR MOOR’ — Witty Summaries of ‘Othello’ and Other Classics, Edited by E. O. Parrott

Filed under: Classics,Humor — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:40 pm
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Classic works of lit / Reduced quite a bit / In poems and prose / As fun overflows.

How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening: A Collection of Literary Encapsulations. Compiled and Edited by E.O. Parrott. Penguin, 188 pp., varied prices.

By Janice Harayda

One of the most popular posts on this site is a review of E. O. Parrott’s How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry, which illustrates the different types of poetry though amusing and self-descriptive verse. No less delightful is Parrott’s How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening, a collection of 150 brief and witty summaries of classic novels, plays and poems.

In this tongue-in-cheek volume, Tim Hopkins gives you Othello in 10 tabloid headline parodies, including GIRL WITH EVERYTHING ASKS FOR MOOR. And Basil Ransome-Davies shows how an overeager publicist might have promoted The Bostonians: “He’s done it again! Our guess is that’s what you’ll be saying to yourself when you read Henry James’s latest exposé of upper-crust Boston …”

But most of the 31 contributors turn the classics into verse. V. Ernest Cox sums up The Old Man and the Sea in a limerick that begins:

There was an old man of the sea,
Who for eight-four days went fish-free,
But he rowed out next day,
And almost straightaway
Struck gold – piscatorially …

Paul Griffin describes A Christmas Carol in a clerihew that has as its first quatrain:

Ebenezer Scrooge
Was nobody’s stooge;
It drove him into one of his rages
When somebody asked for more wages …

And Peter Norman gives you The Great Gatsby in iambic tetrameter:

Nick Carraway and Gatsby (Jay)
Are next-door neighbors; every day
The enigmatic Gatsby gazes
Towards a distant green light (Daisy’s).

Apart from their entertainment value, these light-hearted verses could work well as teaching aids. Anybody want to guess what novel inspired W.S. Brownlie’s: “A captain with an idée fixe / Chased a whale for weeks and weeks”?

Best line: Some of the literary encapsulations take the form of song parodies, such as Cox’s: “The animals stage a coup d’état, / Hurrah! Hurrah! /And from the farm all humans bar, / Hurrah! Hurrah!”

Worst line: The copyright line, which suggests that this book is overdue for a reprint.

Caveat lector: The third and fourth lines of the Hemingway limerick should be indented four spaces, but I couldn’t make it happen.

Published: 1985

Furthermore: I’d like to link to a short online biography of the British writer and editor E. O. Parrott but couldn’t find one. If you can suggest one, I’d appreciate it.

This is a re-post of a review that first appeared in August 2007. I am off today.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 2, 2009

Is the State of Contemporary Poetry Healthy? – Quote of the Day / William Logan

Just picked up Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue (Columbia University Press, 368 pp., $29.50), the new book of poetry criticism by William Logan, who won a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Undiscovered Country. I’d read and enjoyed many of the pieces in Our Savage Art when they appeared in The New Criterion and elsewhere. (Sample opening line: “John Ashbery has long threatened to become a public monument, visited mainly by schoolchildren and pigeons.”) But I’d missed a 2002 Contemporary Poetry Review interview with Logan by the poet and critic Garrick Davis that’s reprinted in the new book.

In the interview, Davis asks, “What do you think of the present situation of poetry? Of its current health as an art?” Logan replies:

“I distrust the motives of the question. Much of what we dislike about the poetry around us won’t bother the readers of the future, because it will have been forgotten. I doubt even the Pulitzer Prize winners of the past two decades will have many poems in anthologies half a century from now. This isn’t simply a problem with the prize, though it’s a scandal that Amy Clampitt never won it and another that Gjertrud Schnackenberg has yet to win it.

“Our poetry is healthy, if the sole measure is that there’s a hell of a lot of it. Much is mediocre, but most poetry in any period is mediocre. What bothers me, as a reader, is how slim current ambitions are – too many contemporary poems start small and end smaller. They don’t bite off more than they can chew – they bite off so little they don’t need to chew.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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