One-Minute Book Reviews

November 15, 2011

2011 National Book Award for Poetry – Predictions and More

Filed under: National Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:20 am
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Who will win the award for poetry on Wednesday?

By Janice Harayda

Publishing is an incestuous industry, rife with logrolling and cronyism. But this year’s National Book Awards may have set a record for conflicts of interest or the appearance of them.

At least one fiction judge has had to recuse herself from some of the deliberations, and a nonfiction judge has reason to do so. And the poetry shortlist raises enough similar questions that I’ve scrapped my plan to tweet and re-post here micro-reviews of excerpts of its finalists, as I did for fiction and nonfiction. That plan grew out of a hypothesis: that if the judging was fair and the excerpts represented the overall quality of the books, you could predict the winner from them. But the sponsor of the National Book Awards has provided too little evidence that it has established the internal controls needed to keep cozy relationships among the poetry judges from undermining process of selecting a winner in that category.

So instead of reviewing poetry finalists, I’ll just make the prediction I promised on Twitter: Carl Phillips’s Double Shadow or Yussef Komunyakaa’s The Chameleon Couch will win. Phillips, Komunyakaa and Adrienne Rich are the strongest finalists on the evidence of their excerpts. But Rich’s work hasn’t matched her Diving Into the Wreck, which won the 1974 National Book Award. And although judges in such situations are supposed to consider only the nominated book, an author’s earlier work may affect the deliberations, anyway. To my mind, that makes Phillips or Komunyakaa the likely winner.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right. She will predict the winner of the award for young people’s literature tomorrow.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


November 14, 2011

Cozy Relationships Among National Book Awards Poetry Judges

Filed under: National Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:41 am
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This is the first of two posts on conflicts of interest of the appearance of them among 2011 National Book Awards judges. The second will deal with the fiction and nonfiction juries.

By Janice Harayda

You might think the National Book Awards couldn’t look worse than they did last month when their sponsor shortlisted the wrong book and, instead of taking full responsibility for the error, pressured the erroneously named finalist to drop out. But that acidic fruit may not hang lower on the tree of ethics than an apparent conflict of interest on the poetry jury that casts a shadow over the prize ceremony to be held Wednesday.

Each National Book Awards jury normally has five judges, including one who serves as the panel chair. This year the poetry jury has as its chair Elizabeth Alexander, a Yale professor who is also one of 20 faculty members at the Cave Canem writers’ program, according to the website for the organization.  Two of the five finalists are among Alexander’s 19 colleagues on the Cave Canem faculty, the site says: Nikky Finney  and Yusef Komunyakaa (with whom she also shares the title of honorary director of the program).

Were 40 percent of the year’s best poetry books written by people who teach with the panel chair? It’s possible: Phillips was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and Komunyakaa won Pulitzer Prize, and Finney, if less honored, is widely respected. And you might think that Alexander alone couldn’t have pulled her two colleagues onto the shortlist, given that the award has five judges. The truth is that she could have done it if the other four judges split 2–2 over a finalist and she cast the swing vote.

Many awards programs have a clear policies for handling apparent conflicts like Alexander’s, often posted on their websites: They require such judges to abstain from the discussing or voting for the winner or both. The National Book Foundation, the sponsor of the awards, doesn’t post its policy. And statements by its staff suggest that its way of dealing with conflicts is more subjective and less comprehensive than that of other major literary prize-givers. The foundation “forbids anyone that has a blood family, current business or romantic relationship” from judging the finalists, its executive director told Motoko Rich of the New York Times.

Is it a “business relationship” if you serve on a faculty with 19 others? You might think so. And Alexander may have recused herself from judging her colleagues. But that would leave the award, in effect, with only four judges, because she couldn’t judge most of the candidates. At the same time, her failure to recuse herself would lead to a worse situation: It would taint the 2011 prize and do further harm to the reputation of a foundation lowered by its tawdry handling of the young-people’s-literature prize.

No matter what happens Wednesday, the obvious management failures by the sponsor have the damaged the credibility of the National Book Awards. This year has brought new books from former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout, National Book Award winners Robert Bly and Charles Wright, and other acclaimed poets passed over by the jury that chose two faculty members who teach with its chair in a relatively small program.

The problem with all of this does not involve the integrity of Alexander or her colleagues at Cave Canem. Nor does it relate to whether she can be an “objective” jury member. Every literary-awards judge brings tastes and biases to his or her task. The issue is that a shortlist long on people Alexander teaches with raises questions of fairness to the other finalists and to all the worthy poets snubbed by her panel. If one of Alexander’s colleagues wins, how will the losers and nonstarters know that her support didn’t make the difference that deprived them of the most coveted honors in American literature?

[Note: This post has been updated. An earlier version listed Carl Phillips as a third National Book Awards poetry finalist who serves on the Cave Canem faculty with jury chair Elizabeth Alexander. Phillips says his time as a teacher at Cave Canem has never overlapped with that of Alexander, although the website for the writing program lists them both as faculty members.]

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You may also want to read her post on why the National Book Awards are broken and 7 ways to fix them, which deals with the uproar after the botched young-people’s-literature nomination.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she has posted further comments on the National Book Awards, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

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

July 28, 2010

Donald Margulies’s Play ‘Collected Stories’ – A Poet in His Youth, Again

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:37 pm
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A Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright explores the relationship between a writing teacher and a student who forges her own career

Collected Stories: Revised Edition. By Donald Margulies. Dramatists Play Service, 68 pp., $8.95, paper.

By Janice Harayda

Who owns the story of an adult’s life? Donald Margulies explores the moral and psychological implications of the question in Collected Stories, which had a brief run on Broadway earlier this year. Margulies doesn’t parse legal issues in this play about a 55-year-old New York writing teacher, Ruth Steiner, and her evolving relationship with a young student, Lisa Morrison, who forges her own career.

Collected Stories instead follows the intersecting emotional arcs of a mentor and her protégée as the story builds toward an act the older woman sees as a betrayal. Lisa urges her teacher to talk about an affair she had years earlier with the poet Delmore Schwartz, then uses what she learns for her own purposes. Ruth sees her student’s appropriation as a form of theft and psychic annihilation. She tells Lisa: “You wanted to obliterate me.” Lisa insists she didn’t: “I wanted to honor you.”

Who is right? The play leans toward Ruth but has little new to say about the age-old dance of transference and countertransference between a mentor and protégée. As in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Dinner With Friends, Margulies paints his characters’ needs with a broad brush. But he’s a skilled craftsman: He seems to have removed every needless word with the literary equivalent of turpentine, and his play is well-paced and structured. And the question “Who owns the story of your life?” has gained provocative and slippery dimensions in the age of Facebook and text messages. High school and college students might have hours of lively arguments about this play even as their elders prefer to dust-off their Vintage paperback editions of Poets in Their Youth.

Best line: Ruth: “Are you going to survive this tutorial, or are you going to require oxygen?”

Worst line: Ruth on Delmore Schwartz: “He was only 44 but there was something ancient about him. He seemed to possess so much wisdom …”

You may also want to read: Jonathan Yardley’s review of Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir (Vintage, 1983), Eileen Simpson’s memoir of her husband, John Berryman, and his circle, including Delmore Schwartz.

Read a review of the 2010 Broadway production of Collected Stories in the Wall Street Journal.

You can order Collected Stories online though Dramatists Play Service.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 4, 2010

What Is the Role of the Unconscious in Writing? Quote of the Day / Stephen Spender

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:11 am
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Authors often speak of their work as largely a product of their unconscious mind. In interviews, for example, they often say things like, “I didn’t write that book – it wrote me.” The poet Stephen Spender came closer to the truth for most authors in “Warnings From the Grave,” an essay on Sylvia Plath pubished in The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium (Indiana University Press, 1970), edited by Charles Newman. Spender’s observation applies to many kinds of writers although he was speaking of poets:

“Poetry is a balancing of unconscious and conscious forces in the mind of the poet, the source of poetry being the unconscious, the control being provided by the conscious.”

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.

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

July 20, 2009

Cole Porter in the Summer, When It Sizzles — If They Say That These Lyrics Heinous, Kick Them Right in the Coriolanus

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:47 am
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[This is a re-post of a review that appeared in November 2006. I am on a brief semi-vacation.]

A master of light verse in the winter, when it drizzles, in the summer, when it sizzles

Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics. Edited and with an introduction by Robert Kimball. Library of America, 178 pp., $20.

By Janice Harayda

Several friends and I took part as teenagers in a summer drama program in which we learned the lines from Kiss Me, Kate: “If she says your behavior is heinous / Kick her right in the ‘Coriolanus.’” This we regarded as the summit of wit and sang so often that any adult who wanted us to read more poetry could have just given us a book of Cole Porter lyrics on the spot.

I don’t know if that tactic would work today, but the Library of America has made it easier to find out. Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics contains the words to 93 songs that aren’t just some of the best-loved of the 20th century – they are models of light verse. Porter’s lyrics have become such mainstays of our culture that even people who never read poetry are likely to recognize some: “I love Paris, in the winter, when it drizzles, / I love Paris, in the summer, when it sizzles.” “You’re the top! / You’re the Colosseum./ You’re the top! / You’re the Louvre Museum.”  “ … birds do it, bees do it. / Up in Lapland, little Lapps do it, / Let’s do it, let’s fall in love” (though it turns out that “birds” and “bees” is an alteration of Porter’s original words, included in Selected Lyrics).

Why do Porter’s words have such staying power? Porter (1891–1964) was born in Peru, Indiana, but traveled widely and seems to have been a true citizen of the world. His lyrics have a cosmopolitan refinement that may be even more alluring in the age of Howard Stern and Janet Jackson than during the Jazz Age and the Depression, when he did his best work. Porter is a kind of Cary Grant of song-writing – gifted, urbane, and ageless. He blends high and low cultural references with an ease that is more British than American and enables anybody to identify with him. He writes in “You’re the Top”: “You’re the top! / You’re a hot tamale.” Two lines later, he adds “You’re Botticelli, / You’re Keats, / You’re Shelley.” How many writers would dare mix that campy “hot tamale” with the highbrow “Keats” and “Shelley” today? Yet for all the exuberance of such songs, Porter also writes poignantly about his great theme: the evanescence of human attachments and the dreams they embody. In his lyrics the sex of the beloved is often unspecified, so he speaks to gay and straight readers alike.

Porter moved gracefully among poetic meters – iambic, trochaic, anapestic – and at his best is as funny as such titans of light verse as Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker. But he is racier than most light-versifiers. His lyrics teem with double-entrendres. And one of the gems of Selected Lyrics is a parody of “You’re the Top” by Irving Berlin that nods to Porter’s fondness for sexual wordplay. If you think that line about Coriolanus from “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is amusing, wait till you see what Berlin rhymes with “You’re the breasts of Venus.” “White Christmas” was never like this.

Best line: Many lyrics include both internal and end-rhymes, such as: “Let’s question the synonymy of freedom and autonomy, / Let’s delve into astronomy, political economy, / Or if you’re feeling biblical, the book of Deuteronomy.” These lines suggest the influence of Gilbert and Sullivan more directly than do others in Selected Lyrics.

Worst line: Porter occasionally uses clichéd rhymes, such as “love” and “above,” as in “Ours”: “The high gods above / Look down and laugh at our love.” Given the volume of material in Selected Lyrics, it is remarkable how rarely he does this.

Recommendation? This compact volume is small enough for a fragile end-table and an example of what an acquaintance of mine calls “a great guest-room book.” Visitors can dip in at random and fall asleep happy.

Editor: Robert Kimball

Published: April 2006

Furthermore: The elegant, minimalist cover of this book was designed by Mark Melnick and Chip Kidd, perhaps the most esteemed book-jacket designer of our day.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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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