One-Minute Book Reviews

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

June 4, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #4: Peter Taylor’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novel, ‘A Summons to Memphis’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:07 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

A genteel Southern family stumbles after moving from one Tennessee city to another

A Summons to Memphis. By Peter Taylor. Vintage 224 pp., $14.95.

By Janice Harayda

Northerners tend to think of the South as more unified than it is. The former Confederate states may have similarities that reflect their legacy of slavery and defeat and their landscape and geography. But each city has its own character, and Dallas and Atlanta and New Orleans are as different as Detroit and Cleveland and Minneapolis.

Few novels show this better than Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis, which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for its haunting portrayal of the lasting effects of a well-born family’s move from one Tennessee city to another. The plot involves two middle-aged, unmarried sisters in Memphis who try to dragoon their younger brother into returning home from New York and helping them thwart their 81-year-old father’s impending remarriage.

But there is more to the story than whether their effort will succeed. Why is George Carver so determined, at his age, to remarry? Why have his daughters never wed? Why has their brother, Phillip, an editor and antique book collector, remained single, too? All of the answers relate to an incident that occurred during the Great Depression. Betrayed by a trusted adviser, George Carver suffered heavy financial losses and moved his brood from Nashville to Memphis – just over 200 miles but a distance that, for its disastrous effects, might have spanned a continent. The family chafed against unfamiliar roles and social codes, a clash between the old and new South, and lost its moorings.

Phillip Carver tells this story in a tone that is formal and restrained at times to the point of stiffness. This device reflects no lack of skill on the part of Taylor – one of the finest fiction writers of the late 20th century – but rather Phillip’s emotional reserve and detachment from life. The effect is chilling: A Summons to Memphis shows how an uprooting has reverberated over time and all but destroyed a clan that once was a model of Southern gentility. It shows, as Phillip puts it, how “the family in our sort of world and in our part of the country” had become so fragile “that even so slight a shift as from one Southern city to another” could destroy all that it needed to survive.

This is the fourth in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. Tomorrow, David C. Barnette’s tongue-in-cheek guide to unwritten Alabama social codes, How to Be a Mobilian.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 29, 2009

What’s in a Character’s Name? ‘Olive Kitteridge’

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:53 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A main character’s name often gives you the first clue to what a novel is “about,” especially when it’s also the title of the book. A good example turns up in Olive Kitteridge, the collection of linked short stories that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A just-picked olive is as bitter — and the color olive is as drab — as the title character of the book appears at first to be. The salt added during curing removes the bitterness just as love, the salt in this book, removes some of Olive’s. In Ireland a kitter is a left-handed person. And Olive is at least metaphorically left-handed: She’s out of sync with others in her coastal town in Maine. A surname database says of Kitter: “This is an Olde English or Anglo-Saxon pre 10th Century name which derives from the word ‘Cyta’ and is a nickname of the medieval period generally given to one of fairly violent attitudes.” Olive’s views of life are “fairly violent,” especially in the first story, when they are so angry they verge on caricature.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 6, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — Frank Bidart Pulls Further Ahead of Susan Lucci

Filed under: News,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:47 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Back in December, I wrote that Frank Bidart was turning into poetry’s equivalent of Susan Lucci, the soap opera star who lost l8 daytime Emmy awards before winning on her 19th nomination. After decades of work, Bidart is one of America’s most respected poets, but he has never won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Critics Circle Award.

I noted in a review of his latest book that Bidart has written seven poetry collections, and if his publisher nominated each for all three prizes, he passed Lucci in November when he got his 19th snub: He lost the National Book Award for poetry to fellow finalist Mark Doty. He had a chance to win on nominations No. 20 and No. 21 for the most recent NBCC and Pulitzer prizes but didn’t make the shortlist for the critics’ award. And he was a Pulitzer finalist for Watching the Spring Festival (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 72 pp., $13, paperback). Did Lucci send a sympathy card?

May 4, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Pulitzer Fiction Winners Skew Toward Disjointed Stories

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:11 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Did the judges for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction assume that we all have attention deficit disorder? I’ve noted in recent reviews that the winner, Olive Kitteridge, and a finalist, All Souls, both consist of collections of disjointed stories. Other critics have made clear that the second finalist, Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves, has the same quality.

Jennifer Reese gave Erdrich’s book a B- in Entertainment Weekly and said “it reads more like a collection of random episodes than a coherent novel,” similar to a point I made earlier today about All Souls.

Ron Charles of the Washington Post found more to admire in The Plague of Doves. But he wrote of Erdrich:

“She’s challenged us before with complex, interconnected stories about the Ojibwe people of North Dakota, but here she goes for broke, whirling out a vast, fractured narrative, teeming with characters — ancestors, cousins, friends and enemies, all separated and rejoined again and again in uncanny ways over the years. Worried about losing track, I started drawing a genealogical chart after a few chapters, but it was futile: a tangle of names and squiggling lines.”

We’ve all seen plenty of awards lists that consist only of novels with traditional linear narratives, and it’s not surprising given that linear narratives are the dominant form in fiction. But collections of disjointed, if linked, stories are far less common, and this year’s Pulitzer skew is one of the oddest I’ve seen. It’s as though all the nominees for the Oscar for best picture were noir films.

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
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 27, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check — A Review of the 2009 Fiction Winner, Elizabeth Strout’s Short Story Collection, ‘Olive Kitteridge’

The latest in a series of occasional posts on the winners of or finalists for major literary prizes

Olive Kitteridge. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 304 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

It tells you something about Olive Kitteridge that two of its 13 short stories were published in Seventeen and O, The Oprah Magazine: This is one of the lighter-weight winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It tells you more that two other stories appeared in The New Yorker and South Carolina Review: These tales, if often moving, have the disjointed quality of scenes from different dreams.

The linchpin of the collection is Olive Kitteridge, a retired junior-high math teacher in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, who appears at least briefly in every story. At first, the pace of the book is somnolent and the title character so nasty she verges on caricature. But the collection picks up steam – and Olive, some humanity – after 30 or so pages.

In the fourth story, “A Little Burst,” comes the great scene in the book. At her middle-aged son’s wedding reception, Olive slips into the just-married couple’s bedroom and flinches when, through an open window, she hears her new daughter-in-law mocking her mother-of-the-bride dress. It is a dress she loves and has made from a green fabric imprinted with big reddish-pink geraniums: “Her heart really opened when she came across the gauzy muslin in So-Fro’s; sunlight let into the anxious gloom of the upcoming wedding; those flowers skimming over the table in her sewing room.” Wounded and uncomprehending, Olive steals two of her daughter-in-law’s possessions from the couple’s bedroom – a loafer and “a shiny pale blue bra, small-cupped and delicate.” She also defaces a sweater with a black Magic Marker, then neatly folds it and puts back on its closet shelf. Olive finds that her vandalism does not help much, but “it does help some,” to know that Sue will go through her belongings and think: “I must be losing my mind, I can’t keep track of anything…. And, my God, what happened to my sweater?” This tale offers not just a finely wrought portrait of a frightened woman’s projection of her own anxieties about her only child’s belated wedding — it is Olive herself who may be losing her mind — but can be read as a chilling tale of a mother’s symbolic, if unconscious, rape of her son.

As a self-contained story, “A Little Burst” works beautifully. This is a tale of a nervous breakdown that may betoken a mental illness such as psychosis. The problem comes when you read the story against others that leave a contradictory impression: Olive is not mentally ill but starved for love in her marriage to a kind but insufficient pharmacist (or, as an atheist, has a spiritual hunger she can’t admit). In some tales, Olive plays such an inconsequential role that you wonder if Elizabeth Strout shoehorned them into the book by altering the stories after publication. This is especially true of “Ship in a Bottle,” which appeared in Seventeen 1992 and has clearly since been revised to include a veiled reference to torture at Abu Ghraib prison, which didn’t become known until 2004.

Olive Kitteridge ends, as good novels typically do, with a redemption of sorts. But because the book isn’t a novel, it hasn’t built toward that transformation as novels do. Its ending has less force, diluted by digressions into lives of characters who relate to it obliquely if at all. When Olive finally chooses to accept love, in however imperfect a form, you wonder if such a decision would be possible for someone who for so long has hated so much about the world.

Best line: From “A Little Burst”: “Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as ‘big bursts’ and ‘little bursts.’ Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.”

Worst line: No. 1: “He’s a spoiled brat to the manor born.” Another misquotation of Shakespeare’s “to the manner born.” No. 2: “ … he’d eat a sandwich that had spilling from it mayonnaisey clumps of egg salad or tuna fish, landing on his shirt.” Pray that “mayonnaisey” isn’t the next “garlicky.” No. 3: “The Scottish were scrappy and tough …” The people of Scotland and their descendants almost always call themselves the Scots, not the “Scottish,” a word used mainly as an adjective. As an alternate term for the Scots, “the Scottish” is correct but stilted. No. 4: The multiple uses of “Ay-yuh,” northern New England slang for “Yes” or “Yup.” Strout grew up in Maine and must have heard the expression as “ay-yuh.” But the phrase is usually rendered “ay-yup,” as a Voice of America report notes, and it sounded like “ay-yup” when I lived in New Hampshire.

Read an excerpt from Olive Kitteridge.

Published: March 2008 (hardcover), September 2008 (paperback). Olive Kitteredge was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Furthermore: The marketing campaign for Olive Kitteridge misrepresents the book as “a novel in stories” when it is a short story cycle. For more on this issue, see yesterday’s post.

About the author: Strout also wrote Amy and Isabelle and Abide With Me. She lives in New York City.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, the book columnist for Glamour and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Olive Kitteridge’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Olive Kitteridge
By Elizabeth Strout
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 would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Olive Kitteridge is a collection of 13 linked short stories about a retired junior-high math teacher and other residents of the fictional Crosby, Maine, where whitecaps dot the bay and a dirt road winds down to the water. It won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Olive Kitteridge, the title character, is an angry woman often infuriated by small things, such as her husband’s spilling the ketchup in “Pharmacy.” [Page 7] What is she really angry about?

2. To phrase the first question differently: Many long-married people learn to accept minor flaws in their spouses, such as occasional clumsiness. Why does Olive have trouble accepting Henry’s?

3. Olive Kitteridge includes stories published in very different publications, such as Seventeen and the literary magazine South Carolina Review. How well do the tales fit together?

4. Critics have argued that some tales in Olive Kitteridge work better than others. A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review said that the weakest stories are those that barely mention Olive, such as “Ship in a Bottle”: “Without her, the book goes adrift, as if it has lost its anchor.”
Do you agree? What stories do you find strongest and weakest?

5. Olive and her grown son, Christopher, have spent much of their lives locked into a dance of reciprocal misunderstanding. Olive insists that she loves Chris and seems to believe that she has gotten “all wacky” with him only because of “how scared he was of her.” [Page 71] Is that all there is to it? What is the broader problem between Olive and Chris?

6. Much of the action in Olive Kitteridge involves ordinary events, such as going to church or Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s not true of “A Different Road” (which takes “a different road” from the other tales). In this story, Olive and her husband are taken hostage at a hospital by armed men who want to steal drugs. This scene is an example of what Flannery O’Connor called “the grotesque” in fiction, “something which an ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” And a critic saw “A Different Road” as the only story in which Strout went “overboard.” How did you react to this usual story? Did it add to or detract from the book?

7. Apart from the hostage-taking, Olive Kitteridge refers to many violent or traumatic events in the lives of its characters or their friends or relatives – suicide, divorce, infidelity, miscarriages, death by drowning, a major stroke, a fatal hunting accident. Books can seem oppressive when painful events pile up, or so dark you can’t finish them. If you read all of Olive Kitteridge, how did Strout keep you reading? Why didn’t the book seem oppressive?

8. The publicity materials for Olive Kitteridge call the book “a novel in stories,” possibly because novels sell better than short stories. But the Pulitzer Prize judges correctly identified the volume as “a collection of 13 short stories” bound together in part by Olive. How does the book differ from a novel with a traditional linear narrative? Would you have enjoyed it more or less if Strout had told Olive’s story as a novel instead of a collection of stories?

9. Olive shows throughout the book that she hates many things about the world. But in the end, as an old woman, she chooses to accept love, in however imperfect a form. [Page 270] How believable was this transformation?

10. For all of its bleakness, Olive Kitteridge does have humorous moments. One occurs at the wedding reception for Olive’s son, where guests clink their glasses and a man says, “A toast to Fidelity Select.” [Page 72] What lines or scenes from the book did you find amusing?

Vital statistics:
Olive Kitteridge. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 304 pp., $14, paperback.

A review of Olive Kitteridge appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews in the post just after this one on April 27, 2009 http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/27.

You may also want to read …
The literary term for a group of linked short stories like Olive Kitteridge is a cycle of stories or short story cycle. If you like the form, you might enjoy other short story cycles, such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York.

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.

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

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.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda), where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs. She satirizes American literary culture on her Fake Book News (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter.

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

April 26, 2009

Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’ Is Not ‘A Novel’

Filed under: News,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:08 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Why have so many critics bought into the hype that the Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge is “a novel in stories”? The publisher’s claim serves a clear marketing interest: Novels sell better than short stories. (“A novel in stories” doesn’t appear on the title page of Olive Kitteridge, which might have been a sign that the phrase came from the author instead of the publisher.) And the hype is – to put it charitably – misleading. Olive Kitteridge is a collection of linked short stories, known as a cycle of stories or short story cycle — a group of tales that, though entwined, can stand alone.

A critic who got it right was Jessica Treadway, who teaches at Emerson College and wrote in the Boston Globe:

Although the book is being marketed as ‘a novel in stories,’ it is not a novel” but “a unified cycle” of “tales focusing on characters inhabiting a single town.”

The Pulitzer Prize judges also correctly described Olive Kitteridge in giving it the 2009 fiction award, calling it “a collection of 13 short stories set in small-town Maine.”

Does harm really occur when critics regurgitate hype such as that Olive Kitteridge is a “novel in stories”? Part of the answer lies in the recent spate of fraudulent books billed as “memoirs,” which has shown how many people can be duped when critics and others don’t question publishers’ claims. And in the case of Olive Kitteridge, a more subtle harm may result.

American fiction has a stellar tradition of short story cycles that includes books different as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York. Comparing Olive Kitteridge to one or two of these might enrich anyone’s understanding of it. By calling Strout’s book a novel, the publisher has made it less likely that people will do this. It has also raised the odds that readers will expect something closer to a traditional novel and come away disappointed.

A review of Olive Kitteridge will appear next week on this site. The weekly children’s-book review appeared in the post that preceded this one.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 20, 2009

2009 Pulitzer Prize Winners Are Strout, Meacham, Gordon-Reed, Merwin, and Blackmon

These books have won the five 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for books:

Fiction: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

History: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed
Biography or Autobiography: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham
Poetry: The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin
General Nonfiction: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

For more information and a list of the finalists, visit the 2009 awards page for the Pulitzer Foundation.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 376 other followers

%d bloggers like this: