One-Minute Book Reviews

January 30, 2010

A Review of the 2010 Newbery Medal Winner, ‘When You Reach Me': Enjoyable? Yes. The Year’s ‘Most Distinguished’? Maybe Not.

A 12-year-old girl tries to figure out who’s sending her mysterious notes in a novel that pays homage to Madeleine L’Engle

When You Reach Me. By Rebecca Stead, 197 pp., Wendy Lamb/Random House, $15.99. Ages 9–12.

By Janice Harayda

When You Reach Me won the American Library Association’s latest John Newbery Medal, and it’s certainly an enjoyable and well-written book. But is it the year’s “most distinguished contribution” to children’s literature?

Maybe it depends on how you define “distinguished.” By my lights, the ALA citation implies: “a book that will seem as great decades from now.” And I’m not convinced that When You Reach Me passes that test, or that Rebecca Stead will hold her own against Newbery winners like Russell Freedman (Lincoln: A Photobiography) and Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob I Have Loved).

Stead tells a cleverly plotted story about a bright 12-year-old named Miranda, who tries to decipher a series of mysterious and slightly ominous notes from an unknown sender in 1978–1979. The sender — whose knowledge of events seems to transcend the laws of time and space — may or may not live near the apartment Miranda shares with her mother on the Upper West Side of New York.

Miranda’s favorite book is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, a novel about time-traveling children. And like that 1963 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me raises the question: Is time travel possible? Stead handles the issue well, offering enough science to keep her story plausible without turning it into a treatise.

But When You Reach Me deals with less complex questions than – and appears derivative in comparison to – L’Engle’s modern classic. Like most suspense novels, this one gets much of its appeal from its quick pace and ability to keep you guessing, not from its depth of characterization. Miranda’s mother has a boyfriend, “who is German but not strict or awful,” and whose German-ness resides mainly in his Aryan looks: You never understand why Stead made him German instead of another nationality.

Far more complex characterizations appear in Deborah Heiligman’s 2009 National Book Award finalist, Charles and Emma, which won a nonfiction award from the ALA. And Phillip Hoose tells a more powerful story in his Newbery Honor Book, the biography Claudette Colvin. Those books seem more likely to be important decades from now. If I had to assign grades, I’d give Charles and Emma and Claudette Colvin each an A or A-minus and When You Reach Me a B.

So why did the novel win the Newbery? Hard to say. It can’t have hurt that Stead’s novel subtly flatters the ALA by ratifying its choice for 1963 Newbery, or that its allusions to A Wrinkle in Time are a bonanza for teachers who love to assign compare-and-contrast exercises. Nor can it have hurt that, like the 1991 winner, Maniac Magee, the latest testifies to the joy of reading. When You Reach Me was also popular — a bestseller on Amazon — before it won, so it was a safe choice. And I’ve read few of the fiction candidates for the 2010 Newbery: If the judges wanted to honor a novel, though they didn’t have to, Stead’s may have been the best. So When You Reach Me gets a qualified endorsement: Amble to your library or bookstore for it if you’re inclined, and save your sprint for National Book Award winner Claudette Colvin.

Best line: Miranda has proprietary feelings about A Wrinkle in Time: “The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book.”

Worst line: “At the meetings, during which Mr. Nunzi has usually burned a new hole in our couch with his cigarette …” Doesn’t ring true. Most sofas sold in the U.S. contain polyurethane foam stuffing, which is highly flammable, and one cigarette burn can send them up in flames.

Art notes: The cover of this book does not serve it well. It shows greenish-gray grid that looks like a patchwork of lawns and suggests that the action takes place in a northern New Jersey suburb that faces New York skyline when, in fact, it’s set in Manhattan. And the book as a whole begged for illustrations.

Published: July 2009

Furthermore: Two reviews of When You Reach Me by librarians: Amanda Pape’s on her blog Bookin’ It and Elizabeth Bird’s on the School Library Journal blog.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. You can also follow her on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 5, 2009

Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Chronic City’ – Cursed by the ‘Genius Grant’?

Paranoia with a side of wasabi cashews

Chronic City: A Novel. By Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 467 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Do MacArthur Fellowships have a counterpart to the “curse of the Nobel” said to keep writers from doing their best work after they become laureates? You might think so after reading the latest novel by the “genius grant” winner Jonathan Lethem.

Chronic City draws on an idea that science-fiction writers have used for decades: simulated-worlds theory, which says that computers will someday become powerful enough to create a facsimile of the universe, full of people who really believe they’re alive – they don’t know they’re fakes. Lethem brings the idea to literary fiction in a surrealistic fable about Manhattan during the economic meltdown: You’re never certain whether his characters are real or created by forces beyond their ken. This premise might seem ideally pitched to novel born of a financial crisis that has caused many people to think: This is can’t be real. But the idea holds a trap: If you invent characters soulless enough to have been created by computer, how do you keep them human enough to support a novel?

Lethem doesn’t avoid that danger in this tale of two friends whose lives intersect with those of a billionaire mayor and others who can still afford cocktails with wasabi cashews and “a nice black-market unpasteurized  fromage.” Chase Insteadman is a semi-retired actor, a man whose work involves selling illusions, whose fiancée is an astronaut trapped with Russians at a space station threatened by Chinese mines. Perkus Tooth is a paranoid stoner and former culture critic who believes New York has become unreal, a simulation of itself. Yes, those twee names are typical of this novel in which words seem to run away with Lethem.

The plot turns partly on Perkus’s efforts to ease his anxieties by enlisting Chase and others in his quest to obtain rare ceramics called chaldrons that may have magical powers. A subplot weaves in phantasmagorical elements such as a giant escaped tiger that is ravaging the Upper East Side, that bastion of old money and property. Many undergraduate theses will be written about all symbols-within-symbols in this novel. (Sample title: “Different Stripes: The Meaning of the Question ‘Who Made This Tiger?’ in William Blake’s Poem ‘The Tiger’ and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City.) And worthy questions underlie its cat’s-cradle of pop-cultural references, including: Who owns New York? Those references support a theme that Chase’s fiancée suggests in one of her letters home from outer space: “we’ve defaulted to an illusion of substance.” She’s talking about the deteriorating condition of the trapped astronauts, but her words describe New York as a whole: In the novel the city has only “an illusion of substance.” The condition is chronic.

Yet Chronic City reads more like a simulation of a novel than the real thing. It has a turgid pace almost no conflict, suspense, or heart. Most characters appear soulless. And the writing is repetitive to the point of bloat and, at times, graceless. Critics have compared Lethem’s early novels to the works of contemporary titans, but Chronic City has more in common with Herman Melville’s numbing final novel, The Confidence-Man. Even a mayoral aide’s sexual encounter – described as “wildly odd and erotic” – fails to supply the missing spark. Lethem writes: “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” A bit, perhaps, like the itching you may feel to put aside this book after many pages of sentences like that one.

Best line: “His mind’s landscape was epic, dotted with towering figures like Easter Island heads.”

Worst line: No. 1 (quoted above): “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” No. 2: “It was my first green chaldron. (Like sexual positions or travel to distant locales, I’d been semiconsciously cataloguing seminal moments, breakthroughs.)” No. 3: “I wanted Oona in the morning. I could still conjure her slippery smoothness in my arms (and divergent cuppable breasts in my palms, where they left ghost trails of a peach’s weight), but Oona kept dunning lights and pulling curtains, and dressing and undressing stealthily, while I was at the sink or refrigerator, or asleep.” No. 4: “My shame took its place in a vast backdrop of shames – oxygen-starved astronauts, war-exiled orphans, dwindling and displaced species – against which I puttered through daily life, attending parties and combating hangovers, recording voice-overs and granting interviews to obscure fan sites, drinking coffee and smoking joints with Perkus, and making contact with real feeling unpredictably and at random, at funeral receptions, under rain-sheeted doorways.” No. 5: “Richard’s unrestrained sarcastic inflection of this last word served not only to reinforce what a poor selection he thought I’d made in Strabo Blandiana but to assuage Perkins that the two of them still spoke above my head, and so his promise of future listening was sincere.”  [Note: As opposed to a promise of past listening?]

Published: October 2009

Furthermore: A good analysis of the pop-cultural references in Chronic City and of some of Lethem’s influences appeared in a review in Bookforum. Novelist Mark Lindquist says he loves the novel but warns in a Seattle Times review, “You can find more plot in a Jethro Tull album.”  

About the author: Lethem has written seven novels, including The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. He received a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called a “genius grant, in 2005.

You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she has posted more of her thoughts on Chronic City.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 16, 2009

2009 Delete Key Awards Grand Prize Winner — Stephenie Meyer’s ‘The Host’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:02 am
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Stephenie Meyer’s The Host is the grand prize winner in the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books.

Meyer’s novels exemplify the trend that Roy Strong, the former director of the of the Victoria and Albert Museum, called “the rise of the trashocracy.” The teenage vampire-romance series that began with Twilight led the 2008 bestseller lists. And next to Meyer, Mitch Albom almost looks like Isaiah Berlin.

It’s true that Albom’s For One More Day is written at a third-grade reading level while Meyer’s adult science-fiction novel, The Host, has a fourth-grade (9-year-old) reading level, according to the readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. But if both books are dumbed-down, Albom can’t match the spectacular array inanities that have won the grand prize for The Host. Meyer’s unintentionally comic missteps range from mind-numbing redundancies (“It’s a voluntary choice”) to deeply purple prose and dialogue that might have come from television series called The Beverly Hillbillies in Outer Space. If this year’s Delete Key Awards were the Belmont Stakes, The Host would be Secretariat, winning by 31 lengths.

The Host has won the 2009 Delete Key Awards grand prize for lines like:
“It’s a voluntary choice.”

and

“He nuzzled his face against mine until he found my lips, then he kissed me, slow and gentle, the flow of molten rock swelling languidly in the dark at the center of the earth, until my shaking slowed.”

and

“ ‘Well, for Pete’s sake!’ Jeb exclaimed. ‘Can’t nobody keep a secret around this place for more’n 24 hours? Gol’ durn, this burns me up!’”

Other posts about the Delete Key Awards appear on www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 26, 2009

2009 Delete Key Awards Finalist #8 — Stephenie Meyer’s ‘The Host’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:52 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Delete Key Awards Finalist #8 comes from Stephenie Meyer’s novel of alien abduction, The Host (Little, Brown, 619 pp., $25.99), a three-way tie:

“It’s a voluntary choice.”

and

“He nuzzled his face against mine until he found my lips, then he kissed me, slow and gentle, the flow of molten rock swelling languidly in the dark at the center of the earth, until my shaking slowed.”

and

“ ‘Well, for Pete’s sake!’ Jeb exclaimed. ‘Can’t nobody keep a secret around this place for more’n 24 hours? Gol’ durn, this burns me up!’”

The Host is a novel for adults written at a fourth-grade (9-year-old) reading level, according to the readability statistics that come with the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. But even 9-year-olds deserve better than the redundancy of the first example, the purple prose of the second, and the cornball dialogue of the third. The Jan. 5, 2009, post on One-Minute Book Reviews tells more about the fourth-grade reading level of The Host.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 23, 2008

Charles Williams’s ‘All Hallows Eve’ – A Classic Novel of the Supernatural From a Contemporary of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (Quote of the Day/Noel Perrin)

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:03 pm
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One of my favorite guides to good reading is Noel Perrin’s A Readers Delight (University Press of New England, 1988) www.upne.com/results.html, a collection of 40 brief, elegant essays on underappreciated classics. This quote comes from its review of All Hallows Eve, entitled “Taking Ghosts Seriously”:

“Charles Williams’s novel All Hallows Eve is one of the most powerful works of supernaturalism to appear in our century. It comes, appropriately enough, out of same nexus as many other such works: The Lord of the Rings, Perelandra, the Narnian chronicles. Williams was a friend and contemporary of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis – and when his work took him to Oxford during the Second World War, he promptly became the third great central figure in the informal literary group known as the Inklings ….

All Hallows Eve has a complex and even thrilling plot. The action swirls around a great religious leader named Simon Leclerc: a prophet, a worker of miracles, the head of a world cult. He is something like the Reverend Mr. Moon raised to the fourth power – or he seems that way to outsiders at least. He is actually the most powerful magician who has lived in several hundred years, and he is a tall, god-like, ascetic, and wholly evil person, a negative of Jesus Christ, whose very distant cousin he in fact is. What he promises human beings is peace; what he actually seeks is to rule them, not only in life but even after their deaths.

“All the other characters meet Simon, and all in the end must choose between serving him and resisting him.”

Perrin says in the essay that he believes Williams en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Williams_(UK_writer)
is less famous than Tolkien or C. S. Lewis partly because he wrote fiction only for adults, not for adults and children: “All Hallows Eve will never be a TV special – or if it is, it will be so debased and vulgarized as to make most TV specials of great books seem works of astonishing fidelity.” Online and other booksellers have a 2002 edition of All Hallows’s Eve (Regent College Press, 296 pp., $19.95, paperback), introduced by T. S. Eliot, which uses in the title an apostrophe after “Hallows” that does not appear in A Reader’s Delight.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 14, 2008

What Is the Difference Between a Novel and a Short Story? (Quote of the Day/Orson Scott Card)

Science fiction writer Orson Scott Card won the 2008 Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement from the American Library Association www.ala.org this week for his novels for teenagers, Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow. Here he talks about the difference between a novel and a short story:

“A novel isn’t a half-dozen short stories with the same characters. The seams invariably show. Why? Because a novel must have integrity. The novel, no matter how dense and wide-ranging it might be, must have a single cumulative effect to please the reader. Every minor climax must point toward the book’s final climax, must promise still better things to come …

“Ideally, a short story is an indivisible unit – every sentence in it points to the single climax that fulfills the entire work. One moment in the story controls all the rest. But in a novel, that single climax is replaced by many smaller climaxes, by many side trips or pauses to explore. If you keep shaping everything to point to that one climax, your reader will get sick of it after a hundred pages or so. It will feel monotonous. To keep the reader entertained (i.e., to keep him reading) you must give him many small moments of fulfillment along the way, brief rewards that promise something bigger later.”

Orson Scott Card www.hatrack.com in “To Make a Short Story Long …” in Legends of Literature: The Best Articles, Interviews, and Essays From the Archives of Writer’s Digest Magazine (Writer’s Digest Books, $19.99), edited by Phillip Sexton.

October 11, 2007

Why Do People Like Westerns? Quote of the Day (William Kittredge)

Why do people like Western stories in books, movies and other media? Here’s an answer from the novelist William Kittredge:

“The Western is a story in which we get to have our cake and eat it. Shane does the killing, then rides into the mythical Tetons, carrying all our guilt away with him. Our problems have been solved quickly, and we are off the hook, guilt free, ready to go on, no blood on our hands.

“The Western is a story as ancient as warfare, about solving problems with violence, the great simple solution …

“It would be pretty to think the American version of this ancient showdown shoot-’em-up story of aggression enshrined has vanished. But it hasn’t.

“The Western mutated and went to the edge of the continent and downtown with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and the cops and detectives (think of Chinatown as the last Western movie). Lately the Western has gone into virtual worlds and outer space, where the same old story is being endlessly reenacted by killer androids.”

William Kittredge in The Portable Western Reader (Penguin, 1997) edited and with an introduction by William Kittredge us.penguingroup.com. The book gathers essays, poems and more, from ancient tribal tales to work of well-known contemporary authors such as Louise Erdrich. Richard Ford, Barry Lopez and Larry McMurtry and Leslie Marmon Silko.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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