One-Minute Book Reviews

November 20, 2008

Why Were So Many More Nonfiction Books Than Novels Nominated for the 2008 National Book Awards? (Late Night With Jan Harayda)

It costs $125 to nominate a book for a National Book Award. Why were so many more publishers willing to pay it for nonfiction than for fiction or poetry?

Do recent nonfiction books outshine novels? Many critics think so. And publishers seem to agree, based on their willingness to pay the $125-per-book entry fee for the National Book Awards.

The prize sponsor reports that in 2008 publishers nominated the following numbers of books by category: 540, nonfiction; 274, young people’s literature; 271, fiction; and 175, poetry. Publishers may have submitted nearly twice as much nonfiction as fiction because more of it gets published. Yet that explanation begs the question, because publishers presumably buy books for the same reason they nominate them for awards: They think they’re good.

More evidence of the superiority of nonfiction might seem to come from Wednesday night’s fiction winner: Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, a reworking of an earlier trilogy. If this year’s novels had been stronger, would the judges have considered a book that includes previously published material? Was Matthiessen’s shortlisting a sign of desperation in judges who wanted a strong book on the final list even if it meant exhuming some work published as long ago as 1990?

Probably not. It’s more likely the judges wanted to reward a distinguished author in his 80s for his fiction and didn’t know if they’d have another chance. (Matthiessen won the 1980 National Book Award for nonfiction for The Snow Leopard.) It’s also possible that the judges just didn’t like some of the novels that many critics ranked among the best of the year, such as Netherland.

Then why did publishers nominate so much more nonfiction? Two possible explanations. One is that nonfiction books have more opportunity to catch fire in the media or elsewhere: They don’t depend on reviews as much as novels do. And publishers know that momentum can affect judges. In paying those $125 entry fees, some may have invested in what they considered the safest bets.

A related explanation for all the nonfiction nominees is that fiction has two main genres: novels and short stories. Nonfiction has many — including history, memoirs, biography, essays and journalism — and more ways to make an impact. This year’s nonfiction shortlist reflected some of them: The Dark Side (exposé), Final Salute (feature writing), This Republic of Suffering (social history), The Suicide Index (memoir), and the winner, The Hemingses of Monticello (family history).

Yet nonfiction dates faster than nonfiction. This is why novels tend to define their eras better than works of nonfiction do. So the answer to “Were this year’s novels better than the nonfiction books?” rests with history. Decades from now, this year’s best nonfiction books may have yielded to others that have more recent reporting or more up-to-date research, while some of the novels may seem as fresh as ever, just as Jane Austen’s do nearly two hundred years after they appeared.

For a list of the National Book Awards entry fees and eligibility requirements, click here www.nationalbook.org/nbaentry.html.

Janice Harayda is a former judge of the National Book Critics Circle Awards for fiction, nonfiction, biograhy, poetry and criticism.

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

November 19, 2008

Matthiessen, Gordon-Reed, Doty and Blundell Win 2008 National Book Awards — Gordon-Reed Is First African-American Woman to Win the Nonfiction Prize

The winners of the 2008 National Book Awards are Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (fiction), Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello (nonfiction), Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire (poetry) and Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied. Each winner receives $10,000 and was selected by a different panel of five judges. The nonprofit National Book Foundation sponsors the prizes and has posted more information about them at www.nationalbook.org. The site includes interviews with all the winners and finalists and excerpts from their books.

The publishing news site GalleyCat www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/ will have pictures and more on the ceremony tomorrow. Ron Hogan, senior editor of GalleyCat, attended and posted the names of the winners on his Twitter feed with heroic speed. If you can’t wait for tomorrow’s news stories, you can read more about the event on his Twitter feed www.twitter.com/ronhogan, which includes snippets from the acceptance speeches.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 16, 2007

I Belong to the ‘Tribe of Chronic Masturbators,’ Says the Hero of ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,’ Winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

By Janice Harayda

Remember how upset some librarians got when the word “scrotum” appeared on the first page of the 2007 Newbery Medal winner www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/19/? I wonder what they’re going say to when they find out that the hero of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian says that he belongs to “the tribe of chronic masturbators.”

Alexie’s novel won National Book Award for Young People’s Literature on Wednesday, so it’s safe to say that it will also receive consideration for the Newbery that the American Library Association www.ala.org will hand out in January. I’ll review the book in the next week or so (along with Daughter of York, originally scheduled for this week).

Until then librarians who want to check out that “good part” can do it by going to the listing for the novel on Amazon www.amazon.com and using the “Search Inside This Book” tool to search for “tribe of chronic masturbators,” which appears on page 217. [Note: All you teenage boys who found this site by searching for “scrotum” or “masturbation,” go back to your Social Studies. That page number was a public service for librarians.]

Oh, am I going to have fun reviewing this book! Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed if you’d like to read my comments.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 22, 2007

Good Books for Adolescents and Teenagers

Looking for good books for adolescents or teenagers? You’ll find many suggestions at the site for the Young Adult Library Services Association www.ala.org/ala/yalsa/, part of the American Library Association. Click on the page on the site that says “Booklists & Book Awards” to find librarian-approved titles in categories such as “Books for the College Bound,” “Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults” and “Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Jutta Richter, One of Germany’s Most Honored Children’s Authors, Makes Her American Debut in a Book for Fans of ‘Tuck Everlasting’

A sensitive young-adult novel about loss set against the backdrop of a castle, where the parents of three friends serve as caretakers

The Summer of the Pike. By Jutta Richter. Illustrated by Quint Buchholz. Translated from the German by Anna Brailovsky. Milkweed, 91 pp., $16.95 (hardcover), $6.95 paperback. Ages 9 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Librarians didn’t give a Newbery Medal to Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt’s great young-adult fantasy about immortality. But in the three decades since its publication, it has found its own kind of eternal life for its sensitive treatment of the cycles of the natural world and their relation to the question, “Why must we die?”

The Summer of the Pike is a couple of notches below that modern classic. But this brief, poignant novel may still appeal to many fans of Babbitt’s book. Like Tuck Everlasting, it offers a complex and thoughtful exploration of death, set against the backdrop of a changing natural world.

Anna and her two best friends, Daniel and Lucas, live on the grounds of a castle in modern Germany where their parents are caretakers. The manor allows the children to enjoy diversions such as feeding the peacocks on the lawn and watching the small silvery fish in the moat. But one May, the boys’ mother begins to show the effects of her cancer treatments, and Daniel suspects she is dying even as adults try to hide the truth from him. Daniel tells himself that if he can catch an elusive pike in the moat, his mother will live. Anna wants to comfort him but is too wise to believe in magic. She dreads that he will catch the pike, because she doesn’t want to see him kill it.

This allegorical novel further resembles Tuck Everlasting in its richness of symbols, some involving water. The moat lacks the magical powers of the spring that confers eternal life in Babbitt’s book but represents the circularity of life and death. There’s also a dual symbolism into the fearsome pike. As a natural predator, it represents that greatest of all predators, death. But the act of fishing in novels often signals the plumbing of a psyche or soul, and its frequent appearance in this book suggests the greater understanding of their lives that Daniel and Anna gain through their losses.

Jutta Richter has won many honors in Germany, and this book leaves no doubt that deserves a wider audience here.. She never denies how sad the loss of a parent is for children. But she avoids the dreary pedagogy of so many American young-adult novels on death, which read less like stories than a forced march through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief. Her tone emerges in Anna’s thoughts as her friends’ mother grows weaker: “She was in the process of disappearing. Just like the yellow of the mustard had disappeared, and the red of the poppies. Just like the little white chamomile blossoms would disappear, and after that the summer lilac.”

Best line: Quoted above in the last line of the review.

Worst line: Anna Brailovksky’s translation is lucid but includes occasional solecisms. One is her use of “alright,” which is not an English word, for “all right.”

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: November 2006 www.milkweed.org

Furthermore: Jutta Richter’s The Cat: Or, How I Lost Eternity (Milkweed, $14, paperback) will be published later this month in an edition translated by Anna Brailovsky and illustrated by Rotraut Susanne Berner. Richter’s German honors include the 2004 Herman Hesse Prize for her body of work.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 21, 2007

Brian Selznick’s ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’

An innovative novel for third- through sixth-graders gets an A+ for packaging and a C for writing

The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic, 533 pp., $22.99. Ages 9–12.

By Janice Harayda

Take a 12-year-old orphaned boy whose name begins with H. Write a novel about him that involves magic, a train station and a female sidekick. Get Scholastic Press to publish it … and what do you have?

No, not the latest Harry Potter book. You’ve got The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a novel about a young thief who lives in 1931 in a Paris train station, where he tries to finish a project begun by his father – fixing a broken wind-up man or automaton that may contain a secret message.

You’ve also got a novel with spectacular packaging, which may explain why it’s clambering up the best-seller lists and Martin Scorsese is rumored to want to the film rights. The Invention of Hugo Cabret merges the picture- and chapter-book formats in way that no other book for its age group has done. It has 533 pages, but the text would fill only 100 or so pages of most novels. Why the gap?

Brian Selznick tells Hugo’s story alternately through words – often just a paragraph or two per page – and 158 black-and-white pictures. The illustrations consist mostly of pencil drawings but include memorable stills from the movies of the silent filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose life helped to inspire the book. And because you can flip through the pictures at any pace, you can read the book quickly despite its bulk. On that level, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is God’s gift to reluctant readers – a novel that will give children the satisfaction of finishing a fat book but has about the same number of words as The Higher Power of Lucky.

The problem is that Selznick doesn’t write nearly as well as he draws. His prose stays oddly earthbound for a story about the power of art to take us metaphorically to the moon. Hugo and his friend Isabelle resemble generic American children, not unique French ones. Selznick did months of research on subjects like the clocks that Hugo tends the train station, where Isabelle helps out at a toy booth. But you wonder if he did any all on French children. His characters never kiss on both cheeks, as even 12-year-olds do in France. Hugo’s companions instead greet each other with Americanisms like: “I haven’t seen you in a while. How are things at the toy booth?” And they are hard to distinguish from many others in middle-grade readers.

Worse, the novel is a psychological muddle. Selnick brings up big ideas without giving them literary or emotional resolution they demand. Hugo blames himself when his father dies in a fire that erupts while he’s trying to fix the automaton that may contain a secret message: “This was all his fault! He had wanted his father to fix the machine and now, because of him, his father was dead.” Selznick, incredibly, never returns to his hero’s misplaced guilt or absolves him of it. At the end of the book, for all we know, Hugo still thinks he’s responsible and children may believe he is. Hugo also offers glib rationalizations for his habitual thievery. And while he suffers for his stealing, he appears to feel no genuine remorse for it and eventually is rewarded for his law-breaking. In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, crime pays well.

Some children may be so enthralled by the beautiful production values of this novel that they don’t see its flaws. But Elizabeth Ward was right when she wrote in the Washington Post that The Invention of Hugo Cabret is more about “the razzle-dazzle of novelty” than artistic merit: “The first movies transfixed people too, but that doesn’t mean their plots weren’t mostly pretty hokey and their characters stiffer than a girder.”

Best line: Selznick is related to the late producer David Selznick and has a contagious love of movies. He suggests the joy even in watching films at home in lines like: “Hugo closed the curtains. They aimed the projector toward one of the walls and turned it on. It clattered to life, and then the film began moving through it as though light had burst onto a wall.”

Worst line: “ … and now, because of him, his father was dead.” And a lot of children may still believe it at the end of the novel.

Published: January 2007

Reading group guide: A reading group guide to The Invention of Hugo Cabret appears in the April 21 post directly below this one and is archived with the April 2007 posts and under “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides.”

Furthermore: Selznick illustrated the Caldecott Honor book The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins.

Links: www.theinventionofhugocabret.com/

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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