One-Minute Book Reviews

November 18, 2012

‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers,’ 2012 National Book Award Winner

A Mumbai slum dweller falls into a judicial Bermuda triangle after a neighbor frames him for a crime

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Random House, 256 pp., $27

By Janice Harayda

In the United States, the word “corruption” has only negative connotations. But in India, Katherine Boo observes wryly, graft and fraud are among the few “genuine opportunities” open to slum dwellers who hope to rise above poverty.

Boo doesn’t endorse that reality but suggests why it endures in this portrait of Annawadi, a slum of 3,000 people packed into 335 huts in the shadow of a sparkling blue-glass Hyatt near the Mumbai airport. The residents can’t count on improving their lives through education, because many public schools are shams, run by teenagers or unqualified teachers who bribed officials to get their jobs. Without education, slum dwellers are shut out of jobs, particularly if they are Muslims or low-born Hindus.

One of Boo’s sources who prospered against the odds was the slum boss Asha Waghekar, who traded sex with police officers for their willingness to fix cases of residents who bribed her to intercede. But Asha’s intervention helped little after an embittered woman with a deformed leg set herself on fire. Before she died, Fatima the One-Leg implicated three neighbors in her death: Karam Husain and his daughter Kehkashan and son Abdul, who supported the family by working as a garbage trader. The police learned quickly that the Husains were innocent but jailed them, anyway, hoping to extort payoffs for favorable treatment from their relatives. A judge absolved Karam and Kekashan of guilt, but Abdul fell into a judicial Bermuda triangle.

Boo finds the main narrative thread for her book in Abdul’s story and uses it to offer a much starker view of poverty than international relief agencies typically do in their pictures of hollow-eyed children and their assurances that pennies a day can change lives. She shows how corruption and destitution go hand-in-hand to a degree that may keep aid from reaching its intended recipients at all. In Annawadi, a government-sponsored self-help group for poor women foundered when Asha, the slum boss, siphoned off money from the program and lent it at usurious rates to destitute residents excluded from the program.

As she develops this bleak picture, Boo shows the exceptional courage and gift for reporting that helped her win a Pulitzer Prize at the Washington Post before she joined the staff of The New Yorker. She uses, less successfully, some of the techniques of creative nonfiction, such as claiming access to her subjects’ thoughts and submerging her voice and point of view in theirs. At times Boo tries to give the flavor of her slum-dwellers’ speech without quoting it directly by adopting their language: She uses “bitty” for small, and she writes of a eunuch whose “legs became slithery things” when he danced and of lake that “magicked into a thick mat of water-hyacinth weed.” Such language is more likely to come from from children or teenagers than from a writer for The New Yorker  and clashes with that of other passages in which Boo is clearly writing in her voice. Often she doesn’t identify the sources for questionable details and, as the New Delhi bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal noted, appears not to have interviewed people whose version of events might have differed from that of her subjects.

Even so, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a welcome complement – and, in some ways, an antidote – to the brutal but ultimately romanticized portrait of India in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. “Every country has its myths, and one that successful Indians liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation – the idea that their country’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life,” Boo writes. “In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen next when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch. In India, a land of few assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted problem-solvers.”

Boo makes clear that among the Mumbai poor, instability does foster ingenuity, but it can also foster corruption – legal, moral, and political – among those who see no other way to improve their lives. Over time, Boo notes, “the lack of a link between effort and result could be debilitating.” One Annawadi girl told her: “We try so many things, but the world doesn’t seem to move in our favor.” The paradox of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is that it leaves you with little hope that things will change even as it persuades you that more books like this one might set changes in motion.

Best line: No. 1: “Food wasn’t one of the amenities at Cooper, the 500-bed hospital on which millions of poor people depended. Nor was medicine. ‘Out of stock today’ was the nurses’ official explanation. Plundered and resold out of supply cabinets was an unofficial one. What patients needed, families had to buy on the street and bring in.” No. 2: “As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha had placed here hopes; and education. Several dozen parents in the slum were getting by on roti and salt in order to pay private school tuition.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Asha clucked.” No. 2 “She’d started to be treated as a mattering person.”

Published: February 2012

Furthermore: The New Delhi bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal finds “sloppiness,” “caricaturing” Indians and other defects in “The Letdown of ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’,” which argues that Boo wrote a good, not great, book.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Behind the Beautiful Forevers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 18, 2012, in the post that preceded this one.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

March 12, 2012

Deborah Baker’s ‘The Convert’ – A National Book Awards Reality Check

Filed under: Biography,Book Awards Reality Check,National Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 pm
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“Make-believe” letters undermine the credibility of a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. By Deborah Baker. Graywolf, 246 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Deborah Baker purports in this book to tell the story of an American woman who converted from Judaism to Islam in her 20s and who, after moving to Pakistan in 1962, has remained there. But she gives you reason to distrust most of The Convert by waiting until late in book to clarify a line on the dust jacket that says that she drew on letters that Maryam Jameelah sent home to her parents after she had begun her new life as Maryam Jameelah.

Baker says in “A Note on Methodology” that while her book is “fundamentally nonfiction,” she has “rewritten and greatly condensed” the letters and rearranged the order of some of the anecdotes. And some letters are more than reconstructed: They are “make-believe” (apparently, Jameelah’s fantasies, though you don’t know that the author hasn’t made up letters, too). A message on Baker’s website, ostensibly from Jameelah, says: “I am satisfied with your book as a fair and just detailed appraisal of my life and work.”

That note does little to bolster the credibility of The Convert, given that doctors said Jameelah had schizophrenia and that she appears to be mentally disturbed, whether or not the diagnosis was accurate.  There may well be a fascinating story in the life of the former Margaret Marcus of Mamaroneck, New York, but Baker hasn’t found a credible way to tell it.

Best line: Not applicable.

Worst line: “I then asked Maryam if I could write her story as if she were writing once again to her family. Having her voice pass through my own, perhaps I might understand her better. I wanted her blessing to use the correspondence in her archive, the doctored and make-believe letters as well as the real ones, to quote and paraphrase and arrange as I saw fit.”

Published: 2011 (Graywolf hardcover). Graywolf paperback due out in September 2012.

Furthermore: One of the unreported literary scandals of last year was that The Convert was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for “nonfiction.”

Flap copy: The dust jacket of the hardcover edition of The Convert erroneously says that Jameelah grew up Larchmont, NY, when the book makes clear that it was Mamaroneck, a mistake picked up by many reviewers.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet and was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

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

November 28, 2011

Sexualizing Marie Curie – Lauren Redniss’s ‘Radioactive’ Nudes

Filed under: Biography,National Book Awards,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:13 am
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Has one double standard replaced another in a 2011 National Book Award finalist?

By Janice Harayda

For generations Marie Curie was the scientist who had no first name. The world knew her as “Madame Curie” and her male counterparts – men like Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr – by their full names.

That double standard has eased. But a potential new one emerges in Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love & Fallout, an illustrated biography of the couple who won a Nobel prize for physics for their work with radioactivity. A half dozen of its images sexualize Marie Curie by showing her fully or partly nude — in one case, frolicking as naked as a wood nymph with the married man who became her lover after her husband’s death.

Is anything wrong with this? In several respects, no. No one could object to nude pictures as tasteful as Redniss’s in a book intended for adults. And highlighting the romantic aspects of a life falls within the bounds of legitimate artistic interpretation. Pierre and his successor in his widow’s affections appear naked along with her in some of the pictures.

But Radioactive is at heart a book about Marie Curie: That’s why she appears on the cover. And it’s hard to imagine an illustrated biography of a male scientist of her stature that dealt with its subject’s sex life in the same way. As Redniss notes, Einstein had an illegitimate daughter with a former student and, while married, had an affair with his cousin. When have you seen a book that showed him cavorting as naked as Bacchus with a lover?

You can look at all of this in either of two ways. You can say: Radioactive acknowledges fairly that female Nobel laureates have lives beyond their work whether or not books treat their male counterparts differently. Or you can say: Radioactive is a throwback to an era that tended to view even the most brilliant women in the context of their sexuality and their relations with men. Redniss works hard to show the importance of the Curies’ scientific achievements. But she tips her hand with her subtitle and its double meaning, A Tale of Love & Fallout. You can only imagine the reaction the book might have inspired in Marie Curie, who said, “There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.”

A review of Radioactive appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 26, 2011. The book was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction. You can see one of its nude images on the site for the New York Public Library: Click on the head of Paul Langevin (the man with the moustache), then then on the red arrow on the cover of the book. On the third click after the arrow you’ll see a spread that represents Marie and Pierre Curie on their honeymoon.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in at right.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 26, 2011

Marie and Pierre Curie, Exposed – Lauren Redniss’s ‘Radioactive’


A dual biography of the Curies that’s graphic on more than one level

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie. A Tale of Love & Fallout. By Lauren Redniss. It Books/HarperCollins, 205 pp., $29.99.

By Janice Harayda

Radioactive shows you Marie Curie as you’ve never seen her: naked. What we gain from watching her frolicking as nude as a wood nymph with a lover isn’t clear. But this illustrated biography of Marie and her husband, Pierre, makes clear that the first woman to win a Nobel Prize was no nun for science, devoted as she was to it. It also shows how the Curies’ work with radioactivity helped lead to modern events that range from the partial meltdown of two nuclear reactors at Three Mile Island to the cranial radiation treatments that enabled a 14-year-old Rhode Island boy to survive his non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Lauren Redniss modifies the format of graphic novels as she tells the story of the Curies’ love affair with physics and with each other: She omits the usual strips or panels and encloses her text in more creative ways on black-and-white, two-toned, or multi-colored spreads. Her most dramatic spread involves Paul Langevin, who became Marie’s lover after Pierre’s death. The left-hand page shows Langevin’s head, and the right-hand one describes his life in words arranged in the shape of his head, the equivalent of a pattern poem in prose.

Redniss created her images through superb drawing and cyanotype printing, a form of cameraless photography that gives many of her pictures a bluish cast and something of the ethereal quality of radium. Her subjects have Modigliani-esque almond eyes and elongated features, grounded in reality by the reproductions on other pages of archival materials such as maps, photos, X-rays and a North Korean stamp marking the 50th anniversary of Marie’s death.

All of the influences on display in Radioactive add interest to the Curies’ story but give a slightly overdesigned air to a book in which the pictures outshine the text. Redniss writes in a prosaic style that makes heavy use of block quotations from interviews and other sources, some of which beg for an intelligent paraphrase, and she cuts away jarringly from her subjects’ lives to events that occurred long after their deaths. She also makes it harder to follow some of her chronological leaps by using fonts that provide too little contrast with their background and by cramming too much text onto a page or adding needless elements (including a list of a “select array of luminaries” from Marie’s native Poland, when the story is also about Pierre, who was French). But if Redniss is a far better artist than writer, she has an instinct for literary detail that leads to some lines as memorable as any of her pictures. At the Bibliothèque National, she notes, “the Curies’ laboratory notebooks are still radioactive, setting Geiger counters clicking 100 years on.”

Best line: The U.S. government studied the results of the atomic blasts at the Nevada Test Site partly by building houses filled with appliances and dummy families in the form of mannequins dressed by J.C. Penney, “stylishly, in the fashions of the day.”

Worst line: A section on how Marie Curie extracted polonium and radium from pitchblende, an effort described better in fewer words by many others. The section also has a grammatical error: Redniss incorrectly hyphenates “naturally-occurring” and, in the next sentence, correctly writes the phrase as “naturally occurring.”

Published: 2011

Editor: Cal Morgan

Recommendation? The publisher bills Radioactive as a book for adults, but the images of Marie Curie naked will also make science projects more fun for teenage boys.

Furthermore: Radioactive was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction. Sample pages from the book appear the site for the New York Public Library, which exhibited some of them. The excerpt shows the image of Paul Langevin’s head described above. Other sample pages appear on Redniss’s site.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of and critic for the Plain Dealer.  You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 16, 2011

Conflict of Interest Questions at the 2011 National Book Awards

Filed under: National Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:22 am
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Several conflicts of interest or the appearance of them may affect the results of the 2011 National Book Awards that will be handed out tonight in Manhattan. Here are some ties between judges and finalists and how they may affect the outcome of the awards:

Fiction
The conflict
Fiction judge Yiyun Li provided a blurb for Edith Pearlman’s finalist Binocular Vision that appears on the back cover of the book. Li has said on Twitter that for that reason, she is abstaining from discussions of the book.

How it may affect the outcome
Li has won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and other honors that make her the most acclaimed fiction-jury member. Assuming that she would have supported a book she blurbed, her abstention will deprive Pearlman of an advocate and may make victory more likely for one of the two best-known finalists, Téa Obreht and Julie Otsuka.

Nonfiction
The conflict
Nonfiction judge Jill Lepore and finalist Stephen Greenblatt are both professors in humanities disciplines at Harvard University (history and English, respectively).

How it may affect the outcome
Greenblatt was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for nonfiction and may be the most honored candidate on the 2011 nonfiction shortlist. Lepore did not respond to an email message asking whether she is taking part in discussions about her colleague’s The Swerve. But if she would have supported Greenblatt, an abstention could hurt one of strongest nonfiction candidates. And it would further strain a jury reduced to four members instead of five after the unexplained disappearance of Rebecca Solnit, named a judge in April. An abstention by Lepore would leave the panel with just three members participating in some deliberations. And it would mean that Greenblatt could win with two votes in the case of a 2-1 split.

Poetry
The conflict
Poetry panel chair and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander serves on the faculty of the Cave Canem writers’ program, according to its website, which also lists as faculty two 2011 poetry finalists, Nikky Finney and Yussef Komunyakaa. Komunyakaa further shares with Alexander the title of honorary directory of the program. A third poetry finalist  listed as a faculty member, Carl Phillips, says his term did not overlap with Alexander’s and he has not taught with her at Cave Canem.

How it may affect the outcome
Alexander should abstain from discussing Finney and Komunyakaa if the Cave Canem website reflects accurately her status as a colleague of both. If she does, four judges will decide the fate of those finalists, which could increase the chances of a hung jury. If she doesn’t abstain, that fact would create the unusual situation of a judge remaining involved despite an apparent conflict with not one but two finalists.

You can read more about conflicts of interest at the National Book Awards in the fourth section of this post.  A complete list of National Book Awards judges and finalists appears on the website for the sponsor, the National Book Foundation.

You can follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar. She will be live-tweeting the National Book Awards ceremony beginning at 8 p.m. tonight. Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

November 15, 2011

2011 National Book Awards Predictions – Young People’s Literature

Filed under: National Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:48 pm
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Who will win this year’s National Book Award for young people’s literature?

By Janice Harayda

A swamp of judging conflicts of interest. An orgy of self-congratulation for the publishing industry. A chance to learn about good books you might have missed. The National Book Awards are all of those, and you may see evidence of some of it when they prizes are handed out tomorrow night at Cipriani Wall Street.

During the run-up, I’ve been tweeting micro-reviews of excerpts from finalists’ books and using them to try to predict the winners in every category except poetry, where apparent  judging conflicts of interest reduce the odds that my method might work. My fiction and nonfiction predictions appeared earlier this month, and to judge by the finalists’ excerpts, the young people’s literature award should go to Chime or Flesh and Blood So Cheap.

Chime. A folkloric fantasy with the best opening by a mile among National Book Awards YA fiction finalists. Grade: A Based on this excerpt.

Flesh and Blood So Cheap. Vivid nonfiction about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Grade: A Based on this excerpt.

Inside Out and Back Again. Unexciting poetry in a high-degree-of-difficulty novel in verse. Grade: B Based on this excerpt.

My Name Is Not Easy. Too little drama for an excerpt with a gun in the first paragraph Grade: B- Based on this excerpt.

Okay for now. Alexie-ish fun, but maybe more Newbery than National Book Awards. Grade: B Based on this excerpt.

You may also want to read  “The National Book Awards Debacle Was an Accident Waiting to Happen — 7 Ways to Restore Credibility to the Prizes.”

Jan (@janiceharayda) will live-tweet the National Book Awards on her Twitter page at 8 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday, Nov. 16. You can follow her comments by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

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

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

November 12, 2011

Part 2 – Reviews of 2011 National Book Awards Finalists — The Nonfiction Shortlist

Filed under: National Book Awards,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:45 am
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This is the second in a series of posts that try to predict the winners of National Book Awards on the basis on online excerpts of the finalists. 

By Janice Harayda

How much do excerpts tell you about a book? A lot. But excerpts from nonfiction books are harder to judge than chapters from novels, partly because they may not show errors that undermine the whole. And the strength of the writing in work of nonfiction may differ from the quality or importance of the research. Who should win a literary prize: the author of a beautifully written book on a minor subject or a cliché-strewn one that breaks ground on a major topic?

Such variables suggest why predicting the winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction on the basis of excerpts is tougher than ranking the fiction candidates as I did on Nov. 2. One book shortlisted for the prize to be given on Nov. 16  looks like a nonstarter: Mary Gabriel tells the worthy story of the marriage of Karl and Jenny Marx in her dual biography, Love and Capital, but her writing doesn’t rise above the level good wire-service copy in five online excerpts.

Two other finalists have more serious problems. Deborah Baker rewrote letters that she quotes in The Convert — a book she calls “fundamentally a work of nonfiction” — and the liberties she took should have led to a disqualification by the sponsor of the prizes, the National Book Foundation. Judges also shoehorned in Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive, a graphic-format biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, which has art far superior to its text. The National Book Awards are based on the premise that authors should judge authors. If that’s true, artists should judge artists. And if the National Book Foundation wants to honor graphic  books, it should create a category for them. As it is, a victory for Redniss would turn the nonfiction prize into an unacknowledged art competition.

All of this leaves two finalists worthy of the award: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which shows how a poem written in 50 B.C. anticipated 20th-century thought, and Manning Marable’s Malcolm X, a biography of the slain activist. Greenblatt writes more elegantly, but Manning’s book may be more important. American literature has needed for decades a biography that gives a more balanced portrait of Malcolm X than The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a work influenced by ghostwriter Alex Haley’s view of his subject, and Manning has written it. It’s harder to argue that the country needed Greenblatt’s exploration of De rerum natura, however admirable. So if excerpts are a barometer,  the contest for 2011 nonfiction prize looks like a two-way race between The Swerve and Malcolm X, with Manning’s book more likely to win.

More comments on the five finalists appear in the following slightly altered versions of Nov. 11 tweets. Each item below is a micro-review of one or more excerpts of a shortlisted book, supplemented in two cases by further reading.

Love and Capital Good story of Karl and Jenny Marx, wire-service writing. Grade: B Based on this excerpt and others.

The Swerve The most elegant finalist shakes the dust off Lucretius. Grade: A Based on this excerpt.

Radioactive Art far better than the text. Graphic books need their own NBA category. No grade. Based on the entire book.

Malcolm X Slow-moving but much needed antidote to Alex Haley. Grade: B+ Based
on this excerpt and and two more chapters.

The Convert A “fundamentally” nonfiction book that belongs on Oprah, not the NBA shortlist. Grade: F for judges. Based on 100+ pages of the book.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she will post other comments on the awards before and after the Nov. 16 ceremony. Jan has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

November 2, 2011

One-Sentence Reviews of 2011 National Book Awards Finalists

Filed under: National Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:56 am
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Who will win and who should win the National Book Award for fiction on Nov. 16?

By Janice Harayda

Can you predict the winner of a literary prize by reading a chapter or less of each nominated book? This year I’ve decided to try. I read an online excerpt from each of the five books shortlisted for the 2011 National Book Award for fiction. Then I graded each on a finalist-against-finalist curve in a tweet that also commented on it.

Which nominee should win the fiction award if the quality of each excerpt represents that of the rest of the book? Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, a collection of 34 short stories by a writer whose talent far exceeds her name recognition. But National Book Awards juries traditionally have held story collections to a higher standard than novels, and none has won the prize since Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever in 1996. So Pearlman will have to overcome an unacknowledged bias in favor in favor of the longer form.

Two finalists look, for different reasons, like nonstarters. Andrew Krivak doesn’t write as well as Pearlman and, based on his excerpt, tells a less interesting story than Téa Obreht or Julie Otsuka. Jesmyn Ward has ended up in the wrong shortlist category: She would have had a better chance of winning the National Book Award for young people’s literature than for fiction.

But Obreht has momentum on her side as the most recent winner Orange Prize. And Otsuka may get degree-of-difficulty points for her use of plural narration. So this year’s award for fiction looks like a three-way contest between Pearlman, Obreht and Otsuka.

Here are more comments on and letter grades for each finalist, based on their excerpts, in the form of a slightly modified version of my Nov. 1 tweets:

The Sojourn (Andrew Krivak) A World War I Austrian sharpshooter. Un-Remarque-able. Grade: B- Based on this excerpt.

The Tiger’s Wife (Téa Obreht) Interesting Balkan setting but overwrought. Grade: B Based on this excerpt.

The Buddha in the Attic (Julie Otsuka) Some slips with v. difficult plural narration. Grade: B Based on this excerpt.

Binocular Vision (Edith Pearlman) Everything short stories should be. Grade: A Based on this excerpt and “Relic and Type.” 

Salvage the Bones (Jesmyn Ward) My view: This is YA. Miscategorized by judges. No grade Based on this excerpt.

You may also want to read my recent post on the tarnished reputation of the National Book Awards and 7 ways their sponsor can regain trust. Reviews of other 2011 National Book Awards finalists may appear on One-Minute Book Reviews or Twitter before or after the Nov. 16 awards ceremony.

You can follow me on Twitter (@janiceharayda) by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this page.

— Janice Harayda

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