Some people who liked The Story of Edgar Sawtelle were nonetheless put off by its mix of human and canine narrators, including a four-footed stand-in for Ophelia in David Wroblewski’s Hamlet-influenced novel. Almondine isn’t the most unusual narrator in fiction. Clyde Edgerton’s The Floatplane Notebooks (Ballantine, 1989) is told partly from the viewpoint of a wisteria wine. Then there’s William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel about a troubled clan trying to bury its dead matriarch. Faulkner tells the story from the viewpoint of each family member, including the corpse.
May 7, 2009
April 28, 2009
Emily Dickinson, War Poet (Quote of the Day / From Drew Gilpin Faust’s Pulitzer Prize Finalist, ‘This Republic of Suffering’)
How did Americans deal with the unprecedented scale of death in the Civil War? Many grappled with the carnage partly by writing about it — in poems, letters, memoirs, sermons, diaries, and more — given a lucid analysis by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering, a finalist for the most recent National Book Award www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html and Pulitzer Prize for history www.pulitzer.org/citation/2009-History.
Gilpin Faust writes about Emily Dickinson in this excerpt from a much longer section about Dickinson’s work and that of other writers of the era, including Ambrose Bierce and Herman Melville:
“Emily Dickson is renowned as a poet preoccupied with death. Yet curiously any relationship between her work and the Civil War was long rejected by most literary critics, even though she wrote almost half her oeuvre, at a rate of four poems a week, during those years. Dickinson has been portrayed as a recluse, closeted from the real world and its tribulations. But her work is filled with the language of battle – the very vocabulary of war that she would have encountered in the four newspapers regularly delivered to the Dickinson household. Campaigns, cannons, rifle balls, bullets, artillery, soldiers, ammunition, flags, bayonets, cavalry, drums, and trumpets are recurrent images in her poetry.”
Gilpin Faust adds:
“Like so many reflective Americas of her time, she grappled with the contractions of spirit and matter and with their implications for heaven and for God. Death seemed ‘a Dialogue between the Spirit and the Dust,’ an argument left painfully unresolved. Dickinson wondered where she might find heaven (‘I’m knocking everywhere’) and what an afterlife might be (‘Is Heaven a place—a Sky—a Tree?’) …..
“Ironically, it was death, not life, that seemed eternal, for it ‘perishes—to live anew … Annihilation—plated fresh / With Immortality.’ No territorial justifications, no military or political purposes balance this loss; victory cannot compensate; it ‘comes late’ to those already dead, whose ‘freezing lips’ are ‘too rapt with frost / to take it.’ Dickinson permits herself no relief or escape into either easy transcendence or sentimentality.”
You might also want to read the Oct. 4, 2007, post, “Do Emily Dickinson’s Poems ‘Make a Virtue Out of Collapsing’?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/04/.
© 2009 Janice Harayda
April 27, 2009
April 11, 2009
Robinson, Updike or Roth Will Win the 2009 Pulitzer for Fiction, Statistical Analysis Shows — But Don’t Count on It
I’m on record as saying that the frontrunner for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction would seem to be Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy, which I haven’t read. Morrison is the only Nobel Prize–winner in the hunt. And I think it’s going to be tough for the judges to pass over a laureate, although the National Book Critics Circle board did it in March.
But a research scientist and a book collector have reached a different conclusion by using regression analysis, a statistical technique for evaluating variables. The two say that the books most likely to win the 2009 fiction prize are Marilynne Robinson’s Home, John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick, and Philip Roth’s Indignation. They’ve also identified the 12 other candidates that, based on their analysis, are most like to win, all listed in order at PPrize.com. You can read their 2008 predictions — and how they fared — on the same site. The Pulitzer Prizes honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction — and will be announced on Monday, April 20, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
The winners of the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced on Monday, April 20, 2009, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time at a press conference at Columbia University. The awards honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction. The finalists will be named at the same time, and the judges may decline to give a prize in any category.
April 9, 2009
Jonathan Yardley Says Cheever Bio Is ‘A Vast Inert Pudding of a Book That Leaves the Reader With a Severe Case of Indigestion’
I was jousting with computer problems while others were reviewing Blake Bailey’s new biography of one of my favorite writers, John Cheever, and I may not have time to backtrack to the book. But of the reviews I’ve read, the most convincing came from Jonathan Yardley, the Pulitzer Prize–winning critic for the Washington Post, and not just because Yardley has shown repeatedly that among critics working for major American newspapers, he is the least likely to buy into hype. Yardley has also been writing about Cheever for decades – much longer than others who’ve weighed in – and by my lights spoke from a position of greater authority.
His March 15 review begins:
“Two decades ago, reviewing Scott Donaldson’s John Cheever: A Biography for The Post, I commented favorably on the author’s ‘careful and honorable job’ but complained that, at 416 pages of text and apparatus, the book told us far more than we needed to know about Cheever’s life. What, then, is to be said of Blake Bailey’s Cheever? It weighs in at a stupefying 679 pages of text plus 89 pages of acknowledgments, notes and index, 770 pages in all, making for a vast inert pudding of a book that leaves the reader with a severe case of indigestion.
“Who knows what Cheever would have thought of this? On the one hand, he was a vain man for whom even the most lavish praise was insufficient, so perhaps it would have pleased him that he rates so bloated a text. On the other hand, the best of his own writing was done in short stories, and the best of those are notable for their economy and precision. Surely he would be astonished to see himself inflated into yet another biographical Gargantua, not to mention in a book that feeds rapaciously on his most unattractive if not repellent aspects: his obsessive, divided sexuality, his spectacular alcoholism, his failures as husband and father.
“Cheever was a wonderful writer — the Library of America has just given him his due with two volumes — but not, it seems, a very nice man …”
February 5, 2009
A rape trial turns out to involve incest in a Pulitzer Prize–winner set in the South in the 1930s
A Book-of-the-Month Club survey once ranked To Kill a Mockingbird among the top five books “most often cited as making a difference” in people’s lives. And Claudia Durst Johnson, a former English professor at the University of Alabama, found that it appeared on secondary-school reading lists as often as any book in English.
What accounts for the extraordinary appeal of Harper Lee’s only novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961? Certainly it tells a powerful story of an honorable lawyer, Atticus Finch, who accepts the near-hopeless task of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman in an Alabama town in the mid-1930s. It also has one of the most engaging child heroines in American fiction: Scout Finch, Atticus’s daughter, six years old when the story begins, who has an unselfconscious integrity as admirable as her father’s moral courage.
But the novel has more going for it than a strong plot and memorable characters. To Kill a Mockingbird has at its core an idea at once simple and vital to civilization: When everyone else is doing the wrong thing, one person can still do the right thing.
Young as she is, Scout understands that her father stands all but alone in defending Tom Robinson. Why has he taken on a case in which, as she sees it, “most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong”?
“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” Finch tells his daughter, who narrates the novel from the perspective of an adult looking back on the defining event of her childhood, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Some critics see Finch one-dimensional, too saintly to be credible. But much of the writing in the book is exquisitely subtle. Tom Robinson stands accused of raping the lonely Mayella Ewell, whose father has brought charges against him. And as the facts of the case emerge, it becomes clear that she was making advances to him and that her father caught her in the act. At his trial Robinson says that Mayella told him she had never kissed a grown man before: “She says what her papa do to her don’t count.”
“What her papa do to her don’t count.” Has any novel ever described sexual abuse with such delicacy? At that moment, we know that the crime in this novel is not rape but incest and that the motives of Mayella’s father, in accusing Robinson, went beyond racial prejudice.
Novels about such crimes abound today and often show only the worst of human nature. To Kill a Mockingbird is a tragedy, but shows good and evil, side by side. It tells us that when much of the world wears blinders, some people see clearly. If they have a vision of justice, their children – like Scout – will remember.
This is the fourth in a series of daily posts this week on some of my favorite books. The other posts dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title (Monday), Middlemarch (Tuesday), and Greater Expectations (Wednesday).
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
February 2, 2009
November 25, 2008
Rachel Johnson also wins for a scene from Shire Hell “that begins with moans and nibbles and works up to screaming and other animal noises”
John Updike has won a special lifetime achievement award from the judges of the 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Prize, given annually by the U.K. literary magazine the Literary Review. Here’s the AP story on the award www.kvoa.com/Global/story.asp?S=9412980&nav=HMO6HMaf. Updike has been nominated four times for the prize, this year for his novel The Widows of Eastwick.
The AP article doesn’t say whether the judges singled out any passages in giving Updike the award, which recognizes crude, tasteless and often gratuitous sex scenes in works that otherwise have literary merit. So I’ll repeat what I said yesterday in noting that Updike had been nominated: “Let’s face it – it’s a miracle that he has never won a Bad Sex award, given that this man created the lecherous Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, who made a pass at his daughter-in-law on his deathbed.”
James Pressley of Bloomberg.com reports that Rachel Johnson, the sister of London mayor Boris Johnson, is also a winner. She received the 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Prize “for a scene in Shire Hell that begins with moans and nibbles and works up to screaming and other animal noises” www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=a_G4Db0hO7Z8&refer=home. Pressley’s article is longer and has more information on the other candidates than the AP story.
(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
November 24, 2008
John Updike Makes 2008 Bad Sex in Fiction Award Shortlist for ‘The Widows of Eastwick’ – Russell Banks Also a Finalist — Curtis Sittenfeld’s ‘American Wife’ Spared
John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick has made the shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award given by the U.K. magazine the Literary Review. Among books by Americans, Russell Banks’s The Reserve is also finalist for the annual prize, launched to recognize and discourage crude, tasteless and often gratuitous sex scenes in modern novels that otherwise have literary merit.
The judges spared Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, which some critics have derided for its unintentionally comical sex scenes involving characters resembling George and Laura Bush. But they shortlisted Brida by the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, whose The Alchemist has been an American bestseller.
I admire much of the work of John Updike, particularly his poetry and literary criticism, and stand my recent comment that if Updike lived in Greenland, he would have had a Nobel Prize years ago. But – let’s face it – it’s a miracle that he has never won a Bad Sex award, given that this man created the lecherous Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who made a pass at his daughter-in-law on his deathbed. And I regard Russell Banks as one of America’s most overrated writers, so his nomination doesn’t test my startle reflect, either.
The Literary Review will award the Bad Sex prizes tomorrow night, and the meantime you can read about them at www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/nov/20/bad-sex-award-fiction. A victory by Updike or Banks would be the second award to an American in two years: Norman Mailer won posthumously in 2007 for The Castle in the Forest. Check back late tomorrow afternoon if you’re interested in the results.
You may also want to read the following 2007 posts on One-Minute Book Reviews:
“Ian McEwan Makes Longlist for Bad Sex in Fiction Award as Expected” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/23.
“’Sex in Ian McEwan’s Novel Is Not Bad Enough to Impress the Judges’” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/27/.
“Read All the Passages Shortlisted for the 2007 Bad Sex in Fiction Award Here” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/28/.
And this one from earlier 2008:
“Late Night With Jan Harayda – Is Curtis Sittenfeld Courting a Bad Sex in Fiction Award?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/24/.
The Literary Review does not post the shortlist on its Web site www.literaryreview.co.uk.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.