One-Minute Book Reviews

October 14, 2008

India’s Aravind Adiga Wins 2008 Man Booker Prize for ‘The White Tiger,’ a Novel That Outlook India Calls ‘A Tedious, Unfunny Slog’

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Aravind Adiga tonight won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his first novel, The White Tiger, which the New Yorker described as a “darkly comic début novel set in India” about a chauffeur who “murders his employer, justifying his crime as the act of a ‘social entrepreneur.’” The White Tiger won praise from some American and English reviewers, but the Indian novelist and critic Manjula Padmanabhan of the New Delhi-based Outlook India called it “a tedious, unfunny slog.” You’ll find links to that review and others over at the Complete Review, which gave the novel an overall B-minute rating www.complete-review.com/reviews/india/adigaa.htm. If you want just the hype, you’ll find it at the Man Booker site www.themanbookerprize.com.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 9, 2008

Ghosh and Barry Make 2008 Man Booker Prize Shortlist – O’Neill and Rushdie Shut Out – Read the Full List of Finalists Here

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Judge boasts in blog that “we had all got our cojones back, a bit” as panel kicks Netherland and The Enchantress of Florence in the nuts

The judges for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for fiction have announced the six finalists for the award, the winner of which will be named on Oct. 14:

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant
The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

The losers included Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Salman Rusdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, which emerged as the favorites of London bookies after being longlisted for the prize in July www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/thisyear/longlist.

The bookies at the William Hill agency in London immediately named Barry the 2-1 favorite to win the Man Booker, which carries a cash prize of 50,000 pounds. The odds-makers at Ladbroke’s called Aravind Adiga the favorite with Linda Grant close behind www.themanbookerprize.com/news/stories/1136. “We were convinced that the winner would be either Joseph O’Neill or Salman Rushdie and are amazed that neither even made the shortlist,” a spokesman for William Hill said. “As a result it looks like a very open competition with everyone in with a chance.”

Read about the six finalists for the Man Booker Prize at
www.themanbookerprize.com/news/stories/1134.

Read about the shortlist selection process in a blog by judge Louise Doughty, including her boast that “we had all got our cojones back” at www.themanbookerprize.com/news/blog-judges-08.

Read reviews of all the books on the 2008 Man Booker shortlist from major U.S. and U.K. newspapers here www.reviewsofbooks.com/booker/.

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

September 7, 2008

2008 Man Booker Prize Finalists To Be Named Tuesday — Jan the Hungarian Predicts That ‘Netherland’ Will Make the Shortlist

The latest in an occasional series of posts in which Janice Harayda, a former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle, predicts the winners of or finalists for major book awards*

The six finalists for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for fiction will be named Tuesday, winnowed from among the titles longlisted in July www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/thisyear/longlist. If Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland doesn’t make it, it will be a shocker that’s the literary equivalent of the Sarah Palin selection in reverse. It’s not so much that the book is one for the ages — though it’s the best 2008 novel I’ve read — but that it’s so much better than most Booker finalists. (Who can forget that the 2007 Man Booker judges gave us one finalist, Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip, that was written at a third-grade reading level? And that this was a frontrunner for the award that eventually went to The Gathering.) A review of and readers’ guide to Netherland appeared on this site on June 24 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/. Check back around 5 p.m. Tuesday for the shortlist or a link to it.

*under a nom de guerre inspired by that of the late Las Vegas odds-maker Jimmy Snyder, better known as “Jimmy the Greek”

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

January 21, 2008

Anne Enright’s Worthy Man Booker Prize–Winner, ‘The Gathering’

The Gathering is to On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip what 18-year-old Jameson is to lukewarm tap beer

The Gathering. By Anne Enright. Grove/Atlantic/Black Cat, 261 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In the 1920s a group of lay Catholics tried to save Dublin prostitutes by removing them from brothels after buying off the madams with Milk Tray chocolates or other bribes. Anne Enright builds on this historical episode in her artful Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Gathering, which imagines how the effort might have affected a young woman and her descendants.

Her narrator is 39-year-old Veronica Hegarty, a contemporary Irish mother of two who has enough wit and ironic detachment from her life to view it in quotation marks: “I could pick up my keys and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of people did. This is what I had been doing for years.”

But that begins to change after her brother Liam kills himself and her eight surviving siblings gather in Dublin for his funeral. As Veronica tries to make sense of the suicide, she reflects on her family’s sorrows – cancer, mental illness, alcoholism, an infant’s death, a mother’s seven miscarriages. None of it disturbs her more than a scene of sexual abuse that she accidentally had witnessed years earlier. An Oprah show might focused on the effects of that experience alone. Enright digs deeper and begins where television typically leaves off. In adulthood, Veronica realizes, “we always feel pain for the wrong thing.”

Best line: No. 1: “There is something wonderful about a death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought were vital are not even vaguely important. Your husband can feed the kids, he can work the new oven, he can find the sausages in the fridge, after all. And his important meeting was not important, not in the slightest.” No. 2: “There are so few people given to us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love it is important, even at nineteen. Especially at nineteen. And if you can, at nineteen, count the people you love on one hand, you will not, at forty, have run out of fingers on the other. There are so few people given to us to love and they all stick.”

Worst line: “I sweep my arm along the table of yellow pine, with its thick, plasticky sheen.” Send that “plasticky” back to the same neologism factory that gave us “garlicky.”

Recommendation? Not for book clubs that think Western literature peaked with Mitch Albom and Fannie Flagg. But it could be great choice for groups that like literary fiction. Grove/Atlantic has posted a reading group guide that is more extensive and thoughtful than most publishers’ guides.

Reading group guide: Available online at www.groveatlantic.com.

Published: 2007

Furthermore: The Gathering isn’t likely to have the popularity of the best-loved Booker winners, such as The Remains of the Day. It themes are too downbeat and the sex is too frequent and explicit. But it is a far better novel than the favorites for 2007 Man Booker Prize, On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip, which it defeated www.themanbookerprize.com. The story is richer, the characters better developed and the settings more fully evoked. The Gathering is to On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip what 18-year-old Jameson is to lukewarm tap beer. It is also better than the 60 or so pages that I read of the 2006 winner, The Inheritance of Loss www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/20/. Anne Enright is what every literary novelist should be: a good storyteller who has something worthy to say.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

October 16, 2007

Irish Novelist Anne Enright Wins the Man Booker Prize, and the Judges Dodge a Bullet

Whew. That was close. No, not the betting on which of the frontrunners for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, Lloyd Jones‘s Mister Pip and Ian McEwan‘s On Chesil Beach, would win (though only a hair’s breadth separated their odds at the end).

What was really a squeaker was how close the judges may have come to honoring one of those novels, neither worthy of a major international award. Tonight the prize went instead to the Irish novelist Anne Enright‘s The Gathering, which was all but impossible to find in the U.S. in the days leading up to the ceremony (based on my efforts to obtain a copy through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, independent booksellers, and libraries). I hope to review it as soon as it becomes available. In the meantime you can read more about The Gathering at www.themanbookerprize.com.

Tomorrow: Full color makes its debut on One-Minute Book Reviews with a discussion of the cover of Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive (reviewed today) and comments on book covers generally. That post is part of a new series that occasionally will discuss the covers of books reviewed on this site and why they do or don’t fit the books.

Thank you for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 15, 2007

Will a Book Written at a Third-Grade Reading Level Get the Man Booker Prize for Fiction Tomorrow?

Tomorrow we ‘ll find out if the Man Booker Prize for Fiction www.themanbookerprize.com will go to New Zealander Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip, a novel written at a third-grade reading level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word. For more on this potential embarrassment to one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes, see the post “Dumbing Down the Man Booker Prize” that appeared on this site on Sept. 24 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/24/ and the follow-up post the next day on the broader issue of dumbing-down literary awards www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/25/.

Jones had been the frontrunner in the betting at London bookmaking firms. But the race has turned into an apparent dead heat between Mister Pip and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/10/, which has its own problems described in the review on this site.

I couldn’t review all the finalists, because some aren’t yet available in the United States. But I’ll have at least a brief comment on the awards as soon as possible after the winner is named.

(c) Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 25, 2007

The Case Against Giving Prizes to Dumbed-Down Books

What’s the harm giving literary awards to books written at an 8-year-old reading level?

Okay, so the frontrunner for the Man Booker Prize, Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip, is written at a third-grade level www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/24/. Is there any harm in giving it the prize, anyway? Does the level matter if people enjoy the book?

In this case, it matters a lot. Here are a few reasons why:

1. The Man Booker Prize is one of the world’s major literary honors, perhaps second only to the Nobel Prize in Literature. To give the award to a novel written at a third-grade reading level would all but sanctify the dumbing down of our culture. The problem isn’t that all writers should write above an agreed-on level — it’s that a low reading level leads to pandering and oversimplification. Most third-graders need simplified books because their brains aren’t fully developed. What’s the point of writing at an 8-year-old reading level for adults?

2. Giving the prize to a novel written at a third-grade level would be unfair to all the children’s authors who write books at the same level and weren’t nominated because their publishers assumed they weren’t eligible. You might wonder, for example, why J.K. Rowling never appeared on a shorlist.

3. The Man Booker Prize typically leads a huge increase in sales of a book. If the award goes to Mister Pip, many people will buy it – or may already have done so — with the false expectation that they are getting a book written at a higher level.

4. Mister Pip is narrated by a black female university graduate who looks back on the life-changing impact of hearing a white man read Great Expectations at the age of 13. That such an educated woman would still think like an 8-year-old, in the context of the novel, defies belief. It also raises questions about cultural expectations of women and blacks that beg for comment by scholars and others.

Given all of this, what can readers, booksellers, librarians and others do?

If you haven’t bought the book, don’t buy it, or wait for the paperback. If you bought it and were disappointed, ask for your money back. Or leave a comment in the forum on the Booker site www.themanbookerprize.com entitled, “Did the Judging Panel Get the Shortlist Right?” If you are a bookseller or librarian, consider displaying Mister Pip in the children’s section or recommending it mainly for children under 12.

As for me, I’m trying to decide what to do on One-Minute Book Reviews if a book written at a third-grade level wins a major prize like the Booker or National Book Award. Should I move the review of the winner to the “Children’s Books” category? Let this blog “go dark” for a day? Or just put an asterisk if the title?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 24, 2007

Dumbing Down the Man Booker Prize — Finalist Lloyd Jones Writes at a Third-Grade Level in ‘Mister Pip,’ Microsoft Word Readability Stats Show

[Reading levels of past Man Booker winners appear at the end of this review.]

Bearing the white man’s burden of introducing Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations to a black teenager as a guerrilla war of secession rages on a Pacific island

Mister Pip. By Lloyd Jones. Dial, 256 pp., $20.

By Janice Harayda

No literary prize attracts controversy as regularly as the Man Booker, given annually to a novel by an author from the Commonwealth or Ireland. Even so, you have to wonder if another uproar won’t occur if this year’s award goes to Mister Pip, the finalist by New Zealander Lloyd Jones that is the favorite of London bookies.

There are two huge problems with the novel, narrated by a black female university graduate who looks back on the life-changing effect of hearing a white man read Great Expectations when she was 13 and living on a guerrilla-war–ravaged Pacific island. The first is that Mister Pip is written at a third-grade (roughly 8-year-old) reading level, the same as Mitch Albom’s For One More Day. (A list of U.S. grades and their corresponding ages appears at the end of this review.)

How do I know? I once edited books for a test-prep company and, after finishing Mister Pip, realized that its reading level was much lower that of many books I had edited for elementary-school students. So I entered a page of Jones’s text into my computer, ran the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word, and got a grade level of 4.4 for it. To see if the passage was typical, I entered two later pages and got even lower grade levels, 3.1 and 3.5, an average of 3.6 for the novel. I also entered text from another finalist, On Chesil Beach (grade 8.6), and the past winners listed below with their reading levels.

A third-grade reading level might be startling in any finalist: Who knew that the Man Booker was a prize for children’s literature? (Did anybody tell J.K. Rowling’s publisher about this?) But there’s a second problem that relates to specifically to Mister Pip. Why does a novel narrated by a university graduate have the reading the level of an 8-year-old? Jones clearly wants to show the world as Matilda saw it while living on Bougainville, but she was a precocious 13-year-old then. He can’t be trying to imitate Great Expectations, because a page from Charles Dickens’s novel registered a grade level of 10.7. The racial implications of having a black university graduate tell her story at an 8-year-old level beg for comment by scholars like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard www.harvard.edu.

To write forcefully from the point of view of someone looking back on childhood events, you need to show the richness of that child’s perceptions, a fact Dickens understood brilliantly. In Mister Pip we get Mitch Albom-esque pseudoprofundities. There is much talk of “the wisdom of crabs,” “what the lychee can teach us” and “the great shame of trees,” which is apparently that they “have no conscience.” Mister Pip brims with lines that seem to have floated off refrigerator magnets. “It is hard to be a perfect human being, Matilda.” “There are some things you never expect to lose, things you think will forever be part of you, even if it is only a toenail.” “You would never guess that a hairbrush and a toothbrush could be so important and necessary.” What if, actually, you would have guessed that a toothbrush could be necessary?

For anyone who doesn’t need to be reminded such self-evident pieties, the main interest of Mister Pip lies in its resurrection of the details of the little-known war that Bougainville fought for secession from Papua New Guinea in the early 1990s. Jones offers several memorable glimpses of its forgotten atrocities, such as the tossing of rebels to their deaths from helicopters over the Pacific. But this historical footnote is likely to provide scant – if any — comfort for anyone who expects more than third-grade level prose from a Man Booker finalist.

Mister Pip has been called “a hymn to reading,” as Carole Angier put it in the British magazine the Spectator www.spectator.co.uk. And while that’s true, most adults have read more thoughtful paeans to reading than Jones’s comment that when you hold a book, “you can slip under the skin of another just as easily as your own.” Many American children encountered one of them when were assigned to read Emily Dickinson’s “There is No Frigate Like a Book,” which begins: “There is no frigate like a book / To take us lands away / Nor any coursers like a page / Of prancing poetry/.”

So may I suggest that anyone looking for a “hymn to reading” skip Jones and go directly to Dickinson? Not only does she express in four lines a theme it takes Jones 256 pages to develop. She also writes at the 12th-grade reading level found in one the best-loved Booker winners, The Remains of the Day.

This review is written at the level of grade 11.7, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.

Best line: “We were used to the redskins’ helicopters buzzing in and out of the cloud around the mountain peaks. Now we saw them head out to sea in a straight line. The helicopter would reach a certain point, then turn around and come back as if it had forgotten something. Where they [sic] turned back was just a pinprick in the distance. We could not see the men thrown out. But that’s what we heard. The redskins flung the captured rebels out the open door of the helicopter, their arms and legs kicking in the air.”

Worst line: “A prayer was like a tickle. Sooner or later God would have to look down and see what was tickling his bum.”

How to find the grade level of a text using Microsoft Word: Enter a passage from the text into your computer and run the spell-checker. Read down to the bottom of the window that appears on your screen when the spell-checking is complete. In the last line you’ll see the words “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.” This tells you the American grade level.

U.S. school grades and corresponding ages: American children typically begin grades at these ages: kindergarten, 5; first grade, 6; second grade, 7; third grade, 8; fourth grade, 9; fifth grade, 10; sixth grade, 11; seventh grade, 12; eighth grade, 13; 9th grade (freshman year high school), 14; 10th grade (sophomore year high school), 15; 11th grade (junior year high school), 16; 12th grade (senior year high school), 17.

How I calculated the Man Booker reading levels: I generally entered 300 words of expository text found between pages 23 and 25. The reason? The first chapter of a novel is often atypical, because many writers need a chapter to find their stride. A chapter usually has about 20 pages, so I started a few pages after page 20. I chose passages containing mainly expository text because lines of dialogue may misrepresent the overall level if, for example, they are spoken by a laconic character who tends to give monosyllabic answers (which can result in a low grade level). For Mister Pip I entered three passages that began on pages 23, 123 and 223 of the American edition.

Grade levels of selected Man Booker winners www.themanbookerprize.com: The Remains of the Day, grade 12; Life of Pi, grade 10.5; The Sea, grade 10.2; Midnight’s Children, grade 10; Schindler’s Ark (the original title of Schindler’s List), grade 8.9; Hotel du Lac, grade 8.8.; Possession, grade 8.7; Offshore, grade 8.1. The level the 2006 winner, The Inheritance of Loss, varied from 5.3 to 12 for an average of 8.1.

For the grade levels of other living and dead writers from Mitch Albom to James Boswell, see the post that appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 16 (“Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/16/. For the writing levels of U.S. Presidents, see the post that appeared on Feb. 10 (“Bizarre But True: GWB Writes at a Higher Level Than Thomas Jefferson”) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/10/.

Published: August 2007 www.dialpress.com

Charles Dickens sites: The many good sites on Dickens include that of the Dickens Fellowship www.dickensfellowship.org, a 105-year-old organization based at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, which has chapters throughout the U.S. and world.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. She was the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org when the late Booker winner Penelope Fitzgerald (Offshore) won the NBCC fiction prize for The Blue Flower in 1998. Fitzgerald said in an interview after winning the NBCC prize: “I was so unprepared to win the award that I hadn’t even planned a celebration. I certainly shan’t do the ironing today!”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 23, 2007

Has the Man Booker Prize Turned Into a Children’s Literature Award? Coming Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews:
Dumbing down the Man Booker Prize: At least one novel on the short list for this year’s Man Booker Prize is written at such a low level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word, you might think the prize had turned into a children’s literature award. Did J. K. Rowling’s publishers know about this?

Later this week:
Reconsidering Agatha Christie: Does she deserve the scorn she gets from critics?

Saturday:
Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #5: Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss.

To avoid missing these and other reviews coming this week, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Thank you for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 21, 2007

Dumbing Down the Man Booker Prize for Fiction: Reading Levels of Finalists and Past Winners Exposed on Monday

Which finalist for the Man Booker Prize is written at the same grade level as Mitch Albom’s For One More Day?

The site for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction themanbookerprize.com bombastically declares that the prize is “the world’s most important literary award.” That’s not true — the Nobel Prize in Literature www.nobelprize.org is the most important — but the Man Booker probably ranks second. It carries a cash award of 50,000 pounds (about $101,000 dollars), or ten times as much the top American literary honors, the National Book Award www.nationalbook.org and Pulitzer Prize www.pulitzer.org, worth $10,000 each. And the Man Booker site says, correctly, that the prize “has the power to transform the fortunes of authors an even publishers,” as the little-known Edinburgh firm of Canongate www.canongate.net discovered when its Life of Pie took top honors in 2002.

So why have this year’s Man Booker judges squandered some of the cachet of the prize by shortlisting a book written at the third-grade level of Mitch Albom’s For One More Day www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/16/?

On Monday One-Minute Book Reviews reveals the reading levels of some current finalists for the prize and compares them with that of former winners such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All righs reserved.

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