One-Minute Book Reviews

April 8, 2008

Why Do Unworthy Books Win Awards like Pulitzer Prizes? Quote of the Day (Neville Braybrooke)

In last night’s post, I listed some classic American novels that didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, given yesterday to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. A related question is: Why do unworthy book win awards? One obvious answer is that most prizes are given out annually, and every year may not bring a great book in a category.

But more subtle factors may come into play. A truism of literary prize-giving is that awards often go to everybody’s second choice. Judges may split into two camps with each side fiercely opposing the other’s first choice. To reach a decision, they may choose a second-rate book they can all support.

Judges tell many stories in among themselves about such compromises but rarely discuss them publicly. Who wants to admit to having honored a clinker? But Neville Braybooke suggests how the practice can work in his preface to the Every Eye, the elegant second novel by his late wife, Isobel English. Braybooke writes that English refused to add the happy ending that an American publisher wanted to her to give her first novel, The Key That Rusts:

“More significantly, during these early days of her career, came the news that The Key That Rusts had been shortlisted for the Somerset Maugham Award, tying for first place with Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net. In the event, the judges were unable to decide who should be the winner, so they gave the prize to the runner-up, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.”

Neville Braybrooke in Every Eye (David R. Godine/Black Sparrow, $23.95)

Comment by Jan:

Braybrooke may have been willing to tell this anecdote partly because there would have been no shame in losing either to Lucky Jim or Under the Net, both modern classics. And few critics would argue that Amis’s comic novel was unworthy of an award. The Somerset Maugham Award is given annually by the London-based Society of Authors to the writer or writers under the age of 35 who wrote the best book of the year.

Do you think any unworthy books have won awards? What are they?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

“ …

February 1, 2008

Diary: Barbara Pym’s ‘Good Books for Bad Days’

[This is the first in an occasional series of brief posts on books or authors whose work I can’t review at more length. The posts will be saved in the “Diary” category.]

A soggy morning in New Jersey. The chilly rain reminded me of a comment often made about the novels of Barbara Pym – they’re “good books for bad days.” They’re good books for good days, too.

Pym (1913–1980) had suffered more than her share of rejection until, in the 1970s, the Times Literary Supplement asked well-known writers to name the most underrated writer of the 20th century. After years of neglect by the British literary establishment, Pym was the only writer nominated by two of the authors, the poet Philip Larkin and the biographer David Cecil. Their praise, especially Larkin’s, sparked a revival of interest in her work that has abated slightly in the U.S. but has never disappeared.

I’ve read five or six of Pym’s quiet novels of English life and admire their modesty, intelligence and low-keyed irony. No writer would be less likely to give a book the sort of bombastic title — Everything Is Illuminated, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I Am America (And So Can You) — that is fashionable today. And each of her novels involves circumstances different enough to keep them from becoming repetitive despite their similarlarities of tone. Excellent Women is about a group of single women who, though young, are verging on what used to be called spinsterhood. Quartet in Autumn deals with the enmeshed lives of four friends, male and female, who are facing retirement. An Unsuitable Attachment explores the effects of a single woman’s attraction to a younger man. And The Sweet Dove Died is about the losses of middle age and beyond, especially menopause (though Pym is too discreet to use the word).

Where will I start when I return to Pym Excellent Women is among the wittiest of her novels, so I might begin there if I needed reliable diversion on a day when the weather was hoarding its comforts – a day, in other words, like today.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 12, 2008

Why Was Randolph Caldecott So Great? (Quotes of the Day/Maurice Sendak)

On Monday the American Library Association will announce the winner of its highest award for a picture book, named for the great English illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846–1886). Why was Caldecott so important? Here’s an answer from Maurice Sendak, who won the Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are:

“Caldecott’s work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counterpoint that had never happened before. Words are left out – but the picture says it. Pictures are left out – but the word says it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.”

* * *

“My favorite example of Caldecott’s fearless honesty is the final page of Hey Diddle Diddle. After we read, ‘And the Dish ran away with the spoon,’ accompanied by a drawing of the happy couple, there is the shock of turning the page and finding a picture of the dish broken into ten pieces – obviously dead – and the spoon being hustled away by her angry parents. There are no words that suggest such an end to the adventure; it is purely a Caldecottian invention. Apparently, he could not resist enlarging the dimensions of this jaunty nursery rhyme by adding a last sorrowful touch.”

Maurice Sendak in Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), a collection of Sendak’s reviews and other writing for adults. The first quote comes from his essay “Randolph Caldecott” and the second from his acceptance speech for the 1964 Caldecott Medal. Sendak is one of the few great picture-book artists who is also a great critic. Caldecott & Co. has only a dozen pages of pictures but doesn’t need more, because Sendak makes you see books without them.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 18, 2007

Why Does ‘A Christmas Carol’ Work So Well As a Holiday Story? Quote of the Day (Jane Smiley)

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — a sentimental novella about the redemption of a miser — could easily have turned to drivel. Why didn’t it? Here’s an answer from the novelist Jane Smiley:

A Christmas Carol, like Martin Chuzzlewit, concerns itself with the social ramifications of selfishness, but the characters of young Martin and old Martin are combined in that of Ebenezer Scrooge, and his moral journey, which takes place in three acts in one night, has the force of a revelation rather than the tedium of a lengthy trek by ox-drawn wagon. Some of the narrative had its origins in one of Dickens’s own vivid dreams, and surely the idea of of using dreams as a structural device had its origins there as well …

“But what makes A Christmas Carol work — what makes it so appealing a novella that William Makepeace Thackeray, Dickens’s most self-conscious literary rival, called it ‘a national benefit’ — is the lightness of Dickens’s touch. Instead of hammering his points home, as he does in Martin Chuzzlewit, he is content (or more content) to let his images speak for themselves.”

Jane Smiley in Charles Dickens: A Penguin Life (Viking/Lipper, $19.95) Smiley’s novels include A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

For more on Dickens, visit the site for the Dickens Fellowship, a 105-year-old organization based at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, which has chapters throughout the U.S. and world.

The “Christmas Carol” in the title of Dickens’s novella is “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” which mentioned in the story. To listen to it, click here

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 11, 2007

Gifts for Readers — Hobbit Poster From the Bodleian Library at Oxford

[I’m tossing in a few extra posts this week with suggested gifts for readers. Again, no kickbacks from their sellers. These are just gifts that I like and help to support libraries or other friends of books. Today’s review appears in the post below this one.]

Most book posters are artless enough to appeal only to fans of the titles they promote. Not this handsome poster published by the Bodleian Library at Oxford University for an exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in 1987. The poster shows one of Tolkien’s drawings for the first edition of the novel, depicting the scene “Bilbo Comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves.” It has the dates of the exhibit and sells for 5.95 pounds (about $12) at Bodleian Library Shop Online The shop has other Hobbit posters and literary gifts, including cards imprinted with quotations from Shakespeare or reproductions of the covers of Victorian gardening books owned by the library. A related gift: The Hobbit: 70th Anniversary Edition (Houghton Mifflin, $25), just published in the U.S., which has Tolkien’s original drawings and an introduction by Christopher Tolkien.

Drawing: (c) The Trustees of the Tolkien Estate 2005.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Which Writers Best Define English and American Literature? 25 Scholars and Critics Respond in ‘Literary Genius,’ Edited by Joseph Epstein

America’s finest literary essayist assembles a bracing collection of reflections on Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Willa Cather, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost and others

Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature. Edited by Joseph Epstein. Wood Engravings by Barry Moser. Paul Dry Books, 246 pp., $34.95 hardcover, $18.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Reading these exceptionally fine essays is like catching up with all those brilliant professors you missed in college because you were sure you would benefit more in life from all your film theory classes on the semiotics of Patrick Swayze movies.

Literary Genius is a kind of print equivalent of a course from the Teaching Company, which rounds up academic supernovas and records their lectures on DVDs, so you can watch them at home over a beer and a bowl of Doritos. (No nasty homework assignments! No messy exams that conflict with your spring break plans! No loss to your grade if you go to class drunk or stoned out of your mind!) Joseph Epstein has collected 25 essays by world-class scholars and critics on vanished titans of English and American literature — Hilary Mantel on Jane Austen, A. N. Wilson on Charles Dickens, Justin Kaplan on Walt Whitman, David Womersley on Edward Gibbon, John Simon on T. S. Eliot. And you might wonder about more than what the Irish will think about Epstein’s decision to include James Joyce in the book: Why did Willa Cather make the cut but not Virginia Woolf? Why did Ernest Hemingway but not F. Scott Fitzgerald?

But the essays are everything that literary essays should be – bold, fluent, authoritative and written with flair and at times wit. Here is the first paragraph of a sparkling essay by John Gross on Joyce:

“One of the questions Napoleon used to ask, when a solider was recommended for promotion, was ‘Does he have luck?’ Writers need luck, too, and an important part of James Joyce’s achievement is that he was born at the right time. He was a modernist who was able to get his claim in first.”

Gross takes perhaps the most difficult literary genius of the 20th century and, with a few strokes, places him in context. He argues that wrote fine and distinctive books in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and a “perhaps mad” one in Finnegans Wake (which, unabridged, is “strictly for addicts”). But if he qualifies as a genius, it’s because of Ulysses and “the novel’s two greatest achievements” — its portrait of Dublin and its portrait of Leopold Bloom.

Most of the essays are similarly bracing. They typically range widely over an author’s work, avoiding the claustrophobic narrowness of so much recent literary criticism. Lois Potter gives Hamlet only a sentence in her essay on William Shakespeare. But her entry holds its own, in part, by reminding us that “Shakespeare’s reputation owes something to the dominance of the English language in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the fact that the ability to understand Shakespeare has become the ultimate test of the ability to use that language.”

Literary Genius includes brief excerpts from the work of all of its subjects and 59 handsome wood engravings by Barry Moser. These enhance its appeal as a gift, but its essays could stand on their own. You might expect no less from a book edited by Epstein, America’s finest literary essayist and its nearest counterpart to the late English critic V.S. Pritchett. “Timelessness, grandeur of vision, originality of outlook – all these, in concert and worked at a high power, comprise genius in the writer,” he writes. By those standards, this book shows genius, too.

Best line: Every essay has its own. A passage in Robert Pack’s essay on Frost suggests the freshness of perspectives in this book: “Along with being our leading nature poet, Robert Frost is also the poet who writes most extensively about marriage, love, and desire – all in the context of loss and death. Surely, no poet since John Milton treats the theme of sexual desire and marriage more extensively or more profoundly than Frost.” Pack might have replaced one of the “extensively”s. Even so, how many people associate Frost with poems about “sexual desire”?

Worst line: The first line James L. W. West III’s essay on Hemingway: “One sees Hemingway’s style best in his early short stories.” The problem isn’t the “one,” though West’s style is less conversational than that of most contributors. It’s that his essay is narrowe. West deals only with Hemingway’s short stories, while most of the writers give an overview of their subject’s work. His essay doesn’t mesh with the others, and Epstein seems to acknowledge it by burying it at the back.

Recommendation? This is could be a wonderful gift for serious readers and helpful to the many books clubs that are reading Austen and Cather.

Published: October 15, 2007. The publisher’s site includes Epstein’s introduction to the book . A brief excerpt from its essay on John Milton appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Friday

Furthermore: Joseph Epstein edited the American Scholar for more than 20 years and has written 19 books. Barry Moser won the American Book Award for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. John Gross is a former editor of the London Times Literary Supplement and a staff member at the New York Times. Since 1989 he has been the theater critic of the Sunday Telegraph

Other links: The Teaching Company

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It also for people who dislike long-winded reviews that are full of facts or plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book. You may not agree with views you read this site but you will know what those views are.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 1, 2007

A Review of Rebecca Gowers’s ‘When to Walk,’ Longlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize, Coming This Week

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:23 am
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If you live in the U.S. and want to read any of the three novels by women on the shortlist for Man Booker Prize, good luck to you and the New York Mets. At least one of the novels, Anne Enright’s The Gathering, is listed as in stock on But I came up empty-handed at — and was told that, in fact, Enright’s book and the two others by women are not yet available in the U.S. — by a major Barnes & Noble store and two good independent booksellers.

But you can find Rebecca Gowers’s first novel, When to Walk, longlisted along with books by Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), a major U.K. award open to female writers of any nationality. One-Minute Book Reviews will post a review later this week of Gowers’s book, first published by the Edinburgh-based Canongate, which established its international reputation with the Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi.

By the way, all three of the Man Booker finalists by male authors are available here, and I had no trouble finding the two I wanted to read, Mister Pip and On Chesil Beach, which recently have blanketed Fifth Avenue bookstore windows.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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 bombastically declares that the prize is “the world’s most important literary award.” That’s not true — the Nobel Prize in Literature 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 and Pulitzer Prize, 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 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

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.

September 6, 2007

Does Agatha Christie Deserve the Scorn She Gets From Critics? Coming Soon to One-Minute Book Reviews

Agatha Christie once vied with mystery novelist Georges Simenon for the title of the world’s best-selling author. But since her death 1976, she has declined in popularity. Her books are often derided by critics and harder to find than those of contemporary novelists such as Mary Higgins Clark. Do they deserve this fate? Do they have any interest today except as period pieces or the inspiration for such movies as Witness for the Prosecution and Murder on the Orient Express?

A reconsideration of Christie’s work will appear soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing this post. Until then please feel free to leave your comments on Christie’s work.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 4, 2007

Are You Smart Enough to Understand Geoffrey Hill?

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:32 pm
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A man often called “England’s best living poet” returns with a collection that includes appreciations of Cesare Pavese, Hart Crane and Jimi Hendrix

Without Title. By Geoffrey Hill. Yale University Press, 96 pp., $26, cloth; $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Many people call Geoffrey Hill “England’s best living poet.” Donald Hall, the U.S. poet laureate, says he may be “the greatest English poet since George Herbert.”

Then why is Hill less famous than other poets of his vanishing generation, including Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin? One answer is that, in some ways, he makes more demands on you. His poems are so dense and full of pentimento effects that he has more in common with T.S. Eliot than with Hughes or Larkin. Hill may have made fewer concessions to popular tastes than any living writer. And the pattern holds in Without Title. The rhymes of his earlier books have all but disappeared, though not his use of iambic meter and classical forms (which include, in this book, Pindaric odes). He acknowledges his reluctance to dumb-down his poems in “Discourse: For Stanley Rosen”:

I tell myself
don’t wreck a good phrase simply to boost sense —

Yet, in the same poem, he suggests that even high standards may not be enough:

So few of us absolved when what we write
sets us to rights on some scale of justice.

Hill sets the tone of Without Title in its first poem, “Improvisation on ‘O Welt ich muss dich lassen’” (“O world, I must leave you”), a meditation on the tune that inspired a Bach chorale. The first word of that poem – and the book — is German (traurig or “sorrowful”). Then he’s off to the races, salting his book with words or phrases from at least a half dozen languages — German, French, Italian, Latin, Greek and Hebrew – and references drawn from more than a thousand years of literary history. His English is similarly high-altitude. Without Title teems with words like “atrorubent,” “barathea,” “Pasiphaean,” “haruspex,” ”pleach-toned” and “shotten.”

At the core of the book lies a deep awareness of the weight of mortality – Hill’s and others’ – suggested by that “O world, I must leave you.” Nearly a third of it consists of dialogues with two poets who committed suicide, Cesare Pavese and Hart Crane. And it has a three-page elegy for Jimi Hendrix whose death – although not officially ruled a suicide – involved some ambiguity on that count.

Yet these poems are too firmly entwined with Hill’s Christian roots to deny all hope. If they are at times sorrowful, they not cynical. One of the best poems, “Epiphany at Saint Mary and All Saints,” begins:

The wise men, vulnerable in ageing plaster,
are borne as gifts
to be set down among other treasures
in their familial strangeness, mystery’s toys.

This quatrain is fresh and memorable partly because inverts the traditional image: The wise men who once brought gifts to the Christ Child are themselves “borne as gifts.” And if they are “vulnerable,” they are not shattered or absent. A more dogmatic or conventionally religious poet might have gone on to try to persuade us that mystery can survive in an age that reduces it to toys. But in the last line of the poem, Hill surprises us again. He tells us: “The night air sings a colder spell to come.”

Best line: From “Insert Here”: “Let me be, says the dying man, let me fall / upwards toward my roots.”

Worst line: Hill verges on bathos in an elegy for Jimi Hendrix, a user of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), that casts the guitarist’s life as a Greek tragedy with hallocinogens. The word lysergic, Hill tells is, “also is made up Greek.”

Consider reading instead: Geoffrey Hill’s New and Collected Poems: 1952-1992 (Mariner, 2000) would make a better introduction to Hill’s work for most readers, partly because it is stylistically and thematically broader.

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: In the context of this collection, Without Title may refer to an honorific, the name of a literary work or a property title (perhaps the most fitting sense of the phrase, given that many poems deal with losing a purchase on life). It may also refer to the title of Britain’s poet laureate, which Hill has never held.

Published: April 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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