Interesting reactions to my post yesterday on an apparent conflict of interest on the judging panel for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature. An article by Motoko Rich for the New York Times ArtsBeat blog, in which I am quoted, begins: “It’s not Olympic figure skating, but even the National Book Awards can generate a judging scandal.” And Elizabeth Bird weighs in on the School Library Journal blog, where she wonders: “What should technically be considered a conflict of interest?” The winners of the awards will be announced tonight beginning at about 8 p.m. EST, and the results should appear almost instantaneously on Twitter (@nationalbook) at www.twitter.com/nationalbook. I may have comments about them after 10 p.m. on “Late Night With Jan Harayda.”
November 18, 2009
November 15, 2009
‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ – Quotes of the Day From a 2009 Finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
“A novel … does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman, all the better.”
— Charles Darwin, as quoted in Charles and Emma
The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced Wednesday, and the finalists in the category of young people’s literature include Deborah Heiligman’s captivating Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95). This dual biography is a portrait of the loving marriage of the author of The Origin of Species and his spirited and intelligent wife, who held religious views he did not share.
This excerpt describes how Charles and Emma Darwin spent their first days in their new home in London after their wedding at a Staffordshire church on January 29, 1839:
“In their first few days together, they mostly stayed in – it was snowing. But they also did some shopping for furniture, dishes, and clothes, including a morning gown for Emma. It was ‘a sort of clarety-brown satin,’ she wrote to [her sister] Elizabeth, and she felt it was ‘very unobjectionable.’ They borrowed some novels from the library, starting a lifelong tradition of reading together – usually Emma read to Charles while he rested from his work. Charles liked novels with happy endings, and he once wrote, ‘I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me … and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily – against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.”
An earlier post on Charles and Emma has links to more information about the book.
The publisher recommends Charles and Emma for ages 13 and up — perhaps because of occasional mature content, such as the passing use of the word “erection” — but it may also appeal to younger children who are strong readers.
November 5, 2009
Paranoia with a side of wasabi cashews
Chronic City: A Novel. By Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 467 pp., $27.95.
By Janice Harayda
Do MacArthur Fellowships have a counterpart to the “curse of the Nobel” said to keep writers from doing their best work after they become laureates? You might think so after reading the latest novel by the “genius grant” winner Jonathan Lethem.
Chronic City draws on an idea that science-fiction writers have used for decades: simulated-worlds theory, which says that computers will someday become powerful enough to create a facsimile of the universe, full of people who really believe they’re alive – they don’t know they’re fakes. Lethem brings the idea to literary fiction in a surrealistic fable about Manhattan during the economic meltdown: You’re never certain whether his characters are real or created by forces beyond their ken. This premise might seem ideally pitched to novel born of a financial crisis that has caused many people to think: This is can’t be real. But the idea holds a trap: If you invent characters soulless enough to have been created by computer, how do you keep them human enough to support a novel?
Lethem doesn’t avoid that danger in this tale of two friends whose lives intersect with those of a billionaire mayor and others who can still afford cocktails with wasabi cashews and “a nice black-market unpasteurized fromage.” Chase Insteadman is a semi-retired actor, a man whose work involves selling illusions, whose fiancée is an astronaut trapped with Russians at a space station threatened by Chinese mines. Perkus Tooth is a paranoid stoner and former culture critic who believes New York has become unreal, a simulation of itself. Yes, those twee names are typical of this novel in which words seem to run away with Lethem.
The plot turns partly on Perkus’s efforts to ease his anxieties by enlisting Chase and others in his quest to obtain rare ceramics called chaldrons that may have magical powers. A subplot weaves in phantasmagorical elements such as a giant escaped tiger that is ravaging the Upper East Side, that bastion of old money and property. Many undergraduate theses will be written about all symbols-within-symbols in this novel. (Sample title: “Different Stripes: The Meaning of the Question ‘Who Made This Tiger?’ in William Blake’s Poem ‘The Tiger’ and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City.) And worthy questions underlie its cat’s-cradle of pop-cultural references, including: Who owns New York? Those references support a theme that Chase’s fiancée suggests in one of her letters home from outer space: “we’ve defaulted to an illusion of substance.” She’s talking about the deteriorating condition of the trapped astronauts, but her words describe New York as a whole: In the novel the city has only “an illusion of substance.” The condition is chronic.
Yet Chronic City reads more like a simulation of a novel than the real thing. It has a turgid pace almost no conflict, suspense, or heart. Most characters appear soulless. And the writing is repetitive to the point of bloat and, at times, graceless. Critics have compared Lethem’s early novels to the works of contemporary titans, but Chronic City has more in common with Herman Melville’s numbing final novel, The Confidence-Man. Even a mayoral aide’s sexual encounter – described as “wildly odd and erotic” – fails to supply the missing spark. Lethem writes: “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” A bit, perhaps, like the itching you may feel to put aside this book after many pages of sentences like that one.
Best line: “His mind’s landscape was epic, dotted with towering figures like Easter Island heads.”
Worst line: No. 1 (quoted above): “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” No. 2: “It was my first green chaldron. (Like sexual positions or travel to distant locales, I’d been semiconsciously cataloguing seminal moments, breakthroughs.)” No. 3: “I wanted Oona in the morning. I could still conjure her slippery smoothness in my arms (and divergent cuppable breasts in my palms, where they left ghost trails of a peach’s weight), but Oona kept dunning lights and pulling curtains, and dressing and undressing stealthily, while I was at the sink or refrigerator, or asleep.” No. 4: “My shame took its place in a vast backdrop of shames – oxygen-starved astronauts, war-exiled orphans, dwindling and displaced species – against which I puttered through daily life, attending parties and combating hangovers, recording voice-overs and granting interviews to obscure fan sites, drinking coffee and smoking joints with Perkus, and making contact with real feeling unpredictably and at random, at funeral receptions, under rain-sheeted doorways.” No. 5: “Richard’s unrestrained sarcastic inflection of this last word served not only to reinforce what a poor selection he thought I’d made in Strabo Blandiana but to assuage Perkins that the two of them still spoke above my head, and so his promise of future listening was sincere.” [Note: As opposed to a promise of past listening?]
Published: October 2009
Furthermore: A good analysis of the pop-cultural references in Chronic City and of some of Lethem’s influences appeared in a review in Bookforum. Novelist Mark Lindquist says he loves the novel but warns in a Seattle Times review, “You can find more plot in a Jethro Tull album.”
About the author: Lethem has written seven novels, including The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. He received a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called a “genius grant, in 2005.
You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she has posted more of her thoughts on Chronic City.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
October 30, 2009
Poetry and books from small presses don’t make the grade, either
No books by female authors appear on the list of the 10 best books of the year just posted by Publishers Weekly, the leading industry trade journal. I focus on reviews on One-Minute Book Reviews but have reacted to the shutout in tweets at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda that mention a couple of titles by women that PW might have included.
If you look at the trade journal’s list, you may notice that apart from having no books by female authors, it has no poetry or books from small presses. And 70 percent of the titles come from Random House and its imprints (Knopf, Doubleday, Spiegel & Grau, Ballantine and Pantheon) with the rest coming from Norton and Penguin. Best-of-the-year lists are arbitrary and often inscrutable, so I won’t try to dissect PW‘s here. But if I see noteworthy patterns emerging in these lists, I may comment on them in “Late Night With Jan Harayda,” a series of occasional posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and don’t include reviews.
October 29, 2009
I’m reading Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and trying to decide whether to finish it. The narrator is a male New Yorker engaged to a female astronaut trapped on the International Space Station, and I have an irrational fear that the theme of the novel is going to turn out to be, “Women really are from Venus.” Also the novelist Mark Lindquist wrote in a review of the book in the Seattle Times, “You can find more plot in a Jethro Tull album.”
October 27, 2009
‘Smile or Die’ – Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America’
Taking aim at the “prosperity gospel,” “positive psychology” courses, and teddy bears designed for breast-cancer patients
Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. By Barbara Ehrenreich. Holt/Metropolitan, 235 pp., $23.
By Janice Harayda
When I was a book editor, I often had to reassure freelancers that they had the right to give negative reviews. Critics never apologized for praising books, but they did apologize for panning them – even when they had done so brilliantly.
At first, I thought freelancers were worried that they would get fewer assignments if they wrote unfavorable reviews, because some editors do prefer to publish praise. But many seemed reluctant to criticize books even after I had explained that I didn’t care whether reviews were positive or negative: I cared whether they were fair, honest and well written.
Barbara Ehrenreich suggests a possible explanation for the reluctance in Bright-sided, a spirited broadside against enforced optimism in medicine, psychology, business, religion and other fields. She argues that faith in “positive thinking” has become so ingrained in American society “that ‘positive’ seems to us not only normal but normative – the way you should be.”
Ehrenreich found when she was diagnosed with breast cancer that a cult of optimism pervaded articles and books about the disease that made her feel isolated instead of supported. “No one among the bloggers and book writers seemed to share my sense of outrage over the disease and the available treatments,” she writes in a chapter ironically called “Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer.” “What causes it and why is it so common, especially in industrialized societies? Why don’t we have treatments that distinguish between different forms of breast cancer or between cancer cells and normal dividing cells?”
Instead of finding answers, Ehrenreich kept coming across articles by women who claimed that they owed their survival to a “positive attitude” – even though the death rate from breast cancer has changed little since the 1930s and there is no consistent evidence that staying upbeat extends the life of those who have the disease, though it may have many other benefits. She also found that “positive thinking” can exact a terrible price in self-blame if a cancer defies treatment. As the oncology nurse Cynthia Rittenberg has written, the pressure to think positively is “an additional burden to an already devastated patient.”
“Smile or Die” recycles some of the material from Ehrenreich’s award-winning essay, “Welcome to Cancerland,” but is still the strongest chapter in Bright-sided. Other sections of the book describe the wholesale effects of “positive thinking” better than they show their retail cost to ordinary Americans. Ehrenreich argues cogently that the emerging field of “positive psychology” is based heavily on bad or no science. But the same is also true of some older forms of therapy that apply similar principles, as the Robyn Dawes documented in his superb indictment of the betrayal of scientific standards in psychotherapy, House of Cards (Free Press, 1996). So why focus on “positive psychology” when other types of therapy have done more damage, if only because they are more widely used? Ehrenreich describes an unflattering interview with the high priest of “positive psychology,” the psychologist Martin Seligman. But she seems to have talked to no one burned by his teachings – which shouldn’t have been hard to do, given that more than 200 schools and colleges offer courses in his field.
In a chapter called “God Wants You to Be Rich,” Ehrenreich faults the so-called “prosperity gospel” preached by superstar pastors like Joel Osteen, whose churches offer “services that might, in more generous nations, be provided by the secular welfare state,” such as pre- and after-school programs. Certainly those ministries may foster self-blame. (If God wants you to be rich and you’re not, you don’t have enough faith.) But if the churches that promote the “prosperity gospel” are offering low- or no-cost day care that enables parents to seek prosperity by holding jobs, doesn’t that count for something? You sense that such programs are exactly kind of thing that Ehrenreich might love, if only they weren’t endorsed by pastors who wear too much gel in their mullets.
No less important: A blurred line exists between innate optimism – which may be genetic — and the enforced optimism of disciplines like “positive psychology” and the “prosperity gospel.” To what extent are advocates of “positive thinking” creating an attitude and to what extent are tapping or reinforcing one that’s already there? Ehrenreich sidesteps the question. But if optimism is in our genes, it may do little good to argue as she does that we need replace “positive thinking” with a “vigilant realism.” Joseph Hallinan takes a less extensive but more practical approach to the subject in his Why We Make Mistakes (Broadway, 2009), which deals in part with the research on errors based on overconfidence – a trait often indistinguishable from “positive thinking.”
Overall Bright-sided is much more theoretical than Nickled and Dimed, for which Ehrenreich took a series of low-wage jobs to show how corporations exploit blue-collar workers, or her more recent Bait and Switch. But it makes a needed assault on an idea that too often goes unchallenged in America: that “positive thinking” is always a good thing. Ehrenreich is right that a deep and unacknowledged anxiety often underlies efforts to block out unpleasant thoughts. “Positive thinking” requires a continual effort to deflect “negative” ideas, she notes, and it can be exhausting. “The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or controlling their thoughts,” she writes. “Positive thinking may be a quintessentially American activity, associated in our minds with both individual and national success, but it is driven by a terrible insecurity.”
Best line: Ehrenreich notes that breast cancer has given rise to a highly commercialized industry of products for patients, including “infantilizing” teddy bears: “Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars.”
Worst line: “All the motivators and gurus of positivity agree that it is a mistake to watch the news.” How does Ehrenreich know? Has she talked to them all? In my experience the self-styled motivators, with a few exceptions including Rhonda Byrne (The Secret), urge people to limit – not eliminate – exposure to bad news.
Editor: Sara Bershtel
Published: October 2009
Furthermore: For more on optimism and illness, see the post “‘The Tyranny of Positive Thinking’ and Cancer Patients — A Physician-Author Says That It’s Not Always Best to Tell People to ‘Be Optimistic’.”
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
October 14, 2009
Late Night With Jan Harayda — What Exit Are These Books From? — New Jersey on the 2009 National Book Awards Shortlist
What exit are these books from? At least three of the 20 National Book Awards finalists announced today or 15 percent have strong New Jersey ties. Lark & Termite (fiction) comes from Jayne Anne Phillips, director of the young Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Rutgers/Newark. Princeton University Press published Adrienne Mayor’s The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates: Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (nonfiction). And Lips Touch: Three Times comes from the Scholastic Books imprint of Arthur A. Levine, who lives in New Jersey. Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor at Rutgers/Newark, won the 2008 National Book Award for nonfiction for The Hemingses of Monticello.
Complete List of 2009 National Book Award Finalists for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People’s Literature
Here is the complete list of finalists for the 2009 National Book Awards. You can learn more about the books and authors on the shortlist by visiting on the site for the prizes:
Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
David M. Carroll, Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)
Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (Princeton University Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Alfred A. Knopf)
Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan University Press)
Ann Lauterbach, Or to Begin Again (Viking Penguin)
Carl Phillips, Speak Low (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon: Open Interval (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Keith Waldrop: Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Alfred A. Knopf)
YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE
Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt)
Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
David Small, Stitches (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Laini Taylor, Lips Touch: Three Times (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic)
Rita Williams-Garcia, Jumped (HarperTeen, HarperCollins)
October 13, 2009
Just a reminder: The shortlist for the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced at noon Eastern Time tomorrow. The list will consist of five finalists in each of four categories — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature – and should be posted by early afternoon on the site for the sponsor of the prizes, the National Book Foundation, and on www.twitter.com/nationalbook.
The winners will be announced on Nov. 18, well before those for the Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Critics Circle Awards, both of which will be handed out in 2010. Some finalists for the young people’s literature award may also be considered for American Library Association’s Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, which will be given out in January. Only Americans are eligible for the National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prizes, and Newbery Medal, but authors of any nationality may win NBCC awards.
I haven’t read enough of the candidates predict who might turn up on tomorrow’s list. But two of the 2009 books that I read are as strong as many past National Book Awards finalists — Aleksandar Hemon’s short story collection, Love and Obstacles, and Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see them on list. And Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs – which I hope to review soon – seems to have gained the kind of unstoppable momentum that, rightly or wrongly, often precedes major awards.
Jacqueline Woodson’s novel for ages 12 and under, Peace, Locomotion – which I’ll review Saturday, Oct. 17 or Oct. 24 — isn’t as strong in its category as Hemon’s and Gooch’s books are in theirs. But it’s a sequel to Locomotion, which was a National Book Awards finalist. And Woodson also made the shortlist for Hush. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see her among the finalists, either.
Whom would you like to see win in November?
October 8, 2009
I haven’t read Herta Müller, a Romanian-born German who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literature today. But the good news about the Swedish Academy’s announcement is that the award didn’t go to Bob Dylan (the 25-1 favorite a few days ago with bettors at the London odds-making firm of Ladbrokes). Writers, no need — yet — to start taking electric guitar lessons to boost your chances of winning the world’s most prestigious literary honor.
More comments on Müller and links to information about her work appear in yesterday’s posts.