Sam Anderson won the 2007 Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle and shows again why he deserved it with a stylish pan of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice in the August 10–17 issue of New York. Don’t miss this one if you admire the merciless wit that readers of the New Yorker used to get from Dorothy Parker, one of Anderson’s favorite critics.
August 13, 2009
Sam Anderson Pans Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice’ With a Brio That Shows Why He Won a National Award for Excellence in Reviewing
July 2, 2009
Just picked up Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue (Columbia University Press, 368 pp., $29.50), the new book of poetry criticism by William Logan, who won a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Undiscovered Country. I’d read and enjoyed many of the pieces in Our Savage Art when they appeared in The New Criterion and elsewhere. (Sample opening line: “John Ashbery has long threatened to become a public monument, visited mainly by schoolchildren and pigeons.”) But I’d missed a 2002 Contemporary Poetry Review interview with Logan by the poet and critic Garrick Davis that’s reprinted in the new book.
In the interview, Davis asks, “What do you think of the present situation of poetry? Of its current health as an art?” Logan replies:
“I distrust the motives of the question. Much of what we dislike about the poetry around us won’t bother the readers of the future, because it will have been forgotten. I doubt even the Pulitzer Prize winners of the past two decades will have many poems in anthologies half a century from now. This isn’t simply a problem with the prize, though it’s a scandal that Amy Clampitt never won it and another that Gjertrud Schnackenberg has yet to win it.
“Our poetry is healthy, if the sole measure is that there’s a hell of a lot of it. Much is mediocre, but most poetry in any period is mediocre. What bothers me, as a reader, is how slim current ambitions are – too many contemporary poems start small and end smaller. They don’t bite off more than they can chew – they bite off so little they don’t need to chew.”
June 30, 2009
On Sunday the novelist Alice Hoffman posted on her Twitter feed a nasty and potentially libelous personal attack on the critic Roberta Silman, who had given her new The Story Sisters a tepid review that day in The Boston Globe. Since then, Hoffman reportedly has closed her Twitter account, and the Jacket Copy blog at the Los Angeles Times and others have published the details of controversy, so I won’t rehash it now. But because Silman criticized The Story Sisters for defects similar to those I’ve observed frequently in Hoffman’s books over the past two decades or so, I’m reposting a review of her Skylight Confessions that first appeared on this site on February 15, 2007, under the title “Cracks in Alice Hoffman’s Glass Slipper.”
A Cinderella tale takes a dark and supernatural turn for a heroine who believes in fate
Skylight Confessions: A Novel. By Alice Hoffman. Little, Brown/Back Bay, 262 pp., $24.99.
By Janice Harayda
Brooke Allen wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Skylight Confessions is a kind of fairy tale for college graduates, a book that has “enough intellectual trappings to flatter readers into thinking that they are getting some mental nourishment” but that in essence is a “pure romance novel and nothing more.” I wish I could say it wasn’t true.
But Allen got it right – except that this is a Cinderella story in reverse. Like a romance novel, Skylight Confessions has a plain and virginal heroine – with “no college degree, no talents to speak of” — whose goodness and belief in fate allow her marry “up.” Arlyn Singer even gets her own counterpart to Cinderella’s footwear when her husband inherits a steel-and-glass house in Connecticut known as the Glass Slipper.
Skylight Confessions also requires you to accept the extraordinarily implausible events found in romance novels. Here are some that occur in the first 20 pages: On the night her father dies and leaves her orphaned at the age of 17, Arlie decides that she will marry the first man who walks down her street. She stands on her front porch for three hours until, sure enough, a Yalie with “beautiful pale eyes” stops to ask directions. Though she’s alone in the house, she invites him in. He nods off on the couch, and while he’s sleeping, she takes off all her clothes in the kitchen. When he awakes and finds her naked, they fall into each other’s arms. They stay in bed until he cruelly leaves her three days later with out saying goodbye. However hurt she is by this, Arlie believes “things happen for a reason,” so within two weeks, she sells her house and belongings and shows up unannounced at his dorm at Yale. He doesn’t want to see her, but she persists, and they marry.
The novel doesn’t become more believable after this — it becomes less so as Hoffman rolls out her signature elements of magic and the supernatural. But it does become much darker. Arlie and her children suffer continual disasters, including the arrival of a wicked stepmother, all described in prose that alternates between the overwrought language of melodrama and the banalities of pop psychology. “Was she an enabler?” a nanny wonders as she tries to keep a delinquent child out of jail. And while the novel asserts that such events eventually change some characters, it doesn’t begin to prove it. The glass slipper that shatters in the opening pages of the novel never gets put back together.
Best line: On pearls that were originally “the color of camellias”: “After she’d gone through radiation, the poison from inside her skin had soaked into the pearls; they’d turned black, like pearls from Tahiti, exact opposites of what they should be.”
Worst line: The first sentence typifies the ponderous writing: “She was his first wife, but at the moment when he first saw her she was a seventeen-year-old girl named Arlyn Singer who stood out on the front porch on an evening that seemed suspended in time.” Cross out that “at the moment” and the sentence loses nothing. So why is it there?
Published: January 2007
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 16, 2009
Fewer book reviews are appearing in print because of recent cutbacks at newspaper book-review sections, but is the smaller number necessarily a bad thing? Most critics seem to think it is, in part because it tends to result in an uneven distribution of literary wealth: As the review space shrinks, a larger share of it is going to established authors who don’t need the attention – but whom editors believe they can’t ignore – at the expense of unknowns who do need it.
A slightly different view informs North Toward Home, the acclaimed 1967 memoir by Willie Morris, the late editor of Harper’s. Morris suggests that “too many reviews and too much talk about reviews” can hurt writers by eroding their faith in the importance of their work in its own right. That argument may have been stronger when good new authors could usually take for granted that they would get reviews in respected newspapers. Now those authors may receive none. And neglect can erode a writer’s faith as much as too many reviews of the wrong sort. But Morris makes a worthy point that’s in danger of getting lost amid the din about shrinking book-review sections: Reviews are often a mixed blessing.
Here’s more of his argument:
“A young writer’s work rests in a very real way on his own private ego – on his own personal faith that what he has to write and the way he writes it are important in themselves, important to his own time and to future generations. Why else subject oneself to the miseries of writing? When one is too closely involved in the world of publishing, this private faith can wear very thin. There are too many books, too many reviews and too much talk about reviews, too much concern about books as commodities, books as items of merchandise, book quotas, book prizes, book sales figures, book promotions. There is too much literary activity and too much literary talk, having little or nothing to do with the intensely private and precarious act of writing. There is too much predictable flattery. All this is necessary to the trade, but it generates a total atmosphere which can be destructive of one’s own literary values.”
This is the latest in a series of “Late Night With Jan Harayda” posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and do not include reviews, which usually appear early in the day.
April 9, 2009
This winner of this week’s Gusher Award exemplifies one of the most popular forms of overheated praise, the literary relay gone haywire. It comes from a recent review of Yu Hua’s novel Brothers in the New York Times Book Review:
“Imagine a novel written by William Dean Howells together with D.H. Lawrence, updated by Tom Wolfe and then filmed by Baz Luhrmann, and you’ll have some idea of what Brothers would be like, had it originated in the West.”
The reviewer doesn’t stop with linking a Chinese author to Howells, one of the most influential American writers of the 19th century. He also invokes a fine early 20th-century English author, a bestselling New York novelist, and the Sydney-born director of Australia (after having said that Brothers has a presumably French-influenced “Cyrano de Bergerac-style struggle”). Instead of being helpful, all of these comparisons have the opposite effect: The more of them the critic piles on, the less clearly you see the book.
On a more practical note: Some research has shown that readers start to have trouble grasping statistics when more than three numbers appear in a sentence, and I suspect that a similar principle applies to comparisons. After this critic throws in that fourth name, Baz Luhrmann, he’s lost you.
Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing appear on One-Minute Book Reviews on Fridays unless, as happened this week, I hit “publish” when I meant to hit “save” so that one of them is announced earlier.
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
March 13, 2009
This week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing Goes to …
A review of Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowds’s Our Life in Gardens (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 322 pp., $30) in the New York Times Book Review:
“Once you wander into this book, you won’t be able to sit still for long anyway, what with having to scurry around looking for paper and pen to take notes on just a few more plants you must have, and leaping up to consult the pictures in your American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants.”
Sounds like you’d better get that prescription for Xanax or Valium filled before you read this one, doesn’t it?
Gusher Awards recognize over-the-top praise in book reviews. They appear on Fridays except in weeks when no praise was too overheated to qualify.
One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the winners of the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Monday, March 16, beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern Time.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
January 23, 2009
The battle for free verse was over by the time I became a critic: Unmetered poetry was, if not dominant, well on its way to it. So I missed many of the early great essays that argued for or against the verse of Walt Whitman and others.
But I caught up with one of them after the recent publication of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 288 pp., $18.95, paperback), edited by Garrick Davis with a foreword by William Logan. Davis notes that in the essay, “The Problem of Form,” the American poet and scholar J. V. Cunningham (1911–1985) makes the case against free verse with unusual skill: “The indispensability of meter has never been argued for more succinctly.”
Cunningham holds that the popularity of free verse springs from American ideals: We live in a democratic society and “give a positive value to informality.” Formal language is an anathema because we associate it with a hierarchical and authoritarian world with rules set by a privileged class. We see the measured or formal as insincere or a perversion of “the central value of our life, genuineness of feeling.”
If we value informality, we believe we must get rid of formality or form, which is by nature repetitive, Cunningham goes on: “But to get rid of it we must keep it; we must have something to get rid of.” And formal poetry involves a convergence of forms that — metrical, grammatical, rhetorical, conceptual and more. “Indeed, it is the inherent coincidence of forms in poetry, in metrical writing, that gives it its power.” So when we abandon meter in poetry, we abandon more:
“And here in naked reduction is the problem of form in the poetry of our day. It is before all a problem of meter. We have lost the repetitive harmony of the old tradition, and we have not established a new. We have written to vary or violate the old line, for regularity we feel is meaningless and irregularity meaningful. But a generation of poets, acting on the principles and practice of significant variation, have last nothing to vary from. The last variation is regularity.”
Cunningham wrote this decades ago, and a lot has changed. Many contemporary poets work at least partly with forms that include not just meter but rhyme. Those poets include Mary Jo Salter, editor of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, whose recent A Phone Call to the Future will be reviewed soon on this site.
So I’m quoting this not because I agree with all of what Cunningham says but because he makes an argument rarely heard these days. What do you think? Should more people be making it?
Read more about Praising It New at www.ohioswallow.com/book/Praising+It+New and about J. V. Cunningham at www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=80763.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
December 11, 2008
Clive James in the essay “Little Low Heavens” in the September 2008 issue of Poetry:
“ … think of ‘Spring,’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Everyone knows the first line because everyone knows the poem. ‘Nothing is so beautiful as Spring’ is a line that hundreds of poets could have written, and was probably designed to sound that way: designed, that is, to be merely unexceptionable, or even flat. Only two lines further on, however, we get ‘Thrush’s eggs look like little low heavens’ and we are electrified. I can confidently say ‘we’ because nobody capable of reading poetry at all could read those few words and not feel the wattage.”
“Previously in this magazine I mentioned the Amy Clampitt poem with the exquisite few lines about the cheetah whose coat, when she ran, turned from a petalled garden into a sandstorm. Nobody who has ever read that poem can possibly have forgotten that moment.”
Clive James www.clivejames.com is a wonderful critic whose many sparkling reviews include a much-anthologized evisceration of Judith Krantz’s Princess Daisy that remains a model of its form nearly 30 years after its publication. And “Little Low Heavens” makes the worthy argument that the structure of a poem matters.
But James loses it in “Everyone knows the first line because everyone knows the poem,” “nobody capable of reading poetry at all could read those few words and not feel the wattage,” and “Nobody who has ever read that poem can possibly have forgotten that moment.” These lines are just gush. It’s pure snobbery to say that if you can’t “feel the wattage” of Hopkins’s words you’re not “capable of reading poetry at all.” People respond to poetry on different levels.
As for James’s comment that nobody “can possibly have forgotten” the Clampitt line: I mentioned earlier this week that I had forgotten seven lines from Hamlet, a work I revere above all others in English literature. Alas, poor Clampitt, I could forget hers, too.
Read James’s essay here www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/feature.html?id=182120.
Previous winners of Gusher Awards include Jonathan Franzen and Claire Messud www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/13/. Enter the word Gusher (without quotation marks) in the Search box at right to find others.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
October 31, 2008
And today’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing goes to …
Frances Kiernan for a line in a Wall Street Journal column earlier this year in which she named The Bonfire of the Vanities one of the five best books about New York society:
“Few New Yorkers cross the Triborough Bridge without recalling Sherman McCoy’s disastrous detour into the South Bronx.”
Actually, few New Yorkers cross the Triborough without a) praying that they’ll get to the airport on time, b) hoping they have the five dollars for the toll, or c) wondering if the bicyclists are closing in on mental instability.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
October 30, 2008
An antidote to gassy and bloated books that take twice as long as needed to tell their stories
100 One-Night Reads: A Book Lover’s Guide. Barnes & Noble, 312 pp., $7.98. By David C. Major and John S. Major.
By Janice Harayda
America suffers from a literary obesity epidemic. Too many books are too fat, stuffed with far more pages than their stories require.
What’s the solution? David and John Major offer an excellent antidote to the bloat in 100 One-Night Reads, a collection of brief, intelligent essays on 100 good, short books of fiction or nonfiction, most of them 20th-century classics.
You might need heroic quantities of Red Bull to finish some of their choices in an evening. But a typical book on their list would probably have a beguiling 200 pages or fewer in a mass-market paperback edition.
Like Noel Perrin in A Reader’s Delight, the Major brothers write with an appealing clarity and lack of pretension. The Majors don’t have Perrin’s flair and depth of perception but show consistently good taste across more than a half dozen fields. They like Dava Sobel’s Longitude, Henry James’s Washington Square, Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road, George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. And they aren’t snobs. Lucky Jim makes the cut partly because it has “what might be the funniest description of a hangover in all of English literature.”
Best line: On Peter Brian Medawar’s Advice to a Young Scientist, a collection of linked essays: “All of us read and see things worth noting, but Medawar actually does note them and use them in his work, scientific and literary. Few of us would think to quote, for example, apropos of a grasping careerist, from Francis Bacon (1561–1626): ‘He doth like the ape, that the higher he clymbes the more he shows his ars,’ yet all of us can think of individuals of whom this could be well said.”
Worst line: Breakfast at Tiffany’s tells the story of Holly Golightly, “a classy nineteen-year-old darling of café society in New York City.” In Truman Capote’s novella, Holly Golightly is a call girl.
Recommended if … You’re looking for a reliable guide to good books that speaks to both sexes, not just to women. This could also be a good gift for a book-club member who can never finish the books either because they’re a) so bad or b) so long.
Published: 2001 (Ballantine Books edition), 2007 (Barnes & Noble reprint)
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.