An advertising executive is sucker-punched by his desire to own a country home in one of the great comic novels of the middle decades of the 20th century, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, the subject of this week’s #classicschat on Twitter. Swept along by his ill-considered vision of a having idyllic retreat not far from his office in New York City, the intelligent but naive Jim Blandings finds himself opposed — if not fleeced — by his real estate agent, his first architect, his contractors, the original owner of his property, and many others. If you’d like to comment on the novel or the movie version with Cary Grant, please jump in at the Twitter chat I’m hosting at #classicschat.
February 6, 2014
November 2, 2013
Why Does the Horseman Have No Head in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? — Quote of the Day / Amanda Foreman
Is a classic American story about the danger that any man might lose his head over a woman?
A lot of us have enjoyed “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” as simply a rousing tale of a schoolmaster undone by his vision of a headless horseman. But is there more to it? Washington Irving’s schoolmaster is the superstitious Ichabod Crane, a gold digger who hopes to marry Katrina Van Tassel, a rich farmer’s daughter. Katrina has also caught the eye of the prankster Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt. One autumn night, Crane goes to a party at the Van Tassel’s at which Brom Bones and others tell ghost stories, and on his way home, he sees a headless horseman who flings his missing head at him — an act that so terrifies him that he flees town for good.
An unanswered question of the story is: Why does the horseman have no head? Literary monsters typically have fangs, claws or other menacing elements added to their bodies. The headless horseman has had something subtracted. The historian Amanda Foreman indirectly suggests an explanation for it in an her article, “Headless, and Not Just the Horseman,” in the Nov. 2–3 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Could it be, she asks, that Ichabod Crane’s Katrina symbolizes the danger that any man might lose his head over a woman? “To some,” she adds, “the mere possibility is a fate worse than death.”
— Janice Harayda
June 6, 2013
Like great novelists, great war correspondents know that people make the story. One who never forgot it was Cornelius Ryan, the Dublin-born reporter and author of the classic account of the invasion of Normandy, The Longest Day: June 6, 1944 (Simon & Schuster, 1959).
Ryan’s book is less about military tactics and strategy than about their effect on people — from the German high command to a French schoolmistress and the American paratrooper who tumbled into her garden just after midnight on June 6, 1944. One of the most remarkable characters in The Longest Day is Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, the Scottish brigade commander who, with his bagpiper and fellow commandos, went ashore Sword Beach. This paragraph from the book describes the scene:
“As the commandos touched down on Sword, Lord Lovat’s piper, William Millin, plunged off his landing craft into water up to his armpits. He could see smoke piling up from the beach ahead and hear the crump of exploding mortar shells. As Millin floundered toward shore, Lovat shouted at him, ‘Give us “Highland Laddie,” man!’ Waist-deep in water, Millin put his mouthpiece to his lips and splashed through the surf, the pipes keening crazily. At the water’s edge, oblivious to the gunfire, he halted and, parading up and down the beach, piped the commandos ashore. The men streamed past him, and mingling with the whine of bullets and the screams of shells came the wild skirl of the pipes as Millin now played, ‘The Road to the Isles.’ ‘That’s the stuff, Jock,’ yelled a commando. Said another, ‘Get down, you mad bugger.’”
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
March 23, 2013
Few book critics for U.S. newspapers write well enough to tempt publishers to issue collections of their reviews. The exceptions include John Sledge, who spent 17 years as the books editor of the Mobile Press-Register before that former daily switched to a three-day-a-week print run in 2012. The University of South Caroline Press has just published a collection of Sledge’s literary essays and reviews, Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart, in April. The book includes this quote:
“Good books are all too rare; flawed ones, common; and terrible ones, ubiquitous.”
February 17, 2013
On Friday I’ll be cohosting a Classics Chat on Twitter about Sylvia Plath’s mordantly funny novel The Bell Jar, a fictionalized account of the unraveling of her sanity after she won Mademoiselle magazine’s Guest Editor competition. Please join Kevin Smokler (@weegee) and me (@janiceharayda) at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT, on Feb. 22 at #classicschat for a lively conversation about this wonderful book for book clubs. Kevin wrote the new PracticalClassics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, which includes an essay on the book.
January 22, 2013
Moby-Dick received a chilly reception during Herman Melville’s lifetime that lasted for decades after his death. Why did Americans warm up to the novel slowly? They didn’t know how to read it, the author Clifton Fadiman argues in his introduction to the 1977 Easton Press edition shown, left.
“We must read it not as if it were a novel but as if it were a myth. A novel is a tale. A myth is a disguised method of expressing mankind’s deepest terrors and longings. The myth uses the narrative form and is often mistaken for true narrative. Tom Jones is a true narrative; Moby Dick is a false narrative, a myth disguised as a story. Once we feel the truth of this distinction, the greatness of Moby Dick becomes manifest: we have learned how to read it.”
May 21, 2012
[Update, May 24: After this post appeared, NPR acknowledged Nancy Pearl’s conflict of interest in a note that appears at the top of her post at http://bit.ly/NPRconf.]
A librarian doesn’t tell listeners about her financial ties to one of her “great summer reads”
By Janice Harayda
You expect some objectivity when you tune into a report on books by a regular commentator on NPR. You know that authors who appear on a broadcast are usually there to promote their work and gain financial benefits. But you assume that an experienced host or commentator will provide the professional distance needed to maintain credibility for the nationwide network of radio stations.
Think again. The latest meltdown of ethics at NPR involves the librarian Nancy Pearl, the author of Book Lust and a regular commentator for the network. In January Pearl drew fire from independent booksellers when she said she had signed a deal with Amazon to write the introductions and other material for about six novels a year in series called “Book Lust Rediscoveries.” She just made that situation worse.
Today Pearl released on the NPR website and on its “Morning Edition” a list of seven “great summer reads” from among the thousands of books that will appear this spring or summer. And – you guessed it – one of her favorites is the first book in the series from which she stands to make money under her Amazon deal. Equally disturbing is her failure to spell out her conflict of interest clearly. Pearl says coyly on the NPR site that A Gay and Melancholy Sound is “the first book brought back into print as part of the Book Lust Rediscoveries series.” She doesn’t mention her financial link to it.
This lack of disclosure betrays the trust of the millions of people who tune in to “Morning Edition” and other NPR shows. It may also violate Federal Trade Commission disclosure rules. The FTC rules say that bloggers or online endorsers must disclose “the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.” Pearl appears to have a “material connection” to Amazon (“the seller of the product” she endorsed) that she did not disclose. And it’s hard not to wonder if that isn’t exactly what the online retailer was hoping for when it signed her to a deal.
Pearl’s failure to tell the full story of her involvement with A Gay and Melancholy Sound seems also to flout NPR ethics codes. Those guidelines note that “partial truths can inflict great damage on our credibility, and stories delivered without the context to fully understand them are incomplete.” Pearl has told NPR listeners a partial truth about her “great summer reads,” and NPR should respond by amending its website and broadcasting a correction about her financial tie to a product she enthusiastically recommended. NPR can foster only cynicism about its work by asking people to believe that from among the thousands of books Pearl could have chosen, one her seven favorites is the one most likely to put money in her pocket.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
May 2, 2012
“What I’m Reading” is a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later
What I’m reading: Carry the One (Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $25), by Carol Anshaw.
What it is: A novel about three adult siblings named after opera characters and how they fare in the 25 years after an operatic event in the first chapter: A car full of drunken and stoned guests who are leaving one of their weddings strikes and kills a 10-year-old girl.
Why I’m reading it: I admire Anshaw’s literary criticism, which won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. Not all critics make good novelists. But some of best fiction in English has come from writers who were great book reviewers, including George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.
Quotes from the book: No. 1: “Olivia’s family was an epicenter of credit card frivolity.” No. 2: “Not just in this moment, but globally, cosmically, she had lost her advantage against daily life.”
Probability that I will review the book: High
Publication date: April 2012
Read an excerpt from Carry the One.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2012 Janice Harayda
April 30, 2012
Margaret Mitchell’s killer and the wide receiver Donté Stallworth are among the people who spent little time in jail for taking a life
One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900. By Barron H. Lerner. Johns Hopkins University Press, 218 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
A paradox of modern life is that Americans stigmatize smokers but have a history of leniency toward drunk drivers who often do more harm. In 1949 Margaret Mitchell died after being hit by the car of an off-duty taxi driver who had alcohol on his breath and 22 previous traffic violations. Hugh Gravitt spent just 10 months and 20 days in jail for killing the author of Gone With the Wind. He also won remarkable sympathy from journalists and others, including the Atlanta Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley, who believed that Mitchell had inadvertently dashed into the path of his car. As late as 1989, Sibley wrote that she hoped to see “a book that exonerates the taxi driver.”
Barron Lerner shows in One for the Road that such forbearance remains so common, it may be the rule rather than the exception. In 2009 the Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donté Stallworth killed a jaywalking pedestrian with his car after a night of drinking in Miami Beach. He pled guilty to driving under the influence (DUI) manslaughter and received a 30-day jail sentence (of which he eventually served 24 days). At about the same time, the New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg with a hidden gun that he had carried into a nightclub. His sentence: two years for a crime that harmed no one but himself.
The different fates of the wide receivers suggest the contradictions in American views of drunk driving. For decades respected studies have shown that drivers generally begin to become impaired when they have blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%. But all 50 states set their legal limit at 0.08%, higher than the level at which the risk of a crash increases. Stricter tests of drunk driving – and penalties for violating them – apply in Australia and much of Asia and Europe. It’s illegal to drive with a BAC above 0.05% in France and Italy and above 0.02% in Norway, Sweden and Russia.
Lerner believes America’s complacency results in part from a clash between basic values: the desire to promote public safety and to protect to individual rights. It also reflects the national love of cars, the popular view of alcoholism as a disease that needs treatment rather than incarceration, and a new focus on the dangers of texting, talking on cell phones, and other forms of “distracted driving.” A few months ago, a Philadelphia Inquirer headline read “Distracted is the new drunk,” as though one danger had replaced another.
One for the Road leaves no doubt that the U.S. could reduce the number of drunk-driving casualties — 13,000–17,000 deaths and countless injuries a year. Higher “sin taxes” on cigarettes have helped to deter smoking and would be likely to have a similar effect on drunk driving. And new forms of technology such as ignition interlock devices could help if more states required them.
But whether the U.S. can muster the political will needed to reduce the casualties is uncertain. Some of the tougher laws on drunk driving that exist today resulted from campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s by the Surgeon General C. Everett Koop or by groups such as RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers) and Mothers Against Driving (MADD), which have lost much of their clout. That movement appears to have stalled. And a powerful alcohol lobby stands ready to push back if it regained momentum.
Lerner is a doctor who specializes in public health and describes all of this with almost clinical detachment, although he appears to favor changes such as lowering the legal blood alcohol content. And his book is less a history of drunk driving than of the up-and-down national effort to control it. That focus can make for dry reading but provides a welcome counterpoint to the emotionalism that often taints media reports on related personal tragedies. One for the Road reminds us that other public health campaigns, worthy as they are, shouldn’t drive out efforts to reduce alcohol-fueled casualties on the road. As Lerner writes, “Surely it is hard to argue that someone who smokes, especially away from other people, deserves more scorn than someone who drives drunk.”
Best line: In the movie Animal House, four fraternity members wreck a car after a night of drinking. “Although the dean admonishes one of them, warning that ‘Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son,’ the film’s irreverent message was, of course, exactly the opposite.”
Worst line: “Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the ambiguities and contradictions of drunk driving than the stories of two women involved in the founding of MADD: Candy Lightner and Cindi Lamb. Both women lost daughters to drunk drivers, although Lamb’s daughter, Laura, was paralyzed for six years before dying. In the early 1990s, both women went to work for the alcohol industry, the very people who manufactured and vigorously advertised the product that had, indirectly, led to their children’s deaths. As we will see, Lightner and Lamb were not naïve at all and had good reasons for doing what they did.’ That’s a memorable passage, but Lerner doesn’t convince you that their reasons were “good.”
Published: September 2011
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
April 18, 2012
Update, Thursday, 2:50 p.m.: I’ve learned since writing this post that when juror Michael Cunningham was an unknown, nominee Denis Johnson helped to launch his career by providing a blurb for his first novel, Golden States (Crown, 1984). Johnson helped Cunningham again more recently by allowing Cunningham to reprint his work in an anthology he edited, Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown (Crown, 2002). Juror Maureen Corrigan says in today’s Washington Post that the jurors “unanimously agreed” on the books they nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If she is right, Cunningham failed to recuse himself from the judging as would be required by many other awards, including the National Book Critics Circle awards. Cunningham’s conflict of interest in promoting the career of someone who promoted his work is all the more reason why the Pulitzer Prize Board acted correctly in rejecting Johnson. Jan Harayda
The Pulitzer board angered people when it gave no fiction award Monday, but it made the right call
By Janice Harayda
My newspaper nominated me for a Pulitzer when I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and I didn’t win. Many of my colleagues who have done worthy work have failed to earn a medal. And Pulitzers have often gone to books that, as a critic, I saw as less deserving than those that went unrecognized.
So I know that the loss of a prize can hurt. And I know that the Pulitzer Prize Board, the ultimate arbiter of the awards, has at times appeared to wield its power with the neutrality of a Soviet-era figure-skating judge.
But the board made the right call when it said on Monday that for the first time in 35 years, it would give no fiction prize, a decision that caused an uproar in the publishing industry. Choosing a winner sounds straightforward: Every year a three-member Pulitzer jury selects three finalists for the award, and from among those nominations, the Pulitzer board picks a winner. Or it rejects all candidates and gives no prize. That’s what happened Monday when the board declined without explanation to give a medal to any of the jury’s choices: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, all books by authors much-honored for their work.
The torrent of protests that followed gushed with the strongest force from publishers and others who would have profited from the sales bump the award provides. One of the more bizarre outbursts came from Ann Patchett, the novelist and Nashville bookseller. Patchett said in a New York Times op-ed piece that she “can’t imagine” a year that had more “need” of a fiction Pulitzer even though none was given in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
Was the board’s decision so terrible? Consider the books nominated by the jury. Johnson’s Train Dreams is a long short story that appeared in the Paris Review, that had about 50 pages when reprinted in a PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology, and that its publisher repackaged to look like a novel by using a large font. Foster Wallace left The Pale King unfinished, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, completed it after his death. Russell’s Swamplandia!, the strongest candidate, is a B/B-minus novel substantially less deserving of an award than many previous winners.
Whatever their merits, these three books comprised a seriously flawed shortlist. Should the board have honored a single short story by Johnson, however good, when it gave the Pulitzer to an entire book full great ones in The Stories of John Cheever? Should it have rewarded Foster Wallace for a novel written partly by someone else? Should it have given a medal to Russell’s B/B-minus book instead of to the A/A+ work that a Pulitzer implies?
Choosing any of those books would have had drawbacks that outweighed benefits such as a sales boost for the winner. Rewarding unworthy books fosters cynicism among readers and devalues literary prizes. In this case, it would also have lent the imprimatur of the board to nominations that seemed almost willfully perverse, given that the list ignored a host of more deserving candidates, including Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (a National Book Award finalist that won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction) and Pulitzer winner Steven Millhauser’s We Others (which won the Story Prize for short fiction).
Ann Patchett rightly notes that reading fiction matters because it allows us to imagine lives other than our own. But no evidence shows that the failure to award a Pulitzer will keep people from doing that. On the contrary, research has found that by adulthood, people generally have a habit of reading or they don’t. Those who have it won’t give it up because the Pulitzer board fails to pick a winner. They will instead get literary recommendations from friends, bookstores and libraries, reviews in print and online, and other sources. That process will lead some people to fiction they will enjoy more than the three books nominated by the Pulitzer jury. For that, we should be grateful.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button.
(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.