One-Minute Book Reviews

June 6, 2011

In Defense of Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children’s Book Reviewer

Does a reviewer have a right to say that books for adolescents are “ever-more-appalling”?

By Janice Harayda

For years Meghan Cox Gurdon has been reviewing books for children and teenagers for the Wall Street Journal – at first biweekly and, since the launch of the paper’s book review section in late 2010, weekly. Her reviews are consistently intelligent and well-written and almost always favorable.

Cox Gurdon clearly has made it her mission to look for and call attention to high-quality books for children and teenagers on many topics and in a variety of genres. She has praised books as different as Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which won the 2008 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association, and Ruth Krauss’s reissued classic The Backward Day.

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal published “Darkness Too Visible,” one of the rare articles by Cox Gurdon that faulted a major trend — the burgeoning array of novels for adolescents that involve violence, abuse or other bleak topics. For this she has been pilloried in blogs and on Twitter at the hashtag #YASaves, which was created  in response her story and has generated more than 15,000 responses, according to the trade newsletter ShelfAwareness. Cox Gurdon has been called “biased” (@KelliTrapnell), “idiotic” (@fvanhorne), “a right-wing nut” (@annejumps), full of “ugliness” (@AprilHenryBooks), and “brittle, ignorant, shrewish” (@Breznian).

What did Cox Gurdon do to earn this torrent of vitriol? She did what critics are supposed to do – to look beyond plot and characterization and consider the deeper themes and issues raised by novels. In “Darkness Too Visible,” she questioned the effects of books like Jackie Morse Kessler’s Rage, a “gruesome but inventive” 2011 book about a girl whose secret practice of cutting herself “turns nightmarish after a sadistic sexual prank.” Cox Gurdon quotes a passage from the novel that says: “She had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”

It is entirely legitimate for a reviewer to ask, as Cox Gurdon does, how this might affect a vulnerable child or teenager:

“The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.

“Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.”

Anyone who writes about children’s books regularly knows that Cox Gurdon hasn’t made up this trend: Books, like movies, keep getting more lurid. Or, as she puts it, the publishing industry is serving up “ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers.” If this issue might not concern all adults, it would surely concern some, given how many buy books as gifts for children without having time to look at much more than the cover and flap copy. And Cox Gurdon isn’t saying: Never read young-adult books. She’s saying: Know what’s in those books, and use judgment, as you would with movies.

Contemporary child-rearing experts urge parents to protect their children in ways that would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago, when psychologists warned of about the dangers of “overprotectiveness.” This shift has resulted from social changes that require more caution, and Cox Gurdon has encouraged adults to apply to their children’s reading the level of care that they bring to all other areas of their lives. Is this so terrible? Thousands of people on Twitter have said, “Yes.” Anyone who believes that adolescents’ reading habits matter as much as their viewing habits may disagree. In her latest article and others, Cox Gurdon has paid young people’s literature the highest compliment:  She has given children’s books the close scrutiny that, in an age of shrinking book-review sections, typically goes only to those for adults. For that, she deserves gratitude.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She has written for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and many other publications Since 2006 she has edited One-Minute Book Reviews, named one of New Jersey’s best blogs in the April 2011 issue of New Jersey Monthly. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

(c) 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 8, 2008

‘Librarians Need Two Book Reviews to Justify Book Purchases for Libraries’ (Quote of the Day / Jane Ciabattari)

Media coverage of the decline of book-review sections has focused on the effect of the trend on authors, readers, and publishers. Jane Ciabattari, president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org, raises a frequently overlooked issue in the Winter 2008 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin (“Book Reviews: In Print, Online, and In Decline?”) when she says that “librarians need two reviews to justify book purchases for libraries.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 11, 2007

Does ‘The Secret’ Work? Day 10 of 30-Day Test

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:39 pm

Day 10
No closer to getting a seven-figure advance for my next book than I was on Day 1 of this test. So why, you might wonder, didn’t I ask for something more reasonable? Why not one of the Caribbean vacations that my favorite radio station here in New Jersey is giving away when it’s not playing “Little Deuce Coupe” or “Here Comes the Sun?” Or – to make it even easier for the Universe – one of those great Alice Roi purses (only $250) shown on the fashion page of yesterday’s New York Times?

Answer: The Secret says that the mysterious “law of attraction” will “manifest” what you want, regardless of its value if you just “ask, believe, and receive.” Or, as Rhonda Byrne puts it on page 63: “It is as easy to manifest one dollar as it is to manifest one dollar.” So why shouldn’t I give the Universe a chance to show what it can do?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Review of ‘Acceptance,’ Susan Coll’s Satire of the College Admissions Race, Coming Next Week on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:52 pm

One of the books I’ll be reviewing next week is Susan Coll’s Acceptance, a send-up of the college admissions race, which I’ve just started. My favorite line so far? A mother named Nina boasts to a neighbor, Grace, that her daughter got straight A’s. Grace flinches: “Didn’t grades fall into the zone of private information, along with age and weight and financial net worth?”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 10, 2007

Does ‘The Secret’ Work? Day 9 of 30-Day Test

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:51 pm

Day 8
A miracle. No e-mails today from Nigerian letter-fraud scammers trying to con me out of my bank account numbers. Did the Hot Mail spam-blockers finally kick in … or was it The Secret?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 9, 2007

Does ‘The Secret’ Work? Day 8 of 30-Day Test

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:29 pm

Day 8

Is the Universe mocking me? Two more e-mail messages from peddlers of variations on Nigerian-letter scams. They include another from “Adams Smith” of the “African Development Bank” who offered me a third of $15 million in exchange for my bank account numbers. (Question: Do all these con artists wink at you — while they’re trying to scam you – by using names that play off those of authors of famous books like Wealth of Nations?) I blocked messages from “Adams Smith” yesterday but he seems to have crashed the barrier.

The Secret says that you should envision what you want, not what you don’t. So maybe I made a mistake by blocking Smith’s e-mail and mentally writing outraged letter to appropriate authorities? Today I’m planning instead to visualize opening my e-mail tomorrow and finding only messages from a) friends, b) visitors to One-Minute Book Reviews, or c) movie producers wishing to option novels for sum equal to cost of Gulfstream V. Hope that no producer is named “Adams Smith” (in case e-mail block has taken effect).

Requested from Universe on May 1: $1,000,000
Received so far: $825 (hard labor) + $58 (lottery) = $883
Universe owes me (according to The Secret): $999,117 (at a minimum)

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Enid Shomer’s ‘Tourist Season,’ Short Stories About Women in Unfamiliar Territory

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Fiction,Reading,Short Stories,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:50 am

Female characters explore places that include Tibet, Florida and Las Vegas in a collection by a winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award

Tourist Season: Stories. By Enid Shomer. Random House, 256 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Enid Shomer is a thoughtful and intelligent writer whose Tourist Season is nonetheless hard to love. One problem is that Shomer lacks a strong voice. You might recognize her stories as hers only because she tends to write about current or former residents of Florida. This isn’t enough when so many other writers, like Carl Hiaasen, work the state with voices you’d know anywhere.

Here are the first lines of “Chosen,” the first story in Tourist Season: “It was a Tuesday afternoon in early June. School had been out for a week.” You can begin a story with writing that flat – sometimes – if you move on right away to more promising material. But “Chosen” is about a 59-year-old Jewish speech therapist who gets an unexpected visit from two monks who say that she is a reincarnated Buddhist lama, and who not only invites them into her home while she is alone but follows them from Florida to Tibet. The story is so implausible that it throws the pedestrian beginning into higher relief. And that implausibility has less to do with plot than with Shomer’s lack of a distinctive voice. The plot of “Chosen” is much less bizarre than some that have worked brilliantly in stories by writers with stronger voices, such as Flannery O’Connor and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

A related problem is that Shomer often gives you Cliffs Notes to characters instead of development. She writes of a Florida sheriff in “Sweethearts”: “A star high school quarterback who’d married a cheerleader and gone to Vanderbilt on a football scholarship, he had always been something of a local celebrity.” Change the name of the school (or “cheerleader” to “Homecoming Queen”) and those words could apply to anybody from Archie Manning to the most successful insurance agent in your hometown.

Shomer started out as a poet, turned to short stories and is writing on a historical novel. And there’s nothing wrong with working in several genres. But in Tourist Season, she doesn’t seem to know who she wants to be. She deals in realism in one story, semi-realism in another and magical realism in a third and with characters who range from a high school student to retirees. If the women in her collection resemble tourists in their own lives, Shomer comes across a tourist in literature, carefully mapping out journeys but still casting about for her ideal destination.

Best line: From “The Hottest Spot on Earth,” a story set in Las Vegas: “She regarded the pastel haze of downtown Las Vegas. A pyramid-shaped hotel prodded the sky. Beyond it the suburbs twinkled in a grid, like a busy switchboard.”

Worst line: From the title story, whose characters live in a condo building on Florida’s Gold Coast: “The directors were a bunch of bullies who couldn’t pass for businesspeople if they had ticker tape coming out of their butts.” I can’t quite see this one, can you?

Editor: Anika Streitfeld

Published: March 2007

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

Furthermore: Shomer won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for her first collection or stories Imaginary Men (University of Iowa Press, 1993). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. At least 50 percent of her reviews deal with books by women. Reviews of books by female authors typically appear on Mondays and Wednesdays and books by male authors on Tuesdays and Thursdays with the sexes up for grabs at other times.

May 8, 2007

Does ‘The Secret’ Work? Day 7 of 30-Day Test

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:49 pm

Day 7
I think my messages to the Universe are being intercepted. Since starting my test of The Secret, I seem to be getting more e-mail from con artists peddling variations on the famous Nigerian letter-fraud scam, though it’s coming from Burkina Faso: Somebody tells you that you can have millions of dollars in unclaimed funds if you provide your own bank account number so the cash can be deposited.

I try not to open these. But my e-mail from One-Minute Book Reviews goes to the address these people use, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the con artists from visitors to the site. Today I got an e-mail message with the heading: FROM THE DESK OF ADAMS SMITH. A fan of my review of For One More Day, noting that Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade level? No, “Adams Smith” is the “Bill and Exchange Manager” of the “African Development Bank.” He has $15 million in unclaimed funds and will give me a third of it if I send him the number of my checking account so he can deposit the money in my name.

There is a serious chance that if this test of The Secret continues, my bank account will end up in the negative numbers. Is it possible that hackers could break into your messages to the Universe and redirect them to people being investigated by Interpol?

Requested from Universe on May 1: $1,000,000
Received so far: $825 (hard labor) + $58 (lottery) = $883
Universe owes me (according to The Secret): $999,117 (at a minimum)

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 4, 2007

Does ‘The Secret Work’? Day 3 of 30-Day Test

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Reading,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:55 am

Day 3
Have just recovered from a flirtation with madness. Went to the UPS store to get my mail and see if the Universe had sent more of the $1,000,000+ requested on Day 1 of 30-Day test of advice in The Secret. (Had to agree with comment on this site by P that $825 check yesterday was hardly encouraging, especially since it covered freelance work I did before starting the test.) Got to the store too late and was locked out.

It didn’t seem fair to blame the Universe for not coming up with the $999,175 it still owes me when, if I’d arrived earlier, it might have paid in full. So I decided to pick up $10 worth of scratch-off lottery tickets on the way home from the UPS store. I don’t usually buy these and realized, when I found a shop that sold them, that I had no idea which to get. There are 24 instant games, all displayed on rolls like shiny toilet paper, with incomprehensible names like “The Duke.” (Why did the New Jersey put John Wayne lottery ticket? Why not Bon Jovi or – for those of us with literary inclinations – Edmund Wilson?) I asked a clerk which game he would suggest. He said that a lot of people seemed to be winning modest amounts — $50 to $100 – on one called Big Money Spectacular. I handed over $10 for five $2 tickets and won $25 instantly.

I wondered if Big Money game was “hot,” so I pocketed a $15 profit and reinvested my original $10. I won $17, $50, $22 before I got a set of cards that had no winner. From five games I won $25 + $17 + $50 + $22 + $0, or $114, minus the initial investment of $50, for a $64 profit. I played once more to make sure my streak had ended, lost $6, then quit with a $58 profit. This doesn’t count the dry cleaner’s bill for getting the blizzard of silvery specks from all the scratch-offs off my clothes. So now the tally is:

Requested from Universe on May 1: $1,000,000
Received so far: $825 (hard labor) + $58 (lottery) = $883
Universe owes me (according to The Secret): $999,175 (at a minimum)

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 3, 2007

Does ‘The Secret’ Work? Day 2 of 30-Day Test

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,How to,News,Reading,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:19 am

“You do not have to ask over and over again. Just ask once. It is exactly like placing an order from a catalogue.”
— Rhonda Byrne in The Secret, the No. 1 nonfiction bestseller

Day 2
Just realized I may have made a mistake yesterday in asking the Universe for seven-figure advance for my next book. Forgot to say that I would also accept a) seven-figure movie deal or b) seven-figure paperback deal for one of earlier novels or other writing project. But The Secret says you’re supposed to ask only once for what you want. Should I revise my original request? Or should I assume the Universe knows I would accept a check from DreamWorks or a paperback house? Could not find an answer to this anywhere in The Secret.

But I did get an $825 check for a freelance project that I completed before I read the book. Hooray! Maybe it’s a sign from the Universe that DreamWorks will kick in the other $999,975 during the 30-day test?

Requested from Universe on May 1: $1,000,000
Received so far: $825
Universe owes me: $999,175 (at a minimum)

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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