One-Minute Book Reviews

February 22, 2013

‘Being Dead Is No Excuse’: An Irreverent Guide to Southern Funerals

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A witty guide to avoiding gaffes like letting people sing “Now Thank We All Our God” as your casket rolls in

Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. By Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes. Miramax, 243, $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

A certain kind of Southern woman would rather die than not have tomato aspic at her funeral. She tolerates churches that don’t allow eulogies because she believes God “doesn’t need to be reminded” of the deceased.  And she knows that next to the aspic, it is the hymns that make or break a Southern funeral: You can’t miss with a “stately and wistful” chart topper like “Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” but nobody wants to go out to “Now Thank We All Our God.”

Any self-respecting Southern woman knows that being dead is no excuse for bad form, and this sparkling guide boldly takes on delicate issues such as: Is it proper to use the euphemism “loved one” in a death notice? (No, it’s “tacky.”) What flowers should you avoid? (“A ‘designer arrangement’ that turns out to be a floral clock with the hands stopped at the time of death.”) Should you adopt recent innovations such as having pallbearers file past the coffin, putting their boutonnières on it? (“Funerals are emotional enough to begin with – why do something that is contrived to tug at the heart?”)

More than an irreverent etiquette guide, Being Dead Is No Excuse abounds with tips on keeping a “death-ready” pantry and with recipes for Southern funeral staples such stuffed eggs, pimiento cheese, chicken salad, caramel cake and pecan tassies. But noncooks needn’t fear that this book has nothing for them. It’s comforting that if Northern funerals increasingly resemble New Year’s Eve parties with balloons and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” die-hard Southerners treat death with respect. For all its wit, this book develops a theme that  transcends geography. You may have no strong feelings for the deceased, the authors say, but you can still have grace: “A funeral reception is not a cocktail party. We want people to feel comfortable, but we want them to remember that they’re there because someone has died.”

Best line: No. 1: ““You practically have to be on the list for your second liver transplant before a Southern Episcopalian notices that you’ve drunk too much. They’re not called Whiskypalians for nothing.” No. 2: “Pimiento cheese might just be the most Southern dish on earth. Pimiento cheese has been dubbed ‘the paste that holds the South together.’”

Worst line: “We always say how much we admire her because she always holds her head up high, even though her mother ran away with the lion tamer in a traveling circus.” That sentence didn’t need more than one “always.” And is anyone today old enough to have a parent who even remembers traveling circuses with lion tamers?

Published: 2005

Furthermore: Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hayes have spent much of their lives in the Mississippi Delta. They also wrote Someday You’ll Thank Me for This: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Being a Perfect Mother (Hyperion, 2009).

Jan and Kevin Smokler will be cohost a Twitter chat on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar today, Feb. 22, at 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. GMT. Please join us at the hashtag #classicschat on the last Friday of each month.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com

June 4, 2012

How to Write Good Book Reviews When Publishers Toss You Their Worst

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:20 pm

A Neon Sign at the Topless Bar of Literature
12 Tips for Writing Good Book Reviews
When Publishers Hit You With Their Worst

By Janice Harayda

A well-known book critic once said that she hoped that her reviews would be “a soft light in the alcove of art.” Some of the books I’ve reviewed have made me feel more like a neon sign at the topless bar of literature. But I share that critic’s view: A reviewer’s most important task is to help you see a book clearly and, especially, to show its uniqueness. A question I ask every day is: How can I show how this book differs from all others? And I’ve tried to develop a few guidelines for answering it.

I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer for 11 years, and during that time, I had to follow the Associated Press Stylebook, which has 448 pages in its current edition. I also had to follow the house style sheet for the Plain Dealer, which had more than 100 pages. Together these guides had thousands of rules. If their rules clashed, you had to know when the Plain Dealer rule would override the AP rule and vice versa. On a deadline, you could feel like an accountant trying to parse an obscure point of the federal income tax code just before midnight on April 15.

So the last thing I want to do is to flash-freeze more rules. The joy of blogging is that you get to make your own rules. But I write a lot of copy (which, if you’re under 30, was the old word for “content”). Since 2006 I’ve written 1,763 posts for One-Minute Book Reviews. And I’ve been able to keep up that pace in part because I’ve set a few guidelines for myself. I write better and faster if I don’t have to ask each time I do a post: What are my goals as a critic? For whom am I writing? When does a review cross the line, legally and ethically?

My guidelines keep evolving as I learn from the best critics working in print or online, but here are a dozen that I’ve used for years. Freelance reviewers for the Plain Dealer also had to follow most of these (so that — yes! — their work had to pass the test of three style sheets).

1. Seek out books that you can review uniquely well, and say what you alone can say about them.

2. Report facts accurately. Every reviewer’s judgments are at times flawed. But you can build trust with readers, authors, and publishers by getting the facts right even if you’re wrong about the merits of a book. Don’t trust your memory. Go back and check every fact and quote, and the spelling of every character’s name, before you post a review.

3. Know what you want your review to be: A consumer’s guide? A news report? A literary or scholarly analysis? A combination of all of those? Or something else entirely? If you aren’t sure, find a review you admire of a similar book and use it as a model.

4. Answer these questions in every review: What makes this book different from all others? And why should anyone care?

5. Write conversationally. Read your reviews aloud and rewrite or cut anything you wouldn’t say to your smartest friend.

6. Purge your work of “reviewese” (words and phrases you see mainly or only in reviews). Would anyone you know call a novel “an affecting literary debut full of lapidary prose”?

7. Aim to be fair rather than “kind.” A kindness to an author (such as failing to mention a serious defect in a book) can be cruel to readers who use reviews as a guide to what to read.

8. Criticize the book, not the author, if you don’t like what you’ve read. Focus on what’s on the page, not a writer’s character defects.

9. Give people enough information about the plot of a novel or the facts in a nonfiction book that they have a context for your opinions. Don’t give so much that your post turns into a book report instead of a review.

10. Never review a book by a friend or an enemy. Make this point part of a strict ethics code that includes avoiding any conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict. (The trouble is, as others have noted: You don’t know who your enemies are until you review their books.)

11. Find paper mentor, a great critic whose work you love. Read his or her work regularly and take it apart to see how it works. Hand copy the critic’s reviews or parts of them (with a pen or by typing them into a computer) to absorb their rhythm and structure.

12. Never post a review that isn’t the best work you can do in the time available. If you might improve a review by sitting on it for a few days and you have the freedom to do that, hold it back.

I also respect the unofficial motto of American journalism: “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” A partial translation of that slogan is: Look for “afflicted” books that need your review, including underappreciated gems from the past and from contemporary small presses. And have the courage to “afflict” overpraised books that don’t deserve their medals or comfortable spots on bestseller lists. Will the author of Fifty Shades of Grey really suffer if you say it offered Fifty Shades of Boredom?

Update, Aug. 19, 2012: A point I made in my BEA Bloggers talk that did up appear on this list when I first posted it: Whenever possible, put the good things about a book or author up front — if not in the lead, at least close to it.

Helpful or Entertaining Links

1. “Mrs. Post Enlarges on Etiquette.” Dorothy Parker’s review of Emily Post’s Etiquette.
2. “Politics and the English Language.” George Orwell’s classic essay on writing, which offers advice related to “reviewese.”
3. “40 Publishing Buzzwords, Clichés, and Euphemisms Decoded” and “More Publishing Buzzwords Decoded With Wit on Twitter.” A tongue-in-cheek list of book-review clichés submitted by editors, authors, and others and its sequel.
4. “A Sampling of Five Decades of Phobe-Lou Adams’s Brief Reviews.” A collection of short, witty reviews by a longtime reviewer for the Atlantic.
5. “Weblog Ethics.” Rebecca Blood’s excellent guide to ethics for bloggers.

6. Ruth Franklin’s acceptance speech for the 2012 Roger Shattuck Prize for literary criticism from the Center for Fiction, delivered on May 30, 2012.

7. “Tips for Successful Book Reviewing,” Rebecca Skloot’s excellent post on how to get started in book reviewing.

Janice Harayda runs One-Minute Book Reviews and tweets at @janiceharayda. She is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has 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. She wrote this article in conjunction with her appearance on the Critical Reviews panel at BookExpoAmerica’s 2012 BEA Bloggers conference in New York. Dorothy Parker and Phoebe-Lou Adams are two of her paper mentors.

© 2012 JaniceHarayda. All rights reserved.

September 6, 2009

5 Ways Not to Begin a Blog Post — ‘Loser Leads’ Nobody Needs

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:16 am
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Nobody dumps Gatorade on the writing coaches at newspapers who try to help reporters turn out sparkling prose as the apocalypse looms. But Jack Hart, a former managing editor at the Oregonian, seems to have deserved that treatment.

Hart drew on decades of working with reporters for his exemplary A Writer’s Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work (Anchor, 304 pp., $13.95, paper), a book that seeks to demystify a dozen aspects of good writing — clarity, brevity, voice, color, structure, rhythm and more. And some of his advice would have no less value for bloggers, novelists and corporate memo-writers.

Take Hart’s section on “loser leads,” soporific first sentences that risk turning an entire story into a cliché. Dick Thein, a copyediting expert, compiled list of offenders, or emaciated beginnings that won’t help a post or short story or any more than a newspaper article.

Hart quotes some of them:

The ‘good news, bad news’ lead:
“The good news is that online classes have begun. The bad news is that most students don’t have computers.

The ‘that’s what’ lead:
“Some leads are easier to write than others. That’s what 15 reporters participating in an online seminar said Monday.

The ‘thanks-to’ lead:
“Thanks to Bug Pagel, the supermarket chain considers customer convenience first and sales second.

The one-word lead (variation of ‘that’s what’):
“Cynical.
“That’s what most people think journalists are.

“The ‘I fooled you’ lead:
“Sex, drugs, and booze. That’s not what you’ll find in newsrooms today, said Kent Clark, managing editor of the Metropolis Daily Planet.

A Writer’s Coach has ten pages on loser and other leads, and the rest of the book is similarly direct and useful. An excerpt from the introduction appears on the Anchor Books site.

What lead would you like to see journalists and bloggers lose?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and www.janiceharayda.com

July 19, 2009

‘Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners’ — ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and Etiquette

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:06 pm
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[This is a re-post of a review that appeared on Nov. 27, 2006, while I'm on a brief semi-vacation.]

A charmingly illustrated explanation of the Regency etiquette rules followed by the novelist’s characters

Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders. By Josephine Ross. Illustrated by Henrietta Webb. Boomsbury, 133 pp., $14.95.

By Janice Harayda

A while back, I wrote a novel about a bride-to-be who believed that Jane Austen could have solved all her romantic problems. One reason for her view, I hoped, was clear: Austen’s novels are full of rules for social conduct.

The catch – for my heroine as for others – is that Austen’s characters typically follow rules that are implicit, not explicit. And because Austen was a satirist, her precepts can’t always be taken at face value even when they are spelled out. Perhaps the best case in point is the much-misunderstood first line of Pride and Prejudice, which is often taken literally though meant ironically: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Josephine Ross has decoded some of the social conventions of the Regency era in Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners. And as befits an ironist like Austen, this book is less a “guide to good manners” than a literary companion disguised as Regency self-help manual.

Ross does not try to extrapolate from the behavior of Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and others to modern life. Instead she describes the rules of the Regency era as she sees them and shows how Austen’s characters observe or break them. The rule “Do not be presumptuous in offering introductions” leads to a brief discussion of the proper ways of introducing people in the early 1800s. Then Ross writes: “When Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in high dudgeon, calls on the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice to dissuade Elizabeth from marrying her nephew Darcy, she does not ask Lizzy to introduce her mother, and sits for some time in the presence of awed Mrs. Bennet, who has therefore not been granted permission to converse with her Ladyship in her own house. This, of course, is not ‘good manners.’”

Some of the conventions that Ross describes went out with the chamber pot: “After dinner the ladies must withdraw.” Others continue in a modified form: “When in doubt, talk of the weather.” Either way, Ross writes so gracefully that her book is a delight, enhanced by charming watercolors by Henrietta Webb. How nice that she and her collaborator knew enough not to take literally the words of Northanger Abby: “A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

Best line: “Only by understanding Society’s strict rules is anyone – man or woman – in a position to break them.”

Worst line: Why doesn’t the comma in “Compliments, Charades,” which appears on the cover, show up also on the title page?

Published: October 2006

Janice Harayda wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999), a comedy of a manners about a bride who tries to find solace in Jane Austen as her over-the-top wedding approaches.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 5, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #5: David C. Barnette’s ‘How to Be a Mobilian’

Filed under: How to,Humor — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:07 am
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A gifted humorist lists the unwritten rules of life in a place where men define the four seasons as “football, hunting, Mardi Gras and fishing”

How to Be a Mobilian: A Guide for Old Salts and Newcomers. By David C. Barnette. Publishing 101, 143 pp., $11.95.

Regional humor tends not to travel well. The jokes often aren’t funny — or even recognizable as jokes – outside the place that inspired them. But David C. Barnette makes regional humor work in How to Be a Mobilian: A Guide for Old Salts and Newcomers (Publishing 101, 1999). This entertaining, tongue-in-cheek guide spells out the unwritten social codes for events ranging from private weddings to city-wide Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama. It works because Barnette is a very funny writer and finds the sweet spot that eludes most would-be Southern wits – a bevy of details that are specific enough to evoke a place but not so specific that they’ll be lost on all but insiders.

Why do you sense when visiting Mobile that a man could get arrested for indecent exposure if his shirt had light starch instead of heavy? Blame it on the city’s unofficial dress code for men, Barnette suggests: “Shirts must be all-cotton, long-sleeved and starched such that they will shatter in an automobile accident.” Women have their own sartorial deal-breakers. One is your shoes can never be lighter than your hemline. “I swear, my mother was so maniacal about that, I have to get white piping stitched on my navy tennis skirts,” a woman told Barnette.

How to Be a Mobilian is near-impossible to find. But Barnette has a page on Facebook (sign in, then go to http://www.facebook.com/people/Dave-Barnette/1013298948/), and if you urge him to bring it back into print, maybe he’ll find a way. Just remember that his timetable may not be yours or mine. As he writes: “Mobile men live by their own four seasons: football, hunting, Mardi Gras and fishing.”

Barnette also wrote The Official Guide to Christmas In the South: Or, If You Can’t Fry It, Spraypaint It Gold (Morrow, 2007).

This is the fifth in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. A second post will follow later today with more of my favorite books about the South.

April 30, 2009

The ‘Common Sense’ of Shogun Yoritomo-Tashi — A Japanese Warrior’s Wisdom for the Modern World of Business

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“Happiness is above all a combination of harmony and the absence of sorrow.”
From Yoritomo-Tashi’s Common Sense

Not long ago I stumbled on an out-of-print edition of Common Sense: How to Exercise It (Funk & Wagnalls, 1916), written by the Japanese shogun Yoritomo-Tashi and translated by Mme. Léon J. Berthelot de la Boileverie. I hadn’t heard of the book, intended to help people succeed in business. But common sense has been scarce enough on Wall Street that I read it to see if a 12th-century warrior knew something Lehman Brothers didn’t.

The book (or maybe just the translation) is abstruse enough that it’s hard to say. By modern standards, some of its advice lacks the quality it encourages people to cultivate. “Persons who have no common sense are the only ones to revolt against the laws of the country where they live,” Yoritomo-Tashi says. “The wise man will recognize that they have been enacted to protect him and that to be opposed to their observance would be acting as an enemy to oneself.” So much for the Boston Tea Party and the civil-rights movement.

But I liked Yoritomo-Tashi’s definition of happiness — “a combination of harmony and the absence of sorrow” (which, unlike so much psychobabble, allows that happiness can be affected by external factors). And his book makes a couple of other good points:

“Superstition is the enemy of common sense, for … it is the product of a personal impression, associating two ideas absolutely unconnected.”

Sentimentality works against common sense when it involves “mental exaggeration” that “transforms true pity into a false sensibility, the exaggeration of which deteriorates the true value of things.”

Critics often deplore books – such as Mitch Albom’s novels – that are sentimental, and Common Sense suggests why they dislike they quality: Sentimentality tends to overvalue certain feelings and, in that way, to devalue others that are more important.

You can download Common Sense for free on the Project Gutenberg site .

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and www.janiceharayda.com

April 23, 2009

She Promised Her Husband Sex Every Night for a Year for His 40th Birthday – But Her Book About It Left Out All the Good Parts

Filed under: How to,Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:05 am
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Sex, but no sex

You know how I said the other day that I’d never heard of a book that Jonathan Yardley said “may well be the best baseball book ever”? Here’s another I’d missed: Charla Muller’s 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy (Berkley, 288 pp., $14, paperback), the #2 bestseller in the “Love & Romance” category on Amazon. It comes from a woman who promised her husband sex every night for a year for his 40th birthday, and if the comments on Amazon are right, Muller left out all the good parts. A reader-reviewer complained: “The author uses the premise to discuss almost everything except sex. There are almost no details about the sex-life of the author and her husband.” But Muller has started offering a free Bible study guide to the book.

April 11, 2009

More Good Coupons for Kids in a New Hallmark Gift Book

Filed under: Holiday Gift Books,How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:29 am
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Just before Christmas, I wrote about a book of tear-out coupons full of good IOUs for children that vanished from stores soon after I found it at CVS. I speculated that the item had been recalled because it contained a coupon that promised a child a lottery ticket when the laws in most states forbid the sale of lottery tickets to anyone under 18.

Now the book is back in slightly different form with a new title, What a Great Kid! Coupon Book: 52 Ways to Tell Kids “You’re Loved” (Hallmark Gift Books, 120 pp., $5.95, paperback), minus the lottery-ticket coupon. As in the earlier version, some coupons would appeal mainly to younger children. (“TRADE THIS IN FOR A ROYAL NIGHT … Good for one evening of being treated like royalty. You’ll be waited on hand and foot, and the entire family will refer to you as ‘your royal highness’ or ‘your majesty.’”) Other coupons might please children of any age, including teenagers. (“Not today! Pick your least favorite chore and SKIP doing it today!”) But the earlier bok disappeared so fast that there’s no telling how long this one will remain in stores, so if you may need a last-minute children’s holiday gift, you might pick one up well before December.

At this writing What a Great Kid! isn’t listed on the Hallmark site. But I found it at a Walgreen’s, and it’s also supposed to be available at Hallmark stores. Watch a video about it here.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 3, 2009

A Good Warm-Weather Activity for Young Children

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:21 pm
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Maybe it’s because the sultry days of summer don’t feel as far away as they did a few weeks ago. Or maybe it’s because I haven’t forgotten how our family’s adored German shepherd mauled the sheet cake at my Sweet Sixteen party with a lunge toward the dining-room table.

Whatever the reason, I love this idea for warm-weather fun from Steve and Ruth Bennett’s 365 Outdoor Activities You Can Do With Your Child (Adams Media, 1993), which might especially appeal to an apartment-dwelling preschooler who can’t have a dog:

Let your child create an “invisible dog.” Tie piece of rope or string (with a loop at the end for the imaginary dog’s head) to a handle made of cardboard or another sturdy material. Then “walk around with the invisible dog, talk to it like a real dog, and try to teach it to speak (your child can bark for the dog in an attempt at ventriloquism), sit up, shake hands, roll over, and (this requires extra imagination) fetch,” the Bennetts suggest. Alternately, they say, you or the child could hold the leash while others try to guess what trick the dog has performed.

If you like this idea, head for your library, eBay or another good source of older books. If your library doesn’t have 365 Outdoor Activities You Can Do With Your Child, you can ask the staff to get it for you on an interlibrary loan. Or go to an online or retail bookseller and pick up the Bennetts’ 365 TV-Free Activities You Can Do With Your Child (Adams Media, 2002), which is just as good but easier to find. Among the many books of activities for children, but the Bennetts’ stand out for their abundance of easy, no- or low-cost activities that don’t involve television or other electronic devices.

For more ideas for free summer fun with children ages 3 and up, see the review on this site on June 20, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/20/.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 11, 2009

Three Pick-Up Lines to Avoid If You Want a Date for Valentine’s Day

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:00 am
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In an age of hookups and friends-with-benefits, Valentine’s Day can inspire an atavistic craving for an old-fashioned date. If you’re looking for one, some pickup lines won’t help your cause, Caroline Tiger says in How to Behave: Dating and Sex: A Guide to Modern Manners for the Socially Challenged (Chronicle, 2006). Tiger suggests that you avoid:

1. Are you free tonight, or will it cost me?
2. Is it hot in here, or is it just you?
3. I’m going outside to make out. Care to join me?

There, now don’t you feel better-equipped to face the gym and bar?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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