One-Minute Book Reviews

March 12, 2007

Flannery O’Connor on ‘Compassion’ in Writing … Quote of the Day #13

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Classics,Essays and Reviews,Literature,Quotes of the Day,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:57 pm

Flannery O’Connor on “compassionate” writers …

“It’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult for him to be anti-anything.”

Flannery O’Connor in “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Selected and Edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969).

Comment by Janice Harayda …

“Compassionate” is also a word that that no critic can do without unless she substitutes “generous.” Why are the book reviews in Sunday newspapers so often dull? O’Connor has identified one of the reasons. Too many editors allow critics to substitute fuzzy words like “compassionate” for tough-minded analysis or interesting perceptions. O’Connor, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Mystery and Manners is a classic book of essays on writing filled with sharp comments like today’s Quote of the Day. This collection was on the syllabus in the journalism classes I took with Donald M. Murray at the University of New Hampshire and has helped to shape my style of reviewing. I strive for the mix of wit, clarity and intelligence that pervades Mystery and Manners, a book I recommend to all writers and hope someday to review on this site.

Once I dated professor who wanted make his writing less academic. I took him to a bookstore, pulled Mystery and Manners off a shelf, and showed him a few passages. He said, “I have to have this,” and bought it. He dumped me but kept the book.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Deborah Garrison Finds Poetry at the Intersection of Work and Motherhood

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Poetry,Reading,Women,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:55 am

The loves and losses of a woman trying to keep a career and family afloat

The Second Child: Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Random House, 76 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

On the cover of Deborah Garrison’s A Working Girl Can’t Win there’s an elegant black-and-white photograph by Irving Penn that shows two chic women – both young-ish, reed-thin and smoking — languishing at a café table. You might think they were having brunch in Tribeca or the Meatpacking District until you looked the date of the picture and saw that it appeared in Vogue in 1950, long before those districts became favored addresses for stylish New Yorkers.

That cover is brilliant for reasons that go beyond its use of fashion photography instead of the tasteful watercolors of fruits and vegetables you see more often on poetry books. The two people who appear on it could be archetypes of those most likely to identify with Garrison’s work – urbane, intelligent women who have everything except the level of satisfaction they expected their manicured lives to bring.

Garrion’s second collection, The Second Child, consists of 33 poems about the interection of work and motherhood in an age of large and small anxieties – from fears of another terrorist attack to regrets about missed chances to listen to NPR and serve as a playground monitor. Garrison is a former staff member at the New Yorker who is an editor for Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon, and the title may be, in part, a slightly self-mocking send-up of a publishing cliché. (Is there a writer so original that he or she has never referred to a book as his or her “child”?) If so, the wordplay is is fair representation of The Second Child – a smart and funny collection that is at times just a little glib.

Some of the lesser poems in this book resemble anecdotes in verse, written on the wing. In “To the Man in a Loden Coat,” the working mother who narrates the poems nearly explodes with frustration at a traveler on an escalator at the Port Authority Bus Terminal whose failure to grasp a law of New York life — “walk on the left,/stand on the right” — may cause her to miss the 5:25. The poem suggests how quickly a competent woman may be undone by bottled-up pressures the moment she leaves the office, but you might get as much from dipping into The Bitch in the House.

The best poems in The Second Child rise much higher. Perhaps the finest is a meditation on Sept. 11, “September Poem.” After the terrorist attacks, the working mother wants to have another child, but there’s a problem:

The idea of sex a further horror:
To take pleasure in a collision

Of bodies was vile, self-centered, too lush.

In these lines and others, Garrison suggests how public tragedy can impinge on the most joyous and private of acts. And a shadow remains after she and her husband have created a new life

Which might in any case
end in towering sorrow.

Throughout The Second Child, Garrison works in varied meters, rhymed and unrhymed, and forms that include the sonnet and the sestina. Her city poem “Goodbye, New York” has the anapestic bounce of a Cole Porter-ish Broadway show tune:

You were the pickles, you were the jar
You were the prizefight we watched in a bar

It ends with a final salute to:

my skyline, my byline, my buzzer and door
now you’re the dream we lived before

This kind of sentiment is entertaining, if not deep, despite subtleties such as the lack of punctuation after “before” – the last word of the poem – suggesting a continuing enjambment with the city. And if some of it seems too easy, the same quality could make The Second Child ideal for a working mother who wonders if “too easy” will ever be easy enough.

Best Line: All of “September Poem,” which begins: “Now can I say?/ On that blackest day …”

Worst Line: Part of a description of childbirth in “Birth Day Pun”: “A smoldering butt!/ That’s how it is:” That may be “how it is,” but it makes the woman giving birth sound like a pork butt.

Reading Group Guide: A reading group guide to The Second Child appears in the March 12 post directly below this one and is archived in the “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides” category.

Published: February 2007 www.randomhouse.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 7, 2007

Henry James’s Epistolary Style: Quote of the Day #11

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Literature,Quotes of the Day,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:35 pm

Leon Edel on Henry James’s style of writing letters …

“Henry James was incapable of offering a thought without pinning a flower in its button-hole and the reverse of this was that he could disguise the absence of thought by the shameless gilding of his own verbal lilies.”

Leon Edel in the introduction to The Selected Letters of Hentry James. Edited and with an introduction by Leon Edel (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1955).

Comment by Janice Harayda:

But weren’t some of those flowers magnificent! I’m posting this for those of you who have wondered while reading all of my comments on the 2007 Newbery Medal controvery, “Has this woman ever read a book that doesn’t have the word ‘scrotum’ in it?” Thanks for staying with me through the uproar. I’m back to writing about books for grown-ups later today or tomorrow.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 6, 2007

What Is the Purpose of English Grammar? Quote of the Day #10

Filed under: Quotes of the Day,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:36 pm

Patricia T. O’Conner on the role of grammar in the English language …

“English is a glorious invention, one that gives us endless possibilities for expressing ourselves. Grammar is there to help, to clear up ambiguities and prevent misunderstandings. Any ‘rule’ of grammar that gets in the way or doesn’t make sense or creates problems instead of solving them probably isn’t a rule at all.”

Patricia T. O’Conner in Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English: Second Edition (Riverhead, 2003). A review of this excellent grammar book appeared on this site on Dec. 10 is archived with the December 2006 posts in the “How to” category on One-Minute Book Reviews. Visit www.grammarphobia.com to learn more about O’Conner’s books.

March 2, 2007

Charles Frazier and Mark Stevens — Honorable Mentions for the Delete Key Awards for the Year’s Worst Writing in Books

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:44 pm

A few words about the also-rans whose writing didn’t qualify as “the year’s worst in books”

By Janice Harayda

Why didn’t some books make the short list for the 2007 Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books? Here are two also-rans and explanations for why they didn’t become finalists, with the dates of their original reviews in parentheses.

Thirteen Moons. By Charles Frazier. Yes, I compared this historical novel to a dish of lard-fried cornmeal mush (Jan. 17). And, yes, it’s as overwritten and slow-moving as Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, which did make the short list. But Frazier drew part of his inspiration from the life of the colorful 19th-century Indian rights advocate William Holland Thomas, who opposed the U.S. government’s forced removal of the Cherokee to the West. And to the degree that his book may foster interest Thomas and the Cherokee Trail of Tears, it has a value I didn’t find in Messud’s novel about repulsive New Yorkers in the months before Sept. 11.

Your Management Sucks: Why You Have to Declare War on Yourself and Your Business. By Mark Stevens. Which business book was worse, this one or The Power of Nice? Your Management Sucks (Dec. 29) probably crammed more clichés into a few lines than any book I read in 2006: “I think of it as the shooting-fish-in-barrel syndrome … When a business grows beyond initial projections, once it appears to defy gravity and build a powerful momentum, managers can become intoxicated by this magic-carpet ride and believe that from that moment on the future is golden. Guaranteed. A sure thing. And that’s when they put the plane on autopilot and a hard landing looms in the not-so-distant future.” And Stevens’s book has many lines like it. But the sappy The Power of Nice has clichés and more, including dippy anecdotes about people who supposedly got ahead by being “nice,” such as Donald Trump.

Which books do you think should have made the short list?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Honorable Mentions for the Delete Key Awards for the Year’s Worst Writing in Books, Coming Soon to This Space

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:44 am

Wonder why some bad books didn’t make the short list for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books? I’m going to put up soon a couple of titles that didn’t quite qualify with explanations for why they didn’t. In the meantime, if you know of any books that you think should have been finalists but weren’t, why not leave a comment?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 28, 2007

List of Finalists for the 2007 Delete Key Awards for the Year’s Worst Writing in Books

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,News,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:00 pm

Here’a complete list of finalists for the 2007 Delete Key Awards, which recognize the worst writing in hardcover or paperback books published in the U.S. in the preceding year. The short list appeared Feb. 28 on One-Minute Book Reviews, an independent book-review blog created by Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com.

One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the winner of the 2007 Delete Key Awards on March 15, a date chosen because Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March and some of the finalists are trying to assassinate the English language. Visitors to the site may comment on the short list, and some of the best comments will be posted in March 15. Each finalist received a separate post on Feb. 28 that included examples of his or her writing (a total of 10 posts on Feb. 28 in addition to a Feb. 27 post with facts about the Delete Key Awards). You’ll find other information in the original review of each finalist’s book, archived in the category in parentheses on the following list.

For One More Day. By Mitch Albom. Hyperion. (Novels)

The Handmaid and the Carpenter. By Elizabeth Berg. Random House. (Novels)

Hannibal Rising. By Thomas Harris. Delacorte. (Novels)

The Book Club Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to the Reading Group Experience. By Diana Loevy. Berkley. (How to)

Love Smart: Find the One You Want — Fix the One You Got. By Dr. Phil McGraw. Free Press. (How to)

The Confession. By James McGreevey With David France. HarperCollins/Regan. (Memoirs)

The Interruption of Everything. By Terry McMillan. Signet. (Novels)

The Emperor’s Children. By Claire Messud. Knopf. (Novels)

Toxic Bachelors. By Danielle Steel. Dell. (Novels)

The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World With Kindness. By Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval. (How to)

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Delete Key Awards Finalist #3: ‘The Book Club Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to the Reading Group Experience’ by Diana Loevy

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:43 pm

“A selection of the Wisteria Lane Book Club, at least desperate housewife found it ‘inspirational.’” Diana Loevy’s tip on what you could say to a book club members who balk at the idea of reading Madame Bovary

Looking for a way to revitalize your book club? How about reading Isabel Allende’s Zorro and having members dress up in capes or serapes? Yes, it could lead to swordfights over the guacamole. But such ideas abound in Diana Loevy’s loopy The Book Club Companion (Berkley), which brims with recipes, etiquette rules, pet-care tips, decorating ideas, and fashion advice, all wrapped around reading lists full of descriptions of books that might have been written by their authors’ mothers. In her several sections on four-footed intruders, she stops just short of suggesting that you shoot Fido with tranquilizing darts before your book group shows up at your place. And if you think product placement in the movies is out of control, wait until you see all her plugs for titles from the Penguin Group in this book from an imprint of – that’s right — the Penguin Group. If Loevy knows the meaning of “conflict of interest,” you see no evidence of it in this book.

Writing sample:
Loevy has a tip for groups that balk at reading Flaubert. “Selling Madame Bovary to the club: A selection of the Wisteria Lane Book Club, at least desperate housewife found it ‘inspirational.’” Now there’s an unbeatable endorsement for you. (You aren’t going to complain just because it’s ungrammatical, are you?) Elsewhere Loevy’s advice is often as patrontizing as it is off the wall. She sounds almost apologetic about suggesting that book clubs may want to read Moby-Dick. “Don’t you be rolling your eyes,” she warns, because the novel is “brimming with meaning.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

[The 10 Delete Key Awards finalists are being announced in random order throughout the day and numbered only for convenience.]

Delete Key Awards Finalist #4: ‘The Emperor’s Children’ by Claire Messud

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:43 pm

“It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.”

Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (Knopf) may be the most overrated novel of the century. Yes, it centers on a New York journalist in the months before Sept. 11, and journalists enjoy reading about their own kind and may attach a special gravity to books that invoke the terrorist attacks. And, yes, it comes from John Updike’s publisher. But that still doesn’t explain the praise heaped on this slow-moving and overwritten novel full of lines of dialogue like: “Think about it: there’s nothing worse than pretension, and false pretension is the bottom of the barrel.” Think about it: Isn’t pretension always false?

Writing sample:
Julius “never knew in life whether to be Pierre or Natasha, the solitary, brooding loner or the vivacious social butterfly.” As opposed to a loner who isn’t solitary? Then there’s: “It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.” Where do the problems with that line begin? With that “leadening” that wasn’t literal but metaphorical? Or with all the clichés?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

[The 10 Delete Key Awards finalists are being announced in random order throughout the day and numbered only for convenience.]

Delete Key Awards Finalist #5: ‘The Interruption of Everything’ by Terry McMillan

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:17 pm

“We tried you on your cell but you didn’t pick up so we got a little worried since we didn’t know where your appointment was and we tried calling Leon at work … ”

Terry McMillan has turned into a romance novelist with a sense of humor and that would be okay except for a few things and one is that in The Interruption of Everything (Signet) she strings together lots of independent clauses without punctuation the way Nobel laureates like Ernest Hemingway do and also her characters sometimes say things like “Dang” and “Whoa” that for some reason remind you of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western although maybe this is because we just saw him at the Academy Awards. Plus she sets up a subplot that goes nowhere involving her perimenopausal heroine’s former soul mate who just happens to move move nearby after she decides to leave her husband and would your favorite romance novelist do that?

Writing sample:
“We tried you on your cell but you didn’t pick up so we got a little worried since we didn’t know where your appointment was and we tried calling Leon at work but his assistant said he left early to pick up his son at the airport and against our better judgment we tried your house and Hail Mary Full of Grace answered and after she deposed us, I asked if she knew your doctor’s number and she said she had to think for a few minutes and while she was thinking I started thinking who else we could call and that’s when I remembered your GYN’s name was a hotel: Hilton!” Where have all the commas gone? The sentence reads like the winner of a Bad Hemingway Parody Contest.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

[The 10 Delete Key Awards finalists are being announced in random order throughout the day and numbered only for convenience.]

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