One-Minute Book Reviews

September 14, 2008

A Personal Encounter With David Foster Wallace (1962–2008)

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:40 pm
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Many critics know far more than I do about the novelist and short story writer David Foster Wallace, who killed himself on Friday, and David Gates has posted a good appreciation of his fiction on the Newsweek site www.newsweek.com/id/158935. So I’ll mention only an encounter I had with Wallace, early in his career, when I was the book editor of the Plain Dealer. I had read his story “Everything Is Green” — which has fewer than 700 words — in Harper’s before it was collected in Girl With Curious Hair, and I had remarked in my Sunday column that it was too minimalist for my taste.

Not long afterward, I got a letter from Wallace that was unusual for two reasons. One was that Wallace wrote to me about what was little more than a passing mention of his story: Most novelists don’t write to book editors about reviews that have hundreds or thousands of words. The letter was also noteworthy for its mildness: Wallace didn’t sound angry so much as baffled that I hadn’t liked his story, and he tried to persuade me to reconsider. His tone differed markedly from that of the may-God-smite-your-firstborn letters that I received at times from writers, and I appreciated his civility. Some critics have faulted Wallace’s writing for bombast, but if that quality had its roots in a personal trait, I saw no evidence of it in my gentle encounter with him.

[Contact information for the family of David Foster Wallace: Wallace leaves his wife, Karen Green; his parents, James and Sally Wallace; and his sister, Amy. Write to his family c/o David Foster Wallace Author Mail, Little, Brown & Co., 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017, or through Pomona College, where he taught: c/o Gary Kates, Dean, Pomona College, 333 N. College Way, Claremont, CA 91711.]

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 25, 2008

When Are Critics Going to Stop Congratulating Novelists for Being Good-Looking or Having Other Traits Unrelated to Their Books? This Week’s Gusher

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:47 am
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Would any critic write, “Be jealous. Veteran writer Philip Roth has lost the hair, but he’s still got the talent”?

And this week’s Gusher Award goes to …

“Be jealous. First-time writer Marisha Pessl is more than a triple threat. She’s young – only 28 years old – pretty, and immensely talented. She has already dabbled in modeling, acting and financial consulting. Her debut novel is another notch on her belt. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a literary mystery novel, has come out with truckloads of buzz.”

– The first lines of a review of Special Topics in Calamity Physics in the Star-Ledger of Newark on Aug. 27, 2006

The Award Citation:

Is this a book review or a teaser for an episode of The Bachelorette?

This week’s winner involves no hyperbole — the reviewer apparently intends for us to take her words literally. But the quote illustrates a trend that’s just as bad: Critics are using their review space to congratulate novelists for being good-looking or having other traits unrelated to their fiction. Would any critic write, “Be jealous. Veteran writer Philip Roth has lost the hair, but he’s still got the talent”? So why do we so often see equivalent comments in reviews of younger authors’ novels?

Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing appear on Fridays except in weeks when no praise went far enough over the top to qualify.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 8, 2008

Thomas Disch (1940–2008), Author of ‘The Brave Little Toaster’

Filed under: Fantasy,News,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:18 pm
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‘One of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America’ dies at 68

Thomas Disch, author of The Brave Little Toaster and other books, died Friday in Manhattan. Douglas Martin reported in the New York Times that he shot himself after a series of personal setbacks www.nytimes.com/2008/07/08/books/08disch.html.

“Mr. Disch’s work was voluminous and included many forms and genres,” Martin wrote. “In addition to writing speculative fiction (his preferred term for science fiction), he wrote poetry from light to lyric to dramatic; realist fiction, children’s fiction and historical fiction; opera librettos and plays; criticism of theater, films and art; and even a video game.

“One of Mr. Disch’s best-known works is The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances (1986), in which a toaster, a clock radio and an electric blanket come to life. In the New York Times Book Review, Anna Quindlen said the book was more sophisticated than it seemed: ‘Buy it for your children; read it for yourself,’ she advised.”

Disch tomsdisch.livejournal.com/ also wrote The Genocides, which Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison named one of the “100 must-read science fiction novels” in a recent guide to the genre. The book centers on aliens who sow the Earth with seeds that grow into giant plants, which begin to destroy the planet’s ecological balance and undermine civilization.

The Genocides is an invasion story with a difference: what chance can humanity have against beings who consider us to be nothing more than garden pests?” Andrews and Rennison say in 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels (A & C Black, 2007). They add:

The Genocides is packed with black wit, mordant observation of characters and the kind of self-consciousness present in the very best contemporary art. This was the start of a glittering career for Disch, whose novels, poetry and criticism have won him considerable acclaim … Despite his occasional remoteness of tone, Disch is nevertheless a humane author whose highly accomplished and often very funny work marks him as one of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 23, 2008

John Updike (1932-2009) Explains What His Books Are ‘About’

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:42 am
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John Updike has died of lung cancer at the age of 76. This is a re-publication of an earlier post about his work.

Critics often fault John Updike for not having a social message or making a point that runs throughout all his books. Is this fair? Updike deals with the meaning of his books in an interview in Picked-up Pieces (Knopf, 1975), one of his early collections of essays, reviews and other nonfiction:

“My books are all meant to be moral debates with the reader, and if they seem pointless — I’m speaking hopefully — it’s because the reader has not been engaged in the debate. The questions is usually, ‘What is a good man?’ or ‘What is goodness?’ and in all the books an issue is examined. Take Harry Angstrom in Rabbit, Run: there is a case to be made for running away from your wife. In the late Fifties beatniks were preaching transcontinental traveling as the answer to man’s disquiet. And I was just trying to say: ‘Yes, there is certainly that, but then there are all these other people who seem to get hurt.’ That qualification is meant to frame a moral dilemma.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 24, 2008

Questions and Answers About the 2008 Delete Key Awards for the Year’s Worst Writing in Books

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 am
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Which authors haven’t used their delete keys enough in the past year?

One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the finalists for the 2008 Delete Key Awards on Friday, Feb. 29. The first book to make the shortlist will be named at about 10 a.m. with other titles released throughout the day. [Note: This is a time change.] The full list of finalists will be posted by 5 p.m. To avoid missing the list, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. I would appreciate it greatly if you would forward this post to others who might be interested, such as booksellers, librarians and the media.

Questions and Answers About the Delete Key Awards for the Year’s Worst Writing in Books

Why do we need the Delete Key Awards?
When you go bed with a book, you should be able to respect yourself in the morning. Unfortunately, too many publishers don’t realize this.

Who is eligible for a Delete Key Award?
Anybody who has had a book published in hardcover or paperback in the U.S. in 2007, including reprints. Jan Harayda is the sole judge of when a book was published if there’s a conflict between the official publication date, the on-sale date, the date listed on Amazon.com, or the date when she first saw it on a rack in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. A few books published in late 2006 may be grandfathered in if there’s a good reason, such as that Oprah selected them for her book club in 2007. That’s the beauty of the Delete Key Awards. They’re completely arbitrary.

Why are the awards for “the worst writing in books” instead of “the worst books”?
The overall quality of a book involves subjective issues such as taste and judgment. The Delete Key Awards recognize more clear-cut sins. They call attention to such things as clichés, bad grammar or writing at a third-grade level according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word. The listing for each finalist will give an example of the bad writing in the book and comment on what’s wrong with it.

What kind of bad writing qualifies for an award?
Anything that would make an intelligent reader cringe. The sins that may qualify a passage in a book for a Delete Key Award include clichés, bad grammar, dumbing down, psychobabble, stereotypes, mispunctuation, stilted dialogue, unintentionally comic sex scenes, and overall tastelessness (the “that’s just sick” factor).

What doesn’t count? A writer’s politics. Last year a Democrat, the former New Jersey governor James McGreevey, made the shortlist for his bestselling memoir The Confession. And because so many political books have come out in this presidential election year, a Republican could be a finalist this year.

A writer’s or bad intentions don’t count, either. What matters is what’s on the page. Mitch Albom may be perfectly sincere in wanting all of us to make the most of our time on Earth. But he’s still writing at a third-grade level in For One More Day, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word. And that’s partly why he was the first runner-up in last year’s competition.

How do you select the finalists?
At the end of each review on One-Minute Book Reviews, you’ll find the best and worst lines in the book. The finalists usually come from the “worst” lines. But all of the selected examples of bad writing are typical of what you’ll find in the book that made the shortlist. No author became a finalist because of one or two bad lines.

Why are you picking on struggling authors?
First, “struggling authors” is a cliché. Strike it from your vocabulary. Second, I’m not picking on those people. Most of the Delete Key Awards finalists are rich. If they’re not rich, they’re usually influential or representative of a strong trend in publishing.

When will you announce the winners of the Delete Key Awards?
Visitors to One-Minute Book Reviews will be able to comment on the finalists for two weeks, and the winners will be named on March 15. I’m announcing the winners on the Ides of March because Julius Caesar was assassinated then, and at least in spots, these books assassinate the English language.

Why are you announcing the finalists one at a time instead of all at once?
It will provide more entertainment for people who are bored at work. And there are so many bad writers published in the U.S., my site might crash if they all rushed over at once to see if I’d recognized their contributions to literature.

Why are you qualified to pick the winner of the Delete Key Awards?
One-Minute Book Reviews doesn’t accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, literary agents or authors whose books may be reviewed on the site. So the reviews aren’t affected by the marketing considerations that sometimes affect the decisions of others.

I also received more than 400 books a week during my 11 years as the book editor of The Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper. These included Knitting With Dog Hair, which is still in print. Critics laughed when the book was published. But Knitting With Dog Hair looks like Madame Bovary compared with some of the finalists who were announced in February 2007, when the awards began.

I’m fed up with bad writing in books. How can I support the Delete Key Awards?
First, send a link to this post to people who might like to have it, especially bloggers. Second, visit the site throughout the day on Feb. 29 to see names of new finalists. This could help One-Minute Book Reviews make the list of the “Blogs of the Day” on WordPress, the “rising posts” list on Technorati or other search enginges, so more people will see it.

You haven’t blogged about one of the most controversial books of 2007, If I Did It. Are you going to consider it for a Delete Key Award?
No. I’ve disqualified If I Did It even though it may be the most repulsive book in the history of American publishing. My reason was pretty straightforward: I didn’t want to taint any finalist by association with O.J. Simpson’s “hypothetical” account of the murder of Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. To say to an author “you’re in a class with O.J.” – that seemed just cruel. My other reason for disqualifying the book was that I couldn’t stomach the thought of reading it. You can name anything on the forthcoming shortlist, and I’d rather read it than If I Did It.

I have blogged a lot about another controversial book, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone. But its sins are different from Simpson’s, and I haven’t yet decided what I’m going to do about it. I hope to issue a statement about that soon.

I’ve read a 2007 book that was so bad, you wouldn’t believe it. How can I nominate it for a Delete Key Award?
Oh, I’d believe it. But you can leave nominate a book by leaving a comment on this site or sending an e-mail to the address on the “Contact” page on this site. If you send e-mail, please mention the awards in the subject heading.

Thanks so much for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It was created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She would like to expand this site to include podcasts, Webcasts and other services and is looking for a home for it that would make this possible.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 22, 2008

Which Is Worse – Bad Grammar or Bad Sex? Next Friday on One-Minute Book Reviews – the Delete Key Awards for the Year’s Worst Writing in Books

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:41 pm
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Which authors don’t use their delete keys enough? Find out when the shortlist for the second annual Delete Key Awards competition is announced on Feb. 29

Which is worse in a book – bad grammar or bad sex scenes? Pomposity or writing dumbed-down to a third-grade level? Nasty stereotypes or mind-numbing clichés? An OVERUSE OF CAPITAL LETTERS or an underuse of the space bar sothatabookhaslotsoflinesthatlooklikethis? And what about those manic exclamation points (!!!) that some novelists love!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

These are the questions you wrestle with when you are selecting the finalists for the Delete Key Awards for the worst writing in hardcover or paperback books published in the preceding year. You’ll know the answers starting at noon Eastern Time next Friday, Feb. 29, when One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the shortlist for the prizes. You’ll have two weeks to comment on the nominations before the winners are named on March 15. The winning books are announced on the date of Julius Caesar’s assassination because their authors have assassinated the English language in the selected passages.

You can read last year’s shortlist by clicking on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/. If you scroll down after reading the list, you’ll find separate posts with writing samples from each finalist. Last year’s winners were Danielle Steel’s Toxic Bachelors (grand prize winner), Mitch Albom’s For One More Day (first runner-up) and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (second runner-up).

The Delete Key Awards do not honor “the year’s worst books” but the worst writing in books – lines, paragraphs or passages that make you cringe. Entertainment Weekly published a list of the five worst books of 2007, discussed in this post:

www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/12/26/entertainment-weekly-names-5-worst-books-of-2007/.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 29, 2008

What Is Style in Writing? Quote of the Day (Joseph Epstein)

Perhaps no aspect of writing is as misunderstood as style. Many people confuse it with decoration or following rules laid down by experts such as E. B. White and William Strunk, Jr. in The Elements of Style. What is style if it is neither of those? Joseph Epstein writes in Literary Genius, which includes an essay on the Edward Gibbon by David Womersley:

“Style, it needs to be understood, is never ornamentation or a matter of choice of vocabulary or amusing linguistic tics or mannerisms. Style, in serious writing, is a way of seeing, and literary geniuses, who see things in a vastly different way than the rest of us, usually require a vastly different style. As Edward Gibbon wrote on style (quoted by David Womersley in his essay): ‘The style of an author should be the image of his mind.’”

Joseph Epstein in the introduction to the new Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature, selected and edited by Joseph Epstein with wood engravings by Barry Moser (Paul Dry Books, 246 pp., $18.95, paperback), www.pauldry.com. Epstein edited the American Scholar, has written 19 books and contributes to The New Yorker and other magazines. Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 8, 2008

Backscratching in Our Time — Gina Kolata and Jerome Groopman

The latest in a series of posts on authors who praise each other’s work in a way that may have financial benefits for both

 

I usually post these examples of backscratching without comment, but this one is bad on so many levels, I’d like explain why. A pillar of journalistic ethics says that reporters should avoid not just conflicts of interest but the appearance of conflicts. Gina Kolata is a science writer for the New York Times who has used Groopman, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a bestselling author, as a source. As the comments below make clear, she accepted a favor from Groopman — the blurb for Rethinking Thin — that could put money in her pocket if, say, you bought the book based on his recommendation or if a paperback or overseas publisher paid more for the reprint rights because of the quote (and quotes can affect the amount offered). Kolata has compounded the problem by selecting one of Groopman’s essays for Best American Science Writing 2007, a decision that has almost certainly put money in his pocket, given that contributors to anthologies typically receive an up-front fee or a percentage of the royalties or both. She also used on the cover of the paperback edition of her earlier Flu a quote from Groopman that appeared in the Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times. It gives me no pleasure to say any of this because I enjoy Kolata’s work for the Times and regard it as far superior to that of her colleague Jane Brody, who writes the Personal Health column. I also admired much about Flu, Rethinking Thin and Groopman’s How Doctors Think www.oneminutebookreivews.wordpress.com/2007/12/28/.

 

Jerome Groopman on Gina Kolata

“Kolata is a seasoned reporter, and knows how to craft a riveting tale … a masterly recounting of medical history.”

Groopman in a review of Kolata’s Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic (Touchtone, $15, paperback) in the Boston Globe, Dec. 12. 1999. “A masterly recounting of medical history” appears on the cover of the paperback edition of Flu.

 

“An incisive, thought-provoking examination of a subject that concerns us all. This book will educate and illuminate those seeking solid information about the struggle to lose weight.”

Groopman in a blurb on the cover of Kolata’s new Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss — and the Myths and Realities of Dieting (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24)

Gina Kolata on Jerome Groopman

“I also liked Jerome Groopman’s New Yorker article, ‘Being There.’ It raises an issue I had never considered, and in an unforgettable way …”

Gina Kolata on why she choose Groopman’s article as one of the best of the year, in her introduction to Best American Science Writing 2007 (HarperPerennial, $14.95, paperback), edited by Kolata and Jesse Cohen.

One-Minute Book Reviews welcomes suggestions about authors should be in “Backscratching in Our Time,” a series in inspired by “Logrolling in Our Time” in the old Spy magazine.

© 200X Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 20, 2007

What Is Writer’s Block? Quote of the Day (Tom Wolfe)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:25 pm
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Many writers have tried to define “writer’s block.” One of the best explanations came from Tom Wolfe, who has said he became “totally blocked” while working on his first magazine piece, an article about car customizers for Esquire that became The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He said:

“I now know what writer’s block is. It’s the fear you cannot do what you’ve announced to someone else you can do, or else the fear that it isn’t worth doing. That’s the rarer form.”

Tom Wolfe in an interview with George Plimpton in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Ninth Series (Viking 1992). Edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by William Styron. Reprinted from the Spring 1991 issue of the Paris Review. You can read more from this and other interviews in this acclaimed series at www.parisreview.com.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

This may be the best definition I’ve read of the causes of writer’s block. It’s also true that, as my late mentor Don Murray used to say, “Electricians don’t get electrician’s block.” Don believed that most people could avoid writer’s block by writing every day. He wrote his motto, “Nulla dies sine linea” (“Never a day without a line”), on letters, on the blackboard and on bumper-sticker-like signs he sent to students. Don was a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, where the journalism lab bears his name. He died a year ago this month and still inspires many of our work habits www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/01/.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

 

December 18, 2007

Novels by Junot Díaz and Alice Sebold Rank Among the Best and Worst of 2007, the Editors of New York Magazine Say in Year-End Wrap-Up

What’s the best novel of 2007? It’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz‘s tale of “a monstrously fat, occasionally suicidal Dominican-American ‘ghetto nerd,'” the editors of New York magazine say in a Dec. 17 article written by Sam Anderson. I haven’t read the novel, but there’s room for a bit of caution here: Last year the editors’ choices included Claire Messud‘s The Emperor’s Children, second runner-up in the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. But New York got it right that Alice Sebold‘s The Almost Moon stands out for badness even in a year in which “lots of big names underwhelmed us … Amis, DeLillo, Roth, Rowling.” Anderson faults the novel’s voice, pacing and characterization. He didn’t mention the fourth-grade reading level and almost comically off-key lines like: “This was not the first time I’d been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/12/03/.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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