One-Minute Book Reviews

August 4, 2009

Burned by a Beach Book? Nominate It for a Delete Key Award for Bad Writing

Filed under: Delete Key Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:11 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Burned by beach book? If you’d like to keep others from getting scorched, you can nominate the book for a Delete Key Award for bad writing by sending an e-mail message to the address on the “Contact” page. Please put “Delete Key” in the heading.

July 22, 2009

Mitch Albom Writes at a 3rd Grade Reading Level, Stephen King at an 8th — The Reading Levels of Your Favorite Authors

[This post first appeared in November 2006 and ranks among the 10 most popular posts of all time on the site. I am on a short semi-vacation.]

For One More Day: A Novel. By Mitch Albom. Hyperion, 197 pp., $21.95.

By Janice Harayda

It’s official: Mitch Albom writes at a third-grade reading level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word 2004.

I know this because For One More Day struck me as so dumbed-down – even for Albom – that it fell below the level of the sixth-grade books I once edited for a test-prep company. So I typed a couple of paragraphs from the novel into my computer and ran the Word spelling and grammar checker, which gives you the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics at the bottom. Albom, it showed, writes at the level of Grade 2.8. This was startling enough that I wondered if the paragraphs I had used, from page 24, were atypical. So I typed in the full text of pages 24 and 25 and found that they were atypical. Albom actually writes at a third-grade level, Grade 3.4, according to Flesch-Kincaid.

I used pages 24 and 25 because the first pages of a book sometimes don’t represent the whole of it: Authors may be clearing their throats or writing in a different tone than they will use after they have found their rhythm. So it’s often fairest to look not just at the first chapter but also at something that comes later. A chapter typically has about 20 pages, so I used the first full section of Albom’s book that follows page 20, a total of 305 words.

All of this raised a question: Does a novel written at a third-grade level deserve the same sort of review as books by authors who write at higher levels? Especially if the book appears to be a naked attempt to combine the theme of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life with the kind of framing device Robert James Waller used in The Bridges of Madison County (which tries to lull you into believing that a novel tells a true story)? Maybe not. So here instead are the grade levels I got for a half dozen other authors when I checked the readability statistics for 305 words of their prose:

Nora Ephron I Feel Bad About My Neck Grade 12.0
Alex Kuczynski Beauty Junkies Grade 10.3, an exposé by a New York Times reporter
James Boswell The Life of Samuel Johnson Grade 8.6
Stephen King Liseys Story Grade 8.3
Danielle Steel Toxic Bachelors Grade 4.8
Emily Arnold McCully An Outlaw Thanksgiving, a picture book for 4-to-8 year olds by a Caldecott Medalist Grade 4.3
Mitch Albom For One More Day Grade 3.4

I also ran the statistics for the Lord’s Prayer, using the punctuation in a 20th century edition of The Book of Common Prayer. And it turns out that Jesus, too, “wrote” at a third-grade level, Grade 3.8, according to Microsoft Word (although he spoke the prayer). So there you have it. Mitch Albom, writing at the Grade 3.4 level, doesn’t quite come up to the level of Jesus at Grade 3.8. But who would know it from all the attention he is getting?

Best Line: A quote from Louis Armstrong: “If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out.”

Worst line: Many. Samples: “He chuckled.” “My mother chuckled.”

Editors: Leslie Wells and Will Schwalbe

Furthermore: This review has a reading level of Grade 9.5, excluding the supplemental information at the end, according to the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics on Microsoft Word 2004.

Published: September 2006. Albom also wrote Tuesdays With Morrie (Anchor, 2005).

How to find the reading level of a book: Go to the Microsoft Word pull-down “Help” menu. Search for “readability statistics.” Select “display readability statistics.” This will walk you through the process of finding the grade level for any text you enter, including your own writing.

Grade levels and their corresponding ages in American schools: In the U.S, children typically begin grades at these ages: kindergarten, 5; first grade, 6; second grade, 7; third grade, 8, fourth grade, 9; fifth grade, 10; sixth grade, 11; seventh grade, 12; eighth grade, 13; ninth grade, 14; tenth grade, 15; 11th grade, 16; 12th grade, 17.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 14, 2009

No Plaudits for the Word ‘Plaudit’ in Newspapers

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:21 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Why do newspapers allow reporters to use the stilted word “plaudits” when “praise” would do? Two writers for the New York Times tell us today that the departing presidential adviser Steven Rattner “has won plaudits” for directing the restructuring of Chrysler and General Motors.

Who speaks like that? Has your boss ever said, “Plaudits for that Power Point presentation!” Or “A big plaudit for not dozing off during the CEO’s speech!” (It seems you can’t “win” just one “plaudit” but always get more than one if you’ve earned any.) Has a date or spouse told you, “Honey, plaudits for the best sex I ever had!” Some people might say that “plaudit” has value as a substitute for “praise” if that word has appeared repeatedly. But that argument endorses the sin of  “elegant variation” or the needless use of fancy synonyms when plain words would be clearer. And the Times reporters rolled out “plaudits” before giving “praise” a chance.

This kind of stuffy writing is sometimes called “newspaperese” but also infects books. If you’ve found an example, why not nominate it for one of the Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books that this site awards every March 15?

I’m on a semi-vacation for a couple of weeks and posting lightly or on offbeat topics such such as plaudit abuse that I normally deal with only in the context of book reviews.

July 8, 2009

The ‘Terrible Garrulousness’ of American Writing — Quote of the Day / Gore Vidal

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 am
Tags: , , , ,

American critics often complain that books are “too long” and “could have been cut” by a third or more. Why are so many books so bloated? Here’s answer from Gore Vidal, one of the great literary critics of our age:

“There is a terrible garrulousness in most American writing, a legacy no doubt of the Old Frontier. But where the inspired tall talesman of simpler days went on and on, never quite certain and never much caring what the next load of breath might contain, at his best he imparted with a new demotic flair the sense of life living. Unfortunately, since these first originals the main line of the American novel has reverted to incontinent heirs, to the gabblers, the maunderers, putters-in of everything. …

“For every Scott Fitzgerald concerned with the precise word and the selection of relevant incident, there are a hundred American writers, many well regarded, who appear to believe that one word is just as good as another, and that anything that pops into the head is worth putting down. It is an attitude unique to us and deriving, I would suspect, from a corrupted idea of democracy: if everyone and everything is of equal value, then any word is as good as any other to express a meaning. Or to put it another way, if everyone is equally valuable, then anything the writer (who is valuable) writes must be valuable, so why attempt another selection?”

Gore Vidal in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952-1972 (Random House, 1972).

July 7, 2009

What’s So Great About ‘Empathy’?

Filed under: Current Events — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:25 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

“Empathy” has become the Portuguese water dog of the English language, something everybody seems to want – at least in somebody else. President Obama said that he wanted a Supreme Court justice who had it, and a lot of people have rushed to agree: In the New York Times, you see the word “empathy” almost as often as “transparency.”

But is “empathy” really better than detachment, or the ability to stand back and analyze a situation objectively? Mark Steyn argued that it isn’t in a recent issue of Maccleans, the Canadian weekly. Steyn is more conservative than I am on many issues, including some that he discusses in “What Price Our Pseudo-Empathy?,” but he writes with verve and intelligence about a form of language abuse that occurs at many points on the political spectrum and in novels as well as political speeches.

April 9, 2009

This Week’s Gusher Award – A Literary Relay Gone Haywire

Filed under: Gusher Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:19 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

This winner of this week’s Gusher Award exemplifies one of the most popular forms of overheated praise, the literary relay gone haywire. It comes from a recent review of Yu Hua’s novel Brothers in the New York Times Book Review:

“Imagine a novel written by William Dean Howells together with D.H. Lawrence, updated by Tom Wolfe and then filmed by Baz Luhrmann, and you’ll have some idea of what Brothers would be like, had it originated in the West.”

The reviewer doesn’t stop with linking a Chinese author to Howells, one of the most influential American writers of the 19th century. He also invokes a fine early 20th-century English author, a bestselling New York novelist, and the Sydney-born director of Australia (after having said that Brothers has a presumably French-influenced “Cyrano de Bergerac-style struggle”). Instead of being helpful, all of these comparisons have the opposite effect: The more of them the critic piles on, the less clearly you see the book.

On a more practical note: Some research has shown that readers start to have trouble grasping statistics when more than three numbers appear in a sentence, and I suspect that a similar principle applies to comparisons. After this critic throws in that fourth name, Baz Luhrmann, he’s lost you.

Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing appear on One-Minute Book Reviews on Fridays unless, as happened this week, I hit “publish” when I meant to hit “save” so that one of them is announced earlier.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 16, 2009

2009 Delete Key Awards Grand Prize Winner — Stephenie Meyer’s ‘The Host’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:02 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Stephenie Meyer’s The Host is the grand prize winner in the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books.

Meyer’s novels exemplify the trend that Roy Strong, the former director of the of the Victoria and Albert Museum, called “the rise of the trashocracy.” The teenage vampire-romance series that began with Twilight led the 2008 bestseller lists. And next to Meyer, Mitch Albom almost looks like Isaiah Berlin.

It’s true that Albom’s For One More Day is written at a third-grade reading level while Meyer’s adult science-fiction novel, The Host, has a fourth-grade (9-year-old) reading level, according to the readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. But if both books are dumbed-down, Albom can’t match the spectacular array inanities that have won the grand prize for The Host. Meyer’s unintentionally comic missteps range from mind-numbing redundancies (“It’s a voluntary choice”) to deeply purple prose and dialogue that might have come from television series called The Beverly Hillbillies in Outer Space. If this year’s Delete Key Awards were the Belmont Stakes, The Host would be Secretariat, winning by 31 lengths.

The Host has won the 2009 Delete Key Awards grand prize for lines like:
“It’s a voluntary choice.”

and

“He nuzzled his face against mine until he found my lips, then he kissed me, slow and gentle, the flow of molten rock swelling languidly in the dark at the center of the earth, until my shaking slowed.”

and

“ ‘Well, for Pete’s sake!’ Jeb exclaimed. ‘Can’t nobody keep a secret around this place for more’n 24 hours? Gol’ durn, this burns me up!’”

Other posts about the Delete Key Awards appear on www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

2009 Delete Key Awards First Runner-Up — James Frey’s ‘Bright Shiny Morning’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:33 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The 2009 Delete Key Awards first runner-up is James Frey’s novel of Los Angeles, Bright Shiny Morning (Harper).

All the controversy about A Million Little Pieces may have left some people with the mistaken idea that James Frey is great writer who went astray. In fact, Frey is an average – and often much worse than average – writer whose perceived sins won him a fame he might never achieved on the strength of his writing alone. His Bright Shiny Morning reads at times like an entry in a Bad Hemingway Parody contest.

Bright Shiny Morning is the Delete Key Awards first runner-up for many lines like:

“He said she would have a better life the sun shining every day more free time less stress she said she would feel like she had wasted a decade trying to get to the major leagues only to demote herself once she got into them.”

The Delete Key Awards recognize the year’s worst writing in books. They are given annually on March 15 or the nearest weekday to it. Other posts about the awards appear on www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

2009 Delete Key Awards Second Runner-Up — Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:55 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The 2009 Delete Key Awards second runner-up is Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem (Penguin), translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt.

This turgid novel about life on the Mongolian grasslands won the Man Asian Literary Prize for the best Asian novel unpublished in English. What can the competition have been if the award went to a book that abounds with lines that read like excerpts from a report by the General Accountability Office? Perhaps better than any international prize-winner published in the U.S. last year, Wolf Totem is a reminder that a medallion on the cover doesn’t guarantee superior — or even good — writing.

Wolf Totem is the second-runner up for this and other lines:

“Now he understood how the great, unlettered military genius Genghis Khan, as well as the illiterate or semiliterate military leaders of peoples such as the Quanrong, the Huns, the Tungus, the Turks, the Mongols, and the Jurchens, were able to bring the Chinese (whose great military sage Sun-tzu had produced his universally acclaimed treatise The Art of War) to their knees, to run roughshod over their territory, and to interrupt their dynastic cycles.”

The Delete Key Awards recognize the year’s worst writing in books. They are given annually on March 15 or the nearest weekday to it. Other posts about the awards appear on www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

Last year’s winners were named in separate posts on March 14, 2008, which include samples of the writing that earned them their awards.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 14, 2009

Delete Key Award Winners to Be Announced Monday

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:23 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the winners of the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry on Monday, March 16, beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern Time. The finalists for the prizes were announced on February 26. The three winners will be announced on One-Minute Book Reviews (with the the full citations) and on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda (with the winner’s name only) in this order: second runner-up, first runner-up, grand prize winner.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda.

« Previous PageNext Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 371 other followers

%d bloggers like this: