One-Minute Book Reviews

May 31, 2012

Against the Term ‘Literary Fiction’ / Quote of the Day, John Updike

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 pm
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“I am dismayed by the recent rise of the term ‘literary fiction’ …” John Updike

By Janice Harayda

There’s a lot of competition for the title of the Worst Publishing Trend of the 21st century. Best sellers written at a third-grade level. Ebooks with no proofreading and bad formatting. Pink covers on novels by women when books of comparable quality by men don’t get bound in baby blue.

Then there’s a trend that, if less obvious, may be the worst of all — the increasing practice of labeling novels either “literary” or “commercial,” or high or low culture. The trend gained force about two decades ago as the largest bookstore chains were becoming more important. And it may exist in part because when you have thousands of feet of floor space to fill, you need an easy way to classify books.

But if the “literary” and “commercial” labels help big-box stores, they hurt others. The artificial divisions set up misleading expectations. All novels don’t fall neatly into one of two categories. The terms “literary” and “commercial” – if they are valid at all – aren’t absolutes. They are points on a continuum. Some “literary” novels sell millions of copies, and some “commercial” never find a following. And the terms often have little to do with the quality of a book.

Complaints about this taxonomy typically come from authors who rightly or wrongly see themselves as misclassified as “commercial” when they deserve better. So it’s refreshing that the late John Updike – as “literary” as they come – takes stand on the issue in his posthumous essay collection, Higher Gossip. Updike writes: “I am dismayed by the recent rise of the term ‘literary fiction,’ denoting a genre almost as rarefied and special and ‘curious’ in appeal, to contemporary Americans, as poetry.” His words a welcome reminder that no authors – even members of the publishing elite – benefit from capricious labeling.

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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 9, 2008

Gifts for Cooks – ‘Best of the Best: The Best Recipes From the 25 Best Cookbooks of the Year’ From the Editors of Food & Wine

Filed under: Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:37 am
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What can you give somebody who loves to cook but has a lot of cookbooks you don’t want to duplicate? Maybe Best of the Best: The Best Recipes From the 25 Best Cookbooks of the Year: Vol. 11 (Food & Wine Books, 287 pp., $29.95) www.foodandwine.com/books, edited by Dana Cowin and Kate Heddings.

Every year the editors of Food & Wine produce a coffee-table book of more than 100 recipes from the 25 cookbooks they regard as the year’s best. The 11th volume honors a couple of books by internationally known superstars: Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges. But Best of the Best also has recipes from Sweet Myrtle & Bitter Honey, a Sardinian cookbook by the Texas restaurateur Efisio Farris, and Crescent City Cooking, the first cookbook by the New Orleans chef Susan Spicer. Then there’s Pure Dessert, by the California baker Alice Medrich, who favors “pure” desserts (without glazes, fillings or frostings) and whose treats sound like a license to indulge: “Her Dried Fruit & Nut Cake, for instance, loaded with dried pears and plums, dates and walnuts, is as delicious with a wedge of Camembert as a cup of tea.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 16, 2007

How to Eat Well Before You Get Electrocuted — Hilary Heminway and Alex Heminway’s ‘Picnics’

Filed under: Coffee Table Books,How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:21 pm
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You could get fried along with the trout at these outdoor feasts

Picnics. By Hilary Heminway and Alex Heminway. Photographs by Audrey Hall. Gibbs Smith, 144 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

Taking my advice on cooking would be a little like taking advice on winning pennant races from a middle reliever for the Chicago Cubs. So I generally avoid reviewing cookbooks and stick to books on subjects I know perhaps too well, such as all the unintended comedy provided by the finalists for the recent Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

But I thought Picnics was my kind of book when I saw that it had a recipe for gorp (trail mix), which basically involves throwing together a few things like nuts, M&Ms and dried fruit. This coffee-table-topper isn’t a cookbook so much as a celebration of meals in the outdoors or other spots that call for portable food – sushi at your desk, dinner in bed, a sandwich on a plane (apparently a private jet, because you’d never get the glass bottle of San Pellegrino on page 24 past airport security). It has tips on defeating bugs, recipes for dishes like chili and grilled trout, and photos worthy of Martha Stewart Living.

The trouble arises when Hilary Heminway and Alex Heminway move beyond outdoor, sunny-day picnics. Quoting the novelist Alice Walker, they say that the English see a tea as “a picnic indoors.” That’s true only of a low tea (which includes foods such as cucumber sandwiches and sweet buns). A high tea is eaten at a dining room table – typically, instead of dinner — and involves more substantial fare, such as ham, roast beef and Cornish pasties. Picnics perpetuates American misconceptions about these two types of tea by showing pictures of (and giving recipes for) what the authors call a “high tea” but that the English would consider a “low tea.”

Then there is the bizarre section on what to do when it rains on your picnic. The Heminways suggest that you seek shelter in a convertible or under a gabled roof, then seem to contradict themselves by saying that you could also have your picnic under an umbrella or “in the drench where you are.” The metal parts of umbrellas aren’t usually dangerous because people use them near taller trees or buildings. But they could increase your chance of frying to death on a flat field. And the suggestion that you take cover in a convertible seems similarly irresponsible. So let’s give the last word to a group that specializes in preventing the kind of disasters this book could cause. The American Red Cross says that if no building is nearby, a hard-top vehicle will offer some protection: “Keep car windows closed and avoid convertibles” www.redcross.org/services/disaster/0,1082,0_590_,00.html.

Best line: The old rhyme about how to avoid poison ivy: “Leaves of three, let it be.”

Worst line: “Weather never fails. It may disappoint, but it never fails.” Picnics has many lines like those: They sound pretty, but what do they mean?” The first line of the book exemplifies the flowery writing throughout: “Doomed, a painted skimmer cuts (cuts a hundred bias lines per minute) air rich with midges: curves past blue dashers (out for midges, too); breaks through pickerel weeds; stops short on a nodding monocot: a rush for rest.”

Recommendation? The pictures in this book are easy on the eyes, so you might consider it as a gift for someone who wouldn’t mind the lapses in the text.

Published: March 2007 www.gibbs-smith.com

Furthermore: Hilary Heminway and Alex Heminway also wrote Guest Rooms (Gibbs Smith, 2005).

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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