One-Minute Book Reviews

August 12, 2009

‘The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived’ — Characters From Myths, Legends, and Books, Movies and TV Shows Who Made a Difference

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The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived: How Characters of Fiction, Myth, Legends, Television, and Movies Have Shaped Our Culture, Changed Our Behavior, and Set the Course of History. By Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. Harper, 317 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Publishers have a phrase for books like The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived – “an impulse buy at the bookstore.” Boy, do they know me. I can’t remember what I was looking for when I saw this book near the cash register at a bookstore. Whatever it was, it’s vanished from my mind an episode of Wife Swap. But I keep dipping into this dish of literary tacos with mild salsa.

Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter had the idea of selecting and ranking the 101 most influential people who never existed, giving you a few pages of sprightly text about each and defining “people” loosely enough to encompass King Kong (No. 74), Joe Camel (No. 78) and The Cat in the Hat (No. 79). This concept is nothing new. You can find similar books by searching Amazon for the “dictionary + fictional characters” or in the reference sections at many bookstores.

What is new is the packaging of the book, a trade paperback with a conversational tone instead of the usual professorial door-stopper. So The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived could be a handy book for, say, baby boomers who are having trouble explaining to their grandchildren exactly why Archie Bunker (No. 32) was so different from other sitcom characters of his day. It wasn’t just that he called his liberal son-in-law “Meathead”:

“Archie expressed what ultraconservative white people said behind closed doors on topics such as rape and poverty (the victims were to blame), homosexuality (perverts), militia groups (real Americans), welfare recipients (cheats who took hard-earned money out of his pocket) , college students (all pinko Communists), and support for the Vietnam War (real patriotism).”

Lazar, Karlan and Salter offer no narrative thread to connect the entries, so their essays tend to lack a context. Most readers under 40 might find it easier to fathom how Archie’s bigotry ever made it to prime time if they knew that he descended spiritually from Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) on The Honeymooners, who was always threatening to belt his wife. (“One of these days, Alice – pow! – right in the kisser.”) You could also argue that, for that reason, Kramden and not Bunker belonged on the list. But part of the fun of this book is comparing your list with the authors’ rankings of characters like Hamlet (No. 5), Pandora (No. 47), Prometheus (No. 46), Nancy Drew (No. 62) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (No. 44). Anybody want to argue that Perry Mason (No. 86) had less clout than Ally McBeal?

Best line: About the Marlboro Man (No. 1): “Advertising Age picked the Marlboro Man as the most powerful brand image of the twentieth century.” Why? Philip Morris had marketed Marlboros as a women’s brand that was “Mild As May”: “Marlboro’s new image boosted its sales four-fold from 1955 to 1957, and by 1972 it had become the top cigarette brand both in the nation and the world.” The original Marlboro Man and two other actors used for the role all died from lung cancer or emphysema.

Worst line: About the Loch Ness Monster (No. 56): Nessie is “the most popular tourist attraction in Scotland.” The most popular tourist attraction in Scotland has for years been Edinburgh Castle. Nessie isn’t even among the top ten on some lists. The rest of this section is also weak. As proof of the nonexistence of the monster, the authors say that the most famous photo of it turned out to be a hoax. What about all the sonar and other scientific reports that have shown that the creature never existed?

Recommended if … you’re not looking for a scholarly reference book but for the views of enthusiastic amateurs who get some facts wrong and serve up essays of inconsistent quality. Some entries are well-written, while others read like rough drafts.

Editors: Carolyn Marino, Jennifer Civiletto and Wendy Lee

Published: October 2006

This review first appeared in March 2007.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 16, 2009

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

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

February 25, 2009

Questions and Answers About the 2009 Delete Key Awards for the Year’s Worst Writing in Books

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UPDATE: The finalists for Fourth Annual Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books will be announced on Thursday, Feb. 25. Please nominate your candidates by Feb. 15, 2010.

One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the finalists for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books tomorrow, Feb. 26. The first book to make the shortlist will be named at about 10 a.m. Eastern Time with other titles released throughout the day. The full list of finalists will be posted by 5 p.m.

Here are some questions and answers about the awards:

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?
Any book for children or adults published in hardcover or paperback in the U.S. in 2008, including reprints and books in translation.

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 statistically verifiable third-grade level. 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).

This is the third year Delete Key Awards have been given. What’s new in 2009?

First, visitors to One-Minute Book Reviews are choosing one of the finalists through a poll posted on Feb. 21 oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2009/02/21/. The poll remains open until 5 p.m. Eastern Time Feb. 25. Second, for the first time a special posthumous Delete Key Award will be given out before the shortlist appears.

Who are some past winners of the Delete Key Awards? Where can I read the bad writing that won them their awars?
The 2007 winners were Danielle Steel’s Toxic Bachelors, grand prize; Mitch Albom’s For One More Day, first runner-up; and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, second runner-up, all of whose winning passages were posted on March 15, 2007. The 2008 winners were Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, grand prize; Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon, first runner-up; and Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, second runner-up, all of whose winning passages were posted on March 14, 2008.
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. Those who aren’t rich are generally 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 16. The winners are usually named on the Ides of March because Julius Caesar was assassinated then, and at least in spots, these books assassinate the English language. But March 15 falls on Sunday this year, so the awards are being announced on March 16.

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 Delete Key Awards fianlsits.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It was created by Janice Harayda, a novelist and 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.

Thanks so much for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 20, 2009

Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address Is Written at an 8th Grade Reading Level

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:21 pm
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Barack Obama’s inaugural address is written at an 8th grade reading level – specifically, Grade 8.3. This is an excellent showing compared with the reading levels of the novels of bestselling authors such as Mitch Albom (Grade 3.4) and Stephenie Meyer (Grade 4). But the level of Obama’s address isn’t as high as that of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (Grade 10.9) or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech (Grade 11.2).

Reading levels of other presidents’ writing appeared in the 2007 Presidents’ Day post “Bizarre But True: GWB Writes at a Higher Level Than Thomas Jefferson.” And the levels of other authors were listed in the Nov. 16, 2006, post, “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?,” which also tells how to find the reading level of a text using any recent version of Microsoft Word.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 17, 2008

A Coffee-Table Book About African Art from Algerian Pottery to Zulu Shawls — and Ghanaian Coffin Shaped Like a Mercedes

Filed under: African American,Coffee Table Books,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:25 pm
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In the capital of Ghana well-off families often bury their members in coffins shaped like objects important to the deceased — an onion for a farmer, a sword for a tribal leader, a Mercedes Benz for a successful businessman. A photo of a remarkable fish-shaped coffin appears in the new second edition of A History of Art in Africa (Pearson, 560 pp., $150), written by Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poynor, and Herbert M. Cole. And that picture suggests part of the appeal of this unusually comprehensive book, which spans thousands of years and topics from Algerian pottery to Zulu shawls: The authors show how much more there is to African art than the representations most familiar to Americans, such wood carvings, kente cloth, and Egyptian tomb paintings.

An intelligent text and more than 700 photographs describe the evolution of the continent’s jewelry, textiles, ceramics, painting, and photographs and other arts. And a new chapter in the second edition covers African artists abroad, including Edmonia Lewis (c. 1843–1909) “the first woman artist of African descent to gain prominence in the United States,” whose marble statue of the biblical Hagar appears in the Smithsonian Institution

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

September 8, 2008

College Students Say the Darndest Things – ‘Ignorance Is Blitz’ Collects Fractured Facts From Real Term Papers and Other Academic Work

“The major cause of the Civil War is when slavery spread its ugly testicles across the West.”
From Ignorance Is Blitz

Ignorance Is Blitz: Mangled Moments of History From Actual College Students. Compiled by Anders Henriksson. Workman, 155 pp., $6.95, paperback. Originally published as Non Campus Mentis.

By Janice Harayda

Zoroastrianism was founded by Zorro. The South succeeded from the Union. Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

What a pity that SAT scores don’t measure common sense. If they did, those of us who have taught college students might have seen far fewer lines like these on tests and term papers. And now comes Ignorance Is Blitz to show us that cultural illiteracy on campus is at once far more extensive — and more entertaining — than some of us knew from the students who solemnly told us that a fictional character founded a major religion or that the South “succeeded” from the Union.

After decades of teaching at a state college in West Virginia, Anders Henriksson has collected hundreds of his students’ gaffes and supplemented them with others from professors at universities in the U.S. and Canada. Henriksson doesn’t name most of the schools, and that’s a mercy when the blunders include lines like:

“The P.L.O. is the airline of Israel.”

George Eliot was written by Silas Marner.”

“Greek semen ruled the Agean [sic.].”

“The Berlin Mall was removed.”

“Without the discovery of the flying buttock it would have been an impossible job to build the Gothic cathedral.”

“John Huss refused to decant his ideas about the church and was therefore burned as a steak.”

“The Civil Rights movement in the USA turned around the corner with Martin Luther Junior’s famous ‘If I Had a Hammer’ speech.”

In a postscript Henriksson blames some of the tragicomic errors on an overreliance on spell-checkers and on anxieties about test-taking. The causes of the problem go deeper than he allows and include a devaluation of history in schools and grade inflation that allows some students to do well even if they write, as one student in the book did, that “St. Teresa of Avila was a carmelized nun.”

But the skimpy analysis in no way detracts from the hilarity found on nearly every page of Ignorance Is Blitz. Well ahead of the holiday season, this small-format humor book has emerged as of the year’s best literary stocking stuffers. In the meantime some of its mangled lines could add levity to a tense election season. You’re worried about problems with those butterfly ballots? America’s students are here to remind you that it could be worse. There was a time when, as one of them put it, “Voting was done by ballad.”

Best line: “The major cause of the Civil War is when slavery spread its ugly testicles across the West.”

Worst line: “Machiavelli, who was often unemployed, wrote The Prince to get a job with Richard Nixon.” One of the few lines that make you wonder if a student was pulling the teacher’s leg.

Recommendation? A great gift for teachers, history lovers and, of course, some of those “actual college students” in the subtitle. Many high school students would also enjoy this book.

Editor: Ruth Sullivan

Published: January 2008 www.workman.com/products/9780761149491/. First published in 2001 under the title Non Campus Mentis. Portions of the material in the book appeared in The Wilson Quarterly.

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

September 3, 2008

Sarah Palin’s Résumé in 5 Lines

Sarah Palin makes “Obama’s resume look as thick as Winston Churchill’s,” Katha Pollitt wrote last week in her blog for the Nation. Apart from serving as mayor of Wasilla, what did Palin do before being elected governor of Alaska in 2006? This résumé or C. V. appears atop her two-page listing in the respected Almanac of American Politics 2008 (National Journal Group, 2007), by Michael Barone with Richard E. Cohen:

Elected Office: Wasilla City Cncl., 1992–1996; Wasilla Mayor, 1996-2002.

Professional Career: Television sports reporter, 1987–1989; Co-owner, commercial fishing operation, 1988–2007; Owner, snow machine, watercraft, and all-terrain vehicle business, 1994–1997; Chairwoman, Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, 2003–2004.”

Read Katha Pollitt’s “Sarah Palin, Wrong Woman for the Job” at www.thenation.com/blogs/anotherthing/351330 and a review of her essay collection Learning to Drive at www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/. Learn about the Almanac of American Politics 2008 at www.nationaljournal.com/almanac/.

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

August 24, 2008

Iconic Clichés That Should Be Taken Off the Table, Dude

Filed under: Nonfiction,Reference — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:45 pm
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The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés omits “going forward, Day One, iconic, that said, off the table, in the run-up to and ahead of (for “before”), right quick, quite frankly, déjà vu all over again, rock star, guys (aimed at groups that include all sexes), dude, hottie, and take it to the next level,” Marie Shear says in a review in the Freelancer, the newsletter for the Editorial Freelancers Association www.the-efa.org. I’m with Shear and would add to her list transparency, a word regularly misused by the New York Times. (Are the workings of any organization ever transparent?) But I agree with Patricia T. O’Conner, who says in her excellent grammar book Woe Is I that we shouldn’t “summarily execute” all clichés and familiar phrases: “Let your ear be your guide. If a phrase sounds expressive and lively and nothing else will do, fine. If it sounds flat, be merciless. The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés: Meanings and Origins of Thousands of Terms and Expressions, 2d edition. By Christine Ammer. Facts on File, 534 pp., $19.95, paperback www.factsonfile.com.

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

July 3, 2008

Was George M. Cohan Really ‘Born on the Fourth of July’? Read a Biographer’s Answer and Listen to ‘I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy’ Here

I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,

A Yankee Doodle do or die;

A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam’s,

Born on the Fourth of July.

– From George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Boy” (also known as “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”)

George M. Cohan claimed that he, like the Yankee Doodle Boy of his famous song, was born on the Fourth of July in 1878. But it true? In a poorly sourced article on Cohan, Wikipedia says that the composer was born on July 3, 1878. Other sources disagree with the online encyclopedia.

Biographer John McCabe says this in George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (Doubleday, 1973):

“George Michael Cohan was almost certainly born on July 4, 1878, at 536 Wickenden Street, on Corkie Hill, in Providence, Rhode Island. Until Ward Morehouse discovered the Cohan baptismal certificate which carries a July 3 birthdate, there had never been any doubt that the real live nephew of his Uncle Sam was born on any day other than the Fourth. The baptismal certificate hardly settles the matter. As was not unusual at the time, the birth was not recorded in the civic registry in Providence. There is, however, circumstantial evidence writ large that the July 3 on the baptismal certificate is a clerical error. Cohan’s birthday was always celebrated on the Fourth of July by his parents, Jeremiah (‘Jere’ or ‘Jerry’) and Helen (‘Nellie’) Cohan, and this many years before that date began to have profitable connotations for the Yankee Doodle Dandy. The utter probity of these two remarkable people who early taught their son that a man’s word was his impregnable bond is the strongest proof that Cohan was indeed born on the Fourth.”

Among the other evidence cited by McCabe is that Cohan’s father wrote in his diary on July 3, 1882: “Got a little present for Georgie’s birthday tomorrow.” McCabe adds: “The very casualness of the entry in a book intended for his eyes alone bespeaks its integrity.”

To hear a 1905 audio recording of “Yankee Doodle Boy” sung by tenor Billy Murray, including verses rarely heard today, click on the following link (where you will hear the lines at the top of this post about 40 seconds into the song): www.firstworldwar.com/audio/Billy%20Murray%20-%20Yankee%20Doodle%20Boy.mp3. Cohan wrote “Yankee Doodle Boy” for the 1904 Broadway musical, Little Johnny Jones.

You can also hear Cohan’s “Over There” for free in three recordings on the site www.firstworldwar.com/audio/overthere.htm site, including a English-French version by Enrico Caruso. To listen to the Caruso or another “Over There,” you will have to make another click on the site to select which version you want to hear.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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