One-Minute Book Reviews

March 13, 2009

This Week’s Gusher Award for Hyperbole Book Reviewing Goes to …

This week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing Goes to …

A review of Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowds’s Our Life in Gardens (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 322 pp., $30) in the New York Times Book Review:

“Once you wander into this book, you won’t be able to sit still for long anyway, what with having to scurry around looking for paper and pen to take notes on just a few more plants you must have, and leaping up to consult the pictures in your American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants.”

Sounds like you’d better get that prescription for Xanax or Valium filled before you read this one, doesn’t it?

Gusher Awards recognize over-the-top praise in book reviews. They appear on Fridays except in weeks when no praise was too overheated to qualify.

Other Gusher Awards appeared on Dec. 11, Oct. 31, Sept. 5 and July 25.

One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the winners of the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Monday, March 16, beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern Time.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 24, 2009

Improve Your Writing in Minutes – Kill a Portmanteau Sentence

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:18 am
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Portmanteau sentences often help a book qualify for a Delete Key Award for bad writing, the shortlist for which will appear Thursday. What’s wrong with them? Portmanteau lines are those jawbreakers that contain so many phrases or clauses, you get lost in the middle. They aren’t the same as run-on sentences (two complete sentences joined by a comma or by no punctuation instead of conjunction). And length alone doesn’t make a sentence a portmanteau (French for “trunk” or “chest”). Long sentences can read smoothly. Too often, they don’t.

Take the portmanteau sentence that the columnist James J. Kilpatrick found in Timothy Noah’s review of Robert Shrum’s No Excuses in the New York Times Book Review:

“Now retired from consulting, Shrum has produced a lively and indiscreet memoir about his three decades at the center of Democratic presidential politics, from Edmund Muskie’s failed primary bid in 1972 (in one memorably chilly scene, Muskie’s wife asks whether he likes the painting she’s just given him for their wedding anniversary and he replies, ‘No’) to John Kerry’s general election defeat in 2004 (Shrum relates the campaign’s collective sigh of relief when the networks declined to show footage of Kerry at an Iowa party jokingly miming a toke while Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary sang ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’).”

Or try the first line of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s more recent New York Times obituary for John Updike:

“John Updike, the kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit novels highlighted a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism so vast, protean and lyrical as to place him in the first rank of American authors, died on Tuesday in Danvers, Mass.”

Lehmann-Haupt’s sentence is a model of brevity and clarity compared with Noah’s. But you still have to come up for air in the middle. And what’s the point? Why try to shoehorn all of the achievements of a writer as accomplished as Updike into one line? Nobody speaks in portmanteau sentences, so they are inherently pretentious and tend to sound pompous. If people did speak in them, you would have trouble following them. (Try reading that line about Updike aloud.) And good writing is, above all, clear.

The practice of overstuffing first sentences relates to the traditional newspaper practice of cutting stories from the bottom if they are too long. But the custom has little relevance to the Updike obituary. The Times clearly wasn’t going to amputate everything but the first sentence or two of that one.

Overstuffing even less relevance to books, where authors can make their own rules. So you’ll see some portmanteau sentences on the Delete Key shortlist. Which authors are the worst offenders?

See you Thursday!

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

February 17, 2009

Andrew Blechman’s ‘Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias’ — Are Adults-Only Communities the Equivalent of Geriatric Club Meds?

A report from the land of souped-up golf carts

Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias. By Andrew D. Blechman. Atlantic Monthly Press, 244 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

A church at a Florida retirement community is thinking about allowing only people over 55 to become members — an age limit that would exclude Jesus. Andrew Blechman zeros in on absurdities like these in Leisureville, a well-researched but derisive account of his visits to some of America’s largest housing developments for older people, including The Villages in Florida and Sun City in Arizona.

Blechman argues fairly enough that autocratic real-estate barons have carved out vast subdivisions that amount to monocultures, or the social equivalent of a single crop such as rice or bananas, that can cause the entire local economy to crash if the demand drops. He also accuses the developers a host of lesser sins, including requiring residents to sign restrictive covenants that deprive them of many of the usual rights of home owners.

But the tone of Leisureville turns smug when Blechman suggests that some aspects of retirement communities are “a tragic parody” of the better life he and his family have in their diverse Massachusetts town. His targets include what he seems to regard as bad the taste of residents who drive souped-up golf carts around villages that resemble geriatric Club Meds. This overreaching makes Leisureville read at times like an extended Woody Allen joke: Not only are retirement communities morally, socially, and economically indefensible, but their residents hang Thomas Kinkade paintings on their walls. Alas, if the problems with retirement communities are anywhere near as serious as he suggests, adding a few tasteful Mark Rothko reproductions won’t make a difference.

Best line: No. 1: “Boomers typically list 85 as the age when they will finally consider themselves ‘old.’ Not surprisingly, that’s two years longer than actuaries predict many of them will live.” No. 2: “Some deed restrictions [in retirement communities] — and their rigorous enforcement by powerful homeowners’ associations — can be severe to the point of being comical. For instance, one woman in California was repeatedly forced to weigh in her overweight poodle because it hovered around the community’s 30-pound weight limit for dogs.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Women who once burned their bras now pay handsomely for expensive brassieres and plastic surgery.” The early feminists who planned to burn their bras at a Miss America pageant never did so, because Atlantic City officials wouldn’t give them a fire permit. The women threw their bras in a garbage can instead. Even if Blechman’s comment were accurate — which, repeat, it is not — bra-burning is a bedraggled cliché. Nos. 2 and 3: At The Villages, a married couple displayed on their living-room wall “a print by Thomas Kinkade, an evangelical oil painter with an unusually devoted following, whose trademark is Painter of Light.” And a female tour guide is quoted as saying that the same community is “so beautiful – it’s like living in a Thomas Kinkade painting, but in real life.” So was the guide supposed to say, that “it’s like living in that brothel in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”?

Sample chapter titles: “Free Golf!” “Where’s Beaver?” “The Golden Years”

Published: May 2008. Paperback due out in July 2009 with the new subtitle Adventures in a World Without Children.

About the author: Blechman also wrote Pigeons: The Fascinating Story of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird.

Furthermore: A more entertaining account of young author’s stay in a retirement community appears in Rodney Rothman’s Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a book that treats the elderly more sympathetically. But you don’t know how much, if any, of that book is fictionalized. Leisureville is more informative, though skewed by its polemical tone and Blechman’s view of age-restricted communities as “age-segregated.”

One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the finalists for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Feb. 26, 2009. To nominate a passage in a book for a bad-writing award, leave a comment or send a message to the e-mail address on the “Contact” page.  To read about the purple thong Jan caught at a Mardi Gras parade, see yesterday’s post or follow her Twitter feed www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 30, 2009

‘There Is No Way to Measure the Destructive Effect of Sports Broadcasting on Ordinary American English’ (Quote of the Day / Edwin Newman)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:36 am
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Part of the fun of watching the Super Bowl lies in the theater-of-the-absurd quality of so much the commentary. How often will we hear today that a team down by 21 points has to “move the football downfield” and “put some points on the board”? At least as often as we hear during the World Series that a team behind by five runs has to “put some wood on the ball” and “score some runs.”

When former athletes arrived, so did, "They came to play football."

It wasn’t always so, the former NBC newscaster Edwin Newman says in Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? (Warner, 1975):

“There is no way to measure the destructive effect of sports broadcasting on ordinary American English, but it must be considerable. In the early days sports broadcasting was done, with occasional exceptions such as Clem McCarthy, by non-experts, announcers. Their knowledge of the sports they described varied, but their English was generally of a high order. If they could not tell you much about the inside of the game they were covering, at any rate what they did tell you you could understand.

“Then came the experts, which is to say the former athletes. They could tell you a great deal about the inside, but — again with some exceptions — not in a comprehensible way. They knew the terms the athletes themselves used, and for a while that added color to the broadcasts. But the inside terms were few, and the nonathlete announcers allowed themselves to be hemmed in by them – ‘He got good wood on that on,’ ‘He got the big jump,’ ‘He really challenged him on that one,’ ‘They’re high on him,’ ‘They came to play,’ ‘He’s really got the good hands,’ and ‘That has to be,’ as in ‘That has to be the best game Oakland has ever played.’

“The effect is deadening, on the enjoyment to be had from watching sports on television or reading about them, and, since sports make up so large a part of American life and do so much to set its tone, on the language we see and hear around us.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 14, 2009

Where to Find Answers to Legal Questions About Blogging – ‘The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law’

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:42 pm
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How much of a poem or song can you quote on your blog? Is it okay to use your Facebook page to describe all the annoying things your co-worker does, in enough detail that people will recognize her, if you don’t use her name? If another Web site libels someone and you repeat the offending material on yours, could you get sued?

A good place to look for answers is The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law ($18.95, Basic Books, 432 pp., paperback), edited by Norm Goldstein — specifically, its media-law section with chapters on many topics that apply to bloggers, including copyright, privacy, and defamation (which generally includes both libel and slander).

The legal portions of The AP Stylebook have two advantages over much of the similar material you can find on the Web. First, they have a reader-friendly – that is, nonlawyerly – tone. Second, they cover the major areas that apply to Web content producers and give clear examples of things that can get you into trouble.

The copyright-law section of my 2000 edition notes, for example, that “no mathematical formula” can tell you whether the text you want to use from a poem or song amounts to “fair use.” The stylebook instead offers four general guidelines that apply to quotation. One says that any use that decreases the potential market value of the copyrighted work tends not to be fair: “For instance, if a literary critic reproduces all five lines of a five-line poem, the potential market value of the poem will be diminished because any reader of the critic’s piece can obtain a copy of the poem for free.”

The book also notes that crediting a source doesn’t turn an infringement into fair use. If you have questions, all of the contents are available by subscription to a searchable online database.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda.

January 2, 2009

‘Literally,’ a Guide to ‘Annoying Words and Abused Phrases You Should Never Use Again’ (Quote of the Day / Marie Shear)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:33 pm
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And you though it was bad when Bush said, “I know how hard it is to put food on your family”

Marie Shear writes in the The Freelancer that the NBC anchor Brian Williams — “who reportedly earns $10 million a year” – has said that something is “the exact same” as something else. That’s not the only language abuse that bothers her:

“Within a few days this fall, TV news said that ‘we’re bracing ourselves’ for something; that pupils ‘study up’ on a topic; that a church caught fire ‘at 3 p.m. in the afternoon’ (as opposed to 3 p.m. in the morning); that a plot was ‘frightening and disturbing’ (and redundant); and that a child was ‘brutally beaten to death’ (not murdered courteously). A radio journalist called a U.S. Senate race ‘a virtual dead heat.’ I learned that a town would ‘address the smell’ of sewage in the air (perhaps by saying ‘Howdy, Mr. Stench’).”

Shear reviewed four guides that offer antidotes to “sloppy, repetitious language” – the blather that passes for careful speech in the media and elsewhere. They include Paul Yeager’s Literally, the Best Language Book Ever: Annoying Words and Abused Phrases You Should Never Use Again (Perigee, 194 pp., $13.95, paperback): “Yeager smites ‘transition’ and ‘partner’ as verbs, ‘there’s’ followed by a plural, ‘ATM machine,’ ‘revert back’ and … ‘we’re pregnant.’” And since its publication a Michigan university has come up with a list of words overused in 2008, including “game-changing,” “carbon footprint” and “going green.”

When it comes to language crimes, politicians and bureaucrats the serial offenders. And no book skewers them more entertainingly than a former No. 1 bestseller that didn’t make Shear’s list: Edwin Newman’s Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? (Warner, 1975). Newman tweaks the rise of clichés like “ongoing dialogue” and “adversary relationship” in government and others in the fields of sports, business, and journalism.

“A respect for language requires some standards of judgment,” Newman writes, speaking of 1974. “In Washington they are lacking.”

Can anybody say that times have changed enough that we no longer need books like his?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 25, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Babbittry at the Cleveland Orchestra?

A music critic’s demotion brings to mind Sinclair Lewsis’s great comic novel

Not many Americans still use the word babbittry, that wonderful term for naive boosterism similar to that of the title character of Babbitt. But babbittry may help to explain the plight of my former colleague Donald Rosenberg, who was demoted last week to an arts-and-entertainment reporter from his longtime post as the senior classical music critic at the Plain Dealer. His reassignment inspired a story in today’s New York Times and a cascade of comments on blogs, including posts at The New Yorker www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/goingson/?xrail and the Baltimore Sun weblogs.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/classicalmusic/2008/09/critic_who_dared_criticize_cle.html.

Much of the evidence suggests that this was a sad case of a critic punished for being — well, critical. Or, more specifically, for writing reviews of the work of conductor Franz Welser-Möst that weren’t boosterish enough for the orchestra management. And a Sept. 25 valentine to Welser-Möst www.cleveland.com/arts/ by Rosenberg’s successor, Zachary Lewis, strengthens that impression. No less startling than the timing of Lewis’s article was a line in it suggesting that the orchestra paid the bill for the lunch at which he interviewed Welser-Möst for the story. I took many authors to lunch in my 11 years as the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and if I had allowed any of those sources to pick up the check, I would have expected not to have a job the next day. Lewis apparently permitted it and got promoted. Many newspapers consider it unethical for reporters to allow sources to pay for meals, so even those that allow the practice tend not to advertise the freeloading as Lewis did. And unless his comment about the lunch was misleading, you have to wonder if the demotion wasn’t symptomatic of something larger.

I have no inisde knowledge of why the reassignment occurred, but I admired the intelligence and professionalism Don brought to his work at the Plain Dealer, where he reviewed occasional books for me. So this is a reminder that if he’s lost his beat, you can still read his writing about the orchestra in a book: Don wrote the definitive history of the Cleveland Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra Story: “Second to None” (Gray, 752 pp., $40).

Late Night With Jan Harayda is a series of occasional posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and comment on literary or related events but do include reviews, which appear in the morning or afternoon.

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

http://www.janiceharayda.com

September 16, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – How Book Coverage Works These Days

Mark Sarvas explains why he put Netherland on a standing list of recommended books on his blog, the Elegant Variation: “The way book coverage works these days, everyone talks about the same book for about two or three weeks, and then they move on and the book is more or less forgotten” marksarvas.blogs.com/. Exactly. After the first two or three weeks, books tend to come back only if they win awards or otherwise become unexpectedly successful – Oprah picks them, a movie version comes out. That’s partly why One-Minute Book Reviews reivews a mix of new and seasoned books, with the older ones often chosen because the critics bypassed them during that brief first flowering.

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

September 10, 2008

If I Could Read One Book About Sept. 11, I Would Read …

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:46 pm
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If I could read one account of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I would read 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (Holt, 384 pp., $15, paperback), by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, a book I’ve had on my “to read” list almost since its publication. Dwyer and Flynn describe the 102 minutes between the first attack on the World Trade Center and the collapse of the second tower, as seen by people inside the buildings, in this finalist for a National Book Award. As they do, they tell intimate stories that evoke deep emotions, Publishers Weekly said: “A law firm receptionist quietly eats yogurt at her desk seconds before impact. Injured survivors, sidestepping debris and bodies, struggle down a stairwell. A man trapped on the 88th floor leaves a phone message for his fiancée: ‘Kris, there’s been an explosion…. I want you to know my life has been so much better and richer because you were in it.’” You may also want to read the review of Love You, Mean It, a memoir by four women widowed by the attacks, posted on Sept.11, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/11/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

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