One-Minute Book Reviews

June 20, 2008

A ‘Casualty Notification Officer’ Brings News No One Wants to Hear

Great photos by the Pulitzer Prize–winning Todd Heisler and others enhance a poignant story of how Americans learn that their relatives have died in Iraq

“The Commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to express his deep regret that your (relationship), John, (died/was killed in action) in (place of incident) (city/state or country) on (date). (State the circumstances.) The Commandant extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your loss.”
The Marine Corps’s suggested script for casualty notification officers, which they may modify, as quoted in Final Salute

Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives. By Jim Sheeler. Penguin, 280 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

It seems heartless today that the military once announced combat deaths in telegrams or brief sympathy letters that left relatives alone in their sorrow. Near the end of the Vietnam War, the government changed its policy and began sending two-person teams of uniformed officers to deliver the news instead. And Jim Sheeler shows how harrowing that job can be in this wonderful book about one such officer, Major Steve Beck of the Marine Corps, that grew out of a Pulitzer Prize–winning series with the same title for the Rocky Mountain News.

Sheeler doesn’t say so, but newspapers have reported that the notification policy changed partly because as Western Union offices became fewer, the military started asking taxi drivers to deliver the telegrams. Many of those cabbies — quite understandably — refused the work.

In Final Salute, Sheeler shows why anyone might decline the job now done by servicemen and -women known as “casualty assistance calls officers” or “casualty notification officers.” The military sends teams not just for emotional support but for the protection of the messengers: At the beginning of the war in Iraq, a furious mother slapped a Marine from Beck’s unit.

But the emotional hazards of casualty notification clearly outweigh the physical dangers. Officers do not generally call ahead to announce their visits. But families know instantly why they have arrived. “You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor,” Beck said.

Sheeler couldn’t go with Beck when he knocked or rang doorbells. But he got as close as any reporter may ever have and followed up with the families. He also interviewed a former Marine who painted the names of the fallen on gravestones and went to a wake on an Indian reservation for the first Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe member killed in Iraq. Some of his most poignant stories involve a fatherless preteen son, who told him, “I get mad when kids tell me the wrong things like, ‘Your daddy died for no reason.’”

Writing in a calm tone and plain language somewhat reminiscent of that of All Quiet on the Western Front, Sheeler never overdramatizes or sentimentalizes his material. He also breaks up long stories into well-crafted shorter segments. This helps to keep his book from becoming almost too painful to read, but at times works against the narrative flow. Sheeler tells us on page 23 that a mother who had two sons at war screamed, “Which one was it?” when she realized that one had died. When he continues her story on page 114, he says she screamed, “Which one is it?” You don’t know if he gives two versions of the question because he had conflicting sources, because he massaged one of the quotes, or because the woman said first one thing, then another.

The story told in this book is so memorable that – with one exception – its lapses hardly matter. Final Salute benefits greatly from the photographs of Todd Heisler, who won his own Pulitzer, for feature photography, for the pictures in the “Final Salute” series in the Rocky Mountain News. Sheeler thanks Heisler in his acknowledgments. But neither he nor the jacket-copy writer mentions Heisler’s Pulitzer. How Sheeler and his publisher could have treated so much of their material so sensitively – and this aspect of it so insensitively – is a mystery.

Best line: Beck’s comment: “You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor.”

Worst Line: The failure of Sheeler and his publisher to note that Heisler en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Todd_Heisler won a Pulitzer for his photos for the “Final Salute” series www.pulitzer.org/year/2006/feature-photography/works/, some of which appear in this book, including the elegant image on the cover. This is a disservice to Heisler, to readers and to others, including booksellers, who could have used the information in hand-selling the book. Sheeler is a great writer, but the importance of photographers to a story like the one told in the Rocky Mountain News series — without which this book would not exist — cannot be overstated. It is not simply that photographers can raise a story to a higher power artistically or help to persuade reluctant sources to cooperate. Outstanding pictures, such as those Heisler and others took, can help to “sell” editors on a story — to persuade them give it the play it deserves — and to persuade readers to read it. Just below the headline of this review appears a line that shows how easily Penguin could have mentioned Heisler’s Pulitzer, without doing an injustice to the other photographers, in one sentence on the dust jacket. Heisler was also part of a team that won the 2003 Pulitzer for breaking news photography. He is now a staff photographer for the New York Times.

Published: May 2008 www.jimsheeler.com and us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9781594201653,00.html.

Furthermore: Sheeler is now a a scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing her reviews.

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

May 19, 2008

Backscratching in Our Time: Max Hastings and Michael Howard

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:30 pm
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Max Hastings on Michael Howard:
“In Britain, Professor Sir Michael Howard, OM, CH, MC, and Don Berry were kind enough to read and discuss this manuscript, as they did that of my earlier book Armageddon.”

Max Hastings in the acknowledgments for Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–1945 (Knopf, 2008), published in the U.K. under the title Nemesis.

Michael Howard on Max Hastings:
“This is a book not only for military history buffs but for anyone who wants to understand what happened in half the world during one of the bloodiest periods of the blood-soaked 20th century.”

Michael Howard in “The Worst of Friends,” a review of the book for the Oct. 3, 2007, Spectator www.spectator.co.uk, England’s most influential magazine of opinion. Howard’s quote appears on the cover of the American edition of Retribution.

Comment:

I normally post examples of literary backscratching without comment. But these two require a short explanation. The National Book Critics Circle found in a recent survey of its members, “Ethics in Book Reviewing,” that 68.5 percent of respondents thought a book editor should not assign a book to someone mentioned in the acknowledgments
bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/2007/12/ethics-in-book-reviewing-survey-results.html.

The ethics of book reviewing differ in Britain, where the culture of full disclosure does not exist to the degree that it does in America. The pool of eligible reviewers is smaller in the U.K. and, without a more flexible standard, editors might have trouble finding qualified reviewers. And a potential conflict-of-interest does not always result in a weak review. Michael Howard’s review for the Spectator is more fluent, authoritative and interesting than reviews by others in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. You may wonder if Howard had reservations about Retribution that he withheld. But you still learn more about the book from his comments than from most – if not all – of the American reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 8, 2008

‘Librarians Need Two Book Reviews to Justify Book Purchases for Libraries’ (Quote of the Day / Jane Ciabattari)

Media coverage of the decline of book-review sections has focused on the effect of the trend on authors, readers, and publishers. Jane Ciabattari, president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org, raises a frequently overlooked issue in the Winter 2008 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin (“Book Reviews: In Print, Online, and In Decline?”) when she says that “librarians need two reviews to justify book purchases for libraries.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 1, 2008

Diary: John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ — Are People Who Live Through Disasters ‘Survivors’ or ‘Victims’?

Filed under: Classics,Diary,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 pm
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Perhaps no book has had more uncredited influence on the best accounts of 9/11 than Hiroshima. In this great book John Hersey tells the true stories of six people who escaped death when the atomic bomb fell on their city. One line deals with the confusion that arose, right after the blast, about what to call people who lived through the events of August 6, 1945: “In referring to those who went through the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Japanese tended to shy away from the term ‘survivors,’ because in its focus on being alive it might suggest some slight to the sacred dead.”

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

March 27, 2008

Good Riddance to Book-Review Sections? Quote of the Day (Steve Wasserman)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:19 am
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Why have so many book-review sections shrunk, disappeared or turned into cheerleading squads for major publishers? Critic Gail Pool explores some of the reasons in her Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/18/ .

But literary agent Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, goes further in a recent essay in the Columbia Journalism Review. Wasserman calls some book-review sections “shockingly mediocre.” And his article explains, better than any I have read, why their perilous condition reflects more than — to oversimplify a popular argument — cretins in the accounting department.

Here are some excerpts from Wasserman’s CJR article, which you can read at www.cjr.org/cover_story/goodbye_to_all_that_1.php?page=all.

“That book coverage is disappearing is not news. What is news is the current pace of the erosion in coverage, as well as the fear that an unbearable threshold has been crossed: Whether the book beat should exist at all is now, apparently, a legitimate question.…

“The predicament facing newspaper book reviews is best understood against the backdrop of several overlapping and contending crises: The first is the general challenge confronting America’s newspapers of adapting to the new digital and electronic technologies that are increasingly absorbing advertising dollars, wooing readers away from newspapers, and undercutting profit margins; the second is the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization; and the third and most troubling is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument….

“A harsher truth may lurk behind the headlines as well: Book coverage is not only meager but shockingly mediocre. The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers. One is tempted to say, perversely, that its disappearance from the pages of America’s newspapers is arguably cause for celebration.”

Wasserman is managing director of the New York office of the literary agency Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson and book editor of www.truthdig.com.

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

February 25, 2008

Why We Need Negative Reviews of Books (Quote of the Day/William Logan)

Perhaps everyone who’s edited a newspaper or magazine book section has heard the question: “Why do you publish negative reviews of books? When you have so little space, why not focus on the good ones?” William Logan deals with the question as it applies to poetry in his The Undiscovered Country:

“It’s often said that critics shouldn’t write negative reviews, because bad poetry will take care of itself (time will take care of it, too). With so few books in a given year worth remembering, why review those that will soon vanish from memory? I love reviewing poets I admire (isn’t that what a critic lives for?); but if you write only such reviews, how can a reader trust your praise? We learn something necessary about how a few poets go right when we know the ways so many have gone wrong: the latest clichés of feeling, the shop-thumbed imagery, the rags and bones of organization. Great poets transcend their age as much as they embody its ills, or succumb to them; but mediocre poets succumb on every page.

“If you’re too gentle to say a mean thing, are you ever courageous enough to say a truly kind one (or mean enough to say an honest one)? It’s surprising how many poets feel that poetry criticism should never be … critical. Yet these gentle readers love film and theater reviews that would eat the chrome off a car bumper.”

William Logan in the introduction to his most recent book of poetry criticism, The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin (Columbia University Press, $29.50) www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/. Logan teaches at the University of Florida www.english.ufl.edu/faculty/wlogan/index.html and writes the Verse Chronicle for the New Criterion newcriterion.com:81/. He is author of three other works of criticism and seven books of poetry. His awards include the a citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review and inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com


February 24, 2008

Did Your Sunday Paper Call a Book an ‘Instant Classic’ Today?

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 pm
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If so, you can nominate the review for a One-Minute Book Reviews Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole. A classic has proved its worth over time. So “instant classic” is self-contradictory hyperbole. (A critic could solve the problem by writing that a book “deserves to become a classic.”) To submit a review for consideration for a Gusher Award, leave a comment or use the e-mail addresses on the “Contact” page and mention the nomination in your subject heading.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 18, 2008

No Raves for Critics in ‘Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America’

A critic reviews Sunday book sections, the Amazon “reader-reviewer” system and more

Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America. By Gail Pool. University of Missouri Press, 170 pp., $34.95, hardcover, and $19.95 paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Conflicts of interest are so common in book reviewing that the New York Review of Books is sometimes called “The New York Review of Each Other’s Books.” Gail Pool rightly faults the literary incest and other ills in Faint Praise, a book that aims to diagnose and prescribe cures for a trade in the throes of multiple system failure.

So I was startled to discover that the critic Steve Weinberg had raved about Faint Praise in a review in the Boston Globe. He didn’t mention that he may have loved the book partly because he appears briefly in it. Pool quotes him in making her case that – you guessed it – book editors don’t do enough to screen out critics who have conflicts of interest.

It’s easy to see why an editor might assign a book to a critic who’s quoted in it if the volume dealt with a subject – say, interplanetary dust or Romanian poetry in translation – on which there are few experts. But there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of people qualified to write about Faint Praise. So why did the Globe pick a critic whom readers might suspect of having a conflict of interest? And why didn’t it require him to disclose in his review that he’s in the book? If the Globe didn’t require the disclosure, why didn’t Weinberg — whose tagline says that he “tries to promote better reviewing as an elected director of the National Book Critics Circle” — disclose it voluntarily?

Welcome to the Salvador Dalí exhibition that American book reviewing has become, a surrealistic realm where you often get the time from melted watches. As it happens, I have a few paintings of my own in that show: I like Pool and Weinberg, both of whom reviewed for me at the Plain Dealer, and have reviewed for the Globe. Even so, I would never have assigned Pool’s book to Weinberg. And that difference of opinion suggests a theme of Faint Praise: Book reviewing in America is a maw of clashing policies, standards and approaches to the craft. The state of the institution is such that highly experienced editors and critics may disagree strenuously about what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Pool traces the conflicts back to the late 18th century, when the first book reviews appeared in America, and shows how they have multiplied the age of Oprah, Amazon “reader-reviewers” and the proliferation of book clubs. She also proposes solutions that few people could fault, such as training reviewers better and developing ethical guidelines for them. And if you would need to be a book editor or Amazon executive to implement some of her ideas, she makes other points that could help anybody who wanted to write better reviews.

Take her indisputable argument that book reviewing has become infested with clichés or off-the-rack adjectives — such as “astonishing,” “luminous” and “compelling” — that often substitute for a serious attempt to grapple with a book. What, really, does it tell you about a book to read that a critic finds it “astonishing” when a book can be astonishingly good or, as so many are, astonishingly bad? Yet if you Goggle “astonishing book” + “New York Times Book Review” to see how many times the Sunday book section of the Times has used the phrase, you will get more than 1,500 returns. Some of the returns clearly result from the repetition of a quote on multiple sites. But you will get 480 more examples if you Google “astonishing novel” + “New York Times Book Review” and others if you try variations such as “astonishing writer” or “astonishing poet.” And that’s just the tally for the Sunday section of one paper. You might get thousands — perhaps millions — more if you searched for the phrase in other publications. Pool is clearly asking an overdue question when she wonders: How can you trust the praise for books when there’s so much of it and so much of it is so over-the-top?

Valid as such challenges are, Faint Praise tends to suggest retail changes in a field that begs for wholesale. Pool identifies correctly many of the minor ethical issues in book reviewing but ignores – and seems unconcerned about – some that are major. One is that newspapers that don’t let their travel editors to take free trips do allow their their book editors to accept free books worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, perhaps millions at the largest papers. These freebies can skew book reviewing in many ways. They may help to explain, for example, why so many unworthy books get overpraised or even reviewed at all: An editor who gets thousands of dollars’ worth of free books a month from a publisher may feel intense pressure to review some of them, even if they’re awful. The ever-rolling pork barrel may not influence what critics say about books, but it can affect which books an editor assigns for review. That’s a more troubling issue, because the results are much harder for readers to see than the biases of cranky reviewers. And while I’m all for the ethical guidelines Pool would like to see more publications develop, they’re no substitute for moral courage on the part of individual critics, including a willingness to go againt the grain whenever it would serve the interests of truth and readers.

So Faint Praise is far from a definitive statement on the ills of American book reviewing. But as far as it goes, it’s better than any book we have on the subject. If its proposed changes are cautious, Pool is bolder in describing the present woes, including that “reviewers who write sophomoric criticism can appear in our leading publications” — a point well supported by examples from the New York Times Book Review and other publications. She believes that if better reviewing is to occur, it’s the editors of book sections who will “make it happen.” More books like Faint Praise could make it happen, too.

Best line: Pool’s observation that “reviewers who write sophomoric criticism can appear in our leading publications and reviewers who write meaningless sentences can win prizes in criticism.” If she seems to be exaggerating – which she isn’t – consider this line from a review of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections in the New York Times Book Review: “Sure, I guess it’s a no-no to put stuff in your book that doesn’t pay off, but I can’t scrape together much outrage when I’m basically having a good time.” The reviewer added: “If you don’t end up liking each one of Franzen’s people, you probably just don’t like people.” In other words, if your taste differs from that of the Times, you’re a misanthrope.

Worst line: “More than 150,000 books are published in the United States each year.” Who says? On the same page, Pool says that 549 new films came out in 2005 and attributes the figure to the Motion Picture Association of America. So what’s the source for that “more than 150,000”? The figure may have come, uncredited, from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which tracks the number of books published by country and says 172,000 appeared in the U.S. in 2005 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_published_per_country_per_year. But you expect consistent attribution in a scholarly-press book with end notes.

Published: Summer 2007 www.umsystem.edu/upress/

Furthermore: Other material about Faint Praise appeared on this site on Jan. 23 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/23/ and Feb. 15, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/15/. For ideas on how to get started in book reviewing, visit the Tips for Successful Book Reviewing page www.bookcritics.org/?go=tips on the National Book Critics Circle site. Steve Wasserman, fomer book editor of the Los Angeles Times, offered a different perspective on the decline of reviewing in the September/October 2007 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review www.cjr.org/cover_story/goodbye_to_all_that_1.php?page=all.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She would like to expand One-Minute Book Reviews to include podcasts, broadcasts and other services, such as online book discussion groups or forums in “real time,” and would like to find a home for this blog that would make it possible to provide these.

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

February 8, 2008

And the First Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole Goes to …

This is the first in a series of Friday posts in that will recognize out-of-control praise for books (in addition to any other posts that appear that day). At the end of this post you’ll find an explanation of why I am withholding the reviewers’ names in most posts, though I am providing a link to the review when one is available.

And the first Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing goes to:

“Everyone in the world should read this book.”
From a review of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier in the Washington Post, Feb. 23, 2007
www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/22/AR2007022201958.html

Comment:

The population of the world was more than 6 billion as of January 2008. And there’s no one among the 6 billion people who shouldn’t read this book? This praise would defy common sense even if the Australian hadn’t raised serious questions about the credibility of Beah’s story.

Why I am withholding the reviewers’ names in most of these posts:

These posts will generally withhold the reviewer’s name for two reasons. One is that the purpose of the Gusher Awards isn’t to say “X is a bad writer” but to say “This is bad reviewing.” X may be a good writer who had a bad day.

The second — and more important — reason is that at major publications the blame for hyperbole never lies with the reviewer alone. An editor (often more than one) has to approve the over-the-top praise. Here’s how the process might work at a newspaper or magazine with a substantial book-review section: An associate or deputy editor of the section assigns the review and edits it after it comes in. At least two other editors then read the review: the editor of the section and a copyeditor (whose job consists, in part, of making sure that the review conforms to the house style of the publication). The review might also be read by a) others on the staff of the section; b) the book-section editor’s boss (such as an assistant managing editor at a newspaper); and c) his or her boss, such as the editor-in-chief of the publication.

In other words, at least two or three editors — and as many as five or six — may have read an overheated review. But because it’s impossible to know exactly who approved the hyperbole, I’ll omit most names, though I may sometimes mention them for reasons I’ll explain on a case-by-case basis.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 6, 2008

The Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole — Starting Friday on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:23 pm
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“Five thumbs up!” “You’ll laugh till you pee!” “Not since Tolstoy …”

Tired of reading lines like these in book reviews in respected magazines and newspapers? Or of seeing modestly promising first novelists hailed as the next Henry James or Edith Wharton?

You can fight hype and review inflation by nominating your candidates for the One-Minute Book Reviews Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole. A new winner will be named on the site every Friday beginning Feb. 8.

Here’s how to nominate your candidates:

1. Look for book reviews that go over the top. A rave won’t qualify if it’s an intelligent rave. Nor will a review qualify just because you and I disagree with it. The comments in the review need to defy belief or common sense. Several examples appeared in a recent post about Gail Pool’s Faint Praise, including a Boston Globe review that said that Zadie Smith’s White Teeth had “changed literature’s future” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/23/. The quote you nominate does not need to have appeared in the past week.

3. You can nominate a candidate by using the e-mail address on the Contact page on this site or by leaving a comment on any post that relates to the Gusher Awards, including this post. Please list the comment, the magazine or newspaper that published it, the date of publication and, if possible, a link. If you nominate a comment by e-mail, please refer to the awards in the subject heading and let me know if you’d like a “Submitted by …” credit if I use the comment.

4.You don’t have to explain what’s wrong with the quote. Most of the quotes should speak for themselves. If you want to explain what’s wrong, please comment on the quote, not on the reviewer. No personal attacks.

5. The Gusher Awards will generally honor reviews in publications large enough to use professional reviewers, such as daily newspapers and mass-market magazines — not community weeklies that depend on unpaid amateurs. The awards may also honor some blurbs.

Don’t forget that the finalists for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books will be announced on Feb. 29, so you can nominate candidates for those, too.

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

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