One-Minute Book Reviews

February 6, 2008

How to Get Started as a Book Reviewer — Tips From the National Book Critics Circle

If you think that trying get book-review assignments is like trying to get work decorating staterooms on the Titanic, the NBCC suggests how to avoid the icebergs

Later today I’m going to announce a new series of negative achievement awards for hyperbole in book reviewing that will begin Friday on this site, so I’ve been looking around the Web for posts that tell how to avoid over-the-top praise in reviews (and, indirectly, how critics can keep their name off the list of winners). The Tips for Successful Book Reviewing page www.bookcritics.org/?go=tips on the National Book Critics Circle site wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, partly because it’s more about how to get started as a book reviewer than about how to write good reviews.

But it has great advice for anyone who’s wondering if you can still get review assignments now that so many books sections have shrunk or vanished, or if this effort wouldn’t be like trying to get work decorating the staterooms on the Titanic. Rebecca Skloot www.home.earthlink.net/~rskloot/of the NBCC compiled the page with help from Elaine Vitone and delivers on the subtitle of her article, “Strategies for Breaking in and Staying in: Getting started as a critic, building your reviewing portfolio, going national, and keeping editors happy.” Here’s her most important point:

“Read good criticism. There are several authors who regularly gather their reviews and essays into collections that show how good criticism must be to stand the test of time. The NBCC has awarded several of these books prizes in our criticism category: Cynthia Ozick’s Quarrel & Quandary, William H. Gass’ Finding a Form, John Updike’s Hugging the Shore, Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliche, William Logan’s The Undiscovered Country, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Making Waves are essentials in any critic’s library. Going back even further, the essays of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Borges, and Orwell remind us how criticism can be the intellectual record of our times. Notice, too, how the very best criticism is driven by metaphors and ideas and examples, not adjectives.”

Skloot is right about those adjectives, and if you aren’t sure how many adjectives are too many, watch this blog for examples after the new awards series is announced.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda is a former member of the NBCC board of directors.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 2, 2008

Newly Found Records Show That Ishmael Beah Was in School for Part of the Time When He Says He Was a Soldier, Australian Newspaper Reports

The Australian says that records recently found in a remote Sierra Leone schoolhouse show that Ishmael Beah was in school for part of the time when he says he was a soldier. Peter Wilson, a reporter for the newspaper, writes in an article dated Feb. 2, 2008:

“The school results for March 1993 showed the popular author attended the Centennial Secondary School throughout the January-March term, a time when he claimed in his heartrending book A Long Way Gone that he was already roaming the countryside as a child refugee.

“Beah, his New York publisher Sarah Crichton Books and his Australian co-publisher HarperCollins have furiously denied reports by The Weekend Australian in recent weeks that have undermined the credibility of his highly profitable book …

“Beah, now 27, did spend some time as a child soldier during his country’s civil war, but it appears likely to have been a few months around the age of 15 rather than two years from the age of 13 that he vividly describes in his book.”

Read the rest of story here www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23147571-601,00.html.

In response to earlier questions about his memoir, Beah said: “I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong. … Sad to say, my story is all true” www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6524214.html%5E. The Australian disputed this in a statement posted by Publishers Weekly www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6525128.html. This week Beah stood by his story again in an interview with Hillel Italie of the Associated Press.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

January 24, 2008

An Open Letter to Ishmael Beah About the Questions Recently Raised About His Memoir, ‘A Long Way Gone,’ by Reporters for The Australian

Mr. Ishmael Beah
c/o Sarah Crichton Books
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
19 Union Square West
New York, New York 10003

Dear Mr. Beah:

Nearly a year ago, One-Minute Book Reviews questioned how you could have seen some of the things you claim to have observed in A Long Way Gone, your gripping memoir of your experiences as a teenage soldier in Sierra Leone. This site raised its questions first in a review of your book www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/27/ and then in a reading group guide www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/. The guide noted that John Corry, who has reported from West Africa, said in his review in the Wall Street Journal: “It is permissible to wonder whether Mr. Beah is accurately recalling events and people and what they said.”

More recently the newspaper The Australian raised questions about the timeline of your story www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23082274-2703,00.html. You responded to these by saying, in part, “I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong. … Sad to say, my story is all true” www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6524214.html%5E. The Australian disputes this and challenges your criticism of the paper in a statement posted by Publishers Weekly www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6525128.html.

In any case your response to The Australian was so prompt that I hope you will now be willing to respond to questions I raised last year. Some involve a scene on page 97 of A Long Way Gone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007) www.fsgbooks.com. You say that you and friends “lay in the dirt” on a coffee farm near a ruined village and eavesdropped on rebels who played cards and chatted “for hours.” You write that you heard one rebel say his group had just burned three villages:

“Another rebel, the only one dressed in full army gear, agreed with him. ‘Yes, three is impressive, in just a few hours in the afternoon.’ He paused, playing with the side of his G3 weapon. ‘I especially enjoyed burning this village. We caught everyone here. No one escaped. That is how good it was. We carried out the command and executed everyone. Commander will be pleased when he gets here.’ He nodded, looking at the rest of the rebels, who had stopped the game to listen to him. They all agreed with him, nodding their heads. They gave each other high fives and resumed their game.”

My questions include: How could you and your friends have been close enough to overhear that conversation yet avoid detection “for hours” by the rebels? If you could see a rebel “nod” and others “nodding” in agreement, how could the rebels could not see you? In your time as a solider, did you take any any notes that would help you remember conversations in such detail? Or were you relying only on the “photographic memory” that you say in your book that you have? If you took notes, how did you hide them while you were a soldier and get them out of the country later on?

I would appreciate any clarification you can provide.

Sincerely,

Janice Harayda
One-Minute Book Reviews

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 23, 2008

Would It Help If Book Critics Switched to Decaf? Review Inflation Spins Out of Control at U.S. Newspapers and Magazines (Quote of the Day/Gail Pool)

So many book reviews are so overheated, you almost need to handle them with asbestos tongs. Gail Pool gives examples of the review inflation in her recent Faint Praise:

“ . .. how can I believe the praise [in reviews] when there’s so much of it and so much of it is over the top? On a single Sunday book page, Boston Globe reviewers declare that Michael Ondaatje, in Anil’s Ghost, has created ‘a novel of exquisite refractions and angles: gorgeous but circumspect,’ that Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation has ‘that rightness that makes a work of art,’ that Leonard Michael’s Girl with a Monkey is ‘uncompromising fiction. … They hardly make it like that anymore,’ and that Zadie Smith, in White Teeth, has ‘changed literature’s future.’ The Washington Post Book World, reviewing Rick Moody’s memoir, says that its ‘timeless exploration of the issues that are essential to what it means to be an American makes it likely that The Black Veil will take its place among classic American memoirs’; Boston Book Review proclaims that Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, has ‘permanently extended the range of the English language’; …

“How can I trust such assessments to guide my reading when most books, I find, are at best pretty good, and when I know that few books in a century change literature let alone the English language?”

Gail Pool in Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (University of Missouri Press, $19.95, paperback) www.umsystem.edu/upress, a critique of book reviewing in newspapers, magazines and other media. Pool is a Massachusetts writer who edited Other People’s Mail: An Anthology of Letter Stories. She wrote a column on new fiction for the Plain Dealer when I was the book editor.

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

January 22, 2008

John Bowe Exposes Abuses of Migrant Workers in Florida, Oklahoma and Elsewhere in ‘Nobodies’

 

Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. By John Bowe. Random House, 304 pp., $25.95.

 

By Janice Harayda

In ancient Rome the authorities created a torture device called “the brazen bull,” a life-sized metal statue of a bull in which they locked people accused of misbehavior. “A fire was built below the bull’s belly, and with careful placement of musical pipes within the bull’s head, the victim’s screams would be transformed into ‘music,’” John Bowe writes in Nobodies.

Most of us like to think that such inhumanity has gone the way of the Caesars. But Bowe argues that spiritual descendants of the Roman torturers exist in modern employers who exploit migrants and frighten them into silence with threats of deportation, harm to their families back at home or other punishments. And the abuses he describes are no less chilling because his rhetoric about them at times becomes overheated.

Bowe focuses in Nobodieson the harm done to three groups, including Mexican and Central American orange- and tomato-pickers in Immokalee, Florida, and garment workers on the American commonwealth of Saipan, whose mistreatment led to a class action suit against JCPenney, the Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and 21 other corporations that was settled for $20 million. Then there were the welders brought over from India to work for the John Pickle Company (JPC) in Tulsa:

“JPC had confiscated their passports, crammed 53 workers into a squalid barracks on factory premises, and was feeding them disgusting, unsanitary food, verbally abusing them, constraining their movements, and forcing them to work six days a week. The company had even hired an armed guard to keep them from escaping over Thanksgiving.”

Bowe is such a fine reporter that if he had let facts like these speak for themselves, Nobodies might have appeared on every newspaper’s list of the 10 best books of the year. But he also tries to show that the growing gap between the rich and the poor, as exemplified by forced labor, undermines democracy.

That’s true, but Bowe is much less effective as an analyst than as a journalist and can’t quite pull it off. In the third section of his book, on Saipan, he loses his focus and serves up something that resembles an investigative report less than a highly stylized travelogue of the School of Geoff Dyer. And in the fourth section he tries to link the stories in his book to global events such as the attacks on Sept. 11 in a way that comes across as simply glib.

Bowe says on his blog that he wishes he’d written a simpler book, and it’s a perceptive comment. As good Nobodies is, it could have been better if he’d tried to do less in it.

Best line: “The average migrant [worker] has a life expectancy of just 49 years. Twenty thousand farmworkers require medical treatment for acute pesticide poisoning each year; at least that many more cases go unreported. Nationally, 50 percent of migrants – up from 12 percent in1990 – are without legal work papers. Their median annual income is somewhere around $7,500.”

Worst line:“Osama bin Laden, to my thinking, is just another name for Osama bin jobs, Osama bin minimum wage, Osama bin social justice. The poor will find ways to revenge themselves on the rich. And the ideology that provides the most comfort and justice to the largest number of people will prevail. If the revenge motive of brand Osama holds greater appeal than brand Freedom, well, I guess that means that brand Freedom didn’t do such a great job of delivering on its promises.”

Editors: Daniel Menaker and Dana Isaacson

Published: Sept. 18, 2007 www.randomhouse.com and www.johnbowe.wordpress.com/

Furthermore: Parts of “Florida,” the first section of Nobodies, appeared in different form in the April 21, 2003, issue of The New Yorker. In 2004 Bowe’s work to date on the book won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and other honors. The plight of the Immokalee tomato-pickers led to a four-year boycott of Taco Bell, which ended in 2005 when its parent company agreed to give workers a raise that would nearly double their wages and take other steps to improve their working conditions. Bowe lives in Manhattan.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com/

January 10, 2008

Joan Didion on Beginnings and Endings in Writing (Quote of the Day)

“Life changes fast.”
– The first sentence of The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion earned her reputation as one of the great American prose stylists partly through the memorable first sentences of her books and articles. She won the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction for a memoir of death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, that opens with three words: “Life changes fast.”

Do opening lines have an importance that goes beyond their ability to make you keep reading? Didion dealt with the question in a Paris Review interview about the early nonfiction pieces that helped to make her famous:

Interviewer: You have said that once you have your first sentence you’ve got your piece. That’s what Hemingway said. All he needed was his first sentence and he had his short story.

Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

Interviewer: The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.

Didion: Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.

Joan Didion in “The Art of Fiction, No. 71,” an interview with Linda Kuehl in the Fall-Winter 1978 issue of the Paris Review. You can find the full text of that interview and another with Didion that appeared in the spring 2006 issue by searching for “Joan Didion” at www.parisreview.org. Didion’s hardcover publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, has posted an excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking at www.aaknopf.com, where you can read the pages that follow: “Life changes fast.”

Cover art for the the Fall-Winter 1978 Paris Review shown here: Robert Moskowitz

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

January 8, 2008

Backscratching in Our Time — Gina Kolata and Jerome Groopman

The latest in a series of posts on authors who praise each other’s work in a way that may have financial benefits for both

 

I usually post these examples of backscratching without comment, but this one is bad on so many levels, I’d like explain why. A pillar of journalistic ethics says that reporters should avoid not just conflicts of interest but the appearance of conflicts. Gina Kolata is a science writer for the New York Times who has used Groopman, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a bestselling author, as a source. As the comments below make clear, she accepted a favor from Groopman — the blurb for Rethinking Thin — that could put money in her pocket if, say, you bought the book based on his recommendation or if a paperback or overseas publisher paid more for the reprint rights because of the quote (and quotes can affect the amount offered). Kolata has compounded the problem by selecting one of Groopman’s essays for Best American Science Writing 2007, a decision that has almost certainly put money in his pocket, given that contributors to anthologies typically receive an up-front fee or a percentage of the royalties or both. She also used on the cover of the paperback edition of her earlier Flu a quote from Groopman that appeared in the Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times. It gives me no pleasure to say any of this because I enjoy Kolata’s work for the Times and regard it as far superior to that of her colleague Jane Brody, who writes the Personal Health column. I also admired much about Flu, Rethinking Thin and Groopman’s How Doctors Think www.oneminutebookreivews.wordpress.com/2007/12/28/.

 

Jerome Groopman on Gina Kolata

“Kolata is a seasoned reporter, and knows how to craft a riveting tale … a masterly recounting of medical history.”

Groopman in a review of Kolata’s Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic (Touchtone, $15, paperback) in the Boston Globe, Dec. 12. 1999. “A masterly recounting of medical history” appears on the cover of the paperback edition of Flu.

 

“An incisive, thought-provoking examination of a subject that concerns us all. This book will educate and illuminate those seeking solid information about the struggle to lose weight.”

Groopman in a blurb on the cover of Kolata’s new Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss — and the Myths and Realities of Dieting (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24)

Gina Kolata on Jerome Groopman

“I also liked Jerome Groopman’s New Yorker article, ‘Being There.’ It raises an issue I had never considered, and in an unforgettable way …”

Gina Kolata on why she choose Groopman’s article as one of the best of the year, in her introduction to Best American Science Writing 2007 (HarperPerennial, $14.95, paperback), edited by Kolata and Jesse Cohen.

One-Minute Book Reviews welcomes suggestions about authors should be in “Backscratching in Our Time,” a series in inspired by “Logrolling in Our Time” in the old Spy magazine.

© 200X Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 13, 2007

Michael Maren Indicts Major Charities and International Relief Organizations in His Exposé, ‘The Road to Hell’

Maybe that Christmas carol should say, ‘Tis the season to get suckered

The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. By Michael Maren. Free Press, 302 pp., $26.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

The Road to Hell should probably return to bookstore windows every December the way It’s a Wonderful Life comes back to television. Michael Maren is a former food monitor for the United States Agency for International Development in Somalia, and he has seen at close range the many ways misplaced charity harms the world’s poor. In this blistering and well-researched book, he exposes some the worst abuses of international relief agencies and charities — particularly CARE and Save the Children — that have grabbed a piece of my money and maybe yours, too. If you’re like me, you may wish you’d written a check instead to that food pantry in your hometown.

I reviewed The Road to Hell when it first appeared in 1997 www.netnomad.com/cpdreview.html and went back to it recently to see how it stood up to the latest upheavals among relief organizations that operate in Africa, the focus of the book. One change occurred in August when CARE said that it was rejecting some $45 million in surplus wheat, earmarked by the U.S. government for overseas distribution, because such programs hurt poor farmers who can’t compete with the low-priced food Americans dump on their local economies. You might think that such developments would make The Road to Hell www.simonsays.com seem outdated. They instead make it appear prophetic, because they implicitly support its theme: that sweeping, never-ending aid programs are the new colonialism and may create a dependency that keeps recipients from returning to self-sufficiency.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 6, 2007

After ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ — Joan Didion’s Greatest Hits

A lot of book clubs are reading The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, $13.95, paperback), Joan Didion’s National Book Award–winning memoir of the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. And for groups or discussion leaders who would like to read more by Didion, the good choices include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, the early nonfiction collections that helped to make her reputation as one of America’s finest prose stylists.

But perhaps the best “next book” is the first chapter of her 1992 essay collection, After Henry (Vintage, $14.95, paperback) www.randomhouse.com/vintage/. Didion writes in the chapter about an early editor of her books, Henry Robbins, who died on his way to work at the age of 51. And her comments on death relate, perhaps more directly than anything she has written, to her views in The Year of Magical Thinking. She also notes, correctly, that the relationship between writers and great editors has little to do with changes in manuscripts:

“The relationship between an editor and a writer is much subtler and deeper than that, at once so elusive and so radical that it seems almost parental: the editor, if he was Henry Robbins, was the person who gave the writer the idea of himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down and do it.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 24, 2007

Winners on the Field, Losers in Hardcover — Why Are So Many Books by Star Athletes So Awful? Quote of the Day (Jane Leavy)

Why do so many bad books come from good athletes? Jane Leavy, left, a former sportswriter for the Washington Post, says:

“Sports autobiography is a peculiar genre: ghostwritten fiction masquerading as fact. In the literature of sports, truth has always been easier to tell in fiction – Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty and Dan Jenkins’s Semi-Tough are among the best examples. It wasn’t until Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season and Jim Bouton’s Ball Four that a semirealistic view of the baseball locker room emerged between hard covers. The authorized life stories of America’s greatest athletes form an oeuvre of mythology. What are myths if not as-told-to stories?”

Jane Leavy in Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (HarperCollins, 2002) www.harpercollins.com. Sandy Koufax, the great pitcher for the Dodgers, earned a second fame when he refused to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Far more than many contemporary stars, he is a worthy hero for young athletes, and Leavy’s book is a good starting point for teenagers and others who want to know more about him.

Comment:
Leavy is right that sports memoirs are a cesspool of journalism. But the reasons for it are changing in the era of what Joyce Carol Oates has called “pathography,” or biography that focuses on the pathological. Mickey Mantle and other vanished titans might have nodded in their memoirs to old idea that hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue. But more recent stars, like Lawrence Taylor and Dennis Rodman, have used their books to flaunt their vices until you might welcome a little hypocrisy. The fashionable theme in sports memoirs today is, “Yo, virtue! You’re history.”

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

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