One-Minute Book Reviews

May 21, 2012

Ethics Go on Vacation in Nancy Pearl’s ‘Great Summer Reads’ for NPR

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:15 pm
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[Update, May 24: After this post appeared, NPR acknowledged Nancy Pearl's conflict of interest in a note that appears at the top of her post at http://bit.ly/NPRconf.]

A librarian doesn’t tell listeners about her financial ties to one of her “great summer reads”

By Janice Harayda

You expect some objectivity when you tune into a report on books by a regular commentator on NPR. You know that authors who appear on a broadcast are usually there to promote their work and gain financial benefits. But you assume that an experienced host or commentator will provide the professional distance needed to maintain credibility for the nationwide network of radio stations.

Think again. The latest meltdown of ethics at NPR involves the librarian Nancy Pearl, the author of Book Lust and a regular commentator for the network. In January Pearl drew fire from independent booksellers when she said she had signed a deal with Amazon to write the introductions and other material for about six novels a year in series called “Book Lust Rediscoveries.” She just made that situation worse.

Today Pearl released on the NPR website and on its “Morning Edition” a list of seven “great summer reads” from among the thousands of books that will appear this spring or summer. And – you guessed it – one of her favorites is the first book in the series from which she stands to make money under her Amazon deal. Equally disturbing is her failure to spell out her conflict of interest clearly. Pearl says coyly on the NPR site that A Gay and Melancholy Sound is “the first book brought back into print as part of the Book Lust Rediscoveries series.” She doesn’t mention her financial link to it.

This lack of disclosure betrays the trust of the millions of people who tune in to “Morning Edition” and other NPR shows. It may also violate Federal Trade Commission disclosure rules. The FTC rules say that bloggers or online endorsers must disclose “the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.” Pearl appears to have a “material connection” to Amazon (“the seller of the product” she endorsed) that she did not disclose. And it’s hard not to wonder if that isn’t exactly what the online retailer was hoping for when it signed her to a deal.

Pearl’s failure to tell the full story of her involvement with A Gay and Melancholy Sound seems also to flout NPR ethics codes. Those guidelines note that “partial truths can inflict great damage on our credibility, and stories delivered without the context to fully understand them are incomplete.” Pearl has told NPR listeners a partial truth about her “great summer reads,” and NPR should respond by amending its website and broadcasting a correction about her financial tie to a product she enthusiastically recommended. NPR can foster only cynicism about its work by asking people to believe that from among the thousands of books Pearl could have chosen, one her seven favorites is the one most likely to put money in her pocket.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

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

August 19, 2009

Katarina Mazetti’s ‘Benny & Shrimp,’ a Scandinavian ‘Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ With Swedish Meatballs

Can a Swedish librarian find happiness with a man who owns a manure-spreader, or is he just shoveling — ?

Benny & Shrimp. By Katarina Mazetti. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death. Penguin / Pam Dorman. 221 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This frothy romantic comedy is a Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society with Swedish meatballs. Benny Söderström is an unmarried dairy farmer who owns a manure-spreader and boasts, “If you’ve read one book, you’ve read them all, and I read one last year!” Desirée Wallin is a widowed librarian who likes modernist furniture and talking about the literary theories of Jacques Lacan. The two lovelorn Swedes, both in early middle-age, meet at a cemetery where Benny visits his mother’s grave and Desirée her husband’s. And if you can’t see where this novel is going by the end of the first chapter, you’re probably still shocked that Julia Roberts got together with Richard Gere in Pretty Woman.

But like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Benny & Shrimp makes use of an interesting narrative device: Katarina Mazetti tells her story not in letters but in chapters narrated antiphonally by Benny and “Shrimp,” the farmer’s nickname for Desirée. And Mazetti invests her tale with enough wit and vitality to offset some of the contrivances of her plot. Benny might refer to Rigoletto as “that fatso with the sword” after Shrimp tries to couth him up by giving him opera tickets. But  you have to admire an unmarried man who, when he opens his refrigerator, has the integrity to admit the truth: “There were things in there that probably could have walked out on their own.”

Best line: “You could lobotomize him with the power saw and nobody would notice the difference.”

Worst line: It’s hard to imagine a Swedish farmer saying, even in translation, “Blimey” and “not bloody likely!”

Published: August 2008

Reading group guide: Penguin has posted discussion questions that include comments by Mazetti.

Caveat lector: This book was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: Mazetti is a Swedish radio producer and author of books for children and adults. Benny & Shrimp was a bestseller and inspired a movie in Sweden. And yes, this novel about people who meet in a cemetery was translated by “Sarah Death.”

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

May 31, 2008

More on ‘Pale Male,’ One of the Year’s Best Children’s Books

You can never predict the behavior of those wacky Caldecott judges at the American Library Association www.ala.org. These are the people who never gave a medal to Dr. Seuss! And instead insulted him with three Honor Book citations! What were those librarians thinking when they passed over Horton Hatches the Egg and so many other wonderful picture books? I have no idea and a lot of other critics don’t, either.

Even so, I went out on a limb a couple of weeks ago and predicted that the Caldecott committee will give serious consideration to Janet Schulman and Meilo So’s new picture book Pale Male (Knopf, $16.99), the true story of a red-tailed hawk that with its mate built a nest atop a luxury co-op building on Fifth Avenue www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/. The hawk had inspired a two earlier children’s books, Jeanette Winter’s The Tale of Pale Male: A True Story. (Harcourt, 2007) and Meghan McCarthy’s City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male (Simon & Schuster, 2007). Because I hadn’t seen them, I couldn’t discuss them in my review.

But John Schwartz read the earlier books before reviewing Pale Male for tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review. And he says that the 2007 books are intended for younger readers than the 6-to-9-year-olds who may enjoy Schulman and So’s work. He also says that while both have their pleasures, “Schulman tells the story of the city’s most popular predator since Michael Milken with more detail and verbal grace.”

Schwartz’s review has a much larger reproduction of one of So’s beautiful watercolors than I could show on this site, so if you’re on the fence about the book, you may want to read the review here www.nytimes.com/2008/06/01/books/review/Schwartz-t.html?ref=books.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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May 14, 2008

A True Library Story

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:54 am
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Late this afternoon I was working in the café of a public library in New Jersey when I overheard two teenage boys marveling about how safe the library was – “by far the safest in the area.” Their reasons included that a) the library had not been forced to close during the after-school hours like Maplewood’s because of all the crime; b) it wasn’t nearly as bad as the library in Irvington, where they had heard that people tried to smuggle in guns behind books; and c) as for the library in Newark – just forget it.

© 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.

April 7, 2008

One Flew Over the Card Catalog — Scott Douglas’s ‘Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian’

Filed under: Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:34 am
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A California librarian describes his long, strange trip through the stacks

Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian. By Scott Douglas. Da Capo, 330 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

A modern public library is a cross between a computer lab, homeless shelter, psychiatric ward, babysitting service and incipient crime scene. Books haven’t yet become an afterthought. But can anybody doubt that they’re going in that direction?

Scott Douglas has observed the trend at close range – first as a page, then as graduate student and currently as a public librarian in Anaheim, California. He tells his story in a book that he describes as a “kind of” true memoir of his life amid the stacks.

In Quiet, Please, Douglas uses composite characters and other devices that require a greater-than-usual skepticism. But some of the incidents he describes could have happened at any public library. Teens on drugs? Check. Power-crazed staff members? Check. A loony patron who wanted people to listen to her theory that “World War II was thought up by Churchill and Hitler during a game of poker”? Check – unless a patron were to tell you instead that aliens were sending coded messages through the computers.

Douglas’s literary persona is that of public servant who dislikes great swaths of the public. He seethes when a disabled patron damages a projector cord during a free computer workshop. “The way I see it,” he says, “we spent $40 in library work to fix the problem caused by some stupid old man in wheelchair.”

The problem with this persona isn’t that that it’s mean-spirited or ideologically unfashionable, though often it is both. It’s that it isn’t funny enough to justify the shtick. Many writers get away with occasional meanness or flouting political orthodoxies because, at their best, they are hilarious — David Sedaris, P.J. O’Rourke and Bill Bryson among them. Douglas tends instead to be just smug. What, really, is funny about his confession that he hated some of the displays of support for firefighters after 9/11 because he had found that “firemen were a bunch of arrogant jerks”?

At the end of the book, Douglas suggests how libraries could improve. He’s right that most need to go higher-tech and, for example, let patrons save material to USB devices such as flash drives. And he may be correct that some would benefit from scrapping the Dewey Decimal system and adopting a bookstore model of shelving, so that librarians could direct people to the “religion books” instead of “the 200s.”

But Douglas devotes so little space to these topics that his comments on them, like many others in the book, read like throwaways. He also focuses narrowly enough on his own experiences that he ignores many sources of tension – if not crisis – that are roiling libraries elsewhere, such as unionization, levies and bond issues, and gang-related crimes. Early on, he describes himself as someone who sees the glass as “half empty,” and that phrase fits his book, too.

Best lines: Quoted above. The theory of the patron who believed that “World War II was thought up during a game of poker by Churchill and Hitler.”

Worst lines: “I don’t like white people.” “I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of the handicapped.” “I’d like to dispel the cliché that librarians are boring, but that simply just doesn’t seem true to me.” “I hated teens, but sometimes they really made me laugh at their stupidity.” “At some point in a person’s life, you stop growing … This period in a person’s life is called becoming a senior citizen. Melvil Dewey was “a major dick” and he and other famous librarians were “elitist wimps.”

Editor: Shaun Dillon

Published: March 2008 www.dacapopress.com and www.scottdouglas.org

Furthermore: Since 2003 Douglas has written about his work for the Web site for www.mcsweeneys.net/links/librarian/28myspace.html.

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

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 6, 2008

Were Melvil Dewey and Other Famous Librarians All ‘Elitist Wimps’?

Filed under: Books,Libraries — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:31 am
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Scott Douglas says in his new Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian that the creator of the Dewey Decimal system and several other famous librarians had one thing in common: “they were all elitist wimps.” One-Minute Book Reviews will review the book tomorrow.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 8, 2008

Did Laura Amy Schlitz Deserve the 2008 Newbery Medal? Quote of the Day (Meghan Cox Gurdon)

Many people were suprised when Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village won the most recent John Newbery Medal, an award that usually goes to a novel, for a collection of monologues and dialogues. Did the book deserve the honor? Meghan Cox Gurdon, the children’s book critic for the Wall Street Journal, called the collection “remarkable and poignant” and added:

“As with any prestigious award, the Newbery also brings new readers to the author’s other works, which in this case is a particularly welcome effect. Ms. Schlitz has a rich and humane style of writing, with stories that manage to be both sparkling and substantial. Better still, her storytelling is a return to the moral traditions of the greatest and most enduring tales, yet with not the slightest taste of cod liver oil nor any of the tiresome left-leaning didacticism that has characterized so much writing for children since the late 1960s.”

Meghan Cox Gurdon in “A Late-Blooming Talent in Full Flower” in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19-20, 2008.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 2, 2008

A Tale by the Brothers Grimm Returns in ‘The Bearskinner,’ a Picture Book by Newbery Winner Laura Amy Schlitz and Max Grafe

A former soldier struggles to avoid losing his soul to the devil in a parable about faith, hope and charity

The Bearskinner. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Illustrated by Max Grafe. Candlewick, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Laura Amy Schlitz is the newest supernova in the field of children’s literature. For years, she had a passionate following mainly among the students who listened to her stories at the Park School in Baltimore, where she is the librarian. But her visibility soared after she earned raves for her 2006 novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair. This year she won 2008 Newbery Medal for her cycle of one- and two-person plays, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, and she would be equally worthy of a major award for The Bearskinner, her retelling of a Faustian tale by the Brothers Grimm.

The grave and eloquent opening lines of the book set the tone: “They say that when a man gives up hope, the devil walks at his side. So begins this story: A soldier marched through a dark wood, and he did not march alone.” In this tale a hungry and cold soldier returns from war to find nothing left of his home and the people he loved. At his lowest moment, he accepts an offer from the devil, a man with a goat’s hoof for a left foot: For seven years, the soldier will have unlimited gold. But he must wear a bearskin and may not wash, pray or tell anyone of his dark bargain. If he does, he will lose his soul.

Clad in the skin of a bear he has just killed, the ex-soldier goes off to indulge his desires. After three years, he looks like a monster, and people flee from him. He loathes himself, too, and is thinking of ending his life. But he sees a starving mother and child who give him an idea – he will use Satan’s money to feed the poor. This act of charity leads to others that enable him to outwit the devil, throw off his bearskin and marry a kind woman who has seen the good heart behind the repulsive appearance.

All of this has aspects of both a fairy and morality tale. But Schlitz neither sentimentalizes nor preaches, and Max Grafe’s wonderful illustrations remind you the work of the late Leonard Baskin in their boldness, their restricted color palette and their use of fluid body lines to suggest inner turmoil. Grafe sets the text on yellowing pages that resemble parchment, or perhaps charred tree bark, which locates the story in the distant past and may soften its potentially frightening aspects. And his devil is one of the most original to appear in a picture book in years in years. Grafe casts Lucifer as a handsome devil in the literal sense of the phrase, a man who resembles 1930s matinee idol with slicked-back hair and a flowing green cloak. No ogre with a scar, his devil is a smooth operator – just like a lot of devils in real life.

Best line: The first lines of the book, quoted in the review.

Worst line: “He rode to the gambler’s house on a dapple-gray horse.” The use of “dapple-gray” is confusing. Why not “dappled gray”?

Published: November 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Schlitz, a Baltimore librarian, won the 2008 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org, for her book of monologues and dialogues, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village (Candlewick, $19.99), illustrated by Robert Byrd. She lives in Maryland. Grafe is a New York printmaker and illustrator.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 1, 2008

Why Do Children Like Folktales? Quote of the Day (Laura Amy Schlitz)

Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of a retelling of the Brothers Grimm story The Bearskinner (Candlewick, $16.99) www.candlewick.com, which has words by the 2008 Newbery Medal–winner Laura Amy Schlitz and pictures by Max Grafe. Schlitz is the librarian at the Park School in Baltimore and says that her children’s books reflect the influence of her years of telling folktales to its students:

“Folklore has a moral center to it. Folklore is always, always, always on the side of the underdog, and children have a natural instinct towards justice. They feel indignation at needless cruelty and wistfulness about acts of mercy and kindness.”

Laura Amy Schlitz as quoted by Meghan Cox Gurdon in “A Late-Blooming Talent in Full Flower” in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19–20, 2008.

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

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