One-Minute Book Reviews

July 23, 2010

Today’s Gusher Award for Hyperbole in Book Reviewing Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:11 am
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Two reviews share today’s Gusher Award for over-the-top praise in book reviews:

From a review of Marisa Silver’s Alone With You: Stories in the New York Times Book Review on June 6, 2010:

“Miraculously, Silver makes philandering Burton sympathetic even as she compassionately conveys the ambivalence Julia feels, at once insulted and relieved by her husband’s infidelity.”

From a review of Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge in the Oregonian on June 26, 2010:

“No less miraculous, however, are the tools by which Orringer builds these connections: Her writing is glorious, at times awe-inspiring.”

Makes you wonder if the pages of these books were printed on the Shroud of Turin, doesn’t it? Memo to critics tempted to use “miraculous” in future reviews: Why not save it for times when a plane lands on the Hudson instead of squandering it on smooth transitions between paragraphs?

Gusher Awards appear on Fridays except when no sentence or paragraph was too inflationary to qualify. These prizes may recognize types of overheated praise other than hyperbole, such as gonzo metaphors. If you’d like nominate an a candidate, please send an e-mail note to the address on the “Contact” page.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 14, 2009

Why Newspapers Go Bankrupt – From Restaurant Critic Frank Bruni’s ‘Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater’

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 am
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How tough is it to write about food for a major newspaper? Let the former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni tell you in a passage from his new memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater (Penguin, 354 pp., $25.95), which also deals with his youthful bulimia and weight problems and with his gay love affairs. Bruni writes that before his predecessor William “Biff” Grimes assumed his post, the newspaper gave him time in which to travel for just for research and to eat in places whose cuisines he wanted to know better:

“Over many weeks he drove slowly through Italy and France.

“Now the same extreme hardship was being visited upon me, and I needed a strategy and itinerary of my own. Italy I knew: whenever I had gone anywhere in the country for work or fun, I’d sampled the local restaurants. But I hadn’t spent much time in France. So I planned a week in Paris, during which I’d hit a Michelin one-star restaurant, a Michelin two-star restaurant, a Michelin three-star restaurant (the highest rating). I also planned a week in Hong Kong, which served as a crossroads for many Asian cuisines, sometimes fused: Cantonese, Sichuan, Indian, Thai, Japanese.

“But what I needed first and foremost was to reacquaint myself with New York. I hadn’t eaten in some of the most important restaurants that had opened over the last five years, not to mention a few important restaurants that had opened earlier than that. So I scheduled three weeks there, during which I’d eat out for dinner every day and for lunch, too, on many days. New York would be the first stop on my gastronomic tour.

“I wanted to hit all five of the restaurants that had ratings of four stars – which signaled an ‘extraordinary’ experience and was the highest number of stars on the Times scale – either from Biff or Ruth Reichl, so I made reservations at Daniel, Jean Georges, Bouley, Alain Ducasse and Le Bernardin.”

Over the next eight pages of Born Round, Bruni describes the highlights his gastronomic tour, which included a meal of twenty or so courses at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, “America’s most celebrated temple of haute cuisine.”

August 18, 2009

‘Typos Are Worse Than Fascism!’ — Quote of the Day / I. F. Stone

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A lot of publishers seem to be trying to save money these days by skimping on copyediting and issuing more books with felonious typos. What’s wrong with that? I love this comment by one of the great muckraking journalists of the 20th century, which reflects the sentiments of many of us who have worked for daily newspapers:

“Typos are worse than Fascism!”
— I. F. Stone, as quoted by his daughter, Celia Gilbert, at his funeral in 1989

May 19, 2009

A Set of Ethical Standards for Freelance Writers and the Editors Who Hire Them in the Age of Blogs and Other Forms of Digital Technology

The following comments are off-message for me, but I’m posting them because they relate to a core principle of One-Minute Book Reviews: This site doesn’t accept free books from editors, publishers, authors, agents or others with a stake in those books. The FAQ page explains why, and the article mentioned below provides context for its comments. Jan

If you’re a freelance writer, do you tell editors when you have sources of income from (or are applying for jobs) that relate to work you’re doing for them? Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, thinks you should. Wasserman tells the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in an article called “Keeping It Honest in a Freelance World”:

“Among the big changes the news business is undergoing is a steady erosion of its fundamental reliance on full-time, salaried journalists. What’s emerging in its place is an industry built on a patchwork of different working relationships. …

“What’s emerging is essentially the Op-Ed model moved from the opinion pages to the news: A growing dependence on journalism from loosely affiliated outsiders. The typical news site will have a small editorial nucleus at the center of an orbital sphere of contributing reporters, videographers, commentators and analysts. …

“There’s good reason not to welcome this. It means journalists will be paid even worse. It means coverage is likely to suffer from further loss of consistency and coherence, not to mention expertise.

“And it replaces the clarity of loyalty, obligation and independence that went with the traditional employment model with something that’s potentially very different. Remember that the Op-Ed pages have often been little more than an ethical bordello, with editors making scant effort to learn, much less police, the various entanglements that commentators might have with the topics they hold forth on.”

Wasserman lists seven ethical principles that editors should follow when assigning work to freelancers (and that, by implication, freelancers should follow when working for them). These include:

“Require internal disclosure. These disclosures should be comprehensive: All sources of income over the previous 12 months and all pending efforts to secure other paid work. (After all, you don’t want to post what seems like journalism but later turns out to have been an employment application.) Dollar amounts aren’t necessary; it’s the relationships that corrupt, not how lucrative they are. Require people to characterize those relationships—you don’t want anybody repaying favors on your site, but you also don’t want them settling scores. Disclosure should go beyond mere names. The range of some entity’s client relationships in town could implicate a number of other areas a particular journalist should steer clear of.”

Wasserman is on the money about about all of this, and though he doesn’t say so directly, his comments have implications for online book-review sites, many of which have ties to publishers that are undisclosed or disclosed only by implication (for example, in the form of ads for books placed next to rave reviews of them or sycophantic profiles of their authors).

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 23, 2009

2009 Delete Key Awards Finalists to Be Announced Feb. 26, Beginning at 10 a.m. – The Year’s Worst Writing in Books for Children and Adults

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:27 pm
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You think the books you read this year were bad? Find out Thursday how they compare to some of the worst writing publishers have flung at us in the past twelve months. The 2009 Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books for children and adults will be announced beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern Time on Feb. 26 with the full list posted by the end of the day.

This year for the first time visitors to One-Minute Book Reviews can choose one of the finalists – the worst of four lines from Denis Leary’s Why We Suck, all included in a recent poll on this site. You can vote anonymously until 5 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday on the Feb. 21 post.

The winners will be named on March 16 (usually on March 15, which falls on a Sunday this year).  To read other posts about the awards, given to authors who don’t use delete keys enough, click on “Delete Key Awards” in the list of categories at right. Thanks for visiting this site.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 2, 2009

How Great Books Got Their Titles — When ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ Was ‘Angry Raisins’ — André Bernard’s ‘Now All We Need Is a Title’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:07 am
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F. Scott Fitzgerald took his editor's advice, but many authors didn't.

Alfred A. Knopf urged Dashiell Hammett to change the title of The Maltese Falcon because he thought “falcon” might be hard for people to pronounce. The staff at Harper Brothers protested when Eugene O’Neill handed in Mourning Becomes Electra, a trilogy that later helped him win the Nobel Prize, because they believed the reference to Agamemnon’s daughter was too obscure. And the editor Max Perkins talked F. Scott Fitzgerald into calling his greatest novel The Great Gatsby instead of Trimalchio in West Egg (or at West Egg), perhaps fearing that few would recognize the name of a character in Petronius’s Satyricon.

Stories like these abound André Bernard’s ‘Now All We Need Is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way (Norton, 127 pp., $11, paperback), an engaging collection of anecdotes and commentary about how well-known books got their titles. A former Book-of-the-Month Club editor who worked in publishing for 25 years, Bernard covers more than 100 books that range from classics to late 20th-century bestsellers like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone mysteries, each of which has a letter (“A” Is for Alibi, “B” is for Burglar) in title.

Many of the stories in Now All We Need Is a Title involve misguided efforts by editors to overrule authors. But Bernard shows that translators, book clubs and others can also do damage. John Steinbeck loved the title of The Grapes of Wrath, inspired by a line in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He didn’t live to see the translation published in Japan, where his widow, Elaine, found the book being sold as Angry Raisins.

This is the first in a series of posts that will appear this week on some of my favorite books.

© 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’

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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.

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