One-Minute Book Reviews

December 30, 2012

Backscratching in Our Time — Jami Attenberg and Julie Orringer

The latest in a series of posts on authors who praise each other’s work

Jami Attenberg on Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, which she listed as one of the “5 Best Things” she had “read recently” in Impose magazine: 

“I just cracked open Julie Orringer’s latest book this morning; a very wise and literary friend gave me a galley of it and promised I would love it. It’s gorgeous so far, master-craftsman-next-level kind of writing.”

Julie Orringer on Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins in the New York Times Book Review:

“There’s a touching paradox in the first chapter of Jami Attenberg’s caustic, entertaining and bighearted new novel, The Middlesteins….The burning question, which Attenberg explores with patience and sensitivity, is why Edie has embarked on her self-destructive path. The answers themselves aren’t surprising: Edie married too early, felt ambivalent about parenthood, became disillusioned with her career. What’s remarkable is the unfailing emotional accuracy and specificity with which Attenberg renders Edie’s despair….largely brilliant.”

Read about other logrolling authors in the “Backscratching in Our Time” series.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

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

December 31, 2011

Judgment and Disclosure Lapses at the New York Times Book Review

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:58 pm
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By Janice Harayda

In October the sponsor of the National Book Awards did a favor for Oregon Public Broadcasting, an independently run member of NPR. The National Book Foundation allowed OPB to carry the live announcement of the 2011 finalists — and benefit from any related boost in ratings or traffic to its site — instead of a for-profit station.

So you might wonder why the New York Times Book Review assigned a review of the fiction winner, Salvage the Bones, to Parul Sehgal, the books editor of NPR.org. Wouldn’t that create the appearance of a conflict of interest by giving an NPR employee the opportunity to return a favor the National Book Foundation did for an NPR member? If so, shouldn’t the NYTBR have disclosed the link between the awards program and NPR?

You might think so. And there’s more. Before the awards ceremony, Sehgal praised Salvage the Bones on the NPR site. She called Jesmyn Ward’s tale of Hurricane Katrina one of five “splendid books” shortlisted for the fiction prize, admiring its “pitch-perfect collisions of character and fate that endow it with the scope and impact of classical tragedy.” After the novel won, she reaffirmed her high opinion of it on The Millions, where she wrote: “Salvage the Bones is every bit as good as they say it is.” So it’s no surprise that in the Jan. 1 New York Times Book Review, Sehgal again celebrates the book: “Salvage the Bones … is a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written.” After all, she’s told us twice before that she likes it.

What is a surprise is that the NYTBR assigned the review not just to a critic employed by NPR but to one who had made her views on the novel well known. Did the editors believe that no other critic could review the book as well? Sehgal is the most recent winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing and was certainly well qualified to review the novel. But so were many other critics, including a half dozen or more recipients of the same honor. Was the Times trying to stack the deck in favor of a good review?

Newspapers often reprint reviews that have appeared in other papers or on wire services such as the AP, just as many bloggers self-syndicate by allowing their reviews to appear on multiple sites. These practices are widely accepted in part because they typically involve no effort to rig the jury. An editor of a paper or site simply reprints what exists. It’s also common for critics to review new books by authors whose earlier work they have praised, and more than 3 in 4 critics see nothing wrong with the practice, according an NBCC ethics survey.

But it’s highly unusual for a major newspaper to permit a critic to review a new book that he or she has lavishly praised for a substantial national audience, and it may be unprecedented at the New York Times Book Review. In the case of Salvage the Bones, the results are confusing: Sehgal seems to imply on the NPR site that the book is “pitch-perfect.” But she says of its author in her Times review: “She never uses one metaphor when she can use three, and too many sentences grow waterlogged and buckle.” None of this is intended to slight Sehgal – whose ethics and professionalism are, to my knowledge, unquestioned – but it creates the suspicion that the Times hoped to ensure a favorable review choosing her.

All of this raises questions of fairness – to readers, to authors, and to publishers. Everyone benefits when books receive as many reviews as possible from open-minded critics, because each reviewer offers a unique perspective. The situation might be different if the posts that Sehgal wrote before her Times review had been straight news stories that contained no opinion and consisited of, say, an announcement of its shortlisting and plot summary. But words like “splendid,” “pitch-perfect” and “as good as they say” involve value judgments, not facts, and the NPR description of the novel is indistinguishable from a brief review even if not labeled as such.

It’s hard to believe that the Times would have allowed Sehgal to review Salvage the Bones if she had criticized the book as strongly as she praised it on the NPR and the Millions sites. Readers would have complained that the paper showed an unfair bias in assigning a review of the novel to a critic known to dislike the book. Why wasn’t it equally unfair of the Times to assign a review to a critic known to like it?

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

October 10, 2010

Backscratching in Our Time: Edwidge Danticat and Amy Wilentz

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:25 pm
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Edwidge Danticat recommends Amy Wilentz’s The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier (Simon & Schuster, 1990)  on the Wall Street Journal’s “Speakeasy” blog on Jan. 14, 2010, calling it a book “which blends current events with cultural history” and “seeks to detail the society beyond the headlines.”

Amy Wilentz recommends Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Princeton University Press, 2010) in the New York Times Book Review on Oct. 10, 2010:
“It’s a miracle, the way she captures the textures of a reality she was a part of for only the first 12 years of her life. The section in which she and her cousin and uncle climb a mountain and visit an aunt in a remote village is filled with small wonders.”

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.”

July 14, 2009

No Plaudits for the Word ‘Plaudit’ in Newspapers

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:21 pm
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Why do newspapers allow reporters to use the stilted word “plaudits” when “praise” would do? Two writers for the New York Times tell us today that the departing presidential adviser Steven Rattner “has won plaudits” for directing the restructuring of Chrysler and General Motors.

Who speaks like that? Has your boss ever said, “Plaudits for that Power Point presentation!” Or “A big plaudit for not dozing off during the CEO’s speech!” (It seems you can’t “win” just one “plaudit” but always get more than one if you’ve earned any.) Has a date or spouse told you, “Honey, plaudits for the best sex I ever had!” Some people might say that “plaudit” has value as a substitute for “praise” if that word has appeared repeatedly. But that argument endorses the sin of  “elegant variation” or the needless use of fancy synonyms when plain words would be clearer. And the Times reporters rolled out “plaudits” before giving “praise” a chance.

This kind of stuffy writing is sometimes called “newspaperese” but also infects books. If you’ve found an example, why not nominate it for one of the Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books that this site awards every March 15?

I’m on a semi-vacation for a couple of weeks and posting lightly or on offbeat topics such such as plaudit abuse that I normally deal with only in the context of book reviews.

March 13, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 24, 2009

Improve Your Writing in Minutes – Kill a Portmanteau Sentence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you Thursday!

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

February 22, 2008

And This Week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:47 am
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On Sunday (Feb. 17) the New York Times Book Review had a review of The Seven Days of Peter Crumb, billed as “a chronicle of the final week in a psychopath’s life by the British actor and writer Jonny Glynn.” The critic said:

“Reading it, I fought the urge to throw up. Needless to say, I was transfixed.”
www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/books/review/Trussoni-t.html?ref=review

Comment:

Hyperbole in reviews often involves substituting overheated words like “transfixed” and “mesmerized” for calmer (but perhaps more accurate) ones like “fascinated” and “interested.’ “Transfixed” means “to render motionless” or “to fixate on something as though held by a spell.” You wonder if this critic was “transfixed” by anything but the need to find a vomit bag.

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

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 15, 2008

Two, Four, Six, Eight / Now’s the Time to ‘Salivate’! This Week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:09 am
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And this week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole goes too …

This book “will leave readers salivating for more.”
From a review of Special Topics in Calamity Physics in the New York Times Book Review, Aug. 13, 2006 www.nytimes.com/2006/08/13/books/review/13cover.html

Comment:

Even by the embarrassingly uncritical standards of contemporary literary criticism, the praise for Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Penguin, 528 pp., $15, paperback) went over the top. Many reviewers gushed not just about the novel but about the author’s youth and good looks as though they were writing for Hairdo magazine instead of major newspapers.

This week’s winner took the top honor because it double-faults. It’s unclear and presumptuous. What does “salivating” mean here? I may have defective salivary glands. But I can never quite figure out how to “salivate” for books – even by writers I love — as though I were, say, an unusually literary Weimaraner. If a critic does find him- or herself “salivating,” why not just say that (in the first-person) instead of projecting the response onto others (while hiding behind the third person)?

At least among critics, the bold prophecy of mass salivation for Special Topics in Calamity Physics seems to have gone unfulfilled. Ann Cummins wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that Pessl’s novel rates “that lamest of grades, an ‘I’ for Incomplete.” Donna Rifkind said in the Washington Post that Pessl is a “vivacious writer,” but that “hunkering down for 514 pages of frantic literary exhibitionism turns into a weary business for the reader.” And Peter Dempsey of the Guardian faulted the book for “a page-by-page cascade of dreadful extended metaphors.” “Baldly put,” he said, “Pessl has a tin ear for prose.”

One-Minute Book Reviews welcomes nominations for the Gusher Award. 

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
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