One-Minute Book Reviews

September 26, 2013

Quote of the Day / Journalist John Kroll on ‘Anticlimactic’ Titles

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:29 pm
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Headlines often fail for obvious reasons such as sensationalism or grammatical errors. But they may have more subtle problems. Journalist John Kroll says that some editors seem determined to make the titles of newspaper articles “as anticlimactic as possible”:

“One of The Plain Dealer’s early experiments in narrative was titled ‘Losing Lisa.’ There’s a reason Disney didn’t name a movie  Losing Bambi’s Mom.”

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 13, 2010

On Not Making Coffee – Quote of the Day / From ‘News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist’

Filed under: Memoirs,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:50 pm
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Laurie Hertzel began her 18-year career at the Duluth News Tribune in 1976, the year Barbara Walters became the first female co-anchor of a network newscast. But such milestones had yet to open many doors for women at the Minnesota newspaper. Male reporters still wrote most of the stories, and the chief photographer was a man who had spent time in a German prison in World War II and made his way to America with his life savings hidden in an accordion.

Hertzel recalls her experiences at the News Tribune in News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, a lively new memoir from the University of Minnesota Press. In this excerpt she tells what happened after she learned that she was supposed to make coffee for her male colleagues:

“I might have been timid, but I had a strong sense of fairness. I didn’t drink coffee, so I saw no good reason why it should be my responsibility. Also, it was logistically complicated. The only place with a sink deep enough to hold the coffee urn was the men’s bathroom. There was a women’s restroom on our floor, but it was a tiny, one-hole affair with a shallow sink, located directly across from the sports department. This meant that every time one of the seven women on the floor had to pee, the sportswriters didn’t just know it, they could hear it. It was a humiliating bathroom for a shy person, and it was of absolutely no use in making coffee.

“To make coffee I had to lug the urn down the hall, pound on the door, yell, ‘Is anybody in there?’ and then go in and fill it up at the big, deep sink, hoping that no guy came in needing to take a whiz, and then stagger with it back down the hall, water sloshing my ankles. This was not something I was inclined to do, so I set about scheming to get out of this responsibility. First, I started bugging guys when they were at their busiest. ‘Can you fill the coffee pot for me? There’s someone in the bathroom.’ They didn’t care to be interrupted when they were on deadline, and they didn’t want to be away from their phones when they were waiting for a call back from a source, so this drove them a little nuts. And then I made coffee … badly. Undrinkably so. In a newsroom, that’s saying a lot. …

“So it wasn’t too long before the responsibility just sort of evaporated, and I could concentrate on the fun stuff … ”

Hertzel, who is books editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, tells more about News to Me on her Web site. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/StribBooks and read more excerpts from her memoir on the University of Minnesota Press blog.

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

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:11 am
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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

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.

June 16, 2009

Can There Be ‘Too Many Reviews’ of Books? — Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:05 pm
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Fewer book reviews are appearing in print because of recent cutbacks at newspaper book-review sections, but is the smaller number necessarily a bad thing? Most critics seem to think it is, in part because it tends to result in an uneven distribution of literary wealth: As the review space shrinks, a larger share of it is going to established authors who don’t need the attention – but whom editors believe they can’t ignore – at the expense of unknowns who do need it.

A slightly different view informs North Toward Home, the acclaimed 1967 memoir by Willie Morris, the late editor of Harper’s. Morris suggests that “too many reviews and too much talk about reviews” can hurt writers by eroding their faith in the importance of their work in its own right. That argument may have been stronger when good new authors could usually take for granted that they would get reviews in respected newspapers. Now those authors may receive none. And neglect can erode a writer’s faith as much as too many reviews of the wrong sort. But Morris makes a worthy point that’s in danger of getting lost amid the din about shrinking book-review sections: Reviews are often a mixed blessing.

Here’s more of his argument:

“A young writer’s work rests in a very real way on his own private ego – on his own personal faith that what he has to write and the way he writes it are important in themselves, important to his own time and to future generations. Why else subject oneself to the miseries of writing? When one is too closely involved in the world of publishing, this private faith can wear very thin. There are too many books, too many reviews and too much talk about reviews, too much concern about books as commodities, books as items of merchandise, book quotas, book prizes, book sales figures, book promotions. There is too much literary activity and too much literary talk, having little or nothing to do with the intensely private and precarious act of writing. There is too much predictable flattery. All this is necessary to the trade, but it generates a total atmosphere which can be destructive of one’s own literary values.”

This is the latest in a series of “Late Night With Jan Harayda” posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and do not include reviews, which usually appear early in the day.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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).

April 13, 2009

Review of Lisa Scottoline’s ‘Look Again’ in the Washington Post

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:55 am
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Update: When I posted this, anyone could read the review I mention below without registering. But since then, it’s been archived, and you have to log in (free). Jan

Lisa Scottoline’s 16th thriller arrives in bookstores this week. The heroine of Look Again works my profession (journalism) and in a city (Philadelphia) not far from where I grew up. You can read my review of the book in today’s Washington Post.

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

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