One-Minute Book Reviews

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

December 14, 2007

One-Minute Book Reviews 10 Best Books of 2007 – The Year’s Top Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry

10 Best Books of 2007
The Year’s Top Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry
Source: oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

Yes, this was the year of The Secret and The Manny in the U.S., and the year On Chesil Beach was longlisted for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award in Britain. So which books won’t leave you feeling like a patient in a literary burn unit? Here are the 10 best books reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews:

The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival (Putnam, $24.95), by Stanley Alpert. A former federal prosecutor who was kidnapped on a Manhattan street, then held at gunpoint for 25 hours, writes about his abduction in one of the best true crime books of the decade. us.penguingroup.com

*The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, $13.95, paperback), by Joan Didion. One of the country’s finest prose stylists recalls the sudden death of her husband and its aftermath in a memoir that won a National Book Award. www.randomhouse.com

*Every Eye (David R. Godine/Black Sparrow, $23, by Isobel English. The first American publication of a novel that is an elegant minor classic, which involves a piano teacher born with “lazy eye” that affects her view of the world long after surgery has corrected the problem. www.blacksparrowbooks.com

Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature (Paul Dry Books, $18.95, paperback), selected and edited by Joseph Epstein. Wood engravings by Barry Moser. Scholars and critics of high distinction write about vanished titans in stylish literary essays. www.pauldrybooks.com

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (Holt/Metropolitan, $24.95), by Atul Gawande. A surgeon and medical writer for The New Yorker reflects on his art in a book that has a particularly enlightening section on childbirth. www.gawande.com

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa (Little, Brown, $24.99), by Peter Godwin. A former correspondent for the BBC refracts the terrors of Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe through the prism of tragedies that struck his family and friends. www.hachettebookgroupusa.com

Baseball Haiku: American and Japanese Haiku and Senryu on Baseball (Norton, $19.95), edited and with translations by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura. More than 200 poems that transcend baseball, many by some of the finest living haiku artists. www.wwnorton.com

Four Days to Glory Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland (HarperCollins, $24.95), by Mark Kreidler. Two high school wrestlers prepare to compete in the Iowa state championship in a book of masterly reporting that offers a fascinating portrait of a little-known social and athletic subculture. www.markkreidler.com and www.harpercollins.com

Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories (Random House, $22.95), by Katha Pollitt. Personal essays by the poet and columnist for the Nation, who writes with bite, depth and often wit about topics that include her discovery that her former boyfriend had been cheating on her almost the whole time they lived together. www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com and www.randomhouse.com

*Living Things: Collected Poems (Steerforth/Zoland, $15, paperback), by Anne Porter. Foreword by David Shapiro. All of the poems from Porter’s An Altogether Different Language, a National Book Award finalist, and 39 new ones, which together attest to what Shapiro calls “her Franciscan joy in created things.” www.steerforth.com

* Books with an asterisk came out in 2006. One-Minute Book Reviews was launched late last year and could not review some 2006 books until 2007. The “10 Best List” includes the 2006 books when they were better than 2007 books in their category. You can find reviews of all books except The Year of Magical Thinking by entering the title in the search box. You can find reading guides to The Birthday Party, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun and Learning to Drive in the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category at right.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It is also for people who dislike long-winded weasel reviews that are full of facts and plot summary but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book. Posts on the site generally appear daily. When no review appears, the site often has a quote of the day from a book, which may include commentary. One-Minute Book Reviews is the sixth-ranked book-review site in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts and Literature” blogs:

www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

Jan Harayda is editor-in-chief of One-Minute Book Reviews. Jan has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She does not accept free books, galleys, catalogs, print or electronic press releases or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, agents or authors. For this reason, she does not see all the worthy books in a year. This list has the best new books she read in 2007. It does not include books written by her friends, published by her current publisher or represented by her literary agent.

One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the finalists for its annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Feb. 29 and the winners on March 15, 2008. Thank you for visiting this site.

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

December 9, 2007

One-Minute Book Reviews 10 Best Books of 2007 — Coming Friday

The New York Times Book Review has named its 10 best books of 2007, right after one of its 10 best of 2006 got shortlisted for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Want a list of books that don’t have writing, on sex or any other topic, that will test your gag reflex?

By Janice Harayda

Are you sore that your favorite novel didn’t make the list of the 10 best books of 2007 published in the New York Times Book Review today www.nytimes.com/2007/12/09/books/review/10-best-2007.html?

Or did you give up on the Times’s list after Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children made it last year? (Memo to the editors of the NYTBR: Read this and tell us if you still think the novel deserved its spot www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/16/. Maybe it’s not too late to publish a retraction?) Or are you skeptical of the NYTBR list now that another of the 10 best of 2006, Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, made the shortlist for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award for the writing you can read here http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,,2217735,00.htm?

Okay, now you have an alternative list.

One-Minute Book Reviews will publish its first “10 Best Books of the Year” on Friday, December 14. This post is sure to be as controversial as its annual Delete Key Awards, partly because some of the best books may not even be 2007 books. (One-Minute Book Reviews didn’t begin until late last year, so I may have to grandfather in a couple of 2006 books that I didn’t get to until 2007 … and think how good those must be if they KO’d all the 2007 books.) You know how David Letterman said that traffic signals in New York are just rough guidelines? We’re applying a similar standard this year to the publication dates of the best books.

Other links: In addition to its “10 Best” list the New York Times has published a list of “100 Notable Books of 2007″ at this site www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/books/review/notable-books-2007.html

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 10, 2007

Ann Rule on Edna Buchanan’s Memorable Collection of True-Crime Stories, ‘The Corpse Had a Familiar Face’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:33 am
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My favorite series of short reviews is the “Five Best” column that appears weekly in the weekend edition of Wall Street Journal. Each Saturday a different well-known writer gives a one-paragraph review of some of the best books in his or her specialty.

A recent example: In the issue dated May 19-20, 2007, the true-crime writer Ann Rule www.annrules.com chose the books on murder that she most enjoys. One of them, Edna Buchanan’s The Corpse Had a Familiar Face (Random House, 1987) www.ednabuchanan.com, is also among my favorites the category. Rule said in part:

“Pulitzer Prize-winner Edna Buchanan spent 15 years as crime reporter for the Miami Herald after going to work for the paper in 1970; this is an intriguing memoir of her days and nights at crime scenes trying to unravel the truth. Along the way she memorably evokes the witnesses, families and cops that she encounters. Some of the crimes are comic — a jilted octogenarian tosses a Molotov cocktail into his girlfriend’s house but is nabbed by police after she recognizes the label on the container he used: his favorite brand of prune juice. Other crimes are horrific and will haunt you for weeks.”

Most true-crime books focus on a single case, and The Corpse Had a Familiar Face is unusual partly for the range of macabre events that it covers. And Buchanan was one of the first — and is still one of the best-known — women to earn a national reputation for her work on the historically macho police beat on newspapers. She now writes mysteries. But her most famous line remains her lead for a story about a man shot to death while waiting in line at a fast-food place: “He died hungry.”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 27, 2007

Military Obituaries Worthy of a Memorial Day Salute

Filed under: Biography,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 am
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A collection celebrates men and women who wore their uniforms with courage and eccentricity

By Janice Harayda

Digby Tatham-Warter led a bayonet charge during the Battle of Arnhem sporting a bowler hat and an umbrella. Nell Allgrove and other captured Australian nurses survived on two ounces of rice a day in Japanese camps in Sumatra. Charles Fraser-Smith sent golf balls with compasses inside and other gadgets to British prisoners in Germany, an effort so successful that he became the model for “Q” in the James Bond books.

The stories of these and other extraordinary men and women appear in The Daily Telegraph Second Book of Obituaries: Heroes and Adventures (Macmillan, 1993), edited by Hugh Massingberd, the second volume in a series from the British newspaper. Most of the subjects of this book were British or Commonwealth soldiers, sailors, aviators, spies, or nurses, though some never wore a uniform. And their stories show why military-obituary writers at the Telegraph are seen as five-star generals of a vanishing art. Written with verve and candor, the pieces in this book reflect a deep sympathy for both the courage and the eccentricities of their subjects. Few American newspapers would have the wit to begin an obituary like this: “Major General Micky Whistler, who has died aged 83, had a career of remarkable variety in which his cheerful disrespect for pompous and hidebound senior officers brought numerous reprimands, but did much to improve the efficiency and morale of his men.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 24, 2006

Poet David Tucker Finds the Life in Deadlines

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:07 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A New Jersey newspaper editor writes about work and makes it work

Late for Work. Poems by David Tucker. Foreword by Philip Levine. Mariner, 53 pp., $12, paperback.

It’s odd, when you think about it, that more journalists don’t write poetry. Newspapers stack their headlines like verse – couplets, tercets, or quatrains – set flush left or stepped. Their stories have a form, the inverted pyramid, that can be as rigid as that of a sestina. And the work of great reporters has, if not meter, a subtle rhythm and an emotional impact comparable to that of a well-made poem.

David Tucker moves to close the gap in Late for Work, winner 2005 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize for poetry awarded by the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. Calvin Trillin may call himself a “deadline poet” because he writes his brief, witty poems for The Nation in response to breaking news. But Tucker comes closer to the spirit of the phrase in this wonderful collection of 45 of poems about newspapers and other topics, inspired partly by his work as an assistant managing editor of the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

Tucker has little in common with the modern poets who pack their work so densely with opaque symbols and allusions that you need to read them with The Golden Bough in one hand and the Wikipedia URL in the other. He meets you halfway, whether he’s writing about a great-grandfather you haven’t met or a newsroom you haven’t visited. Sometimes he does this by moving gracefully from tragedy to comedy and back again, so that we stand poised between them in his poems as in life. In “Morning Edition,” a journalist leaving work for the day considers the stories in the next edition:

For tomorrow we offer a photo of bloody hands
passing a coffin over a crowd in Baghdad,
and a photo of the President grinning
like a boy who ate a grasshopper,
and the jubilation of the bowling team that won the lottery.

Later the journalist recalls other stories in the next day’s paper:

The governor lying about the lie he told
the day before, the state senator from Bergen
calling his committee into secret session.
Killer Tree in Rahway, roots weakened
by rain, this rain, toppling on a doctor and his wife
as they sped for the Rahway exist, late for dinner.

Tucker flirts with classic forms like the sonnet and, in “The Woman in the Faraway House,” terza rima (while avoiding its overlapping rhymes):

She always has one more thing to say
about the argument
we had yesterday

But if he nods to Dante and later poets like Jane Kenyon, Tucker makes his subjects his own. One of his themes is that we have the capacity for hope even when hope has let us down — or we have let it down – many times. This idea comes into its fullest flower in “Detective Story,” which begins:

Happiness is a stubborn old detective who won’t give up on us
though we have been missing a long, long time,
who stops in towns where we once lived and asks about us
in a grocery where we shopped ten years ago …

Philip Levine chose Late for Work for the Bakeless Prize and has written an introduction that, though more self-indulgent and less helpful than it might have been, is right in one respect. This book suggests that life, for all its disappointments, can still be “warm and satisfying.”

Best line: From “Detective Story”: “A breeze smelling of the river enters the room though/ no river is near; the house is quiet and calm for no reason;/ the search does end, the detective finally does sleep, far away/ from anything he imagined, his dusty shoes still on.”

Worst line: From “Downsizing”: Tucker writes of bosses whispering “at the water cooler” and “junior executives” going to lunch. Most companies no longer have a “water cooler” or “junior executives” – everybody’s a “manager” now – and both of these fixtures of corporate life had disappeared by the time the word “downsizing” entered the language, so imagery here isn’t just clichéd but internally inconsistent.

Recommended if … you’d love to read some contemporary poetry that you can understand without having a graduate degree in English

Published: April 2006

To hear David Tucker read from Late for Work, click on this link:
http://www.nytimes.com/packages/khtml/2006/04/05/books/20060405_TUCKER_AUDIOSS.html

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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