One-Minute Book Reviews

May 3, 2011

When Journalism Is ‘Churnalism’ – Quote of the Day / Nick Davies

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:08 am
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Linda Polman indicts humanitarian-aid abuses and journalists who turn a blind eye to them in her The Crisis Caravan (Metropolitan, 2010). In this excerpt, she quotes a former employee of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) who saw the “churnalism”:

Do aid workers use journalists? Of course, they do, said Jacques de Milliano, former director of the Dutch MSF. ‘To raise funds. It’s the job of journalists to provide balanced reporting, to refuse to prostitute themselves to aid organizations. There ought to be an element of journalistic pride.’

“Journalism seems to be moving in precisely the opposite direction. Costs are cut and standards are eroded by media proprietors, resulting in what the British journalist Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News calls ‘churnalism’; in other words, ‘journalists failing to perform the simple basic functions of their profession; quite unable to tell their readers the truth about what is happening on their patch. This is journalists who are no longer out gathering but who are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false.’”

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

December 13, 2007

Michael Maren Indicts Major Charities and International Relief Organizations in His Exposé, ‘The Road to Hell’

Maybe that Christmas carol should say, ‘Tis the season to get suckered

The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. By Michael Maren. Free Press, 302 pp., $26.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

The Road to Hell should probably return to bookstore windows every December the way It’s a Wonderful Life comes back to television. Michael Maren is a former food monitor for the United States Agency for International Development in Somalia, and he has seen at close range the many ways misplaced charity harms the world’s poor. In this blistering and well-researched book, he exposes some the worst abuses of international relief agencies and charities — particularly CARE and Save the Children — that have grabbed a piece of my money and maybe yours, too. If you’re like me, you may wish you’d written a check instead to that food pantry in your hometown.

I reviewed The Road to Hell when it first appeared in 1997 www.netnomad.com/cpdreview.html and went back to it recently to see how it stood up to the latest upheavals among relief organizations that operate in Africa, the focus of the book. One change occurred in August when CARE said that it was rejecting some $45 million in surplus wheat, earmarked by the U.S. government for overseas distribution, because such programs hurt poor farmers who can’t compete with the low-priced food Americans dump on their local economies. You might think that such developments would make The Road to Hell www.simonsays.com seem outdated. They instead make it appear prophetic, because they implicitly support its theme: that sweeping, never-ending aid programs are the new colonialism and may create a dependency that keeps recipients from returning to self-sufficiency.

© 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

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