One-Minute Book Reviews

March 12, 2009

If Only the Recession Were Like This for Writers and Artists — More on R. A. Scotti’s Forthcoming ‘Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa’

The cover of the advance reader's edition of 'Vanished Smile'

I’ve been reading R. A. Scotti’s historical true-crime book Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa (Knopf, April 2009), which I mentioned yesterday. And it’s been a pleasure after trudging through the finalists for the 2009 Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books, the winners of which will be announced Monday. Another quote from Scotti’s fascinating tale, this one about Picasso’s Rose period:

“In those happy days, Picasso would sell his art by the armful – a hundred francs (then worth about twenty dollars) for a stack of drawings; two thousand francs for thirty canvases. A few dealers – notably, Ambrose Vollard, astute and fair, and Clovis Sagot, an unscrupulous ex-clown who sold art out of an old apothecary – were scooping up Picasso’s harlequins and saltimbanques for the price of a meal … money was a luxury, and freeloading was a way of life. ‘You could owe money for years for your paints and canvases and rent and restaurant and practically everything except coal and luxuries,’ Picasso remembered.”

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 11, 2009

James Frey writes like this should he get a Delete Key Award on Monday Terry McMillan wrote like this too but she was only a finalist has Frey surpassed her?

There’s usually at least one Delete Key Awards finalist that reads like an entry in a Bad Hemingway Parody contest. This year that spot on the shortlist goes to this passage from James Frey’s Los Angeles novel, Bright Shiny Morning:

“He said she would have a better life the sun shining every day more free time less stress she said she would feel like she had wasted a decade trying to get to the major leagues only to demote herself once she got into them.”

Should Frey’s effort be among the winners named on Monday?

Consider this: Terry McMillan made the 2007 shortlist for the passage below. But she didnt win, because the competition from Mitch Albom and Danielle Steel was just too tough even for this jawbreaker from her The Interruption of Everything:

“We tried you on your cell but you didn’t pick up so we got a little worried since we didn’t know where your appointment was and we tried calling Leon at work but his assistant said he left early to pick up his son at the airport and against our better judgment we tried your house and Hail Mary Full of Grace answered and after she deposed us, I asked if she knew your doctor’s number and she said she had to think for a few minutes and while she was thinking I started thinking who else we could call and that’s when I remembered your GYN’s name was a hotel: Hilton!”

Should Frey win — even though McMillan didn’t — given that Bright Shiny Morning isn’t up against a novel written third-grade reading level (Albom’s For One More Day) or brimming with stereotypes of Jews (Steel’s Toxic Bachelors)? If you would like to try to tamper with the jury, you have until Saturday.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

August 6, 2008

Is It Easier to Get a Novel Published When You’re a Critic? And Other Questions I Haven’t Answered on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: News,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:49 pm
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Amy Munnell interviewed me for her attractive blog 3 Questions and Answers and asked a few questions I don’t deal with on One-Minute Book Review, such as: How did being a critic affect my career as a novelist? Some of the things Amy asked about come up a lot when I speak at writers’ conferences, and if you’re interested, you can find my answers here: 3questionsandanswers.blogspot.com/2008/07/interviewwith-journalistnovelist-janice.html. Thanks, Amy.

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

July 25, 2008

When Are Critics Going to Stop Congratulating Novelists for Being Good-Looking or Having Other Traits Unrelated to Their Books? This Week’s Gusher

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:47 am
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Would any critic write, “Be jealous. Veteran writer Philip Roth has lost the hair, but he’s still got the talent”?

And this week’s Gusher Award goes to …

“Be jealous. First-time writer Marisha Pessl is more than a triple threat. She’s young – only 28 years old – pretty, and immensely talented. She has already dabbled in modeling, acting and financial consulting. Her debut novel is another notch on her belt. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a literary mystery novel, has come out with truckloads of buzz.”

– The first lines of a review of Special Topics in Calamity Physics in the Star-Ledger of Newark on Aug. 27, 2006

The Award Citation:

Is this a book review or a teaser for an episode of The Bachelorette?

This week’s winner involves no hyperbole — the reviewer apparently intends for us to take her words literally. But the quote illustrates a trend that’s just as bad: Critics are using their review space to congratulate novelists for being good-looking or having other traits unrelated to their fiction. Would any critic write, “Be jealous. Veteran writer Philip Roth has lost the hair, but he’s still got the talent”? So why do we so often see equivalent comments in reviews of younger authors’ novels?

Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing appear on Fridays except in weeks when no praise went far enough over the top to qualify.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 10, 2008

Gunning for Love — ‘Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge’

Love didn’t go by the book for two FBI agents, one of them a specialist in undercover work

Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge. By Caitlin Rother with John Hess. Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 281 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

You know the old Woody Allen joke about how the great thing about being bisexual is that it doubles your chances of getting a Saturday-night date? This book reminds us that it can also halve your chances of getting out of it alive.

Twisted Triangle grew out of a macabre story about two married FBI agents that got splashy coverage in Vanity Fair and elsewhere in the 1990s. Gene Bennett had taken part in two successful undercover operations before he tried to kill his wife, Margo, in the apparent belief that she had become infatuated with the novelist Patricia Cornwell. His past raises interesting questions touched on in the book: Does undercover work – which requires agents to assume a false identity – foster personality disintegration? Can it lead to disassociative disorder, commonly known as multiple personality disorder, to which Gene’s lawyers attributed his violent behavior? Might undercover work attract people predisposed to the condition?

These questions have a relevance that may extend beyond the Bennett case to those involved in covert operations in places like Afghanistan. So you wish Caitlin Rother and John Hess had gotten better material from Margo, whose story they tell.

The essential problem surfaces in the subtitle, A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge. Margo Bennett says repeatedly that she and Cornwell had two intimate “encounters” — or what sounds like a two-night stand — and Cornwell has confirmed it in interviews. On the witness stand, Margo corrected a lawyer who said she’d had “an adulterous lesbian affair” with Patricia Cornwell: “I said I had two encounters with Ms. Cornwell.”

So why is Twisted Triangle billed as the story of “a lesbian love affair”? The publisher may have imposed that subtitle on the authors. But Margo comes across as such an unreliable source that the unreliable subtitle, in a sense, represents a book driven by what sound like rationalizations instead of explanations. Margo signed phony documents in a home-relocation scam because, she says, Gene threatened to leave her if she didn’t. She lied on the witness stand when he was tried for the fraud because, she says, she was afraid he would hurt their children if she didn’t. To explain other unflattering actions, she invokes the Stockholm syndrome and — you guessed it — her “fragile self-esteem.” But if Margo lied under oath to protect her children, how do we know she didn’t try to protect them again by distorting the facts when she was interviewed for this book?

Rother and Hess confirmed some of what Margo told them through court documents and other sources. But much of this book has a “he said, she said” quality. Margo complains that a 1996 Washington Post story made her seem “very careless, uncaring, and crazy on my own.” Twisted Triangle does little to correct that impression and, in some ways, deepens it. In the Post story, Karl Vick expressed the theme of the Bennett case in seven words. Those words also sum up the moral of this book: “Sometimes, homo sapiens behave very, very badly.”

Best line: “Louis Freeh, who had just been appointed director [of the FBI], had instituted a zero-tolerance approach and was taking a hard line on disciplinary issues. Some agents described him as Hoover without the compassion.”

Worst line: Margo says that after working as an FBI agent for a few years, she learned that her husband had $60,000 in cash that he insisted was a gift from his dead father: “Gene claimed that his father had given him $60,000 in cash, which he’d kept in a suitcase in his mother’s attic. He said that his father had told him not to put it in the bank, so Margo figured his father had never reported it to the IRS, and this was his way of protecting Gene, who said he would take the old bills to the bank and exchange them for new ones so that no one would question any transaction or track the income.

“At the time, Margo took Gene at his word.”
This passage shows one of the many hard-to-believe rationalizations that Margo Bennett gives for why she accepted her husband’s shady behavior.

Published: April 2008 www.catilinrother.com

If you like true crime, consider reading instead: Stanley Alpert’s The Birthday Party (Putnam, 2007) www.stanleyalpert.com, a memoir by a former federal prosecutor abducted on a Manhattan street and held for 25 hours by captors who showed a gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight ineptitude. A review appeared on this site on Jan. 30, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/30/ and a reading group guide on Feb. 4, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/04/.

Furthermore: The Bennetts met while working in the Atlanta office of the FBI. Margo is a campus police captain at the University of California at Berkeley. Gene is serving a 23-year sentence in a Virginia prison. Patricia Cornwell has responded to Twisted Triangle in an Advocate article www.advocate.com/issue_story_ektid54596.asp.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She does not accept books, catalogs, advance reading copies, press releases or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors or agents.

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

July 9, 2008

Julia Glass and Jonathan Lethem Are Reading ‘Netherland’ This Summer – What Are You Reading? Join the Conversation at One-Minute Book Reviews’s Online Club

Filed under: News,Ruthless Book Club — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:09 am
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Julia Glass and Jonathan Lethem are reading Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland. Or so they said in a Wall Street Journal article that also listed the summer reading of John Irving, Geraldine Brooks, Philippa Gregory, Oscar Hijuelos, Joyce Carol Oates and others www.wsj.com/article/SB121332522673370767.html.

What’s in your beach bag? If you’d like to talk about a great book or warn people away from a clinker, join the conversation at a new online book club by clicking here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/01/. A review of and reading group guide to Netherland appeared on this site in separate posts on June 24 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/.

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

July 8, 2008

Thomas Disch (1940–2008), Author of ‘The Brave Little Toaster’

Filed under: Fantasy,News,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:18 pm
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‘One of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America’ dies at 68

Thomas Disch, author of The Brave Little Toaster and other books, died Friday in Manhattan. Douglas Martin reported in the New York Times that he shot himself after a series of personal setbacks www.nytimes.com/2008/07/08/books/08disch.html.

“Mr. Disch’s work was voluminous and included many forms and genres,” Martin wrote. “In addition to writing speculative fiction (his preferred term for science fiction), he wrote poetry from light to lyric to dramatic; realist fiction, children’s fiction and historical fiction; opera librettos and plays; criticism of theater, films and art; and even a video game.

“One of Mr. Disch’s best-known works is The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances (1986), in which a toaster, a clock radio and an electric blanket come to life. In the New York Times Book Review, Anna Quindlen said the book was more sophisticated than it seemed: ‘Buy it for your children; read it for yourself,’ she advised.”

Disch tomsdisch.livejournal.com/ also wrote The Genocides, which Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison named one of the “100 must-read science fiction novels” in a recent guide to the genre. The book centers on aliens who sow the Earth with seeds that grow into giant plants, which begin to destroy the planet’s ecological balance and undermine civilization.

The Genocides is an invasion story with a difference: what chance can humanity have against beings who consider us to be nothing more than garden pests?” Andrews and Rennison say in 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels (A & C Black, 2007). They add:

The Genocides is packed with black wit, mordant observation of characters and the kind of self-consciousness present in the very best contemporary art. This was the start of a glittering career for Disch, whose novels, poetry and criticism have won him considerable acclaim … Despite his occasional remoteness of tone, Disch is nevertheless a humane author whose highly accomplished and often very funny work marks him as one of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America.”

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

January 29, 2008

What Is Style in Writing? Quote of the Day (Joseph Epstein)

Perhaps no aspect of writing is as misunderstood as style. Many people confuse it with decoration or following rules laid down by experts such as E. B. White and William Strunk, Jr. in The Elements of Style. What is style if it is neither of those? Joseph Epstein writes in Literary Genius, which includes an essay on the Edward Gibbon by David Womersley:

“Style, it needs to be understood, is never ornamentation or a matter of choice of vocabulary or amusing linguistic tics or mannerisms. Style, in serious writing, is a way of seeing, and literary geniuses, who see things in a vastly different way than the rest of us, usually require a vastly different style. As Edward Gibbon wrote on style (quoted by David Womersley in his essay): ‘The style of an author should be the image of his mind.’”

Joseph Epstein in the introduction to the new Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature, selected and edited by Joseph Epstein with wood engravings by Barry Moser (Paul Dry Books, 246 pp., $18.95, paperback), www.pauldry.com. Epstein edited the American Scholar, has written 19 books and contributes to The New Yorker and other magazines. Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford.

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

January 10, 2008

Joan Didion on Beginnings and Endings in Writing (Quote of the Day)

“Life changes fast.”
– The first sentence of The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion earned her reputation as one of the great American prose stylists partly through the memorable first sentences of her books and articles. She won the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction for a memoir of death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, that opens with three words: “Life changes fast.”

Do opening lines have an importance that goes beyond their ability to make you keep reading? Didion dealt with the question in a Paris Review interview about the early nonfiction pieces that helped to make her famous:

Interviewer: You have said that once you have your first sentence you’ve got your piece. That’s what Hemingway said. All he needed was his first sentence and he had his short story.

Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

Interviewer: The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.

Didion: Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.

Joan Didion in “The Art of Fiction, No. 71,” an interview with Linda Kuehl in the Fall-Winter 1978 issue of the Paris Review. You can find the full text of that interview and another with Didion that appeared in the spring 2006 issue by searching for “Joan Didion” at www.parisreview.org. Didion’s hardcover publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, has posted an excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking at www.aaknopf.com, where you can read the pages that follow: “Life changes fast.”

Cover art for the the Fall-Winter 1978 Paris Review shown here: Robert Moskowitz

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

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