One-Minute Book Reviews

June 25, 2009

Backscratching in Our Time – Stephen McCauley and Elinor Lipman

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:33 pm
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The latest in an occasional series of posts on authors who praise each other’s books

Stephen McCauley on Elinor Lipman’s The Family Man:

“Elinor Lipman’s patented blend of wit, whimsy, and love for her characters makes every sentence of The Family Man shine. The book is a delightful Manhattan romp that offers 300 pages of pure reading pleasure.”

Elinor Lipman on Stephen McCauley’s Alternatives to Sex:
Alternatives to Sex is my favorite of Stephen McCauley’s wonderful novels. This is genius at work, but genius of the best, most readable kind: witty, lovable, and so amazingly smart about love in many forms — about friendship, about marriage, about real estate.”

The “Backscratching in Our Time” archives have other examples of well-known authors who blurb each other’s books. Do you you know of writers should be included in this series? If so, you can nominate them by sending an e-message to the address on the “Contact” page for this site.

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

June 3, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #3 – Flannery O’Connor’s Collection of Essays on Writing, ‘Mystery and Manners’

A  Southern novelist and short story writer considers the literature of her region and others

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. By Flannery O’Connor. Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 256 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Most people associate the Georgia-born Flannery O’Connor with novels and short stories, but she was equally good at nonfiction. She proves it in this elegant collection of essays on life, literature and peacocks, birds that captivated her.

Sally and Robert Fitzgerald adapted the pieces in Mystery and Manners from talks from O’Connor gave at colleges and elsewhere, and part of their charm lies in their conversational tone. Some of their topics are classroom-worthy: “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” “The Teaching of Literature,” “Catholic Novelists and their Readers.”

But O’Connor deals with these subjects as writer, not a professor, and her perspective on them is always fresh and down-to-earth and never pedantic. One of the most interesting essays deals with the prevalence in Southern fiction of the grotesque, which she defines as something “which an ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” Why do oddballs so often turn up in the literature of the region? O’Connor responds: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

Other comments on and quotations from Mystery and Manners appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 12, 2007, “Flannery O’Connor on ‘Compassion’ in Writing” and March 21, 2007 “Flannery O’Connor on the Purpose of Symbols in Fiction.” O’Connor’s editor, Robert Giroux, comments on the critics’ response to her work in the March 4, 2009, post “The Writer Is Insane.” The quote came from Brad Gooch’s new biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, lucidly reviewed by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post.

This is the third in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. Tomorrow: Peter Taylor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Summons to Memphis.

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 14, 2009

More on ‘What’s the Difference Between a Novel and a Short Story?’ (Quote of the Day / Allan Gurganus)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:14 am
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The Oxford American

What’s the difference between a novel and a short story? In earlier posts, I’ve quoted answers from Eudora Welty and Orson Scott Card. Here’s a response from Allan Gurganus, author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, in the Winter 2006 issue of The Oxford American:

“Like vocal music, stories consist wholly of what singers call ‘exposed notes.’ Meaning: If you go sharp, everybody’s going to hear. Novels are more forgiving; chapters can vary in quality. They can be assembled so a weaker unit gets propped between its betters.

“But, poem-like, everything in a short story must count, must show.”

I keep returning to the question “How does a novel differ from a short story?” in part because it helps to explain why works of fiction succeed or fail. Many novels try to do too little — their plots or ideas are so skimpy, they deserve no more than a short story. With the markets for stories dwindling, you see this problem more and more: for example, in Mitch Albom’s novels, which deal with simple ideas that might have worked better at a shorter length. More rarely, short stories try to do too much — their subjects are so large or diverse that they deserve a novel. A good question for book clubs to explore, when members dislike books, might be: Did the author choose the right form for this material?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda

April 9, 2009

This Week’s Gusher Award – A Literary Relay Gone Haywire

Filed under: Gusher Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:19 am
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This winner of this week’s Gusher Award exemplifies one of the most popular forms of overheated praise, the literary relay gone haywire. It comes from a recent review of Yu Hua’s novel Brothers in the New York Times Book Review:

“Imagine a novel written by William Dean Howells together with D.H. Lawrence, updated by Tom Wolfe and then filmed by Baz Luhrmann, and you’ll have some idea of what Brothers would be like, had it originated in the West.”

The reviewer doesn’t stop with linking a Chinese author to Howells, one of the most influential American writers of the 19th century. He also invokes a fine early 20th-century English author, a bestselling New York novelist, and the Sydney-born director of Australia (after having said that Brothers has a presumably French-influenced “Cyrano de Bergerac-style struggle”). Instead of being helpful, all of these comparisons have the opposite effect: The more of them the critic piles on, the less clearly you see the book.

On a more practical note: Some research has shown that readers start to have trouble grasping statistics when more than three numbers appear in a sentence, and I suspect that a similar principle applies to comparisons. After this critic throws in that fourth name, Baz Luhrmann, he’s lost you.

Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing appear on One-Minute Book Reviews on Fridays unless, as happened this week, I hit “publish” when I meant to hit “save” so that one of them is announced earlier.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 21, 2009

What Is the Difference Between Children’s Books and for Books for Adults? (Quote of the Day / Humphrey Carpenter)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:28 am
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More and more adult novels are being written at an 8- or 9-year-old reading level, if my research is an indication. So what’s the difference between children’s books and those for adults?

Humphrey Carpenter wrote in his trailblazing 1985 study of Victorian children’s literature, Secret Gardens, which has become modern classic:

“All children’s books are about ideals. Adult fiction sets out to portray the world as it really is; books for children present it as it should be.”

That may have been true when the first edition of Secret Gardens appeared and may still be true of the best children’s books. But in the two decades, children’s fiction has become far more likely to portray “the world as it really is” and to deal with subjects once found only in books for adults. Not everyone agrees that this change has been beneficial, I’m posting this quote as a reminder of it. Children need to have hope for the future. They get it partly from imaginative literature that shows an ideal world, or life as it could be, not as it is. The title of Carpenter’s study was inspired by a classic novel in that category, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, which you can download for free on its page at the Project Gutenberg site.

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

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March 16, 2009

2009 Delete Key Awards Grand Prize Winner — Stephenie Meyer’s ‘The Host’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:02 am
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Stephenie Meyer’s The Host is the grand prize winner in the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books.

Meyer’s novels exemplify the trend that Roy Strong, the former director of the of the Victoria and Albert Museum, called “the rise of the trashocracy.” The teenage vampire-romance series that began with Twilight led the 2008 bestseller lists. And next to Meyer, Mitch Albom almost looks like Isaiah Berlin.

It’s true that Albom’s For One More Day is written at a third-grade reading level while Meyer’s adult science-fiction novel, The Host, has a fourth-grade (9-year-old) reading level, according to the readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. But if both books are dumbed-down, Albom can’t match the spectacular array inanities that have won the grand prize for The Host. Meyer’s unintentionally comic missteps range from mind-numbing redundancies (“It’s a voluntary choice”) to deeply purple prose and dialogue that might have come from television series called The Beverly Hillbillies in Outer Space. If this year’s Delete Key Awards were the Belmont Stakes, The Host would be Secretariat, winning by 31 lengths.

The Host has won the 2009 Delete Key Awards grand prize for lines like:
“It’s a voluntary choice.”

and

“He nuzzled his face against mine until he found my lips, then he kissed me, slow and gentle, the flow of molten rock swelling languidly in the dark at the center of the earth, until my shaking slowed.”

and

“ ‘Well, for Pete’s sake!’ Jeb exclaimed. ‘Can’t nobody keep a secret around this place for more’n 24 hours? Gol’ durn, this burns me up!’”

Other posts about the Delete Key Awards appear on www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

2009 Delete Key Awards First Runner-Up — James Frey’s ‘Bright Shiny Morning’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:33 am
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The 2009 Delete Key Awards first runner-up is James Frey’s novel of Los Angeles, Bright Shiny Morning (Harper).

All the controversy about A Million Little Pieces may have left some people with the mistaken idea that James Frey is great writer who went astray. In fact, Frey is an average – and often much worse than average – writer whose perceived sins won him a fame he might never achieved on the strength of his writing alone. His Bright Shiny Morning reads at times like an entry in a Bad Hemingway Parody contest.

Bright Shiny Morning is the Delete Key Awards first runner-up for many lines like:

“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.”

The Delete Key Awards recognize the year’s worst writing in books. They are given annually on March 15 or the nearest weekday to it. Other posts about the awards appear on www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

2009 Delete Key Awards Second Runner-Up — Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:55 am
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The 2009 Delete Key Awards second runner-up is Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem (Penguin), translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt.

This turgid novel about life on the Mongolian grasslands won the Man Asian Literary Prize for the best Asian novel unpublished in English. What can the competition have been if the award went to a book that abounds with lines that read like excerpts from a report by the General Accountability Office? Perhaps better than any international prize-winner published in the U.S. last year, Wolf Totem is a reminder that a medallion on the cover doesn’t guarantee superior — or even good — writing.

Wolf Totem is the second-runner up for this and other lines:

“Now he understood how the great, unlettered military genius Genghis Khan, as well as the illiterate or semiliterate military leaders of peoples such as the Quanrong, the Huns, the Tungus, the Turks, the Mongols, and the Jurchens, were able to bring the Chinese (whose great military sage Sun-tzu had produced his universally acclaimed treatise The Art of War) to their knees, to run roughshod over their territory, and to interrupt their dynastic cycles.”

The Delete Key Awards recognize the year’s worst writing in books. They are given annually on March 15 or the nearest weekday to it. Other posts about the awards appear on www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

Last year’s winners were named in separate posts on March 14, 2008, which include samples of the writing that earned them their awards.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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