One-Minute Book Reviews

January 3, 2023

Shocking Abuses at Irish ‘Mother-and-Baby’ Homes Underlie the Best Novel I Read in 2022, Claire Keegan’s ‘Small Things Like These’

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In 2014, a historian made public her horrific discovery that 796 infants had died and were buried in secret graves near an Irish home for unwed mothers and their babies between 1925 and 1961.

Her finding sparked worldwide outrage and led Ireland to set up a national commission to investigate the deaths at the Tuam Home and others like it, known as “mother-and-baby homes.” In announcing the move, the Irish prime minister said that for decades Ireland had treated babies born to unmarried parents as “an inferior sub-species.”

An official investigation found that Tuam women who became pregnant again after their stay were sometimes sent to the now notorious Irish institutions known as Magdalene Laundries.

“Orders of Roman Catholic nuns ran the laundries for profit, and women and girls were put to work there, supposedly as a form of penance. The laundries were filled not only with ‘fallen women’ — prostitutes, women who became pregnant out of marriage or as a result of sexual abuse and those who simply failed to conform — but also orphans and deserted or abused children.”

More than 10,000 women passed through the laundries, where they suffered further abuse or neglect before the last of the institutions closed in 1996. Some of the victims reported being beaten, locked in, fed bread and water, made to work from morning until evening, and forced to stay out in the cold if they broke rules. Here’s more: https://medium.com/p/dcb6dc922488

December 27, 2022

How Taylor Swift Learned the Painful Realities of a Drawn-out Copyright Battle

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Authors often face murky issues when they try to decide: How much of a poem, a song, or another brief work can you legally use in book, a short story, or a blog post?

There are few bright lines about what’s acceptable and what’s not. How much you can reproduce depends on issues such as: What portion of the original do you want to use? And how do you plan to use it?

In 2017 two lesser-known songwriters sued Taylor Swift over 18 words in her blockbuster hit, “Shake It Off,” which they argued borrowed too heavily from their “Playas Gon’ Play.” The case was recently settled, with neither side admitting wrongdoing, after a bruising five-year battle.

The realities faced by an internationally known singer/songwriter might appear to have little in common with those of authors of books or articles for the print or digital media. But in both cases writers must deal with essentially the same question: What’s “fair” or “unfair” use of someone else’s work? I explore some of those issues through the lens of the Taylor Swift case on @Medium:https://medium.com/p/75f376ca2f60

November 26, 2022

What’s Behind the Scary Rise in Bungled Executions?

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Earlier this month, Alabama botched the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith, the third inmate it has tried unsuccessfully to put to death since 2018. In each case an attempted lethal injection went horrifically awry.

The state’s latest mangled execution was so cruel and incompetent it caused an outcry. Smith was strapped to a gurney for hours as officials tried to insert the two intravenous lines needed for the lethal drugs used by Alabama.

Elizabeth Bruenig of the Atlantic spoke to Smith later and learned that his executioners managed to place a needle in his left arm. Afterward they “tortured” him by stabbing his right arm and hand and his feet in vain.

The execution was called off after the hapless team decided that they couldn’t insert the second line before Smith’s death warrant expired at midnight. The disaster eerily resembled a fiasco two months earlier in which Alabama executioners tried to kill Alan Eugene Miller but couldn’t insert an IV line in the time his warrant allowed.³

Yet — as incredible as it sounds — such blunders in the state’s death chambers aren’t new, nor are they unique to the state. In 2018 Alabama’s death squad spent hours trying to insert an IV line into Doyle Lee Hamm. They gave up about a half hour before his warrant would expire.

In July 2022, Alabama executioners did manage to kill Joe Nathan James. But they succeeded only after trying for hours to gain access to his veins and apparently performing the medical procedure known as a cutdown. Bruenig spoke to Joel Zivot, an Emory University expert on lethal injections, who examined James’ body.

I wrote about this alarming trend in Alabama and other states and what’s being done about it Medium:

November 12, 2022

Ukraine’s First Lady Is A Heroine For Our Time

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In one of my first journalism jobs, I was the book critic for Glamour, which had its offices two flights down from sister magazine Vogue in the Condé Nast building. I also wrote feature articles for the magazine, not unlike a profile of Ukraine’s first lady that appeared recently in Vogue.

The story on Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukraine’s president, has drawn sharp and often ill-informed criticism. Some of the barbs have shown a startling lack of sympathy for the tragedies Ukraine has suffered since Russian invaded it on Feb, 24, 2022. Others have been misleading or seemed to reflect no understanding of how magazines work.

A number of critics, for example, have faulted Zelenska for appearing in Vogue in wartime when Eleanor Roosevelt did the same thing and when 11 of the past 12 U.S. first ladies have been in the magazine during crises such as the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Over on Medium, I’ve deconstructed the flap and described–from journalist’s point of view–what’s wrong with it. In the same article, I argue that Zelenska may turn out to be the greatest first lady since Roosevelt.

If you’re interested in the controversy, you’ll find my story here:

November 8, 2022

How the ‘Southernization’ of the U.S. Hurts Politics

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Media analysts often spoke of Donald Trump, during his first presidential campaign, as a rogue candidate, a one-off the country hadn’t seen before. On one level, it was true: No major party had ever nominated a reality-show host for president.

But the U.S. had seen something like Trump before, the authors Frye Gaillard and Cynthia Tucker note in their insightful book The Southernization of America: A Story of Democracy in the Balance (New South,  2022). The country had seen it in the presidential campaigns of four-time Alabama governor George Wallace, who proclaimed in his 1963 inaugural address: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Many of Trump’s tactics, intentionally or not, were a page out of Wallace’s playbook. By failing to understand the depth of the racist fears and hatreds that Wallace had stirred up — and the degree to which they persist — the analysts underestimated not just Trump’s appeal but its potential effects.

I write about some of the ways U.S. politics has become “Southernized” over at Medium:

September 11, 2022

Why Are Women Spending 2.6 Hours MORE in Labor Than Their Mothers Did? And Why Are So Many Developing PTSD After Childbirth?

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Maternity care in the U.S. is a scandal in danger of being eclipsed by other health crises: the Covid-19 pandemic, the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, and the high cost of prescription drugs.

But growing number of bleak statistics show why the country shouldn’t ignore the problem, including that American women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than those in Canada and Britain. First-mothers also spend 2.6 hours more in labor than their own mothers did, and they are at risk of developing PTSD afterward.

I write about the grim realities in “7 Painful Truths About Childbirth in America” on Medium:

https://janiceharayda.medium.com/7-painful-truths-about-childbirth-in-america-d27ca30cc922

August 13, 2022

Salman Rushdie: Books ‘Make Us Who We Are’

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Salman Rushdie may be better known as a novelist, but he’s a wonderful literary critic, and I’m grateful for his many admirable reviews of other authors. Over at Medium, I’ve posted one of my favorite quotes from him on why books matter:

https://medium.com/everything-shortform/why-salman-rushdie-believes-the-books-we-love-make-us-who-we-are-c09ebc0bcac3

August 1, 2022

One of America’s Most Honored Journalists Reread the Hardy Boys Novels He Once Loved–And What He Found Startled Him

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Gene Weingarten, America’s only two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, calls the Hardy Boys mysteries the novels that “most influenced” his love of his craft

When he reread the books as an adult, he made a couple of startling discoveries: Contrary to his rosy memories, the writing was so bad, it was “some of the worst bilge ever published.” But there was much to admire in the often heartbreaking, Depression-era life of their author, Leslie McFarlane, who was required by the publishers of the Hardy Boys to write under the pen name of Franklin W. Dixon. Weingarten described what he learned about McFarlane and the Hardy Boys in an article I wrote about on Medium.

https://medium.com/crows-feet/what-happened-when-a-pulitzer-winner-reread-the-hardy-boys-books-66107b46c6

July 15, 2022

7 Deadly Sins of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’

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Stephen King’s On Writing is America’s second bestselling guide to the craft, according to Amazon rankings, and it draws rapturous praise from aspiring writers. But in my experience, more experienced writers take a dimmer of its advice.

Over at Medium, I challenge seven pieces of advice King gives in On Writing. Some of his precepts are outdated or inconsistent. Others oversimplify an issue that’s vastly more complex than King makes it. Here’s a brief excerpt from my post (dealing, in this case, with King’s views on adverbs) and a link to my responses to six others at the end of it:

‘The adverb is not your friend’

No, it’s not your friend — unless you’re Jane Austen and writing one of the most famous first lines in English: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Or you’re F. Scott Fitzgerald and writing one of the most famous last lines: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Or you’re Herman Melville ending Moby-Dick by quoting the Book of Job: “And I only am alone escaped to tell thee.” Take that, writers of the King James Version.

Yes, writers tend to overuse adverbs, especially in speech tags. But adverbs have a purpose, and the best writers don’t libel them but use them — as Austen and Fitzgerald and Melville did — to serve their purposes.

https://janiceharayda.medium.com/7-ways-stephen-kings-on-writing-loses-the-plot-2494b09dc64f

June 1, 2022

How Great Writing Helped Charlotte Curtis Blaze Trails At The New York Times

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The Ohio-born writer and editor Charlotte Curtis wasn’t just the first woman to appear on the masthead of the New York Times and to edit its op-ed page. She had earlier helped to transform its women’s section from a pink ghetto into one that welcomed diverse voices and was widely imitated by publications around the country.

How did Curtis scale the walls of the old boys’ club at a venerable newspaper? Here’s my appreciation of her work with a sidebar that gives 17 of her best leads for stories: https://medium.com/history-of-women/how-great-writing-helped-charlotte-blaze-trails-in-journalism-f36ba60eb76a

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