One-Minute Book Reviews

March 11, 2009

Claire Messud Won a 2007 Delete Key Award for These Clichés. Should Barbara Walters Win One for Hers?

Filed under: Delete Key Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:22 pm
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What does it take to win a Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books? Two years ago it took the clichés found in Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children. That novel was the second runner-up in 2007 Delete Key Awards competition, finishing behind Mitch Albom’s For One More Day (first runner up) and Danielle Steel’s Toxic Bachelors (grand prize winner). Messud received her Delete Key Award for lines like:

“It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.”

Among the problems with the sentence: That “leadening” wasn’t literal but metaphorical, and the sentence is infested with clichés

Messud was also recognized for writing that one of her characters “never knew in life whether to be Pierre or Natasha, the solitary, brooding loner or the vivacious social butterfly.”

As opposed, presumably, to a loner who wasn’t solitary.

This year Barbara Walters made the Delete Key shortlist for her cliché-stuffed Audition, which brims with sentences like:

“Just before the ax fell, lightning struck and my life changed, never to be the same again.”

Has Waltters surpassed Messud? Is her sentence bad enough to win a Delete Key Award? If you’d like to try to tamper with the jury, you have until Saturday.

Read some of the comments on Messud’s Delete Key Award here.

The 2009 Delete Key Award winners will be announced on Monday, March 16, beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern Time.

© 2009 Janice Harayda.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 13, 2008

Franzen and Messud Win This Week’s Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing

Messud becomes first Delete Key Awards finalist to win a Gusher

Two well-known novelists have tied for this week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing: Jonathan Franzen, who won a 2001 National Book Award for The Corrections, and Claire Messud, who took second place in the 2007 Delete Key Awards contest.

Both authors won for comments that appeared in their reviews of Alice Munro’s 2004 short-story collection, Runaway (Vintage, 352 pp., $14.95, paperback):

“Basically, Runaway is so good that I don’t want to talk about it here. Quotation can’t do the book justice, and neither can synopsis. The way to do it justice is to read it.”
Jonathan Franzen in “Alice’s Wonderland: Runaway,” the New York Times Book Review, Nov. 14, 2004

“ … to any reader broaching Munro’s work for the first time, no list of adjectives will suffice to convey what that work is, or its effects: She is one of those few living writers who, in the way of the greats, must simply be read.”
Claire Messud in “Our Chekhov, Our Flaubert,” the Globe and Mail, Sept. 25, 2004

Comment:

Neither of these quotes meets a strict definition of hyperbole, or exaggeration for effect: Franzen and Messud appear to mean exactly what they say. But both comments are examples of overheated praise in book reviews, which the Gusher Awards recognize on Fridays.

Franzen and Messud may believe that “Quotation can’t do the book justice” and “no list of adjectives will suffice” for Runaway. But you could say as much about any of our greatest books and many of the worst. (Aren’t some books so bad that they seem to defeat description? Can any list of adjectives truly do justice to Mitch Albom?) So what do we learn from these comments on Munro?

Their words may not be a clichés, but the idea behind each is a cliché – “words can’t do it justice.” This kind of writing is often necessary in casual forms of communication such as e-mail. We might all be prostrate by noon each day if we made a grail of originality in every off-the-cuff note to a co-worker. But shouldn’t expect more from major reviews in the leading newspapers in the U.S. and Canada?

The shortlisted passages for the 2007 Delete Key Awards, including Messud’s, were posted as 10 separate posts on Feb. 28, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/28/. A passage from her The Emperor’s Children took second place when the winners were announced on March 15, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/15/.

To see all posts about the Gusher and Delete Key Awards, click on those tags at the top of this post (after “Filed Under”).

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 16, 2007

Another Jawbreaker From Claire Messud’s ‘The Emperor’s Children’

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Fiction,Novels,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:05 pm

A postscript to yesterday’s news that Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children had been named the second runner-up in the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition for the year’s worst writing in books

By Janice Harayda

Wow, I thought the lines I quoted from The Emperor’s Children were bad. (Delete Key Awards Finalist, #4, Feb. 28; see also the March 15 post naming her the second-runner up in the finals www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/15/). But I just discovered that Amazon.com reviewer Gary Malone may have one-upped me. Read this excerpt from his review of the hardcover edition of her novel on that site:

The plot that wouldn’t thicken, March 5, 2007
Reviewer: Gary Malone (Australia)
– See all my reviews

“You’ve really got to worry about a novel when a *favourable* reviewer describes the plot’s two main set pieces and one of them is when the cat dies. [The Economist, 19 Aug 2006.] Before getting into that, however, try this sample sentence for size:

‘He remembered his father’s telling him – his father, small as he was himself tall, with sloping shoulders off which Murray feared, as a child, the braces might slip, a bow-tied little man with an almost Hitlerian mustache, softened from menace by its grayness, and by the softness, insidious softness, of his quiet voice, a softness that belied his rigidity and tireless industry, his humorless and ultimately charmless ‘goodness’ (Why had she married him? She’d been so beautiful, and such fun) – telling him, as he deliberated on his path at Harvard, to choose accounting, or economics, saying, with that dreaded certainty, ‘You see, Murray, I know you want to go out and write books or something like that. But only geniuses can be writers, Murray, and frankly son …’ [p. 124]

See what I mean about size? Reviewers have already complained about the author’s self-interrupting, drunkenly digressive prose style. They are entirely correct to do so. Claire Messud’s book is festooned with sentences which are essentially motorway pile-ups of sub-clauses, codicils and parenthetical interpolations. Such a rookie mistake – which makes for hopelessly cumbersome reading – should never have made it past the editor.”

Be sure to read Malone’s review on Amazon if your book club is thinking of reading The Emperor’s Children, especially if you wonder if the writing was bad enough to make it the second-runner in the Delete Key Awards, just behind first runner-up Mitch Albom and grand prize winner Danielle Steel.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 15, 2007

Steel, Albom and Messud Win Top Awards for the Worst Writing in Books

Toxic Bachelors, For One More Day and The Emperor’s Children finish win, place, and show in the first annual bad-writing contest sponsored by One-Minute Book Reviews, www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

Three novelists have won top honors in the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition for the worst writing published in books in the preceding year. Danielle Steel won the Grand Prize for Toxic Bachelors. Mitch Albom was first runner-up for For One More Day and Claire Messud second runner-up for The Emperor’s Children.

The blog One-Minute Book Reviews announced the winners earlier today. Steel, Albom and Messud defeated seven other books, including Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Rising, James McGreevey’s The Confession (with David France) and Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval’s The Power of Nice. Each winning book received a separate post on March 15 that described the reasons for its selection. The March 16 post will explain why some of the also-rans didn’t win the competition, the results for which were announced only on the Internet.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Second Runner-up for the 2007 Delete Key Award: ‘The Emperor’s Children’ by Claire Messud

The second runner-up for the 2007 Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books is …

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

How did this pretentious novel end up on so many best-of-the-year lists? Who knows? Every year there’s at least one book that earns praise far out of proportion to its merits. (Remember the great reviews Mitch Albom got when he started writing books? How hollow does some of the praise seem now?) The most overrated book of 2006 was The Emperor’s Children, a windy and cliché-infested novel full of repulsive characters who move in eddies around an aging New York journalist.

So why didn’t it win top honors in the Delete Key Awards competition for the year’s worst writing in books? Tedious as much of this novel is, The Emperor’s Children picks up steam in the last one hundred or so pages, when it borrows some drama from the events of Sept. 11, 2001. How many readers will stick with it until then?

Original review on One-Minute Book Reviews: Oct. 4, 2006, “The Emperor’s Children Wear Clichés,” Oct. 4, 2006, archived with the October posts and in the “Novels” category.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 13, 2007

Is This Line From Claire Messud’s ‘The Emperor’s Children’ the Worst Line in a Book Published in 2006?

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Fiction,Novels,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 pm

“It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.”

Lines like this helped to make Claire Messud’s overrated The Emperor’s Children (Knopf, 2006) a finalist for a 2007 Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books. Among the problems: That “leadening” wasn’t literal but metaphorical, and the sentence is infested with clichés

Messud also writes that a character “never knew in life whether to be Pierre or Natasha, the solitary, brooding loner or the vivacious social butterfly.” As opposed to a loner who isn’t solitary?

Should Messud win the 2007 Delete Key Awards competition? Or should the honor go to a finalist such as Mitch Albom or Danielle Steel? You have until the end of the day tomorrow to comment. One-Minute Book Reviews will name the winner on Thursday, March 15. You can find more about The Emperor’s Children in a review archived with the October 2006 posts and in the “Novels” category on this site.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 28, 2007

Delete Key Awards Finalist #4: ‘The Emperor’s Children’ by Claire Messud

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Reviews,Books,Delete Key Awards,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:43 pm

“It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.”

Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (Knopf) may be the most overrated novel of the century. Yes, it centers on a New York journalist in the months before Sept. 11, and journalists enjoy reading about their own kind and may attach a special gravity to books that invoke the terrorist attacks. And, yes, it comes from John Updike’s publisher. But that still doesn’t explain the praise heaped on this slow-moving and overwritten novel full of lines of dialogue like: “Think about it: there’s nothing worse than pretension, and false pretension is the bottom of the barrel.” Think about it: Isn’t pretension always false?

Writing sample:
Julius “never knew in life whether to be Pierre or Natasha, the solitary, brooding loner or the vivacious social butterfly.” As opposed to a loner who isn’t solitary? Then there’s: “It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.” Where do the problems with that line begin? With that “leadening” that wasn’t literal but metaphorical? Or with all the clichés?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

[The 10 Delete Key Awards finalists are being announced in random order throughout the day and numbered only for convenience.]

October 4, 2006

Claire Messud’s Tragedy of Manners

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:42 pm

The emperor’s children wear cliches

The Emperor’s Children. A novel by Claire Messud. Knopf, $25, 431 pp.

Gertrude Stein once urged Ernest Hemingway to read only “what is truly good or what is frankly bad.” This was shrewd advice, and a case in point is The Emperor’s Children, a novel that spends much of its time in the no-fly-zone.

Claire Messud serves up a cast ripe for the kind of black-hearted satire that drove The Bonfire of the Vanities: Murray Thwaite, a 60-year-old who practices what he calls “moral journalism,” and the family and friends who don’t know whether to idealize or demonize him.

But Messud lacks the cutthroat instincts needed to do justice to her repellant characters, who bob from Sydney to Manhattan on a tide of scotch and Belvedere martinis in the seven months ending in November 2001. The Emperor’s Children is partly about the anxieties of parental influence, or as one character puts it, about how the sins of the father taint the children, “the way our broader society is like a parent, and visits its complexes on the citizenry, if you will.” Ungainly lines like that one slow the pace of the novel to a crawl, and the story doesn’t pick up steam until the last hundred pages, when the events of Sept. 11 give it a push. And while the plot elements click neatly into place at the end, by then we’ve spent much of the novel listening to characters say things like: “Think about it: there’s nothing worse than pretension, and false pretension is the bottom of the barrel.” Think about it: Isn’t pretension always false?

Best line: A middle-aged woman suggests why men can so easily forget the women they’re sleeping with: “Look at your father. Compartmentalizing. It’s like cows having four stomachs. It seems like sophistication but it’s actually the sign of a more primitive organism.”

Worst line (tie): Winner No. 1: Julius “never knew in life whether to be Pierre or Natasha, the solitary, brooding loner or the vivacious social butterfly.” As opposed to a loner who isn’t solitary? Winner No. 2: “It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.” Let’s see. Where to start with this line? With that “leadening” that wasn’t literal but metaphorical? With that windy “upon” instead of “on”? Or just with the number of cliches?

Recommended if … unlike Stein, you don’t mind novels that are just okay, or can turn off your internal cliche meter.

Consider reading instead: Snobs (St. Martin’s, 2004) by Julian Fellowes, who won the Oscar for best original screenplay for Gosford Park. Fellowes shows all the literary ruthlessness that Messud lacks in this acerbic comedy of manners about a beautiful commoner who marries into the English aristocracy during its twilight in the 1990s.

Published: August 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

August 20, 2009

Dr. Phil Admits, ‘I May Not Be the Sharpest Pencil in the Box’ in ‘Love Smart: Find the One You Want — Fix the One You Got’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:15 am
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Love Smart was one of 10 finalists in the 2007 Delete Key Awards contest, which recognizes the year’s worst writing in books. Dr. Phil lost to Danielle Steel (grand-prize winner), Mitch Albom (first runner-up) and Claire Messud (second runner-up). This review appeared in February 2007.

Love Smart: Find the One You Want – Fix the One You Got. By Dr. Phil McGraw. Free Press, 283 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Help me, please, with the math in Dr. Phil McGraw’s relationship guide for women. First the talk-show host says that to attract a worthy man, you need to feel confident enough to take your “fair share of time in most conversations – 50 percent in a twosome, 33 percent in a threesome, and so forth.” Then he says that when you’re dating: “Self-disclosure should be used only 25 percent of the time. The other 75 percent should be listening.” So which is it? Should you be talking 50 percent of the time or 25 percent?

I have no idea, because McGraw doesn’t say how he got those figures, and his book is full of mush like this. Love Smart is one of those self-help guides that has LOTS OF LARGE TYPE. It also has exclamation points! More than two dozen in the first seven pages! That doesn’t count the one in the first paragraph of the acknowledgments! But I’ll say this for McGraw: He is equally patronizing to women and men. He reduces them both 1950s stereotypes given a 21st-century gloss with advice on Internet dating and quotes from celebrities like Dave Barry and Rita Rudner.

Much of his advice retools the kind of messages Bridget Jones got from her mother. First, stop being so picky. Of course, McGraw doesn’t use that word. He urges you to settle for “Mr. 80 Percent.” Then forget what you may have heard from other experts about how there are more differences between any one man and woman than between the sexes as a whole.

“I’ve got news for you: Men and women are different,” McGraw says. A lot of men have a “caveman” mentality that requires a “bag’em, tag’em, bring’em home” approach. This method includes more of the kind of advice your mother – or maybe grandmother – gave you. McGraw doesn’t come right out and say you should “save yourself for your husband.” But he does suggest you hold sex “in reserve” until a man has made “the ultimate commitment”: “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to McGraw that some women might not appreciate being compared to cows.

The most bizarre section of Love Smart consists of its list of the “top 31 places” to meet men. No. 1 and 2 on the list are “your church or temple” and “batting cages.” You might meet men at those batting cages. But the U.S. Congregational Life Survey found that the typical American churchgoer is a 50-year old married female. So what are the criteria here? Sheer numbers of the other sex? Or compatibility with your values? The list makes no more sense than most of the other material in Love Smart. Earlier in the book, McGraw begins an account of a disagreement with his wife by saying, “Now I may not be the sharpest pencil in the box …” Why didn’t somebody tell Oprah?

Best line: The comedian Rita Rudner says, “To attract men I wear a perfume called New Car Interior.” Love Smart also has some zingers that women have used to insult men, such as, “He has delusions of adequacy.”

Worst line: McGraw never uses one cliché when he can use three or four, as in: “Now it seems time to step up and close the deal, get ‘the fish in the boat,’ walk down the aisle, tie the knot … you want to get to the next level.”

Editor: Dominick Anfuso

Published: December 2006

To read more about the Delete Key Awards, click on the “Delete Key Awards” tag at the top of this post or the “Delete Key Awards” category at right. To read more about the creator of the awards, click on “About Janice Harayda.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 12, 2009

Battle of the Jawbreakers — 2009 Delete Key Awards Finalist ‘Wolf Totem’ Versus 2007 Second Runner-Up ‘The Emperor’s Children’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:16 pm

Think of it as a Great Leap Backward from clarity, written by a former member of the Red Guards. Jiang Rong made the 2009 Delete Key Awards shortlist for this passage from his novel Wolf Totem, the winner of he Man Asian Literary Prize and the first Delete Key finalist from China:

“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.”

Is that passage convoluted enough to win a Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books? Consider the kind of writing that has won in the past.

A couple of days ago, I posted two lines from Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, the second-runner up in 2007. And after naming her a finalist two years ago, I came across a quote on Amazon that might have been even worthier of an award. Reader-reviewer Gary Malone of Australia said on the bookselling site on March 5, 2007:

“You’ve really got to worry about a novel when a *favourable* reviewer describes the plot’s two main set pieces and one of them is when the cat dies. [The Economist, 19 Aug 2006.] Before getting into that, however, try this sample sentence for size:

‘He remembered his father’s telling him – his father, small as he was himself tall, with sloping shoulders off which Murray feared, as a child, the braces might slip, a bow-tied little man with an almost Hitlerian mustache, softened from menace by its grayness, and by the softness, insidious softness, of his quiet voice, a softness that belied his rigidity and tireless industry, his humorless and ultimately charmless ‘goodness’ (Why had she married him? She’d been so beautiful, and such fun) – telling him, as he deliberated on his path at Harvard, to choose accounting, or economics, saying, with that dreaded certainty, ‘You see, Murray, I know you want to go out and write books or something like that. But only geniuses can be writers, Murray, and frankly son …’ [p. 124]

Is Wolf Totem, translated by Howard Goldblatt, as worthy of an award as The Emperor’s Children? If you’d like to try to tamper with the jury, you have until Saturday. After living with some of the finalists for a year, I have a couple of favorites. But just as I thought that Amazon reviewer’s quote might have been worthier than mine, your arguments might worthier than mine, too.

(c)2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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