One-Minute Book Reviews

October 10, 2010

Backscratching in Our Time: Edwidge Danticat and Amy Wilentz

Filed under: Backscratching in Our Time — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:25 pm
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Edwidge Danticat recommends Amy Wilentz’s The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier (Simon & Schuster, 1990)  on the Wall Street Journal’s “Speakeasy” blog on Jan. 14, 2010, calling it a book “which blends current events with cultural history” and “seeks to detail the society beyond the headlines.”

Amy Wilentz recommends Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Princeton University Press, 2010) in the New York Times Book Review on Oct. 10, 2010:
“It’s a miracle, the way she captures the textures of a reality she was a part of for only the first 12 years of her life. The section in which she and her cousin and uncle climb a mountain and visit an aunt in a remote village is filled with small wonders.”

September 13, 2010

On Not Making Coffee – Quote of the Day / From ‘News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist’

Filed under: Memoirs,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:50 pm
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Laurie Hertzel began her 18-year career at the Duluth News Tribune in 1976, the year Barbara Walters became the first female co-anchor of a network newscast. But such milestones had yet to open many doors for women at the Minnesota newspaper. Male reporters still wrote most of the stories, and the chief photographer was a man who had spent time in a German prison in World War II and made his way to America with his life savings hidden in an accordion.

Hertzel recalls her experiences at the News Tribune in News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, a lively new memoir from the University of Minnesota Press. In this excerpt she tells what happened after she learned that she was supposed to make coffee for her male colleagues:

“I might have been timid, but I had a strong sense of fairness. I didn’t drink coffee, so I saw no good reason why it should be my responsibility. Also, it was logistically complicated. The only place with a sink deep enough to hold the coffee urn was the men’s bathroom. There was a women’s restroom on our floor, but it was a tiny, one-hole affair with a shallow sink, located directly across from the sports department. This meant that every time one of the seven women on the floor had to pee, the sportswriters didn’t just know it, they could hear it. It was a humiliating bathroom for a shy person, and it was of absolutely no use in making coffee.

“To make coffee I had to lug the urn down the hall, pound on the door, yell, ‘Is anybody in there?’ and then go in and fill it up at the big, deep sink, hoping that no guy came in needing to take a whiz, and then stagger with it back down the hall, water sloshing my ankles. This was not something I was inclined to do, so I set about scheming to get out of this responsibility. First, I started bugging guys when they were at their busiest. ‘Can you fill the coffee pot for me? There’s someone in the bathroom.’ They didn’t care to be interrupted when they were on deadline, and they didn’t want to be away from their phones when they were waiting for a call back from a source, so this drove them a little nuts. And then I made coffee … badly. Undrinkably so. In a newsroom, that’s saying a lot. …

“So it wasn’t too long before the responsibility just sort of evaporated, and I could concentrate on the fun stuff … ”

Hertzel, who is books editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, tells more about News to Me on her Web site. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/StribBooks and read more excerpts from her memoir on the University of Minnesota Press blog.

July 23, 2010

Today’s Gusher Award for Hyperbole in Book Reviewing Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:11 am
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Two reviews share today’s Gusher Award for over-the-top praise in book reviews:

From a review of Marisa Silver’s Alone With You: Stories in the New York Times Book Review on June 6, 2010:

“Miraculously, Silver makes philandering Burton sympathetic even as she compassionately conveys the ambivalence Julia feels, at once insulted and relieved by her husband’s infidelity.”

From a review of Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge in the Oregonian on June 26, 2010:

“No less miraculous, however, are the tools by which Orringer builds these connections: Her writing is glorious, at times awe-inspiring.”

Makes you wonder if the pages of these books were printed on the Shroud of Turin, doesn’t it? Memo to critics tempted to use “miraculous” in future reviews: Why not save it for times when a plane lands on the Hudson instead of squandering it on smooth transitions between paragraphs?

Gusher Awards appear on Fridays except when no sentence or paragraph was too inflationary to qualify. These prizes may recognize types of overheated praise other than hyperbole, such as gonzo metaphors. If you’d like nominate an a candidate, please send an e-mail note to the address on the “Contact” page.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 18, 2010

And the Latest Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:09 am
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Aimee Bender makes you “grateful for the very existence of language.”

– From a review of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt in the San Francisco Chronicle

As the novelist Jennifer Weiner said in posting this quote on Twitter, “I have my doubts.”

Gusher Awards recognize over-the-top praise in book reviews. To read earlier posts in the series, click here.

September 6, 2009

5 Ways Not to Begin a Blog Post — ‘Loser Leads’ Nobody Needs

Filed under: How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:16 am
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Nobody dumps Gatorade on the writing coaches at newspapers who try to help reporters turn out sparkling prose as the apocalypse looms. But Jack Hart, a former managing editor at the Oregonian, seems to have deserved that treatment.

Hart drew on decades of working with reporters for his exemplary A Writer’s Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work (Anchor, 304 pp., $13.95, paper), a book that seeks to demystify a dozen aspects of good writing — clarity, brevity, voice, color, structure, rhythm and more. And some of his advice would have no less value for bloggers, novelists and corporate memo-writers.

Take Hart’s section on “loser leads,” soporific first sentences that risk turning an entire story into a cliché. Dick Thein, a copyediting expert, compiled list of offenders, or emaciated beginnings that won’t help a post or short story or any more than a newspaper article.

Hart quotes some of them:

The ‘good news, bad news’ lead:
“The good news is that online classes have begun. The bad news is that most students don’t have computers.

The ‘that’s what’ lead:
“Some leads are easier to write than others. That’s what 15 reporters participating in an online seminar said Monday.

The ‘thanks-to’ lead:
“Thanks to Bug Pagel, the supermarket chain considers customer convenience first and sales second.

The one-word lead (variation of ‘that’s what’):
“Cynical.
“That’s what most people think journalists are.

“The ‘I fooled you’ lead:
“Sex, drugs, and booze. That’s not what you’ll find in newsrooms today, said Kent Clark, managing editor of the Metropolis Daily Planet.

A Writer’s Coach has ten pages on loser and other leads, and the rest of the book is similarly direct and useful. An excerpt from the introduction appears on the Anchor Books site.

What lead would you like to see journalists and bloggers lose?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and www.janiceharayda.com

August 18, 2009

‘Typos Are Worse Than Fascism!’ — Quote of the Day / I. F. Stone

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:11 am
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A lot of publishers seem to be trying to save money these days by skimping on copyediting and issuing more books with felonious typos. What’s wrong with that? I love this comment by one of the great muckraking journalists of the 20th century, which reflects the sentiments of many of us who have worked for daily newspapers:

“Typos are worse than Fascism!”
– I. F. Stone, as quoted by his daughter, Celia Gilbert, at his funeral in 1989

July 14, 2009

No Plaudits for the Word ‘Plaudit’ in Newspapers

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:21 pm
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Why do newspapers allow reporters to use the stilted word “plaudits” when “praise” would do? Two writers for the New York Times tell us today that the departing presidential adviser Steven Rattner “has won plaudits” for directing the restructuring of Chrysler and General Motors.

Who speaks like that? Has your boss ever said, “Plaudits for that Power Point presentation!” Or “A big plaudit for not dozing off during the CEO’s speech!” (It seems you can’t “win” just one “plaudit” but always get more than one if you’ve earned any.) Has a date or spouse told you, “Honey, plaudits for the best sex I ever had!” Some people might say that “plaudit” has value as a substitute for “praise” if that word has appeared repeatedly. But that argument endorses the sin of  “elegant variation” or the needless use of fancy synonyms when plain words would be clearer. And the Times reporters rolled out “plaudits” before giving “praise” a chance.

This kind of stuffy writing is sometimes called “newspaperese” but also infects books. If you’ve found an example, why not nominate it for one of the Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books that this site awards every March 15?

I’m on a semi-vacation for a couple of weeks and posting lightly or on offbeat topics such such as plaudit abuse that I normally deal with only in the context of book reviews.

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

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 13, 2009

Review of Lisa Scottoline’s ‘Look Again’ in the Washington Post

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:55 am
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Update: When I posted this, anyone could read the review I mention below without registering. But since then, it’s been archived, and you have to log in (free). Jan

Lisa Scottoline’s 16th thriller arrives in bookstores this week. The heroine of Look Again works my profession (journalism) and in a city (Philadelphia) not far from where I grew up. You can read my review of the book in today’s Washington Post.

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