One-Minute Book Reviews

April 3, 2008

Tomorrow — Another Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing

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Every Friday One-Minute Book Reviews hands out a new Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing in addition to any other posts that appear that day. The awards honor over-the-top praise for fiction, nonfiction and poetry, generally in major magazines and newspapers (including influential specialized publications, such as Library Journal and School Library Journal). To nominate an overheated review for a Gusher, please leave a comment or use the e-mail address on the “Contact” page on this site.

March 27, 2008

Good Riddance to Book-Review Sections? Quote of the Day (Steve Wasserman)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:19 am
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Why have so many book-review sections shrunk, disappeared or turned into cheerleading squads for major publishers? Critic Gail Pool explores some of the reasons in her Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America .

But literary agent Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, goes further in a recent essay in the Columbia Journalism Review. Wasserman calls some book-review sections “shockingly mediocre.” And his article explains, better than any I have read, why their perilous condition reflects more than — to oversimplify a popular argument — cretins in the accounting department.

Here are some excerpts from Wasserman’s CJR article, which you can read at

“That book coverage is disappearing is not news. What is news is the current pace of the erosion in coverage, as well as the fear that an unbearable threshold has been crossed: Whether the book beat should exist at all is now, apparently, a legitimate question.…

“The predicament facing newspaper book reviews is best understood against the backdrop of several overlapping and contending crises: The first is the general challenge confronting America’s newspapers of adapting to the new digital and electronic technologies that are increasingly absorbing advertising dollars, wooing readers away from newspapers, and undercutting profit margins; the second is the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in an age of conglomeration and digitization; and the third and most troubling is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out the habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument….

“A harsher truth may lurk behind the headlines as well: Book coverage is not only meager but shockingly mediocre. The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers. One is tempted to say, perversely, that its disappearance from the pages of America’s newspapers is arguably cause for celebration.”

Wasserman is managing director of the New York office of the literary agency Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson and book editor of

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 6, 2008

How to Get Started as a Book Reviewer — Tips From the National Book Critics Circle

If you think that trying get book-review assignments is like trying to get work decorating staterooms on the Titanic, the NBCC suggests how to avoid the icebergs

Later today I’m going to announce a new series of negative achievement awards for hyperbole in book reviewing that will begin Friday on this site, so I’ve been looking around the Web for posts that tell how to avoid over-the-top praise in reviews (and, indirectly, how critics can keep their name off the list of winners). The Tips for Successful Book Reviewing page on the National Book Critics Circle site wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, partly because it’s more about how to get started as a book reviewer than about how to write good reviews.

But it has great advice for anyone who’s wondering if you can still get review assignments now that so many books sections have shrunk or vanished, or if this effort wouldn’t be like trying to get work decorating the staterooms on the Titanic. Rebecca Skloot the NBCC compiled the page with help from Elaine Vitone and delivers on the subtitle of her article, “Strategies for Breaking in and Staying in: Getting started as a critic, building your reviewing portfolio, going national, and keeping editors happy.” Here’s her most important point:

“Read good criticism. There are several authors who regularly gather their reviews and essays into collections that show how good criticism must be to stand the test of time. The NBCC has awarded several of these books prizes in our criticism category: Cynthia Ozick’s Quarrel & Quandary, William H. Gass’ Finding a Form, John Updike’s Hugging the Shore, Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliche, William Logan’s The Undiscovered Country, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Making Waves are essentials in any critic’s library. Going back even further, the essays of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Borges, and Orwell remind us how criticism can be the intellectual record of our times. Notice, too, how the very best criticism is driven by metaphors and ideas and examples, not adjectives.”

Skloot is right about those adjectives, and if you aren’t sure how many adjectives are too many, watch this blog for examples after the new awards series is announced.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Janice Harayda is a former member of the NBCC board of directors.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 23, 2008

Would It Help If Book Critics Switched to Decaf? Review Inflation Spins Out of Control at U.S. Newspapers and Magazines (Quote of the Day/Gail Pool)

So many book reviews are so overheated, you almost need to handle them with asbestos tongs. Gail Pool gives examples of the review inflation in her recent Faint Praise:

“ . .. how can I believe the praise [in reviews] when there’s so much of it and so much of it is over the top? On a single Sunday book page, Boston Globe reviewers declare that Michael Ondaatje, in Anil’s Ghost, has created ‘a novel of exquisite refractions and angles: gorgeous but circumspect,’ that Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation has ‘that rightness that makes a work of art,’ that Leonard Michael’s Girl with a Monkey is ‘uncompromising fiction. … They hardly make it like that anymore,’ and that Zadie Smith, in White Teeth, has ‘changed literature’s future.’ The Washington Post Book World, reviewing Rick Moody’s memoir, says that its ‘timeless exploration of the issues that are essential to what it means to be an American makes it likely that The Black Veil will take its place among classic American memoirs’; Boston Book Review proclaims that Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, has ‘permanently extended the range of the English language’; …

“How can I trust such assessments to guide my reading when most books, I find, are at best pretty good, and when I know that few books in a century change literature let alone the English language?”

Gail Pool in Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (University of Missouri Press, $19.95, paperback), a critique of book reviewing in newspapers, magazines and other media. Pool is a Massachusetts writer who edited Other People’s Mail: An Anthology of Letter Stories. She wrote a column on new fiction for the Plain Dealer when I was the book editor.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 18, 2007

Novels by Junot Díaz and Alice Sebold Rank Among the Best and Worst of 2007, the Editors of New York Magazine Say in Year-End Wrap-Up

What’s the best novel of 2007? It’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz‘s tale of “a monstrously fat, occasionally suicidal Dominican-American ‘ghetto nerd,'” the editors of New York magazine say in a Dec. 17 article written by Sam Anderson. I haven’t read the novel, but there’s room for a bit of caution here: Last year the editors’ choices included Claire Messud‘s The Emperor’s Children, second runner-up in the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. But New York got it right that Alice Sebold‘s The Almost Moon stands out for badness even in a year in which “lots of big names underwhelmed us … Amis, DeLillo, Roth, Rowling.” Anderson faults the novel’s voice, pacing and characterization. He didn’t mention the fourth-grade reading level and almost comically off-key lines like: “This was not the first time I’d been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 12, 2007

Pitcairn Island After Travel Writer Dea Birkett’s Harrowing Memoir, ‘Serpent in Paradise’

No more bounty on a mutineers’ island ripped apart by the discovery that rape and child molestation were a way of life for generations

By Janice Harayda

How has Pitcairn Island changed since Dea Birkett wrote about her spooky visit to the refuge of the Bounty mutineers in her memoir, Serpent in Paradise?

Vanity Fair gives a chilling update in its January 2008 issue. In “Trouble in Paradise” William Prochnau and Laura Parker investigate the long-buried shame of Pitcairn: generations of rape and child molestation that led to a series of shocking trials that sent eight of its men to prison. Their report is far more shocking than anything in The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold’s grim novel about a woman who murders her mother and stuffs her in a freezer.

Book clubs may want to read the Vanity Fair article along with Serpent in Paradise (Anchor, $12.95), reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 7, 2007, with a reading group guide posted separately the same day Birkett took photographs of the island that would make excellent visuals for a meeting. One is shown here, and others appear on the page for her book on the Anchor Books site

Photo of the Pitcairn landing: (c) 1997 Dea Birkett

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 27, 2007

Were Holly Peterson’s Cringe-Inducing Sex Scenes Too Much for Newsweek and ABC?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:49 pm
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Where to find the sex scenes in The Manny that Newsweek and ABC won’t show you in their excerpts … the page numbers for the good parts

Why didn’t Newsweek and ABC include any of Holly Peterson’s cringe-inducing sex scenes in The Manny in their online excerpts from the novel? Were their Web editors squeamish about running phrases like “Now she was on her knees” and “like a fire hose”? Were the editors trying to avoid embarrassing the author, a Newsweek contributing editor and former ABC News producer? Or did the publisher of the novel decide not to offer them the passages and hold out for, say, Sixty Minutes?

As noted in yesterday’s review of The Manny, Peterson’s sex scenes are irreproducible on a site with links from public libraries. But that doesn’t have to stop you from checking them out at a bookstore.

Here are the places in Peterson’s new novel about a male nanny where you can find the scenes that Newsweek and ABC don’t show you in their excerpts:

If you believe novelists should remember America’s firefighters even when writing about adulterous sex in a linen closet …
See page 167, the part that begins with “Now she was on her knees …” and ends with “like a fire hose in her expensive mouth.”

If you prefer sex scenes that remind you of the Discovery Channel …
See page 288, especially the line: “He was munching furiously on his prey, like an African lion with a freshly caught zebra.” Guess what part of the body the “prey” is.

If you get undressed in weird ways, too ..
See page 333, including this scene that takes place in bed: “Then he rested his head on his elbow and started unbuttoning my shirt … He pulled my arms in the air and peeled off my shirt.” Wait a minute, you’re probably thinking. If the shirt had buttons, why did he pull her arms in the air? Isn’t that how you would take off a T-shirt? If the guy was dying for sex, wouldn’t he just slip the shirt off her shoulders? Was it maybe a polo or other shirt with only a few buttons? If so, why didn’t Peterson say so instead of always leaving you scratching you head about what’s going on in these sex scenes? Sorry, but if you have to ask, you clearly don’t run with the Park Avenue elite who are the focus of The Manny. I don’t get it, either, but this seems to be another of those Fitzgeraldian examples of how the rich are different. As the woman in the scene says later, “It was never like this with anyone.” Definitely not.

A review of The Manny and a Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to the novel were posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 26, 2007 I can’t link directly to the Newsweek and ABC excerpts, but you can find the same excerpt at Click on the links for The Manny on the Random House home page, then click on “Read an excerpt.” Holly Peterson has a page on My Space ( that you can find by going to and searching for “hollypetersonthemanny.”

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She administers the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books, handed out annually on March 15 . The top three awards in this year’s Delete Key competition went Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s ChildrenFor One More Day (first runner-up), Mitch Albom’s For One More Day (second runner-up) and Danielle Steel’s Toxic Bachelors (grand prize winner). Submit your nominations for a special beach books edition of the Delete Key Awards, to be announced later this summer, by leaving a comment on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 4, 2007

The Best Books You’ve Never Read (61 Critics Pick Their Favorites in New York Magazine)

Filed under: Nonfiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:30 pm
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Looking for a good book to take on vacation instead of one of those clinkers that may end up on my list of the summer’s worst beach books? Sixty-one critics and writers pick “the best under-the-radar books of the last ten years or so” in the current issue of New York magazine (June 4)

The literati who chose books include Frank Rich, Katha Pollitt, Michael Cunningham, Azar Nafisi and, well, me. Rich loves Leslie Epstein’s San Remo Drive, Pollitt praises Robert Hellenga’s The Fall of a Sparrow, Cunningham went for Jonathan Baumbach’s On the Way to My Father’s Funeral and Nafisi singled out Robert M. Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir: Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among Baboons. I chose Guiseppe Pontiggia’s great novel of fatherhood, Born Twice, reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 8, 2007 The review is archived with the March posts (and there’s a reading group guide saved in the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides category).

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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