One-Minute Book Reviews

December 20, 2007

What Is Writer’s Block? Quote of the Day (Tom Wolfe)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:25 pm
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Many writers have tried to define “writer’s block.” One of the best explanations came from Tom Wolfe, who has said he became “totally blocked” while working on his first magazine piece, an article about car customizers for Esquire that became The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He said:

“I now know what writer’s block is. It’s the fear you cannot do what you’ve announced to someone else you can do, or else the fear that it isn’t worth doing. That’s the rarer form.”

Tom Wolfe in an interview with George Plimpton in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Ninth Series (Viking 1992). Edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by William Styron. Reprinted from the Spring 1991 issue of the Paris Review. You can read more from this and other interviews in this acclaimed series at

Comment by Janice Harayda:

This may be the best definition I’ve read of the causes of writer’s block. It’s also true that, as my late mentor Don Murray used to say, “Electricians don’t get electrician’s block.” Don believed that most people could avoid writer’s block by writing every day. He wrote his motto, “Nulla dies sine linea” (“Never a day without a line”), on letters, on the blackboard and on bumper-sticker-like signs he sent to students. Don was a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, where the journalism lab bears his name. He died a year ago this month and still inspires many of our work habits

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


August 11, 2007

More Essays for People Who Like ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:44 pm
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Just found out that Nora Ephron’s publisher has come out with a new paperback edition of her essay collection Wallflower at the Orgy (Bantam, $12, paperback), which I didn’t mention in my post earlier this week, “Essays for People Who Like I Feel Bad About My Neck”

So Wallflower at the Orgy might be easier to find than the Modern Library Edition of her Crazy Salad, which I did mention. The reprint also has an article on the late-20th-century gods of food, including Craig Claiborne, that relates directly to an essay in I Feel Bad About My Neck. But Wallflower at the Orgy deals heavily with media and publishing celebrities whose stars have dimmed, such as Arthur Frommer, Mike Nichols and Helen Gurley Brown. So you might still prefer the essays in Crazy Salad, which show their age less clearly. The writing in both books easily beats almost anything you’ll find today in a typical issue of People or Vanity Fair.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 9, 2007

Essays for People Who Like Nora Ephron’s ‘I Feed Bad About My Neck’

Nora Ephron has reintroduced a lot of people to the pleasure of personal essays with I Feel Bad About My Neck, still a bestseller a year after its publication. What can you read next if you liked that book? A few suggestions:

Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (Modern Library, $12.95, paperback), by Nora Ephron.
Crazy Salad is, some ways, better than I Feel Bad About My Neck. Many of its essays appeared in a column on women that Ephron wrote for Esquire, and the security of that perch allowed her to take on bigger subjects and dig deeper into them than she has been able to do more recently. The most memorable essays in Crazy Salad include “A Few Words About Breasts” (about having small breasts) and “Baking Off” (about the Pillsbury Bake-Off).

My Misspent Youth: Essays (Open City, $14, paperback), by Meghan Daum.
Born in 1970, Daum is a generation younger than Ephron, and some of her subjects reflect it: Internet dating, her loathing for wall-to-wall carpeting, and her pile of student-loan and credit-card debt. But like Ephron, she has a gift for blending reporting, self-analysis and satire. Some critics call Daum a snob for insisting on, for example, the superiority of hardwood floors to carpeted. It would more accurate to say that, like Ephron, she has perfected a comic shtick that at times involves turning her tastes into dogmas or neuroses in print.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $14, paperback), by Joan Didion.
This is Didion’s best collection and perhaps her finest book of any kind. Most of its essays were written more than four decades ago, when they became benchmarks for what has become known as the New Journalism. But some anticipate recent fads such as “journaling” (“On Keeping a Notebook”) and blaming misbehavior on “low self-esteem” (“On Self-Respect”), though words like “journaling” and “low self-esteem” would no doubt make Didion gag.

To read a review of I Feel Bad About My Neck, click on this link To find the reading group guide to I Feel Bad About My Neck, click on this link

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 17, 2007

What Rhymes With Beltway? Hart Seely Sends Up Politicians and Others in His Collection of Satirical Poems, ‘Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington’

Filed under: Humor,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:17 pm
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We don’t know much about him.
We don’t know what he’s done.
We don’t know what he stands for,
Or why he wants to run.
We don’t know if he’s able,
Or even if he’s sane,
But, hey! let’s vote Obama,
He looks good off the plane.
— From Hart Seely’s “Hey! Let’s Vote Obama!”

Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington: Nursery Rhymes for the Political Barnyard. By Hart Seely. Free Press, 128 pp., $12.95.

By Janice Harayda

Songwriter Tom Lehrer once said that the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. But Hart Seely proves otherwise in this lively collection of parodies of rhymes by Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Robert Louis Stevenson and others.

Seely lacks the finesse of Calvin Trillin, whose satirical verses include his brilliant farewell to the first President Bush in Deadline Poet: “You did your best in your own way, / The way of Greenwich Country Day …” Trillin’s targets are typically self-evident in context, but some of Seely’s poems will need footnotes in five years. Even now, how many people remember the so-called Macaca sandal that involved former Senator George Allen (“The Cock Doth Crow”)? Or know who former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed is or why “his pals were indicted” (“Little Ralph Reed”)? Trillin also uses iambic meter, the closest to natural speech. But Seely has to work with the less subtle meters of the nursery rhymes and other poems he parodies, such as dactylic and anapestic. This constraint can lead to forced or obvious rhymes when he takes on heavier topics, such as Barbara Bush’s influence on her family (“Mother Bush Had a House”) or Rudolph Guiliani’s attempts to cash in politically on the goodwill he earned after 9/11 (“Rememberin’ Rudy”).

Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington works best when it sends up lighter-weight trends that befit its nursery-rhyme format, including the tendency of Americans to favor candidates they don’t know well, such as Barak Obama (“Hey! Let’s Vote Obama!”). In a section on the media Seely deftly lampoons Bill O’Reilly, Judith Miller, Tim Russert and others. He also tweaks the focus on Katie Couric’s appearance instead of news after her move to CBS (“Rock-a-Bye, Katie”):

Rock-a-bye, Katie,
In the big chair,
Though the news breaks,
The headline’s your hair.

Over the centuries, many of the rhymes in this book have acquired tunes. And even the weaker poems would lend themselves well to a cabaret show. If entertainer Mark Russell tires of writing his own material, he might find all the help he needs in Seely.

Best line: Some of the sharpest lines in this book have nothing to do with politics, such as these from a poem called “Blah, Blah Blackberry”: “Spam from PayPal. / Spam from a scam. / Spam from a site / That eliminates spam.”

Worst line: Poetry collections usually open with a strong poem, so it’s odd that the first one in this book is weak on every level. “Mother Bush Had a House” tweaks Barbara Bush with lines that could have come from bright eighth-grader: “She had a son, George, / A fine-looking male, / He was not very bright, / But still made it to Yale.” Among the problems: The point of the lines is unoriginal. The adverbs “very” and “still” are there are only for the sake of the meter. And all the lines end with a noun or adjective, when verb end-rhymes tend to be stronger.

Recommendation? Don’t forget this book in December when you need a stocking-stuffer for your most political friend. Mrs. Goose Goes to Washington could also be a great choice for book clubs that want to do more poetry, because it spares neither Republicans nor Democrats. [I may post a Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book later this summer.]

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Published: June 2007

Furthermore: Seely is a reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and on National Public Radio.

Janice Harayda is an award-wrinning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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