Tag Archives: journalism

Coming Up Next…

A review of Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy, author of Liars and Saints.   “Maile Meloy is a true and rare find.”   – Richard Ford

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Average is Not Good Enough

“You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now/ You’ve got to roar like forest fire…”   Joni Mitchell (“Judgement of the Moon and Stars: Ludwig’s Tune”)

You don’t see many book reviews concluding that the book being reviewed is average.   Yet, in truth, many books are simply average and this can present a problem for a reviewer.   Think, for example, about the book reviews you’ve read recently that you remember.   I would guess that they were either extremely positive or negative; either praising or damning.

These “A” or “F” reviews almost write themselves as the reviewer is honestly answering a single question:  Why did I love – or hate – this book?   But it is a much harder task to write a review of a book that doesn’t either soar or plummet  – the “C” book that represents the much-dreaded and highly feared word in this country, average.

Sometimes this comes down to the process of editing.   Ideally, an editor should perform two tasks at once when reviewing a manuscript.   He or she should review the grammatical accuracy and, just as importantly, determine if the work has a narrative structure that is attractive and holds the reader’s interest.   There are perfectly edited books – with no typos or errors of punctuation – that merely glide down the runway but never take off, for lack of style.

I had an experience with this recently.   I received a copy of a semi-fictional novel from a first-time author.   There were no obvious errors in spelling or punctuation in the galley but the entire story read as if it were written by a newspaper reporter:  “First, I did this, then that.   Then I graduated from high school, then got married, then went into the military, then went to college.”   You’ve heard of the phrase, “Dialing it in?”

I lost all interest in the book after a few dozen pages.   I had almost no idea what to say about it so I decided not to write a review.   I am not a fan of assigning either grades or stars to books (the latter seems so trite and childish) but in this case I almost wished that I could simply say, “An average story told without style.   C-.”   Oh, well.

But there’s a lesson here, I think, for the first-time writer.   After you finish the manuscript for the Great American Novel or the Fantastic Nonfiction Survey Book, look for an editor who will apply the style test to your work.   This will, hopefully, not be a friend or family member.   Supplying this editor with the first chapter of your work should suffice.   Ask him or her one basic question, “After reading this sample chapter, did you want to read more?”   If the answer is “no,” take it as constructive criticism and work on finding your voice.

It is not sufficient in today’s highly competitive literary market to just bang out a story.   C-level books are not good enough.   If you’re going to be a true writer, an artist, you need to come up with a work that is so individual, so full of your spirit and unique voice that reviewers will either love it or hate it.

Go for the “A” or “F” and get noticed!   And by all means, avoid the cloak of invisibility that’s inevitably attached to average work.

One in a continuing series.   Pictured:  Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (Harper Perennial Trade Paperback, $13.95).

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Easy as 1-2-3

Reviewing the Nonfiction Book (as simple as 1-2-3)

The typical nonfiction book is going to deal with either history, or sports, or functions as a survey book.   The term survey book refers to one that covers a field in a technical and sometimes textbook-like fashion.   In most cases, survey book authors who seek to appeal to a broad audience will keep their language as non-technical as possible, but there are exceptions.

The reader or reviewer encountering a survey book may want to consider at least three questions in judging its success.   The first is, “Does this book tell me anything I do not already know?”   We may enjoy learning new things, but the typical reader selects a survey book touching on a subject that he/she knows something about (and, in some cases, a lot about).

Let’s say, hypothetically, that all during my life I have been extremely fascinated by the Edsel automobile.   I’ve read every newspaper article about the car, every car magazine article I can find, and everything I can find on the web.   Now let’s presume that one Joseph Von Schmoewinkle has released a book entitled, The Absolutely, Definitely, Complete Edsel Book.   If everything in the book repeats things I’ve read, I am going to be disappointed.   Very, very disappointed.   This is when a reviewer says – quite fairly – that this book could have been put together by a college student.   For such is not writing, it’s compiling.

The second question is, “Are the items covered in the survey book actually related to each other?”   The authors of survey books tend to view themselves as Big Picture figures.   They want to cover many developments on the subject at hand, past and present, and tell you that they’re all somehow related.   Except that sometimes they are not.   I refer to this as the “Connections” virus.

Some of you may remember the “Connections” show on public television in which the viewer was told that virtually everything was related (no matter how tenuously) to everything else.   In this series, if a kindergartener missed school one day it was somehow connected to Man’s successful landing on the moon.

Yes, it was entertaining.   The only problem being that life is not like this…  At least not usually.

If you find yourself reading a book that makes such outlandish stretches, you will likely find yourself shaking your head as if to say, “Not likely.”

The third question is, “Did this book make me think about the subject in a new way?”   Some people call this the “a-ha” phenomenon.   A really good survey book will cause you to re-think how you think about things.   When you do, it will seem perfectly logical, but only the very best nonfiction writers are able to get you to that destination.

If you read a very good nonfiction book and you experience just one, two or three “a-ha” moments, you will know that your money has been well spent.   The reviewer who experiences those moments before you do will, no doubt, recommend the book without reservation.

This article is the third in a continuing series.   Note:  The comments about the Edsel survey book in this article do not refer to the actual nonfiction book Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel, which sounds  like an interesting read.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Angels on Earth

CC Theresa Brown

Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life and Everything in Between by Theresa Brown (HarperOne, $14.99, 224 pages)

“Death.   It casts a long shadow in this book, and in these stories.   Even when death is not present it hovers just around the corner, unbidden and unwanted, but waiting nonetheless.”

“People say, why wait?   But really they should say, don’t wait.   Listen when you can, tell the people in your life you love them…”

If doctors are the mortal gods of medicine, then nurses are its angels.   At least that’s the case put forth here by Theresa Brown, a former Tufts University Journalism professor turned Registered Nurse (R.N.).

It seems that Brown and a former close female friend were looking for meaning in their lives when they decided to go to nursing school.   Brown started at Penn but finished at Pitt.   In Critical Care, Brown pulls back the curtain on what she somewhat successfully labels the Science of Nursing.   My mother was an emergency room nurse, so much of what I read in Critical Care sounded familiar and true…  Good hearted nurses are worn down by tough-minded superiors.   These nurses rarely receive praise for medical successes but often are blamed for the failures.   And, they have to clean up stool because “doctors don’t do poop.”

Still, this seemed like a somewhat lightweight survey of a crucial field.   There are some specific problems with the telling.   Brown shows us her empathy in writing about patients like the all-too-young David, who is battling leukemia; and Irene, the Pittsburg television personality who does not realize that she’s dying until she hears her former co-workers talking about her on TV.   But as soon as we become engaged with their lives, Brown’s off describing other things – like a voluntary job change.

Brown also loses track of former patients (some of whom have likely died) and their families.   In this age of the Internet, it’s odd that she did not pursue some basic research to find out what happened to them.   Also, the book begins with multiple pages of acknowledgments which seems distracting before we get to the actual content.

A last flaw is that we do not get to know the author’s husband or daughter.   They remain on the edges of the stage.

What Brown does quite well is to convince the reader of the need to enjoy life (and other people) while good health lasts.   Today’s tiredness may be diagnosed as leukemia or some other energy-robbing disease tomorrow.

Critical Care lets you walk in the shoes of some very ill patients, both young and old.   Yet for a better overview of today’s world of medicine – as practiced on a daily basis – I recommend two books by Dr. Atul Gawande.   The most recent is Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (2008).   The contemporary classic is Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (2003).

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A book giveaway for Anglophiles!

My Paper Chase 2Ten years ago, a distinguished English reporter, Donald Trelford of The Observer, wrote this about Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday (London) Times:   “The book Harry should write now is the story of his own life, from St. Mary’s Road Central School in Manchester to the Sunday Times to the conquest of corporate America and rubbing shoulders with the Washington elite.”   Well, Harold Evans has now written that book, entitled My Paper Chase, and this autobiography of almost 600 pages is being released by Little, Brown and Company.   We have 5 copies to give away!

Here is the Google books overview of My Paper Chase:  

“In My Paper Chase, Harold Evans recounts the wild and wonderful tale of newspapering life.   His story stretches from the 1930s to his service in World War II, through town big and off the map.   He discusses his passion for the crusading style of reporting he championed, his clashes with Rupert Murdoch, and his struggle to use journalism to better the lives of those less fortunate.   There’s a star studded cast and a tremendously vivid sense of what once was:  the lead type, the smell of the presses, eccentrics throughout and angry editors screaming over the intercoms.   My Paper Chase tells the stories of Evans’s great loves:  newspapers and Tina Brown, the bright, young journalist who became his wife.   In an age when newspapers everywhere are under threat, My Paper Chase is not just a glorious recounting of an amazing life, but a nostalgic journey in black and white.”

It should be noted that Harold Evans was the newspaper editor who broke the worldwide story about thalidomide and led the effort to justly compensate the victims of this improperly tested drug.   My Paper Chase is 592 pages, sounds fascinating for readers and newspaper lovers (and prospective journalists) and sells for a list price of $27.99.   Thanks to Valerie at Hachette Book Group (HBG), we’re giving away five new hardbound copies to our own loyal readers.

What are the contest rules?   As usual, they’re very simple.   To enter this contest, send your name and e-mail address to josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as one entry.   For a second entry, complete the following sentence:  “If I were to visit England, the first thing I would like to see is _______________________.”  

The deadline for submitting entries – and we’re giving everyone plenty of time – is Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at midnight PST.   On Wednesday, November 25th, Munchy the cat will pick out the names of the 5 winners from a large plastic container.   The winners will be notified the next day, for Thanksgiving, via e-mail.   Don’t forget that you can’t win if you don’t enter!

Note:   For this contest, prior contest winners of HGB books are not eligible.   (If in doubt, enter anyway and we will verify eligibility.)   Also, you must receive your mail at a residential (street) address in the continental U.S. or Canada.   HBG will not mail books to P.O. boxes.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Bloggers on the Bus

bloggers on 4By itself, Bloggers on the Bus provides an interesting tour of the not-so-distant past political landscape (the 2008 presidential campaign), with stops at particular intersections where citizen journalists – online bloggers – both analyzed and influenced events.   Author Eric Boehlert  makes a nice case for the importance of amateur and volunteer online reporters.   He makes it clear that the traditional media (television, radio, and the relics known as newspapers) are now falling behind the times.   To his credit, he has located specific story lines that were either ignored by big media or picked up too late.

In this brave new world chronicled by Boehlert, amateur and professional writers on the web perform such a credible job of instantly tracking events and issues that true political junkies feel lost without web access.   Fox News and MSNBC might as well be sending us telegrams from across the Atlantic; they seem to be as current as buggy whips.

The problem with this book is the manner in which it has been publicized:  “In the tradition of the classic book The Boys on the Bus…”   Sorry, but I knew The Boys on the Bus as a fun, frolicking ride that puts you, the fortunate and somewhat shocked reader, on the magic bus with a new-wave gang of rowdy reporters.   This is not that book.

However, most readers with even just a hint of politics in their blood will surely enjoy Boehlert’s book just fine.   Its almost 300 pages go by quite quickly.   This is the good news.

The bad news is that this is simply not The Boys on the Bus Part 2.   The publicist who came up with that narrative did the author’s own campaign more harm than good by placing undue pressure on, and expectations for, Boehlert’s book to be something it is not.

Free Press, $26.00, 265 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized