Monday, December 04, 2006

Those Pesky Annotations

After spending most of last week working on annotations for our Fanfare list, I read the NYT 100 Notable Books of the Year with new eyes. We'll ignore the fact that the list ignores children's books; what I was fixed on were the annotations of the titles. Some are purely descriptive, such as the one for Monica Ali's Alentejo Blue: "Ali's second novel revolves around the inhabitants of a southern Portuguese village." (At least creating a breeze, one hopes!) Many speak to theme (Lisa Fugard's Skinner's Drift: A white farm family is the foreground of this novel; behind it, the sins of South Africa"). Surprisingly few--maybe a dozen--attempt to note why a particular book is notable or even good: Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children is called "nimble," and Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower is "vivid." The block-that-metaphor award goes to the annotator of Allegra Goodman's Intuition: "A cancer researcher's dubious finding sets off a tidal wave that carries many people away."

But God knows, annotating a list is hard work, the haiku of book reviewing. Not only do you have to express a lot in few words, you have to watch out for mindless repetition. I like to remember Betsy Hearne's rule of reviewing: "The use of the words charming, beautiful, or interesting will be allowed on a one-time basis only."

9 comments:

Judith said...

Ah, the annotation challenge! We've not long since created our annotated list of forty books to be reviewed and extracted in The School Magazine next year (there's a link to it on my blog) and it's a fine art indeed. Forty or so words, a summary and you'd better make it appealing and informative enough so that the teachers and librarians will a.) know where the books might fit into their classroom schedule and b.) want to buy them for the library so the kids can read them.

And that's excellent advice from Betsy—I think I'll embroider it onto a sampler and hang it above my desk!

Judith said...

PS I don't think we have anything "revolving", but I'd say we're well guilty of short-hand-overuse of the adjective!

Lynn said...

"I like to remember Betsy Hearne's rule of reviewing: "The use of the words charming, beautiful, or interesting will be allowed on a one-time basis only.""

I had a grad school instructor who would add the word "cute" to that list. When we were writing reviews for class the word cute was culled from our vocabulary.

Roger Sutton said...

Something else that's strange about that cancerous tidal wave book--the Times review is awfully negative. I wonder why the about-face.

PiLibrarian said...

My colleague and I write dozens of annotations every year for our school summer reading lists. Goals? Sell, describe, indicate genre, series, include warnings (dark, intense, etc), note character, thematic or geographic diversity (gay teen, Middle East conflict, contemporary native Alaskan)-- in 3 lines or less. Whew!

rindawriter said...

All why we readers prize the expert book list annotator...that rare fish in a wide, wide sea.

JeanneB said...

And all this begins with the near impossible task for the writer -- summarizing his or her book in the query letter, otherwise known as the "please-publish-my-book-or-I-will-die letter." Anybody want to do a study comparing authors' original summations with the annotations written by reviewers?

MotherReader said...

I hear you. Try annotating a list of 20 funny kids books with one or two sentences each and not using the word "funny" every single time. Okay, you've got "hysterical," "hilarious," and "witty," but then it gets tricky.

Edge of The Forest - three funny lists and counting!

Retired said...

I took Betsy's book reviewing course at Columbia University many summers ago. I lived by the mantra you mentioned all the time I was writing reviews for SLJ (but sometimes their editor would stick one of those no-no words into my review and publish it without my prior knowledge). Betsy also reminded us that every book is somebody's baby, so we should avoid unnecessary harshness. I was nasty just once, and I still think the book was poorly written and illustrated, but the author called me ten years later from Florida to tell me that I had ruined his life. Yikes!