Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

What should a book review be?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Recently I read the kind of book review I hate. The book, which sounded like nothing special by an author I was unfamiliar with, was held up to ridicule by a reviewer intent on showcasing his own cleverness and erudition. What’s that about?

With newspaper book sections being cut back--like all other newspaper sections--was this a good use of the space? This wasn’t a must-review book from, say, Philip Roth or Toni Morrison. And it wasn’t a gem we might have missed. This was either a gift of sacrificial lamb for a carnivorous reviewer or maybe a favor owed--yeah, sure, we’ll review it.... Whatever it was, it wasn’t a service to the reader.

I talked about this with my friend June Beisch. June is a poet and she also writes book reviews. We wondered about the politics of what gets reviewed. But, speaking as a reviewer herself, she said it’s usually the less experienced reviewers who try to make a name for themselves by savaging a book. She starts, instead, from a place of respect.

“When I start to write a review, the first thing I think about is that the author worked five years on this,” she said.

June told me about a review she wrote recently. The book was “Walden by Haiku,” author Ian Marshall’s collection of “found” haiku pulled from the Thoreau classic. June thought the concept was interesting and that many of the poems were well done. But she also pointed out one major problem--that Thoreau used metaphor extensively, while haiku, as a form, does not.

That’s my idea of a satisfying review. It brought a book to my attention that I might not otherwise have known about and gave me something substantial to think about.

“The first line of a review should catch the reader’s attention, as a good lede might,” June said. “The review should be as succinct as a poem and should not give away the plot or just recount the contents of the book without placing it in the larger context of the genre (novel, short story, etc.). And it should, above all, be entertaining to read.

“My own belief is that before you review a book you should read all the books by that author and get a sense of the writer’s oeuvre.”

Sounds like hard work and certainly not as much fun as ripping a book to shreds. But it does give the reader something of real value.

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