(Some of the) Best Book Reviewers of 2011

November 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

I transform hobbies into jobs.  I grew up loving fiction, so I got a PhD in English. While plowing through graduate work and junior faculty-dom, reading lots of LITeratuuuure (that’s mean saying it all fancy-like), I shifted my bedside matter to magazines and non-fiction. Then, upon receiving tenure, I started writing magazine articles and non-fiction. (So one might surmise I read novels at night again, which is true, but it gets complicated–see below–it might just be that now I read my twitter feed at night …)

I have concluded, based upon this sample of three (a trend!) that I am happiest when I see position myself as a neophyte. I keep tackling new writing genres so I can feel free from insecurity and pressure–hey! I’m new at this! It’s a game! I have only up to go! 

One splendid byproduct of this pose is that I can make my  “work reading” into “studying people who are better than me” at whatever genre I happen to tackling. These days, the genre has been book reviewing. I’ve been writing them for a few years, true, but I am still warming up (okay, I did some interval training now and again–I’ve written some reviews I’m really proud of). So if it is 11:00 am and I have other deadlines it is fine to take a bath and read Bookforum  because I am studying.

I have some favorites, it is true, among reviewers currently on the job.  I thought I’d make a list. I am terrible at the “best books” of the year rigamarole, for lots of reasons (see previous posts) but also because I simply have not read enough novels or biographies or whatevers to stake a claim on bestest. However, I have read lots of book reviews over the year, so I can offer some notes to that effect.

Here are four faves.. I have crushes on a few more reviewers–stay tuned—

Sam Anderson

Since Anderson left New York for The New York Times Magazine I’ve been feeling bereft. Anderson is the reviewer I read when I want to think about WORDS in reviews. Words–individual, carefully chosen–are what make book reviews, for me, a challenge. Careful usage of nouns and verbs make reviews more  craft-y, more writing workshop “techniquey” than, say, larger critical essays.

(This blog, by the way, is a study in careless usage of words. I seem incapable of really arguing any point–I just point shit out–or crafting good sentences–I just spew–in this very young blog. Alas.) Okay back to Anderson:  you don’t have a lot of space in a review. Reviews have form, a shape. No free verse here, you have to summarize plot, frame the book, contextualize, strew in quotes, point out weaknesses in a positive review and strengths in a negative one. Adjectives, adverbial phrases, figuration–these are the bits you get to play with. I’m no poet (see me throw words against the refrigerator of the text window) but when I write a review, I feel kinda lyrical.

Look how the words Anderson chooses in his summary here (no easy book to summarize):

Nox is a brilliantly curated heap of scraps. It’s both an elegy and a meta-elegy, a touching portrait of a dead brother and a declaration of the impossibility of creating portraits of dead brothers. The book opens with a puzzle: a wrinkled square of yellow paper containing a ten-line Latin poem—untranslated, unattributed, and unlabeled save for the Roman numeral CI. Anyone who is not (as Carson is) a classical scholar will most likely be stymied. But, right away, Nox begins to help. Its next page offers a dictionary definition of the poem’s first word, multas (“numerous, many …”), and this continues as the book moves forward: Most of Nox’s left-hand pages give dictionary entries that lead us, word by word, through the poem. It’s like an ancient linguistic detective story, or Latin 101.

And check out the WORDS (active verbs, concrete subjects) in this sentence:

One of the pleasures of reading Carson is the way she applies the habits of classical scholarship—the linguistic rigor, the relentless search for evidence, the jigsaw approach to scattered facts—to the trivia of contemporary private life.

William Deresiewicz:

In my mind, he is William Derewhatsiwizgig, which is really a terrible thing to admit.  Deresiewicz was a professor before going commando, whereas I am a professor on unpaid leave, not sure if I will return or not, so I like to project him into some more-geographically-footloose-maybe-he-has-a-trust-fund-or-rich-spouse-though? future-me). When I read his Professing Literature In 2008 I felt like I had found a kindred spirit (don’t tell him: he doesn’t know) and may have –really, I can’t remember exactly, it’s been so long–riffed on a few of his lines in some of my own work.  He and I share interests–in abiding questions and particular authors  (we disagree on Richard Powers but we are both think about him a lot)–and we come at contemporary literature with the dust of office hours still clinging to our prose. Dereciewicz is wicked smart, and he plays with rhythm and emphasis in his sentences. He has range, covering referential octaves with great clip (ses “bathos and bullshit” below).  He is unafraid to go negative yet keeps safely this side of cynicism.

With The Anatomy of Influence, Harold Bloom has promised us his “swan song” as a critic. Fat chance. After some thirty original books and hundreds of edited volumes; after more than fifty years of brilliance, boldness, bombast, bathos, and bullshit; after Shelley, Blake, Yeats, and Stevens; anxiety, misreading, repression, and revision; Orphism, gnosis, Lucretius, and the Kabbalah; Shakespeare, genius, the canon, and the Book of J; after evidence of a logorrhea so Niagaran even death will be hard-put to shut it off, there is little possibility that Bloom has given us his “final reflection upon the influence process”—which in Bloomspeak means his final reflection full stop, since everything he writes is wrapped around that fixed idea. The Anatomy of Influence is not only not his last book, it’s not even his last one this year. Already in September came an appreciation of the King James Bible, billed, inevitably, as the book that Bloom had been writing “all my long life” (or at least since his agents noticed that 2011 marks the translation’s four-hundredth anniversary). “The culmination of a life’s work”: is that the last one or the latest one? Neither: it’s the one he published thirteen years ago. The Harold Bloom Show, we can rest assured, is good for many seasons yet.

Ruth Franklin: 

I was at a dinner party a few weeks ago filled with people around retirement age who, it became clear, took all their cues–social, literary, artistic, foodie-from the New York Times. Read an article and then opine at length over dinner was their basic m.o. If I had to choose a critic whose views I would read and then mouth at dinner parties when I had not read the book or knew of what I was talking, it would be Ruth Franklin. Because, well, she’s usually right. And she spells out her right-ness the right way: she’s after what the book is after, asking of each title: what is its purpose? what is it trying to say?  (unlike, say, James Woods, who privileges close reading over idea)

Recent fave graf (in lieu of it full text, which seems to be now password protected, I’ll repost the best bits that The Atlantic picked out:

Franzen [is] “all mirror and no lamp.” Realism should not just be “a transcription of reality … The task of the novel,” is still “not to show us how we live but to help us figure out how to live.” At this task, Freedom fails, “substitut[ing] the details for the big picture, a hyper-realistic portraiture for genuine psychological insight.  … Instead of an epic, Franzen has created a soap opera.”

 

And finally, that commonly cited favorite, Dwight Garner, because he makes me laugh, chooses under-the-radar non-fiction, and never seems to let his piercing intelligence get in the way of his commitment to knocking down pretention.

Recent fave graf: 

All of this is a way of saying that these essays have split ends and burnt edges. This fact makes you vaguely dread Mr. Sullivan’s inevitable hiring by The New Yorker as a staff writer. You don’t want to see any of the edges buffed away.

 

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§ 3 Responses to (Some of the) Best Book Reviewers of 2011

  • I’ve been working to develop my book reviewing skills in my own blog, and I appreciate your inspiration.

    But I confess, I don’t find the New York Times reviews to be particularly compelling.

    I wish I could cite particular people, but the book reviews at Bookslut and The Millions are terrific, and as worthy of recognition as any of the print reviews.

    But for the classics, I have to say, James Woods still impresses me every time. You don’t have to agree with him to find the quality of his prose enrapturing.

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