Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Reviews, Part One

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment . . . But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so." --Anton Ego, Ratatouille

I can be critical of other people's creative work. Sure I can. Heck, I was criticized by one critic for being too critical in my critical thesis. And you are just as critical as me. Maybe more so. Probably more so.

"It lacks gravitas." -- You

But that's okay. Thoughtful criticism can help artists grow and understand what isn't working about their creations. And how many wonderful, under-appreciated writers and visual artists and composers have gotten bathed in limelight because someone of influence took notice?

This actually happened.
But recently, I've been thinking about the Negative Review, particularly when it comes to books. You know the type.

Hey, little girl. Your book sucks and so do you.
It's not that negative reviews are never justifiable. There are certainly some crappy books out there, and boring books, and poorly-edited books, and half-assed books. There are writers who deserve air quotes around the word "writer" when you're talking about them. And I'm sure there are books so trite and clumsy, they make you want to put anthrax in the water supply because surely it's the end of civilization and we may as well get it over with.

On an unrelated note, isn't this a cute picture?
But maybe -- maybe -- we should talk about perspective.

". . . You know what I'm craving? A little perspective. That's it. I'd like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that? . . . Fresh out, I take it? . . . Very well. Since you're all out of perspective and no one else seems to have it in this bloody town, I'll make you a deal. You provide the food, I'll provide the perspective, which would go nicely with a bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947." -- Anton Ego, Ratatouille

Seriously. See Ratatouille.

I won't lie to you, cyberfriends. This two-part mega-post is the result of two recent book reviews in my local newspaper, the Concord Monitor. Reviews that annoyed me.

Take, for instance, Megan De Vorsey's review of Crosscurrents of Change, a collection of essays by several different people about the history of Concord, NH, published by the Concord Historical Society.

She writes:  "Some chapters, such as 'The Land & The River' or 'Repeating the Course' (on education), are particularly well written. Others, like 'Lure of the Land' (farming) and 'Insurance,' are overly long and full of less interesting detail."

Really? This is a collection of essays written by E. B. White Henry David Thoreau LOCAL HISTORY ENTHUSIASTS. This may be the only opportunity some of them ever have to see their passion for the history of Concord's quarry owners or whatever in print, and the only mention they get is that their little piece of this book was too long and boring for you? It's the history of Concord, not the Siege of Troy.

In fact, the original name of our beloved capital was Concord-Less-Interesting-Details, NH,
but it was recently shortened due to budget cuts.
De Vorsey goes on: "Some topics, like the railroads and the airport, get close attention. Other topics, like the women's movement, the arts, and crime, get strangely short shrift." 

Right. So the next time the Historical Society decides to use their vast resources to try and get a book together about the entire history of a city, they should be sure to give all imaginable topics equal and thorough coverage.


The second review annoyed me on a more personal, rather than philosophical, level. In it, critic Mike Pride takes on Down from Cascom Mountain, the debut novel from Ann Joslin Williams.

He begins: "Some artists and writers who follow in a parent's footsteps tread lightly. They can do nothing to avoid the comparisons critics will inevitably make, but they at least try to cut a distinct path.

Ann Joslin Williams instead resurrected the milieu of her father, the late Thomas Williams, as the setting for Down from Cascom Mountain."

The plot thickens, we see. If Thomas Williams' name sounds familiar, it might be because he was a freaking awesome famous writer. So let's start there. Pride says, "But while one of her father's novels, The Hair of Harold Roux, won the National Book Award in 1975, this book turns out to be, unfortunately, more of a beach read than a literary gem."

Translation: Ann Joslin Williams has the gall to write about the same milieu -- "place," mind you, meaning the area in which they both lived -- as her dad, and her novel is not as good as his NBA-winner. Pride qualifies this by saying, "Williams does show skill in this first novel," but if I were an NEA grant recipient, former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, award-winning university English professor, I might find it a tad condescending.

I'm not saying this reviewer doesn't have the right to dislike Williams' book and write about it. Not at all. But let's keep it relevant, and let's keep a little perspective.

Helpful tips on how to do this coming in Part Two.

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