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Whether we’re talking about simple book reviews, hardcore literary criticism, or even the deathsport-cum-puffery that goes with writing workshops, it’s easy to make literary opinions about yourself rather than the work at hand. There are a lot of different ways this can happen in reviewing. Some of the more common:

1.  The dispensation of ham-fisted writing truisms (show, don’t tell; adverbs must die; etc.)

2.  The shared personal anecdote, loosely related at best (My word-slinging panda Grimwald brings me a sonnet every night. But you didn’t. And that’s why this is the most horrible dreck I’ve ever read.); and

3.  Conscious mockery, the review designed (through wit, derision, and pithy prose) to show how much better you are than the foolish mortal whose book you’ve deigned to review. (There’s this guy on Goodreads…Actually, there are like three hundred of this guy on Goodreads, but you get the idea…)

I suppose I have a little luxury in the books I review. No one at TNB tells me what to cover, when to read them or where. I just do then say what I think. Simple, right? But not so, not really.

So many of the most famous examples of criticism come from hating a book or an author with a passion, from using that passion and what skill you may have to pen a take-down readers will remember. The goal is perhaps not always to make oneself sound good, but certainly, at the very least, to make the writer or work under discussion sound very bad.

For me, today, book reviewing has less to do with put-downs, more to do with empathy. As a critic, I think you need to be a bit of a chameleon, able to envision each book not just from your own perspective (the white tower of your five-star, ten-point, or four-heart rating scale) but from the standpoint of that book’s best reader, the person the book is intended for even though neither they nor the author have any idea they exist. Rather than the infallibility we sometimes pretend to, book reviewing seems to me a matter of art and hope, maybe even something a little like a prayer. A wish, at least, that the books we’ve chosen will find their best readers, whoever and wherever they are.

Apple1

Who was your favorite teacher growing up?

I’ve always thought of high school or college teachers, but since you said, “growing up,” specifically, I thought of Miss Jackson, my school librarian. I still remember the day she let me graduate from “easy to read” books to “red tape” books (which were marked with red tape on the spines to indicate a higher grade level). It opened the world for me, and I’m forever grateful.

My favorite part of the act wasn’t the sparkle of red sequins,
the skimming of satin skirt flirting with thigh. I loved

the knife thwack, the shudder of pearl handle vibrating
when the blade landed true. I loved cartwheeling in space

when you spun the wheel, our love every day a game
of roulette, praying to always land on black but wearing

red just in case. I lived for you tying the blindfold, the whisper,
I love you as you fastened the manacles secure. Each second

a precarious balance between trust and chance.

Majka, Sara (Chris Ward)Is there anything you wished you could have talked about the book?

I kept waiting for someone to notice the dots–to ask why, online, a lot of times the dots on my book are yellow but on the actual physical book they’re orange. Also, the author photo, I thought someone might ask about the background, because it has striking green and white stripes. I wanted to be able to say that it was at a park in Philadelphia, that my friend, Chris Ward, was taking pictures of me in nature, with trees, and then I saw the striped shed and asked about it. I figured he would say that it was a bad idea but he also liked the idea.

The Hunter

By Magdalen Powers

Poem

The wild animal
in our bed

always leaves
before dawn.

Scott and Jen

 

By the time my debut novel came out in 2013, I had honed a one-word answer for when people asked me what the book was about: loneliness. Of course, it was about a lot more than that (immortality, magical realism, an enchanted herb, partition-era Poland, World War II, 1940s country music stars), but people can relate to loneliness—who hasn’t felt, at some point in their life, on the outside looking in? But now my second novel, The Summer She Was Under Water, has come out, and I’m struggling with that one-word answer. Often, I say the book is about a dysfunctional family, another great sales generator (just ask Jonathan Franzen or Gillian Flynn). That answer feels disingenuous, though, because there is a much more direct (and more uncomfortable), word to describe it: incest. Brother-sister incest, if you want to be really specific.

1429283316376There’s a lot of motherhood in your collection. Why?

Writing and motherhood rolled in on the same thunder, flashed with the same white electric. I’d just finished grad school and I read Louise Erdrich’s memoir and her babies slept in their baskets while she wrote. I was jolted awake by motherhood, and it seemed to me that the world was too.

Motherhood was also a foreign land. It amazed me, and I wanted to describe everything I saw. The pressure to write was acute, and because my days were bounded, insular, but with this exalted view, that tension intensified.

But then I ventured outside, and the air still echoed from the thunderstorm, but let’s say my mother was there, my mother-in-law, my grandmothers—there were women and children everywhere—and it turned out that what I was seeing was at once universal and personal.

george.one.and.one.03


WHAT IS THE WORST LETTER IN THE ALPHABET?

Kardashian.


DADDY

By George Wallace

Poem

I am the hand grenade
your daddy should’ve
jumped on, back in ‘43,
to save his buddies,
the snipers nest in
Fallujah, I am the lost
platoon, the lost soldier

Lesley_M_M_Blume_Everybody_Behaves_Badly

This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Lesley M. M. Blume. She is an award-winning journalist and a writer for Vanity Fair magazine, and her new book is called Everybody Behaves BadlyThe True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Listen via iTunes.

we are at home in half houses
we house the fatherless sons
we weave together our fingers
form baskets of veins filled with blood

aaron-burchMy wife [Elizabeth Ellen] and I drove three hours to Ohio for a birthday dinner for her 93-year-old grandmother and drove back the same day. I drove there, got a little drunk at dinner on two Manhattans while Elizabeth had club soda, and then Elizabeth drove us home. I’d been putting off this self-interview because I’m a procrastinator, and also because I wasn’t sure what to ask myself, so I talked Elizabeth into helping me ask myself questions even though that didn’t really constitute a self-interview.

weaver2

Blood comes before the scar; hunger before the apple.

–Leslie Jamison, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”

 

“Defensive”

1. defending or protecting someone or something from attack: helping to keep a person or thing safe


2. behaving in a way that shows that you feel people are criticizing you


 

It’s not my fault the new rosebushes didn’t get watered. I was running errands, taking the kids to soccer and music lessons, and I have an essay for American Lit due tomorrow. Why didn’t you do it?

When my husband complains, I first point out that it’s not my fault, and then point out why he is culpable instead.

It’s not my fault the dinner burned. I had to get our son into the shower, and make our daughter do her homework, and couldn’t you hear the oven timer?

But more often than not, my husband was merely stating that the rosebush was suffering because everyone forgot to water it. He didn’t mention the burned dinner other than to ask, what’s that smell?

I grew up in south Louisiana’s Bible Belt. I read my Picture Bible, with its comic strips, until I knew all the stories. There were plenty of moments where Jesus gave women grace and forgiveness—the Samaritan woman at the well and Mary Magdalene come immediately to mind. But the women in the Old Testament were out of luck. Jesus wasn’t born yet.

BurchcoverI am fascinated by beginnings. I think this has always been the case, but it has certainly amplified since I began teaching. In part because they’re important, obviously; in part because they’re easy to teach. Middles, endings: those take context. It’s harder, if not impossible, to look at a large selection of endings, side-by-side, and analyze what works, and why. They work because of everything that came before. Conversely, beginnings work because of everything that comes after, but you don’t know that yet at their time of presentation. A good beginning should pique your interest, it should make you want to read more. It should make you start asking some questions—once your brain starts inventing questions, you’re involved, you have an interest, and now you want to keep reading, because questions need answers. A good beginning gives you all that and, too, in the parlance of creative writing classroom, it teaches you how to read the piece itself

Jonathan_Franzen_Purity

This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a wide-ranging conversation with Jonathan Franzen. His latest novel, Purity, is available now in trade paperback from Picador. It is the official August selection of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

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Listen via iTunes.