Friday, June 29, 2012

Educating Gail

A couple of weekends ago I suddenly wondered if I could buy issues of the New York Times Book Review for my Kindle. Lo' and behold, I can! For ninety-nine cents, I can have my own issue on my own Kindle to take with me on the stationary bike and treadmill, to read in front of the TV or in bed. Huzzah!

I was first exposed to the NYT Book Review by an arrogant and pretentious English professor when I was a freshman in college. He made us buy the Sunday NYT as part of some kind of intro writing class. Well, bless his heart. I took to the review section. I started reading it regularly in my twenties. When I didn't have time for the whole Sunday edition, my father-in-law, an engineering professor, who read three newspapers a day, saved me his. My children would get me the Sunday NYT and doughnuts for Mother's Day. For a while, you could purchase just the review section, which I tried doing when my father-in-law grew too frail for that kind of rigorous reading and gave up the NYT. It's been years since I've read it regularly, the book review section being one of the things I've given up because of lack of time.

I may have told this story here before, so forgive me if I'm repeating myself. I am older than mud, which is why I repeat myself. It is also why I didn't major or minor in creative writing as an undergraduate. You didn't find those majors at the undergraduate level then. Now you can't spit without hitting one. MFA writing programs were few and far between then, too. Iowa, Iowa, Iowa (I'm repeating myself) was all you heard back then. Not so much now that the landscape is littered with colleges offering graduate writing degrees. I did take probably four writing classes of one sort or another while I was in college. Quite honestly, I learned  next to nothing in them.

My big teacher prepublishing was the NYT Book Review. Good, readable reviews were often analytical, describing what the author of the book under discussion did right and did wrong. I learned "show don't tell" from reading the Book Review. I learned that research shouldn't show from the Book Review. I learned a lot of general info from reading reviews of nonfiction. I also learned that book reviews were not necessarily love fests, and, as a result, I've never expected that of them.

I purchased the June 17th Kindle Book Review. It included reviews that illustrate my point. It also included a couple of children's book reviews in which the reviewers discussed some questions regarding children's publishing that I have considered but haven't seen covered much elsewhere.

Reviewer Bruce Machart has many positive things to say about Boleto by Alyson Hagy, using words like "dazzles" and "another delight." He also says, though, "The novel does falter at times...Hagy puts a lot of stories in play, slowing and cluttering the drama. She slows things further by endlessly modifying her dialogue: if we hear a character barking, "You get out of my godddamn sight," do we really need to be told that her cheeks are "sploted with temper"?"  I find a lot there to think about in terms of my own work.

In a review of food books for children, that included  Minette's Feast by Susannah Reich and Bon Appetit by Jessie Hartland, reviewer Ann Hodgman is very positive about both titles. But she raises this point: "Picture books are arguably the best medium for a life as colorful as Child’s, but the kids I know gravitate to biographies mainly when they’re assigned a school report — and they tend to choose obvious heroes like Rosa Parks and Paul Revere. What’s Julia’s actual Q quotient among elementary-school children? An increasing number of them are cooking these days, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’ll be attracted to a woman with big shoes and a whoopy voice who whacked fish with a cleaver on black-and-white TV 50 years ago" While I, myself, believe Minette's Feast has potential as a story and not just as a mini-bio, I think Hodgman raises a good question that could pertain to many of the beautiful picture book biographies we're seeing published.Who will read them? Again, here's something writers ought to be thinking about.

I don't see that kind of question addressed often at the blogs I've frequented over the years. Nor can I recall seeing much of the kind of detailed analysis/criticism illustrated in the Boleto review quoted above. Blog reviews, which often are presented more as recommendations of books bloggers liked and are promoting, are fantastic in terms of fan culture. They're good at spreading the word to fans of specific authors and specific genres. Fan culture is great for readers and supports writers and their books. It's all good.

But what the traditional, so-called professional review does is also educate. At least, they educate me.

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