Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book Reviews

Michael's heroic summary of a wide variety of reviews of Peter's "The Great Fall" has me thinking about book reviews in general.

I read book reviews in The New York Review of Books, in the New York Times, in The New Yorker, in The Bloomsbury Review, in new Los Angeles Book Review, in literary blogs like Begleitschreiben, and so on.

And I write book reviews, reviews of jazz performances, and reviews of exhibitions of art.

It is a demanding art form, reviewing.

As a literary critic, I'm also a practitioner of a scholarly form of the art.

And as a writer of personal essay, I engage in a third kind of writing that often involves books and music and art.

It's difficult for me to keep the genres apart. The kind of writing about books and art I most enjoy is personal, is critical (in the sense of making sense of the work the way a good scholar would), and is respectful of the writer's work, even when not liking a work, because it pays good, close, informed attention.

Paying informed attention is arduous. A review I've written over the last six months involved rereading 10 of the author's books and then trying to weave something meaningful out of the strands of the work I found most interesting. Here's the beginning of the essay that will appear in the fall 2011 issue of the Bloomsbury Review:

Brian Evenson’s Dark Property

. . . we see through a glass, darkly . . .    First Corinthians 13:12

I watch eagerly for new books and stories by Brian Evenson. He’s got a wicked sense of humor, on display recently in the stories “Bon Scott: The Choir Years” and “Niue.” Imagine the awkwardness that ensues after AC/DC singer Bon Scott is found singing surreptitiously with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or the comic possibilities in a story named after a tiny Pacific island nation that opens with this question: “And how is it that the brooding Johnny Hellspider, long having restricted his posts to two-word comments such as “You rock!” or “Satan lives!”, has suddenly become so loquacious?”

Evenson’s quickly expanding body of work has a darker side as well. When “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” arrived in the mail, for instance, the chapbook lay on my shelf unread. It requires a certain resolve and a reasonably stable state of mind to read Evenson’s more unsettling texts; and something about the title and the cover illustration destabilized my resolve.

The essay continues through horror and delight, investigating language and truth in work that surprises at every turn, surprises and disquiets, tortures and heals, excoriates and, somehow, is deeply satisfying.

So, is what I've written, is what I write, about the work itself or about my responses to the work? Perhaps I bring the same eye to each reading. Consider this final sentence of my review of Bowden's and Briggs' and Kelly's book "Dreamland" (published in the Bloomsbury Review and republished in an earlier post here):

 As a final note, as a resigned yet resolute response to a book that questions many of my certainties and unsettles my very being, I’ll add my translation of another stanza by Rilke, this time from the eighth of the Duino Elegies: “We order it. It falls apart. We order it again. And fall apart ourselves.”

This could well have been part of the Evenson essay. And another review of a Charles Bowden book, Inferno, published in Catalyst, considers the same questions of truth and language I considered in the Evenson piece:

“Supposing truth to be a woman – ” Nietzsche wrote at the beginning of  Beyond Good and Evil; “what did philosophers, at least the dogmatic ones, know about women? Weren’t the ghastly seriousness and the awkward thrusting with which they have always approached truth unimaginative and unseemly tools to win, of all things, a woman?”

            inferno, Charles Bowden’s new book (with striking black-and-white photos by Michael Berman, and with an exquisite design that values print as it does image) knows all about truth being a woman. The book’s sometimes hallucinatory, often contradictory, and always white-hot prose is a supple and sensuous organ of seduction.

            The woman in question is a patch of Arizona desert, and this woman too has had relations with William Jefferson Clinton, who, as one of his last acts as President, in response to lobbying by Bowden and others, established the Sonoran Desert National Monument. 

In Tongues, Alex Caldiero
Perhaps it's not only that I have a limited set of tools with which to examine a book, but that I am drawn to books and art that explore a set of themes I'm especially interested in. The long series of posts about Peter's new book are investigations of those same themes of language and truth. As is a review I wrote for Catalyst about a set of paintings by Alex Caldiero called "In Tongues."

[Except for the "Dark Property" essay, which hasn't yet been published, all these reviews and others can be found here:]

1 comment:


I am not so sure that Scott's calling my compilation and minimal annotation of the reviews that Handke's GROSSE FALL can be called "heroic" - heroic I would find acceptable to my entire 20 year effort to understand Handke from every which angle; to defend him within the catastrophic reception
but also to criticize our total genius, say when he lies, or gets to be a tad too righteous and exhibitionistic. I could not have imagined - can anyone? - what I have learned during this 20 year process, a lot of very discouraging matters of course about how reviews are done not only in this country, matters have improved in Krautland, at least with regard to Handke, at least for now - I happen to think that Scott's , those I have seen, not all that many - are first rate and conscientious.