How to Write a Book Review

I’m in the midst of working on a few book reviews– Daina Chaviano’s The Island of Eternal Love,
David Lida’s First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century, Kiss the Hand You Cannot Sever by Adrienne Brady, and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer by popular travel writer, Rolf Potts– so I’ve got book reviews on my mind.

In an earlier article, I explained how you can request review copies. In this article, I explain how one writes a book review, focusing primarily on identifying the criteria you should take into consideration while reading the book you’ll be reviewing.

As with any genre, the more you read book reviews, the better you’re likely to become at writing reviews.

One of my secret pleasures is reading New York Times Book Review each Sunday. The reviewers–writers themselves, and likely just as sensitive as their subjects– are never ambivalent: they lavish praise or heap criticism on authors in full page meditations… and I must admit that I’ve kept this particular pleasure secret until now because I find the critical reviews especially appealing.

Why?

Well, because a good review is, like any good writing, cognizant of what words mean, how they should be treated, and what we, as readers, should expect of them, how we should feel after we take them in and turn them over like a prism in the light. When a book possesses shortcomings, book reviewers call authors on the gaps in their work and demand that they do better. I like reading the reviews because I’d like to think they make me a better writer and editor…and a better book reviewer.

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Reading a book in order to write a review requires a bit more attention and purpose than you’d devote as a casual reader. When reading in order to review you want to take the following ideas into account:

What is the subject of the book? And in answering that question, you need to ask another: What has already been written about the same subject? How will this author expand the reader’s understanding of the subject (if it’s been written about extensively before)? Does the author offer new insights or an innovative articulation of an already well-treated subject?

What is the author’s background? What makes the author uniquely qualified to write about the subject? What has the author written before? The answers to these questions vary in their relative importance depending on the genre, but are worth asking when approaching any book.

You don’t necessarily need to share the author’s background with the reader of your review. Sometimes, though, doing so is particularly appropriate. Consider, for example, David Kamp’s introduction to his review of Jules Feiffer’s Explainers, published last weekend in the Times:

“At this point, there’s an entire generation of parents and kids who know Jules Feiffer solely as a children’s book author…. It’s been eight years since he stopped doing his weekly syndicated comic strip for grown ups….”

All this information sets the reader up for a comparison of Feiffer’s new book, an anthology of 10 years worth of his work, to his existing body of work, providing the reader with useful information.

What does the author establish as the thesis (for non-fiction) or the narrative hook (for fiction)? And then, does the author fulfill the promise implied by that thesis or hook?

As the reviewer, you may wish to even lead into the review with your own summation of the narrative hook…without spoiling the plot and its resolution, of course! Take for instance, Andrew Miller’s review of Jose Saramago’s novel, Blindness:

“Traffic at a red light. The lights change, the cars move off, all except one that remains blocking the middle lane. A man inside is shouting the same three words again and again: ‘I am blind.’ Distraught, he is accompanied to his home by a kindly stranger. But this good Samaritan is also a car thief. Having taken the blind man home, he steals his car. A short time later he too is blind.”

While Miller could have opened his review by saying, “Saramago’s novel is about a whole town that goes blind, save one person,” this opening is far more engaging and interesting.

Finally, you’ll need to consider:

How well does the author write? Authors with a particularly unique narrative style might deserve special mention. I like Jennifer Egan’s description of Jim Harrison’s writing in her recent review of Harrison’s novel, The English Major:

“Jim Harrison’s writing is oddly mysterious. His prose style is plain, even flat. His sentences unspool casually, and are often comma-free to the point of sounding almost hapless.”

The reader of Egan’s review is preparing for a withering commentary about Harrison’s novel.

And then, she makes an abrupt turn:

“Yet they fuse on the page with a power and a blunt beauty whose mechanics are difficult to trace even when you look closely.”

Egan goes on to call Harrison’s writing style a “straw-to-gold technique” that characterizes his work. Egan isn’t just sharing her opinion about Harrison’s writing; she’s helping the reader of her review to approach Harrison’s style and access it in a new way.

Miller’s review of Saramago’s novel is similarly adept at preparing the reader for Saramago’s inimitable style–one which is often frustrating to readers new to the Portuguese writer’s work. Miller wrote:

“The prose, with its minimal punctuation, its flickering of tense and subject so that we glide between first and third person, between stream of consciousness and wry objectivity… takes a page or two for the reader to settle into…; the denseness of the long polyphonic paragraphs appears slightly daunting at the first encounter. Soon, however, we are caught up by the sheer momentum of the narrative. The unencumbered language hurries us forward at such a pace it is difficult to do justice to the subtlety and occasional beauty of its architecture, as if we were driving headlong through a great city at night.”

Miller’s review is almost as lyrical as Saramago’s novel, and if I hadn’t read it already, I’d be headed off to the library to check it out.

Does the book review ultimately reflect the reviewer’s own literary preferences and prejudices? Of course. But by paying attention to these basic criteria, you have a point of departure for your reviews, and a set of standards to which your readers can hold you, just as you have done with the author whose work you’re reviewing.

Now get reading!

Photo: swiv (Flickr creative commons)

The Man Who Ate the World: Book Review

That’s Jay Rayner. It’s tough to eat for a living.

“I should be hating this book,” I thought to myself guiltily as I enjoyed every single page of Jay Rayner’s recently published foodie memoir, The Man Who Ate the World.

A few months back, you see, I penned a rather negative review ofThe Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner, and in many ways the premise and structure of Rayner’s book are not so different. Both authors were on transcontinental searches for sublime experiences: Rayner, a food critic, through food; Weiner, a journalist, through a rather pseudo-scientific approach to the elusive notion of happiness. Both men organized their chapters by countries visited, and both authors were deeply self-absorbed and not ashamed to admit it.

So what was the difference?

Well, there were a few. For one thing, Rayner is much funnier. “I eat,” he says, beginning to describe a meal at a high-end restaurant in New York. The sensation of the dish on his palate is “both luxuriously adult and a trip to the nursery. It is both comforting and filthy rude,” an observation that only a Brit—which Rayner is– may be capable of making.

He’s also a very good writer. It’s not easy to write fresh prose about food, but when he describes snails that “looked like big fat commas,” you know that this guy not only appreciates the taste of food, but is passionate about its other properties as well.

But the key difference is that Rayner achieves—and seemingly without trying—what Weiner tried to do but could not: balance the compelling genre of the memoir and the inherent self-absorption of that medium with interesting experiences and powerful flashes of insight that occur with just enough frequency to make reading the book worthwhile.

In the opening, Rayner sets forth his mission, which sounds sober enough: to answer “a few questions…: How much can we really learn about the world in which we live from the food that arrives on our plate? Is it moral to eat well while others starve? And is globalization…threatening to extinguish the flame of unique creativity that has…long burned in the hearts of the world’s great chefs?” He will struggle with these questions—though not so painfully obviously as Weiner does with similar questions in his book—throughout his journey. And because he doesn’t turn away from that struggle, but rather tries to understand it without wringing his hands about it, the reader sees that Rayner’s journey isn’t quite as self-centered as it might seem at times.

Rayner can be ruthlessly catty about chefs, other food critics, and just about anyone he meets. Yet his eye for detail is so fine that I’m inclined to forgive him when he describes one of the world’s most renowned chefs with the funny yet unnecessary description of “a squashed face, as if somebody had inadvertently folded away the middle…and a monkish air, as if a part of his personality has also been folded away.” He’s forgiven because he follows these overly candid impressions that should have gone through his social propriety filter with astute observations about places and food that help even the most well-traveled, well-fed reader learn something new. Who knew that Muscovites adore sushi or that it’s as dangerous to be a restaurant owner or chef in Moscow as it is to be a rabble-rousing journalist?

He’s also forgiven because when he eats “what may well be a perfect meal,” this most sublime food experience is as ethereal for the reader as it is for Rayner. In Tokyo, Rayner lucks his way into the exclusive world of restaurants run out of apartments, Japanese supper clubs of sorts, where a bill for one person can easily run just shy of four digits… and that’s without a comma or dot. These are restaurants for the Japanese upper crust, and foreigners– even those with wealth or connections– rarely pass their thresholds.

Rayner’s description of the meal is Faulkneresque in length, but is only the more appealing for being so, because his lingering detail confirms that the experience was as special as he says it was. “It begins,” he says simply, belying the vivid descriptions that will follow. He is served raw venison “the color of a fresh hemorrhage,” fish whose sweetness is “undercut by the sudden, life-affirming bitterness of the guts,” and, after some other dishes that are “hugely satisfying,” an understated yet entirely appropriate finish of “lipstick-red strawberries with sake ice cream” and a “lotus root jelly that tastes calmingly of tea.” In his rich descriptions, Rayner has taken the reader deep into a certain slice of Japanese culture that is not easily accessible—if at all—to even well-heeled travelers.

But finally, Rayner’s book is so exquisite because it is so thoughtful. This man who has seemed to skewer either the personality or the physique of everyone he has met—sparing no one, including himself—from his poison pen, who has willingly accepted free meals and free lodging and has indulged in dinners that could feed entire communities; who has single-handedly emitted enough carbon in his travels to depopulate a small forest; who has eaten so much that by the end of the book the very joy and sheen of eating have worn off quite a bit, has bursts of razor-sharp social commentary that leave the reader thinking about topics as diverse as the way in which the Internet has changed cultural production and social criticism; the notion of what constitutes authenticity; what “local” means and how high-end restaurants and their patrons are wreaking environmental havoc the world over; and how the exploitation of migrant workers perpetuates much of the modern machinery of commerce.

The book is as hugely satisfying as Rayner’s near perfect meal, and the reader is plenty full, savoring the serious and important questions that Rayner raises, all the while enjoying the bright, popping flavors of the more entertaining bits.

BONUS! If you’d like me to send you my review copy of The Man Who Ate the World, please leave a comment below and tell us about the best meal you’ve ever eaten. Where was it? What was it? I’ll be sure to get in touch with you for your mailing address and ship the book your way!

Jay Rayner Photo: mariagluc (Flickr)
Escargot Photo: Ramon2002 (Flickr)
Tokyo Photo: zrrdavatz (Flickr)

Book Review: A Camera, Two Kids, and a Camel: My Journey in Photographs

Me? I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with photography (see previous post). I love a picture that captures the essence of a person or a place suspended in a particular moment, but I dislike carrying a camera on a trip, especially because I perceive it to be intrusive. In fact, I have few, if any photos, of most of my travels.

That’s why it’s good that there are people like Annie Griffiths Belt.

Griffiths Belt, one of the first female photographers at the National Geographic Society, didn’t own a camera until she was a 19 year old college student, but from the moment she picked up a camera, she writes in A Camera, Two Kids, and a Camel: My Journey in Photographs, “I was a goner.”

A Camera, Two Kids, and a Camel is the artist’s equivalent of a mid-career retrospective, with photographs from across the times and places that have marked the seminal points of Griffith Belt’s impressive career.

Much of that career, she has been accompanied by her husband, the writer Don Belt, and their two children, Lily and Charlie, and the book is as much a concise parenting manual for adults who love to travel and who share Griffith Belt’s belief that the institution of schools shouldn’t “get in the way of…education.”

Lily had traveled to 13 countries before she was even born, and Griffiths Belt expresses her gratitude and awe that her kids have become passionate multilingual travelers. One of the most moving photos in the collection is of her son resting beside two Bedouin men in Jordan. Charlie is wrapped in the crook of one man’s arm; his face is turned away from the men, but is illuminated by the sun and his own pure pleasure.

But A Camera, Two Kids, and a Camel is even more than a career retrospective and parenting guide; it’s also a travelogue, coffee table book, essay on cultural understanding, and tip guide for photographers. Early in the book, when she’s describing the trajectory of her career, the reader feels as if she’s been let in on a delicious secret. Griffiths Belt’s descriptions of National Geographic meetings made me want to go bang on the Geographic’s door and beg for a job.

When she moves on to a discussion of her family’s life on the road, the text often reads like a letter from a family member. “We had quite a little celebration,” she writes about Lily’s and Charlie’s accomplishment of walking 100 miles around Jerusalem in the span of two months. Her writing isn’t dazzling, but it’s humble, honest, and true.

It’s also incredibly funny. She recalls an assignment on a ranch in the Midwest US. She awoke to a sunrise that had “ignited cornrows of luminous clouds over the horse pasture.” She grabbed her camera and ran outside, shooting passionately. It was only after she’d captured this fleeing moment that she realized she’d forgotten to put on any pants, and was photographing—in front of a line of cowboys—“in nothing more than… t-shirt and undies.”

As if all of these stories weren’t treat enough, A Camera, Two Kids, and a Camel is incredibly relevant and timely, and the section about the Middle East is particularly moving, both in words and images. She describes Arab women as “some of the most misunderstood and misrepresented people on Earth,” and she helps build the reader’s understanding of Arab women and men by sharing the joys of her own experiences negotiating the diversity of Middle Eastern cultures and traditions. These are her best stories, and are among the many gifts she gives the reader.

I’m not convinced that the photos in A Camera, Two Kids, and a Camel are Griffith Belt’s best. There are some photos whose selection is puzzling, including a two page, largely blurry spread of a baseball field. But I’m also not convinced that including the best was the point. Each of the photos evokes memories and stories about human connection.

Ultimately, it’s what’s outside the frame—the moment when she’s watching a lunar eclipse and listening to cowboy poetry—the stuff she can’t photograph—that’s important, both to Griffiths Belt and to the reader. Even she says so. It’s the “constant miracle of my work,” she writes, that people “allow me to be with them.”

Throughout the book, Griffiths Belt offers tips to photographers: Quickly assess and relate to others. Be patient. Learn to listen. Transform “no” to “yes” by seeing a denied request as a “creative challenge.” Give each subject “time and sincere attention.” Griffiths Belt clearly shows, both in her photographs and in her writing, that she’s mastered all of these skills. Far from viewing the camera as an intrusive instrument or a barrier, Griffiths Belt uses the camera as a passport, business card, and invitation, and she does so with extraordinary grace.

Photo: kkfea (creative commons)