How did I discover Charles Bock’s new novel, Alice & Oliver? I read a review at BookPage. It is a promotional publication, and the reviews are always enthusiastic, but guess what? I find it more reliable than The New York Times, The Washington Post, or the TLS (wonderful critical publications, I must hastily add, when I’m in the mood for that).
Quite often when I read a review I say, Fuck! I’ll go back to this after I’ve read the book.
You know those crazy book-a-thons where bloggers read for 24 hours? My husband says, “How is that different from a usual day?” I read all the time. I would read walking down the street if I could manage it. Nobody cares what I did in school, but my undergraduate major was called, adorably, School of Letters, and then I did classics. Yup, I’ve read widely not only in the Western canon, but in the Greek and Latin models. As a girl I read what I call the girls’ canon: every Nancy Drew book, every Trixie Belden, Betsy-Tacy, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, E. Nesbit, Jane Austen, Dodie Smith, and many Newbery winners, including A Wrinkle in Time. It was an excellent preparation for a lifetime of reading.
In Bock’s second novel, Alice & Oliver, Alice is diagnosed with cancer, leukemia (she has no white blood cells left), over Thanksgiving, and gradually this terrible illness whittles away at the love between her and her husband. Impressed with the description of the book, I read a sample at Amazon and loved the first few pages. I am reading it and finding it compelling. Here is the opening paragraph of Alice & Oliver.
There she was, Alice Culvert, a little taller than most, her figure fuller than she would have liked. This brisk morning, the fourth Wednesday of November, Alice was making ehr way down West Thirteenth. Her infant was strapped to her chest; her backpack was overloaded and pulling at her shoulders. The Buddhist skull beads around her wrist kept a rattling time. She drank coffee from a paper cup. Sweat bubbled from her neck. Her scarf kept unraveling. She was rocking knee-high boots–sensuous leather, complicated buckles. Her gaze remained arrow straight, focused on some unseen goal. But she was slowing. A businessman only had a moment to avoid running into her. Alice bent over, coughing now, a coughing fit, bringing forth something phlegmy, bloody.
Bock’s wife died of cancer, and this novel is semi-autobiographical. Bock is a stunning writer: he won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters.
I have not yet finished it. But I was browsing online, and did what I never do: I read (instead of skimmed) a review of Alice & Oliver at The New York Times.
As is often the case, it doesn’t match my experience. The last paragraph is condescending. Lauren Groff, a novelist reviewer, writes as though he’s a creative writing student.
When a novel is drawn from awful events in the writer’s own life, a reviewer can find herself on a wobbly bridge strung between her duty to be honest on behalf of the potential reader, and the ethical imperative to avoid hurting a person who has already suffered so much. …The audience is being asked to read “Alice & Oliver” two ways, both as fiction and as fictionalized autobiography; but most of the book’s emotional work is occasioned not by the text but by the context. This can feel manipulative. Remove the autobiography and the book seems drained, wan, the characters ghosts, the love between them rarely more than shorthand…. As a writing teacher of mine once said, very gently, to a student who handed in work formed out of the rough stuff of her life, “That it happened doesn’t make it true.” By this, she meant that good fiction comes out of the author’s artistry. The real things to celebrate with the publication of “Alice & Oliver” are Bock’s superhuman efforts to write a story that must have seemed so large it blocked out all of the light, and all of the books in this talented author’s future that are now free to come into view.
You know what? It has nothing to do with my reading the book. Professional reviewers cannot say, Wow. There is always a moment when they say the book isn’t quite what it could have been, if the author had added x or y. And sometimes the best novelists are not the best critics.
Apologies to those I trust, some of whom are novelists, some not: Margaret Drabble, Tessa Hadley, D. J. Taylor, Michael Dirda, Michiko Kakutani…and many others. But, let’s face it, we don’t know the ethics of each reviewer, who’s to be trusted, who not.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT:
Do you want to know more about reviewers? I enjoyed Michael Lind’s crazily good essay at The Smart Set , “The Art of the Book Review.” He talks from his experience as the writer of a book about reviewers’ formulas and includes excerpts from a very odd 1807 essay, “Advice to a Young Reviewer, with a Specimen of the Art.”
Here are the first two paragraphs of his witty article:
When I was writing my first book, my editor advised me to put everything I wanted the review-reading public to know in the first and last chapters, because those are the only chapters that most reviewers read. In the years since then, I have discovered that indeed most of the quotes pulled by reviewers from my books have come from the first and last sections. In nonfiction books at least, reviewers tend to skim the middle section and read only the summaries of the argument at beginning and end.
But this is only one of many crimes against authors committed with impunity by many of their reviewers. Most elements of the art of the book review serve the purpose of making the reviewer look more intelligent or erudite than the author whose work is under review. There is The Omitted Subject: “For all its merits, this book about the South Pole suffers from the lack of any discussion of the North Pole.” And there is The Book the Author Should Have Written: “By focusing on the South Pole, the author misses the opportunity to discuss a far more important subject: the Equator.”
And the 19th-century essayist, Edward Copleston, urges reviewers to do these things and more.
Have you read any books that are remarkable despite what the reviewers say? I’m sure we all have our list!
Bearing in mind the amount of hype surrounding most books that come out nowadays, I tend to ignore the big reviewers and rely on the blogs I trust. And it’s kind of like reading the introduction to a classic – best done after reading the book…
That’s how I read introductions to books, too: later!
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I love your reviews and have picked up books on the strength of them and have never been disappointed. However, just a slight criticism, you spoiled the above review by using the ‘F’ word. Sorry I’m showing my age.
Oh, dear, I usually don’t write out the whole word. I will bear that in mind next time!
I have no hard and fast rule or even consistent practice. Sometimes a review leads me to a book; sometimes the reviewer repeats cant and condescends. People like to denigrate. I see the first reviewer as repeating cant. When someone does that, it suggests to me they had no genuine experience of the book; their mind doesn’t work individually; they don’t know what they are feeling. The second is cynical but it holds a truth. I have found though when I’ve read a book thoroughly and really evaluated it, an author can let me know he or she would have preferred thin or wild screams of praise. The author wanted praise more than someone reading the book and revealing its inner world or sources to others. A friend who reviews for a living tells me many reviewers skim the book at best because there is little appreciation.
I think you are a fine reviewer and critic.
Ellen, the first by Bookpage is really a promotion: just to let us know the book is out. But, honestly, BookPage chooses good books and even hasi ntroduced me to Russian novels translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky. It is very clear about what it is doing, and because there is no negative criticism, I seek books that may not be reviewed well by pros.
The NYT review repeats “creative writing class” truths–nothing original. And would put me off finding a brilliant book!
I thnk you would very much like Bock’s novel, though it can be difficult: though I haven’t dealt with cancer, I certainly recognize the details of dealing with illness and hospitalization.. He takes us through waiting in waiting rooms for hours, insurance problems, painful procedures, the terror, the woman’s courage, her determination to survive, her mother’s horror, waiting for a transfusion,etc. And he does this so it almost feels like real time. I think that is what I like about it–he doesn’t write to amuse–and what the reviewer thought should have been cut out. I “get” the book he’s trying to write. (And wrote._