I love book reviews. My fandom commenced in the 1970s when I bought the Sunday Chicago Tribune at a local drugstore and discovered the review section. After reading fascinating reviews of new books by Raymond Carver, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Drabble, and Philip Roth, I rushed to a bookstore.
It didn’t stop with Chicago. Oh, no, there were more. The New York Times Book Review was for decades the most accessible review publication in the U.S., and the first thing I read on Sundays. There have, however, beenchanges lately, including the consolidation of the Sunday book review and the daily book critics under one editor. Two of the daily critics resigned last year. Lack of continuity is a bad sign. And the paper now runs reviews of romances. Will dumbing down net more readers? I doubt it.
Now, with the internet, we have many choices. We can read dozens of reviews online at American newspapers–that is, at the few that still publish them.
Reading reviews online gets very expensive, though. The New York Times allows you to read 10 free articles, and The Washington Post 20, and then you subscribe for $120 a year. (You can, of course, subscribe for just a month.) The L.A. Times allows five free articles, and nothing is free at The Wall Street Journal.
Book review publications need subscribers, and I want to support them. But (a) I can’t afford to read all these publications, and (b) there are too many new books. So I’m taking a break from reading professional reviews. For a month? Two months?
Meanwhile, here are “review-ettes” of eight new, or newish, books I’ve read this year, all of which I learned about from book reviews. (Some I’ve written about before.)
- Rachel Cusk’s Outline. A nonfiction novel about a writer at a writers’ conference in Greece and her conversations with others about life and art. Stunning prose, but a little empty. * * * * *
- Mary Gordon’s There Your Heart Lies. A double narrative, partly set in Spain in the late ’30s and the ’40s, and partly in Rhode Island in 2009. After Marian’s gay brother commits suicide in the 1930s, she marries her brother’s lover and accompanies him to work in a hospital during the Spanish Civil War. Gordon alternates chapters about life in Spain with her retelling of the story to her granddaughter. * * * * *
- Will Boast’s Daphne. An awkward retelling of the Daphne myth. Daphne, the narrator, is a successful professional woman with a rare disease which causes her to collapse whenever she feels strong emotion. And her boyfriend Olli does not resemble Apollo in the slightest, but as he was the only possible stand-in for the god, I tried to make it work–in vain. Not a bad read, but Y.A-ish. **
- No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin. A collection of essays from the award-winning science fiction writer’s blog, some very effective. I admired “The Sissy Strikes Back,” an essay about the realities of aging, and her posts about her cat! ****
- Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. This slim novel is essentially a minimalist essay on the suicide of the narrator’s best friend and the consequences of inheriting his Great Dane. **
- Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion. A best-selling novel about feminism and sexual harassment. It is far from Wolitzer’s best (The Interestings), but it is said to be THE book of the year. ***
- Joan Silber’s Improvement. An award-winning collection of linked stories which I thoroughly enjoyed and wrote about here. ****
- Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. A brilliant historical novel about a poet during the Russian revolution. Thoroughly entertaining. Six stars out of five as the most enjoyable book of the year! ******
- Melissa Broder’s The Pisces. A Sappho scholar falls in love with a merman, after going on an online dating spree and falling into depression. *****
And that’s enough new books for now.