Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.
Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.
Rainy day reading . . . beach reading . . . airplane reading . . . what’s the difference? To me, a good book is a good book whether I’m curled up on the couch on a rainy day, lying on a lounge chair at the beach, or crammed into a middle seat on a long flight. But there is something about a dreary day that makes a person want to hibernate and read. We’ve had a lot of those days recently in the Midwest — so many that I finally read quite a few long magazine articles that I was literally saving for a rainy day.
One of those articles was “Like This or Die: The Fate of the Book Review in the Age of the Algorithm” by Christian Lorentzen, published in the April issue of Harper’s. Lorentzen laments the decline of the traditional book review:
The basic imperatives of the review—analysis and evaluation—are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation. You might like this, you might like that. Let’s have a little chat with the author. What books do you keep on your bedside table? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you mind that we’re doing this friendly Q&A instead of reviewing your book? What if a generation of writers grew up with nobody to criticize them?
I don’t think authors need me to criticize them. I assume that by the time their books are published, they’ve received a lifetime’s worth of criticism, from professors, classmates, editors, and “sensitivity readers”. Lorentzen’s basic point, which is that both readers and writers deserve “painstaking appraisals” of serious books is a good one. I agree with him that much of what now passes as literary journalism is lightweight — for example, lists of “reading recommendations” with blurbs lifted from jacket copy, Instagram photos of celebrities with books as props, and five-minute TV interviews in which it’s obvious that interviewer hasn’t read the author’s book. But if a photo of Reese Witherspoon reading The Library Book inspires her fans to read Susan Orlean’s fascinating narrative about public libraries and their place in our society, what’s wrong with that?
Objecting to what he calls “a consumerist vision of reading”, Lorentzen says, “I’m skeptical of the popular and the commercial.” Yes, bestselling books can be poorly written and formulaic, but so are many “literary” books. It seems almost too obvious to state that many bestsellers are popular for a very good reason — they’re terrific books by any standard. For example, the current New York Times bestseller list includes Circe by Madeline Miller, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande — books beloved by both critics and ordinary readers.
Lorentzen can’t resist recommending his own favorite authors, mentioning Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing (“formally daring historical fiction”) and Nico Walker, the incarcerated author of Cherry (“the opioid epidemic’s hard-boiled chronicler”). I would say yes to Gyasi and her powerful, lyrical novel about slavery and its legacy; no to Walker and his repetitive, needlessly vulgar novel with thinly developed female characters.
Bookmarks editor Dan Sheehan asked fourteen literary critics to weigh in on Lorentzen’s essay:
Is relentlessly sunny book “coverage” replacing honest book criticism, or merely supplementing it? Are listicles, Bookstagram, and literary Twitter nothing but treacly promotion puddles on the surfaces of which books can float unscrutinized and unchallenged; or are they in fact vibrant and necessary new arenas of discourse wherein previously silenced critical voices can finally be heard?
In a thoughtful discussion (“The Book Review is Dead: Long Live the Book Review”), most critics found some merit in Lorentzen’s argument, but most also — like me — agreed that Lorentzen’s elitism ignores the positive aspects of 21st century book coverage:
What’s the point of panning a disappointing debut that the vast majority of your audience doesn’t—and has no reason to—know of? ~ David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with cheerleading, not when there are so many wonderful books to talk about, not when there’s a chance that people might be listening. ~ Steph Cha, LA Times
Readers come in all stripes, and offering a wide array of reviews and profiles and Q&As and lists (or listicles) is a way to draw more attention to books, a way to offer more variety and attract the attention and interest of readers to books they might want to read. ~ Laurie Hertzel, National Book Critics Circle President
Criticism should not only be evaluation or recommendation, but it’s not anti-intellectual or wrong for readers to want recommendations or to enjoy curated lists . . . The best we can do is to keep thinking and writing about books, relentlessly and endlessly, as much as we possibly can. ~ Constance Grady, Vox
I keep a log of all the books I’ve read, with brief reviews. (For the current list, see Read in 2019.) You can see that there are a few books I really disliked, but not many, probably because if I’m not enjoying a book, I don’t finish it. The books that I choose to spotlight in blog posts are books I liked enough to recommend to other readers. They’re not necessarily masterpieces. Here are a six books (one fiction, five nonfiction) that I enjoyed recently, with appropriately positive reviews. (I draw the line at posting photos of me with books, however — I’m firmly in Christian Lorentzen’s camp when it comes to selfies.)
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
The best part of this book was learning about a culture that I had no idea even existed — the lives of haenyeo (female divers who can hold their breath for up to three minutes and earn their living by harvesting animals and plants from the ocean) and their matrifocal community of Jeju Island, off the coast of South Korea. Beginning during the Japanese colonial period in the 1930s and moving through decades of rapid change, The Island of Sea Women tells the story of the friendship between Mi-Ja, the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and Young-Sook, the daughter of the diving collective’s leader.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb
When an unexpected crisis sends therapist Lori Gottlieb into a depression, she seeks the help of another therapist to reassemble the pieces of her life. With humor and compassion, Gottlieb weaves her story with the stories of several patients she’s treating, including an insufferably egotistical Hollywood producer, a lonely elderly woman who’s planning to commit suicide on her next birthday, a newlywed recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, and a millennial who can’t seem to form meaningful relationships. Although it’s nonfiction, this book has twists that will keep you turning the pages. You’ll root for Gottlieb and for her patients — even that obnoxious producer, who has a backstory that will bring tears to your eyes.
The Storm on Our Shores: One Island, Two Soldiers, and the Forgotten Battle of World War II by Mark Obmascik
Probably, most readers don’t know much about the only World War II battle fought in North American — the Battle of Attu, which took place in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska in 1943. This well-researched account personalizes history by focusing on two soldiers — a Japanese medic named Paul Tatsuguchi, educated in America and drafted into the Imperial Army, and an American coal mine, Dick Laird who killed him — and found his diary. Versions of the diary were distributed to American soldiers. Many questions are left unanswered at the end of this book, which I suppose is inevitable because this is real history, not historical fiction; still, I felt the author could have spent more time addressing some of the moral controversy raised by the diary.
The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams
I must be a masochist because I can’t seem to stop reading memoirs written by people who are dying: The Bright Hour, When Breath Becomes Air, and now The Unwinding of the Miracle. Each one is more heartbreaking — and yet more inspiring — than the last. Born blind in Vietnam, Julie Yip-Williams barely survived childhood; her family tried to euthanize her because of her disability. So it truly is a miracle that she escaped Vietnam in a leaky boat, received surgery in the United States that allowed her to see, graduated from Williams College and Harvard Law School, married, and had a family. Her book, based on a blog she started when she was diagnosed with cancer, is a beautifully written account of a life well lived.
Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis
This northern lady really enjoyed Helen Ellis’s collection of sharp and snappy essays, Despite the title, they’re not all about being Southern. And anyway, how can you not adore a writer whose idea of a fun evening is to invite her girlfriends over to drink wine and put together a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of “a spooky owl in mid-flight”? I just want to know how I can get on Helen’s guest list. If you like David Sedaris, you’ll love Helen Ellis.
Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting by Anna Quindlen
How could I not love this book? Anna Quindlen is one of my favorite authors AND I recently became a grandmother. This is going to be my go-to gift for all the new grandmothers in my life. That said, I don’t think you need to be a grandmother to enjoy Nanaville; if you’ve had a beloved grandparent in your life, that’s enough.
Since you’ve read this far, here’s a bonus recommendation: Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane, out on May 28. One of my favorites this year, it’s the story of the complicated relationship between next-door neighbors.