Book Reviews: Should They Sting?

by Honolulu Mother

In a Baffler article, Rafia Zakaria complains that book reviews have become too reluctant to criticize, ranging in tone from praise to neutral description and leaving off the part of the spectrum running from critical to scathing.

Waiting for the critic’s verdict used to be a moment of high anxiety, but there’s not so much to worry about anymore. The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery. And, if a rave isn’t in order, the reviewer will give a stylized summary of sorts, bookended with non-conclusions as to the book’s content. Absent in either is any critical engagement, let alone any excavation of the book’s umbilical connection to the world in which it is born. Only the longest-serving critics, if they are lucky enough to be ensconced in the handful of newspapers that still have them, paw at the possibility of a negative review. And even they, embarking on that journey of a polemical book review, temper their taunts and defang their dissection.

She blames this largely on political correctness, for reasons that I found rather twisty and difficult to follow. I think she may be right about the decline of the negative review, but I suspect it has more to do with the cutbacks in print journalism and hence a drop in the number of review writers for whom writing book reviews is their primary job, as compared to general style section writers who may take the same approach to book blurbs as to home decoration trends or travel tips: pointing out what’s new and interesting, not critically distinguishing between the good and the bad.

As far as the benefit of negative book reviews, I find them helpful from a critic whose judgment I trust, less helpful from an unknown writer, and downright annoying from a writer who appears to be more focused on showing off his or her own clever turns of phrase than on giving the prospective reader a good sense of what the book is like.  Given the choice between the latter and a plot summary from late, great Harriet Klausner, I’d take the plot summary.

Do you like negative book reviews? And if so, is it mainly because you find them informative, or mainly because you enjoy reading those British-style negative reviews that tear the subject to pieces?


The future of libraries

by July

Libraries changing offerings in response to public demands

Changing patron tastes and needs are inspiring local libraries to transform themselves to remain relevant.

It was once forbidden to drink, eat or talk in libraries, but now formerly silent sanctums throughout Westchester County are offering cafes, cooking classes and Zumba to get the public through the doors.

“It’s all a part of lifelong learning,” said Susan Thaler, deputy director at the Yonkers Public Library. “Checking out books is an important part of our mission, but it’s not all our mission.”

Have you seen this in your local libraries?  What changes should be encouraged?  Many retail stores are going through a similar evolution, trying to find ways to attract shoppers by offering them experiences in addition to merchandise.

Do you like your local library?  When will we see the end of most paper books and the shrinking of library shelf space to a small fraction of current proportions?  What’s the future of libraries?

Summer Reading Fun!

By Seattle Soccer Mom

Fellow Totebaggers – what are the books you’ve enjoyed reading this summer? Or the books you haven’t liked?

Here are some books I’ve read and enjoyed this summer:

“Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren – combination memoir and science writing. Very good.

“Fool Me Once” – a page-turner thriller by Harlan Coben. I couldn’t put it down.

“Eligible” by Curtis Sittenfeld – a fun, lighthearted retelling of Pride and Prejudice.

“Cure: A Journey into the Science of the Mind over Body” by Jo Marchant. I found this book fascinating – it looks at the connection between the mind and the body. It’s written by a science reporter who has a PhD in genetics and microbiology – but is very readable (lots of really interesting stories).

“The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker – a chance meeting between mythical beings takes set in turn-of-the-century New York. Part fantasy and part historical fiction with a fairy tale-like quality about it.

And of course “Untethered” by Julie Lawson Timmer.


by Honolulu Mother

Atul Gawande now has a book out based on his 2007 New Yorker article on the use of checklists in medicine, piloting, and other fields:


The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

His basic take is that although those doing complex work are reluctant to adopt a tool so simple as a checklist, they have proved a very worthwhile way to reduce costly errors and improve outcomes.

Do you use checklists for work or home tasks, or do you create checklists for others to use? How helpful do you find them?

When fictional children grow up

by winemama

Harry Potter and the curse of middle age: should fictional children ever grow up?

The best children’s books celebrate the innocence and joy of childhood. They capture and preserve it. Do we really want to know that Just William became an accountant or that Charlie sold his chocolate factory to Nestlé and took up golf? Speaking personally, I felt a sense of betrayal when we glimpsed Harry as an adult at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I was reminded of a wonderful film, Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between, which is as much about childhood as it is about love. At the end, the youthful Leo, played by Dominic Guard, is transformed into the elderly, ghost-like Michael Redgrave. “Leo, you’re all dried up inside,” he’s told and he doesn’t disagree. That’s what growing up can do to you. It’s what children’s books fight against.

Thoughts about seeing favorite characters as grown-ups?
Do you enjoy seeing this peek into the future, or does it ruin the magic?