One of the great things about being a book reviews editor for a literary journal is that each month, by the very nature of my job, I am forced to acquaint myself with new works of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Writers query me about books they’d like to review, and I’m the lucky guy who gets to read the reviews. It’s like having a very long and very unruly set of octopus tentacles that stretch way out into a vast murky sea of novels, essays, biographies, poetry collections, and memoirs, plucking them up one at a time and placing them in my lap—but while one tentacle fetches the book, another tentacle coils me to a chair and forces me to read it. Whether I want to or not, I am continually being introduced to new books and continually being compelled to read them.
The slight risk that comes with my job—that is, of being exposed from time to time to a less-than-staggering book—is a small price to pay for the frequent chance to be exposed to new writers, and to experience what is an editor’s greatest thrill (the reason we small-press journal staffers sacrifice our few spare hours laboring on behalf of literature in the first place): discovering new writers.
But, even better, I get to discover these writers in the best possible way; I get to be introduced to them by their biggest fans, the reviewers who each month send me their exquisitely-worded testimonies in support of books they feel have been overlooked but which cannot afford to spend even one more minute in the shadows. The reviews—I tend to think of them as long-winded music-less love songs—so attentively define their authors’ reasons for adoring their chosen books that I often can’t help but wonder if the reviewer weren’t a better writer than the author. That’s how good the reviews have been.
Discovering a great book is easy; all you have to do is pick it up, read it, and be blown away. The hard part is attempting to convey (with nothing more than words) the incredible feeling it induced in you while you were reading it, after you put it down, and then when you thought about it in the days and weeks that followed. The hard part is writing the review. And the harder part is writing that review in such a way that it comes off as fresh and energetic as the book you’re trying to seduce people into reading.
This last year I’ve been lucky enough to read many such reviews. Take, for instance, Julie Cline’s playful engagement with Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? Easily one of the most enjoyable reviews I’ve ever read, Ms. Cline’s essay in part adopts the same questions-only style of writing as the author himself: “If I told you Padgett Powell’s new book is a quick, pulsating heart torn from a beautiful body, and that it is also a live bomb—a simple one using mostly manure found in your own backyard—would you hold it against me? Or would you read it with me? Better yet, would you allow me to read it to you, cover to cover, over the telephone, person to person, in an afternoon? I ask because every time I open up The Interrogative Mood, this is how it ends—me on the horn with my closest friend, demanding he either ‘wait,’ ‘get this,’ or ‘listen.’”
Or take Kathryn Stevenson’s review of Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, wherein Ms. Stevenson, so deeply identifying with Smith’s life story, entertains the idea that she herself might be the orphan daughter of Patti Smith: “At some point in the middle of reading Just Kids, it occurs to me to wonder if I’m the one who came from Patti Smith. I flip a few pages back and find it: 1967. The math isn't even close. Still, like the child she gave up, I grew up without Patti Smith, and, pages into her memoir, I feel a range of emotions that must echo those of an adopted New Jersey Taurus: I didn't get to board the bus to New York, fall in love with Robert Mapplethorpe, and emerge a rock-n-roll priestess or the daughter of one either.”
Nicelle Davis’s razor-sharp analysis of the poetry anthology It’s Not You, It’s Me: The Poetry of Breakup made me want to stop what I was doing and run to the bookstore to buy the collection. In her review Ms. Davis admits to her own expertise on the subject: “If I were to name the thing I do best, it would be breakups—and by best I mean I’m an evil monster with razor-sharp-love teeth. Nothing goes untouched on my way out. Doors are ripped off hinges. Glass breaks. Bicycles fly. In my desperation to keep things together, everything is ripped to pieces. And now, in my hot hands, was an entire book on the only subject I am an expert on—the end of an affair.”
With writing of this caliber coming to me every month, I can’t help but feel lucky. Here’s to another amazing year of book reviews at Connotation Press.