Friday, April 17, 2009

I've run out of reviews, which is fine with me

Now I really have run out of reviewable books. I had some ideas, but none of them quite worked.

For example, I thought I might review Matthew Arnold's first book, The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems (1849), and really trash it; that was the joke, just dismiss Matthew Arnold as junk. These lines, from the title poem, would be central, somehow:

With large-leav'd, low-creeping melon-plants,
And the dark cucumber.

That still seems terrible. Read that second line aloud - is there any saving it? Maybe I'll do this later.

Or how about a review of Melville's Mardi (1849)? Since almost no one has read this, which is just how it should be, I really could review it. Meaning, describe its contents, put it in some context, make a recommendation, which is, unless you are particularly interested in Melville, stay away. Maybe you should be particularly interested in Melville, but that's a separate issue. The book is a disaster, although an instructive one that may also pop up again next week.

My best idea was to review either The Jewish Cowboy (1942) by Yitsik Rabon, or The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas (1910) by Alberto Gerchunoff. I haven’t read either of those books, and almost doubt that they exist. But the Argentinean setting of the latter led me to think of Borges, who wondered why someone would actually write a book, when he could just assume the book existed and proceed accordingly. Same goes for reviews, surely. I could just review the book that The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas should be. A wonderful, wonderful book.

Let me just check something. Huh. University of New Mexico Press, 1998. So it turns out that a person - say, me - could actually read The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, which does, in fact, exist. Says it's recommended for Jews and non-Jews alike. Hey, that’s me! Let me just - excuse me for a moment - just make a note here. OK. Review forthcoming. No promises about The Jewish Cowboy.

It never really occurred to me that I would want to review books, rather than just write about them in whatever way struck me as interesting. An image, a metaphor, a connection to another book, a quotation. All of this aside from the ludicrous aspect of a floor-to-ceiling review of, say, Wuthering Heights. Not that, per the evidence collected by the indefatigable Brontëblog, anyone cares much about that. Very few of the people I read on a regular basis do much reviewing as such. They just write about books.

When I first started poking around on litblogs, I was genuinely surprised that I found so much really high quality amateur book reviewing, as good or better than most newspaper reviewing. I'm thinking of blogs I don't even regularly look at, specialists in so-called Young Adult novels, or mysteries or what have you, mostly writing about books I'll never read. There's so much that's useful.

On the other hand, nobody in litblogland writes reviews of the quality of those that I regularly read in The New Republic or The New York Review of Books or The Hudson Review. But those folks are top experts paid the big bucks, right, $50 and a one year subscription or whatever the going rate is now. I'm looking at poet Alexander Nemser's review of Nabokov's Verses and Versions in The New Republic, March 4, 2009. It's a lot better than my review! Longer, more complete, more knowledgeable. More context, which is crucial - he recommends that I try the Alan Myers translations of 19th century Russian poetry, An Age Ago. Will do, sir. He digs into the Nabokov-Wilson feud. He compares a piece of Nabokov's Eugene Onegin to a Yahoo Babel Fish translation. Now that, I did not understand. Whaddayaknow, Nabokov ain't poetry, but the computerized translation is unreadable.

Do I still have a point? This week was an amusing experiment for me, an experiment that failed. I don't think I'm doing these reviews right. Frankly, though, this always happens. Every time I put up a post of any sort, it's not that I've finished it, but that I've given up - I think, try again next time, and hit Publish. I'm about to do it again ---


  1. I choose this catch all post of yours to thank you for checking out my radio show blog. Given your literary bent I suggest checking out if you haven't already. Several different people post on there and they often include complementary artwork and literary quotes to accompany their playlists (which are playable on site).

    Your comment about Borges and the Jewish Cowboys of the Pampas may have given me a solution to a problem. I got on Library Thing and came to this little network via Nicole's commentary there on Wieland in hopes of encouraging myself to read more.

    I have not finished a book in a while but am wanting to join the fun and post a review. So, perhaps I will post a review of an imaginary book titled :"Scriveners Lament: The adventures and misadventures of Bartleby in the telemarketing industry of Bangalore"

  2. I love this post so much I can hardly stand it.

  3. Ok, see, if you had your email address somewhere hereabouts, like any other blogger who doesn't care who-all is storming into their personal life, then I would just respond to your comment 'It is true that the Faerie Queene rules. She rules Faerieland.' with an 'Oh Amateur Reader. You are so literal.' And then we'd have a good laugh. But now I gotta come hang out in your comments section like a douche and explain what I'm doing here. *simultaneously respects your privacy preferences and gripes about them*

  4. Ok hi, me again.

    You: So I hope everyone in the Book-a-thon remembered to pack a little Faerie Queene, for when they gin to feel decay of might. It's like coffee.

    Me: It is NOT like coffee. It is like white noise. Incredibly ORNATE white noise, but soothing and slumbering and really sloggy when taken all at a dose. I gin to feel decay of might just thinking of it.

  5. I have email it's way down at the bottom of the site, and is a little dusty. I'll prove it to you momentarily.

    Spenser clearly thinks his book is like coffee. Or like gin. Not sure I understand that passage.

    I'm glad you liked this post, a high compliment from the Blogworld's Finest Book Reviewer.

    Nate, thanks for the pointer to moteldemoka. If you do not finish books, you are in fine company. I'm thinking of the story about Samuel Johnson - when asked if he had read a book through, he answered "No, Sir, do YOU read books THROUGH?" Looking forward to your review of The Scriveners Lament.

  6. Please write a review, of anything really, but call it "And the dark cucumber." That line made me laugh and laugh and now I'm impossibly happy.

  7. If I think of an angle on Arnold, I'll do it. "And a Dark Cucumber - the Vegetable Epistemology of Matthew Arnold - a Review Essay".

  8. I would love to hear about the Jewish Cowboys of the Pampas....

    I agree with you that the standards for book bloggers are not up to the level of The New Republic or the New York Review of Books, but on the other hand neither of them are reviewing the stuff you are.

    I've greatly enjoyed coming by here weekly to check out your comments and see what interesting an slightly obscure stuff you've been reading.

  9. I'm sorry, but "The Jewish Gauchos of Pampas" is real? I know, I know, sticking to the wrong things (and entirely irrelevant to my point), but that title seems too good to be true. If you find it to be brilliant, pass the message along. I, meanwhile, need to purchase that as a gift for a number of people.

  10. The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas is a little pricey right now, but perhaps my forthcoming comprehensive review essay will inspire a reissue. Assuming it's any good. The book is on it's way from the library.