Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: What's a book review for?

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

What's a book review for?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

I’m often baffled by book reviews. Especially the ones in the New York Times on Sunday, which sometimes seem to have a backstory between reviewer and author that we, the reading public, are not privileged to know. This week’s Times has a page one review of Philip Roth’s latest by Leah Hager Cohen that, for me, is exactly what a book review should be.

Cohen starts off admitting that, in the past, she has been less than charmed by Roth’s body of work. I’m right there. She freely admits, too, being a little surprised to have been the one The Times called on for this review.

And then she writes the sentences that I have longed to see in a review: “Why, I wondered, if the guy’s so anti-everything, does he keep bothering to write?...I don’t think it’s a bad question.My mistake was in asking it rhetorically.”

And she goes on to uncover with great care and an open mind, exactly what she thinks Roth is trying to accomplish in novel after novel and now in this latest, “Nemesis.” Yes, she makes me want to run out and buy the book, but that’s only part of the point. She also makes me grateful to be a reader on the verge of opening a book I can look at in a new way. She makes me, as a writer, hope for readers who come to my work with respect and in a spirit of open inquiry.

I have written--well, maybe ranted--before about why some book reviews are written when they seem to be about showcasing the reviewer’s own oh so clever and perceptive writing. In this one, Cohen herself was very visible, but in the best possible way. She was offering herself as our intelligent guide to a book we, apparently, must read. Isn’t that what a review is for?

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