“Little Women” Meets “The Virgin Suicides”

No one can like every book.  “It’s Little Women meets The Virgin Suicides,” I said.

Mind you, I liked this well-written new book up to a point.  I clutched it to my chest. I told everyone how much I loved it. 

Then there came a point when I felt the need to trash it.  The last quarter of the book was not only horrifying–I could have dealt with that, though it was tragic and abhorrent –but portrayed women in such a passive light that I wanted to scream–and wondered why they didn’t scream. 

This just keeps happening with books.

It is a dilemma.  I love to share my enjoyment of books.  For instance, I adored Anne Enright’s new novel, Actress.  (And it is longlisted for The Women’s Prize.)

But if I don’t like a book by a living author (and I prefer books by the dead), I receive a subliminal warning:  “Shut up!  Be nice!” 

Everybody’s a control freak now.  Everybody’s apologizing constantly–for what I don’t know.  

It’s a little scary not to be nice every minute.  “Be kind, rewind,” I think cynically.

In recent years, I’ve read many articles about a new trend toward kindness in book reviews.  These essayists claim reviewers are more sympathetic and positive than they used to be.  No more attacks with verbal knives. And that’s not altogether a bad thing, they say. 

Still, I have bought a lot of bad books as a result of hyperbolically enthusiastic reviews.  I like to check the consumer reviews as well.

Coincidentally, professional critics still attack consumer reviews. I thought that had ended.  But in an essay at Literary Hub, “Everyone Can Be a Book Reviewer. Should They Be?”, Phillipa Chong surveyed “professional” critics.  She writes, 

Critics were understandably ambivalent towards amateur reviewers despite their appreciation for general readers’ enthusiasm about books. In the words of one anonymous critic, “I think it’s wonderful if people read and come up with their own opinions. I think it’s a marvelous thing. There’s nothing that says any particular group of people have a monopoly.” Yet, this same critic is skeptical about amateur reviewers’ qualifications to write a well-balanced book review: “I do sometimes think that bloggers are kind of dumb, as a general rule.”

“Dumb”?  I love the oxymoron:  mute bloggers!

Oh, well.  De gustibus non est disputandum.

The ARC Dilemma

Does anyone read formal book reviews anymore?  Those thoughtful, usually well-written reviews published in newspapers and magazines?  We’re all so busy on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Booktube, etc., that who has time? Well, I do, but I read only a few reviews every week.  And, I admit, I stick to archaic blogs for my social media.

Still, I do enjoy Goodreads, and I read consumer reviews, mainly because I like old books nobody bothers with anymore. If we want to know what people think of Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget, we try Goodreads.  One consumer reviewer says the only two characters he has ever missed after finishing a book are Don Quixote and Miss M., the narrator of Memoirs of a Midget.  Another indignantly protests the use of the word “midget” in the title, but then says he adores the book.  It’s the “apology” method of reviewing.  (“I apologize for all the political incorrectness of all books written in other centuries.”)

New books demand reviews, old books demand remarks. That’s my theory.  Mind you, I prefer writing remarks, so that’s my thing.

This winter, however, I got carried away at Netgalley, a site where publishers make new books available to readers, bloggers, and reviewers.  (You request them and see if they’ll grant your wish.)  Publishers tend to be generous.  And that’s why I have many new books on my “screens”–but how can I possibly read them all?

Some of them are very good, others not so good.  But one shouldn’t get carried away with ARCs (Advance Review Copies), since they do deflect from reading the classics and other old books. And then one’s blog gets skewed.  I’ve seen blogs change because the blogger becomes a slave to review copies.  It’s never a positive thing. 

Then other thing is:  I don’t really know when to run my reviews (or my remarks).  My assumption has always been that one waits till the book is officially published, and, in case you don’t know,  new books always come out on a Tuesday.  

Netgalley, however, has different rules.  There are publication dates for the books, and there are archive dates.  I haven’t the faintest idea what an archive date is, but it sounds as though I should have done my homework by then, doesn’t it?  

For instance, Anne Enright’s Actress is officially published on March 3, but the archive date is (was) Feb. 29.  So I posted my review/remarks on Feb. 29, and it already felt too late, because I’d seen reviews popping up at The Washington post and many British publications.  So it’s a dilemma.

Years ago, a bookstore owner told me that nothing killed a book like an early review.  The readers read the review, look for the book, which the booksellers are not allowed to put out till the publication date, and the sale is lost. By the time the book is on the shelves, the reader has forgotten about it.  Nowadays you can “pre-order” the book, of course.   But all is confusion.

It’s a complicated world of books.  Who understands it?

The Real Pliny: Critical Distortion

I love dilettantes.  I am not stuffy.   In theory, I love the idea of gentlemen and gentlewomen picking up their fountain pens to scrawl book reviews.  

And I don’t expect critics to be infallible.

Still, there are limits.  My heart sank while reading two reviews of Daisy Dunn’s literary biography, The Shadow of Vesuvius:  A Life of Pliny, the first by Charles McGrath in The New York Times, the second by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker. 

Mind you, they enjoyed Dunn’s biography, as did I. The Shadow of Vesuvius is a delightful read.  Although it may sound unlikely, this well-researched book is light and charming.  (You can read my review  here.)  I have read Pliny’s letters many times in Latin, and Dunn’s book is charming.  But McGrath and Acocella, who are dilettantes rather than classicists, didn’t quite have the background.

Before I go on, let me tell you there were two Plinys, both influential Romans in the first century A.D.  They were Pliny the Elder, best known for his 37-volume encyclopedia, Historia Naturalis (Natural History); and his nephew Pliny, the author of nine books of elegant literary letters, which are still popular today.  Pliny the Younger–known simply as Pliny–is the subject of the biography. He chronicled historical and political events, ghost stories, court cases, a legend about a dolphin, senatorial scandals, his interest in poetry and Stoic philosophy, and included his correspondence with the emperor Trajan.   

Disconcertingly, the brilliant Joan Acocella and the witty Charles McGrath assert that Pliny the Elder was the more interesting writer of the two .  I realize they read the Plinys in English translation rather than Latin,  but where on earth does this come from?  It has the ring of a footnote by a Victorian classicist.  (Possibly Mr. Casaubon in Middlemarch.)

As my husband said,  “Who the hell reads Pliny the Elder?”  (We are both Latinists.)  Pliny the Elder was a crank, a bore, a prig, and a fount of arcane misinformation, much admired by  monks and scholars in the Middle Ages.  A few  scholars  enjoy his quaint encylopedia, but it is not must-reading.    A writer for the Oxford Classical Dictionary gently praises Pliny the Elder and the context of his findings, but he states that the Elder “valued quantity over quality.”

Joan Acocella, the dance critic for The New Yorker, entertains us with a vivid account of her tourism in Italy, and records her impressions of the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, two towns destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  Pliny wrote two letters to Tacitus about his family’s experience.  His uncle decided to sail from their home in Misenum to investigate the phenomenon of a strange cloud (like an umbrella pine) rising above a mountain. (They did not know it was Vesuvius.)  Pliny the Elder died after going ashore to attempt to rescue terrified friends, while   Pliny and his mother survived after a harrowing flight from their home through a panicky crowd in ashy darkness. When it became light again, the ground was pillowed with ashes.

Acocella writes,

Of the two Plinys, Dunn focusses on the younger. Clearly, she would rather have done otherwise. The Elder was more famous, rightfully so. As his nephew said, the older man did things that deserved to be written about and wrote things that deserved to be read. His “Natural History”—Penguin Classics has a good abridged translation by John F. Healy—is not merely huge but piquant and readable.

.Unfortunately I cannot agree.  Actually, I know nobody who would agree.

Charles McGrath takes a slightly different slant.  He humorously apologizes for ignorance in the first paragraph, while smugly trying to establish his credentials– unsuccessfully.. He  writes,

If only Daisy Dunn’s book had been around back when I was an aspiring classicist. There were actually two Roman writers named Pliny — the Elder and the Younger, as they were known; an uncle and his nephew — and I could never keep them straight, let alone understand why they were worth studying. Dunn makes a persuasive case for both. Her ostensible subject is the Younger, about whom more is known, but she toggles back and forth between the two, and, perhaps without her intending it, the uncle even steals the show for a while. How do you compete with someone so intrepid that he dies while trying to inspect an active volcano?

The focus of Dunn’s book is Pliny (the real Pliny!), but you’d never know it to read these two reviews.  

Fortunately, Steve Donoghue in the Christian Science Monitor “got” it. 

As his delightfully involving letters make clear, the nephew was made of far more mortal stuff, fond of good food and comfortable living, very intelligent but given to obsequiousness. In particular his letters to Trajan show a winningly human combination of fussy officiousness and genuine public service, and Dunn is right to note that although the emperor’s secretaries doubtless wrote many of his responses, some of those responses came from the emperor himself and  “resound with the voice of authority.

Sometimes you have to leave  New York  to find an enlightened review.