“A sport (book reviewing) that I have rarely engaged in” –Nov. 12, 2002

Who can explain the neural (mis)firings that leadyou to zig when you normally zag? In the case at hand, I found myselfreading a few so-called book reviews, a practice I had long agoeschewed and a sport (book reviewing) that I have rarely engagedin. The stone in my shoe that prompted such a reversal was my curiosityabout the reception that was accorded to the talented Sam Shepardand his recent story collection, Great Dream of Heaven. Shepardis well known for declining to do the seemingly perfunctory booktouring and talk-show touting that has become a mainstay of bookpublicizing, and because of that I also wondered if he would getany attention at all. It just occurred to me that these days atany one time American skies are probably filled with more authorsthan farm equipment salesmen and probably as many pharmaceuticalcompany representatives. More signs of the times. Anyway, (fastbecoming a favorite word) as I have noted previously, that NewYork Times Japanese lady dismissed Shepard’s story collectionas minor (always a gutsy call even if you disagree, as I do) andcharacterized it as “this slender book is a highly uneven hodgepodgeof stories, playlets and narrative fragments.” Caryn James,on the other hand, who serves as the NY Times television critic,weighs in with, “Which leads to the central question abouthis slim new collection of stories: are they valuable beyond whatthey reveal about Shepard the inscrutable icon? The answer is emphatically,and a bit surprisingly, yes. Great Dream of Heaven, his thirdnarrative collection, is also his most literary, with half a dozenstories among the 18 that are extraordinary by any measure. He hasbeen building toward them for years.” So there you have it,2 smart ladies disagreeing about a book. This, of course, confirmedto me what I already irrevocably believed about the value of readingreviews. Which is, that you ought to have a very good reason forgiving up valuable reading time. Having already broken my fast,I went on to read a piece by the inestimable John Leonard (who oncehad the audacity to entitle a book of his “The Last Angry WhiteMan In America”) on David Eggers’ new novel. Who can saywhether all that attention that accretes to Eggers’ publishingand marketing practices has some effect on what’s on the pageas well as how what’s on his pages is received? Leonard takesa good shot at answering and I was struck by his dead-on view anticipatingcritical reaction, “But he should also trust himself. It'shard enough to tell the truth, especially if, like Eggers, you areforever taking your own temperature and second-guessing your ownperformance. Never mind the ululations of your self-righteous coterieor the dyspeptic bleats of those critics who will punish your secondbook for their having actually admired your first one.” I guesswe’ll see about that. In place of reviews and being honoredwith many benefactions from book publishers I have found the mostsatisfying source of reading tips to be writers. Even my awarenessof the suspect and perhaps corrupt practice of book "blurbing"(it is so commonly referred to as ‘log-rolling’ we mightas well substitute ‘log’ for ‘blurb’) doesn’tdissuade me from putting a modicum of faith in some blurbs, therebyexposing my naive belief that some blurbers (log rollers) have moreintegrity than others. I recently talked with Patricia Henley abouther wonderful novel In the River Sweet (laudibly logged byDorothy Allison) and she mentioned a novel by Steve Yarbrough calledThe Oxygen Man. I read it and admire it and I’m passingthat tip on. You never know…

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