A sport (book reviewing) that I have rarely engaged in

Who can explain the neural (mis)firings that lead you to zig when you normally zag? In the case at hand, I found myself reading a few so-called book reviews, a practice I had long ago eschewed and a sport (book reviewing) that I have rarely engaged in. The stone in my shoe that prompted such a reversal was my curiosity about the reception that was accorded to the talented Sam Shepard and his recent story collection, Great Dream of Heaven. Shepard is well known for declining to do the seemingly perfunctory book touring and talk-show touting that has become a mainstay of book publicizing, and because of that I also wondered if he would get any attention at all. It just occurred to me that these days at any one time American skies are probably filled with more authors than farm equipment salesmen and probably as many pharmaceutical company representatives. More signs of the times. Anyway, (fast becoming a favorite word) as I have noted previously, that New York Times Japanese lady dismissed Shepard’s story collection as minor (always a gutsy call even if you disagree, as I do) and characterized it as “this slender book is a highly uneven hodgepodge of 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 about his slim new collection of stories: are they valuable beyond what they reveal about Shepard the inscrutable icon? The answer is emphatically, and a bit surprisingly, yes. Great Dream of Heaven, his third narrative collection, is also his most literary, with half a dozen stories among the 18 that are extraordinary by any measure. He has been building toward them for years.” So there you have it, 2 smart ladies disagreeing about a book. This, of course, confirmed to me what I already irrevocably believed about the value of reading reviews. Which is, that you ought to have a very good reason for giving up valuable reading time. Having already broken my fast, I went on to read a piece by the inestimable John Leonard (who once had the audacity to entitle a book of his “The Last Angry White Man In America”) on David Eggers’ new novel. Who can say whether all that attention that accretes to Eggers’ publishing and marketing practices has some effect on what’s on the page as well as how what’s on his pages is received? Leonard takes a good shot at answering and I was struck by his dead-on view anticipating critical reaction, “But he should also trust himself. It's hard enough to tell the truth, especially if, like Eggers, you are forever taking your own temperature and second-guessing your own performance. Never mind the ululations of your self-righteous coterie or the dyspeptic bleats of those critics who will punish your second book for their having actually admired your first one.” I guess we’ll see about that. In place of reviews and being honored with many benefactions from book publishers I have found the most satisfying source of reading tips to be writers. Even my awareness of the suspect and perhaps corrupt practice of book "blurbing" (it is so commonly referred to as ‘log-rolling’ we might as well substitute ‘log’ for ‘blurb’) doesn’t dissuade me from putting a modicum of faith in some blurbs, thereby exposing my naive belief that some blurbers (log rollers) have more integrity than others. I recently talked with Patricia Henley about her wonderful novel In the River Sweet (laudibly logged by Dorothy Allison) and she mentioned a novel by Steve Yarbrough called The Oxygen Man. I read it and admire it and I’m passing that tip on. You never know…

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