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

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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