ESSAY REVIEW: Confessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell

Confessions of a Book ReviewerConfessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Available free through the Orwell Foundation

An amusing essay that reveals the dirty secrets of book criticism, while proposing that the vast majority of books don’t merit a review. Just a few pages long.

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BOOK REVIEW: Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty and TruthBetter Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth by A.O. Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There’s a chasm between title and book. The title, which is clearly meant to play on the Dupont motto turned recreational drug user motto that substitutes the word “chemistry” in place of “criticism,” suggests a book that will be directed toward a reader, teaching said individual how to hone his or her skills of art criticism. This book, on the other hand, reads more like a review of the criticism industry that is meant to be received by an audience. In other words, it feels more like you’re in a Ted Talk than that you’re having a private lesson or conversation. It’s a fine book, witty, thought-provoking, and insightful by turns, but not the book one would expect from the title, subtitle, and blurb.

This essay (or collection of six shorter essays – if you prefer) examines the life and livelihood of art critics and how the endeavor has ebbed and flowed over the years. While the author is a film critic, he adeptly uses examples and stories from across the arts: poetry, paintings, music, theater, etc. In addition to the six chapters, there are three dialogues that are presumably meant to be reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s essay / dialogue “The Critic as Artist,” a piece that is referenced and quoted in the book.

While the book is generally readable, it would probably benefit from more clarity of message while dialing down attempts to be witty and interesting. It seems like the author may have aimed to do what the films that film critics tend to love do, leave one walking away wondering what it is that one just consumed.

If you want to know more about the criticism “business,” i.e. who does it and how the job has changed (and continues to change,) you’ll enjoy this book. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a book that (as this book’s subtitle suggests) will help you better understand “how to think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth,” then this might not be the book for which you’re looking.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Spirit of Japanese Poetry by Yoné Noguchi

The Spirit of Japanese PoetryThe Spirit of Japanese Poetry by Yoné Noguchi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Free Online at Wikisource

This book-length essay, originally published in 1914, discusses the unique style and aesthetic of Japanese poetry. It’s written for an audience of English language readers and advances its objective not only by presenting illuminating translations of Japanese poetry, but also by comparing Japanese poetry to English language poetry.

Noguchi takes a no-holds-barred approach to literary criticism that is both the strength and weakness of the book, sometimes it feels as though the author’s boldness is granting deep insight into the subject, but other times it reads as though the author is tribally narrow-minded and curmudgeonly. By “tribally narrow-minded,” I mean that he takes the view that the Japanese aesthetic and approach to art is always and in everyway superior to non-Japanese art (in this case, English language poetry.) Interestingly, he frequently compliments specific artists, e.g. Walt Whitman, but doesn’t have anything nice to say about English language poetry in general. By “curmudgeonly,” I mean that he takes the popular — if biased –view that the world is going to shit, and – in the section on modern poetry – it is only after discussing how the art has fallen on hard times that he can discuss a few modern poets who’ve produced some poems worthy of adoration [and some worthy examples of the modern form (Shintaishi.)]

One might think this bigoted view would cripple his book (as bigoted views usually do,) but because what he’s promising is depth of insight into the Japanese poetic aesthetic, he is able to succeed just fine. [Also, to be fair, being highly opinionated and pretentious were hallmarks of critics of his era – just usually not so nationalistically.] Noguchi does a great job of selecting evocative examples, providing powerful translations, and illuminating the Japanese mindset as it pertains to art and poetry.

If you’re interested in Japanese poetry and the psychology that influences Japanese artistic tastes, this short book is highly recommended. [Just be prepared to be offended if you aren’t a hardcore Japanophile.]


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BOOK REVIEW: The Heart of American Poetry by Edward Hirsch

The Heart of American PoetryThe Heart of American Poetry by Edward Hirsch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: April 19, 2022

This book presents forty poems from prominent American poets, interspersed with essays by Hirsch offering background on the poet, the poem, and how the poem reflects upon America. It’s a fine collection of poems, and a thoughtful discussion of them. There will be something new to most readers. While most of the poets are well-known and while there are a few highly anthologized poems: e.g. Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” Dickinson’s #479 [Because I Could Not Stop for Death,] and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” there are many more off the beaten path selections to be discovered.

As for whether the selection captures the heart of American poetry, on that wouldn’t necessarily agree. That said, it’s presented as Hirsch’s personal selection; the pieces in it are great poems, and he has as much right to his views as anyone. The anthology does capture many elements of the American poetic voice. It does a fine job of capturing the many strains of dissent, critique, and resistance from the Harlem Renaissance (e.g. Langston Hughes) to that of the indigenous peoples (e.g. Joy Harjo) to the Beats (e.g. Allen Ginsberg.) What Hirsch seems less comfortable with is the Whitmanian voice of affection and admiration for the country. In writing about Whitman and Frost, Hirsch makes comments about their lack of appeal to him, apparently their respective unbridled positivity and folksiness were found unbecoming of a poet. I felt the fact that Hirsch had to search out one of Whitman’s more angsty and dark compositions in order to be happy with Whitman’s inclusion was telling (Hirsch could hardly leave Whitman out and present the book as capturing the essence of American poetry.)

The anthology reflects much of the cultural and artistic diversity seen in America, but it eschews the middle America voice (i.e. 70% of the poems are from New Jersey and northward up the Atlantic coast, and while New York may be the country’s cultural and publishing capital, skilled poets from South of the Mason-Dixon and more than 150 miles from the Atlantic coast aren’t as much rare flukes as this anthology would suggest.)

I enjoyed reading this anthology, and I learned a great deal from the essays that went along with each poem. The book is definitely worth reading. Mopey Plath-loving New Yorkers are more likely to find it representative of the voice of American poetry than sanguine Whitman-loving Hoosiers, but it’s an enlightening read, either way.


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BOOK REVIEW: Kafka: A Very Short Introduction by Ritchie Robertson

Kafka: A Very Short IntroductionKafka: A Very Short Introduction by Ritchie Robertson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Kafka’s life story presents us with one of the greatest literary counterfactuals: What if Kafka’s friend, Max Brod, had honored the writer’s deathbed wish to burn his novels and other unpublished works? After all, Kafka had an outsized influence on modern literature; “The Trial” and “The Metamorphosis” alone have had profound reverberations across the world of literature. It’s with this hook that we are pulled into Kafka’s short, tragic, but brilliant life.

This book presents sketches of both the life and the body of work of Kafka, but subsequent chapters apply three different lenses to Kafka’s canon. The first of these is the body. It’s easy to see this theme’s influence in “The Metamorphosis” (in which the protagonist wakes up to find he’s a huge bug,) but Robertson shows us how the body cuts through other works and was influenced by skinny Kafka’s turbulent relations with his imposing father as well as by his difficulties in intimate relationships.

The second lens is institutions. Again, one of Kafka’s more famous works springs to mind, “The Trial,” but we also see that this, too, is a recurring theme — not only with respect to government / bureaucratic institutions (e.g. “In the Penal Colony”) but otherwise, as well. The final lens is religion and secularity. Kafka was living in the wake of Nietzsche and other nihilist and existentialists, and the atheist worldview was coming to dominate among the erudite segment of society. But Kafka straddled a line; the spiritual had appeal for him, but his life felt governed by nihilistic patterns.

I learned a great deal from this book. I think it offers important insight into Kafka and his writings.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poetics by Aristotle

Poetics. EnglishPoetics. English by Aristotle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page “Poetics” is the surviving volume of Aristotle’s guide to literary criticism. This volume explores Tragedy. [The lost volume covered Comedy.] Considering the age of this book and that it came from the student of one who was not a fan of poetics at all (i.e. Plato,) it is surprisingly readable and much of the information presented has aged well. [That said, there are some ideas that will be controversial – including, for instance, a blatantly sexist comment or two. Also, it should be pointed out that there is disagreement about what Aristotle was trying to say on a number of points.]

This short book is organized to dissect tragedy along many lines, laying out the four kinds of tragedy (complex, pathetic, ethical, and simple,) the segments of a tragedy (prologue, episode, exode, choric song, parode, and stasimon,) etc. But the work is probably most famous for two ideas. First, there is the idea that stories provide catharsis. For his teacher, Plato, the stories conveyed via poetry were all risk and no reward. That is, there was a risk that young and impressionable minds would take away the wrong lessons, and there wasn’t much to counterbalance that risk. Aristotle believed there was in fact something, and it was catharsis, the purging of emotions through vicarious living.

Second, there is the idea that there are six crucial elements of a tragedy (i.e. plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song,) and that they are of importance in more or less that order. A good bit of the work is devoted to breaking down these elements. For example, with respect to plot, Aristotle writes at length about reversals and recognition (the moment a character discovers some key piece of information,) telling us a little about how these actions best work. With respect to character, Aristotle tells about the kind of character that generates the best story, and it’s the same advice one sees in writing books today that talk about flawed but good characters. Perfect characters are boring and bad characters get what they have coming in a tragedy.

I was surprised how relevant this book remains, considering that it’s perhaps the first extant book of literary theory. It’s definitely worth a read. At less than fifty pages (not including the ancillary material you’ll find with many editions) it’s a quick read, and while it’s a bit dry at times, it’s not brutal by any means. So, given its historic importance, give it a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Joyce: A Graphic Guide by David Norris

Introducing Joyce: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Joyce: A Graphic Guide by David Norris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This guide provides a concise overview of the life and work of James Joyce. I’ve now read a few of the titles in this series (they are available on Amazon Prime,) and this has been my favorite so far. To be fair, this might have to do with the nature of the subject matter (most of the volumes I’ve read previously were about more complex philosophical subject matter, topics about which it’s harder to write clearly and concisely, while still meaningfully. Which is not to say Joyce’s work can’t be daunting.)

Like the other books in the series, this one is arranged into short (1-2 page) sections (about 70 of them) that each address a particular topic. There is a general chronological flow, though some of the sections deal more with the great novelist as a person, others focus more on his books, and still others talk about influences – both those who influenced him and how he influenced others. As the subtitle suggests, there are graphics throughout. Most of these are black and white drawings in a cartoon style that serve to reiterate or dramatize key points. There is one quite useful table that maps Joyce’s “Ulysses” to Homer’s “The Odyssey,” which influenced it.

Which brings us to the value of a book like this when trying to understand Joyce’s work. Having been reading “Ulysses” of late, I’m interested in gaining more depth of insight into the man’s work. Joyce’s language is beautiful, but for me it’s been a bit more like reading poetry than prose. Story is dialed down to virtual non-existence. Referring back to the aforementioned table that describes how “Ulysses” and “The Odyssey” relate offers a great example. When one sees the title “Ulysses,” one immediately thinks of Homer’s epic poem, but a straight-forward reading of each work leaves one wondering how two books could be more different. “The Odyssey” is the harrowing tale of Odysseus’s (a.k.a. Ulysses’s) ten-year return journey after the Trojan War, it features monsters, ship wrecks, cunning lovers, a visit to the underworld, a rampaging slaughter, etc. “Ulysses” is the story of a couple guys (mostly Leopold Bloom, but also Steven Daedalus) who go about their seemingly mundane daily lives in Dublin, Ireland. There are no monsters, witches, duels to the death, and – arguably — the big excitement is the attendance of the funeral of an unknown character. However, Norris offers the reader insights into how the two works can be seen as linked.

There are similar breakdowns of other major works (i.e. “Dubliners,” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”) Special focus is given to the unique ways in which these works are arranged and the philosophy and psychology that inform them.

In addition to the aforementioned graphics, there is a “Further Reading” section at the end to point readers to works that will help them to further flesh out their understanding of this curious author and his notoriously challenging works.

If you’re interested in decoding Joyce, I’d recommend you check out this brief guide.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Literary Criticism by Owen Holland

Introducing Literary Criticism: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Literary Criticism: A Graphic Guide by Owen Holland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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As the title and subtitle suggest, this book is an overview of the field of literary criticism that uses graphics (mostly cartoon drawings) to assist in conveying the information. This is one volume in a large series (Introducing Graphic Guides) that covers a range of subjects, mostly in the humanities (at least as far as the titles I’ve seen.) I picked up this book because it’s a topic I’ve developed a curiosity about, I knew almost nothing about, and it – like many titles in the series – was available to borrow via Amazon Prime.

As far as I can tell, the book covers all the major schools of criticism. Having looked around a little bit out of curiosity, I found the same headings are widespread. I do feel that the book would have benefited from being less personality-driven and more conceptually driven. By that I mean to say, it felt like the author thought his primary task was to list all of history’s most major literary critics. There’s a large number of individuals mentioned, but with little insight into how these critics engaged a piece of literature. I know that this is supposed to be a concise introduction, but I was dismayed by how little I felt I understood of the topic at the end compared to books that I’ve read of a similar nature (e.g. Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series.) In short, while I understand there’s limited space to cover a vast discipline, I don’t think the space available was used well.

I must admit that part of my confusion stems from the fact that literary criticism seems to be very different from what I thought it to be – and has been becoming increasingly so. So, I assumed that literary criticism had something to do with questions of how effectively elements such as language, narrative arc, metaphor, metrical form (or formlessness), character development, etc. are used in creating a resonance between writer and reader. [When I do reviews, these are the types of questions that inform my commentary. i.e. Is the story intriguing? Are the characters believable? Is the language skillful / beautiful? Is meaning conveyed in as approachable a manner as the subject allows (or if it’s more complicated, does that complication serve a reasonable end? etc.] To the degree these questions were ever of interest to literary critics, they seem have been replaced by another question: “Does this writing make ____________-ists feel warm and fuzzy, or mean and prickly?” [Where the “-ist” in question might be a feminist, a Marxist, or an environmentalist – just to name a few.] I may be misinterpreting what modern literary criticism is and does, but the fact that I’m doing so after having read this introductory guide supports my argument that maybe there was better use of space than having such a great number of critics cursorily mentioned – not to mention the cartoons (which seemed to serve little purpose.) The one thing the personality-driven approach does is give one plenty of examples of works to read to learn how various schools of literary criticism take on their appointed task, but I’d have rather had a clue about that from just reading the book.

I suspect that there are titles in this series that are able to use graphics to greater benefit – given their subject matter. In this work, the graphics are mostly cartoons that restate key points from the text in speech bubbles – so the art essentially fulfills the role that text-boxes do in some magazines and books, but in a more space-intensive way. If there were no graphics in this text, I don’t think I would have felt that I missed out on anything.

This book will show you how the field of literary criticism progressed and who the major players were, but doesn’t offer much insight into how critics engage with works of literature. Early in the book, this doesn’t make much difference, but — given the direction the field went in — it raises a lot of questions. There is discussion of whether art should be judged on its artistic merits or whether it rises and falls by its morality and social merit. I guess the answer the field collectively came to is the latter. [i.e. What matters is how happy or unhappy a work makes the segment of society the critic represents – I guess?] However, this makes it much more difficult to conclude how critics evaluate works. Do feminist critics dismiss all of Shakespeare as garbage because it disregards the agency of female characters in the way of that time? Do ecocritics toss “Moby Dick” in the trash because its about whaling? Or do these critics not engage with such texts because they are irrelevant to them? It would have been nice to have some insight into these questions, because it matters as to whether the field has anything worthwhile to say if you are a reader as opposed to an ideologue.

If you want a who’s who of literary criticism combined with some vocabulary building, this book has you covered. However, to see how critics engages with texts to produce criticism, you’ll probably need to go elsewhere.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera

The Art of the NovelThe Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of essays by the renowned Czech novelist about the literary novel, and particularly the European literary novel. That said, the pieces gather nicely into this collection without seeming disparate. Points and themes carry across the essays such that the book has a life as a whole. Also, the there is food for thought in this book even if one isn’t particularly interested in literary novels. There are ideas that could be of interest to any story crafters or writers.

There are seven parts (essays) in the book. The first and third part take specific novels as their focal point: Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Hermann Broch’s “Sleepwalkers,” respectively. That said, the feel isn’t greatly varied from the more general chapters of 2, 4, and 5. That is, Kundera uses critique of those novels (as well as others) to make general points about what is more or less effective, artistically speaking, in the novel. Besides those two novels, not surprisingly given Kundera’s heritage, he also repeatedly uses the novels of Franz Kafka and “The Good Soldier Svejk” by Jaroslav Hasek as examples. That said, many well-known novels come up in the discussion including those of Tolstoy, Musil, and even Faulkner (I say “even” because he’s clearly not a European novelist.)

The sixth and seventh parts are both a bit different. Part six is entitled, “Sixty-Three Words,” and it’s Kundera’s discussion of words that he believes are misconstrued. In some cases, they are words prominent in his own works, and in other cases they are of interest regarding novels more generally. Like many writers, Kundera takes a strict approach to words, arguing that synonyms don’t exist because if meanings were truly identical one of the words should die. The last piece is from an address that he made about the novel as a European artform.

While I read this with interest as a writer, I found that the discussion that most intrigued me did so on the level of a jnana yogi. That is, what interested me was his discussion of what constitutes a person – fictional or not. Kundera speaks in considerable detail about this issue. He’s writing about fictional selves, but some questions carry over. What makes a character and what is superfluous information – i.e. the illusion of a self? What is necessary and beneficial to convey to reader? Kundera criticizes the modern novel for getting bogged down in describing physical attributes and background information. On the other hand, Kundera praises novels in which one learns little about the character beyond what they do in the novel. His objection is that this denies the reader the opportunity to mentally build the character, him or herself. However, it also raises the question of whether those characteristics are really the relevant information.

I learned a few things from this book. It’s short and surprisingly readable given the topic-at-hand’s potential to become arty and pompous. If you’re a writer (particularly if you’re interested in the novel as an artform) this book is worth a read.

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