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The State of Book Reviews, Men in Gray Flannel Skirts, and Weird Stories

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If you’re into books and own a computer, you know that there’s no lack of where to find suggestions on what to read next. It might seem silly to you that just a few years ago, and even today, people in the publishing industry bemoan the death of book review pages. While it’s true that major newspapers have folded their standalone book review sections into their main pages—meaning less reviews and, sadly, less reviewers—there has been an explosion of other outlets picking up the slack. In the recent issue of Poets & Writers magazine, Jane Ciabattari, the National Book Critics Circle’s Vice President /Online, in charge of their Critical Mass blog, wrote a great essay, Back from the Dead: The State of Book Reviewing on where book reviews stand today.

Jane, also a book reviewer and cultural reporter, tapped into the world the world she knows well to craft “a counterargument to the naysayers, gathered from a crowd of people who are dedicated to reviews and to sharing them with a growing readership on a growing number of platforms.” Not only is it optimistic, it also includes a whole bunch of links you’ll want to bookmark.

Here are some highlights but it’s well worth reading in full:

The best of the feisty group of literary bloggers who began pushing the boundaries of traditional book commentary a decade ago have been woven into the mainstream, and their iconoclastic styles have freshened the form. This ongoing transformation has challenged our collective creativity and pushed all manner of innovation. This period will be seen as a benchmark in book culture. But it’s not the end of the book review.

The key word for the changes afoot is proliferation. The number of books being published has ballooned from some fifty thousand books published annually in the 1970s to more than three million in 2010 and climbing, with about three quarters of those books self-published or print-on-demand versions of public-domain titles, according to R. R. Bowker’s annual publishing report. The number of readers, writers, and reviewers commenting on books also has grown exponentially.

Here are a few of the blogs and book pages Jane mentions with a few of mine thrown in:
Publisher’s Weekly PWxyz blog
New York Times Book Review
New York Times ArtsBeat Blog
San Francisco Chronicle
Los Angeles Times’ Jacket Copy
Washington Post’s Ron Charles’ video reviews (opens with sound)
Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy book coverage
Bookforum
NPR books page
New Yorker’s Book Bench
The Millions
The Rumpus
Los Angeles Review of Books
Salon
The Second Pass
Vol1.Brooklyn
Electric Literature’s blog The Outlet
Largehearted Boy’s 52 Books, 52 Weeks

Where do you go for your book reviews?

The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt by Jon-Jon Goulian
This book caught my eye when it was first reviewed in the New York Times and then the author caught my eye at a local book reading a few days later. He’s a striking figure: he has an incredibly well-maintained body with tribal tattoos blazing and dark eyes lined with black makeup—and, as the title of his book suggests, he’s a gender-bender. It’s funny that my first impression of him (in the flesh) was that I wouldn’t want to be caught in a dark alley with him. It’s funny because, from what little I know of him, not yet having read his book, it appears that he’s quite sensitive. From what I gather, it’s a memoir about growing up out of place and fighting to be  yourself. You can listen to his interview on KCRW’s Bookworm

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft
Penguin Classics is reissuing this one at the end of September as a Graphic Classic Deluxe, which means it gets an awesome new cover designed by artist Travis Louie, french flaps, and those ragged pages that make books look more awesome. Here’s an excerpt from one of the “other weird stories,” He:

I saw him on a sleepless night when I was walking desperately to save my soul and my vision. My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyse, and annihilate me.”

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
In her book Nom de Plume, Carmela Ciuraru profiles Pessoa as one of the many authors who used pseudonyms to publish their work. However, Pessoa appears to be a special case in the fact that his many alternate names had their own personalities. They even fought with each other in paper publicly. At her readings, when asked who her favorite pseudonymous author is, Carmela talks about Pessoa and his eccentricities. She also uses the opportunity to tell her audience to read The Book of Disquiet. I’m taking her advice.

The Sea by John Banville
John Banville is also Benjamin Black. Banville is his literary name while writing crime fiction as Black. After listening to his interview on the Bat Segundo Show I’m intrigued—more by the former style than the latter. He’s an intelligent guy, philosophical about writing and other things, and it seems like his books reflect it. The Sea is the winner of the 2005 Man Book Prize.

What’s on your shelf?

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Written by Gabrielle

September 1, 2011 at 5:42 am

One Response

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  1. What a truly fun piece..


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