Two-thousand and twelve was the year I first began “reviewing” books. I confess to always being reluctant to review, unsure of being judgmental—if we are not supposed to judge other human beings too quickly, as seems to be some part of a lesson of many works of art, and if Auden is right when he said “[j]udging a work of art is virtually the same mental operation as judging human beings,” then writing a book review is often like judging a person, but with only a small fragment of them in front of you: the passing work of a year or two. Even the longest, most in-depth book lacks much of its author. (As Susan Sontag said, “Only a fraction of me is available to be turned into art.”)
I am reluctant to write bad reviews, as well—or I should say review bad books, empathizing with Salman Rushdie, who wrote, in his recent memoir, Joseph Anton, that he blanched at ever writing book reviews again after receiving scorn from a scorned novelist. (I often think, too, of Richard Ford spitting on Colson Whitehead after Whitehead’s bad review of A Multitude of Sins in the New York Times.) I use those examples only to say they have internalized my fear, I suppose. While I am no fan of Updike, he did have some sound book review advice, which I tried this year to follow: avoid, he suggested in one of his finer turns of phrase, the “fuzzy précis” book reviewers often fall into—judgments without example. At least if you are going to criticize, or praise, you have something in your pocket.
Fortunately, I had a good crop of books to review this year. The first that I reviewed was the weakest, although it was a genre piece, and was accomplished for what it set out to be—this being Omaha novelist Alex Kava’s Fireproof, which I reviewed for the Lincoln Journal-Star. Not long after that, I reviewed what I listed as one of my favorite 2012 books I read this year, Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King, also for the paper. I’ve already said much about this book, although I can always write more. An unfinished essay on it has been stewing around in my brain, so I take this next thought from that: What is most remarkable about Hologram is how Eggers transforms simplicity into insight, and, in paring his writing down, finds the meaning behind the most mundane political truths. (Often, a cliche, David Foster Wallace said, “so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.” Eggers’ book shows the same could be said for banal political headlines.)
In September I reviewed The Neruda Case for the Ploughshares Blog, where I expressed my opinion that the most interesting thing in the book was Ampuero’s depiction of Don Pablo, who came off as a character worthy of an entire novel. (Perhaps I ought to read a biography.) Then I wrote a review of The World Without You, Joshua Henkin’s excellent family novel, which I enjoyed, but wished—and this is a rare wish—it would have been a bit longer (and more dramatic). (A side note: it also is the best-looking book cover of any book I read this year, while Hologram was the best overall designed book I read.)
In my last review of the year, I took a look at Jeffrey Toobin’s The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court, which focused on the additional appointments by the Obama Administration and how the Court has changed under John Roberts’ leadership. Toobin’s book made at least one silly error, that even a young lawyer like myself could spot. (To avoid fuzzy précis, the example is thus: Toobin notes, during his discussion of the Affordable Care Act constitutional fight, that Mitt Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, signed a similar health care reform act “also without controversy about its constitutionality”—as if constitutional questions there were important. But since the Massachusetts law is a state law, and enacted by the Massachusetts legislature, there would be no constitutionality concerns regarding whether it was in Congress’ power to do so, which was the chief issue in the ACA case. This is a small but distracting error in the book.) Despite that, Toobin’s insight and acuity are excellent, and compel me recommend this book to anyone with an abiding interest in the Court.
I still have a couple reviews written in 2012 waiting to be published—and a few I have included on this site as well, including reviews of older books Skippy Dies and The Art of Fielding, and a review of Home by Toni Morrison, all of which I wrote solely for the blog—and hopefully they should arrive soon.
In 2013, I hope to write even more.