Essay Book Review

YOU, TOO, COULD WRITE A POEM
Selected Reviews and Essays, 2000-2015
By David Orr
384 pp. Penguin, paper, $18.

Though the poetry world may seem like a play “with a hundred parts, all small,” poetry critics stand on a much less crowded stage. Orr, a columnist for the Book Review, is certainly part of the ensemble, and he does more with his hour than strut and fret. “You, Too, Could Write a Poem” collects some 15 years’ worth of essays and reviews, and covers all manner of poets and poetic controversies. Orr’s role seems to be that of mediator. Whether he’s weighing the meaning of Oprah’s foray into the poetry world (“Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets,” read one headline in O, The Oprah Magazine) or questioning the notion of virtuosity, Orr writes with generous reasonableness and accessibility. He’s also a gifted practitioner of similes, describing for instance the way Louise Glück’s poetry “produces great effects with delicate shifts in tone, like an oceangoing bird that travels a hundred miles between wing flaps.” But most of all he possesses an apparent and infectious love for his subject, and his passionate expertise makes this book an elucidating joy.

One might wonder, though, for whom Orr writes: those keen to the poetry world’s nuances or those merely keen on poetry. He occasionally refers to “shoppers at Barnes & Noble,” who presumably stand in for poetry’s “average reader,” but when he broods over whether there are any great wedding poems (may he recommend something by Glück?), he fails to acknowledge the kind of verse the denizens of Barnes & Noble would actually read at their weddings, say Cummings’s “I Carry Your Heart With Me (I Carry It In)” or something by (the horror!) Rod McKuen. It’s unlikely, of course, that Orr would have allowed such clichés at his wedding, which makes it just as improbable to find him shopping next to these Barnes & Noble types, talking with them, recommending volumes. But who knows? Perhaps they, too, will read his book.

PIECES OF SOAP
Essays
By Stanley Elkin
404 pp. Tin House, paper, $16.95.

Elkin, who died in 1995 at 65, published 10 novels, two story collections and a few novellas, all of which featured his vociferous skills with language. Indeed, linguistic brio was Elkin’s raison d’être. As William Gass wrote, “Voice: For Elkin, that’s no choir boys’ word.” In this reissued essay collection, which collects over 20 years of his nonfiction, Elkin puts it this way: “Point of view is art.”

In his fiction Elkin interested himself in vocation (a bail bondsman, a D.J., a franchiser, etc.), whereas his essays revolve around his own proclivities and peccadilloes, so the voice that sings from “Pieces of Soap” is entirely Elkin’s. “The secret to life,” he writes in “Acts of Scholarship,” “is to specialize,” and Elkin is nothing if not an expert on himself. Throughout the pieces here, he takes the reader deep into, for instance, the myriad problems arising from multiple sclerosis (a limp, a cane, a wheelchair, grab bars in the shower), which take up the greater part of the lengthy “An American in California,” ostensibly a travelogue. In “At the Academy Awards,” Elkin describes his “first celebrity,” which turns out to have been a general he saw during basic training in 1955. He finds endless ways to digress into autobiographical tangents, usually with some crying and kibitzing.

Elkin’s inimitable language is an exuberant blend of high allusions and colloquial registers, as bounce-and-pop as it is stop-and-go. His sentences can contain, on the same page, wonderful one-off puns (he refers to remainder shelves as “has bins”) and a stretch of boisterous brilliance — if a narrative begins, he notes, with “a couple holding hands,” it will “climax in some spectacle of outrageous sky’s-the-limit orgy of almost Busby Berkeley proportion, as choreographed as battle, as all Barnum’d and Bailey’d three-ring’d, combination lust.” But if he can inspire with his inventiveness, he also, as John Updike noted, “rarely knew when to stop.” This can grow exasperating at times and self-indulgent at others (the didactic description of the flamenco dancer in “Performance and Reality”). Such risky tendencies are common in the literarily dexterous — think of Joyce, Nabokov and Pynchon — but as at an elaborate buffet, if you can stomach the lesser parts, you’ll leave satisfied and completely stuffed.

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Book review

A book review is a critical assessment of a book. It describes and evaluates the quality and significance of a book and does not merely summarise the content.

Identify:

  • Author's content and purpose
  • Structure
  • Audience

Evaluate:

  • Accuracy
  • Up-to-datedness of the information
  • The sources used to justify the author's stance

Respond:

  • What issues does it raise?
  • What issues are omitted?
  • The effect of the book
  • Your recommendation

Book reviews are frequently written by publishers, editors and newspaper/journal reviewers as part of the publicity process for a book shortly after publication or republication.

They are also written by experts, academics, journalists, organisations with vested interests and students to develop an understanding of the place of a particular book within a broader context of its subject area and its genre.

This comparative component to a book review requires knowledge of both these areas. As a student you will be expected to demonstrate that you have examined the book from several angles. The points you raise (both positive and negative) need to be supported with evidence just as for other forms of academic writing.

Writing a book review

Before reading

Write some questions based on the list above:

  • Why has the book been written?
  • When was it written?
  • What is the scope of the book?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • How accurate is the author's content?
  • How (well) is evidence used?
  • Are there any omissions?

Find out about the author:

  • Qualifications
  • Background
  • Affiliations
  • Other works (if any)

Locate some other sources on the same content/issue and/or the same genre to provide you with background and other views.

During reading

Pay attention to introduction and preface as this is where authors often present the reasons for their book, their perspective and those of any other contributors.

Look at table of contents and book structure. This gives you a quick overview of the contents; looking at any pictures/diagrams, tables/graphs, in the chapters shows you some of the strategies the author has used to get the meaning across. These contents may give a clearer indication of the intended audience as well. For example the information in tables may be very technical, indicating interpretation will be easier for those with some prior knowledge.

Do not skip abstracts and summaries. These are a quick way to get an overview of the book (from the author's point of view).

Take notes and highlight major points, the sources used, and the logic of the argument presented.

Note whether the information is new. Is the author refuting earlier works, building on another author's ideas or rehashing an earlier piece of work?

How easy is it to understand the author's point of view? If it is difficult, what is the reason?

After reading

Use your notes to evaluate the book. You need to use your other sources too. Decide what recommendation you would make to readers about the different aspects. Include its readability.

Structuring the book review

Most book reviews are between 100-500 words, though an academic review may go up to 1500. Check with the lecturer if you are not sure how long your book review should be.

At the start, put the complete bibliographic information:

Title in full, author, place of publication, publisher, date of publication edition, number of pages.

A published review will usually include price and ISBN number and your lecturer may require you to do this too.

Your introduction will usually include:

  • your overall impression of the book
  • a statement about the author
  • a statement on the purpose of the book
  • a statement of the significance of the work
  • a comment about the relationship between this work and others by the same author, the same subject and the same genre

The body of your review develops the points you want to make:

  • greater detail on the author's thesis and a summary of the main points
  • evaluation of strengths, weaknesses, contribution or bias
  • the evidence that is the basis of your critique

The conclusion (last paragraph) includes:

  • your final assessment
  • restatement of overall impression
  • (re)statement of your recommendation

No new information should be included in the conclusion.

Reference list: this is put at the end as usual, using the referencing style requested by the lecturer.

Sample book review

This book review is included here with the permission of both the author, Heather Kavan, senior lecturer in Business Communication, and the editor of Stimulus, the journal in which the book review was published.

Download Sample Book Review (39KB)

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Last updated on 22 August, 2016

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