On reviewing and breaking backs

BANEOne advantage of being the L.A. Times deputy book editor was this: I rarely reviewed a book I didn’t like.

Every week, I sorted through piles and piles of new books for only those things that resonated with me — if something didn’t, I wouldn’t write about it.

But what happened if I was a hundred pages into a book before I realized it was a dog?

What would I do then … drop it?

Are you crazy?  I couldn’t do that — I’d already committed too much time to it!  I had to review it!  So, there were a few options open to me:

  • Damn it with faint praise
  • Forget faint praise and be ruthless — break its back just like Bane
  • Give most of the review space to the subject, not the actual book … and then finish off the piece with a sentence about how the book was”helpful” or “serviceable” (which I guess sounds like the first option).  It sounds like praise, but it isn’t.  Calling a book “helpful” puts it in the same category as a shovel.  Or a Boy Scout.

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A pale view of Hill


For I will consider my cat Jeoffry…

We lost a major figure in the world of poetry at the end of June, Geoffrey Hill, and as I’ve scrolled through the posts of Call of the Siren, I realize I haven’t written very much lately … but when I have, some of it seems to have been about Hill.

Maybe that’s because no one – aside from talking to W.S. Merwin a few years ago and listening to him describe visiting Ezra Pound – has given me a greater sense of poetry’s living tradition than when I sat at a table and listened to Hill talk about Eliot, Hopkins, Thomas Wyatt, Dryden, Auden, Lowell, Southwell, and so many others.

I studied with him in the graduate program at Boston University in the 1990s.   When I enrolled, I had no idea the maker of Mercian Hymns was on the faculty, and when I learned that he was, I rushed over to his office to sign up for his class on poetry and religion. I was gushing with excitement as I reached the top floor and entered his office.

“I’m so happy to have found you!” I said as I set my Add slip on the desk in front of him.

“Found me?” he said, looking up. “I didn’t know I was hidden. I’ve been here three years.”

He gave me that trademark look you find in the Guardian photo accompanying this post. I think this photo was taken around the time he lived in Brookline and taught at BU. That’s the way he looked when I made my gushing declaration on that autumn day in his office.

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Getting published … an author’s stats on herself

Everyone has an opinion about the ordeal of book publishing, but who can you really trust?

Only the writers who have actually experienced it.

And that applies to Yi Shun Lai, author of the new novel Not A Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu (Shade Mountain Press), although “new” is a misleading term …. Lai is perfectly transparent on her blog about how long it’s taken – agents queried,  months spent querying, etc. – to usher her engaging, funny, charming fictional memoir into print.

At The Good Dirt, Lai provides us yishunwith the numbers that every writer wants to know about, as well as the lessons that she’s learned in her post “How I Landed My Publisher.”

One of her best lessons, for me, has to do with balancing your book project with the rest of your life … and that means not letting it consume the rest of your life.

As Lai says, “if you really want to make this a part of your life, get on it.”

Visit The Good Dirt for more of Lai’s insights into finding that balance in your own writing life … and to learn more about the writer behind the one and only Marty.  She’s a wonderful creation … so funny and wise as she navigates between obstacles and her own soaring aspirations, advertising quotas and office tedium, and the steady nagging of an unforgettable Taiwanese tiger mom.  You’ll want to get your hands on a copy of this book.

My beloveds, you’ll be so glad you did.