It’s time for another round up of the books I have recently reviewed for Foreword Reviews. This round up contains books about fairy tales in a small town in the Midwest, travels around the Black Sea, and an mixed-race family struggling with Alzheimer’s disease.
These are all books that I enjoyed reading. Hopefully you will find them enjoyable as well.
The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews. The reviews can be read in full on Foreword Reviews’ website and in the May/June 2022 issue of the Foreword Reviews magazine.
“Midwestern magic abounds in Scott Russell Sanders’s fairy tale short story collection Small Marvels. In Limestone, Indiana, Gordon Mills is a jack of all trades whose big family lives in a dilapidated house that only remains standing because it doesn’t know which way to fall. His wife, Mabel, keeps the family together. With their respective parents, Gordon and Mabel work to make ends meet. Even though money is short, there is always food on the table and plenty of love to go around. But while, on the surface, the family’s hometown seems to be an ordinary place, and the Mills to be an ordinary family, these linked stories reveal that there is more to both than meets the eye.”
I enjoyed this short story collection because I enjoy stories about the fantastical among the ordinary. There is story telling to explore where these two worlds crash up against each other, and it shows that what we take for granted might just be magic.
“Jens Mühling’s colorful travelogue Troubled Water captures the history and cultures on the shores of the Black Sea. The Black Sea has been a crossroads for warring and colonizing societies since human civilization began to take form in the Fertile Crescent. Along its contested shores, empires have risen and fallen, and people are constantly on the move, either voluntarily or by force. Against a backdrop of demographic, political, and environmental change, the civilizations of the Black Sea are examined by looking at every situation from more than one angle. Simon Pare’s vibrant translation from the original German brings out the literary qualities of the prose.”
As I wrote in last week’s post about the interview I did with Jens Mühling, before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Black Sea as a region was generally overlooked in popular history and contemporary politics. But as recent developments in the region have shown, and which Mühling brings forth in his book, the Black Sea has played a crucial role in human civilization for millennia. And not only is this a great book, look at that book cover! I love it.
“Jennifer Dance’s based-in-truth novel Gone but Still Here follows a tragedy-scarred multiracial family as one of its members is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Mary feels herself slipping. Despite her career as a published author, her words don’t come to her the way that they used to, she has forgotten how to use a can opener, and time passes without her noticing. To preserve her memories before they completely disappear, she begins to write a book about her husband, Keith, who died when their children were very young. Told from Mary, Kayla, and Sage’s points of view, as well as using multiple storytelling elements, from text messages to prose, the novel does a beautiful job of portraying the joys and sorrows that follow from a life-altering diagnosis. Gone but Still Here is an emotional novel about a family faced with the challenges of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease.”
I enjoyed this book because of the love and warmth that exuded from its pages. Books rarely make me cry, but this one did.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
Over the past week, the purpose of book reviews has once again been a topic for debate. If this comes as news to you, don’t worry. The debate happened within a limited group of academics and academia-adjacent people on Twitter. But even though those involved were few, the debate did raise some general questions about book reviews, what they are for, for whom they are written, and why that matters in the larger scheme of things.
There are three different types of book reviews: the online review, the media review, and the academic review. Each type of review has its own purpose, its own intended audience, and its own requirements of what it needs to contain.
The book review is an important part of any literate society’s intellectual life. Students write book reviews to practice critical thinking. Critics write book reviews to tell magazine and newspaper readers about books they should pay attention to. Academics write book reviews to further the production of knowledge.
Book reviews are an important part of a book’s publicity plan. Book reviews help spread the word that a specific type of book exists, which, hopefully, will help boost sales. The algorithms on Amazon.com, for example, are geared to boost books that get good reviews and make them more visible on the site. Though the sections for literary criticism in newspapers has shrunk over the years, having their book reviewed in a major newspaper is a status marker for authors. If The New York Times reviews your book, it means that you have arrived.
In academia, book reviews are very important. Mainly published in academic journals, book reviews are a way to inform scholars of what is happening in their field. At American universities, they are among the publications a scholar needs to have published to qualify for tenure.
Important to keep in mind here is that these three types of reviews–the online review, the media review, and the academic review–are not the same. Reviews on Amazon are written by general readers. Reviews in newspapers and magazines are written by critics. Reviews in academic journals are written by experts.
Nor is their intended audience the same. Reviews on Amazon are intended for anyone interested in buying a specific book. Newspaper and magazine reviews are intended for the readers of that specific publication. Academic reviews are intended for the experts’ colleagues.
But even though these three types of book reviews differ in audience and purpose, they need to contain the same things: a summary of the contents, an evaluation of the contents, and discussion about the topic and the author. The purpose of a book review is then to weigh the merits and demerits of a book and reach a conclusion of whether or not the book is worth your time.
But here the three categories diverge again, because depending on who you write the review for, each section of the book review needs to summarize, discuss, and evaluate in different ways. And this is where the book reviewer gets into trouble if they are unaware of the different expectations of the different publication venues.
An academic review needs to discuss the merits as well as the demerits of a book. I would say there is an unwritten expectation that an academic book review needs to focus on the demerits because that is how the scholar demonstrates their skills at critical thinking. A favorable academic review is seen as a biased review. Even if the reviewer pans the book, the review will be published for the sake of science.
A review in the media also needs to discuss the merits as well as the demerits, but emphasis lies on the merits. The purpose of these reviews is to inform readers of books that might interest them. Here, a negative review fills no purpose. If a reviewer destroys a book in their review, chances are the review will never see publication. It is up to the discretion of each individual publication how much of a negative discussion they will allow in the reviews they publish.
An academic review needs to reference other books. Again, this is how the reviewer demonstrates their chops at critical analysis and moving the scientific conversation forward. By referencing other books, the reviewer demonstrates that they are up to date with the state of the art of research while at the same time demonstrating where in the scientific conversation the reviewed book belongs. The compare-and-contrast nature of this part of the review is crucial to moving the production of knowledge forward.
A review in the media should not reference other books. The reason is simple: the publication decides which books to feature based on the profile of their publication and the demographics of their readership. They also decide which books to feature based on a relationship with the publisher (less discerning publications also decide which books to feature based on who their friends are, which is what sparked the debate during this past week, but that’s another story). A media publication would never publish a review that discuss other books than the one being reviewed.
An academic review needs to contain academic jargon, and by academic jargon I mean the analytical terms, phrases, and type of prose that qualifies as academic. Again, this is how the reviewer demonstrates that they are part of the field.
A media review should not contain academic jargon. The point of academic jargon is to establish a language that will serve as short hand for scholars engaged in the same type of research. For anyone outside of that field (and this includes other scholars), that jargon is gobbledigook. I remember being confused by a discussion on the history of Swedish coal miners because they kept talking about how coal miners “penetrated” each other. Turns out “penetration” was academic jargon for the economic reform of coal miner collectives. (Don’t ask…) A review that contains academic jargon will be killed by the editor.
A media review needs to be straight forward and to the point. An academic review needs to take its time and be circumspect. A media review needs to be short. An academic review can go on for pages. A media review is written in the active voice. An academic review can use the passive voice. A media review can be written in the first person. An academic review is always written in the third person.
Academics get into trouble when writing media reviews because we are taught that, as the avant-garde of knowledge production, our way of writing book reviews is the correct way. Because we mainly publish in academic publications, we never need to consider our audience because the audience is always the same, and they play by the same rules as we do. But as soon as we step into the world of media, we are no longer in Kansas. Instead of playing the role of expert, we now become critics.
It is becoming increasingly important for scholars to know the difference between academic publishing and media publications as the erosion of higher education continues and scholars turn to mainstream culture to support themselves.
Thanks to social media, more scholars than ever have a public voice. With a public voice comes name recognition. With name recognition comes opportunities. For us to capitalize on those opportunities, we need to learn the rules of the world we have stepped into. Similar to academia, the rules of that world are harsh, they are discriminatory, they are humiliating, and they do not provide everyone with a level playing field. But, like Dorothy who learned the rules of Oz so that she could pull the curtain on the Emperor when she arrived in Emerald City, for us to change those rules, we first need to learn to play by them.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
As some of you might know, I review books for Foreword Reviews, a magazine and review service that reviews books published by independent presses, university presses, and self-published authors for independent bookstores, libraries, and literary agents, as well as the general reading public. This week I would like to share with you some of the books that I have reviewed for them over the past year and a half. In addition to being featured on Foreword Review’s website, these reviews have also been published in the print edition of the magazine Foreword Reviews.
Last time I did a Foreword Review book review round up was in October 2020 and you can read that round up by clicking on this link.
Hopefully you will find a book that interests you. Enjoy!
The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews.
“On March 12th, 1928, the St. Francis Dam collapsed, and twelve billion gallons of silted water crashed through the California countryside. By the time the flood reached the coast and spilled into the Pacific, an estimated 400 people had lost their lives, making this one of the greatest disasters of its kind in US history.”
I really enjoyed this book and its discussions on how the city of Los Angeles wouldn’t exist the way we know it, if it hadn’t been for the massive infrastructure projects that were undertaken to secure the city’s water supply. Also, I will never think of Mulholland Drive the same again.
“On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a Black shoemaker from New Orleans, bought a first class train ticket to Covington, Louisiana. When the train arrived, Plessy took his seat. Less than three blocks away from the station, the trip came to an end, and Plessy found himself arrested for being a Black man traveling in a train car for white people. Plessy found himself in court, and Judge John Ferguson found him guilty of breaking the law. What seemed like a minor occurrence was, in fact, part of a bigger plan to challenge The Separate Car Act of 1890, which introduced segregated train seating in Louisiana.”
This book is a great introduction to the actions that led to the Supreme Court ruling known as Plessy v. Ferguson, which came to be used as the legal precendent for introducing Jim Crow laws in the South. The story focuses on how the descendants of Homer Plessy and Judge John H. Ferguson work together to bridge the racial divide caused by this case.
“Jen Gunter’s The Menopause Manifesto is a self-help guide through menopause for all women of a certain age. The Menopause Manifesto is practical as it reclaims menopause from myths, educating and empowering its audience in equal measure.”
“An author’s dream of financial independence comes true when he receives a generous stipend with no strings attached. Suddenly he has the means to dedicate all of his time to the novel that has eluded him for so many years. But the dream turns into a nightmare. Even with no time restrictions, he finds himself without the time to write. The novel slips further away from him, and with it, his life.”
This book was an unusual reading experience. The only way I can describe it is “meta.” This is a book written about the inability to write. But if you are unable to write, then how did you write this book?
“In 1935, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a Jewish psychoanalyst, leaves Nazi Germany for the United States, where she builds a new life in Rockville, Maryland. In 2009, Eliza, also a psychoanalyst and the single mother of a troubled teenage son, moves into the house Frieda built. By accident, she discovers Frieda’s diary. Thereafter unfolds a story of how, for one summer, the women’s lives mirrored each other, despite a difference of decades.”
I enjoyed this book because it taught me about the real-life person of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a pioneer in psychoanalysis and the treatment of schizophrenia.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
Last year I took the plunge and joined Goodreads. I’ve been searching for a way to keep track of my readings as well as writing short reviews, since I’ve noticed that doing both of these things helps me retain what I read to a higher degree. I’ve tried keeping book journals, writing about books here on The Boomerang, tweeting about books I’ve read, but nothing seemed to work out in the long run.
I joined Goodreads in July last year, and so far, it seems to be working out well. If you’d like to follow me on Goodreads, you can find me there under my full name.
Here’s a sample of the books I’ve read and reviewed on Goodreads. Hopefully it will help you find some new books and authors to read. Either way, I hope you enjoy the reviews.