Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Critic's Notebook 

From the Tri-County Courier-Journal's Weekend Arts & Literature Supplement Section (Reprinted with permission.)

Book Nook
by Elliot Nook

As the only book reviewer at the only newspaper in the Tri-County area, it is my job — my duty, really — to scout the literary landscape on behalf of what passes hereabouts for the "reading public". A collection of my weekly columns, "The Best of Book Nook, Volume II," was released three months ago by Vainglory Publishing ("From your typewriter to your bookcase in 30 days or your money back!"). However, owing to their lackluster promotional efforts I find myself obliged to place professional responsibility before personal interest and review the book myself. Rest assured, dear readers, that I will employ the same razor-sharp insight and rigorous critical standards here as I do to any book that crosses my desk not written by me.

To say that this book doesn't live up to the youthful promise of "The Best of Book Nook, Volume I" is a masterpiece of understatement. To begin with, there is the book's cover. That its ink-smudged fingerprint pattern is intentional came as a surprise to me, and the rationale for it provided by Vainglory's summer intern ("Uh, edgy? Maybe Post-modern?") still sounds a little fishy.

Aesthetics aside, the absence of my name, photo or the book's title on the dust jacket is somewhat troubling.

Once inside, "Volume II" reflects the author's descent into the dark torment of middle-age discontent. Gone are the linguistic bravura and far-reaching literary references that enlivened "Volume I." Review after review disintegrates into little more than a furious rant about the author's frustrated literary ambitions, lost youth, and toxic disdain for his subjects, his audience, himself and his employer's lousy dental plan. But can you blame me for being bitter? Twice first runner-up for Tri-County Community College's "Most Likely to Get Published" award (it's all politics), stuck here, reviewing books by morons intended for cretins.

Critiques of first novels tend to be especially harsh, as seen in this excerpt:

"Just what the world needs, another crypto-autobiographical whine about a sensitive, misunderstood young writer's unhappy childhood and bittersweet sexual awakening. Oh, merciful God, when will it stop?"

While space considerations prevent me from fully cataloging the publisher's multiple sins of omission, it strikes me that a dozen years' worth of weekly columns should stack up to more than 56 pages. Anyone as familiar as I am with this writer's oeuvre will struggle to comprehend the absence of two thirds of my trilogy on Sidney Sheldon as well as anything from 1993, 1995 and 1996. What little is left of the chapter covering my early life wouldn't fill an "About the Author" blurb, which is also missing.

The book suffers from several baffling editorial choices, chief among them, arranging the material thematically, rather than in chronological order, thereby tossing together columns written months and even years, apart. This preposterous contrivance exposes the writer's habitual lazy writing, formulaic repetition, frequent use of hackneyed catchphrases and painfully unsuccessful attempts at wit. This sampling from the Summer Reading chapter is characteristic:

1997: "If you're going to the beach this summer and have to choose between taking a hat and Jackie Collins, take the hat."

1998: "If you take Tom Clancy to the beach with you this summer, for God's sake make him leave his shirt on!"

1999: "If you take Stephen King with you to the beach this summer, he'll write enough on the walk from the car to the sand to keep you reading until Labor Day. Also have lots of sunscreen handy (spf of 15), and keep him lathered up, he burns easily."

I now see how wrong I was. King needs an spf of 45. Minimum.

Recent columns' focus on cookbooks, celebrity tell-alls and "Far Side" desk calendars might indicate that the author is finally listening to his editor and giving readers what they really want. Suspiciously often, however, a novel gets reviewed only after the movie version of it has become available for rental on video. This "coincidence" goes a long way in explaining the repeated references to 'Meryl' and 'Clint' in his "book" review of "The Bridges of Madison County."

Likelier than new-found pragmatism, this merely signals the writer's having made a conscious decision to take the three martini lunch-fueled path of least resistance and just mark time in this cultural cul-de-sac while awaiting death's sweet embrace.

Whichever it turns out to be, if you take only one collection of my book review columns to the beach with you next summer, make it "The Best of Book Nook, Volume II."

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