The Art of the Review I: Laura Miller

by Parul Sehgal, PWxyz, Mar. 18, 2011

We’re happy to announce a new series on PWxyz–The Art of the Review. Every Friday, we’ll be interviewing our favorite reviewers, talking technique, and taking the pulse of criticism today: How do critics select books to review? Have they ever been wrong about a book? How much impact do reviews have anyway? How do critics in print media feel about their online counterparts and vice versa–are they in league or at odds? We’ll be talking to reviewers at established dailies, at up-and-coming review websites, and working all over the world–in New York, Dublin, and New Delhi.

We’re kicking things off with an interview with Laura Miller, author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, and cofounder of for which she writes a regular column on books, beloved for its wit, directness, and deep engagement with (and omnivorous appetite for) books of all genres.

She talks to us about how book critics have let down the public, why she likes reading–but doesn’t trust–James Wood’s reviews, and why everyone should at least try to read Twilight.

You’re one of the reviewers I most enjoy following—not least because I can never predict what you’re going to cover next. You write about a novel, like Room, one week and Let the Swords Encircle Me (the world’s longest, most intricate account of Iranian politics) the next. And the week after that, you’re on to Yellow Dirt, an exposé on uranium mining in the American Southwest. How do you decide what to cover?

I cover books that I’m enthusiastic about. I look at books in the same category, sample a bunch, and pick what I like the best. My general rule is in a month of 4 weeks, I do one fiction book and 3 nonfiction books: one memoir or autobiography, one history, and something contemporary. There are a few things I’m not into—I’m not big on military history, and sports books put me to sleep—but I do have broad tastes. Any book that someone tells me about or sends me, be it self-published or whatever, I try to look at the first couple paragraphs at least.

Why do you review so much more nonfiction than fiction?

At Salon, we know exactly how many people read every single story. When it comes to reviews, people are interested in reading the reviews of nonfiction books. Maybe it’s because even if they never read the book, they’ll learn something from the review.

“Franzenfreude” and the recent reports from FAIR and Vida have drawn attention to how infrequently authors who are women and/or people of color are reviewed compared to their white, male counterparts. Is this disparity something you think about or try to address in your review coverage?

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Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology

By David Abram (Pantheon)

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, Sept. 1, 2010

David Abram, ecologist and author of Spell of the Sensuous (1996), is the hierophant of a group best described as environmental ecstatics—nature writers with a primary interest not in studying or saving the earth, but in reveling in its metaphysical powers. In his new book, Becoming Animal, Abram is on a particularly complicated, mystical, and almost messianic mission: He wants to reclaim “creatureness”—our animal senses and subjectivity—in a society in thrall to the “cult of the expertise” and the tyranny of machines. He hopes to reintroduce us to a pungent, unpredictable world of “resplendent weirdness.” Continue reading

Dreaming in Hindi

By Katherine Russell Rich. Harcourt, $26.

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York

Westerners at a spiritual or career crossroads have long made pilgrimages to India, looking for God or ganja—but grammar? So begins journalist Katherine Rich’s contrarian memoir of transplanting herself from New York to the desert town of Udaipur to learn Hindi. Motivated by a passion “for learning languages and understanding what learning a second language does to the brain,” Rich finds her casual Hindi lessons becoming an obsession. Having survived two bouts with cancer, and now recently fired from her magazine-editing job, Rich admits, “I no longer had the language to describe my own life. So I decided to borrow someone else’s.”

But India proves inconsiderate; to learn its language, Rich must tolerate its men and women (portrayed as lascivious and insipid, respectively). Her vitriol toward her fellow students and her host family erodes the reader’s sympathy.

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