Fans of Goodreads, fear not! Even though your web site has been acquired by Amazon, there are still many other sources for book recommendations on the internet that are free from the taint of merchandising. I’m thinking in particular of print book-reviewing publications that post some or all of their reviews online for free, along with literary essays and publishing industry news. I confess I’m addicted to book reviews, and often congratulate myself on being well read when in fact it’s just the book reviews that I have consumed—and not the books themselves. But before I came to the Hudson Library, I spent many years working in bookstores where—as at the public library—one has to keep up with the latest titles, as well as classics.
Goodreads, as the name implies, is more about reading, than the books themselves as physical objects, and features reviews by regular readers—which is great, as far as it goes, and is made possible by the culture of the Internet; I am signed up with Goodreads. But I like to think there is still room for trained, paid professionals to bring their knowledge and experience to book criticism.
All of our Fontana Regional libraries have complimentary copies of BookPage which features author interviews as well as reviews and columns focusing on mysteries, romance, cooking, audio books and book clubs. All these can be found at their online site, as well as “web exclusives” which currently features a profile of Theron Humphrey and his hound, Maddie, who travel the country as Mr. Humphrey takes photos of the interesting people he meets along the road. But Maddie has a way of stealing the show and it looks like their new book, “Maddie on Things,” could be reminiscent of William Wegman’s Weimaraners.
We also have subscriptions to the New York Times Book Review, which appears every weekend and is probably the most widely read book review in the country; you can find them in your library’s periodical section. But I’ve become so obsessional in my book-review quest that I find their selections ho-hum, and lately about half the pages seem to be taken up with the various best-seller lists, with their combinations of print and ebooks, etc. The Wall Street Journal—also found in your library’s periodical section has an excellent selection of book reviews in it s Saturday “Review” section (which also includes other arts coverage). Thanks to NCLive–accessed through your library’s public computers or via the Fontana Regional Library’s homepage on your own device (but you’ll need both your library-card number and your password)—Fontana Regional Library cardholders can access all of the Journal’s articles, features and reviews for free, which is amazing considering the current introductory, three-month subscription offer for the print and online versions of the newspaper is $25.99. Last weekend’s section was devoted to Spring Books, and included reviews of: “Return of a King” about the disastrous 1839 British invasion of Afghanistan by William Dalrymple, a wonderful historian and memoirist (I loved his “City of Djinns” about life in New Delhi); a biography of CIA chief William Colby (“Shadow Warrior” by Randall B. Woods); a history of Greenwich Village by John Strausbaugh and Meghan Cox Gurdon’s column on children’s books, among many, many other great offerings. If you know exactly whichWSJ review you’re looking for, you can also get there via Google.
My favorite book review is the weekly Times Literary Supplement, published in London and founded in 1902. Print subscriptions aren’t cheap (though the online version is much more affordable) but some of the most interesting recent reviews in all categories can be viewed for free at their web site.
The TLS reviews books published in the United Kingdom and the U.S., as well as some books published in German, French, Italian, etc. and covers literary fiction and everything non-fiction. Among the interesting, free offerings on their web site now is one about literary hoaxes, with particular interest in the purported 1862 London meeting between Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky; it’s a fascinating piece of sleuthing. Plus there are not one, but two free blogs, including “A Aon’s Life” by classics professor Mary Beard. The web site has this puff from the prize-winning Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa: “I have been reading the TLS since I learned English 40 years ago. It is the most serious, authoritative, witty, diverse and stimulating cultural publication in all the five languages I speak.” I just speak English, barely, but I agree—and I have a print subscription.
Another favorite of mine is Bookforum, (five issues a year) brought to you from the folks of Artforum. Bookforum is more cutting edge than the reviews discussed above. That is, both the reviewers and the books themselves are more likely to question the status quo, whether now or in 1700. Under “Reviews,” their website offers not just some of Bookforum’s more recent offerings, but also links to yet other book reviews of note from various publications; “Omnivore” has links to interesting articles from the press about culture and current events; “Paper Trail” has the latest literary and publishing news and gossip—yum yum. The most recent issue includes Vivian Gornick taking James Salter task for his new (but really same old, same old) novel “All That Is.” As Gornick puts it:
“Certainly, it is true that most writers have only one story in them—that is, as Flannery O’Connor put it, only one they can make come alive. Then again, it is also true that it is the writer’s obligation to make the story tell more the third or fourth time around than it did the first. For this reviewer, Salter’s work fails on that score. In his eighties he is telling the story almost exactly as he told it in his forties.”
Her review is available online for free.