Tag Archives: review

Karen Long, Plain Dealer Books Editor, Talks About Reading and Reviewing

27 Apr

Karen Long, books editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, spoke as a guest in my Rhetoric and Composition class this afternoon.  Long, who has held her position since 2005, talked about her path as a journalist and book critic, the details of her weekly routine, about ethical problems of writing about literature, and about the role of book criticism in the lives of readers.

                In her own words, the soft-spoken Long “stumbled into” her job as books editor.  She had already been working and writing for the Plain Dealer in a number of other capacities, and when the position for books editor opened in 2005, she approached the editor in chief and begged for the position.  His response: “Do you read?” and, “What do you read?”

                Long receives between 350 and 450 books a week, which she files into a special room where she and other reviewers can have their pick of “spec” copies—pre-print copies of books sent to reviewers before the mass publication date.  Of those roughly four-hundred books, Long must cull twelve to fifteen a week to be reviewed in a two page spread.  The challenge is “to make those selections and to make the books in conversation with one another.”  Sometimes, as was the case with a recent issue, books were selected for their timeliness (i.e., the anniversary of the BP oil spill).  Other times, the books are highly anticipated, such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which debuted in 2010.  Still other instances allow for Long to select books that might not otherwise have been reviewed, to polish the gems from the crass.

                On the flipside of the coin, Long must pair reviewers with appropriate books.  Unlike books editors at larger publications like The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune, Long has the flexibility and the desire to print reviews by new voices—as long as they’re good.  “My bosses don’t like me to run a writing lab,” she said.  “They say if it’s not ready, you shouldn’t be mucking around.”  Still, Long admitted to helping some especially poignant or passionate readers find their critical voices.  The bottom line, however is that, “If it’s B- [work], I don’t want it.”

                In talking about her approach to the job, Long sounded like a broken record: “My motto is readers first,” she said many times and in various ways.  “There’s so many crappy books out there, I don’t feel ashamed to say, ‘read this book, don’t read that book.’…  I see it as a public service… I’m working in an old medium and trying to appeal to everybody.  My goal is to not be the last book editor of the paper.”

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Positively Ninety is a Positive Force

23 Mar

Positively Ninety

A chemistry professor, an avid traveler, a budding novelist, a family-chronicler, a devoted couple, a passionate gardener, a man who swam the Ohio River and twenty-one others: all of them vigorous, active, driven, all of them ninety years old, some of them, older.  This is the cast of very real characters that populate OC alum Connie Springer’s recent book, Positively Ninety: Interviews with Lively Nonagenarians.

The project, which was funded by a two-year City of Cincinnati Individual Artist Grant, combines journalism and photography to celebrate the wrinkles, smiles, and longevity of this exceptional group of elderly folk.  In her introduction, Springer provides a framework for the project, “My personal experience with aging had been less than positive.  Over a decade ago my mother, in her eighties and saddled with dementia, lived in a nursing home surrounded by peers with vacant stares and immobile stances…. I needed a different perspective.”  Springer began by interviewing a friend’s neighbor, ninety-one year old gardener June Edwards.  Inspired by June’s joie de vivre, Springer decided to turn the single interview into a full-fledged project.

The grant initially called for a public display, and in book form the concept retains much of the sparseness and accessibility I imagine would have inhabited the exhibit.  The photographs and the voices of the individuals are at the heart of this book, and it reads as a pure artist’s rendering.  Springer mixes mediums to offer her audience a richer story, while still allowing glimpses into the untold portions of her subjects’ pasts.  After finishing Positively Ninety, I felt a compelling desire to phone my own grandparents and to learn about their personal histories and life outlooks.  The conversation between generations is one the work freely engages in, and I find this to be one of its strongest points.

In addition to commenting on individual lives, the material also tells a story about community.  As we meet each of the nonagenarians Springer interviewed, we are also introduced to the children, spouses, neighbors, friends, places, and pastimes that have enriched and informed their ninety+ years of life.  As part of her work, Springer identified twenty common personality traits of her lively nonagenarians, many of which drew on the sense of community that both inspired and now carries the work.  Among these were being open to meeting new people, relating to younger people, being connected to friends and family, and involvement in enjoyable activities.

The combined effect is a work that is both uplifting and enlightening, a gentle reminder of the many invaluable and fascinating individuals often ignored by our society.  By allowing the voices of her subjects to render lifelike instead of probing or preaching her own agenda, Springer captures a distinct treasure-trove.  She concludes her introduction, and in many ways her quest for resolution, with this thought: “One thing is certain: from meeting these lively nonagenarians, I know now that the notion that time must inevitably inflict incapacity and despair is fundamentally wrong.”  Positively Ninety is a thoughtful book, as vital and vigorous as the generation it serves.

Grape Sours with Latest Offering

5 Mar

I’ll admit that up until this point I had not read a single issue of Oberlin’s alternative campus paper—mostly because whenever I saw it stacked in the library my first reaction was to see who was daring enough to pose nude for the centerfold and then throw it away.  This issue features some scantily clad Emo Kids.  I should have taken it as a sign of what was to come because after reading the issue, I was left feeling very desolate and dark indeed.

                While the Review’s weekly news portions are committed by precedent to covering the top four or five campus events each week, the Grape’s looser content and space requirements ought to allow it to provide readers with longer, more-tailored,  and in-depth features.  The features section of this latest Grape falls stunningly short, however, providing only a single article, “Oberlin Then and Now”, which might actually have been noteworthy if it had been properly edited or had funneled into a novel finale.  Instead the piece meanders towards a lukewarm conclusion, and thus the section ends.

                On first glance Arts seems more promising, with a witty and effective piece on the television series Portlandia at the helm.  Delving further, Arts reveals itself to be as sloppy as the rest of the Grape—with a self-promotion article by the Sexual Information Center pasted on the second page (Is this arts?  No, this is not arts.  Buy an ad or run a small column next time.)  Concluding the section is a review of James Blake’s self-titled album, and while the writing is decent, the title prepares readers for a negative review when in fact the interpretation is quite favorable.  The Editors seem to have been asleep on this one.

                Bad Habits is perhaps the most widely read portion of the Grape, and I think they actually get something half-right here.  The snarky tone fits well with the content of public scandal, illicit drug use, and celebrity gossip, and none of the articles here were particularly jarring or painful to read; I even enjoyed several (among them, “Taco Bell: Grade D for Delicious!”)  The horoscopes which end the section are utterly pointless.  I’d rather donate that page to a new-and-improved features section in the future.

                In my opinion, the Opinion section of the Grape shouldn’t even exist.  Isn’t everything they write opinion anyway?  I can’t find a bias-free article in all 28 pages!  The majority of the works here are simply creative experiments—they don’t introduce anything to have an opinion on, or if they do, it’s something not up for much debate.  Articles falling into this category include one on the staying power of Google, another making an unclear point on internet sex predators, a brief stint that rambles off useless/commonly known information about cars, and—the worst of the bunch—an article  about minesweeper which makes a poor (and politically heinous) connection between the game and a soldier in Afghanistan being blown up by a landmine.  Correct me if I’m missing the humor.  The section’s only saving grace is Piper Stull-Lane’s piece, “I ❤ the Female Orgasm”, which points out some serious issues of gender politics surrounding the popular lecture, but his half-page isn’t enough to overshadow the other 7.5 pages of mayhem.

                I’m all for the idea of an alternative paper, because I’m all for the idea of two works of writing being in conversation with one another.  However I can’t stand by this assessment when “alternative” begins to mean sloppy, self-indulgent, and full-of-as-many-bad-words-as-possible because, oooh, we’re alternative, we can cuss and have pictures of naked people now.

All in Favor of The End o’ The World

25 Feb

Maybe it’s the Geology class I’m taking or maybe I just like the thought of life-as-we-know-it ending in a massive explosion (the same way it began, how’s that for neatly tied ends?)  Regardless, Drivel Magazine’s winter 2099 issue is strangely satisfying, despite the image it presents of our future as one pregnant with sexual misconduct, global destruction, and corporate takeover.  Who knew the end of the world could look so good—and be so funny?

                Part-raucous indecency and part-social commentary, Drivel began in the winter of 2008-2009.  In its four issues, Drivel has inhabited numerous forms, beginning with a parody of People Magazine.  The editors then made a wild shift for their second offering, a riff of The New Yorker (containing a great piece on English Majors which is still posted above my desk).  With its third installment the pseudo parasitic-magazine inhabited Martha Stewart’s vineyard, and now, with the arrival of this fourth piece to the puzzle, Drivel is finally hitting its stride.  What before seemed like a somewhat schizophrenic rendering (let’s do low brow, now high brow, now who knows what?!) is emerging as a spectacular display of range.

                In the latest offering (a mostly fabricated Time Magazine-esque review of the 21st Century), Drivel pokes fun at what our world might become if current global, economic, and social trends are exaggerated to the extreme.  In an article titled “Exxon Mobil Elected President” (dated Winter 2010),  contributor Stephen Graves reminds Obies of the celebratory attitude following Obama’s 2008 election: “Hoards of students sallied out of their dormitories and cooperatives the evening of November 2nd, 2008, seduced by a violent, sexualized hope for the future…Yes, we wanted to get laid; instead, however, we were fucked.”

                Running along the bottom of each page is an illustrated timeline of Drivel’s faux-century, an enjoyable compliment to the longer articles, and perfect for a quick shot of humor that features Oberlin and world-scale catastrophes alike.  Although some of the articles lack a notable critical edge—such as Pika Power (about how pikachus are being “milked” for their energy) or Oberlin Becomes First College to Admit Mollusks—I’m okay with an equal balance of satire and parody, as long as the satire remains sharp.  I don’t know which is the bigger feat—that Drivel can make me buy into the end of the world as a good thing, or that they’re probably the only people on campus who can maintain a sense of humor during the month of January.