07 August 2010

Liesl Schillinger - a book reviewer at the New York Times

Following a reviewer – Liesl Schillinger (Tutorial work)

I receive a regular email from New York Times containing a brief overview of book reviews.  There must have been something in the sentence or two that made be click the link to Liesl Schillinger’s review of the novel, The Nobodies Album.  It was so persuasive I immediately ordered it through my local book store.  So given this week’s task I thought I’d investigate what it was that made this review work for me.

Schillinger generally starts her reviews with a quick connection to the real world before launching into the fiction of the novel being reviewed.  In the case of The Nobodies Album it was to theatre, television and the mystery genre.  This instantly taps in to the vast number of people’s interests.  It also immediately classifies the type of book being reviewed.  The word ‘genre’ invokes a sense that the writer comes from an academic background.

Then through a narrative of the plot, supported by quotes, Schillinger gives a sense of the book and its characters.  But suddenly she breaks the flow with “But this isn’t a mystery novel. Or is it?”, and thus establishes intrigue.

Schillinger returns to the plot, but ends these two paragraphs with the questions that arise in the book, reinforcing the mystery component to it.  Through her description the novel seems to be a work of metafiction, not that this term is used in the review.  The review is written intelligently without being patronising or alienating and reads like a conversation, a friend giving a detailed description of the latest book they’ve read.

The final paragraph of the review gives high praise for the skills of Carolyn Parkhurst in writing The Nobodies Album. When I checked Schillinger’s other recent views there often isn’t much of a final comment at all.  The reviews end still focusing on the story within the novel being reviewed rather than the quality of the book.  That said, Schillinger is clever at providing a sense or mood of a book through plot summaries.  It appears the more Schillinger mentions the author in her plot summaries the more she likes the book.
A few times she has given criticism but I’ve yet to read a review where she completely doesn’t like the book.  For instance, in a review of The Summer We Read Gatsby Schillinger calls it, “a plucky homage to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece that has about as much in common with “Gatsby” as Diet Coke has with Perrier-JouĂ«t.”  However, she then spends some time justifying the use of Gatsby in the book’s title.

I think what I like most about Liesl Schillinger’s reviews is the intelligent conversational tone.  It also helps that for her reviews she has approximately 1200 words with which to play.

Schillinger, L 2010, ‘Vision and Revision’, review of The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst, New York Times, 1 July 2010, retrieved 1 August 2010 <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/books/review/Schillinger-t.html?scp=3&sq=&st=nyt>

Schillinger, L 2010, 'Jay, Daisy, Nick and Cassie', review of The Summer We Read Gatsby by Danielle Ganek, New York Times, 27 May 2010, retrieved 1 August 2010 <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/books/review/Schillinger-t.html?scp=7&sq=&st=nyt>

Comparing two reviews of The Slap by Chris Tsiolkas

Reviewing “The Slap” (tutorial work for the subject Reviewing)

Venero Armanno in The Australian approaches his review of The Slap by aligning with the middle-class suburban characters of the book through an illustration of a situation he was in that could be compared to the focal point at the beginning of the book, when the slap of the title occurred.  He then focuses on the violence and the sociocultural aspect of the novel and concludes that it is compulsory reading for a politician needing to determine the mind of Australia’s heartland.  Armanno justifies this by claiming Tsiolkas’s vast variety of characters speak for what Australians “really think behind their smiles” and that Tsiolkas successfully brings the range and wide scope of narratives together to form an overarching viewpoint.  This review comes across as convincing because of the passion behind it and through relating the book to real life examples.  The credentials of Armanno, “Venero Armanno is a Brisbane-based novelist and a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland”, provided at work act as a statement of Armanno’s right to analyse fiction.

The review of The Slap by Kalinda Ashton in Overland is part of a suite of Australian novels being examined in the article.  Overland pitches itself as a “literary and cultural magazine” on its About page.  In this context, as opposed to the more mainstream newspaper, The Australian, Ashton approaches the review from a broader literary perspective.  For instance, she compares The Slap to two of Tsiolkas’s previous novels, Loaded and Dead Europe, and refers to Catherine Belsey, an academic commentator on critical and cultural theory.  It is through these comparisons and use of academic opinion that Ashton justifies her opinion, but mainly it is by making a statement and then backing it with evidence from the book.  Ashton also manages to list many of the more controversial subjects and scenes in the novel without making a judgment on how offensive they might be.  They are laid bare for the readers of the review to note and form their own judgment.

One other distinct difference worth noting between these two reviews is that Armanno is talking to readers, by referring to readers in the third person, whereas Ashton is communicating with her readers by consistently using ‘our’.   By saying “Our sympathies are literally divided among the multiple points of view; our expectations disrupted by contradiction and collision” (p94), Ashton convinces not only by the inclusive pronoun but because the statement is part of her argument against Belsey’s opinion “that the omniscient narrator is suspect in realist writing” (p94) in a clear and persuasive manner.  Ashton shows alternative opinion and then presents an argument against it.  This is a confident technique and thus comes across as very convincing.

As for me, I find The Slap horrifying in that I don’t want to know that some men think the way they do in this book but am fascinated by the nitty-gritty of these characters’ lives and how they fit in the political frame. However, the voice of the teenage girl, Connie, doesn’t ring true for me (I teach teenaged girls) and thus mars an otherwise excellent book.

Armanno, V 2008, ‘Smack dab in the middle class’, review of The Slap by Chris Tsiolkas, The Australian, 8 November, retrieved 1 August 2010

Ashton, K 2009, ‘Forms of hunger and hysteria: recent Australian fiction’, Overland, vol. 194, pp. 93-96, retrieved 1 August 2010