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Book Reviews

What this handout is about.

This handout will help you write a book review, a report or essay that offers a critical perspective on a text. It offers a process and suggests some strategies for writing book reviews.

What is a review?

A review is a critical evaluation of a text, event, object, or phenomenon. Reviews can consider books, articles, entire genres or fields of literature, architecture, art, fashion, restaurants, policies, exhibitions, performances, and many other forms. This handout will focus on book reviews. For a similar assignment, see our handout on literature reviews .

Above all, a review makes an argument. The most important element of a review is that it is a commentary, not merely a summary. It allows you to enter into dialogue and discussion with the work’s creator and with other audiences. You can offer agreement or disagreement and identify where you find the work exemplary or deficient in its knowledge, judgments, or organization. You should clearly state your opinion of the work in question, and that statement will probably resemble other types of academic writing, with a thesis statement, supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

Typically, reviews are brief. In newspapers and academic journals, they rarely exceed 1000 words, although you may encounter lengthier assignments and extended commentaries. In either case, reviews need to be succinct. While they vary in tone, subject, and style, they share some common features:

  • First, a review gives the reader a concise summary of the content. This includes a relevant description of the topic as well as its overall perspective, argument, or purpose.
  • Second, and more importantly, a review offers a critical assessment of the content. This involves your reactions to the work under review: what strikes you as noteworthy, whether or not it was effective or persuasive, and how it enhanced your understanding of the issues at hand.
  • Finally, in addition to analyzing the work, a review often suggests whether or not the audience would appreciate it.

Becoming an expert reviewer: three short examples

Reviewing can be a daunting task. Someone has asked for your opinion about something that you may feel unqualified to evaluate. Who are you to criticize Toni Morrison’s new book if you’ve never written a novel yourself, much less won a Nobel Prize? The point is that someone—a professor, a journal editor, peers in a study group—wants to know what you think about a particular work. You may not be (or feel like) an expert, but you need to pretend to be one for your particular audience. Nobody expects you to be the intellectual equal of the work’s creator, but your careful observations can provide you with the raw material to make reasoned judgments. Tactfully voicing agreement and disagreement, praise and criticism, is a valuable, challenging skill, and like many forms of writing, reviews require you to provide concrete evidence for your assertions.

Consider the following brief book review written for a history course on medieval Europe by a student who is fascinated with beer:

Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600, investigates how women used to brew and sell the majority of ale drunk in England. Historically, ale and beer (not milk, wine, or water) were important elements of the English diet. Ale brewing was low-skill and low status labor that was complimentary to women’s domestic responsibilities. In the early fifteenth century, brewers began to make ale with hops, and they called this new drink “beer.” This technique allowed brewers to produce their beverages at a lower cost and to sell it more easily, although women generally stopped brewing once the business became more profitable.

The student describes the subject of the book and provides an accurate summary of its contents. But the reader does not learn some key information expected from a review: the author’s argument, the student’s appraisal of the book and its argument, and whether or not the student would recommend the book. As a critical assessment, a book review should focus on opinions, not facts and details. Summary should be kept to a minimum, and specific details should serve to illustrate arguments.

Now consider a review of the same book written by a slightly more opinionated student:

Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 was a colossal disappointment. I wanted to know about the rituals surrounding drinking in medieval England: the songs, the games, the parties. Bennett provided none of that information. I liked how the book showed ale and beer brewing as an economic activity, but the reader gets lost in the details of prices and wages. I was more interested in the private lives of the women brewsters. The book was divided into eight long chapters, and I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to read it.

There’s no shortage of judgments in this review! But the student does not display a working knowledge of the book’s argument. The reader has a sense of what the student expected of the book, but no sense of what the author herself set out to prove. Although the student gives several reasons for the negative review, those examples do not clearly relate to each other as part of an overall evaluation—in other words, in support of a specific thesis. This review is indeed an assessment, but not a critical one.

Here is one final review of the same book:

One of feminism’s paradoxes—one that challenges many of its optimistic histories—is how patriarchy remains persistent over time. While Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600 recognizes medieval women as historical actors through their ale brewing, it also shows that female agency had its limits with the advent of beer. I had assumed that those limits were religious and political, but Bennett shows how a “patriarchal equilibrium” shut women out of economic life as well. Her analysis of women’s wages in ale and beer production proves that a change in women’s work does not equate to a change in working women’s status. Contemporary feminists and historians alike should read Bennett’s book and think twice when they crack open their next brewsky.

This student’s review avoids the problems of the previous two examples. It combines balanced opinion and concrete example, a critical assessment based on an explicitly stated rationale, and a recommendation to a potential audience. The reader gets a sense of what the book’s author intended to demonstrate. Moreover, the student refers to an argument about feminist history in general that places the book in a specific genre and that reaches out to a general audience. The example of analyzing wages illustrates an argument, the analysis engages significant intellectual debates, and the reasons for the overall positive review are plainly visible. The review offers criteria, opinions, and support with which the reader can agree or disagree.

Developing an assessment: before you write

There is no definitive method to writing a review, although some critical thinking about the work at hand is necessary before you actually begin writing. Thus, writing a review is a two-step process: developing an argument about the work under consideration, and making that argument as you write an organized and well-supported draft. See our handout on argument .

What follows is a series of questions to focus your thinking as you dig into the work at hand. While the questions specifically consider book reviews, you can easily transpose them to an analysis of performances, exhibitions, and other review subjects. Don’t feel obligated to address each of the questions; some will be more relevant than others to the book in question.

  • What is the thesis—or main argument—of the book? If the author wanted you to get one idea from the book, what would it be? How does it compare or contrast to the world you know? What has the book accomplished?
  • What exactly is the subject or topic of the book? Does the author cover the subject adequately? Does the author cover all aspects of the subject in a balanced fashion? What is the approach to the subject (topical, analytical, chronological, descriptive)?
  • How does the author support their argument? What evidence do they use to prove their point? Do you find that evidence convincing? Why or why not? Does any of the author’s information (or conclusions) conflict with other books you’ve read, courses you’ve taken or just previous assumptions you had of the subject?
  • How does the author structure their argument? What are the parts that make up the whole? Does the argument make sense? Does it persuade you? Why or why not?
  • How has this book helped you understand the subject? Would you recommend the book to your reader?

Beyond the internal workings of the book, you may also consider some information about the author and the circumstances of the text’s production:

  • Who is the author? Nationality, political persuasion, training, intellectual interests, personal history, and historical context may provide crucial details about how a work takes shape. Does it matter, for example, that the biographer was the subject’s best friend? What difference would it make if the author participated in the events they write about?
  • What is the book’s genre? Out of what field does it emerge? Does it conform to or depart from the conventions of its genre? These questions can provide a historical or literary standard on which to base your evaluations. If you are reviewing the first book ever written on the subject, it will be important for your readers to know. Keep in mind, though, that naming “firsts”—alongside naming “bests” and “onlys”—can be a risky business unless you’re absolutely certain.

Writing the review

Once you have made your observations and assessments of the work under review, carefully survey your notes and attempt to unify your impressions into a statement that will describe the purpose or thesis of your review. Check out our handout on thesis statements . Then, outline the arguments that support your thesis.

Your arguments should develop the thesis in a logical manner. That logic, unlike more standard academic writing, may initially emphasize the author’s argument while you develop your own in the course of the review. The relative emphasis depends on the nature of the review: if readers may be more interested in the work itself, you may want to make the work and the author more prominent; if you want the review to be about your perspective and opinions, then you may structure the review to privilege your observations over (but never separate from) those of the work under review. What follows is just one of many ways to organize a review.

Introduction

Since most reviews are brief, many writers begin with a catchy quip or anecdote that succinctly delivers their argument. But you can introduce your review differently depending on the argument and audience. The Writing Center’s handout on introductions can help you find an approach that works. In general, you should include:

  • The name of the author and the book title and the main theme.
  • Relevant details about who the author is and where they stand in the genre or field of inquiry. You could also link the title to the subject to show how the title explains the subject matter.
  • The context of the book and/or your review. Placing your review in a framework that makes sense to your audience alerts readers to your “take” on the book. Perhaps you want to situate a book about the Cuban revolution in the context of Cold War rivalries between the United States and the Soviet Union. Another reviewer might want to consider the book in the framework of Latin American social movements. Your choice of context informs your argument.
  • The thesis of the book. If you are reviewing fiction, this may be difficult since novels, plays, and short stories rarely have explicit arguments. But identifying the book’s particular novelty, angle, or originality allows you to show what specific contribution the piece is trying to make.
  • Your thesis about the book.

Summary of content

This should be brief, as analysis takes priority. In the course of making your assessment, you’ll hopefully be backing up your assertions with concrete evidence from the book, so some summary will be dispersed throughout other parts of the review.

The necessary amount of summary also depends on your audience. Graduate students, beware! If you are writing book reviews for colleagues—to prepare for comprehensive exams, for example—you may want to devote more attention to summarizing the book’s contents. If, on the other hand, your audience has already read the book—such as a class assignment on the same work—you may have more liberty to explore more subtle points and to emphasize your own argument. See our handout on summary for more tips.

Analysis and evaluation of the book

Your analysis and evaluation should be organized into paragraphs that deal with single aspects of your argument. This arrangement can be challenging when your purpose is to consider the book as a whole, but it can help you differentiate elements of your criticism and pair assertions with evidence more clearly. You do not necessarily need to work chronologically through the book as you discuss it. Given the argument you want to make, you can organize your paragraphs more usefully by themes, methods, or other elements of the book. If you find it useful to include comparisons to other books, keep them brief so that the book under review remains in the spotlight. Avoid excessive quotation and give a specific page reference in parentheses when you do quote. Remember that you can state many of the author’s points in your own words.

Sum up or restate your thesis or make the final judgment regarding the book. You should not introduce new evidence for your argument in the conclusion. You can, however, introduce new ideas that go beyond the book if they extend the logic of your own thesis. This paragraph needs to balance the book’s strengths and weaknesses in order to unify your evaluation. Did the body of your review have three negative paragraphs and one favorable one? What do they all add up to? The Writing Center’s handout on conclusions can help you make a final assessment.

Finally, a few general considerations:

  • Review the book in front of you, not the book you wish the author had written. You can and should point out shortcomings or failures, but don’t criticize the book for not being something it was never intended to be.
  • With any luck, the author of the book worked hard to find the right words to express her ideas. You should attempt to do the same. Precise language allows you to control the tone of your review.
  • Never hesitate to challenge an assumption, approach, or argument. Be sure, however, to cite specific examples to back up your assertions carefully.
  • Try to present a balanced argument about the value of the book for its audience. You’re entitled—and sometimes obligated—to voice strong agreement or disagreement. But keep in mind that a bad book takes as long to write as a good one, and every author deserves fair treatment. Harsh judgments are difficult to prove and can give readers the sense that you were unfair in your assessment.
  • A great place to learn about book reviews is to look at examples. The New York Times Sunday Book Review and The New York Review of Books can show you how professional writers review books.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Drewry, John. 1974. Writing Book Reviews. Boston: Greenwood Press.

Hoge, James. 1987. Literary Reviewing. Charlottesville: University Virginia of Press.

Sova, Dawn, and Harry Teitelbaum. 2002. How to Write Book Reports , 4th ed. Lawrenceville, NY: Thomson/Arco.

Walford, A.J. 1986. Reviews and Reviewing: A Guide. Phoenix: Oryx Press.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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If you grow up to be a professional writer, everything you write will first go through an editor before being published. This is because the process of writing is really a process of re-writing —of rethinking and reexamining your work, usually with the help of someone else. So what does this mean for your student writing? And in particular, what does it mean for very important, but nonprofessional writing like your college essay? Should you ask your parents to look at your essay? Pay for an essay service?

If you are wondering what kind of help you can, and should, get with your personal statement, you've come to the right place! In this article, I'll talk about what kind of writing help is useful, ethical, and even expected for your college admission essay . I'll also point out who would make a good editor, what the differences between editing and proofreading are, what to expect from a good editor, and how to spot and stay away from a bad one.

Table of Contents

What Kind of Help for Your Essay Can You Get?

What's Good Editing?

What should an editor do for you, what kind of editing should you avoid, proofreading, what's good proofreading, what kind of proofreading should you avoid.

What Do Colleges Think Of You Getting Help With Your Essay?

Who Can/Should Help You?

Advice for editors.

Should You Pay Money For Essay Editing?

The Bottom Line

What's next, what kind of help with your essay can you get.

Rather than talking in general terms about "help," let's first clarify the two different ways that someone else can improve your writing . There is editing, which is the more intensive kind of assistance that you can use throughout the whole process. And then there's proofreading, which is the last step of really polishing your final product.

Let me go into some more detail about editing and proofreading, and then explain how good editors and proofreaders can help you."

Editing is helping the author (in this case, you) go from a rough draft to a finished work . Editing is the process of asking questions about what you're saying, how you're saying it, and how you're organizing your ideas. But not all editing is good editing . In fact, it's very easy for an editor to cross the line from supportive to overbearing and over-involved.

Ability to clarify assignments. A good editor is usually a good writer, and certainly has to be a good reader. For example, in this case, a good editor should make sure you understand the actual essay prompt you're supposed to be answering.

Open-endedness. Good editing is all about asking questions about your ideas and work, but without providing answers. It's about letting you stick to your story and message, and doesn't alter your point of view.

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Think of an editor as a great travel guide. It can show you the many different places your trip could take you. It should explain any parts of the trip that could derail your trip or confuse the traveler. But it never dictates your path, never forces you to go somewhere you don't want to go, and never ignores your interests so that the trip no longer seems like it's your own. So what should good editors do?

Help Brainstorm Topics

Sometimes it's easier to bounce thoughts off of someone else. This doesn't mean that your editor gets to come up with ideas, but they can certainly respond to the various topic options you've come up with. This way, you're less likely to write about the most boring of your ideas, or to write about something that isn't actually important to you.

If you're wondering how to come up with options for your editor to consider, check out our guide to brainstorming topics for your college essay .

Help Revise Your Drafts

Here, your editor can't upset the delicate balance of not intervening too much or too little. It's tricky, but a great way to think about it is to remember: editing is about asking questions, not giving answers .

Revision questions should point out:

  • Places where more detail or more description would help the reader connect with your essay
  • Places where structure and logic don't flow, losing the reader's attention
  • Places where there aren't transitions between paragraphs, confusing the reader
  • Moments where your narrative or the arguments you're making are unclear

But pointing to potential problems is not the same as actually rewriting—editors let authors fix the problems themselves.

Want to write the perfect college application essay?   We can help.   Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will help you craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay to proudly submit to colleges.   Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now:

Bad editing is usually very heavy-handed editing. Instead of helping you find your best voice and ideas, a bad editor changes your writing into their own vision.

You may be dealing with a bad editor if they:

  • Add material (examples, descriptions) that doesn't come from you
  • Use a thesaurus to make your college essay sound "more mature"
  • Add meaning or insight to the essay that doesn't come from you
  • Tell you what to say and how to say it
  • Write sentences, phrases, and paragraphs for you
  • Change your voice in the essay so it no longer sounds like it was written by a teenager

Colleges can tell the difference between a 17-year-old's writing and a 50-year-old's writing. Not only that, they have access to your SAT or ACT Writing section, so they can compare your essay to something else you wrote. Writing that's a little more polished is great and expected. But a totally different voice and style will raise questions.

Where's the Line Between Helpful Editing and Unethical Over-Editing?

Sometimes it's hard to tell whether your college essay editor is doing the right thing. Here are some guidelines for staying on the ethical side of the line.

  • An editor should say that the opening paragraph is kind of boring, and explain what exactly is making it drag. But it's overstepping for an editor to tell you exactly how to change it.
  • An editor should point out where your prose is unclear or vague. But it's completely inappropriate for the editor to rewrite that section of your essay.
  • An editor should let you know that a section is light on detail or description. But giving you similes and metaphors to beef up that description is a no-go.

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Proofreading (also called copy-editing) is checking for errors in the last draft of a written work. It happens at the end of the process and is meant as the final polishing touch. Proofreading is meticulous and detail-oriented, focusing on small corrections. It sands off all the surface rough spots that could alienate the reader.

Because proofreading is usually concerned with making fixes on the word or sentence level, this is the only process where someone else can actually add to or take away things from your essay . This is because what they are adding or taking away tends to be one or two misplaced letters.

Laser focus. Proofreading is all about the tiny details, so the ability to really concentrate on finding small slip-ups is a must.

Excellent grammar and spelling skills. Proofreaders need to dot every "i" and cross every "t." Good proofreaders should correct spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar. They should put foreign words in italics and surround quotations with quotation marks. They should check that you used the correct college's name, and that you adhered to any formatting requirements (name and date at the top of the page, uniform font and size, uniform spacing).

Limited interference. A proofreader needs to make sure that you followed any word limits. But if cuts need to be made to shorten the essay, that's your job and not the proofreader's.

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A bad proofreader either tries to turn into an editor, or just lacks the skills and knowledge necessary to do the job.

Some signs that you're working with a bad proofreader are:

  • If they suggest making major changes to the final draft of your essay. Proofreading happens when editing is already finished.
  • If they aren't particularly good at spelling, or don't know grammar, or aren't detail-oriented enough to find someone else's small mistakes.
  • If they start swapping out your words for fancier-sounding synonyms, or changing the voice and sound of your essay in other ways. A proofreader is there to check for errors, not to take the 17-year-old out of your writing.

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What Do Colleges Think of Your Getting Help With Your Essay?

Admissions officers agree: light editing and proofreading are good—even required ! But they also want to make sure you're the one doing the work on your essay. They want essays with stories, voice, and themes that come from you. They want to see work that reflects your actual writing ability, and that focuses on what you find important.

On the Importance of Editing

Get feedback. Have a fresh pair of eyes give you some feedback. Don't allow someone else to rewrite your essay, but do take advantage of others' edits and opinions when they seem helpful. ( Bates College )

Read your essay aloud to someone. Reading the essay out loud offers a chance to hear how your essay sounds outside your head. This exercise reveals flaws in the essay's flow, highlights grammatical errors and helps you ensure that you are communicating the exact message you intended. ( Dickinson College )

On the Value of Proofreading

Share your essays with at least one or two people who know you well—such as a parent, teacher, counselor, or friend—and ask for feedback. Remember that you ultimately have control over your essays, and your essays should retain your own voice, but others may be able to catch mistakes that you missed and help suggest areas to cut if you are over the word limit. ( Yale University )

Proofread and then ask someone else to proofread for you. Although we want substance, we also want to be able to see that you can write a paper for our professors and avoid careless mistakes that would drive them crazy. ( Oberlin College )

On Watching Out for Too Much Outside Influence

Limit the number of people who review your essay. Too much input usually means your voice is lost in the writing style. ( Carleton College )

Ask for input (but not too much). Your parents, friends, guidance counselors, coaches, and teachers are great people to bounce ideas off of for your essay. They know how unique and spectacular you are, and they can help you decide how to articulate it. Keep in mind, however, that a 45-year-old lawyer writes quite differently from an 18-year-old student, so if your dad ends up writing the bulk of your essay, we're probably going to notice. ( Vanderbilt University )

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Now let's talk about some potential people to approach for your college essay editing and proofreading needs. It's best to start close to home and slowly expand outward. Not only are your family and friends more invested in your success than strangers, but they also have a better handle on your interests and personality. This knowledge is key for judging whether your essay is expressing your true self.

Parents or Close Relatives

Your family may be full of potentially excellent editors! Parents are deeply committed to your well-being, and family members know you and your life well enough to offer details or incidents that can be included in your essay. On the other hand, the rewriting process necessarily involves criticism, which is sometimes hard to hear from someone very close to you.

A parent or close family member is a great choice for an editor if you can answer "yes" to the following questions. Is your parent or close relative a good writer or reader? Do you have a relationship where editing your essay won't create conflict? Are you able to constructively listen to criticism and suggestion from the parent?

One suggestion for defusing face-to-face discussions is to try working on the essay over email. Send your parent a draft, have them write you back some comments, and then you can pick which of their suggestions you want to use and which to discard.

Teachers or Tutors

A humanities teacher that you have a good relationship with is a great choice. I am purposefully saying humanities, and not just English, because teachers of Philosophy, History, Anthropology, and any other classes where you do a lot of writing, are all used to reviewing student work.

Moreover, any teacher or tutor that has been working with you for some time, knows you very well and can vet the essay to make sure it "sounds like you."

If your teacher or tutor has some experience with what college essays are supposed to be like, ask them to be your editor. If not, then ask whether they have time to proofread your final draft.

Guidance or College Counselor at Your School

The best thing about asking your counselor to edit your work is that this is their job. This means that they have a very good sense of what colleges are looking for in an application essay.

At the same time, school counselors tend to have relationships with admissions officers in many colleges, which again gives them insight into what works and which college is focused on what aspect of the application.

Unfortunately, in many schools the guidance counselor tends to be way overextended. If your ratio is 300 students to 1 college counselor, you're unlikely to get that person's undivided attention and focus. It is still useful to ask them for general advice about your potential topics, but don't expect them to be able to stay with your essay from first draft to final version.

Friends, Siblings, or Classmates

Although they most likely don't have much experience with what colleges are hoping to see, your peers are excellent sources for checking that your essay is you .

Friends and siblings are perfect for the read-aloud edit. Read your essay to them so they can listen for words and phrases that are stilted, pompous, or phrases that just don't sound like you.

You can even trade essays and give helpful advice on each other's work.

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If your editor hasn't worked with college admissions essays very much, no worries! Any astute and attentive reader can still greatly help with your process. But, as in all things, beginners do better with some preparation.

First, your editor should read our advice about how to write a college essay introduction , how to spot and fix a bad college essay , and get a sense of what other students have written by going through some admissions essays that worked .

Then, as they read your essay, they can work through the following series of questions that will help them to guide you.

Introduction Questions

  • Is the first sentence a killer opening line? Why or why not?
  • Does the introduction hook the reader? Does it have a colorful, detailed, and interesting narrative? Or does it propose a compelling or surprising idea?
  • Can you feel the author's voice in the introduction, or is the tone dry, dull, or overly formal? Show the places where the voice comes through.

Essay Body Questions

  • Does the essay have a through-line? Is it built around a central argument, thought, idea, or focus? Can you put this idea into your own words?
  • How is the essay organized? By logical progression? Chronologically? Do you feel order when you read it, or are there moments where you are confused or lose the thread of the essay?
  • Does the essay have both narratives about the author's life and explanations and insight into what these stories reveal about the author's character, personality, goals, or dreams? If not, which is missing?
  • Does the essay flow? Are there smooth transitions/clever links between paragraphs? Between the narrative and moments of insight?

Reader Response Questions

  • Does the writer's personality come through? Do we know what the speaker cares about? Do we get a sense of "who he or she is"?
  • Where did you feel most connected to the essay? Which parts of the essay gave you a "you are there" sensation by invoking your senses? What moments could you picture in your head well?
  • Where are the details and examples vague and not specific enough?
  • Did you get an "a-ha!" feeling anywhere in the essay? Is there a moment of insight that connected all the dots for you? Is there a good reveal or "twist" anywhere in the essay?
  • What are the strengths of this essay? What needs the most improvement?

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Should You Pay Money for Essay Editing?

One alternative to asking someone you know to help you with your college essay is the paid editor route. There are two different ways to pay for essay help: a private essay coach or a less personal editing service , like the many proliferating on the internet.

My advice is to think of these options as a last resort rather than your go-to first choice. I'll first go through the reasons why. Then, if you do decide to go with a paid editor, I'll help you decide between a coach and a service.

When to Consider a Paid Editor

In general, I think hiring someone to work on your essay makes a lot of sense if none of the people I discussed above are a possibility for you.

If you can't ask your parents. For example, if your parents aren't good writers, or if English isn't their first language. Or if you think getting your parents to help is going create unnecessary extra conflict in your relationship with them (applying to college is stressful as it is!)

If you can't ask your teacher or tutor. Maybe you don't have a trusted teacher or tutor that has time to look over your essay with focus. Or, for instance, your favorite humanities teacher has very limited experience with college essays and so won't know what admissions officers want to see.

If you can't ask your guidance counselor. This could be because your guidance counselor is way overwhelmed with other students.

If you can't share your essay with those who know you. It might be that your essay is on a very personal topic that you're unwilling to share with parents, teachers, or peers. Just make sure it doesn't fall into one of the bad-idea topics in our article on bad college essays .

If the cost isn't a consideration. Many of these services are quite expensive, and private coaches even more so. If you have finite resources, I'd say that hiring an SAT or ACT tutor (whether it's PrepScholar or someone else) is better way to spend your money . This is because there's no guarantee that a slightly better essay will sufficiently elevate the rest of your application, but a significantly higher SAT score will definitely raise your applicant profile much more.

Should You Hire an Essay Coach?

On the plus side, essay coaches have read dozens or even hundreds of college essays, so they have experience with the format. Also, because you'll be working closely with a specific person, it's more personal than sending your essay to a service, which will know even less about you.

But, on the minus side, you'll still be bouncing ideas off of someone who doesn't know that much about you . In general, if you can adequately get the help from someone you know, there is no advantage to paying someone to help you.

If you do decide to hire a coach, ask your school counselor, or older students that have used the service for recommendations. If you can't afford the coach's fees, ask whether they can work on a sliding scale —many do. And finally, beware those who guarantee admission to your school of choice—essay coaches don't have any special magic that can back up those promises.

Should You Send Your Essay to a Service?

On the plus side, essay editing services provide a similar product to essay coaches, and they cost significantly less . If you have some assurance that you'll be working with a good editor, the lack of face-to-face interaction won't prevent great results.

On the minus side, however, it can be difficult to gauge the quality of the service before working with them . If they are churning through many application essays without getting to know the students they are helping, you could end up with an over-edited essay that sounds just like everyone else's. In the worst case scenario, an unscrupulous service could send you back a plagiarized essay.

Getting recommendations from friends or a school counselor for reputable services is key to avoiding heavy-handed editing that writes essays for you or does too much to change your essay. Including a badly-edited essay like this in your application could cause problems if there are inconsistencies. For example, in interviews it might be clear you didn't write the essay, or the skill of the essay might not be reflected in your schoolwork and test scores.

Should You Buy an Essay Written by Someone Else?

Let me elaborate. There are super sketchy places on the internet where you can simply buy a pre-written essay. Don't do this!

For one thing, you'll be lying on an official, signed document. All college applications make you sign a statement saying something like this:

I certify that all information submitted in the admission process—including the application, the personal essay, any supplements, and any other supporting materials—is my own work, factually true, and honestly presented... I understand that I may be subject to a range of possible disciplinary actions, including admission revocation, expulsion, or revocation of course credit, grades, and degree, should the information I have certified be false. (From the Common Application )

For another thing, if your academic record doesn't match the essay's quality, the admissions officer will start thinking your whole application is riddled with lies.

Admission officers have full access to your writing portion of the SAT or ACT so that they can compare work that was done in proctored conditions with that done at home. They can tell if these were written by different people. Not only that, but there are now a number of search engines that faculty and admission officers can use to see if an essay contains strings of words that have appeared in other essays—you have no guarantee that the essay you bought wasn't also bought by 50 other students.

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  • You should get college essay help with both editing and proofreading
  • A good editor will ask questions about your idea, logic, and structure, and will point out places where clarity is needed
  • A good editor will absolutely not answer these questions, give you their own ideas, or write the essay or parts of the essay for you
  • A good proofreader will find typos and check your formatting
  • All of them agree that getting light editing and proofreading is necessary
  • Parents, teachers, guidance or college counselor, and peers or siblings
  • If you can't ask any of those, you can pay for college essay help, but watch out for services or coaches who over-edit you work
  • Don't buy a pre-written essay! Colleges can tell, and it'll make your whole application sound false.

Ready to start working on your essay? Check out our explanation of the point of the personal essay and the role it plays on your applications and then explore our step-by-step guide to writing a great college essay .

Using the Common Application for your college applications? We have an excellent guide to the Common App essay prompts and useful advice on how to pick the Common App prompt that's right for you . Wondering how other people tackled these prompts? Then work through our roundup of over 130 real college essay examples published by colleges .

Stressed about whether to take the SAT again before submitting your application? Let us help you decide how many times to take this test . If you choose to go for it, we have the ultimate guide to studying for the SAT to give you the ins and outs of the best ways to study.

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points?   We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download them for free now:

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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How to Write Critical Reviews

When you are asked to write a critical review of a book or article, you will need to identify, summarize, and evaluate the ideas and information the author has presented. In other words, you will be examining another person’s thoughts on a topic from your point of view.

Your stand must go beyond your “gut reaction” to the work and be based on your knowledge (readings, lecture, experience) of the topic as well as on factors such as criteria stated in your assignment or discussed by you and your instructor.

Make your stand clear at the beginning of your review, in your evaluations of specific parts, and in your concluding commentary.

Remember that your goal should be to make a few key points about the book or article, not to discuss everything the author writes.

Understanding the Assignment

To write a good critical review, you will have to engage in the mental processes of analyzing (taking apart) the work–deciding what its major components are and determining how these parts (i.e., paragraphs, sections, or chapters) contribute to the work as a whole.

Analyzing the work will help you focus on how and why the author makes certain points and prevent you from merely summarizing what the author says. Assuming the role of an analytical reader will also help you to determine whether or not the author fulfills the stated purpose of the book or article and enhances your understanding or knowledge of a particular topic.

Be sure to read your assignment thoroughly before you read the article or book. Your instructor may have included specific guidelines for you to follow. Keeping these guidelines in mind as you read the article or book can really help you write your paper!

Also, note where the work connects with what you’ve studied in the course. You can make the most efficient use of your reading and notetaking time if you are an active reader; that is, keep relevant questions in mind and jot down page numbers as well as your responses to ideas that appear to be significant as you read.

Please note: The length of your introduction and overview, the number of points you choose to review, and the length of your conclusion should be proportionate to the page limit stated in your assignment and should reflect the complexity of the material being reviewed as well as the expectations of your reader.

Write the introduction

Below are a few guidelines to help you write the introduction to your critical review.

Introduce your review appropriately

Begin your review with an introduction appropriate to your assignment.

If your assignment asks you to review only one book and not to use outside sources, your introduction will focus on identifying the author, the title, the main topic or issue presented in the book, and the author’s purpose in writing the book.

If your assignment asks you to review the book as it relates to issues or themes discussed in the course, or to review two or more books on the same topic, your introduction must also encompass those expectations.

Explain relationships

For example, before you can review two books on a topic, you must explain to your reader in your introduction how they are related to one another.

Within this shared context (or under this “umbrella”) you can then review comparable aspects of both books, pointing out where the authors agree and differ.

In other words, the more complicated your assignment is, the more your introduction must accomplish.

Finally, the introduction to a book review is always the place for you to establish your position as the reviewer (your thesis about the author’s thesis).

As you write, consider the following questions:

  • Is the book a memoir, a treatise, a collection of facts, an extended argument, etc.? Is the article a documentary, a write-up of primary research, a position paper, etc.?
  • Who is the author? What does the preface or foreword tell you about the author’s purpose, background, and credentials? What is the author’s approach to the topic (as a journalist? a historian? a researcher?)?
  • What is the main topic or problem addressed? How does the work relate to a discipline, to a profession, to a particular audience, or to other works on the topic?
  • What is your critical evaluation of the work (your thesis)? Why have you taken that position? What criteria are you basing your position on?

Provide an overview

In your introduction, you will also want to provide an overview. An overview supplies your reader with certain general information not appropriate for including in the introduction but necessary to understanding the body of the review.

Generally, an overview describes your book’s division into chapters, sections, or points of discussion. An overview may also include background information about the topic, about your stand, or about the criteria you will use for evaluation.

The overview and the introduction work together to provide a comprehensive beginning for (a “springboard” into) your review.

  • What are the author’s basic premises? What issues are raised, or what themes emerge? What situation (i.e., racism on college campuses) provides a basis for the author’s assertions?
  • How informed is my reader? What background information is relevant to the entire book and should be placed here rather than in a body paragraph?

Write the body

The body is the center of your paper, where you draw out your main arguments. Below are some guidelines to help you write it.

Organize using a logical plan

Organize the body of your review according to a logical plan. Here are two options:

  • First, summarize, in a series of paragraphs, those major points from the book that you plan to discuss; incorporating each major point into a topic sentence for a paragraph is an effective organizational strategy. Second, discuss and evaluate these points in a following group of paragraphs. (There are two dangers lurking in this pattern–you may allot too many paragraphs to summary and too few to evaluation, or you may re-summarize too many points from the book in your evaluation section.)
  • Alternatively, you can summarize and evaluate the major points you have chosen from the book in a point-by-point schema. That means you will discuss and evaluate point one within the same paragraph (or in several if the point is significant and warrants extended discussion) before you summarize and evaluate point two, point three, etc., moving in a logical sequence from point to point to point. Here again, it is effective to use the topic sentence of each paragraph to identify the point from the book that you plan to summarize or evaluate.

Questions to keep in mind as you write

With either organizational pattern, consider the following questions:

  • What are the author’s most important points? How do these relate to one another? (Make relationships clear by using transitions: “In contrast,” an equally strong argument,” “moreover,” “a final conclusion,” etc.).
  • What types of evidence or information does the author present to support his or her points? Is this evidence convincing, controversial, factual, one-sided, etc.? (Consider the use of primary historical material, case studies, narratives, recent scientific findings, statistics.)
  • Where does the author do a good job of conveying factual material as well as personal perspective? Where does the author fail to do so? If solutions to a problem are offered, are they believable, misguided, or promising?
  • Which parts of the work (particular arguments, descriptions, chapters, etc.) are most effective and which parts are least effective? Why?
  • Where (if at all) does the author convey personal prejudice, support illogical relationships, or present evidence out of its appropriate context?

Keep your opinions distinct and cite your sources

Remember, as you discuss the author’s major points, be sure to distinguish consistently between the author’s opinions and your own.

Keep the summary portions of your discussion concise, remembering that your task as a reviewer is to re-see the author’s work, not to re-tell it.

And, importantly, if you refer to ideas from other books and articles or from lecture and course materials, always document your sources, or else you might wander into the realm of plagiarism.

Include only that material which has relevance for your review and use direct quotations sparingly. The Writing Center has other handouts to help you paraphrase text and introduce quotations.

Write the conclusion

You will want to use the conclusion to state your overall critical evaluation.

You have already discussed the major points the author makes, examined how the author supports arguments, and evaluated the quality or effectiveness of specific aspects of the book or article.

Now you must make an evaluation of the work as a whole, determining such things as whether or not the author achieves the stated or implied purpose and if the work makes a significant contribution to an existing body of knowledge.

Consider the following questions:

  • Is the work appropriately subjective or objective according to the author’s purpose?
  • How well does the work maintain its stated or implied focus? Does the author present extraneous material? Does the author exclude or ignore relevant information?
  • How well has the author achieved the overall purpose of the book or article? What contribution does the work make to an existing body of knowledge or to a specific group of readers? Can you justify the use of this work in a particular course?
  • What is the most important final comment you wish to make about the book or article? Do you have any suggestions for the direction of future research in the area? What has reading this work done for you or demonstrated to you?

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Review Essays for the Biological Sciences

A review essay for the biological sciences serves to discuss and synthesize key findings on a particular subject. Review papers are helpful to the writer and their colleagues in gaining critical awareness in specialized fields that may or may not be their own.

This guide explains what a review essay is and identifies several approaches to writing a review essay. Although much of the information is geared directly to the biological sciences, it is generally applicable to review essays in all fields.

What is a Review Essay?

A review essay is a synthesis of primary sources (mainly research papers presented in academic journals) on a given topic. A biological review essay demonstrates that the writer has thorough understanding of the literature and can formulate a useful analysis. While no new research is presented by the writer, the field benefits from the review by recieving a new perspective. There are several approaches one may take when writing a biological review:

A State of the art review

A state of the art review considers mainly the most current research in a given area. The review may offer new perspectives on an issue or point out an area in need of further research.

A Historical review

A historical review is a survey of the development of a particular field of study. It may examine the early stages of the field, key findings to present, key theoretical models and their evolution, etc.

A Comparison of perspectives review

A comparison of perspectives review contrasts various ways of looking at a certain topic. If in fact there is a debate over some process or idea, a comparison of perspectives review may illustrate the research that supports both sides. A comparison of perspectives review may introduce a new perspective by way of comparing it to another.

A Synthesis of two fields review

Many times researchers in different fields may be working on similar problems. A synthesis of two fields review provides insights into a given topic based on a review of the literature from two or more disciplines.

A Theoretical model building review

A theoretical model building review examines the literature within a given area with the intention of developing new theoretical assumptions.

Key considerations for writing a biological review essay

This guide will inform you of certain things not to miss when writing a review essay. It will also give you some information about using and documenting your sources.

Keep your focus narrow.

When writing a review essay it is important to keep the scope of the topic narrow enough so that you can discuss it thoroughly. For example a topic such as air quality in factories could be narrowed significantly to something like carbon dioxide levels in auto manufacturing plants .

A good way to narrow your focus is to start with a broad topic that is of some interest to you, then read some of the literature in the field. Look for a thread of the discussion that points to a more specific topic.

Analyze, synthesize, and interpret.

A review essay is not a pure summary of the information you read for your review. You are required to analyze, synthesize, and interpret the information you read in some meaningful way.

It is not enough to simply present the material you have found, you must go beyond that and explain its relevance and significance to the topic at hand.

Establish a clear thesis from the onset of your writing and examine which pieces of your reading help you in developing and supporting the ideas in your thesis.

Use only academic sources.

A review essay reviews the academic body of literature—articles and research presented in academic journals. Lay periodicals such as, Discover , Scientific America , or Popular Science , are not adequate sources for an academic review essay.

If you are having trouble finding the academic journals in your field, ask one of your professors or a reference librarian.

Document your sources.

The material that you discuss in a review essay is obviously not your own, therefore it is crucial to document your sources properly. Proper documentation is crucial for two reasons: 1. It prevents the writer from being accused of plagiarism and 2. It gives the reader the opportunity to locate the sources the writer has reviewed because they may find them valuable in their own academic pursuits. Proper documentation depends on which style guide you are following.

Quote sparingly and properly.

No one wants to read a paper that is simply a string of quotes; reserve direct quotations for when you want to create a big impact. Often times the way a quote is written will not fit with the language or the style of your paper so paraphrase the authors words carefully and verbage as necessary to create a well formed paragraph.

Choose an informative title.

The title you choose for your review essay should give some indication of what lies ahead for the reader. You might consider the process you took in narrowing your topic to help you with your title—think of the title as something specific rather than a vague representation of your paper's topic. For example the title Wastewater Treatment might be more informative if rewritten as The Removal of Cloroform Bacteria as Practiced by California's Municipal Water Treatment Facilities .

Consider your audience.

More than likely your audience will be your academic peers, therefore you can make a couple assumptions and choose a writing style that suits the audience. Though your audience may lack the detailed knowledge you have about your topic, they do have similar background knowledge to you. You can assume that you audience understands much of the technical language you have to use to write about your topic and you do not have to go into great detail about background information.

Elements of a review essay

This guide explains each section of a review essay and gives specific information about what should be included in each.

On the title page include the title, your name, and the date. Your instructor may have additional requirements (such as the course number, etc.) so be sure to follow the guidelines on the assignment sheet. Professional journals may also have more specific requirements for the title page.

An abstract is a brief summary of your review. The abstract should include only the main points of your review. Think of the abstract as a chance for the reader to preview your paper and decide if they want to read on for the details.

Introduction

The introduction of your review should accomplish three things:

  • It may sound redundant to "introduce" your topic in the introduction, but often times writer's fail to do so. Let the reader in on background information specific to the topic, define terms that may be unfamiliar to them, explain the scope of the discussion, and your purpose for writing the review.
  • Think of your review essay as a statement in the larger conversation of your academic community. Your review is your way of entering into that conversation and it is important to briefly address why your review is relevant to the discussion. You may feel the relevance is obvious because you are so familiar with the topic, but your readers have not yet established that familiarity.
  • The thesis is the main idea that you want to get across to your reader. your thesis should be a clear statement of what you intend to prove or illustrate by your review. By revealing your thesis in the introduction the reader knows what to expect in the rest of the paper.

The discussion section is the body of your paper. The discussion section contains information that develops and supports your thesis. While there is no particular form that a discussion section must take there are several considerations that a writer must follow when building a discussion.

  • A review essay is not simply a summary of literature you have reviewed. Be careful not to leave out your own analysis of the ideas presented in the literature. Synthesize the material from all the works—what are the connections you see, or the connections you are trying to illustrate, among your readings.

A review essay is not a pure summary of the information you read for your review. You are required to analyze, synthesize, and interpret the information you read in some meaningful way. It is not enough to simply present the material you have found, you must go beyond that and explain its relevance and significance to the topic at hand. Establish a clear thesis from the onset of your writing and examine which pieces of your reading help you in developing and supporting the ideas in your thesis.

  • Keep your discussion focused on your topic and more importantly your thesis. Don't let tangents or extraneous material get in the way of a concise, coherent discussion. A well focused paper is crucial in getting your message across to your reader.
  • Keeping your points organized makes it easier for the reader to follow along and make sense of your review. Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that relates back to your thesis. The headings used for this guide give you some idea of how to organize the overall paper, but as far as the discussion section goes use meaningful subheadings that relate to your content to organize your points.
  • Your thesis should illustrate your objectives in writing the review and your discussion should serve to accomplish your objectives. Make sure your keep your discussion related to the thesis in order to meet your objectives. If you find that your discussion does not relate so much to your thesis, don't panic, you might want to revise your thesis instead of reworking the discussion.

Conclusions

Because the conclusions section often gets left for last it is often the weakest part of a student review essay. It is as crucial a part of the paper as any and should be treated as such.

A good conclusion should illustrate the key connections between your major points and your thesis as well as they key connections between your thesis and the broader discussion—what is the significance of your paper in a larger context? Make some conclusions —where have you arrived as a result of writing this paper?

Be careful not to present any new information in the conclusion section.

Here you report all the works you have cited in your paper. The format for a references page varies by discipline as does how you should cite your references within the paper.

Citation Information

Neal Bastek. (1994-2024). Review Essays for the Biological Sciences. The WAC Clearinghouse. Colorado State University. Available at https://wac.colostate.edu/repository/writing/guides/.

Copyright Information

Copyright © 1994-2024 Colorado State University and/or this site's authors, developers, and contributors . Some material displayed on this site is used with permission.

17 Book Review Examples to Help You Write the Perfect Review

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17 book review examples to help you write the perfect review.

17 Book Review Examples to Help You Write the Perfect Review

It’s an exciting time to be a book reviewer. Once confined to print newspapers and journals, reviews now dot many corridors of the Internet — forever helping others discover their next great read. That said, every book reviewer will face a familiar panic: how can you do justice to a great book in just a thousand words?

As you know, the best way to learn how to do something is by immersing yourself in it. Luckily, the Internet (i.e. Goodreads and other review sites , in particular) has made book reviews more accessible than ever — which means that there are a lot of book reviews examples out there for you to view!

In this post, we compiled 17 prototypical book review examples in multiple genres to help you figure out how to write the perfect review . If you want to jump straight to the examples, you can skip the next section. Otherwise, let’s first check out what makes up a good review.

Are you interested in becoming a book reviewer? We recommend you check out Reedsy Discovery , where you can earn money for writing reviews — and are guaranteed people will read your reviews! To register as a book reviewer, sign up here.

Pro-tip : But wait! How are you sure if you should become a book reviewer in the first place? If you're on the fence, or curious about your match with a book reviewing career, take our quick quiz:

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What must a book review contain?

Like all works of art, no two book reviews will be identical. But fear not: there are a few guidelines for any aspiring book reviewer to follow. Most book reviews, for instance, are less than 1,500 words long, with the sweet spot hitting somewhere around the 1,000-word mark. (However, this may vary depending on the platform on which you’re writing, as we’ll see later.)

In addition, all reviews share some universal elements, as shown in our book review templates . These include:

  • A review will offer a concise plot summary of the book. 
  • A book review will offer an evaluation of the work. 
  • A book review will offer a recommendation for the audience. 

If these are the basic ingredients that make up a book review, it’s the tone and style with which the book reviewer writes that brings the extra panache. This will differ from platform to platform, of course. A book review on Goodreads, for instance, will be much more informal and personal than a book review on Kirkus Reviews, as it is catering to a different audience. However, at the end of the day, the goal of all book reviews is to give the audience the tools to determine whether or not they’d like to read the book themselves.

Keeping that in mind, let’s proceed to some book review examples to put all of this in action.

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Book review examples for fiction books

Since story is king in the world of fiction, it probably won’t come as any surprise to learn that a book review for a novel will concentrate on how well the story was told .

That said, book reviews in all genres follow the same basic formula that we discussed earlier. In these examples, you’ll be able to see how book reviewers on different platforms expertly intertwine the plot summary and their personal opinions of the book to produce a clear, informative, and concise review.

Note: Some of the book review examples run very long. If a book review is truncated in this post, we’ve indicated by including a […] at the end, but you can always read the entire review if you click on the link provided.

Examples of literary fiction book reviews

Kirkus Reviews reviews Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man :

An extremely powerful story of a young Southern Negro, from his late high school days through three years of college to his life in Harlem.
His early training prepared him for a life of humility before white men, but through injustices- large and small, he came to realize that he was an "invisible man". People saw in him only a reflection of their preconceived ideas of what he was, denied his individuality, and ultimately did not see him at all. This theme, which has implications far beyond the obvious racial parallel, is skillfully handled. The incidents of the story are wholly absorbing. The boy's dismissal from college because of an innocent mistake, his shocked reaction to the anonymity of the North and to Harlem, his nightmare experiences on a one-day job in a paint factory and in the hospital, his lightning success as the Harlem leader of a communistic organization known as the Brotherhood, his involvement in black versus white and black versus black clashes and his disillusion and understanding of his invisibility- all climax naturally in scenes of violence and riot, followed by a retreat which is both literal and figurative. Parts of this experience may have been told before, but never with such freshness, intensity and power.
This is Ellison's first novel, but he has complete control of his story and his style. Watch it.

Lyndsey reviews George Orwell’s 1984 on Goodreads:

YOU. ARE. THE. DEAD. Oh my God. I got the chills so many times toward the end of this book. It completely blew my mind. It managed to surpass my high expectations AND be nothing at all like I expected. Or in Newspeak "Double Plus Good." Let me preface this with an apology. If I sound stunningly inarticulate at times in this review, I can't help it. My mind is completely fried.
This book is like the dystopian Lord of the Rings, with its richly developed culture and economics, not to mention a fully developed language called Newspeak, or rather more of the anti-language, whose purpose is to limit speech and understanding instead of to enhance and expand it. The world-building is so fully fleshed out and spine-tinglingly terrifying that it's almost as if George travelled to such a place, escaped from it, and then just wrote it all down.
I read Fahrenheit 451 over ten years ago in my early teens. At the time, I remember really wanting to read 1984, although I never managed to get my hands on it. I'm almost glad I didn't. Though I would not have admitted it at the time, it would have gone over my head. Or at the very least, I wouldn't have been able to appreciate it fully. […]

The New York Times reviews Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry :

Three-quarters of the way through Lisa Halliday’s debut novel, “Asymmetry,” a British foreign correspondent named Alistair is spending Christmas on a compound outside of Baghdad. His fellow revelers include cameramen, defense contractors, United Nations employees and aid workers. Someone’s mother has FedExed a HoneyBaked ham from Maine; people are smoking by the swimming pool. It is 2003, just days after Saddam Hussein’s capture, and though the mood is optimistic, Alistair is worrying aloud about the ethics of his chosen profession, wondering if reporting on violence doesn’t indirectly abet violence and questioning why he’d rather be in a combat zone than reading a picture book to his son. But every time he returns to London, he begins to “spin out.” He can’t go home. “You observe what people do with their freedom — what they don’t do — and it’s impossible not to judge them for it,” he says.
The line, embedded unceremoniously in the middle of a page-long paragraph, doubles, like so many others in “Asymmetry,” as literary criticism. Halliday’s novel is so strange and startlingly smart that its mere existence seems like commentary on the state of fiction. One finishes “Asymmetry” for the first or second (or like this reader, third) time and is left wondering what other writers are not doing with their freedom — and, like Alistair, judging them for it.
Despite its title, “Asymmetry” comprises two seemingly unrelated sections of equal length, appended by a slim and quietly shocking coda. Halliday’s prose is clean and lean, almost reportorial in the style of W. G. Sebald, and like the murmurings of a shy person at a cocktail party, often comic only in single clauses. It’s a first novel that reads like the work of an author who has published many books over many years. […]

Emily W. Thompson reviews Michael Doane's The Crossing on Reedsy Discovery :

In Doane’s debut novel, a young man embarks on a journey of self-discovery with surprising results.
An unnamed protagonist (The Narrator) is dealing with heartbreak. His love, determined to see the world, sets out for Portland, Oregon. But he’s a small-town boy who hasn’t traveled much. So, the Narrator mourns her loss and hides from life, throwing himself into rehabbing an old motorcycle. Until one day, he takes a leap; he packs his bike and a few belongings and heads out to find the Girl.
Following in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac and William Least Heat-Moon, Doane offers a coming of age story about a man finding himself on the backroads of America. Doane’s a gifted writer with fluid prose and insightful observations, using The Narrator’s personal interactions to illuminate the diversity of the United States.
The Narrator initially sticks to the highways, trying to make it to the West Coast as quickly as possible. But a hitchhiker named Duke convinces him to get off the beaten path and enjoy the ride. “There’s not a place that’s like any other,” [39] Dukes contends, and The Narrator realizes he’s right. Suddenly, the trip is about the journey, not just the destination. The Narrator ditches his truck and traverses the deserts and mountains on his bike. He destroys his phone, cutting off ties with his past and living only in the moment.
As he crosses the country, The Narrator connects with several unique personalities whose experiences and views deeply impact his own. Duke, the complicated cowboy and drifter, who opens The Narrator’s eyes to a larger world. Zooey, the waitress in Colorado who opens his heart and reminds him that love can be found in this big world. And Rosie, The Narrator’s sweet landlady in Portland, who helps piece him back together both physically and emotionally.
This supporting cast of characters is excellent. Duke, in particular, is wonderfully nuanced and complicated. He’s a throwback to another time, a man without a cell phone who reads Sartre and sleeps under the stars. Yet he’s also a grifter with a “love ‘em and leave ‘em” attitude that harms those around him. It’s fascinating to watch The Narrator wrestle with Duke’s behavior, trying to determine which to model and which to discard.
Doane creates a relatable protagonist in The Narrator, whose personal growth doesn’t erase his faults. His willingness to hit the road with few resources is admirable, and he’s prescient enough to recognize the jealousy of those who cannot or will not take the leap. His encounters with new foods, places, and people broaden his horizons. Yet his immaturity and selfishness persist. He tells Rosie she’s been a good mother to him but chooses to ignore the continuing concern from his own parents as he effectively disappears from his old life.
Despite his flaws, it’s a pleasure to accompany The Narrator on his physical and emotional journey. The unexpected ending is a fitting denouement to an epic and memorable road trip.

The Book Smugglers review Anissa Gray’s The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls :

I am still dipping my toes into the literally fiction pool, finding what works for me and what doesn’t. Books like The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray are definitely my cup of tea.
Althea and Proctor Cochran had been pillars of their economically disadvantaged community for years – with their local restaurant/small market and their charity drives. Until they are found guilty of fraud for stealing and keeping most of the money they raised and sent to jail. Now disgraced, their entire family is suffering the consequences, specially their twin teenage daughters Baby Vi and Kim.  To complicate matters even more: Kim was actually the one to call the police on her parents after yet another fight with her mother. […]

Examples of children’s and YA fiction book reviews

The Book Hookup reviews Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give :

♥ Quick Thoughts and Rating: 5 stars! I can’t imagine how challenging it would be to tackle the voice of a movement like Black Lives Matter, but I do know that Thomas did it with a finesse only a talented author like herself possibly could. With an unapologetically realistic delivery packed with emotion, The Hate U Give is a crucially important portrayal of the difficulties minorities face in our country every single day. I have no doubt that this book will be met with resistance by some (possibly many) and slapped with a “controversial” label, but if you’ve ever wondered what it was like to walk in a POC’s shoes, then I feel like this is an unflinchingly honest place to start.
In Angie Thomas’s debut novel, Starr Carter bursts on to the YA scene with both heart-wrecking and heartwarming sincerity. This author is definitely one to watch.
♥ Review: The hype around this book has been unquestionable and, admittedly, that made me both eager to get my hands on it and terrified to read it. I mean, what if I was to be the one person that didn’t love it as much as others? (That seems silly now because of how truly mesmerizing THUG was in the most heartbreakingly realistic way.) However, with the relevancy of its summary in regards to the unjust predicaments POC currently face in the US, I knew this one was a must-read, so I was ready to set my fears aside and dive in. That said, I had an altogether more personal, ulterior motive for wanting to read this book. […]

The New York Times reviews Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood :

Alice Crewe (a last name she’s chosen for herself) is a fairy tale legacy: the granddaughter of Althea Proserpine, author of a collection of dark-as-night fairy tales called “Tales From the Hinterland.” The book has a cult following, and though Alice has never met her grandmother, she’s learned a little about her through internet research. She hasn’t read the stories, because her mother, Ella Proserpine, forbids it.
Alice and Ella have moved from place to place in an attempt to avoid the “bad luck” that seems to follow them. Weird things have happened. As a child, Alice was kidnapped by a man who took her on a road trip to find her grandmother; he was stopped by the police before they did so. When at 17 she sees that man again, unchanged despite the years, Alice panics. Then Ella goes missing, and Alice turns to Ellery Finch, a schoolmate who’s an Althea Proserpine superfan, for help in tracking down her mother. Not only has Finch read every fairy tale in the collection, but handily, he remembers them, sharing them with Alice as they journey to the mysterious Hazel Wood, the estate of her now-dead grandmother, where they hope to find Ella.
“The Hazel Wood” starts out strange and gets stranger, in the best way possible. (The fairy stories Finch relays, which Albert includes as their own chapters, are as creepy and evocative as you’d hope.) Albert seamlessly combines contemporary realism with fantasy, blurring the edges in a way that highlights that place where stories and real life convene, where magic contains truth and the world as it appears is false, where just about anything can happen, particularly in the pages of a very good book. It’s a captivating debut. […]

James reviews Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight, Moon on Goodreads:

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown is one of the books that followers of my blog voted as a must-read for our Children's Book August 2018 Readathon. Come check it out and join the next few weeks!
This picture book was such a delight. I hadn't remembered reading it when I was a child, but it might have been read to me... either way, it was like a whole new experience! It's always so difficult to convince a child to fall asleep at night. I don't have kids, but I do have a 5-month-old puppy who whines for 5 minutes every night when he goes in his cage/crate (hopefully he'll be fully housebroken soon so he can roam around when he wants). I can only imagine! I babysat a lot as a teenager and I have tons of younger cousins, nieces, and nephews, so I've been through it before, too. This was a believable experience, and it really helps show kids how to relax and just let go when it's time to sleep.
The bunny's are adorable. The rhymes are exquisite. I found it pretty fun, but possibly a little dated given many of those things aren't normal routines anymore. But the lessons to take from it are still powerful. Loved it! I want to sample some more books by this fine author and her illustrators.

Publishers Weekly reviews Elizabeth Lilly’s Geraldine :

This funny, thoroughly accomplished debut opens with two words: “I’m moving.” They’re spoken by the title character while she swoons across her family’s ottoman, and because Geraldine is a giraffe, her full-on melancholy mode is quite a spectacle. But while Geraldine may be a drama queen (even her mother says so), it won’t take readers long to warm up to her. The move takes Geraldine from Giraffe City, where everyone is like her, to a new school, where everyone else is human. Suddenly, the former extrovert becomes “That Giraffe Girl,” and all she wants to do is hide, which is pretty much impossible. “Even my voice tries to hide,” she says, in the book’s most poignant moment. “It’s gotten quiet and whispery.” Then she meets Cassie, who, though human, is also an outlier (“I’m that girl who wears glasses and likes MATH and always organizes her food”), and things begin to look up.
Lilly’s watercolor-and-ink drawings are as vividly comic and emotionally astute as her writing; just when readers think there are no more ways for Geraldine to contort her long neck, this highly promising talent comes up with something new.

Examples of genre fiction book reviews

Karlyn P reviews Nora Roberts’ Dark Witch , a paranormal romance novel , on Goodreads:

4 stars. Great world-building, weak romance, but still worth the read.
I hesitate to describe this book as a 'romance' novel simply because the book spent little time actually exploring the romance between Iona and Boyle. Sure, there IS a romance in this novel. Sprinkled throughout the book are a few scenes where Iona and Boyle meet, chat, wink at each, flirt some more, sleep together, have a misunderstanding, make up, and then profess their undying love. Very formulaic stuff, and all woven around the more important parts of this book.
The meat of this book is far more focused on the story of the Dark witch and her magically-gifted descendants living in Ireland. Despite being weak on the romance, I really enjoyed it. I think the book is probably better for it, because the romance itself was pretty lackluster stuff.
I absolutely plan to stick with this series as I enjoyed the world building, loved the Ireland setting, and was intrigued by all of the secondary characters. However, If you read Nora Roberts strictly for the romance scenes, this one might disappoint. But if you enjoy a solid background story with some dark magic and prophesies, you might enjoy it as much as I did.
I listened to this one on audio, and felt the narration was excellent.

Emily May reviews R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy Wars , an epic fantasy novel , on Goodreads:

“But I warn you, little warrior. The price of power is pain.”
Holy hell, what did I just read??
➽ A fantasy military school
➽ A rich world based on modern Chinese history
➽ Shamans and gods
➽ Detailed characterization leading to unforgettable characters
➽ Adorable, opium-smoking mentors
That's a basic list, but this book is all of that and SO MUCH MORE. I know 100% that The Poppy War will be one of my best reads of 2018.
Isn't it just so great when you find one of those books that completely drags you in, makes you fall in love with the characters, and demands that you sit on the edge of your seat for every horrific, nail-biting moment of it? This is one of those books for me. And I must issue a serious content warning: this book explores some very dark themes. Proceed with caution (or not at all) if you are particularly sensitive to scenes of war, drug use and addiction, genocide, racism, sexism, ableism, self-harm, torture, and rape (off-page but extremely horrific).
Because, despite the fairly innocuous first 200 pages, the title speaks the truth: this is a book about war. All of its horrors and atrocities. It is not sugar-coated, and it is often graphic. The "poppy" aspect refers to opium, which is a big part of this book. It is a fantasy, but the book draws inspiration from the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Rape of Nanking.

Crime Fiction Lover reviews Jessica Barry’s Freefall , a crime novel:

In some crime novels, the wrongdoing hits you between the eyes from page one. With others it’s a more subtle process, and that’s OK too. So where does Freefall fit into the sliding scale?
In truth, it’s not clear. This is a novel with a thrilling concept at its core. A woman survives plane crash, then runs for her life. However, it is the subtleties at play that will draw you in like a spider beckoning to an unwitting fly.
Like the heroine in Sharon Bolton’s Dead Woman Walking, Allison is lucky to be alive. She was the only passenger in a private plane, belonging to her fiancé, Ben, who was piloting the expensive aircraft, when it came down in woodlands in the Colorado Rockies. Ally is also the only survivor, but rather than sitting back and waiting for rescue, she is soon pulling together items that may help her survive a little longer – first aid kit, energy bars, warm clothes, trainers – before fleeing the scene. If you’re hearing the faint sound of alarm bells ringing, get used to it. There’s much, much more to learn about Ally before this tale is over.

Kirkus Reviews reviews Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One , a science-fiction novel :

Video-game players embrace the quest of a lifetime in a virtual world; screenwriter Cline’s first novel is old wine in new bottles.
The real world, in 2045, is the usual dystopian horror story. So who can blame Wade, our narrator, if he spends most of his time in a virtual world? The 18-year-old, orphaned at 11, has no friends in his vertical trailer park in Oklahoma City, while the OASIS has captivating bells and whistles, and it’s free. Its creator, the legendary billionaire James Halliday, left a curious will. He had devised an elaborate online game, a hunt for a hidden Easter egg. The finder would inherit his estate. Old-fashioned riddles lead to three keys and three gates. Wade, or rather his avatar Parzival, is the first gunter (egg-hunter) to win the Copper Key, first of three.
Halliday was obsessed with the pop culture of the 1980s, primarily the arcade games, so the novel is as much retro as futurist. Parzival’s great strength is that he has absorbed all Halliday’s obsessions; he knows by heart three essential movies, crossing the line from geek to freak. His most formidable competitors are the Sixers, contract gunters working for the evil conglomerate IOI, whose goal is to acquire the OASIS. Cline’s narrative is straightforward but loaded with exposition. It takes a while to reach a scene that crackles with excitement: the meeting between Parzival (now world famous as the lead contender) and Sorrento, the head of IOI. The latter tries to recruit Parzival; when he fails, he issues and executes a death threat. Wade’s trailer is demolished, his relatives killed; luckily Wade was not at home. Too bad this is the dramatic high point. Parzival threads his way between more ’80s games and movies to gain the other keys; it’s clever but not exciting. Even a romance with another avatar and the ultimate “epic throwdown” fail to stir the blood.
Too much puzzle-solving, not enough suspense.

Book review examples for non-fiction books

Nonfiction books are generally written to inform readers about a certain topic. As such, the focus of a nonfiction book review will be on the clarity and effectiveness of this communication . In carrying this out, a book review may analyze the author’s source materials and assess the thesis in order to determine whether or not the book meets expectations.

Again, we’ve included abbreviated versions of long reviews here, so feel free to click on the link to read the entire piece!

The Washington Post reviews David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon :

The arc of David Grann’s career reminds one of a software whiz-kid or a latest-thing talk-show host — certainly not an investigative reporter, even if he is one of the best in the business. The newly released movie of his first book, “The Lost City of Z,” is generating all kinds of Oscar talk, and now comes the release of his second book, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” the film rights to which have already been sold for $5 million in what one industry journal called the “biggest and wildest book rights auction in memory.”
Grann deserves the attention. He’s canny about the stories he chases, he’s willing to go anywhere to chase them, and he’s a maestro in his ability to parcel out information at just the right clip: a hint here, a shading of meaning there, a smartly paced buildup of multiple possibilities followed by an inevitable reversal of readerly expectations or, in some cases, by a thrilling and dislocating pull of the entire narrative rug.
All of these strengths are on display in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Around the turn of the 20th century, oil was discovered underneath Osage lands in the Oklahoma Territory, lands that were soon to become part of the state of Oklahoma. Through foresight and legal maneuvering, the Osage found a way to permanently attach that oil to themselves and shield it from the prying hands of white interlopers; this mechanism was known as “headrights,” which forbade the outright sale of oil rights and granted each full member of the tribe — and, supposedly, no one else — a share in the proceeds from any lease arrangement. For a while, the fail-safes did their job, and the Osage got rich — diamond-ring and chauffeured-car and imported-French-fashion rich — following which quite a large group of white men started to work like devils to separate the Osage from their money. And soon enough, and predictably enough, this work involved murder. Here in Jazz Age America’s most isolated of locales, dozens or even hundreds of Osage in possession of great fortunes — and of the potential for even greater fortunes in the future — were dispatched by poison, by gunshot and by dynamite. […]

Stacked Books reviews Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers :

I’ve heard a lot of great things about Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. Friends and co-workers tell me that his subjects are interesting and his writing style is easy to follow without talking down to the reader. I wasn’t disappointed with Outliers. In it, Gladwell tackles the subject of success – how people obtain it and what contributes to extraordinary success as opposed to everyday success.
The thesis – that our success depends much more on circumstances out of our control than any effort we put forth – isn’t exactly revolutionary. Most of us know it to be true. However, I don’t think I’m lying when I say that most of us also believe that we if we just try that much harder and develop our talent that much further, it will be enough to become wildly successful, despite bad or just mediocre beginnings. Not so, says Gladwell.
Most of the evidence Gladwell gives us is anecdotal, which is my favorite kind to read. I can’t really speak to how scientifically valid it is, but it sure makes for engrossing listening. For example, did you know that successful hockey players are almost all born in January, February, or March? Kids born during these months are older than the others kids when they start playing in the youth leagues, which means they’re already better at the game (because they’re bigger). Thus, they get more play time, which means their skill increases at a faster rate, and it compounds as time goes by. Within a few years, they’re much, much better than the kids born just a few months later in the year. Basically, these kids’ birthdates are a huge factor in their success as adults – and it’s nothing they can do anything about. If anyone could make hockey interesting to a Texan who only grudgingly admits the sport even exists, it’s Gladwell. […]

Quill and Quire reviews Rick Prashaw’s Soar, Adam, Soar :

Ten years ago, I read a book called Almost Perfect. The young-adult novel by Brian Katcher won some awards and was held up as a powerful, nuanced portrayal of a young trans person. But the reality did not live up to the book’s billing. Instead, it turned out to be a one-dimensional and highly fetishized portrait of a trans person’s life, one that was nevertheless repeatedly dubbed “realistic” and “affecting” by non-transgender readers possessing only a vague, mass-market understanding of trans experiences.
In the intervening decade, trans narratives have emerged further into the literary spotlight, but those authored by trans people ourselves – and by trans men in particular – have seemed to fall under the shadow of cisgender sensationalized imaginings. Two current Canadian releases – Soar, Adam, Soar and This One Looks Like a Boy – provide a pointed object lesson into why trans-authored work about transgender experiences remains critical.
To be fair, Soar, Adam, Soar isn’t just a story about a trans man. It’s also a story about epilepsy, the medical establishment, and coming of age as seen through a grieving father’s eyes. Adam, Prashaw’s trans son, died unexpectedly at age 22. Woven through the elder Prashaw’s narrative are excerpts from Adam’s social media posts, giving us glimpses into the young man’s interior life as he traverses his late teens and early 20s. […]

Book Geeks reviews Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love :

WRITING STYLE: 3.5/5
SUBJECT: 4/5
CANDIDNESS: 4.5/5
RELEVANCE: 3.5/5
ENTERTAINMENT QUOTIENT: 3.5/5
“Eat Pray Love” is so popular that it is almost impossible to not read it. Having felt ashamed many times on my not having read this book, I quietly ordered the book (before I saw the movie) from amazon.in and sat down to read it. I don’t remember what I expected it to be – maybe more like a chick lit thing but it turned out quite different. The book is a real story and is a short journal from the time when its writer went travelling to three different countries in pursuit of three different things – Italy (Pleasure), India (Spirituality), Bali (Balance) and this is what corresponds to the book’s name – EAT (in Italy), PRAY (in India) and LOVE (in Bali, Indonesia). These are also the three Is – ITALY, INDIA, INDONESIA.
Though she had everything a middle-aged American woman can aspire for – MONEY, CAREER, FRIENDS, HUSBAND; Elizabeth was not happy in her life, she wasn’t happy in her marriage. Having suffered a terrible divorce and terrible breakup soon after, Elizabeth was shattered. She didn’t know where to go and what to do – all she knew was that she wanted to run away. So she set out on a weird adventure – she will go to three countries in a year and see if she can find out what she was looking for in life. This book is about that life changing journey that she takes for one whole year. […]

Emily May reviews Michelle Obama’s Becoming on Goodreads:

Look, I'm not a happy crier. I might cry at songs about leaving and missing someone; I might cry at books where things don't work out; I might cry at movies where someone dies. I've just never really understood why people get all choked up over happy, inspirational things. But Michelle Obama's kindness and empathy changed that. This book had me in tears for all the right reasons.
This is not really a book about politics, though political experiences obviously do come into it. It's a shame that some will dismiss this book because of a difference in political opinion, when it is really about a woman's life. About growing up poor and black on the South Side of Chicago; about getting married and struggling to maintain that marriage; about motherhood; about being thrown into an amazing and terrifying position.
I hate words like "inspirational" because they've become so overdone and cheesy, but I just have to say it-- Michelle Obama is an inspiration. I had the privilege of seeing her speak at The Forum in Inglewood, and she is one of the warmest, funniest, smartest, down-to-earth people I have ever seen in this world.
And yes, I know we present what we want the world to see, but I truly do think it's genuine. I think she is someone who really cares about people - especially kids - and wants to give them better lives and opportunities.
She's obviously intelligent, but she also doesn't gussy up her words. She talks straight, with an openness and honesty rarely seen. She's been one of the most powerful women in the world, she's been a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, she's had her own successful career, and yet she has remained throughout that same girl - Michelle Robinson - from a working class family in Chicago.
I don't think there's anyone who wouldn't benefit from reading this book.

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Paul Auster

Why the novelist’s brand of postmodern detective fiction still matters.

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Paul Auster, the American novelist who died on April 30, was interested in the problem of the detective as writer. Getty Images

I saw Paul Auster in person only once. He was bending over to pick up a scrap of paper from the sidewalk on Broadway near Columbia University. He straightened, inspected the paper closely, pocketed it, and went on his way. I still don’t know whether he had dropped the scrap or had stumbled upon it. I hadn’t been paying attention to him, because I had not registered that the person I was looking at was Paul Auster, the famous American novelist and poet, widely celebrated for his work’s particular blend of European surrealism and playful American postmodernism. As soon as I did, however, I realized that he had acted the way he might have as a character in one of his own novels: mysteriously odd one moment, oddly mysterious the next. What was on that scrap of paper? If it belonged to him, why peruse it? If it didn’t, why pocket it?

It could be said that I owed this very kind of wondering to him—to the metaphysical ambiguities and bewildering turns of novels like Moon Palace (1989), in which an orphan resembling Auster accidentally discovers his lost father, and Leviathan (1992), in which a man recounts the coincidences that led a friend to a grisly death. In particular, I owed it to his New York Trilogy , a stylized, philosophical, and metafictional treatment of the detective novel. The first volume, City of Glass (1985), unspools a mystery that may in fact be a figment of the imagination of the protagonist, Daniel Quinn, an author of detective novels turned private eye who encounters a number of characters named Paul Auster and a curious father-and-son duo, both named Peter Stillman. In the second novel, Ghosts (1986), a private investigator named Blue is tasked with snooping on a man named Black by a man named White, who turn out to be the same person. In The Locked Room (1987), the last book in the Trilogy , a writer named Fanshawe goes missing, setting in motion a detective story and a self-reflexive meditation that plays with the tropes of early models of the genre.

Obsessing over Auster’s pocketing of that scrap of paper as I did, I might well have been taking cues from Quinn, who becomes a private investigator in City of Glass only because he is mistaken for one after someone dials the wrong telephone number. Quinn finds himself wandering the streets of the Upper West Side tailing Peter Stillman the father, whose extreme views about language have led him to raise his son without access to words. Stillman appears to be tracing gigantic, city-block-sized letters with his movements, spelling out a codeword for an unknown—indeed, unimaginable—audience. Or so Quinn thinks. Perhaps, Quinn muses, he had seen the letters “only because he had wanted to see them.”

Auster’s stylized, quasi-philosophical novels led to significant praise; critics lauded him as a new master of the American postmodern detective novel. For a time in the late 1980s and early ’90s, during which he won, among other honors, France’s Prix Médicis étranger, Auster was among this country’s most famous postmodern novelists. This was due not only to their spare elegance but also to what critics deemed his legibility; unlike those of Thomas Pynchon, say, Auster’s metafictional excursions have never been hard to follow. In the twenty-first century, as experimental detective fiction grew more familiar, the novelty wore off , and the easiness of Auster’s style became sort of a fatal flaw—proof of what his critics saw as his fondness for cliché, his corniness, and his lack of meaningful inventiveness—expressed, most memorably, in 2009, in a parodying review by James Wood in The New Yorker .

Like Wood, I admit to finding some of Auster’s dialogue hard to swallow and some of his philosophical insights (on the nature of language, for example) sophomoric. But the contributions he made to American letters are nonetheless real—and substantial. Auster’s work taught us that the acts of novel-writing and crime-solving can be kindred, that a word and a clue might be symbols of the same order. He was early to recognize that, more than any other popular genre, the detective story offers unique opportunities for the novelist looking to interrogate and play with the novel itself as a form. (This explains why the philosophical aspects of his interest in language are less important than his insight that the problems inherent to language can be a source of narrative tension.)

The detective plot represents the two principal activities of the literary arts—reading and writing—as the two principal activities of detecting itself. The detective, sorting through the residue left in the wake of a mystery (a crime, a sudden departure, a conspiracy), is both reader and writer. The clue is a sign, which the detective reads; the story of the crime is one he writes by solving it. The genre’s earlier practitioners tended to emphasize the detective as reader . Consider the ability of Sherlock Holmes to “read” a case from a bulge in a hat, for example. At stake in each story is whether the clues are being correctly read; the writing of the crime—by Watson—is by comparison effortless. And in the end, everything clicks into place.

Auster, though, is interested in the problem of the detective as writer . Quinn can “read” just fine—he astutely decodes Stillman’s life-sized writing along the streets of Manhattan—but it is when he begins to write that things fall apart. The acts of giving a clue a meaning and relating it to a larger web of conspiracy are thrown into relief as arbitrary; the clue could just as easily be meaningless, or only emptily referential; the conspiracy nonexistent, the whole pursuit merely a projection. A writer of detective novels, which he pens under the pseudonym William Wilson (the adopted moniker of the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same name), Quinn is more than once mistaken for “Paul Auster” the writer, who is himself mistaken for a detective. The point of this cascade of mistaken identities compounds the driving question of all of Auster’s work: writer or detective—what’s the difference? Not only does the novelist see himself in the detective but the detective sees himself in the novelist. “In effect, the writer and the detective are interchangeable,” Quinn says.

Aesthetically, however, Auster is better compared to his hero, Samuel Beckett, whose own trilogy of novels were as hardboiled as they were literary.

Auster was not the first to find a gold mine of possibilities for literary experiment within the detective novel. Don DeLillo’s Running Dog (1978) preceded the Trilogy by nearly a decade. Pynchon, perhaps the best-known example, explored the link between the so-called paranoid style of American politics and the conspiratorial conventions of detective fiction. Aesthetically, however, Auster is better compared to his hero, Samuel Beckett, whose own trilogy of novels were as hardboiled as they were literary. Beckett’s Molloy (1951), a novel in two parts (the first about Molloy, the second about a private detective named Moran) was perhaps the earliest twentieth-century novel to focus on the writerly nature and the metafictional possibilities of sleuthing. ( Molloy was followed by two more books that collectively form a trilogy, much like the New York Trilogy .) When Moran is tasked by his boss to “see about Molloy,” he embarks on a quest in which he seems to transform into Molloy, ever more enfeebled, as Beckett interrogates the contradiction between the detective’s drive to give meaning to everything and the inherent slipperiness of meaning-making.

The central mystery of City of Glass similarly revolves around a crisis of meaning, one embodied by Peter Stillman the son, who speaks with a defective grasp of language. His father, a professor, is the cause of his disability. Peter is the living American equivalent of Molloy: having been locked by his father in a dark room for the duration of his childhood, he has an entirely alienated relationship with the language he eventually learns to produce. “This is what is called speaking,” he tells Quinn. “I believe that is the term. When words come out, fly into the air, live for a moment, and die. Strange, is it not?” Peter is the first of Auster’s creations to give voice to a concern that will animate many of his later novels, that a word and its meaning are only contingently connected.

Quinn’s quest to discover what, exactly, happened to Peter is simultaneously a quest into the typically postmodern conundrum of language. How can we place our confidence in language if words have no inherent relationship to the things they mean? At the age of twenty, Auster wrote that “language is not experience. It is a means of organizing experience.” He continued: “To feel estranged from language is to lose your own body.” Peter is a victim of this gap between experience (or life) and language, of a father who could not tolerate introducing his son to language as long as that gap existed. His father is possessed of a belief that language is caught in a postlapsarian state of meaninglessness: “Names became detached from things; words devolved into a collection of arbitrary signs; language had been severed from God.” He invents “a language that will at last say what we have to say. For our words no longer correspond to the world.”

For some critics, Auster’s interrogation of the mystery of the sign via the detective novel was little more than shallow game-playing . But for others of us, myself included, Auster found in the problem of language’s ambiguity a means to push the bounds of the detective novel and, by consequence, of the novel more generally. By insisting that writing might be a form of conspiratorial thinking, Auster advanced the metafictional turn in American literature and authorized a lighter approach to the form that, in the intervening years, has scarcely been championed in a publishing era dominated by literary realism. We should remember Auster as a daring experimentalist who thought the novel still capable of being new.

Rachel Cusk

Renaissance women, fady joudah, you might also like, my silent childhood, hilary mantel, louise glück, new perspectives, enduring writing..

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Alice Munro, Nobel Laureate and Master of the Short Story, Dies at 92

Her stories were widely considered to be without equal, a mixture of ordinary people and extraordinary themes.

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Alice Munro, a white-haired woman wearing a brown top and brown pants, sits on a railroad track. Her hands are clasped over her right knee, and she is smiling.

By Anthony DePalma

Alice Munro, the revered Canadian author who started writing short stories because she did not think she had the time or the talent to master novels, then stubbornly dedicated her long career to churning out psychologically dense stories that dazzled the literary world and earned her the Nobel Prize in Literature, died on Monday night in Port Hope, Ontario, east of Toronto. She was 92.

A spokesman for her publisher, Penguin Random House Canada, confirmed the death, at a nursing home. Ms. Munro’s health had declined since at least 2009, when she said she’d had heart bypass surgery and had been treated for cancer, though she continued to write.

Ms. Munro was a member of the rare breed of writer, like Katherine Anne Porter and Raymond Carver, who made their reputations in the notoriously difficult literary arena of the short story, and did so with great success. Her tales — many of them focused on women at different stages of their lives coping with complex desires — were so eagerly received and gratefully read that she attracted a whole new generation of readers.

Ms. Munro’s stories were widely considered to be without equal, a mixture of ordinary people and extraordinary themes. She portrayed small-town folks, often in rural southwestern Ontario, facing situations that made the fantastic seem an everyday occurrence. Some of her characters were fleshed out so completely through generations and across continents that readers reached a level of intimacy with them that usually comes only with a full-length novel.

She achieved such compactness through exquisite craftsmanship and a degree of precision that did not waste words. Other writers declared some of her stories to be near-perfect — a heavy burden for a writer of modest personal character who had struggled to overcome a lack of self-confidence at the beginning of her career, when she left the protective embrace of her quiet hometown and ventured into the competitive literary scene.

Her insecurity, however powerfully she felt it, was never noticed by her fellow writers, who celebrated her craftsmanship and freely lent her their highest praise.

The Irish novelist Edna O’Brien ranked Ms. Munro with William Faulkner and James Joyce as writers who had influenced her work. Joyce Carol Oates said Munro stories “have the density — moral, emotional, sometimes historical — of other writers’ novels.” And the novelist Richard Ford once made it clear that questioning Ms. Munro’s mastery over the short story would be akin to doubting the hardness of a diamond or the bouquet of a ripened peach.

“With Alice it’s like a shorthand,” Mr. Ford said. “You’ll just mention her, and everybody just kind of generally nods that she’s just sort of as good as it gets.”

In awarding her the Nobel in 2013 , when she was 82, the Swedish Academy cited her 14 collections of stories and referred to her as “a master of the contemporary short story,” praising her ability to “accommodate the entire epic complexity of the novel in just a few short pages.”

As famous for the refined exuberance of her prose as for the modesty of her personal life, Ms. Munro declined to travel to Sweden to accept her Nobel, saying she was too frail. In place of the formal lecture that winners traditionally give, she taped a long interview in Victoria, British Columbia, where she had been visiting when her award was announced. When asked if the process of writing her stories had consumed her entirely, she responded that it did, then added, “But you know, I always got lunch for my children.”

During the presentation of the taped interview at the Swedish Academy, the Swedish actress Pernilla August read an excerpt from Ms. Munro’s story “Carried Away,” a multi-decade tale of dashed expectations that typified the complicated, often disappointing, world of her stories.

“She had a picture taken. She knew how she wanted it to be,” the excerpt read. “She would have liked to wear a simple white blouse, a peasant girl’s smock with the string open at the neck. She did not own a blouse of that description and in fact had only seen them in pictures. And she would have liked to let her hair down. Or if it had to be up, she would have liked it piled very loosely and bound with strings of pearls.

“Instead she wore her blue silk shirtwaist and bound her hair as usual. She thought the picture made her look rather pale, hollow-eyed. Her expression was sterner and more foreboding than she had intended. She sent it anyway.”

‘Our Chekhov’

Ms. Munro’s early success in Canada, where her first collection of stories, “Dance of the Happy Shades” (1968), won the Governor General’s Literary Award, the equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, spread to the United States after her stories began to be published in The New Yorker in 1977. She was an important member of a generation of Canadian writers, along with Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, whose celebrity reached far beyond the country’s borders.

Ms. Munro went on to win the Governor General’s award twice more, along with two Giller Prizes, another important national award in Canada, and many other honors. In 2009, she withdrew her collection “Too Much Happiness” from consideration for yet another Giller because she believed that a younger writer should have a chance to win it.

That same year she was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for her lifelong body of work, which the judges claimed was “practically perfect.” The awards committee commented that although she was known mostly as a short-story writer, “she brings as much depth, wisdom and precision to every story as most novelists bring to a lifetime of novels.”

“To read Alice Munro is to learn something every time that you never thought of before,” the judges said.

As her many-layered style developed, her short stories came to be neither short nor simply stories — she included 15 stories in her first book, but only eight or nine longer ones in some of her most recent collections. The greater length of each story gave her room to explore the psychological profiles of her characters more fully, and the resulting works are tightly woven tapestries of great tension, lasting resonance and stunning breadth that combine the emotional thrust of a novel with the pinpoint power of a masterful poem.

Over the years, her stories seemed to grow darker and more paradoxical, even though she often described her own life as ordinary and generally upbeat. Often her characters were simple people confronting unusual circumstances. But those situations could be odd, even bizarre, such as an accident in which a soldier who returned from war is decapitated after his sleeve is caught in a factory machine, or the actions of an unattractive girl who steals so much money from her parents’ store to pay boys for sex that her parents are forced to declare bankruptcy. The women in her stories tended to be emotionally pierced — divorced women, adulteresses and noble victims of life’s vicissitudes.

Like Faulkner, Eudora Welty and the other Southern writers she admired, Ms. Munro was capable of breathing life into an entire world — for her, the importunate countryside of southwestern Ontario and the placid, occasionally threatening presence of Lake Huron.

Cynthia Ozick called her “our Chekhov,” and the description stuck.

In a 2009 review of “Too Much Happiness,” Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times described the collection’s title story as “a brilliant distillation of her Chekhovian art.”

Never a Novel

Ms. Munro was able to live a life remarkable for its normalcy. Her days, like her characters’, were filled with quotidian routines punctuated by the explosive mystery of happenstance and accident.

Outside of a decade spent on the west coast of Canada during her first marriage, she lived with a great deal of satisfaction in the Ontario bramble she celebrated in her stories, quietly composing them in the house where her second husband was raised, not far from the place where she was born.

Perhaps the question that most dogged her throughout her long career was why, with her abundant talents and perceptive eye, she restricted herself to what is generally seen as the limited world of the short story rather than launch into the glittery universe of the novel.

“I don’t really understand a novel,” Ms. Munro confessed to Mervyn Rothstein of The Times in a 1986 interview. “I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a story. There’s a kind of tension that if I’m getting a story right I can feel right away.”

While one of her early collections, “Lives of Girls and Women,” is sometimes called a novel, Ms. Munro and her longtime editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Ann Close, considered it a collection of linked stories.

“Once I started to write that, I was off,” she told The Paris Review. “Then I made a big mistake. I tried to make it a regular novel, an ordinary sort of childhood adolescence novel. About March I saw it wasn’t working. It didn’t feel right to me, and I thought I would have to abandon it. I was very depressed. Then it came to me that what I had to do was pull it apart and put it in the story form. Then I could handle it.”

At times she swore she would never write a novel — almost dismissing the challenge as too great for her to even attempt. But at other times she seemed to wistfully wonder, as one of her characters might, how different her life might have been had she written a blockbuster novel.

“I’m thinking of something now, how it might be a novel, but I bet you it won’t be,” she said in a 1998 interview, just after publication of her widely acclaimed collection “The Love of a Good Woman.” She confessed that on occasion she had experimented with stretching her stories into novels but said she found that the stories “start to sag” when she did so, as though being taken beyond their natural limits. Still, the lure never completely evaporated. “My ambition is to write a novel before I die,” she said, also in 1998.

She never did.

Shortly before receiving her Nobel in 2013, Ms. Munro told several interviewers that she had decided to stop writing. As far back as 2009, she had disclosed her cancer diagnosis and that she’d undergone heart bypass surgery. Her declining health had robbed her of strength, but she also remarked that she’d been writing since she was 20 and had grown weary of what Del, a character in “Lives of Girls and Women” who is generally taken to be Ms. Munro’s proxy, says is a writer’s only duty, which is “to produce a masterpiece.”

“That’s a long time to be working,” Ms. Munro said, “and I thought maybe it’s time to take it easy.”

Rural Beginnings

Alice Ann Laidlaw was born on July 10, 1931, in the village of Wingham, Ontario, hard by the banks of Lake Huron. She was the first of three children of Robert Eric Laidlaw and Anne Clarke (Chamney) Laidlaw. Her father had tried his luck at the rather exotic undertaking of raising silver foxes and mink, but when that failed he went through a number of professions, including stints as foundry watchman and turkey farmer.

When Anne Laidlaw developed Parkinson’s disease, it fell to Alice, not yet a teenager but the oldest of the three children, to care for her mother, an experience that she wove through her writing. She was able to attend college after winning a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, about 65 miles south of Wingham.

She majored in English but initially kept her ambition to write fiction to herself. She dropped out before completing her studies and married a fellow student, James Munro. She sold her first short work of fiction, a story, to the radio service of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The Munros settled in Vancouver and had two children; a third died at birth. Ms. Munro said the domestic demands of those years — balancing parenthood with her dream of writing, “getting apple juice, answering the phone and letting the cat in” — left her no time or energy for ambitious projects like writing novels. Instead, she dedicated herself to mastering the short story, a form that she felt she could manage in between raising her children and taking care of her house.

In 1963, Ms. Munro and her husband moved to Victoria, where she helped him found a bookstore, Munro’s, and gave birth to another daughter. The marriage ended in 1973, and she moved back to Ontario.

By then, her literary reputation in Canada was established. In 1968, her first book, “Dance of the Happy Shades,” a collection of short stories compiled over a dozen years, introduced readers to what would later be widely recognized as “Alice Munro Country” — the rigidly introspective landscape of solitary country roads and stolid houses of yellow brick within which shy lives and solemn secrets unfolded.

“Everybody knows what a house does, how it encloses space and makes connections between one enclosed space and another and presents what is outside in a new way,” she wrote in a 1982 essay. “That is the nearest I can come to explaining what a story is for me.”

Her stories are blanketed with countless small but sharp observations that animate Munro Country. For instance, in “Spaceships Have Landed,” a story in the collection “Open Secrets” (1994), the main character drunkenly flirts with her boyfriend’s friend, only to be grossly insulted by him. The next day, she calls him to the porch of her house and confronts him while using a piece of steel wool to clean freshly laid eggs.

Such details evoke a sense of the semirural Canadian backcountry, a quiet land where people never deliberately call attention to themselves and the ordinariness of life can be suddenly disrupted by accidents, arrivals and unanticipated departures.

Although Ms. Munro was most often described as a Canadian writer, her stories evoked not Canada itself but the bittersweet triumphs, mishaps and humiliations of small town life. And in the end, every landscape served as backdrop for her central themes, which were the unpredictability of life and the betrayals that women suffer or commit — scenes redolent with autobiography.

In “The Albanian Virgin,” a celebrated story featuring a rare exotic setting as well as the familiar Canadian landscape, the female protagonist runs a bookstore in Victoria and dreamily contemplates the errant directions taken by her life: “But I was not despondent. I had made a desperate change in my life, and in spite of the regrets that I suffered every day, I was proud of that. I felt as if I had finally come out into the world in a new, true, skin.”

A Publicity-Shy ‘Plodder’

Ms. Munro shunned much of the publicity usually associated with literary success and limited her book tour appearances and readings. She often referred to herself in a self-deprecating way; she said she had not “come out of the closet” as a professional writer until she was 40, and she called herself a “plodder” because of the slow and deliberate way she worked, often writing in her nightclothes for several hours in the morning and then extensively revising her stories before sending them off.

But to critics, there was nothing plodding about her stories, which were put together so seamlessly that the many flashbacks, flash-forwards and shifts in time and place that she employed happened without notice. She often started her stories at a point where other authors might end theirs, and continued them well past the climax or denouement that would have satisfied others less driven by the twists of fate. Inevitably, this left readers to work out who exactly the narrator was and how one character was related to another.

Eventually, though, every piece would fit together. “It’s like a child’s puzzle,” the novelist Anne Tyler once said of Ms. Munro’s work. “In the most successful of the stories, the end result is a satisfying click as everything settles precisely into place.”

After the turbulence and dislocation she went through before Ms. Munro turned 40, her life and career clicked satisfyingly into place when she returned to southern Ontario. She started seeing Gerald Fremlin, a geographer, and after a brief romance married him and moved into the house in Clinton, Ontario, where he was raised.

She is survived by her daughters, Sheila, Jenny and Andrea. Sheila Munro is the author of the 2001 memoir “Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up With Alice Munro.”

She embarked on an ambitious schedule of publishing a collection of short stories every three or four years, winning praise and admiration across Canada, where she comes close to being a household literary saint. After receiving her first Governor General’s award, she won it twice more, for “Who Do You Think You Are?” in 1978 and for “The Progress of Love” in 1986.

In 1998, she received the Giller Prize for “The Love of a Good Woman,” and in 2004 she picked up another for “Runaway.” After the National Book Critics Circle agreed for the first time to consider authors from outside the United States for its award, Ms. Munro won in 1998 for “The Love of a Good Woman.”

As if she were a character in one of her stories, plagued by bad timing and unlucky happenstance, Ms. Munro was not at home when the Swedish Academy called to tell her that she had won; it had to leave a telephone message. She was in Victoria visiting her daughter, who heard the news and woke her mother at 4 a.m. Still groggy when interviewed by the CBC, Ms. Munro admitted that she’d forgotten that the prize was to be awarded that day, calling it “a splendid thing to happen,” adding, “more than I can say.”

Struggling to control her emotions, she reflected on her success and what it might mean for literature. “My stories have gotten around quite remarkably for short stories,” she told the interviewer. “I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not something you play around with until you got a novel written.”

Lisa D. Awano and Sofia Poznansky contributed reporting.

An earlier version of this obituary misspelled the given name of an author who praised Ms. Munro’s writing. She is Anne Tyler, not Ann.

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Joseph Epstein, conservative provocateur, tells his life story in full

In two new books, the longtime essayist and culture warrior shows off his wry observations about himself and the world

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Humorous, common-sensical, temperamentally conservative, Joseph Epstein may be the best familiar — that is casual, personal — essayist of the last half-century. Not, as he might point out, that there’s a lot of competition. Though occasionally a scourge of modern society’s errancies, Epstein sees himself as essentially a serious reader and “a hedonist of the intellect.” His writing is playful and bookish, the reflections of a wry observer alternately amused and appalled by the world’s never-ending carnival.

Now 87, Epstein has just published his autobiography, “ Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life: Especially if You’ve Had a Lucky Life ,” in tandem with “ Familiarity Breeds Content: New and Selected Essays .” This pair of books brings the Epstein oeuvre up to around 30 volumes of sophisticated literary entertainment. While there are some short-story collections (“The Goldin Boys,” “Fabulous Small Jews”), all the other books focus on writers, observations on American life, and topics as various as ambition, envy, snobbery, friendship, charm and gossip. For the record, let me add that I own 14 volumes of Epstein’s views and reviews and would like to own them all.

Little wonder, then, that Epstein’s idea of a good time is an afternoon spent hunched over Herodotus’s “Histories,” Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memoirs of Hadrian” or almost anything by Henry James, with an occasional break to enjoy the latest issue of one of the magazines he subscribes to. In his younger days, there were as many as 25, and most of them probably featured Epstein’s literary journalism at one time or another. In the case of Commentary, he has been contributing pieces for more than 60 years.

As Epstein tells it, no one would have predicted this sort of intellectual life for a kid from Chicago whose main interests while growing up were sports, hanging out, smoking Lucky Strikes and sex. A lackadaisical C student, Myron Joseph Epstein placed 169th in a high school graduating class of 213. Still, he did go on to college — the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — because that’s what was expected of a son from an upper-middle-class Jewish family. But Urbana-Champaign wasn’t a good fit for a jokester and slacker: As he points out, the president of his college fraternity “had all the playfulness of a member of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers.” No matter. Caught peddling stolen copies of an upcoming accounting exam for $5 a pop, Epstein was summarily expelled.

Fortunately, our lad had already applied for a transfer to the University of Chicago, to which he was admitted the next fall. Given his record, this shows a surprising laxity of standards by that distinguished institution, but for Epstein the move was life-changing. In short order, he underwent a spiritual conversion from good ol’ boy to European intellectual in the making. In the years to come, he would count the novelist Saul Bellow and the sociologist Edward Shils among his close friends, edit the American Scholar, and teach at Northwestern University. His students, he recalls, were “good at school, a skill without any necessary carry-over, like being good at pole-vaulting or playing the harmonica.”

Note the edge to that remark. While “Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life” is nostalgia-laden, there’s a hard nut at its center. Epstein feels utter contempt for our nation’s “radical change from a traditionally moral culture to a therapeutic one.” As he explains: “Our parents’ culture and that which came long before them was about the formation of character; the therapeutic culture was about achieving happiness. The former was about courage and honor, the latter about self-esteem and freedom from stress.” This view of America’s current ethos may come across as curmudgeonly and reductionist, but many readers — whatever their political and cultural leanings — would agree with it. Still, such comments have sometimes made their author the focus of nearly histrionic vilification.

Throughout his autobiography, this lifelong Chicagoan seems able to remember the full names of everyone he’s ever met, which suggests Epstein started keeping a journal at an early age. He forthrightly despises several older writers rather similar to himself, calling Clifton Fadiman, author of “The Lifetime Reading Plan,” pretentious, then quite cruelly comparing Mortimer J. Adler, general editor of the “Great Books of the Western World” series, with Sir William Haley, one of those deft, widely read English journalists who make all Americans feel provincial. To Epstein, “no two men were more unalike; Sir William, modest, suave, intellectually sophisticated; Mortimer vain, coarse, intellectually crude.” In effect, Fadiman and Adler are both presented as cultural snake-oil salesmen. Of course, both authors were popularizers and adept at marketing their work, but helping to enrich the intellectual lives of ordinary people doesn’t strike me as an ignoble purpose.

In his own work, Epstein regularly employs humor, bits of slang or wordplay, and brief anecdotes to keep his readers smiling. For instance, in a chapter about an editorial stint at the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Epstein relates this story about a colleague named Martin Self:

“During those days, when anti-Vietnam War protests were rife, a young woman in the office wearing a protester’s black armband, asked Martin if he were going to that afternoon’s protest march. ‘No, Naomi,’ he said, ‘afternoons such as this I generally spend at the graveside of George Santayana.’”

Learned wit, no doubt, but everything — syntax, diction, the choice of the philosopher Santayana for reverence — is just perfect.

But Epstein can be earthier, too. Another colleague “was a skirt-chaser extraordinaire," a man "you would not feel safe leaving alone with your great-grandmother.” And of himself, he declares: “I don’t for a moment wish to give the impression that I live unrelievedly on the highbrow level of culture. I live there with a great deal of relief.”

In his many essays, including the sampling in “Familiarity Breeds Content,” Epstein is also markedly “quotacious,” often citing passages from his wide reading to add authority to an argument or simply to share his pleasure in a well-turned observation. Oddly enough, such borrowed finery is largely absent from “Never Say You’ve Had a Happy Life.” One partial exception might be the unpronounceable adjective “immitigable,” which appears all too often. It means unable to be mitigated or softened, and Epstein almost certainly stole it from his friend Shils, who was fond of the word.

Despite his autobiography’s jaunty title, Epstein has seen his share of trouble. As a young man working for an anti-poverty program in Little Rock, he married a waitress after she became pregnant with his child. When they separated a decade later, he found himself with four sons to care for — two from her previous marriage, two from theirs. Burt, the youngest, lost an eye in an accident while a toddler, couldn’t keep a job, fathered a child out of wedlock and eventually died of an opioid overdose at 28. Initially hesitant, Epstein came to adore Burt’s daughter, Annabelle, as did his second wife, Barbara, whom he married when they were both just past 40.

Some pages of “Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life” will be familiar to inveterate readers of Epstein’s literary journalism, all of which carries a strong first-person vibe. Not surprisingly, however, the recycled anecdotage feels less sharp or witty the second time around. But overall, this look back over a long life is consistently entertaining, certainly more page-turner than page-stopper. To enjoy Epstein at his very best, though, you should seek out his earlier essay collections such as “The Middle of My Tether,” “Partial Payments” and “A Line Out for a Walk.” Whether he writes about napping or name-dropping or a neglected writer such as Somerset Maugham, his real subject is always, at heart, the wonder and strangeness of human nature.

Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life

Especially if You’ve Had a Lucky Life

By Joseph Epstein

Free Press. 304 pp. $29.99

Familiarity Breeds Content

New and Selected Essays

Simon & Schuster. 464 pp. $20.99

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

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Book Reviews

My octopus teacher's craig foster dives into the ocean again in 'amphibious soul'.

Barbara J. King

Cover of Amphibious Soul

The film My Octopus Teacher tells the story of a man who goes diving every day into the underwater South African kelp forest and forms a close relationship there with an octopus. That man — the diver, and also the filmmaker — was Craig Foster, who delighted millions of nature lovers around the world and took home the 2021 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Now in a new book, Amphibious Soul: Finding the Wild in a Tame World , Foster describes the entire ecosystem of the Great African Seaforest at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and the transforming role it has played in his quest to seek wildness. As the book's amphibious title hints, Foster is as much (maybe more) at home in the ocean as he is on land.

Foster's incredible engagement with seaforest creatures comes through beautifully in this account. Every day for months, he recounts, he "visited the crack in the rock where a huge male clingfish lived," and the fish became quite calm in his presence. "Returning to the same places, watching for subtle changes, and continuing to ask questions replenishes my curiosity," he writes.

Foster's profound tie to place reminds me of birders who closely attend to nature in their own yard or local park. Indeed, Foster underscores that any of us can find wildness where we live: "We can all develop a more playful relationship with nature, whether that means collecting crisp leaves or smooth rocks to use in our artwork or watching the squirrel perform acrobatics outside our window."

Nature's healing power is a focus for Foster and an immensely personal one. Before he had any thoughts of My Octopus Teacher , he was burned out on long grinding hours of film-making work. He found relief in cold immersion, both in the ocean and in a home-made box containing icewater. Later though, after the immense global attention to the octopus film and therefore to him, he suffered from insomnia so pronounced that some nights he managed only 10 minutes of sleep. His body and mind were breaking down and felt a strong pull to find his way back to the wild.

Filmmaker Finds An Unlikely Underwater Friend In 'My Octopus Teacher'

Filmmaker Finds An Unlikely Underwater Friend In 'My Octopus Teacher'

To become fully immersed in the story of his quest for wild healing, it's necessary to go with Foster's flow and accept his constant, near-mystical reverence for "our ancestors." I read with a wild-seeking heart his belief that modern-day humans can recover an ancestral link to wild creatures — but also, inescapably, I read with an anthropologist's sensibilities. Is it possible to replicate "humanity's natural state?" Is there a singular way to describe our ancestors' experiences with animals? Given the long sweep of human evolution, which ancestors exactly?

Might there be a hint of romanticizing the past here? Foster writes of "our nonviolent origins" and adds that it was "only with the advent of agriculture that the reciprocity with the wild that we'd enjoyed for some 300,000 years began to break apart — and with it, our psyches." Yet there's serious anthropological scholarship that argues warfare began 200,000 or 300,000 years ago, far longer ago than the start of agriculture around 12,000 years ago.

A stronger thread in the book is the powerful connection to nature that comes with tracking. At first, I thought Foster meant looking only for animal tracks in the dirt, mud, or snow, but his definition is more comprehensive, and eye-opening: "any clue left by any creature or plant, sand or rock." Running water also may leave a track, or lightning hitting a tree.

For an amphibious soul, the height of joy comes with underwater tracking: Foster taught himself to see tracks of mollusks in the sand atop the back of a stingray, or an octopus's predation marks on a shell. How magnificent to see the undersea universe in such detail! Once again, Foster broadens out from his own experience to encourage the rest of us: "Just start small and chip away," Foster advises. In addition to looking for ground tracks, "seek out marks on plants, trees, rocks, or walls."

Foster's writing is rooted in his own learning from an array of mentors, including Indigenous individuals, and in a wish to share and spread his joy in nature. A spirit of generosity suffuses the book.

It's probably thanks to an octopus that Amphibious Soul is out in the world. Foster invites us now to recognize the intrinsic value of the Great African Seaforest ecosystem as a whole — and of all ecosystems that enshrine wildness.

Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist emerita at William & Mary. After writing about animal grief and love, and how all of us may bring about greater compassion for animals, she is now writing about cats for her 8th book. Find her on X, formerly Twitter @bjkingape

essays review

Vitalik Buterin's Ethereum Wallet Proposal, Scribbled in 22 Minutes, Gets Positive Reviews

A fter a technical proposal to improve Ethereum wallets met with some opposition, a familiar figure swooped in last week to devise an alternative: none other than Vitalik Buterin, the blockchain's co-founder.

It reportedly took him 22 minutes.

The origin of the story dates back to last month, when Ethereum developers decided to include Ethereum improvement proposal EIP-3074 – allowing for certain functions in wallets to be controlled by smart contracts – in its next big network upgrade, known as the Pectra hard fork.

The work to make Ethereum wallets less clunky is part of a technological move called account abstraction , in which Ethereum externally-owned account (EOA) wallets, the most popular on the blockchain, are turned into smart-contract wallets.

After EIP-3074 was released, some in the community praised the proposal, while others expressed their displeasure. The main concern was that it was not compatible with an earlier proposal, called ERC-4437, which has been on mainnet since February 2023.

A couple days after EIP-3074 was released, Buterin co-wrote a new one, EIP-7702 , which serves as an alternative to what is now included in the upcoming Pectra upgrade .

Ethereum core developer Ansgar Dietrichs, who co-wrote EIP-3074 and EIP-7702 with Buterin, said in an interview with CoinDesk via chat that the newest proposal was “the result of a week or so of him being involved in the account abstraction research conversation.”

After the research was done, Dietrichs said, Buterin “indeed speedran the process of writing that EIP.”

“I challenged him to do it in 15," Dietrichs recalled. "It took him 22.”

Since the release of EIP-7702, many have praised the alternative, and it seems likely to replace the original EIP-3074.

"There is positive sentiment among all stakeholder groups" for Buterin's alternative, Christine Kim, a vice president of research at the digital-asset firm Galaxy, wrote in a May 20 research note.

Jarrod Watts, the developer relations engineer at Polygon, wrote on X that “It's one of the most impactful changes Ethereum is going to have... EVER.”

For now, EIP-3074 is still considered to go live with Pectra. That might change once the details of EIP-7022 are worked out.

“People are still understanding the exact differences to 3074,” Dietrichs told CoinDesk. “But I would say it’s pretty likely that we will replace 3074 with it.”

Galaxy's Kim suggested that the episode offered an example of how Ethereum's decentralized governance works in practice.

"It can result in constructive dialogue between different stakeholder groups in an open-source project that ultimately results in a new path forward with higher consensus among participants than before," Kim wrote.

Once Buterin got involved, it didn't take long.

Read more: Ethereum Developers Target Ease of Crypto Wallets With 'EIP-3074'

(Romanpoet/Wikimedia Commons, modified by CoinDesk)

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