From My Bookshelf: Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America

I may be a tad late to this party (over at Book/Daddy, Jerome Weeks published an essay about this book and the issues it raises nearly two months ago), but on the other hand, it’s never too late to tell others about a book you’ve read and think others should read, too. And if you’re a book reviewer (aspiring or established), or simply want to understand book reviewing better, there’s no doubt: You must read Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America. Period. It’s the closest thing we have to a textbook on the subject (and eminently more readable than most textbooks prove to be).

From My Bookshelf: On Chesil Beach

This weekend I read Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. And its final paragraph has really stayed with me.

Because as I was reading the somber anniversary of 9/11, which, for me, always prompts a lot of thinking, was approaching? Because the Jewish Holy Days (which tend to also inspire a fair amount of reflection, on life and on death) begin this week? I don’t know.

But since I’ve already written about how challenging I find crafting endings myself, I thought I’d share with you one that has really impressed me. (If you’re still waiting to read the book, consider yourself alerted to a potential spoiler.)

As always, I think it’s very difficult to explicate (or appreciate) an ending without reading what has preceded it. But I hope something here may seem resonant to some of you, as well. Today, especially.

When he thought of her, it rather amazed him, that he had let that girl with her violin go. Now, of course, he saw that her self-effacing proposal was quite irrelevant. All she had needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience–if only he had had them both at once–would surely have seen them both through. And then what unborn children might have had their chances, what young girl with a headband might have become his loved familiar? This is how the entire course of a life can be changed–by doing nothing. On Chesil Beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back. Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.

From My Bookshelf: Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide

Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide
Jeffrey Goldberg
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
336 pp., $25.00 (Hardcover)

Review by Erika Dreifus

How did a nice Jewish boy from Long Island, New York—a student at the University of Pennsylvania, no less—end up at Ketziot, an Israeli military prison camp in the Negev? More importantly, what happened once he arrived there? These questions, and their answers, guide award-winning journalist Jeffrey Goldberg’s important new book, Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide.

The response to the first question comprises much of the book’s autobiographical and “background” material. We learn, for example, that Goldberg acquired a fear of anti-Semitism early on. As a child, he was sensitive to his family history, including “the whirlwind of Russian anti-Semitism” into which his grandfather had been born. Non-Jewish “tormentors” among his middle school classmates “taught [him] how to play ‘Bend the Jew’….” With that background, learning “too much truth” about the Holocaust at age 12 proved “emphatically destabilizing”: “Such knowledge turned the ground under my feet, already giving way, to quicksand.”

Soon thereafter came a Bar Mitzvah trip to Israel, where Goldberg found signs of Israeli strength (“A Jewish tank!”) more than merely reassuring. Such signs were “euphoriants”:

By the time we came home, I burned with love for Israel. I began this mystic pilgrimage a speck of a Jew, but I emerged utterly different, invested with a mission much larger than myself, larger, certainly, than the quotidian and occasionally terrifying life of a Long Island Jewish boy. Israel was my main chance: For nineteen hundred years, since the final Roman obliteration of Israel (they even changed its name to Palestine, in order to erase from the world’s memory its existence), the Jews were chased across the earth. But in 1948, just seventeen years before I was born, the Jews reentered history, building a country out of the cinders of the Holocaust. How could I miss out on this drama?

He couldn’t. He devoured the Leon Uris novel, Exodus. He signed up for a Zionist summer camp in the Catskills. As a college student, he volunteered for a 1986 mission to the then-Soviet Union, to provide aid to oppressed Jews living there (refuseniks, as American Jews like me had by then learned to call them in our synagogues and Sunday school classes, Jews refused the right to “make Aliyah,” as Jewish immigration to Israel is called).

Goldberg already assumed that after college, he, too, would move to Israel. But he didn’t wait that long. He dropped out of Penn and boarded an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Kibbutz life (Goldberg became fairly expert at work in the chicken coop), a military training course, and a job on The Jersualem Post (currently the Washington correspondent of The New Yorker,* Goldberg has also served as a Middle East correspondent for that magazine) preceded his 1990 army assignment to the military police. And here the book’s second major component, detailing the friendship Goldberg cultivated with one of the Palestinians imprisoned at Ketziot during the first Intifada (uprising against Israel) truly begins.

Ketziot, Goldberg writes, “did not feature in any dream of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, or in any program of [David] Ben-Gurion, who made concrete Herzl’s vision. Ketziot was a city of barbed wire, moldy tents, machine gun towers, armored personnel carriers, black oil smoke, sullen Arabs, and embittered Israeli soldiers.” Ketziot clearly hadn’t featured in any of Goldberg’s visions, either, as the writer explains in this characteristically eloquent passage: “It was outside my frame of reference. Ketziot was a place bleached of color, and bereft of kindness. It was a monument to expediency, poor planning, and the ephemeral nature of cheap building materials. It was a place devoid of culture, an island of small-mindedness and cruelty in a brown sea of sand. And it was swelteringly hot, except at night, when the desert cold seemed capable of cracking bones.”

He tells us that the prisoners “were the flower of the Palestinian Intifada. They were its foot soldiers, squad commanders, generals, and, from time to time, its propagandists, even its lawyers.” Despite the evident ill will many of them displayed toward Israel, the prisoners fascinated him: “Here they were, en masse, my enemy. Who wouldn’t want to know about them? I asked them questions, ceaselessly, about their politics, their beliefs and desires, their families. I poured out questions about child-rearing and bomb-making and the menu for the Ramadan break fast.”

Among the prisoners it’s Gazan Rafiq Hijazi, the eponymous “Muslim” of the book’s title, who most attracts Goldberg’s attention: “I wanted to make Rafiq my friend. I felt this keenly, almost from the moment we met. It was something I believed was actually possible. I sensed the presence between us of the enzymes of friendship. I believed that he liked me. He thought I was kind, for a Jew, and I thought he was smart, for an Arab.”

But what kind of friendship could this be? “We could not go anywhere or do anything. No double-dating, no football games. We could not, for that matter, shake hands in an even approximately normal way. The openings in the fence were too small. A streamlined hand—four fingers pointing straight out, the thumb held to the side—could work its way through, up to the knuckle. So when we shook, we shook fingers.” And, in the winter of 1991, as Saddam Hussein’s Scuds targeted Israel during the Persian Gulf War, they talked. A lot.

Their conversations comfort Goldberg: “I had consoling thoughts about Rafiq—thoughts about the thickening possibilities of peace, a peace that could be made first by two inconsequential soldiers. If Rafiq Hijazi could somehow extend the border of his compassion to take in Jeffrey Goldberg, then why should peace be impossible?” Frequently, however, Goldberg must wonder just how far this border has extended. Is Rafiq really his friend? Goldberg is crushed, for instance, when he offers Rafiq a hypothetical situation in which the Gazan might have the opportunity to kill him; after some hesitation, Rafiq says only, “Look, it wouldn’t be personal.”

But Goldberg can’t quite let go of Rafiq, tracking him down even after they’ve both left Ketziot, even once Goldberg has moved back to the United States, married, and settled in Washington, DC. When he again travels in Israel he goes to Gaza to search for Rafiq. Finding him, he learns that Rafiq, now a professor, is soon to leave for Washington, too—to complete a Ph.D. at the American University.

At this point, Goldberg tells Rafiq that “I wanted to reestablish our friendship for its own sake, and I wanted to see the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict through his eyes, in order to answer a crucial question: Could the Arabs finally accept—accept, not merely tolerate—the presence of Jews in their midst, and not just Jews, but a Jewish state? Or would we forever be viewed as invaders?” For his part, Rafiq responds with another question: “Could the Jews live with the Palestinians without fear, without guns?”

The relationship and discussions thus continue in Washington. Not always easily, given the continued stresses and conflicts in the broader relationship between their peoples. Near the end of the book, Goldberg realizes an “irreducible” truth: “The maximum Israel could give did not match the minimum the Palestinians would accept.” Still, Goldberg finds hope. Despite their differences and disagreements something else remains true. Each man cares about the other. When “something terrible” happens in Gaza, Goldberg thinks first of Rafiq and his family. It’s “the same thing” for Rafiq: “‘When I hear that there is a bombing in Jerusalem and I know you’re there, I get worried.'” In the end, Rafiq “‘[doesn’t] want [Goldberg] to die. I want you to live.'” This, Goldberg concludes, “might be the start of something.”

My only difficulty with this book—aside, perhaps, from the discomfort anyone more affectively attuned to Israelis than Palestinians is likely to experience in Goldberg’s portrayals of bad will on both sides—concerns its structure. There’s a lot of back-and-forth in narrative time, especially in the book’s early chapters, and it’s not always easy to follow. Some readers may not sense themselves well “situated” in the book for awhile.

On the other hand, the book’s Web site** is all about context. Its superb “Resources” section includes a map, a timeline stretching from 1800 B.C.E. to 2006, and a set of links Goldberg recommends for more information on the Middle East. All those items might have been nice additions to the book, too (the evanescence of Web addresses notwithstanding).

In closing it seems not unimportant to note that during the fall of 2006, when Prisoners was published, another new book, by former President Jimmy Carter, received far more media attention. At the height of the controversies Carter’s book sparked over everything from its title, to the veracity (or lack thereof) of its content, to its one-sided/pro-Palestinian approach, I was reading Prisoners. And given the evident knowledge, humanity, and, not least of all, sustained and often painful efforts to understand “both sides” that permeate practically every one of Goldberg’s pages, I couldn’t help wishing, fervently, that the readers who made the Carter book a bestseller might still turn to Prisoners. That, perhaps, might be the start of something.

*As of the summer of 2007,Goldberg is leaving The New Yorker for a position with The Atlantic Monthly.

(A version of this review was published in the Winter 2007 issue of The Chattahoochee Review.)

From My Bookshelf: Four Seasons in Rome

To be perfectly frank, every day it’s seeming less and less likely that I’ll ever reach the level of literary success of, say, Anthony Doerr. Which means it’s looking less and less likely that I’ll ever win a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. But this weekend I at least had the privilege of glimpsing that experience through Doerr’s eyes when I read his new (and delightful) book, Four Seasons in Rome. Subtitled “On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World,” the book chronicles Doerr’s Roman holiday (sorry–couldn’t resist that) from his arrival (accompanied by his wife and their six-month-old twin boys) to their departure the summer after Pope John Paul II’s passing. It’s a highly engaging read on many levels, including, for this practicing writer, Doerr’s account of the project he brought with him to Rome (a new novel set in German-occupied France during World War II), and the genesis of a new short story. Magnifico!

From My Bookshelf: An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs

This review originally appeared in the January 2007 issue of The Writer magazine.

Help for Choosing a Writing Program

An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs: Choosing the Right MFA or MA Program, Colony, Residency, Grant, or Fellowship
by Amy Holman, Prentice-Hall Press/Penguin, 208 pages plus CD-ROM. Paperback, $18.95

Review by Erika Dreifus

If you’re tired of Googling for online lists of MFA programs or writing grants or residencies, and if you’re not interested in seeking separate print volumes dedicated to each of the same, Amy Holman’s new book, An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs will make you very happy. A published poet and literary consultant who indeed demonstrates an insider’s knowledge of the field, Holman has assembled a no-nonsense guide to several key aspects of writers’ professional development. Both beginners and more advanced writers should be grateful.

Holman defines “creative writing programs” broadly; she wants to “open your minds to possibilities you might have overlooked, thought were closed to you, or worried were too hard to pursue, and to change your mind about them.” So she doesn’t limit herself to academic (MA or MFA) programs in creative writing–although she profiles 60 such programs, including some administered through the popular low-residency option, in the book, and lists another 93 on the accompanying CD-ROM. She covers residencies, colonies, grants, and fellowships, too.

The book’s first sections introduce you to this vocabulary and offer advice on “choosing the right program at the right time” and preparing an application. Holman provides the context, background and guidance for you to proceed on your own, because, as she rightly notes, “How you become encouraged about your writing ability, how you improve, hone, or perfect it depends largely on your personality and also on your personal engagement to the literary community to date.” She wants to help you identify the “right environments” for your own development as a writer; she understands that that will be a personal process.

Program profiles fill most of the book. Those covering graduate schools (presented alphabetically, as Holman has wisely avoided ranking them) stand out for the way they highlight distinguishing features/program “perks” while following an economical and easy-to-follow template: For each program, Holman tells you what kind of degree it offers, a “nutshell” summary, a faculty list, and information on “defraying the cost.” Non-academic program descriptions are similarly highly individualized. Holman also does the reader a favor by signaling when colonies or grants are truly open to early-career writers and when they’re really looking for very experienced, very published people. Holman complements the listings with informative quotations throughout.

Since Holman limited the number of profiles printed in the book (which keeps the text both readable and portable), one of An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs‘s selling points is its accompanying CD-ROM, “with listings and links for 300 programs.” This bonus sounds fantastic, and in many ways it is (especially in listing and linking programs located outside the United States). But take note of my experience:

*I could not initially access the promised searchable database on my Mac; when I tried the disc on a library PC, that problem seemed to disappear.

*The desktop left me confused. I didn’t know which file/icon to click; I would have appreciated a file labeled “Read me first.” When I did find the database, I learned that I could search only one category at a time (type of program, state, or subject of program).

*Although I searched successfully for “low-residency MA programs,” an attempt to identify “low-residency MFA programs” yielded what seemed to be a list of residency and low-residency programs combined.

*Similarly, the 300 promised programs are divided among multiple categories (Resident MA; Resident MFA; Low-Residency MFA; Low-Residency MA; Artist Colonies and Writers Colonies; Artist-in-Residence Programs in National Parks and Community; Academic Writer-in-Residence Programs; Grants and Fellowships; and Paid Writing Spaces). Holman provides an excellent introduction, but to identify additional programs you’ll still need to make use of other resources (including those helpfully linked in a “Resources” section).

*If you’re hoping that the CD-ROM will contain program descriptions similar to those Holman provides in the book, be forewarned that it offers program links only. In other words, you won’t find another 93 MA/MFA program descriptions there.

Those observations notwithstanding, Holman has done something exceedingly useful here. “No matter at what stage–beginning, emerging, or established–you are in your writing career, you have goals,” Holman writes. An Insider’s Guide to Creative Writing Programs will help you meet them.

From My Bookshelf: Reading Like a Writer

The original version of this review appeared in The Writer Magazine, February 2007.

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
by Francine Prose, HarperCollins, 288 pages.
Hardcover, $23.95 (also available in paperback as of April 2007, $13.95)

We hear it all the time: If you want to be a writer, read. And don’t just skim, or read for plot, or race through to a story’s end. Read in a special way. Read closely. Read like a writer.

But what does that really mean? How does one read for lessons on craft and technique, lessons that can hopefully be transferred from Flaubert’s or Tolstoy’s pages to one’s own? It’s an essential art for any serious writer, but it can be an extraordinarily elusive one. Fortunately, Francine Prose, herself the author of 14 books of fiction, has given us a guide to her own “education as a novelist” that truly does, as she intends, “help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.”

Other writers and writing instructors may talk about “close reading,” but Prose actually shows us how it’s done. Again and again, she provides excerpts from published work followed by her own analysis. She looks at words; she looks at sentences; she looks at the language within the dialogue. For Prose, these are the concepts that really matter: she notes that “to talk about sentences is to have a conversation about something far more meaningful and personal to most authors than the questions they’re more often asked, such as, Do you have a work schedule? Do you use a computer? Where do you get your ideas?”

So talk about sentences (and words, paragraphs, dialogue, narration, and much more) Prose does. In neatly divided chapters, she takes on all the true tools of the writer’s craft and shows us how others have used them to maximum effect. She gives us, for example, the first lines of the first six paragraphs in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, showing how the author “introduc[es] the reader to the topography of the town before narrowing in on one of its inhabitants.” She also gives us that novel’s entire fifth paragraph, “because it is such an elegant example of its form, one of those single paragraphs in which a writer tells us nearly all we need to know about a character.”

Stendhal is no accidental selection. Reading Prose’s examples, as well as following her suggested “List of Books to Be Read Immediately,” you’ll be considering many “classic” authors. Although she highlights some contemporary writers, including Gary Shteyngart and ZZ Packer, her texts of reference come primarily from the canonical past, for which she (refreshingly) makes no apologies: “You can assume that if a writer’s work has survived for centuries there are reasons why this is so, explanations that have nothing to do with a conspiracy of academics plotting to resuscitate a zombie army of dead white males.” Prose even devotes an entire chapter to “Learning from Chekhov.”

At the same time, Prose is careful to point out how often traditions–in the form of familiar writing mantras and “rules”–can and have been broken. Citing an Alice Munro excerpt, for instance, she encourages us to think how much more powerful “telling” can be, when we’re usually directed to “show.” Later, when she notes that one-sentence paragraphs “can be an annoying tic, a lazy writer’s attempt to compel us to pay attention or to inject energy and life into a narrative,” Prose also provides examples (Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Raymond Carver’s “Fat”) “in which single sentences actually do seem to merit paragraphs of their own.”

An experienced teacher, Prose also anticipates difficulties newer writers encounter: “Even when novice writers avoid the sort of dialogue that is essentially exposition framed by quotation marks, the dialogue they do write often serves a single purpose–that is, to advance the plot–rather than the numerous simultaneous aims that it can accomplish.” Then she provides counterexamples that instruct, illustrate and inspire (in this case, excerpts, sometimes lengthy, from novels by Henry Green).

“I’ve always thought that a close-reading course should at least be a companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop,” Prose muses. For those not lucky enough to enroll in such a course with Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer is an excellent (not to mention relatively inexpensive) substitute.