Open Letters Monthly, September 2014 Edition

FerranteGraphicAnother new month, another new issue of Open Letters Monthly! As always, I hope you’ll check it out; I think almost anyone could find something of interest in it! Among my favorites this month are Laura Tanenbaum’s review of Julie Hayden’s The Lists of the Past, and Erin Wunker and Hannah McGregor’s essay on Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. You’ll also find Steve Donoghue on 13 Days in September, Lawrence Wright’s new book on the Camp David negotiations; Justin Hickey on Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman; Robert Minto on a new book on the Hundred Years War; two new poems; and more! My own contribution this month is a ‘peer review’ feature on the critical reception of Elena Ferrante. The more of her reviews I read, the more I felt that something was going on that deserved some closer scrutiny. My conclusion? Well, you’ll have to pop over and read the piece, won’t you?

Open Letters Monthly July 2014!


We did it again! And though I think this almost every month, this issue is a particularly good one. As has become traditional for our July issue, we all pitched in for a summer reading feature: this time we each recommend a book or two that’s hot hot hot! (My romance-reading friends will appreciate that one of my recommendations is Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible: I’ve come a long way!) A significant highlight is editor John Cotter’s account of what it’s like to lose music — gradually, stutteringly, but inexorably — in which he manages the very difficult feat of writing poignantly about personal loss without becoming lachrymose or sentimental. My colleague Alice Brittan reviews Michael Cunningham’s latest novel, The Snow Queen: how I love the graceful, meditative way she writes. Steve Danziger adds to his OLM credits with a look at the obsessive eccentrics who collect 78 rpms: Steve is another favorite contributor for me because he writes about subjects I don’t expect to be interested in but always draws me right in. Greg Waldmann takes on the Taliban; Justin Hickey continues his work on science fiction with Robogenesis; Steve Donoghue covers what sounds like a great book on jazz age New York; there are two new poems; and that’s not all!

My own main contribution is an essay on K. M. Peyton’s Pennington trilogy, a “YA” series that continues to be a favorite of mine. Inevitably, I found myself reflecting on the recent debate about whether adults should be embarrassed to read YA fiction, but rather than focusing on that argument in broad or abstract terms, I decided to write about Peyton’s books as I would any other. As far as I’m concerned, the proof is in the pudding: either they stand up to that kind of critical attention or they don’t.

June Updates: a New Open Letters Monthly and a Fun Q&A!


First of all, the June issue of Open Letters Monthly is up! I won’t itemize all of its contents, because I hope you’ll come over and have a look for yourself. But I will mention that it is the first issue in a while to include something by every editor. We’re pretty proud about that. My own contribution is this month’s “Title Menu” feature. We’ve always talked a lot about the popularity of the so-called “listicle,” but most of the ones we’d seen around just didn’t seem substantial enough for the lofty aspirations we have for long-form writing at OLM. Then it occurred to us that there’s no reason a list has to be trivial, or that long(er)-form writing can’t be fun. So we’ve been experimenting with our own version of the listicle since January, with all kinds of cool topics from memorable birth scenes to art crime to books that might (or might not) be poetry. Mine lists eight books inspired by George Eliot — there are others, I know, but these are ones I’ve particularly enjoyed.

In other news, I had mentioned not long ago that I would be participating in a Q&A on Twitter organized by the folks who run the Atlantic’s #1book140 club.* For a while I thought maybe it wasn’t going to happen after all, since #1book140 decided not to officially read to the end of Middlemarch (I’m not sure how much participation they usually get in their discussions, but it did seem to me that things weren’t exactly hopping on the hashtag). But it did! They talked Stephen Burt into being the Q to my A, and he and I had a grand old time going back and forth for an hour last night. He had a lot of interesting questions for me. One in particular that I had never thought about before was how the most famous “takeout quotations” from the novel change when you look at them actually in the novels. The Atlantic people are putting together a ‘Storify’ of our conversation, so when it’s ready I’ll be sure to post a link to it so you can find out not just what I said about that but which character in the novel I most identified with at 18, and what quotation I would choose if I ever opted to get a Middlemarch tattoo! I so much enjoyed exchanging ideas and favorite moments from the novel with someone else who’s excited about it: it made me realize that I’ve been thinking about it in the abstract recently more than I’ve actually been reading it. Hooray for having put it on my book list for 19thC Fiction in the fall term and having an excuse to go once more into all the details.

*In case you’re wondering how good this has been for the stats over at Middlemarch for Book Clubs, you’ll be glad to know that it has increased the hits there by literally dozens. 🙂

Open Letters Monthly: April 2014!


Does anyone who reads Novel Readings still need to be reminded to check out the new issue of Open Letters Monthly every month? Surely not! Love me, love my friends, right? But just in case, here’s the regular notice that we did it again: a new issue is live.

This seems like a particularly rich month. There’s a good showing from “the masthead,” with our editors all playing to their strengths: John Cotter on Peter Matthiessen’s In Paradise, Greg Waldmann on The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, Steve Donoghue on Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Maureen Thorson on two new books of poetry, Elisa Gabbert with this month’s “Title Menu” on 10 books that might be poetry. Dorian Stuber weighs in on yet another contribution to the never-ending ‘crisis in the humanities’ (“wasn’t it always thus”?) and finds it opportunistic and clichéd; my Dal colleague Jerry White looks at the remarkable institution that is the Irish Presidency; Steve Danziger explores William S. Burroughs’s notorious Cut-up Trilogy; our own foreign correspondent Michael Johnson feels some déjà vu as he watches events unfold in Ukraine. And that’s not all, so I hope you’ll check it out.

Open Letters Monthly, March 2014


The March issue is up! Please come on over and take a look. And while you’re there, wish us a happy birthday: now we are seven! In internet years, I think that’s about eighty, but all in all we’re still feeling pretty spry. We didn’t do a special birthday issue this time, but for our fifth anniversary, in 2012, we put out our Criticism issue, which I still think is one of the best we’ve ever done.

In case I haven’t said this often enough, we are always keen to work with new contributors, so if you have ideas for essays or reviews, just get in touch with me and we can confer! One of my favorite things about Open Letters is that we aren’t constrained to the newest, shiniest literary things but also relish pieces for our ‘Second Glance‘ or ‘Absent Friends‘ features. Basically, if you want to follow your (reading) bliss and are willing to expose yourself to the editing process we fondly call “the shark tank,” we’re interested.

But if you just like to read what we put up every month — or much more often, if you also consider Steve’s astonishing output at Open Letters Weekly and the regular posts from our four affiliated blogs, including this one — do help us get the word out by sharing links with your friends. Finally, if you really like us, consider contributing a little through our PayPal button to help cover our operating costs.

Open Letters Monthly: The February 2014 Issue!

It’s up! Go read it!

SaccoNovo1In case you need more detailed encouragement, here are some highlights:

One of my favourite contributors, Joanna Scutts, is back with a wonderful piece on Joe Sacco’s The Great War, which is a remarkable-sounding panoramic drawing of the first day of the Battle of the Somme inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry:

Unlike other drawings of the war, like Otto Dix’s Der Krieg cycle, the horror isn’t etched on the faces of men in pain; few expressions are visible, and we never get closer. Nor is it in the depiction of the explosions, which are delicately rendered, pointilliste swirls: artillery bombardment by Hokusai or Seurat. You just keep folding over the accordion pages, and gradually the battlefield becomes a casualty clearing station, the Red Cross wagons waiting, a white flag waving from a broken tree branch. And further on, past the walking wounded and the hospital tents and the lines of men on stretchers, there’s the end of the line—new trenches being dug, for bodies this time, and crosses nailed in. One gravedigger pauses with his arm across his face, exhausted by the heat or the horror. In the background a column of ants: innumerable new troops marching to the line in a loop that leads back to the beginning.

Steve Donoghue continues his series on the Tudors with Chris Skidmore’s The Rise of the Tudors; as usual he has as much fun (and does as good a job) telling us the story as telling us about the book under review:

According to a legend that’s too pleasing to be disbelieved, that story had its beginning in a moment of lust. Catherine of Valois, the pretty young widow of England’s King Henry V and mother of his son Henry VI, was living in the confines of Windsor Castle (as Skidmore points out, this in itself was cause for worry among the peers of the realm, since Catherine was young and strong-willed and kept calling herself Queen – English society hadn’t seen a setup like that in two centuries and didn’t quite know what to do with it) when she happened to glimpse a minor court functionary, Owen Tudor, swimming in the river with some friends, his long auburn hair plastered wet across his back. The girl was instantly smitten, and in due course there were Tudor children by the half-dozen, including two strapping sons, Edmund and Jasper, whose half-brother Henry VI gave them both rapid preferment at Court.

Ivan Keneally writes on Flannery O’ Connor’s A Prayer Journal:

O’Connor notes that the principal purpose of the letters is to express “adoration” for God, but much of their substance swings from distressed supplication to self-effacing confession. She sometimes prayed for guidance in prayer itself, to learn to love and draw near to a personal being who resists full comprehension. She seems to grope for a more visceral commitment and for the courage to surrender herself to God in a way that inspires rather than constrains her artistic creativity and rational powers; she pines to be “intelligently holy,” anticipating a preoccupation she would revisit ten years later in her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer” (1957), which investigates “what effect Catholic dogma has on the fiction writer who is Catholic.” She hungers for a beatitude that nurtures her creativity, not doctrinal shackles that constrain it. She even entreats God to supply her with a surfeit of inspiration, going as far as to describe the divine as the epiphanic source of her creative output, reducing herself to a mere vessel of God’s will:

Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.

Greg Waldmann scrutinizes Andrew Sullivan’s I Was Wrong:

Viewers of The Dish today may find it hard to believe that this is the same person they read every day. (In fact, several have written to say they considered cancelling their subscriptions after they read I Was Wrong.) Today Sullivan is skeptical of intervention abroad, and generally wary of extreme political speech at home. But more than that, he – along with his staff – have fashioned The Dish into an almost bewildering cacophony of voices on the issues of the moment, and reserved its weekends for posts about and links to ruminations on philosophical, social and spiritual issues. It has become what he recently called “a very rare place online that takes some time in the week to gather and air the best ideas, arguments, insights in online writing about literature, love, death, philosophy, faith, art, atheism, and sexuality.” It is the most consistently interesting site on the web, and one of the more fair-minded as well. Iraq is at the heart of this transformation, but there are other reasons which this narrowly-focused e-book understandably leaves out.

 And the editors all pitched in to help you find the perfect verse for your Valentine. I like my own choices, of course (I have heard students mock those lines of Aurora Leigh, but I simply pity them for not appreciating the wonderful convergence of erotic ecstasy and prosody) — but of the others, I especially like Colleen’s contribution, by the 11th-century “poetess-courtezan” Izumi Shikibu:

It would console me
to see your face,
even fleetingly, between
lightning flashes at dusk


Also included: my review of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. Long-time readers of this blog will know I’ve been lying in wait for this book ever since Mead’s New Yorker essay appeared three years ago. I use that predatory metaphor deliberately but also ironically, because by the time the book was officially announced as ‘forthcoming’ I was already less inclined to pounce. Though I stand by my New Yorker critique as an honest and rigorous reflection of my priorities for writing about Middlemarch, I have learned — from the comments on that post and from the evolution of my own thinking — to be (somewhat) more open-minded about how other people choose to write about it (or what they want to read about it).

This doesn’t mean that everything has changed! As I say in my review, I began the book feeling pretty skeptical. But how pleasantly surprised I was! As I say in the review, “Mead won me over.” And I do think it’s not just that the book is “more expansive than the New Yorker essay . . . better balanced, more thought-provoking, and, unexpectedly, more self-effacing.” It’s that I feel more positive and less defensive myself. Most importantly, I have done a lot more of my own non-academic writing about George Eliot since 2011, but  I have also come to feel more connected to a greater variety of conversations about books, not just through my blog but through the people I now know on Twitter (full disclosure: including Mead herself). I can see now, too, that it’s a good thing that Mead hasn’t written same kind of book I want to write. If she did, after all, there wouldn’t be any need for my book! I admit that amidst the flurry of publicity and praise for her book, I am finding it harder to hang on to my ideas about what my book should be, and especially to imagine what the audience for it would be, if her kind of book is the kind of book so many people like. But, putting my own selfish preoccupations aside (which is what Middlemarch teaches, after all), I can say that hers is a lovely book of its kind. I think my review is scrupulous, and I know it to be completely sincere:

What My Life in Middlemarch ultimately offered me — what I cherished about it — was its celebration of the continuities as well as the changes that mark our growing into ourselves, and of the special role books so often have in this process as tangible symbols of who we have been, are, and aspire to be. “Most serious readers,” Mead rightly notes, “can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one Middlemarch has in mine. I chose Middlemarch — or Middlemarch chose me — and I cannot imagine life without it.”

Open Letters, November 2013!


The November issue is up! Headlining it is Steve Donoghue’s review of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (spoiler: he doesn’t like it!). Other recent fiction reviewed includes Jhumpa Lahiri’s The LowlandChimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and Richard Kadrey’s YA novel Dead Set. Sam Sacks takes a look at a new book on Hamlet that “attempts to illuminate the play’s darker corners, and in the process provides useful glosses on some of the more rebarbative thinkers of the modern era”; Greg Waldmann reviews Collision 2012, another entry in the usually short-lived genre of the campaign book; Ivan Keneally explores what sounds like a wonderful exhibition of Sargent’s watercolors at the MFA; and our new poems for the month, from Katy Bohinc, take the form of letters to Alain Badiou. My contribution this time is a ‘second glance’ at one of my long-time favorites to read and teach, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone: I needed a break from disappointing contemporary fiction! Add in Irma Heldman’s regular mystery column and some well-chosen pieces from our archives (especially worth another look is John Cotter’s piece on Sargent’s El Jaleo), and that’s a wrap! Please go on over and check it out, and if you like what you find, help us get the word out.

A New Month, A New Open Letters Monthly!


Once again, a new month has brought with it a sparkling new issue of Open Letters Monthly. If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll go check it out. As always, there’s a wide range of coverage and styles. We’re spotlighting Steve Danziger’s review of Jonathan Franzen’s new translation of Karl Kraus (you know, the one in which he tells us ‘what’s wrong with the modern world’). You’ll also find John Cotter’s review of Jeremias Gotthelf’s very creepy sounding The Black Spider, Steve Donoghue on Korak, son of Tarzan, poetry editor Maureen Thorson on the ‘piercing unreason’ of Ange Mlinko’s poetry, my own unimpressed take on Elizabeth Gilbert’s much-hyped The Signature of All Things, Justin Hickey on Abominable Science, Spencer Lenfield on the enduring mystique of Pompeii, and much more. If you like what you find, do help us get the word out.

This month marks exactly four years since my first ever contribution to Open Letters Monthly, which was this little essay on Trollope. It has been quite a four years for me: I can’t imagine how else I would have found the courage to write, never mind a venue in which to publish, the range of reviews and essays that followed. Here’s to our next four years!

Open Letters Monthly: the June 2013 issue!


It’s a new month, and once again, a new issue of Open Letters Monthly is live and ready for your reading pleasure!

As usual, the pieces range widely and probe deeply. I have a proprietary interest in a handful of them. Alyssa Mackenzie, a former honors student at Dal (now doing graduate work on Virginia Woolf in NYC) contributed a great review of Sandra Djwa’s new biography of P. K. Page — by the time I’d finished working through it with Alyssa I was convinced I have not read nearly enough of Page’s poetry. Nicole Perrin, better known to some of you as bibliographing, takes a sharp look at Jane Gardam’s latest and (to her disappointment and mine) finds it not as good as her earlier books. My Dal colleague Jerry White has a stem-winder on Fintan O’Toole’s attempts to generate a new vision of republicanism in Ireland. It is genuinely exciting to work with people on books and ideas that they are excited about themselves, and gratifying to see our efforts (well, OK, the effort is mostly theirs, but I helped!) pay off with strong, interesting critical writing.

olivia-manning-a-woman-at-warMy own contribution is a review of Deirdre David’s Olivia Manning: A Woman at War, which I found fascinating for its account of Manning’s life and work and thought-provoking for the questions it raises about being (or refusing to be) a “woman writer.”

The issue also includes John Cotter’s take on Terry Eagleton’s How to Read LiteratureSteve Donoghue keeping up with the Tudors with a new alt-history account of Anne Boleyn, Spencer Lenfield with an impressively detailed and nuanced reading of Richard Ford, and much more. I hope you’ll come on over and read around in it — and if you read something you like, help us get the word out. Sometimes (perhaps unfoundedly) it feels like we are putting out the best online literary magazine nobody has ever heard of! And also, in case this doesn’t go without saying, if you ever have an idea for an essay or review that you’d like to contribute, let me know (rmaitzen at gmail).

New Reviews and “Right” Reviewers


Launch day never comes but what I am surprised at what we’ve pulled off, thanks to the talent, perseverance, and generosity of our contributors and the diligence, enthusiasm, and contributions of our editors! Our May issue seems to me to exemplify what we want Open Letters to be. It covers a wide range of material — I think there’s greater variety in the titles we cover than in most other literary magazines, online or otherwise — and in a range of voices. Have you ever looked at our “About” page? Here’s what the wise heads that set up Open Letters in the first place came up with as our “mission statement”:

We’ve all had the experience of reading a review that sparkled—one that combined an informed, accessible examination of its quarry with gamesome, intelligent, and even funny commentary. These are the pieces we tell our friends about and then vigorously debate.

That’s the kind of writing you’ll find in this month’s issue, so hop on over and take a look! Among its goodies you’ll find a thoughtful exploration of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge by friend-of-Novel-Readings Colleen Shea (a.k.a. the esteemed proprietress of Jam and Idleness); an exuberantly insightful commentary on a new edition of Birds of America by the inimitable Steve Donoghue; a provocative critique of Tea Obreht’s critically-acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife; and much more.

atkinson1My own contribution this month is a review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which has also been receiving  a fair share of critical acclaim. You’ll have to read my review to find out if I’m joining in the chorus. I will say that the book is extremely readable, and that writing the review was good mental exercise, especially once I decided on how I wanted to structure it.

While I was working on it, a conversation broke out on Twitter about the question of what makes someone a good fit to review a particular book. OK, I started it — well, technically Mark Sarvas started it by noting he thought a particular reviewer was a “terrible choice” for a particular assignment. Happily, I pretty much “assign” my own books to review, but I puzzle over how to make good choices for myself, so I asked what he thought the parameters were. He proposed avoiding cases of “outright conflict,” cases where there’s a specific “axe to grind.” I proposed someone who could be expected to have a good conversation with the book . Gregory Cowles of the NYTBR chimed in (Twitter is fun that way) to suggest “open engagement” as the key.

As I said in that exchange, I seek out books to review that I expect to like, by which I mean books by writers I have some reason to trust, and/or on topics and/or in genres that are within my usual range of interests. This is not to say that my default plan is a good review (in fact, I try not to think in terms of “good” or “bad” reviews). I just figure that way I have the best shot of appreciating what the book does well but also recognizing what, according to my reading experience, it doesn’t do well. To keep going with the conversational metaphor, there’s no point trying to have a lengthy discussion with someone whose language you don’t speak at all. If I were a full-time professional book reviewer, such discrimination would presumably be a luxury. Sometimes when I’m paging through catalogs not finding any “likely candidates” for my next review, I hope I’m not being some kind of prima donna, or  (worse?) that I’m not being intellectually unadventurous. But who would want to read my attempt to review something like Revenge? Or, to go even further outside my normal literary habitat, Richard Hell’s autobiography, reviewed with great panache in this issue by Steve Danziger? Much better to leave these books to readers who get them.

Besides, in a way all contemporary fiction is an adventure for me, since my official expertise is entirely elsewhere. I’ve certainly found plenty to grapple with in the recent books I have reviewed, from The Marriage Plot to Two-Part Inventions. (Whether I’ve acquired expertise, or at least relevant experience, by writing about contemporary fiction on my blog is another question, not entirely unrelated, I suppose!) Mark’s question was timely in part because I was wondering if I was a good choice to review Life After Life. Reviews were coming out all around me as I worked (I managed not to actually read any of them until I had a complete, committed draft of my own!) — Francine Prose’s came out in the New York Times just this past weekend, too. Clearly someone there thought she was a good fit, and I can see why. Every reviewer who acts in “good faith,” though (to call on another of Mark’s Twitter comments) brings something fresh to the conversation. It’s possible, too, especially reading the major literary reviews, to feel as if there’s all too much insider trading (have you heard the joke about the New York Review of Books — that its real name is The New York Review of Each Other’s Books?). I think my review stands up well to Prose’s. (Mind you, she, poor woman, was probably given a word limit.)

What do you think makes someone a good fit for a particular review? Proximity or distance? Expertise or an unexpected angle? Or will you take any of these provided the conversation itself is good enough? These questions are relevant to me not just as a writer but as an editor, after all.

Also, in case you wondered, the next book I’m reviewing is Deirdre David’s biography of Olivia Manning. I think I’m a good fit: I know David’s work as a Victorianist, of course, and I’ve read both trilogies in Manning’s The Fortunes of War, and I know a lot more about early 20th-century women writers than I used to because of my reading in the ‘Somerville’ set. So far it’s entirely fascinating.