I’ve been a book-review editor with the Kenyon Review for over two years now, and just as I should be getting used to the work, everything becoming routine, the opposite has been happening. Lately I’ve been realizing anew how unlikely and remarkable each review—each brief meeting of writer and reader—is. As an editor, I do a little light matchmaking, setting up a reviewer with a book. The result can’t help but surprise: each reviewer places each book in a hard-won and intensely lived canon of her own years of reading and writing. The book assigned has entered a conversation that I couldn’t quite have anticipated.
Ideally, when reading any book review, one perceives how the reviewer has read both deeply and broadly: she has attended fully to this text; she has read it in a capacious and heterogeneous context. (See the flower as the bee would, now as the landscape-painter would.) When I read reviews like Lindsay Turner’s recent piece on the Etel Adnan reader To look at the sea is to become what one is, it’s clear how these thousand- to two-thousand-word texts could only be the result of years of labor.
The Adnan reader is precisely the sort of work the Kenyon Review should cover, and yet it’s such an undertaking: these two volumes cover a fifty-plus-year span of one writer’s work. Adnan has written in multiple languages (French and English), has lived in and written of three nations (Lebanon, France, the U.S.), has published many volumes of poetry, prose, and artists’ books, and also has a career as an acclaimed painter. Her work is philosophically ambitious and politically acute; or, as Turner observes, “Adnan seeks elemental continuity, finding and dwelling most often in an omnipresent and global violence.”
Throughout her career, Adnan’s work has been under-discussed, and what responses there have been have often faltered: witness the early reviews concluding that even such significant and enduring works as her 1989 The Arab Apocalypse are nearly unreadable. As with many reviews, then, there is both work to do and work to undo. Turner approaches the task with the expansive, inventive sensibility of one who is both a critic and poet: she doesn’t reduce this considerable body of work into a single argument, but allows her insights to coalesce around different aspects of Adnan’s oeuvre, which lets her “suggest some paths a reader might follow through it, or some of the lines of contour that emerge out of its rich and varied textures.” Her discussion, divided into three short sections, each incisively framed, sheds light on Adnan’s work at the “dynamic conjunction of the local and the global, the identity-based and the universal, and philosophical abstraction and creative figuration.” We’re left with the sense that we’ve been fortunate to witness this encounter: one reader meeting one writer. We’re left, too, with a new desire to read the book in question, to join the conversation we’ve just been lucky to overhear.
The best versions of this conversation offer something more substantial than liking or disliking, agreeing or disagreeing—something longer-lasting, harder to describe, and always a little thrilling to share in. This is the work we aim to do in each of KRO’s book reviews, which cover a great range of work—fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and the hard-to-define, published by presses big and small, often translated from around the world—in attentive and ambitious reviews that offer readers ways to learn about new literature and new ways to read the literature they know.