Three Views from KR’s Book Review Editors
I love the gathering of voices in the KR Reviews section. Recently, I’ve been especially excited to feature reviews that highlight, on the one hand, the tenth collection of a significant poet widely read and celebrated and, in the other, a debut collection by a poet at the beginning of a promising career.
Elle Magnuson reviews Joy Harjo’s poetry collection, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings:
By situating each poem in the vulnerable mother field of past human violence and mistakes, [Harjo] speaks directly to those who are not willing to listen.
Meanwhile, Andrew Sargus Klein reviews Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities:
Even when Chen is writing about something concrete like a mango or Antarctica, there’s an always-adjacent sense of something else, something less concrete—fearlessness, invisibility, romance.
As for our KR reviewers themselves, some have published countless pieces in noteworthy magazines over their careers, while others are publishing their very first critical prose. And, as you notice, we’re interested in all kinds of books in a range of genres. What unites these seemingly disparate book reviews is the passion and deep attention of our reviewers.
As an editor of book reviews, I’m always interested in emphasizing books that might not get as much press as they deserve. Translated books definitely fall into this category. These queries always catch my eye, as do queries for books from small, indie presses. Amid the many review copies I receive during the year, and the chatter online about recently published books, there’s nothing better than seeing a query from a potential reviewer regarding a book completely new to me.
I’m also very interested in how a reviewed book functions within larger frameworks, whether they be social, political, or perhaps a bit of both. I want to see how a book engages with a particular tradition. I want to see if it contributes in some way. Or does it seek to break away? Nothing exists in a vacuum, and the book review is the perfect genre to consider a book’s role in these larger, timely conversations. Christopher R. Vaughan’s review of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds comes to mind as a prime example of this approach.
I also admire Zach Savich’s review of Eleni Vakalo’s Before Lyricism, edited and translated by Karen Emmerich. I especially like how Savich discusses the relevance and importance of these six book-length poems, which were originally published between 1954 and 1966. He writes that the book’s “celebration of mysteries should excite readers who know little of Vakalo’s reputation but who have a high standard for what poetry can do.” This quote, for me, sums up what a book review should do: it should highlight the relevance of a text while also speaking to broader issues and questions that the text illuminates.
This year, I’ve looked for hope wherever I can find it, and one reliable form has been in the KR Reviews inbox. The cynic in me had worried, once, that people review books mostly for professional reasons, but I’ve been touched by how deeply people care for literature, for finding new books and voices, for devoting time to a new work of art, and for championing the words of others. Too, the fact that many reviews come from outside the cenacles of academia has been heartening; literature is being read widely, and is being given serious attention from a great variety of minds. Part of our work is always expanding that mind-field, and I look forward to continuing to do so in the coming year.
I’m grateful to all of our reviewers for these glimmers of hope. For making reviews a space for engaging questions, like Catherine Campbell’s of Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary: “But is that not the primary purpose of the fairy tale—to impress upon us, to force us to look and think twice about that which we perceive to be the norm?” For exposing larger problems in classifying literature, as Caroline Crew does in her review of Elizabeth Hall’s I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris:
This vein of hybrid, autobiographically informed work has been categorized as autotheory, a term often applied to writers that I love, a term that is also most often associated with women. And this is how the term grates for me: Hall is asking how her body relates to the world. This is not some carefully separate kind of theory—what else was Merleau-Ponty doing with phenomenology but asking how his body related to the world’s objects?—and how is what Hall (or Maggie Nelson, or Kathy Acker) doing any different? I can read Kant’s Critique of Judgment without a penis and still comprehend the Sublime.
For all of you giving the gift of careful reading—thank you.
—Corey Van Landingham