Hat tricks & ‘Palestinian Neighbors:’ a crash course in book review protocol

I used to do way more book reviewing than I do these days. I also did a lot more feature writing. But that’s hardly a surprise when your job title is reporter. 

I still write the occasional book review at work – in fact, I have 10 to write in the next couple of weeks for the library newsletter. But those are more like tiny shrunken head book reviews, because they’re only about 70 words long.  

One of the perks of being a reviewer is the ability to do your work pretty much anywhere, something I discovered was also sometimes true for library science grad students.

In the past couple of months, I’ve gotten to pull my book reviewer and feature writer hats out of storage. I read the book/did the interview, wrote the words, turned in the pieces. That always used to be the end, until they showed up in print and/or on line. 

But having a blog in the age of “Fake News!” means getting the chance to talk a little bit about what goes into these types of pieces, and what it’s like to put them together.

People who’ve never written a book review might think that reviewers base their review on how much they liked or didn’t like the book. 

Some might. 

I don’t. “How much did I like it?” is absolutely the wrong question.  It’s actually, for a reputable book critic, an irresponsible approach.

There are two appropriate questions when it comes to responsible book reviewing:

  1. What was the writer trying to do?
  2. How well did the writer accomplish that?

The book I reviewed, “Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor,” is by Yossi Klein Halevi. It’s a series of letters from an Israeli Jew to a hypothetical West Bank Palestinian.

Halevi set out to achieve the impossible. Guess how well it went? 

[this space intentionally left blank, in order to give you time to guess]

Most writers are not that ambitious, so I did give him some props for effort. I also consider the quality of the writing and how well the writer has expressed him/her/zerself. On the readability front, Halevi rated high for that – his book is very well-written.

There’s also an outward looking component. Providing a clear enough picture of what’s inside without giving away the store is the main reason for writing a review. The point is to give a potential reader or gift-giver the information necessary to know whether they want to spend the money buying it (or getting from the library) and the time reading it.

I’ve asked a bunch of my Muslim Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom sisters to read the first 10 pages of the free Arabic-language download of the Halevi’s book, so they can reality-check my views. 

One final point: It’s running in the opinion section of the paper, which is absolutely the appropriate place for anything opinion-related to run. Any review is just that – the reviewer expressing their opinion about what was seen/read/experienced. It’s not fake news, because it’s not news.

My review is hyperlinked above, but in case you didn’t notice, click here if you want to read it. 

Next week, I’ll post the feature story, and talk about writing those. 

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