Sunday, July 21, 2013

Not too mean, I hope

For 35 years I worked as an editor on daily newspapers. As much as I loved this work, I never lost the idea that I got into journalism to be a writer, not an editor. While I took great pleasure in editing and teaching many ambitious young people who could write circles around me, I clung to my alter-ego by writing when I could.

Jane Pierce with her son Benny. His death in early 1853
was perhaps the hardest blow in the tortured life of the
14th president's wife. (Pierce Brigade photo)   
One of the most convenient ways to keep my hand in was to write book reviews. Occasional reviews blossomed into a somewhat regular side-gig under Michael Pakenham, the demanding but inspiring and likable book editor at the Baltimore Sun. Mainly I reviewed Civil War books for the Sun, but Michael also chose histories, memoirs and biographies for me, especially those with a New England flavor.

For my first couple of years in retirement, I was the monthly book reviewer for the Concord Monitor, the paper whose newsroom I had run for 30 years. This was ideal since I could pick my own books. Usually I chose books I knew I would like on the theory that it served readers better to recommend books than to trash them. Even when my overall assessment of a book was negative, I pointed out its redeeming qualities. Writing a book is hard, as I learned from experience, and authors are therefore to be respected when possible.

I gave up the book column when I realized even a monthly deadline interfered with my life of leisure, travel and research and writing after retirement. Now I write when something comes out that is in my wheelhouse – New Hampshire history, focused mainly but not exclusively on the 19th century, and poetry, memoirs and biographies I would read anyway.

This little career capsule is a long-winded introduction to a review that appears in today’s Concord Monitor. It is the most negative review I have ever written.

The book under review is a new biography of Jane Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce. I disliked the book so much that the review followed a form I seldom employ. I began the review with the best thing I could give readers: a synopsis of the tortured life Jane Pierce led, beginning with its cruelest moment. This was the death of her 11-year-old son Benny in a train wreck between Franklin Pierce's election to the presidency and his inauguration. Not until halfway through the review did I lay out my criticism of the book. When I did, I tried to show its problems rather than characterize them.

The challenges in writing the review were two: to make reading it a more pleasant and rewarding experience than reading the book and to craft a review that was honest but not mean.

You can read the full review here. Please let me know how you think I did.

1 comment:

  1. Email from my friend Al Hutchison (thanks, Hutch):

    That was the most masterful negative book review I've ever read. I doubt that any of your readers (with the possible, even probable exception of the book's author) will find fault with it. I know it must have pained you to write it, but it needed to be written. Good for you.