Why is this a faux, or fake, book review? Because it’s a review of my own book. My plan earlier in the week had been to use this week’s blog post to merely announce the publication of this book, and perhaps to reprint one of the book’s two introductions, “Why Reading Gets Me Off” or “Why I Write Book Reviews” – but these are already available on this website, and I only need to provide links to them. I could just show you the cover of the book and include the back cover copy – but again, I felt something was missing. Then I came up with the idea of pseudo-reviewing it as a way to explain why I like this book and why I consider it valuable, why I would buy it and avidly read it if it were written by someone else.
This book is a compilation of book reviews and essays on literature and writing. The first thing you notice when you open it is the extended table of contents. It is eight pages long, and lists all the books and topics covered in the reviews. This gives you the advantage of skipping ahead to any titles that particularly catch your interest. Walters does not try to give any comprehensive overview of any particular aspect of literature here. It is a hodgepodge of titles based upon his own reading experience. It is fairly evenly divided between fiction and nonfiction books, as the author explains that in his reading he usually alternates between them. Though most of the titles are books he has read in the last few years, there are also some lists of his all-time favorite books and short stories, and why these were particularly important to him.
All in all, the titles Walters writes about are an eclectic blend of all sorts of genres of fiction and nonfiction. In the fiction section, he not only discusses the works of some of his favorite American authors such as Henry Miller, Jack London, Jhumpa Lahiri, Harlan Ellison, and Roger Zelazny, but also writes about a number of international authors such as Jorge Luis Borges from Argentina, Shusaku Endo from Japan, J.R.R. Tolkien from England, and Rabindranath Tagore from India. Though most of the writers discussed are well-known and traditionally published, Walters also includes comments on some new and indie-published writers as well.
As explained in the introductions, this book is not only about the books and authors covered in the reviews, but about the writer of the book himself. Walters has led an unusual life, as he recounts in his various memoirs. As he tells in “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search“, in the 1970s he hitchhiked across the United States, around Europe, across the Middle East, and through India in search of experience and his voice as a writer. He lived for thirty-five years abroad in a variety of countries. Many of the reviews diverge into essays on his own personal experiences. For example, in the review of “Deathbird Stories” by Harlan Ellison, he recalls his time at the Clarion West science fiction writing workshop, during which Harlan Ellison was one of the teachers. In the review of the nonfiction work “The Seventies” by Bruce J. Schulman, he writes about the confusion he went through in the San Francisco Bay area in the early seventies, surrounded by the “detritus of the sixties” and the deteriorating hippy culture of drugs and free sex. In the first essay on “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri, he recalls the time he studied the Bengali language at Dhaka University in Bangladesh and lived in the crowded confusion of the city of Calcutta. These and other personal reminiscences infuse this book with exuberance and depth.
This is the type of book on literature I like to read – one shot through with exciting and interesting side trips and divergences. One of the essays in the section on nonfiction books is called “On Abandoning the Reading of The United States: Essays 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal”. Walters explains that once he starts a book he almost never puts it down until he finishes it, even if the reading becomes tedious. However, in the case of Vidal’s essays, they were too pompous, highbrow, and just plain boring to waste time reading. Walters’ book is not like that. The essays are succinct, surprising, full of fascinating roadside attractions on the literary journey of life. Personally I am always on the lookout for books like this. I love to hear other writers’ takes on books, literature, and writing, but there are too few of such books out there.
All right – I am switching back to John Walters the writer, from John Walters the self-reviewer. Honestly, I really do enjoy reading books about reading and writing such as Henry Miller’s “The Books in My Life”, but there really are too few of them available. That is one of the main things that prompted me to write this book: because as a reader, I would want to discover and read a book like this.