Critic, Book World

(Simon and Schuster)

Anticipation. Bob Woodward’s latest book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” won’t be released until Sept. 11, but President Trump may already be trying out his anti-marketing campaign on Twitter. He doesn’t name the legendary Washington Post reporter, but note the reference to “fake books” — a variant of his favorite term, “Fake News.” Trump’s condemnation of “anonymous sources” is particularly curious in this instance, since it was history’s most famous anonymous source — “Deep Throat” — who helped Woodward and Carl Bernstein expose the Watergate scandal during the administration of President Richard Nixon.


(2018 National Book Festival, by illustrator Gaby D'Alessandro)

Calling all bookworms. On Saturday almost 200,000 people will come to the Washington Convention Center for the Library of Congress National Book Festival. This annual event is now so successful that it’s hard to remember how close it once came to getting snuffed out. The first National Book Festival took place in 2001, just a few days before terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Had the festival been scheduled for the following week, it would surely have been canceled. And there have been other challenges over the years, too. During the Iraq War, some authors refused to attend an event so closely identified with first lady Laura Bush. Had that sentiment gained momentum in an age of social media, it might have politicized the festival in such a way that it couldn’t have proceeded. (Imagine the Facebook petitions, the Twitter wars!) And then when George Bush’s presidential term ended and he and the first lady returned to Texas, there was the question of whether her successor would take up the mantle. For a couple of years, the library gave lip service to the patronage of Barack and Michelle Obama, but the president and his wife never participated with the enthusiasm of their predecessors, and eventually their names faded from the promotional material. That was surprising, considering the Obamas’ evident interest in reading and books, but it was all for the best. A national book festival that depended on the personal involvement of the president and first lady would have grown increasingly problematic — if not impossible — given the current inhabitants of the White House. We should be grateful that this Saturday’s event will provide an oasis from the political animosity that has consumed the nation. For a day, at least, we can all just be booklovers.

The coolest place. It’s so hot in Baltimore that some students at Goucher College are sleeping on cots in the library, according to a story in the Baltimore Sun. Apparently, this is a temporary move by the administration to provide relief to about 80 students assigned to one old, unairconditioned dorm. Sounds like heaven to me.


(Ron Charles/Washington Post)

Insider trading. Gary Shteyngart’s wonderful new novel, “Lake Success,” is about a hedge-fund manager indicted on a charge of insider trading. It got me thinking about the parallel problem of insider reviewing — the practice of writing reviews that are critically compromised by an undisclosed relationship between the reviewer and the author. (You can watch my satirical video on that subject here.) Every book section editor I know takes that issue seriously. Here at The Post, we ask each potential reviewer to let us know of any relationship, association or contact they may have had with the author of the book. Usually, those disclosures are inconsequential, e.g. “Twelve years ago we served on a panel together at an academic conference.” Once in a while, we hear things that cause us to withdraw an assignment, e.g. “She was my first wife.” The tougher cases are the ambiguous ones: “He was the general editor of a journal that published one of my stories, but he was not my immediate editor,” or “We’re both published by imprints of Penguin Random House.” We prefer to err on the side of caution. But we also want to provide highly qualified reviewers, and in some specialized fields, everybody seems to know everybody else. I’ve seen our nonfiction editor Steve Levingston contact six or seven reviewers before finding one he can use. And when we do proceed with a reviewer who has some kind of relationship with the author, we insist on a mention of that fact in the text of the review. The worst case I can remember at Book World was way back in 2005, when John Irving complained that Marianne Wiggins’s review of his novel “Until I Find You” was biased because Irving was a friend of Wiggins’s ex-husband, Salman Rushdie. We issued a public apology.


(Knopf)

Just deserts. A couple of weeks ago, I praised a terrifically exciting novel called “Cherry,” by Nico Walker, a former Iraq War vet who’s currently serving time in prison for bank robbery. Soon after my review ran, I exchanged some tweets with another Iraq War vet named Brian Van Reet who published a novel called “Spoils” last year. Van Reet was a bit perturbed by the media’s lavish praise for this man who had threatened people’s lives with a gun. What, he asked, if Walker “had exposed himself while committing the crime, what then?” It’s a provocative question that challenges the media’s willingness to celebrate the work of some criminals while condemning the work of others. It’s tempting to imagine that Van Reet is simply jealous that he didn’t receive the same fawning profile in the New York Times, but that wouldn’t be fair. He lays out his complicated thoughts with great generosity in this blog post, which is one of the most candid and thoughtful book reviews I’ve read in a long time.

Copyright wrongs. Readers of Michael Dirda’s reviews in The Washington Post will recognize the small publisher Valancourt Books in Richmond Over the years, Dirda has highlighted titles from Valancourt in his roundups of seasonal and genre books. Well, now this two-person publishing house has caught the attention of a much less appreciative reader. According to Forbes, the U.S. Copyright Office has demanded that Valancourt submit physical copies of hundreds of its individual books or face ruinous fines. The publisher is fighting back in federal court, claiming that this outdated requirement places an undue economic burden on its business and thereby constitutes a violation of its right to free speech. It’s a curious, complex case that suggests the government needs to update its procedures for registering copyrights in the digital age.

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Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.