One Saturday morning my son called from Boston. We chatted briefly about this and that, and when we ran out of things to say, he asked, “So whatcha got goin’ today?”

“Just working,” I said. “You?”

“Working.”

I’m pretty sure if we had conferenced in my sister the CPA and his brother the musician, they would have had the same answer. And if there is no work in heaven, my father is surely furious, having nothing to do except yell at the television set. I assume there are televised sports in heaven; if not, they must have a lot of unhappy customers.

Don’t feel sorry for us workaholic Winiks. Or at least don’t feel sorry for me; I don’t know if the other family members have quite the ecstatic relationship to work that I have. For me, my work is like my dog. It is always here for me, it loves me best, it repays my every attention, it looks at me with its big brown eyes and eats from my hand. It thinks I am better than I am and actually makes me better than I am. It is the thing I do that balances and soothes the effects of less perfect activities. Only exercise comes close to work in redemptive power, but it is absolution without the blissful loss of self-consciousness. Quite the opposite.

When I wake up in the morning, I think, what will I do today? And on a good day the answer will be, get your ass downstairs and get going.

In fact, a huge majority of my work is performed on that very ass, reading novels and memoirs. I spend most of my waking hours reading, and I often read in my dreams too, though the books in that world are coded and slippery, impossible to recall from one page to the next. Some of the books in this world are, too. It is my job to sort them, good, bad and so-so, star, no star, pick, no pick, and to type sentences explaining my judgment, possibly in as few as 35 words, for People magazine, or as many as 1200, for the Washington Post.

In the past three weeks I have read close to 20 books, which was slightly more challenging than usual because I somehow bruised my tailbone. At first I was sure I had ass cancer since I had no recollection of an injury. But my doctor said it is very common not to know how it happened, it takes 6 to 12 weeks to get better, and all you can do is take Tylenol. At least he answered my email, and at least I don’t have ass cancer. Much of the time now I read standing up, usually pacing back and forth across the house, but I also read on dog walks. As you have probably inferred, I read fast and as mentioned, I do little else, which is how you get to 20 in 3 weeks. Enviable or pathetic? Perhaps a little of both. I lean toward the former and don’t dwell on the latter. Even if I were feeling bad about my life, I wouldn’t make obsessive reading a sad part of it.

You know how when a little kid or maybe a rather dull middle-aged man tells you the plot of a TV show at incredible length, and you begin to feel mildly suicidal?  It is the job of a book reviewer not to be like that. So now I will quickly tell you about the books in this bunch. If you find some you want to read, great, and be patient if it’s not out yet because critics usually read books months before publication, so our opinion-making can be accomplished in time for the publicity. Reading, I am a cog in a great machine of work. Writers writing, publishers publishing, narrators recording, critics reviewing, bookstores ordering, Amazon monopolizing, interests piquing, libraries stocking, on and on until it finally transcends the work that made it and becomes entertainment and art and culture. Literature.

Yesterday I read a memoir that started the assembly line even further back because it was actually about work, and work addiction. Workhorse, by Kim Reed, opens when the author is a 22-year-old social worker in Brooklyn dealing with scary cases involving isolated seniors, then running to a second job every night in order to have any hope of paying her student loans. She is a hostess at Babbo, a celebrity-magnet restaurant in Manhattan. Of course I stopped to copy out this sentence:

“I would forget myself—my worries, cares, whatever I was doing tomorrow, the fact that my feet were swelling up out of my shoes—I was nothing except for the task I was doing the very moment I was doing it: running a check from the bartender up the steep staircase to a server on the second floor; taping a little orange coat check ticket securely onto a guest’s shopping bag; helping Kate Hudson slip out of her ivory, floor-length coat, arguing with George.”

Reed became executive assistant to John Bastianich, Mario Batali’s assistant in his restaurant and retail empire. As you can guess, this did not work out well. Hopefully these days she is focusing her ferocious competence and dependability on something more worthy of her talents. Maybe her writing career.

Workhorse was wedged in while I was reading three other books at once, all to be judged in just a few days. On the Kindle the kids gave me for Christmas, I read Lauren Groff’s new concoction, Matrix. It is about a medieval nun and it completely hypnotized me. It’s the kind of book that gets in your head and makes you speak and write differently. In fact I may be under its influence right now. I liked it more than Fates and Furies and maybe as much as Arcadia, the one about the commune, which I have been recommending to people forever, most successfully my sister. Matrix is gorgeous and uplifting and profound, also deeply feminist. If you liked Hamnet I bet you would enjoy it.

A lovely quilt made of books.

On my iPad, which is good for reading PDFs, which is mostly what critics get these days instead of paper ARCs, I am reading the new Louise Erdrich, The Sentence. This book is a trip. It’s written in the voice of an ex-con Native woman who works in a bookstore, and the bookstore is Louise Erdrich’s real bookstore. One funny line says that people are always asking her if she is Louise, in fact they ask everyone who works there if they are Louise, even the men. Meanwhile the store is being haunted by the ghost of their recently dead, most annoying customer of all time.

The other book I have going right now is Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, and this I am actually reading in print on paper, which has become vey rare. It is the first installment of a planned trilogy and it’s over 600 pages and it’s been hulking on my nightstand for quite a while. But yay, it’s good. A big, juicy domestic drama set in the 1970s, a pastor and his family, with viewpoint rotating around the family members. Last night I couldn’t sleep and I went back to it for an hour in the middle of the night. There is an important character named Marion and she is quite a mess. Seeing my name in a book is also rare; I have extra concern and sympathy for Marion because she has my name. Even my spelling. If one’s name is more commonly used in books, maybe this wears off. I will ask Liz.

Apart from these heavy hitters — Groff, Erdrich, Franzen, all geniuses and so different from one another! — there were several other highlights. I got to read the new Sally Rooney,  Beautiful World, Where Are You. This will not make as good a mini-series as Normal People did — haha, did you read the great Lorrie Moore article about this? She notes how beautiful the actors are and guesses that people don’t say to Sally Rooney, oh, your book was so much better than the movie. This new book is composed partly of very long emails between two friends, one of whom is a famous young writer quite miserable about her renown. Perhaps I should conceal my enthusiasm for this book, in case Sally Rooney really is unhappy about being so popular, which of course we are not supposed to assume, since the book is fiction. Read it, just don’t tell anyone.

My beloved Lily King — Euphoria, based on part of the life of Margaret Mead, is the star of her backlist — has a forthcoming collection of short stories called Five Tuesdays in December. My favorite one is about a girl working for  two weeks as a mother’s helper for a very rich family up in Maine. I could write a babysitter story, I thought, remembering the prediction of the psychic I spoke to about my future YA series. Then I remembered my friend Jessica Anya Blau’s big summer hit, Mary Jane, which is also about a babysitter and I decided it would seem like I am copying. I’ll figure out something, someday, I guess — at least if that psychic is really psychic, I will.

In audio I listened to Crying in H Mart, by Michelle Zauner, who has a famous band called Japanese Breakfast that I hadn’t heard of til now. As usual, it was great hearing a memoir read aloud by the author herself. This is a heartbreaking narrative about losing her mother, but there was so much delicious Korean food in it that I rushed over to Baltimore’s teeny little Koreatown to stuff my face at Jong Kak — I wanted to go to Kong Pocha but it was closed, I hope it was only because it was Tuesday — but better yet I should go to our local H Mart. It is out by the Beltway and I’ve never been there; I wonder if they will now sell this book in their stores. They should. The book does not have recipes but Zauner loves the YouTuber Maangchi and describes learning from her videos in sensual detail. She found great solace in cooking the dishes of her childhood.

Two other great memoirs are Flesh and Blood by N. West Moss and Smile by Sarah Ruhl. Both are illness memoirs and both were delightful to read, which you’d think would be impossible since they are books about uterine hemangioma and Bell’s palsy, respectively. For this reason, I reviewed them in a pair for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which I write for because I met the editor Laurie Hertzel in the National Book Critics Circle. Laurie is one of the few newspaper book section editors left in the U.S. and I am lucky to be on her list. If her paper only pays $150 per review, that’s three times what you get at Kirkus. No one is in book reviewing for the money, even if you are a fast reader like me.

I have liked Jami Attenberg’s work in the past, particularly  The Middlesteins and All Grown Up, but her new memoir, I Came All This Way to Meet You, didn’t grab me. She feels otherwise, as we learn from a review of the book she has posted on Goodreads. “I always review my novels and give them five stars because I know all the work that went into them and how I feel about my characters and the art of storytelling in general and I think to myself, fuck yeah, five stars, I deserve it.” It continues from there, saying she may only be a two-star person but this is definitely a five-star memoir. Look it up if you don’t believe me. With 23 ratings in addition to her own, she’s got a 4.85 average so I could turn out to be a crank on this. Goodreads is my crank detector. If I seem to be the only person in the world who didn’t like a particular book, I think twice about it.

Sometimes I think the same thing the second time.

For an essay in the Washington Post, I read all three memoirs by Deborah Feldman, whose book Unorthodox was the inspiration for the super-successful Netflix series, though the script is less than half based on Feldman’s real experience. Her real experiences after she left the Hasidic community are described in the 2015 memoir Exodus, which she’s rewritten and re-issued now that the tv show so dramatically raised her profile. Hence Exodus Revisited. There’s a dramatic change in her prose style between the first book and the new one; she’s become quite the 19th century-type intellectual. Exodus Revisited is about identity and Jewishness, America vs. Europe, the notion of home — I just hope they don’t market it too heavily to the tv audience because unlike the show, the new book has no sex trauma, no cult, no white-knuckle suspense, and no Glee-like music school in Berlin. Though it does have plenty of Berlin, where Feldman lives and which she adores.

We Are Not Like Them is bound for book club glory, I predict. Co-written by a black author and a white author, Christine Pride and Jo Piazza, it’s about a Black newscaster and a white woman married to a cop who have been best friends since preschool. Then the white woman’s husband shoots a 14-year-old Black boy. Intense, brave, mostly character-driven rather than formulaic, at times a little preachy — but on this topic, we can take a little preaching. It’s not quite good as An American Marriage, so it may not get quite as much acclaim and buzz, but we’ll see. LIke the very millennial Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid, it is set in Philadelphia — apparently the focal point for literary interracial drama.

Another book with a number of Black characters is Filthy Animals, by Brandon Taylor, a young author who hit it big last year with Real Life. It’s linked short stories, all about young people of various sexual orientations, dancers and students, out in the Midwest. I’m not done with it yet, so the jury is out. Admit This to No One, by Leslie Pietrzyk (she wrote the amazing memoir Angel on My Chest about losing her husband) is also linked short stories, also with a strong sense of place. It’s set in Washington DC, and many of the plotlines revolve around the Speaker of the House. Dishy and of the moment.

Back to Philadelphia for Bar Maid by Daniel Roberts, which is really not of the moment — about a Holden Caulfield-esque rich boy starting his freshman year at Penn, obsessed with a beautiful girl who works at a local bar. This book is set in 1987 and its handling of race, class, gender relations and such seems anachronistically rooted in that time. Though the writing is good.

Speaking of the moment, what intense timing for Neglect, a book about a female vet of the Afghanistan war by Kim Wozencraft, author of the dark 1990 classic, Rush. If you only saw the movie, you might not know how adept this novelist is at building psychological tension and raging against the establishment. I was reading Neglect as the Taliban was taking over and it was exactly the story that makes this whole thing such a nightmare. The main character is a mom who loses custody of her kids when her PTSD and alcoholism and assaholic husband get the better of her. The Afghanistan scenes are every bit as intense as those in Stephen King’s new book, Billy Summers. Neglect is out on October 19.

And so now you know everything I know, except that I had a seven-minute egg with soba noodles in dashi broth for breakfast (I do spoil myself) and that I’m about to take my friend Mark to his colonoscopy. Franzen is coming with us. It’s Take Jonathan Franzen to Your Friend’s Colonoscopy Day. You can celebrate it whenever you like.

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Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

3 replies on “Behind the Scenes at the Book Review Factory”

  1. I forwarded this to all my book club friends with this note:
    You can read this article either because my sister wrote it and I’m mentioned in it twice, because it discusses about 20 new books if you’re looking for something to read or because my sister has a pretty good sense of humor and you’re sure to get at least a chuckle.
    Love you, Mar.

  2. Thanks Marion for all the recommends. Here’s one for u: do u know of /have unread anything by Natalie Standiford? She grew up in Roland Park and just released her first adult (as opposed to YA ) novel. It is set in NYC in the 80’s. Astrid Sees All. Lmk!

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