This is how you open a book review

Start with a mustard seed of irrelevant fact. Rutherford Hayes’s wife, Lucy, was the first American president’s wife to be referred to as the first lady. Scribble this on a scrap of paper and present it to Karen Russell. Tell her she has to write a story about this old dead guy and reincarnate him as a horse. Give her a couple of pencils. Put her in a locked safe à la Houdini. Tie one arm behind her back. Give her the sniffles. Let her go after a modest interval and see what she comes up with: the hilarious, impossibly realized, even moving, story "The Barn at the End of Our Term."
Or how about this? Instead of menses, drugged young girls in feudal Japan produce silk. We’d like 9,000 words, please. Blindfold Karen Russell. Make her compose wearing mittens, her only sustenance Red Bull and those little mandarin orange Cutie things. See what happens: the exquisite "Reeling for the Empire"—first-rate, ­­­­elegant horror.
Vampires, krill, a stolen rabbit renamed Saturday: Russell will make magic of them all.
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That's Joy Williams writing about Vampires in the Lemon Grove in The New York Times about Karen Russell. Williams notes that a "grim, stupendous, unfavorable magic is at work in these stories," and what a fine thing to aspire to as a writer—grim, stupendous, unfavorable magic.

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The full New York Times Book Review text is here, but behind a firewall that will repel non-subscribers. 

You may read a portion of Williams' essay courtesy of Book Marks.

William Dean Howells

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While I would wish you to love America most because it is your home, I would have you love the whole world and think of all the people in it as your countrymen. You will hear people more foolish than wicked say, “Our country right or wrong,” but that is a false patriotism and bad Americanism. When our country is wrong she is worse than other countries when they are wrong, for she has more light than other countries, and we somehow ought to make her feel that we are sorry and ashamed for her.

— William Dean Howells, from a statement written on his 75th birthday and read to students in New York City public schools

Robert Pirsig

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.

— Robert Pirsig


When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, there were three books we all felt were essential texts: Slaughterhouse-FiveSteppenwolf (or The Glass Bead Game, if you considered yourself among the more discerning readers of Hesse), and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To a 21-year-old Ohio hickboy, Zen seemed unlike anything I'd ever read. As I read more, I realized it wasn't really sui generis, but no matter—reading it for the first time was an expansive experience all too rare at university.

Pirsig died Monday in Maine. I've been tempted to reread Zen a few times, but I'm afraid the experience will be like rereading Kerouac as a grown man—what was so captivating about this when I first read it? Great books transcend the time of their authorship and the time of your first reading. Good books, sometimes, cannot accomplish that, and there's no reanimating that self you brought to the pages the first time around. Maybe I should have a little more faith.