Why Book Reviews Can Be the Best Holiday Gift of All

At the top of the list for all authors, their publishers, their agents and their publicists, there’s always been one wish that stands head and shoulders above all in book reviews: The Sunday Book Review supplement of the New York Times. But in the hundreds of books that editors see every week, all vying for this coveted review space, only few can garner the interest for review. Writing, like all art, is subjective: its beauty lies in the eyes of its beholder. Further, the books one reads about in the Review Section are usually those up-and-coming, already acclaimed, “big books,” the kind published by Crown/Random House or HarperCollins, or perhaps that literary novel that’s being talked about as the next major American novel.

So many authors aspire for Times’ recognition; so few see it happen, even over the course of a lifetime career. So, you can imagine my surprise when one of my authors, a debut novelist, who spent twenty-five years honing her book, In the King’s Arms, realized this nearly impossible impossible dream. And furthermore, was given such a glowing review that the hair-tearing process became worthwhile–all those years, all those countless rejections, such indifference to a story so embedded in the author’s own history and the world history of the Holocaust. I thought readers, including myself, were tired of this theme: how many times can we re-live the pain, violence, and guilt of such human atrocity?

But when I saw The Lazarus Project rise to the bestseller’s list, followed by the acclaimed first novel of Tea Obreht, I realized the roots of Jewish indignation and the plight of Eastern Europeans still resonate with most readers–it’s the tragedy we cannot forgive, it’s the wound that will never be sealed, and so it fascinates us, endlessly.

Like Obreht’s novel, Taitz’ is a coming-of-age, written with the older wisdom of a parent looking back at her 20s year abroad (at Oxford) experience. It echoes entirely, as Obreht, in an interview with another favorite author of mine, Jennifer Egan: “…a sense of the parent-child relationship being very tense and of children not wanting to live in their parents’ shadow. When you’re growing up, the lives of your parents aren’t that fascinating, but there is this fascination with grandparents. Because of that great amount of time that has passed between their youth and yours, and the fact that they lived entire lives before you even got there, you can’t really deny their identity as individuals prior to your existence they way perhaps you can with your parents. There’s also an awareness that the world was very different when they were living their lives.”

Taitz’ novel touched me, and I believe the same of those novels mentioned, not because of its Holocaust theme, but because of its more universally human ones:the “education” children seek for themselves, in rebellion of their parents.

In fact, I most compare Sonia’s novel to one of my all time favorite films,”An Education.” Just like the Carrie Mulligan character in the film, a young girl finds herself caught in a forbidden romance–in the case of Lily Taub, one with an English aristocrat, whose mother is deeply anti-Semitic.

From a publicity standpoint, I decided to work with Sonia largely because her novel was rooted in her own personal story: and this memoir aspect has always proved a saving grace in terms of media interest. I also felt this novel published by a devoted editor at McWitty Press, deserved a real shot, a shot not typically given to books published by smaller presses. From a very personal standpoint, I need to believe in the writing talent of every author I work with. For me, Sonia had a literary voice that felt not unlike Ian McEwan’s (particularly, in his slim romance novel, also set in England, On Cecil Beach. Admittedly, I never found a McEwan book I didn’t like.) The best kind of books form an everlasting memory, but their messages are rendered concisely and thoughtfully.

When I saw this weekend’s paper, I could only smile widely and think about Sonia and what this review would always mean to here, and the enduring power of that Times endorsement that can often change an author’s career.

But Sonia, her publisher, and me, her publicist, never needed this official stamp of credibility. We knew that Sonia’s book was good and worth writing. The greatest gifts come to those who do not expect them, and can continue on without them. When you try to force fate, it’s like waiting for a train and hoping that by looking, you’ll make it come.

You can follow Sonia Taitz at @soniataitz, or buy a copy of In the King’s Arms at any major bookseller or e-retailer. Sonia’s next book, a memoir, will be published with McWitty Press next Fall.

  • What a gift—especially at a time when print reviews are so scare, let alone plum ones like this. Congratulations, Sonia!

Douglas Kennedy

“Kennedy is astonishing at communicating his characters’ emotional turmoil . . . and he tosses tough ethical questions our way as he ponders the ‘moment’ that could change everything—and the very nature of love.” — Library Journal (starred review)