A Conversation between David Starkey and Brian Tanguay

The following is a conversation between California Review of Books co-editors David Starkey and Brian Tanguay.

David Starkey: It’s been a couple of years now since we started the California Review of Books. How do you think it’s going? 

Brian Tanguay: I’m really pleased with what we’ve accomplished so far. I think of CRB as a long-term project that will grow to the point where we have a number of regular contributors with diverse perspectives. It will take time, but for me this is a labor of love. Author interviews is one area that I’m hoping we can expand; I miss talking with authors about their work. 

DS: Me, too. Which reminds me: readers may not be aware of how we got started. You and I were both book reviewers for the Santa Barbara Independent, and we pretty much had free rein to review any book or speak with any author that caught our attention. Then the Independent decided to focus only on local writers, and you and I came up with the idea for the California Review of Books. Our fantastic technical editor Chryss Yost designed the Review, and we were off to the races.

Still, while it goes without saying that we love books, I wonder if they seem to be playing an ever-smaller role in contemporary life? Why is that? Or do I have that wrong?

BT: I’m not sure. I read or hear from time to time that books are a relic and reading is dead, yet every time I step in one of our local bookstores (and I’m thankful Chaucer’s and The Book Den have survived), I see a fair number of people browsing and buying. Physical books are still magical. In fact, I find it very challenging to walk into a bookstore and walk out without buying a book. I wonder if you have the same experience? 

DS: I made a promise to myself in college that I would never leave a bookstore without buying a book. I’ve mostly lived up to that pledge. Independent bookstores, especially, are deserving of as much patronage as we can offer them.

Part of the fun of going to a bookstore, of course, is coming across books that you’ve never heard of or that you didn’t know you wanted to read. It’s not unlike the experience you and I have of being pitched books by authors, editors and agents. I wonder: when it comes to taking the time and trouble to read a new book, what sort of work are you likely to say “Yes” to?

BT: There are some authors I want to read any time they publish. For example, when George Saunders writes a new book, I can’t wait to get my hands on it because reading Saunders never disappoints. William Deresewicz, Rebecca Solnit, Arundhati Roy, and Isabel Wilkerson also fall in this bucket. But I’m also keen to find new voices or locales that are outside the mainstream. When I read the publisher’s synopsis of the novel We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, for instance, it intrigued me because it was about Tibetan refugees, a subject we don’t hear much about in the West. 

DS: Would you mind digging a little deeper into that response? What specifically are you looking for in a good book? That is, what elements of a book tend to result in a really positive review from you? 

BT: Evidence of craft, style, and a good story well-told. When I close a book I want to feel that I’ve had an encounter, that I’ve been invited to think or see differently. With fiction I try to tune into what the work makes me feel. Books are numerous but our time is limited. 

Out of all the books that come your way, what compels you to write a review? 

DS: Like you, there are certain authors whose new books I always want to read. Among fiction writers, Kevin Barry is a favorite, and Tessa Hadley, Kazuo Ishiguro, Elizabeth Strout, and, yes, George Saunders. In poetry, I always enjoy reading new work by Linda Pastan, Allison Joseph, Keetje Kuipers, Patricia Smith, Tracy K. Smith, Paula Meehan and Vona Groarke. To name just a very few. Of course, once you start listing names, you think of all those who should be mentioned–but I’m not going there!

But back to your question: what am I looking for in a book? I like, as you say, “a good story well-told,” even if that story occurs in just a few lines in a lyric poem. I guess what I cherish most is evidence of craft, the sense that every sentence, every syllable even, has been weighed and found worthy of inclusion in the book.

I’m curious about how you actually approach the process. Can you describe for me how you go about reviewing a book, from the first time you hear about it up to the moment you post it on CRB?

BT: I consider myself a slow reader. I make a lot of notes as I read and ask myself questions about the text. When I finish reading I arrange all my notes and questions, and then I allow them to marinade for a bit before I begin writing. I use the first draft to find a focal point. I’m a fairly ruthless self-editor so much of my first or second drafts get cut. With nonfiction, which is my primary wheelhouse, I try to find and convey the essence of the book, its central themes, how and where it fits with other similar works, or where it charts new territory. When I think I’m finished I put the review away for a day or two and then read it again, aloud, to hear how it sounds. Invariably, I find awkward sentences or inchoate thoughts that have to be resolved before I post. 

You asked about my process. I’m curious about yours. What happens from the time a work lands on your table to the day you post it on CRB? 

DS: If I’ve been waiting eagerly for the book, I’ll just dive right in. Otherwise, books on my desk may sit there for a while, at least until I catch up with all the reading I’m currently doing.

I’m not a big note-taker, but I do dogear pages I might want to return to for a quote. I don’t generally review the book for a few days, sometimes even a week, until after I’ve finished reading it. That way, when I sit down and actually begin writing, my opinions about the book feel more settled, even if the material isn’t quite as fresh in my mind. I like your term: “marinating.” And like you, I’m normally still making minor changes to the sentences right up to the time I post the review. 

I do think a good review has a rhythm to it, just like a short-short story or a prose poem. Even when the review is long, every sentence should be memorable. Think of James Wood, for instance. I mean, Wow!

We’re not The New Yorker, Brian, but we do aim high. How would you describe the aesthetic of the California Review of Books

BT: I like to think we occupy a middle space, somewhere between the very highbrow and a review one might find on Goodreads or Amazon. Literate, but not stuffy.

DS: Definitely. I’d like our audience to feel like it’s going to enjoy and learn from our reviews, but not have to devote an entire afternoon to reading them.

BT: Exactly. Is there a poet or writer you’re dying to interview? Who, and why?

DS: Actually, our conversation is making me think it would be really interesting to interview well-known book reviewers, people like Wood and Ron Charles and Michio Kakutani.

How about you? Which writers would you really like to talk to?

BT: Arundhati Roy is high on my list. Anand Ghiridharadas is another.

DS: Two great writers!

BT: During your long teaching career, was there a work of poetry or fiction you especially enjoyed teaching? 

DS: I liked teaching books that my students liked reading. In the past ten years, or so, the books they seemed to enjoy the most were Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and Joe Sacco’s work of graphic nonfiction about the Bosnian War, Safe Area Goražde

Well, we promised ourselves that, in keeping with CRB’s overall ethos, this conversation would be brief, but I wouldn’t want to end our talk without giving a shout out to our many contributing reviewers, especially Walter Cummins and George Yatchisin–they’ve provided us with some of our most insightful reviews.

Thanks, Brian–happy reviewing!

BT: You, too, David.