Thoughts on writing book reviews, where to start, templates to follow, and writing reviews on friends' books
Several of my former students and my colleagues who are now in graduate school have recently reached out to me asking how to get started with publishing. More specifically, they have wanted to know about building confidence in their writing voice and developing a thick skin for critical feedback from those who would read them. I tell them - "Book Reviews". It's like holding the sheep legs during a butchering. Yes, the butchering could take place without you, but with your help, others can get through the process a bit quicker (unless you aren't very good at holding the legs, which in that case, I hope your bread is outstanding 🤦🏽♀️🤣) In this regard, book reviews allow other readers to peruse texts for specific themes without reading the whole book. Your analysis may help them decide to buy, rent, borrow, or pass on a book.
Additionally, book reviews are a great way to not only start a publishing resume but also allow for the start of relationships with journals, journal editors, and even book editors (as long as you submit quality work on time). All of these networks will become extremely important to you, if you wish to pursue an academic publishing career.
But how do you write a book review? Today's blog I am going to share how I got started writing book reviews and suggest some possible templates that you can follow.
Recipe for Graduate School Response Papers: After a quick (1) blurb on the author (sometimes this was extremely significant; other times it was irrelevant but I included it anyway), I moved into identifying (2) key concepts of the book that the author intended after which I pulled sections that (3) positively stood out to me and then areas that (3) negatively stood out of the book. I then finished with its (4) applicability to the Native American Studies discipline. During this time, I was also prepping for qualifying exams so I found a way to make response papers helpful for my study process; this included placing images of both the author and text on the response paper to help me with memorization (I know - I am a nerd. But I passed my qualifying exams with high pass across the board so there is that 🤓).
Easy to critique: I learned during this time that it was way easier to pull things apart than it is to put them back together. I was in that first and second year of graduate school phase where you know just enough to get into heated debates but lack the diplomacy and maturity to work into an area of healthy dialogue. Micheal Yellow Bird in For Indigenous Eyes Only (2005) more eloquently defines this as the latter two stages of critical thinking: Deconstruction (for me the debate stage) and Conscientization (for me the mecca of critical thinking - the dialogue stage). Regardless of what you call it, all that "let me tell you how they are wrong" made my response papers long and often cumbersome (hopefully not like this blog🤣). I learned to make critiques helpful, instead of anger and ego fulled. This meant pulling out a lot of my emotion and focusing on what the author said.
Hard to get word count down: I'm wordy.... if you haven't gathered by now, my stories are detailed and so were my response papers. Enter Dr. Mendoza - my qualifying exam committee member and dissertation chair. "Christina, you need to cut this down. Be more concise." So book after book, my response papers got shorter but also more concise and helpful. And each submission, I got the feedback "Christina, you need to cut this down. Be more concise." So I continued to cut my response papers to where I expended no more than one concise paragraph on the entirety of the book. But even then - during our advisor meetings, she would request a wrap up of the book in a sentence. By the time my qualifying exams came, I could do it (albeit they were the most run-on and extra punctuated sentence structures but, hey, I still did it!🎉).
So what does this have to do with book reviews... they trained me to read and write with clarity, brevity, and critical voice - the perfect training for book reviews.
From Response Paper to Book Review: While some of my cohort started publishing book reviews during graduate school, I waited until after I graduated. My first review was for the Tribal College Journal (and I continue to publish with them today because I love the audience and the editors). I remember accepting the request and being really nervous because, even though the author wasn't Navajo, the book was about Navajo people and by a well-known anthropologist working in the areas of Native foodways. It took me FOREVER to write those 500 words. Well actually, it was pretty easy to get down 1000 words. I needed to cut it to 500 - that took forever. I sent it out to 2 or 3 of my friends to read and re-read for me. And I kinda felt sick to my stomach submitting. It was my first ever piece that would represent my thoughts in a published arena - and my thoughts are pretty honest. And what if I submitted it with spelling and grammar errors? Would the editor regret asking me to write for them? But when it came out, response to my book review was great and I was over the hurdle of getting my first publishing out there!
Recipe for Book Reviews:
The journal that you are writing for will have their own specific details that you will need to adhere to: citation formats, word count, headers, biographies, as well suggestions on what they want to see in your review. Pay attention to those instructions because they will kick back your book review if you don't. Not the best start to building a relationship with editors 😆.
Now-a-days, I am taking book review requests in areas that are helpful to my book project. To date, I have three styles that I have utilized:
Speaking of Lateral Oppression: The biggest hurdle that I have had to overcome is the fear of being accused of lateral oppression in book reviews. Just because a Native or Navajo scholar wrote it, doesn't necessarily make it a sound contribution to the area of study. How do I write that and not have everyone jump on my back?, I used to think.
Now that I am more confident in my writing and in my opinion as a Navajo scholar writing from within the Navajo Nation, I am not bothered as I was before. As I explain in my Transmotion book review on The Diné Reader (2021): "we, as Navajo writers and academics, want to create, publish, be read, we say we want to re-learn, re-member, re-vitalize but... are we ready to be reviewed by our own people in all its celebrations and critical feedback? It's hard, but I learned from my Nálí that not all criticism is a micro- or macroaggression of cultural bullying. More often than not, it is an undoing and rethreading of a misplaced line of wool to reconnect us with our traditional teachings."
Yes, it may hurt feelings; yes, it may create rifts; but in the end, it strengthens who we are as Native Scholars. Support is found in both critical analysis and emotional support. Why shouldn't I provide both?
Book Reviewing Friends: All the book reviews that I have done have been written by authors who I have never met or were merely acquaintances with. As more and more of my friends are publishing, I am receiving requests for book reviews about their work (and even reviews for books by my former professors). Up until now, I have pushed them away. I don't know why really... closeness, fear of losing a friendship, difficulty with emotional separation, general intimidation - I don't know really. 🤦🏽♀️
But, thanks to my buddy 🤝 Dr. Andrew Curley, whose book Carbon Sovereignty: Coal, Development, and Energy Transition in the Navajo Nation will be dropping in April 2023, I'll hopefully work through those discomforts by way of a book discussion during the 2023 Diné Studies Conference. Dr. Jennifer Denetdale organized a panel of Diné scholars to dialogue with Andrew and discuss the relevance of his study to local, national, and global academic conversations as well as it's impact on Navajo communities. We are just waiting for word on whether our panel was accepted or not. 🤞🏽
I also just accepted a request to review my NAS colleague at UNM and home girl 👭, Dr. Wendy Greyeyes' A History of Navajo Nation Education: Disentangling Our Sovereign Body (2022). Hopefully, the panel will help with confidence writing about my friends' work in written format.
So as I said, completing book reviews, they are the sheep leg holding of academic publishing. Slowly you build your confidence and hopefully, after a few rounds, you'll look to hold the knife.
Just a Tách'inii thinking out loud about butchering, researching, manuscript writing, and life on the Navajo reservation.