I’ve heard of writers who don’t read reviews of their books. I understand the temptation to avoid being criticized, but I see “The Mountain School” as a conversation starter, just the first word in a dialogue, and so for me to ignore a review would be like refusing to participate in what I aimed to get rolling.
Still, the last review I read began by complementing me as an “extremely gifted writer” and calling the pacing of the book perfect only to later say that some of the things I did in the book were “morally indefensible” and made the reviewer feel “creepy.” She also said she wished I had devoted more ink to the position of women in Lesotho, and then noted that I’m not someone she would want to sit down and drink a beer with. Ouch.
It was a customer review on Amazon. It was just a customer review on Amazon, you might say. It’s not to be taken as seriously as a published review in a newspaper, for example. I disagree. In fact, I take this type of review — just as one from Goodreads or one passed along to me directly in conversation or email — equally as seriously as any written professionally. There are perceptive readers everywhere.
So I hesitated when I came upon another review this morning, this one on a website called Peace Corps Writers: I’ll read it later. No, remember why you wrote the book. Read it now.
I’m glad I did. It turned out to be good through and through. When I say good I don’t mean stroking my ego. I’m truly grateful for constructive criticism. Rather, a good book review, I think, is one that shows careful attention to the text and evaluates the book based on what type of book it is and not on what it could be. I don’t mind being called creepy, as long as it’s because of something I actually did in the book, but “The Mountain School” shouldn’t be judged on its lack of attention to women’s rights in Lesotho. This book was meant to capture my time in Ts’oeneng, nothing more, nothing less. It isn’t a treatise on gender rights. Did it do a good job of taking you with me to Ts’oeneng and giving you that story?
Deidre Swesnik wrote the review I read this morning on Peace Corps Writers. I think she recognized the book for what it is. She writes:
“He is brutally honest with himself and his readers and tells us even of things about which he is not proud. He is at times judgmental, open-minded, conflicted, happy, determined, easy-going, and frustrated. He shows us the good and the bad. He shows us that Peace Corps is a full life experience, not just what comes homes in letters and gets remembered after you’ve been home for a while.”
My aim was to tell that truth. I wanted the reader to be able to say at the end, “That was what it was really like.” And I want to be able to read the book myself in 10 years and say, “Oh yeah, that was exactly what it was like.”
What I also appreciated about this review was that Swesnik made personal connections to my experience in Ts’oeneng. She had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali in the 1990s, where she found herself in situations similar to mine in Lesotho. I learned from the connections she made between my and her stories. And she pointed out that my being an outsider in Ts’oeneng — that our being outsiders in Africa — is not unique. It is like something everyone experiences many times in life. It is frequent and universal to feel like you don’t fit in.
I like that Swesnik pointed that out because I felt like she understood the book as I had tried to craft it. The first line in the dialogue had been successfully delivered, and the response had too.
C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.”by