01 June 2009

Fasten Your Seat Belt

I envy actors. They get their reviews in one, fell swoop—both good and bad. For authors, it’s a slow, agonizing process that begins even before their latest work is out on the bookshelves. First come the pre-reviews in the publishing industry press, such as Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Booklist, which give bookstore owners and librarians a heads-up on the upcoming winners—and clunkers—coming their way. It lets them know what to order….and what to avoid. For authors, it’s like an out-of-town try-out: a forecast of their new “baby’s” reception.

I was fortunate. My latest book, The Day We Found the Universe, survived this first round. Every one of these early reviews was positive, with nary a disapproving comment. I even garnered the cherished “starred review” from Publishers Weekly, the industry’s equivalent of two thumbs up or the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. I was luxuriating in adjective heaven; the reviewers used such words as “vivid,” “remarkable,” “lively,” and “dynamic” to describe my prose. This can be dangerous, making you forget to fasten your seat belt for the unexpected “bumps” in the newspaper and magazine reviews to come.

For me, that wallop arrived on Sunday, April 26, in the Sunday Washington Post. It started off swell. Post reporter Joel Achenbach said right up front that “Bartusiak’s intelligent and engaging book may well become the standard popular account” about the birth of modern cosmology. I couldn’t have asked for a better blurb. But then came the dreaded on-the-other-hand: he despaired at the comprehensiveness of my tale, “at the arrival on the scene of yet another astronomer, yet another telescope, yet another set of photographic plates.” To me, it was like saying that Civil War book would be terrific if it weren’t for the arrival of yet another damn battle. But then I recovered when he wrote that my book is ultimately “about how hard science is, how taxing, particularly when you are trying to excavate truth from a grudging universe”—a beautiful way of rendering exactly what I intended in writing this book. Thanks, Joel.

From then on, it was clear sailing. Seed magazine said I offered my “trademark mix of meticulous research and vibrant prose”; New Scientist called the book “highly readable”; and Science News noted its “moments of drama and intimacy.” Oddly, several reviewers went out of their way to use the word “accessible” to describe my book, which makes me believe that many people readily assume that a science-themed book is going to be tough going. As a professor of science writing, I long for the day when that notion will no longer be automatic and work hard in helping my students make that happen.

My latest glee arose with Ben Cosgrove’s review in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, May 17. He called my book “a small wonder” and described me as “a science writer of rare gifts.” Whew! My head is swelling as I type this. Time to fasten on that seat belt once again for the inevitable bump to come.

Click here to see excerpts from all the reviews of The Day We Found the Universe.

Above photo: Man Reading a Newspaper by Oskar Hoffmann, 1902 (Art Museum of Estonia)

1 comment:

  1. It's about time you started blogging! I look forward to reading more...