Precious Cargo

Refreshingly Bitter And Twisted Observations On Life's Passing Parade.

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Location: Valley Village, California, United States

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Book Review Or Press Release?

In today, Ben Cosgrove reviews Philip Ball’s new biography of Paracelsus. Cosgrove writes, “In Philip Ball's deeply weird and wonderful new book, ‘The Devil's Doctor,’ the man who might well be the prototype for that familiar mad-scientist figure -- the 16th century alchemist and epic wanderer Paracelsus -- neatly escapes the caricaturist's frame and emerges exuberantly and combatively alive. Hardly a hagiography, the book (subtitled, enticingly, 'Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science') rescues from obscurity a man...”

As soon as I read the word “obscurity” I began to wonder how much of this review came from a presskit issued by the book’s publisher. You see, before reading the review, I had gone and searched on “Paracelsus” at I was curious to see who had published Ball’s book. The first page of search results revealed four books about Paracelsus and several editions of Paracelsus’s own writings. How is Paracelsus obscure? I also wonder about Cosgrove’s phrase “deeply weird and wonderful.” It sounds a lot like dust jack flapdoodle to me.

In the last few months, I received review copies of three books about James Dean in order to conduct reviews for the web site The first book, Live Fast, Die Young, published by Simon & Schuster, came with a press release and list of canned questions printed on blue paper. The other two books came with press releases, both of which were filled with superlatives which could be pinched for a review.

I remember reading an article about John Carpenter’s movie Big Trouble In Little China in Cinefantastique years ago. The writers of the article wrote about Carpenter’s reaction when they first approached him. Rather bitterly, he suggested they write their review “out of the presskit just like other critics.”

When I conducted my interview with the authors of Live Fast, Die Young, I never consulted the canned questions. I had more interesting ones to ask.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, Peter --

Like most every writer I know, I tend to Google the hell out of myself -- especially
after publishing a review or article somewhere -- and thus, I came across Precious
Cargo the other day.

First of all, I have to say that your post on my "Devil's Doctor" review
in Salon was terrific. I don't, in fact, crib from press kits or write reviews
in hopes of snagging some sort of blurb when the book comes out in paperback --
but your critique was thoughtful (and funny, which is unbelievably rare), and on
reflection I have to admit that, had I read my own review without knowing anything
about the reviewer, I might very well have had a similar reaction.

Anyway, that's all. Just wanted to say thanks for the insightful comments -- that's
exactly the sort of feedback that helps keep reviewers honest. And I like to think
that I am one of the honest ones -- those who actually read the book and do the

Keep on writing.

All the best,

Ben Cosgrove

7:19 AM  

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