The Noisiest Book Review in the Known World: The Best of RALPH (Mho & Mho Works; 979 pages, two volumes, edited by Lolita Lark) is a collection of the more acclaimed book reviews, essays, excerpts, and letters published by RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities. Originally known as The Fessenden Review, the literary magazine published reviews and excerpts of little known or self-published books while it also, as they proudly state on their website, “lambasted many of the dubious stars of the East Coast Publishing Establishment.” Following the demise of the printed magazine, RALPH, operating from San Diego, started as an online journal in 1995 and has published over 200 issues to date. The goal of the journal remains the same as its predecessor, stating that their reviews are “strange, honest, or caustic enough to attract attention from those who have grown tired of the puff-piece world of American book reviewing.”
In addition to book reviews, the two-volume anthology contains short pieces from well-known authors whose work aptly fits the brazen tone of the reviews. An excerpt from an interview with S.J. Perelman (originally published in The Paris Review) shows Perelman toying with his interviewer, stating that he writes thirty-seven drafts of everything he publishes, because thirty-three isn’t enough and forty-two is too lapidary. In a short piece excerpted from In Search of Small Gods, Jim Harrison sips vodka and ruminates on language while watching nudity on his television. In a particularly opinionated piece, H.L. Mencken discusses a report on suicide published by Ruth Shonle Cavan, stating, “Life may not be exactly pleasant, but it is at least not dull. Heave yourself into Hell today, and you may miss, tomorrow, or next day, another Scopes trial, another War to End War, or perchance a rich and buxom widow with all her first husband’s clothes.”
Though excerpts from famous others offer a change of pace from the anthology’s reviews, the stars here are the reviewers. They scarcely relinquish the opportunity to hold back their opinions, but the writing is strong enough to give the reader the feeling a book is never unnecessarily attacked or praised. Ignacio Schwartz, reviewing Gay Block’s Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed, a photographic history of her mother, socialite Bertha Alyce, notes that, despite the intentions of the book, the reader feels sympathy for Bertha while failing to understand why Gay holds a grudge against her mother. He aptly finishes his review with, “Lighten up, Gay.” But for every book taken to task for its undeserved hype, the anthology contains touching words for titles that have flown under the collective radar. After reading Christabel Bielenberg’s When I Was a German, RALPH editor in chief Lolita Lark writes, “This honest kind of story-telling seems to be almost unheard of in the modern-day book biz. I know of maybe twenty-five works that have come to us over the years that have such a stunning story to tell, told so stunningly. Now it’s twenty-six.”
Some of the most thought-provoking reviews offer rich social criticism in the face of dishonest writing. Carlos Amantea’s review of Midge Decter’s memoir An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War focuses little on Ms. Decter’s life, but rather uses the book as an opportunity to educate the reader on the facts of Latin American politics in the 1970s—facts completely skewed by the memoir. Similarly, in response to a query from the Christian evangelical organization Campus Crusade to reprint a RALPH review without compensation, Lark writes that her own research shows that the parent organization of Campus Crusade is worth millions of dollars, and suggests the organization spend more time working with needy children in Third World countries than offering propaganda to college campuses. The main stable of RALPH’s writers deserve credit for using their voice, no matter the forum, to correct any book, writer, or organization attempting to lie to the public. One of the lessons of this anthology is never underestimate the power of the critic.
The joy of The Noisiest Book Review in the Known World (available in two separate volumes, or boxed together in a slipcase) is that beyond being a collection of thoughtful and humorous writings, it serves as a road map to anyone willing to open themselves up to new types of books. Not everything reviewed in these pages will interest every reader. Despite being presented with a well-written review on the subject, I’m still not inclined to read a book on Shy Bladder Syndrome, or a history by Derek Jarman on the color wheel. But a history of the Old English Dictionary, Aleksander Topolski’s Without Vodka, and maybe even an examination of water rights in the United States have been added to my reading list.