so, there’s been this trend lately to be, like, all positive & shit when reviewing books. which i kinda understand. technology has enabled us all to be content producers. anybody & everybody can not only write a book, but publish it. and negative reviews help no one more than the writer. especially if that writer hasn’t come up the old school way and/or become part of a writing community, building up a stable of editors they trust to critique their work—but it’s also true for established writers, who could be otherwise unchallenged because of their burnished reputation.
as readers, however, we might get a perverse thrill from a literary takedown by a critic, but do we really need negative reviews? if the end objective for readers is to know which books to (not) read, couldn’t we more or less glean that by seeing which books never get (positively) reviewed anywhere, ever? on the other hand, is a critic who only writes glowing reviews in danger of becoming overly fawning, or desperately sifting for gold where little (if any) exists?
it is in that context that i wonder what the fate of ruth: woman of courage would be were it published in 2014. it is, ostensibly, a children’s retelling of the story of ruth (i.e., from the bible) which was published in 1977 & beloved by tiny young christians across the land. but let’s pretend it was released today. would it come out on a vanity press, and be panned by academics and lovers of literature alike as unserious, barely(?) sensical words spewed on a page? or would it be snapped up by some by some indie publisher, and hailed by the masses on html giant as a pre/post-ironic deconstruction of contemporary amerikan language which delves into the myth of feminist biblical moral strength? tough to tell.
whether or not the world needs negative reviews in 2014 is up for debate. but i submit that if you’re going to use the *literal* word of god as source material, you’re setting yourself to an awfully high standard—a standard which some reviewer should hold you to. and, paula jordan parris: for you, that reviewer is me.
i know that “biography” is the not “the book,” and that a critic should always meet a work on its own terms. but considering my divided mind on the matter of ruth, i did some internet searching, hoping to glean at least a little insight into this either [a] extraordinarily bad or [b] astonishingly genius book. this is what i learned:
- google cannot find a single bit of biographical information about paula jordan parris
given that even most people’s grandmothers have a pinterest account these days with a few words of biographical information, i see only two possibilities here:  with ruth, parris is basically plagiarizing—really, really poorly—an omniscient being, and that fact might not be unrelated to the fact that there’s no trace of ms. parris on the internet/earth. or  parris is so alt/ahead of the curve, re: online privacy media saturation backlash to the backlash self-promoting nano(wrimo?) meta flame war, that she is actually an even more quintessentially reclusive writer than salinger, having not only rejected the internet before it even existed as a public space, but also continues to evade its life-sucking spider tentacles to this very day.
with no help from any corner of the world wide web then, i’m still pondering the ultimate literary significance of ruth. with the book’s opening, is parris taking “in media res” to a new level, riffing like a great jazz artist or that guy by the expressway off-ramp who clearly needs meds (and is, truly, the hero of our time)? or is she just really fucking bad at stringing words together in a basic [subject] + [predicate] kind of structure? is her choice to use dialogue in such a way that it accomplishes not two things at once, but zero things at once, an innovative rejection of mfa workshop propaganda? or is the dialogue actually accomplishing just one thing: stupefying the reader (including any who may be only six years old)?
and what of these “thinkback” (sic) sections interspersed throughout? most modern book club reading guides are back matter in a book. but here, questions about ruth intrude on the main narrative: forcing themselves into the text and our consciousness. THINKBACK: where was ruth’s home? THINKBACK: how far did ruth and naomi travel from moab to bethlehem? paula jordan parris won’t let you dwell blissfully unthinking in her created world (© god), and if you interpret her questions literally, you do so at your own risk, dear reader.
even simple narrative assumptions escape us, and thus loom large over the entire book. all of the men in ruth’s family are suddenly(?) dead at the book’s outset: her husband, her brother-in-law, her father-in-law. the circumstances of their apparently simultaneous death are never explained; all we know is that ruth’s mother-in-law encourages both of her sons’ widows to remarry—and quickly. those potential murders (and any designs for a more matriarchal reordering of society?) remain mysterious. ruth and her mother-in-law seem to effortlessly walk 50 miles in a day, through the desert, without food or water. were they aided by supernatural forces? divine intervention? it is explicitly stated in the book’s final paragraph that ruth is a none-too-distant ancestor in jesus’ family tree. and with a conclusion like that, isn’t it obvious that parris is intending to deliver something revelatory and/or setting us up for a sequel? yet she is not the author of the later book from the BibLearn series titled women in the bible: helpful friends. none of which actually points me any more clearly in a direction for ruth: shitty derivative dime-store bible mystery pulp, or groundbreaking genre-bending non sequitur objet d’art?
for all who hoped this reviewer would (eventually) land on a definitive recommendation for you, the readers of 2014, then i think all i can say with conviction is that i don’t suggest you not read ruth: woman of courage. this tale of conviction—of a woman who decided to worship her mother-in-law’s god (i.e., “the true god”) because… well, actually, i’m not sure why she decided to do that, instead of following *her* people’s idol (chemosh). but it took great courage to do so. and so perhaps we can find sustenance for our own souls in reading parris’ words, clearly taking a cue from faulkner, when she writes
ruth went on.