RALPH's Greatest Book Review Hits


"In the fourteen years we have been in business, RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities has reviewed over 2500 books, published more than 500 poems, and put on-line a thousand or so readings and articles. Some of these have faded into oblivion, but others --- because of the books or authors or the writing (or divine intervention) --- have continued to turn up regularly on the hit list provided by our server. Below, you can find twenty-three of those most favored by our readers."

This is a typical entry at the RALPH website, where book lovers will find many delights. Here is one of those above-mentioned 23 "greatest hits":


"Past Tents," a review of The Way We Camped, by Susan Snyder

(Heyday/Bancroft Library, 2006)

Susan Snyder takes us back to the halcyon times of early camping. She opines that it was slow to catch on in America because in the 19th Century, camping was all there was. When you wanted to get from West Virginia to Missouri, and from there to Oklahoma, and from there to the Nevada Territory and California, you camped your way across the country.

Sleeping under the stars and cooking over an open fire had been matters of necessity and expediency in trackless wastes that concealed wild beasts and nightmare sounds. Wilderness had been the formless enemy to be conquered and crossed at all costs.

"Now," she writes, "the trailblazers became pleasure trekkers, and trails that had been the routes of arduous travail become the paths of holiday jaunts."

Ms. Snyder has collected here over a hundred photographs to delight the soul: people dressed to the nines, posed formally outside their white-and-blue striped tents; three young fellows on high-front-wheel bicycles of the times, their packs carefully hung from the steering bar; a booted ruffian in a pork-pie hat standing before a wood-plank lodge marked WELLS FLAT; a "Silver Dawn" Sauerkraut can cut at both ends to serve as smokestack.

She has also culled readings from camping books of the day, advertising copy from the magazines filled with hints ("To dry matches: Carefully blot off as much water as possible with a soft cloth and then pass them through the hair a dozen times"), and clippings from those who ventured out into the wild:

"We ate our supper of cold venison and bread, and whittled from the sides of the wooden barometer-case shavings enough to warm water for a cup of miserably tepid tea, and then, packing our provisions and instruments away at the head of the shelf, rolled ourselves into our blankets and lay down to enjoy the view."

After such fatiguing exercises the mind has an almost abnormal clearness: whether this is from within, or due to the intensely vitalizing mountain air, I am not sure; probably both contribute to the state of exaltation in which all alpine climbers find themselves.

This entry by geologist Clarence King concludes: "The solid granite gave me a luxurious repose."


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Indie Groundbreaking Book

Indie Groundbreaking Book: The Noisiest Book Review in the Known World

Witty Literary Journal Collects its Greatest Hits

“For five glorious years, the upstart Fessenden Review managed to bemuse literary America with its saucy take on books and the publishing industry. Our tart reviews were the subject of articles by media writers at the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Library Journal and on National Public Radio among others. The late Max Lerner said, ‘The reviews break all conventions and are the stuff of life.’”


So read the first lines of the so-called Noisiest Book Review in the Known World, a massive two-volume box set which collects the best of both The Fessenden Review and its child publication RALPH, or Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities. Over the course of its two volumes (nearly 1,000 pages), The Noisiest Book Review mines the annals of one of the most distinctive, provocative, and controversial literary journals currently in print, boiling down the 6,000+ article history of RALPH into a definitive collection. The included submissions run a wide range of topics and formats, from poems to parodies, historical essays to political arguments, book reviews to satirical experiments: rarely can a reading journey encompass this much ground. 

Indeed, The Noisiest Book Review in the Known World has so many different facets that, on first glance, it feels both disjointed and falsely titled. After all, only a few of these pieces fall squarely into the “book review” genre, and even those shift the boundaries of what most of us have come to expect from literary criticism. The rest of these pages are filled out with scattershot reports from a myriad of writers, pieces that ponder everything from tropical diseases to Abraham Lincoln, from Bach (and his experience with aliens?) to Faulkner, from NPR to the Titanic. There is almost no overarching cohesion between the works collected here, and uninitiated readers may well find themselves confused and baffled by The Noisiest Book Review in the Known World as they try to figure out what kind of literary journal RALPH really wants to be. 

The answer, of course, comes not in the titles of the works or even in their topics, but in the style and voice the vast majority of them present. These writings crackle with sarcasm and satire and never pull their punches: legendary figures are shredded, mocked or parodied; books are called out for their pretension or mediocrity with acerbic wit; and every time we catch a glimpse of editor Lolita Lark, we know that she lives and dies by the laws of sarcasm and unbridled honesty. Call RALPH the literary journal equivalent of The Onion (or their Arts & Entertainment division, The A.V. Club)—publications that try to reach greater truths through mockery and parody. 

Of course, any publication that thrives on such gleefully critical reviews or unforgiving analyses will come with its fair share of detractors. In her online preface to the new box set, Lark contemplates the selection process for the book, recalling the articles “that have consistently garnered the most praise and attracted the most hits—or, in a few cases, sparked the most noxious complaints.” Lark then proceeds to share a few of the responses that have brightened up her inbox over the years, a “greatest hits” of sorts that rivals the actual RALPH compilation for over-the-top sensibility and laugh-out-loud moments. One reader had nothing but praise for RALPH, expressing his joy in knowing a critical outfit still exists “where books can be judged on their merit and not on the number of lunches the authors have had with the publicist or the reviewers.” Other responders were not so pleased (“What kind of idiots do you have writing book reviews?” one author asked wryly, following a critical pan of her book), but that implicitly polarizing nature is one of the reasons that The Noisiest Book Review in the Known World is so electric. These writings may make you laugh or enrage you, confuse you or challenge what you think you know, but they will never bore you, and that’s something that cannot be said for every literary journal out there.

The Noisiest Book Review exists in a limited print run, with only 1,000 copies of the two-volume set produced. For further ordering information, visit http://www.ralphmag.org/GZ/order-noise.html.

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Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In edition to writing for Independent Publisher, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at manningcr953@gmail.com.