Merle Rubin, 57; longtime book critic for Times, others

Times Staff Writer

Merle Rubin, a book critic who was a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times as well as the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times and Christian Science Monitor, has died. She was 57.

Rubin died of cancer Nov. 30 at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Hollywood, according to her husband, Martin Rubin.

The writer was a full-time freelance book reviewer for about 30 years -- a job that involved reading at least one book every week and more often two, she once said.

As a generalist, she reviewed fiction and nonfiction works about history, science, culture, religion and art, but she had a particular interest in contemporary English fiction.

She reviewed a number of new books by Anita Brookner, A.S. Byatt and Hilary Mantel and kept up a correspondence with Byatt and Mantel, who met her for lunch when they were in Los Angeles.

It is rare for a book critic to support herself as a freelancer. The profession is notorious for long hours and low pay, but it seemed to agree with Rubin.

"It is a way of making a literary life," Times Book Editor David Ulin said of Rubin's career. "The intellectual benefits are there."

Rubin was gracious and fair-minded in her reviews but also honest. Writing about "The Tree" by botanist Colin Tudge, she noted that he included some fascinating details, such as how trees communicate with one another to repel predators. But she also wrote:

"For readers in search of a quick overview, this book may provide too much information.... A less justifiable weakness ... is Tudge's tendency to be roundabout and repetitious."

"Merle thought of the reader," said Nick Owchar, Times deputy book editor. "She wanted to be sure they had an experience of the book by reading her review, whether they read the book or not."

She was not effusive, but she could be vivid. "Delectably astringent," she wrote of "The Tent," a book of short prose pieces and poems by Margaret Atwood.

Born Merle Roth in New York City, the writer was raised in the Long Island community of Plainview and graduated from Yale University. She earned a PhD at the University of Virginia.

She met her future husband at Yale. They married in 1972 when they were graduate students at Virginia. Three years later they moved to Los Angeles, when Martin Rubin found work teaching English literature at Caltech in Pasadena. He also became a full-time freelance book reviewer.

Thirty years in her profession translated into a personal library of thousands of books. Asked how many she owned, Rubin jokingly replied "5 million" in a 2005 interview with Arroyo Monthly magazine.

In addition to her husband, Rubin is survived by her mother and sister.

A memorial celebration is being planned for January.

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