Tag Archives: book reviewers

Nobody Told Me

On Book Reviewer-Author Relationships

“Everybody’s talking, and no one says a word.”   John Lennon (“Nobody Told Me”)

Here’s an experience that I’ve had multiple times, four times to be exact.   I’m involved in an e-mail conversation with a writer who is new to me, and communication is taking place naturally.   Then, all of a sudden, comes this message – as if taken from a new author’s handbook, “My publicist/editor/publisher (someone, in other words) has told me that I’m not supposed to become friendly with book reviewers.”   Naturally, my response to this is to type “Why?”

I don’t think I’ve ever received a very specific answer other than the statement that it would make the author-writer appear to be currying favor, or angling for a positive review.   This explanation may well make sense to others, but not to me.   I say this because I’m about to go on to read this author’s book – about which I virtually never have a pre-impression – and write a review of this product; I have no interest in writing about the author’s personality.

I also doubt that there’s much connection between how much I know and like the author as a person and my review, or reviews written by other reviewers.   Let me provide an example.   One author is someone I’ve known for decades.   He is a friend and yet when I wrote my review of one of his novels I think I wrote about its positives and negatives in the same way I would have with anyone else, known or unknown to me.   So my friendship with this good gentleman did not result in my insisting that everyone go out and purchase his book!   Even more curious, my wife read a different novel from this author.   She has never met him, e-mailed him or spoken with him.   Her review of his more recent novel was effusive and glowing, thus showing the lack of a direct connection between friendship and an honest review.

There’s also the fact that I know authors who have written both very, very good and average books.   If I read the very, very good book first and the average one later, I never decide that I’ve had it with this writer.   No, I think, “He/she has it in him/her to write an outstanding book, so he/she will probably do so the next time around.”   Maybe this is just me, but I disconnect the product from the person, and I keep hope alive for the next time around.

I pray this is the same with my reviews and my readers.   If I write several good reviews and then one that you find is sloppy, I hope you won’t say, “I will never read another one of his reviews again!”   Hey, we all have off days, weeks, months, and/or years – sometimes lifetimes.   But as I have stated in Our Fairness Policy, if I write a review you disagree with, feel free to write your own review (of about the same length) with a different perspective.   I will post it.

A few readers have taken me up on this offer, and I have very much enjoyed – literally enjoyed – reading their views.   Why?   Because I don’t think they’re judging me, they’re simply offering more information.   And this is why I’ve posted multiple reviews of some books.   Information is good, not just for readers but also for the authors who happened to have written the books in question.   If some information is good, more information – more perspectives – should be better for their own writing futures.   (If I write that I loved the first half of a novel but not the second half, and you feel the opposite and we both explain our views in writing, does this not help the author  to identify his/her strengths and weaknesses?   I think so, I honestly do.)

I was taught, as a one-time debater and as a law student, that all information has value.   Sure, some pieces of information and some perspectives may have more intrinsic value than other pieces and perspectives, but how do we know that without testing them in the real world?   This is what I hope we’re doing with books and book reviews…  Reading them, making some honest assumptions or conclusions about their values, and asking others to do the same.   In this way, I think we writers and reviewers are assisting each other.

We’re helping each other through open and honest dialogue while avoiding unnecessary division and rancor.   As I’ve written before, the book review/opinion process should not be a debate; there’s no true right or wrong.   There are no definitive reviews, at least in my opinion.   If I looked up all of the reviews on the internet of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or of Richard Ford’s Independence Day, could I find one of each that I would point to and say, “That’s the one!   No one should ever dare write another word because that was a perfect review of a near-perfect book!”   I hardly think so.

Our dialogue should continue to be open and honest and friendly.   And perhaps one day authors and reviewers will live in harmony…  Until then, write on my friend.   Let’s talk a few months after the book comes out and reviews are over and done.  

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing by Roger Rosenblatt, which will be released on January 2, 2011 by Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers.

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Watching the Wheels

On Book Reviewing and Reading

During his unfortunately short lifetime, John Lennon had to deal with a lot of guilt.   Some of it was due to the break-up of his personal and working relationship with Paul McCartney.   But for a time, the public viewed his relationship with Yoko Ono as the likely cause of the Beatles’ dissolution (in retrospect, there were other factors involved).   It finally arrived at the point where John felt compelled to sing, “I don’t believe in Beatles/ I just believe in me/ Yoko and me/ and that’s reality.”

It may seem odd, but a book reviewer is sometimes affected with guilt.   This is especially true after spending hours and days reading a novel, a memoir, a nonfiction account or a survey book and finding it a disappointment.   You might not think so, but most reviewers would love to just write positive reviews.   Except that in the real world, writing exclusively positive reviews just would not reflect reality.

So the books that don’t meet the reviewer’s high expectations must be documented with a dreaded negative review.   And here is where the guilt comes in…  As the reviewer begins to draft a not-so-positive review, he/she begins to wonder if he/she did something wrong or miss the point?   Is it somehow my fault that I didn’t like it?   It’s an odd question but it’s one that I find me asking myself.   Other reviewers that I talk to ask themselves the same question.   Regardless, it’s a thought that must quickly be put aside.

Each of us, after all, is providing only one perspective, one that each review reader (and author) is free to accept or reject.   Talk to four or more people about the Beatles, for example, and you’re likely to hear all of the following:  “John was my favorite.”   “I was always a Paul fan.”   “I always loved George.”   “Ringo was my guy.”   If you were a Paul McCartney fan, you didn’t wonder if it was somehow your fault that John wasn’t your cup of tea.

When I talk to people about music, I get a sense of honest straight forwardness about one’s opinions.   You may know that I love Van Morrison but have no problem in telling me that he is not someone you listen to.   Why should it be different with literature, with books, with popular fiction?   I think it’s because many of us grew up seeing academic standards applied to literature that were not applied to modern music.   There was a sense that opinions about books were more formal, more standardized; therefore, there should be a consensus as to whether a particular book was “good” or “bad.”

Of course, all that has changed with the advent of the internet and with the more traditional style reviews (especially those printed on paper) moving into the background.   We’re entering the new world where, it might be said, we’re all “free to be you and me.”   So your opinion about a book is just as good, as valuable, as mine and vice-versa.   We’ve entered a zone where everything in life is, as one New York City newspaper observed, both large and small all at once.

So when, for a moment, the feeling of guilt crops up because you love something that other people don’t – or fail to admire a book that others may – it’s time to move past that moment and accept that you simply feel what you feel.   You think what you think and this is fine.   You get to judge what you want and need to judge, and don’t ever believe those who tell you that you “shouldn’t judge things.”   Everyone judges everything in life almost every minute of the day, but only some admit to it.   Book reviewers, by necessity and by role, must admit to it.

And John Lennon offered us some valuable advice – in the song “Watching the Wheels” – as to what to do once we’ve boarded the merry-go-round of guilt…  Get off of it.   “I just had to let it go.”   We just need to let it go.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by author-musician Ken Sharp was published by MTV Books.

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Farther On

“Now the distance leads me farther on/ Though the reasons I once had are gone/ With my maps and my faith in the distance/ Moving farther on…”   Jackson Browne

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Pantheon; 268 pages; $24.95)

Maggie Pouncey is bringing back language, slow and careful language.   It’s the type of language that began to disappear in the 1960’s.   The language that the daughter of a college president might have grown up hearing…

One gave the dog a sop, not a treat or bite; one woke not at dawn but at sparrow fart, and wore not party clothes but finery.   Now it was like speaking Yiddish, or some other dying language; soon there would be nobody around to talk to.

Perfect Reader is a story of a not-so-young 28-year-old woman who returns to her home town after her father’s death.   The town is Darwin, Massachusetts which daughter Flora Dempsey has returned to from, presumably, Boston.   Flora’s father was the president of Darwin College (as the author’s father was the president of Amherst College), and also a noted literary critic, professor and sometime poet.

Flora is a rootless person who has not yet decided what to do with her self, her life.   She’s disoriented coming back to the small college town built on “liberal well-meaningness”; it’s a town more than a bit reminiscent of Davis, California.   But then she felt no more at home working in the city.

Flora’s parents had been divorced many years before and she had made her best career out of avoiding her father.   Now the time for avoidance is gone.   She must handle his funeral arrangements, and everything her father owned – his home, his writings, and his books – has been left to her.   This is not the least of things, as Flora learns that her dad had a lover, a female instructor from the college.   The woman wants to be close to Flora, but Flora just wants to isolate, to have people leave her alone while she ponders her next steps.   In a strange way she envies her father’s escape from the people who trouble you:  “The dead left you alone, but it was the living who filled you up with loneliness.”

“Flora felt her life shrinking.   The smallness of the table provided a good metaphor.   No room for other people.   Soon her life would cease to be a table; it wouldn’t even be a cocktail table.   It would be a solitary chair, hard-backed and wooden…”

This likely sounds depressing but in the telling – a careful and precise telling – it is not.   The Boston Globe called it, “(An) exquisitely observed drama.”   This is because it comes down to the words, the language, which makes the reader feel like he or she has picked up a novel from the wrong decade, if not century.

It is, however, slow.   This is something that some readers will have a problem with but it is deliberately slow.   The author has said that, “so many of the books I love are slow.”   If and when this novel is made into a film, there will be no car chases, no gun battles, no slaps or loud confrontations.   It will be a moody movie that will be loved or hated.

I loved this very contemplative story set around a basic theme.   Does a child, even an adult child, grow up by escaping her past or embracing it?   Whose life is it and, presuming it’s your own, why do we pay such a high price for not fulfilling the expectations of others?

Although Flora’s father has passed (and Flora so hates that people will use any word in the English language but dead) she must nonetheless battle her mother’s expectations, and the fact that she fails to heed her mom’s advice.   In one prime scene, Flora’s mother suggests that she volunteer somewhere in order to provide “some structure” to her life.   “How wonderfully helpful, Mom.   How sage…” responds Flora who is tired and “regressing, moving backward, growing down.”

Yes, our protagonist Flora is not someone who everyone will like or relate to.   She’s brittle and angry and exhausted but, two years short of her third decade on this world, she’s reached the point of decision-making.   Who and what is she going to be in her life?

Perfect Reader is not for everyone.   For me, it was close to a perfect read.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   The book was purchased by the reviewer.

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The Matter of Perspective

On Book Reviewing

wangs-vs-the-world

One of the issues that will come up for the book reviewer is the matter of perspective.   From what perspective will the reviewer summarize a book, a novel, for the prospective reader?   In my view it should be a middle-of-the-book perspective.

Let me explain what I mean.   Let’s say that I’m reading a popular fiction novel about a young woman in the Midwest who is bored with her life, hates her parents, and wants to run away to New York City with her artist-musician boyfriend.   One chapter into the story the reviewer doesn’t know enough to write anything.   Fine, but a reader does not actually want a “last page” review – meaning that the person who’s considering reading this novel does not actually want to know “what happened at the end.”   (At the end, she moves to Manhattan, dumps her boyfriend, gets homesick and moves back to Ohio where she meets the quiet guy she marries.   See, you didn’t really want to know all this, did you?)

So I think it often comes down to that middle-of-the-book perspective.   Halfway through a novel I should know whether it’s a page turner or boring, a book filled with surprises or highly predictable, etc.   Most importantly, I should know whether it’s a book I want to finish in order to find out what does happen at its conclusion.

I’m not saying here that a reviewer should stop at the halfway point and write the review.   What I am saying is that at this point a reviewer should be able to see how his/her review will start, and what pluses and minuses are going to be included in the review.   Conclusions are often over-rated.   If you read a book that you love for 399 of its 400 pages, and it ends in a way that you aren’t completely fond of, the odds are you’ll still recommend it to others (“I wasn’t totally happy about the ending but it was really, really good!”).   And a great or perfect ending never saves a boring and predictable story.   One would never say to a friend, “You know, I hated all 399 pages of this book but once I got to the 400th page I realized I loved it!   Those last two paragraphs saved it for me!”

Thus, a reader-reviewer’s perspective reached halfway through a new novel is likely the viewpoint that he or she is going to retain while writing the review.   There will of course be an exception, as there is to any and every rule in life.   On occasion, there’s that novel that starts off like a house on fire and somehow at the halfway point falls off of a cliff.   I hate to name names but, for me, I Thought You Were Dead was one of those stories.   Dead started out funny and unique but once the beloved talking dog Stella died, the story was essentially over.   Hhhmmm.

The reverse situation does not matter much.   If the first half of a story is awful and painful to read, there aren’t many readers who are going to stick with it for what might be a surprisingly brilliant second half.   At least I think most reviewers can assume this and write a review that honestly states, “This book may have gotten much, much better in its second half, but it was almost impossible to get through the first 200 pages of this mess.”

One final point is that a review written from the middle-of-the-book perspective means the reviewer is never writing a review with a so-called spoiler alert.   Remember, the reader does not really want to know what happens at the end; that’s his/her personal payoff for reading the story all the way through.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   

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You Never Give Me Your Money

The Reviewer’s Voice

I have people say to me that writing book reviews is hard.   I would generally agree.   After you’ve spent hours, days, maybe even a week or two reading someone else’s words, organized in their own fashion, it can feel difficult to organize one’s own thoughts and reactions.   Plus, there’s always a sense of self-doubt…  You may have written 80 reviews but there’s the back-of-the-mind thought that you will not be able to put the words together that are needed to finish review number 81.

Sometimes we may need to pretend in order to lessen the self-perceived stress.   There’s a nice story about the Beatles that proves this point.   After the death of John Lennon, Yoko One found two cassette tapes with unfinished song bits (ideas) that John had recorded.   She gave these tapes to Paul, George and Ringo and asked if they might consider working on the bits, to complete the songs.   Paul, for one, responded that he didn’t think he could do this; it would involve too much pressure in a time of grief.

Yoko thought about this and returned with a novel approach.   She said to the three remaining band members, “Why don’t you put aside the fact that you’re doing this because John is dead.   How about if you just pretend that he left for a nice vacation?   He mailed you these tapes, noting that he didn’t have time to finish the songs before leaving.   He’s asked if you lads would help him do so.”   This mind-set changed everything, especially for Paul McCartney.   With the able assistance of Jeff Lynne, two new Beatles songs (“Free As a Bird” and “Real Love”) were released to the world and went to number one.

When I finish a book, I start a review with a game of pretension.   I pretend that an avid reader good friend has sent me an e-mail:  “I am really interested in the new book by John Jones.   One of our friends told me that you’ve just read it.   What do you think?”   My first draft is, in my mind, an e-mail response that’s written quickly and informally.   Yes, I will do some subsequent re-writing and rely on an editor or two to reorganize or touch up my thoughts, but simply getting the thoughts out there – putting them on the screen – helps me to remember that I can do this.

To me, the hesitation of the book reviewer (wasn’t it Jackie De Shannon who wrote the song, “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe”?) is due to the notion that somewhere in the Universe there exists an ideal book reviewer voice.   But we all have different ideas of what that voice should sound like:  authoritative, bitchy, humble, folksy, friendly, obnoxious, learned/professorial, artsy, formal, positive or chirpy cheerleader, chippy, negative nay sayer or doomsday crier.   And none of these are the real voice of the helpful reviewer.   That reviewer speaks in your voice or my voice – a voice that expresses an honest opinion that the reader of the review is free to either accept or reject.   But the highest honor a review reader may pass on is to say, “Yours was an honest voice.”

Sometimes it may even arrive in the form of an e-mail message, “I didn’t agree with your conclusions about this book, but I know that you spoke (and wrote) honestly.”   High praise, indeed!   Enough to get us ready to write review number 81, 82 or 182.

Joseph Arellano

This is one article in a continuing series.   Pictured:  You Never Give Me Your Money – The Beatles After the Breakup by Peter Doggett, released by HarperStudio on June 8, 2010.   “Peter Doggett’s book about the Beatles’ split is a real page-turner.”   Annie Lennox

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How to Contact Us

If you ever need to e-mail me with comments or questions, the e-mail address is the same as the one we use for book giveaway contests:  Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   Also, you can follow us – formally or informally – by visiting our related Twitter site:  http://twitter.com/josephsreviews .   Twitter members can send me a direct message there, and Munchy certainly appreciates it when Twitter members sign up to follow our Tweets.   (Although Munchy would prefer it if they were called Meows.)  

When you sign up as a follower of Joseph’s Reviews on Twitter, not only will you know when new book reviews and reading-related posts go up on this site, you’ll also have the chance to check out interesting book reviews from a number of fine sources.  

Joseph

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Making the Time to Read

“Time may change me, but I can’t trace time.”   David Bowie

A female book blogger mentioned recently that whenever people learn that she writes book reviews, they ask a common question, “Where do you find the time to read so many books?”   It’s a good question, and one that I’ve been tempted to ask film reviewers.   “How do you get the time to watch so many movies?”   So, the question being on the table, let’s see if I can provide one set of answers to the question as it relates to reading.

First, it helps to be a speed reader.   I enrolled in the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Program when it was all the rage (John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter being two of its graduates); and once you paid the initial enrollment fee, you were free to re-take the entire program again and I did.   There were and are many misconceptions about speed reading in terms of what was offered by the Wood Program.   No reading “tricks” were taught.   The Wood Program was actually a memory course applied to the skill of reading.   One started without much confidence in one’s own ability to remember long passages but through constant reading and test taking (similar to mock SATs), Wood students learned that the brain locks in content quite quickly.   The Wood Program also illustrated the value of instinct as in learning to accept the rule that one’s first answer to a question is, generally and statistically, the right one.

The simple matter of gaining confidence in one’s reading retention abilities meant that a Wood graduate felt he or she could (and did) read faster, not worrying that it would soon be forgotten.   (There’s a parallel to learning a new language.   If you’re learning Korean, you will initially speak slowly and perhaps loudly.   With confidence, you’re speaking the language faster and in a more normal tone of voice.)

Second, taking public transportation to work and back home builds in periods where reading is relaxing.   My light rail trips mean that I have almost three-quarters of an hour each work day in which to concentrate on a new book.   In fact, if I don’t read while commuting, the trip seems longer, something that most airline passengers have learned.   (There are a lot of books sold at airports these days!)

Third, is to learn to combine a walk and a reading break into each work day.   The walk is good exercise and spending a few minutes reading is a nice reward before trekking back to the salt mines.

Fourth, if you skip watching the local and national news in the evening, you will gain another half hour to 90 minutes of reading time without the depression and angst which result from hearing – and seeing – bad news.   Life is simply more relaxing when valuable time is spent reading instead of tensely watching the tube.   And, of course, there’s more time gained by treating newspapers as an optional, sometime, non-essential activity.   As one of my former supervisors told me, if something truly important happens you’ll know because someone will walk up to you and say, “Did you hear about…?”   That’s when they supply you with the news you’ve missed.   It’s the way of the world.

Then there’s the certified trick of book reviewers everywhere, audio books.   If you drive yourself to work all that formerly wasted commute time now becomes valuable audio book listening time, and the same holds true for out-of-town trips for work or family matters.   This is why I will occasionally plead with a publisher for an audio book.   And there’s a related audio trick…  I used to listen to music on headphones virtually every night, but now that time is and can be reserved for audio books instead of listening to old Doors albums.

So, just like that I’ve covered six ways in which reader-reviewers like me create time (we don’t actually find it) in which to read.   Are there other tricks of the trade?   Of course, but as our wise old cat Munchy says, “Yeow!”   Translated into English this means, “There are secrets that go with the territory!”

Joseph Arellano

One article in a continuing series.   Pictured:  How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson, to be released by Plume in trade paperback form on July 27, 2010.

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