Tag Archives: opinions

Much Ado About Something

Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room by David Weinberger (Basic Books, $25.99, 231 pages)

What we have here is a situation that’s either really simple or overwhelmingly complex.   This reviewer isn’t so sure of what to make of David Weinberger’s history and background survey of the Internet.   Weinberger’s credentials are impeccable.   He is a senior researcher at the Harvard University Berkman Center for the Internet and Society.   Perhaps it’s his professional training that had led to a penchant for sequencing, numbering and setting forth the pros and cons of an issue.

The book begins with the background of how, over the past few centuries, man has considered knowledge to be facts gathered by elite scholars and used these facts as the basis of a broad acceptance of scientific principles and general information.   Prior to the ubiquity of the Internet, small numbers of experts who were organized into scholarly associations that, along with the publishing industry, controlled access to knowledge.   The limits of peer review and publishing kept this information under tight control.

We have given up the idea that there is a single, knowable organization of the Universe, a Book of Nature that we’ll ever be able to read together or that will settle bar fights like the Guinness Book of World Records.Too Big to Know (nook book)

Weinberger readily offers his own take on the new use of knowledge by everyone and his uncle.   We know that the growing number of online communities provides ample opportunities for anyone with an opinion to broadcast it all over the world.   He argues that specialized communities on the Internet are becoming insular in much the same way past experts operated within the walls of academia, literally echo chambers.   Of course there is a glaring difference between the past scholarly cliques and today’s echo chambers because anyone with a laptop and access to WiFi can appear to be an expert.

On the Net, everyone is potentially an expert in something – it all depends on the questions being asked.

Too Big to Know sometimes bends back on itself with examples.   The premise of the book may be a bit overworked.   The target audience for this book is not clear to this reviewer.   Perhaps it might be someone of an indeterminate age who is inquisitive about knowledge.

This survey book may be the answer to a question that no one was asking.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room by David Weinberger.TBTK

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Turn The Page

An occasional column about book reviewing.

I.  Against the Wind

“What to leave in, what to leave out…”   Bob Seger

One thing that all book reviewers have in common is that they do a lot of typing.   These days, this means that the prime tool of the trade is not a portable Smith-Corona typewriter or an IBM Selectric but instead a computer – generally a PC Windows-based laptop or an Apple MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.   In order to find the best of these writing tools, reviewers like me can spend many hours – sometimes an inordinate amount of time, reading laptop/notebook reviews.

Something that has been surprising to me is how much space in modern computer reviews is devoted to discussing what is largely irrelevant.   For example, we’re often told that a particular computer screen is fine for most purposes but that the images on it quickly fade when the screen is moved 45 or more degrees – as if one might close it while still typing.   Frankly, I never  move the screen while I’m using my machine – I sit straight in front of it and never move either the screen or my body.   Which brings us to the next so-called “issue” covered in the majority of these reviews – we’re told that the monitor images tend to detiorate if you’re sitting three or four feet to the left or right of the screen.   Really?   Who types while sitting a bench-length away from the screen?

Some of the reviewer’s comments are so silly that I wonder where on earth they’re going to end.   I fully suspect one day soon I’ll read that a particular computer monitor does not offer good images when the machine is turned off; or when one stands to the back of the screen.   Clearly, this is true of 100 percent of television screens but no one would be crazy enough to call it to our attention.

What relevance does this have to the book reviewer?   Well, it brought home to me that fact that it’s key to leave in what’s important, while leaving out facts that the average reader would find to be irrelevant.   Let’s say, for example, that I’m reading a book – a family novel – in which the female protagonist lives in Denver, Colorado.   It might be relevant if I note that the protagonist’s brother is unlikable as he’s a violent womanizer and a drug abuser.   It’s likely not so relevant if I write that I didn’t like his character because he’s portrayed as being a fan of the Denver Broncos…  Yes, all information is not equally valuable.

Something else about computer reviews is that the reviewer often hedges his or her bets with some cheap disclaimer.   Instead of recommending or not recommending a machine, their review might go like this:  “The Emerson 15.6″ AMD dual-core laptop comes with a horribly glossy display, has an awful keyboard, a terrible trackpad, a battery that dies within 90 minutes, and is cheaply built.   But, if you’re looking for the most economical thing on the market that you can use to surf the web and send e-mails, it may be just the thing for you!”   The manufacturer, of course, will quote the last 7 words of the review, hoping that the prospective buyer doesn’t look up the full review.

Again, I think there’s a lesson to be learned here for book reviewers, which is to be true throughout the review.   Don’t take a position and then run from it with a potentially face-saving “out”.   Provide an opinion and stick with it – do the prospective reader-purchaser a favor by sticking with an honest opinion.   Do not hide your recommendation in the weeds.

II.  A New Issue

One new issue that’s popped up for me is that I’ll receive a book – actually an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) – weeks or months before it’s released and begin to read it.   I’ll then communicate with the author’s or publisher’s publicist and ask if I may post a review when I finish reading it.   Often the response is that they want me to hold off on posting the review until the release date or very close to it.   So I’ll close the book and, unfortunately, often never get back to it.   It becomes a lost book, an absent review because I could not write about it when I was ready.

I would love for some of these publicists and/or publishers to consider changing their stances.   Whatever happened to the view that some publicity is better than none?   And, confusingly, some publishers take the opposite stance – that all of the “buzz” about a book should come prior to the release date:  “If a book is not being talked about before its release date, it will most likely be dead on arrival.”

It’s a confusing world out there, including for the lowly book reviewer.   LOL

Joseph Arellano

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The Conundrum of Context

A question that one reviewer struggles with.

Here’s a question that I struggle with as a book reviewer, “Is it appropriate to make reference to other books when I review a new one?”   For the reasons I’ll explain here, my answer tends to be situational.

Let’s say that I’m reviewing the latest novel from author Joe Blow called A Kick in the Head.   If I think that this work from author Blow is the best thing he’s done – and it quite clearly calls for a highly positive review, I’m unlikely to reference any other works by Blow or other writers.   Why?   Because I’m explaining why I like or admire this release.   Many readers, and most especially Blow’s longtime followers, are happy to accept a positive review on its face.

But if Blow’s latest book blows (sorry, I couldn’t resist…), there’s a good chance that I’ll refer to either his earlier, better works, or to those of other authors writing in the same genre.   The reason for this is that I would expect to be challenged, either by a reader new to this author or by one of his loyal fans.   Generally, negative reviews require more information – more context, if you will – to set the stage for the reviewer’s not-so-pleasing conclusion.

What Blow’s fans are really asking of the negative reviewer is, “What makes you think you’re correct?”   Or, in plain English, “What’s your ammunition?”   So my first option – and often the best one – is to compare this new work to the author’s earlier ones.   Maybe the writer was clearly hungrier earlier, or fresher and this stance provides me with the basis to make the claim that his work is now sounding worn and tired.   Regardless of whether a fan of Blow’s buys my argument, I’m not too subtly making the point that I’ve also read all or most of his writings.   (It makes a difference to me personally if someone criticizing one of my favorite authors indicates that he/she has read all or most of his/her works.   I’ll give more weight to that criticism than to someone’s who notes that this is the first book they’ve read by an author I know and love.)

The next option is to compare Blow to his direct competition.   This can be preferable when time seems to have passed Blow by…  He may have been the best writer of his type back in the day (heck, he may even have created the genre in his youth) but this doesn’t give him a pass today.   There may be a dozen or so new and younger writers who have tailored Blow’s style into something that’s fresh and new on the runway.   But I’ll have to give some specific examples of how and where this is true, which is why I would likely include a comment like, “A Kick in the Head is not only not as engaging as Blow’s classic The Last Bus Home, it also seems dull compared to Judy Bling’s brilliant debut novel of 2010, Fighting Back.”   In instances where another author’s work is cited, I think it should be something current (written within the last year or two).But there is another instance in which a positive review should include a reference to other writings.   This applies to cases in which the reviewer – I or someone else, attempts to make the case that a work by a new writer approaches greatness.   If  I’m going to argue that new author Judy Bling’s first book is stunning, I think I need to provide context by making comparisons to some well-known or accepted best writers.   Does she set scenes as effortlessly as Anne Lamott, or write with a cool and icy focus like Audrey Niffenegger?

If one’s going to argue that a new writer approaches greatness, then I think one had better be willing to specifically compare that writer to other exemplary writers, past or present.   (Not everyone’s going to agree with the validity of the comparative selections, but that’s beside the point.   They don’t have to concur with the review either.)

Now let’s all hope that Joe Blow’s next book is better than A Kick in the Head!

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:   The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, which will be released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on October 11, 2011.

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The Heart of the Matter

I used to work with a program that trained local prosecutors (deputy district attorneys) and public defenders.   One aspect often covered at these trainings was the importance of opening and closing arguments in a criminal trial, and the point was usually made that these arguments needed to be “tight” rather than rambling and lengthy.   I often see a parallel with book reviews…

To me, book reviews are both opening and closing arguments.   They are an opening argument when it comes to introducing a reader to a book that he/she is considering purchasing.   The review says, “Here is what this book is about, and why it may be of interest to you.”   But it should also warn, “I don’t know about your own tastes, so I’m going to provide you with my perspective on this novel/nonfiction book.”

The same review is a closing argument when it attempts to convince the prospective reader that this is either something worth reading or passing by.   “I think this novel is great because…”   or “I really tried to read this survey book about _____ but I just couldn’t grab on to it…”   The key, though, is that the closing argument is not about TRUTH in capital letters – a review is an opinion piece, and the opinion is only as good as the structure of the argument it holds.

What I love about reading book reviews is not the bottom line – did this reader/reviewer love or hate the book – but the validity of the argument that takes us to the buy/don’t buy recommendation.   Is it logical, is it well structured, is it internally consistent (not a review that praises the author’s writing style at one point while attacking it somewhere else), is it honest?   If I write a review indicating that I love a book, I’m just as interested in other reviews that praise or condemn the book.   Why?   Because I’m not looking to win an argument, I’m looking to see how each and every reviewer made their arguments.

Is there a difference between positive and negative reviews?   Yes, I think so.   It’s much easier to convince the average reader that you, the reviewer, love a book because (as has been said so many times before) everyone loves good news.   If I pick up an interesting-looking new novel at Borders and then use my BlackBerry to find reviews, I’m quite pleased to see 4-and 5-star reviews and flat-out recommendations.   I’m much less pleased to do a digital search only to read that this book is a disaster.   But, wait, maybe it isn’t – maybe I need to see how good a case is made by those who are criticizing it.

Decades ago, I used to read music reviews in every major publication of the time.   There were a number of reviewers that I really admired, including one in particular who never liked the same things I did.   But that reviewer always made a great case for his position, an enlightened and entertaining case.   He wrote a brilliant negative review of one classic album in a single sentence!

So, yes, it’s not the length of the argument that counts.   It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the amount of fight in the dog.   And the next time you read a book review, you may want to ask yourself, “Did this reviewer deliver both an opening and closing argument this time around?”   Don’t forget that you are the juror in the court of public opinion, and it’s your vote that counts each and every time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:   The Good Daughters: A Novel by Joyce Maynard.

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Good Times, Bad Times

Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade

The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs.   The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness.   Most did not meet his standards.   Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share.   If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.

Five memoirs are on my recommended list:  The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying).   It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).

But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here.   When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.   More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages.   And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying.   Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.

Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader.   Confusion has its costs!”   Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told?   Sigh…  Well, I guess some people do.

Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography.   These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for!   If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers.   Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.

The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S.   If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves.   I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.

So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong.   When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order.   And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke, which will be released by Riverhead Books on April 14, 2011.

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Judgement of the Moon and Stars

The Impression

Recently, I was communicating with an author when he happened to reference the “judgment” contained in book reviews.   And that’s when it dawned on me that I don’t see reviews as necessarily being judgmental; instead, I see them as impressions.   A review reflects the way in which a reader-reviewer perceives the book at a particular point in time in his/her life.   As with everything in life, this is subject to change.   It may be, for example, that a novel that a reviewer could not get into while battling an illness would be highly enjoyable at another time.   Many of us have had the experience of reading a particular book years ago and labeling it as a favorite, only to be surprised when we return to that book and find it flat and dull.   Did the book change in any way in the interim?   No, our life – the reader’s life – changed in such a way as to change our perspective of the book.

Let’s think about this in terms of a physical landmark.   Let’s say that I view the Golden Gate Bridge on four occasions – firstly in the middle of the afternoon on a warm and sunny day, next during a rainstorm, then while the bridge is bathed in fog, and lastly on a moonlit night.   Each time the bridge will appear to be different, and I would likely describe the bridge in different terms if I were writing about it.   The bridge itself never changes, but my view of it – my impression – will change based on external factors.

So, one thing to keep in mind while reading a review is that it’s a point-in-time statement.   It’s also something that’s subject to revision.   The reviewer who slammed a book with a negative review might find, to his surprise, that he enjoys it when he looks at it months later.   And the reviewer who loved a book and added it to her personal collection might wonder a year or two later why she loved it – something she’ll ponder while putting it on the giveaway stack.

What does this mean for an author?   Simply that both positive and negative reviews can be discounted.   The book that one reviewer perceived as a flop may be a hit later, and vice versa.   Life changes and so do impressions.

The Choice

The author of a recent survey book noted something interesting about how film and book reviewers are perceived.   According to a study referenced in the book, the authors of generally negative reviews are viewed as more intelligent than reviewers who almost always draft positive reviews.   This is due to the perception that “anyone can say nice things,” while the negative reviewer is seen as a person who must have an extensive in-depth background – otherwise, how would he/she know what to nitpick and criticize?   This does not mean, however, that the average person prefers to read the reviews of a generally negative reviewer.

When given a choice between reading mostly negative or positive reviews, the typical person will more often select the positive ones.   And when asked about the people who write the reviews, most people will select the positive one as the nicer person – the nicer person is, therefore, the one whose reviews are read more.   So this leads to a choice among limited options for the book reviewer.   Do you want to be perceived as smart and well-read, or as the less smart writer whose reviews are more often read?

The appropriate response may be to write a mix of positive and not so positive reviews, so that one is viewed as both smart and nice, if not both at the same time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister ($24.95, 320 pages) which will be released by Putnam Adult Books on February 17, 2011.

Note:  After writing this article, I happened to come across the following statement from Robert Christgau, music critic for the Village Voice:  “I don’t usually fluctuate wildly with what I initially thought about an album because I wait to write the review until I know what I think…  My first judgment is solid and secure.   But records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.”

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