Book Reviews: Acts of Generosity or Ego?

canstockphoto17242096I recently rejoined Goodreads after a long absence and am pondering whether or not to write book reviews. I haven’t done so in the past, as a rule, for a number of reasons.

The first reason is that I have a lot of writer friends, many of whom have written books. Some of those books get an ‘A’ for effort, but not for execution. Sometimes they ask for reviews. I want to keep my integrity. And my friends.

Another reason for not writing reviews is that I feel squeamish as a writer who is trying to finish a novel. Anyone who completes and publishes work has my respect. Even work badly done is the achievement of a goal I’ve yet to attain. Perhaps when I’ve done one of my own, I’ll feel less beholden, but until then, it impacts my ability to critically write about the work of someone else. I would be ineffective as a reviewer, because I’d only say nice things.

canstockphoto8953768And lastly, we live in a culture that has elevated everyone’s opinions to something more than they are. We’re constantly being asked to review products, vacation spots, experiences, to like things, to star things…I find it all unsettling. Most people would argue that they’re being helpful and maybe it is. Maybe it forces business entities to improve, but books? They’re a done deal.

I suspect that sometimes it’s good to have our own shitty experiences, to not have everything be perfect – to be inconvenienced or ripped off or to stay in a room next to the air conditioner that rattles all night long or to read a badly-written book. That’s where we get our stories from and without those experiences, life would be dull and predictable.

We made the mistake a couple of years ago of staying in a hotel on the Pacific coast that canstockphoto40253681allowed pets. We don’t have a pet, but it was reasonably priced. We do, however, have a preference for rooms without carpet stains and an underlying smell of dog piss. Still, we laughed it off, didn’t throw a tantrum at management, didn’t wig out on Trip Advisor. It was only one night and we were right on the shore. From the balcony, using binoculars, we were delighted and surprised to see a pod of whales swimming northward. We were able to spot them well into the evening and the next morning as well. Had we read the reviews, paused to think what pet hotel meant, we would have missed something people pay quite a lot to see.

When I find books to read, I’m an archaeologist. I ramble through the stacks at my local library, digging up books that appeal, no matter whether or not they’re on a bestseller list or everyone is giving them 5-stars or even if they’re remotely current. I request books that were mentioned by other writers or that I heard referenced in an interview or that relate to a subject I’m interested in at the moment.

canstockphoto23134509One of the most disheartening experiences I try to avoid now is the referral of books to people. There are books that have lifted me up and brought me such joy, only to have a friend say “it didn’t resonate with me” – that passive, equivocating, damning phrase. I felt different about the friendship after that. Some people have religion. I have the written word. It is fair to say, this makes me a tad irrational about the subject.

Sometimes I’ll read reviews after the fact because I’m curious how something is interpreted by others. What I’ve learned is that reading is wildly subjective. That two people reading the same book will have diametrically opposed opinions and both of them are sometimes right. Unfortunately, many people write reviews that suggest their feelings are universal or that they know they are right. And like most online forums, some people use it to demonstrate what jackwagons they are.

canstockphoto1051598There is something flattering and obsequious about being asked for one’s opinion. When someone asks my opinion, my brain lights up, preparing to expound. I suspect it taps into something I don’t like about myself very much – that given the right circumstances, I’d be a horrible know-it-all who doesn’t shut up, who would run roughshod over others – someone who would never be invited back again.

Perhaps this is why humility has ended up as one of my core values. I fear what would happen should my ego escape its constraints. I’m also not fond of bloviators who suck the air out of the room and would very much like not to be one of them. Writing a review seems a step away from feeding that particular beast.

canstockphoto10580028Over the last couple of years, I’ve begun a practice of reading as a writer. I read nothing without a notebook and pen. I take notes, copy phrases, write questions. It’s a way of forcing myself to slow down, to take notice, to not just gorge myself. I’ve always been a gluttonous, speedy reader, forgetting what I’ve read ten minutes after I’ve read it. Slowing down and really absorbing the words has changed my reading experience significantly. Perhaps it has become such a luxury, that I don’t wish to exploit it for public purposes, I don’t know.

Tonight I am going to my first book club meeting ever. I’ve read the book and there’s a community book club at the local library. I’m showing up with my uncurated reading notes and with a mantra to stay open, to stay curious and to keep my opinions on a short leash.

Do you write book reviews? Do you read book reviews? What is your take on them?

The Intimacy of Book-Giving: Just Give Me Underwear

canstockphoto16137550It’s a phrase I’ve said repeatedly in my lifetime: “Give gifts that people want, not what you want them to have.” I received two books as gifts recently and had two entirely different reactions.

I unwrapped the first book and sat there stunned for just a moment. A thousand thoughts ran through my mind, including “You hate me, you really, really hate me.” I was struck how out of proportion my mental reaction was, but that is the nature of my relationship with books. They are such a part of who I am, as a reader, as a writer, as a human, that I can’t imagine anyone would think one book was as good as any other.

The book I received was an inspirational tome by the mother of a child who had died from a rare disease. I stared at the gift-giver as if she’d just given me something with “Oprah’s Book Club” stamped on the cover. There’s nothing in my personality that suggests I like Thomas Kinkade, Hallmark or Chicken Soup for the Soul. I don’t have tear-stained copies of the The Notebook or The Fault in Our Stars in my reading stacks. While I can feel deeply for a bereft mother, I do not read for sentimentality’s sake.

The gift-giver doesn’t really know me and certainly did not know that she just gave me the equivalent of a package of Granny Panties. Although they’re mighty comfy on occasion and make good cat barf rags at the end of their usefulness, I do not want to receive them from a relative stranger in a room full of people. This is the same person who gave me a Prince Charles’ tome on the future of mankind several years ago. A thong with pretty pictures.

I was writing to a friend this morning about book recommendations and it struck me how very personal it is and how reluctant I am sometimes to offer up ideas. There is a level of intimacy, because you know very well you are going to recommend something they may not like. And if they ever tell you that, it will hurt just a little. And part of you will wonder about the veracity of your friendship.

There were several friends of mine who raved about 50 Shades of Grey. I don’t know that I’ve ever looked at them the same way again. Yet sometimes when I read negative reviews of a book that I liked, I get enraged, as if someone had just insulted my mother. And you can often see in the comments that people have taken personal umbrage to the review, to the point of online wedgie-giving.

canstockphoto6437376This is part of the reason why I don’t write book reviews. The book that was poorly edited, full of sentimental manipulation, with characters I’d like drawn and quartered – that book touched someone’s heart, comforted them while they were going through emotional turmoil, allowed them to escape for a moment from the anxieties of their life. There were, for a few moments, no bills to be paid, no pictures to cut out faces from, no squalling child in need of something. Who knows what a book I loathed, meant to someone else?

From a literary standpoint, I don’t pretend to have high standards. I like a good story with complex characters and I don’t care if it’s Toni Morrison or Nicholas Sparks (uh, maybe not) as long as they write a world I can sink into with rhythm and language that keeps me there. But what draws me in might be something that reminds me of a comforting moment as a child or visually links me to a place where I felt happy. The character might remind me of a boy I was once madly in love with or someone who never got their comeuppance.

canstockphoto8858462What we read, what we love to read, what we want to read, is as complex and reflective of our humanity as what we like in music or fragrance. It’s incredibly personal and intimate. I have found that it is also a reflection of our relationships. The first book I received during the holidays was from someone for whom mutual dislike is discernible. The book felt like an act of contempt, although it was likely a thoughtless throwaway attempt at being generous.

The second book I received was from a friend over coffee. We’ve talked about books often, have known each other for several years and she’s in my ring of favorite people. She gave me a book that she had read and really enjoyed. It made her laugh. She knows my sense of humor and thought I would enjoy it as well. It was an entirely different experience, as intimate as a hug without having my space invaded or being imprinted with a scent.

Scanstockphoto20612705ometimes I think I’m a very hardhearted person, that I should be grateful that I’ve been given anything. I’ll smile and say thank you, even while wondering if Half Priced Books will give me any money for the book I’ve just had foisted on me. Giving a book to someone just because you know he or she reads books is akin to giving a knife from Target to a professional chef. Unless you’re already familiar with their kitchen, you are likely giving them something that they’ll re-gift in the coming year.

Socks. Just get them socks.

Right now I’m lost in pure entertainment, having tracked down used copies of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series. I’m reading Stories to be Read with the Door Locked. When we’d visit my grandparents, I’d sneak off to the den and read everything on their bookshelves. They had all the Alfred Hitchcock dime store paperbacks. That’s also where I read the horrifying Helter Skelter (that’s a post for another day called Inappropriate Things I Read as a 10-Year-Old).

I’ve shown you mine, now you show me yours…