My Book Orgy

For as long as I can remember, I was a monogamous reader. I’d start a book and read it straight through no matter how much time that took. Even if I didn’t like it, I had to finish it.

College and graduate school didn’t change my book monogamy. Even when my reading load was very heavy, I never read a book on the down low. That seemed shifty and wrong. Once during my MFA program I had to read Bleak House, The Wings of the Dove and two novels by Iris Murdoch all in one week, but I didn’t cheat. I slogged along serially, losing sleep but determined to be faithful. My roommate later claimed I was prone to hysterical laughter that week, but monogamy can make anyone desperate, right?

desperate

Years later, when I was reviewing for a handful of magazines and newspapers and two public radio stations, I still didn’t cheat. My motto: One man, one book.

Now I’m a hopeless book slut. I can’t seem to keep my hands off all the books piled in my study, by my bed, in the den, and sent to me by publishers. I’ll try to stay focused but then a new book shows up in the mail, somewhere on line and I go all Iggy Pop: “You look so good to me….”

2015-03-06-1425654025-1513773-multiplebooks140277145889_xlarge.jpegThis has nothing to do with competition from downloading music, Facebook or Twitter, texting, or binge-watching the latest Netflix original show like the hilarious Lovesick. It’s the books that compete with each other. Some months I’m reading as many as five to six books at a time. That means bookmarks, Post-it notes, a pen or pencil, a napkin, a comb, my phone, a restaurant receipt or whatever else is handy will be poking out from books all around the house.  Keeping my place(s).

That also means some weeks I shun all book reviews, especially the New York Times Book Review. I don’t want to hear about another new book in any genre, don’t want to risk being tempted.

So what’s in my book harem right now? Biographies of President Buchanan and Thomas Beckett.  Rebecca Mead’s memoir about reading Middlemarch.  A short novel by Anthony Trollope.  Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of Bunker Hill.  Susan Jacoby’s The Age of Unreason. Poldark by Winston Graham.  And a book about contemporary populism worldwide, just to stay connected to current events.

And I’m about to order a biography of the art collector Peggy Guggenheim because I just saw a documentary about her and I still remember visiting her famous museum in Venice….I just couldn’t resist her life, her loves, her art.

peggy_guggenheim_1Lev Raphael is the author of Book Lust! and twenty-four other books in many genres.

What Should Writers Do With Bad Reviews?

A friend publishing her first book just got a negative review on Amazon, but it’s the only really bad one among about two dozen positive reviews.  And lots of those were raves.

I told her it was a mistake to read bad reviews.  Ever.

sad woman with laptopYears ago, way before Amazon, when I heard Philip Roth give a talk, he was asked about his reviews during Q&A.  If you don’t know know his work and his history, he’s been attacked for all sorts of things–including anti-Semitism!–as far back as his short story collection Goodbye Columbus.

I remember being struck by his response.  He said that he had never really learned anything about his work from a reviewer.  I’m sure some people in the audience thought he was arrogant to say that, and Roth had the air of a dyspeptic hawk, so that might have added to the impression.

philip_rothBut my friend’s distress about her negative Amazon review made me reflect about my own review history.  It includes raves from The New York Times Book Review–as well as some really nasty attacks that I wish I’d never read.

Over several decades of hundreds of reviews in print and on line, by professionals and amateurs, I don’t recall learning much, either, about my work from what they wrote.  People have liked or disliked my books for various reasons in various ways.  I’ve been thrilled by raves, enjoyed the pats on the back, and been disappointed by pans: “Don’t they get what I was trying to do?”

But have reviews made me write differently, tackle different subjects, change anything major or even minor?

Not really.  The many fine editors I’ve worked with have been the ones who’ve had a lasting impact on me; they’ve challenged me and helped me deepen my work.

As for Amazon reviews–like those on Goodreads–they can often be mindless and cruel, sometimes little more than cyber farts.

Reviews can reflect different tastes or simply contrariness, as when people feel the need to trash great authors like Jane Austen or George Eliot.  A full 10% of the 644 people reviewing Middlemarch on Amazon gave it only one or two stars.  Obviously not fans of Victorian fiction or her brand of it, anyway.  Perhaps they might have liked it better with zombies.

middlemarchOne of my favorite staycations was taking a week off from everything to re-read Middlemarch a few years ago and I was even more blown away than the first time I read it in college.  I’m in awe of that novel, the world it creates, the depth of her psychology, and the author’s all-encompassing love for every one of her characters, even the deeply flawed ones.

You can’t and won’t please everyone as an author.  But you can please yourself by avoiding the bad reviews.  They’re not likely to make a difference in your work because they seldom offer constructive criticism–but they can make you waste time.  You can obsess about them and even make the mistake of replying, something authors should avoid because it makes them look cranky and vulnerable.

To truly grow as a writer you need to find writing mentors or colleagues who can really help you, and you need to keep reading widely, deeply, passionately.  Bad reviews should never be on your list.

o-READING-BOOK-HAPPY-facebookLev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.  You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LevRaphael

 

 

Michigan Book Awards Discriminate Against LGBT Books

Every year since 2004 the Library of Michigan has publicized as many as 20 Notable Michigan books “reflective of Michigan’s diverse ethnic, historical, literary, and cultural experience.”

notable bookBut that diversity seems to have a huge gap. No book with major LGBT content has ever been among the books annually celebrated and publicized statewide. That fact was confirmed to me by one of the judges, who had no explanation.

The 2016 Library of Michigan press vaunts the 2015 awards this way:

“The MNB selections clearly demonstrate the vast amount of talent found in writers focusing on Michigan and the Great Lakes region,” State Librarian Randy Riley said. “The list continues to offer something for everyone – fiction, short story collections, history, children’s books, politics, poetry and memoirs.”

great lakes regionThe awards program actually stretches all the way back to 1991 under different names. It sponsors statewide author tours for the winning authors, so it’s a big deal. The Detroit Free Press describes what it mean to be a winner:

While no cash award comes with making the list, there is a real economic reward for writers and publishers in terms of increased sales. Emily Nowak, marketing and sales manager at Wayne State University Press, said appearing on the list can lift sales by several hundred copies. For regional titles with small press runs of between 1,000 and 3,000 copies, that’s a significant boost and could push a title into a second printing. Many Michigan libraries often buy multiple copies of books that appear on the list.

And then of course there’s the free publicity, which has no valuation, and the invitations to speak that an award generates, and the prestige.

But evidently since 1991 there hasn’t been a single book with major LGBT content published by a Michigan press or written by a Michigan author living here or elsewhere worthy of recognition.

Think about it: No notable LGBT books by talented queer Michigan authors in almost twenty-five years the judges of this program thought deserved being honored. Not one. The Library of Michigan’s web site claims that the awards “help build a culture of reading here in Michigan.” Perhaps so, but the culture being built is limited in its diversity.

Before the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, Rolling Stone rated Michigan as one of the five worst states in the country for gay rights because of hate crimes, but there are other forms of oppression, including forced invisibility.

Isn’t it well past time that the sponsors and judges of the Michigan Notable Books stepped into the 21st century, out of the darkness and into the light?  What are they afraid of?

sunrise

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

How Reading Henry James Changed My Life

I had an amazing senior year of college reading (and reveling in) George Eliot, Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence Durrell, Fitzgerald, and Henry James.

While all of them inspired me to be a better writer of fiction–my goal in life–it was James who was the catalyst for perhaps the deepest change.

I was reading The Portrait of a Lady–which many consider The Great American Novel–at 3 AM when I came to the famous Chapter 42.

lady(Nicole Kidman in Jane Campion’s 1996 film of Portrait)

That’s where the American heiress, Isabel Archer, has started to understand that there’s something wrong with her marriage and her life. She’s hoped for intellectual and emotional freedom, but life with her dilettante husband Osmond has turned out to be very different. Her Roman palace is a prison.

….she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation.

It may sound like a cliché, but I was thunderstruck. That was my house. My emotional house. Because I had never really talked about or written abut my parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, what that legacy meant to me. In the years to come, this subject matter would become central to the fiction and nonfiction I published and was known for.  My first prize-winning story, published in Redbook, would be about a son of survivors and it launched my career.

Within days of reading Chapter 42, there was a clear difference in my work that my creative writing professor noticed. James had opened me up to myself in a way that no other author ever had. I was never the same man or writer again.

Of course, it wasn’t just the story that swept me away: the sumptuous prose, James’s sly humor, and his sharp depiction of the conflict of Americans and Europeans in that era transfixed me.

I’ve read Portrait many times since, always in new editions because I mark up my copies with comments, stars, and underlining.  It keeps meaning different things to me, but I always remember that sense of discovery and liberation, and always be grateful.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books of fiction and nonfiction in a wide range of genres.

 

Ebook Sales Are Down–Here Are Some Personal Whys

person-reading-on-ipadAnd I’ve seen that in my own life.  I’m one of those people who’s not not reading as many ebooks as before.

In the beginning I was excited to download books instantly whenever, wherever.  Forget two-day delivery with Amazon Prime.  If I wanted a book on my iPad at 3 AM, voilà–and the font and page color could even be adjusted.  How cool was that?

But then the books started massing and I lost track of how many there were, unlike being able to see and sort the TBR pile in my study. I know, not a problem the Pope had to address at the UN, but still–

tbr-pilesThen I noticed that far too many ebooks, from all sorts of publishers, seemed badly proofread, if at all.  Spacing was off, typos were bizarre, sometimes whole sections or chapters were in italics.  As an author and reviewer, I know errors creep into books, but this was a level of sloppiness that felt new to me.

Another contributing factor: Dealing with insomnia after a car accident, one solution recommended by experts was to avoid e-readers (and laptop or PC screens) at night because of the light interfering with my sleep cycle, so that forced me to cut down.

ipadreaderBut I had found myself drifting away from ebooks anyway by that point.  I’m an extrovert and can be easily distracted.  I turn to reading as a form of meditation. I want to be completely lost, mesmerized by storytelling whatever the genre.  Holding a device where I can check my email or the news can break the spell.

More than that, I still enjoy the physical feel of an open book in my hands, especially a hardcover.  I relish the sensuous experience of turning the page, marking passages I enjoy, making notes, comparing pages–things that are totally different experiences with ebooks.

However, I rely on ebooks for trips at home and abroad.  Back in the day, I could never decide what exactly to take with me and either packed too many books or the wrong ones.  That never happens anymore.  And if it somehow does and there’s absolutely nothing that interests me left on my iPad, I can still browse wherever I am.

If the WiFi is good….

So what about you?  Are you reading more ebooks than you used to?  Are you reading fewer?  Or about the same?  Why?

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to horror.

Writing Crime Fiction Changes Your POV Forever

I’ve been publishing mysteries since the 90s and whether I want to or not, I often figure out a twist in a thriller or mystery without even trying–especially if it’s a movie or show.  I just can’t stop that part of my mind from working even if I want to be an ordinary audience member.  And something about seeing it rather than reading it makes the upcoming twist much more obvious to my writer’s mind.

Recently fans of Scandal went berserk when a hero of the show, Jake Ballard, was stabbed and left for dead, and the preview for the next week showed his bloody body laid out on a table, with one of the show’s character’s, Quinn, yelling that he was dead.  Even though I was emotionally caught up in the surprise attack where Jake was viciously stabbed, as soon as it was over, I knew for sure that he wasn’t dead.  I blogged about it for The Huffington Post while the Twitterverse and Facebook erupted in disbelief and rage. The mystery writer in me knew that when writers want someone indisputably dead, that person’s throat is cut deeply to make sure they die ASAP or they’re stabbed in the head like a zombie ditto or in the heart.  Jake was stabbed in the torso; people survive worse injuries in real life and this, after all, was only TV.  The next week’s episode proved me right.

Scott-body-042115That same week in Vikings, the third season finale ended with great drama. Ragnar Lothbrok, the King whose army had unsuccessfully attacked Paris twice was apparently dying of battle wounds.  He’d also been mourning his dead friend Athelstan, a monk captured in an earlier raid on England.  In a deal to leave “Francia,” the Vikings received a huge amount of gold and silver, but Ragnar demanded to be baptized and then later get a Christian burial. The Emperor Charles agreed and we saw Ragnar’s beautiful coffin, reminiscent of a Viking ship, borne into the walled city’s cathedral.  Watching this impressive scene, I mused, “Wouldn’t it be something if he rose from the dead, popped out of the coffin and attacked the king?”  That’s exactly what happened. His funeral Mass was a terrific ruse for sacking the city.

RagnarI wasn’t trying to figure out either plot or second guess the writers, it’s just that the many pleasurable years of writing (and reading) crime fiction have shifted my perspective forever.  I don’t enjoy thrillers or mysteries or a show with a plot twist any less, but that inner watchful eye (much friendlier than the Eye of Sauron), just never seems to blink.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books–including The Nick Hoffman Mysteries–which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

The Secret to Beating the 2015 Goodreads Challenge

Are you tempted by the Goodreads Challenge?  Shamed by your friends bragging about all the books they’ve read?  Or say they’ve read?  Worried that your dog or cat may be injured when your TBR piles topple over?

Well, there’s a secret to winning the Goodreads Challenge that I can share with you: Don’t take it.

The whole idea is totally flawed. Why should you set yourself up for failure like so many people do? They think the Challenge will make them better readers, people, parents, citizens, whatever — and they end up feeling miserable when they don’t reach their goal.

Optimized-wses024116Book reading should be pleasurable, not a chore, not rock climbing or an algebra test or a weekend with your in-laws.  Why should it matter how many books you read?  Why should you or anyone else care?  Isn’t the enjoyment you get from a particular book more important?  The places it takes you, the excitement or reveries it stirs, the things it makes you want to share and talk about with friends?

But if you do feel compelled to take the Challenge out of envy or morbid curiosity or boredom or whatever, here’s how to beat it: Get sick or have surgery.

When I had a root canal last Fall and spent 72 hours in bed afterwards I read three books that weekend and loved each one: The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, Under the Channel by Gilles Pétel, and Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub. A literary novel, a mystery, and history. I also started a fourth book, Elmore Leonard’s Be Cool. That’s way above my weekend average.

And when I had reconstructive hand surgery more recently I read two books in the Game of Thrones series: A Clash of Kings (which I had already begun) and A Storm of Swords.  I clocked 2000 new pages. True, the Percocet I took for pain did make me hallucinate a bit, but I relished the books just the same.

So think how much reading you could accomplish with a really bad case of the flu or a nose job that you have to hide from your friends. The possibilities are endless.

Happy reading!

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

Why Should Reading Be a Contest?

I recently saw a blog urging writers to plow through 100 books a year to make themselves better writers. 100 seems to be some kind of current yardstick, though I don’t know why.

multiple-books-140277145889_xlargeI think that’s another sad example of how numbers-crazy we’ve become as writers. Reading widely is good advice for writers of all kinds.  But why should the amount of books you read in a year actually matter as opposed to what you read and what you learn from those books. Isn’t how they they inspire you what really counts?

Take a unique book like Rebecca West’s astonishing Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It’s a record of the author’s travels through the Balkans before World War II. The book is part travelogue, part history, part cultural portrait, and reads throughout with the color and drama of a novel. It’s 1200 pages long and might take you weeks or more to read, but you can learn a lot from every aspect of it, including West’s gorgeous prose style.

mostar_bridge

I read it one summer while touring Italy and France and felt as if I I’d died and gone to literary heaven. I didn’t finish it on my month-long trip because I was also enjoying sightseeing (big surprise!) and because the book was so luscious it was like a ballotin of Neuhaus chocolates. Something to be savored, not devoured. I read many passages more than once, sometimes read them aloud just to enjoy their sound in the Tuscan or Parisian air. That summer, I read almost nothing else.

What if you wanted to spend a whole year just reading and re-reading all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books so as to immerse yourself in his style and vision? What would be wrong with that? Wouldn’t you learn an enormous amount as a writer?  Maybe more than if you just randomly picked 100 books?  I wager the blog author might call you lazy, though, because she recommends a blitzkrieg. Seriously. Reading as battle, bombing, conquest, and devastation. What kind of attitude is that?

Everything’s become a frantic contest now, which makes us all potential losers. A writing career is hard enough as it it, and we’re already under assault by the word count fanatics–as I recently blogged at The Huffington Post.

When does it stop?  When the hell does it stop?

Optimized-wses024116 Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and militarized police–along 24 other books in many genres which you can find at Amazon.