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

 

 

Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott Biography is a Hot Mess

When a friend told me she was reading Susan Cheever’s book American Bloomsbury about Emerson and his circle in Concord, I was intrigued, because I’d read Cheever’s memoir about her father years ago and had lost track of her career after that.

I went to Amazon, but was drawn to Cheever’s biography of Louisa May Alcott instead. I didn’t know much about Alcott and I’m a huge fan of biographies (I have hundreds in my study). The book grabbed me based on the sample: Alcott didn’t want to write Little Women–her editor pushed her to.

What a great hook.

Louisa_May_Alcott_headshot

When the book arrived, though, I gradually discovered it was awful. I hadn’t bothered reading the thoughtful critiques on Amazon–I learned its varied faults myself (reviews of American Bloomsbury are even more scathing, btw, and more numerous).

Cheever’s assessment of Alcott is marred by trivialities. You learn things like this: Alcott dropped a pie box in Boston. Not only that, it tipped “end over end.” Wow. Alcott was teased by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. about her height, and in Boston she had hyacinths in a window box. None of these details (and more just as inane) add to an understanding of Alcott’s life or writing.

Cheever’s prose can be gag-worthy: “Death is a mystery, but life is filled with light and clarity.” Sounds like a Hallmark Card. Then there are dubious assertions like “good writing is almost always subversive.” How? Why? Makes a good quote for Pinterest or Tumblr, I suppose.

Cheever claims that the Transcendentalists in Concord “essentially created American literature as we know it.” Seriously? The first two American authors to be international best sellers, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, got there before Emerson et al. and had a huge influence on major authors like Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne. Perhaps to hedge her bets, Cheever loves mentioning Hawthorne as often as possible, but he was peripheral to the Concord crew and mocked them in his novel The Blithedale Romance.

hawthorneJust as egregiously, Cheever totally misrepresents Alcott’s relationship with Henry James and basically gives Alcott credit for more books of his than you can imagine. Without her, we apparently wouldn’t have The Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller, The Bostonians or any of his books with a young woman character. They were also fast friends, Cheever says, despite every James biography I’ve read which barely mentions Alcott–and Cheever doesn’t offer any proof of this supposed relationship.

james 1890Sadly, Publishers Weekly gave the book an attention-getting starred review and called it “authoritative.” Somebody at PW was lazy (or dim) and didn’t do their homework.

Why did I keep reading? Morbid curiosity. That’s right: I couldn’t believe how badly written, badly researched, and badly edited a book by a well-known author could be. In the end, it had a kind of freakish charm.  This tripe got published.

Lev Raphael books is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books of fiction and non-fiction.

Nazi Kommandant + His Jewish Prisoner = Romance?

There’s been a lot of controversy about Kate Breslin’s romance For Such a Time which brings together a blonde, blue-eyed Jewish woman and a Nazi concentration camp Kommandant. Seriously.

As the back cover describes him, he’s a man “of hidden depths and sympathies.”  Isn’t that special? This Jew-killer is ultimately redeemed and forgiven at the end, and the Jewish heroine converts.  It’s “inspirational.”

eDdtbDNhMTI=_o_inside-the-actors-studio-julia-louis-dreyfus-on-seinfeldThe hardcover’s book jacket describes the beauty as a “Jewess,” an outdated term many people find offensive.  There’s more.  For Such a Time earned a starred review from Library Journal and was nominated for two Romance Writers of America awards, prompting a protest letter to the RWA board from Jewish romance novelist Sarah Wendell.  Other romance novelists objected, too.

I hadn’t heard anything about Breslin’s novel or the controversy around it until Marion Stein sent me her thoughtful blog about it via Twitter, and I was curious to see what kind of book it was. Badly written was my first reaction. It’s quilted with clichés. A hand is squeezed gently, nostrils flare–you get the idea.

To me, that’s “automatic writing”: when an author just picks the most obvious words and images in the English language and doesn’t even bother coming up with anything that feels even vaguely original or interesting.  Writing that ordinary would usually be enough to turn me off.  But I wondered: did the book evoke the period authentically? Could I trust this author beyond the incongruity (or obscenity) of the basic situation to at least make the story real?  Would I read the book for that much, at least?

Well, no.

She goofed in her German early on.  I’ve studied German and traveled in Germany a lot, and when you ask someone if they understand, you don’t say Verstehen? If the relationship is formal, you say Verstehen Sie? (Do you understand?).  And if the relationship is informal, or you’re speaking to a child, an inferior, or a pet, it’s Verstehst du?  That’s pretty basic.  I’m assuming the author just googled the word “understand” and found verstehen without bothering to discover that it’s the infinitive. That also means her editor and copyeditor were sloppy, too.

Then there’s a major historical blunder when the heroine’s papers are supposedly stamped JUDE.  I’ve taught Holocaust literature more than once and immersed myself in histories and memoirs from the period for years. As far as I’ve been able to determine, and based on all my reading and research, ID papers of German and Austrian Jews were simply stamped J.

The author could have said that and explained it to the reader (“the dreaded J for Jew” or something like that).  Unless she didn’t know.  But getting back to Google, I found the ID papers below in seconds…..  And many more besides.  All stamped with a Gothic J.

Jude cardAs a reader and reviewer, when I see gross errors like that at the beginning of a book and it’s indifferently written to begin with, I’m not encouraged to go on. Not even out of morbid curiosity to see how the story plays out.  Maybe other readers don’t know or care about these errors.  But there are probably enough readers out there who do, and when it comes to writing historical fiction set in any period, sloppiness in small details in the opening of the book says a lot.  This is an author I can’t trust to get history right, whatever her story is.

The novel is supposedly a retelling of The Book of Esther.  Well, I’ve read and studied the Book of Esther, and been in synagogues when it’s read aloud at Purim, and this is no Book of Esther, as more than one commentator has explainedThe Book of Fester, maybe….

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

Summertime, and the Blogging is Easy….

I recently was reading comments on a blog about hard it is to blog along with everything else in a life and I thought, “Huh.”  I publish books; and I teach and mentor university students; and I’m married; and I travel; and I do radio reviewing; and I’m learning Swedish; and I’m planning a brand-new study abroad program; and I do readings from my books and keynote conferences and offer workshops; and I’m taking voice lessons.  Basically a full life.

Blogging still seems infinitely easier to me than when I worked for a handful of newspapers and one magazine as a freelance reviewer. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun and infinitely less stressful.

happy at pcI generally had no choice in my review assignments, with at least one book per week to review and often more.  I was constantly under deadline–my calendar was color coded for each news outlet.  I had to do revisions quickly and efficiently.  And sometimes I had to “turn” a book in 24 hours.  That is, read and write a well-crafted, literate, punchy review of anywhere up to 1,000 words.  Pressure mounted if an author was on tour or I had to do an interview.

Vintage-Frustrated-WriterCompared to that, blogging is like making a cup of coffee on my Braun one-cup machine.  Or walking the dog.  It’s easy.  The pressure I feel around blogging isn’t to produce and fast, it’s the typical writer’s demands: to get things right, to shape my ideas well, to avoid typos.  And thanks to doing it all myself, if I catch an error or somebody else does, I can correct that ASAP.  Likewise, if an idea occurs to me for restructuring, or if I want to make even minor changes, Boom.

But best of all, I’m my own boss.  I make my own schedule.  I choose my own subjects and timetable.  And I like my working environment.  🙂

I once had a book editor at a newspaper who blithely said, “I’m not much of a book person.”  Don’t ask me how this individual landed the job. That editor didn’t want me to review books that were in any way under the radar, but mainly the books that everybody already knew were out there or about to be published.  In other words, the books you couldn’t avoid seeing or hearing about: the best sellers.  That worked my last nerve.  Did the world really need more coverage of Stephen King?

But even worse, this editor had the perverse habit of cutting out the positive lines from a review and making it sound overly negative, or axing the negative and making it sound overly positive.  Content meant nothing to her, neither did style–and I crafted my reviews carefully to be balanced, so I was irritated. Finally, I had to write “defensively.”  I had to figure out how to write reviews that were what I began to think of as “armored”–incapable of being cut by this nimrod.  It worked, but it was exhausting.

That was the worst part of freelancing–working for people who could be difficult.  When I’m even remotely difficult, you know what? I stop writing and–you guessed it–make a cup of coffee or take the dog for a walk.  Or both.

Westie-terrier-by-Jeffrey-Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, a Gilded Age Romance, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

Authors: Don’t Let Reviewers Hold You Hostage

Unpublished authors imagine that once they are published, life will be glorious. That’s because they haven’t thought much about bad reviews. Every author gets them, and sometimes they’re agonizing.

123rf frustration laptop over head123rf frustration laptop over headAs a published, working author, you learn to live with the reality of bad reviews in different ways. You can stop reading them. You can have someone you trust vet them for you and warn you so that nasty splinters of prose don’t lodge in your brain. You can leave town or stay off the grid when your book comes out.

Hell, you can be perverse and break open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a dreadful review. Why not? Or if you’re a mystery author, you can have fun with a bad review and kill the reviewer. Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to murder. Fictional defamation, degradation, and despoliation can be satisfying, too.  But getting captured by a review is not healthy.

I remember a Salon piece of close to 3,000 words (seriously!) by a novelist who complained that Janet Maslin killed his novel in the New York Times. Killed? No critic has that power. But Maslin did trash his book. It happens. She also made a gross mistake about his book in her review. That happens, too. One reviewer claimed that my second novel focused on a theme that it didn’t remotely touch, which meant she was probably confusing it with another book of mine.  Reviewers get sloppy all the time.  Sleepy too, I bet….

sleepingstudenty_LargeThe Salon piece was disturbing and at times painful — but not just because of Maslin’s error. It opened with the author describing how he moaned on his couch, face down, while his wife read and paraphrased the bad review, and her having to admit that Maslin dissed the book as “soggy.”

The author teaches creative writing and had published three previous books, so you’d think he would try to set a better example for his students. Instead, while he admitted he was lucky to have been in the Times at all, he focused on his misery and even shared that he’d previously thought of Maslin as a ghost friend because she gave his first book a great review. That was super creepy.

I’ve published twenty-five books and I read as few of my reviews as possible. Why? Because I’ve learned more about my work from other authors through their books, conversations, or lectures than I have from reviews. I don’t look to reviews for education, validation or approbation. I hope they’ll help with publicity, but I’ve seen people get raves in the New York Times without any impact on sales.

More importantly, we authors shouldn’t let our self-esteem be held hostage by the Janet Maslins of journalism, and we should try not to over-estimate their importance or expect them to stroke our egos. Bad reviews? Ignore them along with the good ones, and keep writing.

How do you deal with bad reviews?  Have you ever felt trapped like the writer who wrote the Salon piece?

Lev Raphael is the author of the mystery Hot Rocks and 24 other books in genres from memoir to biography.

Closed-Minded Reviewers

A common complaint among indie authors is that it’s hard to get their books reviewed, no matter how well written, edited, and produced they are.

But reviewer prejudice is nothing new.  Take a look at Best Books of 2014 lists.  The one from the New York Times is typical: ten books, and only is from an independent press. Back when I reviewed crime fiction for the Detroit Free Press, I watched as my colleagues around the country routinely ignored trade paperback originals and books from small houses like Bitter Lemon and City Lights.  Independent presses and university presses still struggle to get their books reviewed.

I saw this myself in my own writing career when I moved my mystery series from a large New York firm to an independent press: the number of reviews my books got shrunk dramatically when I appeared in trade paperback vs. hardcover.  You’d think my being a reviewer, too, might have made a difference.  It didn’t.

Too many reviewers still seem to think that big press = quality.  That makes me laugh.  I’ve just read books in a row from major new York houses with gross typos all the way through: missing words, words stuck together without a space between them, and a whole host of basic errors that should never have seen their way into print.  This happens often enough to make me think that copy-editing is no longer high priority for many New York house houses; getting product out there is.

Too many reviewers, whether in print or on sites like Salon, seem to instinctively reach for the big press books.  It’s less work, but it reveals prejudice and a lack of imagination.  It’s also self-indulgent.  When I was at the Free Press, with with hundreds of books coming to me every year, I felt I was doing my readers a disservice by not digging deeper into those piles to find books they might never hear of or see otherwise.  And it was always exciting to discover a writer I didn’t know and could champion from my corner of the reviewing world.  As a writer myself, I looked for these treasure that would make my own writing life richer and found them just as often in places other reviewers ignored.

Man-Reading3Lev Raphael is the author of Book Lust! (Essays for Book Lovers) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  Check out the trailer here.

Why Are So Many Reviewers Careless and Clueless?

I confess. Even though I’m an author, I did go over to The Dark Side years ago and I’ve done hundreds of book reviews for newspapers, magazines, radio shows, and on line.

I’ve always tried to be fair and to avoid spoilers; I’ve always been scrupulous about getting my facts straight. But over the years I’ve had to put up with many reviewers who’ve been careless and just plain wrong when reviewing a book of mine, and it’s irritating. I’m not talking about reviewers who don’t like a book for one reason or another, but reviewers who just plain goof. Here are just a few examples.

A Booklist reviewer said that my novel The German Money dealt with a theme it didn’t remotely touch. I was lucky enough to know one of the Booklist editors and complained. He agreed, he apologized, and he changed the review on line, but the print review couldn’t be altered. I’m convinced the reviewer only skimmed my book and was thinking of another title of mine.

Then there was the Publishers Weekly reviewer who never even bothered to count how many mysteries there were in my Nick Hoffman series and published a review in which the number was off. That’s just plain sloppy and it’s happened more than once with other reviewers. Of course I wondered how carefully those reviewers even read the books if they got something so basic wrong.

A Michigan newspaper reviewer once criticized my narrator for misusing the word “access” when he supposedly should have used “excess.” Well, my narrator Nick Hoffman was an English professor and knew what he was saying.  He used “access” correctly in the sentence the reviewer didn’t understand; he was talking about an outburst of feeling. A quick check of a dictionary–physical or on line–would have helped the reviewer avoid making a mistake in print. It would also have expanded her vocabulary.

The latest example of a clodpole mishandling one of my books is the online reviewer who couldn’t even read the cover of my 25th book correctly. It’s clearly subtitled a novel of suspense, but this nimrod criticized it for violating the rules of a mystery. The only response to someone who doesn’t fully appreciate the difference between the structure of a mystery and the structure of a suspense novel is a head smack.

Head-smack

Oh, and a blog.  🙂

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about militarized police, stalking and gun violence, and 24 other books in a wide range of genres which you can explore at his web site: http://www.levraphael.com.

Did George Bush Really Write That Book About His Father?

All over the country, newspaper reviewers are wasting space reviewing George Bush’s biography about his father. Whether they pan it or praise it, they’ll say over and over, as Michiko Kakutani recently did in The New York Times, things like “he writes–” or “he says–”

Does he?

I reviewed for the The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Report and other print outlets for well over a decade, but I avoided celebrity-authored bios or memoirs for a simple reason. They were almost never written by the “authors,” but compiled from tape recorded interviews, ramblings, or notes and written by a professional ghost writer. I learned this early on in my own publishing career when one writer friend told me she had been asked to do a best selling author’s memoir, and another told me what he was ghosting.

In my view, when reviewers pretend that’s not happening, they makes themselves complicit in the fiction that these celebrities have actually written the book that flaunts their name, a book they’ve gotten huge advances for.

Bush wrote a book about his father? Have people forgotten what a juvenile attitude this man has about books?

Back when he was President, he and his senior advisor Karl Rove acted liked they were in elementary school, competing with each other to see who could read more books per year. Bush won, of course, supposedly reading ninety-five books yearly for three years straight, which is close to what I used to read as a professional reviewer. And of course his consigliere swore that Bush “loves books, learns from them, and is intellectually engaged by them.”

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Truly engaged readers can’t stop talking about books they enjoy, and sometimes even books they dislike. But given his love of books, it’s strange that nobody ever reported Bush discussing a book with them, anywhere. At meetings of world leaders, the President was widely known to chat only about his colleagues’ flights and if they were able to sleep on the plane. He never brought up books that he supposedly had read (like Team of Rivals) when that would have been a perfect opportunity, especially if his favorite topics were supposedly history and biography.

The only proof we had that he was reading steadily was testimony from his personal friend Karl Rove, just as the only proof we have that he wrote this new book is his name on the cover.

But the saddest part of the book race Bush ran with his crony was that reading sounded like a real burden, otherwise why compete in the first place, and in such a bizarre way? Rove reported that “We kept track not just of books read, but also the number of pages and later the combined size of each book’s pages–its ‘Total Lateral Area.’ ” So the number and size of pages apparently meant as much to Rove and Bush as what was on them. Maybe more?

41: A Portrait of My Father is only 304 pages with the Acknowledgments and Index starting on p. 277, and physically it’s on the smaller side for a political hardcover: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches. By their own strange standard, this new book doesn’t score very high, does it?

BTW, Michiko Kakutani is one of my least favorite reviewers, and this bit of praise in her review has to be one of the smarmiest things she’s written in a long time:

“As for Mr. Bush’s descriptions of the West Texas world that greeted him and his parents in the 1950s, they are evocative in a way that attests to his painterly eye. “We lived briefly at a hotel and then moved into a new 847-square-foot house on the outskirts of town,” he recalls. “The neighborhood was called Easter Egg Row, because the developers had chosen vibrant paint colors to help residents tell the houses apart. Our Easter egg at 405 East Maple was bright blue.”

Really? That’s what one of the country’s most influential book reviewers considers evocative writing? You have to have a painterly eye to notice the colors of the houses around you? How is Bush being “evocative” if the image was handed to him by the neighborhood’s actual name? He’s just reporting what was there.

A passage like that makes you wonder. Is the reviewer angling for an invitation to a Bush party? Desperate to say something positive? Or just running out of steam? Maybe a bit of all three….

Lev Raphael’s 25th book Assault With a Deadly Lie is a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence and the militarization of our police forces.