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.

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.

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.

 

 

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 I Quit Newspaper Reviewing and Became a Happier Writer

Ten years ago I stopped reviewing for the handful of newspapers and magazines I’d spent a decade freelancing for.  But I kept reviewing on several radio stations because I felt freer there and had more fun; eventually I also moved on line to Bibliobuffet.com and The Huffington Post.

I didn’t quit print reviewing because the deadlines wore me down.  I loved the discipline of writing well under pressure, seeing my work in print so quickly, and knowing people read it.

And I didn’t quit because I had a vision of the decline of print journalism.

My main reason for quitting was bad policy.

On radio, nobody hassled me about whether a book had come out that week, that month, or the month before–but print reviewing was very different.  One newspaper editor in particular was obsessed with “timeliness.”  Here’s what she meant:  I couldn’t, for example, review a book in December if its official publication date was in November. Why? Because by then it was old.

This struck me as ridiculous. Reviewing books isn’t like covering fast-breaking news stories. Why would readers think the way my editor(s) did? Especially when I was reviewing fiction? Why would readers care about publication dates?

Let’s be clear. Not every newspaper or magazine operates in this way, but those that do are extremely rigid in their boundaries, and that’s sad.   Books get lost; staffers at publishing houses fall ill and fall behind; sometimes they forget to send all the review copies out.  Books can reach the reviewers late for any number for reasons, but if that happens at one of these outlets, the author and the publisher are completely out of luck.

Reviews are a crucial part of a book’s success, even bad reviews, because they alert people to the book’s existence, and not everyone believes bad reviews anyway.  I’ve bought books precisely because a certain reviewer didn’t like them and I knew our tastes were very different.

I don’t miss living with that kind of rigidity at all.  And I feel sorry for all those authors whose books don’t get in under the wire to at least be considered for review.  The strict policy about publication dates is old-fashioned, idiotically restrictive, and doesn’t serve the interests of the reading public well at all.

I’m glad I don’t have to work with editors who are so inflexible and that I can share my excitement about a book whenever I discover it, because that’s the best part of being a writer-reviewer. The second best part is finding a book to review that also makes me a better writer and when that happens, it’s magical.

Lev Raphael’s books have been translated into fifteen languages, most recently Czech and Romanian.  His 25th book is a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and militarized police: Assault with a Deadly Lie.