opinions · reading life

So Many Books, So Little Time; Or, Why I Need Bad Book Reviews

I’ve been thinking about something Evelyn Goldman posted to her book blog weeks ago. In her post, “A Review of Reviews,” she writes that posting negative reviews about books makes her feel guilty. I can understand the feeling. Like Goldman, I too recognize the work that went into a book. Authors can labor for years and face countless rejections before their work is published. It seems like we book reviewers are taking potshots at their children from the safety of our position as readers. But…I like seeing negative reviews. I actually need them.

Beatrix Whistler

Being a librarian and a voracious reader besides, I need to know as much as possible about what’s being published. But because I don’t have an infinite budget (either at work or personally), I can’t afford to take a chance on duds or offensively bad books. I want books that will challenge readers (like Dream Country), entertain readers (like The Nutmeg Tree), or help them escape the mundane world (like The Night Circus).

So, I read negative book reviews. That said, I ignore reviews on Amazon, for two reasons. A lot of them are purchased, for one. For another, a lot of readers don’t know how to write a useful negative review. What I want most in a negative book review is a reader giving a clear reason why they didn’t like the book. Goldman, in her post, gave a clear reason why she didn’t like a book. The book in question triggered her. Other readers might take issue with racism, sexism, or homophobia in a book. Yet others might be bothered by poor writing, uneven pacing, lack of character development, or other writing problems. I completely ignore reviews that don’t explain why they didn’t a book—if they just say a book sucks. I also ignore negative reviews that were given purely to bully an author.

If a reviewer gives a clear reason for why they didn’t like a book, then I can make my own decision about whether or not to take up a book. I can compare the reviewers tastes to my own. As Ranganathan says, “Every book its reader.” Not every book is going to be a hit with every reader. So, if a reviewer says they are triggered by a book’s content, but I’m not, I might take a chance. I might also skip books with racism, sexism, or homophobia unless it serves a purpose in the book. If a reviewer points out multiple flaws with the writing, I want to know so that I can look for something better.

The point of all this is, I want to know if a book is not good before I waste my time. I’d much rather read books that I have a good chance of enjoying. There are too many books out there to waste my time on a bad one.

In praise of... · opinions

In Praise of…Messy Mysteries

Mysteries tend to follow a very established arc. More modern mysteries tend to color outside the lines a bit, but all of the plots tend to meet up in the end and all of the loose ends were tied up in a more or less neat bow. Red herrings spice things up. Suspects drop in and out of view. Readers usually have a fair shot at working out what happened, unless the detective withholds a clue like Agatha Christie’s used to…or it turns out that it’s a messy mystery.

Artist unknown
(Image via Pinterest)

Last August, I read my first messy mystery: Lightning Men, by Thomas Mullen. Ordinarily, the crime is committed by a single criminal or a conspiracy. But in what I’ve come to think of as messy mysteries, it’s impossible to map what happened to one of Vonnegut’s plot graphs. In Lightning Men, for example, there isn’t just one crime. There are multiple crimes that intersect and make things even more difficult for the detectives. Where we can see traditional mysteries following a graphable arc, I tend to see the messy ones as Venn diagrams. One criminal’s act bumps into another criminal’s, forcing them to act and possibly bump into a third criminal’s subplot. Each bump makes it harder to track motives and evidence—sometimes to the point where I marvel at any detective’s efforts make sense of the tangles.

When I read Lightning Men, I was frustrated because I couldn’t force the pieces of the puzzle to fit. It wasn’t long, however, before I started to appreciate the realism. Real criminals don’t have a clear field to commit their crimes. Real detectives are often working on several cases at the same time. It makes sense that mysteries would get messy all the time. I understand why mysteries authors don’t go this route. This kind of mystery must be hell to create. And I image that publishers are reluctant to greenlight messy mysteries because a lot of readers will give up on mysteries with so many moving parts. Speaking for myself, I’m glad this sub-genre—a new genre-let—exists.

If you’re interested in reading some messy mysteries, here are some recommendations in addition to Lightning Men:

I take issue · opinions

Readers Read For Joy; Or, In Which I Take Issue with Howard Jacobsen

I suppose that Howard Jacobson’s recent interview with BBC Radio 3 make a change from authors lamenting the end of literature. Instead of blaming the internet, Jacobson blames readers. We just don’t have the attention for “serious literature.” Sian Cain writes:

Addressing a question from an audience member who reported feeling pressurised by publishers to write a “page-turner”, Jacobson said: “Tell them to go to hell. You describe the tragic state we are in. When someone tells me they couldn’t put my novel down, I feel they haven’t read what I’ve done. If you read me, you’re going to want to put me down … what you’ve said encapsulates the problem at the moment.

I fully realize that authors have to walk a thin line that balances their creative expression and interests and writing something that readers want. Some writers strike that balance very well. I am entertained and enlightened by writers like Barbara Kingsolver, Rachel Kushner, Daryl Gregory, Anthony Marra, Ursula Le Guin, and so many others. When I read Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name, I…didn’t get either of those things. I’m sure there are readers who like Jacobson’s work. I’m not one of them. I could write a rant about Jacobson. I’m really tempted to.

Tullia Socin

What interests me (rather than insults me) is Jacobson’s comment: “Here’s the challenge: how do we educate the reader, so they don’t want to want it? I’ve never understood why anyone wants to read those books. ‘Who committed the murder?’ Who the hell cares?” To me, this is a misunderstanding of why readers read. Sure we want challenges every now and then. Some of us take on Ulysses (not me, though) because it’s the Everest of books. But what most of us want is to be transported. We read for fun. I’ve had so many people tell me they don’t read because they had books pushed on them when they were in school that they’d didn’t like, didn’t understand, and just plain didn’t work for them. They were never given a book that gave them joy.

So when I see authors say that they want readers to work, to put books down because of the sheer labor of reading the book, I’m not surprised that writers like Jacobson are seeing their numbers dwindle. Authors shouldn’t be required to write “page turners,” as Jacobson sneeringly call them. But I do think that authors should keep their audiences in mind. After all, how will they communicate their great ideas to readers if those readers are not tempted to pick up their books? Books that don’t engage readers are doomed to gather dust.


Lost for Words About Words; Or, Some Thoughts About Reviewing Translations

I’ve been thinking about translation since a kind reader asked what I thought about a collection of short stories translated from Russian. Then I read a philosophical review of a book about literary translation. The serendipity makes it clear that I must write something about translations.

I like reading translated books. Not only do they give me a chance to visit somewhere I’ve never been, they also put me inside the mind of someone who talks about the world and their situation in a completely different way. But I usually don’t comment on translations—other than tagging them and mentioning the translator—unless it was really bad or notable for some reason. My excuse is what can I say about translations when I’m not familiar with the source material? I know some German (not near enough to actually read it). I can remember a scrap of phrases in other languages*, because I like to collect words.

First century Pompeiian fresco.
(Image via Vroma.org)

The most obvious thing to say about a translation is that it’s accurate. Without knowing the source material, that comment is out. What’s left? As far as I know, the biggest existential question for translators circle around capturing the meaning and the feeling of the original. Capturing the actual meaning (where possible) can lead to lifeless prose. Preserving the feeling, rhythm, etc. of the original can mean taking liberties with the story. This is part of the reason why people keep re-translating books like The Iliad. There’s enough wiggle room between fidelity and fluidity that translators can put their own stamp on the text.

I’m in awe of translators. I’m also a little bit jealous, because they’re fluent in at least two languages and have access to more stories than I do. But I’m in awe of their gumption in taking a story and bringing it into another language. How much thought and effort it must take! I’m reminded of Born to Kvetch, in which Michael Wex explains the cultural, religious, and historical depth of Yiddish. To try and be completely accurate when translating Yiddish, a translator would have to put in so many footnotes to explain there reference that the book would be a complete (and unreadable) doorstop. I’ve read translations from Yiddish and Russian (by Jewish writers) and I can only wonder what I’m missing because the translators of those books stuck more to fluidity, so that the books would actually be bearable for readers.

As a reader, I tend to prefer translations where the translator worked to make the story feel right in the target language. I’ve come across translations that have a distinct clunkiness, with word choices that read oddly or sentences with weird word order. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen very often. When a translation is good, I think, the translation work is invisible. I know that there is a barrier between me and the original words the author put down, but I don’t notice in good translations.

Thinking about this for a week has led me to resolve to be better about at least remarking on the translation in the future. If I forget, please remind me in the comments.

* One of my absolute favorite non-work things to do at work is to answer in a different language every time a particular colleague calls me. Bless caller ID.


Haven’t I Seen You Before?; Or, Conflicting Thoughts on Using Established Characters

Reading massive amounts of book reviews every week makes it easier to spot tropes. Some of these tropes are like catnip to me. Books about weird libraries or bookstores? I’m in. Sometimes, though, there are tropes that will not only put me off the book but also get me to stop reading the review. One of those tropes is when authors take an established character created by another author or a historical figure and make them the protagonist of their own books. This trope does not include authorized series continuations. What I’m talking about is when authors take a character and drop them into a new setting.

Most of the time, this drives me nuts. It’s probably not fair to not give these new authors a chance. After all, Laurie R. King does a wonderful job with Sherlock Holmes in her Russell and Holmes series. But the problem is that there are so many authors who are resurrecting characters, especially Holmes, that it strikes me as very unoriginal. I think what bothers me about so many of these books is that the authors don’t always take advantage of the possibilities. Instead of gender flipping the characters (which has been done well) or using the characters to discuss issues of race or colonialism, for example, I mostly see authors just using them as a cut-and-paste protagonist. The unoriginally bothers me, but the wasted opportunity really bothers me.

But, so that this post isn’t completely negative, here are some great books where established characters get another chance to tread the boards in exciting new (to me) ways, in no particular order:

Two of the usual suspects: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, as drawn by Sidney Paget. (Image via Edge Hill University)

Boycott! Why I’m Not Buying Books from Amazon Anymore

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen more and more articles about the condition Amazon’s workers have to contend with while filling orders—alongside articles about Jeff Bezos’ astronomical wealth. Because I don’t think anyone should be that rich at the expense of their worker’s health and safety, I have decided that I will boycott Amazon from here on out.

I plan to buy my books from Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Half Price Books, or independent booksellers until Bezos changes his business’s practices. Anything else I might have purchased from them I will source from somewhere else.

It might not do much, but I hope that other readers will see this post and think about boycotting Amazon, too.


No Point of View; Or, Extended Thoughts about Witness Narrators

Since writing my review of The Butcher’s Daughter—and really since I finished reading Never Anyone But You—I’ve been thinking about my strongly negative reaction to how the narrators function. On the one hand, it seems wrong to complain about narrators who don’t tell us what they think about events. One could easily argue that it’s the reader’s job to come up with their own ideas. On the other hand—and the hand I tend to embrace here—reading about a narrator who functions solely as a witness is a hollow experience. It feels like reading half a book. Why use a first person narrator if that narrator never becomes a fully realized character?

Artist unknown (Image via Pinterest)

Let me go back to the first hand. Readers are supposed to come up with their own interpretations of what’s happening on the page. In fact, I get a kick out of unreliable narrators precisely because I like to tease out what really happened from the narrator’s account. Part of my problem with this witness narrator, who simply recounts what they see with little or no commentary, is that it seems like a clumsy way to replicate with a limited or omniscient third person narrator does with ease. Why insert a two-dimensional character in between the reader an events? Third person narrators get out of the way. The witness narrator just blocks the view.

On to the second hand, with the witness narrator standing between us and the events, we have to wonder about them. Who are they? What do they feel? What do they think? They’re a character; we have to figure out why they’re there. In the case of Never Anyone But You, I never really got a sense of our narrator other than that she was a fictional James Boswell. That narrator had more of an emotional life than the narrator of The Butcher’s Daughter, who seemed like a hugely disappointing missed opportunity. Both of these books could have had a bigger impact on me if it they had had third person narrators or if the narrators had been fully developed. One way or another, I wouldn’t have been left annoyed and puzzled.

Has anyone else encountered characters like these? Do you think I’m judging these narrators (and their creators) too harshly?