Archive for March, 2011


I have stepped over an invisible boundary into an alternate reality I didn’t even know was there. Behind seven novels you’d think I would at least have suspected, but frankly I never paid much attention to my reviews.  I wrote books and the publisher did everything else, including getting them reviewed and then quoting the reviews in other reviews.  Somebody loved one of my books?  Great!  Somebody else (and this actually happened) complained that she had to read them with a dictionary?  Well, dictionaries are good, right?

But now, in addition to the scramble to get my backlist scanned and converted to countless incomprehensible formats that then require heroic levels of proofreading, I have a new book out there.  My backlist already has tons of reviews, but new-baby Bone Blind needs reviews of it’s own and will not get a peep out of anybody unless I acquire some knowledge of a strange new world.  Until this week I read the NYT Review of Books and the other traditional reviews, but never realized there’s a whole complex and fascinating book review system quite apart from the one with which I’m familiar.  It’s been around for years and is crawling with intelligent, bookish people; I just didn’t know about it.  So of course I had to research it to death, starting with a (subjective and slapdash – don’t quote these findings!) content analysis of the reviews themselves.

First, it’s important to point out that reviews by actual readers are now the “gatekeeper function” once served by the several “gates” of the traditional publishing sequence – agent to acquisitions editor to editorial board to editor to copy editor to professional reviewers.  At any step along that path a “gate” might crunch shut on a book’s spine, and it was all over. Dead book.  But with indie publishing there are no gates!  Anybody can publish anything, which is refreshing and chaotic, but leaves the reader-reviewer with a Sisyphean task – the sifting of an exponentially -increasing tsunami of books for those worth reading.  As never before, reader reviews are crucial.


And voilà! – there is an infrastructure for this.  Amazon, Goodreads, Shelfari, countless blogs and many other venues provide a bully platform from which readers may determine the fate of a book.  But how does it all work?  With stars!  One to five stars, accompanied by reasonable commentary, and a book will flourish or sicken.  It cannot perish, as of old, but a couple of one-star reviews can leave it forever gasping and febrile in a wasteland of apocalyptic ruin.

To make things worse, there are bandits, “trolls” who for no apparent reason spend their lives going from venue to venue giving toxic one-star reviews.  Why?  Who knows, but they’re there.  Recognize them by lack of any evidence that they’ve actually read the book. Then there are those nasty situations in which someone unwholesomely fond of an author covertly posts vile one-star reviews of the work of that author’s competitors or peers.  After a while the reviewing community catches on and alerts the server.  The posts are pulled, but the damage is, alas, done.

But lost in this shuffle of evil intent will be the legitimate one-star reviews, written by readers who absolutely loathe the book in question.  In my research I started with them, reading carefully for the gross data they contain.  Said data often is more telling of the reviewer than the book, but nonetheless useful.  “I don’t know why (author) has to use such dirty language,” lets you know somebody in the book will say “fuck” at some point.  Irrelevant unless by the time you get to the four-star reviews of the same book, you’re reading that “… (author) seems unable to distinguish between the speech patterns of widely varying characters, resulting in what sounds like 456 pages from a compendium of Anglo-Saxon terms connected to livestock breeding.  However, this in no way detracts from his brilliant depiction of…blahblahblah.”

One-stars are also likely to nail immediately and in graphic terms the fact that a book is a stealth religious diatribe, or composed of such atrocious spelling and grammar as to be unreadable, or just universally so stupid and awful as to insult the reading world with its very existence.  One-stars are popular with no one and serious reviewers routinely won’t review a book at all rather than give one, but the truth is – one-stars do not mess around.


Two-star reviews are almost as rare as the pariah one-stars, except under two sets of circumstances.  The first involves responses to the disappointing sequel to a first book that everybody loved, or the response of a reader who didn’t realize this book was a stand-alone and not the next in a series s/he was following.  Heartfelt bitterness there!  The second, and more interesting circumstance, is that in which a book has been hyped to high heaven and then failed the promise of the hype.  (What a relief – I do not have to worry about this!)  If The Witch of Harvest Hill (with great cover art featuring a beautiful young woman dressed in low-cut Puritan black doing something in a moonlit cornfield) got advance raves from Stephen King, Barack Obama and the Archangel Gabriel, plus a trailer on YouTube with a to-die-for soundtrack and voiceover by Matt Damon, and then turned out to be egregiously unspectacular – two stars.  The second star probably reflecting nothing more than that nobody wants to sink to the one-star level.  Especially when it would mean contradicting Stephen King.  But these two-stars tend to be detailed and cogent in their analyses, if only to justify being there at all.  I suggest reading two-star reviews before buying any book backed by a promotional budget equal to the national debt.

Another, rather peripheral two-star review seems to reflect an unspecific rancor toward the book’s genre, or its author, or something.  These often contain little or no text and may be dismissed as meaningless.  Perhaps they’re just trolls who are slightly less mean-spirited than the one-star trolls.


Not unusually there may be no three-star reviews at all on Amazon, more on Goodreads and Shelfari.  If present, they may be interesting for their tendency to rather personal analyses.  A reader whose Ph.D. dissertation entailed years of research on Virginia Woolf might assign three stars to an otherwise terrific book in which Woolf is inaccurately referenced, for example.  (I find this sort of thing captivating and would be likely to read the book in order to find all the inaccurate references, but that’s just me.)  Three-star is the realm of famous glitches that enjoy endless retelling by writers.  The jacaranda trees in Cleveland, cactus wrens nesting in Corpus Christi’s saguaro cacti, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s remarkable snake in “The Speckled Band” – a trained snake with the hearing of a mammal, who also likes milk!  More often, a three-star review will suggest the widely-read reviewer’s weariness with standard plot devices while nonetheless lauding the author’s skill at using them.  “The attraction between Penelope and Seth, the brooding fireman who rescued her cat, seemed like every other romance I’ve ever read, but I was carried along by Seth’s complex relationship with his aunt who runs an orphanage in Sarajevo.”

Three-star reviews may be mined for specific reviewers’ reactions to specific material, but are usually just where they are – in the middle.


Ah, now we’re getting to the good stuff.  I particularly like four-star reviews because they’re most like the old, professional reviews to which I’m accustomed.  Four and five-stars tend to follow the traditional pattern – intro, with protagonist’s name, reason for involvement in the story (she’s a cop/neurosurgeon/sociopath), and setting, followed by a short recap of the plot.  At roughly this point the four-star reviewer will insert the issue which resulted in the shaving off of that coveted fifth star.  “While I’ve never been to Cluj-Napoca, (author’s) obvious intimacy with the city and with the life of artist Nicolae Grigorescu transported me to another time and place.  The inclusion of Romanian folklore added color and depth to this compelling tale of art restoration, but a forbidden boundary was crossed when Magda began to believe in the ‘entity’ existing for centuries in the catacombs beneath the city.  A Spectre in Paint tries too hard to meld the rational world to a specious supernatural one.”  This will be followed by a glowing conclusion urging everyone to read the book anyway.

A four-star review indicates a good, competent book, but offers juicy additional information about its flaws.  These may be flaws only in the eyes of a particular reviewer, or may be generally obvious.  In the fictional review above, it’s clear that the reviewer is not attracted to supernatural/folkloric themes in serious literary fiction, but hey – I am!  I’d buy this book in a second, eternally longing as I do for intelligent, grown-up literary novels in which the “uncanny” is treated seriously. But if the book got its four rather than five stars because “professional editing could have diminished a daunting, 783-page read to more manageable levels,” I might get it for my Kindle, but I wouldn’t buy the book.  Too big, too heavy.  Four-stars do not have to do a murderously hard sell and so can admit dimensions of honesty, ambiguity and charming reviewer pique that make for a fun and informative read.  However – alert here! – at the four and five-star levels there is a rigid convention involving Niceness.

If at one-star a reviewer may say, “I despised this piece of sloppily-written, puerile crap and ran it through the shredder for use as hamster bedding,” four and five-star reviewers cannot be so blunt and must struggle for a certain level of erudition.  Four-star may say of the same book, “An intriguing story hampered by technical and grammatical problems which in no way obscure its piquancy…” while five-star will fall back on far-flung constituencies and insist, “Highly recommended for wheat germ enthusiasts and those whose first language is not English!”  The Niceness convention is why it’s a good idea to read the one and two-stars, as they often function as translating devices for the four and five-stars.

But the most significant function of the four-star is its realistic buffering of the five-stars.  With any extremely popular, mega-selling book, I suggest skipping the five-stars altogether and going straight to the fours, wherein will be found equally enthusiastic analyses that nevertheless don’t gush and also don’t shy away from acknowledging a book’s inevitable imperfections.

But why, you may ask, would a reviewer give five stars to a bad book she then has to disguise in tortuous verbiage?  Well, the reviewer may be in thrall to the publisher and paid to do exactly that, or may be a supportive friend of the author trying to help, or just one of those wonderful people who believe in brightening up all corners.  Which brings us to….


The importance of five-star reviews cannot be overstated, although their cachet is statistical and entirely unrelated to content.  For a book to thrive, at least fifty per cent of its (many) reviews really ought to be be five-star, with four-stars accounting for another thirty-five per cent.  This is not negotiable and remains uninfluenced by variables such as whether or not the book is all that good.  A huge stack of five-star reviews is simply essential, like having a liver.  It means nothing more than that a lot of people liked the book a lot, which will encourage other people to think, “Okay, I’ll like it, too.”  We are social animals, intensely sensitive to social stimuli.

The downside of the five-star frenzy is that the actual reviews can do no more than rave, which renders them indistinguishable from each other.  You only need to read one; the others will sound exactly the same.  Thus there is no point in a reviewer crafting a well thought-out five-star essay about an excellent book, since the Niceness convention achieves its zenith here – a five-star book is perfect!  It has no flaws, will disappoint no one in any regard.  This is a crying shame, since the intelligent, bookish, exhaustively-read people who take the time to write these reviews with no recompense whatever, are quite able to assign five stars within a literary context (the individual book) that cannot possibly seem perfect to everyone.  The reviewers, having read thousands of books, possess the advantage of a wide field and can say with authority that this nice-vampire-teenage-romance is superior to the thirty-six similar books s/he has read in these regards despite its failures in these, and so is deserving of five stars.  The reviewer’s experiential base is not allowed employment in the five-star, which makes the whole endeavor, brutally essential as it is, an exercise in number-crunching, not book reviewing.

There appears to be no way around this, although I wonder what would happen if reviewers giving five stars just went ahead and revealed a few problems inherent in the books, within their reviews.  The star assignment wouldn’t change, just the content of the review, which would then be similar to both four-star reviews and traditional reviews.  At the very least it would make those “best” reviews readable, give them character.

Finally it’s necessary to acknowledge the amazing devotion to books and the experience of reading embodied in the many who, unpaid and unsung, care enough to write reviews at all.  Thanks, reviewers!  A technological shift that’s changing the publishing industry forever has also laid a huge responsibility on your shoulders.  You’re doing a great job.

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Lizard Crème

lizardI finally got around to reading Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing last week and am still laughing.  But she made me think.  Nora Ephron and I are the same age, and she’s writing about being old. Ye gods!  Having arrested at a mental age of eighteen, I sort of missed out on that awareness, but was spurred by her observations to start looking around.

And she may be right. As the Boomer generation reaches for its first Social Security checks, countless industries, salivating in anticipation, are already in high gear.  I hadn’t quite made the connection, but in my computer is state-of-the-art spyware that provides incessant reassurances:  “SpyMassacre has identified and savagely smashed 10,472 pointless and irritating ads since dawn, PST.”  Yet every day at least one Viagra ad sneaks into my email, some even providing “directions for use” that keep me and the neighbors snickering until well after lunch.   These advertising people cast a wide net.  And, I now see, with good reason.  Even the least vain among us (and I’m not one of them) are prone to that single moment of weakness in which being, or at least looking, less old sounds like fun.

In Southern California where I live most of the time, aging is illegal, a social sanction I’ve managed to ignore by going right ahead and aging without paying much attention.  But I now see the task as a challenge, since aging is basically a second adolescence (“What is happening to my body?) only without all the future perks adolescents can anticipate.  Perks like getting a driver’s license, a job that pays more than minimum wage, and arthritis.  People my age already have arthritis, a discomfort only made worse by having to carry seventy-two pounds of Medicare insurance promotions in from the mailbox every day.  These ads feature thirty-year-old models whose hair has been spray-painted silver.  They are photographed zealously playing tennis and dancing in nightclubs, secure in the knowledge that they’ve selected from eight thousand incomprehensible options exactly the insurance program that will cover both her gall bladder surgery and his off-formulary gout medication.

In an article sent to me by a friend on the heels of Ephron’s book, a comedian writing for the New York Times had this to say about the elderly:  “They look like lizards.”

I saw a pattern emerging, but before racing to the nearest mirror I had to ask myself if I fit the term, “elderly.”    The word has such a quaint ring, calling to mind lap robes and frail, spotted old hands struggling to open eight thousand Medicare insurance ads.  I was sure I didn’t have a lap robe, and only last week I single-handedly opened a jar of mango chutney sealed with such force it could have survived intact from the tomb of Amenhotep.  Still, where I come from we face facts.  So okay, I’m probably “elderly” despite having no lap robe, or for that matter, lap, although that’s another story.

But before approaching the mirror I went outside to look at an actual lizard, just for the comparison.  There are lots of them in California, unimaginatively named “Western Fence Lizard” because this is as far west as you can go without drowning, and all they do is stand around on fences executing an endless series of pushups.  California lizards are fit lizards.  They’re also chinless, beady-eyed and the color of fences.

Back inside I looked in the mirror and saw not a regular lizard, but a pink lizard with hair wearing glasses.  A lizard who would rather read the back of a cereal box than do a single pushup.  A lizard with laugh lines in which the Donner party could get lost (again) and crow’s feet with many more toes than crows really have.  But so what.  As long as you’ve got your health and all that, I thought.  I taped a printout of my last lab report, cheerfully telling me that I barely have blood pressure at all, over the mirror, and went shopping so I could stop thinking about words like “old, aging” and “elderly.

I planned to shop for sensible things like paper towels, clever kitchen gadgets and maybe one of those earth-friendly magazines with articles about how to repair your cracked foundation slab in one afternoon with only a quarter-ton of oatmeal.  But once inside the big-box store, the cosmetics section (roughly the size of New Hampshire) emitted a magnetic pull.  A veritable siren call.  One entire aisle was devoted to… anti-aging crèmes!

Ghosts of Nora Ephron and that comedian in the New York Times pushed me forward toward a number of options rivaled only by the number of possible Medicare insurance plans.  Thousands of crèmes, salves and lotions in tasteful little jars, tubes and aerosol cans called seductively from tiers of four shelves on both sides of the aisle.  “Flawless skin in ten days!”  “Eliminate wrinkles overnight!”  “Lose ten years in one application!”

I quickly concluded that in addition to ten years, I could easily lose the equivalent of a mortgage payment as well.  One shimmery little item half the size of a baby-food jar promised an end to lip-creasing and went for $80.  A teensy metallic lavender tube containing both alpha and beta hydroxy acids (to dissolve those unsightly crow’s feet?) was $63.98.  I could purchase something made with mud from the Dead Sea, honey from Hungarian bees or, if I read the package correctly and maybe I didn’t since it was in Old High Spanish, desiccated scorpion spleen.  All for less than a year’s tuition at Harvard.

The store was closing by the time I found something to try – a low-ticket knockoff of a generalist product guaranteed to “produce overnight results!”  By the time I got home the fence lizards had all gone wherever lizards go at night, but I smirked in the general direction of the fence anyway.  By tomorrow the lizards would not mistake me for a huge, weird cousin who defies centuries of evolution by refusing to do pushups.

But they did anyway.

I slathered on the crème that night and by the next day I looked less like a lizard than like Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”  If anything, I looked older than Bette Davis, who is actually dead.  Fine creases I previously couldn’t even see without my glasses stood out in high relief.  My face looked like the topographical map in a department of agriculture report entitled “Desert Gully Erosion: Two Thousand Years of History.”

Panicked, I called my friend January, who after twenty-eight months in a drought-stricken African village with the Peace Corps is an expert on facial repair products.

“You must have accidentally picked up the stuff fourteen-year-olds buy to look older in fake i.d. photos so they can get into bars and sexually-explicit movies,” she said.

I checked.  That wasn’t it.  I was simply destined to look my age.  Which is eighteen only on the inside.

But I try to avoid conspicuous waste, so I took the rest of my anti-aging crème outside and smeared it on the fence where the lizards like to work out. Up, down, up, down, their little reptilian throats soaking up alpha-hydroxies and molecules from the Dead Sea with every push.

By late afternoon they didn’t look any different, but I’m pretty sure one of them waved to me.  Without question, it was a cousinly wave.


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Peter GomesLast night (February 28, 2011) a black, gay, Republican Baptist minister I never met and author of two bestselling books I haven’t read, died of a heart attack in Boston.  His name was Peter Gomes and the world is a lesser place in his absence.

I taught for a semester one fall at Harvard, and Gomes was the minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church, although I never set foot in the place.  He was also Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister, teaching courses of which I was totally unaware.  I was too delighted with my gothic classroom, my interesting students and the leaves falling on Harvard Yard to think about anything else.  I had always dreamed of being there, teaching and walking through those leaves in boots and a long wool skirt.  Is there an American English major who doesn’t dream of teaching about books and writing at Harvard?  We all have alternate identities, paths not taken but still open to possibility, and that was one that I got to live for a time.  Going to church there never occurred to me.

But one Sunday morning, on a whim, I drove alone from Boston to Salem in a rainstorm.  (The idea was to tour the House of Seven Gables, which turned out to be closed.  I’d been there before when the tours were full, and many times subsequently, and I still haven’t toured the House of Seven Gables.  Maybe I’ll make it this year.)  Driving slowly in the rain, I fooled around with the radio, looking for the Boston classical station, but the weather was messing up reception and I accidentally landed on some churchy-sounding music.  Well okay, I like hymns and sang along.  But then the music stopped and I realized I was listening to a sermon.  Not okay, I don’t like sermons.  Usually.

So I surfed up and down the dial for a few minutes, but found nothing suitable for a rainy Sunday morning drive, and drifted back to the sermon station.  I was about to stick a tape in the deck (It would have been Enya…) when I actually heard Peter Gomes, and was hooked.  I didn’t know who he was, didn’t know Harvard broadcast services live from Memorial Church.  But I knew this was one fantastic preacher!

He was talking about Job, but not the usual riches-to-rags/disease/humiliation-and-back-to-riches story.  No, his reference was to another part of the story, an unfamiliar part in which God basically tells Job to quit whining.  “There are monstrous clashes of good and evil against which your little problems don’t even make it up to insignificant in comparison.  So shut up, Job; you’re being a self-absorbed, obnoxious, tedious pest.”

These are not Peter Gomes’ words, but my paraphrasing of them; his were eloquent, educated, wry and exactly what I needed to hear right then (or for that matter, at any other time).  He was brilliant, knew his material intimately and lectured with an intellectual’s engaging passion.  He didn’t insist that anybody “believe” as he did, didn’t proselytize, couldn’t have cared less. He just wanted to tell a story.  And could he ever!  I became his fan in that fifteen-minute sermon.

What I didn’t do was then race out to become a Baptist or even go to hear him in person during the remainder of that stay in Boston.  But I thought about him and later followed him on the Internet, occasionally reading his sermons and enjoying little personal facts about him that turned up.  Ordained a Baptist, he loved all things Anglican and wore a Roman collar sometimes, dressing for state occasions in a red gown and old-fashioned “preaching bands” or “Geneva bands” (see pic) now worn only by British clergy and barristers.  When a conservative Harvard publication released a virulently anti-gay issue, Peter Gomes stood on the steps of Memorial Church and defined himself a gay man, later pointing out that he flatly refused to be confined by any of the categories to which others might assign him – conservative, Baptist, gay, or African American.  He was all of those, but none of those was all he was. He held High Tea regularly in his home, officiated at the inaugurations of Republican presidents and then became a Democrat in order to vote for Deval Patrick, Massachusetts’ black governor.  He was a character, a brilliant, warm, intellectually generous man with a deft wit who marched to his own drum straight to the edge of the grave and on over.  I admire such people.  I admired him.

And his death makes me think.  What can I do to acknowledge the impact of one sermon by this remarkable man, heard on a car radio years ago in the rain somewhere between Boston and Salem?  His memorial service at Harvard on Thursday (March 3, 2011) will include addresses by articulate notables who knew and loved him, and I’ll probably read them on the Internet.  But that’s just passive, observer behavior.

So I’ll do this.  First, for anyone interested in traditional Christianity, I urge the reading of Peter Gomes’ books – The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, and The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need.  I haven’t read them, but despite the fundy-sounding titles I’m confident that they’re excellent, scrupulously researched and inspiring.  And second, I will keep writing to the sound of my own drum, not to the sound of what’s trendy or hot or happens to be selling.  I doubt that I could do that anyway, but the “ka-ching” of others’ financial success is a siren song to which no writer is deaf.   And third, no whining, ever.

Bye, Peter.  Great sermon!

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