Navigating the holiday season in this company town

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The next month is an ongoing series of office-neighborhood-networking parties celebrating the holidays and year’s end. Even for party animals who consider small talk a sport, parties this season in the Washington area have an underlying current of uncertainty. We are accustomed to the quadrennial cycle of presidential elections and the anticipated turnover of jobs, real estate and alliances.  Just like everything else this year, different doesn’t quite capture the climate.

Washington is a town where the second question asked after you meet a stranger is “What do you do?” Sometimes it is out of genuine interest, too often it is to gauge whether the person is valuable to get to know. When many people in government and not-for-profit organizations are concerned their jobs may be adversely affected and the fabric of our society has been shredded, and the politico-social environment has people shouting at rather than talking to each other, this quick sizing up of one’s value may be hard to handle.

So what does this have to do with reading and books?

Here’s my suggestion to change up the small talk with someone new – ask her (him) “What are you reading?” While there are some people who choose not to read, in this town reading is taken seriously across demographics and philosophies. Now this is not a foolproof conversation starter. I’ve been told that s/he reads a screen all day long and just can’t read at home (oh, that must be very stressful. Hope the situation changes) or the only thing s/he has time to read is Hop on Pop/Curious George/Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site (there is no greater gift than the love of reading, enjoy this time.) Thankfully, this is a question that usually perks up even the most reticent attendee.

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Over the last decade, there have been occasions where my political views have been very different from everyone else’s in the room. Rather than arguing politics, we talk books, generally histories or biographies. For those with whom I often disagree on policy, we look forward to these conversations. The focus on how history and the success/failings of leaders can inform our views tamps down the acrimony of the daily news.

And then there is the sheer joy of sharing a book or author you love with someone new. I never tire of the excitement people bring when they tell me about a new find. In these chats people seem to be all ears, listening with an open mind to what is compelling about a book, author or genre. The conversation may veer into what someone’s day job or passion is, rounding out the understanding of who you are speaking with. Expect to be surprised – the button-downed guy may be a sci-fi geek, the hipster may be on a Dickens jag, and the social worker may be into psychological thrillers. Who knows, you may come away from the event having had a break from the every day, made a new acquaintance, and have some new books to read when the news is just too much to bear.

Goodreads and Amazon reviews: bane or boon?

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In the good old days, if you were curious about whether a book, a vacuum cleaner or a new brand of coffee might work for you, you’d ask your friend, neighbor, shopkeeper or mother. It’s now the era of big data so few decisions are made without some form of crowdsourcing, a term created barely a decade ago.

Of course, readers have been curious about the latest and greatest titles for years. The first US bestseller list appeared in New York in 1895 and made its way to The New York Times in 1931. When Amazon.com changed the face of bookselling in 1995, it also changed the nature and roles of bestsellers lists and reviews. In the age of Amazon, anyone can be a reviewer and there are multiple ways to slice and dice any bestseller list.

Goodreads.com is one of the earlier virtual communities for readers. Created in 2006 by descendants of the family that founded The Los Angeles Times, its goal was to encourage readers to learn about and share their passion for books. While it received some funding early on when people bought books via online links, it was primarily a means for readers to track their books and connect with others. In 2011 Goodreads began suggesting titles based upon the information each reader entered. And in 2013 the entire system was purchased by Amazon allowing them to influence and manage the largest online reader community.

For some, Goodreads is just a repository for to-be-read lists and to record completed books. They ignore the suggested titles for purchase and the reviews and lists by other Goodreads members, sometimes rating but not reviewing those read. Many are networked to their other social media contacts on Goodreads and can still influence their contacts’ reading choices via notifications of titles added to their friends to-be-read, ratings or reviews. Other people use Amazon and Goodreads reviews to dictate their reading choices.  I’m not sold.

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So getting down to business, it’s time to judge for yourself:

  1. Grade inflation – On both Amazon.com and Goodreads.com reviewers see the average rating before clicking in to make a rating. Can people justify rating a book they finished a 1 or 2? While 3 is the statistical average, it is the rare title with any measure of popularity that has an average below 3. All ratings are whole numbers and each person’s perception of the scale is subjective. Does the fact that there are 5,000 reviews of 4 or better really tell you more than if there were 500? Remember, Amazon sells to hundreds of millions of people.
  2. Even a 4.5 rated title may not be for you – It is vital to remember that those interested in rating a book usually come from those interested in the genre or theme. Often the classification (fiction=>historical fiction=>WWII) will provide ample hints, but not all the time. Whether it is based on a publisher’s information or a scanning algorithm, mistakes happen. And then there is the author/publisher that believes the title is genre/audience crossing when it’s not.
  3. Small sample – There are several reasons for very few ratings or reviews. It may be just published or pre-publication, from a small press or self-published, esoteric in theme, out-of-print or published prior to the advent of Amazon/Goodreads reviews.  As a reader, you must carefully read almost all the reviews to tease out how any comments jive with the description of the book. Be aware that there are many people, myself included, that receive advance copies of books gratis in hope of a positive review. For those reviewers who are genuinely independent, reviewing a book way outside his/her wheelhouse may result in a dissonant review.  The upside is these truly independent reviews is they are not biased by either the major newspaper/website reviewers or widespread public opinion. But then there is the flip side;
  4. Stuffing the Ballot Box – Every writer, myself included, is in search of readership. Newly published authors, particularly those who self-publish or engage services that assist individuals in publishing their work, often will ask their friends and/or family to post enthusiastic reviews. How do you spot them? Well, look for a limited number (50 or so) written in a short period of time (maybe 3 months) of approximately the same length, commenting not only on the topic but on the insight of the author, and often with almost a unanimous 5-star rating. Amazon has made great inroads in reducing pay-for-rating services where someone would be hired to rate a book or other product in exchange for money. Also be aware that those who operated self-published and/or vanity presses are individuals that may also rate a title highly.  Clearly, even if the review is heartfelt there is a conflict of interest the reader cannot know.

Finally, my take: I’ve always tilted at windmills and backed the underdog. My preference is to go to trusted sources (newspaper and selected web reviewers), people I know and to independent booksellers, wherever I can find them. Matching readers and titles requires listening, capturing the essence of a title, and a bit of magic.

Goodreads and Amazon have developed algorithms based on what you may have looked at or bought and popular items. But those algorithms don’t know if the search was for my use or as a gift for someone with dissimilar tastes.  It doesn’t know which much-loved books are sitting on my shelf or which ones have been abandoned, those I bought on my travels, was given or received through my “bookie” activities.

In the last month, I restarted posting some ratings on Goodreads, but only from the “In the Nutshell” section of my reviews or for titles I’ve chosen not to review here. If I wish to be part of a larger community, I am obligated to participate in it, even if on a limited basis. I am encouraged that independent bookstores and print books are making a comeback. And I hope we continue to share the books we like, analyze why we disliked others and discuss the ones that make us think.

 

‘Bertrand Court’ reveals the extraordinary in everyday life

  • UnknownBertrand Court by Michelle Brafman (Prospect Park Books, September 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Seventeen stories connected through a cul-de-sac in the Washington area show that familial ties can bind or chafe, lovers connections can linger, and everyone has fragile moments. Brafman has a wonderful grasp of the inner voices of her characters.
  • Genre: Fiction, short stories
  • Locale: Washington DC area
  • Time: 1970 – 2000s
  • Read this for well-crafted stories of the extraordinary elements of everyday life. Perfect to savor in small bites.

One of the most difficult things an author can do is make the commonplace events of daily life compelling.  In Michelle Brafman’s new collection, Bertrand Court, families and friends, colleagues and lovers reveal and conceal themselves in the Washington suburbs. Although some of the people in these stories have careers that are very Washington, the underlying circumstances and insecurities of their personal lives are much more universal.

Brafman tackles the long-simmering jealousies between aging sisters, and couples trying to hide their financial reversals from family and friends. There are those blessed with children and others not as fortunate. Some find a spiritual home in organized religion and one woman wishes for that to fill a hole that her family’s wealth could not satisfy. Husbands question their wives’ choices and vice versa and the children must be shielded, regardless.

While most of the stories need not be connected, it is the periodic convergence of friends and families in Bertrand Court that brings the collection together. Whether it is a birthday party or a (non) book group night, the connection is what counts. No matter how perfect anyone’s life may seem, the stories serve as a reminder that the human condition is fragile and that it’s not the errors or self-doubt that define someone but rather what happens next.

Authors on the importance of writing and the worlds they create – Book Expo Part 2

After a day of travel and 5 miles on the conference floor, it took some energy to arrive back at McCormick Place in time for the 8 am Adult Book & Author Breakfast. I am so glad I did.

One lesson learned – humor that may fly at 8 pm with a glass of wine can fall flat at 8 am when the caffeine has yet to do its job.  Faith Salie,  a TV and radio journalist, and panelist on “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”, hosted the event and spoke first about her humorous memoir Approval Junkie. Her opening monolog was a mix of  intentionally bad publishing jokes and one-liners about her pursuit of a baby-daddy as she reached forty. When she finally segued to the importance of reading and writing throughout her life, Salie set the tone for the serious content to follow.

Colson Whitehead spoke next about The Underground Railroad, his upcoming novel that imagines this path to freedom as a physical railway traversing the country. It’s a book he’s been imagining for years and finally put to paper.  He described his journey, from a lowly staffer at The Village Voice more than two decades ago. And he told of how he “giggle-tested” the story line to see if the project was worth pursuing. In The Underground Railroad Whitehead confronts the issues and danger of that time in a story that may remind readers of Swift’s writings. I can’t wait to read my copy.

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I’ve been a huge Louise Penny fan for years. Her books are one of my go-to choices when I need to refresh my reading palate. A Great Reckoning is Penny’s latest mystery about the small village of Three Pines and Armand Gamache. She spoke about her childhood and the magic of books, showing her that anything was possible and that bravery, strength, and love could be found within. She shared that Gamache has been modeled on her husband, the former head of hematology at Montreal’s Children’s Hospital, a very caring man who had to see patients and their parents under the worst of circumstances. And then she told that over the last three years the husband she has known for decades has suffered from severe dementia, unable to walk, speak or recognize her. Each day begins with her reminding him he is strong, brave, handsome and loved. Louise Penny is clearly all those things as well.

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Were this not enough, the final author on the panel was Sebastian Junger. He came to fame most almost twenty years ago after writing A Perfect Storm. In 2010, his war documentary, Restrepo, about a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan came to the screen with widespread acclaim and awards. Out of this began a further study into PTSD, the importance of connections and belonging, the result of which is Tribe. The subject and his conclusions should bring about many conversations in the coming months.

It was a very good morning – informative and thought-provoking. From the four, I have literary fiction, mystery, nonfiction, and humor choices for any particular mood. And as I read them, I’ll keep you posted!

 

 

What I learned in my week at camp

Posting a blog is just the start of the process. I always wonder what your reaction is when I post a blog.  And if you’ve read this far I do mean you!

Last week I participated in Blogging University Commenting Bootcamp. WordPress, the platform (underlying software) for my blog, offers free directed tutorials where many bloggers get together to hone their skills and receive feedback from others. The group was multinational in its makeup and the topics of the blogs were eclectic, to say the least.Blogging U.

Each day we were given assignments to comment on the blogs of others. To be successful required both writing something interesting and informative on the blogs but also encouraging people to look at what I am writing. Saying “Nice job!” just doesn’t cut it.

I write this blog for my enjoyment and to connect with other book lovers and wanderers. It makes my day when someone tells me they read a book because of my review or really enjoyed a particular post. But there is so much more that could be gained by expanding the conversation.

What I learned is that sharing a little bit of myself as a commenter helps move the conversation along. In the face of the horrible events last week in Brussels, a post about dealing with the news by reading encouraged others to react both to the news and the role books play in viewing the world. That opened up a dialog about novels that speak to the political reality even if set in a different time. Here’s that post.

Please take the opportunity to add to the conversation when you read a post. Disagree, offer additional thoughts or suggest a topic for the future. When we talk to one another, whatever the medium, there is learning.