Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

You've Gotta Read This!

Friday, October 16, 2009

How do readers and books find each other? Here are all these new books coming out every day....old ones you never got the chance to read...eye-catching displays at the bookstore...reviews by reviewers you respect...reviews by people you’ve never heard of.....Decisions, decisions.

Here’s what I think it comes down to: no matter how many interesting reviews you read or how many ads you see, what most often gets a book into my hands is a real person telling me, “You’ve just got to read this.”

That’s exactly the premise behind the Flashlight Worthy book recommendations web site, which has as its mission recommendations of “books so good, they'll keep you up past your bedtime.” The site’s creators are Peter Steinberg (who handles the books part) and Eric Mueller (the tech part) I love the name, with its image of when staying up to read a good book was a daring act. (Just one more chapter. Pleeeeze.)

Peter explains that he started Flashlight Worthy because finding quick, concise online book recommendations was hard. 

“Amazon reviews are massively long. Google is too robotic, and while I love book bloggers, it's hard to find one who shares your reading tastes. And if you do, they usually don't read much faster than you do so you don't have a whole lot of choice in what they recommend.”

At Flashlight Worthy, readers can add their own “recommended” lists, that are categorized so that it’s easy to find just what you’re looking for, from “testing the waters of sci-fi” to “baseball by the numbers: the best books on baseball stats” to “great books for strong girls in 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade.”

Peter and Eric invite you to visit and add a list of your own. Oh, and one more thing: they have a little problem they’re looking for help with. Seems that the blog’s name tends to confuse Google into grouping them with suppliers of flashlights. So they're hoping book-lovers will add the site to their own blogrolls to keep the recommendations coming.

Another group of book recommendations--these are for children's books--comes from my friend Deborah Sloan at her site, The Picnic Basket. Her readers are teachers, librarians, and just plain lovers of children’s literature who post reviews of new books. When I read it, I always find myself making lists of books to give as gifts. One that’s on my list right now is “Buying, Training & Caring for Your Dinosaur” by Laura Rennert, which sounds like fun for my favorite young dinosaur-lovers.

Picnic Basket readers were probably among the first to know about “Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith,” by Deborah Heiligman, a book that’s just been nominated for a National Book Award.

Deborah’s decision to set up a blog for book recommendations underscores my impression that our favorite book choices often come from other readers. Deborah quotes Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, saying, “Nothing influences a person more than a recommendation from a trusted friend.”

What books would you recommend?

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What should a book review be?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Recently I read the kind of book review I hate. The book, which sounded like nothing special by an author I was unfamiliar with, was held up to ridicule by a reviewer intent on showcasing his own cleverness and erudition. What’s that about?

With newspaper book sections being cut back--like all other newspaper sections--was this a good use of the space? This wasn’t a must-review book from, say, Philip Roth or Toni Morrison. And it wasn’t a gem we might have missed. This was either a gift of sacrificial lamb for a carnivorous reviewer or maybe a favor owed--yeah, sure, we’ll review it.... Whatever it was, it wasn’t a service to the reader.

I talked about this with my friend June Beisch. June is a poet and she also writes book reviews. We wondered about the politics of what gets reviewed. But, speaking as a reviewer herself, she said it’s usually the less experienced reviewers who try to make a name for themselves by savaging a book. She starts, instead, from a place of respect.

“When I start to write a review, the first thing I think about is that the author worked five years on this,” she said.

June told me about a review she wrote recently. The book was “Walden by Haiku,” author Ian Marshall’s collection of “found” haiku pulled from the Thoreau classic. June thought the concept was interesting and that many of the poems were well done. But she also pointed out one major problem--that Thoreau used metaphor extensively, while haiku, as a form, does not.

That’s my idea of a satisfying review. It brought a book to my attention that I might not otherwise have known about and gave me something substantial to think about.

“The first line of a review should catch the reader’s attention, as a good lede might,” June said. “The review should be as succinct as a poem and should not give away the plot or just recount the contents of the book without placing it in the larger context of the genre (novel, short story, etc.). And it should, above all, be entertaining to read.

“My own belief is that before you review a book you should read all the books by that author and get a sense of the writer’s oeuvre.”

Sounds like hard work and certainly not as much fun as ripping a book to shreds. But it does give the reader something of real value.

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