Saturday, March 16, 2013

Help Me, Nick Hornby. Do You Have a Minute, Michael Dirda? What Does It All Mean, Michiko Kakutani?

For 14 years, I've written movies and DVD reviews, and now write much less than I used to. When I was a member of the Online Film Critics Society, I began to notice that movies all year round felt like a hamster wheel, with Hollywood's embarrassments in January, the big-budget blockbusters (or "blockbusters," if they flopped) in the summer, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth for Oscars in the fall and winter. Over and over.

I used to be excited about DVDs, wanting to celebrate the impressive scope of Acorn Media's releases, all the British TV series that get a chance here in the United States because of them. But then I began reading a lot more often, and realized where I belong. I still review DVDs, but only those that truly interest me now, and even then, it isn't a whole lot. Some movies, not as many, some TV series like That '70s Show, but not as often as I used to collect TV series for reviews. I still want Westerns, and about two months ago, I bought a Western TV collection, released by Mill Creek Entertainment, at Fry's near Town Square Las Vegas. That's what I want to see. I also want old movies and presidential DVDs, and old TV shows too, such as the '50s TV collection that was released by Film Chest, and included a wonderful episode of The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, with Boris Karloff as one of her guest stars. They haven't released another collection like that since. I'm very picky, and there may come the day when I end my DVD reviews for good. I want to write book reviews now. It's where I belong. I love reading, and I love the thought of receiving books for review. In fact, it has become a reality for me over the past two weeks, though on a small scale, because that's where I need to start. Yes, I have all this experience writing those reviews, but that's not enough. Movies and DVD reviews are vastly different from book reviews. When I wrote those reviews, I knew I wasn't the snarky type, that I couldn't write as irreverently as John Irving Bloom, who took on the persona of Joe Bob Briggs, wildly in love with B movies, horror movies, and slasher movies. I loved that. I knew I could be funny once in a while in my reviews, depending on the movie or the TV series, but I couldn't do it all the time, though I did my best to make my reviews fun to read.

I spent most of last weekend contacting all the book review sites I could find, asking to write for them, telling them of my experiences in writing reviews, and writing book reviews for a time in 2005 for Valley Scene Magazine (a little-more-than-weekly publication distributed throughout the Simi, San Fernando, and Conejo valleys of Southern California), as well as including my resume. Only Boekie's Book Reviews responded, and even the creator of the site, Vanessa, was unsure, because it seemed like I leaned more toward adult novels and nonfiction. But I told her of being an impatient fan of novelists Stacey Ballis, Sarah Pekkanen, and Barbara O'Neal, thereby covering women's literature, and that I've read a wide selection of YA novels, and she accepted me.

I've written two reviews already, one for That Time I Joined the Circus by J.J. Howard, and the other for Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Right now, I'm reading The Wanderer by Robyn Carr for a review, the first of her new Thunder Point series, which at first seems like a tenuous spinoff of her Virgin River series. I finished Whispering Rock, the third in the Virgin River series, last night, so I'm on a Robyn Carr kick right now, and fortunately, Vanessa had The Wanderer available for me.

Despite sometimes wanting to spend less time on the computer, there's no chance of that now. I'm unfortunately entering book reviewing at a time when, if possible, reviewers receive e-reader copies of these books, digital copies. I was reticent at first because I like to have a physical copy as often as possible. So far, no physical copies, but I can't deny the convenience of this. I keep a running Notepad file for each book, taking notes as I read the .pdf file that Vanessa converts for me from the e-reader copy. I still want physical copies, and there are a few publications I want to apply to once I've written a lot more reviews and gained more experience and figured out what my niche is in book reviewing and how I want to write them, but this is fine. Plus, I have all my music on this computer, and ambient and space music to be found on the Internet, so this could work out well. You know, when I'm not working in the school district.

However, that first time with That Time I Joined the Circus was nerve-wracking. First, I hadn't reviewed books since 2005, as mentioned above. Second, I need to figure out who I am all over again. When I began writing movie reviews, I worshipped Roger Ebert like any other aspiring film critic does. I wanted not so much to be like him, but to do what he did, in being at all these screenings and reviewing all these movies. I wanted it as a full-time job, to be paid to watch movies, of course, and to have my thoughts about each movies published. That's as basic as it gets, but I thought that movies would never cease to interest me. And yet, books have been there since I was 2. I have a longer love affair with them, which now feels more like a happy marriage. This is where I belong.

But I don't know what kind of writer I am with these yet. Having reached my third review, I am a little more comfortable, but not by much, and I fear writing the same thoughts over and over. So I need to seek guidance and wisdom. I originally bought The Complete Polysyllabic Spree and More Baths Less Talking, two collections of Nick Hornby's monthly books column for McSweeney's The Believer, because I was in awe of how much he loved books. But now, these collections come in handy because I want to know how he approaches books. Before all this, I've never had to think about how a book works. I just let their joyful waves wash over me, especially with my favorite books, such as The Loop by Joe Coomer, which I'm rereading. Now I'm thinking about how Robyn Carr's descriptions of Thunder Point, Oregon a little after the beginning of The Wanderer feel more obligatory rather than a novelist interested in her new surroundings. I've never done it that extensively before. I've also never before noted where a book finally comes to life, such as with Hank Cooper's playful banter with Gina the waitress at the diner in The Wanderer.

After she posted my review of Eleanor & Park, Vanessa told me by e-mail that she Tweeted my review to Rainbow Rowell, who replied, "This is a gorgeous, insightful review. Thank you so much." I don't write reviews to please filmmakers and authors, though that is a bonus when that happens. But to get that so early is surprising because that was only my second review. I was still nervous when I wrote that review. I'm less nervous with my forthcoming review of The Wanderer because I wrote the first paragraph even before I started reading it on the computer, since I've been reading Robyn Carr's novels long before this one. In fact, I'm picking up A Virgin River Christmas, the fourth in the Virgin River series, at the library tomorrow. I always feel more confident if I've written a paragraph or I have some idea of where a review might go based on the plot of the novel I'm going to review, or what I know of the author based on past novels. I'm more nervous if I have nothing before I start, trying to remember that something will come up while I read.

I want to do this. I know I already am, but I mean more often. I'd like to also write for Booklist Online, which is overseen by the American Library Association. And Bookpage, the free publication I spotted every time I was at the Valencia Library in Santa Clarita, has reviews as well. I'd be glad to write for "The Costco Connection," but I think the book buyers for the company handle that. And maybe Amazon one day. The sheer number of books they receive must be enormous. I want to do all that, but I first need to figure out who I am as a book reviewer, and what kind of book reviewer I want to be. I hope Nick Hornby can help, as well as Michael Dirda, who also writes out of such a great love for books. Michiko Kakutani strikes me as more mysterious, more severe, foreboding even. But she really knows what she writes, so I'm going to read a lot more of her reviews.

And then there's Janet Maslin, who used to be the film critic for the New York Times from 1977 to 1999, and then became a book reviewer. I'd like to find her first book review and she how she developed her style for book reviews. What was her transition like?

I'm enjoying The Wanderer, which helps. I know bad reviews may come, but I've written my fair share over the years. I know as I write more book reviews, I'll feel more comfortable and begin to write in a style that works for me. It doesn't make me less nervous, though. Hence seeking guidance from those who do this. Inspiration, style, and wisdom, and the extent to which these reviewers know the genres that they review. I know there's a lot of the latter as well. Janet Maslin does that with mystery novels. Her knowledge is apparent in those reviews. I hope to do this well, because I'd like to do this for as many years as I've reviewed movies and DVDs, and still more years than that. I'm home here.