Tuesday, September 6, 2016

I'm Gonna Read Like It's 1999

After every time my editor at BookBrowse, the book review site I write for, e-mails me a .pdf file of how my latest review is going to appear in the next issue, I take stock of my reading life. What can I read to make my book reviews better? Do I fall back on Michael Dirda, one of my favorite book critics, or the books I have of Nick Hornby's reviews for McSweeney's, or both? What fiction should I be reading to make my reviews more informative? There's no guarantee that what I read in between reviews will directly relate to whatever book I'll read next for a review, but something in those books, or in the act of reading those books, could inspire an opening for a review that ties together the particular book I'm reviewing and what I thought of it, perhaps something about how the plot in that book has been done better elsewhere, and then I have an example. Or just getting better at capturing the atmosphere of a book in so few words. After all, I have a minimum of 600 words, though I prefer to go no further than 620 words. If my editor wants me to add more thoughts, it's easier to add to a small review than it is to try to whittle down a much larger one. I learned that very well when I was new to BookBrowse. Even though I had written movie reviews for 13 years up until then, and had written the occasional book review for a Southern California publication called Valley Scene Magazine, writing book reviews regularly was a bigger challenge, coupled with the worry that the owner of BookBrowse and my editor might think I'm not worth the trouble and then would tell me not to write any more reviews for them. Then where would I be for a writing outlet I could possibly enjoy?

Nevertheless, another review has come and gone, this time of Night of the Animals by Bill Broun, which I thought was a quiet masterpiece. I received the .pdf file of the final copy of my review from my editor, and here I sit again, thinking of my reading life. Dirda and Hornby have come and gone. I could fall back on that trope, but sitting in front of me is What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy by Jo Walton. I had never heard of Jo Walton until I bumped into her in the Henderson Libraries catalog and found her book. This collection of essays would be good, because as she writes in her introduction, "Reviews are naturally concerned with new books, and are first reactions. Here I'm mostly talking about older books, and these are my thoughts on reading them again."

That's true. Never, to my knowledge has BookBrowse reviewed reissues of classic or older books. It's always either what has recently been published, or what will be published in the next month or two months. Yes, my reviews are always first reactions, but is there possibly a way that I can make my reviews feel as comfortable, as casual, as knowing as writing about rereading older books? I want to read Walton's collection to find out if there's anything I can learn there.

However, after each of my reviews is put in the pipeline for publication, I'm not only thinking of how to improve my own reviews, I'm thinking sharply about what I'm reading right now, what I want to read, what I possibly should read. What I'm reading right now doesn't matter so much at the moment as what I want to read and what I possibly should read. I'm going to work backwards.

What I possibly should read is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two, which the entire world knows is the rehearsal edition script for the enormous play being performed in London's West End right now. I have it right in front of me, and it's due back at the Green Valley Library on Saturday. I can't renew it because despite there being 20 copies in circulation, there are 84 holds behind me.

I like wandering this wizarding world, but I'm not a devoted fan enough to drop everything right now and read it. I could get to it midweek, since I can read 308 pages in a short time, but I don't think I'd want to rush through it like that. I'd want to take time with it. Plus, despite one book review ready for the next issue of BookBrowse, I'm reading the deeply-felt memoir Please Enjoy Your Happiness by Paul Brinkley-Rodgers, and that review is due on the 20th. Two weeks left. Fortunately, I've written the two opening paragraphs, but I still have to finish reading the book. Besides, what I've liked about BookBrowse from the start is that when I review a book, as opposed to reviewing a movie, it's just me and the book. Sure there's the press release about the book from the publicist, tucked in between the front cover and the flyleaf, but all I have to do with that is take it out and pitch it, or use it as a bookmark. I don't need to know what the book's about because I've already read what it's about when I chose it for review. I don't need to read quotes from other authors and reviewers about the book because I'm looking to form my own opinion about it. Whereas with movies, every critic is hyperaware of the summer movie season and awards season. E-mail inboxes are bombarded with press releases about this awards hopeful or that one, and publicists always eagerly ask you if you want to review this one or that one, and to reply to them if you want to attend one of the screenings. That was one of the reasons I got out of movie reviewing. It started to feel like a hamster wheel. Conversely, I've been reading since I was 2. I never want to get out of this.

What I want to read has come in different stages. There's Murder with Macaroni and Cheese, the second Mahalia Watkins Soul Food Mystery by A.L. Herbert, one of my new favorite authors. I've been waiting for this one since last year, right after I finished reading Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles, the first one. I also have here William Howard Taft: The President Who Became Chief Justice by Bill Severn, published in 1970. One review on Amazon calls it a "decent high-school bio of Taft,".....".... written for advanced junior high or beginning high school students", but I don't care. In my boundless passion for presidential history, William Howard Taft is my favorite president to study and I'll read everything I can find about him.

That that biography is from 1970 brings up something else. I feel like we're in an age now where the latest headlines, the latest trends, the latest Pokemon to catch on one's phone matters more than history, than slowing down for a little more time to think. It bothers me a little, but it also excites me. It means I own certain things. When I saw a few people at breakfast in the lobby of the La Quinta Inn in Ventura, California that we stayed at a little over a month ago tapping away at their phones, it just meant that there was more of the lobby for me. I get more space to explore. I get more trees, more sky, more opportunity to see where air conditioners are placed around my apartment complex in relation to the apartments they blow into. I also realized that in the rush to know the latest and presumably greatest (for five minutes until the next greatest thing comes along), I get more books.

Related to my desire to write better book reviews (my editor said that this latest review is "one of your best....full of insight....well constructed (no waste of words)," but I disagree. It's not one of my favorites, and I spent most of the time worrying if I was making the right connections in the review, if the whole thing read well, if it all made sense), I got a yen to read essays again. I went to the Henderson Libraries website to look up "Best American Essays" (always my starting point for reading essays), and I found that the 2015 edition was checked out (the 2016 edition comes out in October). I then saw that The Best American Essays 1999 was available from the Paseo Verde library, so I put in a request for that. I see now that as technologically irritating as society can be today, I can wander well into the past and have some of it to myself. I'm sure that The Best American Essays 1999 hasn't been checked out in some time. So I have the space to wander through it as I wish.

It's the same with the 1930s, one of my favorite decades to study. I decided two weeks ago that I also want to read novels from that decade. I'm sure that there are others reading those same novels, but not the majority. I am a minority in literature and I like to keep it that way.

Of course, my assumptions could be wildly incorrect, but even so, would that really matter with so many Pokemon still to catch? After all, they have to be caught before the next insta trend roars in. I don't mind. Keep them coming! I'd much prefer to have the option to renew my library books if necessary. Then others can have them, if they happen to notice them.