Yesterday was release day for my first book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. After 24 hours of emotional celebration, I woke up today thinking, “and now the reviews will begin.” A few months ago I clipped this cartoon from the newspaper, hoping that one day I might get a 5 star review.
My book has been sent to several professional reviewers, and then of course there are readers who might review it on Goodreads or Amazon or their personal blogs. I’ve reviewed many books on my blog over the years, so I know what it’s like to be on the other side of the experience. But how should I gear up for reading other people’s reviews of my book?
This article by James Parker and Zoe Heller from a few years ago in the New York Times has some good advice. First from Parker:
A writer should not respond to his or her critics. A writer should rise above in radiant aloofness.
I don’t know about the “radiant aloofness” part, but I can see the wisdom in not responding to reviews, whether they are good or bad. I don’t plan to argue with someone who gives a bad review or bubble over with thanks for a good review. They are just doing their jobs, right? (Unless it’s a friend praising me out of the goodness of their heart.)
Heller’s advice also sounds good:
Art is long, and life is quite long too. There will be other books, other nasty critics, and with them, a myriad of other opportunities to maintain a dignified silence.
I imagine that my little book won’t garnish reviews in either extreme, but who knows? At this point, I think I will welcome any words from someone who takes the time to read the book and respond in print. Of course I’ll post links to the good ones. We’ll see how I respond if there are any bad ones. Holding my breath….
I just finished reading Joe Formichella’s wonderful book, Waffle House Rules. I’ll be hosting Joe and his wife, the author Suzanne Hudson, for a literary salon in October, and I suddenly remembered that I never read this book from 2014. What a jewel of rich Southern fiction and exemplary writing! First of all, it’s set in one of my favorite places—the eastern shore of the Mobile Bay, mostly in the towns of Fairhope and “Penelope” (which I take to be a fictionalized version of Daphne) Alabama. This intrigued me because I visited Daphne many summers in the 1950s and ’60s with my best friend’s family. They had a house on the Mobile Bay, so those vacations are filled with great memories of crabbing and boating and skiing and all-night poker games.
Fast forward fifty years and there I am again, visiting the area for literary events and making friends with the good folks of Daphne, Montrose, Fairhope, and Waterhole Branch, where Joe and Suzanne live on the Fish River. I first met Joe and Suzanne in 2008 during the magical weekend known as Southern Writers Reading, which culminated in a lovely Sunday brunch at their home before driving back to Memphis. I learned more about Fairhope and knew I would be returning many times.
Joe has several books, which will be available at the salon in October, but I’m going to mainly talk about Waffle House Rules in this post. It’s a delightfully funny study of life and death as seen through the eyes of Dr. Jimmy Ryan and other loveable, eccentric characters along the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay. I love this review, which I read on Goodreads:
Southern from the top of its head to the tip of its toes, this book feels like home. It is a beautiful Sherwood Anderson-esque look into the life and times of those living in Penelope, Alabama. The subject matter was southern enough, but the style was the most enchantingly southern part of this thoughtfully-crafted story. The story moves from dialogue to narrative to an entirely different conversation as seamlessly as your grandma did at a church potluck.
Yes! Joe’s style is unique and keeps the reader enthralled with his characters through his deft arrangement of their stories. Just when you think you’ve figured the story out, it takes another turn, and you’re holding on like a passenger in a car that corners on two wheels. William Cobb (Harper Lee Award winner and author of seven novels) says it better:
I haven’t had so much fun with a novel since I first read Slaughterhouse Five. Formichella’s iconic Dr. Jimmy Ryan is unforgettable, and his hilarious tale is tinged with the same poignancy as the best Vonnegut; the reader is constantly coming upon moments in the humor that signal deeper significances. Waffle House Rules is innovative, original, complex, yet always accessible and a delight to read. This brilliant and luminous novel is like one character’s smile: it makes the grass grow.
Joe has several other noteworthy books, which he will talk about at the salon. I’ll mention them here:
A Condition of Freedom (which I reviewed here) is about the legendary Prichard Mohawks.
Murder Creek (nonfiction/true crime) is an award-winning book about the mysterious 1966 death of Annie Jean Barnes, a resident of East Brewton, Alabama, the “wrong side” of Murder Creek.
The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul—short fiction, essays, a few poems—and a music CD featuring some Grammy-winning songwriters. (My essay, “Eat, Drink, Repeat,” was published in The Shoe Burnin’, and I loved working with Joe as editor.)
And his latest:
Schopenhauer’s Maxim (fiction)—part thriller, part comic novel, all parody of all things. “What Primary Colors by Anonymous did for the Clintons, this book does for the entanglement of the religious right in American politics.”
I can’t wait to visit with Joe and Suzanne next month. Watch for my review of Suzanne’s book, All the Way to Memphis, soon!
Yesterday I spent about an hour crafting a book review to post on Amazon. I was reviewing the book, Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poem, and Food, As Seen by a Mother and Daughter, by Joanna ES Campbell and the Rev. Joanna J. Seibert, M.D. Last weekend I went to Little Rock for the book launch, which was such a great experience. My best friend lives in Little Rock, and she and I discovered people we knew and people we’d like to know as folks streamed into Trapnall Hall steadily for two hours to meet the authors and purchase the book. (There was a second author at the launch whom we also enjoyed meeting: Kathryn B. Alexander, who was signing her book, Saving Beauty: A Theological Aesthetics of Nature.)
I’ve done numerous Amazon reviews over the years, but yesterday’s experience was new and unexpected. My review was rejected. Here’s what the email from Amazon said:
Thanks for submitting a customer review on Amazon. Your review could not be posted to the website in its current form. While we appreciate your time and comments, reviews must adhere to the following guidelines:
We encourage you to revise your review and submit it again.
I studied my review. I compared it to the only other review posted for the book so far. I couldn’t find anything “wrong” with the review, so I’ve decided to publish it here in its original form. Then I’ll shorten it a bit (especially the quotes, since that’s an issue they mentioned) and resubmit it. But for you, my readers, here’s the original review. If you go to the Amazon site for the book and read the first review published there, I’d love your thoughts on why it passed and this one did not. Note the “Verified Purchase” line? I did not purchase the book from Amazon. But I’ve reviewed other books on Amazon which I’ve purchased elsewhere, so I don’t think this was the problem. Anyway, it’s a lovely book and I hope my review encourages you to read it.
Tar Balls, Chockecherries and Greek Salad, October 23, 2014
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poems, and Food, As Seen by a Mother and Daughter (Paperback)
“Food is our common denominator. Sharing meals has the power to distract us from our worries and set our eyes on what is important, if only for a brief moment.” These words in the introduction to this thoughtful book are offered by the daughter in the mother-daughter team who authored “Taste and See.” If we stop reading there, the book doesn’t sound any different than the myriads of other books about food that are trending right now. But Ms. Campbell doesn’t stop there. She continues, “These are moments of grace where we are able to truly taste and see that God is good and sharing meals is often a medium for these simple and profound moments. These interactions are seeds that begin to slowly germinate, helping us to see how we are all connected and how we are held in the palm of God’s hand.”
“Taste and See” isn’t just about food. Or just about God. It’s about a sense of place–whether the authors are reflecting on favorite vacation spots like Gulf Shores, Alabama (before, during and after hurricanes and oil spills), inspirational trips to Greece, cultural excursions in China, or relationships between parent and child or husband and wife. “Cooking As a Spiritual Practice” surprised me with its absence of eucharistic metaphors. And I loved discovering that Joanna (the mother) didn’t like to cook, but did a great job making communion bread, which I also did for our parish for many years. (And I also don’t like to cook.) And how the daughter of this non-cook turned out to be a “Radical Foodie Southern Health Nut,” (another chapter in the book.) This same daughter’s poem, “Arkansas,” reminds me of my own love-hate relationship with the state of my own childhood, Mississippi.
All that to say this is a book many people can relate to. It’s unexpected. Refreshing. I agree with Jennifer Horne’s blurb that the book hearkens me back to Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor’s mother-daughter book, “Traveling With Pomegranates.” Maybe an alternate title for this one would be, “Traveling With Tar Balls, Chockecherries and Greek Salad.” Kudos to both authors.
That’s what co-editor, Ann Fisher-Wirth, said in her introduction to this massive collection of “ecopoetry” by over 200 poets, both historial and contemporary. Wirth, who grew up in California but now lives in Oxford, Mississippi, says that poetry has “the power to move the world—to break through our dulled disregard, our carelessness, our despair, reawakening our sense of the vitality and beauty of nature.” She took on The Ecopoetry Anthology—a five-year project that would become a 576-page anthology–while teaching poetry and directing the environmental studies minor at the University of Mississippi.
Wirth calls Mississippi “a place of both great beauty and severe environmental damage.” I met Ann a few years ago when she gave a craft talk during the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop. And then in November of 2009 I enjoyed her reading from Five Terraces one night, and we’ve been friends ever since.
A few of my favorite poets are included in the anthology. Like Emily Dickinson, who writes in #537:
The bell within the steeple wild
The flying tidings told—
How much can come
And much can go,
And yet abide the world!
Robert Frost writes about the importance of being versed in country things, and e.e. cummings writes about finding a poisoned mouse.
And then there are the contemporary poets, like Stephen Cushman (I haven’t discovered whether or not he’s related to my husband) who writes about the rain in Maine, and Lola Haskins, whose “Prayer for the Everglades” ends with this question:
Oh what if? Look up, friend, and take my
hand. What if the wood storks were gone?
Treasures abound in this rich anthology published by Trinity University Press. Wirth’s co-editor is Laura-Gray Street and Robert Hass contributes an inspired introduction. But don’t take my word for it. Buy the book and enjoy the poetry yourself. But don’t expect it to be a quiet, relaxing read. Prepare to be challenged and to see the world in a different light.
In his wonderful blog post on Monday, my friend Lee Martin, wrote about “The Necessity of the Beautiful Sentence.” He used several passages from The Great Gatsby as teaching points, citing Fitzgerald’s use of concrete action verbs, metaphors, stylized language, parallel structures and more to make the writing sing. And why does it need to sing? According to Lee:
So much of the world around us is chaotic and without reason. A well-crafted sentence is an antidote against this discord. A precise and beautifully constructed sentence holds the chaos of our lives at bay.
I couldn’t agree more. We all need the music of literary writing. And for writers, it truly is, as Lee says, “our attempt at salvation.” But must a sentence be “literary” in order to be “precise and beautifully constructed”? Is there any such thing as a beautifully constructed “commercial” fiction sentence, paragraph, or book? It’s that old argument cropping back up again—about these two types of writing. While some critics say that only literary fiction is beautifully crafted, I contend that both literary and commercial fiction can be beautifully written. The genres differ in focus: the literary focusing on characters and setting while the commercial focus is on the plot—keep the reading turning those pages, baby.
Reading Lee’s post reminded me of a recent article by my friend, Porter Anderson, over at Jane Friedman’s web site. Porter does a weekly column there, “Writing on the Ether.” In last week’s post, “Writers in the Inferno,” Porter takes best-selling author, Dan Brown, to task just as his latest book, Inferno, was coming out:
Dan Brown’s popularity does little to help promote or even encourage genuinely good writing…. Each time a Brown book is shot out of the big publishing cannon, we see this collision: the disciples of quality against the armies of entertainment.
So, if a book is entertaining, does that exclude it from being well written? Are these mutually exclusive attributes? What about John Grisham’s long list of popular legal thrillers? I interviewed Grisham at Burke’s Books in Memphis the day of his book signing for The Firm, back in 1991. He told me then that the book wasn’t as good as his first book, A Time to Kill, which only became popular later, after the success of The Firm. He said he was about to write a whole slew of legal thrillers to entertain his readers. Was he “selling out” by not pursuing a more literary style, as he had done with A Time to Kill? Would millions of readers have bought and read his popular fiction—or Dan Brown’s—if the writing sucked?
I’m less than one fourth through Brown’s Inferno, but I can’t turn the pages quickly enough—even on my Kindle. But I have slowed down in order to highlight numerous well-constructed, beautifully crafted passages. A few samples:
The decisions of our past are the architects of our present.
Vayentha claimed her error was the result of simple bad luck—the untimely coo of a dove.
The air inside smelled of MS cigarettes—a bittersweet fragrance as ubiquitous in Italy as the aroma of fresh espresso.
As Langdon stared into his own weary eyes, he half wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home, clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls, only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.
The March air was crisp and cold, amplifying the full spectrum of sunlight that now peeked up over the hillsides. Painter’s light, they called it.
When he spoke, his voice was muffled … and he spoke with an eerie eloquence … a measured cadence … as if he were the narrator in some kind of classical chorus.
But this is paradise … the perfect womb for my fragile child. Inferno.
In his review in Monday’s Boston Globe, Chuck Leddy gives Inferno a better review than most, saying, “It seems that Brown has been learning some things about writing prose.” What are some of those things Brown does with Inferno, which shows his improvement since writing The Lost Symbol?
Where he’d use three weak adjectives to describe something in “The Lost Symbol,” in “Inferno” he’ll use one, and it’s the right one. Where Brown gave us endless character monologues of a dozen or so pages each, basically dumping all his research onto the page and letting the poor reader sift through the good, the bad, and the ugly, in “Inferno” Brown offers us strong dialogue, details, and back story in digestible chunks that don’t take readers out of the story.
Maybe my standards are too low, but I think there’s room in the world of literature for stories to be told in many ways. And it’s the telling of those stories that holds the chaos of our lives at bay. As Leddy says:
It’s clear that Dan Brown’s “Inferno” will sell tens of millions of copies worldwide, but what’s more obvious (and pleasingly so) is that he’s getting much better at writing prose and structuring stories.
Write on, Mr. Brown.
P.S. Mr. Brown gave a wonderful interview with Charlie Rose, where he talked about storytelling and art:
Location is a character in these books. I love art. I love architecture. My hero loves art and architecture. And part of this chase, really in all of my books, is a chase through a landscape. Langdon is one of these characters who, while he’s on the run, if he passes a Caravaggio, he’s probably going to have a thought about it.
Such a Life is a collection of essays by Lee Martin, Pulitzer Prize Finalist and author of The Bright Forever and three other novels, three memoirs, and a short story collection. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.
I devoured *Such a Life in a few short days, not only because of the quality of the prose, but also because of how many of Lee’s stories resonated with me. When he talks about his mother-in-law who has Alzheimer’s, his words are almost exactly what I would say about my relationship with my mother. There is something darkly comforting about universal suffering, but I’m also very encouraged by the progress he has made in that relationship. I asked Lee to answer a few questions for my readers, and I’m so excited that he did. I hope you enjoy the interview.
Susan: Thanks for taking time from your busy schedule to answer a few questions for my readers, Lee.
Lee: It’s my pleasure, Susan. Thanks so much for your interest in my latest book.
Susan: Such a Life is a collection of fifteen essays. Did you write these stories over a period of time and then later decide to combine them in an anthology, or did you write them with a book in mind?
Lee: I started writing creative nonfiction in 1996, and sixteen years later I decided to put together a collection. By that point, I’d published two memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones, but I also had a number of discreet essays that didn’t fit into either of those books. I decided to choose the fifteen pieces that were focused primarily on issues of family, aging, and identity. When put together, the pieces had a chronology, so we decided to call the book a memoir instead of an essay collection.
Susan: Writing about your first crush in “Never Thirteen,” you say: “I don’t understand now, any more than I did then, the fine line between desire and lust. The truth is, the beautiful and the ugly bleed together; the distance between the two is never as wide as we’d like to think.” When you wrote the stories about your childhood which take place when you were in eighth grade or younger, how much did you consider which voice to use–the voice of thirteen-year-old Lee, or the voice of the now adult Lee, looking back on that time in your life? Or was it a mixture? It brings to mind the character, Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the way that Harper Lee wrote through both the child and the adult’s voices.
Lee: I’m grateful for your comparison to the character of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite novels. I’ve always been attracted to that reflective narrative persona, even in my fiction, so I suppose it was only natural that I eventually felt compelled to write memoir. I like modulating the tone of the narrative by moving in and out of the voice of the child and the voice of the adult. I’m striving for a blend of the two voices and the multiple selves that reside along the timeline that connects them. I often think of this in terms of the voice of the participant (the child I was at the time I’m recalling), and the voice of the spectator (the adult I am looking back on that time and the person I once was). I love the sound of the wiser adult and the effect I can create when holding it next to the voice of the more innocent, and sometimes wrongheaded, child.
Susan: In “The Fat Man Skinny,” you give us an intimate picture of a chubby kid being teased, and the consequences of that teasing for the rest of the man’s life. You ask, “How much do our bodies define us? Of course, our self-image depends somewhat on the person we see when we look in the mirror and the identity other people pin on us. But isn’t it wonderful to think that there’s always another person inside, a spirit formed during those early years of childhood, that dance on… unwilling to take that mirror’s image or that other person’s comment as gospel?” As a victim of childhood sexual abuse and verbal abuse by my mother, who wanted me to be skinny, I’ve had a lifelong struggle with eating disorders and body image distortion, so I relate strongly to this story. But these kinds of stories are more often written by women. It’s interesting to see that men sometimes bear the same crosses. Do you think more men fall victim to this, but maybe they just aren’t willing to admit it?
Lee: I can’t speak for other men, of course, nor do I want to draw a comparison between my own experience with body image and the way those issues affect so many women’s lives, but I do think every teenage boy goes through a time period in which he compares himself to other boys and often finds himself lacking in some way he believes to be essential to manhood. Muscle development, the ability to grow facial hair, and, of course, weight—all of these can become ways of separating the manly from the not-so-manly. A boy’s body defines him in a certain way, and if he’s singled out for ridicule because he doesn’t measure up to the standard, that fact, like any form of bullying or diminishing, affects the way he looks at himself. My guess is, whether we’re male or female, the person who was made fun of lives inside us forever, but if we’re lucky we make room for that former self and we use him or her to help us know who we’ve become beyond the days when we suffered from other people’s impressions of us.
Susan: I was blown away by the suffering you describe in “Who Causes This Sickness,” especially the excruciating pain from corneal erosions. As one of millions who are treated for thyroid problems, I was so happy to discover after a simple blood test that taking a small pill every day would remove all my symptoms—hair loss, flu-like aches, weight gain. So it’s hard for me to imagine that you resisted the treatment for so long. You say, “Suffering was essential to transcending the ego and uniting with the will of a higher power. Pain allowed one to become more human.” And then you quote Saint Francis of Assisi: “Humiliation is the way to humility, and without humility, nothing is pleasing to God.” As an Orthodox Christian, I’ve been taught similar things about the necessity of suffering in our lives, but I have a hard time embracing it. How much did your faith play into this?
Lee: As you know from the essay, my mother was a Christian, and eventually my father and I made the leap of faith as well. Although I don’t participate in any sort of organized religion now, I consider myself a spiritual person, and one way I accept the suffering in the world is through my knowledge that we can’t fully cherish the absence of pain without first experiencing that pain. My resistance to seeking the proper medical attention for my thyroid disease was the result of a number of factors, but chief among them, I believe, was the way the story of my family conditioned me to believe that we were meant to suffer. My father lost both of his hands in a farming accident when I was barely a year old. I grew up with the message ingrained in me that we were meant to experience loss and to suffer pain. When I first started having corneal erosions, it seemed in a way that I was fulfilling the destiny laid out by my father, and, too, my suffering brought me closer to empathizing with him. Although he’d been dead for over ten years at that point, my own pain taught me something about what it must have been like for him to see his life divide into “before” and “after.” A man picking corn on an early November day, and then the shucking box clogs and he doesn’t take time to shut down the power take-off, opting instead to try to rake the corn from the rollers with his hand, and those spinning rollers draw that hand in, and when he tries to free it with the other hand, the rollers take it, too. That was the defining moment of my father’s life, and in many ways of my own as well.
Susan: You write, about your mother-in-law: “If she’s in a public place and she sees someone she considers too thin, too fat, too overdressed, too—you fill in the blank—she makes no effort to hide her disapproval. ‘Look at that,’ she’ll say in a too-loud voice. ‘What a sight.’” Your mother-in-law reminds me very much of my mother, who also has Alzheimer’s. I have never known anyone other than my own mother who called people out like that in public. Now that Mom is in a nursing home and has forgotten to judge me (or others) the sting is gone, along with most of her mind. I’m finally making my peace with her and finding it easier to visit her. To love her. I love what you wrote: “Still, there are times when my mother-in-law is sweet and playful and generous.” And later, “I’m determined now to be kind to her, to be tolerant and understanding and helpful…. I know the frustrations and sorrows of watching someone you love disappear.” Did you write this part of the book before or after you came to this decision to try to be tolerant of her?
Lee: I wrote that part after the experience of watching her fall victim to Alzheimer’s. That experience brought me to where I needed to be as far as my relationship to her. As she lost more and more of her memory, she forgot the criticisms she used to make of me, and I, in turn, felt a shift in the way I thought of her. She became a different person, of course, but the person she was still existed, and the combination of who she was before the disease and who she was after its onset created a very complicated situation that put pressure on me to evaluate my own considerations of her. I had to live through all of that before I could write about the part of me that was responding to her and her disease.
Susan: You describe the struggle of being a vegan in a carnivorous world. In the last line of “Take, Eat,” you write about visiting a café where most of the menu isn’t very vegan-friendly: “I can imagine the smells and tastes and the food inside that cafe, the food that makes me hungry—starved to death—just to think of it.” Again, as an Orthodox Christian, I try to keep the fasts prescribed by the Church, which includes many weeks throughout the liturgical year where we don’t eat meat, dairy, oil or wine. Even fish. I’m curious as to how you came to the decision to be vegan. Was it health-related, faith-based, environmental?
Lee: I grew up in beef country in southeastern Illinois, and after my father was diagnosed with colon cancer, which he survived, and then heart disease, which he didn’t, I started to question my dietary choices. The decision to first try a vegetarian diet came from the desire to do what I could to avoid my father’s path. The more reading I did, the more I became aware of the suffering of animals for the sake of our food supply and the effects on our environment, so these ethical concerns also came into play. A few years after that, I started suffering from chronic bronchitis, and my teacher at the time, James Leo Herlihly, author of Midnight Cowboy, told me I’d be better if I stopped eating dairy. It was, at first, a huge sacrifice, but he was right. Now I eat eggs on occasion, but I still avoid milk products simply because of the respiratory problems it causes me.
Thanks again, Lee, for sharing with us. I’ve just downloaded The Bright Forever on my Kindle and can’t wait to get started on it!
*Such a Life, University of Nebraska Press (March 1, 2012)
[AFTER I finished my Q & A with Lee, I found another blog interview, this one done by Richard Gilbert on his blog, “Narrative.” Fortunately, Richard asked questions that were mostly different than mine, so if you want to read more, hop on over to his review and Q & A.]