Saturday 18 April 2015

Reading, 'Riting and 'Rithmetic

I read a lot.  More on that later.

I post reviews of the books I've read onto various sites.  More on that later too.

For reasons that boggle even my mind I post regularly to two, no wait, three sites; where I started posting at the behest of a fellow “Chapters Community” group member, and at where I started posting because I thought it was an interesting way to keep track of the books I've read.  What started off simply as a cyber bookshelf somehow led to posting reviews.  I've often thought, over the course of all my years reading, that I should have kept a journal to track my reading.  It would be fun to go back and look over books read years ago to see how my reading habits have changed.  Or maybe they haven’t changed all that much?  The third is a Harper Collins Publishing site where I was invited to set up a virtual bookshelf  Virtual badges are awarded for milestones and sometimes they tweet your reviews for their Twitter followers.  I reluctantly admit (blushing slightly) that I feel flattered when one of those tweets is “favorited”.  I participate in the last one for no other reason but because it’s fun.  Now don’t let me mislead you into thinking I am some kind of book review writing lunatic.  I write my reviews into a word document on my computer and then “cut and paste” the reviews into the various sites.  Each site gets the same reviews, often – unless I catch them somewhere along the way – the same typos and errors included in all of them.  A fellow reviewer once called me out for getting a book character’s name wrong.  Thank goodness for the edit function because THAT was embarrassing.  But cut me come slack, Amanda/Miranda, Miranda/Amanda, anyone could have made that mistake.  For me there is a certain amount of trepidation involved in writing reviews that are going to be seen by other people, sometimes even by the author’s themselves, so I try to be fair and kind whenever possible, not to mention the fact that I don’t want to purposely make a complete fool out of myself.  I do think about what I am about to write before I start typing. 

What prompted this particular blog post is something that happened while I was trying to post a review of a book called “In Our Prime” on the Chapter’s site.  They've recently made changes to their website which have reeked all kinds of havoc with the, once easy, process of posting.  And yes, we are all up in arms about it!   Believe me, some scathing words have been posted along with the book reviews.  All that aside, I cut and pasted my review and after glancing at it to make sure there were no glaring errors I hit the “Post this Review” button.  Immediately a message box popped up telling me that I could not post this review as “it contained profanity and/or inappropriate subject matter”.  Whaaat?  Thinking this must be glitch of the new website I cancelled the posting, clicked out of the site, signed back in and tried it again.  Same result.  Anyone who knows me knows that I do not regularly pepper my speech with four letter words.  Yes, one will slip in now and again but it is not a hard bred habit that would, by rote, translate into something I write.  Oh, I can swear a blue streak when something goes really wrong (hitting myself in the thumb with a hammer, stubbing my toe, opening the fridge and having the milk or juice or carton of eggs spill onto the floor that I finished washing just ten minutes ago … and yes all those things have happened to me at one time or another, or even several times in a row) but those incidents usually culminate with my sitting on the floor and having a good cry.

The review in question was for a non-fiction book about middle age.  The author does a fine job writing about the history of the concept of middle age, the problems middle-agers encounter, the freedoms they enjoy and how the term has changed over the years.  It’s a good book but, let’s face it, it’s not Fifty Shades of Grey.  Ha-ha-ha, I guess in some ways it is – middle age – gray hair – Fifty Shades of Grey.  Never mind!  There really was no reason to have “profanity or inappropriate subject matter” of any kind in a description or review of this particular book.  I closed the Chapter’s site and went back to my original word document to see if Spell Check or Auto-correct had sabotaged me and changed something innocent to an inappropriate and profane remark.  I scoured that document looking for the offensive words and found … nothing! 

I could have left it alone.

I didn’t really need to post a review of every book I read. Well … all right … I am a little OCD about it and it is necessary for me to post a review if I have read the book.

I could have moved forward and posted the next review I had ready.

But, me being me, I could not leave this alone.  Profane and inappropriate subject matter my ass!

It was time to check this review more methodically.  I reopened the Chapter’s site, pasted the review again and started reading through it all the while changing words that I thought might, by some stretch of computer imagination, be inappropriate.  None of the words changed stopped the message from popping up when I hit the post button.  So I changed them back to what I had originally written and carried on.  Was I getting a little annoyed now?  Absolutely.  This was taking more time than I wanted to spend to putz around and try and figure this nonsense out.  Then finally I was rewarded for my persistence.  About three sentences from the end of my review I found that filthy, dirty, profane and inappropriate word.  The section read; “Ms. Cohen takes the reader through trends in movies, television, and literature and, the biggest culprit of all – advertising.  She discusses age discrimination including the common practice of not hiring middle-aged men; the experimental use of human growth hormone to keep us young and supple despite the fact that the treatment is still controversial and the current pressure placed on “middle-agers” to maintain (real or enhanced) sexual prowess with Viagra, Estrogen and Testosterone therapy.”

The word?

With my sincerest apologies to polite society and gentle sensibilities for even quoting it here, the word causing the problem was “Viagra”.  Hmmm?

Shocking I know, but I do occasionally read erotic fiction and write reviews on those books as well.  I read Fifty Shade of Grey (hated it, by the way) and in various reviews over the years have used words such as “masochist”, “sexual sadist”, and “dominatrix”.  They all passed muster.  The brand name Viagra though, it did me in.

I inserted a revised the word to include a hyphen so it read “vi-agra”.  Little did I care that it now annoyed the hell out of Spell Check, it solved my problem.  I posted my review.

All that effort started me thinking about why?  Why do I get some sort of self-gratifying satisfaction out of writing and posting the reviews?  Why do I even read so much in the first place?


Reading is a pretty solitary past time.  I am the type of person who needs quiet time.Some people are only happy when there are other people around while I seek out alone time.  Maybe that comes from being an only child or maybe I was just born a solitary soul?  Wow, that sounds quite pathetic!  What I am trying to say is that as much as I enjoy other interests and my family and friends, I can happily curl up in a comfortable chair on a Sunday afternoon and very contently, without a moment of guilt or remorse, lose myself (and the afternoon) inside the covers of a book.

My mother was a reader, I am a reader and both my daughters are readers.  My eldest is an avid reader, my youngest is a binge reader but my mother was an avid reader.  I am also an avid reader.  Depending on whom in my circle of family, friends, acquaintances and librarians you ask I could be described on a scale from “keen” through “fervent” and all the way to “frighteningly compulsive”.  What can I say?  I love to read.

My mother read “romanes”, best described as the German equivalent of Harlequin romance novels.  They were about the size of a Time magazine, easy to roll up and put into a purse to read on a bus or during coffee break at work.  I’ve paid homage to my mom in blogs before.  She worked full time, was an avid gardener, baked and loved people, but at the end of the day she was sitting at the table reading a few pages of her romane before heading off to bed.  She never read in bed because she would fall asleep.  I used to laugh at that because I could go to bed to start reading then at 2 a.m. think to myself “just one more chapter and I’ll turn off the light” despite the fact that it would cause much personal regret the following morning.  I don’t think it’s quite as amusing anymore because now I find a few pages is my limit before I start to feel the my eyelids get weighty.  My favorite chair is definitely a better choice if I want to polish off more than a page or two.

My mother was also, uh, frugal.  Very rarely would she shell out retail price to buy a new copy at Fiedler’s, so every few weeks she and I would have a field trip to the KW Book exchange where one could buy, sell and trade books.  The city where I grew up had a strong German heritage so there was a large market for these little books she so enjoyed.

At the time, the whole back wall was dedicated to shelves and shelves of them.  It was a mystery to me how she knew, from the hundreds, if not thousands of selections, which ones she had previously read.  It took awhile, but I figured out her little secret.  With a green pen she would make a very small star at the bottom of the last page, so all she had to do was flip to the end of the book to see whether she had read it or not.  Clever!  She browsed, and since I was a very well behaved little girl, I was allowed to browse too.  She would leave with her “traded” romanes and I was always allowed a book to take home.

I guess the seed was planted.

As I got a little older and little more independent my girlfriend, also a young yet avid reader, and I would spend Wednesday afternoons in the summer at the bookmobile.  Our city only had one library and we were not allowed to venture out quite that distance by ourselves, but the bookmobile came right into our neighborhood and parked itself in the elementary school parking lot for 4 hours.

We’d walk home with Nancy Drew books tucked under our arms, sit outside and read, each in our own little world, until another friend came along and suddenly we were off riding our bikes to the park.  I look back and see that there was always a nice balance, but I sure do remember the books.

I think being a library user taught me to read efficiently.  The books I borrowed had to be returned within three weeks.  If I didn’t finish one I could renew it, but only if no one had the same book reserved.

As I got older obviously my reading tastes changed but the mystery/horror genre has always remained one of my favorites.  Many of the authors I read as a teenager are still favorites after all these years.  Carrie led to my being a life-long Stephen King fan, Demon Seed ensured Dean Koontz a spot, and Graham Masterton earned his place on my list with The Manitou.  As the saying goes, inquiring minds want to know, thus there were a few questionable choices amongst the books as well.  I distinctly remember reading Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter.  When my girlfriend borrowed the book her mother confiscated it and would not let her give it back to me because it was inappropriate reading for girls of our age (high-school).  What would she have said if she knew that I had Xavier Hollander’s The Happy Hooker hidden away in the back of my closet?  I had enough sense to know even my mom would grab that one out of my hands if she saw me reading it.

On a little side note: I was surprised to discover that Xavier Hollander is still alive and well and running a Bed & Breakfast establishment in Amsterdam called The Happy House.  Whenever I have had the opportunity to find myself in a used bookstore lately I have been looking on the shelves for The Happy Hooker.  I downloaded a copy of the Story of O and would like to reread it and The Happy Hooker just to see if my memories of these two erotica classics match up to my virginal, much eroticized memories and whether they can be in any way compared to more contemporary entries, purely for reasons of personal curiosity, of course.

Needless to say my reading tastes are pretty eclectic.  Lately I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction binge, but there are three genres of which I, with a few exceptions, steer clear: westerns, novels about war and sci-fi.  I don’t even like western movies, so the books hold not appeal for me whatsoever.  War novels are too real.  I’ve tried to explain this to people before and it makes no sense to anyone but myself.  I can read horror stories where atrocities are leveled on all manners of unsuspecting victims and not flinch … well okay, sometimes I flinch and cringe … but generally, it doesn’t bother me.  I think I’ve become immune because they don’t even give me nightmares.  If I read a graphic description of the tortures of POW’s though, I feel my stomach start to tighten and churn.  I do not enjoy the read.  Not liking sci-fi is nothing but a case of laziness on my part.  Sci-fi, by its nature, takes place in far-away places during far-away times where nothing is familiar.  It takes too much effort on my part to keep the scenarios all sorted out in my mind.  And, don’t even get me started on the character’s names; those take entirely too much concentration.  I can’t keep Joolushkoo Tunei Fenta straight from Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan or differentiate between Utu Noranti Pralatong and Ghamina Atreides.  It makes my head spin and I find it not very conductive to a smooth and enjoyable reading experience.  As I said, there are a few exceptions.  Despite the fact that it was set during WWII I read and loved The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  I also read the complete Songs of Fire and Ice series by George R.R. Martin and liked it very much.  I was once taken to task for calling it the Game of Thrones series and it was explained to me in NO uncertain terms that Game of Thrones is the television series NOT the book series.  So there!  Regardless, I did manage to get through the series, considered to be in the sci-fi genre, because I found it to have less of a futuristic and more of a medieval feel.

I also do not read the classics.  I have read some and listened to others on audio only because I think I should.  When I do read books such as Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice I enjoy them, but my personal feeling is that the books are so well known and the movies have been made and remade that I am already overly familiar with the story.  Why would I read the classic when there are so many current books I have to get through?  Just in case you are wondering – only on very rare occasions do I reread books.

I read about 50 books a year.  Several years ago I reluctantly, and with some very gentle persuasion allowed myself to be introduced to audio books.  I was always very sure I would hate them.  I was wrong.  When I was generously gifted an MP3 player and then discovered that my library had a vast and always growing number of audio books that could be downloaded, I was hooked.  With a half hour commute to and from work it adds one hour to my available “reading” time every day.  Now my “reads” have doubled so I read and review in the general area of 100 books every year.


I try and think back to when I actually starting posting reviews.  I wouldn’t swear to it but I think it began with the Chapters site.  I joined a group called “50 Books in (insert current year here)”.  Members were invited to post their reads with a short review about the book.  Good marketing ploy on the part of Chapters because often a book mentioned would appeal to others, hopefully prompting them to purchase the book.  I do purchase many books on their site and in their stores, but I get more from the library.  That’s my little secret … never, never, never to be mentioned in the review.

I looked back on some of my early reviews and have definitely noticed a change in the way I compose them.  My original reviews were short, consisting of three of four lines, the last sentence stating whether or not I enjoyed the book.  Over the years the reviews have become a little longer and more detailed.  I have also noticed that my reviews have started to follow a distinct pattern.  It simplifies the process.

I summarize the book in the first paragraph.  With respect to potential readers of the book I try not to include spoilers.  Sometimes it cannot be helped.  Reading other people’s reviews often helps me find future reads, but the one thing I find irritating is when the review writer goes into so much detail summarizing the story that by the time I reach the end I feel as if I have already read the book.  There is such a thing as too much information. 

My second paragraph includes various reasons for why the book appealed to me, or why it did not.  I may discuss the characters, the writing, or throw in an interesting tidbit I have learned about the author.  Done.  Although I try to give them a lot of thought, in the big picture it’s not really a huge time consuming, literary effort.  My problem stems from procrastinating and not writing the review as soon as I finish the book.  I have a notebook where I write down the title of the book, the author and sometimes the date I finished the book.  I usually wait until I have read 4 or 5 books and then take an afternoon and/or evening to write about the books and post the entry.

I am the first to admit this is not the best strategy.  Unless the book was outstanding or part of a favorite series the characters and plot get a little fuzzy.  In all likelihood I am 2 or 3 books removed from the one I am writing about.  If I own the book I simply flip to the book flap to refresh my memory.  If it was a library book then a few click of the keys delivers a short library “description”.  Then I’m good to go.

That brings to mind the biggest change I notice in reading strictly for pleasure as I do now and reading for class in school back in the day.  In high school one book may have been the curriculum for the whole term.  Boy, that book was analyzed to death.  It was read and reread, dissected within an inch of its life; we were quizzed, wrote reports and then were tested on the book.  Before the next reading assignment began I was so tired of the book I couldn’t bear to look at the cover any more.  Because I needed to, I remembered plot specifics and character names and quotes and place names, and time frames … I am sure you know what I am talking about.

Reading for pleasure is much better.  I can enjoy the book while I am immersed in the pages and then move on to the next book without any feelings of guilt for not remembering a week later exactly what happened or all the character names.  Have I ever picked up or purchased a book thinking I would enjoy it, only to discover I have read it already?  Absolutely!  It usually only takes a page or two (or twenty) for me to realize it sounds familiar.  My excuse – the remainder and bargain book shelves at the bookstore are to blame.  Just between me and you – duplicate purchases make wonderful birthday and Christmas gifts for co-workers or for those people that unexpectedly show up with a gift for you and you have nothing planned to reciprocate.  I don’t feel bad.  I mean if the book ended up on my shelf twice, it must be a good book!  Just sayin’.

I mentioned at the top of this (too long) essay that there is a small sense of trepidation before I hit the “post” button on a review, particularly on the Goodreads site.  Authors join the site and have been known to read the reviews of their books.  I have received messages from authors thanking me for a review I posted.  I always feel touched that they took the time to bother with a message.  I am sure not all authors read the postings and the authors that do cannot possibly read all of them.  But, it does not surprise me that some read them.  I would.  I was the kid in school who was never really happy with a grade at the top of the paper.  I wanted comments too.

The other half of the reluctance I feel before hitting the send button comes with posting a negative review.  It’s my opinion, and I know I am entitled to it, but what if no one else agrees with me.  I once posted a very uncomplimentary review of a book written by a favorite author.  It was a tough one to write and submit.

The day after I posted it there was a notification in my email inbox telling me that someone had commented on that particular review.  Without sounding like I am tooting my own horn, I do get a lot of “likes” on my reviews, but not too many comments.  This was a comment on a negative review.  Crap!  I was afraid to go onto the site to look at it, but at the same time, neither could I resist.  With great relief the comment read simply “You nailed it”.  Whew.

I think I’m fairly comfortable with the thought of submitting reviews now. Recently I received notification from Goodreads that I was in the top 1% of the reviewers on the site.  I am not certain how they arrived at that figure.  Is it quantity, quality or response?  Honestly, it doesn't matter, I was extremely pleased!  Hey, who doesn't like positive reinforcement?

Alas, with glory comes responsibility as I am now receiving messages from “new” or “self-published” authors asking if I would review their work.  I am not sure how they choose their prey and at first it was flattering, now it is becoming a little intrusive.  No offense to struggling artists trying to break into a tough business, but it they are self-published (wincing) there is usually a reason.  I feel a sense of obligation to read the book if they send it to me electronically.  There are a few problems with accepting the works:  I have yet to find a hidden gem, I do not enjoy reading on my e-reader (and yes that topic could be whole other blog) and I don’t feel I have enough time to read the books I personally choose.  With great difficulty I have started to say “no thank you” to their requests.


The sites on which I post are not content with my reviews being shared, they have to throw in a curveball and expect me to rate the book with stars as well.  On the surface it seems like an easy thing to do, but things are never as simple as they appear.  You see, there are five stars from which to choose.  One star signifies I “really didn’t like it” and five stars indicate I “loved it”.  One or three or five … I hate making that decision.  It’s just too ambiguous!  It’s akin to being asked to rank your level of pain when you go the hospital.  Compared to someone else my pain level may feel like a six, but for me right there, right then it feels like a 12, so just make it go away and stop asking me stupid questions about numbers.

I may pick up a non-fiction book because the topic interests me at the time or the subject matter reflects something currently going on in my life.  Since the book is satisfying a need I have for information it is serving a purpose.  If the book imparts the information I was looking for it will get 5 stars because it met my expectations.  Where the issue starts to get cloudy is the fact that another reader will see 5 stars, assume that it is the most brilliant book ever written on that particular subject, pick it up with a completely different expectation and hate it.  Whoops!

A book that is part of series may receive 4 stars because I enjoy the series, the story moved the characters forward and it’s just fun for me to revisit the familiar.  Seeing 4 stars may entice someone to pick up the book without the background of the previous entries in the series and not understand what the heck is going on.  Whoops again!  Or, and here I speak from personal experience, they may love it and decide to catch up by reading the previous books.  In that case, “your welcome” publisher!  Please do not send me recommendations – I do not have the time to get involved in yet another series (she said again and again).

I hesitantly admit that I sometimes get caught up in the hoopla of an outstanding marketing campaign, Twilight for example.  Sorry, but I just couldn’t get on the bandwagon.  Had I even been able to finish the book it would have received 1 star.  I’m quite certain a wagon ride out of town involving tar and feathers would have been in my future.

Sometimes I like the story but find glaring errors in the text while reading the book.  I can forgive the occasional spelling mistake (typos being a particular specialty of mine) but a gross error in the continuity of the story or an outright mistake in information makes me grind my teeth.  I once read a description of the main character receiving an email that so upset her she had to walk away from her computer to calm down.  On the following page she returned to reread the message and was described as “picking up the letter to read it again”.  It was an email … she never printed it off … there was no letter to pick up!  I know it’s petty, but we avid readers demand a certain level of excellence.  Recently I was reading a book where the character was explaining the reason she and some friends were on their way to Washington.  It seems they had read about Gettysburg in one of their Thursday night ladies book club selections and decided to take a field trip and visit the place about which they were reading.  Hmm?  Now I’ve been to Gettysburg.  Admittedly I was not driving, so I didn’t pay close attention to road signs, but I would pretty much swear to the fact that I was not in Washington.  One less star for those books.

I’m sure you can see my dilemma; 1,2,3,4 or 5 stars is just too much pressure.  Thinking about it now, a negative star system might be more effective?  Nah – same pressure, just in reverse.

I guess the bottom line is that I enjoy reading.  I enjoy getting lost in someone else’s make believe and I enjoy sharing that with others who may get a little enjoyment out of the same books.  It’s very satisfying to think that someone would fall in love with a book that I, in some small way, was responsible for them picking up in the first place.

Originally posted on 09/22/2013

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