A diagnosis of motor neurone disease; a father’s dispiriting experience of censorship trials. An illustrated history of fonts; an essay on grief; a cold weather-appropriate record of geese-watching. I gear up for Nonfiction November by catching up on five nonfiction review books I’ve been sent over the last couple of months. You can’t say that I don’t read a variety, even within nonfiction! See if one or more of these tempts you.
A Short History of Falling: Everything I Observed about Love whilst Dying by Joe Hammond
Hammond, a playwright, takes a wry, clear-eyed approach to his diagnosis of motor neurone disease (ALS) and the knowledge that his physical capacities will only deteriorate from here on out. “New items arrive almost daily and I am unexpectedly becoming the curator of the Museum of my own Decline.” Yet he also freezes funnier moments, like blowing his nose on a slice of bread because he couldn’t reach a tissue box, or spending “six hours of my fiftieth birthday sat on this hospice toilet, with a bottle of good Scotch wedged between my knees.”
Still, Hammond regrets that he’s become like a third small child for his wife Gill to look after, joining his sons Tom and Jimmy, and that he won’t see his boys grow up. (This book arose from an article he wrote for the Guardian in 2018 about making 33 birthday cards for his sons to open in the years after his death.) Although I wasn’t as interested in the details of Hammond’s earlier life, or his relationship with his narcissistic father, I appreciated his quiet acceptance of disability, help and impending death.
“I’ve waited all my life to know this peace. To know that I am nothing more than this body.”
“my place in all of this is becoming smaller, historic and just the right size of important.”
With thanks to 4th Estate for the free copy for review.
An Author on Trial: The Story of a Forgotten Writer by Luciano Iorio
The author’s father, Giuseppe Jorio, was a journalist and schoolteacher who wrote an infamous novel based on an affair he had in the 1930s. Using italicized passages from his father’s diary and letters to Tina, who was 19 when their affair started, Iorio reconstructs the sordid events and unexpected aftermath in fairly vivid detail. Tina fell pregnant and decided to abort the baby. Meanwhile, Giuseppe’s wife, Bruna, got the truth out of him and responded with more grace than might be expected. Giuseppe was devastated at the loss of his potential offspring, and realized he wanted to have a child with Bruna. He bid Tina farewell and the family moved to Rome, where the author was born in 1937.
Giuseppe’s novel inspired by the affair, Il Fuoco del Mondo (The Fire of the World) was rejected by all major publishers and accused of obscenity in a series of five trials that threatened his reputation and morale. It’s a less familiar echo of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, and a poignant portrait of a man who felt he never lived up to his potential because of bad luck and societal disapproval. I enjoyed learning a bit about Italian literature. However, inconsistent use of tenses and shaky colloquial English (preposition issues, etc.) suggest that a co-writer or translator was needed to bring this self-published work up to scratch.
With thanks to the publicist for the free copy to review as part of a blog tour.
ABC of Typography by David Rault
[Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin]
From cuneiform to Gutenberg to Comic Sans, this history of typography is delightful. Graphic designer David Rault wrote the whole thing, but each chapter has a different illustrator, so the resulting book is like a taster course in comics styles. As such, I would highly recommend it to those who are fairly new to graphic novels and want to see whose work appeals to them, as well as to anyone who enjoyed Simon Garfield’s book about fonts, Just My Type.
I found it fascinating to explore the technical characteristics (serif vs. sans serif, etc.) and aesthetic associations of various fonts. For instance, I didn’t realize that my mainstay – Times New Roman – is now seen as a staid choice: “Highly readable, but overexposed in the early days of the Internet, it took on a reputation for drabness that it hasn’t shed since the ’90s.” Nowadays, some newspapers and brands pay typeface creators to make a font for their exclusive use. Can you name the typeface that is used on German road signs, or in Barack Obama’s campaign materials? (You’ll be able to after you read this.)
With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley
What Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” does for sickness, this does for bereavement. Specifically, Riley, whose son Jake died suddenly of a heart condition, examines how the experience of time changes during grief. “I’ll not be writing about death, but about an altered condition of life,” she opens. In short vignettes written from two weeks to three years after her son’s death, she reflects on how her thinking and feelings have morphed over time. She never rests with an easy answer when a mystery will do instead. “What if” questions and “as if” imaginings proliferate. Poetry – she has also written an exquisite book of poems, Say Something Back, responding to the loss of Jake – has a role to play in the acceptance of this new reality: “rhyme may do its minute work of holding time together.”
Max Porter provides a fulsome introduction to this expanded version of Riley’s essay, which first appeared in 2012. This small volume meant a lot more to him than it did to me; I preferred Riley’s poetic take on the same events. Still, this is sure to be a comfort for the bereaved.
“I’ll try to incorporate J’s best qualities of easy friendliness, warmth, and stoicism, and I shall carry him on in that way. Which is the only kind of resurrection of the dead that I know about.”
“I don’t experience him as in the least dead, but simply as ‘away’. Even if he’ll be away for my remaining lifetime. My best hope’s to have a hallucination of his presence when I’m dying myself.”
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
Wintering: A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt
Rutt’s The Seafarers: A Journey among Birds, one of my favorite recent nature/travel books, came out in May. What have we done to deserve another publication from this talented young author just four months later?! I didn’t enjoy this as much as The Seafarers, yet it does a lot of the same things well: it provides stunning word portraits of individual bird species, explores the interaction between nature and one’s mental state, and gathers evidence of the cultural importance of birds through legends and classical writings.
Here the focus is on geese, which the author had mostly overlooked until the year he moved to southern Scotland. Suddenly they were impossible to ignore, and as he became accustomed to his new home these geese sightings were a way of marking the seasons’ turn. Ethical issues like hunting, foie gras and down production come into play, and, perhaps ironically, the author eats goose for Christmas dinner!
Rutt’s points of reference include Paul Gallico (beware plot spoilers!), Aldo Leopold, Mary Oliver and Peter Scott. The writing in this short book reminded me most of Horatio Clare (especially The Light in the Dark) and Jim Crumley (who’s written many short seasonal and single-species nature books) this time around.
A favorite passage (I sympathize with the feelings of nomadism and dislocation):
“I envy the geese their certainty, their habits of home. I am forever torn between multiple places that feel like home. Scotland where I live or Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk: the flatlands of golden evenings and reeds, mud and water and sand. The distant horizon and all the space in between I grew up with, which seems to lurk somewhere, subconsciously calling me back.”
[Neat aside: My husband and I both got quotes (about The Seafarers) on the press release for this book!]
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I’m leery of accepting self-published work for review. If this is prejudice on my part, it’s not unjustified: I’ve reviewed hundreds of self-published books during my four years of freelance work for Kirkus, Foreword, BlueInk, Publishers Weekly, and The Bookbag, and although I do find the very occasional gem that could hold its own in a traditional market, the overall quality is poor. When self-published authors get in touch via my blog, I usually delete their enquiries immediately. But for some reason I decided to give a second look to a request I received through Goodreads earlier this year. (All identifying details have been removed.)
I’ll admit it: the flattery probably helped:
This was for a historical novel that had 4-star reviews from two Goodreads friends whose judgment I trust, so I agreed to have the author send a copy to my parents’ house in the States so that it would be waiting for me there when I arrived for my recent trip. When I opened the box, two alarm bells rang at once. First there was this. Uh oh.
Second of all: the author had taken the trouble of looking up restaurants in my parents’ area and ordered a $60 gift card from one of them to send along with the book parcel. Double uh oh.
I spent weeks wondering what in the world I was going to do about this ethical quandary. I even contacted a Goodreads friend who’d reviewed the book and asked what their experience with the author had been like. The reply was very telling:
I still feel unsettled over my interaction with [name redacted]. I’ve always made it a point not to review unsolicited books. But over a period of several weeks, [they] sent me a number of emails that ranged from flattering to fawning – and always polite and charming. Eventually, I, too, received a $60 gift card to a favorite restaurant that was within blocks of my home. I ended up, I believe, 4 starring [the] book, although the truth is that it was more of a 3-star read. Since reviewing, I have valued my independence – and honesty – and since then, have had the uncomfortable feeling of being “bought”, and for a low price at that.
I cannot tell you what to do. Obviously, I feel as if my own values were compromised. For me, it wasn’t worth what I still believe is a blot on my integrity. If you do decide to review, I’d simply encourage you to be honest because (I learned the hard way) the aftermath isn’t a good feeling.
Well, I’d promised to review the book, so I forced myself to open it, pencil in hand. After I’d corrected 10 problems of punctuation and grammar within the first six pages, I commenced skimming. There were some decent folksy metaphors and a not-half-bad dual narrative of a young woman’s odyssey and a small town’s feuds. But there were also dreadful sex scenes, melodramatic plot turns, and dialogue and slang that didn’t ring true for the time period. If I squinted pretty darn hard, I could see my way to likening the novel to the works of Ron Rash and Daniel Woodrell. But it wasn’t by any means a book I could genuinely recommend.
So when the author checked up a couple of months later to see whether I had gotten the book and what I thought of it, here’s what I replied:
I received the following abject apology, but no helpful information.
To my brief follow-up –
– I received this:
Note the phrase “self-promoted” and the meaningless repetition of “couldn’t put it down!”
And then they went on to disparage me for my age?!
I don’t believe for a minute that this person was ignorant of what they were doing in sending the gift cards. What’s saddest to me is that they have zero interest in getting an honest opinion of the work or hearing constructive criticism that could help them improve. They clearly don’t respect professionals’ estimation, either, or they’d be brave enough to pay for a review from Kirkus or another independent body. Instead, they’ve presumably been ‘paying’ $60 a pop to get fawning but utterly false 5-star reviews. Just imagine how much money they’ve spent on shipping and ‘thank-you gifts’ – easily many thousands of dollars.
And could I really have been the first in 180+ people to express misgivings about what was going on here? How worrying.
I was tempted to be generous and give the novel the briefest of 3-star reviews, perhaps as an addendum to another review on my blog, just so that I could feel justified in keeping the gift card and not have to face a confrontation with the author. But it didn’t feel right. If I want my reviews to have integrity, they have to reflect my honest opinions. As it stands, I have the gift card in an envelope, ready to be returned to the author when I’m in the States for my sister’s wedding next month; the book will most likely get dropped off at a Little Free Library.
If I was a vindictive person, I’d be going on Goodreads and Amazon and giving the book a 1-star review: as a necessary corrective to the bogus 5-star ones, and as a way of exposing this dodgy self-promotional activity. But that would in turn expose all of this person’s readers, including a valued Goodreads friend. And who knows how the author would try to retaliate.
So there you have it. My cautionary tale of a self-published author trying to buy my good opinion. What have I learned? Mostly to be even more wary of self-published work; possibly not to make any promises to review a book until I’ve seen a sample of it. But also to listen to my conscience and, when something is wrong, have the courage to speak out right away.
I’m curious: what would you have done?
Our address was chosen at random to take part in a nationwide time use survey run by NatCen Social Research in conjunction with the University of Oxford. On last Sunday and again this past Friday, we had to fill out the entire day’s activities in 10-minute blocks; for the whole week we also had to note our hours spent in paid work. My husband’s graph looked pretty standard, but mine resembled a Morse code message. Overall I did 35 paid hours –making for a fairly normal working week – but it was spread across the days, often in evenings or in odd chunks here and there.
Having my paid work, volunteer work and hobby all overlap in the realm of bookishness is convenient, but it also means I treat all my hours as potential work time. I consider my unpaid reviews (e.g. for Nudge, For Books’ Sake, The Bookbag, Shiny New Books and Third Way magazine) to be ‘work’ just as much as those I’m paid for, so it can feel like I put in much more than a 40-hour week.
The truth is that it’s hard to make a living from book reviews. Very few venues still pay for reviews – why would they, given the abundance of people who review for free on Amazon and Goodreads, among other websites? I’ve found some American print and web publications willing to pay for writing, but in the UK, paid opportunities can seem few and far between. My more reliable source of income is editing academic journal articles.
There’s one exception to the rule: self-published books. Indie authors have to do all their own marketing and publicity, so are eager to garner professional reviewers’ opinions. Several of my main gigs are for independent companies that provide book reviews to self-published authors, for a fee. There have some a handful of gems over the past 20 months, but there have also been some books so utterly terrible that they should never have seen the light of day.
I wrote to Ron Charles, the Washington Post’s book editor, last year and asked for his take on the situation. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote to him:
“It seems to be an irony of this life that the books I want to be reading and most enjoy, I usually don’t get paid to review; while many of the books I am paid to review (most of them self-published) range from okay to terrible. I wondered if you might have any advice for me – specifically, whether there is still money to be made from reviewing for traditional print media.”
He let me down in the nicest possible way:
“The short answer is, ‘No.’ There has never been much money to be made reviewing books, and, lately, there’s almost none. The collapse of almost all the nation’s book sections along with the rise of a million book blogs and a trillion customer reviews on online bookseller sites mean there’s very little demand for professional book reviews. For people who want to read about books, this is largely a good thing. For people who want to support themselves by writing about books, it’s problematic. If you write well and enjoy it, that may be enough. Or you may find some new way to write about books that could draw an online audience. I wish the best!”
Do I have some novel way of writing about books? I doubt I could make that case. I write for pay when I can, but for the most part I just follow my tastes and amass all the free new books I can – through the unpaid review venues mentioned above, from the library, via giveaways, or as electronic downloads from NetGalley and Edelweiss. Although I’m a writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; it’s an essential part of my identity rather than a professional goal.
Many of you may be bloggers who have a day job and review books purely for the love of it. I’d be interested to get some feedback from any of you who write book reviews, especially if you get paid for some but not for others:
- Do you feel varying degrees of pressure depending on the audience or venue you’re writing for?
- Does the knowledge that an author (perhaps a self-published one) is paying for your opinion mean that you approach the work differently?
- Do you see a future for paid book reviews?