Thursday, September 27, 2012

Book Talk: *The Forgetting Tree*, by Tatjana Soli (TLC Book Tour)

The Forgetting Tree: A Novel
Tatjana Soli
St. Martin's Press (September 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 1250001048 / 9781250001047)
Fiction, 416 pages
Source: ARC from publisher
Reason for reading: TLC Book Tour (featured in CBSLA’s Summer Reading Guide)

Opening lines: “He was a respectable and loyal man, Octavio Mejia, the father of six children, and he had been late to leave that day, treating an infestation of whitefly on the newly planted Valencia trees. It was a Friday evening, his daughter’s quinceaƱera, and he hurried the stick shift into reverse and stepped hard on the gas with his heavy, rubber-soled workboot even as the car bounced over a small mound under the lemon tree where he had parked for shade.

“Forster and Claire had insisted he go on with the family celebration even though they would not attend. But he also was in mourning for the missing boy. Did they not see? Octavio had worked hard his whole life and mainly had a mountain of bills to show for it. The quinceaƱera had cost his whole paycheck for two months, Forster chipping in a hefty bonus, and even then, his wife, Sofia, and his teenaged girls were not quite satisfied that it would out-shine the neighbors’ recent parties.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
When Claire Nagy marries Forster Baumsarg, the only son of prominent California citrus ranchers, she knows she’s consenting to a life of hard work, long days, and worry-fraught nights. But her love for Forster is so strong, she turns away from her literary education and embraces the life of the ranch, succumbing to its intoxicating rhythms and bounty until her love of the land becomes a part of her. Not even the tragic, senseless death of her son Joshua at kidnappers’ hands, her alienation from her two daughters, or the dissolution of her once-devoted marriage can pull her from the ranch she’s devoted her life to preserving. 
But despite having survived the most terrible of tragedies, Claire is about to face her greatest struggle: an illness that threatens not only to rip her from her land but take her very life. And she's chosen a caregiver, the inscrutable, Caribbean-born Minna, who may just be the darkest force of all.
Comments: Two of the qualities that made Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters  such a standout debut novel were a strong sense of place and a page-turning plot that demanded attention. Both of these were enhanced by Soli's gorgeous writing. Although the specifics of those qualities are very different in her second novel, The Forgetting Tree, they're all still there.

The Forgetting Tree almost feels like several novels in one. It's the story of a family in the aftermath of a horrible act of violence; it's an exploration of that family's ties to the land; it's the tale of a mysterious stranger who enters that family--told from both sides. It made me wonder at times whether Soli might have decided, at some point, to combine several originally unrelated story ideas and see what developed--which sounds a little haphazard, maybe, but it mostly seems to work, largely because most of it is centered on one character.

As the child of immigrants, Claire Nagy finds Forster Baumsarg's family legacy of citrus farming almost as appealing as Forster himself, and the early years of their marriage are about nurturing both the land and a growing family. Then tragedy strikes, and Claire clings more tightly to the farm than ever, even as her husband and daughters grow more apart from it, and from each other. Eventually Claire's the only one left...and she gets breast cancer. In need of a live-in companion while she goes through treatment, she welcomes a beautiful, intriguing West Indian woman into her home. Minna is mercurial and mysterious, but Claire may prefer her that way; it allows her to believe what she wants to believe about her. And then, just when the reader isn't entirely sure what to believe about Minna either, Soli completely switches gears to her perspective, although she ultimately returns the story to Claire.

The Forgetting Tree is a novel that feels both sprawling and intimate--it has the scope of a family saga, but is primarily told from a single character's perspective. Soli retains the gifts for vivid and evocative physical description she showed in The Lotus Eaters, and shows herself equally adept at creating complex psychological landscapes; many of the scenes between Claire and Minna feel fluid and dreamlike.

Soli's second novel is ambitious in a very different way from her first, and I appreciate that she's exploring other directions, and I think her writing is capable of sometimes elevating her material. Ultimately, I didn't find The Forgetting Tree as satisfying as The Lotus Eaters, but Tatjana Soli is a writer whose work I intend to continue following.

Rating: 3.75/5

Other stops on this TLC Book Tour:

Tuesday, September 4th: The Book Snob
Wednesday, September 5th: Bookish Habits
Thursday, September 6th: Broken Teepee
Monday, September 10th: nomadreader
Tuesday, September 11th: My Bookshelf
Wednesday, September 12th: The Written World
Thursday, September 13th: Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Tuesday, September 18th: West Metro Mommy
Wednesday, September 19th: Suko’s Notebook
Thursday, September 20th: So Simply Sara
Friday, September 21st: In the Next Room
Monday, September 24th: BookNAround
Tuesday, September 25th: Silver and Grace
Wednesday, September 26th: Chaos is a Friend of Mine
Friday, October 5th: Luxury Reading

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

This weekend, I will try to Create Alliances...

While many of you will be Bloggiesta-ing this weekend--Good luck! Have fun! Hope all your projects go well, and try a Mini-challenge or two while you’re at it!--I’m actually getting out from behind the computer for a couple of days and connecting with a smallish group of smart, creative women from the social-media world. (The iPad is coming with me, but the computer really will stay at home.)

Creative Alliance '12 logo

Creative Alliance ’12 (CA ’12) is
“...a boutique conference retreat experience slated for Sept. 27-30, 2012 in breathtaking Ojai, California. Founded by women savvy in social media, CA ’12 will be a smart and soulful experience where authentic and strategic alliances can be formed among creative business women in the online community.
"Built on the belief that authentic alliances are an integral component to building a successful online creative business venture, CA ’12 will focus on offering its attendees discussions that are both smart and soulful. After a weekend spent with like-minded women, CA ’12 attendees will leave armed with both information and inspiration as they continue to build their creative ventures.”
“Creative” is a word I struggle to apply to myself and what I do online, and a few freelance writing gigs do not an “online business woman” make. Yeah, I’m starting to wonder why they’re letting me come too...

This is only the second time around for Creative Alliance. I know a few people who went to the first CA in 2010, and their highly positive reactions to it were what interested me in going myself when an opportunity came around. I’ve gotten acquainted with more of the original attendees during the last several weeks, and it certainly does seem like authentic alliances were formed among them! It’s exciting to see that, but also a little nervous-making. It’s not like I’ll be the only first-timer there, but I’m starting to worry that this may all be a bit over my head.

The fact that it’s a small conference--less than 50 attendees--and will emphasize conversations in even smaller groups is good. The fact that it’s only an hour or so from home is also good.

The fact that it’s the first conference-type thing I’ve done in a couple of years with people who aren’t from my book-blogger world...probably won’t be bad, and may even be very good, but right now it’s probably the most nervous-making part of it. (Even more nervous-making than the fact that I’ve signed up to read a personal post in front of the group on Saturday night. Yes, really.) But everyone involved with the event emphasizes its supportive vibe, and reading this from returning attendee Ellie @ One Crafty Mother reinforces that:
“When my turn came, I squared my shoulders and did my best to drop the question mark. Hearing myself articulate not just my accomplishments but also my dreams (saying your dreams out loud is hard, and vulnerable-making), to a room full of women I previously considered intimidating, was so freeing. Hearing some of the biggest names in the social media world voice their own fears, or neuroses, put me instantly at ease.

"We're all the same inside, I thought, us creative types. Balancing on that beam of creativity and ambition. Juggling mission and ego. Creating from inside but still needing some kind of validation, especially from within our own community.
"Those bigger, crazier conferences (that I shall not name) are so loud, and crazy, and full of egos clamoring for attention. Those conferences bring out the worst in me, and I won't say my own ego isn't tossing its hat into the fray, hoping to be noticed.
"That's not what Creative Alliance is about, not at all. It's about finding your inner light, articulating your dreams, obstacles and fears to safe people who get it - man, do they get it - and forming a community that will pool their ideas and resources to help you achieve those dreams.”
Going into this weekend, I'm not entirely sure exactly what my creative dreams are. The chance to figure them out is one reason I'm doing this.
I’m pretty sure I’ll be out of my comfort zone, but there’s excitement mixed in with the nervousness. It sounds like I’ll be out of my comfort zone in the most comfortable environment possible, and I’m wondering what will be created there.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

We Walked to End Alzheimer's, and I Say "Thank You" and Share Pictures

My sister and I (with her husband and sons) Walk(ed) to End Alzheimer's this past weekend. The Thousand Oaks, California walk raised over $105,000, and thanks to some very generous and caring family, friends, and readers of this blog, I was responsible for about 1% of that total.

I've sent individual thanks to everyone who donated to the Alzheimer's Association through my Participant page, and I appreciate every dollar that they gave. But there are some people whose generosity went above and beyond, and I think they deserve special mention for their support...and even if they'd rather not be mentioned, I'm doing it anyway, because it's my blog and I can. I hope you'll join me in expressing my appreciation for:

my mother-in-law, Peggy
Jessica Gottlieb, and the ladies of Moms LA who rose to her personal challenge: Donna, Marsha, Sarah, Ciaran, Eva, Jeanne, Natalie, Lori, Adrienne, Jeannine, Becky, Amy, Yolanda, Deborah, and Shannon
Joy, whose donation pushed me just a little ways over my fundraising goal

The Walk began and ended on the lovely campus of California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks
Walk participants were given flowers on which to write the names of those they were honoring by walking. Organizers and volunteers planted them in a garden that greeted us when we returned to campus.
Younger Nephew--NOT a Wimpy Kid!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Book Talk: *One Last Thing Before I Go*, by Jonathan Tropper

cover of ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO, via IndieBound.org One Last Thing Before I Go
Jonathan Tropper (Twitter)
Dutton Adult (August 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0525952365 / 9780525952367)
Fiction, 352 pages
Source: ARC obtained at Book Expo America 2012
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines: “This is Tuesday, just under three weeks before his wife will be getting married, and a few days before Silver will tentatively decide that life isn’t necessarily worth living when you’ve been doing it as poorly as he has. It is seven years and four months or so since Denise divorced him for a host of valid reasons, and roughly eight years since his band, the Bent Daisies, released its only album and became rock stars overnight on the strength of their solitary hit, ‘Rest in Pieces.’ For one blessed summer it seemed as if the entire world was singing that song.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:You don’t have to look very hard at Drew Silver to see that mistakes have been made. His fleeting fame as the drummer for a one-hit wonder rock band is nearly a decade behind him. He lives in the Versailles, an apartment building filled almost exclusively with divorced men like him, and makes a living playing in wedding bands. His ex-wife, Denise, is about to marry a guy Silver can’t quite bring himself to hate. And his Princeton-bound teenage daughter Casey has just confided in him that she’s pregnant—because Silver is the one she cares least about letting down.

So when he learns that his heart requires emergency, lifesaving surgery, Silver makes the radical decision to refuse the operation, choosing instead to use what little time he has left to repair his relationship with Casey, become a better man, and live in the moment, even if that moment isn't destined to last very long. As his exasperated family looks on, Silver grapples with the ultimate question of whether or not his own life is worth saving.With the wedding looming and both Silver and Casey in crisis, this broken family struggles to come together, only to risk damaging each other even more.
Comments: With novels like How to Talk to a Widower, This Is Where I Leave You, and his newest, One Last Thing Before I Go, Jonathan Tropper seems to be staking out his own territory of fiction whose major theme is death (and divorce, which is a kind of death in its way, I suppose). Considering that subject matter, it's a surprisingly humorous place; and in light of the humor, its emotional resonance and insight can seem even more surprising.

Drew Silver--just "Silver" to nearly everyone, including his ex-wife, his semi-estranged daughter, and his own parents--has been physically and emotionally stuck for the better part of a decade, since the breakups of both his band and his marriage. When he's the first to be told by his daughter Casey--just graduated from high school as class valedictorian--that she's pregnant, no one's more surprised than he is, unless it's her. But the bigger surprise is that when he accompanies her to a clinic for what should be a fairly simple procedure, he's the one who ends up in the hospital. Tests after a small stroke reveal an aortic tear--a life-threatening condition, but at a stage where it can easily be fixed by surgery. But Silver doesn't want it fixed--he's screwed up enough, and all he wants is time to fix his relattionship with Casey before he makes his exit.

The father-daughter relationship is the central one in One Last Thing Before I Go, and it's a messy, complicated, ultimately endearing one. Silver believes Casey is a much better child than he deserves--she's clearly not perfect, but on balance, he's probably right about that, although their simultaneous crises are providing plenty of opportunities for him to make things up to her. His efforts to do that, fumbling as some of them are, were what eventually won me over. Silver has a massive self-pitying streak and was clearly suffering from untreated depression even before he accepted a probable death sentence; both are understandable, but as much as I wanted to sympathize, there were stretches of the novel where I found it pretty difficult.

In fact, what stands out to me about One Last Thing... is that it was a funny novel that made me feel profoundly sad for its characters at least as much as it tickled me. I didn't find it funny in the same way as This Is Where I Leave You; while it does have a few strong set pieces, much of its humor is wry, observational, and tinged with a very dark edge. It suits the material, but it wasn't quite what I expected. And I definitely did not expect to be moved nearly to tears, but I was, and more than just once or twice. That reaction made me question whether Tropper might actually be off his game; I was well into the novel before I decided that he was he very much on it, but he'd changed up the rules just a bit.

I usually write up my thoughts on a book as soon as possible after I finish it, but it took several days before I was ready to do that with One Last Thing Before I Go. I didn't expect to be so affected by it, but I'm so glad I was. Not only is Jonathan Tropper on his game here, he's raised the stakes; this may be his richest novel yet, and I think it may end up as one of my favorite reads of the year.

Rating: 4 of 5

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Picture It: The Reagan Library and Museum

Flags @ Reagan Library
Those of you who are at all familiar with my political leanings will not be the slightest bit surprised that, despite the fact that I have lived, literally, down the hill from it for almost four years, I never visited the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum until a couple of weeks ago.

The Library itself isn't open to the general public, but the Museum recaps the life and careers--Hollywood, Sacramento, and Washington eras--of the late actor, California governor and 40th President through a variety of exhibits, some of which may also be interesting to a less partisan audience.

View from the Reagan Library, above Simi Valley
View from the Reagan Library

A re-creation of the Reagan-era Oval Office, at a slightly reduced scale

Reagan Library Oval Office re-creation

Reagan Library Oval Office re-creation

An expansion to the original museum houses the Boeing 707 that served as Air Force One for President Reagan. Visitors may walk through the plane, but no photography is allowed inside it. Notice the tables? The Air Force One Pavilion is available for private functions, including corporate events and high-school proms.

Air Force One @ Reagan Library

Air Force One @ Reagan Library

Reagan famously said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." A piece of the dismantled Berlin Wall is now installed on the Museum grounds.

Berlin Wall section @ Reagan Library

What finally brought me to the Reagan Library actually had very little to do with Ronald Reagan, though--it was all about his old friend Walt Disney. D23, the Official Disney Fan Club, is presenting its "Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives" exhibit at the Library until April 2013, which features many artifacts--including collectibles, source materials, and props--never before seen by the public. I wrote about the exhibit in the feature "Mickey Comes to Simi Valley" for CBSLA.com this week.

Disney Treasures @ Reagan Library

Admission to the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California includes all permanent and temporary Museum exhibits, including "Treasures of the Disney Archives." My husband and I purchased our own tickets to the Library in order to prepare a feature about the Disney exhibit for CBSLA.com "Best of LA", for which I was compensated.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sunday Salon: After BBAW, Picture Reading

This year's edition of Book Blogger Appreciation Week--without awards, and focused on the community spirit of book blogging--seemed to be a big success! I didn't follow the daily topics all that closely, but two of them provided me with ways into tying up a couple of posts I've been working on for a little while: responses to recent discussions of authenticity and positivity in book reviewing.

But for me, the biggest and best effect of BBAW was a sense of reconnection and renewed energy, and I'm working on a way to foster that going forward--not just for myself, but for all of us who'd like to keep it going. I hope to let y'all know more details soon--I need a little more time to piece it together, but I will say I've approached the hosts of our playground, The Estella Society, about presenting it there, and they liked it!

Meanwhile, here's what I'm reading this weekend:

And here's what I'm not--and why I always bring a book with me. Does anyone else think hair salons need a circulating library?

Enjoy your Sunday! What are you reading this weekend?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Book Blogging: Really, Positively Enthusiastic

I think that when most of us can freely choose what to read--when there’s no obligation or assignment--we’re usually going to pick books we think we’ll like. It may not always turn out that way--sometimes a favorite author has an “off” book, sometimes a book description is less than accurate, sometimes The Book Everyone Loves just isn’t our thing--but for the most part, I doubt that regularly reading authors or genres or topics we dislike or lack interest in is anyone’s idea of fun. (It may be your job to read those, sometimes, if you’re a paid reviewer...but that’s why it’s a job.)

I rate the books I read on LibraryThing (where I also cross-post most reviews), and wondered if my rating stats would support that proposition. LT ratings are on a zero-to-five-star scale, and allow for half-stars.

Average rating: (3.55)
The bulk of my ratings are solidly in the middle to upper-middle range. I think that’s a fair indicator that I like most of what I read, and therefore, most of what I say about most books will probably be positive. And when it’s not, I’ll usually approach the negatives carefully and, sometimes, with a degree of regret that some aspect of the book fell short.

Based on five-plus years of book blogging and reading book blogs, what I’m doing is not particularly unique. Given that most of us blog about books for the love of it, it makes sense to me that we tend to accentuate the positive.

Beth Kephart, author and blogger, independently reviews books for various publications, and recommends them on her own blog:
“I read, often, dozens of books each month. On this blog I only talk about the ones I love...I choose to write about that which inspires me, or heartens me. I choose not to add darkness to days, choose not to hurt if it is not required. When days go by without my blogging about others' books, that is because I've not lately fallen in love.

"But when I am asked—by the Chicago Tribune, by the Pennsylvania Gazette, by various other publications—to give my opinion about books I have not chosen, there is no walking away. I have an obligation, a responsibility, to tell it as I see it then..It may not in my nature to be cruel, but it is in my nature to be decisive about books. And so I aim, always, to criticize constructively, to speak of a book's perceived flaws as I would about the work of a beloved student...to suggest, to query, to wonder out loud, to ask, Could more have been done?”
"Thinking out loud" badge (edited stock photo)
I think Beth beautifully delineates more objective critique and reader’s enthusiasm, and clarifies that there’s a place for both. Enthusiastic recommendation and a preference for avoiding negativity are two of the privileges of being a book blogger, and they help distinguish blogger-style book reviews from more traditional book criticism...while at the same time, they may be influencing a change in old-school reviews. In Salon, Laura Miller made a “case for positive book reviews,” noting that
“Since the average new book is invisible to the average reader*, critics who have a choice usually prefer to call attention to books they find praiseworthy...platforms on which to write about books for a general audience are vanishing fast. Most of the readers drawn to such publications want to be informed of the best new books and to read criticism that enhances their understanding of and appreciation for those books.”
*Note: Most book bloggers probably are not “average readers,” and many are highly aware of new books, but I think the broader point is probably valid.

Miller wrote in response to other recent pieces suggesting that there isn’t enough *critique* in current book criticism, and that it’s because readers and writers--who are sometimes the same people--are too nice and “like” each other too much. In “Against Enthusiasm,” the Slate piece that got this ball rolling, Jacob Silverman argues that “recommending" is supplanting "reviewing:"
“Reviewers shouldn't be recommendation machines...As if mirroring the surrounding culture, biting criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal—one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person. Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they <3 so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web. And, of course, critics, most of them freelance and hungry for work, want to appeal to fans and readers as well; so to connect with them, they must become them.”
Having quoted Beth Kephart earlier, I should mention that Beth is an author who has become a friend. I mention it because I think that Silverman may have a point about the social-media-fostered closeness among writers, readers, and reviewers--who. again, may be some of the same people--and I think it’s something bloggers need to keep in mind. Getting to know authors beyond their books is another book-blogger privilege, and many of us embrace the opportunity to champion our favorites. I seldom question the honesty of such enthusiasm, and I enjoy expressing it myself. That said, I think that if payment for a review warrants disclosure--because of the perception that it might influence the reviewer’s opinion in a particular direction--so might a friendly relationship with an author, for much the same reason.

(And if the author is the one paying for the review? If they ordered it from Kirkus Indie, they can opt not to use it if they don’t like it what the reviewer said; if they bought it from GettingBookReviews.com, the subject of that New York Times article, they paid to be liked--in some cases, liked a lot. Either way, such a “review” might be more appropriately considered advertising, and there definitely are rules about disclosing that.)

BBAW 2012 badge

Today's BBAW theme encourages bloggers to promote a favorite book. I'd say that's something we do, with enthusiasm, at every opportunity.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

On Book Blogging: An Authentic Opinion is Priceless

Today's BBAW topic is a deceptively simple question: “What does book blogging mean to you?”

Short answer: Book blogging means thoughtful, honest, and often enthusiastic opinions and discussions about books, reading, and related topics from people who love talking about them, where such talk can lead to fun, fellowship, and friendships.

That leads into a much longer answer that begins with another question:

Have you ever wondered whether the opinions expressed in a traditional-media review of anything--book, movie, gadget, restaurant--might be less-than-honest ones, because the reviewer was paid to express them? I’m pretty sure I haven’t; I’ve assumed that the evaluation is made as fairly and objectively as possible, and that the opinions will be supported with analysis and examples as appropriate. That’s the basis of critique--and the traditional reviewer’s job description, I think (and may not be an approach a non-traditional, non-paid book blogger will choose to take).

"Thinking out loud" badge (edited stock photo)
On the other hand, maybe the explosion in “user” reviews over the last decade--and I’d include blogger reviews in there, as well as the customer reviews on assorted e-commerce sites--is an indicator that the opinions of people who aren’t paid to be “critics” in that traditional sense are perceived as being more honest; or at any rate, more authentic. In that light, the various disclosure practices used by bloggers when they receive product and/or payment for reviews--disclosures not made or expected in traditional media, where the same things happen--seem a way of asserting that “This is still my honest, real-person opinion, and I really did like this.” (Or not, but somehow the issue of payment is far less likely to come up in connection with a negative opinion...)

Liz Gumbinner of Mom-101 recently asked “When is the last time you bought a product off Amazon because of a four-star review from someone paid to write that four-star review?” Maybe you just didn’t know the reviewer was paid. As we’ve recently learned via a report in the New York Times, “real-person” opinions can indeed be bought, and there’s a significant market for positive ones. For some products--self-published books, for example--they’re essential marketing tools:
“Reviews by ordinary people have become an essential mechanism for selling almost anything online...In many situations, these reviews are supplanting the marketing department, the press agent, advertisements, word of mouth and the professional critique. But not just any kind of review will do. They have to be somewhere between enthusiastic and ecstatic.”
Jeff O’Neal at Book Riot dissected the NYT piece in a close-read, and notes that “(t)he only reason reviews matter at all is because of the implicit ‘unbiased third party’ understanding of reviews.” In that light, it’s certainly hard to see a purchased, positive review as “unbiased”--and understandably upsetting to discover that reviews you thought came from real, presumably unbiased fellow readers really might not be that after all. It’s an object lesson: disclosure matters because perceptions do, and so, even if we sometimes are annoyed and resentful that we’re expected to make those disclosures, we need to do it anyway.

Perceptions are based on what we see, and ideally, what we see is based on something genuine; integrity and credibility are hard to fake, but easy to shake. As one of Shelf Awareness’ paid reviewers, I appreciated editor Marilyn Dahl’s recent response to questions about honesty in positive reviewing (Shelf Awareness for Readers, September 4, 2012):
“We review good books, books we like, books we have discovered. Each week we publish 25 reviews of the best books just out, since we want to highlight books people will want to read. We aren't into lambasting and snark (although it can be tempting).. 
We get galleys or ARCs, which are pre-publication editions of books. We send them to our reviewers well in advance of publication, according to the reviewers' subject preferences. The reviewers then decide which books they will cover, based on the quality of the book (or the phases of the moon--it's not an exact science). Sometimes I will suggest a book based on my personal inclination or on information they might not have yet, but that's it. They are also told to be critical when warranted, as long the bottom line tips toward the positive. We sometimes have a back-and-forth about decisions, usually ending with ‘Life's too short, move on to something else.’”
Personally, I haven’t had trouble with the “positive bottom line” in reviewing for SA, as I try not to choose books I don’t think I’ll like (and even if I misjudge that, it doesn’t mean no one else will like it). But I found it interesting that a story about paying for positive book reviews popped up in the midst of an online conversation of whether book reviews in general are overly positive, period...but that’s a topic I’ll save for tomorrow, as this post is already flirting with tl;dr territory.

BBAW 2012 badge

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

BBAW 2012: A Little (Overdue) Appreciation!

It was actually yesterday’s blogging topic for Book Blogger Appreciation Week (BBAW), but as I was exercising a personal agenda then--and I’m not participating in today’s Interview Swap--I’m coming to this one a day late, but with no less sincerity:
Monday: Appreciation! There are no awards this year, but it can still be hard to navigate the huge universe of book blogging. Share with your readers some of the blogs you enjoy reading daily and why.
BBAW 2012 button

This is the fifth BBAW (I haven't missed one, even if I don't always participate fully) and I’ve been blogging primarily (but not exclusively) about books for 5.5 years as of this week (!). I subscribe to an awful lot of book blogs (several hundred--I’d rather not know the exact number). Some have left the scene for one reason or another, and I don’t add new ones as regularly as I used to. I don’t always get to read everyone’s posts every day, and I have become a sadly sporadic commenter. But these are some of folks who make my book-blogger world a better place--and if you don’t know them already, I hope you will soon!

I did get in shout-outs to my Armchair BEA teammates on Twitter yesterday: Danielle (There’s a Book), Michelle (That’s What She Read), Tif (Tif Talks Books), Emily (Emily’s Reading Room) and Chris (Chrisbookarama). I interact with some of these folks more on Twitter and Facebook than I do through their blogs, as in some cases our reading tastes are very different. That said, they comprise one of the best, most functional groups I’ve ever worked with in the online or offline world, and we are committed to improving the Armchair BEA experience every year!

As founder of Book Blogger Appreciation Week (and instigator/participant in many other projects), Amy (My Friend Amy) is a friend to many of us and the one who makes this week possible. She’s also one of the book bloggers who lives relatively close to me but I don’t get to see often enough, along with Jill aka Softdrink (Fizzy Thoughts), Ti (Book Chatter) and the aforementioned Danielle.

I’ll be honest: I make an extra effort to keep up with bloggers I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with offline, and I'm extra-fortunate to count some of them as friends now, too. (A lot of bonding goes on around conferences and conventions, and that’s a better reason to go to them than free books and other swag.) Among others, I’ve been privileged to enjoy some of these events with Melissa (The Betty and Boo Chronicles, until she makes a decision about re-naming it), Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Teresa (Shelf Love), and Jill (Rhapsody in Books). They’re all thoughtful, thought-provoking writers whose opinions and bookish recommendations I take seriously (and the first two are also excellent roommates!). I want to include Kathy (BermudaOnion) in this group too. She was my interview partner for the first BBAW, and without her faithful commenting, many posts here (and on other blogs too, I’m sure) would feel quite unloved--I think many of us owe her some appreciation for that!

Of course, if I confined my feed reader to the blogs of people I’ve met in person, I wouldn’t have several hundred blogs in there! So I’ll wrap this up with appreciations of a few book-blogging folks I haven’t met (yet!):

Andi (Estella’s Revenge), who continues to influence fellow bloggers after more than seven years; Sandy (You’ve GOTTA Read This!), who has influenced my explorations into audiobooks over the past year (along with Jennifer (Literate Housewife) and Candace (Beth Fish Reads), both of whom I have met); and Bryan aka UnfinishedPerson, who takes the title “book blogger” on and off like a hat but seems to remain one of us at heart (and in many of his posts).

Blogging in general has enlarged and reshaped my life; blogging about books has opened up my eyes, my mind, and my circle of friends. I appreciate that more than I can say.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Annual Alzheimer's Post, 2012 edition: Still Walking

(I call this "The Annual Alzheimer's Post" because, with only minor changes, I do it every year, just as I do the Walk to End Alzheimer's. Details on the 2012 Walk are below.)

On October 8, 1999, my mother, Mary Ann Corsino Lantos, passed away. A New York City native and, after a nine-year detour to southwestern Connecticut, a resident of St. Petersburg, Florida for 22 years, she was 69 years old at the time of her death. She was survived by her husband, two adult daughters, and one teenage grandson. 

But our family had truly lost her well before that. For over seven years, she had been living in a nursing home, incapacitated by early-onset Alzheimer's disease. We had begun to see changes in her health, demeanor, and personality when she was in her mid-to-late 50's - sudden weight loss, strange sleeping habits, difficulty in speaking, disengagement with her family and surroundings, paranoia and hallucinations - but her long-standing fear of doctors and medications caused her to resist our efforts to get her to seek help. My sister and I had both moved away, and geographic distance and the demands of our own lives limited what we could do about her situation; my dad was uninformed, fundamentally passive, and unprepared to force the issue. By the time Mom reached the point where something had to be done, there wasn't a realistic alternative to round-the-clock care for her, and the next several years were spent in a form of limbo. By the time she died, much of our grieving had been long underway; Alzheimer's doesn't take the body quickly, but it does take the intangibles that make a person unique and special.

My experience with Alzheimer’s has left me with feelings of loss, guilt, and fear. I often feel that I didn’t do enough to help with or advocate for my mother. I was a young mother myself at the time she became ill, and lived over 1000 miles away for most of the years until she died, and those facts have helped me rationalize my lack of involvement. But I wonder whether I would have done many things differently if I had been there--and I’m not sure I would have. The distance and denial feel connected, and they both feed guilt, even now.

The fear comes from the scientific facts about Alzheimer’s, including these: it remains difficult to diagnose in a timely manner, lacks effective long-term treatments, and is an incurable, terminal condition. It’s still associated with many unknowns, as the 2010 Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s, elaborates:
  • What causes Alzheimer’s? Is it inherited? What causes younger-onset Alzheimer’s? Is there any treatment that can delay the onset or slow down the course of the disease?
  • What about new tests that may be able to tell you if you’re going to get Alzheimer’s? Are the tests ready for use? Are they accurate? Who would be a candidate to take them? If there are no foolproof treatments yet, what’s the good of knowing?
  • What can we do to prevent Alzheimer’s? Do lifestyle changes really help? Should we all be hitting the treadmill, drinking tea, doing crossword puzzles, taking Omega-3 and Vitamin D?
  • Why do more women get Alzheimer’s than men? Is it just because women live longer? Does estrogen play a part in prevention? If so, how much and when?
  • What exactly is the natural course of the disease? Why does it play out in a few years for some patients, in a decade or more for others? Why do different people have different symptoms: some explosively angry, others hypersexual, still others mumbling or even silent? In other words, why is it that, “Once you’ve seen one case of Alzheimer’s, you’ve seen…one case of Alzheimer’s”?
  • And for God’s sake, when will there be a cure?
Those living with Alzheimer’s--not just the patients, but their families and other caregivers--need resources and support now. Those who could find themselves living with it in the future need research to answer some of those unknowns.

The annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the nation’s major fundraising/awareness event on behalf of this disease:

"The Alzheimer's Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s™ is the nation’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. Held annually in more than 600 communities nationwide, this inspiring event calls on participants of all ages and abilities to reclaim the future for millions. Together, we can end Alzheimer’s disease, the nation’s sixth-leading cause of death.
Walk to End Alzheimer’s unites the entire community — family, friends, co-workers, social and religious groups and more --- in a display of combined strength and dedication in the fight against this devastating disease. While there is no fee to register, each participant is expected to fundraise in order to contribute to the cause and raise awareness.

When you participate in Walk, your fundraising dollars fuel our mission-related initiatives of care, support and research. In addition, your actions, both through fundraising and participating in the event, help to change the level of Alzheimer’s awareness in your community. At a Walk event, you can learn more about Alzheimer’s disease and the support programs and services offered by your local chapter. You will also have unique opportunities to get involved with the cause through advocacy initiatives and clinical trial enrollment."
All of the unknowns can leave a person feeling that there’s little she can do about Alzheimer’s. Participating in this walk every year is one thing I can do, both in remembrance of my mother and in support of a healthier future. My family and I will be walking in at the California Lutheran University campus in Thousand Oaks, California on Saturday morning, September 22. If you’re local, we’d love to have you join us there!

I do have a fundraising goal for the Walk, and if you’d consider a donation to help me reach it, I would seriously appreciate you!

Previous posts about Alzheimer’s on The 3 R’s Blog (sources for some of the material included in this one):

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sunday Salon: A Big Month in Book-Blogger Land!

Sunday Salon badgeIt's September. Summer is winding down--if you live your life by the academic calendar, you may consider it over already. (And if you live your life in the Southern Hemisphere, you're looking ahead to spring instead of autumn! But anyway...) In any case, the calendar is filling up with fun events for book bloggers!

It feels like it's snuck up on us this year, but the original book-blog community-fest--Book Blogger Appreciation Week--is back, and it kicks off tomorrow!

BBAW 2012 badge

BBAW is scaled back a bit this year--no awards or sponsored giveaways--but there will still be daily blogging topics, guest posts at the BBAW site, and the ever-popular interview swap; and new for 2012: the BBAW Tumblr!

My own BBAW participation will probably be limited this year, but I've been working on a big post that touches on several book-blogging-related topics that wouldn't be inappropriate to publish this week, so with luck (and another hour or two to work on it) I'll finally get it done!

Bloggiesta badge
Unfortunately, I won't be able to participate in the Fall edition of Bloggiesta due to a prior commitment for the weekend of September 28-30, but sign-ups are open now, and it's such a great time to tackle all those bloggy housekeeping projects you never seem to get to!

But this year, I do not intend to miss participating in Banned Books Week (Sept. 30-Oct. 6), which is one of the most significant and gratifying reading events of the year, especially when you're celebrating it with Sheila at Book Journey.

Banned Books Week Celebration at Book Journey

I'm planning to read both of these frequently-challenged YA classics:

THE CHOCOLATE WAR by Robert Cormier (mass-market PB)THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. Hinton (mass-market PB)

I haven't read either one since my own YA days--before Banned Books Week even existed (this year marks its 30th anniversary)--and I'm curious to revisit them with an eye to seeing just why they're both regulars on the annual "frequently-challenged books" list.

Will any of these events be on your calendar this month?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Scenes From a Sunday Drive; or, Why We Come to California

These photos were taken driving south on the Pacific Coast Highway from Point Mugu, north of Malibu, to Santa Monica on the Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend. They were edited using iPhoto, but primarily for cropping, composition, and brightness adjustments--I haven't enhanced the colors.
Pacific Ocean off Point Mugu, 9/2/2012

The PCH cuts between the rocks here at Point Mugu. You may have seen this spot in many car commercials...
Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean off Point Mugu, 9/2/2012

Surf is way up near Point Mugu
Pacific Ocean surf splashes off Point Mugu, 9/2/2012

Highway signs over PCH, Santa Monica

Down in Santa Monica, later the same morning
In the sky over Santa Monica, 9/2/2012

Holiday weekend crowds hit the Santa Monica Pier
Holiday weekend at the Santa Monica Pier, 9/2/12

My daily routines don't offer the chance to spend many sunny mornings on the coast, but when we do get an opportunity to seize the day--and the day is just what the Convention and Visitors Bureau ordered--I understand and remember the lure of Southern California. Scenes like this are why people come here, and part of why--despite the traffic, sprawl, crowds, cost of living, and general screwed-up-ness--some of us don't leave.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Always Have a Backup Plan: a "Learning Experience"

There are so many things I like about blogging, but one that I don't talk about all that often is the technical side. Maintaining a blog for almost 5.5 years has been a great opportunity to learn on the job. I'm pretty much self-taught and far from an expert, but I maintain this blog on my own...and usually, I know enough to keep me out of trouble. Not always, though.

I'm most likely to get myself into trouble when I'm tempted by the new and shiny. I'm always on the lookout for new tech tricks and apps to try--on my phone, on the iPad, and on the blog. This all started with a post from Blogger Buzz about making their Dynamic Views available for blogs on mobile devices, which made me think about why I wasn't using it for my desktop blog template. I'd seen other blogs using the DV layouts, and liked the look; I also knew I hadn't installed it when it first came out because it didn't support gadgets, but they'd since added that--should I check it out again?

Dynamic Views aren't ready for me. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way, and was up till almost midnight last Wednesday restoring The 3 R's Blog to the way it looked before my ill-fated experiment. If you're using the Blogger platform I hope you'll read this and learn from my experience, but the last of my bullet points applies to any blog software.
  • Blogger's own documentation says that you can "revert to a previous template" after "testing" a new one, without losing any custom code you may have installed--but I could not find the "revert" button they illustrate (see below) in the Template Designer, so, at least for me, it was not that easy. Don't take chances. Download and save your current template before you change anything, so you can restore it after you test if you don't like the results.
Blogger Template Designer "revert" link

  • If you've installed a lot of blog gadgets--bits of code in those little boxes in your sidebar--or made other tweaks in the HTML of the template, they most likely will not work in Blogger's Dynamic Views. The only gadgets it supports are those it's already coded into the templates. DV does not work with third-party JavaScript, and the templates--although they have a great, clean look--don't have traditional sidebars (not even the one called "Sidebar"). If those gadgets--like ad code for providers other than AdSense, or a commenting system--really matter to you, or if you just like having those sidebar buttons and links around, don't even try out DV at this time. End of story.
Blogger Dynamic Views "Sidebar"

  • "Backing up your blog" doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as  "backing up your template." Your template may live in a separate file. Your blog platform should have utilities to export both blog and template files to your hard drive for backup/storage purposes--use them. Frequently. I had a blog backup file I loaded into my test blog--and it didn't make all the changes I needed in that template. I'd hoped it would, so I could basically transfer that updated template here. That hurt, and it was the biggest reason for my late-night blog-surgery session, because I had to make most of the changes by hand.
  • Bookmark http://www.cachedpages.com/. You should be able to find a recent capture of your blog's front page there, and it will be a valuable visual reference if you're unfortunate enough to need it--you won't be able to access the underlying code, but you'll be able to see what it all looked like.
I partly blame Blogger's incorrect documentation for this snafu--please don't tell users they can revert their templates if they actually can't!--but ultimately I got myself into this because I didn't have a proper backup plan in place. Learn from my mistake, y'all--I made it so you won't have to!