Saturday, June 23, 2007

Tough at the top

I'm not in a position to question how anyone else uses their time and talent, but some of what goes on at highlights the lengths to which people will go to stand out on our crowded little world.

First, there's the top reviewer, Harriet Klausner, whose reviews number in the mind-boggling five digits. After skimming some of HK's reviews, I noticed that:

• She reads a lot of genre fiction that neither a typical book lover nor a member of the literati would be interested in.

• Her reviews are formulaic and and are not truly reviews. Generally, there are two paragraphs of plot summary, which some claim is incorrect in many cases, and one paragraph of what the book does well or other simplified commentary.

• It probably takes her 15-20 minutes to bang each of them out; it probably takes her longer than that to submit them to all the Web sites in which she participates.

• For a librarian and a reader, HK's spelling and grammar seem remarkably bad. Some reviews that I read bordered on nonsensical due to poorly written and unedited run-on sentences.

• Many of HK's reviews have garnered a large number of "not helpful" votes, partly because, like anyone else at the top, she has detractors who look for her reviews for the purpose of voting against them. It's fair to say, however, that the reviews I read are not helpful; they are more like publishers' promotional blurbs than critical commentary.

• She averages 6 helpful votes per review.

Another top reviewer, Grady Harp, writes what seem to be reasonably helpful reviews. GH’s reviews, however, are notorious for generating dozens of positive votes in very short periods of time; several of his recent reviews picked up 60+ positive votes within a day or two of posting. The general idea is that Grady has a network of supporters who vote immediately whenever he posts a review, making his reviews seem more popular than they actually are and launching him into his status as a top reviewer.

HK and GH each have found a way to be a star of much notoriety and little merit, mass producing reviews and votes so they will be noticed by a world whose attention span is short, scattered, and fickle. To some extent it works; HK has been interviewed by reporters who don't have the courage to point out that her reviews seem to be less about being helpful and more about maintaining her status. In no less than TIME magazine Lev Grossman gushed:

Without the web, Harriet Klausner would be just an ordinary human being with an extraordinary talent. Instead she is one of the world's most prolific and influential book reviewers. . . . Klausner is part of a quiet revolution in the way American taste gets made. The influence of newspaper and magazine critics is on the wane. People don't care to be lectured by professionals on what they should read or listen to or see. They're increasingly likely to pay attention to amateur online reviewers, bloggers and Amazon critics like Klausner. Online critics have a kind of just-plain-folks authenticity that the professionals just can't match. They're not fancy. They don't have an agenda. They just read for fun, the way you do. Publishers treat Klausner as a pro, sending her free books—50 a week—in hopes of getting her attention. . . . Like any other good critic, Klausner has her share of enemies. "Harriet, please get a life," someone begged her on a message board, "and leave us poor Amazon customers alone."

I found this fascinating. HK's only extraordinary talent appears to be speed reading, which she shares with millions. It is certainly neither writing nor criticism. How "influential" is she? Not very, judging by the number of votes her reviews get, positive and negative. While Grossman classes her as an authentic "amateur," he follows up by saying publishers treat her like a "pro." Surely that negates some of the "authenticity." Finally, he attributes any enmity to HK's status as a "good critic," which is highly debatable from both objective and subjective perspectives. I'm not a "Harriet-hater," as these enemies are known. I simply don't think she has any special talents or that she is a good reviewer, amateur or professional.

I started to write reviews for several reasons: (1) to improve my critical thinking and writing skills, (2) to help me remember more about the books I've read (I'm both a slow reader and a forgetful person), and (3) to provide what I hope is balanced commentary for people interested in the same types of books I am.

I admit that I enjoy getting positive votes from strangers and that I'm disappointed when a review I'm proud of, for example, my commentary on Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, is deemed "unhelpful." I recognize that this may reflect disagreement rather than degree of helpfulness, but it is discouraging nonetheless.

That said, I've never thought of reviewing as a competitive sport or other reviewers as competitors.

If I have intrigued someone about a relatively obscure novel like In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse, made someone think a little more critically about Henry Miller, steered someone away from the muddy and muddled feminism of Naomi Wolf, interested someone in finding out more about Zitkala-Sa or the Trail of Tears, or helped someone to enjoy 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories, then I have accomplished much of what I set out to do. I will leave HK to churn out dozens of reviews a month and GH to savor his dozens of positive votes a day.

I suppose this means I can’t expect TIME magazine to call. Newsweek, perhaps?

Postscript: According to Wikipedia, "In 2007, [Harriet Klausner] was named by TIME magazine as one of the 15 of the 'Web generation’s movers and shakers.'" What a sad comment on the state of journalism. Shame on TIME.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Matthew Fox on work

We may be forced to take a job serving food at a fast-food place for $4.25 an hour in order to pay our bills, but work is something else. Work comes from inside out; work is the expression of our soul, our inner being. It is unique to the individual; it is creative. Work is an expression of the Spirit at work in the world through us. Work is that which puts us in touch with others, not so much at the level of personal interaction, but at the level of service in the community.

From the introduction to The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time by Matthew Fox

Monday, June 18, 2007

Life in the fast lane

Note: I wrote this in September 2006 and found it today.

I don't drive. I never learned to, and I don't have a license—so am I allowed to comment on driving? After three recent trips with a friend to the Bristol Renaissance Faire, about an hour and a half from where I live in Chicago, I think I can.

First, there is the universal contempt for the speed limit. They are more like speed guidelines that are an eyesore and a waste of steel and paint since they serve no purpose. For example, the speed limit on I94 is 65 mph; I always assumed this was the upper limit. We were driving 70 mph, and many if not most cars were passing us. Some in the left-hand lane zoomed past so fast that I think it's safe to assume they were approaching 85 to 90 mph. I found myself wondering what destination could be worth the possibility of a flaming death or manslaughter charges to so many.

My friend worries that, when he drives at 70 mph to keep up with the flow, he will be singled out to get a ticket. He may be right. The license plates of the cars in the left-hand lane tend to be a blur.

Conditions are not always perfect, of course. The third time we went to the Faire, on Labor Day, there were several heavy downpours. Water streamed on the road, and trucks and larger vehicles threw up a constant spray that made the poor visibility even worse. Traffic slowed as a result of conditions—by 5–15 mph. Yes, some people reduced their speed to close to the speed limit set for ideal conditions. Places to go, people to see . . .

My favorites, though, are the lane crossers. Some are in the left-hand lane when they realize that they are rapidly approaching their exit, and blithely cut across multiple lanes of speeding traffic within feet—or less—of cars in the other lanes. Many, however, seem to be restless souls who cannot tolerate the sight of of a car in front of them in their lane. They start in the right-hand lane and cut sharply to the left; then, if they spot even the tiniest opening, they cut sharply again to the middle or right. They will do this repeatedly, apparently under the delusion that it saves time. These are the people whose practices help to define the concept of "defensive driving." We ran into (so to speak) several examples of this type; one or two tested the efficiency of my adrenal system. After a very near miss, my driving friend said, "I saw that coming out of the corner of my eye and let up a bit." I wonder how many others in that driver's path had to "let up a bit" out of self-preservation.

On the one hand, our society dedicates untold resources to delaying death—heart disease research, diabetes research, career research, research to find cures for a broad array of fatal ailments.

At the same time we drive like maniacs, ignoring the massive number of car accidents, fatalities, maimings, and injuries. Whenever I go anywhere with my friend, we seem to pass at least one accident.

The state of Illinois tells us that the reconfigured, rebuilt Dan Ryan Expressway, originally designed decades ago, will be safer for modern traffic volumes and flows.

In other words, if you felt held back in the flow at 70 mph, try 75 or 80 mph. It will be "safer," IDOT tells us. As for me, the only times I have felt safe on the Dan Ryan are in the wake of an accident or during construction, when people are forced to drive at the speed limit for ideal conditions—or even less.

Then there's the whole toll road question. It's in poor shape, despite the constant influx of tolls. I have an idea. Eliminate the tolls and start fining everyone who exceeds the speed limits—everyone. It would reduce the number of accidents and increase the funding for road repair, while getting rid of the traffic-slowing toll booths.

It would also incite the citizenry who insist on their "right" to speed to rebel.

Now you know why I will never be mayor of Chicago, governor of Illinois, or president of the United States.

It's all because I don't drive.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Keeping score

In the past few months I've been treated for a yeast infection, and had an ultrasound, a mammogram, and a Pap smear. As of today the score is:

  • Uterine fibroids

  • Ovarian cyst

  • Irregular Pap smear

I wonder if any part of my plumbing isn't somehow dysfunctional?

I'll find out more July 2. Can hardly wait!

Dream: Mall in the woods and That Boy

Last night I was so tired that I reluctantly cut short an online conversation, read a page or so of The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide, fell asleep on top of the covers with the 200-watt light on, and remained in that condition until 4:00 a.m. I'm sure that I don't get very good sleep that way and that the light bothers me subconsciously.

After I drifted off the second time, after turning the light off, I dreamed that I went home for no particular reason—that is, not for a reunion or other occasion—and that everything seemed both different and familiar.

Under the trees was an elaborate shopping area with displays of high-end goods such as quality watches and fine china. I wondered what happened to all that stuff when it rained, then I saw that it was enclosed under a roof in some way that made it look like a fancy mall.

Suddenly something struck me that must have been on my mind—that there would be no possibility of seeing That Boy during this visit. Although I must have planned the trip that way intentionally, I felt a sickening wave of disappointment that I would not see him. I believe that I didn't want to see him because of the invariable humiliation of being ignored or, worse, unnoticed, yet of course I wanted to see him to satisfy some ill-defined hunger.

And then I did. He was there, near me. I half-hoped he wouldn't notice me. He didn't.

As for the other half-hope . . .

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

People are strange, or vignettes from life

Twenty-eight years of living in Chicago haven't filled in all of the blanks left by my sheltered upbringing. The behavior of people still surprises me. I don't mean things like the utterly incomprehensible actions of parents who kill their children. I mean the things that people do every day that simply make no sense.

A car sideswiped the bus I was on; I didn't feel or hear it (earplugs), but I could see an impressive scrape along both doors on the car's passenger side, where the rearview mirror was also dangling. The light was red, so the bus driver got out and looked at the bus (no damage, he declared) and pointed out to the car's driver that the mirror had been knocked off and that the doors were dented and scratched. I don't know what she replied, but she opted not to get out to look, and as soon as the light changed to green she drove off with the mirror still swinging away by a few wires. According to the bus driver, who was shaking his head in amazement, she'd been talking on her mobile phone and hadn't noticed "this big old bus." How will her insurance claim work, I wonder?

There were the two women, strangers to one another, who boarded a bus on a busy downtown route and promptly planted themselves back to back on either side of the aisle by the door, with only a few inches between them for anyone behind them who wanted to get on (me) or to get off. Only when a blind man tried to get past their human barrier did one of them move but only to the other side of the aisle. This freed up some room, but not enough for others to get by without contorting themselves. "I'm on, and all that matters. Now don't you dare bump me."

Walking north on State Street, the lone woman was gesticulating angrily to someone only she could see. "Don't raise your voice to me," she said loudly, stomping obliviously forward while stabbing the air with an irate finger. No one looked, even surreptitiously, at this mad display, for of course a cell phone was flipped open at her waist, and no doubt a Bluetooth device was planted in her ear. As with so many similar one-sided public quarrels, we'll never know what the offending tone of voice was.

When I walked out the front door of The Flamingo on Saturday, I heard the unmistakable, eardrum-shattering noise of a motorcycle. It turned out to be a tiny one, with a little boy, perhaps eight years old, in the driver's seat. I could mention that he's going to suffer hearing loss, if he hasn't already, and that this is a weird lesson to be teaching a future generation in an age of dwindling resources and climate change. Even more basic than that, however, he was riding his little motorcycle on the street, a street which culminates in a busy parking lot where cars are continually pulling in and out. The motorcycle was so small that most drivers could not have seen him. If his parents were nearby, it was hard to tell because no one seemed to be paying attention to him. I tried, but I could not make myself understand how or why the parents could allow this, let alone encourage it, or imagine how they or the unfortunate driver would feel if the worst happened. Is this the norm for acceptable parenting? Am I so much of a relic that I find this, at the very least, irresponsible?

People are strange. Their behavior is strange. What goes unremarked or unnoticed is strange.

Or perhaps I am strange.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Bridging past and future

"Wait a minute—where's the bridge?"

I asked this, almost involuntarily, as my cousin, his wife, and I were passing through the town where so many of my relatives had lived and where one of them, my mother's brother, Sylvester "Sec" Hollen, had once served as mayor—Bellwood, Pennsylvania.

Bellwood is split by railroad tracks, and the missing bridge had connected the two sides of town.

"We just went over it," my cousin's wife replied.

We had just passed over a modern highway bridge that I had thought was another bridge that I vaguely remember as being past the other end of town. By now, I was lost and disoriented.

"No, i mean the bridge where there was a three-way stop that caused traffic jams and truckers difficulty," I said.

"It was torn down. There's a park there now. The bridge we just came over replaced it."

Lost. Disoriented. And confused.

After we'd completed our shopping, I asked to be taken back down Main Street to see where the old bridge had been and where the new one is.

The old bridge was, if I recall correctly, short and steep on the side toward Main Street, which made it somewhat dangerous in winter and for trucks. If it wasn't that, it was difficult to tell who had the right of way, and at times traffic would back up down both Main Street and over the bridge. I think it had been the scene of some accidents and more near-misses. In short, it gave the town character, although not necessarily one that it wanted.

They drove me back, and I got a quick glimpse of a little park that ends, of course, where the railway right-of-way begins. Imagine seeing a park where, for your entire life, you've been used to seeing an old bridge. For me, it was like being in a strange town, one that, with that one landmark missing, was now unfamiliar, almost foreign.

What I saw next, near the end of Main Street, added to the sense of alienation. Past the old houses, some with faux brick siding, where there once had been nothing, there passed overhead a monstrous highway bridge against the sky. The next day, I saw the bridge from the perspective of my aunt's house. It must run diagonally, because while it is behind her house, it can be seen from her front door. It was surreal to stand in her quaint old kitchen that I've been visiting for more than 40 years and to see that bridge, like standing in the familiar past while looking at an imposing and cold future.

Whether from the perspective of Main Street or my aunt's house, the bridge looks out of place. Later I would think that, in the slanting rays of evening, it looked like a Hollywood artist had mistakenly mixed a matte painting of an old small town with one of a futuristic city.

Things change, and only memories, photographs, and words can preserve the past, and then perhaps only for those who can boast of a visual imagination.

I doubt many mourn the loss of the old bridge and the problems that came with it; the new one offers many advantages, not the least of which is the passage of piggyback trains underneath. Still, it will take me a while, at least a few more visits, before I get used to the new Main Street—both the missing and the new.


Saturday, June 9, 2007

Dream: Racing zebra

I was at the bottom of a round, improbably deep pool (well?). When I looked up from the depths, I saw a zebra racing around the top edge. With each lap, it would reach a point at which it would stop so abruptly that it would nearly lose its balance. I was terrified that it would fall and be injured or killed. I also wondered if my looking at it was startling it and causing it to nearly upset itself at the same point in the circumference.

Then the pool was suddenly normal in depth, and the zebra was gone.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Dream: Cafeteria food, buses, and birds

It was a dark, cold, wet day, and I was in the school cafeteria. While I was eating, my cat (I am not sure which one, or if it was a different cat) was lying on my plate, also eating. I was a little surprised that no one commented, but it seemed natural.

I remembered that I was supposed to meet someone in the cafeteria at the other end of the building. I went there and told her I had to return to the first cafeteria for my food. I found myself on a bus and explained where I was going, but the driver, who had seemed to understand, started taking the others on the bus home. I panicked and pleaded with the driver, who ignored me. Everyone else helped me by calling or e-mailing the principal. He wasn't available, but his senior administrative assistant ordered the driver to return.

The weather must have improved. Outdoors on the grass, someone brought me an enormous slice of cake that fell apart when they tried to slide it onto a plate that was too small that was on the ground. A little flock of birds waited with anticipation, but it was a little yellow one that was entitled to share the cake with me. A huge dollop of icing remained on the ground.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Review: The Lost World

The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle with an introduction by Michael Crichton and Diane Johnson and notes by Julia Houston. Recommended.

By Arthur Conan Doyle's day, advances in scientific method and technology had broadened our knowledge and shrunk our world. The popularity of novels such as Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne lay in part in the mystery of the unknown and inaccessible places in which they were set and their effect on a human imagination that probably felt crowded and claustrophobic. The Lost World continues the tradition with a wry nod to the reality that events recounted by narrator/journalist E. D. Malone were no longer possible or even imaginable.

The reader is privy to the humor long before the narrator, who is sent to seek adventure by the woman he loves. "It is never a man that I should love, but always the glories he had won, for they would be reflected upon me," Gladys tells Malone.

Malone seeks adventure to impress his ladylove, while Professors Challenger and Summerlee aim to distinguish themselves in the crowded field of zoology, and Lord John Roxton desires to set himself apart from his fellow big-game hunters. In his world, anyone can hang a rhino head on the wall, but how many have the chance to take a dinosaur?

They are extraordinary men, like those of The Mysterious Island. Intentionally or not, Conan Doyle pays homage to Verne when Malone writes, "I have as companions three remarkable men, men of great brain-power and of unshaken courage" and "Man was always the master." In the post-Darwin age, Verne and Conan Doyle were ready to demonstrate that nature was at the service of resourceful man.

The humor in The Lost World, such as the resemblance of the ape-men king to Professor Challenger and their subsequent treatment of him, is balanced by scenes such as the narrator's vivid description of a pit into which he falls. "This bottom was littered with great gobbets of flesh, most of which was in the last state of putridity." The addition of, "The atmosphere was poisonous and horrible" is gratuitous for the imaginative reader, whose mind pictures "these lumps of decay."

The Lost World is strongest when it is focused on the characters, the plateau, and the dinosaurs, especially the pterodactyls, and weakest when attention is turned to the plateau's anthropomorphic life. While Challenger believes it to be a watershed in evolutionary history, the battle that determines supremacy is anticlimactic compared to the descriptions of the swamp of the pterodactyls, the glade of the iguanodons, and Malone's death trap.

The amount of time spent on the plateau is short, but seems tediously prolonged by some of Conan Doyle's plot choices. The ending is predictable, as it was meant to be, and only the surprise prepared by Challenger for the Zoological Institute adds interest to it. While Verne wisely destroyed his creation, thus making it possible, Conan Doyle leaves his plateau intact, with conflicting hints from the narrator that it is impossible to find and that it will someday be exploited by hunters, adventurers, and other men.

When man finds undisturbed nature, he is bound to ruin its very character. Within a week of their arrival, the four adventurers and their technology have altered a longstanding balance of power. A paradise that never was is no more.

As with Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle's strength is in creating characters with a handful of memorable traits—the pompously arrogant Challenger, the acerbic Summerlee, the courageous and bluff Lord John, and the young Malone, whose naivete and powers of observation make him a suitable stand-in for the reader.

Despite its weaknesses of plot and its Eurocentricity apparently bolstered by Darwin's work (the Europeans are clearly the fittest, with Indians and Africans serving as subject races and "half-breeds" as a treacherous one), The Lost World is still a good adventure story, even if dated. Suspend your modern sensibilities and beliefs and enjoy the possibilities of an impossible tale.

Saturday, 2 June 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Dreams: Lost and lost

Pinecroft, Pennsylvania

I was visiting friends when a child insisted on going to see a particular performer. I was reluctant, and there was some discussion among others, but finally it was decided that everyone would go.

We walked outside, and although we were in a semi-rural area I soon found myself on the sidewalk of a busy urban street. At first I did not know where I was or where I was going, and then I remembered that the performer was at a theater up the street that I'd been to before. I turned around to say something to the others, but they weren't anywhere to be seen, either behind me, ahead of me, or at the theater. I realized that they had driven somewhere else while I had walked and that I was separated and lost.

I think I must always be going in the opposite direction.


I remembered suddenly that I was to take some kind of college-related exam on the subject of Japan. I thought this odd because I don't have any in-depth knowledge of Japan and couldn't imagine why or how I would take such a test.

When I arrived for it, I realized there were only 15 minutes of it left—and that That Boy, my competition, was also taking it. I had brought a new Rhodia pencil, but when I tried to use the normally black eraser (before even writing anything), it proved to be a bright, almost impossible, shade of pink and broke off immediately.

My panic rose even more when I saw the questions, which mentioned what seemed to be Chinese place names. I had 15 minutes to complete an important test about Japan with Chinese place names, which mattered little because I could not answer questions about either. With That Boy there, undoubtedly earning a perfect score, my academic humiliation was complete.

So ends another panic-filled dream related to college, from which I graduated in 1983. I wonder how much more dream angst I will suffer over this old fait accompli, not to mention That Boy. Surely life has offered more interesting challenges than that.