How To Write A Book Review

I recently finished reading 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Petersen. If you’re not familiar with the man, his book does provide a little history of his rise to recent prominence. I only found out about him in the last 6 months, from seeing some YouTube lectures on the nature of humanity, psychology, and various other subjects. Millions of others are like me in that they didn’t know about this former Harvard professor and clinical psychologist until he garnered quite a bit of attention for a political position about compelled speech, for the fact that the alt-right has commandeered some of his arguments to bolster their position, and for the fact that he’s quite solidly against some of the feel-good trends of the day.

Not getting into those here.

Instead, I’m going to write a little rant about book reviews.

It’s weird. Many book reviews are often not reviews, but summaries. I blame 11th Grade English teachers.

In their insistence that we answer exactly the question they’ve asked, with exactly the facts they wish to hear, but written “in your own words”, they’ve trained us less to think critically and more to paraphrase. This comes out when you look at the multitude of reviews on Amazon.com (or any other review platform). Most of the time, these are simply restatements of fact about the book, rather than their own impressions of the book’s content, how it made them feel, or what they take away from it.

And let’s not confuse a “rating” (1 star, 2 stars, etc.) with a “review”. A rating is an objective ranking. This is better than that. Those over there are worse than these here. A review is a subjective evaluation. This spoke to me. I appreciated parts here and there. Generally they’re correlated, but not equal. That is, most of the time you have a positive rating you also have a positive review. But sometimes not. I think it is entirely possible to have a 1-star rating with a “positive” review. That is, someone could find the format absolutely terrible (1-star) and disagree with the conclusions, yet still respect the arguments laid out within(“positive” review).

Which is why we need to have more critical reviews out in the public sector. But, ironically, not too many. Currently, Amazon.com has 4,878 reviews of 12 Rules for Life. I imagine B&N.com has thousands more, not to mention Goodreads and an uncountable number of independent opinions hosted on blogs or other smaller sites. If I read even a small fraction of all of those, I would easily spend longer on that task than the 15 or 16 hours I spent reading the text. Would that be worth my time? Probably not. I’d do much better to read a few and make a decision based on that information and spend the majority of my time with the actual book.

But where to start?

I’m sure that’s why Amazon introduce the [HELPFUL] button. This allows me to see whether other readers of this review have found value from the review. A meta-review, as it were. But doesn’t this also contribute to the problem of social conditioning and trending and social signaling? As more people find a particular review “helpful”, Amazon drives that review upward in the feed, creating a feedback loop in which I as a user don’t get the chance to experience the whole range of reviews, only the lucky leaders which came in to the process early, and have been promoted not necessarily because of quality, but simply because of quantity (of “helpful” ratings earlier than those which came later and are, unfortunately, buried too far back in the queue to ever get a chance at visibility).

Back to the review vs. summary discussion, what ends up happening is that many of those summaries are not helpful. They are not rated as such by readers. Good reviews, though, as actual reviews which provide insights, now take prominence because we, as readers, don’t want to waste our time reading unhelpful summaries. So we want to read the most helpful reviews, often of the value which we believe we’ll end up holding after we read the text! That is, if I think I’ll like it, I’m mostly going to spend time reading 5-star reviews. If I think I’ll hate it, I’m probably going to be waist-deep in 1-stars.

Ironically, and unfortunately, this confirmation bias problem drives a narrowing of the perspectives we are likely to see when considering a book. How many people read the 5 “most helpful” of each of the 5-star reviews, 4-star reviews, 3-star reviews, 2-star reviews, and 1-star reviews? Not many. We often read a couple of 5-stars, and validate our own internal prejudiced decisions we’ve already emotionally made with reference to these “independent” observers.

I think that’s a bad way to go about it. I don’t think this gives us a broad base of knowledge on which to base a conclusion. Instead, it feeds the brain’s energy-saving decision shortcuts

So. I there a way to fix this? I don’t know. Limit the # of reviews? Create an algorithm within Amazon’s display that forces a random review to be shown, rather than the “most helpful”? Cycle through on a first-written-first-shown basis so that each has a chance to be seen in equal measure? I don’t know the right answer.

Right now we’re getting the same sort of ineffective (destructive?) virtue-signaling and trend-whoring that we all complain about in social media. For the information industry (book publishing, lectures, blogging, etc.), which is so critical to the healthy function of a society, we may be running dangerously low on healthy debate, dissent, and critical thinking. Because we all want “the best” (again for a multitude of reasons), yet we’re not willing to go through the difficult process of evaluating for ourselves what the best might be.

Perhaps having a conversation around what it is we seek to accomplish through reviews, ratings, and the entire feedback process is warranted. I’ll leave that to someone else to organize.

SJ

P.S. I realize this essay doesn’t make much sense. Probably because I’m thinking as I write. I reserve the right to review and revise later.

P.P.S. I guess the least I could do is give you my review. Link here:

See below for text. You’re welcome.

P.P.P.S. I gave the book a 5-star rating and a positive review. It’s unlikely anyone will ever see that review and make a decision because of it, because now this review is buried a hundred pages back.

I don’t write many reviews on Amazon. They’re often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of everything else, so it feels as if I’m simply shouting into the void. Because…

This book needs no additional 5-star review. There are plenty of them already. This book needs no additional commentary – there is plenty of that already. This book, this author, needs no additional puffing up of his reputation – there’s plenty of that done by the Patreon subscribers and the purchasers of his other books. And yet…

In keeping with the rules that say “Tell the truth – or at least, don’t lie” and “Be precise in your speech,” I offer this rating and review in order to be consistent with the pull in my innermost Being, to respond to what I have just read and to share my thoughts, regardless of their receipt.

Thank you, Mr. Peterson. Thank you for saying, eloquently, what many of us have felt within our own spirit for years now. That this life is not easy. That there are hard things to do, and hard ways of doing them. That we’re not all badasses, that we’re not all going to win. That we must work, because of reasons outside our control, but despite that work and those obstacles we can still create within ourselves a life that is meaningful, that reaches for higher values. A life that represents better, a better Being, and strives agains the Chaos around us.

All should read this book. Not all will. And even of those who do, some shall be put off by the many references to God and Christianity and the Bible as authoritative. That’s a disappointment. For, even if one does not hold that same philosophy (as I do not), one should admit that, in accord with one of the rules, that this other person, this author (who has striven to bring your life additional Order) has something to say. Not just something for the sake of saying something, just to be heard and followed mindlessly in order to inflate an ego out of selfish desires, but something important and, ultimately, valuable as you strive to create a life you can be proud to leave behind.

Movie Review – Sorry To Bother You

Warning – potential spoilers ahead. Maybe. If they come up. No guarantees or anything.

“Sorry To Bother You” is the debut project by a young filmmaker named Boots Riley. I know this because I listen to NPR, and the movie critic (Bob Mundello? I think that’s his name) had a review of this film a couple of months ago. Now that it’s available in Redbox, it’s right in my target price range for something only I would enjoy. So I picked it up, remembering that Bob was quite enamored with the opening premise.

In “Sorry”, the main character, Cassius Green (pun intended, I believe), played by Riley himself, is somewhat of a loser living with his girlfriend in his uncle’s garage. He needs money, so he hires on with a telemarketing firm. This is, of course, the alternative to signing up for the large conglomerate corporation that would provide guaranteed employment and guaranteed residence, for life, in exchange for essentially all freedoms. This idea of tradeoffs, of give and take, of options, is the essence of the movie. Cassius has traded his freedom for a job, and while at the job he will have to trade his identify for success.

Once Cassius begins his job, we experience what made Bob sit up and take notice. Instead of the traditional split-screen, we see Cassius physically transported to the locations where his call recipients are when they’re taking his call: in the kitchen, having sex on the couch, on the toilet in Japan. It’s an interesting bit of cinematography, because it gets quite on the nose about the phrase “sorry to bother you”, when, in fact, nobody who calls in the middle of dinner is actually sorry. Unfortunately, though, it’s a technique that remains underutilized throughout the remainder of the film.

“Sorry” eventually devolves into a preachy, “capitalism is the worst system, except for all the others” mode. We see the temptations of money, we see the idealism of the hero when he struggles but eventually does the right thing, we see the fawning admiration of the girlfriend when Cassius returns to the doldrums and risks himself for his friends and “comrades”. There’s also overt elements of race and class struggle, and class jealousy, and fear-mongering, and outright suspicion of “good things” anyway. All of these are pretty standard movie fare these days, so they aren’t a surprise.

You know what we don’t see? What we never see in a movie? Someone who sold out, took the money, and lived happily ever after. That’s what I want some time. I want to see one where the guy does the wrong thing, ends up rich as fuck, and just enjoys the hell out of life because, hey, YOLO. I’m tired of this ideal that everyone is going to put someone else’s needs before their own wants, and that all the greedy bastards are going to get their comeuppance. Because, frankly, it doesn’t happen that way. I guess that’s why we put it in the movies, because we want something different from the real world.

Anyway, I enjoyed the movie, even though the timeline was forced, there were large illogicalities in the chain of events, and there were a few creepy scenes. I was a bit disappointed, though. The warning said it was rated R for pervasive and explicit sexuality throughout, and if that’s the definition of “pervasive”, then we’ll have to have a talk with the good people down at the MPAA. There was, what, one sex scene in which nobody was really naked, and there were a couple of other scenes in which some creepy human/animal hybrids were naked, but that wasn’t sexual, just … creepy.

I don’t know how to give stars for movies. If I’m forced to, I’ll say 4/5 stars. Because, as I mentioned, this was an incredible production for a debut. Hell, they even got Danny Glover! But I was ultimately left wanting that the premise, when Cassius physically transports to the locations he’s talking to, wasn’t used better in the climax. I think there was an opportunity there to make something really stand out, and “Sorry” just missed the mark.

Book Review – The Stand, by Stephen King

The Stand was published first in 1978. This review covers the “complete & uncut” version published in May, 1991.

***

WARNING: Spoilers ahead.

***

I first read The Stand in high school, probably. It was this exact copy, too, a brick-sized hunk of paper and miniscule type and black-and-white drawings that enthralled me for weeks back then. Of course, anything by Stephen King was fodder for a wild Saturday night spent lounging on the couch for hours, book propped up on my chest, lost in the stories of Bangor, Maine or, in this one, Boulder, Colorado and Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Stand is one of King’s more controversial books. Not for its subject matter (the oft-repeated battle between good and evil) but for the preceding editorial decisions which were made to cut about 1/2 of the original manuscript for publication. King lays out, in a two-part Preface, that this book is not the original manuscript simply restored. Instead, this version is an expansion of that original story. Characters, settings, backstory, even whole subplots were removed from the original in a publication decision: a smaller book would cost less, and therefore sell more copies, and make more profit, so a smaller book was published.

Once King became more popular, and had the legion of fans which would buy anything, a new version was made to capitalize on that profit opportunity. Thus, the version I bought in high school (as one of the legion) and trundled with me as I moved 3 times while an adult.

I did not read that slimmed-down version. I only read this “restored” version, and thus loved it. Also, I was pretty well brainwashed into reading King and only King in those days, so I hadn’t seen enough of the broader story-telling world to reasonably consider the merits of the book by itself.

However, 25 years on, I have been exposed to many more authors and styles, and even critically studied the editorial process and revisionist. As such, I feel in a much better place to evaluate this book on its merits.

To be honest, I find it lacking.

First of all, it is bloated. We get approximately 200 named characters (I may exaggerate, because I don’t want to go through them all, but I’m confident it’s closer to that than 100). Plus there are many characters and subplots that, ultimately, don’t really contribute to the finale of the story. Now, not everyone has to. But there were just too many side stories to consider each one necessary to the tale.

And perhaps there are people who enjoy reading every little detail about as many characters as possible. Don’t get me wrong – I read every word. I enjoyed it and King’s style does keep one moving through the text. Yet I’m fairly confident that the “accountant’s” decision to cut words to make a smaller volume actually forced an editorial process that critically examined every word and ensured each one was necessary.

Second, the illogicalities of the action stand out in stark contrast to the overarching idea contained therein. The premise is that a major, nearly-100% fatal illness is released into the community. Then, what happens to the survivors? It’s the story of a nuclear war without the actual war, and how the survivors must adapt in the aftermath. Yes, in such a situation, there will be much that is lying around just waiting to be picked up and used, but there are still some things which didn’t get explained: how did the survivors who travelled by car (many of them), get the gas out of the pumps into those cars without electricity? We saw one scene in which Larry Underwood pries up a manhole cover to access gas. Does he do this every 300 miles as the tank empties? What about those who don’t have access to the same tools as him? With the electricity off (because all the power generators have nobody to run them), the pumps don’t work, and refrigeration goes out, soon allowing most of the remaining food supply to spoil. Does everyone live on tinned beef and Saltines? There’s just a lot of logistics that seem to be covered, but really aren’t.

Third, the production of this volume seemed to be less-than-perfect. I noticed many typos. Now, some can be expected. Maybe 1 every 100 pages? So in 1,130 pages there could reasonably be 11. I marked 3 in the last 50 pages alone. It was only in the latter fifth of the book that I started keeping track, and I’m not about to go back through just for that, but one would think that the copy editor would have caught more of these.

Finally, though, my major criticism of this story is one which The Stand shares with many of King’s works of similar length. That is, the finale, the conclusion, the climax where all of the tension has been building to finally gets resolved, is, in the end, nothing more than a deus ex machina. We criticize this technique in lower writers as a cop-out. Why not here?

Ultimately, the ending is where this all comes together and lacks substance. Larry Underwood, Ralph Brentner, Glen Bateman, and Stu Redman (accompanied by Kojak the dog) set off from Boulder on a God-given quest, delivered through the mouthpiece that is Abagail Freemantle. This is not something they developed on their own, not something they brought on, or something they actually had any “agency” in. [“Agency” is a fancy writer’s word for the whole of authority and power and action that a character has in a scene or a book.] When 3 of them (not Stu, who fell down a hill and broke his leg and was left behind with Kojak) arrive in Las Vegas for the final confrontation with Randall Flagg, the Dark Man, the Walkin’ Dude, they don’t ultimately DO anything.

The protagonists are not the solution to the problem. They don’t have or exercise any power at all. They simply exist, and wait for the story to take place around them, and the final end to happen for them. Which it does. The hand of God comes down out of the sky and does for them what they were unable to do.

Which begs the question – why did they have to go in the first place? Why were they even there? If this whole thing is a set-up from God to end the R.F. Man, why have the plague only kill most of the people? Why not have it kill them all and start fresh again? And if it was not from God, then what exactly was the thing which came out of the sky and detonated the nuclear bomb, anyway?

This is the same sort of deus ex machina that showed up in other King novels, specifically Under the Dome. It almost seems like he started writing a story, got to a place where he said, “Now how do I end this?”, answered with, “hell if I know. Let’s make it all a dream!” And there you have it.

So: while I enjoyed the book (I must have, because it took me about a month to read it), I’m starting to think that it would have been better as the shorter version. I don’t have that one, and at this point I’m not going to get it, but I have to wonder: is this what Successful Author Syndrome looks like?

***

P.S. Before you get into the whole “Yeah, let’s see you do it better!” commentary on my inability to critique due to lack of peer-ness with Mr. King, note that I don’t have to be a peer in order to give my opinion. That’s the beauty of self-publishing on this internet thing. Any jerk with a keyboard can make his voice heard, I don’t have to have “agency” in this to be able to say what I think. Nobody’s forcing you to agree with me, or even listen.