Saturday, October 12, 2013

cross-posted from goodreads reviews of the hydra by bernard evslin

on september 20th, when the goodreads world again began to explode, i was preoccupied by stress and health issues. it was also my father's birthday, so whenever that comes round, i think about how much i miss him. i have been burned out for a while, and not posting on goodreads very much. but i missed reading the reviews, and the writing and so i started scrolling through the newsfeed, and the infamous thread in the goodreads feedback group with increasing dismay. what is the goodreads world coming to? i got pulled into the sadness, the chagrin and the disgust that littered my feed. where does censorship begin? where does it stop? and why did something something wonderful have to be destroyed? is this "progress"?

i came here, along with a bunch of other book refugees who lost their internet home when myspace groups began to collapse. i looked at goodreads as a book-lover's haven, a place where you could talk about the books you loved, that united you with others, or where you could argue that you didn't much care for "X" -- and "X" included a variety of things: a particular book, a particular author, a particular genre -- really anything at all. or you could read or write more off-topic, tangential reviews which were ridiculously funny, or were instead incredibly intimate and beautiful. above all, goodreads was a tremendously creative place where people felt comfortable speaking their minds. as the book group i came with went their separate ways, i stumbled upon new book friends and books, and writers of all stripes by reading these amazingly varied reviews.

but now things are different. now people sit wondering if their many hours of hard work will be expunged from the site because what they've written is "inappropriate" to somebody somewhere, and they've filed it on a shelf that goodreads might question as questionable for some reason that has not been clear to everyone. google changed their TOS recently. i couldn't sign in anywhere without being hit over the head with it -- it was everywhere, and clear as day. when these recent goodreads TOS changes were made, they were hidden, and as we've seen by the letters shared with disappointed reviewers, apologies were made by goodreads for jumping the gun on this campaign but they didn't stop. the whole thing seems to have been terribly mishandled and it makes me sick to my stomach. i don't want to have to double-check if my reviews are *still there* from day-to-day. so far, everything i've written seems to have passed muster. or maybe they just haven't scrutinized me yet. what is the benefit to me in writing reviews if i have to cringe away from an invisible hand that might slap me down for saying things that i think are perfectly legitimate and reasonable. i don't want to have to look for a new book home again. and i'm sort of sick of people creating a service or a product and then telling me it's different now, and it's not for that anymore, and let's do the minimal viable bullshit thing, or have some random someone determine we are "inappropriate". there are things i never liked about goodreads, but the good always outweighed the bad -- until now.

but if you're going to do the bullshit thing, at least make it clear to everybody what the rules of the game are -- tell me clearly in ToS changes that are emailed, and posted in ways that can't be avoided on the site. don't tell us in a feedback group that isn't required in goodreads membership.

i expect that this tangential review will be deleted. if it does, it will be the first time i have ever had my hand slapped here even though i am usually an active user and have filed over two hundred reviews on this site that up to this point have never been pulled. i wrote it because i like the vibrant community that used to thrive here, because i would like a return to that kind of environment, and i don't like censorship, even if i am not (yet) its target. if i have to find a new community, i will. i have done it before and have learned that though functionality might differ, it's the people and the ideas that matter.

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This work by Maureen de Sousa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

** the following has been reposted by permission of manny rayner **

In the shower just now, I suddenly had a Eureka moment. The aspect of this current censorship war that's been upsetting us most is the feeling of powerlessless. Goodreads can arbitrarily change the rules, and they hardly even bother to respond when we complain. But we are not powerless. There are twenty million of us, and only a few dozen of them. We just need to get a little more organized, and we can easily resist.

So here's one concrete way to do it, based on the legend of Hercules. You will recall that Hercules had a difficult time against the Lernean Hydra; every time he cut off one of its heads, ten more grew back. We can do the same thing if we adopt the following plan:

1. Back up all your reviews, so that you have a copy of everything you have posted.

2. If you think that one of your reviews has been unreasonably deleted by Goodreads, repost it with an image of the Hydra at the top.

3. If you see someone else posting a Hydra review, make a copy of it and post it yourself.

We can improve this basic scheme with a little thought; for example, it would be better to have a place where we keep HTML marked-up source of reviews, so that they can immediately be reposted with the same formatting, and we need a plan for duplicating deleted shelves. But we can sort that out later. Without getting too bogged down in the details, I'm sure you see what will happen. The net result of Goodreads unreasonably deleting a review will be that it immediately comes back in many different places.

People who know their Greek mythology will be aware that Hercules did in fact defeat the Hydra, and Goodreads can use the same method if they dare; they can close down the account of anyone who participates in the scheme. That will work, but I am not sure that anything less drastic will be effective. I think Goodreads will be reluctant to escalate to this level. A large proportion of the most active reviewers are now part of the protest movement, and they would be losing much of the content that makes the site valuable. Even more to the point, the media have already started to get interested (maybe you saw the article in the Washington Post). They would love the story, and it would create a mountain of bad publicity for Goodreads and Amazon.

I'd say the odds are heavily in our favor. Why don't we try it? I promise now to respond to any Hydra calls.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

once upon a time there was a troll on goodreads...

and he annoyed the hell out of me. i wrote this in response to a spate of comments he made on a book review that was very positive about an author he hated and had dismissed after beginning to read a novel, disliking the style and voice, and deciding not finish it because it wasn't to his taste. fair enough. that he could decide he was going to show everybody who admired the author in question that they were wrong, and that he was the arbiter of taste for western literature or heck! the world, or to simply not respect that not everybody likes the same writing, or art or anything at all made me want to deck him. it seemed to me he was a troll -- somebody who was seeking out controversy by visiting his opinions on those who simply did not see eye-to-eye but who had also initially attempted a thoughtful response, only to realize he was there to needle them. i can understand the attraction of needling. it can be very satisfying. but the penchant for trying to raise the ire in strangers whom you are seeking out for only that reason, or in some misguided approach to friendship makes me crazy. it made me realize that people have taken their television viewing habits to the internet. and so i wrote this:

i think it is pretty simple to discuss and even disagree on topics on the internet. here's a basic template for disagreeing with posts by people you do not know well, if at all, not containing vitriol or adulation:

hi, _____. it appears your view of ____________________ was very different from mine. i can appreciate that you thought _________________________________________________________ but for me, it seemed __________________________. i can't agree with you on ___________  because i thought x was y. what about when 1 did ________________ to 2? that was______________. that's my take on it, anyway. nice chatting with you, even if we disagree.

i debate and discuss and disagree with people on the internet all the time, especially on goodreads and on facebook. some i know well, some i know slightly, and some i don't know at all. i don't need to kowtow to express an opinion, and if i am enthusiastic it's because i want to be. i can't deny that occasionally it has got feisty or heated because that wouldn't be true, but i can honestly say it's never ended with me willfully refusing to understand the point of view(s) being expressed. asking that you show a little consideration and respect when you make a comment is not a debating point; if you can't come to any kind of agreement and it's clear that never the twain shall meet, it seems all there should be left to say is, thanks for letting me know you disagree, hopefully i can take your cues about further dialogue in future and get to know you better (if you are determined to continue to talk to these people you so vehemently disagree with), or walk away. or switch channels...

in fact, it seems to me that people become trolls when they confuse the internet with tv. people are used to spouting their opinions at their tv as they flip its channels. plenty of people watched LOST for example, and yelled at the tv "why the fuck am i watching you?", "you are stupid!", "i am turning you off because you are bullshit" but still kept watching every week. i've no doubt when some people continued to watch as they shouted "i am not watching you ever again! this is not an island show! every island show should have coconut phones and a skipper too" and then posted their disgust somewhere on the internet, if not taking the further step of placing an ad in variety, to let the producers know. but the tv itself doesn't care because it is not a person. and people think because they watch so much of it, they are entitled to give shit without respect. and since the tv can't reply "if you don't like what i have on, go watch something else." people have got used to giving to their non-responsive hardware the gears and brought this practice to the internet. if only it stayed there: again, i see nothing wrong with somebody shouting at their computer because of a comment they read on the internet: "good gravy, man, you're a moron!" but people on the internet can and may respond. they are not plastic cabinets filled with tubes and wires. navigating internet dialogue means understanding that people can and will reply to comments you make if they choose but the author can also choose to ignore you. trying to debate a request for civility or to refuse to agree to disagree because you wish to debate is just self-important and rude. it is like beating a dead horse. on dallas. i'm probably going to wake up in the shower now, and this whole thing will never have happened.

book review: alice adams by booth tarkington

i wished after reading alice adams that my younger self had discovered it, ideally the version of me who was besotted with pride & prejudice and identified with the impudent, winsome miss elizabeth bennet. i doubt the young maureen would have identified with alice adams at first but it's hard not to see the parallels between elizabeth and alice: both have deep affection for their fathers, and somewhat difficult relationships with their simpering, preening mothers. both have siblings that embarrass them and make their lives difficult. and both novels feature cringe-worthy scenes of social distress. both girls are pretty; both girls are relatively poor in relation to the class of people with whom they associate. we all know how elizabeth's story ends; my heart sang each time i read the ending of pride & prejudice for many years. it wasn't just happiness for elizabeth that i was feeling -- the novel assured the young maureen that if you stayed true to yourself you would be rewarded in time. a reading of alice adams at just that point might have tamped my optimism in that quarter somewhat and better prepared me for my future.

alice adams lives in an age between me and elizabeth bennet. i live in a culture that aspires to meritocracy where miss bennet's was severely stratified and class rules were firmly established. alice adams lives in an era that shows a transition point between these two societies. the novel is set after the first world war and before the great depression. it is an era of change, where horse and wagon is being replaced by the early automobile, where local robber barons have firmly established their wealth and watched those with lesser acumen assist them, struggle along, or be subsumed. alice adams is the daughter of a lesser businessman in the employ of the "great J.A. Lamb" the local leading light. (i would love to discuss this character with somebody who's read this novel. he plays a small but pivotal role and i am fascinated by what he represents here... is lamb benevolent? do i doubt him because of my modern sensibility?)

alice, feted in her first bloom, socialized with the "better" part of society but now, at twenty-three, she is already losing her social status, being cut from acquaintance, partly because her family never got as rich as the others, partly because she has not made an advantageous marriage, she is perceived as grasping to those who have it all, and alice is only just beginning to perceive she has never had enough. still, she wrangles an invitation to one last ball, and there she meets a young man, arthur russell, apparently affianced to the giver of the ball, his cousin mildred palmer, in the time-tested fashion of bringing two families and their fortunes even closer together. but mr. russell isn't as sure of his engagement as the rest of society is, and he begins to call on miss adams, sitting outside her house on the porch. and as we know, two attractive young people sitting under the stars and talking stuff and nonsense can't help but be romantical.*

i won't relate any more of the plot turns in alice adams -- there is certainly more to the novel that readers should discover for themselves. she does not face a tragic end, even if she does not get the happily ever after that cinderbennet gets. rather, alice adams gets to become a modern girl, one who has to face up to her own future and her own survival. she has overcome her own pride & prejudice and comes to find that the world might still have brightness to it despite all the things she lacks. the novel ends in a way that solidifies its importance. this book is a tonic to peel away romantic illusions and face a little reality.

a few words as to why i gave this novel only four stars: true to the other tarkington books i've read, there is a peppering of racism here. i would suggest that in the case of this novel, it's plays better than it does in the unfortunate penrod, which not only reflected the racism of the age and failed to contribute to the plot of the novel, but also needlessly wedged in racism wherever possible -- feel free to check out that review if you require more detail: here at least, we find alice's brother walter (who could very well be an older version of penrod) loves jazz, and as a consequence of that, and his penchant for shooting craps, socializes with black people and respects them even if he uses racially provocative epithets to describe them. the other people who are horrified by these associations are just plain racist in that smug condescending way, that was unchallenged in that era. still, it bears remembering that tarking probably did mean for his readers to respect walter's character even if he is perhaps more sympathetic to modern eyes, and i can't even get started on the other gross portrayals of serving staff: as usual i think tarkington has done both his writing and humanity a disservice by indulging in slur.

beyond the racism is *my disinterest in the romance between alice and russell. i didn't like her talk when she was wooing and he just seemed like a pretty moron. every conversation they had i thought, how can either of them imagine wanting to spend another moment together, let alone another hour having a stupid conversation like this? this romance didn't have the interest tarkington imbued into his other celebrated novel, the magnificent ambersons. given the necessity of this connection to the book, i wish it had sparked more. still, i think this is a very instructive novel, and one i will definitely prescribe as a romantic palliative in future. :)

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This work by Maureen de Sousa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

book review: travelling sprinkler: a novel by nicholson baker

i adore nicholson baker's writing voice and i really feel i can give no higher compliment than this: quite often it is how a writer's voice resonates with me that makes or breaks a novel for me; no matter what craft it might otherwise hold. my first encounter with it came when i read the dry observations of the mezzanine and then later i was alarmed, allured and amused by two of his smuttier works, the fermata and house of holes, and was pleased but not awed by the paul chowder novel previous to this, the anthologist. still, each time i was simultaneously stimulated and comforted by that voice. and then came the travelling sprinkler, his latest and arguably best novel.

karen alerted me to the fact that this was on net galley so i downloaded it. but then she kindly put a print arc in my hands (the hardcover doesn't come out until september) and i was really excited because it stood to reason that i would enjoy it too -- because of the whole voice thing.

what i didn't realize was that i was about to read what has become my favourite nicholson baker book thus far. in true "i love this" fashion, i read it twice through. and while i know the book is about paul chowder, i couldn't help but feel when reading the travelling sprinkler, that i had really spent a few days visiting with him, but even more so with his author, in the same manner i would with an old and dear friend, who might ask "have you heard this one?" and pull up a video on youtube. there is, in fact, at least one url printed directly in the book, and i suspect that the enhanced ebook they're also publishing will have direct links to other content embedded within it, permissions clearance permitting.

despite this being a sequel of sorts to the anthologist, i don't think you have to have read that book to love this one; aside from a passing references to his flying spoon poems a new reader wouldn't get but doesn't really need to, the novel stands perfectly on its own.

so what happens here? paul chowder is a poet who decides he wants to write pop songs instead. or protest songs. or both. he's experimenting with tobacco and he's going to quaker meetings. he misses his old girlfriend roz and he tries to be a good neighbour. in the midst of this little slice of his life, he also writes a book about music: about the bassoon, and about debussy and his sunken cathedral; about victoria de los angeles and bachiana brasileira nÂș 5, and also about guitars, and electronic keyboards, and seven hundred dollar microphones ordered from the B&H catalogue. and you might somewhat impatiently wait, as i did, for him to finally finish explaining about the travelling sprinkler. i was tempted to look it up on the interweb to see what it looked like but i restrained myself. i actually considered pasting a photo of travelling sprinkler into this review as i read the book because i was so impatient, so flummoxed by the trail of hose on the cover, but in the end found i was happier that i waited for it, waited for him.

paul digresses to us about the minute details of his thoughts and memories, of aspects of his life in that typical, tangential, signature nicholson baker way. but what's more, he reveals a gentle heart, an emotional depth that hasn't been apparent in the other baker novels that i have read, including its predecessor. and that's what really made the book surpass my expectations. and it felt like paul chowder had opened up to me, in a way he never had before, and that it was okay for him to try to take those rare moments of happiness for himself. and i could hear the smile in nicholson baker's writing voice and for a while, i smiled too. i guess i need to read it again. :) update one: it's also likely you'll want to check this out after reading the book: update two: and now i'm crushing hard on nicholson baker. this is an amazing interview: and as it turns out, he wrote some protest songs and recorded them when he was working on this book. you can hear them at this new yorker link: :)