Are You an Influencer? The Kim Kardashians of Book Reviewers

I did not know who celebrity influencer Kim Kardashian was until I read the Style section of The New York Times this weekend. It seems that everything she wears or uses, from Barefoot Dreams blankets ($180) to Spanx shapewear, is sought by her excitable fans. I, too, wanted the soft-as-silk Barefoot Dreams blanket, until I realized it is just polyester!

And so I began to wonder: who are the Book Influencers? In addition to celebrity influencers Jenna Bush and Rhys Witherspoon, bibliophiles and amateur reviewers have a loud voice.

In my case, professional critics still have the most influence. Hence, I am reading a disturbing Syrian novel by Dima Wannous, The Frightened Ones, about two damaged people who meet at a psychiatrist’s office. This beautifully-written, spare novel about living in hell during the Syrian revolution is so depressing I mete out only a few pages a day. I do recommend it, but I will not review it.

The age of criticism is dead, or so they say, and certainly critics vie for assignments of fewer reviews squashed into a reduced number of pages. Perhaps blogs, Bookstagram, and Booktube have a greater influence on readers these days, though it may be a question of the kind of reader.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, I loved the raw enthusiasm of blogging: my personal blogosphere was one big tea party of courteous postings on Monica Dickens’ One Pair of Hands and E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady books. Bloggers filled a gap: they “reviewed” Viragos, Persephones, and other small-press reprints, books which were seldom noted in professional publications. And, not surprisingly, some of our own favorite out-of-print books eventually were rediscovered. I was ahead of the curve with Nancy Hale, whose books I discovered in 2011 after reading one of her stories in a New Yorker anthology. The Library of America recently published her selected stories, and I hope they will reissue her charming memoirs, A New England Girlhood and The Life in the Studio, and her best novel, Dear Beast. Thank God for Library of America!

Pictures mean more than words these days, I fear. It is a brutish, snarling, semi-literate Climate Change age: our brains are literally shrinking, according to Scientific American. Perhaps this explains the weird appeal of picture-oriented social media. Bookstagram/Instagram consists of photos of books, sometimes raw snapshots, others almost of professional quality, arranged against backdrops of lace, flowers, and teacups, or simply dropped on the floor. These pictures may be saying: I love this book! but the captions do not tell us much.

Booktube is even more mystifying. A bibliophile sits unselfconsciously in front of a camera for 30 minutes to an hour, methodically showing you his or her latest book haul, one book at a time, while reading aloud the jacket copy, or, if you’re lucky, saying why he/she wants to read them. These monotonous home movies are badly in need of editing. Nonetheless, I do not underestimate their influence: some Booktube channels have thousands of followers (perhaps hundreds of thousands!).

So here we all are, doing our bit, all for the sake of books.

Nancy Hale Redux: Where the Light Falls & The Pattern of Perfection

After reading a short story by Nancy Hale in a 1930s volume of Best Stories from The New Yorker, I went on a Hale bender.  It was 2010, and  her work was out-of-print.  I loved The Prodigal Women, a complex novel about friendships gone awry which I once described as “my favorite pop wallow.”  

Although I prefer Hale’s novels to her short stories, I am thrilled that Library of America recently published Where the Light Falls, a selection of Hale’s short stories edited by Lauren Groff.

And it reminded me that in 2016 I reviewed Hale’s 1960 collection of short stories, The Pattern of Perfection, at Mirabile Dictu.  And so I’m re-posting it here.

Nancy Hale’s work is out-of-print, but she is a great American writer.

Some of her books are masterpieces.   A descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe, she was a journalist, novelist, and memoirist. Eighty of her stories were published in The New Yorker.  I am a fan of her comical novel, Dear Beast, the story of a Southern woman who writes an anonymous novel about her small town, and her stunning memoirs, A New England Girlhood and A Life in the Studio.  

I recently read The Pattern of Perfection, a collection of 13 stories.  I have 10 sticky notes marking the pages of my copy, not for criticism but because the passages are delightful.

In my favorite story, “The King of Fancy’s Daughter,” the heroine, Isabel Congdon, takes out the trash and catches her husband in the driveway embracing the “bosomy, perfumed Mrs. Clarity, the baby sitter.”  She puts the two children in the car and drives hundreds of miles to her parents’ house.  On the way, she keeps going over and over her conversation with her husband.   When she said, “I suppose you’ve been having affairs with everyone in the neighborhood while I’ve been totally unaware of anything,” he denid it.  But he asks coldly if they always have to talk baby talk.  She is shattered, because she had felt their little family was united against the world.

Her well-bred parents behave as though there’s nothing unusual about Isabel’s visit.  They talk about their collections of antiques and books.  Mr. Hooper has begun collecting science fiction.

“Space travel,” Mr. Hooper repeated, laying down his knife with a gratified air.  “Those chaps are doing extraordinary things.  Bradbury.  Asimov. Leinster.  I’ve made rather a study of science fiction in recent months.  I fancy I own everything in the field worth reading–a very sound investment in firsts,” he added modestly.

Isabel discovers that her parents’ marriage is imperfect, too: they have separate bedrooms.  But she cannot get rid of the image of her husband and Mrs. Clarity.  Nothing is decided.

In the brilliant story, “In a Penthouse,” Bernadine has a vague undiagnosed illness that prevents her leaving their New York penthouse to follow her husband to Michigan.  The dialogue in this story is priceless.  “’Oh, hon,’ she cried.  ‘Don’t I just wish I could?  But I just don’t dare go that far.  Doctor Lewis says I should continue to play it cautious and conservative.’”  Doctor Lewis does not believe her husband loves her, but Bernadine is rightfully secure.  By the time Doctor Lewis asks her out, Bernadine has figured out she wants to fly away.

In “A Summer’s Long Dream,” Penelope and her mother and aunt spend a month in the late Miss Carrie Lennox’s summer cottage, The Ledges.  Penelope spends most of her time cooking and administering medication to the old people. At a garden party, the old people bloom, but poor Penelope becomes involved in an impossibly complicated explanation of how they come to be staying in the house when Miss Carrie Lennox is dead.

These stories are great fun, and the best are great.