When Books Hit Home
I have a couple of reviews in my queue that I don’t know how to begin because the books affected me so personally. Do I use the review to talk about what happened to me? Or do I hang back and let the book take the spotlight? Do I even want to talk about this stuff on the blog?
Then I remembered that other book bloggers must have dealt with this kind of thing before. Actually, I know they have. So, in true book-blogger fashion, I thought I’d put this out there as a discussion topic. I would love to hear what books have hit home for you (if you feel comfortable), and how you feel about them as a reader and as a blogger.
Hit Hard vs. Hit Home
I’m a pretty passionate reader. Books hit me hard all the time. They make me cry, make me laugh, and make me consider things in new way. Hitting home is a little different. A book hits home when something about the subject matter or character directly relates to my life, usually something difficult. In addition to the usual emotional response (crying – I’m a crier!) when I read one of these books I often feel a little panicky at first, especially if I wasn’t prepared. Then I feel the way teenagers feel when they’re listening to music and almost believe their favourite singer is singing right TO them. And if the book is good, I feel an awesome catharsis when I’m done reading.
What Hits Home for You?
Pregnancy and especially pregnancy loss are subjects that hit home for me. Maybe that’s not surprising, since I’ve been pregnant and/or breastfeeding for nearly five years now (wow) but it’s my first pregnancy, which began and ended sixteen years ago this summer, when I was sixteen, that I both love and hate to remember when I’m reading. No one knows what to say to someone who loses a pregnancy they didn’t want in the first place, so reading about similar experiences is probably the closest I’ve come to dealing with it.
I happened to read a couple books this summer that dealt with teenage pregnancy and loss:
- Bumped and Thumped by Megan McCafferty: This YA series is set in a dystopian near-future world where a virus causes widespread infertility among adults. Teenagers are left to do the breeding, and while it starts out as sort of a patriotic duty to get “bumped” and give your baby up for adoption, soon it becomes a for-profit and corrupt business. The authors nails the narcissism and innocence of the girls and presents a future that is frightening because it’s too close to reality where teen pregnancy is simultaneously shamed and glamourized (Teen Mom, anyone?)
- Rosina, The Midwife by Jessica Kluthe: This is a non-fiction book about the author’s great-grandmother. I knew I was in for some pregnancy/birth story lines, but nothing prepared me for the author’s stark portrayal of her own loss. I was completely gutted. There are a lot of parallels between my story and hers and I’m so used to NOT talking about it that it was shocking to see it just out there on the page, for anyone to see.
A few more great books about teen pregnancy and loss:
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Rosasharn might be the prototype for all the other teen moms mentioned here)
- The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
- The Birth House by Ami McKay
- Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue
Seeking out Books that Hit Home
So these books tend to be pretty intense and rewarding reading experiences, yet I don’t actively seek them out. Pregnancy and birth are pretty universal subjects, and are so laden with symbolism and meaning, that they’re pretty common and I tend to read enough of them by accident. When I deliberately read something in this vein, that I know contains something about pregancy or infant loss, I have to make sure I don’t read two of the books close together (like I did this summer) because I need a bit of a break in between.
Reviewing Books that Hit Home
This is my real dilemma, and one I’m kind of solving by writing this post: is a book review an appropriate place to talk about your own life, particularly something heavy and traumatic? I like to make reviews “all about me” in a humorous way hesitate to do so when it’s something serious.
On the one hand, I think making it personal is important in book blogging. I read lots of professional reviewers, but their reviews are often a little sterile. On the other hand, people who read book blogs are there to read about the books and maybe don’t want to hear about your problems. I remembered this tweet from Joyce Carol Oates (which I don’t agree with!)
One of the nice things about book blogs is that appropriateness doesn’t come into it the same way it would in a review in a magazine or newspaper. There’s no editorial board, and there no advertisers to offend (not on this blog, anyway.) It’s just you and the books. And hopefully an audience who doesn’t mind if you ramble on about yourself once in a while.
I have been recently wondering about this thin line we have to draw between us, mere human readers, and us, the rather scholarly reviewers. I know for myself that my academic training is somehow getting in my way. I read a book differently, movies can’t really surprise me (maybe the European ones, otherwise Hollywood stuff is pretty useless for me). I always feel this urge to make a professional statement when discussing a book, but then here came my blog. it’s a blog, not my PhD dissertation. so I’ve decided to go personal on it. because books are far more than sterile analysis of styles, patterns, currents, genres. books hit us – hard & home. I try not to be really affected by what I’m reading, but there is at the end of the day that “oh, my, this author has spoken to me”, that “lesson learned”, or “lesson acknowledged” that I value in a book. therefore, I am ready to talk on my blog about my experience with the books I’m reading. there are enough professional magazines out there where one can get a dry, sterile review 🙂
It must be even harder when you’re used to reading with an academic eye… it’s been many years since I’ve “had” to read anything for school!
First off: that Joyce Carol Oates tweet is, to put it bluntly, pretty dumb. I disagree with that wholeheartedly. If there’s no opinion, how is it even a review? Sounds like a synopsis at that point. And if this is the proper style, wouldn’t everyone’s reviews be almost identical? Sounds like the complaint of a writer with skin too thin for criticism, if you ask me.
Anyway, on to the topic at hand.
The question is whether to get personal with your reviews or not, to pull your own experiences into your analysis. My suggestion is both yes and no.
For a review, my gut feeling (and this is just me) is that the content should be relevant to your verdict of the book. Of course your own experience is going to factor into how you receive the story, and by all means, talk about that. It’s important. If the book is a story about teen pregnancy, and you’ve gone through that, you’re letting people know that this book hits home for the people it should. It’s authentic, in other words, and that’s great.
However, I’m not sure the whole story is needed (no matter what the personal story is about). At a certain point those backstories can take the reader away from the point of the post: a review. Once your commentary isn’t addressing your book verdict anymore, that might be too far. Many readers will love the personal touch, but many are just there for the review.
For those books that hit home extra hard, I suggest this: make an entirely different post about it. Write your review, and make it great. But if you have a lot more to say, stuff that’s very personal and might touch people or illuminate them even more about why a book is fantastic (and read-worthy), then write solely about that. I think that would work really well. I honestly don’t think enough bloggers do this (including myself, first and foremost).
JCO was talking about opinion (i.e. ratings) more than personal impact, but I thought it was fitting. I think what she’s suggesting is called a press release 🙂
I like the idea of making a separate post. That’s sort of what I did. I think I could take it further – kind of a roundup of books on a particular issue and how your story relates. I like the way you put it – which books are authentic, and which ones aren’t. Actually, I’ve had a post about pregnancy in literature in my drafts folder for more than a year… I just wasn’t sure how to approach it.
As for a book that really hit home for me, that would have to be Douglas Coupland’s “Hey, Nostradamus!” This is (to the best of my knowledge) the only book that has every made me cry.
I have an interesting relationship with my father. When I was a year old, he was in a car accident that left him in a coma, he had a 10% chance to live. He survived, but his personality was permanently changed (he suffered a massive blow to his frontal lobes, causing the shift). After the accident he turned from a kind, loving husband to an angry, jealous, prick. My mother, who loved him like no other, hated him from the moment he woke up.
This is the only father I’ve known, though, given I was so young. But the shadow of this “other” father has loomed over both of us for almost 30 years now. Things are actually great between us, as he’s done a LOT of growing up over the years, but the process of getting there was difficult at times.
Anyway, the point I’m making is that Hey! Nostradamus is a story that involves a tyrannical father who ultimately sees the error of his ways. He’s also grossly misunderstood at times. Over the years I learned to see things more from my Dad’s perspective, to see all the things he lost, all the challenges he faced. I gained a lot of respect for him, even during the times when I didn’t necessarily like who he was.
That book taught me the value of empathy, the power of seeing someone else’s life through their lens, not yours. It actually helped me repair my relationship with him, even though the story in the book and the story of my Dad are wildly different. It was more a thematic connection.
So, yeah, don’t be afraid to share. It’s the beauty of blogging, really. We’re all unfiltered, in all our messy, beautiful glory.
Well, you just took it one step further and I loved reading it. Though the fact that I “know” you have read Hey, Nostradamus! might be part of that 🙂
How old were you when you read it? Sometimes I think that the stuff we read as teens or young adults affects us more, we’re just more open to it or something. (same with music.)
I like that this is a less obvious connection too. There is lots to explore there. One of the first books that blew my mind was The Diary of Evelyn Lau and it had nothing to do with my life at all.
Now I kind of want to revisit Hey Nostradamus. I don’t remember that much about it except one scene, where the dad (I think) is alone and heating up a frozen dinner, and tries to read the French instructions for a minute before giving up and reading the English instructions. It was so sad and so Canadian!
I read it in my early 20s (23-24 I’d guess). So yeah. Right book, right time.
I would love to re-read it. It’s been long enough that it would feel like I was reading it for the first time. Those re-reads are the best!
Great topic! I do think you have the liberty of going personal on a blog in ways you wouldn’t for a formal publication – and it would be not only acceptable but very welcome – as long as one is clear about what is personal and what isn’t in how it affects the opinion of the book. I’m not terribly good at opening up to the personal myself on the blog – I still find writing dangerously pretty hard, but when others do I notice it sure makes for more compelling reading.
There are books that hit home for me, too. I’m not going to discuss here which ones they are (or their subject matter), but I’ve definitely gone through what you describe while reading them.
It’s okay to add the personal stuff to reviews (if you’re comfortable with it)–those things are obviously going to affect (or be affected by) what you’ve read. What JCO said about reviews is fine for reviewers like the NYT Book Review, but that’s not why I read book blogs. I read book blogs to read opinions and something a little more laid back. 🙂
Ahh, I’ve been wondering about this the entire time I’ve been reading a book regarding the history of my university I won from Goodreads… How much of my own experience should I put in it? I suppose enough to indicate if it biased me toward or against the book in any way. I also fully agree on writing a separate post if it REALLY hits home… If I read a book dealing with depression and suicide, for example, that would be my Achilles’ heel.
Books where children are hurt, abused, disrespected, etc. always hit home for me, I find them a hard read.
Probably it depends on what you ‘intend’ people to get from your review. Are you aiming to provide a description of the book and your opinion as to whether other people should read it or not? Or are you aiming to give some insight into the value of the book? The difference is only slight, maybe, but it’s important.
For the last three years, I’ve ended my prose fiction course with David Foster Wallace’s “Incarnations of Burned Children.” It’s one of those ‘hit home’ books for me. Not because I’ve ever had a child burn himself horrifically with a pot of water, but because I’ve had little moments here and there where my attention to my kids has lapsed and some minor thing that could have been much worse happens. In the wake of those little lapses, I’ve seen how easy it is to resent and to blame. And I know how much my identity as a father is connected to protection and safety and guidance for my kids. Wallace nails all of that in a single page. It’s nine sentences long.
Anyway, when I teach that story, I am very frank about the fact that I chose it for the course not because I think it has universal literary value (though I do), but because it connects very strongly and very personally to my experience as a father of young kids. Because it puts into words all the things I don’t quite no how to say about how fucking terrifying parenthood is all the time. And that, to me, has real, vital value. It’s the very basis of fiction as art. What good is a beautifully-told story if it doesn’t show you something about yourself or show you how to be or show you at least that other people have as much trouble knowing how to be as you do.
If you can get that across to your readers through a description of your own personal experience with the story, maybe it’s worth it.
I think it’s a bit of both. Maybe a book brings up something that you need to get out – for those of us with blogs, this is sort of the natural way to do that. But also, the value of a book – I like how you put that – is definitely tied up in whether it’s universal enough to “get” to you on a personal level. I mean. Think about how crazy that is – that someone removed from you in time, in space, and many other levels, can write words that speak to you about your life? That’s the whole point, isn’t it?
…Oh, and, I knew, even as I was Googling it, that I shouldn’t read that story. Not at work, anyway. I spent the last 10 minutes in the bathroom trying to calm down and I think I’m going to have to work from home this afternoon.
I think Rick’s idea for separate (related) posts is a good one, but I certainly don’t mind when reviewers bring their personal experiences to the table. Often, it helps me get a sense of whether or not our reading tastes will be similar. Also, I admire people confident enough to share their stories (often beautifully written) with readers.
You’re right, many bloggers are great writers and it’s nice to see another side to their writing.
Wow, I commend the courage it must have taken you to talk about such a very personal and painful subject. I personally don’t mind when a book review is infused with the blogger’s experience because it makes that review unique. I can’t connect to a I also like the idea of separate posts: a review and then a post that goes deeper into how the book affected the blogger.
Yep, I think it’s the best of both worlds and something I’ll probably do a little more of now.
Lovely post (by loving, I mean heartfelt). If I were to write for the NYTBR or the like, I wouldn’t include personal information, but I don’t and wouldn’t want to. To be honest, to pretend that their life experiences or their shitty day at work didn’t influence their opinion of the book is, in my own opinion, pretty silly.
I think if you want to create a truly interactive community, one where you get to know your commenters and they get to know you, you have to share some personal information. It’s what makes it interesting and what makes it real. This, to me, is what makes book blogging worthwhile.
Do I regret sharing that I was adopted (and therefore originally abandoned)? Sometimes. It’s out there. I know that no one judges me for it. But even as an adult there is a certain amount of embarrassment that stems from not being wanted. That is something I did not talk about in my post and don’t know that I ever could. It’s too personal (much in the way my sons are, they don’t ever make it on the blog either, despite their being the best part of me).
And this, this is what I strive for: “It’s just you and the books. And hopefully an audience who doesn’t mind if you ramble on about yourself once in a while.”
Thanks! You inspired me 🙂
You’re right – whether we acknowledge it or not, of COURSE our personal lives will affect how we review books. Professional reviewers included.
Just writing about my miscarriage – that it happened at all – was scary enough! There’s lots of shame and embarrassment there and of course the fall out that happened over years and years… I don’t see me writing about that *here* either, maybe in another medium… but I feel like this was a first step.
And NOW I need to go review all those books that have been sitting in the queue for months.
Thanks for sharing, Laura 🙂