Monday, 20 July 2009

Spell It Right! When Is a Book Review a Good Review?

What to do when a review isn’t a particularly good review, especially when it is published some place where a lot of people are going to see it? The past few days I’ve been faced with this dilemma over a review of The Walkable City: From Haussmann's Boulevards to Jane Jacobs' Streets and Beyond by Ezra Klein, the Washington Post reporter and master blogger, in The Barnes and Noble Review.

The book has received quite good reviews to date (see links to the right) but Klein, in short, says the book isn’t tough enough. He likes the chapter about Carlsbad, California and shopping centers, but says that there is not enough research presented about questions of urban policy. Nor does he like the conversations I imagine between urban planning icon Jane Jacobs and Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann, who was responsible for rejigging Paris in the mid-19the century (which, by the way, are taken word for word from their writings or interviews, as is noted in the book.)

Well, it's too bad I didn’t write the book Klein would have liked to have read, but I wanted to make my book as amusing as possible. I tried to keep the tone light, particularly because the implications are pretty heavy, and I’m convinced that ordinary folk turn off when things are painted in somber colours. Klein and I had a very civilized e-mail/Twitter exchange about this, from which I think we both gathered that we agree about many things, if not this book.

That said, there are certain advantages to getting even a doubtful review from Barnes and Noble. They haven’t carried my books in numbers in the past, but apparently they are with this one. An old high school friend just wrote that she’d been able to get her local B&N store to order it for her, and I know my publisher did a reprint because of B&N orders.

So maybe the old adage is correct: it doesn’t matter what they say, it’s whether they spell your name right. Check out the review, take a look at the book, and see if you agree. In addition to Barnes and Noble, it’s available at many independent book stores, on,, and directly from Véhicule Press.


Martin Langeland said...

Success too early spoils a writer by denying the bottom necessary for perspective. Ezra has moved from precocious scribbler to opinionated character. While the former was interesting, the latter is a plain or garden variety propagandist. Still ... if it sells books --

Martin Langeland said...

Now I've read Ezra's review. In addition to reinforcing what I wrote above, it is sad that the review has so little to do with your book.
Perhaps one day Ezra will write the book on this topic that he reviewed here. That will likely occur well before he gets around to reviewing your book.
It reminds me of nothing so much as the standard bureaucrat's ploy which uses every press question as the opportunity to recite the current policy talking point regardless of its relevance to the question.

Mary Soderstrom said...

Thanks for your support, Martin

Here's the exchange between him and me, which is kind of amusing.

First email:
Hello Mr. Klein

Your review of my book in the Barnes and Noble blog just landed here. Thanks for your careful consideration.

I'm glad you liked the story about Betty York, but I'm sorry you didn't think the Walkable City was tough enough. I wanted it to be an easy read, though, since there are a lot of writers preachingn to the choir, and I was hoping to expand the congregation.

By the way, there's a chapter about Irvine in my last book, Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, and I'd like to send you a copy. My publisher will post it to the American Prospect address: hope that's a good one to use.

Best wishes, and enjoy your carless status.

Mary (who grew up in San Diego and who remembers when Orange County had acres and acres of oranges.)

His Twitter:
Author of a book I just reviewed negatively sent me a nice e-mail. I stick
by the review, but made me feel rotten. Very well-played.5:10 PM Jul 10th

My comment by email:
Hey, didn't mean to make you feel rotten. Repentant maybe, but not rotten :)

His email reply:
Haha, in either case, I appreciate your gracious emails.