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Classics Fiction

Brilliant! Excellent! Amazing!

“We need to think about how to get you more readers.” Laurie says this like a dear aunt who might be concerned about a teenager’s grades or her social life. 

“I know, I know.” I bleat. 

We’ve had versions of this conversation for over a year. Why bother writing book reviews with a personal take – I call them “gonzo” on my website Dr. Bookworm – if people don’t know about them? Yet, I find, what’s the word? – selling? advertising? marketing? – really challenging. Especially on social media. I don’t have the technical chops. And I am not interested in convincing people, even to do something they would like. Still, I know Laurie is right.

What I love to do is to read, carry on a running conversation with the characters and the author, explore how the book resonates with my life, and then share those thoughts. I have wanted to read Elena Ferrante’s work for a long time. Why is she (or whoever she is, as Ferrante is a pseudonym) a cult figure among her readers? 

 Her most famous work is collectively known as The Neapolitan Quartet. These four novels depict the intertwined lives of two women in a poor neighborhood in post-WWII Naples, Italy.  The first of these, My Brilliant Friend, starts when the two girls meet as first graders. The narrator, Lenu, and the charismatic Lila form a fast friendship. Ferrante creates a vivid world of relationships with family, classmates, neighbors and boys from these girls’ point of view. It’s a unique voice, and Ferrante deserves her cult status.

My Brilliant Friend takes the story to the girls’ teenage years. The intensity of their closeness is dazzling, but so is the competition, envy and divergence in interests. Each sees the other’s decisions – such as continuing school or getting married – as the better choice.  Each sees the other as the “brilliant friend.”

Laurie is the brilliant friend of my writerly life.  We met twenty years ago as part of a writing group. It was our group’s practice to pass around what we wrote for the others to critique. In 2003, Andrews McMeel published our collection of personal essays called Guilty Pleasures: Indulgences, Addictions and Obsessions. My gonzo review of that book on Dr. Bookworm is called It’s My Pleasure.

Laurie at work

When I started Dr. Bookworm in the summer of 2018, I asked Laurie if she would critique my blog entry. Wow! What I got back was so closely read. With colored markers and pens, she made pertinent suggestions about the content. Samples from some of the posts include: “Clarify that you’re talking about financial anxiety.” And “Can you make a reference to the Nordic cop and doctor?” And “I think you buried the lede.”

She also does fine-line editing, catching things like my inconsistent use of one space and two spaces after periods. Does anyone care if my hyphen is one long line (–) or two short lines (–)? Laurie does. 

One essay turned to two to a dozen. This will be my sixty-first blogpost, and Laurie has edited nearly every one.

Main points
Deep dive

Of course, she is way over-qualified for this task. Laurie is a speechwriter. She writes for Fortune 500 CEOs and major organizations. She’s won awards. Years before my decision to do the blog, I remember a conversation when she explained the importance of tailoring a speech to your audience. I even remember her example: does your audience want a detailed, deep dive into the topic or just the main points? To illustrate the point, she showed me two sketches by Picasso.  Then, you write your speech accordingly.

When WordPress, the host site of my blog, offered a Zoom lecture on getting more viewers to your website, I decided to make an effort and signed up.

SEO? What’s that? It stands for Search Engine Optimization. And what is that? How to get more viewers, and how to get Google to list your link higher up when people search, say, “Ferrante” or “book review.” That’s more or less what SEO means. I think. 

The first thing the lecturers, all 20-somethings, advised was to determine who your “customer” is. The same people that Laurie calls the “audience.” I remember asking Laurie, “Isn’t it enough that I portray how I see things as best as I can? I still have to suit it to other people’s taste?” Laurie gave an indulgent-parent smile. “I guess that’s another way to look at it.” 

After this SEO course, I complained to Laurie that they wanted me to figure out who my audience is. Americans? Women? Retirees? Again, Laurie gave good counsel. “Who is your ideal reader?” she asked. “Imagine one person.”

This, I could do. So, here’s my list. My ideal reader would…

Answer my questions – I pose one question after each essay

Wield their imagination

Hunger to read 

Thrill to solving puzzles

Revel in the natural world

Laugh

Intuit interconnectedness among disparate matters

Be self-aware

Be sensual 

Get my allusions

This list sits on my kitchen counter. It has for a few weeks. Then, one day, it dawns on me. The person who fits this profile is Laurie!!

Laurie has become such a part of my blogging routine. It’s hard to for me to imagine putting out an essay without her input. As Lenu thinks of life without Lila, “Would I know how to give life to every object, let it bend in unison with mine?”

Laurie, me and Lucy the cat

But this is not the amazing part of this story. The wondrous aspect of our relationship is that not once in these two and a half years and sixty blogs has Laurie ever critiqued in a way that discouraged or angered me. Now, that is brilliant

Tell me: Who do you count on?

By Cathy Luh

I am a doctor, a writer and Grammy to Edin and Caleb. I live in St. Louis with husband Bill.

9 replies on “Brilliant! Excellent! Amazing!”

A lovely review and essay. The act of offering a critique that inspires rather than discourages is an art in itself. We all need a Laurie in our lives!

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A lovely review and essay. It is a true art to offer a productive critique that leaves the recipient feeling inspired rather than discouraged. We all need a Laurie in our lives!

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Since I am lucky enough to also know Laurie (not just A Laurie, but THE Laurie you are talking about), I agree with the whole blog. And she is frequently the person I have in mind when I am writing fiction.

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I just love helping to edit these amazing book reviews. I think it’s because editing gives me the same dopamine buzz as working a crossword puzzle. Also, it gives me an excuse to see you (virtually) in spite of the pandemic. Also still yet, it gives me the vicarious satisfaction of being involved in something productive. Thank you for all of that, Cathy. The pleasure is mine! – LV

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Hi Cathy, I really enjoyed this post and am happy to say I have a similar best friend/editor in my life. It’s my sister, Judy, who is a fabulous editor as well as gentle, tactful, and talented. I own a copy of Guilty Pleasures: Indulgences, Addictions and Obsessions. I have had it for years and think it is a beautiful book. I have lived in St. Louis for 57 years and just relocated to Florida, right in the middle of COVID. I’m pretty much staying home until this is over. Can’t wait to read your Trump piece.

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Cathy, I love that you have a friend like Laurie. My life too has been enriched by friendships. A few deep soul mates, some painting buddies, some just giggling buddies. Gifts they are..everyone of these dear friends. I consider you one of them. Keep creating. I really like reading your creative thoughts

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