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Recommendations: A Labor of Love

Post by Shauna Griffin
Posted June 06, 2014 in NoveList Plus, Readers' Advisory News

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For the last few months, we've been explaining the foundations of good recommendations -- genre, appeal, and subject. Now I'd like to describe how we turn those into actual recommendations. We create two distinct kinds of recommendations at NoveList, individual handwritten recommendations and algorithm generated recommendations. My focus is on the first kind. You’ll recognize these in part because you’ll see our names after them, but they also have a more personal touch than do the ones based on the algorithm, which is itself based on our genre, appeals, and subject cataloging.

When we're creating individual handwritten recommendations for NoveList, there’s a lot to consider. Primarily, what is it that readers like about a particular book (or author, or series)? Because different readers like different things about the same book, it's best to try to address multiple aspects -- usually with multiple recommendations. Plot, characters, location, subject matter, themes, time period, writing style, tone, AND genre all come into play when considering what books to recommend for each other.

This multiplicity of appeals is one reason we have multiple people writing recommendations -- give the same title to three different people and ask for similar titles, and they'll likely come up with six different suggestions. Generally, we try to keep tone and genre the same between books that are recommended for each other, but a good recommendation has to draw parallels between at least a few of the different aspects mentioned above. We usually don't suggest other books by the same author, figuring readers will have already gone that route; we never write recommendations for books in the same series.

Our primary goal is to offer a reader some options; we don't expect all of our suggestions to work with all readers.

Let's use a specific example to illustrate this concept. Imagine you have a reader who enjoyed Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It's the story of a Dominican-American and his family members, each of whom looks outside the natural world to understand their lives, but more than that it's a study in multiculturalism and cultural identity, with the language used in the book itself shifting from English to Spanish and back again, and in style from formal to street slang. Adding to the complexity, there are multiple narrative shifts, both in time and location, and several narrators, offering several perspectives on identity. Steeped in generations of change, bad luck, and Dominican history, especially those years of Trujillo's brutal dictatorship, Oscar Wao and his family -- now living in New Jersey -- are a microcosm of the Dominican Republic and its diaspora. Part family saga, part political, passionate and exuberant, there are plenty of directions to go in when considering recommendations. (There are also strong female characters, references to science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction, and lots of swearing. As with any book, this one's not for everyone!)

First, we've got the colorful backdrop of Dominican history and myth. For readers interested in this aspect, we suggest Mario Vargas Llosa's Feast of the Goat and Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Though The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is more spirited, all three books star families affected by Trujillo's reign, and Dominican history and culture is inextricably linked to the characters' lives in the U.S.

Then there's the immigrant experience, a rich theme in this novel and plenty of others. Though there are many to choose from, we suggest Lysley Tenorio's Monstress and Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, even though neither of these is about Dominicans in the US. Monstress is a collection of short stories featuring Filipinos both in the Philippines and the US. It also provides a nice survey of Filipino-American immigrant history. Like Oscar Wao, it offers an imaginative take on the contemporary American experience. Bread Givers is, like Oscar Wao, steeped in tradition -- though in this case, it's Jewish tradition. (For Dominican emigrants, try Jon Michaud's When Tito Loved Clara or Nelly Rosario's Song of the Water Saints. Or, Junot Diaz's other books, though of course you’ve already thought of that!)

We haven't yet addressed writing style -- this is a vivid, complex book, in story and in style. For readers who enjoyed the exuberant writing style, we suggest Martin Amis' Lionel Asbo (though set in England, it also addresses themes of race and class) and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (plenty of suffering here, too). Though radically different in other respects, their inventive storytelling styles make them possibilities for readers of Oscar Wao

Lastly, though The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao follows the stories of several different people, it revolves around the life of Oscar Wao. In one respect, the novel is the story of a coming of age in a multicultural urban setting. So too is Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude (the protagonists in both also share an interest in speculative fiction). And Zadie Smith's NW, with its multiple protagonists linked by childhoods in London public housing, has much to offer fans of Oscar Wao.

When you look for your favorite books, authors, and series in NoveList, you'll come across the many handwritten recommendations created by our staff and contributors. It’s a labor of love -- for all the hours we put into writing recommendations, they're still just a small portion of all the recommendations in NoveList. While we try to focus on the most highly visible titles -- award winners, bestsellers, and other buzzworthy books -- we realize we can't get to everything. In the next installment of this column, we'll tell you how we create recommendations for the rest of the books in NoveList; in the meantime, I hope you find some handwritten ones that serve you well. 


Shauna Griffin is the NextReads/ADEPT Supervisor at NoveList.