reviewing reviews

The new "Panama" hat I bought at J.Crew has - wouldja believe it!-  pilled! The smooth woven surface has developed little furry protrusions along the crease. I probably should have known better, in the store the hats were already starting to break at the crease and little straw ends were already coming loose on others. I was so excited to see that the hats were available in more than one size that I sorted through the stacks until I found one in good condition, paid and left. My bad. This is the kind of situation that, well, first of all, should never have happened, but in any event would have benefited from candid user reviews. And thus, my mind turned to the subject of reviews in general.

When time, budget and patience are limited, reviews may speed you through the task of booking a restaurant, finding a gift, putting an outfit together, and even planning a trip. Reviews vary from the hotel described with bubbling exuberance by someone who may never have slept under a roof before - that tiny Paris hotel on the street with the cute name is not "a glimpse of a long-gone palatial lifestyle" even if you "glimpse" out the small and dirty window rather than at the flat and stained mattress and the gritty carpet. Adding insult to injury, although just about all French hotels quote you a price that includes tax and service, this one didn't, and didn't advise the clientele until checkout. So your room cost is almost 25% more than the quoted price. Well, I just looked on Google and it looks like they painted since I was lured into staying there, so no pics and you can make up your own minds. Which I know you will.

User comments on travel booking sites can be helpful, of course - a scenic village where all the stores and restaurants are closed on the one day I have to get there - the trip was saved by thoughtful reviewers who noted the idiosyncratic schedule. And thanks to the guy who pointed out that the schedule of a famous boatride "did not even rise to the level of a statement of intentions." On the other hand, I stop reading reviews when people describe how they loved the picturesque motel on the Riviera because of the ease of doing laundry. I go to Siena to look at art and breathe in atmosphere. But that's just me.
I've been suspicious of guidebooks ever since Mr Fodor's lazy Florida writer promised an outlet center for "fabulous international designers" which supposedly featured clothing from a respected apparel company that had notoriously flamed out in bankruptcy about 7 years before the book was published, thus 4 or 5 before the copy  even went to the editors. And there's no excuse for recommending a once-beloved coffee stop on the highway that was wiped away by a famously destructive hurricane in the same time frame. My indignant letter to the publisher went unanswered - I wanted my money back and an apology. And a cup of coffee.

Professional food critics have their own points of view and strong preferences. If you're planning a special night out or if friends insist that you accompany them to an evening at some new place that everyone's talking about, by all means research broadly. Some writers are more interested in adding an episode to their memoirs than in actually describing what was on the plate. My theory has been that Gourmet Magazine shut down because people lost interest in reading overheated descriptions of what part of the editor's mouth was tingling and how her evening ended. More meals have been spoiled by poor service, loud noise and long waits than by desperate cooks. And update your research - cooks move on, owners take in new partners, the economy impacts the menu...

A close friend worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant and - we're never too old for disillusionment - learned that a cadre of computers with different web addresses and wildly varying user names was responsible for eight-tenths of the first year's rave reviews on Yelp and similar sites. Apparently stuffing the ballot box is no longer limited to party politics. Another technique is to "bury" a poor or tepid review by posting a few dozen raves, since most people rarely read past the first dozen comments,

Sometimes, a look at where the reviewer hails from tells you a lot. Himself and I grew up eating shellfish (me because it used to be part of what was necessary on fast days and the custom lingered in the family, him because it was forbidden and dangerous and therefore enticing). But if you don't know what a mussel or an oyster is supposed to taste like, how are you to know that the one you are trying valiantly to get down is not a good example? Or that shrimp and lobster are not supposed to be rubbery? These items are not native to many parts of North America, and freezing, storage and travelling are not their friends. My mom, exquisite arbiter of table manners and owner of every kind of set of fish and shellfish fork demented silversmiths could imagine, delicately explained: Dear, it's not bad manners to spit out a bad clam. Just do it fast. How do you tell if there's something wrong with a clam or mussel? Believe me, you'll know. Thus, Himself and I don't eat shellfish or ocean fish more than an hour's ride from the relevant body of water.

Shoes that I tried on, inspired by a reviewer's assurances of quality and comfort, made me wonder what the poor dear had been wearing before she tried these synthetic clod-hoppers. From experience I know that if my reliable bloggy friends love something, I've got a good chance of loving it too - if it fits me and my budget. Wendy's style is so distinctly personal that I love reading her reactions even if I know before I start that the thing won't work for me. By the way, does anyone know why xoxo's blog disappeared? Is she OK? v.worried.

On many consumer sites, a criticism must be carefully masked to achieve publication. I'm thinking of the lady who raved about the excellence of the double wall oven model that I bought. Her one minor note was that it could be a little slow to preheat. Used to a 10-minute preheat time on every previous oven I'd owned or lived with, I gave this scant thought. How long could a powerful oven take to reach  350' or 400' ? Try 40 minutes, and Sears customer service assured me this was normal. Maybe so, but I just don't live like that. I have to remember to turn the thing on  when I walk in the door in case I decide to cook something that needs to finish in the oven, and this is not only aggravating but wasteful.

Almost forgot - loved, loved, loved the many Amazon readers who, during a certain political campaign, reviewed binders as being "women-deficient."

The ultimate review, however, is the obituary. Did you know that readers can comment on internet death notices? This took me by surprise. Generally the comments are sympathetic and nice, she was my best teacher, he was a kind and helpful neighbor, I didn't know him well but he found my son's lost puppy, she helped me through a bad time.... The father of a friend passed. He had been a hard-driving and plainspoken businessman. He could be charming and kind, but apparently was not always so in the workplace. The sympathy site showed that many comments had been deleted - but a few snuck through. I reported to him for six years and one of the best experiences I had was when after four years he called me by name instead of saying "uh, you." OR -- another --"I had many memorable days when I worked for him and the best was the day I left."

Happy Jazzfest, all, more when I get back!

Location:New Orleans LA


  1. All of the above is so true and well stated. I was going to write to you and inquire about xoxo and I find that you are inquiring as well. What is a person to do when a blogger vanishes without a trace?

    1. thanks, yippee! I tried a few approaches and got nowhere. I'm hoping she'll reappear. She may just be overwhelmed by babies and work - those babies still count as brand new in my estimation. I also wondered, since her last post, about finishing her renovation, was rather personal (for her), if the blog was attacked by trolls. In any event, I loved reading her, I am missing her, I wish her well, and I hope we find her again.

    2. Likewise and agreed as to all above. I do feared the trolls had attacked. Are the trolls attracted by references to babies? I am going to try another avenue and will get back to you, should I discover anything.

  2. Ah reviews. I have found the dining and hotel reviews to be helpful only if I read through the good, bad, and ugly for each establishment I am considering. Clothing is so discretionary. I had to laugh at the oven...we hate Sears!

    1. Oh, every time I deal with Sears I am a step closer to spending eternity in hell, what with all the profanity and blasphemy that I utter. Not to mention the ill-wishing.

      I know it makes me sound elderly - like complaining about feet - but I remember when travelling was a fun adventure, and when you could do something without getting a research grant first. Sigh.

    2. I inadvertently enrolled in an appliance protection plan that was administered, albeit silently, by Sears. It was tragic. Recently I made my way to a Sears Outlet in search of a clothes dryer for the garage. I selected the best of the worst and the salesperson ( for lack of a better word for the person wandering aimlessly through the warehouse) was removing the sticker it became apparent that there was a previous sticker below the current sticker. I stated that I would not be happy if the previous sticker was a lower price. Of course, it was decidedly lower and the manager was sought to remedy what I perceived as a ruse on the poor consumer. The manager smirkingly told me to have a nice day and then winked at me while asserting the right of Sears to change their prices at their discretion. The wink through in paroxysms of insanity and I called the 800 number and needless to say after much threatening regarding inappropriate behavior towards women and the fact that when one holds the power in a negotiation one should not gloat about same and act dismissively, I prevailed. Eventually the manager came over to my team when he could no longer withstand the customer service agent's politically correct attempts to dance around the issue. I realize this is a minor victory over Sears, but I share it with all of us who have been demeaned by Sears and managers everywhere.

    3. Yay! Yay!
      Out at Flintstone Manor, we were advised (by the local dealer who sold them) to avoid German and other imported appliances because of the difficulty and delay in getting parts. I had no intention of spending that much on something I don't enjoy, anyway, but Sears seemed a safe bet. I mean, you could see Sears stores all along the highway, right? HAH!

    4. The Sears stores are a carefully constructed mirage of smoke and mirrors to seduce the innocent consumer into believing there is a service network.

  3. I just noticed my Easter comment was eaten!

    I do rely on some reviews. I've found it very helpful iin the clothing arena as I don't "go" shopping due to a paucity of , well, stores. We do have other wonderful things, like the above lobster, but it saves a lot of money to live here unless one is a big internet shopper. So, if I read a negative review you write about a pilling hat (what???), I'm happy not to consider that item. On the other hand, if you or others describe how lovely a sweater feels, what great colors,etc, I may be more likely to give it a try. I have found a number of wonderful things on blogs, including my recent gorgeous navy handbag, made in CT, which I read about on Muffy A's blog.

    Hilarious about laundry facilities on vacation! I'd be with you looking at art in my clothing on the third wear, un-noticed by any French/Italian folks. I'm trying to graduate to a downloadable guide, but mostly I write all kinds of notes in the heavy, printed kind and pray. I don't find any of the guides very good for the US. My little area in FL is never adequately covered, the place we hike every other year in the SWest never has much useful info on actual hikes, and Maine...forget it. If I need current NYC info, I'd much rather get it from the Fred!

    Cars and appliances, oh my. I have a 17 year old Subzero fridge that cost me nearly 4 figures to repair last year...sigh. But at the time it was the only fridge made "flush" with cabinets. My PriusC was not very favorably reviewed by ConsumerGuide, but I love it.

    So I hope xoxo is fine; I love reading her blog, too; she seems so mature for her young age OK maybe you are her age, too?).

    1. Hi, Lane, we tend to hang on to stuff long past its predicted useful age, the tv in my den is so huge that it needs to be replaced with a flat screen and an armchair. But, as Himself says, we can still get a picture on it. Oddly enough, though, it's not suitable for watching sports events. Hmm.

      Well as to age, I was raised not to reveal it. So I won't. Except to repeat that I remember when the "getting there" part of travelling was indeed part of the fun.

  4. I don 't think that Sears has a monopoly on bad customer service. My most classic experience was with GE about one of their Profile washing machines I had purchased. The machine is a top loader that doesn't have an agitator and automatically adjusts the water level. While the machine was under warranty I called to have it serviced. The GE representative tried to convince me that it was perfectly acceptable that clothing was not getting wet during the entire wash cycle and that the machine was in no way defective. Good grief! With the obituaries isn't there a saying about revenge ibeing best when seved cold?
    I too hope xoxo has not been plagued with those who have nothing better to do than post vile comments. Best wishes to her and her new family. Have fun in New Orleans.

  5. Hi, teacups, that is a prize-winner! It's up to (or down to) Verizon standards!


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