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Fair Housing Lawyer Indulges a Passion for ReadingFoster Corbin, who retired two years ago as executive director of Atlanta's Metro Fair Housing, a group that fights against discrimination in housing and lending practices, has had a lifelong passion for reading. Today the lawyer is one of the country's top book reviewers for Amazon.com, an endeavor that satisfies his passion and has made him new friends.
2013-06-21 08:44:10 PM
About two years ago, Atlanta lawyer Foster Corbin retired as executive director of Atlanta's Metro Fair Housing, a group that for nearly four decades has fought against discrimination in housing and lending practices across Georgia.
At a luncheon honoring Corbin's long service to the organization, state Senator Vincent Fort was quoted in the Daily Report saying that while there is a "waning commitment to civil rights in this country," Corbin was among those "who kept that dream alive that people should get along together."
"We appreciate you keeping the dream alive," Fort added. "We love you because of your kindness and your character."
What do you do after that?
Read, for one thing. And read and read and read.
Corbin has done more than that, of course, but books have been an important part of his life for as long as he can remember, and the Internet -- where he has become one of the country's top book reviewers for Amazon.com -- has given new life to his lifelong passion.
Here's what Corbin had to say to the Daily Report about his career and being an online bookworm.
Looking back on your more than 20 years at Metro Fair Housing, what would you say have been the organization's biggest successes?
The biggest success while I was at Metro would have to be a settlement with the A.G. Spanos Co., one of the largest builders of apartments in the country. We joined a federal lawsuit with the National Fair Housing Alliance and three other organizations like ours, one in Florida and two in California, against Spanos for building new apartments that were not accessible to the disabled as required by the Federal Fair Housing Act.
In addition to paying large monetary damages, the Spanos Co. agreed to retrofit many of its properties all over the country, including Georgia, to make them accessible for the disabled.
There were other interesting cases over the years. In the early 1990s, Metro had a client who sued a local landlord because a visiting friend was not allowed to swim in the apartment swimming pool because he was HIV-positive. The case settled in our client's favor. This was certainly one of the first -- perhaps the first -- cases in the U.S. to address such an issue.
More recently an interracial couple was not permitted to purchase a lot in a very affluent neighborhood in Athens, Ga., to build their "dream house." The case settled for $300,000.
What can be done better?
I recently closed on the refinancing of my house. The closing attorney, an African-American native of Atlanta, had never heard of Metro. We obviously needed to do a better job of letting people know we are here and what our services are.
Have you done any legal work since retiring from MFH?
I have been a mediator at the Justice Center of Atlanta since 1981 and have continued to do mediations there since leaving Metro.
What led you to start reviewing books on Amazon.com?
A writer in South Georgia, Janice Daugharty, asked me to review a novel of hers, Like a Sister, that I had read and liked. I had met Janice at a luncheon in Homerville, Ga., before we gave eulogies at the memorial service of a dear friend of mine, David Norman. Having no shame, I took copies of Janice's novels to the memorial service to get her to sign them. I wrote the review in February 2001 and have been writing them, off and on, since then.
You are one of Amazon's top 300 reviewers with almost 1,200 books. Why so many?
I read when I'm happy; I read when I'm sad. I don't seem to be able to stop buying books, either. I own several thousand books and many signed first editions. When I retired, I meant to start checking out books from the local library. I have yet to do that. When I want to read a book, I do not want to get on a waiting list to read it.
How many hours a week do you read? How many books do you read in a week? To put it another way, for us slow readers, how do you read so many books?
I probably read one book a week, maybe two, and review from four to six books a month, but I don't spend all my time reading, if that is what you are asking. I do not think I'm a particularly fast reader.
How is that possible?
Most of us spend our free hours doing what we want to do. I suspect that I spend less time reading in a week than most people spend watching TV, so I am not that unusual.
Do you have any Amazon goals, like Top 100 or Top 10?
It would be nice to be in the Top 100 but it's nothing I lose sleep over. I got as high as 106 once. Believe it or not, the whole reviewing system is very competitive. Anybody on earth, without using their real name, can vote for or against your review and that is how you are ranked.
Harriet Klausner is Amazon's No. 1 reviewer, with more than 28,500 books. Interested in trying to catch her?
Actually Ms. Klausner is not even in the top 1,000 reviewers now, since Amazon changed its ranking system about three years ago. The procedure Amazon uses has to be as mysterious as the way your credit score is determined.
Ms. Klausner is quite controversial. People have actually counted her reviews and report that she reviews seven books a day and suggest that she doesn't read the books she reviews.
Occasionally I glance at her reviews and the comments that readers make -- just to amuse myself. She usually reads books I have never heard of and would have no interest in reading anyway. No, I am not interested in catching her.
You mention in your Amazon bio that you can't remember when you didn't read. Who or what got you started?
My mother read to my twin brother and me and taught us to read. I cannot remember when I could not read. It has to be the greatest gift she ever gave us.
And my grandmother, my father's mother, was a great reader, although she was from the mountains of East Tennessee and had little formal education. She worked the crossword puzzle ever day from the Knoxville News Sentinel and read anything she could get her hands on. I had the task of checking out books from our school library that I thought she would enjoy, a job I loved since I adored my grandmother. I remember, for instance, getting her to read Uncle Tom's Cabin from the school library.
Do authors contact you after reviews? Have you made any new friends, or enemies?
Occasionally an author writes to me after I review a book, and, yes, I have made some friends, both from authors and from other reviewers. There is something quite wonderful about becoming friends because of a book.
I have a really good friend in San Francisco, another Amazon reviewer, who wrote to me after reading my review of Janette Turner Hospital's novel Oyster. We keep in touch via emails and I always have dinner with her and her husband when I visit San Francisco.
And just this month I went to dinner with Michael Fosberg after seeing his one-man show called Incognito at Holy Innocents School here. I reviewed Michael's book by the same title two years ago. Michael grew up in the Midwest knowing that his mother had divorced his father when he was a baby and had remarried. Michael was in his early 30s the first time he met his father, who was African-American, something his mother had hidden from him. His fantastic book is about meeting the other half of his family.
A writer named Thomas E. Kennedy wrote to me recently after reading my review of his novel In the Company of Angels, a book I had selected to review from the Amazon Vine Program that enables selected reviewers to receive up to four advance copies of free books a month. Thomas has lived in Copenhagen for the past 20 years and is read much more widely in Europe than in the U.S., where he was born. We have exchanged several emails since then, mostly talking about books.
One writer asked me to change a review once. I graciously declined. She apologized later. I would not classify her as an enemy, however. I usually do not review books I do not care for, so I know of no authors who are my enemies.
Who is your favorite author?
That is a little like naming my favorite dessert. It depends on what day of the week it is. There are, however, writers -- all novelists -- whose works I will always read. Some of them are John Irving, Jose Saramago, Colm Tolbin, Edmund White, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Janette Turner Hospital, Lee Smith. There is probably someone I'm leaving out but that is the list that comes to mind now.
What's the best book you ever read?
I usually read mostly novels, poetry and short stories so we are comparing the proverbial oranges, apples and grapes here. Usually I classify a good book as one I would reread and I can list 10 favorite novels, for instance, but the names are going to change.
In no particular order I would name Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, James Agee's A Death in the Family, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, Jose Saramago's Blindness, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and finally James Joyce's short novel or novella The Dead.
That's 10 novels. Then there are short stories and poems, too. A hard question. If you asked me the same question next week, the list would probably change. Also, there are books that I read years ago that I would probably add to the list if I reread them. My current project is to reread Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in the new translation. That would probably make my list of favorites too.
You own an online art gallery?
Yes, my friend Shelly Dollar and I own an online art gallery called Gallery Zebu. You can Google it to see examples of the one artist we represent right now, an amazing man named Armen Moumjian. Armen is Armenian, studied at Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and came to this country in the 1970s from Beirut. He does a painting a day from memory, usually either of Impressionist scenes of Venice, rural Michigan or abstracts.
Every time I see a new painting of his, I like it better than the last. I have 11 of his paintings, most purchased before Shelly and I decided to represent him. Armen has a worldwide reputation but he is hardly known in Atlanta.
And I hear you also make a mean cheesecake? Do you read while you bake?
I do not read while I bake. As much as I like to read, I do not care to overbake a cheesecake, something that would probably happen if I were reading while I baked.