This week's word is a mouthful, but a beautiful one.
noun: the appearance of being true or real
Etymology: early 17th century: from Latin veri (genitive of verus'true') + similis 'like'
Source: Oxford English Dictionary
Clever humour of that title aside, where do you stand on the issue?
Up until six months ago, I was starring things without a lot of deep thought on the practice--books mostly, and usually on Goodreads. And then I read The Goldfinch. And then I read The Luminaries. Both are award-winning books that I really did not enjoy that much, and like unsatisfied readers everywhere, my first reaction was to find other unsatisfied readers to justify my opinion.
What I found eventually, after reading a lot of scathing reviews of both books, was a piece by Eleanor Catton in response to criticism that she is a writer of elitist fiction. On Literature and Elitism deals with a few interesting questions as to the relationship between reader/consumer/writer, but the one that really gave me pause was her questioning the habit of giving starred reviews to reading experiences.
I spent some time this week trawling through customer reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, in order to look for trends — paying particular attention to the scathing one-star reviews that inevitably warn all other readers against buying or reading the disliked book. Starred reviews affix to all works of literature a kind of efficiency rating, which over time average out to a meaningless valuation somewhere between the middle threes and the low fours.
And she's right, there isn't a lot to be learned from a star rating because it generally does fall smack in the middle of the scale, but also because the ratings are coming from an audience of people that you don't know anything about. For instance, I think it's a fair bet that someone who normally reads and loves Danielle Steele is not going to enjoy The Luminaries, but should that person feel free to give The Luminaries a one or two star review? I got a rejection letter last week that also speaks to this issue ... one of the feedback snippets basically said, "I would have liked this story a lot better if it was a horror story." Which is kind of like saying, I would like cottage cheese a lot better if it was yogourt. That's not criticism, constructive or otherwise, that is just identifying what you like, and telling other people that you only like what you like. Catton concurs, saying that a starred review amounts to "just an expression of brand loyalty," that is as ridiculous as "giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat."
Shortly after reading that, I stopped star-reviewing the books I didn't enjoy. One thing I don't want to do anymore, especially since putting my own book out in the world, is tear another writer down. The vitriol that normally accompanies a poor rating of a book astounds me. People seem to forget sometimes that the book they read and didn't like and then proceeded to trash online is still the product of a human being with feelings. The book, though you may not care for it, is the outcome of a lot of time and hard work.
Also, if a book doesn't mean much to you, that's not necessarily the writer's fault. That's maybe, at least partly, the reader failing the writer at being a good reader. I know I sometimes read things impatiently, or while distracted with life, or while in an especially critical or otherwise unfavourable mood. Maybe I wasn't the intended audience. And though it's nice to think that a great wordsmith could transcend the boundaries, could draw everyone in and wrap them up in a great story no matter their age, interests or life experience, it is just not possible. Preferences are normal and we shouldn't feel guilty for having them, but we shouldn't think that they hold any evaluative worth. It's fine to have opinions, and it's good to voice them, even if they are negative, but if you do, then criticism should be well-considered and go beyond the realm of thumbs up/thumbs down.
And if I love a book? Then I star it and share it and love it up all over the place. Because even though what I think doesn't mean anything about the quality of the book, it is the only way I have to show my gratitude for a very rare experience: synergy between reader and author.
So, the World Cup is happening. And I really don't think it would be possible for me to care less about it. I know, I know. In this age of major diaspora, I think I might be the only person in Toronto who doesn't care at all. I won't be hanging out at the bars to watch matches (or at the grocery store, for that matter--the Loblaw's mecca at Maple Leaf Gardens that I shop at has a big screen set up for those in the neighbourhood who prefer to do their shopping and footie watching at the same place), I'm not wearing the jersey or flying the flag of an ancestral or adopted country, and other than Ronaldo, (who has been everywhere lately) I couldn't name you another player on any team attending.
And yet, there are stories in this particular land of sport. This one is from World Cup 1982. Look at this guy's face: he is scared. Apparently, this West German player, Uli Stielike just missed a rather critical penalty kick. He is right in the midst of a huge moment of his life. What a great short story this would make ... if I knew anything at all about football.
Also, World Pride is here now! Yeah for middle-of-the-night dance parties and Chaka Khan impersonators and totally equal rights for all people.
I love finding these little guys under the rocks at the cottage.
noun 1. a small animal that looks like a lizard with
smooth skin that lives both on land and in water.
Etymology: Middle English salamandre, from Anglo-French, originally from the greek σαλαμάνδρα
Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary
There's been a lot of fuss lately about grown-ups reading Young Adult (YA) fiction. The most recent hubbub started after Ruth Graham's piece, Against YA, appeared on Slate.com As you can probably surmise from the title, she has a bit of a problem with adults reading "maudlin teen dramas." She fears that grown-up readers are missing out on the big, mind-expanding masterworks (and just so you know, Ruth was reading them when she was a teenager- So there!) because they're stuck in an unfortunate rut of trite adolescent love stories.
As you can imagine, the rather large population of adult Y/A readers did not take kindly to Graham's criticisms. Among many other insults, she was accused of being a genre snob. Book and literacy advocates got their knickers all bunched up too. People are reading. Even better, people are enjoying what they're reading. Lay off!
Look, I get both sides of the argument. I finally read The Fault in our Stars because it was all anybody was talking about. Here's my review as it appeared on Goodreads two weeks ago:
This is a Y/A novel and belongs to the twelve and thirteen year olds out there who might get something from the very simple pathos of this love story. I'm not sure why (and somewhat discouraged that) grown adults are reading and loving this book in such numbers.
And I still haven't read one word of Harry Potter. So yeah, I get where Graham is coming from. There are so many excellent, thought-provoking books to read. Too many to read in a lifetime of avid reading. So why are grown-ups using any of that precious time to read things that aren't asking big questions, that aren't reflecting life experience as the difficult, confounding, and beautiful mess that it is?
On the other side, I understand the appeal of books that are simple and satisfying. It's like food: we love to talk about the smoked trout and apple feuilleté we tried at the latest fancy restaurant (The Goldfinch/The Luminaries), but at the end of a long and stressful day, sometimes the best thing is a grilled cheese sandwich (The Fault In Our Stars/Catching Fire). Y/A is comfort food for the brain. We know what to expect, and we've been enjoying it since we were very young.
I like grilled cheese. I love it especially so with thinly sliced vidalia onion and swiss cheese. (fancy, right?) I also love to partake in an excellent chef's tasting menu. I love the nuances, the envelope-pushing, the unfamiliar ingredients that you might have to train your palate to enjoy. Usually, I eat somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, like most people. Ruth Graham is someone who really enjoys haute-cuisine. And the Y/A-fanatic adults out there mostly eat grilled cheese. Both are perfectly acceptable choices that fall on opposite sides of the spectrum. The trouble is, Graham basically walked into the middle of a Mom-and-Pop diner with a tray of raw oysters and a bottle of shallot vinaigrette and began haranguing the grilled cheese-loving patrons: Life is short. You should really try this. If you don't like it, there's something wrong with you. And later you'll thank me for opening your mind to all these fresh flavours.*
But instead of telling Graham to get lost with her high-brow opinions, instead of ignoring her, a lot of supposedly proud Y/A-reading adults got very defensive. They started up huge comment strings on various webpages, justifying the genre by pointing to all the books in the literary canon that could be classified as Y/A (Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of a Young Girl, etc.) Mark Medley wrote an especially snarky piece for the National Post in reply to Graham that imagines him chucking all of Shakespeare's work in the garbage because Romeo and Juliet were teenagers. The piece is supposed to be satirical, but it comes across very earnestly, which in my mind is a bit of a failure of form. I can't understand why so many adult Y/A fans are getting het up about one writer's opinion.
But let's get back to that food analogy (Is it lunch time yet?) ... Some people don't like oysters. They'd never think of eating one. Others can't stand the formula of (bread + cheese + bread )griddle = meal. But if we are grown-ups, that means we get to choose what we consume, and that also means we shouldn't care too much what other people think of that choice.
*Also, there are better ways to get someone to try something new than yelling at them, or shaming them.
Another series, because these are all so beautiful that I couldn't choose just one.
French photographer Laurent Laveder created these as part of a very charming series called Moon Games.
This is a newer word, another of my very favourites, and one that would really benefit from a scratch and sniff app.
Pronunciation: Pe- tri-kor
noun 1. A pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather
Etymology: coined in 1964 by two Australian researchers, Bear and Thomas, for an article in the journal Nature. In the
article, the authors describe how the smell derives from an oil exuded by certain plants during dry periods, whereupon
it is absorbed by clay-based soils and rocks. The word is a blend of the Greek petro 'relating to rocks' and ichor, the
fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.
Sources: Oxford English Dictionary and Wikipedia
Taken last year at Juno Beach.
Remember Today, Remember Always On June 6, 1944, D-Day, 359 Canadians were killed in action on the beaches of Normandy. These men came from communities all across Canada. They lived down your street, attended your school, worked in your businesses. Many were just boys when they went off to war, storming the beach as young as 18.
This is an amazing find for anyone interested in early Toronto history or the War of 1812-- a (colourized) photograph taken in October 1861 of veterans of the 1812 War.
The set-up for many a Dan-Brown-esque thriller ...
Erin Bedford, writer.