Unfortunately, in the past four months, I've read a lot of less-than-great-to-me books. (David Mitchell's latest, Bone Clocks, was a .... trip. One that started off really well, but halfway through the journey I kind of just wanted to go home. Boohoo. I was really anticipating a best-of-the-year read.) So, these were the very refreshing stand-outs.
What about you? What have you been reading and loving (or not) lately?
Photographer Krista Long took a bunch of high-speed photographs at a water park, and called the series I Love Summer. See the whole project here. It's wonderful fun.
And, if you need some good short reads for your long weekend, here are a few articles I really enjoyed this week:
A first-time skydiver lives to tell the tale of a jump gone wrong and the hero instructor who saved her. (Sports Illustrated)
Surviving 12 hours alone in the North Atlantic. (The New York Times)
Amy Boesky simultaneously worked on a PhD at Oxford and ghostwrote the Sweet Valley High series. (Kenyon Review)
An eclectic mix, but all reads that I really enjoyed.
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.
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.
In honour of Maya Angelou:
Also, in her honour, I wanted to talk about beautiful titles for books, because the title of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has long been one of my favourites.
Titles are tricky things, especially these days, with so much attention paid to the supposed science of marketing. In many cases, choosing the title of an author's work is a decision made by committee (editors, marketing experts, author input), rather than something the author comes up with on their own. Usually, the book has to be finished before a title can be chosen. All the thematic cards have to be on the table. Fathom Lines was called The Depths for a long time, until I realized the stories were more about the charting of those depths rather than the metaphorical deep waters themselves.
So, I have no idea how these titles came to be, but congratulations to whoever is responsible for putting these particular words together:
I could keep going with this list for a long time, but what about you? What are your favourites?
In the last couple of weeks, I've read some sad, beautiful books. After attending a panel discussion at the Toronto Public Library where Helen Humphreys spoke, I picked up and read her most recent book, Nocturne: On the Life and Death of My Brother in an evening. It is an elegy for her younger brother, an accomplished concert pianist who died of pancreatic cancer in 2009.
And then there was a new Miriam Toews novel to read: All My Puny Sorrows. Like her other books, Toews' humour and straightforward writing style made me want to keep reading what might otherwise have been a tragic and too-sad story-- the protagonist's older sister, a world-renowned pianist, is suffering severe depression and wants to die. Difficult material already, but now consider: Miriam Toews' sister committed suicide in 2010.
It can be hard to start books that we know could upset us, but these books are as much, if not more, about what it means to love and be loved by a brother or sister as they are about losing them. Grief is a condition of love. And there is a lot of love to be found in these books.
Ah, the good old days, when even the snake wranglers wore suits and ties.
This week in the stacks: I found a poem, To the Lady Charlotte Rawdon: From the banks of the St. Lawrence, written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore at the beginning of the 19th century while he travelled through the United States and Canada. There are some beautiful images of the pristine countryside that used to be, and I wanted to share a little bit of it with you:
I dreamt not then that, ere the rolling year
The full poem can be found in Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems (1806). This volume describes the rest of Moore's travels in America and Canada and is available as a free ebook from Google Books.
As part of an author profile I put together at Smashwords, I answered
eight questions about my writing and reading habits. Here they are, for
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
Probably "Ferdinand", by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson. It introduced me to character complexity!
What are your five favourite fiction books, and why?
In no particular order:
Who are your favorite authors?
Peter Carey, Alice Munro, Michael Crummey, Charlotte Brontë.
When did you first start writing?
As soon as I could hold a pencil, probably. I know there were quite a few stories with poor spelling and even worse illustrations that I read with great pride to my family and friends. I also wrote plays, and by wrote I mean "borrowed very heavily from Grimm's Fairy Tales."
What is your writing process?
Strong coffee, comfortable chair, clean work area, sad music, think, write, edit, repeat.
What's the story behind, Fathom Lines, your latest book?
Lise makes maps of places that used to exist and lives with a man she doesn’t love. Her mother, Vee, pines for the husband she lost so many years ago, and can’t stop thinking of the place she grew up and left behind on purpose.
As the book opens, Vee is a very soon-to-be-retired librarian, mother, and widow. She is smart and no-nonsense, but wasn’t always as reserved as she is now. She worries that her daughter is unhappy and unwilling to do anything about it. Lise works for the Preservation Society and wishes she didn’t. She lives with a guy that she isn’t sure she likes, much less loves. She worries that her mother is having trouble with her memory.
The story is about memories and family secrets, and how both keep us from truly knowing the ones we love best.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a historical novel, based on the experiences of a real man, set in York, Ontario (what is now Toronto) at the turn of the nineteenth century. Murder is involved, and war, and love, of course. Royals, too.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
The challenge of finding the best words to express what is often inexplicable.
My research for the next book continues (it will for a while yet), but I don't mind at all. A historian by training, I know what I'm doing and where to look for what I need. Also, the treasures I find keep it interesting! As a novelist, and not a social historian, I know that a lot of the things I find during my research will never appear in the book. No one wants to pick up a novel and read three pages about how to shear sheep, or make candles from beef tallow, or all the ways to tell if eggs are fresh. And that's okay. But some of the things are so amazing to me, that I need to give them an outlet. So once a week, or thereabouts, I'll be sharing a treasure I've found.
This week: an old recipe I found in a book called (get ready for a deep breath, this is a long title...) AMERICAN COOKERY, OR THE ART OF DRESSING VIANDS, FISH, POULTRY and VEGETABLES, AND THE BEST MODES OF MAKING PASTES, PUFFS, PIES, TARTS, PUDDINGS, CUSTARDS AND PRESERVES, AND ALL KINDS OF CAKES, FROM THE IMPERIAL PLUMB TO PLAIN CAKE. ADAPTED TO THIS COUNTRY, AND ALL GRADES OF LIFE. by Amelia Simmons, an American Orphan. I love that orphan bit. Is it a pity-ploy to get people to buy? A justification of why she's writing and not sitting around in an easy chair embroidering something? A guarantee that she knows her way around a kitchen? Maybe Gwyneth Paltrow could put this on her next cookbook?
Anyway, here is what I wanted to share. Oh, and you might want to put down your sandwich. This gets a little gross.
To Dress a Turtle.
Well, Amelia. I think I'll pass on this recipe. I don't know if it's how I must break the gall, the slime you mention, or the boiling blood, but contrary to what you say at the end, I don't think this turtle repas will ever be sufficiently done for me.
The rest of American Cookery is quite fascinating, too, a lesson in how to use everything and how to cook without any of the modern conveniences. An interesting read, if you're writing a late 18th century novel or not.
Just three picks this week, but these will keep you reading for a while:
Dear Literary Mags (may I call you Mags from here on out?) ,
In an effort to keep a promise I made to myself at the beginning of this year, I have been googling your websites and reading many of your Submission pages. In the process, I've discovered a few things about you. First, the good stuff:
But I've also noticed a few things you could improve:
I guess what I'm trying to say, Mags, is that when you are a champion of the literary underdog, when you act as a place for engaging literary discussion, when you point out something from an author we love that we might otherwise miss, and especially when you are generous and polite to you submitters, I love you, and I look forward to working with you. I will be your champion, if you will be mine. And if you are not? Well, most of your readers are submitters (or would-be submitters), and publishing is a tough racket these days. I say, good luck to you.
A couple of years ago, I culled my books--a collection of over 500 wiped out to almost nothing. At first, I found it horrible to pick off the books one by one, and pack them off to the charity book sale. I loved my books and what I thought they said about me, this collection of mainly 20th century novels, with a handful of travel, historiography, philosophy and wine books evening it out. But it had to be done--it took up a lot of real estate in a very small living space--and once I started sorting through, I realized most of the books I owned didn't say that much about me. (Also, who were my bookshelves talking to, anyway? Ninety-five percent of the people that come over know me pretty well already, and it's not like I want or expect the guy who tests the fire alarm twice a year to be looking through the bookshelf for insight about me.) So, after the first twenty tough decisions were made, the process got easier, fun actually, when I imagined people reading these books again. Solomon Gursky Was Here... You might not think so, but you will suspend all disbelief. Fall on Your Knees... I hope you've got nothing to do for the next 8 hours. Ulysses? Ahahaha. Pity the fool.
Anyway, all of this long-winded ramble is meant to illustrate a point. Now, I own less than 30 books. Mostly, the books I kept say something to me, instead of about me. But this book does both.
You Might Have Missed ... Being Still with Pablo Neruda
Author: Pablo Neruda, Translated by Alastair Reid
Pub. Details: FSG Adult; Bilingual Edition ed., Jan 2001
note: because I am not a Spanish speaker, I will be quoting the poems as translated by Alastair Reid, but if you prefer the original, the Spanish is printed opposite in this text.
So, in terms of introducing some unknown talent to you today, this is a gigantic fail. I realize that Pablo Neruda is one of the very few recognize-by-name poets in the vast canon of literature. Still, I would venture that most people who have read Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, or The Captain's Verses have not read what I think is his most reflective collection of poems, Extravagaria.
The original Spanish publication, Estravagario, appeared in 1958, after Neruda had travelled the world as a diplomat (later an exile), and returned to his native Chile. There is an obvious theme to these poems, one of stillness and being at peace, one of having silence enough to think about the big questions of life. For once on the face of the earth, / let's not speak in any language; / let's stop for one second, / and not move our arms so much.
There are also the mundane things that we see anew because he shows us their simple beauty--describing fog as "...waves [that] roll on in the air, / like invisible horses" or things washed up on shore "...violet claws of crabs, / little skulls of dead fish, / smooth syllables of wood, / small countries of mother-of-pearl..." For a writer, his poems are little injections of inspiration.
Of course, there is love--it's Neruda, after all--but this love is deeper and more mature, a testament to the sacred act of building life together rather than making love. "Now we need each other, / not only for the carnations' sake, / not only to look for honey-- / we need our hands to wash with, to make fire."
And don't worry--most of the poetry is tremendously accessible. You don't need to 'get' poetry to enjoy this book. You need no qualifications save for that you are alive and know how to read. No matter who you are, there is at least one thing in this book that will make you think about the life that you have lived so far, or about the life you want to live.
Extravagaria survived my book cull, and would survive again if some crazy anti-book person told me I could only keep one book for the rest of my life. The pages of my ten-year old copy are dog-eared, the spine is beginning to split. It is a book I turn to all the time, like my own personal bible, when I need to remember what I'm supposed to be doing with life, when I need to be reminded of a bigger picture. Reading this book is as close as I will ever get to prayer.
Erin Bedford, writer.