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?
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.
Here's my confession for this week: I don't usually read books about writing because most of them annoy me.
It's not that I don't want to learn from established authors. I do. I'm greedy for all the information about writing that I can find. I want to learn. But lately, with the growth of self-publishing and many people thinking that uploading a first draft makes them an author, there's now a very large market for How-to-Write books, and too many of them purport to have the tricks or secrets that will make the process quick and easy.
Look, I don't object to an established author making a bit of extra money or acting as a mentor. I do object to bad and trite advice.
Three things that people tend to write about writing that do no one any good:
So, what are the books you should be reading if you want a little advice or insight into writing? Books that tell you the truth: writing is hard, writing is a (mainly low-paying) job. Look for books that focus on the work of writing; the technical aspects, rather than the harnessing of your 'inner writing light.'
I knew that I'd be posting book and author reviews here, but I've been hesitant because I didn't know what I could bring to the discussion that was new or interesting. There are so many fabulous professional and hobby book critics; what I have to say about a new book will not add much. But I read a lot, and my tastes are eclectic, and I have no reason to be current. So, if you want to read the newest, greatest book, visit The New York Review of Books or BookPage. But if you want to hear about an outstanding book or author you might have missed, then read on.
You Might Have Missed ... an incredible journey through Siberia.
Book: Silverland: A Winter Journey Beyond the Urals
Author: Dervla Murphy
Pub. Details: John Murray, 2007.
I discovered Dervla Murphy by accident. Ten years ago, I was browsing, with no intention of buying, in the travel lit. section at my local bookstore. And there was Dervla. I knew I couldn't leave the store without her. (If it sounds like I'm talking about meeting my soulmate, trust me, that's not far off the mark. That book, South from the Limpopo, began a great book love affair.)
If you have the good sense to read Murphy's book, you will find yourself asking, "Why have I never heard of her before?" I know, because that is exactly what I said. Silverland is her twenty-first of what is currently a twenty-three book tally. And she didn't start travelling or writing professionally until she turned thirty-two.
Murphy is not a typical travel writer. Her first journey, in 1963, took her from Ireland to India --- by bicycle. Later, she treks through the Andes with a mule --- and her nine year old daughter in tow. South from the Limpopo is a journey by bike more than 9,000 kilometres and through all nine provinces of South Africa --- during the tumult of post-apartheid democratic general elections. Silverland finds her travelling from Moscow to Siberia by slow train in the winter --- at age seventy-four.
Dervla boards this slow train in Moscow. Instead of the posher, faster Trans-Siberian, she chooses the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM). She likes it "...partly because these trains' favourite speed is 20 m.p.h." For three months, she enjoys the company of her varied Russian co-riders and during stop-overs, she finds hospitality, as she always does, with generous and curious people that she has met along the way, or with hosts that have been recommended by friends. This way of staying lends all of Murphy's work an intimate look at local people and beliefs, but especially does in this area of the world where centralization has made independent voices rare.
A nature-lover and solitude-seeker, Murphy revels in the beauty of the taiga. "To the north, beyond gleaming white flatness, miles of coniferous forest stood out blackly against a curtain of molten gold ... while the slim clouds turned rosy, a weirdly static crimson orb remained poised above the trees, not sinking perceptibly. Then very, very, slowly it disappeared -- and a wondrously lingering red-gold suffusion tinged the whole landscape."
On a solo morning hike along a logging track near Lake Baikal, near the northern border of Mongolia, she meets a large brown bear. "Siberian bears like their meat and are six to seven feet tall when upright, a posture occasionally adopted to kill reindeer or people." Later, nearly back to Moscow again, she encounters a duo of human predators. "The driver leant out, still in his seat, and silently pointed a revolver at me -- the long sort, carried by Russian policemen." Her reactions to both, are classic Dervla moments, something you will come to love and appreciate as you read more of her wonderful books.
Erin Bedford, writer.