In Defense of Reviewing Mediocre Books #WITMonth

On Wednesday I posted a review of The Case of Lisandra P., a thriller written by the French writer Hélène Grémillon and translated by Alison Anderson. I began the review with a paragraph defending the position that while I felt it was a mediocre book, even mediocre books deserve reviews. That it was unfair to demand that women to produce only amazing books which are worthy of being reviewed when we do not hold male authors to the same high standard.

One of my favorite bloggers, Lisa from ANZLitLovers, called me out on that introductory paragraph, and rightly so, in the comments of that post. You can read her entire comment here. I started typing a response into the comments section as well but realized I had a lot to say on the subject and… well… it is my blog.🙂

Lisa always pulls me into these conversations – I think that’s how we first “met”. I want to thank her for that. She’s very thoughtful about what she reads – and the comments she leaves force me to be more thoughtful about what I write.

So I’d like to start by saying that I initially agreed with many of the points she makes. We perceive women as tending to do well in genre categories, both financially and in online reviews.  Val McDermid is a writer that comes immediately to mind. But since I began analyzing my reading habits I’ve been made painfully aware that what I perceive to be true is not always actually true. So I did a quick , completely unscientific survey of the genders of the authors who made it onto two of the major crime/mystery awards shortlists before typing up my response.

Next I googled “Top Paid Mystery Writers” to see what turned up… just because. I found a list on the Christian Science Monitor website of the Top Ten Best Paid American Mystery Writers.  9 were men.

Again, the above is an entirely unscientific survey which has almost nothing to do with translations (the CWA Dagger Award does have an International category). But it does illustrate my point – these were NOT the results I was expecting.

This might also be a good time to mention that Hélène Grémillon probably doesn’t consider herself a genre writer.  Her first novel was widely praised and nominated for the prestigious Prix Goncourt due Premier Roman (past winners  included Laurent Binet for HhHH and Kamal Daoud for The Meursault Affair).

The truth is that Grémillon does not need my help to sell books or gain any kind of critical attention.  She is doing just fine and in many ways she’s proof to Lisa’s comment.  So if The Case of Lisandra P. is not a good book why bother reviewing it?  Well, mostly because I can’t definitely say that it is any worse  than The DaVinci Code, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or any number of thrillers that find their way into airport bookstores and onto the beaches every Summer.

And because I think any review makes a difference. Stephen King, Grahame Green, Simenon, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan have written a lot of books, individually and combined. Not all of those books were good, but their authors are still considered good (even great) writers in their spheres. What was the one thing all these men had in common? Most of their books got reviewed regardless of quality.

Books don’t exist in vacuums. The truth is we would never be able to identify good books if we (or someone else) hadn’t slogged through the bad ones. (Even the bad ones can still be a lot of fun.  I still smile when I think about the ridiculous over-the-top contrivance that passed for a plot in The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen). To achieve true gender equality we need to review men and women with the same consistency. Women writers need to play a bigger part in the literary conversation, whether that be in print reviews or online.

In the end it’s a numbers game.

A review is an opinion. Hopefully a well thought out opinion by someone willing to spend the time to build an argument which backs it up… but an opinion nonetheless. And we need more reviewers expressing their opinions about Women In Translation… hell, according to the VIDA Count we need more opinions out there about women’s literature in general. Which has me believing that there is still some merit in reviewing and bringing attention to those mediocre books, if only to establish a space we can eventually fill with the great ones.

 

The Reader’s Toolbox

ReadingTackle2
Clockwise from top right corner – a Circa Jotlet, Field Notes Byline Limited Edition, generic 5-1/2″ x 8″ softcover journal, Field Notes Sweet Tooth Limited Edition, Levenger business card magnifier, variety of wood pencils (including highlighter pencils), 2 pencil sharpeners, eraser, 3 x 5 Levenger index cards, pencil case, Book Darts, Gimble (hands free reading tool).

 

When I was in art school I discovered a deep love for the materials out of which art is made: the brushes, the differences in brands of paint pigments, pens and pencils and the cases made to store them.  Hours would go by at Pearl Paint on Canal Street spent looking at different types of paper. This passion for tools has crossed over into my reading life and I’ve accumulated a bunch of little accessories, completely unnecessary, which somehow make reading even more fun. My husband gave me a book bag last Christmas and I’ve taken to carrying it everywhere.  Of course there’s always at least one book (or three) tucked inside, but there are lots of other things too.  Below is a list of my reader/reviewer toolkit –

  • An assortment of notebooks. Of course you probably only need one but, as a friend once said to me, if you’re going in then go in big. I usually have at least two Field Notes notebooks on me at all times.  I like them because 1. – the small, booklet held together by three simple staples and 2. – I’m a bit of a label whore. The Byline Limited Edition is fantastic. It’s a departure from their standard notebook format and was designed with the help of John Dickerson of Face the Nation. I also keep a small Circa Jotlet in the side pocket of my bag. Both it and the Byline are bound at the top, so they flip open and can be held in one hand. It makes it easier to take notes reporter style. I tend to jot down a lot of notes during the day, mostly things I hear or thoughts I might have for a future post. I keep a larger, softcover journal for longer sections of writing, the drafts which will be eventually be incorporated into reviews. All of the notebooks I’m currently using are softcover. I’m less precious about using them and if they get roughed up or filled with scribbles it doesn’t bother me. Whereas there’s something about a hardcover journal that feels like everything recorded in it is for Posterity.
  • Knickknacks
    Clockwise from top left: Book Darts, Gimble (hands-free book opener), KUM Masterpiece Sharpener, M+B Double Hole Brass Sharpener, Staedtler Black Rubber Eraser
    Wood pencils, a handheld eraser & (2) sharpeners. Yes, completely analog. Eventually I hack it out on the Chromebook, but all my initial thoughts and early drafts are put down in longhand using old-school wooden pencils. The benefit of writing by hand is that it forces you to slow down to choose your words and structure your sentences. I also stop more frequently to read over what I’ve written.  To this end I have accumulated a collection of several dozen pencils. Japanese are my favorites. I like softer leads, which generally means shorter point retention, so I’ve also invested in two quality metal hand sharpeners. The KUM Masterpiece Longpoint is a German-made sharpener. It’s a two-blade system, which means you sharpen your pencil in part 1 to extend the lead, and part 2 to shape it into a point that could be used to shank someone. I keep a second, brass sharpener for the fatter, less lethal highlighter pencils that don’t fit into the Masterpiece (no bleeding through the page like markers). Add a colored pencil for editing drafts and at least one rubber eraser and my pencil case is complete. The Erasable Podcast and CW Pencil in NYC have been invaluable resources for putting it together.
  • 3×5 notecards. Ever since reading that Nabokov used index cards to draft his novels I’ve been trying to find a way to incorporate them into my writing routine. The best use I’ve found for them is as bookmarks.  I also jot notes on them, usually nothing more exciting than quotes and page numbers. The Levenger cards are nice because of the vertical format, but pricey. Mine were a gift and I probably won’t replace them once they’re gone.
  • A magnifier. I haven’t needed one yet – but it seems like a good thing to have.  Another gift.
  • Magnifier2
    Magnifying Card
    Book Darts.  I am a Book Dart evangelist. These smooth, sexy, pointed metal clips that slide onto the edge of a page are fantastic for marking passages & quotes you want to reference later. IMHO the darts are vastly superior, and more environmentally friendly, than post-it-notes (which fold and become ragged over time). I cannot live without them.
  • Something to keep the pages of my book open. For those times when you need a page open and your hands free, like when you’re typing out a passage from a book.  The Gimble, which is what I use, isn’t aesthetically pleasing but it gets the job done for a fraction of the price of one of those fancy leather book weights. Plus it fits into my pencil case!

That’s it! Well… except for a confession: I’ve written this post for purely selfish reasons. As I was thinking about my own book bag I couldn’t help wondering if I’m the only one.  I am genuinely curious….do YOU have a favorite bookmark, or write on a vintage typewriter (or have a vintage typewriter sound app for your laptop)?  Do you collect fountain pens? write on stacks of yellow legal pads? put notes in the margins of your books? Please share what is or isn’t in your reading toolbox in the comments.

Starting 2016 A Little Late This Year

Happy 2016!  I’ve never been a consistent reviewer and, true to form, it’s been some time since I last posted. But while I’ve been taking the last couple months off I haven’t been entirely relaxing. Completely the opposite, in fact.  I’ve been working on submissions outside of this blog – something I want to do more of in the future and which will (by necessity) change the content of the posts you’ll find here.

Are you surprised?  Does any of this sound familiar?  I’ve noticed a lot of posts lately, by some of my favorite bloggers, saying much the same thing.  Bloggers burned out by the daily grind of keeping up a blog, finding it difficult to balance their online & offline lives or just wanting to focus more on submitting their work to places that might pay. Many of these blogs, like mine, came online around 2009 – which leads me to wonder why we all seem to be feeling the same way at the same time. A case of the seven  year itch perhaps?

Displaying 20160119_064006.jpg
Emma, who has eaten so many of the books reviewed on this blog that there was really no choice but to make her a mascot.

Submitting reviews while still creating content here is obviously going to create some challenges.  My posts are still going to be about books and translations – this will remain a literary blog – so the reviews aren’t going away.  Mostly because I’ve never been much of a personal essayist. I’m not a particularly private person, it isn’t that, but my private life isn’t particularly interesting. And I really love writing reviews.  Yet there’s no denying that this blog has grown stale – probably for you as much as for me. That’s something I hope to change going forward.

If all goes as planned 2016 is going to be a busy year. And for my first official post of the New Year let’s start with Reading & Writing Goals of 2016.

I always sign up for the GoodReads Reading Challenge. Even though after 3 years of trying I still haven’t hit my goal. This year I’m going for 60 books and I’m already 3 books behind! But part of my reading goals for 2o16 is to actually spend more time reading. Doesn’t everyone feel like they have less and less time these days?  To combat the hyper-acceleration of modern life (yep, I went there!) I’m working on a major restructuring of how I live. More about that later this week.  (Here’s a hint: a certain Japanese book is part of my plan).  Back to Goodreads –  who else is taking part  in the challenge and how many books have you set as your goal? Let me know in the comments.

What’s on the reading list?  Translations, of course.  But also some non-fiction. Last year there was no plan – no rhyme or reason as to what I was reading. And I prefer to have a plan.  I was discussing the blog with a friend and she brought up a series on gardening books I did the first year of the blog.  Those are some of my favorite posts because I was able to explore a single subject in-depth.  In hindsight two factors made that series possible.  First, I wasn’t getting as many review copies back then.  More often than not the mail tends to dictate what I read now.  This isn’t a bad thing – I’m definitely NOT complaining. I’ve been introduced to authors and publishers and books from all over the world – and am hugely grateful for the education and the opportunities that have resulted.  But last year I was reading by the seat of my pants.  Which leads to the second factor – planning. Series like the one on gardening take some advance planning.  There needs to be more of that here in 2016.  The goal is that every month is going to have a unifying theme and/or focus.  Not necessarily reading books from a single country or a region for a month.  I’m thinking of more abstract ideas –  sometimes it will be a personal writing challenge I set myself, or a type of book, a specific subject or idea. I’ve got a few things planned but am always open to suggestions.

Lastly, expect more experimentation. The majority of posts on this blog have been straightforward reviews of translations.  And you’ll still find those here.  But there will also be more nonfiction, more interviews, more opinions and news pieces (I’ve become a bit obsessed with traditional journalism over the last few months)…  and maybe my version of creative writing.  We’ll see.  The real goal this year is to mix things up a little.

Interview at The Spark (the alternating current press blog)

Happy World Book Day, readers! While I work on a new review please direct your attention to The Spark – the blog of Alternating Current Press (an indie press & promotion team).  A few weeks ago Lori from TNBBC’s The Next Best Book Blog asked if I’d be willing to answer some questions.  I agreed and the results of that interview went up today.

I’m not the type of blogger who reveals a lot of personal information, so if for some crazy reason you would like to learn more about the girl behind the blog (and about the publishers, books & bookshops I love) this might be your one & only opportunity. Click here to read more

 

The Politics of Reading

Sometimes Twitter seems designed to irritate. Courtesy of social media I find myself clicking on links to articles I’d never see, on sites I’d rarely visit, in the normal course of events. It seldom ends well. Usually I keep my opinions to myself but I found this one post particularly frustrating. Because reading a book is not a political act.  At its best it can be an act of political engagement that leads to political action.  The distinction may seem to be an argument in semantics, but is not.

Just to demonstrate how flawed the logic behind this post actually is, here’s a quick example:  Just because The Hunger Games trilogy deals with the concepts of war reparations,  income inequality, propaganda, spectacle used to control the masses and social revolution doesn’t make you a political activist just because you read the books. If you were to write a paper or an article, link the film to a cause and use it as a bridge to inspire & inform – then maybe.  But for any of those things to happen you must read with an intent other than pleasure & escapism. You must make a decision to take action.

And not all books are political. Historical romance novels make great escapist reading but the vast majority have no viable or actionable political content whatsoever. Authors like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King & Arthur Conan Doyle are great writers, every one.  Finding a political message in their books and short stories is going to be a stretch.

Please don’t misunderstand – pleasure & escapism are as valid reasons as any to read a book. But the belief that you can passively engage in politics is, in my opinion, a dangerous one. It fosters complacency.  At worst it encourages it.

As in everything else in life a choice exists. A certain amount of active engagement is necessary. Do you as a reader seek out books with a political message – whether subtle or overt? Do the books you read lead you to further explore an idea, a piece of history or a culture? Do you seek out diversity – books written by women, people of color, small presses, self-published, translations? Do the books you read spark discussions on different issues and ideas? Have they led you to support a cause? Or to question your lifestyle? Do they sometimes challenge your beliefs?

I find this post frustrating partly because I don’t believe the idea it professes to support – that reading is political – is actually the argument the author of the post wanted to make.  What I believe she is arguing against is the idea that politics somehow taints the experience of reading. That a reader who chooses to avoid a book because they believe it is political – or refuse to engage in the political component of a book because they dislike the idea of politics – is making a mistake. Politics plays a part in the plots of many of the books we read (though not all) and these books, inevitably, influence our decisions. They shape our opinions.  Readers should embrace rather than avoid this reality.

Because “politics” in and of itself is not a dirty word.

n. 1520s, “science of government,” from politic (adj.), modeled on Aristotle’sta politika “affairs of state,” the name of his book on governing and governments, which was in English mid-15c. as “Polettiques.” Also see -ics.

Reading with political action in mind (or at the very least being open to political theory in what we read) sounds boring – even to me. Or, as is too often the case, divisive. Particularly if you equate politics to Republicans & Democrats, the Right & the Left, Conservative & Liberals, and all those labels that start those god-awful arguments with Uncle Bill during the holidays.  But political parties  – “political allegiances or opinions” as the quote above says –  and politics were not always synonymous. Politics was originally meant to help us navigate our relationships with one another on a macro scale.  To help us find the best way to function as a society. To help us decide whether it is better to help each other or just ourselves.

And even overtly political books don’t always have to be depressing. Or divisive.  Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn is full of hope.  It is inspirational. The authors work to empower women  and believe that the act of empowering women will make the world a better place.  Best-sellers like Reading Lolita In Tehran and Nine Parts of Desire look at the role of women in society – Muslim society in these instances – with the goal of understanding rather than condemning.  Is it so inconceivable to see yourself doing something as small as googling “microloans” or even buying a scarf from a program like Global Goods Partners, inspired by one of these books? A small step, true, but a step nonetheless.

What about novels?  Can fiction inspire political action? Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Grapes of Wrath are two historical examples of books that impacted society.  Need more contemporary examples?  His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro might have you re-thinking the U.S.’s policy in Central & South America.  The Man With the Compound Eye (about a boy from a mysterious island who lives for a time on a floating island of trash) and The Healer (set in a apocalyptic future) both deal with environmental issues and still remain entertaining/enjoyable reads. Honor by Elif Shafak deals sensitively with the often difficult and complicated subject of the familial relationships of Muslim immigrants. And anything at all by Margaret Atwood falls withing the category of “stories-with-a-message” that I’ve been describing.

Reading is about entertainment, yes, but it is also about empathy; about exploring experiences & perspectives that are different from our own. To me the one (politics) seems entirely congruous with the other (reading). But whether they influence and effect each other – in turn influencing and effecting our lives as readers and citizens – is a separate matter entirely.  It is a conscious decision we need to make as individuals. Perhaps, even, a call to action.