Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A Look Back

Dickens, who's already written most of the stories there are in the world, seems to best express how I feel about the past year. Yes, from A TALE OF TWO CITIES, that whole best/worst thing.

Although maybe not. I can imagine worse, although I am fearful to, and I can also hope for better. I'm speaking about the world in general, here. For me personally, many parts of 2018 were good and others were, uh, less good. How ever un-good my "less good" times were, I'm still very fortunate and I know it.

The two best lessons I learned and practiced, both toward the end of the year, are what I'm clinging to as the earth rotates and revolves around the sun.

1. Stretch.
2. Drink water.

Yep. Simple. But not always easy.

This last quarter, I've focused largely on taking care of family, including myself, in projects with both short- and long-term timeframes. I hope to be able to look outward and better care for others in the world in 2019.

And you?

See you after the page-turn.
Wednesday, December 19, 2018

What Makes a Review Good?

For this post, here's one given: a "good" review is one that contains information valuable to someone other than the reviewer.

Which means that "I liked it" or "I didn't like it," as expressed by thumbs up or down, aren't helpful reviews.

For a positive example, here's a link to the YouTube channel (where you can find her playlists) of Cindy Guentert-Baldo, with some amazingly helpful reviews, if you're interested in various types of pens and planners. NB: she also has an awesome website, here.

Cindy is one of the most upfront, thoughtful reviewers I've run across (and I've been watching a lot of online reviews of various consumer and other products in the past year). Two qualities contribute to her success as a reviewer. First, Cindy knows herself. And second, she considers other perspectives.

Cindy is experienced in graphic design and hand-lettering. She is right-handed but she has a teenager who's a lefty (this makes a big difference when pens don't dry quickly). She's what she calls "heavy-handed," which apparently means she presses down heavily when writing (and probably grips pens tightly as well). She likes a pen you can cap with a satisfying click, and whose cap stays on the end when you're writing with it.

In relation to planners, she also has firm preferences. She is suspicious of overly complicated systems that dedicate multiple pages up front to specific "how to use this planner" content. She likes good-quality paper (and evaluates the extent to which pens ghost or bleed through). In a pre-printed planner, she prefers neutral colors or monochromatic color schemes, so that she can add colors herself.

She shares her preferences with her viewers. She also acknowledges that her personality isn't for everyone--she's "salty," as the kids say.

AND AND AND: she recognizes that PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT, and she addresses their needs. For example, she will say
* that a particular set of pens is too expensive to recommend to beginners because these three brands have the same colors and are half the cost
* that a particular planner is too difficult to find online for her to recommend but if you can wait a month to receive it, it might be worth the wait
* that a particular product is pricey overall, and you can get most of these features in a product that's always available (and oh by the way, some chain/craft stores have coupons every single day)
* that although she didn't use the goal-setting pages in a particular planner, they might be useful for someone who's newer to goal-setting
* that some pens are fine for watercolour projects, when you might not be in a hurry, but would be horrible if you're trying to do quick lettering or just write something in a notebook.

BUT WAIT, there's more. Cindy KNOWS the MARKET. She evaluates pens in a (yearly?) Thunderdome, pitting pen against pen in several categories. She tries planners. Lots and lots of planners. The kind that start in July, the kind that are undated, the kind that "everybody" knows about, the kind that fewer consumers know about. The kind that are "just notebooks," not that anybody uses "just notebooks" these days.

When I apply these qualities of her helpful reviews to books, I can see why so many book reviews irritated me to the point that I stopped reading them. (Besides telling me too much plot, sheesh.) Reviewers often seem unaware of what they like (astonishing)--it's fine to prefer wordplay to a book whose plot includes with a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, but you should know and disclose that you go into a reading experience with that bias. Instead, I found that reviewers express their preferences in terms of absolutes--for example, "this book is tedious and bad because every chapter ends with a cliffhanger." Well, how about "if you don't like books with lots of cliffhangers, this won't be for you"? Because I MIGHT BE DIFFERENT (sorry for the shouting).

Sure, various retailers and book-sharing sites try to use an algorithm, some "if you liked that, try this" thing. But their algorithm doesn't work well for me; it apparently includes sales or bestseller lists.

Instead, I find my personal knowledge of individual readers to be a better predictor for me. For example, I know of two people who loathed the book that was my favorite of this past year. They also both (independently) hated one of my faves from a few years back, and one of them has given up altogether on a writer whose work I adore. All of which I find fascinating, because I consider both of them to be discerning and thoughtful readers.

So: I'm not a good reviewer of books. I'm not interested in today's market enough to carefully and correctly place a book in its place among others published in recent years. I'm not well-enough-read to have a decades-old landscape of historical work in which to place today's books. I am grateful for creators for going through the process of creating, and to publishing companies for making them widely available. And to libraries for making it possible for me to read things I don't have to buy.

But I still love me a good review, of almost anything other than books. I have a fun new notebook for the new year. And I know what set of drawing pens I'm going to buy tomorrow--thanks to Cindy.
Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Go with Love and Respect

Difficult news in Thunder Bay. Another young life lost. More defensiveness and shoulder shrugs. And a new report that attempts to create some sort of accountability for the past.

I can read news reports, like those linked above. I can read all sorts of public documents, but I am all too aware--having been a person who wrote documents--the silences and omissions and safe statements in much public information.

For a couple of years now, I've been trying to listen for underrepresented voices and lift them up. It doesn't matter whether I agree with what they say. I try to understand. I get burned out and take a break. I go back and try again to read and learn, and (hardest of all) to curb my desire to "weigh in" and argue and question.

In recent years, parts of the Canadian literary community have also been trying to lift up Indigenous and other underrepresented voices. Recently, this collaboration between Prairie Fire and CV2 appeared in my mailbox.

And what a lovely collaboration it is. Curators Katherena Vermette & Warren Cariou discuss what they mean by "ndncountry," and the difficulty in choosing the pieces to publish. They close with gratitude to the publications, sponsors, and to the writers. And finally, they thank the readers for their interest, saying that they hope readers "will return again and again to savour this work. Go with love and respect, and you will be rewarded."

I had been reading it bits at a time, and enjoying it. Then, on my birthday early in November, I read this:

I haven't experienced all that Randy Lundy describes, but this fall, this birthday, I recognized this feeling.

Another special moment was turning to this poem, by Jana-Rae Yerxa.

I loved the whole poem (BUY AN ISSUE TO READ IT ALL!), and I was thrilled to read about Jana-Rae and realize that she studied at Lakehead and lives in my (metaphoric and literal) back yard.

No, wait. We share a back yard.

Um. Actually? I live in her back yard. And that of the other writers in this volume. And I'm grateful, so grateful, for the opportunity to get to know them all better.

So here: I'm now saying this. Buy this magazine, as well as other literary magazines in Canada that lift up underrepresented voices. (The names above have links, and they're also listed below.) Read the work, several times. Talk about it with your friends. "Return again and again to savour this work. Go with love and respect, and you will be rewarded."

Prairie Fire: Volume 39, No. 3, Fall 2018
CV2 Contemporary Verse 2: Vol. 41, No. 2, Fall 2018
Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Re-Thinking Childhood Classics

Last week, I wrote about my November book, Little Women. As is always the case when I read my "old faves," I was uncomfortably aware of statements and omissions that are, frankly, racist and classist. And I wanted to get some perspective.

So I did, at this invaluable resource: American Indians in Children's Literature. Dr. Debbie Reese founded and managed this resource for years, and now has help. An enrolled member of the Nambe Pueblo in New Mexico, she has also held positions at the University of Illinois. She and Jean Mendoza share their reviews of books--both books they recommend and those they don't (with reasons why)--and welcome thoughtful comments and discussion.

Although Little Women isn't discussed much, many of my other childhood favourites are. I've learned a lot from the resources and conversations. I would say that I don't always agree with the perspectives, but that's really not my place. I have too much to learn.

I may have linked to it before, but even so--it's not as if these conversations are somehow not relevant anymore. Go there and check it out.