County Life: A word on words – Authors’ choices matter

The Hidden Keys

The Hidden Keys along with Fifteen Dogs is part of a five book collection.

Erin’s Editions

I recently had the opportunity to attend a talk by André Alexis, author of the Giller Prize winning Fifteen Dogs. His third and most recent novel is The Hidden Keys, which along with Fifteen Dogs is meant to be part of a group of five books beginning with his novel Pastoral. Alexis explained that each of the five books, the fourth of which is still being written, are all novels in different genres about the same three things – Love, Place, and God. During the talk, Alexis read passages from each novel, all completely different but all clearly talking about those three things.

This made me think about how the words we use can really affect the message we are trying to get across. If André Alexis, in a masterful and calculated way, can make us feel completely different five times over about the same three ideas, imagine what havoc we amateurs wreak when we aren’t careful with how we choose our words. The words we decide on can determine if our message is sincere or strident, condescending or uplifting, and can either enhance or obscure what we’re really trying to say.

cujo

So what is the dog eating in the barn?

Fiction, whose duty it is to pull on heart strings or make us check for monsters under the bed, uses how words can make us feel to set the scene and pull us through the story. Think of the question “Is the dog eating in the barn?” and you might think of an old farmer asking where his trusty sheepdog, Flossy, is at while he tucks into his lunch before going back out to tend the sheep. But if I tell you that I have Stephen King’s Cujo open as I write this, you realize that the context of the question makes it much more sinister – while the dog may be eating in the barn, kibble is likely not the main course. We know this because by page 181, King has used his macabre skill with words to get us all freaked out and we know that no good can come of the dog in the next 138 pages.

Non-fiction also uses words to set a scene, and make us feel a certain way about what we’re reading. But “the feels” can get a little sticky when dealing with factual writing. Paraphrasing French physicist Henri Poincaré, a pile of facts is no more the truth than a pile of bricks is a house, and it’s up to the writer and the reader to position those facts in reality. A historical non-fiction author will present the facts of a historical event in a way to make you feel as if you were experiencing it. A writer on climate will provide you with the data around climate change, but will also try and provide the context of what that data means – like rising sea levels and more severe weather – to make clear the real-world ramifications.

There is danger when a writer becomes reliant on inflammatory or sensationalist language to get their point across – which can undermine a truthful message, or obscure an untruthful message by playing to the emotions rather than intellect of the reader. It’s sort of like cluttering up your pile of bricks with banana peels and broken glass – the house becomes that much harder to build. We don’t know if the dog is really Flossy the trusty sheep dog, or the dreaded Cujo – we just know how we feel about it.

When reading fiction or non-fiction, it’s good to try and discern the intent of the writer. With fiction this is usually just a part of the book as it is meant to be experienced – the author knows what emotions they want us to feel and we feel them. Same goes for non-fiction, but because we believe what we’re reading to be true, we need to think a bit more carefully about the intent of the author – Are they being sincere? Are they trying to get a rise out of us? If so, why? It’s not always a bad thing to make your audience feel something, but we need to know if we really need to be scared of the dog, or if poor Flossy is being given a bad rap for no good reason.

*Originally published in County Life.

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County Life: Erin’s Top 3 Reads of 2016

Erin’s Top 3 Reads of 2016
Erin’s Editions

For me, 2016 was a bit of an odd year for reading. There were highly anticipated but unfulfilling sequels, books that were almost amazing but lost it in the last 20 pages, and books that I didn’t think I would enjoy but that I found enthralling. I don’t have a clear top 3, but I do have three very different books that stood out for me in 2016.

the testament of maryI am not a religious or spiritual person, but Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary was riveting from beginning to end. Just as the great masters painted her robes, Tóibín paints a picture with spare prose of Mary as a grieving mother, angry and traumatized at the loss of her son, swept up in a dangerous world of faith, war, and politics. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Meryl Streep. Streep brings the character of Mary to life as she details the events leading up to her son’s execution, and the desperation after to secure his legacy. In this story, Mary is human and flawed – not a blushing virgin but a tragic heroine. In a heartbreaking passage, she is reminded by the two unnamed disciples charged to mind her of her son’s divine lineage; she will have none of it, proclaiming her son’s death to be decidedly “not worth it.” While the book has not been free of controversy, it has been lauded by believers and non-believers alike.

the country of ice cream starGoing from a relatively short treatment of ancient history to an epic 600 page dystopian not-so-distant future, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman is a book that I didn’t think I’d get through but once into it was loathe to put down. The world has been ravaged by an unstoppable disease, and those left are now wandering in the ruins of cities and suburbs. Ice Cream Star and her clan survive by scavenging and maintaining uneasy alliances with other survivors. In this world, people only live until they reach the age of 20, at which point their bodies succumb to the disease that has wiped out humanity, a plight that Ice Cream’s brother is now facing. When Ice Cream finds a Roo, beings thought to kidnap children and use them as slaves, who has grown old enough to have wrinkles around his eyes, she believes there to be a cure for the disease that makes their lives so short and is determined to find it. The Country of Ice Cream Star is written entirely in a made up patois, so is intimidating to start. But the world that Newman builds, using barely recognizable pieces of things we find familiar, and the fiercely tenacious Ice Cream make the story worth the effort.

mycroft holmesMy third book is pretty much pure indulgence, because I’m a longtime fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of Sherlock Holmes stories. Mycroft Holmes written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, you read that right, yes that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) explores the question of what made the corpulent older brother of Sherlock Holmes, ostensibly a quiet midlevel civil servant but often described as being the hidden power behind the British Government, the enigmatic man that he is in stories such as The Greek Interpreter and the Bruce-Partington Plans. In this book Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft is far from the man described as essentially lazy by his younger brother, but up for a bit of adventure with his friend Cyrus Douglas. When Cyrus gets reports of children dying under mysterious circumstances in his homeland of Trinidad, and Mycroft’s fiancée (also with colonial connections to the country) abruptly leaves England, Cyrus and Mycroft are drawn into a dark web of secrets that grows more treacherous with every step they take. Abdul-Jabbar – who is himself a Sherlockian – not only writes a pretty good adventure in the spirit of the Conan Doyle stories, he also takes an opportunity to examine British colonialism and Trinidad’s history.

All of these books are available at the Haliburton County Public Library. Whether you want something inspiring, challenging, or comfortable and familiar, there is always a book out there waiting for you.

*Originally published in County Life, December 29, 2016.

County Life: A Question of Identity

woman-565127_1920Erin’s Editions

At the beginning of October, an Italian journalist triumphantly announced that he had unveiled the true identity of Elena Farrente, the author of My Brilliant Friend. The identity of the reclusive Farrente had long been the subject of speculation, with the author insisting on the need to write behind a pseudonym for an anonymity that was crucial to her art and personal privacy. The bizarre lengths to which the journalist went to unveil Farrente, despite she unequivocally expressing her desire to remain anonymous, have raised questions about the right to privacy and to making the artistic choice of writing under a pseudonym.

Many authors write under pseudonyms, or pen names, or noms de plume, and for many different reasons. For some, writing under a pseudonym allows them to break free from previous successes to pursue new creative avenues, such as J.K. Rowling writing under the name Robert Galbraith. Sometimes a pseudonym is used for a multi-author series to provide consistency, such as the use of Carolyn Keene for the Nancy Drew Series, for Frank W. Dixon for the Hardy Boys. Some use a pseudonym as a literary device to integrate the author into the world of the story, such as Lemony Snicket in his Series of Unfortunate Events.

Sometimes the desire to write under a pseudonym goes artistically and personally deeper. A good example of this is Michael Redhill writing under the pseudonym Inger Ash Wolfe. Redhill is a poet and literary novelist who became fascinated with the idea of assuming a new identity. When the story of small town police detective Hazel Micallef began to materialize, Redhill decided to write Hazel as another writer. That writer, Inger Ash Wolfe, grew out of the question of who could write a character like the tenacious and imposing Hazel.

When The Calling was published in 2008, with Wolfe’s only biographical note being that she was a pseudonym of a well-known North American literary writer, speculation was rife. Suspects included Margaret Atwood, Jane Urquhart, and Redhill himself. While Redhill certainly wasn’t keeping his secret to generate publicity, the insatiable desire to solve a mystery had the literary world in its grip. In an interview with CBC’s Shelagh Rogers, Redhill says “I didn’t do this because I wanted to create a circus, but I did create a circus in an ancillary kind of way, which wasn’t that enjoyable to live through.”

the-night-bellAfter the third book, Redhill realized that Inger Ash Wolfe couldn’t remain reclusive anymore. With the changing publishing industry, and then need for authors to become more involved in marketing their work, Wolfe needed someone to speak on her behalf and he was that person. In an essay in the Globe and Mail (July 27, 2012), Redhill revealed the story of Wolfe adding “So here we are, after seven years of carrying on in private. I admit I’m a little sad about it. Inger fulfilled some peculiar longing in me when she was mine alone, but I’m letting go of her now.”

It’s clear that in some cases, a pseudonym is much more than a pseudonym. In the case of Inger Ash Wolfe, and possibly in the case of Elena Farrente, the pseudonym becomes a living character, not just a name to hide behind. While the debate rages on about the ethics of unveiling Farrente, we can take a lesson on that from Inger Ash Wolfe and Michael Redhill.

Michael Redhill will be this year’s guest at the Friends of the Haliburton County Public Library Book Gala on November 13th at the Pinestone. You can purchase tickets for $25 at Master’s Bookstore, or by calling Rozanne at 705-286-1071.

*Originally published in County Life on November 3, 2016.

County Life: History vs. Hollywood

Erin’s Editions

I recently watched The Danish Girl starting Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. Based on a fiction book of the same name by David Ebershoff, the story is based on the real life Lili Elbe, a transgender woman who was one of the first identifiable people to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the early 1930’s. Despite being critically acclaimed, the film has also been criticized for a number of reasons, including using a fictionalized account of Lili’s life rather than relying on her posthumously published autobiography as source material. As I was watching the film, and scrolling through what I could find about Lili Elbe online on my phone – some might see this as a horrible habit when viewing a movie, but it is one I enjoy from the comfort of my living room when I’m watching a film based on real people – I started to think about what happens when history and fiction cross paths.

In the historical drama Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, we learn about the story of lawyer James B. Donovan and the prisoner exchange of Rudolph Abel for Frances Gary Powers in Berlin during the escalating tensions of the Cold War in 9162. Directed and co-produced by Stephen Spielberg, the film is somewhat based on the book Strangers on a Bridge by James B. Donovan. Again, although the film was critically acclaimed, there were liberties taken with events to amp up the tension in what was otherwise a procedural legal drama. For instance, in the film it shows Donovan witnessing the brutal shooting of civilians attempting to scale the Berlin wall to escape from East to West Germany as he crossed over by train during the negotiations to free Powers and Pryor. However, Donovan never witnessed these shootings, although they did happen months after. While this portrayal of events wasn’t strictly accurate, it did reflect the frightening things happening at the time.

There are some films that use real life characters and events in a fictionalized way, but don’t even pretend to be based on a true story. This is definitely the case in the Joel and Ethan Coen film Hail, Caesar! Centering on the real life Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin), the film both pays homage to and lampoons the tumultuous time in Hollywood when the studio system was in upheaval, the threat of Communism and McCarthyism loomed, and the order of the day for film making was complete escapism. While the events and most of the characters are completely fictional, with Mannix the only real name used, they are reflective of the time period, with many of the characters having an equivalent historical character – a Kirby Grant type character who plays singing cowboys, an Esther Williams type character who does aquatic musicals, a Gene Kelly type triple threat, and feuding gossip columnists the like of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

While historical fiction and non-fiction can both enlighten, when the two dance together they have the potential to either create something beautiful or stumble all over each other. In the case of Hail, Caesar! I felt immersed in the time period that the Coen brothers were illustrating, warts and all. In the case of Bridge of Spies, while the liberties were taken with the events of the time, it created a springboard to learn more about those events. Going back to The Danish Girl, the waters are a little more muddied. While the film does respectfully portray a segment of our population that is under represented in media, the truncated timeline of Lili Elbe’s life may do her a disservice. While it does a beautiful job of portraying Lil’s self-discovery and transition in a world hostile to transgender people, she was certainly much more than the surgery she is famous for having undergone, and I feel like that is a piece of her history missing from the film. Even so, as with Hail, Caesar! and Bridge of Spies, during The Danish Girl I was on the lookout online and in our library catalogue for the true story behind the film and came away learning something that I hadn’t known about before – and perhaps that’s the point.

*Originally published in County Life August 2016.

County Life: Playing with Technology

Erin’s Editions

I am a tech nerd. There was a time not long ago I loved to play with computers. I enjoyed tinkering with the computer itself, as well as playing with computer programming – just for the sake of doing it.  I would spend hours on this stuff, proud of my accomplishments even though they had little everyday use.

Now, as I get older, I find that how I play with technology has changed. I’m more interested in what technology can do for me in my daily life. I’m more excited about that new calendar app for my phone because it can organize my day. I’m less excited about creating a computer from a USB stick just because I can.

Many people come to the library with the opposite problem. They have never played with technology. Now they need to do something and technology is standing in their way. We help many people through this situation. They may want to download a picture of their grandkid and send it to another relative. Or they may need to print, sign, and email an important document to an insurance company. In most cases those we help want to find out how they can learn more, so that they don’t have to go through the stress of learning under the pressure of needing to get something important done.

That’s why playing is crucial. People are very hard on themselves when they don’t understand technology. But technology is just the tool, and tools require practice to master. Most would not expect to be able to hammer a nail into a board for the very first time without bending the nail or missing it entirely. Why expect yourself to be able to scan and email a document with ease without ever having done it before? Rather, you would practice this skill by playing with it when the results don’t matter. When I was a kid my parents let me hammer nails into an old board for fun. Now, I’m certainly no carpenter, but I can do some minor repairs in a pinch.

Same goes for tech. If you play with technology when you don’t really need to, you will be much more comfortable when you do. This doesn’t mean doing anything overly complicated. It may be opening a social media account to reconnect with a long lost friend. If woodworking is your passion it may be finding articles online about building something and sharing those with someone who shares your interests. It may be finding an audiobook online and downloading it to your device to enjoy on your next road trip. In all these instances it doesn’t matter if you try and fail, because you can try again without it being a big deal.

This summer at Haliburton County Public Library we’ll be giving you a chance to play with tech at our Appy Hours. You can bring your own device, or try out some of our demonstration devices. Check out the summer calendar on our website for an Appy Hour near you.

*Originally published in County Life June 2016.

County Life: Getting your facts straight

google-diagnosis

Image credit: “diagnosis of brain” by valeriy osipov. Shared under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Erin’s Editions

Never in the history of human kind has so much information been readily available. Sadly, this also means that never in the history of human kind has so much inaccurate information been readily available. When I say this, you know I am talking about the Internet. While the Internet has brought us, as a society, the ability to instantly access information, it has also brought the ability for anyone to create information. This ability to instantly create and disseminate information isn’t all bad, but it is a double-edged sword. Consequently, cultivating critical thinking skills has never been more important than it is today.

To be clear, I love the Internet. Having been a nerd before nerds were cool, I found my people there along with all manner of geeky stuff that no one else wanted to talk about with me at the time. But, like any place physical or virtual, it pays to be smart about your travels and to know that not all sources of information are trustworthy.

For example, who among us hasn’t paged Dr. Google? I’ll admit to this – and whether an infected hangnail or sore knee Dr. Google usually at some point tells me whatever is ailing me is probably going to kill me. Not helpful, Dr. Google – not helpful. So why even look online for this information? Well, there are a number of reasons – researching health online is immediate and when you are up at 2am with a mysterious ache or pain you probably want that information right now. Also, researching health information online is anonymous. Some health challenges are intensely personal, and bringing a library book about that challenge up to the checkout desk – even though our staff are committed to protecting your privacy – can be daunting.

There is good health information online, the difficult part is sifting what is reliable from what is not. Online health information from accredited health care institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, John Hopkins, and Sunnybrook Hospital – to name a few – is usually very reliable. As is health information from your local Health Unit and Health Canada, as well as information available through academic resources such as PubMed. However, there are some popular sources out there that require a critical eye because they rely on user generated content that anyone, expert or not, can contribute to. Finally, there are downright deceiving resources – the online equivalent of selling snake-oil – that masquerade as legitimate health and wellness news sites, but provide advice that is inaccurate at best and harmful at worse.

So how do you avoid getting bad health advice online? Well, considering your sources is the first start. Is the source reliable? Is the author an expert? Is the information current? Also, rather than searching Google, you might want to try some of the databases available on our website. Go to haliburtonlibrary.ca and click on “Online Research” in the Quick Links on the right. There, under Health and Wellness, we have Consumer Health Complete and Teen Health and Wellness. Both of these databases have information that has been vetted by professionals and written for you. They cover topics such as mental health, chronic conditions, prescription drugs, sexuality, and nutrition. As well, they are available from the privacy of your home computer – all you need is an internet connection and to access them via the link on our website.

Critically evaluating what you read isn’t just limited to online health information. All information – whether in books, peer-reviewed articles, online resources, or blogs – needs to be considered for tone, bias, purpose, accuracy, and appropriateness for your situation. It does pay, however, to start out on the right foot by visiting sources that you know you can trust, as well as verifying that information using multiple resources. At HCPL we have a wide variety of resources for you to find the information you need. So next time you ask Google remember to also check out the library – to get your facts straight.

*Originally published in County Life March 2016.

County Life: Worm Loves Worm and So Do We!

25027836Erin’s Editions

A number of really sweet picture books have come into the library over the past couple of weeks on the topic of love. One such book, and one that stands to cause a bit of debate among readers, is Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian.

In Worm Loves Worm, two worms fall in love and decide to get married. Cricket, Beetle, Spider and the Bees all want to help out, but as they start to plan the wedding they keep tripping over details. Worms can be both male and female at the same time and Cricket wants to know who’s going to be the bride? Who’s going to be the groom? Who’s going to wear the dress? Who’s going to wear the tux? In the end, they teach Cricket that it doesn’t really matter, all that matters is worm loves worm.

The book is beautiful in all respects – two worms love each other and want to be companions for the rest of their lives (which, when you look up the lifespan of an earthworm, could rival many human marriages), and their non-hermaphroditic friends learn that being supportive and loving and creating new traditions out of old ones enriches us all. The thing is… and where the controversy lies… well… they are worms. We all know that earthworms don’t get married. Can worms actually feel emotions like love?

The book gets things right in many respects. Yes, earthworms are hermaphroditic – it’s a lonely world out there for an earthworm, and for the sake of furthering the species being both male and female really levels the odds when earthworm at long last meets earthworm. But do these worms really fall in love like humans might? As humans, we are really spectacular at anthropomorphizing our fellow animals. Children’s books and internet memes in particular feature animals whose behavior could be construed (or misconstrued) as being driven by emotion and even empathy. I was curious about whether this attribution of emotion to animals really had something to it, or if it were just horribly misguided and self-deluding. A quick search of our online databases (available through HCPL’s website) brought up some interesting results.

As it turns out, the question of whether animals feel has been around for a long time. Charles Darwin had no doubt that animals had feelings, and studied this in birds, his children, and even the pet dog. However, much of the last century of animal behavior research was preoccupied with the notion that because animals do not have consciousness, they cannot experience emotion – no your cat doesn’t really love you, it’s just cold and you are a warm body to curl up with. But within the last decade or two the idea of whether animals experience emotions has again become an active conversation. In a recent article in New Scientist magazine (a publication that’s available at HCPL) the question was asked whether invertebrates (a class of animal in which our worms find themselves, as well as crabs, lobsters, squid, and insects) feel pain or fear – which may make you think twice before you dig into that seafood dinner or swat that fly. There are people who feel strongly in either camp, but with the nature of consciousness being on the frontier of biological research, the question is far from being definitively answered.

Perhaps anthropomorphism isn’t so much about what it says about animals, but what it says about us. Despite knowing full well that earthworms don’t wear dresses or tuxes or form monogamous relationships, I was still rooting for our worms. I wanted them to have a wonderful wedding, and have a lovely little worm family, and have get-togethers with their supportive invertebrate friends Cricket, Beetle, Spider, and the Bees. If anthropomorphism can create empathy, even as we clumsily search for the right words with the best of intentions and find ourselves perplexed by the new and unfamiliar, perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing. In the end it really shouldn’t matter because worm loves worm, and so do we.

*Originally published in County Life February 2016.