A shadow over lunch (appologies to HP Lovecraft)

The four of us sat at ease, each with a different sandwich, eating amongst the din of the crowded restaurant.  Except for Dave; he had a salad.  The topic had started at issues related to one unit’s inability to deliver quality services and had slid into the feminization of Russian surnames.  Our coworker with a Russian last name confirmed to me that her and her mother shared a last name ending in “ova” while her brother and father’s last name ended in “ov.”  It was an interesting conversation and I was amazed that I had never noticed that before.

The concept of gender in Russian names came to light when my friend Leigh Bardugo described her process for developing names in her debut novel, Shadow and Bone, and the other atrocities she allegedly performed on Russian culture.  I was perplexed why she would admit this, as the audience was mostly 14 year old girls and a few of their mothers.  There was no real reason to call attention to facts less than 2% (yes, I’ve done careful scientific research to reach this number) of her readers would notice.  I was only minimally out of place in seating area, with Lambchop sitting to my left.  I was the only male member of the species and I’m pretty sure I was the only one over 50.  Nevertheless, as much as I like to tease Leigh that she is the 2nd of my name amongst the roll of Awful, Awful Knights, I wouldn’t dream of missing her book tour.

Here I was in an independent book store in Petaluma with 20 teenager girls, listening to five authors talk about their just published debut novels.  I’m there because one of the authors is my friend.   It makes me think about why the others are there.  Clearly, the obvious answer is marketing.  And the marketing becomes more sophisticated and viral every day.  On a whim, I had looked at the reviews of Shadow and Bone on Amazon.  One of the first was a scathing incitement of how Leigh’s use of Russian culture and language as seeds in her world building was an affront to all people of Russian heritage.  Whoa?  Really? 

The reviewer’s point was that since some of the names, culture and items in this fantasy world were inspired by Russian culture, and unabashedly so, they should have been grammatically correct and exact in all details.  The reviewer went on a very long rant and gave the book 1 out of 5 stars; only because 0 stars wasn’t an option.   I believe this redefines myopia.  Not only that, this was in the first week of publication.  Don’t we have better things to do with our lives than be trolls on the internet?  Remember, this book is categorized as “Young Adult.”  Do we really think the same 14-year-old girls that believe in sparkly vampires care if the heroine’s last name is given the proper gender in a world that doesn’t exist?  I can see writing a critical paragraph on this topic in a balanced review, but not 1 million trolls on a death march.

I am beginning to think there is too much weight given to online criticism.  Yelp, Amazon, Good Reads, Angie’s List etc. all give outlets to the common man (woman, child or wombat) to take someone, their book, business or product and trash it with no accountability.  Why?  Even if 90% of the reviews are good or even fair, people focus on the shiny objects, the fireworks, and the circus parade.  On the Internet that focus is the trolls and the nuclear weapons they bandy about with little forethought.  Far be it from me to tell the world that negative criticism should end.  I won’t.  But people need to put a bit more thought into why they feel the need to trash someone or their work.  If they think they are helping form opinions, they are wrong.  They are the monkeys dancing for an audience of sheep.   I think the sheep need to move along – there may be dogs about (non-obscure Pink Floyd reference.)  They aren’t tastemakers.  They are the freaks at the sideshow.  I prefer to think for myself and edit out the extremes.  Sadly, I do enjoy a good sideshow from time to time.

For the record, I read the book with the eyes of a 50 year-old world weary consultant.  I think it was 3 round trips on the train and a few 20 minute sessions at home.  It was well plotted, interesting and definitely well done for its target audience.  The book was an enjoyable diversion and cared about the main character. That’s what a book in this genre should be, in my opinion.  I will be reading the sequels; I believe it is meant to be a trilogy. Had I read this as a young adult I would have loved it.  It made me think of Jon Carter of Mars with a feminine twist.  Of course I had criticisms — none of them terribly important to a book written for the YA market.  I don’t need to impress you with how smart I am.  Clearly, you think I’ve something interesting to say.  At least some of the time.

At lunch I was eating a Cobb sandwich.  Think of it as a BLT with avocado.  While I had not noticed the gender of last names, I did notice a bite of tomato landing on my shirt.  I took my napkin in hand to attack the offending red bit and remove it from my already colorful shirt.  As I pulled the napkin away, I realized I had left a green smear of avocado on my shirt.  I hadn’t noticed the napkin protecting my lap had done its job too well.  It wasn’t in any shape to remediate shirt born messes.  It made me ponder the concept of trying to help solve a problem, but making a bigger mess.  And I was thinking of work again.


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