The Fault in our Arbitrary Stars

Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting – Edmund Burke

I despise the star system.

No, not those burning balls of gas light-years away, but the rating system so often signified by stars (sometimes letter grades).

Netflix and Goodreads use them to help us assess the quality of our entertainment. Amazon uses them to help us select the highest quality microwaveable cat water bowl. From Yelp to YouTube, stars abound, and we are under fire daily from companies to relay our opinions.

How flattering, one is tempted to think.

But what do those stars mean? In the aggregate, I think stars are useful for helping us make sound choices. “That balance ball chair has four and a half stars? One-click buying, here I come!” Or “This crappy looking horror movie appears to have ZERO stars. Watch now!”

It’s typically easy for me to rate that commercial-sized box of beef jerky (“can I give it SIX stars?!?”) or the level of service I received at the Wendy’s drive-thru. But it’s a little harder when it comes to art, which is much more subjective and complicated.

I am someone who dislikes absolutes. I’m always quick to qualify an “I loved it!” with “I loved it! But…” I often find 5 stars doesn’t allow for enough nuance. On Goodreads, I typically give 3 stars to books that weren’t terrible, books I didn’t actively dislike, or books that are “good” but never really inspired me. It’s an emotional choice, especially when it comes to fiction.

But it also means juxtaposing books that have no reason to ever exist on the same bookshelf, much less in the same star category. I could never compare the dreary, yet proficient Drood by Dan Simmons with the wonderful, exhausting weirdness of Infinite Jest, yet there they sit, side by side, 3 stars to each.

The star system leaves too many unanswered questions. What if I didn’t enjoy a book, but admit that it was well-written and I probably wasn’t the target audience? Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz was probably well-written and certainly included a lot of detail, but I’m pretty sure Audible tricked me into listening to it, because that secret agent stuff just isn’t my bag (Ditto to Divergent and The Maze Runner). 

What about classics? If you have ever tried to read The Origin of Species or The Interpretation of Dreams, then first, I applaud you, and second, I’m sorry. These books started revolutions, Natural Selection and Psychoanalysis, respectively, but they are hard to read. Nobody does digression like old-timey white male authors. So how do I rate it?

And what do the ratings mean? Imagine I am a normal American making a judgment between two books I’ve never read based on ratings: The Scarlet Letter and The Hunger Games. On Goodreads, The Hunger Games has a 4.36 average rating. The Scarlet Letter has a 3.36 average rating. Therefore, The Hunger Games is a superior novel to The Scarlet Letter. 

What?!? That’s like saying this donut is better than your clam chowder. There are too many differences to compare the two (Like, what time of day is it? What are you in the mood for? Is there jelly in the donut? What is the potato to clam ratio in the soup?).

Star ratings are an easy way to give instant opinions (and Lord knows, we have a lot. See: blogs). I have a few 1 star ratings on my Goodreads and even fewer 5 star ratings, but the majority fall squarely in the middle, a bell curve that ultimately means little.

Is there a better way? My advice is this: Read. Just read the book, form your own opinion, feel free to love or hate it regardless of what Goodreads users or the New York Times thinks about it. And then go read some more.

*Unrated Material

5 Star Ratings on my “Read” Bookshelf:

  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • A History of Last Night’s Dream by Joseph Kamenetz
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Suess
  • The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

1 Star Ratings on my “Read” Bookshelf:

  • The Entire Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer
  • Halloween Rain (Buffy the Vampire Slayer #1) by Christopher Golden
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
  • Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
  • The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown
  • Plague of the Dead by Z.A. Recht
  • Cell by Stephen King
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
  • The Mist by Stephen King
  • A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks
  • Left Behind by Tim LaHaye






Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens by Steve Olson

I have a memory of being very, very young and looking towards a distant Mount St. Helens, still smoking some ten years after its eruption. My impression at the time was that it looked awfully small.

Returning to the Pacific Northwest after a hiatus of 25 years, all of which was spent on the flat Midwestern cities and plains (corn for miles!), I have enthusiastically thrown myself into the landscape and geography of Western Washington.

How serendipitous that a book like Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens should be published to coincide with my return.

Heck of an ash-hole (that will be my only pun, I promise). (image from

Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980 with a lateral blast that decimated a landscape, turned day into night, and took 57 lives. It is a piece of history intertwined in the hearts and minds of longtime Washington residents.

The book examines the tragedy from the perspectives of loggers and the logging industry, scientists, environmentalists, and politicians. As is always the case, the eruption of Mount St. Helens is not an event that can be plucked from historical context and evaluated in a vacuum. Competing interests, corporations, imperfect science, and of course, money, all contributed to the final product that was the 1980 eruption.

A compelling element of the story is the establishment of red and blue zones around the volcano as it began to signal its indigestion in March 1980. This delineated areas around the volcano that were deemed dangerous and off limits to the public. The roadblocks were inadequate and expensive to man, and any moderately crafty person could find a way around.

The uncertainty involved in volcanology made it difficult to justify roadblocks and restricted zones to the state government. The mountain might erupt someday with unknown force in an unspecified direction. This ambiguity is a hard sell to voters and adventurous looky-loos.

The sudden appearance of a bulge on the mountain’s northwest face, growing at alarming 5 feet per day, only complicated matters; nobody knew what it meant.

Then the mountain exploded. Devastation ensued.

Eruption tells the story of the players involved in the blast. Some were killed as they fished along the Green River or held their ground at the Spirit Lake Lodge. Dave Johnston stood on a ridge (now home to Johnston Ridge Observatory) and transmitted his famous last words (“Vancouver, Vancouver! This is it!”) before the blast took his life.

The book spends a little too long on the history of the logging industry, taking us back to the very beginning of the ubiquitous Weyerhaeuser Company that logged the lands around Mount St. Helens, but the history remains interesting nonetheless.

More than anything, this book will inspire you to go see the mountain for yourself. I’ve been on the south side of the mountain (The Ape Cave is a delight). I’m planning on visiting the Observatory in a few weeks.

I get to see Mt. Rainier every day on my morning commute. It amazes me that something that looks as permanent and unchanging as a mountain can change so abruptly and with such force. The Mount St. Helens eruption ripped 1300 feet from its summit and destroyed millions of trees, forever altering a landscape. The truncated mountain sits there now, and like a sleeping monster, inspires our awe and our respect.


– Although popular culture might have you believing that lava is the biggest threat in the aftermath of an eruption (it certainly is the sexiest), the resulting mud flow, known as pyroclastic flows or lahars, are the true threat. Mudflow is what killed 30,000 people in the Nevado Del Ruiz eruption. If Mt. Rainier erupts, the lahar could flow all the way to the Puget Sound.

– I am annoyed whenever a book title includes “the untold story.” Obviously the story was told to someone, otherwise the author wouldn’t know it. And it’s a little presumptuous (see: White Trash: The 400 year Untold History of Class in America).

– I have been typing “Mt. St. Helens” forever, but according to the book title, I should be spelling it “Mount St. Helens.” Too much abbreviation is bad chicken soup for the soul.

– Longview. Castle Rock. Winlock. Cougar. Toutle. Kalama. Toledo. Vader. Ape Cave. Randle. Mossyrock. Although I have only lived in Washington State for a little over a year, Southwest Washington is the region I know the best due to my family living in the rustic, one-horse (just kidding! There’s lots of horses! And bison!) town of Vader, population +/- 600. I was beyond thrilled to hear about the little towns surrounding Mount St. Helens where key characters lived their lives.

– There are several documentaries on YouTube about Mount St. Helens. This short 1980 documentary might be the most adorable.

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

In college I rounded out my psychology minor by taking a class in Evolutionary Psychology. To be frank, it sounded horrible, but I needed the credit. Never one for actually reading a syllabus, I would find myself surprised and oddly influenced over the ensuing years thanks to that class. Not being a serious student of biology or any of the life sciences, Evolutionary Psych would transform the concept of evolution and natural selection into a concept I could comprehend, not just a theory of how we were, but why we are.

Long after the class was over, it would surprise me to discover that Evolutionary Psych, a newer discipline, is considered controversial by many and suffered from accusations of genetic determinism and sexism among other criticisms. It surprises me that this viewpoint was never presented in the classroom.

While Evolutionary Psychology is still subject to being twisted (as is any of the scientific disciplines. Eugenics, anybody?), the driving force behind it is powered by natural selection and the idea that evolution engineered genes that not only shaped our bodies but also our behaviors.

Continue reading “The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins”

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay

I’m not quite sure what to make of this book. I inhaled it in a single day while recovering from wisdom teeth removal. Perhaps if I’d taken the drugs the doctor gave me, I’d have experience more of a connection.

This is a random stack of books that turned out to have some weird associations. Must be demons!

First of all, this is not A Head Full of GhostsAs on the fence as I am about loving or loathing that book, it engaged me, and I had a lot to say.

Not so much in this case.

The premise of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is right there in the title. There’s a disappearance. There’s a Devil’s Rock. The two may be related.

As in A Head Full of Ghosts, the supernatural elements are ethereal; shadowy figures, random appearances of diary entries: is it real or is it the hallucinogenic effects of grief? (the conflation of the supernatural with a character’s mental instabilities is a trademark Shirley Jackson shout-out). Mental illness again plays a role in the evil acts that surround the beleaguered family of the missing teenager. Both books can be read from competing perspectives: it’s all in the character’s head or it’s a ghost!/demon!

The book spirals towards an inexorable end; a downhill ride on a mountain bike with no brakes. And if you read it at 2 a.m., as I did, then it gets to be a little creepy besides.

Altogether I found the book to be slight, although now as I’m recalling it, I can recall with perfect clarity the characters and their names and situations, a surefire sign that I’ve invested in the story at least somewhat.

Although I have only read two of Tremblay’s novels, what strikes me is how he tells the stories from a female character’s point of view, and creates real people with plausible inner lives. Woman who generate empathy despite their flaws and shortcomings.

More evidence that I found this book compelling: I read it in the course of a day. Although to be fair, I need a break from The Selfish Gene, and sometimes after a long hard slog of reading non-fiction, fiction tastes just like candy. It’s just not what I expected.



The Last One by Alexandra Oliva

Man, I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

I don’t normally pay attention to those Facebook ads specially curated to appeal to your tastes based on your habits (and sometimes they’re so dead on I want to abandon social media and live in the woods in a shack). But of course this one was a book. The Last One by Alexandra Oliva, it was marketed as “Survivor meets The Walking Dead.” While that tagline is a lowest common denominator type generalization (spoiler alert: there are no zombies), it arrived at a time when I was just about to select a new audiobook. When I opened up my Audible homepage, the banner across the top was also advertising the book, which signaled to me that the Fates wanted me to read this book.

 And so it was ordained.   (image from Goodreads)

The premise is clever: A group of people participate in a wilderness survival reality show competition, which just so happens to coincide with the arrival of a deadly pandemic. The book alternates between a satirical, yet uncomfortably accurate, account of the show In the Dark, both on and off camera moments, and the solo journey of a character known as Zoo.

Just by knowing the basic premise of the book, the reader knows more than Zoo. But parsing out the layers of actual and assumed realities is still a challenge. Though the ultimate revelation is slathered on a bit thickly at the end, and the character’s toughness is undermined by her increasingly grating inner monologue, it’s a fascinating journey.

Yes, this book requires some suspensions of disbelief: coincidences are a little too neat at times, but consider how easily suspend our disbelief when it comes to that most unbelievable of entertainment: Reality Shows.

Reality shows get a well-deserved bum rap here, from cynical casting that stereotypes the participants with easily digested labels, to the manipulation of camera angles and editing which completely misrepresents each and every fraught glance and terse word.

But camera tricks and jump cuts are nothing compared to the mental acrobatics Zoo performs to convince herself she’s still living the constructed world the producers created for her. She knows the world around her is a stage, yet at the same time it is her reality, and the two worlds exist concurrently in an impressive feat of cognitive dissonance.

To believe and not to believe at the same time. That is the human condition. Comforting fictions with villains and heroes; an added dimension of thrill that comes with the belief that perhaps we can have for ourselves a little taste of that drama and excitement.

*Additional survival tips

  • People seems to mouth words a lot in this book. Does that happen in real life? Whenever I try to recall a time when someone mouthed words to me, all I remember is that I couldn’t understand them.
  • I listened to this book on Audible, with different narrators for the alternating perspectives. It was an enjoyable contrast and well-cast, although the narrator for Zoo’s shaky inner monologue gets a bit too shaky towards the end of it with her vibrato of grief.

Booknado 2016: August – Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Theme: A book on a list…eh, we just needed one more book and this one was popular

“Mom told me I could eat this”

I tried to feed this to my dog, but her tastes run to classic Russian Literature.

I don’t tend to read about books in depth before reading them for myself. I like surprise. So I didn’t read about this book prior to choosing it for Booknado, otherwise I might have picked a different book. Any other book. It’s my fault really, for if I’d seen that this was the story of a marriage, I would have yakked there and then and skipped out on this clunker.

Fates and Furies hits all the Literary Fiction tropes. It has idiosyncratic, artsy characters, flowery prose, Shakespeare, references to Greek mythology and ancient plays and nauseating sex descriptions. Oh joy of joys.

First, the marriage. Lotto is the typical man-child, unable to pay a bill or tie a shoe, but he’s so charming. There are hundreds of words in this novel dedicated to explaining how charming Lotto is. His wife is the typical stoic, competent, resourceful cipher, at least for the first half of the book. This follows along the idea that every genius is a disaster, and every capable, job-holding, bill-paying adult is haunted by the “splinter of evil” within. As though artistic success relies solely on fitful vomit-fests of creativity and no actual work. In a way, it’s demeaning to actual artists who work their butts off while soothing the disappointment of untalented creative wannabes.

And don’t even get me started on the treatment of class issues in this book.

It doesn’t bother me that the characters are unlikable. It bothers me that they’re uninteresting. They hew so closely to the cliches they inhabit that they never come off as real people; merely devices to serve the author’s facility with language.

The prose is strong in the first half of the book; it even elicits a sliver of emotion and existential despair, but cannot prop up the utter apathy I feel towards the plot and characters, each a caricature; my guess is that the novel is supposed to mirror the epic plays of Greek literature (Duh, it’s called Fates and Furies). I know I’m not supposed to say this, but that stuff bores me (“ever to confess you’re bored means you have no inner resources“).

Fates and Furies brings to mind some of the better marriage-centric Lit Fic novels that I’ve read, such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Revolutionary Roadbut it sure doesn’t join them

10 Disaster Books (You Sicko)

13562025_590225991156376_1110617173_nPeople are all rubberneckers at heart. Tragedy and horror are all part of the human experience; we look at disasters with conflicted hearts, knowing it’s important to chronicle the suffering and loss. We look for the seeds of human failure that lie at the heart of every disaster. We look because in part we want to learn its lessons, to prevent recurrence, but also we look because we cannot look away.

I, too, cannot look away. I’ve read many books on a wide range of disasters, from volcanoes and floods to fires and shipwrecks. Some good, some not so much. I could try to rationalize away my obsession with morbid events, but at heart, I’m just a rubbernecker too.

Here are my favorites:

Killer Show by John Barylick

The 2003 fire at The Station, a little nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, took the lives of 100 people. Unlicensed pyrotechnics, overcrowding, few exits, and hubris coalesced into a perfect nightmare of a tragedy. The book was written by one of the lawyers who worked on the case, and despite a legalistic foray into the intricacies of class action lawsuits, this book reveals the human cost of cutting corners. Like many tragedies with greed at its heart, the story is an all too familiar one of finger-pointing and deflection. The real villains avoid consequences and the victims suffer.

The band Great White was on the stage that night, which accounted for the presence of a cameraman, allowing the tragedy to be captured from the start. It’s a wrenching video that counts the seconds from ignition to full blown engulfment, showing how the patrons had precious few seconds to save their lives. Warning: this video is devastating and graphic.

Continue reading “10 Disaster Books (You Sicko)”

That One Time I Threw a Book Across the Room

Full disclosure: I have thrown more than one book across the room at various times.

But few books have wormed their insidious way into my consciousness and most significantly, into my dreams like the one I’m going to tell you about.

The book is a piece of garbage titled The Demonologist by Some Jerk. Or Gerald Daniel Brittle. Anyway, for a taste of how the book reads, visit the official website, which, like yours truly, has its own domain name (but to be fair, so does

This book was thrust in my direction by a friend, now unbefriended. Being a good sport (and terrible reading at blurbs)  I cracked open the purple-ish cover with a luminescent cross and began to read.


So, as the subtitle suggests, the book is about the “extraordinary career of Ed and Lorraine Warren.” If you’re at all familiar with The Amityville Horror, in either book or film form, then you’ll know them as the demon diagnosing duo that assisted in discovering the dark, haunted past of the infamous house. If you’re more into modern horror, you’ll know them as the attractive couple helping the haunted family in The Conjuring

Now first of all, let’s address the author. After the most cursory of Google searches, I’ve found it hard to verify he even exists (as the old maxim goes “If you ain’t on page 1 in the Google search, you ain’t real). In the book, he lavishes such obsequious and uncritical praise of the demon-fighting couple, one begins to suspect the book was either penned by the Warrens themselves, or Dobby the house-elf.

The book itself is bad. Badly written and more prejudiced than your Great Aunt Edna at Thanksgiving dinner. I was so incredulous, I read parts out loud to see if they sounded as ridiculous as they appeared. They did. I threw the book, more than once, yet despite my distaste I always picked it up again, and I ended up finishing it.

That’s when the real nightmare began.

The book, for all its flaws, has some creepy parts. The story of the possessed doll, in particular, provided moments of creeping dread in my mind (that doll is now immortalized in the forgettable horror film Annabelle).

I’ve never been particularly enamored of demon possession. The Exorcist is too cheesy to be creepy (minus the infamous spider-crawl down the stairs scene) and while I enjoyed The Exorcism of Emily Rose, it’s just not scary stuff.

Until the nightmares.

Boy, did I have nightmares! I dreamed I would walk into my bedroom and furniture would be rearranged and I would cry “demons!” and then stuff began to levitate, including me (for some reason I never attributed this to the more obvious cause: poltergeists).

The nightmares were exacerbated by a real-life episode in which I woke in my locked bedroom to find my nightstand pulled out from the wall and turned to face my bed. I prefer to attribute the cause to a giant bug and the possible presence of alcoholic influences.

The nightmares occurred regularly for months after reading the book.

I continue to feel a certain horror associated with supernatural rearranging, which is why I find this scene and this scene to be the most “NOPE” moments in the Paranormal Activity franchise.

My story has two main points:

  1. The Demonologist is terrible.
  2. Terrible books can still be worth reading. They can still change your life or change you. They can be a massive waste of time or an adventure you survived.





You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

“We are a sick house.”

There is nothing new under the sun in Megan Abbott’s You Will Know MeA psychological drama with echoes of Gillian Flynn, lies, misdirection, an evolving web of artifice, and a sickening spiral into realization that we can never really know another person, even those we love the most.

You will know me. Is that a threat? Or a promise with no hope of fulfillment?

You Will Know Me tells the story of Olympic gymnastic hopeful, Devon Knox, through the eyes of her mother Katie, as the parents and their underestimated, often forgotten son Drew structure their lives around Devon’s Olympic dreams and extraordinary talent. On one level, it’s a family drama, (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”) exploring the toll that genius and talent exerts on those in its orbit.

And then there’s a murder. Of course there’s a murder.

And so the rhythm of the Knox’s world is shattered, and in the fallout the facade of their good life cracks and flakes away, like chips of paint. Likewise, the image of the adored coaches, the ambitious mothers, Devon’s impervious, single-minded drive, shimmer and distort, mirages exposed to cold, clear air.

The shocks aren’t that shocking. The twists aren’t very twisty. Plot points are easily telegraphed to any reader paying attention. Morphological deformities reflect in the psyche. What happens to a dream deferred? We have kids, of course, and our lives become one long act of vicariousness.

And what if we never had any dreams at all? Worse than desires denied or faded is the thought that maybe you never had any desires at all; the adults in the novel arrange their orbits around their children and are blindsided with impossible decisions when those children are threatened.

You Will Know Me  is a damn good read with engaging characters and a propulsive plot. Even if you guess the destination, it’s still a fun ride.

*Qualifying Rounds:

  • For some reason I imagined each adult female character in this book as one of the clones in Orphan Black.
    Katie = Sarah
    Molly = Alison
    Gwen = Rachel
    Haley = Helena
  • How convenient that this book arrived in my life to coincide with the Olympics. So that’ll be me, watching gymnastics, going “look at that double yurchenko!” like a boss.


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