Category Archives: reading

6

Armchair travel

Because the weather has finally turned to spring time, my mind is now turning to summer.  Maybe it’s how crazy busy things have been, but I’m thinking about vacation like a man stranded in a desert thinks about water.  In a little over a month, I get to go away for a weekend to one of my favorite places: a cabin on the Susquehanna River I’ve rented a few times with some of my closest friends.  The primary activity at that cabin is sitting reading books side-by-side in Adirondack chairs, and I’m already starting to fantasize about which books I’ll bring with me.

But there are other books I’m fantasizing about now, too: the kind that transport you to faraway lands without a plane ticket.  I’ve idly looked back at old vacation photos and all the bookmarked internet photo lists of beautiful places I absolutely must go to someday.  This year’s vacation is a family one that should be lovely, but won’t involve going to some foreign land or immersing myself alone in a culture and a place that I’ve never experienced before, which is my favorite thing about vacation.

So now I’m yearning for books to do it for me, and I need your recommendations.  Travel writing is a-okay in my book, but it doesn’t have to be non-fiction.  A well rendered novel about a far off land that will make me feel like I’ve been there will do the trick, too.  (I occasionally forget I haven’t been to Morocco because of how much Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky sticks with me more than 10 years after reading it.)  So, what have you got for me???

4

A killing spree

I was scrolling down the feed on Facebook looking for inspiration for this blog post, when I saw a friend’s link to this piece from Bookriot.  I had  one of those moments of instant recognition that happens when someone says something you weren’t even sure you’d been thinking about but which, when articulated, seems to reveal buried fragments of ideas and convictions you’ve had bubbling beneath the surface all along. 

Like the author of “Why I Need a Break from Books about Dead Girls,” I too have been immersed in a lot of narratives that feature dead girls/women lately.  Tana French’s hypnotic In the Woods is about the murder of a young ballet dancer and the ensuing investigation.   I just finished the second season of The Fall with its charismatic serial killer who targets young brunettes.  A manuscript that kept me engaged all weekend featured an unreliable narrator and the violent deaths of several women and a 12-year-old girl. 

Now, I read plenty of fiction and nonfiction where women are not murder victims, per se.  My recent forays into pleasure reading include The Paying Guests and The Silent Wife in which male protagonists did not, shall we say, fare well.  But, it does seem that dead girls/women are a recurring trope in all kinds of storytelling.  Of course, the underlying psychological and cultural reasons for this are myriad and complex, but it makes me wonder what it is about killing off females that appeals to a writer’s imagination.  Why is it easier to kill the girls?  Does it reflect a more misogynistic societal bent?  Or is it simply a matter of storytelling convenience (is it easier, for instance, to plot the physical overpowering of a woman by a larger male assailant)?

All I know is that now that this idea has been unearthed for me, I’m going to be paying a lot more attention to the female body count in the books I read and the films/programs I watch.

Honeymoon’s over. Can this marriage be saved?

So, the talk lately (around here at least) is that e-book sales are slowing down—significantly enough that doomsday prophecies about the health of the format are being bandied about by the ever-unflappable* publishing community. Through several Amazon initiatives that are too complicated and, well, tedious to go into here, that monolithic company has undermined the Indie publishing world it mostly created as well as undercut sales of  traditionally published books.  Then, there are the studies that say that print reading gets absorbed more efficiently into your bloodstream.  And, finally, there’s the “Hipster Effect” which makes anything retro cool again—so the youngsters are all reading paperbacks on the subway instead of Nooks–combined with the “Geezer Effect” which makes all this newfangled technology suspect and terrifying.Kindle and Book

All of these things really add up to just this:  there’s been a correction in the digital book market.  The quick growth of the last few years has slowed down as consumers have gotten used to the idea of a new product, road tested it, and decided that, while nifty, it’s not the be-all, end-all.  Does that mean e-books are over.  Uh…no.  This format has legs, in my opinion.  But, it does mean that it is going to have to get creative about competing against its print counterpart and all the other media we’re collectively obsessed with.   And, that means that publishers, e-publishers, and e-tailers as well as authors are going to need to come up with ideas on how to make this a category that works on its own terms but also complements the underlying publishing rights—i.e., the copyrighted content.

For my part, I’ll just keep doing what I usually do—read both my Kindle and the thousands of print books cluttering my house and office—and wait to see how sales actually look once the dust finally settles. 

What do you guys think about the long-term health of the e-book market?  Is the slowdown a good thing or bad, in your opinion?

 

 

*sarcasm

 

4

Literarily sick

As anyone in the office here can tell you (honestly, maybe anyone within a 5-mile radius), I’ve been struck with one beauty of a head cold this week. I’ve gone through about 3 boxes of tissues and am finally able to (mostly) breathe out of my nose again! It’s a wonder!

But with all the hours spent lying down, drinking liquids and, of course, blowing my nose, I’ve had some time to ruminate on being sick. As you might remember, I’ve written already about my adolescent fascination with the galloping consumption, and though that’s obviously silly, it’s totally true that classic literature makes illness seem so glamorous. If not glamorous, then at least an indication of how delicate and pure the afflicted is.

Unless the sickness is used to indicate some sort of wrongdoing or as a comeuppance for a particularly deserving transgressor, there’s always some sort of quiet beauty to it. We never see the ugly side (for me, that’s the hacking cough and melodic sniffling I’ve been exhibiting) or really, any pain other than the emotional kind. And even then, it’s all very bittersweet.

I’m not talking about the more recent trend of serious illnesses (namely, cancer) that have been the subject of some acclaimed books in the recent years, à la Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That or John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, but more the kinds that seem to exist solely in the pages of old books.

Which is why this little slideshow delighted me so much. I’ve tried to explain what I mean by “literary diseases” to people in the past and have come up short. This is a pretty good list with some relatable examples. I know, of course, that these illnesses don’t appear anymore because we have since come up with new names or ways to cure them, but the impression they give still remains the same. That getting sick in the 19th century was more about mystery and fashion than it was about anything else. That it’s a really good way to get someone to fall in love with you—especially if you just happen to catch cold marching over to his estate in the rain and definitely have to stay over for a few days to recuperate (ahem, Elizabeth Bennett).

These days, getting a cold means taking a few Tylenol and lying down for a day. It’s not the be all end all focal point of a work of literature and certainly doesn’t get anyone fawning over you like you’re the purest and most doted upon soul that ever walked the earth. If only.

3

Criminal minds

Most avid readers are probably like me in that I go through phases where I can’t get enough of one category of book.  I’ll gobble up the narrative nonfiction/women’s fiction/historical/fantasy/romance/mystery titles until I have to take a break.  I find myself led from one book to the next because I must read everything that author has ever written, because something about the setting of Book A has me looking for a similar backdrop in Book B, because I’m currently obsessed with India or Ireland or Iceland, or because I’m wrapped up in a riveting television series and I need to find its print counterpart.    The reasoning is never linear and sometimes it’s very specifically bizarre—specific to me that is.

Right now, I’m really into thrillers/mysteries.  I’ve always loved this category and there are a number of titles and authors I think back on with great fondness (the first Patricia Cornwell Scarpetta book was perfection; James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues is a marvel; and who wasn’t smitten with Thomas Harris’ decidedly odd coupling of FBI newbie and serial killer in Silence of the Lambs), but there are a lot of books out there and a lot of genres to get through and it had been a while since I dug in and picked up one thriller after another as I’m doing now.

I blame Lauren Abramo, who turned me on to the BBC’s gripping series The Fall about an English cop in Belfast hunting a pretty boy serial killer.   That show led me to Tana French’s gorgeous In the Woods, her Edgar Award winning police procedural set in Ireland.  Next up, I’m diving into The Bones Beneath by Mark Billingham, which takes place in Wales, for the DGLM book club.   Concurrently, I finished watching the second season of The Fall and I’ve started Luther with the very easy on the eyes Idris Elba as a British detective with anger issues.  You might say I’m in a criminal state of mind.

So, the point of all of this is that I would love to have a meaty, smart, well-written thriller or mystery that within the parameters of its crime fiction formula gives us something that feels fresh and exciting cross my desk in manuscript form.  Any of you want to keep my crime streak going?

2

Youth is wasted on the young. Or is it?

Every “semester” we have an office lunch for the purpose of getting to know our current batch of interns and to answer any questions they might have about the, undoubtedly, bizarre goings-on in publishing (and in our office).  Yesterday, over a Middle Eastern spread (the baba ganoush was delicious!) we asked everyone to tell us what they read for pleasure.  Overwhelmingly, the response was YA.  And, for some reason, that surprised me and even made me a little wistful for the days when youngsters couldn’t wait to get their grubby little hands on “adult” literature.

I still remember when, in seventh grade, a beat up copy of The Other Side of Midnight (which was already a decade old at the time, in case you were wondering about the timeline) was surreptitiously passed around at my school.  The book, of course, opened naturally to the “sexy” parts and we would have all been mortified if our parents had caught us reading it.  By the time I was a young adult, myself, my peeps and I were interested in SERIOUS fiction that dealt with IMPORTANT subjects, and if you wanted some sex and scandal, you turned to grown-up bestsellers like Marguerite Duras’ The Lover  or Josephine Hart’s Damage.  You know, stories about older people behaving badly….

The thing is that, traditionally,  YA was considered “aspirational”—kids younger than those depicted in the books were the primary market for it. Now, I know that YA literature has exploded as a genre and that, in many ways, it’s tackling tough subjects in ways  sometimes more inventive and provocative than we’ve seen in what is considered adult fiction.  That said, is it narcissism, solipsism or fear of growing up that accounts for young adults actually preferring YA books in general?  In recent years, with blockbusters like  the Harry Potter  and Twilight series playing havoc with readership demographics (as evidenced by 40-something moms reading YA and NA alongside their tweens and teenagers), it seems that the category now even appeals to its own namesakes.   Crazy, huh?

How do you account for this shift?  Are there broader cultural implications that I’m missing here or is this trend just a function of how sophisticated the category has become?

 

9

You like me! You really like me!

“That the question of likability even exists in literary conversations is odd…Certainly we can find kinship in fiction, but literary merit shouldn’t be dictated by whether we want to be friends or lovers with those about whom we read.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

In reading Bad Feminist recently, I nodded my head so vigorously on so many occasions that I’m lucky I didn’t sprain my neck.  Among the calls to arms and insights and gems was the above quote, perfectly summing up my distaste for the prevailing wisdom on “likable” protagonists.  I mean, sure, there are books I don’t like and that I don’t recommend because of it.  But to reject a book because you don’t like the main character?

It’s an absurd objection to literature—often shorthand, I suppose, for “this book didn’t resonate with me and I need a thing to pin that on”—and totally irrelevant to whether or not one even likes a book.  If the book isn’t working, the unlikeable protagonist is going to stick out like a sore thumb to be sure, but I find it pretty hard to believe that anyone has never loved a book where they didn’t like the protagonist.  Gone Girl isn’t a massive bestseller because we all think Amy seems swell and Nick like the husband of our dreams.

I like my friends.  I like my family.  I like my colleagues.  Perfect to have brunch with, certainly, but you want to know a secret?  You couldn’t pay me to read a book about nearly any of them.

Likewise, I’m happy to read about a serial killer, but I’m not going to buy any BFF heart necklaces for us to wear.

So I’m with Ms. Gay–let’s stop talking about the likability of protagonists as if that’s what really matters.

0

Reading the past

Channeling the sixteen-year-old in me (the sixteen-year-old that I most certainly was), when I saw a Buzzfeed quiz* today that would reveal which affliction of La Belle Époque would lead to my untimely death, I really had no choice but to click and take it immediately.

I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed with my result: broken heart. As a Moulin Rouge obsessed teenager, I thought it the height of elegance to die gracefully and beautifully of tuberculosis (or, as I like to call it, the galloping consumption) much like Satine, the main character. She coughed so daintily, looked so beautiful to the end and, of course, had Ewan MacGregor, the starving playwright, torn to bits at her demise.

Though I’ve since moved on from such childish fantasies (mostly), and I know that tuberculosis is not a pleasant nor desirable thing to contract, it did get my mind reeling on all the reasons why I love that era and the literary movements that go along with it. Second only to the English Romantics (hello masterful Wordsworth, arrogant Byron and poor, poor sickly Keats), the French Belle Époque is an era of literature that I love dearly and tend to forget about until I’m reminded. I thank the one comparative literature course I took in college as well as any French teachers who tried to get me to read de Maupassant and Baudelaire in their original forms for introducing me to realism, naturalism and even the little bits of Modernism (I’ve read one half of one book of In Search of Lost Time and I consider that an accomplishment).

Such literature strikes a real chord—telling of a world on the precipice of something so different and alive than had ever before been described. Giving heed to experimentation that had theretofore been snubbed and extolling the beauty in the smallest and most quotidian of objects or actions. It’s been years, honestly, sadly, since I’ve given my books from this era a real look, but even reading the names of authors and poets—Zola, Rimbaud, those already mentioned—elicits a visceral reaction that whisks me back to visions of Parisian department stores and muddy alleys that are described with such clarity and honesty by these writers.

I’ve been trying to avoid using the word “romanticize” since I’ve also referenced the Romantics today, but I can’t any longer. Sure, I romanticize the era, seen through the rose colored tint of artwork and nostalgic whims of a reader in today’s fast paced, technology-obsessed world, but there is also an inherent liveliness to the work itself. Filled with urgency and excitement (and not without a heavy dose of nostalgia of its own), the literature of La Belle Époque is at once dreamy and intensely relatable.

My musings aside, do you have any favorite literary movements that still get your heart racing and brain whirring even if you don’t read them regularly?

 

*stop panicking, the quiz is here.

1

Breakfast reading

When I was a kid, breakfast was a family affair, but a mostly silent one. Every weekday morning, my parents would read the New York Times, while my sister Jane and I stared bleary-eyed at the box of cereal between us on the table. At some point, though, we kids started to read on our own, and I distinctly remember a period of reading chapter books and novels over my Cheerios—Judy Blume’s Freckle Juice comes to mind, as do the Basil of Baker Street mysteries by Eve Titus. By high school, Jane and I moved on to the Times as well, and so the quiet was only occasionally interrupted by someone asking for a different section of the paper, which suited me fine—to this day, I’m hardly what you would call a Morning Person…

Now, for the past six years, breakfast at our house has been much more rambunctious, thanks both to my wife Julia’s early riser tendencies and the two motor-mouth sons I somehow ended up with. But while I can’t get away with hiding behind the paper, we mostly keep the peace by reading picture books and early readers aloud to the boys. Not a bad solution, but hardly ideal for a morning grump like me.

And so, imagine my excitement when I was able to snap this picture at the breakfast table last week: 

IMG_3724

Yep, that’s my son reading Harry Potter on his own. To himself. In silence!

Aside from the obvious parental pride here, plus my hope that breakfast reading helps develop his reading skills, I can’t tell you how nice it is to have the morning noise cut in half. I’ve even been able to sneak a peek at the paper once or twice while Julia reads to our younger boy! That said, I know the day of full independent breakfast reading is about three years off, but I can see the finish line in the distance…

Anyway, I’m curious—do other families read over breakfast like this? And if so, is it a conscious family activity or one born from a need to quiet down a noisy horde of morning people?

0

Hooray for picture books

I represent very few picture books, but in my personal life I’m deeply indebted to them.  As I’ve mentioned countless times, my nephews are my favorite people on this planet, and at 6 and 3, their primary bond with me these days is over reading bedtime stories.  The older one started associating me with reading pretty early on in life, and through an aggressive campaign of reading fun things loudly in his vicinity (often while lying on the floor so he’d be tempted to come over and torment me by climbing onto my back), I’ve gotten the little one on Team Aunts Read Books as well.  Now thanks to a couple strategic buys by my mother in advance of our gathering at her house this past weekend for her birthday, the kiddos are begging for some videos I’ve promised to send of me reading their two favorites from the bunch.  As they were leaving to head back home on Monday, they were devastated to cut our last reading session short at only two books, so I promised to combine their two favorite things about me: reading fun books and watching videos on my phone.

But while I was very excited to discover This Book Just Ate My Dog! this weekend, which very cleverly uses the physical book and encourages interaction, one thing I did find myself wanting was some more children’s nonfiction.  When Martin Luther King came up with my older nephew, he was sort of familiar with him from some things he learned in kindergarten last week, but pretty confused about the role of water fountains in history.  As we discussed, I realized I was struggling to explain Dr. King’s legacy to a child who doesn’t understand race much less racism, or to get him interested in anything beyond the fact that he won the Nobel Peace Prize (which both children were very excited to learn they could watch a video of on my phone.  Injustice and civil rights fly above their head, but they know all about prizes and medals from the absurd number of sports the 6 year old plays).

Fortunately, I realize that there are experts out there who know how to talk about historical figures to children without getting caught up in attempting to explain what a dream is metaphorically.  Next time I see them, I’m determined to be better prepared.  So I turn to you: does anyone have any favorite nonfiction books for young children?  I’d love to be able to teach them more about not only Dr. King, but other important figures and historical moments.  Any pointers?