Trials in Reading

Life seems to have been very stressful lately, and in consequence I have been lying about the place like a beached whale, wondering if my zip will ever return. One part of this has been relief that another edition of Shiny New Books is out in the world and doing splendidly. But after reading twenty-two books in succession that needed to be read, I was finding it particularly difficult to make an autonomous decision about what to read next. Plus, I was in an awkward reading mood, my brain like a bit of overstretched elastic, and so I needed just the right thing. My comments on the following books should be understood in that light.

Mr PenumbraI first picked up Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. The cover promised me loads of fun from this international bestseller, and it certainly began in jolly fashion. Out of work web designer, Clay Jannon, finds himself a stopgap job working the night shift at the strangest bookstore in the Bay area. The books are in code, the customers are mad and his boss exudes a benign but enigmatic mysticism. Clay teams up with a beautiful young woman who works at Google to try and solve the mystery of the shop and – hang on a minute! I’ve spent a lot of time with geeky boys, one way or another, and there was a major implausibility about a geek getting a hot girlfriend and taking it in his stride. Either he wouldn’t have given two hoots from that point onwards what was happening in the bookshop, or he would have remained utterly obsessed with the quest until the girlfriend huffed off in a snit. Of course, geeks are allowed their fantasies, too, and maybe they dream about the effortless acquisition of soulmates. That’s great. I could see this was a fun book, but somehow I couldn’t quite fit the world. If you love science and computers and books too, then this would be a wonderful story for you. I was just too much of an arts student to really get into it. I let it go.

do androidsAround about the same time, I’d started Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the classic Philip K. Dick novel on which Blade Runner was based. Not my kind of book, you might be thinking, and you’d be right. But Dark Puss and I are having a new reading challenge this summer. We’re reading books outside our comfort zone, and this was the one chosen to be outside mine. I have never read a work of science fiction before, and initially, I found it hard going. It was clearly written in English; I understood the words individually and even at the level of the sentence, but I found myself rereading paragraphs several times to try to figure them out. After a while, I realised I was having a failure of imagination. Because the world I was reading about did not exist, as such, I was struggling to create pictures in my mind. I couldn’t get into the text, and was bouncing about on its surface, unable to gain traction. I was also feeling incorrigibly feminine, and rather wishing that someone, in either of these novels, would have a baby or go shopping or need to sit down and speculate on another person’s emotions. Something I could get behind. In the end, having persevered through the early stages, I did find the novel easier to read, and it’s definitely a good and highly thought-provoking book. But I’ll talk about it in more depth another time.

frannyandzooeyI’ve been meaning to read J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey for ages. It’s certainly been displayed in my side bar for weeks now. So after two techie books, I picked it up, looking forward to what I expected to be a stupendous experience in fine writing. The first part about Frannie I thoroughly enjoyed. Frannie is having a religious crisis, and her boyfriend, Lane, has zero interest in anything other than his own opinions. The second part finds Frannie back at her childhood home, with her mother bursting at the seams with worry over her, and her younger brother, Zooey, being dragged in to help. The novella is about 160 pages long and consists of about four conversations. I figured it was roughly between 30-40 pages for each one. J. D. Salinger is one of those authors (Proust is another who springs to mind) who is determined to tell you everything, whether you want to hear it or not. Every nuance of the conversation, every piece of clothing, every tiny gesture on the part of the interlocutors, every thought, every glance, every small item they fiddle with, as if it were a significant prop in a powerful drama, is recounted in admittedly striking and clever prose. There are many wonderful sentences and stunning observations. It is all done with exquisite realism, but so much reality (far more than any casual observer could take in) that it becomes artfully artificial. A world of writing, rather than a written world. By about halfway through ‘Zooey’, I felt as if I were lying on the floor, crushed by the weight of arch declamations, yelling, okay, okay, J. D., you are brilliant, now STOP already!

After that, things began to get a bit more normal on the reading front, but this has gone on a while now and I’ll carry on with the rest next week. I am painfully aware how behind I am in blog reading, and I do hope to catch up soon, once I have a little oomph again. I very much want to catch up with you all and see what reading adventures you have been on.

 

 

 

 

Issue 2 Is Out!

Yes, our second, summery edition of Shiny New Books is live today!

SNB-logo

I learned one or two intriguing things over the past few months:

1. It is possible to say ‘yes, please’ to too many books.

2. I was surprised by how hard it is to judge books from their blurbs. This shouldn’t have come as a shock, but still, the books I put off for a bit, uncertain whether I’d like them or not, turned out to be without fail the most amazing of all.

3. I have outrageously talented blog friends: take a bow Jodie, Susan, Andrew, Danielle (and again), Tom, Rowland, Helen, Jean, Denise, Karen H, Karen L. and Max.

4. The best way to spot typos is to read over Mr Litlove’s shoulder, having said something like: ‘This is fantastic, you must come and read this!’ I am thinking of hiring him out to others in need of such an invaluable service.

As ever, we’ve had a fabulous time putting it together. A big cheer please for Annabel, Harriet and Simon, who did all the difficult stuff while I drowned slowly in review copies! Do go over and have a look at the wonderful reviews and features on offer. Last time, we had over 14,000 hits in our first week, and it would be great to better that….

What We Did On Holiday

For the last couple of months, Mr Litlove has been busy making me new bookcases. It will probably not surprise you to know that we have been experiencing a bit of a book crisis once again. Mr Litlove has been rumbling darkly to the effect that rather than live in a house with a lot of books, we have now veered into the territory of hoarders and eccentrics, and are living in a library that happens to have beds in it. I’m not sure why this should be an issue, but he seems to think it is. So when my new bookcases were good to go, I decided that I would grit my teeth and have a cull.

New bookcase #1: crime, non-fiction and recent acquisitions.

New bookcase #1: crime, non-fiction and recent acquisitions.

Like most difficult things, the hard bit is getting started. I don’t like letting go of any book, and mostly my feeling is that what I own is part of my mind, part of my inner life. Even if I haven’t read a book yet, I’ve wanted it and intended to experience its world, and that says something about the extent of my tastes and interests. But as I get older, I find my feelings are beginning to change. I used to be interested in everything because I believed I had the inner flexibility to appreciate and encompass it. There was very little I didn’t want to read. I wanted the life of my mind to be vast and adventurous, and believed firmly that the job of the reader is to find the pleasure in a book and to stretch their imagination to fit.

But now I am gradually becoming more picky. I accept that there are kinds of writing that I like more than others, ways of handling ideas that I prefer. And it’s beginning to bother me to see books on my shelves that I’ve read once and know I’ll not want to read again. A new ideal library is evolving for me, based not on breadth and depth of literature, but on books that really fire me up when I look at them.

So with this in mind, it was easier to cull than usual. I ended up with a significant pile of books to find homes for – and that was the other part of the equation. I couldn’t throw them away. I love my books tenderly, and I wanted to send them somewhere they’d be appreciated.

For ages I’ve been putting off donating a whole load of my French academic texts to the library. This had nothing to do with the books and everything to do with the weirdness of returning to my old faculty. Walking up the stairs in the Raised Faculty Building is one of those deeply ingrained memories that make regular appearances in dreams. The stairs have such a particular smell – cleaning fluid, concrete, hot book dust – and haven’t changed at all since I was a first year student. In consequence, whenever I walked up them as a lecturer, I could still remember exactly how it felt, as an overawed 18-year-old, to be heading off to the terrifying experience of a language class. I wasn’t sure how it would be to return with no connection to the university at all. The power of oppression that the building made on me fed into my sense of status when I was teaching. I had taken on that building and won. I wasn’t sure how it would feel to walk up the old stairs having lost.

In the end it was the rather lovely librarian that made all the difference. I’d rung up that morning to test the waters.

‘What would you say to a donation of books?’ I’d asked her. ‘I used to teach here.’

‘I’d say ooh lovely and thank you very much,’ she replied.

That made me laugh. It’s always such a pleasure to come across a human being.

‘But would you mind if we gave the books to the students rather than put them on the shelves in some cases?’

‘I wouldn’t mind in the least,’ I said. ‘I just want them to go to good homes.’

Mr Litlove and I loaded up the car and set off for the faculty. Any tension I might have felt at the site was dissipated by the fact that I couldn’t locate the Raised Faculty Building; since I’d left, they’d put up a whole new block of Criminology. (I would have liked a peek at that library!) When we carried the boxes in, the librarian was delighted.

‘There’s lots of good stuff here!’ she said. ‘I’ve already seen several set texts.’

(Yes, I thought, they were the among the first to go.)

‘The students will be so pleased with these,’ she said. ‘Thank you!’

I felt so buoyed when I got back in the car.

‘It’s just like being Father Christmas,’ I said to Mr Litlove.

‘I suppose that makes me Rudolph,’ he replied.

We didn’t get such a rapturous welcome at the local library. I’d brought a large number of old review copies, mostly hardback, that were in pretty perfect condition. One volunteer took a distracted look at me waiting with my bags at the desk and headed into the staff room to make herself a cup of tea or something. The other had her back to me and was checking out some very complex selection of books and DVDs (and was still involved in that by the time I left). Eventually the first woman returned and accepted the bags with unrelenting vagueness. They may still be where I left them.

Finally we had a big box of paperbacks to take to the charity shop in the village. The woman there was initially suspicious – over her shoulder we could see a back room that was full to bursting with junk – but she accepted them happily enough when she could see they were good quality. I knew how she felt. I’d seen enough donations come in to the Amnesty bookshop to know how discouraging boxes of mildewed, gritty books can be.

When I got back home, I felt much lighter somehow. I was almost ready to start weeding again. My head wishes I was still that wide-open-minded reader, curious about everything, keener to find meaning and skill in a book than to appease a desire for reliable comfort. But my heart was happier to look around my shelves and see only books I loved or felt excited about. Perhaps now, I thought, I can keep to a one-in, one-out policy.

New bookcase #2 comfort reads (well it IS in my bedroom).

New bookcase #2 comfort reads (well it IS in my bedroom).

So when six review copies arrived over the course of this week, do you think I found six books to throw out? Nope, you’re right, of course not!

Holiday!

Mr Litlove decided, quite at the last minute, to take a week’s holiday this week. We have an assortment of plans and half-plans and I’m not sure of our final program, but I will be absent from the blog for the week. Whatever else we do, I’ll be working my way through the last batch of reviews for our second edition of Shiny New Books. There’s going to be a new colour scheme, a brand new competition and masses of reviews of new books.

Before I go there’s a question I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts on. I read a review a little while back that became very angry with a certain novel because of the way a secondary character was portrayed. This was a gay man (and the book was set back in the early 70s when homosexuality was not considered to be publicly acceptable) who behaved quite badly towards his wife; their relationship was complex in many ways, but he could at times be quite mean and unkind towards her and there was a sadistic element to their sexual relationship. There was also deep attachment between the two of them, even if that was not always healthy. Well, the reviewer said that such a portrait of homosexuality was not acceptable, that it ruined the book for her and that no one wanted to read such a thing in the 21st century.

So my question is two-fold. The first part a) is whether as a reader you find you can be completely put off a book by a relatively small part of it? The second b) is whether you feel writers should not portray once marginalised identities in a negative way? I’m most curious to know what people’s instinctive reaction is to these issues….

 

ETA: It occurred to me that it wasn’t fair not to mention where I stood on the questions. Although it doesn’t happen very often, I can be completely put off by a small thing. I remember reading a novel last year where the excessive repetition of the speech tag ‘whispered’ really irritated me, to the point where I could barely concentrate on the story. Then Mr Litlove read the same book and said he hadn’t noticed it at all. As to the other question, I don’t think special pleading is a very good idea; to my mind, equality is about treating everyone similarly, which is to say understanding that first and foremost we are all human and all human beings do good and bad things, and often behave badly when their vanity or safety is in some way threatened. Plus, in novels, I think paragons of virtue are boring and implausible. But this is not a fixed view and I’m more than open to hearing other sides of this particular argument. I’m very curious about it.