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.






38 thoughts on “Trials in Reading

  1. Had the same thing with Mr Penumbra – I left it about two-thirds in, with no regrets and no guilt. Hope your reading picks up. I have a South African feminist crime novel that I’d like to post to you – will DM for your address. Cx

    • Oh it is always so nice to discover a friend with the same reaction to a book! Can’t wait for that feminist crime novel to come through my door! 🙂

  2. I *so* know what you mean about the difficulty of making autonomous reading decisions. In that case I just tend to fling myself into the nearest book and hope it works!!!

    • I do this thing, where I look at five books… and then another five books….and then it seems impossible to know what to choose because at the very least I’ve confused myself! I may have to try the flinging. 🙂

  3. Interesting list and I think I know how you feel. I’m not a Sci-Fi fan either. Just thought if you had to choose you might like Cloud Atlas more (?) I do have The Early Work of Philip K. Dick Vol. 1 on my shelf, untouched. And yes, I’ve Franny and Zooey in the house too. It’s in a 4-book box set of JDS’s works that belongs to my son. Never touched that either. But the title did attract me a bit and watching my son read it with attention a few years ago just aroused a tiny bit of curiously in me. Would I like it?

    • I think the Salinger is definitely worth a go. I can see why it’s considered such a classic and why Salinger is revered as a writer. It wasn’t perhaps the right book at the right time for me, but that happens, and no one is to blame! Cloud Atlas is definitely on my list as a must-read book, so your instincts are quite right!

  4. I have to confess that I loved Mr Penumbra but I do know what you mean about feeling all read out. I blathered on about The President’s Hat ceaselessly last year but in case you missed it it’s a lovely feel good book which may do the trick. Much sympathy with the energy vacuum. I do hope you’ll be feeling more rested soon.

    • The President’s Hat sounds a delight! I’d actually not heard of it before you mentioned it… been under that rock again! I daresay Mr Penumbra suffered from my rather worn-out mood – I expect I’ll put it aside to try again another day. There are times when nothing is right! Yesterday I lay on the bed reading Perry Mason – that was about the right level of engagment. 🙂

  5. I have yet to embrace Mr Penumbra too, but being at least a bit geeky – I may have a better experience than you.
    I love your quibble about nothing feminine happening in Philip K Dick (!) You must tell us more about yours and Dark Puss’s challenge…

    • I think you’ll really enjoy Mr Penumbra – you’ll understand all the website stuff that had me slightly baffled! Dark Puss and I decided to read three books again – one outside my comfort zone, one outside his and one we thought we’d both like. Next up, I think, is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Of Love and Other Demons, and then we’re finishing with Murakami. Should be interesting!

  6. Science fiction is a stumbling-block genre for me too. I have tried China Mieville’s The City and the City a couple of times now, because it’s recommended to me often as a bridge between sci-fi and mystery fiction, and I get very impatient with what always seems the artificiality of the “world building.” All the made-up names and apparatus and stuff! But I tolerate this kind of building up of context just fine in historical fiction. It may be that I just need to find the right book to make the transition: it doesn’t sound as if Androids is the one for me. Maybe Ursula le Guin?

    Shiny New Books looks great – again! But 22 books is a lot to “have” to read.

    • Yes! I know exactly what you mean. Dark Puss suggested Ursula le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for our sci-fi read and when I checked it out on amazon, it seemed full of that world building…. but really, what do I know! I wonder whether Jeanne’s suggestion of Margaret Atwood would be a better way in. I did get into the Philip Dick by about the middle, and it has very intriguing ideas (to be fair to the man). Ouf, you are so right about 22 books…. not so many for me next time! And thank you for being so kind about Shiny. 🙂

  7. Did you also write 22 reviews?
    Strictly speaking Do Androids . . ? wasn’t a “free choice” either as it was part of a challenge. 🙂 It’s not the bets sic-fi I’ve ever read. the writing isn’t anything special. The ideas yes, but not the style.

    • Not quite as many as that – it’s somewhere around 18 as I couldn’t recommend them all. You’re right – Androids WAS a challenge book, heh. And yes, the ideas are really good and intriguing. You must suggest more good sci-fi to Dark Puss, as I’m sure he’d be interested in that.

  8. I read Penumbra’s 24-hour bookshop last year. I really enjoyed it. I am not a novice with technology, but the geek level of the technology described was above most of what I am familiar with.

    I really enjoyed the novel. The humor and the narration were the strong points. I liked the protagonist.

    I agree that the relationship between the main character and Google girl needed to be fleshed out. I was rooting for the protagonist but just as things became exciting when he met Google girl, they seemed to fizzle. The author could have spent much more time on the relationship, in my opinion. The lack of detail lends to your interpretation that it wasn’t very ‘real world’ plausible. That said, the author seemed to focus on the adventure at hand and if Sloane had delved into the aside of creating a lot of detail about the relationship, the book probably could have suffered.

    All in all, I loved the book. I would and have recommended it.

    • Oh I’m not saying it’s a bad book in any way. All three books discussed above are credited with being very good – some outstanding in their field. It’s just that weird thing with books – no matter how good it is, it may not hit you at the right time, or be concerned with anything you care about, or trigger that spark. That’s what makes reading so intriguingly unpredictable. 🙂

  9. I find science fiction easier somehow in movies than in books. It is sometimes hard to picture the environments accurately, and I find I do better when I just focus on the human drama and not worry about imagining the details correctly, And I do count some science fiction novels among my favorite books. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is one I recommend to those who aren’t usually into science fiction. It’s a harrowing story, so be prepared for that if you give it a try, but the focus really is on the human (and alien) drama.

    I haven’t read Philip K. Dick, other than maybe a short story or two, but he’s on my list.

    • I’ve heard of The Sparrow before, and I’m sure it was being recommended, so I will definitely take note of that one. It took me a while to figure out why the sci-fi was so hard to get into – I’m sure Blade Runner would be much easier in that respect (though I’m not really a film person at all). But you’re quite right – I do like the human drama, and that’s what I’m most interested in.

  10. Oh I know those reading slumps so well. In theory you should be leaping for joy. Your time is your own and you can read anything and everything you’ve got waiting on the pile – except that nothing will quite do. I find the only answer for me at times like this is to re-read an old favourite. I think this is because knowing the fictional world already I don’t have to do so much work and almost invariably when these slumps occur I am far more tired than I realise and I simply don’t have the mental wherewithal to cope with my part in the reading of anything new. I suspect we all underestimate just how much energy is required of us as active readers.

    • That’s so sensible. I never think to reread because I always have so much (ahem) new stuff about. But I’ll bet it’s a really good way around the slump. It IS about the energy available for engagement, and that is not always forthcoming…

  11. I can definitely relate to your experience with Androids since it’s the same feeling I get with sci if novels too. I recognise the individual words but it’s as if someone has just thrown the entire lexicon in the air and then just used them in the order in which they land. It just has me scrambling as fast as I can back to my nineteenth century favourites. I need reality!

    • Fiction isn’t reality even if the surroundings appear familiar. I thought the landscape in “Androids” remarkable like many places we have on this earth right now. The concepts empathy and humanity are powerfully examined in this book and that is surely a fairly universal challenge for authors of any era.

      PS I very much like reading your weblog.perhaps one day I’ll leave you a comment 🙂

    • Ahh, interesting. I would say that realism in novels is designed precisely to make the reader forget that the book is not actually reality. But it does so via the use of codes – or if you like, a certain style of writing about things. I think the point here is that sci-fi plugs into a different set of codes, which makes readers like Karen and I disconcerted when we first begin. We’ve lost all our usual familiar ways of setting the scene and understanding what’s happening.

  12. I’m having suuuuuch a hard time figuring out what my next read is going to be. I was all excited about the Amitav Ghosh book I had, but now that I’ve started it, it’s not exactly what i wanted after all. I dunno.

    ANYWAY, I am definitely reading Mr. Penumbra’s etc etc., because I’ve promised my friend I’ll read it with her. I have mixed expectations.

    • I will be so interested to know what you think of Mr Penumbra! You may really like him – it wasn’t a bad book at all, just not the right book at the right time. I must say I am also very disconcerted when a book I’m hugely looking forward to doesn’t quite turn out to be what I expected. That’s very jarring.

  13. I think readers can suffer from different kinds of reader’s block as writers can suffer from writer’s block. When you’re reading for Shiny New Books (of which you must be very proud!) at a great rate it must be very strange to ‘come down’ from an issue.

    I also think that you hit the nail on the head with the ‘failure of imagination’ when reading an unfamiliar genre. It think this is something we all experience as kids when we learn to read, but as reading adults are taken aback when it occasionally happens, when we step outside our comfort zone. I’ll be interested to read your fuller thoughts on this challenge.

    • I read such an interesting book a few years ago (and of course in consequence have forgotten it’s title, name of the author, etc) describing the reading process and how we learn words with all sorts of associations attached, depending on the ways we come into contact with them. It makes sense to me that, given I’ve never read sci-fi, I’m lacking the right sort of associations for those words. I don’t, at the moment, get the full picture. I do like the idea of that as a form of ‘reader’s block’. That’s a very neat and tidy understanding of what happened!

  14. It’s a funny thing being a feminine reader. There’s been a gender divide every single one of the three times our book group has met – women don’t seem to mind the introspective bits and men seem to prefer something hefty and factual about their fiction.

    • I do try to convince Dark Puss that he is an unusual kind of male reader! There is definitely a gender bias amongst the men I know (Mr Litlove, for instance, would never, ever read a romance, or only if I threatened him with no packed lunch for work or some suitably darstardly trial).

  15. We all get into the reading “blahs” now and then, when nothing seems to hit the right note. I was never a Sci-Fi reader, but picked up Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers earlier this year and was wowed!

    • I do completely agree that the right book can lead you to appreciate an unfamiliar genre. I had never thought to read Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I will consider it now!

  16. I’ve hesitated to say this, because I love SF and always have, but you could think about Margaret Atwood’s “speculative fiction” as a way into harder science fiction. I’d start with her middle novel, The Year of the Flood, because it has a female protagonist and a dystopian world that’s easy to picture.

    • That’s a very wise suggestion. I love Margaret Atwood in her non-sci-fi mode, so I imagine there’s a much better chance of me appreciating her in speculative form.

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