Reading Challenge

This week featured–as seems inevitable lately–someone telling people they should be ashamed about what they read. You probably surrendered, as I did, to the lure of Slate’s clickbait and discovered that if you’re an adult, you should be embarrassed to read YA books, because they are simplistic dreck for children. There have been lots of good rebuttals and I’m not going to repeat them here. But I’m interested in the idea that reading YA (and presumably a lot of other popular things) is bad for adults because it means they aren’t challenging themselves. I’d like to challenge some of the common ideas about what “challenging” reading means, or what makes a challenging book.

This week, Eimear McBride won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the style of which is widely described as “difficult,” and which was inspired in part by McBride’s reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I requested the book from my library. And then I read this comment from McBride:

Her experience suggests publishers have been underestimating readers, says McBride. “I think the publishing industry is perpetuating this myth that readers like a very passive experience, that all they want is a beach novel. I don’t think that’s true, and I think this book doing as well as it has is absolute proof of that. There are serious readers who want to be challenged, who want to be offered something else, who don’t mind being asked to work a little bit to get there.”

She hopes her success might lead to the publication of other seriously ambitious novels. “There is a readership there, they deserve to be catered to, and literature needs new blood pumped through it all the time, or it becomes stale and purposeless. It’s not a museum piece. It needs to be pushed forward.”

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Reunion Reading, or What I Did Instead of RT

I would have loved to go to the RT convention to meet blogger/Twitter/author friends in real life. But I already had an East Coast trip enshrined in my May calendar: my 25th college reunion, to which I had promised to take my daughter. I’m not sorry about my choice, though I’d love to do a romance conference one day.

Gothic-style dormitory with castle towers.

My daughter outside my favorite dorm. My room, where the arrow is, had French doors onto the roof for drinking and sunbathing. Sadly, it has since been reconfigured.

And actually, I thought a lot about how my reunion was like RT. True, there was less discussion in advance about pedicures and shoes, more about who was bringing her lantern for Step Sing. And we talked about work and parents and children and partners and old times, not books and blogging and genre romance. But it was a few days spent in a community of amazing, smart, accomplished, supportive women (I went to a women’s college), catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. I even managed to meet up with some online pals, Victoria Janssen and Natalie Luhrs. It was a pretty great time.

Of course, it did involve two very long travel days, and hours without internet access mean reading! I am not the best at concentrating while traveling so I read bits of lots of things. Here are the highlights:

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Heyer’s Damerel and The Rake Hero

I love audiobooks for re-reading, whether it’s classics I might not otherwise make time to go back to or old favorite comfort reads. I’ve been building up a stash of Georgette Heyer novels on audio, and was thrilled when an unabridged Venetia finally became available. That novel’s hero, Lord Damerel, is often described as the prototypical reformed rake. While listening to it, I foolishly said I was going to write something about rake heroes, but I’m not sure I have anything worth saying–especially when many of my Romanceland friends are bigger Heyer experts than I am. Still, here are some thoughts that I hope will spark discussion. Certainly none of these are hard and fast opinions.

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Hearing Magic

Audible is having a 3 books for 2 credits sale, and I noticed that all 3 books of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy were in it. Sold. I didn’t even care whether the narrator, Robert Inglis, was any good (he is).

I have read these books many, many times over the past *cough* 35 *cough* years or so. I have taught A Wizard of Earthsea in my Children’s Literature class. So I know them well, and I admire them deeply. I think Le Guin is a great writer and story-teller. But I never understood what a great prose stylist she is until I heard her words in Inglis’ deep, somewhat sonorous voice.

Many of the sentences have the rhythm of epic or saga, The Odyssey or Beowulf. And what style could be more fitting for a story about a boy who goes on a journey to defeat a monster that turns out to be part of himself? The sentences aren’t pretentious or difficult–I first fell for this book when I was about 10, and though I understand it differently now, I wouldn’t say I understand it better. But they are poetry. I am enraptured.

Here are some examples, lineated as if they were poetry, sort of:
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Mystery, History: The Summer of the Big Bachi, by Naomi Hirahara

From a brief description, Naomi Hirahara’s Summer of the Big Bachi might sound like a cozy mystery: the protagonist, Mas Arai, is an elderly gardener, and the story revolves around his group of friends, many of whom hang out at Tanaka’s Lawnmower shop (it’s practically knitting, right?). The novel is slow-moving and spends a lot of time exploring the relationships between the various characters. But consider that the book is set in Los Angeles, the ur-noir location: its world is one of freeways, run-down bungalows, strip malls, and the far-flung suburbs where Mas mows the lawns and trims the bushes of wealthy clients. There is a secret poker game that erupts in a brawl and a sleazy gentlemen’s club. The mystery at the book’s heart, in true noir fashion, revolves around money and corruption.

Can there be a cozy noir? This book is darker than a cozy, but Hirahara’s compassion for her characters and their own persistent hope keep it from having the bleak cynicism of a noir or hard-boiled story. Continue reading

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