Update: Big Fat Book and Other Reading

Lots of my blogging friends have commented lately on troubles with reading–how we are not as good at focusing and challenging ourselves as we once were. And we’re not the only ones: of the recent jeremiads on reading, I especially enjoyed (if that’s the word) “Reading: The Struggle” by Tim Parks. It took the March Big Fat Book readalong instigated by Sunita to get me to read Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch (which, though long, turned out to be zippy and plot-driven). So I was glad when Ros decided to start another readalong in July. Here are early reports from some participating readers.

Although I have some Big Fat Fiction on my shelves (and e-reader), this time I decided to choose non-fiction. I’ve been listening to quite a bit of non-fiction (I blogged about that here), but I find it hard to concentrate on in print, so I figured the #BFB readalong would give me the push I needed.

This week, I read the first three chapters/110 pp. of Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. In fact, I read them twice, at least, because I’d read a couple of pages and find I had taken nothing in. This is not Sperber’s fault; it’s mine. Yes, this is an intellectual biography, so it can be dense (even a simple explanation of Hegelianism makes my brain freeze, and I’ve read some Hegel), but the writing is clear and engaging. I am just out of practice concentrating on something like this. I’m kind of appalled by how dumb I’ve gotten. ;) I am making an effort to carve out reading time earlier in the day, because when I’m tired, it’s hopeless. I need a Reading Fitness regime for the summer. Continue reading

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Cinderella Stories

I read three Mary Burchell books from the 1940s back to back because I borrowed a three-book collection from Open Library: it included Take Me With You, Choose Which You Will, and Meant for Each Other. (This was my first experience with Open Library, and although there were a lot of OCR  errors, I learned to interpret them pretty quickly and only occasionally felt confused. Things like “/ *wi” for “I’m” did take some decoding. I look forward to reading more hard-to-find older genre fiction soon. *side-eyes TBR*)

I avoid “glomming” an author, and although I enjoyed all three of these books very much, reading them in quick succession reminded me of why I don’t glom: there are a lot of similar elements (including two heroes named Lindsay). Young (18-20ish) orphan heroines who need to make their own way in the world; older (late 20s-35), wealthy, often cynical heroes; a glamorous Other Woman; at least one character involved in the theatre. The basic trope here–the poor young woman and wealthy older man–is one I’d say I Don’t Like in the abstract. But there are books featuring it that I’ve loved, including these. So this isn’t a review but a meditation on why some iterations of what I’ll call the Cinderella trope work for me. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments on how a particular author/book has made you like Something You Usually Don’t.

Continue reading

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Recent Reading: The Rest

June’s reading (and listening) has been a really satisfying mix of genres. I talked about the romance I’ve been enjoying in my last post; here’s the rest. (As a PS to that post, last night I started Part VII of Brook’s Kraken King and I think I like it a lot more while I’m reading it than my comments have let on. Maybe the discontinuous nature of serial reading is working against me somehow–I forget how good it is because I don’t feel compelled to rush back to it?)

Non-Fiction

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. I (read by Grover Gardner) I must have picked this up in a sale, and I’ve had it in my TBL for ages. It was a mixed success on audio: I didn’t realize that it’s a scholarly edition, so it started with a long introduction and there were introductory notes to the parts along the way. Some of this was hard to follow when listening. But parts were also fascinating. Twain left a lot of fragmentary sections of autobiographical material behind, and the scholars working on the Twain project had to figure out how they were intended to be organized for publication.

Both the editors in the introduction and Twain in the body of the work talk about his theory of autobiography: it should not be chronological, but presented in whatever order events come to mind; it should be frank and deal with all the shameful parts of a person’s life (and thus Twain didn’t intend for his autobiography to be published until 100 years after his death); it should be as much about what the person is thinking about and doing now as about the past. He felt that the news would always remain interesting because it showed what people cared about at the time (and people don’t change much), while history was just a dry sketch of the past. I don’t agree about the latter point, but the news story he recounts (at length) as an illustration, about a Mrs. Morris who tried to see the President and was forcibly removed from the White House, was indeed still interesting. Continue reading

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Recent Reading: Romance

June is always a busy month: I scramble to finish as much of my work as I can before my kids are done with school, amidst all their end-of-year activities. This year’s June included travel (followed by days of nasty sinus headache) and a teachers’ strike that meant my daughter had random days off and then got out of school two weeks early. So looking through my reading journal, I’m surprised to see how much I read and listened to, and with how much pleasure. This month’s reading successes and failures also have me thinking about how the “romance reader” label fits me now, and what place romance has in my reading life.

Romance (your mama’s kind?)

I really enjoyed the older romances I read and listened to this month: Joan Smith’s A Highwayman Came Riding, a selection of Heyer (Pistols for Two, Charity Girl and currently The Black Moth on audio), and Mary Burchell’s Take Me With You.  Continue reading

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Based on a True Story, by Elizabeth Renzetti

I read Elizabeth Renzetti’s début novel, Based on a True Story, for a completely shallow reason: I have a little internet crush on the author and her husband, Doug Saunders, both of whom write for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. I enjoy their writing, and they seem like interesting people with cooler lives than mine. (Shit. They’re probably also people with Google alerts for their names. But opening a review of Based on a True Story with a little self-humiliation seems fitting, since its protagonists, Augusta and Frances, face some humiliations of their own).

Renzetti employs familiar women’s fiction and chick lit elements, but there’s a bitter, satirical edge to her story (one reviewer describes it as “a faint taste of arsenic“). Just as I was thinking to myself “This is like chick lit written by, I don’t know . . . Evelyn Waugh?” Renzetti dropped in an allusion to Waugh’s Hollywood satire The Loved One. I felt quite smug until I realized that the novel’s epigraph is from Waugh’s book; it wasn’t cleverness, just my subconscious memory at work.

At her best, Renzetti rises to the tart-tongued aphorism of that epigraph, which reads “Her heart was broken perhaps but it was a small inexpensive organ of local manufacture.” Based on a True Story is often darkly funny, but it’s also serious about the consequences of bad behaviour (and addiction) and the pain of failure at work and relationships. Truer to its women’s genre roots than to Waugh, perhaps, the ending is hopeful. I enjoyed it very much. Continue reading

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