Friday Fragments: On Reading

Guest Blogging

Anna Cowan has a great lineup of people (I seriously have no idea how I got on the list) guest posting to launch her beautiful new blog design. My post, which is a reflection on my reading style, should be up sometime next week; definitely go check the rest out! The ones up so far are great.

What I’ve Been Reading/Listening To

Carolyn Jewel’s Not Wicked Enough and Not Proper Enough. I really enjoyed both of these, particularly the second (here are my comments from Goodreads). I described the first one as “theatrical” and the second as “dreamy,” and in both cases I meant it as a compliment. I thought Jewel captured the importance of style and appearances in Regency society, and also a secret emotional, passionate life behind the façade. There’s the slightest touch of magic realism in these novels, and it suited the style and themes. I have to be in the right mood for Jewel’s dense, rich artifices, but when I am I really enjoy them.

Like many, many other people, I read Loretta Chase’s just re-released Regency Knave’s Wager. I felt like it took bits and pieces of Heyer plots and shook them in a kaleidoscope, creating something that owed some allegiance to the foremother of the Regency romance but wasn’t derivative. The “bet you can’t seduce her” plot is used in a really interesting way: I think it’s obvious that Lilith is not “real” to the people who wager on her, and that their feelings about the wager change when she becomes a real person, not just an object, to them. The characters are far more than the types they represent, too–the rake, the cold widow, the ingenue. In that sense, it reminded me of Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened (perhaps also in its heroine, who really wants to do the right thing but sometimes goes about it the wrong way).

I’m listening to a couple of books that seem oddly related to me:

I’m just about done with Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. It’s a brilliant, partisan but clear-sighted portrait that really brings its subject to life. Reading about this woman who was so talented and charismatic, but who was often unhappy, it’s hard not to think of her contemporary relative Diana, Princess of Wales. Georgiana’s marriage was mostly unhappy, and both she and the Duke had affairs; she was wealthy but plagued for most of her adult life by an addiction to gambling and spending that created debts she lied to cover up; she was also a successful hostess, a force in Whig politics, and a leader of fashion. Her own mistakes contributed to her unhappiness, but so did the constraints placed on women of her time and class. It would have taken me forever to read this in print, so I was delighted to find the audio, ably narrated by Wanda McCaddon, available from my library.

I am also listening to E. Lockhart’s The Boyfriend List: 15 Guys, 11 Shrink Appointments, 4 Ceramic Frogs and Me, Ruby Oliver. I absolutely loved Lockhart’s brilliant, funny and feminist Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (here’s the Booksmugglers’ review). But I admit, the title made me dubious about this one. I’m not keen on YA that’s all angsting about boys. What made me try it was Jackie’s “Feminism, YA Style” post on the book. This book is full of teen angst about boys and friends, no doubt. Ruby does stupid things, she hurts herself and others, they hurt her. Her mistakes, like Georgiana’s, are partly shaped by the expectations and restrictions her culture places on women and girls, and Ruby’s pretty astute about that. Her intelligence and growing self-awareness save the book from being a maudlin angst-fest.

The Boyfriend List is, at times, painful to read, especially when it reminds me of the stupid, hurtful, deeply regretted things I did in my own teens. So yeah, if that retrospective pain is why you avoid reading YA, you’ll find it here. But that pain is part of human experience, and as the mother of a teen and an angsty tween, I think I need to be reminded of it. They’re going to require my patience, compassion and understanding in the years ahead.

I also think that for many people (though certainly not everyone) the teen years mark the beginning of a shift from the time when our deepest, most passionate attachments are to friends (usually of our own sex) to a time when the strongest attachment is to a romantic partner (for most of us, of the opposite sex). That shift is hard to make, as is striking a balance between the two kinds of attachment. The book depicts the start of this shift brilliantly. Hard as it sometime is to bear, I think I’ll go on to listen to the rest of the series.

How I Picked My Next Book

I finished Carolyn Jewel and I wasn’t sure what to read next. I was daunted, as usual, by the size of my TBR. How to pick when overwhelmed by choice? I went for a method Rohan tweeted about: choose a handful of possibles, read the first sentence of each, decide which sounds most interesting. Rohan got her daughter to help, which would work even better, but I did it on my own. Narrowing it down to a handful was actually pretty easy. I wanted a break from romance, and at the time of choosing I was about to climb into the tub so it had to be a dead tree book (I know some of you are brave enough to bathe with your e-readers, but I’m not). I grabbed a few from the shelf in my bedroom. Here are the first sentences:

1. The fat sun stalls by the phone masts.

2. Last year, at the hot end of spring, in the small town of Hanmouth on the Hain estuary, a rowing boat floated in the middle of the muddy stream.

These two reflect my taste for literary fiction about a place and community. They start with setting. I really want to read both of them, just not in yesterday’s bath.

3. This morning Rino telephoned.

4. I am Polly Flint.

5. It was apparent to Miss Foster within one minute of her arrival at the Grange that her host was not in the best of tempers.

I chose 5, which is the lightest book in every sense, no small consideration when you have to hold it above bathwater. But also, the acerbic edge suited my mood. Some cruelly witty observations on one’s fellow humans? I’m in! It’s Georgette Heyer’s mystery An Unfinished Clue, and it’s living up to its promise. The omniscient narrator has patience for only a handful of the characters, the sensible, practical ones. The rest we get to despise and laugh at. I’m not sure what this says about my mood, but I’m enjoying the heck out of it.

This was a good way to pick a book. I think next time I try it, I’ll enlist my daughter’s help. She’d love that. I may have skewed the results this time, and should probably have admitted to myself from the start that the Heyer was what I felt like.

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12 Responses to Friday Fragments: On Reading

  1. SonomaLass says:

    I haven’t read the Heyer mysteries, although I have them for Kindle because I loaded them up for my partner. I was thinking I needed a break from romance myself, once I finish the current read, so I will give one of those a shot.

    You know I’m a C Jewel fan; I loved Scandal so much that I made her be my friend in real life! I agree that her historicals aren’t light or easy reads, but I can always sink back in them with absolute trust.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I like this better than the previous Heyer mystery I read (can’t even remember the title). They are very 30s–remind me of early Ngaio Marsh or Christie. There’s a little romance, as is often the case in mysteries of this period. Not as complex as Tey or Sayers, but enjoyable.

  2. VacuousMinx says:

    I love An Unfinished Clue. It’s one of her few mysteries (maybe her only?) that has a one-off detective, so he can be part of the romantic storyline. It has some ethnic/racial iffiness, but given it’s Heyer, it could be worse. I don’t know why Heyer’s mysteries aren’t more widely read and discussed. They are quite good as mysteries, and they all have romance subplots. And the characterizations of both the men and the women are terrific. They’re not all first-rate, but I’ve read all of them multiple times (even Penhallow, which is perhaps the worst of the lot).

    I haven’t read the Foreman. It hit one of my hot buttons, which is a biography that is really about the present rather than the past. I realize history is inevitably framed by contemporary issues, but I liked mine delivered a little less obviously. Your review suggests that it would drive me crazy, so thanks for the reminder. 😉 Glad you enjoyed it, though; she was a fascinating character.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It’s too bad she never seems to miss an opportunity for some gratuitous anti-Semitism. But for the most part the book was very enjoyable. I didn’t care that the romance thread was, inevitably, underdeveloped because obviously practically the only decent people in the book deserved each other. It’s very good on human weakness and self-deception, I thought.

      I think my comments played up the extent to which Foreman’s book frames the Duchess through contemporary issues, but that is a factor. It isn’t a period I know a lot about, especially the politics, but I did think the book gave a good sense of how much politics was a matter of social and familial relationships, and how, therefore, women were able to play a substantial role. That was one of the most interesting parts. The “strange” family/sexual/personal relationships were harder to judge. Given what was going on with their friends, many of whom seemed to have extramarital relationships and illegitimate children, they didn’t seem all that unique, but the book didn’t give them enough context.

      • VacuousMinx says:

        No, it’s not just you, that’s how the Foreman book was marketed at the time and even more so when the movie was made. I agree that aristocratic women in particular were able to play important roles if they belonged to the right families, but from what I can tell from academic reviews and discussions of the book, she way oversells Georgiana’s political influence. But that’s an occupational hazard of many biographies, especially ones where the authors are intent on rehabilitating the subject.

        I don’t think anyone has written a biography of Viscountess Melbourne, which is surprising to me.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I did find it very partisan/championing of G at the expense, it sometimes seemed, of a fair portrayal of others. It’s a very readable book for a lay audience, though, and I’m not surprised it got so much praise.

  3. Erin Satie says:

    Both “hot end of spring” and “phone masts” have been ringing in my ears since I read this blog post, and keep wishing they were combined in the first sentence of a single book rather than fragments of first lines from two different books.

    What were those by the way?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I just thought I’d tease people with those:

      1. Zadie Smith, NW
      2. Philip Hensher, King of the Badgers
      3. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (translated from Italian)
      4. Jane Gardam, Crusoe’s Daughter

      I’ve read other books by all of them except Ferrante.

  4. Agree with everything you said about Knaves’ Wager. I loved Jewel’s Scandal and Indiscreet. Not Wicked Enough was beautifully written, but I thought it needed a conflict. I didn’t see anything blocking Lily and Mountjoy’s path to happiness, so I kept putting the book down.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think I was in the mood for low conflict. I was intrigued enough by other aspects of the book. But I also think the second engaged me more because there was a stronger conflict.

      Scandal is still my favorite of hers, I think.

      • I’ve had other people tell me there was sufficient, if low, conflict, but for me it was pretty much nonexistent. I’ve asked other people to point to the source of conflict in the story, but they couldn’t do so in such a way that I could see it. It was one of those reading experiences that made me wonder what I was missing.

        I rated it pretty well when I reviewed it because the other aspects of the book were wonderful, but in hindsight, the fact that I haven’t read Not Proper Enough yet tells me that the absence of conflict bothered me more than I was able to articulate to myself at the time.

  5. willaful says:

    I know Heyer so well that I’m super sensitive to books that feel like rip offs of her. I was really happy with Knaves’ Wager — it felt to me like Chase had read Faro’s Daughter and thought, hmmm, I wonder what the story would be like if… and then wrote her plot with her own characters, which doesn’t bother me at all. As opposed to Falling for Chloe which was so, so derivative.

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