Recent Reading: Stress Relief?

It’s been a busy week of grading, giving an exam, and grading some more. Not to mention the elementary school Christmas concert, getting a Christmas tree, panicking about how close we are to Christmas. . . .

So maybe it’s no surprise that my stress relief reading hasn’t featured sweet Christmas romance but men with guns, murders and ghosts. These stories were more engrossing, and therefore more escapist. I put down the Christmas romances I tried; maybe I’ll binge on them after the holiday.

Romantic Suspense

I breezed through the last 2 books in HelenKay Dimon’s Corcoran Team series for Harlequin Intrigue. I think I read this whole series, which came out over a couple of years, either on a plane or during end-of-term madness. They offer fast paced-action featuring unstoppable alpha heroes who love smart, strong, independent women. And they’re short.

The Corcoran Team, a bunch of former black ops guys who do security and rescue work, produce a high body count as they help their women escape trouble. The lack of repercussions for this strains credulity (at least I hope it does) but the unreality is part of what makes the series perfect escapist fare. The romances in Lawless and Traceless work in the short page count because of the tropes: reunited lovers and marriage in trouble. The characters already love each other, they just have to work out their differences–which in typical fashion for the series is the men being clueless and thinking their dangerous, rootless lives don’t have room for a woman or require them to smother her with protectiveness. Corcoran boss Conner’s marriage in trouble story has been the obvious end-point since the start of the series. But it did introduce three new characters who are part of the travelling team, and thus the potential for more sequels. Dimon has branched out in several new writing directions, so that seems unlikely, but if she ever does write more, I’m in. 

Gothic-y Ghost Story

Set in Providence, RI in the 1930s, Jacqueline Baker’s The Broken Hours is the story of down-on-his-luck Arthor Crandle, who becomes the secretary/personal assistant of the writer H.P. Lovecraft. There are some obvious nods to Lovecraft–like the giant tentacle that washes up on the beach–but I don’t know his work well enough to catch most of them. Arthor inhabits the attic of Lovecraft’s lodging house, almost never sees his mysterious employer, and strikes up a relationship with the equally mysterious, though far more cheerful, Flossie, an out-of-work actress who arrives to sublet the first floor rooms. Arthor is plagued by the oppressive sense of a presence in the house, and begins prying into his employer’s life. (Really, people in ghost stories should just leave things alone). Like all good ghost stories I’ve read, which is not a lot, this one is really “about” being haunted by loss. I liked it–and I think if you like Simone St. James you might like it too, though there’s no romance–but it suffered for me in comparison to what I was listening to alongside it.

A Really Great Audiobook

Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests is read by Juliet Stevenson, now my all-time favorite audiobook narrator, and it’s a great combination. I enjoyed this tremendously. Steve Donoghue, who put it among his 10 best novels of the year, describes it this way:

deceptively quiet at its outset, a remarkable small-scale drama that Waters steadily complicates. This is the author’s most elegant and confident work – a joy of subversion.

That seems pretty spot on to me. One of the pleasures of audio is that I didn’t try to analyze at all, or grapple with the novel’s “aboutness.” Like Baker’s novel, Waters’ grapples with loss–in this case, of fortune and position, of young men in the Great War, and of the world the war destroyed. One of the big questions of the novel is whether Frances, the point of view character, will be diminished or freed by this loss and change. At the start, the former seems likely: she’s more or less become the servant she and her mother can no longer afford, and they’ve had to take in lodgers, the “paying guests” of the title. Will Frances be trapped in the role of dutiful spinster daughter, living out her days in shabby gentility? or will the passing away of her genteel fortune and the men of her family free her to live and love in the more radical ways she desires? (And can she really give up the values she was raised with?). Waters made these questions utterly gripping to me, and Stevenson brought the emotions to life.

The other way this reminded me of Baker’s gothic ghost-story is that Frances, like Arthor, is drawn into a horrific event, crosses a line she can never cross back. (Both of these novels made me want to scream What are you thinking? at times, but not in a “this person is too stupid to live” way). The second half of the novel is, in some ways, a Golden Age mystery seen from the other side, cracked open to show the painful beating heart below that rather brittle, rational surface. Or something! This was the kind of audiobook that I had me putting in my earbuds at every possible moment.

The Horror–and Gallows Humor–of War

Right now I’m reading Phil Klay’s National Book Award-winning short story collection Redeployment. I’m only three stories in and I’m not sure I’ll finish it before it has to go back to the library–I can’t take more than one of these stories a day–but I’ll definitely read them all eventually.

I first “met” Klay through his piece in the New York Times, After War, a Failure of the Imagination,” in which he argues that in a democracy, civilians have a duty to try to understand the experience of veterans:

Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain. You don’t honor someone by telling them, “I can never imagine what you’ve been through.” Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels. If the past 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that in the age of an all-volunteer military, it is far too easy for Americans to send soldiers on deployment after deployment without making a serious effort to imagine what that means. We can do better.

It’s a brilliant essay, and you should read the whole thing. Part of what struck me about it is Klay’s rather old-fashioned (though not, to my mind, out of date) insistence that “self-recognition through others” is the point of art–that we read to feel sympathy with others and to understand ourselves. He reminded me a little of George Eliot, strange as that may seem.

After that exhortation, how could I not read his stories and try to understand what he wanted to show me? I read them squinting sideways, trying to protect myself from the full impact of what they show about the war in Iraq–and in that sense, perhaps I do understand something of the experience of Klay’s characters, who know you have to stay numb to survive. These are stories full of explosions and gunfire and swearing and military acronyms, but their biggest impact is in the quiet human moments: a few words exchanged by bunkmates in the dark; shoving a fork into a buddy’s hand and telling him to eat his cobbler. The next time I teach Intro to Fiction, the title story will probably be on my reading list.

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2 Responses to Recent Reading: Stress Relief?

  1. Miss Bates says:

    I am so totally with you on Juliet Stevenson’s audiobook narration. I’m listening to Gaskell’s NORTH AND SOUTH and do so at every chance I get, except I DON”T listen in the car. I’m too afraid I’ll miss some brilliant characterization, as she shifts from one character to the next.

  2. Donoghue’s “a joy of subversion” and your own “a Golden Age mystery seen from the other side” are both perfect descriptions!

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