Hey there! It’s been awhile, and I still don’t have much blogging mojo. So here’s a rambling post to at least get me started again.
I saw an academic tweet the other day that now the semester’s over, everyone is scheduling a two-hour meeting. Yep. My final grades were submitted a week ago, and the May meeting season began immediately. My department is in the midst of making a major decision about our first-year prerequisites; I appreciate how collegial everyone is being about this, but it’s still a difficult conversation. Chairing our meeting last week was exhausting, and there’s another to come.
Hence, no blogging and I’m struggling to have enough attention to read. Listening is easier, but even audiobooks have only got partial attention lately. Here’s what I have enjoyed despite my distraction:
Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. I listened to this because my parents recommended it. It’s an often sobering, sometimes inspiring look at how we deal with dying (in the US, particularly, but he argues that every culture that can afford it is moving in this direction). Gawande uses anecdotes effectively to make his abstract points engaging. It made me worry about living across a continent and a border from my parents, which will make supporting them as they age harder.
Nina Stibbe, Man at the Helm. Read because of this review, which ends, “it’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that Man at the Helm, with its jauntily matter-of-fact social satire, wouldn’t be out of place on the same shelf as Cold Comfort Farm and I Capture the Castle.” Shut up and take my library hold. By p. 15, I’d spotted an allusion to Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, a book of stories I loved in college and now want to read again. Stibbe’s book reminded me most of Hilary McKay’s Casson family stories, for the child’s exasperated, loving portrait of a parent thrown off course and struggling to do a half-assed job. The novel is very funny in its look at the travails of life in a judgmental 1970s English village, especially with a divorced mum with a penchant for sleeping with other people’s husbands, but it doesn’t shy away from serious subjects (money troubles, drug addiction) and is often insightful. I especially liked the fact that 9-year-old narrator Lizzie comes to realize that they don’t exactly need a man at the helm to right the family’s course, but they do need help–because everyone does to get through life. (I’d quote some, but I had to return it to the library for others to enjoy).
Also some mysteries/thrillers I enjoyed: Jo Bannister, Deadly Virtues (new female cop/former teacher, former government investigator with PTSD I thought was well represented–friendship rather than romance); Martha Ockley, The Reluctant Detective (female priest/former cop, ex-boyfriend detective inspector); Reginald Hill, The Only Game (cop investigating the missing child of a maybe-not-dead IRA money man, falls for the maybe-not-widow)–I prefer Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series to his stand-alone thrillers, but I don’t think he’s ever written a bad book.
On DNFing and Comfort Reads
I got into romance via historicals, but it seems ages since I read one. So I tried Madeline Hunter’s latest. Something about . . . a rake? a rogue? *consults reading journal* His Wicked Reputation. I guess that implies rake and rogue? I read about eight chapters and then realized that every time I put it down I had no desire to pick it up again, so it went back to the library. It wasn’t a bad book, and I suspect the problem was partly my mood. But I didn’t find the situation/conflict interesting, and I didn’t care about the characters, who felt like types I’d read a dozen times before.
So instead, I listened to some Heyer novels that I have literally read a dozen times before. And I found myself wondering why I was bored by the familiar elements in the book I abandoned, but enjoyed the far more familiar elements in Black Sheep, The Grand Sophy, and The Unknown Ajax. Partly, I think, it’s writing style. Hunter’s prose didn’t appeal to me. I found it sometimes awkward and over-written. (I know we are not supposed to be prescriptivist about dangling modifiers, but sentences like “Wrapped again in burlap, she carried the painting”–not quite an exact quote but close–trip me up. I knew the painting, not the heroine, was wrapped in burlap, but I still stumbled and had to read it twice, and it could easily have been rewritten to avoid that.) The characters never sprang off the page and their dialogue seemed flat and unnatural to me. Heyer’s dialogue is often unnatural too, but it’s full of wit. I was reminded that I always like humor in my romance–and that humor is personal. Some things in Hunter’s book that had me rolling my eyes probably struck others as funny.
Still, I’m puzzling over the different way I responded to these two kinds of familiarity. Why would a reread work for me when a new book using familiar tropes didn’t? I don’t know.
I’ve read a number of interesting things lately on diversity in reading and publishing, and the way authors of color get pigeon-holed/shelved as authors of color. Like this Guardian article (via Sunita). And this great post by Vajra Chandrasekera on the problem with the term “people of color.” I got to thinking about my “diverse reading” project. I do cast this as “read more books by authors of color,” and I think that it’s hard for me, as a white reader in North America, where publishing is very white, to talk about this goal in a way that doesn’t center whiteness. But although I use this as general shorthand for my reading goal, I try not to talk about individual books and authors in flattening, essentializing ways.
I think that reading a lot of genre fiction has helped to keep my “diverse” reading from being all about racism, colonialism, or post-colonialism, as that Guardian article suggests British “black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME)” writers are expected to do. It’s harder to find literary fiction that breaks that mold–though I bought Nothing Like Love by Sabrina Ramnanan today pretty much as soon as I finished reading this review. (I waffled because of the ebook price, but hey–this is the kind of book I want there to be more of, so I put my money where my mouth is). It’s not that genre fiction by authors of color never deals with these topics, but even when it does, it tends to approach them in a different way from literary fiction–they are not so much at the center of the story.
But I noticed when thinking about my year’s reading through this lens that all the nonfiction I read for this goal was by African Americans and yes, it dealt with racism. These were great books and I’m not sorry I read them–and they were diverse in kind (current affairs, memoir, poetry). But I’d like more variety and I wonder why it’s harder to find reviews and information that would lead me to non-fiction by authors of color that isn’t about race.
Then I remembered Being Mortal. An American doctor with any family history/ethnic origin could have written a book about how we die. In some ways, you could say that Gawande being the child of Indian immigrants made no difference. Except it did, because he included his own family story and the contrast between how his grandfather could grow old and frail on his farm surrounded by family in India with the medicalization of aging in North America. At the same time, he is not sentimental about his grandfather’s situation and does not romanticize it: he realizes that it is enabled by his father emigrating and sending money home. And I think Gawande’s point that when people in any culture have the money and freedom to leave home and not live with aging parents, they take it (and the parents choose retirement communities) gained authority because of his own family history–he didn’t come off as criticizing someone else’s “backward” culture.
I’m continuing to try to diversify my reading in every sense, and to think harder about what “diversity” means.