Weekend Update

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 Minutea 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 OckleyThe 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.

Reading Diversely

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.

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19 Responses to Weekend Update

  1. helenajust says:

    I share your enjoyment in re-reading Heyer over and over (and in my case re-listening to the excellent old audiobooks). I find the audiobooks soothing, and they help me go to sleep (I love the sleep-timer) because they occupy my mind enough, but not enough to keep me awake.

    But why do I like re-reading them in other circumstances, in preference to new books? I’m also re-reading other old favourites. I think it’s partly that when I’m feeling unsettled I like the safe certainty that I’ll enjoy them. I know they’ll capture my attention when I’m feeling distracted.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I use old favorite audiobooks as a sleep aid, too. If I doze off and miss some, it doesn’t matter!

      And yes, comfort is definitely part of it. A new book that has familiar elements doesn’t guarantee a happy experience, but an old favorite usually does (though Jorrie is right about the problems rereading can present, too).

  2. Sunita says:

    That’s a great point about Gawande’s perspective, and one of the reasons it’s so important that non-majority writers are encouraged to write about topics beyond identity and community. Had Gawande talked about his grandfather’s experience in the context of a memoir, say, it might have had a different valence. Here it shows the way different cultural experiences of death and dying diverge but also converge. Both are important, but the former gets way more shelf space than the latter.

    I’l be curious to hear your take on the Ramnanan novel. It pinged my “colorful villagers” stereotype button, and I hope I’m wrong.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      What struck me about his use of his grandfather’s story is that so many of his *other* personal anecdotes in the book are very mainstream North America–the daughter taking piano lessons, the way he presents himself as a doctor who like many others is prone to over-medicalizing end of life questions and just presents information. So he tells the stories because they are about dealing with dying, but they reveal a lot about the multi-valence of a 2nd generation identity. But not as a CONFLICT, just as a fact.

      I am hoping for a kind of frothier chick-lit version of A Suitable Boy or something with Nothing Like Love. But if I end up with a stereotype I think I’d prefer Colorful Villagers to Dire Poverty. I will certainly report back!

  3. Jorrie Spencer says:

    Interesting re: the Heyers. Well, in that in April I reread two of them because I couldn’t seem to read anything else. (Though with Station Eleven I hope my reading slump is over.)

    I did enjoy the rereads, and yet so many problems too! The Grand Sophy actually reminded me of rereading Enid Blyton as a teen. That is I was coming to a point where I recognized that some of Blyton’s ideas about the non-English were not quite…ideal (for Blyton lovers—and I was a devotee—remember Gwendolyn the French boarder? or the foreign prince whose name escapes me). But I still enjoyed the verve and action and dialogue. The Grand Sophy is so great! I adore Sophy and Charles. And I find the book so terribly flawed.

    I then reread Venetia, and unfortunately Damerel was a lot less attractive this time round. When you can’t quite stop asking yourself if he forces kisses on his tenants and his maids, well, there’s a bit of problem. Also if you keep wondering why a man of 38 years of age has neglected his lands and tenants—not so good. And yet I adored the sequence of scenes when he takes in an injured Aubrey, and he skillfully manages Nurse, Venetia, Edward (that awful neighbor who has unilaterally decided that Venetia is his betrothed)—well, it’s a delight and worth the price of admission. (Though there’s a small part of me that wishes I had left Venetia in the past when I loved the book unreservedly.)

    I’m going to keep going with my Heyer reread though. Either Frederica or The Unknown Ajax next.

    Er, anyway, those are my Heyer reread notes.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh yes, they definitely have problems. Every time I get to the Goldhanger scene in Grand Sophy it’s so hard–on the one hand, Sophy is so intrepid and Grand, and on the other, the stereotypes are so dreadful, and she is as wed to them as the narrator. There’s no getting around it. (And the classism is so deeply interwoven in the worldview of the books, too). You have to read them with a kind of double vision.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        You’ve hit on something here. For me The Grand Sophy was painful partly because the book was so wonderful up until that scene. I was loving it so hard that when I got there it felt like a slap in the face. Books I don’t have that kind of emotional connection to can’t hurt me as much, if that makes sense.

  4. Jorrie Spencer says:

    I skipped that chapter this time, I admit. I don’t know if that’s smart or cowardly!

    Even in Venetia, where I just love Nurse, and yet, she has no life outside her devotion to the Lanyons and their heirs and their wellbeing, from both Venetia’s and Heyer’s point of view… Yeah, double vision is right.

  5. willaful says:

    I’m about halfway through A Man at the Helm and finding it very stressful. It takes me back all too well to that childhood feeling of things going on around you that you don’t understand but that you know aren’t quite right. And I’m worried for them. Also very distracted by wondering what the hell the mystery of the sister’s name is about.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think that’s part of what she does so well–the children seem so knowing but are also missing a lot. And I can see how depending on what a reader brings to it, it could be very anxiety producing. I trusted it to be a comedy in every sense, but there were times I wanted to shake the parents and yell “Snap out of it!”

      • willaful says:

        It didn’t dawn on me until after I wrote that comment, but their situation is not unlike much of my own childhood. (Me, older sister, poor single mom with a lot of issues, father with new family.) No wonder it’s freaking me out.

        Funniest bit so far: doctor wondering if the younger brother of this extremely dysfunctional family might be anxious about something. Older sister asks if it could be The Hobbit.

  6. SuperWendy says:

    I haven’t been reading enough to even get to the point where I know I need to DNF something. Seriously, I am pathetic.

    I’m having better luck with audio – mostly because the radio station options where I live kinda blow (IMHO) and I’ve got a lengthy commute. I’m currently listening to Anne of Green Gables. You’d think I would have read this as a kid, but now I’m not so sure that I ever did? I *know* the story (of course), but listening to it isn’t bringing back any recall that I actually ever read the book. Which, I probably didn’t. I had reading difficulties as a kid and there are many, many classics that are a gaping black hole for me. Anyway, I’m enjoying it – and will probably be slowly working my way through the series with wee breaks in between.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      After I wrote this I started thinking about how much format is affecting my reading lately.

      Books I enjoyed? Paper from the library and audio. Books I DNFed? Ebooks from the library, which I read on my tablet. So I was not reading those under the best conditions–I find reading on a tablet has WAAAAAY too many distractions of the read a page, “I’ll just check Twitter/email” type. Which introduces social media noise into my reading time, which has been a big part of my problem lately (and I’m thinking of your last post here).

      So I’m going to cut out those Overdrive ebooks for a while and see if I can’t get my concentration and enjoyment back.

  7. Janine Ballard says:

    “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”

    Thank you. I haven’t read the Hunter but misplaced modifiers are one of my pet peeves. A sentence like that would drive me crazy.

  8. KeiraSoleore says:

    In 2013 and 2014, I went through a Heyer re-read and acquire phase. It was an interesting exercise in many ways. Yes, Heyer has her hang-ups, pet peeves, and racisms on view for all to see. It always checks my reading but so far I have not found a case so egregious that I quit reading a book. At the same time, the concentrated reading gave me a deep appreciation of how good a writer she was. The stories continued to be interesting book after book. Neither the style nor the voice nor the plots got boring. I can think of very few other authors of whom I can say that.

    I read the Gawande last month, too. What an absolutely marvelous book. I think with Gawande straddling cultures: Indian vs. American, son vs. father, doctor’s POVs vs. patients’ POVs, etc. he’s uniquely placed to address this huge global problem in its general and in its particular. And he does it with such style, such polish, such empathy…WOW!

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