Reading List: Late June

Both my children are finally out of school for the summer and I’m celebrating on this (very warm) Saturday by decompressing: I’ve spent most of it reading, sipping iced drinks, and looking for a cool spot. So here is a lazy blog post on what I have been, am, and might be reading and listening to.

Read: 

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint

I read this book by a “tattooed, foul-mouthed” Lutheran woman pastor because Marilyn of Mean Fat Old Bat mentioned it on Twitter. I liked it, though I found it a bit . . . not superficial, exactly, but brisk. A lot of the chapters felt like extended sermons, which is not a bad thing–but sometimes I wanted more development to the reflections. Bolz-Weber has the good preacher’s gift for finding a telling anecdote and drawing meaning out of it. And there were moments in the book that really struck home for me. For example: 

“In a way, I need a God who is bigger and more nimble and mysterious than what I could understand and contrive. Otherwise it can feel like I am worshipping nothing more than my own ability to understand the divine.”

The image of the liturgy as a stream flowing through time or a gift handed down from earlier generations, a “language of truth and promise and grace” we can bathe in. The sense of participating in a long tradition is a really meaningful part, for me, of belonging to a liturgical church; the tradition is bigger than we are.

“How we feel about Jesus or how close we feel to God is meaningless next to how God acts upon us.” Grace isn’t our work. Also, we don’t have to wait to feel something for God to be working on/in us. At my church, we close our liturgy with a prayer reminding us that God’s “power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

“The greatest spiritual practice is just showing up.” My dad said something along these lines to me years ago and it’s I always come back to it when I’m waiting for the spirit to move me before I go to church.

None of these are new ideas for me, but they’re things I need to be reminded of. For that, I’m grateful this book came my way

Elly Griffiths, A Dying Fall (Ruth Galloway mysteries #5)

New acquisitions at my online library reminded me that (as is my wont) I’ve fallen behind on this series. I love a mystery with archaeology, and I’ve enjoyed the touch of Gothic/supernatural in these books as well–something I often don’t like blended with mystery. I also like that Ruth is fat, and while she isn’t always comfortable with that fact, it doesn’t rule her life. Her weight is also not the cause of her messed-up love life: men find her attractive and she likes sex. She’s also, at this point in the series, a single mom with the kind of self-created “family” circle many people have. She loves her work (if not always her job) and she’s good at it. This one had a bit too much mysticism and too little archaeology for me, but I was still happy to catch up with old friends. It struck me that the characters’ situations change, but they don’t, really–but then, I’ve leveled the same criticism at myself, so maybe that’s just realistic, if sometimes frustrating in both books and life.

Heard:

Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds (read by Simon Vance)

Continuing my epic Palliser series listen. Here’s what struck me most:

  1.  The differences between admirable, likeable, and sympathetic. Lizzie Eustace, around whom this novel revolves, is selfish, shallow, and heartless. She is not in any way admirable or good and Trollope constantly reminds us of that. She can charm other characters, but the narrator is always warning readers against her charm (you, of course, knowing the whole story, know better. . . .). All her sufferings are richly deserved. And yet, Trollope made me sympathize with her. I think this is a key to sympathy in the Victorian novel: it’s not the object that matters as much as the moral growth of the sympathizer. Sympathy, like grace, doesn’t have to be earned. And so Victorian novelists often expend considerable skill on making us sympathize with people who don’t “deserve” it.
  2. Trollope’s attention to the plight of the middle-class man is fascinating. In book two it was Phineas Finn, here it’s Frank Greystock. These men, he suggests, are essentially driven to make mercenary marriages: they cannot afford to marry a woman without money because they can’t support her–at least not in the style that their class demands. This struck me, oddly, as a first step towards feminism, because it recognizes the harm done by patriarchy to both women and men (Trollope certainly doesn’t pretend that women aren’t hurt more than men by this dilemma and the way men flounder around romantically in response to it). The obvious solution, of course, is to let women earn money they can contribute to the marriage, to make them equal partners. Trollope doesn’t get there, but it’s the end of the road he’s on.
  3. Of professional interest to me: diamonds get stolen here, and that brings the police into the story. I think that where Dickens’ detectives are powerful, mysterious and charismatic figures, precursors of Sherlock Holmes, Trollope’s are bureaucrats. He’s mostly interested in their workplace politics (and in the way gossip about the case aligns with party politics). Everything is political in this series, not least love and marriage.

Adrian McKinty, In the Morning I’ll Be Gone (Sean Duffy #3, read by Gerard Doyle)

I thought this series, featuring a Catholic police officer in early-80s Belfast, the time of the Troubles, was going to be a trilogy, and this book felt valedictory to me, but it appears there’s a fourth book. Gerard Doyle is a wonderful narrator, and I think this is a case where the narrator makes the books even better. This one’s a blend of thriller (Sean is tapped by MI5 to help find an escaped IRA bomber before he begins a campaign of terror) and classic locked room mystery (in a bid to get information on the IRA man, Sean tries to solve the mystery of his sister-in-law’s death). Some parts, not least Sean’s death-defying luck, were pretty implausible, and as usual with thrillers the quieter early bits engaged me more than the big climactic finish, but the strong voice–both McKinty’s and Doyle’s–pulled me through. I loved all the joking references to classic locked rooms stories, which helped relieve the grimness of the setting.

I also DNF’d a perfectly good PNR/romance-y UF, the start of a series, because about two hours I thought to myself, “You know, I don’t really enjoy this subgenre. Why do I keep trying?” I didn’t hate it, but I kept rolling my eyes. So I deleted all the PNR lingering on my iPod. There are so many books in my TBR, why not stick with the ones I’m more likely to fall in love with? I feel free, not scrolling past them.

Now What?

Almost done with Angela Thirkell’s High Rising. Vintage is re-releasing Thirkell’s Barsetshire series; I’ve found four so far and I do hope there will be more to come. I’ve been wanting to read these for ages. It’s funny and wry and hitting right in my “mid-century middle-brow” sweet spot.

About 1/3 into Heidi Julavits’ The Folded Clock: A Diary. The diary is really just a conceit–it’s more like short essays on identity, time, and whatever else strikes her fancy, posing as diary entries. I think I’m about done. They’re very readable, but the format means they’re slight and I find them kind of pretentious and self-centered. It seems silly to ding a diary for being self-centered, and I wouldn’t mind if this were actual diary entries and a nosy peek into someone else’s daily life (my journal entries are sure as hell self-centered, and dull to boot). But as essays, they just don’t have enough gravitas or insight for my taste. And they don’t seem to be adding up to anything, either, so why read on?

I’ve been reading a little of Grace Draven’s Radiance on the elliptical. I’m not really hooked yet, but so many people loved it that I’ll persist. (I’ve also been passing my workout time watching that old favorite, High Fidelity. Still love it).

Just started listening to Rob Lowe’s Stories I Only Tell My Friends, read by the author. I’m not really a celebrity memoir reader, but a lot of people I know raved about this and it was in the $4.95 Audible sale, so why not? I’m enjoying it very much so far.

What Next?

My holds on Beth Kendrick’s New Uses for Old Boyfriends (a Twitter rec from Laura K. Curtis) and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted (pretty universal raves) came in at the same time (inevitably) so I’d better get cracking.

Other Audible sale goodies: E. M. Forster’s Maurice and Mark Hodder’s Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (also read by the wonderful Gerard Doyle). And with my credit I got Phineas Redux so I can enjoy more Palliser goodness on my upcoming cross-country plane trip.

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13 Responses to Reading List: Late June

  1. Janine Ballard says:

    “I also DNF’d a perfectly good PNR/romance-y UF, the start of a series, because about two hours I thought to myself, “You know, I don’t really enjoy this subgenre. Why do I keep trying?” I didn’t hate it, but I kept rolling my eyes. So I deleted all the PNR lingering on my iPod. There are so many books in my TBR, why not stick with the ones I’m more likely to fall in love with? I feel free, not scrolling past them.”

    That’s a great feeling, deleting a bunch of books off the reading device. I hate to intrude on your sense of liberation, but I couldn’t help remembering that you liked Lia Silver’s Prisoner (PNR) and also enjoyed some of Ben Aaronovitch’s books (UF). I’m tempted to try and find something else that might appeal to you — I think it’s possible Patricia Briggs’ Charles and Anna works would (I suspect they’d be a better fit for you than Ilona Andrews or Nalini Singh, anyway) — but given how free and happy you sound, it borders on cruel.

    I’ve heard great things about that Rob Lowe also, so I’ll be interested in your thoughts on it. Hope you post your thoughts on Maurice when you read it, too.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Ha! I think Aaronovitch is an exception for me because of all the history stuff. For Silver it was the sense of humor.

      I did listen to a lot of Briggs’ Mercy books, and I read Alpha and Omega and listened to the first Charles and Anna book. I liked them OK–well enough to keep going for quite a while before I burned out, which I often do regardless of series quality. And I admire a lot about those books! It’s not that I *hate* the subgenre, just that I feel pretty sure there is a lot in my TBR that I will like better.

      Partly it’s the violence. I get tired of worlds that are always at war. And for some reason I also have a problem with the “kitchen sink” supernatural of a lot of UF/PNR world-building, where every supernatural creature ever imagined exists. It’s not really logical and I’m not sure I can explain. It just feels so busy to me. Maybe part of why I enjoy Aaronovitch is the more focused magic system. And maybe part of why I liked Silver was werewolves only, not vampires and demons and fae and Norse gods and etc etc etc. Some books I read I just felt “pick something and stick to it!” It is totally a personal taste issue.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        And for some reason I also have a problem with the “kitchen sink” supernatural of a lot of UF/PNR world-building, where every supernatural creature ever imagined exists. It’s not really logical and I’m not sure I can explain. It just feels so busy to me.

        I have that issue sometimes too (I felt that way about Kresley Cole’s A Hunger Like No Other, and to a lesser extent, Charlaine Harris’ first couple Sookie books and Briggs’ Mercy series– it was part of why I quit that series), It has to do with suspension of disbelief. The more different kinds of supernatural creatures there are in the book, the harder the author has to work to make the world fully believable or at least absorbing enough to bring me along for the ride. A lot of different types of creatures can feel chaotic and distracting, like a menagerie or something.

        • rosario001 says:

          I agree completely. I find myself bored by the warring and violent politics between different groups of supernatural beings in UF. There are some books in that subgenre that I’ve liked (most recently, Rachel Aaron’s Nice Dragons Finish Last), but that tends to be because I like the characters enough that it compensates for the boring supernatural intrigue.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I feel the same way about supernatural beings vs. humans wars/politics. The setups just often seem really obvious. I would try something with a different kind of conflict.

  2. KeiraSoleore says:

    I’m continuing my read of Trollope’s Warden. So this line of yours struck me as particularly apt: “Trollope’s attention to the plight of the middle-class man is fascinating.” This is the character he’s always most in sympathy with and for whom he’ll willing to do a lot. The extremes of the spectrum gain either his disdain or his indifference.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I definitely think he’s very forgiving of young men and their romantic mis-steps. He definitely sees them as errors, but as understandable ones. In the examples I’m thinking of, these men do do the right thing (marry the poor sweet good girl) in the end. But their attraction to beautiful, rich, not-so-good-girls–and their leading on and neglect and failure to appreciate the good girl–is certainly presented as understandable. One thing I love about CAN YOU FORGIVE HER? is that the genders are reversed, and the heroine gets to mess up and still be sympathetic, and get the perfect virtuous (and hence rather dull) man in the end.

  3. Sunita says:

    I have the first two McKinty audiobooks in my TBR (TBL?), I need to move them up.

    I’d forgotten your great post on sympathy, I’m glad you linked to it again. I wonder if that’s part of what gets tiring for me reading romance: I don’t have to do any moral work to sympathize with the characters, it’s all done for me. It’s more difficult to root for an HEA for a person who isn’t likeable, so you don’t see them as often in romance. The closest we come are the curmudgeons who don’t show their true feelings until the end, or the old Anne Stuart bad boys who you don’t fully trust to do right by the heroines in the long term even though they do love them in their own ways. Maybe the NA/MC heroes are the current incarnations, but I haven’t read enough of those to know.

    Speaking of where the sympathy is located, I was reading reviews of the Neels book that was in the DA deals post yesterday and a number of readers disliked the book because the hero was mean to the heroine. To me he was a recognizable type of Neels hero, and there were little hints that he was interested in her from the beginning, but for some readers that wasn’t nearly enough.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think I am one of those readers who likes having my romantic heroes/heroines easy to sympathize with, most of the time. I can’t imagine Lizzie Eustace as a romance heroine because she doesn’t change. She’s selfish and heartless to the end. (But a heroine who started like that and grew? That could be interesting. I like how Trollope shows how awful it would be to be married to someone like her.)

      On the other hand, romance has made me root for characters with traits I really don’t like, by sheer force of their position as hero (mostly) or heroine and the narrative drive to the happy ending. I am not sure how I can explain what I mean. Maybe it is the difference between rooting for, admiring and sympathizing with. Maybe it is reading something as more fantasy than reality. But I have found myself rooting for some romance heroes I don’t think much of, and maybe that is part of why I avoid certain tropes and character types, because I don’t like being in that position as a reader. Whereas Trollope or Eliot can make me sympathize with a character, want them to deserve better, hope for redemption–but I am not cheering them on in a way that asks me to suspend moral judgement, quite the contrary, and maybe that is the difference. It bears more thinking about!

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        In romance, we’re essentially required to believe in the hero/heroine’s redemption no matter where they start from. As a result, our moral compass is not compromised if at some point in their journey (even before redemption), we start to sympathize with them, like them, and root for them, because we know they’re going to be redeemed. They’re going to be redeemed, thereby our moral compass is going to be redeemed. So we’re in the clear. Thus with a clear conscience we can safely watch the character growth of tough characters.

        There’s comfort in that. We don’t have to work at it. It’s delivered to us.

  4. rosario001 says:

    I’m currently reading the third in the Ruth Galloway series. I like a lot of things about it (some elements of Ruth’s character, the setting, the plots), but I’m put off by the sordid feeling of her relationship with Nelson. I don’t have a problem with adulterous relationships, necessarily (I love Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series, which has a very similar premise), but this one feels uncomfortable. I also don’t like some things about Ruth, mainly how resentful she is of any female character she perceives as prettier than her. Well, that hasn’t been a big issue so far in book 3, but it really bothered me in the first 2.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think the relationship works (sort of) for me because it IS uncomfortable–they feel uncomfortable about it, and it’s messy to work out, and causes pain. I do agree about the attitude to other women, though. The way she thinks about her friend Shona, for instance. That’s a way in which her weight didn’t work for me. I think many people feel that kind of envy sometimes, but it’s a constant drumbeat (and it doesn’t help that her closest female friend AND Nelson’s wife are both slim and beautiful). The series is definitely a mixed bag for me.

  5. Kaetrin says:

    I’m one of the people who enjoyed the Rob Lowe memoir. He’s a good narrator (something which doesn’t always follow just because he wrote the book) and the stories he told made me remember the 80s in a fonder way than usual. I would have liked more about The West Wing though. That’s what I associate him with actually, more than anything else. I think he’s written another one but it’s geo restricted for the time being. When/if that changes, I’ll pick that one up too.

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