Reading at the tail end of 2017: Ethical dilemmas thereof, and the future of my blog

 

It’s a real problem for the reading and book tracking obsessed: must you add books half-finished at the end of 2017 to that year’s tally (post-mortem, as it were), even if you don’t finish them until 2018, or is it morally justified migrating them to first reads of 2018?

My Code of Ethics Regarding Reading Protocol doesn’t cover this. Time to go rogue and make up my own rules:

Books finished in 2018 count as 2018 reads! 

Such a saucy minx.

30 December 2017: Books in Progress

 

Classics Group Read: An Easy Choice

 

A no-brainer. The classics group that chose Nicholas Nickleby doesn’t meet for discussion until late January. I have no qualms saving this for 2018’s list.

Is it the book’s fault I needed the full four weeks? I think not. Only eight chapters in, there are still 50,000 pages to go. It is Dickens, after all. The man doesn’t do short – though you’d have to ask Ellen Ternan for the official word on that.

HAHAHAHA! Sorry. Nerd humor.

Paid by the word and long-winded, some dislike him for it. Despite the fact his tangents run to dozens of pages, I adore him. The wonky characters and snarky side-comments, even the sentimental plots, have made him one of my favorite writers ever. His insights into human nature are spot on, still relevant.

That is the definition of classic literature.

My favorites of his novels are: Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House and Great Expectations. I do wish I could time travel back to the Victorian era and destroy all copies of Little Dorrit. It’s like Paul McCartney’s collaboration with Michael Jackson… very bad judgment. Almost reputation ruining, teeth grittingly bad work.

Ah, but the rest of his canon makes up for it.

I wonder how the group will like it. Recently returned after several years’ hiatus (I was an original member back when it was first formed, six or so years ago), I vaguely remember a few aren’t fond of the Victorians. It will behoove me to step up and defend the literature I love best. There are also new members, wild cards. I can’t predict their reactions.

Was Nickleby the best choice to reel in the uncertain? An early novel in his career, it’s nowhere near on par with the titles I love best. A number of film adaptations have been done of it, so it has some staying power.

Fingers crossed I won’t find the response too negative. I can argue points like its length and diversions, but flowery Victorian prose isn’t for everyone.

 

It’s not you, it’s me. Or maybe it’s you,

 

Whole new problem, if I abandon a book begun in 2017, is it cheating to carry on reading it a bit past the New Year with the intent of listing it as a DNF (did not finish, for the uninitiated) for early 2018?

So much dilemma.

 

Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, The Bridge. With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie only has her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. For inside her new home lies a locked room, and beyond that door lies a two-hundred-year-old diary and a deeply unsettling painted wooden figure – a Silent Companion – that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself…

 

Frustratingly, the elements sound fascinating – the execution not so much.

It sounded such a delight I ordered it from the UK, paying international shipping. I hate paying international shipping for new books. They’re such a crap shoot. Classics, yes. Persephone or other reliable-quality editions, of course. Vintage Penguins, certainly!

But books recently published are just plain risky.

Eighty pages in, it’s not gripping me. The writing is loose, there’s no tension, no sense of menace above the barest trace. The haunted house should loom, not feel vaguely creepy in a pedestrian sense. A door closes and locks itself. Woooooo!!!

Not scary.

When I read a gothic, I want to be spooked, half looking back anticipating a cold hand dropping heavily on my shoulder.

I’m left with a dilemma: do I keep going despite its mediocrity, considering I’ve spent the money, or write it off since the money’s gone, anyway, and I can’t recoup it through squandering precious reading time.

One or two more chapters. I’ll give it only that.

The Silent Companions reminds me of overblown books of “gothic horror” like David Mitchell’s Slade House and Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. The two of them were just not scary, yet readers loved them.  Their premises sounded perfect; they didn’t deliver.

WHY ARE THEY SO LOVED.

David Mitchell is capable of brilliance. Audrey Niffenegger, for great ideas with results somewhat lacking. Most writers occasionally drop a dud. Such is the nature of the beast.

Like truly funny books, works of gothic horror are tough genres to nail. They must be perfect, taut as hell, without a single moment’s lapse.

I have not read a truly great work of gothic horror in a very, very long time. One title that springs to mind is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Brilliant book. It’s not white knuckle terrifying, but a very good gothic. A couple others are just on the edge of my memory, elusive. One was about a house with a shifting staircase. Really spooky. I’ll think of it in the middle of the night and hate myself for forgetting it.

 

Forgotten female writers, a love of mine

 

Anne Royall was quite a rebellious woman, indeed. I’ve barely started the book; already I love her for that.

Publishing her first book in 1826 at the age of 57, Royall reinvented herself as a “women politico” a generation before the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She was a pioneering travel writer and satirist who broke ground on the wagon trails a generation before Mark Twain, and an investigative journalist who took on bankers and prison conditions a half century before muckrakers Ida Tarbell and Nellie Bly. She was the author of 10 original books, and publisher of a newspaper in Washington, DC for 25 years until the age of 85.

One of the most famous, sharp-witted and controversial women of her times, Royall was raised in the backwoods of the South but educated herself in one of the great libraries in the region. She openly cohabitated with her husband prior to their wedding, but was then left widowed and destitute after her husband’s family declared their marriage invalid. Turning to writing, Royall acquired fame and then enemies for her scathing and hilarious denouncements of corruption, incompetence and the blurry lines between church and state.

 

Author Jeff Biggers was the inadvertent cause of one of my biggest embarrassments as a newly-minted library programmer. Hiring him to come speak about a previous book about Appalachia as well as the writing process, I was devastated when no one showed.

It certainly wasn’t his fault, not was he upset. Relying on the public to care one whit about literature is precarious. Writers know this.

He stayed a while and talked with me, but I had a hard time getting past the humiliation I wasn’t able to fetch him an actual audience. I took a lot of things much too seriously back then, and I wasn’t as used to hanging out with writers as I am now. I’ve since learned they’re Actual People, not demigods. I love them, but they don’t intimidate me anymore.

Did I tell you about the time I chatted with Salman Rushdie and made him laugh? Because I pretty much tell everyone about that. How about the time former poet laureate Billy Collins left NOT ONE but TWO messages on my home answering machine, regarding an upcoming interview?

I’m slacking if I mention neither of those, at the very least.

His latest is one I’d like to devote serious attention to, not merely skim. I have to put reading time in reserve, as the chances this book will lead me to others is high. I’ll need a lot of note-taking time.

Most definitely a 2018 read.

All the Rest

Not members of my Ethical Reading Dilemma are books I’ve dipped into so superficially I don’t consider I’m technically reading them. Winding up next to or in bed with me, I page through them before I turn off the light. Not in the official reading queue, they’re transitional bedtime rituals.

2018 for sure.

Future Tense: Where am I going; where have I been

I did want to talk more about 2018 formal reading plans before the New Year, but I’m afraid I’ve already flooded you with posts. After a long drought, the dry ground of Bluestalking may not be equipped to absorb so much new blathering.

We all know my 2017 was amazing, that I don’t expect to see its equal again, though I dearly hope I will. Early plans for 2018 – another topic I’ve teased about – are awfully adventurous as well, though perhaps not quite so much as leaving the country for good. Leaving the area, perhaps. In fact, probably.

Don’t ask where… Mum’s the word.

Whatever becomes of me, Bluestalking is on track to change course a bit. My new tagline may be temporary, but gives an idea how I’m going to proceed. I’m not just a reader and writer, I’m also past the strict definition of mid-point in my life (unless I live past 100, and I have no plans to). Living alone and content, having had one wild rollercoaster of a life, I’d like to write more personal posts, keeping the literary slant.

There are not enough blogs written by Women of a Certain Age, not enough that speak frankly about concrete realities of living a solitary life. I’ll also feature more photographs, like I used to long ago. I replaced my DSLR camera, and am retraining myself in how to take decent pictures.

There are still many to share from 2017, as well.

I’m very excited about it all, looking forward to 2018. Thank you to everyone who’s followed me on my journey so far, for all the support and kindness on and off the blog over the past decade plus. I hope you enjoy where I’m taking things in the next stage of my life, that you’ll hop in the backseat and ride along.

Much happiness and health to you in 2018. All my very best.

Lisa

x

a recent reading miscellany: bits & bobs

Books mentioned in this post:

Korakas by Anne Holloway

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

Slade House by David Mitchell

Complicity by Iain Banks

 

2015 ended with a flurry of reading activity, much of it quality stuff. Here’s my very quick re-cap of a few things that didn’t make the Proper Review List from last year:

korakas

Korakas by Anne Holloway

“My mother raised me on fairy stories.” I’d said the line countless times, to countless people. Whenever I was questioned about my birth place, or my father, I would resort to that. “My mother raised me on fairy stories.” An attempt to divert attention from the fact I knew very little at all.”

A tale of paranoia, fear and infatuation laced with Greek legend, Zorakas is the story of a mother and daughter caught under the spell of the same man, separated by 20 years. When Ally’s mother Anna disappears suddenly, her house torn apart as though her departure had been violent and involuntary, the young woman senses immediately she must return to the islands of Greece in order to find her.

Growing up protected from her past and shielded from her mysterious, absent father, Ally witnesses her mother’s very real fear and periodic lapses from sanity. Whatever, and whoever, her father was, she’s aware only of a dark secret her mother goes to extreme lengths to hide. Yet, despite the fear, the islands continue to exert a deep pull on her mother, the islands as well as shadowy stories of crows, dark birds portending ever-present danger lurking. Where she’s gone, and why, must be connected with Ally’s father. She knows this and cannot rest until she’s found her mother, no matter the risk. What she finds is more astonishing than she ever could have dreamed.

 

afteraliceAfter Alice by Gregory Maguire

I am crazy about all things Alice and have been a Gregory Maguire fan since publication of his Wicked. Unsurprisingly, his latest novel is a satisfying romp through Wonderland, taking the story we know, adding an outcast friend of Alice’s who – seeking relief from the misery of her neglectful family and their single-minded attention to her sickly infant brother – follows down the rabbit hole after her.

Then, a young boy and former African American slave from the States,  trophy of a well-intentioned though naive British man who longs to save him from a dark past, escapes accusations of theft and a life of freedom he’s not ready for,  just in time to take the plunge right after the girls.

Though loads of other writers have attempted to follow in Lewis Carroll’s footsteps, few manage it with the skill and grace of Gregory Maguire. I’m wary of books that mess with iconic favorites, avoiding and disdaining nearly all sequels and prequels and fan fiction but this one’s earned my hard-won seal of approval – though not without small reservations.

While it’s true he flirts with the line of political correctness, choosing new characters who are, one: handicapped and two: of color, I got beyond his obvious need to showcase his own inclusivity, though barely.  If I didn’t think about it too closely, consciously not noticing these two new characters are held apart from white, middle class, iconic Alice in a way that screamed LOOK HOW DIVERSE I AM, the story worked. Mostly.

Maguire’s insertion into the story is, if not flawless, at least largely graceful. There are ripples, imperfect moments reminding the reader this is a mere riff on the masterpiece but my love of Wonderland and yearning to have more of it got the better of my curmudgeonly nature.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for Alice.

Slade House by David Mitchell

I’m less enthused about David Mitchell’s most recent book Slade House, a novel that promises much more gothic yumminess than it delivers. Twins Norah and Jonah Grayer live a fiendishly parasitic life, presiding over eerie, amorphous Slade House through the course of several decades. People start disappearing from modern-day London, then a pattern emerges it takes years to identify.  Once the truth is discovered, then accepted as oddly plausible reality, It’s a race against the clock disrupting the tyranny of the supernaturally evil pair.

Clever premise and above-average writing granted, the story doesn’t quite crack David Mitchell quality. I’m a  hair-splitter, what can I say? To whom much talent is given, much is expected and I expected one hell of a lot from Mitchell. Readers unaware how much genius he’s capable of bringing to the table would find much to love here. For me, it was a bit meh.

I do give him full credit for the core, the basic premise involving evil twins with a need to use common people as a means to their own diabolical ends. It’s a good device on which to build a story. The setting’s grand, a wonderfully gothic home that’s there but not there. Where it loses it irretrievably is when Mitchell goes into a very long-winded backstory explanation as to what’s happening and why.  If he’d found another route to achieve the same end it could have saved the book.

As it is, the story bloats. And when a story bloats, attention lags. It’s almost as if Mitchell was in a rush to finish, taking the curious action of writing too much instead of honing,  A pity. I’d looked forward to this one from the moment I read the first reviews, only to be let down ultimately.

Complicity by Iain Banks

Iain Banks’ 2013 death from cancer at age 59 sent his friend and fellow writer Ian Rankin into a tailspin, prompting his temporary retirement from writing while he took time off for a good, long think about life, death and the meaning of it all. Not the first of his friends to die far too young, the loss of Iain Banks hit hard.

Though I’ve long known about Banks’ reputation as a fine storyteller, as well as his grim masterwork The Wasp Factory, I hadn’t read anything of his previous to Complicity. And it’s true knowing how his death affected Ian Rankin brought the other Iain’s works to the fore for me, reminding me this was an author who’d been on my list a good while. While in Edinburgh for the Book Festival, I saw Complicity on the shelf and grabbed it.

The story is deliciously dark. Main character Cameron Colley is a reporter with a drug habit and not the best moral compasss. A man willing to have an affair with the wife of a friend, as well as bend the rules a bit when it comes to getting the scoop on a good story, Cameron finds himself the main contact person for a mysterious man who knows things about a string of murders happening to several high profile, politically well-connected men.

Who’s on the other end of the phone, feeding him bits of information in a synthesized voice? Why Cameron and is he capable of figuring it all out before the killer strikes again?

As he races to connect the dots, the murders continue. When his connection to the crimes and coincidental proximity at all the wrong times becomes suspicious, suddenly the tables turn. Prime informant becomes prime suspect in a darkly twisted story of delayed revenge.

And the writing? Perfect. It’s tight, tense and does the sex thing well. Yes, I’ll add more Iain Banks to my queue.

Now I’ve done a bit more justice to 2015, I feel better. Still not at 100% but closer. Embroiled in 2016’s reading, last year’s is still somewhat fresh in my memory. Actually, a lot of it’s literally in my bed. Literally.

More to come, including Ian Rankin, Rick Moody, Edwidge Danticat (I have an interview with her in my queue) and others. It’s trickling out but slowly, like a pipe that could use a good routing. Having given you that mental image, I am off to, guess what, read.