BTT: Winter Reading

btt2The northern hemisphere, at least, is socked in by winter right now… So, on a cold, wintry day, when you want nothing more than to curl up with a good book on the couch … what kind of reading do you want to do?

Atlanta winters tend to be mild, but we still get our share of cold, grey days like today. I am too whimsical of a reader to be affected much by something like the weather in my actual habits, but I admit that mentally I tend to gravitate toward works with heavier subject matter or darker atmospheres. Last February I read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, and for me it was the perfect book for curling up and escaping the winter doldrums. I loved the magic, the dark story, the idea of London, the cold country houses with roaring fires. Everything fit. This winter I am again reading books set in England, both fiction and non-fiction: The Children’s Book, A Great and Terrible Beauty, and Victorian London: The Tale of a City 1840-1870. I am hoping to get to The Moonstone before the trees bloom and the days get long as well, because something about a Victorian mystery just seems to lend itself to a dark, rainy day.

How about you: do you like a dark, Gothic tale or a suspenseful mystery on a cold day, or do you gravitate toward books with a light atmosphere that take you somewhere warm and sunny? Happy Thursday!

Note: I welcome all BTT participants and your comments, if you have something interesting to offer in response to this post. Please do not leave a generic comment simply so you can post your own link. All participant links can be found at the Booking Through Thursday site. Thanks!

BTT: Twisted

btt21. Do YOU like books with complicated plots and unexpected endings? 2. What book with a surprise ending is your favorite? Or your least favorite?

In general, I enjoy complicated plots all by themselves, surprise endings or no, as long as they feel organic to the story. I also enjoy surprise endings, but again only when they feel organic to the story. The trick is that the characters in the book must be as shocked by what’s happening as the reader is–when that happens in the hands of a skillful writer, it’s magic. At the moment, I can’t think of a least favorite book with both features, but I’ve read three books I loved in the last few years that fit the bill: Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters; Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane; and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. I’ve also started Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking Trilogy, and that seems to be a part of this group as well. And now that I think about it, another book I just read, The Dart League King,  had a rather surprise ending, more of a quiet shock than a gut-punch, but it left me a little stunned, nonetheless.

Update: I did think of a book I enjoyed that had a twist at the end that upset me: Bel Canto. I suppose I should have seen it coming, given the circumstances, but I didn’t like the ending. Not at all.

This is yet another topic where I hope to find some great recommendations. Happy Thursday!

Note: I welcome all BTT participants and your comments, if you have something interesting to offer in response to this post. Please do not leave a generic comment simply so you can post your own link. All participant links can be found at the Booking Through Thursday site. Thanks!

BTT: You Want Me to Read Who?

btt2Who’s your favorite author that other people are NOT reading? The one you want to evangelize for, the one you would run popularity campaigns for? The author that, so far as you’re concerned, everyone should be reading–but that nobody seems to have heard of. You know, not JK Rowling, not Jane Austen, not Hemingway–everybody’s heard of them. The author that you think should be that famous and can’t understand why they’re not…

In general, I would like to see people read more short story collections. As far as authors go, my first pick is Raymond Carver. I was hoping especially that with the new Carver biography and the endorsement of a popular author like Stephen King, he would get more attention. Writers revere him, but he deserves a broader audience because he’s more than just a “writer’s writer.” He’s also an interesting study in the (sometimes harmful) influence an editor can have on an author’s work. I would suggest picking up the new Collected Stories.

Another author I have long admired and rarely see discussed on blogs is Antonya Nelson, who writes both short fiction and novels. Her collection Female Trouble is well-written, entertaining, insightful and accessible. As her novels go, I’d recommend Nobody’s Girl.

Tim O’Brien is another wonderful author who doesn’t seem to get his due. The Things They Carried should make every “Best Book of the Twentieth Century” list there is. It is one of the most telling books about war, and it reveals more than any documentary could hope to about the personal side of military conflict.

And finally, I’ve plugged it before and it can’t hurt to plug it again: Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever, which is both sad and wonderful.

I am off to find new authors for my TBR based on everyone’s suggestions. Happy Thursday!

Note: I welcome all BTT participants and your comments, if you have something interesting to offer in response to this post. Please do not leave a generic comment simply so you can post your own link. All participant links can be found at the Booking Through Thursday site. Thanks!

BTT: Gifts

btt2What books did you get for Christmas (or whichever holiday you may have celebrated last month)? Do you usually ask for books on gift-giving occasions or do you prefer to buy them yourself?

On gift-giving occasions, I do ask for books more than anything, because I don’t have to worry about fit, color, or exchanges. I use the Amazon Wishlist function, and it works well because I can put a whole mess of books on the list and let people choose, so whatever I get is still a surprise (unless I were to peek, which I do not). I admit that my list has been smaller this past year, though, because I am trying (but not totally succeeding) not to accumulate too much stuff.

I could not wait to post my loot this year–click here to see what I got!

Happy Thursday! They are saying it will snow in Atlanta today. I have my fingers crossed! We rarely see snow.

BTT: Need for Speed

btt2What do you think of speed-reading? Is it a good way to get through a lot of books, or does the speed-reader miss depth and nuance? Do you speed-read? Is some material better suited to speed-reading than others?

This is a timely topic, because I’ve been thinking a lot about reading. I recently read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, where she reminds us how very important it is to devote attention not just to the story or the plot, but the actual words on the page. She writes:

“With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.”

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, also laments the fact that fans seem to pay so little attention to the actual written words. He tells a story about talking to some fellow writers about questions they never get to answer at readings in front of “author struck fans.” It’s Amy Tan (author of The Joy Luck Club, among other books) who says to him, “No one ever asks about the language.” King says:

“[Amy] was right. Nobody ever asks about the language. They ask the DeLillos and the Updikes and the Styrons, but they don’t ask popular novelists, yet many of us proles care also about the language in our humble way, and care passionately about the art and craft of telling stories on paper…it’s about the day job, it’s about the language.”

All of this strikes me as interesting because it seems like there are many readers out there who fall into this bucket of reading without giving language a thought. I suppose I believe that speed-readers would definitely fall into this category. To me, their objective is only to finish the book. While they might be entertained by the story and even grasp some of the nuances of plot, I doubt they grasp subtle turns of phrase, or even slow down long enough to enjoy lyrical prose. Many people read books as though they are eating Doritos out of the bag: they are yummy, but the consumption is rote. Nothing is savored. It is simply consumed.

There is a difference between reading for language and reading to have an opinion, also, and it’s sometimes easy to forget. Prose talks about students in an MFA program she taught years ago, shocked at the trouble they had reading the material for class:

“…it took me years to notice how much trouble they had in reading a fairly simple short story. Almost simultaneously, I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight centuries before they were born. They had been instructed to prosecute or defend these authors, as if in a court of law…”

All that said, I think speed-reading is great for reading things like textbooks, where what matters is memorizing or understanding content. For example, speed reading is probably great for a law student, who has a great deal of material to cover in a semester. (I was also going to say it may be great for reading things like Harlequin romances, but thinking about Stephen King’s comment, I am reluctant to say so.) But I don’t think it’s ideal for reading any work–poetry, fiction, memoir, biography, or other non-fiction–where the author has put a great deal of time into the language and the construction of a narrative. In the end, I suppose the reader’s goal is the determining factor.

BTT: Bookmarks

btt2What items have you ever used as a bookmark? What is the most unusual item you’ve ever used or seen used?

I think if you are adamant about using bookmarks (as I am), at one time or another you’ve used anything you could find that wouldn’t mark or damage a book. I’ve used metal bookmarks, cloth bookmarks, crocheted bookmarks, free paper bookmarks from bookstores (I still have many of these, some from the late 80s), folded pieces of paper, envelopes, greeting cards, postcards, receipts, bills, napkins, pens. I guess the strangest thing I have seen used as a bookmark is a golf tee…really not that strange, when it comes right down to it. Readers do what they have to do!

One other thing: if you borrow a book from me, it will come with a bookmark already in place.

Happy Thursday!

BTT: Participation

btt2What’s your favorite part of Booking Through Thursday? Why do you participate (or not)?

I started participating because I enjoyed reading the questions and answers on other people’s blogs. It’s a fun way to get to know each other a little bit better every week. I try to visit everyone who posts, even if I don’t comment on every blog. I never know when someone’s answer will introduce me to a new author, or make me think about something familiar in a new way.

BTT: Posterity

btt2Do you think any current author is of the same caliber as Dickens, Austen, Bronte, or any of the classic authors? If so, who, and why do you think so? If not, why not? What books from this era might be read 100 years from now?

That is a terrific question, but also a tough one. For one thing, consider the marketplace: how many more books are there from which to choose? How do we really know what might stand the test of time? Things shift so rapidly, it seems, that I almost feel that the question is unanswerable. To answer it, I would have to assume that the world is the same place 100 years from now that it is today, that our values are the same. We know how many artists we now revere struggled in their own times. Was it only luck that they were plucked out of history, that we now consider them classics?

I realize I am not really answering the question. Everything being equal, I would hope that people are still reading today’s authors. My list is unfortunately not very global. Looks like I need to broaden my horizons a bit. *cringe* Anyway, here are my picks:

My safeties:

  • For one, I think John Updike is not only a terrific storyteller, but that he deals with life questions and human character in a way that makes his work timeless (if I may be so bold). I’ll say the Rabbit books, but especially Rabbit, Run will still be read.
  • I would pick a few from Philip Roth, probably later works: American Pastoral and The Human Stain.
  • Toni Morrison would be a serious contender, I think, because of her style, but also because of her invaluable view of history through fiction. I think Beloved is a serious contender.
  • Hm…Cormac McCarthy, because his stories really transcend time. They are more like parables.
  • Flannery O’Connor, because she is a master of Southern Gothic and of the short story in general.

All these seem kind of obvious, though, so here are some of my less conventional picks:

  • Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, which is such a wonderful story, an a terrific vision of the American West.
  • Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, because it’s a human story of war.
  • Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, because it displays (in a classic way) all the vulgarity of America in the 1980s.
  • Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, because I believe it will still be relevant in 100 years and it shows the danger of sublimating cultures through colonization. (Actually, this should maybe be on the safety list.)
  • Margaret Atwood, both The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye. This maybe should be under the safeties, but you never know…
  • Michael Chabon, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, because it is a terrific, timeless story.
  • Haruki Murakami, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. This is a gut choice…I just think it’s worthy!
  • Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose or The Island of the Day Before. I hope he hangs on in a Lawrence Sterne way (What? What do you mean everybody doesn’t still read Tristram Shandy?), especially because his stories work so well.

I could go on. We have so many “best of” lists these days and so many prizes, so many authorities making declarations, I can’t imagine how people will parse through all the information, some of it commercial, some of it critical, to decide.

Update: I’ve been thinking about this all day: I created this list with the idea of “all things being equal” 100 years from now. I created it for fun, but I realize that it’s still a very Western list. I know in the last thirty years or so, scholars have worked to open up the canon to include more women and persons of different races and nationalities, but I think it’s important to remember, the canon has remained largely Western, and created by Western scholars. The most interesting thing that will influence literature as we know it in the next 100 years will be the rise of China and India, and that rise may bring more non-Western scholars to the table, so that the canon becomes something truly global, and not a Western canon that determines what “others” might participate.

What are your picks?

BTT: Biography or Autobiography?

btt2Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?

I think it depends on the person, but because this is a book blog, after all, I’ll stick with author biographies/autobiographies and go with the totally lame answer of both. I like the scholarly distance of biographies, but I enjoy the first-hand account of “what really happened” (or, more aptly, “what I was really thinking, or at least what I am going to tell you I was thinking”). Reading both, we get a complete picture, even of the inconsistencies that make people so interesting.

Booking Through Thursday: Blurbs

btt2Suggested by Jenny’s Books:

Something I’ve been thinking about lately: “What words/phrases in a blurb make a book irresistible? What words/phrases will make you put the book back down immediately?”

Warning: Over-analysis ahead.

I was thinking about a very similar topic yesterday, and I considered discussing it in a Sunday Salon, but here’s my chance! Actually, I was thinking specifically about asking, “Has a blurb from an author ever caused you to avoid or buy a book?” For example, on the cover of A Reliable Wife, there’s a blurb from Sara Gruen, who wrote Water for Elephants: “Astonishing, complex, beautifully written,and brilliant.” I found this book online, put it on a wish list, and received it as a birthday gift. I never saw the, uh, “endorsement blurb.” Most likely, if I had, it probably wouldn’t have mattered one way or another. I liked Water for Elephants, but I didn’t love it. Sorry, Sara Gruen, and no offense, but your blurb would not make me buy the book.

Now, if a book had a blurb from Lorrie Moore or Richard Russo or Sarah Waters, I might buy it. But I would probably already be picking up the book for other reasons: a review, the author, or even the title. Once I pick up the book (or look it up online), then yes, I base the decision on the blurb–not the author endorsement blurb, mind you, but the “what the book is about blurb,” also known as the publisher’s description. The truth is, you can’t see the author endorsements online, unless the site takes the time to add them to the page. I chose A Reliable Wife because the description was intriguing, and I liked the cover (and to be honest, I think those things happened in reverse order–I liked the cover, and then I read the description).

But to answer Jenny’s question, I am not sure that there are any words or phrases that would make me pick something up or put it down, except maybe “Jodi Picoult (or Stephanie Meyer) loves this book!” But really, that would not be fair, either; just because I don’t like their writing doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate good books, and endorse them as such, right?

ReliableWifeI decided to look back at the description in the book jacket of A Reliable Wife and see if I could spot the exact phrase that drew me in, and here it is: “Set just after the turn of the twentieth century…” I’ve been very interested in anything set between 1890 and just after 1945, so that definitely drew me in. But it was the first sentence of the third paragraph of the description, so I was already interested. I suppose, though, that the phrase “Set just after the turn of the twentieth century…” did cinch the deal.

Sorry to go on, but when I started thinking about this yesterday, I realized how very difficult this all must be for authors. They don’t write their own descriptions, they don’t design their own covers, and generally for the endorsement blurb, they have to go with whoever says “yes” to their request. I know that part for a fact, because back when I was in school, I remember one of my professors, Lee Martin (who wrote The Bright Forever, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and is a beautiful book, please please read it!) talking about being rejected by authors when he’d requested a blurb or a forward. Even though he managed to score Amy Bloom to write the forward to his story collection, I think the sting of rejection from other authors still hurt, even if it had nothing to do with his writing, but was simply a factor of time or just plain laziness or self-interest.

And for all that, do we really follow the blurb? Or do we listen to each other? I can’t wait to read everyone’s answers, because I also wonder how much the blurb-factor will change (has changed?) with the advent of e-books and self-publishing. Sorry to hijack your question, Jenny, but it was a good one!