Recent Reading Update

Blog evidence to the contrary, I have in fact been doing some reading besides that for my classes. Since The Last Samurai, there hasn’t been anything that really excited me, and between that and the usual late-term mental exhaustion, I just haven’t felt that motivated to write anything up in detail. Here’s a quick run-through of what I’ve been reading.

I did enjoy Jane Gardam’s The Queen of the Tambourine, if “enjoy” is the right word for a book that is really quite sad, as well as occasionally disturbing. It’s the story of Eliza Peabody’s journey through a mental breakdown, told all in her letters to a departed neighbor…sort of. The novel thrives on uncertainty about what is real and what are Eliza’s delusional (or compensatory) imaginings. Even as much of the story proves unreliable, Gardam manages effectively and poignantly to make Eliza’s emotions real and vivid, and to balance the pathos of her situation with comedy.

I had high hopes of Laila Lalami’s Secret Son, because I admired Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits a lot, but I found it a somewhat disappointing read. It’s a thematically and politically interesting and carefully structured book, but the language felt stilted and often even cliched, and as a result I never became very engaged.

I have been urging Maddie to read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for ages, and one night I decided I should leave her alone (she’s busy enough reading her way through the novels of Jacqueline Wilson) and revisit it myself. The story of the brother and sister hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum is still a delightful fantasy to me (the “period” rooms in the museum are my favorite parts and I love the idea of camping out there!), but this time I was less caught up in those specifics than in the sense that the book is really about a different kind of quest-as the author says in her afterword, “the greatest adventure lies not in running away but in looking inside, and the greatest discovery is not in finding out who made a statue but in finding out what makes you.”  I wonder what it means that I often feel closest to finding this out when I am “away,” including when I’m in New York.

I’ve continued my adventures in contemporary romance with some more Jennifer Crusie titles, including Welcome to Temptation and Bet Me. I found Welcome to Temptation a bit too zany, but I quite enjoyed Bet Me. I don’t mean to condescend to the genre when I say that for me, the appeal I can see is that it doesn’t demand to be taken very seriously, and indeed these titles are quite conspicuously light-hearted. Especially when the books I’m reading for work are not that at all, it’s actually nice to have something to pick up in between that makes me laugh.

Now I’m reading Mr. Golightly’s Holiday for those in-between times, along with Mollie Gloss’s Wild Life, which is this month’s selection for the Slaves of Golconda reading group. I felt bad that I didn’t get through last month’s choice, Anabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean: I just wasn’t interested in it, and it’s hard, with so many books around, to make one a priority that isn’t otherwise a priority for me. I admit I’m feeling the same about Wild Life, that it’s not a book I would otherwise be reading–and I also feel that about The Paris Wife, which my local reading group settled on for this month. I have books stacked up that I’m more interested in! But then, one of the points of belonging to a reading group is that it pushes you outside your usual reading habits, which if unchallenged can actual be limits, and may prevent the discovery of new pleasures. So I will finish these, I swear! One thing I do like about Wild Life so far is its West Coast setting: it reminds me of big trees and blue mountains, and a little bit of one of my favorite meta-historical novels, Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic…except that Wild Life, as I understand it, is going to take its fantasy in a different direction, one that I fear is going to involve something like Big Foot…

And in the meantime reading for work continues. This week we begin North and South in my 19th-century fiction class, which I’m looking forward to, and in Mystery and Detective Fiction we are moving on to Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only and then our last book of the term, Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, while in the Victorian ‘Woman Question’ we have just The Odd Women left. It’s amazing how fast the term goes by! Reading will actually be the least of my problems this week, as I get in 70 midterms and 20 paper proposals on Monday, followed promptly by 40 essays on Wednesday. Egad! I should really do something frivolous today, as it will be my last chance to play for a while.


3 thoughts on “Recent Reading Update

  1. Liz Mc2 November 20, 2011 / 9:38 pm

    You are reading so many books I love in your classes!

    I know what you mean about romance not asking to be, or not insisting on being, taken seriously. And yet, for it to work really well as that kind of light-hearted escape, I think the author has to take her craft very seriously indeed, as Crusie does. It’s a paradox of genre fiction I find intriguing. The labor has to be hidden from us (kind of how I feel about watching Roger Federer play tennis; he makes it look effortless).

  2. Danielle November 27, 2011 / 4:36 pm

    I recently read North and South and Loved it. I do hope you’ll write about it at some point! And I felt pretty much the same way about the Gloss book. It took me much longer to get through it than I expected and probably because I was feeling fidgety to be reading something else. I liked it but sort of not, too. You definitely need to let go of reality for the last third of the book or so. I’m very curious to hear what everyone else thinks of it.

  3. Rohan November 27, 2011 / 9:28 pm

    It’s funny, Danielle: I had the feeling that I must have written several times about North and South here before, because I teach it so regularly, but only post I can find that addresses it in any detail is this old teaching one from 2009. Maybe I’ll manage to say a bit more about it this week.

    It’s going to be a real struggle for me to get to the end of the Gloss book. I have picked up the impression that some others in the group have quite liked it. I’m quite prepared to blame myself, but whatever the reason, it is just not working for me. I might not post on it until after the discussion, which will certainly help me see it from other perspectives at least.

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