It’s not that I haven’t been reading. In fact, in the last couple of weeks I reread all three novels in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, which is, cumulatively, over 900 pages. This is because I’m going to be writing up something about them for the TLS to mark the nice new reissues by Windmill Books. What exactly I’m going to say is something I’m still working out: the problem is not too few ideas but too many, given what strange and fascinating and provoking books these are. But because I have a formal writing project to do about them, I won’t be adding anything about them here. (I blogged about the whole batch years ago when I first read them, and I also reviewed Deirdre David’s outstanding biography of Manning for Open Letters Monthly.) Also for a review, I read The Appraisal and Deceptions by Anna Porter, two mystery/thrillers set in the very fascinating (under)world of buying and selling fine art masterpieces. My review will be out in Canadian Notes & Queries soon: the tl;dr version (though it’s actually quite a short review anyway!) is that they are good and have real historical and moral depth behind the genre-fiction surface, especially through the way their stories reach back to Hungary’s fascist and Soviet-dominated past. My mother kindly just shipped me her copy of Porter’s memoir The Storyteller, apparently out of print now, which I am looking forward to reading.
I’ve done some other reading “just” for myself and it’s really here that I’ve felt that things are not going so smoothly. The books have been fine. Well, two of them have been fine: Jo Baker’s The Body Lies and Kate Clayborn’s Love At First. Baker’s is the next one we’ll be discussing in my book club: because we are all tired, stressed, and distracted, people wanted something plotty, and I took on the job of rounding up some crime fiction options that looked like they would also be “literary” enough for us to have something to talk about. I think we chose reasonably well with The Body Lies: it purports to be a novel about both violence against women and about how that violence is treated in so much crime fiction, meaning it has a metafictional aspect that adds interest beyond the novel’s own story. I finished it quickly, because I found it quite engrossing, so that’s a good sign in a way–but I also finished it unconvinced that it had avoided the trap of reproducing the things it aims to critique. I read it too soon, as we won’t be meeting up for a while, so I’ll have to reread at least part of it before our discussion to refresh my grasp of the particulars: I’ll come to that rereading with this question top of mind.
I was really excited for the release of Love At First because I am a big fan of Clayborn’s previous novels: they are in the relatively small cluster of romance novels that I have appreciated more the more often I reread them (which in this case has been quite frequently), because she packs a lot into them. That complexity, which can make them seem a bit cluttered at first, turns out (for me at least) to give them more layers and more interest than I often find in recent examples of the genre, which are either too thin and formulaic to sustain my interest or try too obviously to check off too many boxes, making them read like they were designed by focus groups, rather than emerging in any way organically. I really enjoy the intense specificity of her characters and their lives, including their work, which she pays a lot of attention to (yay, neepery). I feel a bit deflated by Love At First, because it seemed – while both very sweet and very competently written and structured – a lot less interesting and a lot less intense than the others. For the first time reading Clayborn, I felt I was reading something almost generic: the story goes through the motions rather than jumping off the page. I’ll reread it eventually: maybe I will find more in it then. I did like it! But I had hoped to really love it, and I didn’t–at least not at first. 🙂
And speaking of books I don’t love, I have stalled half way through Kate Weinberg’s The Truants. It showed up on my radar around the same time I was looking into The Body Lies and they seemed so well paired that I ordered them both at the same time. Now I wonder what got into me: I started, hated, and quickly abandoned Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and everything about The Truants (including many of the blurbs!) signals that it is in the same vein. There’s nothing wrong with it qua book; it seems deft and clever and (like The Body Lies, but in a different way) it is also aiming at something metafictional through its engagement with Agatha Christie and ideas about how crime fiction works. But I can’t stand academic stories that turn on cults of personality around professors, which are creepy and and antithetical to everything I believe about teaching, not to mention about student-teacher relationships (hello, Dead Poets Society, which once upon a time I found enthralling but now consider kind of appalling). Also, while I try not to hold academic settings up to reductive standards of realism — and I’m also aware that I don’t understand the British system being portrayed very well, so I can’t actually be sure if I’m right when my reaction is “but this isn’t what we do!” — it gets distracting when the scenarios seem too far off. I have not so far managed to get genuinely interested in any of the characters, which means I keep not picking the book up to read further, which in turn means I’m also not picking up anything else because I feel as if I should finish it first. That’s a foolish “should,” I know, though I am by habit and on principle someone who does mostly try to finish the books I start, in case they get better or I figure out how to read them, both things that have happened often enough to make me hesitant to toss things aside. I’m not going to toss this one aside, or at any rate I’m not going to put it in my malingering “donate” stack (how I wish the book sale was once again able to accept donations, as this stack is getting kind of large!). Instead, I’m going to put it back on my Mysteries shelf and try it again another time.
I think I need to read something richer and more challenging to turn things around — and to do that I need to stop making excuses about distractions or poor concentration. Reading, including reading well, is a decision we can make, I honestly think, and it’s not just that I feel disappointed in myself when I’m not doing it; it’s also that my life overall feels worse without it. One of my favorite quotations is from Carol Shields’ wonderful novel Unless: “This is why I read novels: so I can escape my own unrelenting monologue.” My current unrelenting monologue (like most people’s these days, I expect) is not a particularly sustaining one: I need reading to give me other stories to think about. I need blogging for the same reason, I find: it is still the only writing I do that feels genuinely my own. This is not by way of making some kind of bold resolution about either reading or blogging, but it actually helps just putting into words why I hope I will be doing more of both.
I laughed out loud at what you said about academic stories that turn on cults of personality around professors.
Now I’m going to have to read Unless, because I love that quotation. You’ve expressed what I feel about reading and writing, how necessary it is to have some fiction in my brain to fortify me for each day and how it’s become almost as necessary to write about what I’m reading so that I think about it in more detail.
Unless is a novel that over time has become more and more a favorite of mine. It is about so much, but with such delicacy, tinged with acidity. I think you will appreciate it!
Hear, hear to everything you said about reading and blogging. *thumps table parliamentarian-style*
Really taken with this post, Rohan. (And that’s even setting aside the morsel about that TLS piece–I will drop my policy of reading issues in order when that one shows up! How exciting!) I was taken by your idea about making decisions about reading, especially about the idea of aiming for richness. Too often I go for volume, especially when I have all these library holds lying around and feel pressured to read them. And blogging as writing that is one’s own–that’s a lovely sentiment. I am also now interested in UNLESS. Can you believe I’ve never read Carol Shields?
Those Anna Porters seem like they could be just my thing. I hope you’ll write a little something about THE STORYTELLER when you read it.
How have you not read UNLESS yet? I’ve sung its praises here so often. 🙂
Ha! Just put it on hold!
It’s a novel that underwhelmed me the first time I read it (it’s fairly understated) and then has grown on me a lot. I have taught it a couple of times, too, and as so often happens, that made me like it even more because I had to think more about how its form and its ideas connect. I wrote about it for The Reader a couple of years ago: if you want, when you’ve read it, I can send the essay to you – it’s not available online AFAIK. (Never mind – I realize belatedly that I posted it here myself as a PDF, under ‘Essays & Reviews’).
“It’s not just that I feel disappointed in myself when I’m not doing it; it’s also that my life overall feels worse without it.” <- I loved how you put this! There are hobbies that can begin to feel like obligations and when I lament not reading, it can look like that's what's happening. It's not that I feel I should be reading though, but that I feel my life is less rich without it.
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