opinions · reading life

Shut Up and Listen; Or, Having Bookish Guts

There are books that I describe as “deserve to be widely read.” I hate to do this. It just reminds me that these books will most likely be read by the people who are already kind on board with their message and ignored or denigrated by people who need to shut up and listen. That last bit of wisdom comes from a faculty member I was talking books with earlier today. This professor was talking about reading I Can’t Breathe, by Matt Taibbi, with her reading group, who focus on books about social issues.

(c) South Ayrshire Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
A.C.W. Duncan

I wish that my university would pick something like I Can’t Breathe as its freshman read. I think up until now, they’ve chosen books that cover important issues but that are about something that it’s possible for American readers to distance themselves from. These books, like Three Cups of Tea, end up reminding students that they’re lucky to be born in American. I would like to read gutsy books along with these students. I know it won’t be fun. It will be downright uncomfortable. We’ll get angry. We’ll get upset. But that’s what a great book about injustice should do. (And there’s a lot of injustice out there.)

I’m generally against required reading of books that aren’t enjoyable. And I understand why schools don’t pick uncomfortable. Three years ago, Duke University got in hot water when they picked Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. But I think the occasional uncomfortable, angering book is good for us. It’s even better when we have people to talk about it with. Reading books like I Can’t Breathe alone can make us feel helpless as well as angry. If we read it with a bunch of other angry people, after we all shut up and listen to people who aren’t being heard, we can make some changes. We can vote and make a difference.

And it can all start with an uncomfortable book we have to read. Someone just has to be brave enough to assign the book. After all, these books deserve it.

opinions · reading life

Diamonds in the Rough; Or, Finding Great Reads in Generic Dross

A fellow bookish blogger, Smithereens, asked me a question about whether or not sue should read a particular book in a super-saturated genre. That question got me to thinking about what does make a book a stand out from the crowd when there are a bajillion examples of the genre all over the market.

Isaac Israel

Saturated genre markets are not unusual. Someone creates a winner—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneThe Da Vinci Code; any number of supernatural romances; and, in the case of Smithereens’ question, the mind-boggling number of dystopias currently crowding bookstore shelves—and then the Big Five publishers start cranking out readalikes until people get bored of them and move on to the next big read. This isn’t to say that all the clones are not worthwhile. There are good books in any heap. The problem is that, the more books there are in a genre, the harder it is to find the really good ones. Hence my question. So, I thought of some things to look for to find the goods ones:

  1. Look for roundups of the best examples of a particular genre on the big bookish sites like Book Riot, LitHub, or other source that has similar tastes to you. I prefer sites that provide at least little blurbs to explain why the books are particularly good type specimens.
  2. Read reviews of books that catch your eye and look for hints that the book does something different from the usual fare:
    1. Look for a protagonist who does not look like the usual type.
    2. Look for language that amounts to “twist on the usual.” For me, the stand outs in any saturated genre are the ones that play around with expectations. They’ll flip genders, mash up genres, age up the protagonist, avoid the tropes, etc.
    3. Avoid any books in which the review mentions any of the specific genre’s tropes or that refer to books as undeveloped, uneven, or unexceptional.
  3. Find another reader you trust who reads a particular genre and ask.
    1. Book Riot runs a very good podcast for book recommendations called Get Booked. The women who host the show have access to the massive Book Riot contributor community for when they get stumped.
    2. Joelendil added in the comments: “in my experience blurbs that directly compare their book to the premier book that popularized the sub-genre tend to be painfully generic at best. For me, ‘Fans of LOTR will love this…’ is a big red warning flag even though LOTR is my all time favorite fiction.” Thanks for the addition!
  4. This is similar to 3, but look for authors who’ve won awards in your target genre if there is one. You can often find genre awards by googling. I know there are awards for science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, historical fiction, and romance.

Good luck out there, readers! And thanks for Smithereens for the idea.

Edited to add 3.2, courtesy of Joelendil.

reading life

A Bookish Confession

Ariel Zeitlin recently posted for Reader’s Digest a list of 10 books* people lie about reading. There are a lot of these lists around the internet, all more or less supported by actual data, but I’m not bothered about their accuracy. Instead, seeing these lists reminds me of a bookishly naughty thing I did twenty some odd years ago.

Marguerite Gérard

When I was in high school before the turn of the millennium, I was taking my first foray into an honors course: English. (My second foray, in history, was less successful—partly because my teacher insisted on pronouncing the name of the famous Polish astronomer as Copper-nick-us.) During the fall semester, our teacher gave us the option of reading either Pride & Prejudice or FrankensteinI had already read Pride & Prejudice, but I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to read it again. But then, for some reason that is lost to the cluttered recesses of my memory, I chose to write a paper about Frankenstein.

I don’t know what the topic of the paper was. What I do remember is that I got an A. For a book I didn’t read. The story of Frankenstein’s monster had apparently permeated my little corner of the zeitgeist for me to cogently write about it.

Mea culpa.

I ended up reading Frankenstein later, in college. When I finally read the book, hyped up by expectations fueled by monster movies, I hated it. I was bored as pants. So much philosophizing! So much Romantic moodiness! So little action! In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t read the book in high school when I wrote that paper. Who knows what I would have come up with?

• I’ve read all but two of the books on this list. Really.

reading life

A Bookish Buddhist Koan

Even though the proverb, “No man crosses the same river twice,” is attributed to Heraclitus, it has always struck me in the same way as Buddhist kōan. The proverb invites the same kind of mulling-over that kōan’s require. Recently, I saw a new twist on the old saying: no readers read the same book. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Albert André

I shouldn’t be surprised at how much I like this new bookish kōan. After all, I spent years hanging out with English majors and professors. We can argue about the meaning of one sentence for ages. Even now that I’m a librarian and have much less contact with English majors (and how I miss it!*), I still see people disagreeing about the meaning of various sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books.

Even though we’re all reading the same text, word for word, we all bring our own experiences to bear. We’ve read different books. We’ve seen different movies. We’ve talked to all sorts of people. All of that means that, in spite of the fact that we are reading the same words in the same order, no one is really reading the same story. Our experiences lead us to interpret what’s happening differently.

I will argue that this is a good thing. The fact that we’re not reading the same story means that, when we get together to talk about books, we can learn from each other. My interpretation is not 100% correct. Good stories, after all, will have so many layers of meaning that we will never get to the bottom of things. There are reasons why scholars still write about Hamlet and there is a book club that reads Ulysses over and over again. When I listen to other readers talk about books I’ve read, I learn more about those endless layers.

Not only do readers not read the same story though we read the same books, I will go farther and say that even if a reader re-reads a book, they’re not reading the same story again either. A few years ago, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and was pleasantly surprised that, this time around, I saw so much more in the book. If I read it again in another decade, I wonder what I will see then.

* No, really.

opinions · reading life

So Many Books, So Little Time; Or, Why I Need Bad Book Reviews

I’ve been thinking about something Evelyn Goldman posted to her book blog weeks ago. In her post, “A Review of Reviews,” she writes that posting negative reviews about books makes her feel guilty. I can understand the feeling. Like Goldman, I too recognize the work that went into a book. Authors can labor for years and face countless rejections before their work is published. It seems like we book reviewers are taking potshots at their children from the safety of our position as readers. But…I like seeing negative reviews. I actually need them.

Beatrix Whistler

Being a librarian and a voracious reader besides, I need to know as much as possible about what’s being published. But because I don’t have an infinite budget (either at work or personally), I can’t afford to take a chance on duds or offensively bad books. I want books that will challenge readers (like Dream Country), entertain readers (like The Nutmeg Tree), or help them escape the mundane world (like The Night Circus).

So, I read negative book reviews. That said, I ignore reviews on Amazon, for two reasons. A lot of them are purchased, for one. For another, a lot of readers don’t know how to write a useful negative review. What I want most in a negative book review is a reader giving a clear reason why they didn’t like the book. Goldman, in her post, gave a clear reason why she didn’t like a book. The book in question triggered her. Other readers might take issue with racism, sexism, or homophobia in a book. Yet others might be bothered by poor writing, uneven pacing, lack of character development, or other writing problems. I completely ignore reviews that don’t explain why they didn’t a book—if they just say a book sucks. I also ignore negative reviews that were given purely to bully an author.

If a reviewer gives a clear reason for why they didn’t like a book, then I can make my own decision about whether or not to take up a book. I can compare the reviewers tastes to my own. As Ranganathan says, “Every book its reader.” Not every book is going to be a hit with every reader. So, if a reviewer says they are triggered by a book’s content, but I’m not, I might take a chance. I might also skip books with racism, sexism, or homophobia unless it serves a purpose in the book. If a reviewer points out multiple flaws with the writing, I want to know so that I can look for something better.

The point of all this is, I want to know if a book is not good before I waste my time. I’d much rather read books that I have a good chance of enjoying. There are too many books out there to waste my time on a bad one.

reading life

The No-Go List; Or, Titles I Love But Hardly Ever Recommend

Being a librarian, I tend to sort what I read into categories. There are the books I love and what to recommend to everyone. There the books I read that I will never re-read because they’re just kind of meh. There are, of course, the books I hated. The weirdest category is comprised of the books that I really liked but that I don’t recommend to readers because they’re too disturbing or too strange or that I worry would only appeal to a small niche of readers.

I would love for these books to be read more; they certainly deserve to be. I hope that by sharing them here, they’ll get a little bit more attention. So here it is, my no-go list:

7767021Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

Because this story begins with a rape, I know that a lot of readers will have a hard time getting into it. Readers who can make it past the appalling violence of the first chapter or so will discover one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read. It helped launch the recent wave of Afrofuturist literature that is not only brilliantly original but also redresses the overwhelming whiteness and imbalance of the larger genre.

Ruby, by Cynthia Bond

Ruby is also very violent and, unlike Who Fears Death, it is violent throughout. There’s a reason for the violence. I read Ruby as an extended metaphor for the way black men and especially women are treated by the systemic racism of the United States. It’s an important book for what it shows readers about how racism not only literally and figuratively beats down people of color, but also gets inside their heads to make them think that they deserve it. At the risk of ruining the novel, I will say that readers will be rewarded with an ending in which Ruby Bell gloriously breaks free.

Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi

This book is disturbing, but only because it can be hard to follow. In this novel, a writer is confronted by his muse and taken to task for how he treats his female characters. The book dissolves into a series of stories told by either the author or the muse until I couldn’t tell which was which. I loved this book for what it had to say about the power of story. Unfortunately, I know that it will take a particular kind of reader, in a particular kind of mood, to actually enjoy the labyrinthine experience of reading Mr. Fox.

17118721HhHH, by Laurent Binet

This novel is a strange blend of creative nonfiction and autobiography, in which our narrator, Binet, agonizes about how to tell the story of Operation Anthropoid. Binet dives deep into the research rabbit hole and claws his way back out (mostly) to write this book. In every other nonfiction book I’ve read, the authors present what they found in a way they believe makes sense. Binet freely admits that he doesn’t know what that way is. He shares what he found, along with commentary about how historical information is flawed. Authors always have to leave something out—or risk writing endless tomes forever.


reading life

Gimme, Gimme; Or, I Will Read Everything This Author Publishes

Every issue of Library Journal includes pages of prepub alerts that cover dozens of authors that are wildly popular at public libraries. These and the short book reviews that follow often include notes to clue librarians in to the titles that will attract author fans. Seeing these alerts set me to thinking about how few authors I follow these days. I’m more likely to jump to read a book because it will take me somewhere I’ve never been before or because it has my literary kryptonite…with a few exceptions. There are some authors I will absolutely read, and probably buy:

Felice Casorati

Barbara Kingsolver

Even though I haven’t read everything she’s written, I get really excited whenever I see that she has a new novel coming out. I’ve been with her since The Poisonwood Bible and The Bean Trees. I think what I love most about her books is the way she creates immersive natural settings. When I read her books, I can feel the heat and humidity, smell the trees and soil, and hear the wind in the leaves. Her writing is so lush that I sink into her books like a warm bath.

Anthony Marra

Marra has only published two novels, but I already know that I love what he does. Marra writes the kind of books about Russia that hit my sweet spot: plenty of history, deep pathos, ethical dilemmas, and sacrifice. Aside from the setting (and it is very hard to find good books set in Russia that have real emotional depth), Marra’s novels scratch my itch to read about characters who transform from ordinary people into heroes.

N.K. Jemisin

Jemisin is one of the most creative fantasy writers I’ve ever encountered. Whenever she starts a new series, I know that I’m going see a fully formed world and well-rounded, conflicted characters that have no hint of any annoying fantasy tropes. I also know that I will be challenged by innovative plots and writing. Jemisin’s books demand that I pay attention.

Christopher Moore

…because he makes me laugh really, really hard. This one is a simple choice.

Some writers used to be on my absolutely-read-and-probably-buy list—Margaret Atwood, Diana Gabaldon—until they wrote a book that made me wonder if they’ve lost their magic. I hold out hope and will keep an eye out for their names on Library Journal‘s lists and any other publication alerts, but I don’t get nearly as excited as I used to. Either they fall off the list because they’re not as original as they used to be (Gabaldon) or they write a book that I hate so much that I feel gun shy (Atwood).

There are some authors that are getting closed to absolutely-read-and-probably-buy: Kate Atkinson, Wiley Cash, Patrick deWitt, Mark Dunn, Lyndsay Faye, Jane Harris, Daryl Gregory, and Catherynne Valente. If I read another book of theirs of two and love them, they’re going on the list. It’s hard to say how many books I have to read before I make the call; I have no set number. But I do have other criteria, like originality, writerly crafts-person-ship, consistent excellence, and soul. Soul is hard to define, but I think of books with soul as books that feel alive when I read them. They have to have something true in them.