Reading Registers; Or, Bouncing Between Genres*

For several years now, my reading choices have been driven by publication dates. Most of my books come as advanced reader copies via NetGalley and Edelweiss. Consequently, I end up bopping from genre to genre, from thriller to literary fiction to oddball science fiction to historical fiction, etc., etc. The jumps mean that I am always having to recalibrate my brain not unlike I have to when I adjust my register so that I can speak like a professional after hanging around with friends.

Agnes Goodsir

It wouldn’t be fair to use the same yardstick to measure different books, even if it were possible. Apples and oranges and spaceships, after all. But swapping one yardstick for another (or switching registers) can be tough. It means changing your expectations about characterization, pacing, and themes in fairly radical ways.

When I read thrillers, science fiction, and mysteries, I can expect fast pacing and not-so-thorough character development. In these genres, the plot is the most important thing. If I read a couple of literary or historical fiction novels, I can wallow in leisurely plots and dive deeply into psychology. Jumping to one of the faster genres can seem like someone suddenly pressed the fast forward button on my reading. Then, when I switch back, I have to deliberately slow down so that I can think more about subtext or I will miss what the book is all about.

If nothing else, I get a good mental workout when I switch genres. The change up means that I have to purposefully think about what I’m reading in a way that I don’t when I get into a groove. Jumping genres means that I don’t take things for granted, even if, at times, it feels like I have mentally run over a speed bump and tripped. I’ve come to love these little moments when I pick my brain up, dust it off, and have a good look around**. I end up thinking about how genre works and how authors play around with expectations as much as I think about what happens, how the characters grow, and whether I liked the ending.

This kind of reading also means that I am less likely to fall into a rut. If I ever got bored of reading, I don’t know what I would do with myself.

* I tried so hard to think of an alliterative word, but failed.
** I have lost count of the number of similes/metaphors I’ve stuffed into this post to keep from using the same words too many times.


A Weird Fiction Thing I Like: Stories About Buildings Full of Strangers

One of my weird, bookish thrills is finding new genre-lets that delight me. My most recent discovery is that I love reading books about buildings full of people: hotels, apartment buildings, boarding schools. Something about buildings where strangers live in close proximity and their stories weave together fascinates me, especially when there’s a mystery involved. I suspect my joy in this kind of story springs from my love of serendipity and coincidence, and how such events can often make it seem like fate is taking a hand in peoples’ lives.

Sara Hayden

Here are some of my favorites in this sub-genre:

Grand Hotel, by Vicki Baum

This is the first novel I can recall of this type. It tells the stories of several guests in a Berlin hotel who bump into each other and then carom off into their own adventures or tragedies. It’s like getting several novels all for the price of one.

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

This bizarre mystery takes place in a remote hotel. Detective Glebsky was just looking for a place to take a holiday, but lands smack in the middle of a lot of weirdness.

The Master Key, by Masako Togawa

This strange novel is one of the best mysteries I’ve read lately. It all takes place in the K Apartments for Ladies, where several different crimes and conspiracies get all tangled up in one another.

If any of you out there have any ideas about similar books, please let me know in the comments.

Where and When; Or, Set the Stage for Me

A lot of the books I’ve read lately have taken me to places and times that I haven’t visited (physically or reading-wise). The setting was, in many cases, the reason I picked the book up. Visiting so many different places got me to thinking about the delicate balance authors have to make when it comes to describing where and when the story takes place. On the one hand, they need to provide enough detail for the reader to finish the job of creating the scene in their head. But they can’t go overboard without losing me in extraneous words. Setting has to be balanced with character development and plot.

Some of the things that I love in well described books go beyond visual detail. I want authors to engage all of my senses.

Scent. Smell is tricky. Most descriptions of scent that I’ve read reference well-known objects: pine, lemon, wet dog. (Blood is almost always described as coppery, for some reason.) If a reader has never smelled a particular scent, the reference is lost on them. When I read about China, for example, there are frequent descriptions of the food. But I’ve only had American Chinese food, which has a completely different smell. I have to guess. When a smell is fully evoked in my head, I get a new dimension of the setting.

Darren Thompson

Sound. After reading The Round House for the second time, I’ve started to play more attention to the use of silence and sound. In The Round House, there are three kinds of sound: silence; sudden, loud sounds; and peaceful hums. Silences indicate that something is wrong. The loud sounds are warnings. The peaceful hums restore normality after the loud and silent times. I’d never read anything like it. I think I’ve mostly read about sound as additional details in scene-setting. When an author strikes the right balance of detail with sound, I like to pause and just imagine the sounds for a moment before continuing.

Touch. I think this is another lost element of plot, unless a book takes place somewhere very hot or very cold. I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled around a bit (if only in the United States). I have sense memories to call upon when I read about humid places (Wisconsin and Kansas in the summer); hot, dry places (New Mexico and southern Utah); windy places (taking the ferry from Bremerton to Seattle). As with scent, if a reader doesn’t have those sense memories, a reader has to guess again.

Taste. This one is hard. I don’t know how food writers do it. Writers can evoke taste with simple references: this tasted like cinnamon and that tasted like dirt. But how does one really describe what a meatball in marinara sauce tastes like on the tongue? Or how fresh, grilled pineapple is sweet, bitter, and tart all at the same time? I love reading books about food because, when they’re done well, it’s like I have at place at the table along with the characters.

Here’s wishing you all well-described settings in your future reading! Pause every now and then during a book to fully imagine the scenes authors have created for you. Let them do their magic.

This is Your Brain on Literary Criticism; Or, Back in the English Major Saddle Again

This spring, I am once again assisting with an upper division English course. This time we’re tackling The Round House, by my new book love Louise Erdrich, and I know zip about Native American literature. So, for the first time in a long time, I had homework. Yesterday, I spent hours essentially binge reading literary criticism about Louise Erdrich’s work, Native American storytelling, and the concept of survivance. It felt good. Really good.

Emil Rau

I’ve probably said it before on this blog (I know I have in conversations with people), but I miss studying literature. Reading books to review them scratches that itch somewhat, but it’s not a perfect replacement for discussing literature with people who’ve studied it. When I was reading articles yesterday, I felt like there were parts of my brain coming back on line. I know that after I finished those articles and went back to The Round House, I was seeing things in that I missed when I read it for fun.

When I read for fun or to review a book, I focus on character, plot, style, and setting. These elements are what attract readers and I need to pay attention to them so I can tempt them into checking out books from my library. But when I read as a literature scholar, I look beyond those things to puzzle out the subtext and how the book achieves its effects. It takes a bit of training to learn how to do that, to learn how to really talk about books. I know some English majors lament this type of reading. Being critically aware makes it hard to escape into a story the way we want to when we read for fun. But reading like an English major can reveal the magic of how story works on us and what it can teach us about the world.

I know literary criticism glow will fade—at least until I get my next batch of homework—but it makes me feel brilliant while it lasts.

A Curious Case of Shelf Envy

A few days ago, Thomas Otto of Hogglestock posted that his “Century of Books” challenge had lead to a massive book reorganization. Something about his project made me jealous. I didn’t want to take up the challenge; that wasn’t it. Then, the next day, I was meeting with a colleague at her house to talk about a class I’d be assisting with. She got up to look for a book but couldn’t find it. Her books were sort of in order by category, but there were too many places this particular book might have been and we couldn’t spot it. When I suggested that she reshelve the books in a different order, it hit me: I was jealous of people who had the opportunity to organize a library. It’s weird, I know, but there it is.

My home library is in alphabetical order. The last time it was organized was three years ago, when I moved into my house.

Gratuitous home library picture. Shelves A – K.
Another gratuitous picture of my library. Shelves K – Z.

I used to keep my books in order alphabetically by genre. I kept the literary fiction, non fiction, and classic titles out in the front rooms of my apartment. The weird stuff, fantasy, comics, and science fiction were in the bedroom. Once I had a room big enough for all my books, I went straight alphabetical. Not only do I enjoy the funny juxtapositions of all the genres, it makes things a hell of a lot easier to find.

Just because I can’t think of a reason to reorganize, it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the urge. Maybe it’s because I’m a librarian. I have been scratching this itch by shelf reading here and there at work. Perhaps it’s more what reorganizing means. It means an opportunity to take each and every book off the shelf and think about where it belongs. Is a book a mystery or historical fiction? Do I have enough thriller-ish books that they need their own section? Etc. etc. I love thinking about those kinds of questions.

I suspect that, most of all, my jealousy is really about the opportunity to take all my books off the shelf and remembering what it was like to buy them and read them. Touching them again will tempt me into re-reading them. For the books I haven’t gotten to yet (someday I will read East of Eden, I swear), it means bumping them up the to-read list. And, honestly, who doesn’t love just sitting in a giant pile of books, reading the blurbs on the backs or book jackets?

God, I’m a nerd.

A Reader Resolves?

6caf63b30c1360be1e4faf93e3f8dc92For the last few years, I’ve set myself two or three reading-related resolutions for the new year. It’s not usually a challenge to think up things I want to try. This year, however, I find that I am perfectly content with my reading life.

It’s a strange feeling, being content with my reading. I attribute it to all the book reviewing I’ve been doing in the last few years. Because so many different things catch my fancy on NetGalley and Edelweiss, I bounce around from genre to genre so much that I rarely end up in a rut. Meanwhile, I still have time to check out the odd book from the library and read the latest books by my favorite authors.

I’ve had a very good reading year and hope for the same in 2018.

Books that Weirdly Remind Me of Where I Grew Up

Weirdly enough for a navy brat, I mostly grew up in Idaho. Idaho is mostly know for potatoes and being extremely rural. I remember hot, dry summers and cold, dry winters and landscapes that range from alpine desert to wild woods. To this day, mountains, sagebrush, and miles of uninhabited space feel like home.

Because there are so few Idaho writers (Vardis Fisher is probably the best known), it’s rare to see it as a setting in fiction. Instead, I tend to catch surprising glimpses of home in books set all over the place. When I find a book that feels like home, it feels special and the book tends to burrow its way into my heart.

Preparation for the Next Lifeby Atticus Lish

This book features a character from western China, Zou Lei, who left the dusty wide open spaces to try and make a new life in America. Her descriptions of China remind me of summers in Idaho when it’s been months since it rained; her character reminds me of the people who leave the state to find opportunities their parents never had.

Round House, by Louise Erdrich

This book is so good I’ve been a little obsessed with it since I read it this summer. As I read it, Joe Coutts’ description of the reservation where he lives reminded me strongly of the reservation just north of my hometown. I could see Joe’s reservation so clearly in my mind that it was cinematic. Also, the way Joe mocks and loves his home is a lot like the way I make fun of Idaho but don’t like it when non-Idahoans do.

Mothers, Tell Your Daughtersby Bonnie Jo Campbell

I don’t know why, but I imagined a lot of the stories in this collection in Idaho or somewhere a lot like it. The settings are rural and a lot of the characters seem like they have few opportunities to break out of their isolation or dependence on others. There’s a lot of hard won female wisdom in this book that also makes me think of the very tough women I met in Idaho.

Winter in Bannock County, Idaho

I Think I Sprained My Eyes; Or, Book Marathoning Might Not Be For Me

As soon as my parents left after pie last Thursday, I hit the books. I only stopped reading to sleep and reheat Thanksgiving leftovers. What I learned was that I was not made for book marathons.

8277e978adaf7bcc37ce5f42b6e529d6I survived until about Sunday afternoon when the symptoms hit:

  1. Brain buzz. I jumped from fantasy to contemporary Greece, then India, over to early nineteenth century Ireland, then to Tasmania and off to WWII-era Thailand, and ended up in war torn Ukraine before the battle of Stalingrad. Seriously, I felt book-lagged. Jumping genres didn’t help either.
  2. Eye strain. Oooh, my eyes hurt all through Monday.
  3. Bad TV cravings. By Sunday I was tempted to burn through more episodes of Chopped instead of reading, but I powered through and finished two books that day.

At least I didn’t get hand cramp from holding up books and my iPad for hours on end. The book curls are paying off.

I’m a little sad about this, to be honest. Every few months, when Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon rolls around, I see the bookish folk on my Twitter feed sharing updates with pages read, cups of tea consumed, and snacks eaten with one hand while the other holds books. I don’t have the stamina to go 24 hours. Six, seven hours in a row is all I can manage.

Is there a personal book trainer out there?

The Sunk Cost Fallacy, Reading, and Me

While I’ve gotten good at recognizing fairly early in a book whether or not I’ll like it, there are still books that slip through. With these sneaky books, there’s just enough about them that interests me, or that I like, or a strong enough reputation that I keep reading, only to find that they let me down in the end.

Once I pass a certain point, I fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy. Usually this fallacy applies to political rhetoric, but in my case it applies to books where I’ve managed to stick around until at least the halfway point. Once I see my kindle app tick up over 51% for a sneaky book, I almost always finish reading. After 51%, I’m over the hump. Why not finish? I’ve read most of the book by that point. In fact, I’m so likely to keep reading that I’m a little afraid to think about what it might take for me to stop reading. It would have to be something awful.

André Derain

I’ve had this on my mind lately because I recently read a book, The Fortune Teller, that I finished only because I realized at about the 70% mark that it wasn’t going to get any better. But 70% is more than two-thirds of the way through a book. I’d read so much of the book (and it was a quick read), it seemed worthwhile to read just a little longer and finish the damn thing. I’m not afraid to DNF, but I’d already put in time and effort…So I resigned myself and finished the last, somewhat disappointing chapters.

The first sneaky book I remember reading and hating was Frank Herbert’s DuneI picked it up because I’d heard it was a classic of science fiction and, at the time, I was really into science fiction and books with a lot of world-building. I remember being told so many times that Dune was great that I kept reading even though so many passages bored me stiff. This book took so long to get good that it actually felt like a betrayal when it finally did…right before the last page. I am still a little angry at Dune, to the point that I’m surprised when I hear from people that they like it.

I have bad book habits, like book buying binges (who among us does not?), checking out too many library books and having to return them before I’ve read them. My inability to stop reading a book once I’ve read most of it is the one that bothers me most. I might have to make it a new year’s resolution.

But What Does It All Mean?

I always begin my workshops for upper division English students with an exercise to help them see how many things they might write about and generate keywords. Using whatever text they’ve just finished in class, I ask them what it was about. And there is always an embarrassing pause and the professor gets hilariously annoyed with their students. After the pause, the students rally and come up with a good list of topics and keywords. I worked with a Shakespeare class yesterday and, as I was scribbling words up on the whiteboard, I got to thinking about how hard it can be to sum up something like Richard IIIThe Handmaid’s Tale, etc. in short phrases and single words.

Géza Vörös

Summing up books in short phrases and words is something I do all the time, and something that I see book reviewers write about all the time. It’s the mirror of what I imagine authors have to do when they pitch their ideas to agents and publishers. We take a long piece of prose that the author has created and boil it all back down to the idea that might have sparked the story in the first place. Well, at least, we boil it back do to the idea we think was the spark. There might be some disagreement with the author. (I’m looking at you, Ray Bradbury.) English majors and literary critics do this because they want to get at the heart of what a story is about. Book reviewers and recommenders do it because it seems to be the best way to hook a potential reader.

The problem (if you can really call it a problem) is that, just as my students discover while we fill up a white board with ideas, themes, and issues, texts are never about just one thing. For a really great book, it’s probably not fair to even try. There might be a major theme, but a quick look below the surface of a story will find all sorts of interesting things to think about. At least, it will in a good book.

I can understand why those English majors pause when I ask them what a text is about. They’re learning how to summarize thousands of words down to something they can type into a database. Not only do they need to do this to find research on whatever interests them about literature, but I think they also need this skill in order to share the meaning of stories with others. Summarizing is shorthand for talking about books. Without summarizing, the only way to talk about what Richard III and The Handmaid’s Tale have to tell us is to read them (which one should do anyway) and there are so many books out there and so little time!