When the [Dog] Dies

Years and years ago, I read Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows. The experience still haunts me. When my nephew mentioned that he’d been assigned the book, I felt the need to warn him that the book would destroy him. I’d been so emotionally wrecked by the book that, at the time, I skipped most of the end of it, because I just couldn’t handle it. I’ve never been able to go back. And, now that I think about it, I’ve always had a hard time when an animal is killed in a story. There have been human deaths in books that have moved me—A Tale of Two Cities and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena come to mind—but ever in the same way that animal deaths do.

I’ve been thinking about this all week as I’ve worked my way through The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones. I picked it as a scary read for Halloween. (It absolutely delivered.) But I kept putting the book down because of what happens to an elk doe, her calf, and her herd. It’s an important plot point, necessary to the entire book, but there’s something about the callous brutality of how animals are treated in this book that made it hard for me to continue.

Where the Red Fern Grows statue at the Idaho Falls Public Library (Image via Wikipedia)

So what is it about animal deaths that seem to hurt in a more visceral way than human deaths? I can’t count how many murders of humans I’ve read. While I stay away from the goriest serial killer novels, I love reading a good puzzle book or riding along on a revenge quest, or even stepping into the trenches in a war book. The first is all about intellectual stimulation and the latter two reasons are a way to experience part of human life that I would never, ever want to see in person. I can handle it. I can handle fictional violence. (Usually.)

As I’m writing this, my cat Mogwai is loafing next to me. He’s kind of an obnoxious asshole when he wants attention, but I love him and every cat I’ve ever had. Maybe the experience of having pets has made it hard for me to read about even fictional cruelty. Maybe it’s that when animals are hurt or killed in fiction, it’s almost always to teach a character a lesson or to threaten them or to show us just how evil a character really is. It’s effective, for sure. My guts always clench or my heart aches or my mouth snarls like the author wants them to. But unlike so many other reading-induced emotions I’ve sought out in a story, these ones always leave a bad emotional residue behind because I often can’t help but look over at whichever of my cats is nearest and think about how awful it would be for something to happen to them. (My other cat, Ari.)

I’ve talked to other readers who’ve developed the same sort of aversion to seeing violence towards children. No matter that the stories are fiction, they (and I) can’t forget the very real representatives that live around us. And we can’t forget that our children and our animals are under our care; we are here to protect and nurture them—which brings me back around to Where the Red Fern Grows and my need to give my nephew a heads up about what would happen in the book. It took me some time to come around to the idea of trigger warnings. I realized that I had misunderstood what they were for. I believe that it’s important to challenge ourselves, but also that we don’t have to walk into that challenge without warning and without being able to prepare.

So, readers, I promise that I will always let you know when elements of a story might trigger you, because I want you to be able to make an informed decision about whether you want to start reading. I will always tell you if the dog (or elk or cat, etc.) dies.

Going Against the Grain; Or, When You Disagree with the Critics

I think every reader has had this problem. You buy a book that critics are raving about but then, when you read it, you end up not liking the book. You might even hate the book that everyone seems to love. And then, you start to search your bookish soul about what you missed. This is certainly what happens to me when I read a critical darling that ends up not agreeing with me. I still feel like I’m on the wrong side of things when it comes to The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, classic books that I loathe. Curiously, I don’t feel the same sort of bewilderment when I love a book that doesn’t wow the critics. On second thought, it’s probably easier to espouse a guilty pleasure read than to admit that you’re not sharp enough to see what everyone else sees.

(Image via Pinterest)

One thing that comforts me when I’m feeling particularly confused about buzzy books I didn’t like is something I learned in library school: S.R. Ranganathan’s five laws of library science. The second law is “Every reader his or her book.” The third is “Every book its reader.” Taken together, these two laws mean that all readers are free to read what they like and that every book has a potential audience. These laws are a mantra to remind me that not everyone has to have the same taste in books; there are books enough for all of us to love.

Even with this mantra in mind, I sometimes return to the critics looking for that thing I missed, especially when books that I really didn’t like end up nominated for awards. That second look frequently reminds me that the critics who write book reviews have very different tastes than mine. Or the reviews remind me that these critics always have different expectations of what they read than I do. (Having the wrong expectations can ruin a reading experience, which is why a lot of readers I know refuse to read books reviews so that things don’t get overhyped.)

And, sometimes, I find a review that confirms my opinions. Finding some else who also goes against the grain is a fantastic confirmation that it’s not that I missed something, but that it’s all just a matter of taste after all.

Where should I buy books?

A recent post on The Digital Reader has got me thinking (again) about where I buy books and how I can be an ethical book buyer. The post reports on the decision by Barnes and Noble to pay 70% royalties on ebooks. This is the first time that I can recall actually knowing how much authors are getting from books people purchase. I honestly have no idea how much authors get when I buy a print book, either online or at an actual store, or an ebook from another vendor; all I know is that authors don’t get royalties if I buy a used book.

I want to support authors. Partly I want to support authors because they’re creating my supply of fresh stories, as an incentive to keep writing. Another part of why I want to support authors because my efforts during NaNoWriMo (and other things) have shown me how very, very hard it can be to write when you’ve also got a full-time job. So it follows that I want to try and buy books in such a way that authors get as much as they can. But the cost of a book also supports: the literary agents, the publisher costs, the costs of copy-editing, bookseller costs, and probably lots of other people I’m leaving out. I have no idea how the purchase price of a book divides up among all these different parties.

Since the pandemic, I’ve started buying print copies of books via Bookshop.org. Some part of the cost of the book goes into a pool that’s spread amongst independent booksellers who are part of the collective. Ebooks are a lot more problematic because the laws and licensing that govern them make everything way more complicated than purchasing a physical copy of any kind of creative content. As a reader, all I want is fast, reliable, easy-to-use access to books. Amazon and Barnes and Noble have been able to do that for me. But buying from Amazon makes me feel very guilty because my dollars are just going to make the giant even more gigantic. I buy from Barnes and Noble because they’re a solid competitor and because I haven’t found an independent service that is as easy-to-use.

I’m curious to hear from other readers. Do you think about where your book dollars are going? Where do you buy your books?

These are a few of my favorite (bookish) things

This post was inspired by an r/libraries thread started by another librarian.

I love my job. I am so lucky to have landed at a library where I am intellectually stimulated, emotionally rewarded, and supported by wonderful colleagues. When people ask me what I love about my job, I usually respond with something like what I just said and follow that up with something like, “I really like spending the library’s money on fiction.” The following, however, are some of the really little things that give me an inordinate amount of joy.

  • Alphabetizing. I’m nuts about alphabetizing. If you have unorganized books at your house and you invite me over (not during plague times, obviously), I will alphabetize the hell out of them.
  • Chain lines on laid paper. A lot of bookish folk I know are all about the smell of books, but I’ve been around too many books with paper permanently infused with the smell of cigarette smoke or highly acidic books with a sickly, syrupy smell that gets right up my nose to be too jazzed about the aroma of books. But the texture of chain laid rag paper or toothy paper makes me happy every time my fingers brush across it.
  • Deckle edges. This one is controversial. I know a lot of people who don’t like deckle edges because it’s a little more difficult to turn the pages, but I love it. Deckle edges remind me of older styles of book-binding that strike me as having more character than mass-produced books. (Even though I know, with the exception of select publishers and art books, all deckle-edged books are mass-produced.)
  • Using library carts like surfboards.
  • Dropping a stack (more than 6) of books on readers willing to take my recommendations without a quibble.
  • Also the readers who let me do that to them, of course.
  • Book hangovers. This term is defined differently for each reader but, for me, a book hangover is the dizzy, joyful, slightly sad feeling I experience after reading a truly exceptional book. The dizziness and the joy come from masterful writing, beautifully constructed characters, and breathless plots. The dollop of sadness comes from the realization that the great book is now over and I have to go on with my life and find another book to read. The feeling can last up to several days, during which I have to recalibrate by re-reading old favorites. Which leads me to…
  • Old favorite books. Books I have read so often that the spines are cracked and the pages have lost their crispness. Books that suit my preferences and interests so well that I am never bored by them. Books that never fail to lift my mood.

Books to Escape Into

I thought about making a list of my favorite comfort reads, but it appears I’ve already done that. In lieu of making another list of comfort reads, I present a list of books that had amazing worlds that were so fully realized I felt like I had been transported to another world (but nothing heavy):

The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T.J. Klune

This recent novel utterly warmed my heart as it whisked me away to a world where magical children are raised in orphanages. I said I wouldn’t put anything heavy on this list and this book is not at all heavy. Instead, it’s a novel of found family and standing up for each other and finding the best in everyone. This book made me tear up in happiness.

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

What better book to escape into than a book in which characters literally escape into other books? I loved The Eyre Affair since I first read it, yonks ago, and my love for this series has never diminished. I adore the characters. I enjoy the wacky plots. Most of all, I love a universe where characters can pop in and out of books, pet dodos will do tricks for marshmallows, and where there is room for infinite stories.

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

What if Pride and Prejudice but magic? Shades of Milk and Honey kicks off another beloved series, in which magical but plain Jane finds the love of her life with a man who embraces her for everything that she is. Along with the romance, we get a magic system that is still being created—not one where everything that’s possible is laid out in black and white—and adventures across Europe and the West Indies.

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

This book is one of my go-to recommendations for readers who like love stories but are looking for something different. I’ve been a sucker for stories about living myths and beliefs that people bring with them from the old country since I read American Gods for the first time. The Golem and the Jinni is much lighter than that. This novel tells the story of the titular Golem and Jinni as they find their place in turn of the twentieth century New York. Also, rumor has it that this book will have a sequel sometime in the future.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder, by Eli Brown

This book is an absolute hoot! Sail the high seas with a wild pirate-slash-gourmande in Cinnamon and Gunpowder. Sure, they’re pirates and there’s a bit of murder—but it’s all in a just cause. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for books where an ordinary person gets caught up with characters who are completely themselves, dedicated to a cause, and who sweep all before them as they pursue that cause. I get a kick out of how the usually staid ordinary person is annoyed with whoever is dragging them along on adventures until they learn to kick off society’s restraints and have a damned good time.

Trying to Read During Plague Time

Irving Ramsay Wiles

I have been struggling. My situation is pretty cozy compared to others’. I have a nice house, money for food, health insurance, a job that lets me work for home. I have no reason to panic, but the pure strangeness of life during coronavirus has gotten to me. I normally read on an iPad, which makes it far too easy to flip back and forth between the novel I’m reading (To Calais, in Ordinary Time, by James Meek) and Twitter. This is no fault of what I’m reading, it’s just…how can fiction compete with the dire weirdness going on in the world?

I’m hoping that I’ll adjust to the surrealness of social distancing and telecommuting soon. In the meantime, I’m sorry to say that it’s going to be difficult for me to match my usual reading pace.

Take care out there, everyone! Keep reading. I will, too.

Smarties Spoiling Stuff; Or, In Praise of…Fuckbois of Literature

One of the unwritten laws of the bookish life is that books that we read when we’re teenagers seem to have an outsize place in our hearts. I think it’s because we start to become our own selves when we’re teens; it’s hard not to be influenced by the books that come into our hands during those years. I still have a place in my book-y heart for Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Around the World in 80 Days. I still love this trio of books but it’s only as an adult that I’ve started to see their problems. I’ve been thinking about these reconsiderations a lot lately, due to my recent discovery of a new book podcast called Fuckbois of Literature.

Yes, you read that right.

Karl Haider

The host of Fuckbois, Emily Edwards, invites scholars and readers on to the show to talk about books that are much loved. After a quick definition of “fuckboi,” Edwards and her guest dive into all the things that make our favorite books problematic. The first episode I listened to was “Rebecca,” another much loved book. This episode highlighted all of the troubling things that I’d managed to overlook when I read the novel. Edwards and guest Claire Willett speak so intelligently—and irreverently—about the dynamics between the second Mrs. de Winter, Maxim, Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers, and Jack Favell that it completely upended my interpretation of the book. It wasn’t long before I was hooked.

The hilarity that always ensues on episodes of FboL keeps the podcast from becoming overbearing or preachy. Edwards and her guests never shame readers for loving the books they discuss. Instead, they invite us to look beyond the surface, beyond the swoon, to underlying prejudices; class, race, and gender issues; and attitudes that definitely deserve another look. As I listened to FboL, I knew that some readers might consider what Edwards et al. were doing as spoiling their favorite books. More than once, I wanted to pipe up to defend some of my favorite fictional men. (Mr. Rochester! Mr. Darcy!) In addition to their jokes and witticisms, it was clear to me that Edwards and her guests also loved (at least most of) the books they discuss on the show. They love these books enough to re-read them and think about them and ask questions about what’s going on below the surface.

They say on the internet that all our favorites are problematic. Edwards and co. certainly put that truism to the test. These books aren’t spoiled, in my opinion. Edwards and her guests enhanced my knowledge of these books. I still love Rebecca and Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice because these books are so damned good that I don’t think they can be ruined. Their protagonists are so beautifully drawn, the settings so fully realized, and the plots so engaging that a few fuckbois here and there don’t really matter.

They on the Brain

When I start I book, I often spend the first few chapters gathering clues about the protagonist and any other major characters so that I can imagine them. It makes it easier to “see” the plot play out if I have mental images of the characters in my head. I don’t think I’m all that different from other readers. I can tell by the comments on the Internet whenever there’s news about who got cast in the latest adaptation of a favorite novel or series.*

Henriette Browne

Recently, I’ve started to see more novels that feature non-binary characters. After reading two in quick succession, I realized just how often I fall into the habit of imagining characters as either men or women. I also realized that I often defaulted to imagining characters as white until something in the text told me they were a person of color. I’m a little ashamed to admit this. I can only blame my own biases as a white cis-woman. I’m still trying to decide what it means for me to realize another bias in how I picture characters I meet in fiction. My ideas of gender expression and norms clearly need some evolving.

One thing I can say for certain is that I like seeing more theys in fiction. I love the way the non-binary characters force me to pay attention to the way that these characters interact with others, how they make me question what parts of gender are cultural and what parts come from identity, and even how we have to rethink how the English language treats gender. Perhaps, best of all, I can learn about non-binary characters from fiction (hopefully from an own-voice author) so that non-binary people I meet in my day-to-day life don’t have to educate me.

* To be honest, I’m still a little salty about the casting of Catriona Balfe as Claire Fraser in Starz’s adaptation of Outlander. Balfe is a wonderful actress; she just doesn’t match the picture I’ve carried around in my head for years.

The Oddest Books I Read in 2019

This post is inspired by a tweet I saw a few weeks ago, but can’t find right now, in which a reader decided to share the strangest books they’d read during the year. They wanted a change from all the “best of” lists and give a shout out to books that didn’t get enough attention. This post is my second to their motion. Here are the oddest, weirdest, strangest books—that I also liked—that I read during 2019, in no particular order:

This cover is impossible to resist.
  • Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir—Y’all, necromancers in space! This book has gotten a lot of buzz, but I had such a good time reading this weird book that I want to tell everyone about it.
  • Metropolitan Stories, by Christine Coulson—A charming collection of stories about what happens in a museum when no one is watching.
  • The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz—Time travel as Wikipedia edit war.
  • The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories, by Ayşe Papatka Bucak—A collection of brilliantly connected stories that skip around in history and art.
  • The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, by Christine Wunnicke—A beautifully written novel about mental illness through different cultural lenses.
  • Princess Bari, by Hwang Sok-yong—This story of a young girl going on a mythic journey got me hooked on tales based on Korean and East Asian legends.

Deck the Halls With Books; Or, The Joy of Book-Giving

I give books as gifts every chance I get. I gave board books to my nieces and nephews when they were little; they’re the only reason I follow children’s, middle grade, and young adult literature. Books are always my gift for my sister-in-law and brother. (My brother got me into inscribing books. I have no idea why I didn’t do this before.) Giving books, however, is tricky. Book tastes are so individual and it’s so easy to read things into the gift of a book. (Ha!) The trickiness of giving a book shouldn’t put potential book givers off. Give books for Christmas and Chanukkah. Give them for birthdays. Give them for the hell of it!

Bernard Fleetwood-Walker

I think we want to give books, for the most part, because we want to share the emotions we experienced when we read them. We want to share the feeling of being seen, when a book captures us. We want to share the joy of a happy ending or the catharsis of a resolved struggle. We want to share the satisfaction of solving a mystery with a detective. The trouble comes in when I remember that half a story is what the reader brings to the text. I firmly believe that texts don’t come to life until a reader immerses themselves in the words. Because we’re bringing our own memories and opinions to the story, it’s no wonder that sometimes the joy, satisfaction, catharsis, and so on don’t always translate to other readers. There’s a reason why I argue with fans of Hemingway (hate him) and Dickens (love him). (Most people I talk to agree that Joyce is a crank.)

So, fellow readers, when you go out to the bookstores to look for the perfect story to give, my advice to you is to think about the person who will be the next person to bring that story to life. What memories will the book bring to mind? What events bring them joy or puzzle or frustrate them? I don’t give some of my favorite books because I know that not many readers enjoy unreliable narrators or metafictional elements*. I also know that other readers don’t want grit or heavy sacrifices. When I select a book, I look back at what I’ve read and try to match them to what I know other readers might like. Thus, for my sister-in-law, I look for meaningful love stories. For my brother, I look back at the science nonfiction for books that blew my mind. For my mom, I look for books that celebrate our family’s Scandinavian heritage. I look for books that I’ve read that remind me of the people in my life and I give them in the hope that these stories will be loved.

…And if the books I give don’t spark joy? Well, there’s always next year.

* I am a sucker for a humorous footnote…Just in case this is read by friends and family who might want to buy me a book.