Saturday, May 30, 2015

My Favorite Book That Nobody's Heard Of

Somewhere in my middle teens, I purchased a paperback novel at my local drugstore. It was the mid-1980s, the era of the sweeping romantic historical saga, and the book is packaged something like a bodice-ripper, with a clutching couple and a gold-embossed title strewn across its cover.

But what I discovered inside was so much more. Zemindar by Valerie Fitzgerald is an absorbing, well-researched historical novel set in 1850s India. I still have that paperback and have re-read it several times over the years, and I'm always struck by how good it is. For whatever reason, as far as I've been able to tell Valerie Fitzgerald, never wrote another book, which was always a great disappointment to me.

Minus the Gothic trappings, the central love story has a bit of a Jane Eyre feel, involving a plain, overlooked young woman and a somewhat older man with a past. All the characters are well-drawn and psychologically believable, and the story provides ample opportunities for action, adventure, and suspense. It has similar appeal to Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series (minus the time travel and explicit sex).

The novel appears to have been well-reviewed when it was first published, but perhaps it didn't sell well, which might explain why Fitzgerald stopped writing. In the era of e-books, I'm glad to see it's been made available again, and readers have re-discovered it. On Goodreads it has 75 reviews and 627 ratings, averaging 4.14 stars.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Favorite Books, and What They Say About Us (or not)

A recent Facebook trend asks people to list 10 books that have stayed with them. The standard message declares that “they don’t have to be the best or most important books” and that the poster should list the first 10 without thinking too much about them, and not judge or censor the list. There are a few variations on this, as alterations inevitably creep in as the meme gets passed around, much like the proverbial children’s game of telephone. I’ve enjoyed reading the lists posted by my friends. I’ve found some of us share memorable books, and inevitably some friends list books I personally don’t care for, or that left me cold. Of course some of the lists include things I’ve never read or never heard of. To my recollection, a similar chain letter went around about a year ago, and because I posted my list that time, I’ve chosen not to participate this time.

One thing that never occurred to me was to doubt the veracity of other people’s lists. I assume that people followed the instructions and did as I did, listing the first 10 books that came to mind that fit the criteria. However, there seems to be a backlash in some circles, as in this piece that appeared in the Huffington Post. Although I believe Kleinman was trying to be humorous, I was bothered by the implication that classic works of literature couldn’t possibly be anyone’s favorite, and that anyone who claims they are is lying. In the version of the meme that Kleinman refers to, readers are asked to list the “10 books that changed their thinking” which makes her criticism even more puzzling. There is certainly a vast difference between “favorite books” and those that “changed our thinking” in some way, although the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

This reminds me a bit of another kerfuffle over reading tastes that appeared in the popular media, Ruth Graham’s Slate piece declaring that adults should be embarrassed to read Young Adult fiction. It’s no secret that YA fiction is hugely popular among adolescents and adults alike, and this article met with an immediate flurry of outrage. One undercurrent I found troubling to the backlash was a derision of those who don’t read YA fiction, and criticism that so-called “classic” or “adult” fiction (and those who read it) are boring and pretentious. This was not present in all the responses to Graham’s article, but it made me uncomfortable enough that I did not involve myself in the discussion at the time. As a person who generally doesn’t read YA fiction, the tone of the conversation was such that I would have felt I needed to justify myself for not doing so, and any justification I might offer might lead to accusations of elitism.

My point is this: read what you want. You don’t need to explain or justify it to anyone. But also recognize that people’s tastes are different, and they gravitate toward different types of books for a variety of reasons. I’m not lying when I say “War and Peace” is one of my favorite books, and I’m not listing it to show off or to try to make myself look smarter than other people. I think it has an undeserved reputation for being boring and ponderous, based on the fact that it’s long, and most people haven’t actually read it. Admittedly, I find some of the battle scenes boring, but it also has some of the best plotting and characterization of anything I’ve ever read. Nevertheless, I recognize that it’s not to everyone’s taste and I don’t expect everyone to want to read it.

Similarly, I’ll take you at your word if you say “The Fault in Our Stars” really touched you, and the Harry Potter series had a big impact on you, and you really loved “Ulysses.” Seeing lists of memorable books posted by my friends on Facebook has been enjoyable and interesting. It’s never occurred to me to view it as a scorecard or IQ test.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Reading and Marginalia

At a recent conference, I attended a presentation on Book Traces, a project originating at the University of Virginia that seeks to discover inscriptions and marginalia in 19th- and early 20th-century library books that help tell the story of the books' former owners or readers, and their responses to their reading. While I didn't find anything as dramatic as the examples highlighted in the talk, one quiet Friday afternoon I took an hour to explore the shelves of the library where I work and see what I could find.

I discovered a number of inscriptions, though most were of the "Merry Xmas from Aunt Katie" variety. One of the books was signed by its author, William Waldorf Astor. The most interesting thing I found was two copies of the same book by a once popular but now long-forgotten author, T.S. Arthur, that bore radically different marginalia within their pages. First published in 1854, "Ten Nights in a Bar-Room" was Arthur's most popular and best-known work, and tells the story of a tavern owner and his family, and the physical and moral decline of the family and community as a result of alcohol. It has the melodramatic and moralistic tone of much popular literature of the time, reminiscent of tracts forwarded by proponents of the Temperance movement. Though there is no information on who the readers of the marked up copies were, or during what era they read them, both felt compelled enough to comment and editorialize while reading the book.

The first reader seems to share Arthur's viewpoint on the evils of alcohol. On page after page, in red ballpoint pen, the reader has bracketed an underlined passages, particularly those that demonstrate the negative consequences of drink. Next to a passage that describes the bar owner being nearly beaten to death by a drunken mob, the reader has written, "eat his own bitter fruit."

There is evidence that more than one reader wrote commentary in the second copy, as one reader wrote a few notes in cursive in blue ballpoint pen, and another, writing in all capital letters in pencil, seems to have taken a more cynical view of the book's contents. He or she appears to be amused or irritated by the book's melodramatic tone, and can't resist making sarcastic comments next to certain passages. One paragraph, running two pages, ends with "But this is digressing." Next to this the reader has written "You ain't kidding!" When Arthur writes that "lazy fellows ... liked idling better than working", the reader adds "Who doesn't?" When the book's narrator, on his seventh visit to the tavern, declares, "This is no place for me," the annotator agrees, "It certainly isn't!" 

One thing noted in both copies of the book was a continuity error of Arthur's. Slade, the tavern keeper, loses an eye in the aforementioned beating. But on page 267, Arthur describes Slade as "sitting at a table, alone, with his eyes wandering about the room." The first reader comments "I thought he had only one" and a reader of the second simply underlines "eyes" and adds a question mark in the margin.

Both of these books were acquired by the library in the 1930s, so it is unknown whether the marginalia were added before or after this time. But it is interesting to ponder what instinct drives someone to comment in a book as they are reading, whether or not they own it themselves. Unlike today's social media, where comments on books, movies and TV shows are meant to be shared, the readers of these books didn't know whether anyone else would read them. If they did leave them intentionally to be read by others later, there was no attempt or desire to make their own identities known. But the traces of their reading experience are nevertheless left to be discovered decades later, creating a link between readers over time. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Literary Pilgrimages

On a recent trip to England, I visited museums devoted to two of my favorite authors: Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte. Both museums were similar, in that they were situated in a house actually lived in by the author, with rooms preserved or restored to be as close as possible to how they existed at the time the author lived there. Artifacts (books, manuscripts, clothing, pens, furniture) actually owned or created by the inhabitant are displayed throughout the rooms. There is something about being in the presence of items they actually touched, and walking the rooms and breathing the air formerly occupied by great authors that makes them feel more real to me. It's true that the biographies of Dickens and the Brontes are nearly as dramatic as the fictional events of their novels, which may lead to some of the fascination for me. 

The Charles Dickens Museum

The Dickens Museum is situated on a quiet street in the Bloomsbury district of London. Dickens only lived here from 1837-1839, but during this time he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. The death of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, which impacted Dickens severely, also occurred here. 

After paying the admission fee, visitors are given a floor plan and can take a self-guided tour through the rooms. At the time I visited, along with the Dickens artifacts, selected costumes and props from the recent film The Invisible Woman (about Dickens' relationship with Ellen Ternan) were displayed. I didn't realize this until I had finished my tour, however. I had noticed one dress as being "just like" the one worn by Catherine Dickens in the movie, only to find out at the end that it was the actual costume, and not an extremely well-preserved one from Dickens' own time. 

Touring the museum takes under an hour, and is a good choice for a short, contained activity if one is burned out from the overwhelming scale of London's larger museums.

The Bronte Parsonage Museum

Getting to the Bronte Parsonage Museum requires more time and dedication of energy to get to, at least if one is coming from London. I took a train from London's Waterloo station to Leeds (about 2 1/2 hours) and then took another train from Leeds to Keighly (about half an hour). From Keighly (pronounced Keethly or Keefly, depending on who you ask) you can take one of many bus lines to the town of Haworth. The museum is at the top of the hill.

The day I visited, Haworth was holding a 1940s festival, and most of the shops along the way featured displays appropriate to the time period. A few people were also dressed in vintage costumes. Whether you do it on the way up or the way down, it's worth spending the time to peruse the shops and maybe get a bite to eat. Many of the inns have a history going back several hundred years, and at least two were regularly frequented by Branwell Bronte.

The parsonage museum itself is very similar in setup to the Dickens Museum. Again, after paying your admission fee, you can take a self-guided tour throughout the rooms. As the parsonage was occupied by a succession of curates after Patrick Bronte's death in 1861, many modifications were made to the house over the years. Since acquiring the house in 1928, the Bronte Heritage Society has attempted to return most of the original rooms to they way they were when the Brontes lived there. 

While I respect the writing of all three Bronte sisters, I've always felt the closest affinity with Charlotte, perhaps because she lived the longest and left the largest corpus in the form of novels, letters, and manuscripts, so I've felt I've been able to get to know her the best. There was a time when one might say I had a bit of an obsession with the Brontes. While that has diminished somewhat over time, I will admit to having an emotional response when I entered the dining room, where according to lore the sisters did most of their writing, and walked around the table reading what they'd written to each other. Not to mention the couch on which "it is believed Emily died." 

When I visited, there was also a very nice exhibit about animals in the Brontes' works and life, which featured sketches and paintings of their own pets done by the siblings, as well as illustrations and manuscript excerpts from the novels in which animals are featured. 

After touring the house, one can walk about the grounds, including the churchyard, featuring gravestones going back two centuries. As the family of the curate, the Brontes themselves are not buried here, but in the crypt beneath the church. However, stones for two of their longtime servants, Tabitha Aykroyd and Martha Brown, can be found here. I did not find them myself, as I became distracted by headstones bearing names of my own ancestors.

By the time I returned to London that evening, I was tired by the very long trip, but for me it was worth the time spent. 

For more information on visiting author's haunts in London, see Walking Literary London by Roger Tagholm (Passport Books, 2001). 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Reading Devices

During a recent dinner conversation, a couple of my companions said that they do the majority of their reading on their smart phones now. When I expressed surprise (and a bit of dismay) at this, both said that yes, the constant scrolling was annoying, but "you get used to it."

Although I am one of those people who loves print books as objects, and finds the smell and feel of paper to be part of the aesthetic of the reading experience, I am not hostile toward technology. I love my iPad, and in fact I do use it to read on my daily bus commute and when travelling by plane, rather than carrying other reading material with me. However, when at home I still prefer to read a physical book.

I was resistant to the concept of e-readers for some time, and the earliest versions that came out, up through the first Amazon Kindle, had a (to me) unappealing greyscale screen. Dark grey print on a pale grey background doesn't afford enough contrast for me, and my eyes quickly grow tired. Although I didn't initially or primarily buy it as a reading device, I was pleased to find that the iPad's iBooks app features black text on a white background, more closely mirroring the experience of reading print on paper. 

The one case where I prefer the iPad reading experience over print is The New Yorker. The New Yorker's app (free with a subscription) both effectively imitates and enhances the experience of reading the print magazine. The same typeface is used, and there are added bells and whistles such as photo slideshows accompanying articles, video and audio clips, sometimes featuring the authors reading their own works. Having David Sedaris reading his essay to you increases the enjoyment, and it's nice when reading a music article by Sasha Frere-Jones to hear a clip of the artist he's talking about, or to see a segment of a TV show being discussed by Emily Nussbaum. The font in the "Goings on About Town" section has recently been changed to a minuscule size in the print magazine; with the app I can increase it to something more readable for my aging eyes.

I purchased my iPad prior to getting a smart phone, so I don't have the same relationship with my phone that some others have. I primarily use it for actual phone calls and texts, but if I have my iPad handy, and a wireless connection, that's what I'll reach for first to check my email or Facebook. Or to read. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Kazuo Ishiguro

A number of years ago, I attended a reading given by Kazuo Ishiguro, at the late lamented Ruminator Books in St. Paul. Ishiguro wryly observed that some critics had accused him of writing the same book over and over. If one looks at the variety of plot and setting of Ishiguro's works, this assessment seems patently unfair. However, his novels do have notable similarities, in that all feature first-person narration by delusional protagonists. Ishiguro's books are prime examples of the phenomenon of the unreliable narrator, as his characters do not have a clear understanding of what is going on around them, or of how they themselves are perceived by others. Part of the reader's emotional response while reading the novels is frustration that the character is misreading situations and harming him or herself in the process. 

The Remains of the Day

Probably Ishiguro's best known work, on account of the acclaimed 1993 film adaptation, The Remains of the Day tells the story of Stevens, the butler at an English estate, who fails to recognize that his employer is a Nazi sympathizer. He also jeopardizes his own happiness by missing cues that the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, may have feelings for him. The story is bittersweet and heartbreaking, and the film is perhaps one of the best film adaptations of a novel, in its faithfulness to the source material, and because of Anthony Hopkins' sensitive and subtle portrayal of Stevens.

Never Let Me Go

Also made into an acclaimed film, Never Let Me Go follows three young people growing up at an English boarding school. The three form a triangle of love and friendship that shifts over time, and the potential romance between Kathy and Tommy is continually thwarted by the selfish and manipulative Ruth. Below the surface of this coming of age tale is a sinister secret about where the children at the school came from and for what they are intended. Strong acting and direction make the film a fine adaptation, though something is lost in the compression of the early part of the novel. However, the emotionally devastating conclusion is intact.

The Unconsoled

Probably Ishiguro's most challenging and least accessible work, The Unconsoled is a surreal tale of a musician who arrives in an unnamed European city to perform a concert. In the days leading up to the event, he has a series of interactions and experiences that continually morph. While reading it, I was at first frustrated that the story kept shifting and never seemed to go anywhere, until I realized that Ishiguro was attempting (and in my view, succeeding) to depict the non-linear and fragmented nature of a dream state. I have never before or since encountered a writer who was able to convey the true sense and feeling of being in a dream, with out obvious "hidden meanings" that are supposed to inform or foreshadow the main plot. Here the dream is the plot, as much as this novel can be said to have a plot. I remember many critics being baffled by it at the time it came out, and it certainly isn't for everyone. But those willing to try something experimental may find much to admire. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Place to Read

When my husband and I were house hunting in 2001, people told me that when I found the right house, I'd "know". I was skeptical, as I'm not a person who generally believes in love at first sight in any context. And we were in the midst of a frustrating search for a house in our price range during the housing boom.

Then, we walked in the front door of a house that had been on the market for a month (unusual at that time) but which we had somehow missed before. I was immediately charmed by the gleaming hardwood floors and the open floor plan of the first level, with a formal dining room blending into a large living room area. But as I took several steps inside, I looked to my left, and my husband knew by the look on my face that I had found my house. On the south side of the living room was a sunroom, a 10 x 7 foot area surrounded on three sides by windows. I could envision myself spending many a weekend afternoon curled up here with a book and a cup of tea. And this vision has come true, though more often than not my lazy afternoons reading also include a nap.

I've never been much of an outdoors person, and while I have romantic notions of reading in the sun during balmy weather, in reality this rarely is conducive to allowing me to relax enough to sink into a book. If I set up a lawn chair in my backyard and grab an iced tea, the elements tend to conspire against me. Finding a level place to set up the chair can be a challenge, and breeze and bugs can be detrimental to my full enjoyment.

In the evening, when there is not enough sunlight for me to enjoy my favorite reading place, I have a cozy armchair in the living room, where I sit surrounded by my bookshelves. Rather than tea, a glass of red wine is more likely to be by my side.