Retreating into reading: The refuge of older books

Lately, I have been turning to older novels for my reading, as a means of escape from the stresses of being alive, here, in 2017. Older books offer a unique form of immersion in another time and place, as actually lived by the writer, rather than as imagined by a writer conjuring up a historical time or a fantasy world.

I have been most attracted to mid-twentieth-century novels of suspense by women. There is no shortage of good writers to choose from, and burrowing into these books feels like sinking into a very long Hitchcock movie, where everyone was well dressed, and their madnesses were kept just simmering beneath the surface, rather than on display for all to see. These novels offer plenty to disturb and horrify, but the horror feels once removed, and therefore safer, I think, than trying to tackle a dystopia or apocalypse that might shade too close to real life right now.

Here is a short reading list, although anything you might pick up by these grandes dames is bound to satisfy you:

  • Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca, The Scapegoat
  • Patricia Highsmith: The Blunderer, Deep Water
  • Dorothy B. Hughes: The Blackbirder, The Expendable Man
  • Shirley Jackson: The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman
  • Margaret Millar: A Stranger in My Grave

Inspirations… (Jan. 27, 2017)

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The Women’s March was truly inspiring. I took part in my own small way. Our small North Carolina town had 1,500 people turn out. I was gobsmacked, because we are just not that big a town. There were 17,000 people marching in Raleigh. Here are some wonderful photos of the marchers around the world. What I loved about this protest is how positive it was, to counteract the terrible negativity we’ve been seeing from elected officials; women and men  from all backgrounds came together in solidarity, to support one another, and to start building a movement, rather than to tear down.

The news this week has not been so inspiring, I’m sorry to say, but in troubled times, people always turn to literature. Literature gives us a blueprint for how to deal with life, and that’s why telling stories is so important. One such story is George Orwell’s 1984, which is selling out this week in response to the newly coined phrase “alternative facts.” 1984 is a touchstone book for me; here’s what I wrote about it a few years ago, also in response to the political climate. Now, unfortunately, Orwell’s vision seems even more prescient. 

For those of you who, like me, feel somewhat overwhelmed by current events, this article is a must-read: “How to #StayOutraged without Losing Your Mind.” There is some important advice here–follow it.

And now, a ray of sunshine–more great news in overdue filmed adaptations: Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens is being adapted as a limited series by Amazon, joining American Gods on Hulu.

I leave you with the inevitable reading list (always more to read!). If you have already gobbled up 1984 and are looking for more dystopias, here’s a short list of recommendations that seem particularly well-suited for the current political climate:

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Children of Men by P. D. James
  • Parable of the Sower  and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
  • When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Inspirations… (Jan. 19, 2017)

womens-march-sperry-wow-webThe Women’s March on Washington is what is inspiring me right now. It started out as just an idea following on the surprising election results and has now grown, grassroots-style, into the largest protest and demonstration to take place in response to the inauguration. The march is for everyone, regardless of gender identity, who believes that women’s rights are human rights. The primary march will be held in Washington, DC, but there will be supporting marches in cities, large and small, around the world. Where I live, there are at least three supporting events within easy driving distance.

I was impressed with the Women’s March Global Mission for Equality, and I hope this signals the beginning of a powerful and effective worldwide movement. I only wish that education of girls and women was a plank in the mission statement, because I personally believe that education is the key to empowering women.

For those of us who enjoy self-education, I offer my favorite feminist reads to help you resist in the coming years:

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • The Female Man by Joanna Russ
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
  • The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper
  • The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
  • The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant
  • Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
  • Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
  • When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
  • Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
  • The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Recommended Reading: The Long and Faraway Gone

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The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney follows two characters–only slightly connected–who are both from Oklahoma City and are both struggling to get past unresolved mysteries from their youth. Wyatt, now a private investigator living in Las Vegas, returns to Oklahoma City as a favor for a friend to find out who is harassing a woman who recently inherited a bar; the trip brings up buried memories, because when Wyatt was fifteen and worked at a movie theater one summer, he was the only survivor of a mass shooting and robbery there, and has since struggled to figure out why. Julianna never left Oklahoma City; she is a nurse who is obsessed with what happened to her older sister, who disappeared from the State Fair that same summer. These two characters’ paths occasionally cross, but their stories are separate and are both engrossing. With three mysteries in one, this novel is understated but not slow-moving, with well-defined characters and a fascinating subtext about how we inadvertently touch so many other peoples’ lives as we go about living ours.

Hiatus…

I’m taking a hiatus from this website and all social media for an indefinite period. The Internet is not a healthy place for me to be right now.

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Some thoughts about immersion and book abandonment…

In lieu of a reading recommendation this week, I offer some unfocused thoughts about book abandonment. Many readers seem to think that it is a virtue to finish every book they start, even if they aren’t enjoying it. I used to think so myself, but as I have gotten older and more aware that time is getting shorter, I’m less willing to spend that time on a book that’s not doing it for me. I know my reading speed by now, I know how long it takes me to finish the average book, and I value those hours highly.

I highly advocate giving up on books–especially fiction–that aren’t doing it for you. It may be a case of the wrong book at the wrong time or for the wrong reader. I abandoned two books just this week, one in which I gotten about halfway and one in which I was a little over fifty pages in. (I confess that I did read the last chapters of both, just to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake; I wasn’t.)

The one thing I ask of from my fiction reading is immersion. I read because I want to explore other worlds of the imagination; I want to be taken away from this one, at least for a short while. Nothing does this for me like reading, but sometimes finding the book that does the trick is difficult.

There is no one quality that guarantees immersion. Chuck Wendig offers up twenty-five reasons why he stops reading books here, and all of these have something to do with preventing immersion. Little things can do it: an overload of errors; wooden dialogue; a singsong or monotonous style; overuse of one-sentence paragraphs. More often, it’s bigger issues. I’m not seeing anything new. The characters don’t come across as real people. The story is being told to me, instead of being shown in scenes that I can imagine in my head. The world of the story doesn’t come alive for me. I don’t feel like anything real is at stake in the story.

And there’s no predicting which books will end up being immersive. That’s why I always try to give a book at least fifty to a hundred pages to reel me in. (That’s about one reading session.) That seems fair. But if after that, I’m asking myself why I’m reading the book or, worse, looking for excuses not to read, I feel no guilt in putting the book down and picking up another.

What I love about Stranger Things…

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If you like the kinds of books I do and you haven’t been watching Stranger Things on Netflix, get thee to a television. This series constantly references Stephen King’s books plus tons of great movies by John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, and others we remember from the ’80s. And it has Winona Ryder! She is the ’80s for me.

Lots of people are talking about the nostalgic feelings that the series recreates, which it certainly does, but I think even better is that it hearkens back to a type of story that we don’t see so much anymore. It’s horror but not dark, in that the characters come across as real, human, and basically good people who end up working together against evil. This is a pervasive theme in Stephen King’s older books, and something I love about them. This show gives you characters you can recognize and root for. This is old-fashioned storytelling at its best.