Former Indian Army Captain Ranjit Singh, after being court-martialed for a mission gone terribly wrong, is self-exiled to Massachusetts with his family. He is barely scraping by on Martha’s Vineyard, working as the winter caretaker for the rich summer residents of the island, when a chain of events gets his family picked up by Homeland Security and puts Ranjit on the run for his life. The Caretaker is a well-told conspiracy story with an intriguing hero and an interesting glimpse of Indian culture.
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is a retelling of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, part of a series of contemporary retellings of Shakespeare by literary authors. Winterson just rolls with the absurdity of her source material, inserting a completely appropriate sense of magical realism into the contemporary time and setting by employing a series of fairy tale-esque locales, including a fantastic video game about angels. I thoroughly enjoyed this quick read, including the little endnote on the theme of forgiveness, and I’m looking forward to checking out more books in the series from Hogarth Shakespeare.
Here’s a great piece about Ursula K. Le Guin being published by Library of America. She’s a feisty old broad, and I mean that in the most affectionate way.
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.
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.
This week, I’m recommending a book I stayed up until the wee hours last night finishing: Descent by Tim Johnston. On a family vacation in Colorado, an eighteen-year-old girl goes for a run on a deserted mountain road, accompanied by her younger brother on a mountain bike, when the worst thing happens: the boy is left injured, and the girl has disappeared, plummeting her family into a nightmare. This book was so much more than the escapist thriller I was expecting. It never goes in the expected direction. Johnston’s writing style is spare but evocative, and he does a remarkable job of breathing life into the wild mountain setting and all the characters, large and small, allowing the reader to fully inhabit this book’s world. While the subject matter is undeniably rough, the story itself has a quality of myth, addressing themes of fate and chance and what it means to be a hero. This book enthralled me, and I’m sure it will stay with me for a long time.