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.

Pretty books: Recent acquisitions

So my attempts to journal my reading here have fallen by the wayside, other than the occasional recommendations of books I loved. If you’re that interested in the minutiae of what I read (some people are–it’s crazy!), you can always check out my thread on LibraryThing.

I still like to share my acquisitions, especially when they are pretty. Lately I’ve been on a ghost story kick. Here are three ghost stories I recently picked up.

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Very pretty, aren’t they? The first one is a novel; the other two are short stories.

Reading Journal: Beginning of April

It’s been over a month since I’ve posted a reading journal update. Most of my reading has lately not-so-inspiring–although I did enjoy reading Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor so much that I wrote a rather long response to it.

far_north_therouxAnother post-apocalyptic book I enjoyed was Far North by Marcel Theroux. It is set in post-climate change Siberia and is also about a woman’s journey. Also recommended is John Scalzi’s Lock Inwhich is a near future thriller with a lot of intriguing ideas.

Newer fiction was a bit of a letdown. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins is buzz-worthy dark fantasy, and the style reminds me quite a lot of Neil Gaiman, but it seemed too heavy on the horror with not enough emotional connectivity to fully engage me. Ditto for the post-apocalyptic novel The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy–strong shades of The Stand and Swan Song, but not nearly the emotional punch of those classics.

Some horror by women: A romance-heavy ghost story by Alexandra Sokoloff, The Unseen (which is set very near where I lived in Durham, NC), came across as muddled. The Cipher by Kathe Koja is much better written horror, but somewhat overlong for the premise. It’s about a hole (a “Funhole”) that’s a portal of sorts, and it changes things … and people. This is a concept that’s hard to summarize. However, I did think it should have been closer to novella length.

26883558Victor LaValle’s new novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, is very well written, and interesting in that it is both an homage to H.P. Lovecraft and a refutation of his racism. It is a retelling of one of Lovecraft’s most notoriously xenophobic stories, “The Horror at Red Hook” (amusing summary here). LaValle very cleverly turns Lovecraft in on itself to offer a different version of events, one that underscores the racism of the time as it really existed and in the writing and reading of Lovecraft and others. However, it is still Lovecraftian, and I have never been a fan of anything Lovecraft. If you are, it is worth a read.

Both The Cipher and The Ballad of Black Tom have a cipher; a portal into nothingness; a figure inside that you do not want to see. It was interesting reading them back-to-back.

An homage of a different sort is James Maxey’s Bad Wizarda return to Oz. This self-published book is a lightweight adventure that takes place after Dorothy is all grown up. Like the LaValle, it’s a cheap buy for Kindle.

Currently, I’m back to horror, reading the enthralling A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. I hope to be reading more new fiction over the next few months and posting reviews more regularly. I hope you find something in this roundup that catches your fancy!

Literary elephantiasis…

Recently, I attended a panel discussion of local writers on something entirely unrelated when one of them said something that confirmed a suspicion I already had. He said that an editor had actually asked him to shove 10,000 more words into his manuscript. Apparently, long books look more substantial on bookstore shelves, so I guess it feels like you’re getting more bang for your buck or something. I had already suspected this a while ago after reading The Goldfinch, which I thought was several thousand words too long. It used to be that editors edited. Now, apparently they bloat. That only adds to my stubborn determination to avoid books over 500 pages unless I have a damn good reason to read them. This piece in The Guardian only  reinforces my view, and it includes a nice list of short books if you’re tired of “literary elephantiasis.” Do you think novels are too long these days?

By the way, here’s my previous rant on long books. Since I wrote that, here are a few popular novels I’ve passed up reading because they’re too damned long: A Little Life; The Luminaries; Wolf Hall; The Paying Guests; Seveneves; and I could go on (and on and on).

Reading journal: Mid-February

Reading has slowed down, although I have one new recommendation to post shortly. I reread The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin with my son, which I think was a bit too old for him, but I still love it.

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I also reread Dracula on audio. I last read Dracula as a pre-teen or youngish teen. I don’t remember exactly when, but I do remember the book: it was a large hardcover, text printed in columns, with deep blue and black illustrations. I wonder what happened to it. My current edition is also lovely, from Penguin Classics. I have to admit that I’m amazed at what my younger self read all the way to the end. Of course, back then we didn’t have video games, tablets, DVDs (or even VCRs), or personal computers. We had three television stations. (I’m making it sound like the way-back old days, but truthfully, I am not that old–things have changed a lot!) There wasn’t much to do but read, and I was game for just about anything.

Does it hold up? It’s a trifle bloated, more than a trifle sexist, very purple at times, a touch anticlimactic, but still has so many wonderfully scary parts. What can top Dracula crawling headfirst down the wall of his castle? So I’d say yes, it holds up. There’d be no vampires without him.

I finished an interesting ghost story by an Icelandic author: I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. It’s fun exploring a familiar genre from a new point of view. I’m following it up with a vampire story, Let Me In by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist. A lot of snow and desolate places in my reading right now.

New acquisitions! I treated myself to several collections focusing on specific genres.

 

Reading journal: January wrap-up

Not full reviews or even necessarily recommendations, just some notes on what I’ve been reading.

I will never read all the dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction out there, but I keep trying. This month I read a very early apocalypse story by Jack London: The Scarlet Plague (free to read online). This short story feels like an ur-story for George Stewart’s Earth Abides (also set in San Francisco). It doesn’t really have a plot; rather, it’s just a description of civilization’s quick fall from disease and a meditation on how easily humanity could return to savagery. Frequent readers of apocalyptic fiction will recognize a lot of ideas that were later fleshed out by other writers, but London should get credit for being one of the first. This might also be considered an early steampunk story, as well. London’s vision of the future–the plague hits in 2013–includes dirigibles and steam power, as well as some radically altered version of U.S. government. However, it’s also terribly classist and sexist. But it’s short enough to read in one sitting and would be of interest to anyone studying this genre of fiction.

I also read Margaret Atwood’s latest dystopia: The Heart Goes Last. (I linked to the NYT review, which I pretty much agree with.) Not every book by a favorite author can be great (with the exception of Jane Austen). Inevitably, a disappointment comes along, and here comes one from an author who is a personal hero of mine. Atwood’s messaging regarding security and freedom is pretty heavy-handed, the sexual content is more than a little disturbing, and the end just left me cold. It feels like a throw-off and certainly in no way resembles Atwood’s more masterful dystopias, Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale.

I do have a book recommendation to post soon, and I am just starting another post-apocalyptic novel: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. 

A foundational reading list…

I promise that this is the absolute last reading list I will post. Ha ha, no.

What if you are starting your reading completely from scratch? What should you read to have a good foundation on which your future reading will rest? What are those books that sparked legions of imitators and inserted themselves permanently in our shared cultural consciousness?

This is my attempt to craft a foundational reading list, one that is not only easily achievable (no, you don’t have to read Ulysses) but also enjoyable. Published in the previous two hundred years (1810-2010), these novels offer a variety of viewpoints, genres, and styles. Yet all have been highly influential on how we see ourselves as human beings. I consider these the essential books–all truly worth reading.

Is this list perfect? Of course not, but it’s a great place to start. One book always leads to another, and I hope these books will lead the burgeoning reader on to further discoveries.

Sixty books may seem like a lot. So why not set a goal of reading one book a month? Or even read one a week (or so) and power through the list in just over a year. Many of these selections are short and, more importantly, they’re fun to read. I’ve arranged the list in chronological order, but tackle them any which way. The most important thing is to keep reading and to love your reading life.

By the way, I have omitted children’s and young adult books from this list. That would be another list in itself.

  1. urlPride and Prejudice by Jane Austen* (1813) – The choices that women must make.
  2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) – The first science fiction novel, the modern monster.
  3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) – A woman lives life on her terms.
  4. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857) – A woman desperately pursues a life that might fulfill her.
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884) – To grasp our shameful American history, as seen through the eyes of a child.
  6. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) – A foundational horror novel about the duality of human nature.
  7. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891) – Can you live a life of debauchery without consequences? Another foundational novel for modern horror.
  8. dracula-book-cover-e1368750274302Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897) – Legions of vampires would not exist without him.
  9. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells* (1897) – The father of science fiction, the psychological consequences of pursuing unnatural power.
  10. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898) – More than just a ghost story, an early psychological thriller and a terrific example of the unreliable narrator.
  11. The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899) – A woman awakens to the desire to live as she feels inside.
  12. The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899) – The horror of Western expansion into Africa.
  13. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1902) – The first and still greatest detective.
  14. A-Room-With-a-ViewA Room With a View by E.M. Forster* (1908) – A treatise in how to live.
  15. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920) – How society’s rules imprison us.
  16. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) – Skewering the myth of the American dream.
  17. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1926) – The queen of mystery’s most famous case.
  18. The Good Earth by Pearl Buck (1931) – Travel to a foreign land: pre-Revolution China.
  19. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) – One frightening vision of what humanity can become.
  20. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (1936) – More than just a great mystery, also a debate on the role and purpose of women, a debate we are still having today.
  21. OfMiceAndMenOf Mice and Men by John Steinbeck* (1937) – Still skewering the myth of the American dream.
  22. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) – A foundational suspense story, often imitated, never surpassed.
  23. 1984 by George Orwell* (1949) – Another frightening vision of what humanity can become.
  24. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949) – An early vision of the end of civilization.
  25. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951) – The original story of teen angst.
  26. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952) – What it means to be a man.
  27. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury* (1953) – The reason to keep reading.
  28. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke* (1953) – An altogether different vision of what humanity may become.
  29. lotf11-320x484Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) – How quickly we revert to barbarism.
  30. A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (1955) – What is meant by Southern gothic and an unflinching picture of the twentieth-century South.
  31. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) – To further grasp our shameful American history, as seen through the eyes of a child.
  32. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1960) – Can we overcome our impulse to destroy ourselves?
  33. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961) – War is not only hell, it’s stupid.
  34. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962) – How the systems we create imprison us.
  35. 61R2KWP2TZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson* (1962) – No one messes with your head better.
  36. Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) – Still-relevant political commentary in the guise of a terrific space opera.
  37. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967) – A study of paranoia that ushered in a new golden age of horror.
  38. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin* (1969) – An alien culture sheds light on our assumptions about gender.
  39. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut* (1969) – A treatise in how to die. So it goes.
  40. The Shining by Stephen King* (1977) – The perfect haunted house novel.
  41. 51648G4EeqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979) – Humor often leads to truth.
  42. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982) – The lives of black women.
  43. Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984) – The formative sci-fi novel for the digital age.
  44. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985) – The definitive novel of the American West.
  45. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood* (1985) – A frightening allegory for the never-ending oppression of women.
  46. Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (1986) – How can we truly understand the alien other?
  47. Parable-of-the-Sower-e1447884800914The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989) – The immigrant’s story, the lives of Asian American women.
  48. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990) – War is not only stupid, it’s hell.
  49. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992) – The darkness inside us, what we are capable of.
  50. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (1992) – The modern South–it hasn’t changed much.
  51. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler* (1993) – A dark vision of a future that could already be happening
  52. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (1993) – What it means to form a family.
  53. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998) – How the West has decimated Africa.
  54. brief-wondrous-life-of-oscar-wao-by-junot-diazThe Hours by Michael Cunningham* (1998) – Women’s lives and how books shape who we are.
  55. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002) – How we determine our identity.
  56. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell* (2004) – Life is only a story after all.
  57. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro* (2005) – Why do we accept without questioning our destinies as they are told to us?
  58. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy* (2005) – How the American West has changed.
  59. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (2006) – A darker look into women’s lives.
  60. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (2007) – The curse of family and history.

*These starred authors are exceptionally great. I encourage you to read many more of their works.