Kiss Me, Katie: A TBR Challenge Review

This month’s challenge is to read a book in your TBR that was recommended to you. Rather than a single title, I decided to read an author that has been recommended to me. My sister loves Jill Shalvis’s novels and has been recommending them to me for many years. I have a stack of them on my shelves at home, both her early category romances and her later contemporary romances – including her latest release. Rather than reading her latest release – which has only been on the TBR since Christmas – I decided to start with Kiss Me, Katie! which in America was released in 2000 as a Harlequin Duet (which seemed to focus of romantic comedy) along with Shalvis’s accompanying novel Hug me, Holly! I read the Australian publication of Kiss Me, Katie! released as a Sexy Harlequin Mills & Boon. Katie is a cautious, sensible accountant working for a flight company and Bryan is a maverick, pilot who also performs stunts for the same company. The two are attracted to each other but Katie does not want to be with someone who is a risktaker.

Kiss Me, Katie  US Duet cover and Australian Sexy cover

Kiss Me, Katie
US Duet cover and Australian Sexy cover

For me, category romances are the most perfect narrative form for romance stories. At their best, they are tightly written with little superfluous prose and hardly any annoying secondary characters cluttering the two protagonists path to love. Kiss Me, Katie! appears to be Jill Shalvis’s 21st novel (and from what I can tell, her 21st category romance) and it would be another five years before she released her first standalone romance. However, it feels as though this is the first book in which she integrates a secondary story/romance as there is an accompanying book called Hug Me, Holly! Why does all this matter? Well, sadly, the secondary romance that builds through the primary romance takes away the necessary character development needed. I feel that category romances have little wiggle room and the moments this took away from  the necessary character understanding that I didn’t feel took place. Katie has a hangup about daredevil stuntmen because her stuntman father died during a stunt but this didn’t develop beyond a “Yep. I want to be safe and have a safe guy in my life”. I get this sentiment. I thought it worked well for the character’s motivations but her resentment of her father didn’t sit right with my reading of her character. And her one off phone call with her mother towards the end of the book reassuring her that her father loved her and her daughter as much as stunt flying also felt out of kilter. The introduction of yet another character, who could have easily stayed out of the dialogue interrupted the narrative rather than allow it to create the necessary arc for Katie to reconcile herself to loving a risk-taking man. I will discuss this more later in this post.

This book is most definitely a comedy, slapstick comedy and I deeply dislike slapstick humour in books. Comedy is my absolute favourite reading genre (even more so than romance but I will leave that idea to unpack itself in a future post) yet I think it is the most difficult writing of all as timing and intonation are critical to eliciting laughs. Slapstick to me is a visual medium, all Keystone Cops tripping and falling over one another. These actions are difficult to convey in text and did not work well for me in this book which is full of slapstick. From the opening scene where Katie is trying to corner Santa at the Christmas party to kiss him under the mistletoe to trips and spills throughout the book. Here is an excerpt where some company clients (called Teddy and Rocky) end up wrestling with Katie tripping her over:

That’s when Teddy slid in low and punched. Rocky evaded, and in a comical twist that rivaled any ranchy television wrestling show, Teddy swiveled with the follow-through that ended up going nowhere. He fell on his butt on the lobby floor. With an enraged bellow, he went for Rocky’s feet, wrapping his pudgy arms around them just as Katie leaned all the way over the counter and grabbed both envelopes. Her toes left the floor, making her gasp at the loss of balanced….

This reads more like a script for a movie to me, a document describing the actors movements rather than naturally flowing in the narrative. It would probably work well in a movie form, and with novels being written with movie options in mind perhaps this blow by blow (stumble by stumble?) seems to becoming more common in novels. I think of one of my favourite romantic comedies, Bringing Up Baby, and I know that it too would not be anywhere near as successful as a novel as some of the scenes such as the scene with Katharine Hepburn dragging the vicious tiger into the gaol (rather than Baby) or even the closing scene where the dinosaur collapses and Katharine Hepburn is dangling from the scaffolding just for Cary Grant to declare his love for her and save her are ludicrous and over the top and work wonderfully when you watch them but they would not work in text.

Other aspects of Kiss me, Katie! that did not work for me were sudden body issues. Just towards the end, right when the Katie and Bryan and getting down to the groove thang she starts apologising for her fat body. He looks at her incredulously, and I started flicking towards the beginning of the book, rather perplexed as I hadn’t picked up on any “OMG – my body is fat bet nobody likes me so I better where the white cotton undies” vibe from it. There are office shenanigans. Office romances happen. I mean, I’ve seen a couple in real life and it is very common in contemporary romance fiction but it always feels irksome. Katie and Bryan are colleagues in different departments so there is no power imbalance but there was an uncomfortable start to their romance as Katie actually was pursuing the Vice President of her company but accidently (yup – slapstick ooops! again) ends up kissing Bryan at the Christmas party, thus kicking off their “hilarious” romance comedy of errors.

To add to all this, I also have a most hated phrase in fiction that usually is enough for me to refuse to read further once it appears in a book and this book is peppered with “or so she/he thought”. It is foreshadowing and it drives me batty. I just don’t want to read it. To be fair to Jill Shalvis, I chose to continue reading a book that upfront, in its blurb, uses my most hated phrase, means that I was entering the reading experience knowing that this was going to be an issue. It was not going to surprise me 150 pages into a novel. It was used several times throughout the book. I won’t complain any further.

But the clincher in all of this for me was my lack of believing that character change that Katie goes through. Bryan flies planes. Katie, though fascinated by planes is also kinda scared of them. So let me tell you what Bryan does. In the space of a page of dialogue, he gets her in a plane and flies her into the sky. There did not seem to be a break for checking with air control, he did not stick his head out the window to check for oncoming traffic and Katie fails totally in being phobic as she is “scared” yet she enjoys her flight. Speaking (writing) on behalf of all phobic fliers, I cannot relate to this moment in the book whatsoever. I found it ridiculous. I just wanted to shout at him “STOP TALKING AND FLY THE FREAKIN’ PLANE!!!”. As a flying phobic, this scene made me break out into a sweat! And even more ridiculous is right at the end, as Katie is trying to process Bryan’s unexpected public declaration of love (which he did instead of breaking up with her because that is what people who get nervous do), she grabs another pilot and says “give me flying lessons” and then suddenly, with no preliminaries she is flying, nearly killing herself and her instructor, freaking out Bryan and I am sure a whole lot of other staff working in the hangar which she (haha slapstick again) clips and then she joyfully jumps out of the plane, declares that she is no longer Safe Katie and loves risk taking and tells Bryan she loves him.

 

 

Deeeeeep breath.

I think the problem here relates back to the overall problem that I opened with. In category romance, the story needs to be tightly told and frankly there was way too much going on plotwise.There were too many characters in the book, there was slapstick humour and the main character changed too quickly from being phobic to being a risk taker. There were moments in the writing which I liked. The quiet verandah scene when the two were talking was tense and promising (until a slapstick LOLCat moment happened) but even the sex scene was not drawn out enough. One moment Katie is all “ZOMG you are too huge you will never fit” and then a couple of lines later Bryan is all smirk and suaveness “Hey babe, I told you I would fit”…at least they used a condom. I didn’t feel the book had aged and it didn’t feel anachronistic despite it being 15 years old.

The book had too many doing scenes and action scenes and very little time was spent in building the emotional connections that I seek in romance. Kiss Me, Katie! didn’t work for me on quite a few levels. This does not mean that I won’t read Jill Shalvis again. There was enough in the story and the writing that I liked. I recognise that this book could possibly have been her first foray outside the category form (I say possibly as I don’t definitively know if any of her previous books are linked) and I really appreciate that romance fiction publishing has always been about both the story at hand but also the promise of stronger, better stories to come and building an author’s body of work. It has been 15 years since this book has been published which allows for a lot of writing changes. I always enjoy going binge reading an new to me author so I will definitely venture reading more Jill Shalvis titles despite a book that I will consider a false start.

 

I own this book. I have no recollection as to how I obtained it, however it has been sitting on my shelves for many years and has an op shop price marking of $2 on the first page.

 

 

 

 

 

My true love never gives books

Last week, the Guardian tweeted out

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 9.21.08 AM

I think that there is a great reason that books are not amongst the gifts given in the 12 days of Christmas song. It is such a nuanced, difficult prospect to give books to anyone other than a child.

I really struggled to come with a book I was given. Though we had lots of books in the house my parents didn’t give us books as presents.  I have had an active library card since I was 4. I’m a borrower first and foremostly. Do I count books that librarians have given me? But that is their job. They are employed to, amongst many other tasks, suggest books for me to read.

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 8.08.14 amIf I count librarians, then I would have to say I fell in love with Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays. The first of the Melendy Quartet, written in 1940, follows the Melendy children living in New York, pooling their pocket money and having an adventure in the city. Mona, Rush, Miranda and Oliver set about on their adventures and in the process introduced me to the Opera, Central Park, the Museum of Modern Art. It is a splendid book that I read to my own boys when they were younger. It has not dated. It remains fresh and relevant, contemporary when it was published, yet now it is a glimpse at a city from a historical perspective. When Adam Gopnik’s From the Children’s Gate came out several years ago, I read through it excitedly. A book about children growing up in New York City and Central Park and love and life just had to have this American classic included. Sadly, he did not mention this most beloved book.

I think I will have to count my Mad Magazines even though I stole my first one from my cousin John who years later claimed he knew that I was sneaking them home. He also said that it is the only way that Mad Magazine should be acquired. It would not be subversive to just give them.

Children are much more fun to give books. They are still open and indiscriminate in their reading. They lap up the opportunity to read. I gave my cousin’s son Where’s Wally when he was little. He is now in his mid-20s, he is a DJ and travel manager yet everytime he sees me he is sweetly excited and talks about how it was his favourite book. Last year, I gave my nephew a stash of Zac Power books, I bought my goddaughter a heap of picture books, and my niece received Fairy books. Kids are easy. Find the series they love and then buy up big. The secret is to give them bulk. As the Bookwhisperer discusses here reading researchers know that the key to reading is volume. It’s doing lots of reading which is why series books hit the gift giving reading mark every single time.

Adults are much harder when it comes to giving novels, in my opinion. I am selective about the types of plot lines that I will read, I adore books written in the third person from several character viewpoints but this is hardly the mindset that someone will have when they are choosing for me. Due to my own preferences, I know that only a couple of people I know have successfully chosen books for me; that would be two of my sisters. To date, my husband has given up trying to buy me novels. His first present to me was James Kelman’s How Late it was, How Late. I could not get past the first chapter. He has, over the years, tried to buy me romance novels but once again his selections don’t hit the mark. He buys me tropes that I dislike, category lines I don’t enjoy or books I already own (damn those reworked covers for different countries). Romance readers are the hardest of all fiction readers to choose from as there is so little guidance to call on. My lovely husband has worked out that when it comes to novels he needs to consult me first. Otherwise, the book risks being regifted which apparently is bad form (I personally have no problem with this practice).

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 8.07.10 amHowever, coffee table books, glossy reads filled with flashy photos are much easier to pick than novels. House design books, travel books, fashion and celebrity books. There is a beautiful book from Vogue called The Gown that I am coveting. Now that would be a great gift to receive. And as it is my 19th wedding anniversary tomorrow, I will leave this post accidently lying around. Someone may just take the hint.

Heartbreaker: A TBR Challenge Review

As part of SuperWendy’s TBR Reading Challenge I picked up this Charlotte Lamb novel that has been waiting on my shelf for several months. I am totally obsessed with Ms Lamb and she has once again delivered a strikingly dark story. Here is my (rambly) review:

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 11.18.44 pm Heartbreaker

by Charlotte Lamb

published by Mills & Boon, 1981.

The back story is that Caroline had escaped her cruel and violent husband Peter. He was an alcoholic that used to beat her up but Caroline and his mother, Helen who lived with them, would make excuses for his behaviour and would cover up Caroline’s injuries so to protect him. But when Peter started hitting their daughter, Caroline leaves Yorkshire for the anonymity of London. Three years later, Caroline finds out that Peter has died and her former mother-in-law wants to see her granddaughter again. Caroline and Helen have a deep love and respect for each other. It is Helen’s nephew (and the hero of this story), Nick that finds Caroline and coerces her to return to the Yorkshire village. Nick is a menacing and mean. For a hero, I found him too rough and a tad violent in his first scene with Caroline. Though he does not hurt her, he certainly does his best to intimidate Caroline. He is convinced that his cousin’s alcoholism and subsequent death was due to his wife having left him.

All human beings are a tangled web of contradictions and confusions

I love the ideas that Charlotte Lamb weaves through this story. She explores the relationships that people have when they are part of a violent relationship and choose to hide and protect the abuser while protecting themselves. Lamb shows the complex relationship between two women, one who sees the failings of her son but still needs to stand by him through to the end yet loves her daughter-in-law and the daughter-in-law who feels connected to the same woman who asks her to hide her son’s misdeeds. The doctor who treated Caroline for her beatings is a mirror to Nick. He is a much nicer match for Caroline and though she recognises this she also sees that life and love and attraction cannot always be planned as clearly as this (I personally think that the doctor/patient relationship here would have been too thorny to contemplate). The compassion and understanding Caroline shows to Nick who verbally is abusive, exasperated me as he spends the majority of the book being kept in the dark about his cousin’s violent behaviour so he believes he is right in avenging his cousin.

As the story progresses you find out that Nick and Caroline had a happy friendship in the past and it isn’t until well into the book that you find out that this had changed when Nick kissed Caroline before she had left his cousin. This brought a new complication into their story. Caroline, who refuses to be dominated by Nick, has a moment of realisation that Nick is angry more at himself for he feels guilt for their kiss so long ago and he feels that she too should be filled with guilt. Nick feels he betrayed his cousin but Caroline does not feel that she betrayed her husband by kissing Nick as she had already mentally left the relationship. Nick was on his own with his guilt. When Nick finally discovers that his cousin had been abusive to Caroline he is remorseful and begs for Caroline’s forgiveness. We finally get a slight glimpse of the happy man that Caroline had considered her friend many years earlier. I was particularly taken by Caroline’s unapologetic lack of guilt about a joyful kiss shared while she was still married and the complex ways that people can escape relationships.

Settings are always important in Charlotte Lamb novels with characters communing with the land whether they are in a city or countryside setting and this book is a fine example of her sense of place. The settings of both London, where Caroline had escaped to hide from her husband, and the small Yorkshire village of Skeldale in the moors set the mood and pace. The manor home setting is rather gothic and reminiscent of Wuthering Heights particularly the dark and near fateful walk (and ultimately the catalyst to Nick discovering the truth) that Caroline takes through the moors. Helen talks on and on about the coldness of London and how people don’t know each other there, but as a reader you are keenly aware that in London Caroline’s neighbours had looked out for her and her daughter. Her neighbours had heard noises and called Caroline to check on her when Nick first turned up all angry and menacing whereas no neighbour helped Caroline out when she was being beaten by her husband in her “safe” village, not even Helen who lived with the young couple stood up for Caroline, instead begging her to not bring shame on the family by letting anyone know. This insistence on keeping up appearances upset Caroline but she concedes to the needs of her ailing mother-in-law. Caroline also thinks back to her early marriage (she was 17 and Peter only a few years older) and questions whether this brought her husband Peter to his alcoholism (along with his father’s abuse) and ponders “They had been too young to know what they were doing….he hadn’t been old enough to face the responsibilities of marriage…the strain had cracked him apart”. Lamb’s own questioning of this societal questioning gleans through in many of her books. Further in the book Caroline despairs at constantly being brought down and just wants to escape “male violence”.

I feel as though my desciption of this book is a bit fractured. There were so many different elements I wanted to explore. Domestic violence is a topic that even now does not get addressed much in romance novels. I feel that Lamb only makes a surface exploration of this topic and I felt rather uncomfortable with the “hero” (I use quotation marks because he is not at all heroic) and wish that Caroline had found a nicer man for herself. But perhaps she saw still remembered the lovely Nick that she knew before their kiss and is able to tolerate him. Who knows.

I did feel that Caroline had agency from the beginning of this book, as a woman who walked out on her abusive husband. Though she concedes to Nick’s angry demands, she does so on her terms. At the end of the book, Nick asks Caroline to marry him twice. The first time she refuses him and the second time she deflects his question, she puts him off. As happy as she is to accept his love declaration (and to make her own) she does not commit herself to him. Caroline lives life on her terms.

I own this book. I bought it in a secondhand bookshop on the Isle of Wight.

 

On Reading: The Shelf

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors.

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading

by Phyllis Rose

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

In The Shelf  Phyllis Rose decides upon reading every book on a specific fiction shelf (LEQ-LES) in the New York Society Library (NYSL) allowing the library’s arbitrary alphabetised ordering principle (such as I discussed in my last post) to dictate her choices.  I really like the sub sub heading of Adventures in Extreme Reading. Extreme reading, I assumed for the risks the reader takes in serendipitous choice of a shelf that could introduce all manner of wild ideas to the reader. For if this is extreme reading then librarianship by default becomes an extreme profession, one which allows us to venture into readerships unphased and fearless. I also think that this concept of extreme reading is one that we in the library profession take for granted as we have our regulars who often tackle shelves without documenting their progress.

To begin with, I was surprised at Rose’s level of understanding of how libraries function. She understood the need for deaccessioning (weeding) in order to make room for new books. She understood all the different pressures and considerations that library staff have when they are assessing materials that need to be kept in a library. “Merely the fact that I checked out Leroux’s novels changed their fate. Since almost all formulas for deciding whether to keep or discard books in a library depend on how often a book is taken out and when it was last removed from the stacks, my interest alone will give these volumes another five years or so of life in the valuable real estate of a Manhattan Lending library” (p 23). Yes, folks. It is as easy as that. Borrow a book and you save it for at least another year or so. Everytime I hear some literary boffin bemoaning libraries deleting classics, consider the fact that many of those books have not been borrowed for 15, maybe 20 years. Lending libraries are not repositories, they are not museums and much as it is a knife stab to the heart of antiquarians, lending library staff are not keepers of the unread word.

So her choice of library was interesting in that it was a subscription library and not a public library. Subscription libraries are quite different to local libraries as their clients pay an annual fee to access the materials that are available to them. Rose is conscious too of the literary vetting that occurs for women to have any place on the library shelf. Phyllis Rose acknowledges the gatekeepers. She discusses VIDA Lit (where a few books ago, I felt that Stan Persky would have benefitted from including VIDA lit in his writing). She explores this idea that only 3 female authors are on her shelf of library reading and how this impacts her serendipitous reading. This represents only 27% of the total book titles on her shelf. Phyllis Rose further enamours me to her by referring to V. S. Naipaul who said that women writers were not more respected due to suffering  from “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world” (pg 102) as Sir Grumpus Maximus. She explores the fine line between writing great books that men will laud but women will read too without being seen as a male author that women love for that would be the “kiss of death”. Her discussions of women reading mimic so many of those that I read and take part in both the twittersphere and the blogosphere but I had yet to see these opinions published in a print book. I feel as though the printed world has finally caught up. Libraries purchase their materials on the strength of reviews so gender bias affects reading and access to materials. Though there is some library scholarly discussion on this bias there is very little that discusses this perspective as a library user, as someone outside of the library institution but within literary institutions. I am mindful, that in the 27%, Rose does not encounter a romance author. I am a bit disappointed at this, as I think that she would have fully embraced the genre should it have occurred on her shelf. But even I am hard pressed to think of any romance authors whose surnames fit within the LEQ-LES span. However, I think that had she chosen the BAL-BAN shelf, she would have openly embraced Mary Balogh, or had she explored JAM-JAR she would have loved Julie James. But even then, the NYSL had few romance choices even if Rose had chosen a different shelf to explore. There is no Mary Balogh, Cecilia Grant or Julia Quinn and only Eloisa James’s Paris travel memoir is in their catalogue. I keep searching for more names – Laura Kinsale is missing as is Loretta Chase. Miranda Neville, Kristan Higgans, Victoria Dahl – they are all absent. But Jennifer Crusie, Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Nora Roberts are all on the shelf. There are a few Suzanne Brockmann titles that could have shaken Phyllis Rose’s world and thankfully there were plenty of Georgette Heyer titles. Laughably, I did search for Harlequin and Mills and Boon titles and there were no titles at all held at this library. Not even in the Large Print section, possibly one of the few collections of category romances that have been known to sneak onto subscription library shelves (well – at least they have at the Sydney Mechanics for the Arts Library). However, and this will come as no surprise to many romance readers, there was plenty of crime fiction and it was certainly represented on Rose’s shelf. Not only did the library collect crime fiction but they also have a monthly newsletter with about 60 titles. Once again, my exasperation at libraries comes through. So much effort is placed in buying and reviewing crime, yet with romance the comments from buyers will often be “there is too much published in a month, we can’t buy, we don’t know where to start”. Yes. Well. There seems to be no problem with a starting point for crime. In my opinion, it is library selections that has impacted on the arbitrariness of Rose’s reading. But I digress.

The NYSL is one of the oldest in New York and it is evident in the breadth of age of the books that Rose reads. I love the way she explores each book, considering the text as only part of a story. Rose takes us down the rabbit holes that each book has sent her on. She meets authors who become friends, she discovers stories of authors dying before their time due to senseless duels, she creates reading maps with every book she reads. I wanted to stand on my chair and cheer her.

I am amused by her perspective. Phyllis Rose discusses grotty books and how “many people claim deep attachment to the feel of traditional books” without the acknowledgment that often the physical book can come between you and the text when it is a dirty, well used book. This is often the problem with library books. As sentimental as one may be, the dirt and grime of a well worn copy that is no longer in print leaves a library in a quandary as to delete or keep the book on the shelves.

I love that Phyllis Rose quotes Library Journal, she explores humour and domesticities and I find myself nodding and agreeing with her every line. She says that “spontaneity, inclusiveness and uniqueness are marks of great fiction” when discussing Jodi Picoult’s books and she asks “How do we make aesthetic judgements”(p 139) . This one phrase is of high importance to me. Phyllis Rose is exploring a library and reading a specific shelf. How did the librarians, the collection development and acquisitions staff make those aesthetic judgments over so many years that have in turn impacted so greatly on the discussions that appear in this book.

In reading and writing this book, Phyllis Rose writes that she read 23 books and 11 authors, she discovered short stories, novels, realistic, mythic, literary and detective fiction, American, European, old, contemporary, highly wrought and flabby fiction, inspired and uninspired fiction. She says that “My shelf covered a lot of ground”. Phyllis Rose was guided by the arbitrariness of the alphabet and in it discovered both forgettable books but more importantly, several keepers. I worry about people who will recreate Phyllis Rose’s experiment who walk into genrified libraries. How will this lack of arbitrariness impact the books they take home. I worry about the libraries who keep the majority of their stock in robotic stacks, buried deep and only searchable by the subject headings that are attached to them by cataloguers who have not necessarily read beyond the cover information made available to them. What secrets remain deeply buried in these stacks that will not be browsed upon, that there is no possibility for serendipitous discovery. Ross’s reading led her through labyrinths of discussions and other reading from reviews, to blogs to research and to the original authors themselves.

Phyllis Rose ends her book thusly “If The Shelf brings other readers to these novels, I will be happy, but even happier if it sends them into the stacks of libraries to find favorites of their own and to savor the beauties of what I hope is not a vanishing ecosystem”. This book sang to me. It was not only a pleasure but a celebration of my own reading ideals. Catherine Sheldrick Ross was already a match reading perception wise. However, this was not a surprise to me as I am in her (library) tribe. But I had yet to find an omnivorous, generous, aesthetic reader from within literary circles published in traditional print form. I know they exist – they are already in the virtual world and they are part of my real world but I had not found a book written by a literary that discussed their approach to reading with such equanimity as Phyllis Rose.   I love reading someone who has a deep understanding of not only how literature relates to the everyday person but is able to shift with how attitudes to reading has been changing over the past decades. I am so thrilled by this book. I love the shelf reading premise (shelf reading is a daily task for employees of libraries). I love that reading through a library shelf is considered extreme reading. I adored every single page of this book for Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf is everything that I look for in a book discusses discussing reading and how it relates to the world around us.

This book is worthy of fireworks.

 

The copy of the book I read was borrowed from my university’s library. I discovered it by browsing the library shelves.

On Reading: The Pleasures of Reading

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors.

The Pleasures of Reading

The Pleasures of Reading

The Pleasures of Reading: A Booklover’s Alphabet by Catherine Sheldrick Ross

published by Libraries Unlimited, 2014

So far the books I have discussed I found by browsing the library shelves at my university, whereas Catherine Sheldrick Ross’s The Pleasures of Reading led me to them.

 

Catherine Sheldrick Ross is one of “my tribe”. She is a librarian scholar and researcher of readerly people at Western University, Ontario, Canada (well actually, she is a professor emeritus of library and information  science). I first came across Ross upon reading her paper “Reader on Top: Public Libraries, Pleasure Reading and Models of Reading”. Ross, in her paper discusses the child series reader, the romance reader, pleasure reading, reading as a ladder and what I found particularly striking, is the anxiety that librarians feel in promoting reading that is not considered by literary standards to be “the best”. Early on in my candidature, I had to make a decision as to whether I will focus my research on romance fiction or on romance readers and, due to Ross’s research I felt challenged. I deeply loved the idea of exploring readers but, for reasons I won’t go into here, I eventually chose to focus on romance fiction instead. However, Ross’s research remains important to me so I seek out her writing. Having read many of her papers and her book Reading Matters, when The Pleasures of Reading was published last year, it immediately hit my TBR. And it did not disappoint me. It was so wonderful that I read it in the space of two days (somewhat of a feat for me with non-fiction).

Catherine Ross says “As an ordering principle, the alphabetic arrangement offers the serendipity of arbitrariness” and that with it comes the possibility of “all-inclusivess”. Ross’s book is written and ordered alphabettically. From Alphabet to Z to A her chapters cover Bad Reading, Jackets and Book Covers, Marginalia, Unreadable Books to genre exploriations such as Romance Fiction and Horror novels. Throughout every chapter Ross focuses on the reader and their needs.Her descriptors range

I love that Ross uses equitable, non-judgemental descriptions for her readers such as omnivorous, avid, self-improving, eclectic, selective, aspirational, efferent and aesthetic reading, discriminate, indiscriminate, selective, superreaders, voracious and so on. I find myself categorising my own reading according to the descriptors that Ross uses.

 

I think of my own reading and choose the descriptors that suit me.

I am an aesthetic reader.

I am a voracious reader.

I am a selective reader – many people would think that reading copious amounts means you are indiscriminate. There are people in this world that will read anything that comes their way. This does not describe my reading. I am picky. I could be in a library or a bookshop and struggle to find a title that interests me. My romance reading is particularly discriminating. I seek out specific tropes, specific authors. I have phrases that render a book unreadable, I need convincing to tackle a doorstop tone. I love sparcity in writing. But I will try many books in my search for the perfect read.

As a librarian, and working in customer service,  I have to keep myself in check when a reader of Important books requests assistance. I tend to avoid reading books that win prizes and medals and have gold stickers on them. These books rarely interest me, they make me feel as though I am an outlier and that I am  only person that does not see the writing that others applaud. But this means I still need to be familiar with Important books as I am the professional that needs to navigate people to the books they find joy in. Ross discusses the anxiety that critical authorities feel when they see people embracing cheap books or books they do not value and the impact this has had over the years to the reader.

This book is a discussion of the many elements of readers advisory librarianship and all it entails. Though it is a professional publication, it is highly readable and would be of interest to anyone who wants to explore different types of readers and reading styles.

Ross quotes Mortimer Adler who said “The marked book is usually the thought through book” and my photograph of my book is certainly an indication of the connection that I have had with this book.

If this book had been mine, I would have marked every page. I would have had a discussion with Catherine Ross that she would never know it.  Instead, my library copy is thick with post-it notes. This book IS the librarian model that I am. This is the how so many in my profession model themselves alongside and I think all in the library profession would feel totally validated by the publication of these serious, yet simply stated ideas.

This existence of this book makes me happy!

 

The copy of the book I read was borrowed from my university’s library. I discovered it by searching for Catherine Sheldrick Ross on the catalogue.

 

 

On Reading: Reading the 21st Century

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors.

Reading the 21st Century

Reading the 21st Century

Reading the 21st Century: Books of the decade, 2000-2009 
by Stan Persky
published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

I should have posted this blog last night. Instead, my son and I had an all out battle on SingStar. We belted out power ballads and I wiped the floor with him thanks to Bonnie Tyler and Queen. In some cases we sang songs familiar to both of us and in other instances we sang songs new to us. What blew me away though was my son singing Naughty by Nature’s O.P.P. The rapping is phenomenally fast in that song. My son has only heard it a couple of times yet he was able to keep up with the text flying across the screen – I could not. Earlier in the day he spent a few hours reading his fifth novel for the summer holidays – Suzanne Collins’s Catching Fire (“it isn’t as good as the first one, mum”). I also know that amongst his feeds and apps he subscribes to daily Sports news (as a teenaged sports nut is wont to do) and SBS News (“you have to have a balanced world view, mum”). He had also watched five episodes of Community with the captions turned on. I consider my son to be an average reader. He’s pretty good but he doesn’t come close to the kids that I see coming through libraries. The family joke is that my children are rebelling against me by not being avid readers. But here’s the secret – I do consider my kids avid because they are constantly engaged with text and in ways that I had not considered reading prior to 2000. At the sunset of the 20th century, the world wide web had yet to really impact reading but 15 years into the 21st Century, reading perspectives have shifted. So it was with deep disappointment that I read Stan Persky’s Reading the 21st Century expecting a contemporary approach but instead I found it full of apocalyptic doom and gloom about the end of knowledge, the end of culture and the dumbed down, ignorant youth of today that are victims to marketing and advertising and too stupid to know better.

I wasn’t going to add this book in my list of On Reading. It is the only title I am covering that is not published in 2014 and it is the only book I disagreed with. But I have included it as I read 6 books on reading back-to-back and my thoughts overlap and interlink with each of the books. I could not unread it.

My initial reaction to this book was far from positive. I posted a brief comment on Goodreads that said this: “I was disappointed with this book. A whole decade and the author could not bring himself to value even one female author (which he acknowledges in the book) yet he is happy to elevate 2 of his friends as authors of the decade. This is the point that I dismissed the book as a valuable critique of the decade’s literary production and I just consider it as a well-written personal list of fave books that could be turned into a Buzzfeed post. Suffice to say, after the first 2 chapters, I skim read to the end.”

I felt that I could not do a disservice to this book (or to my current series of blog posts) to just repost about my disgruntled skim read so I reborrowed the book (the only one that I had returned to the library of the 6 I read) and reread it, much closer this time. I find that though I am unconvinced by the book as a whole, I do need to retract part of my statement and then extrapolate on some other points.

First, my retraction. In actual fact, Stan Persky does list some women as influential in the first decade of the 21st century. Some of these authors are Naomi Klein, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Susan Jacoby but these are authors discussed in chapters where an event, issue or concept, for example, the chapter Ignorance in the desert, where reading in decline is the focus, as compared to his discussion of specific books and authors such as his chapters titled with Orhan Pamuk or Richard Dawkins’ names. This is why, upon glancing at the contents page and the index and skimming the surface of the book – those typical pre-browsing activities one makes so as to decide upon whether a book is worthy of being read deeper – that I found myself considering the book to have only male authors. Note also, that I found this book by browsing my university library shelves and did not find it due to any review literature and nor did my copy have its jacket cover (another odd but typical university library practice) where the blurb could inform me any differently as to the contents within the book. Persky himself addresses his leaning towards male authors and ruminates “I’m not sure how big a problem this is, but if it is one, it’s complicated by a variety of factors”. For me, it was definitely a problem and it did make me dismiss his book sooner than I should have. Perhaps a little less foreshadowing in the introduction (maybe reflecting in the conclusion instead) would have been a more positive experience for me but I do appreciate that at least Persky showed awareness of this issue and it is always difficult to decide where to position these discussions in a book. Had Persky written this book in 2014, I feel he would have been much more mindful of including women due to the high profile advocacy of Vida Lit which has been conducting its male/female ration count since 2009. However, this is not my main dispute with this book.

Persky goes into a library and his dismay at the databases replacing books . He talks about the stacks that remain unused which he labels “The Dead Library”. He discusses Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation and Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion and “the vacuity, shallowness, and dopey nature of the pop culture foisted on young people today” (though it isn’t all those dumb kids fault – it’s those darned marketing companies at this point I want to point out that all those smart books get marketed too) and he concludes his book with a discussion that society is in a “red alert” stage due to the dumbing down and the decline of reading. My main question here is: what decline of reading? I have been working in libraries since 1989. I have never, NEVER experienced a more excited and engaged readership as in our current era. Over many years (nay – decades!), I have worked on teams for assessment of materials for deletion, due to space restrictions, from library collections (public libraries are not repositories – if an item doesn’t get borrowed, unless it is of local importance, it needs to go). Adult collections always meet projected targets. Most materials are borrowed but it is easy to identify material for withdrawal due to books that don’t get borrowed for 2 years, and in one particular library I was assessing award winning books that had sat untouched on the open shelves for over 12 years – I see this not as a dumbed down reading populace but as a book that had not retained an interested audience . However, the kids’ collections have phenomenal loans. Some books have over 200 loans in the space of 4 years – we are talking this many loans per copy . The majority of copies have over 100 loans each. Kids are connected and smart and highly aware of the condescending attitudes of adults who treat them as less intelligent. Even as kids get older and they move away from reading 10 books a week and they enter their high school years and start reading across mediums, this does not make them unintelligent. I was disappointed that Persky, who makes an unapologetic aside about his Mad Magazine reading (having been brought up with Mad myself, this should have made him a winner in my eyes), I am baffled at how he doesn’t see that all the meme reading and snark compilations that youth make such as Thug Life and Randy Orton RKO as being any different to seeking out a Dave Berg’s The Lighter Side of or Don Martin’s cartoons . Is a Mort Drucker parody any different to Honest Trailers? They are just as incisive and critical of culture as Mad was with the only difference being that anyone can post their satire. It is no longer controlled by “elite” gatekeepers/editors – and therein lies the problem. Persky cites many other writers that support his reading doomsday prediction – and I would concede that reading that Persky values, you know – the literary publisher (who has a profit imperative as their bottom line just as much as any other commercial producer of pop cultural entertainments) and literary critic and gatekeeper endorsed reading is in decline because readers value different perspectives to theirs. I would suggest David Trend’s The End of Reading and Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think and the Pew Internet’s report on youth reading as a salve to Persky’s alarm.

Were there any positives for me to find in this book? I say yes. Persky goes down rabbit holes for the books that he deems worthy. He explores books and all of their referrents and not only the book as a stand alone object. He was definitely thoughtful and thorough in his discussion of issues and events important to him (which are also important to many readers). That he is thorough is undeniable. But I stand by my Buzzfeed statement. Where Wendy Lesser firmly states that her book is about her tastes, Persky positions his book as a bettering tool. He implies that by reading these books and taking his advice you too will be smarter and of a higher intellect.

My seeking out writers on reading is purposeful. I like validation of my own reading (don’t we all). I also like to see where others position themselves on the spectrum of mixed platforms to exclusively codex. As I demonstrated at the beginning of my post, I have a broad perception of the reading act. I endorse reading of all types. Alongside my embracing of books, I consider follow the bouncing ball singing along to The Beatles cartoons to be reading. I consider playing Cards Against Humanity reading. I consider having the closed captions on your favourite TV show turned on so that you can memorise every single line to be reading. And I consider them reading not in a pity party patronising sense of “Oh well…at least they are reading” sentiment *add a head tilt and condescending pat on the head* but because it is fully engaged, joyful reading. Bookclubs are all well and good as communal reading goes but Karaoke clubs knock shared reading experiences out of the ballpark. I am also aware that should Stan Persky read this post, I would immediately be considered part of the uncultured, unaware, unintelligent, dumbed down members of society that are guilty of the cultural demise that is upon us. But then again, he read Mad Magazine. I hope I am wrong.

The copy of the book I read was borrowed from my university’s library. I discovered it by browsing the library shelves.

On Reading: Why I read

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors.

Why I read by Wendy Lesser

Why I read by Wendy Lesser

Why I read: the serious pleasure of books by Wendy Lesser

published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2014

 

In her book “Why I read” Wendy Lesser writes that she has tried to have a broad definition of literature, including plays, poems, essays and novels, “from traditional literary forms to mysteries and science fiction, memoirs and journalism” (p 5). In describing such broadness I was hopeful. A female author, the wave of attention that romance has received over the last five years and a claim to wide reading. However, I was disappointed that, with the exception of a brief mention of fairy tales and the marriage plot (Lesser p37) Lesser does not include any romance fiction in her book. However, she does lauds Henry James’s female characters and says that they “do not come ready-packaged with a character that accompanies them through life, like a kit-bag of charms carried by the generic hero of a fairy tale”. She says that these women “become their characters – they develop into them – by facing up to the various things that life throws at them, some as a result of chance and others stemming directly from their own actions.” (p 13) Implicit in this, like a backhanded compliment, is that fairy tales do have generic hero and that the female characters in fairy tales are not developed, that they are passive and unable to make their own decisions. This is not a statement I agree with. Perhaps I am reading too much into Lesser’s praise of James but it made me grit my teeth (not that I have any issue with her enjoying James but I do have an issue with her elevating him at the expense of fairy tales). I felt like I was re-experiencing the criticism that romance often receives from people who have not read romance, who have no experience of the genre and certainly do not have an understanding of romance fiction’s place in literary canon.

At this point, my reliance on the author to discuss pleasure reading in a broad, contemporary fashion ceased. To be dismissive and unknowledgeable about “generic” characters, as though those fairy tales are incapable of character depths and character development. I continued to read and found though her discussion of genre fiction – crime and science fiction (acceptable as they are male interests) but by this stage I was disinterested. I skim read the rest of the book which had a structure that was interesting. I dipped into chapters that promised me new ideas such as “Grandeur and Intimacy” and “Novelty” but I remained unenthused and unable to engage. The content dragged, it was more of the same 20th century literature pondering that was further cemented by her reluctant acceptance of electronic reading. I found the writing that she extols was limited to a 20th century literary tradition of reading in aim of improving oneself. The authors she discusses appear in most English lit curriculums and critiques and I did not feel she introduced me to any new or different approaches to reading.

I do, however, appreciate that the is a self-indulgent book (and I say this in a good way. I would adore having the chance to write and have published a book on my reading pleasure. Top marks for her scoring this gig). This is a book about what gives Wendy Lesser pleasure, where she finds her delightful reading and in framing the book to be about her own reading needs, I think it is a successful book. This is an insight into her reading life. I am just not a fan of her style of reading. This is not a book that requires me, the reader, to take on her reading style and she clearly makes this statement. To paraphrase her: this is about personal taste. If the book bores you, quit and move on. This is not an exam.

With sadness, I quit reading. I put down a book extolling reading pleasures that has given me little pleasure.

 

The copy of the book I read was borrowed from my university’s library. I discovered it by browsing the library shelves.
* I first posted a shorter version of this observation on my Goodreads account.

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