On Stress-Reading and Some Recommendations

IMG_0367.jpgI don’t know about you, but I definitely stress-read.

I mean, I read all the time, and when I’m REALLY stressed, I do tend to watch Netflix instead of reading, but a step below that is stress-reading.

This is what I do when I’m at the end of a semester, usually. Books that fit this category are usually re-reads, or familiar authors. It’s like eating comfort food, but with books.

I noticed this semester that I actually turn to a particular genre, as well: detective fiction. In particular, I binge- read Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, although I’m non-discriminatory in my author choices–new, old, I’ll take anyone. As long as it’s not thrillers or horror. Those are NOT relaxing.

For example, at the moment I’m listening to a full cast adaptation of seven of the Hercule Poirot stories. I’m also reading Still Waters by Vivica Stein, a contemporary Swedish novel featured in Amazon’s translated books series.

It seemed odd to me that I turn to detective fiction at the end of the year (I find murder relaxing? Is that a problem?), at least, until I thought about it for a little while.

Although Dorothy Sayers is a little bit of an exception, generally detective stories are focused entirely on the plot, and aside from wondering “whodunnit?” there’s not much else. That is, these books don’t really have highly rounded characters (though they certainly may be enjoyable ones), or even the most perfect prose. Thus, they offer the perfect solution to the words-weary English-grad mind: compelling stories that take little mental effort to read. You can try to figure out the mystery, of course, but you don’t have to expend a lot of energy on it. Also, you know how the story will end, in that you are very sure that the murderer will be caught and everything will be explained. When I’m frantically writing analytic essays and am worried about grades and due dates, this easy, assured reading is, indeed, relaxing.

So I thought, in light of this discovery, here are a few recommendations of classic murder mysteries, ones I love enough to re-read because they’re just so much fun.

Agatha Christie:

Unknown.jpegMurder on the Orient Express. I mean, if you haven’t read this yet, what have you been doing? The Orient Express gets stuck in a snowdrift and one of the passengers is murdered. Only one of the twelve other passengers in the first-class cars could have done it, but who? The twists and turns of this novel keep me going even after I know the murderer; it’s marvelous. THE classic.

And then There Were None. Ten people are invited to a remote house on an otherwise deserted island. Their hosts never show. Then people start dying.

Apparently Christie set out to create the most perfect, watertight crime in this novel, and it is so good she had to reveal the murderer in a (kind of hokey) epilogue. The slightly horror vibe here is great, and again, the reveal is stunning.

The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd. What’s brilliant about this novel is you’re really sure it’s one of Christie’s typical “murder in the English Countryside” novels until it’s absolutely different from all the others. I’m not even going to say anything else. This was so genius.

Dorothy Sayers:

isbn9781444797435.jpgWhose Body? The first of her Lord Peter mysteries. A middle-class man finds a dead body in his bathtub, and at first it’s thought he’s the missing Levy. Except he’s not. So who is the dead body, and where’s Levy?

Introducing Lord Peter, this is, in my opinion, the most typical of Sayers’ mysteries, but start with this one because they only get better from here.

Murder Must Advertise. An ad man is killed, and Lord Peter is invited by the owner of the agency to go undercover and solve the mystery. I love this one because Sayers had previously worked in advertising, and aside from a compelling mystery, she gently satirizes advertising, a satire which is surprisingly relevant today. Apparently the ethos of ads hasn’t changed much from the 1920s. Also, the agency employees are delightful characters.

Finally, in case you’re wondering, I’m enjoying Still Waters. I was a little annoyed with the prose until the mystery got going, and now I don’t mind it as much. It is very much a typical Swedish detective story; the main detective is ruggedly handsome with a sad past and all the ladies want him but he doesn’t notice them…. you know. That kind of book.

How about you? Do you turn to a particular genre or particular authors when you’re stressed? What’s your book comfort food?

On the Content of Bookstores

I’ve been in a lot of different bookstores lately (nobody is surprised). For some reason, this particular string of bookstores in this particular order led me to notice something I hadn’t really considered before.

The story:

I went to the flagship Half Price Books and wandered around, noting titles that might fit my 2018 Reading Goals. There were a lot of them. A joy-inducing, oh-my-goodness lot of them. I recalled a number of books I’d wanted to read but had forgotten about. I found copies of classics you can otherwise only order online. You know, the B-list of popular classics authors. Part of this is because the store is humongous, and part of it is that it’s near a major university or three, I suspect. I didn’t actually buy any books that day, because grad student, but I made a mental note to shop here more.

I was out of town and visited a local bookstore, and noticed how obviously and carefully curated their selections were. Even in sections like YA I could see that each book included on the shelf had been meaningfully selected. They were not only the popular ones, although there were plenty of new and new-ish releases, but also those considered generally considered good by the book community. I felt like anything I pulled off of any shelf would be a good book.

I visited briefly a Barnes and Noble in the city, near that Half Price Books and thus that university. It’s also near a very affluent part of town, and near the business part of the city, so therefore an area full of wealthy people, young professionals, professors, and college / graduate students. I say this to compare it to

My local Barnes and Noble, which I visit frequently but most recently yesterday, when I had this observation I haven’t actually made yet (I’m getting to it, hang with me). This store is also located in a pretty affluent area, but a suburb filled with middle-aged families with young kids or teens.

When I observed the selection of books at the first two places, I based their existence on the kind of bookstore – independent and used. So when I briefly browsed through the fiction section of the city Barnes and Noble, I was surprised by their selections. There was more diversity, both in authors, in sub-genres, and in the number of books by each author. I found a number of different classics (that weren’t the B&N Classics editions!), including less popular (less assigned) ones, and I spotted books by authors I’m intending to read for my challenge that I can’t find at my local store. Some of this may have to do with store size, but on the other hand, my bookstore devoted an entire case to the Outlander books. An. Entire. Case.

I mean, there are a lot of Outlander books, but all I could imagine was that if that was halved, maybe they would have had space for Middlemarch, which wasn’t in stock.

And this is when I realized: bookstores stock for their demographic. And this area of the world, apparently, wants Outlander and James Patterson. Which is fine, I guess.*

I mean, it makes sense. If you had told me that different stores of the same chain carry different books, I wouldn’t have expressed surprise.

If you’re hanging in still, and wondering why I just spent 500 words building up to that obvious conclusion, here’s my takeaways from those thoughts:

  1. What an interesting ethnographic experiment. Walk into Barnes and Nobles in different regions. Characterize that region’s reading tastes. You totally could do that.
  2. This is why I buy most of my books from Amazon and Half Price Books. (well, also the discount). I usually can’t find ones I’m interested in and also haven’t read at my local store.
  3. How important independent bookstores are! That careful curation of stock is invaluable. This has motivated me to visit a new independent bookstore that’s not near where I live now, but will be closer when I move this summer. I want to make friends with the staff.
  4. How limiting the end result is. How many people, how many young readers, are missing out on encounters with some really great books, classic and contemporary, because their local bookstore only carries trendy books? How many people have given up on reading because they want a steak-book, and the only thing the bookstore sells is candy-floss?

A lot of places, including my general region (if I’m willing to make a little effort) have independent bookstores to help with this problem, but a lot of places don’t. One of the things I missed most about moving back to the Atlanta suburbs from Boston was the lack of indy bookstores. Now that I’m paying attention, and realize I have access to those resources, I’m going to do something about it.

This discovery made me more determined to put in the effort to dig up those little-known gems and promote them as much as I can. It contributed to this post in a psychological way. The internet is great for buying books you can’t find in your bookstore, but it’s also a bewildering warren of misses and meh reads. I want to help all you lovely readers know what to order, what to request, what to dig out from between the Pattersons and Clancys.

Are there little-known or un-popular books you love? Let me know about them!

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*Full disclosure: I was interested in the premise of Outlander (time travel!), but DNF’d it halfway through. I’m not interested in smut that masquerades as storytelling. Sorry if you’re fond of the books, but there’s no faster way to get me to DNF a book and find it generally distasteful than to include a lot of smut or graphically depicted sex. It’s why I DNF’d Game of Thrones, too.

Some Thoughts on Reading and This Blog

I’m a strange kind of reader.

I’ve been watching a lot of book-related YouTube videos (colloquially called BookTube), and browsing a lot of book-related Instagram accounts (Bookstagram), and tentatively participating in them myself.

Now, some of the sweeping generalizations I’m about to make might be because of what I happen to be seeing, and if I dig a little harder I’ll find things to be different, but  –

Here’s the thing: if you want to get a lot of views, or likes, or whatever, it seems like you have to be a particular kind of reader.

Like, a very particular kind of reader. This reader likes YA fiction, fantasy, and contemporary popular adult fiction (thrillers, books like Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale). They are reading for entertainment almost exclusively; plot and character matter most; the writing is often described as “amazing” or “beautiful” when it simply features some rhythm or a preponderance of good images.

There is NOTHING wrong with being this kind of reader. Zero things. None of them. I’ve discovered a lot of great books through these avenues, and some are even new favorites on the order of possess-and-reread, which is my personal gold star (versus the enjoy once from the library).

I am not this kind of reader, not entirely. I read YA, and a lot of it. I don’t like thrillers (though mysteries are usually okay), and I find a lot of popular adult fiction boring (ok, most of it).

I’ve DNF’d three of the Holy Grail series: The Mortal Instruments, the Throne of Glass, and that trilogy that probably has a name but I can’t remember it – you know, the A Court of …. books. Meh. They were all meh books; sort-of entertaining but not enough to commit to a series. I really don’t get the popularity of any of them. (WHY ARE THEY SO POPULAR?) Also, I enjoyed Harry Potter but just don’t care that much about it. (sacrilege, I know). This means that a lot of the book chatter I’m currently hearing just doesn’t matter to me.

Maybe the difference is that I’m also a writer, or maybe it’s that I’m also a scholar, or maybe it’s that I’m often older than the people I’m watching. Maybe it’s just that I’m me.

As a writer, I’ve learned to see the skeleton of a story, and as a result I think I’m a pretty good judge of the skill of a given writer. (to qualify, any published writer is automatically more successful that I am at the moment, so really I shouldn’t judge. But I do. Even when I really like some of those more basically written books.)

As a graduate student heading towards a Ph.D in literature and hopefully college teaching, I’ve gained specific, advanced instruction in evaluating and interpreting texts.

I read a lot, which means I have a lot to compare a book to. I know a good story when I read it. I don’t insist that a book does anything beyond be entertaining, but it better do that really well to get praise from me. It bothers me when people give books 5 stars on Goodreads when there are inconsistencies in the plot or characterization. I think a book should be judged not only on how it makes you feel, but also on how well it’s done. Do we want a slew of mediocre books that are being published because they’re “diverse” or “entertaining” or whatever, or do we want diverse and entertaining books that are good. Lasting. Meaningful.

In addition to reading for entertainment, I want to be stretched and provoked by some of the books I read. For me, this means digging up odd literary works that I’ve never heard of. It means reading old books, even the unfashionable ones. It means not reading Dickens the same way you do J.K Rowling, because their writing goals and assumptions are different. It means discussing the authors’ writing goals and assumptions.

In addition to reading new books, I like to read old books. About half of my favorite books ever (a long list, I admit) are books that are nearing their hundredth birthday, if they haven’t already passed it by ages ago. These are also often books that are not the Greatest Hits, or were and have fallen out of favor – Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the Dorothy Sayers mysteries, the Divine Comedy. I have a fondness for the poetry of George Herbert, and T.S. Eliot, and Shakespeare.

Basically, I don’t fit in a box. And that awareness has caused me to hesitate in adding my voice to the conversation, because I know it’s often going to be a contrary one. Will anyone care to listen? Is the time I spend writing or filming worth it?

In the end, I’ve decided, that yes, I’m going to keep going, in my own time, in my own way. I won’t be a consistent poster (ever), and my content isn’t going to be anything but what it is. I mean, the blog title is meant to be descriptive.

So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and here’s what you’re going to get from now on: Me talking about books I like. It’s going to be an eclectic grab bag of books and registers, Faulkner and Zadie Smith and Laini Taylor and Dorothy Sayers all together, the writing analytic one day, fangirling the next. Maybe that means I’ll have four followers, and eight hits on every post, and feel like I’m adding to the noise but not the conversation, and that’s okay.

Over the next several months I plan to carefully shape this blog and my YouTube channel into whatever strange shape they’ll ultimately take on. If you do want this kind of content, please interact! Share with like-minded folks. Comment. Add to the conversation! I suspect, I hope, that there’s somebody else out there wanting this kind of content. Let’s form a club and have some conversations. Isn’t that what the internet is for?