Why Do You Read Whatever You Read?

Different people read for different reasons, and even individuals read for different reasons at different times. I find the variety intriguing and also the logic behind our choices.

For example, I can tell my progress in the book I’m writing by what I’m reading. When I’m in the middle of writing a book—which seems to be most of the time these days—I read to be distracted from the job at hand, to take a trip out of my book’s world into that of another author, to be entertained. To be reassured even, although I’m not sure whether the reassurance is that the good guys will win, that language conquers or that every book really does have an end.

I used to read romances when I was really busy creatively—in my former day job—but now that I write them, that doesn’t work anymore. Reading in my own genre is a busman’s holiday: I’m looking for the wires, analyzing what works and what doesn’t, too busy peeking behind the scenes (or trying to anticipate what’s going to happen next) that I can’t enjoy the ride. When I’m writing, I usually read murder mysteries. When I’m navigating the sticky middle of a book, I’ll read more genre mysteries. They’re short. They’re more consistent. I’ll often read mysteries I’ve read repeatedly, often at this same point in the creative process. I gobble these books up, sometimes reading one a night, when I’m in that phase. Favourite authors are Agatha Christie (classic!) and Donna Leone. (Venice and its food are a big lure for me with her books, but I also enjoy the moral ambiguity she illuminates.) At other points, I’ll read more literary mystery authors, like Minette Walters.

When I’m not in the crunch of a book, I’m an omnivorous reader. I acquire books faster than I read them these days, so there are stacks of books everywhere in the house, as well as full bookshelves. The one thing that’s consistent in my reading is that a book has to grab at me. It has to get a grip on my imagination for me to keep reading. Lots of books fail at that, which is no big deal. It’s just a subjective measure. I move on, because there’s always more to read.

No matter what I read or when I read it, the books I enjoy have one thing in common: they catch hold of my imagination. There’s something about them that grabs my attention. I love to read literary fiction for this reason. Literary fiction is often more about voice than about plot, but it’s certainly less regimented in structure than genre fiction. I read literary fiction to be surprised—by ideas, by structure, by the use of language. I don’t always love the book in question, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be intrigued by some facet of it. Literary fiction tends to be good at grabbing my attention.

For example, right now, I’m reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. (Amazon. iBooks.) I picked up this book because every online portal was promoting it heavily during its publication week. When publishing gets excited about a book, I always wonder why. The cover doesn’t particularly appeal to me and I would have walked past this book on a shelf without a second glance. I was drifting along, giving it another chapter of a chance, until I reached the following passage.

The characters are in King’s College Chapel at Cambridge, and the painting in question is this one, The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens. And here’s the passage from the book:

“”Mortality is inscribed in your cellular structure and you say you’re not ill? Look at the painting. Look at it.” She nods towards The Adoration of the Magi. I obey. I always will. “Thirteen subjects, if you count them, like the Last Supper. Shepherds, the Magi, the relatives. Study their faces, one by one. Who believes this newborn manikin can one day conquer death? Who wants proof? Who suspects the Messiah is a false prophet? Who knows that he is in a painting, being watched? Who is watching you back?””

I just love that twist at the end, so now I’m in for the rest of the ride.

What about you? Do you read certain kinds of books at certain times? What’s the variable that influences your choice of reading material? And what determines whether you finish a book or put it aside? What’s the hook that brings you back for more?

Silent Movies

Mr. Math and I have been on a run of viewing silent movies. It’s quite interesting. I hadn’t known much about them, beyond loving Metropolis. The latest version of Metropolis, which comes closest to reconstructing the entire original film is impressive, and made me more curious about silent films.

Right now, we’re watching Fantomas, a serialization created in France around 1911. Fantomas is himself the master criminal terrorizing Paris, and Juve is the police inspector determined to catch him. This series was based upon a successful series of books at the time, and there have apparently been many additional films and graphic novels since. (Here’s the Wiki, which talks about all the various versions of the story. The one we’re watching is listed under Films: Silent Serials, directed by Louis Feuillade.)

One thing that’s interesting about this series is how similar it is to modern television shows. You can see the seeds of the television police procedural in each episode – Fantomas commits a crime, and Juve arrives on the scene to try to solve it, prove Fantomas’ guilt, then catch Fantomas. Fantomas escapes in the last minute – or at least he has in every episode so far – so that there can be another episode. There are also ongoing threads, details that have not been resolved and characters who reappear – like Fantomas’ lover, Lady Beltham. Most of the installments end with a cliffhanger or at least a hook, tempting the viewer to come back for more.

These films also show life over a hundred years ago. In terms of detective work, the Paris police do forensics and fingerprinting, something I hadn’t known was in practice then. Many scenes are filmed in Paris streets, so you can see what the city looked like then. For example, there’s a mix of horse-drawn wagons and carriages on the cobbled streets, taxis with combustion engines, steam powered buses and bicycles. In one sequence, an investigator follows a suspect as she takes the subway or Métro – in 1911. One sequence takes place on the gabled rooftops, another in the sewers, and characters routinely crawl through chimneys and furnace flues. There are glimpses of prison cells in the day, theatres, homes, gardens and boarding houses. The clothes are also wonderful. In terms of social history, the eye candy is fabulous – if all in black and white.

Finally, I’m enjoying the film techniques. Cinematography is in its infancy in this era but there’s tremendous inventiveness in this series. One sequence involving a train crash is filmed with model trains – it’s very well done. The only clue is that the smoke from the steam engine is out of scale with the train. This is a common technique now, but it must have been pretty innovative then. The stories remind me of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, particularly in showing a similar adversity between Juve and Fantomas as Holmes and Moriarty. Fantomas and Moriarty share a taste for unusual methods – I seem to remember Moriarty using a snake as a “silent executioner” as well.

Mr. Math has commented that in silent films, it doesn’t matter what language the director and actors spoke. It’s true. In this version, the inter-titles are done in English, but you really don’t need many of them. You can guess what the characters are saying to each other, by the context, their gestures and expressions. I was surprised by how violent Fantomas is – he is a psychopath with no compassion for others. The difference is that the violence is not shown on screen – he lifts a knife to abuse a victim, the knife descends, and the scene is cut. In the next scene, the inspector will be reading an account of the crime with horror. The train crash showed mangled cars with people running to help, but no blood or injuries. It’s still horrific, even without the graphic display of gore, which is also intriguing.

Have you ever watched any silent films? Do you like them?

Losing Interest

Mr. Math and I been watching a number of ongoing television series lately. We tend to binge-watch – we wait until a season (or more) of episodes are available on DVD, then chew through a season in a week or so. I’m starting to think that binge-watching makes us tougher critics: while the ongoing storylines are more fresh in our thoughts, this way of watching shows makes any inconsistencies more glaring. Inevitably, we never make it through the entirety of the show. At some point, we lose interest and stop watching. We never go back.

And this got me to thinking about series of linked books. We’re all going to have different reasons to stop watching a series or reading a series, but there are probably some common factors.

Once upon a time, this was the issue with ongoing television series for me. Before we had the DVD, I rarely watched linked series on television because it just isn’t in me to remember what time a particular show is on the television each week. I forget. So, I’d always miss an episode, then lose the thread of the story. Remembering to set the VCR to tape a show is just about the same task, so I’d forget that, too. The advance of technology has made it easier for me to watch linked series.

I suspect that technology has also made it easier for many people to read linked series. It had for me. Instead of hoping that my local bookstore has the next book in the series – or all of them, back to the beginning – online shopping means I can get the whole set easily. The ability to pre-order online means that we don’t need to remember the availability date of the next title or even remember to go and buy it – it’ll just show up when it’s published. Reading digitally means the instant gratification of immediate delivery, too.

All series are based on the appeal of “the same but different”. There will be common elements in any linked series, whether it’s on television or a book. There will also be differences between individual books or episodes. So, the main cast of characters might continue, with the occasional guest appearance. The structure of the plot will be similar – they’ll all be mysteries, or all be romances. How much difference and how much similarity there is between episodes or books is a subjective call.

We each have our own preferences, too. I will watch Law & Order episodes forever, never mind its spin-offs. I really like the format of that show. Mr. Math made it to halfway through the second season then refused to watch anymore, because they were “too much the same”. This is true of linked books, too – he prefers one big book with all of the plot elements wrapped up by the end, or one big movie with everything wrapped up by the end. He will read another book by the same author, just not a linked series. He hates cliffhangers, while I think they’re an interesting storytelling technique.

Poor Research
This can make me chuck a book at the wall or turn off the DVD. I expect writers and scriptwriters to do their homework. I do mine. I don’t consider myself an expert in many things (knitting seldom features in television shows) but when my area of knowledge is misrepresented, I move on to other entertainment options. In NCIS, McGee’s career as a fiction writer bears no resemblance to anything I’ve experienced in publishing. After the publication of one book (which apparently happened instantly in hard cover). he bought a Porsche and everybody recognized him from his author photo. The episode in which he is stalked by a fan is odd – he calls the woman to whom he sends his work “his publisher”, but she talks about “her agency” – is she is agent, his editor or his publisher? Maybe she’s his publicist, given her choices. No matter which way it goes, it’s very improbable that her assistant also drives a Porsche. In New York? An assistant? Hmm, no, not in the publishing world I know.

This is the big deal-breaker for me. I can’t handle characters who act out-of-character. In ongoing television series, this sometimes happens because the actor playing the character hasn’t renewed his or her contract. The character has to be written out of the script, and I’ll guess by how abruptly these story threads can develop, there isn’t always a lot of notice. One other pattern I’ve been noticing in television shows is characters keeping secrets. Think of Kono in Hawaii Five-O, after she loses her badge. She pretends to turn bad, everyone on the team believes she has gone bad, but in the end, it’s revealed that she’d been part of a covert operation to catch the bad cops. So, there’s a big plot twist and surprise, but the problem is that I ended up really disappointed in the rest of the team for their lack of perception and faith. While their lack of doubt reinforces the surprise of the plot twist, the problem is that viewers like me might stop watching before the revelation.

This is a risk in linked books, too, I’d think. Any reader could have a fondness for a secondary character and be waiting for that character to have his or her own book. If the character acts oddly, the reader could lose faith with the series. But the intimacy with the reader provided by books usually means that there are hints and clues scattered through the text. Sometime we don’t notice those hints or brush them off, but when all is revealed, we have an AHA! moment. I love AHA! moments. Television doesn’t lend itself well to this kind of breadcrumb scattering, given the pacing and tight schedule. We’re more likely to see these kinds of hints in a movie.

So, how about you? What makes you lose interest in a series of linked books or a television series? Do you think the way that you watch or read them (in increments or by binge-ing) affects your decisions? Do you like cliffhangers or not?

Two Books

I read two books last week and have been thinking about both of them. I liked them both, but liked one better and have been trying to figure out why.

The first was THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett.

The second was ROOM by Emma Donoghue.

THE HELP is set in the early 1960’s in Mississippi, and tells the stories of the black women who work in the houses of white families. The tone is accessible and the book is an easy read. I enjoyed the characters and their voices, and the craft with which the story was constructed. This book is commercial fiction – it is, in fact, a Book Club Book. You can tell by the questions for discussion included in the back.

I have to admit one bias – all books set in the US south in the 1960’s seem to me to be derivative of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. That’s probably because it’s not my world and I first encountered it in that book. It’s probably also because that book is brilliant and was incredibly daring when it was published. It’s the kind of fiction I most admire. It shone a spotlight on a reality that people preferred to ignore. So, THE HELP did evoke TKAM for me. (So did WHISTLING IN THE DARK, another book club book, which was set in the US but not in the south.)

ROOM, in contrast, is literary fiction. It was a finalist for a number of awards including the Man Booker. It’s a contemporary story of a woman who has been kept captive as a sex slave by a kidnapper, but escapes with the help of her five-year old son. I expected it to be less accessible and more troubling than it is – but the decision to have the five year old boy narrate the story was a brilliant one. It both insulates us as readers from the true horror of the young woman’s story (because the child doesn’t know anything different) and lets us experience his discovery of the world outside his prison. At times, the book is very funny. At other times, it’s haunting and sad. I much preferred this book, and not just because I like fiction that addresses difficult issues. (I was curious about the dynamic between captor and captive, which wasn’t within the scope of the book. That probably could have taken an entirely different book to explore, maybe one in the woman’s POV.)

I suspect the issue is the book club thing. I frequently enjoy the books marketed as book club books, but find it a bit off-putting that they are so very polished. In fact, the prose is buffed to such a consistent shine that the author’s voice is often difficult to discern. (THE HELP has strong voices, but they are the voices of the characters.) This makes book club books feel more like products – of course, all books are products, but successful book club books generate a great deal of revenue. The stakes are high in this niche – it’s all or nothing. This polish seems to be part of the appeal, or at least it’s perceived to be part of it by publishers who market to this niche. Often the ideas behind book club books are wonderful, so I wonder if they were more interesting reads before they were polished to such smoothness. I also struggle against the sense with book club books that they are all written by the same author, the author who has the book club book voice.

Of course, they aren’t. Most authors fortunate enough to publish a successful book club book never experience the same commercial success again. These books may be cultural phenomenon but they are seldom the cornerstone of a career. That simply increases the stakes – every book is by a debut author and the risk is high that it won’t succeed. This probably encourages publishers to polish the works even more.

The bottom line is that I pretty much forget book club books. I read them quickly, then forget them. I won’t be forgetting ROOM any time soon.

What do you think of book club books? Do you prefer books that are safe, or ones that take chances? Do you prefer books with strong author voices, or not? I suspect I’m a weird reader, but am curious. I’d love to see a big daring book with a bold voice come out of nowhere and take the world by storm, but maybe that’s just me.

A Book About New York

I like to read books about other places, both fiction and non-fiction. And there are several cities that figure prominently in the collection of books I’ve acquired over the years. I tend to pick up books about New York City, Paris and Venice. Mr. Math picks up books about broader swaths of territory, like Russia, Belize and Chile. Last fall, before going to New York City, I did some collecting of appropriate books to read. It was my intention to spend some more time as a tourist than has usually been the case when I’ve gone to Manhattan – I usually spend a lot of time meeting with publishing industry people. This is a good thing, but I was starting to feel that I’d been through Manhattan but never really been there. And I like what I’ve seen. So, I added a couple of days to my trip to play tourist.

One of the books I found at the library was so intriguing that I returned it there and bought a copy. I’ve only just finished reading it. It was a chewy book, one that was both thought-provoking and intriguing. The book is Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan by Phillip Lopate. It’s a beguiling and distinctive mix of memoir, history, observation and travelogue. In a way, it’s a hybrid of genres, both guidebook and memoir, plus a history of the waterfront regions of the city. The author begins his journey at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan and works up the west side in increments, then returns to that same southern tip to work his way up the east side. Along the way, he shares stories about the city and its history, along with his own experiences in certain neighborhoods. He also discusses fiction set in New York, non-fiction and movies, giving a view of the popular ideas associated with each location. All the while, he explores the question of how a city should meet the water, once the industrial port is gone. How do city residents use the waterfront? How should they be able to? What should be there? The discussion of politics and policy and public will is fascinating, and makes me realize how hard it is to create change in a large city.

I grew up in Toronto, another city with a strong relationship to the water – Lake Ontario, in that case – and also one with a once-bustling port that is now much less busy. There are a lot of industrial properties and brownlands where Toronto meets the lake, with some parks and bike trails interspersed. There is a highway restricting both access to the water and glimpses of it, as well as a number of luxury high rise condominiums. Much of what Mr. Lopate observes in New York is also visible in Toronto. Overall, there’s an inescapable sense that opportunity is being lost in this area of Toronto, although there are no obvious answers as to how it could better evolve. I was very struck by the author’s discussions of vibrant streetscapes and his desire to see the bustle of the city extend into these neglected areas. I liked his idea of leaving room for spontaneity on waterfront lands. It got me to thinking about Toronto and how it could evolve, as well as making me want to go back to New York and explore some more.

Overall, Mr. Lopate was a wonderful guide to his native city. I really enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anyone curious about New York or about the evolution of waterfront lands.

Have you read anything that surprised and intrigued you lately?

Classic Reads

Recently, I came across some lovely editions of Georgette Heyer’s work. They’re in trade paperback from HQN, each with a foreward written by a contemporary romance author. As I was admiring them, I realized that I’d never actually read Georgette Heyer.

This came as a bit of a shock to me, especially as I enjoy Regencies so much. So, I scooped up four of the books and am currently enjoying Venetia. What a wonderful book! I can’t believe I’ve been missing out on these stories all this time.

How about you? Have you discovered a classic read lately or an established author whose work you’ve somehow overlooked?

Schoolhouse Rock

Do you remember the Schoolhouse Rock videos? They used to play instead of commercials during the Saturday morning cartoons. I used to watch some cartoons that I didn’t particularly like, just in the hope of seeing more SR videos.

For some reason, I started to think about Conjunction Junction the other night and went looking for the video. Here it is:

Another fave of mine was Interjections! Here’s that one.

Did you watch these? Which one was your favourite?




Recent Movies

We’ve watched some interesting movies lately, so I thought I’d share as much with you. Maybe you haven’t seen these ones.

Byron – this was a lovely period piece by the BBC. I think it was made originally for television as it is in two episodes. As always with the BBC, the period details are exquisite. It’s a biography of Byron, the poet who was said to be “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. Here’s his bio on Wiki. The interesting thing about Byron is that his life is essentially the inspiration for every Regency romance you’ve ever read – he’s the dangerous rake, but he marries the sweet intellectual who adores him to bits. (He called his wife Anne Isabella Millbank “the princess of parallelograms”.) The difference in this Regency romance is that in real life, there was no HEA. Their marriage worked out very badly – her goodness, according to Byron, didn’t make him better but made him worse. A bit of a sad piece, but interesting all the same.

Bright Star – another story of another poet, another period piece. This one was directed by Jane Campion and is the story of John Keats, the romantic poet who died so very young. He died at 25, believing himself to be a failure. What’s interesting is how much of his poetry is familiar – some of it is recited in the film and though I’ve never studied 19th c English poets or read Keats (to my recollection) I knew lines of his work. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Here’s the Wiki on the movie. It was quite beautifully filmed and very evocative of the period. I really enjoyed it, although (again) it wasn’t particularly upbeat.

Woman in Black – another dark little story. This one is a ghost story set in (presumably) the Victorian era in what looks like Northumberland. It’s shot in colour but very close to black and white, and is quite atmospheric. Daniel Radcliffe stars in this one, having made an escape from the Harry Potter movies, and he does a very good job. Here’s the Wiki on the movie. The movie is based upon a book written by Susan Hill – and here’s another good way to find new authors. I’ve ordered a couple of her books to read as a result of seeing this movie.

How about you? Have you watched any interesting movies lately?

Companion Volumes

One of the interesting things that fiction authors sometimes do is create a companion volume or a guide to their fictional world. I think these are really cool, but know that it is very difficult to get a traditional publisher interested in publishing one.

I’ve just bought one, based on the mystery series by Donna Leon which stars Commissario Guido Brunetti. This one is Brunetti’s Cookbook. I decided to try it because her books always get me thinking about food. Brunetti thinks about food a lot! Even though I don’t have access to all the ingredients one can easily buy in the Veneto, I thought it would be fun to check out the recipes. There’s another one associated with the series, more of a guidebook to Venice, called Brunetti’s Venice. I might need to get that one, too.

I suspect that there will be a great many more of these kinds of books, now that there are such easy publishing portals available to authors. I’ve always wanted to compile one – or three – myself and might actually get around to it in the near future.

What about you? Do you buy and read companion volumes to fictional worlds, or do you think it’s a weird idea?

Another Famous Book

A while ago, we talked about bestsellers, and I mentioned that I seldom read them. That’s because I’m usually disappointed by these books that catch the world by storm, and that’s depressing. There was one happy exception this year, so I thought we’d talk about it today.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is more than a bestseller – it’s an international sensation, which means that I had absolutely no plans to read it. It’s been selling and selling and selling for several years now, in a number of languages, and is interesting in terms of the magnitude of its success. Still, I wouldn’t have picked it up if Mr. Math hadn’t watched the Swedish movie when I was busy elsewhere. He was quite enthused about it and subsequently bought the book. He’s not as avid a reader as I am, so I was amazed when he gobbled up that fat book in a couple of long sittings. Then he went out and bought the other two books in the trilogy. Hmm.

I agreed to watch the Swedish movie with him and it was really good. Even with our needing to read the subtitles, it was a riveting movie. Beautifully photographed and atmospheric, as well, which always works for me.

So, I read the book. The author almost lost me in the first chapter – there’s a lot of flashback and info dumping there – but based on Mr. Math’s endorsement, I kept reading. And I’m glad I did. It’s a really good book and an entertaining read. I’m not much for reading linked series (even though I write them, which is funny if you think about it) so haven’t tried the other books in the series.

We also watched the English movie, but didn’t like it nearly so well as the Swedish one. The story was cut and changed from the book, (changes like that always annoy me) and I felt that the characterizations weren’t as strongly presented as in the Swedish one. It was shorter, which would be part of the reason for it feeling tighter and thinner. (It would be fun to pick and choose between the two versions – maybe have one starring Daniel Craig from the English movie and Noomi Rapace from the Swedish one.)

Have you read this book or this series? What did you think of it? Did you watch either or both of the movies? What did you think of them?