Genre Reading Spree

Before I realized I had to ‘match my reading to my life’, I thought that the problem with my discontented reading was a simple lack of variety. I tend to be a literature and fantasy/sci-fi fan (strange combination, I’m aware), so I originally thought that all of my problems could be solved through reading romance, mystery, historical fiction, etc.

I envisioned a sort of border between being a genre initiate and a veteran, and thought I wouldn’t see any of the formulas or tropes of the genre until I reached that magical line. The newness of the pacing or writing style would simply overwhelm my critical faculties and I’d be able to read in a state of suspended discernment, happy with anything the author saw fit to write. This was a pipe dream. It turns out that formulaic writing is the same no matter the genre – and always just as easy to spot.

Although not all of these books are formulaic, I read them all on my genre spree stage. They were all moderately satisfying reads – but I’m sure they would have been much more satisfying had I read them in the appropriate life context, instead of under an incorrect pretext.

genre spree book covers

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See:

Learning about the large-scale facts of a time period – its wars and names of its rulers, its inventions and its major crops – from a dry history-class textbook is nothing compared to reading a luxuriously rendered story. When I used to think of early 19th century China, my memory would have nothing to cling to, but now I will forever envision See’s description of foot binding, of women living their lives in the confines of one room.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase:

This romance started out promising, with excellent tension and character introduction, but the characters lost all of their sharp, interesting edges once the hero and heroine got married. After that, Chase ceased character development, simply allowing them to walk through the plot, unencumbered by thorough examination.

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch:

This book has the a kind of gorgeous writing that has very little to do with the classically beautiful prose of, say, Austen or Trollope. Though poetic, its beauty lies in its realism and specificity rather than its grand generalities. It mixes up the once-ugly, the mundane, and the absurd, to lend a sense of immediacy and authenticity to an otherwise far-fetched science fiction story.

Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie:

The most surprising thing to me about this mystery was that Miss Marple, the ostensible main character of the series, was more of a secondary, or even tertiary, character. I felt like an excited tourist glimpsing a famous person from afar whenever she stepped onto the page. I vaguely wonder if the whole Mrs. Marple series is written from a non-Marple perspective… but not enough to look it up or even necessarily read another one.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee:

More vivid historical fiction spanning the majority of the 20th century in Korea and then Japan. You’ll never look at white rice the same way again – but historical side notes may be all you remember from this book, for Lee holds the characters at a distance, never allowing the reader to form an emotional attachment.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry:

This is not a book for everyone: it’s as meandering and serpentine as the title suggests. The characters careen around the story, completely unconcerned with little things such as Points or tidy endings. And yet, they make a beautiful story while going off in their own ways, one that highlights a little seen side of Victorian England: one filled with curiosity and emerging sciences.

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Book Lion Birthday Awards: Year 8

Let your life guide your reading. A busy life calls for quick, stress-free reads. A practical, to-do list life calls for non-fiction. A laid back life wants long, luxurious novels. An unpredictable life calls for all of these and more, waiting simultaneously for the slightest shift in mood. Don’t let your genre biases constrain your book selections or else you’ll find that you can only read during certain moods and conditions. You’ll be a ‘feel-like-it’ reader, instead of a committed, every-day one.

This year, I went through a time (some might call it third-trimester nesting) where fiction was repugnant to me. It all seemed stilted, impractical, irrelevant. I had a list of things to do before the baby came, and if I wasn’t reading something directly related to one of my projects, I was wasting my time.

It was a nonfiction period of life, though it took me a while to label it as such. Once I stopped trying to force myself through my comfort or reach genres and matched my life to my reading, everything fell into place again. So now every time I go through a major life change, I’ll think – “what kind of reading life is this now?” – in the hopes that I never feel such a long stretch of dissatisfaction with my reading again.

So, without further ado, here are the mostly meaningless, yet still fun, year 8 Book Lion awards:

Best book: Old Man and the Sea

Best Post: A Room with a View

Best beginning of trilogy: Powder Mages

Best book I forgot to post on: American Gods

Best non-fiction: The Art of Fermentation

Nonfiction Summary

Sometimes, nonfiction is the only thing you can read. When you’re focused on the practical things in life, fiction feels out of place. I went through a few months where I just couldn’t abide it. Every fiction book I opened seemed trite and predictable. I had a few subjects I was interested in and all I simply wanted to think about those – not some far off world that seemed wholly unconnected to me.

However, the nonfiction books I’ve been reading haven’t each deserved their own posts. The authors fell into two main groups – field experts and writing experts – each making rather similar mistakes. The prospect of writing on each book individually, repeating the same failings over and over again, filled me with despair, so I saved them all up for one giant nonfiction post.

Field Expert Non-fiction

Image result for the art of fermentation

The field experts understand their subjects perfectly, but they just can’t construct an engaging sentence to save their lives (or their book sales). If you approach these books with the pure expectation of extracting facts, much like a social studies book in high school, then you may be able to get through without maxing out your frustration levels for the day. Maybe.

All New Square Food Gardening: practical read for cheap people new to growing vegetables
You- the Owners Manual: decent introduction to health and nutrition
The Art of Fermentation: Fascinating historical and global facts… but did the editor even read it cover to cover?
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk: For when you find your days have become an endless series of nagging, repeating, and disciplining your children

Writing Expert Non-fiction

Image result for sugar nationAs expected, the writing experts category has the reverse problem. It’s filled with authors who want to write a book, but lack a subject. They are author-centered, filled with in-depth discussion of how the subject came into the author’s life and changed it. I always feel like a concise article on this category could have helped me more than a 300-page work of nonfiction. Cut out the ‘reality TV’ bits and the information could be summed up in a few good chapters.

Sugar Nation: interesting information (and strident personal opinions) on diabetes
First Bite: a few bits of information on feeding toddlers, but the pedantic historical filler is hard to slog through
The Art of Simple Food: great talk about food, but the recipes just didn’t turn out

Dark Matter

“We’re more than the sum total of our choices, that all the paths we might have taken factor somehow into the math of our identity.” (Dark Matter by Blake Crouch)


I had gotten used to it: the slow slog through books. Looking down at the bottom of the page or screen to see how long before you could select a more satisfying read. With Dark Matter, you don’t notice the page numbers; there isn’t enough time. By the time your eyes near the bottom of the page, your fingers are already turning it, your mind automatically filling in any pesky word gaps that you may have missed in your speed and eagerness with the necessary nouns and conjunctions.

Yet, it’s a good thing that the whole thing is paced so quickly because it doesn’t bear the weight of too much scrutiny. You get the feeling that the author thought up the most thrilling pretext for the book first and then found the least plausible and most suspenseful conclusion later. If you de-suspend your suspended disbelief for even a minute your brain might start asking questions, which would make the whole reading experience pointless. So my advice is: don’t do it. Just read it all in a sitting or two, with no space for thought in between. Probably best if you don’t think about it too much afterward, either.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 352
Ending: satisfying
Incidental Learning: quantum mechanics
Further Reading: Other fast-paced thrillers, like Gone Girlor Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, or perhaps some sci-fi like Saturn Run

Beartown

“Never trust people who don’t have something in their lives that they love beyond all reason.” (Beartown by Fredrik Backman)


Beartown coverI avoid reading books about real things. Anything with rape, children dying or being harmed, politics, genocide, war, etc. Unless they’re overshadowed by a fantastical setting, I just avoid those topics. I read to escape thinking about horrible things, not to confront them. However, recently that technique hasn’t been working for me. This book has a dead child, rape, sports, and politics. I thought about putting it down four or five times, at each major revelation, but each time the complex characters called me back to the book. I’m glad they did.

It is wonderful to not be able to predict a book. In my chosen genres, I can see a death coming chapters before it happens. I can predict long-term plots twists with terrifying accuracy. I usually enjoy this, this being right, but recently, it has yielded only unsatisfactory reading experiences for me. In Beartown, I could see nothing. I didn’t predict the rape, who shot whom, the dead child, nothing. I saw nothing coming because realism is not my genre; I do not know its tropes. While my surprise at confronting a new genre isn’t enough reason for you to pick up the book, Backman’s talent at detailing fully realized characters is. He defines each character, no matter how minor, with such sympathy and realism that you feel you know them entirely, even though you only spend a short time with each member of the huge cast.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 432
Ending: Satisfying
Incidental Learning: Hockey, Swedish culture
Further Reading: no clue where to go from here. Another Backman, perhaps.

Northanger Abbey

“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey) 


I am a reader who likes Jane Austen. It’s always been at the core of my reader’s identity. I’ve read and reread each of her works, but I’ve always saved Northanger Abbey for later. It felt comforting to have an unread Austen lying in wait, knowing I could open it at any time and be both reassured and thrilled. Only my recent rut of unsatisfying reads could have made me desperate enough to pull it out. Though I loved the light, teasing air of the work, Austen spent most of her time parodying the Gothic literature of the day instead of creating robust characters. I got the feeling of having missed out on the punchline of an essentially historical joke; it’s too specific to be timeless in the way her other works are.

I worry that this is the final sign that I have become too critical in my reading: an unloved Jane Austen work. A reviewer likes to think that all of her criticisms are objective, but I’ve seen a growing trend towards dissatisfaction in my reading habit. Perhaps it’s not that I’ve been unlucky in my choice of books recently, but that I’ve been unwise. If I were to give a reader’s advisory interview to myself, I’d surely diagnose a reading rut: “Stop reading fantasy, sci-fi, or anything published in England” I would advise myself, “Pick a completely unknown genre and get to it.”

So, in an effort to climb out of said rut, I’m banning myself from reading in any of my old-standby genres until my 8th anniversary post. This opens up so many possibilities in unexplored areas: Thrillers! Historical Fiction! Romance! Noir! Nonfiction! Even the word ‘armchair travel’ sends goosebumps up my arms. It’s definitely time for a change.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 179 pages
Ending: tidy
Incidental Learning: all about tropes of gothic literature
Further Reading: Move onto the rest of Jane Austen

The Old Man and the Sea

“Most people were heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after it has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too.” (Earnest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea)


I’d always assumed that I’d read Hemingway. It was a combination of a vague ‘everyone’s read Hemingway’ thought and an embarrassing conflation with Fitzgerald. This is what happens when you get a degree in philosophy instead of in literature. You lose great swaths of books. Though I feel grateful that I did manage to rectify the error, and now have years in which to enjoy the rest of his work, I’m primarily afraid. What other brilliant books and authors have I missed due to similar conflations, or mere overlookings? How will I ever find them?

Hemingway allows no additions, no barriers, in his work. He details an old man’s thoughts as he struggles with a great fish; he stays true to those thoughts, no matter how half-mad or repetitious they are. Each time the man dwells on the Yankees and the ‘great DiMaggio’, though it adds little new information for the reader, it serves to solidify the reality of our observation. The importance of the reading experience lies not in the battle with the fish, or even in Santiago’s failure to bring it home, but in how completely Hemingway is able to insert the reader into another person’s mind.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 128
Ending: somber
Incidental Learning: Fishing, yankies, DiMaggio
Further Reading: More Steinbeck!