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.
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.