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.
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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!

A Darker Shade of Magic

“Kell wore a very peculiar coat. It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible. The first thing he did whenever he stepped out of one London and into another was take off the coat and turn it inside out once or twice (or even three times) until he found the side he needed. (A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab)


Though many authorities have variousImage result for a darker shade of magic official ways of dividing up the fantasy genre, my home-made system starts with classing all fantasy as either ‘background magic’ or ‘systemic magic’. Background magic books are really an adventure or mystery story dressed up in a fantasy costume. Their magic is simply a by-product of the atmosphere and new magical rules can be created whenever the plot needs them. This sub-genre has several wonderful examples, including Harry Potter, but their logic topples easily at the slightest thought. Systemic magic fantasy, on the other hand, has a specific magical system, with limitations and rules that are explained and followed, even when inconvenient (think Mistborn or Powder Mages).

Of the two subdivisions, A Darker Shade of Magic is most certainly the former. The magic makes almost no sense, simply borrowing from the general idea of elemental magic and throwing in a few extra worlds and some blood magic for effect. As a result of the hastily sketched magic, the fight scenes come off as uncertain, as if the characters have as little clue what their magic can do as the author does. Though a gratifying adventure/world-saving story, this book will not satisfy fantasy fans with a craving for new, creative magical systems.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 416
Ending: nonsensical; breaks a magical rule Schwab sets out at the beginning
Further Reading: If you’d like more background fantasy, A Dirty Job is more of an urban fantasy, but still highly atmospheric.

Saturn Run

“Trust no one, everything breaks, nothing works as advertised, and if anything can go wrong, it will.” (Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein)


WARNING: SPOILER

I’ve never written a review that includes a spoiler before, but here, there’s no way around it. The whole book succeeds or fails because Sandford kills off the only likable main character early on: the smart-mouthed, mid-western engineer, Becca Johansson. Part of me admires this decision as an incredibly brave choice. It’s brave because it’s realistic: even important people die on dangerous adventures in space. It’s brave because Sandford doesn’t use the death to turn the whole book into a graphic, GOT-like, character-killing fest. It’s brave because he cuts off the only love story in the book before it gets a chance to gain traction.

Yet, while brave and admirable and utterly unpredictable, the reason why most authors don’t kill off their main-and-only-likable characters is that books falter without them. They’re the keystone to readability. After Becca dies, the plot line moves forward mechanically, without the twist of humor that defines the first three quarters. Sandford and Ctein give the book a realism that most genre fiction lacks, but they sacrifice much of what makes the book compelling in the process. Is realism worth that much?

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 496
Ending: Not satisfying; too much about the greed of politics instead of science or philosophy
Incidental Learning: anthropology, space, engineering
Further Reading: This is part of the realistic science fiction movement that was popularized by The Martian

A Room with a View

“Does it seem reasonable that she should play so wonderfully, and live so quietly? I suspect that one day she will be wonderful in both. the water-tight compartments in her will break down, and the music and life will mingle. Then we shall have her heroically good, heroically bad – too heroic, perhaps to be good or bad.” (A Room with a View by E. M. Forster


I feel as though, given enough time and practice, I could write a similar book to many of the books I’ve read. I don’t mean to say that writing books is easy, or that I’m as talented as any given author, but rather that my thought patterns match the writing and plotting style of most books. They are straight forward; I am straightforward. Given enough time, I could probably write a straightforward book that mostly makes sense. Yet, with books like this one, I feel as though I could never in a dozen lifetimes produce such a work. They are a mix of poetry and wisdom that requires a different kind of soul; a different kind of mind, than I possess. I can merely read these books open-mouthed, without being able to dissect the rhythms or cadence. My talent for prediction fails, my ever-analyzing mind falters, and I simply read without thought.

Though Forster let me dwell in this suspended state for most of the book, to my chagrin, he forced me back into my head at the conclusion. While most of the work seemed a glorious jumble of subtle characters and beautiful prose, Forster wound up to a Point (capital intended) eventually. The philosophic claim made me forget the experience of reading the rest of the book, my mind rewriting the light story into directed arguments and logical lines. Though I usually rail against literature with a Point, in this case, I forgive Forster because he made his so gently, and so wonderfully.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 321
Ending: too cognative
Incidental Learning: Italian painters and culture

The Way We Live Now

“Throughout the world, the more wrong a man does, the more indignant he is at wrong done to him.” (The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope)


If Hetta Carbury and her lazy lover Paul Montague were somehow involved in my life, I would be the mean girl who teased them behind their backs. I can imagine myself being catty over coffee, along with some other gossip-minded friend, calling Hetta boy-crazy and Paul a lackey. “He only likes her because Roger likes her,” I’d say of Paul, and my friend would agree with a knowing smirk. If a rumor about their breakup made its way to us, we would groan and roll our eyes; we’d absolutely refuse to give Paul credit for the audacity of being with another woman. And we’d be right.

In my defense, Trollope himself brings out this mean-girl persona in me. Had he not held up Hetta as the pinnacle of womanly virtue, I probably would not be so angry at her for being insipid. Had he simply created a couple boring characters who happened to triumph over the more interesting ones, I likely wouldn’t have this lingering desire to verbally abuse them in the hopes of making up for the injustice. Instead, Trollope pronounces judgement on his cast, leaving no recourse for the reader who disagrees with his morals. The boring characters prevail because they do nothing objectionable; the interesting ones fail because they’re morally flawed.

And yet, only books that engage the reader’s whole mind can raise such ire. There’s a distinction between being angry at a book and not caring about one; the ones that don’t raise any emotion are the ones we end up quickly forgetting.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 
Ending: 438
Incidental Learning: Victorian-era England
Further Reading: This reminded me of other moral Victorian works, like Vanity Fair, rather than Trollopes lighter Barsetshire series.