Read these, not that

Not this

If you must do this, do it on audio. Or better yet, wait for your local library to get the audiobook.

If you must do this, do it on audio. Or better yet, wait for your local library to get the audiobook.

Let’s get the negative out of the way: Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. This is a serialized novel from the creator of Downton Abbey – I heard an NPR interview with him about it, I like historical fiction, I figured I’d give it a go. I also like to check out innovative or slightly different modes of storytelling – though the serial format is a bit of a throwback, too, it’s one that’s rarely seen anymore.

First, the app. It sucked. You had to sign in every time, it never remembered where you were, simply turning pages was far glitchier on the same device than it was in the Kindle or iBooks apps. You had to reload everything every time. New chapters didn’t appear until the day after they were promised. Overall, not pleasant.

Second, the content. I listened to the first (free) chapter on audio. Hiring the actress Juliet Stevenson to narrate the audiobook was the best decision anyone made regarding this enterprise. I liked it enough, and was feeling supportive enough about the whole idea, that I invested $14 to get the rest of the book, delivered in weekly installments.

I started reading the next few chapters and …  see page-turning glitchiness complaints, above. Also, it soon became clear that while Fellowes may be a supremely talented creator of high-end soap operas, he’s not a great writer, even in the context of historical romance. I read enough of those to know. This wasn’t, strictly, a romance — I’d call it more of a melodrama. But it was insanely predictable and two-dimensional even by those standards.

Which made me very surprised to read in Entertainment Weekly an interview about his latest project, Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne (for future reference: avoid projects where the creator’s name appears in the title). Fellowes said this: “Trollope is one of my favorite writers of all time. His emotional position is very similar to my own in that nobody is all good or all bad.”

And my immediate reaction was, what the hell are you talking about? Your villains are so bad they practically twirl their mustaches and the good guys are so good you almost want to smack them. I was glad when I saw that the good critics at Slate had also noted this odd contradiction, as Laura Miller wrote Fellowes “professes to love Trollope and to value the “moral complexity” of his characters, then proceeds to strip all such complexity out of their portrayal.” (She credits the TV critic Willa Paskin though Paskin’s review is kinder toward the TV show than Miller’s — enough that I might give it a try since we have Amazon Prime anyway and I’m curious to see Fellowes-as-Hitchcock. Or maybe I should just, you know, read Trollope.)

I went back to listening to the chapters on audio and found the experience improved considerably – thanks, Juliet Stevenson! Maybe Fellowes just writes better for dramatic presentation than old-fashioned reading anyway. Plus no more glitchy page turning. There’s nothing that makes you feel stupider than repeatedly swiping and tapping your iPad so you can read the next page of a book you don’t like that much that you paid real money for. Was it a waste of time? Kind of, though once I’d plunked down that $14 I was going to see this melodrama through to the melodramatic finale. I think that’s what I’m most annoyed about – if I’d gotten this book from the library or even paid a dollar or two on the Kindle, I would be OK with it. But $14 is real money, bookwise, and I feel like I fell for a British-accented, elaborately costumed scam.

And I didn’t even watch Downton Abbey.


Worth the wait, and the length.

Worth the wait, and the length.

Enough with the negative. Let’s move on to gushing about highly hyped entertainment reading that delivered on its hype: The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin. This is the third in the dystopian trilogy that started with  back in 2010. I was working at the library then and jumped on the train. Loved the first book, liked the second enough to get through it all (these books are loooooong) and I was damned sure going to finish the last.

It had been awhile (four years!) since The Twelve, though, so I was a little worried about what I remembered about the plot. And it’s not like you’re going to plow through a thousand-plus pages AGAIN to refresh yourself. So I used the same method I do on the rare occasions that George R.R. Martin produces a book – I read the plot summaries of previous installments on Wikipedia. Plus, Cronin used a future-history-of-the-chronicled-events plot device that reminded me of the events of book 2. And we were off.

I loved it. I spent the entire weekend wallowing around in that book – not rushing through, though it was a page-turner, not savoring though I was perfectly happy hanging out in that world. It wasn’t one of those giant tomes where you’re like, “This thing could easily lose a couple hundred pages and no one would notice.” The extended backstory was interesting and a fun return to the 1990s — and a refreshing break from the dystopic present of the novels. I liked it at least as much as the first novel and much better than the second. So I was very grateful to my local library for buying several copies and wish I could take that $14 back from Julian Fellowes and give it to Justin Cronin.

All the Austen essentials, delightfully updated.

All the Austen essentials, delightfully updated.

My local library was also kind enough to supply a copy of Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. This update of Pride and Prejudice (should that be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?) got a rave in the New York Times Book Review so I figured I’d like it. And I liked the earlier installment I’d read in this series of contemporary Austen updates. It was also the perfect antidote – or remedy is maybe a better word — to my City of Mirrors book hangover. It’s not like I wanted to live in Justin Cronin’s created world — but I had been so intensely immersed in it that it was hard to focus on minor things like my life and my job. Eligible is a frothy social comedy in the best sense – and it was just so much fun to both learn about these new versions of Bennets and Bingleys and Darcys – as well as watch them reach the happy endings I knew were in store. My only complaint about Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense & Sensibility were that I felt she did some contortions to fit the plot into the 21st century. Sittenfeld’s use of a Bachelor-like reality show (the titular “Eligible”) was brilliant.

I loved how she adapted and changed the characters’ roles and ages but managed to hold onto the essentials – Liz is smart but sometimes a little too sharp, Darcy is uptight but honorable, Jasper Wick (ie Wickham) is a charming douchebag, Mrs. Bennett is pretty awful but hey, she’s your mom and Mr. Bennett is smart and funny but disastrously disengaged. Though my favorite change might be the most radical — Kathy DeBourgh as a formidable Gloria Steinem-like feminist icon.

I did gallop through this one – really, really short chapters made me feel like I was supposed to be doing that – but I was happy to do so. And immediately went to the library and got the two Austen updates I hadn’t read yet, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I really can’t wait to see who gets Persuasion.

Just because.

Just because.

In review

So … five stars to Justin Cronin, Curtis Sittenfeld, their editors and publishers and of course my local library.

Two stars to Julian Fellowes – mostly for trying something a little bit out of the norm. Stick to screenwriting, dude, and next time hire a much better app developer. Though I will check out Downton Abbey one of these years.


Checking out

library pic from Herald Thursday was my last day at the Key West Library. It was a great job in a lot of ways ... I keep telling myself and other people that it's a good thing to leave a job while you still like it. I've loved and felt at home in libraries all my life, and have loved more than I could ever have expected getting to know how they work -- or at least how this one works -- from the inside.

It wasn't all joy and happiness. Every single job has its challenges and this one certainly did -- mostly, from my perspective, having to do with the library's physical plant and the aging and inadequate resources it has to offer for technology access, one of the most important roles public libraries play today. During my short tenure there, I saw almost all government services and most employment functions go entirely digital, which means people who don't have computer access or skills are SOL. Except for the public library.

But enough about the negative -- I'll save that for future rants, perhaps. Here are things I will miss about this job:

  • The people -- specifically, my co-workers. The Key West Library is really fortunate right now to have a staff of smart, nice, funny, generous people. It was always a pleasure to show up for work and see them in the morning. I've had enough different jobs that I appreciated that -- really appreciated that -- and I will miss it. I will also miss many of the patrons, both old friends I got to see and chat with regularly as they came through the library, and people I only got to know through my job there.
  • My commute -- a 10-minute bike ride that took me through the Meadows and the Key West Cemetery every morning, and down Olivia Street every evening. A perfect length of time to prepare/relax/reflect on my day, except during the occasional torrential rainstorm.
  • The books -- Library books. Donated books. Ebooks. Advanced review copies, sent out by publishers. I have plenty of books at home and of course will continue to borrow from the library. But it was reassuring to see how much people still read, and occasionally surprising to see something new or unexpected come across the counter. I even started a Facebook album of donated books that made me laugh.
  • Helping people who genuinely need it -- whether it was finding an obscure title via Interlibrary Loan or helping someone get through a complicated online job application process (I'm looking at you, CVS!), there is a great satisfaction in providing a public service that isn't available anywhere else. There were plenty of frustrations along that line to be sure, but often it works and when it does you feel pretty damned good about your choice of employment, and the county's commitment to keeping the library's doors open.
  • The kids -- from the babies and toddlers just discovering the wonders of the library (the train set! Story time!) to the tweens carrying home box loads of manga books (literally), it was fun to watch them grow up and be the familiar friendly face who provided the fodder to help them grow. I also learned from my colleague Art that you can entertain squirmy toddlers by showing them how the scanner beeps every time it scans a bar code.
  • The vault -- I got to fill in some in the Florida History Department, giving me a better look at the many wonders inside the vault and, increasingly, online. Too many to list here but I may return as a volunteer to keep working on my project of scanning photos from local elementary schools in the 1950s and '60s.

Old and new favorites

accidents of providenceGreat thing about working in a library: I spend a lot of time working with books -- checking them out to patrons, shelving them, scouting reviews, getting advanced copies. One small downside: I almost never browse for a book any more, or am caught by surprise by a new title from a favorite author.

Recently, though, I came across a couple historical novels -- one by Tracy Chevalier, whom I like a lot, and one a first novel that appeared on our New Books shelf without my having read any advanced press.

The Last Runaway is Tracy Chevalier's first book set in the U.S. so I'll admit I was dubious at first. But the lead character drew me in from the first (not only because I sympathized with her seasickness as she crossed the Atlantic from England to America in the 19th century and realized the voyage was so traumatizing that she could never cross again). It's set in a Quaker community in Ohio before the Civil War -- so the Underground Railroad was active as slaves made their way to Canada. The Quaker community, while opposing slavery in general, is divided in how far they should go in helping runaways even as the Fugitive Slave Act increased the pressure on them to help those trying to recapture the runaways.

Chevalier is best known for Girl With A Pearl Earring but my favorite of hers remains The Lady and the Unicorn (I'm the medieval-adoring geek who will go see those tapestries over and over again). I also liked Burning Bright, her book set around William Blake, and Remarkable Creatures, about English women who were fossil hunters in the 19th century.

The new book was Accidents of Providence by Stacia Brown, a first novel set in 17th century England -- a period that is neglected compared to the overpowering Tudors but offers a rich landscape as the country went through Civil War and conflict over religion and political structures that divided families, classes and communities. The story revolves around the fate of an unmarried woman who bears a child and buries its corpse -- requiring the state to charge her with murder, whether the child was stillborn or not.

The jacket copy says Brown wrote this book using material from her dissertation on martyrs in 17th century England. I hope we'll see more fiction from her, and hope the book is successful enough to inspire others to write about this period in English history.

Another newish historical novel I read recently didn't spring on me unawares as the previous two but it's well worth a read, especially if you like historical crime fiction and are looking for something on American shores. The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye is set in 1840s New York, as the city is recovering from a catastrophic fire and establishing its first real police force. Another major factor is the increase in Irish immigration -- viewed as a Catholic invasion by some Protestant residents -- that is about to be increased manyfold by the potato famine. I first gave this book a try months ago and I'll admit I was turned back by the language -- Faye has goen to great lengths to use the terms of the time but it felt forced on my initial attempt. For some reason, on my second attempt, it won me over and I was soon enthralled. If you liked Caleb Carr's early novels, this would be a good one to try. Also recommended for people like me, who are tired of waiting for C.J. Sansom to get back to Shardlake or Ruth Downie to tell us what the medicus has been up to lately in Roman Britain.

Time to get reading some Writers on Writers

I love this time of year for a few reasons. Holiday decorations in Key West are fun and appear to be getting more fun every year. I love the best of the year book lists that come out around now, to compare my own reading and to get ideas for books I might have missed. And I love the annual library display of books by writers appearing at the upcoming Key West Literary Seminar.  The theme this time is Writers on Writers and the works encompass straight-up biography, meditative memoir and novels with real writers as fictional characters. Lots more detail, including the writers appearing and the schedules for both sessions, is available on the Seminar website. You can still register! The books by this year's authors include some serious -- as in long and demanding attention -- books. But don't let that discourage you. While you may not be up for wading through a magisterial Literary Biography, especially during the distractions of the holiday season, there are plenty of other books that you may find surprisingly entertaining, as well as edifying.

We've just put up a display of books by Seminar writers at the Key West Library so if you're in town stop by and check it out (the display is in the Reference Department, turned over the summer into a more open reading room if you haven't been in recently).

As usual, I haven't read every single writer who will be appearing at the Seminar. But I have read enough to make some recommendations, especially for those who might feel apprehensive about this year's theme. My top choice is one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books: Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose. I love this book so much I've bought it, given it to a friend, then bought myself another copy because I had to know it was available. We have it in the library, both in hard copy and as an ebook. Rose, a part-time Key West resident, writes about the marriages of five Victorian writers (or four marriages and one long-term cohabitation, that of George Eliot and George Henry Lewes). It's got the satisfactions of high-toned literary gossip -- most of these matches were, in some way, disastrous -- but also offers the chance to reflect on what it means for personal, domestic life when one partner is an artist, as well as the dynamics between men and women, both between individuals and within a context very different from our own.

The most difficult title to categorize but one of the best books I read this year is Geoff Dyer's memoir/meditation on D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage. It's funny. It's thought-provoking. It's comforting, if you're prone to procrastination. I wrote a whole blog post about it a few months ago. It's very difficult to describe but it's intelligent and entertaining. And you should be able to read it a whole lot faster than I did, assuming you're not moving house after 14 years of accumulating stuff.

Some other nonfiction titles I can wholeheartedly recommend: Jane's Fame by Claire Harman -- if you're a fan of Jane Austen on print and screen, this is an interesting examination of why her five novels have retained such a high profile in our cultural lives. New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Toibin, an essay collection about writers and their families. Especially insightful about Irish writers, not surprisingly, though the last couple sections on James Baldwin are masterful. Judith Thurman's biographies of Colette and Isak Dinesen are interesting and extremely readable (there's a reason she's a staff writer for The New  Yorker). Her essays on artists and writers are collected in Cleopatra's Nose. As someone who grew up in and around Amherst, I'm always interested to hear more about Emily Dickinson so I can't wait to see Lyndall Gordon, author of Lives Like Loaded Guns (yes, that's a Dickinson biography), as well as biographies of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and Charlotte Bronte.

I'm looking forward to the discussions about writing about writers in fiction and there's a great selection there, too: Flannery O'Connor (A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano), Sylvia Plath (Wintering by Kate Moses), Stephen Crane (Hotel de Dream by Edmund White), Edith Wharton (The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields). Jay Parini, who will be at the Seminar has written novels about Leo Tolstoy (The Last Station) and Herman Melville (The Passages of H.M.).

Recent reading roundup: The Brits, then and now

Just in time for the Fourth of July -- or maybe in anticipation of the London Olympics? -- OK, it was completely by accident -- I recently finished two books whose authors are Brits and which concern mostly British people in harrowing situations. * Other than that, they couldn't be more different.

One is nonfiction, the other is a novel. The nonfiction book was just published, the novel came out eight years ago. One is a disturbing account of a young woman who falls victim to a sociopath. The other is a historical adventure romp that should appeal to people who like Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels -- and/or the movie version of Last of the Mohicans. Yes, that happens to describe me.

I read the nonfiction book first, a contemporary true crime account called People Who Eat Darkness (note to publishers: why oh why would you give a book a title that is both generic and difficult to remember???). I've recently gotten into the true crime genre but almost exclusively on the historical end. More recent crimes just don't interest me enough to read an entire book about them - most of the appeal is learning about a whole time period or society rather than just getting tons of detail about an ugly crime. But this book got a good review on Salon so I figured I'd give it a try. Especially since it was helpfully in the library's collection.

The author, Richard Parry, is a British journalist based in Tokyo. One story he covered during his tenure there was the disappearance of a young British woman, Lucie Blackman and the subsequent trial of the man accused of killing her.

It's very well done, especially on the inevitable but still heartbreaking cultural divide and incomprehension between Blackman's desperate family and the Japanese authorities tasked with investigating her disappearance. Blackman was working as a hostess in a Japanese bar, one of scores of Western women who flirt and drink with Japanese men at bars in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. She was far from the first to encounter the man eventually charged with killing her -- and that's the other heartbreaking part of the story, how many opportunities were lost to stop the sociopath before he encountered Lucie.

Parry also excels at his portrayal of Blackman's family. Her parents had already been through a bitter divorce and Lucie's disappearance drove them even further apart. Lucie's father, Tim, spent a lot of time in Japan and courted the media in the search for his daughter. Her mother, Jane, was far less public -- and eventually made Tim's efforts the target of her own rage, trying to discredit and destroy the Lucie Blackman Trust he established and cast him as a villain in the drama. Parry is straightforward but fair in his depiction of the two grieving parents, who can't even rely on each other for support in the midst of a parent's worst nightmare. As anyone who's ever grieved knows, each person reacts differently and not always rationally -- and that's just normal grief, not the horrifying media-glare version the Blackmans endured.

My favorite line, though, came toward the end of the book when Parry is describing a self-published manifesto by the defendant (and in a further torture for Lucie's family, his trial took six years, because hearings were held every few months and because the Japanese judicial system rarely encounters a defendant who does not, eventually confess to his crimes). Obara's book, "The Truth About the Lucie Case," contains some valid questions about the prosecution and evidence, Parry acknowledges. "But the body of material was so vast, so promiscuously inclusive and unfocused, that any value it had was overwhelmed in a slurping swamp of weirdness and tedium." If you've ever encountered someone who's gone down the rabbit hole on making their case -- and has the wherewithal to publish their findings -- you know exactly what he's talking about.

The second book was a much lighter, easier read -- I polished it off in a day while waiting for the AT&T guy to come and fix our internet service. It's called Jack Absolute by C.C. Humphreys and it's adventurous historical fiction in the Bernard Cornwell/Sharpe vein. It's also in the library's collection. And it's got a great premise: that the character Jack Absolute from The Rivals by Richard Sheridan, was a real person. The book opens shortly after the play is produced (the book's conceit is that Sheridan and Absolute are friends, and Sheridan wrote about a real episode from Absolute's life and used his name, thinking his friend had died in India). As the novel begins, our man Jack, a retired captain in the Light Dragoons, is trying to make his way to the Caribbean where he has recently acquired a plantation he hopes will restore his family's fortune. Instead, he is coerced back into the Army to serve as a spy for the British forces trying to quash the American Revolution.

It's interesting to see the American Revolution from the other side -- Benedict Arnold makes an appearance while still fighting for the rebels but he's obviously a turncoat-in-the-making -- and Absolute is an attractive and entertaining character. My only quibble with the book is that I figured out who the concealed enemy spy was more than 100 pages out and I'm not usually too sharp on those plot twists. So if I can figure it out it must be really obvious. Still, I plan on reading the other two books in the series and must admit I'm disappointed that they're both prequels. Humphreys appears to have moved on to other subjects in the meantime, so I don't know if I'll ever find out what happens next to Jack Absolute.

* Since writing this it has come to my attention that C.C. Humphreys was born in Canada and now lives in Canada so maybe I shouldn't call him a Brit. He did grow up in Britain, though, according to the jacket copy and he certainly has worked there and the book is, in fact, all about Brits.