Read Harder

I’m doing Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge 2017 for the first time this year, with some of the (always-inspiring) London Book Clubbers.

We have 24 tasks to complete, so it equates to two per month (although one book can cover  more than one task).  Like DiverseAThon, it’s great way to expand my reading.  Fantasy and comics will be new to me, and Roxanne Gay has set a task to read a book published by a micropress, which will be fun to seek out.

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Read Harder Challenge 2017 tasks

Here is my progress so far…

Read a debut novel:  several of my 2017 reads have been debuts: Shelter, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, The Nix and The Dry by Jane Harper

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Reading The Dry at Adelaide Airport

I really enjoyed The Dry, a thriller set in rural Australia.  A smart protagonist and some realistic local characters, with a strong, well-paced story.  Harper does a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere of a small country town, both the landscape and a community on edge.  Recommended.

Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative: both The Good Immigrant and Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue qualify – I reviewed The Good Immigrant (excellent selection of essays) in an earlier DiversAThon post.

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Behold the Dreamers is a warm, engaging story about Cameroon immigrants to New York.  The characters are sympathetic and Mbue does not shy away from the difficulties they face, the stress of job insecurity and the strain this puts on a marriage.  For me, it lacked dramatic tension, as we know what happened to Lehman Brothers, and it was a little too earnest, but I liked having Jende and Neni’s perspectives.  Thought-provoking and good, honest writing.

Read a book published between 1900 and 1950: Fantastic Night by Stefan Zweig.

A wonderful collection of Stefan Zweig’s stories.  His writing is elegant, philosophical and humane.  Zweig was extremely erudite but wore his knowledge lightly.  He conjures up beautiful turn-of-the-century European settings and a time when people travelled, for leisure and then necessity.  The bittersweetness of past loves, the fears of war and a reverence for forgotten greats (a bibliophile, an actor) drive these tales, told with warmth and style.

Read a YA or middle-grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.  I have to thank Jamie Klingler of the London Book Club for this one: the audiobook of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, read by Lin Manual Miranda.

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An excellent book – poignant, true and funny. I laughed, I cried and absolutely loved Miranda as a narrator.  A winner!

Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel: Nightwood by Djuna Barnes.  I’ve had this on my TBR for years, ever since I read about Djuna Barnes in a biography of Peggy Guggenheim, so in between the 1,000+ pages of Infinite Jest I thought I’d do this as a ‘quick’ read and tick it off my list.  Wrong!  Only 208 pages but oh so dense!  My review below…

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Sublime but elusive, the story of the doomed love between two women, told in vivid prose.  Paris is seedy, the characters flawed and Gothic.  Barnes’ writing gleams: her poetic wordplay and wit reminded me of Shakespeare; the confessional tone pre-dates Camus’ The Fall, and the Woolf comparisons are apt too.  Strong, dense, it refuses to be matter-of-fact, but feels searingly honest.

Read a book where all point of view characters are people of colour.  I have something quite different for this one.  Our Adelaide Book Club is going to Hong Kong in June, so in preparation this month we have read Crazy Rich Asians (about to be made into a movie).

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This has been called Dynasty on steroids and the next 50 Shades of Grey.  If you’re a fan, you’ll love it.  Some of the praise is overblown (it’s no Pride and Prejudice or Evelyn Waugh), but Kwan meticulously describes the lives of the super-rich in Asia, and the materialism and prejudices of those places, with accuracy and humour.  One-dimensional characters, every luxury brand name-checked.  A bit superficial for me, but very good for what it is.

And here is my Read Harder TBR stack!  I’ll leave you to guess what tasks these relate to.  Next, I’ll be immersing myself in Japanese books for our trip to Tokyo in April. Yay!  Sayonara for now…

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Escapist Books

The last time I looked at the news, there was an earthquake in central Italy and women being stripped on the beach in France.  And my son asking “who is that little boy?” (the 5 year-old devastated Syrian bombing victim).  Even some of the books I’ve read lately have taken an unflinching (brave, and beautifully written) look at war and oppression – I’m looking at you Girl at War and Do Not Say We Have Nothing.  Agh!  We need to escape sometimes: VEEP and Lillehammer are my television souffles, but I do like a good book.  Simon and Thomas of The Readers podcast have read my mind and discussed escapist reads recently.  I was inspired to make a list …

Two rules are at play: 1) it can be as light as light as can be, but must be well-written.  I want to feel inspired by an author smarter than me, not cringe at cliches or clunky phrasing: No 50 Shades of Gray. 2) nothing too challenging. No War and Peace or Narrow Road to the Deep North (both excellent though).

It’s a tricky balance – I have huge respect for authors who manage it. On the other hand, I agree with Thomas – any book that draws you in and entertains you can be a good escape.

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  1. P.G. Wodehouse: fail-safe, timeless, always lifts my spirits.  In the words of Evelyn Waugh, his “idyllic world can never stale”.  Harmless but genius writing.  This article in the New Yorker explains some of the appeal. We visited Sydenham Hill Wood recently and the guide map said “The Pond .. supports dragonflies and newts” – just the word newt made me laugh, conjuring up Gussie Fink-Nottle.  You must read his speech at Market Snodsbury Grammar School, in Right Ho, Jeeves.
  2. Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy): escape to outer space, brilliantly conceived. Funny, masterful, another genius.
  3. A good detective story: Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers for classic English crime.  Recently I’ve discovered Judith Flanders, who does a great a great crime caper (Murder of Magpies).  Boris Akunin has been compared with Sherlock Holmes but has a comic Russian element.  And Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series (starting with Death at La Fenice) blends crime, Venice and food – what’s not to love?  A good setting can be key.  By good I mean not war-torn; ideally a grand hotel by the sea, a bucolic village or a cultural European capital.
  4. Another recent discovery: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.  I felt like I was holidaying in a resort by the lake (funny, that), breathing crisp mountain air and Edith was in my ear whispering her observations about the guests.  There is some depth and sadness, but it’s treated with a light touch.  The quality of the writing is absorbing enough to block out the read world.
  5. Speaking of mittel-Europe, Stefan Zweig – he wrote during troubling times but he illuminates small incidents, details and characters with a humane sensibility and a reassuring tone – as if someone is simply confiding a story. My favourite is The Royal Game, a novella that takes place on a cruise: short in length, an escapist setting, tick, tick!
  6. 41NEReoBC6L._SX304_BO1,204,203,200_The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjoberg.  Sjoberg collects hoverflies on a remote island in Sweden. Somehow this is one of the most comforting, wise books I have read. I highly recommend it.
  7. Which brings us to Scandinavia: Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is everything.
  8. Another means of escape is a sweeping story to immerse yourself in.  Some of my favourites are: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (so excited for her next book The Good People due in October); The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. All have a strong sense of place too, so you really can enter into another world. Bliss!
  9. Actual travel, anyone? I love the travel writing of Dickens, and the slim volume On Travel is full of insights and funny scenes, with his sense of theatre and comedy. Edith Wharton’s Cruise of the Vanadis is a beautiful book and cover.jpg.rendition.460.707leisurely escape – relax with a coffee and enjoy the Meditterranean islands and Wharton’s eye for detail. Bill Bryson’s early travel writing is clever and entertaining. And for 1970s New York, the The Andy Warhol Diaries are a revelation: fun and name-droppy to dip in and out of, or a full literature experience with Warhol as the protagonist.
  10. Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: John Wood’s memoir about starting Room to Read is an antidote to the ‘world problems are overwhelming’ blues.  Wood – a self-confessed library nerd and avid reader – is funny, engaging and optimistic. The message: world change starts with educated children.  The good news?  He is on it.

What are your favourite escapist books?