Monday, April 19, 2010

The Books in My Life

Instead of writing about Script Frenzy, because in the last two weeks my writing has gone off the rails, I am talking about books and reading today! My whole life has revolved around books. I’m sure I couldn't live without them. I’m also interested in the synergy between the activities of reading and writing. Perhaps talking about reading might help me get back on track.

Experienced writers often make a point of advising beginning writers to read, LOTS. It is advice that is not hard for me to follow! I expected reading would play a prominent role as a leisure activity in my retirement. On the contrary, I’m finding that retirement is not so leisurely after all. I have thrown myself into the world of writing with great enthusiasm, only to find that there are not any more hours in the day than there were when I worked full-time as a librarian. There are many days when the only time I can find for reading is at bedtime when I’m already having a hard time staying awake – just as I used to do before I retired. But that’s not the focus for today, so I will put that particular conundrum into the goal-setting basket or slip it into my next attempt to come up with a schedule that I can actually follow.

I have several different categories of reading that I try to mesh with everything else I do. They are sometimes in conflict with each other, so I often find myself with several books on the go at the same time.

Book Club

I joined a book club eight years ago. It's a very rewarding activity, requiring me to read a specified book every month. As a result I have read many books that I would never have chosen on my own and have enjoyed most of them. We meet at the library to discuss the book chosen by one of the members. That member leads the discussion and provides refreshments. We always have a good time and the discussions are lively. The books are usually fiction, but we have also read some memoirs. The books are fairly current, but at least once a year we choose to read something older, often a classic novel. These have included Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, and The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence.

The last book I chose for book club was Ian McEwan’s Atonement. We also watched the movie that night and discussed both afterwards over cake and ice cream. Last month we read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, written by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows, who completed the book after her aunt became too ill to finish it. Because this book is about a writer trying to find something she could be excited to write about and also about a group of people who meet to discuss books, it's an excellent choice for both writers and book clubs. This month’s selection is The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Similar in theme to Angela’s Ashes, the book is not as well written. Walls is not as good a writer as Frank McCourt, but her memoir is a compelling read nevertheless.


Every few months I go online to eHarlequin and order a selection of books. I read romances for enjoyment, but also it is a form of research into one genre of writing that I have attempted. My favourite line is SuperRomance, and at one time I thought one of my current works in progress would fit there. I’m no longer so sure about that, but I continue to read from that line and others to remain familiar with what is currently being accepted. C.J. Carmichael and Donna Alward are in my latest order. I read romance between book club selections and titles from the next two categories.

Research for Writing

My most recent work in progress, which is in the roughest of all possible first drafts (in fact it is in several first drafts that represent several attempts to write the novel in different ways), is a story set in the nineteen fifties. That decade is very familiar to me, but I discovered as I wrote that I would need to do a lot of research. Currently, I am reading novels set and/or written in the Fifties, as well as nonfiction titles for information. I am reading a collection of articles published in Maclean’s, called Canada and the Fifties: Canada’s Golden Decade. One example is “Going Steady: Is it Ruining our Teenagers?” from the issue of January 3, 1959.

I saw the movie Revolutionary Road recently, and have started reading the novel which was written in about 1958. I am re-reading On Chesil Beach, a novella by Ian McEwan set in the early sixties, about a newlywed couple who were at university in the late nineteen fifties. I have a list of Canadian novels written during that time, some of which I studied at university, which I intend to re-read.

My To-Be-Read List

The largest category of all. It includes books I’ve bought, and others I’ve heard about. My favourite novelists keep writing books! Ian McEwan (Solar), Margaret Atwood (Year of the Flood), etc. etc. Recently I attended Anthony Bidulka’s launch of his latest Russell Quant mystery Date with a Sheesha, set in Saskatoon and Dubai. Quant is a gay private detective who leads a fascinating and dangerous life solving crimes that lead him to many destinations around the world. The latest titles by Louise Penny and Gail Bowen are on that list. Oh, and I can’t forget the "Canada Reads" selections! Or the winners of prestigious awards. Too many books, so little time.

Yann Martel will be a presenter at the Festival of Words in Moose Jaw in July. I would like to read his new, long-awaited novel, Beatrice and Virgil before then. The list will grow longer when the complete program is announced.

I thought this would be a short blog post, but .... (Don’t get me started talking about books!)

What are you reading these days? Do you read different books for specific reasons? Can you recommend novels written in or about the Fifties that I should know about?


Heather said...

i love that you read all sorts of genre of books. I am like that also and feel that it keeps me balanced. A good historical romance with a man in a kilt always helps me get my footing back.

Helena said...

Oh, yes, I agree with you, Heather! Authors on my TBR pile include Diana Gabaldon and Jack Whyte (historical, & tho not thought of as romance have romantic elements). Also Philippa Gregory's The Boleyn Inheritance which is next in her Tudor series after The Other Boleyn Girl.

Thanks for stopping by!

Karyn Good said...

Right now I'm supposed to be readings The Things I Want My Daughter to Know for this month's book club pick but I'm procrastinating because of the subject matter. What I really want to be reading is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which doesn't require a box of tissues.

Like you, joining a book club has forced me to read many books I would never have picked up. Many of those titles are among my favorite books.

I can't read romance while I'm attempting to write it. I save those books for holidays and the summer than I gorge myself on romance. I can't wait as many of my favorite authors have books out I haven't read yet.

LOVED, loved, loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Peel Society!!!

connie said...

Peyton Place?

I'd loan you my copy but I think it is still under my mattress in Niagara

Janet said...

I'm a huge Ian MacEwan fan. And I loved The Glass Castle. And Angela's Ashes. The Potato one is on my TBR list. But I'm most excited about Audrey Niffenegger's newest Her Fearful Symmetry (author of The Time Traveler's Wife.

I'm like Karyn - I have a hard time reading romance as I try to write it (although there's not much writing happening these days).

Our book club does monthly themes and then we share our book choices at the meetings. Makes for an ever expanding TBR list as everyone comes with more than one recommendation. The one I have my eye on from last month is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary. And from the library's book club via a close friend A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka.

OMG - I have way too many books to read.

Great post, Helena. I, too, love talking about books. BTW - next month's book club is at my house and we're watching a movie adapted from a book. Brokeback Mountain from E. Annie Proulx' short story (one of my favorite authors).

Helena said...

Hi, Karyn. There are times when I begrudge the time spent on something I "have" to read, but I usually end up liking the book. So it's all a matter of discipline. Just imagine how much of a treat it will be when you can finally indulge your craving!

Guernsey ... was recommended a number of times before I got around to reading it (then it was because someone chose it for book club!), but it has to one of my all-time favourites, too.

If I were trying to write a novel in a strictly romance category, I think I would stay away from reading that genre as well, so as not to be influenced by someone else's voice.

Thanks for joining in today.

Helena said...

I wonder if Grace Metalious expected so many copies of her book would end up under the mattresses or buried in the pantie drawers? I don't have it on my paperback shelf (or anywhere else anymore)!

But connie, did you sit up late at night watching the TV series, too?

Joanne Brothwell said...

I loved both the Glass Castle and Angela's Ashes. I read these years ago, before I decided to try my hand at writing, so I wasn't really aware of the quality of the writing. But those books have stuck with me, and I still count them as favorites.

Reading for pleasure was a huge part of my life growing up. I took a "sabbatical" from it during university and then again when I had small children, but I'm back at it. I'd choose sticking my nose in a book over a sitcom anyday.

Helena said...

Janet, have you not seen Brokeback Mountain before? It's a heart breaker. I haven't dared watch it again since Heath Ledger's death, but I'm working my way through his movies so I'll get back to it. I also have an edition of the story that includes the screen play.

Your TBR list is impressive, too. I must add the Niffenegger book to mine. I loved The Time Traveler's Wife. Have you seen the movie? They chose to focus on the love story, couldn't follow all the threads of the novel as they explained in the special features, and I thought they did an amazing job.

I wanted to go to Vancouver (SO badly) to hear Ian MacEwan talk about (and read from, presumably) his new book Solar, but in the end couldn't justify the trip just for that! His North American tour only included two Canadian stops. He was in Toronto yesterday. (I wonder if he would like to come to the Prairie since he's probablyt waiting for a flight back to London!) Apparently, the new book is quite hilarious in places, and is being touted as his best.

We'll get back to our writing rhythm soon, don't worry! I'm finding it sort of baffling, but you at least have good reason.

Helena said...

From the time I first learned to read I had my nose in a book. There were times my mother thought I was deaf because I couldn't hear her calling me to help in the kitchen when I was completely absorbed in what I was reading.

I suppose my bedtime reading habit started when my boys were small -- that and working meant it was the only time I had. But there were times when the stack by the bed was even higher than it is now!

It does seem obvious that writers must read, but even when I read with a writer's critical eye, I still read first for pleasure.

Helena said...

Joanne, hope you realize that I was responding to you with my last comment. Sorry, I neglected to address it to you directly!

Thanks for dropping in!

Janet said...

Yes, I have seen Brokeback Mountain, but the other members haven't - and of all the books to movies I suggested, that was the one not everyone had seen. I loved it - warned everyone to bring tissues.

Didn't see Time Traveler's Wife because I had heard bad reviews. And the book was so good, I couldn't have it ruined by a poor rendition.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I used to read far more than I do now, but I think university interrupted my habits a fair bit, since I had no time for pleasure reading and didn't want to slog through assigned things (well, some of them, others I loved). Since then I've wanted to read more, and have managed to to some extent, but writing and all its necessaries take up so much of the day, and sitting buried in a book isn't exactly quality time with Hubby. I actually have a stack of old books right next to me that I need to crack open.

Currently, I'm reading a few books of short stories: one by Neil Gaiman, one the complete collected stories of Robert E. Howard's Conan, and one a cross-genre anthology called Warriors. I have tons of other things in the TBR pile, some writing reference books I've been meaning to read, and a book on Mongol queens on the go for nonfiction research (a future story idea). Somehow need to make all these hours in the day do more things.

Helena said...

I hear you, Hayley. Time is the key, and there just isn't enough of it.

I don't think I did much pleasure reading during any of my stints as a student, either. When you're doing courses in the humanities and social sciences, there are just too many required readings. The last thing you want to do in your spare time (what's that?) is read.

It's been interesting today to see the variety of genres and authors that people are reading. Glad to see that most writers are doing at least some reading. I think what we read enters almost subliminally into our 'writerly' minds, and somehow adds to our idea pool, if not our technique and vocabulary.

Thanks for adding your thoughts today.

Helena said...

Confession time: I noticed that I had mispelled an author's name in my post, so I went back and edited the spelling of Ian McEwan's name. Mea culpa, I am mortified.

Please note that although the post has been corrected, the error is perpetuated in the comments which remain as originally posted.