Friday, April 25, 2014

"A good brawling-book"

Do you know what I like best about reading some books?

I like reading a book and getting smacked across the face and feeling my intellect's blood take one under the jaw and stagger back a few paces. I like being thrashed by another woman's writing or ground under the heel of the prose of an uncommon man.
I don't usually read new books for comfort.
I know that sounds odd, but when I read a book for coziness's sake, it is bound to be a book whose topography is as well-known to me as the lay of light across my front yard.
When I read for reading's sake, I want to be left reeling.

The odd thing about being a writer and a reader simultaneously is that my approach to those seeming twins are at completely opposite poles. I believe that many of you assume that because I write light, “cat's paw prose” as Jenny Freitag has called it, I read nothing but A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse. While those authors are certainly kin to my heart, my reading tastes stray far from my own territory. In fact, I love reading books written in styles I cannot possibly emulate. I like admiring something from afar and giving it a two-fingered salute with my heart in the gesture.
The truth is, I hate twaddle. I cannot tell you the number of times I have picked up a book and been disgusted a few chapters in by the sheer idiocy of the writing. This is literature? This is what passes the slush pile and captures an agent's fancy and eventually crosses a publisher's desk and is finally thrown at several editors for several months before going to print? This rattle-trap affair with a big publisher's name tacked to the spine has actually been turned out to the public with a runny nose, missing half its buttons and wearing its shoes backward? If I was interested in reading half the stuff published, I am certain I would begin first in files from my earliest writing. Surely I could find something more to the cheap taste in my own early work?
To be forthright, the one reason that I have not gone on board with one of those “Advance Reader For Zondervan” programs is because I have a horror of being thrown a terrible book and feeling obliged to read and review it. In the words of the irrepressible Sweet Brown:
Ain't nobody got time fo' dat.”
I have a limited amount of free-time for reading and I like to know that my brain is striding forward in a pair of tall-boots, striving to conquer areas of the world it has not yet subdued. I enjoy attacking subjects of which I know little, authors of whom I've read nothing, and novels that make me feel equal parts worm-small and Plenilune-strong. I graduated from high-school several years ago and opted not to to attend college and instead focus on improving my writing and continuing to independently educate myself as I did all the way up. I took on the responsibility of continuing my education. No college professors are going to be cramming Nietzsche and Tolstoy down my throat. No one is forcing me to read anything. Because of that I refuse to spend the coinage of my time on books I will forget about in a week.
But while standards are a precious thing, I am conscious of making an effort not to become a snob. It would be easy for me to become snobbish because I really do have good taste. I don't say that to be a hoighty-toighty miss, but as a fact. I was raised on real literature, my tastes run toward real literature, and I feel that by now I have a sort of gauge engrained in my mind that is constantly holding up one book and comparing it to another. Suzannah Rowntree, blogger at VintageNovels, contacted me about reviewing Fly Away Home during a home-educated authors week on the blog. I laughed at one line in her email:
I [will] read your book and write an honest review. I want to help out fellow home educators here, so I won't be trying to be picky, but, fair warning: I will be holding your book to the same standards I apply to Jane Austen, CS Lewis, or Robert Louis Stevenson, which include technical excellence and discerning worldview.
That stipulation does not bother me because that is the standard to which I hold whatever I read. That means that modern classics, indie-published novels, even old classics … whatever I read is tossed up against my idea of a good book and I hope desperately to find something that sends me reeling. So this year I have branched out a little, accepted a couple of novels for review, and purposely slipped some indie-published fiction into my reading stack. Some titles have surprised me with their depth or charm, others have disappointed me with their failure to come up to my standards. And then, of course, we have unarguably great books that I hold fiercely to my chest and cuddle, daring the world to present more like them. To illustrate this adventurous reading stack, I've given you my 2014 So Far list:

Outcasts by Jill Williamson
The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne
Hood by Stephen Lawhead
Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmund Rostand
Forget-Me-Nots by Amber Stokes
Scarlet by Stephen Lawhead
On Distant Shores by Sarah Sundin
Once on a Time by A.A. Milne
The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
Duty by Rachel Rossano
Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas
Violets are Blue by Elizabeth Rose
Tuck by Stephen Lawhead
Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer
Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling
Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
Only a Novel by Amy Dashwood
Plenilune by Jennifer Freitag

I am blessed. I have been roundly kicked in the gut by many of these titles, the most recent of which is Plenilune. Please don't attack me for having got Advance Reading for that one. I swear she offered it herself and I didn't even beg. All I am going to say is this: the world had better brace itself; the De la Mares are coming. Sheeh, but they're coming.

wow … don't really know what else to say. Plenilune is still clogging my mind. It was that, really, that sent a blow crashing to my temple that is still causing my ears to ring almost a full twenty-four hours after I finished it. Faith, but I love a good brawling-book. <3


Zenta said...

Ah! I know what you mean...about a book that sends you reeling. It's like...well, for me it's like I have no idea what the author is talking about, but I know it's deep and important. Even if I don't agree with it, the author has something to say and I'd better listen.
And I recognize some of those authors! G.K. Chesterton is a personal favorite of mine. The Ballad of the White Horse is my favorite book ever.
I must admit, I have terribly cheap taste. I mean, I read and enjoy the old classics, but I do enjoy picking up a chick-lit book. (And reading fanfiction. Fanfiction is a guilty pleasure of mine. Let's be real though...some fanfics are better written than many publicized books.)
But they can get old and terrible quickly...I've learned when checking out chick-lit from the library that it's important to get many different ones, for most will prove too terrible to continue.
...huh. I guess I do know what you're talking about more than I thought I did.
Anyway, if you're looking for a book to give you a "roundhouse kick in the gut," try Ender's Game if you haven't already. Set in a futuristic, militaristic, government-controlled society, it deals prominently with the theme of manipulation. (theme isn't the right word, though, but I forget the other one) It is very interesting and really makes you think.
Also, one day or other I think I might research book suggestions and perhaps put some on my List. :)

Hayden said...

I kind of have mixed feelings on this one- I mean, I'm not denying you have a point. Really, there are people out there who have NO business being published. At all.

But I've also discovered -when it comes to Christian fiction- that a lot of people see their work as their "ministry" and I feel bad bashing a book that, though perhaps not well-written, is God-honoring and might introduce them to the Gospel(although in all honestly there is sadly few of those in the Christian market as least, books that *I* think are godly and not completely ridiculous overly-romantic, sensual nonsense).

So when I review Christian fiction, and I've got one that's not that great, I always try to point out at least *one* good thing they have going for it.

And sometimes I do like an "easy" read such as a chick-lit novel...but I've quickly learned not to read so much of them. For a long time I read so many Christian historical romance books I kind of feel like it dulled my literary senses for a while. Now I've expanded my horizons into different genres...and I don't read quite so much of it :)

Anyway, a thought-provoking post with some good points. Nowadays pretty much anyone can get published (even me, haha) so it means we're exposed to so many more books- it's always a little hard to find the good ones.

Rachel Heffington said...

Spork, thanks for the book recommendation! :)
Spork & Hayden, I think I accidentally came across as reading only deep heavy books. Great Scot! I do read for pleasure, but it is generally a book I have on pretty good authority will be wonderful. I am certainly not above the enjoyment of a fluffy just must be well-written fluff. ;)

Abbey Stellingwerff said...

"In fact, I love reading books written in styles I cannot possibly emulate. I like admiring something from afar and giving it a two-fingered salute with my heart in the gesture."
That's how I feel about most of the books I read. I absolutely love the way you put it.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This perfectly sums up how I feel about reading. Loved this article, Rachel! Do you mind if I quote it in a piece I'm writing for my blog?

Rachel Heffington said...

Sara: not at all! I love sharing my thoughts and look forward to hearing yours.