Thursday, August 30, 2012

Reading With Others

This summer, I tried something new with reading. I usually pick out books by either browsing or selecting titles I've heard about that sound intriguing. This year, I came across NPR's "Book Lists," which provide recommendations in various categories like "Books for Introverts," "Travel Memoirs," and "Intelligent Romance." I figured my tastes were probably a lot like those of most NPR listeners, so I looked over their suggestions and decided to take some of them on. I was also assisted by a recommended reading list I saw in Real Simple (a short list of five, all of which I ended up reading eventually).

Call it a book lover's experiment. How does picking out books on my own, based on my own predelictions and idiosyncratic interests, stack up with relying on the suggestions of intelligent tastemakers? (OK, I am a librarian, but I don't think that's relevant -- I never worked in a public library or in reader's advisory.) I was curious to see how closely my tastes coincide with those of other "discriminating" fiction lovers (I stuck with novels) and whether this might give me a short cut to that most elusive and highly desirable thing, a joyous banquet of summer reading.

I was excited to encounter these lists because, to tell you the truth, finding the kind of books I enjoy isn't that easy. It's wonderful to come across serendipitous finds, but a truly momentous book doesn't come along every day (or even every month). I guess it's a lot like relationships, where the really big finds are few and far between and therefore precious. I figured taking suggestions from others would get me out of my rut and expose me to writing I wouldn't find on my own, sort of like a for bibliophiles. It was worth a try (which is what I said when I tried out the real

In June I started checking the library for the Real Simple titles, which are what I started with, and I finally realized that when you're interested in the same books everyone else is reading, you have to reserve them if you want to get your hands on them before Christmas. Then it wasn't until the end of June that any of my reserved titles became available. The first was The Innocents, a contemporary version of The Age of Innocence set among a close-knit, well-to-do Jewish community in Hampstead, in the north of London.

The mythologist in me always likes seeing an old story appear in a new guise, so I enjoyed the way the author made the story her own and found it to be, in true postmodern fashion, more nuanced and ambiguous than its predecessor. Who was sympathetic and who wasn't? Hard to say. Next, I read Seating Arrangements, the story of a Cape Cod wedding, whose wealthy characters I deemed greatly annoying throughout most of the book. My main take-away was genuine surprise at the end when these characters, whom I had found unlikeable, suddenly became understandable, each in his or her own way, in the last pages.

Next, I dipped into The Spoiler, a sharply written send-up of publishing, newspapers, and the collision of entertainment and journalism. I liked it, despite the dark and ironic ending, and appreciated its evenhandedness and crisp style. The Uninvited Guests, which I had been especially anticipating, turned out to be an almost indescribable blend of an English comedy of manners, Dawn of the Dead, and a bit of Jean Paul Sartre. It had one of my favorite characters of the summer in Smudge, the family's enterprising youngest daughter (and the only child in the story). Next, I tried to read Overseas, an unabashed romance/time travel combo, but I somehow couldn't make headway with it, in spite of the fact that I kept picturing Hugh Jackman as the male lead. (This novel was highly popular and NPR recommended, but I guess I need my romance more subtle, not to mention that time travel is a tricky thing in my book.)

I also delved into a couple of NPR's picks from last summer, both of which had Shakespearean themes, which I seem to be slightly obsessed with lately. The Great Night, a re-write of A Midsummer Night's Dream set in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park (near Haight-Ashbury) seemed like a sure thing. Alas, it was full of broken characters and a downright scary troupe of fairies that left me sad, despite a very imaginative handling of the magical realm. The Tragedy of Arthur, which involved twins, their relationship with a scoundrel of a father, and the discovery of a purported new Shakespearean play, was like a bookend to Great Night, with its tale of betrayal, tragic flaws, and a curious amalgam of true and false. I couldn't bring myself to read the play, which appears at the end, all the way through.

By August, I had covered The Girl Giant (which starts out sad but gets better. Moral: don't put off those doctor visits) and The Red House. I had read Mark Haddon before, but to me The Red House is his most accomplished work, poetic, insightful, and engrossing. It reminded me of Seating Arrangements with its sly way of slowly revealing all its characters as multidimensional, upsetting any judgments you may have made along the way. It also had an unforgettable and truly disturbing ghost story intertwined with the family drama. I moved on to The Age of Miracles, which was accomplished and original but depressing. I wanted to say to the author, hey, couldn't you at least have left Julia and Seth alone to spin out their story? It's the end of the world, for crying out loud, do you have to kill off the romance, too?

To finish my experiment, I read Mission to Paris, the tale of an actor caught up in the moral quicksands of pre-World War II Europe, which I found fascinating. I liked the main character's intelligence and principles, but I found the sex scenes, which seemed heavy on adolescent male fantasy, jarring. The last book on my list was Gone Girl, an addicting, unpredictable mystery combining black humor, a Manhattan couple, the recession, and a bucolic Midwestern locale to unforgettable effect. The end was a bitter pill but hardly surprising considering the psychotic nature of the couple's relationship. (Note to self: Is this what marriage is really like? Must find out before doing it.)

So that was it, my tour of what other people are reading. What was the outcome of my experiment? I have to say, honestly, that while these books provided moments of amusement (and at times, incandescent writing), I'm not sure I did any better with this list than I would have on my own. A good book (like beauty) really is in the eye of the beholder. My taste, offbeat and unique as it sometimes is, is still, I think, my best compass when it comes to the wild and woolly terrain of reading. (I came to the same conclusion about, it may not surprise you to know. I guess I really do have to figure things out on my own.)

To celebrate the end of my experiment, I went back to an old favorite of mine, with almost the feeling of someone who's been eating all her vegetables only to break down and get what she really wants, a hot fudge sundae. It's been over a decade since I came across Nicholas Christopher's A Trip to the Stars, and I've read it two or three times since then. I never heard of anyone else who's read it. I don't know if it was ever on anyone's Top Picks or bestseller lists. I'm not sure if the library even has it . . . and that arcane quality is probably part of the appeal.

I finished it a couple of nights ago, with some sadness. It will be a while before I can re-read it (you have to pace these things). But I've already started another book, one which I found by browsing in a bookstore some months back, and so far I'm really enjoying it.

To each her own.