P.D. James… again

Talking about Detective Fiction by
P.D. James

At the same time that I was reading Death Comes to Pemberley, I was listening to this book on audio.
(Actually, I wasn’t precisely reading them both at the very same time, because there is a limit to my multi-tasking
abilities. But I was reading them during the same timeframe.)
And maybe that was just a bit too much P.D. James all at once, or
maybe… (and I actually think this is the reason)… maybe I just got too darn
good an education during library school.
’Cause here’s what I kept thinking all the way through the section
about the Golden Age mystery writers: Yeah, I learned that in library school.
And that, too! So this (audio)book was kinda boring, a little bit.
So I really only perked up and got interested in the new stuff
somewhere around disc 4 (of 4). That’s where James started talking about her
own writing, and that was darn interesting. For example, she learned from
Agatha Christie’s experience (of getting annoyed with Hercule Poirot’s
oddities) not to make her main character too quirky. And she writes about the
inspiration for the settings of some of her books, and that’s good stuff, too.
some of my Agathas
(just don’t look too close: dust bunnies!
…because reading’s way more fun than dusting)
Though, one saving grace: James isn’t as hard on Agatha Christie as
some people are. Sure, Christie’s characters were cardboard cut-outs, but
guys—that lady could write one heck of a plot! During junior high and high
school, I read every darn Agatha Christie mystery I could get my hands on, and
I’ve still got a boatload of them on my shelves today. I’ve a fondness for
those old things.
And James recognizes Christie for her strengths, while also
acknowledging her weaknesses… and rather forgiving them, it seems. 

If you’re a huge P.D. James fan and just can’t get enough of her viewpoint, or if you’re interested in learning the basics of the 19th- and early 20th-century roots of the mystery novel, this book might hold your attention better than it did mine. I just felt like I was watching a re-run of a documentary I’d already seen.

Just for us

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
This is a wee, jolly book, my reading friends. It’s 150 pages of Our Kind of Talk.
Yes, it’s a book about the joys of reading.
And the author is a thoroughly amiable fellow. Here’s what he says: “Read at Whim.”
Yes, really! And he’s even an English professor, saying this!
Basically, he’s giving us permission to read what we want to read. We can—yes, we can—ignore those odious lists of Best Books. Unless we happen to want to read some of the books on those lists. Otherwise, it’s OK to read what we love. Because reading books just to check them off a list, that isn’t really reading for the very best reason.
This is so much my belief. It was pure pleasure to read it so beautifully argued.
Here’s one of my favorite sentences of the book. He’s describing his junior year in high school. “At that age I would have been an absolute sucker for any authoritative register of Books One Must Read, and I thank God that I never came across any of them.” (p. 131)
(I myself got hold of such a list in college, and it took a library school class on popular fiction to set me free.)
Jacobs also addresses the difficulties of our wired age. He brings in Nicholas Carr’s ideas from The Shallows to describe how tempting our electronic devices can be, even to those of us who know the delight of being fully absorbed in a book.
Here’s Jacobs: “To be lost in a book is genuinely addictive: someone who has had it a few times wants it again, and wants it enough, perhaps, to beg a friend to hide the damned BlackBerry for a couple of hours, please.” (p. 88)
There are too many delightful sentences here for me to include, but here’s what my favorite sections are about: the importance of allowing ourselves to re-read books when we want to (yeehaw!) and the importance of serendipity in our reading lives. Pretty much what I was railing about a short while ago.
We need those things, and we know we need those things, and we need to make sure we get those things.
A lovely little book. Lovely.

Jacqueline Kennedy: Reader

Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books by William Kuhn
Thanks to Ann Kingman of Books on the Nightstand for this recommendation. Even though I’m a Kennedy-o-phile (dear God, what a horrid construction), seeing the reviews of this book (and other similar one recently published) didn’t really tug at me. Till Ann’s rave review, and then I caved.
So glad about that. (photo credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum; that’s the First Lady’s bedroom in 1962. I’ll betcha she read in there.)
There’s way more Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis biography here than I would have thought.
And this book, more than any other I’ve ever read about her, helped me understand her.
Really quite something, that.
There are links here between the literature she loved and the men she chose to marry. And for the first time, I got why she married each of them, even as she knew their failings. Strange how that never made sense to me until now, but the way Kuhn explains it, it just makes sense.
The other remarkable thing is this: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a reader. I swear to you, I’ve never thought of her in that way. As a style and fashion icon, yes. As a famous wife and mother, yes. But as a reader… I just missed it, guys.
There are two wonderful sentences in this book that drive the point home:
“This slightly offbeat Jackie, her beautiful hair smelling not only of perfume but also of the cigarettes she sometimes liked to smoke when she was working, scribbling in the white space along the edge of a manuscript, is the Jackie we know when we understand that first and foremost she was a reader.” (p. 17 of the eBook)
During her marriage to Onassis, an insider said she “disappeared every afternoon while others napped to read by herself” (p. 25 of the eBook).
She was not like Us, but actually, in a way, she was. Gotta like that.
P.S. Just before posting this, I was over at A Work in Progress and saw a posting called “Are You as Well Read as Marilyn Monroe?” Given the whole Jackie/Marilyn thing, it was nice timing. And interesting to see that they both were readers.

All about living

How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
After hearing Ann Kingman rave about this book on the Books on the Nightstand podcast, I was pretty darn sure I’d love it.
And, well, guys, I’m very glad I read it, but I didn’t love it the way I thought I might.
But then, that’s really not surprising. Reading about a French nobleman who lived way-back-when is really not my thing.
But—a book about how to live one’s life… that’s what I like to read.
This book was rather a mix of those elements, and the stuff I liked best was the “how to live” stuff rather than the biographical stuff about Montaigne and his literary afterlife.
Which is not to say that Montaigne ain’t likeable.
It’s delightful how contemporary he often seems. There was one point during his writing life when his friends wondered if he should reveal less about his personal life, and I thought: Dude was a blogger.
Also— He described his writing as “free and unruly,” and I’m all about the unruly.
There were other sections in the book that just left me nodding my head. For example, here’s Montaigne, followed by a perfect summary by Bakewell:
“‘I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter. You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff.’ Indeed, that is just what a common and private life is: a life of the richest stuff imaginable.” (pp. 317-318)
Yup. That’s it in a nutshell. ’Nuf said.

Real Short Re-Cap: Read This Next

Read This Next: 500 of the Best Books You’ll Ever Read by Sarah Newman and Howard Mittelmark
I was just going to flip through this book, browsing for books to read for myself or to suggest for the book club. But I ended up not doing that. Instead, I read the intros to each of the chapters, and I did snorting/laughing sounds because I just couldn’t help it.
(They’re hella amusing, those authors.)
Then I browsed through the blurbs about the books and added 5 books to my Shelfari TBR list.
Then scanned a couple of the intros again and repeated the snorting/laughing thing, even though I already knew the funny parts.

The Writer in the Secret Annex

Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose

While in junior high, I read The Diary of a Young Girl about 4 times. But somehow, when the “Definitive Edition” was released about 15 years ago, I just didn’t feel like reading it. But now I’ve checked it out from the library, and Francine Prose’s book is the reason.

Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife is a mighty fine book. The subtitle identifies the main sections of the book, and the two I enjoyed most were “The Life” and “The Book.” The section on “The Afterlife,” with its accounts of all the squabbling over who “owned” the story, dragged a bit. And actually made me a little sad.

Prose brilliantly describes the appeal and the immediacy of Anne Frank’s book: since Anne addressed her diary entries to a pretend friend named “Kitty,” she wrote in the second person, addressing “you.” And we are the “you.” I’d never thought about it, but it’s completely true.
Prose also describes Anne as a skilled writer whose style developed very quickly—and who re-wrote her diary into a form near to that which was published. (Lots of details there about what Otto Frank left in, what he chose from the old/new versions of Anne’s diary, etc. Fascinating.)

So now I need to read The Diary of a Young Girl again. And rather than read the old, falling-apart edition I read until it fell to pieces*, I’ve got the “Definitive Edition” here. So it’ll be a little bit like reading the book for the first time.

While we’re talking about Anne Frank, here are two interesting things:
First, a very short bit of film that is the only known footage of Anne Frank:

And second, the Anne Frank House is creating an “Online Hiding Place,” which is due to launch next year. So it will be possible to “visit” the Secret Annex without traveling all the way to Holland. (Though I still want to go there someday. Someday.)

* one of only two books I own that are held together by rubber bands; the other is the Spanish-English dictionary that I’ve owned since third grade

Reading About Reading

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster

What a nifty book. In a conversational tone, Foster describes the meanings of baptism, vampires (I was surprised by this one!), dining scenes, and more, in literature. His light approach makes me think he must be one of those professors whose classes everyone scrambles to take. The thing I like about this book is that Foster offers up a traditional literary device or symbol I thought I understood, and then he takes it one step further than I expected. And his writing is deft and fresh enough that it never feels like he’s teaching; instead, I’m having a fun time reading, and I’m learning along the way. Excellent. Also, while the subtitle includes the words “reading between the lines,” I found this book to be fine reading while waiting in the grocery store line. True story.

A Paean to Reading

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

A very book-ish sort of book! Imagine what would happen if Queen Elizabeth II were to begin reading… compulsively, widely, and attentively. (If you envision all heck breaking loose, then you and Alan Bennett are on the same page.) In this enchanting novella, the queen’s dogs create a huge ruckus near the “travelling library” that is parked near the palace, so she goes in to apologize and then checks out a book just to be polite. And thus she starts down a slippery slope… She becomes addicted to books. And man, does it make her advisors nervous. A lovely little book about the glories and the power of reading.

Haven for Readers

Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast by Bill Richardson

This little novel is set in a heaven on earth: an inn that is a haven for readers, where the aim of their vacation is to get caught up on their reading. Ahhh… what pleasure. Two brothers run the bed and breakfast, and together with their guests, they narrate the sweetly humorous events that take place in this enchanting setting. The book also contains book lists, such as “Hector’s List of Favourite Authors for the Bath,” which add to this cozy book’s charm. Pour yourself a cup of tea, draw a chair up near the fireplace, and escape into this lovely world.