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Archive for June, 2016

I saw a review of Radio Girls somewhere, and thought it was just the thing after my Infinite Jest fail and an interesting but not exactly light nonfiction read. I was right. Sarah-Jane Stratford based her novel on some real people — especially Hilda Matheson and her friends (who included Lady Nancy Astor and Vita Sackville-West) and the BBC Director General John Reith — and some fictional characters. Her heroine is the fictional Maisie Musgrave, who was born in Canada, grew up in New York, and ran away to become a WWI nurse even though she was underaged. When we meet Maisie, it’s 1926, and she is back in London after attending secretarial school in New York, and is trying to find work. Maisie is young and fairly adrift, having never known her father and never really felt any love from her mother.

She becomes a secretary at the BBC, working for both the Director General’s assistant and Hilda Matheson, who heads the Talks Department. The novel follows Maisie’s ups and downs as she discovers she doesn’t have to be mousy, she loves radio, she’s capable, and she longs to write. It’s her story, but it’s also the story of her time, and the BBC at that time, especially the development of the Talks. I enjoyed the parts about political events, especially the passage of universal suffrage and the first vote for all British women. Maisie also finds her way into a mystery that leads to a brush with spying and to a subplot about British fascists who want to take over the press. And she learns a great deal from Hilda.

In her author’s note, Stratford tells readers that many of the bits about the BBC, its inner workings and growing pains, Hilda Matheson’s accomplishments, and Reith’s actions at the helm are true. So are some of the facts about British fascists, although the story Maisie uncovers is fictional. Also true are the parts of the book about women having a hard road to advancement or even to working after marriage. Some of the plot gets a bit far fetched but it’s a fun read. I came away wanting to read more about Hilda Matheson — what a woman! —  and about the BBC.

Radio Girls isn’t perfect — some of the plot is far-fetched, and some of the language is a bit stale, with characters turning “bright red” or “white” whenever they are expressing shock or anger, for example. But I really enjoyed this debut and kept thinking it would make a wonderful Masterpiece production. Maisie is a delightful character.

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I read about You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice in a Blog U post by Joshua Kim. Kim wrote that the book made him ponder the way we select books, which is an interesting question for librarians to consider. He also made the point that the book illuminates how bad we are at explaining our own tastes and at choosing what we’ll like and I thought, “That’s me!”

I’m the person who can never declare definitively my “favorite” of anything — color, book, movie, ice-cream flavor, etc. So well developed was my ability to see the merits of more than one side of an argument or more than one type of anything that my father was convinced when I was in college I was going to be brainwashed in an airport while listening politely to some cult member’s point of view.

I’ve had both good friends and my future husband shake their heads at my music collection (back when said collection was on cassette, and radio stations and the Columbia House music club were my only option for hearing about bands). A friend referred to me as a “musical slut;” the future husband said I was a musical disaster. He seemed frustrated that I appeared to like completely disparate stuff, to “have no taste in music,” when his own tastes were fairly well defined.

It turns out there’s a term for this in the age of the Internet. In You may Also Like, Tom Vanderbilt notes that sociologists Richard Peterson and Albert Simkus call it “omnivorousness,” and that it’s newfangled cultural elitism. One’s eclectic tastes signal status, as liking a particular class of things (for example, being an opera buff) once did. These days my strange CD collection would gain me points if I was trying to impress hipsters or highbrows. I didn’t find this very comforting. I’m not sure what’s worse, to have my taste in music described as weird or elitist. I think I’ll stick with being a weirdo.

You May Also Like is full of social science studies, past and present (I really liked the historical perspectives), observations about modern shopping and listening patterns, and interesting facts about the psychology of choice. Some of it made me squirm — how many times have I said here on bookconscious that I tend to be skeptical of prize-winning books? Turns out that’s a documented phenomena — ratings of books on Amazon drop after they win a prize. (One possible explanation is that people who wouldn’t normally read a book like the prizewinner are drawn to it because of the prize and its publicity, so those readers were never a good match for the book and are disappointed).

Vanderbilt’s writing style made it hard for me to read this book before bed. I finished it yesterday afternoon and found I took much more in. His tone is a bit scholarly — not off-puttingly, but not ideal for when I’m at my sleepiest. I admire someone who totally geeks out over his or her subject, and I think Vanderbilt does. With 63 pages of end notes for 226 pages of text, there are often 5-6 references per page. Vanderbilt’s voice isn’t as familiar or conversational as AJ Jacobs or Bill Bryson, but he does relate some of what he learns to his own experience.

If you like your nonfiction well researched and well written, you’ll like this book. I learned about things I want to follow up on — like Forgotify, a site dedicated to the millions of songs never played on Spotify. I’ll try to notice the subtle clues that an online review may not be authentic and I’ll be more aware of Vanderbilt’s astute point that even if a review is “real” it may be “subject to distortion and biases.” And I’ll be paying closer attention to my own likes and dislikes and those of my friends and family, thinking more critically about how those form and change.

As Vanderbilt concludes, “Trying to explain, or understand, any one person’s particular tastes — including one’s own — is always going to be a maddeningly elusive and idiosyncratic enterprise. But the way we come to have the tastes we do can often be understood through a set of psychological and social dynamics that function much the same, from the grocery store to the art museum. The more interesting question is not what we like but why we like.” That could be an endlessly fascinating thing to explore, now that I’ve read You May Also Like.

 

 

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My college friend Marybeth asked me a little while ago to ask if I would read a novel called Mine that her friend’s sister, Katie Crawford, wrote. I didn’t know anything about it, except that Marybeth had read the first chapter and liked it. I finished yesterday morning and I can tell you this: it’s better than most of the books Kirkus has sent me to review in 2016.  I really enjoyed it and I think it deserves a wide audience.

Those of you who read my blog regularly will not be surprised to learn it’s published by a small press, Deeds Publishing in Athens, Georgia. I know there are some good books being published by the big five and other large publishing houses, but I will continue to remind readers as often as possible: there are really good writers being published by independent small presses all over the place, and if you go to your nearest independent bookstore the booksellers can hook you up with some wonderful books you will very possibly not hear of otherwise. Ok, plug for indies over (for now).

Mine is the story of two sisters in a small mining town in Pennsylvania, Janie and Maggie. The story describes their bleak childhoods and how that upbringing impacts both of their lives. The most important events that inform everything that happens to them for the rest of their lives are their parents’ deaths and Janie’s becoming pregnant by a priest who was himself abused by a priest as a child.

I don’t recall reading a date, but hints in the story and the timeframe in which the mines closed (which they have by the end of the novel) make me think the girls’ childhoods might be in the fifties or sixties? As would have been common at the time, Janie is sent away when her pregnancy becomes obvious, to some nuns who take care of “fallen” girls; refreshingly in this novel, the nuns are very kind and caring. But she’s made to give the baby up. About a year or so later, Maggie & Janie move to Philadelphia, where Maggie’s new mother-in-law lives. But Janie is faithful, visiting both the hospital room where she last held her infant daughter and her parents’ graves every week.

I don’t want to give away the rest of the plot, but I do want to recommend this moving book. It would make a good vacation read because it’s one of those books you don’t want to stop reading. The ending is satisfying without being tied up in a bow. The writing is compelling. You probably know older women who were a little like Janie when they were young; no amount of personal tragedy could dim her faith or her kind-heartedness.

This would also be great for a book club. I’d recommend pairing this novel with the movie Spotlight; we finally watched it last weekend and Mine made me really think about not only the Catholic Church’s complicity but also the enormity of the human tragedy — this book reveals just a few victims, and when you scale that up worldwide, it’s pretty mind-boggling.

But I digress. Go get this novel. If you like fiction about women’s lives, historical fiction, or just reading something that’s not on every airport bookrack, ask your local bookseller for Mine, or suggest your library purchase it.

 

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I love the ALA Center for the Future of Libraries Read for Later.”  In the most recent issue I took a link to a Wired piece about “bingeing” on books. That to me sounded like a dream weekend, but the article was actually about a publishing format that was hot in the 19th century and is coming back in style: serialized fiction.

Which reminded me that I could download the final chapter of Julian Fellowes’ BelgraviaYes, that Julian Fellowes. His latest project is a 19th century story published 21st century style — via either the website or an app, in weekly installments. I subscribed as soon as I heard about it, which means that for eleven weeks I read a short chapter and then felt a little inconvenienced at being left hanging.

The app itself was seriously annoying — it won’t remember login information, so every week I had to enter it anew, which is problematic both in terms of remembering exactly what strange combo of capitalization, numbers, or characters I’d added to make the password fit the app’s requirements, and typing it all accurately on my iPad, something I always manage to screw up. Also sometimes the latest episode wouldn’t download, or would close while I was reading it.

The book itself is soapier than I would usually enjoy, but coming from the creator of Downton Abbey it’s highly entertaining and filled with historical details. At this point if you buy it I think you’ll get all eleven chapters at once, and if you don’t like eBooks, the print version will be published in early July. The book “opens on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, 15th June 1815, when the Duchess of Richmond threw a magnificent ball in Brussels for the Duke of Wellington.” From this real event, Fellowes spins a tale of love and betrayal, social aspiration and accomplishment. History and social commentary are the backdrop, but Fellowes’ characters are fictional, and in many ways very modern.

The main characters are the family of a self-made man who made his mark as Wellington’s supplier during the wars with Napoleon and went on to build great houses in London, and the family of his daughter’s love interest, aristocrats whose son was killed at Waterloo. There is plenty of family and social drama, and just plain human nature, and I enjoyed it as a pleasant diversion. I’d love to see a Masterpiece adaptation.

But reading Belgravia affirmed that I don’t love eBooks — I really didn’t even find the “bonus” features like links to information or photos all that engaging. I’m a narrative fan, and I don’t want to “binge” episodes, I want to read an entire novel at whatever speed I choose. But, that’s me. I’m all in favor of reading choices. If serialized fiction engages readers who otherwise don’t believe they have the time or attention span to read a novel, I hope the trend grows. But I’m hoping the print edition of Belgravia does even better than the serialized app, and that publishers use this trend as a hook, but continue to provide those who like to savor rather than binge with novels-in-full, in all formats, including print.

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Ok, for those of you who’ve followed along with my can-I-or-can’t-I finish Infinite Jest: I can’t. I tried. I made it to page 500 something. But I have a Kirkus assignment, a tall to-be-read pile, and a book I put in a purchase request for waiting at the library, and also it was slowly dawning on me that even if I persevered to the end, I was not going to “find out what happens.” What seemed interesting and fascinating in the first few hundred pages began to wear me down.

Infinite Jest is still an interesting book. I was amazed at how prescient it seems even though it was published in the early 90’s. Sadly it doesn’t seem all that far fetched that an American administration might consider corporate sponsorship of time. And the drug addiction in the book seems pretty timely. But I was disappointed that the complex plot lines did not become clearer as I read, and I feel a little ripped off that I spent over three weeks trying to get through a novel that was ultimately impenetrable when I have so many other books I want to read.

Would I recommend anyone else try Infinite Jest? I know there are many people who think it’s brilliant. There’s a temptation with a book this out of the ordinary to believe it’s a work of genius that is just beyond the average reader. But I’m afraid I feel like any book that doesn’t reward the reader with some insight after three weeks of hard slogging is probably not a good book. It may be a creative, experimental work, it may be groundbreaking and innovative and unique, and I’m all for complexity, nonlinear narrative, unreliable narrators, etc. But I’d like, in exchange, a good story. This book didn’t give me that. And it’s fairly depressing, to boot. So I’m out.

A side note — I tried Infinite Jest as an ebook at first, and then when it was clear I couldn’t finish it by the time my Overdrive loan would expire, I placed a hold on the hard copy. I’d advise anyone trying to read this book not to bother with the ebook. If you want to try to read the footnotes — something I had limited success doing even in the paper version — it’s just completely inefficient to try to do it in the ebook.

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