Long Way Down: Best Hour (to reset your commitment to reading)

So as I was mocking myself for my inability to focus, I decided I did have *some* control over what and how I read. The same podcast I referenced last post, on ‘deep reading’ and ‘deep thinking’ had the insight that you can just… put your phone away. Granted Ezra, the host, bought a literal safe to literally lock his phone away to provide him the right environment to read. I don’t have the luxury of locking my preschooler away (did I say luxury?), but I do have time every day that I can read.

[As an aside, I think if you went back through the last year of blog posts you’d see a series of posts where I Firmly Commit to focused reading, and then posts where I decide I can never focus again and why should I bother and I’m just going to read mysteries anyway. And then the pendulum swings again and I delete all my news apps and social media accounts and for a month I read a lot and feel better, and then I get sucked back into the addiction and it’s all Trump and tweets and what is with Justin’s beard all over again. So yeah. Acknowledging that today’s post is of the sort where I feel virtuous and committed and that by next week this will probably have changed all over again.]

ANYWAY. To give myself an achievable goal I started with a critically acclaimed, very-short, young adult fiction prose-poetry novel Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. This truly terrific little (and I mean little – like an hour to read, max) book follows our protagonist on his trip down an elevator en route to revenge shoot his brother’s killer. On board the elevator he encounters the ghosts of all those – and there are so many – that have been killed around him. And with each encounter we see in sharp relief how this and all the other murders have tried – to varying degrees of success – to shape and contain the child. And how far beyond individual choice this action, or any inaction, would be – so constrained by context that choice itself is as risible as it is hearbreaking.

So yes – I recommend you to Long Way Down for its form (a playful prose-poetry) and its effort to have you rethink individual choice in light of all the rules that are spoken and unspoken in the lives of each of us, but particularly those navigating the intersection of race, class and gender.

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Louise Penny x Three; Or, Send me Suggestions of What to Read (When grossly overtired)

Folks. I decided I wasn’t distracted enough from reading by the Burning of the World and so I went and had a(nother) baby. And *now* I remember a new kind of distraction. The sort where earnest efforts for ‘an hour of concentrated deep reading’ are laughable, and the most comfortable way to read is holding a phone (because one hand) that is constantly dinging and vibrating to let me know that someone out there wants to get in touch, or that another catastrophe is upon us. And you’ll recall I’d already decided to let this be a summer of reading I can or want to read, rather than any ideas of what I should read.

And so I read three Louise Penny novels back-to-back A Better Man, The Nature of the Beast and The Long Way Home and I have to say that reading three in sequence is Not a Good Idea as this reader realized that there are only so many times a protagonist can be described as having ‘kind eyes’ before you lose patience, and only so many brie and pear sandwiches before you begin to wonder about cholesterol levels. Maybe it was a problem of reading the books out of sequence, but I also had a hard time keeping track of why some of the secondary characters were doing what they were doing (why was Clara mourning her husband? did he die? or leave her? or both?). Not that we’re ever meant to have a strong connection with these secondary characters, they are all parodies of themselves, and all hopelessly generous and thoughtful in an entirely out-of-time-and-place way.

Which is not to say I didn’t have a good time reading the books. I did. Just with diminishing returns and rapidly declining interest (which may or may not have correlation with increased time spent awake in the middle of the night and a choice between reading and showering or eating – which, let’s be clear, you can read and eat at the same time, so why would any one bother with showering?).

All this to say I think I’ll be taking a break from Louise Penny for the foreseeable future. I just got A Little Life back out from the library, and maybe re-reading that will prove focusing. Or I’ll be back here in a week telling you about the magazine I read. Whatever else I need to stop refreshing my news apps and checking Twitter because I promise there’s nothing comforting or enjoyably distracting about that at any time of day. Or, of course, you can send me your recommendations for what to read when you are grossly overtired and despair for the world. And are addicted to news apps and podcasts and should really, really, just. stop.

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The Silent Wife: When a ‘Good’ Book is Determined by Its Success in Distraction

If you’ve ever found yourself confined to a space – think airplane, waiting room, pandemic hideout, room-room – you’re familiar with how important high quality fiction can be for taking you out of that space, even while you remain physically rooted. I find myself in the unique (for me) experience of spending a little over a week in a smallish room that takes me six small steps to walk across. In my initial packing for this trip my suitcase was almost entirely dedicated to thick and heavy mystery novels. When S. pointed out that I might rather some of the real estate be given over to snacks and clean clothes, I scoffed. Wasn’t he aware that a new novel was worth several days of sink laundered underwear? Well. He persuaded me to put all these books on my tablet and – for the week – suspend my hatred of reading on screens. It’s too soon to tell who was right, but having removed the books and filling it instead with a yoga mat, I am *still* washing underwear in my sink, and so we were both (probably) wrong #marriagehacks

Anyway. So far – three days in – I’ve read a book (and refreshed my news feeds about ten million times): The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison (which now I’m thinking her first name must be part of the mystery?). It was okay? I feel like my sense of what is good writing has been completely obscured by my assessment of whether or not the book is sufficiently distracting. In this case it did well enough in that I read it in a day. Otherwise it’s pretty bland: rich white woman kills her husband in order to remain rich. I think the book tries to be interesting by layering on the rich white lady’s own complex psychology, but mostly it reads like a glossy magazine where everyone drinks expensive wine and has more than one couch.

The effort to be interesting piques with the back and forth narration between ‘her’ and ‘him,’ I suppose an effort to show how the murder is really a miscommunication – like had they been able to have full and honest conversations with one another then he might not have left and she might not have killed him (it’s not a spoiler btw to say she kills him – as much comes out on the first few pages). And what a warning for all of us in relationships (and aren’t we all in some kind of relationship) of the perils of avoidance, denial, deception and on and on. Like it’s so easy to just be honest. Or like honesty never got anyone in trouble.

Anyway. I’d hardly recommend it, but I wouldn’t scoff if you said you were planning to read it. A perfectly acceptable book for captivating your interest if you are stuck somewhere. Which isn’t the high bar I’d usually set for a novel, but then, here we are.

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June 11, 2020 · 3:06 pm

Several Missed Attempts, then Louise Penny: How I read Now

Some libraries are reporting the genres most read during this Moment, and no surprise mysteries and romances (along with kids books) are coming out on top. Something about an escape? Or a tidy resolution? Or a distance from reality? Whatever the reason, it’s holding true for me, too.

I tried – resolutely – to read More Serious things. I read 200 pages of Alice Munro’s For the Love of a Good Woman before giving up because while it was excellent writing and masterful storytelling, it was also too far removed. I started to think ‘inconsequential,’ but that’s not it – Munro’s stories do the genius thing of taking the particular individual and demonstrating how absolutely consequential one person, one action, one choice can be. More that the collection was so gentle in its context: small towns where gossip and betrayal were/are the worst there is to imagine.

So I pivoted. I thought I’d try another pandemic, in another not-so-distant time: AIDS under Thatcher in Alan Hollinghurt’s 2004 Booker Prize winner The Line of Beauty. Again I committed about 250 pages (which was only about half) to this read, continuing to hope that the protagonist, plot or context would become compelling but… no. Something to be said for how HIV/AIDS hangs in the background, unnamed for the first 250 pages I read, but lurking for the reader in the present. Something marginally interesting in the relationship between the protagonist and his host family (he rents a room in the mansion of a Conservative MP), but in the end, neither protagonist or plot did much to inspire concentration or interest.

One more attempt in the form of Isabelle Allende’s City of the Beasts and here I didn’t make it past page 10.

So I gave in/gave up/admitted that what I most wanted to read was Louise Penny. I picked up How the Light Gets In and I read it in a day. Turns out that when the genre is distracting and absorbing and distant, I can still read. Phew.

And I want to read because despite my distraction, reading is mindful activity for me. Forget the hundreds of apps encouraging meditation, or the articles espousing focus and deliberate engagement with media, for me all I’ve ever wanted and needed for mindful activity is a book. To be fair, lately I’ve had to be sure to put my phone in another room, and I’ve never been able to read on a tablet or laptop as the lure of the Internets is too much for me, even with a great book. But put a physical book in my hands and I can – at least with the Not So Serious but Seriously Enjoyable – take myself away in moments of focus and calm.

So yes. I expect you’ll be Judging Me for what I read this summer. I’m just going to read what feels good instead of what I think I should enjoy, and what I very much do enjoy in other times. And I’m okay with it. For now.

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