What I've Been Reading Lately: The Edited Version

Posted: February 3, 2007 in Current Reading

Even if I don’t always specifically mention it, I’m always reading. I may not be finishing books (mostly because I have the terrible habit of starting way too many at a time), but I am always reading. In addition to books, I read literary-related periodicals. Like with the books, I read far too many to have time to mention. That’s pretty much the state of my life.

Over the past couple of weeks I have actually finished three books, as well as a short story by Flannery O’Connor. Two out of three of the books were collections of short stories, which is unusual for me. I find short stories jarring, mostly because the action is so compressed, usually taking place in a very short space of time. By the time I get very engrossed in the story it’s over, and that tends to frustrate me. Short stories are also intense. After I finish a particularly good short story I usually can’t just plunge into the next. I have to take time to digest one story before I start into another. That’s why I tend to avoid collections of short stories, except in cases in which I have only short stretches of time to read. Then I find them well-suited. But my preferred method of reading is to grab as much time as humanly possible and read until my eyes cross. That’s more suited to novel or non-fiction reading than short stories.

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Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions was one of the books of short stories I completed this week. Being very much a fan of creepy, gothic tales, I enjoyed this one very much. My favorite story in the book was a re-telling of the fable “Three Billy Goats Gruff.” It puts the tale into a modern context, keeping the supernatural elements, and it works so, so well. Basically, a young boy encounters the billy goat while out exploring the ruins of an old, tumble-down house. After crossing a bridge he turns to go back over, but he’s stopped by the goat, who tells him he must “eat his life.” The boy bargains and pleads, and manages to get out of it by saying he’ll come back when he’s older, and thus a bigger meal. This happens over again when he’s older, and he again gets away. Then he grows up, gets married and is in a miserable situation in an unhappy marriage. I won’t tell you the outcome, but I thought it was absolutely brilliantly done.

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The Harriet Doerr book was this month’s selection for the library book group I belong to. This is a sort of memoir of Doerr’s life, from the perspective of a woman in her 80s, though it’s couched in fiction. Doerr didn’t even begin writing books until she was 74, and that first book of hers won the National Book Award for a first novel. Impressive, to say the least, so I wasn’t surprised to find how great this collection of stories was.

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The Victorian Chaise-Longue is a short novel, and again quite gothic in atmosphere. The basic story is, a young mother with tuberculosis is trying very hard to recover, so she can hold her baby for the first time. Tired of lying in bed, her doctor grants her permission to move to the sitting room, and lie on the chaise-longue to recuperate.

The chaise-longue is an antique she purchased soon after finding out she was pregnant, but she’d never really gotten to use it as she’d been put on bed rest shortly after that. So, lying on this chaise is a treat for her. She gets settled on it and takes a nap. When she wakes she finds she’s been transported back in time 90 years, and she’s become another woman who’s also sick from tuberculosis, and has also recently had a baby. But this woman wasn’t married, and she’s in disgrace. Melanie/Milly, this woman from two worlds, tries desperately to find a way to get back to her home and her family. And I won’t tell you the outcome… I loved this one.

Finally, I read the short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor was a southern writer, and I love southern literature. This is the first time I’ve read this classic story, and I found it tremendously moving. I wrote a really long essay on it for my professional/freelance blog, but I’ll recap it briefly here since I’m assuming not everyone has the stomach for my long rambles!

“Everything That Rises..” is about prejudice and bigotry in the South, but it’s not what you’d think. A young man returned from getting his college degree finds his home and his mother irritating after having seen a bit of the world. He’s impatient with what he sees as his mother’s narrow, bigoted mind, and he puts a lot of effort into belittling and mocking her. Her unselfish, sacrificing nature makes him feel very guilty, and he’s taking it all out on her. The title of the story has to do with the young man’s “rising,” or his consciousness-raising/education, and the fact when he comes back home and begins heckling his mother what he doesn’t realize is he’s become far worse than she ever could be. He’s become what he dreads most, impatient, narrow-minded and bigoted. But it’s against his own mother.
Really powerful stuff. It’s short, of course, and packs a huge punch. Very highly recommended.

So, that’s what I’ve finished over the past week or so. I’ve dipped into various other books, literary journals, etc., and those I hardly ever have time to share anything about. But consider those sorts of things a given each week, even if I don’t talk about them. They’re huge consumers of time, and I won’t even mention all the internet tangents! Oy.

As for what I’m working on now, I’m beginning a re-read of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening for the online classics group I run for the library. I’ve read this book a number of times before, and would give it my highest recommendation. It’s another book by a southern writer, and it’s widely considered a feminist classic. It’s also very short, which helps if you have a crazy schedule. And who doesn’t?!

So that’s what I’ve been up to lately, reading-wise.

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