It has been a while since I have written about my reading, so here are some reading notes from this year’s reading selections with a particular bent towards settings. Just be warned, there are spoilers galore.
Reading Note 8: Tropes in cities. I really love a surprise baby trope as well as a one-night-stand-turn-up-to-your-new-job-to-discover-you-have-already-slept-with-your-new-boss trope. So icky in real life, so absurdly compelling in fiction. The Bachelor’s Baby Surprise is my first Teri Wilson book and I loved her writing style. The premise of the book is that heroine Evangeline Holly goes directly from a bad break up to a one-night stand with Ryan Wilde – a man who has just been voted the hottest bachelor in New York City. Though she gives him the brush off after their hook-up, six weeks later she finds herself employed as a sommelier at the hotel he jointly runs with his cousin.
I was intrigued to see how the workplace tension and ethics were going to be treated, as well as the issue of being a pregnant sommelier and the impact of taste and judgement due to body changes. Evangeline also had these two lovely elderly dogs who didn’t spend anywhere near as much time on the page as I would have liked (this is a big thing for me as I am often bored by pets in romance). I did love the New York City setting – a standard in the rom-com world that keeps building upon itself. When done poorly, it is a cliche, but it was well executed in this story. The city itself is integral to the plot, however it never takes over the story. I also enjoyed the light-hearted inner monologue and the hero and heroine’s relationships with their broader families. The hero Ryan was charming and lovely but I felt he was insignificant compared to the much fuller character of Evangeline.
I really felt that this book was constrained by the short category romance form as it had so many rich issues that merited deeper exploration (this is a biggie for me as normally I feel that stand alone contemporary romances are tediously long and boring and could merit being edited down to the pure beauty of a category romance). For some, this book will come across as schmaltzy but for me it was delightful. It sits on the romance/rom-com boundary. I’ve read a lot of commentary lately from other readers disliking the rom-com, but I continue to like it and I enjoyed this book so much I already have a second Wilson title in my TBR.
Reading Note 9: Fire in the library. I had many emotions evoked while I listened to Susan Orlean’s own narration of The Library Book. It is an exploration of the history of the Los Angeles public library system emanating from the 1986 library fire which destroyed 700000 items. Orlean observes life and activities in the public library with the freshness of someone who has been absent as an adult user whilst retaining fond memories of her childhood borrowing. She meets library staff and security staff and couriers and borrowers and homeless people and brings to life the leading librarians who built the service over 100+ years of operating. Her writing of her childhood borrowing facilitated by her mother was a parallel to my own childhood library experiences, though mine were facilitated by my father. Her writing of the fire of the LA library reminded me of my own employment at Randwick Library in the early 1990s. Though I wasn’t at the library at the time of their fire in 1987, many of the staff would regularly talk about the trauma of their burnt out workplace, occasionally I would come across a smoke damaged box of books, and worse, I also came across the occasional copy-cat firebug lighting matches in the library corners and I would have to give them marching orders. There were a myriad of elements that contributed to this wonderful book which I highly recommend. I really loved it and I look forward to eventually rereading it, but this time in print so I can underline all my favourite bits.💖
Reading Note 10: I’m a Roumeliot. I listened to Richard Fidler’s own narration of Ghost Empire. It’s an incredible retelling of the history of the rise and fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire beautifully juxtaposed with a journey taken by a father (Fidler) and his 14 year old son. For the non-Australian readers, Richard Fidler is a former 80s anarchic comedian who has matured into in-depth interviewer on the Australian public broadcaster ABC Radio National. His “Conversation Hour” has only one guest where Fidler draws out his interviewee expertly revealing their life’s work. With Ghost Empire, Fidler does the same, but this time, his guest is Istanbul/Constantinope (depending on whether he is discussing the modern day city or the historical city) and its incredible thousand year long rule from its foundation to its fall.
I would easily say that Ghost Empire is one of the most important books I have read and will probably sit in my Top 10 for a long time. I say this because I was deeply familiar with nearly every historical account that he recounts as I have grown up hearing these stories from my father, my mother and my Sunday School teachers. I have heard them from a Greek Orthodox religious perspective, but with Fidler I am hearing the stories from an Anglo political history perspective (with a bit of personal father-son bonding thrown in for good measure). But importantly, what Fidler did, was to bring together all the separate storytellers that taught me disparate bits and pieces, and brought them all together in the one text.
Fidler opens the book by speaking of never knowing of the Byzantine era, having been taught only of the “Dark Ages”. This gave me pause, as this was exactly like my own Australian education. But after English school and its Dark Ages history lessons, I would go to Greek school, held in the very same classrooms, where Byzantium history was taught alongside Ancient and Modern Greek history through text books from Greece. I somehow drew the line between the two different names for the same era, perhaps because my Dad and his best friend Uncle Vic would get into loud, exclamatory discussions about Byzantium history and my favourite place to be was sitting in the corner of the lounge room listening to them (and avoiding helping in the kitchen).
Certain aspects of the narration annoyed me, especially Fidler’s Anglicised pronunciation of Greek terms, the worst of which was “Hagia Sophia”. Instead of Ayia he would say “Hayzia” and this would grate and I found myself shouting at the audiobook every time he said it. But this was bearable in light of his incredible storytelling. He brought vibrancy to stories I have always known such the Empress Theodora who fought for women to be able to own property, she made it illegal to murder women who committed adultery and outlawed rape so I was pleased that Fidler placed an emphasis on her achievements here. He retells stories of buildings, architects, invaders, traders, love matches, marriage trades, betrayals, patricide, matricide, fratricide, escape, capture, espionage, peace and war. He tells of reason, pagan gods turned Christian, caesars and augustans, and he tells of prayers and how the shift in their form. Striking here for me was his description of a method of losing oneself in prayer which is exactly the description of how my mum and aunts have taught me to pray, and taught my sons to pray, and that my dad would say his mum taught him how to pray. Those slivers of the ghost empire that touched my life without my awareness.
Fidler tells of those Western heathen bogan hooligan, the fourth crusaders and I startled myself at how incredibly pissed off I felt at their dumbass drunken, debt-ridden fuckwittery. 12th century binge-culture is not all that different to 21st century binge-culture which unfortunately continues to impact Greece every Summer. I was also interested to hear so many echoes of the Byzantine empire in the recent enthronement ceremony of the new Orthodox Archbishop of Australia with the crowd chants of <<Aξιος>>”worthy” and its references to the Holy Patriarchate of Constantinope. The mostly dead empire still lets its presence be known. Perhaps it is slightly alive even though someone has already gone through the empire’s silken vestments and taken the loose change.
Reading Note 11: The streets where I live. Much is made about seeing yourself in the fiction that you read. Now I like to think that I don’t really care whether I see elements of myself in the books I read. Perhaps I feel that way because I became quite resigned to never seeing myself in fiction when I was younger until I read Melina Marchetta. My excitement at reading her 1992 publication Looking for Alibrandi where the Italian-Australian characters lived and ate and partied in all the suburbs that I lived and ate and partied in. There is an absolute thrill in not only reading yourself in your books but also reading your own streets in the way that you personally can relate to them, in your fiction. So when earlier this year, Marchetta released a new fiction book called The Place on Dalhousie I bought and read it in the week of its release. The setting of Haberfield – especially Dalhousie Street – is one that is about 10 blocks from my own home. I drive on Dalhousie Street a few times a week, so reading the setting in which I live, once again was exciting, especially as it was from the perspective of an Australian with a Southern European heritage, with our own distinct way of living in Australia which quite differs from Anglo Australians. I enjoyed the story of complex relationships between step-mothers, parents that have passed away and loyalties to family and friends. But for me, with this book, though the characters and the story were great, the capturing of the setting was greater. Set anywhere else, it would have been a good family saga. Set in my neighbourhood, made it a shine out read and one I want to recommend to anyone who is interested in the world that I reside in.
Reading Note 12: Reading through the night. Literally. As my few blog posts this year have already shown, it has been a difficult one for me and my family. The past 3 months even more so since my husband was admitted to hospital in July with 2 emergencies, followed by major surgery, a cumulative 20+ day hospital stays and all matter of drains and tubes which became rather onerous especially when his situation became rather grave a few times. He is now home and most definitely getting better with a very positive outcome especially since he returned to work today. But during the three months, I managed to only read the one book – Jane Tompkins’s Reading through the Night which gave me a lot of (dis)comfort as I progressed through it. It had been sitting on my TBR for many months, and while my husband was in hospital, I finally started reading it. A somewhat misleading title as I was expecting an exploration of the behaviour that the title suggests. It wasn’t. The book is an intermingled series of deep reading reflections by literature professor Jane Tompkins as she explores the seminal books that impacted her life. Bound by her chronic illness, her reading is the only way she can explore her own self and she does this through her discovery of VS Naipaul and Paul Theroux’s friendship. Tompkins argues the agency that reading can give you and that reading itself is a catalyst to life experiences,
This kind of reading, reading that has agency in one’s life, plays a dynamic rather than a pacifying role. The book becomes a catalyst, a crystallizer of desire and an instrument of realization. (p 16)
She writes that “the power of books to shape experience is not something most people would argue with” (p 14). She writes about the books that changed her life, changed her way of seeing and experiencing life. She also says that “lives can be changed by books in myriad ways, especially if one is susceptible” (p 14). This statement is one that romance readers push back on, refute and consider their reading to not impact them. The sieve of reading, the escape of reading somehow is given a reprieve of not having any influence. My exploration of my romance reading self is closer to Tompkins experience. It is romance reading and its associations that has changed my life and impacted the way I am as a human being. This is just the beginning of Tompkins’s exploration of herself, her life, her three marriages and her affair, her easy connection with her father and her fractious relationship with her mother, her reading of Naipaul and Theroux, of Ann Patchett, and Henning Mankell, as well as her ideas on love, marriage and the escape of reading and she draws all these threads together.
In Jane Tompkins’s chapter Reading Through the Night she explores the concept of reading for pleasure and reading for escape. And though I strongly suspect that Tompkin herself would never reach for a Harlequin Mills & Boon, her observations of reading shine a mirror to mine as well. She says “I use reading”; so do I. She says that “I accused myself of laziness, fecklessness, spinelessness, good-for-nothingness as I lay on a bed or sofa and consumed some novel” (221); just as I am lazy in my reading, feckless in my reading, spineless in my reading and down right good-for-nothing in my reading. I felt that sentence deep deep in my bones, sitting in the hospital reading in the seat beside John’s bed. Was reading here my escape? Was I finding refuge in the text? Could reading even be a pleasure when the world surrounding my book has the smell of antiseptic handwash, sick men and hospital broth?
Perhaps if I had picked up this book in a different place, a different time in my life, I may have found it tedious, or odiously navel gazing. Instead, sitting by my husband in the ICU of emergency, this man I absolutely adore, having spent 10 anxious days between hospital admissions, watching my calm, mild and gentle John screaming in agony, the Greek word <<ουρλιαχτα>> comes to mind, as he was howling and moaning in pain, Tompkins says
Love is a person’s constant outpouring of devotion in the language that he or she speaks and understands (p 177)
This sentence had me crying. It was a bad day in hospital. John had gone downhill and the only way I could show him my devotion was to squeeze his hand, fix his covers, and sit beside him with my constant book in hand that had we been anywhere else – home, beach, cafe, a train – I would be reading excerpts to him. John’s constancy is his morning coffee that he makes for me now for close to 24 years, waving it under my nose like smelling salts, knowing I had a bad night sleep, reviving me and bringing me into my day. Tompkin writes “how lucky to have discovered the extent of my husband’s love before it was too late” (p 177) and I felt pleased for her realisation, relieved for it, for my realisation was very early on and luckily has sustained itself.
I’m writing the last note of this post in the quiet of the night. It is past midnight. I have a number of other important things I need to get done but I will leave them for the morning tasks. Those that I will do after my morning coffee, book in hand, while John slowly gets ready for work. In this late hour though, I take solace in the final sentences of this deep felt book, Tompkins having revealed her self and her soul through her reading, bound by her illness but not by her mind, writing that “books that shine a light into dark places are like gold” (p 224). Reading Through the Night was a comforting light for me as I read through those terrible nights.