Look Ma! I’m on a podcast! or This is what you get when you don’t vet your children’s reading

On Valentine’s Day, Kat Mayo and I spent a good part of our day travelling to 2SER studios for an interview on Love and Passion. Anyone that knows both Kat and me would know that we can talk about romance fiction for hours. Put us in front of a microphone and we will amp it up just that tad bit more. I recommend you get yourself a cup of tea, coffee, icecream, cakey and sit back and enjoy.

Love and Passion Show 116 on 2SER

Love and Passion Show 116 on 2SER

The show was aired on a Saturday and unbeknownst to me, one of my sisters went to my mum’s place and translated the interview to mum as it was being aired. During the break in the interview, I received a phone call from my mum.

Mum: When did you start reading romances?

Me: 32 years ago.

Mum: Really? So you just went on the radio to tell everyone?

Me: Yes mum.

Mum: Thank you for letting them know that I don’t read them. But you didn’t tell them I read religious books and biographies of saints.

Me: Sorry mum. I did consider it.

Mum: So what do you know about romance?

Me: Ummm…you know how I went back to uni last year?

Mum: Yes.

Me: That is what I am studying. I told you about it. And you know I read romances. You would always ask me to help you cook and clean and to put down “those romances”.

Mum: I didn’t think you were actually reading romances. I was being ironic.

There you have it. My mum, the original hipster.

Unlike a lot of romance readers I have met, I did not discover romances by finding my mum or grandmum’s stash. If anything, reading is not a shared activity for my mum and I as our interests are quite different. Not now and not when I was a younger either.

For many people, the thought of a parent not knowing what their children are reading seems to be anathema. It is equated as “not caring” or “how can you trust what they have chosen”.

I can tell you that both my parents cared that I was reading. Their main aim was to provide my sisters and I with ample opportunities to read and do homework. That is, ensuring that we didn’t have too many distractions – 1 doll, no video player, 1 TV, regular visits to the library and food at the ready. Both my parents were Greek migrants so Greek was the main conversational language in our home. My mum’s English reading skills were minimal (she worked a day job in a factory, a night shift as a cleaner, a weekend job as a cleaner, ran a boarding house AND raised 4 daughters) and though she was literate in Greek, due to her mindblowing superwoman working life, her rare chance to relax involved her knitting, tatting, gardening and reading the newspaper and the Bible. For mum, food and care was her bonding experience – as well as teaching me how to embroider which I still do on occasion. The only reading I remember sharing with my mum was when I would translate Paris Match from French to Greek for her when they had spreads on the Greek ex-royal family or an article on Cristina and/or Athena Onassis.

As my dad was highly literate in English, mum was quite happy to let him take charge of the homework and reading tasks. Though she did not know the content of the books I was reading, my dad did. Luckily, he was of the mindset that censorship of reading was wrong and never objected to the books I was reading that other friends’ parents were voicing concerns over. Thankfully, he trusted my choices.

My reading path was mine to choose. Influenced by my sisters, my teachers, friends, the books available at the library and my local newsagency, there was a joy in discovering my interests unfettered by close examination of the content of my books by my parents. This is something I try hard to emulate with my sons though it is difficult when you are a librarian to not be involved in their reading lives. Making opportunities for them to read is a much harder task. Gaming and computing distractions abound in our home and are much more addictive than the written word. To be fair, they have both hooked me onto Football Manager and I am crap at it. Its complex rules and processes make me weep for the simplicity of a linear narrative text. I no longer choose books for them. I stopped doing so when they were 8. Unless they ask I won’t read their choices. It is their private party, their little secret. Funnily, both of them at 11 years old have sneakily challenged me with “Mum, there’s lots of snogging and drug taking in the book I’m reading”. My reply has been “That’s good. Would you like something to eat?”.

I never thought of my romance reading as ever being secret. I never felt that they were my private party. I honestly thought I read romances openly for most of my life. That is until last week when I realised that it only took 32 years for my mum to come to the realisation that when she was shouting at me to put away those romances, her daughter was really, truly reading romances.

Blogging elsewhere

Occasionally, I blog over at Read It 2011. This is part of my work as a member of the NSW Readers Advisory Steering Committee. My blog posts over at Read it 2011 are a swathe of reading recommendations on a specific topic.

Here are the links to my latest posts:

Dining with Kermit,Gilligan, DarthVader and acast of many

For the Love of Maths and Reading

Alphabet vs Genre

As a child, I remember progressing from the picture books to the chapter books at my local children’s library, The Warren in Marrickville. Upon my progression to the Junior Fiction section, disorganised child that I was, I made the decision to delve into the collection at the beginning. At A. And I would progress until I read every book in this, albeit tiny, branch library. I read Alcott’s Little Women, Brink’s Baby Island, Brown’s Flat Stanley, Cleary’s Henry Huggins and Ramona the Pest and as you could imagine the list goes on and on all the way to Zindel’s The Pigman. (As an aside, I spent about a year at E and F having hit the mother lode with Elizabeth Enright, Eleanor Estes, Edward Eager and Eleanor Farjeon). I went on to use the same method when I matured from the children’s library and I moved up two flights of stairs to the then Adult Library at Marrickville Town Hall under the beautiful stained glass ceiling.

Once again, I started at A and progressed slowly through the collection. Serendipity ruled for me. And browsing shelves alphabetically, whether in a bookshop or a library was great because, unlike Dewey, it was simple and unbiased. I just read whatever caught my fancy. Steven King, Leon Uris, Wilbur Smith, Isabelle Allende, Penny Jordan, Carole Mortimer all interfiled in the one big area. Horror, literature, romance, fantasy all there. Despite this, I still discovered my favourite genre, I still found my favourite romance authors. This was objective shelving, for while the library may not pass judgements on different genres, people sometimes do, and link a writer’s, and even reader’s quality, to their preferred genre.

Over the last 10 years, libraries have seen a shift in the layout of their spaces and the way people access their shelves. There is a lot more display space, bookshop layout is aspired towards, and this is all very positive as it makes libraries much more attractive and appealing places to their members. But I am ambivalent about the reorginisation of books according to the genre that they fall in. Unlike retailers, libraries are not about profit margins but about unbiased access to information and cultural materials. Selection may be unbiased but we are seeing a move towards subjective organisation.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of genre fiction. Over the last 30 years my reading has seen me devour comics, horror, literature, children’s fiction and, of course my mainstay fiction favourite, romance. To add to these, I will occasionally dabble in fantasy, science fiction and my least favourite (and only because I’m squeamish), crime. But I found my favourites by browsing unbiased shelves. And much as I love walking into my favourite bookshops and libraries and heading straight to the romance shelves I often wonder about the people who will miss out on reading a fabulous romance because they don’t want to be seen in the romance section or the science fiction fan who just doesn’t want to read literary work. Somehow, I feel that it is like apartheid for books (harsh words, I know!).

For, heaven forbid Dean R Koontz is shelved near Milan Kundera, or Roald Dahl to be seen alongside Victoria Dahl, or Howard Jacobson grace the same shelf as Eloisa James. And then, what of the books that sit across genres such as Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse and J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood books that sit comfortably in both fantasy or romance genres. Or benchmark setting authors such as Margaret Atwood – does she sit in literature or speculative fiction. Genre-based shelving endorses a classification of fiction that may not be needed.

I know that as a child, I loved discovering books and that none of them had genre labels. As an adult, I am struggling to decide upon whether I like the genrification of libraries or if I would like fiction, to once again, be a roll call of authors on shelves.

* strikethrough added a few years after I first posted this

Nanna Naps and the books that bring them on

The Urban Dictionary defines Nanna Naps as:

I would go further and add the stipulation that a Nanna Nap is never taken on a bed. It is never planned. One has a Nanna Nap by mistake. One has a Nanna Nap while waiting for the washing machine to finish its rinse cycle. One has a Nanna Nap while Ridge and Brooke fight over Brooke kissing another of Ridge’s male relatives or while Bo and Hope try to come to terms with their years spent apart due to being brainwashed into thinking they were royalty. One has a Nanna Nap while one’s boiling hot tea is cooling only to wake up to a cold Lapsang Souchong. Or, quite importantly, Nanna Naps are taken when the book you are reading, rather than amaze you and enthrall you, has sent you into Morpheus’s arms due to its somnabalistic prose. I am a regular partaker of Nanna Naps. Most often on my couch though occassionally in a chair (and dang it my neck is a mess after those). And sometimes I have them while I am in the car. This is fine when I am a passenger but not so good if I am the driver * WARNING: Nanna Naps can kill

Books I have Nanna Napped with:

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

I have such love for Nick Hornby. A romance writer under the guise of lad lit and music lit. Every book has an angsty bloke and every bloke gets the girl in the end. And Juliet, Naked is no different. I usually stop reading a book that will send me to sleep but this one had an epistolary element to it and I felt I needed to persevere. I’m glad I did as it guaranteed me a Nanna Nap per sitting and I was much more refreshed when I awakened.

Don’t Look Down by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

Don’t get me wrong here, for I adore Jennifer Crusie as a writer. She is in my top 2 authors ever. I lubs her muchly. And also in my top 2 books ever is Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer’s book Agnes and the Hitman. Yet, Don’t Look Down took me 3 years and a number of false starts before I managed to push past a Nanna Nap on page 7. Yes, every attempt had me nod, nod, nodding off. In the end, the book was a decent adventure/romance read.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Reading this book became such a sure thing for having a Nanna Nap that it almost defied the rule of a Nanna Nap being unplanned. Tired but can’t get to sleep…perhaps Conrad’s description the ships lying in wait for the Thames wash is the answer, as time and time again this had me breathing little “ks” of sleep. Once again, I persevered and love this densely descriptive book.

Odysseus by Ken Catran (audiobook)

I love Greek Mythology and I particularly love hearing the stories told rather than reading them as they represent thousands of years of oral storytelling traditions. All I remember of this audiobook is driving onto the expressway heading out of Sydney for Nelson Bay and then waking up outside of our hotel 2 hours later with both my sons telling me about the gory killing and maiming they heard in the story. Two things stand out in my mind. The first is that I loved their excitement for the story and the second is how grateful I felt that I was not the driver. Since that day, unless it is a comedian, I never listen to audiobooks when I am the driver.

Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

This was one of the 9 books that I removed from my home in my annual purge of books I will never read. I recall opening the book. I think Chapter 1 starts with a domestic scene and then…..zzz (a Nanna Nap beckons me even as I type about this book).

June was a quiet month….

Well, it wasn’t really quiet at all. It was only quiet here on Shallowreader (apart from our sad Digger Dog post) as I was off blogging at Read It 2011 as part of #blogeverydayofJune (or more popularly known as #blogjune). Thankfully, the blogging was shared between 6 of us. It was challenging to make sure that a post went out everyday. A google doc schedule kept us all to task though there were some last minute fill in and swaps. All in all, it was fun and it has left me with a long list of blog ideas for Shallowreader.

On top of all this, I was also asked to write a guest blog for the lovely writers over at Down Under Divas.

On Bookshelfporn

Here is a list of my blog posts for Read It 2011:

The Book That Launched a Thousand Trips

From Elizabeth Enright to Adam Gopnik: Living a New City Reading Life 

Travelling Through the Sense of Home

Vale Patrick Leigh Fermor

Have eReader – Will Travel

Eighty Years of Tintin and Still Travelling

Armchair Romance Makes the World Go Round

Enjoy!

Romance fiction, to me, is somewhat akin to science fiction

I love reading romances. I love the relationships, I love the internal monologues, I love reading both the male and female points of view of the same events. I love reading about characters grappling with either internal issues or external events beyond their control and overcoming these problems together. I absolutely adore the Happily Ever After endings to such a point that I will kill fairies to ensure that I get the ending that I most desire. And most of all, I love that I have to leave my cynical, snarky self at the door for the duration of reading and escape to some other world, some other planet where the relationship build ensures that no matter what obstacles, issues, evil nemesis, glamorous next-door neighbours, indecisions, friendship pressures and other alien, droid or spaceship interventions, the hero and the heroine prevail and end up with one another. Yes, dear reader, romance fiction, to me, is somewhat akin to science fiction.

I grew up on a street that had 2 parish churches (different denominations) and every Saturday and Sunday we would sit on our front verandah and watch hourly processions of brides and grooms in their various Jaguars, Mercedez Benzs, convertibles, Holden Monaros, horse-drawn carts, and ribbon strewn silver Bugattis passing our home. Each and every time my parents would jokingly say “Another couple going to their hanging”. This was the first plant in my mind that marriage was a cynical pursuit. It was a prison that was not to be coveted.

A much loved (divorced) aunt, at weddings, would always greet me with “May you remain on the shelf, and may it be made of steel”. Hmmm!

Add to the mix that I was a Mad Magazine aficianado. Mad gave me an understanding of satire and irony and taught me to question everything. And I loved Dave Berg’s The Lighter Side of…. which always poked fun at relationships.

So any time I would hear any gushings of “But I lurve him” from the girls at school or “He’s such a good pasher” or “Oh My God! He bought me a fur coat” (I mean, really? Aside from the obvious animal cruelty issues, It’s frickin’ Sydney! It doesn’t get cold. That’s not love. That is stupidity). I would roll my eyes and think “get some perspective”.

Don’t get me wrong here – I absolutely adore my husband (and for the record – I walked down the road to my wedding ceremony – no cars) and, despite my jaded outlook, I truly believe that for most people, there is a love match. Some will be lucky enough to find it at a young age and have it last for many years (such as my friend’s grandparents who were married for 82 years), some will find it for a short intense period (Britney Spears and Jason Alexander married for a day comes to mind) but most people will be somewhere in between. And when it comes to my reading choices, I am curious, I am interested in reading about that journey of coming together. I predominately read romance fiction but I will happily read biographies with romantic elements because I love to examine and understand the circumstances around a romantic pairing as most of these pairings will be undertaken with an optimism that I find life affirming.

I have to say that I deeply dislike love stories, particularly tragic, grief stricken tales where no-one is happy and the moral is that misery gives you a deeper understanding of humanity. It may win authors literary awards but it certainly doesn’t compel me to buy any of their books. I know that life has tragedy and that death is not an option but I choose to focus on more positive aspects in life. It makes the reality of life so much more bearable.

So why would I equate romance to science fiction and not to fantasy. Well, for me, fantasy fiction is not possible. It is entering a realm that is only imagined, flights of fancy that will never be realised no matter how vivid or thrilling the story may be. But science fiction is grounded in scientific possibilities. It may not be possible in the immediate future, but just like the man on the moon, it has such wonderful outcomes should the fiction be realised. And don’t we all know how wonderful romance can be when it comes to fruition.

Reading avenues for the Shell-Shocked, Time-Strapped Reader: From First-time Parents to Corporate Workers

For many people, reading fiction means escaping into another world, losing yourself in the setting, becoming one of the characters in the book and feeling that you are there too. To do this, as a reader, you need uninterrupted time, seamless moments to relish the language, space and activity taking place but, unfortunately, when your workplace commands much of your waking time or a newborn enters your household, uninterrupted time may be only half an hour whether it is your commute or your rest time between chores and baby napping. And half an hour for most readers is not sufficient to immerse and lose yourself in a novel.

For those of you who need to see the written word at least once a day, who need that tactile sense of paper and no electronic devices and for those of you who miss reading but can’t seem to delve into characters lives like you did in those pre-work committment, pre-baby  times, here are a few reading alternatives that I have suggested to library borrowers who come enquiring. You may want to consider:

Short Stories:

Succicint, minimalist with an economy of words, the short story is a great place to start rediscovering reading. Short stories range from 2000 to 20 000 words making it a great entry point for many time strapped readers. Anthologies tend to have a thematic vein with a variety of authors. Some great examples are Girls Night Out, Zombies vs Unicorns, Steampunk. The other short story style is the one author with a variety of their own stories: Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice, Steven King’s Four Past Midnight, Tobsha Learner’s Yearn. Some of these stories stand alone and others are interlinked. Short stories are a great way to explore new genres, new author voices or just delve into a previously loved writing theme.

Literary Magazines:

There are many literary magazines all of which have short fiction, essays, poetry and the like. There is the New Yorker, Granta Magazine (thematic based approaches to compiling reading materials), McSweeney’s amongst others.

Observers:

Essayists, comedians, people who write about the funny, peculiar occurrences that they observe are often great reads for the busy person. Often a collection of their works can be dipped in and out of over a period of time. Some of my favourite observer/essayists are David Sedaris, Laurie Notaro, Adam Gopnik, Gervase Phinn.

Non-Fiction:

Non-fiction is a fabulous antidote to the reader who misses reading but not necessarily fiction. Dipping in and out of most non-fiction is a simpler task than with novels as they are fact driven. Wit the exception of biographies, most non-fiction doesn’t require the reader to emotionally attach themselves to character lives (though, that said, sometimes it is harder to let go of the real life people you read about in some history books). DK Books have great information design that facilitates dipping in and out of books, some arm chair travelling, dreaming of artists, reading about the military, atlases of history, unattainable homes in architecture books or science trivia books can be very rewarding reads.

Children’s Fiction:

In general, children’s novels are much shorter than adult novels and there is a plethora of enjoyable reading. From Dick King Smith’s The Waterhorse, Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell’s Far Flung Adventure Series to the darker Sisters Grimm series many of these stories often surprise adults with their themes and quality writing.

Mythology:

With the prospect of reading tales from around the world, reading mythology is a rediscovery of tales told either at the dinner table or in the classroom. From Aboriginal dreamtime, Homer’s Odyssey or Arthurian tales mythologies may be shorter reads but they have inspired many generations with their epic adventures.

Poetry and Lyrics:

Poetry and lyrics are the delivery of ideas in rhythm and cadence that stays in your mind long after you have re-shelved the book you read it in.

To add to all these, there are newspapers, comics, graphic novels and many other shorter writing options that can be suggested to readers. Websites, blogposts, zines and a number of online options are also available but for the purposes of this post I wanted to focus purely on the print reading options that are available.

For the busy worker, the lack of reading opportunities can sometimes go un-noted  for many years as it occurred incrementally but for the first-time parent this transition isn’t a slow one but one which seems like a severance of a body part. And though some of the above suggestions may seem overly obvious, when someone is overtired it is easy to overlook simple ideas until someone mentions them to you.

So whether you are a time-strapped executive who is working 12 hour days, a cleaner who physically is exhausted at the end of a long shift or a new-time parent struggling to find any time to themselves, hopefully the above avenues are helpful and bring lots of reading pleasure.