This and that

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Portrait of the blogger with a book

Time for a little meme!

One: Reading on the couch or on the bed?

Genuinely a tricky one to start off with. The short answer, I guess, is that it depends on where I am. I don’t read on our couch very often because it’s not terribly comfortable; the way its back is canted in relation to the cushions means that I get neck strain within twenty minutes. My grandparents’ couch, on the other hand, has been the site of many a marathon read, including last Easter, when I read 300 pages of Earthly Powers in a day, and the summer before, when I stayed up until 2 a.m. to finish Fingersmith. In my parents’ house growing up, I read on my bed a lot, and I do here in the flat too, but more often at my desk, which has better back support in the form of a chair.

Two: Male main character or female main character?

Almost invariably I prefer female main characters. Particularly when the story is told in the first person, with a male narrating voice I always find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop. Men are frequently, in my experience, either unaware of the physical and emotional power that they wield, or all too aware of it. Either level of consciousness can be pretty stressful to read. On the other hand, I’ve been having a great time with the mostly male-narrated Baroque Cycle, so it’s not exactly a hard and fast rule.

Three: Sweet snacks or salty snacks when reading?

Almost always sweet. I try not to eat while I’m reading, partly because I’m not very coordinated so I tend to drop things on the pages. I am very partial to a good PBJ with a book, though, or a punnet of blueberries, which I eat mindlessly, like candy, one after the other in a steady stream. Or, for that matter, actual candy—the first time I read To Kill A Mockingbird, when I was eleven, I was eating Skittles when I got to the trial scene, and nearly choked on one in my excitement.

Four: Trilogies or quartets?

I’ve had great experiences with trilogies: The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, the Southern Reach trilogy, the Imperial Radch trilogy, Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, and, of course, The Baroque Cycle. But one of the seminal works of my young life was Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet, so I can hardly dismiss quartets out of hand. There’s just something nice and asymmetrical about a set of three, I guess.

Five: First-person point of view or third-person point of view?

I am a bit of a sucker for the kaleidoscopic, which means that I like books with a wide cast of characters and a third-person point of view. I also think that first-person is much, much harder to write well. Good first-person has accounted for several of my absolute favourite books, though, including Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, which blew me away in January.

Six: Reading at night or in the morning?

I read in the morning on my Tube to work, during my lunch hour, in the evening on my Tube back from work, and after dinner, so…all of the above.

Seven: Libraries or bookstores?

Bookstores. This is embarrassing given my otherwise socialist tendencies, but I grew up with a bookshop filling the place that is filled, for other people, by libraries. It was New Dominion Bookshop, in Charlottesville, Virginia, the oldest independent bookshop in the state and a town institution. My dad bought my books there until I left home, and it was where I held my first job, weekends and summers from the summer I turned fifteen. I love the idea of being able to possess a book. I know it’s fundamentally capitalistic and smacks of economic privilege and turns knowledge into a commodity, but I love it all the same.

Eight: Books that make you laugh or make you cry?

It is much easier for a book to make me laugh than to make me cry. That said, I’ve noticed a slight increase in my tendency to cry at books. I think I must be getting old.

Books that have made me laugh out loud: The Code of the Woosters, by PG Wodehouse. A Walk In the Woods, by Bill Bryson. Rush Oh!, by Shirley Barrett. Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett (and almost every other Pratchett I’ve ever read.) The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4, by Sue Townsend. The Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde. Mrs Tim of the Regiment, by D.E. Stevenson.

Books that have made me cry: Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. The Hours, by Michael Cunningham. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Room, by Emma Donoghue. The Shore, by Sara Taylor. The Human Factor, by Graham Greene. Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent (much against my better judgment).

Nine: Black book covers or white book covers?

Assuming that black is for Penguin Classics, and white is for Oxford World’s Classics…I used to be a huge Penguin Classics groupie in high school, and I still do love the design idea—the uniform jackets and spines distinguished by one large picture at the top of the front cover. Over the years, though, I’ve decided that I prefer the images that OWC chooses. No real reason; they just generally seem to me to work better. Plus, they do things like release beautiful themed covers for series like Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which I really like.

Ten: Character driven or plot driven stories?

<takes deep breath>

I love plot. I love it when things happen, I love it when you flip pages at a speed of knots, I love not knowing what’s going to happen next, I love twists. Action is not unimportant in a book. Something has to occur for a story to be a story, anyway.

But without convincing characters, the most exciting plot is dead. See The Da Vinci Code. See also my frustration with novels that could have been brilliant, like Tim Tingle’s House of Purple Cedar or Gill Hornby’s The Hive, which cover (respectively) entrenched anti-Native American racism in a small town, and the vicious world of school-gate motherhood. Both of those settings have enough tension to generate several dozen plots. But the characters felt flat or stereotypical or simply dull, and as a result, I couldn’t wait to stop reading. On the other hand, books like The Light Years or Trio or Grief Is the Thing With Feathers have hardly got any plot, if you stop and really try to describe what happens in them, but their characters are so sparklingly engaging and vivid that I desperately didn’t want them to end.

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5 thoughts on “This and that

  1. ian darling says:

    Character or plot? Both, if possible. A book like The Woman In White has a great and complex plot but wouldn’t have survived but for the splendid characterization. On the other hand there is that feeling when the plot starts to kick in and you think that there goes the main interest of the novel…

    • I mean, I’d rather not to have choose at all! But I generally find that if characters are interesting enough, I’m willing to overlook a lack of event.

  2. My favorite time to read is in the afternoon but since five days a week I am at working and afternoons are unavailable for reading I can only get that pleasure on weekends or vacation so my next favorite time is at night before bed. I’m with you , I want plot and character, we shouldn;t have to choose!

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