Reader Interviews – here’s Renee from Utah

Woman Reading - Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Woman Reading – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Tell us a little about yourself.    I’m a 51 year old female and recent transplant to Utah. My degree in education somehow got parlayed into food service management, with a brief detour into the tech industry. I prefer saying I’m currently “on indefinite sabbatical” rather than saying “unemployed.”  When I’m not reading, I’m digging through my ancestry hoping to find something scandalous or trying to perfect my bread baking skills.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.    It’s funny you mention length of books as a preference. When our book club votes on selections, I notice page count is a determining factor. I’ve told them I’m going to stop putting that on the book lists so they have to vote based on the merit of the synopsis. They were not amused. I figure if an author can fill 800+ pages with solid writing, I’m willing to read 800+ pages. That said, I have recently adopted what I call the 49 Page Rule. If the author hasn’t hooked me by page 49, I abandon the book.

My reading is evenly split between non-fiction and fiction. To have four or five books going at once is about normal for me. One is almost always essays or short stories, something I can pick up and put down without forgetting what I read. I’m a night owl, so most of my reading is in the evenings, usually at the kitchen table with a pot of tea nearby.

It might sound hyperbolic to say e-readers changed my life, but it is true. I was born with low vision. When I was young, I could read most regular print by manipulating the lighting conditions or using magnifiers. In high school and college, I was reading several books a week. As I got older, my vision gradually worsened. By age 45, it would take me weeks to read a book. It just wasn’t fun anymore.

Large print books are difficult to source. Bookstores don’t stock them, and the large print section of a library is a literary ghetto. The selection seems geared to retirees: formula romance, Chicken Soup for the Whatever, conservative politics, and mainstream religion. Large print books are also expensive, bulky, and often abridged from the original. The Library of Congress loans large print and talking books to the blind for free, but the selection is sub-par and often not current … or at least that was the situation a decade ago. Then there’s just the stigma of carrying around something that attracts unwanted attention. I can’t tell you how often someone has seen me with a large print book and said something like “Maybe you should have your eyes examined.”  Uh … right.

In 2012, my husband gave me an iPad. Downloading the Kindle app was the first thing I did. I’m back to reading 40-50 books a year. With an e-reader, every book is automatically large print and accessible. The iPad is likely the best tool ever invented for low vision readers. I just wish it had been around when I was in school.

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    Sample chapters. I am a shameless and unapologetic downloader of sample chapters. And I get utterly annoyed at samples that don’t include the table of contents or that pad the sample with ten pages of quotes dripping with extravagant praise for the book. That’s not a sample; that’s ad copy.

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    History often is reduced to a dry list of facts and dates. We don’t feel a connection to it or understand its relevance to our lives today. We are where and who we are – both individually and as a culture – because of the past. How do we know where we’re going if you don’t understand where we’ve been? At its best, historical fiction brings context to all that dry data. It arouses our empathy for our collective ancestors and their lives by putting us, at least emotionally, in their time and place.

I can’t really think of anything specific to historical fiction that I don’t like. No one likes poor plot or bland characters or unrealistic dialogue, but that can be found in any genre. I do think regional cliché might be more prevalent in historical fiction than in other genres. I grew up in the South, so I’m particularly aware of slave owner-belle-redneck trinity of stereotypes.

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    A strong story trumps everything for me. Whether that strong story is in 7th century Algeria or 17th century Osaka, adventure or intrigue, I’ll get on board with it if the story is strong and the characters believable. I have had my fill of western European royalty, though. I don’t see myself reaching for another book about yet another English or French royal for a long, long time.

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?    I suspect most readers don’t define genres as strictly as writers do, so some of these may be a wee bit outside the definition commonly used here.

What: Sue Monk Kidd’s Invention of Wings — I just finished this, so right now I’m recommending that to everyone.

Where/when: 1810-1860 Charleston, South Carolina. It is loosely based on the lives of two sisters who stepped waaay outside their comfort zones to become abolitionists.

Why read it: I think the real skill behind this book is apparent when you get to the end, read the author’s notes, and realize which parts were documented and which she created in service to the plot. It’s an example of the alchemy possible when blending history and fiction.

What: The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian.

Where/when:   Aleppo, Syria circa 1905.

Why read it: This book broke my heart. Like most people I knew next to nothing about the Armenian genocide. Also, I think Bohjalian is one of the few male authors who write convincing female characters.

What: Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series

Where/When: myriad settings during the Napoleonic wars, but mostly at sea.

Why read it: O’Brian can’t be beat as for action scenes. Also, it has a wonderful example of complex and unlikely platonic relationship.

These next two may not be as well-known, but I thoroughly enjoyed them.

What: Soldier of Raetia by Heather Domin.

Where/when:   Rome, 10 BCE . Thanks to some mediocre teachers in school, I thought Roman history was boring. This book changed my mind.

Why read it:   It has well-research history, it has believable characters, it has good pacing. Also, this is a good example of the difference between creating a complex historical story that includes a same-sex relationship rather than writing gay sex scenes with historical window-dressing.

What: Julie Rose’s Oleanna.

Where/when:   Norway circa 1905.

Why read it:   Oleanna is about relationships – with family, with self, with the land. That last one is particularly well-played in this book. The descriptions are so vivid that the land itself becomes a character. (In full disclosure, I’ve known Julie for years, but that doesn’t factor into my opinion of the book.)

In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to talk and learn about books – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book clubs – can you tell us about your experiences, where you go to talk or learn about books, why you enjoy discussions about books?    Maybe half of my “to be read” list comes from talking to friends about what we’re reading. The radio show Fresh Air and our local library’s surprisingly thorough newsletter account for perhaps 20%. The rest come from putting random keywords in to Amazon or Goodreads or someone on Goodreads or my Livejournal friends mentioning something they just read and liked. My “want to read” list is akin to the myth of the Hydra: every time I take one book off the list, two more go on it!

I’m not sure how to phrase this without sounding like a Luddite – which I really am not – but I’m not a big fan of most social media. Being data-mined to make Mark Zuckerberg richer doesn’t have a value-add to my life, so I just don’t bother with it.

I don’t even follow my friends’ blogs all the time, so it never crosses my mind to follow authors’ blogs. As for reviews, I think the format has lost a lot of credibility over the last few years — too much drama, not enough information.

When I moved here, I joined a book club that has been active for over 20 years. The meeting format is very structured with planned discussion points, etc. We’ve been known to disagree strenuously (but amicably) about plot points or the credibility of character conflicts. We spend so much time communicating at people on the internet instead of with them face-to-face that it’s refreshing – and a little challenging sometimes – to dust off social skills and do some conversational give-and-take. When you’re sitting across from people – especially if you’re of the minority opinion – you get to practice active listening, arguing the point rather than the personality, response rather than reaction. It’s good stuff! I recommend getting in the same room with a bunch of people and really chewing on a book. Even if you didn’t like the book, you get something out of talking about it.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?    Don’t be so worried about “getting it right” that the story suffocates under the weight of extraneous information. I think some writers get overwhelmed by the vast amount of research they’ve done and feel the need to cram it all into the story. Distill the information to its essence and use it to serve the story you want to tell. I think most of us can tell when someone just regurgitates 300 pages of facts and then tries to shoehorn characters into it. On the flip side, readers need to stop nitpicking over tiny incongruities. It’s called historical fiction for a reason.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on?    For so long “historical fiction” seemed confined to a handful of scenarios: Nazi Germany, the US civil war, Tudor England. All interesting places and times, but there is so much more to history than those three scenarios. What else, really, is there to say about Elizabeth I or Henry VIII?

Every place and time is fertile ground for storytelling. There is not a place on the planet that doesn’t have its own rich history nor a time when absolutely nothing happened. I think writers – especially new writers — are starting to realize the benefits of exploring stories in other times and places. For readers, that’s pretty exciting.

Many thanks for telling us about your reading, Renee. Your advice to writers is very refreshing and I truly enjoyed what you had to say about your book club. With two readers recommending Oleanna, I’ll definitely have to put it on my TBR list!

Reading up a storm … historical fiction, of course

During the last two months amidst the hectic activity of promoting Unravelled and running the 2013 historical fiction survey, I’ve done a lot of reading. Almost all of it historical fiction.

Although some appealed to me more than others, all are enjoyable reads and will have their fans in the different sub-genres that constitute historical fiction. (For an interesting look at these sub-genres, check out Reading the Past for Sarah Johnson’s blog post and presentation.)

My personal favourites were: A Spear of Summer Grass (intriguing characters, taught romance and beautiful Africa), Life After Life (novel ‘what if’ concept and great writing), Blood & Beauty (Borgia Italy with all its passions, deceits and displays of power), The Painted Girls (Paris in the late 1800s, gritty and compelling), Rules of Civility (exposes the realities of making it in pre-WWII New York), and Letters from Skye (connecting both world wars, an epistolary novel done extremely well).

Reading historical fiction is a passion for me. I’m drawn to superb writing, strong, rule-breaking characters, stories with energy and events that unfold with intensity, believable romantic plot lines that aren’t formulaic or predictable, WWI and WWII timeframes and historical details that transport me to the time and place without being overdone.