My Secret Bookshelf
Tuesday, 14 October 2014
When I was a kid, I was a complete bookworm. My Mom would take me to the local library once a week, where I would check out everything from Nancy Drew to Sweet Valley High, biographies of Golden Age actors, weepy tales of dead dogs (my god was there anything worse than reading Old Yeller as a ten year old?!), Choose Your Own Adventure, Judy Blume, and eventually as I hit pre-teen hood my mom let me raid her bookshelf - which did result in some slightly dubious Erica Jong moments! Stephen King was one of the first adult authors I read, maybe not the best choice for a young only child with an overactive imagination, but a wonderfully engaging author who got me used to reading very long books. Reading was just my bag, I had friends and liked to play, but mostly I liked to sit in a closet like a little mole and read. By the time I was in middle school, I remember a teacher being surprised I had already read The Diary of Anne Frank. In high school I was reading Kafka and Plath alongside the slightly less demanding school selections. My appetite for books felt endless.
When I went to college I was, somewhat predictably, an English major (though it took me two years to commit to it, the conclusion was inevitable). I tried to convince myself I could be an anthropologist, a philosopher (ugh how I hated philosophy!), a theater major (while I loved theater and would go on to study acting in NY, I didn't fit in with drama kids generally - they were just a bit much for my quiet offstage self).
The English major was certainly a natural, easy fit for my personality. English majors can occasionally be slightly pompous as they're so well read (oh ...not I ;-0), are usually quiet thinkers, relatively smart and also very lazy (at my University to be an English major was kind of considered a joke for some reason, which is why I hesitated so long, far too concerned that people wouldn't take me seriously). After I fully committed to the course however, I loved (almost) every minute of it. Did I procrastinate and write 20 page papers in one night? Of course I did. Did I not love Faulkner as much as I was supposed to? Well, yes....though on second reading he does improve. I went to endless poetry readings, had small classes that spent whole semesters debating the merits of two contrasting yet spiritually similar authors (I kid you not). I read and re-read Sir Gawain(torture), and Chaucer (kind of loathed then laughed once I got it), wrote lots of quite bad fiction and poetry, and then out I fell into the real world where books were not the center of the universe.
At any rate, after four years of heavy duty reading and intense analysis of everything I read, it's not surprising I let it slip a bit after graduation I suppose. I joined the NYC library and frequented dusty bookstores that are mostly gone now (Shakespeare & Co. RIP), but I didn't read much aside from the latest bestseller. I was far too busy being a city girl, working late and going out for one or two cocktails if I was flush.
In recent, less hectic times, I have re-discovered my love of reading, but in truth I read an awful lot of what I feel most people think of as fluff, of chick lit both good and bad (I prefer the good but will happily snaffle a bad one too). I tend to intersperse a heavier, more plaudit laden read with the palate cleansing fun stuff, but in truth sometimes I just cannot be bothered with it. I have tried and failed three times to finish American Pastoral (I have read and liked other Philip Roth tomes, this one just bores me to tears). I picked up The Little Friend by Donna Tartt from our shelf, read a few pages and dropped it for something less intensely elaborate. (I lovedThe Secret History, have every intention of reading The Goldfinch, but have that weird thing of feeling I need to read her books in order because there are only three). I have read three Stephen King novels, some memoirs, and countless chick (ugh let's ditch that) female lit authors in the past year, and little else. So what's the big deal, you might say, who cares what I read?
Well, Richard and Judy, Oprah, the Booker and Orange Prize shortlists care. Of course they don't care - they are merely cultural institutions of literary taste making. They exist to filter out the wheat from the chaff for serious readers. They are the books reviewed in The Sunday Times in a thousand words because they are that important. Their books make up much of what my friends are reading and ranking on Facebook in their profiles. They have read them all, they are deep thinkers. I feel inadequate when I see their reader profiles, their brief reviews or 4 to 5 star ratings lined up in a row of accomplished readership. I would rather watch a heavy film than read a heavy book at this stage in my life. Even though it's considered a bit pulp-y (and is a very enjoyable yet also good book), Gone Girl was psychologically too much for me at times -so bleak, so twisted. I couldn't separate myself from it the way I can from a less gripping tier of book. I felt emotionally strapped after I finished it (the film was a bit lighter, though not as good in my opinion. Though Rosamund Pike is AMAZING as Amy in every way).
At any rate, after Gone Girl, I picked up the fluffiest, pinkest cover I could find and dove in to alleviate the pesky deep thoughts about the annihilation of love in the modern world. It's by Jenny Colgan, whom I love, having picked up a left behind copy of Looking For Andrew McCarthy while on holiday in Cyprus many years ago (yes there is a book, that exists, about a girl's fixation with and eventual meeting with the floppy haired 80's film icon. If you don't get the appeal of that maybe give it a miss ;-). Anyway this latest book appealed, having both the words "Christmas" and "Cupcake" in the title. (If that makes you gag, sorry!). Weirdly it is a sequel, her first, to "Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe" (I mistakenly thought I had read it when I picked this one up). Alas, Colgan is kind enough to fill in the reader on the gist of the original in a few short paragraphs in the introduction, joking that it saves herself and the reader from the awkward fill in the blanks catch up that most sequel or series books are beholden to in the first chapter.
Christmas at the Cupcake Cafe has proven just the soothing panacea in book form I required. It's far too early for thoughts of Christmas, but I don't care, I'm going to my Mom's in Florida this year and the holiday daydreaming has commenced. Of course this book has the added benefit of taking place in London and New York, two of my favourite cities, so it's a double win. It has recipes throughout and a doomed (but maybe not doomed?!) love story, likable characters and (I'm presuming) nobody dies or is soul devastated in the end. It's a rom-com, in book form, and given that film rom-com's are let's be honest, a dead art, these books are my own personal comfort blanket as the cool nights draw in. Judge me all you will universe - Richard Madelay, Judy Finnegan (um American readers...they're like a married version of Oprah in the U.K., with more bad jokes and guffawing from Richard and eye rolling from Judy). I want to laugh and shed a sweet tear and be in a warm fuzzy place for a few hours, is that so wrong?
What I will say on a serious note in defense of chick...erm female lit (that sounds weird too, we seriously need a new moniker), is that I hate when it gets lumped in with other truly mindlessly written stuff. Given my own predilections I know I shouldn't judge, but I do feel the mass popularity of 50 Shades of Gray and it's thousandfold imitators, on top of your classic bodice rippers and even the surge in teen books amongst adults (why yes I read the Twilight books - better than the films but still not great, and the Hunger Games, great until the last one)... anyway, when they all get lumped together, it does create a stigma that is unfair around the classier, more clever brand of female oriented fiction. Just because something is popular doesn't automatically make it bad. Charles Dickens was a very popular magazine serial writer in his day, after all. While I defend anyone's right to read what they enjoy, I do wish that the fluffy female literature that dare not speak its name would hold its head up a little bit higher, as would the cowardly readers like myself who are too embarrassed to sing its praises from our social media rooftops. I read a piece somewhere about how Kindle has led to women in particular embracing their less prideful literary loves with gusto, the anonymity of not having a book cover to be judged by has led to a lot more self indulgent reading. And why shouldn't we indulge? Of course thought provoking, mesmeric storytelling is important, but life without the unashamedly fun stuff is a bit dull.
Anyway, here is a list of a few of my favourite authors, in no particular order...
Sophie Kinsella (also writes as Madeline Wickham) - Start with Shopaholic, the original guilty pleasure tale of a woman called Becky whose love for shopping knows no bounds - much better than the film, I promise. Kinsella is a master at pacing and characters you can't help but love.
Helen Fielding - You've seen the movies (1: v.good, 2: not so v.good but still has Colin Firth so not all bad), now give the original slightly pudgy chardonnay lover we all love your undivided attention. Delicious pop culture referencing, Bridget's confessional diary is great for self-doubters and scoundrel lovers alike.
Lindsey Kelk - In a few short years Kelk has composed a staggering output of pretty universally inspired, witty prose. Her very modern, occasionally potty mouthed, brutally honest characters began with the I Heart - series, all of which are wonderful escapist fun. Each one features Angela's adventures in various cities from New York to Vegas to Paris, etc.. Her reverse expat (to mine) experience particularly drew me in, and I have shamelessly read all of the I Heart series more than once, it's that good.
Marian Keyes - The very popular Irish author often deals in slightly heavier subjects than some others of the genre, but she never fails to inject a hefty dose of humour and heart into her densely packed stories. A slightly stronger amount of concentration is required due to her multi-layered plot and character arcs, but it is well worth the investment.
Cecilia Ahern - Another Irish lass, I won't lie, sometimes she is a bit too sweet even for me, as in "the universe and angels and rainbows are conspiring to help us all to be sure", but she has written some stonkingly good books too.Who didn't cry buckets at P.S. I love You?
Jenny Colgan- Aforementioned, Colgan's books are both fun and sweet without being cloying. Even the minor characters are written well, with most everyone in each book feeling drawn a bit more fully than some others in the genre. They are the book equivalent of a cup of cocoa with marshmallows on top, warm, cozy, but also never cloying.
I have ready many other authors of the genre that I enjoy, and please comment with any you particularly love that I've missed (or even if you think they're all dross!). I just list these few as they are fairly safe bets and among the best at what they do. Sometimes it seems they get overlooked unfairly as writers, when the worlds they create are far more well written than many other male best sellers I won't name (cough Dan Brown, James Patterson ;-0). Thanks for reading, I apologize for the length of my posts so far - I'm new to blogging and far too used to writing lengthy diatribes! I do hope blogging will cure me of this and help me focus more concisely (one can hope!...and cure me of my exclamation mark addiction, and smiley face reliance :-). Bye for now, I'm off to read about snowy London and heavenly bake shops.