Tag Archives: re-reading

Mysteries Change, and So Do I

I grew up reading mysteries. I still remember a book of short mystery stories for children. One was set at a circus and involved a missing snake. After looking in baskets and anywhere a coiled snake might be, the children notice that an acrobat’s pole falls to the ground with a dull thud instead of a metallic clang. Suddenly they realize that the missing snake is stretched out full-length inside the pole! Ta-da! (I also remember that the book was missing a few pages, which made one of the stories even more mysterious,)

That of course lead to Nancy Drew, the go-to mysteries for tween girls at the time. So they were written decades before. So the characters were unbelievable stereotypes. They were mysteries and I read them anyway. And collected them relentlessly, out of order because I usually got them in used book stores.

Murder Letterpress

I got my first taste of the real thing at my grandmother’s house in Florida, when I was 11. DisneyWorld didn’t exist yet (yes, I’m old), and the attractions near Orlando were limited. There was the zoo in Kissimmee, St. Augustine, Busch Gardens, and an alligator farm. Not much else. In between road trips to the attractions, I discovered Grandma Rose’s shelf of real, grown-up murder mysteries. Agatha Christie and Rex Stout provided my introduction into the world of real mystery literature. (Recently I’ve reread a few Nero Wolfe classics like Some Buried Caesar. They still take me back.)

Over the years that followed, I came up with several categories of mystery authors – those whose books I would borrow from the library or buy used, those I would buy in paperback, and those rare, special authors whose work I would buy in hardback. Authors sometimes moved from one category to another, depending on whether the quality of the books stayed high.

Robert Parker, for example, started out as a paperback author, moved to hardback, then back to paperback when it seemed like he was only phoning them in – for example, when he spent too much time detailing what color athletic shoes and their swooshes Spenser and Hawk had on. When he branched out into other series with other lead characters, I stopped reading him altogether.

Since the advent of ebooks, I no longer buy hardbacks or paperbacks, but the categories still exist in terms of price. Sue Grafton is on my buy-immediately, read-immediately list. Sara Paretsky used to be, but I found the last two of her novels unsatisfying because of the endings – which involved silly stunts to trap the villain.

I’ve mostly given up on cozy mysteries, too. For a while I did read Diane Mott Davidson, Charlotte MacLeod, Rita Mae Brown, and a few others, but somehow I lost interest. Now I understand there is debate in the cozy mystery world over whether cat characters should talk or not. I prefer not to get involved.

I find that I am reading fewer mysteries these days, because many of them seem excessively formulaic – lead character is pursuing a serial killer who has targeted said character’s friends or relatives. Cozy mysteries have been really reaching for odd occupations for the detective character – librarians, innkeepers, golfers, crossword puzzle enthusiasts (are there really that many murderers who leave crossword clues?), and many, many cooks. It used to be interesting to get an inside peek at the workings of professions, but the thrill is gone.

I still like books in other genres that have mystery elements. One of these is the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire. Her lead character, who is part fairy, pursues quests usually involving stolen children or murdered fairies (or various other supernatural species).

Since I have cut back on reading mysteries and have been finding them less satisfactory lately, I’ve decided that what I need to do is write the kind of mystery that I want to read. I have begun to do so. I have 15,000 words already, plus a rough and fluid outline, which sometimes changes when my characters don’t do or say what I thought they would. (I’ve heard writers describe this phenomenon many times, but it’s interesting to see it happening in my own work.)

My working title is Cold as Stone. Wish me luck. Perhaps someday I will make it into someone else’s borrow, paperback, or hardback categories.

Books, etc.: Revisiting the Old School

Sarah Seltzer recently wrote on Flavorwire that, as the title of her article says, “We re-read our favorite books as kids and why do we stop as adults?” (http://flavorwire.com/518840/why-do-we-re-read-our-favorite-books-as-kids-and-why-do-we-stop-when-we-get-older)

She says, “[A]ll the reading I do is for a different homework — the social kind. Even popular series like The Hunger Games and the Sookie Stackhouse series make my reading list at least partly to keep me ‘up on the conversation.’”

My experience has been different.

Reading is never homework for me, and really wasn’t when I was a child either. If a friend has read a book that I haven’t, I simply ask what it’s about and what they thought of it. Voilà – conversation.

I certainly did re-read more as a child than as a grown-up. My mother had to insist that when I went to the library, I take out something new in addition to Green Eggs and Ham.

But I – and many of my adult friends – continue to re-read books. Sometimes it’s books we loved as children, and other times it’s children’s literature we’ve just discovered, and still others it’s books we’ve recently encountered. Without even a book group to keep us up to date, my friends and I pass around recommendations. Right now I’m reading Libriomancer on a friend’s advice. Do I care if it’s less trendy than Grey? I do not. Will it make my re-reading list? I won’t know until I finish it.

A while back, I wrote in this blog about “comfort books” – books we return to again and again, for familiarity, for memories, for new insights, for reminders, for nostalgia, or for just plain fun.

We each have our own list of comfort books. My friend Leslie and I both go back to anything by Lois McMaster Bujold (at least yearly) and Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series. I go back to Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy and Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and David Sedaris, and even nonfiction like The Hot Zone and Angela’s Ashes None of these are beloved books from my childhood, but touchstones of my adult life. (Some of them don’t fit the usual definition of “comfort,” but it is, in a way, comforting to me that they retain that spark of awe when revisited.)

When my tastes change (as they have over the years), my re-reading list changes too, though my old favorites remain there for me. Recently I’ve grown tired of the mediocre memoirs and formulaic novels that sell for $1.99 on B&N, and gone looking for books that fill me with wonder when I first read them and are worth a second – or third or fifth – reading. And I’ve found some. Life of Pi (which I just re-read). The Book Thief. Egg and Spoon.

(Do you have any suggestions for books of similar quality? Please, please leave them in the comments section.)

Not that revisiting one’s childhood reading is a bad thing, for as Seltzer notes, there lurk new insights and a mature appreciation of the author’s craft.

Two books from my earlier reading days recently crossed my path again. These are books that endured multiple readings in my teen years – To Sir, With Love and Up the Down Staircase – both tributes to my enduring interest in education (as I would now say) or (at the time) my desire to become a teacher.

Neither book was a waste of time to re-read, and neither, although familiar, spoke to me in the same way it did all those years ago. Re-reading them was both comforting and newly challenging. They stood up to their repeat performances.

Both startled me by their references to high school students as “children.” I suppose to the school system they may be, but I think of many if not most of them as young adults, or at least kids or teens. (I also was taken aback by the word “pupil.” Is that still used in some parts of the country? To me, they are students.)

Some aspects were new to me. As a teen (raised in a lily-white suburb and attending a lily-white school), I noticed but missed the depth of the comments on race in To Sir, With Love. While I understood that Up the Down Staircase highlighted the bureaucracy of the education system in a large city high school, I was clueless about the application of that to all schools, even mine.

“Re-reading offers something that few other cultural experiences do, really: a mix of gentle stability and sharp new insight,” Seltzer says. “Taking the time to re-experience the art we loved best in our past can be a way of spending time with ourselves, and though its rewards are mostly unseen, that may make them all the more important to seek out.”

Now that I can’t argue with.

But I would add that my re-read list keeps growing longer as I grow older. It’s not just childhood favorites that are worth re-reading, but any book that has become beloved to me. And falling in love with a book is definitely not something I’ve left behind. New love can happen at any age.

Now where did I put my copy of Green Eggs and Ham? Ah, there it is – right next to the Lois Bujold.