The Pleasures of Paired Reading

February 19, 2014 at 2:12 am (books)

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A week ago Saturday, Jean, Marge, and I presented Book Bash, a program of book talks, for our colleagues in AAUW.  In past years, a theme has been chosen  for this program – or rather, a theme would emerge, based on recent reading by the presenters. The theme this year came from my own reading experience. I call it paired reading.

I’ve recently found myself reading in sequence books that are linked with some type of commonality. This commonality could occur in regard to characters, plot elements, setting, or any number of other factors. Most often this happens when I read a work of historical fiction. I would then find myself wanting to know more about the time and place that formed the context of the novel. The reverse frequently happens if I am reading a work of history or especially, of biography. For example, Tom Williams’s biography of Raymond Chandler sent me back to those “thrilling days of yesteryear” when Chandler was writing his gritty and cynical (yet mesmerizing) stories for  the pulps.

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When we present Book Bash, we always create a book list for the attendees. Here’s what this year’s list looked like:

Jean’s Selections:

(In which the phenomenon of ‘paired reading’ makes an intriguing appearance)

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith
& Sons, by David Gilbert
The English Girl, by Daniel Silva
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, by  Tilar J Mazzeo
What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched and Obama Tweeted: 200 years of popular culture in  the White  House, by Tevi
Troy (paired with some presidential reads)

 Marge’s Selections

(in which ‘paired reading’ appears yet again…)

The Conjuror’s Bird, by Martin Davies (paired with People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks)
Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger (paired with The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman)
The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton (paired with Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey by Emma Rowley)
The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin
Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O’Farrell

 Roberta’s Selections

(in which the ‘paired reading’ phenomenon persists)

The Long Exile, by Melanie McGrath (paired with White Heat, by M.J. McGrath)
The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir (paired with Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel)
Murder As a Fine Art, by David Morrell (paired with ‘On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts’ by Thomas De Quincey
Out of the Black Land, by Kerry Greenwood (paired with Temples, Tombs, & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of  Ancient     Egypt by Barbara Mertz and Ancient Egyptian Literature, an anthology translated by John L. Foster)
The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis
A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Tom Williams

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We did not have time to book talk all of our selections, but we did the best we could in the time allotted to us. Jean enjoyed tantalizing our audience with the true identity of Robert Galbraith; in addition, she gave a colorful discourse on the informal cultural pursuits of various denizens of the White House. Her recommended “presidential reads” included Lucy by Ellen Feldman  and Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark.

Marge enjoyed describing  by Kate Morton’s novel The House at Riverton, not least because it provided a neat segue into one of the many recent nonfiction titles about Downton Abbey. Her book talk on The World Without You made many in the audience (including me) want to read it as soon as possible. And her reading  from Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave produced some welcome laughter.

(I’m continually amused by the way in which Downton Abbey keeps intruding itself into discussions, even those on seemingly unrelated topics. In one book group I attended, someone pleaded for an Abbey embargo – to no avail, alas, but we got back to the book in good time.)

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All of my own Book Bash selections save one are drawn from the running list I’ve been keeping of my own fairly recent paired reading experiences and possible paired reading  projects for the future, to wit:

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and The Lady in the Tower  by Alison Weir (whose history tours of Britain I would love to take)
Poets in a Landscape  by Gilbert Highet and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (full disclosure: I have not yet gotten through the latter)
Out of the Black Land by Kerry Greenwood and Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs by Barbara Mertz (I’ve not read this in its entirety either.)
White Heat by M.J. McGrath and The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath (same person, with a slightly altered name)
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selena Hastings and Mrs. Craddock, The Painted Veil, and/or  the  Ashenden  stories by Somerset Maugham
Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland and The Last Pre-Raphaelite by Fiona MacCarthy
Portobello by Ruth Rendell and “Portobello Road,” one of my all time favorite ghost stories, by Muriel Spark
How To Live by Sarah Bakewell and Montaigne’s Essays (not yet read)
Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe and Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, and/or The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (Haven’t yet read any of these three fiction titles, with the exception of one or two stories by Mansfield.)
Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun and Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, the latter being amazingly readable for a novel that came out in 1862 – I couldn’t put it down!
Murder As a Fine Art by David Morrell and “Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts,” satirical essays by Thomas De Quincey
Life After Life  by Kate Atkinson and Frozen in Time  by Mitchell Zuckoff,, Citizens of London by Lynne Olson and/or The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel (Haven’t yet read any of the three nonfiction titles.)
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, by Michael Gorra
A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler, by Tom Williams and any of Chandler’s novels and/or short stories

I’m grateful to Kerry Greenwood for reawakening my interest in ancient Egypt – an interest which has lain largely dormant for several decades. I chose to pair her wonderful historical novel with one of  Barbara Mertz‘s two nonfiction titles on Egypt because this prolific author and Egyptologist is known to many mystery readers for her Amelia Peabody series. (She also wrote romantic suspense under the name of Barbara Michaels.) For some years, Mertz was a local celebrity, living not far from here in Frederick, Maryland. Not long after I went to work at the Howard County Library in 1982, she graciously appeared at one of our programs, and was introduced by my close friend and  fellow librarian Marge – that same Marge who presented with Jean and me at Book Bash. (Barbara Mertz passed away in August of last year; she was 85.)

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It goes without saying that one will never lack for books on the subject of ancient Egypt, but I do want to mention a new one that I just got from the library: A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid, by John Romer. It comes highly recommended and looks to be fascinating as well as beautifully written. For her part, Barbara Mertz can be downright poetic. Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs opens with a scene invented to make a particular point right at the book’s outset:

One bright summer afternoon in the year 5263 B.C, a man stood on the cliffs high above the Nile Valley. He was slightly built and only a few inches over five feet in height; his brown body was naked except for a kilt of tanned hide. But he held himself proudly, for he was a tall man among his people, and a leader of men.

(You can read more on Amazon.)

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Barbara Mertz

I greatly loved Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Michel de Montaigne and was looking forward to diving into the famous Essays. Alas, I found them all but unreadable. Possibly the fault was in the translation, but I also encountered a  fair amount of untranslated Latin, a language I have not seriously student since my sophomore year in high school. (Suggestions, anyone?)

give-me-everything-you-have2  Enduring love

I paired James Lasdun’s true story of stalking with Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love because of the latter’s extremely insightful depiction of what it’s like to be the object of someone else’s obsession. (It is very frightening in both of these narratives, I assure you.)

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Uncommon Arrangements and The Love-Charm of Bombs are both books that furnish enough material for a semester length course (or a series of book discussions). Both deal with multiple authors. I’ve had Lara Feigel’s book out of the library several times but yet have yet to read it. It’s very long, but it features in its cast of characters one of my favorite authors, Graham Greene.

I’ve been enjoying a new historical mystery series by Robin Blake. It’s set in Preston, Lancashire, in the 1740’s and features Titus Cragg, a coroner, and Luke Fidelis, a doctor; the first entry in the series is A Dark Anatomy. I’m on the lookout for a good nonfiction read about that period in English history. (Suggestions welcome.)  And I”m currently immersed in Robert Harris’s exciting new thriller A Gentleman and a Spy. In this novel, Harris tells the story of the notorious Dreyfus Affair. Turn of the century Paris, filled with ugliness, beauty, and above all, intrigue, springs vividly to life. I’ll want to read more on this subject, one I feel I’ve known about my whole life but never really known – if you know what I mean.

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Finally, the “save one” I alluded to above is The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis. Words fail me when I seek to heap praise on this slender and magnificent work of fiction. There actually is a nonfiction counterpart to this novel: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. Davis, currently a professor of history at the University of Toronto in Canada, served as consulted for the 1983 film The Return of Martin Guerre. Her book came out at about the same time the movie was released; I recall reading it then and enjoying it very much.

The film is worth seeking out; its meticulous recreation of another time and place shows that like the English, the French possess an almost uncanny ability to channel their own past.

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For me, paired reading – or in some cases tripled or even quadrupled reading – has greatly enhanced the pleasure that books continue to give me. I now realize that I was  becoming increasingly dissatisfied with my (seemingly) aimless jumping around from one book to the next. Now that I want to take my reading in more specific (and sometimes esoteric) directions, I’m finding it more challenging to fit in the reading assigned by no fewer than three book clubs (!). While I’m grateful for the discoveries I’ve made as a result of participating in these groups, I also reserve the right to say “no thanks,” if I feel the need to. You may well ask: Why not just drop out of one, or two, or all three of the book groups? It’s kind of a long story, but the fact is I’d rather stick with all them to the extent possible. (I may be reading myself into a stupor, but I’m happy doing it.)

At any rate, I want to conclude by heartily recommending the intellectual, sensual, and emotional pleasures afforded by paired reading.

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