I’m on a committee (actually I’m on MANY committees, but we’ll just focus on one right now) charged with selecting a novel for next year’s community “read” program. Over the years, our little committee (comprised of community members and pubic library employees and, well, me) has developed a list of criteria including the following:
- story (aka plot)
- literary quality
- programming possibilities (basically, the author must be alive and lively)
- and, for this year, lighthearted is an additional criteria
Of course, as all of us familiar with assessment know, we still need to define these terms, but it’s a start.
Since our last year’s selection was considered a bit too “literary” and not quite as “approachable” for many of our community members who engage the most with our community-read events, we have decided to put a little more weight on that criteria for next year’s selection.
Unfortunately, I’m the “literary quality” person in the group, and though I certainly appreciate “approachability” as a criteria, particularly when choosing books for my classes, I fear that I naturally am suspicious of, nay bored by, novels that are “too” approachable.
But I’m working on that. My food fiction class one of the first contemporary novel classes I’ve taught, including books that some of my colleagues dismissed as too “light” (I assume they were referring to Like Water for Chocolate, though who knows). And next year I plan to offer an autobiography course that includes contemporary autobiography as well as bloggy life writing.
But I’m failing miserable as a committee member coming up with novels by living authors (who are affordable) that are “approachable”—a bit more lighthearted than our previous selections (which included The Kite Runner–about 6 months before the book became a best seller).
I just finished one possibility: Jonathan Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls–yet, although it is certainly an easy read, and even meets the literary criteria because of his Virginia Woolfian style and tone, it’s not exactly a “lighthearted” read (I do recommend it, however: the frame story is a bore, but the main storyline is told by a woman who is just about to die. She records her life’s story on six casette tapes, but the best part is that her story is focused on 20 photographs–she is telling the story to a blind girl so she describes each photograph in detail and each represents a moment in her own life, and ultimately in the blind girl’s life.)
I’m also in the midst of Gil Adamson’s The Outlander, a juicy 1903 story of a young woman who kills her husband (I don’t know why yet, though I can guess) and runs west, chased by her two red-headed brother in laws. Along the way she meets a various cast of odd characters, and falls in love with one of them. I see great movie potential with this work, and it just might meet the criteria of “approachability” as well as the unspoken criteria of “lighthearted” and even “literary quality” considering the cover blurbs by Michael Ondaajte , Ann Patchett, and Jim Harrison. But I’m not done yet, and I can’t quite tell how it will end.
Another possibility is The Art of Racing in the Rain, a book I wrote about here. It’s a fun, accessible book, also (narrated by a dog), but maybe a little too “lighthearted” (despite the impending death of the dog, and at least one other death).
So, does anyone have any other recommendations of novels that are approachable, while still well written? Lighthearted, but not innane? Written by a living author, who won’t charge us an arm and a leg to come to our town and who is lively, to boot?
I’m about halfway through “So Brave,Young, and Handsome” by Leif Enger, and it’s a blast. I don’t know how affordable he is, but the novel fulfills all your other criteria. It’s just charming, and it can be read as pure adventure or as a sort of meta-adventure story satirizing the conventions of sentimental romance. The characters are wonderful and the writing is crisp and, in places, beautiful. And it’s rollicking good fun.
So funny: that book is on my short list to read next! Some of the committee members loved it, while others thought it was almost “too quiet” a book to cause excitement, but I’m curious since “rollicking good fun” wasn’t a comment from any who read it. His first book (Peace Like a River) was also “quiet” but beautifully so. I was almost going to pass on reading that (you can imagine how challenging it is to read dozens of novels while grading multi-dozens of compositions), but I’ll add it back to my list now.
I’m guessing he’s probably a mid-west writer, so perhaps entice-able at an affordable fee: we often sell writers on the glories of our ski/golf/hiking/boating/hunting/rock climbing, etc opportunities) as well as lodge-style accomodations borrowed from a library board member….
The other books on my list include Jo Graham’s Black Ships which looks like a womanist retelling of the Trojan Wars and The Welch Girl by Peter Davies—but I know little about that one.
Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness
Any novel by Elinor Lipman
Lauren Groff, Monsters of Templeton
Irene Disch, Empress Of Weehawken
Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum
Michelle Hunevan, Jamesland
Scarlett Thomas, Going Out
Katherine Weber, Little Women
Helen Humphreys, Afterimage (this isn’t light-hearted but it’s a book I always recommend)
Forgot these disclaimers:
1. These books all have some less than light-hearted aspects.
2. I have no idea how affordable any of the authors are.
Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. They’re an excellent send up of British police procedurals and extremely funny in bibliowit kind of way.
They read kind of like Douglas Adams novels, in that the prose is not singularly arresting, but they’re lively, sharp, and good for discussion.
Thank you AndiF for your extensive list! The only one I’ve read is Atkinson’s—she’s a marvelous writer, so thank you for reminding me about her. I fear, however, she might be expensive (her last few books focused on the same detective–Case Histories was my favorite). And I must have read something by Eleanor Lipman: the name brings me positive feelings. It’s a rare book that doesn’t have some non-lighthearted moments, of course (from fairy tales, to Forest Gump, to romances, there has to be some downer moments to make the ending “happy”), so that’s fine. The last book we chose, however, focused as much on abstract ideas as on story (Dara Horn’s fabulous novel The World To Come–despite the mixed reaction from the community, I still think it was a good selection).
I’ve actually read everyone of Fforde’s Thursday Next novels except the very last one (that is awaiting me next to my bed). Although I love the series, it may be appealing to too narrow an audience for our community read: the literary references alone would be missed by many (though certainly not all) community members. Ideally, we want a book that reaches a wide audience: the goal of the public library system generally. I’ll bring it up to the committee, though, just in case I’m being too fearful. I agree that the stories would lead to good discussion, and, since I often write our “readers’ guides” that go along with the novel selections, I could add a list of literary references.
What do you think of the Nursery Crime series by Fforde? I don’t find them quite as compelling….
Thanks for your suggestion!
I could see why you’d think it could be a little esoteric for a wider audience, but one of the things I liked most about the series was playing with Google to confirm what I was missing. And of course, not all of the really good jokes are literary (for instance, Braxton Hicks).
I think that the Nursery Crime series don’t work quite as well with Fforde’s style of writing. He’s just not as good at that dry tone which is the hallmark of British detective fiction. (He’s really too funny and over-eager to nail the joke.) I’ve also never really gotten into some of the characters in the series. For instance, Ashley is incredibly flat, and while I appreciate what he’s trying to do with the character, it’s just doesn’t work. Creating a personality for someone who’s a stock character is a daunting task for a writer, and Fforde doesn’t pull it off as well as he might.
On the flip side, I think this is why characters in the Thursday Next series work much better: they’re merely variations on characters whose personalities are already developed. When you’re working with Miss Havisham, Mrs. Danvers, or miscellaneous Jane Austen figures, they are stock characters, but their idiosyncrasies are already known to the reader or easily discerned through a quick Wikipedia look up.
I like Atkinson’s recent books a lot but still prefer ‘Museum’ — I love the narrative voice (and the parenthetical remarks).
I’m always anxious about recommending books but I’ve great success with Lipman. The only author I’ve had more people like is Laurie Colwin — who would be my top recommendation if you weren’t looking for a living author.
BTW, one way you might lower fees is to have the author visit by phone instead of in person.
Another thing that might keep costs down is to look for authors who live in your region. I have a friend who is mystery novelist and she’ll go just about anywhere that is within a day’s drive.
You are certainly making me rethink my position on Fforde: it could be fun to have shared literary (and other) allusion gatherings. And I do know non-literary folks who enjoyed the books despite not “getting” every reference, or not being entirely sure of every character reference, including Mrs. Havisham (for example, my sig. other who has yet to read Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre, despite my pleas).
I’m going to suggest his books to the committee using some of your arguments: I’d have a wonderful time creating community activities and actually getting to meet Fforde!
I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Do you have a blog I can visit?
Recommending books (or films, or songs) is always a crapshoot, but heck, when it works, it works brilliantly.
And yes, we have tried to get more regional writers but we are located in a propeller-plane out of the way (over the mountain pass) town, so it’s expensive no matter where they live to get here. We also try to choose writers who haven’t been to our town before (several relatively famous writers in a city 4 hours away have talked in our town every few years for years). The “big” event is having the author do a big city-wide lecture, and participate in local book group discussions, so we really do like to have the author physically here, but since we’ve been doing this for only 7 years now, I assume at some point we’ll end up choosing an author who is not available–I just don’t think the committee is ready for that decision yet.
So, which Lipman would you recommend I start with? And as I noted with evil_fizz above, I’d love to visit your blog if you have one. I’m new to the blogging world as a participant and I continue to be impressed with the quality of thought I find in both blogs and comments. It’s a refreshing treat for me at the end of a day;-)
I don’t blog — I mostly lurk (came here from Feministe), though there are a few blogs at which I comment regularly. My pseudo-blogging activity is posting photographs at some of the blogs where I hang out; so here’s a couple of links to my photo albums:
On Lipman, I’d suggest either Isabel’s Bed, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, or My Latest Grievance.
I love the photos, and yes, I was a lurker for many months, too: bloggers need lurkers, and vice versa.
Thanks for the recommendations: I’m headed to our library website now to reserve them!
One last comment and then back to lurking. 🙂
Having slept on it, I think you might want to check out the Groff book as well. This is her first novel (she also has a short story collection) and that might make her a lot less expensive than the more established authors.
Monster of Templeton? I love the title: I’ll get that too…and yes, we do tend to favor “new” writers over established ones (not only for cost reasons–they are just so incredibly enthusiastic!).
Take care, AndiF.
I’m also a serial commenter, although I occasionally guest blog at Feministe and snark extensively at my own itty bitty blog, where I write about feminism and talk about my latest recipe inventions.
I’ll be around for more conversations, though.
Thanks for the link to your itty bitty blog, evil_fizz! I was just starting to read the Feministe posting about its history: fascinating. I’m relatively new to blog reading (started last year right before I went to Italy for a trip and wanted to blog about that), but it is increasingly a morning ritual for me to read through the blogs, printing/saving those I want to savor vs. those I whip through.
I’ll look forward to reading your blog and guest postings.
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