Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Rewards of Patience

After reading the two books about the Missing Women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, I needed a break from darker subject matter and Life Mask by Emma Donoghue presented itself as a good choice.  Seemingly this period drama would be an excellent relief.  

The story revolves around three main characters whose lives and reputations become intertwined.  Eliza Farren is a successful comedic actress who rose up the ranks and now desires to make strategic friendships in High Society (or the Beau Monde).  Her connection with one of the highest ranking peers in the country, the Earl of Derby, will allow her to enter the most fashionable drawing rooms in the city.  This alliance with such a powerful man is the subject of much speculation, and though Derby is clearly in love with the actress, her feelings for the married aristocrat are unclear.  Derby pledges that when his unfaithful invalid wife passes away, he will propose marriage, but until such time, Eliza won't entertain the idea of becoming his mistress.  At the beginning of the novel, their strictly platonic romance had gone on for six years, and no one in their social circles seems to understand it.  

Once Eliza and Derby's situation is outlined, Anne Damer is introduced to the reader.  She is a sculptress who was widowed over a decade previously when her scoundrel of a husband committed suicide.  Due to her rank and financial circumstances, she is able to live alone in fashionable Mayfair and pursue her sculpture without answering to a spouse.  She and Derby have a longstanding friendship and share political sensibilities, and a friendship blossoms between her and Eliza.  Anne's love of independence makes her a lightning rod for controversy, and her tendency to be in the forefront of idle gossip often causes friction in her friendship with the actress.  When rumours surface that there is a secret romance going on between Anne and Eliza, Eliza breaks off their relationship and retreats into hiding.  

Now that I've set up the plot,  will tell you what I really think of this book.  I had a very hard time reading it at first, and often was on the brink of giving up, but somehow managed to persevere.  I had difficulties both with the pace of the plot and the characters themselves.  My issues with Eliza were numerous.  I felt that she was grasping, self-important, and superficial and could not understand her relationship with Derby.  She seemed to string him along without giving him any promises and not settling for the perfectly acceptable status of mistress.  Though she claims that she does not want to suffer from the same fates of other actresses who become romantically involved with aristocrats, one gets the impression that this is snobbishness rather than self-preservation.  The manner in which she ceases her friendship with Anne, also reinforces the idea that she is nothing more than a cold fish.  Eliza does become more likable towards the end of the book, but my prejudice against her at that point was firmly in place.  

In addition to my loathing of Eliza, I didn't enjoy the pacing of the book either.  I don't possess a large amount of patience, and I was on the verge of giving up on it a few times.  My interest in plot only started to peak after the 350 page mark, which is a long time to read in the hopes that the plot will take off.  But, take off it did, and I read the remaining pages very quickly. Before the story sped up, I barely managed to stay engaged and I attribute this mostly to the overwhelming amount of details about the political situation in England.  The references to the French Revolution were interesting, but the internal struggles of the Whig Party failed to captivate me.  I felt the book was bogged down by the scenes between Derby and his Whig contemporaries, and though the main characters were all involved in Party matters, I found myself not caring about the political fate of the Whigs.  

Though I won't reveal the plot lines that did allow me to continue to read, there is an incident which puts events into motion, and thus a story happens.  This series of events is engaging, I just find myself resenting the amount of time that it took to get there.

Monday, January 23, 2012

E-Books and the Public Library

I was having my morning bowl of cereal when I heard an interesting interview on the local radio station.  Two representatives from the Greater Victoria Public Library were talking about their e-books program which enables patrons to check out e-books online.  Rather than going to your local branch and combing through the shelves, provided they have a library card, one can borrow an e-book instead.  The reason why these two women were being interviewed on morning talk radio is that two major publishers (who remained nameless) will no longer sell e-books to the public library.  Their rationale is that people will be disinclined to buy e-books or their traditional paper counterparts if the library is allowing them to download them for free.  Also, e-books don't suffer from the same rate of deterioration that hard copies do and publishers make their money when libraries have to replace popular titles.  

In the interest of full disclosure, I will reveal that at this point in time I'm not an e-books fan.  I don't own an e-reader and the very thought of staring at a screen for hours does not fill me with enthusiasm.  My sister and a coworker of mine have persuaded me that they are not all bad, providing book lovers with the enjoyment of reading their favourite titles without having to commit to the shelf space.  Though it is not my preferred medium, I recognize that this technology and its availability probably attract people to reading who would not otherwise pick up a book.  Ever since they introduced e-books to their catalogue, the library has seen an increase in traffic of 800%; a number which speaks for itself.  Another point worth noting is that e-books are checked out in the same way as their paper equivalents, only one patron can borrow each one at a time.  So, like popular library books, if it's taken out by someone else, you will have to wait your turn or buy it.  

I know that I will buy a book simply because I know that the book I want to read will be on the wait-list until I'm old and gray. E-books shouldn't be any different in that respect.  Libraries help out the publishing industry in ways that aren't as apparent to the superficial observer.  Certainly there are people who exclusively borrow from the library simply because the cost of books outweighs the joy of owning them.  Then there are other people who take books out of the library in order to give them a sort of test drive.  Without fully committing to buying that cookbook, or novel by an unknown author, one can give them a try and see what happens.  My mother is notorious for taking out knitting books from the library, reading them, and eventually buying a copy for herself at the local book store.  Once a person is exposed to an author that they enjoy, they are more likely to purchase their work.  

Though I don't think that you'll catch me with a Kindle anytime in the near future, I do applaud how e-books are converting more people into readers and regular library patrons.  I also think that libraries that adapt to our changing culture and offer new services, should be supported by the publishing industry as they are more interdependent than one would think.   

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Viking!: My Past in the Discard Bin

At work the other day, one of my co-workers revealed that she was overtired because she was up late reading a book in her Kindle.  In hushed tones and after much prying she confessed that the Twilight saga was to blame for her nocturnal lifestyle.  She then went on to say how she felt less than intelligent because she liked escaping to that world of romance and suspense.  I find that often because of the fact that I am a book blogger and have an English background, people think that I am judging their book selections, that they somehow reflect their intellectual abilities.  

I don't view people's taste in books as a way of determining whether or not they are smart. People choose what they read with different goals in mind, and so it is difficult from the outside to judge other people's preferences.  I will confess that while I was in university the was a long period where most of the books that I read for fun were romance novels. Interspersed with Dickens, Joyce and Atwood, I liked nothing more than to cuddle up with the usual cast of heroes and heroines as they cultivated their improbable romances.  The stress of school, living at home with my mother and my lacklustre love life all meant that escapism was my primary motive for reading.  I kid you not, my favourite book was Viking! by Connie Mason, a tale of a viking who enslaves a woman only to find that she captures his heart.  

When things are going well for me personally, I tend to choose to read books with darker subject matter, because I can spend large swaths of time immersed in gritty reality and still maintain an optimistic approach. Escapism and realism are not types of literature that require ranking, because both have their benefits to the psyche.  After having gone through my collection this past weekend, I can look back on my time with Viking! fondly, and will probably find myself pulling another romance out and take another journey.  I may not ever go through the library discard cart with the fervour of a dumpster diver in search of the perfect historical story, complete with chiseled hero on the cover.  The smuttier the better.

At least I know that I am not alone in my need for guilty-pleasure reading. Though my mother finds solace in those Chick Lit books which cater to the women-over forty demographic, and my boyfriend loses himself in post-apocalyptic stories, they are the same need for escapism. So I don't judge my co-worker for her Twilight-related insomnia, because next week it could be me yawning.