Comfort Reading

While waiting for Simone Darling No. 2 to percolate (this time she’ll be somewhere cold, brrr), I thought I might dip my toes into the waters of Key West again for the re-release of Laurence Shames’ The Naked Detective. It should be obvious by now that I’m a big fan of Shames (see post below), so it’s no great surprise that I loved this new old book all over again.

In fact, once you’ve found your feet in Shames’ Key West world it is hard to see the island in the same light as before. Instead, you expect the place to be teeming with retired Mafia mobsters, rheumy Chihuahuas, runaway virgins, and other assorted misfits, just like Shames tells it. Shames transforms Key West takes into a very specific fictional world that is instantly recognizable as his creation and therefore predictable (in a good way)–and this is why his books make it onto my list of comfort reading, i.e., books I like to read over and over again.

Like comfort food, comfort reading is different for everyone, but books that create a fictional world that is somewhat–but not too much–removed from real life are the most common comfort reads. In a thread on called “What’s your comfort book?” it is striking how many people nominate authors or a series by a specific author as their comfort reads, rather than one-off titles.

Yes, the nominated books might be riddled with murder, mystery, and adventure, but in a “cozy” kind of way, rather than a gritty, scarily realistic way–hence the preponderance of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers on the list. Patricia Cornwall et al need not apply. (Not to say there aren’t any hardy souls who’d consider the Kay Scarpetta series a comforting read, but I don’t know any.) Not surprisingly, childhood favourites get a big mention, and, again, these are mostly series, or authors writing in a consistent voice.

Here is my unscientific and statistically dubious list of the most commonly nominated comfort fiction:

  • Jane Austen
  • Enid Blyton
  • Barbara Pym
  • Georgette Heyer
  • Marian Keyes
  • Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Agatha Christie
  • P. G. Wodehouse
  • Harry Potter
  • Jane Eyre
  • Winnie the Pooh 
  • James Herriot

Yes, Winnie the Pooh and Enid Blyton make regular appearances on adults’ lists.

On an interesting side-note, a recent study suggests that children transitioning from one school to another choose to read books below their actual reading level, usually books they have read and re-read before: Comfort reading in times of stress. If this holds true, my son will be reading The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren until he starts high school . . .

My personal comfort fiction list includes Agatha Christie, P. G. Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer. And Jane Austen, of course. Wait, and John Mortimer, and David Lodge, and . . . okay, I’ll stop now. What are your favourites?


Wired for Story by Lisa Cron (Quickie Book Review)

This past Thanksgiving holiday I was put out of action by a dodgy knee while my nearest and dearest slithered down the slopes. It was not all bad, because I got the chance to read Wired For Story by Lisa Cron (with nary an interruption—bliss!).  Drawing on neuroscience, Lisa Cron contends that our brains crave story, because story is what helps us survive and thrive. A good story engages our brain in a pleasurable and rewarding way, and therefore we want more of it.

So what makes a story good?

Lots of things, but—surprisingly—none of them have to do with beautiful writing.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t write as well as possible, but beautifully wrought sentences are certainly not required to hook the reader. Just think of some of the bestsellers you have read over the years where the writing is more prosaic than poetic. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code comes to mind, and apparently it’s the same with E L James’ Shades of Gray (I haven’t read it yet), and no doubt with a slew of other bestselling novels. What makes these books irresistible to the reader is not gorgeous writing, but—repeat with me—a good story.

This may come as a shock to anyone going through an MFA program that emphasizes style, often at the expense of story.  But without a good story, beautiful is boring. Just ask the MFA student Cron mentions who was reduced to tears by the mind-numbingly boring books she had to read for her courses. I’m sure most of us have read, or were forced to read, books that didn’t have much to say by way of story, but said it beautifully anyway. Story is what drives the whole thing, and unless you get it right your reader may well end up crying with boredom, no matter how many hours you labored to find the perfect metaphor to describe the exact sensation of a grape bursting in your mouth.

So what is story? Well, it’s not plot. Plot is simply what happens.

Lisa Cron argues that a book can still tell a riveting story without much of a plot (i.e. without much external action).  Story is how what happens affects your protagonist. Everything that happens, every detail you include, must in some way affect the protagonist.  Which brings me to another problem area she identifies: description that does not, in some essential way, pertain to the protagonist’s story.

Think about it: which parts of a novel do you tend to skim over? Exactly. Lengthy descriptions of weather, countryside, interiors, battles, clothes. Descriptions that are there just for the sake of it. Just because a spring meadow is colorful doesn’t mean the reader wants to know about every single flower growing in it—unless the flower relates to the protagonist and has a role in propelling the story. Nor do readers care about arcane architectural flourishes—unless, again, they affect the protagonist’s story (think Harry Potter).

Very few writers (including myself) can resist the temptation to describe. At the very least, we feel obliged to drop in serviceable, though mostly pointless, descriptions, because it’s the “writerly” thing to do. Obviously, since a novel doesn’t take place in empty space (and even there you’d be surrounded by stars and planets), it’s important to know where the action occurs. But a brief nod to the surroundings is usually enough to clue in the reader—unless the environment affects the character and becomes part of the story, as it does in novels like Heart of Darkness, The Name of the Rose, and Harry Potter. 

Wired for Story not only leads you through all the elements that make a story compelling, but also provides convenient check lists at the end of each chapter. It’s almost like having an editor look over your shoulder! This is one of the few writing books worth reading again and again: before, during, and after your writing project. Lisa Cron presents her advice with wit and the wisdom of many years of teaching, agenting, and consulting—which makes her book not only useful, but  also a pleasure to read.

If you are serious about learning or reminding yourself about what makes a good story, do yourself a favor and read her book. You may even end up writing a story,  beautifully.

Check our Lisa Cron’s webpage for more information.


Free book promotion on November 2 and 3

On November 2 and 3, my mystery novel Spitting Image  will be available for free on Kindle. Just in time for the weekend!

Mystery and mayhem in the Florida Keys! Fans of Evanovich and Hiaasen: check out Spitting Image.

Here’s the in-a-nutshell:

Simone Darling has an empty bank account, a boring boyfriend, and an irrational fear of Miami, capital of vice and crime. No way will she set foot in Florida, not even to visit her mother. But when her mother offers her a quick job for a lot of $$$$, she relents and to travels to Florida, her boyfriend Kevin in tow.

First stop: Miami. All seems normal—until Simone finds a dead man inside her mother’s fridge. A man who looks like Kevin.  Too late she realizes she has walked into a trap where Kevin is the bait. Can Simone rescue her boyfriend before ruthless drug smugglers and the FBI get to him?

Troubles follow hard and fast, as Simone and Kevin embark on a hilarious adventure from Miami to Key West, while trying to rekindle their passion for each other and survive a family reunion marked by murder and mayhem.

Fat cat on the mat: the first step to freedom

A few weeks ago my son started reading. Okay, it’s not riveting stuff (fat cat on the mat, fox on a box, this is my Dad, and so on), but the delight on his face is a pleasure to behold and makes the mommy heart swell with pride.  Soon he will be reading “proper” sentences, paragraphs, stories, books — and new worlds will open up for him, worlds in which I will have no part, because reading is an activity that engages each reader’s imagination differently. Learning to read is the first step to freedom.

By reading you start to see things around you in a new light, you get to experience new points of view, you light up niches in your conscience and the outside world that would otherwise remain mysterious and feared.

Reading lets your mind soar free, engages your imagination and helps you add to the ever-evolving edifice of what makes you you.  And—here is the important thing—you are free to accept or reject what is presented to you as you read. Reading empowers you, and when you are empowered, you become free.

I can’t imagine not being able to read, or being prevented from reading what I want and, as a corollary, from thinking what I want because of what I have read.  Our imagination and our skills in thinking, discriminating, and arguing are nurtured by our ability to read.

In our society we take it for granted that children must learn to read—literacy is the cornerstone of our education, and rightly so. Because only by being able to read can we access information and make informed choices, all of which empowers us and makes us more self-reliant. We don’t have to depend on demagogues or snake-oil salesmen to tell us what we can or cannot think and do.  (Unfortunately, being able to read does not necessarily translate into an ability to think for ourselves, or to dare to think for ourselves, but that is another topic). The ability to read enables us to become self-directed, confident, and educated in ways that an illiterate person would have a hard time achieving.

And yet this right to reading and education is not universal. Just look at the Afghani teenager who was shot in the face for daring to speak up for girls’ education. (Malala Yousafzai). Or other Afghani girls subjected to vicious attacks just because they wanted to go to school. Whenever a new oppressive regime arises, the first thing it does is attack education and literacy, often using intimidating measures to stop people from reading and thinking. Oppression becomes so much easier when you prevent people from becoming free and self-directed individuals with the ability and desire to make their own choices. Reading is the first step towards the kind of freedom we take for granted.

A few years ago I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir by Azar Nafisi that recounts the crackdown on women’s rights to education and access to information. If you have any doubts how important reading is for our sense of personal freedom and accomplishment—even for our sanity—I recommend you read this book. Sadly, the story of repression by denying access to education continues in various parts of the world, and it affects mostly girls.

My son’s pleasure in his growing ability to read bodes well for his future as a reader, thinker, and self-confident citizen of the world—at least, that is what I wish for him.  And to think that it all starts with the fat cat on the mat!

Read lots, read widely, read on! 

Lost in translation? The tricky business of translating children’s books

This summer my son discovered the Findus and Pettson series by the Swedish writer and illustrator Sven Nordqvist. On the face of it the series is an unlikely hit with kids: the main characters are a lonely old man and his cat—not exactly bestselling children’s fodder, especially not in the age of Disney and Pixar. But bestselling it is: the books have been translated into many languages and have sold over 6 million copies worldwide. Findus and Pettson are superstars in Sweden, very popular in much of Europe, but not well known in America. Why?

Old man Pettson is not magical or super-heroic, or special in any sense. He has no twinkle in his eye. No, he is well over sixty, frumpy and occasionally grumpy, drinks coffee by the gallon, and lives in a farmhouse in the wilds of the Swedish countryside. His neighbors consider him a bit of an oddball, not least because he talks to his cat. (But don’t we all?)

Findus the talking cat is the undisputed star, but not in a cute, Disney-esque sense. Opinionated, stubborn, curious, and not always nice, Findus is the feline equivalent of your elementary school child—and herein lies the attraction for kids. The 5+ crowd can identify almost instantly with Findus, but I suspect that many adults (who would be reading the books to their children) are disinclined to identify with Pettson and his coffee-drinking, hermit-like habits. In an American environment, adults—especially when in charge of a cat/child—are expected to be positive role models, not oddballs! This cultural difference may be one reason why the series has not caught on in America.

However, the other reason may well lie in the translation of the text. One translation is published by Hawthorn Press (UK) as the Findus and Pettson series. However, Carolrhoda Books (USA) published an slightly earlier translation targeted specifically to the American market. This edition is called the Festus and Mercury series, with Mercury being the cat. Why the name change? You may well ask, as did I.

So off I went on an Internet hunt and came across an article by BethAnne Yoxsimer Paulsrud that gives an interesting account of two warring theories of translation being at work here. The American translation “domesticates” the foreign work to make it more accessible to American readers and includes references to Fourth of July fireworks and the Star Spangled Banner anthem—not something likely to be found in Sweden, where the stories are set!  Furthermore, the characters’ names were changed to sound American (however: Festus?). The UK translation, on the other hand, proceeds on the assumption that children are clever enough to appreciate the “foreignness” of a book and don’t require a domesticated version.

In the case of this series, the differences in the two translations are eye opening. Here is an example taken from Paulsrud’s article:

Domesticated Foreign
“Looks great,” said Mercury when they stood the exploding hen in the yard They set up the hen on the ground in the yard and stood looking at it.“It’s fine,” said Findus.“Mmm,” said Pettson proudly.Then they were silent a moment.

And here is another one:

Domesticated Foreign
But the more he thought about it, the more of a challenge it seemed. He looked all around the farmyard and had an idea. Then he led Mercury back to the toolshed. But at the same time he began to wonder how he could arrange a good spooky scene. And the more he thought about it, the more it seemed like fun.So soon he was back in the yard again mumbling to himself and looking up into the air to the right and to the left. Then he said: “We’ll build a ropeway now. You’d better come too, Findus, so you don’t get any firecrackers going off your backside.”“Sss, rubbish,” said Findus, but he went along anyway.

The difference is startling, isn’t it? The “domesticated” translation has none of the quirkiness and detail of the “foreign” one, which is an almost a word-for-word equivalent of the original Swedish text. And while the “foreign” translation may not use elegant prose, it is nevertheless much more lively and challenging.

Now I’m wondering: how many books in translation have we read as children and not appreciated, because they were too “domesticated”? And how many “foreign” ones did we appreciate? And which were more memorable?

As a child I found it thrilling to read about children in faraway places, even if their environment was utterly unfamiliar to me. Girls from Africa, England, Sweden (Pippi Longstocking, anyone?) were part of my imaginative world, and though I probably found it challenging to imagine life in a Tanzanian village, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying reading and puzzling about it. In my view, translations of foreign children’s books should challenge kids to look at the unfamiliar—this is how they develop curiosity about the world they live in, which can only be a good thing.

But let’s get back to the series my son loves so much (and yes, we read the “foreign” translation). As mentioned, the book’s author is also its illustrator, and, thankfully, the pictures need no translating! In fact, the illustrations really make the books stand out. Nordqvist draws images you linger over and savor for their inventive quirks and irrelevant details. The more you look, the more you find. They gives the stories a whole new dimension and ensure that children and adults alike are entertained.

In case anyone is on the quest for interesting and fun children’s books—especially something a little off the beaten path—I highly recommend this series. You can find Findus and Pettson on Amazon.

The Angels’ Share by Laurence Shames (Quickie Book Review)

When one of your favorite authors suddenly stops writing, you naturally assume something calamitous has happened. So you trawl the Internet for information–only to be confronted with the stark reality that, though alive and kicking, said author has simply hung up his novelist’s hat until further notice, and all because he moved from Key West to California.

Fair enough, everyone’s entitled to pause in their tracks and rethink life as they know it. Nevertheless, you, the reader, feel bereft. At least, I did.

But Laurence Shames fans can now rejoice. He has at long last published a new novel: The Angels’ Share.

But it’s not what you might expect. It’s not a Key West book; in fact, it doesn’t even mention Key West. And there is not a single mafioso to be had. Instead of taking up where he left off, Shames has written a love story, or rather, three love stories that take place in Santa Barbara wine country and–brace yourselves–in the afterworld. And it has angels in it. Angels who descend to earth and meddle in the affairs of still-living humans. But it is not what might come to mind with a romance involving angels. It is not soppy, and it’s not twee. For one, Shames doesn’t do soppy and twee. As always, his style is elegant, sensitive, and smart, with an underlying dry humor that suits the story perfectly.

The plot is simple: Darcy’s father, a philandering cheat, dies on the operating table and goes to the afterworld. There, he meets his still-resentful ex-wife. Despite her frosty welcome, they find a common ground in their concern for their daughter’s happiness. Before long they start interfering in her budding romance with Paul, a wine maker. But love is not for mortals only. Up in the afterworld, Darcy’s parents confront old regrets, lost opportunities, and the potential of love everlasting. The third love story involves two musicians who met and parted too young and spent the last fifty years on earth pining for one another. That’s basically it, albeit in a very small nutshell.

There are no cliffhangers here. But you don’t need them, or even want them, because this novel is not about the plot. It is about feelings and understanding that may come too late, about redemption, forgiveness, hope, and the strength to follow your heart–all good stuff. And Shames writes in such an engaging style that you’ll want to finish it in one sitting, and you don’t mind at all that it ends the way you thought and hoped it would end. In short, The Angels’ Share is a sweet, philosophical novel told with sensitivity and sense, and if you’ve enjoyed Shames’ previous novels, you won’t be disappointed with this one.

Short grumble: I just wish he had written it sooner!

Oh, and it’s only available as an e-book on Amazon. It looks like Shames has joined the growing band of indies.


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