Monday, June 27, 2016

Reeling and Writhing

Sacchi Green

I admit it. That title as wrong. Much as I’d like it, Lewis Carroll’s sly take on reading and writing in schools doesn’t fit this post. If I were reading (or writing) especially good erotica, I might get away with it, especially the writhing part, but I’m not.

Ahem. Let’s start over. What I’m actually discussing is reading and riding. In a car. And not reading so much as hearing. I’ve been in the habit for years of listening to books on tape, or more recently on disc—I finally got a car younger than twelve years old, with a CD player!--while I’m riding or driving. If I try listening with headphones at home, or even dawdle in a parking lot just to finish that one chapter before proceeding to work or shopping or whatever, I fall asleep. I need the eyes and reflexes to be occupied with the driving part while the ears transmit the stories to a different part of the brain.

I’m too cheap to actually buy the recorded books, so I keep track of what my local libraries have on hand, and search the state library online files to find books to request, if I know what I’m looking for.

Last week I finished an unexpectedly absorbing book called The House of Owls, written by Tony Angell, a naturalist who lived near, studied, and sometimes rescued and rehabilitated owls in the Northwest. Non-fiction books about nature or history often seem to be just the right things to read when you need distraction from the strains of your personal life and/or the chaos of world events.

Historical fiction also grabs me if the periods or characters are appealing, and right now I’m going back and forth between two excellent books, back and forth because one belongs to the local library and one I requested via inter-library loan. When the loaned one came through I returned the unfinished local one, since I can easily take that out again later.

The first book is Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, an award-winner widely praised by critics. She combines fiction and history to fill out the life of Thomas Cromwell, a low-born commoner who became the top legal aid to Henry VIII’s Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey. Then, instead of falling with Wolsey when the Cardinal couldn’t pull off the trick of getting the Pope’s approval for an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn, Cromwell gradually ascended to the King’s right hand. He accomplished the King’s desires and, of much more importance, England’s schism with the Catholic Church and the beginnings of the Church of England. I’ve read a great deal about the period and the historical details, so I didn’t need to rush to finish the book to find out “what happens next” as far as the drama of Henry VIII and his wives goes—what a drama it is, as colorful and complex and engrossingly scandalous as any fiction! But Mantel has hooked me with her fine writing and the fascinating character she builds and extrapolates from what is and is not known about Thomas Cromwell. I’ll definitely return to Wolf Hall when I finish the book on loan .

That book is Hild, by Nicola Griffith, an outstanding writer who has been better known for writing books with more or less science fictional themes. Hild is fiction about an actual seventh-century Anglo-Saxon girl of noble family in England who becomes, eventually, St. Hilda of Whitby, although that part will be dealt with in a sequel. This is an era I don’t know a great deal about, so I’m interested in learning more about it, and the figure of Hild herself is complex and sympathetic. As a young girl she becomes the “seer” (considered by some a witch) for her pagan uncle, a king. Hild herself considers her ability to predict events more a matter of luck, keen observation, and attention to the details of interactions between men, than of magic, even when she has nightmarish dreams that portend future events. She knows, though, that her own survival and that of her family depend on her predictions being accurate. The book so far is a wealth of historical information about everything from battles and campaigns to everyday life, especially the lives of women. Griffith’s writing is, as always, beautiful, and her research here appears to be meticulous, so I’m hoping to have enough driving time to listen to the whole book before I run out of the permitted renewals. I may even resort to reading the actual, physical book if I have to.

Right now I’m at my retreat in the mountains of New Hampshire, with very limited wifi access, which is one reason I’m so late with this post. You’d think that the five hour drive each way to get here and get home would give me ample listening time, but as it happens I’m traveling with family members who have little interest in Hild, so what we’re actually listening to is a novelization by Alan Dean Foster of Star Wars: the Force Awakens. Yes, I’ve seen the movie, and liked it, and now I know that the story works much better as a movie than as a book. No surprise.

So there you have it. There are actually a few non-recorded books I’m dipping into and out of, such as How to Be  Victorian (for research) and a new anthology, Finding Ms. Write, that I won in a drawing for a comment on the blog of a friend who’s a contributor.

What’s the word I want? Eclectic. That’s the ticket. I’m an eclectic reader. Reader and writher.  Could be worse. I’m not reeling. Yet.


  1. I just heard a story of mine on audio. Pretty darned cool, if I do say so myself. The entire antho, "Surprising Myself: Stories of Women Fulfilling Fantasies" is available from Insatiable Press.

  2. My brother only listens to audio books. When I bought him a couple of print volumes for his birthday, he asked if he could return them!

    I read Wolf Hall after receiving recommendation from a friend, but I found the narrative convention (using third person stream of consciousness, e.g. "He, Cromwell, felt...") a bit distracting. Some gorgeous imagery, definitely, and a complicated character you can't help but admire, despite his cold-bloodedness, but I couldn't quite get past the strange POV. Maybe that would work better in an audio form.

  3. I've found that I can finish books on audio that I would never finish in print or as ebooks. It's a great way for me to get through interesting, thick nonfiction. For example, I listened to Tim Wu's The Master Switch, got a ton out of it, and was really happy to have found it in that format.

    I'm glad to hear you're liking Hild! It's not my usual sort of thing, but I've heard so much about it that I'm going to give it a try. Wish me luck! :)

  4. I do find that some books are better when read aloud by a skillful narrator. I first came to that conclusion with regard to Faulkner, whose long, convoluted sentences flow quite easily when someone who knows how speaks them.


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