READER INTERVIEW WITH COLORADO READER LISA HOULIHAN
Interview conducted January/February, 2015
Special Thanks to Lisa for this recreation of her reading life. Her passionate devotion to books stokes my reading fire, and I think it will do the same for you.
Tell us about what you are reading.
I usually have several books going at once, in different media. On paper for daytime at home; on a device for out of the house or reading in bed; and in audio for driving, housework, and if I can’t sleep. Last night I finished Daniel James Brown’s Boys in the Boat about the eight-oar crew who won gold in the 1936 Olympics. Crew is one of the few team sports in which I can muster an interest, so the book overcame my reluctance. The boat was from the University of Washington and the men had overcome diverse hardships, the Depression, and the prejudice of the East against the West and of the Ivies against a hardscrabble state school to get to Berlin. I would have enjoyed more about the technical aspects of building a wooden boat and how a coxswain learns strategy and how these particular nine young men bonded into a single unit and less detail about each and every stroke of a competition, but overall the book was a good read.
Also last night I finished In the Garden of Beasts by Eric Larson. I’m sorry to say that this book, about FDR’s first ambassador to Germany, didn’t grab me. I loved Devil in the White City, in which Larson set side by side the development of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a series of grisly murders committed during that period, and Thunderstruck, in which he told of the development of radio (wireless telegraph) and how this newfangled technology caught the attention of the public. In 1910, a murderer fled Europe on one ship and a detective caught the next. People followed the westward journey in the newspapers as avidly as the detective pursued his suspect. Unfortunately, in Garden, Larson did not achieve the same effect of illuminating a larger story by focusing on a small one, or telling much of a story at all. I prefer Edwardian England to 1930s Berlin, but if I can read about sports in the 1930s I should be able to read about anything in the 1930s.
On paper I’m rereading Wolf Hall. I read it when it came out and was astounded: Cromwell as the sympathetic character, not More? I’ve loved Thomas More since I read “A Man for All Seasons” in ninth grade history, and then I loved Paul Scofield in a cinematization with a mean Rumpole as Cromwell. Hilary Mantel is a genius for her characterization and prose. In this book, the men behave exactly as they do in every other source, except somehow Cromwell is motivated by love and decency and More is a dour hypocrite. I’m also listening to an astonishingly good audio version. I credit both Mantel’s evocative prose and the narrator. I’m indulging in the re-read in delighted anticipation of the BBC adaptation that PBS will broadcast in April.
Digitally, I just began James Michener’s Centennial because I live in Colorado. Its framing story is painfully mid-70s (the male protagonist tries to be sensitive to “Women’s Lib,” and of three new acquaintances he “enjoys” the Mexican cook and African-American barber but he can *befriend* the one whose ethnicity and economic class match his own). I grit my teeth through that and now I’m in the geological origin of my adopted state.
My bedtime book, on my phone so I can hold it eight inches from my face and not worry about following the story when I read only a few lines before falling asleep, is Little Dorrit. Being able to fall asleep and not wake when a book smacks me in the face or crashes to the floor or because the light is still on is why digital books exist.
Do you have a favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?
I don’t have a favorite genre but many favorite novels have elements in common. They have a touch of the unreal or occur in a world not quite our own (Up Jumps the Devil; Little, Big; Ground Beneath Her Feet; Blindness; Infinite Jest; One Hundred Years of Solitude; Unconsoled) or are historically immersive (Wolf Hall, Underworld, Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Let the Great World Spin, Atonement) or have strong young female protagonists (Cold Comfort Farm, Pride and Prejudice, I Capture the Castle, To Kill a Mockingbird, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Poisonwood Bible, Girl with a Pearl Earring, History of Love) or are set between 1880 and 1910 (Winter’s Tale, Day in the Sun, Little Book, Children’s Book, Golem and the Jinni). A good pastiche is a fine thing (Quincunx, Possession, Gilligan’s Wake). Gorgeous prose can make the unbearable beautiful (Lolita, The Road) and occasionally a relationship story shines forth (Nobody’s Fool, Prayer for Owen Meany).
My guilty pleasure is fake Jane Austen. I can resist the modern retellings and Austen or the Darcys as detectives, but any sequel, prequel, or parallel is heroin. When real authors make an attempt and fail, that irks me, but with the truly dreadful or self-published, I am not annoyed but tickled when Darcy says “okay” or Mrs. Weston’s first name is not Anna. P.D. James’s recent Death Come to Pemberley did not suit me, but an early instance, D.A. Bonavia-Hunt Pemberley Shades from 1949, is as close to Austen in plot and style as I’ve found. Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey is a lovely Austen-esque treat (not a sequel) with a slosh of fantasy.
What book made you laugh out loud?
On purpose, and not because of a naughty dangling participle?
I loved Douglas Coupland’s J. Crew-does-Campbell’s-soup flavors thing in Microserfs but my go-to example of surprising me into barking with laughter is his All Families Are Psychotic. For instance, a father kvetches to his adult son about how troublesome a teenager he was, what with the neighbor coming to the door with half a cat in each hand. I love that Coupland doesn’t expand on that. It’s almost as complete a story as Humbert Humbert’s about his mother’s death (“Picnic, lightning.”) or Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” In a similar vein is Mark Haddon’s Spot of Bother.
Richard Russo’s Straight Man is terrific fun, particularly when the protagonist protests funding cuts by threatening the campus ducks. Another book with good academic satire is Adam Johnson’s Parasites Like Us (whose humor makes his gut-wrenching Orphan Master’s Son even more impressive).
Again, Mantel is a genius because occasionally Cromwell drops a bon mot, perfect and caustic and unexpected, that makes my tail wag.
In Bunnicula, dog Harold relates the incident of Chester, a cat who doesn’t understand homophones, trying to pound a steak through the heart of the eponymous vampire rabbit. If that scene doesn’t make you smile, you are dead inside.
What was the last great book you read? What made it stand out?
In January 2014 I read Helen Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. I figured that was that for the year, and indeed it was. As I said above, being set in 1899 is an immediate draw. Wecker told the American immigrant story not with natives and established immigrants looking down on the next wave of incomers but with characters who really are not human but who can, with care, pass. The prose, the setting, the characters all were immensely appealing. The only novel that’s come close since is Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch. I didn’t know whether I would love it (her Secret History) or not (her Little Friend).
My latest great nonfiction book is Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style. Anyone can gripe about dangling participles but he is a linguist and explores how sentences and thoughts are put together: meaning, not mechanics.
Is there a book or an author you wish more people would read?
Strunk and White, The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White.
Alan Weisman’s World Without Us, about what will happen to the planet after humans, was heartening to me (who can’t think of many problems that a lower human population wouldn’t address). Elizabeth’s Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction was more sobering and less optimistic. I keep hoping for the next Silent Spring to rouse us from apathy and ease, but not yet.
What book was a disappointment to you and why?
Most recently, Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides. Almost twenty years ago, the reader’s adviser at the library that was then my sanctuary recommended it to me. When I curled my lip, she was quick to defend it as being better than the movie (which I hadn’t and haven’t seen). Since her job seemed ideal to me, and she was so sweet and earnest; and I shouldn’t curl my lip through life the book went on my list, and I read it this fall. My lip stayed curled throughout those 680 pages of my reading life that I’ll never get back. Lesson: someone resembling my beloved second grade teacher and someone having my dream job does not mean her recommendations are pertinent.
What books are in your waiting-to-be-read stack?
All of them.
The paper books awaiting me that I own are all intimidatingly long (Suitable Boy, Gravity’s Rainbow, 2666, Naked and the Dead) and correspondingly difficult to transport. I read heavy, hard books only while sitting in a chair for a good chunk of time.
Currently from the library I have Leslye Walton’s Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender and Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. It drives me nuts when I don’t remember why I request a book, but did I note why the Walton? I did not. I borrowed the Patchett because I loved Bel Canto, Truth & Beauty, and State of Wonder. I don’t know anything about it except its author; the title suits a Good Housekeeping article.
Note from Paulette: This interview makes my List of Books I Want To Read much longer. I join Lisa in looking forward to Wolf Hall on television next April.
MORE FROM LISA COMING SOON. YOU WILL LAUGH, TAKE NOTES, AND FIND THE JOY.