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The Sunday Salon: A Literary Fiction Reading Binge

The Sunday Salon.comI’ve had a couple of really uncharacteristic reading weeks over the last month. It started back in November when I realized that I could spend basically all of November and December reading whatever I wanted because I was done with reading commitments for the year.

I decided to finish all of the books I’d borrowed from people over the last several months, which I managed to do really quickly because I went unplugged for awhile. Since then, I’ve been on a literary fiction reading kick, which has been really abnormal and a lot of fun. Since finishing Packing for Mars by Mary Roach, I managed to read:

I’m not going to talk about The Metropolis Case or The Weird Sisters in this post, since I’m signed up to review them for book tours in January. I’ll just say I was not entirely enamored with The Metropolis Case, but totally in love with The Weird Sisters and am definitely going to recommend that one.

But I am going to tell you about the other two books — The City and the City and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter — which were sort of oddball choices that came up unexpectedly, but in the best way possible.

The City and the City by China Miéville

I borrowed The City and the City by China Miéville from friends back in Minnesota when I was home for Thanksgiving after reading some great reviews of it. I ended up reading it while I was traveling, and fell in love with the odd concept, genre mixing, and really great writing.

The City and the City is the story of two cities — Beszel and Ul Qoma — that exist within the same physical space, but have completely different social and political lives. Citizens of one city are forced to “unsee” and “unhear” citizens, places, and incidents from the other, or risk being in breach. You can go between the cities, but doing so outside special areas is illegal and called “breaching.”

The plot of the story, which exists within that totally odd and difficult premise, is a murder mystery about a young woman from one city found murdered in the other. Our main character, a police inspector called Tyador Borlu is called in to investigate the crime, and gets pulled into a world of nationalist intrigue and political mythology.

In some ways, this book reminded me of the movie Inception, which I thought was awesome. In both cases, the writers use a familiar narrative — in Inception, the idea of a heist movie, and in The City and the City, the idea of a crime procedural — in order to help the reader navigate a complicated fantasy/science fiction premise. Because there’s a sense of “knowing” where the plot is going, it’s easy to sit back and let your mind wander through the ideas the different world has to offer you. That was my favorite part of The City and the City.

Miéville doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining how the two cities came to be or about how the logistics of shared physical space happened in the past — you just have to sort of accept the premise and move on from there. But once you do that, the book opens up into all these crazy possibilities that you can just sit back and ponder. It was a very, very good book. For some people who agree with me, check out reviews from Rebecca at The Book Lady’s Blog and Jackie at Farm Lane Books.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

The second unexpected read from the last month was Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, a surprising Christmas gift from my editor. The book starts in rural Mississippi in the late 1970s with two boys — Larry Ott (a white son of middle class parents) and Silas “32” Jones (a poor black kid), two boys who were friends for a little bit despite their different skin colors.

Tragedy strikes when Larry takes a girl on a date to a drive-in movie, who then disappears. The town blames Larry for her disappearance — assuming he raped and murdered her — and he is ostracized. In contrast, Silas goes on to be a star baseball player who gets out of the small town as a success. Years later, Silas returns home to serve as the constable for his town, where quiet, solitary Larry is under suspicion again after another teenage girl goes missing.

I guess it’s interesting that this is another sort of crime story where the actual crime isn’t really the point. Sure, the plot of the book — what actually happened to Larry and Silas when they were kids and who took the teenage girl now — is interesting, but the best parts were the sort of psychological questions of friendship, betrayal, and loss that Franklin explores.

Neither Silas or Larry are perfect, and it’s their flaws that really make them good characters. And the way they sort of circle around each other, each afraid to face their past, is engaging and sad. But most of all, the book was fun to read because of the beautiful writing. The opening two paragraphs really set the tone of the story:

The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.

It’s stormed the night before over much of the Southeast, flash floods on the news, trees snapped in half and pictures of trailer homes twisted apart. Larry, forty-one years old and single, lived along in rural Mississippi in his parents’ house, though he couldn’t bring himself to think of it that way. He acted more like a curator, keeping the rooms clean, answering the mail and paying bills, turning on the television at the right times and smiling with the laugh tracks, eating his McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken to what the networks presented him and then sitting on his front porch as the day bled out of the trees across the field and the night settled in, each different, each the same.

I just really love the images and sense of character Franklin is able to use in the book, and really admire his way with words. The prose is what makes this particular book worth a chance, not necessarily the story, but not in a bad way at all. For some other thoughts, I suggest these posts at Fizzy Thoughts, Rhapsody in Books, The Literate Housewife Review, and Linus’s Blanket.

As for upcoming reading, it’s going to be all nonfiction all the time. The Indie Lit Awards Short Lists have been figured out, so I’ll be immersed in the five books for the nonfiction list until the end of January:

I’m not sure if I’ll be formally reviewing these or not — I’m the judge for the panel, so will serve as a tiebreaker if the rest of my panel doesn’t come to consensus on the winner, and I feel like reviewing all the books might jeopardize that. But I’m excited to talk about the books, maybe in posts like this one, since they’re all nonfiction from 2010 that I’ve been interested in reading.

I just started The Warmth of Other Suns, and I’m hoping to make some really good progress with it today, despite my urge to watch football and cheer on my playoff bound fantasy football teams. Don’t get me started on that… But for now, my roommate Amanda is industriously making a pecan pie, and I am industriously… sitting on the couch and eating Christmas cookies. Yum.

Any books come into your reading unexpectedly over the last few months?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Marie December 19, 2010, 2:37 pm

    Since you loved Tom Franklin, I have to recommend his first book Poachers to you. It’s a collection of short stories that he did and I absolutely love it. He was a writer in residence when I was in college and he is the most down to earth guy. Let me know what you think!

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:26 pm

      Marie: Thanks for the recommendation – I love when writers are approachable too, it’s fun to get to talk to them.

  • Lu December 19, 2010, 3:36 pm

    I started listening to The City and The City on audio, but it felt like something I needed to read the physical copy of because it was a little complicated. I couldn’t make the right connections on audio and would often go back to listen to parts over again to understand something, so eventually I gave up and decided to read the book one of these days.

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:26 pm

      Lu: The City and the City would have been hard on audio – I had to go back and read passages over again once in awhile to make sure I was getting everything. I think something like that is a lot easier in print.

  • Florinda December 19, 2010, 5:29 pm

    I plan to review all the Indie Lit shortlist books – actually getting them all READ in a timely manner is the bigger challenge for me! I may have to follow your lead and unplug :-). Then again, that may not be so difficult during the next couple of weeks; I think a lot of folks will take at least a few days offline during the holidays.

    I keep seeing good things about CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER – that may be one I’ll need to get my hands on later (next year).

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:27 pm

      Florinda: I’ll probably write about all of them, but I don’t think I’m going to do formal reviews with stars and everything like that. I’m excited to get offline in a couple of days for Christmas, but i’m worried I’m going to end up just watching football all the time!

  • softdrink December 19, 2010, 6:48 pm

    I’m interested to hear what you think of At Home, so you have to post some thoughts on it! I’m still reading it (no way was I toting that beast along on vacation!)…I’m hoping it doesn’t end up like Wolf Hall, which still sits on the shelf with a bookmark at about the 1/3 point.

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:28 pm

      softdrink: That’d be a pretty giant book to take on vacation. I’m not exactly psyched to be dragging back and forth to Minnesota for Christmas, either 🙂 I’m hoping it’s good.

  • Erin December 19, 2010, 6:56 pm

    I have Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter on my shelf and The City and the City on my TBR list, so I was glad to read favorable reviews of both! The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is fantastic; I listened to it earlier this year. Enjoy 🙂

    The Chronicles of Narnia came up unexpectedly for me when Clare at the Literary Omnivore announced Narnia Week last month. I didn’t the books done during the actual event, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to read it any time soon!

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:30 pm

      Erin: I read Henrietta Lacks earlier in the year, so this will be a re-read for me. I’m hoping to like it even better this time. I’ve never actually read all of the Chronicles of Narnia, but I’ve been wanting to since there were a few reviews on some blogs.

  • trish December 19, 2010, 8:24 pm

    So glad to hear you liked Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter! I’m looking forward to reading that soonish. The way you describe just confirms it’s a book I’ll love.

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:32 pm

      trish: I liked it a lot — good scene setting, great characters, beautiful writing.

  • Trish December 20, 2010, 5:31 am

    I’ve been hearing such great things about Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter lately and I’m glad you enjoyed it. I really appreciate when an author can make a book wonderful through characterisation and prose with plot being a bit secondary.

    Reading without committment sounds really nice–I hope to do that a lot in 2011! Best wishes for a happy holiday Kim.

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:33 pm

      Trish: I tend to like books with a “secondary” plot better too – it leaves more room for story to happen. I’m hoping to do more reading without commitment in 2011, too.

  • Care December 20, 2010, 7:13 am

    I love the differences in review style that you present for Crooked Letter compared to Fizzy’s. I’m still not sure I want to read it, tho! I am up for the Meiville – sounds fascinating.
    Happy NF reading and Happy Holidays, too.

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:34 pm

      Care: Yeah, Jill and I had some different thoughts on it – that’s the best part of reading lots of blogger reviews. The Meiville was really fascinating, so I think you should give it a try!

  • Jen - Devourer of Books December 20, 2010, 8:58 am

    I love, love, loved THE CITY AND THE CITY!

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:34 pm

      Jen: I’m glad you did!

  • Christina December 20, 2010, 4:52 pm

    Both books sound interesting so I’m adding them to my TBR list.

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:35 pm

      Christina: Awesome, I hope you like them.

  • Jenny December 20, 2010, 6:02 pm

    Mm, football. Lovely football. It has been several weeks since I was able to watch football, and I miss it.

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:36 pm

      Jenny: I’ve been watching so much football this year, it’s ridiculous. Having to fantasy football teams means I want to watch almost every game.

  • Andi December 21, 2010, 10:50 am

    Ahh, I do love a good reading binge in any genre. Really interested to read both of these. Will be trying to snag them from the library once I wrap up some unreads around here and on my Nook.

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:37 pm

      Andi: Having a binge in one genre was fun, I don’t usually do that. I hope you can find both and enjoy them as much as I did!

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) December 21, 2010, 7:27 pm

    I can’t wait to read Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and I’ll be watching for your review of The Weird Sisters.

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:37 pm

      bermudaonion: Loved the Weird Sisters – I can’t wait to write about it.

  • Jeanne December 22, 2010, 6:24 pm

    Ooh, it sounds like Mieville borrowed some ideas from his fabulous YA book UnLunDun for The City and The City! I might have to read it now that I know what it’s about.

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:40 pm

      Jeanne: Interesting! I’ve never heard of that book before, but now I want to look for it if it’s like The City and the City.

  • Tina B December 25, 2010, 4:43 pm

    Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter was truly an unexpected surprise for me also. It is so well written, and you review describes it perfectly.

    I’ve already read and reviewed the Skloot and Bryson books on your non-fiction list, and the other three are at the top of my must read list for 2011.

    Maybe we should all shut down for a week each quarter and JUST READ. Love the concept.

    • Kim December 27, 2010, 11:14 am

      Tina B: I LOVE the idea of just shutting down for a week to read. I got to read a lot over the last few days for Christmas, but I always want more time.

  • Lisa December 26, 2010, 4:15 pm

    These are both books I’m hoping to get to in the coming year.

    • Kim December 27, 2010, 11:14 am

      Lisa: I hope you get to read them – I enjoyed both.