Fat Books & Thin Women

Reading Journal!

Iris wrote this great post about reading journals and using our blogs to offer something besides straight reviews of novels. I don’t usually use this blog to do much other than review and post about short stories, but lately I haven’t been so much in the mood to review. To say, many thanks to Iris for reminding me that I can use Fat Books for whatever I like.

My reading lately has been a lot of Albanian history interspersed with comfort reading. I mean the Emily Giffin kick that I was on a few weeks ago, The Two Towers (which I just started rereading), and Sue Grafton. Plenty of Sue Grafton.

When I reread The Fellowship of the Ring last year, I had a hard time thinking of it in terms of anything other than comfort reading. It was such a great book to return to when I was sick (seriously, for like a month straight – that’s what happens when you should go to the doctor but don’t) and working on a huge project (a gazillion spelling bees). The Two Towers is just about the same. Reading the first chapter, I was surprised by how clumsy Tolkien’s writing seemed, but after a couple chapters I had slipped into the rhythm of it. I’d been debating starting on the second book of the George R.R. Martin series, but I’m glad I decided to stick with The Lord of the Rings. Gives me what I wanted out of Martin – that sense of a completely imagined and endless world – but with the added benefit of familiarity. Plus, this means that when I fly home (July 31st! [for good this time!]) I can buy A Clash of Kings in paper.

Reading this article on Nancy Drew’s “father” last week, one thing O’Rourke wrote really struck me – that no reader could ever solve one of the Nancy Drew mysteries. When you hit the end of the novel you could look back and say, “okay, I guess everything fits that solution” – but as you read, there was no way you could take the “clues” Nancy found and turn them into anything meaningful. The Nancy Drew books just aren’t the type of mystery designed so the reader can attempt to solve them as he or she goes along. While I was getting close to the end of Sue Grafton’s G is for Gumshoe, with no clue of what “solution” Kinsey was close to finding, or how the hell she had gotten there, I realized that Grafton’s mysteries have the same problem. I keep reading the Kinsey Millhone books because I’m getting fond of Kinsey’s character, but I’m more passive than I was when reading, say, one of Elizabeth George’s books (as frustrating as her books have become). What “clues” Kinsey deals with aren’t clues of the type that might lead the reader anywhere; we just end up waiting for Kinsey to have a flash of inspiration and tell us how she solved the mystery, going from clueless to closing the case in the last few pages of each novel. This is, actually, kind of frustrating for a reader.

In other news, I have a box of books on Albania and stuff relating to Albania on its way to Tirana. I’ll probably post about some of these things as I read them – expect a lot on Ismail Kadare’s novels – although it occurred to me, as I was looking at the nonexistent comments for my review of Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone and this longread on Albanian blood feuds, that exactly zero people, other than myself, are interested in this stuff.

Also, my Kindle had a baby. If I can pose this question to people who own one of the newest Kindles (which is so small I find myself tempted to buy one when I get home – imagine how easy it would be to use even with just one free hand!), how are you supposed to take notes on the thing? I appreciate how much smaller the Kindle got once Amazon dumped the tiny keyboard, but if I had to laboriously select the letters on the Kindle’s on-screen “keyboard”, one by one, using the up and down button, I would never, never take a note. It seems like giving up on the story that you can mark up an ebook just as easily as a real book. You can’t, which is why I coerced my parents into spending $50 to mail a box of books to me in Albania, rather than reading them on my Kindle.

In the same ereadery vein, The New York Times today ran a piece about digital distractions on tablet devices. The piece falls into the camp of NY Times pieces telling us things we already knew, using a small subject sample, but whatever – the idea of people struggling to read novels or other books on their tablets is both painful and obvious. One of the things I like about my kindle, especially since I’m in Europe and can’t access the internet on it (old timey kindle here), is that there are no distractions. I can’t go online, I can’t learn if I have a new email; I’m just reading. A tablet seems like an appealing thing to have for a subscription to the Times, and to play Angry Birds on, but I can’t imagine reading a novel on one. You?

#Longreads: Meghan O’Rourke’s “Nancy Drew’s Father”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books

When I was eight or nine years old and learned that Carolyn Keene wasn’t the writer of Nancy Drew – that Carolyn Keene was, in fact, a name stamped on books written by a number of ghost writers – I was crushed. Briefly, I became suspicious of my other favorite series. Was Ann M. Martin not a real person? How about Francine Pascal?

I got over it in about a day, because I loved the Nancy Drew stories. What I most loved about them was that they seemed to never end. Whether I examined my reasoning or not, I came to accept that Carolyn Keene wasn’t a real person because the number of writers working on the Nancy Drew books gave me so much more reading material than a single writer ever could. I could read the old yellow hardcover books, the newer trade paperbacks (whose numbers began where the hardcovers’ left off), the mass market editions following Nancy through mysteries + romantic entanglements (The Nancy Drew Files) and college (Nancy Drew on Campus).

Enter Meghan O’Rourke’s fun article, “Nancy Drew’s Father,” which is about not Carson Drew but Edward Stratemeyer, the founder of the syndicate that published the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, among others. O’Rourke does a great job of contextualizing Stratemeyer’s success in producing these books, looking both at the company’s workings and at the social changes that left a space for inexpensive hardbacks children would want to buy with their own money. The popularity of the syndicate’s books is hard to believe.

In 1926, ninety-eight per cent of the boys and girls surveyed in a poll published by the American Library Association listed a Stratemeyer book as their favorite, and another survey showed that the Tom Swift books, which the syndicate launched in 1910, were at the top of the list.

Clearly there was a need and desire for the sorts of books Stratemeyer produced. As anyone familiar with the uproar over James Frey’s syndicate knows, it’s hard to feel entirely comfortable with the treatment of novels like any other assembly line product. Stratemeyer’s books fascinate especially because some of them have lasted so long. It’s hard for someone like me, who grew up reading the Nancy Drew books, to imagine a day when they’re not being devoured by children. (To my readers who have children: do they still like these books?)

The Nancy Drew books had a clear house style, and the writers were tasked with filling in the details of the plot outlines provided them by Stratemeyer, producing books that would make a literary critic shudder but thrill legions of young readers.

Stratemeyer would come up with a three-page plot for each book, describing locale, characters, time frame, and a basic story outline. He mailed this to a writer, who, for a fee ranging from fifty dollars to two hundred and fifty dollars, would write the thing up and—slam-bang!—send it back within a month. Stratemeyer checked the manuscripts for discrepancies, made sure that each book had exactly fifty jokes, and cut or expanded as needed. (Each series had a uniform length; the standard was twenty-five chapters.) He replaced the verb “said” with “exclaimed,” “cried,” “chorused,” and so forth, and made sure that cliffhangers punctuated the end of each chapter—usually framed as a question or an exclamation.

It seems to me that Stratemeyer got something right in the characters he was offering readers. Nancy Drew was someone a young reader could look up, could aspire to be, but she wasn’t necessarily someone a mother or father would want their child turning into, despite her good manners.

I’m curious, if you grew up reading the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books: when did you figure out that Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon weren’t real people, but pen names? Did that change the way you read the books, or not matter at all? And do you, like me, still hold that dream of writing as Carolyn Keene, despite the horrifyingly low pay and lack of creative freedom?

Read Meghan O’Rourke’s “Nancy Drew’s Father”


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30 Day Book Meme, Day 21
August 23, 2011, 5:54 pm
Filed under: 30 Day Book Meme | Tags: , , , ,

Favorite book from your childhood:

Roald Dahl might be my favorite YA author, as well as the one whose works I’m most likely to revisit, but it’s Nancy Drew who defined my childhood. I spent the better part of my youth holed up with the classic yellow hardback mysteries and later the romance-fueled Nancy Drew Files and craptastic Nancy Drew on Campus series. Despite the habit of Nancy’s attackers to clamp chloroform-soaked rags over her nose, the bland Ned Nickerson, the single-feature lives of her friends Bess and George, and Nancy’s seemingly endless supply of lives, something about the series was so fresh and exciting to me when I first read them. Nancy may have some pleasingly conservative views and conventionally pretty looks (always mentioned!) but she still went out there and solved mysteries that others were either unwilling or unable to. And without Nancy Drew, the world never would have seen my earliest short stories, all Nancy Drew-style mysteries told from the point of view of the criminal element. (Well, I guess the world still hasn’t seen them. Moot point.)

30 Day Book Meme:
Day 01 – The best book you read last year
Day 02 – A book that you’ve read more than three times
Day 03 – Your favorite series
Day 04 – Favorite book of your favorite series
Day 05 – A book that makes you happy
Day 06 – A book that makes you sad
Day 07 – Most underrated book
Day 08 – Most overrated book
Day 09 – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Day 10 – Favorite classic book
Day 11 – A book you hated
Day 12 – A book you used to love but don’t anymore
Day 13 – Your favorite writer
Day 14 – Favorite book of your favorite writer
Day 15 – Favorite male character
Day 16 – Favorite female character
Day 17 – Favorite quote from your favorite book
Day 18 – A book that disappointed you
Day 19 – Favorite book turned into a movie
Day 20 – Favorite romance book
Day 21 – Favorite book from your childhood
Day 22 – Favorite book you own
Day 23 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Day 24 – A book that you wish more people would’ve read
Day 25 – A character who you can relate to the most
Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something
Day 27 – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Day 28 – Favorite title
Day 29 – A book everyone hated but you liked
Day 30 – Your favorite book of all time

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