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Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Good hospital reads

Tomorrow I've got to go into hospital for minor surgery (nothing serious); this will involve a lot of waiting around. I've been advised to bring a dressing gown, slippers, no valuables and something to read.

Now, hospital reads are a special category. You're in an uncomfortable chair or a starched bed, usually in a clean but rather bleak white room, one eye on the clock, torn between wanting to get it over with and really not looking forward to the experience. Circumstances are, to say the least, distracting. The book you bring with you has certain requirements:

1. It needs to be long, unless you're bringing several books, especially if you read as fast as I do. Not only does it have to last out the wait, it helps if it's comfortingly thick, so you know it'll last and don't have to worry about spinning it out.

2. It needs to be properly gripping. When the choice is between reading the book and staring at the wall, you need the kind of story that you wouldn't want to put down even if you did have anything else to do.

3. It needs to be lucid: too intense a style can be demanding when you can't take breaks from it. Last time I was in hospital I brought Frank McCourt's 'Tis; it's an excellent book, but the style is very strong, and after a while, it started to bake my head.

4. For preference, it should be a nice mental space to inhabit. Your environment is already stressful; if your book is full of squalid settings, the whole world starts to taste bad.

5. As a sub-set of this, it's preferable if it's written by an author with a fairly positive attitude towards people. Sad stories are fine, but a book in which everybody hates everybody else and they're all bastards is just a bit much when you're stuck in a ward.

7. The plot needs to be easy to follow without being bland or simplistic. Too many characters to lose track of is bad, but blindingly obvious is just boring.

7. In terms of quality, it needs to be meaty enough to hold your attention, but not so difficult that it makes you tired. A frothy chick fic is fine for half an hour on the bus, Crime and Punishment is fine on your own sofa, but neither suits a hospital. Good but approachable is the key.

8. It needs great character writing. If these imaginary people are your sole distraction from the ward setting, then thin characterisation makes it impossible to care about anything that's happening to them.

9. It needs to be relatively uncontroversial. Not that they'd be on my top pick list anyway, but I'm not about to read The Fountainhead in a hospital funded by socialised medicine, or Gone With The Wind or a Fu Manchu novel in a hospital where doctors and nurses of all races work hard to keep people from dying, or The Story of O for, well, lots of obvious reasons. Hospitals are public and you don't want to feel defensive; neither do you want to offend staff who are doing their best to give you good treatment or fellow-patients who are probably feeling nervous already.

What can people recommend? I'd put on my list George Eliot's Middlemarch, Jane Austen's Emma, Donna Tartt's The Secret History (which is full of beautiful descriptions, a particular benefit), Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride or Alias Grace, and Sarah Waters's Fingersmith (breaks the 'no squalid places' rule, but she writes so beautifully that the book itself doesn't feel squalid.) But I've read all of those, so that's not much help. Bearing in mind that I don't much go for most fantasy novels, can anyone suggest anything?

Even if you don't go for fantasy novels, try Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. Very uplifting and gripping.
Alternatively, try Blindness by Jose Crap-I-Can't-Remember-Portuguese- Surname
"Cross Stitch" by Diana Gababldon. It's big, it's easy, and you should fall at least a little bit in love with one of the characters.
I don't know how you feel about SF, but anything by Lois McMaster Bujold is good for an easy read that really draws you in and gives you faith in the power of people of good will to effect positive change. Wow. That sounded like she's a cult leader. I really didn't mean it like that, her books are more realistic than that about the backlash of attempting to effect positive change, but the message is nonetheless that it's worth trying. Bah, I give up, I suck at selling books, just read some Bujold and you'll know what I mean. It's all very good, and if you get one of her omnibus editions you won't run out of reading material for a few hours.

I read Guns, Germs, and Steel on an airplane once, which I think is a setting that has similar requirements book-wise, and it was a lot easier to read than I expected it to be. It is non-fiction, however. Also good (and less demanding on your brain) by the same author (Jared Diamond) is Why is Sex Fun? although the title may raise more eyebrows than you would like.

Other books I would count on to keep me occupied include Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, and any large collection of Terry Pratchett's works. Of course I'm a big sci fi reader and I've never managed to really get into other genres of literature (except the Nero Wolfe series of murder mysteries by Rex Stout, which I very much enjoy but which are way too short for your needs) so if you don't like sci fi I can't really help you.

Also, why is my spellchecker objecting to fi, but has absolutely no problem with sci? What's up with that?
Suggestions appreciated, but I'd welcome any from someone who can recommend something that's not science fiction. When it comes to science fiction and fantasy, I write the stuff, but I'm not a big reader.

Anyone got anything good in the approachable-literary-mainstream style?
Starting from "long"... I brought Bonfire of the Vanieties on an intercontinental flight, and it certainly fulfills some of your criteria. Doorstop sized, fairly gripping, literary but not, as I recall, overly stylized. But the main character is rather an anti-hero, so I don't know if it's upbeat enough for your purposes. He's more or less a rich jerk who gets what he deserves, except the book does make you feel that perhaps rich jerks are human too.

Looking at my shelf I see that one of the best books I've read in the past few months is probably long enough to qualify, though I tore through it quickly. "Wild Swans" is in fact nonfiction, the story of a woman who immigrated to the UK from China and her mother and grandmother. The grandmother was of the last generation with bound feet and was, in her youth, concubine to a warlord. The mother was a spy and communist revolutionary at the age of seventeen. And the author herself was a Red Guard during Mao's heyday, among other things. The book reads like an epic novel, and a good one. I really loved this book.

As long as I'm mentioning nonfiction, I'll throw in a recommendation for anything by Bill Bryson. I'm reading "Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" right now, but I've read and enjoyed all of his books. Ditto Oliver Sacks, although some of his stuff may be a little too medical to read in the hospital.

Other than that, well, I'm afraid I read a lot of SF&F too. I thought of Tad Williams when you mentioned the length requirement, though he's not one of my favorite authors yet. I thought of Bujold too because she is and because I've just finished her latest. I'm sure you've read most of my favorites from the other genre slums: Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Georgette Heyer... And anyway, they're all too quick to read. Hmm. Umberto Eco can really stretch a book out -- he moves a little too slowly for me and I lose patience with him. I feel the same way about John Le Carre, but I like him anyway. They both do good characters and evocative environments, for sure.

Oh, I've got a good one. If you haven't already read it. "Dreams from my Father" by Barack Obama. That's another memoir that reads like a novel, and it seems timely...

Of all the books I mentioned, and the suggetions by Jake with which I completely agree, I'd start with Wild Swans. It's pretty amazing, I think.
Probably too late, if you're going into hospital tomorrow, but FWIW:

I find the Victorian novelists are good for that sort of thing: long, leisurely reads full of lots of people, and you've read them before, so if you have have to stop in the middle of a chapter, it doesn't matter. I'm still rather fond of Dickens, although I know he's not everybody's cup of tea. Or how about a nice Trollope, one of the Barchester novels, or He Knew He Was Right, or Can You Forgive Her?

Or, for a genre-bending experiment, Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw, basically a Trollopian novel of social mores, where those mores are originated in dragon biology.

Or, for a contempory take on the Victorian novel, A.S. Byatt? Possession, or The Voyage of the Narwhal?

Do you like historical novels? Sharon Kay Penmen does some absorbing "history with conversations." I particularly liked King Hereafter (MacBeth) and The Sunne in Splendour (Richard III). And there's always Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey and Maturin novels; I have little interest in military history, and I tended to skim over the sea battles, but I read those books for the conversations. And the music, and the food.

Have you read Laurence Hill's Somebody Knows My Name? A nice long novel about a girl born in Africa, captured into slavery, managed to survive and escape, without ever losing her sense of self -- a good read.

To mix the historical novel with the detective story, I enjoyed Lindsey Davis' series set in first-century Rome. Marcus Didius Falco is always good company.

Jasper Fforde's "Thursday Next" books? Sort of fantasy, but fantasy about books -- no dragons or magicians. You'll never be able to look at Miss Havisham in the same way again.

For mainstream, what about Jane Smiley? -- The Greenlanders, Moo, A Thousand Acres (although that one's pretty depressing, on second thought.) Or Anne Tyler -- The Accidental Tourist, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Digging to America.

Uh, maybe that's enough now.

Hope the whole thing is not too much of an ordeal, and that you're feeling better soon.
I know, I know, you're not a big fantasy reader; but can I recommend Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint or its semi-sequel The Privelege of the Sword? Both notable for being fantasy novels entirely lacking in magic. Yes, it can be done, and she does it quite well.

I just finished You're Stepping On My Cloak And Dagger, which is the memo of an officer assigned to the OSS during WWII, which I quite enjoyed; it's not fiction, but it's quite entertaining.
Reading your requirements, my first thought was Middlemarch, but you've already read that. My favorite Jane Austen is Pride and Prejudice, but I'm guessing you've read that too. Along the lines of authors you mentioned, I really like Atwood's Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake. Oryx and Crake was nice and long, too, if I remember right.
My best recommendation would have to be anything by Neil Gaiman. I love his stuff. Stardust is really good, though a bit short for your situation, maybe. Anansi Boys was really good, too. You could get a couple of his and do well. His books are reliably good. Oh, and Neverwhere was another good one of his.
Off the top of my head (and a little late), an interesting more literary book than I usually read (I usually read SF/Fantasy) was a book called Melal by Robert Barclay. It's a bit of a quick read though, and deals with a family on the Marshall islands, with some mythology thrown in.

I hope the surgery goes well.
probably way too late, but I love doing book recs, so...

*no fantasy or science fiction*? Waaah. Can I at least second Lois Bujold, and recommend her Chalion series to you? Alternate-world Renaissance Spain, and everything else you wanted: meaty, great characterization, positive view of human nature, plus reflections on the meaning of religion in society I think you'd find fascinating.

Or maybe Connie Willis's TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG? Sure it has a sf background premise (time travel) but the meat of the book is a straight-up send up of Edwardian society, and the chapter titles alone are to-die-for funny.
(Besides, mad props for sending so many people to re-discover Jerome K Jerome)

Or John Myers Myers SILVERLOCK? Technically it *IS* a fantasy, but it's really a mad game of spot-the-classical literary allusion, and the only book that incorporates poetry and song into the plot in a way I can stand (and yes, I'm including Tolkien here)

Okay, okay.

Sally Vickers might fit the bill, except for length. MISS GARNET'S ANGEL was a terrific read.

Agree about Jane Smiley. MOO is my favorite, because it was excessively funny; but it helps if you know a lot about Midwestern US Agricultural universities.

Hmmm. Actually, most of the authors I can think of are a bit US-centric in their cultural assumptions.

Okay. Two modern authors and a classic: anything by Umberto Eco (I loved FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM as essentially an elaborate shaggy-dog joke but I think BAUDOLINO might be more to your taste) or Ian Pears (INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST is amazing, and made me feel like a smarter person just for having read it). Or, if you want something both "classic" and trashy fun, anything by Anthony Trollope (especially BARCHESTER TOWERS).

Or if you want *really* trashy, Neville's THE EIGHT, which is what THE DA VINCI CODE would have been if Dan Brown wasn't a hack.

And finally, two non-fiction suggestions: Gerald Durrell's MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS and Anne Dillard's PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK. Because they will inspire you, teach you, make you laugh, and leave you feeling much better about the human species as a whole.

Post when you're out of he hospital, so we can stop worrying.

(verification word: "ladiesse", which refers to a pseudo-Victorian aesthetic relying heavily on lace mittens, perfumed sachets, and tassel fringe)
Post when you're out of he hospital, so we can stop worrying.
Please. And also, what book did you bring with you, and did it suit? Inquiring, or nosy, minds want to know.

And do British hospitals have those annoying blaring TVs in every waiting room?

Word: sychleu Bless you!
Well, first of all, what's wrong with rereading Jane Austen? :)

If you haven't yet read Mrs. Gaskell's novels, any of those would be good. The one I most love to savor is Cranford, but it's short. (OTOH, my preference is to take a few shorter works into such environments, in case the first one I pick up doesn't for some reason hold my interest.) George Eliot, of course.

Back to the present, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is an incredible book. And I like Thomas Berger's work: Orrie's Story a modern retelling of the Oresteia), Arthur Rex about King Arthur; he is also the author of Little Big Man. Someone mentioned King Hereafter above. The author is Dorothy Dunnett. If you haven't read her historical novels, start with King Hereafter, about Macbeth (scholars actually took her ideas about Macbeth possibly being Thorfinn of Orkney seriously--she does that amount of research for her work), or Game of Kings, which is the first in the Lymond series, but, if you decide not to pursue the rest of the series, it stands on its own as a complete novel. And I heartily second the recommendation of Lindsay Davis' "Falco" series. It starts with Silver Pigs. Diana Gabaldon's Lord John mysteries are, IMO, extremely good. They're set in the 18th century. Lord John is gay, which adds a certain complexity to his life, and hence to the stories.
Two that I haven't read, but that people whose taste I trust tell me are excellent: Ursula Hegi's Stones from the River and Ann Patchett's Bel Canto.

Yes, and do please tell us how it went and what you read.

Verification word: "alities." It means 'modes and manners.'
Dash said: Someone mentioned King Hereafter above. The author is Dorothy Dunnett.
It was me, and I was wrong! Dorothy Dunnett, of course. It sits on the shelf next to the Penman, and I was in a hurry, and got confused. Oh dear oh dear. *blush*

The Lymond books were interesting, but I personally would find them a little too much effort for the hospital setting. I remember King Hereafter as a bit more accessible.

And it occurs to me, speaking of both Dunnett and Penman, that perhaps Kit has had enough medieval court politics for a while? ;)

I'll second whoever it was for Bel Canto.

Verfication word is "turongs." Which, whatever they are, don't make a right.
Hope your procedure goes/went well!
Amaryllis, good point about the medieval court politics!

It's way too late for this trip by now, of course, but Mark Salzman, The Laughing Sutra, is delightful, as is anything by Jeanne Larsen (start with Silk Road if you can. Ian McEwan's Atonement or Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears. I very much enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, but perhaps that was simply Jeff Woodman's superb reading (I listened to it during my commute). But perhaps those will do for a future occasion when you find yourself waiting in a train station or on an airplane or in another environment in which similar entertainment is needed.

And, Kit, we are looking forward to hearing that all is well.
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