Reading in Times of Trouble

steam_and_sorcery Like many people around the world, I am deeply affected by what is happening in Japan. My heart goes out the Japanese people, and I admire the steadfastness and determination, not to mention great courage with which they deal with the terrible situation they find themselves in.

At the same time, I am deeply disturbed by what is going on in Fukushima. I am old enough to remember watching, as a child, the news about the partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, in 1979. When the reactor at Chernobyl blew up on April 26, 1986, I was sitting in my parents’ garden, studying for my high school exams that were scheduled in early May. It was an extremely warm late April that year. We all spent hours outside in the sunshine, not knowing yet (rumors – from Finland mostly – about a radioactive cloud were very vague) what was going on above our heads. We went inside when it started to rain, when the radioactive particles came down. We later threw away all the fruit that had been growing during this rain.

So my memories of Chernobyl are vivid, and my shock at seeing similar events unfolding is deep. Hearing about the brave men who work at the plant, and hearing about the millions of litres of contaminated water that flow into the Pacific Ocean unfiltered, makes my heart bleed.

In times like these, when I am deeply involved emotionally with very tragic events (and I am involved, in spite of my comparative safety – remember I sat under that cloud 25 years ago), what books do I turn to?

Surprisingly, detective stories. Directly after the events at Fukushima began to unroll, I started with a Dorothy L. Sayers glom. The early ones, the ones with little or no romance – Whose Body?, Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Strong Poison. In between I squeezed a recent Michael Connelly novel, Nine Dragons. In Strong Poison, I found a possible clue to my present fascination with detective fiction. Here, Lord Peter says about Harriet Vane’s profession: “Damn it, she writes detective stories and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.” There is something in that: In most mysteries, evil happens but is contained in the end through the detectives’ efforts. The world gets damaged, but is made whole again.

The other genre I have read during the last three weeks is Steampunk. Steampunk’s attitude towards technical advances is mostly optimistic, mirroring the real-world attitude of many Victorians. If machinery is abused, which does happen, there is a way to contain it. In Steam & Sorcery by Cindy Spencer Pape, for example, (minor spoiler ahead) the heroine is able to break any machine with a touch of her hand. This is a highly reassuring image.

What kinds of books do you read when you are troubled by what is going on the world, in Fukushima and other places? How do you find solace in books?

– Rike Horstmann

9 thoughts on “Reading in Times of Trouble

  1. This is a very interesting discussion. I must admit I have a difficult time reading when things are going badly in the world (or not so good in my own life!). I remember during 9/11 – I was so upset that I didn’t read anything for awhile. Just stayed glued to the TV. The crisis in Japan is heartbreaking, but this time I’m trying to read to escape, but also accepting that the world’s troubles will still be there when I close the book. I checked out Harlan Coben’s “Long Lost” at the library last night and was sucked in immediately.

  2. I agree with what all of you say about mysteries: With recent titles, too often you have graphic violence (complete with long descriptions). I don’t like the killer’s POV, either, but have to say that when it’s very sparingly done, it can work for me.

    Historicals don’t work for me at the moment. They do during times of personal difficulties, but right now I long for something that shows dangers contained.

    I try not to watch the news too much. One TV news broadcast in the evening is enough, plus the news several times on the radio during the day (which I listen to anyway), and updates on internet newssites while I am online. Too many moving images of Japan give me nightmares – literally. So I try to portion them.

    • Rike: What kinds of books do you read when you are troubled by what is going on the world, in Fukushima and other places? How do you find solace in books?

      Since I get my books from the library, I’m sort of obligated to either read or not read them as they come in. So I don’t have a lot of control as to which reserved books get to me and when.

      I think I realize that there’s not much on a personal level I can do when a global crisis occurs and I have to trust the powers-that-be to deal with it. Much more disconcerting to me is a personal issue or crisis, in which I do have some control or maybe none at all. That probably affects my kind of reading material a lot more. We have something going on right now and I’m having a difficult time concentrating on too many minute details in a book—can’t keep focus. So I turned to something a bit lighter. Also, I know I could handle something on the dark side, too (wish Karin Slaughter’s new book was here!). I could not stay with “The Land of Painted Caves,” no matter how much I tried to stay on-page–just wouldn’t compute. But any story that’s too light, bordering on stupid, doesn’t work either.

      So, global crises (except for 9/11, when nothing took my attention away from the TV) don’t necessarily affect my reading habits as much as personal crises. Then I want entertaining light or entertaining dark (well written in both cases).

  3. Me four. . . (is that an expression?) I dislike, no make that detest being in the mind of a killer and or graphic violence. It has really affected my reading choices over the last couple of years. When I used to need a break from romance books, I used to pick authors like Lee Child, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor, Michael Connelly, etc. Now it has been over a year since I have read any of these authors. Now I reach for authors like David Rosenfelt, or Spencer Quinn

    I not sure that I do read when I am upset. I don’t want to read anything sad, and something funny seems so insensitive to the plight of others. I think I just spend time on the computer.

    I know that when 911 happened, I was consumed with the news.

    I am taking care of an elderly relative and the television is on to his shows, so I haven’t seen a lot of news coverage. My heart goes out to everyone, especially the truly heroic individuals working in the nuclear plants

  4. For me reading is always about escaping…to go somewhere far far away and for me that is why I love Historical.

    There are so many things in this world that can make you pause, worry about, or in some cases cause outright anxiety. For a few hours a day…everyday…I can forget my responsibilities…my fears…my anxieties and escape.

    Life is to short to waste time on things we cannot control…but having the ability to escape to another place and time makes life just that bit easier to face.

    Bright Blessings,

    lauren

  5. I have been in Japan twice and I feel a deep attachment to that country and its wonderful people. I have been reading much less during these last weeks, as I find it quite difficult to concentrate… I have read a couple of light categories and some ebooks that I knew weren’t really to my taste to begin with.
    This is the first time I’ve found a reference to the Japanese earthquake on the online romance community. I realise American romances don’t have much to do with Japan, but I think that influential sites like AAR could at least post a link for donations, such as:
    http://www.globalgiving.org/projects/japan-earthquake-tsunami-relief/

    After all, many American romances are published each month in Japan:
    http://www.amazon.co.jp/gp/bestsellers/books/2189053051/ref=pd_zg_hrsr_b_1_3
    I’m sure that at least some of the people who suffered those terrible tragedies are readers of Lisa Kleypas, Nora Roberts, or Sherrilyn Kenyon (just to name a few names)…

  6. I read mysteries mostly by women because I really don’t want the forensic details, I want the mystery. I don’t mind when forensics go to solve a mystery – in an old MM Kaye time of death knowledge of temperatures was used to establish how their original time line didn’t work – I just don’t want chapters on how. I don’t need to know every chemical reaction.

    I too don’t like bad guy POV, though Linda Howard somehow makes it work for me.

    maggie b.

  7. Carrie, I so agree with you about modern mysteries. I remember reading a popular modern author who went on about the pathology of the underpants of a rape/murder victime for a whole chapter and just putting the book down.

    I myself don’t want cutesy nor graphic violence with bad-guy pov. I usually turn to classic detective fiction. Whe I want like a smart I turn to Rex Stout. I love Archie’s sense of humor and Wolf’s convoluted brainps. When I want poignant I turn to Dorothy L. Sayers. There are so many layers in her work, I always find something new. And when I want a cleaver puzzle with little emotion, I turn to Agatha Christie or Earl Stanley Gardner. Poirot or Maison to the rescue.

  8. I know what reach for to read is profoundly affected by my mood. One of the reasons I can never give a clear answer about what I’ll read next is I don’t know for sure what my mood will be. I’ve been known to race out to buy the newest book by a favorite author, only to have it sit on my shelf for a month or more because reading it doesn’t “feel right” for some reason. But I’m more affected by what’s going on in my personal life than what’s going on globally. That’s not to say I don’t reach for some escapist literature when I’m overwhelmed by emotions like when the tsunami happened, but I’m more likely to be influenced by the stresses of raising children, dealing with health issues, financial strains, and dealing with a parent with Alzheimer’s. Some days I can handle angst in my books, some days I need light and happy.

    As an aside, I love the Lord Peter Wimsey books, and only wish Lord Peter’s observation about detective writers was still accurate. I was a devoted mystery reader for 30 years, but finally grew tired of how depressing they had become. It seems you either read “cozy” mysteries, or you read about the constant sadness and bad-luck of the protagonist. Take Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley books as just one example. The man cannot catch a break in his personal life. Or Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury, or P.D. Jame’s Adam Dagliesh. Then there are the books that lay out the graphic violence of a serial killer, and even if the killer is brought to justice, you have to deal with all the innocence people (usually women and children) killed along the way.

    Over the past 4 or 5 years I’ve discovered romantic suspense and romantic mystery, along with other sub-genres of romance that feed my love of mystery with a happier ending. I still have to choose, and I avoid graphically violent books for the most part, but I can at least be assured that the protagonist isn’t going to end up sending the woman he fell in love with to jail, or face seeing her as one of the victims, which so often happens in today’s mysteries.

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