Exercise Your Freedom*

Stretch YourselfHave you ever ‘stretched yourself’ to read something that you don’t usually read? Even something that you thought you might not like? Sometimes ‘stretching’ like that can end up being disappointing if the book you choose to read isn’t well-written. I know that’s happened to me. But it’s surprising how often opening one’s mind a little and trying something new can be a really valuable experience. And one of the things about crime fiction is that it often addresses important issues that need to be addressed. ‘Stretching’ can encourage readers to think about things they hadn’t thought about before, in new ways. And for me anyway, that’s as good a reason as any for taking a chance on a book. Granted, there are some books we choose not to read, and that’s fine too. A reader has the right not to read something. Every once in a while, though, it’s helpful to dip a metaphorical toe in some new water. Let me just give a few examples of what I mean.

Readers who aren’t science fiction fans might be very reluctant to try Isaac Asimav’s Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley novels. After all, they do take place in a futuristic world, they involve positronic robots, and there’s a lot of gadgetry and science discussed in them. And yet, these are very much crime fiction novels. The series (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn) features New York detective Lije Baley, whose police partner is R. Daneel Olivaw, a positronic robot. In The Caves of Steel, they investigate the murder of a famous scientist. It’s actually an interesting ‘impossible-but-not-impossible’ sort of mystery. In The Naked Sun, they investigate the murder of Rikaine Delmarre, who operated the planetary birthing center of Solaria. As much as a discussion of what the future might hold (which it is), this novel is also a whodunit. So is The Robots of Dawn, in which Baley and Olivaw work to find out who destroyed the mind of Jander Panell, one of Olivaw’s colleagues. Rejecting these novels out of hand because they are science fiction might mean readers would miss out on a solid set of crime stories.

Ernesto Mallo’s  Needle in a Haystack is the story of Buenos Aires cop Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. The story takes place in 1979, a very dangerous time to live and work in Argentina. The military junta is in power and determined to stay there, and anyone suspected of not going along enthusiastically is in mortal danger. Against that backdrop, Lescano investigates the murder of Elías Biterman, a successful pawn shop owner. The authorities want very much for this to be put down as an Army hit, in which case no more will be said about it. But Lescano is sure that’s not true, and continues investigating. This novel is written in a very literary style, with innovative use of dialogue, tense and so on. In some places it’s almost poetic. Readers who usually wouldn’t be interested in a novel like that might put this one aside at first. But the story paints a compelling portrait of 1979 Buenos Aires and introduces us to (in my opinion anyway) a likeable protagonist. The novel also raises important and thought-provoking questions about class, government, repression and anti-Semitism among other things.

Sometimes trying something one hasn’t tried before lets one think about things in a new way. For instance, in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is visiting her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse when his partner Nou is murdered. Then Didi himself is killed in what the police call an unfortunate incident of resisting arrest. They claim Didi was guilty of Nou’s murder and got violent when the police came to question him. But Keeney doesn’t believe any of that. Mostly in order to clear her friend’s name, she investigates the murders. She finds a connection between those killings and the Thai human trafficking and sex trades. This novel presents a complex and thought-provoking portrait of that trade, and doesn’t offer any easy answers. And that’s realistic because there aren’t any. It encourages the reader to really think through assumptions about how that trade starts, who keeps it going and what might be needed to stop it.

There’s also Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, in which Tasmania police sergeant John White is stabbed one morning as he and probationer Lucy Howard are investigating a break-in. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in trouble with the law before. As the crime and its aftermath are depicted from different points of view, we get a very complex and provocative picture of life as a cop. How should juveniles be treated? What if they’re repeat offenders? How far should the police go in solving a crime? What about government policies? What if they don’t work, practically speaking? There are a lot of other issues discussed in this novel too.

That’s also the case in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. That’s the story of the murder of thirteen members of the Atwal family in Jullundur, Punjab. The most likely suspect is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal, who was there on the night of the murders. She hasn’t said anything about that night since she was arrested, so no-one knows for sure what happened. There’s enough confusion about the evidence that social worker Simran Singh is asked to return from her home in Delhi to Jullundar, where she grew up. It’s hoped that if she gets Durga to talk about that night, the police will get the answers they need. This novel isn’t a comfortable, easy read. It discusses issues such as class, sex roles, and corruption among other things. In fact, it may make readers uncomfortable. But those issues are important, and the novel addresses them clearly while still placing the main emphasis on what happened in the Atwal family.

It’s helpful for readers and (I think anyway) helpful for society when we try different kinds of books and topics. When we ‘stretch,’ we think about things in a new way, we grow, and sometimes, important things get discussed and addressed.

The only way we can continue to do this is to keep having access to a lot of books.  Even books we don’t like. Even books we would never read. When certain books are impossible to get, that weakens all of us. During this Banned Books Week, let me invite you to try a book you might not otherwise try. Let me also invite you to support access to books you never intend to read. Let’s keep the diversity in reading alive and support everyone’s right to read (or not read) any book.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Divine Comedy’s Love What You Do.


Filed under Angela Savage, Ernesto Mallo, Isaac Asimov, Kishwar Desai, Y.A. Erskine

24 responses to “Exercise Your Freedom*

  1. It’s like voting isn’t it – when people tell me they don’t vote I’m afraid they get an earful from me about the people who fought and died to get representation, and the people who would love to have the chance to take part in a democratic process. Anyway! I always quote Terry Pratchett as a writer I was quite sure I wouldn’t like, really not my kind of thing I always said – fantasy, unreal worlds, trolls and vampires. My teenage son insisted, and I said I would read one. And I absolutely loved it – so clever, so satirical, and so hilariously funny. I read them regularly, still directed by my son.

    • Moira – I feel precisely and exactly the same way about voting. I get thoroughly annoyed at people who choose not to vote, and they do hear from me. And my daughter went to the polls every time with me when she was younger. Now she’s an adult, she votes every time and brings her daughter with her…
      Thanks also for mentioning Pratchett’s work. I’ve actually been hesitant to read it for the same reasons you were. but if your son is that keen on those books, and you’ve fallen in love too, it’s worth a try.

  2. A subject very dear to my heart: although I may be a little sniffy (i.e. have stupid preconceptions) about certain books or genres, I know I shouldn’t be like that and there are always books that will prove me wrong. Science fiction? Not a huge fan, but some of the best films and books in the world have a sci fi theme (Blade Runner, Brazil, Solaris, and the books of Iain Banks, Isaac Asimov, Doris Lessing). I am now learning to cope with the Young Adult category, which I have previously been rather dismissive of. And of course, I’ve lived through a period of banned books, reading them in dodgy photocopies, with pages missing, passed around in plastic bags, hidden amongst the clothes, like drugs.

    • Marina Sofia – You understand – no, you grok (Whoops! A sci-fi term..) – the reality of banned books. I think we all have genres or types of books that we dismiss. That’s only human. I have to work on that myself and I’m not always successful. But I really do think it’s worth ‘stretching’ now and again. And it’s so important to make sure that even the books we’re most dismissive of are available for people who want to read them.

  3. I am always shocked by the banned books lists. The ones that I have read have not rendered me either insane nor careless and have not killed my spirit or psyche. I laugh at my parents piling books for my reading pleasure as a very young reader. The Grapes of Wrath? Yes, it made the list. I feel I must write a banned book 🙂 Once again I am reminded to thank my parents for broadening my horizons and exposing me to trash!
    While I used to read a lot more I still indulge in books out of my comfort zone. Why not?

    • Lesley – Your parents did you a great favour, in my opinion, by exposing you to all kinds of books. You learned more about how to think critically and look at the world in different ways because of that. And you developed a reading habit. You may not read as much now, but it’s still a part of your life. And that, to me, is a very good thing.

  4. I always claim that I don’t read romance. Which leaves the question of why I love Georgette Heyer so much…

    I do like to stretch my reading habits on a fairly regular basis. It might mean the occasional disappointment, but it can also result in finding an unexpected treat.

    • FictionFan – I’ve found that too. Every once in a while, you do find a gem. And it’s funny; I don’t think of myself as a romance reader either. And yet, I’ve read several novels that people would definitely think of as romance that I’ve liked very, very much. Interesting how our reading habits aren’t at all what we may think they are.

  5. I find it’s something of a balancing act this trying new/out of my comfort zone authors…from it has come some of my new favourite authors (Ken Bruen, Christopher Brookmyre) but also there are utter disasters (e.g. my new worst-book-ever-read which I read earlier this year). But I will keep doing it – even the bad stuff has a purpose (I think my review of aforementioned worst-book-ever was one of the best I’ve written – it really did make me think about what was so bad).

    • Bernadette – The process of ‘stretching’ can definitely be uneven. I remember a few years ago I read a book that I am still trying desperately to forget. I’m glad I tried something new, but…. As you say though, there are real finds out there, and one never knows until one tries. I’m glad you’ve mentioned Ken Bruen actually. I’ve been meaning to spotlight one of his books, and your comment gives me just the kick in the pants I need to do it.

  6. Margot: I did not realize some of the opportunities I was missing in the reading world until I participated in the memes on Kerrie Smith’s website, Mysteries in Paradise. To complete the memes I needed to search out new authors and books.

    For this year’s letter “Z” in the Crime Fiction Alphabet I am reading a book by R.D. Zimmerman with a gay sleuth, Todd Mills, and featuring a transgendered character. I would not have read the book but for the meme.

    Two years ago in the Crime Fiction on a Europass meme I needed an author from the Czech Republic. It took me some time but I found The Miracle Game by Joseph Skvorecky set during the Communist years of the 1940’s through the 1960’s. It was a fascinating book that set out the Communist efforts to control Czech culture. Books translated from English would have scenes altered or deleted if they did not accord with Soviet norms of the class struggle.

    On the other aspect of your post on banned books Skvorecky and his wife through their company, 68 Publishers in Toronto, published Czech and Slovak books banned in their homeland.

    An what Western World reader is not humbled by the stories of the samizdat, hand copied books, carefully circulated in the U.S.S.R.?

    • Bill – You’re absolutely right. What people went through to get and distribute books in the U.S.S.R. is nothing short of heroic. And it’s wonderful to hear that Skoverecky did so much to ensure that Czech and Slovak writers would have their voices heard. To me, that’s truly praiseworthy.
      You make a strong point too about participating in memes. Actually, I’ve found that being a part of the online crime fiction community has, among many, many other good things, given me a whole host of new authors and books and styles to try. I am grateful for the education I’ve gotten and still get.

  7. kathy d.

    Book banning in the States is the only censorship of books with which I’m familiar. It hasn’t affected my reading, as I’ve always been able to access whatever books I’ve wanted to read.
    When I look at the list of books that have been banned, I see not only favorites of mine, but books that helped to shape my thinking and outlook towards life, like those by John Steinbeck, Alice Walker, Toni Morrisson, to name a few writing giants.
    It’s such a loss for children and adults to be deprived of books that make one think and grapple with the world. How about adults, parents, teachers, librarians discussing books with children and young people, instead of banning them?
    And give young people some credit. The only book I was told not to read, I read: I was 15, had to find out for myself. The reason my parents gave is that it was “trash.” Since I was used to reading books with substance, I quickly found out that the book was not up to par, and never read a book like that again, no matter what my friends were reading.
    Both Behind the Night Bazaar by Angela Savage and Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night are tough reads — because they deal with very difficult social issues, which actually are criminal and immoral. But to read and think about them — and somehow want to do something about the problems discussed — is a good thing. It’s consciousness-raising and may move one to action. All good.

    • Kathy – You’re quite right. When people don’t have the opportunity to discuss the larger social issues discussed in books, or even the smaller ones, it’s hard to get people to think about those things and address them. And that happens when people read and discuss all kinds of books.
      As to both Behind the Night Bazaar and Witness the Night, I agree that they deal with difficult issues. They aren’t easy to read. But they deal with important issues, and things we need to talk about about which we need to take action. And that, as you say, is a good thing.

  8. Margot, I going to have to bookmark this post and come back and make sure I have read all of these. They are all great suggestions. I will be reading the 2nd ‘Lije’ Baley novel and the Angela Savage book early in 2014 (or sooner). The other three are all ones I want to find a copy of.

    I read sci fi and fantasy this year for the first time in years, and some I liked and some I didn’t. I plan to try Terry Pratchett and have been encouraged by Moira’s experience with those books.

    • Tracy – Thank you. I think it can be very beneficial to read something different from time to time. And although some of the books we might try won’t be appealing, they can help us reflect on the way we think. And that’s growth, in my opinion. As to authors, I ought to try some Terry Pratchett myself.

  9. Col

    I think my mind is definitely closed off to certain books….chick-lit, sci-fi, fantasy, books with cats…..unless my wife reads it – which she won’t (hopefully)……..but I am making an effort to try “other” crime fiction stuff that I wouldn’t necessarliy have given a second glance at before.

    • Col – It’s good you make that effort. I think all of us have that sort of list of books we avoid. But it’s good to try to read different sorts of books at least sometimes.

  10. Great advice there Margot, thanks very much. It is a bit too easy for me to keep going back to the same authors without making a specific point of stopping and going for something new, which is why i enjoy your blog so much – ta!

    • Sergio – It is really easy isn’t it to reach for the authors we know we like. I do that too. It’s called a ‘comfort zone’ for a reason. But I think it’s worth it to stretch now and then. Thanks for the kind words!

  11. neer

    Thanks Margot. The post made me pause and reflect on my own reading choices. Mysteries (esp of the vintage kind) have always been my favouite but at times the seasons, the time of the year, a particular memory, a quote read in another book make me read books that otherwise I wouldn’t have picked-up.

    • Neeru – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Isn’t it interesting how we can be influenced in our reading choices by something in the environment. As you say, even a memory can have that effect on people. I find that absolutely fascinating..

  12. I like to stretch myself with reading but I do nee to get into a story. I sometimes find dialects quite difficult to read in fiction and for that reason I tend to avoid books with over colloqial dialogue. Same with the TV. Everyone raved about ‘The Wire’ but I found I needed to concentrate too much to understand it!

    • Sarah – I hadn’t thought much about the dialect issue when I was writing this post, but you do have a point. When it’s hard for the reader to be drawn into the book because of dialect or something else, it’s hard to get the most from it.

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