Big Fat Book Readalong, Week 1

I’m reporting in on my first week of reading. Recall that I am reading I Promessi Sposi, or The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni. This is a historical novel set in the 17thC, written in the 19thC, and considered the Great Italian Novel. Verdi’s Requiem was written in honor of Manzoni shortly after his death (I did not know this until I started reading about the book). Manzoni is also considered an important figure in the unification of Italy and the book is a major factor in the development of a common Italian language.

All this sounds very highbrow and intimidating. Don’t be fooled. The book is really enjoyable. From the very first chapter I knew I was in good hands, and I remembered why I spent so much of my teens and twenties reading 19thC literature. There’s an omniscient narrator, a huge cast of characters (all with their own backstories), lots of description, and enough plot to choke a horse. Here is a quintessential example of two paragraphs in the middle of a major scene:

In the first room all was confusion; Renzo, groping about with his hands, trying to stop the priest, as if he was playing at blindman’s bluff, had found the door, and was knocking on it, shouting. ‘Open up! Open up! Don’t make such a row!’ Lucia was calling Renzo in a feeble voice, and begging. ‘Let’s go; let’s go! For the love of God.’ Tonio was crawling about on all fours, scouring the floor with his hands, to try and find his receipt. Gervaso was screaming and jumping about like one possessed, looking for the door on to the stairs to get out to safety.

We cannot forbear pausing a moment to make a reflection in the midst of all this uproar. Renzo, who had raised all this noise in someone else’s house, who had got in by a trick, and was now keeping the master of the house himself besieged in a room, has all the appearance of being the aggressor; and yet, if one thinks it out, he was the injured party. Don Abbondio, surprised, terrified, and put to flight while peacefully attending to his own affairs, might seem the victim, and yet, in reality, it was he who was doing the wrong. Such is often the way the world goes .. I mean, that’s the way it went in the seventeenth century.

I love that Manzoni “cannot forbear …” He really can’t. But the asides and ruminations are a big part of the attraction.

The plot is too complicated to explain, so let me sum up. Renzo and Lucia want to marry, and Don Abbondio (illegally) refuses to perform the ceremony because he has been threatened by the evil Don Rodrigo, who wants Lucia for himself. There is an ecclesiastical loophole by which our young lovers plan to force the priest to accede to the ceremony and become man and wife, but their plan goes awry. In the first eight chapters we meet these four, Lucia’s mother Agnese, the brilliant and good monk Fra Cristoforo, sundry villagers and Bad People, and more. I have a feeling things are going to go even more awry very, very soon.

The edition I’m reading is 610 pages long, plus there’s an introduction. I wanted to get to p. 150 or so, but I only made it to p. 130. But that’s OK. We are not grading each other on how far we get. This is supposed to be FUN. And this book, so far, is fun.

Reading the Everyman’s Library edition is a mixed bag. It’s a beautiful edition, with nice paper, and the font is very readable. But it’s like reading on the original iPad, i.e., heavy. I read sitting up or stretched out with the book propped up on my lap. And forget bedtime reading, unless I want to keep TheHusband up with a very bright light. On the other hand, it makes reading its own activity, not something I do while I’m doing something else. I am definitely concentrating while I’m reading, and that probably enhances the immersive experience. On balance, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages so far, although I’m not giving up digital reading any time soon.

How about you? How was your week? Tell us in the comments.

22 thoughts on “Big Fat Book Readalong, Week 1

  1. I suppose it’s appropriate that I’m answering this on a pom break (so it’ll be short). I’m reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography on page 107 (out of 644) on my phone. On my Nook Color, the numbering is different and slightly less impressive, so let’s go with the phone. I’m enjoying it. I’m reading it on my commute mostly and it’s good commute reading – compelling enough to entertain me on the train but not addictive enough to tempt me to ignore my work and keep reading. He mentions a lot of people that I feel like I should either know about or look up, but so far I’m just letting the names wash over me.

    I think 130 pages is a lot. Good for you.

    • I’m copying your comment from the other thread and pasting it into this conversation so we have it here:

      I started Carpentaria. It is definitely a challenge — she uses language in a very unfamiliar way, and I have to concentrate and puzzle out what’s going on. The book is 14 chapters, and so far I’ve read 3 — so I should be able to finish in March. If I get some longer, not late-night, reading time, I’ll experiment with reading more than one chapter. I’m wondering if I’d do better keeping on once I’m in the rhythm of her writing, or if it would just be exhausting.

      I am enjoying the book; it’s definitely not the straightforward plot I get in genre fiction, but that’s a big part of its charm. The worst part for me is that it is a BIG FAT BOOK, literally, as in hardbound. I’ve realized that the light in my bedroom is all wrong for reading now, I definitely need that eye doctor appointment that I made, and I will never take the highlighting function on my Kindle for granted every again.

  2. I’ve finished mine, which was The Circle, by Dave Eggers. As I mentioned in the other post, it didn’t have the feel of a ‘big book’ in the sense of feeling like you were living with the characters for an extended period (which was what The Goldfinch felt like). It just zapped along. I had some long stretches on the train earlier in the week and a lot of walking around London (I was listening to the audiobook), so I got almost to the end in a couple of days. I thought it was really thought-provoking, though. I don’t know that it says anything *new* about privacy and the world we’re building through social media, but it illustrated the possibilities in a way that feels scarily plausible.

  3. As I commented earlier, I got to 27% in The Warmth of Other Suns, and had a really good conversation with my son about it. I’m at the part of the book where the three major characters have reached their separate decisions to leave the South, and there’s discussion about how the South reacted to the great migration. Mostly not in any way calculated to change anyone’s mind. :-\

  4. I’m at 35% of Wolf Hall and really, really loving it. Thank you so much for prompting me to finally get back to this book. Mantel’s characterization is extraordinary. I am not living with the characters so much as living with one man, but goodness he is worth spending time with. The world-building is utterly immersive. The flashes of tenderness are heartbreaking. It’s funnier than I was expecting, which is to say not at all. I am glad to be reading it and reminding myself that good prose does not have to be sparse or mundane.

    • I have read hardly any of my book this week. I think I’m at 40%. Life has decided that EVERYTHING needs to happen last week and this week, and on top of that I’ve been ill. Hoping to catch up again next weekend. But now, bed and Betty Neels.

  5. I am still on page 75 of The Luminaries and it’s starting to feel like a chore to read. Her voice is fine and the pacing is fine but the story feels bloated and is going nowhere fast. So I’ve started reading other books. I do plan to read up to 200 pages but it will be slow going.

    • Sounds like it’s hitting you like it did me, Keishon. I’m sorry, I was hoping you’d like it. I think if you don’t like it by page 200, it’s probably a good idea to quit. I read up to the halfway point and didn’t feel it got any better.

  6. I’m about 100 in to the Goldfinch (and can I just say, it is very intimidating to be in a reading group with Rosario, who manages to read super fast and super carefully at the same time?!). I’m loving it. I’m actually Beeminding this goal, so I can test their odometer feature (I just input what page I am on and they fix the graph). It’s a little rough going emotionally, having a son about the protagonist’s age. It makes me glad he has close emotional connections to other people, like his brother, my husband, and his grandmother.

    • I finished the first two chapters of Goldfinch. Trying not to “track” too numerically, thanks to my own anxieties. Jessica, you just put your finger on why I found those chapters so tense and page-turning–thinking of my own children alone like that (and yes, grateful for all their connections to and support from people other than me). I am really loving it. But I got side-tracked by reading a mystery recommendation and need to get back to it. I’m not worrying about how fast I go or finishing it this month, as long as I don’t discover I’ve de facto quit it.

      I’m also still listening to Middlemarch. I miss being able to slow down over some passages or re-read dense bits, but I also notice some things more in audio than in my several print reads of the book, like Eliot’s humor. I think of the book as “serious” and forgot she can be funny. Favorite, well-remembered passages catch me by surprise as I listen, and I hear them afresh. (The narrator is Juliet Stevenson, who does a superb job with a number of 19th-century British classics).

      • Audio definitely helps to read closely and carefully. Like Liz, I feel like I notice things more. I guess I tend to speed up when things get exciting and gloss over bits, and I’m glad audiobooks don’t let me do that.

        I found the first sections of The Goldfinch heartbreaking for the very reasons you two say. Theo is so completely vulnerable in those sections that I felt real, physical anxiety in response.

        • I’m at the beginning of chapter 5 of The Goldfinch, which is the beginning of Part II. I must say I loved Part I, all of it, even the heartbreaking parts or perhaps especially the heartbreaking parts. Theo’s wryly humorous observations and asides help to leaven the stress and pain for me. Here’s an example of what I mean:

          As much as I wanted to go out on the street and look for her, I knew I was supposed to stay put. We were supposed to meet at the apartment; that was deal, the ironclad agreement ever since elementary school, when I’d been sent home from school with a Disaster Preparedness Activity Book, featuring cartoon ants in dust masks gathering supplies and preparing for some unnamed emergency. I’d completed the crosswords and dim questionnaires (“What is the best clothing to pack in a Disaster Supply Kit? A. Bathing suit B. Layers C. Hula Skirt D. Aluminum foil”) and– with my mother– devised a Family Disaster Plan. Ours was simple: we would meet at home. And if one of us couldn’t get home, we would call. But as time crawled by, and the phone did not ring, and the death toll on the news rose to twenty-two and then twenty-five, I phoned the city’s emergency number again.

          I love this passage because it is heart-wrenching but at the same time funny — the magnitude of Theo’s loss juxtaposed against the inadequate activity book with its cartoon ants in dust masks and the ridiculously easy multiple choice question seems both absurd and tragic. It’s a rare author who can make me laugh even while I’m distressed for her character.

  7. I didn’t want to put this response on every single post, but I just wanted to say how cool this is! I’m really enjoying learning about the other books everyone is reading, and it is interesting in a particular way when they are all a certain kind of book but not the same book. Not that a same-book conversation isn’t fun, and maybe Liz will host another one if anything in particular emerges to be talked about.

    Keishon, bummer that you aren’t enjoying your choice, but if it weren’t for you deciding to read it we wouldn’t have started at all. So we all owe you a debt of gratitude.

  8. I’m reading a bit more today. A sharecropper has just told his boss they’re leaving. Oh the suspense!
    I keep thinking of one of my favorite childhood books. Cotton in My Sack. Lois Lenski did some wonderful work showing how children live in various parts of the world, especially very poor children. But I see now, the book just reeks of privilege. :-( It’s shown as, if you just work hard and save your money, you can get ahead in the world, while in reality, sharecroppers were pretty much screwed from the get-go, totally at the mercy of the bosses.

    • Oh, that is a sobering realization, when one’s Lois Lenski nostalgia is tarnished by the ugly reality. I loved those books so much — my favorite was Berries in the Scoop, about migrant Portuguese cranberry pickers on Cape Cod. I read it a few years ago with my daughters and it was like I had picked up a completely different book from the story my 8- or 9-year-old self remembered.

      • I don’t think I ever even heard of that one! I should reread CiMS and see if it’s really as bad as I’m now thinking. I actually own it in ebook these days!

        • The only Lenski I read, I think, was Strawberry Girl. I was just looking up her biography on Wikipedia and apparently she spent a lot of time with the people whose stories she was writing. So it wasn’t just a view-from-above, Lady-Bountiful kind of condescension, at least not intentionally.

          Which of course raises the question of how we approach books that were written in a different era and cultural context, especially for children. So many books were didactic then and books today are too, but that didacticism is rooted in a specific cultural context. And you don’t want to write a children’s book that says “you’ll never get out of this horrible life,” because that would be unimaginably cruel (and technically wrong, since children did emerge from those backgrounds into successful adulthoods sometimes).

          • School and reading are always very important in her books… the children don’t always get to go to school and it’s a big deal for them, and books are rare and treasured. In CIMS, the main character reads newspapers that are plastered on her walls for insulation, IIRC.

  9. I am six chapters in to Lionheart — and this is only about 85 pages! After a great start, where she set the stage via the POV of a young girl I took to be a future lead player in Richard’s story, I am getting bogged down with the multiple POVs from real historical figures. My sense is that she is laying out all the pieces on the chessboard, and there is a lot of historical back story that she wants to include for each of the major royal families, etc. She’s such a gifted historian and writer that it never becomes a total info dump, but some of the conversations include so much “and recall the treachery when so-and-so did thus-and-such…” that it’s pulling me out of the story. Or maybe it’s that I don’t feel as if I’ve gotten to the real STORY yet. I admit I am a little worried I won’t be able to push through because I don’t recall feeling it was this hard to get absorbed in the emotional lives of her characters when I was reading the Wales trilogy — but it’s shocking to realize that was 25+ years ago. I read an ARC of Here Be Dragons because a college friend’s mum worked for the publisher, and she knew I was gaga for Penman’s novels.

    • I think you’re exactly right about what the intention is, because my Manzoni is doing much the same thing. It’s like the novel equivalent of a long tracking shot, where we’re establishing the background and making sure we see exactly how the protagonists are situated. Shorter and more focused books don’t do that, and it’s more common today to work from the individual outward, so it takes getting used to.

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