The Reading Habits
Carre Armstrong Gardner
Are you a re-reader? Why, or why not? And if you are, what are some of the books you have read over and over?
Francois Mauriac said, “If you would show me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he re-reads.” I’m a dedicated re-reader of favorite books: to me, it feels like visiting old friends! I’ve read the covers off all the Maeve Binchy books I own, and Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers is one of my favorite all-time novels. Every few years, I revisit all of James Herriot, Anne of Green Gables, and Jan Karon’s Mitford series. This summer, I’ve already re-read all of Jane Austen’s books. Actually, I listened to them on audiobook while I was doing housework.
When is your optimal time to read – do you prefer to read in one long block, or do you also read for five minutes here or there when you can?
I mostly read in long blocks: once I start a book, I’m not much good until I finish it. But I spend 10 or 20 minutes every night reading in bed. Unfortunately, for me to pick up a book and settle back against the pillow is my brain’s cue to fall asleep. Right now, for bedtime reading, I’m working on Oscar Wildes’ The Picture of Dorian Gray, and not making much headway, because I keep falling asleep.
I’d love your thoughts on novellas. Are you thumbs up or down? Or does it depend?!
I’m trying to think of any novellas I’ve actually read…. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is all that comes to mind. I don’t mind them in principle. I’ll read anything if I think it’s good.
Are you faithful to a genre, an author, or simply quality writing?
I’ll try almost anything, but since I read to escape, I’m not a big fan of tragic stories or non-fiction, and I hate violence, both in books or movies. I also don’t read romance novels as a rule. I like a little romance within a novel: I’m just not a fan of it as a genre. Formula fiction makes me shudder.
Which factors most influence your selection of a book?
It has to really hook me by the second or third page, or I’ll probably put it down. What hooks me is a character who’s unusual in some non-physical way. Also, the first pages have to include some degree of humor, even if it’s just facetiousness or irony, or a wry turn of phrase. I think it was Mark Twain who said a sense of humor is nothing more than a sense of the fitness of things. It helps me feel safe to know that if I invest myself in this character, (s)he and I are going to be okay by the end of the book. I don’t have to have happy endings, but I need to keep my sanity: my sense of the fitness of things.
Your fiction pet peeve?
Hackneyed physical description: heroes with steely gray eyes, chiselled jaws, and firm, even, white teeth. Delicate-but-feisty heroines with violet eyes who somehow have no idea how beautiful they are. Women who wait to be rescued. Behavior in a hero, like stalking or possessiveness, that is tolerated because he’s a wealthy hunk, but would be creepy if he were fifty years old and toothless. I also flinch if I come across the word “snuck.”
Desiree Love gasped in horror as she realized she had locked her keys in her car. And in the middle of this shadowy and echoing parking garage! What if that mysterious stranger who had snuck into her flat last night should attack her here? Tears filled her lovely violet eyes, and she pounded a fragile fist against the car window. “Help!” she cried, her voice little more than a shaking whisper. “Oh, someone please help me!”
“I’ll help you.” A man stepped from the shadows of Level 3, Row F, and clamped a steely hand over her delicate wrist.
Desiree thought she would faint. She would have fainted, if only she’d known how. “You snuck up on me!” she accused.
“Don’t be afraid,” said the man, in a voice like midnight velvet. “I’ve been following you; watching you. Waiting for such a moment as this.”
Desiree’s heart slowed fractionally, and she saw that he was tall, with steely gray eyes, a chiselled jaw, and firm, even, white teeth. “Why have you been following me?”
“Because you are so beautiful.”
“What?” She lowered her eyes to cover her confusion. “No I’m not. Nobody has ever told me that before in my life.”
“I’m telling you now.”
“What’s your name?” she whispered.
“Hawk,” he growled. “Hawk Chase Jack Sterling-MacMillan the Third, heir to the Sterling-Macmillan billions.”
Instinctively, Desiree knew she was safe with him.
Rel: Hilarious, Carre! I’m a bit disappointed there is no reference to “devastatingly” steely gray eyes 😉
What book have you read this year that you could not put down, and why?
Right now, I’m working my way through the first volume of the English translation of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. What a compelling book! There’s no real plot: it’s more or less the memoir of an “everyman’s” life. But here is a writer who knows how to make the mundane fascinating and addictive. It’s been a worldwide sensation, but nobody really knows why. Kind of like the Buffalo wings phenomenon: there’s not a lot of meat there, but you Just. Can’t. Stop.
How do you mark your spot – folded page corner, bookmark, dollar bill, whatever is at hand?
I dog-ear books terribly, and also lay them flat open, which ruins their spines. But I think that just makes them look well-loved. If it’s a nonfiction or devotional-type book that I want to make notes in, I keep some kind of bookmark in it that I can use to underline with.
Whose debut novel impressed you more than you anticipated?
Without a doubt, it was Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!. It’s a magical realism novel set in the Everglades of Florida, and is layered with richly-embroidered, evocative prose. For weeks, while I read it, I had dreams about swamps and alligators. The amazing part to me is that she wrote it when she was just 29. It’s a level of talent we’ve rarely seen in someone so young.
When reading, what makes or breaks a story for you?
I don’t actually care much what the plot of a book is, but I have to love the characters. Predictable or plain-vanilla heroes and secondary characters won’t cut it. Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite novels, but not because of the plot: the plot is pure Harlequin romance. What I love are the characters. Even the secondary characters have quirks, foibles, and endearing qualities that are unusual and fully developed. Mary Bennett, for example: we don’t know what she looks like; whether her hair is blond or brown, and who cares, really? We do know she’s a moralizing, pedantic girl with an overdeveloped sense of her own marginal talent, and we can laugh at her for that. Brilliant! On the other side of the coin: I once read part of a contemporary novel where a wedding was described: it was a destination wedding in some tropical paradise; the bride wore a lacy white gown with a train; the bridesmaids carried nosegays of pink baby roses that had been specially flown in for the occasion; the groomsmen wore black tuxes and tails… I kept trying to care about this wedding, but there was not one interesting thing about it: nothing everybody hasn’t seen or heard about before. Reading about it was like eating cotton candy: sickly-sweet, without any substance.
What are some of your favourite CF reads from around 10 years ago, or further back?
To be honest, I rarely read CF. So I’ll have to say Jan Karon’s Mitford series, although that may be cheating, because Karon published them for the ABA market. But to me, she is the gold standard for how to organically share the Gospel through fiction. Never does she seem didactic or agenda-driven. I never feel I’m being preached at when I read her books. On the contrary, her books are incredibly Christ-honoring in a way that always leaves me wanting to know God better.
Snack/drink of choice while reading?
Kombucha, which I make myself, or coffee with cream. But recently I was introduced to a drink I’ve fallen in love with: seltzer water with a splash of lavender simple syrup. It’s amazing. I just bought a pound of lavender buds and made some simple syrup with it last night. It’s my new favorite.
What book cover has really caught your eye?
Which author makes it easy to turn off your internal editor?
Maeve Binchy, for sure. Her style isn’t too literary—something that always makes it hard to forget I’m reading—instead, it’s flawlessly relaxed and conversational. Also, she never says “snuck.” When I was learning to write, I picked her books apart to figure out how she did it. She’s one of my author-heroes.
What book do you wish you had written? Why?
Pride and Prejudice! It’s peerless in so many ways: eloquent, funny, complex…and has one of the greatest heroines in all of Western fiction. It’s brought so much happiness to so many people. And in the end, that’s the whole reason I want to write books: to make people happy.
Don’t miss out on the third and final Darling family novel…
Nothing is more important to Jane Darling than her family. She’s dedicated her life to raising her children, and they all appear to be doing well. She can finally relax and enjoy life. But when her husband becomes seriously ill, Jane finds herself taking on the most difficult role of her life.
Laura Darling moved away to escape the expectations of her family. Ever since she went through rehab, they watch her like a hawk. Now she has a good job, new friends, and no one to criticize her or comment on everything she’s doing. But when everything begins to unravel, Laura’s heart turns toward home.
Follow the Darling family through triumph and tragedy as they struggle with an uncertain future.