This is a transcription of ‘Reading Resolutions and Two Great Books — 29 December 2023’
Melissa: Coming up, a madcap romp through the Habsburg Empire.
David: One woman pretends to be another with disastrous results.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: In the mid-19th century, there was no bigger celebrity than Empress Elisabeth of Austria. She was the Taylor Swift of the Habsburg Empire. She was very beautiful and glamorous with exceptionally long, thick hair that she wore in double braids so heavy they gave her a headache. She spoke five languages and was strong-willed, intelligent, and curious, traveling to places like Morocco where other royals didn’t go. I would like to have tea with this broad.
Melissa: Her cousin, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, was known as the Mad King because of his perceived eccentricities. He loved art, music, and beauty. You know the castle in Bavaria that inspired Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle? It’s called Neuschwanstein, and it was commissioned by Ludwig.
Melissa: These two are the delightful focus of the book ‘Empty Theater’ by Jac Jemc [Jack Gems]. It’s an imaginative and very entertaining retelling of the friendship between Empress Sisi of Hungary and King Ludwig of Bavaria. Now would also be a good time to tell you the subtitle of the novel. Are you ready? It’s a doozy.
Melissa: The full title is ‘Empty Theatre: or The Lives of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Empress Sisi of Austria (Queen of Hungary), Cousins, in Their Pursuit of Connection and Beauty Despite The Expectations Placed On Them Because Of The Exceptional Good Fortune Of Their Status As Beloved National Figures. With Speculation Into The Mysterious Nature Of Their Deaths.’
Melissa: That subtitle tells you exactly what the book is about. But I’ll elaborate a little.
Melissa: Because Sisi and Ludwig are royals, their lives don’t really belong to them. To the world, the Empress is primarily a beautiful vessel to create an heir. And the King is meant to be a strong masculine leader — never mind that he has a deep affection for his stable master and would be happy left alone to enjoy the opera. But to each other, they’re just Sisi and Ludwig. This unravels like a grand adventure story while going on a tear through real 19th-century history. I’m about 30% into the book, and I love it.
Melissa: I want to read a snippet from the prologue to give you a sense of the tone. It pulled me right into the story. Here we go.
Forty years from now, Ludwig II will be murdered… but before that — because the story will unfold no differently if you learn the outcome now or later, because the ending will confound you no matter where it finds you, because if you combine enough answers they don’t look much different than a question — it is best if you know now: before Ludwig II is found dead, he will LIVE with such a violence of feeling that his body will shake when he witnesses extreme beauty… Ludwig will invert his fortune by paying for operas he cannot afford. He will call for castle after castle to be built, never finishing a single one, his vision always outpacing the material world… This is after Ludwig has been named King at eighteen, a young man forced to rule too young, a romantic hero to the Bavarian people, crowned with a job he was not designed for.
Melissa: If you like a novel with a meta-narrator, and you enjoy reading about spoiled royals who are also wildly sympathetic, get your hands on this book. It’s ‘Empty Theatre’ by Jac Jemc.
David: My book is ‘Yellowface’ by R. F. Kuang. The setup for this book is that you’ve got two authors. One is a famous, successful Asian-American woman named Athena Liu. And the other is a woman whose career is largely being ignored. Her name is June Hayward. She thinks she can’t sell a book because she’s a basic white girl.
David: One day, June and Athena hang out, and Athena drops dead. Freak accident. And then June lifts Athena’s most recent manuscript and publishes it as her own. Under an ambiguous name – Juniper Song, that’s the name. Complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo.
David: And then things get out of control. Every chapter is a trainwreck — each one louder than the one before. The story veers into crime and horror. And the themes are written large. The book talks about white privilege and racism and cultural appropriation, with a whole big slice of how publishing works now. Twitter and Bookstagram are almost characters in this book.
David: The thing that attracted me was the writing. It’s so slick. This book reads like a Buzzfeed article; it’s full of pop culture references and the text just kind of glides past my eyes. Then, I’m three chapters further in, and probably late for something. And heads up: NONE of the characters are likable. If that’s important to you, this isn’t your book. ‘Yellowface’ wound up on a bunch of ‘best of the year’ lists, including one of our patrons.’ Hi, Gretchen! — The New York Times Book Review called it ‘viciously satisfying.’ It’s ‘Yellowface’ by R. F. Kuang.
David: And now our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
David: The turn of the year is approaching, and we thought it might be a good time to talk about reading resolutions. New Year’s resolutions themselves are a bit of a mix. Some people like them because they offer a fresh start, some focus, and a little bit of goal-setting. Add some shape to the year. Other people might set unrealistic expectations for themselves, or worry about doing that. Still others prefer to avoid the whole all-or-nothing mentality. If you set out to read 80 books this year, and then only read 75, have you failed somehow? … I don’t think so!
David: We asked our patrons about their book-related resolutions.
David: Now I was expecting a lot of numbers. “I intend to read 100 books this year.” That kind of thing. And we did get some. But we also got a lot of other ideas.
David: Broadly, there were three different kinds of resolutions. First, there were resolutions about specific books. Then there were resolutions about the kinds of reading one might do. And finally, there are resolutions about the reading life itself.
David: The resolutions about specific titles talked about possibly daunting books. Erica wants to read War and Peace this year. Anna is looking at Don Quixote. One of our patrons wants to read Lonesome Dove in 2024. All of those are big books. The shortest of those three clocks in at over 800 pages.
David: Do you have any doorstoppers you want to read?
Melissa: I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I’m very tempted to listen to the Wolf Hall trilogy on audio again.
David: I want to read Proust. In Search of Lost Time. It is appropriate here in the Library of Lost Time. And there are books that will help me read that book. I’ve got a reader’s guide and a graphic novel.
David: Let’s get into resolutions about kinds of books.
David: A couple of our patrons want to read more broadly this year. Candice wanted to read, “authors from different backgrounds, different gender/sexual identities, and different perspectives.” Cheers to that!
David: Marlise has read 24 of the 47 Hercule Peroit books and wants to finish that series this year.
David: Many of our patrons said they wanted to be more mindful about reading books they already own. Boy, can I relate. Somehow, the new book always gets the attention.
David: Finally, here are a few resolutions about the reading life.
David: A couple of our patrons mentioned keeping a book journal this year. I’ve been doing that with my iPad for the last couple of years, and now it’s a part of my regular life. And I’m grateful to past me about that all the time.
David: Louise talked about going to a murder mystery convention. That’s a lovely thing to do. We’ve talked about attending mystery cons in London and Iceland, and I’m still holding onto hope there.
David: Other people talked about dropping books they don’t like quicker.
David: I used to tough it out. Now, if I’m 30% of the way into a book and having trouble bringing myself back to it, I’m pressing eject. Get out of there. Nobody has time for books that aren’t speaking to them.
David: Finally, I think this is a resolution we can all get behind. One of our patrons said they wanted to be more mindful of having a good time when they’re reading.
David: Isn’t that nice? What a gift it is, to read, and to have some time.
David: Regardless of your goals, and whether you choose to have resolutions, may you have a very happy New Year, and may it be full of beautiful things to read and share.
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for more on the books we talked about today and on Beryl and her international eating adventures.
David: Thanks for joining us on the library of last time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent bookstore to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious. We’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Mike Tinnion/Unsplash.
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