Am I the Only Person Who Didn’t Like This Book?

Ever have that experience where EVERYONE YOU KNOW seems to love a book, and you figure, okay, it’s got to be decent at least, I’ll give it a read. And then you just… really don’t like it?

I read two memoirs recently, memoirs that were rather highly acclaimed aroundabouts, and both times, I was pretty darned disappointed. I’ve never had a particular affinity for memoirs, one way or another, but awhile back I read, and loved to pieces, the wonderful Queen of the Road by the amazing Doreen Orion. So I thought, hey, maybe it’s not just a fluke, and memoirs/personal accounts are great reads in general. But that hasn’t been my experience since.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Everyone read it. Everyone loved it. Julia Roberts made a movie, which some people loved and some people hated, but that always happens with a book-to-movie transfer. I expected to at least enjoy the book to some degree, but I can’t say that I did. The eating part was okay, but too cluttered with waaayyyy depressing divorce stuff. The praying part was not, shall we say, my cup of tea. And the love? Too short. Too undetailed. I mean, after all that traumatic, depressing eating (if you’re going to binge eat, for crying out loud, enjoy it a little more, and please describe the cheesy goodness so I can experience it vicariously) and then the tedious praying, I felt like I deserved some more specifics on the hookups.

For some reason, I then  continued my foray into this genre with Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen. I know all about Mennonites, because of the genealogy work I did in my last job. My volunteer Barb transcribed a set of Mennonite letters for me, over the course of several months; by the end she was threatening to reach back through time and shake the living daylights out of some Mennonites, or at least kidnap them and get them drunk on tequila. But that’s a different story, and a more interesting one than Ms. Janzen told, to be frank. Also written post-messy divorce (I sense a memoir theme), there was a little about Mennonite food (grossy sounding), some funny bits about her mother, dating highlights, and very little point to a rather rambling account of… well, nothing, really, other than a newly-divorced woman staying with her parents for a bit. Pointless.

Shrug. I’ll probably skip memoirs for a bit, no matter how highly recommended.

What about you? Any highly recommended yet big disappointments in your recent reading history?

That Day in September

In honor of the upcoming 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001, two recommendations:

That Day in September by Artie Van Why.

Artie Van Why shared his personal experiences of September 11th through live performance, first, and now in print. A first-person accounting of a very heartfelt emotional journey, That Day in September speaks of not just the events of the day but the emotional struggles that came both before and after. Van Why, an actor-turned-office-worker who worked across from the World Trade Center, experienced the devastation first-hand. Even more movingly, though, he takes us through the days and weeks that followed, sharing his personal journey.

102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn draw on hundreds of interviews with rescuers and survivors, thousands of pages of oral histories, and countless phone, e-mail, and emergency radio transcripts to tell the story of September 11 from inside the Twin Towers, chronicling the 102 minutes that elapsed from the first plane impact to the second collapse. Grueling and painful to read, this book is written with great skill, weaving together a variety of viewpoints and providing the reader with an unparalleled glimpse into that unforgettable day.

Book review: Forever…. by Judy Blume

Review of: Forever . . . by Judy Blume
1975, Bradbury Press.

“Forever…” has long been the object of controversy and book banning attempts because of its frank descriptions of sex. I do take into account the era in which it was published, and the fact that I am reading it as a grown woman, not a teenager, but — ironically, my complaint about “Forever…” is that it’s not realistic enough.

Katherine, the protagonist, falls in love with Michael, and their relationship becomes sexual. While Blume does describe the mechanics accurately, of course, it’s all a little too easy, in my humble opinion. Katherine not terribly self-conscious, nor is her boyfriend, so it’s remarkably lacking in awkwardness. And barring a few false starts, and of course the end of their relationship, the sex is nearly always amazing — for both of them. Even at the same time. If you get what I’m saying. Honestly, let’s hope for every young girl out there reading this book, her first sexual relationship is so physically fulfilling. But is it right to set up those kinds of expectations?

Where the book succeeds, in my opinion, can be summed up in the tagline on my modern edition: “Is there a difference between first love and true love?” There could have been a LOT more exploration on this topic, especially in the denouement, but this is the important story the book has to tell, in my humble opinion.

Book review: A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Review of: A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
Vintage, 368 p., 2007.

“I think you might be the sanest member of the family,” George’s possible future son-in-law Ray says to him, as he’s lying in a hospital bed of his own doing, about half-way through Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother. There’s a strange sort of truth to Ray’s statement, and that’s saying something.

A wonderfully witty story of a family at a bit of a crossroads, Haddon’s humor is snappy, dry, part tragedy and part comedy. There is a delightfully stark humor to George Hall’s breakdown, and his supporting cast — the Hall family, plus boyfriends, lovers, children, ex-husbands and fiances — takes the story and runs with it, adding in their own absurd twists and dilemmas. A Spot of Bother isn’t laugh-out-loud funny by any means. But for anyone with a slightly absurd family of their own, it’s very much of the shake-your-head-in-understanding style.

Telling a surprisingly short story, timeline-wise, Bother does take a little time to really get cranking. Perhaps there’s something to be said for that, as the entire situation depicted within also takes a bit of time to start devolving as wildly as it does — in which case Haddon’s pacing might be somewhat brilliant. Either way, it’s worth sticking with, and the conclusion is remarkably satisfying.

Book review: Interpreter of Maladies

Review of: Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
Mariner Books (1999), Edition: First Edition, Paperback, 208 pages

“Interpreter of Maladies” was Lahiri’s first bestselling effort, but the last of her works I read. That strange perspective might have made me enjoy less — just a little less — what was a beautiful collection of stories.

The short story itself is a tough vehicle to sell, and a collection of them even more so, but Lahiri’s writing is exquisite no matter what form she uses. This particular collection had some stand out gems, in my opinion, specifically “A Temporary Matter”, where a married couple who has recently suffered loss comes together — temporarily — during a series of electricity cut-offs. Also notable was the title piece, “Interpreter of Maladies”, where the narrator’s observances and descriptions are so real, so detailed, so visceral, it instantly takes the reader into his mind and into the scene. Others felt slightly flatter, and if there was an overall flaw to this collection, it was that there was no through-line or thematic unity to the parts of the whole. I read her second published collection, “Unaccustomed Earth”, first, and there was blown away at how each story was so separate and so united, woven through each other not by any characters or places but by feeling and by emotion. This first collection did not rank up as high.

“Interpreter of Maladies” is a wonderful collection, and an amazing debut, and more than worthy of the Pulitzer. If you enjoy it, and I think you will, you’ll be even more blown away by Lahiri’s later works.

Should you be suspicious of online book reviews?

In addition to writing them myself, I read a lot of reviews. I’ve long had a great deal of faith in the collective opinion when it comes to product evaluation. I wouldn’t necessarily not buy something because of one bad review, nor would I make a purchase on the basis of one good review. But when taken en masse, if the majority of public comments seems positive I’m likely to go ahead and buy. The same is true in reverse. But can that axiom be applied to books? The more reviews the better, usually, for creating an honest picture, but there’s a catch: how can you trust those reviews, even by the dozens?

Go and check out the comments on Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight, for example, at Amazon. Apparently this is either the worst piece of trash ever written or the pinnacle of American literature.  Clearly, it can’t be both. Whatever your opinion, the truth is it’s probably somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. But avid fans and vehement detractors, some of whom may not have even read the book,  will post reviews in droves, slanting the perspective.

What can Amazon do about [slanted reviews]? Well, the answer is: nothing really. Who can prove that someone hasn’t read and liked a book?

Trickier than the rabid fans, though, are dummy accounts. Because there is nothing to stop anyone from posting multiple times, with multiple accounts, to amp up the rating of their own book.  This behavior isn’t limited to authors, for that matter. From a recent article in The Guardian:

From my time on the stand-up circuit, for example, I know of comedians who, in addition to rallying all of their friends and acquaintances, have gone one further and set up online aliases to defend themselves against bad reviews, rate their own YouTube videos, and vote for themselves in online competitions. I also know of journalists and Comment is free writers who have usernames set up to answer criticism and to praise their own work in the comments section.

The Guardian has a few tips on how to gauge the validity of a review:

So, with all this in mind, how do you tell spurious comments and reviews from genuine ones? Here are a couple of tips. Firstly, real reviews usually contain a mix of information, good and bad. If someone is evangelically keen on something, be wary. Especially if their review sits among lukewarm and bad comments. Secondly, how is it written? If it’s too slick, it’s probably a marketing plant; an attempt to manufacture (most likely absent) positive critical acclaim.

In other words, take anything you read online with a grain of salt. Not bad advice all around.


Book review: American Gods

Review of: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Harper Perennial (2003), Edition: Later printing, Paperback, 624 pages

I enjoyed American Gods very much on this, my first reading — and I put it that way because it was obvious to me, throughout, that there are layers to this book that are gliding past me, other aspects of the story that are sailing over my head. I can sense that, but for now I will simply say that the story itself, just as a story, is engaging.

Our protagonist, Shadow, is a man who doesn’t say much; the author himself says Shadow was difficult to write because he keeps so much to himself. I don’t know how he did it, then, but Mr. Gaiman managed to put us rather squarely in Shadow’s head, so that we end up experiencing each twist and turn of this long, strange trip with him in a very visceral way.

In fact, all of the characters — and there are a great many — are compelling, no matter how briefly we spend time with each; in some cases, only a matter of paragraphs. But that seemed fitting, in a book about the gods, both ancient and modern, spread throughout America (above it, below it, part of it and skimming it). Shadow is surrounded by gods, by demons, folklore devils and mythical creatures. Everyone he meets, really, is unique and strange, awesome and terrible and beautiful in each their own way. (Rather an interesting way to look at the world around us, no?) And they all have their stories, some funny, some true, some lies, and almost all sad, and that says something about the people around us as well, I think. With Shadow, we look at the familiar, the even mundane, with a different lens.

Book review: The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

Review of: The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier
272 pages; Pantheon, Feb. 1, 2011.

Kevin Brockmeier’s latest novel is a work of speculative imagination, depicting a gritty modern world where pain is illuminated by life. No one can hide their hurts, physical or emotional: they glow for everyone to see.

The language is lovely and the images sometimes shocking with possibility. I confess, though, I found the theme depressing to the point of difficulty. To be fair, perhaps it’s a testament to just how powerful the story Brockmeier crafted was. Grief laid bare, the physical manifestation of stress on the body, and the unforgiving nature of fate was, at times, while some readers might find the insight gained by these to be inspiring, I found it almost too much to contemplate. Either way, though, it was a powerful novel and worth attention.

Book Review: Gryphon by Charles Baxter

Review of: Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, by Charles Baxter
416 pages. Pantheon; releases Jan. 11, 2011.

I love short stories. There is something paradoxically satisfying about a good short story, the way it uses far less words than its larger cousins to say just as much, if not more. Charles Baxter’s collection of short stories — some previously published, others new — Gryphon is immensely satisfying in just that way.

My favorite story in this collection was “Fenstad’s Mother”; something about Clara Fenstad reminded me of my own mother, though they were nothing alike on the surface. I think it was her fierceness, her strength and her intelligence. And yet the story ends with Fenstad having to care for his mother, with Clara weak and sick in bed. There seemed to be a recurring theme in these stories, at least to me, of people moving into decline, whether it was parents or sons and daughters doing the declining.

There was an underlying otherworldliness to all of the stories in this volume. In “The Cures for Love”, Kit talks about her ex-lover and says, “the sex they had together invoked the old gods, just invited them right in, until, boom, there they were. She wondered over the way the spirit-gods, the ones she lonesomely believed in, descended over them and surrounded them and briefly made them feel like gods themselves.” I actually had an overwhelming sense of the old gods permeating many of these stories. The Fat Genie, Edward Augenblick, Billy Bell, Earl Lampson. Possibly I’m extrapolating, but I kept thinking of the characters in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, who would slip in and out of the lives of mere mortals often without ever being recognized.

How does an author know when a short story should end? Part of the joy of reading Baxter’s excellent short story was that, while there was an entire world left unsaid each time, they all ended at the precisely right moment, leaving you exactly where you felt you belonged.

Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

Review of: Wolf Hall, by Hillary Mantel
Henry Holt and Co., 2009; 560 p.

The hardest book review to write is one for a book you loved. It’s hard not to gush, to come up with useful analysis, even look for weak areas, when all you want to do is ramble on and on about how exceptional it was. Talking about Wolf Hall is like that for me.

Mantel turns the character of Thomas Cromwell on his head, leading us away from all we’ve previously been told of him. Not a villain here at all, he is merely a man, and a fairly good one. He is an ambitious man who strives and reaches for more, but one who is compassionate, feeling, and deeply thoughtful. A commoner from the worst of beginnings, he manages to rise to high office on merit, and no small amount of intelligence, alone. He lives, he laughs and he mourns, and mostly he builds for the future. Reading every line, even when it is not Cromwell speaking, feels like you are reading his mind, hearing things as he would have, seeing as he would have seen, and feeling as he would have as well.

Wolf Hall takes place during the heady years when Henry VIII pursued Anne Boleyn, then split the church in order to take her as his wife. Throughout these pages, Anne is a palpable, throbbing presence, always felt if not all that often seen. (“She says yes, yes, yes, then she says no,” one man describes her aptly in her absence.) And Henry himself is captured so perfectly, as both prince and man —

“The king has two bodies. The first exists within the limits of his physical being: you can measure it, and often Henry does, his waist, his calf, his other parts. The second is his princely double, free-floating, untethered, weightless, which may be in more than one place at a time. Henry may be hunting in the forest, while his princely double makes laws. One fights, one prays for peace. One is wreathed in the mystery of his kingship: one is eating a duckling with sweet green peas.” (p. 392)

But it is not only the famous Mantel brings to life, it’s also the lesser beings, the people of London, of York, of Whitehall and Putney, Calais and Essex. People of the court, people of the streets, people of the kitchens of the great halls of England. The sounds, the smells, the atmosphere, it all seems to be contained on these pages.

The details, the atmosphere, the craft in which words are spun and tales are told, all of this combines to make Wolf Hall a work of literary art. I devoured every word and longed for more, and cannot recommend it enough.