Category Archives: books

Book bullies: When that novel just won’t leave you alone

black and white of child throwing a tantrum

I don’t wanna read this book! Don’t make me! — CC image “Tantrum” courtesy of demandaj on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve picked up a book that I’m beginning to find intrusive.

This book is really getting in the way. I see it there, on the floor next to my bed, with the bookmark sticking out of its spine, and narrow my eyes at it. I know for a fact that beguiling cover is only a smokescreen for total entrapment. If I start reading again, I’ll be unable to stop for at least a few chapters, and then what’ll I do? Not much else with the rest of my day, that’s what!

Plus, I’ll get agitated. Terrible things are happening to the main character all the time. The book thinks it can fool me, because it starts out with a backdrop of lyrical words and natural beauty. Then it likes to hammer me and tear my guts out, before sending a few more soothing droplets of peace my way.

Keeping this book next to my bed is a bad idea. I want to know what is happening next, but on the other hand, I also want to sleep. I’ll lie down and get all cuddly with my book, knowing I’ll keep turning pages until the next emotional crash. At which point I will lie awake, fretting about the uncertain (fictional) future, as emotionally invested in the characters as if we were related.

I was browsing at the library (always a dangerous pastime) when I found the book, although I should only have been returning items and rushing out before my car meter expired. Intrigued by the cover and the title, I checked out the jacket flaps. Then I started reading the first chapter. I have a rule of thumb which says, if I am standing in a bookstore or a library for more than 10 minutes reading a book I only thought about “checking out” briefly, I need to pick up a copy for myself to read at home. The rule applied, so I took this dangerous novel back to my place with me, little knowing the emotional time-bombs it was going to set off in my psyche.

I knew the author, too; I’d read some of her short prose. That was destructive, also. In a beautiful way. This should have warned me, had I paid closer attention to the byline. But I was snookered by my own oversight.

Ooh, shiny pretty cover design!

I’ve had the book for a couple of weeks now — I usually read MUCH faster than this — and have made my painful way to the final third of the story. I had another book from the library waiting for me to read — the new Khaled Hosseini, which, since it was new, was only being lent for a limited time and I wasn’t allowed to renew it — which I didn’t get to read AT ALL because of Book Number One.

I had to return a book without reading it.

That never happens.

But, Alex, you might point out. All of the characteristics of the book you are complaining about — these sound like GOOD things. And you’d be right, of course. Don’t all of us want to create a world that’s so real it rivals the tangible surroundings of our readers? Don’t we all yearn to create characters who haunt our readers just like they haunt us? Don’t we all want our prose to be described by adjectives that we synonomize with “beautiful”?

Now, I like immersive fiction. After all, that’s kind of the point. I just like to be the one in charge, and right now, I’m not.

Book bully.
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When was the last time a book grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and dragged you kicking and screaming? Share in the comments!

Why I am not a fan of this well-written novel

How hopelessness doesn't play in literature - a case study

 

leatherbound book with ribbon bookmark

image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I recently finished a new book by a well-known author.1 It was a very different kind of book from what her previous readers would likely expect, a characteristic that particularly intrigued me. I love it when artists break boundaries. I had enjoyed her other books, and I wanted to enjoy this one.

I finished it, and a couple of weeks have gone by. The book was good, and I found it difficult to put down… but I’m not sure that I can say I like it.

Weird, no?

I certainly didn’t dislike it. But the book is different from what I expected.

Not because I was expecting a variation on the earlier work. But rather because this new one is actually quite a dark, angry book, sometimes bleak and frankly cynical.

The narrative is cynical about the behaviors and motivations of all human beings. Under the pretense of honesty, the author portrays all people as weak, cowardly, and entirely self-interested. I use the word “pretense” advisedly. Pop culture finds it “hip” to be dark and nihilistic — I felt this way about The Dark Knight, which I thought was an excellent but depressing movie, and the same thing seems to be happening in the new Kevin Bacon series, The Following — whereas in my opinion, a story doesn’t redeem itself without being redeeming in some way. I’m not saying the author is trying to hook into pop culture, just that her book falls under this wider umbrella of nihilism which has become somewhat pervasive. Portraying the entire human race as either evil, or vapid, is just as unrealistic as painting us all as angels and saints.

During the book’s setup, however, this negative assumption worked well: I read it in the spirit of a farce, perhaps something sharp and biting, like George Bernard Shaw, or Oscar Wilde. But quickly, the humor began to disappear, like water in a leaky watering can.

One character escaped this treatment, I felt: AP, the acne-ridden older son of an abusive, petty criminal father, who is infatuated with the new girl in town. He is a three-dimensional character, with strengths as well as weaknesses, and his personality develops naturally throughout the book. AP doesn’t stand in for a type or an idea; he is his own person.

Also on the positive side, readers of her earlier works will recognize the author’s command of language, particularly dialogue. At the same time, a number of characters were visual “blanks” to me. I was missing details I could hang my hat on. MF, for example. She didn’t even get a personality until the end of the book. Now, that may have been intentional, a literary allusion to the way the community treated her as an icon and an idea. But in that case, I’d rather have her remain entirely characterless the whole way through. But the most egregious example, I think, was the case of KW. What color was her hair? Was she tall? Chubby? No idea. For such a central character, thematically, and for someone with such a large physical presence, I feel this was a huge oversight.

The story is a page-turner. I wanted to know what happened next. That being said, for the most part I found myself so stressed out by the events unfolding in the book that I couldn’t read it before going to bed. I was unable to sleep, I was so on edge.

But my greatest reservation pertains to the negative outlook (drum roll, please) The Casual Vacancy seems to possess regarding human interaction, rather than any literary qualities it displays. I saw virtually no capacity for grace in this novel. The ending lifts… from an annihilating hopelessness we float to a kind of regret… but I didn’t feel a resolution. I felt relief, yes, and a waning of the tension I carried in my body as I had been reading the book, but there wasn’t anything to hang onto. All the social battles framed by the narrative were being lost — but the narrative never went into the arguments for wanting to win them. As a reader, I felt much like the character PJ, who realizes she’s supporting one side of an argument out of habit, personal friendship and allegiance. This is the side I think JK Rowling is on, through her social worker character, but the only coherent argument I discern in favor of this position is that the alternative would be… sad.2

hardcover design for novel The Casual Vacancy

image courtesy of goodreads.com

The story filled me with indignation. But the tale dissolves in a sigh, rather than coalescing into any kind of grace or light, and in that, I feel cheated as a reader, and very cheated in my having felt indignant.

Yet I can’t say I dislike the book (although I don’t like its vision). Ms. Rowling has brought to life a complex (and navel-gazing) small community. I salute her for getting another, different work out so soon after the Harry Potter series. She has avoided being pigeonholed (I hope), as well as from being sucked into the vortex Harper Lee fell into. To Kill a Mockingbird was a smash success. Ms. Lee never wrote another book. Ms. Rowling has.

Would I recommend you read The Casual Vacancy? Absolutely. As I said at the beginning of this post, this is a good book. It’s engaging and well worth reading. Plus, I would love to hear what other people think about both the story and the literary construction. How do you feel about some of my observations in this post?

——

1. Don’t fret, those of you who are curiosity-minded; I’ll do a “reveal” at the end of the post. Feel free to skip down to find out who it is in advance. The post may include a few spoilers, so keep that in mind if you’d rather be surprised.

2. A weak argument. Can’t we muster anything stronger than that? Losing hold of “right” and “wrong” not only diminishes us as people, but robs us of literary muscle.

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The problem of judging a book by its cover

What happens when there isn't one?

Happy 2013!

After my long holiday break, I have a few thoughts about books to share — partly because of the awesome number of them gifted to me and weighing down my suitcase after the holidays.

library stacks

Word goodness! Image courtesy of geekphilosopher.com

The wave of digital readers and e-books that is swirling into publishing-dom, tsunami-style, consistently creates existential ripples among traditionalists (yours truly included) and those affiliated with the traditional order, along the lines of, “What is a book?”

This isn’t one of those existential ripples.

It’s a different ripple. What’s going to happen to the community of reading as the phenomenon of book covers dwindles and vanishes?

The NY Times Travel section published an article in mid-December 2012 about literary haunts in Manhattan. The author, while visiting a “literary” bar recommended to him by friends, observes:

“Most of the women looked like extras from an episode of Lena Dunham’s HBO series, ‘Girls.’ I would report to you the books they were carrying, but the only readers in the bunch were grasping Kindles.”

The author is sad because he can’t hit on the ladies based on what they might be reading, but I’m sad because not glimpsing what they are reading takes a lot of the community out of reading!

The best way to find new books: as gifts

I’ve always thought that books make the best gifts.

I’m talking as the recipient (although I do enjoy giving them, too). I’ve gotten a lot of good ones over the years, for birthdays and Christmases, and other big life events, such as when I left for my two-year sojourn in New Zealand. It’s how I found some of my favorite books of all time: Anne of Green Gables, the original Earthsea trilogy from Ursula LeGuin, Jane Eyre, Mary Higgins Clark’s thrillers, Juliet Marillier’s Light Isles and Sevenwaters books, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter books (I swear I read male authors too), German young adult mystery and fantasy novels, thick with detail and glorious language…

The tradition was kept up this year, when I received Stephen King’s On Writing, possibly one of the best books, on, er, writing, that I’ve ever seen (and also on my All-Time Favorites list. A male author. There). As well as a few other tomes.

I’ve killed my favorite books with love. The hard covers have stood up well, but the paperbacks are falling apart. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read them — I used to read the Earthsea books and Anne of Green Gables about once a year. If I ever wanted to offload them on the Amazon used-book marketplace, they would near-universally have to be rated as in poor condition. The corners are dog eared and frayed; the cover art cracked and barely recognizable to an unknowing eye; the bindings are pulp; the front covers are coming off and so are some of the opening pages; other pages are yellowed with age and exude an old-book smell. The only kind of used-book defacement missing is writing on the pages — I never ever wanted to scribble in my books! Even after they succumb to the ravages of love, they’re kind of sacred.

Now, I flag my books with crazy-colored sticky notes. I still can’t bring myself to create messy marginalia.

Over time, I’ve received fewer titles that I haven’t requested by title or author name in advance. Instead of books, I tend to get recommendations.

The next best way: educated guesswork

In my case, book recommendations — a form of educated guesswork by the recommender — translate into trips to the library (I’d be eating Ramen noodles every day, assuming I wasn’t buried by a collapsing pile of books in my hoarder-style apartment, had I actually purchased a copy of everything I ever wanted to read). One author or style leads to another: I quickly amassed a “to read” list that outstripped my power to ever complete.

red book on a shelf

Standing out from the crowd
image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

My primary strategy for adding to the list consisted of browsing the “new fiction” shelves at our local branch, looking over the spines of all the shiny new volumes — a form of less-educated guesswork (this time by me). Unless it was clear from that superficial view that the book was not my cup of tea, I’d read the dust jacket… and if that was promising, the first few lines or paragraphs of the book itself. I knew I had a winner when I got to the third page, standing in front of the shelves, and I was still reading.

We’ve all heard the saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” But it’s hard. I picked up Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves based solely on the title, for example. Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Peter Høeg) caught me with the eye on the cover, enigmatic, as well as the taste of winter suggested by the white background.

I agree a book cover shouldn’t be everything, but it’s a logical place to start. Especially if we don’t know the author or have never of the book.

Unsurprisingly, the modern book marketing machine revolves around the cover. The cover is the cornerstone of the book’s “branding.” This holds true even when the visual is virtual: online book stores use cover images as icons to flag books for would-be purchasers, and author websites feature an image of the book for sale.

But there really isn’t any cover on an e-book.

After we’ve purchased the digital copy or borrowed it (depending on the current state of wrangling between libraries and publishers), it resides solely on our flickering little screen. Once we start reading, the cover, visible only to us in the first place, effectively vanishes.

And the reading community goes with it.

Because books aren’t only just for us to read

worn blue journal

the gift of a story
image courtesy of freedigitialphotos.net

Sure, we think we’re engaged in a solitary activity when we’re reading… it’s hard to have a conversation with someone else at the same time and actually remember a word of what we read… but although I’m not a betting woman, I’m willing to bet cold hard cash that I’m not the only one who’s relied on the recommendations and book suggestions of family, friends, and strangers. And let’s not forget the literary community at Goodreads, more than 13 million users strong. It’s a community built up explicitly around books! And interestingly, the fulcrum of this social media hub, digital and virtual though it is, involves seeing what other people have on their “shelves” (welcome back, cover icons) …and what their comments on these books are.

We lose the human connection when there is no way to tell what someone is reading — or to show anyone else what we are reading. Users of electronic devices could just as well be checking their email, or surfing Facebook, as reading any kind of book.

In an example of classic book interaction, the lady next to me on the plane last month struck up a conversation about the book that I was reading — because she had just caught a glimpse of its cover. Not to browbeat the Kindle, but this conversation would surely not have taken place if I had been holding a computerized version of the book. I then saw she was holding a book of crossword puzzles, and so we went from food (my book was Consider the Fork) to writing to families — one of my grandmothers was a prodigious crossworder in her day.

There we were, two strangers, discovering a common bond by virtue of our book [covers]. As I said, the cover is a good place to start. Not just for marketers, but for the rest of us, too.


Have you stumbled across any good new books recently? How did you find them?

How likely are you to ask somebody reading a Kindle or a tablet whether it’s “any good?”