Betty Duffy

Friday, April 10, 2009

What I'm Not Reading:

In the spirit of sacrifice, I'd like to share with you a few books I HAVE NOT been reading. It's possible Google is making me Stoopid. It's possible my attention span has shortened. It's possible I'm in writing mode rather than reading mode. It's possible modern literature is to blame, but for the life of me, I cannot finish a book lately.

When my husband and I married, I was very snobbish about what I chose to read. At the age of twenty four, life was too short to waste time on anything but the classics. And I would not dream of abandoning a book before I'd read every last page. In the subsequent years, delving deeper into this Orthodox Catholic subculture, I ran into many Catholics who would not read anything written after 1940 unless it was spiritual reading with an imprimatur. Being an equal opportunity reader seemed like sort of a safe rebellion for my contrary soul.

I began to read Oprah books, chick lit books, modern literary fiction, biographies. One day my husband told me that he liked me better when I only read the classics because I'd become such an unsatisfied hunter. When you read modern fiction, you have to be able to put a book down when it's not working. Only one in every ten books you pick up is worth savoring every word--if that. And so I'm always looking, always hoping that the next book I open will be one I don't want to close.

For your reference, my definition of a "new release" coincides with that of my small town library, which is, anything written in the past fifteen years.

In no particular order, here are the new releases I have opened, and since closed (also, I realize that book titles should be underlined, but I don't know how to underline in blogger, so quotes will have to do):

1. "Christ the Lord" by Anne Rice: Please, someone tell me, is this a good book or are we just excited that a former vampire novelist has converted to Catholicism? I gave it fifty pages, and could not uncover the answer.
2. "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Ecco is probably not a new release even by my definition. And I didn't get past the prologue--which begs the question: "WHY PROLOGUE?" They are always boring, and if there's one little piece of information that I will need in order to understand the next 900 pages, please give it to me in the first paragraph of Chapter 1.
3. "Ten Days in the Hills" by Jane Smiley. After "A Thousand Acres" I hoped for a Jane Smiley marathon, planned to whiz through all of her novels and maintain a reading high for several months. The first fifty pages of Ten Days are pure literary pornography, which I admit, I tolerated for far too long. There was some interesting dialogue in a couple of scenes, and all of the sex was in context, but still very graphic---and also incapable of salvaging the fact that the plot failed to present within the first 100 pages. I don't really care that it's supposedly a modern rewrite of The Decameron; it still needs a little motion (besides sex).
4. "Bergdorf Blondes" by Plum Sykes: I found this at Goodwill and thought it might lighten my mood while I walked on the treadmill. I read five pages. Insipid.
5. "I Don't Know How She Does It" by Allison Pearson: I wanted to read about a bad mother so that I might feel better about myself, but in a scene where she sprinkles store bought cookies with powdered sugar in order to make them look homemade for a school function, I just couldn't imagine caring whether or not my cookies were homemade.
6. "The Stand" by Stephen King: my brother-in-law said I should read it, and I checked it out so we'd have something to talk about, but I chickened out due to the length and the dark cover which made me think I'd be basking in darkness for far too long if I actually read it. Not to mention the fact that I'd inadvertantly picked up an expanded version--has he no humility?

The following books weren't torture, and maybe I'll come back to them because someone recommended them to me, or they have notable authors:

7. "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke: I read 600 pages out of over 1000 which made putting this book down a considerable loss of investment. But I realized I was looking for excuses to avoid it. It made me feel guilty. And rather than lugging it around for the next three years, as I did with "Anne of Avonlea" in the sixth grade, I decided to cut my losses.
8. "Fugitive Pieces" by Anne Michaels: I've tried several times to read this book. Recently my mom saw the movie and said it was wonderful, so I picked up the book again--still no go.
9. "American Pastoral" by Philip Roth: I think you're either a Roth fan or you're not and I don't think I am. But maybe I'll try something else.

A non-related literary pet-peeve: Why are so many recent books named for someone's daughter? ex: The Storyteller's Daughter, The Alchemist's Daughter, The Abortionist's Daughter, blah blah blah. Dumb trend.

And now, the one book in ten that I finished:

"Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout
This is a collection of short stories in which a middle aged woman named Olive appears. She's an interesting character, even if her entrance into each short story feels a little stilted. For instance, a young man sits in his car contemplating suicide when his grade school teacher (Olive) knocks on his window. But the stories are good, and one should consider my completion of this book a strong recommendation.

Currently undecided:
"Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor" by Brad Gooch: So far, so snore, but I want to like it, so I'm still trying.
"The Women" by TC Boyle is waiting in the wings.

Just for kicks, The Wall Street Journal recently asked how many pages you read before giving up on a book. How about it?

A Related Article at Bookslut


CJ said...

If I hate a book in the first 10 pages, I usually bail. If I want to read a book but it's slow going, I commit to reading 10% of it and reassessing. (This is a rule of thumb that works best with 19th-century fiction, like when I am fussing at Mr. Dickens for writing ANOTHER slow-moving novel with MORE implausible characters. I'm always hooked in by the time I've read 10%.) Occasionally I have compelled myself to read an entire book that I hated just because someone I loved recommended it so highly. This was a good strategy for "Far from the Madding Crowd," which I loved passionately but only after frog-marching myself through three-quarters of it, and a bad strategy for "Dangling Man," which represents ~4 hours of my life I'll never get back.

"I Don't Know How She Does It" was hilarious, but I had a similar reaction to the home-distressed shop-bought baked goods. IIRC, another mother at the school asks her whether she made the mince pies with grappa or brandy. Nobody in my school pick-up line is asking me about grappa!

Hello, btw, from another mother of five. I've been enjoying your blog for a bit now but hadn't yet said hi.

Mrs. T said...

If I hate the first sentence, I bail. And there are a LOT of bad first sentences out there. If it begins badly, it's not likely to get any better. So say I, anyway.

Of Jane Smiley's work, I like her novellas Ordinary Love & Good Will, and her saga-like novel The Greenlanders. Otherwise, not so much, I don't think. I didn't love A Thousand Acres -- and I do love King Lear, so it wasn't the plot.

Brad Gooch's Flannery . . . well, I just finished it and I'm reviewing it, and I will say this: it's not that bad. I think, though, that he doesn't get that her Southernness and her Catholicism aren't just eccentric add-ons. And everyone seems to think that it's kind of pathetic that she never had sex. Another eccentric add-on. I mean, lupus is unfortunate, but VIRGINITY? Now, there's a disease.

I haven't read so much contemporary fiction in the last few years, because I think I read too much of it earlier on. Google is certainly making me dumber by the minute (no, maybe I just was this way . . . ), but I've been trying to go back and fill in the considerable gaps in what I thought was a decent education.

Besides which, I'm just a prose snob. See "first sentence," above. Everyone raves about that novel The Kite Runner, and I remember hating it, because I thought the quality of the writing was poor. And I found the story surprisingly unsurprising, too, for all it was supposed to be such a "startling and original" read.

jenX67 said...

I'm just amazed you *tried* to read that many books.

I bail on about page 4.

The Flannery book - I'd like to check that one out, but can see how it might be a snore.

Betty Duffy said...

CJ, Welcome! And thanks for introducing yourself. I'm looking forward to perusing your blog--especially interested in your thoughts on word frequency. Not something one thinks about every day--except when I'm writing and I realize, "Gosh, I've used the word 'indeed' a lot lately--I wonder what's up with that--trying to sound British?"

Anyway, on British novels, I agree with you that they require a little more patience than the standard American new release. And that patience is typically rewarded. Whereas patience with the highly recommended American new release frequently ends in disappointment.

Mrs. T, I admire your ability to make the break after the first sentence." Even though the evidence is against a bad writer becoming a good writer over the course of ten pages, I feel at times overpowered by guilt: I drove all the way to the library for this, I might as well plug on for a couple more pages; Or I have a desire to know why everyone else is so interested (as with Twilight, which to my chagrin, I enjoyed, in spite of its terrible prose.

I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of Kite Runner. I read about half of it, then decided to watch the movie so that I could talk to people about it--but even the movie suffered from clinging too tightly to that stilted prose in the novel, and I had to fast forward to the end, which was a dud. Why did people like that book so much?

I thought Jane Smiley did a great job of capturing rural decay: the growth beyond means and ultimate collapse of the family farm. I appreciated her character development and the Lear allusion, but I did think the incest plot detracted from rather than added to the story in the end. I proceeded on to "Ten Days," and "Moo," on the strength of her prose, but found both books wanting. Glad to know there are a couple more works of hers worth looking into.

I think my irritation so far with "Flannery" has more to do with the nature of a biography than anything else. I'm enjoying Gooch's conjecture about what instances in her life might have inspired certain stories, and I love the impressions that her aquaintances had of her. I think she would have been a fun person to know.

I actually thought (at least in the first hundred pages) that Gooch has been surprisingly thorough in his discussion of her Catholicism--or at least the cultural aspect of it. Maybe my expectations were low because I read a couple reviews, including the blurb on your blog.

She's not yet to Yaddo or Iowa though, so maybe he treats her Catholicism as more of a curiosity once she is away from her family and home.

TS said...

Like this post and can very much relate. I'm thinking about TC Boyle's latest. I liked "Drop City" but didn't finish "Talk, Talk".

On the Flannery book, it picked up with her writing career, in my estimation.

Mrs. T said...

Yeah, re Flannery: after reading several reviews, I was surprised that he mentioned her Catholicism at all, initially. Where I think he falls short is in understanding how, and how much, the Catholicism permeates and drives the stories, and how they're so much more about THAT than anything that might have happened in her life. I think he wants to paint her as far more subversive and ironic in her relation to her faith than in fact her adult habits and her work suggest that she was.

Re Jane Smiley: she is very good at the things you mention, but I agree that the incest business is way too heavyhanded, and too much an attempt to explain what in Lear is inexplicable, yet totally believable. If you don't actually believe in sin and human depravity -- and not that I know what Jane Smiley believes or doesn't believe, but it's plausible that she doesn't believe in these things -- then you have to invent reasons for people to behave in depraved ways, hence the need for them to be victims of something. I'd forgotten about that, actually, until you mentioned it, but yes. It's a real flaw.

I tend to be less patient with books people give me than with ones I pick up for myself. But then, if I'm leafing through them in a bookstore or library, I can decide pretty quickly whether I want them or not. And I will get sucked into page-turners occasionally. I really think J.K. Rowling is only a so-so prose writer, but boy did I turn all those pages of all those Harry Potter books. I'm sure I'd do the same with Twilight.

But on the whole, I'm a snob. I'd rather read the same Alice Thomas Ellis novel over and over than just about anything else.

My verification-code word is "bandlub." Surely we can find a definition and a use for that.

Kate said...

Can I defend Kite Runner? I liked it, despite the so-so prose, because it depicted that area of the world in a way that I had never considered. Gardens? Mansions? Festivals? Happy children running through markets? Maybe it's a mark of my ignorance or anglocentrism (as my brother might term it), but that kind of existence in that region of the world just had never occurred to me. I see pictures of conflict and dust, and it's easy to give up on the whole thing. But to hear about the country from someone who loves it, or did at one time, or does a good job of pretending he loves it for the sake of his fiction, you realize that there is something that has been lost, and that you hope can be recovered someday.

I also liked the redemption journey of the story. You could say it bordered on trite because of the writing, but I think the themes of goodness and guilt were very powerful, and although they were so specifically applied to Afghan history and culture, and religion, they were not so much so that they couldn't be read as universal - I think we all can relate to guilty questioning of our sins, and the hope for redemption from them! I did, and I know Betty could because of, um, this whole blog. :)

On modern lit that we hate but read anyway: our book club's selection this month was A Fine Balance, an Oprah pick. I read 40ish pages and quit (SPOILER) when the first loveable character died. After a couple weeks I read 100 or so more and had to quit again for similar reasons. After about a month, I received notice that the book was overdue, but the meeting's next week, so I finished it in a children-ignoring marathon a couple of days ago, and still haven't recovered, despite eating half a bag of leftover Easter basket malt eggs. AVOID AT ALL COSTS - if there was a moral, it was a depressing one. And if I'm wrong please, anyone, educate me, so I feel like it wasn't a waste of time and my good reputation with the library.

Kate said...

One more thing on KR - I love its message that to live a good life requires more than avoiding evil, but also having the courage to do good... and how much courage that can sometimes take. Another easily applicable lesson, and I think an inspiring one, too, especially (sorry to make everything Catholic/Christian, but it's how I think) when it's so easy to become lukewarm, even though we know that that's not enough.

Betty Duffy said...

Kate, I did have a similar reaction to the pre-war Afghanistan. And I suppose, had I stuck with it, I would have had the same response as you to the quest for redemption, because I do sort of have a thing for that. I did ask why people liked it, and you answered, and I see your points. But it has to be said, there are so many other books that do sin and redemption with better prose and more panache.

I guess KR did a good job of getting a vast quantity of twenty-first century citizens to read about sin and redemption, which I suppose the old guard sin and redemption canon could probably no longer accomplish.

Emily said...

I'll read almost anything and finish it whether I like it or not, but even I couldn't bear to waste any more time on Twilight, a book YOU recommended, BD. I skimmed through to the supposedly exciting finish and even that wasn't exciting. Are people so desperate for a love story that they'll gobble up something that sounds like a middle schooler wrote it? Drivel! And marketing genius!

Then again, I just reread Robinson Crusoe for my Brit lit class, and even though the vocabulary is far exalted over anything written in the last 50 years, 75% of it is incredibly boring, unless you are planning to star in an episode of Survivor. No wonder there are so many abridged versions.

Our newspaper today had a review of the "Flannery" book, which made it sound like the author does address her Catholicism, but I can't see any real use to reading a biography of O'Connor when her letters and her Mystery and Manners are so beautifully written and provide such an articulate guide to her fiction.

Sometimes it is interesting to read best sellers, even if poorly written, just to find out what the world is reading. Finished AJ Jacobs' "Year of Living Biblically," and found it fascinating, even though the quality of its writing is pretty much on the level of a blog -- but not nearly as fine as this blog specimen!

Emily said...

So I'm reading Tim Farrington again. Kate, did you finish the Monk Downstairs? I picked up the Monk Upstairs the other day, for lack of anything light to read, and it is definitely light, with a prosaic plot, chick lit, but every few pages there's a moment of luminosity.

Kate said...

I did finish it, and whatever, it was amusing - no Twilight, mind you, but a fun read. ;) I liked it less than Lizzie, probably because Lizzie didn't have as many detailed steamy scenes (come on, is it really necessary to print the words 'vaginal lips'???) So I don't know if I'd go for a third. I feel like I've read my annual allotment of brain candy lit with the reading(s? I'll never tell) of the Twilight series.

Only one other lady in the book club had finished Fine Balance, so I didn't garner any new insights from the meeting. Everyone quit it partway through because it was too depressing, and no one was sorry for doing so after I filled them in on the plot they missed. Someone had a good point about it, but it was a strictly Christian/American Democratic read of the book -- NOT the author's point, of which I am still unsure.

Betty Duffy said...

EM, I'm wondering how it is to read Farrington after taking his class. Any new insights?

Speaking of re-reading, I'm thinking of rereading Alice Mcdermott's After This, or Kristin Lavransdatter. That would be round three on Kristin--do you think rereading is wasteful? Or is it more wasteful not to read because most books one picks up, like the Oprah one that traumatized Kate cannot be trusted.

And Kate, "vaginal lips": um, maybe for a medical manual of some sort, but not fiction. Was that OUR Tim Farrington?

Kate said...

Oh, yes. But it was necessary from a literary POV - you know, to show that he wasn't a regular monk, he was a sexy monk.