Posts Tagged ‘meh’

Book #106: The Girls of Slender Means

Let me preface this by saying that I think just about any book I read after my wild and crazy romp with Douglas Adams was bound to be a bit of a letdown.

I had a hard time taking Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means seriously at first. I kept wanting it to be funny and assuming that everything she said was meant to be sarcastic or witty. I was kind of in the Douglas Adams “this is supposed to be silly” mindset, which wasn’t great for this book.

The Girls of Slender Means is a postwar story about a rooming house in London where literary, smart young women live. They’re pretty much all twenty-somethings, and they all are trying to find husbands and make their way in the world. And that’s pretty much it.

I will say this for Spark – she’s great at creating vivid, believable characters. We meet several girls who live in the hostel, and they are all real and believable, with interesting quirks, flaws, and ideas. They all come to life very well. I felt like I could know or encounter any of them in the real world and not be surprised at all. Almost all of them are fully developed and three-dimensional.

Overall, however, The Girls of Slender Means was a bit “meh” for me. I think I’ll chalk it up to the stark reality of Spark’s novel immediately following the colorful, clever, and zany world Adams created, because I did find myself enjoying it more by the end. I’d even recommend it to people who want a quick, relatively interesting read.

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Butcher Boy

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Book #101: What I Loved

Have you ever read a book that don’t mind while you’re reading it, but once you finish you feel sort of glad that it’s over?

That’s how I felt with What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (who, by the way, is married to Paul Auster). It’s one of those novels that I think is almost pretentious, but isn’t totally pretentious, kind of like White Teeth or something by Jonathan Franzen.

(That said, it’s been recorded on this blog that I didn’t care for White Teeth and do not like the one book I’ve read by Jonathan Franzen.)

The book is about love and friendship, told through the eyes of an old art historian, looking back at his family’s relationship with another family. There is a lot of pretentious talk about art and literature, since the four adults in the novel are all writers, artists, or academics.

One of the men is a controversial artist in New York City, and Hustvedt takes great pleasure in describing all of his works in great detail, like she’s painting a picture of the paintings, sculptures, and other works he’s created. Often these descriptions were long and indulgent, and often they lost me. I’m not a very visual reader. I don’t often actually picture things in my head as I read, so pagelong descriptions of paintings or dioramas added little to the story for me, although I guess maybe they do for people who are really visual readers who are good at visualizing things they read about.

Also, I felt like the last section of the book was really unnecessary. Of course, this is when most of the plot actually happened, but for some reason it felt like it didn’t connect well with the rest of the book.

That sounds painfully vague, but it’s one of those character-driven books where there isn’t much plot, and the plot there is is really hard to succinctly describe.

All in all, I’d say that What I Loved is okay while you’re reading it, but I didn’t really take anything away from it, either positive or negative.

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Book #100: Shroud

Man.

Book 100. It’s taken over 2 years to get here. Remember when I started this and I thought I could read 100 books a year? Boy, was I beautiful, optimistic idiot.

Even though I’ve been an English teacher for a year and read tons of books and written lots of things, I’m still not sure how commas work when you’re using multiple adjectives to describe a noun. I feel like I did it wrong, but I typed it several ways and none of them looked quite right. Grammar is prescriptive anyway, right?

My project for the next 100 books should be to pay attention and see if I can figure out how to do it correctly.

Yes, I am talking about all this to put off having to write about this book. My 100th book was pretty underwhelming.

I know John Banville by reputation, so I was pretty sure I knew what I was getting into with Shroud. I thought it’d be some plot but with lots of philosophical musings and questions to ponder. I was right. But I thought I would really like it. I was wrong.

Shroud is told through the eyes of a presumably untrustworthy narrator, Axel Vander. Vander is a renowned academic visiting Turin for one last conference, at the end of his life. There he meets a girl who has discovered his secret, and he must figure out how to deal with someone knowing his deepest secret.

Axel Vander is probably a PRIME example of an unreliable narrator. He comes out and admits (in the narrative) that his entire life has been a lie. He hasn’t read any of the books he wrote his famous, praised articles on and he isn’t who he says he is at all. Lying, he says, has become natural to him. How, then, are we supposed to believe anything that he tells us in the book?

I think Shroud would have been interesting if it stayed with this thread and let that carry the plot. Instead, it didn’t, really, I don’t think. To be honest, I wasn’t terribly interested in it, so I didn’t read as closely as I should have. I wanted to figure out this Big Secret that Cass Cleave, the young woman in the position to out Vander’s secret, was sitting on. Vander himself alluded to it several times throughout the book, and they even talked about it. I don’t want to spoil it, but the “Big Secret” was mentioned casually a couple times before Vander finally gives in and tells Cass the whole story.

When I read it, I kind of had a moment where I was thinking, “…what? That’s it?” It was very underwhelming. What kept me reading was the thought that maybe there was something even bigger coming. the REAL reason. But there wasn’t. The book just kind of fell flat for me as a whole.

Of course, maybe, since who knows if we can trust Vander, none of the events he described ever actually happened. I’m not sure if that would be better, though. That would come dangerously close to the “it was allllll just a dream” trope that’s so annoying.

Rating: **

Book #96: The War of the Worlds

This group is really heavy on the H.G. Wells, and the science fiction in general (I just finished 2001: A Space Odyssey). I’m told that The War of the Worlds is really the book that started the whole science fiction, alien invaders genre. I suppose we maybe should thank him for it? I’m not usually a huge fan of this type of sci-fi. I’m much more into the stories where humans actually get to go to outer space and travel around.

I’d never read The War of the Worlds before, but I knew quite a bit about it. I saw that weird movie adaptation they made a few years back. You know, the one that should really have been called “The War of the Worlds, or Dakota Fanning Screaming.” I also knew all about how they tried to make it into a radio drama and people freaked out because they thought it was actually happening. I knew the general story: Martians invade and wreak havoc and destruction because the people of Earth don’t have the technology or knowledge to fend them off.

I didn’t realize that that was sort of all the book was. I thought that was the general plot but that there’d be more to it. Except there wasn’t, really. It was actually surprisingly technical. The narrator describes everything relatively calmly and clinically, like he’s writing for some sort of science journal about what happened. There’s surprisingly little emotion to it.

I’m glad I read The War of the Worlds, I suppose, but I think I liked The Time Machine much better. It seemed less clinical or detached. Also, I tend to like time travel more than space invaders if given the choice.

Rating: **
Up Next: The Pit and the Pendulum

Book #86: The Corrections

Ah, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. That book. That. Book.

Several years ago I read this beautiful piece by Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker. It was about David Foster Wallace, Robinson Crusoe, and mourning and it’s probably still the best thing I’ve ever read. Naturally, since he wrote the best thing I’ve ever read, I figured this meant I loved Jonathan Franzen. So, a few years ago, I decided to read The Corrections. 

Bad idea. I hated that stupid book. I didn’t like it much more this time around either.

It’s basically the story of a family struggling to stay together (and hold it together) in the early 2000s. Enid and Albert Lambert’s children – Gary, Chip, and Denise – have all grown up and moved far from their midwestern childhood town. As her children’s lives slowly crumble in different ways and Albert’s health and mental state deteriorate as he succumbs to Parkinson’s disease, Enid tries desperately to bring her whole family back together for one last Christmas in their house.

It sounds like it should be interesting and pretty good. But it’s not. Evidently Franzen and I didn’t see eye to eye on what important, interesting things should be the center of the book. We jump from an interesting plot line to several pages of mind-numbing dialogue between Scandinavians arguing about whether Sweden or Norway is better. And then there are a few scenes with a sociopathic talking turd, for crying out loud. It just…didn’t work out for me.

And then there are the characters. I suppose I’ll say this for Franzen – he really knows how to write flawed characters. There was not one character in The Corrections  that I liked. They were all pretty awful and had very few redeeming qualities. I didn’t care about what happened to any of them, not in the sense that they weren’t interesting and I just didn’t care, but in the sense that they were all just terrible and flawed and I wasn’t really rooting for them at all.

It doesn’t make an interesting experience, reading a book where you don’t like a single character. I guess I’ll also concede this – Franzen really is a great writer. I think I’ll stick with his essays.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Fear of Flying

Book #79: The Poisonwood Bible

I’m almost completely caught up from when I was behind on blogging! Actually, I just read this book last week, so this is the firs time in awhile that I’m writing about a book that I read fairly recently. Woo!

In college, my Twin was in an English class where she had to read Barbara Kingsolver’s book Prodigal Summer, and she hated it. She read some of the, uh, worse sex scenes out loud to us, and for few weeks it was a Thing to make fun of/hate Kingsolver. This was running through the back of my mind when I was reading The Poisonwood Bible.

There weren’t any ridiculous sex scenes in it, though. It actually wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I even enjoyed reading most of it.

The Poisonwood Bible is told from the point of view of the five women of the Price family. The devout, intense head of the family, Nathan, a Baptist minister, relocated his family to the Congo for one year while he serves as a missionary. The family – the reluctant wife, Orelanna; and the daughters, shallow, appearance-centered Rachel; twins Leah, the brave, faithful follower of her father who strives to embrace Africa, and Adah, crippled and mostly mute; and the youngest, Ruth-May – all try to deal with the difficult life they now must lead as revolution breaks out, things go wrong, and Nathan refuses to give in or bend his ways.

Their year stretches into longer when he mission program falls apart after a coup in Congo, and the family find themselves fighting for survival in Africa.

Overall, I enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible. The daughters are the main narrators, and I really liked all their different voices. Kingsolver did a great job of creating strong, believable characters, each with their own thoughts and impressions of what was going on around them. The writing was good and I think Kingsolver captured the strangeness of traveling to and living in a completely different society.

However, I wasn’t totally happy with the book. My high school English teacher saw on Facebook that I was reading The Poisonwood Bible, and commented, “Good book, tough sledding.” I agreed. The book is really well-written and the story is compelling, but I feel like it’s about 150-200 pages too long. It seemed like the climax happened and everything was dark and interesting, and then it dissipated way, waaay, too slowly. I don’t feel like the book needed to follow the girls as they grew into adulthood. Or, if it did, I certainly don’t think it needed to take up almost a third of the book.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Kidnapped

Book #74: The Lover

Ah, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. Yet another book that I have next to nothing to say about.

I’ve read reviews on Goodreads and other places, and it seems like a lot of people love it, but an equal amount of people didn’t really care for it or didn’t have much to say about it.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about it.

The basic plot is that a young French girl takes a much older Chinese lover while she and her family are living in Saigon. The story is told from the point of view of the girl as she reminisces about her adolescence and complex family life.

The girl’s life is restricted and controlled by her mother, and her dysfunctional family leaves much to be desired. Her lover is a well-off, established Chinese man whose family has strong connections. They start hooking up, and things (obviously) go awry.

The narrator’s voice is almost-disconcertingly removed. She describes events with arrow-sharp detail, while at the same time managing to make things very vague and unclear. She is distant and separate from the narrative, which is often disjointed.

This narrative style made it really hard to get a clear sense of what, exactly, was happening and hard to feel any sort of emotional investment in the story. I didn’t feel for the girl at all, and I didn’t really care what happened to anybody in the story.

In short, The Lover did absolutely nothing for me. At least now I know it’s behind me.

Rating: *
Up Next: LaBrava

 

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