Books That Disappoint—what to do?

Wednesday, 27 July 2011 14:02

bad-dog3Some books make you wonder why the author bothered...and then make you wonder why YOU'RE bothering. Do you continue with a disappointing book...or put it down?

I've done both recently. I picked up Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule on the basis of its solid reviews. But Gordon's prose felt so clogged and overworked it was offputting. It turns out Gordon is a professor of writing, which maybe is why the book feels a bit like a writing-class exercise. I love dense, rich prose, but not.... Well, anyway, I put the book aside.

Then I picked up Sara Gruen's newest, Ape House, in which a family of apes—who communicate using American Sign Language—eventually become stars in their own reality tv show. Just think of the possibilities! But Gruen's prose is thin and screen-writerish. And her apes turn out to be a lot more interesting than her humanoids.

I finished Gruen's book, though—thinking there might be a payoff. Besides it wasn't painful to read. And there is a sort of pay-off at the end, predictable but sweet.

*Added later...For a truly great read about apes and people, try The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (sorry, no reading guide)...it's brilliant, funny, and  disturbing.

Questions for Book Clubs
What do you do with disappointing books...especially if one is your book club selection? Which ones have disappointed...and why?

 

Venus & Mars—do we write differently? (Part 2)

Friday, 15 July 2011 10:32

mars-venus-statue

Lately, I've been struck by something strange: my growing preference for male writers. I'm a little tired of Venus, which is hard for me to admit...what with being a girl.

But after reading a lot of female authors recently, I find myself bored with their focus on the intimate—the bird's eye view into relationships and family—waiting for the shoe to drop, the relationships to explode, tragedy to strike, and a general mess to be made of everything. I'm always worried how it all gets cleaned up.

I'm thinking of authors like Sue Miller, Jodi Picoult, Anne Tyler, Alice Hoffman, Jennifer Weiner, Marilynne Robinson. These are incredibly talented writers; they're wonderful. It's just that....

Men seem to write on a larger scale; even the personal is painted on a broader canvas, sometimes of near-epic proportions. I'm thinking of David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet ... Jeffrey Eugenidies Middlesex...David Wroblewski's Edgar Sawtelle......Phlip Roth's The Human Stain or American Pastoral.

After finishing one of those novels, I feel as if I've been part of something grand, something vast and far beyond my day-to-day perception of life. There's a thrill in that.

But now, in the very act of putting pen to paper (or finger to key), I'm starting think of all the exceptions: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is of an era, and Louise Erdrich's Plague of Doves is mythic. Both Richard Russo and Chris Bohjalian write with penetrating intimacy. So...well, there you go. I've proven nothing.

Still, the issue recalls an earlier post in which I asked the same question: Do men and women write differently? The question at the time was spurred by Liesl Schillinger, who wrote in a New York Times review of Domestic Disturbances:

While the voice and mood of the novel are masculine, clinical and objective . . . the book’s descriptions of colors, smells, clothing and bodies show feminine perception.

So...if Liesl can say something like that...maybe I'm not nuts.

 

Just ♥ Words—rural juror

Friday, 08 July 2011 10:03

rural-juror2In a 30 Rock episode, Jenna stars in a movie, but no one gets the title—"Rural Juror." Jenna keeps calling it "rurur jurur," a hilarious combination of words, which made me want to try a few of my own—Worry Weary ... Arrow 's Error ... Fear of Furor...

Okay, not as funny as Jenna's, but then Tiny Fey's not exactly writing this blog. Still, it got me to thinking about the act of speech, a complicated process that depends on how we shape our hard and soft palates, open our glottis, move our tongue, shape our lips—and the order in which we do it all.

 We perform these oral gymnastics with ease in our native languages, almost instinctively, because we've been doing so since childhood. And that's what makes tongue twisters so much fun: they confound our ability to perform our usual verbal gimmicks. Selling sea shells, Peter Piper's pickles, and the wood chuck chucking. Say them fast and you trip up—because you can't move your tongue to the proper position fast enough.

My favorite piece of linguistic trivia isn't quite a tongue twister, but it's close enough to have actually altered the way we say a common word or two.

Don't You Just ♥ Words?
—Thunder—

Old English for thunder was thunner—an awkward word due to its phoenetic demands. Say it quickly...and you'll know why the "d" slipped in. It has to do with a slight mistiming—as we move our tongue from the "n" to the "r," says linguist Charles Barber.

This transition calls for two simultaneous movements of the speech organs: (1) the nasal passages are closed by the raising of the soft palate, and (2) the tongue is moved away from the teeth to unblock the mouth-passage. [If there's a mistiming], if the...nasal passages are closed before the tongue moves, a "d" will be heard....

Thus the "d" found its way into the word because it was easier to say. Thunder was was first noticed in the 1300s, but it took another 300 before it was accepted as standard English.

Thimble and bramble
are two other words affected by a similar phonetic mistiming, says Barber. They both acquired a middle letter "b."

End of lesson, end of blog post...except to reference Charles Barber's The English Language: A Historical Introduction, Cambridge UP, 2000, p45.

 

Book Club Blues—food fight

Friday, 01 July 2011 09:30

bcblues-6Is food a competitive sport in your book club? It's strange, but we finally got all of our LitFood recipes back up on the New & Improved website...when I got this email:

Our group meets at each others' homes, and whoever hosts serves dinner. It was fun at first. But now the meals are so elaborate that it's like a competition. I feel I'm being judged, and I dread when it's my turn to host.

Not good. But not uncommon either. In a NY Times article on book clubs a couple of years ago, this very complaint turned up. Food should be part of the fun—not the focus. Besides, lots of people who love to read..don't love to cook. So here's something you might try:

Talk about the issue openly...do other members feel the way you do?

If so, make the meal a joint venture, everyone contributing. Those who really love to cook could bring the main dish. My feeling is that hosting is already a lot of work—getting the house ready and laying out glasses, silverware, dishes...to say nothing of the post-meeting clean-up.

If others don't feel as you do, ask to be let off the hook. Suggest a compromise: you could host more often if others bring the food...or you could take care of wine or hors d'oeuvres for a couple of meetings. (Those things you can buy.)

If no compromise is forthcoming? You gotta go girl. Find yourself a new club, one with a more casual, easy-going hosting style.

 

Hey...you talkin' to me?

Saturday, 29 January 2011 10:41

me-bookEver get that “ah-ha!” feeling when reading? You come across a passage that practically shouts, “Hey, pal. Pay attention—this is YOU we're talkin' about.” It’s eerie, sometimes unnerving.

One of the narrators of Nicole Krauss’s Great House describes herself in a lengthy passage…and I felt an itch of recognition, a not very pleasant itch either…so I won’t quote it here.

But I love that books can do that…make us see ourselves…recall feelings and experiences…and put them into words! It’s uncanny.

Question for Book Clubs
Was there a particular character—or moment—in the book you’re reading now that gave you a sense of self-recognition? What about in other books? If you’ve come across those passages, can you recall how they made you feel?

 

Just ♥ Words—Janus

Wednesday, 12 January 2011 10:04

janusMy friend Gordon showed up again with more word fun—this time Janus words. Since it’s January, named after the Roman diety Janus—who faced both backward and forward, looking to the past and to the future—we’ll take Gordon at his words.

Janus words are self-antonyms, or contranyms. They're spelled the same. . . and pronounced the same, but they have opposite meanings.

 

Don't You Just ♥ Words?

Cleave — to stick together; to cut apart
Clip — to hold together; to cut off
Custom — the norm; unique
Dust — to remove dust; to lightly sprinkle
Fast — held firmly in place; moving quickly
Oversight — to watch carefully; not noticed
Quantum — tiny, in physics; very large, as in ”leap”
Sanction — to approve; a punitive action
Temper — to harden; to soften

This is just a smattering. There are lots more.

 

Take that—you g#*&~! book

Tuesday, 23 November 2010 00:00

throw-a-bookYears ago a friend came across a sex scene in Nelson DeMille’s Gold Coast—a couple playing a masquerade to juice up their sexlife. It was so offensive to her she tossed the book across the room—all of which she proudly announced to our book club. (The offending passage involves Lady Godiva...on a horse, of course...very funny. There's an even funnier pirate scene later on.)

What about you? Ever throw a book? I nearly did the other night. In my case, it had to do with the book’s heroine—dense, bratty (her own words turned on herself), and stubborn, in a very stupid way. It was all the more irritating because the book had started out with such promise.

What makes a book toss-worthy? What gets us so riled up that we want to throw it across the room? Is it anger … revulsion … disappointment … fear? And what sparks those emotions?

What's a toss-worthy reason?

graphic sex or violence?
offensive language?
gross injustice?
irritating characters?
predictable plot lines?
unrealistic coincidence?
just plain bad writing?

But here's the thing...isn't it wonderful how literature evokes such passion? Think about it—books come to us as nothing more than tiny black squiggles on a flat white page…which we use to create meaning…which in turn inspires powerful responses. Astonishing…when you think about it.

 

Featured Book Club — from the Big Apple

Wednesday, 17 November 2010 09:15

booker-prize-bookclubCheck out LitLovers newest Featured LitClub—a brainy group of New Yorkers, who tackle the Booker Prize awards list (winners and nominees). That’s some impressive reading!

They also have a great idea for any book club—a Book Swap. The group organized a Swap at a library in SoHo (SoHo…ah, how cool izat?) in conjunction with a Peace Corp veterans book club. It proved so successful the library wants to make it a seasonal event.

The two groups are also considering a joint read and discussion. The Peace Corp group reads international books, which ties in beautifully with the Booker Prize list. *

* Britain’s Man Booker Prize is awarded to English-written novels by authors from the 54-member [British] Commonwealth of Nations, plus Ireland and Zimbabwe. Commonwealth nations include countries in Africa, the South Pacific, and the Carribbean, as well as Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand.

 

Harry Potter—Confessions of a former skeptic

Saturday, 23 October 2010 12:22

harry-potterIt’s late in the game, I know. But I just finished reading all 7 Harry Potter novels. I’d avoided them up to now because...

1. They’re for kids
2. I don't like fantasy
3. Way too much hype
  4. I’m swamped with a long list of “must-reads.”

Turns out, I was misguided—on all 4 counts. Apologies to the millions of HP fans—I’m now one of you. ICH BIN EIN HARRY POTTER-ER!!!!

Some thoughts on Harry Potter books

  1. They're complex—Seven long novels with interlocking plots, details, secrets and characters. How did Rowling keep track of it all? Post-it notes?

  2. They're funny—Portraits that talk and leave home to vist to their neighbors; books with titles like “Which Broom” and "One Minute Feasts–It’s a Miracle!” and much more.

  3. They're mythological—Represent the archetypal hero's journey; peppered with parallels to Greek, Druid, and Norse mythology.

  4. They've got rich, long sentences—All of us, kids and adults, can work on our ability to read long, complex sentences. And Rowling gives us some doosies…stretching out to 50 words! F-I-F-T-Y words! They’re long, lovely things!

Granted, the writing on occastion is clunky, storyline overplotted, and villains cartoonish—but all of that’s incidental considering the totality of Rowling’s project. I’m enthralled…and surprised that I am! If you haven’t read Harry Potter…do!

For book clubs, we have Reading Guides for all seven…with discussion questions.

 

Video Games—as good as books? Part 2

Saturday, 16 October 2010 14:00

video_games2In my last post, I raised the issue of whether video games might someday inspire book-club-like-groups. Here’s a follow-up…

Jeff, my nephew showed up at our house (after I’d written the first post) with “Rain,” an adult mystery video game. As I watched him play, I found myself caught up in the story—unable to pull my eyes away from the screen, let alone leave the room to fix dinner.

The graphics were good, the storyline engaging, and the interactive nature allowed Jeff to make decisions on the part of his characters. And different decisions led to different outcomes.

What was surprising was how invested I was in the characters—yet I wasn’t the one holding the joystick!  Jeff was the one holding the joystick—and he clearly cared about his people. After all, they could act only through him.

It's a bit like writing and reading a novel at the same time. Playing these games, you're both author and reader of the same work. How cool is that?

Prediction? I bet 10-15 years from now people will be meeting to talk about video games—just as we do about books. Given time, the plots and characters will grow more sophisticated and complex—with rich possibilties for discussion. We’ll talk about why we made the choices we did, why we developed the characters we did … and how outcomes varied from member to member.  

Exciting but worrisome. One wonders about the future of BOOKS—stats on the number of folks who read them is increasingly dire. So one asks (well, I do) as wonderful as technology is, is it leading us backwards?

 

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