Today Will be Different

“Smell the soup, cool the soup,” Timby said. “Huh?” “It’s what they teach us in school when we’re upset. Smell the soup.” He took a deep breath in. “Cool the soup.” He blew out.” (Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple)

Though I’ve vowed to never again finish a book I dislike, sometimes it’s more work to stop reading a bad book than to keep up the momentum and get to the end. If you stop, you’ll have to go through all the bother of choosing a new book, searching through your many library systems to see how and when you can get it for free, and potentially even making a trip somewhere (which, with a newborn, is easier said than done). Then, you risk again choosing incorrectly and ending up with a second, third, or even a rut of bad books. And, let’s face it, you’re already filled with motivation-sucking bad-book-blues, so it’s probably easier to just stay seated on the couch and try to eke what little enjoyment you can from your current choice.

That’s right, I’ve said it – and judging by the litany of complementary reviews, I might be the only one – Semple’s new book is bad. If you want to get a bit more creative with your adjectives, you could also go with unremarkable, over-plotted, scattered, too-tidy, absurd, hasty, or nonsensical. Additionally, it bears a startling surface resemblance to Where’d you go Bernadette: both novels feature a crumbling marriage where one partner is temporarily missing; both marriages have one child; both female protagonists have old-timey names; both are set in Seattle, etc, etc. The reader can’t help but wish that Semple’s new book resembled her old one for the sake of its inner qualities – its humor and unique characters – rather than its superficial ones.

Fortunately, with its large typeface, thick pages, and thin spine, you only have to sit with it for a few hours until it’s over.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 272 pages
Ending: not an ending
Incidental Learning: Seattle
Further Reading: If you haven’t, read Where’d you go Bernadette immediately.

The Fifth Wave

“Aliens are stupid. I’m not talking about real aliens. The Others aren’t stupid. The Others are so far ahead of us, it’s like comparing the dumbest human to the smartest dog. No contest. No, I’m talking about the aliens inside our own heads. The ones we made up…” (The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey)

Some books make you feel like a reading fortune-teller. After the first few chapters, you find yourself making predictions and being right, right, right. At the end of the book, you kick yourself for not having placed bets on how it would turn out because you were just so damn right. If money could be made through reading, you tell yourself, you’d be a millionaire. Or at least a thousandaire. In any case, better off than you are now.

Unfortunately, I don’t know any bookie who would take a bet on book endings. This either has to do with the fact that you could always skip to the last chapter… or that I don’t know any bookies. Too bad, because this book was 100% predictable. If you read it, read it for the teenaged, irreverent narrative style – not the plot. And don’t bother hoping that Yancey will dig YA literature out of the love-triangle/defiant heroine rut it has wallowed in since Twilight. He won’t.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 512 pages
Ending: predictable
Further Reading: Any other best selling YA novel would be an excellent follow up if you’re looking for more of the same.

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

“If I ever get reincarnated, it occurred to me, let me make certain I don’t come back as a paperclip.”
“Death leaves cans of shaving cream half-used.”
(Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami)

Reading fiction is a misnomer. You don’t read books, you see them in your mind’s eye; words just happen to be the vehicle that gets you to that inner visual. Mirukami takes advantage of this fact by playing with light and dark, blinding his readers with flashes of brightness and hours of pitch black. He returns again and again to the eyes, bogging down the middle of the book with a subterranean adventure, leaving us suspended in hope and brightness at the end. He forces us to develop our other reading senses in the absence of our reading sight – we find ourselves not seeing this book so much as smelling, feeling, hearing it.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland is an unexpected humor, one that makes you laugh simply because it is so itself. With a lot of genre fiction, it seems like anyone could have written the book – each instance is interchangeable with another. If you took the cover off a Joe Abercrombie and put it on a Flanagan, only the most dedicated fan would notice. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, however, from its title to its unnamed characters, is a book that no one else in this world, or any other, could have written.

Recommended Action: Buy – Borrow Now– Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 416
Ending: not expected
Further Reading: Either you’ll want to read all of Murakami, or never read him again. Though I loved this book, I still can’t decide which one I’ll do. I don’t think I could bear it if his other works were similar to this one; in my mind, everything he writes is 100% unique.

Virgin Suicides

“So much has been written about the girls in the newspapers, so much has been said over back yard fences, or related over the years in psychiatrists’ offices, that we are certain only of the insufficiency of explanations.” (Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides)

In case you mistrust the title, Eugenides tells you within the first few pages that all five Lisbon girls do end up committing suicide. You read not so that you can see the plot develop, or even glimpse, ghoulishly, the manner in which they chose to kill themselves, but because you keep asking yourself ‘why’, ‘why would they do that’? Eugenides, appropriately, never gets to the bottom of it. He presents his arguments and theories from the perspective of several besotted young men, known only collectively as ‘we’, but in the end concludes that we can only ever guess at the motives of another person.

This book saves Eugenides for me. After The Marriage Plot – perfect until 3/4 of the way through – it took me years to work up the courage to sample another of his works. What if Eugenides just couldn’t write an ending? It would mean that all of that brilliant writing, writing that makes you want to claw your head open so that you can absorb it fully and forever, would be of no use, for it couldn’t produce a book worth finishing. Thankfully, Virgin Suicides ends brilliantly, not with the slow dwindling of the suicide climax, but theoretically, calmly, with Eugenides musing on the change of the American lifestyle and the selfishness and emptiness of suicide.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 243 pages
Ending: theoretical
Incidental Learning: Michigan, 1970’s America
Further Reading: The Writing kept on reminding me of Shakespeare, oddly enough. Sonnet 130 ridicules idyllic descriptions of women, and Eugenides is nothing if not specific, often to the point of grotesqueness. Also reminds me of Roth’s American Pastoral both in its capturing of a time period and in its description of incomprehensible teenage girls.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

“I thought: if I had a view like this to look down on every day, I would have the energy and inspiration to conquer the world. The trouble is, when you most need such a view, no one gives it to you.” (A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan)

a visit from the goon squad coverI’m sure you’ve heard people proclaim “I never leave a book unfinished” like they want you to both award them a scout badge that reads ‘finished every book’, and console them with a gentle back rub. Though I do occasionally power through a book if I’ve dedicated a certain amount of time to it, I’ve never once ended up liking a book for its second half. Every book I’ve started out disliking, I’ve finished disliking, and often actually regretted reading since books and their flaws have the power to upset me terribly.

There’s a saying in librarianship: to each reader their book, to each book their reader. Even if everyone says a book is ‘good’, even if the Pulitzer prize committee says so, that doesn’t mean that you are that book’s right reader. So, in opposition to those martyred book-finishers, I suggest you stop finishing books you don’t like. Put them down, return them to the library, donate them to Good Will, burn them in your backyard. No matter what, don’t feel guilty about not finishing. Instead, joyfully move onto the next book, unencumbered with any pressure to complete that one either.

I wanted to quit A Visit from the Goon Squad about 2/3 of the way through, but couldn’t quite bear to put it down so close to the end. It’s of those ‘nothing but beginnings’ books, a book that attempts to capture a certain time period by zooming in on dozens of loosely related characters, spending just enough time on them to make the reader care, but then denying satisfaction by only hastily sketching their fate. The book kept teasing me with short visits back to earlier characters, then ended with a chapter dedicated to badly-made near future predictions: one of my many reading pet peeves. If only I had put the book down when I realized It wasn’t for me, I could already be half way through the next read instead of wallowing in the hopeless post-bad-book-blues.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 352 pages
Ending: disappointing
Incidental Learning: Music industry
Further Reading: Reminds me of other just-beginnings books, like Let the Great World Spin (smartly left unfinished), and Ragtime

The Mists of Avalon

“My love for you is a prayer, she thought. Love is the only prayer I know. She thought she had never loved him so much at this moment, when she heard the convent door close, hard and final, and felt the walls shutting her in.” The Mists of Avalon by  Marion Zimmer Bradley

As a kid, if anyone told me that a book was too hard or too mature, it became my mission in life to get my hands on it. On a whim, I insisted on reading Sphere by Michael Crichton aloud to my mom when I was 10. Similarly, when the librarian told me that Puck of Pooks Hill would be too hard for me at an elementary school book sale, I had to buy it immediately. The Mists of Avalon was another one of those early forbidden books. Though I remembered almost nothing of the plot, I treasured the book for years as something mysterious and taboo. Now, reading it as an adult, I see why it was so incomprehensible to me as a child; it is all about the feminine: childbirth, sex, raising children, friendship, etc.

For all I admire what Bradley accomplished with this work – rewriting a male-dominated tale from the female perspective – I have to say that I wish it could have been done a little better, or at least with fewer words. Bradley writes this lengthy novel as if she thinks her readers won’t remember what was said a few hundred pages before, constantly reiterating details and thoughts until the careful reader is exhausted from the repetition. While I love few things better than a long piece of literature, Bradley allows her moral point to eclipse her characters so that she only ends up skimming the surface of motives and feelings, favoring long-winded speeches and arguments over true character development.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 876 pages
Ending: peaceful
Incidental Learning: Authurian Legends
Further Reading: The reading experience reminds me of Ayn Rand, another female writer who places espousing a philosophy above characters.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

“RON: So you’re telling me that the whole of history rests on … Neville Longbottom? This is pretty wild.” (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorn)

HP 8 coverMy top three Harry Potter related dreams are as follows: 1) that Hogwarts exists 2) that there be a new Harry Potter book, and 3) that BBC make a HP TV series that supersedes the movies in every way. Though I’ve known about Harry Potter and the cursed Child for months, I couldn’t bear to let myself get more excited than pre-ordering the book on amazon for fear of being let down. To me, everything Rowling since 2007 has been fiercely disappointing – I cried after staying up all night to read A Casual Vacancy, not because of the dramatic finale, but because Rowling felt the need to prove herself by writing something so starkly realistic and anti-Hogwarts. And don’t even talk to me about Cuckoo’s Calling – I couldn’t get through more than the first few chapters.

About 1/2 way through this eighth installment, it hit me: this is actually book 8 of Harry Potter. This isn’t a Rowling Failure, this isn’t a Phony FanFic, this is it. Perfectly formed: a hint of nostalgia plus a whole new Voldemort-related adventure. A storyline big enough to warrant waiting 10 years, but compact enough to fit into a play format. All of a sudden, my casual reading – sick on the couch with a sub-standard tea – didn’t seem sufficient. This was a reading landmark! Something to be celebrated and something to be savored to the max! It required the perfect tea, the most comfortable chair, and the best my brain could offer in terms of attention. Unfortunately, the book was just too good to fuss with all of those external circumstances, so I finished it just as I was, attempting to summon the required feelings of momentousness between acts and scenes.

So, if you are a Harry Potter lover on the fence about whether to read or not to read – read! And make sure that you are comfortable, full of attention, and have a huge pot of tea.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 308 pages (this is a play, not a novel)
Ending: Ultra satisfying
Further Reading: Reading HP again!