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Archive for the ‘Books That Are Worse Than A Fried Stick Of Butter’ Category

The Leftovers Cover

When a book dissapoints, I’m not shy about airing my grievances.  What is the point of only writing about books I liked?  That excludes an entire part of what it is to be a reader.  If I was just going to post positive reviews, I might as well forego the whole blog thing and just like my favorite books on Facebook.  Sure, I’m exposing myself to all sorts of criticism in return (that I’m an elitist snob or I didn’t understand the book or whatever), but that’s fine by me since disagreement is a hell of a lot more interesting than holding hands and singing Kumbaya because we’re all afraid that any bad reviews will be the final nail in the coffin of the dying act of reading.  Encouraging people to read crappy books isn’t exactly going to help the problem either.

I get extra angsty when disappointing books get good reviews.  A few bloggers I usually rely on for recommendations really liked Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers.  Both The New York Times and The Washington Post named it a notable book in 2011.  So I was kind of excited when I found a hardcover copy on the bargain table at B&N for six bucks last week (I’ll admit that it’s totally my fault that I ignored past experiences with the bargain table…)

About 50 pages into The Leftovers, I began to despair that Perrotta’s great concept was going to be sadly undermined by less-than-great writing and a ho-hum story.  A novel about the survivors of a rapture-like event had so much potential!  What a great way to explore survivor guilt or the political aftermath of an apocalyptic event. What aspects of society become ridiculous when viewed from the rear view mirror of disaster?  What aspects of our lives are strong enough to transcend the before and after?

There were a few spots when I thought the book lived up to its potential in presenting the weird consequences of a rapture in contemporary society.  I loved the mention of the celebrities who’d disappeared.  Imagine a world in which both JLo and the Pope disappear in the rapture.  What can that mean?  Also loved it when the Christians became stridently anti-rapture after they were left behind.  Too bad there wasn’t more of this larger social commentary.  The more imaginative aspects of the book were pretty much abandoned for a story about the world’s most boring family.

So what was my problem with this book? Both the prose and the characters were flat flat flat. The plot was extremely thin.  It was a depressing book without the artistry to make the emotional drain even slightly enjoyable.  I had hoped for something more imaginative and alive.  I understand that the people and the place are supposed to represent anyone, anywhere in America, but I still wanted them to be interesting.  Never before have cults, adultery, and teenage rebellion felt so thoroughly boring.

Tom and Jill are clearly meant to represent anyone’s children by the normalcy of their lives before the rapture as well as their Dick and Jane names.  Jill is a good girl who rebels after she loses a friend and her mother abandons her family for a sinister cult.  Tom is a college frat boy who joins a hippy-love type cult.  Well, he actually joins two hippy-love type cults, but whatever.  The problem is that they are just as boring after the rapture as they were before.  You would think at least the teenagers would start having some original or interesting thoughts at some point while embarking on a downward spiral, but their aimless rebellion was as uninteresting as their parents’ mid-life crises.

Maybe, in Perrotta’s world, shaving your head, getting stoned, and skipping class is a dramatic event worthy of a post-rapture rebellion?  If that is the case, then we have lived through the apocalypse my friends, because I think most of us would just call that Junior Year.

Also, why must we signify major turmoil and changes in female characters through haircuts?  Is a woman shaving her head or dying her hair blond or letting her hair go grey really meant to symbolize big changes on the inside?  In this book, yes.  In real life, no.  I cut all my hair off once because I was drinking while watching Grease and thought I could make myself look like Rizzo.  Other than learning that I don’t look nearly as hot as Rizzo did with short hair, it was a pretty meaningless exercise in personal grooming.  I could have stood for one symbolic hairstyle in this novel, but not three, which just seems like a really lazy way to write female characters.

While we’re talking about poor effort in female characterization, let’s talk about Christine.  Was she not the most boring pregnant teenage bride of a jailed cult leader that ever was?  No attempt to get inside her head whatsoever, which might have been interesting.  We’re really given no reason why Tom was so drawn to her except that she’s pretty.  Apparently that has something to do with the fact that her face didn’t get fat when she was pregnant.  At least Perrotta remembers to tell us about her hair, which is “gleaming black.”  Anyway, she’s not really a character because we only hear about her from Tom.

Then we have Nora.  The former “top-notch girlfriend” with her perfect “straight and shiny” hair.  She starts dating Kevin (after her whole family vanishes and she very publicly finds out her vanished husband was a sleazy adulterer) and worries that she’s not a good girlfriend anymore because she’s paralyzed with grief. Which, okay, fine.  But the origin of her greatest girlfriend ever thing involves Glamour quizzes and blowjobs.  Basically, Nora is the most superficial sad person ever.  Like three pages on her decision to dye her hair blond superficial.  Here’s one paragraph from that agonizing decision:

Nora read these testimonies[about bad dye jobs] with some trepidation, but not enough to change her mind.  She wasn’t dying her hair for cosmetic purposes, or because she wanted to have more fun.  What she wanted was a clean break with the past, a wholesale change of appearance, and the quickest, surest way to do that was to become an artificial blond.  If her pretty brown hair turned into plastic grass in the process, that was collateral damage she could live with. (310)

Three pages regarding the life-changing dye job.  How am I supposed to care about this person’s grief after reading this?  Then, Kevin doesn’t recognize her standing on his porch because she’s blond.  No, really.  But then she finds a baby his son left on the porch that the teenage bride of the jailed cult leader abandoned and so there’s hope after all?  The end.  Remember when I said the plot was a little thin?

Don’t even get me started on Laurie.  Let me just say that she has let her hair go grey since she joined the cult and that Kevin thinks it makes her look younger.  The most interesting part of the novel was probably the cult that Laurie joins.  This was an aspect of the story that felt like it could have been great… if only this had been a Margaret Atwood novel.  There was just no atmosphere of suspense or dread or horror or anything.  There were a few good details, like the mandatory smoking, but not enough to make it all that memorable.

Then there’s Aimee.  She wears skimpy clothing and her best friend’s dad has the hots for her.  That’s super original.  She also has pretty hair.

She gathered her long hair with both hands as if making a ponytail, but then changed her mind, letting it spill back over her shoulders, soft and pretty against the rough twill of her jacket. (299)

When the female characters in a novel are basically different versions of a L’Oreal Paris ad, you can see how I’m slightly perplexed by all the good reviews.  I think this one got good reviews because the premise is so good that you want to like it.  This could have been an awesome book, but it wasn’t.  If the writing was original and engaging or the plot relatively interesting, I could have overlooked the lame female characters.  (Ahem, I’m looking at you Billy Lynn.)  Sadly, there wasn’t much that could redeem the endless parade of hair models.

I’m not surprised that HBO is developing a series based on The Leftovers.  It’s not the kind of book you’d need to stay true to in a TV adaptation.  There’s nothing particularly memorable about the story or the characters.  It’s not like casting Nora or Aimee or Christine requires more than hiring an actress with shiny hair.  This may be a rare instance in which the adaptation is better than the book. Here’s hoping HBO does really cool stuff with the whole post-rapture premise, keeps a cult or two as part of the story, and writes some female characters with more brains than hair.

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I live in Wisconsin.  This is the land of the Friday night fish fry and fried cheese curds.  Too bad for me I hate fried food.  I get heartburn, nausea, and headaches.  I’m pretty sure this is a weird psychosomatic reaction due to a very bad evening in college involving an open bar and fried mushrooms stuffed with pepper jack cheese.  I try to choose carefully when I eat out because it sucks to order soup and find out you’re really getting fried soup balls.  I do not exaggerate.  We serve fried sticks of butter at the State Fair.

There’s one particular disappointment I remember vividly.  It was a year or two ago when Mr. Married With Books and I were cross county skiing for the weekend.  It was a long, cold, and difficult ski.  The temperature was zero, we got lost, and I fell down about 18 times.  The light at the end of the tunnel, the thing that made me fight against hypothermia and frostbite, was the dinner at the Steak Pit we’d planned to have after the ski.  The promise of a good dinner and a strong Brady Old Fashioned had given me the will to live.

What happened next is not the Steak Pit’s fault.  The Steak Pit is the happiest place on earth if you like meat, neon fountains, and Frank Sinatra.  What happened next is entirely my fault.  After warming up with a Brandy Old Fashioned or two I disregarded my better instincts and ordered the stuffed shrimp.  I ordered seafood at a steakhouse in the Midwest.  I was probably suffering from mild hypothermia.  I thought I was getting fresh shrimp and crab meat sautéed with maybe a little parsley and lemon.  When my dinner arrived I found myself staring down plate of deep-fried, battered shrimp stuffed with frozen crab-like meat and mushy breadcrumbs.  I’d ordered the Sisco truck special.  I was so hungry I had no choice but to eat my dinner, suffer the heartburn, and vow never to be fooled again.   

The point of this little story?  That’s pretty much what happened yesterday when I read Sarah’s Key.  It had been a long, frustrating, busy, stressful day at work.  The only light at the end of the tunnel?  The promise of a relaxing evening with a good book and a glass of wine.  Sadly, this was not a good book.  Sarah’s Key serves up some seriously deep-fried chick lit with a side of anti-abortion proselytizing. 

Sarah’s Key was a book club book I’d actually been looking forward to reading.  It involved a subject I didn’t know much about – the Vel d’ Hiv in Paris in 1942.  The characters sounded interesting: a young girl who escapes after the Vel d’ Hiv roundup and an investigative journalist in Paris who discovers Sarah’s story.  The themes sounded compelling: how are our lives connected with the atrocities of history and how do we move forward and heal without forgetting or repeating the past? 

Also, it was an international bestseller.  I sometimes enjoy really popular books (see, e.g., Harry Potter).  Despite the fact that I hate fried food, I am not a book snob.  For the record, I’m not a food snob either.  I loved deep-fried cheese curds as much as any other good Wisconsinite until the unfortunate fried mushroom incident.  So anyways why did I end up hating this hugely popular book?

Sarah’s Key deals with some deeply disturbing subjects: the Holocaust, the suffering and death of innocent children, the role of French citizens in causing this suffering and death.  In the right hands this novel could offer insight into the damaged psyche of a nation.  In the wrong hands it could leave you feeling manipulated and empty. 

For the first half of the novel, I tried hard to convince myself that this was a good book.  A book deserving of praise, huge popularity, and a special new “gift edition.”  It was a book about the Holocaust.  It couldn’t be a trite exercise in poor writing, sappy clichés, and emotional manipulation.  So what if the prose was awkward and simplistic?  English isn’t the author’s first language (helpful information provided by the publisher on the book jacket).  So what if Sarah spoke and thought in a way no ten-year old child ever would. (See, e.g., p.2, How many of you ever thought about whether your parents looked their age when you were a kid?  You didn’t.  They were grown-ups and you were kid.)  I really gave the story and characters a chance to develop before I finally let myself hate this book. 

I will say that I was initially intrigued by the structure of the novel that alternated between chapters devoted to the story of Sarah, a ten-year old girl who escapes after being rounded up in the Vel d’ Hiv in 1942, and Julia, the journalist who discovers Sarah’s story while reporting on the anniversary of this horrific event.  The characters in the contemporary chapters of the narrative were so appalling shallow and one-dimensional that I thought the author was using the narrative structure to create this dichotomy as a way of critiquing modern society.  I just finished reading two Wilkie Collins novels in a row so I was in the kind of mindset to think that the author was presenting the reader with an unreliable and unlikable narrator in order to further the themes of the novel (think Miss Clack). 

The main character, Julia Jarmond, is an aging beauty queen turned ex-pat journalist working at a crappy tourist newspaper in France.  She’s bummed out she’s not as hot as she used to be.  After twenty-five years of living in France she still feels like an outsider.  She has a perfect, precocious eleven year-old daughter named Zoe.  She has a philandering French husband with no redeeming qualities except his sexual prowess.  Other clichéd characters:  The fashionable and frivolous gay best friends, the chilly in-laws, the brash feminist lawyer sister, the tough news room boss etc. I clung to the view of Julia’s narrative as a critique of modern society until I realized we were supposed to take these people seriously and care about what happened to them.

At the point when Sara’s story disappeared as a separate narrative I realized that Julia was supposed to be the heroine on the verge of self-discovery and redemption.  In short, here’s what happened to Julia.  She gets pregnant at 45 and her husband tells her to have an abortion or he’s out.  She can’t go through with the abortion which is (oh so cheesily) scheduled on the same day as the anniversary of the Vel d’ Hiv.  Rather than dump his sorry ass she quietly hopes he’ll come around to the idea of another kid.  She finds out her husband’s family lived in the apartment where Sarah’s brother died (super disturbing by the way) and tries to help her father-in-law come to terms with the past.  This involves a search for Sarah who turns out to have committed suicide as an adult, a search for Sarah’s grown son, a quick trip to the U.S., a quick trip to Italy, and a pregnancy emergency.  Then things wrap up in a chapter or two.  Resolution between the son of dead Sarah and Julia’s husband’s family.  Quickie divorce from philandering French husband.  Relocation back to the U.S. where she dates a string of boring men just for the company. (I hate this type of female Chit Lit must-have-man protagonist.) 

Oh, and then the ending.  Julia names the baby she didn’t abort after Sarah the girl who survived the Holocaust (no cheap anti-abortion message there people) and hooks up with suddenly single, kinda cute son of the same dead Sarah (who was happily married living with his Italian wife and kids a few chapters back).  I’m Sicilian so I felt particularly sorry for his nice Italian wife who never saw this blond bimbo coming.

When I finished reading Sarah’s Key I had heartburn, nausea, and a headache.  This might be due to the fact that I read it all in one sitting so that I wouldn’t have to force myself to finish it the next day.  I get angry when tragedy is appropriated to elicit an emotional response in the reader which is ultimately empty because it’s really been used to write a clichéd anti-feminist romance.   I would rather eat a fried stick of butter at the State Fair than read this kind of book.

This could have been a good book.  Sarah’s story was thought-provoking.   Her innocent attempt to save her brother led to his death.  Her decent into depression and despair after that discovery led to her suicide.  But her narrative was abandoned so we never got to understand her psychological struggle through adulthood.  That would have been a hard book to read, but it might have been meaningful.  What about the French citizens, like the police, who contributed to this atrocity?  Their story would have been worthwhile, but too complex to deal with in terms of black and white, and this wasn’t a book that dealt with moral ambiguity.  Any book that stridently compares abortion to the Holocaust isn’t capable of that kind of analysis or insight into human society or the individual psyche.   

Am I some sort of terrible book snob?  Is it too much to expect fully realized characters, decent writing, and a well-constructed plot?  Have I totally missed the point of the book? It’s been a long time since I’ve been this angry with a book.  Anyone else read a book lately that gave you the same feeling?  What should I read next to erase the smell of deep-fried grease that is oozing from my pores?  Why are there only seven Harry Potter books?  All I know is I haven’t eaten a deep-fried mushroom in a decade and I hope it doesn’t take me that long before I venture back into the realm of popular fiction.

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