It’s not them, it’s me.
Books that everyone loves but me. Books that are hyped, heralded; even a couple of classics among them. How dare I not like them? Collectively, they represent a couple of months of my reading year that I would rather have back. Not terrible, just less than I had hoped.
The Banks of Certain Rivers by Jon Harrison. Kindle. 366 pages. Published 2014, Lake Union Publishers. Fresh off a Midwestern driving trip, I fell for the reviews on this novel set in fictional Port Manitou, Michigan. “A jewel box of a novel!” “Moving…rife with tension!” Tension that, for me, devolved into a soap opera. In the end, I struggled to care about the characters, although I do still love Michigan.
Me Before You by Jo Jo Mayes. 448 pages. Audiobook, narrated by Susan Lyons, Anna Bentink, Steven Crossley, Alex Tregear, Andrew Wincott, Owen Lindsay. Published 2012, Michael Joseph. I was looking for something light to listen to and thought this British “romance novel” would fit the bill. Louisa Clark is sort of a Bridget Jones type and Will Traynor is Hugh Grant and Colin Firth combined into a single, wheelchair-bound character. You know what happens, or you think you do. There are plot twists. Deftly and sympathetically written, just not my cup of English Breakfast. Someone must have liked it – they made it into a film:
Before We Were Yours: A Novel by Lisa Wingate. 352 pages. Audiobook, narrated by Emily Rankin, Catherine Taber. Published 2017, Ballantine Books. This was a NY Times best-seller. An engaging novel about a serious subject – decades of child trafficking by Georgia Tann of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Wingate goes to great effort to wrap the horror in an engaging Southern-belle-meets-her-man plot, and that’s where it went a bit wrong for me.
The Water is Wide: A Memoir by Pat Conroy. Kindle. 320 pages. Published 1972, Houghton Mifflin. I tagged this under “not his best work”. Pat Conroy is a deservedly celebrated writer, but this tale – confusingly listed in the frontispiece as fiction but also titled a memoir – is just the tiniest bit disappointing. Maybe it’s because Conroy casts himself a bit awkwardly as the hero, recollecting his youthful, quixotic stint as an elementary school teacher on South Carolina’s Daufuskie Island. It was adapted into the 1974 film Conrack:
The Mighty Franks: A Memoir by Michael Frank. Kindle. 320 pages. Published 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Michael Frank is a polished, compelling writer. His family, specifically his “Aunt Hankie”, is cringe-inducing. Harriet Frank, Jr. along with her husband Irving Ravetch, was a successful Hollywood screenwriter (The Reivers, Norma Rae) and a pathological something or other who ran roughshod over her extended family. This was a painful read.
Commonwealth: A Novel by Ann Patchett. Kindle. 336 pages. Published 2017, Harper. I’m so embarrassed when I don’t love Ann Patchett. Everyone runs out to buy her latest book, and so I did with Commonwealth, even though I had failed to be enthralled by Bel Canto. (“What? You didn’t love Bel Canto???”) I was transfixed by the first couple of chapters of Commonwealth. The Keating family in all its dysfunction made for an irresistible read – but somewhere along the line they just all jumped the shark for me. As families will, I suppose. Also, a very unsatisfactory ending. As families can have, I suppose..
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Kindle. 450 pages. Published 2014, Viking. I loved, loved, loved The Secret Life of Bees and everyone told me that this book was even better. So I guess I had set myself up for disappointment. I also failed to do my homework and didn’t realize until I was halfway through that this was actually a work of historical fiction. Sarah Moore Grimké was a real person whose incredible life as an abolitionist and feminist are detailed here in a novel that did not quite work for me.
Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel by George Saunders. 368 pages. Published 2017, Random House. Audiobook, narrated by Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, George Saunders, Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July, Lena Dunham et al. As an author, Saunders does something very original here. A moment of history – Abraham Lincoln’s grief at the death of his young son, Willie – is examined from the multiple points of view of a collection of graveyard ghosts. It won the 2017 Man Booker Prize so my opinion doesn’t count but for me it was a little bit like Dante’s Inferno meets The Walking Dead meets The Sixth Sense. I admired it; I just didn’t exactly enjoy it.
The God of Small Things: A Novel by Arundhati Roy. 337 pages. Published 1997, Flamingo. Audiobook, narrated by Sneha Mathan. Another Man Booker prizewinner, Roy’s novel, set in the Indian state of Kerala, is on every must-read list, so I finally read it. Doggedly, as it went on and on and on. There is a darkness, not just to the fates of the book’s characters, but to the author’s outlook, that weighed me down. Perhaps that was the point.
Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition by Walt Whitman. Paperback. 145 pages. Published by Penguin Classics. When Whitman’s opus was originally published, Ralph Waldo Emerson said “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson came to re-think his opinion of Whitman and boy oh boy, so have I. I approached this read ever so smugly, sure that I would sink into English major heaven. I despised every page. Yes, Whitman was an original voice. Yes, he broke all the rules of verse and all the social constructs, crowing about eroticism and homoeroticism. Yes, he may have been the most enthusiastic booster of the United States of America in his time. But his poetry reads, for me, alarmingly like a never-ending list of lists. Biggest reading disappointment of the year.
Next week: up the list to the middling reads…