My daughter is alternately amused and netlled by my unquestioning eagerness to pursue whatever book, film, vacation, or adventure I find touted in the New York Times. I speak with enthusiasm as if the Times had called me directly and with sweet concern for my well being curated a lifetime of experience just for me;I refer to the paper as I might to a neighbor or book club friend. It’s personal.
There have been some notable treasures, of course, along the way, and a few very minor disappointments, but for the most part, the Times opens doors I had not thought to approach. And yet, that legacy of good will and trust is hanging on by a thread this morning as I recoil from a novel that came highly regarded and I would have said, recommended.
To be fair, I responded to one of the frequent “Books Update”, a list of books currently under discussion, rather than having read a review of the novel. In the past it’s worked out well; I’ve simply noted a title, opened my account at the local library, and jumped on the waiting list for the next hot copy. Some have been my sort of book, others not so much. I’ve taken a chance over the years and find that the Times (my friend) is running with about an 80% hot stuff rate. Winners in the last year include The Aosawa Murders, The Beauty in Breaking, A Children’s Bible, Hidden Valley Road, How Much Of These Hills Is Gold, Marilynne Robinson’s Jack, Sisters, and the unexpectedly fabulous Nothing To See Here. So-so or just not my cup of tea that week were other highly regarded books such as The Biggest Bluff, Blacktop Wasteland, Deacon King Kong, and The Glass Kingdom. Nothing lost. No harm, no foul.
Fairness having been invoked, I ought to note that there are many books that were closed to me at one point in my life and richly enjoyed later. Then too, I’m a writer without an agent, self publishing books that languish in the nether depths of Amazon’s vanity collection. A book may have the resentment hurdle to clear, particularly if the genre is new or the portrayal of characters challenging. That said, I’ve come to admire books that present characters who would drive me to madness were I to encounter them in real life. Nick Cave’s Bunny Munro, for example, may be the most loathsome person I’ve encountered in print, but I couldn’t put the book down.
Had I read Joshua Ferris’ review of The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver, I suspect I would have cancelled my hold on the book at the library. Ferris is amused by and sympathetic to unlikeable characters, citing Cormac McCarthy’s unrelenting portrayal of unredeemed characters as a refreshing antidote to a happy happy resolution for characters who have been misunderstood or mistreated. By the end of the review, having lauded Shriver’s refusal to yield to the pity paradigm, however, he does acknowledge the book’s resolution left him thinking, “Who cares?”
I didn’t get that far.
I have a tall pile of books and who knows how many years to read them. I’ll give a new book thirty minutes to reel me in. If I’m eager to read the next page, I’ll generally stick with it all the way to the end. I’m relatively easy to please, but a strong beginning goes a long way. An author makes a choice in opening their world to us, in introducing a novel’s protagonists, for example, I give Shriver points for chutzpah; her characters presented on the first page are Remington and Serenata Alabaster. Remington Alabaster. Serenata Alabaster. What am I to do with names such as those? Bold choice by Shriverl, but “look-at-me” writing runs the risk of sliding into precious posturing, which in this case darkens as the Alabaster’s relationship is short on affection. Serenata’s reflexive contempt for Remington in particular wears thin. Remington’s disregard for Sereneta’s feelings is almost as off-putting.
Shriver’s published fifteen novels, all of which have been well received; she’ll survive any quibble I might have about her latest. My greater concern is in repairing the pipeline so that the Jackson County Library and I are teaming up for a strong summer of reading. The key, I think, is in finding a balance between the “sure things’ ‘ and the “strap on your seat belt” experiments that offer great reward or immediate disappointment. I’ll keep reading the Mann Booker long list and following my favorite authors, but at the moment I’m sitting with Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, a compilation of forty new fairy tales by authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Shelly Jackson, Neil Gaimon, and a host of others, Murakami’s IQ 84,and Moby Dick. The Times didn’t have to recommend Melville or Murakami, but virtually every other choice this summer will come from the pages of the New York Times, who you will remember, is a particular friend of mine.