Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It's Not You, It's Me: Vol. 3

Nothing like a sunny spring day to spotlight some quality books that left me disgruntled, right?  I have 5 books here in which I was interested and subsequently disappointed...not because the book was terrible (necessarily) but because we were a poor match.  Or something.

I became intrigued by Haruki Murakami after reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for a book club back in 2009.  (It was far more bizarre than anything I was used to reading, but it grew on me.)  After the Quake is a collection of stories revolving around the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in 1995.

One of the stories was a good deal of fun, but most of them left me thinking "AND??"  His writing is excellent, his characters are detailed and realistic, his settings are vivid and the pacing is seamless.  The plots were obviously not the focus (either that or I'm just a bit clueless...wouldn't be the first time) and the themes weren't provoking enough to capture my imagination.  It's a bit of a strange experience for me to find that although plot isn't usually the deal-breaker for me, it sure seemed to be this time.

Will I read more Murakami?  Yes.  His writing is too good to swear off forever, and besides I own The Elephant Vanishes.  But maybe not this year.

Mr. Churchill's Secretary was an ARC from LibraryThing, which I was very happy to receive.  The setting was very agreeable, and I was so very ready for a lighter read, which this was certain to be.

What happened, though, was that the setting was only easy to picture because I've been there (I've walked through the war rooms in London and was able to mentally recreate the feeling that the author was trying to tell the reader about) not because the writing showed me anything.  So the writing was out.  And then the characters had the depth of paper dolls.  The main focus was the mystery-plot, implausible though it may have been, and yet Was I Satisfied? Of course not.  I'm hard to please, apparently.

This was actually an enjoyable read...I had a fun time tromping through 1940s London...but was rather like drinking a glass of air.  Not very filling, you know?  Once the thrill of turning the pages was over, there was nothing left.  The good news?  I think that qualifies it as an excellent summer read! Maybe I just read it at the wrong time of the year.  I should have been lounging by a pool.

Aimee Bender, anyone?  After reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I wasn't sure I wanted to explore this author further, but the topic of An Invisible Sign of My Own sounded interesting, and it was recommended by a girl from my book club.  GoodReads says this:

"Mona Gray was ten when her father contracted a mysterious illness and she became a quitter, abandoning each of her talents just as pleasure became intense. The only thing she can’t stop doing is math: She knocks on wood, adds her steps, and multiplies people in the park against one another."

It was all just so fantastical that I couldn't keep myself engaged.  I didn't understand, couldn't identify, was unable to suspend disbelief.  Quirky, rather like Jonathan Safran Foer for me (only more so,) I find the process of discussing it more interesting than the process of reading it.  I almost didn't finish reading this one, but I persevered.

And then there's Muriel Spark!  I knew nothing about her, but doesn't this book have an adorable cover?  Before I was more than a few pages into The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I found myself thinking that this was exactly the kind of oddball storytelling that I could fall in love with.  If only that sentiment had held!

I enjoyed the snatches of repetition and how bits of the future kept popping into the past.  I liked the brief visit back to Edinburgh (what a beautiful historical city that is!) and the nod to the blossoming era of female individuality.  I should have liked the suspense of the unfolding social drama.

You know that undefinable bit of magic that a book can hold for some people and not for others?  I was in the not-for-others camp on this one.  It just didn't captivate me.  My appreciation was clinical - after the first few pages I didn't have any emotional reaction whatsoever...not even to the mechanical aspects.  It was a time of literary ennui. Ho-hum. The End.

And then there's that awkward moment when you are in the middle of a book you've owned for years by an author you've enjoyed greatly in the past, and all you can think is how not-wonderful it is. John Adams sold me on nonfiction years ago, and McCullough's The Johnstown Flood was a fascinating bite of history as well.  But 1776 was so much less than the bestselling Pulitzer Prize winning history that I expected to find.

First of all, expectations.  I expected a history of the American Revolution.  Which it was, in part.  Specifically, the 1776 part.  (duh.)  The problem was that there was so. much. more. to the Revolution than just the year of 1776, and because I kept expecting the book to end at the end of the war, that first year took FOREVER.

The other problem, perhaps, is that this was history in a name/fact/date/textbookish sort of way, and though well-written for that sort of thing, after reading pieces of narrative nonfiction such as Unbroken, this just fell flat.  I didn't learn as much as I could have because I was struggling with trying to keep track of who was who and where and when and it was all quite muddled together.

Now I want to know if you've read or connected with any of these books or authors.  Does the problem lie in me?  Or can I blame the book after all?


  1. I agree that 1776 is not David McCullough's best book. I liked John Adams much better. You felt more connected to the characters in John Adams. I did like what I learned about George Washington--particularly that time he lost his temper--but overall, I didn't have as much connection.

    BTW, I really like this spotlight--It's Not You, It's Me.

  2. I love these installments of yours and will have to put together one of my own, soon.

    While the Bender didn't work for you, I'm keen to try it. I kinda love her.

  3. After The Quake was pretty good. At least, I enjoyed it. Not much EVER goes on in his books but they are all about normal people put in strange or unusual circumstances...this time... the earthquake ties them all together. I just finished The Elephant Vanishes but I have yet to write up the review. I like that one too but it is a bit more vague than After the Quake.

  4. Hmmm...after reading your descriptions, I don't feel an urge to read any of these books. I have Aimee Bender's other book but I've put off reading it for a while as I don't know if her style will work for me.

  5. 1776 and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie are on my TBR shelves :p...I really appreciate posts like this! Helps me prioritize :)

  6. Hi Melody,
    I too have become interested in Murakami. I recently completed his short story collection "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" and am eager for more. Not all of the stories in that collection were a hit for me, but the ones that were... well, they approached the realm of magical. I hadn't yet heard of After the Quake (coincidentally, I'm currently reading Vonnegut's "Timequake" right now!) but will add it to the list. Oh, and I also read HM's "1Q84," which was somewhat bizarre but also captivating.

  7. Heidi, I'm glad to hear that I wasn't the only one with issues about 1776. At first I thought it was because I was listening the author read it (maybe he just hasn't got the most interesting voice?) but then I say down with the book itself and I was still finding that my mind was wandering. There were some interesting parts, but as a whole it just didn't work for me.

    See, Andi, the girl in my book group loves Aimee Bender too. I really can see how her books could be wonderful...if you connected with her style of writing. :)

    Ti, I'm glad to hear your perspective on Murakami, because I know that you've read more of his than I have. I do have a harder time connecting with short stories than lengthier works it seems...since so much is said in so short a space I need to consciously try to slow my brain down to ponder it all. Or something. I think I saw you just reviewed The Elephant Vanishes...I'll go check it out.

    Sam, does that mean I did a good job complaining? :) I don't really know how you'd define Aimee Bender's style...magical realism I guess? Good discussion fodder, just not so enjoyable a reading process for me.

    Peppermint, well the good news about the Muriel Spark book is that it is quite short. :) And many people love it. 1776, however, will require a mood for history. Maybe it's one of those that is better with the right expectations?

    Jay, I haven't read enough to compare, but I'd recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I liked the combination of history and the surreal modern world. I did enjoy After the Quake, but was expecting them to hit me over the head a bit more for some reason!

  8. Bummer about Mr. Churchill's Secretary -- I was rather looking forward to that one! I definitely understand what you mean about relating to and appreciating a setting simply because you've been there, though. And I do enjoy 1940s London. Hmm... perhaps I'll grab it this summer as some beach-side reading after all!

  9. Meg, I actually enjoyed reading it and would love to hear your opinion on it. It was one of those books that I sped through because I wanted to find out what happened, and then once that was done I was just on to the next thing. I do think it would be a perfect beach/summer read!


I'd love to hear what you have to say, leave a comment!