The Ones That Got Away

I really hate it when I can’t finish a book, and, particularly since the summer, I’ve put down an unprecedented number. I think I’ve been feeling unusually hard to please and looking for something specific in what I’ve been reading. But it still makes me feel that I’ve failed the trust the book has placed in me to see it in its best light and understand what it was trying to do. I can never quite bring myself to put half-finished books back on the shelf and instead they lie around the house reproaching me. Rather in the manner of my cat who, when shut out of the sitting room (she simply cannot keep her tail out of my tea mug), will go and sit the other side of the French windows and just stare unblinkingly at me. Should you wish to make anyone feel guilty, this is an unparalleled strategy.

So what didn’t make the cut for me this year? An embarrassing amount of ostensibly very good literature. Cynthia Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World (aka The Bear Boy), which has delighted and awed a number of bloggers I know, but in which I ground to a halt midway through. I really must learn that there are some books that do not suit well to being interrupted. I was wallowing in the slow-paced middle section when something brighter and shinier caught my eye. Whilst I told myself I was just putting it aside for a brief while, I have never managed to pick it up again since. It’s the story of dispossessed people: Rose Meadows, orphaned at 18 (though her father when alive was a plausible rogue and not much of a parent) ends up finding temporary and eccentrically paid employment with a family of intellectual Jews, recently emigrated from Berlin. She is there to look after the children, but ends up as the prime carer of Frau Mitwisser, whom the loss of country and job has thrown into a bitter depression. Professor Mitwisser is an intellectual fanatic, obsessed with an obscure sect called the Karaites, and quite blind to the miseries and struggles of his family. They are supported financially (and erratically) by a strange benefactor. The wealthy son of a famous children’s story writer, James A’Bair is the living counterpart of his father’s famous creation, The Bear Boy. As the novel unfolds, Rose gradually learns the secrets of the family, about their curious relation to the Bear Boy and their even more curious relationships to one another. This is a very well-written book, but one that privileges thought above emotion, and as such I found it cold and a little resistant. It is also highly episodic with very little plot, and un-admirable as it may be, I find it quite a chore sometimes to read books in which I do not have a genuine desire to see what happens next. A compilation of well-drawn scenes is nothing if the author isn’t forging connections for me, making me think beyond the immediacy of the interactions. But it must be said I by no means hated this book – there is a great deal here to appreciate, and if I’d kept going, I might well have finished it. I just fell into a fatal indifference.

I’m in danger of falling into the same trap with a book I am (supposedly) currently reading that has also ended up displaced by other volumes. It’s The Music Room, by William Fiennes, yet another book that has been greeted with a roar of critical approval, particularly among people who like their books exquisitely tasteful. Several reviews I’ve read have said the same thing: ‘This is not a misery memoir!’, when it could be – it’s about Fiennes’ growing up in the shadow of an older brother with severe epilepsy, but it’s also a hymn to the geni locus, as he lived  in a beautiful moated castle, open to the public regularly, used by film crews, the site of a hundred special events, and yet still a private, much-loved family home. Evocations of the castle are interspersed with more personal recollections of his brother’s unpredictable, violent behaviour and with a slow-moving study of medical science’s understanding of epilepsy. It’s another very beautiful book, but I’m once again trying hard not to be bored by the lack of plot. The form of it doesn’t quite work for me, as the interpolated scenes do not seem to speak to one another, except perhaps to the extent that accounts of the more upsetting things his brother does are quickly replaced by long, slow, soothing descriptions of childhood delights like pike fishing, or cutting down a Christmas tree. It’s a book all about restraint, about finding love and loyalty towards difficult family members and searching for compensation in natural beauty. And all those things are wonderful. But the emotional tone is one of permanent stoicism, a sort of stiff upper lip that reduces his parents to ciphers in my mind, and which almost seems to hint at the deadness of trauma in Fiennes himself, as if it is too difficult to let that awkward emotion in and acknowledge the depth of his solitary suffering. I really must pick it up again and try to get to the end.

Being very difficult to please this year, I have also put down books in which there is too much emotion. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout I mentioned earlier in the year, as a book whose representation of the dark side of ageing was just too much for me. As was the harrowing story of Jewish persecution in J M G Le Clézio’s Wandering Star. In both cases it was the sheer quality of the writing which ironically got to me. Had they been less affecting books, I would have finished them. Nabokov’s Lolita is hovering dangerously near this category, but is still waiting in limbo, not yet rejected, not yet quite taken on board, either. I really want to read this novel; it’s a great classic of the twentieth century and it is clearly a clever, desperate, powerful book. But it’s December out there, cold and dank and a little wretched; there’s no light in the sky to counteract the darkness in a book like Lolita. I will get back to it, just not yet, not now.

And then there was Anita Brookner, who annoyed me with a wealth of tortured emotion about not very much at all. This was a real shame as she used to be one of my favourite authors and I anticipated returning to her work with enthusiasm. The book I picked up was A Closed Eye, the story of Harriet Lytton, one of Brookner’s classic disappointed heroines, who has settled for a life that contains so much less than she would have wanted. The child of parents who are themselves eternal children, Harriet is married off to a much older man, Freddie, for whom she has no genuine emotion other than vague gratitude. She has had a lifelong friendship with the glamorous and altogether more excitement-friendly Tessa, but then Tessa makes a real misstep, trapping the handsome but fiercely independent Jack through pregnancy and suffering the humiliation of a disconnected marriage. Her daughter, Lizzie, is a heart-wrenching creation, a silent, sullen, watchful child, loving nothing but her capricious and neglectful parents. Lizzie is repeatedly dumped on Harriet who has a daughter of her own, Imogen. Imogen is, by contrast, a spoiled princess of a child, utterly indulged by Harriet who is enthralled by her lively spirit and her beauty. You may imagine how Imogen and Lizzie do not get on. But then tragedy alters all the relations, when Tessa falls ill and dies. Harriet is assailed by charitable impulses to care for Lizzie, but also by uncharitable ones of having an affair with Tessa’s husband, Jack. Much as she is not at all the kind of woman for whom such sinful possibilities beckon (and she goes on about this at length), Harriet nevertheless manages to arrange an encounter with Jack in which they kiss. Having tasted – and forbidden herself – the kind of life she imagines to be all illicit pleasure and delight, Harriet must come down to earth with a bump. After I read the opening words of the chapter that followed this kiss, I found myself rolling my eyes and putting the book down instantaneously, without much of a qualm. ‘After that the dark days started,’ Brookner writes, ‘culminating in that darkest day of all, from which there never was, and never would be, any remission.’ Oh please, just shoot me now. I just couldn’t find the patience for such futile bleakness, or the sympathy for an attitude that seemed indulgently self-defeating.

So, what does it take for me to put a book down? At the moment it seems that the classier the book is, the better written, the slower and more intricate its descriptions, the more polite or painfully accurate its emotional descriptions, the closer it is to being relegated back to the shelf. This is amusingly worrying. I feel really sorry for the world of literature at the moment, which deserves a far better critic than me. But I seem to be on a hunt for sunny, accessible, insightful, but emotionally robust books at present. Books that don’t take themselves too seriously, books that want to have a laugh as well as a cry at the human condition. Between you and me, I think this is fine. I’ve read enough dreary books in my time to feel I’ve paid my dues, and if I give in to the passing fad, I will get sated and my tastes will rearrange themselves again. And maybe then some of these books will get a proper review from me – the fault always lies with me and not with them.


22 thoughts on “The Ones That Got Away

  1. What a good idea for a post! I may have to do one myself for 2009 I’ve become pretty good at acknowledging when I’m just not into a book, and then returning it to the library. And it’s not necessarily the book’s fault (though sometimes it is). With some books I have chemistry, and others, while I can see their strengths, I feel no connection.

  2. I agree with Christy, this is a great posting subject. I am feeling the same way right now about, of all things (I can hardly believe I’m saying this) a Wilkie Collins book! I mean, I love Wilkie Collins, but I’m having trouble slogging through Armadale. I am 200 pages into this rather hefty book (with small print, I might add) and I was just saying to someone yesterday that I can’t bear the thought of not finishing it, but I am teetering. I will hang in there and finish it because it’s Collins, but it is unbearably slow at times. I can’t skip through it (as I did with The Thirteenth Tale which I couldn’t wait to get through so I could put it down for good) because there is so much (too much) character and plot development going on I’m sure to miss something important. For Wilkie, I’ll carry on. For almost anyone else, no.

  3. I too have put several books down in the past few months, which is relatively unusual for me. I used to feel guilty about it but I don’t any more — life is too short and there are too many other books out there waiting to be read. I did like The Music Room, though.

  4. You are so generous Litlove to take all the fault of not getting along with a book upon yourself. There are some books I will do that with usually respected classics or if I know in a different mood or time I would really like the book. But other books, particularly contemporary books I have a hard time being so kind to. But if you are in the mood for sunny, emotionally robust books then don’t feel bad about setting those others aside. You will likely go back to them another day when you are in a different frame of mind.

  5. Wonderful! Such a relief and so fun to hear about the ones that didn’t work. I LOVE “sunny, accessible, insightful, but emotionally robust books” — Mary Wesley, for example, is one such writer. And Trollope. Still, I’d like to read some living writers who can pull this off. Any ideas? xoxo

  6. I rarely put a book down–it usually has to be quite awful–but I know what you mean about it not being the right time for certain books. But I’ve found that the best books can usually get me in the mood for them, even if I may end up reading them more slowly if I’m distracted or busy. It’s usually the middle of the road books that suffer when I’m in the wrong mood.

    If you’re in the mood for something light, perhaps this is the time to give Guernsey Literary Society a try. I don’t think it quite lived up to the hype, but it does fit your description of “books that want to have a laugh as well as a cry at the human condition.”

  7. Such a great post! The too emotional, too well wrought distress thing resonates so much with me at the moment. It’s one book like that max and then I need something more robust as you put it (for me the winning formula seems to be military novels where death seems so much simpler).

    I think there’s a point to where you can take your emotions and then soemthing says ‘No more’, however wonderful the writing may be, which I think you discssed in your post about your Holocaust project and emotional distance. There are plenty of well written, happy books out there as you know, tragedy does not always make for a wondefrul book (sighs heavily at the Anita Brookner line) it’s just that so many wonderful writers do want to explore the more traumatic subjects and that’s good, but sometimes it’s hard to take.

    Wishing you well written happy books.

  8. I claim that I put books down all the time, but I really rarely do, and when I do, I often come back to them (even if it’s years later). A book has to be truly poorly written and have no redeeming characters in order for me to abandon it and never think of picking it up again (and even then, if someone else comes along and says, “I can’t believe you never finished that. You’d be so surprised by how it ends,” I might be tempted to pick it back up again). It’s funny, though, 2009 has not been the best of years for me, and I would have thought that dreary, depressing books would have been the last things I’d want to read, and yet I seem to have made it through quite a few of them, somehow. Still, I like best the ones that make me laugh, even if they are only making me laugh to cover up all the pain they are addressing, so I don’t blame you at all for feeling you didn’t want to keep slogging through books that focused on the pain with no comic relief.

  9. I loved this post, litlove. Perceptive and self-aware as usual!

    I don’t even keep track of all of my unfinished books. When I was in a bookgroup, I forced myself to finish them, but no more.

    It’s really important, I believe, in one’s reading life to know what books will resonate with one’s emotional space.

    I recently needed accessible, fun, well-written books and found a bunch at the library. I highly recommend the young adult novel: Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. There is a slightly annoying gimmick at the end, but it doesn’t mar the book at all.

    I read Anita Brookner’s latest (Strangers) earlier this year. I like her quite a lot and have read several of her books (but not the one you didn’t finish). This book made me feel very lucky to be MYSELF. The main character has enough money and freedom to do so much–I was fairly screaming at him to travel to Japan or buy a banjo or something!!! A slow novel, interesting…and in the end, I did like it.

    Good luck with your reading and your search for the books that suit your soul right now.

  10. What a generous post, Litlove – I would be far more likely to say that some books just aren’t good, and it has NOTHING to do with me and everything to do with them. In all seriousness, I’ve been somewhat difficult to please in terms of reading this year as well and many books have failed to capture my attention. My current phase seems to be one literary fiction with psychological twists – stories and sensibilities i can really wallow in in an extraordinary way. I don’t know when that will change but I am looking forward to it doing so!

  11. You are too hard on yourself, Litlove. I really do believe that books resonate differently with different people. I am sorry you didn’t care for Cynthia Ozick, but perhaps she is better at essays/criticism than novels (though The Shawl is a masterpiece, imho)–I set The Puttermesser Papers down years ago and have not picked it up since (gazes ruefully at shoes). Afraid I’m not much for Ms. Brookner either…oh dear. Anyhow, I look forward eagerly to the books that you will not have to put down and whatever else strikes your fancy between reads!

  12. I loved the way this is the counterbalance to your Books of the Year post. The ones that get away are so easily left out precisely because they get away! I also know you’ll probably support the idea that books are a fit between writer and reader. Interesting that the quality of the writing put you off at times. It’s almost like they’re too polished and the rough edges would provide a bit of levity. It’s a fine balance between taking yourself seriously and taking yourself too seriously!

  13. This is such a good idea! I’d do this except I can’t remember most of the books I’ve not finished throughout the year. I abandoned Wandering Star too, being a victim of misplaced expectations. I remember books by title, not author, and Tony Kushner (whose play Angels in America is one of my most absolutely favorite things in the world) said in an interview that Wandering Stars was funny and charming and moving; and I dutifully went looking for it. But, see, Wandering StarS, that’s a book about a Jewish boy and girl who fall in love and run away with a traveling theatre (and my library hasn’t got it), whereas Wandering Star, which my library does have – well, a person might not use the words “funny and charming” to describe it. I read and read and read waiting for the traveling theatre to show up, and it, you know, it really never did. I was thinking someone needed to find Tony Kushner and confine him to a mental institution before I realized I had hold of the wrong book.

    End rant. 😛

  14. I’ll echo Teresa and say that the Guernsey book might suit your current mood. I think you are absolutely right to go with your feelings at this point and to trust that your tastes will shift again eventually. That’s one of the nice things about having been reading for quite a while — you know that feelings about books can come and go, and you don’t have to worry about it quite as much.

  15. I also feel as if I’ve set aside an inordinate number of books, and yes, I do feel guilty, especially when they are books that are acclaimed by readers whose opinions I respect, or by author’s whose other work I have adored.

    I find myself with not enough fortitude to take on those deep, brooding novels I usually love. Yet the pure fluff doesn’t do it for me either. I’m simply becoming a crotchety old woman reader, I suppose 🙂

  16. It sounds like you’re in need of the Love, Actually of books. I can strongly recommend The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews and Slumdog Millionaire – both robust, both accessible and funny to boot.

  17. Christy – I really like that idea of having chemistry with a book. That’s perfect and I’ll think of it like that from now on!

    Grad – You know, I have heard that about Armadale, and from a friend of mine who generally loves Wilkie Collins. And then I’ve come across rave reviews for it, so it must be a book that requires a particular frame of mind. I know just what you mean about certain authors that you’ll plow on for – Julian Barnes is mine, and I’ve loved everything he’s done apart from a novel called The Porcupine and that was a real slog. I do hope that Armadale has picked up a bit by now and is proving a better read – I’ve got my fingers crossed!

    Harriet – I really ought to like The Music Room. I can SEE how good it is – I just can’t quite warm to it, or feel it warming me. But I’ll finish it, because the writing is quality work.

    Stefanie – you are very generous to me! The line up of these books – a couple of Pulitzer prize winners, a Booker winner, and a novel that is clearly destined for prizes – well, it must be me! But I do think that timing is very important and that these are authors I will return to without doubt, even if these aren’t the novels by them that I’ll remember. 🙂

    Bloglily – Mary Wesley is a brilliant idea. I was thinking of Julia Glass and Richard Russo, as I don’t want emotion-less, just robust. And maybe some of those older dignified writers like Somerset Maugham and Elizabeth von Arnim. You can see where I’m going with this. 🙂

    Teresa – yes, sometimes it takes some focus and concentration to get into a book, and that’s not always compatible with time, mood, other activities. But it’s probable that any book could be turned around with enough investment on the part of the reader. I hadn’t thought of the Potato Pie book, but I will definitely consider it now!

    Jodie – I think that’s such a good plan, to make sure that any particularly heavy book is followed up by something refreshing and reassuring. I’ve always been intrigued by the saying that happiness has no history. It’s the justification for the concentration on darkness in literature, and whilst I agree that books need to delve into these regions because nothing can explore them the way literature can, I wonder about the unexplored possibilities of happiness. It would be a good challenge for next year to find a fab list of happy books to read – hmm, now you’ve got me thinking. 🙂

  18. This year I gave myself permission to read just for pleasure rather than For Literature. I cannot tell you how guilty I felt about this, despite the fact that, for example, Edith Wharton makes it onto my “for pleasure” list. But I had become so entrenched in the idea that I had to learn and push and confront myself and somehow recast my entire intellectual existence through reading … I’d lost any sense of the fun of it. It’s nice to read just to get out of my own head for four hours. And in doing so, I ran across a book I think you would absolutely love — Angelica by Arthur Phillips … a most splendid ghost story. Well, sort of. 🙂

  19. Emily – I have a real tendresse for books that make me laugh – I’m so grateful to them for having shown me a good time. What a friend to literature you are, so rarely giving up on a book. That’s the kind of dedication that authors must surely appreciate no end!

    Lilian – thank you! 🙂 I’ve been reading some non-fiction, as it turns out, but am just about to delve back into fictional waters – but I haven’t QUITE made up my mind yet what it’s to be. You will certainly hear what it is!

    bej – you are so right – it’s getting books to resonate with your emotional space that’s the most important thing. Catherine Gilbert Murdock is a new name but I will most certainly be looking that one out. And I’m really glad to know that the lastest Brookner hit the spot for you. Generally I like her work so much, so it was a shame not to get through this one. But she’s written more novels that I could pick up in the future. 🙂

    Courtney – that sounds like a marvellous category of books to be reading – I’ll watch your site for some recommendations! I have to think it’s me this time because the authors are so classy! Still, I don’t need to worry that they really need my support. 😉

    ds – I do so want to like Ozick and I will try more of her work. I might even pick this one up another time. She was clearly such a very good writer, and intellectually so astute. Brookner I’ve loved in the past (Hotel du Lac, A Start in Life and Misalliance I particularly remember enjoying). There will be other brilliant books ahead I have no doubt. 🙂

    Pete – I know, it’s sort of an odd thing to write, to say that if the books hadn’t been so well written I could have got through them! 🙂 But sometimes emotional intensity isn’t what a person needs at the end of the day. And I’ve been particularly wimpish lately with the sad books. You are so right – I do love a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously! It can be so refreshing. 🙂

    Jenny – oh I wish I could give awards for comments because this one is just brilliant. I am still laughing at the thought of waiting for the travelling theatre to appear in Wandering Star. No wonder you felt cheated! 😀 Just hilarious.

    Dorothy – you’re right. If you read all the time, then you know that moods come and go and the moment for books is changing all the time and can easily change back towards a book as well as away from it. I will definitely get the Potato Pie book off the shelf as I have been waiting for a good time to read it!

    Becca – no! Not at all. Just a reader in need of books that sustain your heart as well as move it. I really enjoyed Julia Glass because she was a robust sort of author and could do with a few more novelists like her to get me though the winter months. I’ll let you know who I come across – we’re clearly in the same boat!

    Charlotte – thank you for those delightful recommendations! I have been wanting to read Miriam Toews for ages, and this is clearly the moment to do so. 🙂

  20. David – I am going to hasten to amazon right now to look up Arthur Phillips. I know exactly what you mean about feeling the need to read for literature’s sake and am contemplating a year of pleasure for 2010 just like the one you have been enjoying. I’m thinking of seeing how many funny, witty, charming and playful novels I can find. Oh and I’ll let in spooky, exciting and adventurous too. I’m really warming to this idea. 🙂

  21. LL, I agree with Stefanie – frankly the fault is unlikely to be all yours. Some books don’t work; some, despite the author’s best intentions, are simply bad. I love this post for its concentration on all the many redeeming qualities of books that failed to move you to finish them – it’s quite a delicate dance of diplomacy!! I was interested in the update on Lolita and yes, by all means save it for warmer weather and brighter skies. I too think reading for pleasure is due to make an overdue comeback in 2010 – who knows, it may well herald a similar change in the books themselves.

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