Tag Archives: literature

Reviews of Books I Haven’t Finished: A Girl Named Zippy

17 Feb

Nothing alienates quite like a generally well-loved book that you dislike so much you have to put it down. What do they see that I do not? I find myself wondering. Am I crazy? Are they crazy? Finally, we have to agree to disagree, to dispel the mystery of our great differences with a cliche: it takes all kinds; there’s no accounting for taste; etc.

I pretty much knew I’d hate A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel. Its cover hits all the wrong notes for me. I’ve never read a book with “girl” in the title, not Gone Girl, or Girl Interrupted, or The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, or Girl Raised by Wolves; I once bought a story collection called Out of the Girl’s Room and Into the Night for a girlfriend and she hated it. I didn’t much care for This Boy’s Life, by the way, but I suppose that’s a story for another day. I’m sure some of those “girl” books are good, but I object to the labeling aspect of it, the marketing code, the literary agent and editor and publisher and the marketing guru commanding them all who’ve agreed that if you put “girl” in the title, it will reach a certain audience, and so by all means one must put “girl” in one’s title, no matter how stupid it sounds. I like to think such marketing techniques don’t work on me. I switch deodorant and toothpaste and cereal brands every few months because I get bored with the same old thing and also because I hate the idea of loyalty to a corporation. I eschew rewards cards, regardless of what they promise to offer. I hate every airline equally. Online ads never reach me. Once I was trying to write a novel, and I thought one of the characters should wear a cowboy hat. For half an hour I looked at cowboy hats online, partly to procrastinate but partly to get a sense of the character; the novel was never published, but for over a year after that Amazon pestered me with cowboy hat ads. At first the constant ads were funny. Then the whole situation turned pathetic, like having some love sick stalker following you around every day, always trying to fix you with his sad but hopeful expression, begging for a bit of eye contact. Amazon, you just don’t understand me, and you never will, I wanted to explain. I think it’s best we just stay away from each other. Anyway, the other thing I disliked about the cover of Zippy was the picture of the baby. I actually like babies in person, sort of, but not on covers of books. This particular baby was kind of homely/cute, and the intent seemed to be a plea for sentimentality, pity, and a kind of guilt-inducing condescension. Aww, such a goofy-looking baby!

So why did I read it? My intentions were largely noble. I wanted to branch out, to learn something, to experience life as others do, to break out of what the kids call my “comfort zone.”

The truth was that I had always disdained memoirs, and then I wrote one. During the editing process, my editor actually asked me a read a few memoirs to make mine more like them and “less like a novel.” And so I read The Glass Castle, which I liked, a lot. And then The Tender Bar, which I liked less but still liked. And then I launched into a great autobiography kick that completely rejuvenated my love of stories, for by then, and without quite noticing it, I’d begun to tire of novels, and had already written off stories and story collections as mere showcases for MFA techniques. Fiction had simply become too fake-seeming to me. Please note, I don’t care at all whether a story is “true” or not, but I’ve grown lately to crave the illusion that they are true, and most of the recent fiction I’ve been reading seems to telegraph its artifice too clearly for my tastes. I’m now one of those people whose favorite writers are Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante; their books seem honest in ways that make other writers seem posturing. I also discovered Milan Kundera over the past couple of years, and though his stories may seem intentionally artificial, the ideas behind them, and the author’s voice, are authentic. I take books like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting as essays that use thin fictional stories to illustrate their points. So that’s what led to my experiment with A Girl Named Zippy.

Its marketing pitch was twofold: Zippy was funny, but more importantly, it was something rare if not unique: a memoir about a happy life. What can I say? Though Amazon wasn’t able to figure me out, this particular angle got through my defenses. I was intrigued.

I didn’t get far though. I don’t remember the final page number, and I put the book on a “free books” shelf, so I can’t pick out quotations to bag on–and I have to say I have no desire to insult or poke fun. I don’t recall anything about the first twenty or so pages worth ridicule. The writing wasn’t terrible or embarrassing, like the kind of stuff you see excerpted from Fifty Shades of Grey and the like. I just wasn’t into it. The “happy memoir” thing didn’t catch my interest, nor did I believe this particular claim of happiness. What I read didn’t strike me as funny either, though I could tell it was supposed to be. Reading it reminded me of a young guy I once met in a youth hostel, a twenty-something American who wanted to be a stand up comedian. He had the delivery down, but no jokes, nothing funny to say. Even so, he sometimes managed to get people laughing, at least late at night when everyone came back from the bars, drunk. The would-be comedian and Zippy shared this sense of someone working hard to be funny, begging for laughter in the absence of genuine humor in a way designed to guilt trip us into pretending to be amused, and perhaps even fooling ourselves into thinking we are amused, which introduces questions about authenticity, questions about the definition of “funny,” and “happy.” If we are laughing, we must be happy, mustn’t we? I get the feeling that maybe we’re not, at least, I certainly wasn’t happy or amused reading Zippy, so I closed the book, wished the author and her readers the best of luck, and moved onto something else.

Reviews of Books I Haven’t Finished

13 Jan

A friend of mine shocked me one day by proclaiming that once he starts a book he always finishes it. I’m just not like that. When I begin to hate a book, or lose trust in the author, I toss it aside, perhaps too hastily in some cases. The result is that my house and office are cluttered with cast-off novels, story collections, memoirs, and so on. They oppress me, these books that I usually have paid good money for, lying about or taking up shelf space, giving off this one message: you are a loser, a quitter, I was just about to get good when you gave up. Sometimes I actually do pick them up again, and on one instance–the only such in memory–the book proved my initial instinct wrong. Every other time it’s been the same thing, more angry reading, boredom, and finally defeat.

I hate the waste of it all. The wasted time, the wasted money. I also feel weird, off kilter, because pretty much every book I begin starts with full-throated recommendations from smart friends or, more often, literary consensus. I should like such and such. Everybody else does. Why can’t I? Am I stupid, still a plebe with greasy fingernails even after decades of education meant to transform me into something better, more delicate, sweeter smelling?

To try to answer this question, and to recycle, in a sense, the time and money wasted on these many books, I thought I’d go public with some of my efforts. Here will follow some recently abandoned books, how far I made it and why I gave up. I’m curious to hear your reactions. I’ll start with a controversial one.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
Last page: 96.
I expect some blow back on this one. The winner of the Pen Hemingway. A “modern classic.” One of the best writers I know commanded me to read it. It’s the kind of book that blows people away, changes their lives. I hated it, at least the one-third I read. The language is what’s most praised about it and it’s what I hated most. I kept hearing the voice in the lilting tones of a poetry reading. I actually like poetry readings and I like reading poetry, but the thing with readings is that you aren’t compelled to pay attention the whole time. A few images impress you, a few complete poems make sense. Otherwise, you watch the poet, look around the room, and know whatever poem is happening will soon end. Likewise for reading poetry. Read one, take a break. Read another tomorrow, or next week. Go crazy and read three in a row. Whatever you like. When I read a  novel, I settle in for at least an hour in the world the author has created, and being subjected to hyper-artificial-sounding language for that long is taxing and irritating and distracting. To my ears, this author/narrator sounds pretentious and full of shit. I feel like I’m being lied to, conned in a way.

Other than the language, the story is about two girls in a small town, their troubles basically. The setup is quite similar to another book I’m reading right now, and LOVING: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. The difference between Ferrante’s and Robinson’s characters is that Ferrante’s girls are in constant conflict, with each other and with the world around them. They love each other, need each other, but also desperately want to destroy, to defeat each other. Their desires are huge and electrify the narrative. Robinson’s characters are lifeless observers in comparison, sitting around waiting for (mostly bad) things to happen to them. Robinson’s outsized language, it seems to me, is meant to make up for this lack of narrative drive. In short, choose twenty pages in Housekeeping and you’re likely to get eighteen pages of the author/narrator’s flowery observations on, for instance, the wind rushing through the town and animating the leaves, and two pages of people doing stuff. Those numbers need to be reversed.

Welcome to Outside Lit

1 Mar

This blog is for anyone who likes stories about people with the gumption, or desperation, to get up off the couch, walk out the door. We prefer walking to driving, trains to planes, but we understand that the world being what it is, one must use the means available. Bicycles hold a special place in our hearts, and we can’t think of a single story about bikes at present. That’s a shame.

So if you’re tired of domestic literature, upper-middle-class dramas of manners, gimmicky word play masking the absence of story, or even worse, that exhausted “post modern” excuse for bad writing that claims the very badness of the writing is somehow a commentary on the badness of our times (please, go sell your snake oil elsewhere). We love women writers and women readers, but we must reject any writing that describes itself using the word “chick.” There are many other forms and styles of writing we don’t like , but we’ll try to focus on what we do like. Examples are always better than abstractions, so here’s the first work under discussion: Peter Matthiessen’s masterpiece, At Play in the Fields of the Lord. It’s a novel, highly recommended, about various Americans (and one Spaniard) who have traveled deep into the Amazon jungle, some to convert the fearsome Niaruna tribe to one form or another of Christianity, others to “bomb them to Kingdom come.” If you know the book, please comment. If you don’t check out what others have to say, or offer your take on the current state of things in Bookland, USA. We welcome famous author bashing (and by “we” we mean “me.”)