Literary Corner Cafe

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Reader In Search of a Book

During the past week, I’ve picked up and discarded more books than I can even remember. I really, really want to “lose myself” in a good book, but despite the fact that my shelves are bursting with hundreds of books I’ve accumulated but have yet to read, “losing myself” in a good book seems to be something I just can’t do. So, is it the books’ fault or is it mine?

I love Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe series, which is set in Botswana, so I decided to try his Isabel Dalhousie series, set in Edinburgh. Isabel is a likable woman, though not nearly as likable/lovable as Mma Ramotswe, but her need to philosophize about every little thing causes my eyes to glaze over. I understand why she does it. Philosophizing is what Isabel does. It’s a part of who she is, and we really can’t blame either her or McCall Smith for it. Still, it stops the story in its tracks and it puts me to sleep. I’ll be returning the first book and the second in the series, but I’ll continue to look forward with joy to every new Precious Ramotse novel.

Next, I tried The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. I loved the Victorian writing style, and I loved the 19th century romantic triangle formed by Charles, Sarah, and Ernestina. But I hated the metafiction (this is not a spoiler). Yes, Mr. Fowles, we know Charles and Sarah and Ernestina are not “real” people. We didn’t need reminding again and again. In fact, I fervently wish you wouldn’t have reminded me so darn many times. Readers want to get lost in a good story. They want to get lost in the world of the character for the duration of the book, so reminding them that the people they want to care about aren’t real seems counterproductive to me.

Next up was Vikram Seth’s mammoth tome, A Suitable Boy, which gives us a panoramic look at India during the 1950s, while chronicling Mrs. Rupa Mehra's search for a husband for her younger daughter, Lata. Weighing in at nearly 1,500 pages, the book certainly lives up to its description of being “richly detailed.” In fact, it might be just a little too richly detailed. I started out loving the book, and most of the characters (especially Mrs. Rupa Mehra), but did we really need to know everything the courtesan sang at the Kapoors’ Holi celebration? I didn’t. It took me a full three days to get through that chapter alone because I kept putting the book down. When I did finish it, I put the book down, period. I’ll probably come back to it at some later date because there is so much to love in it, but really, Mr. Seth, though you’re a wonderful writer, I think A Suitable Boy just contains “too much of a good thing.”

Maybe something bleak was what I needed. Really bleak and really dark. I turned to Henning Mankell’s The Return of the Dancing Master, a dark murder mystery and police procedural set in bleak northern Sweden, a place where the landscape and lifestyle don’t get much bleaker. The description on the dust jacket seemed promising, but the writing was so flat, I couldn’t make it past the third chapter. I’ve read that Mankell’s previous books are better and the flat writing is the fault of the translation, but it’s going to take me some time to investigate, if I ever do.

I didn’t read Elizabeth Kostova’s runaway bestseller, The Historian, but I saw her second book, The Swan Thieves on a bargain table while grocery shopping, and impulsively bought it. I love art, I love reading about artists, I like a good mystery. Although some have told me Kostova’s writing style left a lot to be desired, I didn’t find this to be true. In fact, I was entranced with the writing style from the very first page. I just wish I could say the same about the story. I wanted to love it. I really did. But it went nowhere very, very slowly. Painfully slowly. I don’t need or even like a book to race along; I want time to get to know the characters, but I do need for something to happen and it just wasn’t in The Swan Thieves. Maybe I’ll pick that book up again some day. And maybe I’ll read The Historian. But not today.

So, here I am, wanting very much to get involved with a good book the way I got involved with Hilary Mantel’s masterful Booker winning Wolf Hall and finding it impossible to do so. Like I said, maybe it’s me, but I don’t think so. I honestly think it’s the books. Please authors, please remember that readers want so much to get involved with your characters. We want to live in their world, if only for a day or two or three. Please work a little harder to make that possible. I know I’ll be appreciative, and I really think readers from all over will thank you as well.