Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Failure to read

Now and then even the most dedicated reader happens on a book he or she cannot get through. I am not talking about picking something up only discover it's the next Who Moved My Cheese. I mean literature. The good stuff.

Bibiliophiles have a variety of responses to this phemomenon, ranging from tossing the book down with nary a regret (rare), to slogging through dutifully, eating their spinach (or bran flakes, or whatever) to get to the Haagen Daz. Then there are the types that read fifty pages and put it on the shelf, promising to return come the next vacation. Which never comes. Then there's me. I am rarely able to stop reading a book. Until this most recent one, I cannot recall the last book I abandoned.

Time to 'fess up. I read eighty-one pages of Ian McEwan's Saturday, marveling at his felicitous sentences, his ability to introduce backstory, even liking his main character, but approaching the book with a vague dread. By page eighty-one McEwan was finally moving inexorably toward THE BAD THING that would move the plot from Rich English Family--very lucky--in an incredible English Mews Home (what is it about the English and real estate? they make Californians look like dilettantes!) to not-so-lucky after all. As the plot inched toward this moment--a traffic accident, but I didn't get that far--there was lots of musing about Iraq, terrorism, and 9/11.

It was strange. I knew something bad was coming and just didn't feel up to dealing with whatever it was through Henry Perowne's meticulous surgeon's eyes. I knew it would be awful and then resolve, because the Henry Perownes of the world are intended to live on three floors with libraries and Victorian Chandeliers, contemplating Middle Eastern bloodshed from an anguished if safe remove. And I just couldn't do it. Partly this had to do with the 9/11/terrorist theme. Of course it's timely and relevant and hideous, and you know what? I don't want it in my fiction. The reality is awful enough--plenty of anguished bloodshed at a safe remove for me.

I realize my stance could be interpreted as a refusal to meet reality in fiction. To seek escape. To paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates, people read to get into other people's skins. Sometimes we meet a skin we'd rather not step into, no matter how beautifully rendered. Most serious readers are taught to be ashamed at this--how many people admit they find Joyce, or for that matter, Pynchon--impenetrable? Might as well turn your credentials in at the door. Not being able to get through McEwan, whose prose is crystalline? More's my shame.

I do plan to shelve this one, rather than turn it around for used book credit. I think--hope?--the time comes when I can read it without feeling beaten about the head by it. Meanwhile, I have begun Sigrid Nunez's The Last of Her Kind (I seem stuck on Patty Hearst themed books) and scored a copy of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women. Claire Messud and Jane Grigson are on order. So the stack is reassuringly high, even if I am not the intellectual giant I'd wish to be.


Blogger Darby M. Dixon III said...

Couldn't do Saturday. Tried. Got 2/3rds through, and realized I was bored and couldn't care less what happened to the guy. One of those rare cases where I was glad I'd gotten the book from the library so I didn't have to keep it, rather than wishing I'd bought it so I could keep it.

But yeah, usually, I make my way through whatever I pick up, these days. Just read The Memory Keeper's Daughter for a book-group. Thought about quitting it a couple times, but it seemed easier to finish it, just to be safe..

January 18, 2007 2:02 PM  
Blogger Barking Kitten said...

Yeah, he's sort of...pendantic.

What did you think of Memory? My Mother is after me to read it, but I can't get past the author's being this super-Christian. I've heard it's a good story but badly written? Yes? No?

January 18, 2007 7:54 PM  
Blogger Darby M. Dixon III said...

I'd say there was definitely a decent book somewhere in Memory, but yeah, it was so over-written. I wanted to ghost-edit it with a black Sharpie marker. I think if you simply struck a lot of over-explanatory or -repetitious passages, something much cooler would have come out of it.

But it wasn't so awful I couldn't finish it. Read pretty quick.

January 19, 2007 4:16 PM  
Blogger Barking Kitten said...

Hmm. Okay...if it's in paperback.

January 21, 2007 10:08 AM  

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