Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: To read or not to read

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

To read or not to read

Monday, September 20, 2010

I hate to start and book and not finish it. And I know I’m not alone in this. It feels like some kind of character flaw, or maybe a breakdown in the unstated contract between reader and writer. And yet at this very moment I have TWO books on my nightstand that I probably will not finish.

The first is “The Adventures of Augie March,” Saul Bellow’s early break-through coming-of-age novel. It’s masterfully written and every time I pick it up I am astounded by Bellow’s craft, his beautiful use of language, his astounding breadth of reference. And then I put it down. I’ve been reading it since May. Okay, it’s not a short book, but still. Since May I’ve read maybe a dozen other books, many of them just as long if not longer. And I keep asking myself why I can’t seem to stick with this one. I know this is an admission of my deep lack of something or other, but, much as I admire the writing, I’m just not all that interested in the story. So I am close to admitting defeat and putting Augie back on the shelf, where--true--I could resume reading any time.

Then there is “The Corrections,“ the book Jonathan Franzen wrote before he was anointed Boy Genius, Great American Writer, and maybe the Second Coming of Elvis for his new novel, “Freedom.” There was a little something gnawing at me that felt as if Franzen’s Genius was being crammed down my throat. But I hadn’t read this earlier novel and there it was on the shelf, just waiting. Reader, I hated it. I know, I know, many people have loved it. Many people whose opinions on books I respect have loved it. But not me. I find his repetition of the word “correction” used in various ways, annoying and silly. I find his characters mostly small and unlikable; the few I liked the most seemed to be the ones he liked the least. And, up to page 335 out of 562, I am not seeing the ambition of scope that I had expected. I closed the book last night and have returned it to its place next to E.M Forster. Hmmm.

Meanwhile, as a little palate-cleanser, I picked up Laurie Colwin’s “The Lone Pilgrim.”which I had not looked at in many years. Colwin, if you are not familiar with her, wrote five luminous novels, two short story collections, and a series of food columns that were collected into two books. Sadly, she died at 48, in 1992. Her stories are filled with characters you wish you knew--complex and human and trying to figure out their lives. Here’s a small taste selected totally at random: “Woe to those who get what they desire. Fulfillment leaves an empty space where your old self used to be, the self that pines and broods and reflects. You furnish a dream house in your imagination, but how startling and final when that dream house is your own address. What is left to you? Surrounded by what you wanted, you feel a sense of amputation. The feelings you were used to abiding with are useless. The conditions you established for your happiness are met.”

Next post I’ll give you the recipe for her fabulous tomato pie!

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Blogger Mim said...

A delightful confession! Isn't it freeing to say, "Not for me"?

Yes, please: give us the recipe for tomato pie!

September 20, 2010 at 3:17 PM  
Anonymous Sandra Kohler said...

I'm not sure quite what it says that I can more easily articulate why I disliked Augie March, which I found a chore to finish, than why I loved The Corrections. It's been a good six or seven years since I read them both. The world of Augie March left me cold; the world of The Corrections was at points intensely painful to read about but felt absolutely accurate, honestly portrayed. For me there was a kind of authorial tenderness in that excruciating honesty. I don't think that Franzen disliked or put down his major characters, awful as they could be at moments. And some of them are capable of change (something it's hard to know without having read the whole thing). It's fascinating, of course, to see how differently we can react. And I agree that one needs to be able to say "not for me." At my age I find myself more and more willing to do that!

September 21, 2010 at 9:07 AM  

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