Thursday, July 21, 2011

Epiphany #642

If it's taking me a year to read a book, I probably shouldn't be reading it.

Case in point: The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber. I started this book in June of last year while we were on vacation in Minnesota and am currently on page 178 of 466. I've read dozens of books since last June, but why oh why can't I finish this one? Because it's good. Gruber writes very well, and his style is interesting and masterful. The pace and plotting work rather elegantly, and even if the whole "lost Shakespeare play" theme has been done before, Gruber adds interesting twists that make for entertaining fiction.

So why don't I like this novel enough to finish it? I'll tell you. The characters deeply, profoundly annoy the hell out of me. I'm serious about this. I want to like characters, want to feel for them, dream for them, pull for them. They can be conflicted, flawed, and make mistakes (even large ones), and I'll forgive them easily if they are, at some level, trying for something better. I adore Leopold Bloom, for instance, who's a pathetic loser in the grand tradition of tragedy. He tries.

I need a character...just one, a novel who doesn't, at the very least, make me want to dope-slap him or her. Is that asking too much? It's certainly asking too much of novelists like Thomas Hardy and Ernest Hemingway. They have excellent things to say about the human condition, our fallen state, the hopelessness of pursuit of happiness, the cruelty and cynicism and stupidity of life. These are important things to write about, but without giving reference (solid, balanced reference) to their opposites...grace, mercy, joy, kindness, and compassion...a novel ends up sounding like the evening news.

I don't watch the evening news anymore.

I've only read a third of Mr. Gruber's skillfully written book, yet I'd be happy if the main characters contracted Ebola and bled to death from their eyeballs. (Okay, I exaggerate, but not much.) Not one is nice or good or even trying just a tiny bit to be nice or good. They are complex, carefully developed, and fully believable, but they are motivated by selfishness, lust, greed, or stupidity. I. Just. Don't. Care.

That's why I'm not finishing The Book of Air and Shadows. My sincere apologies to Mr. Gruber, who has written a smart, interesting, and masterful novel that I, sadly, cannot enjoy.

Instead, I'm rereading the delightful book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. If you want to read a book that makes you smile and want to be friends with the characters, pick up a copy.


  1. I felt that way when I started reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. The writing was brilliant but the characters--UGH.

  2. I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society this summer and enjoyed it! Easy to read a letter then be interrupted, but since no letter was terrible long, it also took longer than I expected to read it with no late nights, I HAVE to finish this chapter(s).

  3. I've finished The Help, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I also enjoyed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society when I read it. I am about to start The City of Tranquil Light. We'll see how that goes.

  4. Loved the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society too. I spent years reading all books to the end, even when not enjoying them (no matter how well they were written). Now I've decided that life is too short!

  5. Susan, you've made me laugh out loud. Thank you so much. Talking of books with thoroughly awful characters; may I just put a word in for Crime and Punishment? Ugh! Horrid! I'm scarred for life. Not a single character to empathise with or like. NOT ONE! Thank goodness I never have to read it again.

    As for Thomas Hardy; don't even go there. Despicable is the only word I can use to describe his work. It's miserable in every sense of the word. There! I feel cleansed. Thanks for that.

    I'm currently enjoying The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham. The Help and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society have now been added to my wish list. It's a looooooooong wish list. Will I ever get to read all these books? Who knows?

    Happy 3rd Blogiversary by the way and how's the repetitive strain injury? Hope you're on the mend. We all miss your crafty capers. Lx

  6. I'm with V-Grrrl. I despised every character in The Corrections. I stopped reading it about a quarter of the way through and never regretted it.

  7. Oh you are going to love the Potato Society, didn't think I would but couldn't put it down. You're right characters do need to have 1 redeeming feature, even the baddies you can like.

    A few years ago The Riders by Tim Winton (Australian author) was recommended to me. It starts very slowly and I had a sense that nothing was going to change by the end of the book and it didn't. I don't normally skip to the end but did and very glad I didn't waste any more time on it. His book Cloud Street is very good however.

  8. Loved, loved, loved the Potato Peel Society. As a teacher of English, when I ask kids to choose books from the library for pleasure reading, I allow them to abandon them if they can give me a good reason other than, "It was boring." Reading for pleasure is supposed to be pleasurable.

  9. I, too, loved that book. Passed it on to my husband, who loved it, then to my sister-in-law, and have recommended it to many. And it really is based on similar events! I love books like that!

  10. Isn't the GL and PPPS book the best???? Love it!
    I'm currently reading A Good Dog bye Susan Wilson...very interesting.....

  11. A famous composer (whose name escapes me at the moment) one wrote "If a piece of music is technically correct but not easy on the ear then the composer has missed the point" and it seems from your remarks Susan that Mr Gruber has, indeed, missed the point.
    Why has he invented such awful characters? Does he not know any people with redeeming traits on whom he can base his fictional characters?


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!