I’m an enthusiastic reader, and an enthusiastic recommender. I’m also a probably confusing combination of extremely picky and extremely accepting. I’m picky as a reader in that life is too short to read crap (even if everyone else loves it…..if it’s crap to me, my own life’s too short) so I am willing to abandon a book after a good-enough try. But I’m very accepting in that I don’t have to love the book, as long as I understand what the writer is doing. I can severely dislike all the characters, I can hate what happens, or even be bored to tears, as long as I see what the writer is doing and it’s effective and intended. For example, when I read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s remarkable series, I felt so bored by it I finally had to set it aside for awhile — but I came back to it, because I felt like I was missing something. And then I realized what he was doing, and that the long period of boredom was critical, it’s what he was intending (just like David Foster Wallace in The Pale King). I never did end up loving The Pale King, and I did end up loving Knausgaard, but for recommendation purposes I could recommend them both heartily even though they felt boring.
So to understand my recommendations, it’s important to realize that I often recommend books that other people dislike — because I’m thinking about what the book is trying to do and whether/how well it does it. I don’t have to love it, it doesn’t have to become an absolute favorite. It’s also important to realize that I really dislike schmaltz. Oh how I hate it. I hate schmaltz and purple sentimentality however it comes at us: in prose, in greeting cards, on television and in movies, etc. Swelling violins, purple mountains majesty and flags waving in a gentle breeze, front porches with flag bunting and window boxes filled with flowers, True Americans wearing khaki or pressed blue jeans (even sometimes True Americans Of All Colors, but not usually) holding hands. GAG. One thing I’m always most happy to hear, when people read pieces of my memoir, is that it’s not sentimental. It’s not self-indulgent and pitying. I am sentimental as a person, but I very much dislike over-sentimentality in writing. I think writers achieve so much more when they use restraint when writing about emotional things. Don’t beat me over the head with violins! To my mind, the best emotional writing takes me there almost invisibly, and leaves me to do all that emotional work. Then it’s my emotion, it’s earned.
And so, to an extremely crappy book I just tried to read, and abandoned. Let me save you (although almost all other reviewers loved it, so read their thoughts if the book seems possibly interesting). Love and Other Ways of Dying, by Michael Paterniti. Thank heavens I just checked it out from the library.
It seemed to have everything going for it. The topic, the form, the fact that it was longlisted for the National Book Award, the other reviews, the blurbs….the topic, which is one of my favorite (it really is about love and dying, writ large and broadly). I’d just finished Eileen and was eager to dive into this, palate-cleansing in every possible way. And I really do love essays (and will take this chance to again recommend the most excellent collection by Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering), so I was literally excited when I started reading. I didn’t know the writer, who is apparently relatively well-known and publishes in great places. The first essay was about the crash of Swissair flight 111, an event so horrific and well-known that there are movies and television specials about it, including this NOVA episode. As I was reading, I periodically kind of rolled my eyes and thought, sheesh, this guy, he’d be super annoying to spend much time with. It was overwritten, it went too far into that kind of emotional manipulation that really wasn’t necessary, at all! The story itself, told with plain, short sentences and no elaboration, would’ve done that.
So I was a little concerned, but read the second essay, “He Might Just Be a Prophet,” about Ferran Adrià, the chef/owner of El Bulli, and the originator of an incredibly inventive way of cooking — he’s considered the best chef in the world by people who rank those things. And again, the topic was interesting enough that I kept reading despite the severely overwritten prose. I needed a bit of lemon ice to cleanse my palate from it, good grief.
But the third essay just done this old girl in. It was titled “Eating Jack Hooker’s Cow,” and it was really the most patronizing, condescending schmaltz I’ve ever tried to choke down in my whole life. The whole ‘traditional good old American way of life, the cattleman on the prairie, shucks it’s all dying and look at this noble man and his noble wife managing a crappy motel with all their red necked nobility’ and truly, flags were smacking me in the face and the prose was Elvis in front of a lurid sunset on the blackest of velvet in Las Vegas, or maybe Elvis and Jesus. My god. It was just the most awful culmination, a peaked crescendo of the schmaltz that had permeated the first two, and I was done. I glanced ahead at the next essay just to see if maybe he got it out of his system (the next essay was about a giant who lives in Ukraine, or somewhere like that) but nope, so I broke up with him and threw his shit out on the street and we are finished forever.
Save yourself the trouble, and don’t read this one. (Or maybe do, if the other reviews make it seem like you’ll like it — and if you do, great! We all need to find books we love….this one just didn’t work for me.) If you like essays, and are looking for some recommendations, I have really enjoyed these and you can find my GoodReads reviews of them here:
- The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison
- Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio
- Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan
- The Unspeakable, by Megan Daum (proof that you shouldn’t judge a book by its bad cover!)
- The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton
And if you’ve read an essay collection that you really loved, tell me about it! I’m always looking.