Disappointments in Reading

bored

I’ve been reading quite a lot lately, but not with much success. It’s always a disappointment when you slog your way through a book, hoping that you’ll reach a point where suddenly a clever sleight of hand will be performed by the author, elevating what has been a hum-drum story into something sublime, only to find yourself reading the final chapter with a sinking heart as you become only too aware that the past week of your life has been spent reading something that was never going to be anything other than distinctly average.

I was so excited to read The Lake District Murder by John Bude, which is one of the gorgeously designed British Library Crime Classics. I thought it would have just the right mixture of a lovely setting, period detail and criminal intrigue to keep me occupied during my commute without requiring much intellectual engagement, as I can hardly be expected to try and work out the solution to a complex mystery while also trying to stay upright in a packed tube carriage. It started well; I loved plucky Inspector Meredith, whose suspicions about the supposed suicide of a garage owner lead to a murder investigation, I enjoyed the Boys-Own style voice of the author, and I was much amused by the depiction of the average life of a police officer in the 1930s, when much of the working day seemed to involve popping home for a ‘good lunch’ or smoking a pipe with one’s superior in a hotel lounge while chatting over the confidential facts of a case in full hearing of the rest of the local population. However, it soon deteriorated into a rather dull, incredibly technical exploration of just how the criminals, who are spelled out from Chapter One, managed to conduct their crime, which involves lots of measuring of time and distance and cubic square metres. This goes on for chapter after chapter, while everyone is stumped by what can possibly be happening, and I was becoming increasingly annoyed by how dense they were, because even though I am no mathematician, it really was quite obvious that they were barking up the wrong tree. By the time I got to the end of what had become a very far fetched story, I was left with the impression that if I had been alive in the 1930s I could evidently have been Head of Scotland Yard judging from the efficacy of the police force at the time, and I was also reminded that choosing a book based on how much I like the cover is not always the best way to find something that sets my heart on fire.

Disappointment number two was my second attempt at reading Toni Morrison. I’ve had Song of Solomon on my shelves for ages, as I thought I’d have to teach it at my last school but never actually did, and as I am trying to reduce the pile of unread books I own, I decided I’d take the opportunity to be able to read it for pleasure rather than with my teacher’s hat on. I studied Beloved for A Level and hated it; I found it a profoundly disturbing and unpleasant book, and while I can appreciate the skill of Morrison’s writing, I did not enjoy the process of reading her at all. I hoped Song of Solomon would be different, but sadly, it wasn’t. Once again I could admire her skill as a craftswoman, and the power of her imagination, but I was left cold by the characters and their stories, and could not feel emotionally involved in what was happening at all. The only pleasure I got from reading it was in mentally analysing the literary techniques, metaphors, Biblical allegories etc that I found as I went along, because Morrison does write beautifully and she is undoubtedly a phenomenally intelligent woman, but I struggled to find any emotional connection to the tale being told, and I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters. I think it’s because I find Morrison’s stories so deeply pessimistic that I don’t enjoy them; I know she is exploring the traumatic and unjust experiences of African Americans throughout history, so it’s hardly going to be sunshine and rainbows, and rightly so, but there is a profound misery in her books that leaves me feeling utterly depressed. These days we are surrounded by so much negativity that I suppose I just don’t want any more of it; I want to be inspired and uplifted by what I read, not pulled into the depths of despair. But that’s just my opinion, and it’s clear that plenty of people don’t feel the way I do about Morrison, otherwise she wouldn’t be as lauded as she is. It’s strange how some authors can just not work for you, as much as you can appreciate their skill. I have pressed the remarkable Marilynne Robinson on some people, convinced that they will love her as much as I do, and they have had much the same reaction to her as I do to Toni Morrison. I can’t understand it, but there it is. There is just, I suppose, no accounting for individual taste.

So, next up on my reading list is going to be something I know I’m definitely going to love. Whilst in Daunt Books the other day, I treated myself to the wonderful Alexandra Harris’ new book, Weatherland, which is an exploration of how British writers and artists have used the weather as creative inspiration over the past thousand years. I can’t wait to get stuck in; it’s a beautifully produced book, with loads of illustrations, and if it’s anywhere near as amazing as Romantic Moderns, I know I’m going to be in reading heaven. I think I deserve it after my month of disappointments!

44 comments

  1. I felt much the same way about The Lake District Murder: good cover, started well, but became painfully technical and dull. I also felt that, apart from the stream, it made little use of its North Lakes setting; it could almost have been set in Milton Keynes – itself just a village in the 1930s. (Aside: The village gave its name to the modern new town, rather than the latter being named after a poet and an economist as I incorrectly thought at one time.)

    I have never tried Toni Morrison. I feel I ought to have done so, but based on your experience I suspect I would really struggle with her work. You are no literally lightweight, after all. If someone who adored Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead as much as you did takes a strong dislike to something widely recognised as quality literature then it must be hard going. I found Gilead rather gloomy, but you always rave about it (most recently on your podcast). So, if you find a book depressing it must be really grim.

    It is perfectly possible for a novel to be technically brilliant, original and thought provoking and yet fail to appeal to many readers, even intelligent readers who might like similar work. We do not have to like characters to like a book, but we do need to be sufficiently interested in them to keep reading. The overall mood of a novel is important to. We may be able to take greater darkness if we feel that we are learning something. It may even be that more intense darkness has more appeal than a persistent greyness, offering a more dramatic symphonic quality that can draw us in even if we are not taken by the melody. To my mind – and I am about to make a controversial statement – this is why it is legitimate to give 1 star reviews to Shakespeare!

    I have often wondered why people on various book-related websites and stores are sneered at for giving 1 or 2 star reviews to the works of acknowledged literary greats. As a society we probably do need to try and arrive at some idea of what constitutes greatness and cultural importance, so that we can figure out what is worthy to be the subject of serious study and to be handed down to future generations. I suspect that as society becomes more diverse this becomes harder to do, since it becomes harder to agree on what might be of universal value. Nevertheless, it is worth trying. One way of doing it, is to rate writing that is capable of deep interpretation and shows technical skill. Having done that we should be able to figure out what merits a place on the literature syllabus, but just because a book gets there does not mean we are obliged to like or enjoy it, merely to acknowledge it’s importance; as you do here with Morrison’s work. If all great work had to be given five star reviews, then there would be no point in making ratings. Whilst many people doubt the usefulness of score based rating systems for books I think they can be useful in helping us assess whether we might enjoy a particular author or title. We already know who is considered great, what we need to discover is whether we might actually like their work. One star ratings and considered reviews that express disappointment are very useful in informing such discoveries.

    Good “negative” reviews tell us why a book did not work for a particular reader. Thomas does it really well here, for example:
    http://hogglestock.com/2015/10/24/i-didnt-want-to-hate-this-book/

    It is also worth bearing in mind that the same reader might respond very differently to the same book depending on the time and circumstance in which they read it. Lighter reading might be more suitable for crowded commuter trains. Also, the greatest books can take longer to warm too. I have commented here in the past about disliking Austen’s Emma, although I have warmed to it in more recent times. Listening to this recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time made me feel bad for regarding it as no more than a cruel comic novel:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06pd3b9

    To continue your “reading heaven” analogy, I hope your spell in literary purgatory soon ends.

    1. Thank you for your wonderfully detailed and thoughtful contribution, David! I agree with you on all counts. I think it’s a real shame that people who don’t see the merit in ‘great’ fiction are automatically classed as heathens who need educating – a fact that couldn’t be further from the truth. A work’s ‘greatness’ should always be open to debate – and one person’s prize winner is another person’s charity shop donation. I think it’s important to have an open mind and be willing to try authors – but as I’ve become older, I’ve grown less concerned about voicing my true opinions if they don’t side with the majority. I don’t like Toni Morrison’s writing and I don’t see why her work merits more recognition than other novelists of her ilk, but I can appreciate why others see greatness in her. I do wonder though whether she will be studied in 100 years’ time. The spell in literary purgatory has indeed ended, thank you – I’ve moved on to far more ‘me’ books and have been loving them!

  2. I find Morrison a slog myself, but I have her recommendation, and a New Yorker podcast with Ta-Nehisi Coates (this year’s winner of the National Book Award here in the U.S.), to thank for finally (years and years after I should have done) getting me to read James Baldwin. His brief essay “Notes of a Native Son” about his father, a pre-Civil Rights era African American male in New York City, is remarkable and tragic but not operatic (the latter being the way that I think of Morrison’s work). I know it’s frequently anthologized so you may have already read it, but here’s a link to a PDF if you haven’t.

    http://english.duke.edu/uploads/media_items/baldwin-native-son.original.pdf.

    I find so many mysteries disappointing nowadays that I just re-read those of Josephine Tey or Georgette Heyer.

    1. Aw, I’m always pleased to see someone recommending James Baldwin. He’s marvelous. One of these days I need to catch up on all his nonfiction because I just find his writing so beautiful. (His nonfiction. I haven’t had any success AT ALL with his novels.)

      1. I can’t speak to his novels as I haven’t gotten there yet, but his essays and short fiction, like Sonny’s Blues … I’m a fan to the point where I press them on friends and family.

  3. I read The Lake District Murder recently and was also a bit disappointed in it. The premise was good but it never quite got off the ground.

    I find it interesting how a book can resonate with a person but someone else may be unable to see the appeal. A friend of mine loved Angela’s Ashes. She raved about it and insisted I read it. I hated it. I wanted to throw that book against a wall. But then I loved The Enchanted April and she thought it was slow and slightly boring.

    And the previous comment about rereading Josephine Tey and Georgette Heyer? I’ll second that.

    1. Yes, isn’t it? I am often frustrated when people don’t like books I have recommended to them, but then I have to remind myself that taste is utterly individual! I haven’t read either of those authors and feel like I should…a project for next year, perhaps!

  4. I can recommend a novel that will not disappoint, but, unfortunately, I am not sure it has been published yet. I read it as a livre de brouillon nearly a year ago and was enchanted; the author at that point was trying to decide on a title so watch for either Claverton House or The Engagement Party. The author and I were affectionate friends for years but she has disappeared, much to my despair; I would give a year of my life to hear from her again (and that is no idle offer since I am 67 and a year is quite precious to me, as is the above mentioned author).

  5. Sorry to hear you have not had much luck with your recent reading. I have been binge listening to your podcast and now I have the longest to read list thanks to all the fantastic sounding books you and Simon have discussed.

  6. I have been having a bit of the same such luck in books lately as well, Rachel, though I think it may just be a mood or the season of life I am currently in. You are the third to issue disappointment over “The Lake District Murder”. Sigh. Now, Weatherland sounds quite interesting. I hope all is well with you, Rachel. I am always ecstatic when a blog of yours pops up.

    1. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? I hope you find something that lights your reading fire again soon. Thank you, Penny – all is well with me indeed. Hope all is good with you and that you’re looking forward to Christmas!

  7. Hopefully, you’ll have a few successes follow this slump. Nothing more depressing than when a book turns out to be a dud, especially when you’ve slogged through it.

    I’ve had a similar sort of situation recently, but rather than being disappointing they’ve just been a bit mediocre.

    1. Mediocre books are the worst, I find – so bland you just feel indifferent towards them. I’ve been on the up lately – I’ve just finished a Rosamond Lehmann that I really enjoyed, so hopefully I’ll not be in the reading doldrums again for a while!

  8. I belong to a couple of book groups. Occasionally we read a book that leaves me cold. I do finish though, like a school assignment! When our group meets, the members’ discussion and varying points of view usually raise my opinion of the book. . . .somewhat! On my own, I generally follow the fifty page and out rule. Life’s too short, there are too many books to read!

    1. Yes…I need to get better at giving up. I always feel like I have to finish, when really, I don’t! I’d switch a film off that I didn’t like, so I don’t know why I feel differently about books!

  9. I felt the same about a book I recently read. She by H. Rider Haggard was a bore though it started out well. I spent a whole month fighting to read it but only managed a few pages at a time. I enjoyed some of the discussions between Holly and the mysterious She but otherwise I didn’t like the story.

    I need to reread Song of Solomon. I read it a couple years ago but didn’t like it and can’t recall much of it now. I’m one of the readers who enjoys Morrison’s stories, though. I think Beloved was great and Jazz too and also The Bluest Eye. But yes, they are depressing and rightly so. I guess one has to be in the mood for Morrison.

    1. I’ve never read any H Rider Haggard, but I imagine he wouldn’t be my cup of tea. I think we need to feel more free to give up on books we’re not enjoying!

      Yes, absolutely- I wonder if Morrison will ever fit my mood?! Somehow I think not!

  10. I usually don’t blog about the books I’m disappointed by, but it is very illuminating to read your comments. I read another of the John Bude mystery reissues (can’t even remember the title now) and had a similar reaction. And though I read Beloved years ago and was blown away by it, it was too devastating to read again. To go into another Morrison book I would have to prepare myself well.

  11. When you get to my age –51—you soon ditch books that you are not enjoying.
    I only read 2 of these “golden age” crime books–QUICK CURTAIN and THE MAN WITH THE DARK BEARD and disliked them both.For me these crime books are like reading the phone book.

    1. I’m sorry you haven’t had success with them! I’ve read a couple that I really enjoyed, but the last two I read weren’t such a success. I’ll have to pick carefully next time…and not just choose based on the front cover!

  12. I entirely agree with you, Rachel, about ‘The Lake Murders’. It had such a lovely cover (!) Was SO looking forward to reading it, but half-way through, got totally bored with the technicalities, so sent it back to the library. As a mystery novel, I guess it was very heavy on the ‘plodding’ and very light on the ‘plotting’…groan…PS Absolutely LOVED ‘The Chateau’ and ‘So Long See You Tomorrow’ by W. Maxwell. ALSO: absolutely dote on yours & Simon’s podcasts. Do you publish LISTS of the books you discuss there? (Often listen to the the podcasts while driving, so not able to jot down titles…)
    Best to you…
    D

    1. Yes…the technicalities were a step too far. No one needs to learn that much about petrol pumps! So glad you loved the Maxwells! I want the world to discover how amazing he is…it makes me so happy when someone reads and loves him as much as me! Oh thank you – I’m delighted that you’re enjoying listening! Yes, Simon does post lists over on his blog, whenever he posts a podcast – so you don’t have to worry about getting all the names down yourself!

  13. Oh dear…I’ve just sent off a copy of The Lake District Murder to my very lovely Visiting Library Service customer at a nursing home. Rachel! I can just see her now…cursing my name as she rolls her eyes. Not only that, but she will probably roll her eyes again once she sees the copy of Mystery in White I have set aside for December’s delivery. I quite liked that one though.
    I think you’ve found your gem of a book, fingers crossed.

    1. Oh no, Darlene! Hopefully she would have enjoyed it more than I did…and I’m sure Mystery in White is wonderful! Yes, fingers crossed…though it’s very heavy so I’m saving it for a Christmas read.🙂

  14. I’ve also been going through a reading slump; nothing seems quite right. And I so agree about the Lake District Murder – far more than I ever wanted to know about petrol pumps.

  15. When I’m in a reading slump, which happened recently with three duds in row, I always reread a favourite book. That usually helps. I’m really looking forward to hear your thoughts on Weatherland. I bought it a few weeks ago and hope to read it during the Christmas holiday. I’m not British, but I do love all things weather related.

    1. Good advice; thank you Elke! I’m saving it for Christmas too – it’s too heavy to carry on the train and I want to read it all at once. I imagine that it’s going to be wonderful!

  16. I agree with everyone about the disappointing Lake District Murders but I did love the ‘period” details of a policeman’s lot!. and I think for its time, like e.g.. Freeman Wills Croft, detection readers liked having the complex technicalities to work out, whereas today we are given great details of today’s forensic sciences – DNA, blood spray, and corpse deterioration. I am a fan of Josephine Tey, including her “The Daughter of Time” which explores the evidence for Richard III as murderous or maligned.

  17. Thanks for the reference to Romantic Moderns. I checked it out on amazon and am going to order it. Having recently watched Living in Squares on TV, I bought Angelica Garnett’s autobiography, Deceived by Kindness, and can heartily recommend it if you haven’t read it already and if you’re a Bloomsbury fan like me. It gives a completely new perspective on Vanessa as a mother, as well as many of the other members of the group Angelica grew up with. She writes very well.

    1. I liked Angelica’s book as well. I found her brother’s Quentin’s book Bloomsbury Recalled a little edged in acid, with regard to David and Angelica. But I quite liked Frances Partridge’s Love in Bloomsbury, although some of the entanglements continue to mystify me. Partridge, as you probably know, was the sister of David Garnett’s first wife Ray, and (I think) was present at his marriage to Angelica or the wedding lunch after.

      There is a new biography of David Garnett out titled “Bloomsbury’s Outsider”, by Sarah Knights, which I bought but haven’t gotten to yet, but it’s been praised for its even-handedness. Michael Dirda, a well-known book reviewer in the U.S., once referred to him as the “prodigiously (or prolifically?) priapic” David Garnett, which he essentially admits to in his own 3 memoirs, all of which are interesting and well-written, but unreliable factually. The first one though, The Golden Echo, is a real charmer. He has also published two volumes of his correspondence, one with Sylvia Townsend Warner and the other with T.H. White. I loved both of these, especially the first.

      Oh my, until I went on at length here, I hadn’t realized quite how much ancillary Bloomsbury material I’d read!

    2. Romantic Moderns is magnificent – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I’ve been meaning to read Deceived by Kindness for years – thank you for the reminder. One for my Christmas list!

  18. I, too, have been disappointed by Toni Morrison. My husband says the book to read is Sula- head and shoulders over the rest.

  19. I agree with you about both Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson. I can’t relate to Morrison’s characters at all, but I love everything Robinson writes, even if I can’t understand the theological discussions in a couple of her novels. Her writing is just so beautiful.

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