Saturday, March 25, 2006

When I find myself disliking

a book that's receiving tons of positive attention and that sounds rather like what I should love to read (or, perhaps more to the point, what I might like to write), I always have to look inside myself and suffer an unpleasant thought about stomach-turning envy and how much it might be affecting my opinion of what I'm reading. It's an unanswerable question, really, and it is not to my credit, that pang (I always feel it in the stomach) when someone says casually of their sister-in-law, for instance, "Oh, did you hear about her million-dollar two-book deal?" or of their latest favorite novel that it's shot up the Amazon charts.

So all this is a roundabout way of saying that regular blog-reader and young-adult author Lee Lowe (who has a new story up at her blog) asked me a month or two ago in the comments here if I had read Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and if so what I thought of it; I had not, so I requested it from the library and took a look and it just did not catch my interest. (I had the attractive Australian large-format paperback edition, it's very beautifully designed and striking-looking but the text on the back cover felt vaguely coy and fable-like and I put it down without reading any of it.)

Most notably, the Australian edition is not marked in any way as young-adult fiction, but I saw something last week--I can't remember where--of the "you've got to read this fabulous new book, you might be put off by its being marketed for young adults but it's really the best book of 2006" kind of thing and of course immediately thought, "Oh, how much more appealing than I had imagined," having taken it more for a Marquez-or-Kundera-in-the-family-tree kind of adult fable which is not at all what I like.

The book is narrated by Death, and I was thinking idly before I started of how I was sure to be disappointed because of this Death not SPEAKING IN CAPITAL LETTERS (Hogfather was the first Discworld novel I read, and still one of my very favorites, Pratchett at his best and funniest). But then as it turned out I did start reading and I really, really didn't like the voice of Death the narrator.

Let me stop for a minute and say that Markus Zusak is immensely talented, a really remarkable storyteller (the main character Liesel Meminger is very well drawn, and her relationships with the principal male characters extremely convincing and moving), and I have no doubt that this book will not only sell a gazillion copies but also, ah, touch the hearts of millions and cause them to weep. But this is the problem. I can sum it up in two words: whimsy; sentimentality.

I have no tolerance for whimsy. Death's voice is almost arch, for god's sake! This is a personal obsession of mine and I am willing to admit it's somewhat unreasonable. But the sentimental orientation is more generally unacceptable, on grounds that I would describe as ethical. I was almost weeping at the end of the novel, even as I felt rage at having my emotions manipulated in this way.

The young-adult reading thing also remains a question for me. I don't know, this field of Holocaust literature is really not my subject at all (there are certainly some wonderful books particularly written by survivors or their children or people otherwise personally affected that I would not particularly put in the hands of a teenager), but I feel that from both a historical and a literary standpoint there are books that more closely match my sense of the ethical imperatives in the case. I'm not making a simple argument about historical accuracy or responsibility or whatever, I don't want to go there, just a claim about sentimentality and narrative bad faith.

For younger readers, then, I would rather give them something like one of Eva Ibbotson's books, if I thought they still needed a happy ending of sorts. But for the grade 10-12 readers that the American edition is being pitched to, there start being a lot of other choices on the grounds of subject matter and (what I really care about) of literary style that seem to do more and better work: a personal favorite of mine is the amazing memoir called The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction by my friend and neighbor David Weiss Halivni, and there is Primo Levi's remarkable book--surely this is his best book by far, I am quite in love with it... we must read all his others as well, but the straight-up memoirs are so bleak as to be almost unbearable--The Periodic Table. Or for the more intellectual/precocious teenager (is this totally inappropriate? I think I was sixteen when I read it, and it blew me away; but of course it is a very different sort of book from these others I have been listing, and a very great novel) The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, which basically makes Zusak's novel look incredibly meretricious. Or even something like Schindler's List (the book is better than the movie), a novel with which this one has a great deal in common, I'd say, though it's years since I read it so my memory may have failed me.


  1. And I would add about THE BOOK THIEF, this sentimentality is particularly damning in a novel that takes as its brief the manipulative potential of words.

  2. Good to hear you dislike something for a change. Please dislike more books in the future. Maybe even hate a few. I enjoy your enthusiasms, but I don't know which ones to believe. I don't even know which ones you believe.

    Enthusiastically Yours,


  3. I take your point about hating things more often--I do think I sometimes sacrifice nuance, where I don't have a good vocabulary for distinguishing between "very good book, extremely enjoyable read" and "short-list best book of all time"--but it is also true that after many years of avid reading I have learned to avoid the books I hate. It makes for funny blogging, sure (I still think I am going to pick up that new DBC Pierre....), but it is not enjoyable enough reading to be worth it.

    Perhaps what I should do soon is a post on all the authors I hate that you never hear about here (John Updike, Richard Ford, Anita Brookner, selected work by Ian McEwan) or that I won't read because I am sure I will dislike it (Jonathan Safran Foer) or that I think are direly overrated (Virginia Woolf). I don't feel bad not slamming books by living writers, it is just not pleasant to google your name and find an absolutely vituperative review of your book online somewhere, but I don't like the feeling that I am also inhibited by professional prudence (i.e. if I say something horrible about a book the book's editor might not want to consider publishing my new novel). Tell you what, I make a promise here & now that I will read at least two books in the next six months that (a) I hate and (b) are by established enough writers that I have no scruples trashing them....

  4. How do you feel about 'The Diary of a Young Girl'? .
    I suppose it's nonfiction, and therefore different to the books you discuss. I'd offer it to a young adult, though, as it avoids sentimentality (though the industry that has emerged around the life of Anne Frank, sadly, does not) and made me feel very strongly that she was just a girl, and quite like me.
    I remember that I got annoyed with her, felt friendly towards her, and then was rather distraught when the book just stopped, rather than ended.

  5. Oh, yes, certainly Anne Frank; I guess I thought it so obvious as not even to need mentioning. There's been considerable debate about the way her father edited the journals (there was a long New Yorker piece about this a few years ago), but I still think it's a very good book.