Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Disclaimer: this post may contain opinions offensive to readers of all sorts.

Are there talking animals?

Is the protagonist a disaffected teenager or creature other than those known to inhabit Earth?

Is the central storyline that of a marriage in deep trouble or of a character’s journey toward self-actualization or self-discovery?

How about tribal cultures? Native American culture? Wizard culture?

Dysfunctional American families? Torture? Abused animals?

Is the book a memoir or epistolary?

Is it about writers? hipsters? freaks? racists? Is it funny? depressing? really long? Does it feature anyone described as “adorable”?

Some of the prejudices listed above are mine, but not all—my mother has no trouble being outed about her distaste for books that feature dysfunctional American families (she doesn’t mind any other culture’s screwed-up families), and many fellow readers turn their noses up at sad or depressing books. I admit that after having worked on young adult novels for many years, I no longer care to read anything that has the internal landscape of the teenage mind. Nor does the setting of Xenon or Lanadore or some imaginary land with glorks or nepletz with magic powers hold any interest for me. I love depressing and long, but generally am not interested in Native American culture.

Contrary to what I’ve just said, there will always be books that somehow challenge the admittedly glib and ignorant groupings above. I loved Broken Glass Park (a story of a teenage girl living in the Russian ghetto in Germany) and while I didn’t really like Louise Erdrich’s story of a tormented and twisted marriage, Shadow Tag, I raced through it in two days. In the old “glass is half empty” way of thinking, it’s easier to come up with kinds of books I don’t like rather than categories of books I like. How do you classify Rudolph Dolson’s Maynard and Jennica? A love story? A story about New York? Well, who doesn’t like those? How about Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado or Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex? Kinda sorta coming-of-age stories? Or Kate Christensen’s Jeremy Thrane, or for that matter Dickens’s Bleak House?

Have I just contradicted myself or is it that the books we love defy easy description? I scoff at Eat, Pray, Love and The Lord of the Rings, but to the many people who have enjoyed those books, they’re not just stories of self-actualization or hobbits; they’re much bigger than that. So. I’ll try to keep my bigotry to myself except with close friends with whom I will easily admit, “Nope, can’t read it; it’s about a talking badger named Suzette.”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Confessions of a Book Snob

“What are you reading?”

Do you preface your answer with an apologetic shrug and say, “I know it’s junk (substitute “chick-lit,” ”on Oprah’s list,” ”YA,” “the Twilight series,” or “Harry Potter” for the word “junk”) but…”? If so, you may have Reader’s Shame, which may or may not be a symptom of Book Snobbery. And you are not alone.

As I posted in an earlier entry, my bookcase is filled with books I’ve already read and want near, which is comforting but of little help when I’m desperate for something to read now. One of the two or three books I haven’t read is Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia. I attribute the book’s presence on my shelf to my dear friend C, who, a month prior to sending it had sent me Julia Child’s charming My Life in France, which I adored and probably wouldn’t have read without her sending it my way.

With apologies to C, here is a bit of what she wrote in the note that came along with it: “Here is the Julia book. So lovely to dream of Paris in another era. It must have been wonderful in the post war period, like spring…everything was coming back to life!”

A real friend sends you books you wouldn’t think to get for yourself, but may be wonderful surprise treasures; they may save the day. These volumes may also contribute to your Reader's Shame. And as I drew part 2 of C’s gift (her note reading: “Here is book #2. It’s not as good [as My Life in France] but fun to read,”) I felt my shame/snobbery surfacing. The stern black spine of Absalom, Absalom (which I haven’t read) stood right next to Julie…. I inhaled and drew the lemon yellow book from the bookcase.

I’m up to page 103 and it’s fine; a perfectly okay way station while I eagerly await a couple of the books due in at the library. There are parts to skip (can’t stand the stuff that’s in italic—her scenes of Julia and Paul), and parts to mutter about (poor Dennis on more than one occasion has heard me grumble, “I can write better than this”) and plenty of dull bits. But I enjoy the food sections and am flying through it quickly enough that I may finish before someone has an opportunity to ask what I’m reading. But, if caught out in the next couple of days will I sheepishly smile and use one of the aforementioned apologetic replies? Dear Reader, I shall be brave and do my utmost to simply blurt out Julie & Julia. However, my current hope is that I will not be tested.

Confessions anyone? We’re much harder on ourselves than on others.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sex and The Buddha of Suburbia

As a kid my only precocity was in reading at an early age; I read books well beyond my level (and possibly inappropriate) for my tender years. Thus asking my mother (when I was 6 or 7) why all the characters in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret were so preoccupied with punctuation—wasn’t a period just something to show that a sentence was ending? I don’t know how old I was when I secretly slid Fear of Flying out of the bookcase, but I was utterly confused by Isadora Wing and the zipless fuck. The first sex scene I stumbled upon while reading that sort of made sense to me was between Kitty and Ari in Exodus. I recall it was fairly tame but I’m sure I reread it a couple of times.

The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi has a lot of sex in it. Kureishi’s novel is set in the late 60’s and early 70’s of suburban London, where seventeen-year-old Karim is growing up with his English mother, Indian father, and younger brother. Karim’s world, peopled by working class immigrants, artists, revolutionaries, misfits, and rock stars has a freewheeling loose energy. Drugs, sex, social protest, and having good times comprise the landscape. Karim dallies with men and women in a number of graphic sex scenes. Somehow there isn’t anything prurient in Kureishi’s descriptions, as explicit as they are—indeed, they feel good-natured, laid-back and in the spirit of the time. I’m curious to see how these scenes fare in the 1993 television miniseries. I assume they are PG-rated and perhaps, the director is able to inject some of the humor and warmth that is present in the scenes in the book, without any graphic visuals. But sex on film, television, or stage doesn’t seem to have the same breadth of emotional possibility for someone watching as someone reading does. A good writer can instill graphic, even disgusting sex scenes with all sorts of qualities. Maybe it’s because words inform and color—mood can be altered regardless of the goings-on. Or perhaps we allow ourselves greater liberty not to judge or take too seriously sex/love scenes since reading is a deliciously private activity.