Friday, October 29, 2010

Books I Read for Book Club that I was Surprised to Like

I can have a lot of prejudices about books. I mean, you have to, or how else would you decide what to read? There are 250,000 new books published every year in the U.S. If you like everything, how can you ever pick your next book without being paralyzed by too many choices?
One problem I often have with books is if they’re over-hyped. Particularly if they’re written by up-and-coming young authors who live in a hip neighborhood in Brooklyn and have been published in The New Yorker. I know that’s a weird prejudice to have but all things considered, it’s not as bad as some. I have been burned a few times, but more likely I will develop such a distaste for the author that I don’t want to read their book so much that even if I did and liked it, I would still be disgruntled, because I don’t like to like things produced by people I don’t like. Luckily, that particular issue hasn’t happened for me yet (and I will keep quiet about who I refer to so my book club members don’t figure them out and suggest them.) But many other books I’ve really not wanted to read I’ve been forced to for Book Club, and loved.

The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald
The first strike against this book was its length (848 pages!) and the plot description didn’t do much for me. I started it and found the first 50 pages so incredibly tedious and boring that I wanted to just cry. I considered just not reading it and going to book club anyway, but I’m too much of a Type A person when it comes to books for that. I couldn’t stand not going to book club as it was our summer meeting so I hadn’t seen my friends in a few months. Instead I put it off and put it off and put it off. Finally I had less than a week to go. I had to read 100 pages a day to get through it. And I loved it! I've read a lot of reviews where people have said that the length is 100% necessary, not a superfluous word, etc, and I disagree. I think it should have been 1/3 shorter at least. The first 200 pages should have been 50. If it takes you 200 pages to adequately introduce characters, then you're a bad writer. Which Ms. MacDonald is not. If anything, it more likely shows a lack of self-confidence in her writing, and a lack of faith in her readers (not to mention a lack of strength in her editor.) It was actually very well written. Lyrical, poetic, evocative. But just too much of it, and it took way too long for the actual story and plot to begin (over 200 pages). The ending was pretty satisfying. It wasn't obvious, but was adequately set up. I had certainly picked up on a few of the clues, and it felt true.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
This was an amazingly creative, bizarre, but well-written and lovingly-told story. I did find it a tad slow-going at first, and I was very reluctant to read it as I'd thought from what I'd heard leading up to it that it would be pretentious (particularly the excerpt I read in The New Yorker.) However, I found that wasn't the case at all. I think I understood the characters more than most of our members as I used to live in Astoria, Queens (the Greek neighborhood) and I brought spanikopita to the meeting. What a fascinating story with some of the most well-drawn characters I've read about in years.

Atonement by Ian McEwan
Another one I would have given up on at p. 50 if it hadn’t been for book club. And boy, am I glad I didn’t! The beginning is draggy and weird, but of course it all makes sense when suddenly we realize that set up isn’t how the whole book is written, and it has an excellent reason for being, and for being the awkward style that it is. It’s hard to review this book without giving away too many spoilers, but it was brilliant, exquisite, heart-breaking, and is a masterpiece.

The Time Traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
I didn't want to read this book as I thought it was over-hyped, sounded self-consciously literary, and at the same time seemed to have elements of sci-fi, which in my book amounted to three strikes. Luckily, it was chosen for my book club and it won me over thoroughly. I wasn't wild about the ending, but I could see what the author’s goal was with ending it that way. It was beautiful, romantic, and really unique.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Wow oh wow did I not want to read this book. I thought it was really a guy's guy kind of book (and it was a guy in our book club who picked it.) It was long and Mr. Chabon was the darling of publishing in a precious and annoying way. It was about comic books which I had no interest in. And while I do have some issues with the book (particularly the section in Antarctica with the plane and the boat which I think could be just deleted whole and the book lose nothing at all), I found it fascinating, unique, and I have recommended the book to a dozen people (mostly men) since we read it.
Sometimes I just don't read a book when it first comes out and everyone is talking about it because I'm sure it will be a book club selection soon enough (such as Cutting for Stone and The Help). I really like that my book clubs over the years have forced me to read outside of my comfort zone. I am not looking forward to our next book club selection at all (The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver) but luckily, I now have proof that a lot of the time the books I most dread reading turn out to be wonderful, so I won't feel at all put upon buying the book tomorrow. Thank you book club!


Unknown said...

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one of my all time favorite books. I'm glad you liked it.


Suzanne said...

I enjoy my book club(s) for the same reason as you -- it gets me to read something I wouldn't pick up on my own and most of the time I enjoy them. There are occasional duds, but that happens with books I choose on my own as well.

I really have to read Middlesex one day....

Teacher/Learner said...

Great post idea! It's really eye-opening how reading with purpose gives you a reason to plough through a tough book :)

Unknown said...

You just made me want to read all of these! (except for The Time Traveler's Wife, which I already love :)

I just really want to be in a book club, because I pretty much never read out of my comfort zone and I know that could be such a good thing for me. I need to start recruiting book club members! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Arielle said...

I have read Atonement and The Time Traveler's Wife, and have Middlesex on my tbr list, but the other two are new to me.
I wish I was a member of a book club, but unfortunately it's not a common thing where I live :(

Carin Siegfried said...

@Suzanne, I'm afraid a couple of the duds we've read have been ones I've suggested! I've learned my lesson though and I am not going to suggest books I've not yet read anymore.

@Katie, check out my other NRGM posts if you need help on how to start a book club!

@Arielle, there are online book clubs too if you really want to give it a try but aren't in an area where one is practicable. Or you can also start your own like Katie!

Kristen said...

Funny. I'm not looking forward to The Lacuna either. I did buy it today though like a good little soldier. Here's hoping it exceeds expectations in a big way! Oh, and I'm not reading the selection for my other book club for next month because I can only have my reading horizons stretched so far in one month (plus, the back of the other one makes immediate mention of a murder).

Anonymous said...

Funny post! You and I have some of the same prejudices about books. You make me want to try a book group again. I did it once, loved a couple of the titles but then _A Heartbreaking Work.... by Dave Eggers_ was disliked so much by everyone in the group that I gave up. It wasn't my pick and I probably would never have read it otherwise but I loved it, and no one else even thought it was funny.

Booksnyc said...

I have read many of these same books for my book clubs and was reluctant about many of them as well. I totally thought that Kavalier and Clay was a guys book about comics but it turned out to be one of my all time favorite books!

Christy said...

It's been a while since I've been part of a book club but I do like when it causes you to read through books that you otherwise wouldn't pick up. It's especially good for those slow-burner type books (e.g. Atonement.)