September 13, 2017

Reading : Books People Like That I Didn't Like

I need some better book recommendations, because I've been reading a string of mediocre books, or books that I'm too mediocre to appreciate.  


The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
I wrote a little about my struggle with this here (along with books I liked better), and I was determined to give it another try. Written by a Vietnamese-American about the Vietnam War, it won the Pulitzer.  The nameless narrator is a Communist spy who escapes to America with a South Vietnamese contingent after the South is taken over by the Communists.  His role is to keep tabs on the contingent, for fear that they will continue to plot against the Communists, which they do.  

So I felt obligated, and interested.  I made it to almost 200 pages the second time around, and still couldn't finish.  Maybe I'm not qualified to write about it without finishing it, but I'm trying to make two attempts count for something.  I just couldn't get into the narration.  Maybe it's because I had a really hard time connecting the narrator with the Vietnamese men in my life, a case of cultural context intefering with my openness to a character.  Or because the writing is dense in a way that was unweildy for me and I felt like I was trudging through to get at what happens more than to actually read. 

But it doesn't escape me that there's a scarcity of Vietnamese perspective in literature about the war, that accounts have focused on what Americans experienced.  That while there is more and more written about the refugee experience, not much is written about the actual experience of the war from the point of view of its native participants--its politics, divided loyalities, moral conflicts.  So I do really appreciate that this brings more attention to the people at the war's center.  And if you've read it please let me know what you got from it so I can benefit without having to actually finish it.

Marlena by Julie Buntin 
When I looked up this book, it was advertised for fans of Emma Cline's The Girls (didn't like it) and Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend (couldn't get into it), so maybe I should have known that I wouldn't love it.  It's about the teenage friendship between Cat and Marlena.  The story is told from the retrospective voice of Cat, as we know early on that Marlena dies a year after the girls meet.  Theirs is the classic friendship of opposites, Cat the bookworm with little sense of real life's dangers, and Marlena the pretty cool girl from a troubled home.  I feel like I can't write about it without these familiar words and concepts--bookworm, troubled, opposites--because that's how it felt to me, a little too familiar.  Generally I really appreciate stories sensitive to hidden trauma and the complex difficulty of being female.  But the book seemed more attached to its tragedy than to its people, with Cat becoming an alcoholic after Marlena teaches her simultaneously how hard reality is and how to escape it with substances, with no mention of how Cat processes her adolescence in the years after Marlena dies.  As if it's enough to say that what happens to us when we're young will keep us darkened as adults. It feels a little too easy, this story of hardness in a girl's life.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Even though I flew through this book, I hated it. Even though I respected its intention to highlight the role of race and racism in our society, I hated its inevitable desire to easily color things black and white.  Ruth, an African-American nurse, is forbidden to care for the newborn baby of a white supremacist couple.  When the baby suddenly stops breathing, Ruth initially hesitates, then tries to save it.  When the baby dies, Ruth is blamed for both her inaction and her attempt, and prosecuted for manslaughter. She's represented in court by Kennedy, a well-meaning white lawyer who has yet to recognize her unconscious biases, a stand-in for the author and the people she's trying to reach with this book.  The book is told from the first-person perspectives of Ruth, Kennedy and Turk, the white supremacist father of the baby.  I'm conflicted about books like these, because I understand that simplifying things makes them more accessible and palatable.  But ultimately, artificially shaping a happy ending (I'm not giving it away because it's obvious from page one that this will be a people-pleaser) makes our burden seem much lighter than it is.  Like just by reading the book you're now so much more aware and not much more needs to be done, and this seems as dangerous as remaining unaware.

Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham
My lukewarm reaction to this book (Lorelai of Gilmore Girls) should be taken for a grain of salt, because I've generally not loved audiobooks by comedians even when I love the comedians (Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance, Tina Fey's Bossy Pants, Jason Gay's Little Victories).  If you like these books, you might like this one because it hits the checklist for books like these: snarky, good-hearted, self-deprecating in quality; lessons on how to be humble and grateful in content.  I don't think comedians are inherently more equipped than others to impart these lessons, so I don't necessarily expect that these books will be uniquely insightful about life.  But I think we expect that they will be funnier in their delivery, and I just haven't found that to be true in these memoirs (except for David Sedaris, Naked in particular).  So this wasn't an exception.  But it probably won't stop me from listening.  I like to listen to these rather than read them, since their voice and performance are so much part of the humor.  And also because I like these people, so listening to them is enjoyable even if I don't get into the content.  I love Lauren Graham because I love Lorelai as a character and the Gilmore Girls as a whole, and if you do too, I would still recommend listening to it, more for the voice than for the memoir.


Since writing this post I've read some new books that I'm much more excited to share, but I would still love recommendations (be my goodreads friend please).


  1. Lorelai Gilmore has a memoir? Gosh, don't you have to be near death to write one of those lol. Can't say I have a book rec for you, I need one from you. Speaking of giving books a 2nd chance, I was thinking of trying to finish The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. maybe you can try that, it might not be your usual COT.

    1. I think comedians get to write as many memoirs as they want! Since you liked Cloud Atlas--really enjoying Black Swan Green now.


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