After the dust had settled, we were home from our honeymoon, and my free time was no longer eaten up by wedding planning, I figured I had a decent amount of additional time for reading. I had just hit up the library book sale and gotten a big bag for $5 and had a couple titles that people had recommended. Then, I hit a snag. Well, more like three snags. I ran into three books in a row I just didn’t like. It rarely happens that I dislike a book so much that I don’t finish it because 1) I really like reading and 2) I’m also pretty stubborn. But without further ado, here’s the top three books of 2013 I just couldn’t get into.
3. Julie and Julia – I had been meaning to read this for a while because I enjoy both cooking and writing. Within the first chapter or two, though, I found myself complaining out loud about the character of Julie. I recognize that the book had elements of hyperbole and played up the absurdity of many situations. Despite this, I found Julie to be an extremely unlikable person. Whether she was getting day-drunk, fighting with her husband, or throwing her “friends” under the bus with unflattering descriptions, I found myself struggling to be sympathetic, even though I could relate to her frustrations of working an unfulfilling temp job or wanting to do something more creative with her life. The other main issue I had with the book was her odd fixation with sex. I don’t consider myself an uptight person by any means, but frankly, I didn’t buy a book about her cooking French cuisine to read about her or her friends’ sexual fixations. I wouldn’t have minded if she had done it less frequently or more subtly, but it seemed unnecessary. Ultimately, though I stuck with the book because of its original premise. Her descriptions of the trials and triumphs of cooking and of the dishes she made were interesting and humorous and kept me turning the pages. Like Julie through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I finally did finish it and feel like I accomplished something, although I’m not sure if I can say what.
2. Surprised by Oxford – Several members of my husband’s family had enjoyed this book and it was about a woman studying literature at Oxford, so by all accounts, I definitely should have liked this. Once again, though, I found myself disliking the narrator. In the first part of the book Webber paints a very unflattering perspective of herself pre-conversion as a prideful young feminist who “doesn’t need a man” thanks to the influence of her unreliable father, but really, she seemed too hard on herself. Many high school and college students (including Christians who aren’t feminists) think they have the world figured out at that age when they actually have a lot to learn. Once she gets a scholarship at Oxford, she begins to meet Christians, including TDH (tall, dark & handsome) who takes her under his wing to convert her. At this point we are treated to chapters full of unnatural and contrived conversations that sound like they could have been lifted from one of the many apologetics books I read in high school, interspersed with precious few of the promised descriptions of Oxford life. Of course, she falls in love with TDH, because of his uninteresting dialogue and because he crushes her daddy-issue induced feminism with macho gestures like physically forcing her to walk on the far side of the sidewalk from traffic, because she’s a woman and needs physical protection from hypothetical out-of-control cars. At the end of where I stopped, she had become a Christian, and was proceeding to criticize her mother and break up with her really sweet-seeming boyfriend because, as a non-Christian, he wasn’t actually a good or moral person. Like I said, I really tried to like this book, but even as a Christian reader I found myself wishing she hadn’t converted and become so preachy and unloving.
1. Shadow & Claw: The First Half of ‘The Book of the New Sun.’ This is two books in one volume and I actually did finish the first one, “The Shadow of the Torturer.” This book had an interesting premise, was science-fantasy, and was praised by the likes of Neil Gaimain and Ursula Le Guin, but to be honest, it also ranks up there with works by Faulkner or James Joyce as one of the most confusing things I have ever read. As I look at the reviews on Amazon, I see 4-5 star reviewers implicating me and fellow critics for “being unfamiliar” with Gene Wolfe’s work, “not knowing how to read him,” or “not getting that this is an autobiography and that Severian is an unreliable narrator.” I disagree because despite good training on how to be an attentive reader and beginning at the start of a story arc, I still found myself very confused and frustrated at the book’s gratuitously obtuse style. Also, while unreliable narrators are an interesting narrative device, I have no patience for a narrator so unreliable that you find yourself in the middle of situations that are suddenly dramatic and you don’t know how you got there or why they’re significant. Finally, I quickly tired of how the full the book was of Severian’s objectifying, male-gaze-y musings on the different ways he desired he “desired” the different female characters. All in all, reading this book felt like riding a see-saw with a spiteful person who alternates between flinging you up in the air and slamming you painfully into the ground- it would be a lot more fun if you weren’t being jerked all over the place.
Like I said, I didn’t finish Surprised by Oxford or the sequel to Shadow of the Torturer, so I’d be interested to here if anything happens later on that might give you a different impression of Webber or of Severian.
Bonus discussion question: What books have you really wanted to like, but couldn’t?