Books I Won’t Read

I got this idea from my friend Stefanie over at So Many Books. Like Stefanie, my initial reaction to the question, “What books won’t you read?” is “none”. Years ago, I wrote a piece, which I might bring back here as one from the vault, about what a book slut I am, how I’ll read just about anything. I’m insatiably curious, and I possess this contrary disposition that leads me to be  both trusting and mistrusting of all book reviews I read. Add to that the fact that I’ve belonged to so many book clubs for so many years in which I’ve discovered and loved books I never would have picked up otherwise, and well, it makes sense that my initial reaction is that I read everything.

Whenever someone trashes a book, instead of discouraging me from reading it (which would be great if anyone ever took note of how long my tbr tome is), I find myself thinking, “Surely it can’t be THAT bad?” When someone raves about how wonderful a book is, well, I have to find out if I agree. I don’t even trust my own judgment, having long ago decided that every author deserves at least two chances. I mean, what if the first book I chose by her just so happens to be the only bad book she ever wrote? So I will try an author, and even if I hate his book, will try another of his before completely abandoning him (and in some cases, even then I can be persuaded to try a third). That’s why I recently decided to give Cecilia Ahern a second chance after slogging through the extremely poorly-written P.S. I Love You (although it was made into a film that is much better than the book and a great one to watch next time you find yourself stuck at home in bed with a bad cold). I read 100 pages of The Book of Tomorrow before deciding that, yes, her writing has improved a little over the years, but not enough to convince me that the only reason she ever got any publishing contracts is that she happens to be the daughter of the former Prime Minister of Ireland.

This leads me to the first category of books I won’t read: those that are terribly written. Unfortunately, this isn’t something one can know before picking up a book. And sometimes, horribly written books can be stomached if the story/plot is interesting/imaginative enough. I kept going with P.S. I Love You because I really did want to see what would happen in the end. The Book of Tomorrow, however, was not only poorly-written, but also seemed like a story hundreds of authors have written better. Eschewing poorly-written books means I don’t tend to read much popular, bestselling fiction. There are exceptions. I will read Stephen King because he’s imaginative and a great story-teller. I will read Sophie Kinsella, because even though the plots are contrived the way all romance plots are, they’re contrived in original ways, and she writes well. For the most part, though, I shy away from bestseller lists.

I also shy away from books with cutesie or annoying titles, unless someone whose reading tastes I respect recommends them, or they get chosen for one of the book discussions to which I belong. I know that’s very superficial of me, but it’s how I am. I never would have read Eat, Pray, Love whose title turned me off the minute I first saw it on display, if it hadn’t been for reviews written by bloggers I’d come to trust. That would’ve been a shame, because I so enjoyed that book. Likewise, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is one of the worst titles ever, but was such a good book. I am quite sure I’d love Alan Bradley’s mystery series featuring Flavia de Luce, but we’ll probably never know, because I just can’t get past the title of the first book in the series The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (I guess if you want me to read your book, you’d better make sure it doesn’t have “pie” in the title). That one actually has two strikes against it, because I don’t like the heroine’s name, either. And yet, an eleven-year-old chemist solving mysteries? I ought to be all over that series. Recently, only for a book discussion group, I finally read Little Bee. If the American publishers hadn’t been so stupid as to change the title from its original The Other Hand, making it sound like it was some treacly children’s book, I might have read this harrowing and important work long ago. American publishers seem to make that mistake a lot. I wasn’t too keen on reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A book called Men Who Hate Women (it’s Swedish title)? I would immediately have pulled that one off the shelf. Having worked in publishing, I know how very, very hard it is for all parties involved to agree on a title, but still, I so often find myself wondering, “What were they thinking?”

I won’t read books that feature long, detailed descriptions of sex, unless they are important to the plot (and how often are they really important to the plot?). I’m not a prude. I read plenty of that sort of stuff when I was younger, but at my age, I really couldn’t care less what others are doing behind closed doors, and I find much of it boring and/or silly. I’d much rather have an author hint at what’s going on and let my imagination fill in as needed. Most of the time I can tell when an editor, thinking it would sell more copies, has obviously told an author he/she needs to include graphic sex scenes. I understand that such descriptions maybe sold more copies of books back in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was suddenly allowed, a “new thing”, during a time when people were just beginning to talk openly about sex and maybe used such books to find out whether or not they were “normal”, but is it really necessary now, given what’s on primetime TV?

Finally, I’m not much into reading books that are nothing more than one person’s political or religious diatribe, unbalanced and, quite often, mean. If it happens to be someone with whom I agree, I rarely learn anything new and am discouraged when I find him/her personally attacking others rather than discussing ideas (a personal attack against the opponent is the first sign someone is losing an argument). If it happens to be someone with whom I disagree, he or she doesn’t encourage me to understand his or her point of view, which is what I’m hoping will happen when I read a book written by someone with whom I think I might disagree. Add arrogance on the author’s part (and it will be there), and well, what’s the point? I much prefer biographies or autobiographies of such figures.

There are also other types of books I could list, like technical manuals, that are obvious, but I’d much rather get back to reading all those books I will read. Meanwhile, I’ll pass on Stefanie’s question. Are there any sorts of books you won’t read?

The Small Room by May Sarton

Small Room

I read this one for The Classics Club.

I have to admit that I approached this, the second Classics Club read I’ve finished, a little warily when I began reading its Prologue, which is eerily reminiscent of The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart, a book I decidedly didn’t like (funny how they both have “Room” in their titles). We begin here, just as we did The Yellow Room, with our heroine Lucy on a train from New York to New England, a young woman whose physical description we get from her judgment of her reflection (here, it’s in the train window. Rinehart’s was in the mirror in the train’s bathroom), a tired writing technique. Both heroines seem a bit naïve, although adventuresome enough to be on a train alone, headed toward an unknown future.

But that was merely the discouraging Prologue, which probably wouldn’t bother anyone who hasn’t read and disliked The Yellow Room. Get past the Prologue, and this book quickly reveals itself to be a minor miracle. I’m in awe of May Sarton for having written such a rich and deep book, full of provocative ideas, in a mere 249 pages. On top of that, she’s managed to provide us with extremely well-drawn, complicated characters. I’ve read far longer books in which the characters remained complete mysteries to me by the end. Here I was, at first, tempted to identify stereotypes, but then each character goes on to prove that he or she is much more than a stereotype.

The premise of the story is that young Lucy has just broken off her engagement to a medical doctor. Having earned her Ph.D. at Harvard (sort of on a lark, if you can believe that), while he was in med school, she’s decided to take a job as an English professor at Appleton, a women’s college set in New England. During her first term, she discovers that one of school’s prize students, who happens to be a protégé of one of the school’s most revered professors, has plagiarized (from Simone Weil, of all people, a woman who fascinates me in her own right). Lucy has to decide what to do and finds herself caught in the middle of understanding both the student Jane and the professor Carryl. They both seem to trust this new arrival on campus — which is a bit unrealistic but works here because, in Lucy, Sarton has given us a character who is extremely insightful, while being young and insecure enough to be humble in a way that realistically would draw others to her.

Along the way, Sarton examines social issues of the day that are still relevant. We get a chance to see how things have and haven’t changed in the 50+ years since the book was first published in 1961. One of the major themes is a suspicion of psychology/psychiatry, and a divide between the younger and older generations, the older generation being far more suspicious, the younger being more accepting. In 2015, it seems almost laughable that a campus would be split over hiring a resident psychiatrist. By the same token, despite our counseling centers today, many still remain suspicious of therapy.

Sarton also studies generation gaps in this book. I tend to think we’re awfully obsessed these days with the naming and defining of generations. We have “The Baby-Boomers”, “The Gen-Xers”, “The Millenials”, etc. It was a bit of an obsession with the characters in this book as well. No one has trendy names for the different generations, but Sarton notes the differences among the very young (the students), the young (faculty Lucy’s age), the middle, and the older generations. They all seem to be envious and annoyed with each other by turns.

Love, in its many forms, is another theme — both heterosexual and homosexual (brave for Sarton’s time), so is the role of the teacher. Sarton also encourages the reader to ponder what, exactly, excellence is and at what costs it is achieved. Gender roles are another issue raised in the book. I’m listing all these issues and thinking how impossible it must sound to someone who hasn’t read the book that she could have covered all that while exploring the ethical dilemma of making a very young person pay the lifelong price for having made a mistake. Impossibly, though, she does. Oh, and on top of all that, we get a look at class, money, and power. It’s an amazing little book.

Before this, I’d never read any of Sarton’s prose, only some of her poetry. I remember it as being dreamy, so I was surprised by how matter-of-fact, how crisp her writing is here. The poet in her seemed only to shine through in some of her super metaphors and similes. Here’s a nice example:

This was exhausting but exhilarating, quite different from one of the freshmen sections which seemed like a huge, oppressive elephant she had to try to lift each morning.

I got to the end, though, and was no longer surprised. The poet lives throughout this entire book in Sarton’s ability to do what poets always do: evoke so much with so few words. I take multiple hats off to her.

Props for Two Companies Doing Customer Service Right

We live in a consumer society. We consumers are supposedly the ones who have all the power. I mean, if we don’t buy what someone is making and selling, well, the person making and selling it can’t survive. With that kind of power, you’d think we consumers would be running around saying, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, you can’t make me buy that.” But we’re not, for some reason. Instead, we seem to be rolling over and saying, “Give me your shoddiest product, making it as inconvenient as possible for me to get it, and I’ll take it. In fact, I’ll take two, even if I have to buy them in two different places, or even if they’re on backorder for six months.”

I don’t blame those under the age of 30 who probably never even heard the phrase “The customer is always right.” But shame on the rest of us, really (and I include myself). Every day we find ourselves buying cheap, poorly made goods from surly people who don’t even know the products they’re selling (because we’re in some store that’s a little village unto itself, and the person we’ve encountered in the housewares section is just filling in. She usually works in sporting goods). Or worse, we’re buying it online with no help whatsoever and a company phone number that is buried deep in an online vault somewhere that requires you to find the right weapons, slay a few dragons, earn 22,000 points, and save a princess before you can get to it.

And don’t try to return something that broke two weeks after you bought it. Unless you’ve filled out multiple forms and framed your original receipt in the proper frame, you’re unlikely to get much help. Even if the product you’re returning clearly has the company’s emblem engraved on it, you’re likely to be told, “I’m sorry. Without the framed receipt, the computer doesn’t know you bought it here.” If you do have all the correct documentation, you’re likely to be blamed for the fact it’s broken. You will have to convince the gum-snapping teen at the customer service desk that all you did was turn on the hairdryer, exactly as instructed, and hold it up to your head, when it suddenly made a weird squeak and then went dead. She’ll reluctantly agree that the hairdryer might be faulty, but you won’t get your money back. You’ll get store credit. Usually, that’s okay, because you really did need a hairdryer, and you just want one that works, but if this happens to be the second thing you’ve bought at that store that broke within a few weeks of your buying it, you may just want your money back so you can take it elsewhere.

Speaking of returning things, has anyone else noticed how difficult it is to get a warranty on anything? First of all, you will often be asked if you want to buy an extended warranty. What an evil genius the guy who came up with that “screw the customer” ploy was. “Instead of making the best product we can and selling it with a lifetime guarantee, so our customers will be happy, let’s see, instead, if we can prey on their fears that it might break and make them keep paying, for a while, for something they’ve already bought.” If you refuse that, you can still get your one-year warranty, but you must fill out a form in triplicate. The form will require that you search the product for impossible-to-find serial numbers. You must have all three forms certified by a notary public, and then, within 48 hours, you must send the completed forms, plus two photos of the product, your birth certificate, and a vial of your blood to company headquarters. Of course, what the company knows is that few people can be bothered with all this, so they won’t do it. When their headphones break during the next six months, the customer service rep will say, “Sorry, but you never registered your headphones’ warranty.”

That’s the norm these days, and we put up with it, but I’d like to highlight two fabulous companies who don’t fall into the norm, because as a consumer, I want to let others know who the good guys are, where you can experience hassle-free shopping and returns. The first company is Bose. I’ve been a Bose fan since I was a teenager. I learned back then that, yes, their stereo equipment is expensive, but it was very worth saving money to buy it, because its sound is phenomenal. Bob and I have a set of Bose speakers that aren’t the original ones he bought 30 years ago or so. That’s because about fifteen years after he bought them, one of them began to hiss. He called Bose asking if he could send it back for repairs. Do you know what they did? They asked him to ship them back, at their expense, and they sent him brand new speakers for some nominal fee (can’t remember how much it was — I think it was something like $50 — but it was nothing compared to the cost of replacing those speakers). This was fifteen years after he’d bought the original pair.

Bose is still like that today. They have replaced for us, at half price, a seven-year old pair of headphones that had quit working and a five-year-old pair of earbuds. We’re lucky enough to have a Bose store where I live, and the sales people there are always, always extremely friendly, enthusiastic, and knowledgable. I tend to ask tons of questions, and they are very patient with me. My most recent experience was buying a Christmas gift. Guess what. After getting great help from the salesman, I got to the register, and he said, “Now, just hold on a second while I fill out the one-year warranty for you.” (What? I didn’t have to fill anything out myself?) “If anything goes wrong with it in the next year, just bring it back, and we’ll give you a new one.” I’m sure I swooned. This is what it’s come to. I get great customer service, and I swoon.

That’s a tried-and-true company, but now I’d like to talk about a relatively new company. That company is Fitbit. Bob and I, as I wrote in an earlier blog post, jumped on the Fitbit bandwagon with gusto last year. We use them, wear them everyday, love them. They’ve done what they’re designed to do, which has been to get us moving. We had a few complaints, though. Bob always had trouble charging his, especially with the charger that came with it, so he’d use mine. And the bracelets (we have the Flex) don’t hold up very well for those of us who rarely ever take them off. Recently, his bracelet broke, and his Flex fell out of it at my brother-in-law’s house. He didn’t notice it was missing until we got home, three hours later. My brother-in-law found it, carefully wrapped it up, and mailed it back to us. Bob wore it for a few days, and it was working fine, despite its big adventure with the USPS, but then he tried to charge it. It wouldn’t charge at all anymore.

By this point, he was ready to say that, even though he loved the concept of the Fitbit, he wasn’t very impressed by it, since he’d always had trouble with his, and it hadn’t even lasted a year, but then he ran into someone who has and loves his who said, “Oh, don’t worry. Call them. They’re a great company. They’ve replaced three for me.” So Bob called, and he got a wonderful customer service representative who not only agreed to replace the Flex for Bob but also agreed to send me a new bracelet to replace the one I had that broke. He followed up with an email, as well as a suggestions for how to make sure the new bracelets don’t break. Two days later, Bob had a new Fitbit. Now THAT’S customer service. We loved our Fitbits before, but now we love the company and will remain loyal to them.

So, Bose and Fitbit, you’ve designed some marvelous products, and you’ve earned our loyalty. Please don’t change. I’m doing my best to spread the good news about you.

From the Vault: I Am From

I’ve decided, occasionally, to republish stuff I wrote in the past (either for blogs or other venues). I might do a little editing, but for the most part, I plan to keep them pretty much the way they were. I wrote this back in February 2007 when I was still living in Connecticut and had no idea that before the year was up I’d be living in Pennsylvania — where the honeysuckle also grows lush and thick. It was a response to a meme for which I was tagged and for which many people wrote beautiful responses. I really think it captures my feelings about North Carolina, what I loved about growing up there and also why I felt I had to leave. Roots are strong, though. These days, I’m more and more drawn to all the things I love about that state. (Apologies to those of you who have already read this. Perhaps you won’t mind rereading, and I’d love to hear your reactions this many years later.)

I Am From

I am from summers so hot and humid, the sheets stick to your body, and the fan just blows around hot air, but you can hear the cicadas and frogs and crickets loud and clear in their nighttime operas, and a swimming pool or the ocean in mid-July is never, ever too cold to just plunge right in without a second thought. The honeysuckle grows lush and thick along fences and over bushes; my nose forever will be so attuned to its scent. I can smell it long before I ever see it, and when I take my first whiff of some bubble bath meant to smell like honeysuckle it turns my stomach in its falsehood. I am from winters that never have enough snow, but when the snow comes, everyone stays home, and it’s like a holiday in which the traditional meal is hot chocolate and gingerbread, and snowmen guests arrive in tatty old scarves and hats, long noses turned orange rather than pink from the cold.

I am from traveling in a westerly direction to discover some of the most beautiful, soft rolling old mountains in the world. These mountains play dulcimers and banjos and go clogging well into the wee hours of the morning when the rising sun joins them to dance light off their blue ridges. Breakfast is fried eggs, sausage patties, grits with a puddle of yellow butter sitting in their center, and homemade biscuits dripping with butter and honey.

I am from traveling in an easterly direction to land upon miles of sandy white beaches, rough ocean waves rolling and smirking over the “graveyard of the Atlantic,” where ships’ skeletons provide homes for coral, colorful fish, and giant turtles, as well as plenty of fodder for folktales. The sand dunes stand up safe and tall, laughing at the ocean that tries but can’t reach them, colorful hang gliders running and jumping from their peaks to join the birds majestically soaring through the deep Carolina blue skies around them. Lunch is the best fried chicken ever, fresh-baked rolls, mashed potatoes smothered in butter, and tangy coleslaw speckled with black pepper.

I am from a place where long afternoons are spent down by the creek, barefoot and in shorts, wading around and catching tiny-clawed crawdads with nets made from wire hangers and old stockings, who are released immediately due to feelings of sorrow for taking them from their homes. I am from flying kites that stubbornly refuse to stay aloft, even though the wind seemed to be howling all night, in freshly-mown fields, blades of grass clinging to dewy legs. I am from dancing lessons in a studio below a general store where frozen cokes and candy bars await once the heinous lessons are done. Supper (never “dinner”) is pork chops and black-eyed peas and green beans cooked in fatback, and if I’m lucky, we might have chocolate or tapioca pudding for dessert.

I am from tobacco fields and cigarette factories and a downtown that smells like grape juice to a young child who doesn’t understand tobacco smells like that. I am from Moravian settlers who left their marks with sugar cake, cookies, and coffee. I am from drama schools and live theater and underwear mavens and small liberal arts colleges. I am from a very American place.

I am also from a place in which, to my horror, the “n” word is used and spoken, but where, mysteriously, blacks and whites actually work, socialize, interact with each other, and live in the same neighborhoods far better than they do where I currently live. I am from a place where, as one black friend of the family who moved north only to come back, once described it, “you hate us as a race, but you love us as people.” I am from a place where life might be much better if only everyone would admit to a legacy of unnatural and unfair prejudices. It’s a place where, contrary to popular belief elsewhere, 95% of the people are not “still fighting the Civil War,” but where many, many people are still fighting just to survive every day.

My hometown is so stiflingly close-minded and cliquish, I’m not going to be able to breathe if I don’t escape it, so I flee to a place where I’m sure I’ll find far more like-minded people. I am wrong, but not completely wrong. So, now my hometown is a place I’m learning to forgive for its stifling ways, but I don’t ever want to go back there to live.

I am from a place where people aren’t nearly as stupid and backwards as outsiders seem to think they are, but where everyone still has a lot to learn. But then, aren’t all places like that?

Twelfth Night; or What You Will by William Shakespeare

Twelfth night

I read this one for The Classics Club.

All’s well that ends well, right? And this one certainly does end well after putting the reader through the wringer, piling one mess upon another until it seems the characters will never be able to extricate themselves from the bottom of the pile. I knew the basic story, in which twins become separated in a ship wreck. Each thinks the other is dead, and the sister Viola disguises herself as a man to serve Duke Orsino. Orsino is trying to woo Olivia, a young woman whose father and brother have died, who in her mourning has decided not to respond to suitors. Orsino uses Viola (whom he thinks is the young man Cesario) to get to Olivia, who falls in love with Viola, not knowing she is a he. Meanwhile, Viola falls in love with Orsino. Then, the twin brother Sebastian (who looks exactly like Cesario, of course) arrives on the scene. I also knew this was a comedy (so there’d be no horrific, death-laden ending), and I still found myself worrying, thinking, “How on earth are they ever going to set things right?” That’s the sign of a brilliant author, of course.

Another sign of a brilliant author is that he can write comedy. I’ve said this elsewhere before, I’m sure, but I’ll repeat it here. I know Shakespeare gets most of his credit for his tragedies — and I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve credit for the greatness of those — but I’ve always been a huge fan of his comedies. Years ago, someone told me, “Writing great comedy is much harder than writing great tragedy. Anyone can make an audience cry, but it’s very hard to make an audience laugh.” That’s true. A sense of humor seems to be a much more personal and variable animal than a sense of tragedy. I’ve lived and worked in some places in my life where people “got” my sense of humor and in other places where people didn’t.

Shakespeare would’ve “gotten” my sense of humor, if I can judge by what he wrote. I can still remember reading A Comedy of Errors in the undergraduate library in college and being worried I was going to be kicked out for laughing too hard (as if a librarian would kick someone out for such a wonderful thing!). That’s one of the reasons I was a little disappointed with Twelfth Night. I did giggle a few times, but I never found myself giving way to uncontrollable laughter. Still, that’s a feat, isn’t it? 400+ years after this play was written in England it can still make an American giggle. It begs the question we literary types are always asking: what’s being written today that will still make people laugh 500 years from now?

My other disappointment was the treatment of Malvolio, Olivia’s steward. I know. I know. He’s a pompous ass who deserves to be taken down a notch, but it was all a bit too cruel for my tastes. Make a fool of him, sure, but did they have to continue it to the point that he’s locked up as a mad man? (Although, I have to admit that it was funny when he was complaining about the dark, and they were all proclaiming that he was in the bright light.)

We’re talking about Shakespeare here, though. The disappointments are only mildly so, and the marvels outweigh them. Of course, I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who loves Shakespeare. If you don’t love Shakespeare, I wouldn’t recommend this one if you’re trying to change your mind. For that, I’d recommend A Comedy of Errors. For those of you who love Shakespeare and haven’t yet read this one? Do.