Books I can’t / don’t want to talk about, but will anyway — because I can’t help it

[In this post: This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper; The Cry of the Sloth, by Sam Savage; Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen.]

Have been feeling really lazy lately, re blogging — I don’t know if it’s because the books I’ve been reading feel like chores I need to get through, or maybe the actual writing about the book is a chore. Maybe it’s because Google Reader tells me that at least five people have read the same book, and talk about it very well — What do I have to add to the discussion? Then again, I have to remind myself that it’s not really about discussion: I keep this blog for very selfish reasons. [Gloating.] [I kid.] It’s my record. Mine. I’ve long said that the posts here are lifted from, and are elaborations of, my reading notes.

Thing is, my reading notes aren’t quite active these past few days. Yes, I’m still reading, of course. But I haven’t been scrambling to make it to my notebook lately. Again, I don’t know if laziness is the issue, or the reading itself is.

That said, here are three books that have left a blank in my notebook — that is, oh, I copy passages I like and squeal over. But not a lot of reflection — and reactions — are scribbled alongside them. I’m writing about them now because [1] I am O.C., and I need to do this; [2] I am O.C., and I need to emphasize the necessity of this post. [3] I don’t feel like going through the details, justifying myself [hee] so much at the moment — so these are analyses-lite, visceral-reactions-heavy. [The following post? I’m making it up as I go along, for seriously.]

* * *

The suit I wore to the funeral has been lying on the basement floor ever since, so Mom brings me up to her bedroom and picks out one of Dad’s suits for me. Dad only ever wore two kinds of suits: midnight blue and black. When I try on the black one Mom has chosen it fits perfectly, except for the slacks being an inch or so too short. I am somewhat surprised, because I’ve always seen him as taller than me. I never got close enough to know better.

I picked up This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper because, well, because I remembered it from somewhere. I don’t know where, and how, exactly, or what was said about it — only that people liked it. Plus, it’s a pretty book, and when I saw it in a bookstore, it was surprisingly not as expensive as I’d figured, given the format. Later on, it kept popping up my Google Reader. Notably, Greg [of The New Dork Review of Books] loves this book, loves this author. Plus: Steph just posted her review, and though I liked this book more than she did, I still suggest y’all go over there, not only for some variety, but because she writes about the book — and her opinions on it — so well.

I read this on the heels of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. A change of pace, so to speak. Whereas it took me weeks to finish reading Némirovsky, Tropper’s book just took me about a day, speeding through, because it was an easy read, and I found it funny, and I found it affective, and, well, I liked it. I don’t know how much of this liking’s based on that change of pace, but there it is.

There’s a level of crassness to the humor, and I was laughing at the most inappropriate things — it’s madcap, it’s irreverent, but mostly I felt that it was really done well. Yes, there’s a tad self-consciousness to this — one that becomes apparent the farther you get from the reading, but while you’re in the midst of it, it’s all good fun. I liked it then, I liked it a lot. Aside from the laughs, I loved how this book had heart — cheap tricks or otherwise is a matter of perspective, but man, I love it when a book makes you laugh one page, and bids you to be still the next.

Wendy taught me to curse, matched my clothing, brushed my hair before school, and let me sleep in bed with her when bad dreams woke me up. She fell in love often, and with great fanfare, throwing herself into each romance with the focus of an Olympic athlete. Now she’s a mother and a wife, who tries to get her screaming baby to sleep through the night, tries to stop her boys from learning curse words, and calls romantic love useless. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to see your siblings as the people they’ve become. Maybe that’s why we all stay away from each other as a matter of course.

Oh, it has its flaws, that self-consciousness only one of them — But I didn’t mind much while I was reading it. I liked it.

[It’s odd how I’m not used to saying “I liked it,” and simply leaving it at that. One of the pitfalls of writing about books? The constant urge to justify our decisions, even our involuntary tendencies? Or maybe, again, I’m just OC.]

* * *

A classic case of Reading Begets Reading: I read The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage because it was the author’s one other novel aside from Firmin, which I liked a lot. And this one, it was okay. The story is told entirely with Andy Whittaker’s correspondences, notices. He writes letters. He responds to letters. Occasionally, he’ll send out a call for submissions [he’s the co-founder and sole editor of Soap, a dying, and rather comical, literary journal], or an ad for an apartment or a memo [he’s quite an ineffective landlord].

The thing that struck me about this was how unreliable not only Whittaker was, but the form as well. The form lent to that unreliability, especially since all we have access to is Whittaker’s side. He’d write scathing fake [?] letters to a magazine, implore near-strangers, have a lengthy correspondence with a cast of characters ranging from an off-kilter poet, a Canadian stalker, long-lost friends, and his estranged ex-wife.

It’s all quite passive-aggressive — Andy Whittaker is not the most likable person; at times he’s simply horrendous in that creeper-needy kind of way. I’ll probably hate him in real life. But what’s so awesome about fiction — and I think Savage pulled this off — is that there’s always something that keeps the reader still. That something that doesn’t have the reader throwing the book across the room just to hear the sound it makes when it hits the wall [or, well, a mini-plug of a great blog I’ve discovered: Thwok!]. I don’t know what that something is — Andy’s a pitiful person at times, and I don’t think it’s pity or benevolence that has the reader staying with him. Is it that curiosity to see if he’ll get what’s coming to him? Or simply to find out what’s coming to him? Or maybe we empathize with the guy? Or maybe we just want him to succeed, because, frankly, this guy’s a loser, and he’s not exactly helping himself.

I think that’s part of it, this confusion: What do I really feel about Andrew Whittaker? I think Savage consciously wanted us to feel confused, and he did it well — A round of applause for that, because that’s a fine balance that’s difficult to achieve. Again, this book’s affective, if not provoking.

However, for sheer pleasure, I’ll still go back to Firmin, if only because there are times that I just want to relax in knowing, at least, that I like this person I’m reading about, like him [it] pretty much round-the-clock.

* * *

The last book I read: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I bought this book because, well, I’ve always wanted to read it, and since there’s a movie coming out, I didn’t want to read a copy with Robert Pattinson’s face emblazoned across the cover. Ya feel me?

Did I like it? It was okay. I enjoyed it while I was reading it — it was atmospheric [though it gets tired after a while], with a rather interesting cast of characters [thought they become stereotypical after a while — even archetypal, as in the case of the whore with a heart of gold shtick]. While I was reading it, I was aware that this wouldn’t be a book that I would look back upon and say, “Man, that was awesome.”

“No. It’s nowhere near. It’s probably not even the fiftieth most spectacular show on earth. We hold maybe a third of the capacity Ringling does. You already know that Marlena’s not Romanian royalty. And Lucinda? Nowhere near eight hundred and eighty-fivepounds. Four hundred, tops. And do you really think Frank Otto got tattooed by angry headhunters in Borneo? Hell no. He used to be a stake driver on the Flying Squadron. He worked on that ink for nine years. And you want to know what Uncle Al did when the hippo died? He swapped out her water for formaldehyde and kept on showing her. For two weeks we traveled with a pickled hippo. The whole thing’s an illusion, Jacob, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what people want from us. It’s what they expect.”

The story goes: Jacob Jankowski looks back upon his life as a runaway, stowaway, and later on a vet for The Benzini Brothers Most Sepctacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus. There, he meets your usual circus fare, meets a lot of animals that touch his heart, yadda yadda, falls in love with the forbidden girl, and so on, and so on. The form itself seesaws between the older Jacob’s reminiscing and his days in a nursing home, and then within those reminiscences Jacob as a twenty-three-year-old.

I don’t know what’s wrong with it, really, why I didn’t like it as much as a lot of people seem to. It was okay enough. But I don’t like reading a book out of politeness, and a curt nod now and then for a well-tuned scene. That’s just heartless, and wonky.

And yes, I’ll probably watch the movie. And — has anyone read Kiss An Angel, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips? That’s the one other circus book I’ve read, and that was awesome.


So, that’s it. As usual, the whole Make-It-Up-As-You-Go-Along thing made for a rather bloated blog post, but, frankly, the pervading emotion I have at the end of this is relief: As in, Glad to get that out of the way. I’ll probably do a post of two on afterthoughts, but right now, I’m beat. I don’t think it’s burn-out, so hold yer horses. It’s just, well, I don’t feel like it. I just, Meh.

I’ll snap out of it. Currently reading some very very good ones: I’ve reunited with Richard Yates, for one, and have discovered Monique Roffey, and have girded my loins for Mikhail Bulgakov. We’ll see.

11 thoughts on “Books I can’t / don’t want to talk about, but will anyway — because I can’t help it

  1. Once again I share your “meh” attitude toward a popular book. I felt the same way about Water for Elephants. It was entertaining enough, and the setting made it stand out a bit. I liked it fine, but don’t feel like I would have been missing much by not having read it.

    1. I liked it fine, but don’t feel like I would have been missing much by not having read it.

      Exactly. And the worse part is, I felt that while I was reading it. I certainly understand the appeal, but I think it put too much importance on the setting and the atmosphere.

  2. I can relate to your compulsion to write this post, and to your relief now that it’s done. My blogging has been nonexistent lately, but there was such sweet relief when I finished my recent one and only post of July so far…! :)

    I’ve had Water for Elephants on my shelf for AGES… Guess I do want to read it before it’s too attached to a movie, even if you report here that it is about as good as I was worried it would be…! I’ll have to check out the other circus book you mention. :)

    1. The thing is, I really don’t want to look upon blogging as a chore, so I try to relax about it, haha. But, again, I’m OC about these kinds of things.

      Re Gruen’s book: There might be a chance that the book will pale in comparison to the movie, if only for the translation of the novel’s atmosphere and characters, no matter how stereotypical.

      Oh, and Kiss An Angel is a romance novel I read when I was, hm, thirteen? :p

  3. I bought Water for Elephants a while back and was really excited about it but never read it. And now I’m not excited about it at all, but feel like I should probably try to read it since I did buy it… but I just feel like I’m not going to like it, which is not a great mindset to have when beginning a book!

    1. Hate it when we’re obligated to read a book because we have to get our money’s worth, haha. Yes, not the best mindset to go into it. Sometimes, it works — discovering you’ve had this treasure in your TBR all along. Sometimes, it doesn’t: The book remains an obligation, a chore. I lie in wait, watching your blog for any signs of Gruen, haha.

  4. I’m with Steph, it’s been on my shelf for ages but never read it, and now I’m not excited about it anymore. Lately I try to avoid reading books just because I own them. Too many books and all right? Why waste your time on some books that might be just “okay” (even from the beginning). I want greatness!

    1. Ouf, we all want greatness. :[ Especially if the books come from our own towering stacks. The problem with me is, well, I get really guilty when I not read books. I mean, money is tight, and I just hate it when I’m not as interested in a book when I first bought it. Augh. Too bad the bookstores don’t have a “Oh, I changed my mind!” policy.

  5. I’m not sure it’s fair to compare Andy to Firmin; the fur that’s on Andy is abandoned-bachelor grunge and Firmin has lovely soft, rat fur. Firmin was raised on books and is a true storyteller whereas Andy is only a magazine editor. And many of Andy’s failures surround his interpersonal relationships, whereas it seems that Firmin is simply more comfortable (or had to be so) with his solitude, so there were fewer opportunities to get frustrated with his interfursonal [sic] failures. (Nonetheless, I am partial to Firmin myself as well.)

    1. I agree: There’s no comparison — beyond the fact that the same person created them. I mean, I definitely like Firmin more than I do Andy. And respect Firmin more, for that matter. Andy’s personality can just annoy so much. And kudos to the author for making me read on, what with him knowingly making Andy the way he is.


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