Beautiful prose, lacklustre storytelling

Yet again, I’ve been most sorely disappointed by a book with massive amounts of hype. In fact, I was so turned off by this book, I removed a reference to it during my second edition edits of Journey Through a Dark Forest. The first book Katya reads on her way back to UC-Berkeley in 1946 is now If He Hollers Let Him Go. I couldn’t stand by my former description of it as complex and nonconformist. More like dull and pointless!

I expected a story about a 12-year-old girl who doesn’t quite fit in as she comes of age, with her only friends her much-younger male cousin and the family cook. Instead I got a story which has beautiful prose and technically proficient writing but sleep-inducing, detached storytelling.

The book immediately starts off on the wrong foot with a heaping helping of telly infodump and backstory. While I understand people in the 1940s didn’t operate under modern writing standards like “Show, don’t tell,” that doesn’t preclude an engrossing story. Just look at A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which has quite a few passages heavy on telling. Betty Smith managed to make these events come alive despite not actively depicting them.

Why did this book annoy me so much, and why was it such a chore to slog through?

1. No one likes a story that’s little more than summaries of events. “This happened. Then that happened. Name did this. Name said that. Infodumpy, ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue. These things happened last year. This happened three months ago.” Impossible to be emotionally drawn in.

2. Confusing nonlinear format. It was often hard to discern whether Ms. McCullers were writing about something happening in real time or in the past, since she shifts around so much.

3. Not nearly enough chapters. There are deliberately long chapters, and then there are chapters that just stretch on and on without any sense of unifying theme or plot. Even deliberately long chapters should be divided into sections, not just roll on and on with no distinguishing breaks.

4. The breaks into Parts I, II, and III didn’t seem coherent either. The only thing marking them as distinct parts is that the protagonist goes by a different name in each—Frankie, F. Jasmine (so freaking pretentious), Francis.

5. Where’s the plot? Even an episodic, slower-paced, character-based story needs to be hung on a narrative arc and plot trajectory!

6. We’re supposed to believe Frankie HAD SEX (at twelve years old!), yet is childish and naïve enough to think her brother and his bride will be totally cool with her tagging along on their honeymoon?

7. The title bears almost no relation to the story. The wedding takes up a paragraph at the end, all that buildup (as it were) to a whole lot of nothing.

8. Frankie is extremely annoying, childish, and psychotic. I’ve no problem with deliberately imperfect and/or difficult to like characters, but this takes it to a whole new level!

9. Frankie does little more than wander around town putting herself in potentially dangerous situations and starting conversations with people who couldn’t care less about her. Most of the rest of the time is spent around the kitchen table. BORING!

10. So freaking rambling!

11. Where’s the evidence this is a coming-of-age story? All Frankie does is change her name! She’s the same insufferable, mean-spirited brat at the end as she was at the beginning.

12. Non-existent character development.

13. It takes a special talent to make a book under 200 pages drag on this much!

14. Emotionally detached prose. I never felt in Frankie’s head.

15. A lot of disturbing content that’s just brushed over as normal or not a big deal.

Ms. McCullers had an interesting idea which was executed very poorly. This is a long, slow road to nowhere. Not only is there no real plot, Frankie shows absolutely no growth from start to finish. If all that dull telling had been fleshed out into active scenes, this book might’ve been better.

Oh, I’ve been persuaded alright!

First things first: I have a great deal of respect for how Jane Austen was able to make a living from her writing in a time and place when the vast majority of women financially depended on a husband or male relatives. I also recognise her technical skills at sentence construction and ability to write very artistic prose. I additionally respect her for being known on her own merits instead of through a husband, father, or brother.

All that, however, doesn’t mean I emotionally connect with her writing. I have a very difficult time reading 19th century literature, even understanding writers in that era operated under much different literary conventions; e.g., overdescribing things irrelevant to the plot, opening with backstory.

Still, I’ve enjoyed other 19th century books which were written under much different sensibilities. What didn’t I like about this one?

1. Opening with pages upon pages of infodumpy backstory! We truly don’t need to know this family’s entire life story down to the most irrelevant details! It’s like Dostoyevskiy insisting readers need 50 pages of backstory to understand The Brothers Karamazov. Hard pass!

2. Overly formal language. I get that people in that era spoke much differently, but were they really that formal all the time?

3. Distant narration. I never felt in anyone’s head, or at least emotionally pulled into the story.

4. Hard to keep track of who’s talking. I’ve 100% been guilty of this myself in the past, but I’ve worked hard to show characters doing little things every so often in a long dialogue scene with only the two of them. Even when we know dialogue alternates, it’s easy to forget who’s on first when all we see are talking heads.

5. Archaic literary constructions. I wish an editor had updated these aspects of the language, like unnecessarily split words (every thing, any one, every one), “shewed” (i.e., “showed”), and &c. WTF was the lattermost all about! Was there something wrong with writing “and so on” or even “etc.”?

6. I didn’t really like any of these people. Beyond the distant narration, no one seemed particularly sympathetic or compelling.

7. I can’t really relate to the idle upper-class of early 19th century England. If they’d done something beyond sit around gossiping, going for walks, and talking about themselves, I could’ve been compelled to care about their lives. I understand women’s lives were extremely limited in this era, but they weren’t all this boring!

8. TELLING! It seems like at least 95% consists of “This happened. Then that happened. X and Y discussed this. Z and Q discussed that. Name felt this. Name felt that. Tell tell telly lots of telling! Infodumpy dialogue. Let’s have some more telling!” There were almost no active scenes. For all the issues I have with Hemingway’s beyond-Spartan prose of “Noun verb noun. Noun verb noun. I drank another vermouth,” at least he told active stories!

9. It would’ve been more effective had we seen Anne and Captain Wentworth’s original relationship, followed by their breakup and reunion years later. How can we give a damn about them getting back together if we never saw them during the first gasp of their relationship or how Anne was persuaded to jilt him?

10. We also never get an active sense of just why Lady Russell is so overbearing and a poor judge of situations and people, nor why Anne still likes her. Merely telling us a character is a certain way does jack to actually bring that out!

11. Too many irrelevant characters who contribute jack towards the story.

12. Total slog! Even after over 100 pages, I felt like nothing had been accomplished, with nothing happening. That’s kind of what happens when most of a story is a summary of events.

After this experience, I’m no longer so hesitant to attempt reading Jane Eyre again (a DNF at age thirteen), or to read another Hemingway novel. At least those are actual stories instead of dull summaries of dull events!

Why I HATED The Book Thief

Oh, yes, I’m going to go there, and I don’t care how many people might think I’m as bad as a kitten-killer for stating my honest opinion on this bloated piece of purple prose on par with a D.W. Griffith movie. And please don’t write some impassioned comment trying to get me to Magickally change my mind and suddenly join the crowd squeeing all over this tripe. Not gonna happen.

When this was assigned as the required historical in my YA Lit class, I was excited to finally get to read this book I’d heard so many good things about. And the first few chapters actually flew by quickly. I thought I was going to love the rest of the book and have it done in a few days.

Was I wrong.

Attempting to read this book was like watching paint dry. It moved at a snail’s pace, with no real plot taking shape and nothing of note really happening. A lot of things happened, but they never really accomplished anything. Even a book that’s deliberately slower-paced and more about character development than fast-paced and plot-centric needs to be hung on some kind of arc. I kept waiting for some kind of inciting incident to take shape, some dramatic midway point, and it never happened.

With the exception of Rudy and maybe Hans, none of these characters felt particularly fleshed-out and three-dimensional. They were like a collection of stereotypes and characteristics, rather like how I used to write my own characters. At least my excuse was extreme youth. None of these people ever really came alive for me. I felt absolutely nothing for any of them.

The prose is excessively purple, and not only that, but it’s overwrought and reads like something you’d find in the notebooks of some self-important teen who thinks s/he’s all that. I’ve been there and done that, so I know what I’m talking about. Sometimes it’s not even deliberate, but your youthful prose oozes the message, “Look at me! I’m so much deeper and more creative than my peers! Look at these unique metaphors and similes! Look how uniquely I use language! Everyone praise me as a special little snowflake and misunderstood genius!”

Page after page contains silly examples like “breakfast-colored sun,” “chocolate-colored sky,” “pinecones littered like cookies,” “disfigured figure,” “lacerated windows,” “the sound of a smell,” and “rusty silver eyes.” Seriously, the language is just bizarre. And “nightmare” isn’t a verb, at least not in English.

It’s way too heavy-handed, beating us over the head with all the subtlety of a D.W. Griffith movie and telling us how to think and feel. At least Griffith’s films are entertaining and tell interesting stories, his personal flaws and Victorian preachiness/moralizing aside. With the vile exception of BOAN, I’d gladly watch just about any of his films again.

Unless Rudy were exposed to radioactive material or a dye job went seriously wrong, his hair would not literally be the color of lemons. A human being cannot have lemon-colored hair naturally. Why do so many writers try to creatively describe hair color?

Death as a narrator is a really bad gimmick that doesn’t work.

Native-speaking Germans have said that the vulgar words constantly bandied about are NOT used as anything but vulgar, lowbrow insults in German. They’re not used as cute, charming, funny terms of endearment between spouses, friends, or parents and children. Just picture one of George Carlin’s 7 Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television standing in for those words, and you get the point. Totally obscene and inappropriate.

Way too much telling instead of showing. I think there’s too much emphasis on ONLY showing these days, but this wasn’t the good, necessary kind of telling. It just made the book even more boring and long-winded.

Nice job stereotyping nuns as ruler-wielding, child-beating sadists!

How not to write omniscient POV: Litter the book with constant spoilers and horn into the narrative to give away pivotal plot points, the fates of just about everyone, and the ending, multiple times. Just think of a book whose ending totally tore your heart out because of a character’s unexpected death, or some other kind of tragedy. Now imagine how different it would’ve been had you seen this every 5-10 pages:

****NEWSFLASH!**** In 5 months, Name is going to die in exactly this way! You’ll never see THAT one coming! Heeheehee! Everyone praise my cleverness! Look how avant-garde I am!

God help the people who seriously think this is “brilliant” or “moving” use of “foreshadowing.” Um, I wasn’t aware that the definition of foreshadowing now included outright giving away the ending and pivotal plot developments.

He had over 500 pages and couldn’t even make it to the end of the War! Serious sign this was an unfocused project.

The title makes no sense, as Liesel only steals a few books on and off.

It takes a special talent to make a book set during this era boring.

And this is why I stay far away from books with massive hype.

Why I disliked The Great Gatsby

(This review was originally written for my old Angelfire site, probably sometime in 2004. I stand by my less than glowing opinion of this overrated “classic.”)

3 stars

Even though I’m giving this one the exact same rating as Tender Is the Night, overall I enjoyed Tender better and found it more convincing. (It doesn’t take away my issues with how it didn’t delve really deeply into the characters’ motivations, but at least we had a better idea in that book.)

I did like this book, though it was one of those books that you consider good and enjoyable, but not great (no pun intended). I’m far beyond the point I was in the past, where I automatically considered a book a classic just because a bunch of English teachers and some literary critics with more brains than sense have drilled it into the masses’ heads that it’s a classic.

After choking down A Farewell to Arms and hearing that most of his other books aren’t much better, if not just as boring and undeveloped, I’ve come to the conclusion that that “literary giant” too is overrated. What, some bigwigs proclaim it a classic and it takes away your critical thinking skills as well as the fact that it’s still badly-written, leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and lacks credible motivation for the actions of the cardboard characters? Though certainly I can see that Fitzgerald was a far superior writer to that misogynistic suicide Hemingway.

I really loved the descriptions of life and high society in the Twenties, though it didn’t delve as deeply into them as I’d hoped. I guess I need to read a longer book on this era to get all the great details about bootlegging, flappers, movies, fashion, social movements, etc. Though what was there was very good, and the prose is lovely. That’s not what I have a problem with in this book, this so-called “classic.”

First of all, who the hell is this bland Nick Carraway who’s narrating the piece? Why was he chosen? He doesn’t even do anything really important! Sure, he’s Daisy’s second-cousin once-removed and a college buddy of her husband’s, but other than that, why is he even there? It would’ve been better with third-person narration.

The title character didn’t seem all that great to me, and his role wasn’t as big as I’d expected. Just some self-made tycoon who throws lavish nightly parties due to his obsession with Nick’s cousin, hoping against hope she’ll attend one of his many parties despite the fact that they were involved five years ago and she married another man because she didn’t want to wait for him to come home from the Great War. And his beautiful house is right across the way from hers.

Can we say obsessed? She jilted you, and if she really didn’t love her husband, she never would’ve walked down the aisle, or she would’ve left him as soon as her real love came home. Gatsby made all this money in the hopes that Daisy would want him again if he were a rich man, since she rejected him because he didn’t have enough money.

Oh yes, and it’s perfectly understandable that as soon as they finally meet again, they become instantly just as close and loving as they were five years ago. I’d believe it if they’d been separated and been thinking of nothing but one another, but come on, Daisy got married! It’s not like they’re Penelope and Odysseus, apart for years yet stayed faithful despite the lengthy separation. (And yes, I know Odysseus was off banging other women after the Trojan War ended, such as Circe, but supposedly he was always true to her in his heart and not his phallus.)

Daisy’s husband is incredibly stupid when he takes Nick to meet his mistress, the wife of their friend George Wilson. And of course, before long everyone has found out about these seedy affairs, and things get really really messy. Too messy too quickly.

It would’ve been so more dramatic and believable had the events that follow taken place over a longer period of time. It would’ve made for some great whodunnits, but unfortunately, they’re all resolved way too quickly, and we don’t get any depth nor prolonged mystery. There should’ve been like another hundred pages to try to figure out whodunnit in each of these mysterious tragedies.

Who wants everything handed to him or her on a neat little platter instead of trying to figure the answers out on one’s own? The conclusion leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth and doesn’t really resolve anything, like the ending of Doctor Zhivágo or Tender Is the Night, for example.

There are also some anti-Semitic and quite racist overtones, like in the description of Meyer Wolfshiem and Tom Buchanan’s racist diatribe, about how Nordic types are the “master” race, which never goes unchallenged. It’s also interesting to note that there’s a woman named Jordan in this book, years before it was trendy to give girls very masculine names. Of course, she comes from high society, and it was probably done because it was a family name, not because it was trendy or because the parents thought it was a girls’ name simply because the name had been so taken over by girls that people didn’t know it was originally only for boys. But I digress.

It has its moments, but the ending sucks and ultimately we’re left with too many unanswered questions and implausible motivations. And who would guess that the eyes of the mysterious Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are actually the large eyes on a billboard? I had no idea until I’d finished the book and saw it pointed out. And these eyes are supposed to symbolise…?

Why I disliked Tender Is the Night

(This is the book review originally written for my old Angelfire site, probably sometime in 2004. FYI: It turned out I disliked The Great Gatsby too and found it very overrated.)

3 stars

I was expecting to like this book more; I hope The Great Gatsby turns out to be better. I only checked it out because TGG wasn’t there that day, and besides, it was still about the Twenties, one of my favouritest decades. And it did start out really well, but quickly went south after Part One. It shifted onto a converging storyline and didn’t really spend enough time on the story we’d been getting warmed up to in the beginning of the book.

This book is supposed to be autobiographical, about the dissolution of the marriage of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. Maybe he was too close to the subject to write about it in a better fashion. It’s just like other books purporting to have a romantic storyline, yet not showing motivation and why s/he’d want to leave an existing relationship for this new person. You can’t just have the people fall into one another’s arms after they’ve barely said a word to one another or don’t even seem that much in love to begin with.

But this book doesn’t even feature a real affair. Something like ten years have passed since Part One (I hate when that happens!), and the main characters, Dick and Nicole, are now married and have two children, Lanier and Topsy. (Given the era, I’m shocked the boy isn’t named Richard, Jr.) They’re vacationing in France with a bunch of other wealthy ex-patriates when an 18-year-old American moviestar, Rosemary Hoyt, shows up and is instantly beloved by these people, in particular Dick.

He’s in his thirties! Why is such a young girl attracted to such an older man! To make matters worse, her mother urges her on in this unbelievable fantasy. They have a few run-ins and kiss a few times, and from this I’m supposed to believe his marriage is now on an irreversible slide towards ruin?

Nicole is psychologically unstable anyway since she slept with her father at twelve years old. She met Dick when she was a young patient in a mental hospital during the War. I don’t believe the sudden appearance of some 18-year-old girl whom he never even sleeps with could throw that huge of a kink into their marriage. She never even found out anyway. He doesn’t even see this girl again till the final section, when she’s older, and they’re talking like they shared an affair and things have never been the same since. Huh?

There were a number of pointless side-plots that accomplished nothing, added nothing to the major plot, had nothing to even do with anything. Abe North has trouble in Paris with people in the wrong crowd he’s gotten himself involved in because of his seedy secret lifestyle; a Black man ends up murdered and they dispose of the body. Then we never hear of this sideline story ever again.

Same with the Lady Sibley-Beers and Mary North, now married to some Arab prince, in the last section, who get in trouble for dancing for sailors or something like that. That added nothing to the overall story and did not need to be included.

Another major problem was that a lot of sentences and even whole entire dialogues were in French, with no translation provided. No one likes to interrupt one’s reading to look up foreign words, and not everyone even has a French dictionary handy! I know they’re in France and are speaking to natives; you don’t need to belabour the point by putting their conversation into French. Granted, at that time, most educated people did speak French as a second language and often even spoke it among themselves, but those days are long since past. It’s incredibly annoying.

The story about a dissolution of a marriage through the husband’s drinking, brought on by the wife’s ever-increasing mental breakdowns, could’ve been so much more interesting and compelling, but it was just written unconvincingly. I didn’t really understand their motivations, and there wasn’t enough emphasis placed on Nicole’s episodes, which would’ve made the story much more plausible.

There’s no motivation given for Dick’s eventual mental breakdown, and Nicole just seems to revert back to her unglued ways without motivation or understanding of why it happened in the first place! Their character development left a whole lot to be desired. We’re supposed to be rooting for him, but he just comes across as a jerk who doesn’t want to deal with his wife’s problems and makes them even worse. Even the ending was disappointing and a meaningless dead-end.

It’s not that the book was boring, just that I don’t feel the story was told in the most convincing manner.