Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Thought I’d Like More/Less Than I Did

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, the site posts a new Top Ten list topic that everyone is welcome to answer.

This week, I thought I would talk about some well-hyped books that came out within the past few years. For each of these, I bought into the hype, with varying results. While some of these books greatly exceeded my expectations, others, regrettably, fell short. I should point out that I didn’t actually dislike (or, at least, vehemently dislike) any of these books. They were each just much different from how I had guessed they would be.

5 Books I Thought I’d Like More Than I Did:

Swamplandia!The Night CircusGone GirlThe Marriage PlotHow To Be a Woman

1. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell—I really thought I would love this one, which means I was almost certainly setting myself up for disappointment. Russell is a great writer, but there were times when I could tell that this was a short story that had been unnaturally expanded. The characters and settings were interesting, but I couldn’t quite connect with any of them. All of the book’s cleverness never really added up to a complete story, even though some individual parts were quite brilliant.

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern—I loved the atmosphere in this book, but was underwhelmed by the character development and, especially, the love story. The descriptions were beautiful, but I found myself caring more about the Night Circus itself than about any of the people involved with it.

3. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn—I will admit to not quite guessing the twist, but this book had little to recommend it outside of that. Though very clever and well-plotted, I found it completely depressing. It left me feeling empty and unsatisfied.

4. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides—The beginning of this book was a hilarious send-up of pretentious English majors (probably best appreciated by pretentious English majors, like me), but the middle was endlessly depressing. Until I started reading, I had no idea that the story was largely about one character’s bipolar disorder. Though beautifully and thoughtfully written, this book was a lot less fun than I thought it would be.

5. How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran—Moran made some good, funny points, but I thought there was too much Lady Gaga love and excessive references to British celebrities that aren’t well known outside of the country. The book was at its best when Moran was being honest and insightful about her own very personal experiences. I could have done without the rest.

5 Books I Thought I’d Like Less Than I Did:

State of WonderThe Tiger's WifeBefore I Go to SleepBetween Shades of GrayThe Hunger Games

1. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett—I knew the reviews had been good, but I picked this book up more on a whim than anything else. I was surprised when I became instantly hooked. The story is suspenseful, unusual, and at times completely insane—all things that I can appreciate. Where else can you find magic tree bark or a pregnant septuagenarian?

2. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht—I had seen this book being promoted for so long that my curiosity finally got the better of me. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was certainly surprised by what I got. There was magical realism, profound insights on war, and a whole lot of weirdness. In a good way. Mostly, though, I was impressed by Obreht’s writing, which was skillful, assured, and quite lovely.

3. Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson—I love the movie Memento, so I was curious to see how a suspense novel would handle a similar premise. I tore through this book in a couple of days, eager to discover what came next. Every page was exciting, and even though the ending was completely ridiculous, I still loved the ride.

4. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys—When this book started winning awards—and getting mistaken for Fifty Shades of Grey—I decided to see what it was all about for myself. And…wow. This was a tough read, but so, so worth it. Though at times heartrending, it still managed to show how resilient the human spirit is.

5. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins—I hadn’t even planned to read The Hunger Games until I happened to see it on my friend’s Kindle, which I had borrowed for a week or two. Curious but not expecting much, I read through the first few chapters and was immediately addicted. I’d say I raced through the book to make sure I could finish before I had to give the Kindle back, but, really, there was no stopping me anyway. I tracked down the final two books of the trilogy and read them each in about a day. I loved them all, and I can confidently say that I completely understand the hype for this series.

Quicksand

Quicksand


Quicksand

Written By: Nella Larsen

192 pages

Literature/ African-American/ Classics

Publisher: Penguin Classics

This Edition Published: 2002

First Published: 1928


Quicksand, by Nella Larsen, is just what it sounds like: an experience of ever-sinking, of flailing and failing, of struggling to stay above the muck but endlessly falling back into it. The protagonist, Helga Crane, is smart, thoughtful, and aware, and that is precisely her problem. She is mixed-race, the product of a Danish mother and a black father, and she sees too clearly the problem of how people of her skin tone are treated in America. The novel deals with her constant struggle to find a place where she can belong—not only as a black woman or as a white woman, but as her unique self, the sum of those parts. Readers are transported from Harlem to Denmark and back again, hoping against hope that Helga will eventually find a compromise that she can live with.

One thing I like about Nella Larsen is that her books are never just about race, or being mixed-race, or even about being a woman, but rather are about characters who seem like real people and not symbols. Helga Crane is idiosyncratic: she is smart, but impulsive, personable but sometimes alienating, and she doesn’t always know (or do) what’s best for her. She can be frustrating and even unlikable, but she remains relatable in some way. Larsen succeeds at creating antiheroes, women who are not conventionally sympathetic, but whose interior life nonetheless makes us feel for them.

While I think Passing may be Larsen’s masterpiece, I still enjoyed Quicksand for its keen insights and devastating conclusions. Larsen draws largely on her own life, and this added dimension makes the novel all the more fascinating. It is a meaningful look at issues of identity, and it shows both how far we have come and how far we still have to go in creating a more inclusive society.

Reading Out Loud: How I Got Into Audiobooks

It started with a long car trip, a short attention span, and this book:

Me Talk Pretty One Day

This was the beginning of my conversion, from audiobook skeptic to…well, someone who still doesn’t listen to audiobooks very often, but who can finally appreciate them in the right context.

I’ll be honest: I’m not a great listener, and the idea of reading a book solely by listening to it terrifies me. What if I miss a lot? It may be easy to do a 30-second rewind, but what if I need to revisit something that happened a few chapters ago? There are limitations to the audiobook that don’t exist on the printed page. For someone who has been reading physical books (and now e-books) for decades, it’s not so easy to go back in time and adapt to a more passive reading experience. I need to see the words, to interact with them on the page. With audiobooks, there is nothing to hold on to: readers must give themselves over to the experience, sacrificing control for the very different pleasure of having a story presented theatrically to them.

I like this idea in theory. It makes one think of families gathered around an old-timey radio (except, of course, in this case the large piece of furniture has been replaced by an electronic device that fits in the palm of a baby’s hand.) What could be more delightful than this act of togetherness? In actuality, though, many audiobooks are not that fun to listen to. They can be presented dully—or, worse yet, in improbable voices—by people who did not write the book, but were simply hired to read it.

Which brings me back to Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. What I immediately liked about this audiobook was that it was read by the author. David Sedaris was telling his story to me, as if we were friends…or, at least, as if I had kidnapped him and forced him to entertain me for the duration of a long car ride (after which he was free to go). This actually heightened the reading experience for me, making it less about me interacting with the words themselves and more about the author speaking directly to me.

BossypantsI’ve discovered that this is type of audiobook I can appreciate. When another long car trip introduced me to Bossypants by Tina Fey, I was ready. Tina Fey is a talented performer, and she delivers her jokes better than any hired voice actor could. After all, it’s her story: there’s not going to be a better person to do her Lorne Michaels impression. Again, I felt that the reading experience was actually improved by listening to the author’s own voice. But it had me wondering, could I only respond favorably to authors telling me their life stories? What about fiction?

Beauty QueensLately, I’ve been listening to Beauty Queens, a YA book written and read by Libba Bray. My long car trips are behind me; now, I listen to the book while I knit. I think the two activities complement each other well, and it’s a habit I would like to keep up with in the future. My only worry is that I will never find another book as thrillingly well done as this one. For starters, Libba Bray may have the most charming multiple personality disorder ever. She juggles over a dozen characters, complete with different accents and linguistic quirks, flawlessly, and her energy level is always set to 11. The book is a satire about teenage beauty queens who get marooned on an island and must learn to survive, and it is just as hilarious as it sounds. I am finding that listening to an audiobook can actually be exhilarating…and I’m even pitying the people who only got a chance to read this in print. In short, it’s a far cry from my audiobook-hating days, when I assumed the only way I would listen to an audiobook was if I had just had laser eye surgery.

Of course, my first love will always be the printed word. It’s comfortable. It’s reliable. It won’t sway my taste too much in either direction, like a well-executed or terribly-executed audiobook might. Still, it can’t boast the engaging performance aspect of the audiobook—or, at least, not until I get better at funny voices. It’s always limited by my limitations—of imagination, of pronunciation, and, of course, of performing a Lorne Michaels impression. Sometimes the audiobook is just better. But the trick is finding the right one.

Confession: I’m No Good at Goodreads

Goodreads

I have a confession to make, and it could shock you. (Well, probably not if you’ve already read the title of this post.) I love to read, and I’m pretty good with social media (or, at least, I know what a Twitter is)…but I’m bad at Goodreads.

I don’t mean that I can’t use Goodreads, like I don’t understand the basics of how it works. I can add books I’ve read, rate them, and even set challenges for myself regarding books to read in the coming year. Sometimes I even do the silly things, like enter giveaways or silently judge the bookshelves of successful authors. The problem is simply that I’m not using Goodreads the way it’s meant to be used. I’m not posting reviews, which is egregious considering I actually have reviews already written for this website. And my star ratings? I give them, but I have no idea what the hell I mean by any of it. Oh yeah, and I have only three friends.

Lest you think I’m simply not that interested in Goodreads, let me add that I actually find it very worthwhile. I use it every day. It’s a great way to keep track of page numbers, and I especially like that users can track past updates on books to see how quickly they are reading, what their initial impressions were, and so forth. It’s important for me to realize when I’m advancing only five percent on To the Lighthouse in a given day, so that I know when I am completely failing as a human being. Goodreads keeps me honest. Bitter, depressed, and honest.

But I give nothing back. I rate books simply because I can’t stand to see the empty stars staring back at me. I rate books even when I read them nearly a decade ago, even when I think I may have loved them…or was it that I hated them? I rate for the vanity of it, for the semblance of having strong opinions. And my ratings are based on no consistent criteria, just mad whims and occasionally guilt. (I know I’m supposed to like you, Persuasion, dammit!) If you are one of my (three) friends, please disregard my opinions. I don’t know what they mean either.

My problem with Goodreads is that I sometimes find it too great a leap from my private tallies and tentative notes. I’ve made lists of the books I’ve read in a given year since I was 16, but usually these lists were nothing special, just a record of the date each book was completed, and later personal star ratings that I didn’t have to worry about sharing with anyone else. (I also used half-stars. Half-stars make everything better when you are indecisive.) I just haven’t caught up with the social aspect of it yet; for too long, reading has been a deeply personal experience that I’ve only shared incrementally. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I’m reading (even when I should be), or that I think anyone gives more than a passing glance at my updates. It’s just this: I don’t relate to books in this way.

Still, I’m learning. I’m learning both what it’s like to be the kind of person who shares random personal information with her (three) friends and occasionally bored strangers, as well as what it means to enjoy books in an age in which you never have to enjoy them alone. I assume that someday I will add a fourth friend, I will post a review of a book I felt strongly about, and I will even participate in one of those author events that I get so many notifications for.

…That day is just not today.

A Year of Reading: 2012

Woman with book

January

  • Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
  • Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
  • Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
  • The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

February

  • The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To by D.C. Pierson
  • Matched by Ally Condie
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  • Never Have I Ever by Sara Shepard

March

  • Chime by Franny Billingsley
  • Two Truths and a Lie by Sara Shepard
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  • Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
  • Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  • Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

April

  • Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  • The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman
  • Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
  • Wonderland by Joanna Nadin
  • Old School by Tobias Wolff
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

May

  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
  • The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
  • An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

June

  • Bossypants by Tina Fey
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
  • Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

July

  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

August

  • Crossed by Ally Condie
  • The Girl is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
  • Hide and Seek by Sara Shepard

September

  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • Every Day by David Levithan
  • Wallflower at the Orgy by Nora Ephron

October

  • Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
  • Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

November

  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
  • Carrie by Stephen King
  • Passing by Nella Larsen

December

  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  • Maus, Vol. 1: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
  • Maus Vol. 2: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
  • How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
  • On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner

[Image courtesy ClipArt ETC]

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