On Books You Hate, and Ways of Hating Books (for book nerds only)

It is not often that I hate a book, and I was pretty sure I had a good handle on the kind of books I have learned to avoid—generations-long family sagas (where you have to develop a family tree to keep track of things), books with overt sexual violence, books with gratuitous sexual violence, and books set in Ireland (no idea where that comes from, but I also tend to avoid books set in Australia—probably I should read more books in these two geographic areas, and suggestions are welcome).

The sexual violence pretty much explains itself. The long sagas—well, I think you love them or hate them. Ireland and Australia (my aversion)—I don’t quite get that. I’d sooner visit them than read about them, and that is hugely strange to me. But there you have it: If I pick up a book (especially a novel) set in either place, I immediately put it down. It could make one wonder about past lives, but I’m not going down that road.

Instead, I’ll mention two novels I read this month that I hated. I rarely hate books, and it is exceptionally rare for me to hate two books in such a short time span. Rarer still is that they have very similar structures, and I realize that I think it’s the structure that I hate, rather than the books themselves.

The two books are quite different: Umami, by Laia Jufresa; and The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, by Sarah Braunstein. Note: Do not read the penultimate paragraph of this post if you intend to read either book, as it contains a spoiler.

But the structures are similar: Umami has four parts. Each part usually with five chapters, told from different perspectives, and they always go backwards in time, a year for each chapter. By the time I got to the next part of the book, I had lost the thread of the previous several narrators. Going backwards in time only confounded things for me. It wasn’t always clear whose perspective I was hearing (I’m moderately sure they went in order, chronologically, backwards, but I didn’t go back to check because overall, I found it jarring and annoying and I didn’t care enough).

This was top of mind, this confusion of switching perspectives from chapter to chapter, when I started The Sweet Relief of Missing Children. I read a few chapters, I looked ahead, it seemed cohesive. I proceeded.

It had five parts. Again, the perspective changed with every chapter. The characters were hard to keep track of, time is fluid, and by the end of the book, I didn’t even care about Leonora (basically the star character) because she ends up taking just a very few pages in each part. Despite my initial caution, I had jumped into another disjointed book.

And what I realize, after reading two such different and yet similar books within a couple weeks of each other, is that both of the books change perspectives in ways that make you work to figure out whose perspective you’re hearing.

How many times did I page back though each book to figure out who was who? Who is narrating? Who’s mother-child-neighbor-friend was Goldie? How do these threads tie together?

For both books, by the time I got about halfway through, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about going backward in time, I didn’t care about Goldie, and I didn’t care about Ana’s neighbors. But I was halfway through before I realized I totally didn’t care (and was a bit annoyed to boot) so I slogged through. I just don’t want to work this hard to read a book that I can’t even figure out what it’s trying to say. They both feel like an annoying waste of time.

Also: Both books hinge on dead people, which is to say dead young women, actually girls, in particular. And this annoys me even more. I am tired of dead young women as tropes.

Has anyone out there had a similar experience? Books you’ve hated? Themes that get repeated to an annoying pitch? What have you hated and why?

The Taste of Books

November’s reading theme is Taste (as in sweet, bitter, sour, salty, umami). I don’t have a huge pile for this theme, but I have a few major winners (at least in terms of theme fit). For fiction, I’ve found Umami, by Laia Jufresa; Sourdough, by Robin Sloan; Bitter Sweets, by Roopa Farooki; Queen Sugar, by Natalie Baszile; and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford.

In nonfiction, I have Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael Moss; Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, by Samin Nosrat; and Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. A short but very rich list.

Poetry was a major bust. My best contenders: Sesame, by Jack Marshall; and Wise Poison, by David Rivard. I had Pinion, by Claudia Emerson, until I realized I was thinking of pinyon. I may still read Pinion. I’m that desperate.

I’ll certainly go further afield than the five specific tastes mentioned above. I’ve already finished The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, by Phaedra Patrick. I also have Wild Strawberries, by Angela Thirkell; and Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde for back-up fiction. In nonfiction, I have Honey From Stone, by Chet Raymo; and Lion’s Honey, by David Grossman.

Whoa! I just went to put some of those books back on the bookshelf, and what should I happen to notice but Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan, right there big as life (hardcover, no less) on the to-read shelf. How in the world did I miss that in my initial sweep?

Still, I think Something Rotten might be my next fiction read (after Bitter Sweets, which I’m about one-quarter through and quite enjoying). I haven’t read Jasper Fforde in years, and I think I’m ready to visit his wacky literary world again (this is the fourth in his Thursday Next series, and I loved the first three).

Next month’s theme is Prize Winners. Yes, it’s early to be thinking about next month’s theme, but I’ve exhausted my search in Taste. (Despite having overlooked Sweet Tooth, I am not going to review the entire collection for other misses—far too tedious! Much more fun to look forward.) This is the fourth time we’ve done the prize winner theme, and I’ve turned my methodology on its head this year. Previously, I’d check the awards lists—Pulitzer, National Book Award, Book Critics Circle, Man-Booker, Lambda, Tiptree, Hugo, Nebula, Edgar (there are so very many) etc. Then I’d check my shelves to see which of those I had (I remember a lot of the books I have, but not all of them).

But this year, I’m just looking at my shelves, and saying: What have I been wanting to read, but not yet gotten around to? And then I check it online to see if it’s won an award. Well. What a great idea! The very first book I checked had won an award. I’ve been running about 50/50, with half of the books I check having won an award (state awards are a great boon).

I do love playing with books.

Happy reading!