Category Archives: Books I bought but wish I hadn’t

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

17333794The Goldfinch 

by Donna Tartt
ISBN: 9780316248679
Little, Brown and Company, 2013

Opinions about this book divide. Opinions about divisions of this book divide. Some critics rave about its “art,” but other critics pan its far-fetched plotting and meandering narrative. The Goldfinchit seems, leaves no room for middle ground.

Before I read this book, I spoke with many people about it. Their opinions, like those of the literary critics, fell at opposite, extreme ends of the spectrum. Some raved about how they couldn’t put it down, but others rolled their eyes and said, “I could not finish that awful book.”

When I read the opening chapters, I thought, “I have to go with the friends who say this is a great book.” I loved the child character, Theo Decker, and his strong-willed mother. The events of their life in New York City absorbed me, the idea of the painting intrigued me and I admired Tartt’s seamless storytelling.

Then I reached the part when Theo ends up in Vegas. The storytelling pace slowed, and the subject matter of Theo’s Vegas life did not appeal to me. For hundreds of pages (hundreds), Tartt describes the booze and drug escapades of Theo and his friend, Boris. I thought, “Okay, I’m not so crazy about this part, but maybe it will pick up later.”

My hopes raised when Theo returned to New York, but my optimism soon faded. The final part of Tartt’s book details a bleak, convoluted and, yes, far-fetched plot involving yet more booze, hard-core drug use and characters pivotal to the story that we don’t ever meet. I flagged reading Theo’s stream of consciousness diatribe of existential angst. By then I thought, “Okay, I’m starting to understand the people who couldn’t finish this book.”

Fittingly, my opinion about this book is divided. I loved the first several hundred pages; I endured the middle; I disliked, and actively resented, the end.

Would I recommend this book?

I recommend reading the opening sections and then stopping. After that, in your imagine, create your own ending for Theo and the painting.

 

 

Book Review: February by Lisa Moore

978-0-88784-962-6February

by Lisa Moore
ISBN 978-0-88784-962-6
House of Anansi Press Inc, 2010

I don’t want to give a negative review to a book about the 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster. I don’t want to appear insensitive to the people affected by that tragic event. The families and friends of those lost have my sympathies.

But I really didn’t like this book.

Lisa Moore writes beautifully descriptive passages. She writes beautifully descriptive passages about scattered, disconnected and, frankly, not very interesting events. Finishing this book was a chore, and I only did so because I had to give a full report to my book club. I procrastinated about picking it up again every time I put it down. I groaned when I finally succumbed to the need to plough through it. I impatiently skimmed through the tangential ramblings of the narrator.

The main character, Helen, loses her husband in the Ocean Ranger disaster. She has three children at home and a fourth on the way. Understandably, she’s shell-shocked, and this book is the story of how she picks up the pieces of her shattered life.

The theme resonated with other members of my book club—a single mother and a widow—who felt  that Moore had done an admirable job of capturing the emotional journey of people suddenly left to cope on their own. I agree, but Moore captures it, perhaps, too well. Passages rife with non sequiturs and leaps between topics effectively represent the scattered thinking of someone in shock, and I would have liked that approach, if Moore had used it only for the parts of the book that take place immediately after the disaster. But Moore uses this style through the whole book, and it’s tiresome. 

Moore is so busy describing random events and the characters’ inconsequential encounters with strangers (that do nothing to advance the story) that she leaves unfinished the story lines we readers are hungry for. We get a lengthy passage on dolphin training, but we don’t know what happened to Gabrielle, the baby born in the womb at the time of her father’s death. We get an entire short chapter on how Helen and her husband were once on opposite sides of a tug of war, but we’re left hungry for more details on the intriguing story line of her son’s job skirting safety regulations for oil companies.

The whole book was haphazard and exasperating. Too many self-indulgent descriptions of details that don’t advance the story. Too many leaps between topics within the same passage. Too many leaps back and forth and all around in time.

Oh, and I’m going to send Lisa Moore some quotation marks for Christmas.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

9781443423465The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

by Ayana Mathis
ISBN 978-1-44341-076-2
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2012

This book is both a Heather’s Pick and a selection for the Oprah Book Club 2.0. Many people will buy it for those reasons, and many people will be disappointed.

If people like a book to have at least a spark of happiness in it somewhere, they will be disappointed. There is no joy to be found in the tribes of Hattie. If people like characters to journey through hardships to redemption, they will be disappointed. The unfortunate tribes of Hattie spiral into disillusionment or bitterness.

The book introduces us to the many children of Hattie Shepherd. An unplanned teenage pregnancy starts Hattie on her long road of motherhood, and we read how the lives of her children unfold in any number of dysfunctional ways. Each chapter features a different child or two, and the stories of those children overlap with those of the others in the family only peripherally. The result is disjointed and unsatisfying.

The word “tribe” in the title misleads prospective book buyers into believing that they will read about a family with a long reach and lingering legacy. The reality of the story is the opposite. The characters strangle themselves with their own flaws and sputter out before reaching far or creating legacy. Hattie and her husband, August, are the only threads that run through the book, and they are not easy characters to love.

The author alludes to the biblical story of Job. Even Job gets to see God at the end of his story. He has his fortune restored and then doubled. Poor Hattie. She just walks away from the church, still struggling to show someone some tenderness.

Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail

by Cheryl Strayed
ISBN: 978-0-307-59273-6
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

Maybe it was a case of bad timing. I read this book right after I finished Me to We by Craig and Marc Kielburger. By comparison, Strayed’s misguided, self-focused misadventures seemed shallow and ridiculous after the prudent, outward-looking world vision of the Kielburger brothers.

Or maybe it’s that Strayed is no Bill Bryson. I enjoyed Bryson’s telling of his own misguided, self-focused misadventures on the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods. But Bryson doesn’t take himself so damned seriously and he’s an entertaining humorist.

Whatever the reason, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her mountain hike irritated me.

Strayed hit the Pacific Coast trail shockingly unprepared. Here’s a tip for any potential mountain trail hikers: It’s hard. It’s an uncomfortable, smelly, dangerous, potentially life-threatening, foot-blistering experience. Don’t be surprised by this.

Let me wrap up the plot of this book for you:

Woman gets married at 19. Woman’s mother dies a few years later. Woman ruins her marriage and becomes a drug addict. In her drug-haze of divorce pain, she decides that hiking the Pacific Coast Trail would be a good idea. But you know, the Pacific Coast Trail is really hard. It’s hard. Blisters, a heavy pack, snow, extreme heat, blisters, leering men, friendships, sex against a rock, Hawaiian screwdrivers, blisters, stunning vistas, bears, rattlesnakes, a fox, a lucky feather, blisters, the same food over and over and over, scenic lakes, up-up-up, down-down-down, the end.

Strayed (she chose this last name for herself out of a dictionary) makes a point of making the hike alone: a woman against the mountains. In normal circumstances I applaud a woman making a case for the empowerment of women, but Strayed doesn’t succeed there either. She earns the nickname “Hapless Hiker.” Men along the way cast sidelong glances at her poorly planned, ill-equipped approach to the trail. I’m not sure that helps our feminist cause. By the end of the trail, her nickname is “The Queen of the PCT” because people along the way grant her special privileges because she’s a woman. Sheesh.

The sticker on the front of my hardcover copy tells me that this book is part of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. I shouldn’t be surprised given Oprah’s fondness for the “downtrodden woman triumphs over adversity” theme, but in this case it’s more a case of “hapless woman somehow miraculously survives her own colossally stupid decisions unscathed.”

I didn’t leave this book feeling inspired or empowered. I didn’t laugh. I didn’t cry. I shook my head often. I clucked my teeth now and then. I said “Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me” out loud more than once. I can’t recommend this book. If you want an entertaining book about a mountain trail walk, I recommend A Walk in the Woods.

 

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