Monday, September 25, 2006

Book problem

There is a certain genre of popular books that bother me. I am going to try and articulate why, although i have never been able to do it in my head.

These are books that can be summed up thusly: "After enduring a harsh (awful/abusive/neglected) life, a bunch of fucked up strangers come together to form an unlikely family and heal each other."

Books that fall into this category:
"The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd,
"Broken for You" by Stephanie Kallos
"Plainsong" by Ken Haruff

All of the books above are well written, but that's not the problem. What bothers me about these books is the falseness and the formulaic nature of the plot. Life is NOT like this. They also feel manipulative, like i am supposed to feel better about the world and myself after reading them.

I am not a book snob. I read trashy detectivce stories and romance novels and god knows what other tripe, although as i've gotten older i have no problem putting a book down and never picking it up again. (It used to be that i felt i had to finish anything i started.) And yes i realize that life is NOT like a romance novel either (waves and waves of pleasure), but they have no pretentions towards art, just soft-core porn.

Another book that bothered me a lot was "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold. I read that when Em was 12, and it is about the rape and murder of an 11 year old girl and the redemption that follows. Redemption my ass, give me a gun. The main character looking down from heaven is just too idealized for me to swallow. This is what we WISH might happen.

I apologize if these are among your favorite books, and i know i am doing a horrible job of explaining why they give me the creeps, but they do. The word treacle comes to mind.

Anybody else feel this way, or am i the only person with a -273.15 degree heart?


Anonymous said...

I think I do know what you're saying. It could seem unrealistic, I guess, if only because it isn't the norm. But then, I have experienced life being just like that in my day - strangers coming together with no genetic bond and becoming family. So, I can't say I agree with you. Besides, it would be disingenious of me, at best, because I come away from all of Haruff's books feeling better about the world. He also makes me weepy with his lyrical writing style.

That said, Sebold's book bothered me, too. And her autobiographical follow up even more. Couldn't articulate why HALF as well as you've managed to here.

Joseph Broad said...

Nope, to be honest - I would load the gun for you.
Does that mean justice is more important than compassion?

Anonymous said...

Meno, I have trouble with different books, too. Some for the same reason as you, others, I don't know why, I just don't like them. Still others bother me because of the characters involved.

I think the worst for me was the Lost Boys by Orson Scott Card, about a pedophile who kills his male victims and buries them under his house. The main character is a boy who is already dead ( you don't know that till the end) and helps lead people to the killer. When I read it, I had a young son, so it hit a little close to home, and now, having gone thru some junk in the last few years, it's even closer.

Anyway, I understand what you're saying. I think it's an escape thing; a book may not be realistic, but it can still be enjoyable. maybe it's a matter of identifying with a story, especially if it's not a happy association.

Lynnea said...

I cannot claim to have read these books, however I have watched a movie like this, for which I cannot remember the title, that I hated. Formulaic is the problem for me, can't stand that "here watch this movie and feel all mushy like I want you to" story line. So I'm with ya.

Anonymous said...

Well Meno, I hate to say it but I loved Sebold's book as I loved Joyce Carol Oates " We were the Mulvaneys " or some such thing, I am not sure about the title.Oh! and "The corrections", that one was kinda screwy as well! Maybe it's because I am from Qu├ębec and speak french and feel that by reading this kind of litterarure I am given the chance to get to know a certain portion of the american psyche. Not exactly the kind of stuff that makes ya want to warm up to your fellow man though, I'll grant you that.

Andrea Frazer said...

I can't get through The Secret Life of Bees. When the dad makes the main character stand on the glass grains? It just made my stomach churn. And the whole "I'm like a bee.. trapped in a jar... who can see the outside world but I'm afraid to break free for all the buzzing in my ear..." Blachhhh. I felt the same about Light on Snow. Ooooh... a dad bonds over the loss of his wife and kid when he finds a baby in the snow and heals a relationship with his little girl. Ah, duh. A new friend at the time gave it to me, and after I expressed my opinion (mind you, I'm normally very optimistic, and admittedly very non-well read since I've had kids) she started to cry even talking about how much the book touched her. I felt like an ass, but whatever. I guess I'm too introspective to begin with, so I don't want to see added emotional chaos.

Mignon said...

A woman suggested Lovely Bones to me, and after I expressed trepidation because of the foundation of the story, she said, "get through the first 15 pages, then the rest is wonderful." Yes, wonderfully retrospective about a child being raped. Was it well written? Is Sebold talented? I have no idea. It was about a child rape and that's all I came away with. I was apparently the wrong audience.

Bees? Meh. Not in love with it, and yes, I thought it was formulaice. Wasn't there another book with Bees in the title that was similarly formulaic about the same time?

Anyway, about Plainsong I have to disagree. Because I wasn't disturbed by the plot, I was able to focus on the writing and was so moved by Haruff's style. I like his writing. I don't even really remember the story as much as his character development and such.

But in the end - yes. Formula equals bad. Innovation and not-sickening-disturbing plot equals good.

Elliot said...

I read "Bones" and found it to be a dark fairy tale from the other side of the mirror, and no more. I occasionally write somewhat dark things in my private life (nothing about killing kids, though--I'm more interested in how people screw themselves up) and they are nothing but, in the end, an examination of how honest a soul can be to itself, when no one's looking. You don't know light until you've seen it really dark. That said, I have kids myself and would literally rip anyone to confetti if they harm them, so I didn't particularly like my journey through the book, but I had to give her props for taking on the subject.

Bob said...

I haven't read any of those books, but they aren't the type of book i would read anyway. I read mostly to escape and be entertained. (mostly mysteries, science fiction, satire right now). Personally the type of uplifting, triumph over adversity story does not appeal to me. I used to be a much more optimistic person, I guess life has bit me in the ass a few too many times for me to find solace in that kind of story. Maybe it's because that's the kind of thing that only happens to other people.

Josephine said...

No, you are absolutely not alone in your perceptions here.

I have the same feeling towards most of popular culture - tv shows, pop music, magazines.

It's all a practice in illusion.

Or, who can appeal to the most people to make the most money.

Anonymous said...

Damn. My response to Meno's post and the thread isn't cuddly.

I wonder what kind of lives have all of you lived?

And then I wonder what kind of life is there other than you take a beating and bury the dead and cobble family from what remains? I thought that this is everyone's story, although I'm probably projecting.

As far as "The Lovely Bones," I've worked with a lot of raped children. Their story and the story of "The Lovely Bones" isn't the rape, but again, what remains: the damage that is done to her parents, her sibs, her neighbors, etc...and what they choose to do. Every story worth telling is one of transformation. The dead girl in "The Lovely Bones" isn't really the story, even though she maintains sentience in Heaven. Stories belong to the living, for stories are how we heal ourselves.

So many stories measure how much we can endure. It's no wonder that some people treasure these stories, for some people, if they are to endure, most endure such losses.

Of course, there's the true story of the person who takes a beating and buries the dead and then sits alone in a shawdowed, dusty room, decade after decade. That's the story of many lives, but who wants to read it? We want to believe that we can refabricate family, no matter how it's rent.

peevish said...

There is no possible way I could ever read "The Lovely Bones". I already have nightmares about something happening to my daughters. I don't need any more fodder for my vivid imagination than the actual world provides.

About "The Secret Life of Bees", it isn't the sort of book I usually read, though I did end up liking it. Honestly, the story of misfits coming together to save themselves and each other rings true for me. This has happened in my life, and in the lives of my friends and family. So, I guess, that is something I always hold out hope for and believe in as a real possibility.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Giving hope is one thing, blowing smoke is another.

And I also find that I can put a book down and never pick it up again. I never used to do that. I felt that I had to slog my way to the end no matter how horrible the read.

Anonymous said...

Dantares asked, "Does that mean justice is more important than compassion?"

I think that revenge is more important than compassion. The dead girl in "The Lovely Bones" had the omnivision of Heaven. She saw how her rapist/murderer tried to substitute the killing of animals for the killing of kids. Still, she killed from Heaven. The author might suggest that no measures of Heaven, healing, and all-knowing reduces the desire for revenge. This might be true for her and her character, but it's not true for everyone. I've known a lot of rapists AND raped children. Whereas some of you assert that the craving for buying a gun and loading it and squeezing the trigger is all that's left to us, I have seen otherwise. I'm not saying that those who forgive don't want to squeeze a trigger or kill with an icicle. I am saying that some choose to generally crave something other than more blood.

This is what I've learned: we can survive rape. Saying so is heresy in some circles, but it's so for some. And we can survive rape without killing or maiming or castrating or a walking coma.

Anonymous said...

When I wrote that "I think that revenge is more important than compassion," I meant for some people. Gandhi suggested that the end result of unfettered revenge is a world of blind people. That is so. You see it in Israel. You see it in many African nations. Heck, you even see it on the Internet, in the verbal violence.

meno said...

I appreciate all your comments, and i am as pleased to hear from those of you who disagree w/me as from those who agree. And some of you agreed about some books and disagreed about others. Perfect.
I know my reactions are not the norm, as evidenced by the popularity of these books. This post was an attempt for me to explain, mostly to myself, why i react the way i do to these kinds of stories. I don't think i accomplished that goal very well, but i did accomplish having you all explain yourselves to me.
It looks like "The Lovely Bones" got the strongest reactions from everyone who read it, good and bad.
Good thing we are not all the same.

Princess in Galoshes said...

Just wanted to add my two cents:

I didn't love any of those books, either! The only thing I appreciated in The Lovely Bones was kind of the alternate idea of "heaven." Not that I necessarily subscribe to it, but it was nice to hear a new take on the Clouds-and-Pearly-Gates idea. But the story wasn't strong, for me.

I disliked The Secret Life of Bees for the SAME reason- it was just too tidy a bow, at the end. These are attempts at making the creative best of tragic events, and while different, neither felt like a complete story to me. They both felt too unrealistic and romanticized.

So I resented being presented with the awful situations at the beginning, without a realistic ending. Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

meno: "Good thing we are not all the same."

Amen to that, sister.

LazyLazyMe said...

Look, content is never the issue it's the writing that matters.

Lolita is one of the best books written. Cement Garden isn't bad. Whatever schlock crime fiction is in the bestseller list at the moment.

To paraphrase Bill Hicks, either it's good or it's a piece of shit.

This propensity for the sentimentalisation of characters by allowing the protaganists to comment from beyond the grave is just a device. Either it's well done or it ain't.

As for the justice vs. compassion thing, you really mean 'punitive justice', the admission of punishment. Not my philosophy but hey, whatever gets you through the night.

meno said...

princess, By god, i think you nailed it. "I resented being presented with the awful situations at the beginning, without a realistic ending." Yes. These endings are not impossible, but extremely unlikely.

holly :)

lazy, A great writer can take not much and make it into something great. Tying up the plot strings up in an unbelievably neat bow is not great writing.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I had trouble with the rape in The Lovely Bones, and had to set it down. I picked it up later, thouht it as ok, until the end. Waaaaay too neat and almost, dare I say it?, cute.

I liked the structure of Bees, but the characters bonding as they did was too much for me to swallow.

peevish said...

Okay, here's a question for you all. Must an ending be realistic in order for you to enjoy a book? Do any of you enjoy reading for escape? I read lots of books which are completely unrealistic (Jasper Fforde, J.K.Rowling, and Philip Pullman for example) or biographies about other people's lives which have absolutely no bearing on my own, and I accept them on their own terms. Either I like the story and the way it is told, or I don't. I hasten to add that I'm not trying to defend any of the books we've been discussing here. I just wonder if any of us hold some genres to a higher standard than others? I mean, S.F. and mystery novels can be so annoyingly formulaic and sappy, and yet still be enjoyable. Thoughts? And my apologies if I'm hijacking!

meno said...

nancy, cute. and what a thing to say about a book that starts with a rape and murder.

lisa, excellent question. No, not everything i read must end realistically. I read science fiction and mystery and all kinds of other brain rot. But i don't hold those books in reverence for their "life lessons" either. So i must hold some genres to a higher standard.

Anonymous said...

lisa: "I just wonder if any of us hold some genres to a higher standard than others? I mean, S.F. and mystery novels can be so annoyingly formulaic and sappy, and yet still be enjoyable."

Oh, yeah! I hate the shifting standards.

Anonymous said...

I'm coming in late but I wanted to say that I read both The Lovely Bones and The Secret Life of Bees. I could barely get through Secret Life of Bees because of exactly what you described. I found it dull and easily predictable or just too saccharin.

On the other hand, my twelve year old daughter picked it up, read it in an afternoon and loved it. I realized after that that the book really did read like something written for a pre-teen. I probably would have adored it when I was twelve too.

As for The Lovely Bones, I have to admit that other than the too-tidy ending, I was completely moved by it. I loved the premise that she could witness the lives of her family and friends after her death. I enjoyed the way Sebold fleshed out each of her family members and how they dealt with the tragedy. The beginning of the story was horrible and painful to read, but I got through it. It was worth it for me.

This was a wonderful thread to read through! You ladies all sound so well-read and express your thoughts beautifully.

meno said...

greentshirt, i was just wondering where you were yesterday. Glad that you commented. I would guess that Bees would appeal to a young girl. I hadn't thought of that. maybe i'll see if Em would like it, if i haven't sold it back to Half Price Books yet.

urban-urchin said...

The thing I did like about Lovely Bones was the way that it shows the wave of destruction left by the seemingly singular act of a rape/murder. I also appreciated the fact that she realistically portrayed what happens to many couples after the death of a child- they split up as the staying together is too painful of a reminder. There but for the grace of God... I really thought the whole channeling herself through the girl so she could have sex with her childhood friend was gratitous and really really dumb.

Sebold's other book "Lucky" also deals with rape as she is a survivor of rape and it has colored everything in her world. Picking up the pieces and working out who you are after an assault is a daunting task, and her methods of doing so- even years later- I applaud as a way to allow others insight into this horrific crime.

Mrs. Cleaver said...

Totally understand your feelings of "The Lovely Bones", especially having a daughter and knowing the subject matter -- won't even open the covers!

I had the good fortune to not read the pages of The Secret Life of Bees, but to listen to it on tape each morning in my car. My drive to work is 50 minutes each way, and "reading" books this way passes the time. I loved this story mainly because it was narrated by what sounded like a 14-year-old southern girl with a voice like warm honey. It was such a pleasant listening experience, I was actually disappointed when it ended. Just reading the words on the page might not have given this story the life it needed.