Sometimes I read books I love (like the recent debut novel Idaho by Emily Ruskovich), sometimes I read books I quickly realize I do not like and I stop reading after a few chapters or even pages, and sometimes there are books that fall in between these two poles. They are ok books – good enough to keep me reading, but not enough for me to recommend them to others. Why read a book that feels just so-so? There are a variety of reasons.
Perhaps it is written by an author whose previous work I admired, as with Jami Attenberg’s new novel All Grown Up. Attenberg is clearly a skilled writer and storyteller. I was rewarded in this book by pages here and there that soared. For example, after the protagonist’s mother, a life-long New Yorker, moves to the wilds of New Hampshire, she asks her daughter on the phone to tell her about her day in New York. What follows is one long brilliant paragraph that succinctly sums up the essence of the city. But in most of the book, I felt I was reading a series of disconnected vignettes. It’s a very short book, and I wish she had filled the story out more. (Note: I felt the exactly opposite when I recently read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. I find the gaps she creates in her character’s telling of her story and her roundabout approach to be brilliant!)
Another recent read was a just-published debut novel called What To Do About the Solomons by Bethany Ball. I was intrigued by it being about an Israeli family, because I enjoy reading books that take place in Israel (armchair travel for me), and by the blurb on the front cover from Brian Morton, a writer I admire (read his novel Florence Gordon). A “multi-generational family saga,” each chapter of the book is about a different member of the Solomon family. The book moves from the kibbutz in the Jordan Valley of Israel where the family is from, to different cities in Israel, to Los Angeles, where the younger son eventually moves with his American wife. The chapters hop about in time as well, back and forth through the generations with no apparent order or organization. (Can you tell I didn’t like this?)
I enjoyed the exposure to Israeli life and the Hebrew words sprinkled throughout the book. But I didn’t enjoy the story or the reading experience. I kept going to the end because I kept thinking the author would reveal some guiding organizational principal or some central point she was trying to make. I’m not sure I ever found that, unless it was: these people will do very well on their own messing up their own lives, thank you very much.
And finally there was Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s book Harmless Like You, another debut. Some debuts display writing of great skill (Ruckovich’s) and introduce us to writers whose work we immediately know we want to follow, and whose work we expect will continue to be consistently good. Other debuts may interest and intrigue us and present us with an enjoyable read, but we come away with the sense that the author has written their one great book, and that there will not be an Act 2. (I thought this when reading the wonderful The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer and, sure enough, she has not written another book since that book was published in 2007.) This debut fell somewhere in between. The writer is clearly skilled, and the story is of interest and yet, ultimately, there was something missing. Yuki, the central character, a Japanese girl who comes to New York as a child with her parents, stays when they return to Japan, half-heartedly pursues the life she believes she was meant to have as an artist, and winds up deserting her own child in the process, left me and other readers wondering: Was she really a talented artist? Was all the fuss about her talent worth it?
I have finished all these books and am ready to move on. I need next to read a great, immersive book. Suggestions please?