What we blog about when we blog about books

I've noticed that Thursdays tend to be a little light on the posting here in Barrelhouse world, which got me to thinking: do we really not have much to say about books? If that were true, it would be a tad disheartening, since we are, after all, supposed publishers of literature (or at least stories and poetry and essays -- I'll leave the 'literature' tag for someone outside the magazine to decide on).

The truth -- or at least my guess at the truth -- is that we have plenty of things to say about books, but maybe they're a little tougher to write about for us than music or movies or laughably bad reality television. Because books are actually very close to our heart-shaped places (as anyone who's ever submitted their work to a literary magazine knows, editors don't have actual hearts, just approximations).

When I watch a bad TV show, I may feel like I've just lost a half-hour of my life, but it doesn't make me angry. It's my own fault, really, for tuning in. What did I expect, after all, from something called Beauty and the Geek? And if I go online and criticize said show, what's really at stake? Everyone knows it's stupid: it's not as if I'm going out on a limb.

But when I read a book, I'm much more liable to be disappointed, or even angry, because my expectations are much, much higher, whether that's fair or not. And I also know there are a lot of people in the world who are smarter than me, so quite possibly I've disliked a book just because I've missed its point completely, or was a lazy reader, or my brain is clogged with too much malted hops and bong resin.

But I'm going to go out on a limb with my feelings on this one, which I just finished: Home Land, by Sam Lipsyte. I really wanted to like this book from the moment I picked it up at the local bookstore and read the back jacket: the novel's narrator, Lewis Miner (aka Teabag) is 20 years removed from high school and comparing his loserish life to the lives he reads about in every issue of Catamount Notes, the high school alumni magazine published by his former principal. So far so good, I thought.

Then, Test #2: I opened the book up and read a few pages. The first chapter is a letter Miner, the narrator, is writing to Catamount Notes, detailing exactly how his life has failed him (or how he has failed himself). And it's hilarious. Spot on.


But, ultimately, the book disappointed me. The premise -- that what we're reading are letter-form "updates" mailed first to the ex-principal, then to an old classmate of Teabag's who takes over editorial duties for the Notes when the principal loses his marbles -- began to wear thin after a couple chapters. It limits the voice, for one: the first "letter" is laugh-out-loud funny, the fourth or fifth a bit tiresome, like a stand-up comic who doesn't know when to get off stage.

And I started to have doubts about the plausability of the whole thing. This is all a letter? I'd think, as suddenly full scenes started to appear, with dialogue and sensory observations and then, every so often, a brief direct address to remind us of the book's conceit. It was as if Lipsyte had, at the very outset, put himself into a very small box by choosing a clever form and then had to either a) live and die by the few items contained in the box, or b) stick his arms out and start grabbing things from outside the box and hope no one notices.

Well, I noticed. And it disappointed me. I'm sure Lipsyte will get over it -- he doesn't need my approval, after all, and even though I wasn't so keen on this book, I liked bits and pieces well enough that I may pick up one of his others.

So, Barrelhousers, what else are we reading? Anything good? It's probably never too early to pre-order the forthcoming memoir from that Runaway Bride lady. It's sure to be the feel-good story of the year.

1 comment:

TMC said...

Just finished reading two books by Pat Barker, thanks to a recommendation from Jim Hynes, who thought they might help me in working on my own shitty book.

The most lasting impression I have from the second book I read, "Blow Your House Down," is disappointment and/or rage. I know you're shocked, Mike, but I was pissed off. It's an interesting book, a short thing (about 175 pages) that chronicles the lives of British prostitutes being terrorized by a modern-day Jack the Ripper. And Barker does a great job of really making these women sympathetic, but not too sympathetic or one-dimensional. I was really into the characters, interested in what would happen with them, waiting for an exciting climax (terrible pun quite intended), and so on... and then, nothing.

The last twenty-five pages introduce a completely new character, another woman whose life is tangentially related to the prostitutes, and it follows her travails as they kind of barely relate to the whole Jack the Ripper thing. All but one of the prostitute characters is forgotten, never to be mentioned again, and the other one engages in some perfunctory smalltalk in the supermarket. And that's it. It's rare for me to throw a book down in disgust, but this one got that treatment. It was really good, and then such a letdown. I finished it two days ago, and I'm still mad.

Other hurdles in both books: dealing with early 80s British street slang, written in gutter trash dialect.

"Union Street" was pretty good, anyway. Depressing, but good.