It seems like everyone comes out with a list of must-read books each summer. And since I’m clearly too late to jump on that bandwagon, I thought I’d do it up a little differently and give you some suggestions of books which are very, very good but which made me rather unhappy while I was reading them. These are books which were well written or technically astute enough to break through my misery, distaste, or other negative reaction to convince me they were still awfully good books.
And a warning: this post isn’t just a series of book reviews. I’ve often said that one reason I just can’t fall in love with e-readers, though I recognize their convenience and efficiency and blah blah blah, is that my relationship with books is totally different from just information-gathering. The following three books, like any book I have a strong response to, are ones with which I had relationships. And like a lot of the relationships we have in our youth, these intimacies went, at times, badly.
1. Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
This was a book that I — no doubt like countless other teenagers — had to read in a high school English class. And since I read it a little over twenty years ago and vowed I never would again (and so far haven’t), I’m going to admit that I’m perhaps not the best judge of whether the writing is actually excellent.
It was my senior year, and I was so excited to have Mr. Charles Novo for my English teacher. Not only was he widely considered one of the best in the department, he was flexible enough to realize that Creative Writing was going to be my specialty and let me do creative assignments for some of my papers, as long as I still accomplished the important goals. (And, by the way, the fact that there is more than one way to reach an objective is one of the two most important things I ever learned in my whole academic career, so thanks, Chas.)
That English class was unusual for me because some of the texts we read were contemporary novels and so weren’t necessarily part of the stuffy western canon, but they all had literary merit and something valuable to teach. I have always loved reading, and I enjoyed the books we read then.
Except for this one.
This book remains the only text I’ve ever been assigned in an English class that I read but refused to participate in. And why? It saddened me well beyond reason.
This is the novel — and a movie was made of it, too — upon which Metallica’s song “One” was based. It’s a first-person sometimes-stream-of-consciousness narrative told from the perspective of a young man, a soldier, who has lost all his limbs. And his face, too. And his ears. But his consciousness is, more or less, intact. So while he cannot, for most of the novel, communicate with anyone at all or perceive anything, visually or auditorily, around him, he can be acutely aware of his imprisonment within his own tortured mind. The entire frontstory takes place inside his head while he lies incapacitated in a hospital. When he finally does figure out how to communicate with the nurses he feels moving his ruined body — by beating out Morse Code with the back of his head against his pillow — the nurses don’t understand it.
Sound like a ferocious piece of propaganda? Of course it is; protest literature often has that potential. But that doesn’t make it any less effective at conveying the absolute horror that war can be, or what an incredible hell it would be to live trapped inside one’s own mind without any way to interact with the world while being aware of this circumstance.
At one point in the story the soldier remembers Kareen, his girlfriend back home, and how he had held her before he went off to war as she worried for his safety, and that now he can never hold her in his arms to comfort her again. Oh, Kareen, my arms, my arms, Kareen, my arms…
I couldn’t stop thinking that in a few months, two different universities — and 1800 miles — were going to separate me from my boyfriend whom I’d been dating since we were freshmen. I sobbed until I got so mad at Mr. Novo for making me read this book that I threw it against the wall.
The next day in class, I sat with my arms crossed and the book, unopened, on my desk. No paper or pen out to take notes, no highlighter, nothing. I stared angrily out the window or at the bricks of the wall underneath the chalkboard and refused to talk.
About ten minutes into class, Mr. Novo came over to me, a slightly perplexed look on his face, and politely asked, “Miss Jamail, would you like to share your opinion on that passage with the class?”
“No, I would not,” I said with perhaps less grace than I could have.
He sat down in the empty chair in front of my desk, his copy of the book in one hand and a pencil in the other. “Is there a reason why?” he asked in his kind baritone.
“I hate this book. It makes me sad and angry and I hate it. I hate that I had to read it, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
At the time, I couldn’t remember ever having had a negative reaction to a book before, and I resented this book for making me hate it so much, but mostly, for breaking my heart.
Mr. Novo, a smart man who had a daughter a year older than I, said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“Well, I do,” I muttered angrily.
“Okay then,” he said and stood up and continued on with the class. Although he gave me sidelong glances from time to time, he didn’t bother me anymore about participating and never seemed to hold my reaction against me, and I never acted that way in a class again. Perhaps subconsciously, I appreciated both his distance and the fact that he cared about my reaction, and maybe this is part of what drove me to excel in his class the rest of the year. I like to think that he taught me by example how to be, in the future, more understanding of my own students.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time, rather than read the material and share their visceral reaction to it — which I would respect even if I didn’t agree with, because at least they would be engaging with the coursework — some of my students just shut down and refuse to do the work at all.
Times like those, I wish I were Mr. Novo, because he would know how to reach those kids.
2. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Several years ago, when I was on maternity leave, my department chair asked me to read a book to consider it for our summer reading program for our 10th graders. This isn’t an uncommon request, and I was happy to do it, and then she told me the book was Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.
I’d heard of this book and avoided it. I knew it was about an adolescent girl who was abducted and murdered, and that the book was told from her first-person perspective as she looked down on her former world from the afterlife. I had heard that the book was difficult stuff. But what was I going to do, refuse? Not likely, so I read it.
I read it in two days. I read it sitting on the couch all day long with an alternately sleeping or nursing babe in my arms. I read it all night long, again holding my infant daughter. The book was incredibly compelling, beautifully written, and utterly horrifying in most of its aspects.
When I was in grade school, there was a spate of kidnappings in our area, and notices came home from school to our parents about safety and stranger danger before it was called that. My younger brother and sister were more than a handful, and anxiety disorder runs in the family, and children were being stolen from movie theater restrooms. You can imagine the way I responded to this: with fear. I never felt sanguine about my siblings being out in the world with only one parent unless I was there, too; the both of them together were too much to handle for Just Mom or Just Dad. (Of course this was ridiculous of me, but I didn’t know any better.)
I nursed this anxiety for their safety into adulthood, and even now, when my youngest sibling is in her thirties, I still feel the occasional twinge; I was apoplectic with worry the first time she, a singer/songwriter, went on tour by herself.
So I was ticked off the whole time I read The Lovely Bones. Terrified for my own child’s safety, not just when she would be older but even right then, right now, always. And the girl in the book, Susie Salmon, is abducted, raped, and murdered right there in the first chapter. The writer in me read this and thought, Way to introduce the conflict right off the bat. The brand-new parent in me read this and thought, Why in the hell did Jeanne, who is my friend, ask me to read this book? The professional in me read this and thought, Can I ask my students to read this? Will it help them be more aware of their surroundings if they do?
I kept reading, and the writing was really beautiful — smart, even. About halfway through the novel, the protagonist, who has been watching her family’s disintegration since her unsolved disappearance, witnesses her younger sister (now older than Susie was at the time of her death) lose her virginity in a very tender way. She comments, “At fourteen, my sister sailed away from me into a place I’d never been. In the walls of my sex there was horror and blood, in the walls of hers there were windows.”
I threw the book across the room.
But I also finished it, the next day, because such redeeming things happen in this story. I don’t want to list them all here, in case you haven’t read the book (or seen the movie, which I did not, though I like a lot of Peter Jackson’s and Stanley Tucci’s and Mark Wahlberg’s work) and you want to. Suffice it to say, by the time I reached Susie’s blessing to the reader on the last page, I was weeping. I was grateful I’d read the book. But I told my department chair I wasn’t ever going to teach it, no matter how good it was. I asked her how she could have asked me to read such a book when I was postpartum.
She seemed genuinely surprised by my reaction, but she didn’t argue, just thanked me for reading it and telling her what I thought.
I began to wonder whether my reactions to certain books were maybe a little emo.
3. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
I thought Grossman’s prose in The Magicians was sublime. It might be worth noting that when I read it, I had the flu. But it’s still a really good book, since about 90% of the people I know who have read it (and that’s quite a few people who are capable of discerning good literature from shlock) also found it to be excellent.
The other reason I loved this book is because the story is so interesting. (Now before you say, Oh, it’s just a bunch of disaffected college kids blah blah blah rip-off of Narnia anyway yadda yadda, please note how a small group of discontented and bored young adults can turn into an incredibly compelling story: The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which holds up beautifully even if the second time you read it is ten years after you’ve moved beyond college.) I say The Magicians is interesting, at least for me, because it pays homage to a deep-seated human craving for magic while still confronting head-on the misery such power can bring. The need for magic — however one defines it — is so ingrained in our species, is there any wonder we have magic realism? comic books? fairy tales? speculative fiction? Harry Potter? Narnia? sacred texts?
The story of Quentin and his school mates, as they learn how to navigate a magical world which would be parallel to ours if not for quirky inconsistencies such as time flowing at a different rate of speed, is gripping, nostalgic, really funny, and ultimately bleak. And Grossman does a great job of not taking himself too seriously, of not even trying to hide the fact that his Fillory is based entirely on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. It’s as if the Pevensie siblings grew up and found themselves some friends in a bleak modern world, and they all had to resort to drug abuse, promiscuity, and other hazards of impudence and idleness to cope. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The book really is excellent, though when I finished it, I felt so deflated I had to read Antonya Nelson’s In The Land Of Men to cheer myself up a bit. But no books were thrown at anything in the reading of this novel, and I’m going to call that progress.
Enjoy your reading lists. I wish you all a long and happy summer.