2023 Reading Challenge

2023 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 5 books toward her goal of 265 books.

I Wanted to Like Them, I Swear I Did!

It has happened again. I read a synopsis of a book that sounded fascinating, ordered, received and read said book, and… (wait for it) … I hated it. Sigh. This doesn’t happen all the time, mind you, but it has happened often enough to frustrate me (and to scare me to death – what if that is what happens when people read synopses of my books, assuming I ever finish any of them). Eek, she said.

There are a number of reasons that seemingly good books go bad. Probably the biggest one for me is the writing. A great idea is a fabulous thing, and no book can be truly great without one. However, a great idea is not enough to make a truly great book. The translation of that idea – the way the bones of the concept are shaped into the entirety of the story – is also an essential component.

It makes me sad for authors (and readers, teehee) when a great and/or very interesting idea does not pan out into a great and/or very interesting book. It also occasionally makes me angry at authors, because there are times when it feels like the author gave up on the concept or took the lazy way out. And perhaps most frustrating of all, sometimes it seems as though the author simply stopped writing because either s/he was sick and tired of looking at the book (something I can empathize with, but still…) or because a deadline approached and/or passed and they had to turn something, anything in to their publisher.

Not all of the fault always lies with authors though. I strongly suspect some of the time this is an editorial issue. So I shall, in the spirit of fairness, share some of my anger and spread it in the general editor-direction. After all, it seems to me that it is an editor’s job to help an author recognize when their story is going off its moorings – something that I have no doubt can be very difficult (if not next to impossible) for an author to pick up on by themselves. After all, no mother thinks her own baby is ugly, right? I believe the same is likely true for authors. We all believe (Want to believe? Need to believe? Whatever…) that our story is as magnificently stupendous, as incredibly world-altering, as amazing a feat of literary skill as ever graced humanity. If we didn’t believe this, why on earth would we spend so much damn time working on the damn things? (teehee again)

I have compiled a list of some of the books I believe were the greatest disappointments in terms of promise vs. delivery. I normally don’t give reviews or synopses in my Top Ten lists, but today I am going to in an attempt to explain why I believe these belong on the disappointment list. I will be most curious to hear if anyone else has read any of these and what they thought. I suspect that a number of them will be generally familiar and likely to spark some controversy. That’s okay, I like hearing when people disagree on book things. I doubt I will change my mind and/or give any of these another try though… J

I Wanted to Like It, But Just Did Not…

  • Flatlandby Edwin A. Abbott – This was one of my finds on my recent short-novels hunt. I was intrigued by the premise – a comparative story of different lands, each of which features a different number of dimensions – and by the fact that its author had written the book in the 1800s, long before Einstein’s theory of relativity and theories of time as the fourth dimension were common parlance. It was written by a non-mathematician and non-scientist. And it was only 75 pages long! I figured I had all the ingredients for a great, interesting, informative – and above all else, quick – read. Not so, she said. It took me forever to finish this extraordinarily short book, and it was a huge disappointment. It was rambling, overly technical (I do grudgingly have respect for this aspect, even if I did not enjoy the book overall), and (no pun intended) oddly flat.
  • The Gospel According to the Son by Norman Mailer – I had heard ravings about Norman Mailer and the controversy around his books for so long, that I finally felt I had to read something of his just to feel like I wasn’t missing the boat. Well, I don’t know if I just picked the wrong one or what, but I do not understand what all the fuss is about. It is a self-proclaimed autobiographical story of Jesus’ life. There have been tremendous arguments about the validity, taste, and appropriateness of the story. The controversy alone made me want to read it. The controversy may have made for good reading; the book did not. Mailer’s writing style was not to my taste at all. The book felt contrived, like he was deliberately trying to provoke rather than story-tell. Now, admittedly, he may have been – in which case he was successful in his own goal. But even so, to me as a reader, that resulted in a very unsatisfying reading experience.
  • Mirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire – The Borgias in a spin on the Snow White/evil stepmother story – how could this fail to be interesting? Especially in the hands of someone who spun the Wizard of Oz story on its head so well in Wicked? Alas, alack – this one was as disappointing as the Wicked sequel, Son of a Witch (see below). It was just, well, dull. It felt half-hearted and was slow-paced. It seems to me an author would have to actively work to make the Borgias, with all their drama and backstabbing and intrigue, boring. Well, work he did.
  • Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs – I heard so much buzz about this that I had to try it. I generally enjoy memoirs, was prepared for some difficult stories, and expected David Sedaris-like wry bitterness. What I got was a headache. I just couldn’t find myself engaged. Still don’t know entirely why – he is not a bad writer by any means, but I just never connected with him and the whole book left me feeling utterly disinterested.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – This is one that I will likely take grief for, but I can’t help it – I did not like it at all. I love the concept – quirky end-of-the-world-ness, random characters, coolly bizarre sci-fi bent. But the writing bored me, the characters were either whiny or self-indulgent or caricatures, and the “plot” felt flimsy. How on earth this became a cult classic with sequels is utterly beyond me…
  • Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire – This is probably one of the biggest disappointments I have ever encountered. I LOVED Wicked. LOVED IT. Yes, loved it so much it deserves all capital letters. Twice. I wrote my law school entrance essay on the importance of perspective shift and how reality is affected by where one stands in the world. I loved Elphaba from page one. I read it and reread it. I could not wait for the sequel. And then I read the sequel. Wow. How can an author who wrote such a dynamic world populated with such interesting and original characters – characters who retained their resemblance to the iconic selves in the original Baum books, yet were entirely new and original themselves – produce a sequel so lackluster, so monotonous, so completely and utterly and dreadfully boring? (And then he produced another. Which we won’t even mention. Seriously.)
  • The Endby Lemony Snicket – This, to me, is why series should not be allowed to contain double-digit numbers of books. The first handful of Series of Unfortunate Events books were phenomenal. They were clever, witty, well-written, and played with language in a way very few children’s books had previously. The Baudelaire orphans were sympathetic without being pathetic; their troubles were serious while remaining entertaining; their villain encounters were scary without being overwhelming (and they remained oddly light-hearted for death-threats – no small feat, that!). And then, somewhere in the middle, the series started feeling forced. And it kept doing so, book after book, because the author (publisher?) had promised unlucky thirteen books. And unlucky book thirteen proved to be. It did not answer all of the outstanding questions (or even most of them), did not close loopholes or tie up loose ends, did not entertain to a fraction of the early books in the series. This was one end that did NOT come soon enough.
  • Mary Poppins by Mary Travers – Who doesn’t love the movie with Julie Andrews? Now normally I know better than to love a book because of a movie (or vice versa), but on this one I really thought I was on solid ground. It was a surprisingly flat read though, and Mary P. turned out to be a lot snarkier and less fun than I thought she would be. Even the scenes that have made it into every movie/musical translation (like the tea party on the ceiling) were slow-going and filled with drudgery. Stick with Julie on this one…
  • The Journal of Dora Damage: A Novel by Belinda Starling – An intriguing and unusual premise holds so much promise. Blasé writing, bland storytelling, and a lack of editorial cutting killed this book for me. It seemed like a recipe for success – historical fiction (nearly always a hit for me), a love of books (the story is about a bookbinder and his family), a woman forced to make her way in a man’s world for which she was utterly unprepared (after her husband takes ill, she is are forced to take on pornographic book production to stay in business)… In theory it should have been very interesting. In practice, it was monotonous, the “conflict” was boring, the characters were surprisingly unsympathetic. Quite the dud, all in all.
  • Outrageous Fortune by Tim Scott – How can a book with “Don’t you hate it when this happens? 1-800-AARRGHH” on the cover turn out so horribly dull and uninteresting? The book opens with thieves stealing the main character’s house and includes a motorcycle gang called The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and an utterly unflagging encyclopedia saleswoman. It sounded zany and random and fun and clever and witty. It was certainly random – as for the rest of the adjectives, not so much. For all of its weirdness, it felt oddly formulaic (hard to explain, since the story was pretty out there, but true nonetheless) and I really had to slog through to get to the end – which I did, because I kept believing it had to get better. It didn’t.

19 comments to I Wanted to Like Them, I Swear I Did!

  • I find that usually books that I wanted to like and didn’t were my fault because of high expectations from previous works of the author.

    I think your list says the same thing.

    One book which stands out recently is Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel (http://manoflabook.com/wp/?p=1056).

    • I totally agree on Beatrice and Virgil. I was such a huge fan of Life of Pi (I’ve even taught it to my students) that I had huge hopes for B&V. Same thing happened with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. Loved Poisonwood Bible. Hard to surpass.


    • Hmm. Not sure if my last reply worked, so I’m trying again. Anyway, I totally agree on Beatrice and Virgil. I was a huge fan of Life of Pi (I’ve even taught it to my students), but I was sorely disappointed in B&V. Same thing happened with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. Loved Poisonwood Bible, but a tough act to follow for this reader.

      • Thanks Paul – I have actually not read Life of Pi OR Poisonwood Bible, despite heavy recommendations from people I usually trust for suggestions. I could not get into the writing of either for some reason… I hate when an author’s subsequent books (or sometimes their early ones chronologically, but subsequent to me) doesn’t resonate with me.

  • That indeed happens a lot for me, MoLB. It really is all about expectations – sometimes they are based on the strength of the premise, sometimes on previous work, sometimes on someone I trust’s recommendation. Regardless of the source, the failure to meet those expectations never fails to leave me feeling particularly disappointed…

    I don’t know Beatrice and Virgil – will have to look it up now, altho based on the reference, not sure I will give it a go! 😉

  • Autumn

    I take heat when I mention I didn’t quite care for Wuthering Heights. I had this expectation of it being this beautiful love story and quite honestly, I was beyond disappointed.

    I didn’t feel the connection of Heathcliff and Catherine at all in the beginning. I know, I know, it is a classic that we are all supposed to love. It took me longer than usual to finish the book because of the language at times, and my overall disinterest of the characters. I was pissed when I found out she died half way through the book. I thought to myself, so now I have a half of a book without the leading lady…this sucks.
    How some classics become classics will forever remain a mystery to me.

    • I have never been able to read that one either Autumn! I’ve tried and the writing just doesn’t grab me – that combined with all of the reviews/commentary I’ve read lead me to think I would hate Heathcliff AND Catherine!! I have a really difficult time with a book when I hate the main characters/find them utterly unsympathetic – and all I’ve heard is that she is whiny and he is a jerk… I agree – I don’t see how this one made it’s way into the canon either!! Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    • I hope your dislike of Wuthering Heights doesn’t stop you from reading the other Bronte sisters’ books.
      I haven’t read Wuthering Heights yet but I LOVED Anne Bronte’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” It actually outsold Wuthering Heights in sale when it first came out. So sad that it isn’t more well-known!

      • I read an interesting (altho not all that well-written, I must say) fictionalized version of the Bronte sisters’ lives not that long ago, so actually did know that Anne’s book was better received altho I haven’t read it – going to have to look for it now, thanks!

        • It’s an actual love story (not it’s only aspect though). I never got the impression Wuthering Heights was supposed to be a beautiful love story. As someone said, their relationship isn’t ideal and the leads are like “two parasites feeding off each other’s evilness.”

  • Oh, I hear you. My biggest disappointment lately is Dan Simmon’s The Terror – based on the premise, I ought to love that book, but I got halfway through and just couldn’t see any reason to keep going.

    Although I love Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I understand it is not exactly a book for everyone, and I won’t give you (much) grief about it. I second Wuthering Heights, though. I hate that book.

    • Phew – glad to hear I won’t take too much grief Jen… 😉 I have honestly never found anyone who LOVED Wuthering Heights; a few people have said it was ok, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement for a “classic” now is it??

  • Of the ones I’ve read in your list, I totally agree. Life of Pi was another huge disapointment for me. I’m not good with plodding narrative.

  • I’m glad I’m not the only one! Swayed by a respected book bloggers review I went for ’13 rue Therese’ by Elena Shapiro lately and it was a DISAPPOINTMENT SANDWICH. http://www.disenchanted.com

  • I know Dana and Lucy – isn’t it aggravating in the extreme when that happens?? You set out all excited about something new, with good recommendations and endorsements, and then it just plain sucks… I hate it!! Especially because the time you waste trying to give it a chance is time you could have spent reading something better! 🙂

  • […] to bring up the topic of books that everyone was supposed to love that she just didn’t (entitled, “I Wanted to Like Them, I Swear I Did.”).  Finally, she was kind enough to feature me on her blog as a guest with my post “Why do I like […]

  • I’ve never read the Series of Unfortunate Events strangely enough because it came out while I was in its age demographic. I blame my library because it was always on loan to someone else. I totally agree that series should not contain double-digit number of books unless they are stand alone (like the Discworld series) – I just don’t believe you can stretch a story that far and still be good critically unless it’s fantasy.

    “Wicked” gets a mixed reaction from me. The story was bizarre to me but it was well-written. I think it has to do more with my personal taste than actually the writing or plot. Thanks for the warning about it’s sequels. 🙂

    One of the comments spoiled “Wuthering Heights” for me D: and I was (am still) going to review it!

    • Yeah – the “Wicked” story is wild, but I liked that and liked the writing too… I felt that both story and writing in the sequels were weak, which stinks. and sorry about the comment on WH!!

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