It feels like ages since I’ve written a review—and it has indeed been over a week. The reason is that I’ve been working through my pile of review copies and finding the books unsatisfactory. My policy about unfinished books is to write about them only if I have something interesting to say and none of the three books I abandoned this week seemed worthy of a full post; however, the whole logic of abandoning books is always an interesting topic, so I thought that today I would share what I’ve been giving up on and why.
And a word about review copies. There’s been a lot of conversation this past week about review copies, thanks to a letter that William Morrow sent to several bloggers, including me (although I don’t recall ever getting a book from them). The issue got coverage from the LA Times and The Guardian. There have been lots of posts about it, but one of the best and most sensible and balanced comes from Simon at Savidge Reads. For what it’s worth, I didn’t have much of a problem with the content of the letter, although asking bloggers to review a book within one month of receipt is rather a lot to ask. Unlike a lot of people, I was not under the impression that failing to review one book within the time frame would necessarily mean receiving no more books ever. I assumed that bloggers who routinely request books and never review them would no longer receive new ones, which strikes me as reasonable. However, I can see that the letter is unclear about that.
My concern with the letter was with the tone. I dislike the letter’s implication that the work of bloggers is to assist with the marketing of the books we receive. Certainly, reviewing books has a marketing effect, but a blogger’s first duty is to her readers (and perhaps to herself). Any benefit that the publisher derives from a blogger’s work is incidental. I think it’s important to retain our independence from the industry and not let publishers drive our content. My policy is to be reasonable about the number of books I accept but not to make promises. I’ve written about that before, so I won’t say more here. Now, on to the books!
The Arrogant Years by Lucette Lagnado
In The Arrogant Years, which I picked up at BEA, Lucette Lagnado writes of her mother’s young adult years in Egypt and of her own life in a community of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. It’s not a bad book at all, but after reading about a third of the book, I realized that I just wasn’t interested. My favorite memoirs tend to take a granular approach, looking at a single brief period or one specific aspect of life. (Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions are standout examples that are entirely different from each other in tone.) Lagnado is mostly interested in her and her mother’s teenage and early adult years, but her stories lack the detail and intense focus that give the best memoirs life.
There’s nothing to make this memoir feel fresh. I liked the opening anecdote, in which the high-spirited author rebels against the restrictions placed on women in her traditional synagogue, but even that story, as charming and funny as it was, doesn’t cover any new ground. I’ve read more than my share about women chafing against conservative religious views on gender, and I’ve read quite a lot of immigrant stories. It’s well-worn ground. The Egyptian setting, with her family’s exodus taking place during the turbulent 1950s, could provide something new, as I’ve read nothing about this period, but again, her approach is so broad that I didn’t learn anything more than I would from a Wikipedia article. This really isn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t good enough to hold my interest, and I’m trying not to spend time on books I’m not actively enjoying.
Holy War by Nigel Cliff
I was delighted to accept a review copy of Holy War from HarperCollins, because it brings together two fascinating topics: religion and exploration. The book, which examines the religious motivations behind Vasco de Gama’s journey to Asia, proved vexing almost from the very start. The book, like most popular nonfiction these days, lacks endnote numbers in the text, but I was willing to overlook this because it at least includes notes in the back keyed to page numbers in the text. Unfortunately, the author’s whizz-bang tour of the Middle Ages immediately set me against him. He makes the mistake of referring to the Middle Ages in Europe (although not Spain) as the Dark Ages, a term that has been out of favor among many historians for years. Cliff’s use of the term, without explanation, made me wonder about his qualifications, and upon looking into his background, I saw that his academic training is in literature and theatre, not history. Although I do believe that nonspecialists can have insights worth considering, I’m not sure I want to read about such a contentious subject as the historical conflict between Christianity and Islam from someone who isn’t a specialist. I don’t know enough about the period to read a non-expert’s view as critically as I would like.
I only read the first 50 pages of the book, and Cliff hadn’t quite gotten to his main subject when I stopped reading, so it may improve, but I just couldn’t deal with his approach. A lot of my problem goes back to my initial hesitation about the lack of numbered notes. For example, when Cliff writes of the Crusades, he describes an almost unimaginable state of horror, with a hundred thousand perishing and Crusaders wading through blood up to their ankles, their knees, or even their horses’ bridles. Upon consulting the notes, I learned that the sources of these descriptions were contemporary accounts that may in fact have been propaganda (on both sides) and that, as Cliff himself states in the notes, not all the descriptions were meant to be taken literally. To hide this crucial information in the notes seems irresponsible, and I decided I just couldn’t trust the author to provide a balanced account.
Titus Awakes by Maeve Gilmore
I received this book from Overlook Press after I expressed interest in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books at BEA. I’ve put off reading it because I disliked the third Gormenghast book, Titus Asleep, and suspected that this book—written by Peake’s wife, Maeve Gilmore, on the basis of some fragments Peake left behind at his death—would be no better. My hope was that by reading the book long after the initial spell of the first two books had worn off, I’d be better able to evaluate this book. I’m sorry to report that waiting didn’t help at all. In fact, the only thing that kept me reading for 150 pages was the hope that some of the weirdness of the original books would appear.
Titus Awakes lacks the rich prose and strong sense of place that characterized Peake’s first two books, and it doesn’t even have the aggressive weirdness of the third book. It’s dull. Titus travels from place to place, having banal adventures and inwardly whining about how he abandons everyone who cares about him. An unlikable character having boring adventures just isn’t my idea of a good read. I gather from reading some of the reviews that the book does have an interesting meta-fictional twist toward the end, but I think that twist would mostly interest hard-core Peake fans.