Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Disappointing Books

It's tax morning in America. Who else out there feels grumpy? I don't have any particular reason for feeling this way. Some minor reasons, perhaps--Eleanor is in the final two weeks of rehearsals for A Midsummer Night's Dream (she's in the group of players, the Wall, which is funny because she's tall), and that further complicates our after-school round of homework, animal care, and soccer practice. She and I, who need a lot of sleep, are a little low on sleep after Avenue Q on Sunday night and math homework/symphony rehearsal last night. Ron is dealing with work all day and night--a student's e-mail address was used for spamming, so now all Kenyon e-mail is liable to be put on the spam list at the places we try to send it. The contractor's father went to the ER yesterday and the plumber's mother is sick, so the hole in our wall remains unattended. It's supposed to warm up today, so instead of blowing cold air into the bedroom, the hole will most likely start admitting insect hordes.

On top of all this, I read a book that disappointed me. Not just one that I didn't like,* but one that didn't live up to my expectations for it. After Marilynne Robinson wrote Housekeeping, a truly wonderful novel, she came to the University of Maryland, College Park, where I was a graduate student, to give what was billed as a reading. When I went with a group of fellow grad students, we were all deeply disappointed that she talked about some kind of political cause for an hour, and didn't say a word about her book, except that she wasn't going to talk about it. And then, years later, she wrote Gilead, which I thought was pretentious and boring.

Another kind of literary disappointment actually comes from an author thinking of a idea so wonderful that there's really no way to carry it all out. Phillip Pullman did this, with the third book about Lyra, The Amber Spyglass. He's so busy making sure all the loose ends are tidied up that there's no real narrative pull, at least for me, and that's a shame, because The Golden Compass is such a great book. Jack McDevitt has practically made a career out of thinking of fantastic and fascinating ideas that can't live up to the kind of promise they make, like in his book Ancient Shores.

Then there's the kind of disappointment that comes from enjoying a first book by an author and actually having that enjoyment diminished by a second book about the same characters. This is the disappointment I got from reading Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. The original story of Stargirl is charming and quirky and encouraging for kids (or adults) who need some extra courage to be themselves in a conformist world. Stargirl is a mysterious figure, to some extent, and that's part of her charm. You don't know exactly what motivates her, but you know she has a good heart and plays well with others. One of my favorite parts of Stargirl is when she cheers for the opposing sports team because she's afraid they'll feel bad when they're losing.

Love, Stargirl tells me more than I wanted to know about Stargirl's motives. It makes her human, which is not what her name promises. I wanted someone to look up to, a girl from the stars. The second book about her drags her down to earth and through the mud with the rest of us. It also makes her less plausible, because when she's more human, it seems even less likely that she can continue to do the interesting things she does, like claim a truly obnoxious child ten years younger than herself as a best friend. The only thing about the book that doesn't make me grumpy is that I got it out of the library and can go and chuck it back in today. It's an even bigger disappointment to find that you've actually spent money on a disappointing book.

*Recent examples of books I didn't like are Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips and The Corps of the Bare-Boned Plane by Polly Horvath--but maybe I didn't like Gods Behaving Badly because I think Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief and Anne Ursu's The Shadow Thieves are better. Also I liked Polly Horvath's Everything on a Waffle, so I had high expectations for any book by her.


harriet said...

I absolutely adored Housekeeping. It was one of those life-shifting books for me. And I had a very similar experience. I didn't think Gilead was dreadful, but it was no housekeeping. But then again, I think Robinson is a very different person than the person she was when she wrote Housekeeping. So I guess she's allowed. I think it's rarer for an author to be able to sustain our interest in the same or similar characters through multiple books with equal facility than not. I used to regularly go on author binges and I try not to do that so much now, because it almost always ends badly, usually with me losing respect for the author. And it's not really fair because who could really keep up that pace all the time? Robinson, though, was a particular shock for me, because I'd had such an emotional tie to that book and because Gilead was so very, very different.

lemming said...

Loved book X which I read in 500 grad classes. Then I met the author and discovered that he is a jerk, It was like Santa Claus all over again.

Anonymous said...

I thought 'Love, Stargirl' was a good book. I agree, it wasn't a sequel to the book. It would have been better as 'Love, Susan' (Stargirl's real name). But it was an insightful book, even though the author didn't think about the book and instead said " I'm going to write a sequel to 'Stargirl' because that was so popular and made me rich and famouser. "

Dreamybee said...

I really liked Gods Behaving Badly, so I'll have to check out the other titles you mentioned.