Thursday, May 9, 2013

Irritating Reads

Few things are more frustrating--literarily speaking--than bad books by good authors, and it’s been my ill luck to pick three in a row. You know the drill--the book is barely good enough to keep you reading, and even though it’s a complete waste of your precious time, there’s just enough plot, just enough mildly interesting characters to make you stick.  And all the while, you also recognize that as soon as you’ve put the thing down, you’ll curse yourself for the weak fool you are, a forlorn addict to words on a page.


The O’Briens by Peter Behrens last year was hailed by the New York Times Sunday Book Review as “a major accomplishment.” It’s not. It’s a frustrating novel that deals superficially with the lives of four generations of an Irish family, beginning in the early 1900s and ending in the 1960s.  Behrens has good style, an easy way with words, but this particular book paints two-dimensional characters that for the most part have few endearing traits, save that they work hard. They’re also drunks, debauched, wimpy on occasion and not particularly well-drawn.


The book is unsatisfying because in North American literature, few subjects are more fertile than the tales of families, more if they’re immigrants.  When well-orchestrated and choreographed--Judith Guest’s Ordinary People, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral or Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides--the history of any family is fascinating and hard to put down; the best ones, such as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, are spectacular and almost cinematographic.


Behrens is no Tolstoy. Still, his first novel, The Law of Dreams, was a pretty spectacular fictional account of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. I read it with relish after it got splendid reviews, and I was primed for another great read, which did not happen. At the end of the book, I felt as if I’d misspent quite a few hours of my life.


The same thing happened when reading Nelson DeMille’s latest, The Panther, which follows the exploits of John Corey, an irritating hero whose sense of humor is so misplaced and puerile you’ll groan. The book is set in Yemen, a country DeMille obviously dislikes with rare intensity, and deals with the search and eventual assassination of a badass terrorist who is drawn so meanly I was reminded of a mating of Boris and Cruella de Vil.


There again, the plot is just interesting enough to keep you turning the pages, though I often found myself turning them 10 at a time. I did like learning about Yemen, thought to be the Queen of Sheba’s home. Yemen is one of those countries constantly at war with itself, and the site of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000. It truly irks the hell out of me that the book debuted Number One on the New York Times hardcover fiction list. The Panther is a large book, too big by at least 150 pages of aberrant dialogue and snide writing.


And finally we come to Little Star by John Ajvide Lindqvist, a Swedish writer hailed as the scion of Stephen King. I don’t think so.  Little Star is another book with far too much space between its covers, a story that doesn’t hold water (or Akvavit, since were in the northern climes) and is irritatingly incomplete. The plot has holes a Volvo could drive through and manages to make both the Swedish police and the Swedish recording industry look like idiots. Why did I read it, you ask? In my defense, I’ve been known to read the fine print on cans of paint. With Little Star I stopped well before the ending, which was telegraphed and fell far short of expectations.


Jeez. If this keeps up, I may have to stop reading altogether.






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