Thursday, April 26, 2007

The blogging's been light, but the reading hasn't

I'm about halfway through The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing v. 1, and I feel a bit about it the way I feel about the movie "Brazil": blown away by the brilliance, but not sure I can actually stand to get through the product.

There's something about a certain kind of misery that I can't handle in books. It has nothing to do with the degree of torment, or I wouldn't have been able to have read as many Holocaust novels as blithely as I have. And more recently, I found reading Sold a riveting but relatively un-dusturbing experience--I mean, yes, I am deeply disturbed by the concept of teenage girls being sold into prostitution, and the story was very sad, and very well written, and I was completely drawn in, but somehow it didn't sicken me so I had to force myself to keep reading, which is what's happening with Octavian.

The only other book I remember this happening with was The Amulet of Samarkand, which I abandoned partway through. Something about the utter bleakness and loneliness of that child wizard's life overrode the wonderful craftsmanship of the novel, and the funny footnotes, and all that, and rendered me unable to continue.

I can't put my finger on what exactly it is about those two books that makes them so hard for me to read. Is it, for some reason, that the suffering protagonists are boys? Well, but The King of Mulberry Street and Milkweed and The House of the Scorpion all put their boy heroes through some pretty horrific paces, and I gobbled them all up without much trouble.

On the other hand, everyone has their own triggers. Here are some books that never bothered me in the least, but which other people found upsetting:
  • A student I taught some years ago was so deeply disturbed by the Dursley's treatment of Harry at the beginning of Sorcerer's Stone that she just couldn't read any more of the book.
  • A woman I know-- who has written some pretty intense fiction herself--can't stand the hopelessness of the kids' situation and the cynicism of the author in A Series of Unfortunate Events.
  • My spouse, as I've mentioned before, is deeply shaken by any book in which something Really Really Bad happens to children or their parents, which narrows the reading field considerably.
  • And one of my best friends, as a teenager, just could not bring herself to read past the first chapter of The Catcher in the Rye, because she was so mortified on Holden Caulfield's behalf when he left the team's fencing equipment on the subway.
So, maybe it's nothing particular about those two books; could be that it's just me.

In any case, I'm considering putting Octavian aside in favor of the book I'm supposed to review for my librarians' group. It's a contemporary tale about a 12-year-old runaway, and sounds practially frivolous in comparison.


web said...

I think it was Uncle Vampire that I called the best book I ever suffered through... we all have our hot spots, indeed.

DawnOfTheRead said...

I didn't now you hadn't finished the Amulet of Samarkand. I LOVE those books. Maybe they would be better on tape?

bookbk said...

Yah, Dawn, everyone but me loves those books! I guess they might be better on tape, though I don't know how that would help with the suffering-child factor; maybe I'll try them sometime.

NYC Teacher said...

Just found your blog... will be making time to read it all in the near future. :)

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Els, I couldn't get through Amulet of Samarkand, either, despite the entertaining footnotes. I don't know why-- so many people recommended the book after I enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but I tried several times. "Every book its reader and every reader his book," eh?

Heather said...

It happens to me too. Some books are so good at getting you to empathise that at the end of the book, you are drained and upset like the characters.

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