Reading good books is a joy. Reading duds is not. Reading when the supply of books through libraries and bookshops and second-hand outlets has been more difficult (though never impossible, unless money is also tight), is more of a commitment. Reading duds in those circumstances is downright annoying. Here is my latest parade of failures.
Leanne Shapton, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry
This is not a spoof, but it is a unique novel about a relationship, presented in the form of an auctioneer’s catalogue, solely in lot numbers, photographs, descriptions and prices. It was recommended by someone who loved it, so I bought it eagerly, and I have never been more disappointed in a book I spent good money on (second-hand). The form is interesting: the objects presented are expected to make the reader form their own impressions on what the relationship must have been like, and fill in all the unrecorded gap of sounds, physicality, touch, and what they were like as people. But nothing in the collection connected with me, or made me intrigued about the people, or gave me any sense of empathy. I could not care less about either character, and was mildly revolted by the scrappy detritus presented as the remains of their affair. It doesn’t help that readers are expected to be invested in the relationship of a New York couple with fancy jobs in publishing. This book alienated me thoroughly.
David Garnett, Up She Rises
Probably the last David Garnett novel I shall bother trying. It’s a historical novel written in the 1970s, set in a fishing community in nineteenth-century north-east Scotland, and apparently based on an episode in the life of one of his great-grandmothers. He did go to Scotland to get local colour, and someone did the research for him. It’s just not a book I would have expected from a practised novelist, with characters painted thinly in historical clothing, and modern preoccupations of the 1970s peeking out from underneath. Characters don’t behave in a nineteenth-century way. The setting may as well have been in Dorset (there is a sense that he’s trying to cram Tess of the d’Urbervilles in there) for all the interest Garnett showed in dialect, cultural background, speech patterns, etc. When the authorial voice broke in again to inform the reader of some interesting historical facts, I gave up.
Sarah Knight, Bloomsbury’s Outsider
Reader, I have been trying, but this biography of David Garnett did not pull me over to the other side. I cannot like him. It’s a good biography, but it was written for the Bloomsbury industry, which wants the blow by blow details (no pun intended) of Garnett’s encounters and relationships with Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, Stephen Tomlin, ad infinitum ad nauseum. I started skimming whole chapters looking for the information that wasn’t about Garnett’s sex life, but the remaining scraps were not enough to quell the revulsion. I don’t much care about his relationships with men; it’s what he did to women that enrages me. The double standards and hypocrisy that characterised his treatment of his first wife, were, to an extent, reversed by his second wife’s treatment of him, but it’s all such a narcissistic mess. The only parts of the book that did not flounder in apologias for bad relationships concern his work in the book trade, as a bookseller and publisher: those were genuinely useful and interesting, to me at least. I was glad to haul this massive tome (Bloomsbury Publishing outdid themselves with big print and thick paper to make a ludicrously outsized book) back to the library drop-off box.
Edith de Born, The Flat in Paris
I borrowed this from the library on the strength of a mention in the Neglected Books Page, and I wish I hadn’t (the cost of sending books back to the London Library mounts up). It’s a well written 1960 novel about a Marseille science student who goes to Paris to take her final year at the Sorbonne, sharing a flat with her rebel cousin, and getting to know her aunt and uncle, and discovering Love. But the shiny surfaces and dispassionate, unfriendly conversations are a chilly turn-off. Her (I can’t even remember her name, she’s so dull) first love affair is with a monument of masculine selfishness. The rebel cousin is a dilettante Beatnik sponging off her parents. The conversations about the philosophy of love were tedious. I could not see any reason to keep reading, except that the writing was nice. Then I checked Brad’s notes, in which he reported that de Born’s fine style had actually been polished by the wife of an English vicar, and that de Born was Viennese, writing (well enough) in her second or third language. Even considering it as a translation wasn’t enough, so this went back to the London Library.
Naomi Royde-Smith, The Delicate Situation
One of several Royde-Smith’s novels that I borrowed after reading about her in Sarah Lonsdale’s Rebel Women Between the Wars. This is the only one I can actually remember details of, even when prompted by my notes from the time: the rest have disappeared from memory, probably rightly. This one is about two Victorian sisters who help another woman who is pregnant to have her illegitimate baby. It’s so slow, and has an over-complicated set-up, and just bored me into giving up after the first chapter. For a 1930s novel the topic of illegitimacy was risky, but Royde-Smith wimped out by putting the story into the past, and a not very well realised past either. Not that that isn’t a bad strategy: Susan Tweedsmuir’s Cousin Harriet from 1957 uses the same device of a Victorian maiden lady helping a poor relation manage pregnancy and birth, and it’s probably her best novel (reprinted as a Penguin Classic, which shows its commercial success). Royde-Smith just wasn’t able to tell the story well enough.
Neil Gunn, Second Sight
I don’t often get on with Neil Gunn’s writing, and this may the last time I’ll try. Everyone in my generation in Scotland read his classic The Silver Darlings at school, and The Silver Bough is the only other title of his that I’ve kept. But I won’t bother with Second Sight. It has an interesting treatment of whether second sight is actually real, but he mashes this up with a Buchanesque Highland shooting-box mystery, 1940s socialism, a mystical white stag, and a simmering resentful passion between the ghillie and the housemaid, and it’s all just a bit too much. The stalking scenes are tremendous, the politics are good history, the upper-class soul-searching across the class divide is all good but I was exhausted and annoyed by the time I got to the end.
See also: A Run of Bad Reading Luck, Three Small Duds, Seven Duds for Seven Dustbins, Sorrow and Anger: Books I Couldn’t Finish Or Wished I Hadn’t Started, Do Not Read These At Home, It’s Not You, It’s Me: More Reading Disappointments, and Three Disappointments for the Dud Pile.
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