All the books I cannot read

Nice cover. Too bad about the insides.
Nice cover. Too bad about the insides.

I might regret this post. Not just because some of you are going to think I am nuts and incapable of appreciating a good novel if it bit me on the butt. But also because I could see myself in the not too distant future picking them up, reading them, and deciding that one or both is brilliant. But when have I shied away from hyperbolic pronouncements?

I once read Anthony Doerr’s novel About Grace and found it less than, oh I don’t know, less than interesting enough to care about or remember. So it was with trepidation that I gave into the urging of various blogs and reviews and a friend or two and bought Doerr’s latest bestseller All the Light We Cannot See.  At first I was thinking I would like the book as it begins in the coastal town of St. Malo in the final throes of WWII. Then, rather too quickly it all started to feel a little too magical for my taste. Not necessarily in the literal, supernatural, sense, but in the sense that every detail was clearly going to be some illuminating, magical metaphor that would, no doubt, be extremely profound and moving. Magic rocks and special keys and secret compartments and…ugh. And then magic orphans in Germany who would most certainly have some sort of meaningful encounter with the magical blind girl in St. Malo. And it was all going to be deep, very deep. And I was going to learn something about human nature, and loss, and most importantly about myself. I couldn’t wait.

I ended up putting the book down really, really early on. Less than 20 pages in I think. So early on that I couldn’t remember what I didn’t like about the book and picked it up again a day later thinking I was going to like this WWII novel after all. And within a page I remembered why I put it down in the first place. Blergh.

beesAnd then came The Bees by Laline Paull. This one has been praised in many circles and was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize. Knowing this, I tried to let myself go and forget about the anthropomorphism of Flora 717 and the rest of her kin in the hive. As I read I couldn’t stop thinking about all the leaps of logic I was going to have to take in order to get through this one. Emma Straub in her New York Times review of the book sums up my early reaction:

At first, the reader questions everything. Is this really how bees are born? Is this how they communicate? By the middle of the book, I stopped wondering which tasks Paull had imagined and which were real, because they all seemed equally plausible.

Unlike Straub, however, I was unwilling to get beyond this part. There are two things I want to read about bees at this point in my life: 1) What sorts of flora John has planted in the garden to be a haven for native bees, and 2) That scientists have figured out definitively what is killing off bee colonies and how we can fix it. Short of that I don’t care so much. Throw in the fact that The Bees seems to be about a girl bee with a strong mommy urge and I really don’t care. You want to write a book about a rebellious bee? How about one where a boy bee has a mommy urge.

If I hadn’t just forced myself to finish How to Be Both I might have given one or both of these books another chance. But as it stands, I have no patience for either of them. There is guilt attached to this because of some of the personal testimony I have gotten from friends on both of these books. But we will just have to find other things on which we can agree.

35 thoughts on “All the books I cannot read

  1. heavenali June 15, 2015 / 1:43 pm

    I haven’t read either book but *whispers* you’re allowed to not like things other people love. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 9:44 am

      Trying not to further isolate myself from the reading mainstream. I don’t mind being an outlier, but I border on the curmudgeonly.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nadia June 15, 2015 / 2:28 pm

    I have both books, but am not sure about either one of them now. The Doerr one sounds more to my liking, but The Bees not so much. I’ve found that I tend to dislike the books that every one seems to be in love with. For some reason they never turn out to be my cup of tea. Oh well.


    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 9:45 am

      Well, this time I was able to factor out the “too much hype” effect, but was left not liking them anyway.


  3. Frances Evangelista (@nonsuchbook) June 15, 2015 / 2:54 pm

    I don’t think you are crazy at all! I couldn’t finish either of these books! I got on board for the Doerr during the Tournament of Books because everyone was going gaga for it. And tried three times to read it! I kept falling asleep. And The Bees was available for a song for download and I loved the cover and decided to try because of my love of beekeeping if nothing else but… It felt like going into someone’s messy home. I just wanted to clean it up. And then go read some lovely nonfiction texts on bees.


    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 9:47 am

      Now I really feel I am in good company. And your interest in contemporary fiction makes me feel I’m not just being grumpy.


  4. LauraC June 15, 2015 / 9:35 pm

    I liked “All the Light…” quite well. It was different from my normal reads. I think that I like current, “popular” books more than you do. The Girl on the Train and Hausfrau were both okay. However, I frequently can’t get into the latest craze: I gave up on Gone Girl on page 2, and I just couldn’t get into Wolf Hall. I haven’t even tried The Bees and have no interest in doing so. Too many books to read to force yourself to finish a book just because it’s popular.


    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 9:48 am

      I wanted to give up on Gone Girl but peer pressure made me finish it. It definitely was a page-turner but I also found myself skimming quite a bit.


  5. quinn June 15, 2015 / 11:35 pm

    Thank you for this. More of this is needed in book blog world, we don’t alllll have to love some of these bks.
    I am trying to become comfortable with a comment i said out loud and vigorously the other night…
    ‘I only will read dead authors’! Now i see the folly in this…but was just pushing back on some of the publicity of recent works and the ‘oh u must read this….’ enthusiasm…
    many thanks as always…blog on mate..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 9:50 am

      Part of me wants to revert to reading more dead authors, but I know that as I plow through all of the new books I have gotten recently I am going to love one or two of them.


  6. cindy June 16, 2015 / 4:11 am

    I thought they both sounded a bit like they were trying too hard when I read and heard about them (endlessly, it seemed, but maybe I read too many book blogs).
    Glad for a voice in the wilderness. Such a relief not to think ‘must add that to the list’, but instead to be reconfirmed in one’s original ‘meh’ response.


    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 9:51 am

      The Bees felt genuine to me even though I didn’t like it, but the Doerr definitely felt like it was trying too hard. Way too hard. And in a way that feels indicative of a male author who has set out to write a great novel.


  7. Jane Mackay June 16, 2015 / 4:26 am

    I so agree with you about the Anthony Doerr: what you call ‘magical’ I thought was simplistic, even simple-minded, and I gave it up quite quickly. As for ‘The Bees’ I knew I should hate it from the description so I didn’t bother.
    Here in Britain I find I’m often misled by rave reviews of novels by journalists as if the reviewers don’t want to criticise people they know, or who might work for the publications who provide their income. Does that happen in the US, I wonder? Anyway much better to stick to the bloggers one knows and trusts.


    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 9:54 am

      I tend not to read professional reviews, but that is my take on it as well. I think authors do give other authors more deference than they sometimes deserve.


  8. queenofthepark June 16, 2015 / 7:31 am

    I am so with you on The Bees! Don’t think I got to 20 pages before jumping ship in irritation. Like you I had read flattering reports, but life’s too short and I am way older than you, so it really is. So refreshing to read your post Thomas.


    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 9:56 am

      Given the number of comments I have gotten on this post I would say honesty is popular.


  9. leonie June 16, 2015 / 8:17 am

    I appreciate your honesty as there are many books out there so over hyped , yes by friends too
    I didn’t mind the Doerr but thought it wasn’t great , I really really wanted to love The Bees but like you couldn’t make the leap and I do read sci fi and fantasy but something just didn’t translate the mommy bee thing like you said so well xxx
    So don’t feel bad , you are a voice for many.


    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 9:57 am

      I’d like to change the masthead on my blog to “The voice for many”


  10. Annabel (gaskella) June 16, 2015 / 8:52 am

    Love this! Despite being rubbish at abandoning books I’ve started, I love reading about when other people manage to do it. I enjoyed The Bees, but it took until about page 70 before it clicked with me. I am dithering over the Doerr – part of me wants to read it, part of me says too hyped, don’t bother.


    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 9:59 am

      Learning how to not finish books was one of the best things I ever did. Typically I go by the Nancy Pearl rule of 50. But in the case of both these books, I didn’t make it that far.


  11. Karen K. June 16, 2015 / 9:30 am

    Thanks for the warning. They weren’t on my radar (too many dead authors on my shelves) but I’m sure I’d throw the books against the wall in a fit of pique. I will carry on with Thomas Hardy this summer instead.


    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 9:59 am

      At some point I need to give Hardy more of a chance. Maybe I could start with the new film.


  12. Kateg June 16, 2015 / 10:22 am

    The Bees never sounded like it was for me despite Simon’s raving. All the Light We Cannot See is a book club selection for later in the year, but I have friends and family who have read it and not all have enjoyed it. I like World War II fiction, so I will give it a go, but thanks for your opinion.


    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 10:00 am

      I like WWII fiction as well. But that wasn’t enough this time.


  13. Ti June 16, 2015 / 11:05 am

    My club just met to discuss All The Light We Cannot See and although they all gushed about it, I found it mildly amusing. It was just okay for me. One of the reasons I am having a hard time writing up the review. So much of it was too convenient for me and not very realistic.


    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 10:02 am

      To me the Doerr just screams out that he wanted to make people gush about it. It had a certain kind of clickbait quality to it.


  14. Ruthiella June 17, 2015 / 2:12 pm

    I liked All the Light We Cannot see, but it took me a while to get into it and I also only approached it because it was on the Tournament of Books roster. And even though I did ultimately enjoy it, your assessment of it is spot on in my opinion, so you should probably skip it if that is not your cup of tea.

    I read the first 25 pages of The Bees a few weeks ago because of Simon Savidge’s rave review and haven’t felt any compulsion to continue with it. I too had problems with the anthropomorphization (do bees really have tongues? Do they really “walk”? I thought “crawl” would make more sense…).

    Give yourself a pass and move on to something you will enjoy. I got both books from the library, so there was no risk to me in trying them on for size and then giving them back for someone else to check out. If you end up trying either book a few years down the road and love them after all, then great. Some books need to be read at the right time by the right reader. No book is “one size fits all”.


    • Thomas June 18, 2015 / 12:43 pm

      Yay Ruth! I am so glad to get a comment from you. You’ve been quiet lately and I was worried you might have sworn off our little world of book bloggers and podcasters.


  15. Susan in TX June 17, 2015 / 3:56 pm

    I read The Bees because I kept seeing people I normally agree with writing good things about it, AND, (full disclosure) when Shiny New Books chose it as their inaugural book club choice, I thought there was something missing from the description that would be more appealing to me once I got into it. Nope. It felt very dystopian to me, which I’m not fond of, and I really don’t care for talking animals/creatures. So…not going to make my top 10 list this year. That said, it won’t make the top 10 worst either…I gave it a “meh.” As for All the Light…I think I would’ve appreciated it more in 5 or so years. (same with Station Eleven) I’ve been reminded with these that I don’t do well with books that are overly hyped when I read them too close to the hype. They’ve also reminded me to use the library for books that I’m iffy about.


    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 10:03 am

      I can like a dystopian novel but I think it needs to be about my own species.


  16. Pamela June 19, 2015 / 5:53 pm

    The Doerr was forced upon me by my book club, but I enjoyed it once I accepted that the blind French girl was a huge metaphor for France during the war. Magical? I found it created some impressive visual memories for me, though not so much for the German side of the story. The alternating chapters were irritating. I don’t regret reading it, but I’ve read better WW2 books. Like Winds of War, by Wouk!


    • Thomas June 20, 2015 / 10:05 am

      Oh god. Knowing that she was a metaphor makes me like it even less. Alternating chapters often bum me out. I’ve never read The Winds of War. I just remember the miniseries from junior high.


  17. Chris Wolak June 21, 2015 / 10:21 am

    I had similar feelings about All the Light We Cannot See, but slogged through and finished it. Felt a bit like a cop out to me by the halfway point. Way too much of an obvious set up, even if the writing was beautiful. Thanks for mentioning the mommy urge in The Bees. I can skip it now.


  18. Kat July 12, 2015 / 12:09 am

    Alas, I, too, hated The Bees. I gave it up after 50 pages and could not imagine how it ended up on the Bailey Women’s Prize list. There is a lot of hype about new books: I think critics are so happy to find anything reasonably well-written that they cheer at the sight of even something mediocre. Not that I haven’t read a few very good new books this year. I loved Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade, a kind of Franzen-ian saga, only with more believable characters. I have, alas, not read one word about this book at blogs!


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