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Goodreads Voyeurism: Who hated ‘Salvage the Bones?’

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

I find myself transfixed by the idea of investigating the general tastes and preferences of people who rated ‘Salvage the Bones’ as just one star on Goodreads.

Okay, not ‘transfixed.’ Wrong word, but you get what I’m saying, don’t you? I don’t know whether people expect their public profiles on such websites will be viewed by complete strangers as a way to poke and prod at one of their myriad public opinions, but hopefully they’re all semi-aware that’s a distinct possibility of having the profile.

Still, it all seems to have a touch of the voyeur, non?

Not going to stop me, though, is it?

Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award winner has been rated 1,038 times (as of tonight) and reviewed 312 times by Goodreads users.

Suddenly, I find myself wondering whether it’s possible to know how many publicly available reviews of, say, ‘Great Expectations’ existed within its first year of life. Safe to say fewer than 312?

Of those ratings and reviews, 25 raters gave the book just one of five stars. Seven of those folk took the time to write a review as to why they disliked the book enough to slap such a scarlet number on it.

Gotta start with those magnificent seven.

Michele (54 books ‘read’), Cherry Hill, NJ  (Note: I suddenly had the urge to add the reader’s location to this. I don’t know why.)

The first thing in Michele’s review of ‘Bones’ is that she received the book for free as part of the ‘First Reads’ program. My general sense of this program is that people habitually submit requests for lots of books regardless of appeal in the hopes of getting one.  Michele says she “thought it would be good,” so it could be she is selective in the books she attempts to gain through First Reads, but it’s not definitive.

We do know, though, that this was a bad match and not necessarily from the review.

Disclaimer: Don’t spend a lot of time getting overwrought about me making broad assumptions about people based on their reading preferences. OF COURSE that’s what I’m doing, and YES I realize it’s a flawed premise. Damnit Jim, I’m not a scientist! (Yeah, just enough Trek to know this exists and to know I’m getting the quote wrong.)

Of the 54 books Michele has listed as having read, 20 of them got the full five stars from her.

Three classics stand out: ‘Of Mice and Men,’ ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’  Once you get past those and the handful of memoirs and non-fiction titles, you’re left with some very-much-not-NBA fare, with Dan Brown being the sole two-time prize winner in the list.  There is also the fifth Stephanie Plum title by Janet Evanovich and the second of Stieg Larsson’s Milennium series. My assumption is other entries in both series will appear later.

From Michele’s favorites alone, I’m not shocked that she found it to be “boring” and didn’t “really know what the point of this book was.” The books she seems to really like mostly have the reputation of being crowd-pleasing page-turners.

You have to admit, ‘Salvage the Bones’ is definitely not that.

There are more than 20 books rated with 4 stars, including several of the predicted Stephanie Plum books, another Stieg Larsson, and…wait for it…’Crime and Punishment!’

So, let’s face it, Michele does not need a fast-paced story to enjoy it! Dostoyevsky FTW!

Down at the bottom, slumming it with Ward, are four other books, one of which doesn’t really count, as it’s a cupcake cookbook. However, among those bottom four is a familiar name: Janet Evanovich. Talk about your twist/surprise endings! Apparently “The Rocky Road to Romance” was a bit of a rocky read compared to all the other Evanovich stuff. There is also James Patterson’s “Judge & Jury,” about which I know nothing, and “Crazy for the Storm” by Norman Ollestad. All I can think about the latter is that it turns out a full fifty percent of Michele’s least-favorite reads are books centered on storms.

So, if you know Michele, no storm books as gifts, eh?

Spencer (135), Overland Park, KS

Although Spencer has well over double the number of books rated as does Michele, he comes off as a LOT more finicky, with only 17 earning five stars in his esteem.

Three authors have two books each in Spencer’s short-list of top books: Cormac McCarthy, J.D. Salinger, and Alain de Botton?

The first two make me think we have a clear “lad” on our hands, but I had to do a quick look to learn that de Botton is a Swiss I did not connect with this book at all. The writing was smart and articulate, but it struck me as inauthentic. More to follow…”writer and television producer” who is a bit of an essayist, but also writes fiction? (Okay, I’m not THAT invested in telling you who he is. You have the internet; Google him if you need know.)

Otherwise, there is a mix-and-match collection of books I know (‘Lolita’ and ‘Catch 22’) and books I most-certainly do not (‘The Moonflower Vine’ and ‘The Adults’). Essentially, nothing here to clue one in as to why ‘Salvage the Bones’ was such a miss for him.

It should be noted, his review, in entirety is, ” I did not connect with this book at all. The writing was smart and articulate, but it struck me as inauthentic. More to follow…”

Lack of ability to connect can happen anywhere, right? He recognizes the writing as having some good qualities, but seems to have been put off by a perception of inauthenticity. That seems odd, but not the sort of thing that can easily be quantified.

Spencer has 11 1-star books, including McCarthy’s ‘The Road.’ Not only that, but Joseph Heller also goes hot and cold with this reviewer, getting low honors for ‘Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man.’ Between this and Michele’s Evanovich thing, I begin to wonder about my own ratings and whether I have an author who appears on both ends of the spectrum. He also has books two and four of the Twilight series in this group. Considering the books he really likes, I’m a little surprised he even bothered to read them.

Spencer’s ratings, like his review, is a bit of a mystery.

Jon (201), no location listed

Jon has 30 5-star book ratings. Many are memoirs (Kathy Griffin, Kristen Chenoweth, Carrie Fisher, David Sedaris) and ‘Memoirs of a Geisha.’  There are six Armistead Maupin (a name I know only because it’s memorable and not because I’ve read any of them) and ‘The Help.’ There are some children’s books and some Oprah’s Book Club fare. It’s not a fully formed picture, but from what is there, I’m almost surprised he didn’t like ‘Bones.’

Of course, part of the problem is that he didn’t actually get past page 40, having found it “not my cup of tea.”

I guess I don’t know why Jon likes the books he likes, but I hope he goes back to this one and finds its heart. If he does that, he’ll enjoy the book. I’m fairly sure of it.

Jon has only four other 1-star books. Like Michele, one of them is about food: “Death by Pad Thai…” (The name alone sort of makes me want to read it, to be honest.) The others, I don’t know, but I see a familiar name among them: Lisa See. Jon has a Lisa See book (‘Shanghai Girls’) among his favorites! It’s officially a thing! The ones you love the most also have the capacity to hurt you!

Janet (311), White Plains, NY 

Back to the northeastern US!

First thing I see is that Janet also rates ‘Shanghai Girls’ and ‘The Help’ with five stars. She should be friends (well…Goodreads friends) with Jon. Were I a Goodreads match-maker, I’d be hooking them up.

I’m not. So, I won’t.

But I still want to.

Janet also, like Jon and Spencer, had a very short review.

“THere is a lot of hub bub about this book. I totally don’t get it. If someone else reads it, please let me know.I did not get into this at all.”

Well, Janet, Jon read it! Okay, he read only 40 pages, but he sorta read it!

The most books read so far and also the most five-star ratings, with 36 making the grade. Wally Lamb and Jennifer Haigh are the only two-timers in there. I see “Marley and Me,” which Michele also liked, if I recall (I’m not going back to check; remember, I’m no scientist.). Otherwise, it’s a lot of books I don’t know (surprise! There’s a lot of books I don’t know.).

On the other end…WHOA! A whopping 52 one-star books!

Of the first four I see, you have ‘Bones,’ Eugenides’ ‘The Marriage Plot,’ and ‘We the Animals’ by Justin Torres, which are three titles which have had a hearty portion of praised heaped upon them in recent months.  Plodding further into the bulk of ‘hated it’ books, Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ and Tea Obreht’s ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ also get the razzberry from Janet.

I almost feel as if we have our first real definitive conclusion (okay, aside from the clear fact that everyone has to have at least one author appear in both the five-star and one-star reviews, which continues here with Janet, who really didn’t like one of Lisa See’s other not-‘Shanghai Girls’ offerings), in that I just think ‘literary fiction’ is not for Janet. Just say “no,” Janet!

Grace (452), Delmar, NY

Grace has a book blog, which I’ll link to here. She seems to read a lot and write about it, so if you’ve bothered to get this far into this, you’ll might want to check that out as well, especially if you want the first well-detailed explanation among the poor reviews as to just why it didn’t work for the reader. It’s not as long as this, but it’s vastly more well-written!

Grace liked 89 of her 452 books well enough to anoint them with five stars. There is some non-fiction. A funny is that the first two authors I come across with multiple books are Elie Wiesel and Alan Alda. Well, it’s funny to me.

Generally, it’s a real mixed bag of books I’ve read, books I’ve been meaning to read, and books I have a definite desire to never read. It would seem eclectic to me, in that sense.

Goodness, all those paragraphs begin with “G!”

I think I counted 25 one-star reviews. Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, and Jennifer Weiner are all authors I just assume I won’t like based on a multitude of things I’ve read and heard, but can’t say I know first-hand that I get why Grace would lump them in with the Ward book. There’s also Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Super Sad True Love Story,’ which fits under “books I’ve been meaning to read.” However, the only book she really disliked that I have read is “Salvage the Bones.”

And, on top of everything else, we seem to have broken the streak of authors representing in both the upper- and lower-tiers of a single user’s reviewed books.

Grace, you are a pioneer.

Stacy (607), no location given

With all those books read, only 72 get the full five stars. Stacy is stingy with the ratings!

Stacy’s review of the book centers on the premise that this is the book version of a phenomenon she experiences with film, wherein she avoids seeing well-reviewed movies because she’s come to learn the people who review film professionally have a different set standards for quality than what she does.

So, give it to her for knowing what she likes, but I’d have suggested up front that, if you don’t like critically acclaimed films, there’s not much reason to believe it’ll work any better for novels.

Among those are all but the third of the Harry Potter books, as well as a book ABOUT the Harry Potter films, and yet another book by J.K. Rowling about Quidditch. In fact, it seems like the vast majority of those 72 are “young adult” titles, and, while some feel the need to vehemently defend YA from being looked down upon by readers of literary fiction, there’s not a lot of common ground between what I know of that ‘genre’ and a book like ‘Salvage the Bones.’ It almost seems loony to even attempt it, especially with the aforementioned tendency to not agree with critics.

Looking at the 44 books on the one-star end of Stacy’s ratings, there is an inordinate number of self-help books (not helpful, then?), as well as a few Stephen King, and a surprising appearance by Stephanie Meyer (some Twilight outtake thing I wish I still didn’t know existed). I think the question will have to remain: Why on earth did she choose to pick this book up? But, full points for making the effort. I think it’s good to try things outside your strike zone, as it were. Too bad it didn’t work out.

Okay..that’s it. You’re still here? Go home. Go on. Get!

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Randall Reads: Out of Disaster, Salvation…Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones”

February 19, 2012 1 comment

Poverty. Single-parent family. Teenage pregnancy. Alcoholism. Dog Fighting. Dismemberment. Hurricane Katrina.

As top-line topics go, “Salvage the Bones” touches on some pretty big bummers.

That being said, there is a constant breeze of humanity and family blowing through Jesmyn Ward’s pages, strongest after the storm has passed and the waters have receded.

People much smarter about literature and the written word awarded this novel the 2011 National Book Award for fiction, so I write this with a heavy amount of consideration that there’s a good chance I’m missing/misunderstanding something about this novel. This is not to say that I found the book to be poorly written or any such thing. To the contrary, there is quite a lot I enjoyed about this book. The story, language, and characters all have a way of sticking with you.

But, until one of those smarter people are able to explain to me what I’m missing, I would have to opine that it is not the best book I’ve read published within the window for qualification for that prize. (Yeah, I preferred “The Tiger’s Wife.” Sue me.)

This may all come down to one (perceived) flaw, to be honest. It is such a big flaw, however, I’m surprised it didn’t hinder the novel’s rise to glory and that I haven’t read other reviews finding fault with it.

Of course, all that means is that it’s probably more a personal hang-up and those smart people would just shake their heads at my words in disappointment. This would be sad because I know Victor LaValle to have been among the panelists who selected the award winner.

I like LaValle!

I have to say, however, that it eventually drove me CRAZY how many times Esch (the narrator and protagonist) refers to Medea as she’s reading about her in Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” and becomes an über-obvious parallel for her own story.

Well, there are elements which might not be as clear, but, (un)luckily Ward and Esch are there to point them out for you page after page after page. It’s a little maddening, making me want to scream, “ALRIGHT! I GET IT ALREADY!”

Except that I often read during my bus commute to and from the city and would, at least be an unwelcome drawing of unwelcome attention. At most, I could be thrown off the bus due to the misunderstanding.

Anyhow, this became such a prominent thing within the story that it began to hinder my enjoyment of the otherwise-masterful storytelling. I distinctly remember turning a page and quickly skimming to see where the next reference to Medea and Jason and the Argonauts would be. Not finding one for three consecutive pages felt like a triumph.

A triumph I celebrated quietly.

I hate to linger on this singular issue too much, especially as it seems to have not bothered anyone else too much. It is MY review however, and it is a huge part of my overall experience of having read the book.

Since it was not enough to otherwise ruin the book for me, though, I shall proceed.

Ward does a great job of drawing her scene and characters. “The Pit” and its inhabitants are memorable and likable, warts and all. Esch and her brothers–Randall, Skeetah, and Junior–are the primary family members through which you experience the story, with their deceased mother’s spirit playing as big a role emotionally as their Daddy does physically. You’ll instinctively love Big Henry and be suspicious of Manny. In fact, I think those two secondary/tertiary characters are as memorable as any I can think of.

Generally, I don’t do story recapping, because I don’t really like to read story recaps in book reviews. I think it’s fairly well known this book takes place in the week leading up to Hurricane Katrina hitting the gulf coast. It would be a mistake to confuse that event to be the novel’s subject matter. It certainly has some allegorical qualities, but this is a much smaller (hence, larger) story about people and family and overcoming and love (“love as certainty”).

Keep in mind before picking it up, however, there are some heavy, heavy topics in this book (remember the first line of the review?). If it’s going to just bum you out,  then…sorry. If you can see through some rough times (reading about dog fighting isn’t going to appeal to many, I’m sure), you’ll get a lot out of this book…even if the continued referencing to Greek mythology gets tired.

Randall Reads: ‘Lightning Rods’ by Helen DeWitt

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment
After the first 30 pages or so of this book, I set it down at the dining room table and walked away, shaking my head. I told my wife what I had just read. It seemed ridiculous, and it was hard to gauge where the story could possibly be going from there. It just was very far removed from the sort of thing I normally read.

Eventually, I continued. As I did, I started to enjoy the absurd nature of the events of the book, but didn’t think about it more than that.

The book meandered to a close at some point, to which my reaction was something along the lines of “Okay…?”

When the 2012 Tournament of Books entrants were announced, I went to the Seattle Public Library website and quickly placed holds on all the books I’d not yet read (most of them), figuring I’d read first whichever books first became available. Simple enough plan, eh?

‘Lightning Rods’ I didn’t even have to put on hold. It was not checked out. Maybe now I should have taken that and the fact that it was the only book of the 16 I’d not read one shred about. In fact, I didn’t recall ever even hearing of it or the author. Not unreasonable, but I read a lot about books. Just the nature of how the ToB qualifies its entrants, I’d have had to have heard of it!

But I hadn’t. Now I can somewhat piece together why.

It’s an unnecessary fleshing out of an absurd premise. The skeleton of a story that stands as the novel, to me, shows that there’s not a lot of substance behind it.

Of course, this may all very well be the point of Helen DeWitt in how she wrote it. The characters are extremely thin, which would be a sign it’s all to the point.

But I didn’t get the point. If I explained the premise of this book to you over a cup of coffee (not even a ‘venti,’ just a tall), you’d likely walk away thinking you’d like to read the book, even though I’d be trying to assure you, “Look, everything I just told you in this thumbnail sketch? That’s it! That’s all there is to it!”

There’s no character development or pleasant-to-the-ear prose, which are two of the things I enjoy most about a book. Throw that atop a very superficial story…just not much to recomment.

Finally, the one thing I keep reading about this book now is how funny it is. I would say the premise is funny, again, in a completely absurd way (which, as a huge Monty Python devotee, should work for me), but the odds you’ll be chuckling even every ten pages is remote.

I’ve moved on to “Salvage the Bones.” Much more my speed.

Lessons from a Toddler: How to Make a Man

February 4, 2012 Leave a comment

The internet, if not the larger world, is already pretty well overrun by stories of children’s precociousness.

Can’t see the harm in adding another to the canon.

My son turned two recently, which has no direct relevance on the story, but the event in question occurred first thing the morning after the birthday party we were throwing for him.

Owen always has a few commands/suggestions first thing in the morning. The list almost always begins with “no no change diaper” and “jammies on” (as opposed to putting on the sorts of clothing that might indicate a departure from the house and, hence, the loss of chance to see fulfilled other common items from the morning request repertoire, such as “watch ‘Dino Train,'” “play trains,” or even the occasional “eat, eat, eat…”

Maybe a bit more a creature of habit already like his father than Daddy would like to admit, Owen tends to not stray too far from those items or closely related variations on the topics.

This particular morning, however, it was “”poon? ‘poon?”

Not easy to decipher initially, I let him repeat it several times before I realized what he wanted was a spoon. Out of the context of sitting in front of some food, it seemed like a new word entirely. As most parents will recognize, once you land on what your child is saying, it seems like it should have been obvious. Plus, I think Owen picked up an early affinity for wooden spoons, first from watching me cooking (“Daddy making pood?”) a lot and later when he realized a spoon can be an excellent stand-in for a guitar.

Again, as many parents will recognize (I hope it’s not just me.), once such a simple item is discovered to have the power to deliver such joy, you make sure to buy a few to have around just for the baby.

That being said, it had been a while since Owen had really requested a spoon outside of the context of eating. Once I figured it, it was easy enough to hand him a large wooden spoon.

From there, Owen went in search of his red plastic fire chief helmet before asking me where he might find “the boy.”

“The boy” is a very simple plastic figure which came seated in the plastic construction vehicle Owen had received as a gift the day prior. Rather than pluck it out of the truck for him, which is precisely where he’d left it shortly before bed time only ten hours ago, I asked him where he thought the boy might be.

Turns out it was all a ruse, because he knew exactly where the boy was. Don’t be fooled; for all the cuteness and charm, the perceived innocence is a tool for their use to get you to do their bidding. Everyone tends to think their child is especially smart, but I think maybe they’re not as smart as you think in the way you’re thinking of “smart,” while being incredibly smart in ways you would prefer to disbelieve.

The boy was immediately plucked from the truck (steam shovel? I was never the kid who was interested in construction machines or police or firemen or cars or anything stereotypical of young boys’ interest and, hence, sometimes don’t really know the basics.) and plopped into the helmet. Owen then took a seat in the middle of the living room and started stirring with the big wooden spoon.

“What are you doing, Owen?”

“Making….making a man.”

Of course.