Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What Makes A Book "Good"?

I forgot. I've completely forgotten how much I love The Thorn Birds, which I first read in 1979 or so, and am now rereading with Lesley. I 'threw down' yet another novel in despair yesterday afternoon. This time, it was Eric Larson's In The Garden of Beasts. I could not bear one more long, drawn out account of Hitler. Rohm. The SA Troopers in their brown shirts parading down the street. I've read it all before; I've studied it, I've grieved over it, I've cried over Anne Frank, literally, while standing in her hidden, empty rooms. There is nothing more that I want to know about the Nazis, nothing new that I've learned since first reading about them in the 60's.

But that isn't the first book I've "thrown down". There was the time that I was all set to read The Savage Detectives with Richard; there I was, all excited about a mystery of sorts, and I get page after page of characters who make no sense to me. What is their purpose? What, for crying out loud, was Bolano's purpose? Halfway through I abandoned it.

Before that, I "threw down" The Wings of The Dove which I was all set to read with Frances. "Henry James," I thought, "it'll be like a little piece of Downton Abbey in literary form. Only, it was pages and pages and pages of mind-numbing description with sentences that would not seem to end.

And those were books I'd chosen to read! What about all the books that have been sent my way by publishers who took the time, the effort, the money to mail me a book which I laboriously squeezed into my already finite reading time so that I could write a fair review? I half expect those to be somewhat disappointing simply because I haven't chosen them off the shelf myself.

At any rate, there I was yesterday evening with The Thorn Birds after a particularly horrible day. I'd just discarded In The Garden of Beasts, as previously mentioned, and I opened up this beloved novel by Colleen McCullough. I was immediately transported. First, I was in New Zealand with Meggie, experiencing her first day of school, the way that the nun canes her hands for being late, the way that her brothers flung her brand new china doll around until she's all but broken. Then, I'm in Mary Carson's living room in Australia, looking with her at Father Ralph. I can see his lean form, his Daimler car, all his strength and handsomeness just as well as Mary can see it.

So this is what makes a book good, in part. The way that it takes me some place else without making it feel like a ten hour ride in a car. But it's more than that. Not only am I in this other place, I can see the characters as if they were real people. They move and breathe and have their being without one aspect seeming false. And finally, there's story. There's a story that I care about, that will ultimately teach me something or else get me to look at an issue in a new way. Those are the qualities that make me unable to put a book down.

I find these qualities in books like A.S. Byatt's Possession. Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride. Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Haruki Murakami's Kafka on The Shore. But I can't trust them to be within every book I pick up. In fact, I feel it's a rare and lucky day when I do find the book that makes me say, "Have you read this? You just have to!"

53 comments:

  1. I love it when a book simply carries me away into another time and place, helping me forget all the worries and cares of my own life.

    You’re right about The Thorn Birds being just such a book. And they are rare.

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  2. I was immediately transported. First, I was in New Zealand with Meggie, experiencing her first day of school, the way that the nun canes her hands for being late, the way that her brothers flung her brand new china doll around until she's all but broken. Then, I'm in Mary Carson's living room in Australia, looking with her at Father Ralph. I can see his lean form, his Daimler car, all his strength and handsomeness just as well as Mary can see it.

    ME, TOO! I just came in from the porch (sipping a glass of cab, munching on some Trader Joe pita bites, waiting for my hubby to come home so we can eat dinner!), where I've been reading this wonderful novel. I'd forgotten how much I loved this story. And I've forgotten enough that it feels brand new. I'm so glad we've decided to read it together. I have a few pages marked with sticky notes, but I'm afraid most of my comments will be about what I like rather than what I learn. We shall see. :)

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    1. I'd forgotten how much I loved this story, too. I'd read it when I was, what, 17? :) It is an absolute delight to me all over again, and has reminded me about the utter joy of reading which seems to have lately escaped me. The only thing that could make this better? Eating pita chips and sipping Cabernet with you! As we read. :)

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    2. I think I read it when I was a young bride, so that had to be around 1981 or so (so I would've been 20).

      I can just picture us sitting on my porch, nibbling pita chips with red pepper hummus, sipping a delicious Cab, reading our books in silence only to stop to share a beautiful passage or humorous bit of dialogue. :)

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  3. For me, what makes a book "good" is not just about what the book can do for me, but also how I feel at that time. I was just in the bookshop the other day and picked up Erik Larsen's book and, while I absolutely loved The Devil in the White City, I felt I needed to wait just a little bit longer before I read this period of time and war again. I don't mind books set during World War II, but I've been much more drawn to books set during the time, that are not just solely focused on the war. Like you, I've read so much of it throughout the years that I need just a wee bit of a break.

    As I read your post, I kept thinking that you would LOVE The Secret History by Donna Tartt and then there it is, one you mention as a book that takes you away! I am reading it for the first time right now and I am madly, MADLY in love with it. I have no idea why I've never come across the book before and it was only after seeing it mentioned here and there on other posts that I finally put a hold on it at the library and received it just the other day. This, this is a book that completely removes me from my current time and place and takes me away. Ah, how I adore the story, no matter how much I just don't think I'd be friends with any of them! (I'm about 160 pages in so far.)

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    1. OK, you two. I'm moving The Secret History to the top of my stack to dive into after I finish The Thorn Birds! If someone says they're madly, madly in love with a book, there's no way I can resist. :)

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    2. Be warned, Lesley, that people seem to either love or loathe The Secret History. However, I love it so much I read it at least five times since the early 90's when it was published.

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    3. I can completely see reading The Secret History more than once. I cannot put it down and I get quite antsy when I have to put it aside for, you know, that little thing called my day job!. Drat! Oh, 5 pm please come soon :)

      Les, if you read it, can't wait to see your thoughts on it! I hope to have it completed this weekend.

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    4. Natalie, I want to know the minute you're done (or thereabouts) so we can talk! I'm thrilled that you love it as much as I did. Do. :)

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  4. I LOVED The Thorn Birds back in the late 70's, too, and have always thought about revisiting it one day. I also loved The Robber Bride and The Secret History, so it's probably time to discover Possession (and Kafka on the Shore, too).

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    1. That is so neat that you, too, have read and loved these books! Possession took me a few tries to get into, but once in? I couldn't stop. If you do pick up Kafka on the Shore, don't expect to understand every single thing. Just go with the experience as one often needs to do with Murakami, who once said: "Be wide open to the possibilities."

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  5. Aaah, Possession, that brings back fond memories. Great book, I don't think I can compare it with any other, it's just...special. There are books who capture your attention right away - Fahrenheit 451 was one of those books for me, it was love at first word, and then there are books you have to wait a little bit for things to get going, and then books who just don't seem to click with me no matter what. I hate giving up on a book because I'm always thinking what if it gets better, so I try not to do that.

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    1. I'll never forget the ending of Possession...wow! I've never read Farhenheit 451, classic that it is, so I'll need to get to that. I've hated abandoning a book too because I don't want to quit for one thing. Also, what if it holds a great surprise that I miss? But now I'm giving myself permission to stop if I'm halfway through.

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  6. I read "The Thornbirds" 3 (or 4) (or 5) times when I was teenager because I LOVED it so very much. And I was just thinking about it the other day, after finishing "The Last Summer" by Judith Kinghorn, because the feeling I had while reading it was in some ways so similar to "The Thornbirds"...it's just a good simple story. Sometimes that's exactly what your heart (and brain) needs.

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    1. Thanks for telling me about The Last Summer! It's great to make connections between books you've loved, and pass the titles on to other bibliophiles.

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  7. Thank goodness for good books! The moment when you read and you feel like this book was written for you, or about you, is priceless :)

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  8. To books not feeling like a ten hour car drive! I'm unfortunately right in the middle of learning what makes a good book for me as I'm reading something that goes against all the "rules" in the worst of ways. For me the plot has to be believable and the characters, if they are what the book is focused on, strong and detailed. And of course it helps if the writing is good, too.

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    1. Now I'm curious as to what it is you're reading...and, I had to broaden my concept of 'good book' once I started reading in the Japanese genre. Their writing is often a slice of life kind of thing, without the beginning, middle and end that I'd become used to. Also, there can be elements of the bizarre which aren't necessarily realistic but still make for a good story.

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  9. Now that sounds promising. I haven't read it but I loved Donna Tart and threww away The Savage Detectives. There is a chnace I will like this and Possession and the best news, I've got the both already.
    I have different tastes in book. Sometimes I like it experimental but sometimes I really just want a cinematographically well-written book which makes me feel as if I was watching a great movie, only better. Bel-Ami was just like that btw.

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    1. Caroline, I'm so glad you already have both of the books I'd mentioned! Now I'm looking forward to Bel-Ami which you just posted about.

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  10. I'm so glad that this reread of THE THORN BIRDS is working out well for both you and Les! I, too, remember loving this book so many years ago. I mentioned recently that I am listening to a well-loved family saga by Herman Wouk that I first read in the 80's maybe, WAR AND REMEMBRANCE. I will take me weeks to listen to it, but I'm totally captivated by the story once again. It is set in WWII times, but covers pre and post as well. About a Naval family and their friends all over the world.

    I have so many books I loved in the far distant past - books I can still remember with fondness today. I've decided that if I can find some of them in audio, I'll trying rereading that way. A nice way to experience again the pleasure. Of course, some may not hold up, but I'm fairly certain that if I remember them so well 20 and 30 years later, they will still captivate.

    I haven't read any of the books on your "best loved" list. I'll keep them in mind. :-)

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    1. Actually, I'm listening to THE WINDS OF WAR. WAR AND REMEMBRANCE is the sequel. It's early. LOL

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    2. I have Winds of War and War and Remembrance (in honking paperback which reminds me of Ladies of The Club!); one of my best friends raves about them, so I look forward to getting to them.

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    3. I have Winds of War and War and Remembrance in my stacks... maybe a buddy read later this winter? :)

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    4. Late in winter? Sounds good to me! Let's revisit this idea in a few months.

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  11. Exactly! I know a book is good when after I close the pages, I want to tell everyone about it over and over and over again!

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    1. For sure! (But, it's disappointing in a way if they don't concur. :)

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    2. I had that happen with Beach Music. I loved it so much and a friend read it and said it was one of the worst books she'd ever read. Rather than try to discuss, I just let it go. I didn't want her to spoil my love for the book with her poison! ;)

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  12. I don't mind a literary Downton Abbey. But if you say endless sentences and descriptions, then maybe I'll have to think again. What I have is Henry James's The Ambassadors. I'd like to tackle that some time in the future. Interesting question you've posed... what makes a book 'good'. Guess it's also quite subjective, and maybe even depends on the mood of the reader on that particular day. And, one's opinion might change too upon rereading. ;)

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    1. I think that one's mood is quite a contributing factor. There are times when absolutely nothing seems appealing to me, and then I realize it's because I just can't concentrate. I need a certain element of peace to be able to let a book carry my away rather than being able to leap into it from emotional chaos. As for Henry James, I'm certainly not eager to pick up anything by him for quite some time. Even though Wings of a Dove was made into a film which looks like it has a marvelous cast.

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  13. Wonderful post, Bellezza. Time is too precious and rare to devote to books you don't relish. Ally also says it well, "Thank goodness for good books!".

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    1. I find my time especially limited now that summer is over and school has resumed. I can't imagine how I read when my son was little, except that I didn't blog then. Blogging is a time sucker, too! ;)

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  14. I really need to read The Thorn Birds! So many people seem to love it. I just read The Secret History and it blew me away! So good! I agree on Henry James having endless sentences. That drove me crazy in The Portrait of a Lady. I ended up liking it in the end, but it took forever to get through and I never really felt like I was in the story. In The Secret History, I was there, which was a bit creepy but made it so enjoyable. It also connected me to characters I would normally judge much more harshly.

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    1. There's still time to join Lesley and I, Lindsey! We're not posting til the end of September so feel free to read along with us.

      What you say about The Secret History is so true: creepy in a compelling way, and connections with characters so real and deep you feel as if you know them. Even if you're not sure you want to. Also, I absolutely loved the atmosphere, the collegiate mood of "intellectual arrogance" Tartt created. Now I want to read it again!

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    2. Read it with me. :)

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    3. Quite possibly...let me see how things are going after I finish Anna Karenina. You do tempt me, friend.

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  15. Bellezza, I swear you must read my mind. I have felt exactly the same way lately about the books I've been reading. The majority of the books I've read lately have been okay to read, but nothing has made an impression - the kind where I want to tell everyone to read that book NOW! So, when I finally pick up a book that is good, I'm just so excited - its like, Finally, I've found a book to read. When I read GOLD, I felt so impressed by Cleave's writing, because it struck me as so refreshing a read. It made me realize that the books I've been reading are good-ish, but nowhere near the quality of what I want to be reading all the time ( Murakami, Rhys, Vonnegut). Makes me wonder, why am I spending time on books that I don't finish and ones that I find to be mediocre. I definitely need to start making changes, because I haven't been too happy with my reading lately. Hmmm. Thanks for this post, definitely food for thought.

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    1. The very wondering why one is spending such time on books one doesn't love is an awful place to be. No more! I'm no giving myself permission to discard what doesn't appeal; no more wasted hours, no more wasted frustration, no more wasted hope.

      I'll have to try Cleave's latest as I mentioned on your post. Little Bee was plenty thought-provoking in itself.

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    2. Exactly! I've been wasting my time and its got to stop. I want to read good books all the time, so I'm going to have to start saying no to some of those book review requests. You are so right - I need to discard what doesn't appeal! Hurrah! And yes, try Gold - I am positive you will enjoy it ;)

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  16. The Wings of the Dove is one of the toughest Henry James novels to try. If you ever feel you could bear it, read Washington Square instead, a short novel which he writes like a normal person, not someone with a comma fetish. I don't have a neat answer for what makes a book good, though, even after thirty-seven years of intensive reading, as well as teaching literature. It is such a special, extraordinary alchemy, a kind of divine coming together. Perhaps the truth is I like the magic of it best of all, and so I don't want to analyse too much!

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    1. No, of course, as I think about it there is no neat answer for what makes a book. I suppose I was trying to define some of the qualities, as they seem so elusive to me in what I've been reading, but to pin it down? To discover the "alchemy"? Impossible, indeed.

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  17. I totally agree with you about a good book being one that sweeps you away (and I really need to find my copy of The Thorn Birds -- maybe it'll show up while I'm unpacking) but it's interesting how a book that completely pulls one person in may bore another person to tears. There's a bit of personal taste that figures into "What is a good book?", in other words, isn't there?

    Wish I could have read along with the two of you. :-/

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    1. Nancy, maybe you'll find it in time?! I'm only about 1/3 of the way through, and I don't think we'll post our reviews until the very end of September. Here's hoping you can read it too. xo

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    2. I've only just hit page 100, Nancy. I think you have time to join us!

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    3. Maybe! We're about to finish stacking the cabinets in our "library" so I should start unloading, soon. But, if you saw the bedroom with all the books (currently nicknamed "the warehouse" you'd know it's a bit of a long shot. ;)

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  18. Abandoning books always puts me in a funk. I had to toss Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko a month or so ago. It almost feels like trying to run in a bog sometimes. I abandon one book, only to start another I don't enjoy, and so on. It does seem like the best way out of the funk is a book like The Thorn Birds. I'm glad you said that Possession took you more than one try. I started it last year and set it aside to try again later.

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    1. I hope you revisit Possession until it sings for you. Given the right time and the right place I think it will. As for the novel you mentioned, I haven't heard of it. Yet running through a bog doesn't sound that appealing. ;)

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  19. It's strange how different books affect different individuals, in two of your choices, one liked, one loathed I found my reason to be a blogger. The Savage Detectives & Kafka on the Shore are amongst my favourite books read in the last few years & as stated a big part of the reason I started blogging.

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  20. Kafka on the Shore is hugely meaningful to me as it tackles some issues I feel tantamount in my life. Also, it was the first Murakami I read for my first JLC.

    Some day you'll have to explain The Savage Detectives to me. Liked the first part well enough, but not the second. Bolano totally lost me. Or rather I lost him. Either way, we were no longer communicating.

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  21. I agree wholeheartedly, especially in regards to The Thorn Birds (which I loved). Possession sadly didn't do it for me (though one day I'll try again). Sometimes I think mood at the time plays a role in how much you like what you read but some books make it very difficult to be liked!

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  22. YES! Possession is my favorite book because of those qualities you mention. I am always absorbed into a good book and feel the characters are my friends. I'm never the same after. I loved The Thorn Birds too and HAD to watch the movies after reading the book. I'm a sucker for a good love story.

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  23. I love this topic. I also threw away many books lately. What you describe in what makes good book is same with my description of good books. It has to take me to its world, great character is also a plus (like the book I am currenly reading) and most important the story.

    Great post, Belleza

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