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4 Books I Read in February

by Marian Schembari on March 21, 2012

February and March have been The Time of the Half-Finished Novel. I’m getting increasingly frustrated with books that can’t hold my attention. I can’t stand when people  recommend books and preface it by saying, “Give it 100 pages, you’ll get into it.” Isn’t the point of a story to simply be into it? Why does it need to be such an effort? Why are so many authors incapable of starting off strong?

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram was recommended by my dear friend Matt. It’s not the kind of book I usually read, but that’s the best kind, right?

I didn’t finish it. (It is 1,000 pages though, so cut me a little slack.)

The story did, however, make me desperately want to go to India. Hard. Like, it made me think about India every hour of every day for the two weeks I struggled through it.

Shantaram is the very long-winded story of a convict who escapes to India and has adventures. However, the main character, in conversation would say things like, “We used to wake with plaster on our faces from the pregnant ceiling…” I mean, really? DOES ANYONE IN THE REAL WORLD TALK LIKE THIS?! The absurdness of the dialogue brought me out of the story 60% of the time… every time.

Around page 150 the author writes, “I was thinking about another kind of river, one that runs through every one of us, no matter where we come from, all over the world.”

That’s when I put it down. There’s only so much cheese one girl can take. My motto is, if I roll my eyes every chapter, my time could be better spent elsewhere.

The Language of Flowers by  Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Depressing, but held my attention. (Right now, that’s worth heaps of brownie points.) I couldn’t wait to read this on the bus in the morning.

It’s the story of a girl who grows up in foster care and becomes almost obsessive about the meaning of flowers. The book revolves around both her upbringing and her present-day reintroduction into the real world. Homelessness, weird family drama, abandonment, unhealthy attitudes towards sex – this book has it all if you want to hate the world. I wasn’t a major fan of the main character, but the story was well told and I’m glad I read it.

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

You know, I’m sitting here trying to remember the plot of The Kitchen House and whether I loved/hated it and I’m at a loss. That can’t be a good sign.

In a nutshell: White girl, orphan, slaves in the South, racism, etc etc. I remember liking it at the time, but let’s just say it’s not the kind of story that sticks with you.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I am so, so glad I read this (I was expecting to hate it). The story of a kid with Aspergers (I think), Extremely Loud is a story based on the time after his father’s death in 9/11. I couldn’t finish it fast enough.

I have to note, however, that I highlighted more parts I hated than parts I loved. There were a lot of inconsistencies that just seemed like Foer was adding quirky plot lines without actually thinking about how they fit into the story. There were whole sections that didn’t make any sense and paragraphs that exhausted me. One of my notes, halfway through the book, says, “I REALLY HATE COMING TO THESE SECTIONS.” Another note: “I have no idea what just happened in this chapter.”

But, then again, I highlighted more phrases I loved than anything I’ve ever read. The author’s points were so often beautiful without being cheesy and over-the-top. I want to share lines with you like, “I’ll wear heavy boots for the rest of my life.” Or, “Being with him made my brain quiet. I didn’t have to invent a thing.” But out of context these words that meant so much to me seem hollow.

I can understand if you’ve read and hated this book. If you haven’t read it yet, I really urge you to give it a go. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

What I’m Reading Now

I’m reading The Historian at the moment and am really slogging through it. I like the story – in theory – but why is it taking the author so long to get to said story? There are bits of awesome interspersed with really long, tedious bits of over-telling.

And – sadness upon sadness – I tried rereading one of my favorite books of all time, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I couldn’t finish that either. I forgot how methodical the whole thing is. It’s chapter after chapter of facts and plot points with no emotion whatsoever. I remember being obsessed with this book as a child. What happened? Note to self: Stop trying to reread your childhood favorites.

Learning What I Love and Hate

Writing about the books I read every month has been strangely good for me. I plow through books so fast, it’s been nice to reflect on what I’ve read, what I’ve loved and what I’ve hated.

I’ve found that I love slightly quirky books. Lots of perspectives and to-the-point writing.

I hate flowery prose. I hate the word prose. Why say “her shining emerald eyes” when you can just say “green eyes”? And why are we talking about her eyes anyway?

Why turn everything into a metaphor when we perfectly understand what you mean without them? I’m of the school of thought that you “show, don’t tell”. And as I get older, I’m getting grouchier and grouchier about books that overcomplicated and over-share. I’m all for gorgeous imagery and meaningful phrases, but their overuse is a sign of a bad and incompetent writer trying to make up for a lack of real skill.

What have you read this month?

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  • Marian Schembari

    4 Books I Read in February

  • Aidana Lira

    4 Books I Read in February

  • diane shipley

    Books have been letting me down a bit lately, so I don’t have anything to recommend (I’m just going to babble on a bit).I liked Extremely Loud… a lot, although I found it traumatic (esp. the descriptions of Dresden) and so sad (I kep thinking of all the kids who lost parents in 9/11; that’s the trouble with a book inspired by true events). I really liked A Tree Grows, too, although it’s 6 years since I read it.

  • Lucy Smith

    If you like lots of different perspectives, have you read Joanne Harris? Okay, okay, so she did Chocolat, but she’s actually very versatile and a lot of her books are nothing like it. I like Blackberry Wine and Gentlemen and Players a lot – and I think you’d find Blue-Eyed Boy very interesting. The story plays out through internet chatrooms.

    • Marian Schembari

      Oh man, those all sound awesome! I actually never read Chocolat, so I have zero preconceived notions about it. Thanks heaps for the recommendation.

      • Lucy Smith

        Oh, well, if you’ve never read Chocolat then great. I happen to LOVE that book, but I know a lot of people don’t like it, probably because of the over-Hollywoodised movie adaptation. Joanne Harris is one of my favourite authors.

  • Marian Schembari

    I need book recommendations! Everything has been letting me down lately:

  • Becs

    I too love writing about the books I read, it helps me remember what I have read and I can flesh out what I liked and didn’t.

    DO NOT JOIN GOODREADS. It’s a suck-pit of time and your reading list will expand till you can not believe. (As you can probably tell, I mean the exact opposite of what I said. If you know what topics and prose you enjoy, you can find tons of reccs here.)

    • Marian Schembari

      LOL. Goodreads is, indeed, a total time suck. But I love it. It’s how I find all the books I read! Granted, it hasn’t been of much use lately, but there you go ;-)

    • @dbsalk

      I’ve been on Goodreads for a few years now, and don’t find it to be a “suck-pit of time.” :-p I really just use it to organize and keep track of the books I’ve read and want to read.  I don’t get caught up in the reviews and rarely if ever add a book to my “to-reads” list based on someone’s Goodreads recommendation.  I tend to add books that I see while browsing in a bookstore or read a favorable review about in a magazine.

  • Bertha Abraham

    I need book recommendations! Everything has been letting me down lately:

  • @dbsalk

    I remember walking by “Shantaram” countless times when I worked part-time as a bookseller at a now-defunct book retailer.  I always thought it looked interesting, and I would have to re-read the back cover to remind myself what it was about.  Every time, I would put it back on the shelf with the thought, “Eh… not for me.”  Glad you were able to confirm that. 

    I know you weren’t a fan of “Game of Thrones,” but I’m really enjoying it and am about 3/4 of the way through the first book.  I read a review on Goodreads by a woman who HATED the book, wrote a scathing review, and added it to a shelf labeled “Burning Books Doesn’t Look So Bad” (she has a lot of shelves… and, judging by the length and quantity of her book reviews, a lot of spare time, which makes me a little jealous). Seems like her issue wasn’t so much the story itself, but George R.R. Martin’s less than gentle treatment (putting it mildly) of his female characters.  Without getting myself in trouble, I’m curious if there are any extreme feminists out there who care to comment?  My main issue with the book is that it’s hard to picture children making the decisions they make at the age they are in the book (spoiler alert): an 8 year old taking up sword lessons, a 12 year old choosing her husband, a 15 year old leading an army of 20,000, etc.  In the HBO series, all the characters skew a bit older, and I think that’s more realistic (I know, I know… it’s a fantasy novel). 

    LOVED “The Night Circus.” It reminded me a bit of “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” which is also a really fabulous book if you have the time for it.

    Right now I’m also reading “Flashback” by Dan Simmons.  I’ve been wanting to see if he’s any good for a while now, and I don’t think he’s bad, but I’m not convinced enough to commit myself to a beast like “The Terror” (769 pages) or “Drood” (775 pages). “Flashback” (554 pages) is a novella by comparison.

  • Sara Beth Allen

    Major props to you for finishing Shantaram. It’s huge. I hear it will be a movie in the near future.

  • troublesometots

    I stand by my “give it 200 pages and it get’s amazing” stance on Game of Thrones!!!!

    Also dbsalk is totally on the money – Night Circus and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are both fantastic.

    Just finished The Scorpio Races which I LOVED. Also it was a pleasant surprise as I’ve been underwhelmed by Maggie Stiefvater’s earlier books (YA angsty love with fairies and lots of brooding). Some people have called foul on a book about fairy water horses but it’s definitely on my best of 2012 list.

    Currently reading The Warded Man which is standard fantasy fare with weak characters. Luckily I got it at the library.

    • @dbsalk

      Thanks for the vote of confidence! I don’t get told that I’m right very often. ;-)

      Btw, for all you book lovers out there, I discovered a great blog to suck more time out of your day: 

  • Giulietta

    The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins held my attention from the first sentence. Masterful book. For some reason, I’ve always liked period piece novels and movies. And my fav book of all, 100 Years of Solitude. Chilling ending. MIddlesex also held my attention. I know what you mean. The Other Side of Midnight took me forever to get into. Once in, I loved it.


  • Sandra Gulland

    I love @marianschembari … Love her blog, her no-holds-barred spirit.

  • Vishnu

    M, enjoying reading your book posts – so much easier to cross bad books off my own reading list. Have you read White Tiger by Arvind Adiga. I just finished it and it’s a book I couldn’t put down about India’s class struggles. It’s witty, dark, funny and not like too many other books I’ve read. And it’s not 1000 pages!?!

  • Khaled Allen

    I just finished the cider house rules. It was a depressing but engaging book. I think it was better suited for an older generation. Not for young people trying to maintain our delusion that dreams come true and we can change the world.

    I’ve heard really good things about shantaram and thought I’d read it eventually. Some people talk like that in real life. They scare me.

    • Marian Schembari

      Haha, they scare me too! Actually Khaled, the friend of mine who recommended it reminds me of you a bit. And he LOVED Shantaram so you might too ;-)

      Thanks for the info on Cider Hours. For right now, I want to keep that delusion as long as I can.

  • Sally2hats

    So many people rave about Shantaram. I loved the potrayal of India and like you wanted to go immediately.  But the guy is so macho and pompous, and all that spiritual nonsense when he was involved in a series of incredibly violent and misguided quests (after his initial bit of do-gooding) that although I finished it (for book club) it just made me incredibly angry.

  • Ben Allison

    New Blog Post 4 Books I Read in February – February and March have been The Time of the Half-Finished Novel. I'm get…

  • Anne Angala

    I have just finished reading “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. The story moved me. It brought me into tears and made me realized to make the most of my time, to be more productive and to spend quality and memorable times with my family because we only have one chance to live. We must make the most out of it. “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” -Randy Pausch

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