Saturday, December 22, 2007

An Emotional Reading Experience...or Not

by Mike Crawmer

There was a time not all that long ago when I would read anything. Now I have trouble finishing books. I seem to have lost my “emotional bearings” in the books I read.

I don’t know if that makes any sense. So let me try to explain.

Exhibit No. 1: A cozy set on an island off the coast of Maine, this cliché-filled book comes complete with the spoiled cat, the struggling B&B owner trying to forget a failed romance, and the numbskull law enforcement officer. There’s lots to keep the reader’s interest early on: The protagonist discovers her cleaning lady’s bloody body in a cranberry bog, argues with her best friend, and wonders why her boyfriend is shunning her. (Well, duh, lady, maybe it’s because he saw you kissing your ex-fiance?!). But, emotionally, it all amounts to nothing--the B&B owner has the emotional depth of a gnat. Any regrets and doubts she has are mere trifles that don’t get in the way of making that next batch of brownies. If I had a working fireplace, that book would be ashes by now.

Exhibit No.2: “The Glass Castle: A Memoir” by Jeannette Walls. Sure, to make it to the bookshelf the modern memoir must take the reader on an emotional house-of-horrors ride featuring outrageous, immature parents who should never have been allowed to make whoopee, weird siblings, criminal cousins, cruel teachers, lecherous priests and perfect recall of 35-year-old conversations. “The Glass Castle” is on another level altogether. Maybe it’s the matter-of-fact way it’s written, but I find the tale so gut-wrenchingly horrific—its emotions so raw and painful—that I have to put it aside and reassure myself that all of life is not so horrid.

So, there’s my dilemma. I refuse to continue plodding through Exhibit No. 1 because its portrayal of the protagonist’s emotions is flat, trite and unbelievable. On the other hand, I can take Exhibit No. 2 only in small doses because the emotions are so robust, explosive, and nighmare-inducing.

Now, I don’t see myself as a wimp with no taste. I grew up reading the Old Testament and Edgar Allan Poe, after all. I devoured “Angela’s Ashes” and was hooked on “The Kite Runner,” some passages of which are truly hair-raising. I wept with Isabel Allende while reading “Paula,” her loving memoir of her daughter’s illness and death.

I think a lot of my angst about this is contained within this line I heard on an NPR program. The commentator said, in essence, that men connect with other men through doing; women connect with other women through talking. Maybe that’s what I need to look for in books: more doing, less talking. Of course, all action, no emotion would get tiresome pretty soon. Someone out there must be writing books with a balance of action, talk, and emotion. Any recommendations, folks?


Tory said...

I find the same thing as I get older: I'm picky to the point of having a hard time finding things to read.

Of course, I don't have time to read them, anyway. So I guess it all works out in the end. :-)

Gina said...

OK, Mike, I'm sure you saw this coming. READ THE HARRY POTTER SERIES!

Nancy said...

Like you, Mike, I am easily bored by a lot of books, and I toss them aside. Show me something new--that's what I'm asking of authors. Or hook me and take me on an emotional ride. You're smart to analyze what it is that grabs you.

Martha Reed said...

Mike, as the person who gave you the cozy, I'm feeling a tremendous amount of gift guilt! But I do sympathize with your emotional dilemna, I think not connecting has to do with the writer, and whether or not they took the time to dig deep enough into the character to actually create something worth connecting to.

I'll try to do better next year - maybe give you a Lippman or a Picault. Cheers!