Thursday, December 1, 2011

Caryl wonders: What Makes a Book Worth Reading?

Lately, I have been stalled in my reading. Mostly because I am reading everybody else's recommendations. (Right now, my new book club's choice--Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers is simmering on my Sony reader.) The last book of my choosing was Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, a slender hardbound I loved, both for the writing and its particular truth: that memory is unreliable, that truth is subjective.

My teacher-friend, who I wrote about in the recent Thanks post, suggested two books she thought I’d like, both by a young author, J. Courtney Sullivan. Commencement, Smith's debut novel, is the story of four Smith College friends and their “graduate school of life”, as I call it—their escape from the cloistered ivy-covered walls of an elite women’s college and entry into the unprotected adult world. Sullivan followed with Maine, a fictional study of a matriarchal Irish Catholic family at their beach house in Maine, three generations of women each dealing with their own demographically-correct challenge: motherhood, marriage, legacy.

I read them, I liked them, I’m not sure I can recommend them to you. They were were well-written-- even if the structure of alternating narrators in both books was repetitive and felt sometimes like an MFA exercise. They were certainly engaging; when I left my copy of Maine at Maryl’s beach house over the weekend, I ordered up the e-version to find out the ending.

My teacher-friend liked the books, I presume, because they were an insight into a familiar world. She’s Irish and a (lapsed) Catholic, her kids all have Ivy-League degrees and are forging their way in the world. Much of the same could be said of me (no Ivy degrees, but my girls are the products of a liberal arts education as well) but the books felt like "lit lite" to me. After reading them, I looked up Wikipedia’ definition of another common term for this genre of writing: chick-lit. Though it can be a derogatory label sometimes--though not necessarily so-- I think it applies here. The talented Sullivan is a still a chick, if you will. Her truths feel too new—not test-driven. I have no doubt she will grow in her craft—in time.

TIME! That’s my test, I’m afraid, of what I read. Is it worth my time? Does this writer know enough about life or has had a unique experience or a unique take on a common experience that can show me something about life or myself. Writing may be one of those things that actually gets better with age, where truth is not crafted but home-grown and then dissected, examined in the light of longevity.

I recently complimented a fiction writer I know (her last book published over a decade ago was The Black Madonna) on a short story she had written in her youth published in a long-defunct literary magazine. "It's wonderful,"I told her, "Nearly perfect. You should be writing now."  "But that was 25 years ago," she protested.  Think how much better your writing will be now, I thought to myself --in your second life. Writing always improves when you have a sense of an ending . . .


  1. Hi "Caryl",
    Also just finished "A Sense of an Ending" and I was thinking of re-reading it. How often do we want to do that?

    I found it sad and full of the truths we look for when we read for instruction on how to live our lives. Not particularly hopeful- he is essentially honest about aging- loneliness , the feeling of possibilities shutting down , doors closing and most interesting how misconceptions color a view of the past. There's probably more going on in the book that I missed- definitely worth a second look...

    Rose Burlingham

  2. Thanks, Caryl, for the book suggestion. I've never read anything by Julian Barnes. Now I'll check this out from my library.

    What is true and how clear are my memories are questions I've been grappling with as I write my new blog, The Diary of the Vixen Divorcee. In it, I also am exploring my second life.

    Again, many thanks for the suggestion and for your fine writing. Georgia Stone

  3. Thanks, Georgia, for stopping by. I love your blog! Really an original way
    to use photographs. Our memories of our marriages are always flawed. If
    we didn't reconstruct them, we might come to believe we could never
    love again. Keep moving bravely forward into your second life. Maryl and
    I are happy to have a new member in the club!