I feel bad about your book

I usually try to keep my big mouth shut about books I don’t enjoy, primarily because I can’t imagine how disheartening it must be to pour months and years of work into something, only to have it torn to shreds by a bunch of know-nothing blobs like me.

Instead, if asked my opinion on anything I don’t care for, I use my mother’s diplomatic line: ‘I’m just not the intended audience.’ I like this because it isn’t insulting the intelligence or taste of people who do like that book/movie/show/band/painting/fashion trend and it acknowledges that things can be good even if I don’t like them.

I read a lot, but life is short and reading time is precious, so I steer clear of works I’m 99.99% sure will not be to my liking, no matter how popular they may be. Like 50 Shades of Grey. Or Harry Potter. Or anything that has a cover bearing a shirtless man wearing a kilt. Sorry, but I am not the intended audience.

Every once in a while, however, a book slips through the net and I am astounded by my dislike for something I thought I’d enjoy. Like I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron, which I finally got around to last week. It’s been in my reading queue for the entire thirteen years since its publication and based on all the great reviews and its presence on countless lists of ‘Top 10 Humour Titles’, I thought it would be a sure thing. Nope.

It turns out that despite also being a middle-aged white woman with a not-so-great neck, I am not her intended audience. The endless stream of procedures, grooming appointments and expensive creams and potions she describes as if they are all a necessity? Depressing. (And I don’t mean ‘oh, isn’t it depressing we women require all these interventions to keep looking passable,’ but that she seems to think that’s the case.) Griping about her enormous NYC apartment with rent that costs more per month than many people (including me) make in a year? Tone-deaf. Reminiscing how outrageously fat she grew when she went off to university and soared to (gasp) 125 pounds? Shut up.

Making the whole experience worse was that I listened to the audiobook version, read by the author herself. She…speaks…slowly. So slowly I kept looking for a way to play it at 1.25 speed. And she…approaches…a…punchline…by…slowing….down….even….more…..and……making……her……last……word……….[almost inaudible]. It made me crazy.

I know, I know, for someone who started this post bragging about keeping my snarky opinions to myself, this whole thing took an awfully negative turn. But believe me that even though Ephron died in 2012 and it’s impossible to hurt her feelings, I still feel a bit squeamish about openly criticising her work like this and I’ve been dithering for days about whether to say anything.

Is there value in sharing bad reviews and negative opinions? I’m not sure. Do I feel a teensy bit better about blurting my two cents? Actually, yes. Yes, I do.

French Exit by Patrick deWitt

From the back cover:

“Frances Price—tart widow, possessive mother, and Upper East Side force of nature—is in dire straits, beset by scandal and impending bankruptcy. Her adult son, Malcolm, is no help, mired in a permanent state of arrested development. And then there’s the Prices’ aging cat, Small Frank, who Frances believes houses the spirit of her late husband, an infamously immoral litigator and world-class cad whose gruesome tabloid death rendered Frances and Malcolm social outcasts.”

The first thing I need to say about this book is that I liked it a lot. It’s funny and sad and strange and unsettling and everything I like in a novel. Take another look at the clues in that teaser: tart widow, dire straits, beset by scandal, arrested development, immoral litigator, world-class cad, gruesome death, social outcasts. Come on! All that in the hands of Patrick deWitt = A+.

The second thing I need to say is that, in thinking about what to write about it, I have struggled. For more than a week. I haven’t been struggling with trying to come up with good things to say about it (see point #1), but struggling with the idea of heaping more praise upon a book that is already on the Giller short list and upon an author who is a genuine CanLit superstar.

Where does this come from, this reluctance to further celebrate the highly successful? Is it the Canadian in me? (No one should ever be too big a deal – it’s unseemly.) Or is it the mother in me? (Stop hogging all the attention, Patrick, and let everyone else have a turn, too.) Or is it the woman in me? (Please please please do not someday reveal yourself to be a sexist jackass and make me regret having touted your work.) Who knows?

All I can say for sure is that when I was reading French Exit, I had to keep telling myself to slow down and savour it. And that when I wasn’t reading it, I wished I was. And that I’d happily read it again.