Great American Folklore: Legends, Tales, Ballads, and Superstitions from All Across America, compiled by Kemp P. Battle, 3/5
I understand the need to document and collect traditional stories to preserve them for posterity, but if there is a way to do so while also creating a good reading experience, the editor of this volume has not discovered it. Most of these tales clearly belong to an oral tradition, so it feels strange to encounter them stripped of their correct community context, not to mention the awkward (potentially racist) attempts to convey vernacular in prose.
Why I read it: Somehow it ended up in my to-read pile, though I can’t remember where or when I acquired it.
It by Stephen King, 2/5
Stephen King is more than a popular writer, he’s a respected one, so I was excited to read one of his most famous books despite hating the 2017 film it inspired. Initially, I was impressed by the length and density of the plot, which caused me to forget characters’ names and refer back to previous chapters with an urgency not felt since I read War and Peace. However, after a while all the details and increasingly gross events lost their novelty and the thread of the story felt more like a patchwork of cliches. That same scattered aesthetic and uneven tone is what put me off the 2017 film version, which felt like 2 hours and 15 minutes of movie trailers for every horror film made in the last 40 years. I didn’t really experience any feelings of “horror” until near the end of the book, when I encountered King’s casual description of ritual group sex between children. At that point, I lost respect for the author and will likely not read anything else by him.
Why I read it: I was looking for something entertaining to read on the plane during our Scotland trip and while browsing in Half Price Books, realized I’d never read anything by Stephen King before.
This dense historical fiction starts with a barrage of names and characters reminiscent of the panic-inducing first chapter of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Unfortunately, the barrage doesn’t seem to let up and I spent most of the book feeling both unable and unwilling to follow all the subtle intrigues and sift through previous pages for hints about who that one guy is and what on earth his cryptic comments mean. At first, I blamed myself for reading too quickly or not being smart enough to understand the intricacies of the story. Then, I started to suspect that the author was responsible for the frustrating obscurity with which the book tangled along and purposefully used inscrutable characters to half-hint at important aspects of the plot through scenes and conversations that would only make sense in retrospect (if then).
In addition, I didn’t feel that the author did a very good job of integrating the story with its historical setting in 15th-century Bruges. The characters didn’t feel real, the dialogues all felt very modern and there were those dreaded episodes where “history” happens, G. A. Henty style–the story is paused so that a dry list of historical events can take place, consisting of stuff like Duke So and So having a battle with ex-King What’s His Name over some historical province that I can’t be bothered to take out an atlas to locate. For a story that hinges on character development (this is only the first of eight books in the series about Niccolò, a bastard dyer’s apprentice who makes his way to the top of the food chain), there wasn’t much development. Yes, some of the characters were complicated, but mostly because they acted unpredictably and inconsistently. Dunnett seems to think that it’s deep to make a character act out of character, but if the action is not a result of believable motives and growth, then the effect is off-putting, not illuminating. I didn’t really like or understand many of the characters in the book and certainly can’t face reading the second book in the series.
Now, I am no fan of historical fiction in general, so I can understand that Dunnett has many loyal admirers and I can even imagine a reader who might adore this book: someone with a long attention span, lots of free time and an unhealthy interest in the prosaic details of historical economics and politics (or at least, a willingness to be bribed into tolerance of these details by the promise of a sex scene or two).
[Why I read it: it was passed on to me in defeat by Tom from choir (whose reference in conversation to Tom Jones happily inspired me to read that classic), who in turn received it from fellow choir member Paula.]
The necessarily limited length of these articles means that Lewis doesn’t have time to fully develop and defend his opinions, but they are still a joy to read and cover a stimulating variety of topics (in addition to the ever-present subject of Christianity) such as history, philosophy, education, and morality. Some of the essays have not aged well and some would be of little interest to the average reader, but overall they are a nice supplement to Lewis’ more in-depth works.
[Why I read it: It seems that just when I think I’ve read everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote, something else turns up. I think I picked this unfamiliar title up at some used bookstore or other.]