This Week, I Read… (2021 #8)

#25 – Life Before Man, by Margaret Atwood

  • Mount TBR: 24/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Standalone
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I finished this out of half out of stubbornness, and half out of a desire to see if Atwood would manage some kind of ending that elevated this beyond the standard infidelity plot I’m so used to seeing from male authors. She’s altered it slightly by focusing on an open marriage, though the sense is that it’s open somewhat involuntarily. Elizabeth’s attitude is “we’re both going to end up cheating and we both know it, so why not be adults about it?” I had hope that would lead to something more complex and interesting that “old man cheats with younger woman” or any other basic construction that passes for literature if enough other old men like it.

Atwood’s prose hasn’t yet developed the beauty I’m used to from her later works, but I can see the groundwork being laid, and an early exploration of some of the themes about nature and climate change that inform those works. But it’s all set dressing for a plot that doesn’t deserve it.

I think my reaction to this book was summed up in the scene, late in the story, when Nate is once again making excuses for his wife, Elizabeth, to his lover, Lesje. She had a bad childhood, he says. Didn’t everyone? Lesje snaps back. Lesje understands that it’s no excuse for being a terrible person, and I agree; but this story is just a series of terrible people being terrible to each other in ways that aren’t particularly interesting, and what’s more, it doesn’t really have any stakes. I don’t require that the characters I read be composed of sunshine and lollipops, possessed of unerring moral compasses and spotless reputations. Reading about flawed people is more interesting, when the story gives me a reason to care. But this book never did. So what if Elizabeth continues to torment Nate or delay the divorce proceedings? So what if Nate never fully cuts his wife out of his life in favor of moving on with his lover? So what if Lesje always feels inadequate compared to the women who came before her in Nate’s life? The only characters I ever felt the barest sliver of sympathy for were the children, but most of the time the story treats them like props because most of the time, so do their parents. As a result, they weren’t strongly developed themselves, because their existence was enough to keep Elizabeth and Nate together for so long, because Divorce is Bad for Children.

Now, a female author I respect has also failed to get me invested in a story about infidelity, so I think it’s safe for me to say that I despise that topic in fiction, the same way I had to try eggplant in a number of different dishes before I could be absolutely sure I hated the food itself and not the way it was prepared. But I hate eggplant, and I hate infidelity lit no matter who writes it.

#26 – Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

  • Mount TBR: 25/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Five stars, or six, or seventeen, or a hundred, for the importance of the true story contained within these pages.

Negative five, or ten, or fifty, for the presentation. This is a well-researched but poorly written book.

1. The writing style is a bad match for the subject matter. The overly sentimental tone is better suited to cheap human-interest pieces in pandering women’s magazines than a nonfiction title, and I was bewildered by the inclusion of scenes written with such detailed stage direction that the people who enacted them–real people who actually existed–felt like characters in a novel, which is not what I want from my nonfiction reads.

2. There’s no organizing principle. From page to page or even paragraph to paragraph, the narrative might jump wildly around in time and between people, and rarely could I see any reason why that was a logical step to take. Often a new person would be introduced mid-chapter and their story told for anywhere from half a page to several pages before it was explained why they were important to the main “character” of that chapter; not everything has to be a big reveal! Just tell me why this teacher or that supervisor or whatever authority figure is relevant to the story, don’t make that suspenseful! What purpose does it serve to hide that information for so long?

3. When it’s not overly sentimental, it’s incredibly dry. Big chunky paragraphs stuffed with abbreviations that I’m not always sure where previously introduced in full, lots of time spent on describing buildings that I don’t really feel like warranted description, lots of dropping names that never appeared again and whose relevance wasn’t obvious.

4. While I understand that the three women featured by this story are both real people, and different people, their narratives are so similar, and written to be overlapping in the confusing and muddled structure of the book, that it essentially felt like I was reading about one woman three times over, and that sort of meta-repetition is not doing this story any favors.

I don’t want to in any way diminish the importance of the real events, or even how crucial it is that this story gets told; I can applaud the determination of the author to see it done, while also thinking the end product is lackluster and could have been so much better.

#27 – The Tommyknockers, by Stephen King

  • Mount TBR: 26/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 60, just past 10%. It was a struggle to get that far, as this book dives right into some of King’s stylistic quirks I like the least. In particular, the main character has a sarcastic voice in her head that both won’t shut up in terms of frequency, and also tends to say the same thing over and over again.

Other poor reviews have quoted King on how this was his last/worst book before he sobered up, and yes, I think his altered state of mind probably had a lot to do with the quality, though I have to wonder if he was already too big in 1987 for anyone to bother editing him with the strictness this book might have benefited from.

But about the actual story, at least as far as I got? I’m tired of reading King writing about writer protagonists. I don’t like the way he spoke about Bobbi handling her unexpected/unexplained menstrual issues, I can’t quite put my finger on why but it seemed off to me, and that complaint comes up often enough in 60 pages that it’s an issue. I don’t particularly care if the buried object she found in the forest is a UFO or not–if it is, well, I’m way past my X-Files phase, and if it’s not (which I judge more likely) then I don’t have any idea what it is and I’m already tired of Bobbi believing it’s a UFO.

The whole thing was just so tiresome and repetitive. I have other, hopefully better, King novels still unread on my shelf, so I’m not going to bother any longer with this one.

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