Three Abandoned Books

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

I initially struggled with this book – the Spanish, the swearing and the numerous footnotes all combined to distance me from the characters. I persevered and after about 30 pages I adjusted to the writing style and began to enjoy it. Unfortunately things went downhill after that. The plot moved very slowly (if at all) and I became bored. It seemed like the same old coming-of-age tale that I’d read hundreds of times before, but mixed up with side stories from all sorts of other family members that I struggled to connect with. After about 100 pages I realised I had no interest in finding out what happened next and so I abandoned it.

The Flame Alphabet

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

Five words from the blurb: epidemic, children, speech, lethal, disappears

The Flame Alphabet was recently selected by Flavorwire as one of the 10 of the Strangest Apocalypses in Literature; I think you’ll struggle to find a weirder premise than this. The book is set in a world where the sound of children is toxic to adults.  One couple, Claire and Sam, become physically unable to live with the speech of their daughter and so decide to abandon her. The plot gets increasingly weird and after 100 pages I could no longer cope and so abandoned it.

The writing was of outstanding quality and there were moments of genius sprinkled throughout the text, but the narrative was disjointed and I became increasingly frustrated by the bizarre plot twists. I think some of the more profound sections of the book went over my head because I do not have a strong knowledge of the Jewish religion.

We endured lurid speculation on what we might be doing in the woods. We were called forest Jews and in the newspapers cartoons depicted what awful work we’d undertaken. The Jew, in these images, sits on a jet of steam that charges him with a special knowledge. God’s air, heated to a vapor, is blown over the mystic. The Jew fits his sticky red mouth over the nozzle and sucks. Into a vein in the Jew’s leg comes the cold, clear liquid.

If you’re willing to put the effort into trying to piece together the complex message of this book then I’m sure you’ll be rewarded, but it was all a bit too much for me. 

Little Women (Oxford World's Classics)

Little Women by Louisa M Alcott

Five words from the blurb: delightful, girls, womanhood, world, romantic

I know that this is a classic, loved by millions, but I’m afraid it annoyed me from the start. It falls into that ‘charming’ category that has me running away screaming!

“How nice my handkerchiefs look, don’t they? Hannah washed and ironed them for me, and I marked them all myself,” said Beth looking proudly at the somewhat uneven letters which had cost her such labor.

I found the girls irritating. Their discussions were childish and shallow and their “problems” were so insignificant that I felt annoyed at having to hear about them.

I abandoned it after about 40 pages. 

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  1. I’m bad at abandoning books (still) once started, but I’m a lot better about not starting some at all… The Junot Diaz will I think be one of those to cull from the TBR.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, Abandoning books takes a lot of will power, but it gets easier with practice. I recommend giving it a try – why not practice with Oscar Wao – you may end up loving it!

  2. David says:

    I have no particular interest in reading ‘The Flame Alphabet’ but am very tempted to buy it for the amazing jacket alone – Peter Mendelsund is a genius. Thank goodness Granta is publishing it here and have stuck with the original Knopf cover which many UK publishers wouldn’t have been brave enough to do (just compare the UK cover of ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ from your TBR pile with its fabulous US one – a travesty).

    1. Jackie says:

      David, I agree that the cover is outstanding – it is eyectaching as well as beautifully designed. I’m not sure I agree with you about the ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ cover. I prefer the UK one, but perhaps I’m just used to seeing it?

  3. Laura says:

    I abandoned Oscar, too, and my reaction was pretty much exactly like yours. I just didn’t “get” it and couldn’t really understand how it won the Pulitzer Prize! I read Little Women in my teens and loved it, but I wonder if it might feel dated now. It doesn’t seem like a book that would appeal to you.

    Hope you’re reading something more enjoyable now!

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, I may well have enjoyed Little Women more as a teenager – I can’t remember when I first developed my aversion to charming! It did feel a little dated, but I know a lot of people love that period atmosphere. I prefer my female characters to have a bit more about them.

  4. Charlie says:

    In Little Women their issues are shallow and silly but they do get a bit better because of the meetings with poorer people. And Jo is a good strong heroine. That said if 40 pages in has already led you past the charity, I understand why you wouldn’t have liked it. It is pretty slow going to boot. The messages in it are good, but not quite as favourable to us as other older works still are.

    1. Jackie says:

      Charlie, It is good to hear that their attitudes are changed by poorer people, but I can tell that they will be the sort of people who will always irritate me. I wish I’d read it when I was younger as I’m sure that I’d have enjoyed it more then – I think I had a lot more tolerance for slow plots and the girls would have interested me much more. Thanks for letting me know about its positive side.

  5. Stephanie says:

    Little Women was one of my favorites as a kid but I don’t know how I would respond to it as an adult!

    1. Jackie says:

      Stephanie, That is one reason I’m scared to reread my childhood favourites. I recommend avoiding it and treasuring the memories you have :-)

  6. Jo says:

    Jackie, I am so struggling with Little Women but have yet to abandon it. Could not read it when I was a child still cannot now. There to me seems something so irritating about the characters that I gave up and put it to one side ( or ignore it on my kindle in fact ) I have challenged myself to finish it this year, but I think I will just give in gracefully with it.

    Too many other books out there that need reading.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, It is good to hear that I’m not the only one struggling with it. I often have a probem with rich people in books – I prefer to read about people with real problems. Hope you manage to find an enaging read next time!

  7. I’m really interested to try The Flame Alphabet. And I’ve tried Little Women several times with no luck. Sorry these didn’t work out for ya!

    1. Jackie says:

      Andi, The Flame Alphabet has some amazing sections and can’t be accused of lacking originality! I’m sure there is a lot to be gained from reading it, but be prepared for some hard work. I hope you enjoy it.

  8. A pity you had abandon some more books, but if they’re no good (to you)…

    I’ve never had an interest in Oscar Wao but The Flame Alphabet sounded like fun to me. I actually DO know bits and bobs about Jewish religion, having read quite a few Chaim Potoks in my younger years. Little Women was OK for me, but nothing special.

    Hope you find some nice new books in your nice new library!

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, Sadly I don’t even know if my lack of Jewish knowledge was to blame for my struggles with this book. I’d love to know if someone who knows a lot about the Jewish religion also finds much of it confusing. I’d love to know your thoughts on this one.

  9. Kathleen says:

    I’ve had friends try to push the Diaz book on me and am glad I have resisted. I have a feeling I wouldn’t enjoy it much either!

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, It seems to be a book that divides opinion. You have more tolerance for slow plots than me so you may well love it. I have no idea how to predict these things!

  10. Christina says:

    I still don’t know how I feel about Oscar! I do know that my understanding and appreciation of the novel was completely changed once I switched from print to audiobook. I with you on Little Women, but I have never heard of The Flame Alphabet.

    1. Jackie says:

      Christina, It is interesting to know that the audio book worked well. I can see why that might happen and will keep an eye out for it in the library.

  11. MoniqueReads says:

    I struggled with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because of the reasons that you listed. I finished but could not understand what all the fuss was about. My roommate at the time loved it.

    Little Women was one of my favorite books back when I was in middle school. I remember reading it the first time and crying. The second time, I was annoyed a lot. I didn’t remember it being that religious when I was younger, but as an adult I almost gave up because of that and other reasons.

    1. Jackie says:

      Monique, I also found the religion in Little Women a little bit annoying. It wasn’t enough for me to give up, but it didn’t help with my appreciation of it. Interesting to see how your opinion of it changed as you aged. I wonder if children today would enjoy it, or if it has dated too much.

      1. MoniqueReads says:

        I would hope a child of today could appreciated it and see the charm. I was nice to my sister for weeks afterwards.

        1. Jackie says:

          Monique, LOL! I was always nice to my sister!!

  12. Athira says:

    I keep hearing mixed things about Oscar Wao so I’ve never been feeling pulled towards it. Little Women is on my wishlist though, but I know what you mean about the charming category – those quotes you mention do sound silly.

    1. Jackie says:

      Athira, I tend to prefer modern literature and often struggle with period fiction – especially when it focuses on people like this. I hope that you enjoy it more than I did.

  13. sey says:

    Wow, surprised at the lack of appreciation of literature!
    Diaz paints a realistic portrait of life for a Dominican immigrant, and for marginalized members of society in particular. This is not a pretty picture and the language is real. His writing comes out of the “new” school of realism being taught in MFA programs worldwide.
    “Little Women” on the other hand was a reactionary piece for the time period. It was written in Massachusetts around the time of the Civil War to negate the horrors of war. Alcott lived among a community of abolitionists. Women had to stay home and put up a “brave front.” Puritan New England was also very religious. If you read a classic, you must accept and understand the time period from which its written.
    If you don’t like a book, I agree, don’t read it, but accept it for what it is before you start or don’t bother.

    1. That’s a bit strict, Sey!

      I also abandon books – sometimes I’m not in the mood for a certain book or the story doesn’t grab me at all.

      I don’t agree you should “accept a book for what it is” in the sense that you mean. I think a book is a book and whatever the reader wishes to get out of reading it, that’s their own business. Even if you don’t think it’s fair or warranted to abandon a book, it’s the reader’s time that is involved and they might want to spend it differently instead.

      1. MoniqueReads says:

        Judith, I would like your comment if I could.

        Sey, I understand the literary merits of both books. Just because I did not enjoy the story or the authors writing doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate literature.

        1. Jackie says:

          Judith & Monique, I’d Like your comments if I could too. :-)

    2. Jackie says:

      SEY, The only reason I attempted these books was because they are classed as great literature. I do appreciate what they are trying to do, but that doesn’t mean I will enjoy reading them. I like to keep an open mind and (unlike a lot of people) am willing to try any book. But my time is precious and I’m no longer willing to plough my way through a book that I’m not enjoying. The problem is that I have no way of knowing whether or not I’ll enjoy a book before starting. I like to be honest about my thoughts on a book and hope I explain my reasons for abandoning a book clearly enough for others to know if they’ll have a similar problems or not.

  14. stujallen says:

    I ve only read the Junot Diaz ,I found it ok ,in fact I felt it maybe was a bit hyped in us ,I ve not abandoned any books recently ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, I’m not sure the Diaz was hyped – it just won the Pulitzer Prize :-) I can see why people like it, but it wasn’t to my taste.

  15. Jeane says:

    Glad to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t care for Little Women. I did make it all the way through, but don’t think I’ll read it again and know I’m not an Alcott fan. I did like the newer movie version, though. Go figure.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeane, I haven’t seen any movie version of Little Women – I guess that is a good way for me to find out the plot. I think I’ll reserve a copy now. :-)

  16. Emma says:

    Is it bad that I abandoned The Flame Alphabet after only about 10 pages? I was so excited to read it, as I loved the whole idea….but the writing style really grated on me… it felt like he was using too many words to say the simplest of things…

    1. Jackie says:

      Emma, I don’t think it is bad to abandon a book after 10 pages – the writing style is obvious from the start and it didn’t change as far as I read (and others have said it continues like that until the end) I sometimes liked the fact he used lots of words, but the fragmented nature confused me. It is good to know I’m not alone in struggling with it.

  17. I’ve read the Diaz from your list, and from what I remember, I quite enjoyed it. I struggled with the colloquialism to a large extent, but, other than that, I didn’t really have any complaints. It is the same ol’ run-off-the-mill coming-of-age story, but, it’s also rich in historical and cultural references.

    As for Little Women – well, I read it when I was eleven, and I enjoyed it then. I’m not sure how I’d cope reading it now.

    Sorry to hear that you didn’t get along with these three.

    1. Jackie says:

      anothercookiecrumbles, Yes. I did like some of the historical references in Oscar Wao, but I also felt that a lot of it went over my head. It assumed a lot more knowledge than I had and while I love to learn new things I prefer to do so from the book instead of stopping to check wikipedia every other page. Need to find a more compelling book on the subject. :-)

  18. JoV says:

    I don’t blame you. I abandoned The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz after first chapter too! I read Little Women when I was really young, it would be interesting to find out if I find these women irritating, I’ll probably do! ;)

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, Glad to know I’m not alone :-)

  19. Christy says:

    I know I’m late in commenting, but I actually have something to say about two out of the three books, so I’m going to go ahead.

    I have read Junot Diaz’ book but don’t remember much about it now. I think I did like the footnotes and the references to sci-fi pop culture. I read the book because Junot Diaz was going to be at the National Book Festival in D.C. and I’d heard such good things about the book. Diaz was a good speaker, but I wasn’t bowled over by the book.

    As for Little Women, I think I cannot summon interest in it because of fear of the cutesy sentimentality you allude to. I did try reading “Good Wives” (also known as the second half of Little Women) in high school but never finished it then. I’ll be content to rewatch the 1994 film version. I’ve seen it countless times. I had a professor once reference the film in an American lit class because we were talking about transcendentalism and the film version incorporates those ideas explicitly into a few of the characters’ conversations. (This is neither here nor there, but I took that American Lit class during my study abroad semester in England. My professor was Dutch but for the longest time I thought her accent was just another regional British accent.)

    1. Jackie says:

      Christy, It is never too late to comment :-)

      I think my problem was that I’m not familiar with sc-fi culture and so most of those references went over my head. I can see why people who know about those sort of things would really enjoy it. It is good to know that Diaz is a good speaker. I’d be interested to hear him talk at some point.

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