Did I really read that book?

A while back I read The Good Soldier.  As I did, I kept having the feeling that I had read it already.  But this was never more than an occasional niggling at the back of my mind — a scene, a character would seem vaguely familiar, but then for long stretches the feeling would disappear.

Maybe I did read The Good Soldier, and its memory simply disintegrated in my brain over the years.  I didn’t like it this time around, and it’s unlikely to have made much of an impression on me in high school or college, when I was vacuuming up novels daily.  But it’s also possible that I didn’t in fact read it — that the scenes and characters just reminded me of something else, also now lost.  Beats me.  Memory, modern science tells us, is fragile and unreliable.  We don’t know what we think we know.  (This recent Radiolab podcast tells the story of a woman who confidently identifies the man who had brutally raped her, only to find out years later that she had been mistaken.)

All of this is by way of an introduction to the following lovely review of The Distance Beacons from a very perceptive reader named D. Jensen:

What I can’t believe is that no one else has reviewed this book. Perhaps it is because this is the second (and hopefully not the last) that Bowker has offered us.
It has been a long, long time since I read this book, but I do remember it as a better than “a good ‘un”.

Walter Sands, the only P.I. in a post-apocalyptic (no longer United) States is asked to search for a rebel organization that is threatening to assassinate the President when she comes to Boston to campaign in favor of the New England states to rejoin the union.
Along with his friends and roommates, Walter uncovers much more than he or his employer expect.

Another great read from Bowker. I think that I like it that he never really describes the nuclear war that created this future mish-mash country. It was what it was and now the survivors are just trying to rebuild their lives and perhaps a country that may or may not resemble the earlier version. There is no sweeping view of this time; there is just the observations of the people “on the ground” so to speak. Bowker knows how to keep the characters relevant and relate-able and how to build the tension in the story to keep the reader turning pages–or flipping screens.

Worth the time where so many are not.

It’s all so very true!  Except for the part where he (she?) says “It’s been a long, long time since I read this book.”  As I may have mentioned here, The Distance Beacons was written a while ago (with a different title), but it ended up in a carton in my basement after Bantam declined to print a sequel to Dover Beach.  No more than half a dozen people read it back then, and it’s only the e-book revolution that has allowed it to see the light of day now.  D. Jensen is having a Good Soldier moment.

Unless, you know, my memory is playing tricks on me.

Another bad review for Senator! (Also, reading a book on an iPhone)

At the risk of running counter to the purpose of this stupid blog, which is to persuade people to buy my stupid ebooks, I’d like to highlight a one-star review of Senator that just showed up on Amazon:

Too soon after the elections. Just one more book that proves that politicians are first grade liars, and will do anything to stay in power.

It’s easy to be snarky about a review like this. The obvious remedy for the reader’s problem with the book is to read it when she’s not sick of politics. It’s not the book’s fault that she read it right after the election!

On the other hand, this highlights something important about the fickleness of everyone’s judgments about books (and movies and music…).  We encounter them at a specific time and place, and our judgments about them are inevitably colored by those circumstances.  Sometimes you’re too young for a book; sometimes you’re too old.  The books I enjoyed before I had kids may not be the ones I’d enjoy after I had kids.  It’s impossible to be completely objective in your assessments of books, and an author shouldn’t blame a reader for not trying.

Based on a recommendation from one of my very fine readers, I recently read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, which is number 30 on the list of the greatest English http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/13/The_Good_Soldier_First_Edition%2C_Ford_Madox_Ford.jpglanguage novels of the twentieth century.  (He changed the title of the novel, and also his last name.  Read Wikipedia to find out why.) Just for kicks, I read the book in the Kindle app on my new iPhone.  And I hated it!  But now I’m never likely to be able to fully disentangle my assessment of the novel from the modality by which I encountered it.  I thought that reading a book on an iPhone was pretty claustrophobic, with the small screen size giving you such a small view of the text.  And guess what — I found The Good Soldier to be claustrophobic as well, with the narrator’s obsessive telling and retelling of his story of the interactions among several decidedly unpleasant people.  So, what can I make of the novel?  Reading it was at best a two-star experience for me, but maybe reading a leather-bound critical edition of the book would have caused me to give it an extra star or two.  Maybe if I hadn’t read parts of it while waiting to get my hair cut, or during half-time of a Patriots game in which the secondary once again wasn’t getting the job done…

That’s why an author should be eternally grateful when he encounters readers who seem to understand and enjoy what he’s trying to do.  There are so many ways in which that can fail to happen.