Columns > Published on April 26th, 2013

Life-Changers and Soul-Crushers: 3 Books I Feel Blessed to Have Read & 3 I Wish I Could Obliterate from My Memory

There are books, and there are good books. There are books that are not so good, but that are good reads. And then there are the books that, when you finish reading them, make you feel emotional, inspired, full of love for language and hope for humanity. These are the books that you can’t forget, the LIFE CHANGERS.

And then, there are bad books. Sure, there are bad books that are still enjoyable, but the books I’m talking about are really bad. So bad, in fact, that when you finish the book, you feel cheated, sullied, and demoralized. You rue the day you ever learned to read, you curse your teachers and even your own eyeballs for enabling you to read something fit only for a bonfire. You can’t forget these books, either; they are the SOUL CRUSHERS.

Of course, opinions vary (and I’m sure you all will have plenty to say after this article), but each of these books affected me and my approach to writing and reading in either a profoundly positive or a profoundly negative way. In order to keep the list in check, I narrowed it down to books written and published in the last 50 years.

Number 3 Life Changer

The Bluest Eye  by Toni Morrison

This book is not easy to read—domestic violence, incest, racism, self-loathing—it breaks your heart on every page. But the language, oh the language, is intricate and beautiful. Each word, even those that describe horrific things, dances off the last. I read this book both in high school and in college, and even as naive as I was, I could sense the importance of the lessons I could learn from both the story and from Morrison's excellent writing. Each time I reached the back cover, I felt amazed by Ms. Morrison’s ability to make beautiful the story of an ugly family.

You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question.... And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.

Being a white girl with blue eyes, this book definitely broke into my comfort zone and forced me to look through the eyes of someone who could not see herself in a positive light. The Breedlove family is despicable, horrifyingly desperate, the kind of sight most people would prefer to look away from—and yet Morrison forces the reader to look and look closely. Her writing is gentle and yet brutally honest.

Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel.

The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant.

This book made me want to learn to write adeptly about the messy parts of human existence. It made me want to understand my world better, and make myself a better person.

Number 3 Soul Crusher

The Da Vinci Code  by Dan Brown

Many would argue that this is one of the those books that falls under “bad but entertaining.” And maybe it is, but I was handed this book by my college roommate who swore to me that it was one of the best books she’d read. My mother, too, recommended it, as did my Grandpa. Generally, I avoid trendy books until they have been vetted by the literary public, and this book had been out for a while already (it was in paperback by the time I got it), and I was hearing nothing but good things.

So, when spring break came along, I decided to set aside my pile of heady academic titles and enjoy this book. I should have known what I was in for when I finished the first chapter and stereotypical movie-suspense music started up in my head. Duh duh duuuuh! (I remember thinking as I read the book that it was fit only for a B-movie released straight to DVD. Little did I know Mr. Tom Hanks and my adored favorite Audrey Tautou would prostitute themselves in the movie version of this crap-pile.)

“These books can't possibly compete with centuries of established history, especially when that history is endorsed by the ultimate bestseller of all time."

Faukman's eyes went wide. "Don't tell me Harry Potter is actually about the Holy Grail."
"I was referring to the Bible."

Faukman cringed. "I knew that.”

I was determined to like the book, but I started to get mad at every single cliffhanger chapter ending, each predictable friend-turned-foe, each overly-explained clue, and each twist of the unbelievable love story of the action-hero professor and his sexy French cohort (BARF!). By the time Dr. Robert Langdon hit London, I was downright offended by Dan Brown, and when I finished the last page, I actually chucked the book across my dorm room! Did he hate his readers so much as to produce a book full of the most predictable, most stereotypical, and most redundant collection of cookie-cutter characters and Hallmark-card platitudes ever?! It certainly seemed that way to me.

History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books—books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, 'What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’

Worst of all, he sullied legitimately interesting historical landmarks, artworks, and holy sites by insinuating their involvement in his oh-so-trite plot...and…people BELIEVED his insinuations. As I read the book, I wondered—does Dan Brown think we are so gullible as to buy (literally and figuratively) this load of shite he was selling us?!?! I guess the answer is, yes, we are and we will.

Number 2 Life Changer

The Namesake  by Jhumpa Lahiri

I read Lahiri’s short story “Nobody’s Business” in college, and as soon as I was finished with it, I read it again.  When Emperor of Maladies came out, I tore through that. So I was so excited when her novel The Namesake appeared in my local bookstore. What I love about Lahiri’s writing is that her tone is unhurried, her syntax is uncomplicated, her characters are un-extraordinary. She doesn’t go out of her way to create over-the-top characters with unbelievable adventures. Her stories have the same sometimes boring, sometimes joyful, sometimes melancholic, sometimes tragic arcs that our real lives have. She does all this while still managing to be engaging and original. She is a writer who I’d love to emulate, yet I know I could never pull off her effortless style.

For being a foreigner Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy — a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity of from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.

The descriptions of each character are cupped lovingly in the palms of Lahiri’s gentle prose, and the reader feels no separation between the emotions of the characters on the page and her own self. The premise of the story is straight-forward: a father names his son for a favorite writer and a life-altering tragedy, and the son struggles through a life-long embarrassment of having an unusual name before he learns to appreciate it.

The unusual name is no real burden in itself, but because Gogol is already the child of immigrants, he is especially sensitive to standing out. Balanced against his mother, who tries so hard to retain her connection to her Bengali past that she never fully adjusts to her life in America, Gogol’s wish to assimilate, to be a part of a “normal” American family is authentic and genuinely moving.

Gogol remembers having to do the same thing when he was younger, when his grandparents died...He remembers, back then, being bored by it, annoyed at having to observe a ritual no one else he knew followed, in honor of people he had seen only a few times in his life...Now, sitting together at the kitchen table at six-thirty every evening, his father's chair empty, this meatless meal is the only thing that seems to make sense.

 I was so transported by the story of this family and by the prose that seemed never to have to exert itself, that even as an American-born girl with generic, euro-trash roots, I could feel the ache of homesickness, the alienation, and the desire for assimilation acutely.

Number 2 Soul Crusher

Freedom  by Jonathan Franzen

I pined for this book, and when I finally found the precious time to read this contemporary family epic, I was so excited. I’d heard such good things about it. It won awards. It was bound to be delicious. I’d read the excerpt that was published in the New Yorker, and it seemed so promising—the idyllic yuppification of a Twin Cities suburb and the ordinary family poised on the edge of intrigue. I waited years between reading the excerpt and reading the full novel. I was assured by the prizes, accolades, and frequent appearance on my indie bookstore staff’s choice shelf that is was likely to be an excellent and satisfying read, a sure future classic and prized addition to my overcrowded book shelves. In short, my expectations were high.

This book, too, is a family epic. It follows the demise of a middle class Minnesotan family torn apart by the belief that each of them are destined for a life greater than the one they exist in. The mother pines for the good-for-nothing musician friend of her husband, the husband thinks he can save the world by tricking a rich tycoon into turning one of his eco-disasters into a wildlife protection area, and the son thinks he is destined for some hot chick instead of the neighbor girl who he has been having sex with since he was 12, and who is totally obsessed with him.  Then there is the musician who rejects fame and fortune because he thinks his art is above such pedestrian concerns. Every character is hateable. Only the daughter (who, for some reason, is the only central character whose voice we never hear) has any redeeming qualities. She, at least, lives up to her potential and doesn't yearn for more. Then again, her role in the book seems, thus, pointless. Even the nosy neighbor across the street gets some air time, but not the daughter.

"It’s all circling around the same problem of personal liberties,” Walter said. “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to."

In fact, you hate the characters SO MUCH that their eventual evolutions are wholly unbelievable and completely unsatisfying. By the time they get their acts together—either as teachers, or finally-attentive boyfriends, or as saviors of a local bird population—you don’t even care. You kinda just wish they would die. In fact, the only character who could become lovable is killed. Which I guess is sort of realistic, right? The nice ones always die and the assholes live on?

While not badly written—Franzen has enough skill to avoid insulting my intelligence, thank goodness—this book, like its characters, is full of ambition that ultimately falls flat. You can almost sense his desperation to write a truly moving tale of The American Family, but it fails. Unless, of course, he means to say that American families are hateable and destined for self-induced failure. And if he is, great, but WHY DID IT TAKE SO MANY PAGES TO MAKE THAT POINT?

This book was a profound disappointment and a proof to me that my preference for the tried and true classics is not ill-founded, for if this book is representative of where American literature is headed—please, pretty please, let me off at the next stop.

Number 1 Life Changer

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius  by Dave Eggers

Though not a novel, and so free of needing to fit into a believable fictional package, this book manages recreate on paper the innermost twitches of the self-conscious. Spazzy, neurotic, and downright digressive in places, the way that Dave Eggers retells the years after the loss of both his parents and his subsequent raising of his younger brother is so raw and approachable that you can’t put it down. You want to know how he makes it through. You want to know how he copes with a tragedy and a responsibility of such proportions.

I like the dark part of the night, after midnight and before four-thirty, when it's hollow, when ceilings are harder and farther away. Then I can breathe, and can think while others are sleeping, in a way can stop time, can have it so – this has always been my dream – so that while everyone else is frozen, I can work busily about them, doing whatever it is that needs to be done, like the elves who make the shoes while children sleep.

Unlike the steady prose writing of Morrison and Lahiri, Eggers’ writing is loosey-goosey. The sentences run-on; they use a ridiculous amount of periods, colons, semi-colons, dashes, slashes and other punctuation that makes the writing sometimes feel like you are riding in a carriage over a very bumpy road. At the same time, it seems appropriate. As a reader, I always felt that I had complete access to the narrator’s innermost thoughts and feelings, and that his admitted instability, his franticness, and his neurosis made him all the more reliable.

Because secrets do not increase in value if kept in a gore-ian lockbox, because one's past is either made useful or else mutates and becomes cancerous. We share things for the obvious reasons: it makes us feel un-alone, it spreads the weight over a larger area, it holds the possibility of making our share lighter. And it can work either way — not simply as a pain-relief device, but, in the case of not bad news but good, as a share-the-happy-things-I've-seen/lessons-I've-learned vehicle. Or as a tool for simple connectivity for its own sake, a testing of waters, a stab at engagement with a mass of strangers.

The other thing that I liked about his style was that it was not endorsed by the creative writing establishment I'd been trained in. If I’d taken a story like his to one of my workshops, it would have been red-lined into oblivion. His writing seemed free, unencumbered, honest—a style that I fell into naturally myself and that I had learned to suppress. I read his book heartened to know that there was a place for that kind of writing.

Number 1 Soul Crusher

Under the Dome  by Stephen King

This the first and only Stephen King book I’ve ever read. I had always stayed away from his books and the movies made from his books because I don’t really like horror, senseless violence, and bizarre phenomena. Then I married. My husband introduced me to (forced me to watch/read) the weirdo world of Mr. King. So I watched a few flicks, and some were, while disturbing, pretty good. My hubs was already half-way through Under the Dome when he swore to me that it was SO good that I just had to read it. As with food, I do try to read things outside my comfort zone because you never know what might become your new favorite, so I dived in.

It started out well, though gruesome. I could even laugh at the lighthearted way in which the townspeople and animals were mercilessly killed off in the early part of the book. Check out this quotation from page 4:

The man stopped. The chuck realized he had been spotted. To his right and just ahead was a fallen birch. He would hide under there, wait for the man to go by, then investigate for any tasty—

The chuck got that far in his thoughts—and another three waddling steps—although he had been cut in two. Then he fell apart on the edge of the road. Blood squirted and pumped; guts tumbled into the dirt; his rear legs kicked rapidly twice, then stopped.

His last thought before the darkness that comes to us all, chucks and humans alike: What happened?

I stayed loyal even as the story of the small Maine village cutoff from the world by a mysterious and huge invisible dome became even more and more horrific because it was still an enjoyable read. The villains were villainous and the heroes were heroic. There were henchmen and martyrs, near-misses and unfortunate events. That is to say, it was solid fiction writing. I can’t say I would have chosen a book where I had to endure description after description of horrific deaths and dismemberment, but I assumed Stephen King had a point and all this was definitely going somewhere interesting and worth waiting for.

And then….









Ok, you are still here, so you must be ok with knowing the ending….

ALIENS? WTF? REALLY? Really REALLY? I was pissed. Super pissed. Mega-super pissed. All this great human drama was perpetuated by adolescent aliens? I’m sure it was some attempt at the whole magnifying glass-and-the-ant metaphor that has been completely played out already, but it totally ruined it for me. (Simpsons did it! They did the Dome thing, too.)

To make matters worse, the story is resolved when the hard-nosed reporter (a stereotypical female protagonist if ever I saw one) manages to connect with the alien-children and basically begs them to lay off this game by tapping into some emotional center where she re-lives childhood trauma. Oh gag me. Blech. Barf. I would have taken government experiment over this ending.

Maybe if I’d been a King-connoisseur, I might have been prepared for the way he throws in wack-a-do causes for the strife of his human characters.  (What’s that one story—the people on the plane and the time-eating monsters? "The Langoliers?" Yeah, that shit was weird too.) However, as a reader of classic novels and nonfiction, I was not. 

Unlike Dan Brown, King can write…but the plot twist upon which this big, complicated, human drama that was unfolding—wasn’t human at all. It felt like such a cop-out to suddenly squeeze in the paranormal at the end and wrap the whole thing up with a she-asked-the-aliens-nicely-to-cut-it-out-and-they-did moment.

How about you?

What books made your spirit sour and your pen twitch? And what books made you wish you'd never been born?

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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