Tag Archives: david nicholls

Second-half review

So, j’ai fini. The fifty-book challenge can finally, and mercifully, be laid to rest — not that I didn’t enjoy it, because I most certainly did. (And I’ll get to that in a later post: the ups, the downs, the profound life lessons learned. Things like that. Hint: purchases of $25 or more on Amazon.com get free shipping. This was crucial in making the fifty-book challenge less challenging financially.) It’s strange: these days I’m reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, a lengthy novel I’d been putting off forever, and there’s absolutely no deadline for its completion. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to read without even a slightly gnawing sensation of panic.

Anyway, in adhering to tradition (by which I mean my solitary midpoint recap), please allow me to dole out the awards to best and worst of fiction and non-fiction, for my last twenty-five books. But first, a few statistics. On the year, I read thirty-five works by males and fifteen by females. (Believe it or not, this ratio actually improved in the second half of my challenge, with sixteen books by men and nine by women. I am ashamed. In my defense, most of my selections were culled directly from major publications’ book review sections, which are overwhelmingly biased towards male authors.) And although I considerably improved my fiction exposure (fifteen of my last twenty-five books, or sixteen if one counts the hopelessly naive polemic by Roger D. Hodge, The Mendacity of Hope), I ended the challenge with an even split between fiction and non-, with twenty-five books apiece. I would go into further detail — divisions by nationality, book length in pages, median year published, etc. — but that would only serve to depress me and, even worse, would require actual research, which (as anyone who’s kept up with this blog should know by now) is the bane of my passively critiquing online existence.

Onward, then.

Best Non-Fiction Book: The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Bouillier

This feels a little like cheating. As a memoir, The Mystery Guest hovers somewhere between the realms of fiction (from which all memoirs take their cues) and fact (to which all memoirs purportedly aspire). But while the genre is ambiguous, the quality of the story, and the depth of feeling it achieves, is anything but. Grégoire Bouillier manages to capture, in the space of a tidy little book with a very skinny spine, the inner psychotic that rears its ugly head in all of us, given the right (wrong?) circumstances. In the case of Bouillier, this circumstance is his invitation to a birthday party of a woman he does not know, as the “mystery guest” of a former lover who had left him without explanation five years before. Perfectly depicting the protagonist’s — his own — frayed nerves amid the taut ambiance that builds throughout the party itself, Bouillier courageously unravels the mysteries of his mind, laying bare his insecurities and thus affording grateful readers an eerily familiar reminder of the sheer insanity of romance.

Honorable mention: Unfortunately, none.

Best Fiction Book: The Thieves of Manhattan, by Adam Langer

Perhaps it’s the gleeful manner with which Adam Langer mocks every aspect of the publishing industry. Or perhaps it’s simply the fact that, in getting such literary bunk published, Langer’s distaste for editors’ discernment was vindicated by his novel’s very existence. But whatever the reasons, The Thieves of Manhattan is at once a laugh machine and a sober inspection of the challenges facing modern writers in a shifting publishing landscape. Employing a niche jargon so drenched in industry particulars that he includes a glossary at the end, Langer hilariously documents the commercialization of literature, a transformation that has placed the works of ex-cons and Pulitzer Prize winners on the same bookshelf at the local Barnes & Noble. Clearly, Langer is a man more amused than outraged at the rapidly disappearing distinction between novels and non-fiction, and he references numerous hoaxes, forgeries, and plagiarisms within his own novel. It may be that Langer, exhausted by high-minded denunciations of authorial appropriation, decided that the best rebuttal was to mirthfully engage in the practice himself. For this, The Thieves of Manhattan won’t snag him a Pulitzer Prize, but it will provide his readers with a basic, and far more useful, reward: a most enjoyably clever story.

Honorable mention: The Lotus Eaters, by Tatjana Soli; and All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, by Lan Samantha Chang

Worst Non-Fiction Book: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, by Steven D. Smith

This may come as a bit of a surprise, since I was not unkind to Steven D. Smith in my review of his book. But my own brand of disenchantment is owing not to lack of substance but of style: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse is, quite bluntly, not that interesting. Smith’s particular axe to grind revolves around a practice he calls “smuggling:” the influence of moral judgments on public dialogue despite their conspicuous absence as explicitly delineated premises. In the author’s view, this results in a disingenuous conversation: the participants cannot help but unconsciously draw on their individual belief systems but are prevented, through a collective desire for credibility among peers, from admitting these principles’ central role. The concept of “smuggling” is an intriguing one, but The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (as suggested by the title itself) is, to put it lightly, an extremely dry analysis of its effects. Really, though: thumbs up for the idea.

Dishonorable mention: Once again, I didn’t read any particularly horrible non-fiction books in the second half. It was, overall, a steadily decent non-fiction batch (without many outliers) this time around.

Worst Fiction Book: One Day, by David Nicholls

David Nicholls likely deserves better from me. It’s not exactly fair for a beach read to be judged as a Serious Book. Then again, One Day was once reviewed in The New York Times. As Spiderman’s uncle once explained, not unkindly, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Mr. Nicholls, I do hope your film adaptation of the book does well at the box office, since (as I mentioned in my earlier review) that was clearly the objective you had in mind the entire time. There is nothing wrong with this, except for the fact that books written as screenplays tend to exhibit, well, diminished literary value. And I don’t think I’m being cruel here. The driving concept of the book — a peek, on the same calendar day of each successive year, at a pair of mutually-obsessed protagonists — is better suited for straight-to-TV fare than for serious dissection. But read it I did, and skewer it I must. One Day is probably not so bad when the only alternatives are celebrity gossip mags and racy tabloids. People Magazine he is not, but neither is he Ian McEwan or Margaret Atwood. John Grisham, then?

Dishonorable mention: Tinkers, by Paul Harding; and If You Follow Me, by Malena Watrous

I’m still not quite finished with this blog. There’s definitely one more post coming, at the very least. Keep checking back!

#31: One Day

Serves me right for taking the existence of a New York Times book review as an affirmation of the author’s grasp on plot. Or, for that matter, the English language. David Nicholls’ One Day was so clearly written with the inevitable feature-film in mind that I’m genuinely perplexed as to why he didn’t save himself some time and pen it in screenplay format from the start.

Never mind. He already did. It hits theaters next year, with Anne Hathaway starring. But back to the Times review. Liesl Schillinger wrote, “You may want to take care where you lay this book down,” ostensibly to avoid being burglarized, although I can hardly imagine why anyone would risk incarceration for such a microscopic reward.

Nicholls’ style of choice is italics, as in, “…and a silence followed while both of them thought oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God.” In this case the exaggerated emotions were owed to the tingling sensation reverberating down Emma Morley’s spine as Dexter Mayhew rubbed suntan lotion onto her back. Fittingly enough, I was spouting similar mental interjections by the time I reached chapter three of One Day — only in agony, not ecstasy. This overt sexual tension, by the way, is a prominent motif in Nicholls’ novel, which is always a bad sign, as are the expository thought-bubbles muddying the action everywhere. It’s as if the author couldn’t formulate a vehicle for conveying his creations’ intentions without spelling them out in their entirety.

Unfortunately for his readers, Nicholls’ characters do quite a lot of thinking — 435 pages of it, in fact, interspersed with the requisite bursts of campy dialogue. Come to think of it, One Day could spawn some terrific drinking games. For example, take a shot every time you read “Dex and Em, Em and Dex” — a tired literary trope that, according to Google Books, David Nicholls trotted out five times. It’s almost as if he is trying to tell us something, that fox.

On the bright side, one need never fear having neglected to catch some symbolism here or conceit there: One Day hardly traffics in ambiguity. It goes without saying — perhaps the only case in which Nicholls recognizes the value of omission — that Dexter and Emma are meant to be together. Consequently, there is a definite sense that their eventual conjoining is a matter of “when,” and not “if.” Subtlety, in One Day, entails merely implying, instead of actually describing, what takes place once two lovers remove some clothing and climb into bed together. Actually — “his hand was on the base of her spine, his leg slipping between hers,” I read on page 7 — even this is a bit generous.

But first, the requisite false hopes, punctured dreams, and the like. As this is a romantic comedy in book form, both Dexter and Emma must date their fair share of red herrings. And thus Chapter Twelve opens: “Then, without quite knowing how it happened, Dexter finds that he has fallen in love, and suddenly life is one long mini-break.” Her name is Sylvie and, in Dexter’s smitten vocabulary, “she is great, just great, just…amazing! She is beautiful of course, but in a different way from the others…” And here I will spare you the rest, for the sake of brevity and the prevention of mental decay.

Of course, Emma needs a worthwhile distraction to pass the time while Dexter dates his procession of disreputable women. To this end, she meets Ian at the restaurant where she works, Loco Caliente, and is beset with the vague notion that his is “a face that made her think of tractors.” No explanation is supplied or, frankly, possible. Nicholls alternates buoyantly between bountiful exclamations on one page and perplexing similes on another; gradually, all words lose their meaning, buried under a cascade of childlike emotion punctuated by frequent bouts of excessive capitalization.

It is said that movies are almost universally poor representations of the books from which they were adapted. For the sake of future moviegoers everywhere, I sincerely hope David Nicholls is a better screenwriter than novelist.