I’ve read/am reading/am trying to read a couple of books that folks are buzzing about lately, and I’m not sure if I like them or not. (SPOILER ALERT: I never want to warn anybody off from reading one of my posts, but if you don’t want to know specifics about either one of these books, tread cautiously.) I’d heard talk, of course, about Stieg Larsson’s “Dragon” book that seems to have taken over the world and somehow I thought it was one of those woman-journeys-to-exotic-locale-to-find-her-true-self (sort of an “Eat, Pray, Get Tattooed” experience) but of course that is waaaay off. We’re reading it in one of my book clubs, and I think I like it. I really dig the Agatha Christie-like mystery part and I love all the coffee-drinking and sandwich-eating those wacky Swedish people seem to do. But the overriding theme of … well, evil and unspeakable violence is disturbing. As it should be, I know. And then there’s the background story of Larsson’s politics and journalism career, which adds a whole other layer of complexity. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this book. On the other hand, I know exactly how I feel about the darling of the post-post-modern or whatever crowd, Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad”: Bored. And confused. I just don’t get it. Am I supposed to care about these people? I keep picking it up and trying to read it because I know I should — it keeps getting fantastic reviews — but then after a few pages my attention wanders and I wonder if it’s time to feed the cats or water the plants or do something else more interesting. Like find another book. Or am I just not cool enough to appreciate “Goon Squad”? That seems more likely.
Was I the only one underwhelmed with Elizabeth Kostova’s newest, “The Swan Thieves”? Her first book, “The Historian,” intrigued me so I couldn’t wait to dive in to Swan, but … meh. It’s about a somewhat famous painter who attacks a painting in a New York museum and then refuses to talk. His psychiatrist takes on the project of trying to figure out why the artist did that — and we get to tag along. There are various narrators and voices as the doctor digs into the artist’s past, including both the painter’s wife and his girlfriend plus a mysterious woman the artist obsessively painted portraits of. Turns out the mystery woman was an English artist who lived more than 100 years ago. We learn her story in the book through love letters between her and her husband’s much-older uncle, and if Kostova had just stuck with that narrative and lost about half of Swan’s almost-600 pages, she would at least have ended up with something halfway entertaining and satisifyingly dark and Gothic. But, sadly, she didn’t. It’s hard to keep up with who’s saying what, the characters are practically indistinguishable from one another and I kept having to ask myself, “Now, why am I reading this again?” Plodding, slow and tedious are the words that come to mind. But the bottom line is that Kostova never convinced me I cared about any of these people. An artist ripped a painting — so what? He was supposed to be this charismatic always-center-of-attention type of guy who everybody immediately fell in love with despite the fact that he harbored this deep and tragic secret, but I wasn’t feeling it. I’m sure there were supposed to be all sorts of subtle sub-texts and multi-layered themes about art and psychiatry and obsessions and love, but I mainly just wanted to get it over with. I know, I know — Kostova is a gifted writer who layers complexities upon complexities and excels at rich detail and historical interweaving. Shrug. If she can’t make me care about her characters, then I am not impressed.