They say you should never meet your heroes.
I can’t really speak to whether or not that’s true. I mean, I met Amanda Palmer (twice!), and that was okay. She was clearly a little exhausted from the show she was doing, but she was laid back and friendly and signed a flowerpot for me. I still need to plant something in it.
However, I do now know this: You should never meet the author of that book that you just read for book club and didn’t really like all that much (well, if you’re honest with yourself, kind of hated).
I don’t imagine I would have felt as strongly as I did about the book if the author hadn’t been coming to the meeting. I doubt I would have loved it, but I would have maybe at least kind of liked it. So maybe the lesson (or at least part of the lesson) is: Don’t figure out that you’re going to meet the author until after you’ve read the book and formed an opinion, because knowing that you’re going to meet the author makes you feel obligated to like the book.
I would maybe have liked the book a lot more if I’d met the author before reading it instead of after. See, he gave this big presentation about the Armenian Genocide, and I felt like knowing the information that I got there would have been helpful. It’s a subject that I know absolutely nothing about, and while the book wasn’t written in a way that assumed I was a scholar on the subject, I could tell I was missing something. His presentation could have been very helpful. So, another part of the lesson: Don’t meet the author after you read the book, but before might be okay because you might learn something that will make you enjoy the book a lot more.
On a similar note, maybe what I did wrong was know anything about the author going in. Since it was a book club book, we’d briefly discussed Chris Bohjalian before starting this book. So I knew going in that he’s of Armenian descent, which meant that when the narrator is an American-of-Armenian-Descent author, my brain did this thing where it extrapolated and figured that any part of this book could have been autobiographical. So, every time I hated a character, I was worried that my book club would bring up that character in discussion and I would say, “Oh, that character was so obnoxious,” and he would say, “Excuse me, that character is a 100% accurate representation of my grandmother, thank you very much.” Or if I said, “I found the part where the narrator’s twin brother told his sister about his first erections that happened while watching their aunt belly dance kind of seriously fucked up,” he would say, “Who are you to judge how I got my first erections?”
None of this happened.
What did happen is this. At the end of the night, we got in line to have our books signed, and when I got up to the front I talked to him for about 30 seconds about how I want to be an author, and I lied and said I really enjoyed the book, and I’m a terrible liar so maybe that explains what happened next. I saw a pile of post-it notes with names written on them, and I said, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t see any notes. My name is Rachael, R-A-C-H-A-E-L.” He said, “I know how to spell that.” I said, “Okay. It’s just an uncommon spelling, with the AEL ending.”
And he spelled my fucking name wrong.
So don’t meet the author, because he’ll be able to tell that you’re lying, and he’ll spell your name wrong in your book and you’ll have to find someone named Rachel who is interested in novels about the Armenian genocide to give it to so you can pretend that was your intention all along, and good luck with that.
Book 13: The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
The Sandcastle Girls is the story of a woman discovering her grandparents’ story.
Laura, a middle-aged, modern-day Armenian-American woman, tells us the story of her family as she looks back at her life. I found her memories disjointed and hard to follow. She talks about time she remembers spending with her Armenian grandparents as a child. Next time we’re with her, she’s discussing her Turkish high school boyfriend. Then she goes back to her grandparents, then to college, then back to the boyfriend, and then the grandparents. I found that the structure of the book was broken up enough from the frequent shifts in point of view that having one of them bounce around in time became extremely distracting. I also didn’t believe her as a female narrator. For example, there’s one point when, in discussing her Turkish boyfriend Bork, she says, “And two years later, he was the first boy I fucked.” Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t women out there who will refer to their first time as fucking, but I don’t think it would be all that common and I especially don’t think it fit with this narrator’s character. Of course, she then goes into a lengthy explanation about why she chose the word “fucked,” which sounded to me less like proof that the narrator used the right word and more like someone had read that part and said to Bohjalian, “No woman would talk about her first time like that,” and rather than accepting criticism and changing it, he tried to justify it with a big long explanation.
I found the parts that took place in the past much more believable, if not more likable. These parts of the book followed the lives of Elizabeth Endicott, a wealthy Bostonian woman who went to Syria to provide medical aid to the Armenian refugees after finishing college(and Laura’s grandmother); Armen Petrosian, an Armenian soldier and engineer who hopes for news of his family before he leaves for Egypt where he may be safe (and Laura’s grandfather); Nevart, an Armenian woman whom Elizabeth rescues from being sent to the death camp in the desert; and Hatoun, a young girl whom Nevart looked after after Hatoun had been forced to watch her mother and sister raped and murdered. There are other characters, but these four make up the bulk of the Syria 1915 plot.
These parts of the story are written in third person limited, but jumping from a focus on one character to another. At the beginning, I found this infuriating–there was one two-page spread that included four different points of view on it, which made it extremely difficult to get involved in any one character’s story.
I loved the Armenian characters in these parts of the story. Their lives sucked. Their families were dead. Everything was horrible. But despite that, they managed to keep going, and I found that inspirational. I don’t know how realistic they were, but they were well-developed and interesting. Likable.
I hated–absolutely hated–the Westerners who had gone to help. “But Rachael,” you’re asking, “They’re over there doing volunteer work. What’s to hate?” Well, let me tell you. They were wealthy. Like, extremely wealthy. And they were doing what they could to help, and that’s great. But their attitudes–and this is the #1 reason I just couldn’t like this book–were very, “Ooh, poverty! How exotic! I can’t wait to tell my friends at super fancy dinner parties when I go back home! They’ll simply die when they hear how I suffered.” Now, this may be a slight exaggeration, but it was how they felt to me when I was reading it. There was a point where even Elizabeth mentions that the others seem excited about how poor their accommodations are, which she seems bothered by, forgetting that it was not that long ago that she’s said she had been hoping her room would be a lot smaller than it was. Perhaps it was motivated by a sense of guilt–that she had so much, even there, when so many were suffering–but it read to me more like she was thinking, “Man, I’ll never get any street cred if people find out I’m living in a palace here!”
A friend of mine pointed out that I could have read these characters as satirical, which I’m sure they were at least partially meant to be. However, the reason satire is funny is that it reflects real life, and this isn’t a part of real life I find funny. I know there are people out there who are just like that, who go do volunteer work and think the poverty around them is something novel and exciting when really it’s something horrible, but that doesn’t sink in for them because at the end of the day, they can go home. But to a whole lot of people, that is home.
So, I’m sorry. I hated The Sandcastle Girls. I feel like it was 25% good and 75% awful.
However, I’m pretty much alone in my feelings there. Everyone else who showed up at the meeting (and the entire bookstore was packed) seemed positively enthralled with it, though there is the chance that the author’s promised presence had the opposite effect on them than it did on me.
Anyway, I have some exciting books coming up! Here’s the lineup:
14: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
15: The Fault in our Stars by John Green
16: The Round House by Louise Erdrich
17: Warriors: Into the Wild by Erin Hunter
18: Unsouled by Neal Shusterman
19: Skin Game by Jim Butcher
20: Lexicon by Max Barry
21: London Falling by Paul Cornell
22: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson (probably)
So tell me: What books have you read that you just hated? Did you finish them, or do you stop once it’s obvious that you’re not going to like it?