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Disappointing books

August 8, 2011

I just read two library books I’ll be quite happy to return to their shelves. I was intrigued by both, but wound up underwhelmed. and after writing about them both, it occurs to me I had the same problem. I felt like both departed from the interesting story, in ways that didn’t grab me so I skipped pages at a time.

The first was Nothing Daunted: The unexpected education of two society girls in the West, by Dorothy Wickenden. It tells the story of two girls from a wealthy upstate New York town, who after attending Smith College, decided to embark on a journey to the frontier towns of Colorado, where they would teach in a tiny school in the hardscrabble town of Elkhead. The author, Dorothy Wickenden, pieced the story together, starting with letters her grandmother, one of the intrepid two girls, had written home. So far so good.

As somebody who has read and reread the Little House on the Prairie books, I was ready to read descriptions of bumpy wagon rides, tough winters, and children walking miles to get to school while their parents eke out a frontier life existence. while I appreciate a certain amount of historical context, and I certainly appreciate the work that the author did in terms of follow-up research to flesh out context, there were entirely skippable sections, where I felt like too much scene setting or even digressions were going on. It felt like an interesting story was getting padded. It felt clumsy sometimes, and disappointing.

I’d been wanting to read Nerd Do Well, by Simon Pegg, for a while. I was surprised and distressed to find that I couldn’t finish it. It was just too hard to weed through the ways it felt like he was trying too hard.

He even made jokes about how the autobiography as a genre is a self-indulgent thing, and then he went and was self indulgent, which he excused himself to do, and it was stupid rather than self referentially funny. I was interested in his life story, growing up geeky, which I can totally identify with. I can’t imagine being able to be in the theater as a young kid to see Star Wars for the first time. And, for a kid who grew up a Star Trek fan, being able to be part of a really great movie version of the series, as an adult, that had to be mind blowing. I appreciated reading about that experience. And I felt for him, as a shy, awkward kid, figuring out how to come into his own. Even being able to look back, and acknowledge, that yes, he’d been a pretentious jerk there, or an insufferable pain there. Fine.
But, in structuring the overall story, I felt like Pegg was trying way too hard, forcing the persona that I enjoy so much in his movies that I’ll stop everything I’m doing to watch Hot Fuzz whenever I channel surf past it on cable. I know Pegg can be hilarious, and can write directly to my funny bone: Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are evidence enough. That’s part of why the book disappointed me so much.
One major plot device that Pegg clearly loved using, was sections in the persona of a dashing spy, with a robot butler, because of course, Pegg didn’t want to write his autobiography: he wanted to write a comic spy adventure spinoff, starring himself as a debonair secret agent. I get it: that was supposed to be funny. But I wound up skipping entire sections (helpfully set out as chapter breaks, and separated by Courier font.) Ultimately, that feeling of trying too hard made me give up on the book. And I’m sure I’m missing out on funny bits later in the book, but.. feh.
Shag/Marry/Cliff: I feel a little mean pitching both of these off the cliff. But, since both were such a struggle to finish, over they go. I might throw gently, and make sure they had something soft to land on. (And I’d be more than happy to shag Simon Pegg, if given half the chance, because I still have faith he’s funnier than the book he wrote.)

For every book I read in 2011, I’m donating $1 to the New York Public Library.

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