Saturday, July 26, 2008

That's What I Was Trying To Say

In the Sunday New York Times Book Review, I ran across this review of Larry McMurtry's latest book Books: A Memoir. I reviewed this book a couple weeks ago after having won an arc from Stephanie at So Many Books. I was really excited about it because I love this sort of thing -- a book about books and the people who love them. What could be better, right? Well, I was less than enthusiastic about the book and disappointed that I couldn't recommend it. I always hate doing negative reviews, and I really don't do very many. The main reason for this is that I don't usually finish a book if I don't like it after about the first 50 pages or so. With a to-be-read mountain the size of Mt. Everest, I can't afford to waste my precious reading time on books I don't enjoy. Plus, I always feel less than qualified to critique a book. But, I don't pretend to be a literary critic. I just give my honest opinion about the books I read.

When I read this review by James Campbell, a literary critic in the New York Times, I felt completely vindicated. Hey, maybe I do know what I'm talking about after all. It seems we both had the same problems with the book. Of course, he was a little more eloquent in his review. But, that's O.K. Below are a couple of quotes from the review that pretty much sum up my feelings.

“Books: A Memoir” reads like notes waiting to be assembled into a book. Many of its 109 chapters run to under a page, and McMurtry has a fondness for single-sentence paragraphs, a technique that carries a built-in resistance to amplitude.

“Books: A Memoir” has an engagingly conversational style in places, but after a time it comes to seem like mumbling: “As I may have mentioned in an earlier book, ‘Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen,’ the only books I can remember buying at Joe Petty’s bookshop, on my first pass at least, were by the Frenchman Romain Rolland. Why him? Didn’t he win the Nobel Prize? If so, why?” Does he mean: if he did win it, why? Or: if he didn’t win it, why? Hard to say (he did win it).

There is a good book in “Books,” struggling to get past all the “I’m not sures” and “I don’t knows” and the truisms (“choice is a mystery”) that McMurtry’s editors should have saved him from.

Has anyone else read this one? I'd love to know what you think.

By the way, the image is of McMurtry's bookstore in Archer City, Texas, which was used by Campbell in his review.


10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I heard McMurtry speak a few weeks ago along with some women friends of mine in Dallas at the Nasher Sculpture Museum for the American Film Institute. After hearing him speak about his love of books, I think McMurtry is such a private man that he isn't interested in revealing very much "personal" information about himself. He says that he himself is the subject least interesting to him, so why would others find him interesting? He believes that books are far and away the most compelling thing in the world, and this book pretty much makes that clear. He was asked about his own library, and he said simply that it is filled with books he's read; that it's mostly a willy-nilly collection of books he personally loves, but that he doubts they'd interest others. He did say he has over a thousand books on women travelers. And he said he doesn't really have an editor. They simply publish his books once they are copy-edited. He seems extremely humble, great sense of humor (dry as heck), and is far more interested in how women's minds work than men's brains. He says he finds men "boring". We thought he was wonderful.

Tara said...

The quotes sound a lot like what I remember you said about this book. I'll be watching for more reviews...though won't be picking this up.

Lisa said...

anonymous, he does sound like a nice guy, and he's obviously a good writer. It's also apparent that he loves books, but that doesn't make this book any better. I wanted to like it -- but it was just too disjointed and in desperate need of editing.

tara, It's funny -- I'm also looking for more reviews. I guess just to validate my own feelings about the book. Isn't that crazy?

Dorothy W. said...

I read another very mixed, largely negative review of this book in the New York Review of Books by Michael Dirda. So you're initial impressions really were right on!

Melange said...

Hey there. I just happened by your blog via a booker blog ring and I wanted to tell you how awesome your blog is. I intend on adding it to my blog roll. Thanks so much for having a wonderful blog!

Lisa said...

dorothy, I know. It makes me feel better that I'm not the only one who feels that way. However, I ran into someone just today who loved the book. After discussing it a little, she agreed with everything I said, but said that for her it didn't take away from the book.

melange, thanks so much. I'm glad you stopped by. I'll be visiting your blog soon!

Iliana said...

I've read a review of this book somewhere and it didn't sound very favorable either. By the way, I could totally relate to not doing too many negative reviews - if I really hate a book, I don't finish it either! :)
Back to this book though, I would like to check it out but I guess I'm not in a rush to do so. What I would really like to do though is go visit his book town!

Lisa said...

iliana, I would love to visit his bookshop! If you do check the book out of the library, read it as if it were a book of essays -- randomly dip into it. I think it would be much more enjoyable that way.

stefanie said...

Not surprising, that review, eh? I'm glad though that it wasn't praised just because McMurtry wrote it.

Lisa said...

stephanie, yeah it wasn't surprising. He really needs to get an editor!