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At first when I started reviewing older, more reputable books, I felt like I wasn’t allowed to be doing it. I’m not Harold Bloom…heck, I’m not even wearing an elbow-patch coat, smoking a pipe, and sitting in some cramped little collegiate office where the walls are closing in on me from my numerous diplomas and honors nailed to it. But now I think, who cares?
Books are books. There are good ones and bad ones, there are old ones and modern ones, classics and those that have yet to become them. If I can review a book written five years ago, then I can review a book written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago. It’s the same process each time; I read, I develop opinions as I go, underline great turns of phrase that I want to come back to, and slowly in the back of my head a concrete idea begins to develop.
I don’t want to fall into that trap that Hornby talked about in More Baths, Less Talking, where I put esteemed literature under a glass case where it cannot be touched or looked at. I set that trap for myself, and for other people, I’ll admit it, but I’m learning to get away from it. I have simply read too many fantastic novels since college, written too recently, to be able to believe in my old ideology anymore. Literature should not belong in a museum, unless it’s something more like the Please Touch Museum.
In addition to believing that book reviews of canonized books were off-limits, I thought that I wasn’t allowed to dislike them either. I know, this sounds crazy. But I always wanted to side with these writers. I always pictured myself being able to tell people how much I loved Jane Austen, how fantastic Faulkner is, and isn’t that Oscar Wilde such a hoot? But what would it mean of my taste if one day I suddenly picked one of these up, straight off a college-lit syllabus, and didn’t like it? Would it mean my taste was deteriorating? Would it mean that soon all I’d be left with is Something Borrowed and coffee table books of old time Hollywood celebrity portraits to enjoy? Not at all. It would mean that I’m being an individual, that I’m perhaps holding these famous books to even higher standards, and that I’m using my brain and everything I’ve learned, to decipher for myself what’s good and not good.
That being said, since I am currently in the middle of a new book, I am going to post a review of a book I read earlier this year, having thrown off the yolk of oppressive literature once and for all.
Spoiler alert concerning the book, Atonement…it was bad. Spoiler alert for the movie, Atonement…it stars Keira Knightley.
It’s been a long time since I read a bad book. In fact, I can’t even think of another book I’ve read that I haven’t liked. This is because I know my taste to a T (tee?) and I don’t pick up books that are bad for me. Why would people who are lactose intolerant tuck into a creamy cup of yogurt and chase it with a whole milk shooter? So their stomachs can feel bloated and sick for the rest of the day? Very similar results.
I didn’t become attached to any of the characters at all in this book, which was strange because I am a very empathetic person, even when it comes to fictitious people. Cecilia is snobby, bratty, and seems to spend all of her time looking bored and smoking an endless chain of cigarettes in her apparently horselike mouth.
Briony, the younger sister who sets the disastrous plot in motion, is a young writer, so she is insufferable. Thirteen-years-old and she already imagines herself to be a miniature god, creating creatures to put into her plays and stories and dangling them each on thin marionette strings. It reminds me a bit of myself at that age but without the assertiveness and annoyance to everyone else around her. I annoyed everyone, sure, but not because of my writing.
There are the parents who are barely characters, and then there’s Robbie. Robbie is James Mcavoy. This guy is handsome even with hooves as Mr. Tumnus in the Chronicles of Narnia movies. And to be honest, it’s really distracting when I’m trying to take this book seriously. Once again, another case of video killed the literature star. Robbie is perhaps the most well-developed character. Maybe it’s not even development though. He just displayed the most color and personality, and I’d have to say he was the most attractive figure in the book; much less one-dimensional than the rest.
So anyway, here I am not caring about any of the characters when Mr. McEwan sends Robbie off to war, and between the love letters with Cecilia and the longing and the fright and unknown that are generally associated with warfare, I found myself caring suddenly without my control. It’s not fair. You can take almost anybody I’m not inclined to like and throw them onto the battlefields of France and I’m going to feel a breakdown in the willpower of my disdain. In addition, in any story of starcrossed lovers whose relationship seems to be doomed…well come on, I’m a newlywed, if that doesn’t tug at my heartstrings what will? I feel resentful when authors imploy such easy tactics, and this was definitely the case in Atonement.
I won’t spoil the ending for you masochists out there who want to give the thing a go, but…well, you won’t like it. I barely get the lesson to this book, if there is one. I think it’s about youth and perception, and small actions with disproportionate consequences. But if I really want to learn that, I’d rather pick up A Separate Peace by John Knowles, and I suggest you should too, if you want to read a historical fiction novel that leads to similar revelations.
This post seems to show a growth in me that I didn’t think possible. Upon being presented with one of the more reputable books of modern literature, written by somebody who is old, and British, and male, arguably some of my favorite characteristics in a writer, I didn’t like it! In a combination of my own weird notions of what good writing and writers are, and of my schooling, I am like Pavlov’s dog, and when you give me a classic writer, I drool. Well, not anymore. Who am I protecting by pretending I have to like every book that I’m told to like? Am I protecting Ian McEwan? And does he need my protection, really? Am I protecting my high school English teachers? They might need it…but anyway, I am proud to have an opinion about the book Atonement, and I’m proud to say that I didn’t like it. Whew.
In the mean time, I'd better get started on Anna Karenina before Knightley spoils that too...