I have tried a number of times to read two books that, in theory (I was going to say "on paper," but that seemed self-contradictory, somehow), I should really like. I haven't been able to get through more than one chapter on either one.
The first is A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Heralded by any number of reviewers, friends and people who have actually read it as hilarious, the story concerns itself with Ignatius J. Reilly, an overweight 30-year-old in New Orleans in the 1960s who lives with his mother and, well, doesn't do much. The plot, such as it is, revolves around his trying to find a job, without tons of success.
For me, Ignatius's superior attitude, apparently meant by the author (who committed suicide 11 years before the book's publication) to be satirical, is merely obnoxious. While intelligent, Ignatius believes himself to be superior to most of the people he meets, while exhibiting no obvious evidence to back up that idea. Again, humor being as subjective as is possible in humor interaction, you might fall over laughing at this, but from my point of view, that's not a comic hero--it's a pain in the butt. I've read the first chapter maybe eight times. Never read the second. The forward, concerning itself with the efforts of Toole's mother to have the book published posthumously, is more interesting to me than the novel itself. Your mileage may vary--a LOT.
The second book I can't get myself into is The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas. And if I have to tell you the plot to THAT one, there's not a lot of point in reading further. Suffice it to say it's not about a candy bar.
I am a huge fan of the story, having seen most of the movies made from the novel (especially the Richard Lester version in 1974, which is excellent). And I'm a real sucker for most of such stories in which swashes are buckled. Yet, I can't get myself past the archaic-feeling language (translated from French) and the massive tonnage of details Dumas feels compelled to provide. Much as I want to experience D'Artagnan and his friends through their creator's own words, I just haven't managed to bridge the chasm of time. I'm still trying with that one, though.
Which brings me to Robert B. Parker.
Parker, whose Spenser novels reinvigorated the detective genre in the late Seventies and Eighties, died in January, probably while writing three or four more books all at once. He was tireless, prolific and very good at what he did, to the point that maybe he got TOO good, and overextended himself. The later Spenser books are, essentially, retreads, and the other two series Parker wrote, featuring Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall, are variations on Spenser.
But his prose was spare and to-the-point. No time was wasted in a Parker novel. Long digressions on the fragility of life or the glory of a summer morning were for other writers. The supporting characters (although many women I know detested the love object Susan Silverman) are interesting. The backstory... well, there's not much backstory.
For all the comparisons to Raymond Chandler, Parker didn't write that much like his idol. Chandler, although I'm very fond of his work, never met an adjective he didn't like and occasionally went so overboard in his description that you forgot what was going on in the scene. Parker eliminated all that, so that when he finished a novel Chandler left behind, it sounded like a writer with multiple personality disorder had started it, then channeled a Spenser novel into the 1940s.
What I'm saying is that just because a writer or a novel is widely accepted as brilliant or, worse, "classic," every reader will bring his/her own taste to the reading. Some people can't stand Parker. They're not wrong. Some people don't like my books. They are, in fact, wrong, but you can't talk them out of it. It's not worth trying.
So--what "great" book can't YOU manage to finish? (No points for Moby-Dick, because NOBODY ever finished that one.)
LP-to-Digital Conversion Project Update: Believe it or not, boys and girls, I actually reached the end of the line this week. Sort of.
Having gotten through the Three Dog Night catalog (or at least the portion of it I actually owned) convinced that a Greatest Hits album would have been enough, I moved on to a little-known band called Toby Beau (kinda famous for a minor hit called "My Angel Baby"), yet another album I accumulated as an arts writer--or arts editor, because I did both at various times--for the Rutgers Daily Targum, my college newspaper. Frankly, the raised album art is probably better than the record, but they had a few enjoyable tunes, notably "Moonshine."
That said, quick one-album appearances by Jennifer Warnes and Sonny Boy Williamson led to two very different comedy albums, one by Robin Williams, the other a collection of TV monologues delivered by Flip Wilson. The Williams album, Live at the Met, is probably his best work, a truly virtuoso performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, that has a through-line reaching from sexual desire through parenthood, and is touching and hilarious often both in the same second, showcasing Williams's amazingly quick mind.
Flip Wilson was a comedian whose TV variety show made him a surprise superstar, which isn't easy to be. He told stories, and told you they were stories, and played characters, particularly Geraldine, a spunky black woman (Wilson was African-American) who didn't take any crap from anybody. Just in the gestation period when his album The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress was recorded, Geraldine would end up taking over Wilson's act, which was unfortunate, because he was better than a one-note comedian.
Then, it was on to the Stevie Wonder catalog (again, those albums I owned and did not already have on CD). The surprise pick in the bunch was Hotter Than July, an effort that didn't offer passel of the big hits Innervisions or Talking Book did ("Master Blaster" did reach #5 on the singles chart), but held together nicely and never failed to entertain. Nobody knows how to write a tune that will catch your attention, or to put it over brilliantly, better than Stevie. Nobody. Check out "All I Do" and "Happy Birthday," his (successful) plea for a holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., and you'll know what I mean.
That brings us to the end of the albums, but don't fret--there are still plenty of singles to convert, and that's a REALLY interesting bunch. See you next week.