Friday, November 16, 2007

If You Liked Tristram Shandy, You'll Love . . .

Last week I read a funny, weird, good book called When to Walk, by Rebecca Gowers.

I bought it in a kind of book-buying-binge last weekend, during which I spent about 100 dollars (Canadian!) buying also: a novel by a Lebanese woman about the Middle East, a collection of the best American comics of 2007, and another small graphic novel by Julie Doucet, called The Madame Paul Affair.

I picked out When to Walk knowing nothing about it, but the truth is I was heavily swayed by the fact, mentioned on the cover, that it had been nominated for some book prize.

I find when I am shopping for new novels I pay close attention to prizes and good reviews from serious newspapers. It doesn't always result in a book you like, but it almost always results in a book worth reading.

One reason I have to rely on things like this -- things on the cover of the book -- is that I seldom have a book in mind when I go novel-shopping. And one reason I seldom have something in mind is because I don't read reviews of novels. I don't read movie reviews, either, except for movies I'm never going to see.

This might seem funny (or "ironic," as we say nowadays), because I am obviously relying heavily on reviewers' judgments to decide what to read, but I refuse to read the reviews. But the thing is, as I've mentioned before, I am way into narrative. And I love being caught up in a narrative, not knowing what's going to happen. Reviews just ruin the narrative, ruin the experience.

I always read things in order. Absurdly, I even read magazines from cover to cover. I know this is nuts -- I know there's no "narrative" in the placement of New Yorker stories and that I can perfectly well skip ahead to the Television Review and then skip back. But the impulse grabs me: I think, well, maybe if I skip ahead I *won't* skip back. And then what?

Anyway, with novel reviews, you also have the problem that the subjectivity of novel-reading is so intense. Even if I agree with some reviewer that some book is great, I can almost guarantee you that the reviewers opinions will annoy me, or disturb me, or leave me feeling something like, "You thought that, about this book??" What is wrong with you?

All in all, I'd be just as happy with a novel review system that was just a list of stars. "Lucy Ellman says: 5 stars!" works for me. Better than ". . . this is Moby-Dick female-style: more of a whimper than a whale," which is what Ms. Ellman actually says in her Guardian review of When to Walk. Just tell me what to read, guys. "Read this book" is about all the information I need.

The other thing on the cover of Gowers' book says, "Tristram Shandy meets Bridget Jones. . ." Ugh. Even though I've never read Tristram Shandy or Bridget Jones's Diary, and even though I have nothing against either of them, this blurb made me almost not buy the book. Why do things like that have to be so stupid?

I'd tell you all about When to Walk but it's the kind of book that's hard to talk about without ruining the experience. So. Read this book. It's good. 5 stars.

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