January 27, 2013

May We Be Forgiven

I finished May We Be Forgiven (by A. M. Homes) last night and, as with many books, I can't figure out if I DO or DON'T recommend it. But a telling detail is that this morning I am disappointed that I finished it, and I don't really feel like starting a new book.

(photo from Amazon.com)

I would like to digress and talk about photos of ourselves, because I think that's a subject near to a blogger's heart. Here is the author photo I kept looking at on the book jacket as I was reading the book:

(photo from the jacket, by Marion Ettlinger)

And here is the photo on Wikipedia, which I saw when I went to find out more about the author:

(photo from Wikipedia, credited to David Shankbone)

I do empathize, and I suspect we ALL do, with the feelings that cause an author or blogger to use something more like the first image. Here are two reasons not to:

1. The shock of seeing the second image AFTER the first is far more severe than it would have been if I'd only seen the second. The second photo would have been a normal picture. But because I was familiar with the first picture, the difference between the two CRIED OUT. If a blogger is ever planning to be seen in public, it would be better to be frank from the very beginning.

2. I liked her far, far better when I saw the second picture. I think people think to themselves, "People will only like me if they think I'm thin and pretty." But the thing is, I think we admire people who are thin and pretty, but that most of us are also a little put off by it until we get to know the person. Also, photos made to look thin and pretty may carry an unintended attitude the photographed person isn't aware of: the photographed person is thinking, "Whew, this angle hides my double chin!" and not noticing that in order to hide that chin they've had to make themselves look bitchy or vapid or silly or unfriendly or unapproachable or unrelatable.

When I was reading the book and seeing the first picture, I had the author summed up as a girl in her twenties, right out of a writer's MA program after attending expensive prep school; grew up rich; now kind of a privileged brat trying to shock people just for the sake of making them uncomfortable. I was a little cranky that it turned out she was making it work, because I'd prefer to see such people taken down. When I saw the second picture and read on Wikipedia that the author is 51 years old, I had to completely re-evaluate my impressions of the book. (Paul: "Well, how long ago was the book written?" Swistle: "2012.")

I think when people choose pictures of themselves that they find flattering, they do know that they're trying to alter the way people see them---but what they don't realize is that they could be altering it with a net effect of WORSE.

Anyway. On to the book. I knew from the flap that there would be some violence at the beginning, so I was braced for it. I read the first scene of violence, which was only described by a character, not witnessed by the narrator, and I closed the book. Nope, not reading this. A minute went by. I opened it up again and kept reading. I came to the second scene of violence, which the narrator does witness, and I closed the book even more decisively. No. I'm not reading this book. Five seconds passed, and I went back to reading.

For me, continuing to read was the right decision: the really bad stuff was over after that, and was tempered considerably by later events.

Another reason I almost stopped reading is that this is a book that employs a method I'm sure has a name but I don't know what it is. I would call it "unreliable narrator"---which is funny, because I just Googled that and it IS what it's called. This reminds me of when I was trying to figure out what "AKA" could stand for, and I thought, "Well, it's kind of like saying 'also known as'....oh."

Anyway, you can't trust the narrator to tell you the truth, and I generally HATE that. There are two Agatha Christie books with unreliable narrators, and I will never read them again because that makes me so angry. But it can make for a compelling plot, because you keep thinking if you keep reading you'll find out what's REALLY going on. And there are enough hints in this book that even though many things are left non-revealed, I didn't end up feeling tricked. It's not that the narrator LIES, it's more like he's not processing information correctly HIMSELF, so he can't quite relate it accurately to us either. I ended up with a feeling of "Boy, humans sure do kid themselves a lot about their own behavior and/or sure do tell the story one-sidedly to others." (Another issue close to a blogger's heart.) I did, however, feel like the narrator's issues were too severe to have been so easily resolved, and there were a number of places where I'd been pretty sure we were working up to a big plot twist but then was irritated when nothing ever happened with it.

From my author assessment, you will have received the correct impression that there are parts that I feel the author wrote To Be Shocking. But I wasn't SURE about it: that is, I'm still not sure the author DID write them "just to be shocking"; she might have written them because that's how she writes and that's how she saw the story going. In descriptions of her writing, the word "fearless" keeps coming up. I could go along with that.

Both plot and dialogue seemed unreal to me, but it was hard to tell how on-purpose that was. I probably thought "What?" a thousand times. I kept reading parts aloud to Paul, because I couldn't figure out if (1) the author had no feel for dialogue, or (2) the author was trying to be funny, or (3) the author was trying to Show Something with the way the people were talking, or (4) kind of all three.

Also, if I hadn't read on Wikipedia that the author had a daughter, I would have said she not only didn't have kids but had no experience with kids. The kid part comes across as a 1980s fantasy movie where the single career woman with no interest in children gets stuck with someone else's. (But I liked it, the way I also liked those movies.)

I don't know, I don't think I'm telling this well, because if I read this description I would be like "NO WAY IS THIS BOOK FOR ME"---and yet it WAS for me. When I was reading it, I kept being eager to get back to it, and that doesn't happen with very many books. I don't want to read it over again, but I want there to be MORE of it---two more volumes! three! four! MORE ABOUT THIS STORY. That seems like recommending.


Slim said...

I once read a book I was sure was written by a man without children (the lead character could have long discussions with people important to the case and his preschooler would just sit quietly for the duration, his kids happily ate whatever he cooked), but it turned out he did have kids. A long time ago. So then I wondered if his wife had dealt with all the suboptimal behavior or if he'd just forgotten or what.

MelissaInk said...

Having worked in publishing, I can tell you that it is doubtful the author actually chose the picture. If she did, it's doubtful that she was the sole decision maker. Marketing, PR, cover design, etc., they are all the ones that help chose and ultimately decide. I am familiar with Holmes' work and know she is not that young thing in the picture. It does seem a bit odd to chose a picture that is probably 30 years old and 60 pounds ago. Is the narrator a young person?

Swistle said...

MelissaInk- My intention was to use the two author photos to discuss the way bloggers choose photos of themselves.

I can't remember if the narrator's age is ever specified, but he's the uncle of teenagers. He also snaps at someone who's 37 years old, saying they have some nerve to be talking about age.

ccr in MA said...

The author photos are fascinating! It made me think of a book where one of the characters is a famous novelist, but someone doesn't recognize him when she meets him because he doesn't look like his newspaper photos: "showing him to be a slender, good-looking young man of twenty-three, as indeed he had been for a few moments, and in a favouring light, twenty years ago".

I read a ton, but often hesitate to recommend books on my blog. Book choice can seem so personal, somehow, and I've certainly had books recommended to me that I didn't like, so it makes me wary. I do enjoy reading what other people think of what they're reading, though. The closing-and-opening part is familiar to me, too. Sometimes I'll put a book aside to see if I want to pick it up again, and if a few days go by without feeling the urge, I'm done with it.

Lindsay said...

What an odd picture to use for a book that was just written.

She was pretty when she was a young lady, and the age appropriate picture of her also reflects a pretty woman. If anything, the 2nd pic makes the gal in the first pic look vacant by comparison.

Of course, we live in a strange world so we are not surprised pic number one was used.

I am glad I've had my eyes opened up to this kind of thing. I am not without body image issues, but finally recognizing the silliness of some of the things that I pursued (because they are not possible, or benefit not worth the cost to me), and abandoning said things, has made my life easier.

Bibliomama said...

I always look at the author photo several times when I'm reading a book - I feel cheated if there isn't one. I've never articulated to myself your thoughts here, which are bang on. I do feel more sympathetic to the author if it's a less obviously flattering/photoshopped picture. I also have books I love that I hesitate to recommend to people - actually, I always either tell people about books or deliver books to my mother with the admission that I have no idea if they'll like them even if I did. That's why I get annoyed when I read a bad review on Goodreads followed by fifteen people saying oh thank you for saving me from reading this book, now I don't have to - WTF? THINK FOR YOURSELVES, PEOPLE. Also, I'm doing far too much internet shouting lately.

Susan said...

I love A.M. Holmes and I instantly recognized the first picture from a book of hers I owned in the early 90's! I agree that she needs to update the photo. It would probably make author readings and signings less awkward. Some of her earlier writing could be described as magical realism, so I think that's why her plots sometimes seem slightly unreal. You might like her only non fiction book called the Mistress's Daughter about her finding her birth parents as an adult.

Cayt said...

There's an author I know personally whose author photograph shows her leaning enigmatically against a wall and looking thoughtful. An accurate picture would have her fiddling with her iphone and glaring in a slightly myopic way. I'm not surprised they went with the mysterious looking photo.

The one you show above makes me think that they used the photo in which she looks most like how they think people think an author should look - young, fairy prosperous, intellectual in a not-terribly-challenging type of way. The other picture makes her look much more normal, and I like it better, too.

Rbelle said...

I'm glad I'm not the only person who takes issue with "unreliable narrator" stories. It's why I absolutely loathed The Usual Suspects, and don't understand why anyone thinks it's such a great movie. That said, I've read at least one of Agatha Christie's "unreliable narrator" books and while I didn't personally enjoy it and wouldn't read it again, I had to give her credit for actually never technically narrating anything incorrectly (see also, The Sixth Sense). In fact, the end made a point of illustrating how you couldn't find any actual misinformation in the tale as told, even though there were definitely ommissions. While I still don't necessarily enjoy that type of thing, I give it a lot more leeway than a story in which the narrator is actively lying to the reader or viewer, and then you're expected to be delightfully surprised at the twist ending. Seriously, my Usual Suspects hatred on this front knows no bounds.

sherilee said...

Loved this post, and how you described getting into reading this book. I showed the author pic to my husband and he said, "Maybe she doesn't want to be recognized." I laughed and said, "Yeah, that happens a lot, I'm sure."

I haven't encountered the unreliable narrator, but will be on the look out... and just downloaded a sample from May We Be Forgiven as well as The Mistress's Daughter as recommended by another commenter. I am in need of a book that draws me in as this one seemed to do for you... Thanks!

Teej said...

Best "unreliable narrator" book ever: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. It is such a lovely novel. It makes me wish I had a popular blog so I could write about it and maybe other people would read it and love it too!

Shalini said...

I hate photos of myself. HATE. I prefer to use photos where I look worse than in real life, so that when people meet me they can be pleasantly surprised rather than vice versa. It's worked for me so far, but who knows how it will go on down the line as I get grayer and wrinklier and people think, "Oh, you used an awful high school photo, so I assumed you were young," or something like that.

Nilsa @ SoMi Speaks said...

You are bringing me back to my match.com days when one guy in particular posted no less than 10 photos of himself in his profile; when we finally met, I quickly realized those photos were a good 15-20 years old. It's not that he was bad looking or fatter than before or anything like that, but he looked OLD compared to his college pics. It was reason enough to ditch him for my friends (we were each with a group of friends - it's not as bad as it seems).

cakeburnette said...

The Roger Ackroyd book is one of the Christie books with an unreliable narrator...what is the other one? I've read them ALL (I was a little obssessed last year...AHEM.), but can't for the life of me remember what the 2nd one might have been! I'm going crazy (well, craziER).

Swistle said...

cakeburnette- On second thought, I think I'm thinking of the one where it was the detective who did it. Which still made me mad, but wasn't a case of unreliable narrator.