When Books Break The Rules

16061734I’m a pretty orderly person. Some might even say obsessive compulsive. I like my routines, I like lists, I like life to follow logical patterns. This way of functioning applies to the way I read as much as anything else in my life. I keep lists. I have to read books in a certain, set order. I can generally only read one book at a time–or, at the most, one book of fiction and one book of nonfiction. I have trouble DNFing, even when I think a book is atrocious. And when it comes to the structure of books, how they are written, there are certain stylistic elements I absolutely despise. There are rules. And if you break those rules, I’m going to hate your book.

Except when I don’t.

Except when, somehow, you manage to break every reading rule in my arsenal and, despite myself, I enjoy it.

I’m writing this while in the middle of reading May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes. That breaks one of my blogging rules, never talk about a book until you’re done and have some distance from it. But since it breaks all of my reading rules, I figured that might be appropriate.

I picked up May We Be Forgiven for literally one reason: the cover. Didn’t even read the jacket copy (it was a library book, so I was ok with that). To understand why you must understand my enjoyment of–nay, obsession with–that culinary delight known as cranberry sauce shaped like the can. But that is another story for another day.

The novel is about Harry Silver, a rather boring, lackadaisical history professor whose life gets turned upside down when his brother George causes a fatal car accident and goes a little (a lot) nuts. In the aftermath of the crash, Harry starts sleeping with his sister-in-law, and when George finds out, he murders her. In a rapid series of increasingly absurd events, Harry becomes custodian to three tweens, two pets, and an elderly couple, starts sleeping with two very strange women, gains access to long-hidden Nixon papers, and travels through a series of hospitals and nursing homes, rehab centers, a survivalist prison camp, and an African village.

There are resons, plenty of them, why I should objectively not like this book, why I should have put it down in the first few pages.

First Person Present Tense. I despise first person present tense. (I think I’ve said it before- short stories, sometimes ok. Novels- aw, hell no not again). It seems to be the thing everyone is doing now, as if The Hunger Games is infecting every other book out there. And yet, I didn’t even notice it here until I was about twenty pages in. It tricked me! Ok, so I was stuck on it, POV put aside. (P.S. I like The Hunger Games. Really. But first person present tense is a trend that needs to die).

-No Chapter Breaks. This is a nearly 500 page book with no chapter breaks. There are scene breaks, sure, but otherwise it is an unrelenting Wall of Text. Yikes.

-Kids Who Don’t Act/Talk Like Kids.

It’s a fine line, because I don’t like sterotypical apple-cheeked, lisping child characters, either. But the kids here are so absurdly un-kidlike. The twelve year old is the founder of a South African village. The founder. The eleven year old is being seduced by an adult teacher, starts cutting “tribal” tattoos into her arms, and is writing what seems to be a college-level thesis about the intersection of soap opera and puppet theater. They are more perceptive than the adults, seemingly more poised and articulate, and very often completely creeped me out.

-A Year in the Life

Perhaps most potentially bothersome to me is that May We Be Forgiven is a year-in-the-life story, where in 365 days, the protagonist goes from sadsack loser to being full and alive with a patchwork family. It’s reeks of some dumb indie dramedy starring Steve Carrell. I should hate it. And yet.

Another day, another frame of mind, I absolutely would have hated May We Be Forgiven. There just happened to be something in the air the day I picked it up that let me overlook all the things that bothered me until I was so hooked that I couldn’t stop. The elements that usually turn me off instead made the book feel propulsive, vital, and absolutely stinkin’ hilarious. It makes me wonder, a bit, if there are other books I’ve missed out on because they broke my rules. (But that would mean I’d have to go back to never DNFing, which would mean I miss so many more books because, hey, you can’t read them all.)

Oh well. I think this is a dilemma that will not be solved. What are some of your reading rules? And what worthy books break them?



Filed under Book Talk

4 responses to “When Books Break The Rules

  1. You have two of my rules in your list: first-person present tense and precocious children. The former is less likely to make me abandon a book overall, but the latter is a deal-breaker pretty much every time. Another one for me is when authors adopt the voice of a genre, so to speak, instead of writing with an original voice. This seems to be more common with genre fiction, but I also find it in short stories–I suppose you could call that one the “MFA voice.”

    • hlmorris85

      Ah, the good old MFA voice, aka the reason I went back to only writing genre fiction (and the reason I never went for an MFA). From a writing perspective, I actually think it can be fun to borrow the voice of the genre, but I do agree that as a reader you can tell when it’s half-assed or done patronizingly.

      I have seen so many writers get kids so wrong that I hesitate to pick up *any* books with kids anymore.

  2. I have heard so many great things about this book and i have many of the same rules as you do. I like chapter breaks. Otherwise how do i put the book down to go to the toilet? 1st person present tense is another deal breaker and I don’t like kids. But i still want to read this book. Sometimes i have to give way on my hatred of 1st person stories, because if it is done well, I hardly notice.

    • hlmorris85

      Yeah I think it kind of broke my brain because I liked it but couldn’t really put my finger on why I did, when there were so many reasons I *shouldn’t* like it. It’s quite long but for me it read fast, so you might want to give it a try.

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