Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday Salon: An April Reading Retrospective - A Revelation

My feet are a little sore, and the suntan lotion didn't quite work as well as I had hoped. I am not sure how much reading I will get done today, but it will be a book-filled day nonetheless. It is the second day of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and no one can keep me away!

With spring underway and April nearly over, I decided this would be the perfect time to reflect back on my reading five years ago this month. Care to travel down Memory Lane with me?

As I sat down to review my reading journal from April 2004, I noticed I had only read three books the entire month that year. I got off to a slow start but finished the month off with two quick reads: Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and To the Nines by Janet Evanovich. I enjoyed both books. They offered me adventure, one full of puzzles and intrigue and the other full of hijinks and laughs.

But what captured my attention most was my review of the first book I finished that month, Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson. This particular book was a milestone in my reading, and so when I found the review, I eagerly read over my thoughts of the book all those years ago. And I was disappointed with myself. Not one word about why that book stands out still today.

I read the book for an online reading group discussion. Fantasy was a genre that I had grown to love over the years, and I was really curious about this particular book.

Lord Foul's Bane is the first of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever:
Thomas Covenant is a troubled and isolated man who finds himself in an alternate world. He believes he is in a dream and takes on the title of the Unbeliever as a result. He is the chosen one who is expected to save or damn the Land. Thomas Covenant himself is not a likeable man. He is an anti-hero who is mean and dour through most of the book. [passage from my reading journal, April 2004]
The truth is I did not like Thomas Covenant; in fact, I vehemently despised him. Never before had I been tempted to throw a book across the room, but I nearly did with this one. Thomas Covenant committed an unspeakable crime I could not get past. Not entirely, anyway. I almost did not finish the book, and yet, for some reason, I found it in myself to persevere. It just took a while. I have never regretted my decision to go on. I actually ended up liking the book in the end even though I never warmed to the character of Thomas.

Lord Foul's Bane was a turning point for me. It was the book that made me realize that I did not have to actually like the main character in order to enjoy a book. Before then, I was a staunch believer that to enjoy a book, I had to be able to relate to the main character and at least like him or her. I am not sure what changed for me. Perhaps it was maturity or a recognition of the beauty found in other characteristics of a book, such as minor characters, the setting, the themes, the plot lines or the writing itself.

I did find other characters to admire and cheer for (Saltheart Foamfollower, the giant, and Bannor the Bloodguard in particular) in Lord Foul's Bane, which definitely helped me find a more comfortable thread to hold onto. My need for a character, however minor, to connect with still exists to some extent. Only, I have reached a point in my reading where I can look beyond the obvious for something to anchor me to a book. Having that anchor, or connection, is a necessity for me. It is what keeps me interested and wanting to read further. When there is no connection, I lose interest quickly and move on.

When I think of Lord Foul's Bane today, I have mixed feelings. I still despise Thomas Covenant. I am not sure he will ever be able to redeem himself in my eyes. At the same time, however, I admire Stephen R. Donaldson's craftsmanship. He has written an amazing fantasy novel. It is dark, exciting, and a true adventure. I love the set up of the story: not knowing if it is a dream or real. Someday I do plan to continue with the series. I just haven't yet built up the motivation.

Have you ever come across a protagonist who does something you just can't forgive?

Does your enjoyment of a novel hinge on whether you like or can relate to the main character(s)?

Was there a book that had you thinking you might give up on it one minute only to discover that by the end, you were glad you read it?

Week in Review:

A Page In the Life of Nicola of Back to Books
Review: Starfinder by John Marco
My Weekend Plans & A Quick Challenge Update

Stop in and check out Anjin's thoughts on The Burglar in the Closet by Lawrence Block!


  1. Honestly, I can't remember if I've ever liked a book when I didn't like at least one of the characters. I do intend to read Lord Foul's Bane, though, so perhaps that will be it for me too. =)

  2. You know, I actually kinda enjoy a book where I HATE a character. It gets the adrenaline going! I attribute that to a talented author. I'm not sure I could read a book like that all the time, but it is a nice emotional switch from the Stephanie Plum novels in life!

  3. I haven't read that book since I'm not too big on fantasy but I'm not sure I would have finished it.

    Last year one of my students lent me a book and I felt obliged to read it but hated it the whole way. The characters were awful! I can't even remember the name of it. The House? or something like that.

    So, I guess my answer is that if I don't like the characters, I usually give up on the book.

    Excellent post and intriguing questions!

  4. I try really hard not to give up on a book. I do not like to be defeated. Though saying that, I gave up on a Joanne Harris book this week and I have loved all her others.

  5. I'm to the point in my reading life where I don't have to love the character(s) to the love the book, but I do have to have *some* feeling about them. I find that the books that are the hardest for me to read are the ones where I either feel like I don't really know any of the characters or know them but still feel totally ambivalent about them. So, I guess I'd rather hate the characters than not care about them either way! LOL.

    Have fun at the book festival! (as if it's possible to *not* have fun) =)

  6. Meghan - I've noticed that not everyone even notices the one part that really upset me in the book. And it probably would not have for me if it hadn't been the protagonist who did it.

    Sandy - There is something to be said for books with characters that can get my blood boiling. :-) I personally find that the authors who are most successful at creating unlikeable characters are the ones who can also make me feel and care about them to some degree.

    Linda - Fortunately for the book and I, I was enjoying it up until the one incident which nearly did me in. And although it took me a while to get past that, I enjoyed the rest of it too. For me, it was worth reading the book in the end. I think if I hadn't liked the book from the start, I might not have finished it.

    Scrap girl - Which book did you end up giving up on? I haven't yet read anything by Joanne Harris, but I've been meaning to.

    It isn't often I give up on a book, but I do sometimes decide to--in particular if a book is boring me to tears. I don't think of it as being defeated by the book--simply a case of the book and I not being a good match.

    Megan - Making some sort of connection with someone or something in a book is important, I think. If it's not there--such as not caring about a character or what happens to them--it can be to the book's detriment, I agree.

    I don't mind the ambiguity in general--at least in terms of not knowing whether I like a character or not. I just don't like the not caring one way of the other at all.

    And thank you! I do plan to have fun today. I'm going to be meeting Thrity Umrigar! I'm so excited!

  7. I used to have to like the main character to like a book. I'm not sure when that changed, but I am glad it did. I would have missed out otherwise.

    I will give up on a book for the time being, but I've learned to never give up forever. If I did, I would have never gotten through The Poisonwood Bible. I loved it on the second try and it's now one of my all time faves.

  8. It helps (a lot) if I like at least some of the characters in a book, but I find that as long as I make some sort of connection with it, it's not essential. I may not end up liking the book on the whole either, but it would have ended up holding my attention.

    I can't think of any cases when a protagonist in a novel did something so hideous I found it "unforgivable," because even if I hated the action (killing off Dumbledore, anyone?), it served the story. If it didn't, I might react differently.

    Enjoy Day #2 at LATFoB, Wendy! I'm so glad we finally had the chance to meet there yesterday :-).

  9. I tried to read LORD FOUL'S BANE a few years back, (maybe seven or eight?), and I had to put it down. I don't think I even made it to the unforgivable act (which I've heard about since then, and it'd have been a deal-breaker for me, too). Thomas lost me a long time before that.

    I find that I don't have to like a protagonist in order to enjoy their story, but I do need to find them interesting. And if they're particularly unlikeable, as Thomas was, I need a leavening agent. I need something that I can react positively to. It's difficult for me to give concrete examples as to why that book bothered me so much, given the time that's passed since I last attempted it, but I think I didn't find any such leavening agent before I abandoned the book. It was a real struggle for me, and I doubt I'll ever try again.

  10. If I'm reading a book where I don't like the protagonist, I always finish the book, but am happy when its over. Fortunately, I can't think of one that really made me want to quit reading. Great post! And, I'm jealous of you for attending the FOB! Sorry you got burned, but I'm sure it was worth it!

  11. I hadn't heard of this book but after reading your thoughts on it..even if it was years ago..well, it left me intrigued. I'm curious to see how I will feel about this book so onto the TBR list this one goes :)

  12. I can't really recall reading a protagonist I disliked... then again, it won't stop me from reading it because I want to know what happened next and that hopefully the protagonist will get a chance to redeem him/herself. If not, it's the story that counts, isn't it? ;)

  13. Wendy...This was a very introspective and thoughtful post that I can totally relate to. You wrote so eloquently about this experience with candor and honesty. Ironically, I just finished Daddy's Little Spy-Isabella. This is a novel/part memoir about child brought up by a mother who was so evil, I found it difficult to fathom the reality. I did just about throw this book numerous times. It is by Isabella Rosa.
    I no exactly what you mean.

  14. I don't necessarily have to like a character to like a book, but I have to be able to relate to at least some aspects of the character. I'm a fairly "impatient" reader in general, if a book doesn't hold my attention after the first 50 pages or so, I generally won't stick with it. There are too many other good books out there waiting to be read for me to stick with something that's either not holding my attention or not grabbing me emotionally. This is why I don't do well with bookclubs - if the selection doesn't interest me, I just can't make myself finish it!

  15. I've never read this series, not sure why. I am intrigued by your post and will have to add it to on of my never ending TBR lists!

  16. It was nice to meet you! I wished I had spent more time with you as it was hard to talk with the table being so long but hopefully we can do this again next year and spend a bit more time chatting.

    P.S. Did you have a good time today as well? Was it just as crowded?

  17. Of course, I'd love to travel down Memory Lane with you! You've just reminded me to get started on The Da Vinci Code already. :)

  18. Kristy - I agree. I definitely feel like I would have missed out too.

    There have been a handful of occasions where I've given up completely on a book, but it's usually because the book has some nonredeemable quality--at least for me. I can usually tell when it's just not time for the book and I'll just put it back in my TBR room to try again later.

    Florinda - That is what I have found too. And while I liked Lord Foul's Bane in the end and it's certainly one that stands out for me, it wasn't a book I loved. I do think that my not liking the main character has a lot to do with that.

    Did the author have to have that particular scene in the book that turned me so against Thomas? I don't think so, but I sort of can see what the author was trying to accomplish with it. At least maybe. I think that's where it gets personal for me--the author could have had Thomas do something else horrendous and I might not have reacted quite as strongly as I did. Did he have to face such a conflict at all or was it overkill? I'd probably have to reread it again if I really wanted to figure that out.

    It was great meeting you too, Florinda! I had a lot of fun. :-)

    Memory - Thomas wasn't the most likeable character to begin with. If I hadn't known exactly what an anti-hero was at that point, I found out quickly.

    I do understand what you mean about needing a leavening agent. That's true for me too--although it doesn't necessarily have to be a character per say. The two characters I actually came to appreciate in the book that helped me through the rest of the book came after my most hated moment in the book. So, you definitely hadn't met them yet.

    I don't know that you would have liked it had you continued. Thomas never evolved enough for me to like him, even if he hadn't done what he'd done.

    Lisa - I was happy to finish this one too. :-) I did like it in the end, but I didn't come away loving it. I think, too, that part of my final enjoyment of it was the fact that I was still able to enjoy a good deal of the book despite the main character. I have to give the author credit for that.

    I just hope the burn turns into a tan and doesn't peel. LOL It was worth it though. I'm exhausted today. At least I'll make a good dental patient this morning when they start that root canal. :-)

  19. Samantha - I'd really like to know what you think of it when you do read it, Samantha!

    I've had that happen too--something catches my interest even if it's negative and I want to try the book for myself. :-)

    Melody - The process or journey between the beginning and end of the book is important, I agree. :-)

    Donna - Thank you! This is a book that I most likely will never forget. As you can see, it made quite an impression on me.

    Now you've got me curious about Daddy's Little Spy-Isabella. I read the description at Amazon of the book just now. It sounds like the author had a horrendous childhood. I'd probably be very angry with her mother too, and wanting to toss the book across the room.

    It's interesting in a way because I have read lots of books where someone has done similar or the same type of crime that Thomas did in Donaldson's book. And while I may have been angry or terribly saddened by the events, I didn't have quite the same problem moving on as I did with this one. I really think it comes down to the context of the act and who is doing it. I would expect to find it in a memoir about an abused child. And had it been one of the peripheral characters in Lord Foul's Bane instead of Thomas committing his crime, I probably would have been fine with it--it wouldn't have pulled me out of the story. But because the main character did it, I couldn't get past it. At least not entirely. I don't know if that makes sense.

  20. Sunburn isn't fun, no. *sends good healing and tanning vibes*

    Lord Foul's Bane is... somewhere on my TBR list, so thank you for the non-spoilery heads-up there, first off! It's fun revisiting older books in some form or another, isn't it?

    I can't recall a instance where a protagonist does something I couldn't forgive, which might say a lot about me. I'll try to remember to include my thoughts on the matter when I read Lord Foul's Bane. Of course now I'm also curious what it is he did.

    As for the other two questions... I'm in a bit of a bind answering that one. I often finish books I might not want to finish and am usually glad I did. Always something to be learned from everything if you're open enough to it. (I'm probably not, but I can hope I'm making steps in the right direction!)

    When I read Cygnet, I wanted to give up on both stories and persevered, for the most recent example. McKillip's style is gorgeous, but it also doesn't connect with me. I had no emotional connection to the characters or the stories, even though everything needed for that connection is in the stories. The way style affects me is so, so important; I could love a character to pieces and still put the book down because the style and I are just utterly incompatible. It's a shame, but it's how things are.

  21. For me, the perfect example was Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. Picked it up, stopped because I didn't like one character, but picked it up again. There really isn't one likeable character, but the world he created (rich NYC) was so fascinating, it became a character. Also, made you really, really happy not to be rich. Great book, (weak movie, but I liked it better than other people did.)

    Also, because I write reporter protagonists, I either LOVE other writers reporter protagonists (Carl Haiison) or hate them because they are breaking one of the rules I think are important in reporting. There's almost no middle ground for me.

  22. I read a couple of the Thomas Covenant books eons ago. I remember getting totally sucked in to those I read and I would like to read them again and finish the series. At some point in time I found out that the author was Catholic and it got me to thinking about some themes I might not have "gotten" at the time (e.g. guilt, repentance, etc.). See why I need to go back and read them again? :o)

    Hope you had a fantastic time at the L.A. Book Festival! I had planned on going and really wanted to meet up with other bloggers that were there, but I don't have all of my energy back yet and wouldn't have lasted long. Perhaps next year.

  23. Good questions! Of course I like a character I can relate to and/or at least like but when I think back on some of my favorite reads they don't necessarily meet that qualification. I guess it's more that I just have to find something about the character that keeps me hooked in the story. For example, I loved Perfume but the main character was practically a monster. I wanted to know what made the character the way he was. So that was the driving force - an interesting character even if he was horrible.

  24. Ingrid - Usually I can find something, no matter how small, to identify with in a character--and it certainly helps.

    In this case, I was enjoying the book up until that one point--I imagine it would have been different for me if I hadn't been. I don't generally stick with books that haven't captured my attention either.

    Gavin - It'll be interesting to see what you think of it when you get to it, Gavin. Hopefully you will enjoy it. :-)

    Ti - I enjoyed meeting you too, Ti. I had such a great time. I do wish we'd had more of a chance to talk. The day was just too short and full of activity!

    Sunday was fun too, although I was worn out by the time we left. It was very crowded. I'm sure the vendors loved that fact, but I could have done without so many people around. :-)

    Alice - I'm eager to hear what you think of The Da Vinci Code, Alice. :-)

    Libritouches - Thank you for the healing and tanning vibes!

    I've had fun reviewing my old reading journal notes. It's bringing back a lot of good reading memories.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on Lord Foul's Bane when you get to it. I think in this case, Donaldson hit one of my hot buttons. I usually am very forgiving too when it comes to characters in books--or at least I can see enough where they were coming from that it doesn't bother me quite as much. I'm sure a lot of factors played into my reaction to Thomas at that point in the book. I sometimes wonder if I'd feel differently now.

    You bring up a good point about likeable characters not always being able to hold up a book if other pieces of it aren't doing something for us.

    Jan - Yes, that's it exactly! Your example reminded me of a crime fiction series that I follow. It's not exactly the same thing because I do like the main character most of the time (can't stand her sidekick), but it's the setting and the history that the author bring out that keeps me wanting to read more.

    I can see why some reporter protagonists would not sit well with you given your own background as well as the characters you write about. I find I'm the same way with portrayals of those in my profession. I can't say I come across that much in literature though--just occasionally on TV.

    Terri - Yes, now that you mention it, I can definitely see some of the themes you mention coming through in the novel. The guilt was at least there, I'll give Thomas that. :-)

    I had a great time at the festival! I need to write a summary post, but I'm drawing a blank at the moment. I do hope you can come next year! It was a lot of fun meeting other bloggers this time around and I'd love to meet you, Terri.

    Iliana - I am drawn to stories about why people behave the way they do too. I haven't read Perfume, but it's on my wish list.

  25. Intriguing post... I'm dying to ask what unforgiveable sin he committed!

    I'm sure there have been books where I've not liked the main character, but as long as I can find something to grab onto in the book, I continue. I very rarely put a book down incomplete. The Gunrunner's Daughter is the only thing that comes to mind.

    Tan Lines was a book that didn't thrill me, but I read it to the end because I was part of the blog tour on it. All the characters irritated the hell out of me on that one, and when Billie was so wrapped up in herself she let the kid drown, then refused to accept blame... That was the end of her in my estimation.

  26. I have left a gift for you here. :)

  27. Alisha - LOL I don't want to spoil it here, but if you really want to know, I could e-mail you about it.

    Karen Beth - Thank you so much!

  28. I enjoyed your retrospective post. It's fun looking back on what we read several years before, isn't it?

    That's interesting that you can pinpoint exactly when your feeling towards unlikeable characters changed. I don't need to like the main character, but I have to be interested. I think Megan had a good point. Not caring about the characters either way is the surest indicator that I won't enjoy a book. There can be some really great characters that are despicable but so complicated and well-written, you can't help but be intrigued. And like you said, there's often some other characters or aspect to the book to have some kind of connection with even if the main characters leave us cold.

  29. Nat - It really is interesting that I can pinpoint the moment, I agree. Usually I have a terrible memory for these things. In a way, I think it was much more gradual and probably happened earlier for me, but this was the first book that really tested the idea.

  30. five years is a long time to be reading and blogging...way to go! Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I hope you had a great time at the festival of books.

  31. Serena - I haven't been blogging quite that long. It'll be three years this coming July, I believe. I've kept a reading journal though for 5 1/2 years and have been revisiting my journal every month here on my blog.


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