Thursday, July 24, 2008

To Each His Own . . .

Obviously the appreciation of any form of media is wildly subjective. Sometimes my opinion falls in line with the popular vote. Hey—I thought David Cook could sing circles around David Archuleta. Other times I’m in the minority. Frankly, Titanic and Leo couldn’t sink fast enough for my liking. But I think books are steeped in an even deeper form of subjectivity. There’s so much more left to individual interpretation than anything we see at the theater or hear on the radio. So it’s no surprise that even the opinions of experienced publishing professionals can completely contradict each other.

Most of us embrace the subjectivity of this business. Instead of begrudging the success of books we didn’t like, we try to understand what made them work. Still, in the spirit of demonstrating just how subjective this business is, we’ve decided to talk about the New York Times bestsellers we did and didn’t “get.”

Successes Kim totally “gets”:

THE KITE RUNNER by Khaled Hosseini — This book and Hosseini’s second, A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS, are two of my favorites of the last five years. These novels blend storytelling and enlightenment more seamlessly than any others in recent memory. They’re timely, riveting, and thought-provoking. I’ll admit that a few plot points in THE KITE RUNNER bugged me a bit, but the book still delivered and I found SUNS to be pretty close to perfect.

THE DA VINCI CODE by Dan Brown — It’s one of the more controversial successes in the industry, but also one of the biggest blockbusters. There are a lot of naysayers out there—many of them inside the industry—who say that Brown didn’t break any new ground here . . . that it wasn’t so unique an idea to have made the splash that it did. I won’t disagree with that. The more newsworthy themes of the book weren’t exactly fresh—but may have felt so to the average reader. Still, I’m not convinced that’s what made the book take fire like it did. The truth is that Dan Brown is an expert in the art of the chapter cliffhanger. This book is a brilliantly crafted page-turner. Brown defies the reader to put the book down and it completely works.

Successes Kim didn’t “get”:

THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY by Robert James Waller — Quite possibly the longest 200 pages I’ve ever read. I never found myself caught up in the romance and I was never able to sympathize with the characters. I’ll admit that I read this book as a senior in college, while interning at Putnam Berkley, so maybe my perspective would be different now. Unfortunately, though, I just don’t think I can force myself to crack this one open again.

SHE’S COME UNDONE by Wally Lamb — I’ve admitted many times here that I love a good cry, but this book made me want to gouge my eyes out. This has to be one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. I give the author credit for so effectively putting the reader inside the character’s head. But it wasn’t a place I could stand to stay for very long. My timing was bad with this one too. I read it on my honeymoon. It didn’t exactly set the right mood.

MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL by John Berendt — I didn’t dislike this book. In fact, I think it’s beautifully written and it totally made me want to go to Savannah. But I never would’ve predicted the type of success it had. And I’m sure many would say the same. I’m surprised that the book’s format (observations of the locals at the front with the true crime story starting almost halfway through the book) was so readily accepted by a mass audience. It’s heartening to see a book that’s not so clearly categorized find astronomical success.

Jacky’s thoughts:

I can chime in here since there are those NYT bestsellers I completely got behind and those that left me wondering, “Go figure.”


EAT PRAY LOVE: Ate it up. Prayed for more. Loved it. I went to an event that Liz Gilbert did in New Hope, PA, and she delivered in person as well. She’s a beautiful writer whose humility hit home with me. I’ve bought many, many copies of this book for friends and family. It’s a home run.

THE ROAD: Cormac McCarthy is one of a kind. The writing in this book and ALL THE PRETTY HORSES is breathtaking. It’s a tough story, and one that feels sadly prophetic. Absolutely amazing.


MARLEY AND ME: I have a yellow lab. He makes my heart sing. But Marley, he did nothing for me. I was bored.

90 MINUTES IN HEAVEN: Okay, admittedly I’m not the audience for this and I read it at the request of a friend, but the writing, the story, the cover . . . it was a big flop for me. I REALLY don’t get it.

And of course, we have to mention . . .
A MILLION LITTLE PIECES: I knew it was bs from page 1. Who is letting a bloody and battered man on a plane post-9/11 with a hole in his cheek? Who orders lobsters and gambles on football in rehab? Come on, I had no sympathy for anyone who bought this one.

I’m also with Kim on THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and SHE'S COME UNDONE, though I enjoyed (but didn’t love) MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL. THE DA VINCI CODE did nothing for me, but THE KITE RUNNER . . . wow.

Jessica’s thoughts:

This is a really tough question for me to answer and frankly I’m surprised by that. While there are a lot of New York Times bestsellers that I haven’t loved, I can often see why they’ve hit the list or why they’ve had the success they’ve had, even if they didn’t appeal to me in the same way.

To make my list I actually had to do some thinking and reviewing of the bestseller list now and in days gone by. But after doing so I was able to come up with a few. These aren’t necessarily my favorite books or my least favorite books, they are just books I either clearly did or did not get.

One book that I know has been incredibly controversial for its success, but that I really enjoyed is THE DA VINCI CODE. One of the things I’ve found interesting about this book though is that when talking to people who read both THE DA VINCI CODE and Brown’s ANGELS AND DEMONS, the one readers tended to like the best was the one they read first. For me it was ANGELS AND DEMONS. Either way, what so clearly made THE DA VINCI CODE a bestseller was the broad appeal. It introduced readers to an interesting and secretive world, it explored historical and religious beliefs, and it was easily accessible for all readers. It was also a thrilling adventure and I think I read it in a day.

Another book or series of books I do get is the Harry Potter series. I do get why these books have captured the imagination of children worldwide and I applaud that. How can you not be thrilled with a book that gets kids reading again? And you know what? I enjoyed them too. I haven’t finished the series yet, but I have read the first two books and I really do like rooting for the kid who lived in a cupboard.

There are two books that I never got, but before talking about them I need to fully confess that I’ve never read either of them from cover to cover. However, I think I’ve read enough to know why I don’t get them. They are THE RULES and SHE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU. There is such a narrow audience for these books, single women who are desperate to understand men, and yet they sold thousands and thousands of copies. I do not get it. I didn’t get the appeal of these books when I was single and I don’t get them now.

And another book that I never got and that, quite frankly, irritated me a little was DECEPTIVELY DELICIOUS by Jessica Seinfeld. There was obviously a huge controversy over the publication of this cookbook on how to sneak vegetables into your child’s diet, but that should not have made this a bestseller. I know, I know, it’s all because she was on Oprah. But really?! A bestseller. No way.


Julie Weathers said...

I cannot stand ALL THE PRETTY HORSES. It made me want to throw it against a wall and I was in a library when I picked it up.

THE HORSE WHISPERER is the same thing. I read it all the way through because I bought the book and I assumed that was my punishment for buying something because it was popular instead of screening it like I normally do.

The entire book read like an interview with a horse trader. I could literally see him sitting there drooling and giggling every time the trader dropped a nugget of wisdom. He tossed in a book of cowboy sayings and set a timer to insert witty saying every xx minutes. I'm not prone to violence, but I could be if I had to read something like that again.

Oh, sorry, I didn't get THE HORSE WHISPERER. Excuse the frothing at the mouth. Here, let me wipe that foam off your screen. Yes, I really am harmless. Yes, I've had my rabies shot. And my booster.

Anonymous said...

Well, Jessica, I won't tell you how the Harry Potter series ends, but it was good. I endjoyed the entire series, but only read the last book in the series. the rest I listened to on audio while on my daily commute. Jim Dale read the series and did a marvelous job. SO, if your commute is 30 minutes or more, I recommend you pick up the audio copies from your local library.

I don't read t lot of books on the NYT best-seller list. The ones I read - fantasies, horrors, and thrillers - don't seem to make the list very often, but that doesn't bother me, Mr. King, or Mr. Koontz :)


Kimber Li said...

You know what? I didn't read any of those, not even Harry Potter. None of them interested me enough to steal my attention away from the books I already have to read.

All the books I love are reviewed on my Enduring Romance blog for all to see.
A book a lot of parents and caregivers need is how to prepare nutritious foods children will love FAST AND CHEAP! Tips on teaching table manners would be nice too. Although my little darlings eat their vegetables quite happily, they wolf them down and yap at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Many times OPRAH==Bestseller

Don't you think there was a reason Jerry Seinfeld had Oprah do the voice of the judge in his very successful 'The Bee Movie'?

Michele Dunaway said...

Ah, see this is why I'm a BookEnds Client...

I agree with Kim so much. My all time most hated book is She's Come Undone. I found it absolutely stereotypical--here's the rape by the older man, the lesbian thing in college, the interracial relationship, the suicide attempt--it was as if Wally Lamb was proving he could use every thing he could in his novel. So what that he was a man writing as a woman? I wanted to shoot her myself and put her out of her misery for being such a pathetic victim of circumstance.

(and no, I don't want to debate the book with you. The friend who gave it to me and I still don't talk about this one).

I also couldn't read past the first few pages of A Million Little Pieces. Same thing. The guy was on a plane? Please. I was so happy to see that it wasn't real.

As for books I loved, I did like Harry Potter but thought that the last book had a lot of filler. Harry and Hermoine were in those woods for a bit too long, and what happened to Snape was simply too anticlimatic for all his hype.

Anonymous said...

Wanna good horse book? Try Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. Interesting, exquisitely written, beautiful characterizations, gritty, tender...and true. Simply one of the best I've ever read. It still glistens in my memory....This one deserved to be a bestseller.

Kate Douglas said...

Of all the books the three of you mentioned, the only ones I absolutely loved were the DaVinci Code and the entire Harry Potter series, which I have in hardcover and have read more than once...I read purely for entertainment, absolutely hated The Bridges of Madison County and The Horse Whisperer, and rarely pay attention to best sellers. I won't even look at an Oprah pick--I'm convinced she looks for the least "Feel Good" books she can find. When I read a book, I want to finish it with a smile on my face, not feeling as if I'd like to call out a hit on someone (like the author!) Give me a good romance, any sub-genre, any day!

Kate Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I totally got THE DAVINCI CODE - quick, engaging read that turned people on by the controversy hype....what I didn't get was the book that marketed itself as another DAVINCI CODE - THE RULE OF FOUR...

The Gerlings said...

Hmmm. I'll be the social outcats here, I was interested in any of those books. I did try Angels and Demons, but I didn't get past chapter three. It simply did not enthrall me. I've never been interested in reading about horses, I'm not single and looking for advice on men, my children eat fine without complaint, and I heard the premise of the Kite Runner and my eyes glazed over.

I am, unashamedly, a die hard sci-fi/fantasy fan. I can be coaxed away from my shelves filled with space battles and explosions but it has to be for something good. Not just well-written and fast paced, but educational. I like the Roma Sub Rosa series because the author gets his facts right.I appreciate that in a writer.

The NYT bestseller books are wonderful, broad genre, books that appeal to the majority. I'm all in favor of making people read. But until Terry Pratchett hits the NYT list (which he may have) the Times and I will have artisitic differences.

Loren Eaton said...

Frankly, Titanic and Leo couldn’t sink fast enough for my liking.


Anonymous said...

I too thought SHE'S COME UNDONE was depressing, but in fairness to Wally Lamb, his second book, I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE, is one of the best books I've ever read. It's a totally different book than SHE"S COME UNDONE, in character, scope and story telling. For those of you who haven't read it because you didn't like his first, you are missing something.

MB Dabney said...

I love the Harry Potter series, although I didn't discover the joy of Potter until my daughters forced me to read the third one. But I have been hooked ever since. A problem with them, however, is that as the series and the author gained popularity, the more poorly the books were edited, or so it semmed. The sixth book was a bloated mess and was torture to read. The last book, however, (and particularly the last 125 pages) was wonderful.
The "Da Vinci Code" was a great mystery story and I couldn't put it down. "Angels and Demons" I could put down and thus it took me months to read. And I couldn't ever finish "The Bridges of Madison County." But then, romance doesn't appeal to me.

Anonymous said...

So glad someone else wasn't enthralled by MARLEY AND ME. "The World's Worst Dog?" As someone who has had lots of dogs and been involved in dog rescue, Marley isn't even on the radar of bad dogs. I also felt like the parts of the story that would have been more interesting were just glossed over, while way too much time was spent detailing Marley's day to day life..

Anonymous said...

I loved the DaVinci Code and the Potter series.

For the longest time I couldn't bring myself to read anything by Nora Roberts. I finally forced myself to pick up one of her books based on a recommendation, and was shocked to find that I loved it. She blends the right amount of action and mystery with her romances, although some of her earlier works aren't nearly as good as her more recent books.

And anything on Oprah's list is usually a no for me.

Anonymous said...

I know this is not a guilty pleasures post today - but a Times best seller I absolutely loved was Prince of Tides. This was even after the movie came out, which is generally a big no-no for me. I may get crucified here, but I thought it was so well written, the characters so fully explored and the emotions all over the place (in a good way). A little to victim-y /enabler at times, but what I still thought it should be a "classic" (I was in college and stuck reading too too much Shakespeare and Greek literature -- anything resembling contemporary life would have been fine).

Books I did not "get":
Dean Koontz (if he was Times Best Seller, not sure?)
Mary Higgins Clark (like the lite-FM of mysteries)
She's Not That Into You (how does some lame writer from SATC get to write a book and get all over TV??! Ugg. Plus he was annoying)

And yes, sink Titanic, sink. And next time, take Rose with you.

Anonymous said...

Anything by Ursula Hegi annoys the daylights out of me. A dwarf who remembers being born? Pu-lease. I really didn't get it.

And The Horse Whisperer's end came out of left field with the hero (?) totally out of character. That one I really did throw across the room.

Anonymous said...

[Julie Weathers: I'm laughing, but remind me never to include anything remotely equine in a book of mine. :)]

IN: Time Traveler's Wife. Going back a few years, I also really liked Donna Tartt's Secret History despite what seemed an awful lot of hype. Somebody mentioned Koontz and King -- I think both of them are much better (and sometimes lazier) than they get credit for.

OUT: I mentioned this yesterday on one blog or another -- Prince of Tides. Egad.

I actually haven't read the NYT Review much in recent years (although I sometimes see the list elsewhere, or read a syndicated review). Hence the datedness of the above.

Michele Dunaway said...

Shelley, thanks for that heads up on Wally Lamb. I admit, I haven't read anything else by him, so I'll check it out and give him a fair shake.

Oh, I did not get Stephen King's Cell. As for Titanic, note that Leo did not get a best actor nod. :)

Also, I do have to admit that I love Dick Francis mysteries (which are almost always set in the horse world)and Janet Evanovich's #s books. I know when I read Stephanie Plum I'm going to be laughing so hard it hurts. And that I'm so grateful I don't know any of those types of people in real life.

Terri Osburn said...

mb dabney wrote:
I couldn't ever finish "The Bridges of Madison County." But then, romance doesn't appeal to me.

That book isn't a Romance.

I've never read Prince of Tides, but I did read Beach Music (same author-Pat Conroy) and loved it. Also enjoyed Da Vinci Code which I couldn't put down.

Anonymous said...

McCarthy's The Road, absolutely. And his writing? Yeah, there is no one like him. Brilliant.

Aimlesswriter said...

Divinci Code was a snore. Too much discription and predictable journey.
Loved Marley. I've got a dog with no brains too, so I could identify.
Titanic and Bridges of Madison- whoohooo, lets watch people cheat on their significant others. Not my cup of tea as I have no respect for the character so I can't sympathize with their plight.
She's Come Undone-liked the pscyhological profile. Kinda like how people watch a train wreck, I guess.
My favorite books are the ones that are fast paced. So a lot of the books mentioned wouldn't move quick enough for me. (But then an agent once told me my writing was too fast paced so...)

Chris Redding said...

Oprah stuff is pretty much a no go for me.
Way too depressing. Loved Da Vinci Code, but thought it wasn't his best book. Like Deception Point better.
Sorry, haven't gotten into Harry Potter. Have tried, but my 10 YO has read all of them more than once. The only hard backs I bought for him because I knew he'd read them.

Sandra Cormier said...

I haven't read most of the books on your lists, although I can't help the feeling that I SHOULD, because as an author I should be reading successful novels to learn why they're successful.

I liked The Horse Whisperer, but it lagged a bit from time to time, and the ending was disappointing.

I loved Angels and Demons, and The Davinci Code. The codes could have stood being a little more complicated, but jeez, I had the puzzle figured out long before the characters.

But I kept reading because they were likable.

Loved HP, and read every single one after my kids had the first crack.

Yet, they keep trying to talk me into reading Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I tried, honest I did - but I just can't get into it.

Sandra Cormier said...

I don't know about Marley and Me, but my dog ate the walls, floor, cupboard handles and a tent.

He didn't eat us out of house and home - he ate the house and home.

Anonymous said...

Books are SO subjective. My mother, who is the coolest lady in the world and a retired librarian, will often give me books that she is sure will change my life, and I'll be like, hello? Are you the woman who gave birth to me?

Reid said...

I agree with you on "Titanic" completely. The lessons to be learned from that movie? Good guys die horribly, bad guys get to live on as rich people (for at least another ten years), and it's okay to hang on to a priceless piece of stolen jewelry if it reminds you of the time you were getting some from a ne'er-do-well street urchin in the cargo hold of a boat.

As positive messages go, it's right up there with "Pretty Woman."

Anonymous said...

Absolutely love VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Couldn't get into THE DAVINCI CODE. Admit to buying BLACK AND BLUE because it was in Oprah's book club, but it sucked.

Julie Weathers said...


[Julie Weathers: I'm laughing, but remind me never to include anything remotely equine in a book of mine. :)]

Oh, I would probably bite my tongue. Or not, depending on my mood. I just kept waiting for the book to get good and finally skipped to the end. Thank goodness he killed himself so I didn't have to; and he did it in typically stupid fashion.

Just don't put your Undressed Nubile Damsel in Distress (c) (UNDID for short) on a raging black stallion no one can tame and we're good.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about Titanic. Idiot sea captain drives a boat into an iceberg. Apparently he slept through the iceberg class at idiot sea captain school. Boat thereafter has a hole in it. Boats with holes in them tend to sink. This boat does sink. Story ends. One thing I do not understand:

Why did it do $601,000,000 at the box office?

And what will the sequel be? The iceberg melts because of global warming?

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