It might be unbelievable, but I don’t like every book I read.
Honestly, this surprises me, too.
And, what does that even mean — not liking a book?
Hating the characters? That can’t be it — I hate Cathy and Heathcliffe, but Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite books.
Hating the storyline? Maybe.
Hating the writing style? It depends; romance novels have cheesy writing, but I don’t enjoy them any less.
It’s hard to put my finger on what I don’t like about a book, and it usually comes down to a feeling of disconnectedness. When I struggle to connect to the book as a whole, it often becomes a book that I “don’t like.”
Another test that I use is, can I bear to part with the book? Can I donate it?
Unfortunately, that’s how I feel about Jane Gardam’s The Hollow Land, a collection of short stories from 1981, recently republished to great acclaim.
The Hollow Land is a collection of nine short stories about two young boys — Bell Teesdale and Harry Bateman — growing up through their adventures together in northern England.
“Here is the ancient kingdom of Cumbria and our part is the Hollow Land, which is where I was born and have never left, except when they sent me to boarding school. O came back before the Crisis and I shan’t leave again.”Gardam 138
Harry and his family vacation in the countryside each year, allowing the young boy to connect with nature and his friend, Bell. The friendship between Harry and Bell reflects the town vs. country trope that so often generates a good story.
“‘Country peace and quiet,’ says one. ‘Country peace and quaat. Worse than Picadilly Circus.’”Gardam 14
“My granddad says that hay times maybe not understood by them as important and maybe there’s things of theirs we don’t catch onto either.”Gardam 17
By every indication, I should like this book. It’s a coming-of-age story about friendship — two fairly universal themes that almost anyone could connect to. Why couldn’t I?
Each story reads like a reminiscence of the two boys having adventures over the northern English countryside, known as Cumbria. Half of the books I read are about coming of age adventures, many of them set in the north of England! I don’t think I suddenly tired of these tropes.
My view of this book seems to be the unpopular one. Meg Wolitzer sings its praises in a 2015 New York Times article.
“Harry and Bell are vessels for experience and feeling; together they’re almost one entity. Writing about their families, Gardam brings her piquant humor to moments in which different cultures come into close proximity — not entirely clashing, but almost.”Wolitzer, the New York Times, 2015
I feel left out from the conversations I’ve read about this book online. I don’t see a way in because I’m not even sure what I read. I couldn’t find a point of connection or a way into the story or the characters’ lives.
Apparently, the book is a collection of short stories, but that was not apparent as I read. Nor was it terribly obvious that it was a “children’s book.” I kept thinking that this book was boring, and my students wouldn’t be able to find a way into it either. If my students couldn’t connect, how on earth could this be a children’s book?
So, what was it with The Hollow Land?
I still don’t know.
I still beat myself up when I don’t like a book, too. I know how much work a writer puts into their art! When I don’t like something a fellow writer created, I feel like I’m letting my people down.
I feel especially weird sharing my negative thinking about books online (what if the author sees it and it hurts their feelings?!).
But I think this is a good reminder — just because I didn’t connect with a book doesn’t mean you won’t!
It’s another good reminder that even if you don’t connect with a book, there are still lines and passages that stun you with their beauty. Here are a few of my favorites from The Hollow Land:
“There’s no such thing as accidents — just clumsiness and daftness and butting in where nature knows best.”Gardam 56
“Me, I find there’s more ghosts about in the day. On hot quiet days like this one. There’s those say if you listen you can hear the old hammers going, the picks of the miners long ago, and the trucks running over the wooden rails. Now and then you can just about catch old voices with old words in them. Then there’s the woman that’s often seen walking. She walks just up yonder.”Gardam 57
“Even a quiet house has some little noises in it if you listen — ticks and creaks, a hum from a fridge or a flap from a curtain or a squeak from a board. Today Blue Barns was so quiet it was like somebody holding his breath and listening for himself.”Gardam 75-6
“Does it ever occur to thee, Bell Teesdale, Harry Bateman, that none of the sounds floating about the world wouldn’t stand chance, stand chance, without ears out ready for ‘em?”Gardam 96
“‘Farmers never like a view,’ said Harry’s mother. ‘They have too much of it all day. At night they want to get indoors and away from it.’”Gardam 104
“Ghost upon ghost haunts this road from Greta Bridge, where a spirit got caught under a stone and twice they’ve had to put her back; to the blue ghost you can see sometimes on bright sunny afternoons by Bowes, the wife of a Saxon lord still wearing her Saxon dress, but without her head; to the white ghost near the old mines who walks quietly in her apron. These are only a few of the people you are likely to see.”Gardam 120
“Some things, if you know enough, can be worked out in advance. For example, a total eclipse of the sun. Other things are considered accidents.”Gardam 127
“What sort of world would this be if people had stayed where they was born? What sort of a country this? There’d been no Vikings bringing bees and honey and no Christians bringing Jesus Christ and no Celts with bronze and jewels and no Romans fixing up roads and laws and no Saxons with books and painting and lovely clothes and no new ideas from anywhere. No gypsies for excitement, and the way from India. No Italian prisoners Grandad talks about in the last war bringing songs and that no Chinese like over in Appleby cooking new food.”Gardam 152
“there’s seldom been a day I haven’t heard the water running in the hollows of the fell. Yet everyday has been different.”Gardam 156
I mean . . .
. . . see?
Books always gift us with something.
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