First impressions of books from New York Public Library and why can’t NYPL be more like Netflix?

I hate it when within a span of a week I get eight pick up notices from NYPL for books that I reserved online. But alas, this is what happened this week, when eight books arrived all at once. Since there is no way in a million that I can read them in three weeks, I spent the last couple of days going over them one-by-one, reading a chapter or two before deciding which I will keep and which I will return unread.
Here are my first impressions of the following books:

Zadie Smith, NW. This is going to the return pile. Despite a promising beginning, Leah, the heroine, who is dwelling on how boring she is, convinced me enough so that I don’t really care to read on. The language feels like it was written for the camera, you could feel it moving between the characters at an angle and their lines. I do admit there are some gems here, even in the first few sentences that I read:
For example, when pondering on the chain of event that improbably brought her and her husband together, she reflects:
It is hard to explain – in that game of musical chairs – why they should have
stopped, finally, at each other.

Or this exchange between Leah and Michel, they end:
What do you want me to say? The world is what it is.
– Then why’re we even trying?

Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton. I admit, I was never a big Salman Rushdie fan. To me, he is the author of one important book, Midnight’s Children, and I never cared for anything else he wrote. But after hearing an interview with Salman Rushdie on his recent memoir, I decided to give it a try. Bottom line: another one for the return pile. The book is just too long; the 600+ pages should be cut by half. There are some really good sections but they are separated by long sections with side stories on too many characters and it feels like a lot of name dropping is going on. The editor should have been more insistent here.

Robert Caro, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Maybe my attention span is shortening, but at 736 pages, this too is a bit too detailed for me. We all know that politics is petty but it’s enough to give just a couple of examples and not a play-by-play of the entire eight weeks. The book feels a little like a Twitter reenactment of the first eight weeks of LBJ’s presidency.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Two-part Interventions. This novel is “grabbed from the headlines” and based on the story of the pianist Joyce Hatto and her husband and producer William Barrington-Coupe, who was discovered to have faked his wife recording. The story was covered in the New Yorker soon after the fraud was discovered.
The book is readable but not satisfying. Schwartz goes to great efforts to demonstrate Philip’s devotion to his Suzanne but the relationship is flat and has undertones of a romance novel. The parts about the fraud and the chain of reasoning that leads someone to commit such fraud while being well aware of the risks, are the better parts of the book. Alas, when once can choose only 1 or 2 from eight, difficult choices have to me made.

Joseph Epstein, Essays in Biography. This is a book I will probably end up buying. It contains short biographical essays for about forty people, mostly literary figures. I read the one about Bernard Malamud and enjoyed it very much. When a name comes up, I would prefer to turn to this book than to a Wikipedia entry.

And now for the keepers: I put three aside although clearly I will not get to all of them before the due date, so they will probably need to be returned and borrowed again.

Pow! and Big Breasts & Wide Hips by the 2012 Nobel laureate Mo Yan. Both books come with a warning to readers about writing that is violent and bloody, but the first few pages a Pow! Are quite captivating so I will give them a try.

Peter Hoeg, The Elephant Keepers’ Children. Since I loved Simlla’a Sense of Snow I am going to give this book a go as well.

The spring semester begins next week and my reading for leisure is expected to slow down. I wish there was a better way to manage requests from NYPL so that I don’t end up with eight books in one week. Netflix seems to manage that with the 1-at-a-time or 2-at-a-time system, so how about it NYPL?


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