Working Title for this Review — Why I Like Short Books?
Longer Working Title for this Review — Why I Like Short Books until I feel cheated at the end because the author raced through it at the end and maybe could have written a book a little longer than 45,000-50,000 words and produced a much more rewarding and fulfilling story for his readers.
One of the problems I have had with the last few books I have read from the New York Times Notable Books of 2014 list is that they were long and just not good enough to keep me reading for the 600 pages or so and 150,000-200,000 words. You want to write a book that long and keep me going, it better be good. It better be compelling. It better be a story that weaves me through something that leaves me holding my breath and awake at night. Those last few books weren’t.
Completely coincidentally, the two books from the list I currently have on my nightstand are much shorter. They are both barely 200 pages long. First up is Family Life by Akhil Sharma. Here’s the Amazon blurb about the book:
Named one of the Ten Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review and New York Magazine
“Gorgeously tender at its core…beautiful, heartstopping…Family Life really blazes.” —Sonali Deraniyagala, New York Times Book Review
Known for his “cunning, dismaying and beautifully conceived” fiction (New York Times), Akhil Sharma delivers a story of astonishing intensity and emotional precision.
Growing up in Delhi in 1978, eight-year-old Ajay Mishra and his older brother Birju play cricket on the streets, eagerly waiting for the day they can join their father in America. America to the Mishras is, indeed, everything they could have imagined and more—until tragedy strikes. Young Ajay prays to a God he envisions as Superman, searching for direction amid the ruins of his family’s new life. Heart-wrenching and darkly funny, Family Life is a universal story of a boy torn between duty and his own survival.
Sometimes these short books are really, really good. There’s something about a shorter long story (or is that longer short story) that frequently is just the right length. Part of it is that I can frequently read such a thing in one day, which I did with Family Life. The other thing is that a story like this is short enough that I can read the whole thing even if it isn’t holding my attention because it is so short. I’m not going to have to make a long-term commitment to the story and feel slighted when I get to the end and realize how much time I just wasted reading the thing.
That said, Mr. Sharma cheated me on this book. For most of the book, he writes in excruciating detail of the narrator’s difficult as a young child immigrating to the U.S. from India. Of his older brother, who suffers a horrible tragedy which changes everything about his family. Of his parents constant clashes following that tragedy. Excruciating detail. For many pages it is an incredibly depressing tale, which is not why I don’t like it. I’ll read depressing stories and revel in them. My problem is that all of a sudden, in the final chapter or two of the book, the narrator finds love in high school, grows up, finds a career, and … bam … story over, with a line that I think the author meant to explain it all, but really just left me scratching my head.
Over at Amazon, this book has an average rating of 3.7 stars. I think that’s the lowest of any of the books I’ve read so far on this project. There are ten one star reviews. They complain the book is depressing and boring. Many complain about the ending. Like I said, that it is depressing isn’t the problem for me. Too, much of the book isn’t boring, although it is somewhat repetitive. What ultimately is the problem is that those last few chapters seem to lose focus. They are a confused mess and a race to the finish. Which, of course, makes no sense given the short length of the story. The author could have very easily provided some additional oomph to those final chapters and still had a very manageable and readable story.
I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll find another story on the list that hits me in the solar plexus. The closest was the very first one I read, by virtue of the fact that it was the first on the alphabetical list. Since then, I’ve jumped around and just don’t seem to be finding any luck. Maybe I should give this project a name … something like “Can’t I Find A Good Book?”