You can totally like and not like a book at the same time

Happy new year.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything longer than three lines. I’ve been lazy, but I’ve also been creative. The result is a whole lot of photos and haiku—you’ll see it if you scroll down a few months’ worth of posts.

Did you have a good Christmas and New Year’s?

photo of the cover of Trent Dalton's All Our Shimmering Skies

I did. I spend Christmas Day reading (listening to, rather) Trent Dalton’s All Our Shimmering Skies. He’s a renowned Australian writer, renowned not for this book, but for another one called Boy Swallows Universe. You’ve got to give it to him—the guy knows how to come up with catchy titles. I picked up Shimmering Skies because I heard so much about the writer and his “beautiful writing.” I finished it within two days. I enjoyed it. But it’s also the kind of book that you know you wouldn’t have enjoyed as much if you’d read it a couple of years previously. I would’ve hated the extensively exhausting descriptions peppered throughout the book. It was way too much at times, and a younger me would’ve lost patience within the first three hours (I was listening to it, remember—it’s a 12+ hour read).

However, in my current mental state, I could appreciate the descriptions, and even though some of them were bordering on boredom, I didn’t take it as a personal attack on my patience or reading capacity. This, I think, happens a lot to readers. We like or dislike books based on how we think a writer ought to write rather than appreciating the writer for who they are—along with their quirky and sometimes silly practices.

Nothing wrong in hating a book, of course. I hated Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee because it didn’t deliver what I expected. The writing wasn’t horrible (Lee wrote one of my favourite books—To Kill a Mockingbird), but it wasn’t the Lee I knew and loved. She was much younger when she wrote Watchman and far less strategic about her structuring. It shows in the book. I list those as if they’re flaws, but it doesn’t have to be so.

I read 50 books in 2021—thanks to lockdowns and living alone. It was a marvellous way of getting back into the literary world and analysing words from all over the spectrum of writing styles.

All the things I hate about Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, all the blunders I think she made in that book, are key elements that so many other readers love about the story.

That’s often a hard pill for us to swallow—how can someone enjoy something we abhor? What’s the point of online review sites and endorsements if one person’s treasure is another’s trash?

I guess that’s reality. It’s hard for us to digest the fact that one book can divide the reading community so. After all, isn’t reading one of the most uniting activities of all time? When you move to a new city, you find a book club—because that’s the best way to meet like-minded people, people you like having around. And yet, stories and storytelling have the gargantuan power to separate us and turn us against each other.

That’s what I realised when I read Dalton’s All Our Shimmering Skies. The characters seem to step out of a Disney tale. They’re likeable, but most of them, and mostly the main character, are too naive and childish. Admittedly, she’s 12. But like an overprotective father, the writer patronises the girl with his flowery language. It’s annoying, but as a reader, it’s hard to hate a writer who cares so much about this child. But then, you also realise that it’s so wrong to treat her like an injured magpie lark. These are problems I saw with this book, and when I see reviews that echo this emotion, I resonate with them.

But I also like the child’s innocence (to some extent), I like that she asks the crocodiles for their permission to cross the water. I like that she talks to the sky, and characterises the day sky as a liar and the night sky as the truth speaker. It reminded me of my own childhood when I spoke to the shower and the bucket and the handrail in our bathroom. I had names for them, voices, tones, and emotions. Kids do strange things like that—their imaginations are beyond anything an adult’s adulterated brain can comprehend. And I liked that this child (the main character) has a heart brimming with blind trust. She’s lucky it doesn’t come back to bite her. It’s a feel good fairy tale, almost. A lot like Frozen’s Elsa.

And yet, as I’ve said before, if I’d read this book as a younger person, I probably wouldn’t have given it a chance to show me what it really is.

Case in point—

“She spots a large army of green ants building a nest between two thin twig branches of a flimsy tree with floppy green leaves. “Look at this, Yukio,” Molly whispers, leaning into the tree where a line of ants with amber bodies and glowing jay-coloured abdomens are carrying a white grub along a designated worker road on a branch. “They make their homes out of leaves. Some of the ants are the tough ones who will work together to haul the leaves up, and some of the ants are the clever ones who will weave the leaves together, and some of them are gluers who use that white stuff they’re carrying to stick all the leaves in place.”

That is a beautiful scene. It should’ve brought a smile to your lips. It did to me. It’s so pure that you know it can’t possibly be true except in the mind of a child who’s so obsessed with seeing only the beauty of her surroundings. But after 300 or so pages of similar descriptions of excruciating detail, there’s a good chance it’ll just piss you off.

I’m glad I read this book when I read it. It was a summer day in Canberra, Australia. Absolutely stinking hot. And I had an average-tasting homemade cake and a book that made me think. Really, what else could you ask for?

Hope you had a good one, too. Cheers!

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