Why are some astonishing books less interesting when re-read?

Readers and writers often discuss whether or not they re-read books. While many of us have too many new books we want to read to spend much time re-reading old ones, the consensus is that there are usually a few comfort-food old books we enjoy multiple times.

I’ve re-read most of Isabel Allende’s books at least once, some of Pat Conroy’s bools several times, and an old Scot’s language trilogy A Scot’s Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon multiple times. Why? The reasons are mostly subjective, but usually include interesting characters, compelling plots, a fine use of language, and the likelihood of discovering something new in the story each time I go through it.

I very seldom re-read page-turner novels. They keep my attention the first time, but the plots are too linear and predictable to be interesting if I try to pick up these books a second time. Other books, many that are clever, highly inventive, and often humorous don’t seem to work for me on a second or third reading. Perhaps most of the excitement from the first reading fades away because it came from experiencing something very new, like hearing a great joke, that doesn’t work later on because I already know the punchline.

As a case in point, my favorite novel in 2006 was Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics.  It was well received by critics and became a bestseller. Out of fresh reading materials, I looked forward to reading it again last week. I was surprised to find myself skimming. However, I did read it to the end because I’d forgotten many of the details of a rather tangled plot.

The protagonist, Blue van Meer, is enrolled in an upscale high school for her senior year after spending the rest of her school years enrolled in one or more schools every year because her widowed father ended up with university teaching positions throughout the country. At St. Gallway School, she seemingly inadvertently comes under the wing of an eccentric film teacher and the snobbish clique of students who worship her.

The book, which mimics the syllabus of a high school or college course, is clever, inventive, philosophical, and an outstanding example of stories where nothing is what it seems to be. Blue’s erudite father is very philosophical and very opinionated about the values of the unwashed masses. While this was interesting the first time through the book, such passages became a big of a swamp the second time through. Likewise, Blue speculates about a lot of things and, while exciting when I first read the book, were a bit tedious the second time.

I still highly recommend the novel and believe that readers who enjoy something different and highly creative will have fun reading it. It failed to keep my attention the second time through because its unique approach tended–in my view–to keep it from being compelling when that unique approach was a journey I’d taken before.

I admit that my feelings about re-reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics are highly subjective and probably tell you more about me than they tell you about the book. Other readers would look at the list of books that I re-read and say they either couldn’t get through them once, much less twice. With movies, some of which I’ve watched multiple times, I often find that the ambiance of such films brings me back to them in spite of the fact I know how they end. Perhaps avid readers feel the same way about the books they read multiple times.

Some people tell me they’ve read all the books in the Harry Potter series multiple times. I’ve read them all, but have little interest in re-reading them even though I’ve seen some of the movies more than once (and enjoyably so). I recently read the Scot’s language translation of the first Harry Potter book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane and thoroughly enjoyed it because–for a person of Scots ancestry–it was fun reading it in Scots. Could I read it again? Probably not because I enjoyed seeing a story I already knew through the eyes of the Scots translator. It can only be new once.

Likewise, Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics can only be new once, and after that an novel based on a clever approach didn’t work for me as read-it-again-and-again comfort food.

–Malcolm

Coming soon, “Lena,” the third novel in my Florida Folk Magic series.

New Pat Conroy Center Fundraising Drive Underway

Those of us who are fans of the late Pat Conroy will have another reason to travel to the South Carolina Lowcountry. The noprofit Pat Conroy Center will soon open in Beaufort in support of local authors and the act of writing. A fundraising campaign is underway. You can learn more about it here.  According to the Associated Press, Barbra Streisand and John Grisham are among the honorary board members. The effort is being spearheaded by Conroy’s widow author Cassandra King.

Wikipedia photo

Wikipedia photo

Meanwhile, a nonfiction collection of articles, letters and essays called A Low Country Heart will be published this fall.

Currently in between new books, I’m re-reading The Lords of Discipline. Like many of Conroy’s books, it is–in addition to the plot–a lyrical prose poem about Charleston and South Carolina Lowcountry. For many, Conroy’s writing is too lyrical, though not as over the top as Thomas Wolfe who was an influence on Conroy. I appreciate the turns of phrase and the use of words. I will admit that I’m having to shift gears to get back to Conroy after finishing two Stephen King books.

Favorite Pat Conroy Passages

  • “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” – The Prince of Tides
  • “Do you think that Hemingway knew he was a writer at twenty years old? No, he did not. Or Fitzgerald, or Wolfe. This is a difficult concept to grasp. Hemingway didn’t know he was Ernest Hemingway when he was a young man. Faulkner didn’t know he was William Faulkner. But they had to take the first step. They had to call themselves writers. That is the first revolutionary act a writer has to make. It takes courage. But it’s necessary” – My Losing Season: A Memoir
  • Photo from official Conroy website.

    Photo from official Conroy website

    “There is such a thing as too much beauty in a woman and it is often a burden as crippling as homeliness and far more dangerous. It takes much luck and integrity to survive the gift of perfect beauty, and its impermanence is its most cunning betrayal.” ― The Prince of Tides

  • “Charleston has a landscape that encourages intimacy and partisanship. I have heard it said that an inoculation to the sights and smells of the Carolina lowcountry is an almost irreversible antidote to the charms of other landscapes, other alien geographies. You can be moved profoundly by other vistas, by other oceans, by soaring mountain ranges, but you can never be seduced. You can even forsake the lowcountry, renounce it for other climates, but you can never completely escape the sensuous, semitropical pull of Charleston and her marshes.” ― The Lords of Discipline
  • Behind us, the sun was setting in a simultaneous congruent withdrawal and the river turned to flame in a quiet duel of gold….The new gold of moon astonishing and ascendant, he depleted gold of sunset extinguishing itself in the long westward slide, it was the old dance of days in the Carolina marshes, the breathtaking death of days before the eyes of children, until the sun vanished, its final signature a ribbon of bullion strung across the tops of water oaks.” ― The Prince of Tides
  • “The tide was a poem that only time could create, and I watched it stream and brim and makes its steady dash homeward, to the ocean.” ― South of Broad

Word is, Conroy had submitted a portion of the novel he was working on when he died  in March. Naturally, the publisher is searching for notes, outlines and other materials to see whether the book can be finished. In many ways, I hope they can’t find what they need because having it finished by another author just wouldn’t be the same.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and other novels.

Book Review: Pat Conroy’s ‘South of Broad’

South of Broad South of Broad by Pat Conroy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Pat Conroy’s “South of Broad” is a love song to Charleston with blood on the sheet music.

As he walks toward the Cooper River in 1990, six months after Hurricane Hugo tore into his beloved city, narrator Leo King ponders the city’s rebuilding and healing, and the coming spring: “Since the day I was born, I have been worried that heaven would never be half as beautiful as Charleston.”

Like his counterpart Tom Wingo in “The Prince of Tides” (1986), Leopold Bloom King is a psychologically wounded man. While Wingo’s issues focus on a brutal family secret, the death of an older brother, and a suicidal sister, King is haunted by the suicide of his older brother Steve. King worshipped that brother, the golden boy and their mother’s overt favorite. “Looking back,” King tells us, “I think the family suffered a collective nervous breakdown after we buried Steve.”

King drifted between that collective breakdown and 1969 when he found himself fulfilling the role of anchorman in a diverse group of high school seniors: Ike Jefferson, one of the first black students to play on the high school football team; Sheba and Trevor Poe, the dramatic and talented twins who live across the street with an alcoholic mother; the mountain-born orphans Starla and Niles Whitehead, who hope one day to be re-united with their mother; and from the aristocratic world South of Broad Street, Molly Huger and brother and sister Chad and Fraser Rutledge.

That these students appeared in King’s life on June 16—Bloomsday, for those who revere James Joyce—was to some extent orchestrated by his mother with the helping hand of fate. After all, his mother who was both the high school principal and a Joycean scholar named him after Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s protagonist in “Ulysses.” And after all, as King saw it, there are no coincidences; “fate comes at you cat-footed, unavoidable, and bloodthirsty.”

Conroy portrays the meeting and evolving relationships between King and this disparate collection of variously angry, snobbish, haunted and broken souls with humor and realism. Some commentators have panned Conroy’s dialogue as unnatural. Yet, one might ask what “normal” could possibly sound like for people weaned on tragedy and/or destined for it.

“The Prince of Tides” unfolds primarily in flashbacks. Though he’s looking back on his life, Leo King narrates “South of Broad” in a nonlinear sequence. Parts one and four are set in the late 1960s. Parts two, three and five are set in the late 1980s. While frustrating, this structure is not fatal. Yet, details about the characters’ maturation into adults is sketchy and the action screeches to halt before the climatic Part Five when Conroy pulls his readers back to the high school world of race and class tensions and football.

What worked to perfection in “The Prince of Tides” is a little dissonant in “South of Broad.” Conroy’s trademark soaring language develops a cohesive sense of place that wonderfully contrasts with and serves as a stable foundation for the nasty events and broken people. Yet some of the poetry is ponderous. The familiar storyline of dysfunctional people coping with a tragedies is again compelling. Yet it stumbles somewhat on the novel’s structure and melodramatic tendencies.

When Leopold Bloom King is nine years old, he finds a dead god named Stephen Daedalus King in a bathtub of bloody water. While the method behind the madness is a little tired and the music a little too much in a minor key, between Steve’s suicide and the novel’s last moments on a Bloomsday many years in the future, there is a still strong and memorable story.

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Copyright (c) 2009 by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire”