Hurts So Good: When A Book’s Too Painful To Recommend, But Too Powerful Not To

Anyone else ever have this conversation?

Friend: “So what’re you reading these days?”

You: “Omigod this BOOK. It’s so INTENSE. The plot is masterful, and the details are so IMMERSIVE. It has a total hold on me.”

Friend: “Wow, sounds like I should read that next. What’s it called? Can I borrow it when you’re done?”

You: “Ummm…sure. But it’s also really super sad. It’s kind of bumming me out, to tell the truth.”

Friend: “Oh. No thanks. I don’t need more of that in my life.”

You: “But it’s so GOOD!”

Renoir, Woman Reading (courtesy f_snarfel, Creative Commons)

Anybody? Anybody?

My latest engagement with an entry in the Bummer-of-the-Month-Book-Club is the Pulitzer winner The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. It’s been around a few years, and only fell into my hands by accident–somehow finding its way onto my bedside pile without any known recommender. I picked it up and, as perfect illustration of the cliche, found myself hooked by the first page.

Damn it. Had I read the blurbs, I probably would have passed. But I’m not a blurb-reader.

This book is PAINFUL to read. For starters, it’s set in North Korea. Additionally, it’s set in North Korea. And, as if that weren’t enough–North Freakin’ KOREA.

But those Pulitzer-givers know a thing or two about literature. Not only does the book twine different genres–identity odyssey, thriller, love story–it also switches point of view here and there, from close-third person narrative of the main character, to state-run propaganda blasts repurposing the very story you are reading, to a first-person accounting, up close–way too close–to North Korea’s vicious prison “life,” by an unnamed but increasingly conflicted interrogator.

And the writing? I’ll let it speak for itself.

Jun Do’s reward for these achievements was a listening post in the East Sea, aboard the fishing vessel Junma. His quarters were down in the Junma’s aft hold, a steel room big enough for a table, a chair, a typewriter, and a stack of receivers that had been pilfered from downed American planes in the war. The hold was lit only by the green glow of the listening equipment, which was reflected in the sheen of fish water that seeped under the bulkheads and constantly slicked the floor. Even after three months, Jun Do couldn’t stop visualizing what was on the other side of those metal walls: chambers of tightly packed fish sucking their last breath in the refrigerated dark.” (p. 40)

I would love to be able to talk with someone about this book, to discuss questions and groove over passages. But I don’t want to give it to anyone without warning, and most people, once warned, sensibly pass. That got me thinking about other books in this category. Here are a few that come to mind:

The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner. He’s one of my, let’s say top three, favorite 20th century authors. Angle of Repose, his Pulitzer winner, is incredibly sad, but I can still recommend it to anyone, especially over the age of 30. But this book kind of destroyed me for a while.

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. I mean, it’s about the Civil War, so that’s a teensy hint I should have taken.

Probably the queen of books too terribly powerful to pass on to people you like is Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Please read it anyway, if you haven’t yet. But give yourself lots of breathing time.

So I’m wondering…what other books would you nominate for this category? Shall we start a TPRTPN* Book Club?

*see title of this post

4 thoughts on “Hurts So Good: When A Book’s Too Painful To Recommend, But Too Powerful Not To

  1. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
    The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

    There’s another category of pain, that might be particular to me, which is impatience. I get soooo irritated with Pride and Prejudice — after all that mannered yearning and yakking, just *tackle* him! I mean, c’mon!! This book could be about 99% shorter. 😉

  2. Yeah, “pain in the ass” was not what I had in mind. Totally agree about Cold Mountain. The Lovely Bones was one of those I haven’t yet brought myself to even try! Good picks.

  3. Oh, this is a tough category…if I read something painful, it must also offer hope, especially now. Reading the news every day is hard enough, so I’ve been deliberately choosing novels that don’t devastate me. But I trust you, and will keep this in mind for when I’m feeling emotionally stronger.

  4. That’s always been my defense when my Mate describes my reading choices as gloomy: “But it’s REDEMPTIVE at the end!” Still. I’m with you: these days the ratio of redemptive to devastating has to be far higher than 1:1 in order for me not to resent the person who recommended the book.

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