House of Guilt and Fog

My mother and I have an interesting literary relationship: We love to recommend books to each other, harass the other until she’s read our offerings, and then compare notes.

But there’s one kink in this symbiosis: I always give my mother what I think are fiercely funny, brilliant, heartbreaking but ultimately entertaining books (An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, The Liars’ Club, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Which Brings Me to You) and she volleys back books that are also brilliant but very heavy on the heartbreak (House of Sand and Fog, The Road). (I’m not sure if it’s important for you to know that she teaches English at an all-boys Catholic high school, but it somehow seems germane.)

In this way, I am set up to disappoint her. She plows right through Sloane Crosley and Steve Almond and I plod through Cormac McCarthy, recognizing the book’s genius but positively sure I’ll see that basement full of starved, half-dead prisoners when I drift off to sleep tonight. (Help us! Help us!)

Sand and Fog I’ve given back to her unread once already—I was fighting over my own house at the time and the parallels were just too painful. Every time she asks if I’ve read it yet, I guiltily drop my head and respond, “No.” She says, “Oh,” like I just told her I wasn’t coming home for Christmas this year. Or ever.

Then she says, “It’s really good,” as if its literary merit were the problem. This makes me feel even worse. Like not only am I a slacker but I also have no taste. Or doubt hers. (The truth is I’m a creampuff, okay? If I wanted to spend my night crying my eyes out, I’d watch the RNC clips on YouTube.)

I am now in a similar standoff with my boyfriend, whose tastes run a little more fantastic than mine (though we do share a love for Italo Calvino and Margaret Atwood). To him, I offer King Dork (we were both fans of The Mr. T Experience), Erasure, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and a healthy dose of Cake. In return, I get his treasured British edition of The Lord of the Rings. All 1,000+ pages of meandering description—again, brilliant and a necessary conquest for those in my field, but a lot to ask of a girl who reads all day long.

At dinner the other night, after sharing a half a bottle of wine and the most delicious scallops we’d ever eaten, I took his hand across the table and said, “Honey, would you be too terribly disappointed if I don’t finish Lord of the Rings?”

“Yes,” he replied sweetly. “But I know you won’t.” (At this point, it may be good to note that he and my mother get along fabulously.) And now, like Sand and Fog, I can’t read anything else until I finish this book.

So I want to know: What are the genres, authors, and books you’ve tried time and again to read but can’t, and who’s making you feel guilty about it? Maybe if we all confess, in the spirit of penitence and reconciliation, we can finally tackle those titles, and we’ll be allowed back home for the holidays.

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3 Responses to “House of Guilt and Fog”


  1. 1 kwdarby September 23, 2008 at 7:35 pm

    Mine is also Lord of the Rings… I just can’t do it. I’m so based in the real world, for the most part, that you have to REALLY coax me into the magical through way of the realism.

    Though to be really fair, and especially this week, the one I keep muttering, “not yet,” about is Infinite Jest. I will read it! Just…not yet.

  2. 2 amyschell September 23, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    The Life of Pi. I’ve started it. And started it. And started it again. I just can’t get into it. I know it’s a bestseller and a book some people say is the best book they’ve ever read. I guess I’ll continue starting until I can get through it. I’m determined that way. Some day.

  3. 3 alicepope September 23, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    Life of Pi. Nope
    Lord of the Rings. Painful.
    Harry Potter (any of them)–Couldn’t do it.
    Catcher in the Rye–check.
    Anything by Jane Austen of a Bronte sister. Uh-uh.

    The list is long. My leisure reading time is so scarce I just cannot spend it on a book that I am able to put down. I don’t care how popular or classic or well-reviewed or life-changing it is for anyone else. I’ve got to love it. I’ve got to really love it. I’ve got to want to stay up all night and finish it.


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