Confronting vs. Comforting Fiction

I have always been puzzled when I have heard someone say the words ‘oh no, I couldn’t read that, it sounds just too awful’. This has happened on various occasions but most recently when I have been telling people about Meike Ziervogel’s Magda, which I told you about on the blog yesterday. Despite me having raved about it to people’s faces/over the phone/via email the idea that they would be reading about a woman, who was not only part of the Nazi Party but who also killed her own children, is just abhorrent. Initially it makes me cross (no, not because they are questioning my judgement of a book, though now you mention it…) because it seems so closed minded, then it makes me feel a bit sad because without reading some books, not all, that challenge and confront us how do we learn. Especially in the safety that fiction provides.

Confronting Books

A selection of books I own deemed ‘too confronting’. Or are they?

Of course it is all dependent on why we read I suppose. Some people just want to escape life with a book and I completely understand the joy a comfort read can bring. Not just in hard times though that is when they can work their magic the most, if I am ever feeling down or things are a bit much then nothing works its charm like Agatha Raisin will, just in the day to day and that is how it should be. Reading should be fun and escapist. Yet surely sometimes we need to mix things up a bit don’t we?

I used to be in a book group with some colleagues of an old workplace many moons ago and we had one member who, lovely as they were, would frustrate me endlessly. The amount of books we couldn’t read because they would be offended was incredible. No murder, no war, no third world poverty, no torture, no child abuse/abduction, definitely no Nazi’s (mention of the holocaust would cause panic), no gratuitous violence, no hardcore sex… the list went on. Note:- this is not a list of things I go out of my way to look for in books. It didn’t leave much we could read. I ended up leaving after having read The Other Boleyn Girl this person announced they couldn’t read it because incest was suggested so they had to stop.

This I understand was an extreme case, though it thrilled me that it made my aversion to horses and boats in books seem minor. Even so I remember at the time thinking ‘how on earth do you watch the news?’ Some of the best books I have read have been ones that have completely taken me out of my comfort zone and confronted and challenged me. They are the books which have made my view on the world now, Magda is one and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is another, the latter about the conflict in Chechnya which horrified me with its unflinching descriptions of what has been going on in such recent history, yet was an incredibly moving and thought provoking piece of work. Both will be in my books of the year.

Yesterday I mentioned how as I started to understand Magda through Meike’s telling of her story I started to feel slightly uncomfortable that people might think I was a Nazi sympathiser, this obviously couldn’t be further from the truth. It was something that Meike herself said worried her before the book came out, especially when she wrote about her grandfathers involvement in the Nazi’s, yet to deal with its past she felt there needed to be a book like that as it is still something that has to be dealt with rather than brushed under the carpet.

I love a good crime novel especially with a really evil psychopath at its heart, particularly the ones with all the autopsies no pun intended. I won’t lie to you all, I find it grimly fascinating. Some people can’t read crime though. Unlike me they don’t like being scared, chilled and thrilled in the comfort of their own home on the sofa with a nice cup/glass of something. I do but this doesn’t mean I want to go off on a killing spree next weekend, or indeed perform an autopsy ever in my life for that matter. Just as, should I read Lolita, Tampa etc, it doesn’t mean I want to sleep with underage youths – nor does the author. I don’t hunt them down, well not the latter, I do a good crime novel though. I want to be horrified or challenged in a fictional safety net, like jumping on a rollercoaster only with optional biscuits and less g-force. Fiction, with its slight distance, can make characters come alive we don’t want to get in the minds of , be they complete inventions or fictionalisations of real people, but might learn something by understanding. At least that is how I see it.

What about you lovely lot? Do you prefer a comforting read or a confronting one? Do you worry what people will think of you if you read a book on a certain subject? Do you only read comfort reading or confronting reading and if so why? Do you think fiction is a safe place to be confronted by the controversial? Are there any subjects that should be taboo?

91 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

91 responses to “Confronting vs. Comforting Fiction

  1. Your very good post reminds me of a remark I heard Martin Amis make, when asked about his novel Time’s Arrow. He said: ‘There are no ‘no-entry’ zones in fiction’. Time’s Arrow, which you probably know but I’ll summarise here in case, features the life of a concentration camp guard, seen backwards. Atrocities are undone, inmates are drawn down from ashy clouds and sent into the world fit and well. It’s an astonishing poetic idea.

    Of course, we all have our comfort levels. Reading is a private escape for everyone. I know people like the ones you describe, who cannot abide fiction to be upsetting or provocative. Personally, I can’t abide the predictable. I want a story to mesmerise and challenge me with its vision of the world – like Amis’s extraordinary idea.

    Perhaps those of us who can stomach those things, indeed eagerly seek the edge of experience, are lucky because we are basically safe. I often wonder how much we’d relish robust themes if we lived in warzones, or post-holocaust worlds, or had lost a loved one in real life to a serial killer. Just a thought.

    But I’m not surprised you left the reading group!

    • I would disagree with “reading is a private escape for everyone.” I’m not usually an escapist reader. I don’t read “confronting” books because I want to be on the edge of anything–I read them because I feel I need to know what other people experience in order to expand my worldview and be capable of empathy. I don’t always enjoy these kinds of books, but I won’t stop reading them, either. I think it’s important for books to make us feel uncomfortable once in a while.

      • Heather you put my views very well in your response and I absolutely agree with your last sentence (holds for all art I think)

      • I can see both your thoughts on this one. I think reading is in its own way a very personal and private thing BUT look at social media, book groups and blogs and you can see how much people want to connect and discuss reading and the experiences is brings and that is the highlight for me – experiencing a book and I tend to do that more with a book which confronts in some way, not necessarily my world view but maybe how comfortable I am – or often both.

    • I didn’t know the plot of Time’s Arrow and interestingly I have never wanted to read another Martin Amis book since The London Fields which I really disliked, this one sounds really interesting, so thank you very much for the recommendation Roz, and the wonderful comment.

  2. I just had that experience with The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It took some guts to read it, because of how sad I knew it would be, but I’m really happy I did. It was very emotionally satisfying.

  3. A mixture of both, I think, which could be summed up by the two novels I’ve read from Gallic Books this year: Monsieur le Commandent which meant spending time with an abhorrent anti-Semite in my head for a while, and The President’s Hat, the ultimate feelgood novel which even your old reading group might enjoy!

    • I have both of these books Susan and it sound like the might compliment each other nicely. Read Monsieur Le Commandent and then after being harrowed by it read The Presidents Hat for something lighter.

      I do think we need that with books. Recently I have been reading a lot of books which take me out of my comfort zone and strangely all had Nazi’s at the heart of them – I now need a good few reads that have no Nazis in them.

  4. I would say that I primarily read for escapism and comfort. There are some topics I avoid all together, child abduction being one. I also find novels about the First World War very difficult to read. I don’t think I avoid these topics in ‘real life’, I do watch the news! I’m not sure why this is, except perhaps that I am a worrier by nature, and so reading about painful and distressing things gives me more things to worry about.

    • Maybe watching the news and seeing the awful things which are happening means you don’t want that in your fiction which is completely understandable. I don’t watch the news, it depresses me too much, and so maybe that is why I like confronting reads as there’s a slight distance mainly because they are fiction/fictionalised and tend to be in the past.

  5. I find very explicit violence too much to handle, either descriptions, films or books. In fact my “very explicit” is probably other people’s “not much”. But I have an aversion to those things, and I can’t bear to read them – the same with animal cruelty and death, which is often gratuitous. I can read emotional despair, cruelty and torment OK, and I don’t mind a “hard” read, but some things are too much. Not incest, though, otherwise I couldn’t love Iris Murdoch! I do read for comfort, especially in difficult times, and always have done. But I don’t mind confronting unpleasant truths in my reading, as long as I don’t come away reeling with images of horrendous things playing and playing across my internal monitor.

    • Interesting you mention animal cruelty as that is one of my ‘off’ buttons with books and indeed films. There has been a documentary called Blackfish about a Killer Whale that ate some of its trainers in captivity. I don’t mind that but I couldn’t watch some of the abuse the whale suffered which might be why he then killed. Yet I feel I should because its been so applauded.

  6. hi Simon, there is no-one in our current book group attendees like u mention lol; and I hope there won’t be; sounds very restricting; I tend to read for comfort and/or lgbt identification purposes in bed; and heavier stuff, eg Sebald, who circles around the Holocaust,in the day!(and critical theory!). I have been pleasantly surprised at the balance in our current book group because we have done heavier literary fiction(eg Bartlett, Toibin) but I have been surprised by how much I have enjoyed, some at least, of the lighter “genre” novels we have done:) So, yes, a balance Take care; see u at next book group. Steve .ps the Evaristo I just started it and it and looks promising, lovely warm style:)

    • No we have a lovely book group and I actually think we are all up for books that take us out of our comfort zone hence why we are in a book group to try new things.

      I haven’t started the Evaristo yet but will do so this evening!

  7. I always seek to achieve a balance through variety in my reading choices. Although passages in confronting novels may make me squirm, it doesn’t stop me from reading them. Comforting novels need to entertain. It’s bland and bad writing that I don’t like reading!

    • I think naturally there will inevitably be a balance as can we read only confronting books? I don’t think I could, I need the odd Agatha Raisin etc between these reads to have a break from brain fry!

      Completely agree with you about a disliking for bland and/or bad writing!

  8. I like confronting reads better, I do like to be taken out of my comfort zone when I read. That said, books where children die, or are tortured, or there is child abuse, basically children suffering… I would need a very, very strong literary reason (like maybe the book won numerous awards or something like that) to read them.

    • Room is one such book. Very confronting but very important for being so, the child doesn’t get beaten but there is that awful element of mental torture throughout the naivety, or maybe I just saw that?

  9. LauraC

    The only subjects that make me uncomfortable in my reading are excessive bad language (I remember, long ago, I put down a Stephen King book because of this) and “shock value” sex that is not part of a crime (as in The Last Werewolf, a book that I enjoyed, but was slightly uncomfortable with). I hate movies with too much cursing too, especially if it is coming from children. A little is ok (and realistic), just not excessive. I think we all have known a person who’s every other word is the f word-drives me crazy!

    • I don’t mind bad language strangely. It never bothers me on the whole – oh actually I lie. There was one book I read where a profanity was used and I thought ‘that’s not the character, that’s the author’ which snapped me out of the book temporarily, but the book was so good overall I pretty much forgot about it, or at least overlooked it. But then this wasn’t constant, constant searing is annoying.

  10. This is such a timely post for me. I was just attempting (and failing) to write a post about Alissa Nutting’s Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls the other day. I had an extremely visceral negative reaction to that book, and it sort of flustered and frustrated me because I DO like to be taken out of my comfort zone. I love confronting books…maybe moreso now than ever before in my life. So why on Earth did I dislike Unclean Jobs so much?? I suspect it’s a case of subject matter + writing style. But your post has my brain’s gears turning, and I suspect I may try again to craft a post — perhaps a response to this post to get me off on the right foot. And I might even try reading the book again to see if I have a hold on my emotions and can glean more from it now.

    Thanks for the brain boost today, Simon! I’ve shouted your awesomeness from the Twitter and Facebook rooftops.

    • I like a nice brain boost now and again. Though writing posts like this can leave me feeling completely frazzled.

      I think the writing is a huge part of it, if you don’t like the writing confronting or not the book won’t work. This has made me have a small epiphany though as I have just realised that actually, only the best writers can write confronting books that work!

  11. When I was reading Lolita (years ago now…) I made the mistake of explaining the plot to one of my family members. Cue lots of: “That’s sick. Why would anyone want to read about a paedophile?” etc. etc. Despite my best efforts to assure them that the book is, in fact, a literary classic and a staggering work of enormous genius, they remained un-shifting in their believe that only a pervert would write such a thing. *sigh*.

    And yup.. for me it’s ALWAYS confrontation over comfort. Estrangement over familiarity. Challenge over leaden-ness. I have a soft-spot for the Roman Jakobson quote that Literature represents “organized violence” committed on everyday language.🙂

    • I have never thought about it as organized violence, I suppose it allows us to look at the darkest of things safely doesn’t it?

      I have yet to read Lolita but not because of the nature of the book, I just haven’t got round to it, like far too many books out there!

  12. There are a few subjects that I find uncomfortable and will only read if the book is amazing and has enough to support reading the nasty bits. I do really like reading about serial killers and deadly viruses and the like though. I keep joking that my search history must have me flagged by the NSA as I often go on to look things up that I read about in books…

    I do find it hard to read about child abuse and I would probably avoid if I felt that was all the book was about. But something like Bereft, I loved the writing and it got me through the uncomfortable bits.

  13. An interesting and thought provoking post, Simon, and everyone is probably going to respond differently because we all have different levels of tolerance. I personally like a mixture of comfort or challenge depending on my mood. Having said that, I was more able to cope with the difficult things when I was younger – being older and having kids does alter your views. I think the point that often decides me nowadays is whether it’s totally gratuitous – I’ve abandoned a *lot* of modern crime novels because they are so extremely violent, and the violence seems simply titillation which is unpleasant for no real reason. The most confrontational book I’ve read recently was “The Merman” – the violence *was* extreme, but I think necessary for the plot. And frankly, some of the events related in “The Brothers Karamazov” are pretty grim. We shouldn’t shy away from darker subjects just because they are unpleasant – it is necessary that Primo Levi wrote his books because we need to know the full horror of what happened to try and understand the past and not be condemned to repeat it. It’s the gratuitious stuff I avoid.

    • Yes, I think that’s what I meant, too – I can take more if it’s not gratuitous. Having said that, I recently edited something that had some very strong stuff in it that was actually necessary, and although I can edit stronger stuff than I can just “read” (make of that what you will), I was feeling quite unwell by the end of it!

      • That must have been quite difficult! But I agree – it is harder to cope with if it feels necessary to the story. I can’t dismiss confronting books – for example, if I was avoiding this sort of fiction I wouldn’t have read “The Book Thief”, which was wonderful and sad.

    • Hi, I totally agree with your last sentence. Gratuitous sex, violence, cooking, romance, hill-walking, chatting etc. is just bad writing.

      • Only if it feels false or for the sake of it though? If it sits in with the book or highlights something then isn’t it justified as long as it doesn’t feel voyeuristic.

    • I love the differences in responses, its one of the things that I love so much about books and reading – just how we can react so differently, it’s brilliant.

      The nature of something is very important. I don’t want anything that feels like it is getting off on how gratuitous it is, nor do I want to read anything where I think that the author has written something controversial to sell a book – which happens a lot. There is a fine line but you can spot it as you are reading.

  14. I personally like both. I enjoy reading for comfort, but I alsno need books that challenge me and make me think about or rethink certain issues.
    There are certain topics I do not like to read about, often because it comes to close to a personal situation or brings up too many sadness or pain.
    Kind regards,

  15. Kateg

    I need comfort reads at certain times and thanks to you it is the not so nice Agatha Raisin. I also don’t mind reading a “nice” literary book either i.e. The Rosie Project which was a recent book for me. However, I do like a confrontational book which makes me think and perhaps touches me and stays with me for a while. Violence doesn’t make me stop unless it involves children which is really the only downside I found to becoming a mom. One of my friends will joke about it as I really used to be Teflon about kids; I could read anything bad happening to kids and now I won’t as it is too stressful. Language doesn’t bother me nor does sex. I have read much more about World War 2 and wars in general lately and while I find those books some what horrific and violent at times I am mostly glad to read them as the world is not always a nice place and they give me perspective. I recently read a book told from the viewpoint of the killer and he killed 6 or 8 people and hated it not because of the murders but because the main character and his wife were awful people and not well-written. I think if hard books are written well they are almost always worth reading.

    • I must read The Rosie Project, lots of people have said how good it is. I love that you find Agatha a nice nasty read😉

      It is about the writing as you say at the end of the day. I have struggled with more books because of the writing than I have the content.

  16. I think fiction needs to do both. We all have our comfort reads for when we’re ill, down, etc, and that’s brilliant. But there’s also a place for the challenging. I think novels should comment on society, educate us, show us the things that are wrong and where we can do better. For instance, 1984 is terrifying, but it’s something that needs to be read to show us all the path we could go down and why we shouldn’t. There are many books like that. I recently read Fatherland by Robert Harris, which was pretty horrible, but made me want to learn more about WW2, which is a good thing. I think there’s a place for all kinds of fiction and we benefit from reads that aren’t so comforting.

    • Hi impossiblealice, actually I don’t change my reading habits based on my mood.

    • I think you put that brilliantly Alice, the reason we read books like that is so that hopefully we see a possible path, be it fictional but still possible, and we read about it so we avoid it. It is similar to why people read books about the horrors of the past, so we understand why they happened, what happened and why we don’t want it to happen again.

  17. bit of both Simon ,I do like books that challenge me as a read from time to time ,all the best stu

    • This might sound crazy but I was wondering as you read from so many countries if particular place write more confronting books, it could be something interesting to look at. Does the psyche of a country define its literatures boundaries?

      • Good question simon I think there is distinct traits in various literature Not sure if one is more confronting than an other lots styles of confronting the reader I’ve experience through books I have an interest in how the second war and holocaust is viewed by different countries literature

      • I can see that with WWII definitely. I just wonder in terms of context overall. Something to think about certainly…

  18. I’m such a sucker for the confronting side, that at times I think I overlook books I might enjoy because they seem a little too sweet or feel good for me. I tend to find comfort in language or well loved authors more than I do in a sentimental story.

    • I know what you mean. Though I always admire books (and here I am thinking of Persephone books) that seem sweet and innocent from the outside or overall but actually deep down highlight something much darker, very clever books those.

  19. I would rather read things that confront my worldview, or make me consciously think about things I normally wouldn’t. For me, reading is about learning, and that means learning about people, places, etc. that are different from what I experience on a daily basis. I don’t read confronting books exclusively, but I do prefer them.

    I can understand why some subjects would be triggers for some people (it’s happened to me before while reading certain books), but I can’t imagine never wanting to be challenged by a book.

  20. Victoria

    I agree with Simon that I’m not interested in “comfort reading”, and that I read to find out about new places, people, cultures etc. Having said that, I’m not interested in reading about serial killers, or books where there is violence towards women.

  21. I suspect I mostly read confronting fiction, although I wouldn’t avoid a comfort read just because I felt it wasn’t akin to my reading tastes. I have always read books to learn things and, sometimes, I think fiction can teach you more than non-fiction – about people, at least. The most powerful and amazing books I have ever read are those which have challenged my world view and I will continue to read books that challenge my opinions and ideals in the hope that I keep learning. Interesting topic, thanks!

    • Ellie I completely agree with you about reading fiction can sometimes teach us more than non fiction. Part of that is accessibility and part of that is just that it can give distance and bring it more to life simultaneously. Many people may disagree with this of course.

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  23. “Some of the best books I have read have been ones that have completely taken me out of my comfort zone and confronted and challenged me.”

    I completely agree.

    I actually cannot wait to read Magda from reading your review, it reminds me a lot of The Reader, which open my mind to a whole world of alternative thought – how we judge figures of evil in history.

    Comforting reads a lovely, but I find I prefer them best as a palate cleanser between confronting books or when I feel a little depressed. They level me out. A healthy balance of the two is imperative.

    • Magda is amazing, the more time I have spent away from it and thought about it the more and more I admire it. Speaking to Meike was just the icing on the cake. Very very interesting discussions are created by books like that.

      I would agree with you on the palate cleanser. I hadn’t thought of it like that!

  24. ummlilia (June Seghni)

    I like both..I’ve read three of those titles and have to say I absolutely hated Tampa..(to the point where I didn’t rate it on my goodreads list because I felt I couldn’t do it fairly due to the visceral nature of my response ) but I don’t avoid reading things that I’m afraid might upset me. I prefer to give it a go in the spirit of enquiry..

  25. Booklovinggirl

    Magda is on my list to read, and I speak as someone who lost her son last year. Personally, sometimes I want to read books which confront some of the more challenging aspects of life and human behaviour. Literature is one of the best ways of exploring all elements of human behaviour (good, bad and downright deplorable). It is only through understanding why people do terrible things that we can ever hope to prevent such events happening again.

    • I am so sorry to hear of your loss. It will be interesting to see what you make of that book then and how it confronts you. Weirdly when Gran was very ill in the lead up to her death I read a book which was very close to the bone and which oddly helped.

  26. The post and responses are interesting. I frequently feel ashamed of myself for remaining in my comfort zone, and often wonder if I should read more challenging and controversial books. But at the end of the day I read for pleasure, so if I don’t enjoy a particular genre or topic, I don’;t read it.

    • You should NEVER feel ashamed for what you do or don’t read, that isn’t what reading is about – as you say, it is just for pleasure and everyones pleasure principle (how Janet Jackson of me) is very different.

  27. I prefer confronting most of the time – the weirder and more taboo the better. Sometimes I just get so sick of book after book about educated upper middle class people and their family problems, you know? I really wanted to like Tampa by Alissa Nutting because it’s so out there, but the writing was so awful I couldn’t get through it.

    • Again one of the common themes is the writing, if the subject is taboo but the writing is impressive then it completely works, if not it is going to fail all the more. It is very, very interesting.

  28. I sometimes like a book to confront some difficult themes (I personally dont’ like modern slasher/sex crime murder books) thee have been many amazing books written about some difficult things.
    In 2014 I will be reading a lot of WW1 themed books for #GreatWarVirago – I don’t shy away from such themes as I think it enhances my understanding of different times and different people.
    Magda sounds like an interesting read.

  29. Great post! I like both- at different times. Sometimes I need the lightweight comfort of chick-lit, sometimes I want the grand escape of a big story, and at others, I want to be challenged. One of the most powerful books I read in 2012 was Beside the Sea and yet I couldn’t talk to most people about it. Tough subject and yet the writing was…profound.

    • If you loved Beside The Sea (which I thought was amazing too) then you will think Magda is quite incredible Catherine.

      • Can’t believe I’m back to reply more than a year later but I looked this post up again because of a novel I just finished that brought me new thoughts on this subject. I read challenging work and I can admire it but We Need to Talk About Kevin crossed some inner emotional line I didn’t know I had. I was wrecked by it but read it until the end and now feel as if all I want to read are children’s picture books because it has left such a horrible imprint on my brain. Maybe for each of us there are some amazingly well-written things that are better left unread? Your thoughts? Push through- especially as someone who is supposed to be reading critically?

  30. I’m trying to think of a comforting book that I’ve read recently and have drawn a blank so clearly thats not my bent. I don’t go out of the way to find confrontational books as such but I do prefer ones that challenge my thinking.

  31. I think it’s important to be challenged and experience new (to you) things through books, but I don’t think I could do that to an extreme level with every single book I read – I need to mix up some comfort reads in there. And I kinda understand why people shy away from tough topics, but I also think it’s sad that most people won’t at least try it occasionally. But then I realised recently that I am a lot more open-minded than a lot of people out there! Personally, I place a lot of the credit for that in my reading habit. And that includes the books we read at school that taught me about war, poverty, child abuse, other countries, politics, etc.

    • Interesting you mention the books you read at school that taught you about all those things as I think I am making up for that now. Apart from very very dry text books on history I don’t think my academic reading, even at A Level was good at making me see other peoples views just the facts, figures and images sadly.

  32. Good writing is comforting whatever the subject matter. I read to challenge my prejudices, my norms, my “moral compass” (where can I get one of those please?) and to be made to think. I do not have “comfort” reading (or music or indeed food) on my menu these days. Even in some pretty bleak moments of my life I have not sought to change my reading habits. This is not to be taken as evidence that I am immersed in a bath of blood while reading, but just that confrontational topics do not, in themselves, worry me and nor do their absence either. I do wish that there was more good writing on the themes of sex and of violence; the few books I have read that appear to have treated those difficult areas well are swamped by the plethora that are mediocre, tedious, and shock just for the sake of it.

    • I disagree that good writing is comforting. I think if you said to Meike ‘I found the writing of Magda really comforting’ she might be slightly disappointed because she sees her books as being a jumping board for you to ask yourself some big questions, be confronted and then find out more.

      I get your sentiment though, bad writing makes bad books and great writing can cover any subject successfully.

  33. Louise Trolle

    I used to be able to read most books, violence, sexual contents, dark stuff, taboo subjects wouldn’t really bother me – I just avoided too much social realism, as it just annoys me when everything has to be bleak and depressing.

    I still read a lot of provocative books, but AFTER I had two kids seven years ago, some of my emotional brain was somehow re-wired (like some of the other mothers here apparently🙂 ) – that has made me avoid some types of books/movies.
    For example, last month I read The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill, in which a kid is abducted while waiting for the school ride, and bad things happen to him (but are not depicted in detail). I KNOW it’s fiction, but just the same I couldn’t carry on our usual daily routines regarding our kids, for weeks after reading the book. Stuff that triggers my maternal worrying just affects me too much during the next few days/weeks/months, so I avoided The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Room and books about child abuse for that reason.

    A book like Caryl Férey’s “Zulu” was almost too much for me, but I ended up being ok with it, because the story is important, realistic (I think) and well written (about the problems in modern day South Africa). But although I read it 3 years ago there’s still unpleasant pictures from it (related to stuff that happens to kids) etched in my brain…

    If it doesn’t involve bad things happening to kids, I can read almost anything.

    • Bleak and depressing is why I don’t watch the news. I need some light in every bit of darkness somewhere, least so my eyes can adjust somewhat.

      I think as we change and grow so do our boundaries, though as I mentioned above I read a book about a woman dying of a tumour when Gran was dying of a tumour and weirdly I found that helpful, I can’t explain it.

  34. I really needed this post. My one book group just finished discussing The Woman Upstairs which I found to be a very uncomfortable read and yet I consider it one of the best books I have read this year. One participant was practically shouting, vehemently denying the worth of the book. I could only think the book struck something deep in her that she was unable to face. It was one of the best discussion we have ever had even though I was the only one who really liked the book at all.

    My other book group has a couple of people like you mention who dismiss any book that contains “hard” wanting to read uplifting books instead. However at times they can surprise me. I picked Purge one month and it was a month where no one came to participate but one of these women and me. She managed to finish the book and her sole reason to come was to ask me what I saw in it. She stepped way outside of her comfort zone and was willing to learn something. I was very proud of her that day. And interestingly enough, the group still dances around the subject of Purge (which is one of my favorite books – I have read three times). They just can’t talk about it at all.

    PB

    • Louise Trolle

      It’s funny isn’t it PB, I often wonder why some readers/reviewers on Goodreads really get their backs up over relatively common things such as infidelity, homosexuality etc. I think it’s a clever observation, that “I could only think the book struck something deep in her that she was unable to face”

      • Louise that is one of the reasons I set up the Green Carnation Prize, homosexuality really ruffles peoples feathers, either when LGBT writers write about it in too much detail, or even worse – when they don’t write about it at all😉

    • Oooh I didn’t get on with that book at all. It started so well and I loved the anger, which I believe a lot of people had issues with and found very confronting, but that was what I liked, it all went downhill for me somewhat after that and became another ‘middle class misery’ novel. Those books do cause great debates though if no one really likes them.

      Purge is AMAZING, I think that book is superb and yes it is confronting but deftly done.

  35. I think the works of W G Sebald are strange exemplars of works of “prose fiction”(his designation)which deeply disturb, but there is something disconcertingly comforting in the almost unremitting melancholy(indeed, the view of history as wholly catastrophic.). Seemingly,initially, difficult to access, because of their multi-genre/cross-genre format, and long sentences,I soon became used to his achingly beautiful (even in translation)style, which I then read effortlessly,as if in a trance; and the books ARE a comfort to me but probably because I feel I live within their style and am so used to them(though there is always MORE to dig out in them, thematically and in regard to the malaise-ridden characters.) Sebald’s characters are almost all overwhelmingly abject: the majority being Jewish, (usually homosexual or bisexual) survivors of certain National Socialist -related traumas; so , in this sense, it is a discomforting read. I recommend “Austerlitz” as a starter, the least abstruse, and most novelistic.He is one of the few writers who have significantly changed my life, alongside several lgbt-content novels(eg Edmund White “The Beautiful Room is Empty”, and Forster: “Maurice”), which I first read when I was was coming to terms with my sexual orientation and which, indeed, HELPED me thus come to terms!Any other Sebald afficianadoes out there?Steve

  36. The first couple of flippant antisemitic comments in Monsieur Le Commandant are tricky at first, but not gratuitous and definitely not insurmountable. I must admit I’m not a massive fan of the ‘Daddy’s little secret’ style child-abuse books. Why the hell anyone would want to fill their head with such crap in their spare time is beyond me (though perhaps that’s reactionary because of my job and the fact that I often can’t avoid reading about it). That said, confronting tricky subjects is so vital with literature, provided you’re in the right mood. How would we ever learn anything otherwise?

    • That is why I don’t like misery memoirs Lucy, they do my head in – fictionalised ones are even worse – that is something that makes me feel sick yet the idea of a book like Lolita, Lamb or Tampa doesn’t offend me from the outset (not that I have read them yet though) I wonder why that is?

  37. Well. Simon; I think Sebald might make or break the book group lol; could go either way!:). “Austerlitz” is most novelistic whilst the others break barriers/boundaries of science, metaphysics, travel-writing memoir etc; but Austerlitz is a possibility.Would be intrigued to see what u , personally, think of Austerlitz, as , to me , he is the greatest writer of late twentieth century(BIG claim, I know!). take care, Steve

    • That is a big claim but I will look into it. I’m always wary of authors like Sebald as I think they will make me think that I’m a bit dim.

      • Judging by ur blog and the books u review, Simon, and ur perceptive comments, I will be surprised if Sebald makes u feel a bit dim!:) Sebald is kind of author u can take what u need/want from; that said, he IS an acquired taste. My first reaction was “HEAVY”(in style and content) then it just flowed! Anyway, no pressure lol; cu at book club:)Steve

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