Book Club

Weekend Vibes, Edition No. 109: What Makes a Book “Good”?

By: Jen Shoop

My Latest Snag: The Loeffler Randall Birdie Slide.

Mentioned this a lot, but am so excited about these ruffled Loeffler Randall slides. I love the colors and the frivolity of the ruffle. They’ll go with just about everything in my closet this summer. Did I mention that they’re on sale for $118?! LR makes such great shoes; I find that they’re among my longest lasting pairs in the closet. (Another great option for a chic printed slide for summer from a great brand: these Ancient Greek Taygetes, on sale for $75!)

You’re Sooooo Popular: The Linen-Blend Cardigan.

The most popular items on the blog this week:

+This wear-with-everything linen-blend cardigan. I bought mine in the pretty sky blue color. I love sweaters like this that can be thrown on with skinnies as we move towards warmer weather.

+The prettiest pointelle pullover. J. Crew knows how to do a good color!

+A flattering and sophisticated polka dot dress.

+Pearl-embellished slides (same as last week — these are very popular!)

+Nicola Bathie flower earrings.

+A wear-anywhere shirtdress. (Love a nursing-friendly dress like this…)

+An on-trend ribbed sweater with just the right proportions, on sale for under $50.

+A very sleek storage solution.

+The reviews on these affordable leggings are compelling.

#Turbothot: What Makes a Book “Good”?

One of my favorite comments on this month’s book club post came from Anna, who politely disagreed with my tepid assessment of Where the Crawdads Sing by writing:

“I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I think it’s the ‘shallow in some parts, starling deep in others’ that makes it a pleasurable, easy read for all.”

Her comment left me thinking critically about some of the unspoken assumptions that undergird my book-scoring rubric for our book club. I realized I place a heavier emphasis on the craft and artistry of a book than I do the pleasure or gratification of its reading. I tend to ask myself these questions as I read:

+Does everything “hang together”? Does the design of a character or a plot point or a stylistic decision jar or sit uncomfortably with me? Conversely, do I find myself thinking critically about elements of the book’s design only to come to a deeper, richer understanding of the text and its themes? (I love when this happens — when I’m tugging at why the author chose to include a specific character or detail and stumble through the lintels of deeper understanding.)

+What leaves me doubting the author’s decision-making? If ever I linger over something too long — say, the inclusion of poetry in a work — and question its utility within the overall book, a death knell sounds and my rating of the book dips precipitously. This is especially true when I find myself wondering whether an editor foisted an opinion onto the author — “I wonder if the author was cornered into adding this section to elaborate on xyz.”

+Do the formal elements of the book resonate with its thematic ones? (One aspect I liked, in theory, about Crawdads, was its nonlinearity: the many recursions, interruptions, and inversions in the structure of the book. The book unfolds by jumping forward and backward in time; the poetry interrupts the flow of the prose; there are many comings and goings of characters. These reverberated with the themes of abandonment and reunion, of movement and stasis, throughout the book, though the shoddiness and proportion of poetry — and its seeming primary intent of
simplistically communicating Kya’s emotional temperature — used throughout made me second guess the intentionality of these formal elements.)

+Do any passages of the book stop me in my tracks? The first line of Circe (and many others that followed) sent shivers down my spine — in a good way. When I read the opening line, I thought: “I am in the presence of greatness.”

But the best books, in my opinion, score highly on both the craft and pleasure axes: they grab my attention, keeping me up in bouts of feverish reading, and they astonish me with their depth and beauty. (All of the books listed here meet both criteria.)

However, my rubric is one of a trillion possible permutations. There are many reasons to read. There are many reasons to love a book.

What are yours?

(I shared more thoughts on this topic here, if you’re interested.)

Blast from the Past.

The best beauty products, ever. In my humble opinion. And some thoughts on dreams.

#Shopaholic: Le Fruit Bowl.

+Love this footed marble fruit bowl for bananas, citrus, etc on the kitchen counter.

+How chic are these leashes?!

+Loving this gingham maternity dress. I shouldn’t be buying any new maternity items…right? (I’m over 32 weeks.)

+Contemplating signing mini up for swim classes this summer, and the pool I’m looking at requires that children wear swim caps. How darling is this one!?

+Peel and stick grasscloth wallpaper for the renters (or non-commitals) among us. This would be so fun as a statement wall or in a designated “bar” space.

+This scalloped one-piece!!!

+Had to have this plaid carryall tote. I just love the colors and shape! The handles make it slightly impractical as a mother but EH. The heart wants what it wants.

+Love this sweet smocked dress — and check out the amazing discounted pieces at Dondolo for more traditional children’s clothing at great prices.

+These painted dog bowl sets are incredible! Love the Hermes orange.

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12 thoughts on “Weekend Vibes, Edition No. 109: What Makes a Book “Good”?

  1. This provocation has me thinking! I would say that I am not as critical a reader as you, in terms of literary analysis, but in order to deem a book ‘good’, I must enjoy it more than I dislike it, and it must be reasonably well-written. As I mentioned in my other reply to Claire, I love the idea of “would I read it again?” Definitely going to adopt that thinking when it comes to giving away books. Like you, I have scarcely re-read books (Hemingway is one of the only authors whose books I’ve re-read) but would consider doing it! It’s funny, I think I am less inclined to re-read because of Goodreads — a tangible system to help me keep track of how I felt about books I’ve read.

    Love those rickrack-trimmed Loeffler Randalls! Wish they still had ’em in my size. 🙂 xo

    1. Hi! A lot here — it’s interesting that you say to deem a book “good,” you have to enjoy it more than dislike it. That feels like it should be a given but I know what you mean; you can still appreciate a book’s quality, even if you don’t exactly feel at home in it. I’m on your wavelength with re-reading, too — so hard to get me to re-read something when I know how vast my tsundoku pile is…

  2. I’m glad you followed up on Anna’s comment. I felt very similarly to you about Crawdads, but also my experience reading it was a good ego check. I’m an avid and critical reader, and have noticed myself becoming a bit of snob about reading. I think it’s easy to rip a book apart because it doesn’t fit my highly educated version of ‘good literature,’ but I have to be careful how I express that so I don’t end up implying problematic things about the people who do enjoy that book. It’s as if sometimes I act like I’m a part of this exclusive, elite bookclub that resides in the upper echelons of literary appreciation and any book or person who doesn’t fit my standards of ‘good literature’ isn’t really a *reader*. I’m embarrassed that I sometimes use my high standards to push other readers away, instead of finding communion in a shared love for books. Crawdads was a good lesson in that for me- I normally would have labeled it as trashy and rolled my eyes at people who raved over it. But this time I’ve tried to save my misgivings for myself, and share in the enthusiasm where I can. So when my MIL called raving about the book, I held my tongue and talked about what I enjoyed about it too and appreciated the common bond we share in loving to read (even though we love vastly different types of novels.) My (long) thoughts 🙂

    1. Hi Katherine! Completely on your wavelength. Anna’s provocation was a good reminder to get outside of my head and think more holistically about the many purposes of reading. Glad her note left you similarly gratified.


  3. Anne Bogel, of Modern Mrs Darcy and What Should I Read Next podcast often quotes W.H. Auden’s theory:

    “For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good, and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

    As for me, I mainly read for entertainment purposes rather than any kind of literary analysis, so I like most books unless they are booooooring. (But what is my criteria for boring? Hard to say…) Still have Crawdads on my TBR so I’ll circle back to your discussion soon! I am intrigued by the number of comments on that post…

    1. Me too — I’ve so enjoyed reading all of the feedback on the book and my perspective on it. I find its reception fascinating. People tend to love it or feel lukewarm on it, but there were very few straight-up “haters,” which has led me to believe that it’s one of those sleeper books that will sit with me for awhile. Just enough meat on the bone to leave me pondering it for some time…

      Anyway, had not heard that Auden quote! Thanks for sharing 🙂


  4. Really enjoyed the diversity of opinions and thoughts around Crawdad — though, as I raced to finish the last chunk post-book club, I could. not. get. past “Amanda Hamilton.” (!) What had been a permissible discursion became a trigger for much eyerolling.
    Anyways. What makes a good book? Is there any way that question won’t have a subjective answer? I’m with you in the craft and hang-together camp, but the best rubric, for me, is: would I read it again? For books that are pacey but shoddily constructed, the answer is usually no. (Thinking of you, Girl on a Train and Last Mrs. Parrish!)
    My favourite books usually have aspects that reveal themselves only in multiple readings, sometimes because of dense construction, but usually because the story is so good I race through it the first time. To wit, I just reread the final Harry Potter after last reading it in college, and oh my gosh, I had completely missed about four significant plot points! Anyways, thanks for the lovely get-together, as always, and would love to know which books top your re-read list!

    1. I know — Amanda Hamilton! AHH. It gets worse and worse the more you think about it.

      I like the “would I re-read” litmus. Another: “would I recommend this to someone whose opinion I respect”?

      That said, I have a long “would re-read tsundoku pile” but in reality scarcely ever re-read a book! There are a couple of Brontes and Hemingways I’ve re-read a number of times (largely for academic reasons, but with pleasure), and I reread “God of Small Things” willingly because it was such a monumental book in my college experience and I wanted to revisit it a few years out.

      What else besides HP have you re-read?


    2. God of Small things — yes! So much warmth in that one. But I’m a frequent re-reader. Thank heavens for book clubs or I’d never branch out. Probably my all-time most re-reads (as an adult) are The Corrections, The Marriage Plot, The Flamethrowers, The Shipping News, Paris to the Moon, and On Beauty. I’ve only read The Last Samurai once but I know that will be added to the 3x pile as well over time!

      1. Claire. I’ve not read any of these (!!!!!). Chop chop!! I must. I so trust and value your opinion here. Which would you recommend I start with?


    3. Claire, I love this idea: “Would I read it again?” So useful. I rarely do this in practice, as I my to-read list is so very long (and my tsundoku pile is embarrassingly large), but I will start thinking about this litmus test when I finish my books.

      Jen — from Claire’s list, I’ve read Paris to the Moon and would absolutely read it again (it was a 5-star read for me!), though my caveat is that I was living in Paris when I read it and so it held a lot of forward-looking nostalgia, if that makes sense. I also read On Beauty and rated it 4 stars, and would definitely re-read now that I’ve read Zadie Smith’s other novels that have come out since its publication.

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