Today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, has put me into a bit of an existential crisis as a reader. Today’s topic: our top ten most recent five-star reads. That’s easy enough to track—all I had to do was open Goodreads, and there they are. But as I was scrolling through the list and wondering why I failed to give five stars to some of the books I’ve thought about and recommended and mentioned as references in other reviews again and again, I thought about something I heard said about the Academy Awards (attributed to Matt Damon, I believe), that the Academy of Motion Pictures should wait ten years after a film’s release before it can be considered for any awards. That way, its real impact and influence can be assessed, rather than having the award being driven by hype and publicity or some other political or social circumstance that momentarily pushed the film into the foreground.
With the Tournament of Books going on right now—a tournament that always features the previous year’s most popular and critically well-received books (and a few underdogs)—this idea seems even more relevant. Yesterday one book, The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, was knocked out of the tournament, and I saw a fair bit of tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth over that fact on Twitter. In the last couple of months it seems that everyone on Twitter or in my Goodreads feed has read this book, and almost everyone has given it five stars. I haven’t read Marra’s book myself, nor have I read the book, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, that knocked it out of the tournament, so consider me impartial. The judge for that round was Jeff VanderMeer, the author of the Southern Reach trilogy, and I did read his explanation, and here’s what I thought: he’s a writer, and maybe he’s a naturally “close” reader, so he’s going pay more attention to the mechanics of the writing, little tricks and things that the writer has employed, and judge them. I also thought he might be unaware of the hype wheel. Yes, the book has been nominated for prizes and praised by critics, but lots of books get praised by critics and nominated for prizes that don’t generate a lot of hype or love among readers and bloggers the way Marra’s book has. I’m not at all questioning the legitimacy of this love (please do not leave a lengthy defense in the comments), but I am asking: what if VanderMeer is right? What if time would have taken a little of the shine off that book anyway and Beatty’s book holds up better over time? What if it were up against a ToB winner from three years ago? (I’m too lazy to look it up.) The point is, immediacy skews our judgement in a lot of cases, and so does our peer group. It happens to all of us.
Okay, enough blathering. I give you my most recent five-star books, and some four-star books that probably deserved five stars.
Girl Waits with Gun, Amy Kopp. I gave this a very enthusiastic five stars as soon as I finished the book because I was completely charmed by its main character. I admit, though, that it took me some time to get into it, and in the beginning I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. Its possible it only deserved four stars, but only time will tell. I still highly recommend it and am looking forward to the next book in the series.
Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller. This was a book I suspected would be five stars when I was about halfway through it. It’s a beautiful but difficult book to read, and Fuller presents the reader with one of the most compelling unreliable narrators. I think this one will hold up.
Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. This was Haruf’s last book, he’s one of my favorite authors, and it’s a little gem of a story about two lonely people forming a very sweet and surprising love. But it isn’t Haruf’s best book by a long shot (in my opinion, it’s Plainsong or Benediction), and as stories go it’s fairly simple. I gave it five stars but would submit it’s only four stars if called on it—that fifth star is there out of sheer devotion.
Landfalls, Naomi J. Williams. I gave this one four stars, yet I find myself thinking about it, remembering scenes from it, and recommending it to everyone. I could not tell you why I knocked off a star. I’ll have to read it again to find out, but I suspect my first rating was wrong.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Another one I gave four stars. Why? I read the first five sections of this book in mere days. I could not put it down. And then I got to “Sloosha’s Crossing,” and it lost me a little, and then I went on vacation so I set it down for a bit, and then I was still in Sloosha’s Crossing when I picked it back up, and I never regained that initial momentum. Again, I find myself thinking about this book all the time. It’s probably a five-star book that I screwed up reading.
M Train, Patti Smith. Five stars. I absolutely love the way she writes, but admit that this is a purely subjective five stars. It’s a much different book than Just Kids (also five stars, in my opinion), probably not as “good” in terms of literary merit, but I’m not questioning my loyalty here.
Possession, A.S. Byatt. A very solid five-star book that could probably take out a lot of contenders in the past ten years. Why do I trust my judgement on this one? Because Byatt is such a wonderful writer that she made me willingly read not just about two Victorian poets, but their poetry as well, and I enjoyed every second. A testament indeed.
My Antonia, Willa Cather. Five stars for this one, not given automatically because it’s a classic but because I love her writing and her characters the same way I loved Kent Haruf. Her characters are a part of the landscape in which they live, they are inextricable, and her prose is graceful and simple.
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert. I gave this four stars? Why? I loved this book and never wanted it to end. Classic reader mistake: because I was annoyed with Alma for how she acted over Ambrose, and I went and blamed it on Gilbert, when in fact it’s a sign of a really good book. To be that invested in a character—that’s five stars.
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray. Five stars. Oh, this book! A classic campus novel, an interesting look at Ireland during the bubble, a coming-of-age story with tragic consequences. Published in 2010, this is another novel that I believe could knock out a lot of ToB contenders from the last couple of years.
Do you ever go back and question the ratings you’ve given to books? Do you think it would be better to wait before awards are given out? Should new books be pitted against past winners?
Have a great Tuesday!
18 thoughts on “Did They Really Deserve It?: Ten of My Most Recent Five (and Four) Star Reads”
I’ve been following the tob too and one thing that struck me about Vandermeer’s notes was that he had his wife remove the dust jackets and he tried to stay away from reviews and other info on the books. I’ve yet to read either book but the way I tend to guess the outcome is which is more “writer-ly” and it tends to be that one that wins.
I like how you note how immediacy and peers skew our book judgment and that is so true. I’ve changed my goodreads star ratings sometimes after I wonder why i didn’t 5 star something at the time. Perhaps because other goodread-ers didn’t?
I loved Our Souls At Night so much! I left it off my list this week only because I feel like I’ve raved about it a lot lately. 🙂 I have a copy of Girl Waits With Gun and have been looking forward to reading it. Glad to see it ranks so highly with you!
I have just been thinking about this exact thing. I’ve been recommending certain books lately that I read quite a long time ago now, but when I looked them up on GR, they only had a 4-star rating. It just didn’t seem right; I was still feeling so much love for them. I ended up changing my rating for them. I think that actor is on to something about waiting before dishing out the awards!
The idea of old books being up against new ones makes me think about how, on the radio long ago, they used to have a top 40 for songs of the last decade, or even longer. I loved getting to hear the older songs as well as the new ones, and how they ranked against each other.
I love this as an idea for a post! I think I frequently inflate ratings a little bit when I’m writing reviews, especially when it’s a book that I feel hasn’t done me any particular harm. I need to make my peace with the fact that two stars doesn’t have to mean the book failed; just that it wasn’t the right fit for me.
Priscilla, I love this post. I think that time definitely does wonky things to our initial feelings about books. I know that as I’ve gotten older I’ve questioned some of the five-star ratings that I’d given to books I read in my teens and twenties. Would they still hold up? If I’m curious enough, I’ll re-read them. (Usually I’m not that curious. Too many books!) But, the line between four and five star ratings is a very, very fine one for me. Anyway, I like your take on the TTT this week, bravo!
I haven’t read any of the books on your list this week. I’ll be adding a few of the book titles to my ever growing reading wishlist.
Olduvai, that’s interesting about VanderMeer, because I think the reason he didn’t like Marra’s book was because of the “writerly” tricks. It seemed like he felt it was trying too hard to be clever.
I know for sure that I used to temper my ratings of books if I’ve seen them rated one way or another by other readers I follow, and I know I am still guilty of rating books too soon after I’ve finished them. I’m starting to think that waiting a month or so isn’t a bad idea!
Lisa, Girl Waits with Gun is a lot of fun. Stewart has created such a terrific character and I’m so glad she decided to bring her back for another book, even though Girl Waits with Gun was based on real events.
Naomi, I really am starting to think its better to wait at least a month before rating a book, and also that we should never worry about changing our ratings again after time has passed. I am definitely going back and giving The Signature of All Things five stars. I’d give it six if I could!
I really do think they should at least include the winners from the previous few years in the ToB. I wonder how much that would affect the outcome, if judges realized they’d have to see that book again next year? (Although I know they don’t always use the same judges.)
Jenny, I hear that. I keep telling myself that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with handing three stars to books that were pretty good and two stars that were just okay/not my cup of tea.
Laila, thanks! I am relatively stingy with the five star ratings, although I know occasionally one sneaks in and later I think, really? I generally leave them though, because as you say, who has time to re-read everything? My problem is really the four-star review. I give a lot of books four stars that maybe don’t deserve them, and then sometimes I give a five-star book four stars because I’m worried that people might think I am crazy. I walk the line!
Lisa, thanks for dropping by! I’m glad you found some things that interest you. I’d love to know which ones!
Ratings always confound me. I awarded four stars to Gaiman’s ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’, and changed it to five a week after I read it. I dished out same treatment to his ‘Neverwhere’ too. 🙂 Ratings are subjective, aren’t they?
This list is lovely. I want to read so many from this. Thank you. 🙂
Deepika, for that very reason (subjectivity), I didn’t give ratings for a long time. Now I do just because I track my reading on Goodreads, but I definitely find the system imperfect.
Ratings are SO tricky! I don’t have numbered ratings on my blog, but try to assign them on LibraryThing, so I can go back and list my favorites at the end of the year. I often do look at the four-star rated books and wonder why I gave another book five stars and this one only four, etc. At least, LT lets me dither and use half-stars!
Laurie, I don’t do them on the blog either (although I do refer to whatever I gave on Goodreads, usually). I do like that feature on LibraryThing that let’s you give half-stars. I could dither all day!
Ah, the ratings question… This was a very fun post and I enjoyed reading abt your thoughts on how to rate or bot and how ratings can change. BUT, for me, I have made my peace with my process (mostly) and I let them be a rating for THAT particular time and thus do not go back and ever change (but of course, hypocrite-human that I am, I have discrepancies.) If and when I close a book and LOOOOOoved it, then it gets my 5 star rating and a big “who cares!”. If 5 years later I can’t remember why I loved it, oh well.
I would agree with you on Signature of All Things and Possession, btw!!
Care, I definitely worry less about my 5-star ratings than my three- and four-star ones. If a book can grip me so strongly in the moment…well, that’s all it really needs to do, and sometimes I even recognize a five-star rating can be a very *personal* five stars, as opposed to “This should be a classic.” But in the case of handing out three stars, I always worry if I’m being too picky, and with four stars whether I’m being too generous or too stingy. Oh well.