A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: Titles That Promise Too Much
For some of my rules and preferences about book titles, see my related article this week, “What’s in a Name?” I’m wary of long and overcomplicated titles; all too often, I fear, they might be masking a book that actually has very little to say. What happens if you get book titles that promise too much? Below I’ve listed seven amazing book titles from authors who have mastered the art of creative naming – but not necessarily the companion skill of making the book live up to its title.
1. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Okay, this one’s not so bad; it’s a bittersweet story about a little girl who realizes she can taste people’s emotions in the food they cook for her. Rose knows her mother is having an affair because that title confection in front of her is laced with frustration and unhappiness. But I was disappointed to find a repetitive plot that didn’t really go anywhere – it’s a tale that overall doesn’t match up to the off-the-wall quirkiness of Bender’s short story collection (with another super title), The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.
I mentioned this one in my piece about Book Towns; it’s a lack-luster memoir about looking for adventure and romance in Wigtown, the Scottish Town of Books. Should you brave Fox’s insipid prose, you will, alas, come away from the book none the wiser about what it is necessary to learn about rockets, despite her NASA training. (I do not care for such irrelevant titles.)
3. A Trick I Learned from Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge
It’s only just over 200 pages, so I persisted and read the entirety of this bleak novel set in an undertaker’s parlor amongst a bereaved family, but I never warmed to the oddball narrator’s voice (nor did I glean any tricks from the deceased). I kept reading reviews calling it laugh-out-loud funny, but I must not have gotten the joke.
(Yes, another undertaker novel!) From the title and what little I had read about it, I expected a frothy, feel-good novel like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (another long, random title – but a good book! It made it onto my list of top epistolary novels last week). And, to begin with, this does indeed seem to be the case. The setting is rural southwest Wales in 1924; Wilfred is a hapless fellow who blurts out a marriage proposal because he’s temporarily smitten with a girl in a yellow dress at a picnic. And yet this leads to a much darker turn than the earlier levity suggested. Unplanned pregnancy, incest, rape – Wilfred Price is such a cobbling together of clichés and tedious melodrama that I had no real interest in the title character’s thoughts or happenings. Moreover, the historical Welsh setting and details of the undertaking profession feel entirely arbitrary, whereas they should be the novel’s very essence.
5. Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight? Confessions of a Gay Dad by Dan Bucatinsky
Writer and producer Bucatinsky has worked with Lisa Kudrow and other Hollywood comedy royalty, so I expected great things from this memoir of an alternative family. But I must whisper a secret: Bucatinsky is entirely un-funny. I might try Dan Savage’s The Kid instead.
Once again: amazing title; disappointing book. I couldn’t make it past the first chapter or two of this convicted arsonist’s fictional confession. I don’t think I was missing much: the Dallas Morning News assures me that Clarke’s blend of “whimsy, satire and black comedy” results in a horrible muddle.
You can’t beat that title (it might just be one of my favorites ever), but the book beat me: I put it down before I’d read 10 pages. I just couldn’t get into this story of two little girls growing up on a farm in Rhodesia (colonial Zimbabwe) in the 1970s. For great coming-of-age stories that take place in Africa, try Lauren St. John’s Rainbow’s End: A Memoir of Childhood, War and an African Farm, classic novel The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner, or one of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing’s books inspired by her upbringing in Southern Rhodesia, such as The Grass is Singing or African Stories.