The UnderneathA reading journal of Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, as captured in emails to a friend who enjoyed it
Subject: Progress Report #1
Once the accolades for The Underneath started rolling in and I knew I'd be reading it, I decided to keep my reading experience as pure as possible and started avoiding anything about it. Didn't want too much hype for it to live up to, hadn't read a single plot summary, didn't look at the back of the book or the inside flap of the jacket. Just started it cold at lunch todA reading journal of Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, as captured in emails to a friend who enjoyed it
Subject: Progress Report #1Once the accolades for The Underneath started rolling in and I knew I'd be reading it, I decided to keep my reading experience as pure as possible and started avoiding anything about it. Didn't want too much hype for it to live up to, hadn't read a single plot summary, didn't look at the back of the book or the inside flap of the jacket. Just started it cold at lunch today. First impression: blech. Cats, trees, dogs, ugh. So not interested. To page 26 so far.
Subject: 43 Pages Choked Down
I generally don't quit books as a matter of principle; everything must have something to offer. But the only reason I'm still reading The Underneath is because it's "The Underneath," subject of accolades galore. I don't get it. The writing is awful. Absolutely awful. She's constantly shifting tenses. There's no plot to speak of. No characters to identify with. Enough with the constant mini-chapters alluding to the looming danger of grandmother snake and king alligator--either reveal them with some actual action or shut the @#%& up about them already. I mean, this is an entire chapter?!?
In the deep and muddy Bayou Tartine, the Alligator King floated to the surface. Already today he has eaten a dozen turtles [tense shift!!!:]. Caught them sleeping in the dappled sun atop a cypress root. He was always hungry [tense shift!!!:]. Always. Before the night fell [tense shift!!!:], he would eat a giant bullfrog, a wounded mink, and several fish. Fish are his primary sustenance [tense shift!!!:], the fist-sized perch and bottom-dwelling catfish, but he prefers the creatures of the land. They're not quite so salty.
Beware.[WTF?!? Can you be any less subtle? Ever hear of understatement? Show don't tell?:]God, this book is atrocious.
Subject: Gotta Figure Out Why People Are Saying Things Like "Best Book in a Decade"So please don't take this as an attack on your reading tastes for enjoying it. I don't want to detract from your experience. This is just the way it's striking me and I understand that's just me. So if you aren't in the mood for bile, stop reading now.And I consider myself an absolutely unpretentious English major. I'll defend trash, can't name the majority of grammar rules, believe in stylistic freedom. So when the writing and grammar in a book bother me, I figure something's gotta be up.Rant from breakfast reading below . . .
Pg. 83: The trees remember them. They do.
They do. They do? Really? Are you sure? Because based on everything else you've written so far, I'm not so sure. Let's see . . . Pg. 82: It's the trees who keep the legends. Pg. 44: A tree's memory is long, stored in its knots and bark and pulp. Ask the trees, and they will take you back a thousand years. Pg. 40: Trees send out their own messages. Here, in the languages of cottonwood and beech, of holly and plum, they announced the names of this new son and this new daughter. Pg 26: No one keeps records. No one but the trees. They do not count the time in years. Pg 25: There, on the wind, are the voices of sugarberry and juniper and maple, all telling you about this hound, this true-blue hound, tied to a post. They have been watching him all these years. Pg. 3: Trees are the keeper of stories. . . . So when you told me, The trees remember them, I wasn't so sure about it, wasn't that inclined to believe you. I had my doubts. Luckily you knew what I was thinking and responded before I could even ask my question with, They do.Patronizing, repetitive, circular, stagnant, awful writing. Awful.
Pg. 85: What do you call someone who throws a mother cat and her kitten into a creek, who steals them from the hound who loves them, a hound twisting at his chain wailing, who never even looks back, what do you call someone like that? The trees have a word: evil.Duh! I think if you just let your story speak for itself, let me focus on the horror of his actions without all this stupid commentary, I'd get that. Do you think I'm stupid? I know throwing cats in the river is evil whether the trees have a word for it or not. Never mind your poorly punctuated run-on sentence, your writing is patronizing and condescending.
Pg. 88: Sabine, descendant of the great lionesses of the Sarahan plains, grandchild of the mother
tigers of the Punjab, tiny heiress of the fearsome lynx and cheetah and panther, night hunters all.Is that supposed to be "poetic?" Because it's a waste of words. Flowery nonsense. Shut the @$#& up and tell the story already. Stupid book.
Subject: Another Meal, Another Ridiculous Character
Like the trees themselves, he knew the songs of wrens and warblers, the Carolina parakeets, the whip-poor-wills and crows and red-cockaded woodpeckers, for wasn't he one of their kind? Wasn't he?You're asking me? How the @$#& should I know? He's your character in your book and you just introduced him out of the blue. Why the &@$# would you ask me? Stupid, cutesy, little, Despereaux-wannabe devices.The thing about really good fantasy novels is they have this hugely developed universe, every location, character, and legend has an elaborate back story, but we're never told any of it. The author has it all in his or her head, but they don't waste time telling the stories that aren't this story. Fully-fleshed out people and places are seamlessly integrated into the story naturally without any exposition because they make sense narratively. You learn about them through their actions as they fit into the story with no "voice-over" necessary. This book is all voice-over.So we have cats and dogs hooking up to raise children, snakes mating with humans, palling around with alligators, and falling for hawks. Apparently interspecies love is an important takeaway lesson. As long as you can sing the right song. When do we get to the lion laying the lamb?
Subject: Weekend UpdateAbout halfway through the book now. At least there's been some storytelling for the last while now. Not that her method of telling the story makes any sense. Despite the mini-chapters that skip all over the place with no rhyme or reason, it seemed pretty clear to me she had set up the calico cat, Ranger, Sabine, and Puck as the main protagonists. But now one is dead, two mainly dropped out of the narrative, and one stagnating with very short chapters that aren't going anywhere, and instead we get the story (the one from a thousand years ago, the one that the trees remember, oh yes they do, those trees remember it, the maple and ash and loblolly pine and aspen and oak and rattler and warbler and oh yes the trees remember you just have to ask because they have long memories and time is different for them and they live millions of years and collect stories and this was just yesterday for them and the trees) of snake girl and bird boy and mean old granny and the glittery little one. So it's new and different and anti-linear/-western/-traditionaldeadwhiteguy and whatever, but it sucks.So that's the big picture. Repetitive, circular, stagnant, awful. But I was making progress until a number of things in the last chapter just annoyed me so much I had to put it down. Her awful awful awful use of the language. Blech. Just constant cutesy stuff that distracts from the story and makes me want to puke. Like:
Hurry, she thought, I have to hurry. And she walked out of the hut with the jar in her arms, its smooth round surface pressed hard against her chest. It felt cool against her skin. She walked as fast as she could, but the weight of it slowed her down. She had to be careful not to stumble and drop it. Oh, glimmering girl, do not drop this jar that your mother has made for you. Do not. She stepped quickly, carefully, one foot in front of the other, toward the creek.
OK, so I'm reading . . . narrative . . . past tense . . . story, story, reading . . . wait, what? . . . what the @$ was that? Oh, glimmering girl, do not drop this jar that your mother has made for you. Do not. What? Where did that come from? Who said that? What the #$&@ was that? You're interrupting your own story with some stupid interjection that makes no sense? The narrator is telling some story from the past and all of a sudden is so drawn into her own story she becomes a present-tense cheerleader? Gaugh!!! I can't stand the idiocy of it all.And if a character is disturbed, show it through that character's actions. Maybe add some internal dialogue if you must. But this? It's just wrong:
. . . He called and called for her mother, over and over. Something was wrong.Wrong was here.Wrong sat on the ground in front of her.Wrong kept the birds from singing.Wrong.It crept up her legs and into her chest.
She heard her father again. . . .It might have worked the first time you did something like this with Puck 70 pages ago. I still thought it was bad writing and it pulled me out of my reading experience and into analytical mode, but I could appreciate the novelty of it. The first time. Once and only. But you keep doing it. This is the second time (of three) this chapter. Reading that was . . .
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