There are good books and there are bad books. There are books that are somewhere in between. There are books that are hard to classify. There are even books that are bafflingly popular despite their copious flaws and unabashed arrogance. Christmas Jars is a shockingly terrible piece of prose hidden inside a very good idea. The problem is that the very good idea is not big enough to cover the terrible sappiness that lies within.
It’s like one of those Christmas presents that you try to wrap with the last bit of the paper only to discover that it’s just a little bit to big. So you cut a piece off and tape it there and stretch and it tears somewhere else and then the piece that you cut doesn’t fit either so you try to shift things around so that the holes in the paper don’t show what’s inside but it never really works and you should have just gone and bought another role of paper.
Only this present is a handful of melted peanut butter — not a jar, handful — and the paper is a single layer of tissue paper.
Let me start with the story. It’s full of sickeningly sweet and saccharine characters. These are the kind of people that I wouldn’t want to be friends with in real life. It’s okay to be kind and loving and have ideals. I get that. I can honestly say that I would rather go home and play with my kids than do any of a number of things. My problems are mostly with the authors descriptions of people’s reactions. Nobody talks or acts like these people. When bad things happen they aren’t really bad. The main character is a girl named Hope who is apparently a journalistic genius in a small town newspaper who devotes her life to writing an article that doesn’t even sound like it belongs in the newspaper, let alone the front page. When she tells people what she’s working on they’re all sure that this is a Pullitzer winning story but it’s just a eulogy for a man who gave away some change to people who needed it.
Then there is the writing.
If this story was written by a person with a competent command of the English language many of it’s flaws may be forgivable. However, any book in which phrases like “she took her feet and walked across the room,” exist is not a work of prose so much as an exercise in giddily inadequate communication. I can’t even parse that sentence… she took her feet?… and walked?…
I keep picturing somebody picking up their feet and throwing them over one arm then walking across the room with the dreamlike ability to both walk and carry her feet at the same time.
It would be okay if that only happened once, but that particular phrase was used over and over as if the author either thought it was immensely clever in it’s profound opaqueness or else he kept saying it because he, too, was trying to figure out what it meant.
And that’s hardly the most egregious example of that kind of non-descriptive confusing sentence structure. It’s hard to call a book that is this short bloated but when half of every sentence is unimportant information, or redundant then there really isn’t any other word for it.
I tend to speak fairly vaguely about quality of writing when I review books. That’s mostly because everybody has a different bar for quality but it also stems from the fact that prose is hard. As long as it makes sense, doesn’t point any fingers at itself and doesn’t sound strained then it’s pretty forgivable. There’s basically a continuum of qualities that fit that criterion.
Jason F. Wright writes well below even my lowest expectations. Looking back at things I wrote in elementary school it’s clear that my teachers made me take out the redundant sentences and the unclear and downright preposterous imagery by at least sixth grade — I don’t have anything I’ve written earlier than that so I don’t know how young I was when I was allowed to get away with it. (And what I wrote back then was terrible, by the way, even for a sixth grader.)
Christmas Jars is a nice idea, one that needs a column piece in a journal or on a blog rather than a poorly conceived novella dressed in shabby childish prose. Get a jar, fill it with change throughout the year. Give it to somebody who needs it at Christmas time. The story being told, however is trying so hard to be sweet and emotional and resonant that it has actually rotted from the inside.
It’s a very short book but don’t read it. Your eyes and mind will thank you for not torturing them with this unedited, uncompromising rotten compost.