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The Worst of my 2009 Reading List

January 18, 2010

This list was hard to create for me. What makes a book bad? What makes it worthy of being on a “worst” list? I mean, Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane had the most hackneyed, ridiculous, throw-the-book-across-the-room plot-twist (in the same vein of “it’s all been a dream”), but it wasn’t bad the entire time and I kept turning those pages right up until the end. I wouldn’t recommend it. I’d argue against anyone who said they liked it…but does that make it the worst?

There are books I hate — even critically acclaimed books. However, what makes a book bad? Poorly plotted, unlikeable characters, no resolution, badly written. Here is what I’ve learned though: Book reviewers very rarely tackle these issues or actually review books critically. Because every one of the books I’m about to mention have an abundance of praise that follow them — actually, some of that praise is why I chose to read them in the first place. And yet they fail in some of the most basic of areas. 

You may see a book on this list that you enjoyed. I’m glad. No, really, that wasn’t sarcasm. I’m glad that the book found a worthy audience, because I certainly wasn’t one. But if you find that occasionally I have good taste and you haven’t read these books, my advice is to steer clear. 

1. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

This won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner award. SOMEONE said that it is the post-September 11th Great Gatsby. That’s funny, because the last time I read Gatsby, it had a plot. And interesting characters. And it was enjoyable. That’s three things right there that this book had NONE of. O’Neill said in an interview: “This is not a novel of eventful twists and turns. It is more like a long-form international cricket match (which can last for 5 days without a winner emerging), about nuance and ambiguity and small slippages of insight. And about language, of course.” Right, of course, it’s about the language. Which is a smug way of saying, “I’m good at creating sentences. I’m really really good at creating long, convoluted, full of semi-colons, and commas, and full of HUGE words, sentences. So, since I’m good at that, I’m gonna call my meandering and not-engaging novel a commentary on a post-9/11 New York City and win some awards.”

I’m not intending to sound unnecessarily harsh here…but I don’t understand books like this. Here is what I got out of this book: blah blah blah blah sad immigrant in NY blah blah blah his friend dies (I’m not going to pay any attention though, because God forbid we ever find out what happens) blah blah blah blah CRICKET blah blah blah CRICKET cricket cricket cricket and I’m so lonely because my wife left me and took our son because new york isn’t safe and we have to live in a hotel because our apartment is full of ash but I don’t actually really TALK about that with any sort of human emotion because I’d rather sound smart and blah blah blah…and I can’t even blah anymore because I forgot everything else. 

Someone on Amazon reviewed this book and highlighted this sentence as an example of how the book reads. I’m going to repost it here because I don’t feel like looking up another sentence. This one works great:

“I was torn between a ridiculous loathing of this obdurate wintry ectoplasm and an equally ridiculous tenderness stimulated by a solid’s battle against the forces of liquefaction.”

I finished it because I bought it at Powell’s under a staff member’s recommendation and I felt a pure obligation in the money I had spent. But honestly, I would rather have my time back. Does anyone want this book? Maybe I’ll sell it back…

2. Pharmakon by Dirk Wittenborn

I don’t know how to effectively describe this book’s problems without going overboard in the spoiler department. I will tell you this: This book was an accidentally shipment from QPB. I have YET to like a single book that has been accidentally shipped to me because I forgot to respond to my Feature Selections. Which tells me that “Feature Selections” is probably code for: “We have too many of these and need to get rid of them somehow.”

There are a fair number of people who like this book and I don’t know what to say to them. It is disjointed, it didn’t sell me on any of the major plot points, the ending was weak. It took me forever to read because I kept reading 10 pages at a time and then losing it. (It sat in the backseat of my car for over a month and got covered in Gerber pears.) It’s divided up into 3 books — each told in a different POV. The middle section is BY FAR the best. But by then, I was already just trying to get through it without any sort of passion or excitement.

3. Picture Bride by Yoshiko Uchida

We already know that I love all things Japanese. I’m a Japanese literature lover — I read anything and everything I can. Which is why I was so disappointed in this awful, awful book. 

 I think the subject matter could be interesting, but (HUGE HUGE HUGE but) this is one of the most poorly written novels I have read in a long time. It was bland. Uchida loves herself some adverbs. The dialog was laughable. The characters one-dimensional. The setting is vague.(Seriously, if it is 1918 and I can’t feel that, see it, know it…understand the almost century difference? That’s a problem.) Marrying a man you don’t love? Internment camps?? This is EXCELLENT fodder for a truly emotional journey. Instead everything plods along – covering the life of a woman from 21 to her 50s in less than 200 pages…huge milestones given pages of time? Plus, it switches viewpoints…but only once. The husband has ONE scene where it is from his point of view…but she doesn’t do that again for the rest of the novel?

I found myself editing this novel. THAT is how bad it was. When a character is worried about her mom dying, the author writes this: “‘They say if she has another attack she could…’ Sumiko could not go on.” I thought Sumiko could bury her head in her hands or turn away from the group or explode into tears…but the whole book is like this. The characters don’t actually do anything or feel anything. They just say things “anxiously” or “wearily” a lot. They are anxious and weary most of the book, but I don’t know what that looks like at all. Does Taro sweat when he’s anxious? Does Hana shuffle her feet? Look at the ground? The whole SHOW don’t TELL thing kinda goes out the window… Come on. I’m not being too picky. I don’t ask for much…but I ask for my writers not to be lazy. You can write a badly written book with a great plot and I’ll forgive you – plot can save you. Or an incredibly written book with a weak plot and I can still savor your language. No plot and it’s badly written AND you had some great material to start with? Unforgiveable.

4. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Let me say first and foremost: I wanted to like this book. I was so excited to read it. It’s one of those books that pops up everywhere as a “must-read”. I’m not sorry for disliking it, I just am sorry in general — I was so disappointed.

This book’s premise has a lot of promise — the prologue was fantastic. It sucked me in and I was riveted. And then it just all fell apart. 

I’m really sorry for using someone else’s amazing analysis of this book to substitute my own, but there is a review I read on goodreads that sums up this book for me. I can’t say anything better than what she said. I don’t know this person and have no way to cite her other than to say her name is Rebecca. Here are some of her observations:

“This novel, like so many other first novels, is full of everything that the author wants to show off about herself. Like a freshman who annoys everyone with her overbearing sense of importance and unfathomable potential, Donna Tartt wrote this book as though the world couldn’t wait to read about all of the bottled-up personal beliefs, literary references, and colorfully apt metaphors that she had been storing up since the age of 17.”

“The best thing I can equate this book to is the experience of listening to someone else’s dream or listening to a very drunk friend ramble on and on and on, revealing a little too much awkward personal information in the process. The climax of The Secret History‘s narrative was around page 200, but the book was 500 pages long. So, essentially, this book contained 300 pages of scenes where the characters do nothing but drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, go to the hospital for drinking so much alcohol and smoking so many cigarettes, get pulled over for drunk driving, talk about alcohol and cigarettes, do cocaine, and gossip about each other (while drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes).”

“In the book’s attempt to comment on the privilege, self-interest, and academic snobbery of rich college kids in New England, the book itself comes to be just as self-absorbed and obsessive as its characters — it turns into a constant litany of unnecessary conversations, sexual tensions that go nowhere, purple prose descriptions of the landscape, contrived plot twists that fizzle out, and forced, overblown metaphors. The confusing part was that Tartt seemed to identify with (and expect us to identify with) these students — not to admire them for murdering people, obviously, but to respect and envy their precious contempt for everything modern and popular, as though they lived on a higher plane than normal people.”

Listen to Rebecca — I’m sorry for stealing her review…but it was perfect, it really was — and don’t read this book. While I’m at it, don’t read anything by Donna Tartt. I hated her book The Little Friend with every ounce of my being. Maybe that is why it was discounted so much at Powell’s when I bought it…

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