Wednesday, December 27, 2006
The Worst Books of 2006!
We here at Stevereads are as annoyed as anybody (OK, maybe a smidge moreso, but only because we annoy so dang EASILY) by the trite nature of most year-end year-in-books summary pieces. Such pieces only tend (unintentionally, one presumes) to highlight the fact that their writers spent the year doing Sudoku and are only copying the same titles from each other at the last minute. They Google up titles from the last three months and then toss reviewer-speak at each one: 'breathtaking' 'rich and colorful' 'a trenchant commentary on man's inhumanity to man' and so forth.
Of course, SOME amount of phrasifying is necessary when you're only saying a little about a lot of books. And phrases get repeated, there's no avoiding that.
What really bugs us about such lists (the Boston Globe's Gail Cauldwell is by yards and yards the worst offender) is the presumption they all seem to make that literature is a closed and stately procession, where established authors can never be bad, where midlist authors will always be interesting, and where newcomers will never simply outwrite their elders. There's a continuum, these pieces inevitably imply, and we're all agreed on it.
Part of this is, I guess, understandable. Most people - even most smart people - tend to read by herd instinct. Reading time is usually scarce, and reading speeds are usually slow - most readers have neither the time nor the inclination to go foraging much on their own. So they read what's being talked about, what other people are reading.
And sometimes what other people are reading is WORTH reading. But more often than not, it's just CALLED worth reading, with Olympian certainty, since it's easy to be sure of yourself when you're in a like-minded crowd.
Not all of this literary herd mentality is necessarily wrong. Nobody here at Stevereads is going to maintain that, for instance, Irene Nemirovsky's "Suite Francaise" isn't worth everybody's attention, or David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green," or Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma."
But quite a few things that got the clamor were crap. And quite a lot of crap went undetected. And quite a few things that everybody called crap deserves to be called crap again, here at the end of the year.
So, without further ado, we present our first annual Stevereads Worst Books of the Year roundup! Here's our rogues gallery:
Cesar's Way by Cesar Milan - Of course, we all know Rule #4 here at Stevereads (after Steve is Alway Right, Kevin is Always Wrong, and Beepy is Always Sleepy): Only Steve is Qualified to Write about Dogs. That having been said, there are degrees of incompetence, and Milan is right up there. The cover says it all: the dogs looked terrified of this squat creature hunkered down in their midst.
Digging to America by Ann Tyler - America's Laziest Novelist turns in a room-temperature tray of saline in which she'd really like the NAMES THEMSELVES to do most of the writing work, so she doesn't have to be bothered. Let's see: two white people named BRAD and BITSY want to adopt a KOREAN girl. Surely that's all I'm required to do? Wake me when the royalty checks start piling up. Yeesh.
Collected Stories by Amy Hempl - Whining, meandering, plotless, perkily morose amblings about, well, not much of anything at all. The fact that this bloated piece of Wonderbread has made so many end-of-year lists is, we firmly believe, because most Americans like the name 'Amy.'
Only Revolutions by Mark Danielewski - a big book (but 'book' only in the sense that it's a pile of pages bound between covers) that could only be written while heavily stoned, only read while heavily stoned, only liked while heavily stoned and only remembered ... wait, what were we talking about? Dude, I so totally don't remember ...
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose - of all the pompous books written by pompous writers about the wonders of books (their own books, primarily), this one is by a wide margin the most pompous of the year. Prose's fiction never really rose to the level of annoying before, but this chunk of self-admiration takes the cake this year - and then pontificates about the cake. A smart 13-year-old could give you a better idea of how to read prose.
High Lonesome by Joyce Carol Oates - a collection of short stories in which there is accurately expressed not one human emotion, not one thought process, and especially not one line of dialogue. The point of these stories is ONLY who's doing the writing - submitted anonymously to any writing workshop in the country, they'd be savaged by undergrads.
Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - Watchers of the Booker Prize cried nepotism, and they were right! Oh, not about such paltry matters as who wins the prize - nine-tenths of the time, the Booker goes to crap in any case - but certainly in terms of literary ability. Young Kiran, it turns out, is every bit as frumpy and talky and narratively clueless as her mum. Literary dynasties are built on such creaky stuff...
Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen - this rotten little book has been much-condemned already, but a few more spadefuls of dirt can't hurt. This book is one of a handful of disgustingly self-absorbed feats of authorial whining this year, and in many ways it's the worst of the bunch. Franzen is the worst kind of dorm-floor windbag, the good-looking kid who has everything and never stops complaining about it.
Dispatches from the Edge by Anderson Cooper - another example of the whineography, and a worse one because it's painted on a bigger canvas: the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, war in the Middle East, famine in Niger ... reading this turgid, awful book, you're constantly reminded of how much SHIT has happened to Cooper, how much INCONVENIENCE he's had to put up with in order to get his dreamy pout beamed into our living rooms on a regular basis. The book leaves you wishing that SOME enterprising sandanista or survivor or simple citizen would interrupt a heartfelt (well, after three takes) interview and POP him one, right in the middle of that oh-so-pretty face. You never know - it could still happen! That would be a LOCK for next year's bestseller list!
Point to Point Navigation by Gore Vidal - surely the Everest of the type of book I'm talking about, the whineography. For the person who's so badly let down Vidal isn't his provincial father, and it isn't a world stingy with its disasters ... no, it's the whole friggin 20th century and everyone in it, ALL of whom would have been better off ... repeat after us here, children ... If They'd Only Listened to Gore. The nominal prequel to this book, Palimsest, at least had the bite of true (albeit demented) desire in it. This thing has nothing but endless self-justification, as well as many anecdotes that struck this reader (and others! my young friend Sebastian commented 'I believe he's plagiarizing HIMSELF' - in a tone that suggested there should be some sort of legal action) as a bit familiar. The deepest sadness here is imagining what Last Memoir Gore Vidal COULD have written, if he'd all along remained in control of his powers and his ego. It would have been a book to reckon with, but we'll never see it now, and 'Point to Point Navigation' is its cartoon.
For two contemptible books we here at Stevereads refer you to another voice entirely. Oh, we could savage them in a sentence or two, certainly - but why should we give you only that when we (well, not 'we' precisely, but surely SOME well-meaning reader) can hot-link you to my young friend Sam's currently quiescent blog-site, What Do We Believe? (right here at blogspot.com) - where you can read truly stellar leave-nothing-out reviews of both books, written with all my sentiments intact, but in what some of you might find a refreshing change of tone (less rabid, more rabbinical, as it were). So look there for full-length condemnations of Philip Roth's "Everyman" and Bernard-Henri Levi's "American Vertigo" - I think these books suck, but I would be far less evaluative about them than young Sam is, so go read him.
Godless by Ann Coulter - oh, I know, I know ... some of you will say that surely SOME books are ENGINEERED to be beneath the contempt of serious readers. But I'd respond that ALL books are books, capable of being handed to anybody, at any time, for any reason. All are capable of enormous good, or enormous evil. And regardless of your political persuasion, this is a deeply evil book, so full of snide, bullying lies that the words themselves cease to resemble coherent English.
For One Day More by Mitch Albom - Once again, it could be argued that such a book should be beneath even our contempt, but we repeat: any book that can foist such treacle on so many people in so many copies must perforce make a list such as this. It's not like this pap is self-published and seen only by the author's family - it's in millions of homes, softening millions of minds like candy-rot.
The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro - In which, for about 700 pages, Hettie and Eleanor argue about who owns the curio left them by their great aunt Flora. Nobody knows how the argument turns out, since nobody has ever finished the book, the latest work from the World's Most Tedious Writer.
And lastly, the single worst book of 2006:
Good Dog by Jon Katz - Those of you who've been reading this blog regularly already know how I feel about this loathesome, contemptible piece of hypocrisy. Katz takes in a dog, windily nominates him his 'lifetime' dog, then has him put to death when he becomes inconvenient - and then goes right on windifying, without the slightest trace of guilt. That this thing could be marketed as a book that would in any way appeal to dog-lovers is proof positive that marketing agencies are fairly soulless covens.
So there you have it, the very lowest of the low for 2006, the surest wastes of your money and reading time. There were many, many other worthless books published, of course, but these were the ones that tried that extra bit harder, that stunk that little bit more.