Saturday, December 22, 2007
The Worst Books of 2007!
The year 2007 rushes headlong to its end, and we here at Stevereads are borne along. Every day brings more and more year-end tasks to be undertaken, and although this is seemly, it detracts from our great enterprise here, that is, talking about books.
In part, those two forces combine at this time of year, since it's a natural occasion to look back on letters and assess what happened, good and bad.
This is our patch, after all, books. Their active prosecution, mind you, not their passive reception. We leave bad movies to hilarious, acerbic Brian, and we leave the wrangling of current comics to our sprightily sane comrade Gianni (and his increasingly boisterous comments-field). Our Lady Disdain can handle the pop-culture edge in her own inimitable way. But our own bailiwick is not politics (although if it were, we would point out that the addition of Oprah Winfrey to the presidential campaign narrows the outcome of that campaign down to one name) nor music nor the intricacies of 'Lost' - our concern here is books, and at the end of the year we naturally reflect on the best and the worst of what the last twelve months had to offer. Reflect, and adjudicate, as is our sacred duty.
So here, without further ado, are the worst books of 2007, a year in which that's truly saying something, since virtually every major author in the world chose 2007 to squat, grunt, and then crap all over the literary landscape. In other words, if you managed to write a book worse than, say, Exit Ghost you had to be trying mighty hard - and each of these worthies pulled it off.
10. Microtrends by Mark Penn - an idiotic book by Senator Hillary Clinton's chief synergy-wonk, purporting to spot tiny but vital currents in American society. The book is pure bunkum, and it's worrisome to think of the people who are out there buying it hook, line, and sinker.
9. Shining at the Bottom of the Sea by Stephen Marche - Marche's main conceit - that his book purports to be a survey of the literature of a fictitious place - does double duty as being both enormously egotistical and hugely condescending. Pastiche is a lowly enough incarnation of literature as it is - pastiche that thinks it's trenchant is not only hilariously overreaching but inherently mean-spirited. The inhabitants of Sanjania ought to sue.
8. The Perils of Peace by Thomas Fleming - the setting of the piece, the extremely touch-and-go period in early American history when colonial arms had won victory but colonial statesmen were a long way off from winning viability among the nations of the world, would seem to be foolproof for the historian; only Fleming could have made it boring. But make it boring he does, ladling out one credulous, sententious glop of uneven, largely unresearched prose after another until the hapless reader is willing to give the whole bloody mess back to the British.
7. The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs - Book-marketing gimmicks have been shameless and, shall we say, soulless since time immemorial (the Roman poet Horace once acquired a new publisher who advertised his latest work as being posthumous, much to the poet's dismay - until he got the payments, after which he didn't mind so much), but seldom has a gimmick been so offensive as this; Jacobs (whose willingness to do things he ought not in pursuit of royalty checks makes him a kind of living gimmick) decides to apply the Bible's multiple teachings literally to his Upper West Side life. The result is a book blasphemous even to atheists.
6. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid - the first truly horrible work made possible by the events of September 11, this arch, wretched, over-mannered, almost unbelievably condescending little book is told in the first person by a character who's killed on the last page, if that gives you any hint of its technical incompetence. But this is the least of its shortcomings; the dialogue is arch, the people are cardboard CNN bullet-headlines, and the incredibly complicated tangles of Islamic fundamentalism - tangles that currently ensnare the world - are reduced to mere posturings. This book should have been supremely important and overwhelmingly moving, given our times. Instead, it stands only as the way not to go about things.
5. Tree of Smoke by Dennis Johnson - a fine and capable short story writer goes disasterously awry in this, the very worst Vietnam novel ever written. Every shopworn vanity of Freshman Comp. is on display here; endless baggy disgressions are treated like Sophoclean profundities, characters are allegorized to no point or purpose, and dialogue is all pointed, empty pomp. What could have been a great book in other hands is here the misfire of the year.
4. I am a Strange Loop by Richard Hofstadter - alledged to be a meditation on the nature of human consciousness, this mess of a book (by the author of Godel, Escher, Bach) lurches between preening self-importance and ridiculous species-blindness. The great roving sea-turtles of this beautiful planet, the ground-shivering elephants of the African plain, the blue-black ravens who gossip in churhyards, the leaping, jumping wolves of the arctic circle, the shape-shifting brainy cephalopods of the world's oceans - all these beings and half a dozen more alive on Earth today would, if they could bother to read this silly book, say in unison, 'um, human? Aren't you forgetting all of us?'
3. A Free Life by Ha Jin - A searching generational saga that ... blah, blah, blah. How long has it been that Jin's been a blah, blah, blah author? This bloated, sophomoric book has no beginning, no middle, no end, and no point - it's only reason for being is the collection of human details that go into making Ha Jin the human being he is, and really, isn't 2007 late enough in the epoch to declare that insufficient grounds for talking about a book, or better yet from publishing it? Are we all really duty-bound to admire, say, Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, a work of no merit whatsoever, simply because its author might have carried a rifle as a child? And likewise are we to accord to a piece of crap like A Free Life some kind of literary regard simply because Jin's name isn't Fergusson? It's infuriating, that such a disposable work should be granted even a season's respect simply because none dare call it autobiography.
2. Never Give Up by Teddy Bruschi - inspirational, feel-good sports memoirs are generally innocuous things, bromides for a season, full of patent reassurances as to the value of courage, pluck, and never giving up. Bruschi - he of that world's marvel, the New England Patriots - has enjoined ghostwriters to produce a similar book, but its occasion is far deadlier: Bruschi suffered a stroke a year ago and, once recovered, caused this ill-advised book to come to be, full of bromides about seizing your dreams and whatnot. The wrong here is that Bruschi, after suffering a potentially life-ending medical irruption, voluntarily returned to the pursuit of a sport in which he's routinely exposed to the most violent physical collisions on the planet. The NFL's money managed to buy doctors to approve this course, but they were villains, perverted utterly from the Oath they took when they began their careers. Strokes from which men fully recover are meant to be warnings, warnings to amend ways of living. For ordinary mortals, this would take the form of eating better and getting more exercise. For young men like Teddy Bruschi, this takes the form of retiring from a career that consists of fanatically exaggerated physical exertion and gigantically violent physical collisions. Bruschi's refusal to do this merits his book a place on our list.
1. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris - it's difficult to know where to start with this, the worst book of 2007. It's ostensibly a workplace comedy, but it would be a gross injustice to such smart little masterpieces as Randall Jarrett's Pictures from an Institution to call it so. Everything about this book - 'book' is the best we can do, since it's neither novel nor memoir but rather, as is pictured on the dustjacket, an endless stream of post-it notes - is repulsive, from its hipster disdain for any of storytelling's traditional payoffs (plot, conclusion, even narrative coherence) to its craven embracing of its own modest successes (best symbolized by the cigarette perched above our hot young author's ear in his author photo - a cigarette which has been airbrushed out of existence in all subsequent editions, just as Ferris' too-cool-for-school insouciance has vanished with the onset of hefty publisher's checks) to its relentlessly obnoxious tone. You know that young guy you work with? The one who's never happy with anything work-related, the one who's so thoroughly practiced in running down everything that even something clearly and purely to his benefit meets with nothing but his scorn, the one who's mildly funny but whose humor grates pretty quickly, since it's so ultimately defeating? Ferris is that young man, and his incredibly tiresome book is nothing more than a long collection of workplace-griper stories - the craziness of 'lifers,' the craziness of bosses, the craziness of rules ... basically the craziness of everybody who isn't willing to pay Ferris $150,000 a year just to show up - deriding such crazinesses is all this book tries - and fails - to do. That this kid will hereafter have a paid literary career is the singular crime of 2007's world of letters.
And there you have it! 2007's chief rogues gallery! But fear not - the best is yet to come! Up next: the best of 2007, to round out our year together.