Posts from December 2012

December 27th, 2012

2012: Recap and Adieu!


The Best Book … of Venice:

Monumental Venice by Jacques Boulay (photos) & Jean-Philippe Follet (text)

The Best Reprint:

Tottel’s Miscellany, edited by Amanda Holton

The Best Nature Book:

The Last Walk by Jessica Pierce

The Best Fiction Debut:

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

The Best Biography:

Clover Adams by Natalie Dykstra

The Best History:

The President’s Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The Worst Fiction:

Dear Life by Alice Munro

The Worst Nonfiction:

When I Was a Child, I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

The Best Fiction:

The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman

The Best Nonfiction:

Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Thanks very much to all of you who’ve commented (so many privately, of course – after all, what would I want with anything so recherche as a thriving Comments field? Sigh) on this year’s bigger-than-ever Year End spectacular – and on all the other posts that have made up Stevereads this year. 2012 was the single most active reading-year (if that’s not a contradiction!) of my life, both in terms of reading (as of this warm, rainy Boston night, my yearly tally stands somewhere near 725 books) and in terms of writing: between all of my different venues – but mainly, of course, by virtue of the wonderful bully pulpit my colleagues give me at Open Letters Weekly – I wrote about somewhere in the neighborhood of 320 books over the course of the year.

That was a singularly thrilling experience for a book-lover such as myself, and of course it can be improved! Imagine a book review every single day – or even two a day, one on Stevereads and one on Open Letters Weekly (on the latter, for instance, I wrote only about 207 1000-word reviews – shocking sloth, when you consider how many days off that means I had!). I imagine such things – I imagine a year in which I write a review of every single major book published in English in any of the genres I know and love (so: the business and self-help books will still largely need to fend for themselves). I imagine an even full engagement with the book-world in the only really meaningful way: by reading everything, and writing about it all for a smart audience.

No matter what the future brings, however, I wanted to take a minute here in my last entry for 2012 to thank you all for agreeing, disagreeing, counter-arguing, counter-suggesting, and most of all for reading me, not just in 2012 but for the last wonderful six years here at Stevereads. Honestly, it’s a thrill such as I never thought to have – and of course it’s been a huge amount of fun. Here’s wishing all of you much happy reading in the new year.

December 23rd, 2012

Worst Books of 2012 – Fiction!

elephant crap

The year’s fiction had glorious monuments of quality and daring (you’ll have to wait a couple of days to read about them here), but they were islands in a flood-tide of timidity and preachy topicality (liberally mixed with some Terror Wars sanctimony). In some years, my main complaint has been that novelists disdainfully, arrogantly abandoned the very tenets of their genre – plot, narrative, tone, characters, all thrown out the window in order to be precious. 2012 wasn’t one of those years; almost all the authors on this list, for instance, have proven at one point or another that they have the technical skills to pull off good fiction, and the heartbreaking thing is, most of those technical skills are in evidence even in these wretched works. None of this bad fiction is bad in the way that Fifty Shades of Grey is bad – but in many ways, that just made the disappointment that much sharper.


10. Arcadia by Lauren Groff – The main weakness of Groff’s promising debut The Monsters of Templeton, a tendency toward smartest-kid-in-class obviousness, runs positively rampant in this novel about a utopian commune in upstate New York and the hapless people who live there under the cult-like sway of its leader, a man named Handy (quick, guess: will he be useless?), the young protagonist Bit Stone (quick, guess: will he be taciturn?), and the Handy’s daughter Hell, oops, sorry, Helle (quick, guess – oh, nevermind). The characters, settings, and plot developments aren’t even remotely connected to reality, but there are no elves to make that bearable.

the newlyweds

9. Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger – Amina, the young Bangladeshi woman who comes to the United States in response to an online summons to marry George Stillman (quick, guess: will he be dull?) is the most insulting Sambo caricature to appear in American fiction since Tama Janowitz still wrote among us (if you just read her dialogue – her utter astonishment at literally everything she encounters – you’ll assume she’s from Mars, not Dhaka), but that’s only the beginning of this novel’s many condescensions and over-simplifications – a complete waste of time from an author my instincts persist in telling me isn’t one herself.


8. Home by Toni Morrison – The chief peril of the ultra-thin, ultra-oracular style Morrison has adopted in her last few books is obvious: it’s always one little slip away from fortune-cookie triteness. That style made her 2008 novella A Mercy memorably wonderful; in Home, the story of home-returning Korean War veteran Frank Money (quick, guess: will he be sound?) and his abused sister Cee (quick, guess: will she be watery?), that same style goes flat as a pancake and betrays its author into spinning a gauzy little parable without a point.

beginners goodbye

7. Beginner’s Good-Bye by Anne Tyler – All the raw elements in Tyler’s latest novel should have made me love it: handicapped small-press publisher Aaron Woolcott (quick, guess: will he be meek?) loses his wife Dorothy to an unexpected tragedy and then proceeds to encounter her ghost everywhere, leading him to confront his own grief. But what I got was an ordinarily-good novelist being intolerably lazy throughout, barely moving her materials beyond first-draft mock-up stage, as though confident that she could garner accolades from all the usual suspects without actually working for them.

flight behavior

6. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver – The unbearably overpraised Kingsolver has built a prosperous career on obvious, derivative novels of no discernible literary quality, but Flight Behavior makes even that grim state of affairs just a little bit worse by mixing in a Cause: when disappointed Tennessee housewife Dellarobia Turnbow (quick, guess: will she have a change of heart?) learns about climate change (with the help of a scientist named – oh, the hell with it – Ovid), a whole preserve-jar of Cause is unscrewed and dumped into the mix, with predictably toe-curling results. Novels like this one should be listed by the EDF as one of the corollary dangers of global warming.


5. Abdication by Juliet Nicolson – You’d think it would be almost impossible to make tedious the story of a king who abdicated in order to marry the woman he loved, but Nicolson manages it in this soppy, mechanical novel about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the only stimulations of which are the spotting of heavy-handed foreshadowing and the winces induced by glass-grating one-dimensional depictions of people who, although not particularly good, were sure as Hell more interesting than this.

nw smith

4. NW by Zadie Smith – Critics intent on praising Smith (as well they should be, since she’s fantastic) took the desperate tack of calling the almost immediate dissolution of her latest novel (set in the eponymous London region but really about nothing much) ‘kaleidoscopic’ or such stuff – in fact, the book is just poorly conceived and rather abysmally executed. I’m convinced that words like ‘kaleidoscopic’ were invented to spare talented authors the discourtesy of words like ‘misfire’ – and I’m chalking this misfire up to distraction and waiting with undimmed eagerness for what this author does next.

the middlesteins

3. The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg – You spend the first 100 pages of Attenberg’s smarmy, gimmicky, patronizing novel about hugely overweight Edie Middlestein, her exasperated husband Richard, and their various friends and relatives wondering how, in what clever Writer’s Workshop way, will it somehow manage not to simply be about how fat Edie is. Then you spend the next 100 pages thinking that’s all the book’s about and wondering why it’s important. And you spend the last 100 pages gorging on Breyer’s Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream just to dull the pain of this sordid, sold-on-itself mess of a book.


2. The Round House by Louise Erdrich – The crime at the heart of Erdrich’s latest and least appealing book is the 1988 rape of a young woman on a North Dakota reservation, and the action – such as it is – revolves around the efforts of various members of her family (from her stereotype husband to her stereotype son and his interchangeable friends) to extract justice from the reservation’s tribal governmental rictus. And those tribal intricacies better interest you, because any hope of dramatic payoff is buried fairly promptly under more bland exposition than you’ll find in a whole shelf of David McCullough volumes.


1. Dear Life by Alice Munro – It’s mostly about train schedules.

December 15th, 2011

Stevereads 2011 Worst Books of Year: Nonfiction!

Even I must admit that there are worse things in the literary world than indifference or even incompetence. In the realm of books as in all other realms, we must always be alert for actual, intentional evil, for writers using books as semi-respectable veneers behind which to do evil. This, too, is a use to which books have been put forever – they’re rich grounds for it, since they work on their readers’ silent, absorbing minds directly. Indifference will never be the problem in this case – there are keenly-whittled purposes behind virtually all of these books, eagerly-sought goals of persuasion. No, these books, most of them, are counting on the reader to be indifferent, unguarded, too trusting – or perhaps too numbed by the sheer onslaught of new books every season. A watchdog is needed, and Stevereads happily volunteers for the job.

10. The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt – If Fox News made a docu-drama of this list, #10 would be accompanied by the voice of James Earl Jones saying ‘when historians go rogue…’ – and we’d have occasion to use it a couple of times before our list was done. In this case the historian is Stephen Greenblatt, whose monumentally overpraised Renaissance Self-Fashioning at least contained copious quantities of cogent cogitation. His latest book, The Swerve, claims that an Italian Renaissance humanist you’ve never heard of translated an ancient Roman poem you’ve never heard of and thereby changed the way the Western world thinks about itself. This nonsense was probably confirmed to Greenblatt by a couple of year’s worth of graduate seminars, and Greenblatt should be reminded of one fact: those grad students want a recommendation from you. They’d say the account books of Lucullus’ kitchen-maid changed the way the Western world thinks about itself, it if would curry favor with you. Also this: it’s unseemly for tenured professors to lunge quite so brazenly for popular attention.

9. Civilisation: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson – As the Romans learned from the Franks and the Britons, nothing comes easier to a great nation in decline than empty triumphalism. In order to guarantee your book will sell at conservative PAC conventions, you’ve got to do three things: a) back-load a thorough-looking bibliography in impressively small type (so your readers will feel they’re partaking of a work of scholarship), b) make sure your central thesis, despite overwriting, can easily be boiled down to one line – “We invented everything,” “We police everything,” and of course “we’re better than everybody else” are all acceptable, and c) be openly nostalgic for a past your readers either incorrectly remember or are likely to believe they would have enjoyed had they been around. Pine for that past regardless of the heavy load of misery it carried for non-affluent, non-white non-men. In other words, hijack historical inquiry and enslave it in the cause of nationalistic jingoism. We’ll see this a few times on our list this year, and this book start things off, assuring us that the world really didn’t have a clue until Western democracies came along and started prioritizing the brain power of Harvard professors. The fact that this thing is getting a fat book contract instead of fretful looks from rant-bored relatives doesn’t say much good about the state of 21st century publishing.

8. On China by Henry Kissinger – It we grant that the blustery reductionism of our last entry doesn’t quite qualify as evil, then this book is its first appearance on our list this year, in this case evil in the form of our ultimate corrupt living grey eminence, Henry Kissinger, whose new tome On China banks on his extensive official contacts with the dictatorial leaders of that country a generation ago – and that same tome is counting on readers forgetting (or forgiving) Kissinger’s cash-and-carry willingness to suborn and abet those dictatorial leaders and all dictatorial leaders everywhere (that particular charity began at home, of course). China’s economic dominance in the world today lends an aura of prescience to Kissinger’s bloated meanderings here; China’s embrace of pragmatism-driven national evil further darkens the aggregate crimes against humanity for which Kissinger is more responsible than any living person. Given the shameless times, I expect his next tome to be On Good Government.

7. Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny by R. H. S. Stolfi – The author of this nauseating book is quick to point out that his efforts to get at the man behind the long-standing characterization of Hitler as a monster of pure evil are not to be construed in any way as some kind of neo-Nazi support of Hitler … merely a contention that such characterizations do little to help us understand the man. Which is like saying you’re against guns but a big fan of bullets. Tout comprendre rend très-indulgent, as Stolfi knows perfectly well – and as shouldn’t be attempted in those rare cases where the man is a monster. Years ago I said we were only a decade away from a biography of Hitler by a respected writer who made him out to be a somewhat wayward and badly misunderstood European statesman, and while this book isn’t that biography, it lays the groundwork as thoroughly as that groundwork can be laid (right down to the studio-photograph on the cover, perhaps the most nauseating thing about the whole production). Take it from somebody who’s read everything ever written about the man: in Hitler’s case, much to the world’s misfortune, there was nothing beyond evil and tyranny.

6. Known and Unknown by Donald Rumsfeld – The title of evil idiot Rumsfeld’s memoir – yet another in the seemingly endless stream of George W. Bush-team memoirs designed to say nothing, admit nothing, analyze nothing, reflect on nothing, and most of all apologize for nothing (we’ve got another one on this list) – comes from his famous formulation about the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns that face any army in the field … a formulation he made right before backhandedly slinging mud at his own army in the field, an army at that moment in the middle of a fight he did more than anybody to create and less than anybody to prepare them for. And yet, the tiny spark of grit this vapid book might have had if it had been written, as it should have been, in a prison cell is of course missing, replaced by the compulsive justifying of the knowingly guilty. This justifying will be familiar to any readers old enough to remember the similar post-disgrace writings of Richard Nixon, the Dark Lord whose acolytes (as mentioned, another of them is on this list) finally got a chance to wreck the world.

5. Washington by Ron Chernow – As far as intentional evils go, wilful lack of jugement is a fairly venial sin, and it’s probably the worst we can attribute to formerly esteemed biographer Ron Chernow, whose enormous new pile of hagiography on George Washington effectively cancels out the meticulous scholarship and worth of his previous book on Alexander Hamilton – and leaves critical readers wondering if this guy can write decent history again. Washington certainly isn’t that – it’s sloppy, repetitive, and borderline tendentious in its reading of virtually incident in Washington’s life. That a book is so bad would be reason enough to include it on this list, but, as noted, that it will, through its author’s hitherto unsullied reputation, convince people by means of its badness is even further justification. There are plenty of great Washington biographies in existence, should the reader be curious. This one is to be avoided.


4. In My Time by Dick Cheney – Intentional evil comes roaring back at us, however, in this entry, as the architect of the George W. Bush administration writes his memoir in the comfort of his property and physical liberty, admitting nothing, regretting nothing, apologizing or nothing. The very corporate-lounge anodyne tone of this shameless book bespeaks a tellingly alert legal team, and it stands as a bland literary indictment. There should be literal indictments instead, for a man who laid waste to foreign countries and domestic liberties in a single-minded pursuit not just of power but of actual evil (after all, you don’t really get any more powerful by opening up thousands of acres of virgin wilderness to logging and mining and drilling – you just get to smile over all the dead animals, I guess). The stately procession of their guiltless memoirs is the literary perp-walk of our time.


3. Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Being George Washington by Glenn Beck – One of the hallmarks of evil is its determination to enlist the unwilling in its cause, and you can’t do that any worse than by enlisting the dead, as these two ranting, scatterbrained books by two third-rate stand-up comedians try to do. The problem here is one that tends to beset all organized evil: the most evil people, the ones at the top of their professions, have surrounded themselves with sycophants, so they come to believe they’re more than what they are. Pea-brained blowhard O’Reilly is a carnival barker, but with sycophantic encouragement he’s been able to imagine himself as a historian, and likewise the class-buffoon Beck, and each has reached into the past, picked a figure they think they like, and made that figure a sock-puppet for their own prejudiced rantings. So this is anti-biography, where the subjects can neither err nor surprise. And the books reveal themselves as the printed equivalent of those creepy framed photos where some nobody from Tulsa drapes his arm around a visibly uncomfortable visiting star so it looks to the unwary like the two of them are old, bosom friends – when in fact, O’Reilly and Beck are brainless morons who haven’t cracked a book since grade school – and who’s research assistants/ghost writers should feel very, very ashamed of themselves.

2. Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero  by Chris Matthews – The greater the living currency, the greater the evil. It’s one thing if third-rate stand-up comedians slur the memory of long-dead men – it’s bad, but its not as bad as when third-rate stand-up comedians slander a man quite a few living people still remember – as is the case here, where circus performer Matthews trades on his own celebrity to dress a diatribe up as a discussion and pass the whole steaming mess off as biography. Needless to say, this JFK never does, says, or thinks anything Matthews doesn’t want him to – certainly never to the point of looking at this execrable book an grunting “bullshit” in that particular Hyannisport drawl.




1. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Stephen Pinker – The 20th century was no stranger to the time-tested technique of lying with statistics, but the 21st century is already adding to a streak of naked effrontery that might put even the age of such heavyweight liars as Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon to shame. In the 21st century, lies alone are no longer quite sufficient – instead, they’ve got to be big lies, the bigger the better. So a U.S. President goes in front of a nation and raises the fear of a ‘mushroom cloud’ about a country that had trouble grinding bread, and a champion U.S. athlete, caught on film illegally partying with minors, not only makes a non-apology (“If my alleged actions were badly misconstrued enough to give a possibly negative impression, then in that extremely unlikely event, I would express regret,” etc.) the following week but does so, as many journalists present attested, while stoned. And a popular … what to call Steven Pinker? ‘Popular scientist’ is clearly wishful thinking; ‘popular researcher’ has palpably never been true – popular self-promoter Steven Pinker in his new book opts to cap a career of smiling mendacity by telling what may very well be the two biggest lies of them all: that mankind is becoming less violent, because mankind is becoming more intelligent. To support both these hysterical claims, Pinker pivots and swoops, cherry-picking delusions and misinterpreting crapulent ‘studies,’ all intent on denying the staggeringly obvious: that humans – fresh from the 20th century, whose barbarisms would have left any previous century slack-jawed in horror – are not only growing plungingly dumber (Pinker proudly brandishes standardized test scores – he needs to get out more; he could learn a lot from eavesdropping on any given Boston subway car for fifteen minutes – and he would clearly benefit in the long run from being vigorously wedgied by somebody who considers that a legitimate argumentative technique) but are also, connectedly, growing breathtakingly more violent. If we define ‘genocide’ as the wilful pursuit to slaughter every individual of a certain group, regardless of immediate military or economic interests (or even in contradiction of those interests)(i.e. an all-consuming, self-consuming hatred), then there were four in the 19th century. In the 20th century there were 15. In the 21st century’s slim extant decade, there have been two – with 90 years still to go. Writing about why this is happening – bad parenting or the all-pervasive seep of toxic chemicals into human air, food, and water – would be legitimate though pyrrhic. Writing a book – and lyingly buttressing it with cooked-book guestistics – merrily assuring your fellow Cantabridgians that the world their little Ariadnes and Ruggers will inherit isn’t, in fact, a rapidly-devolving ‘Lord of the Flies’ nightmare of violence and stupidity is an endeavor of purest and deepest evil. It’s the product not only of warped science and statistics but warped historicism, a parody of professionalism and a mockery of the sociologist’s craft – and it’s Stevereads Worst Nonfiction Book of the Year.


December 14th, 2011

Stevereads 2011 Worst Books of the Year: Fiction!

It’s perhaps inevitable that as attention spans continue to fritter away all across the educated West, the capacity to take things seriously should wither too – after all, deliberation and estimation are twins. Still, a decade along in the 21st century, it amazes me to find people failing to take seriously their own livelihoods – that seems like Millennial boneheaded anomie taken to absolutely annihilatory lengths. And yet, new powerhouse chanteuse Adele had to cancel tour dates and refund large amounts of money rather than quit chain-smoking; Texas governor Rick Perry spent vast amounts of money and effort to secure his spot at Republican Party presidential candidate debates to which he then seemed largely indifferent – and worst of all (from a Stevereads perspective), any number of authors this year seemed to think all they needed to do in order to merit the attention of the present and posterity was show up and riff for a few pages. They displayed a complacency toward the written word that amounts to insolence – and that is certainly an insult to their readers. Those readers have never had a greater number of published authors from which to choose than they do now, and established authors who arrogantly ignore that fact do so at peril of the mortgage on their pretentious co-ops in Brooklyn. This year’s worst offenders:

10. 11.22.63 by Stephen King – Despite what he himself appears to think in this wretched book, Stephen King is neither more interesting nor more important that the JFK assassination.








9. Every Third Thought by John Barth – The biggest, most regrettable example this year of writers apparently thinking all they need to do is show up to justify their place at the table is the once-great John Barth. Long ago, before he acted like he believed this (or before he took his postmodern hijinks past the point of diminishing returns), he was one of America’s best writers. Drivel like Every Third Thought makes me think we’ll never see a glimmer of that again, which is sad and angering at the same time. If Barth had retained his faith in the power of narrative (and his respect for the intelligence of his readers), he’d be on the other fiction list this time around.





8. The Submission by Amy Waldman – Yes, yes, it’s something every little boy and girl dreams while they’re furtively reading by flashlight under the covers: ‘Someday, I wanna write a 9/11 novel!’ Or perhaps it’s one of the darkest forms of laziness, gene-splicing the ‘debut novel’ strand with the ‘have to take it seriously strand’ in hopes of creating a super-pheromone for critics! The Submission concerns a Muslim architect who wins a contest to design a memorial to victims of a Muslim terrorist attack on Manhattan, and if the whole dog-and-pony show had been set further back in the past and centered around the sinking of the Lusitania, its rather substantial shortcomings would have been glaringly obvious, instead of swathed in sentimentality.




7. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – This bored and boring pastiche of third-rate Updike starts nowhere particular, goes nowhere particular, and then just stops, perhaps unable to stand the weight of its own droning anymore. The thing is barely longer than a short story, and yet Barnes can’t be bothered to weld the two pieces together in any kind of way. Instead, the main character, a blank template of the stock-fictional author stand-in doing the whole ‘gee, I’m not as young as I once was’ shtick, bears no resemblance to the younger version we see in his memories, and those memories have no importance to the ginned-up ‘unexpected inheritance’ half-plot that comes wandering in like Brown’s cows and hangs around until the author gets tired of it (or just plain tired) and drops it. The end of the book (as in the final page, since it has gives us no other kind of ending) comes as a mercy and an indictment: if this is the kind of lazy, self-indulgent crap that gets book contracts from major publishing houses, there’s something seriously wrong with the whole industry.

6. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje – To call this endlessly meandering tale of two boys cavorting their way through all the decks (i.e. the levels of society – geddit? geddit?) of a ship at sea a left-handed exercise would be an insult to southpaws everywhere. Ondaatje has always been a monstrously overrated author, but this laughable little squib takes the proverbial cake; every narrative choice in it is easy and predictable, there is no plot, and the herky-jerky little what-happened-next twists the plot takes from time to time wouldn’t strike Ondaatje’s listening grandchildren as convincing (those children would very likely also notice the gaping plot-hole two-thirds of the way through the book – it’s a pity Ondaatje didn’t run his manuscript past anybody who was paying attention). Like so many other novels on our list this time around, the prevailing sin here is an overweening sense of entitlement, a belief that simply showing up and mucking about with dialogue will be sufficient to satisfy your slavering fans.

5. Cain by Jose Saramago – Saramago is almost as prolific as Roberto Bolano, and, in this novel about Cain, the brother and murderer of Abel, he’s very nearly as bad. I’m a fan of Biblical fiction (Petru Popescu’s wonderful Girl Mary appeared here in 2009, for example) when it’s done right, and it could scarcely be done worse than this horrible mess of a novel, which can’t decide whether Cain is Hermann Goering or Jerry Seinfeld, which can’t lay any of its wooden dialogue at the feet of its excellent translator, and which can’t bear to stop mugging for the camera for even a moment.






4. House of Holes by Nicholson Baker – A third-rate British septuagenarian shares his porn with us! Sign me up!









3. The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano – Rumors of the author’s poor health (there are even rumors that he might have died, but he’s published twenty books in the last two years, each more ghastly than the last – nobody who’s dead has that kind of nerve) cannot excuse this little faucet-drip of a novel, with its easy plot, its predictable ‘war games’ metaphor, its lack of fleshed-out characters, and its pat formulations. I’ve heard it opined that Bolano is a master of atmosphere, and I agree: provided the atmosphere in question is the murk of narcissism and a cult of personality so thick you could cut it with a knife. The author should postpone his next four novels and take a vacation someplace warm.





2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – The challenge of contemporary fiction isn’t to steer clear of gimmicks – in one way or another, that’s scarcely possible anymore. No, the challenge is to master those gimmicks, to rise above them in the service of higher, better gimmicks. And when it comes to gimmicks, surely none is lazier and more thoughtless than the circus? It comes ready-packed with its own plots, characters, and conflicts, so of course it will tempt authors arrogant enough to think they created all of those things. The circus-gimmick spares those authors the trouble of creating much at all – the gimmick is both exotic and familiar, and lazy readers find it instantly inviting despite its underlying seediness, like a zoo. This was bad enough when the circus in question was the ordinary sawdust-and-felons version plodders could find in, say, Water for Elephants – but it’s ever so much worse in Morgenstern’s hands, because her circus seems magical, but she has neither the wit nor the craft of author she’s ripping off to tell her story. Call this Something Tedious This Way Comes.

1. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – I suppose in the breviary of authorial indifferences, uninformed cynicism isn’t the worst species – it requires a bit of effort, at least, even if it’s entirely misguided and harmful effort. Uninformed cynicism suffuses this wretched book by Eugenides (why are we venerating this guy with gigantic billboards, again? Isn’t this only his third book?), in which the conventions of 19th century authors whose hems he’s unworthy to touch are both gently mocked and violently misunderstood. For every student or teacher stereotype that’s skewered perfectly (I counted one), there are four or five skewered poorly, which makes for quite a few wounded and angry stereotypes rampaging around the ficto-sphere, possibly jostling Elmore Leonard’s writing-elbow or trampling lost little waifs like Nell Freudenberger and Jonathan Safran Foer. If Eugenides’ piece of skata is meant to be a knowing wink at the wisdom of writers like George Eliot and Jane Austen, a knowing nod to the fact that their concerns are still our concerns, then it needs to stop winking at ladies who’d be embarrassed by its puppyish lunging about (can you even imagine our current Eliots and Austens – many of whom are tight-plotting mystery authors – producing a sloppy farrago like The Marriage Plot? Barbara Pym wrote better stuff looped half off her rocker on ‘pep pills’). And if, as seems to me far more likely, the book is meant to be a wink to us, about how tired and quaint those old novels are in our post-modern age, then arrogance, as is so often the case, becomes a product of ignorance, since any good reader will tell Eugenides that these novels quite easily hold their own against anything the louche denizens of this list are ever likely to produce. No matter which of these readings is right, The Marriage Plot is consummately wrong – and our Worst Fiction Book of 2011.

December 26th, 2010

Recap, 2010!

Worst Fiction 2010:

10. The Three Weissmanns of Westport – Cathleen Schine

9. The Scent of Rain and Lightning – Nancy Pickard

8. How to Read the Air – Dinaw Mengestu

7. Hester – Paula Reed

6. All That Follows – Jim Crace

5. The Instructions –Adam Levin

4. The Privileges – Jonathan Dee

3. The Four Fingers of Doom – Rick Moody

2. The Passage – Justin Cronin

1. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

Worst Nonfiction, 2010:

10. The War Lovers – Evan Thomas/Imperial Cruise – James Bradley

9. Washington – Ron Chernow

8. You Are Not a Gadget – Jaron Lanier

7. Reality Hunger – David Shields

6. George Eliot in Love – Brenda Maddox

5. Hitch-22 – Christopher Hitchens/Life –Keith Richards

4. The Last Boy – Jane Leavy/The Last Hero – Howard Bryant

3. Between Two Worlds – Roxanna Saberi/Porait of a Drug Addict as a Young Man –Bill Clegg

2. Courage and Consequence – Karl Rove/Crisis & Command – Johh Yoo

1. Decision Points – George W. Bush

Best Fiction, 2010:

10. Witz –Joshua Cohen

9. You Lost Me There – Rosecrans Baldwin

8. Calendar of Regrets – Lance Olsen

7. Skippy Dies – Paul Murray

6. Easy for You – Shannan Rouss

5. Eddie Signwriter – Adam Schwartzman

4. Eight White Nights – Andre Aciman

3. Under the Small Lights – John Cotter

2. The Fairest Portion of the Globe – Frances Hunter

1. The Unnamed – Joshua Ferris

Best Nonfiction, 2010:

10 Denys Wortman’s New York

9. Dickinson – Helen Vendler

8. Ratification – Pauline Maier

7. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years – Diarmaid Macullough

6. The Book in the Renaissance – Andrew Pettegee

5. Cleopatra – Stacy Schiff

4. Americans in Paris – Charles Glass

3. American Caesars – Nigel Hamilton

2. Lost Dogs – Jim Gorant

1. The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee


December 21st, 2010

Worst Nonfiction, 2010!

If cynicism was the underpinning animus of the Worst Fiction of 2010, it was the emblazoned fife and snare drum coronation anthem of the Worst Nonfiction. I’ve been reading books a long time now, and I can’t remember a lineup of nonfiction this bad since the 1970s. Not bad in terms of literary quality, although ye gods, would it have killed these people to run their flyblown manuscripts past a copy editor, or even a desperate English major who’d perform rudimentary sentence touch-ups for tobacco-money? But no, the rot runs deeper than shoddy execution; each of these books is not only shoddy in its conception but outright mendacious. And lest you reply that all texts ar to some extent fabrications, let’s be clear: I’m talking about a much worse kind of mendacity than just hope-nobody-catches-me lying. These books are brazenly lying, telling their blasphemies in bloomers, just openly daring the gullible reading public to point out the emperor’s new soiled shorts. And these, also, were eye-opening for me: until this year’s blasphemies, I wasn’t fully aware of how merciful I’d been to all the previous years’ blasphemies, how trusting I’d been in the face of what now, in retrospect, were obvious, bold-faced lies. Shamefully late in life, I’ve learned the truth of the old adage, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

10. The War Lovers by Evan Thomas/Imperial Cruise by James Bradley – We’ll start with simple mendacity, then, and work our way down to the cold bit of truly unholy cynicism. 2010 saw two more-or-less coordinated attacks on the legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt, part of a cynical publishing strategy to always be saying something controversial about some pillar of American history, or to appear to be (see the last four books by Gary Wills, or P. J. O’Rourke on Adam Smith). The gist of these two crappy books is the same: that TR was a racist, a fraud, and a war-monger. The more serious offender of the two is Bradley’s execrable hatchet-job, which lays the blame for pretty much every subsequent 20th century ill at Roosevelt’s feet, mostly on the basis of poorly-read sources and flimsy conjecture. Thomas’ book is scarcely better; both ultimately find TR, at most, of being a man of his time. his reputation is too great to worry about such flea-bites, but they still irritate me.

9. Washington by Ron Chernow – This big block of hagiography is more mystifying than something like Evans or Bradley, where the writers intentionally obscure the facts that deny their theories; Chernow actually supplies those facts, over and over, all throughout the course of his book – and simply doesn’t seem to care that he’s drawing all the wrong conclusions. He goes into his mammoth task determined to like – to venerate – his subject, and that’s exactly what he does, right in time for the holiday book-buying season. It’s the black reverse of what historians are supposed to do, which makes its inevitable National Book Award all the more depressing.

8. You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier – Referring to the brief rash of ‘manifesto’s that broke out in 2010, a wise critic commented that the manifesto itself is good, that it naturally propagates thought and response. This is certainly true, but it only applies if the manifesto-writer actually believes what he’s professing. If their manifestos are put-up jobs designed to sell books, then the only thing propagated is self-aggrandizing deceit. Hence, another vile phenomenon of 2010: the shamifesto. Prime case in point: Lanier, a computer pioneer and one of the architects of virtual reality, in 2010 produced a shamifesto about how the pre-packaged categories of the Internet are cramping the inner lives of the people who habitually use them. Lanier knows this is a silly straw man – the people who use heavily-packaged templates like Facebook or Twitter also laugh over those limitations – he’s just barking about it in his book to get attention. The essence of the shamifesto isn’t simply that the author doesn’t believe his own screed, however – it’s that he believes exactly the opposite; Lanier has fourteen working computers in his home, plus a footlocker full of gadgets. Physician, shut thyself up.

7. Reality Hunger by David Shields – This book is yet another shamifesto, every bit as fraudulent as Lanier’s but far more craven. Shields’ book is a plagiarist’s commonplace arguing that the traditional structures of fiction – plot, dialogue, Aristotle’s unities, etc. – ar all utterly, pathetically useless and false, and like Lanier, he himself doesn’t believe a word of what he’s writing. But his motivation isn’t only to sell books – it’s also to justify his own abject laziness. The traditional novel is no more useless and false than the sonnet or the groined vault or the no-hitter – it just takes discipline, work, and talent to do it it well, and who wants to bother with that when moronic mud-slinging is so much easier?

6. George Eliot in Love by Brenda Maddox – With friends like these, feminism sure as hell doesn’t need enemies. Maddox takes readers on a shallow, Cliffs-notes tour of George Eliot’s life and works (the latter tour being particularly listless – I actually expected her to mention “man’s inhumanity to man”) and works in sixty different insinuating laments that her subject wasn’t prettier. Instead of completely ignoring the question of physical appearance like she should have done (and would have done, if her subject had been, say, Tolstoy), Maddox returns to it repeatedly, turning the life of the 19th century’s greatest novelist into a reality TV show in which the plain girl ends up being kinda interesting. Maddox should chronicle Paris Hilton next and leave the deep end of the pool to the grown-ups.

5. Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens/Life by Keith Richards – The dogmatic egotism with which Hitchens narrates this airbrushed version of his own life – a string of money-fishing deadlines and crapulous mornings-after paraded like the Labors of Hercules – is exceeded by the arrogance of Richards – the drug-addict #2 man of a rock band, for Pete’s sake – since at least Hitchens wrote his own book – and remembers his own life. Not so Richards, who’s surely put his name to the longest amnesiac’s reconstruction ever written. In both cases, smoking, drinking, and whoring is elevated to a life’s vocation and then larded with intimations of depth, and in both cases, the authors come off looking more than a little ridiculous. It was an exceptionally poor year for autobiographies, but these two would have stood out in any year for the stinkers they are.

4. Mickey Mantle: The Last Boy by Jane Leavy/“Henry” Aaron: The Last Hero by Howard Bryant – This gambit has by now become familiar as baby-boomers approach retirement, reflect on how embarrassing they were in the 1970s, how evil they were in the 1980s, and how into “Friends” they were in the 1990s. They crave legacies, even ones not their own, because they secretly suspect themselves of being a failed generation of whining underachievers. It’s this fauxstalgia that animates virtually all current histories or biographies that have the word ‘last’ in their title, and these two books are especially bad cases-in-point. Bryant’s phony elevation of his subject is obvious even in his sanctimonious book’s title, which solemnly rejects a nickname that’s known from here to the Carpathians – readers would be within their rights to ask ‘who the hell is Henry Aaron? Is he related to Hank Aaron, the baseball player?’ And the embarrassingly starstruck Leavy’s book is even worse, cranking the fauxstalgia engine to such a pitch that readers are encouraged to overlook how unpleasant Mantle could be and often was, especially after he stopped being a ‘boy.’ As with Thomas, Bradely, Chernow, and Maddox, so too here: this is not what historians are supposed to do. Those who forget the past are doomed to sugar-coat it in time for Father’s Day.

3. Between Two Worlds by Roxanna Saberi/Portrait of a Young Man as a Drug Addict by Bill Clegg – Here’s where that ‘too good to be true’ adage comes in, but I’ll make up for lost time by all the more adamantly adhering to the literary equivalent: from now on, if somebody’s memoir has all the drama, suspense, dialogue, and pat happy endings of fiction, that’s because it is fiction. In fact, the whole sub-genre deserves its own mocking distinction: the memnoir. And the guilty phenomenon that spawned it comes from outside the book-world entirely: ten years’ of ‘reality’ TV have created in countless thousands of people a ravenous hunger for quick-bought fame and fortune that renders them nothing less than functionally insane (before he wrote his own memnoir, publishing’s Saint Dave Eggers wrote an incredibly long and passionate plea to be a participant on “The Real World”). The problem is that James Frey’s Million Little Pieces debacle proved the dangers inherent in simply fabricating your own memnoir, but this hardly impeded the insane for a moment: if fabricating wild, exotic, dangerous acts was troublesome, these writers wouldn’t fabricate anything – they’d just do those wild, exotic, dangerous things. But since all these fame-whores are also cowards, they made certain their acts were ultimately either livable or entirely revocable. Even while they were writing about hitting ‘rock bottom,’ somewhere in their back-pack or sock-drawer was a phone number, a lifeline to a lawyer, a parent, a UN delegate. In every case, that back-door was triple-checked before the guilty parties took off, ready to risk their bodies and their time in order to emerge with a book deal, a string of speaking engagements, and a James Franco movie. And since those things – and the material comfort they provide – were always the point, the experiences themselves are rendered the most insulting dumb-show imaginable. Saberi got herself arrested and imprisoned in Iran (“I knew it was illegal to write a book about life under the dictatorship,” wide-eyed blink, wide-eyed blink, “but I never dreamed it was illegal to research such a book. In public. With a tape recorder.”), spent a couple of months in confinement while the US government, the UN, and the United Federation of Planets worked around the clock to free her, and then had the shameless gall to write a self-serving book about her ‘ordeal’ while all her fellow-prisoners continue to serve their life-sentences without benefit of Connecticut legal services. She provoked her own arrest – she went to Iran specifically, insanely, to roll the dice and hope they came up ‘book deal,’ and, noxiously, it worked. Same thing with Clegg, who ‘descended’ into crack addiction before opening that sock drawer and making his do-over phone call, and who did it all so he could have a book deal and watch Emil Hirsch play him in the movie. The memnoir’s chief sin is its degradation of the very concept of truth, its validation of insane self-centeredness, and these were by far the worst offenders in 2010. Both these attractive young authors deserve the same thing: for the ‘ordeals’ they so blithely wrote about to actually happen to them, without the magic back-door escape.

2. Courage and Consequence by Karl Rove/Crisis and Command by John Yoo – It’s almost the very depth of cynicism, you’re almost there, to parade your own evil under the banner of doing what you thought was right – to know you were doing evil and gamble that ‘I was doing what I thought was right’ will fool most of the people most of the time. It wouldn’t be cynicism if you really believed it, but neither Rove nor Yoo has had a real belief unconnected with personal avarice in many decades. Only a step less loathsome than tyranny are those careful intellectual men who seek to justify tyranny, to itself and the world, as these two filthy books so brashly attempt. Rove is the architect of all that is rotten in 21st century American politics – the proud re-creator of a type of Tammany political viciousness that annihilates all nuance and debate and wants to. And Yoo is the Grima Wormtongue who squirts delusions of godhood into authority’s ear merely so that he himself gets to be authority’s footstool. These books share the same black heartbeat: that doing anything at all to your enemies – even the things that made them your enemies, especially those things – is somehow now the cost of doing business, that lies are honorable and might makes right and that all of this is a sign of real-world adulthood, of seeing things like they are. The fact that both Rove and Yoo are writing these books as free men only shows that they are the beneficiaries of far more legal lenience than they ever recommended for others. Both books are nonetheless criminal testimonies.

1. Decision Points by George W. Bush – This is it, then, the cold bottom of cynicism, a presidential memnoir. This is a petty, stupid man who never wanted the presidency for anything more than bragging rights spinning the most cruel work of fauxstalgia imaginable. The alternate reality is a great American story: an ordinary man, a screw-up in life, hits rock bottom, turns his life around through the love of a good woman and the light of a renewed spiritual faith, and arrives at his Presidential destiny just at the dark moment when his country needs him most. There isn’t a single person in the world who doesn’t wish they’d lived in that alternate reality for eight years, who doesn’t dream of how different the world would be if that alternate reality had somehow happened. And the thing that makes this book not only the worst work of nonfiction in 2010 but also hands-down the worst book of any kind so far written in the 21st century is heartbreakingly simple: it’s spoken in the voice of that alternate history and wants us to believe it really happened. This is a final insult of such an exquisite devastation that only an imbecile could wreak it.

December 20th, 2010

Worst Fiction, 2010!

It would be audacious to offer a common link for so many works conceived in so many different environments over so many years, and yet offer it I do! I read a great deal of fiction in 2010 and watched with keen interest as some books succeeded and others failed. I sifted not only matter but motive, and during my Nightmare Summer of Homelessness, I became extra-sensitive to scams and phony sincerity, as street people must. And once I gained the provisional shelter of the crude lean-to where I currently live, I found those newly-sharpened instincts a great help when scanning the New Fiction shelves at the Boston Public Library. Authors will always give you their motivations for writing – “I guess I’m just a simple storyteller,” or “my characters demanded life,” or some such clap-trap, and no doubt there are tiny little germs in their books that actually interest them.

But this year an animus was as obvious as it was distasteful., Virtually every offender on this list was born of a calculating cynicism of such staggering self-absorption as to provoke homicidal rage. Not ‘what do I feel?’ but ‘what kind of deal?’ prompted these monstrosities, but the real irritant is the arrogance of ‘you’ll take what I give you, and you’ll have the reactions I dictate.’ Not one of these novels is sincere, but worse: each one of them, in their own way, mocks sincerity with a bland hatefulness that can only be achieved by authors who’ve already been paid.

So here they are, the worst of the very bad! As in Dante’s Inferno, we’ll arduously ascend to the very bottom (or something like that):

10. The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine – Admitting up front that this wretched novel partially owes its place here on the list to the faults of others in no way lessens its own copious faults, nor does alluding to the book’s own Dark Predecessor. It’s true that Schine herself is not responsible for the embarrassing glut of Jane Austen pastiches choking the market these days, but she is responsible for all her own book’s hackneyed dialogue and coarsely-orchestrated feel-good moments. And she’s certainly guilty of hoping the same thing all the other Austen-defilers hope: that some of Jane’s wit and insight will automatically attach to any book that parodies or imitates her, even a book as bad as this one. Hoping doesn’t make it so, and that ought to be the final nail in the coffin of all such books, but we better not expect it. And there’s also the aforementioned Dark Predecessor: Schine’s The Love Letter was not only a viciously cynical, lazy, and horrible scrap of trash, but it also stands as yet untoppled as the Single Worst Novel Ever Written – only with no Internet back then for me to say it, just lots of ranting snail-mail letters to long-suffering friends. The enormous sin of that earlier book is a heavy burden to bear, but The Three Weissmanns of Westport commits plenty of sins of its own and dares its readers not to count them, and that would have earned it a spot on the list anyway.

9. How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu – It’s a neat little irony that Mengestu’s thin, meager novel is mostly about the many and multi-layered lies African ex-pats tell almost compulsively, and this book is a very good example of how a work of fiction can also be a sustained lie. African ex-pat Jonas Wondemarium (that surname wouldn’t be significant, would it? geez) is the alleged center of this book’s many trite stories, but the real point here is the novel’s unspoken but deafening proclamation: “I, the author, am an African ex-pat! I am a cottage industry! No matter what garbage I serve up, you must call it ‘a searing examination of exile and community’ in the New York Times!’ If the author’s name were Daniel Miller, this novel would have been called an idiotic, farcical bit of laziness. But the book-world is enamored of the exotic and will venerate any old crap as long as it carried a rifle across the veldt when it was eight.

8. The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard – You know you’re in trouble when an author feels the need to pack not one but two cliched abstractions into the book’s very title, as if she just can’t wait to set about the task of boring her readers. Some ineffable logic dictated that this book couldn’t be called The Scent of Rain or The Scent of Lightning, and that same logic governs every page of this tired, lazily-written story about an old murder, a new trial, and a conflicted family forced to confront What Really Happened That Night. Every character here is a cardboard stock-type out of some tepid Bonanza re-run, except there’s no Hop Sing to make saucy insults on his way back to the kitchen.

7. Hester by Paula Reed – Nathaniel Hawthorne should count his blessings it’s Jane Austen getting all that pastiche attention and not himself, if this ridiculous ‘sequel’ to The Scarlet Letter is any indication of the bullet he dodged. Hester Prynne, telepath. You have been warned.

6. All That Follows by Jim Crace – The standard line here in condemning a putrid little squib like this from an internationally-regarded novelist like Crace would be to say “how are the mighty fallen” or “a rare misstep” – but that standard line would be wrong, since Crace has been egregiously over-estimated since the moment he first set pen to paper. No, the correct response when writing about this flaccid story of sad sack Leonard Lessing (not Moring but Lessing, get it?), a wannabe radical tyrannized by the women in his life, is “more of the same.” Crace has always thought it acceptable to waste the readers’ time (and money) with pointless, meandering digressions on any little subject that happens to be fascinating him at the moment he sat down to his computer. As a result, his stack of tellingly slender novels are as stinky and insubstantial as a rack of farts. This novel, like his previous two, doesn’t even bother to conclude – it just appears, offends, and vaguely dissipates.

5. The Privileges by Jonathan Dee – Also criminally overrated, Dee turns in a lazy, cliched novel about money-grubbing power couple Adam and Cynthia Morey (not Lessy but Morey, get it?) and their messed-up kids and their glamorous lifestyle and their maniacal greed and Adam’s risky investment practices and the inevitable etc. etc. Not one sentence of this novel is energetic; not one paragraph was profitably revised, not one ounce of heart is present throughout this whole exercise of socially-relevant ‘topical’ fiction reduced to the mindless driving of cap-and-piston.

4. The Instructions by Adam Levin – Take a young author who hasn’t stopped writing shit since he was 12 years old, include every single uncrafted bit of journal-keeping about every single subject that has ever passed through that author’s head, create a crassly-manipulative shred of a plot starring not only a disillusioned young boy but a Jewish disillusioned young boy, take the resultant 1000-page disgustingly self-indulgent manuscript to a publisher who encourages such blockhead prolixity instead of scorning it, and you have The Instructions by first (and very much hopefully last) time author Adam Levin, here channeling David Foster Wallace and producing a book very nearly as awful as all those by his Dark Master.

3. The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody – Much like the tripartite godhead, the three books that comprise our Dark Trinity of the Worst Novels of 2010 are really one novel, and yet three separate faces of cynicism. And as with most expressions of cynicism, the core quality is contempt for the audience. This kind of evil, uninformed cynicism has achieved the state of considering the reading public to be contemptible stooges, sheep who’ll nibble on any rotten lettuce presented to them. how these three authors must have chuckled at their monuments of mockery were bought and talked about! How they must have smirked at a press so willing to play their game! And in some ways – although not the most important ones – Rick Moody’s opus of obscurity is the worst of the three, an act of open hostility against his readers. His hack writer protagonist Montese Crandall is introduced, mocked as an ineffectual C-lister, and then handed the book, as if Moody were saying “Let’s both of us – me and you readers – sit back and marvel at how bad this all is.” But what he’s really saying is, “These totally unconnected things – Mexican wrestling, baseball cards, etc. – momentarily interested me, and this was the first idea I had of how to string them all together; I didn’t try any harder because I’ve already cashed my check.” Moody has famously been called the worst writer of his generation; he provides ample evidence for this in The Four Fingers of Death.

2. The Passage by Justin Cronin – The cynicism informing this hackneyed, overwritten pile of poop is naked opportunism trying its damndest to disguise itself in New Yorker affectations. Cronin’s overlong post-apocalyptic story of lab-spawned ‘viral’ vampires and the people who fight and flee them has been ecstatically praised by both the publishing industry and the critics (most embarrassingly Dan Chaon). Its publication made Cronin a multi-millionaire, launched a thousand book-group discussions, and ensured Dakota Fanning a future Oscar – and all he had to do to achieve all this was sell his literary soul on the open market and then lie his face off about it in a million fawning interviews. A post-apocalyptic monster was indeed born out of a laboratory here – the lab was the 1980s, the Apocalypse happened this summer, and now, for the next forty years, It walks among us.

1. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen – The cynicism of our Worst Novel of 2010 is the God the Father of such evil, The Great Author. Franzen’s oily, unsmiling acceptance of this horrific honorific is not the least of his many sins, and his arrogance is by far the worst part of Freedom, a big fat speeding ticket of a novel that’s as long as it is bland, as strident as it is dull, and as stilted as it is silly. The plot of this mess (allegedly a satire on new-yuppie over-achievers but really a cringing apologia for them, issued by one of their own) hardly matters; what matters is the wing-back chair, the leather elbow-patches, the straight-faced evocation of ‘semiotics’ and ‘subtexts,’ the swampy, impenetrable dullness of the thing. Franzen’s kind of cynicism is the worst of them all, the presumption of entree into the literary pantheon. On his worst day, Raymond Chandler could write the pants off this pompous clown, but half a million pretentious book-buyers can’t be wrong.

December 25th, 2009

Once Again!

Twice as many books this year, so a handy summary is in order!

Worst Fiction of 2009:

10. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
9. The Murder of King Tut by James Patterson and Martin Dugard
8. The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
7. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
6. Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
5. Under the Dome by Stephen King
4. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
3. The Collected Works of P. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen
2. How to Sell by Clancy Martin
1. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Worst Nonfiction of 2009:

10. The American Civil War by John Keegan
9. Imperial Cruise by James Bradley
8. The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose
7. Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
6. Byron in Love by Edna O’Brien
5. The Wauchula Woods Accord by Charles Siebert
4. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
3. The Book of Genesis, illustrated by R. Crumb
2. Signature in the Cell by Stephen Meyer
1. Digital Barbarism by Mark Helprin, The Tyranny of Email by John Freeman

The Best Fiction of 2009:

10. The Song is You by Arthur Phillips
9. A Day and a Night and a Day by Glen Duncan
8. Roanoke by Margaret Lawrence
7. American Rust by Philipp Meyer
6. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
5. How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely
4. The City and the City by China Mieville
3. Lowboy by John Wray
2. Girl Mary by Petru Popescu
1. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, The Childrens Book by A.S. Byatt

The Best Nonfiction of 2009:

10. Endless Forms by Diana Donald and Jane Munro
9. The Annotated Origin by James Costa
8. Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood
7. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika, edited by Robert Strassler, translated by John Marincola
6. Meriwether Lewis by Thomas Danisi and John Jackson
5. Worlds Made By Words by Anthony Grafton
4. Three Victories and a Defeat by Brendan Simms
3. National Geographic Image Collection
2. Marcus Aurelius by Frank McLynn
1. Following the Water by David Carroll, The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson

Up next, by popular demand: a few more lists to round out the year!

December 20th, 2009

Worst Books of 2009! Fiction!

2009 is finally winding down, and the End of Days clamor regarding the death of paper-and-ink books has never been louder. The Amazon Kindle is (if you believe their publicity statements) selling more than any other physical item in the history of the human race, and smack-dab in the entrance way of every single Barnes & Noble is a sleek kiosk staffed with book-averse clerks hawking B&N’s own electronic reader, Nook. What book retailers are thinking in pursuing this ‘get out ahead of it’ strategy utterly eludes me; it’s like if Tower Records and HMV had busily installed kiosks in their foyers offering Napster downloads of all their wares. Prognosticators are saying the days of the printed book are similarly numbered.

If 2009 represents the death-throes of an industry, well, the end won’t be pretty – because Nook or no Nook, publishers this year went to just the same exorbitant lengths to churn out mountains of crapola as they did when no electronic readers threatened their existence at all. Thousands of books crossed my path, many hundreds made their way to my nightstand (friends and basset hounds will attest: it’s a big nightstand, and it’s always stacked high with books), and here we are at the tail-end of the year to sort them all out. And as you could no doubt tell from our trusty elephant-crap photo up top, this particular entry will be devoted to the worst of those many hundreds of books. I’m expanding the list and dividing it into fiction and nonfiction, for your book-avoiding convenience. So let’s get started!

Worst Fiction of 2009:

10. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer – Impossible to believe the fulsome, breathless praise this narcissistic piece of poop has garnered from virtually all corners of the critical world, although not impossible to understand: Dyer might not know how to write (Dyer certainly does not know how to write), but he knows how to nudge and wink and pass a bong, and book reviewers – being pallid, friendless sorts who grew up yearning to be cool – don’t seem to have been able to resist the cool-ness Dyer is so relentlessly going for. Come Monday morning, when their collective crush has migrated to some other writer, perhaps they’ll turn on Dyer en masse – seeing that would almost make suffering through the acclaim of this one worth enduring.

9. The Murder of King Tut by James Patterson and Martin Dugard – Despite the idiotic claims Patterson makes in his introduction to this tiny little book (which his legions of fans dutifully made a bestseller), it definitely belongs on a fiction list – it’s wretched enough as fiction, but with its endless pages of invented hackneyed dialogue and stereotypical plot-twists, it would be reality-warpingly unthinkable as history. Ancient Egypt hasn’t suffered an outrage this bad since Napoleon’s troops tramped through its ruins.

8. The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell – This one stings a little extra because it genuinely tugged at my expectations: Littell can do good work, and the book is satisfyingly long and ambitious … all of which made the disappointment even greater when it turned out to be a bloated, overblown brick of pointless Euro-nihilism that neither affirms anything nor interestingly condemns anything. Instead, grotesquerie after grotesquerie is served up in lavish detail to no point at all – which I’m sure Littell’s defenders would say is the whole point, that war and atrocity are like that. And they should keep their condescension to themselves, the poor little darlings; I know perfectly well that war and atrocity are like that – but war and atrocity novels – good ones, anyway – are not, and Littell spending 3000 pages wallowing in narcissistic self-loathing certainly isn’t.

7. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem – Some of you will say that of course this book – one long hymn to getting high – would have to be on my list, since I’m no fan of the stink of that particular habit (or the evening-long stupidity it engenders). But that’s not true – if Lethem had worked to make his prose enjoyable, I’d have liked it no matter what it was about (I liked Pynchon’s Inherent Vice just fine this year, and it’s easily as stoned a book at this one). But he doesn’t, because he’s plainly figured out he doesn’t have to – his readers will move his book off shelves regardless of what he does.

6. Nobody Move by Denis Johnson – It’s been a handy rule of mine almost from the first moment I started making rules about reading (I’ll have to attempt a comprehensive list of them here some day!): nothing good can be expected from a book whose title is a cliche. And there’s nothing good in Johnson’s lazy little pamphlet of a pastiche – just flat, boring prose so inconsequential you feel extra sorry for all the earnest first-time novelists out there who’d love to have the money Johnson got (for both serial rights and novel rights, geez) for spitting up this drivel. Oh, but we’ll be getting to first-time novelists, don’t you worry!

5. Under the Dome by Stephen King – But first, a novelist who’s been working so long you’d think at least some sort of craft would have penetrated the force-field of his mediocrity … but you’d be wrong, and you’d waste a hell of a lot of reading time being wrong. King’s new novel (written at the rate of roughly 10,000 words a day- in other words, not only without thinking but also without pausing in the physical act of typing – something, that is, that cannot possibly under any circumstances be good) about a small Maine town full of Stephen King fans suddenly cut off from the wider world is full of an irony so painful it has to be involuntary, and that irony is only darkened when a giant bucket of garbage like this gets an adulatory review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. End of Times indeed.

4. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli – The writer-artist here has no more willing fan than I am, but this wretchedly stilted, unbearably pretentious mess of a graphic novel does literally nothing right. The artwork is too didactic to be dramatically involving; not only are we never given any reason to like the shallow, irritating main character but we’re also never given any reason to keep turning the pages about him; the host of secondary characters are hauled on, talked down to, then shuttled offstage to no purpose at all, and the ending – well, again, I’m sure Mazzucchelli’s defenders would say it’s meant to be hipster-ironic, but that’s just them being fey: it’s actually just Mazzucchelli accidentally proving that he does his best stuff when he’s got a writer handling the words.

3. The Collected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen – We mentioned earnest first-time novelists, and we did it sympathetically – but no sympathy extends to first novels written with either crass manipulation or frat boy bragging. Larsen’s oh-so-precious tale of an adorably quirky little boy with a penchant for illustrating things is a perfect case of a book that considers it safer to trick readers into affectionate sympathy than to genuinely arouse that feeling in them, through work. And by all sales accounts, the trickery has been effective – it’s entirely possible Larsen will have a standing reservation for the #3 spot here on the list. There is no writing lazier than gimmick-writing, and no more gimmicky book than this one has appeared on the scene in many, many years. I can only hope that somewhere down the line Larsen learns that “Hate reading books? Try Reif Larsen!” isn’t, in fact, a recommendation.

2. How to Sell by Clancy Martin – This is where the frat boy bragging comes in. Martin’s book looks on the surface like a standard roman a clef about a naive young guy who comes to the big city and learns the biz (doesn’t matter what biz) while learning about life and love, blah, blah, blah. But underneath, this tone-deaf lump of clumsy prose cares about only one thing: making its young author lots of money (through a Hollywood sale, naturally, not boring old bookstores). This is a book entirely without a soul – I’m surprised register scanners could read its bar code.
Once again, most critics loved it because it gave them a vicarious burst of ‘cool’ – it was called a promising debut enough times so that we can legitimately fear the author believes it.

1. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers – Necessary to list these two abominations together, since they share the same things: rhapsodic critical reception, sludgy, colorless prose, a 100 percent total reliance on cliches (saintly minorities, for instance, in both cases), and opportunistic necrophilia. McCann’s book ham-handedly uses the tragedy of September 11 to gin up his otherwise entirely forgettable tale of them brawlin’ bardin’ Irish immigrants, and the insufferable Eggers ham-handedly uses the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina to gin up his otherwise forgettable tale of a good little man confronting The System when all he wants to do is help people. It’s not enough to say that neither book would be imaginable without the real-world disaster on which its plot hinges; it’s painfully obvious from both these windy, self-adoring works that their authors consider plot-hinging the reason disasters happen in the first place. This is the worst kind of cultural vampirism, and after the praise heaped on Netherland last year, I’m starting to think our current crop of writers simply can’t rise to the challenge of transmuting real-life turning points into challenging prose. Eggers has created his Grand Old Man status with his own money (and an unflagging conception of all writing as twee anachronism – a conception the literary world has embraced whole-heartedly without, apparently, seeing the loathsome irony), and McCann has recently had his Grand Old Man status conferred upon him, so they themselves can’t help but see their praise as vindication of their grave-robbing. But the rest of us should maintain a proper outrage – novels have a higher calling than the sophomoric melodramas these two have produced.

Up Next: 2009’s worst Nonfiction!


December 29th, 2008

The Worst Books of 2008!

Hard to believe another entire year has passed since the last ‘Worst of’ list, but there’s our emblematic elephant-crap picture to prove it! That picture symbolizes not just what’s awful and redolently crappy, but the worst of what’s awful and redolently crappy – the books listed here.

As always, there was a great deal of garbage published this year, in every genre, in every month, in every format. I read a huge percentage of that garbage, and a huge percentage of what I read will find no place on this list, either because it wasn’t bad enough (several fiction debuts, for instance, and about 350 Lincoln books), or because it was so predictably bad that listing it would be redundant (it wasn’t a banner year for Star Trek fiction, for instance). No, these are the cream of the crap, the books that stand out in my memory even against the vast multitude of their crappy brethren:

10. The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria – an infuriating little piece of America-bashing that would be laughable if it hadn’t managed to find such a widespread audience (president-elect Obama is said to have read it, but I think he can be trusted to tell a bad book from a good one), Zakarian’s screed pats poor, ailing America on the head and tells her she’ll be OK, that life as just another post-empire Britain isn’t all that bad, that she’ll never be so fat or so ugly that the boys in the G8 won’t dance with her at least once (probably while that foxy Indonesia is in the ladies room). Zakarian obviously thinks his book raises all kinds of penetrating questions about America’s waning influence in a growing world, and in response to it, I had a few questions of my own, like: whose schools trained you? Whose institutions pay your living? Who published your book? Whose talk-shows host you? Who has the most nuclear launch-codes? And ultimately (asked with the proper Brooklyn accent), Aw, who needs you?

9. The World Is What It Is by Patrick French – This long-awaited authorized biography of the largely talentless Czechoslovakian author V. S. Naipaul (I know, I know – but you nearly exploded when you read that , didn’t you? Proving my point: without his endlessly trumpeted and synonymous nationality, this guy is virtually nothing) proves beyond a doubt that Naipaul is just as boring and loathsome to know as he is to read.

8. Too Fat to Fish by Artie Lange and Why We Suck by Dennis Leary – impossible not to list these two as one entry, since they’re basically the same book and equally disgusting. There’s a very specific picture of an American guy being painted in both these books: he’s brash, crude (refers to any affection expressed in any way between any two men as “homo shit”), and horny, and he absolutely under no circumstances thinks about anything. He’s a man’s man, knows what’s right, stands up, never backs down, walks the walk, shit like that. He smokes, he drinks, he makes fun of everything, and as a good friend of mine once said (with appropriate scorn), he’s never had a thought that somebody else didn’t have first. Actually caring about anything at all (other than beer, pizza, and The Game) is the worst possible sin in this guy’s world. These two books exult in exactly the kind of brainless-goombah version of the Ugly American that was decisively rejected in the last presidential election and that will no longer be represented in the Oval Office, which brings us to:

7. American Lion by Jon Meacham – The stunning sales success of this book about America’s second-worst president (I know all of you young people out there are nodding, thinking I’m reserving the bottom spot for the worst president of your lifetime, George W. Bush, but sorry: nobody is ever likely to be worse than Richard Nixon) is troubling, to say the least. As I’ve had to point out to more than one potential buyer of Meacham’s credulous, execrable book, Andrew Jackson was a liar, a braggart, an inept military leader, a moron, a hopelessly out-of-his-depth president, and a thoroughly bad person – none of which you’ll learn from this brazenly mendacious campaign biography. Jackson was all of those things and one more: a fraud – it’s not possible to be an exponent of ‘popular democracy’ if you personally own human slaves. Like I said, the country has decisively rejectedthis kind of destructive, moronic prank-puller as a fit occupant for the White House. Meacham should be ashamed of himself, and so should all the hundreds of thousands of Americans buying his book.

6. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill – Yeesh talk about commercial success! This wretched, boggy misfire of a novel has been wildly popular in 2008, despite the fact that it’s just about the crassest, most cynical, laziest botch-job of an alleged 9-11 novelimaginable (although Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close comes incredibly close). That O’Neill couldn’t exercise sufficient self-control to turn his cricket-research into the Esquire essay it should have been is bad enough; that he grafted onto that research one of the worst tragedies in American history is pretty much the ultimate addition of insult to injury.

5. The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie – I don’t know what’s worse, the porn star name of the author or the tortured, pointless meanderings of the book; oh wait, yes I do – the book is worse, because unlike the name, it holds out not even the illusion of enjoyment. The historical fiction segments of this morosely awful novel read like dislodged Wikipedia fragments with bad dialogue pasted on, and the present-day segments (the book plays the one against the other, of course, because as we all know, the past only existed to give focus-depth to the maguffin-chasing antics of the present) are unendurably wooden – a description that brings us back to Titania Hardie, and so prompts us to move on to:

4. 2666 by Roberto Bolano – The specter of one’s imminent demise, a wise man once said, wonderfully concentrates the mind. Alas, it doesn’t do squat for the creative powers. This enormous, multi-tentacled monstrosity by the late Bolano is a heartbreaking picture of a dying writer’s urge to get out on paper all the various ideas, fantasies, and fixations that still remain inside him, but since that’s only half the job of being a writer (and since Bolano died before he could do the shaping and pruning that is the other half), the end result is about as satisfying as if Evelyn Waugh had published the disjointed, half-coherent final ravings of the dying Lord Marchmain as a book in their own right. Since nobody likes to speak ill of the dead, and since book critics are generally craven in the face of very long books, this thing has had a holiday among the reviewers (Sam Sacks at Open Letters being, once again, a godsend of an exception) – and so a lot of people have bought a bookshelf-curio they’ll never actually finish.Lucky them.

3. Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman – Who exactly decided that this garrulous idiot was a writer? Who, after reading his stoned, paint-by-numbers hackwork in the various magazines thought his attempts at writing fiction would be worth razing a forest to print? Gawd only knows what Downtown Owl is about – Klosterman seems to be trying to write about his parents’ generation, back in, you know, olden times, but the scene-setting only lasts as many sentences as Klosterman feels like writing at any given time (and as for revising? Pshhhhhh-yah! Not!), and the dialogue is from a pretty bad movie of those olden times, and what’s the point of all of it anyway? What could this loser possibly write that wouldn’t make “Have you read the latest Klosterman?” the grim, dutiful setup to a punch line?

2. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – The author of The Tipping Point (i.e. Follow Blindly) and Blink (i.e. Don’t Think) has dashed off a new sure-fire bestseller, Outliers (i.e. It’s Not Your Fault), and it’s every bit as anile and preposterous as the previous two. This time around, Gladwell’s … well, ‘theory’ is clearly overstating things … his madcap idea is that cultural differences account for much more of what makes outstanding thinkers and leaders (in the Gladwell universe – and especially in the minds of the Gladwell target audience – those two things are always the same) than individual capacity or effort. The ‘outliers’ of the title are those few, isolated, industrious little brown people who abandon their kooky aboriginal cultures and come to enlightenment (i.e. Target) from odd, invigorating angles. And we can all be outliers! All we need to do is mimic some of that outsider flair! Just don’t forget to pay them their social security while they’re cleaning your pool and you’re mimicking them – you can get into such trouble if you don’t!

1. Churchill, Hitler, and the ‘Unnecessary War’ by Pat Buchanan – That Buchanan is a pig-eyed, pea-brained, arch-conservative, close-the-borders, two-guns-in-every-garage nutjob is well-known, but before this disastrous, poorly-written, ineptly-researched single worst book of 2008, it was possible to believe he wasn’t actually insane. The ‘Unnecessary War’ removes all doubt. His overriding animus is of course bigotry, in this case thinly disguised as ‘real-world politics’: that America should have steered clear of the foreign entanglements of World War Two, that Hitler was at heart just a misunderstood German statesman trying to find a modus vivendi with the irrationally touchy great powers of Europe, that the fight erupting between them was a local matter that shouldn’t have embroiled the United States. Buchanan’s book sank into richly-deserved obscurity almost instantly after publication, but Buchanan himself deserves a different fate: he should be hooked up to a saline drip and monitored by a hospital triage staff, so he stays alive as each living Allied serviceman and woman, the descendants of each dead Allied serviceman and woman, each living Holocaust survivor, and the descendants of each dead Holocaust victim takes a turn giving him one solid punch in his fat, smug face. When all of them are done, every living actual historian should also get a shot. Whatever’s left of Buchanan should then be patched up and deposited in the nearest courtroom to be pauperized by the world’s biggest libel action.

And there you have it – the worst of the worst of 2008! Luckily for all of us, the clowns don’t yet run the circus, so next time, we’ll talk about the good stuff, the best of the year!