Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth is so bad I have almost nothing to say about it (and so will tell you about my accidental thieving – but first…). Continue reading
Category Archives: Worst Books
Heroes of the Frontier: Preview of Dave Eggers’ New Novel (That should have been a short story; Or scrapped)
I am a Dave Eggers completist. I think because I really, really loved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius I keep reading everything he writes hoping to recapture the joy of that first read (why did I love AHWOSG so much? Probably because it was the first thing I’d read like it. A like every first encounter aren’t we all always trying to get back to recapture that moment of intoxicating newness?).
But with Heroes of the Frontier the fierce loyalty of fresh love has faded to embarrassment to be (seen as) still attached to the overly confident novel, unaware of its lackluster performance and reliant on the coattails of previous success. But I want to love Eggers, and so I read for kernels to warrant continued affection: Eggers writes good comedy. Josie, a former-dentist, has quasi-kidnapped her children and taken them into the wilds of Alaska so that she can find meaning. Some funny scenes ensue. Some smart writing.
But given the sole source of conflict in the novel is Josie’s uncertainty about whether her life has, or could have, or ever had, meaning (and whether children might be what we all pin our hopes on for meaning, but find never live up to those expectations), Eggers has a challenge in maintaining interest. There’s only so much hand wringing, soul searching while drinking wine and staring at the stars that one reader can tolerate. (Especially when it’s a reprieve, almost entirely, of the hand wringing of Your Fathers, Where Are They?) Which is to say the psychological conflict and drama doesn’t have enough complexity or resonance to do much but bore. Loathe as I am to suggest that short stories might have any merit at all, I have to say I think this 300 page beast of different campsites and highway driving could be suitably pared down to a couple of nights in a tent and the same realization: we make meaning in what we do and who we do it with, and it’s never going to come from money or things or external validation (alas).
The book hits shelves later in July. If you, like me, can’t resist Eggers (like you can’t resist Atwood), you know you’ll read it anyway, so go, read it, and let me know if I’ve gotten it all wrong. If you can resist the siren call, then go see the movie for A Hologram for the King and let that be your Eggers fix. Plus Tom Hanks. And let me know whether the movie is any good.
The Casual Vacancy: Just because you wrote Harry Potter doesn’t mean you should get to publish nonsense
I know I’m a few years behind the tide on hating J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, so forgive the belated review: it’s a boring book and you shouldn’t read it.
Set it Pagford, a quaint British town (think the Vicar of Dibley), the story follows a ragtag cast of characters after the death of town councillor Barry somebody-I-don’t-remember-because-I-don’t-care. The book tries to make itself relevant and interesting by including cyber bullying, drug use, domestic abuse and racism. It succeeds only in being interesting by virtue of how terrible it is. And how difficult it is to remember who any of the characters are because they are all so boring and yawn.
I suspect the editor of the first draft wanted to put the whole thing in a fire, but felt compelled by the sheer force of the Rowling name to let it see the public eye. I jest (only a little). It’s not punishing to read, but it certainly belies the substance of the book to call this a ‘compelling’ read (as do some reviews) or a (ha!) page-turner. With nary a plot detail to compel, nor a character developed enough to be of the slightest interest (Rowling is surely the master of characters defined by a single character trait and stubbornly resistant to any change through circumstance or reflection) it’s a book you read out of a sense of inertia and a quiet fascination with how someone who wrote Harry Potter could also write this terrible thing.
What, if anything, could I say this book is about? Small town politics? Teenage relationships and the lack of parental engagement with youth? Hardly. I do think it’s trying to be about the social mores of our contemporary moment, but reads as an afterschool special that forgot that in order to make a reader care about an issue you first have to provide a compelling… something.
I have to admit I’m pleased it was so bad. Coming off the glory of A Little Life I was pretty sure whatever I read was going to pale in comparison. The Casual Vacancy did not disappoint in this respect. With my palate cleansed I feel ready for another terrific read: suggestions?
Don’t believe anyone who tells you they ran a marathon out of a sense of personal achievement. Or to raise money for a charity. Or in honour of someone else. They’re lying. They ran the marathon so they could tell you they ran the marathon.
I’ve run two marathons.
And I read all of David Gilbert’s & Sons even though every page of the last third (two thirds?) felt like an agonizing shuffle to the end. In running they call it “hitting the wall” – the moment around 30km when your body realizes it is still running and decides continuing is a very bad idea and would rather stop, if fact, would rather we had stopped 28km ago. But your brain is all like ‘no no, we need to be able to tell people we ran a marathon,’ so it supersedes all the pain and lactic acid and in a feat of masochistic revel marches each foot forward. Reading & Sons didn’t physically hurt (beyond the arm strain of hauling about a 5lb monster), but it nevertheless felt like a slog. A slog I’d made my way too far into to abandon, and one that I felt I ought to finish so I could say I had. An absolutely ridiculous idea because no one seems to have read or to care about the book – and if vanity was my motivation I really should have finished (okay, started and finished) Ulysses ages ago. Why did I begin in the first place? I don’t know. I’d ordered it from the library. I’d paid some late fines. I felt literary guilt. (what is literary guilt? I’d like to know).
What do you need to know about it? Plot wise it’s another novel about being a writer in New York and attending parties with writerly folks and sharing the unstated but nevertheless omnipresent anxiety of writerly folks. Actually that’s not a plot. Someone alert David Gilbert! Writing about being a writer in New York is not a plot! Sure, sure. He strings in some business about fathers raising sons, human cloning (don’t get excited – there’s nothing thematically or plot-ly interesting about it) and funerals as a waving of the hands like ‘hey! look! a plot!’ But it’s really just more about being a writer. In New York. Character? I guess it’s supposed to be interesting that we have an unreliable narrator – Philip? Patrick? I forget his name and can’t be bothered to look it up – who inserts himself into the famous writerly Dyer family because he so wants to be a part of the family and to tell us about what goes on with the Dyers. I guess it’s interesting like listening to a runner tell you about their training runs and carb loading is interesting. Which is to say: not at all. Setting: Did I mention this is a book about being a writer in New York? That doesn’t actually spend any time on the New York part except to remind us that we’re in New York? Theme: Uhhh… something about the ethics of writing about people you know, and the desire for immortality, and the inheritance of sons (if the title didn’t give it away you should know this book is entirely uninterested in women. In fact it seems genuinely put out that mothers have to exist at all. I think there’s probably some interesting thematic questions buried in here – just like you probably run past some beautiful scenery – but in the focused effort to just. keep. reading. I didn’t notice.
So yeah. Give me my medal and my banana. Time for a recovery read.