Thursday, December 29, 2005

2005, A Year in Books: Worst Reads of the Year

For the life of me, I can't understand why more media venues don't list their least favorite books alongside their best of the year lists. There's only one way to compensate oneself for sitting through hundreds of pages of bad writing, unconvincing characters, boring plots and objectionable politics, and that's to rant and complain about the experience at the top of one's voice. Unlike my best books list, this list is most definitely ranked in order of quality, from the smallest turkey of the year to the biggest.
  • The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke

    The Chymical Wedding starts off as a kind of poor man's Possession with hints of The French Lieutenant's Woman and, of course, alchemy, thrown in. For the first 150 pages, it is a reasonably well-written exploration of the lives of six people in two periods of time as they attempt to discover the secrets of alchemy and make sense of their own troubled hearts. Before long, however, the book begins to drag. The (never particularly interesting) characters devolve into nothing more than the author's mouthpieces, spouting dense and muddled proclamations about symbolism, truth and love. Pretty soon, every conversation starts with a character making some senseless declaration, then wandering off on a tangent without explaining themselves. For a book obsessed with the power of symbols and mysteries, The Chymical Wedding is surprisingly unsubtle--it's a treatise first and a novel second, and so it fails on both counts.

  • A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park

    Park's monumentally well-received fantasy got a resounding thumbs down from me. This underperforming, unconvincing novel gives us a protagonist we can't love, a villain we can't fear, secondary characters we don't notice and a plot that's barely there. A large part of the problem is that Princess is only the first part of the story (originally intended as two books but now apparently ballooning into a three- or four-part series), and very little happens in it, but I find it hard to believe that even working on a smaller canvas, the deficiencies of Park's writing wouldn't have damned his efforts. Princess never quite makes it to terrible, but its cumulative mediocrity marks it out as a particularly unworthy read.

  • The Magus by John Fowles

    The Magus is famously one of those books that you either love or hate and, having adored The French Lieutenant's Woman, I was certain I'd be in the former camp. Wrong! Fowles himself, in his introduction, calls it a journeyman work and wonders (although not in so many words) what the secret of its enduring popularity might be. The story of an English teacher on a tiny Greek island who is toyed with and manipulated by a secretive and highly intelligent old man offers an intriguing twist on the standard revenge fantasy by showing us the (possibly quite deserving) victim of the vengeance scheme as it is being played upon him, but Fowles never managed to make me care about his protagonist (or any of the other characters) or believe that he wouldn't, at some point, simply have walked away from the whole Byzantine game. The book drags, and it was only with a gargantuan effort that I managed to finish it at all.

  • The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

    Seeing as Hollinghurst's novel edged out David Mitchell's stunning Cloud Atlas for last year's Booker, I could easily have disliked it on general principle, but Hollinghurst was considerate enough to justify my hatred. This poor man's Brideshead Revisited is cold and uninteresting. The characters are stiff, never achieving anything close to a second dimension, and Hollinghurst's political leanings inform and distort every line of the text. For all the praise heaped upon it, The Line of Beauty is nothing more than a shrill political screed, with homosexuals thrown in for a bit of novelty, and it is nothing short of terrifying that it should have been so well received by reviewers all over the world.

  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

    At last, we come to the motherlode, the book that answers the question: what would happen if someone with less than a fraction of Bram Stoker's literary talent tried to rewrite Dracula, and just for fun decided to expunge the story of anything resembling mystery, suspense, romance, and supernatural horror? The answer, unfortunately, is a $2M advance and several months on the NYT bestseller list, but there's a great deal more to my hatred of The Historian than just a kneejerk reaction to its popularity. While the book's length--over 650 pages--is a problem, The Historian's failures are systemic, not structural. Kostova writes well but with no emotion, and her descriptions read like travel brochures. She tells her story through the eyes of half a dozen characters, all of whom speak in the same voice, none of whom are even remotely interesting or convincing as human beings. The plot makes little sense and requires some stunning leaps of faith--which I was unwilling to make, as Kostova had given me so little reason to care about her story. The Historian's success is the triumph of blandness--and a canny publicity campaign--over merit, and I can think of no greater insult than to say that if forced to choose, I would prefer to reread The Da Vinci Code than to delve back into Kostova's stultifying tome.
Dishonorable Mentions:


JP said...

I feel somewhat smug about the fact that I decided against picking up any of these books after glancing at the blurbs and the first chapters. Turns out I was right, or at least that you have similar dislikes.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed "The Doomsday Book". I'm curious about what you disliked so much about it?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I thought Doomsday Book read like two completely different books, sewn together in a very obvious way, ThursdayHaiku. Willis was obviously trying to leaven the darkness of her two parallel plague stories with a great deal of crass humor, but instead of meshing together the book ended up feeling bi-polar, neither one thing nor the other. Additionally, I found Willis' use of repetition as a literary device - the dozens of characters who have one track minds and can only talk and think about one thing - extraordinarily annoying and frustrating. I can see what Willis was trying to do with it, but she went too far and made my reading experience deeply unpleasant. That's not to mention that almost all of the characters were either annoying or completely flat, that the plot makes no sense and often hinges on the characters being blindingly stupid, and that the whole thing is about twice as long as it needs to be.

I probably would have put Doomsday Book on my year's worst list if it hadn't been for the book's final third, in which the tragic and comedic elements finally start working with, rather than against, each other. I was able to get a glimpse of the book Willis was trying to write - a meditation about faith, parenthood, catastrophe, and the things we do when we think nothing we do is going to matter - and there's no denying that the very ending is quite stirring (plus, by that point, nearly all of the annoying characters have died). It's those very glimpses of what Doomsday Book might have been, however, that cause it to be such a great disappointment.

ca said...

Abigail, your comment is interesting, because it's exactly what my fiance hated about Doomsday book (in particular, he didn't like the modern-flu-story). I liked the last third so much (and mostly skipped over the modern-story parts) that I loved the book, even though I agree with him to some extent.

I would be interested to see what you thought about _To Say Nothing of the Dog_, which fiance loves and I don't particularly like all that well. Or her short stories. I don't think much of the humorous ones (I don't think I have the same sense of humor as Willis), but I think the darker ones (e.g., "Chance," "Schwartzchild Radius") are very fine.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I liked To Say Nothing of the Dog well enough, ca - I thought it was pleasant and frothy and inoffensive. I think it works because, unlike Doomsday Book, Willis isn't trying to marry tragedy and comedy - the book is downright, unapologetically comedic.

The only other Willis I've read is Passage, which has all of Doomsday Book's weaknesses (cardboard characters, crass humor, repetition as a literary device, gigantic plot holes) with none of its strengths. I haven't read any of Willis' short fiction.

Anonymous said...

I was not as crushed by The Historian as you, but didn't much like it either.

Hated Doomsday Book too, mostly for the "blinding stupidity," which I saw mostly as an all-pervading dimness, as if they were characters in a screwball comedy which had somehow forgotten to be funny.

I think you and I may be the only people to have read that and not liked it. Likewise for Flann O'Brien.

However, I really liked Replay, found the hero's varying behavior totally believable, except for the time he spends living in the wilderness. If you want an isolated life, don't go out to the deep rural: you'll get to know your neighbors really well, and they you: you have to. An isolated life is much easier in the big city.

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