The 10 worst books I’ve read this year

I make a top 10 list of the best books I read each year, but right now, all I can think about are all of the truly terrible books I have read this year. Even though it’s only the end of July, here’s my six-month glimpse at the worst books I read in 2011.

The Worst Books I’ve Read (So Far) in 2011

1. Night Fall, by Nelson DeMille

I don’t even have to tell you how completely terrible this book was, because I already did–in a totally absurd family e-mail chain. Really. The worst book I have read in so many years. I can’t think of a single nice thing to say about it.

2. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

Despite having a really cool name, Dashiell Hammett writes some of the cheesiest fiction I’ve ever read. No matter that he’s credited with having invented the American detective novel. The man can’t write worthwhile, complex fiction to save his life. Having to read–and finish–this novel for the church book club was painful. I wasn’t shy about how much I disliked it, either.

The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

3. The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

I was generally appalled by Thomas throughout this entire book. Even though a lot of people somehow love this book, I couldn’t stand it. She strikes me as one of the most irresponsible dog owners ever.

Dogged Pursuit, by Robert Rodi

4. Dogged Pursuit, by Robert Rodi

The most arrogant writer I’ve ever read, bar none. I wrote a fairly scathing review about his miserable attempt to force his anxiety-ridden sheltie to compete in agility here.

A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor

5. A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor

I really wanted to like this book. I love Southern literature, after all, and Francine Prose included this book on her list of Books to Be Read Immediately. Plus, Taylor was the writer in residence at UVA for many years. By all accounts, I should have liked it. But I really didn’t. The story is painfully dull and recounts the ambling lives of a stuffy, rich Tennessee family with a mania for preventing each other from marrying people. I’m astonished that it was awarded the Pulitzer. Books should never be this boring.

The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck

6. The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck

This novel is largely regarded as Steinbeck’s weakest work and I’d have to say I’d agree on that count. I’ve always enjoyed Steinbeck (East of Eden is one of my all-time favorite novels), but this book fell flat for me. I can’t even tell you what it’s about. I think it’s about a discontent family man who is trapped in a small town and keeps failing to make money, but even that’s a hazy memory. Overall, not worth picking up.

Why We Love the Dogs We Do, by Stanley Coren

7. Why We Love the Dogs We Do, by Stanley Coren

I’ve read a lot of Coren’s books about dogs and I generally enjoy them, but this one strikes me as a lot of sentimental hogwash about personality types and breeds. Coren is prone to generalization and peppering his prose with irrelevant anecdotes. I think some of it could be counted as true, but I found most of his fluffy theories of personality stereotyping to be suspect.

The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright

8. The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright

I didn’t hate this book, and I think I learned a lot from it, but I wasn’t hugely impressed by Wright’s scholarship. I think he makes some unfair generalizations, which is perhaps only expected, since he’s writing about God.

Le Divorce, by Diane Johnson

9. Le Divorce, by Diane Johnson

The cover (from the B-list movie adaptation starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts) should have been enough of a hint. But I trusted Francine Prose and I got let down again. (This book also appeared on her list, Books to Be Read Immediately.) I think Johnson is a skillful writer and I did enjoy parts of this book, but on the whole, I wasn’t sure what the point of the novel was. I don’t always think novels should have plots, but they should at least have points.

Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

10. Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

I hate to put this book on the list, because I truly love Willa Cather. However. Both of the book clubs that I’m in picked this book to read this year and I confess that I was dismayed. I’m a huge Cather fan, but I think that this is her least impressive novel. I’ve now read it 3.5 times and I still don’t like it any more than I did when I first picked it up. The priests, they are unrealistic; the whole narrative, it is dull. Willa Cather writes best about strong women making their way on the Great Plains, and this novel has no strong women and no Great Plains. Cather, I love you, but I think you should have stuck with what you did best.

How about you? What are the worst books you’ve read this year?

The Maltese Falcon and hyper-masculine novels

For the church classics book club, we’re reading Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon. I’m not a big fan. I actually roll my eyes at just about everything the protagonists do. For example, take this exchange:

She suddenly moved close to him on the settee and cried angrily: “Can I buy you with my body?”

Their faces were a few inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and he kissed her mouth roughly and contemptuously. Then he sat back and said: “I’ll think it over.” His face was hard and furious.

Or this one:

Spade’s arms went around her, holding her to him, muscles bulging his blue sleeves, a hand cradling her head, its fingers half lost among red hair, a hand moving groping fingers over her slim back. His eyes burned yellowly.

Um, barf. Most of the book sounds just like this, like it was written by an 11th-grade boy who is trying his hand at noir short stories.

Here we have the detective Sam Spade, 110% American male, fighting the dark forces with his cool masculinity. The dark forces, so far, happen to be embodied by a highly stereotyped man named Joel Cairo, who is usually just called “the Levantine” (had to look it up; old-fashioned term for someone from Israel, Lebanon, or Syria) and is just a prototypical image of the “Arab enemy.” It’s gross. And then we have Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the dame in the quotation above. You can pretty much guess that she’s always sexy and impulsive and pulling wads of cash out of her bra.

Some people like these kinds of novels. My dad, for instance, likes Ayn Rand and Clive Cussler. He’d probably like Dan Brown, too, if he had read him. It’s easy to see why Hollywood also likes these kinds of novels and is always adapting them into film; they read like run-of-the-mill screenplays. Authors like Rand, Cussler, Brown, and yes, Hammett, play into a formula in which one can simply plug in a number of variables–and then, poof! Bestselling novel. Add some grossly overused and stereotypical characters (uber-macho, dangerous man + voluptuous woman in need of rescue) and lots of guns, explosions, sex, and cliff-hanger moments and you’re golden.

Personally, I fundamentally reject the notion that literature can be crafted from such an easy set of variables. There’s a reason why Dashiell Hammett is remembered for basically inventing the detective novel genre, but there’s also a reason why no one remembers him as a great writer. The same goes for Ayn Rand, Clive Cussler, and Dan Brown. They write dramatic page-turners, but they don’t write great literature.

I kind of want someone to prove me wrong, though. Do you know of a novel that fits this general hyper-macho mold that is generally regarded as part of the literary canon? If so, why can it be included and not these others? Hemingway and Steinbeck come to mind as writers of hyper-masculine novels who are considered critical to the American canon. I think the differentiation between them and the crowd of thinly disguised screenwriters is that Hemingway and Steinbeck knew when to avoid a crippling stereotype and craft a deep, meaningful character. Any thoughts? Am I totally off-base in my utter disregard for this novel and those like it?