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?

What I’ve read recently

Brief thoughts on what I’ve been reading lately…

Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz.

Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz. It’s a rare event when the New York Times reviews a dog book, but they did when Inside of a Dog came out in 2009. Horowitz studies and teaches animal cognition at Barnard College, Columbia University. This is a delightful and very well-written account of the various behavioral and anatomical things she’s learned about dogs. I loved it, of course, and would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in dogs. I wrote a more complete review of the book here.

Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark

Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark. In an effort to prevent myself from buying any more books, I have been trying to read through all of the books on my shelves that I haven’t read yet. Memento Mori was one of them. I think I bought it at a library book sale for 25 cents and it’s been sitting on my shelves for years, untouched, unremembered. I was not very impressed with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, despite all the hype around it, so I was hesitant to attempt another Muriel Spark novel. But I liked this a lot more than Jean Brodie. Memento Mori tells the story of a circle of elderly British friends and acquaintances who are haunted by an anonymous caller who tells them, “Remember you must die.” As the mystery unfolds, these witty, well-imagined senior citizens are forced to reexamine their lives and their buried scandals. Occasionally funny and touching, Memento Mori is not a great book, but it is a very good one.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. Egan cast doubt on my theory about women writers by winning this year’s Pulitzer Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad. I think many people were surprised that it beat out Freedom. Freedom, after all, just looks like a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel: It’s very thick, daunting, and a family epic in the model of a modern Tolstoy. A Visit from the Goon Squad is surprisingly slim and enjoyable. Who knew Pulitzers were so fun to read? With wit and delicacy, Egan channels thirteen interconnected characters over the course of a few decades. By the end of the novel, I was fully convinced that she deserves every ounce of praise she’s been receiving.

The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright

The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright. I am trying to learn more things and so I’ve decided that I need to read more nonfiction–particularly nonfiction that I might not necessarily agree with or know anything about. During my senior year at UNC, I was an intern at the University of North Carolina Press. One of the editors there asked me to work on a project in which I had to scour all of the top literary publications (the New Yorker, NYT, New York Review of Books, Harper’s, the Atlantic, etc.) for their lists of the best nonfiction books over the past 10 years. This sounds like a daunting task, but I loved it, because by the end, I had culled a highly recommended reading list. The Evolution of God was one of those books from that list. It was shortlisted for the Pulitzer when it came out in 2009 and there was a lot of hype surrounding it. Wright’s argument is that God, like humanity, has been evolving over time and essentially getting “better,” or more tolerant and humane. While I don’t necessarily buy his whole argument, he did make a lot of points that I think are really relevant to consider. Even though it’s clear that he’s not a fan of God in general, I appreciated his caveat at the end of the book, in which he discounts many frothing neo-atheists for jumping on the “anti-God” bandwagon. All in all, interesting. And very long. Wright is prone to generalize, but I guess when you’re talking about God, what else can you do?

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. Lulu, one of Guion’s MFA colleagues, suggested that we read this book together and I’m so glad she did. We met last Thursday to discuss it at The Local. I had never read any Stegner before this but had always heard him mentioned with appreciation and fondness. Crossing to Safety is apparently regarded as one of his best novels and, interestingly, it was his last (published in 1987). In it, Stegner tells the semi-autobiographical story of the love between two academic couples in Madison, Wisconsin, and later, around the country. He accomplishes something with this novel that I have always wanted to accomplish myself: To write a truly great novel about “ordinary” people. It is a novel without your standard fare of infidelity, addiction, divorce, or melodrama–and yet it is a novel full of life. I loved it. I hope to read more Stegner soon.

A Summons to Memphis, Peter Taylor

A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor. I’m reading this now for the next “Christ Church Classics” book club discussion. Taylor was a professor of literature here at UVA, and so his name is occasionally circulated in cultural conversations. I was looking forward to reading this book, because it makes an appearance on Francine Prose’s list, Books to Be Read Immediately, which I have been trying to complete for a few years now. I’m a big fan of Southern literature, but I haven’t been very impressed by A Summons to Memphis. As far as I can tell, it’s a nice, inoffensive story about one family’s mania for preventing each other’s marriages. Not especially interesting, which is somewhat surprising, considering that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. I haven’t finished it yet, but from where I stand now, I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone.

Right now, I’m reading Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, and really enjoying it. I may talk about it later, once I’ve finished.

What are you reading? Anything you’d recommend?

Are women artists inferior to men artists?

Virginia Woolf Smiling? Surely not…
Woolf has a thing or two to say about this. Just look at that smirk.

Today I read a long and interesting piece by my favorite book critic, Francine Prose. The essay, entitled “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?” was published in Harper’s back in June 1998. You’d think it was written today, because the problem Prose addresses–the lack of skilled women writers getting critical attention–is no better today than it was in 1998. (For purely graphical proof, take a look at the pie charts published by VIDA on the dispersion of male-to-female writers in top literary magazines.)

Of course, this topic interests me. Heck, I once wrote 120 pages about Woolf’s thoughts on women artists and the struggles they face. Francine Prose, in 1998, is merely writing shades of what Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929. Is there such a thing as writing “like a woman” or writing “like a man”? Why do people take men’s fiction more seriously than women’s fiction? Is it because women actually aren’t as skilled as men are?

As Prose points out, serious readers and serious consumers of art would never say that women artists are inferior to men artists. We should judge art by time-honored standards of value, skill, and beauty–not by the sex of its creator. But what if there is an unconscious and disguised sex bias against women artists? Prose gives plenty of examples of this (and some of them are not so unconscious and disguised. You’re appalling, Norman Mailer), but I’ll give some personal anecdotes to support this hypothesis.

Take, for example, my ex-boyfriend. He was a very serious reader and very intelligent; I respected his opinion on art. He was a classics and philosophy major; he read “real” books–and he did appreciate books by great female writers. (Flannery O’Connor, whom Prose uses as an example of stereotypically “masculine” prose in her essay, was one of his favorites.) But I noticed a distinct gender preference in his music taste. I realized early on that he didn’t listen to any female musicians. He never said anything against women musicians or bands fronted by women; he just stayed away from them entirely. This bothered me, but I never had any grounds to mention it to him. When I started hanging out with my husband, I was instantly interested by the fact that he talked about a lot of women musicians–Joanna Newsom, Bjork, Tori Amos, St. Vincent, Ani diFranco–and he didn’t just talk about them; he actually respected them as lyricists and musicians.

It’s not impossible for men to like women artists; many men do. But why does this bias persist? Prose quotes novelist Diane Johnson’s hypothesis on the issue:

Diane Johnson — herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy — observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.”

It’s an interesting suggestion–that men aren’t cultured to appreciate or decipher language that’s traditionally relegated to women. I feel like I can resonate with this depiction. I read your typical fare of princess books, Little House on the Prairie, and Nancy Drew, but I also read Johnny Tremain, The Bronze Bow, Encyclopedia Brown, and the Narnia books (interestingly, those first two “boy” books were written by women). It was somehow improper or undignified for a boy to read Little House on the Prairie or other “girls'” books. And yet girls were encouraged and even expected to read books across the gender categories.

This point was impressed upon me a few months ago. I served as a judge for a city-wide short story contest for middle-school girls. As I read through the dozens of submissions, I was surprised by how many girls wrote stories from the perspective of boys. Of the 70 submissions I read, there were at least 30 of them that were written from the vantage point of boys. I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find any middle school boys who were writing stories from a girl’s point of view of girls; the very idea seems ridiculous.

Why is this? This implicit understanding that boys should read boy books, but girls can read both? If anything, it’s far more of an injustice to boys. Because then they grow up to be men who blanch at the thought of reading anything that wasn’t written by Clive Cussler.

I don’t know any men who like Woolf, for example. (With the exception of my freshman-year English professor, Marc Cohen, who introduced me to the beauty and power of Woolf in the first place.) Woolf is intensely introspective, women-focused, and grounded primarily in the domestic realm. She writes about “feminine” things like wives, flowers, families, and mental illness. But does that mean she’s not as valuable a writer as Ernest Hemingway, who wrote about bulls and battlefields? Hardly. It’s worth noting that men write just as many superficial, cheap novels as women supposedly do. Let’s talk a little bit about Dashiell Hammett and his ilk, shall we?

And what should we say of Marcel Proust, who is just as intensely introspective, women-focused, and domestically centered as Woolf is? He seems to write “like a woman,” but no one dares question his merit or his additions to the Canon. People question Woolf’s contribution to literature all the time. That said, I am gratified by the rise of male artists writing about the mind and the domestic scene, like Jonathan Franzen, but maybe that’s still part of the problem. Franzen gets a lot more attention than his contemporary women writers who are doing the exact same thing. Prose is a huge fan of Deborah Eisenberg, one of Guion’s celebrated professors at UVA. Prose frequently references Eisenberg as an example of a woman writer who writes strong, “stereotypically ‘masculine'” stories and yet still fails to garner much critical attention.

So, what’s the deal? Prose ends her essay with the expected platitude that we cannot judge writers by their sexes; rather, there is good writing and there is bad writing. That is all. I felt a little disappointed. I wanted her to provide a solution to this appalling trajectory of the descent of critically acclaimed female novelists. But she was writing this in 1998. I can’t help but wonder if she feels dejected that, in 2011, we still seem to think that women artists aren’t as deserving of attention, merit, or praise as men artists. (Update: It seems that she is dejected, per her response to V.S. Naipaul’s statement that “no woman is my equal.”)

Clearly, an “affirmative action”-type program is not what we need. Women artists ought not to be unfairly elevated just because they are women. But how do we move ourselves beyond gender stereotypes in art? I guess that’s the unanswerable question. And so I am still frustrated. But at least I’m writing about it.