Worst books I read this year

I have a month to go in the year, yes, but I am pretty sure this list is solid. Here are the worst books I read in 2012, ranked in order of how much I hated them.

Swamplandia!

  1. Swamplandia!, Karen Russell
  2. Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward
  3. NW, Zadie Smith
  4. The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bola├▒o
  5. At Home, Bill Bryson
  6. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
  7. I Sailed with Magellan, Stuart Dybek
  8. Under the Net, Iris Murdoch
  9. Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri
  10. Doting, Henry Green
  11. Arcadia, Tom Stoppard
  12. Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
  13. Kitchen, Banana Yoshimoto
  14. Snow, Orhan Pamuk
  15. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein
  16. Amongst Women, John McGahern
  17. Madeleine Is Sleeping, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Madeleine is Sleeping

There are some much-beloved names on this list, I know, but I just have to be honest with you, faceless Internet readers. Wanna fight with me about some of these? I am up for it.

Otherwise, what were some of the worst books you read this past year?

A wolf in the house

She looks fat when she's laying down.
Yes?

A wolf in the house

“Isn’t it strange,” Guion said, looking at Pyrrha today, sprawled out on the kitchen floor, “that an animal THIS BIG lives in our house? With us?”

It is. It is also extremely delightful. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of her, slinking into another room, and think for a split-second, “We adopted a WOLF.” Albeit a very timid, sweet wolf. I love her a lot already. She has so much to learn and so many fears to conquer, but I have a lot of faith in her.

Breaking up with Jhumpa Lahiri

I’ve more or less regained some of my reading momentum. I just finished, for the second time, the thoroughly wonderful (and surprisingly funny) Madame Bovary, in Lydia Davis’ new translation. I started Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, and finished the very disappointing┬áUnaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest.

Here’s my beef with Lahiri: Lady, you write so well and you write so clearly. I gravitate toward your stories, because deep down, I really and truly love unexciting domestic narratives about relationships, dishes in the sink, and building ennui. (This is why Jonathan Franzen will always have my undying affection.) BUT. You keep reusing the same story, every time. I’ve now read all of your published work. It is a formula and it is so tedious and predictable: Bengali family immigrates to America; their children have tension with their traditional parents, because they want to be American; kids go to Ivy League colleges; kids fall in love with Americans; parents forbid it, try to arrange a marriage with a Bengali; kid marries American anyway; marriage disintegrates into boredom and unrequited longing for some vague thing. BLEH. It is narrow and it is dull. Over it.

The Practical One

I have a great, patient husband. Last night’s revelation: I want to be a dreamer, too, but I say that I can’t be, because I’m The Practical One. However, in reality, that title is just a disguise for what’s really lurking: Fear. I am practical because I am afraid of the unknown, afraid of risks, afraid of starting a brewery with my friends, afraid of quitting a job and becoming a dog trainer. And yet I am content. I like where I am. But is that a cover, too?

Book club and overrated writers

Courtney convinced me. I think I want to re-read and lead a discussion on Beloved for the October book club. She makes a good point that people generally only read it when they have to (e.g., in AP English Lit. in 11th grade or whatever), and it deserves far more attention than classroom reading. I think it’s a gorgeous, chilling book and it brings up so many difficult (and confusing!) issues. I’ve always thought of Morrison as a grittier, bloodier Woolf–the American Woolf, if you will–and so you can imagine my self-assured smile when I found out that she wrote her master’s thesis on Woolf and Faulkner. It shows: in the best of ways.

This was the most interesting thing I read today: Huffington Post writer Anis Shivani’s list of the 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers. And wow, he knows how to write where it hurts! But as the Guardian book blog points out, he isn’t just blindly slinging insults; these are carefully planned–if occasionally just mean!–take-downs. I was thrilled to see Michael Cunningham–soulless hack-author of The Hours, which I couldn’t have hated any more (ripping Woolf’s working title of Mrs. Dalloway and then trying to mimic her style and failing grotesquely at it)–on his list. And I know Guion was only too thrilled to see poets Billy Collins and Louise Gluck included.

I do, however, enjoy Junot Diaz and Jonathan Safran Foer, both of whom made Shivani’s hit list. Even though I really enjoyed Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I still couldn’t dismiss Shivani’s critiques of them. Of Foer, he writes, “Each of these writers has a gimmick, and gimmick after gimmick is what Foer excels at. Always quick to jump on to the bandwagon of the moment.” And of Diaz: “His manic voice describes everything with the same faux energy, the ear-shattering ghetto volume, as though there were no difference between murder and puking. Seems to work with a checklist as he designs his plots–the dictator Trujillo, the projects, drugs, family secrets, grandfather in prison, yep, everything checked off. Has no clue about the rhythm of language, just strings together discrete sentences until he has enough for a book.” Ouch. But, wow. If you’ve read Diaz and Foer, it’s all kind of true.

I reluctantly agree with his choice to include Jhumpa Lahiri; like Shivani, I think she is a good writer, but it’s almost as if she doesn’t want us to know that she is. And he’s also right about this: She doesn’t have to write anything except stories of privileged, disillusioned Indian/Bengali immigrants to America to get widely lauded. It gets old after a while.

My dilemma is that I still enjoy reading Foer, Diaz, and Lahiri’s novels. I think Shivani is making perfectly astute–if harsh–observations about them. And I guess someone has to call out the literati every so often. Shivani writes in his introduction:

If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded.

I’m particularly interested in what my fiction MFA friends–Angela and Rachel H.–think of this (as his intro piece somewhat denigrates creative writing program culture). As for everyone else, what do you think? Do you agree with his list? Anyone you would add to the list of overrated contemporary authors? Or defend?