End of 2011 Reading Survey

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Best book I read in 2011: Can’t tell you yet. Will be revealed when I do my Top 10 Books I Read in 2011 countdown in a few weeks…

Most disappointing book I read in 2011? The worst book I read was easily Night Fall, but “disappointing” implies that I was expecting it to be good, which doesn’t apply to De Mille (I knew it was going to be garbage). The most disappointing book I read in 2011 was either The Surrendered, by Chang-rae Lee, or The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht. I had such high expectations for both of them. The Surrendered ended up being strangely dull, with a string of totally useless deaths, and The Tiger’s Wife was neither compelling nor whole. Both had bright moments, but neither were excellent.

Most surprising book of 2011? What the Living Do, poems by Marie Howe. Outrageously beautiful and heartbreaking. Also The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, which was upsetting and shocking and mind-bending. But great.

Book I recommended to people most in 2011? Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer’s narrative of the history of memory and how he went on to become the U.S. Memory Champion after a year of training. Our minds are more powerful than we think.

Best series I discovered in 2011? Dog training books by Patricia McConnell? Probably? Does that count?

Favorite new authors I discovered in 2011? Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Marie Howe.

Most thrilling, un-put-down-able book in 2011? Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson.

Book I most anticipated in 2011? Maybe The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides? But I still haven’t read it yet. I’m in position no. 1 out of 113 holds at the library, so I’m getting there! Finally.

Favorite cover of a book you read in 2011?

Here’s a few I liked:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell
The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht.
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Most memorable character in 2011? Ruth from Housekeeping or Patty Berglund from Freedom.

Book that had the greatest impact on me in 2011? Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

Book I can’t believe I waited until 2011 to finally read? The Divine Comedy (Dante) or Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh).

Book I read in 2011 that I’d be most likely to re-read in 2012? Housekeeping, or the poems of Marie Howe and Maxine Kumin.

Survey courtesy of Literary Musings.

How about you? Any memorable books that fit into your year of reading survey?

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?

In which my father gives me an “F”

Night Fall, by Nelson DeMille.

Back story: My Dad is always getting on me about being an incomparable literature snob. I am. I totally admit it. I’m always telling him that I wish he, a very smart man, would read smart literature, too. Instead, he sticks to the likes of Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton–and Nelson DeMille. So, he devised a challenge for me. We each had to present the other with a book of our choice to read as a challenge to broaden our literary horizons. I decided to make him read Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky) and he gave me Night Fall, by Nelson DeMille.

Our family-wide e-mail discussion on Night Fall follows.

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22 July 2011, 8:20 a.m.

FROM: Dad
TO: Me, Mom, Gran, Aunt Shelly, Kelsey, Grace, and Sam

There are now 4 of us who have read Nelson DeMille’s epic, sure to be a classic tale Nightfall.

In 100 years from now it will be taught as a single semester long course, mandatory requirement for all English Literature grad students.

Here is the course description:

Nightfall501.  A probing, in depth look into Mr. DeMille’s crowning literary achievement.  The student will dissect DeMille’s complicated allegorical content and real-life metaphorical observations during that tumultuous year (2001) where disasters, civil unrest and uncertainty were close to the hearts of all Americans.  Only DeMille can capture the spirit of the American society during this period..  What can you say about John Corey?  What can’t you say about John Corey?  This is a graduate level 5th or 6th year level course – not meant for the undergraduate student or lesser developed student, maturity-wise.

So the three of us love it and were left speechless after reading it.   One of us not so much.  Looking at the last sentence of the Nightfall501 course description I see why this is so:

… “ not meant for the undergraduate student or lesser developed student, maturity-wise.”    Abby Pratt (she is no longer a Farson because of her poopooing Nelson) lacks the mental dexterity and maturity to understand this book.  Don’t think less of her.  When she reaches literary maturity this book will blow her away.    Feel sad for Mrs. Pratt.  Pity her small, undeveloped pea brain.

JmF

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22 July 2011, 9:49 a.m.

FROM: Me
TO: Dad / CC: Gran, Mom, Aunt Shelly, Kelsey, Grace, Sam, and Guion

FINAL PAPER:
NIGHTFALL 501
“John Corey and the Role of Misogyny, Machismo, and Just Plain Awful Writing in Night Fall”

John Corey, the protagonist of Nelson DeMille’s novel Night Fall, barely deserves to be called a character. Rather, he is a walking stereotype of the worst form of American machismo. Corey does not act unless the action can be construed to make him look like a badass. He speaks in a repulsive stream of cheesy puns and arrogant claims about his prowess as a detective, his ability to kill anyone, and his unstoppable libido.

Corey is unbelievable as a human, and yet we feel that we have met him before. This is because DeMille has created Corey as a Frankenstein of Hollywood’s most exaggerated and absurd action heroes. Think of all of the worst, most predictable lines ever uttered from the likes of Nicolas Cage, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Keanu Reeves–and then imagine those lines in a book. They’re all coming out of Corey’s mouth–with no sign of stopping. The man is incapable of saying anything that is not a macho jab or a pompous play on words. Like most crazy people, Corey also likes to refer to himself in the third person. “John Corey wasn’t going to just stand there and let it happen,” and other patent absurdities like that pepper the novel, despite the fact that DeMille stupidly picked Corey as his narrator.

Corey is the least complex character in modern literature, and yet DeMille seems content to have him remain this way. As a stylist, DeMille writes with all the delicacy of a sledgehammer. He relies exclusively on “gotcha” puns for all of his characters and he does not develop them beyond a mere archetypal role.

Speaking of stereotypes, let’s consider Kate Mayfield. Mayfield is a thrilling example the gross misogyny that permeates so much of American pop culture today. Let’s ignore the fact that Corey calls her, his wife, by her full name throughout the novel. (“Kate Mayfield got out of the cab and walked towards me,” he says, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be calling one’s wife by her full name throughout a 500-page narrative.)

In short, Mayfield is every American man’s dream: She’s presumably smart, but more than that, she’s sexy and really just needs a big, strong man to solve all of her problems.

Mayfield seems like a nice person, despite the fact that she seems to cook only in “tiny teddies” and that her most impressive quality is her silky blonde hair and “amazing body.” Corey tells us that Mayfield is a great FBI agent, but we never get any evidence of that. Rather, we only see her crying softly on his shoulder when her womanly emotions get too much for her. Kate Mayfield is a convenient wife for John Corey to have. She’s sexy and she has the appearance of being smart and driven–even though she is actually incapable of accomplishing anything. In the end, she has to have her case solved by her strong, mule-headed, macho husband. She sounds like an independent woman, but Mayfield is just another wilting damsel in distress.

In conclusion, Nightfall is a brilliant example of what is wrong with most of popular culture today. We should be grateful to DeMille for giving us such a stirring example of the appalling machismo that motivates so many novels and films. For this, we should regard him with appreciation.

In short, I think Twilight would have been more bearable.

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22 July 2011, 10:11 a.m.

FROM: Dad
TO: Me / CC: Mom, Gran, Aunt Shelly, Kelsey, Grace, Sam, and Guion

OMG – this is the greatest email of all time!  I have tears in my eyes from reading this.  Priceless.  I am printing it out and hanging it on my office wall.

As the professor of Nightfall501 this is the kind of passion and drive I look for in my students.   Unfortunately, Abby Pratt is a retard.

Abby Pratt clearly read the book, but clearly didn’t understand a word of it.   Again the maturity (lack thereof), is evident in that the simple brilliance of the novel eludes her.

Ms. Pratt should stick to monosyllabic reads like Twilight or Old Yeller.   I suspect that her husband (Fine Arts emeritus – UVA 2012) wrote this FINAL PAPER for her.

I give Miss Pratt an F for the course.

John M. Farson

Prof. of Fine Literature and Good Things to Read

Oxford University

A 2001 Nelson DeMille Fellow

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Happy weekend!