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?

Tell me something I don’t already know

Source: Content in a Cottage

Like most people, I love reading things that tell me what I want to hear. I love blabbing to people about “this great article I just read” that bolsters what I already believe about politics, food, religion, or dog training. It’s obnoxious. But, simply, it’s gratifying to see someone else espouse your deeply held convictions out on the great plains of cyberspace. This is why I loved reading the hilarious memoir-like piece about a nightmarish trip to Disney World by John Jeremiah Sullivan in the New York Times Magazine last week, “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!” One of my principal beliefs is that Disney World is a materialistic swamp of America’s lowest common denominators and one of my top life goals is to never go there. Sullivan’s article simply reinforced this conviction.

As enjoyable as it was to read that essay and others like it, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not good for my brain–or my spirit–to read only things that I already believe. Sue Halpern’s article in the New York Review of Books, “Mind Control and the Internet,” helped bring me around to this moment of enlightenment. Halpern’s article is a terrifying one. In it, she explains how, right now, Google and Amazon are creating a detailed profile of you and figuring out just what it is that you want to hear, read, and buy. Through complex algorithms, which I do not understand, Google also tailors your search results and your e-mail ads to your interests, a fact which most people now recognize. As soon as you start telling your friends that you’re engaged via e-mail, you start seeing all of these weird “discount wedding jewelry” ads pop up.

We’ve come to placidly accept the fact that Google is watching us. While this Big Brother factor is creepy enough on its own, Halpern’s article posits that the more insidious consequence of being profiled by Google is the fact that we are sheltering ourselves from the marketplace of ideas. The Internet is becoming less democratic. Google figures out what you want to hear and it keeps telling you those things. As Halpern suggests,

a search for proof about climate change will turn up different results for an environmental activist than it would for an oil company executive and, one assumes, a different result for a person whom the algorithm understands to be a Democrat than for one it supposes to be a Republican. (One need not declare a party affiliation per se—the algorithm will prise this out.) In this way, the Internet, which isn’t the press, but often functions like the press by disseminating news and information, begins to cut us off from dissenting opinion and conflicting points of view, all the while seeming to be neutral and objective and unencumbered by the kind of bias inherent in, and embraced by, say, the The Weekly Standard or The Nation.

This is scary to me. It is also scary for the American public sphere as a whole, which seems to get more polarized every day. FOX News is proof enough that we can no longer bear to listen to opinions that differ from our own. I think that’s a very dangerous state for any supposedly democratic nation to be in.

I think back to my mom and the free-spirited way in which she gave us kids access to information. She turned me loose in the library as soon as I could read. Unlike most of her conservative, homeschooling peers, she never censored my reading habits. She even taught us about evolution, God forbid! I read everything I could get my hands on. I will always remember my mom’s quiet and humble defense to the other moms who were appalled at what she was letting her innocent daughters read. “If we think we know the truth,” she would say, “why are we so afraid of untruth?”

Her defense is more applicable to those Christians who were afraid that their children would lose faith in God if they saw proof that seven-day creationism wasn’t true. And yet I think I see it in myself today. What am I so afraid of? It is far more fun to read things that tell me what I already believe. But it is better for me, as a thinking, developing human, to encounter some disagreement, some divergent opinions. To understand why, for instance, some people actually and sincerely love Disney World.  I’ll never know unless I start reading.

This is a roundabout and self-important way to tell you that I’m trying to read more nonfiction. Courtney asked me about what nonfiction I was reading lately and I realized that I’d only been reading dog books. It’s time to challenge the brain, AFP. So I just started The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, in which Wright argues that God has been evolving with the human race and is only getting nicer over time. It’s interesting, for sure. I also write to ask you for nonfiction recommendations to add to my already burgeoning list. Anything important I should read that I also might fundamentally disagree with? And no, Twilight does not count.