Friday, December 30, 2011

Books of '11: anti-recommendations

While it's important to recommend good books to each other, it may be more important that we save each other from bad books.  Tomorrow, I'll recommend two books that I really enjoyed this year, but today, I'm going to try to save you from wasting time on books that aren't worth reading.

Worst of the year: fiction

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin, 2009

First of all, who gives a rip about stories in a collection being linked?  This book falls into that rash currently afflicting literary fiction, the linked story collection.  As LitCritHulk tweeted: "HULK SMASH TREND OF HIP NOVELISTS WRITE 'LINKED' SHORT STORIES AND CALL IT NOVEL. YOU WANT WRITE SHORT STORIES, FINE. IT NOT A ####ING NOVEL"  The stories in this collection link together very tenuously with the names of some characters repeating.  They jump around in time so that we're to understand we're reading about a couple of generations of the same family, but the fact that one character is another character's son has so little bearing on a particular story that it doesn't matter.  I fail to see the point.  But that's not the big problem.  The big problem is that more than half of the stories in this collection have the same plot.  No joke.  One story in which a woman of modest means decides to "give herself" sexually to a financially successful older man only to have it end badly when he returns to the wife of his youth might have been interesting.  Six in a row can only be considered bizarre.  It's a shame because the stories at the back end of the collection when he sheds the single plot are actually pretty good.

Worst of the year: non-baseball non-fiction

Sex on the Moon, Ben Mezrich, 2011

I read at least one baseball book a year.  This isn't one of them, but it's one you might fall for - as I did - because of the hype.  Don't do it.  The most audacious heist in history?  Weeeeellllll.  I loved Mezrich's books about the MIT blackjack team, and I wanted to love this book.  The story is artfully told, which is nice, until you want to figure out how the thing actually went down.  That part of the book is the sketchiest.  It's difficult to read a book about someone being so deceitful.  I found it uncomfortable and a little stressful, like watching a cringe humor sitcom.  Also, the way he got caught seems so obvious in retrospect.  The book shows what happens to this person whose fantasies cloud his reality; a promising future gets lopped off really quickly through extremely bad judgment.  Woo hoo?  Not really.

Worst of the year: baseball non-fiction

The Code: Baseball's Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code, Ross Bernstein, 2008

Although this book was published in 2008, it started popping up various places in my environment in late 2010. The title and premise rock. The book...not so much. Start with the author bragging about the 30 sports books he's written in the last 20 years. That reminds me of a Pennsylvania winery I visited that produced 54 wines, none of them quite drinkable. The good Mr. Bernstein takes the volume approach. He also starts the book with three forewords by current or former baseball players. I love baseball and baseball players, but three forewords on the topic of the game's unwritten code by player types produce an unappealing drumbeat of repetition about respect and not throwing at guys' heads. It's not as if the book itself isn't littered with player quotes. Bernstein interviewed lots of people. While I admire his hard work, i wish he hadn't showed quite so much of it. The narrative, especially early on, is interrupted as much as five times on a page by block quotes in gray boxes. Obviously, players, managers and umpires have to be the source, but take a little more time and weave them into a narrative. Some of the block quotes are more than a page long. For good measure, he gives the last word to a player, block quoting Dave Winfield, saying something that doesn't really put a button on all that went before. I don't know if it's good or bad policy, but Bernstein saves his best stuff for last. The stuff about throwing at guys gets dull and goes on a long time. Summary: throw at guys when they "disrespect" you or a teammate or the game; don't throw at guys' heads. Second summary: throwing at a guy is easy, and it is really difficult. The stuff about bench-clearing brawls is better. Where he really shines, though, is in talking about stealing signs. The best part of that material, though, focuses less on the code and more on how signs work, which I, as a fan, didn't really know. I wanted more out of this book. Perhaps John Feinstein could rewrite it from Bernstein's notebook (which it felt like I was reading anyway) and come up with a worthy book.

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