Monday, December 31, 2012

Books of '12: anti-recommendations

Before I get to the books I enjoyed this year, let me pause and warn you against some books I really didn't like for various reasons.

Worst of the year: novella

Train Dreams, Dennis Johnson, 2011

What is wrong with the short story form?  Why must all short fiction depend on magical events to drive the plot sooner or later?  I'd heard lots about Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, and right on the front cover, it says "Winner of the National Book Award".  But that's Johnson, not this book.  He won it in 2007 for Tree of Smoke.  This book starts out normal and interesting, the tale of a small life lived quietly in western Canada.  Then, for no apparent reason, late in the book turns to this dreamlike, magical plotting that just pissed me off.  Don't read it, unless you go in for that sort of thing.

Worst of the year: newspaper serial mystery

44 Scotland Street, Alexander McCall Smith, 2005

I got duped into reading this by one of those enticing publisher ads in the Atlantic.  It was actually for a later book in what developed into a series of "Scotland Street" novels.  This book actually started life being serialized in The Scotsman newspaper.  The introduction, explaining how that came to be and what the process was like, might be the most interesting part of the book.  Maybe I just don't "get" mystery novels, or maybe this is a bad one.  Maybe the form - short daily installments that had to move the story forward - makes for a terrible novel overall.  Maybe Alexander McCall Smith is a literary dilettante not worth my time.  Maybe it's a combination.  I hated this stupid book, and nobody anywhere should ever read it again.  It was full of plot cul-de-sacs not followed up upon and unlikeable characters, enlivened only by sitcom plot manipulation.  Blech. 

Worst of the year: memoir

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver, 2007

Ugh.  Barbara Kingsolver.  Having subscribed to a community-supported agriculture farm for over a decade, I was interested in Barabara Kingsolver's family's experiment with eating locally-grown food for a year.  I borrowed this book from my boss a long time ago and had not managed to read it.  Maybe it's because I knew that Barbara Kingsolver - so popular with some - would drive me absolutely bats.  I remembered that my boss finished this book angry and confused that she'd been told for years that organic dining would save us all.  Now, it turns out if it's organic but from far away, it might as well have been pesticidally factory farmed.  Kingsolver loves her own writing most of all and her personal virtues second best.  It's enough to make the reader puke.  I can see her finishing a sentence and then stepping back to admire it, polish it with a white cloth and then move on. An example: I'm glad I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I'd heard a lot about it, and it's interesting to learn what it takes to really eat locally even for just a year. But then I come upon this description of her daughter with clementines:

"No matter where I was in the house, that vividly resinous orangey scent woke up my nose whenever anyone peeled one in the kitchen. Lily hugged each one to her chest before undressing it as gently as a doll. Watching her do that as she sat cross-legged on the floor one morning in pink pajamas, with bliss lighting her cheeks, I thought: Lucky is the world, to receive this grateful child. Value is not made of money, but a tender balance of expectation and longing."

Too precious by half for the likes of me. And it gets in the way. Her sanctimony clouds the narrative and her worthy points.

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