Thursday, January 1, 2015

Books of '14: Anti-Recomendations

Because I have always preferred saving the best for last, I will start my annual book review summary with the books I hated.  While the pending recommendations post directs you dear readers to good books, this post serves a higher public purpose.  We are all too busy to read bad books.  I wish someone had warded me away from these.  Unfortunately, I learned a lesson the hard way this year: never trust my alumni magazine's book snippets.  Just because the author had the same impeccable taste in institutions as yours truly doesn't mean she or he can write.

Last year, I abandoned a book by a fellow Yalie, so I really should have learned my lesson.  This year, I found a book by a non-Yalie so demanding that I threw in the towel.  I only heard of Doris Lessing when she died at the end of 2013.  Early in 2014, I attempted to read her 600-plus page masterwork The Golden Notebook.  Alas, after I had it from the library so long that I had to return it, I couldn't muster the guts to go back.  The plot at times compelled me, but the story was dense and paced for another time.  An early look at feminism in literature, it was clearly an important milestone.  From the lack of popular success Doris Lessing had, though, this book clearly didn't succeed in the '60s either.   RIP, Ms. Lessing.  I will never know completely what the hype was about. 

In short, I'm a book snob, so I can't bear to waste my time on trash literature.  On the other hand, as intellectuals go, I'm pretty lightweight, so I fold in the face of serious demands.

Worst of the Year: Fiction

A tie.

Follow Her Home, Steph Cha, 2013

Steph Cha graduated from Yale Law School and, as such, got her first novel reviewed in the Yale Alumni Magazine.  She loves Raymond Chandler's novels, and she refers incessantly to him and to his detective hero Philip Marlowe.  I probably shouldn't even review her book without knowing more about Chandler's novels.  I know that LA Noir is a thing, and this is a self-consciously noir novel.  An interesting twist is that Cha, a Korean-American woman, incorporates Korean-American women into her plot as more than femmes fatales or victims.  They play integral roles, including the amateur sleuth protagonist, and relate to others as sisters, daughters, mothers, friends and lovers.  But back to whether I should review a noir debut with little knowledge of the genre.  To my eye untrained by the genre, this book is ridiculously overwritten.  Sentences are jammed with texture.  No simple verb is used when a more descriptive one can be substituted.  This is clearly part of a style tradition into which Cha is determined to fit, but it can make the reader feel starved for air.  An example pulled relatively at random:  "Her long, dark eyes squinted as her wide red mouth gaped with silver laughter.  Loose curls dyed a toasted honey brown fell past her shoulders, ends trembling on a modest bosom.  She crinkled a nose that could hide behind a penny.  One crooked incisor poked just a couple millimeters ahead of her front teeth - this would be her moneymaker, the Cheshire detail, the bite mark in your memory."  Oh and the (apparently Chandleresque but reachingly so) similes:  "My tongue felt like a dead oyster in my mouth and my voice passed through the thick sieve of air around my ears like piano music smothered by a stuck pedal."  It's a mystery, and it's gripping.  I read it at the beach and despite its overwritten nature, I had no hope of putting it down.  Cha structures two loosely interwoven plots that keep a reader in suspense effectively.  But it's a guilty pleasure; I'm not proud to record that I read it.  One interesting note about the library copy I read: it had a child's crayon scribbles in the front and back endpapers and at random throughout the pages.  Child's scribbles felt very incongruous with the dark and violent noir world Cha creates and hopes to join in this novel. 

Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline, 2013

I read about this novel in the Yale Alumni Magazine Orphan Train was better than Follow her Home by a scoonch but was awfully predictable.  The orphan train was a real thing, in which 200,000 city kids (mostly New York City, or kids who ended up there) were shipped to the midwest between 1854 and 1929 to farm and shop families that needed an extra hand.  Baker Kline writes the story of one of those orphans, unfolding it through a budding relationship to a modern day foster kid.  Their paths inevitably cross.  Zzzzzz.  Baker Kline's sentences are fine, and that's not a given in a novel as evidenced by Steph Cha's.  Baker Kline's chapters, however, fail to surprise.

Worst of the Year: Non-Fiction

The Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam, 1981

Bill Simmons calls this one of the best sports books of all time, so I felt I had to read it. 
Because I like Simmons, Halberstam and the NBA, it pains me to say I didn't like it.  Although Halberstam did an incredibly exhaustive research job, authors have learned in the last 33 years what stays in the notebook and what makes it to the book.  The print and margins are very small, and the narrative is super-dense.  Halberstam may have established the modern sports book with Breaks of the Game.  

Oh yeah, it's about the Portland Trailblazers 1979-80 season, two years removed from their meteoric championship year.  Although he traveled with the team that year and covers that season in particular, a reporter only showed interested in that season because of the two that had gone before, in which Portland stormed to a championship and then stormed to 50-10 the next year before Bill Walton's feet betrayed him and the team.  So Halberstam covers those seasons as well as the transformation occurring in professional basketball throughout the 70s - the ABA, college basketball getting better TV coverage, the beginning of eye-popping salaries.  Of course, the salaries would not pop any eyes today; some of the "what's happened to this humble game?" stuff comes off as rather quaint from this distance.  He also reaches up and down the ranks of the organization from the owner to the execs to the scouts and coaches to the nascent union and the players' wives.  Halberstam worked his butt off for this book, and I learned things I didn't know and was sometimes gripped.  By the end, however, it felt like work to finish it.  I'm glad I did, but I can't in good conscience recommend it to anyone who's not a hoops junkie goner. 

Also Not Recommended

I don't want to bore you, but I do want to save you disappointment.  Ask in the comments if you want to know more about why I disliked these titles.
Straight Man, Richard Russo, 1997  
The Gods of Guilt, Michael Connelly, 2013
The Spies of Warsaw, Alan Furst, 2008

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