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Capsule Reviews of Some Books I Don't Recommend

The shelves are full of bad books; why single these volumes out for criticism? The highly praised, smug, pretentious failure is far more annoying than the lowly Harlequin romance which purports to be nothing more than entertainment.

More interested in reviews of good books? In other spots there are reviews of good fiction, reviews of good non-fiction, reviews of biographies of scientists and capsule reviews of books about the Vietnam War. My favorite poetry is by James Dickey.

Classics I Hate

What was the point of Dubliners? Wasn't Lolita incredibly dull and hard to finish? Did anyone really find Turn of the Screw to be scary? I read only one page of Angela's Ashes and felt totally unenthusiastic about the very dated Catcher in the Rye. I don't understand what people see in Nadine Gordimer or Joyce Carol Oates either. Weren't the characters in Brideshead Revisited and The Good Soldier odiously self-absorbed and uninteresting?

Disagree with me? Fine, let's argue, but please don't bother to tell me that some work is worthwhile because famous critics have anointed it. Am I going to write a better novel? No, but my technical papers are pretty readable.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

The only reason to read the remarkably long-winded and scantily plotted Middlemarch is an interest in the history of the development of the English novel. I have no such interest. English majors should stop foisting boring tales of country life and protracted marriage negotiations on us general readers. Those who want a vivid and stirring account of 19th century life in Britain have a number of more appealing options than Eliot, notably her genuinely entertaining contemporaries Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Brown: the Last Discovery of America by Richard Rodriguez

The photo of Rodriguez on the front cover is a warning: Brown is not a collection of essays on U.S. race relations or even a meditation about American culture so much as it is a self-absorbed examination of the author's own history. The prose is by turns obtuse and incoherent. Here's a sample paragraph:

We cannot. We must be mistaken to live. We do notice, however, how oddly we are constructed, how oddly we are evolved. Hands. Lips. Birth canals. As are our implements. Things we pick up and put down. Gloves. Forceps. The way we must hold the guitar constructs the guitar. It stands to reason. We have only two hands. The guitar constructs music. Music constructs silence. (An Icelandic composer interviewed on the radio said silence constructs music.) Silence constructs hope or fear. Of ghosts or angels. Cubism is not for angels. For angels, as for Virginia Woolf, motive alone is manifest.

Rodriguez' preoccupation with unfashionable authors like Edith Wharton and D.H. Lawrence is dull, while his conflation of Richard Nixon and Benjamin Franklin is just plain wrong. Meanwhile we are treated to anecdotes about the migration of whales, the glamor of Peter O'Toole, the death from cancer of a woman named Lynn, and the significance of foghorns. So rambling and disconnected is Brown that I'm surprised that it doesn't come to us from a vanity press.

John Dollar by Marianne Wiggins

I read this book in about 1990, but I distinctly remember my reaction on reaching the end: I walked out to the dumpster and tossed it in. Usually I give books away after I finish them, but I really didn't want to subject any of my friends to John Dollar.

Certainly this novel is riveting, but I found the shock to be gratuitous. What is point of the children smearing on their flesh turds that are digested remnants of their parents? I got the impression from the mixed cast that the story was supposed to be some kind of parable about colonialism, but who cares?

Gut Symmetries by Jeannette Winterson

Jeannette Winterson sure can write. Gut Symmetries , like John Dollar, has a lot of lyrical charm in its first chapters. Then once again, the reader is subjected to disgusting scenes where one major character eats parts of another, who is still alive. Obviously cannibalism is the last taboo and daring young authors have resorted to its use in order to attract the attention of bored readers. Too bad for them all.

I also read Winterson's Sexing the Cherry and found it dreary and a bit dull. Obviously Winterson has a great novel in her, and I hope she writes it soon.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

I couldn't. Just couldn't.
Just couldn't stand the way this smarmysmarty book was written. Dee-dum.

Arundhati Roy certainly has a unique and recognizable style, and it's a very annoying one. The writing in The God of Small Things is tugging constantly at your sleeve, screaming, "Pay attention to me!" I give her credit for an artful depiction of how small children talk and think, but I can't bear to read another word of her prose. I've lost interest in what happens to Velutha and in how Sophie Mol died, despite the foreboding and foreshadowing that have been spread on with a trowel. For a good Subcontinental novel, read Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance instead.

Pay it Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde

The well-known premise of this novel sustains your interest as you struggle through pages of painfully clumsy writing. While the book is nominally about the "pay it forward" scheme for saving the world invented by a boy named Trevor, most of the verbiage focuses on the more conventional romance between Trevor's mother and his high school teacher. It doesn't help matters that this romance strains credulity as much as the success of the "pay it forward" scheme. In the second half the plot is completely predictable as the author labors towards the almost-happy ending. Pay it Forward is for feel-good fans only, which is too bad since the book's concept deserves a better novel.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner.

While the characterization of artist and mother Susan was vivid, that of husband and mining engineer Oliver is a bit sketchy. Presumably this asymmetry was intentional because the book was purported to be based on Susan's writings, but nonetheless I felt it hurt the book, if only because I found Susan to be so whiny and unsympathetic.

My main problem is with the ending. The incident that the whole book leads up to is glossed over and described in only a few pages! I'm speaking of course about the drowning of Susan and Oliver's daughter and their subsequent temporary breakup. Why no description of the years of their separation; did Susan write no letters then? What of her communication with her childhood friend; did they cease correspondence? I really was motivated to slog through the long descriptions of Susan's despair in various mining towns by the anticipation of reading about Susan and Oliver's eventual reconciliation and about the wisdom and maturity of her later years. Then the books effectively ends at the time of their breakup, leaving these questions unanswered.

Both Angle of Repose and The Spectator Bird left me pretty cold. I'm adding Stegner to the list of much-praised contemporary authors (Joyce Carol Oates, Nadine Gordimer, etc.) that don't appeal to me.

Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

This literary equivalent to watching the Three Stooges is the most overrated book of recent times. Evidently some readers are cracked up by the pratfalls of stupid and delusional people, but I'm just not one of them.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

I laughed out loud several times while reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and I neither chuckled nor smiled during the entirety of Confederacy of Dunces. In parts this book, a travelogue, is very funny. The bad news is that the humor, while refreshingly nasty, is also disturbingly condescending. German tourists are ridiculed. The Austrian Empire is found to be pitifully bourgeois. Croats and Serbs who live in rural areas are called "peasants," which I suspect to be anachronism even for 1941. (Or was the connotation different in England pre-war?) Repeated exclamations are made that there is an intellectual life in Croatia! as if anyone less snobbish than West might doubt it.

The Sotweed Factor by John Barth

I had the same problem with this book as with Confederacy of Dunces: I found the main character to be so unsympathetic and annoying as to have difficulty sustaining interest in the narrative. Interspersed with the tale of the twitly "Poet Laureate of Maryland" are purported excerpts from the journals of Captain John Smith, he of Pocahontas fame. The John Smith sections are hilariously irreverent, and they would be well worth reading if they were collected alone. Alas, I gave up on this book about 1/3 of the way through, although that was at a respectable 200 pages or so.

The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas

This novel contains elements of magical realism and is about weird sex and the Holocaust, making it sort of the Lincoln's Doctor's Dog of our time. While the book is well-written, the first hundred pages or so reads like a not particularly imaginative Penthouse Letter. The portrait of Sigmund Freud and early 20th century Vienna is interesting but it makes up only a small part. The overall impression I get is that Thomas is capable of writing worthwhile fiction, but that this book was aimed straight at the bestseller list.

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

Don't read this book; pick up Bruce Chatwin's wonderful Anatomy of Restlessness or The Songlines instead. Solnit has little to say that Chatwin didn't say earlier and better. To the extent that her book is original, it's about Rousseau and feminism, Wordsworth and leftist politics, not nomadic lifestyles or walking. Where Chatwin's style is soaring and poetic, Solnit's is mannered and cramped. Wanderlust is a big-time bore.

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