Five Surprisingly Bad Books
You Can't Win 'Em All
There are a lot of bad books out there. There are writers who have devoted their lives and the lives of publishers, editors, readers, and paper companies to the creation of vapid trash so terrible it serves no greater purpose then buoying the spirits of writers who can at least say, "Well, I'm doing better then that, maybe I can get published too." Which is good, you need that. But for reading.......not on my time. Life is too short to read serial mysteries featuring cats or knitting circles. There are just too many good books out there.
But from time to time I come across a bad book that kind of catches me off guard. Maybe it was recommended by a normally trustworthy friend, or appeared on a list or in an article one would put a lot of stock in. Sometimes you grow to count on certain authors to hit it out of the park. What ever the case disappointment is a part of life and inevitably you will pick up a book with the greatest of hopes only to have your dreams shattered. And whether you throw the book down in disgust or plow on to the bitter end there is much to be learned in discovering what you don't like and why you don't like it. So here are five little stink bombs that ruined my sunny afternoons:
1) This Much I know is True by Wally Lamb
This just wasn't a good book. It was of course featured on Oprah's Book Club, which I am loath to admit has highlighted some really good books, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, and so on. But she has had some so - so selections and this Wally Lamb pick was pretty bad. She had another book by Lamb, She's Come Undone which was not a good book either beyond the fact that it seems like it was written by a woman, as it is about a woman, and that is rare for a male author to pull off. Anyway, you have to give the man some credit for This Much I Know is True, it is a huge book and has a lot of characters which he manages to keep track of, has a viable thread that holds together huge jumps in time and various perspectives of the narrative, and it tells a coherent story. Many people can't even pull that off. But I found the story unpleasant, I didn't like the main character at all, but I didn't feel any hate for him, so it was just a mild disgust, which doesn't sit well for 900 pages. I thought the writing was shallow and convoluted. I found it flat. I was glad to be done with it and walked away from it grumbling.
2) Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
I thought about whether or not to put this on, not because I wasn't surprised by how much I hated it ( I was), but because I've grown embarrassed by my lack of enthusiasm for this book. Too begin with, I got this book for my 25th birthday from a good friend. He had not read it however, but heard it was good (he's not a big reader anyway, and this was a bible sized tome). I tried to read it that summer and gave up three times! I couldn't get more then a hundred pages in. It was bad. I wasn't too concerned until three successive events. The first was an interview with Pynchon I read in some literary magazine, extolling the man to the heavens and proclaiming him to be writing on a higher level then most. Well I didn't like that, so I went back and read the monster. It was terrible, like a forced death march. I decided the aforementioned article was bull and was ready to move on when the next two occurrences took place. a) I found Gravity's Rainbow listed in a 100 books to read before you die, and b) I found Pynchon on a 25 greatest living authors list. I was really humbled, and have been apprehensive to divulge my inability to understand or enjoy that book. But I really hated it. It was muddled and vile, dense and completely unengaging. I thought it stunk.
3) Just After Sunset by Stephen King
I hate to put Steve on here because I have spent a lot of time talking him up to skeptics, especially in terms of the quality of his short stories, which is what makes this such a bitter disappointment. To begin with Stephen King has written some honestly great short stories, a handful of real gems, and a lot of good short stories, and in my opinion a couple of greatish novels ( The Stand, From A Buick 8, The Green Mile, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Different Seasons). And of course he has written a huge pile of kind of not good novels, and a couple of pure shit storms (Rose Madder, Duma Key, Cujo, Lisey's Story, Firestarter, Christine, Dead Zone). But the guy writes twenty four hours a day and publishes everything, so what can you do. I always try to defend his good stuff, because I think it's really good, and I always praise his short story collections, because they have been really worthwhile. But now he's shot me down at the knees with Just After Sunset, a new collection of short stories that really blows. There was not one stand out in the whole slew. To make matters worse (worse then paper thin characters and a clanking dues ex machina) he has started setting most of his stuff in Florida, and I hate Florida. I don't like anything about it. Maybe it's just my northeastern snobbery, but I think Florida is the pits. I like other southern places and I like the Midwest, and the northwest and so on, but Florida, like Arkansas, holds no glamor for me. I could really do without it, and apparently Steve is newly enchanted by the sunsets on the gulf and what not. Which is a dam shame as his affinity for writing about Maine has really warmed my heart over the years. He's getting old I guess.
4) Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen
I found this book at a fire sale at Marden's. Some bookstore in Boston had a fire and they sent boxes of sooty smokey books up to the Marden's brothers and it really made my day as I found some neat stuff there. I had heard of Isak Dinesen, aka Karen von Blixen-Finecke th Danish Baroness famous for her humiliating failed marriage and a bad case of syphilis (Featured heavily in Out of Africa) I thought some gothic tales by such an interesting character was a sure thing and I broke my cardinal rule about buying books I haven't read. So now I'm stuck with that terrible thing. It was bad. It was so heavily laden with overraught imagery and so heavy handed with the Victorian miasma that I couldn't get around what seemed to be a wall of gothic affectation. It rang false to me. There were a couple of vivid scenes but they were so burdened by the ridiculous language and the black hole of Dinesen's personality that you couldn't do much with them. I felt kind of bad for Karen Blixen in the end as it seems to me that she was a really miserable person.
5) Spindrift by Jan Bryant Bartell
This is a peculiar book. It is a bad book, but it has a strange ability to cling to you after reading. My mom had a copy that she had read initially back in the eighties and had reread it several times since then. I read it and thought it was weird and bad and have since reread it three more times. My Mom and I have discussed the book, which is a true (I guess...) account of this Jan Bartell's experience with a haunted townhouse in New York (but there are actually two buildings involved. It's complicated. Way too complicated in fact.), and we both agree it is a bad book. Hard to follow, unclear at times, Jan is a woman prone to hysteria and she never explains herself. An entire chapter of the book is devoted to her mental break down after finding a wrinkled raisin on her plate. Don't think too hard about it, it's a vortex. But oddly enough I have never forgotten this story. Adding to the mystery is the fact that Jan Bartell died at a very young age not long after finishing this book of what the Editor's Note ominously reports as "an apparent heart attack". The post script also notes that three typists hired to transcribe her work postmortem "fell gravely ill". I don't know. I can't explain it but I guarantee I will read Spindrift again, probably sooner rather then later, as I just can't shake the desire to make sense of it.
Well. Hopefully reviewing this list has made you consider your own worst reads and what they taught you about books and writing and life. I find it easier to identify the blunt force trauma of a bad book then trying to define the subtlety of great writing. Bad books have shown me a lot about the craft of writing and made me a better reader. If you have found your all time favorite book on this list (or you are from Florida) then maybe this Hub will show up on your worst list! Thanks for reading my hub and happy reading.
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