In the past, this would be the easier of the two: best books or worst books. But as I’ve grown and matured as a reader, I tend to know (mostly) beforehand whether a book will sit well with me or not. That small percentage – the mostly – is where it gets tricky, as there are still titles I pick up with hope and positive expectation only to find myself slamming the cover shut after 50, 70, 90… pages. That’s my personal policy: “if a book isn’t worth it, don’t read it”. There are certainly enough titles out there that are worth it. So without further ado, here are my top three disappointments:
Get a Life by Nadine Gordimer
I have no problem with a difficult read… when it’s justified. I mean, I read Faulkner’s Sound and Fury (twice), and if that’s not a difficult book then I don’t know what is. But where Faulkner was experimenting with a style of writing (stream of consciousness) with multiple points of view, Gordimer seemed to be enamored by her own sophistication and ability of constructing high art sentences. So abstract that I needed to be reminded I was reading a piece of fiction occasionally by flipping to the back cover and rereading the summary of the book again, just to understand where I should be heading. For a book that’s only 185 pages, it took me twice as long as normal to read the first 50 pages; and when I realized I hardly grasped much of the story, it was time to call it quits.
Another problem I had with this book as with other titles by Gordimer, is the use of an extended hyphen to demarcate dialog – why this shift from standard convention? The mind is trained to unconsciously detect quotations for dialog and even when an author doesn’t wish to use any demarcations, as is common in some of the more modern writing styles, then the sequences of speech are so clear within the passage (even within a paragraph), that they really don’t need to be present. Not the case with Gordimer, where dialog and narrative feel like one and trying to distinguish them with extended hyphens only adds to the frustration.
The story is about a man who’s an ecologist in South Africa and is diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He begins to try and understand his life and the question of existence. It is a heavy-handed read and the protagonist is philosophically self-reflective. The book may be deep enough but unfortunately, it isn’t engaging enough.
The Island by Aldous Huxley
The Island is supposed to be a classic, granted – not the same status as A Brave New World, but nevertheless, one of Huxley’s more established works. So it was with anticipation that I began reading this book, after having read A Brave New World and having been taken by both the story and the author’s execution of it. 20 pages into the book, I realized this was no where near the excitement I had anticipated, 40 pages into the book and I realized how bored I was and I started doing something I rarely ever do when reading a novel – skipping lines. 60 pages into the book, I thought if the writing became any stiffer than this, I’d snap in two. Well, I persevered unto a hundred pages before quitting. The writing was dry and overly intellectual. At no point did I feel that the author was engaging me as a reader and taking me along on this journey. If anything, I’d think Huxley didn’t gave a damn where the reader stood. A shame, really, after being swooned by A Brave New World.
The story, what little I got of it, has to do with a journalist who is also engaged in a business deal against rivals for an oil deal in the unknown utopia called Pala. Huxley gives his vision of an island utopia and how foreign powers are suddenly interested in this new place because of its potential for oil. Naturally, the people and the leaders are divided between preserving tradition versus the desire for untold wealth from oil. Academically, with all its explanations and medical analogies, this book would make for a great essay or lecture; fictionally, though, Huxley has a long way to go to convince me of the narrative quality here and the overly insightful dialog.
The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
I mentioned earlier, in Reading Habits, my disappointment in this book. I simply couldn’t finish it and I don’t expect I will. Frankly, I’m still bewildered by how an author can have such talent to write an exquisite collection of short stories The Animal Crackers, and then muddle a novel like this. And then, even more remarkably, to see that this title was chosen by the Oprah Book Club… which only reinforces my lack of faith in such media-crazed promotional organizations. It’s a simple read, it’s supposed to be so and there’s nothing wrong with that. But its boring and lacks any real tension. A hundred pages into the book and I still don’t care about the protagonist; which is saying something, because the protagonist is a twelve-year-old orphan boy. Now, if an author can’t make me care about such a protagonist then what is there left to say?
The book begins with Ren, the orphan child, in a monastery and we see his early life there and how miserable he is. When he is finally “adopted” by his “older brother”, he can leave and begin an exciting journey to see life outside the monastery’s walls; and he can search for the truth of his origins. Each time Tinti has the opportunity to take the story a level deeper, she instead resolves the current crises, creating a flat character that reads in a flat story. It is the most linear book I have ever read: one obstacle, one solution, one obstacle, one solution… A shameful surprise because I know her writing prowess from Animal Crackers, and it would seem that this book is the antithesis of the other in every way.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t often have many disappointments because I usually just read what I like. So here are the remaining two tiles in brief: We Had it so Good by Linda Grant, honestly, I never thought a story could contain redundant story material and be published. This book would have probably done better with a more stringent editor. The short and snappy sentences also don’t work for a novel of this length that is trying to “illuminate” life. The other notable disappointment was Red Lightning by John Varley, a science fiction book that was extremely boring and also with a very linear plot. The characters are flat and their dialog is one massive info dump about the ruined Earth they see around them – a dreary read.