It’s that time again. Hard to believe a year has passed since the last book list. I’m looking forward to sharing my 2015 Top Ten list, but first, you must suffer through the Deep Six list; those books I wish I could have weighted with an anchor and sent to the bottom of the sea to molder for all eternity.
You might be surprised by, you might even disagree – violently, perhaps – with the list I would consign to Davy Jones’ locker.
I’ve been the lone “thumbs-up” vote in the room when my book club voted (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel) and I have been the one fidgeting uncomfortably while others sang the praises of The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks. I have labored unsuccessfully to convince my husband to read something, anything, by Henry James and he labors, thus far without success, to convince me to read something, anything, about Greek Hoplite warfare. (It’s not happening, dear. Ever.)
Let’s get right to the sacrilege. I did not enjoy Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Go ahead. Pelt me with rotten fruit. This guy survived a fatwa. He is an astonishingly good writer. The book won the Booker Prize. Wait. It actually won the Booker of Bookers, the special prize awarded for the 40th anniversary of the Booker Prize.
Just one tiny muffled voice here, saying I didn’t especially enjoy it.
This is where I want you to fill in the blank: what is the book EVERYONE ELSE LOVED that you LOATHED? Come on. I know there is some heretic out there who thought Little Women was insipid or for whom Scarlett O’Hara got on your last nerve. Maybe, just maybe you don’t even like vampires! (High five!!!!)
But I digress. Here’s the thing about Rushdie. I thrilled at his prose. The profound: “Most of what matters in your life takes place in your absence.” and the ever-so-observant…”the hundred daily pin-pricks of family life”…
And the ultimate keeper: “People are like cats,” I told my son, “you can’t teach them anything.”
He sent me to the dictionary for the meaning of words like chambeli (jasmine), ordure (excrement), and tamasha (a grand show). I am especially grateful to Mr. Rushdie for the gift of ordure. Now I can say to my husband “Guess what, Soho left some ordure in the stairwell this morning.” Which sounds infinitely better than the words I have previously used to express our aging dog’s most recent trick.
It’s not that I hate magic realism. I am a big fan of Gabriel Garcìa Marquèz. There is just something…what…cynical, perhaps, about Midnight’s Children. Or maybe too smarty pants? I don’t know. I just didn’t love it. And at 536 pages, you’d better love it
It was by no means the worst book I read in 2015. No, not at all. That honor goes to London Fields by Martin Amis. Another heralded author. My note on this book was: such talent squalidly squandered (like the lives of his characters) in cynicism and misogyny. Hey, if cynicism and misogyny is your thing, this is the book for you!
Moving on. Burying myself deeper and deeper in sacrilege.The Children Act is the second book by beloved (by everyone but his ex-wife) author Ian McEwan that I didn’t love. Saturday was also a miss for me. But this is the author of the brilliant Atonement so he gets one pass, but not two. In The Children Act, McEwan channels his cranky atheism through his contrived character, Fiona, a family court judge who “had a powerful grip on what was conventionally correct.” What ensues is anything but conventional, including a kiss between the middle-aged Fiona and a 17-year-old boy that rang true for absolutely no one in my book group. Mostly, it is a dull screed about the ways in which religious beliefs (he conveniently chooses from the bottom of the barrel here to pad his cause) interfere with McEwan’s sensibilities and a running thread indulging his withering assessment of long-running marriages. One reviewer observes that “McEwan has said that he has ‘no patience whatsoever’ with religion”and that “in The Children Act…his exasperation comes close to being damagingly shrill.” Not to mention unlikeable characters and an unbelievable plot. Maybe McEwan needs to get some old-time religion.
Next up: The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Five hundred apologist pages (he was never accused of impropriety) of the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (real name of author Lewis Carroll) eschewing adult company for that of especially young children and taking pictures of them. Without their clothes on. Yes, he gave us the classic Alice books, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a creep.
Proving I can be culturally diverse in my antipathy (yes, I realize that I have heaped faint praise here mostly upon writers from across the Pond) I failed to thrill at Nobel Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Discreet Hero: A Novel. My tagline for it might read “Bad things happen to uninteresting people”. But it’s South American literature, you protest. I know, I know. Maybe I lost something in the translation, but for the enticing descriptions of Lima, Peru, this novel, loosely described as crime fiction, could have been set in Lima, Ohio. Didn’t work for me.
Lest you think I only have it in for male authors, we come to The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir by Vivian Gornick. Her writing chops are unquestionable – Gornick teaches writing at The New School and unworthy as I am, I would turn cartwheels to enroll in her class. There are some lovely, and even profound, vignettes in this book. It is a love letter to New York City by a master of prose. Except for…is it her giant ego that gets in the way? Or is it the little girl who could never grow out of being a daughter into a fully-realized woman? Her fraught relationship with her mother crowds these pages even though Gornick already lavished a previous memoir, Fierce Attachments, on the subject.
Number seven on the Deep Six list, and sacrilege of sacrilege, is my consignment of Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes: A Novel to the depths of the ocean floor. It was my first, and, if I have anything to say about it, last, Stephen King read. Here’s the thing. I found it well-written, compelling, and hard to put down. How can that lead to a bad review? It was so manipulatively evil that I read it compulsively just to be finished with it. Everyone reads for different reasons and if yours is to inhabit a world of mayhem, then this will absolutely be your cup of tea. (Unless, of course, you just want to tune in the evening news.) In my case, I’m still recovering from seeing those redrum twins from film The Shining back in 1980. It’s still too soon for me.