Shelf Life: Last Place First.

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.

It happens.

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.


(image from


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.




About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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9 Responses to Shelf Life: Last Place First.

  1. Smiler says:

    I hated Midnight’s Children too. The first time. And didn’t finish it, even thought I’d gotten maybe two-thirds of the way through. Then Rushdie was chosen for an LT challenge and I had somehow obtained a gorgeously illustrated Folio Society edition of the book and I don’t know… a few years of separation and time to mull things over and reading more about partition and whatnot, and I must say I was rather enchanted with it when I revisited it last year. But that’s just me. Not saying you should, by any means.

    Haven’t read anything by Martin Amis yet, but will eventually tackle London Fields. I shall remember your feelings about it and will compare notes then.

    Recently, I could not stand Between the World and Me. I read somewhere some prominent reviewer say it was the book of the decade and possibly of the century, and I just couldn’t agree. I wrote a review about it on LT, if you’re curious to see the reasons of my dislike.

    Among other books that are usually well-liked, I couldn’t stand The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Again, a review exists if you want my reasons. In short, I found Chabon pompous. I’ll give him another chance however, now I’ve had a good long break.

    Can’t stand A Confederacy of Dunces. Just grossed me out from start to finish.

    I couldn’t wait to finish Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? Apt title.

    Generally love Neil Gaiman, but American Gods seemed endless. Didn’t help I listened to the “uncut” version. Eech.

    Didn’t like Little Women either, now I think of it, but that was close on 35 years ago in high school, so perhaps I ought to give it another chance.

    Still Alice basically helped me decide I never want to read anything else by this author. Still, I went to see the movie, but only because I wanted to watch Julianne Moore for 90 minutes or so, well knowing I’d hate the story. Not that anyone in their right mind would like the story of course considering it’s about losing a loved on to Alzheimer.

    I hated Fahrenheit 451 first time I read it, and then revisited it last year and it was among my favourites of the year. Timing is everything. Also familiarity sometimes breeds the opposite of contempt. Sometimes.

    There: that’s a top 10 of sorts. 🙂

    • polloplayer says:

      Gaiman is on my TBR list. I’m extremely wary of Confederacy. Life is too short. This is why Joyce and Proust remain in my distant future. The thought of doing Midnight’s Children again…ugh…although illustrations are tempting. I need to check into the Folio Society books. Thanks for this illuminating response!

      • Smiler says:

        My Gaiman recommendation for a first book would be The Graveyard Book. That’s the one I started with and was completely enchanted by. Be wary of Folio Society books. They are absolutely gorgeous, very expensive, and completely addictive!

      • polloplayer says:

        Wow you aren’t kidding about $$$ – I just went to the web site. Guess I will stick with my Penguin cloth covers for now…

      • Smiler says:

        You’re right, the Penguin cloth-bounds aren’t cheap, but they’re lovely and more reasonable if you actually care about not getting into debt. I only buy Folios when they’re on sale (which you have access to as a member) or second hand, or… because they enable large purchases with up to 10 monthly payments. It’s a bit of a disease actually. I actually put together what I found what a neat blog post about it a while back. Here’s the link, if you’re curious:

      • polloplayer says:

        Your bookshelf photos are beautiful! I’ve always said that money is no object if you’re buying books. For all the $$$ I spend on ebooks it would sure be nice to have something to show for the expenditure.

  2. dizzyguy says:

    Allow me to opine that truly bad books don’t really hurt anyone or cause any lasting problems. Its fairly easy to see they are no good and no time should be invested in them. The dangerous and wasteful books are the mediocre works; you keep reading them, hoping they will improve or thinking maybe you are missing something that you will soon figure out. Pretty good, and even good books have significant value in that they showcase and help identify the true masterpieces. This is due to the vast difference between good writing and truly sublime, great writing (for me, think Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Wharton, Cather, London, McCarthy, etc.)

  3. katherine says:

    I compare reading to meals. Sometimes I like junk food (a fun mystery but not going to linger in my mind) and sometimes I like a gourmet meal (words that move my soul.) And sometimes there are the books that you start and want to spit out. One should – the time/calories aren’t worth it. (I’m with Smiler – didn’t last long with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay even though it was so highly recommended.) Love the book reviews here 🙂

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