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Saturday, December 13, 2014

The 5 most disappointing books (I read) in 2014

And now for my most regretful post, the 5 most disappointing books (I read) during the year. These are not necessarily "bad" novels - who would willingly read a bad novel, anyway - but books that in my reading did not live up to the high expectations and hopes with which I enter into every time I engage w/ a work of fiction - whether based on pre-pub hype, seemingly smart and disinterested reviews, word of mouth, or, most often, my own positive experiences reading previous works by the author. Here they are, the disppointers:

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald.

She's one of those Anglo writers whose name keeps coming up, interesting life story - as chronicled in recent much-reviewed bio, the usual slew of nominations and prizes, and I think I even read and enjoyed her Booker winning novel, Offshore, many years ago. But the book always mentioned was (I think) her last, The Blue Flower, and James Wood in a NYer article called it an undisputed classic. I for one dispute that. The characters were opaque, the writing obscure, the pace glacial, and I just could never get up that much interest in the life story of a German Romantic poet who, in this novel, seemed like a moody and disturbed kid and not like a writer in chrysalis.

The Confidence Man, by Herman Melville.

A grad student's delight, no doubt, with its many obscurities and inconsistencies. Reading it as a grad student myself many years ago I saw it as a prefiguring of much then-contemporary literature: the Beats, Burroughs and his cut-up texts, Pynchon, et al. Re-reading it, or trying to, it seemed to me like mysterious puzzle not worth solving, a Rubik's cube of a book. You can see why Melville's writing career moved deeper into obscurity through his life, and it's great that his reputation is so high today and that he left us one fabulous novella that would be his last major published work (albeit posthumously), Billy Budd: Foretopman.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I usually concur with Kakatani but not on this one: I loved Tartt's The Secret History and have been waiting 20 years for her to rise to that level again, but this book, albeit lauded and rewarded with solid readership, went nowhere for me after the bone-in-the-throat opening, had way, way too much narration (rule # 1, show don't tell), and the plot made no sense on even cursory examination - and yes I know that Dickens et al filled their works with crazy coincidences and the like, but this work is meant to seem realistic at least on some level and just didn't: Example, narrator's foster family wants to keep him from news of the terrorist attack that killed his mother so they cancel their subscription to the NYT. Tha's a way to keep a contemporary high-school kid from learning about the major news event in his city!!

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Felt bad about this one - she's an RIer, after all - and also amazed: what a falling off was there! Here previous work is well regarded by all for her exquisite style and deft sense of characterization, but what happened here? The writing was flat and pedestrian throughout, the plot was creaky and labored, the behavior of the central character hard if not impossible to credit or believe on any level. Felt like a work she'd been working on for some time and finished out of obligation. Glad it's behind her and hoping for return to form; BTW, rare unanimity of our book group on this one, which surprised all of us.

The Patrick Melrose Novels, by Edward St..Aubyn

I know it's a little crazy to call this one of the disappointers in that I did read all 5 volumes (admittedly, they're short and I read I think 2 1/2 on a long plane flight), but after a terrific and sorrowful first volume in which we feel horror and pity at the abuse this poor child suffers and the lack of sympathy and interest from any of the adults in his life - where does this series of novels go? While we understand that PM could be ruined for life by the abuse, four volumes spent with an unlikable, self-pitying character and his drug-addiction and infidelity is pretty nearly unbearable, despite the caustic humor and the skewering of social class structure still extant in Britain.

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