We all know that the literary interwebs are filled with gladhanding and arse-kissing – especially this time of year, the “best books of the year list-making time.” Every jerk has a blog (exhibit A: The Book Catapult) and a Twitter handle and a Tumblr and a Faceplace and an Instagram and uses those to expound upon the perceived virtues of books read. (OMG! You haven’t READ THAT??!! ITWASSOOOOOOGOOD!!!) This often feels to me like pandering for followers or “friends” or transparent hoping that the author or a publicist will notice your clever 140 and retweet.
“Do you think he noticed me?”
Remember the Slate piece that Jacob Silverman wrote last year where he called for more literary criticism and less vacuous “liking?” (See also, The Cultural Penumbra, August 2012) Consider this post to be in service of that request. Rather than only telling you about the books I’ve loved this year – because, every dummy does that, including me – here are a handful that I’ve read this calendar year that were… meh. Many of these had some hype behind them at pub date – maybe just some extra publisher cash behind them, for whatever reason, to try and shove them into the hands of more reviewers and, in turn, you and me. For the most part, it didn’t really work out. And interestingly enough, none of these books appear on the vaunted New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2013 list. So, maybe I’m not so far off here.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
Pessl’s second novel (after the “critically acclaimed,” but “Catapult Unfinished,” Special Topics in Calamity Physics) was just overwrought, overwritten, and very much over-hyped. David Ulin from the LA Times rightly said that it “hints at much but delivers little.” There’s a fascinating core to the story here – a mysterious, elusive film director, suspicious deaths & disappearances, pagan cults, and a whole dark internet devoted to uncovering the hidden truths to the director and his work. But the characters felt stiff and amateurishly drawn and much of the dialogue read like writing class 101 to me. And despite what some people might tell you, it wasn’t “spooky” or “creepy” or anything remotely like that. Harumph.
Transatlantic by Colum McCann
I had the hardest time staying awake while reading the first half of McCann’s latest – so I stuck that bookmark in at about 130 pages and walked away. I really like his stuff – Let the Great World Spin was one of the best books I’ve ever read – and I’m definitely curious to see how he links the three seemingly unrelated storylines of Transatlantic together, but dang! Imagonna need an adrenaline shot before attempting it again. It’s making me sleepy right now just thinking about it.
& Sons by David Gilbert
It pains me to have to include this here because I SO wanted to love this novel.
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js That might have been the last day I read any of that book. It’s currently sitting in a corner of my living room with editor David Ebershoff’s business card as a bookmark on page 206. The familial drama of & Sons might not be as angst-riddled as a Franzen novel, but it was more than I could handle at the time. Skillfully written, to be sure, but – and again, this reminds me of Freedom – I just didn’t care about the characters and their problems enough to continually escape my own reality for theirs.
A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr
Give it up, Phil. I love Bernie Gunther as much as the next guy and was super stoked when you brought him back in 2006, but enough’s enough. (Berlin Noir was the original trilogy & still the best of the bunch.) The running plotline for 1940’s private eye Bernie progressed through WWII and out the other side, to exile in South America and back for a clear resolution. But these last two books have been little wartime vignettes of Bernie, without any explanation as to why we’re no longer following a timeline. Feels like an authorial moneygrab or the completion of a book contract to me. This particular storyline felt so forced and stretched that I gave it up with 25 pages to go because the resolution was so clear 300 pages previously there was no point. Plus, Kerr was kind of douchy when I met him for the first time last winter. So there.
Return to Oakpine by Ron Carlson
A shocker, I know. My love of Mr. Carlson’s books is well documented on the Catapult, but this latest just didn’t hit it with me. Middle aged dudes (literally) getting the band back together. Oh hey, one of them is dying. Hmmm… skip. There were definitely flashes of Carlson brilliance – the man can turn a phrase like nobody’s bidness – but just not enough to keep it off this list. (Plus, what’s up with that cover? Those three guys look like they’re walking to Nicholas Sparks’ house.)
The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly
I know that it’s nearly an impossibility to follow an astoundingly great book like Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (#2 on the 2010 Catapult Notable list) with another of the same caliber and this indeed fell quite short. I think I was more disappointed by Tilted than anything – and NOT because Franklin co-wrote it with his wife, you haters out there. The tension ratchets up pretty good as the big ol’ 1927 Mississippi flood looms, but then things just fell flat. Predictable and flat. My first clue should’ve been the jacket copy that reads, “This is the story of a bootlegger and a federal agent – natural enemies who fall in love.” Serves me right, I guess.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Not scary. At all. And that’s all I really wanted.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
I think his legions of fans would get on their knees for Neil if he wrote the label on a soup can. Not this guy. I liked Ocean fine enough – it was kind of a spooky children’s story and a quick, fun read, but would’ve been truly great as a trimmed down short story. 192 pages for $25.99? C’mon, get out my face.
Lastly, this is a book that I’m currently slogging through (although, I think I’m callin’ it quits at this point) – The Martian by Andy Weir, which comes out in February 2014. Obviously, I picked this because of the cover. Bad. Ass. And it has a great premise: astronaut gets left behind on Mars when his crew thinks him dead, has to kill four years until the next mission arrives, can’t eat Mars dust, so… But I just don’t think the writing is all that good. Half the story is written in the form of a journal by the guy stuck on Mars – which is kind of hit or miss. (Lots of exclamation points!!) But some of the dialogue from people on Earth… holy shit. Two favorites:
Hanging up, he grinned at the map. “Mark, you sneaky, clever, son of a bitch!”
“Fuck,” Annie said, thoughtfully.
Watch out, JPatt.