Wednesday 10 April 2019

My Top Ten Least Favourite Books

I started this blog to talk about the things I like, particularly literature and the eighteenth century. In general, I’m not a big fan of blogs and videos that only talk negatively but sometimes there are books even I don’t love. This is a time to look at those.

Generally, when I do dislike a book, I assume it's because of my own weaknesses as a reader or a miscommunication. Usually I can give them the benefit of the doubt. I can't with the following ten.

These books haven’t been discussed on this blog before (so no ‘Basilisk of St James’s' or 'The Fatal Tree'). I’ve also ranked them from least hated to most.

Montenegro by Lawrence Starling

Were I to read this again today, it’s probably not a book I would particularly hate but it is the first book I ever read where I objectively noticed that it wasn’t any good.

It tells the story of mild-mannered spy, Auberon Harwell, who is sent to Montenegro to assess the political situation just prior to the First World War. There’s argy-bargy with Serbs, Turks and Austrians, a two-pair of star-crossed lovers… I had to get these details from Goodreads because I remembered none of it.

As I remember it, the clean, strong-limbed, mild hero walks on the stage and announces, “Hello, I am the clean, strong-limbed, mild hero and I shall be testing my cleanliness, the strength of my limbs and my mildness through the machinations of the plot.” Then the machinations of the plot (whatever they were) occurs.

It’s stiff, it’s awkward and the only impact it had on me was the realisation that some books are bad.

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker

This book is 728 pages long and I read it in one sitting, powered through the sheer weight of verbiage by the force of my hatred for it.

To say there are 7 plots is a fair enough claim, we are creatures of pattern and certain patterns appeal to us. Claiming that each of these plots represents the psychological journey of growing up, overcoming ego and finding place in society, is also not a terrible notion. There have been many stranger and more objectionable ideas about what stories are and why they work. However, when Christopher Booker finds that he can’t find a single novel that properly fits his plots or properly exemplifies his theories - it may be time for those theories to be ditched.

Christopher Booker doesn’t do this. instead he concludes that all authors since the romantic movement have not been emotionally mature enough to fit his theory, so it must be the author's fault. A dead horse he flogs for over 700 pages.

But it gets worse. He decides to show how the last three-hundred years of literature have been too immature exemplify his great theory by summing various works up and saying how they fail - and this is where things get really ugly. A story can fail because a woman is the hero, because a love story is between men, because the man and woman don’t fall in love, or even because a female character shows any agency (her role is only as a prize to be won).

Imagine ‘Fiction and the Reading Public’ as told by Jordan Peterson and you’re halfway there.

That said, I couldn’t put this lower down my list as I had enormous fun hating this book.

Never the Bride by Paul Magrs

This one seems pretty innocuous compared to the last. It’s a quirky, cosy mystery about an old woman who runs a B&B in Whitby. She and her friend Effie investigate mysteries in the town that all have an odd, genre-novel, twist. 

The tone the book is trying to reach is a Douglas Adams-esque fun romp, full of crazy ideas and hilarious jokes but it does it in an extremely lacklustre way. There isn’t a plot as such, it’s more like a number of short stories squeezed together. The jokes almost always fall flat. Sometimes a book can feel a little unsteady at first but eventually the authorial voice comes together and you can rely on them to keep you on track for the rest of the book - this book never does that.

The authorial voice reminds me of one of those people who try and be funny by doing comedy catchphrases, or like an awkward uncle who doesn’t really know any children, trying to be fun for the nieces and nephews. It’s clumsy and sad and irritating.

The most irritating part about this book was Brenda’s mysterious backstory. She’s covered in scars, she takes different size shoes, she’s extremely strong, she’s…The Bride of Frankenstein. Oh-ho, how we failed to laugh!

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

This is a well written book that contains practically everything I dislike about twenty-first century novels.

The subject was about rich, miserable and intellectual sorts who are their own worst enemies, usually because of love - the same people three quarters of all modern British novels are about.

The narrative viewpoint is busy and confusing, there are a billion different narrative viewpoints some belonging to characters, some belonging to various plants and flora and some belonging to no-one. Even a bird narrates - and in an irritating bird-language.

Major events are hardly ever described but we constantly walk into rooms before or after a main event happens. These usually involve conversations about things we were never shown - and none of the dialogue is ever attributed.

Add to that, everything is painfully over-described to such an extent that all clarity is lost..and there are ellipses…so many bloody ellipses…hardly a sentence is finished.

Oh - and one of the characters is a professor of Eighteenth-Century literature and another is one of his students but they never think about any Eighteenth-Century writers, books or thoughts - they think about sodding Derrida instead.

But I trust Scarlett Thomas. I have very much enjoyed all her books since ‘Going Out’ and I understand that everything I hate about this book was a conscious choice - as such, I hope she next turns her attentions to ways of telling a story that I don’t find knuckle-gnawingly irritating

Umbrella by Will Self

My housemate's dog chewed this book to shreds and I wasn't even upset. I agree with the dog, the book needed an editor. It’s presented as a block of text without chapter or paragraph breaks. Speech isn’t marked and is never attributed. There’s italics sprinkled about the place. Point of view changes without any warning (one of my strongest dislikes) and the lack of formatting makes this even harder to swallow. I liked Will Self’s short story collection, ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’ but haven’t much liked anything else by him. All I can say, and this might be the biggest insult I can give, this is a book that might be liked by people who enjoy books for their individual sentences.

Bedlam: London and its Mad by Catherine Arnold

I could enjoy this book when it was compiling contemporary reports on Bedlam layout and architecture or when it was discussing the specific comings/goings and cheatings of its porters and governors but whenever it dealt with something I knew about, it was wrong.

There is a paragraph about Christopher Smart. That paragraph contains one thing about him that is completely false (that he ever went to Bedlam), one that was sloppily interpreted (that he was 'addicted to hartshorn' - it was the best relief for his asthma) and one thing that could be found on any internet quotation page (Samuel Johnson's verdict about being 'as leif' to pray with Kit Smart as anyone). There are a number of Kit Smart biographies in the bibliography of the book, I can only presume the author never read them.

I can also assume that Arnold never got beyond the first page of Burton's 'Anatomy of Melancholy' as it mainly discusses the woodcut there. Another book not properly (or at all) read was George Cheyne’s ‘The English Malady’ as it is said over and over in this book that the malady is ‘madness’. The notion that Europeans all thought the English to be mad was also backed up by the part in Hamlet where the Prince is sent to England because he is mad and so are all the English people. Aside from the fact that it wasn’t actually Danish people saying those things but an English writer, they are not referring to madness in general but melancholy in particular. It would not take much research (i.e reading the book) to discover that the ‘malady’ in ‘The English Malady’ is melancholy. It might also be interesting to note some ideas about why the English thought themselves so prone to melancholy, maybe a look into the fashion of melancholy or it’s supposed links to genius but… no.. that would involve reading the books in the bibliography.

Then there were the digressions seemingly put in to pad the book out. What need was there for three pages about witch trials in a book about the London mad? There never were any London witch trials and there were no witches locked up in Bedlam, not even anyone who thought they were such.

The book couldn’t even decide if it was about Bedlam, madness or London. It’s arranged scattershot as if whatever garbled notes from whatever Google-search were plonked willy-nilly. 

I have disagreed with historic works because of differences of interpretation, but never one that has made me put it down so many times because the facts were simply not researched enough

Lord of The Rings by JRR Tolkien

I’m sorry, I’m sorry and I’m not even going to justify myself.

I simply don’t think that cramming a book with invented languages and songs is very good world-building if all the characters bob about to the constraints of the plot like little stick-puppets.

Add to that, mountains that shake people off them, ‘true-king’ narratives and Tom Bombadil and I just can’t face the huge oceans of sludgy wordage that make up this trilogy.

Vernon God Little by D.B.C Pierre

It’s fucken awful, ‘nuff said.

The Good Book: A Humanist Bible by A.C Grayling

A great idea, a compendium of healthy secular thought using great writings from the general literature cannon. 

Initially it fails because the choices are by one man with a classical education. Even the actual Bible is the result of many voices, how a person feels they can construct a workable Holy Book replacement by themselves is ludicrous.

But what really ruins the book is it’s aspirations to be a Bible for the secularist age. 

It takes all the influences, strips them of all context, rephrases them in some of the ugliest cod-Biblical language I have ever heard and puts them in ‘books’, roughly analogous to the books of the Bible. The book sounds so ugly on the ear and so false. It’s the textual equivalent of one of those mid-thirties pubs that has perfectly straight beams in it and puts a sign up declaring it ‘ye olde’.

Even more tone-deaf is the fact that all the original thoughts are placed in the book, rephrased, without attribution or any textual support. The very point of secular humanism (as I thought) is a rejection of received wisdom, that all knowledge should be taken with providence and evidence if possible but that is impossible with this book.

A proper humanist Bible would probably look nothing like the Holy Bible. It would be the combined work of many minds, cover many subjects and be searchable with proper attributions. A number of these books have already been written, they are called Encyclopaedia.

The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser

Without a doubt 'The Hamilton Case' by Michelle De Kretser is my least favourite book I have ever read.

Slow, dull and so heavy on repetitive descriptions of foliage it's like cutting through a jungle to read it.

The main character is weak, dull and is completely reactive to everything around him.

The book shifts from first person to third to a different first person for no discernible reason.

The book is so engaged with its desire to be lush it forgets to be clear, there are some moments that despite reading them 9 or 10 times, I still couldn't work out what had happened.

Which doesn't matter, because there isn't anything like a plot in the book anyway.

The experience of reading this book was gruelling but I had to finish it for a course. It put me off reading for a month.

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