Everyone has a list of the best books he read during the year. The Amateur Reader compiles an idiosyncratic list of some book bloggers’ lists, while the New Yorker polled staff writers and recognizable names about their year’s reading. (Stephen King named Sarah Waters’s Little Stranger the best book of the year.) As far as I am aware, though, no one bothers to inventory the books he couldn’t finish—or the books he struggled through, and only because he had previously committed himself to reading them. But obsessive readers need to know which titles to avoid too.
After mocking the portentous symbol that gives the novel its title, for example, I felt duty-bound to read and review Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, a novel that stretches political grievance into one long purple patch. Rarely have my eyes dragged themselves across vaster wastes of empty language. Easily the worst book that I have read in five years.
After enjoying his autobiographical novel In Revere, in Those Days and awarding a thumbs-up to his political thriller Fidel’s Last Days, I was looking forward to Roland Merullo’s American Savior, a political satire in which Jesus Christ runs for president. There were some false steps at first, but Merullo’s prose was incisive and spirited, as usual. Then came the inevitable question about abortion. Jesus says that he has no position on it; it is right and wrong. When that satisfies no one, he announces:
For background reading to my Commentary essay on hipster Judaism, John Podhoretz recommended two books by the “original hipster”—the Jewish Buddhist (or Buddhist Jew) Roger Kamenetz. In the end, I didn’t use anything from either The Jew in the Lotus or Stalking Elijah, because I could not read more than two sentences in a row of Kamenetz’s wide-eyed summaries of religious ideas and history, which display all the critical skepticism of an undergraduate report, or his everything-is-beautiful accounts of the meetings between Jews and Buddhists—meetings that, as far as I can tell, accomplished about as much as the Copenhagen conference on climate change. What is worse, I made the mistake of taking one of the books to shul with me on a Saturday morning, and was reduced to listening to the Torah reading for diversion.
Jess Walter’s 9/11 novel The Zero was something I undertook in my longrange plan to read every American 9/11 novel. Police detective Brian Remy, assigned to escort VIP’s around Ground Zero, has gaps in his memory or a “crack in his mind—or whatever it was”—and Walter falls back on the device to jump his narrative from incident to incident. The device gets tiresome very soon:
“Gibson,” said Markham.
“You said martini. It’s not a martini. Onions instead of olives. . . .”
Had he said martini out loud?
“Yes, you did. But see, it’s a Gibson.” Markham pointed to the glass again. “You can just make out the cocktail onions. Here, you can see them better in this one. . . .”
He put the onion picture away and pointed again at the picture of the girl. “This is March Selios.”
Remy looked at the picture. Marge?
“No, March. Like the month.”
Remy bit his lip so no more words would sneak out.
These have now joined the other books that I have no intention of ever opening again: John Bayley’s Elegy for Iris (Alzheimer’s, details), Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto (I just can’t seem to work up any sympathy for hostage-taking terrorists), or Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel.