Friday, December 18, 2009

Books I couldn’t finish

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:

[W]ith full respect for the complexity of this matter, as president, within the first two months of my first term, I will convene a national conference on the question of abortion. Held here in Kansas, the heart of the nation, televised nationally. It will not be a debate. Hate speeches will not be allowed. It will be a conference, with speakers representing each position given equal time. This will not satisfy everyone, I realize that. I think of it as—I stopped reading. Not only did Merullo fail to solve the most fundamental problem that faced him in suspending disbelief at the thought of Jesus as a presidential candidate. He succeeded in making Christ sound like any other politician.

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:    Markham pulled an eight-by-ten photograph from the briefcase and slid it across the table. . . . In the picture [a young woman] was sitting in a restaurant patio wearing a spaghetti-strap evening dress and holding a martini up to the camera.
    “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.
Maybe he should just get some help, I scribbled in the margin, and put the book down for good. So much for my plan to read every American 9/11 novel.

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.


Levi Stahl said...

Moretti's book is the only one I'd make a pitch for on this list: though I remember it being frequently maddening, I still remember things Moretti showed me about the structure of Our Mutual Friend, my favorite Dickens novel.

Levi Stahl said...

Oh, and I should contribute: I couldn't finish Stephen Elliott's The Adderall Diaries. I'll have to go home and look over my shelves to see what other books I put down midway.

Dwight said...

"He succeeded in making Christ sound like any other politician."

Sounds like he was trying to make a certain politician sound like Christ.

R/T said...

FYI from R.T.

D. G. Myers said...

Sounds like he was trying to make a certain politician sound like Christ.

Well, except that Merullo’s novel was released in August 2008, which probably means that he wrote the bulk of it before Obama’s emergence as a leading presidential contender.

Dwight said...

The comment was in jest because of the timing, but Merullo nailed what has recently passed for intelligence and gravitas in a politician lately. Although he may have meant it as a good thing and I definitely don’t.

DB said...

The Denver Bibliophile asks readers to name the neglected books of the decade.

KG said...

I find your reason for not reading Bel Canto strange in the context of your appreciation for Lolita, particularly considering that terrorists are sometimes more misguided than inherently evil. Could you explain further why the conflict with your values was insurmountable in one case and not the other? To my knowledge, both the terrorists and HH come to realize that what they have done is wrong.