2015: Reading Fails

I’m at my parents’ house in America now, which I call home because it is convenient and feels true, even though I have at least three places to which I now refer as “home”. I arrived home on Thursday night, and so far have had a wonderful if busy few days, including some cider mulling and an expedition to get a tree. I want to keep the promise that I made to write a post about the less successful books of 2015, however–even though the comforts and delights of home make me think I could never write another post, and live a life instead of pure indolence–so here are the books that didn’t do it for me this year. Fortunately, there weren’t many!

z_feministIt’s always more depressing, I find, to be let down when you’re expecting great things. Perversely, one of the books I was most excited about at the beginning of the year, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, ended up being disappointing. It wasn’t a question of political difference; far from it; I just wanted more of Gay’s essays, both in the sense that I wanted a greater number of them and in the sense that I wanted the ones that did exist to contain more. They felt as though they were mostly skimming the surface of some really interesting issues–how so-called “low culture” can be more illuminating and innovative than supposed “high culture”; the intersections of race, class and gender–and I wanted them to be longer, to engage even more profoundly with the questions they were asking. I wanted footnotes, dammit! Footnotes! I filed the book under “give away”, and Gay under “pay attention to”, which was a good decision, I think.

The Baileys Prize shortlist was an interesting one this year; some of it Ibaileys-split agreed with, while some of it baffled me. A particular misfire was Laline Paull’s debut novel The Bees. You have to admire it on one level for its ambition, but Paull’s style is so unexceptional (and in places clunky), her characterization so perfunctory, and her plot so episodic, that I found it hard to understand how the book had managed to compete at all.  Other people I know absolutely loved it, but I have to confess it did little for me; I prefer my anthropomorphized-animal metaphors for dysfunctional political systems a little bit more Watership Down in roundedness and scope.

mkrknotyi7kslejmwxkaPerhaps the greatest failure of the year was Michel Faber’s new novel, The Book of Strange New Things. I gave it a fairly vituperative review on this blog, with the caveat that I hadn’t actually managed to finish it. After 150 pages, Faber’s apparent dedication to sickening stereotypes of predatory, self-satisfied evangelicals, and his equal apparent disinterest in doing any serious world-building for his alien race, had driven me to paroxysms of irritation so many times that it was not worth finishing. A great shame, but when there are literary sci-fi writers like China Mieville in the world, why waste your time?

51qghc5xadl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The next book that drove me mad came into my life a few months later, when I read and reviewed Soji Shimada’s murder mystery novel, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Apart from the fact that the murders themselves were gratuitously grisly, the novel’s tone and our narrator’s inexplicable insouciance made it clear that all the events were essentially the pieces of a logic puzzle. It’s not an approach that I find particularly interesting or enlightening–my own feeling is that the human motivations for murder are infinitely more fascinating than the logistical minutiae of crimes–and it felt especially distasteful because of how gory the details were, as though Shimada were being flippant about them. Not one for me, though I’m hopeful that another selection from Pushkin’s Vertigo imprint will prove a better match.

15836The final frustration of 2015 was the first book I chose to begin my Women’s Prize reading project: Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces. It embodied, I thought, the worst excesses of modern poetry–imprecision, woolliness, a tendency towards the vaguely portentous–translated into prose. Its odd reliance on the Holocaust without actually portraying any of the Holocaust’s horrors directly was also off-putting. Fortunately, I chalked it up to changing trends in literature since 1997, and it didn’t stop me from continuing to read through the Women’s Prize winners. Again, this has received mixed reviews from other people whose judgement is generally impeccable; it’s obviously a divider of opinion.

The most remarkable thing is that there have been so few bad books this year–I’ve benefited from becoming more a part of the amazing community of books bloggers, and from having the opportunity to sample books for free through publishers. It’s been a brilliant twelve months, and I’m absolutely thrilled for the beginning of 2016, when I’ll be reviewing such work as Helen Ellis’s American Housewife, Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, Sunil Yapa’s The Heart Is A Muscle the Size of A Fist, and Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh!, among others.

I’m trying to avoid the laptop as much as possible this holiday season, since I see my parents and brother so infrequently, so this may be the last you hear of me til the New Year. Have a very contented Christmas, and I’ll be back in January with my customary anti-resolutions post.

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And may this sentiment suffuse your festivities, as and when you want it to.

 

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15 thoughts on “2015: Reading Fails

  1. helstones says:

    I think you’re right about the scope of Bad Feminist, that it’s not the feminist bible that some people were making it out to be, but I think it’s wrong to put that onus all on one person. People ask a lot of Gay and put pressure on her to be the voice of marginalized feminists. It’s interesting to think about our expectations and how those intersect with Gay’s race and gender. She’s spoken before about the pressure to be academic or not academic, a good feminist or a bad one, a black woman talking to men or women, of color or not, etc. I wonder if the book suffers because of this. Her internet presence, as you know, is a fucking powerhouse of cleverness, humor, and baby elephants, so I’m sure there will be more collections and more to love.

    • Yeah, I think you’re right, and it’s partly the fault of marketing, partly of my own high and prejudiced expectations. Partly maybe even a problem of medium? (Because her Internet stuff is, as you say, very strong indeed.) I’m looking forward to her next collection, which is apparently coming out next year!

  2. I’ve tried about three times to read The Bees, I just can’t get into it. Interesting to hear you didn’t love it, it makes me feel less of a failure.

    • You are totally not a failure for not getting into it! I kept going, but mostly because even a small hook of plot is usually enough to keep me interested. In retrospect, I’m not sure it was really sufficient recompense! At least it didn’t actually win the Baileys Prize.

  3. Too bad Bad Feminist didn’t work out for you, though I understand what you mean about wanting more. There was so much buzz with the faber book I had a go at it early in the year and gave up on it after one chapter. The premise sounded good but once I started reading I just couldn’t stomach it. Oh well.

    • I know, Faber was my biggest disappointment because I was SO looking forward to it, but it just made me nauseous with rage instead. I’m far more interested in Ann Leckie’s trilogy now, especially given your enthusiastic reviews.

  4. I aslo had problems with both ‘The Bees’ and ‘The Book of Strange New Things ‘ and for very much the same reasons as you. Which makes it all the more strange that ‘Fugitive Pieces’ is one of my all time favourite novels. :_)

    • Haha, yes I think I remember you saying when I reviewed Fugitive Pieces that you got a totally different vibe from it! Just goes to show: two people can have similar taste, but in the end it’s all thoroughly subjective. I’m very pleased that there’s been such controversy/discussion about all of these, though; it keeps the book-reading world vital and vivid.

  5. I knew I liked you: I’m so glad someone’s finally said it about Bad Feminist. I read it and avoided reviewing it earlier in the year after deciding I was the wrong audience for it. I wanted so much more than the sweeping generalisations but I acknowledge that 18yo me would have found it revelatory; 20 years on and a year into a PhD based on feminism, not so much. I was surprised and delighted by Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole though, have you read it? For me, she does what I wanted Gay to do – fine balance of accessible and academic, plenty of references!

    • I think I’ve heard of Emer O’Toole, but didn’t know the name of her book–sounds amazing, will find! I’m glad someone else doesn’t think I’m crazy about Bad Feminist. I think it could be an excellent introduction to feminism and culture studies, though, absolutely. Just not what I was expecting given the marketing (which again is probably something that Roxane Gay couldn’t control…)

  6. I’m reading The Book of Strange New Things right now and think I have more patience with it than you (I’m on page 350 at the mo). I completely agree that Peter and Bea are self-satisfied in their privilege, and I think some of Faber’s tonal choices are weird, occasionally downright offensive, but I still want to continue. Then again, The Sparrow would be on my list of fails this year so maybe each to their own interplanetary missionary novels? 🙂

    • That must be it! Also, I’m not so sure that I wasn’t just in a really uncompromising mood when I started reading it. Odd to think that it might just be down to my brain chemistry/whim at the time, but it wouldn’t surprise me!

  7. yasmine rose says:

    I was also not too keen on The Bees! Glad to hear I wasn’t the only one! I did, however, enjoy Bad Feminist, but that may have been because I had never heard of Roxane Gay before that so didn’t have any expectations going into it.

    • The Bees is another one that seems to have let people down a bit, certainly. I thought the idea was fabulous but wasn’t at all swayed by her writing (meh) or her grasp of plot pacing (ineffective). Seems like there’s always at least one on a prize shortlist, though.

      • yasmine rose says:

        Yeah the premise of the novel sounded interesting and it was what made me pick it up above all the other shortlisted novels but I wasn’t convinced by it!

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