Thursday, August 4, 2011

Books You Should Probably Avoid

Inspired by Megan's comment from my blog on the first book of The Hunger Games in which she suggested that I have never lead her astray when recommending a book, I decided to dedicate a blog to the top 7 worst books I've ever read.

7. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.  Rich with commentary on politics, sex, Capitalism, and humanity, Stranger in a Strange Land seems like it'd be a really great read.  It isn't.  Heinlein's neophyte hero, Valentine Michael Smith, a human by birth but a martian from Mars by blood, descends to Earth to "grok" humans (to understand deeply).  After being held in a hospital because he doesn't quite get what Earth is all about, a nurse abducts him so he can live his life, but brings him to a friend of her boyfriend's.  This man is an eccentric author/doctor/lawyer who discovers that...wait for it, wait for it...Mike is capable of performing miracles!  This is just another Christ story disguised as a science fiction book, and, quite frankly, I liked it better when The Who put music to it and called it TommyRead instead:  1984 by George Orwell

6. The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells.  There's no kind way to put it, this book is drivel.  It's the Happy Meal of the book world.  On the one hand, I'm tempted to like some of its morals - that lasting friendship is more important than abusive family - but I really disliked every character.  It was difficult to be sympathetic towards the spoiled brat girls who desecrate on ViVi, one of the Ya-Ya's mothers, crucifix, go swimming naked in the town water supply, and do basically whatever the hell they want and claim that it's their birthright to be obnoxious and get pissed off when people call them on it.  It was also difficult to be sympathetic towards Vivi who beat the ever loving hell out of her children.  The real point of this book, I feel, is to appeal to womanly catharsis, and Wells assumes that womanly catharsis must be centered around sisterhood and a womanly bond and must end in a white wedding.  Read instead:  The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares

5. Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley.  A "stunningly uneventful" sequel to Margaret Mitchell's classic, Gone with the Wind, Scarlett reads more like a teenage drama, but boring.  The whole book is pretty much attempts by Scarlett to win back her estranged husband, Rhett Butler.  She tries and tries and tries, gets into some scrapes, tries some more, and continues desperately seeking Rhett for almost 900 pages.  In my opinion, Scarlet is the sibling that Gone with the Wind doesn't ever talk about because it's too embarrassed.  Read instead:  Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I can practically hear you literary purists out there yelling at me through cyberspace that The Great Gatsby is a classic and impressive work of fiction.  I have some advice for you:  get over it.  This is a really smug and conventional book, particularly for an era when Scott's contemporaries (Ernest Hemingway, Getrude Stein, Langston Hughes, Nora Zeale Hurston) were pushing all sorts of literary boundaries.  From pretentious beginning to pretentiously bizarre end, this story is an empty, unbelievably shallow read.  Read instead:  Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

3. The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I'm really sorry to have to put this on the list, because I know a lot of people love these books - or at least they claim to.  To be honest, I'm not 100% sure that all the people who say they love Tolkien do.  I think all of them certainly want to love Tolkien, but he is admittedly hard to love.  These books are littered with bad poetry, life lessons, and long descriptions written in such a cavalier tone as to suggest that Tolkien is speaking (or writing) down to you.  You're better off just watching the movies or getting the cliff notes.  Read instead:  The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis or Lord of the Flies by William Golding

2. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  Funnily enough, this book seems to make everybody's "worst books ever "list.  It's kind of like when you're with a group of people and somebody picks up a random shoe and says, all disgusted, "Oh my god!  This thing reeks!"  And it's not that you don't believe them, it's that you have to experience for yourself just how badly the shoe reeks, so you smell it and then regret it.  Well, this book reeks.  An member who listed this book wrote for its description, "The Queen of Sham delivers her very best to the dull middle class white boy teen crowd who think she was bigger than the Buddha."  Her politics are bad, her characters are one-dimensional (and not in a cleverly done, stylistic way to make a point), and the book isn't so much a story as it is an agenda.  Read instead:  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

1. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Here's the thing about Hawthorne:  this guy comes up with the arguably the most intriguing plots in literature.  I mean, come on!  Hester Prynne, a tortured single parent with a precocious, though odd, daughter, spends her existence walking around with a large, scarlet "A" on her dress so the world can see her sins.  The cunningly smart and delightfully evil once-husband, Roger Chillingsworth, returns and wreaks havoc on her psyche and on the psyche of a sweet reverend, Arthur Dimmsdale, who always does his best to help Hester and Pearl.  Motivated by love and desire to reprieve herself, Hester, along with Dimmsdale and Pearl, works tirelessly to win back the respect she once had, all the while Chillingsworth, consumed with revenge, does all in his power to stop her.  That's a great plot!  Unfortunately, Hawthorne is a painfully dull writer, dedicating so many pages to tedious descriptions that the plot barely moves.  I f•*&ing hate this book and don't wish it upon anyone.  Read instead:  Silas Marner by George Eliot


  1. Everyone knows Chillingsworth is not her father - that is how she got the scarlet A. I read The Scarlet Letter in high school and hated it, but I decided to give Hawthorne another chance and read The House of Seven Gables pretty recently. It was a tough read for not much of a payoff in the end.

  2. I had a tough time wallowing through "Lord of the Rings", so I stopped. "The Scarlet Letter" blows cheese. Hated, hated, hated it. I agree with you on "The Great Gatsby"--even when I read it at 17, I knew it was a pretentious waste of paper and publication. Can't stand that book. I thought "Divine Secrets" was OK--didn't hate it, but didn't like it enough to pursue any of the sequels.

  3. Jenny - I had a momentary lapse of intelligence. I was reading your comment and thinking to myself, "Duh, why is she telling me this?" and then I re-read what I wrote.

    Steph - I also liked reading "Divine Secrets;" it was a relatively easy read, chick lit, and it wasn't so much the writing style I had a problem with. I had a real issue with the message it sent, which I didn't overwhelmingly find in "Sisterhood," although there are some moments of utter camp.


    If you think Gatsby is shallow, I'm inclined to think you don't get it. I mean, I'm not saying you have to like it, but I do think it's a legitimately good book. Pretentious, possibly, but not shallow. It's smart as fuck when it comes to how complexly woven all the symbolism is. Every single image in the book is there for a reason. I can't imagine ever being that good of a writer.

    Speaking as one of the (apparently few) people who actually does love Lord of the Rings, I'm again going to go out here and say just because you don't like it doesn't mean it's bad. And really, C.S. Lewis? His prose is dreadful, despite the many good qualities of his writing.

    But I 100% agree on Atlas Shrugged.

  5. Ah, Scott. We differ so greatly on our ideas of good literature. I may not quite get "Gatsby," but I have read it several times and I do find it shallow. I think Fitzgerald is an excellent writer and that his other work is generally brilliant and deep, but "Gatsby" doesn't communicate depth or brilliance to me.

  6. I spent about $3 on The Scarlet Letter and I read to page 2 or 3 where I laughed at how the room was covered in dust and the author could tell had not been touched by a woman in a long time. Then it lost me. :/

  7. But I think some things are just objectively good! I think there are ton of books I'd consider great literature that I fucking hate. Ditto movies, shows, etc. I think if you find Gatsby shallow, the problem is not with the book, it's that you're not taking everything it's got to give. Because there is depth there. idk, maybe it's because I had a really excellent teacher. I might not have noticed all the great stuff if I hadn't had it presented to me? In any case, regardless of how I personally feel about the book (like it very much, but don't love it), I do think it's objectively excellent literature. I think there's a lot of be said in general for distinguishing between quality and whether or not one enjoys something.

  8. I completely agree with you about distinguishing between personal taste and quality in all media. I know I love some books that are absolutely NOT quality literature - for instance, I garbled up the Georgia Nicolson series - as well as myriad movies and TV shows. BUT I do think that quality of writing should set excellent literature apart from enjoyable literature, which is why "Lord of the Rings" made my list. Tolkien is an arduous writer and, in my opinion, the prose lacks the ability to effectively communicate this incredible world that Tolkien created. On the other hand, I find Fitzgerald to be an incredibly clear and skilled writer, but I clearly was not given the depth of analysis you were with the book. Admittedly, my English teacher was a drunken retired priest who kept in his drawer a comb, which he licked before he smoothed his mustache, old tissues into which he loudly hocked loogies during class, and a butcher knife. I'd be willing to give "Gatsby" another try if someone would kindly point out to me - like, really spell out for me - it's greatness.

    Then again, who the hell am I to offer criticism on literature? A Smith College graduate with a crappy desk job and a blog? Hardly a qualification. And, as Kurt Vonnegut said in a way that only Kurt Vonnegut can, "I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split."

  9. I don't know, I think Tolkien must have been doing something right, because I feel like I'm being continually punched in the heart when I read him. Yeah, it's fucking difficult writing, and sometimes it's tough to get through, but he certainly communicated something to me. I know a ton of my friends haven't had the same experience with LOTR, but the fact that so many people have had the experience--idk, I think it says something for his writing.

    Oh, Vonnegut! I was about to say! I've finally, finally gotten around to reading him. I haven't started yet, but I just got out Slaughterhouse Five and I'm going to give it a go, thanks in part to your recommendation.

  10. "Slaughterhouse Five" is an excellent read and one of those books everyone sorta has to read, but "Breakfast of Champions" is absolutely superb.

    LOTR, LOTR, LOTR... I don't think you're going to sway me to your side on this one, Scottworth. *spit shake* Agree to disagree?

  11. My dad has pretty much everything by him, so I'll steal a bunch of 'em.

    I don't think I have ever in my life agreed to disagree on something, haha. I just think there are things about LOTR that are objectively well done.

  12. *throws hands up* Fine, fine, fine. Objectively well done, communicating to you, it's dripping through my brain. And that is all I can offer you.