Six Books that Disappointed Me Recently

I had high hopes for all of these: long-awaited novels from Jonathan Safran Foer (10 years after his previous one), Maria Semple and Zadie Smith; a Project Gutenberg download from the reliably funny Jerome K. Jerome; a brand new psychological thriller from James Lasdun, whose memoir and poetry I’ve loved; and a horse racing epic that generated Great American Novel buzz. But they all failed to live up to expectations.


Here I Am

By Jonathan Safran Foer

here-i-amIs it a simple account of the implosion of two Washington, D.C. fortysomethings’ marriage? Or is it a sweeping epic of Judaism from the biblical patriarchs to imagined all-out Middle Eastern warfare? Can it succeed in being both? I didn’t really think so. The dialogue between this couple as they face the fallout is all too real and cuts to the quick. I enjoyed the preparations for Sam’s bar mitzvah and I could admire Julia’s clear-eyed capability and Sam, Max and Benjy’s almost alarming intelligence and heart at the same time as I wondered to what extent she was Foer’s ex-wife Nicole Krauss and they were the authors’ kids. But about halfway through I thought the book got away from Foer, requiring him to throw in a death, a natural disaster, and a conflict with global implications. This feels more like a novel by Philip Roth or Howard Jacobson, what with frequent masturbation and sex talk on the one hand and constant quarreling about what Jewishness means on the other. The central message about being present for others’ suffering, and your own, got a little lost under the flood of events.

My rating: 2-5-star-rating

 

Three Men on the Bummel

three-men-on-the-bummel-bookcoverBy Jerome K. Jerome

Jerome’s digressive style can be amusing in small doses, but this book is almost nothing but asides. I did enjoy the parts that most closely resemble a travelogue of the cycle trip through Germany, but these are drowned under a bunch of irrelevant memories and anecdotes. I much preferred Diary of a Pilgrimage.

My rating: 2-star-rating

 

The Fall Guy

By James Lasdun

fall-guyThis is a capable psychological thriller about an out-of-work chef who becomes obsessed with the idea that his wealthy cousin’s alluring wife is cheating on him during a summer spent with them in their upstate New York bolthole. I liked hearing about Matthew’s cooking and Chloe’s photography, and it’s interesting how Lasdun draws in a bit about banking and the Occupy movement. However, the complicated Anglo-American family backstory between Matthew and Charlie feels belabored, and the fact that we only see things from Matthew’s perspective is limiting in a bad way. There’s a decent Hitchcock vibe in places, but overall this is somewhat lackluster.

My rating: 2-5-star-rating

 

The Sport of Kings

By C.E. Morgan

sport-of-kingsI found this Kentucky-based horse racing novel to be florid and overlong. The novel doesn’t achieve takeoff until Allmon comes on the scene at about page 180. Although there are good descriptions of horses, the main plot – training Hellsmouth to compete in the 2006 Derby – mostly passed me by. Meanwhile, the interpersonal relationships become surprisingly melodramatic, more fit for a late Victorian novel or maybe something by Faulkner. My favorite character was Maryleen, the no-nonsense black house servant. Henry himself, though, makes for pretty unpleasant company. Morgan delivers the occasional great one-liner (“Childhood is the country of question marks, and the streets are solid answers”), but her prose is on the whole incredibly overwritten. There’s a potent message in here somewhere about ambition, inheritance and race, but it’s buried under an overwhelming weight of words. (See my full Nudge review.)

My rating: 2-star-rating

 

Today Will Be Different

By Maria Semple

today-willBernadette fans, prepare for disappointment. There’s nothing that bad about the story of middle-aged animator Eleanor Flood, her hand-surgeon-to-the-stars husband Joe, and their precocious kid Timby, but nor is there anything very interesting about it. The novel is one of those rare ones that take place all in one day, a setup that enticed me, but all Eleanor manages to fit into her day – despite the title resolution – is an encounter with a pet poet who listens to her reciting memorized verse, another with a disgruntled former employee, some pondering of her husband’s strange behavior, and plenty of being downright mean to her son (as if his name wasn’t punishment enough). “In the past, I’d often been called crazy. But it was endearing-crazy, kooky-crazy, we’re-all-a-little-crazy-crazy,” Eleanor insists. I didn’t think so. I didn’t like being stuck in her head. In general, it seems like a bad sign if you’re eager to get away from a book’s narrator and her scatty behavior. Compared to Semple’s previous novel, it feels like quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake, with a sudden, contrived ending.

My rating: 2-star-rating

 

Swing Time

By Zadie Smith

swing-timeSmith’s fifth novel spans 25 years and journeys from London to New York City and West Africa in tracing the different paths two black girls’ lives take. The narrator (who is never named) and Tracey, both biracial, meet through dance lessons at age seven in 1982 and soon become inseparable. The way this relationship shifts over time is the most potent element of the novel, and will appeal to fans of Elena Ferrante. The narrator alternates chapters about her friendship with Tracey with chapters about her work for pop star Aimee in Africa. Unfortunately, the Africa material is not very convincing or lively and I was impatient for these sections to finish. The Aimee subplot and the way Tracey turns out struck me as equally clichéd. Despite the geographical and chronological sprawl, the claustrophobic narration makes this feel insular, defusing its potential messages about how race, money and class still define and divide us. A new Zadie Smith novel is an event; this one is still worth reading, but it definitely disappointed me in comparison to White Teeth and On Beauty. (Releases Nov. 15th.)

My rating: 3-star-rating


Have you read any of these? What did you think?

What’s the last book that really let you down?

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21 thoughts on “Six Books that Disappointed Me Recently

  1. 😦 😦 I’m sad about The Sport of Kings and Swing Time. I have a copy of the former and was really keen for the release of the latter! I’ll try Sport of Kings anyway, just to see what I think (sometimes florid and overwritten does it for me. Just sometimes.)

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    1. Don’t let me put you off 🙂 I think you’re more of a style person than I am, so you may well like Morgan’s writing. And Swing Time is not bad by any measure, just nowhere near as focused and profound as some of her earlier work. (Then again, I couldn’t get more than a few pages into NW; maybe I’m going off her?) It got some rave early reviews, with stars from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, but it will be interesting to see what the critical consensus is in a few weeks’ time.

      One of my problems with several of these — Foer, Morgan and Smith — was that at over 450 pages each they were significant time investments and didn’t feel entirely worth it.

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      1. I definitely think Smith’s writing style may be changing; NW felt very different from White Teeth and On Beauty, although I read them in mixed-up chronological order. Maybe there’s a certain level of standard-ness that’s being pushed on her (or that she’s pushing on herself?) because of her status as a celebrity author (I think of her as one of the few rock stars of the writing world.)

        Totally agree with you about books that are too long to feel worth it. There’s little more frustrating than that.

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  2. This is not the first time that I’ve heard disappointment over Semple’s new book. A lot of people were really looking forward to it and her first one was so much fun, it’s too bad.
    The last book that let me down? Good question, but I really can’t think of one. Either I like all the books I read, or the ones I don’t like as much were not ones that I had built up in my mind. I had to go way far back in my notebook to be reminded that I was disappointed in my first Agatha Christie – people seem to love her so much – I either chose the wrong one, or I’m just not a detective novel kind of a person (which is entirely possible, seeing as how I rarely read them).

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    1. You must be very good at picking books that suit you 🙂 I think my problem is I feel compelled to keep reading authors I’ve enjoyed in the past. Only if they have let me down several times will I stop reading them. For now that’s Sebastian Faulks and John Irving (though I’ll go back to his older ones).

      I think I read a few Agatha Christie as a young teen, but I didn’t really see what all the fuss is about. In general I hardly ever read anything that could be classed as crime fiction.

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      1. I’m thinking it might also be because you read so many more books than I do. The more you read, the more duds you’re likely to come across.

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    2. Yeah, that could be it. Law of averages? I’ve given up on a fair few books this year, so I don’t have all that many that have been below 3 stars. At least a couple of the ones in this post I should have abandoned partway.

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    1. I can’t quite put my finger on what has changed in her style. The plot and POV just didn’t come together here, in my opinion. One day I will try NW again, but it’s not high on my priority list.

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  3. Dang – Zadie Smith? Say it ain’t so! I loved On Beauty and NW.

    I thought Where’d You Go Bernadette was highly overrated, so I dunno. Maybe I’ll get to this one day. Different might be good in this case.

    I’m gonna read the Foer eventually, he gets a lifetime pass for Everything is Illuminated. Yes, I’ll even forgive those emails…

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    1. I will still read anything Foer writes. I think he (and his whole family) is insanely talented, and his first three books were fantastic. This one was hugely ambitious, but didn’t quite work for me. I think his voice may be enough to carry you through, but in some ways it is very unlike his other novels.

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    1. I’ve read all of Zadie Smith’s apart from NW, which I intend to go back to someday. She’s definitely someone I’d read anything by. I’ll be interested to see what other bloggers and reviewers think about Swing Time.

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