Two years ago, I moved from the city to the suburbs. The train ride to and from the office is about thirty-five minutes each way. It’s the perfect amount of time to unwind after family stuff in the morning, and after work stuff in the evening, before the family stuff starts again. It has also been a perfect opportunity for me to revisit something I haven’t had the time to enjoy in many years, books. Having plowed through dozens of books of all genres, shapes and sizes, I’ve discovered something.
I hate books.
I want to love them. I really do. I keep thinking I’ll eventually land on one that I like, but pretty much every time, I find myself, somewhere through the course of the book, pondering the author’s motivations and mindset and wondering-
What the fuck were you thinking?
I think the last book I thoroughly enjoyed was “The DaVinci Code.” I know, I know, ‘but that’s not LEET-yoo-rat-YOOR!’ and I am a shallow, knuckle-dragging troglodyte with no taste or intellectual appreciation for the art of the written word. Noted. My worst critics would be like those who showered ecstatic praise on the masterpieces of the mid 60s French painter, Pierre Brassau, only to later learn that Brassau was a chimpanzee. So while you snuggle up with your moldy copy of “Ulysses,” I’ll be reviewing some of the most beloved books ever written, and why I hate them.
(*SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS*- PLENTY TO CHOOSE FROM HERE- SO SKIP ANY YOU DON’T WANT SPOILED.)
WHEN GOOD WRITERS WRITE BAD STORIES
There are two vital aspects to authoring- the quality of the writing, and having a quality story to write. I feel like so much emphasis is put on the former, that the latter is often forgotten. Writing beautifully about nothing worth writing about is kind of like being the world’s best photographer and taking all of your photos in a rest stop bathroom on the interstate; great skill put to pointless use.
FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS- Earnest Hemingway
An iconic author, a title that became a saying and a Metallica song, it must be awesome, right? This book is horrible. It’s the perfect example of taking an event so boring, no one would ever need or want to know about it, and deciding for some God-forsaken reason to write a novel about it. It’s like watching a Reality show about notaries. I couldn’t finish it, and there doesn’t seem to be a reason to; if you don’t like mind-numbing drivel about a bag full of wine, a cave, and the differences between Castilian Spain and regular Spain at the halfway point, you aren’t going to by the end.
DRACULA- Bram Stoker
The classic that spawned endless books, movies, TV shows, etc. Should be spectacular, I figure. Boring. As. Fuck. Unlike “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in which Ernie Hemingway was either too drunk or couldn’t otherwise be bothered with telling a story, B-Stoke seems desperate to tell a harrowing tale of a real life monster, but it’s page after page of the stupidest, most inane dialogue and expository introspection imaginable. There must have been a hundred pages dedicated to how some guys felt bad about withholding information from a lady who was really, really nice. Shut. Up.
SELF INDULGENT SCRIBES
Whether you read books for entertainment, education or intrigue, the experience should be about you, the reader, for you, the reader. You bought the book, I would hope that when the author sat down to write it, he had YOUR interests in mind. I often find myself reading books and thinking to myself, ‘Gee, seems like this author accomplished whatever he wanted to accomplish here. I hope they had fun.’ Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with what I would ever want to read. I don’t want to be part of someone else’s writing experience or experiment. If you want to write for your own enjoyment, go nuts, but please, keep it in your hard drive. I want to be enthralled and captivated, or at least acknowledged as the original impetus for storytelling.
INFINITE JEST- David Foster Wallace
Infinite Jest is like the work of an artist who spends his entire life attending the finest art schools, studying under the grand masters, learning everything there is to know about art, traveling the world, honing his craft for decades, dedicating his life to the mastery of every style of art in the history of the universe, then making a big giant exhibit of his own poop. Then adding footnotes.
THE SECRET HISTORY- Donna Tartt
Somebody got killed and I can’t remember who killed him or why. I guess the strength of the book was its bringing you into another world, one of ultra-rich, ultra-privileged college kids, but I kept getting the feeling that the author was just writing about her own experiences as one, having attended Bennington and dated the likes of Brett Easton Ellis in the 80s. It was kind of a gross, shallow world. Hers. Eew. I did not go for The Goldfinch.
ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE- Robert M. Pirsig
I read this thinking I might learn something about 1. Zen or 2. Motorcycles. Nope. There were a lot of words about a ghost, and “quality,” and an interesting split personality twist, but beyond that, I didn’t learn bupkis.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH- John Steinbeck
They’re poor. I get it.
THE HISTORIAN- Elizabeth Kostova
You’ve got to be kidding me with this one. Seven hundred fucking pages about people doing fucking research? Do you know how many YouTube clips of Bulldog puppies falling down I could have watched in the time I took to read this mess? The only thing I can figure is that the author spent twenty years traveling the world, researching a book, and when she couldn’t come up with a compelling story to tell, she just decided to write a book ABOUT HERSELF DOING RESEARCH. I mean yeah, there’s a vampire, but you have to survive about 600 pages of READING ABOUT PEOPLE READING to finally meet him. And then, he turns out to be the lamest vampire ever. I’m pretty sure he kidnapped some guy and forced him to, wait for it… ORGANIZE HIS LIBRARY. Seriously?! Someone with a name that rhymes with “We Live a Best, Pop Over” needs to seriously get out more. I don’t remember how it ends. I think they kill the vampire. Probably by making him read this book.
Writers usually don’t get a lot of action, until they get a movie deal. I guess if you can’t do it, write about it.
THE CIDER HOUSE RULES- John Irving
I’m sorry, but I really do not understand how when Howard Stern talks about oral sex with horses, retarded girls giving blowjobs to guys who can’t get hard, saving pubic hair of pretty girls in your wallet, and being embarrassed by the smell of the semen you recently deposited in your hand, it’s infantile shockery, but when John Irving writes it, it’s LEET-yoo-rat-YOOR. I wouldn’t have been so turned off by it all, but for the thin, boring “story” being told amidst the bad blowies and ball juice. When I realized about halfway through, that all I would ever remember of this literary shockfest were the gross parts, I stopped reading. J-Irv can rewind and get off to Charlize Theron in the movie version as much as he wants, but not to the thought of me cringing at his porno “artistry.”
THE GODFATHER- Mario Puzo
Fantastic book actually. They should make a movie. You all know the famous quotes: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes,” and of course, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” But who remembers these lesser known gems: “Repairing the pelvic sling was called perincorrhaphy, suturing the vaginal wall was called colporrhaphy,” or “Doctor Kellner was working carefully now, the big danger in the cutting was going too deep and hitting the rectum.”
I literally had to check my iPad to make sure it didn’t somehow malfunction and jump to a medical training manual while I was enjoying the mafia epic. There are entire swaths of this book dedicated to a Vegas doctor and a girl with caved-in ladyparts, that the reading world has apparently suppressed from its collective conscious, due to overwhelming weirdness. Page after page describing this woman’s defective vagina in vibrant clinical detail. What in the actual fuck was Puzo, or more importantly, HIS EDITORS, thinking? Thank God the unsecured vaginal floor storyline fell all the way to the cutting room floor in the movie version.
If I have a love-hate relationship with books, I’m pretty sure at this point it’s all hate when it comes to spy novels. Looking to relive the thrill I felt reading “The Eye of the Needle” over twenty years ago, I went searching for a great espionage thriller. I failed. I suspect that the reason why most popular spy book series’ never get made into movies is that at some point in the development process, someone with a brain actually reads them.
AMERICAN ASSASSIN, KILL SHOT, TRANSFER OF POWER, (AND I IMAGINE ANYTHING ELSE BY) Vince Flynn
If you look at Amazon reviews of Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series, they all get 4½ out of 5 stars. Every one of them. I decided to read them all, in chronological order. I started with “American Assassin,” the 2010 prequel that kicked off the whole 20 book-long story. It wasn’t good. Origin stories are tough, so I thought I’d give the series another chance. Read “Kill Shot.” Again, not good. At all. I would tell you why, but I can’t remember one detail of either of these books. I did a little research to try to figure out why this author was such a huge success. Turns out sadly, Flynn died of cancer in 2013. There was speculation online that “Kill Shot” may have been rushed to the presses before he died. Well, hell if that isn’t a good enough reason to give it another shot. I promptly ordered “Transfer of Power,” his first book, the 3rd in line chronologically. It was worse than the other two. I mean dreadful.
As far as I can remember, The White House is taken over by terrorists somehow. The terrorists took hostages, including the president, booby trapped the entire White House with explosives so that if anyone tried to raid it and foil their plan, they would all be blown to bits. So for 3–400 pages I’m thinking, “Damn, I can’t wait to find out how Mitch and his gang of spy badasses get the president and everyone safely out of an explosive-rigged White House!” Well, they storm the building, the bombs are supposed to be disarmed by the good guys, but oh no, it doesn’t work! I am on the edge of my Metro North train seat at this point. The bombs’ timers count down, 3…2…1…and then the explosions begin, setting the White House on fire… but the president, the hostages and everyone else important just happened to survive, unhurt.
No explanation deemed necessary by the creators of this mess of a book, we are just informed that the worst case scenario happened, and everyone’s just dandy.
It gets better, or worse, I should say. Throughout the entire book, there is a death feud brewing between the hero, Mitch Rapp, and the White House-hijacking terrorist, Aziz. Someone killed someone’s girlfriend back in the day, or something. Should be a big confrontation at the end, right? OR, amidst the explosives he successfully employed, Aziz escapes the White House unharmed, and undetected. That’s right. The book’s villain succeeds, and just splits. The bad guys win. In every way imaginable. I don’t understand what the point of this book was supposed to be. You can’t have your reader wondering for 400 pages how the good guys are going to get around the bombs and catch the bad guys, only to have the bombs blow up and the bad guys escape. I finished the final chapter scratching my head. Then, I figured it out. Aziz must return in future books. Maybe he’s a series-long villain. Like an Arabian Voldermort. Very clever, Team Flynn, very clever. But then, the Epilogue appeared:
Apparently months later in our story, our hero Mitch Rapp walks into a random building in some third world country somewhere, disconnected to everything the entire book was about, and shoots a few guys, the last one being his arch nemesis. My theoretical attempt to give this crap pile of a book a point was killed, along with Aziz, in 3 ½ pages. THREE AND ONE HALF FUCKING PAGES! Needless to say, I did not read the next book in the Vince Flynn/ Mitch Rapp series.
THE KILL ARTIST- Daniel Silva
I figured Vince Flynn was a fluke, he had some sort of robots writing Amazon reviews or something. I looked for my next spy scribe and found Daniel Silva. There are 14 enormously successful books in the Gabriel Allon series, the title character being an art restorer and part-time Israeli assassin. Cool. Unfortunately, I soon learned, that while Allon seems to be a proficient art restorer, it’s the badass Israeli assassin part at which he seems to suck. Which is unfortunate because it’s hard to get jazzed about 14 books about a dude repainting stuff.
Throughout the first book, “The Kill Artist,” our art-restoring assassin is chasing (or is being chased by, who the fuck cares) his arch nemesis “Tariq.” I vaguely remember Allon getting beat up a lot, and was looking forward to the final badass revenge he would impart on his enemies in the end. On page 306 of 320, the climactic confrontation begins. Allon sees Tariq leaving a meeting with Yasser Arafat himself, presumably plotting something dastardly, and sets off after him. A HALF PAGE later, our “badass” assassin muscles through a door that Tariq had wedged shut, only to be promptly shot and incapacitated, by Tariq. Really? As our hero lays worthlessly bleeding on the floor, a hot woman that was with him for some reason, proceeds to chase down Tariq, shoot, and kill him. Now I have no problem with a badass woman saving the day, except, why wasn’t the book about her? I didn’t read the second book in what should have been called “The Crappy Assassin” series.
For me to make this distinction, I would have to have enjoyed the beginnings and middles of these books, so yes, I’ll admit it, I actually enjoyed all the books in this section. But the endings are all just a bit wonky, often unnecessarily so. As a writer myself, I’ve become quite adept at predicting the endings of books. Lately, I’ve been foreseeing really fabulous culminations of stories, only to ultimately learn that I’m wrong, but if I weren’t, the books would have been much better. I know endings are tough, but my philosophy is, if you don’t have a great ending to your story, it might not be a story worth telling.
GONE GIRL- Gillian Flynn
There has been a lot of discussion and controversy regarding the book’s strange, somewhat unsatisfying ending. I have a simple question/ solution. Shouldn’t Nick’s girlfriend Andie have smoked the psycho wife in the end? She just disappeared instead. She went from psycho Clingon to just, well, gone. That doesn’t happen in real life. She vanished so completely that I was sure she was going to reappear in the end to deliver revenge and a devilishly satisfying end to the book. Nope.
THE MARTIAN- Andy Weir
Shouldn’t someone have died at the end? Or at least been injured? I mean, they pulled off a nearly impossible, ultra-harrowing outer space rescue, and no one got so much as a booboo. Couldn’t someone have broken an arm in the course of catching a jagged metal projectile as it hurtled untethered betwixt planets? A finger even?
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE- Anthony Doerr
A really good epic adventure/ love story, in which our unlikely heroes are a blind French girl and a German boy during WWII. They don’t meet through most of the book. Then after they do, you wonder what will happen to the boy, our hero. Well, after a few pages of wondering, he gets the flu and wanders into a land mine. Really? It was so good up until then. Then, as if some publisher-type along the way said, ‘Hey, shouldn’t we have some better closure to this unique, epic and heart-wrenching love story?’ one of our hero’s war buddies finds and visits the now grown-up blind girl and they have a chat like, 50 years later, tacked onto the end of the book. Nope.
GIRL ON THE TRAIN- Paula Hawkins
I’ve heard enough about the ending of this one to effectively hate it without even reading it.
BEFORE THE FALL- Noah Hawley
Decent mystery that starts with a plane crash and you are taken back to the time before the crash through many twists and turns and possibilities of what may have caused it. Was it a government hit? The mob? An about to-be-indicted millionaire’s escape plan? A terrorist posing as an on-board bodyguard? A CIA agent posing as an alcoholic starving artist who may or may not be boffing one of the married passengers? What endlessly cool possibilities! Or, it was a flight attendant’s jealous ex-boyfriend pilot. Really?
GET SHORTY- Elmore Leonard
I’ve got to give Elmore Leonard credit here. He knew the end sucked. So he went full-meta in completing his story about storytelling in Hollywood, when Chili Palmer, the gangster-turned-movie producer says the final line of the book, “Fucking endings, man, they weren’t as easy as they looked.”
Check out stuff Tom loves to read, because he wrote it, here.