The Guilt of the
Every reviewer has the experience of getting through a book and for some reason or other never actually getting words down on paper.
Time passes, the wonder or awfulness of the book fades, and one is left with nothing but a vague sense of guilt. A writer went to all that trouble, a publisher went to all that expense of printing and sending out a novel, a biography, a treatise, a history, an art book --- and we let them down.
It often has nothing to do with our reading of the book. It has everything to do with the diurnal quality of a day (or night;) a hangover; a fight with a wife (or husband, or lover).
It can be the fault of a morning with a belly-ache, a restlessness, a fret, or a sick computer. It can even be a siege of what the medievalists dubbed the agenbite of inwit. Some of these books that missed out were great, some were god-awful, some were not-so-bad, some didn't even bear the scrutiny of more than a page or two. But they might well have deserved mention.
This month, we have bedeviled our staff to pull together a few brief comments on works that crossed their desks over the last year or so, works that were for no good reason consigned to the dust-bin.
NOTE: Numbers below run from
+ 4 (Stupendous) to
- 4 (Irritatingly Awful).
Resident On Call: A Doctor's Reflection on His First Years at Mass General, Scott A. Rivkees, M.D. (Lyons Press) This is a self-conscious memoir by a physician about his years of training who is much too impressed with his own importance to care about writing well. In a word, arrogance goes before grace and wit.
--- Total Pages in Book: 216 Total read: 17 (Score: Minus 4)
The Minotaur's Head: An Inspector Mock Investigation, Marek Krajewski (Melville International). Lotta drinking and hangovers here in 1966 Warsaw. You know it's Poland because Mock eats "herrings, Horseradish and pickled cucumbers" for breakfast, Sausage and dried dried Knackwurst and "bully boys," along with names out of this world, like Leokadia Tchoirznicka and Alfons Trebasczkiewicsz. It all makes us want to send over a Red Cross truck filled with vowels. It would be coarse to think of Mock as coarse, but on his way to break a guy's nose (for insulting his daughter), there in the dark in front of a lowlife tavern, he steps in a pile of, gleep, uh, crap. Good writing, esp. the way he gack scrapes it off. (If you really want to know, it's a head of cabbage. Only in Poland).
--- Total Pages in Book: 289. Total read: 87 (Score: ±0)
Sex After . . . Women Share How Intimacy Changes As Life Changes.
Iris Krasnow (Gotham Books)
This is a pop psychology book based on interviews (and absolutely zero research) with 150 random women at different stages in their lives. Ostensibly it's about sex but the brief excerpts are more about relationships and self-realization. What can you say about a book with the word 'sex' in the title that is so intimidated by the subject that it uses 'f- -d' as a stand-in for 'fucked?'
--- Total Pages in Book: 325 Total read: 23 (Score: Minus 2; actually titillating here and there. But still: -2)
War of Attrition. William Philpott (Overlook). As we all know, America likes to be first in everything, and we were #1 during our Civil War in creating the unbelievable business of a "war of attrition," Which is just like it sounds: you stand, or sit, or lie down in front of the enemy and fire and fire and fire. Philpot's book takes us to the trenches during World War I. In the earliest pages we learn what so many other historians have told us: Europe was all ready for war in the early years of the new century . . . even, apparently, hoping it would come sooner rather than later. A series of blunders brought it to pass, but nearly everyone thought it would be over by Christmas 1914. Chance, as much as anything else, forced both sides into trenches, and no one got out for more than four years. Unfortunately as the pages go on, it turns into attrition, with the writer's style not unlike bullets: leaden. All the soldiers at the first Battle of Ypres were sure of was "that the enemy had not broken through. They had no knowledge of what labours still lay before them." Exactly.
--- Total Pages in Book: 400. Total read: 65 (Score: Plus 1.)
An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perceptions of Disease.
Jon D. Lee. University Press of Colorado.
This was a splendid idea for a book but unfortunately landed in the hands of a graduate student who turned it into a ponderous and exhaustively researched doctoral dissertation. Everything is here that might impress a promotion's committee . . . everything except graceful writing.
--- Total pages in book: 219. Total read: enough to know what I think (Score: Minus 3; if you don't believe me, check out the tiny font.)
Gun Metal Heart. Dana Haynes. (Minotaur Books). Evidently Daria is loaded for bear. We first meet her making like a lynx through a fighter-plane junkyard, chased by Mehmet Kavlek of the "meaty hands" and brother Ismael who jumps about "like a gazelle." As we follow them there in Caladri, Italy, through the mass of Tornados, Phantom F-4F's and Airbus A-320 we learn that author Haynes has never met a two-or-three-word sentence (or a one-or-two-sentence paragraph) that he doesn't like. Also people running, or getting tasered and locked up by hairy strangers and --- offering equal time to the upper class --- Todd Brevidge with his red Ferrari F430, Hong-Kong tailored suits, and "seven-hundred-dollar Tom Ford shades," whatever those may be. Since I've always been enamored of long, contemplative Dickensonian, Joycean, and Proustian sentences, Slow Breath left me all too breathless. It's just too jerky for this already Alzheimered brain.
--- Total Pages in Book: 310. Total read: 38 (Score: Minus 2.)
The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. Steven Kotler. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
This is the kind of book that might appeal to athletes and people interested in the human potential. Based on a cursory glance, it seems to be well written. However, with chapters titled "The Way of Flow," "The We of Flow" and "The Flow of Next," and despite my own admiration of the chance for each of us to fulfill our human potential, this is not a book that yielded to my embrace.
Total Pages in Book: 234. Total read: Just too few, I'm afraid. (Score: No stars; neither laughter nor tears.)