alert: revised rating and ranking system

I revised my numeric rating system today because the prior 10-point system was not adequate to the task at hand. It's now a 12-point system to allow for more nuance in assessing books' merits. 

This effort was driven largely by two novels that did not fit into the old system: Under the Volcano and White Noise. Both of these books have some dazzling writing, but I could not finish Under The Volcano because it started to fucking bore me, despite Lowry's enormous talents, and I finished White Noise, but would not recommend reading it, despite its virtues. 

Feel free to take a spin by the revised ratings and rankings, here

 

Inappropriation

By Lexi Freiman
Published 2018
GoodReads rating: 3.58 out of 5
GL rating: 0 out of 10

Inappropriation reads like the raw first draft of a novel that was written by a precocious non-native speaker of English. At page 140, I put it to rest.

For starters, there is the errant use of fairly basic words. On page 49, a character makes "eye contact" with a magazine, but you can't make eye contact with a magazine because magazines have no eyes to make contact with. 

On page 14, the students at the elite girls high school that Ziggy (the protagonist) attends are stuck by the nurse with "HPV," which refers human papillomavirus. I think Freiman meant to write that the students were stuck with the vaccine rather than the virus. 

Page 14 is also where we see in the text the word "enlargening," which is not in Merriam-Webster and which Microsoft Word reads as an error. 

Freiman uses and misspells unselfconscious, twice.

"Enlargening," "unself-conscious," and a few subject-verb agreement errors, lead me to believe that no one bothered to run the manuscript through a spelling and grammar check. 

In some cases, the quality of the writing may be more of a matter of taste; the abs of the gay patrons of a dance club are referred to as "lurid." While "lurid abs" may be proper English ... it is botched writing. And to tell you the truth, I'm not sure it's the correct use of the word lurid. We can agree to disagree on this. 

Here is another gem:

"'I'm going to have to get off in a minute..." Rowena says, a smile creeping into her voice.'"

I don't understand how you write the phrase "...a smile creeping into her voice."

The characters in Inappropriation range from flat to incoherent. Ziggy's grandmother is described as being stuck in the Old Testament, and then on the next page we learn that she's regarded as a local fashion icon and has multiple online dating profiles. The grandmother is "progressive," but "has no respect for the poor or uneducated."

Of course good characters contain contradictions, but the sloppy language choices throughout the novel gave me the impression that this character whip-lash is unintentional. Regardless, it was not artful. 

The book suffers from larger, more generalized deficiencies. It's described as a satire, but what exactly is being satirized? "Politically correct" attitudes? Or the three female students who dominate the first 140 pages of the book and who struggle to understand identity politics?

Neither of those options -- punching down at wealthy, misguided teen-aged girls or embracing a Fox News critique of PC culture -- strike me as a promising framework for a novel. 

At times Inappropriation seems to dabble in racism or ableism itself. One minor character is described as an "albino minion" of Ziggy's. That's all we get about him or her; he or she is defined by their disability, which struck me as gratuitous and shitty.

There are some cringe-inducing passages about Asian students:

"Above these girls sit the brilliant Asians, who are presumed virgins and suffer a constant stream of pens and erasers to their ponytails, especially on test days. Ziggy hopes their weekends are rich with friendship and adventure. Then come the cool homework-averse Asians, who hide behind make-up and an air of disaffection. They are both sexy and cute in a perfect ratio that Ziggy's own slight form fails to achieve. She covets their straight noses and smooth hairless arms."  

I'm not sure if that technically qualifies as racist, but it strikes me as kind of gross, and 2018 is the wrong year to be publishing novels that might be a little racist. 

 

 

 

The Handmaid's Tale

By Margaret Atwood
Published 1998
GoodReads rating: 4.05 out of 5
GL rating: 8 out of 10

(Comments originally posted on FB 8-9-18)

This was a stunning, gorgeously written novel, so glad I read it. I would recommend the shit out of this novel to basically everyone.

I had a couple of very minor quibbles. The explanation of the conditions that led to the crisis was treated a bit too loosely.

And the account of the coup felt glib. Although this criticism is anticipated in the novel. The protagonist is not a journalist.

The flashbacks could perhaps have been handled more effectively. The back story could have been woven into Into the present a bit more organically, although you learn a few things at the end of the book that cast the story into a different kind of light.

The last criticism — and I just need to re-emphasize that the “flaws” are trivial — is that it struck me as odd that she would situate the blame for the nightmarish patriarchy in the lap of one religious sect.

The problem of misogyny is one of the few constants across epochs, geographies, cultures, and religions. I think blaming the WASPs fails to take the deep-rooted complexity of gender issues into account.

Anyway, Atwood is an explosively talented writer; I look forward to reading The Handmaid’s Tale again at some point in the future, as well as more of her other work.

Regarding the rankings below I’m now questioning my rankings of the three novels below HMT. I may need to go back into them to jog my memory. Wondering if I’m giving Lot 49 and Blindness too much credit and Austerlitz not enough.

For the last couple of novels I’ve been taking better notes so it will be easier to go back and review what the writers had up their sleeves.

The Plague

By Albert Camus
Published 1947
GoodReads rating: 3.98 out of 5
GL rating: 5 out of 10
(Comments originally posted on FB July 30, 2018)

The Plague is a solid novel. I enjoyed it and would recommend it with some qualifications. At its worst the writing generally was better than competent and periodically it was inspired.

The Plague, however, mostly underscored for me how superb Blindness (another Plague novel) is in comparison, and shed some light on what makes Blindness such a great book.

The Plague had a documentary feel, and it succeeds on that level, but it felt orthodox and conventional. Not what you’d call a triumph of the imagination. It was concerned more with the clinical and the process part of the story where Blindness was more focused on the psychological implications of its plague.

Camus described the impact of the Plague on the town at some length, whereas Blindness stuck more closely to one small group of people in an institution, leaving the effects of that plague on the town outside the gates mostly up to the reader’s imagination.

Blindness did a much better job of depicting the horrors attendant on its plague. Camus’ characters feel like they’re having articulate, earnest conversations about events they’d seen depicted in a PG-rated movie, while Blindness puts you in the room in a way that was totally harrowing. Not in a shock-factor way, but in its merciless assessment of what humans are capable of.

The Plague loosely follows the travails of 5 or 6 characters (all men) as they navigate the pestilence mostly on their own. Their character arcs did not feel rich; the story may have been more successful if their lives and stories were more woven together.

Camus intended the story to work as an allegory. The human condition is the true plague in his novel. There are both oblique and overt political dimensions to the story, including references to trains and crematoriums which presumably were meant to evoke the Holocaust.

Camus gets his point across, and this sets up one of the most moving scenes in the book, but overall this allegorical dimension felt somewhat predictable. Saramago’s efforts in these veins were more subtle much more evocative.

Old Man and the Sea

By Ernest Hemmingway
Published 1952
GoodReads rating: 3.74 out of 5
GL rating: 5 out of 10
(Comments originally posted on FB July 10, 2018)

It’s a great story as far as the story goes. His treatment of Santiago is somewhat puzzling. Not much more insight into Santiago’s mind and interior life than you get about the fish. I suppose that wasn’t the point though.

8-10-18 update: I still don't know what to make of this book. The mastery of the details of a fisherman's life and routine on the water were impressive. Part of me feels like reading the book you step into a chamber of meaning, but that chamber of meaning is itself embedded in a larger and unseen chamber of meaning. Would like to see what other critics have made of it. 

Border Districts

By Gerard Murnane
Published 2018
GoodReads rating: 3.65 out of 5
GL rating: 9 out of 10
(Comments originally posted on FB July 9, 2018)

This was an extraordinary novel. The dust jacket described the author, Gerard Murnane, as a perennial Nobel candidate, and I can see why.

It’s not just that it’s a ravishing novel, it’s a novel that manages to be ravishing despite the absence of a plot, conflict, love triangle, character development, or car crashes. It has sort of forced me to rethink what a great novel should look like.

It reminded me a bit of Austerlitz in terms of its tone (old man looking back on his life) bit they are very different novels.

It’s the kind of novel that looks like it would be fairly easy to pull off, but I also had the sense that to really get all that it has to offer you’d have to read it three times.

I recommend it highly, and I can share that I finished reading it standing on the corner of 13th street and broadway avenue while waiting to see a mediocre action movie.

I can also share that Border Lands is only 130 pages, which is nice.

The Appointment

By Herta Muller
Published 1997
GoodReads rating: 3.41 out of 5
GL rating: 2 out of 10

(Comments originally posted on FB July 4, 2018)
I’d never heard of Herta Muller, and she’s a Nobel Laureate so I wanted to read some of her Work. I liked The Appointment enough to finish it but would not recommend it. It offers interesting glimpses into life in a communist dictatorship but it suffered from a meandering, under-powered plot. Not much in the way of character development. The language (or the translation) was ok.

Under the Volcano

By Malcolm Lowry
Published 1953
GoodReads rating: 3.8
GL rating: 3 out of 10
(Comments originally posted on FB June 29, 2018)

I can see why the novel is frequently called one of the best of the 20th Century, the writing is frequently good and less frequently stellar. However, I just couldn’t get through it. It’s a 390 page novel about a man getting drunk and dying over the course of a day. The shards of plot, to the extent that there is a plot, come in paragraph-length bursts every 10 to 15 pages, and in the intervening 15 pages you get mostly the two male characters riffing internally on various topics, or you get descriptions of landscapes. Lowry’s sentences are too frequently run-ons, and they are not pleasing beautiful run-ons, they are convoluted run-ons. At the end of the day, it got to be very tedious reading. If anything it underscores what a superb book Austerlitz is, which has a similar pastoral and contemplative approach to its narrative, but is much more compelling.

Because it’s such a renowned book I’m going to continue to peck at it now and then. If the second half blows my mind I’ll revise and resubmit.

The Piano Teacher

By Elfriede Jelinek
Published 1983
GoodReads rating: 3.54  out of 5
GL rating: 0 out of 10 stars
(Comments originally published on FB June 19, 2018)

I really hated this book, and put it down after 85 pages. It is easily the worst of the 20 novels I’ve read since I got back into the novel racket.

There were a few nice sentences, but not nearly enough to put up with the soul-shattering claustrophobia, solipsism, repetitiveness, lack of plot (literally no plot 85 pages in), and absence of character development.

Not a single likable or relatable character.

I could not rule out the possibility that the book would pick up in its final half or quarter, but I’m just not willing to suffer through it to find out. Jelanek is a Nobel laureate; presumably her other novels are better. I have no intention of investigating.

8-10-18: I read that some members of the Nobel prize committee resigned after Jelinek won the award.

Lord of the Flies

By William Golding

Published 1954

GoodReads rating: 3.66  out of 5

GL rating: 6 out of 10 stars

(Comments originally published on FB June 9, 2018)

Not a novel I would have picked up myself, but because I’m going to hear some interesting people talk about it, I just finished Lord of the Flies. I think I read it in junior high school (?) or part of it. Had no idea that William Golding was a Nobel Laureate. It was also his first novel. Anyway, it’s probably a book that many people read in high school and then never look back on, but it’s a great novel. The use of symbolism is remarkable.

The novel I read prior to it, Blindness ... the structural (or maybe thematic) similarities were surprising, although maybe unintentional.

8-10-18 update: This was kind of a crazy book, I've not read any other novel that was so good while simultaneously being so flawed. The characters are very two-dimensional, is the main problem. At the same time, Golding is clearly a genius. 

Manhattan Transfer

By John Dos Passos

Published 1925

GoodReads rating: 3.5  out of 5

GL rating: 0 out of 10 stars

(Comments originally posted on FB May 14, 2018)

I gave it 100 pages, but I've decided to put down "Manhattan Transfer" by Dos Passos. There were the glimmers of a novel in there somewhere, but, I wasn't feeling it. In addition to reading like a pile of unrealized short-story fragments, the dialog was terrible.

The Great Gatsby

By F. Scott Fitzgerald

Published 1925

GoodReads rating: 3.9  out of 5

GL rating: 10 out of 10 stars

(Comments originally posted on FB May 5, 2018)

I finished re-reading Gatsby a few days ago. I remembered liking it the first time around, but not being blown away. I think I preferred The Sun Also Rises when I first read those books.

Gatsby this time blew my mind, and it is better than TSAR (although I still love them both; and was struck by some of the similarities). If you haven’t read it since high school or college, do yourself a favor and grab it.

The only downside is that I now feel compelled to watch the Baz Luhrmann adaptation, and it’s going to be a challenge.

8-10-18 update: Did not watch the Baz movie, thank God. Gatsby is one of the best novels of the 20th century, if you haven't read it, or haven't re-read it lately, dive in!

Junky

By William S. Burroughs

Published 1953

GoodReads rating: 3.85  out of 5

GL rating: 4 out of 10 stars

(Comments originally posted on FB April 13, 2018)

Finished “Junky” yesterday. It’s a pretty solid book. Interesting look at life as a junky in the 1950s, much of it set in NYC. Kerouac I think borrowed heavily from it for On The Road, which is not as good as a novel as Junky.

8-10-18 update: the novel works best as journalism. Little to no story or character arc. 

Manhattan Beach

By Jennifer Egan

Published 2017

GoodReads rating: 3.66  out of 5

GL rating: 4 out of 10 stars

(Comments originally posted on FB April 7, 2018)

(Spoilers)

Superb set-up with a somehow flat final 150 pages. The narrative may have lost some of its punch through some plot sequencing choices.

Much of the writing was inspired, but it’s a case of many brilliant sentences that were not harnessed to deliver a good but not a knock-out story.

Dexter the gangster’s trajectory kind of didn’t work.

The father-daughter reunion at the end felt half-baked.

Anyway the book’s merits more than compensate for its shortcomings. It’s a very rich picture of life in NYC during the war. That alone was worth the price of the ticket.

8-10-18 update: worth a read if you're interested in NYC history, or in the impact the war had on the way women fit into society. Otherwise, I'd take a pass. 

On the Road

By Jack Kerouac

Published 1955

GoodReads rating: 3.64  out of 5

GL rating: 2 out of 10 stars

(Comments originally posted on FB March 26, 2018)

Finished re-reading On The Road today. I’m glad I read it, despite its serious shortcomings. I think the context around it’s creation and publication, the back story, may be more interesting than the novel itself. Also would be curious to read some criticism. I am probably not fully attuned to it’s achievement and impact, reading it 60 years after its publication.

8-10-18 update: This was a dull, repetitive, shallow story tucked into what could have been a very promising novel. I'd still like to know a bit more about it though. 

Slaughterhouse-Five

By Kurt Vonnegut

Published 1969

GoodReads rating: 4.06  out of 5

GL rating: 3 out of 10 stars

Looks like I read this in March of 2018 but did not post any comments on GarbageBook.

Parts of the novel were great; particularly the passages about the character's time as a POW. However, off-handedly revealing significant plot developments before they officially occur in the book tended to flatten the story and deflated the dramatic impact. The blending of the Tralfamadore story with the POW story wasn't executed particularly well, and it all wound up feeling kind of facile. 

A non-review random data point

(Originally published March 3, 2018)

I currently own 75 novels and have read 42 of them.

Why am I telling you this?

It’s a great question. Maybe I’m telling myself this, publicly.

Today I’m starting to get them grouped together on the shelves, then I will alphabetize them, then I will catalogue them on google drive, so that I do not buy duplicate copies of books I already own.

Thank you.

Austerlitz

By W.G. Sebald

Published 2001

GoodReads rating: 4.04  out of 5

GL rating: 8 out of 10 stars

(Comments originally posted on FB January 17, 2018)

"Austerlitz" at 50 Pages
-- It reminds me a bit of "The Heart of Darkness"; a narrator riffing on a mysterious character; the tone also, not just the narrative perspective
-- I'm trying to wrap my brain around the use of photographs in the novel; this may be the first novel I've read that has pictures. Off-hand, unless some deeper meaning or rationale for including them emerges, I'm inclined to call them gimmicky and distracting. They don't add much
-- The exposition, I felt, started to bog down a bit for a few pages, but it was a very brief lull, and the last few pages have been masterful. The descriptions of landscapes sort of come out of nowhere and are amazing. What's more disturbing is that it's not totally clear why they are so amazing. Can't wait to see where he takes the story.

8-10-18 update: Did not write a review after I finished this, but it's an incredible novel. I'm now wondering if it shouldn't get bumped up a spot or two in the rankings. The narration feels pretty removed from the story, it felt a bit like you were seeing the events unfold through a very long straw. I think this is one that I would love to go back and re-read at some point, I recommend it highly.