Five books I bailed on in 2012

Salon's book critic dishes on the popular titles she kicked to the curb this year VIDEO

Topics: Books, Fiction, Nonfiction,

Every week I pick one book to review for the column What to Read — a book about which I feel genuinely enthusiastic. That doesn’t mean I read only one book per week. It often takes me several tries before I find a title I can wholeheartedly (or most-heartedly) recommend. Sometimes I sample books you’ve never heard of (and probably never will hear of), but many’s the time I take a pass on a widely celebrated title. Here are few of the more notable books that failed to impress me in 2012.

A novel about the Iraq War, written by a veteran of that war, this was one of the year’s most highly praised works of fiction. It won the Guardian’s First Book Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award and made the New York Times Book Review’s ten-best list. “The Yellow Birds” is a sincere and serious-minded novel, and that may be part of the problem. Given the war’s status as bloody fiasco perpetrated by a delusionally self-confident Bush Administration, the pitch-black comic tone of Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” struck me as better fit for the times. But what most put me off Powers’ debut is its vaunted style, part of that school of prose — commonly referred to as “lyrical” — in which seemingly every sentence must be tortured into some unprecedented and extravagantly figurative metaphor or turn of phrase: “While we slept the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer” is the fourth line. This is tiresome to read and far better suited to a narrative in which not much happens. When applied to matters of life and death it struck me as grotesquely over-aestheticized.

Published during the summer as a modestly promoted midlist title, this novel about a married couple living in an isolated lighthouse off the coast of Australia enjoyed an unexpected surge of interest after it got a few good reviews and support from indie booksellers. The couple, unable to have a child of their own, find an infant adrift in a boat and the lighthouse keeper, against his better judgement, allows his lonely wife to keep it. It’s a situation that probably won’t end well, but I cannot say that I was sufficiently interested in how it did end to stick around and find out. Who can say why we are bored by some books? It’s easy to claim “nothing happens,” although in most case when readers make this complaint it simply isn’t true. It’s my belief that I found “The Light Between Oceans” dull because it lacked atmosphere, the ability to make the lighthouse and its island sufficiently vivid and sensual in my imagination. Yeats said he felt sea spray on his face when he read “The Odyssey;” all I felt was the vague hankering to read something else.

The winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012, this novel sounded right up my alley: a story about a bookish 15-year-old girl in which the supernatural elements may or may not be real. The narrator is the surviving member of a pair of Welsh twins trying to get on with her life after successfully thwarting the apocalyptic schemes of a mad sorceress who just happens to be her own mother. I was taken with the idea of beginning the novel at the point at which most fantasy narratives would have ended. But “Among Others” suffers from the pervasive smugness of narratives written for an insular audience. Morwenna, the narrator, is always right, from her judgments of science fiction novels (most of the narrative recounts her efforts to find community with fellow fans) to the fully-formed 21st-century liberal attitudes toward sex and race that she holds despite having been raised in a rural backwater during the 1970s. Anyone she instinctively distrusts turns out to be malevolent, and her skeptical attitude towards values and ideas different from her own is invariably confirmed. A coming-of-age story in which the main character doesn’t really change is a story that saps all the meaning out of growing up.

Okay, I did actually finish this one, and that’s the problem. Zafón, best known for the international bestseller “The Shadow of the Wind,” writes Dumas-like adventure yarns with a bibliophilic bent set in mid-20th-century Barcelona. “The Prisoner of Heaven,” while not as grand or vigorous as “The Shadow of the Wind,” has far more snap than that novel’s anemic sequel, “The Angel’s Game.” However, having set up an appropriately sinister and powerful villain, Zafón simply stops the book at a random point, leaving nearly every major element of the plot unresolved. Who knows, this could be a respectably entertaining novel when it’s finally finished, but please don’t bother me with it until it’s done.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand the appeal of this, a surprise success among nonfiction titles published this year. As an unrepentant homebody who has spent at least 50 percent of her life alone with her nose in a book, I have a keen appreciation of the solitary people and pleasures Cain extols. But I — unlike, apparently, many, many “Quiet” enthusiasts — have never felt the need for an entire book justifying my preferences. When you’re a book critic, everybody thinks it only right that you should spend all of your time alone in a room. No doubt Cain has provided much validation to readers whose introversion comes in for frequent criticism by family, friends or colleagues, as well as facts about the accomplishments of introverts to fling in the face of such critics. But not needing either, I didn’t find the book particularly scintillating or well-written. Anyone can be interested in a book they perceive to be about themselves and how wonderful they are. To my mind, the true sign of a great work of nonfiction is its uselessness; it should enthrall even when it has no practical application or even relevance to one’s own life and problems.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>