It has to be said: 1997 was a good year to be a constant reader. Even if you consciously avoided the big books that made the most cultural noise (Don DeLillo's "Underworld," Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon," etc.), there were literally dozens of smaller and more idiosyncratic titles that were well worth searching out. We'll pay tribute to the best of them next month in our second-annual Salon Book Awards, and you can let us know which books you liked best in our Reader's Choice poll.
Before we start handing out laurels, however, we'd like to stop for a moment to talk about the books that, in our estimation, weren't quite as successful. George Orwell surely got it right about book criticism when he said that most reviewers tend to be overly generous. "It is almost impossible to mention books in bulk without grossly overpraising most of them," he wrote. "Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are."
In the spirit of Orwell's observation, we've asked a handful of our editors and regular critics to tell us about the books that most frustrated them this year -- the ones they most wanted to (and sometimes did) fling across the room. We asked them to split their answers into two categories: Worst Book of the Year and Most Overrated. Without further ado, here are their responses:
WORST: I'll warn against the most evil book of 1997 -- Spaulding Gray's fuck-morality-let's-ski memoir "It's a Slippery Slope" -- and advise you to avoid the dumbest book of 1997 (the never-ending drip of Anne Rice's "Violin"), but there's one endearingly awful tome that I actually recommend: Chet Baker's "As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoir" (St. Martin's). From its first banal sentence ("Fort Lewis, Washington, seemed especially gray and cold during the winter of 1946-47, at least to me") to its last (including the phrase "we were so stoned and so sleepy"), it never comes close to the blue velvet of Baker's singing voice or the sheer breathiness of his trumpet playing. But if you care about that voice or that trumpet, if you can't get through certain Saturday afternoons without listening to Baker do "It's Always You," you might find a little redemption in this curiously bland laundry list of gigs and drugs and drugs again. Despite the cool sadness of his songs, fans will be glad to learn the genius junkie seemed to find contentment. He writes, "I enjoyed heroin very much."
MOST OVERRATED: Here's what we know: There isn't one way to do things. Because this is America, if you are a performer, an artist, a musician -- an anything really -- you can choose your path. If you're good, and you feel like sharing what you do with a lot of people and making some money doing it, you're allowed. If you feel like not compromising and playing in your garage without pay, go ahead. If you choose the happy medium of making and distributing records yourself, that's fine, too. None of this has anything to do with quality and everything to do with the free country/free market crap shoot. I say all of this in response to Fred Goodman's "The Mansion on the Hill" (Times Books), probably the most reviewed, talked-about pop music history of the year. Its shocking revelations: Music is -- gasp -- a business, Bruce Springsteen sometimes listens to his manager, Bob Dylan cares about making money and David Geffen is super-duper ambitious. Yeah, and ...?
WORST: Pound for pound and sentence for sentence, the least felicitous book I read in its entirety this year was, no question about it, Michael Lind's epic poem, "The Alamo" (Houghton Mifflin). But because the galloping absurdity of Lind's epic is also chronicled by another writer in this round-up, I'd like to mention my runner-up: Paul Auster's memoir "Hand to Mouth" (Holt). I admire Auster's best work, and that work includes a remarkable memoir about his father called "The Invention of Solitude." But "Hand to Mouth," an account of Auster's days as a struggling writer, seems to me the most narcissistic and self-congratulatory prose I've read recently from a major writer. When you add to this that "Hand to Mouth" is padded out with sorry examples of Auster's juvenilia -- a card game, a play, a pseudonymous mystery novel -- you've got a book that makes you want to put a hand to your eyes.
MOST OVERRATED: Thomas Mallon is one of the most gifted critics and nonfiction writers alive, and the abundant praise for his 1994 novel "Henry and Clara" ("Amazing ... one of the most interesting American novelists at work," John Updike wrote in the New Yorker) made me eager to pick up his new novel, "Dewey Defeats Truman" (Pantheon). The book is set during the 1948 presidential election in Thomas E. Dewey's Michigan hometown, but the book isn't really about politics. Instead it's a squeaky-clean and surprisingly facile love story -- the tale of a young woman forced to choose between two suitors, a union organizer and a wealthy young lawyer. "Dewey Defeats Truman" lacks grit and real feeling; it's cloying in a way that Mallon's nonfiction never is. This novel has made several "Best of the Year" lists (including Publisher's Weekly's), which is why I feel compelled to add a dissenting opinion.
WORST: There's a strain of consciously transgressive fiction that works so hard to shock that rejecting it can make you feel less prudish than accepting it would. Admitting that you're shaken up by a pretentious stinker like Gary Indiana's "Resentment" (Doubleday) means admitting that you're willing to be a con man's mark. When you read a scene where one guy buggers another with a Snickers bar and then eats it, you've got two choices: You can be disturbed, or you can shrug and figure sometimes you feel like a nut and sometimes you don't. "Resentment," Indiana's take on the Menendez trial, combines Joan Didion's mandarin portentousness, the snide superiority and big apocalyptic finish of that alleged master Nathaniel West and the guess-who roman à clef approach of Harold Robbins and Mario Puzo. Indiana sets out to make his book chic and depraved, the perfect accouterment for a trip to Canyon Ranch. He ambles from one tired theme to the next -- L.A. as the mecca of the rootless, disaffected and psychotic; the unimaginably perverse private lives of public figures; the lack of distinction between journalism and scandal mongering; the nexus between criminals and celebrities -- and even he can't hide his been-there-done-that boredom over it all. "Resentment" is the worst book I finished reading this year and the most perfectly named, its title being exactly what I felt for the time I wasted on it.
MOST OVERRATED: And the year's most overrated book? Anything praised by Michiko Kakutani.
Charles Taylor regularly reviews movies for Salon.
WORST: For Worst Book of the Year, I considered nominating every volume published on the O. J. Simpson case since the end of the trial, but finally settled on Paula Barbieri's "The Other Woman: My Life With O. J. Simpson" (Little, Brown). Words are not sufficient (or necessary) to describe the awfulness of this book -- the florid prose, the heaving breasts, the plucky resolve and unshakable Christian faith of its hare-brained author, a "personal devotion to Jesus Christ" that prevents Barbieri, in the end, from answering the only question anyone cares about. You know what I mean, and so does she. America wants inches, Paula, inches and circumference. Failing that, it's back to Victoria's Secret with you. I regret to report that it was my own -- ex -- agent who brokered a $3.5 million advance for this cynical junk, and my own publishers, Little, Brown, who were stupid enough to pay it.
MOST OVERRATED: The most overrated book of 1997, hands down, is Jamaica Kincaid's "My Brother" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), another in Kincaid's ongoing cycle of abused-daughter diatribes that has the nerve to pose as a book about her brother's struggle with AIDS. Kincaid has only one subject, and that's herself -- more specifically, the wrongs she thinks were done to her as a child by her domineering mother. I reviewed "My Brother" for Salon and gave it only the praise it deserved -- as a vaguely poetic, intermittently hypnotic exercise in resentment and revenge. How it got nominated for a National Book Award I'll never know.
Peter Kurth is a writer and biographer who lives in Burlington, Vt.
- - - > Salon's review of "My Brother"
WORST: In all honesty, the worst book I read all year was a quickie book about Heaven's Gate. But it seems a tad unfair to dump the indignity of this award on authors already suffering from two major handicaps: 1) They wrote the book in six days and 2) they work for the New York Post. So I bestow the honor instead on the always outraged Andrea Dworkin and her book "Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women" (Free Press). (Big on understated titles, Dworkin is.) Dworkin tries her best to work us all into a lather. But her reflexive rhetorical overkill serves to cloud rather than clarify the issues. And by collapsing the distinctions between issues that really are life-and-death (rape, brutality) and some that are not (Playboy centerfolds), she manages to trivialize all she touches. "Intercourse" and "Pornography: Men Possessing Women" may indeed have been, as her publicist rather perversely puts it, "seminal works," but "Life and Death" is Dworkin by-the-numbers. (Fans of '60s radicalism will be happy to note that she still spells it "Amerika.")
MOST OVERRATED: Like that awful Christmas muzak that permeates the brain from Halloween through New Year's, Esther Dyson is inescapable these days. Look -- there she is standing in a pool in Vanity Fair! There she is casually trashing a hotel room in London's Daily Telegraph! There she is frantically looking for a fax machine in ... er ... Salon. Trouble is, while Esther herself is quite colorful, "Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age" (Broadway Books), her new book, is anything but -- it's 300 pages of bland generalities on such riveting subjects as online résumés and Cyber Nannies, interrupted on occasion by various crackpot notions that rival those of her famous father (Freeman Dyson) in their daft grandeur. (In the future, she says, writers will make most of their money as "performers.") But there are, alas, too few of these to justify the book's purchase price -- much less her million-dollar advance.
David Futrelle is a regular contributor to Salon.
- - - > Salon's review of "Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age"
WORST: Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times writer Rick Bragg's memoir "All Over but the Shoutin'"(Pantheon) is a true story that reads like a steaming heap. Bragg grew up dirt-poor and fatherless in Alabama, raised by a loving mother who sacrificed everything for her children. After working his tail off at various newspapers, he rose to fame and fortune at the Times -- he refers to it as "the temple" of his profession -- and we're all invited to ooh and ah over the number of awards he's won as a journalist. That's just one way in which Bragg is insufferable: He also milks his background for all it's worth, overwriting shamelessly about details like the holes in his mother's sneakers (they're mentioned at least three times) and how she scrimped to buy him a class ring made of genuine metal and red glass. Eventually, he saved enough money to buy his mother a house, with real windows that open and shut and everything. That must have taken a lot of hard work, but it's nothing compared with the chore of plowing toward the last page of this book.
MOST OVERRATED: There were people who claimed that Kathryn Harrison's colorless, arid memoir "The Kiss" (Random House) met with criticism because society just can't accept a woman who writes frankly about her sexuality. But I'd say Harrison's frankness isn't the issue: Why does she have to be so goddamn boring? In "The Kiss," Harrison reveals that she had an affair with her father while she was in her 20s, and you don't doubt that she's suffered real pain over the years as a result of it. But the emotion Harrison is most interested in describing is numbness, and eventually she's just, well, numbing. Her prose ("The exhaustion of withstanding his desire is not supportable") is so enervated that every sentence could use its own fainting couch. If this is how she writes about a life-changing experience, I'd sure hate to see her grocery list.
Stephanie Zacharek regularly reviews movies for Salon.
WORST: Each year some aspect of higher education must undergo ritual abuse. In this year's attack, "Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities" (Yale University Press), John M. Ellis, a German professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, argues that the study of literature is going straight to hell. More precisely, it is being sent there by a cabal of Usual Suspects: feminists, Marxists, lesbians, anti-racists and other practitioners of what Ellis calls "race-class-gender" scholarship. It's not surprising that I, a "race-class-gender" scholar myself, disagree with Ellis' polemic; but it's a "worst book" on its own demerits -- inelegant, loosely argued and intellectually ungenerous. Ellis' fantasy of professors' lives before the arrival of the "race-gender-class" scholars does have a musty charm: "They could spend much of their working lives reading and discussing great writers ... Excellence was their watchword, and they kept company with an elite group of the greatest minds our civilization has produced." Certainly, those days of cakes and ale are past. The mundane tasks of teaching often leave professors of literature with as little time for discussing Shakespeare and Goethe as we have -- pace Ellis -- for plotting the overthrow of Western civilization.
MOST OVERRATED: It took me a while to notice that Kitty Kelley's "The Royals" (Warner Books) is overrated, since in literary circles it doesn't rate at all. But then a secretly royal-obsessed friend confessed her disappointment. The book failed, she said, to live up even to the shoddy promise presumably responsible for its nine weeks on the Times bestseller list -- that Kelley would weave a series of disconnected items of gossip into a racy, revealing narrative. Indeed, the Windsors' inability to sin interestingly is matched only by Kelley's inability to dish interestingly. I am trying to imagine the reader who would be startled or fascinated to learn that Princess Margaret left "Schindler's List" halfway through, declaring that she didn't "want to hear another word about Jews or the Holocaust." Each anecdote combines unlikely dialogue, leaden narration and over-the-top irrelevance: "When Elizabeth became patrol leader for her own troop of Girl Guides, she spared no-one, including her chatterbox sister. 'Here,' she told Margaret, 'I am not your sister, and I'll permit no slackness.' Margaret stuck out her tongue, not at all intimidated by her future sovereign." As a compendium of implausible and uninteresting non-fact, however, "The Royals" does achieve a kind of poetic justice: It is an overrated book about the world's most overrated family.
Laura Green is an assistant professor of English at Yale University and a frequent contributor to Salon.
WORST: Undoubtedly the dullest pages I've slogged through this year were those between the covers of Esther Dyson's "Release 2.0." But nipping at Dyson's heels in that contest, and roundly outstripping her in the Moral Turpitude heat, was Dominick Dunne, whose "Another City, Not My Own" managed to shock and bore me at the same time, no small feat. Surrounded, as a Bay Area journalist usually is, by thoughtful people of liberal and leftish inclination -- and by those who know, at the very least, that they ought to genuflect before the altar of multicultural understanding whether they mean it or not -- I'd grown complacent. I have to admit that it took Dunne's celebrity-obsessed O.J. "novel" to make me realize just how shallow, selfish and willfully blinkered rich white people can be -- even when America's racial schism is screaming right in their faces. Yet another lecture from an African-American "community spokesperson" couldn't have delivered a more effective wake-up call, so I suppose I owe Dunne a back-handed thank you for this one.
MOST OVERRATED: Gulp. I know I'm not alone in thinking that much of the reverent fuss over Don DeLillo's "Underworld" seems reflexive, and I know this because so many people have whispered to me that they share my own reservations about this unquestionably brilliant but strangely lifeless shot at the Great American Novel: Postwar Division. Sure, "Underworld" teems with the stuff that critics love to chew on -- big themes, multilayered metaphors, webs of correspondences -- but it's frustratingly lacking in humanity. It's also become the occasion for some of the most puffed-up, tedious tribute reviews I've ever read, in which the prose styles of various accomplished critics suddenly became as stiff and solemn as a 13-year-old boy stuffed into a tuxedo for his brother's wedding.
- - - > Salon's essay about "Another City, Not My Own"
David L. Ulin
WORST: David Bender's "The Confession of O. J. Simpson: A Work of Fiction" (Berkeley) is a book so bad it doesn't even work as camp. In other words, it's no literary "Plan 9 from Outer Space." Rather, it is a calculated piece of pure exploitation, an attempt to cash in on the public's lingering O.J.-mania, complete with wooden dialogue, two-dimensional characters and a plot -- in which O. J. confesses as a way of out-maneuvering Fred Goldman, who has offered to forgo his share of the civil settlement in return for the truth about his son's death -- that wouldn't add up to a credible movie-of-the-week. On its own, this might not be anything but forgettable, but what makes "The Confession of O. J. Simpson" truly offensive is the earnestness with which Bender tries to justify his work. It's one thing, after all, to take advantage of a situation, but another to suggest you're doing it to "provide some measure of resolution to those who continue to obsess about this case." I don't know about you, but if I were after resolution, the last place I'd look would be a novel like this.
MOST OVERRATED: "Hapworth 16, 1924" by J. D. Salinger (Orchises Press). This was the subject of much conjecture early in the year when it was revealed that Salinger had decided to break his 32-year silence and issue this 20,000-word novella with Orchises Press of Alexandria, Va. Then, the book's release was delayed, first from March to June, then until December. It still hasn't come out. For that alone, it would deserve the title of 1997's most overrated book, but more to the point -- and although any publication by Salinger would be a literary event -- "Hapworth" is hardly the new work it appears to be. It is, in fact, Salinger's last published effort, having run in the New Yorker on June 19, 1965. There's something ironic about "Hapworth" marking Salinger's "re-emergence," since for years cultists have combed the text for clues about his withdrawal from public life. In the end, however, this may be all it's good for. The story itself, constructed as a letter by 7-year-old Seymour Glass, lacks the charm and character of Salinger's best fiction, relying on a contrived precociousness that is most astonishing for how false it sounds.
David L. Ulin lives in Los Angeles. He is at work on a book about Jack Kerouac.
WORST: "The Alamo: An Epic," by Michael Lind (Houghton Mifflin). The perfect stocking stuffer for that special militia member holed up in a snowbound cabin. Three hundred fifty-one pages of rhymed couplets about a bunch of yahoos who defied orders to make a futile stand against vastly superior forces. Lind, a reformed right-wing nut, managed to steal time from penning his political ramblings for the New Yorker to earnestly grunt forth endless streams of stentorian twaddle. I imagine he wrote the book by screaming through a bull horn to a horrified page taking dictation in sandals and a toga. "The two would never gallop through mesquite/together, chasing Lapin or Camanch." After perpetrating a million other lines just as painful to the eyes and ears, Lind includes a turgid afterward in defense of writing a poetic epic. Next up for Lind: "Operation Desert Storm: A Tone Poem."
MOST OVERRATED: "The Kiss," by Kathryn Harrison (Random House). A courageous, heartfelt memoir by a gifted young novelist. A cynical publishing move by a struggling mid-list writer rehashing her old fiction. Should be defended on feminist grounds as a liberating document. Should be trashed as the epitome of sensational navel-gazing. The Olympic-sized swimming pool of spilled ink, both pro and con, has finally dried up; what remains is the text and the text is profoundly boring. Written in the shell-shocked prose of a recent victim with no distance or profound insights into what she has been through, "The Kiss" is a remarkably uncompelling read. Where's the beef? The bad taste of easy, tabloid-chasing sensationalism lingers, but after the book's initial titillation (and subsequent elevation to prude litmus test), "The Kiss" is now simply a tepid little turd of a book, a blip on the cultural EKG chart that will be forgotten like a case of mild indigestion.
Rob Spillman, whose work has appeared in Details and the New York Times Book Review, is a regular contributor to Salon.
WORST: Mark Leyner's "Tetherballs of Bougainville" (Harmony). Leyner turns on his irony super-collider and tries to smash big, bad America to teeny-tiny bits. And I guess he does -- the yucks are genuine. But eventually the laughs wither under a head-banging, hit-and-miss schtick assault so relentless you can hear Buddy Hackett's gurgling as Leyner drowns in flop-sweat. It's all in the timing, but this novel only has jokes all the time.
MOST OVERRATED: Alain De Botton's "How Proust Can Change Your Life" (Pantheon). De Botton's conceit -- "In Search of Lost Time" as self-help book -- is cute and certainly a relief from grim scholarship, but, at bottom, this book is really an honors-class Cliffs Notes for would-be Proustians whose attention spans, as well as leisure hours, aren't quite up to snuff. Sure, it's got moments, and if that's all you've got to spare this is the Great Book for you -- to be read during the commercial breaks.
Albert Mobilio has written for Harpers, the Village Voice and Newsday, as well as Salon.
- - - > Salon's review of "Tetherballs of Bougainville"
- - - > Salon's review of "How Proust Can Change Your Life"
WORST: The worst book I read in 1997 also turned out to be the most fun to review: "Alfred Kinsey: A Public/Private Life" by James H. Jones (Norton). This 900-page volume was actually written by the biographer's note-taking software, which was programmed to throw in the occasional, très '90s turn of cliché, like "pushing the envelope." Jones' PC was also very fond of "ironically." (That word, in contemporary American parlance, means "pertaining to a situation involving no irony whatsoever.") For example: "Ironically, the man who loved to dish out criticism had little appetite for taking it." I read every paragraph and footnote, and now wonder if book reviewing might be one of the activities a dominatrix requires her clients to perform. If not, it should be.
MOST OVERRATED: Strictly speaking, the autobiography of Philip J. Corso, a member of Eisenhower's National Security Council and the former head of the Foreign Technology Desk at the U.S. Army's Research and Development department, was not the most overrated title of the year. But it did get a lot of hype. "The Day After Roswell" (Pocket Books) arrived during the 50th anniversary of whatever it was that happened in New Mexico. There was a little flap in the press over the introduction, signed by Strom Thurmond. The senator finally admitted that he had not actually read the book, though he did admire Corso himself. The memoir revealed that several major inventions of recent decades -- such as fiber optics and the microchip -- were "backward engineered" from technology found in UFO wreckage. Corso saw the little bodies of the alien pilots, too. The author, it should be noted, was once in charge of nuclear warheads. Some might find that troubling. No less so, however, is the possibility that the military-industrial complex has bioengineered longevity drugs from alien tissue samples. I think Sen. Thurmond owes us all a few more details about his relationship with the general.
Scott McLemee, a contributing editor at Lingua Franca, writes regularly for Salon
- - - > Scott McLemee's Salon article about "Alfred Kinsey: A Public/Private Life"