Turkey Shoot 1998

The worst books of 1998


Salon contributors
December 25, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Earlier this week, we announced the winners of the third annual Salon Book
Awards
-- our 10 favorite books of 1998. But as even Santa knows, you
can't have a who's-been-nice list without a who's-been-naughty list, too.
So without further ado, here's the second annual Salon Turkey Shoot, a
roundup of what some of our contributors thought were this year's
least successful books.

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Dennis Drabelle

WORST: "The Best Little Boy in the World Grows Up" by Andrew
Tobias (Random House). The title ends too soon -- "And Becomes an A-Gay
Snot" would round it out accurately. Andrew Tobias' follow-up memoir is so
name-droppingly smug that it sends you back to its predecessor, "The Best
Little Boy in the World," published in 1976 under the pseudonym John Reid,
to see if you misremembered that sometimes affecting story of growing up
gay in a homo-hostile world. And in fact, you did: In light of the new book,
the earlier one's tendencies toward self-satisfaction become all the more
noticeable. What a blunder -- to write a book so bad that it snakes back
and infects a predecessor that had been edging its way toward minor-classic
status.

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MOST OVERRATED: "The Professor and the Madman" by Simon
Winchester (HarperCollins). You call this a book? Though entertaining, it's
an article-length idea teased out to volume size: Loony American kills
Brit, gets sent to booby hatch, becomes useful soul by supplying word-use
citations to dictionary-makers, gets crazier with age and cuts off his
johnson. That's about all there is to it, but the padding starts with the
verbose subtitle ("A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford
English Dictionary"), continues through a preface, jumps to a postscript,
an author's note, acknowledgments, suggestions for further reading -- and
the text itself is larded with excerpts from the dictionary and several
whole-page drawings. At 242 pages, this item is vastly overweight.

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Dennis Drabelle is working on a memoir about the 1950s and the birth pangs
of American youth culture.

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Stephanie Zacharek

WORST: Geoff Dyer's "Out of Sheer Rage" (North Point) may not
be the very worst book of the year, but it's easily one of the most
disappointing. Dyer's 1996 novel "But Beautiful" is one of the loveliest
books about jazz ever written. "Out of Sheer Rage" -- which was supposed to
be a serious study of D.H. Lawrence but ended up as Dyer's masturbatory
rumination about his own writer's block -- hasn't a smidgen of lyricism:
It's more like one long, sustained whine. Dyer apparently feels compelled
to put words -- any words -- to paper. And here, he puts out lots. And
lots. And lots. Wonder if he went back and counted them, just for kicks.

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MOST OVERRATED: In Howard Norman's "The Museum Guard"
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a young Jewish woman becomes obsessed with a
woman in a painting and feels she must leave her home in Halifax for
Amsterdam so she can become the woman in the painting -- all this as
Hitler begins exterminating Jews throughout Europe. She's lucky enough to
have some good friends who eagerly help her act on her plan. Later, they
realize their mistake: oops! Praised by critics for its graceful prose and
unplumbable emotional depth, "The Museum Guard" tries to cover some very
big subjects indeed: the horrors of the Holocaust, the meaning of identity
and some other stuff. If it only had a brain.


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Stephanie Zacharek lives in Boston. She is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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Carlin Romano

WORST: Hagiography by definition appears after the death of a saint,
but it rarely arrives just as the sainthood is called into question. From the
very first pages of "Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker" by Ved
Mehta (Overlook) -- in which the longtime Shawn disciple announces that a
friend who read the book in manuscript urged him not to refer to his
subject as "Mr. Shawn" -- this was a uniquely odd performance: a willful
insistence on writing the traditional version of the story of the legendary
New Yorker editor, come hell, high water or Lillian Ross. The friend
described it as "an unabashed work of veneration." Mr. Shawn, one suspects,
would not have stood for it.

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MOST OVERRATED: Nonfiction books get a critical premium when bound
in high moral purpose. Edward Ball's "Slaves in the Family" (Farrar,
Straus & Giroux), winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction,
outdistanced all contenders on that score this year, which gives it my nod
in this category. Ball's exploration of his slave-owning ancestors and
document-laden tracking of descendants of their thousands of slaves edifies
the reader and plainly quenched the author's existential thirst. The
shaping of the story itself, however, hardly rises to narrative art, and a
strain of sanctimony appears too often, despite the author's best efforts.
Get started on your Mother Teresa bio.

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Carlin Romano, literary critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, teaches
philosophy at Bennington College.

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Brigette Frase

WORST: J.G. Ballard, who has a weakness for lunatics with Really Big
Ideas, outdid himself in "Cocaine Nights" (Counterpoint). Charles
Prentice goes to a chichi country club in exclusive Estrella del Mar to
investigate five arson murders for which his brother Frank is being framed.
Charles, as dim and clueless as Inspector Clouseau (minus the idiotic charm
-- he has the personality of a limp handshake) forgets all about his
brother when he falls under the spell of the "charismatic" tennis pro and
civic booster Bobby Crawford, who stages orgies, rapes, fires, robberies
and assaults. Frank's lover forgives Bobby for trying to strangle her
because "it's all in a good cause. He wants to bring people back to life."
Nothing like a little "transgressive behavior" to foster community spirit.
What a shame that Ballard and his characters are unblemished by any sense
of humor. With a nip here and a tuck there, this could have been a really
funny novel.

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MOST OVERRATED: I started reading Joyce Carol Oates novels in
graduate school, which is peculiar right there. When I needed a break from
theoretical semantics, phonemic algorithms or even "The Brothers
Karamazov," I'd wander in the U. of Chicago stacks, looking for current
fiction. And everywhere I turned, I ran into Joyce Carol Oates. So that's
what I read for fun. Over a number of years, her novels managed to depress
me softly with her (lurid, yet smoothly crooned) song. Is that all there
is? I wondered. Nothing has changed. "Man Crazy" (Dutton) is as
competent, as well-written and as utterly unnecessary a book as I've read
in some time. Poor teenage Ingrid, with her Vietnam-freaked daddy, her
alcoholic slutty mommy, looking for love in all the wrong places. Daddy
kills Mommy's boyfriend and Ingrid runs away, ending up with a loony
motorcycle cult guy who calls her "Dog-girl" and makes her swallow a
still-beating human heart. Ingrid is a composite newspaper clipping of a
Troubled Teen suddenly forced into a horror-porn flick. What's wrong with
Joyce Carol, anyway? She knows how to write a book, or maybe that's the
problem. She doodles them off instead of working them. I loved her Gothic
stuff, "Bellefleur," for example. Maybe she should have followed her bliss
into Anne Rice country.

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Brigette Frase is a book critic living in Minneapolis.

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Peter Kurth

WORST: The worst book I read this year was Suzanne Somers' "After
the Fall: How I Picked Myself Up, Dusted Myself Off, and Started All Over
Again"
(Crown). It's mean, probably, to add to Somers' numerous
"challenges" by recommending that her book be placed straight in the
garbage can. She is so earnest, so gooey, so delighted with herself, and of
course, "After the Fall" isn't really a book at all. It's a can of
celebrity tripe and self-help gobbledygook that might have passed unnoticed
if Somers weren't the most relentless self-promoter since P.T. Barnum. Who
read it in the first place, you ask? Only a paid reviewer -- and a lot of
women with heavy thighs.

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MOST OVERRATED: I
nominate Tom Wolfe's long-awaited "A Man In Full" (Farrar, Straus &
Giroux). Probably nothing could have lived up to the hype that preceeded
this endless -- and endlessly self-satisfied -- effort to provide a
panoramic view of America at the end of the century. Wolfe is a sly boots,
cloaking his outright celebration of the pecker under a veneer of caring
and spiritual restlessness. The result is an ugly, misogynistic, homophobic
wet dream, if there can be such a thing. Who or what is Wolfe lusting after
if other men and all women over 30 are excluded from the mix? His place in
literature, I suspect. 'Nuff said.

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Peter Kurth lives in Burlington, Vt. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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Sylvia Brownrigg

WORST: People in the United States can't have thought much of Tama Janowitz's
strained madcap caper "By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee" (Crown)
either; the novel snuck into bookshops in Britain, where I live, two years
after its U.S. publication. I'm not surprised: It is pretty dire. Reading
it is like watching morning TV, or eating rope licorice -- a little is fun,
but too much at once might rot your brain. My piece saying as much in the
Times Literary Supplement led to a comical spat with Janowitz's mother, who
wrote in with a strange rant about iceberg lettuce, in which she assumed
their lettuce-ignorant reviewer was English. As if!

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MOST OVERRATED: My vote goes to Russell
Banks' John Brown epic "Cloudsplitter" (HarperCollins). Banks'
extensive research is impressive, but his account of Brown's son Owen is
scattered with psychological anachronisms that undermine the
vividly textured story. I doubt a Bible-educated 19th century Puritan would
believe that he resolved "all his private, warring emotions and conflicted
passions in the larger, public war against slavery," or would source his
father's anti-slavery fury in "the terrible, desolating wound he had
suffered in his heart when his mother died." One hundred thirty years later, get the guy
in therapy, and it might happen; but as it was, I found this admirable
rendition hard to buy.

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Sylvia Brownrigg is an American writer living in London. Her first novel, "The Metaphysical Touch," will be published next year by Farrar, Straus &
Giroux.

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Dwight Garner

WORST: "As soulless as a rock video and as decadently frenetic as a
wind-up action pimp, Dale Peck's third novel, "Now It's Time to Say
Goodbye"
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux) put me in mind of a line from
Pauline Kael's review of a mid-'80s Clint Eastwood movie: 'It would take a
board inquiry made up of gods to determine whether this picture is more
offensive aesthetically, psychologically, morally, or politically.'" That's
what I wrote, anyway, when I reviewed Peck's book earlier this year for
another publication, and over time my opinion hasn't softened. In this
novel about two pretentious, black-clad young gay men -- one is named
(groan) Justin Time, the other Colin Nieman (or "No Man") -- who flee
Manhattan for rural Kansas, there isn't a single character, scene or
emotion that rings true. Peck, the author of the lovely "Martin and John,"
shows contempt for just about everything and everyone in this nasty piece
of work, especially his readers. Want to give someone a lump of coal in his
or her stocking? Here's your chance.

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MOST OVERRATED: Ron Rosenbaum's "Explaining Hitler: The Search
for the Origins of His Evil"
(Random House), has been almost
universally praised for injecting some much-needed oxygen into a subject
that Don DeLillo, in his novel "White Noise," satirically referred to as
"Hitler Studies." And, indeed, Hitler probably is too important a topic to
be left to the experts. But Rosenbaum's jittery, narcissistic book didn't
engage this reader on any level -- it scrolled past like the 4 a.m. ravings
of an overcaffeinated grad student. As Rosenbaum hurries from theory to
theory -- tweaking here, debunking there, abusing italicization almost
everywhere -- you'll feel like you've been buttonholed at a cocktail party
by an overzealous bore. File this under Gonzo Philosophy 101.


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Katharine Whittemore

WORST: "There was no smell in the air," writes Richard Preston in
"The Cobra Event" (Random House), as his manly men vanquish yet
another biohazard. Viral agents don't ferment, it seems, hence no odor. Not
this prose, though! "The Cobra Event" came out at the end of 1997, but the
stench has persisted through 1998. Lord knows, the book's topical; just
read any headlines with the word "Iraq" in large type. But the characters
are so Hollywood-banal they may as well be named "Bruce Willis" and "Denzel
Washington." And the prose verges on the grotesque: "the marble walls ...
reminded her of a cancerous liver, sliced open for inspection." Preston's
"The Hot Zone" worked, but this effort, well, stinks.

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MOST OVERRATED: No contest: Roy Blount's "Be Sweet: A Conditional
Love Story"
(Knopf). There oughta be a rule: No memoirs unless you've
done therapy or, OK, if you're Frank McCourt. But if you're an
uninsightful, self-involved, whiny, misogynistic writer who, admittedly,
can be funny, but also, admittedly, grates on readerly nerves something
awful, we'd rather not have your life story. Poignant, said other
reviewers. Lyrical. Didn't they notice Blount hardly bothers to describe
his two ex-wives? Didn't they see the man's most vivid emotion is blame (on
Mom, mostly)? Did they skim over barbs like this?: "Women are always right
when feelings are involved, and feelings are always involved as soon as a
woman sets foot in the room." Back atcha, Roy. I feel (not think, of
course) you should've spared us your small-minded book.

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Katharine Whittemore is the editor of American Movie Classics magazine, and
a frequent contributor to Salon.

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Dante Ramos

WORST: If you want to be taken seriously as a political analyst, you
shouldn't title your book "A New Kind of Party Animal" (Simon &
Schuster). But tell that to 20ish author Michele Mitchell, who wrote
this dreadful treatise on the role of 18- to 35-year-olds in American
politics. Mitchell, who seldom weighs down her windy generalizations with
actual data, argues that people in her age cohort are more skeptical,
clever and honorable than baby boomers are. As evidence, Mitchell recounts
the work of a few truly admirable young activists -- and describes a lot
of angst-ridden soul-searching by members of her own boring Capitol Hill
clique.

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MOST OVERRATED: After the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, the Free Press rushed Howard Kurtz's "Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine" into print a few months early. It's a fine piece of
journalism. Kurtz's reporting is meticulous, the narrative gallops along
and the book's release could not have been better timed. Yet to enjoy a
book, you shouldn't have to buy it the day it hits the shelves. Too much of
"Spin Cycle" was inside baseball (and old news) by the time I read it, just
a few short months after its release.

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Dante Ramos is an editorial writer at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

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Sally Eckhoff

WORST: Caroline Knapp's "Pack of Two" (Dial): Get a dog, lose
your mind. Anything to keep from drinking. Well, OK, it's great that
Caroline Knapp isn't poisoning herself anymore -- she looks great in her
publicity photos with that long, fat, country goddess braid hanging down
her back. But either I missed something or she forgot halfway through why
she was writing this book. It can't be because Lucy the dog gives her
unconditional love and never insults her, though that's what she says. If
that's even true, it's only because dogs can't read.

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MOST OVERRATED: Edwidge Danticat's "The Farming of Bones"
(Soho): Please, please, no more of these ossuary masterpieces. The angel
craze was bad enough. Bone this, bone that, it's just as much a calculated
bit of quality-lit phraseology as the whole gerund-definite-article-noun
book title thing. At least she didn't call it "Farming the Bone." You see
bones, you expect structure, and its corollary image, pain (not to be
confused with bon pain). People are falling all over themselves because of
the rawness and immediacy of it all. Bones! Death! Farming! This woman is a
genius! No, she's not.

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Sally Eckhoff is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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David Ulin

WORST: I know: Calling Jay McInerney's "Model Behavior"
(Knopf) the worst book of 1998 is about as remarkable as saying that the
New York Yankees had a great year. But even by this author's uniquely low
standards, "Model Behavior" is a volume of astonishing superficiality, a
short novel (accompanied by seven stories) in which McInerney has given up
trying to ape writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald in favor of becoming a pale
imitation of ... himself. It's the literary equivalent of self-cannibalism,
as McInerney lifts the entire plot of "Bright Lights, Big City" and
reconfigures it for the late 1990s, telling the story of a burned-out
celebrity journalist who's been left by his supermodel girlfriend and must
now try to cope with all the fragments of his so-called life. At least the
first time McInerney cranked out this novel it appeared, if not original,
then at least organic, like a book he had to write. Now, it just feels old,
unseemly, as if he'd been caught stealing his own stuff.

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MOST OVERRATED: "Two Cities" by John Edgar Wideman (Houghton
Mifflin). Am I the only one who thinks John Edgar Wideman gets more credit
than he deserves? Sure, he's produced some fine novels, and in exploring
the nature of the black urban experience he's managed to make his own
history almost mythological -- bestowing on it a universal human power.
Still, as often as not, his work operates at an irredeemable distance, as
if beneath the complicated surfaces of his language there is little of
emotional consequence to be found. "Two Cities" is a perfect case in point.
An impressionistic love story that moves between Pittsburgh and
Philadelphia, between present and past, it seeks to uncover the hearts of
its three protagonists, but yields an unsettling emptiness instead. Part of
the problem is the, er, wideness of Wideman's vision, which juxtaposes such
disparate elements as the 1985 Move bombing, the Second World War and
contemporary gang violence in a failed attempt to draw connections across
the years. No less disappointing, though, is the sense that this is somehow
a recycled effort, dealing with material that Wideman has handled far more
deftly in previous books.

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David Ulin lives in Los Angeles. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.


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