Worst book of 2011: #1 I Am Number Four

#1: I am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

This came from my Amazon recommendations, since I like YA, and that makes me wary of following Amazon’s idea of what I might like ever again. It makes sense, though, because the book felt like it could have been written by a computer. “Pittacus Lore” is not a real person, but a pen name for a committee. This book was written by James Frye’s content farm, which exploits recent MFA grads to ghost-write and committee-write formulaic YA novels, as if teens can’t tell the difference between good and bad writing. The sentence-level writing was so bland and boring I had trouble making myself pick it up. The main character was the opposite of unique–and if you can homogenize an alien with superpowers, there is something wrong. The love story had no spark. The sci-fi explanations of the alien tech got bogged down, and the new developments in the main character’s superpowers were overly convenient to the plot, to the point of idiocy. The climax reminded me of something I once saw in a movie that was being parodied on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I read it to see if I could respect the work Frye and his minions are doing, regardless of the exploitative labor arrangements, and concluded that I cannot.

Worst books of 2011: #2 A Fan’s Notes

#2: A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley

I read this because one of my old teachers from UC, Brock Clarke, wrote a novel called Exley, which made frequent reference to this book. This book was like a character in Brock’s book. So I wanted to check it out. I was really disappointed in it, though. I really had a hard time getting past the misogyny and the way the protagonist, an author stand-in, treated women and talked about women. That was by far my biggest issue with it. It was so blatant and shocking that I really wish I had a copy with me so that I could quote it. I summarize the sense that remains with me of the novel’s attitude toward women this way:  “Women are stupid and only good for fucking.” No joking, no exaggeration. Sure, these ideas were contextualized in the character’s life, which included major mother issues and mental hospitalization, but that didn’t outweigh or justify the misogyny to me. I even read a biography of the writer to try to figure out his appeal to Brock and others, but he seemed like a pretty reprehensible, pathetic human being as a whole. I guess I can see how his posturing could be appealing to a white guy of a certain class, region, and time period, but that’s not me, and Exley made no efforts to relate to anyone who wasn’t just like him. (I can’t help noticing that the people who positively reviewed the book on its Goodreads.com page are overwhelmingly white males, judging by their names and pictures.) Exley might have seen his lack of consideration for other viewpoints as a point of pride, but for me it made the book less enjoyable, and even disgusting at times.

There were a lot of satisfyingly fun and virtuosic sentences in the book. When he wasn’t talking to or about women, I liked the sentences.

I concluded that Frederick Exley and A Fan’s Notes are not worthy of the hero’s treatment they get in Brock’s heartfelt, decidedly non-misogynist novel Exley. Here‘s a short essay where he explains his choice. The book was meaningful to him personally at a certain time in his life when he needed to read about someone who was “even more of a loser” than he was. I can understand that kind of personal response to a book, especially a book that seems to speak precisely to a problem that is currently consuming your life. I’ve been there. In fact the things that Brock points out in the essay, Exley’s ambition and his failure, are the things that I related to the most as well. I guess the difference between my reading and Brock’s is just that every time I saw some shockingly misogynistic remark, my emotional investment and appreciation of the language just evaporated.

I hate to be the PC police or something, but I notice that Brock doesn’t mention Exley’s misogyny anywhere in this essay. Can he really not have seen it? Does he deem it less important than his personal reaction? It is a short essay, and the misogyny might seem irrelevant to the question of why he wrote a novel about Exley’s book. I honestly don’t know what to make of this. Brock is much smarter than me, and I really hesitate to judge a former professor, especially one who has been so personally generous to me. The next time I see Brock I will have to ask him what he thought of the misogynistic portions of A Fan’s Notes, and why they did not interfere with his ability to have such a strong personal response to the book.

Worst books of 2011: #3 Halo

#3: Halo by Alexandra Adornetto

This book might be used in writing workshops as an example of why characters without flaws are bland and boring. The protagonist is literally an angel. The human boy she falls in love with is as perfect as a human boy can be. And so of course, the villain, or only character with flaws, is literally sent from the devil (or maybe he’s flawless too, because he is doing his job as an agent of evil perfectly). The only conflict comes from figuring out that he’s a devil (which takes far too long, since any reader can tell who and what he is within a page, but of course the angel looks for the good in everybody and is just puzzled by not finding any in this guy) and then figuring out and trying to foil his evil plan. The book was recommended by Amazon, and the writer is about 16, so I don’t know what I expected.

I’m actually going to read the sequel just to see if the angel’s contact with the devil changes or challenges her in any way. I would like to see her sullied a bit. The religious ideas in the first were incredibly simplistic, and I would love to see them complicated. That might make a boring concept interesting.

Worst books of 2011: #4 The Classroom CEO

#4: The Classroom CEO by Deborah Pritchard

I received this book as a gift, and it made me both wary and hopeful. I was wary because the title seemed to compare a classroom or a school to a business, and I don’t usually like the politics behind that comparison. Students are people, not products. I was also hopeful because a CEO is an image of someone who’s very much in charge. Some of my worst moments as a teacher have been when I was not in charge. A book that can help me to take charge in the classroom would be a great book.

When I read books to help me with my teaching, I want to learn new things and use my time well. Sadly, there was absolutely nothing new in this book, nothing I hadn’t already heard in my short teacher training or MAT classes. So much of what it did say was vague, too. That’s my other pet peeve in books on teaching. Don’t just tell me to build positive relationships with my students. My response to that is: duh. Instead, tell me what that looks like. Tell me what specific actions I can perform that will result in positive relationships.

In short, don’t waste my time.

Maybe I’m unique among teachers in that learning about new teaching methods and strategies is not very interesting to me. I like teaching because I like my students and I like my content. Maybe I feel this way about methods and strategies for teaching because they seem so logical to me. It’s not rocket science, and making it more complicated than it has to be just makes teachers feel overworked and pressured. Maybe I only have this attitude because I’ve been exposed to so much time-wasting disguised as required professional development (yes, I’ve only been teaching 2 1/2 years and I’m already that cynical about PD).

Because of my disinterest in learning about how to teach, and because I arrogantly and ignorantly thought I could “do better” than teaching, I avoided taking education classes as long as I possibly could, and I’m glad I did. If I had majored in education at Centre, it would have been the greatest waste of an opportunity to learn from masters in my disciplines. It would have dumbed a liberal arts education down into narrow job training. Studies have shown that at the high school level, teacher expertise and communication skills matter more than how many education classes a teacher has taken. (If you don’t believe me, I remember reading that in this book.)

Even though it’s not my favorite topic, I still read books about teaching because it’s my responsibility to continually improve. I read this book because my mom sweetly gave it to me, signed by the author, who she met through her job at the library. A nice idea, and nice intentions, but pretty empty in the end.

Some examples of good books about teaching that satisfy my desire for new information and specific recommendations:

Teach Like a Champion describes in detail 49 specific things that good teachers do. Most of these things are intimidatingly hard to do, and I think it’s probably impossible to do them all in any one classroom, but it’s useful to name some of the things that good teachers are doing. Now that I’ve read the book, I know about these specific strategies that I can decide to try anytime I think they fit my lesson.

Young, Gifted and Black describes how stereotype threat is one of the main reasons why some African-American students do not achieve excellent levels of performance, and outlines a three-part plan to reduce stereotype threat in any particular classroom.

I hope that gives you a clear idea of what I’m looking for when I read about teaching. Any teaching books I review on this blog will be judged according to these criteria: Have I heard this before? Is it specific and actionable? Can I use this in my classroom tomorrow?

Worst books I read this year: #5 Queen of Broken Hearts

So far I’ve discussed 13 of my favorite books from 2011, as well as 4 good books I’ve read since the beginning of 2012. But, as I’ve already proved with a rant about a fashion-obsessed YA vampire series, this blog is not going to be pure cupcakes and sunshine. There are some books that I read in the past year that I just did not like. And I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t talk about them as well as the books I did like. I’ve chosen 5 books and ranked them from mildly bad to actually offensive to painfully terrible.

The thing that I noticed when picking out books I did not enjoy is that I have a low tolerance for boring prose. I have high expectations for sentence-level writing, and when these expectations are not met at least part of the time, I lose patience with the book. Boring characters also made a couple books less than engaging and earned them their spots on this list. My most mild criticisms come from a simple mismatch between me and a certain book. I feel like there are some times where a book can be ok, but if you’re not the audience that it is looking for, then you’re not going to like it, and that’s all there is to it. Oh, and also, I don’t like misogyny.

#5: Queen of Broken Hearts by Cassandra King

This was a selection from the book club I attend very sporadically. The club consists of young women from the Young Adults group from the church I used to attend when I lived across town. For about a year I exerted significant influence over the book club’s choices. Alas, those days are gone.

My criticisms of this book are not quite as cutting as the others in my “worst 5 list.” This book seemed above all to be about middle-aged lady wish fulfillment. The protagonist’s life is perfect. Her counseling business is expanding and she’s got at least 2 suitors, but you know immediately which one she’ll end up with. The idyllic little Southern town where she lives is complete with “characters” and folksy, semi-mystical traditions. It all just seemed bland and happy. The only people in the book with real problems were her daughter and best friend, whose marriages were in big trouble, but for pretty banal reasons that didn’t really interest me. The protagonist’s anxiety and concern about their problems made her seem like a judgmental busybody, actually. The themes had to do with overcoming the past and choosing to be happy in the present despite past losses and pain, which despite their universality, weren’t communicated to me in a way that made me care about them, perhaps because they weren’t especially relevant or resonant in my short, relatively easy life. It seemed like the protagonist should have been able to just get over it already, to mourn her loss and move on, especially since she was a counselor telling others to do the same thing. I just could not believe that it was as hard as she pretended it was. I think that was what kept me from relating. The climax/solution was overly obvious: What, the ritual you created to help other women find closure would be useful for you too? Whoda thunk! My conclusion: this book was not written for me.

It’s ok if a book just was not written for me. I’m not worse off for having read it. This book and I can go our separate ways, and I might even recommend it to a divorced woman of my parents’ generation who enjoys easy, shallow, sentimental reads, like Nicolas Sparks or James Patterson. I do not wish that this book had never been written; I think that no one who loves books can wish a book out of existence unless it’s just spewing virulent hatred, like a publication of the KKK or something. Today’s literary marketplace is so fragmented and specialized that niche markets have developed, and some books just do not appeal to audiences outside of their tiny niche. That’s ok. Every reader does not have to love every book.

However, truly great books appeal to all audiences. When a book has a very narrow intended audience, and cannot attract and sell itself to a sympathetic reader who does not fit the profile, a reader who honestly wants to enjoy the book and has pretty broad aesthetic criteria, like strong use of language, compelling characters and interesting plot, then that points to a problem with the book. I flatter myself that I am that kind of reader. I very rarely dislike books. I open every book hoping to be astonished. I give a book the benefit of the doubt, and keep reading after that benefit has expired (I did finish all five of these books I rate as my least favorites). When a book makes itself so narrow that someone like me can’t find a way to sympathize with it, then that shows that the book is not great. It might be decent for its intended market, which is perhaps overly narrow, but it’s not great.