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My Most Notably Bad Reads of 2019

I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of good books I read last year, but there are inevitably a few duds. These books aren’t objectively awful, but they did manage to let me down enough that I still remember the burn of these bad books. 

“Sphinx” by Anne Garréta, Emma Ramadan (Translator)

This short novel is about a love story between the unnamed narrator and their lover, A***. Maybe this was one of those cases where a translated version cannot be as impactful as reading the book in its mother tongue (this is not a dig at Emma Ramadan; in fact, I found her Translator’s Note very interesting and helpful in piecing together the literary significance of Sphinx). Unfortunately, my French is not advanced enough to see if that is true. Garréta joined the Oulipo, an experimental literary group in France that aims to create literature with certain restraints placed upon it. An example of this would be writing an entire story without once using the letter “e”. I won’t say what the restraint is in this book, although it is advertised on many web pages and even on the back cover. However, I feel that a big reason this book was spoiled for me was that I did not get to figure out the restraint myself. Again, the fact that I did not get to experience the writing in its original French also weakened the impact of this particular restraint. And unfortunately, the plot didn’t lure me in either, as I felt that the pacing was way too slow, and I was racing through the last pages just so I could finish (I usually like slowing down if it’s a good book as I don’t want it to end). One thing I did like was smaller aspects of the writing, such as descriptions of emotions and imagery (I have quite a few quotations from this book saved in my journals). The most redeeming qualities in this book (although there weren’t many) were where I got a true taste of Garréta’s writing. For example, when the narrator contemplates death (as one does in a moody French novel), he says:

“There exists no image of death… death had come up to the surface in my sleep to take possession of my carnal covering, to put it on and to cover me in turn with its cast-off rag” (107).

This book was a slog to get through, but certain meditations on themes like dying (both in a physical and spiritual sense) rang so true that I find myself returning to these phrases months after finishing Sphinx, even if I will never read the whole thing through again. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend unless you’re fluent in French.

“Catapult” by Emily Fridlund

If you’ve read my best books of 2019 article, then you may be surprised to see that Fridlund has made both lists. I read this after finishing the novel History of Wolves, which is one of my favorite books, so it is possible that part of my disappointment is because nothing will live up to History of Wolves in my mind. However, this is a very different setup as Catapult is a collection of short stories. I enjoyed the first couple of stories, and it overall cemented my opinion that Fridlund is obviously a talented writer. That being said, the stories seemed to have a pattern of similar characters and predicaments that felt more repetitive and boring as I went on. Maybe if I read them spread apart I would have enjoyed them more, but as it stands, I also found myself rushing to finish this one.

(Although reading this book in one go made it harder to enjoy, one short story collection that I loved from start to finish was The Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks. Yes, that Tom Hanks. Go figure.)

“Call Me By Your Name” by Andre Aciman

Okay, okay, put down your pitchforks, please. I really tried to find it in me to enjoy this book, but the truth is, by the second half I was actively hate-reading and taking the time to write lengthy texts to my friend about how much I disliked it. I just don’t get it. The pacing felt unbearably slow, I didn’t feel attached to any of the characters, and I loathed the main characters. I know a lot of people are creeped out by the age difference in this book, but I didn’t even notice that because I was more creeped out by our narrator, Elio, and his disturbing thought patterns. At best, he sounded like a whiny teenager (which may very well have been Aciman’s intention, but it definitely didn’t help me enjoy reading this), and at worst he wished for Oliver to be confined to a wheelchair so he couldn’t leave. Yikes. I will say, my favorite character in this book was Elio’s father, and since the sequel Find Me is set partly from his perspective, I may return to this series yet again. Congratulations, Aciman, you’ve amassed a great number of fans, and even more readers who are still trying to figure out what the fans are all on about.

“And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks” by William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac

This is another one that I am almost afraid to admit disliking because of the literary acclaim Burroughs and Kerouac have received over the years. It is worth noting that this was written well before either of their famous works were. I read this because I am obsessed with the movie Kill Your Darlings which is based on this book. Although I didn’t hate it, it ends up on this list because the plot (based on real events) felt wasted by the underwhelming writing. You know how every English teacher tells you to show, not tell in your writing? All this book told me was where people went each day and what they did. There wasn’t much room for suspense or humor or much of any emotional reaction. Although this goes against all of what I just said, I would still recommend it to those who are interested. My friend thoroughly enjoyed it, and it’s worth reading just to understand more of how the real-life murder possibly went down, especially if you’re a fan of the movie. Also, my favorite part of this book was actually the extensive endnotes, which talks more about the actual history of the writers and their eccentric group of friends. Overall, I didn’t love it but I don’t hate it, either.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-To Book by Dan Harris, Jeff Warren, and Carlye Adler

I originally was going to write an article specifically on why I don’t enjoy self-help books, but I thought it was too negative and overgeneralized (I say this with enough self-awareness that writing an article specifically on books I didn’t like isn’t too far off). But Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is a great example of why I dislike so many of them. The points made in this book could’ve been summed up in a couple of pages, or a longer blog post, but the authors stretched it into a whole book by plugging in countless anecdotes that all lead to more or less the same point: People are afraid of meditation because they have a lot of misconceptions about what meditation looks like (a point which I wholeheartedly agree with). These authors seem invested enough in creating a positive impact and encouraging people to take care of their mental health, but the unnecessary fluff and the fact that they kept plugging their website and other books/products made me feel distrustful, like it was just a money-grab. Instead of reading this, I would suggest that if you’ve wanted to try meditation but don’t know how to get started, educate yourself on the many different styles of meditation that are out there and find a routine that works for you. It would probably take less time than reading this book.

Many of these books are award-winning, extremely popular books. I don’t want to insult the authors with my amateur opinions, but if you get anything from this list, it’s that people can have very different opinions about what they’ve read, which is why discussing writing is so exciting. So while I didn’t enjoy reading these books, I didn’t regret opening any of them. I still walked away with new information and even quite a few laughs (even if I was laughing at them rather than with them). If you’ve read any of these, I genuinely hope you had a better experience than I. And hey, better to have read and hated than to have never read at all.

Alexandra is a sophomore at Seattle University who is studying psychology and women and gender studies. She enjoys discussing environmental rights, music, and her beautiful golden retriever, Leo.
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