2011: The Shelf of Shame

on Thursday, December 15, 2011
Well, we've hit that time of year again, which means I feel compelled to rattle off my best, worst and pretty much any other category of books for the year. As always I'm starting with the dishonourable mentions or, as I like to call it, the Shelf of Shame. 2011 has been quite the doozy, full of unwarranted pomposity, false messiahs and fallen idols, and I'm not afraid to call shenanigans on all of them. Granted it's the sort of thing that might lose a person friends, but luckily I don't have any to begin with. So without further ado, I bring you 2011's Shelf of Shame.

Most Overrated Books of 2011

These books weren't necessarily terrible. A couple were actually quite good. But none came close to living up to the hype that was heaped upon them. Time to knock 'em down a few pegs:

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: The excitement began to build sometime around March for the release of this supposed masterwork by Japan's literary colossus. Such was the hysteria that Murakami was being touted in the bookies' top 5 for the Nobel. And then, come October it was upon us and, while it was eminently readable, it crumbled under the weight of expectation. Perhaps had it been released over time in its three volumes, as had ben the case in Japan, the narrative ellipses would have been less obvious, the repetition less tedious and the excitement sustained. Instead, it turned out the equivalent of being forced to read the first four Harry Potters in one go, complete with retellings of the same story for the first half of each new volume (and no, that's not a compliment).

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: Another book that just could not have hoped to live up to the hype, David Foster Wallace's last hurrah (not counting the shopping lists and other ephemera that cynical publishers have been churning out of late) was a good, sometimes brilliant but ultimately underdeveloped riff on the white collar world of tax. Two or three of the chapters stood amongst the best the tragic hipster ever penned, but other than that there was a lot of fat just begging to be trimmed. The literati had to wipe any number of bodily fluids from their patent leather shoes. I merely shrugged.

The Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer: Smoke and mirror wankerism by someone who ought to know better. I'm a massive Bruno Schulz fan and am generally quite fond of Foer but, wow, this was a gimmicky stunt that just didn't pay off. At least Foer answered the question he set out to ask: Can meaningful literature be created anew from the words of a pre-existing text? Put simply, no.

Snowdrops by A. D. Miller: How the hell did this mediocre thriller get shortlisted for the Booker? I'm still speechless.

More Hype but No Hurrah: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, We The Animals by Justin Torres, Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson, The Boy In The Suitcase by Lene Kaaberol and Agnete Friis, The Wind-Up Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi (technically a 2010 book but still way over-hyped).

Biggest Disappointments of 2011

Again, not terrible by any standard, but hardly what I had hoped for.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco: As I said in my review, The Prague Cemetery might as well have been written with me in mind. This re-imagining of the genesis of history's most ghastly literary hoax, The Protocols of The Elders Of Zion, started off well but quickly unravelled into something slightly too smart, too vitriolic and, ultimately too unconvincing to deliver on my expectations. Someone said to me recently that they thought Eco had lost the plot a while back. And while I'm not quite ready to give up on the portly one just yet, I have a sneaking suspicion it'll only be a matter of time.

The Angel Esmerelda by Don Delillo: I'd like to just put it down to a late-era flailing on Delillo's part, but these stories have been culled from his entire career, which leaves me to think that while he might have been the long-form prophet of American decline, brevity was never his strong suit. Delillo gets the singular distinction of producing one my most disappointing books two years running. Bravo!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre: Granted it is not a new book, but thanks to the wonders of Hollywood, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had a bit of a renaissance this year. I had high hopes for this classic of the espionage genre, but coming to it for the first time in 2011 showed how badly it has dated. Now let's wait and see whether the wonders of CGI can make Gary Oldman better than Alec Guinness. As if.

More Books That Broke My Heart (For All The Wrong Reasons): Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward, The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman, The Messenger by Yannick Haenel, Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson, Gargling With Tar by Jochym Topol (a 2008 book, but one for which I had high hopes).

Most Annoying Trend of 2011

"The Next Stieg Larsson". Just because your ancestors were vikings and you have a name I can't pronounce, doesn't make you the next great crime writer. I get that it's all an opportunistic cash grab by publishers but, seriously folks, are book buyers so gullible that a simple sticker on every second hardboiled release will get them to empty their wallets? Heck, I didn't even like the first Stieg Larrson so what's with all the fuss? Buy a warm coat and be done with it! On the flipside, this rush to publish (and republish) Scandinavian crime fiction led me to discover the team of Maj Sjowell and Per Wahloo. Crackingly good stuff penned in the late 60s and 70s, making them the original (and easily best) Stieg Larsson.

Flat Out Worst Book of 2011

The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge: Some editors and publishers need to be slapped. Sure, Dame Beryl might have been working on this when she died but it was clearly still just a lump of clay with very little sculpting. It should never have seen the light of day. Bravo to the Booker crowd for distracting her fans with a Best of Beryl Prize, which allowed us all to overlook this tragic blight on an otherwise wonderful career.


Brooks said...

I'm glad to see someone else thought Before I Go To Sleep was kinda crap!

And it breaks my DFW-loving heart to see you reference Wallace as a hipster. I get that The Pale King was over-hyped, but the hipster comment hurts my soul.

Anonymous said...

I'd quite enjoy reading the first four Harry Potters in one go - does that mean I'll like the Murakami? :)

And Pigeon English is by Stephen Kelman, not James Kelman (who was my creative writing teacher when I was 17, by the way)...

The Bookworm said...

Haha thanks. Duly noted and changed. I cared so little I didn't even get his name right!

Anonymous said...

I have Pigeon English in my Kindle, I think, so I will be reading it sometime soon (although the Kindle acts as a kind of black hole - there are lots of books in there waiting to be read, and there's no reminder, in the way that a pile of books beside the bed acts as a constant reminder - so it may be that in fact i will never read Pigeon English!). If I do, I'll let you know what I think... I'm wondering if you read There But For The... That was one of my most-enjoyed books this year (along with Embassytown, The Thousand Autumns of Jakob de Zoet, and - ahem - A Song of Ice and Fire)....

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