[ Best and Worst ] Where Our Hearts Lie

Part of the Best and Worst Series

Many thanks to the birds at TheCanaryReview for inviting me to contribute my thoughts on a pretty daunting subject: The Best and Worst Books that I’ve ever read.

Recently, I completed a meme (The 30 Days of Books) where the ultimate question is, of course, favorite book. When I did that, I chose The Hobbit–a novel I read early in my teens and one that filled me with wonder, kindling the love of fantasy literature that continues to drive my reading choices to this day. It would be easy to select it again. But while it might be my favorite, I don’t think it’s the best book I’ve ever read.

In thinking about this post, I tried to strip away a little bit of nostalgia from my answer, so I went back to my list of favorite reads. If you take a peek at my Goodreads reviews, you will see that the shelf collecting five-stars is pretty small–no grade inflation from me!

And so, I choose a book that was a revelation to me not as a teen, but as an adult. This is the book that moved me to sadness, anger and considerable self-reflection:

We Were The Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

The Mulvaney’s are an upper middle-class family that have it all: Smart, loving parents that are known and respected in their upstate New York community, smart kids from whom much is expected, and a bright future. The family lives on a farm–the sort of farm that the well-do-to can “work” without any expectation of needing it to, you know, produce anything.

We Were The Mulvaneys tracks the family in the wake of their daughter’s date-rape.  The family’s mettle is tested and it’s not too long before cracks begin to appear.

The story is heartbreaking and very American–an ugly truth glossed over for propriety’s sake, a lack of justice, the loss of innocence, the schadenfreude of bringing down the high & mighty and sometimes just trying to get by. Each family member reacts to the events and to each other. As the years pass, each faces a reckoning–about the crime and about their family.

What really makes this book stand out for me though is its human quality and the way Oates’ writing forces each of us to inhabit the lives of the different Mulvaneys, as if asking us to gauge what our own response might be. I certainly didn’t grow up rich, but having been a “gifted” kid in my day, watching the Mulvaneys struggle through self-doubt and the weight of expectations affected me like no book before or since. Powerful, moving stuff.

Speaking of moving–let’s move on to the opposite end of the spectrum. Worst book.

This label isn’t for the forgettable stories and cardboard characters; there are plenty of bad books and hopefully you don’t come across them too often.  This is about That Book. That Book you wish you’d never ever read.

Easy. It’s a book I’d read with great expectation, only to be left reeling. Not only was it a huge disappointment, but it also managed to tarnish one of my all-time favorite series.

That Book is Ursula K. LeGuin’s Tehanu.

Tehanu was published almost twenty years after LeGuin’s third (and what we thought was final) Earthsea book, The Farthest Shore–and it shows. I was excited to go back to Earthsea when Tehanu came out, but it didn’t take long to figure out that this book wasn’t going to dovetail with the others.

In it, Ged, the hero of the first three books and the greatest wizard of his age who saved the world…loses all his power. Now this might have been an interesting twist, but not only does he lose his powers, he also manages to lose his will, his decisiveness, his personality—everything that made him the character he was, and the character I loved. The book also went out of its way–and the way of the story–to focus on the implications of gender and power: LeGuin heavy-handedly emasculates Ged, makes just about every other male in the book either weak or evil, and proclaims that the only wisdom and power for good is to be found in the hands (and hearts) of women.

Now, I’m all for gender equality and the exploration of gender-roles in society (whether that society is ours or a fantasy one), a topic that LeGuin herself has covered thoughtfully and effectively in her classic 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. In its obviousness, however, Tehanu was more of a tirade than a tutorial. And worst of all, not only did Tehanu fail to extend and enhance the wonderful Earthsea world, the book tore it down.

The Earthsea trilogy still remains one of my all-time favorite series (read it, if you haven’t yet). In this original trilogy, LeGuin writes tight, lyrical fantasy stories that stand tall outside of Tolkien’s sphere. But with this latest installment in the Earthsea mythos, LeGuin’s becomes the George Lucas of fantasy writers, as if wanting to say, “Yeah, those first three books? Screw them!”. For me, Tehanu undermines an entire, beloved mythos that LeGuin created once upon a time.

What a heartbreaking shame.

That’s my best and worst—now it’s your turn. Which are your nostalgia reads? Have you read any books that failed to live up to the original series?

You can find more reflections on awesome books by Steve at his blog!

[ Best and Worst ] The Perfect Amount of Darkness

Part of the Best and Worst Series

First off, many, many thanks to the Canaries for inviting me to spend a little while in the nest! I’m thrilled to be an honorary bird for a day.

Lovely as they are, though, I’m not here to talk about the Canaries. We need to talk books, people. Specifically, we need to talk about the books that stick. There are novels that go way beyond something that killed the time on a plane ride, or kept you company on a vacation. You have a relationship with them. They changed who you were when you read them, and when people ask you, casually, what your favorite book is, you are almost as horrified as though you’d been asked to pick a favorite child.

I wasn’t going to pick just one, and then I realized that if I were to tell you properly about all the books I really love, this post would be something like 8,000 words long and you’d sprain a finger before you finished scrolling. So I’m taking the leap and announcing my

Favorite Book of All Time:

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

The story is about Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, best friends born minutes apart, on either side of midnight; and about Charles Halloway, who struggles to find the balance between being a father and letting his son, Will, live his own life; and about the dark carnival that comes to the small Illinois town one October. As Will and Jim explore Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, they realize the carnival feeds off the fears and desires of the people in the town, and twists visitors into sideshow freaks. Even as Will is repulsed, Jim can’t deny his own fascination with the carnival.

Partly, this is a beautifully written fantasy novel, with the perfect amount of darkness to give you a tingle without making it hard to sleep at night. The carousel is the best part of the carnival, from its horses “asking for mercy with their fright-colored eyes, seeking revenge with their panic-colored teeth,” to the dark secret it reveals about its owners. Mr. Dark is particularly creepy—there’s a scene in the library that thrills me every time.

The soul of the book, though, is in the relationships between Jim, Will, and Will’s father. The boys have such a delicate balance going on between Will’s good-boy instincts and Jim’s more rebellious nature, and Something Wicked does an amazing job setting up the boundaries of friendship and the fear of growing up and apart. Bradbury captures Charles Halloway’s fear that he is no longer a relevant part of his son’s life with masterful sensitivity.

This was my first Bradbury novel, and I fell for it completely. I read it in the summer, and I remember having a moment of panic when I looked up from the page, disoriented to find myself surrounded by sunlight and heat instead of leaf-smoke and shadows —I had been that deeply entrenched in Bradbury’s October world.

Obviously, I went on to read everything else by him I could get my hands on, but this book is special. It’s the one that helped me understand my relationship with my best friend. It’s the reason I can never see carousels as fun or innocent ever again. I did my undergraduate thesis on Ray Bradbury’s novels, and Something Wicked This Way Comes is largely why. Because of that one summer when I picked up a black book with lightning-sparked horses on the cover, I am forever changed.

Now, readers have a secret: there’s the other kind of book that sticks, isn’t there?

You may be able to avoid most bad reading experiences—I give the Romance shelves a wide berth because I know I’m not interested in anything they have to say—but when you do actually read a book that’s terrible, you carry it with you, too. It’s almost exciting, trashing it to your friends or seeking it out in the bookstore or library just to give it a good, hard flick as punishment for making you suffer through it (I can’t be the only one who does that). The one that gets the hardest flick from me is:

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk.

Before the Fight Club fans come for me, I do realize Palahniuk’s not meant to be everyone’s cup of tea. I know part of the shock value of his writing is supposed to be funny in its absurd extremes. I’ve even read some of his other novels and enjoyed them. This one, though, just made me feel sick. Cannibalization, incest, torture (physical and psychological)—this story of a “writer’s retreat” that goes wrong when writers run out of food and confess the worst things they’ve ever done feels more like Hostel than anything worth reading. I finished it mostly out of spite. I didn’t want a book that disgusting to beat me.

I don’t want to go into too much detail, in case there are sensitive readers out there. Here’s what I will share: I read an article, an interview with Chuck Palahniuk, about a specific phenomenon associated with the book. There is a particular story in Haunted about a boy who gets off by masturbating underwater in his swimming pool, sitting on the suction drain. Things get out of hand, and the story gets so gruesome that when Palahniuk reads it aloud at his readings, it’s become a pattern that at least one person in the audience will pass out from the combination of the heat in the room and sheer emotional revulsion. That should tell you what you need to know. Unless you’re a torture porn junkie, steer clear.

­­That’s my best and worst—now it’s your turn. Which books changed you? What do you wish you’d never read?

You can find more awesome writing by Jessica at her blog! Click away, canaries!