[ 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!