Category Archives: The Worst of the Books

“Herzog” by Saul Bellow

Did you know that when an author wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, as Saul Bellow did in 1976, they don’t win for a single book, but rather for the body of their work to date? With that in mind, I did wonder while reading “Herzog” (published 1964) was my taste amiss?

The core of “Herzog” is the man himself, a Jewish professor living in America and trying to find balance in his life after his wife Madeleine leaves him for his best friend. He achieves this goal through compulsive letter writing to family, friends, and people he has never met, some living, and some dead. The structure of the book and the tone at times reminded me of Joyce’s “Ulysses” (a positive point in my opinion), but at other times it simply dragged through page upon page of Herzog’s (Bellow’s?) ideas on philosophy.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy philosophy, but I don’t like it plonked in huge chunks (c. four pages) in the middle of a fiction book. That is not subtle and it is boring.

For me, the portions which engaged my imagination and interest were the short sections dealing with Herzog’s childhood, but because I didn’t empathise with the adult Herzog, I had little interest in his love affairs and arguments with his allies and enemies. Thankfully, at times the writing was fantastically detailed and evocative which made reading this book bearable.¬† I loved when he described using a public payphone that¬† – “when he got it, was humid from the many mouths and ears that had used it.”

I am sure that Bellow has many fans, and clearly his writing was good enough to earn him many awards during his career, but for me, “Herzog” has put me off trying any more of his fiction.

(read Spring 2011)


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“Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee

I was typing the D and E titled books onto the list when I spotted another book I had actually read and it was fairly recently so here’s a brief review.

“Disgrace” is a short tale of a middle-aged, divorced lecturer living in South Africa. It has won a number of awards and without being too heavy-going it veers more towards literary rather than light-reading. My sister lent it to me for a second opinion (she hadn’t particularly enjoyed it) and I subsequently came across it at my writing group during a discussion of award-winning books and their merits. The readers there hadn’t enjoyed it either.

However books are not always about enjoyment. Some of my most memorable reads have been books which I didn’t like reading but which taught me important truths or changed the way I see things. I’d include George Orwell’s “1984” and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (on the 501 list) and “The Road Home” by Rose Tremain (my current read) on that list.

On the other hand, there are books which I trudge through, convinced that they will improve. Despising the main characters, despairing of any semblance of plot, groaning over poor language usage, I read on and when I am finished I regret wasting those precious hours of my life I spent reading them. Sadly, despite the awards, “Disgrace” is one of those for me. It is well written. There is a little plot, although story-telling isn’t the purpose of this book I fear. The relationship between this lecturer and his daughther whom he visits when through his own misdeeds he is forced to leave his job, is well painted and convinced me to read on. But ultimately the book turns into a thinly veiled treatise on the trials and tribulations of the new South Africa. I have never visited the country, perhaps I would have empathised with the characters and story more if I had. But I have read many stories of worlds I hadn’t experienced in my time and those drew me in whereas this book repelled me.

This is going on the Worst of the Books list.

(read Spring 2009)

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“Couples” by John Updike

I’d heard of John Updike (he won the Pulitzer Prize twice) but I had never read any of his books before this one. I was looking to reading this one but unfortunately I thoroughly disliked this book published originally in the late sixties. I wasn’t born then but I’ve heard stories of the wife-swopping parties of the time. The cover blurb implied a complex insight into that culture and its effect on a group of trendy New England friends. However Updike was also writing before the concept of feminism and womens’ liberation gained a voice. As a result female characters are seen as angels or sluts which leaves his insight into the couples’ situtions one-sided at best.

The main male character is sympethic despite adulturing his way through almost every wife in the group in their small coastal town. The wreckage of several families (the effect on the children is glossed over, another weakness of the book) is simply left behind in an unbelievable fairytale ending. After this I doubt I could stomach another book by the famous Updike. He must be an acquired taste.

(late Summer 2009)

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