Books Read in 2021: The Turkeys

153 books this year - the first year I was able to stop worrying about my book tally and I read more than any year since 2014. The January 2021 lockdown had a lot to do with that, and I had a good fall for sitting outside in my swinging chair reading. Interestingly, when I look quickly at the Goodreads breakdown, the proportion of five-star, four-star and three-star and fewer reads is roughly the same. I.... have no idea what that means. I haven't gotten any better at not finishing books (it's fine, I read really fast), and I guess I haven't gotten any better at choosing books either. Although how can you know if you're going to like a book before you read it? Okay never mind, I thought I was onto something but I was wrong. 

One-Star Reads

The Woods Are Always Watching by Stephanie Perkins: synopsis from Goodreads: A companion to There's Someone Inside Your HouseBears aren't the only predators in these woods.Best friends Neena and Josie spent high school as outsiders, but at least they had each other. Now, with college and a two-thousand-mile separation looming on the horizon, they have one last chance to be together—a three-day hike deep into the woods of the Pisgah National Forest.Simmering tensions lead to a detour off the trail and straight into a waking nightmare; and then into something far worse. Something that will test them in horrifying ways.

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot. Okay, admittedly I thought I had given four stars to the previous book I read by this author, and I now see that I gave it three stars, but it was a perfectly serviceable teen slasher thing with a fairly interesting main character and I had hopes for this that were not high, exactly, but WHAT THE FUCK. 

First of all, just to be all nit-picky which I would not be if this had not been so direly god-awful, in one of the opening scenes the girls put on their hiking backpacks and do a topple-over-can-barely-move a la Cheryl Strayed in Wild thing. Okay, fine. But THEN they fuck around looking at the map and the trailhead bulletin board and shit - really? You can barely stand up with the weight on your back and you're going to dick around rather than getting right down to the hike? 

This is just the very beginning of the things in this book that strain the bonds of credulity far beyond what I can bear - and I am a champion suspender of disbelief, I can bear a LOT. The characters are shallowly drawn and the close friendship is told but not shown - sure, hiking and camping puts a strain on the strongest of friendships (and marriages), but this is not that. Add to that the fact that we go from a sort-of-scary hiking and camping in the dark deal to a messy feminist screed (again, all for it if it's done right, not jammed into the narrative so awkwardly that you can see all the edges) and from a realistic (putting it kindly) narrative to some sudden psychic intuition that's offered in place of actual exposition. And a few more physical impossibilities. Plus, one of the girls takes a dump in the woods and then gets back in the tent and hears a noise and when her friend goes to say something she PUTS HER HAND OVER THE FRIEND'S MOUTH. Without having washed her hand. Ew. 

Anyway. It sucked. One star, do not recommend.

If You Go Down to the Woods by Seth C. Adams: synopsis from Goodreads: We were so young when it all happened--just 13-year-olds making the most of the long, hot, lazy days of summer, thinking we had the world at our feet. That was us--me, Fat Bobby, Jim, and Tara--the four members of the Outsiders’ Club. The day we found a burnt-out car in the woods was the day everything changed. Cold, hard cash in the front seat and a body in the trunk. It started as a mystery we were desperate to solve. Then the Collector arrived. He knew we had found his secret, and suddenly, our summer of innocence turned into the stuff of nightmares.

This was recommended for fans of Stephen King, and obviously the plot draws the attention that way. The actual book reads like a writer thought "hmm, I'm going to write a Stephen King-esque book about young people who have a dangerous adventure", and then does so without any of Stephen King's ability to write realistically about young people and also without any ability to write like you're not a douchebro who misses being able to say the r-word and call people fat pussies.

The main character rescues an overweight boy from bullies and becomes 'friends' with him - direct quote: "his constant uncertainty, his insistence on the negative, the downbeat, the altogether pussy-ness of his whole demeanor, solidified for me. Though I tried to keep my thoughts and words kind, his name for me as Fat Bobby, which also meant Weak Bobby, Sissy Bobby, Yes I’m a Big Fat Wuss Come Kick My Ass Bobby, became fixed in my mind." Yes, this is after they've become friends. Joey also hopes that Bobby "doesn't build some sort of shrine to me in a closet at home. That would be kind of queer." Oh sorry, did I forget to mention that homophobic slurs are also liberally employed? And if you're worried that the n-word is missing, worry not! In fact, the phrase "I threw the words back at him, our faces close enough to kiss if I suddenly chose to go gay and wanted some hot black action" occurs - offensive against two oppressed groups at once! Let's not even get into how Joey talks about his love interest - no, wait, let's. "Then Fat Bobby was soaking all three of us, and when he got to Tara he aimed at her chest instead of her face. Pretty soon breasts tipped with hard nipples were poking out against her blouse like missiles."

I honestly don't know what the hell the author, the editor AND the publisher were thinking. It's not like this was published thirty years ago or more, either - it was published in 20 freaking 19! I kept reading out of some kind of horrified fascination, but it never got better. Quite a few reviews on Goodreads do mention being disgusted with the language, but a disappointing number of people seem to have been won over by the superficial resemblances to The Body (the King novella made into the movie Stand By Me). The author has a Twitter account, and I considered engaging him, but he only has 43 followers and I'm trying to get away from Twitter fights, plus I'm a bit of a wimp. I still might, though, because I'm pissed off all over again typing this. It's not like it's a great book if you ignore the language fuckery - he tries to emulate the quaint, small-town 1960s setting of The Body but suddenly there's internet. I could go on, but I'm really ready to put this whole experience behind me.

 Two-Star Reads

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh: synopsis from Goodreads: From one of our boldest, most celebrated new literary voices, a novel about a young woman’s efforts to duck the ills of the world by embarking on an extended hibernation with the help of one of the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature and the battery of medicines she prescribes.

Our narrator should be happy, shouldn’t she? She’s young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate, works an easy job at a hip art gallery, lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like the rest of her needs, by her inheritance. But there is a dark and vacuous hole in her heart, and it isn’t just the loss of her parents, or the way her Wall Street boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her best friend, Reva. It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a powerful answer to that question. Through the story of a year spent under the influence of a truly mad combination of drugs designed to heal our heroine from her alienation from this world, Moshfegh shows us how reasonable, even necessary, alienation can be. Both tender and blackly funny, merciless and compassionate, it is a showcase for the gifts of one of our major writers working at the height of her powers.

It's entirely possible that I'm just missing the point here, but I did not find this enjoyable or enlightening or funny or any other things it was purported to be. I'm no stranger to the desire to go to sleep for a few months and wake up with things magically improved, so I thought I might identify on that level. I was wrong. I have no objection to fiction about unpleasant things - vomit, excrement, body hair, bodily functions, graphic sex - if they serve some kind of purpose. This reminded me very much of How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti, which I also hated - they both made me feel like an MFA student was trying their best to be shocking and alternative. The main character has a friend she treats like crap and seems to hate, a boyfriend who treats her like crap and seems to hate her, she mentions many times that "I'm still blond and thin and pretty", (many times - I started noting it down every time it was referenced, and it was...many) and she buys two coffees every day from some Egyptians and takes a lot of pills. The pill-bestowing psychiatrist isn't funny enough to be a caricature. I felt glimmers of actual sadness in the parts about the narrator's troubled relationship with her parents. That's it. At least it wasn't too long. Maybe it was trying to satirize some of the elements, but in my opinion if satirizing something results in a work that is indistinguishable from the thing being satirized, you've made a wrong turn somewhere.

Not a good year for books with "Woods" in the title, then. Onward!


I actually read that Year of Rest and Relaxation, and honestly, wtf was that. This was a while ago so I'm stretching to remember details, but it was just...what.
Kara said…
Spells Trouble by PC Cast was the real corker for me this year. It was just sloppy and poorly written.
Ernie said…
I laughed at "no wait, let's" and your last line. These sound really disappointing, but I'd have fallen for them based on the synopsis. This gives me hope . . . maybe my memoir WILL be published one day because I don't think I suck this badly.
153 books! that would take me (let's see, does a little math) at least three years! If I start a book I don't like, I usually don't finish it, unless it is for book club.

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