george r. r. martin

Tough Questions: What’s the Worst Book You’ve Ever Read All Of?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the worst book you’ve ever read all of?

Rules are simple: how’s your judgement? When did you last dedicate a significant amount of your precious, fleeting life to something you didn’t want to finish in the first place? This week we’re talking dedication for dedication’s sake. Let’s get to it, because wasting time in a thing about wasted time is just too much.

Alex Russell

I once got State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America as a gift. Look at this damned list of some of the contributors: Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Ann Patchett, Anthony Bourdain, William T. Vollmann, S.E. Hinton, Dave Eggers, Myla Goldberg, Rick Moody, and Alexander Payne. Those people can’t make a bad book, can they? They didn’t, but they all certainly wrote some essays that appeared in a bad book. State by State is a series of 50 essays, each written by someone with a connection to that specific state. Some of them are great. Some of them are not. I was going to put in my least favorite one here but it makes me way too angry. The precious, scientific ways people write about their own states in this tome can be the worst. They are the opposite of love letters. That said, “Kansas” by Jim Lewis is fantastic, though if you Google it the first thing that comes up is an article from my college town’s newspaper about how bad it is. No one likes anything.

Gardner Mounce

I generally have a strict 50-page policy. Life is too short to read bad books and if a book can’t impress me in fifty pages then I have no qualms about ditching it. However, I did stick with all of The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman. It was awful, but interesting in the awful choices it made.

Mike Hannemann

The easy direction to go is to name something forced upon you in high school, but All the King’s Men takes the cake. The book before I read was Grapes of Wrath and it was followed by Invisible Man. Both of those novels are some of my favorites of all time. Wedged in the middle was a political drama which played out exactly how you’d expect. I compare it to Dances With Wolves. You know exactly where the plot is going the minute you start reading the book. There are a few twists here and there, but it lacks originality. When the most fascinating character is a simple Irish guy who eats sugar cubes, there’s something wrong with your story. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it, but “noble politician becomes corrupt” isn’t exactly groundbreaking storytelling. That said, I do sympathize with the Irish. And sugar cubes.

Jonathan May

There are so many contenders for this question. The worst book I’ve ever read in its entirety must be The Book of Mormon, which Mark Twain called “chloroform in print.” Not to anger any Mormons out there, but damn if it isn’t the most boring thing I’ve ever read. Compared to other religious texts, the battles are lame and the language stilted. The Bhagavad-Gita this ain’t. Mostly centered in language borrowed from the Masonic texts and translations of The Bible available at the time, this product of the early American 19th century could really lose a lot of clunky verbiage and focus rather on its chronologically-challenged plot. While religious adherents may find it to be divinely inspired, I find more inspiration from even the most unreadable of Dickens’: The Tale of Two Cities, my close second-place choice. If you disagree (and I assume many will), please do yourself a favor and read The Bible, The Upanishads, The Bhagavad-Gita, The Heart Sutra, or almost any other religious text and get back to me.

Andrew Findlay

This is difficult. For most of the past decade, if a book was terrible or even just not what I wanted to read right then and there, I just didn’t finish it. Any truly terrible books that I finished before that time are terrible enough to be supremely forgetful. It was probably one of the ranked masses of Star Wars Expanded Universe books I read in middle school, before I knew enough to be like, “This dialogue is laughable. Han wouldn’t say that. Besides, it’s nerf herder, not nerftender.” You know what, I’m willing to bet $100 that it was The Phantom Menace, released alongside the movie so George Lucas could squeeze even more blood out of his gasping, mangled franchise.

Brent Hopkins

This is assuredly not the worst book I have ever read cover to cover, but I will say it left the most vivid disappointment in me in recent years. George R.R. Martin’s 4th novel in The Song of Ice and Fire series A Feast for Crows takes the prize for me.  As has been mentioned by many other reviewers and general readers alike, this book is the equivalent of a fluff episode. Most of the characters focused on feel like the B-list of the tale, and after the massive cliffhanger at the end of the previous book you will read these pages and feel teased. The concept of splitting the books into regions as opposed to chronological order is cool and all, but it works a lot worse when all the cool kids are in one place and the wallflowers are in another. This also led to a bit of a muddling of the 5th book because many of the references are things the reader already knows, so it isn’t entirely as new as you’d hope. Knowing the answer to characters questions works sometimes, but not constantly.

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Worst Best Picture: Is Casablanca Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1943 winner Casablanca. Is it better than Crash?

I’m not going to lie, it’s difficult to find something new to say about Casablanca. Fresh off The Godfather, I have to find something new to tell people about one of the other consensus picks for greatest movie of all time (G.M.O.A.T., which is not a great acronym). I think it’s this: Casablanca is one of the rare things in life that is as good as you hope it is.

We constantly expect disappointment from the supposed canon now. Just yesterday someone was telling me about a guy who wouldn’t watch Citizen Kane because he didn’t expect it to live up to the hype. I still haven’t read any of the (stop it) Game of Thrones (I know) books yet (note the yet, I said yet, you don’t have to tell me to) and I’m skeptical that they could possibly be as good as people say. None of us will take “this show is hilarious” as enough reason to watch something. We just tell people “oh, I’m sure, I’ll check it out” and then we continue with whatever we were going to watch anyway.

Is that so wrong? Do we need to be broadening ourselves on recommendations of the people we surround ourselves with or the cultural arbiters of our world? Casablanca exists as a monument to the argument that we do. The beautiful lines are still beautiful, 70 years later. The performances are incredible; Humphrey Bogart’s Rick has become one of American film’s most enduring characters, even though he didn’t win Best Actor for it that year. The love feels like love actually feels: complicated, painful, and overwhelming. Casablanca is a romantic movie and a war movie and it’s never one at the detriment of the other. It defies you to pick one of those to describe it.

I think that’s what comes through the most: it’s so many things. For the uninitiated, it’s the story of a brief period of time in Rick’s Cafe Americain, a bar/casino/nightclub/etc in Morocco in the early 40s. Rick doesn’t want to deal with the war, he just wants to drink and quip one liners to his patrons. His life of rolling his eyes at everyone’s silly “war” is broken up when his ex Ilsa shows up with her new beau Victor. It’s more complicated than all that (because it always is) but the movie depends on this triangle. It also depends on the war, but Casablanca is such a great war movie precisely because the war is never the biggest thing in any one scene. It’s not about combat, it’s about the realities of war outside the battlefield. Just how The Best Years of Our Lives is a war movie with no real war going on, Casablanca is a war movie that happens entirely in tensions between people. Oh, and a really loud version of “La Marseillaise.”

Gushing about one of the greatest triumphs in film history is a bad use of time. Let me say this, and we’ll move on to Crash: you’ve got to watch it. Just the same as I’ve got to find out about this throne and the wall and the debts and all that, you’ve got to fill in your cultural blanks. If one is Casablanca, you should start there.

The Best Part: This has to be the piano scene. Ilsa wants to hear “her song” “As Time Goes By” but Rick has banned it from his club because it pains him. We’ve all got that song. The melancholy of hurting yourself with music that’s so deeply connected to an old, beautiful time is an extremely specific emotion, but even though “As Time Goes By” is intensely dated by itself, the scene is timeless.

The Worst Part: Paul Henreid was supposedly worried that his portrayal of Victor Laszlo would typecast him as being “a stiff.” It’s a necessary character for the movie, of course, but you can definitely see where he was coming from. He’s the Scottie Pippen of the greatest movie of all time: a guy who only looks worse because he’s right next to Bogie’s Jordan.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I wrote this question and I’m offended by it. Casablanca is perfect in a lot of ways, but matched up against Crash you start to notice why subtlety is so important. Casablanca is about a tense time in a tense country, but it never feels forced. As you watch it you are aware of the political realities of the characters (like when the police look the other way for most things, but can’t ignore internationally important incidents) without people reading explanations into the camera. The meaning in Casablanca is there for you to find. Crash is a lesser movie in every way, but it’s specifically lesser in that it is so terrible about telling rather than showing. Casablanca hopes you’re smart enough to find everything in it; Crash thinks too little of you to even hide anything worth finding.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The Godfather | Casablanca

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: rogerebert.com

Opinion: George R. R. Martin Is Not Your “Bitch,” He’s Your Dealer

Game of Thrones

Andrew Findlay

Disclaimer: There are no direct spoilers in the review. You might be able to infer something, but that’s it. Also, the most recent book came out three years ago, so if you don’t want to be spoiled by anything ever again, go read that.

A Song of Ice and Fire is an amazing series. The gritty realism in a fantasy locale, the compelling characters, the whip-crack plotting and suspense – all of these traits combine to forge the cultural juggernaut that is ASOIAF. I love these books. I came a little bit late to the party. I read them around December 2010, 14 years after the start of the series, when the first four books had already been published. I read those four books in one month. The paperback versions for tally up to 3,844 pages, meaning that for the month of December, I read an average of 128 pages a day. That’s how good this series is. For an entire month, If I was not working or sleeping, I was what-the-fuck-noooo-i-loved-that-character-ing my way across Westeros. In the same time and at that rate, I could have read the Lord of the Rings three times, the entire Harry Potter series, or thirteen normal-sized (300 pages, let’s say) books. That is dedication. That is a clear sign of an enjoyable series. The problem is that George R. R. Martin has fans that read 128 pages a day, but he writes .76 pages a day.

The addictiveness and scarcity of the product creates a rabid fanbase composed of people who make strange decisions about these books. For example, a day after the release of A Dance With Dragons (book five, July 2011), I had to drive 15 hours from D.C. to Memphis with my fiancee for the purpose of marriage. She was behind the wheel the whole way, and I read that book the entire 15 hours. Relevant factoid: Reading in the car makes me violently carsick. I ignored nausea for 15 hours to get through as much of the book as I could. When I got home, in a city surrounded by family and friends I see only rarely, I still read at least four hours a day. Luckily, I finished the book before my marriage.

Also luckily, no one played this at my wedding.

Since then, I have been trying not to think about the series at all, because that creates visceral longing for resolution to all the cliffhangers on par with what I imagine someone in the grip of a Schedule I drug experiences. GRRM has created a legion of addicts. Addicts do not respond well when they are cut off from their substance of choice, and in the past three years, there has not been another fix. This has famously led to fans expressing dismay that GRRM watches football on Sundays in the fall, that he works on other book projects, and that he basically does anything but sit in a box with one bald light swinging over his head and a typewriter in front of him. The most crass concern expressed is that GRRM, who is 65, will die before finishing the series. The first few are strange, because Martin has the right to do whatever he pleases. The last one is heartless, as those fans are placing the completion of a series they love over the life of a human being.

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ASOIAF. Not even once.

The problem is that this series, originally planned to be three books but having since ballooned into seven, has been going since 1996. To compare, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy was published from July 1954 to October 1955. All the way from Gandalf freaking out an innocent Frodo in the Shire to the final collapse and defeat of the Dark Lord (spoiler alert!), readers had to wait just over a single year for the conclusion to a story so massive its weight is felt in nearly every entry into the fantasy genre since (to be fair, Tolkien had basically written the whole thing before publishing the first part). I only jumped on this train five years ago, but some poor bastards have been waiting nearly two decades to get to the station. This ballooning and extension of the books is due to a phenomenon which is weakening the series as a whole: success killing editorial power. The first three books of this series are incredibly, world-changingly good. Books four and five aren’t necessarily bad, but really only bask in the reflected glory of what came before. In a series known for page-turning action, plotting, and suspense, there was a whole lot of material in book four that no one cared about, material that did not do much to advance the plot or tie the main threads of the story together more tightly. Why is this happening? Why are the editors allowing GRRM to bloat the series? It is because, at this point, if he published a book that just said “The North Remembers” and nothing else for fifty pages, everyone would still buy it. Why do we get point of view chapters from people we do not care about? Because GRRM is writing for addicts, and if he cuts the product, we will still buy it. The editors know this and thus give him free reign because their company makes money regardless. ASOIAF is a victim of its own success.

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Pictured: GRRM, escaped from his writing box

Speaking of success, another issue affecting the books is its serialization on HBO. I have yet to watch the show. I’m sure it’s amazing, but something in me is forcing me to finish the books, all of them, before starting in on the show. This may no longer be possible. The show is now halfway through the third of five books, and there is so much fluff in books four and five that the showrunners could conceivably fit it all into one season. Assuming HBO sticks to a yearly production schedule, that gives GRRM one year to write book six and one year to finish it up with book seven. His total output for the past 15years is two books, so unless something drastically changes, there is every possibility I will be watching instead of reading the conclusion to this story.

I do not want to be forced to another medium to find out what happens in the books I love. There is nothing wrong with the show, but it is not the same thing as the books. Not having watched much of it, I can’t speak to specific differences, but it’s clear that there cannot be nearly as much detail to the world – in order to make something watchable, you have to cut it down significantly. The size, the texture, and the depth of the books is part of what makes it for me. The backstories, the tiny defeats and victories for every single character, the flashbacks, the red herrings and true clues packed into the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire are flying through my head right now, and there is no way they fly as thick and fast in the HBO version.

Another strangeness created by the success of the show, because TV popularity is orders of magnitude above book popularity, is that there are new legions of addicts who do not want to be spoiled. A huge event happens at the end of season three of the show (which I did watch on YouTube, because holy shit), and everyone was understandably concerned about spoilers, but that same event happened in a book published while Bill Clinton was still president. If you really care about spoilers and desperately want to know what happens next, read the damned books.

Neil Gaiman famously responded to a fan question about GRRM’s writing pace with “GRRM is not your bitch.” Good response, absolutely true, but a little bit simplistic. When you write something so great that you have a significant percentage of the human population wishing that you would just sit in a box typing for 18 hours a day, there are consequences. One consequence is that you become famous and fabulously wealthy, afforded the freedom to engage in whatever projects you like. Another is that the fervor of fans that catapulted you to the top can quickly turn to anger if they feel you are not fulfilling your obligations to them. It is ridiculous that people wanted Martin to stop watching football so he could write. It is terrible that fans are more concerned about their series concluding than his life ending (although at this point, I’m mildly concerned that my death will come before book seven is published). Even still, George has an obligation to his fans. Edit more judiciously, tie plots together more tightly, and return to the transcendence of A Storm of Swords. I desperately want to see the North remember, and I want to see it in print.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.