Twelve Stinkers
From the Pages of
RALPH
In our last issue
we presented
a compilation of
what we believed to be
the best titles of 2006.
Here we offer a list of
twelve of the most ghastly.
For sheer awfulness of style,
tediousness of content,
lack of verve and originality
and, in general, overall obtuseness
here are
the real
stinkers
of 2006.


The Sancy
Blood Diamond

Power, Greed, and
the Cursed History of
One of the World's
Most Coveted Gems

Susan Ronald
(Wiley)
The Sancy, sometimes called the Sauncy, was reputed to carry a curse, creating bankruptcy and death for owners such as Charles I, Antonio de Crato, and Nicholas Harlay. It has also afflicted the author of the present volume, causing her to suffer from history-ectomy with complications of extensive logorrhea.

Instead of scientific fact which could demonstrate, for example, the mystery of the creation of diamonds, the art of cutting, and the reasons for the exuberant lunacy in their pricing (there are millions of them afloat in the world) ... instead of this, Ms. Ronald has chosen to hand us a waddling, long-winded reprise of the history of continental Europe from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, most of it only tangentially involved with the Sancy.

If you want regurgitated history, you would be better off consulting your Cliff Notes, or even that big bore Martin Gilbert. For example, this is Ms. Ronald at her fleeted, blood-curdling, eye-rolling best:

    The new duke of Burgundy was quite different from his father. On hearing the news of his father's murder, Philip uttered a blood-curdling cry. A shadow fleeted across his face, and his eyes rolled back in their sockets. Philip was in shock, and his court mourned and wept as much for his reaction as for the loss of the mighty Duke John.


In Defense of Animals:
The Second Wave
Peter Singer, Editor
(Blackwell Publishing)
The big problem with In Defense of Animals comes down to a matter of balance. According to UNESCO, 35,515 children worldwide die of malnutrition every day. That's over thirteen million children --- mostly infants --- dying of hunger every year. For me and most of my friends, speciesism demands that we care for our own: namely, human beings. Chickens, pigs, dogs and cats must come later.

In "Living and Working in Defense of Animals," Matt Ball reveals that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) now has 750,000 members, and "spends millions of dollars trying to improve the treatment of animals in North America and Europe." At the same time, Adam Mynott of BBC news recently reported from Kenya, "When the camels start dying, that's when it's getting bad," says Captain Wachilu, a young Kenyan army officer in charge of the government food distribution in the Wajir region.

    His assessment is impossible to disagree with.

    He sends out five trucks a day to different villages dotted across Wajir.

    They are loaded with maize, rice, milk-powder and cooking oil.

    Every few kilometres alongside the rutted, dusty tracks, the convoy trundles past the carcasses of dead animals.

    The bodies of cows, goats and the occasional camel which have succumbed to starvation and heat have been picked at by hyenas and vultures.

    In Macoror village, Yunis Mohammed Hassan is looking after three of his children while his wife has taken two others to hospital.

    "I used to be a rich man," he said. "I had 160 cattle. Now I have 2. I have no money, no work, my children are sick. What do I do?"


A Fractured Mind
My Life with
Multiple Personality
Disorder

Robert B. Oxnam
(Hyperion)
Obviously, Oxnam went through a pain-ridden decade. Hell, he went though a pain-ridden life. If the diagnosis of MPD is correct, and the end result --- integrating eleven characters in search of an author down to a mere three --- was a success, so be it.

However, the real problem here is not Oxnam's fractured mind. It is having to put up with eleven or so characters who are, to say the least, Big Bores.

It's one thing to have these guys frolicking about in the author's head; it is another for us to have to read their writings. Some idiot called Bobby takes over the narrative at not one or two or three but at many --- too many --- points. He is not only a juvenile delinquent in thought and action, his writing is a royal pain. This is on the death of Lady Di:

    I jump up wide-awake. Like I wasn't even asleep. "No," I cried out. "She can't be dead. Not Princess Di" I loved Princess Di. So for several days, I mainly sat by the TV set. I wished I could go to London. I would have taken flowers and stood in the street. I wanted to scream at that old ugly queen. And I wanted to clap for Diana's brother. When the funny guy sang that pretty song --- you know, "Candle in the Wind" --- I couldn't stop crying.


The Making of an
Ink-Stained Wretch

Half a Century Pounding
The Political Beat

Jules Witcover
(Johns Hopkins)
Ink-Stained Wretch is not only misnamed (reporters may still be wretches, but they stopped using pen-and-ink a hundred years ago), it is a cheery, cheesy throw-away. All reporters need editors; Witcover's windiness could easily have been edited from three-hundred pages down to, say, a hundred or so.

The author does think that reporters getting juiced out of their minds is very very funny, whether it is a drunk put on by the Pentagon at a brothel in Panama City ("including a grotesque 'exhibition' not recommended for the queasy of stomach,") or cocktails doled out for the working press in Frankfurt-am-Main. The 1971 Rockefeller-inspired murder of prisoners at Attica is not featured, but the bus chartered for reporters is, because it was "more than amply supplied with refreshments, both solid and liquid."

"On Rockefeller's campaign trail in New York City, our ethical standards took a holiday as we dug into the feast, washing it down the house's best libations."

During Muskie's campaign in 1972, Witcover fondly remembers the bar at the Sheraton Wayfarer in Bedford, New Hampshire. In 2004, he reflects on the "endless nights of good talk and drink at countless saloons from Des Moines to Manchester and on out to San Francisco and back." Thus the Fourth Estate, the ones charged with informing and enlightening 20th Century America, apparently consisted of little more than a handful of beery jokesters involved in a light-hearted romp through the watering-holes of America.


Lullaby of
Birdland

The Autobiography of
George Shearing

George Shearing.
Alan Shipton

(Contiuum)
Lullaby of Birdland, like many of Shearing's recordings, goes on for a long time. A very long time. With lots of endless noodling. And not much in the way of artistic variation on a theme.

Which is, according to the notes I took while slogging through the book, to let us know that George Shearing is straightforward, talented, famous, warm-hearted, courageous, trustworthy, conscientious, generous, creative, well-known, considerate, thoughtful, cultured, accepting, bright, curious, wise, proper, notable, kindly and quite enlightened.

He also writes (or dictates) prose just as he plays music: straight, no chaser, placid if not flaccid, and most significantly, without much heart. It's astonishingly like his music, much-beloved by many who are fond of sitting around in smoky cellars, breathing each other's exhalations, sipping a $10 mug of beer or a shot of whiskey from tiny shot-glasses, tapping their feet and waggling their heads, ogling the guy in front of them with the dark glasses and spotlight. For them, this book has got to be a godsend.

For the rest of us, an evening at Birdland would not be unlike twenty-four hours in the Green Zone of Baghdad. Making it through Lullaby of Birdland could be compared to --- second prize --- an entire month in Baghdad.


Blue Days,
Black Nights

Ron Nyswaner
(Alyson)
Blue Days, Black Nights proves once again that the greatest force in contemporary American life is neither sex nor drugs nor love but self-pity. Under all the autobiographical indulgences --- tears, self-mutilation, scads of money, fifteen different varieties of drugs (bought, the author claims, in fifteen different cities) --- all are dimmed by Nyswaner's waves of nobody-knows-de-troubles-I-seen. He and Johann do the love-affair tangle complete with a chorus of sirens, bells, whistles, and firebombs ... and yet deeply woven into their affair is the refrain, "We're suffering terribly, aren't we?"

Enough so that the average reader begins to wonder, somewhere around page 125, when these kids are going to grow up.

Johann and Ron's last get-together in Las Vegas reads not unlike the story of two children under the Christmas tree, unwrapping colorful toys, delighted by the potential for damage hidden in each baggie:

    From the sock he produced several small, transparent plastic bags holding powder in colors that ranged from pale pink to yellow to dirty white. He dropped the bags on the bed's starched sheet, assigning each a name and a dominant characteristic. The pale pink powder was called "champagne" and "makes you horny." The yellowish powder was "glass" and "mellows you out." The dirty-white powder, "chalk," promised to "keep you going for days."

Nothing there, obviously, in this powder-puff derby, to keep the rest of us going for days and days.


Two Years
Before the Mast

And Other Voyages
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
(Library of America)
If you are a fan of the ilk of the sea tales of Patrick O'Brian, this might appeal to you. For the rest of us who can't tell a jib from the bilge, nor the poop from a reef, it is trying at best, throw-the-book-out-the-window at worst.

Dana comes across as a bit of a prude, one who picks and chooses the facts to paint himself as sturdy of heart and stout of mind if not body. He pointedly ignores a letter from a companion who refers to "the beautiful Indian lasses who often frequented your humble abode in the hide house."

One longs for the writings of someone who has a bit of style; of, for example, Winston Churchill. As we wrote in a review of The Unexpected Hero,

    Early on, he got appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. He was rumored to have said, "What are the traditions of the Navy? Rum, sodomy, and the lash?" In later years he explained that he had never said this but wished he had.


What Good
Are the Arts?

John Carey
(Oxford)
What Good are the Arts? is one of those arty books aimed at dullards who read the Atlantic, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Publishers Weekly , or gather at the many other watering-holes where the gilded literati wet their whistles. But the pretentious question is just that: pretentious. What, indeed, is art?

Well, for some of us, it could be the Cezanne card players on the wall of the Barnes Foundation or the Chrysler Building in Manhattan or Bach's Cantata #188. Or it's Keats' "Grecian Urn" or Henry Purcell's "Sound the Trumpets" or The Great Gatsby or early Louis Armstrong or Riyuku's River Merchant's Wife or Mont Saint-Michel or Don Quixote or Schubert's Die Winterreise.

Anything, I mean anything ... except an artless book about art.


And Be A Villain
Rex Stout
Read by
Michael Prichard

(Audio Editions)
Wolfe does a lot of grunting here. He is also stuffed with high-falutin' language: "What you did may have been distasteful, but you did it impeccably," he tells one of the suspects, after a soulful confession. Someone wants him to hide their secret from the police. Instead of giving a simple yes or no, Wolfe grunts, "Manifestly impossible." He also spends a considerable amount of the readers' time staring at the ceiling, reading newspapers, and drinking beer.

Maybe Stout was such a subtle writer that he got a good laugh by creating big bore detective stories for the lumpen and, in the process, making millions. Or maybe he was a big piggy himself.

Speaking of eponymous names, the people who are not to like in Stout's book are Wolfe himself --- obese and arrogant --- and a suspect, an Upper East Side lady by the name of Mrs. Hilda Michaels: "There was too much of her, and the distribution was all wrong," says the ever-cynical Archie.

    Her face was so well-padded that there was no telling if there were any bones buried underneath.

Let us not fault Michael Prichard nor Audio Editions. The reading is appropriately dry and American. The pain lies but with the original, because it is the work of a genuine fathead.


Meditation in a
New York Minute

Super Calm for
The Super Busy

Mark Thornton
(Sounds True)
Think of it --- you're one of those corporate types (complete with options and golden parachute) at Disney, Wal-Mart, General Motors, Time-Warner and the coach is there with you on the zafu, the two of you in what he calls "hypermeditation."

Executives! Forget those drudge-filled days sticking it to loyal workers by downsizing the corporation, sabotaging their pension plans, firing employees of forty years moments before their retirement benefits kick in. You and your meditation coach can move blissfully together into beatitude after a busy, cost-cutting day.

On the last page of Meditation in a New York Minute, we are told that Thornton

    directs a project to teach and test the bottom line impact to companies on implementing Eastern techniques to create drive, focus, and productivity

demonstrating our writer's compassion for the balance sheet combined with a total ignorance of the blessings of English syntax.


Bobbed Hair and
Bathtub Gin

Writers Running Wild
In the Twenties

Marion Meade
Lorna Raver, Reader

(Blackstone)
Bobbed Hair is interesting, because it is name-dropping on a fairly large scale, a bound copy of The Gawker or Manhattan Media from eighty years ago ... an intimate peek at the dirty laundry and vile doings of many of those who framed American literature in the era of Prohibition.

Still, one suspects that Scott Fitzgerald's drinking habits, even his brutality towards Zelda, should not be the focus of our interest when we consider that he created, drunk or no, violent or not, one of the glories of American literature, The Great Gatsby.

Dorothy Parker may have tried to do herself in with sleeping powders and shoe-polish, but that should not affect our reading of her droll poetry and her sometimes wonderful short fiction. And the fact that Millay fell stupidly in love with a college student from Chicago --- much less the problems she had with constipation (!) --- mean little to those of us who, so many years ago, in our innocent college days, read her East Village-Staten Island Ferry wise-but-innocent poetry with such gusto.

The tone of this book is mostly sneering, sour, narrow; the reading is doubly sour. It is as if Meade has locked the characters down on a dissection table, and Raver is holding her breath, as well as her nose, as she delves into the corpses.


Malinche
Laura Esquivel

Ernesto Mestre-Reed,
Translator

(Atria)
Some of us were quite struck with Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate if for no other reason than the delicious recipes for molé and tamale pie. But her newest work is less tamale and more soft soap.

It is also a tad unbelievable and often the language heats up and runs off the page and falls into the toilet. This is Malinche being introduced to Cortés's verge: "The clouds in the sky began to move with extraordinary swiftness. The air became laden with humidity, moistening the feathers of birds and the leaves of the trees, as well as Malinalli's vagina. The gray clouds, like Cortés's member, made a great effort to contain their waters, to hold back, not to let them fall, so that their precious liquid would not be released."

Despite the damp, she starts in to telling him about the Nahuantl divines. Cortés asks, before throwing himself on her, "And what is that god?"

Malinelli opts for a little coitus interruptus in order to respond: "Eternal, the same as yours, but his eternity is not invisible like yours. Our god evaporates, makes designs in the sky, moves whimsically through the clouds, shouts out his presence, spills his consciousness, and quenches our thirst and fear."

Thus pre-colonial congress. As an inhabitant of today's Mexico City would opine, "A ella le gusta bastante crema en su taco." (She sure likes a lotta cream on her taco.)

This silliness doesn't erupt like Popocatépetl in the midst of the story, it's there from the get-go. This is Malinalli's father, gazing lovingly upon her a few days after her birth,

    Here you are, my awaited daughter, whom I dreamed about, my necklace of fine jewels, my quetzal plumage, my human creation, engendered by me. You are my blood, my color, in you is my image. My little girl, look on peacefully. Here is your mother, your lady, from her belly, from her womb, you were engendered, you sprouted. As if you were a leaf of grass, you sprouted.

Daddy disappears soon afterwards, thank god, but then Grandmother takes up the oracular work, in a similar vein, until, to our great relief, Cortés arrives to lay waste to the entire nation.


The
Discomfort
Zone

Jonathan Franzen
(HighBridge)
Franzen's beefs are not very original nor very insightful. Most Americans now know that the administration is filled with rattlesnakes and nitwits. This country, however, has survived other nitwits. We must confess to you, dear reader, that we threw in the towel after the first disk, and you might be tempted to do the same.

Usually inertia carries us on into complete hearings of these books-on-disk, even when we are listening to a not-so-good reader. But Franzen doesn't know beans about what is needed to overcome his somewhat lorky style of writing, not to say his personal snits.

I am reminded of people who have an overweening love for the music of Stravinsky. They learned long ago never to buy the works he directed himself, such as Petrouchka or Le Sacre du Printemps. The composer was just that, a composer. He didn't know how to get the best sound out of an orchestra. Franzen doesn't know how to get the best sound, or rhythm, out of his own words.

Mud:
A Military History
G. E. Wood

(Potomac)
Wood tells us that there are three types of mud, I, IIa, and IIb. I can't see that these three help the reader very much. In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced ... but I know it when I see it." I think you and I would know mud when we see it (or slip in it).

Mud is a monograph on a not-too-pleasant substance. It smells and tastes like a expanded PhD thesis that got stuck in goo of some sort and I am not so sure it deserves 190 pages. When we think of reasons for military defeats, mud may be guilty but it's hardly scintillating. Give me Mallophaga over porridge any day of the week. You'll find it in Hans Zinsser's Rats. Lice, and History. Now that's history with a bite!