The Reject Pile, July-December 2016
I wasn’t going to do a year-end Reject Pile post because most of what I read in 2016 was pretty good. Even the book I’d been passing over, Rosen’s The Third Horseman, turned out not to be the preachy rant I’d been half afraid to find. Yes, as we put up the Christmas tree in the Jancarik household, I was glowing with the satisfaction of having read some beautifully written history books in the latter half of 2016. It was like having an undefeated season in the sport of pleasure reading.
And then, just before the new year, I picked up these two stinkers—right in a row—and now I feel obligated to discuss them.
Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California by Frances Dinkelspiel
- I should have learned my lesson from The Billionaire’s Vinegar: no more wine books!
- Read 136 of 302 pages
Dinkelspiel’s book has a killer title. Who could resist murder and arson, right? I’m familiar with some of the locations for the story she wants to tell, so the chance to read some local history appealed to me, too. Unfortunately, the arson story Dinkelspiel wants to tell doesn’t actually support 302 pages of content. To get a book-length word count, she gooses it up with chapters of other dark(-ish) tales from the California wine industry. The book could work, except that Dinkelspiel doesn’t keep her stories chronological. Instead, she starts with a very engaging narrative about the smarmy arsonist character in Napa…and then, suddenly, you’re dumped 150 years back in Rancho Cucamonga, where you stay for a couple of chapters before whiplashing back to the arson story. The Rancho Cucamonga story is only tangentially related (California, wine…and that’s about it), so having it dumped into the flow of the arson story doesn’t improve the reader’s understanding of either one. I might have had the patience for more of the industry’s history if it hadn’t been spaced between the title story like speedbumps on a residential street. I caught myself in the rare act of skipping pages, which I only do when I’m trying to give a book its last chance to keep my attention.
I wanted to like this book. Paragraph by paragraph, Dinkelspiel’s writes with the voice of an experienced journalist, and her profiles of people impacted by the warehouse fire describe a range of vivid characters. My attention span just petered out before she made it back to the main story.
The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty by Alexander Lee
- How do you make “Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity” boring, for goodness’ sake?
- Read 142 of 432 pages
Here’s another book with a title promising enough to make you want to stay in on a Saturday night, but most readers will find it doesn’t deliver. Lee’s story starts well: teenage Michelangelo makes a snarky remark to another apprentice and gets punched in the nose. Lee has a very dense, academic tone in his writing, which adds a certain droll flavor to his report of the episode.
He pegs many of the ideas he wants to discuss in his first section to the life and circumstances of Michelangelo, and this structure works well. Unfortunately, he takes a hard left into Renaissance philosophy of romantic love versus lust versus divine love. In his later years, Michelangelo had a bit of a reputation as a dirty old man, so the topic has a place in the book. Lee just runs away with the philosophy for…it was a little over thirty pages when finally I threw up my hands. Now, if one is going to discuss sex and depravity, then sure, give us a fast dance through Dante and Plutarch (those crazy guys!) for context, but most people—even folks with a taste for history—may find tens of pages on a bit much before getting back to the juicy stuff.
Full confession: I’ll probably continue to pick at reading this book as my “backup book”…the book I keep in the car while I wait to pick up my kid or if I get stuck in line at the post office. I find the Italian Renaissance that interesting, but not everyone will. It’s not even ideal as a backup book because Lee’s writing style is so dense as to make picking up and putting down while I wait for the microwave to beep tricky.
Santa also brought me some really interesting-looking books, too, so hopefully we can keep the 2017 Reject Pile small.