Books That I Wanted to Throw Across the Room

Books don't often make me angry. If I don't like one, I just stop reading it. But then there are the good books, the ones that draw me in, that I'm fully invested in, that I look forward to reading during the few quiet moments of my day. When one of those books abruptly takes a turn for the worse, well, I throw it against the wall with all the force my puny arms can muster. How dare it disappoint me!

Do you find my choices appalling? (Some of my colleagues did.) But I bet I'm not the only one to have flung aside a book in disgust.

1. Atonement, by Ian McEwan. I don't expect this book to be knocked off of the top of this list ever. Yes, it's beautifully evocative of England before World War II. Yes, the scenes at Dunkirk are devastating. And yes, one could argue that the ending is a subtle exploration of the power of the writer (even a fictional one) to control the narrative. I would not argue that. I would argue that the ending (which I won't give away) was more worthy of Dallas or Days of Our Lives. When I got to it, across the room the book flew.

2. The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. A wonderfully imaginative book, but why lovingly construct a completely believable novel out of the fantastic tale of a boy and a tiger stranded on a lifeboat and then back away from it at the end? Across the room it went.

3. Saturday, by Ian McEwan. I'm sorry, Mr. McEwan, but you've made the list twice. I thoroughly enjoyed Saturday, especially for its perfect details of what life has been like post-9/11, but please. The protagonist is a stunningly talented neurosurgeon, his wife is a stunningly talented lawyer, his son is a stunningly talented blues musician, and his daughter is a stunningly talented poet. Come on. Families like that are unbelievable in real life, let alone in fiction.

4. Shadow & Claw, by Gene Wolfe. This fantasy classic has one of the best opening chapters I've ever read. Who wouldn't be interested in a young man training to be a torturer? But then, somehow, as the book progresses he turns into Super Torturer. Wolfe imagines a convincing world and is a fine writer, but why would I be interested in a protagonist who succeeds, despite numerous obstacles, at everything (everything!) he does?

5. The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?, by Leslie Bennetts. I reviewed this book very favorably this year, it made the Post's best books of 2007 list, and frankly, it changed my life or at least my career path. But some of it was just infuriating. Yes, women need to take financial responsibility for themselves, but she seemed to assume that every mother -- once they'd seen the light -- would choose to work. Many women know the financial risk they're running -- if they get divorced or their husband loses his job or whatever -- but decide that it's worth it to be home with their kids. And not everyone can afford the perfect nanny she seems to have had. The choices we all make are much more complicated than simply work versus home.

-- Rachel Hartigan Shea

By Christian Pelusi |  December 20, 2007; 7:11 AM ET Rachel Hartigan Shea
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I'm usually so delighted to actually make it to the end of a book that throwing never comes under consideration.

Love the list, even though those two McEwan books are two of my all-time favorites. What's next, Jonathan Safron Foer's beautifully written (and beautifully ended) "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"?

Posted by: Discman | December 20, 2007 12:40 PM

My husband, who rarely buys books, bought "Everything is Illuminated" (I think also by Jonathan Safran Foer). He said that after reading about 30 pages, he wanted to hunt Foer down and punch him -- still not entirely clear what his problem with the book was. Meanwhile, I picked up the book and ended up liking it.

This is probably heresy, but I almost had a throw-the-book moment with "The Chronicles of Narnia," specifically "The Last Battle." I realize the ending is supposed to be an allegory for the idea that if you believe in the one true G-d, you'll reach heaven, but I saw it as Susan having her entire family ripped away from her because she had stopped believing in Narnia. Nobody, not even a fictional character, deserves that.

Posted by: kleewrite | December 20, 2007 2:27 PM

kleewrite: I read "Everything Is Illuminated" after "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," and thought it was terrible. I didn't need to wait till the end to form that opinion, although I did stick it out and read the whole thing, hoping it might get better.

I understand that the film version is quite good.

Posted by: Discman | December 20, 2007 3:40 PM

My most recent experience with this urge to fling a book across the room was Ian McEwan's "On Chesil Beach." I felt like throwing it the whole time I was reading it, and found myself muttering aloud into the night, "This guy doesn't know ANYTHING about women!" But by the time I'd read the last page, I felt he'd truly redeemed himself (what is it about McEwan's 11th-hour flip-flops? you either like them or you don't). It was about 2 in the morning. I simply whispered "Wow."
Without so much as lifting his head from the pillow, my husband said, "Told you so."

Posted by: Marie Arana | December 20, 2007 5:15 PM

Regarding the prominent mention of Ian McEwan in this discussion, his work has always played loose with reality. There have been times when I've said, "C'mon, you can't be serious." But I've later decided that my indignation is due not to the unbelievability of a plot turn but rather to the unsettling feeling aroused by it. His fiction doesn't let the reader off easy. (Enduring Love is another novel of his that provokes this response). I've always thought of McEwan as something of a fantasist. It's a credit to his immense talent and vision that he is taken seriously as a literary writer, and one of the best going.

Posted by: Bill Brantley | December 21, 2007 11:18 AM

I'd like to add Corelli's Mandolin to that list. Beautiful book, one of the best I've read. But every time I pressed it into a friend's hand I had to tell her how I threw the book at my wall when I got to the end.

Posted by: Emily G | December 23, 2007 10:27 AM

"Life of Pi" is the only book I've ever physically chucked at a wall. But I did it after 50 pages. (That doesn't mean I think it's a bad book, but I do think that it very much did not suit my taste!)

Great column.

Posted by: Ashley N | December 23, 2007 1:33 PM

I remember flinging a good dozen so-called feminist books across the room.They were so cooked, and so political! And they tended to miss the point about being a woman. Here are the big offenders:
-The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. She thought it was groundbreaking, but it was totally puerile.
-The Women's Room, by Marilyn French. It denied everything about feminity.
-anything by Susan Sontag. What a pretentious twit.
-anything by Katha Pollitt. So on the bandwagon.
-anything by Susan Feludi. So patently commercial.
But I really did like:
-Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch
It changed my life.

Posted by: Marcy | December 23, 2007 10:27 PM

I think there's still a mark on my wall from Mark Danielewski's "House Of Leaves". Hours and hours I'll never get back. Gaaaaaaaah.

Posted by: Wendy | December 25, 2007 9:12 PM

Although I didn't fling it across the room, the ending of "Possession" was a definite turn for the worse - something out of a TV crime show, with the big showdown in the cemetary. Quite disappointing.

Posted by: St. Paul | December 26, 2007 4:54 PM

"Fall on Your Knees" and "The Lovely Bones" both deserved to be tossed toward a wall.

Posted by: Babba | December 28, 2007 2:46 PM

I haven't been able to make it past 50 pages or so of "Atonement." Don't get it.

I had a book-throwing experience with Anita Shreve's "The Last Time They Met." I was really enjoying the prose and the suspense, but when I got to the ending I wanted to shriek. I've never felt so duped and manipulated by a book, ever. I thought about going back through it to look for clues, but I was too annoyed. I don't think she pulled off the trick well at all.


Posted by: Tinkerbell | December 28, 2007 10:36 PM

Marisha Pessl's "Special Topics in Calamity Physics." What was all the fuss? I bought it after reading a few online reviews, thinking that it would offer me the promised entertainment. (Well, as my mother used to say, "Don't trust Anonymous.") What a horrible, pretentious, anti-book book.
I tried and tried, and then, mercifully, the thing slipped off my nighttable under my bed, where my cat proceeded to rip the dust jacket to shreds.
So, it didn't hit the wall, exactly, but it decomposed nicely, out of view. Does that count?

Posted by: Steve | December 28, 2007 10:37 PM

"I Don't Know How She Does It," by Kate Reddy, is the book that comes to mind for me. Here I thought she was writing an anthem for working moms... and then at the end, she turns on us. I was infuriated.

Posted by: GDW | December 29, 2007 12:00 AM

Oops - the author of "I Don't Know How She Does It" is Allison Pearson. (The main character is Kate Reddy).

Posted by: GDW | December 29, 2007 12:15 AM

I have a friend, much smarter than me, who agrees with you about Shadow and Claw. Still, I will defend one of my long-time favorites. You should note that the book is half the original series, and by most standards Severian the torturer does fail early and often. I wonder, did you toss David Copperfield across the room? Severian's "success" (in the sense of surviving and moving through various careers) speaks to fate and echoes the anthropic principle: he is constrained by the fact he was, does, and will exist in space-time. I liked the books, and have reread them several times, each time seeing new things to appreciate.

Posted by: Lonzo | December 29, 2007 1:44 AM

I have NEVER thrown a book but I have a substitute for it. Instead of giving it to the local library, I put it on the $1 book bin at my local grocery store. Placing a $1 amount on it shows my dislike. I don't often have a book to take there, but did put "A Thousand Suns" on the bin, half-read and totally hated.
(I am having trouble even remembering the darn title I disliked it so much!)
I was about to buy 'Atonement' but after reading these posts, think I will just wait for the movie.
My dislike for a book often is complicated by whether I really like the main characters or not. I'm not astute enough to be able to enjoy the fine writing style etc. if I have taken a dislike to the characters.

Posted by: Marilyn | December 29, 2007 9:11 AM

He's a great writer, and Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" certainly is well written, but the story is dreadful. I'm incapable of not finishing any book that I start, so I forced myself to scan through it, but the images of a post-apocalypse world inhabited by refugees and humans who survive only by becoming monsters was the most depressing thing I can recall reading.

Posted by: Peregrino | December 29, 2007 2:54 PM

I have to agree completely about "Saturday". A novel about such perfect people has the ring of parody to it, except that there is no such genre to parody. Got to page 100 or so and wanted to wretch.

To Marie Arana, in re "Chesil Beach", I would like to suggest that a major point (perhaps THE major point) of that novel, which I dearly love, is that the newlyweds are each ignorant and innocent sexually. And I don't doubt for a moment that it was more often thus in 1962 than it is today. I felt nothing but sympathy for them both, from beginning to end.

Posted by: tony zito | December 29, 2007 9:43 PM

I just finished On Chesil Beach by McEwan. I too had trouble remembering that we were in 1962 England, just prior to the sexual explosion there and elsewhere, which is very well hinted at by our male main character (can't remember his name!) by his preferred type of music (John Mayall, etc.) I wanted to throw the book across the room because of her inability to tell him prior to their marriage about her disgust with sex. Couldn't she have just admitted she had problems and then tried to work them out with him? But I guess that's the point - no one knew how to do that then. I, however, didn't want to throw the book at McEwan - he has a rare gift.

Posted by: Diana | December 30, 2007 8:07 AM

Bleak House. One of the few novels that improved by transitioning to the television screen (and I like Dickens). Getting rid of Esther's simpering, sentimental first-person narration was a huge improvement.

Posted by: Jim | January 1, 2008 7:34 PM

You are absolutely right about "The Life of Pi".

I would add "Love in the Time of Cholera", and "Lady Chatterley's Lover".

Posted by: Beth | January 2, 2008 1:44 PM

My throw-at-the-wall book that I read this year was Katherine Neville's puzzle/genealogy novel, The Magic Circle. While I enjoyed her historical novel "The Eight" that explored the history of chess, the French Revolution, and a wonderful chase through Algeria, this novel really needed an editor! The premise was a Davinci Code-like premise of certain centuries-old mystical objects that had passed through the hands of a particular dysfunctional family. It started out promisingly enough with the description of some of the objects in history (e.g., the spear used at the crucifixion), but the focus soon changed to the bizaree internecine relationships of a family that never seemed real to me. Don' bother.

I'm also ready to pitch "The Time Traveler's Wife", (tho' I'm listening to it on CD, and it's the library's copy). Again, it started out with a promising and intriguing exploration of what time travel would really be like (appearing without clothes is the interesting twist) and with some consideration of free will/determinism, but about halfway through it devolved into an Oprah-book-selection domestic romance/tragedy, with too many descriptions of clothes, food, childbirth, and sex scenes.

Posted by: TXskeptic | January 2, 2008 6:51 PM

My favorite "hated it" book was "The House of Sand and Fog" by Andre Debus. Characters were such ninnies. Made me distrust Oprah forever.

I also detest any of Jan Karon's Mitford series. I am a clergy wife and any time someone mentions how much my life must by like living in Mitford I want to punch them. However, I am a clergy wife and do have to exercize restraint against violence.

Posted by: Balti | January 3, 2008 10:50 AM

I'm with you on "The Last Battle". Not only was Susan's abrupt removal from the scene a clear message (adult woman=bad)but the supporting characters were embarrassingly crude travesties. In fact the only Narnia book I liked was the one that had none of the tedious Pevensie children in it, but that was too good to last...
Likewise "Bleak House", although "Our Mutual Friend" was as bad - an attempt at atmosphere given up abruptly in favor of the usual Dickens shtick. I've never understood his place in the canon.

Posted by: lurkette | January 4, 2008 9:45 AM

I want to second the comment about Cormac McCarty's "The Road" -- it was little more than disaster porn (albeit well-written disaster porn).

Don't even get me started about Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series. The first few were pretty entertaining, but the series soon got completely bogged down in subplots. When I realized that I had just read an 800+ page novel where nothing happened, I literally threw the book across the room.

And "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" was entirely too precious and annoying. I'd gotten it from the library and it made a very satisfying thump when I put it in the book return bin.

Posted by: Nancy | January 10, 2008 4:01 PM

I'm a bit late, but it's a fun topic! I'd like to say that I was tempted to chuck "Love in the Time of Cholera" across the room. Read it because of the movie's pre-buzz, but WHY?! I HATED it. The end was better than the rest of the book, but boy, do I want those hours back.

Posted by: Maritza | January 11, 2008 3:16 PM

OMG, FIVE? Don't you READ?
How about a short list of fifty?
The first forty on anyone's list were recommended by "critics". Many of us pay for these recommendations, and then buy the books. Twice burned.

Posted by: Doug Alley | January 11, 2008 8:09 PM


Posted by: ELIO | January 14, 2008 12:34 AM

Hated: Prep by Curtis Sitwell; Sushi for Beginners by Marion Keyes.

I also didn't like Atonement, which I picked up because everyone said I should. Love in the Time of Cholera didn't move me either.

But I would like to defend Charles Dickens. I loved David Copperfield and I will definitely re-read it in the future.

Posted by: Kathycoulnj | January 17, 2008 9:36 AM

this has been the most fun! this is the kind of book club i want to belong to, not the kind where everyone talks about the "hidden value" or the "meaning" with their noses up in the air. Yay to all you fellow book throwers! if the book stinks, say so! who cares if someone put it on their booklist or made it into a movie. i have thrown MANY books in my time. but i donate them to the library anyway, because there's no accounting for taste....someone will like it. especially if they were told to. lemmings.

Posted by: Janice | January 17, 2008 9:55 AM

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