A Dreadful Book I Can’t Recommend

“Life,” the political philosopher Hobbes wrote in 1651, “is nasty, brutish and short.”

So it has that in common with the stories in Wells Tower’s book Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.

I really wanted to like this book, because a friend of mine liked the writing and because Michael Chabon wrote a blurb for it and Chabon is one of my favorite authors.  I tried to like it as I slogged through the stories, but I didn’t.  Josh tried to read it with me, like our own personal book club (how sweet is it that he offered to do that?) but about halfway through he quit, wisely deciding not to throw good money after bad.

It bothers me intensely that this book is seen as good by the literary establishment.  First, because the writing is strained and forced, and second because the stories are not great stories, they are condescending and trite attempts to “document” life as it is these days.  They miss the mark, they have nothing to add to our understanding, they do nothing to illuminate an issue or make the world better.

Moreover, to my first point, the writing is not even that great.  People are excited about Tower’s use of imagery, but honestly, I thought his attempts were overdone and often played to tired sterotypes rather than being fresh and insightful.  A good writer sees the world in a different way, and makes the reader see something he had never considered before.

Worst of all, the book communicates such a bleak and meager view of life.  Writers always put their philosophy in their work, and you can tell that Tower sees others as ignorant beasts, and doesn’t really have any particular hope or sense of redemption.

Although I rarely write completely negative reviews, I absolutely cannot find anything at all to recommend this book.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.  Although, for pity’s sake, if you click through to Amazon from this post please buy ANY book other than the one I reviewed.

6 thoughts on “A Dreadful Book I Can’t Recommend

  1. I hope that you didn’t start this one right after giving up on The Surrendered! I always hate getting two disappointments in a row, makes me that much more anxious to pick a real winner for my next read.

    I’m in the midst of one that I’m really enjoying – Breath: A Lifetime in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung by Martha Mason. I do love memoirs/biographies and so far it’s been fantastic. I’m extra glad I’m enjoying it so much because I’m reading so little right now as I figure out my new normal if that makes sense. I managed to read only one book in June and July which is just shockingly low for me. Two kids is knocking me for a loop!

  2. Cat, I’m SO sad that you didn’t like it. I usually find myself agreeing with you (you have awesome taste in literature!). But here I disagree with both points. On the bleak, meager view of life, for me that was a triumph. I do understand your desire for redemption, but I don’t know if it’s necessary in every story. I think the point of literature is not to shine a light on an issue, but to shine a light on what it is to be human. And some people’s lives are bleak and meager. If there has been no redemption, does that story not deserve to be told? Also, I found that each story had a small internal change. Like, weren’t you touched in that moment in the first story when, after screwing up his entire life, the main character doesn’t sleep with the neighbor’s wife, and later looks at the fish tank and sees himself as an unredeemable thing? When in fact, he just got a little bit of redemption. I thought that was heartbreaking. The great thing about W.T. is that he stays away from sentimentalism, but still makes each moment feel so powerful and emotional.

    About the bad writing, nooooo! 🙂 What parts did you think were forced? Let’s dissect like the lit nerds that we are! 🙂

    1. Even the most meager and bleak lives have a spark of humanity and dignity. Look at Russian literature for example. You really can’t get more bleak and meager than late 1800s early 1900s Russia, and yet every character in Dostoyevsky has dignity and human worth and value. That is what makes the stories worth telling. Finding that spark in every character. That is what is entirely missing in the condescension and derision of the way modern lit writers write about so-called average people. I guess I didn’t really track with Towers being emotional or powerful. You don’t have to be sentimental to be great, but you do need some understanding of what makes people human versus slabs of chicken breast.

      As for the writing, I found most of his descriptions laborious and forced. A really strong description changes the way I see something and gives me another angle of perception. I just didn’t find that in anything in the book. I felt like every description made me stop and say “oh geez” rather than keeping on reading with greater understanding. And some of the characterization was so ten years ago, like the awkward homeschool kid. Really? That’s all you have WT? Cliche cliche cliche. Ugh.

      I’m sorry to disappoint!

  3. sorry this reply is late! The notification went to my spam.
    Anyway, so you mention that you don’t see human dignity or worth in his characters, but I’m not seeing the specific reason. For example, in the first story, the man is losing everything and he is bitter and jaded, and yet he learns to be a good friend to his neighbors, in a very subtle and real way. In the story about the vikings, they are living in a brutal, disgusting time, and yet the main character longs to be back with his wife and he’s going on the voyage only to provide for her. In the story about the man whose wife leaves him, he actually drives cross country with her injured lover and his daughter only because he once loved her, and during that car ride, they help each other and find something to like about each other. In the story about the elderly father who is losing his mind, the family humors him by taking the vagrant chess player out to dinner, and then there’s that beautiful moment when he sings for them and when they think he’s going to steal the car, he drives around and takes them both home, and the son realizes that his father was right to befriend a stranger. How is that not human dignity? A chicken breast? hmmm…. 🙂

    as for the prose, I guess people have differing opinions on something so tied to personal aesthetic. But the cliche thing is a bit strong. It’s not cliche to write about an awkward kid. Many kids (home schooled or not) are awkward. Something is not cliche just because it was a theme in the 90’s, especially if it continues to be true today. (Also, a side character does not have to illuminate anything. Sometimes a side character is there for only one small purpose, which he fulfills and leaves, and he doesn’t have to shatter people’s beliefs on that issue.) But just because A. Roy won a Booker in 97, say, for writing about child molestation doesn’t make the entire topic or a molested Indian character cliche.
    But I can see how you weren’t touched by the prose. It’s all a matter of personal taste, and plenty of people hate every writer.

    actually, I’m not disappointed that you hated it because I LOVE the discussions that come from disagreeing way more than the boredom of total agreement. It makes you think about deeper purposes/meanings of a book, which is the whole point! 🙂

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