Sigh. It keeps happening. A book that looks unmissable ends up disappointing me and I abandon it partway through. Here’s six I dropped recently: two from the library, two e-copies I was meant to review but found I couldn’t recommend, and two that couldn’t hold my interest on our European holiday. Below I give brief write-ups of the abandonees. As always, I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any of them and thought they were worth persisting with.
You Are Having a Good Time: Stories by Amie Barrodale
I only managed the first two stories. Barrodale writes in a flat, affectless style full of unconnected sentences; her themes are of Hollywood and the emptiness of modern life. This reminded me most of Miranda July, so if you’re a big fan of hers I’d say go for it. Otherwise, don’t bother. [Read the first 21%.]
Sweet Home by Carys Bray
These gently magical short stories equate parenthood with peril: a child is always somehow lost or on the verge of being lost. “Just in Case” is wonderfully macabre, and I was glad to discover how A Song for Issy Bradley got its start (with “Scaling never”). The fragility of memory is another theme, with one story narrated by a woman with dementia. The title story has a Hansel and Gretel fairytale feel to it. I enjoyed the first half well enough, but didn’t feel compelled to continue; I definitely prefer Bray’s full-length work, and this needed to go back to the library anyway. [Read the first 96 pages out of 178.]
Parfums: A Catalogue of Remembered Smells by Philippe Claudel
[translated from the French by Euan Cameron]
I loved the idea behind this: a memoir in the form of short essays built around scent memories. Cinnamon brings the Christmas season to mind, aftershave reminds him of his father, and garlic and cannabis dredge up different aspects of his growing-up years. There’s some beautifully poetic language here. A favorite line was “The child that I am is allowed to breathe in these smells of dead pollen, widowed woolens and orphaned linen so that one day he can piece them together into a narrative and resurrect lives lost through wars, illnesses and accidents.” But ultimately I got a bit tired of more of the same. Perhaps if I’d kept it as a bedside book and just read a few pieces at a time instead of attempting to read it straight through, it would have worked better for me. [Read the first 86 pages out of 173.]
Absalom’s Daughters by Suzanne Feldman
Three generations of black women – Cassie, Lil Ma and Grandmother – live on Negro Street above the laundry where they work in Heron-Neck, Mississippi. Cassie learns that her father is a white man, William Forrest, whose daughter Judith is near her age. They know they’re sisters and when they hear their worthless pater has received an inheritance they concoct a scheme to go get their nest egg. Alas, the Southern dialect feels false to me, and I wasn’t taken with any of the characters. (Great piece of trivia: Feldman used to write science fiction under the pen name “Severna Park,” which is a town in Maryland.) [Read the first 18%.]
The Hemingway Thief by Shaun Harris
I thought this would be a fun, light-hearted literary mystery to read on European trains. Henry Cooper, a writer of vampire romances, takes a sabbatical to Mexico to figure out what he really wants to do. Here he unexpectedly wanders into intrigue when a Hemingway manuscript turns up in a small-time criminal’s hotel room. I never warmed to the uninspired hardboiled-lite style and it took far too long for the story to get going. [Read the first 17%.]
Setting Free the Bears by John Irving
This was Irving’s debut, and although you can see seeds of the Dickensian characterization at which he excels in his best work, it was just not good overall. Neither Siggy nor Graff held my interest, and the dialogue feels stiff and unrealistic. There’s also some downright strange wording: “I could peek how the helmet nearly covered her eyes”; “the rain still puddled the courtyard”; “When his spongy ribs whomped the cobbles, the horse said, ‘Gnif!’” I couldn’t decide if this was Irving trying to show that the story is set abroad or if it was just evidence of bad writing. My husband is enough of an Irving fan to have gobbled the book up by the time we reached Austria, but I decided it wasn’t going to get much better. That’s a shame, as I would have liked to get to them, you know, actually setting free the bears at the Vienna Zoo. [Read the first 75 pages out of 384.]
Never read anything by these authors and on the strength of your experience that isn’t going to change
John Irving has written some absolute classics: A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According to Garp, and The Cider House Rules are all wonderful. His first novel was really weak in comparison. I also wouldn’t want to steer you away from Carys Bray’s terrific novel, A Song for Issy Bradley.
Groan, yet more names to add to my wishlist. I’m not really complaining – it’s by seeing recommendations from people like you that my reading habits have expanded in recent years. Long may it continue
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I can understand why you’d give up. In The Hemingway Thief, I found your phrase “hardboiled-lite style” both intriguing and unsolvable. What does it mean?
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In speaking of crime fiction, “hardboiled” refers to a tough, cynical detective. The protagonist reminded me of that sort of character a bit.
I’ve had Setting Free the Bears on my bookshelf for the better part of four decades and have never worked up the courage to read it, knowing that it was Irving’s first and likely not his strongest work. After reading your comments, I may finally donate it. 😉
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His latest, Avenue of Mysteries, was also really disappointing — I gave up at 15%, I think. At his best Irving is splendid, but I don’t have much patience for his lesser works. My husband tells me this one — after the point that I gave up — uses an unusual/annoying narrative device also.
I finished Setting Free the Bears and I don’t remember it being worth the effort. I do love his other novels though.
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That Parfums sounds like one I read about all the colours and their history – much better read as a palate cleanser between other books rather than all in one go.
I salute you for sharing these – I hear so many people feeling bad for giving up on books or pushing through to the bitter end. I always try to include a quick note on my DNFs, too. I’m pretty picky about what I add to the TBR, but still end up with one every couple of months on average.
I’ve been surprised by how popular these abandoned books posts are — I think people like to be reassured that it’s okay to give up on a book. I truly pity people who say they can’t not read every page of a book — what a waste to consign yourself to hours of boredom/misery when there are such wonderful books out there! It’s entirely understandable that there are some books you just won’t get on with for whatever reason, and it’s best to acknowledge that right away.
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P.S. I’m not so much “un-recommending” these books as explaining why they didn’t work for me just now, which is why I always ask if other people have read them and what they thought — I’m happy to be proved wrong 🙂
I’m glad to see more people write about abandoning books- which seems like a weird sentence to write, but I’m recently more and more in favor of it in order to clear the way for the good stuff that otherwise sits on my shelf for years while I slug through the mistakes I bought. I feel like still a bit of a taboo in the book community- I often get criticized for having an opinion without finishing a book. Anyway, hope you won’t have to abandon a lot of books in the future, though. 🙂
Thanks, Kelly! I appreciate you saying that. My abandoned books posts have been weirdly popular for that reason, I guess — readers are relieved that other people leave books unfinished too. I do know some sticklers who say you shouldn’t rate a book unless you’ve read every word of it. Bah!