The Rest of the Books I Abandoned in 2017, and the Year’s Disappointments

My abandoned books posts are always perversely popular, garnering nearly twice as many views as many of my reviews. This seems to be because fellow readers are secretly (and a bit guiltily) looking for permission to give up on the books they’re not enjoying. I hereby grant you my blessing! If after 25 pages or so a book is not grabbing you – even if it’s a bestseller, or a book all the critics or bloggers are raving about – have no shame about putting it down. You can always change your mind and try it another time, but ultimately you are the arbiter of your own internal library, and only you can say whether a book is for you or not.

That said, here are all the rest of the books I’ve abandoned since May’s post (not mentioning again any that might have come up through my Library Checkout or monthly preview posts). I don’t write full reviews for DNFs, just a sentence or two to remind myself of why I gave up on a book. (In chronological order of my reading.)

 

Dear Mr M by Herman Koch: I didn’t even make it past the first few pages. I wasn’t at all engaged, and I couldn’t now tell you a single thing about the book.

 

Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo: I started this for a potential BookBrowse review and it felt derivative of every other African-set book I’ve ever read. It was difficult to see what made it original enough to be on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. (DNF @ 15%)

 

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor: I feel bad about this one because so many discerning readers admire it. I thought I knew what to expect – lovely writing, much of it descriptions of the natural world and the daily life of a small community – but I guess I hadn’t fully heeded the warning that nothing happens. You hear a lot about Hardyesque locals you can’t keep straight (because what do they matter?) but never anything about what happened to the missing girl. Couldn’t hold my interest, but I won’t rule out trying it again in the future. (DNF @ 15%)

 

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: I’d heard amazing things about this debut novel and was indeed impressed by the descriptive language and characterization. But if you know one thing about this book, it’s that it’s full of horrifically matter-of-fact scenes of sexual abuse. When I reached the first of these I couldn’t go on, even though I was supposed to review this for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Luckily my editor was very understanding. (DNF @ 6%)

 

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich: I’d heard a lot of pre-publication buzz about this book, which came out in January, and always meant to get around to it. The problem is likely down to expectations and a surfeit of information. Had I come to this knowing little to nothing about it, perhaps I would have been drawn into the subtle mystery. (DNF @ 7%)

 

The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet [trans. from the French by Sam Taylor]: HHhH was brilliant, but this one’s cleverness passed me by. I could probably sustain my interest in a playful mystery about linguistics and ‘the death of the author’ for the length of a short story, but not for nearly 400 pages. (DNF after 40 pages)

 

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: This starts out feeling like the simple story of Cedar meeting her biological Native American parents and coming to terms with her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. It takes a long time to start resembling the dystopian novel it’s supposed to be, and the signs that something is awry seem too little and come too late to produce even mild alarm. I’d try something else by Erdrich, but I didn’t find her take on this genre worthwhile.(DNF @ 32%)

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: I think the central problem here was that I’d seen a theatre adaptation of the novel less than a month before and the story was too fresh in my mind; there were no plot surprises awaiting me, and the scenes involving the painting itself, which I was most interested in reading for myself, felt ever so melodramatic. (DNF after 70 pages)

 

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart by Emily Nunn: After a dear brother’s suicide, a breakup from her fiancé, and a couple of spells in rehab to kick the alcohol habit that runs in her family, Nunn set off on a quest for what people across the country consider to be comfort food. She starts with a visit to a cousin in the South and some indulgence in ham biscuits and peanut brittle. Like Life from Scratch by Sasha Martin, this is too heavy on the sad backstory and not quite enough about food. (DNF @ 25%)

 

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen [trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw]: A subtle story of a fishing/farming family carving out a life on a bleak Norwegian island and dreaming of a larger life beyond. I can’t think of anything particularly negative to say about this; it just failed to hold my interest. I read over a third while on holiday in Amsterdam – reading it by the coast at Marken felt particularly appropriate – but once we got back I got caught up in other review books and couldn’t get back into it. (DNF @ 41%)

Favorite lines: “Nobody can leave an island. An island is a cosmos in a nutshell, where the stars slumber in the grass beneath the snow. But occasionally someone tries.”

 

The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink [trans. from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt]: I planned to review this for German Literature Month back in November. To start with it was vaguely reminiscent of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos and Me and Kaminski, with an artist trying to micromanage the afterlife of his painting and keep hold of the wife he stole off its owner, but it quickly tailed off. The narrator, who is the lawyer representing the painter, soon declares himself in love with the portrait subject – a sudden disclosure I couldn’t quite believe. (DNF @ 23%)

 

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: I read 4 out of 8 stories. Machado writes bizarre, sex-saturated mash-ups of fairy tales and urban legends. My favorite was “Mothers,” about queer family-making and the abuse lurking under the surface of so many relationships. This author is absurdly good at lists, all through “Inventory” and in the shrine to queer icons in “Mothers.” But all the stories go on too long (especially the Law and Order, SVU one, which felt to me like pure filler) and would no doubt be punchier if shorter. Not a book for me, but one I’d recommend to others who’d appreciate the edgy feminist bent.

 

The Cat Who Stayed for Christmas by Cleveland Amory: A pointless sequel to what was already a rather lackluster story. I read the first chapter and gave the rest a quick skim. It feels like it’s been spun out of a real dearth of material for the sake of prolonging 15 minutes of fame. A whole chapter on how Polar Bear the cat doesn’t really like the trappings of celebrity? Yawn. I’m usually a cat book person, but not in Amory’s case.

 

Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg: I was most interested in reading “Howl,” having seen the wonderful James Franco movie a few years ago and then encountered Ginsberg earlier this year as a minor character in The Nix. I read up through Part I of “Kaddish” and that felt like enough. These are such strange poems, full of startling body and food imagery and alliteration, that they made me laugh out loud in astonishment. They’re awesome in their own way, but also so unsettling I didn’t want to read too much at once.

 


And a few books I was really looking forward to this year but ended up disappointed with:

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Egan focuses on interesting historical side notes such as a woman working as a diver at Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII, but in general her insertion of period detail is not very natural. I couldn’t help but compare this with her previous novel, the highly original A Visit from the Goon Squad. By comparison, Manhattan Beach is merely serviceable historical fiction and lost my interest as it went into flashbacks or veered away to spend time with other characters. My interest was only ever in Anna. Overall not a stand-out work. (Reviewed for The Bookbag.)

 

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Impressive in scope and structure, but rather frustrating. If you’re hoping for another History of Love, you’re likely to come away disappointed: while that book touched the heart; this one is mostly cerebral. Metafiction, the Kabbalah, and some alternative history featuring Kafka are a few of the major elements, so think about whether those topics attract or repel you. Looking a bit deeper, this is a book about Jewish self-invention and reinvention. All told, there’s a lot to think about here: more questions than answers, really. Interesting, for sure, but not the return to form I’d hoped for.

 

George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl: There are some endearing characters and enjoyable scenes in this tale of an odd couple’s marriage, but in a desperate wish to avoid being boring, Pearl has too often chosen to be edgy rather than sweet, and experimental rather than thorough. I think she intended to tell an empowering parable that counters slut-shaming, but it’s so hard to like Lizzie. The writing is notably poor in the earliest sections, where the attempt at a breathless, chatty style is a distraction. Dutiful research into football hardly helps, instead making this seem like a weak imitation of John Irving.

 

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn: An underwhelming King Lear adaptation. (Didn’t Jane Smiley already give us a less caustic version of this daughters-fighting-over-the-family-business scenario?) It is Dunbar and his emotional awakening and reconciliation with Florence (Cordelia) that power the book. The other two sadistic, nymphomaniac daughters and their henchmen are too thinly drawn and purposelessly evil to be believed.

 


What books disappointed you this year? Were there any you just couldn’t finish?

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27 thoughts on “The Rest of the Books I Abandoned in 2017, and the Year’s Disappointments

  1. Very interesting! I totally agree with you about My Absolute Darling, it’s my only DNF this year, I did not like the sexual abuse, in particular the language used to describe it, for me the tone was wrong, it seemed prurient. And I am not a puritan and have a strong stomach – I liked American Pyscho!
    I did like very much Stay with Me and Reservoir 13. It’s worth staying with Stay with Me. Reservoir 13 worked for me as I have read a lot of crime fiction and I felt it was messing with that format and deliberately confounding the reader’s expectations. I also loved Manhattan Beach but I don’t read a lot of historical fiction so did not have high expectations and was very pleasantly surprised. A recent disappointment for me was The Burning Girl by Claire Messud, it was very well written but in my view wrongly packaged as a psychological thriller so I was expecting a slick pay off at the end. But I must admit to being quite Tigger like in my attitude to books – I love almost every book I have just read, I just love the escapism and involvement of the whole experience!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree: it was how Tallent described the abuse. They were the sort of graphic sex scenes I would expect in a totally different book. And I don’t consider myself squeamish either, but I just couldn’t take that.

      I read virtually no crime fiction and wasn’t really expecting a whodunit from McGregor, having read his novel So Many Ways to Begin. I’m disappointed with myself for not taking to Reservoir 13. I’ll have to give it a few years and try again. Meanwhile, I have several of his earlier books to try.

      Claire Messud is an author whose books I often hear conflicting opinions about. It’s rather put me off trying anything by her.

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    1. I was obliged to finish the book for the Bookbag review or probably would have dropped it somewhere around page 140. I see what you mean about the coincidences. I’m still keen to go back and try her earlier books, having only read Goon Squad otherwise.

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  2. I don’t abandon very many books, and when I do, I don’t keep track of them. So, since my memory isn’t what it used to be, I couldn’t tell you what books I abandoned this year. I think there might have been a couple, but not many more. I don’t know if I’m good at choosing books for myself, or if I’m just easy to please. Ha! Maybe some of both. But it’s a lot of fun reading about other people’s DNFs and disappointments!
    I have Reservoir 13 on hold at the library – I’m curious now to see what I think!

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  3. How refreshing to read your list & comments. I am very grateful to you for your frank reviews. You have just saved me a pile of money. I was planning to spend some of my Xmas gift vouchers on Booker books that I hadn’t read, and also recent novels that garnered rave reviews. Jennifer Egan’s Manhat Beach, for e.g. I loved Goon Squad, and on the basis of that, was about to splurge, but no longer. On the topic of Booker books : frequently they’re not enjoyable and in some cases unreadable – Howard Jacobson springs to mind. Thanks Becks, andwishing you good reads in 2018.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve DNFed one Jacobson but read another two and enjoyed them well enough. He certainly is a polarizing author.

      You could always pick up the Egan in a library or bookshop and read the first few pages to see if it draws you in. Just be aware that it’s a very different book from Goon Squad!

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      1. I hated the Finkler book with a passion, and then thought: get over yourself. Try another of his novels. Nope. I don’t think I made it past page 9, & have mercifully forgotten the title. You just can’t win ’em all.

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  4. I admire your ability to stop reading a book – I force myself through them eventually once I’ve started! I finished Reservoir 13 and I really disliked it. I also read a very scathing review of My Absolute Darling recently and there’s no way I’m going to go anywhere near it!

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    1. Thanks! I think there is probably a lot of perfectionism among readers. It’s hard to give up on a book, and I understand how it can feel like a failure. But with such limited time and so many books out there, isn’t it better to abandon a book you don’t like before you struggle to the end?

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  5. Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep came much hyped and I hated it. If a cliché is worth using once, it’s worth using lots of times. And the central characters were unbelievable sand uninteresting. Apart from that …..

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  6. Oh, I’m sorry about Reservoir 13 and My Absolute Darling—I adored both (this will make you think I’m a total weirdo, but I was genuinely delighted by how disturbingly sexy the abuse scenes were; I thought it got right at the heart of the queasy co-dependency between Turtle and her father that makes her escape so difficult and so necessary). You’re right about Stay With Me, though; I read the whole thing and just could not get with it at all. And you already know how much I loathed Dunbar!

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    1. Yeah, I’m sorry about them too. I know you admire them, and I admire your taste! There was a lot to like about the Tallent apart from the sex scenes, but they just made me so uneasy. Roxane Gay has written a very thoughtful Goodreads review about the fetishising of the abuse.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I always love these. I really don’t like Jon McGregor – I read his first one and it just felt like a writing exercise, so I’ve never picked up another. I think I’ve only abandoned “Greatest Hits” by Laura Barnett at 30% which I found boring, another NetGalley one, “Undercover Princess” which was too silly and unbelievable, and “The King of Lavender Square” by Susan Ryan from LibraryThing which signalled animal accidents and death so I wasn’t at all keen and gave up very quickly! Not bad in a year, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Very interesting to hear your DNF posts get more hits – I think your comment about readers seeking permission to give up on books seems highly likely! I totally agree about The 7th Function of Language – I made it about half way through but postmodernist French philosophy is really not a great subject for a novel unless you’re a certain type of intellectual. I did like Reservoir 13 and Stay With Me and I thought The Unseen was very good too and one of my favourites on the MBIP longlist, but I think I would have struggled to get back in to it like you did if I had put it down for a certain length of time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Timing and mood does play a big role. It’s certainly possible that I’d return to Reservoir 13 or The Unseen another time and get sucked into them, provided I gave them my full attention. I think it would also be a good idea to get them out from the library, as it seems I’m more likely to give up on an e-book.

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  9. Hi Rebecca! I saw this in my inbox and was fascinated with your list! You are right it’s a magnetic. Since you and I are now avid Murakami fans I am curious about what you put down. I am compulsively reading My Absolute Darling. But keep in mind my novel, The Sleeping Serpent, deals with a sociopath and psychological relationship abuse, albeit not incestuous child abuse. Have you yet read, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, the new editor in chief of T: The New York Times Style Magazine. That novel would go on my top ten reads for the year. My reading list includes several on your DNF: Forest Dark, Idaho, and Manhattan Beach and now I worry I’ll be disappointed. And I hadn’t considered Bernhard Schlink’s book – I did adore The Reader! Thanks so much for putting your reviews and this blog out there for us! I don’t know if I am brave enough to have you read my book!

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  10. Yes! Permission! I just gave up on (on page 145 of 261) Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill, this year’s winner of Canada’s Giller Prize ($100,000!!!) I’ve given up on other prize winners before, including Pulitzers & the National Book Award, but somehow because the Giller is Canadian and because bloggers whom I admire thought it was brilliant (North American usage), I feel very guilty about this DNF. Thanks for the pep talk. 😉

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    1. Just because a book is a prize winner doesn’t mean everyone has to read it. I’ve read some awfully boring Booker Prize winners. It’s a shame you got so far into Bellevue before giving up, though. Does it feel like time wasted? I hope you have some better reads lined up for the holidays!

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