Hard to believe, but it’s time to start on the mid-year roundups already. I’ll be doing a few posts with statistics on my reading from the first half of 2019: where my books came from, how I fared with my most anticipated reads and how I’m doing towards any projects, the best 2019 releases so far, etc. But first, let’s get this out of the way:
I’ve DNFed 37 books so far this year, equating to roughly 20% of what I started. Although that’s higher than my usual 15% average, suggesting that I’m particularly lacking in stick-to-itiveness lately, I don’t think it’s unreasonable that a fifth of the books I pick up don’t work for me for whatever reason (e.g. tone, voice, writing style, subject matter or similarity to other things I’ve read).
My biannual posts on abandoned books are always perversely popular. If you’re reading this post to feel better about the books you’ve abandoned recently: 1) Welcome! 2) I absolve you of any perceived guilt! 3) I encourage readers to give up on books they are not enjoying – at any time, but as early on as possible. You owe it to yourself to devote your limited, precious time to the books you’ll love and find worthwhile. I apologize in advance for not getting on with a book that you loved.
I won’t mention books I’ve already written about, perhaps in one of my monthly Library Checkout posts. No cover images, tags, links or full reviews here – though I might write that little bit more if I got the book from the publisher. So this is just a text dump, I’m afraid. The titles are mostly in chronological order (with some grouped together); the number of pages I read is generally given in brackets at the end.
The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman: A group of six kids grew up playing together in the abandoned Gunner house in Lackawanna, New York. They’re now all around 30 and have dispersed to their different lives, but, reeling from the suicide of one of their own, they’ll be brought back together for a funeral. Too much time is spent with Mikey early on, and the sentences don’t flow all that well – the language is a bit simplistic and repetitive. Other reviews have suggested this is a nice read but not all that special. I’ll watch The Big Chill sometime instead. (23 pp.)
Wonder Valley by Ivy Pochoda: There’s a striking opening, as a naked runner bypasses a morning traffic jam in 2010 Los Angeles. We meet a couple of the other main characters, including Ren, who’s come west via a Greyhound bus after eight years in juvenile detention, while they’re stuck in traffic, then cut to Britt, who in 2006 got attracted to a hippie commune near Joshua Tree. The writing is fine, but I didn’t feel invested in any of the characters. (34 pp.)
The Last Samurai by Helen De Witt: Alas, once I got past the prologue I found this impenetrable. It was one of my bibliotherapy prescriptions for uncertainty about whether to have children. I liked the opening legend about an atheist father being talked into attending seminary. The language is repetitive but I thought I could forgive it because it was narrated by an eleven-year-old. But once the book proper starts we’re in Oxford in the 1980s, splitting hairs over translations. I skimmed to page 90 and was ultimately none the wiser about who’s narrating and what’s going on. (20 pp.)
Mr Wrong by Elizabeth Jane Howard: I read the two shortest stories, “Summer Picnic” and “The Proposition.” The former was pleasantly like Elizabeth Taylor or Tessa Hadley lite; I got zero out of the latter. I tried to settle into the opening, title story, but couldn’t.
Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology by Lisa Margonelli: On the one hand, Margonelli writes enjoyable science for laymen, in a style that reminds me of Ed Yong’s. Termite research has surprising relevance in various fields, such as biofuel production, architecture, and swarm intelligence. On the other hand, I’m simply not interested enough in this set of species. I can imagine having better luck with a book that considered a different group of insects per chapter. My favorite bit was Chapter 13 because it was autobiographical – she tells the ironic story of how termites ate through the wall of her place, and remembers her back-to-nature existence in Maine with a father who trapped and skinned muskrats. I’ll seek out her previous book on petroleum. (131 pp.)
The Hope Fault by Tracy Farr: The style is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s, or Tessa Hadley’s, especially as in The Past. The whole family has returned to the ancestral home, which has just been sold and needs to be cleared, in the midst of a deluge. We meet Iris, her grown son Kurt, her niece Lulu, and her ex-husband Paul – with his new wife Kristin and their still-unnamed one-month-old daughter. The shifting POV mostly sticks with Iris. Chapter titles are nicely random phrases plucked from that chapter. The short sections, some of them pure dialogue, are so short you don’t feel you get anywhere or have anything to latch onto. I loved Farr’s previous novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, and hoped to love this one too, but the narrative drive just wasn’t there. (44 pp.)
The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen: I read about the first 35 pages, and in that time hadn’t warmed to any characters or gotten any sense of what this would be about. However, I can see what contemporary authors like A.J. Pearce and Sarah Waters were aiming for. Odd phrasing, too: “By casting about—but then hitherto this had always been done calmly—he had never yet not come on a policy which both satisfied him and in the end worked. There never had yet not been a way through.” (Passive voice, double negatives, and unnecessary verbiage? No thanks.)
The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle: I should have done my homework on Serle; if I had, I would have realized that she writes young adult romances, and though this has been marketed as adult commercial fiction, it still has that YA vibe. The book’s conceit is that the vision board Sabrina’s college roommate Jessica made her do about the five people, alive or dead, whom she’d invite to her ideal dinner party, has become a reality. Short snippets from this dinner – which includes Sabrina’s ex, Tobias; her dead father, Robert, who left her and her mother when she was a little girl; Professor Conrad, her philosophy instructor; Jessica; and Audrey Hepburn – are interspersed with glimpses of Sabrina’s relationship with Tobias, which started by chance one day in Santa Monica and unexpectedly picked up again four years later in New York City. Apart from the lite romance feel, there is lots of weird phrasing: “it came out to be cheaper,” “ripping open a teabag” to make tea (who would do that and why?!), “any way else,” and so on. (65 pp.)
The Altruists by Andrew Ridker: In 2015 Maggie and Ethan Alter, both living in New York City – she a do-gooder who tutors immigrant children and lives so frugally she’s always a little bit hungry; he a compulsive shopper and hermit, since he broke up with his last boyfriend – unexpectedly get letters from their father, Arthur, a widowed engineering professor, inviting them home for spring break. Ridker writes well, as you’d expect from any Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate. This reminded me most of The Futures by Anna Pitoniak, with traces of Jonathan Franzen or Jonathan Safran Foer in the mix of quirky and cynical characters. But in the chunk I read, I didn’t warm to any of the central characters and never even really got a clear sense of them. I’ll keep an eye out for what Ridker does and maybe try something else by him. (50 pp.)
Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis: I had no idea what’s happening (apart from nothing much), except that a 17-year-old girl is exploring derelict mansions in a Mexican town with one guy or another. The atmosphere is well done, but there’s no way the nonexistent plot can keep me reading for another 145 pages. Shame I never even got to those Ukrainian dwarves. (30 pp.)
Children of God by Mary Doria Russell: The Sparrow was one of my favorite backlist reads last year, and when I heard there was a sequel I rushed to put it on my wish list and got a copy for my birthday. While I was, of course, intrigued to learn that a character we thought was dead is still alive, and it was nice to see Emilio Sandoz, the broken priest, having a chance at happiness back on Earth, I couldn’t get myself interested in the political machinations of the alien races. Without the quest setup and terrific ensemble cast of the first book, this didn’t grab me. I’ll pass it on to my minion (aka husband) and he can tell me if anything of interest happens. (60 pp.)
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt: “I am writing not only to tell. I am writing to discover. … I have always believed that memory and the imagination are a single faculty.” As clever a meditation as this is on identity and memory, at a certain point I found it a chore to pick up. I have no objection to autofiction, but I wanted more current wisdom than twentysomething folly, and what I’ve read about the later #MeToo theme suggests that it is unfortunately heavy-handed. I still plan to read the three Hustvedt novels I haven’t read yet, as well as her memoir; I’ll also dip into her essays and poetry. I think she’s an immense talent; this one just wasn’t for me. (112 pp.)
The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken: Although I’ve lived in the UK off and on for 14 years now, I still know very little about its politics and particularly the criminal justice system. I was interested to learn more, and found the opening chapter usefully basic (judges, solicitors, barristers, etc.). The following chapter on magistrates’ court lost me; all I gleaned was that it’s a Bad Thing because the accused don’t get a fair shake. I can’t decide if you’d need to know more or less about the law to find this engaging; I have a law clerk friend who read it and enjoyed it well enough while also finding it depressing. (73 pp.)
A View of the Empire at Sunset by Caryl Phillips: I read the first chapter and skimmed another two. I’m afraid this is utterly lifeless writing; informative but not at all inviting.
Our Lady of Everything by Susan Finlay: The blurb sounded irresistible, but the writing was an instant turn-off. (Starting with a 10-step “Banishing Ritual” was an awful idea; the introduction to two main characters then wasn’t inviting; the following chapters all introduce a different point-of-view character.) (5 pp.)
Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen: I liked the Atonement-style setup: a 17-year-old ice cream scooper has a run-in with a disgruntled, washed-up reality show star and allows rumors of an attempted sexual assault to bloom. Nice biblical echoes and metaphors, though some are a bit belabored (e.g. “Nofar’s guilt, like a Persian cat, rubbed her legs fleetingly, sat for a brief moment on her lap, then moved onward”). Mostly I just felt no pull to keep going and find out what happened. (63 pp.)
Prayer: Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis: Lewis’s last book is a fictional one-sided correspondence that debates the nature of prayer. I thought I might be able to interest myself in prayer as an academic matter, but it turns out that not believing in it means I don’t care enough. (26 pp.)
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh: Mitford-esque flippant depiction of some upper-class types. (16 pp.)
The Bibliophile’s Dictionary: 2,054 masterful words and phrases by Miles Westley: A secondhand purchase from The Book Shop, Wigtown. The idea is a treasury of obscure vocabulary words, divided into thematic categories and grouped by synonyms. Each word/phrase is illustrated with an example of its use in context in a work of literature, or in a few cases a newspaper article. I kept it as a bedside book for a number of weeks and moderately enjoyed reading a few entries per night. My main annoyances were that Westley often confuses forms, giving a definition for the adjective when he’s using the noun or vice versa, and that his field of reference is pretty narrow: he’s always quoting from authors like Saul Bellow, Pat Conroy, Jack London and Tom Wolfe – dead white guys. I’ll keep this around as a reference book but can’t see myself reading it all the way through. (50 pp.)
The Pocket Mirror by Janet Frame: Having read from Frame’s fiction and memoirs, I wanted to dip into her poetry as well. This collection of free verse from 1967 is mostly written in the first person and concerns everyday local sights and sounds: beaches, town scenes, the view out the window of a morning, and so on; some are short while others are rambling. However, there are also several poems of death and war, and a particular obsession with napalm. While there’s nothing especially off-putting about these poems, nor are they very compelling in style or theme. (22 pp.)
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow: There are echoes of Toni Morrison (especially Song of Solomon) in this debut novel set in the small fictional town of West Mills, North Carolina. Wilson has crafted a memorable antiheroine in Azalea “Knot” Centre, who likes to pretend she doesn’t care what people think about her but actually cares deeply. Alcohol and sex are her two vices, and in the 1940s her two out-of-wedlock daughters are secretly adopted by other families in the town, such that she can watch them grow up. The plot is initially slow-moving – it takes nearly half the length to introduce all the characters and deal with Knot’s first baby – but then leaps ahead to 1960 and further community entanglements. The rendering of the local dialect struck me as hokey, and none of the secondary characters seem worthy of sharing a stage with Knot. (162 pp.)
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata: I feared an Eleanor Oliphant trajectory in this story of a thirtysomething woman who’s worked in the same convenience store for half her life and only barely succeeds in convincing herself and others that she’s a normal person. Even in the little I read, the language was quite repetitive, with Keiko several times describing herself as just a cog in society’s workings, and frequently repeating the rote conversations she has with customers. (30 pp.)
The Rapture by Claire McGlasson: I would normally thrill to any book about a cult, but the writing in this one – maybe it was Dilys’s narration, I don’t know – never grabbed me. What a gorgeous book, though: corduroy-type ridging on the yellow cover, and a colorful deckle-cut dust jacket (with a jackdaw perched in an aggressively ordinary bedroom) that doesn’t quite cover the whole thing. Kudos to Faber for the design. (22 pp.)
I’m so weary of books of anonymized case studies:
- Growing Pains: Making Sense of Childhood, A Psychiatrist’s Story by Mike Shooter
- Seven Signs of Life: Stories from an Intensive Care Doctor by Aoife Abbey
- The Heartland: Finding and Losing Schizophrenia by Nathan Filer: Filer was completely unprepared when he arrived to work in a psychiatric hospital outside Bristol. This book is a record of what he learned: about the history of schizophrenia as a diagnosis, its social stigma, and the experience of living it via speaking to patients and hearing their stories. I read the first of those stories, about Erica, a fashion journalist who became so paranoid that she was being hunted down for committing unwitting crimes that she tried to commit suicide. Compared to Nancy Tucker’s That Was When People Started to Worry, this is dull and not very enlightening. I also found myself irritated by Filer’s habit of hedging around all his terms with “so-called,” and the title is all wrong – people seeing just the two words “The Heartland” on the spine will have no idea that this is a book about mental illness. (They might be thinking it’s about the American Midwest, or whatever.) (58 pp.)
The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey: I was attracted by the cover and the prospect of learning about the Hoppers’ marriage, but the first section sticks with a small boy, a German refugee, heading up to Cape Cod. Mrs. Hopper is a more appealing character, yet somehow I never gained traction with the story. (46 pp.)
A Stranger City by Linda Grant: An unidentified woman who jumped off a bridge in London is buried in a paupers’ grave. Flashback to seven months earlier and various conversations and train rides, promising that we’ll learn how these characters are interconnected. The prospect sounds similar to John Lanchester’s Capital, but none of the characters, nor the writing, were interesting enough to bait me. (32 pp.)