Winter Reads, Part I: Patrick Gale & Tove Jansson (#NordicFINDS23)
This winter has been a disappointment: it’s bloody cold, but with no snow. It’s impossible to keep our house warm, even with extra loft insulation and new double-glazed windows (home ownership is boring and overrated), so I’m ready for signs of spring. Maybe by the time I review a second batch of seasonal reads in February, winter will truly be on its way out.
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (2015)
This was our January book club read. We’d had good luck with Gale before: his Notes from an Exhibition received our joint highest rating ever. As he’s often done in his fiction, he took inspiration from family history: here, the story of his great-grandfather Harry Cane, who emigrated to the Canadian prairies to farm in the most challenging of conditions. Because there is some uncertainty as to what precipitated his ancestor’s resettlement, Gale has chosen to imagine that Harry, though married and the father of a daughter, was in fact gay and left England to escape blackmailing and disgrace after his affair with a man was discovered.
There are very evocative descriptions of the pioneer life, lightened for Harry by his relationship with his closest neighbours, siblings Petra and Paul. The novel covers the First World War and the start of the Spanish flu epidemic, which provide much fodder for melodrama, but somehow I don’t mind it from Gale. Harry himself is so diffident as to seem blank, but that means he is free to become someone else in a new land. My other main criticism would be that the villain is implausibly evil. Some of our book club members also thought there were too many coincidences. Gale really makes you feel for these characters and their suffering, though. Sexuality and mental health, both so misunderstood at that time, are the two main themes and he explores them beautifully. In that both are historical fiction where homosexuality is simply a fact of life, not a titillating novelty, this reminded me a lot of Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. (Free from mall bookshop)
A Winter Book: Selected Stories by Tove Jansson (2006)
[Translated from the Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart]
A brief second review for Nordic FINDS. It’s the third time I’ve encountered some of these autofiction stories: this was a reread for me, and 13 of the pieces are also in Sculptor’s Daughter, which I skimmed from the library a few years ago. And yet I remembered nothing; not a single one was memorable. Most of the pieces are impressionistic first-person fragments of childhood, with family photographs interspersed. In later sections, the protagonist is an older woman, Jansson herself or a stand-in. I most enjoyed “Messages” and “Correspondence,” round-ups of bizarre comments and requests she received from readers. Of the proper stories, “The Iceberg” was the best. It’s a literal object the speaker alternately covets and fears, and no doubt a metaphor for much else. This one had the kind of profound lines Jansson slips into her children’s fiction: “Now I had to make up my mind. And that’s an awful thing to have to do” and “if one doesn’t dare to do something immediately, then one never does it.” A shame this wasn’t a patch on The Summer Book. (Free from a neighbour)
Original rating in 2012:
And a DNF:
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin (1983)
Laila (Big Reading Life) and I attempted this as a buddy read, but we both gave up on it. I got as far as page 53 (in the 600+-page pocket paperback). The premise was alluring, with a magical white horse swooping in to rescue Peter Lake from a violent gang. I also appreciated the NYC immigration backstory, but not the adjective-heavy wordiness, the anachronistic exclamations (“Crap!” and “Outta my way, you crazy midget” – this is presumably set some time between the 1900s and 1920s) or the meandering plot. It was also disturbing to hear about Peter’s sex life when he was 12. From a Little Free Library (at Philadelphia airport) it came, and to a LFL (at the Bar Convent in York) it returned. Laila read a little further than me, enough to tell the library patron who recommended it to her that she’d given it a fair try.
Any snowy or icy reading (or weather) for you lately?
The Ones that Got Away: 2022’s DNFs, Most Anticipated Reads & More
Every time I list my DNFs the posts are absurdly popular, so if this is the permission you need to drop that book you’ve been struggling with, take it! If for any reason a book isn’t connecting with you, move onto something else; you can always try it another time. I’ve given a few words as to why I gave up on each one. In rough chronological order:
What Cannot Be Undone by Walter M. Robinson: Medical essays. Repetitive and mawkish; won’t stand out in the crowded field of doctors’ memoirs.
Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary by Johanna Kaplan: Rediscovered short stories of Jewish NYC in the 1960s–70s. The character portraits are sharp, but the first story, “Other People’s Lives,” is novella length and felt absolutely endless.
Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau by Ben Shattuck: Nice enough travel writing about trips to Cape Cod, Walden Pond and Mt. Katahdin, but the information on Thoreau (including extensive quotations) is not well integrated and the reflections generic.
Here Comes the Miracle by Anna Beecher (from the ST Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist): MA-course writing-by-numbers and seemed to be building towards When God Was a Rabbit-style mawkishness.
Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline: The premise was appealing but it was so slow to go anywhere and the writing was only so-so.
Devotion by Hannah Kent: I was enjoying the beautiful writing and the gentle love story unfolding between two teenage girls setting off from Prussia to Australia with their families. My interest waned a little during the start of the sea voyage, as I kept waiting for the bizarre twist other bloggers had warned of. When I finally got to it, it seemed so silly that I could scarcely be bothered to continue. A shame as I was getting Kiran Millwood Hargrave vibes.
Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra: A huge disappointment as I adored Marra’s two previous works. I wasn’t connecting to the characters or setting at all. Something about it felt too familiar, also; I kept trying to think what it was reminding me of. Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe?
After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz: From the Booker Prize longlist. Another case of a terrific premise – and interesting style, too, what with the first person plural in the prologue and the discrete paragraphs like prose poems – but I found that there were too many historical figures, most of them too obscure for me to get interested in.
Raining Sideways: A Devonshire Diary of Food and Farming by Sally Vincent: Boring observations, poorly edited.
Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth: I actually read about two-thirds of this comic horror novel about a woman dealing with the aftermath of her hateful mother-in-law’s suicide, and intended to review it for R.I.P. even though it felt try-hard. But when my mother died I found that the whole thing seemed in poor taste and I didn’t want to go back to it.
Liberation Day by George Saunders: I only read the first story, which was so much like “The Semplica Girl Diaries” (from Tenth of December) in voice and content that it felt unnecessary, as well as being overlong (nearly 1/3 of the whole book). I’ll hold my place in the Kindle edition and think about trying the rest again another time.
Lessons by Ian McEwan: I’m used to much shorter novels with more contrived plots from McEwan, whereas this feels like the sort of rambling life story William Boyd would have written. I was intrigued by the promised element of Roland’s abuse by his childhood piano teacher, but bored with the Cold War theme of the 1980s strand (which feels most like The Child in Time from his past oeuvre). Perhaps I’ll try it again another day.
Plus a handful more I didn’t keep notes on and barely remember, so they just get my reductive and unfair two-word summaries (alphabetical order this time):
- Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson: Too quirky.
- The Flow by Amy-Jane Beer: Too overwritten.
- The Wilderness by Sarah Duguid: Too pulpy.
- Brave New World: A Graphic Novel by Fred Fordham: Too lurid.
- Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale: Too mild.
- The Quarry by Ben Halls: Too gritty.
- The White Rock by Anna Hope: Too what’s-the-point.
- One Good Story, That One by Thomas King: Too trickster.
- As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee: Too old-fashioned.
- Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell: Too academic.
- What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Too weird.
- Catch Your Breath by Ed Patrick: Too unfunny.
- The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke: Too boring.
Whew. I think that’s all.
That works out to abandoning about 8% of the books I started in the year, which is not a bad average for me (often it’s closer to 15%).
In January, I wrote about the 20 new releases I was most looking forward to reading in 2022. Here’s how I did with them:
Read and enjoyed (3.5* or above rating): 10 (a few will appear on my Best-of lists for the year)
Currently reading: 2
Started but set aside; need to finish: 3
Haven’t managed to get hold of: 3
Not actually published yet: 2 (Heartstopper, Volume 5 is now due out in 2023; try as I might, I can’t find any info on A Violent Woman by Ayana Mathis.)
This beats last year’s showing, when I had 5 DNFs from my Most Anticipated list!
I regret running out of time to finish True Biz and Horse from that Most Anticipated list, as well as The Rabbit Hutch (a bit too clever for its own good?) and Fight Night. It’s entirely possible that I could have found some more year favourites on my groaning set-aside and review backlog shelves. I also would have liked to get to the in-demand 2022 releases I’ve just picked up from the library, including The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida and Our Missing Hearts. No matter – I’ll enjoy these just as much when I get to them in an unhurried fashion next year.
What are some of the ‘ones that got away’ from you this year?
The Ones that Got Away: 2021’s DNFs, Most Anticipated Reads & More
I’ve not been great about keeping track of my abandoned books this year, nor have I been consistent about writing justifications. I’m particularly wary about casting aspersions on books that I know others have loved (such as the latest novels by Jonathan Franzen, Lauren Groff and Elizabeth Strout). I don’t like to belabour the matter, but every time I list my DNFs I do find that the posts are absurdly popular, so if this is the permission you need to drop that book you’ve been struggling with for months, take it! If for any reason a book isn’t connecting with you, move onto something else; you can always try it again another time.
For most I’ve given the usual (horribly reductive and unfair) two-word summaries, with longer reactions then given to the DNFs that were on my “most anticipated” list. In rough chronological order:
The Dickens Boy by Thomas Keneally: Too dull.
A Fire in My Head: Poems for the Dawn by Ben Okri: Too unsubtle.
Nobody Told Me: Poetry and Parenthood by Hollie McNish: Too long.
A Burning by Megha Majumdar: Too amateurish.
A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion: Too 1980s.
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex: Too suspense-less.
The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin: Too slow.
Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro: Too undistinctive.
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat: Too Creative-Writing-MA-alum.
The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy: Too overwrought.
Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia: Too dispersed.
Bewilderness by Karen Tucker: Too Marlena-wannabe.
Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz: Too early-2000s-Oprah’s-book-club.
Will This House Last Forever? by Xanthi Barker: Too Featherhood-lite.
The Union of Synchronised Swimmers by Cristina Sandu: Too vague.
The Cape Doctor by E. J. Levy: Too plodding.
Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs: Too dense.
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen: Too wordy.
Fox and I: An Uncommon Friendship by Catherine Raven: Too lyrical.
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout: Too scatter-brained.
Dark Tourist: Essays by Hasanthika Sirisena: Too unfocused.
Darwin’s Dragons by Lindsay Galvin: Too non-Darwin.
Something Out of Place: Women and Disgust by Eimear McBride: Too researched.
The Art of Reassembly by Peg Conway: Too homespun.
Coming Clean: A true story of love, addiction and recovery by Liz Fraser: Too soon.
Beautiful Country: A Memoir by Qian Julie Wang: Too child-POV.
Deadheading and Other Stories by Beth Gilstrap: Too drifting-to-nowhere.
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid: Too soapy.
Philomath: Poems by Devon Walker-Figueroa: Too weird.
Taste: My Life through Food by Stanley Tucci: Too celebrity-rather-than-author.
Somewhere between 30 and 40 DNFs is not too bad for me, representing around 10% of the books I started this year, rather than my standard 15%.
In January, I highlighted the 20 releases that I was most looking forward to reading in 2021. Here’s how I did:
Read and loved: 7 (4 will be on my Best-of lists for the year)
Read and found disappointing (i.e., rated 3.5 stars or below): 4
Still have a review copy to read: 1
Haven’t managed to find yet: 3
DNFs: 5 (oh so poor! – is my “most anticipated” designation actually a kiss of death?)
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge – I was a big fan of Greenidge’s debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, but this Reconstruction-era story of an African American doctor and her daughter/protégée bored me stiff. After two attempts I could barely get past page 30.
Matrix by Lauren Groff – It’s as if Groff set herself the challenge of applying the most modern style possible (present tense, no speech marks, pared-back prose, sexual frankness) to a medieval setting. The result is readable, which is more than I can say for most of what’s set in that time period, but I waited 75 pages for something to happen. All we’d had thus far was people commenting on how unsuitable ungainly six-foot Marie is to be an abbess and lots of detail about the privations of life at that time unless you have money as a cushion.
Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley – I read the first 110 pages and felt a bit puzzled by Mozley’s change in direction: This is the sort of state-of-the-nation (via London) novel that male authors were writing a decade ago, in the Dickensian mode of broad characterization and coincidental connection. The omniscient, present-tense narration does too much skating over the surface and not enough digging into characters’ individuality and motivation.
An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon – I read 25 pages or so. Adebayo/Adichie vibes but not the writing chops or the interesting story. Too bad, as I was interested in another intersex narrative to compare with Middlesex et al.
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead – I tried this twice and found it bloated and slow; such a disappointment. Perhaps I’ll find the right moment in the future. In the meantime, I look forward to reading Shipstead’s first short story collection next year instead. Here’s hoping that her short-form storytelling will work out better for me!
Not a great showing, then, but I can’t seem to resist getting my hopes up each year. (My Most Anticipated Books of 2022 post will be coming up early in January!)
I regret running out of time in 2021 to finish The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton or read my review copy of Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith. The other 2021 releases I’m most keen to get hold of are Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed, The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel, Seeing Ghosts by Kat Chow, The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish, What Doesn’t Kill You by Tessa Miller, On Freedom by Maggie Nelson, Names of the Women by Jeet Thayil and O Beautiful by Jung Yun.
What are some of the ‘ones that got away’ from you this year?
The Ones that Got Away: DNFs, Most Anticipated Reads & More
Following on from my late June list of DNFs, here are the rest of the books I abandoned this year (asterisks next to the ones I intend to try again someday):
Summer before the Dark: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936 by Volker Weidermann – Too niche.
The Motion of the Body through Space by Lionel Shriver – Too non-PC.
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors – Too been-there.
*The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes – Too much economics.
Birdsong on Mars by Jon Glover & Two Tongues by Claudine Toutoungi – Carcanet poetry releases. Style/reader mismatch issue for both.
That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu – Too dull.
3 Summers by Lisa Robertson (poetry) – Too weird.
Apeirogon by Colum McCann – Too long.
*We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates – Too much of quirky folks.
Persuasion by Jane Austen – Too much telling.
Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin – Too brutal.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – Too much Greek myth.
*Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – Too misery-memoir.
Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates – Maddening punctuation.
The Corset by Laura Purcell – Too lifeless.
True Story by Kate Reed Petty – Too consciously relevant.
As You Were by Elaine Feeney – Too much of mental hospitals.
*House of Glass by Hadley Freeman – Too detailed.
Rootbound: Rewilding a Life by Alice Vincent – Too much snowflake woe.
Le Bal by Irène Némirovsky – Too gloomy.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks – Too disturbing.
The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré – Too precocious.
Restless by William Boyd – Too ordinary.
No getting around it: I have lots of DNFs. I’ve not done a great job recording them this year, but I think it was 46, which works out to about 12% of the books I’ve started. Most years it’s around 15%, so for me that’s not too bad, but I know some of you never have DNFs, or could count them on one hand. How do you do it? Do you sample books beforehand? Do you make yourself finish everything you start even if you’re not enjoying it? Or are you just that good at picking what will suit your tastes? Sometimes I overestimate my interest in a subject or my tolerance for subpar writing. In recent years my patience for mediocre books has waned, and I’m allergic to some writers’ style for reasons that are often difficult to pinpoint.
In early July, I highlighted the 15 releases from the second half of the year that I was most looking forward to reading. Here’s how I did:
Read: 10 [Slight disappointments (i.e., rated 3 stars): 4]
Languishing on my Kindle, but I still intend to read: 2
Haven’t managed to find yet: 3
Getting to two-thirds of my most anticipated books is really good for me!
I regret not having enough time left in 2020 to finish Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, especially because Cathy and Susan both named it as one of their favorite books of the year.
The additional 2020 releases I most wished I’d found time for before the end of this year (from my late November list of year-end reading plans) include Marram by Leonie Charlton, D by Michel Faber, and Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19. This last one was offered to me by the editor on Goodreads and I feel bad for not following through with a review, but somehow the subject feels too close to the bone. Maybe next year?
I’ll be back to start the countdown of my favorite books of the year on the 26th, starting with fiction and poetry. On the 27th it’s all about nonfiction. A break for Library Checkout on the 28th, followed by 2020 runners-up on the 29th, best backlist reads on the 30th, and some superlatives and statistics on the 31st.
All the Books I’ve Abandoned So Far This Year
Hard to believe, especially with the bizarre few months we’ve been having, but it’s mid-year review time already. I’ll do two more posts this month rounding up my reading from the first half of 2020: where my books came from, and the best releases so far. But first, let’s get this out of the way.
I encourage readers to give up on books they are not enjoying, at any time and for any reason (tone, voice, writing style, distressing subject matter, similarity to other things you’ve read, whatever). I’ve DNFed 27 books so far this year, equating to roughly 15% of what I started. That’s my usual average, so not a particular problem as far as I’m concerned.
To keep it short and sweet, especially as I have mentioned a number of these before, e.g. in a Library Checkout or Six Degrees post, I’m listing the pages or percentage read and dispatching each book with a two-word summary using the template “Too ______”. (I am aware of how reductive and unfair this is.) These are in rough chronological order of my attempted reading. Asterisks denote the books I intend to try again someday.
*The Street by Ann Petry: 32 pages. Too dated.
Short Short Stories by Dave Eggers: 22 pages. Too raunchy.
The Year without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd: 21 pages. Too dull.
When All Is Said by Anne Griffin: 60 pages. Too sentimental.
The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney: 162 pages. Too plodding.
Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron: 25 pages. Too self-aware.
The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer: 93 pages. Too obvious.
Journalism by Joe Sacco: 21 pages. Too gritty.
Run by Ann Patchett: 80 pages. Too contrived.
*Jazz by Toni Morrison: 100 pages. Too dense.
On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman: 30 pages. Too false.
Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan: 20-something pages. Too weird.
*Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: 20 pages. Too normal.
*The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan: 20 pages. Too ponderous.
*Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid: 15 pages. Too hip.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara: 3 pages. Too precocious.
The Night Brother by Rosie Garland: 5 pages. Too unremarkable.
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes: 4 pages. Too bland.
My Wild, Sleepless Nights: A Mother’s Story by Clover Stroud: 5 pages. Too (m)othering.
Godshot by Chelsea Bieker: 30%. Too Handmaid’s.
The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny: 34 pages. Too undistinguished.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith [an attempted reread]: 107 pages. Too stereotyping.
*Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer [an attempted reread]: 35 pages. Too quirky.
The Bumblebee Flies Anyway: A year of gardening and (wild)life by Kate Bradbury: 24 pages. Too middling.
The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey: 11%. Too familiar.
The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles: 18 pages. Too twee.
Up with the Larks: Starting Again in Cornwall: My First Year as a Seaside Postie by Tessa Hainsworth: 80 pages. Too lite.
Any DNFs for you this year?
Reading Fail: The Remainder of the 2019 DNFs
Yipes, 97 DNFs this year – that’s roughly 22% of the books I started. Higher than my usual 15% average, suggesting that I’ve had trouble getting on with books that appealed for their subject matter or hype but didn’t live up to my expectations. (In the latter category, I’m thinking of It books of the year like The Man Who Saw Everything, The Starless Sea, Three Women, Trick Mirror and On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous.)
Following on from June’s post on the books I’d abandoned so far in 2019, here’s a list of the other DNFs I haven’t already written about, perhaps in a monthly Library Checkout post. No cover images, tags, links or full reviews here; just a text dump. Titles are in chronological order; the number of pages or percentage I read is generally given in brackets at the end.
Note: 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.
Stroke: A 5% Chance of Survival by Ricky Monahan Brown: Brown, a Scot in New York City, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke at age 38. I’m pretty oversaturated with medical memoirs; despite the breezy style and accessible details, this one doesn’t stand out. (104 pp.)
How to Catch a Mole: And Find Yourself in Nature by Marc Hamer: Hamer is a gardener and former molecatcher. This is a gentle natural history of the mole, as well as a meditation on our connections with a nature and a memoir of a life lived largely outdoors. But is it about atonement or not? (103 pp.)
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux: I read up to when Theroux arrives in northern Italy. He mostly describes his fellow passengers, as well as the details of meals and sleeping arrangements on trains. The writing struck me as old-fashioned. (32 pp.)
What Dementia Teaches Us about Love by Nicci Gerard: I’ve read a lot of books about dementia, both clinical and anecdotal, and this doesn’t add anything new. (11%)
The Music Room by William Fiennes: Time to accept that I just don’t get on with Fiennes’s writing, even when the subjects seem tailor-made for me. (10 pp.)
Tisala by Richard Seward Newton: I guess I read a blurb and thought this was unmissable, but I should have tried to read a sample or some more reviews of it. I couldn’t imagine reading another 560+ pages. (6 pp.)
The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante: Alas, I do not appreciate Elena Ferrante’s work; this is a third try. I enjoyed the narrator’s voice well enough, and loved the scene in which her errant husband finds broken glass in his dinner, but had no interest in how this seemingly predictable story of the end of a marriage might play out. (25 pp.)
Breaking and Mending: A Junior Doctor’s Stories of Compassion and Burnout by Joanna Cannon: I’ve read so many doctors’ memoirs now, and this one doesn’t really cut the mustard: the writing is undistinguished and the tone as sentimental as I’ve come to expect from her fiction. (30 pp.)
Dunedin by Shena Mackay: After loving The Orchard on Fire, I thought I’d try another Mackay novel, and I was intrigued by the dual timeline of 1909 New Zealand and 1989 London. I kept thinking we were going to get links back to the historical chapter; I got bored of waiting. (189 pp.)
Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker: I thought it would be fascinating to read about flying from the perspective of a British Airways pilot. But this is more of an academic and philosophical study of flight and the modern condition of dislocation than a memoir of what it’s like to train to fly planes. (28 pp.)
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry: At first these ageing Irish gangsters seem like harmless drunks, but gradually you come to realize just how dangerous they are. I loved the voices and if this was a short story it would have gotten a top rating, but I found I had no interest in the backstory of how these men got involved in heroin smuggling. (76 pp.)
The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind by David Guterson: I read “Angels in the Snow” (last Christmas) and “Wood Grouse on a High Promontory Overlooking Canada.” Both were fine but not memorable; a glance at the rest suggests they’ll all be about baseball and hunting. If I want to read stories about dudes hunting I’ll turn to Hemingway or David Vann.
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy: There’s a lot of repetition and random details that seem deliberately placed to be clues. I’m sure there’s a clever story in here somewhere, but apart from a few intriguing anachronisms, there is not a lot of plot or character to latch onto. (35 pp.)
Inland by Téa Obreht: I made two attempts to get into this Western, but found it excruciatingly slow and couldn’t warm to any of the characters or convince myself of the accuracy of the period speech. This was disappointing as it was one of my most anticipated titles of the second half of the year and I loved The Tiger’s Wife. (37 pp.)
Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife before It Is Too Late?, by Mark Cocker: I simply didn’t need this level of detail on the history of nature conservation in Britain. The personal writing about his patch of Norfolk engaged me a bit more. (60 pp.)
Better Off Bald: A Life in 147 Days by Andrea Wilson Woods: When Woods’s 13-years-younger sister Adrienne was diagnosed with liver cancer, it hit her hard. This didn’t pull me in, despite strong recreated dialogue and an extraordinary memory for events. I think it’s a combination of it being far too long and detailed, and feeling dated. (12%)
The Grassling: A Geological Memoir by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett: Burnett’s roots are in Ide, Devon and in Kenya. She has previously published poetry and is going for extreme lyricism in her nature writing, which at times makes it feel overwritten, especially in the prologue. (55 pp.)
The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes: I completely misjudged this: I thought it would be historical fiction, but it’s actually narrative nonfiction about an obscure historical figure. I found it dull and impenetrable. A shame, as Barnes is a favorite author of mine. (9 pp.)
Loop by Brenda Lozano: The narrator, waiting for her boyfriend to come back from Spain, is explicitly likened to Penelope. She lets her mind wander at random, which leads to unrelated paragraphs about dwarves, David Bowie songs, her choice of notebooks, tiny things that happened to her, and so on. Not enough narrative to keep me interested. (35 pp.)
The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West: I’m not sure I even made it past the second page. It’s even more bizarre and crass than I’m used to from him.
Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison: Larison has done a good job of approximating the voice of an unlettered young woman in the 1880s, but I found this quite slow and feel like I’ve read too many Westerns in the last few years. (50 pp.)
Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger / Toddler on the Run by Shena Mackay: Argh, another Mackay DNF! She wrote these two novellas when she was SEVENTEEN. I only managed a few pages of Dust, but got 40 pages into Toddler. It has an amusing premise but was only okay.
The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf: I couldn’t even tell you the basics of what happened. Some posh English people on a boat to South America? I could see that there were keen psychological insights, but no plot to speak of. (Did you know Mrs Dalloway is a character?!) Perhaps I’ll try this again someday, but it will require a concerted effort. (110 pp.)
Shelf Life by Livia Franchini: Reminiscent of Eleanor Oliphant: readable but blah. (40%)
The Complete Stories of Saki by Hector Hugh Munro: This was a follow-up bibliotherapy prescription for reading aloud. My husband and I read “Tobermory,” “Sredni Vashtar,” “The Easter Egg,” “Laura,” and “Tea.” The stories are very short and quite witty, but the language so advanced/old-fashioned that I found them rather like tongue-twisters.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern: Like most of the rest of the world, I was enraptured with The Night Circus. This, however, felt like a knockoff of A Discovery of Witches and The Thirteenth Tale, with added geek and queer stylings. Passages from the book within a book failed to draw me in. (44 pp.)
The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea: I don’t know if it’s the time period and setting (17th-century Iceland), or the writing style, but I couldn’t get through Sally Magnusson’s The Sealwoman’s Gift either. The challenging names add to a feeling of foreignness that’s more bewildering than entrancing. (8 pp.)
Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott: The idea of a ghostwriter being almost literally haunted by her subject is appealing, and I did find the writing atmospheric. However, the Isaac Newton and animal rights activism plots didn’t capture my attention. (126 pp.)
Three Flames by Alan Lightman: I’d enjoyed several Lightman books before, fiction and non-, but despite his nonprofit work with women in Southeast Asia, he doesn’t seem like the person to write this novel about women’s lives in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. (50 pp.)
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: Quirk for quirk’s sake. Characters are found alive in a cemetery, killed by a flow of molasses, or expire by spontaneous combustion. What is supposed to unite this 19th-century community – a bowling alley – never comes to life. Another disappointment from my most anticipated titles of the year list. (153 pp.)
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino: I read part of “Ecstasy,” her essay on belonging to a Texas megachurch in her high school years. The other topics, and the writing in general, didn’t interest me enough.
Idiot Wind by Peter Kaldheim: I requested this purely on the basis of an enthusiastic NPR review from an acquaintance. While there’s a lot of energy to this memoir of the author’s time as a New York City drug dealer/addict taking off on a cross-country road trip in the late 1980s, I should have known it wouldn’t be for me. (14 pp.)
Getting Real about My “Set Aside Temporarily” Shelf
Mid-November, and I’ve been thinking about how many of the books I currently have on the go I will be able to finish before the end of the year – not to mention whether I can squeeze in any more 2019 releases, or get a jump on early 2020 releases (ha!).
In the back of my mind, however, is some mild, self-induced anxiety. You see, the other year I started an exclusive Goodreads shelf (i.e., one that doesn’t fall into one of the three standard categories, “Read,” “Currently Reading” or “Want to Read”) called “Set Aside Temporarily,” on which I place a book I have put on hiatus for whatever reason, whether I’d read a handful of pages or 200. Maybe a few library holds came in that I needed to finish before a strict due date, or I took on a last-minute review assignment and needed to focus on that book instead.
Usually, though, it’s just a case of having started too many books at once. I’m addicted to finishing books, but also to starting them – often a fresh stack of four or five in one sitting, to add to my 10 or more already on the go. I always used to say that I read 10‒15 books at a time, but in the latter half of this year that has crept up to 20‒25. Sometimes I can manage it; other times it feels like too much, and a few books from the stack fall by the wayside and get stuck with that polite label of “set aside.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that I wasn’t enjoying them, just that they were less compelling than some other reads.
So as I contemplated this virtual shelf, which as of the 12th had 33 titles on it, I figured I have the following alternatives for each book: pick it back up immediately and finish it as soon as possible, ideally this year (especially if it’s a 2019 release, so it can be in the running for my Best Of lists); regretfully mark it as a DNF; put it back on the shelf, with or without a place marker, to read some other time; skim to the end if I wasn’t getting on with it particularly well yet want to know what happens; or keep it in limbo for now and maybe read it in 2020.
I told myself it was decision time on all of these. Here’s how it played out:
(* = 2019 release)
- Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwall*
- Savage Pilgrims: On the Road to Santa Fe by Henry Shukman
To resume soon:
- The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland* (as soon as my library hold comes in)
- Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner*
- The Spirit of Christmas: Stories, Poems, Essays by G.K. Chesterton
- The River Capture by Mary Costello*
- The Scar by Mary Cregan*
- The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame
- Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston*
- Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L’Engle
- The Way through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Litt Woon*
- Kinds of Love by May Sarton
- All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katharine Smyth*
- Dancing with Bees by Brigit Strawbridge Howard*
- A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas (a re-read)
- The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall*
- The Manticore by Robertson Davies – A different perspective isn’t enough to keep me interested in a recounting of the events from Fifth Business.
- The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman (even though I’d read 250 pages of the danged thing) – Painstaking but worthy historical fiction.
- Then She Found Me by Elinor Lipman – The first 100 or so pages were pleasant reading during a beer festival, but I had no impetus to pick it up afterwards.
- A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman* – The first 12% didn’t grab me. Never say never, but I don’t plan on picking it back up soon. Sad, as this was one of my most anticipated releases of the year.
- The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf – I really tried. It was the third Woolf novel I’d picked up (and put down) in quick succession this year. She’s just such hard work.
Returned to the shelf for another time:
- Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett
- Emerald City by Jennifer Egan
- The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
- Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
- Wait Till I Tell You by Candia McWilliam
- The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
- Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy
- A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray
- Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler
- The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom* – Although very well written, this is dense with family detail, more than I really need.
Still set aside:
- In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill – to finish off next spring!
- Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality by Thomas Lynch (a university library book) – It’s in discrete essays so can be picked up and put down at will.
Some general observations: Recently I’ve lacked staying power with short story collections. However, I find it’s not usually a problem to read a few stories (or essays) and then return to a collection some months later. Memoirs, travel books and quiet fiction can also withstand an interruption. If I’ve put aside a plotty or style-heavy novel, however, that’s a bad sign that I will probably end up DNFing it.
Do you have a physical or virtual shelf of books that are partly read and languishing? How have you tackled it in the past?
All the Books I’ve Abandoned So Far This Year
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.)