3 Books I Had To Abandon: Malcolm Gladwell; Heather Morris & Helen Oyeyemi

Even with more than 50 years experience of being a reader, I still make make some wrong choices with books and authors.

I’ve never been the kind of reader to plough on to the end but there have been plenty of books that I wish I’d abandoned at an earlier point. Now however I’m even more willing to give up on books that are simply not sparking enthusiasm.

Sometimes I can tell after just a few pages that a book is just not going to work out; other times I start enthusiastically only to lose interest half way through. The problem might lie with characterisation that doesn’t feel authentic. Or it could be a plot that’s confusing and unnecessarily complex. Most often though the issue lies with the writing style: awkward sentence construction; stilted dialogue or over-use of adjectives are pet hates.

I’ve learned over the years that reading a book that’s not engaging my attention is simply a waste of time that could be spent on reading something far more enjoyable.

So far this year I’ve abandoned 10 books a good way into the narrative and about the same number where I gave up after just a few pages. Here are a few that never made the grade.

Talking with Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is one of my favourite non fiction books. The ideas were fresh, the case studies fascinating and I could see its application in the way products and ideas are marketed. I’ve enjoyed his later books, though nowhere near to the same extent.

Talking With Strangers is however, the only one of his books I’ve failed to finish.

It’s an exploration about the assumptions and mistakes we make about people we don’t know. As with all of Gladwell’s books he uses case studies to prove his point.

It begins with the deeply shocking case of a young black woman stopped by a traffic policeman in Texas. He’s aggressive, she questions his right to stop her. The altercation escalates and she ends up arrested and jailed. Three days later she killed herself.

It was a tragedy, Gladwell, theorises that results from misunderstandings between two strangers. From there he goes on a journey through other examples of assumptions that had serious consequences: Neville Chamberlain misread Hitler’s true objectives; Bernie Madoff got away with his Ponzi scheme because no one could believe the truth that he was a fraudster; a Cuban spy lay hidden in the heart of the American intelligence service for decades.

Interesting as some of those stories were individually, none of them were as fascinating as the first chapter. The book felt repetitive, particularly when the central idea – that it’s very difficult to tell when people are lying – seemed so simple. I got half way through and decided I’d had enough.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

After just 50 pages I was ready to throw this book into the rubbish bin.

I wasn’t all that enthused about reading it anyway and only did so because a friend kept talking about it and then, one day, turned up at the house with a copy. I should learn to be more firm in the future.

Heather Morris’ story of how Slovakian Jew Lali Sokolov fell in love with a girl he was tattooing at the concentration camp, was a bestselling novel in 2018.

I didn’t know when I started reading this book that it was at the centre of controversy. Morris was accused of “numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements”.

Even without that knowledge it didn’t take me long to feel that something was amiss about this book. It felt superficial for one thing. Though I didn’t particularly want to dwell in unspeakable detail I needed more than I was getting, to make me feel I was being presented with a real experience.. The dialogue was clumsy and the narrative relied heavily on ‘telling” me how the characters were feeling.

I just couldn’t continue with such turgid ‘prose’. If this was truly a real-life experience, than the people about whom it was written deserved much better.

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi 

Helen Oyeyemi’s sixth novel has been described as a modern fairytale. Readers of this blog will know that I tend to stay well clear of any book with magical, mystical or other-worldly elements. But sometimes you do have to get out of your comfort zone.

It does work occasionally (a case in point being The Binding by Bridget Collins whose non-realist premise was fascinating). Gingerbread however was not one of those successes.

It’s about a 17-year-old schoolgirl called Perdita Lee who lives with her mother Harriet and grandmother in an extraordinary house in west London. Over the course of the book we learn the story of Perdita’s birth, her family’s connection to a country called Druhástrana (don’t go looking for it on a map; it doesn’t exist) and a recipe carefully handed down through the generations.

That sounds straightforward but reading Gingerbread is anything but plainsailing. Most times I was frankly just lost, reading on and on in the hope that at some point all would become clear. It never did.

The outlandish aspects of the story I found tiresome. There’s a house that runs away from anyone who tries to approach it; and dolls with living vines and primroses sprouting from their hands and chests. Oh and what a surprise, Helen Lee’s best friend was called Gretel and her father was Simple Simon.

No doubt people with intimate knowledge of age-old fairy tales would have great fun with all the allusions in Gingerbread. But I have little patience with authors who set “spot the connection” game in their narratives and invite us to wonder at their cleverness.

I’ve seen many reviews comment on Oyeyemi’s novel as “dazzling” , “unsettling, disorienting and rewarding”. When I come across reviews like that I begin to doubt my abilities as a reader. What did these reviewers see that I missed? It was reassuring to find that I was not the only blogger to struggle with Gingerbread – Lisa Hill at ANZLitLovers had similar frustrations though she persevered far longer than I did.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on May 11, 2020, in Book Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. I finished Tattooist but didn’t love it. There was too much that seemed off to me – like the antibiotics – that I just didn’t buy into the story.

  2. It’s sometimes nice to talk about the DNFed books. I personally did not gel with Helen Oyeyemi either, I read Boy Snow Bird but couldn’t really enjoy it, although I did finish it. I think it’s just not for everyone.

  3. Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    I really admire your ability to say enough-is-enough when a book isn’t working for you! I’m a dirty completionist, I just can’t bring myself to put a book down, even when I *know* it’s not for me. I have no idea how I got this way, but it’s something I’m determined to work on. I think I *am* getting better at picking books, though, so at least I’ve got that going for me 😅

    • I’ve got more inclined to give up than I was in my younger days. Probably something to do with the realisation I have only so many years left and I don’t want to waste them reading books I don’t like (sorry if that sounds morbid)

  4. Oh yeah I definitely have books I wish I’d abandoned earlier. I’ve been really on the fence about tattooist of Auschwitz, I think I’ll skip it.

  5. So glad others DNF Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers. I found a lot of the content was nothing new, almost as if he was going through the motions.

    The Tattooist of Auschwitz was a book club read for me and the comments were eye-opening, e.g. location inaccuracies, Nazi pimp, etc. It was an old man’s recollection, the operative words being ‘based on’ and I don’t think the author was up to the task.

  6. I have avoided Oyeyemi’s books since I’m fairly certain I would not enjoy them. Have yet to read a Malcolm Gladwell…just not that interested. Just read the Morris book. I thought it was good. Not GREAT, but good. I admit I get a bit frustrated at people who nitpick the details of “historical fiction.” Firstly, we now know that there are no reliable objective memories, for each of us “remembers” details differently, according to our own unique perspective. (This has been proven between myself and my children many times over!) And Morris writes that his interviews were more chaotic than anything else, so she had to piece it all together as best she could. And it is not marketed as nonfiction… I don’t know. That all makes a difference for me, but obviously her writing style didn’t work for you. Several others, as well as myself, on Goodreads have noted as readers we didn’t feel as if we connected as intimately with the characters as we have done in other WWII historic fiction books… I admire you for being able to DNF books when they’re not working for you! 🙂

    • It’s an interesting discussion point isn’t it – at what point does pointing out inaccuracies become nit picking rather than a desire for veracity? If there had been one or two errors I don’t think anyone would have raised an eyebrow, but there were multiple inaccuracies from what I understand.

  7. I also tried Gingerbread and after a very few pages snapped it shut, and returned it. This is the year I’m supposed to be reading more African authors: not working out too well, thus far.

  8. Sometimes books just don’t work for us – I’ve had that experience, and it’s particularly disappointing when you expect to like a book but don’t. As for “Tattooist…” I avoided it like the plague; I’m a bit uncomfortable with the amount of ‘Holocaust literature’ coming out, as if this is something that is simply a subject fo fiction; and I had read about the problems with this one, purporting as it does to be fact but look how it’s being marketed! Glad to have your confirmation I was right to avoid.

    • There do seem to be an increasing number of these “holocaust” themed books. None of them have appealed to me. I don’t want to ignore such an important subject but I also feel uneasy about someone making money out of another person’s misery.

  9. From your descriptions I think I’d be in the same position — in fact I’d probably put them down once I’d read the back cover blurb. Concentration camp fiction? It smacks of voyeuristic porn of a perverted kind to me — the plain facts are terrible enough. A novel signposted as Gingerbread? It might work as a middle grade fantasy novel (Cornelia Funke specialises in this genre) but it just sounds contrived. But thanks for forewarning us! 🙂

    • Contrived is exactly the right description Chris. I never read her earlier one about which there was a lot of fuss made so I shan’t bother now I’ve had this exposure to her work.She isn’t for me

  10. LOL I went back to read my own ‘review’ of Gingerbread, and re-read what I’d written about my hopes that someone would enlighten me… it certainly hasn’t happened yet!

  11. I started The Tattooist of A and DNF, i found the story trite and couldn’t understand why so many others raved about it, glad I’m not alone!

  12. I think I avoid a lot of DNFs by reading sample chapters – on average I discard about a third of the books I read sample chapters for.

    The Gladwell is on my TBR list – but perhaps because the first chapter is so good?! I’ll temper my expectations.

    You dodged a bullet with the Morris – the only redeeming feature was the end-note on the author’s interviews with the people who the story was based on. We could have a whole conversation about ‘Holocaust-fiction’ but I think the bottom line is ‘just don’t write it”. My ‘new’ reading about the Holocaust has pretty much shifted to memoir by survivors’ children and grandchildren (so the focus is on inter-generational trauma).

    The Oyeyemi is certainly odd. I listened to the audio version and there were parts that I really liked – it’s certainly memorable – but is also one of the few audiobooks that I had to ‘rewind’ in parts because I didn’t know what was happening!

    • Gladwell – the first few chapters are interesting and if you dipped into the book rather than read from cover to cover, it would be likely to hold your attention because Gladwell is a good story teller. But in this one I was missing the big idea that you get in his earlier books.

      I can’t imagine the audio of the Oyeyemi was very easy to follow at all.

  13. ” But I have little patience with authors who set “spot the connection” game in their narratives and invite us to wonder at their cleverness.” That can’t be said too often!

    I get through a lot of general fiction audiobooks. Mostly I DNF when I just can’t be bothered finding out how it all ends.

    • I tend to DNF audiobooks more often than I DNF ‘real’ books – often it’s the narrator that I dislike. But some books just don’t lend themselves to audio

  14. I’ve got the Gladwell sitting waiting for me – and I hate not finishing a book – so I might have to put it a bit further down the list.

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