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.