I’ve been abandoning books left and right this year. Maybe my patience is getting thinner or my attention span shorter. Or maybe I’m always getting better at knowing if I’ll like something and what topics or style issues will put me off a book. I hope it’s the latter.
Most of the books I abandoned weren’t terrible, they just weren’t for me. I could see their appeal for different readerships. These are some new releases I’ve given up on, why I didn’t see them through, and why you might want to.
From the Corner of the Oval – I was interested because I loved last year’s Thanks, Obama, about a young speechwriter’s experience in the Obama White House. This book has gotten major nonfiction buzz – she has a hugely lucrative two-book deal plus a TV show. For a brand new author and first book, that should mean it’s got something special. Not to mention an inspirational aspect: consider that when the book begins, author Beck Dorey-Stein is in a miserable and desperate state, alternatively unemployed or working too many jobs to make ends meet (including Lululemon – ugh) before answering a Craigslist ad that ended up being for a White House stenographer.
I read a few chapters but it had a chick-lit vibe that I didn’t like (perhaps the painfully pink cover should’ve been my warning). I gave up after she described witnessing a scene and likened it to one from The Devil Wears Prada movie. That’s my cue for nope. Flipping ahead to see if the tone or dating drama topics shifted, it was heavy on the gossipy workplace romances and a writing style that didn’t appeal to me (it feels weak, which is sometimes ok if the story is interesting enough). Recommended for chick-lit readers and Sex and the City fans. (July 10, Spiegel & Grau)
Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures – I love whales but I only had vague understanding of their history as land mammals before they turned their feetsies into flippers and became permanent underwater dwellers. So I jumped on Smithsonian Museum of Natural History paleontologist Nick Pyenson’s account of his work digging up whale bones and piecing together the long history of these fascinating animals. And in some parts, this book is fantastic. But the science lost me – I got about halfway and realized I was avoiding it because I wasn’t following well enough. I don’t even think it was written so densely, it felt readable. I think it needs closer reading and better attention-paying and I wasn’t in the right mindset for that. Anyone with even a light background or understanding of biology should have no problems here. Bonus: absolutely gorgeous black and white illustrations and descriptions of Pyenson’s world travels excavating whale graveyards. (June 26, Viking)
Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper – The stiff writing style (maybe through translation) and heavily militaristic theme of this memoir of one of the famous female Red Army snipers kept me from finishing it. I tried several times but didn’t get far. Skimming through because I was intrigued about her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, I found some troublesome lines that sounded straight out of Soviet propaganda. It’s obviously a document of its time and her mindset about her role and responsibilities is very clearly shaped by that historical moment, but it wasn’t what I wanted to read. The biggest issue is that I tried it shortly after The Unwomanly Face of War and anything similar was going to pale in comparison. For serious military or Soviet history fans. (Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Greenhill Books, May 19)
American Detective: Behind the Scenes of Famous Criminal Investigations – The look into each of the crimes profiled here felt a little too brief, and a little too mafia-focused for my interests. I wondered about the argument the author supposedly makes for the role of the detective, especially in modern times, but an occasionally academic or just-the-facts tone and my own lack of interest in certain cases kept me from finishing. I did like the chapters on the Cleveland Torso Killer and the Lindbergh baby. That one piqued my interest enough to watch this fantastic Nova episode (it’s on Netflix) about the kidnapping and murder and far beyond – which, if you don’t know all the details and theories behind it including Lindbergh’s very dirty laundry, watch this immediately. Such a crazy story. This one is for straight police procedural and historical crime enthusiasts with an academic bent. (Thomas A. Reppetto, Potomac Books, June 1)
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century – I love a good narrative nonfiction tale of obsession and the fantastic Dinosaurs in the Attic sparked my interest in reading more natural history, but I couldn’t get into this one. I’m firmly in the minority as this multi-genre story of ornithological theft, an element of mystery and rare museum collections has garnered glowing reviews just about everywhere. Should definitely appeal to those interested in obsession stories, an interesting little corner of narrative nonfiction, and to science/natural history and true crime readers. It seemed well written, I still have the opening chapters vividly in my mind, but something didn’t draw me in, I can’t even quite put my finger on what. I could possibly come back to this one. (Kirk Wallace Johnson, Viking, April 24)
King Con: The Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age’s Greatest Impostor – 2018 is apparently my year for reading about con artists (and review of the upcoming A Deal with the Devil next week). And I LOVE a good grifter story, so this history of Edgar LaPlante, a con artist who often imitated Native Americans in his vaudeville act and even posed as a very well known one before he was outed as a fraud seemed up my alley. He traveled around the country enacting various escalating scams in what seems like the perfect era for them, when news traveled much slower and appearances were easier to fake, before heading to Europe and ensnaring an Austrian countess (I was especially intrigued by that part of the story but didn’t make it that far.) This had some great historical tidbits – did you know that the precursor to 2003’s “freedom fries” was renaming sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” during World War I? I loved those kind of contextual asides in a history or biography.
I was bothered that this used a lot of “might have”, “likely would have”, “could haves” and the like. Once I noticed it I couldn’t stop noticing. Halfway through I realized I was judging it too harshly for this and that it had distracted me enough that I wasn’t even sure what was going on in the narrative. The level of detail also made it a bit more confusing when I was already having trouble paying attention. This was maybe the one I most wanted to finish because the story is so bizarre. Someone please read it and tell me more. (Paul Willetts, Crown, August 7)
Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir – Journalist Jean Guerrero writes about trying to understand her father, a Mexican immigrant afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia compounded by drug abuse. It begins with the story of her parents meeting and Jean and her sister’s childhood. The writing was eloquent but somewhat melodramatic for the content and I got bored and impatient at some meanderings. It also felt a bit scattered, hopping topics and styles that added to my impatience with it. I was interested in her story of living in Mexico to learn more about her father’s roots and their family beliefs, like in shamanism, so it seems like it has potential if you’re interested enough to make it through some stream-of-consciousness and dramatic storytelling. (One World, July 17)
Have you read any of these or are you planning to? Did you also abandon them, or fall in love with them instead? Tell me why!
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