From the Did-Not-Finish Files

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 & GrauAmazon


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, VikingAmazon


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) Amazon


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) Amazon


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 quite put my finger on what. I could possibly come back to this one. (Kirk Wallace Johnson, Viking, April 24) Amazon


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) Amazon


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 17Amazon

Have you read any of these or are you planning to? Did you also abandon them, or fall in love with them instead?

29 thoughts on “From the Did-Not-Finish Files

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    1. I love Soviet history and I REALLY loved Unwomanly Face of War, so I thought reading more of a woman’s own words from this period would definitely be for me but it didn’t work for me at all. That’s great that you finished it though, it seemed like it would have some interesting information as the payoff if you made it through!


  1. you are getting older Ren and because of that your patience is also getting smaller unlike younger Ren. i am really interested in Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper nut the problem between differentiating Soviet propaganda and what actually happened.
    but am definitely going to read Spying on Whales because the many books i read published by authors associated with Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for me were always happy reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha and I thought we were supposed to get more patient with age, feels like the opposite!! I love Soviet history so normally I would’ve really liked this one but the propaganda element was uncomfortable, to say the least. Spying on Whales seems like it still has potential, it’s one I might try to return to because it’s just so fascinating and he obviously knows his stuff! I think you’d really like it. What other books by authors associated with the Smithsonian have you read, can you recommend me anything?

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      1. hah well especially for you unlike me you have high expectation of any book you read so its rare for the book to reach your expectation.
        i wonder if you noticed that not many now the horrors many Soviet citizens faced during ww2 but i also hate to read propagandist woks like you.
        well i have three recommendation for you
        A Taste for the Beautiful by Michael J. Ryan
        The Evolution of Beauty by Richard O. Prum
        and in the lines of two sisters i finished these week and i love to read your review
        The Returned: They Left to Wage Jihad, Now They’re Back by David Thomson
        sorry for my long recommendations

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I always appreciate your great recommendations, Ina!! Thanks so much for those, I’m going to have a look 🙂 Can’t wait to read your reviews, especially of The Returned, that sounds fascinating! Very interested in hearing your thoughts on it.

        And about what you said about whether what Soviet citizens went through is recognized, I’ve noticed that too, it’s truly bizarre.

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  2. I haven’t read any of those, but I have abandoned more books over the past year than I’ve finished. I’m hoping when the time changes and we have less daylight that I’ll start reading more. I laughed at your line: “Recommended for chick-lit readers and Sex and the City fans.”

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    1. I’m happy I’m not alone in the reckless abandoning! It was something I had to learn to do, oddly enough. And that’s true, I find my preferences change with the season and I have more patience when it’s not summertime. And glad to make you laugh, it felt really necessary to clarify that part…it’s a very specific audience, I felt!

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    1. I think I got to around 75-100 pages before giving up. It seemed like she had a focus she was working up towards, but the descriptive tangents that didn’t lead to anything irked me and I just felt bored, really. Maybe it’s more of a slow burn than I was in the mood for, I saw it had some great reviews elsewhere!

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    1. Isn’t that the worst in a history book?! Just write a novel if you’re not sure! And I know that all too well, I’ve gone through long periods of no reading in the past! It helps if a great book gets you back into it and then you find little ways to make the time. But even now when work is too busy Im also dreaming of a day when I can read again! You’ll find the time when you’re good and ready 🙂

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    1. I really think it has to do with whether you’re a chick lit reader. If you like that chatty, girly, relationship drama-focused style, then it’s probably appealing. As much as I love behind the scenes of someone’s interesting job stories, I could tell that so much of it being focused on boyfriend drama wasn’t going to be for me!

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      1. I feel like it’s one of those that you’ll know relatively quickly if it’s for you. I didn’t get very far at all before I abandoned it, unlike some other books where I get halfway before finally giving up. See if you can get a chapter sample on amazon or somewhere or read the first chapter in a bookstore and I think you’ll know enough from that to decide.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. These all intrigue me based on their topics, so I’m sorry to hear that didn’t work for you. I’m also glad you didn’t have anything to bad to say about The Feather Thief or the book on whales, because those sounds the most interesting to me 🙂


    1. I haven’t! Last year I read the somewhat older Dreamland and around the time Dopesick was released I was reading an advance of another upcoming book about the opioid epidemic, American Overdose. So I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read a third one within such a short span. But I’ve been hearing nothing but rave reviews of it, maybe I need to read it after all?


  4. Macy tracks a bunch of addicts in the Roanoke, VA, area over the course of a year. Some of them die before she’s done tracking and interviewing them. Pretty rough stuff… I see your point. I know how much reading you do. A third book on this subject might be a bit much!

    Liked by 1 person

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