I used to hold myself to a strict standard of finishing every book I started. It was painful. Why insist on spending precious time finishing something I’m not enjoying just because I made a decision one time to read it? Abandoning feels freeing in its own little way.
Time for another look into some of the books I’ve tried and put aside over the past year. None of these were so egregiously awful to not be worth putting out there in case others might find them worthwhile, or aren’t bothered by what I was.
Have you read and had a different experience with any of these? Or were any consigned to your own abandonment pile?
That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away, Lorimer Shenher (2015) – I tried this after reading a chilling longread piece about the murders uncovered on a Vancouver, Canada farm, with many of the women’s disappearances deemed unimportant – the “less dead,” including sex workers. This book by a former investigator on the case seemed a good source to learn more about what went wrong and why. But Shenher was in a dark place in his job at the time (Shenher was female while working the case and writing the book, but has since transitioned to male) and most of the book was about his progressing burnout and frustrations at work, which was upsetting and difficult to read as it’s clear he was suffering badly.
The investigation was bungled by the RCMP and detectives, allowing more women to become victims despite killer Robert Pickton already being on their radar. Much of Shenher’s frustration comes from his attempts to get Pickton taken seriously as a suspect. The writing didn’t grip me enough to keep going, and after giving up, I listened to Last Podcast on the Left‘s fantastic multi-parter about the murders and investigation. They reference journalist Stevie Cameron’s On the Farm for an exhaustive exploration of the case and victims, so I might try that. (But also maybe not, it’s a disturbing story and I’m not sure I need more of it.) Shenher’s new memoir, This One Looks Like a Boy: My Gender Journey to Life as a Man, about his transition, is coming out at the end of this month and sounds like a more positive subject and personal story for him to tell.
Flunk./Start.: Reclaiming My Decade Lost in Scientology, Sands Hall (2018) – I’ll pick up anything airing Scientology’s dirty laundry, but the author’s time in the culty “religion” took a backseat to an in-depth walk through her life story (at over 400 pages, it’s long for a memoir). Her perspective was interesting in that she showed how traumas she’d experienced had led her to be vulnerable to the self-curative promises of Scientology. That’s something so necessary for understanding why seemingly sensible people join groups like this.
She’d tragically lost her brother, with whom she was very close, and the resulting grief left her open to seeking the kind of enlightenment and mental clarity Scientology promises. But the writing was melodramatic and overblown. One line that haunts me (and is exactly where I slapped the book shut, never to reopen) describes friends devoted to her brother as “astonishing bees” who “supped at the honeycomb of his light.”
Mastering the Art of French Eating: From Paris Bistros to Farmhouse Kitchens, Lessons in Food and Love, Ann Mah (2013) – Mah, a foreign service officer’s wife, was thrilled when her husband landed a plum assignment to the embassy in Paris, immediately reminiscent of Julia Child’s pivotal experience. Except that Mah’s husband suddenly got called away for a year to Iraq, leaving her in Paris alone. A food writer, she uses her time to explore the country’s cuisine and write about it, but a large portion of the book is spent lamenting her time alone and whining about the circumstances that left her stranded in Paris (the horror!) sans husband.
I quickly felt “a burbling in my reservoir of annoyance” while reading this. I searched other reviews and knew immediately that the memoir portions were going to test the limits of my nerves. A shame, because the food and culture/travel writing seemed delightful, very journalistic with interesting interviews about the locals’ work and food culture, but I didn’t want to sift through reading only those as the memoir parts took significant space.
It also includes too many lines and short conversations entirely in French, and even having lived there myself and studied several years of the language (eons ago, but still) plenty was indecipherable to me, and what’s even the point of including that? I had just read Dreyer’s English which gave the excellent rule of never inserting snippets of a foreign language within English dialogue, and this one did a ton of that, so: adieu! I’m sorry. I meant g’bye.
Swallowed by the Great Land: And Other Dispatches from Alaska’s Frontier, Seth Kantner (2015) – I saw this in Mary Roach‘s New York Times By the Book piece, discussing her current reading. A book of essays by a novelist about living in Alaska’s extreme north sounded wonderful. I got halfway, but an essay about shooting his dog when it was close to death proved too much for me. He’d just left the vet! (By the essay’s narrative, at least). Why not put it down humanely? There had been several of these sort-of-uncomfortable moments that I’m too soft for and I feared more might be to come, so I gave up. But it had some exquisite lines, and the kind of nature writing that doesn’t get lost in the annoyingly abstract, so if you’re a bit tougher (and more interested in fishing) than I am, it’s absolutely to be recommended.
Into the Darkness: The Mysterious Death of Phoebe Handsjuk, Robin Bowles (2018) – The podcast Phoebe’s Fall is mesmerizing, covering the sad, bizarre story of a young Australian woman who died after falling through her luxury building’s garbage chute. Endless odd details create a confounding mystery of what doesn’t seem like suicide, despite Phoebe’s documented mental health struggles. I thought a book (author not connected to the podcast) might shed further light on this strange story.
Unfortunately, after a somewhat interesting first few chapters, it becomes a plod through the inquest. The author admits that it’s boring, but then reproduces dialogue and questioning verbatim. Flipping ahead it was inquest questioning as far as the eye could see, which, coupled with the author’s tendency to relate nearly everything in the story, no matter how tangential or banal, to herself, made me give up.
Have you read any of these, or will you give them a more dedicated try than I could?