5 Mini-Reviews from the Did-Not-Finish Stack

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?

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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?

21 thoughts on “5 Mini-Reviews from the Did-Not-Finish Stack

  1. It’s truly difficult giving up on a book, I also use to hold myself to finishing all my books but now have a more relaxed approach. I think it can be easy to tell the books that are good but it’s not the right time (frame of mind is definitely key for me) and those which you’ll never get on with. Do you think you’ll return to any of them? The Alaska one sounds interesting, but as you say perhaps not for the soft of heart (for the record, all Arctic / Antarctic exploration books have a slightly chilling relationship with the nature already living there. Lots of eating of penguin and seal…and dogs).

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    1. I know a lot of nature books have that kind of material, especially that region, I’ve come across it in other Alaskan and Siberian-set books. That doesn’t trouble me, it’s the scene I specifically mentioned that wasn’t something I wanted to read (I’m not even a dog person, but it was awful and seemed unnecessary, besides making a point of how tough or cold they are in the wilderness? I don’t know.)

      You’re right, frame of mind is so key in deciding whether it’s the right time for something. I can tell if it’s specifically writing I don’t like, which seems to be a big deal breaker for me, or just a topic I’m not in the right place for. I keep thinking I should page back through the interviews and culinary stories of the Paris one because they seemed so interesting and well written, but I was annoyed with the author’s personal tone and topics and I hate when I start feeling I don’t “like” an author and it’s their story, you know? It just seems like the time to walk away from it 😂 have you ever gone back to a book you gave up on and had a different take on it?

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      1. That not liking of an author was exactly how I felt about Wild by Sheryl Strayed! I haven’t gone back to that one but I did, sadly, read the whole thing. I know there are many people that love that book, and the movie was pretty good I thought. But I felt like she was the same person all the way through, no growth just a different way of expressing extremist behaviour. Maybe that’s a bit tight-minded of me?

        I hated Don DeLillo first time I read him, that was The Body Artist. Didn’t get it at all. Then, later, I read Cosmopolis and it was different entirely. I was magnetised. Now I love The Body Artist, in fact it’s one of my favourites. I needed a slower mentality, more reflective, but I wouldn’t have recognised that at all at the time. Germinal was another book that took a second, much later turn; as was The Worst Journey in the World. Sometimes I can tell a book is good but I’m not in the right space for it. Sometimes I know a book isn’t for me. It’s a tough one. We change so imperceptibly.

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      2. Oh my gosh, I was so excited to see you write that about Wild…I couldn’t stand that book!! I gave up on it when I tried it years ago and felt very confused, like I was completely missing out on whatever seemingly everyone else saw in it. I started feeling too strong of a dislike for the author and it just went more and more downhill. I don’t know if it’s being tight-minded, I like to think not…I think there are plenty of memoirs I’ve read where I didn’t necessarily agree with the author’s choices, or even sympathize with them, and I also don’t think every author or narrator has to be “likable” but when too many things are grating on me too strongly, I can’t either enjoy a book or take something meaningful from it, and I think it’s better if I leave it at that point. I’m so relieved I’m not alone on that one though, I disliked it so much but I didn’t even want to include it on a list like this because I thought I must be very nearly the only one!

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    1. Thank you, I’m glad you liked it so much! I’m always interested in why others abandon books too. I can’t stick with something anymore when I realize I’m not looking forward to reading it or am actively annoyed, while my reading list is already so long with so many other books I’d potentially like better. Life’s too short! Do you really never give up on a book once you’ve started?

      Wasn’t it a particularly laughable line…how did that get past an editor? Bad writing is the end for me, one of those things that once I start noticing things I don’t like about it, I can’t stop noticing!

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      1. Unfortunately, I’ve only marked one book as DNF and that was because it was a book club selection and I had to read it or quit. I tried everything to get through the first chapter and just couldn’t. It was a Pulitzer Prize winner that just wasn’t for me. I regret quitting to this day but it was my only choice. I normally persevere through the very end, no matter what.

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  2. I’m so disappointed to see you didn’t like the book about Phoebe Handsjuk! I’d heard of it a while back, but now I don’t think I’ll pick it up. I’d rather listen to the podcast. I hope you have better luck with the next books you pick up…

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    1. I included it here more because I think the podcast is worth mentioning, actually! The book was one of those where the author inserts themselves into the story and was making so much of it about herself, I couldn’t take it. It’s a strange, perplexing story and I know that makes people want to get close to it and figure it out but it just wasn’t well done there. The podcast is bingeworthy, definitely give it a try!

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    1. I don’t have a problem with foreign words inserted in dialogue and have learned a lot that way. I’m talking about full sentences within the text or within English dialogue without doing any work to make sure a reader follows what’s being said.

      And I agree, my reading list is too long to waste time on something when it’s not working for me!

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    1. It really was! I try to be open-minded and not get bugged by an author’s personal behavior or attitude, because it’s their life experience/story, but there were a lot of things and details irking me within a short space in that one.

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  3. Glad to see none of these are on my TBR! A shame you didn’t enjoy them but good that you didn’t push yourself through them. I always turn to a true crime podcast if I’m not enjoying a book or documentary, they always seem to work so much better!

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  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these ones! I’m terrible at giving up on books once I start on them, but I think it makes sense. I enjoyed learning about the true crime stories I’d not heard of from your post, although I may look to learn more about them from the other sources you mention, instead of the books. And the one with the sad dog story is definitely not for me!

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    1. I do feel guilty when I give up on a book, but when I used to push through despite not liking something, I can’t remember a single time the book got better and the persistence paid off. It feels like the better option even though it’s tough to do!

      The crime stories are interesting, definitely look into those elsewhere. I’m not sure if I can read a whole in-depth book about the farm murders, but the Phoebe’s Fall podcast is worth a listen.

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  5. Various reviews and blurbs about “Mastering the Art of French Eating” brought me to your conclusion before I even bothered to get a copy of the book. So I’m glad you confirmed these impressions, and I’m even less likely than before to read it.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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