Sunday Salon: A DNF Round-Up

It feels like ages since I’ve written a review—and it has indeed been over a week. The reason is that I’ve been working through my pile of review copies and finding the books unsatisfactory. My policy about unfinished books is to write about them only if I have something interesting to say and none of the three books I abandoned this week seemed worthy of a full post; however, the whole logic of abandoning books is always an interesting topic, so I thought that today I would share what I’ve been giving up on and why.

And a word about review copies. There’s been a lot of conversation this past week about review copies, thanks to a letter that William Morrow sent to several bloggers, including me (although I don’t recall ever getting a book from them). The issue got coverage  from the LA Times and The Guardian. There have been lots of posts about it, but one of the best and most sensible and balanced comes from Simon at Savidge Reads. For what it’s worth, I didn’t have much of a problem with the content of the letter, although asking bloggers to review a book within one month of receipt is rather a lot to ask. Unlike a lot of people, I was not under the impression that failing to review one book within the time frame would necessarily mean receiving no more books ever. I assumed that bloggers who routinely request books and never review them would no longer receive new ones, which strikes me as reasonable. However, I can see that the letter is unclear about that.

My concern with the letter was with the tone. I dislike the letter’s implication that the work of bloggers is to assist with the marketing of the books we receive. Certainly, reviewing books has a marketing effect, but a blogger’s first duty is to her readers (and perhaps to herself). Any benefit that the publisher derives from a blogger’s work is incidental. I think it’s important to retain our independence from the industry and not let publishers drive our content. My policy is to be reasonable about the number of books I accept but not to make promises. I’ve written about that before, so I won’t say more here. Now, on to the books!

The Arrogant Years by Lucette Lagnado

In The Arrogant Years, which I picked up at BEA, Lucette Lagnado writes of her mother’s young adult years in Egypt and of her own life in a community of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. It’s not a bad book at all, but after reading about a third of the book, I realized that I just wasn’t interested. My favorite memoirs tend to take a granular approach, looking at a single brief period or one specific aspect of life. (Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions are standout examples that are entirely different from each other in tone.) Lagnado is mostly interested in her and her mother’s teenage and early adult years, but her stories lack the detail and intense focus that give the best memoirs life.

There’s nothing to make this memoir feel fresh. I liked the opening anecdote, in which the high-spirited author rebels against the restrictions placed on women in her traditional synagogue, but even that story, as charming and funny as it was, doesn’t cover any new ground. I’ve read more than my share about women chafing against conservative religious views on gender, and I’ve read quite a lot of immigrant stories. It’s well-worn ground. The Egyptian setting, with her family’s exodus taking place during the turbulent 1950s, could provide something new, as I’ve read nothing about this period, but again, her approach is so broad that I didn’t learn anything more than I would from a Wikipedia article. This really isn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t good enough to hold my interest, and I’m trying not to spend time on books I’m not actively enjoying.

Holy War by Nigel Cliff

I was delighted to accept a review copy of Holy War from HarperCollins, because it brings together two fascinating topics: religion and exploration. The book, which examines the religious motivations behind Vasco de Gama’s journey to Asia, proved vexing almost from the very start. The book, like most popular nonfiction these days, lacks endnote numbers in the text, but I was willing to overlook this because it at least includes notes in the back keyed to page numbers in the text. Unfortunately, the author’s whizz-bang tour of the Middle Ages immediately set me against him. He makes the mistake of referring to the Middle Ages in Europe (although not Spain) as the Dark Ages, a term that has been out of favor among many historians for years. Cliff’s use of the term, without explanation, made me wonder about his qualifications, and upon looking into his background, I saw that his academic training is in literature and theatre, not history. Although I do believe that nonspecialists can have insights worth considering, I’m not sure I want to read about such a contentious subject as the historical conflict between Christianity and Islam from someone who isn’t a specialist. I don’t know enough about the period to read a non-expert’s view as critically as I would like.

I only read the first 50 pages of the book, and Cliff hadn’t quite gotten to his main subject when I stopped reading, so it may improve, but I just couldn’t deal with his approach. A lot of my problem goes back to my initial hesitation about the lack of numbered notes. For example, when Cliff writes of the Crusades, he describes an almost unimaginable state of horror, with a hundred thousand perishing and Crusaders wading through blood up to their ankles, their knees, or even their horses’ bridles. Upon consulting the notes, I learned that the sources of these descriptions were contemporary accounts that may in fact have been propaganda (on both sides) and that, as Cliff himself states in the notes, not all the descriptions were meant to be taken literally. To hide this crucial information in the notes seems irresponsible, and I decided I just couldn’t trust the author to provide a balanced account.

Titus Awakes by Maeve Gilmore

I received this book from Overlook Press after I expressed interest in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books at BEA. I’ve put off reading it because I disliked the third Gormenghast book, Titus Asleep, and suspected that this book—written by Peake’s wife, Maeve Gilmore, on the basis of some fragments Peake left behind at his death—would be no better. My hope was that by reading the book long after the initial spell of the first two books had worn off, I’d be better able to evaluate this book. I’m sorry to report that waiting didn’t help at all. In fact, the only thing that kept me reading for 150 pages was the hope that some of the weirdness of the original books would appear.

Titus Awakes lacks the rich prose and strong sense of place that characterized Peake’s first two books, and it doesn’t even have the aggressive weirdness of the third book. It’s dull. Titus travels from place to place, having banal adventures and inwardly whining about how he abandons everyone who cares about him. An unlikable character having boring adventures just isn’t my idea of a good read. I gather from reading some of the reviews that the book does have an interesting meta-fictional twist toward the end, but I think that twist would mostly interest hard-core Peake fans.

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31 Responses to Sunday Salon: A DNF Round-Up

  1. Vasilly says:

    My policy about review books is the same as yours. I try to get to most of the books I receive in a reasonable amount of time, but no promises. I was curious about The Arrogant Years. Since you stated that this book lacks detail and focus, it’s not for me. Thanks for letting us know about the books you couldn’t finish.

    • as the author of the Arrogant Years and its companion volume The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit i must say i was stunned by the sheer utterly gratuitous meanness of your blog — admittedly you are not a professional critic (clearly) but it may have helped you to have read a couple of the reviews that appeared about it including two in the new york times, one of which called the book “a paragon of memoir writing.” Or have bothered to research the initial volume, Sharkskin, which received a prize for Jewish literature. For the record i am usually thrilled to death with the attention that bloggers pay to my work but I guess you are the exception that proves the rule. “Shelf Love”? really?
      — lucette Lagnado.

      • Richard says:

        Lucette, why should Teresa have to read somebody else’s review to decide yours wasn’t a book she was actively enjoying? Or do you think the only valid responses to your works are the positive ones? The only thing “mean” here is your insecure response to an honest opinion. Get a life or at least stop Googling yourself looking for validation from others.

      • Teresa says:

        Lucette, You are to be congratulated for the fine reviews your book has received elsewhere; in fact, the near-universal acclaim for this book, as well as for your previous book, is one of the reasons I read as much as I did before deciding to give up. But even the very best books are unlikely to be a good fit for every reader and that was the case here.

    • Teresa says:

      Vasilly, I’ve found that this policy works well for me and not making promises takes a lot of pressure off.

      The Arrogant Years really isn’t bad, but I definitely prefer more detail in the memoirs I read. Not everyone would feel the same, I’m sure.

  2. Karen says:

    I really appreciate your honesty and loyalty to yourself and the people that read your reviews. I, for one, based my decisions on whether or not to read a book from reviews and if they are weighted and geared only toward selling the book, then the review is worthless to me. So, THANK YOU for staying true to your thoughts. They are right on.

    • Teresa says:

      Thank you for your support, Karen. As much as I love the idea of my reviews helping a book I love get a few more sales, what I really care about is having good conversation around books and helping people decide whether a book is for them.

  3. Sigh, your bits about your unfinished books are probably more detailed than some of my reviews. Always something to aspire to! :)

  4. I totally agree with you about the WM letter. I don’t mind publishers having standards for what they expect, but I think it’s their job to keep track of that, not my job to prove it. At least, that’s how the letter made me feel.

    I’ve been thinking about doing an DNF roundup for the end of the year, but I don’t think I have nearly enough interesting things to say about the books I abandoned!

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I would fully expect (even hope) that publishers give priority to certain bloggers over others, whether it’s because of that blog’s audience, the reliability of the reviews, whatever. I don’t mind that at all.

  5. Deb says:

    My criteria is to give a book 50 pages–if it hasn’t grabbed me by then, I have to say “life’s too short” and move on. I used to try to give a book 100 pages, but…well, see the end of my previous sentence.

    I’m not saying that every book I give up on is badly written, but every book I give up on fails to connect with me on some level; that’s not necessarily the writer’s fault, but it’s also not necessarily mine. Sometimes I’m just on a different wave length than the writer and things just don’t gel between us. I recently gave up on a well-received mystery novel because, by page 50, I knew exactly what food and wines and books the detective liked, but only one obvious suspect had been introduced. When I knew I wasn’t going to finish the book, I skipped to the end to see if I was right–and, sadly, I was–the obvious suspect was indeed the guilty party.

    • Teresa says:

      My usual cut-off point is 50 pages, but sometimes I read more than that, either because inertia has set in or because I’m not actively disliking it and want to give it a little more time to catch my interest.

      You make a really good point about how sometimes the reader and writer just don’t gel, even when the book is good. I think that was particularly the case with The Arrogant Years, and to a lesser extent with Titus Awakes.

  6. Beth F says:

    I’m always so interested in why people don’t finish books. That’s why I post about them too. The only one here I read was The Arrogant Years, which actually was a win for me. But that’s *exactly* why I love posts just like this. Fascinating that you didn’t connect.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for the support! I find the diverse reactions to all books so interesting. I was surprised that I didn’t connect to The Arrogant Years, but I’m glad to hear that you liked it. I didn’t think it was a bad book at all, just not one I wanted to spend more time with.

  7. Amy Reads says:

    Eecks to the author comment above, but also to the Holy War book… no endnote numbers in the text?!?! The idea completely appalls me. Also, umm… his background seems a bit… yeah… I think not for me either.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve become resigned to the fact that a lot of popular nonfiction lacks note numbers, but with a topic like this and an author without extensive background in the subject, they seem necessary.

  8. Anastasia says:

    Too bad about Titus Awakes! I still haven’t read the original Gormenghast trilogy but I was hoping that this new book would be enjoyable, at least.

  9. Tony says:

    It intrigues me when people have long DNF lists, mainly as I finish everything, but I think the reason for this is that I don’t get random ARCs thrown at me.

    I’ve come to realise that this is a *good* thing :)

    • Teresa says:

      I used to finish just about everything, but I’ve gotten less and less willing to spend time on books I’m not enjoying (I used to have to hate a book to give up.) I’m not sure that I give up on ARCs any more than I do other books. Audiobooks are probably my biggest category of DNFs these days, but I haven’t posted about any of those.

      I don’t generally get many random ARCs thrown at me either. The only reason I have several sitting around now is because I picked them up at BEA. I only accept a small number that are pitched to me.

  10. Aparatchick says:

    The William Morrow letter seems to assume that bloggers are simply a willing part of their marketing efforts. And while I understand and sympathize with their unwillingness to provide free copies of books to bloggers who don’t review them on the blogs, I think it is unreasonable to expect a blogger to read, write, and post about a book in a 30 day period and to have to prove to the publisher that they have done so.

    Also,that letter had way too many exclamation points!!!! ;-)

    I plan on reading both of Lagnado’s books. I’m sorry the author took your review so personally. I’ve stopped reading many books that I thought were well-written but which didn’t appeal to me. My standard is 50 pages, and if it’s not keeping my attention, then a random look two-thirds into the book to see if that changes.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree about the William Morrow letter–including the exclamation points (not to mention the ALL CAPS!!).

      And I hope that you enjoy Lagnado’s books. I can see how many would; I just prefer a different sort of memoir.

  11. It sounds as though we had a very similar experience with Titus Awakes. I saw a few people praising the meta-fictional aspect, but it didn’t do anything for me. We’ll just have to stick to recommending the first books.

    • Teresa says:

      From what I could gather the meta-fictional elements might be meaningful to someone familiar with Peake’s life, but since I don’t know more than the basics, it didn’t interest me that much. Too bad, because the first two books are wonderful (and I’ve come to admire them even more in hindsight).

      • DKS says:

        I’ve read a few Peake biographies, which makes me fairly familiar with his life, perhaps, and I thought that the moment of metafiction was the most satisfying moment in Maeve’s part of the book, but as for the rest of it I agree with you: “banal adventures and inwardly whining about how he abandons everyone who cares about him.” Peake’s Titus was mean, confused, and self-absorbed too, in Titus Alone, and yet he had that one characteristic that defines all of Peake’s characters, his self-sufficiency, his Romantic-Byronic Himselfness. But Maeve has him constantly wishing that he could repent and wondering if he is, in fact, cruel and cold, which he is, but he never finds a way not to be, or even seriously tries to, he just frets and pities himself and thinks, Oh Dear I Should Be Nicer Evidently I Am Fated To Act Like This, over and over and over again, until I wished that he would take five minutes to sit down and, I don’t know, work out a Niceness Plan or a Schedule or something, anything practical (and never before have I wanted a Peake character to reform themselves or to do anything practical).

        But it was a first draft, and first drafts are not always brilliant, and if Maeve Gilmore is going to be judged at all as a writer then it’s her memoir she should be judged for (A World Away), and not this.

      • Teresa says:

        LOL at the “Niceness Plan.” The fact that he hated himself for his meanness definitely made him a more annoying character. And good point about the first draft. I often wonder how authors would feel about their early drafts being published. Perhaps she left this in the attic because she knew it wasn’t up to snuff.

  12. DKS says:

    (And the difference is in the writing, in the phrasing — see how much tighter the sentences are in the first page and a half, before Maeve takes over, how suggestive, how they leave you with hints, how they *glimpse* the mice — where Maeve’s sentences say everything and then say it again and pepper themselves with qualifiers. I’d give an example if I had a copy of the book on me. (The mice are from memory.) But again: it’s a first draft.)

  13. rebeccareid says:

    I spent so long NOT accepting review copies that I don’t have those contacts with the publishers. I probably would not have have been happy with the “review within a month” thing. I just don’t have that kind of schedule when it comes to reading and blogging! It makes me kind of glad that Im’ on the periphery of review copies anyway.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m not sure why I got that e-mail, as I don’t remember ever getting anything from William Morrow, but perhaps I did at some point. More and more, I just want to rely on Netgalley for review copies.

  14. DKS says:

    Re. Perhaps she left this in the attic …

    G. Peter Winnington, who edits the Peake Studies journal, says that she showed him a more refined version of the manuscript in 1980 and “I did not encourage her to try to get it published” because he believed it was below par. “Maeve was not a born fiction writer.” Her children must have preferred an earlier draft. But it’s a pity that she never managed to work it into a publishable shape because a Titus book written in the style of her memoir wouldn’t be a bad thing at all. Her voice there is graceful and simple and direct, nothing like Peake’s, but coherent and strong in ways that Titus Awakes just isn’t.

    (Winnington article: http://peakestudies.com/TitusAwakes.htm )

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