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In lieu of a reading recommendation this week, I offer some unfocused thoughts about book abandonment. Many readers seem to think that it is a virtue to finish every book they start, even if they aren’t enjoying it. I used to think so myself, but as I have gotten older and more aware that time is getting shorter, I’m less willing to spend that time on a book that’s not doing it for me. I know my reading speed by now, I know how long it takes me to finish the average book, and I value those hours highly.
I highly advocate giving up on books–especially fiction–that aren’t doing it for you. It may be a case of the wrong book at the wrong time or for the wrong reader. I abandoned two books just this week, one in which I gotten about halfway and one in which I was a little over fifty pages in. (I confess that I did read the last chapters of both, just to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake; I wasn’t.)
The one thing I ask of from my fiction reading is immersion. I read because I want to explore other worlds of the imagination; I want to be taken away from this one, at least for a short while. Nothing does this for me like reading, but sometimes finding the book that does the trick is difficult.
There is no one quality that guarantees immersion. Chuck Wendig offers up twenty-five reasons why he stops reading books here, and all of these have something to do with preventing immersion. Little things can do it: an overload of errors; wooden dialogue; a singsong or monotonous style; overuse of one-sentence paragraphs. More often, it’s bigger issues. I’m not seeing anything new. The characters don’t come across as real people. The story is being told to me, instead of being shown in scenes that I can imagine in my head. The world of the story doesn’t come alive for me. I don’t feel like anything real is at stake in the story.
And there’s no predicting which books will end up being immersive. That’s why I always try to give a book at least fifty to a hundred pages to reel me in. (That’s about one reading session.) That seems fair. But if after that, I’m asking myself why I’m reading the book or, worse, looking for excuses not to read, I feel no guilt in putting the book down and picking up another.
If you like the kinds of books I do and you haven’t been watching Stranger Things on Netflix, get thee to a television. This series constantly references Stephen King’s books plus tons of great movies by John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, and others we remember from the ’80s. And it has Winona Ryder! She is the ’80s for me.
Lots of people are talking about the nostalgic feelings that the series recreates, which it certainly does, but I think even better is that it hearkens back to a type of story that we don’t see so much anymore. It’s horror but not dark, in that the characters come across as real, human, and basically good people who end up working together against evil. This is a pervasive theme in Stephen King’s older books, and something I love about them. This show gives you characters you can recognize and root for. This is old-fashioned storytelling at its best.
This week, I’m recommending a book I stayed up until the wee hours last night finishing: Descent by Tim Johnston. On a family vacation in Colorado, an eighteen-year-old girl goes for a run on a deserted mountain road, accompanied by her younger brother on a mountain bike, when the worst thing happens: the boy is left injured, and the girl has disappeared, plummeting her family into a nightmare. This book was so much more than the escapist thriller I was expecting. It never goes in the expected direction. Johnston’s writing style is spare but evocative, and he does a remarkable job of breathing life into the wild mountain setting and all the characters, large and small, allowing the reader to fully inhabit this book’s world. While the subject matter is undeniably rough, the story itself has a quality of myth, addressing themes of fate and chance and what it means to be a hero. This book enthralled me, and I’m sure it will stay with me for a long time.
I had been trying to recommend a new read each month, and I still fell behind on my recommendations. So of course I’m upping my goal to recommending a new read each week! Starting with this one…
Does Ursula K. Le Guin write bad books? If so, I haven’t found them. While this collection of four novellas is not my favorite by her–that honor still goes to her classic, Left Hand of Darkness–I think Four Ways to Forgiveness may be her best written and most emotionally affecting book. Set on neighboring planets, Werel and Yeowe, the novellas form a study of relationships: between a man and a woman, between men and women, between enslavers and enslaved, between natives and foreigners.Le Guin has structured this book perfectly, beginning with a slow and subtle introduction to this society and gradually building to an emotional crescendo. As we read these stories–which, at their cores, are all love stories–we learn the history of a civilization that mirrors our own in uncomfortable ways.
This month I am recommending The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. When Harry August dies, he is reborn as himself at the same time and to the same parents, but with the memories of his previous lives intact. When he learns that another person like him is manipulating history for his own selfish ends and accelerating the end of the world, Harry knows that he must stop him. This novel reminded me of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Recommended for anyone who likes time travel or slipstream stories.
In the introduction to the short story collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives that she edited, Sarah Weinman laments that “an entire generation of female crime writers…have faded from view.” Many of these writers, popular and lauded in their day, have been forgotten over time. Weinman has selected stories by fourteen of them, ranging in publication date from the early 1940s through the mid-1970s, to represent these forgotten grand dames of noir, who no doubt inspired today’s popular writers like Gillian Flynn and Tana French.
The collection, neither too short nor too long, is something of an awakening. Some of the authors, such as Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson, will already be familiar to many readers, but here are many more terrific authors of dark suspense fiction just waiting to be discovered. Each story is excellent, well-crafted, and compelling, with an appropriately noirish mood, and each story stands apart, examining and exposing the underside of mid-century domestic coziness. I savored these stories like a box of fine chocolates.
Fortunately for us, this is the digital age, and a perusal of Amazon reveals that many of the contributors’ longer works have been revived in electronic form for the Kindle–at reasonable prices, too. I foresee many hours of happy reading time ahead, inspired by the authors included in this terrific collection.