bête noire. Noun. Something that is particularly disliked. A person or thing that one particularly dislikes or dreads.
Admit it: somewhere out there, there’s a book you tried to read and just…couldn’t. Even people who force themselves to finish every book they pick up meet their Waterloo somewhere. Thankfully, you’re not alone. One of our regular readers, Valerie, had this to say about her experience of reading Proust:
It started out as a noble effort. I was trying to be cultured and well-read: I was going to read In Search of Lost Time and I was going to read the whole thing. I was so confident that I didn’t even consider aiming just to read Swann’s Way. I ordered the entire set–seven volumes of Proust, in all his glory, 4,211 pages of beautiful, enchanting, intellect-affirming prose. Boy, was I going to feel good about myself when I was done. After all, Edmund White called In Search of Lost Time “the most respected novel of the twentieth century.” Harold Bloom agreed with him. For heaven’s sake, Michael Chabon said it was his favorite book, and he’s a cool dude.
As it turns out, Edmund, Harold, and Michael are all crazy. The main character starts off a sniveling, whiny little brat who won’t stop bugging his mother about coming to kiss him goodnight. Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s about the experience of love and memory and anxiety, but still, I wanted to kick that kid. And he really doesn’t get less annoying from there. Then there’s that thing where he goes on and on about the cookie, and again, yes, I know: this is a beautiful, iconic scene. But the fact of the matter is that it’s a little sponge cake. It isn’t even warm and gooey and full of chocolate chips, so really, who cares?
Proust may not be your bugbear, but many of us on the Eleventh Stack team have felt Valerie’s pain via one book or another. We’re guessing you have, too. In today’s post, our team members reveal the books they simply couldn’t bring themselves to finish (though some are still open to trying again).
Behold: our bêtes noires.
Aisha- It’s Not Me, It’s You
I didn’t start reading Janet Evanovich‘s Stephanie Plum novels until 2006 so I was late to the party. And it was a party. I loved them. They were amusing and a quick read. I read them rapidly until I was caught up, then waited for the new ones to come out. And then something happened: I stopped enjoying them. I still read them, but it felt like an obligation. I had read 14 of them, 15 of them, 16 of them; I had to keep going, right? When Notorious Nineteen came out, I started to read it and then realized I didn’t want or have to finish it. What was the point? It seemed to be the same story over and over. Stephanie accidentally shoots her gun. Grandma Mazur goes to the funeral home. Lula wears brightly colored spandex and eats a lot. Stephanie thinks about Morelli. Stephanie thinks about Ranger. A car blows up. And? It felt like breaking up with someone I’d been with a long time. Maybe Notorious Nineteen was the best of the series, but I’ll never know. When it’s over, it’s over. And it’s over, Janet.
There was a time, when I was younger, that I finished every book I picked up. Part of the reason was, I remembered reading To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Up to about page 100, I thought it was one of the worst things I ever read. At page 100 it took off, and, amazingly, it is, to this day, one of my favorite novels. So, there’s the cautionary tale of giving up too soon.
I wish I could say the same thing about Salman Rushdie‘s Midnight’s Children, a book that, three quarters of the way through, I literally threw across the room with a resounding thump on the bungalow wall. Why? Well, the man’s ego was so large that he, in my estimation, had literally crowded the remaining 200 or so pages of the book, so I was done anyway.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot – Middlemarch. Oh, how I hate you, Middlemarch. This weighty and terrible tome was forced upon me when I was a freshman in college. That very same year, one week into my first semester of college, I was in a rather nasty car accident. I was GRATEFUL for that car accident because it gave me an excuse to drop that particular English class and cast aside the epic preachy tediousness of this book.
Alas, I was forced back into its pages as a junior, but even then I still never managed to get more than two-thirds of the way through the damn thing. I just could not feel any sympathy for that chick (Dorothea something?) when she married the old preacher dude (cause she thought she was being all noble and shit) and then fell for his hot cousin (the only interesting person in the book). HEY LADY, YOU MADE YOUR CHOICE. YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO MARRY THE OLD DUDE. DEAL WITH IT.
P.S. I also hate Charles Dickens. Sorry, Don.
My history of unfinished books is long and sordid. It is an occupational hazard. A book that seems so promising when it arrives at the library is left behind, mid-page, for a new, shiny book, and soon forgotten. A recent title that has been returned to the library, swearing that I would one day pick back up, is New Jersey Noir. This series covers all kinds of cities and places, from Pittsburgh to Kingston. I love the idea of this noir series! And how perfectly campy is a New Jersey collection?!?! Sadly, I had to stop reading it after the story of a murder in Hoboken gave me nightmares. Horror stories tend to do that to me. I promised myself one day I’ll go back and finish the other stories, but that was books and books ago…
Dear David Foster Wallace, wherever you are:
I wish you were still with us here, and still writing. From what I’ve read about you thus far, you were a genius, the kind of person who makes some people uncomfortable and gives others hope. But I hope that, wherever you are, you can forgive me for just not being smart enough to understand what you were trying to do in Infinite Jest. The joke is clearly on me, because I just don’t get it. At all. There’s a movie that cracks people up, quite literally, and tennis, and addiction, and satire, and and and. It’s just all too much. Mind you, I’ve read Finnegans Wake cover to cover, on purpose, so it’s not like I can’t handle a good mental workout. Still. Everybody’s brain has a limit.
You’ll have to forgive me. I really appreciate your genius, from a distance. But nobody likes to feel stupid. So I’m just going to acknowledge that you were smarter than I will ever be, and walk away slowly…
Like Leigh Anne, I put the tiniest of dents in Infinite Jest before wanting to hurl the book across the room. But that book is heavy (1079 pages!), so I just set it down gently and gave it the stink-eye… I’m really here to talk about World War Z, though. I get why this book works for some folks, but the things that didn’t work for me – non-linear plot told through vignettes, no true central character to provide an emotional core – were enough that I couldn’t finish it. The lack of connection and jumping around so much you feel worn out very much serve a purpose, however I almost wish Brooks had focused on just a few locations and spent longer chapters exploring how they were affected.
I am so ashamed to admit that I cannot bring myself to read The Great Gatsby. I have picked it up three or four times in the past 30 years, the latest being right before the Leonardo DiCaprio movie came out. I read just a little beyond the first chapter every time. It is on quite a few lists of books that people read more than once. I already know the whole plot, and I grew up on Long Island so I know the area that the story is set. Maybe knowing too much about it is the very reason I just can’t bring myself to stick with it. My expectation is too high and I’m not enthralled at the outset. I will watch the movie anyway.
When I was in my twenties, I tried to read all the widely reviewed books that appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list. But now, twenty years later, I’m somewhat ruthless when it comes to giving books a chance. I usually aim for one chapter but I can usually tell if a book is for me just from reading a few paragraphs. The one book that comes to mind that I just could not finish is an older book that was a huge bestseller (and was also made into a movie): The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. I tried so hard to get into this book but it didn’t work for me as the author’s voice just didn’t speak to me. And, while I understand that there are different books for different times for different people, I still have no desire to try this one again.
(who fancies herself to be the little red-haired girl, when she’s actually probably more of a Marcie!)
Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, David Michaelis. I love biographies. I love Peanuts. This book’s cover looked like Charlie Brown’s shirt, which I also love. What I didn’t love was this book. 566 pages of biography + 6 pages of acknowledgements + 58 pages of source notes + a 22 page index = a comprehensive tome about this iconic cartoonist. But as we all know, quantity does not always equal quality.
But maybe it is a high-quality work. Anyone looking for background information on Charles Schulz, minutiae even, will find this a fabulous read, I’m sure. If you’ve ever wanted to know why Charlie Brown could never seem to get ahead in the game of life, knowing Schulz’s history will help you figure out exactly where he was coming from. But when I got to page 200 and and the Peanuts gang had not yet made an appearance, I got fed up with Schulz’s self-centered, self-deprecating (and not in the endearing way), dopey personality and gave up!
As I skim through the book now, I think that if I had made it just a little bit further–closer to page 260–I would have seen the Peanuts characters come to life and even found out who the inspirations were for each one. I did appreciate the family photographs and comic strips scattered throughout. They were a welcome break from all that text!
Damascus Countdown / Joel C. Rosenberg
Synopsis: Israel has launched a first strike on Iran, taking out all of their nuclear sites and six of their nuclear warheads. The Twelfth Imam has ordered a full-scale retaliation. CIA operative David Shirazi has infiltrated the Iranian regime and intercepted information indicating that two Iranian nuclear warheads survived and have been moved to a secure and undisclosed location. David and his team are in a race against time to find the remaining nuclear warheads before disaster strikes.
Rosenberg does a credible job with the raw material he has – it’s today, it’s the headlines and it’s ripe for a Tom Clancy like techno-thriller follow through, which is what I thought this was. It is to a good degree, but like the TV huckster says “but wait, there’s more.” I had no inkling that this Rosenberg writes Christian fiction, which I didn’t discover until I started reading. Not my cup-o-tea to begin with, but this isn’t just inspirational, this is in-your-face Messianic Fiction. Where Rosenberg lost me, to the point I stopped reading, are the overt Messianic references and placement. As good as the rest of the story components are, the messianic references are so unsubtle and out of place / out of character, they failed to hold the story together for me; especially the wishfully thought-out Iranian Shiite converts who seamlessly can include the Gospels in their principal conversations about reactors and radiation levels.
The Decameron / Giovanni Boccaccio
Synopsis: In the early summer of 1348, as a terrible plague ravages the city, ten charming young Florentines take refuge in country villa to tell each other stories—a hundred stories of love, adventure and surprising twists of fortune. Boccaccio has little time for chastity, pokes fun at crafty, hypocritical clerics and celebrates the power of passion to overcome obstacles and social divisions.
Maybe I’m just not enamored of pre-Renaissance literature, but I couldn’t make it past the first chapter. It felt contrived and forced. The story concept is fascinating and I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s forward. It think my problem is I don’t feel comfortable around translations; I already know that nuances and intent get lost from the original language so I’m already leery. As easily as I can visualize Napoleon, Alexander or Hannibal in their milieus, I have as hard a time visualizing and believing the 14th Century setting – puffy sleeves and leggings. I can’t say I read enough of this work it to criticize the writing, but Boccaccio and Nichols (the translator) didn’t make it interesting enough to keep me reading on.
Why I failed to love Glen Cook’s Black Company novels, and why I will try to love them again:
Glen Cook’s expertly written fantasy fiction should’ve been right up my alley. He adroitly blends powerful magic and other fantastic elements with gritty military themes to tell the story of the eponymous Black Company a mercenary unit with a 500 year history of war and conquest. While others have compared Cook’s style to the spartan prose of Elmore Leonard, I find that some of his descriptions–or lack thereof–act as barriers to my understanding of the action.
While I like flawed characters as much as the next post-modern reader, I also found it hard to settle on a character to focus on and root for. Cook’s employment of an odd, first-person present tense narrative perspective also presents a challenge to someone more comfortable with third person omniscient perspective. While I don’t mind first person stories, the strange immediacy of Cook’s narrator just feels weird to me. Read this excerpt from his publisher’s website to better see what I am trying to explain here.
All of my misgivings and bad experiences aside, there remains gold in those hills. I fully plan to return to The Black Company saga for a second go-round. It took me two tries to fully love Frank Herbert’s Dune and now I re-read that every two years or so, so I will not hesitate to climb back into the saddle with the grizzled vets of Cook’s Black Company.
Classic I can’t and won’t finish: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
I had to read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens for my 9th grade English class. Keep in mind, I have always been an avid reader and I usually read whatever was assigned to me. However, due to my general dislike of overdramatic behavior (even as a teenager), I hated every single character in Great Expectations from the door. I read the first two “Stages of Pip’s Expectations.” I never started the third. In fact, to this day over twenty years later, I have no idea how it ends. Never bothered to find out, don’t care; even for this post I still haven’t looked it up, still don’t care.
I thought Pip was an idealistic dipstick with unrealistic expectations. Then he got money and acted like a jerk. I was completely unsympathetic to his plight because he should have known better. Done with Pip. Then there is the cruel Estella, with her whole “I don’t have a heart” thing. Hyperbole much? Give a rest, lady. But it was Miss Havisham that really rubbed the 14-year-old me the wrong way. Is there anyone in the history of literature more self-indulgent and frankly, hysterical than that old bat? You got jilted at the alter so your entire life stopped and you never took off the wedding dress? That is too ridiculous for words and also totally unhygienic. (Seriously. Gross.) There is no man on earth worth that nonsense. Then, crazypants, you raise an orphan to exact vengeance? No. Just no. And if you see me, don’t tell me the ending. I like a little mystery in my life.
Contemporary Novel I can’t and won’t finish: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
I think this was book club book, but I can’t remember because of the PTSD the first two hundred pages of this book caused me. Freedom actually made me dislike Jonathan Franzen. (I later saw him speak at the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures Monday night lecture series and he was fantastic; engaging, funny, and not at all the intellectual snob I was expecting.) As with Great Expectations, I hated all the characters and also found them and the entire story completely unbelievable. (And I completely swallowed whole books like A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. So I can suspend my disbelief.)
Tedium abounds in Freedom. I found the dialogue artificial and even odd. I can’t imagine anyone in a relationship talking like Walt and Patty. And Patty’s autobiography, ugh. (If you want to see how an autobiography/diary can be worked into a novel well, read I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb.) As to the plot: Really, uber-liberal couple, you’d let your teenage son move in with a bunch of hardcore Republicans? Or a talented athlete snowed by a weird fan? With its shallow and unlikeable characters and tiresome plot; I believe I can live a full and happy life without finishing this novel.
For more abandoned books, and why they were put down, see The Paris Review and Barnes and Noble blogs. We’re truly sorry if we’ve carved up one of your sacred cows, but we’re also curious about you: which books have you broken up with, flung across the room in anger, shunned, or simply just couldn’t finish?