On Books Left Unfinished

Like many avid readers I know, one of the tangential perks to the holiday season is the downtime to read restfully on a couch or tucked semi-uncomfortably in an airplane or bus seat. Of course, there’s never as much free time as it seems like there should be, and yet, there’s four days or so in which professional (or academic or what-have-you) obligations can be set aside for the pleasure of picking up a book only on the merits of its entertainment and pleasure-granting properties. Thanksgiving, for me at least, is all about the Fun Reading. And more often than not, Fun Reading  is mystery reading.

This year, I had about 14 hours of bus riding to do, so I took with me a crime novel called The Chalk Circle Man, which I randomly picked up while shelving books at my internship (something I do frequently, as noted in previous posts). The merits of the book seemed ample. For one, there’s the author’s excellent bio: Fred Vargas is a French (female) novelist who has had a successful career as an archeologist and historian, and is a best-selling author in her home country. Her detective, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, is a transplant to Paris from the Pyranees who uses eccentric and unorthodox methods (which generally do not include conscious ‘thinking’ about facts) to solve bizarre crimes. The book starts well, and the motley characters–a peripatetic oceanographer who spends her off-time following strangers around Paris and taking notes on their habits; her tenants, a surly, impressively handsome, and possibly cruel blind man and an elderly woman who answers Lonely Hearts ads each day; a drunken police detective with a penchant for white wine, who is raising two sets of twins and a fifth child by himself–all felt like promising contributors to the story’s central plot.

Long story short, the book just didn’t do it for me. The plot stalled, coincidences abounded, and the characters who added so much color at the beginning of the novel began to overwhelm the whole narrative and overshadow even the murder itself. I was disappointed, but not distraught. I popped into a small, well-stocked local bookstore in Portland, Maine (Longfellow’s), and found a used copy of a P.D. James book (A Certain Justice) which I immediately fell into and spent the remainder of my vacation quite enjoying.

For me, starting a book doesn’t necessitate finishing it. I read a great deal, which means that I not only have a broad and well developed sense of literature, but also a broad and well developed sense of my own preferences therein. And the breadth and quantity of books I read seems to somehow justify my not finishing those that don’t strike my fancy. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I just stop reading a book any time that it conflicts with my set tastes, or drop those which necessitate a bit more investment and “work” on my part. But I consider myself a well-informed reader, and well, there are only so many books that I’ll be able to read in my lifetime, so I try to be choosy about which ones I invest time in. Some of these are more ‘literary’ in nature, some are just for fun. But all of them are in some way worth the investment to me.

I’ve found, however, that the ability to leave a book unfinished–for whatever the reason–is a sort of litmus test of personality. Those who feel no obligation to finish what they’ve started and those who power through, irregardless. A very talented literary scholar and friend of mine once made my day by passionately declaiming any need to finish a novel, even when examining the text in a scholarly context. As this very well-spoken, well-read friend of mine put it (and as I have quoted tirelessly throughout the years), “Whatever, dude. It’s not about narrative closure.”

Maybe that’s what it comes down to in the end? The need for narrative closure. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’d guess that someone who is willing to force themselves through the entirety of a book that she is not enjoying, is probably pretty invested in the outcome of a plot. (And not predisposed to flipping ahead to see how things turn out, something which, again, I’m just fine with.)

But then again, maybe it’s more than that–maybe it’s also a sense of respect for the product that an author has invested so much time in, and a sense that there’s something to be gained from that product, even if it’s not totally appealing to the reader.

Obviously, there are a whole host of reasons that people read what they read and finish what they finish. But in this vein, below are a couple people’s explanations of why many of us leave books unfinished, or why you might should. Less people seem to write about the importance of always completing a book once started. Thoughts?

Alan Bissett via The Guardian:

The world of my student days, however, was fundamentally different from this one. It was only towards the end of my degree that a friend showed me a marvel named the internet (Him: “Type in anything, it’ll find you a website!” Me: “What’s a website?”) In the 90s, there were a mere four TV channels. Each household had a single phone-line, usable once at a time. Only geeks played “video games”. It was much easier to remove oneself completely from the world into the vast architecture of the novel. Now, the reader is under assault from hundreds of television channels, 3D cinema, a computer-gaming business so large it dwarfs Hollywood, iPhones, Wii, YouTube, free commuter newspapers, an engorged celebrity culture, instant access to all the music ever recorded, 24-hour sports news, and DVD box-sets of shows such as The Wire, Mad Men and Lost that replicate some of the scope and depth of literature. Unprecedented levels of consumer debt, and now a recession, have seen everyone working longer hours. A leisure time that was already precious has been chewed into by text-messaging, Facebook and emails. Almost everyone I speak to claims that they “love books but just can’t find the time to read”. Well, they probably could – they’re just choosing to spend it differently.

Kelly Jane Torrance, on economist Tyler Cohen’s question, from his book Discover Your Inner Economist, of whether “…reading a book we’re getting little out of is the best use of scarce resources.” (Via The Washington Times.)


Spontaneous Reads: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

As I continue to try and keep better track of those many books that I pick up and read on a whim, I’ll be posting very casual ‘reviews’ here. The second installment is for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I didn’t mention this in the review, but although Mary Ann Shaffer (a librarian!) did write the majority of the novel, it was finished by her niece after she got cancer. Shaffer actually died before the book was published. There’s more information on Shaffer and Barrows, as well as some neat features, such as an interactive Google map of Guernsey, on their Random House website here.


If you ever want a guaranteed source of unexpected and unusual book recommendations to shake up your normal reading list, volunteer to shelve books at a local library. Even if you’re not suffering for book recommendations, if you have an interest in volunteering and even the most basic awareness of alphabetical organization, please also consider volunteering at your local library branch—I promise you, in these times of ever-increasing tax cuts, they can use the help. (But I digress.) Some of the more notable books I’ve read in the last few years are ones that I would have never looked for and probably never come across if it weren’t for the fact that I was shelving them.

A few summers ago, while shelving at a public library, I picked up a copy of You Can Write a Mystery!, which might seem a little cursory and simplistic, but nicely broke the process of creating a detective novel, crime story, or country cozy into discreet pieces, clarifying it as a process composed of very specific characteristics, plot points, and narrative requirements. Another was Companions of the Night, a hormone fueled teen vampire novel that treats the subject of death (specifically learning how to mourn the death of a loved one) with surprising depth.

At the subscription library where I am a member (and now an intern), my hours spent shelving constantly turn up new surprises. There was High Lonesome Road, an excellent crime novel about the murder of a book mobile driver in southern Arizona.  More recently, I’ve picked up Pearls Before Swine by Margery Allingham (a British author of the same vein as Agatha Christie), and now, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Now, I’m told that this book made quite a splash when it was first published, which the pull quote from Elizabeth Gilbert on the front cover seems to confirm. I’ll admit, however, that having the author of Eat, Pray, Love’s endorsement is unlikely to convince me to buy a book. I’m also usually skeptical of cutsey plot scenarios. However, one of the more consistent themes in my reviews tends to be that my literary tastes—while pretty firmly established—are fluid, and always subject to change. I am very open to being convinced to change my novelistic preconceptions after reading a good book.

My interest in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was piqued by the title—it’s a bit precious, and yet such a mouthful. Additionally, I had never heard of Guernsey, and this potato peel pie sounded both extremely comforting and also a little revolting. The back cover didn’t offer much insight, so I started reading the first few pages—I don’t know about you, but I can almost always tell if I’ll be interested in a book by just reading a few paragraphs to get a feel for the writing. And wouldn’t you know, the story, which is told in an epistolary format, grabbed me right from the start.

The basic plot is this: The year is 1946 and London-based author Juliet Ashton is touring England in support of her recently published book, Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War, a collection of the humorous newspapers columns that Juliet wrote during World War II. Upon her return, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands in the English Channel. He has come across a used copy of a book by Charles Lamb which used to belong to Juliet (it has her name and address in the cover) and he is writing to ask her if she might send him the address of a bookstore in London, as there haven’t been any bookstores on Guernsey since the war and he’d like to learn more about this author. (If this seems convoluted, it is.) But thus begins a rich correspondence between not only Juliet and Dawsey, but also between Juliet and other residents of Guernsey who are all members of the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (It bears noting that Dawsey is a man. I somehow missed this for the first three or four letters and it really confused me when I figured out my mistake)

In the course of her correspondence and later visit to Guernsey, Juliet becomes increasingly immersed in the lives of her eccentric, persevering writing partners and also learns more about the German occupation of Guernsey during WWII. It is a remarkable history. When the Nazis invaded Guernsey, England did not send any aid, but rather decided to save their forces to protect London and the English coast, which seemed to be in much more danger with the Germans just across the channel. Even as the Islanders could see smoke rising over France as the Germans invaded there, they had no news of the outside world—all communication, be it via newspaper, radio, or letters, was cut off between Guernsey and mainland Europe. A few people had contraband transistor radios—the discovery of which would have meant being deported to a prison camp—but otherwise, the Islanders had no contact with the outside world for five years. (There are some wonderful passages in which Juliet sends old newspaper clippings to the island so that they can see what Rita Hayworth looks like and catch up on everything that happened during the war. It seems inconceivable to have been that close to a war—to have actually been invaded—and still have almost no sense of what was happening in the world around you.)

All of the inhabitants of the island were given a single day to prepare for the German invasion—one day to decide whether they would send their children across the channel to board with strangers in the countryside. Those children that left risked bombing on their journey across the ocean, and unknown dangers when they arrived in England. But those who stayed would be forced to endure extreme hunger and cold as the island’s natural resources became more and more depleted, not to mention the hardships visited on them by the Germans. The book also describes the prison camps that were established on Guernsey, and the horrible conditions endured by the 16,000 Todt slave laborers who were sent there.

Certain passages in the book are very grim, as only to be expected in a book that deals with World War II. And yet, on the whole, the book is remarkably upbeat. It does take place, after all, in the year following the war’s end, and Juliet fully embraces the delight and decadences (cake with icing, cut flowers, a new dress) of no longer living in fear of German invasion, even as she describes her flat being destroyed by a missile and her experiences volunteering with the Auxiliary Fire Service.

The tone of the novel occasionally lists a little too much toward the lighthearted and cheerful—there are a few major plot developments which seem to resolve themselves extremely quickly and happily without much difficulty at all. I also think it is interesting that a book that is set in such a specific, enclosed, and unknown setting (for most readers, at least) doesn’t actually give the reader much of a sense of the island itself. We get some basic topography and weather, but I wouldn’t necessarily be able to describe this place to someone else now having read it. It’s the characters that Shaffer and Barrows really expend energy on; Guernsey is a more an idea than a fully articulated location.

This vagueness of location can probably be credited to the fact that, as far as I can tell, Mary Ann Shaffer only went to Guernsey once, and didn’t actually get past the airport. It’s an interesting story, so I’ll quote a little from Annie Barrows’ Afterword:

“…[F]or reasons that will always be obscure, [Mary Ann] decided to visit the island of Guernsey, far in the nethermost reaches of the English Channel.

Mary Ann flew there, and, of course, drama followed. As her plane landed, what she described as “a terrible fog” arose from the sea and enshrouded the island in gloom. The ferry service came to a halt; the airplanes were grounded. With the dismal clank of a drawbridge pulling to, the last taxi rattled off, leaving her in the Guernsey airport, immured, isolated, and chilled to the bone…There, as the hours ticked by, she hunkered in the feeble heat of the hand-dryer in the men’s restroom (the hand-dryer in the women’s restroom was broken), struggling to sustain the flickering flame of life. The flickering flame of life required not only bodily nourishment (candy from the vending machines), but spiritual aliment, that is, books. Mary Ann could no more endure a day without reading than she could grow feathers, so she helped herself to the offerings at the Guernsey airport bookstore. In 1980, this bookstore was evidently a major outlet for writings on the occupation of the island by the Germans during World War II. Thus, when the fog lifted, Mary Ann left the island, having seen nothing that could be considered a sight, with an armload of books and an abiding interest in Guernsey’s wartime experiences.”

Perhaps the fact that Shaffer hadn’t been to Guernsey (not really, at least) doesn’t matter much. She hasn’t written a travel guide, after all, she’s written an historical novel. But it still would have been nice to feel a little more connected to the setting.

Quibbles aside, more than anything, this is a hopeful book. The characters are fun and engaging, the letters descriptive and specific to the voice of their respective authors. The best aspect, though, is still the description of a WWII experience that I’d wager very few people outside of England were familiar with prior to this book’s publication. I’d certainly recommend The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to anyone with an interest in World War II, love stories, brassy, assertive women (there are several in the book), an optimistic sensibility, and/or letter writing. It’s a quick read and you’ll learn something, too.