On becoming a DNF-er

April 11, 2015

I have a problem. I finish books. All books.

In actual fact, it isn’t usually a problem, since I’ve picked the books and I generally know what I like, but sometimes I’m (hold on to your hats, folks) wrong. And when that happens I have the book-nerdiest of wars raging within me. On the one hand, I started this book and I’m not really enjoying it, but what if it gets better?! If I stop reading now, I’ll never know! On the other hand, I’m not enjoying it and there are so many other books that I want to read. There are times when I actually get sad thinking about all the books I won’t have a chance to read simply because life is too short.

So what’s a book nerd to do? Well, I’ve been tracking my reading for a while now and I figure that if I really wanted to (and if I was any good at math, but details) I could calculate a rough estimate of how many more books I will read in my lifetime. I have absolutely zero inclination to do this, but there’s nothing like the harsh reality of estimated numbers to spur a girl into action — even if that action happens to be the cessation of one (i.e. abandoning a book partway through and moving on).

Since coming to this realization I’ve only DNFed (that’s Did Not Finish-ed for those who’ve yet to memorize the book nerd code book) a couple of books. Being a bitter-ender is still my default and I find myself rationalizing and continuing past the point where I should probably give up time and again. But I’ll keep working on it. Who knew quitting took so much practice?

Nina MacLaughlin got a degree in classics and spent her twenties working for a Boston newspaper. Then, craving something different, she quit her job and answered a Craigslist ad for a carpenter’s assistant. One phrase stuck out: “Women strongly encouraged to apply.” Before she could second-guess herself she sent a response explaining that she didn’t have any experience, but that she wanted to work with her hands and she was a fast learner.

Spoiler alert: she got the job.

Going on this journey with MacLaughlin as she lugs equipment and learns how to expertly drive in a nail or lay tile was oddly riveting. I would never expect repetitive physical tasks to be so engrossing, but the way MacLaughlin writes them, they really are.

Reading Hammer Head gave me a greater appreciation for the work that goes into everything. It made me want to make something myself.

I highly recommend this book. Even if, unlike me, you don’t spend hours watching home improvement shows and HGTV, I think this will still fascinate readers.

I have consulted numerous electronic and paper calendars and all of them have told me the same thing: it’s springtime! But here in Philadelphia, the weather doesn’t seem so sure of that fact. It seems like for every nice day we have, we get a week of cold temperatures, rain, and overall gloom. I shouldn’t complain too much since that is prime reading-with-a-cup-of-tea weather, but I’m ready for reading-on-a-picnic-blanket-in-the-park weather (I’m not saying I do this, but I want the option).

I don’t generally tailor my reading to the season because I’m just not that organized, but this super prolonged winter has me yearning for sunnier books.

So here’s my list for what to read when nature has betrayed you and continues with the cold, grey weather.

  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. It’s a big, epic book filled with love and war and magic. It will draw you in and completely transport you to the mythical Macondo, which is in Latin America and therefore is a warm and sunny place at least most of the time.
  2. Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. I’m cheating with this one because it isn’t actually sunnier, but we’ll get to why I picked it. This is a dual narrative combining the fascinating story of the build up to the Chicago World’s Fair and the chilling tale of a string of murders committed by H. H. Holmes in the city around the same time. It is utterly enthralling and after reading about the creepy murders and how Holmes pulled it all off, you might not mind being cooped up inside.
  3. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by is bloggess Jenny Lawson’s sidesplittingly funny (mostly true) memoir. There are some serious bits interspersed with a whole lot of hilarity. I challenge you to read it and not be in a good mood afterward. I’m pretty sure it can’t be done.
  4. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. This book is enchanting and whimsical. There’s mystery and adventure and it takes place in bright, sunny California (though often at night…).
  5. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. I’m looking out of my living room window and it’s all grey and I think it’s spitting rain and I can’t help thinking of that titular story with the wizened old vampire drinking lemonade under a Tuscan sun…
  6. iwanttogotothere







These are just a few of the books that might numb the sting of being betrayed by ole’ Mother Nature. What would you add?


I’ve been trying to read more short story collections and I heard such a great things about Julia Elliott’s The Wilds.

So first things first, I enjoyed the book. Elliot is a talented writer and she knows how to tell a story. My problem is that The Wilds had been described to me as “weird.” And when I think “weird short stories,” I think of Karen Russell and how much I loved Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Every time I pick up “weird” short story collections, I think I’m hoping it will be that book. I know that isn’t fair at all and I think it’s coloring my reading of the other collections.

Because The Wilds is good. It is weird. It’s also funny and sinister and a bit… off.

I think the thing that Vampires in the Lemon Grove had that I’m still looking for is that touch of whimsy sprinkled in with the sharp edges and dark humor. Without it I’m just left with a slightly bad taste in my mouth.

So now I know what I’m looking for in my short stories: whimsy.

Now accepting recommendations.

In the past six months or so I’ve gotten really into podcasts. I started listening to them as a way to fit more (yes, more) bookish media into my day, but now my listening has expanded to other nerdy interest/pop-culture things.

The one that started this new obsession for me was the Book Riot Podcast. It’s bookish and awesome and I highly recommend it. They talk about book news — whether it’s giant news like the new Harper Lee book or smaller news like a young kid prevailing over city council and getting to keep the little free library on his front lawn — cool things in the book world, and  new books released that week.

Book Riot also has two other podcasts that I listen to: Dear Book Nerd, which is an advice podcast, and Reading Lives, in which Jeff O’Neal has conversations with guests about their reading lives. Maybe it’s some voyeuristic tendency I have, but I love hearing about what other people have read and loved and how they discovered their love of books.

Other book-specific podcasts I listen to are Books on the Nightstandthe Bookrageous Podcast, and the New Yorker poetry and fiction podcasts.

I also listen to the New York Public Library Podcast. The NYPL has a number of talks and events throughout the year that they record and then later make the audio available as a podcast. They have a wide variety of guests, from authors, to visual artists, to musicians.

Similarly, I subscribe to TED Talks Audio, which is the audio of TED Talks given around the world (since some of the talks are very visual-reliant, the audio feed sometimes leaves something to be desired), and also to NPR’s TED Radio Hour, which focuses each episode on a specific theme, drawing from past TED talks.

Continuing in the NPR vein, I’m impatiently awaiting the next season of Serial, the long-form journalism-type podcast following one story week to week. I’m also waiting for Invisibilia to start up again. Meanwhile, I listen to This American Life and Pop Culture Happy Hour. PCHH is so funny and makes me feel like I might be able to keep slightly more up to date on things that are happening in pop culture.

Next: Dear Sugar Radio is a podcast version of the advice column from The Rumpus. Both Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond host and offer advice (with many lovely guests). Like the column (and Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things) it can get a bit heavy at times, but it is so lovely and insightful and I really enjoy listening to it.

Last, but certainly not least, is the podcast I have most recently begun listening to: Nerdette. As the name suggests, this podcast is two ladies needing out about TV, books, movies, games, music, and everything else awesome in life. Since I just recently discovered it I’ve been going back and listening to the backlist (is it called a backlist for something like this? Who cares, that’s what I’m calling it) of episodes. I cannot even begin to express how much I love this podcast. Everyone involved is great (it’s hosted by Tricia Bobeda and Greta Johnsen, but they have other contributors and guests) and they talk about fun things in such an interesting and often lighthearted way. They fully embrace everything that’s awesome about being a nerd and loving the things you love whole-heartedly and that’s something that I can always get behind.

SO. Those are the podcasts I’m listening to right now. What podcasts do you love? Which should I add to my ever-growing list? Do you stick to a certain type of podcast (bookish, comedy, advice, etc.) or do you roam free from category to category?

I read all the time and in a perfect world, someone would pay me to do that. We don’t live in a perfect world, but I still have a pretty kickass job. As you may recall from my post Cataloguing NYC via PHL from over a year ago (WHAT), I am working with the Gotham Book Mart Collection. There are so many amazing things in this collection, I couldn’t even begin to tell you — but I do post a lot of the cool things I see on my other social media accounts (hint hint).

Anyway, the point of this post is to tell you that I wrote a thing about a piece in the collection for one of the library’s blogs. You can read it at the Provenance Online Project. And after you’re done reading my post, you should peruse the rest of the site. There’s a bunch of fascinating stuff up there!

The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour started out with a bang. A loud, explosive bang with colors and light and heat. But as our protagonist Zal gets more “normal,” I got less interested (I’m going to skip right past what that says about me). The biggest draw for me was the parallels of his life with the Shahnameh, or The Book of Kings — an Iranian myth introduced in the preface — and how things worked on the fringes of reality.

A huge event hangs over the majority of this book, and while I get that that’s the point, it was sort of unsettling. There’s what we know happens in real-life history, but the book has this aura of surreality that made me wonder if maybe, just maybe things would play out a bit differently.

I’m being vague on purpose because I found it interesting (if stressful) to watch it all unfold and slowly figure things out, so I don’t want to deprive anyone of that.

I did really enjoy this book, I guess it’s just a weird feeling since I absolutely loved the beginning.

I feel like I’ve been kind of negative recently and it’s bumming me out, so instead of prolonging it I’m just going to briefly mention the books I’ve read recently, but that, for whatever reason, didn’t totally thrill me.

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris is sharp and raw and I read it very quickly, but it just wasn’t for me. In my reading life I don’t tend to shy away from difficult subjects, but it felt disjointed and like things were thrown in for shock value. So yeah, not my thing.

Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing is also a short book, but it took me much longer to read. I think my biggest obstacle was really the style. Some people really love the way this book is written, but my brain just couldn’t parse it. In addition to the style, I didn’t fully connect with the story or characters.

It pains me a little bit to say that I didn’t love Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend. There were parts that really did grab me and keep me enthralled and then other sections dragged and felt aimless. The book wasn’t about what I thought it was going to be about, but it was like it didn’t want to admit it. Add in some uncomfortable race stuff (it’s set in the south in the 60s-ish) and this was another miss in my book.

So there you go. Some of my recent no-love books. Onward to more excitement.

I picked up Will Chancellor’s A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall after seeing it pop up on a couple of “Best of 2014″ lists. It was also short-listed for the Tournament of Books, so there was some promising buzz and I was intrigued.

The book started out really well for me, but as it progressed I found the characters to be less sympathetic and significantly less interesting. Much of the conflict that occurs in the book felt so contrived and farcical. By the end of the book it starts to get interesting again, but it certainly doesn’t make sense.

Maybe this just diverged too much from where I expected the narrative to go, but a huge chunk of this book (let’s say the middle third or so) was just not up my alley. I think I wanted more mythology and less young, possibly sociopathic artistic life.

…Reading that back to myself, that sounds like something I would normally go for. I’m clearly at a loss. Is there some fancy scientific machine that can scan me while reading and tell me why I do or do not enjoy a particular book? That would be splendid, I’ll take two thanks!

Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist was mesmerizing and unexpected and exactly what I wanted without my even realizing it.

I’m a big fan of historical fiction and I really enjoy books set in less common time periods and locales. The Miniaturist takes place in seventeenth century Amsterdam, beginning when 18-year old Nella arrives in the city to join her husband Johannes and his unusual household.

Nella is excited by the prospect of her new life, but it isn’t what she expected. Soon after her arrival, Nella’s husband presents her with a gift: a luxurious cabinet-sized replica of the house. Nella contacts a miniaturist in order to furnish her cabinet and with that falls headlong into the web of secrecy and wonder surrounding the household, her new family members, and the city at large.

The Miniaturist is by turns spooky, beautiful, and heartbreaking. There is so much packed into this book and it’s just lovely. I’m so glad that I got a copy of it back a BEA 2014 and I highly recommend it.


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