An Act of Self-Care
Books I Did Not Finish in 2021, and why
As a kid I took great pride in having finished reading every book I ever started. No matter how tedious or boring or confusing or poorly written, I couldn’t bring myself to “give up” on a book. This unbroken record managed to stand until my early twenties, when I made an attempt at reading The Grapes of Wrath because it was Important Literature and I felt like I really ought to read more classics.
I couldn’t do it.
Only a few pages in, the content was a level of dull I could not muster the will-power to tolerate. This, however, did not compel me to change my commitment to finishing books. For years, The Grapes of Wrath held the status as The Only Book I Never Finished.
There were two reasons I wouldn’t quit on a book. First, it was a point of pride. I felt some kind of ego gratification in saying I had finished reading every book I ever started. Second, I didn’t think I was allowed to have an opinion on a book I hadn’t finished. So what if I found the first 100 pages dull, boring, terribly written, offensive, even? I believe that my dislike wasn’t valid unless I’d pushed through and read every single torturous bit of it.
And then I met my Unicorn and she made the important point that life is too unpredictable and short to spend time finishing books we don’t enjoy. No one else cared if I did or didn’t finish a book. Ultimately, I was ruining things for myself and myself alone by taking one of my greatest pleasures and turning it into something I had to endure to prove a point to no one in particular.
So I started to allow myself to not finish books I wasn’t enjoying. To not finish books where something didn’t make sense in a way that popped me out of the world. To not finish a book where I found the pacing too slow for my liking, or the content, from plot to characters was nothing but unpleasant. To not finish books where the casual (or not so casual) bigotry of the author was coming through.
In dropping this requirement to finish every book I started, I have become a more discerning reader. My criteria for books I DNF is personal, of course, as art is subjective and writing is a form of art. In 2021, my criteria was largely about how much enjoyment I was getting from any book I picked up since reading is one of my consistent sources of joy. I am not one to label and entire year, which is full of countless experiences, as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In the Gregorian year, 2021, we just happen to be two-years into a pandemic that an uncomfortable number of people are speaking about in the past tense. Things are generally hard, and personally, my life has seen a lot of upheaval in the last seven-months that made it all a lot harder.
As one member of my writing group said:
Not finishing books is an act of self-care.
It’s important that we give ourselves permission to put a book down. It’s not giving up on something, or failing. It’s about recognizing when something simply isn’t for us.
The following are five books I chose not to finish in 2021, and the reasons I have for why. The criteria for a book to make this list is that I read at least 30 pages of it (There were plenty of books where I read the first page, it didn’t vibe, and I moved on without recording it) over two or more days. In some cases, I actively discourage reading two titles because of bigoted content, but overall my intention is not to pass judgement on the authors or on anyone who enjoyed these books1. In addition to my reflection on why I DNF a book, I offer alternative titles when possible.
I share this for anyone struggling to read, struggling to find something nourishing on the page, as guidance for how to determine if a book is worth it for you.
May it be of benefit!
Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo
I wanted to like this book. The title is great. The synopsis hooked me. The concept was appealing. The execution however? After I reached the halfway point I had to admit I was incredibly bored. That, and I was a bit alarmed that the narrative shows a lack of understanding of how sexual orientation and gender identity work, although there are some cultural aspects I may not understand as a white Canadian. Because I’d reached the halfway point, I thought I might try to get to the end, but first I checked reviews that gave this book lower ratings. Consistently, folks shared that this book continued its slow pace, and so I set it aside and moved on.
Alas, I can’t come up with an alternative title to read from my own list of read books. That being said, I’ve heard that Detransition, Baby is a similar kind of narrative2 that explores how gender identity impacts our relationships, both inter- and intra-personal, although it doesn’t have the intersection of race and cultural expectations in Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab.
The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley
I was not many pages into this when the gender essentialism of it all became obvious and I immediately stopped reading. On top of the bigotry, it’s just poor world building to have a virus or disease or something that only effects one gender, nevermind that Whiteley presumes there are only two. Applying human-determined constructs to why or how some people contract something and others don’t doesn’t make sense. How would that work, exactly? Viruses and diseases, as Covid shows us on the daily, lack awareness of human designed social constructs.
For nuanced, powerful, and legitimately interesting dystopian fiction exploring rebuilding society, I recommend Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler. This series is my favourite of all of Butler’s work. I know the Parable books get all the glory, and they are very good, but I think Lilith’s Brood is her strongest work. I love the way she explores adaptation versus choice, the inevitability of change, and what it means to be human.
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
After reading Kawakami’s book, Heaven, which was well written albeit quite cynical and nihilistic, I went straight to reading Breasts and Eggs. When I reached the transphobia/homophobia at the end of chapter 3, I noped right out. I did some research3 and while the author has never spoken publicly about her stance on the existence of trans and queer folk, there are plenty of reviews and breadcrumbs from folks pointing to her as wilfully ignorant and trans/homophobic.
For some un-bigoted contemporary fiction exploring gender roles and expectations put on cis women in particular, I recommend Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia, With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, and The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed. The latter two are YA fiction, and as ever, I don’t believe a good book can be restricted to a particular age group.
Cross-hairs by Catherine Hernandez
I really tried with this one since it comes highly recommended by a lot of folks I admire and respect, but I simply couldn’t finish reading after the first 100 pages. This book is an intense bombardment of cruelty, violence, and hate crimes. It was too much of my fears as a queer person put down into an uncomfortably close and familiar context.
I wanted to like it because it’s set in Canada and it’s not often that we get stories of the impact of racism and colonialism in particular outside of the context of the United States. But it was clear very fast that I was not the audience for this book. It wasn’t exposing me to anything I don’t already know (far too well), nor offering up hopefulness for anyone who knows the violence of white supremacy, and cisheteronormativity. The only audience I could image for it would be the most sheltered kind of white straight cis person—as none of the willfully violent white supremacist types whose violence dominates the pages would be bothered to read such a book.
A much better alternative for the messages I believe were intended though Cross-hairs would be N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy. With her world building and characters, Jemisin presents an examination of oppressive systems, while also showing the possibility for liberation. Even in exile or while facing a global crisis, there can and will be joy, community, and solidarity. Jemisin balances a sense of possibility with uncertainty that does not give us a rose-coloured glasses image of the future, but also does not bombard the reader with constant, uninterrupted trauma.
Written in the Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur
I feel a bit funny about this one because I have some friends for whom this was one of their favourite books. It’s important to understand the relativity of what we enjoy. I don’t doubt that some of my favourite, most-loved books fall firmly on many people’s ‘Worst Book I Ever Read’ or ‘Why Did They Even Publish This?’ lists.
Okay, Written in the Stars. First, a caveat. I read a lot of different genres and have found myself enjoying ones I didn’t previously when I started finding the right kind of authors4, but alas, romance continues to be a genre I struggle with. This is probably because most romance caters to cis het folks and are often littered with red flag behaviour that hits too close to home. In the case of this book, even though it centres on two women, it was just way too weirdly heteronormative to me. The opening chapter is them meeting each other on a blind date. For a split flash of thirty seconds, they find one another physically, mutually attractive. After that, it’s entirely downhill because they have zero things in common. They are not just opposites. They are deeply incompatible. I wasn’t invested in them being together, nor did I see any reasonable scenario in which they could or should get together. And yet, the book insists on implying that a split second of physical attraction is a greater indicator of their ‘meant to be’ status than the facts that they are wildly different humans with entirely different sets of values. I just…couldn’t do it.
Thankfully, we live in a glorious age where more queer narratives are being published! Titles with slow-burning meant to be romances featuring queer characters I enjoyed way more with more feasible reasons why they can’t immediately be together include: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston5, The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimmons, The Falling in Love Montage by Ciara Smyth and Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell (the latter two of which made my recommendations list this year).
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I appreciate that some folks will intentionally ready stuff with bigoted content as a way of understanding bigotry so they can better fight it. If this is you, I suggest doing all you can to read said content in a way that does not result in funding the bigotry—deplatforming public figures who use their platforms to perpetuate violence against other humans looks like not buying their books, among other things.
Alongside Internet searches, I use the Shinigami Eyes plugin for checking on whether an author is a transmysoginist. This is something I’ve been pre-emptively doing ever since I was taken off guard by the transphobic twist at the end of Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, which I did finish because it was brilliantly written and the bigotry didn’t rear its head until the last chapter. Truly, I was going to give this book a five star rating until I reached the last chapter. The lesson I’m learning is, with British authors in particular, be wary that they are bigots using their platform to dehumanize trans folks.
Until about five years ago, I disliked science fiction. I could not get into it and the few sci-fi books I had read were a slog for me. And then I discovered Becky Chamber, N.K. Jemisin, Louise Erdrich, Anne Leckie, and of course, Octavia Butler. It’s not that I don’t like sci-fi. It’s that I don’t like sci-fi written by (and for) cis het white dudes.
I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t go into detail, but while I enjoyed this book immensely, the sexy times were really hard to read because they happen on a subway and 1. Gross. Gross, gross. So unsanitary. And 2. Public sex, even if no one is around, is just not my kink.