The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

Purchased at the Book Depository

I will admit that I abandon few books. My reasoning is that once you start a volume you owe the author the obligation to finish it. Unless, of course, as happens rarely, the author himself breaches that contract. And on page 202 (out of 307) I abandoned this one. After a couple of a hundred of dreadfully boring, sanctimonious pages on what it might be like to be Jewish, the following quote was all that I could take:

But if you’re asking me whether circumcision as a means of inhibiting the sexual impulse is specifically Jewish, I would say not.

Anthropologically speaking, it isn’t primarily about sex anyway, except in so far as all initiation ceremonies are about sex. It’s about cutting the apron strings. What is Jewish is interpreting the circumcision rite in the way Maimonides does. It’s he — the medieval Jewish philosopher — who would wish us to be more restrained and imagines circumcision as the instrument. But I have to tell you it has never worked on me.

And did not work on me either.

I haven’t finished this book but I have read enough to say that it has no place on the Booker longlist. It is dreadful. I don’t rubbish books on this site, but this is one that deserves the full rubbishing. And if you want to read a novel about being Jewish, Philip Roth has more than a dozen that are better than this one.

Let’s start with the original conceit from the author –“Finkler” is the name of one of the central characters, but the narrator uses it as a handy alternative to “Jewish”. Would you have bought this book if it was called “The Jewish Question”? Probably not, and if that was your interest, there are far better alternatives. If you are Jewish, you would be embarrassed by the convention; if you are not (that would be me), it verges on the painful.

Jacobson “frames” his book with three characters. Libor is in his 90s, Jewish and his wife has just died — he is in heavy mourning. Finkler (yes, he represents everything that is Jewish) is a generation behind — a successful “philosopher”, he is the CNN version of success in our time, he is the spokesperson for ASHamed Jews. Treslove is the third, currently earning his living by hiring himself out to parties as a “double” — Brad Pitt or whatever.

Treslove “wants” to be Jewish. Libor, ready to die, is happy in his circumstances. Finkler exploits his background. Duh?

I would like to say there is more to this book, but there is not. The three characters wander along, we have incidents of alleged anti-Semitism, there is quite a bit of not very good sex, and a lot of thoughts about being Jewish, none of which are useful to those of us who are not. I am not a religious person and admit I react badly to fiction about religion — perhaps this book’s greatest strength is that I felt badly for any Jew that it has been published.

When I don’t like a book, one of the first things I do is consider who might like it. I cannot imagine who would find value in this book — and if you do, please say why in the comments. And I have not read the last 100 pages, so if there is something there that I missed, please let me know.

What bothers me more than anything else is that this is the only Bloomsbury Press book that made the longlist. The jury thinks that it is better than Even The Dogs? Or The Memory of Love? Or Chef?
And all of those are from the same publisher. What on earth was this hapless jury thinking?

Regular visitors here know that I have found few books this year that I think are worthy of the Booker. But I must say, after dredging my way through two thirds of this dreadful novel, I have to wonder about the qualifications of this year’s jury crew. So far, I’d say their performance is approaching the down-side of hopeless. It isn’t that there have not been great books — they have just failed to see them.

EDIT: I promised to go back to The Finkler Question if it made the shortlist and I have — and this time I did get to the end. While I will say that my original post was perhaps a trifle excessive, I can’t say that my overall opinion has changed much.

Those who like the novel find its opening funny (and the Booker jury seems to have that opinion) but I did not. Clever, yes, and I can see why some would find it funny — alas the humor passed me by. I can’t help but think that that affected my judgement of the rest of the book. I found the latter half cumbersome and tedious. Jacobson does develop his three characters, but I was not very interested in any of them. Despite not finding the humor, his set-up of the three had potential for me, but it was not realized. Instead, the back half of the book read more like a lecture.

Certainly, it is not the first time I have been out of step with a Booker jury on a shortlist book. And I don’t think it will be the last.

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60 Responses to “The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson”

  1. Kerry Says:

    I cannot recall what blurb might make me think I would like this book. I am not particularly religious either and, so, a book about what it means to be religious in a particular way sounds very unappealing.

    The quote is a very strong piece of evidence in support of your conclusion.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve never rated Jacobson, others do and I wish them joy of him. Ouch though Kevin. It just sounds clumsy.

    Also, the writing is terrible. The insertion into the middle of a sentence of an explanation of who Maimonides is, is there really no other way that could have been managed? Did it need to be done at all? Could he not have assumed someone interested enough to read the book would probably already know?

    Another also, it has nothing to do with cutting the apron strings, it’s a hygiene issue and perhaps a group identity signifier. I suspect he knows that perfectly well.

    Amateur psychology, presuming to speak for an entire people (and worse, doing so badly) and clumsy writing.

    Well done on getting so far. It won’t be going on my TBR list though.

  3. Isabel Says:

    Why is it on the Booker list? Do they need diversity of religion?

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Jacobson’s long had an easy time from critics.

    I may dig around for a positive review that would shed some light, by way of interesting counterpoint. They’ll have included it because they thought it one of the finest works of literature of the year. No more and no less. That may raise questions about their qualifications as Kevin notes, but several of them must genuinely rate this and if so others likely do too.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I did do a quick search and found some positive reviews, mainly saluting Jacobson’s chutzpah. On that front, I would say Roth, Bellow and even Michael Chabon leave him far behind. As a number of other readers on other sites have pointed out, a major problem with the book is that it is very boring. The set-up premise — three males, one in his 90s, the other two approaching senior citizenship — is interesting and has potential. But then it wanders off into no-person’s land — and after the halfway point becomes quite tedious.

    John Self has raised the point elsewhere that this year’s jury may have a bias towards recognizing those who have been overlooked in the past (Jacobson, Tremain, Levy and even Mitchell would qualify on that front — and I haven’t got to Dunmore yet). I did try Kalooki Nights and abandoned it as well (mainly because it just had no appeal, whereas this one is close to offensive).

    I do acknowledge that the jurors must have thought this was one of the best books of the year. I have no idea how they reached that conclusion.

  6. dovegreyreader Says:

    Still smarting here from the omission of Even the Dogs from the long list Kevin and that smart goes deeper with each successive book I’m reading this year.
    I have to say I loved Kalooki Nights, thought it achieved something very clever and I said so at the time, which I now see was 4 years ago, I may lose the will to live over it all this year and Finkler and I may never get to meet.
    I’m eagerly awaiting your thoughts on Room…

  7. winstonsdad Says:

    I m not a fan of him partly because I alkways found him a little smug and over critical when he has been on art shows on the Tv and radio ,not sure why he made the booker ahead of say amis ,I won’t be reading this unless I see it really cheap and have the time ,The only book of his I read I found a little naval gazing in places ,all the best stu

  8. kimbofo Says:

    Well, Kevin, why don’t you tell us what you really think? ;-)

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: I am with you on Even The Dogs — how the jury could choose this one and ignore McGregor is beyond me. Room has been read and finished (that puts it well ahead of this one) but I am still considering my thoughts.

    Stu: “Smug” is a good word (and I am not applying it to his TV appearances). I felt throughout the parts of this book that I did read that I was being lectured down from on high — that works if the author has something to say but when it is all piffle it really, really grates.

    Kimbofo: The only other abandoned book that I reviewed on this site was Michael Thomas’ Man Gone Down, which, of course, went on to win the IMPAC that year — and if you check the thread inspired some very good comments from readers who like modernism more than I do. I am certainly willing to hear other opinions about this book, but I do note that none have shown up so far. And given my record, you might want to bet this one for the Booker. I will, of course, be howling at the moon in that case. :-)

  10. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: How many are there left to go?

    I looked at Even the Dogs over at Amazon and found a lacklustre review but since two people mention it here, what gives?

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: My review of Even the Dogs is here. It certainly belongs on the longlist — I would have a tough time deciding between it and Galgut as my current personal favorite. My guess is that it was just too grim for this year’s jury. And I will also acknowledge that some readers whom I respect also found it wanting. I am guessing, but I think even they would find it light years better than this novel.

    I have read Room (review up soon) which means I have four left to go — Warner, McCarthy, Murray and Dunmore. I only have the Warner in hand so that will be next up — McCarthy and Dunmore have been shipped from the UK so they should be arriving soon. I wanted the three-volume version of Skippy Dies and it has an extended shipping date here in Canada — I may not get to it until after the shortlist is announced.

    And, given my disappointment with so many of the Booker titles so far, I can’t wait to get to Canadian books and the Giller Prize. I have four or five stacked up and will be pouncing as soon as the Booker list is cleared.

  12. SFP Says:

    Heavy sigh. I hate to read a review like this on the very day my copy of the book arrives in the mail. Especially when it’s for a book that hasn’t even been published in my country so there’s no chance I can take it to a bookstore and trade it in for store credit.

  13. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin I think,speaking for myself, we owe you and anyone else overseas a debt of embarrassed gratitude for flogging through this year’s Booker with such determination. I know Canadian authors have contributed but I still feel the buck stops with us and our judges, perhaps one year they’ll choose other than our ballet dancers, comedians and TV personalities for this thing and come looking over your way. Only seems fair really especially as you tolerated one of ours on the Giller last year.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: The UK rep on the Giller last year (Victoria Glendenning) was very good — she made some naughty statements about Canadian books, but they were closer to the truth than most would like to admit (I posted a picture of a “toque” and get several hits a day, hence introducing people to literature). And I am please to reveal that this year’s Shadow Giller Jury will again be an international affair — Trevor Berrett from themookseandthegripes has signed on for another year and there is no way that Alison Gzowski (on her way to Newfoundland to check out writing there) and I will give up our spots. We may have to expand the shadow jury in future years as no one seems to be willing to leave it.

  15. Kirsty Says:

    I had no immediate plans to read this book, and I certainly don’t now. To be honest, I still have an untouched copy of ‘Kalookie Nights’ at home that I occasionally look at then put back on the shelf. That said, I quite like reading books about people’s religious lives, probably because I am in no way religious myself nor can I imagine what it’s like to be so. I’m genuinely curious about those who are.

    But, Kevin, I have to ask about the quotation under the blog title, which I hadn’t noticed until this morning. Are we talking the same H. Jacobson, and if so, is it taken from a book, or have you come under his direct glare?

  16. My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: Aug. 11, 2010 « Hungry Like the Woolf Says:

    [...] answers The Finkler Question with a resounding “NO” and, in a prior post, makes it clear that In a Strange Room is [...]

  17. Mary Gilbert Says:

    Johnathan Beckman has provided a fairly critical review of this novel in The Literary Review though he does seem to have made it to the end. So far this year I’ve only thrown aside one novel in despair – Jennifer Johnston’s The Illusionist which , unlike most readers – I found quite dreadful. Well the debate on the Booker nominations is becoming highly entertaining! I’ve just seen John Self’s review of Emma Donahue’s book and look forwrd to your own review. Normally I order a couple of the Booker nominations but so far I’ve held back. I do like Damon Galgut but I’m finding that his novels are becoming increasingly Kafkaesque. I do have a copy of Skippy Dies which I bought before it was nominated and see it has had good reviews on the blogs – somehow it doesn’t sound like the kind of novel that will win the Booker though.

  18. John Self Says:

    I am going to defend Jacobson since, based on Kevin’s review, one might well think that he (Jacobson, not Kevin ;-) ) is a charlatan whose writing has no qualities worth appreciating. And that may well be true for The Finkler Question, but I will try to read it myself nonetheless.

    Jacobson is, on one level, a great writer. However as someone who would identify himself as a fan of his, I would accept that that level is probably not “novelist”. He is great at comic rants and verbal felicities which (in the words of one critic on his very good novel The Mighty Walzer), “gives a pleasure akin to humour even when it’s not actually funny.” Several of his novels are actually funny, the best sustained of which is No More Mister Nice Guy (Jacobson rightly reckons that the sex scene with an Ethopian prostitute in that book is the funniest thing he has written).

    Later books, which would include Who’s Sorry Now? (also longlisted for the Booker) and The Making of Henry do show a development away from tight comic scenes loosely linked, and towards the more meandering, discursive prose which has featured predominantly in his last two novels (and, it seems, this one too). Who’s Sorry Now? and The Making of Henry do contain much to delight, but it spreads itself increasingly thin as the book goes on. Nonetheless, to satisfy him that Jacobson’s not a total chancer if nothing else, I would urge Kevin to read, if he can get hold of it, the first 30 pages of The Making of Henry which I think is a beautifully sustained piece of writing not far off the standard of Roth on a good day.

    Jacobson’s last two novels, Kalooki Nights and The Act of Love, bored me dreadfully and I did not finish them. And I agree with Max Cairnduff that he gets an easy ride from the critics. But he is not, I think, to be dismissed entirely, even if (in Michael Moorcock’s words, giving one of the less enthusiastic responses to Kalooki Nights) he’s “a great anecdotalist, but a lousy storyteller.”

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I appreciate that Jacobson history, John — I meant the non-review as a criticism of the book not his life work (since I have not read any of his previous books although I did unsuccessfully try Kalooki Nights). From your opinion of his last two novels, my guess is that he is continuing a downward arc. I did know that he had a reputation for humor and there are occasional moments in the early part of The Finkler Question where that spark shows, but they are few and far between.

    My comparison, then, would probably be John Irving. I think his early works (Garp, Owen Meany, Hotel New Hampshire) are exceptional to this day — but his last four or five novels have not been good at all.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kirsty: *blush* You are new here so I have to admit that I make up the quotes under the blog title myself (and change them every couple of weeks). I am quite sure the Mr. Jacobson, the author, is not paying me any attention. The H. Jacobson in the blog quote is Henry, a local rubbish collector.

  21. Cheryl Collins Says:

    I’m feeling increasingly relieved that better minds than I are giving me an excuse to save money on books by not buying so many of the longlist, perhaps all of us over here should read the Giller novels to cheer ourselves up. There were several novelists on the list who for various reasons I hadn’t got round to reading before and I’ve been disappointed with all of them.

  22. Kirsty Says:

    Aha! Very good! :)

  23. rickp Says:

    Kevin,

    I’m almost finished the 3 book version of Skippy Dies. I did something that I don’t do as often as I used to and purchased it from a physical bookstore. It was just at an Indigo store in Toronto.

    If you want it prior to shortlist, I suggest you check the physical Indigo inventories in your area. I think you’re in Calgary. Indigo shows copies available in Indigo Spirit in TD Square or Chapters in the Chinook Centre.

  24. Maylin Says:

    Kevin, thanks so much for wading through this longlist so the rest of us don’t have to!

    I’ve read the Mitchell and liked it better I think than you did, although it’s not my favourite Mitchell book. And I agree with you about the Galgut – he might just be the dark horse. At any rate, I’d certainly like to see him shortlisted. I’m halfway through the McCarthy and quite enjoying it, despite some of the creepiness, but I loved Remainder and Men in Space, and McCarthy is very good on endings, so I look forward to how he will finish C and also to your review. Of the rest of the longlist, Donaghue, Dunmore and Murray are enticing me the most. But it’s a pretty full fall for Canlit and I think (hope) the Giller longlist will prove to be an interesting one. I love Ali Smith’s writing so I’m really excited to see what her contribution will be as a judge. I have no doubt that Room will be on the longlist for sure.

  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    rickp: In fact I tried that just yesterday and for some reason the Indigo store finder feature wasn’t working for me — thanks for doing my research and I will check with Chapters Chinook today.
    Cheryl, Maylin: It has been a rather strange Booker year for me so far. Except for Finkler, none of the books are bad — it’s just that most of them don’t rise above the ordinary. I’ll be interested in seeing how the jury winnows to a short list. And I am very much looking forward to Giller season. The spring featured some very good first novels and the late summer/fall lists look to be very strong.

  26. John Self Says:

    Having defended Jacobson in a general sense above, allow me now to defend him specifically on at least a small part of this book. I have read the first 50 pages and am thoroughly enjoying myself. Kevin, what were you thinking to describe the first two hundred pages as “dreadfully boring” and “sanctimonious”? It’s funny! It’s sad! It’s eloquent on the loss of love and ‘the only end of days’. What more could we reasonably ask for?

    But OK. Colette Jones, as I think she is known round these parts, liked the first half of the book at least as much I seem to so far, and ended up disliking the second half. So may I. But if I do, then the first half – the first fifty pages even – will have been well worth it nonetheless.

    Consider this a public service announcement to those who may be tempted to try Finkler but are dissuaded by Kevin’s view that he “cannot for the life of me find anything of interest in the book” (quoting not from your post above but from Palimpsest). To those people I say: give it a try. You just might like it.

  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: Outside of observing that I did not laugh once in the opening pages (which I do think are better), I’ll hold my tongue for now. But be more than willing to engage later.

  28. Colette Jones Says:

    I wouldn’t say I disliked the second half, but it wasn’t very funny, and is much more expository in nature. It seems like a different author wrote Part Two.

    It will probably still make my shortlist. It certainly made me think about what it might be like for Jewish people who aren’t particularly religious. I mean, I can say I’m not Catholic anymore and no one questions that. It seems the Jewish are Jewish no matter what.

    Kevin, you admit to reacting badly to fiction about religion, but I don’t think this is about religion.

    • John Self Says:

      Kevin, you admit to reacting badly to fiction about religion, but I don’t think this is about religion.

      I was going to make that point too, Colette, but didn’t in case the book did suddenly start being about religion on page 51 (or page 251).

  29. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette, John: I certainly did think the book took a turn to very much being about a notion of being Jewish (and I agree that is more than just a religion) and not much more. Surely when you are quoting Maimonides on circumcision, you have moved into that territory (and have every right to if that is what you are making your book about). I thought the first part, where he is establishing the characters, had potential (although, unlike Colette, I didn’t find it funny) because the three were rather interesting. I found they became secondary to some other agenda as the book went on and it was not nearly as interesting.

  30. John Self Says:

    Well, there’s no gainsaying laughter, Kevin (or its absence): if you don’t find it funny, it’s not funny. All I can say is that I’m now on page 100 and am still loving it, and finding something to mark in the margins (usually for its wit) on more or less every page. Indeed my constant stopping to get the trusty pencil out (having a baby around means no sharp objects left sitting around!) has slowed down my reading of the book considerably – though perhaps that forced reduction in pace has enhanced my pleasure also.

  31. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: Please keep checking in. Since this novel obviously passed me by, I am delighted that visitors here get the chance for an informed opinion that offsets my rant. And I do promise to give the novel another try if it does make the shortlist.

  32. Tom C Says:

    Well, I read it and gave it 4 stars out of five. It seems pretty well-written to me, but the Treslove character was just too introspective and rather “whiny” – I wanted to give him a kick! I completely agree with you that there is little that would appear to be worthy of the Booker this year – and indeed the long-list is very poor. I don’t know what’s gone wrong this year.

    My review is at http://snipurl.com/10qtie in case you’re interested.

  33. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom C: I saw your review and thanks for the link — since I did not finish it, I should not be discouraging those who did.

  34. Lee Monks Says:

    One thing certain to make me laugh (and Jacobson manages it more often than not to be fair) is the disparity in opinion on books such as this. And my laughter is in no way anything other than that of amused confoundment. I loved the Jacobson: it was a warm bath of a book. And, as mentioned, I feel the same about the McGregor, Kevin, as you do about this, and that’s wonderful in a way. Never mind the Booker – try predicting responses to the longlist! It will be very interesting to see what the panel comes up with – I agree that there is scope there for this to have been the most disastrous set of judges yet – and I’d imagine neither the Warner or Jacobson will make it. Perhaps the book that everyone seems to be aligned on – the Galgut – will win? That’d surely be too much to hope.

  35. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I agree — the most interesting books are often the ones that provoke the most disagreement. Given the diversity of the longlist, it will be interesting to see how the jury cuts it in half. I’m not even going to try to guess the winner until I see that next step.

  36. John Self Says:

    I sense a complete cognitive mismatch, as it were, between Kevin and me on this one. He couldn’t see how anyone would get anything out of the book; I couldn’t see how anyone could get nothing from it. Still, as Victoria Wood says, if we all had the same tastes reading-wise, we wouldn’t need revolving doors at the Central Library. For what it’s worth – not to persuade Kevin but to suggest to others above that this is a book which they may find not entirely without merit – my review is here.

  37. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for that link, John. It’s not as though there haven’t been occasions when I loved a book that others hated.

  38. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’ve fulfilled my promise to return to The Finkler Question and did complete it on this effort. I can see why some people like the book, but I am not one of them.

  39. leemonks Says:

    Well, at least you gave it another go. I did the same re: McGregor with similar results, although I’m less in the know as to how loved that book is than I was before. Still…

  40. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I am one of those who liked the McGregor a lot, but I can understand why others don’t. I think comparisons with the Jacobson are fair (even though the two novels are very different). If you get into the rhythm of either book early, it becomes a very good book — if you don’t, the whole thing seems pointless. Which is an indication to me that both authors took risks.

    I have also wondered if I would have reacted better to The Finkler Question if I had had more exposure (well in my case any exposure) to Jacobson’s public personality. My impression from comments and reviews is that he is a very good interview and a humorous tv subject (something that can’t be said of all authors). Perhaps if I had a view of him as a “persona”, I would have found the humor in the first part of the book that others did — and I do think that would have influenced my overall reaction a lot.

  41. leemonks Says:

    It’s certainly possible, Kevin. I urge you to check out interviews (televised or otherwise) with Jacobson – he’s such a gruffly avuncular wit of a man (who, in the last interview of his I read, from The Guardian, he mocked his early James-mimicking attempts at a novel – ‘They were all set in country houses for f**ks sake. Pity I’d never been to one.’) who would seem to be impossible to dislike. And The Mighty Walzer is where I’d invite anyone to start – or perhaps restart in this case. Kalooki Nights seems to polarise even staunch Jacobson groupies.

  42. Max Cairnduff Says:

    A Guardian article that may interest you Kevin:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/sep/28/howard-jacobson-booker-novel

    The concerns are the ones I had as it happens, though mine aren’t based on a reading of the novel.

  43. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Max — it is a very interesting analysis and far more thoughtful than my rant on a book that I did not like.

  44. roamingolivia Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. I am actually just totally confused about why this made it, and I found your blog by Googling Finkler Question + terrible. I plan to blog on this later today.

    Here’s my original review of it: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/114180823.

  45. Jenny Says:

    Kevin,

    I read your full review and I must agree.

    I’m curious, because I found myself wondering if was a gendered response on my part. Julian Treslove is such an unrelenting asshole, I just really disliked him and the treatment of women in the book. It was just an absolute slog for me. There was nothing redeeming in it.

    Strangely, a few weeks after reading Finkler, I read Amsterdam—another Booker Prize winner that I hated. This in general wasn’t a good year for award winners, though. I also found “Lord of Misrule” completely unreadable. However, I did learn one lesson from the Finkler experience. I hated the book the whole time I was reading it and wouldn’t let myself quit. I was *sure* it would get better. It didn’t. So when I started Lord of Misrule and hated it, I just let it go.

    From now on, my own personal Finkler Question will always be: at what point is this book so awful that I can abandon it?

  46. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Jenny: I didn’t even get to being upset with the treatment of women, since so many other things were already making me angry. That is not meant to say that it wouldn’t be cause for concern, just that my agenda was already full. In defence of Jacobson, those who like the novel find humor or comedy in it — and that escaped me completely.

    As for Lord of Misrule, we part company — it was one of my favorites of the year. Then again, I’m an old racetracker so that might have had something to do with it.

    • Jenny Says:

      Lord of Misrule felt like inside baseball. As someone who knows nothing about horses, it was literally unreadable.

      I’m not one for abandoning books either. But I am also a very fast reader, and I think that’s why. Even the longest books I can plow through pretty quickly. Interestingly, I felt that urge to give up in a lot of this year’s Tournament books—Skippy Dies and Super Sad True Love Story along with Lord of Misrule and Finkler. In the end, I actually finished 3 of those 4.

      I think part of my current problem, though, is reading stamina. My son is 7, and I really didn’t read anything more taxing than The New Yorker for about 6 of those years. My new year’s resolution has been to read more, and I’ve been so happy. But I’m different as a reader, too. I used to never abandon books, but now I the urge to give up is sharper. I already lost 6 years of reading time—is this book worth it?!?!

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I’d say that makes sense — I know if I was raising a child, I’d be much more selective in my reading (and would be abandoning more books). I admire you for your resolution.

  47. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have to support Jenny on Amsterdam. It’s the novel that made me stop reading McEwan.

    The question on when to abandon is an interesting one. I have had novels turn around at the end making what went before worthwhile. Pnin by Nabokov plays with irritating the reader as I recall.

    Still, Pnin plays with irritation but it’s clear the reward will be there. For me I think I abandon when I realise that I no longer care at all. Even if the author pulls something out of the hat it doesn’t matter. Nothing, not the characters, the prose, the premise, the pacing, nothing interests me enough to read another page. At that point I won’t force myself to. There are no gold stars for finishing books after one leaves school.

    It happens rarely thankfully, but when it does I can abandon a novel I’m 90% through without a qualm. After all, the time needed for that remaining 10% could be used for a novella or somesuch.

  48. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I abandon very few novels because there is usually a good reason why I have started them in the first place. Actually, probably more than half are prize-listed novels (the most recent being To The End Of The Land by David Grossman which was on the NBCC shortlist). And even then it is usually because “not caring” has moved into “being annoying”. Having said that, stubborn curiosity has probably got me to the end of a number of novels that others would have abandoned. And you are quite right, I am probably not better off for the persistence.

  49. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I admit Kevin, if I found myself abandoning very many I would reassess how I pick books. Like you I give a fair bit of thought to what I read.

    Still, mistakes occasionally happen. It’s a key reason though why I don’t follow the prizes. I’m glad others do because I find the posts interesting, but Kerry’s experience so far on the TOB (for example) is one I wouldn’t personally enjoy.

  50. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: One of the best things about the book blogging world is the way that it has enhanced (and, frankly, expanded) my pre-selection of books to read — and I would like to think I also contribute to that process with others.

    I do follow three prizes — Giller, Booker, IMPAC — because I have always been interested (and in the Giller case would like to provide a sample of the best of Canadian work for visitors here). I’d like to think that as part of that I alert readers who don’t want to try all of the longlists of each prize what ones would suit their interests. Kerry is certainly doing that for me with the ToB and I owe it to him for reading a number of books that I don’t have to read it.

    I think that extends well beyond prizes. You (and Guy) read much more genre/noir/crime than I do. I don’t venture a lot into those genres, so when I do (and I certainly do occasionally) I’d like to be assured of success. I’d add translated work to that as well — a number of bloggers read much more translated work than I do. Translation prize lists are far too long to be useful to me (I think the prizes are doing the authors and publishers a disservice with such long lists because they produce no new readers — a list of five probably would) so I need bloggers like you, Trevor and Guy to point me on the road. Which you have.

    The result is that I end up abandoning far fewer books that I probably would otherwise. Actually, if it weren’t for the blogging world, I would have a new category: books that I “sample” for 50-60 pages before deciding whether to complete them. (I think a number of bloggers who get unsolicited review copies are already doing that — all my ARCs come by my request.) In that case, I don’t think it’s “abandoning” but an extended version of leafing through the volume at the book store.

  51. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It’s been a real benefit for me too. An immediate example is John Berger who I’d in fact decided not to read until you persuaded me to the contrary. In fact he’s precisely the sort of writer I adore.

    I read a fair bit of translated fiction but I’m much weaker on the North Americans. Part of what I look to you and Trevor for is pointers to which ones I should check out. Kerry introduced me to Dos Passos. These are things I’m absolutely grateful for.

    Regarding translated fiction prize lists I agree by the way. They’re just overwhelming. A list of often unfamiliar names. I’m not sure that helps any of them particularly. I find them intimidating and translated fiction is a large percentage of what I read. For someone looking for a place to start it would be bewildering.

    Kindle is also useful for that sampling by the way. The free samples are in most cases a decent length (occasionally it’s a translator’s introduction and an essay and nothing more, but that’s unlucky). I don’t count those as books abandoned. Again, they’re just books sampled and frequently passed on.

  52. leroyhunter Says:

    Kevin, Max – just wanted to agree with your sentiments. Blogs like yours have become a really valuable resource for unearthing interesting new material and getting a steer on things I might not be sure about (such as The Finkler Question).

    Prizes are a funny one. I instinctively dismiss a lot of Booker stuff, but some of my favourite recent reads (Galgut, JG Farrell) have all had Booker recognition. IMPAC tends to be more eclectic, and I recognise the NA prize “brands” but don’t know enough about them to judge the significance of their choices. Again, the blog debates add much to the basic long- and short-listing. I must say though that the whole ToB thing leaves me cold (and a little puzzled).

  53. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I follow the ToB because I find the discussion interesting (and the one judge format produces some interesting comparisons), but I will admit it is not a source for books that I haven’t already read. They tend to include in their list of 16 books a number that I have heard about and already rejected (Nox, Next and Super Sad True Love Story all fall into that basket this year) — and the tournament last year and so far this year has confirmed that judgment. In fact, that is probably the most positive aspect of the format: it’s the only prize where you get an informed opinion on why one book prevails over the other (which is often enough to convince me that I don’t like the winner very much either). That makes it a useful source for books not to spend time on, since I probably pay more attention to newly-published works than most readers do.

  54. Mary Gilbert Says:

    Lagging behind as usual I’ve only just begun to read this book and after 68 pages I’m going to stop. Phew, what a relief! Now I don’t have to spend any more time with Julian Treslove and his tedious friends. Am I becoming an increasing sour puss or was this novel completely unfunny, uninteresting and not even very well written? If I want an amusing portrait of an irritating middle aged man I prefer T C Boyle’s portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women or the insufferable actor Ambrose Hilliard in Lissa Evans’s comic novel Their Finest Hour and a Half.

  55. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: Even if it is some months after the prize season, I am heartened that a reader whom I respect (that would be you) had the same reaction to this novel that I did. I have come to understand that some readers find humor in The Finkler Question — like you, I found much more irritation.

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