What Book Wasted Your Time?
What Book Moved You?
Let’s All Take A Quiz.

By PJ Parrish

Sue’s post yesterday on the need for creativity in our trying times got me to thinking — why has my urge to write anything gone pffft?  I figured it out — all my creative juices lately are going to helping me and my own stay sane.

Not easy in these times of cabin fever, quest for toilet paper, and real fears. I’m walking more than ever, and I gotta tell you, there’s been an unexpected joy in seeing my neighbors and friends out more. And this morning was really lovely — I was all alone with my dogs, a hovering dawn fog and a very loud symphony of birdsong. (Loud because there are no cars).

Yesterday, I ventured out to a toy store to buy a jigsaw puzzle. The sweet young clerk told me they are doing a bang-up business.  Seems even the kids are getting tired of video games and Scrabble is sounding pretty exotic.  I am looking for good things, small as they may be.

I am also reading more. Normally, I cleave to fiction but this week I started Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels. It is a history of our democracy, with every wart revealed and wonder exalted.  It’s beautifully written and very affirming.  We will get through this, Meacham says, we’ve endured worse. You don’t believe me? Well, here’s the sad story of Nathan Bedford Forrest…

Books are so vital right now. Whether you’re escaping to Treasure Island or retreating into the romance of Danielle Steele. (Although I’d vote that you should re-read Judith Krantz. She’s much funnier and very randy). I wish the libraries were not having to close right now.

So, forgive me today if I have no good writing advice. My mind is elsewhere. Let’s play a game instead.

One of my favorite stops in my Sunday New York Times is the By The Book feature in the book review. Famous folks are interviewed, asked the same questions week after week a la the format popularized by the great James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio. (“What sound do you love?” “What’s your favorite curse word?” “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?”)

This week in By the Book, Emily St. John Mandel was questioned. (She’s the author of one of my favorite books Station Eleven.)  So here are the questions, but I am going to give you my answers. That’s because I will never be famous enough to be asked but always wanted to be.  Please weigh in with your comments and answer any of the questions that move you!

What book are on your nightstand? The Meacham book, plus Robert B. Parker’s The Judas Goat. Just added a really ratty copy of Wuthering Heights that I found this week at the GoodWill. I figure it’s time.

What’s the last great book you read? Your first thought is usually your best one. I immediately grasped upon Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I still think about the people in that book sometimes.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, how?).  Somewhere foreign so I can’t understand anything on TV.  It’s raining. My dogs are snoring at my side.

What’s your favorite book no one else heard of?  Well, my tastes aren’t esoteric enough to dazzle anyone and I refuse to make something up to sound important. So I will recommend two: Jim Harrison’s memoir A Really Big Lunch. If you love cooking, wine and great writing, this is for you. (A tip from Jim: Don’t drink and cook at the same time. But if you must, only one glass of prosecco.)

Also, try Di & I by Peter Lefcourt.  Leonard Schecter, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, goes to London, meets the unhappy princess and they run off to travel across America in a mini-van, and end up running a McDonald’s in Cucamonga, California.  I’m a royalist and love books about the twisted Windsors. This made me laugh til I cried.

Which writers working today do you admire most? I will read a grocery list if Joyce Carol Oates writes it. Or maybe I am just envious of her work ethic. So that’s it. Your turn…

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you? This was easy.  My own first book, Dark of the Moon, written with my sister, remade a sibling into a beloved friend.

How do you organize your books? Roughly by subject. Crime fiction on one shelf, my dance books from days as a critic on another, etc.  My husband has shelf with rock biographies. I recommend Keith Richard’s Life because anyone who is more durable than Astroturf deserves to be heard.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing? Do I remember? Hell yes, I remember, because these books take up valuable time and energy and leave you angry for months for being so gullible, sort of like a bad blind date. So this gives me yet one more chance to trash Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. (I mentioned it in Jim’s Sunday post).  I love fiction set in old England. But this was first-person pretension and overwrought prose prettified with preface graphics of family trees. Which still didn’t help me keep all the guys named Thomas straight.  A friend told me I have to let this go and suggested I read Infinite Jest to regain some perspective.

What say you, guys? Your turn to talk about books. Stay safe. I know that sounds banal but sometimes banal, like rice pudding, is what works.


28 thoughts on “What Book Wasted Your Time?
What Book Moved You?
Let’s All Take A Quiz.

  1. How tempted am I to cry out the latim “Et tu, Brute?”, after your endorsement of Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels”?

    Very much so.

    I shall resist the temptation to delve into current US politics, nevertheless, though that seems increasingly hard to do around here, of all places. I used to think the problem was circumscribed to Saturday mornings, but, step by step, it seems to be claiming more and more victims along the week. Oh, well. It’s your – second person plural – blog, evidently. You do as you deem fit.

    Love your – second person singular – posts on craft, just so you know.


    Books that has moved me: “Atonement”, by Ian McEwan. I’ve gone through it no fewer than 10 times now. Never seems to have lost any of its power. Perfectly executed, it actually manages to pull off meta-narrative.

    Book that has wasted my time: “A memory called Empire”, by Arkady Martine.
    The praise this got baffles me. Boring, uneventful and, all in all, poorly written.

    Enjoy your homeboundness!

    • Ah, Atonement. I have been meaning to read that for years because so many friends whose taste I trust have loved it. Thanks for the reminder. I don’t have a Kindle but I guess I could…alas, order a copy from Amazon. Our only bookstore is closed as is our library.

      Thanks for dropping by and for the nice compliment.

      • You can read ebooks on any device, Kris. I have an iPad mini and a Nook tablet. Every platform has free apps for reading. I still prefer the Nook user interface far above the Kindle’s, but in a pinch, I will get a Kindle book. I get one free every month with my Prime account. (And almost all of those have ended up being “wasted all that time” reads, but I’ll forgive since the choices usually aren’t my preferred genre.)

        • Yeah, I have been meaning to get an ipad…was planning for my trip to France. But that is probalby not gonna happen. The trip, I mean.

  2. What’s the last great book you read?

    This one’s easy. The Curse She Wore by Jordan Dane. It’s her new one. Sucked me right in.

    Which writers working today do you admire most?

    Every single one of you on TKZ. You’re impressive and talented, and I feel blessed to spend time with you.

    Disappointing, overrated, just not good: Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

    Absolutely! I was so upset that I wasted my time and money. The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne violated ALL rules of structure. Having a naturalist as the protagonist could’ve been a fantastic idea, but the story that followed seemed a little too convenient. For example, the cops had no idea girls had even gone missing. Yet this naturalist guy was able to pinpoint with precision accuracy who they were and find their exact burial site in a matter of hours. He was never wrong! Not once. The worst part? The author never even gave the reader a chance to solve the mystery. The killer was NEVER mentioned till the naturalist figured it out, which he also did with ease. It’s been a year since I read it, and the book still pisses me off. 🙂

    • Oh dear. Sounds bad. Thanks for alerting us! Now take a deep breath and let go of your rage… 🙂

  3. I just dropped a book this week, but luckily it was in the first chapter so no loss (it drove me crazy when the first-person protag just sat on the curb and checked Instagram on the third page).

    A book I read all the way through that was a complete waste of time was Gone Too Long by Andre Dubus III. It was for a book club–I normally hate book clubs for this exact reason, but thought I’d give it a try, didn’t go to the first meeting. Was about a criminal released from jail twenty years later and his leftover family trying to heal. Thought it would be interesting, but a majority of the book was spent describing every gross thing imaginable about a person’s life. Seriously, every time I try to read adult contemporary, it’s full of crap (literally and crap writing). Makes me almost believe tha graphic detail is all an adult novel is about.

    • I agree. Page porn has made me quit reading many books, some of them well-written otherwise, with good stories and likable characters.

  4. Kris,

    “why has my urge to write anything gone pffft?”

    As writers, we may put too much pressure on ourselves to say something profound and meaningful but it just ain’t there. Not yet. Someday…

    I started The Minority Report by Philip K. Dick but had to put it down. It will be memorable but not right now.

    The overrated Goldfinch pissed me off. A decent 300-page novel stretched out to 800 interminable pages. Boring repetitions of drug-fueled malaise, an unlikable, weak protagonist, a pat ending that wasn’t earned.

    “Has a book ever brought you closer to another person” – What a lovely tribute to your sister and a successful writing partnership.

    • I started Goldfinch as well but it was infinitely put-downable. I was staying at a friend’s house and it was on her shelf. So I had a built-in reason to quit.

      Kinda liked the movie Minority Report. It was mildly diverting. Even forgave the fact it starred whats his name.

  5. Ha! Love this game…from six feet away…and since Washington is now (as of last night) under stay-at-home orders from the governor, I won’t stay long.

    My nightstand has my Kindle on it, so basically, my whole library is there. With a few exceptions on real live bookshelves in three other rooms in the house.

    The last great book I read. Do-dee-do…how do I choose? When Crickets Cry, by Charles Martin. The Pages of Her Life, by James L. Rubart. Or Havah, by Tosca Lee (for the umpteenth time, I might add.) Or any craft book by JSB-love the humor intertwined with succinct and practical teaching.

    My fave reading experience is on my reclining loveseat of an afternoon (after getting my word count in) in my home office, with my classical tunes playlist rippling in the background. And don’t forget the tea and crumpets at my side.

    I admire Charles Martin. He can make a beautiful paragraph out of a political speech. Now that’s a gift. He has a way of getting under the fingernails of a scene and scraping the last bit out, and making me like the muck I see.

    The last book that disappointed me didn’t take up much of my time because I could only get through the first couple of pages. I’d heard the story from the lips of the author himself, then bought his book at the back of the room. Highly anticipating the read, I was sorely dismayed to find he’d not had it edited. The two pages were filled with grammatical and spelling errors. I couldn’t take it. And it could have been such a great story! I haven’t opened it since.

    Well, it’s time to go. I’ll see myself out. 🙂

    • And thanks for dropping by. I’m enjoying the fact that I have never heard of many of the books you guys are mentioning…good and bad.

  6. Two books I love that very few people have heard of: Crow Lake by Mary Lawson (which I discovered because when Lianne Moriarity was interviewed on By The Book she said it was HER favorite undiscovered book) and Susan Henderson’s Up From the Blue. Both fairly short novels and both fascinating stories of unique, lovely, but seriously flawed families. Henderson’s is of a military family which when I think of it is a setting/family unit with vast potential for interesting dynamics which I rarely see in novels. And it’s got a protagonist who rivals Scout for most interesting pre-teen in an adult novel.

    • Thanks Maggie. Putting them both on my list. (which I keep in my iPhone now because I always hear about good movies, books or TV shows and forget to write them down.) My phone folder is called The Good Stuff (an homage to John D. McDonald).

  7. After 7 years and two and a half degrees in literature, I swore kinda like Scarlet O’Hara to never be bored again while reading a book so I toss or delete a bad book without finishing it. I’ve mainly remained true to that choice with the exception of research reading and books so bad I continued so I could autopsy them for my writing articles. The absolutely worst one generated five articles. It was from a major publisher, and the now bestselling writer has improved and has won lots of awards.

  8. I’m reading CHARM by Joseph Epstein. What’s nice is I read a review, went to my Overdrive app and checked out the ebook from the L.A. library. Took about 20 seconds from review to reading.

    Two physical books (I still like those). LEFT OF BANG (about Marine Corps Combat Hunter program) and THE RAINMAKER by Grisham, a re-read, going back to a good old legal thriller.

    Writer I admire? Got to be Koontz. So amazingly prolific and always trying to stretch, without a factory of co-writers to extend his brand.

    • Jim:
      Making a note of LEFT OF BANG, but also here to again name drop. Or redrop, I suppose. Just wanted to say Mr. Koontz is a truly nice guy, and sort of inspired my work ethic. He lived in the city in Orange County CA where I worked at the local PD. I worked graveyard for years, and I don’t know how many times I spoke to him when he would accidentally set off their house alarm when finishing up his “days” work…usually around 2AM. That dedication stuck with me, and has to this day. And he was funny, too. Or maybe punchy, by then. 🙂

    • Oh yeah, I second the motion on Koontz. I have never been disappointed by any of his books. And they are never the same. T. Jefferson Parker does that for me, as well. I see I gotta get me an iPad….I could be checking books out of my library that way.

  9. What book are on your nightstand? Ishi, the last of his tribe, American Fried by Calvin Trillin, Strike Back? The story of Mossad’s retribution for the Munich Massacre.

    What’s the last great book you read? Tough, Oh, “My Life on the Plains by George A. Custer. My great, great, great grandfather was an Indian fighter. I have his copy from the late 1880’s. I bought a new one. Hundred year old paper is a might fragile.

    Moved me? The Great Influenza. Scared the shit out of me. Now I get to live it.

    What’s your favorite book no one else heard of? Ishi, the last of his tribe. Heavenly Discourse. both were some of my father’s favorite books.

    How do you organize your books? by subject. One of the “win the lottery” projects is to “Dewey decimal” the house. We have about 4,000 books. Hiring a librarian will be involved.

    Disappointing, overrated, just not good: Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing? Left Behind. Any middle school English teacher has read better. Around page 50 it went flying across the room and into the trash. My wife asked why? The mass suicides of doctors who could no longer perform abortions
    was the deal breaker. Margaret Truman Murder at the Pentagon. The murderer was introduced 3 pages from the end of the book. I finished it over a trash can and then let go. A YA book by a long time friend. I won’t name the title. Flashbacks should be like watching tennis.

    • Doesn’t it feel great to fling a book? I was on a nice vacation at a cabin in the Michigan woods years ago, reading a thriller by a Famous Important Bestselling Author. Got to chapter 15 or so and there it was — a plot twist so out of left field, so non-organic, so cheap, that I yelled and heaved the paperback into the trees.

      I highly recommend this. But not to your Kindle. And make sure your window is open first.

  10. Thoroughly enjoyed Station Eleven. I’m looking forward to reading her new book – Glass Hotel.

    What’s on my nightstand: Besides multiple writing books – Currently rereading Mercedes Lackey’s Arrow of the Queen and ebook Deborah Harkness third book in her All Soul’s Trilogy The Book of Life. Listening to Faith Hunter’s 2nd book in Jane Yellowrock series Blood Cross. Waiting to be read – Robert Jordan’s #13 WOT Gathering Storm and J.R. Ward’s The Sinner. I just finished Patricia Brigg’s Smoke Bitten. Excellent and creepy.

    Last great book: Nonfiction was When Books Went to War and Last great series was Michelle Diener’s Class series.

    Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you? Interesting question. Most recently, hubby introduced kiddo to Captain Underpants. Since I can’t stand potty humor, it’s one book I won’t allow him to talk to me about. Star Wars no problem. Can talk all day about legend and canon.

    How are books organized? Haphazardly and double and tripled parked. By author if I can make room.

    Disappointing, overrated, just not good: Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing? The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was a disappointment as the kid was just too clueless, whereas The Boy on the Wooden Box was excellent. I loved Harris’s Stackhouse series but I couldn’t get into Midnight Crossing.

    Favorite book I think no one else has heard of: Hmm? Will it be insulting to that author if they think their unknown. Hopefully not. Thoroughly enjoyed The Black God’s Drums by P. Djeli Clark and wished she wrote more.

    Which writers working today do you admire most? Many, but if I had to chose one or two it would be Nora Roberts and James Rollins because I’ve read and reread all their stories.

    • I was going to save Glass Hotel for my trip to France, but that’s off so I guess I can order it now. Thanks for the great suggestions. And the chuckle over your domestic potty problem.

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