The Book Pages: When should you stop reading a book?

This question tends to divide readers: If a book doesn’t grab you, do you stop – or keep going until the end?

I was talking to Wendy Thomas Russell of Long Beach’s Brown Paper Press, who I met at last weekend’s Little Literary Fair. I’d mentioned a book I’d had problems with, but I’d read to the end (largely because it was short).

A journalist turned publisher, Russell said she used to feel like she had to finish every book she started, but not any more. She changed her mind after her friend, journalist Valerie Takahama, explained her strategy. (Takahama also used to do arts reporting at the Orange County Register.)

“She has no problems at all with stopping, with not finishing books,” said Russell of her friend. “She said that whether she is a chapter into a book, or nine chapters into a book, or literally one chapter away from finishing the book, if she loses interest in that book, she sets it down.

“She took control of the whole experience. You know, the book is not in charge, she’s in charge. And if this book is not right for her at this particular time, or if it’s just not right for her at all, period, she’s the one who gets to decide no,” said Russell. “That was very freeing to me to hear her say that. And I have taken that to heart very much since then.”

Wendy Thomas Russell of Long Beach’s Brown Paper Press at the LitLit book event. (Photo by Erik Pedersen)

Just as you’d turn off a movie or TV show that doesn’t appeal to you, Russell asked, Why stick with the wrong book when there are so many others to read?

“It’s overwhelming, how many great books there are out there,” said Russell, adding that she’d rather give more books a chance and finish fewer of them with the limited reading time she has. “It’s just depressing to think how few of them you will actually get to read.”

Where do you come down on the subject? I’d be interested to hear from readers. I can think of books I probably should have set aside, and some I’m glad I stuck with. I made several attempts on William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” before I got through it. That’s probably more the exception than the rule, though.

Still, probably every reader has had this happen: You have a much-anticipated book lined up to read next…only for you to bypass it in favor of something that you impulsively picked up at the bookstore or a Little Free Library.

Sometimes, you just need to read what you want to read.

For more about Brown Paper Press, which published “Hidden: Life With California’s Roma Families” by Cristina Salvador Klenz earlier this year and has Cheryl E. Klein’s memoir “Crybaby” coming next month, check out the website.

Jeremy Allen White stars in the new series “The Bear” (FX on Hulu), which premieres June 23. (Courtesy of FX)

We often mention TV, movie and streaming adaptations here, because, well, sometimes you need to stare at something other than a book. And while it’s often exciting to hear that a novel you like is getting adapted, that sometimes leads to the worrying thought: Oh no, they’re adapting a book that I like.

But this week, I wanted to mention one excellent streaming series that isn’t adapted from a novel, but it sure feels like it could be – it’s rich with detail, the writing is great and it’s an inventive look at a familiar space.

I’m talking about “The Bear,” of course. Set in a Chicago restaurant, the FX on Hulu series from Christopher Storer follows the return of son Carmy, a successful chef who’s come back to run the family business following his brother’s suicide. (I can’t remember how much of that is explained; the show just jumps into the story and you aim to keep up.) We wrote about the series when it premiered because it’s absolutely great: It’s intense, moving, and the story is fueled by the characters’ behavior rather than random writers’ room problems thrown at them. (So read Stuart Miller’s interview with star Jeremy Allen White if you haven’t.)

The dog faces down “The Bear.” (Photo by Erik Pedersen)

It’s so good I caught my dog watching it. While “even my dog likes it” is probably not legitimate TV criticism, she seemed transfixed. Me, too.

Back when ”The Wire” was airing, people used to describe it as novelistic and I think, at its heart, that means, it’s smart, well-written and makes you feel things.

I’m purposely not sharing plotlines to avoid spoiling anything, but I think I can safely share this as an example of what makes it good: There’s a paired set of scenes in one of the 8 episodes where you see an event and how the characters relate to it. In the next scene, you see one of the characters recounting that event to someone who wasn’t there and it doesn’t translate to the other person and falls flat. It’s small but devastating, and probably anyone can relate to that feeling of trying, and failing, to connect with someone.

Have you seen it – or something else you really liked? Or another new adaptation you like? Or photos of dogs watching TV? Please send them to [email protected] and they might appear in the column.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

‘Vera Kelly’ author Rosalie Knecht shares the book that cheered her up

Rosalie Knecht is the author of the Vera Kelly series of books. (Courtesy of Tin House)

Beginning with “Who Is Vera Kelly,” Rosalie Knecht is the author of three (so far) books about Vera Kelly, a young woman who is drawn into working as a spy and a detective in the ’60s and ’70s. The most recent is “Vera Kelly Lost and Found,” and the previous one, “Vera Kelly Is Not a Mystery,” won the Edgar Award’s G.P. Putnam’s Sons Sue Grafton Memorial Award, as well as was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. She’s also the author of “Relief Map” and the translator of César Aira’s “The Seamstress and the Wind.” She lives in New Jersey.

Q. Your new novel “Vera Kelly Lost and Found” takes place in Los Angeles in 1971. What drew you to that time and place?

I grew up on the East Coast and am fascinated with Southern California. I think for people from other, more pessimistic places, there is an attraction not just to the distinct landscape of Southern California but also to its mores, its refusal to be practical, its refusal to expect the worst, its refusal to check credentials or disbelieve. I love a place where charlatans thrive.

Q. What’s a memorable book experience – good or bad – you’re willing to share?

In the early days of the pandemic, I reread “The Plague and I” by Betty MacDonald, a memoir from the ’40s about living in a tuberculosis sanatorium. It cheered me up.

Q. How do you decide on what to read next?

What I read next is whatever two books I can grab off the shelves in the adult fiction section of the Jersey City Public Library before my three-year-old runs for the stairs.

Q. Is there a book or books that you always recommend to other readers?

It’s a nonfiction title – Lawrence Wright’s “Going Clear,” the history of Scientology. I also loved Jean Stein’s “West of Eden” for more on midcentury LA.

Q. Is there a book you’re nervous to read?

Lately, I can’t read anything in which I suspect that something cruel happens to anyone. If you’re thinking that means I can’t read much, you are right. Something about the pandemic and having little kids has given me this hopeless aversion to the dark stuff. I assume my taste for it will come back eventually. But life is hard enough already, you know?

Q, What do you find the most appealing in a book: the plot, the language, the cover, a recommendation? Do you have any examples?

I can usually tell from reading the first few pages of a book, regardless of plot, whether the book and I are going to be simpatico. I guess it’s language, or maybe it would be better to say that it’s sensibility. It’s hard to put my finger on.


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“Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin is the top-selling fiction release at Southern California’s independent bookstores. (Courtesy of Knopf)

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What’s next on ‘Bookish’

Sign up for the next free Bookish event coming August 19 with guests A.J. Jacobs, Jerry Stahl and Laura Chinn joining host Sandra Tsing Loh.

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