Friday, August 30, 2019

Unfinished Business

                     broken glass window

Necessary Vocabulary for this Post: DNF
Literal Meaning: Did Not Finish. 
Frequently made a verb, as in, "I DNFed that book."
While the acronym implies starting and never finishing, it is generally not used to denote a book that is still, theoretically, in progress. Rather, DNF is a way of saying, with finality, that you have quit a book. You have slammed it shut. You do not plan to finish it. At least not until something significant changes in the way you view either that book or the world. 

I have so much Unfinished Business in my reading life: series I started and never completed, books I DNFed but now think might deserve a second chance, and books that left me with questions I needed a few years and a reread to answer.

Do you have Unfinished Business too?

Let me give you some examples and explain along the way why I think cleaning up literary Unfinished Business is important for mental health and growth.

Series I Never Finished
It was pretty common for me to find the first couple books in a series from a small, local library, love them, but then have a hard time getting my hands on the rest.
I think each unfinished story left a little wound. I got invested in the characters and then accidentally abandoned them to whatever danger or internal struggle they were facing, and in doing so, I abandoned myself to whatever the story was helping me work through. This might not make sense to you, and that's okay. Stories help me get through life. They help me see my own mess through a different set of eyes, and each story helps me get a little less messy. At any rate, I'm bothered by each story I haven't finished, so I'm being really intentional at this stage of my life about remembering and going back and finishing things.

                                            Image result for the children of the lamp

The Children of the Lamp series by P.B. Kerr is one of these. It's a seven-book series about a pair of twin siblings who discover, at the age of 12, that they are djinn. They grant wishes, pop in and out of lamps, and, naturally, take on the forces of evil in the djinn world. It's very Arabian Nights, elementary edition. I found the first two books in a little Christian school library somewhere around fifth grade and convinced the librarian, *cough* my mom, to add the third one when it came out. And then I'm not really sure what happened. I didn't see hide or tail of the fourth book until I was eighteen and wandering around a Borders. By that point I had pretty nearly forgotten the story, but I read it anyway, trying to pick up the where I'd left off. It didn't feel the same. Reading it without remembering well just created a disconnect. I could have sought out further books, but I didn't.

It wasn't until this Spring that I started thinking about it again, did a little research, and discovered that the series was finally complete and available at my (much larger) local library. So I went back to the beginning. Sometimes you have to do that. I've reread the first two books, and I hope to complete this bit of Unfinished Business by the end of the year.

                                                 Image result for troubling a star

The story was a little different with Madeline L'Engle's Austin Family Chronicles, a series I started in highschool by accident. I had just finished the Time Quintet, loved it, and picked up what I thought was a standalone L'Engle novel at a used bookstore. Turns out it was the fifth and last book in the Austins series: Troubling a Star. I loved it, but also got the feeling that I had missed a huge amount of the story. But did I learn my lesson? No. Not knowing exactly why Troubling a Star felt so incomplete, I picked up A Ring of Endless Light in college thinking it, too, was a standalone novel. Turns out it was the fourth book in the series, which I was now reading backwards. A month or two ago, I finally picked up the first book like a Normal Human and thoroughly enjoyed reading the beginning. Now all I have to do is read books two and three. But in Which Order? I haven't decided.

Books That Needed a Second Chance

I've only DNFed a few books in my life. I hate doing it; it feels so wrong. The first time I ever did it was with a book called Wringer by Jerry Spinelli. It was about a little boy who had to kill birds by wringing their necks, and it disturbed me so much I had to just put it down. I felt sick. Both about the story and about not finishing it, but every subsequent DNF has been easier.
(I just realized it kind of sounds like I'm talking about the first time I killed someone and how each subsequent kill got a little easier. Oops. But I stand by it.) I have no intention of ever resurrecting Wringer.

But not every DNF is like that. There are a few books I put down for good reasons and finally picked up again for different good reasons.


This was the case with Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. I borrowed this book from my small-town library in early highschool based on sheer cover love, and I was hooked from the first page. Absolutely riveted. It's a multi-generational mystery with multi-generational pain. It's beautiful and harsh and honest and problematic.

**Spoilers Ahead** A romance developed on the side between the female lead and the boy who captained the troops on the other side of a war between boarding schools. It was low-key violent and high-key mean. The relationship began with a concerning level of pushing each other around, which shifted through tense and mistrustful make-out sessions, to genuine affection. The deeply-rooted mystery kept me hooked through one sexual encounter between two adult side characters, but by that point I knew I shouldn't still be reading. The language, violence, and sex were all aspects I knew my parents did not approve, but I desperately hoped I could get to the end before admitting that to myself because the story was So Good. But then, a few chapters from the end--So Painfully Close to the end--it became apparent that the two main characters were about to have sex in an alley.**Spoilers Complete**

 I closed it. And I cried. I told my parents. I tried to get the library to move it to the adult section so that no other unsuspecting naive virgin mind like my own would be so blindsided, but to no avail. Apparently librarians view even the slightest challenge to a book as an attempt to squelch free speech. I'm not entirely sure I disagree, but it hurt at the time. The whole thing really hurt at the time. And the unsolved mystery burned in the back of my mind. This book haunted me FOR YEARS.

And finally, sometime in my college era, I just sat down and asked myself why I couldn't just finish it. Why I couldn't just find out how the goshdarn thing ended. So I bought it. And I read it. And I cried. Because after the characters do what they do, they go on to solve the mystery. And it's sad. And poignant. And hopeful. And beautiful.

And Some Stories Are Worth Wading Through A Little Yuckiness, Okay?

This book is now one of my favorites in the whole wide world. Would I recommend it to just anyone? No. But it did make me reevaluate my book standards. Do I believe I compromised my morals to read this book in full? No. If you read books To Be Entertained and Nothing Else, then your moral standards ought to be pretty tight, I think. After all, if you're just opening your brain and dumping stuff in, then it should probably be as pure as possible. But that is not and has never been how and why I read. I read to learn. I read to see. To evaluate. To feel. I read to Think. So will I read Fifty Shades of Grey so that I can Think Deeply About the Themes? Ummm NO. But I will never again close a book just because a character commits a sin that the Christian community has arbitrarily decided is Particularly Yucky. I'll probably take up this topic again in a later post.

                                                 Image result for the sword bearer

Moving on. The Sword Bearer by John White, book number one in the Chronicles of Narnia-like Archives of Anthropos, is a book I accidentally DNFed. I call it a DNF because it was, at the time, quite permanent. I had picked up the first book in publish order: The Tower of Geburah in Ivory Coast, Africa when I was nine. The volumes belonged to my mother and had been left behind in Africa after our first evacuation, but we were back and hopeful that the country would stay stable. I was midway through The Iron Scepter when the first bombs dropped. I started The Sword Bearer a day or two before we started packing our bags. And I do mean bags. 20 kilos apiece is all we were allowed to bring on the military transport when the UN pulled us out. It wasn't until I was on the jet that I realized I'd left the book behind.
I accidentally left that book in my home on a different continent and never ever got to go back to that home. A new copy just arrived in the mail last week, 15 years later. I don't remember the series being that good, but I am going to finish it. There are some things you just have to do to heal.

Books That Needed Rereading by an Older Me

This last category is much harder to explain or understand. In much the same way that Jellicoe Road haunted me, there are books I read years ago that have haunted me even though I did finish them. These were books I knew I didn't understand. Books that hurt, and I couldn't tell why. Books that left me with unanswered questions. The best example of this was A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.

                           Image result for a series of unfortunate events books

I read these voraciously as they came out. I died waiting for release dates. And all along Snicket said, Don't Read This. You Will Regret Reading This. Read Literally Anything Else. Like most of the avid reading world, I didn't listen. And then I read The End. And I hated Lemony Snicket (or Daniel Handler, if you want to be all correct about it). The series left me with so many gaping wounds. I could not understand at the time how the ending was a good one. I could not come to terms with the fact that the Baudelaires, having been through so much, could not have a traditionally happy ending. It had to be quiet and sad. It had to be that way or it wouldn't have been real. It wasn't until I had a talk with Marli Hutchinson about the series, which she adores, that I began to realize I was wrong to hate Mr. Snicket. Marli's beautiful, sad, artist soul helped me realized that it's okay if you never get over the death of Dewey Denouement. You Shouldn't ever get over the death of Dewey Denoument. That's the whole point. **SORRY SPOILERS, DEWEY DIES**

So by the time the Netflix series came out (Which Is Amazing by the way), I was ready to tackle a reread. It was worth it. No one but Lemony Snicket has ever taken such time and care to talk to children about hardship and evil and injustice in the world. No one has ever been so honest or funny or raw or hopeful all at the same time. It's wisdom packaged in the ridiculous and macabre. If you want to read more about A Series of Unfortunate Events, see my sister's extensive reviews from her own reread: Books 1-3Books 4-6Books 7-9Books 10-12, and Book 13 on her blog, Out of Coffee, Out of Mind.

I've found that the more I've undertaken to revisit these childhood loose ends, the more I've uncovered. And it's been such a beautiful season of reading because of it. I'm quite literally turning the page on some painful bits of childhood, and it's fixed some bruised places in my soul.

All that to say, don't be afraid to retrace your steps in your reading life. Sometimes revisiting something old is better for your insides than reading something brand new. 

Let me know what you think in the comments. 

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