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& Sons: The Only Reason to Run a Marathon is So You Can Say “I Ran a Marathon”

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Don’t believe anyone who tells you they ran a marathon out of a sense of personal achievement. Or to raise money for a charity. Or in honour of someone else. They’re lying. They ran the marathon so they could tell you they ran the marathon.

I’ve run two marathons.

And I read all of David Gilbert’s & Sons even though every page of the last third (two thirds?) felt like an agonizing shuffle to the end. In running they call it “hitting the wall” – the moment around 30km when your body realizes it is still running and decides continuing is a very bad idea and would rather stop, if fact, would rather we had stopped 28km ago. But your brain is all like ‘no no, we need to be able to tell people we ran a marathon,’ so it supersedes all the pain and lactic acid and in a feat of masochistic revel marches each foot forward. Reading & Sons didn’t physically hurt (beyond the arm strain of hauling about a 5lb monster), but it nevertheless felt like a slog. A slog I’d made my way too far into to abandon, and one that I felt I ought to finish so I could say I had. An absolutely ridiculous idea because no one seems to have read or to care about the book – and if vanity was my motivation I really should have finished (okay, started and finished) Ulysses ages ago. Why did I begin in the first place? I don’t know. I’d ordered it from the library. I’d paid some late fines. I felt literary guilt. (what is literary guilt? I’d like to know).

I digress.

What do you need to know about it? Plot wise it’s another novel about being a writer in New York and attending parties with writerly folks and sharing the unstated but nevertheless omnipresent anxiety of writerly folks. Actually that’s not a plot. Someone alert David Gilbert! Writing about being a writer in New York is not a plot! Sure, sure. He strings in some business about fathers raising sons, human cloning (don’t get excited – there’s nothing thematically or plot-ly interesting about it) and funerals as a waving of the hands like ‘hey! look! a plot!’ But it’s really just more about being a writer. In New York. Character? I guess it’s supposed to be interesting that we have an unreliable narrator – Philip? Patrick? I forget his name and can’t be bothered to look it up – who inserts himself into the famous writerly Dyer family because he so wants to be a part of the family and to tell us about what goes on with the Dyers. I guess it’s interesting like listening to a runner tell you about their training runs and carb loading is interesting. Which is to say: not at all. Setting: Did I mention this is a book about being a writer in New York? That doesn’t actually spend any time on the New York part except to remind us that we’re in New York?  Theme: Uhhh… something about the ethics of writing about people you know, and the desire for immortality, and the inheritance of sons (if the title didn’t give it away you should know this book is entirely uninterested in women. In fact it seems genuinely put out that mothers have to exist at all. I think there’s probably some interesting thematic questions buried in here – just like you probably run past some beautiful scenery – but in the focused effort to just. keep. reading. I didn’t notice.

So yeah. Give me my medal and my banana. Time for a recovery read.

 

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Worst Books

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender: This Book is Wildly Overrated

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The internet loves Lesley Walton and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. They love the love story. The magic. The mystery of the ending. They love love love this YA novel. It’s enough to fill this reader with despair. How can so many people love a book that is so completely and totally average?

Maybe it’s like every time I’ve ever had a glass of wine with C. and R. I get super excited about the $15 bottle and its smooth taste, because really I can barely tell the difference between red and white. You get me – I’m accusing readers of The Strange and Beautiful as having unrefined tastes. Even though the readers are meant to be young adults who haven’t tasted enough to know what’s good or not. Ohmygoshdidshejustwritethat. Yes. Yes I did. Sometimes you need a trusted sommeli (*cough* let me, like Walton, make my analogy clear: a librarian. a teacher. a well-read friend) to steer you in the right direction. To correct your gushes of enthusiasm for the overly sweet – the gewurztraminer you can’t get enough of, the wine spritzer you claim as life changing.

On the surface this book should be good. It uses magic realism to explore… oh wait, nothing. Babies born with wings and mothers with a magical sense of smell, aunties that turn into canaries. All to suggest – get this – those who are different are sometimes mistreated by the rest of society that doesn’t quite understand difference. An overly pious man who brutalizes a young woman lets us know sometimes religion is hateful. It offers up some beautiful writing and then includes sentences like “death smelled like sadness” and images of women wearing *actual* wedding dresses to signal virginity. And then *actual* dirty wedding dresses to signal sexual awakening.  You could defend these trite and surface elements as a consequence of the novels intended young adult audience, but then you’d run up against the inclusion of sexually graphic scenes and vivid moments of violence  that – while certainly not to be forbidden the young adult, nevertheless read as intentionally provocative inclusions at best. Add in the underdeveloped and internally inconsistent characters, the absence of any plot conflict worth describing and a thematic depth better described as evaporation and you get… a wildly overrated novel.

Am I being overly arrogant in claiming to know what’s good or not in books? What makes for good value in reading? Sure. But it’s not a matter of taste. Books are not simply neutral objects awaiting the individual preferences of readers (*bracing for onslaught of outrage*). I appreciate different readers will enjoy different things – your Merlot for your Cab Sav – but there are qualitative differences and popularity is not one of them. Trust me?

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Filed under Bestseller, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Young Adult Fiction

The Illegal: Too Bad Lawrence Hill Likes His Protagonist Too Much

Marathon runners

*gentle spoilers* Lawrence Hill probably wants to write a novel with an unhappy ending. He takes his characters through all kinds of challenging and traumatic situations, he sets up plots that beg for dramatic and painful endings, he foreshadows the loss to come. And then… doesn’t deliver. Like The Book of Negroes, Hill’s new novel, The Illegal ends with the triumph of the virtuous over the corrupt, the community over the selfish individual and (you can probably hear it begin swelling around the same time as the last race sequence opens) swelling music as you know the hero is going to save and be saved. It’s a complaint I’d rather not make. I mean who wants to be the reader who asks for more pain for the well-crafted and sympathetic protagonist? It’s just that after experiencing a novel that sets itself up as realistic through the use of careful plot detail and complex character, it feels like an utter novelistic imposition to have such an – unbelievable – resolution. No character, no community – however deserving – achieves such universal satisfaction. [And I’m not a cynic! I’ve been accused of many things in my life, but pessimism isn’t one of them. On the contrary, my optimism is the source of much contention as it’s thought to be unrealistic – and to be fair D. Trump did just win a primary, so maybe it’s time for me to reconsider my position on the relentless upswing of the universe).]

That complaint soundly registered, I’d still recommend the book. With a well-paced and compelling plot, the novel follows runner Keita Ali as he struggles to run – and win – marathons while living as undocumented and ‘illegal’ in the eyes of the (fictional) Freedom State. His needs for winning are as high stakes as they are plentiful: he needs money to save his sister, to pay off his handler, to pay for surgery, to pay to make himself ‘legal’ in the eyes of the state. If these manifold reasons achieve anything (beyond instilling a sort of overwhelmed feeling that Keita will never survive – only to know in the back of your mind that of course he will because Hill can’t let him die [see complaint #1]), it’s the awareness that the insurmountable obstacles facing people in impossible situations are not obstacles of choice. What allows Keita to survive is, in the end, not his exceptional skill (though it helps), but rather the joint efforts of a community. This shift from individual responsibility for circumstance pushes readers to consider a similar shift in assignations of blame when considering those in similarly impossible situations (the timing of the book alongside the global interest in Syrian refugees certainly invites these kinds of parallel questions). Rather than expecting people to fix for themselves through hard work, grit (or incredible skill), we ought to recognize the ways we all need and benefit from shared effort and energy.

Plus the book has some incredible scenes of running that this [super slow] marathon runner enjoyed quite a bit.

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Filed under Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction

Fourth of July Creek: The Unexpected Delight of Rural Montana

Rural Montana Storm Clouds

With a name like Smith Henderson, you’re probably thinking, this author is mixed up. He has a last name for a first name. How could he possibly write a compelling, gripping and fascinating novel about rural Montana in 1980? Probably he made up the name Smith Henderson to sound more rugged. Whatever. It works. Fourth of July Creek is a brilliant novel.

The novel opens with Pete Snow, a social worker, arriving at the home of one of his clients. Pete’s initial characterization as a man who cares deeply about the welfare of children remains consistent throughout the novel. What changes is the initial impression of him as a wholesome, got-his-shit-together-even-if-no-one-else does man. As the novel unfolds we explore the complexities of Pete’s past, his fraught relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, the degree to which we are all in need of some kind of support, even (and perhaps especially) those in care-giving roles.

You’re thinking *yawn* we don’t care about another fascinating character study, E. Well, fine. Fourth of July Creek just happens to also have a fascinating plot delivered through detailed, show-don’t-tell description in a realist fashion that somehow leaves room for experiment and play (thinking specifically here of the chapters with Rachel and… discuss). So what do we have? A libertarian/fundamentalist family living in the mountains. Threats on the president. Crime. The chance to save them all. The slow and steady build to a climax of sweeping proportions. A deep care for the characters involved.

Arg. It’s just so unexpectedly good. I really thought setting out that I wasn’t interested. But heck but if this isn’t why we read fiction I don’t know what is: I don’t have to have (or think I have) any relationship to the plot/character/setting/ideas of the novel in order to be utterly absorbed and enriched. So for what it’s worth, Smith Henderson, you have a silly name, but an incredible first novel.

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Fiction, Prize Winner