Tag Archives: writers

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


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.




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

Say Her Name: Lessons in (Im)permanence


I heard a story last night while at dinner with P. and E. about a young woman who died suddenly and seemingly without cause. While running this morning I listened to Radiolab’s podcast on “Things” that explored (among other things) how it is that we, human beings, are able to devote ourselves to objects – but more importantly, to other people – when we know, and are constantly reminded, of the impermanence of both.

The two stories helped me make more sense of (or maybe complicated?) Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, a memoir that follows Franscico – Frank – as he grieves the death of his wife, Aura, after she dies in a “freak” or “random” accident. While these two threads in the book – grief and the apparent senselessness of her death – weave together (his grief is magnified, he thinks, by the accidental nature of her death; the senselessness of death is magnified by its material influence on those who continue to live), their separation is important – I think – in allowing all readers (and certainly this reader) to put loss into, and out of, scale and perspective.

What do I mean? I mean that because the book thinks about death as both loss *and* impermanence, it lets the reader see the ways we must continuously convince ourselves of the permanence of those we love (and the ways we love them), even while we are confronted, also continuously (and often violently) with the awareness and experience of their (imminent or inevitable) loss.

The book looks at this experience in the grand displays of grief, the bureaucratic consequences of death (lawyers, estates), but also in the mundane and material experience of trying to live in the space formerly occupied by the loved, now dead. It explores the capacity of others to recognize – at the most basic scale of seeing and the more complex of empathy – grief; the urge of others to “fix” and “finish” grief for the grieved; the incapacity of others and society to make space and time for the continuation of loss and the fundamental change to the grieved.

But more than a book about how Frank grieves – much more, really – it is a book about and of Aura. Her life – her liveliness, humour, potential and warmth – “live” on the page (in one of my more cliche descriptions) as character: a superbly drawn, wrenchingly humanized and believable character. The book presents no photos of Aura directly – though it does offer a few traces (shadows) in a way that shows the extent to which the book is not interested in “fixing” Aura in place, not of making her – here in the book – permanent in a way she – and none of us – can ever be, but instead lets her fill the pages and the reader’s imagination with the full force of description, action, belief and dialogue. We know her through the fragments of her writing contained in the book, but what we really know is the Aura Frank experienced. We know her through him and through text and the rendering he offers is simply beautiful.

It is a book worth reading not only for its beautiful writing, its expression of love and its exploration of character, but for its explicit evocation of “relative” scales of grief. Frank knows his loss is not empirically greater, nor his reaction or feelings. What he describes is the absurdity of trying to make such comparisons. Instead the book gives a portrait – a briefly permanent representation – given to each reader, of love, loss, Aura and Franke. It gives to each reader a sort of assurance that here – in words and in the reading of them – we find for the duration of reading a groping towards sense and permanence.

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Filed under Non-fiction, Prize Winner