I had been racing, and thinking only about that. I was getting better, but I was also feeling the limits of what I did. My life had become smaller. I prohibited myself from many things, set myself in a limited pattern of thinking. It is perhaps obvious in hindsight, but obsession does not give you more, but less. I had the routines and the inflexibility of someone already old.
I'm in DC this week, so I went to Busboys and Poets last night to eat dinner and finish Joe Mungo Reed's debut novel, We Begin Our Ascent. I picked this up from Content Bookstore last week because I felt like reading a "sports book." Reviewers have compared We Begin Our Ascent to some of the best in this genre: The Art of Fielding (Chad Harbach), Running with the Buffaloes (Chris Lear), etc. While there were parts of Reed's debut that I loved, I was generally disappointed (I don't think it's nearly as good as the two books mentioned above-- I love Harbach and Lear). We Begin Our Ascent is primarily about (1) how doping affects an athlete's "soul" and (2) how doping affects an athlete's marriage. I was underwhelmed with the way Reed handled both topics. The cycling scenes were tedious and could have been better done with less repetition and more of a narrative arc. Perhaps it's the nature of the Tour de France that bores me: cycling, eating, cycling, sleeping, doping, eating, more cycling. It doesn't have the arc of a normal race. Instead, there are all these "stages" and the entire thing seems endless (like, way more boring than a marathon could ever be). Lastly, I never really bought in to Liz and Sol's relationship. The marriage never came to life for me. Early on, I decided that Sol was vaguely annoying. Then, I hoped Liz would save the book for me, but she ended up being irritating/purposeless too. I had a hard time figuring out the characters' motivations here.
Perhaps if you're a cyclist, you'll love this book. There are some nice quotes. It's not terrible. I'll be interested to hear if it becomes a more popular read this winter.
A few nights later, I secretly hope that I might be a genius. Why else can no amount of sleeping pills fell my brain? But in the morning my daughter asks me what a cloud is and I cannot say.
I walked down to Content Bookstore during lunch today. If you're anywhere near Northfield, you should stop at Content. You can visit Blue Monday or El Triunfo on the same trip.
I wish I was the type of person to love Dept. of Speculation. This type of person is cooler than me (also more artistic and romantic). Published in 2014, Dept. of Speculation was a PEN/Faulkner nominee and was also included in the NYT Top Ten Books of the Year. It's super strange (not a conventional novel), though there are beautiful parts. The format of the book reminds me of Clemmons' What We Lose -- Offill strings together sentence fragments, random reflections, and lengthy declarations to create her narrative. Another goodreads user aptly described Dept. of Speculation as a "literary scrapbook." The story follows a faltering marriage during the early years of parenthood. Most of the book is from the wife's point of view (she remains unnamed-- Offill refers to her as "the wife"). The wife is a writer, but has no time to write once her daughter is born. Turns out caring for a child gets in the way of artistic expression and the wife is mad about it. The husband, who also remains nameless, is a disloyal jerk who doesn't help around the house enough.
While the format of the book is completely unique, the themes in Dept. of Speculation feel tired. I've read too many books about middle income white artists who have a kid and then get pissed because there is no time to do art. Cry me a river. Maybe you shouldn't have procreated in the first place. Or maybe you should make your significant other put down the video game and cook dinner for once. This stuff doesn't pull at my heart strings like it used to. So that's that. Probably a smart / creative/ artsy book. Not for me.
Despite the snow in early October, we made it through this week without any flurries. It's actually beautiful running weather today-- sunny and almost 50 degrees. Relatedly (is that a word?)-- I'm becoming one of those Minnesotans who talks about weather all the time. I notice that I bring up the weather when I'm trying to make myself comfortable around new people. It's like a password to the hearts of strangers: if I mention "the weather," I brand myself as one of them, as someone to trust. I thought about this a lot last week because History of Wolves takes place in Northern Minnesota (in a tiny, fictional town called Loose River). The winter weather in Loose River is obviously horrendous (there's usually about 3 feet of snow on the ground, encased in roughly 3 inches of ice). Fridlund's characters talk about the weather a lot. This is not surprising as the author herself is from Edina, MN. She's also a St. Olaf grad (Carleton Admissions made a mistake if we passed on this lady in an Edina docket). All this to say, it's apparent in History of Wolves that Fridlund has had plenty of practice talking about Minnesota weather.
Perhaps the first thing to mention here is that History of Wolves is the author's debut and it has been wildly successful by most any metric. Fridlund actually found out that her book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize while she was in labor with her first child (for some reason I love this piece of trivia-- at the moment she brought her debut child into the world, her debut novel received one of the literary world's highest honors #winning). I read History of Wolves really quickly-- it is a true page turner. The novel chronicles a traumatic summer in the life of a teenage girl, Linda, who lives in the woods of Northern Minnesota. There are two different plots running simultaneously here. The first follows Linda's increasingly strange infatuation with a creepy teacher at her school. The second, and far more interesting, plot chronicles Linda's relationship with the new family across the lake. On the first page of the book, we learn that one of the new neighbors dies and Linda later speaks at a trial related to the death. For the rest of the book, the reader attempts to piece together both the circumstances of death and the extent of Linda's involvement. I honestly can't figure out why Fridlund stretches herself across these two (largely unconnected) plots? I don't think it works particularly well. Yes, I understand that Linda's obsessions with her teacher and her neighbors are both a product of typical teenage angst / loneliness, but that's hardly enough to tie these stories together. I would recommend reading History of Wolves for the second plot line alone though--really thought provoking and creepy.
I was presenting to 80 parents and high school students on Saturday when I realized that I was having trouble seeing. The lights in the room were burning my eyes and I could no longer see faces clearly. I somehow made it through the rest of the presentation with limited interruption, then went to the doctor. Apparently I have a corneal ulcer (which sounds way more serious than it is, but it's still super annoying and painful). I filled a prescription for eye drops, walked home (could not drive), and promptly sliced open the length of my right hand on a broken wine glass (I wasn't actually drinking from this wine glass yet, though I 100% felt like it). All to say, I didn't go out much this weekend. On the bright side, I did get to read Emily Ruskovich's debut novel, Idaho, which has been on my TBR list for a few weeks now. I have a lot of feelings about it, so please bear with me...
Idaho defies traditional categorization. It's part murder mystery, part psychological thriller, part literary fiction. The basic plot involves a middle aged woman (Ann) married to an older man struggling with dementia (Wade). Over their many years of marriage, Ann digs deeper into the defining tragedy of Wade's past: his ex-wife (Jenny) is serving a life sentence for murdering their youngest daughter, May. Their other daughter, June, ran away at the time of the murder and has been missing for 15 years. The essential questions at the outset of the novel are: (1) Why did Jenny murder her daughter? and (2) Will the missing child ever be found? Ruskovich writes beautifully, though some of her artsy literary techniques surely went over my head. I was so absorbed in the plot that I ended up reading this too quickly. I might re-read it in order to fully appreciate the writing.
I felt frustrated at the end of Idaho. There are very few plot resolutions, at least not in the traditional sense. We never find out exactly why Jenny murdered her daughter, though that's the point: is there ever a "reason" to kill one's child? Humans look for patterns and logic in the face of tragedy, while certain actions are senseless. It's almost like Ruskovich is poking fun at the reader: "You think there could truly be a reason why a mother would kill her own child? It's senseless! Why look for a reason at all if you know a reason could never suffice? I'm not going to hand you a reason!" Ruskovich is right: the death of a child is always entirely and completely senseless. Why look for sense in a crime that has none?
To frustrate the reader even more, Ruskovich never tells us what has come of the missing daughter, June. The reader, just like the parent of a missing child, is left dangling: is June alive or dead? Parents of missing children say that not knowing whether their child is alive is one of the worst aspects of the saga. These parents (and Ruskovich's readers) are forced to live forever in this liminal / dangling place. There is no closure, there is no sense, and there is certainly no reason.
Ruskovich-- Idaho is perfect. The parts that frustrate me are exactly the parts you have purposefully designed to frustrate me. Bravo, well done.
If the house is a safe and happy home, Noelani would first have to overcome the tug to turn around and return to that embryonic environment. That's what most people do when they set out on a morning run. One only takes flight at full speed when a house is not a home. And that's what Noelani does, runs fast straight out the door as if being pursued, running seven miles at breakneck speed, a slow returning walk only at the last block, before putting her hand on the knob of the front door.
I'm posting from Minneapolis for the first time in weeks. I'm happy to be home awhile before hitting the road again at the end of the month. Unfortunately, it snowed here yesterday. I still struggle with the fact that this place gets snow in October. I've lived through five winters here, but it still shocks me. Even by Minnesota standards, it's been undeniably cold this week (and I don't completely love that I'm wearing mittens before Halloween).
I was in New York for a few days last week and, predictably, visited the Strand. They have relatively cheap used book options, so it's enormously difficult for me to resist buying a few. Over the past few months, several people have recommended Cherise Wolas' books (she has written two: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby--haven't read it yet-- and The Family Tabor). I generally gravitate towards books like these: intricate family dramas with strong female characters. Tbh though, this did not work for me. Wolas chronicles a wealthy family whose esteemed patriarch, Harry Tabor, was involved in all sorts of sneaky schemes throughout his banking career. I don't really understand what he did -- something along the lines of insider trading / illegal money moves/ I don't really care about the specifics but it's definitely dirty. **Somehow** Harry completely represses the memories of all this illegal activity and believes himself to be an honorable human. When he starts having flashbacks to all these illegal activities, Harry runs away from his family. His wife and daughters are shattered: "Where is our lovely perfect rich kind father who has never done anything bad in his life we love him so much ohmygod where is he." Then, they all go looking for Harry.
I'm making this sound worse than it is. But really, it's not very good. I'm now debating whether or not I should read The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, which I have on hold at the library. I wish I had read that one first, because the reviews are stronger. I might need a break from family drama for a minute.
Of course raising children is a lot of hard work, but I don't see why it's supposed to be so virtuous to do work that you created for yourself out of purely your own self interest. It's like someone who digs a big hole in the middle of a busy intersection, and then starts filling it up again, and proclaims 'Filling up this hole is the most important thing in the world I could be doing right now.'
I visited three of my former students in Boston last week. One of them is at Concord Academy, so I visited the always lovely Concord Bookshop.
I read Heti's first book, How Should a Person Be?, last summer. I enjoyed it enough that I bought her newest book, Motherhood (published in 2018). At the core of this book is the question of how one decides whether or not to become a parent. There is so much written about parenting, but perhaps not as much written about the decision to become a parent. My best friend told me that her parents made a pros/cons list. Heti's book is essentially an elaborate, 300 page pros/cons list. The 37 year old, female narrator in Motherhood struggles for years to make an ethical, informed choice about whether to have a child with her partner. Heti's new book is well written and thought-provoking in its philosophical meanderings about the extent to which children can/can't create meaning in life. I appreciate Heti's blatant disregard for the constraints of genre: like her first book, Motherhood is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but some strange world in between. There are annoying things about the book too: (1) I got tired of reading about the narrator's dreams all the time--there's a lot of self therapizing going on here, (2) this is basically 300 pages of privileged, well-educated, white woman angst. Goodreads users have called the book "navel gazing," "narcissistic," and "self involved" (and, for what it's worth, I don't disagree).
Heti decides not to have a child. I think this is part of the reason why I like the book. For married women of child bearing age, the decision not to have a child is infinitely more interesting than the decision to have a child (and perhaps more brave too).